As usual, she was running late.
In the three and a half years Piper had been attending Brighton College of the Arts, she wasn’t sure she’d ever gotten to class before the instructor said their opening welcome. At this point, being barely on time for class was more of a habit than an accident.
Clutching her coffee cup to her chest like the precious cargo it was, she hurried down the steps of the lecture hall and slid into the seat beside her roommate and cellist extraordinaire, Jacquie. They’d left their shared on campus apartment at the same time that morning, but it had been years since Piper had been able to fully function during the day without morning caffeine, so she’d detoured to the campus coffee shop on her way to class.
“Did I miss anything?” Piper whispered, her breathing a little haggard from the running.
“Not really,” Jacquie shook her head, keeping her gaze focused on the small elderly woman standing at the front of the room. “Madame Kowalski hasn’t even started ranting yet.”
“Good,” Piper nodded, taking a sip of her coffee and allowing the world’s greatest nectar to work its magic.
Madame Kowalski had been at the college for centuries, Piper was sure of it. She couldn’t be more than five feet tall, but she had the volume and intimidation factor of a pro wrestler, leaving every single student of hers utterly terrified.
“My little butterflies,” Madame Kowalski called out, her piercing gaze somehow reaching every single person in the room, “your time at this storied institution is almost complete. The only thing standing in the way of you and your degree is this class. Which means it is my responsibility to challenge you as you’ve never been challenged before.”
Piper felt the flutter of excitement in the pit of her stomach. Advanced Music Composition was the capstone course for her degree plan and the senior project had the ability to make or break you. The essence was always that each student had to come up with an original composition that would be performed at the senior showcase at the end of the semester. Piper loved performing and writing music, so she’d been looking forward to this very class since she was a freshman.
“Your only assignment for this class is to compose a duet,” Madame Kowalski continued, ignoring the mutterings of surprise from the class, “which you and your partner will perform as a part of the end of year showcase. For the remainder of your class sessions this semester, you and your partner will use the time to work on your pieces.”
Never before had this project been a partner assignment. Writing a duet was more difficult because you had to consider another person’s abilities and tastes and preferences. Writing a duet with another person added an entirely new level of complexity. Luckily, Piper always loved a challenge.
“Now, as it would be too easy for you to choose your own partners, I have chosen for you,” Madame Kowalski said, laying down a piece of paper on the table at the front of the room before turning towards the door. “Check this list to see who your duet partner is and then get to work. Good luck.”
“Aw, man, I hate partner assignments,” Jacquie grumbled as the rush to discover partners began.
Piper snorted, grabbing her tote bag and lifting herself from her seat, she joined the line to view the list at the front of the room. “More of a solo act, huh?”
“It’s not that,” Jacquie sighed, “it’s just, I’d prefer to work with someone who’s musical style I’m already familiar with.”
“Makes sense,” Piper nodded, stepping forward to the table and immediately searching the paper for Jacquie’s name, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll be partnered together.” Her eyes found her roommates name and the name printed next to it and said, “Nope, you’re with Annie Boden.”
“Oh, awesome,” Jacquie lit up, as Piper searched the list for her own name. “She’s like the best flautist in our class. Who are you with?”
“Rocky McIntire,” Piper read off the name printed next to hers, wondering why it didn’t look the least bit familiar and frowning, because she liked to think that after nearly four years, she’d at least heard of all of her classmates. “I don’t think I know who that is.”
Apparently Jacquie didn’t share Piper’s level of ignorance to her peers, because Jacquie’s eyes quickly scanned the classroom before landing on a figure still sitting in the back row and pointing in his direction. “Oh, he’s over there.”
Piper followed the line of Jacquie’s finger and her gaze settled on her project partner. She could tell he was tall just from the way he was lounging in his seat. Long legs, bent at the knees and spread wide, his shoulders slouched against the back of his chair. As though he knew they were talking about him, his head lifted from where his gaze had previously been focused on the screen of his phone, and long locks of dark brown hair fell into whiskey colored eyes.
His face showed no expression as he sized her up, his square jaw and high cheekbones set firm, but Piper felt an unfamiliar fluttering in the pit of her stomach as they continued their stare down and she decided to lean into her feelings, her lips stretching into a slow smile as she said, “Yum.”
“Eyes on the prize, Irwin,” Jacquie laughed, turning away to go find her partner.
“Don’t worry, I can multitask,” Piper called after her before making her way up the steps to the back of the lecture hall.
Rocky found himself holding his breath as he watched Piper float towards him, looking rather angelic with her windblown chestnut hair and bright hazel eyes and just about the prettiest smile he’d ever seen in his life. The kind that could light up the darkest room and make you feel as though you’re basking in the sun without ever stepping outside.
Piper clutched her coffee cup closer to her chest with one hand as she came to a stop in front of him and held out her free hand to shake. “Looks like you hit the jackpot partner wise. I’m Piper.”
Considering he was sitting in the back of the classroom and had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his hair, she half expected him to be the kind of guy to grunt one word answers, so she was pleasantly surprised when a slow, sexy smile stretched his lips and his clear whisky gaze locked on hers and he said, “Looks like I did. I’m Rocky,” as he slipped his palm against hers and pumped their hands once before dropping them.
A delicious shiver ran up her spine as she decided she would do everything in her power to make him smile as much as possible and she cocked her head to the side, trying to determine what instrument he played. “Let me guess, tambourine.”
“Violin.” His gaze stayed locked on hers as his smile stretched wider, causing what almost felt like butterflies to form in the pit of her stomach.
Which was stupid. Piper didn’t get flustered around guys. She never had. So why was this admittedly gorgeous bad boy having any sort of effect on her?
“Piano,” she replied with a nod, continuing their staring contest because she was never one to back down from a challenge, but noting that her heart rate had spiked just a little.
Of course, Rocky McIntire knew all about Piper Irwin. Both in the sense that he knew her father was famous and that she was probably the best pianist at the school. He doubted she’d ever noticed him before today, but he’d seen her on his first day of school, three and a half years ago.
It was her laugh that drew him in; it was the first thing he noticed. He’d been sitting in his usual place at the back of their Introduction to Music Theory class and he’d heard a laugh that sounded like that lullaby his mom used to sing him to calm him down when he’d had a bad dream and when his eyes finally sought out the girl with the world’s brightest smile, he couldn’t help but keep watching her for the years to come.
Only from a distance, though. Because Piper Irwin was practically music royalty. The unofficial princess of rock and roll. The kind of untouchable that people only dreamed of. And Rocky knew better than to wish for something he could never have.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy being around her when he had the chance. Especially since she’d probably never speak to him again when this assignment was over. Tilting his head to the side to mimic her earlier action, he said, “Wanna get out of here and get started?”
It was a gorgeous day and since Madame Kowalski had said they could use the remaining class sessions to work on their project, that also meant they weren’t confined to work in the lecture hall. Nodding, Piper agreed and followed Rocky as he stood from his seat and strolled leisurely towards the lecture hall doors.
“So, Rocky McIntire,” Piper said once they were outside, taking another sip of her coffee as they strolled along one of the campus sidewalks, neither of them entirely sure where they were going, “if we’re going to be good partners, then we should know a little about each other. Tell me your story.”
He blinked, not expecting her to be so up front and knowing better than to actually delve into details so early in their relationship. “My story? Um, still being written, I guess.”
She lifted one eyebrow, smirking knowingly, unsurprised by his nonresponse. “Not much of a talker, huh?”
He shrugged. “Not really.”
That was true. But part of the reason he didn’t want to say much was that he had a feeling once he started opening up to Piper, he might never want to stop. And that was dangerous. He couldn’t risk being vulnerable with someone he barely knew.
“If I ask you questions, will you answer?” she asked, walking a little closer to him so that she could breathe in his scent unnoticed. He smelled delicious, like chocolate chip cookies and apple cider, neither which were scents she would have pegged to someone who exuded such bad boy sex appeal.
Generally speaking, Piper felt as though she was good at reading people. Within five minutes of speaking to them, she could reasonably discern what made them tick. But she had a hard time figuring Rocky out. He was a mystery wrapped in an enigma presented in a package of tall, dark, and delicious. Yet, he also had a warm, easy smile and a light of mischief in his eyes at all times that was completely contradictory to every wannabe bad boy she’d come across in her twenty two years thus far.
Rocky, on the other hand, was coming to the realization that keeping his guard up around Piper was going to be a lot more difficult than he originally thought. He stared down at her, admiring her spunk and unable to keep the grin off his lips. “No promises.”
Her smile widened and she kept her gaze direct. “I like a challenge.”
“I’ll bet,” he whispered in response, matching her grin.
She nodded, taking a seat on a nearby bench and taking another sip of her coffee as she pondered her first question, finally settling on. “So why violin?”
He thought about giving her the vaguest answer possible because the amount that he wanted to bare his soul to her terrified him a little bit, but he decided that since she was genuinely making an effort to get to know him, he wouldn’t be a total ass.
“My dad played,” he said, reaching up to push back the hood of his sweatshirt and letting it fall to his shoulders before sticking his fingers in the front pockets of his jeans once more. “It was more of a hobby for him, but I guess I’d always be fascinated when I watched, so when I was old enough to hold one, he just sort of let me go at it. Since then, playing hasn’t really seemed like a choice as much as a natural instinct.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I get that.”
“Yeah?” he lifted one eyebrow. “It’s always been piano for you?”
She smiled sheepishly and shook her head. “No, actually I started on drums.”
“I guess that’s not really surprising,” he realized. She was Ashton Irwin’s daughter after all.
Piper let out a small sigh of relief as she realized they wouldn’t have to have the conversation about her dad. Not that she wasn’t extremely proud of her father or thought that everybody should automatically know she was the daughter of a world famous drummer, but it was nice to just have a conversation without doing any explaining or being on the receiving end of a whole lot of gushing.
“Not really,” she agreed. “I mean, obviously, my dad would have loved if I followed in his footsteps. But to be honest I think he’s just happy that I ended up having any musical ability at all, considering my brother’s tone deaf and has zero rhythm.”
Rocky laughed, finding it surprising that any child of a professional musician could possibly be tone deaf or without rhythm. “Really?”
“Yeah, he’s hopeless with music in general,” Piper laughed, her lighting the way they always did when she talked about Oliver, “but he’s an incredible artist.”
He liked the way her entire expression lightened at the mention of her brother, so he asked, “Older or younger?”
“Younger…,” she replied coyly, “by seven minutes.”
“Twins?” he grinned, “That must have been nice, growing up. Kinda like having a built in best friend.”
“It was,” she agreed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and noting that despite the fact that her coffee cup was almost empty, she was pretty sure it wasn’t the caffeine that had her feeling as though she could fly. “What about you? Siblings?”
He tensed as she veered the topic of conversation back to him. They’d gone a few minutes without her seeming to realize that he hadn’t revealed anything else personal. The truth was that the story about why he played violin had been more than he’d ever told someone he’d known for all of thirty minutes. He didn’t like feeling vulnerable and it terrified him how much he wanted to tell her…everything. But he couldn’t afford to be so uninhibited, so he said, “Only child.”
It was as though she could physically see his walls rebuilding. For a few brief, glorious minutes, there was a lightness and ease between them and now, despite the smirk on his lips, he had hardened his heart once more.
“You’re really not going to make this easy for me, are you?” she sighed.
“What would be the fun in that?” he teased, feeling just a little bit bad, but not enough to actually do anything about it. “Besides, you’re kinda gorgeous when you’re all riled up.”
He meant that too. The fire in her eyes and the flush on her cheeks and kindness in her smile were probably going to haunt his dreams for weeks to come.
Piper could feel her cheeks heating up at both the directness of the comment and the directness of his gaze. It wasn’t as though she’d never been told she was pretty before. But something about the offhand way he’d said it mixed with the sincerity in his eyes made her heart race.
She parted her lips to flirt back, but before she could, his phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket and read the message he’d received before wincing apologetically as he said, “And that’s my cue. I gotta bounce.”
He hopped to his feet and turned towards the nearest main road, but before he could walk away, she said, “Hey, you’re not off the hook that easy.”
“I’d be disappointed if I was,” he grinned, turning to face her again. “When do you want to meet again?”
“I can’t tomorrow, but I can do day after,” she suggested.
“Sounds good. Give me your phone,” he replied. She plopped her mobile device into his outstretched hand and he quickly entered his contact information before handing it back. “Text me the details,” he instructed before walking backwards towards the nearest main road, winking and saying, “Later, Piper.”
Before she could respond he was gone and she was left sitting dumbfounded on a bench, already counting down the hours until she could see him again.