Three trays of shooters had gone missing from the fridge.
At one point I thought it would escalate to violence, but I settled the dispute by pointing out that the trays were being held hostage by a circle of Delta Phi’s playing truth or dare on our back deck.
I was ready to find something a little less exciting to occupy me. Pre-reading for my advanced econ course was sounding pretty good right now.
I picked my way back through the crowd, heading to the stairs, but pulled up halfway there.
The guy occupying one of our armchairs was familiar.
Perched in Jake’s lap was a pretty blond girl trying to devour his head with her mouth.
He didn’t seem to be objecting. In fact, his hand was on the back of her head, pulling her closer.
My throat burned.
This is not happening.
Telling myself I shouldn’t care didn’t seem to make a difference.
I stumbled toward the stairs and raced up them. Jerked the door of my room closed behind me and collapsed on my bed.
Tears rose behind my eyes, but I refused to cry. I hadn’t cried since my dad left me and my mom more than ten years ago. I wasn’t about to start for some guy who’d cut and run months ago at the first sign of trouble.
Jake wasn’t worth it.
I didn’t want him back. But seeing him with someone else threw me.
Probably because I had no plans to do the same. This summer Ava and I made a pact: no boyfriends senior year. Guys would interfere with our heads, hearts, and most importantly, our business.
We’d worked too hard to put the pieces in place to lose it all now.
Still, seeing Jake and the blond had sent my body into panic mode even as my head was telling me it would be OK. I tried to talk myself down.
Deep breaths, Lex. In and out.
A knock sounded at my door. It was followed by a deep voice, rough and tinged with concern.
“Lex? It’s Dylan. Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” My voice almost matched my words.
I’m not the kind of girl who needs, or likes, to be rescued. And as far as would-be saviors went, Dylan Cameron would not be my choice.
I was about to ask him to leave when the door handle turned. His lean face appeared, silhouetted by the light in the hallway.
Dylan stepped inside, pushing the door partly closed behind him. Only a couple inches of bright hallway shone into the semi-darkness of my room.
He leaned his frame against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I saw you take off up the stairs like something was on fire. What happened?”
“Nothing. Really, Dylan, it’s fine.”
He didn’t move, just waited me out. From ten feet away, those brown eyes probed mine as if Dylan was reading everything I was feeling but didn’t want to voice.
Instead of asking him to leave, I found myself sighing.
“It’s stupid,” I muttered. It was embarrassing being exposed this way in front of a near stranger. But he’d been kind enough to come up.
Mustering all my energy, I sat up. Pulled my legs toward me and crossed them.
Dylan took three slow strides toward my bed. “Can I …” He gestured to the bedspread.
“Be my guest.”
I didn’t know why he was here or why he cared.
But he hadn’t dated me, dumped me, and made out with another girl at my birthday party. So that put him ahead of some guys.
I felt the mattress sink as he lowered his weight.
Dylan hunched toward me so his brown eyes were peering into mine. They were lighter than they’d looked downstairs—chocolate shot with caramel—and up close they seemed about a thousand miles deep.
“I remember when Jenna Carlisle held her twelfth birthday party the same day as yours, even though her birthday wasn’t until the week after. Everyone knew she did it just to spite you. Half the class missed your party. It was a dick move, but you didn’t let anyone see that it bothered you.”
How could he possibly remember that? I had nearly forgotten it, though it had made me feel like crap at the time. Now that he reminded me, I could recall Ava’s indignation. She’d later started a rumor that Jenna had paid people to go to her party. It had ended with Jenna in tears and half the seventh grade class demanding compensation the first week of school.
“So what you’re saying is the world has been out to get me for nine years and I should be used to it by now?”
“I’m saying that you don’t need to have it together all the time. No one expects you to be perfect.”
Wow. He sounded way too smart for his age. And even if he was utterly wrong, his heart was in the right place.
Dylan offered his arm, and I blinked.
Whether it was the booze, the confrontation with Jake, or just the unfamiliar feeling of a kind person wanting to help, I leaned in. He wrapped his arm around me and I breathed in deeply against his chest.
It should’ve been weird.
There was no tension in his body. As his calm seeped slowly into me I felt the knots in my stomach start to relax.
It was nice just to be held. It had been a long time since I’d had that. Dylan’s shoulder was warm and he smelled like home. With my face pressed against his dark Henley he could’ve been any nice, normal guy.
I could’ve stayed like that forever.
Instead I forced myself to sit up.
“Thanks, Dylan. For … you know.” And I meant it. “This crap with Jake, though, it won’t happen again. I’m swearing off guys.”
“Switching to girls?” He arched a dark eyebrow.
My faced scrunched. “I’m leaning toward celibacy. Girls are crazy too.”
“Sounds like a plan. I know of a great convent if you’re in the market.”
“Please. I would love to have one outfit to choose from in the morning. Eat porridge for breakfast. Live vicariously through other people’s drama.” I cocked my head. “Though I’m not sure I want to go to any convent you’re … familiar with.”
It took him a minute to catch up. “What are you saying. You think I’m a player?”
“I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
“Seriously?” His eyes darkened, clouded. “You don’t even know me, Lex. Not really.”
He was right. He’d been nice enough to come make sure I was OK, and here I was giving him shit.
Still, I wasn’t a total pushover.
“So that rumor about Principal Green suspending two cheerleaders for fighting over you in the hall in junior year wasn’t true?”
I’d never paid attention to his social life since we moved in different circles.
Except when the gossip made Ava’s radar and transcended two grades.
“Not my fault.” Dylan’s gaze hardened. “You can’t hold me accountable for the actions of hormone-ridden teenage girls, especially ones I wasn’t even dating.
“I don’t know how we ended up talking about me, anyway. I came up here to talk about you. But as long as we are, can you do me a favor and just forget everything you think you know about me for a second?”
“I’ll try.” My voice sounded wary.
“If it helps my image, my social calendar is remarkably empty at the moment,” he volunteered. “And with your ringing endorsement a second ago, is it any wonder? You know, ‘girls are crazy’ and all.”
The tension that had arisen at the mention of high school rumors seemed to leave his body again.
“Sure, but I bet you broke a lot of hearts back East when you came here. It’s funny, though, now that you mention it, I can’t remember you dating in high school. Did you never bring girls around?”
By around I meant his house. I’d spent more time there than my own, so it felt natural calling it that.
“You don’t remember because you and Ava were so much older and cooler. If it wasn’t about clothes, or football players, or celebrities it wasn’t on your radar. What if I told you I haven’t had time for girls?”
I rolled my eyes, one immature habit I’d never been able to break, and shoved his shoulder. Or tried—my hands were barely able to move him an inch. “Yeah right. No time for girls? Even when they’re pulling each other’s hair out over you?”
Dylan’s eyes fell to my floral bedspread, and he seemed to lose himself in thought again. Butthey flicked back to mine and when he spoke again his voice was matter-of-fact. “Pretty much. I needed a full scholarship to make tuition. It wasn’t an option for Ava because of her grades and major. But Mom and Dad lost some of their savings, and they couldn’t afford to put us both through after Kate graduated from pharmacy school.
“I logged about twenty hours a week in extra credit projects and tutoring senior year. Between that and rugby, which the guys begged me to stay on the team so they could have a run at state, I didn’t have time for dating that year. Or anything else, really.
“I thought I might get a rugby scholarship but messed up my knee midway through the season. When I got an academic scholarship to Penn State, I jumped at it.”
I was floored by his words. Everything had seemed to come easily to him. Though I hadn’t seen much of him the last few years, I’d always assumed it was because of partying and crazy stunts, not a roster of academic and service commitments.
He misinterpreted my reaction.
“Believe me, my parents were just as shocked as you are that I managed to score the free ride.” Dylan looked uncomfortable, like he was surprised he’d said what he had. “But don’t say anything to Ava, OK? She doesn’t know. I mean, she knows about the scholarship but not about the money thing.”
I nodded, not understanding why he’d told me. Or why it was so important to keep it a secret.
Dylan and I had grown up on the fringes of one another’s lives with only the odd intersection. I’d never figured there was much beyond the talk.
Or maybe you never cared enough to look.
He’d been a paradox. The bad boy with enough mass appeal to become popular despite his screw-you-all exterior.
But I’d pegged him as being so focused on cars and girls he had no time for scholarships, like most guys his age.
“So why did you come back?” I asked.
“I always wanted to be here. But the scholarship and other things made Penn State look pretty good last year. I studied my ass off hoping to get a transfer closer to home. Guess I lucked out.”
He let out a breath.
“In any case, I’m glad to be back. And maybe if I’m lucky I can have a semi-normal college experience.”
I tried to lighten the mood with a smile. “Well, Dylan, you got your wish. A good-looking kid like you will catch up on the, ah, extracurriculars in no time.”
Somehow it didn’t have the desired effect, causing him to frown instead.
“I’m not a kid, Lex. Don’t assume I haven’t been through just as much as you have.”
Something in his steady gaze made me uncomfortable.
He had changed a lot from the Dylan I’d known. Or more accurately, the Dylans I’d known.
I remembered him through flashes, impressions over the years. The smart one who’d tried to convince his mom he couldn’t go to school the day he lost his first tooth because he clearly needed surgery to re-attach it. The timid one who’d been afraid of storms, willing to play Barbie with second-grade Ava and me just to have company when the thunder started. The serious one in junior high who’d peer at you thoughtfully from under dark hair and dark lashes when your paths crossed, like he could see inside your head.
Then there was the one in high school—the athlete and the partier, beloved by guys and girls alike. Well, apparently not as much of the girls as everyone had assumed.
I didn’t know which Dylan was sitting in front of me—one of those or another entirely.
Chalk it up to yet another surprise. It was starting to feel like I could build a Jenga tower out of them. The guys I thought I could trust left me, and the ones I thought had perfect lives were holding them together with duct tape behind the scenes.
Dylan’s voice brought me back.
“Anyway, if you’re so much older and smarter,” he said, “what’d I miss while I was up to my ears in textbooks and jockstraps?”
His sudden playfulness was unexpected. Despite his mood swings, I found myself enjoying his company.
“You mean because you didn’t date?” He nodded. “Well, on the bright side you missed out firsthand on the whining, the catfights, and a hundred varieties of high maintenance that is teenage girls.”
“I like your optimism. Although some of that definitely came through osmosis living with two older sisters. What about the downside?”
I looked at him strangely. I would have normally flushed, but given my current state of mind and partial inebriation I was footloose and censor-free.
“Well, the obvious one is sex.”
Dylan quirked an eyebrow.
“I mean, it kind of is something you need two people to do. Or, I guess, more than two is fine also.” The words spilled through my filterless brain and out my mouth.
This moment brought to you by hard liquor.
“Alexis Caine. Are you asking about my sex life? Like, for posterity?” Dylan looked amused as he turned to face me on the bed, legs crossed, his posture mirroring mine.
Our knees were touching. I shouldn’t have noticed, but did. Could feel the warmth of his body on my bare legs through his jeans. I wasn’t sure how to respond.
Especially when he laughed.
The rich noise sounded real contrasted with the dull roar of conversation and music that wafted up the stairs.
I had the random thought that I would do just about anything if he would keep laughing like that.
“Well, since you seem to be prying all my secrets out of me, why stop now, right?” Dylan folded his arms across his chest as if steeling himself for my reaction. “I’m not a virgin. But it has been awhile. Junior year, Amy Street. We dated for two months, but she moved away with her family.”
I failed miserably to hold in a snort of laughter. That was miles from what I’d been expecting.
“Stop,” Dylan protested. “For the record, she didn’t move the day after we had sex.”
“Mhmm. It would explain a lot, though, wouldn’t it?”
Teasing him was the most fun I’d had all night. Probably longer than that.
“It was a family decision.” His eyes implored me to understand. But he wasn’t taking himself too seriously, and the glint in his gaze suggested—what, that he was having fun?
“A family decision to get her away from you and your badass moves?”
“You’re an ego crusher, Lex.” He feigned hurt.
“I’m sure you can take it.”
“Uh-huh. Listen. Guys are more delicate than you think. But between you and me, because I never really had a girlfriend, I’m a little light on all the … sex-adjacent stuff.” He gestured dismissively with one hand. “All those early teen years of truth or dare, making out in the back of the car, groping on the couch?”
I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. Though Jake and I’d done some of that, I wouldn’t have characterized it as a life phase.
“Never happened to me.” Dylan put his hands on my knees and inclined his head toward me. His dark eyes were earnest and self-mocking. “I will deny it if this ever leaves the room, but my cumulative sexual experience totals about the length of an episode of Breaking Bad.”
His admission shocked me. First, it was because I didn’t know how he’d managed to escape female attention for that long. Second, I had no idea why he was telling me this. I forced my mind back to the conversation at hand. Which, in retrospect, might not have been the best idea.
“Before you start worrying about me dying alone, two girls have asked me out since I got here.” Apparently girls at our school were smarter than East Coast and high school girls. “So as of now I have two dates and zero moves. I’ve spent so much time with guys and books I hardly know what to do with girls. Who aren’t, you know, my friends or sisters.”
“Or your sisters’ friends.” It seemed funny at the time.
“Exactly.” Dylan ran a hand through his dark hair, shoved it out of his face. The dimple had returned, next to a self-deprecating smile.
This was where things went hazy. All I knew was that it was a pretty messed up night. It pissed me off that guys like Jake would be making out with evil coeds at their ex-girlfriend’s party. It also pissed me off that guys like Dylan, who were basically decent, were left out in the proverbial cold. I needed to do some karmic realigning.
And how exactly are you going to fix this? The teeny, tiny sane part of me asked from a faraway place.
I shushed her.
Me and the Cap made a good team.
“I am a woman of science,” I began, “and as such, believe an objective test is in order.”
Dylan raised his brows skeptically. He didn’t know where this was going.
That made two of us.
“In English, Yoda.”
I ignored the age barb and instead squared my shoulders, my chin jutting out. “Kiss me.”
What the hell?
I was a girl who rolled my clothes for optimal packing and alphabetized my books. Asking for any kind of bodily contact with my best friend’s little brother, no matter what the circumstances, was completely off script.
Dylan looked at me like I’d grown a second head.
Which seemed like an overreaction. I was pretty sure I wasn’t that hideous.
Unless maybe I’d gotten Jell-o shooters on my face—
“Listen, Lex,” Dylan began as he started to rise from the bed, “I appreciate the effort to make up for my recently lackluster social life, but that’s a bad idea. For one, you’ve been drinking.”
“And you haven’t?”
My hands grabbed Dylan’s arms—whoa, muscles—before he could rise and pulled him back down. “I’m not drunk.”
He shot me a skeptical look.
“I’m not,” I insisted. “Try me.”
“Twelve times eighteen.”
“Two hundred and sixteen.” My response was a bit slow but it was correct.
“The capital of South Africa.”
“Pretoria.” Faster this time.
“First Democratic president of the United States.” Dylan had leaned in and narrowed his eyes, sensing he had it in the bag.
“Andrew Jackson.” I put my elbows on my knees and rested my chin on my fists. “Serving from 1829 from 1837.” I smiled sweetly. “Any more? I could do this all night.”
Dylan looked at me with admiration and something I probably could’ve identified had I been completely sober.
As he opened his mouth to no doubt cite one of a thousand possible reasons this shouldn’t happen, I pre-empted him, channeling my brief tenth grade stint on the debate team.
“Dylan, listen. First, it’s one little kiss. We’re both grown-ups. No big deal. Second, there’s nothing here.” I gestured to the air between us. “We’re practically family, minus the ick factor. Given circumstances that were admittedly beyond your control you are in desperate need of an unbiased third-party opinion.”
He opened his mouth to talk and I clapped my hand over it. His mouth was warm under my fingers, but I ignored the feeling.
“Third, I have no stake in this, so can be completely honest. If you suck, I’ll tell you.”
That sounded way less harsh in my head.
I dropped my hand from his startled face. Dylan Cameron probably wasn’t used to being told to shut up.
But I was getting impatient. Life had been playing roulette with my emotions all night, and I was sick of being on the receiving end of whatever was handed down to me. I wanted to decide something for a change.
The exasperation lit a fire under me and I threw up my hands.
“Oh come on, Cameron, it’s one stupid kiss. To cap off one stupid, heinous night. What are you so afraid of?”
Not one of my finest debating moments. But something sparked and the caramel fired in the depths of his eyes.
“One kiss?” he asked warily.
Dylan’s gaze scanned my face, though I hadn’t the first idea what he was looking for. “Fine.”
I wanted to crow in victory.
Because of the way we were sitting, our faces were only inches apart to begin with. Looking over the planes of his face, obscenely long eyelashes hooding chocolate eyes, his full lips parted, awareness suddenly ran through me. It felt like we’d gotten closer together though I was pretty sure neither of us had moved.
Suddenly I was less sure of myself. The kiss had seemed harmless enough when I proposed it. Now, with Dylan looming larger than life in front of me with broad shoulders and tanned skin and unreadable eyes, things weren’t so black and white anymore.
Dylan inclined his body toward me. He paused with his lips a couple of inches from mine.
Through partly lowered lashes I could see the skepticism etched on his features.
What the hell is he waiting for?
Impatient to get it done—I needed to get studying if I was going to salvage anything of tonight—I closed the space between us.
We were breathing the same air, a millimeter apart. He had no out. The smallest twitch would bring us into contact.
Dylan smelled like mint and something headier. Based on the challenge in his eyes earlier, I was willing to bet he wouldn’t back out now.
The light touch of his lips was fleeting. I’d intended only to assess, but my eyes fluttered closed. His mouth was just the right mix of hard and soft.
The tingling surprised me, lasting for seconds after his lips left mine.
Then faded into nothing at all.
I felt exposed until Dylan’s mouth came back. This time it was firmer, lingering. His lips brushed.
And they clung.
My eyebrows rose as little sparks ignited in my brain, pinpricks rising along my arms. Warning bells went off somewhere in the recesses of my mind. Dylan’s mouth moved over mine, still slowly, but more purposeful by the second.
The kiss was deceivingly casual, like Dylan himself—smooth on the surface with an edge just underneath. It struck me suddenly that he was right: I didn’t know him at all, and it might be dangerous to assume I did.
His lips slanted over mine, coaxing, asking for things that couldn’t be put into words.
Like he wanted my permission to explore, to savor.
The crazy thing? I wanted to give it to him.
I sucked in a breath, consciously willing my hands to stay at my sides.
After a moment, or five, he pulled back.
I blinked, trying to focus on the denim of his jeans until my eyes uncrossed enough to meet his gaze. Our knees were still touching.
Whoever had told him he didn’t have any moves was flat out wrong.
I didn’t trust myself to look up quite yet, though I could feel his eyes on me.
“Well.” Was that my voice? I cleared my throat. “That was—”
My words were cut off as I felt fingertips on the back of my neck, searing my skin as he pulled my mouth back to his.
That’s when Dylan Cameron kissed me.
Really kissed me.
The heat of his mouth crushing down on mine sent sparks of heat down my spine.
Dylan’s thumb stroked the length of my jaw and when his tongue slipped out to part my lips I opened. Surprise and instinct.
He tastes like sin. The thought drifted through my hazy brain.
Dylan’s mouth on mine was raw. He moved with a conviction that did strange things to my brain and my body. He was unpracticed, but the way I reacted to him couldn’t have been more perfect if he’d kissed a thousand girls.
His fingers were on the back of my neck, caressing and then tightening to pull me closer. It was like his mouth was trying to bypass my brain and speak directly to my body. Like it knew there was something between us and was asking, is this what you wanted?
Until now I’d been on the receiving end but couldn’t be still anymore. His mouth had lit me on fire and my reaction was completely unpredictable.
My hand reached up of its own accord, sliding up the muscles of his chest and around his neck. His hair was thick and silky in my fingers.
I used the leverage to hold him to me harder as my mouth started moving under his.
His teeth grazed my lower lip and a bolt of hot lust shot through me, twisting the need in my gut tighter.
It was the sexiest thing I’d ever heard.
Dylan rose up onto his knees. Reached around my back to haul me closer.
The strength that pulled me against him did not belong to a kid, and the move brought my body flush with his.
His fingers fisted in my loose hair and he pulled down, forcing my mouth open under his. My blood thrummed in my veins and I could feel my heartbeat every second, everywhere.
The heat in my stomach, and lower, was driving me crazy and I arched my body toward him. If this was a game I wasn’t sure if we were winning or losing anymore.
My brain had left the equation long ago and the only thing I knew with certainty was that I needed to feel more of him against me.
His chest pressed against my breasts, his hips fitted against mine, and …
This was spiraling out of control. I was practically climbing my best friend’s little brother, who happened to be in the process of turning me inside out with his mouth and hands.
On my bed.
Did I mention he was hard?
My eyes opened a crack and it brought me back to reality.
Not OK, I reminded myself.
Summoning willpower I didn’t know I had, my hands pushed Dylan back.
He let go of me instantly and I fell back on the bed.
The first thing I noticed was our breathing, shallow and mismatched in contrast to the steady beat from downstairs.
Next my vision refocused.
When it did, I could see Dylan sitting on the side of the bed. He stared at the floor like he thought it might be the ceiling.
Welcome to the club.
My libido wanted to celebrate that I’d made a dent in Dylan Cameron’s too-cool-for-school exterior.
Too bad doing it had almost killed me.
Dylan’s composure came back before mine. “Well,” he asked in a coarse voice, turning to meet my gaze. “Scientific enough for you?”
I cleared my throat. “That was …” Hot as hell? The dumbest thing I’ve done in recent memory? “You definitely have the right … foundations.”
“Foundations?” His voice caught on the word and I couldn’t tell whether he was going to laugh or groan.
Dylan’s eyes were still cloudy, but his voice had leveled.
“Well, thanks for the advice. And the experiment.”
He looked like he wanted to say more but got up. He paused at the doorway.
“It was good catching up, Lex. Happy birthday.”
I listened as his footsteps sounded on the stairs. The soft creak meaning more all of a sudden than any of the noises from the party.
This was not how I’d intended to start the school year.