Schooled

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Chapter 14

Homecoming weekend was a big deal. At our school, it was less about the alum and more about an excuse for the students to party. And worship football. For me it was mostly about celebrating surviving the first two months of school with my grades and sanity intact.

Homecoming was a special occasion for another reason: it marked my one and only appearance at the football stadium for the year. Even when I was dating Jake, I didn’t go to watch the games. Football was my least favorite sport. It never made sense to me why a bunch of guys would run around in tight shiny pants and hit each other. Ironic, I guess, that I ended up dating a first-string player for four years. It was a testament to my stubbornness that Jake had tried and failed for that entire period to get me hooked.

The game was Saturday afternoon and the day was gorgeous and sunny. Ava, Emily, and I went over together and met Jen and her boyfriend there.

I drove and took advantage of the free weekend parking, though we had to park a mile away from the stadium because of the crowds. We settled into our seats about thirty minutes before kickoff. Emily had scored us a great vantage point. Her brother was a linebacker and the team’s family got first dibs. In the past I’d gotten them from Jake. Not this year.

We’d all dressed in school colors, green and white. Emily, Jen, and I were all wearing legit team clothes. My choice had been a girl-sized jersey and denim miniskirt. This was as preppy as it got for me. Ava, always needing to be different, had on her own emerald green tank made out of some lux fabric that you definitely could not get at the campus book store.

Catching a glimpse of the players warming up, Emily leaned over to me. “Have you talked to Jake lately? I heard he sprained something last week in practice.”

“No, I’ve barely talked to him. He texted me a bit when I got back to school, but that’s it.” I gave silent thanks at the guarantee he’d be sitting on the bench, feeling only a little guilty about it.

Emily chewed her lip like she was debating how much to say. She might come off as flaky and boy crazy at first, but she was actually a do-gooder. Which sometimes meant we butted heads when she thought she knew what was better for me than I did. “Well, Chris said Jake’s been in pretty rough shape lately. Even before the injury. I wondered if that had something to do with you guys breaking up.”

“It was his brilliant idea to call it quits in the first place.”

“You don’t think you’d ever get back with him? You guys dated for a long time.” Emily had that righteous look on her face, but I didn’t feel like entertaining her matchmaking efforts today.

“We wanted different things, Em. It wouldn’t have worked.”

The band started playing and I used that as an excuse to look toward the playing area in front of us. For once Emily took the hint.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true. Once I could look at Jake and our relationship with some distance and the halo started to fade, he was just another guy looking to keep his parents happy. And that didn’t fit with me. Not anymore.

A few players were doing warmups, and the cheerleaders were stretching on the field. Well, most of them were. I caught a glimpse of green and white skirts in my peripheral vision two rows behind us. They weren’t warming up.

Or if they were, it was for a different game. Both were in conversation with guys who were no doubt ecstatic to receive their attention.

I’d been about to glance away when I saw a familiar face. Kent was one of the guys. When he caught my eye he smiled. The brunette who’d been touching his arm glanced over with a far less pleasant expression on her face. I sent a genuine smile at him and waggled my fingers at her, impervious to the daggers she shot back. Kent waved me over. I shook him off, having no desire to be scorched by his fan club up close, but he insisted.

“I’m going to say hello, come with me? I may need backup.” Emily took one look at Kent and was quick to agree.

Winding our way to the end of the row and up was easier because the seats weren’t full. With the precision of a homing missile I latched onto another face altogether. Dylan was standing two seats past Kent. I hadn’t noticed him before because he’d been partly obscured by a blond ponytailed head. A head that was now inches from his and tilted upward like she was hanging on his every word.

The blond turned to say something to her friend, and Dylan’s eyes locked with mine. His face registered surprise. When the blond turned back to resume talking with him, put her hand possessively on his arm, his gaze dragged back to her.

Emily followed my line of sight. “Oooh, is that Ava’s brother?” Her voice was quiet enough we wouldn’t be overheard. “Who’s he with? He did good.” Emily had no shame checking the girl out. “Score another win for peroxide and silicone.”

“Yeah, the California economy would collapse without them,” I said under my breath.

“Kent, do you know Emily?” In greeting, Kent offered a megawatt smile before proffering a flask from his pocket. I declined politely, but Emily was game enough to try it.

“You were at Lex’s party, right?”

“Yeah, I live with Lex and Ava.”

Kent nodded. “This is Lana and this is Marcia.” He seemed obliged to complete the round of introductions. Turned out Lana was the brunette talking to him, Marcia the stacked blond drooling on Dylan’s shoes. So this was the girl for whom he’d tried to enlist my help.

Both girls acknowledged me and Emily, but neither looked glad to see us. Maybe they were sizing us up as potential competition. Emily would definitely look intimidating.

“She lives.” Dylan called to me. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd though we were only steps apart. I had gotten used to seeing his eyes warm when they met mine, but today they were cool. “I figured the stacks had caved in on you. That’s what happens when you spend too much time in the library alone.”

“Nope. I’m all good.” I turned back to Lana. “So what’s your major?”

“I’m in sociology. Marcia’s in arts. How about you?” she asked.

“Lex is in business,” Kent volunteered. “She’s our resident brainiac. In three years she’ll be a billionaire telling everyone how to dress.”

I blushed. Everyone’s eyes shifted to me. Except Dylan’s. He shot a vaguely irritated look Kent’s way.

“Hey, you girls missed Dylan’s birthday. It was a good night.” Kent went on, oblivious to the look.

Shit. Now I really was a bad friend. I guess he hadn’t bothered to text me given I was barely responding to the other messages …

“What are you guys doing after the game? We should get a drink later,” Emily suggested. She was the most social of the four of us, and wasn’t about to let cheerleaders get in the way of an excuse to party.

Marcia’s face tightened into a decidedly fake, albeit blindingly perfect, smile. “Super. Lana, we should go.” She leveled seriously flirty eyes at Dylan. “Bye.” Marcia reached up behind his neck to pull his face down to hers. I quickly averted my eyes until I heard her voice again. “Call me later.”

“Sure.”

The two girls brushed past us, Lana more courteously than Marcia. If she’d been wearing heels instead of sneakers, I bet Marcia would’ve stabbed me with them as she passed.

“We should probably go too,” I suggested.

“You could stay. Sit here,” Kent protested.

I smiled. “I’m pretty sure these seats are taken.”

“Plus,” Emily piped in, grinning, “we have better seats. And Ava’ll shoot us if we defect.”

Kent was sportsmanlike in defeat. “Fair enough. She looks pretty scrappy, I probably shouldn’t piss her off. It was good to see you.” Kent smiled. My eyes flicked from Dylan to Kent and back. Dylan was watching the field, strangely intent considering there was nothing happening yet.

“You too. Bye, Kent.” I didn’t say anything to Dylan, who looked like he didn’t know we were still there—or didn’t care.

“Bye, Dylan,” Emily called pointedly over her shoulder as we made our way back through the increasingly-full stands. “Nice to meet you.”

I didn’t hear whether he responded or not.

“What’s his deal?” Emily asked as we picked our way down the stands, just out of earshot.

I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know, Em. He’s complicated.”

She laughed. “Guys aren’t complicated.”

“That one is.”

We got back to our seats just in time. Even I had to admit the atmosphere was contagious. It didn’t hurt that by halftime it was clear the game was going to be a blowout—already 28–7 for the home team. The mostly hometown crowd was going crazy. My voice was hoarse from talking over the buzz and, yes, even a little cheering.

It would be nearly impossible to get out, but I needed a drink before the second half. Not the kind that came in a flask, though there were plenty of those around. I managed to squeeze past tipsy students and alum and wind my way down from the stands without getting trampled. Fifteen minutes later I was making my way back toward our section of stands with a six-dollar Coke.

A familiar voice drawled from behind me. “Alexis Caine. Do you even go here?” I should’ve known I wouldn’t get off the hook that easily.

I turned and came face to face, or more like face to chest, with the youngest Cameron. Dylan looked slightly inebriated and very tall, given I was wearing flats.

“That was a hell of a disappearing act you pulled.”

“Yeah, well. You were right, the stacks caved in. It took them this long to dig me out.”

He continued to stare me down, so I continued.

“I’m sorry I missed your birthday. I was preoccupied but should’ve at least said something.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Alright, you made your point. I think. Can you quit it with whatever jackass guy thing you’re doing?”

Dylan raised an eyebrow. “Jackass guy thing?” But he seemed to get it and relented, at least momentarily. “Big football groupie? I didn’t peg you as a sports fan.”

“I’m not. You should take a picture.” I smiled. “But it helps that it’s a good day for the hometown crowd.”

He looked like he was about to respond when someone jostled him from behind and he stepped forward. “What the—” If he fell I was pretty sure I’d be squished. Regaining his balance, he turned to find out who’d hit him. I didn’t know if Dylan was the fighting type, but I didn’t want to risk finding out. The Camerons would probably not be too impressed having to bail their drunk underage son out of jail for starting a brawl at homecoming.

I grabbed his arm to distract him and pulled him back to face me. It took him a second to refocus, but when he did he smiled down at me. The genuine smile I hadn’t seen since showing up at his lab. I realized suddenly how much I’d missed that smile.

Dylan’s dark eyes were solemn on mine but brighter than they’d been a moment ago.

“Alexis.” He rolled my name over his tongue like he was testing it out.

“Dylan.” I matched his tone expectantly, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to say anything. “Listen, do you need me to walk you back to your seat? You know they kick you out if you look too drunk.”

His lips lifted into a lazy half-smile. “Are you here to rescue me this time? Be my knight in—” he glanced down at me and his brow furrowed as he took in the distinctly casual if girly getup “—whatever the hell that is?”

“Apparently.”

“Sweet. Carry me?” The visual was crazy, even before he lifted his arms like there was a chance in hell I was going to comply with the request.

“Nice try. How are things going with Marcia?” I felt the dull pain just from asking, but it helped force my mind back to reality.

He frowned. It was definitely not the response I’d expected from a guy who apparently had all the attention of one of the most desired women on campus. “Fine.”

It wasn’t clear whether that meant “fine, we’re still figuring things out” or “fine, we have crazy hot sex every night and sometimes during the day”. I tried not to care.

We started walking together toward the stands, flowing with the traffic. It seemed everyone was trying to get back to their spots, many precariously balancing food and drink. I stayed right beside him, afraid he might tip over if I left his side.

“She hasn’t declared a major.” His tone would’ve been more fitting if he’d just said she had herpes. “She’s not very funny.”

And that’s when I realized it: Drunk Dylan was pouty. It shouldn’t have been cute but damn if it wasn’t. I pushed the feeling aside.

“I see. And this is a problem because … you were dating her for her superior intellect?” My words weren’t as light as I’d intended. “I thought it was about the sex. She might not pull up your GPA, but she seems harmless. So what’s wrong?”

We were nearing the steps that would take us up to our seats. At the last moment Dylan hesitated, tugging on my hand and pulling me just off the main path where the crowd was thinner. I apologized to a man we’d cut off on his way to the steps. He started to shoot us a dirty look but relaxed when he heard my words. “Dylan, what the—”

Dylan seemed completely oblivious to the people around us. He leaned back against the side of the stands, eyes alert and boring into me. He suddenly looked less drunk, more like normal Dylan. The wheels in his mind might be turning more slowly given whatever he’d consumed, but they were still turning. He rubbed a hand through his hair, which was already messy, and let out a sigh that was half groan, half laugh.

His hand was still on mine and it was distracting. I thought he was going to say something, but nothing happened. This was going nowhere.

I wondered vaguely whether he’d consumed enough alcohol to risk passing out on me. My sense was that he didn’t drink a lot, at least not anymore, and maybe he’d overdone it. “Dylan, we’re going to miss the second half.”

Dylan trapped my fingers and tugged me closer toward him so I was standing with my feet between his. I tried resisting but he was easily twice as strong.

If he hadn’t been leaning against the stands, our bodies would have been touching. We were definitely nearing the edge of my comfort zone.

“Lex.” His voice sounded rough around the edges, like sandpaper, as if he was struggling with something. I waited for him to say more, but he took his time before going on.

“I miss hanging out with you.”

“I know. I miss hanging out with you too. But I told you, midterms …”

“Stop. I don’t believe you.” His eyes probed mine. Unable to hold his gaze, I glanced down. Studied the toes of his brown boots peeking out from under his jeans on either side of my ballet flats. Coward.

“You don’t believe I have midterms? Want me to show you the scars? Actually most of them are emotional, though I might suffer long-term effects from malnutrition. Living on ramen and Snickers bars isn’t healthy. I think I read that somewhere …” I was rambling.

“No. You know what I mean. You could ace them in your sleep. That’s not why you haven’t been hanging out with me.” He said it almost accusingly but didn’t wait for a response to continue.

“I like Marcia.”

Huh? That was an abrupt change in subject. It was hard to keep up with him. “I’m glad, Dylan.” I had no clue where he was going with this and was ready to leave. Unfortunately, his thumbs had started rubbing patterns in my palms. He might not have even been aware of it. I was, and felt a shiver run up my bare arms despite the warm day.

He shook his head as if trying to clear it. “No, I mean—I keep trying to like her. But it’s hard.”

I’d never seen him all broody like this before. A muscle twitched in his jaw and my eyes fell to his mouth. I forced my gaze back to his eyes.

I definitely wasn’t going to be sucked into the role of relationship counselor a second time. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”

“Easy for you to say.” His eyes searched mine and suddenly I couldn’t look away. “It’s the weirdest thing. All the guys think she walks on fucking water.”

“So …”

“So she has this one unfixable flaw. I think it’s a deal-breaker.”

“What’s that?” I was losing my patience again. “What’s wrong with her, Dylan. She’s a C student? She’s a Leo? She’s a vegetarian? No girl is perfect, believe me. Not even that one.”

His eyes had widened a little as I vented, but he didn’t let go of my hands. I tugged them lightly, bent on insisting he let go, but instead he tightened his grip. “It’s none of that.” He shrugged a shoulder helplessly, eyes searching mine for what felt like minutes.

“She’s not you, Lex.” His eyes ran over my face, searching like they had that night in his room. “She’ll never be you.”

Dylan Cameron had just hit me with a two by four. At least, that’s what it felt like.

A million responses flooded through me. Panic. Warning. Somewhere, a completely unwelcome sense of wanting.

How was it even possible? I knew there had been something physical between us, but never suspected he’d been thinking this. For how long?

Apparently he was waiting for me to say something in response. I rushed to do it before getting too caught up in the possibility that he actually wanted me, or the possibility that it mattered if he did.

“Dylan, you’re confused. And drunk. And we’ve been hanging out a lot. It’s totally natural that …” I tried starting again. “The human brain works in mysterious ways. Especially yours.” All completely inadequate in the face of what he’d just said.

“You’re stalling. What are you trying to say? You actually don’t believe there’s anything between us?” His thumb had moved to the inside of my wrist and it was doing crazy things to my insides. Did he feel my pulse jump? I hoped not.

I willed my heart rate to behave itself as I tried again. “Dylan, we’ve known each other forever. You’re my best friend’s little brother.” He winced but I pressed on. “I’m two years older, and a single-minded OCD head case.”

Dark eyes searched mine. He was starting to look far more lucid than he had a few moments ago. “You’re only fourteen months older. And you’re a sexy, brilliant OCD head case.”

A startled laugh burst from my chest before I could rein it in. This direction was dangerous, fuel for the rogue thoughts that had been plaguing me these past two months since our kiss at the party. The ones I’d been stamping down, chalking up to withdrawal and misplaced gratitude for how good he’d been to me this fall.

“We’re friends. And I don’t want to mess it up with … anything.” I squeezed his hands in what I hoped was an amicable gesture then released my grip, moving to step back.

Instead of letting go, Dylan wove his fingers through mine in a hold that was suddenly more intimate. “Maybe we’re not supposed to be friends.”

My breath caught in my throat. We watched each other for endless seconds. I could hear the band start playing in the background. They sounded a million miles away.

Self-preservation kicked in, telling me to get gone yesterday.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.” It was the best thing for both of us.

He looked like he was ready to argue, but I didn’t stick around to find out.

I pulled my hands firmly from his and walked back to my seat. If he was lucid enough to throw my brain out of orbit, he could find his own way back.

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