Schooled

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Chapter 17

You still up?

Yeah

Can I come over?

I didn’t wait for his answer but pulled a sweater over my tank top and skirt, intending to walk the ten blocks from home. It was still warm out for fall. I thought absently about how happy the surfers would be.

Dylan’s reply came when I had already locked up and was heading down my driveway.

Sure

When I knocked on his door a few minutes later, Dylan opened it right away. I wondered which Dylan it was—the one who listened and calmed me down, or the one who made my head explode because I couldn’t make sense of what seemed to be escalating between us.

He looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. His hair was all over. On him it looked sexy and not messy. Bottomless brown eyes were sleepy and warm on mine. It all just made me more irritated.

“Come in.” I did.

“How’d you get over here? I didn’t hear your car.”

“That’s because I walked.”

His furrowed brows told me he wasn’t happy. “Seriously? Shit, it’s late. You shouldn’t be out alone.” I leaned back against the closed door. His obligatory chastising done, Dylan waited for me to make the next move. He probably wants you to tell him why you texted at 1:00 a.m. on a weeknight.

“So … do you want to talk?” Dylan hadn’t moved from where he was leaning against the railing of the staircase. He was giving me lots of space. It annoyed me, along with everything else from his perfectly imperfect hair to the fact that he’d obviously gotten out of bed so I could come over.

“I want to know what the hell is wrong with you.” I said it without preamble. Seeing him in the flesh made me realize I wasn’t quite ready to let go after all.

Dylan’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, then reverted to calm and assessing. “You want that alphabetical or chronological?”

“I’m not playing games, Dylan. What was that? At homecoming?” I took a step toward him. Balled my hands in fists to keep from shoving him.

The muscle worked in his jaw. He took a long breath. Let it out. “I meant what I said.”

“We can’t be … whatever it is you want.” I didn’t know if I was trying to convince myself or him.

“What do you want, Lex?”

Apparently that was the million-dollar question.

“I want to be your friend, but you won’t let me. You get me more than most people, and just when it feels like I get you too, like I know where I stand, you throw up these walls or change the rules entirely. It’s not fair. Like one moment we’re laughing like we have the world’s biggest shared joke, and the next it’s like something’s eating you from the inside out. What I want is no more games, Dylan. No more secrets.”

He smiled but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I get it. Why you feel that way. I guess I’m used to keeping secrets. But the thing is, they usually serve a purpose. The truth can be messy.”

I waited, not sure where he was going with this. But at least he was talking.

“Besides, you know most of my truths already. I can’t seem to say no where you’re concerned.” He said it almost under his breath, like he was trying to make up his mind about something.

Dylan took a step toward me so we were only a few feet apart. My head tilted back to keep eye contact. “Which truth do you want, Lex. The truth about rehab?” His eyes bored into me with an intensity and a vulnerability I hadn’t seen in him before.

“I never went. My dad had a gambling problem. By the time I found out, he’d lost half my parents’ savings.

“I told him I wanted to go on a father–son road trip, and instead I drove him straight to a clinic. Shocked the hell out of him, but he checked himself in for the week. Joke was on me when Dad’s credit card company called home and told my mom the clinic charge put his card over the limit. When she called my dad to figure out what the hell was going on, he was filling out paperwork and I answered.”

He stopped to drag a breath in. “I did the first thing I could think of—I told her it was me, that Dad was checking me in for a drug addiction. My reputation was already tarnished at best, so it was easier that way. It wasn’t right to stand by and let it ruin his career. Our family. I convinced Dad never to tell Mom the truth.”

“That’s what happened that summer. That’s when things changed for me, when I turned things around. I have no idea how the rumor spread.”

I was stunned silent. For minutes I just looked at him, but he’d clearly said all he was going to and waited with that look on his face. There were a million things I wanted to ask but couldn’t. It was like a giant piece of the puzzle fell into place. It hadn’t been what I’d expected, but somehow it fit perfectly, if horribly. Between taking care of his dad and having to get a scholarship to pay tuition, it made sense why he’d fallen off the grid for a while. Why he’d hunkered down at Penn State last year. Why he was still trying to find himself now, and rebuild his identity and everything around him piece by piece.

All of the accusations I’d been building up evaporated.

Dylan was a good guy. Scratch that, the kind of guy I didn’t even know existed anymore.

The quiet echoed around us. I could feel my fists clench and unclench, unsure of where to release their energy now that there was no target, no one who deserved them.

His eyes were serious. The front hall was dark, and the only light falling in from the window cast long shadows across his face. His voice cut the darkness softly once more. “Nobody knows except for me and my dad. We kept it from everyone. Including my mom. And Ava.” So don’t tell.

“Dylan …” I took a step toward him, wanting somehow to comfort him. The boy he’d been, forced to step up and be the man of the house. Keeping up the illusion for the benefit of his family.

“Don’t, Lex.” His voice was a warning. “Don’t look at me like I’m some kind of saint.”

“No? Because you kind of look like it from where I’m standing.”

He let out a humorless laugh. “I’m not even close.” Dylan took a step forward, nearly closing the distance between us. It was meant to be threatening but I wasn’t afraid. I had to tilt my head back to keep our gazes locked.

“While we’re talking truth, what if I told you that ever since that first night at the party I can’t get you out of my head? That from the moment I kissed you, I wanted to do a thousand things I’ve only imagined to you? All while you were practically crying over some other guy.” Dylan said it forcefully, with a dark undercurrent like he’d been torturing himself with the guilt for weeks and the wounds were still raw.

Suddenly I wasn’t sure why I’d come. Was it for an apology? To tell him to get lost? To have him make stupid jokes and help me ignore the feeling that my world was spinning out of control?

He’d blown away all of it with his words.

Then through the chaos the answer came to me, clear as anything I’ve ever known. It wasn’t what I’d expected but somehow it was right.

When I started again my voice was steadier than I would have thought possible. “Dylan. Do you remember what you said the night I came over? About wanting me to show you?”

Confusion mixed with the dark expression on his face for a moment. Then something clicked into place. “Yeah.” His gaze was intent on mine.

“Did you mean it?” It was like someone had hijacked my brain and my mouth. I felt like a bunch of sirens were going off in my head, each a warning sign that I’d officially lost my marbles.

Something flared in his eyes. I’d have given a thousand dollars in that moment to know what he was thinking. Was he thinking I was crazy? That this had come out of left field? That he’d been waiting for this?

“Lex, we don’t have to—” he started, taking a step back. I realized I’d basically propositioned him in his front hall after storming his house and accusing him of all kinds of things. All at 1:00 a.m. on a school night.

“Forget it. This was a bad idea.” Head spinning, face flushed, I turned to leave.

His voice stopped me even before his fingertips brushed my arm.

“Hey, smart girl. I’m pretty sure that’s my line.” I turned back slowly to face him and his hand fell back to his side. The barest upward curve graced his perfect mouth, but it faded quickly. Dylan’s eyes shone in the darkness as they searched my face. “You can show me anything you want.”

He might as well have said please stay, because that’s what it sounded like to my ears.

With agonizing slowness I reached out and laced his fingers in mine, like he had at the game. This time I didn’t feel guilty for enjoying the way his hand fit with mine. There wasn’t room for that feeling with everything else churning inside me at that moment.

Then he turned and led me up the stairs.

The house was silent and dark except for the muffled sound of our feet on the carpet. Dylan’s room was the same as it had been when I was last there. Maybe there were fewer books on the bed. The piles of clothes might’ve moved. Details I hadn’t noticed last time.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness and my brain was redlining, soaking up every pixel no matter how insignificant.

He crossed to the bed and turned to face me.

Dylan’s movements reminded me of the jungle cats I’d seen at the San Diego Zoo when I was little. He was slow, and smooth, and deceptively casual.

Dylan sat on the edge of the bed, his head tilted up toward me. His fingers were still linked loosely with mine, as if he was reluctant to let go. In case what—I realized what an insane idea this was and ran as fast as my legs would carry me?

I wasn’t one to run away from my problems. I didn’t use sex, or alcohol, or drugs to numb when things ached inside. And I was certain that wasn’t happening here. Sure, the exams and my mom had pushed me over the edge, but that had only been my excuse to get here. Anything from this point forward was on my own steam.

I wanted to think about tonight, and not tomorrow or three months from now or three years from that. I wanted not to worry about what the next breath I took might mean for Ava, or our investors, or my mom. I wanted one night with this perfectly messed up guy who inexplicably wanted me back the same way.

As if sensing my conviction, Dylan reached behind his head with both hands to pull the gray Henley over his head.

Dear God.

He had been holding out. Not just on me, but on all of womankind.

Dylan had a killer body. Lean and strong. Sure enough, a six-pack accompanied the rest of the corded muscles I’d glimpsed under the shirt. My mouth dried up.

He caught me staring. “Will I do?” His words were murmured so as not to wake anyone. But there was something too real about the way he asked. Like even though Dylan was the sexiest guy I’d ever seen in person, he cared what I thought.

From the way I was devouring him with my eyes, it was pretty evident the physical part of my interest was satisfied. “I think so.”

“Good. Your turn.”

My heart was beating in my chest. Like suddenly this mattered.

Saying a prayer of thanks that I’d put on decent underwear this morning, I pulled my tank over my head to reveal a black lace bra that did as much for my breasts as anything could.

Dylan’s eyes widened slightly as he took me in. Opened his mouth without speaking for a moment, like the words were getting stuck. “That time I ran into you at Bart’s, right after the party? I was sitting across from you trying to form coherent sentences. But all I could do was imagine you like this. Just looking at you made me sweat.”

My skin hummed at his words. “You thought about this?”

“Yes. I thought about you. And also banana bread. Maybe not in that order.” He tried a joke. But there was something else working against us. The same force that had been at play when we kissed. The part of me that said this might just be sex, but it’s anything but casual. Add it to the pent-up frustration, from school, Ava, Jake, and Dylan himself. It was all eating away at me and I wanted to knock any hint of a smile off his face.

“Dylan?” My voice was soft in the darkness. There was a yearning to it I barely recognized, like I’d been waiting two months to say his name just that way. I stepped close enough that his knees were touching my thighs as I faced the bed. “Do something for me?”

“Anything.” I could tell he meant it. His eyes were fixed on mine. The air buzzed between us.

He leaned into me slightly, and we were only a breath apart. The silence hung between us for an endless moment. No sound except my heart beating too hard.

“Shut up,” I murmured as my mouth closed over his.

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