It's a Cruel World, Sir

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05 | Glitter and Blood

Techno is pounding over the speakers lining the place, reverberating through the entire building so much, I can actually feel the bass pumping in my chest, like a second heartbeat. Smoke is dense in the air, bringing out the neon, laser lights that are dancing above my head. All around us are grinding bodies and intense make-out sessions, more than one of them accompanied by ecstasy and LSD.

“Makes me feel like I can fly, like I cannot ever die, Music is my only drug~” Nikki sings, moving her hips as her voice cracks on the last note.

I laugh and return the motion, mimicking her rhythm as the bass picks up and people crowd around us.

TJ, who’s fishnet top is now ripped and revealing the black light paint plastered on his body, is grinding on some girl near us, his 32-inch jeans rubbing against our furry, neon-colored leg warmers.

“So let the bass kick,” he mouths as the voice over the speakers does.

We laugh, picking up our pace. Leon comes over, and Nikki moves away from me to grind her back on him. He smirks a little and returns the favor, putting his hands on her bare stomach. The violin mixed in with bass helps to make the dance go with the music, but as soon as it’s gone, she flicks her hair, getting a mouth-full in his face. Snickering, he tries to grab her, but she’s too quick for him, running into a crowd of people before he can. I laugh as he chases after her.

Suddenly, someone moves up against me, hand going to my waist. I whirl around to Calvin smirking. His hair is slicked back, but his outfit is the same as earlier today: dark jeans and a white tee.

I raise an eyebrow, amused that he’s not dancing with some high chick, but he grabs my wrist, pulling me against his hard chest. I hiss at the sudden pressure on my sore forearm, and he chuckles lightly, unaware. Before I can react, he presses his body into mine, hands roaming my ass.

“Calvin,” I growl, “Watch it. High or not, I’ll knee you in the groin if you don’t start using the right head.”

“Relax,” he breathes in my ear. I’m sure to everyone around us, it looks like he’s kissing my ear. “Some guy’s been staring at you for the last hour.”

As if to prove his point, he turns me around, pressing my back against his chest, as Nikki and Leon had done a few minutes ago, and moves a little to the right. My eyes almost immediately lock on a man who looks like he’s in his late twenties, dark eyes scanning everything but my face.

“And that matters because...?”

His face drops to the crook of my neck. “Isn’t that obvious?” he murmurs. “I’m making sure he knows not to mess with you.”

“Thought that was Nikki’s job?” I ask, going along with the rhythm he’s making up.

“It would be more convincing if you were grinding with a girl,” he says thoughtfully, “and hot.” He just has to tack that on at the end. “But I’m not sure that guy’s thinking about asking you on a date, Cupcake, so I don’t think it matters whether you’re into girls or not.”

“Fine.” I sigh, giving up. “Watch your hands, though. Even a girlfriend gets impatient when her boyfriend decides to grope her too much.”

“No fun,” he teases.

We keep our pace in sync with the music, making it seem as if we just want a closer, more personal way to dance. The music speeds up and so does his grinding, his hands conveniently placed on my lower stomach. I roll my eyes and turn around, surprising him. Before he can respond, I jab my finger into a pressure point on his neck, causing him to cringe in pain.

“Hands stay on my sides, Calvin.”

He chuckles, rubbing his neck. “I just got caught up in it. Swear.”

The song comes to an end, however, and Calvin backs off a little, not completely leaving my side, and the others meet up with us.

“You have to love MJ’s Joint,” TJ says, grinning.

“Of course you can say that,” Calvin counters, “You’re getting all of the girls.”

He holds his hands up in defense. “It’s not like it’s my fault girls like grinding with gay guys.” He smirks a little. “But it looked like you and Cupcake were enjoying each others’ company. I doubt you’ll get any girls after that.”

I roll my eyes as Calvin snickers. “Challenge accepted, princess.” He grins confidently. “Bet I’ll have five girls’ numbers by the end of the hour.”

“Alright, whore mongrel,” TJ says, eyes burning with competition. “You’re on. Loser buys the winner Red Lobster.”

“Deal.”

Breakbeat hardcore starts hammering over the speakers, interrupting their little show as it drums through my body. TJ and Trent go back to the dance floor, TJ nudging Nikki with his elbow when she gives him a flirty wink, and Calvin goes on a hunt for another girl to grind with, seemingly satisfied with the fact that there are others around me now and he can go prove to TJ how wrong he is.

Nikki fans herself. “Do you mind going outside for a few minutes?” she asks, looking at me, “It’s way too hot in here.”

I shake my head. “I don’t mind.”

“Great,” she says before looking at Leon. “Be back in a minute.”

He nods. “Be careful,” he says seriously, “and don’t wander too far.”

“Yes, father,” she says.

I laugh as Leon rolls his eyes.

We make our way to the thick, grey door, a giant EXIT sign above it. Some guy tries to pull Nikki against him, but before he can, Leon steps in the way and sends the man a deadly look, allowing us to get out the door without fighting.

Outside, the air is comfortable, cooling down my skin. The moon is full, lighting the dark ally enough for me to see Nikki looking up at the starless sky.

I take a deep breath, enjoying the smokeless taste in the air.

“God, I don’t remember that place being so stuffy,” she says, fanning herself as she leans against the slab of wall next to the door.

“I think there’s just more people here,” I say, “They closed that club down the road for construction, so everyone’s probably using this as a replacement.”

“Never thought of that,” she says.

“Besides, it’s not like we’ll be here anytime soon after tonight.”

“True,” she agrees. “I’m surprised Leon let us come tonight. I thought for sure the moment that Preston threatened you, we’d all be on lockdown.”

“Don’t remind me,” I grumble a little, looking over at her. “But it looks like I’m not the only one he’s pretty defensive of at the moment.”

She smiles. “You noticed that, huh?”

“Of course.” I lean against the wall next to her. “So? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“Not yet, but it’s coming. And I do mean ‘coming’ in that way.” She winks.

I chuckle. “If you sleep with him, can you promise you won’t let the weirdness ruin lunch? I don’t want everything to feel awkward every time you two are together.”

“Actually... I wasn’t thinking about it just being a one-night stand type thing,” she admits, looking up at the sky again. “I think I actually like him.”

My eyes widen, and I gasp dramatically. “Nicole Sutton? Genuinely liking a guy? Is the world coming to an end?”

She hits my shoulder playfully. “Oh, screw you. He’s not a bad guy, even if you ignore his gorgeous face.”

“None of them are bad guys,” I point out.

“Well, yeah, but TJ’s gay, Calvin’s too straight, and Trent won’t show either way.”

“So you like Leon because he’s not too straight, not too gay, and not too quiet?”

“Oh my god. I give up.” She slides down the wall, crossing her legs on the cold concrete.

I laugh. “I’m only playing, Nik.”

She sighs. “I know, but it’s all so weird. I don’t know why I like him; I just kind of do.”

I smile, but it fades at the approach of two men. I recognize one of them as the guy who was staring at me before Calvin intervened.

“‘Ey, sweethearts. What’re you doin’ out here all by your lonesome?” the one in front asks. His face is angular, harsh lines etching his chin and crooked nose, and his thick chest and broad shoulders are emphasized by his short, stacked legs.

“Avoiding creeps like you,” Nikki says, bored.

The man stops, surprised by her remark. “Excuse me?”

“You’re excused,” she answers, standing up lazily. “We were in the middle of a conversation anyway.”

“You stupid whore,” the man next to him, the one who was watching me, spats. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” He, unlike his buddy, is less built, the muscles focused in his arms, but the lack of muscles is made up in the curve of his mouth and the golden-brown flares in his eyes.

Nikki pulls out a comb from her back pocket, running it through her hair. “Ask me whether I care or not.”

I chuckle as the man’s face turns red.

“Joey.” The stacked man holds out his arm, stopping him from moving closer. “Leave the poor girls alone. They’re just uncomfortable.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Do we look uncomfortable to you?” I motion to Nikki with my head, who’s still just combing her hair as if we’re by ourselves.

He laughs hardily. “I like you two; you’re exciting.”

“Keep talking, and we’ll get that much better,” Nikki states, her smile almost threatening.

The lean man, Joey, shoves past the stacked guy, getting in Nikki’s face. “Are you sure you want to keep this up, bitch?”

Nikki’s lip twitches in amusement.

Just what is she planning?

“Can you back up a little? Your breath is killing me.” She fans herself. “God, ever heard of a tic-tac?”

He growls, pulls back his fist, and attempts to hit her. She, however, ducks down, slipping out of his cage, and elbows him in the back, cracking his face against the wall.

“Whoops,” she says as he rubs his head. “I might have overdone it.”

The man behind us lets out a loud, bellowing laugh. “So, you’re not as fragile as you look.”

Nikki studies him. I can tell she’s measuring him, deciding whether to get Leon for help or deal with him herself.

He reaches in his back pocket, pulling out a switchblade. “Maybe I should have snatched you up without being noticed.”

He stalks towards her, the blade held threateningly at his side. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch two more men hiding in the darkness, cowering behind a corner.

These two aren’t alone.

Before Nikki can see, I step in front of her, blocking her view of the ally, and lean into her. “Get Leon, Nik,” I order quietly, watching the men from every angle I can. “I’ll take care of these assholes.”

“There’re two of them, Cupcake,” she hisses in my ear. “I can’t leave you here alone.”

“But I can fight better than you,” I counter. “Besides, we’ve had worse odds before.”

She stares at me, eyes hard. Her thought is put off when the man slashes at us with his switchblade. Quickly, I grab his wrist, nails digging into his skin, and pull him towards me. My knee connects with his groin, shattering his chances of having kids, and he crumbles to the floor.

“Go.”

She groans. “Fine, but take this.” She puts the comb in my hand.

I can’t help but grin a bit.

She returns it, but it’s short-lived as she turns on her heels and kicks in the thick door. I turn back to the two men. The one who attacked Nikki, the Joey guy, is still on his ass, rubbing his head. Mr. Bad Ass is lying on his side, holding himself.

“Alright,” I say loudly. “Come on out.”

An arm wraps around my neck, hot breath in my ear. “Try something, and I’ll break your neck.”

My eyes harden and I pop off the top of the comb, revealing the blade underneath. With one, swift movement, it slices open the man’s arm, blood dripping onto the dark jacket I’m wearing. He cries out, cussing, and shoves me away. When I hit the ground, I look at him and catch his ankle with the heel of my foot, hearing a satisfying crack before he falls to the ground.

“Stupid bitch!” Another man is showing himself, smaller than the others. His clothes are baggy, probably an attempt to hide the total lack of muscles and definition, and his hair is long, going past his shoulders.

“God, doesn’t anyone know a better insult than bitch?” I demand, dodging a clumsy punch from the stout guy.

The guy Nikki laid out, Joey, grabs my wrist in just the right place, causing me to cringe. Momentarily stunned by the feeling of wounds reopening, I stop long enough for him to pull my arm behind my back and force me, face first, against the concrete.

“How’s the taste of cement?” he seethes, pushing my head down. His knee wedges itself between my legs, leaning his weight into my wrist against the middle of my back.

“Better than you, I’m sure,” I grunt out, trying to breathe. He’s heavier than he looks.

“Why you—”

“Can it, Joey,” the leader, the one I nailed in the groined, orders. “Pick her up so we can see her pretty face.”

He grumbles like a child as he eases off of me, being sure to keep a hand around my injured forearm. The moment the pressure is gone from my lungs (and my face isn’t making out with the ground), I flip around and puncture his eyes with my fingers (childish tactic, but I’m not in the mood to fight righteously). He hisses and releases my wrist instantly.

The leader takes note of the blood dripping down my fingertips and smiles malevolently. “Injured, eh? That explains the cry you let out when Joey grabbed your arm.”

I raise an eyebrow. I did not cry out.

Before he has time to make his next move, the club’s back door opens and Leon’s fist connects with his jaw. Trent immediately follows suit, plowing the tip of his foot into Joey’s jaw. When the stout guy tries to plunge the blade I’d stuck in his arm into Trent’s back, TJ grabs his wrist, a painful snap making me cringe. The guy cries out, but Tj mercilessly bends it backward anyway, the man’s fingers almost touching his own arm when he drops the knife. Nikki takes out the other guy, upper-cutting him with her hand.

In the midst of the chaos, someone grabs my hand, pulling me against their chest, and leads us against the wall.

“Reckless as always,” Calvin murmurs in my ear.

I turn to him. “Shut up. There’s no way Nikki could’ve handle them by herself.”

“Maybe you should think about what you just said, Cupcake,” he says, shaking his head in exasperation. Kind of like the way Leon does when I do something to make him freak-out. “Nikki is older than you, has been in more fights, and you said she couldn’t handle it, so what makes you think you can?”

“Well, I did, didn’t I?” I retort, narrowing my eyes.

He looks at the blood smeared on my fingers and then holds up his palm for me to see the blood there too. “Yeah, you did.”

I sigh. “That has nothing to do with them.”

I know immediately that I’ve made a mistake. Especially when his eyes go from slight irritation to all-out concern. Without saying anything, he snatches up my elbow and stares at the fabric of my long-sleeve as if it’s a three-headed snake.

“...Still?” he breathes, barely audible. He doesn’t pull up the sleeve, doesn’t even touch it, already knowing what’s beneath the dark material. “But... I thought... I thought you were getting better...”

I can’t look him in the eye. “You know they’re back.”

“Cupcake—”

“Hopefully, that’ll keep them away for a while.” Leon’s voice breaks through the tension. Calvin releases my arm and wipes his hand on his jeans with record speed, allowing me to secretly rub the blood on the inside of my shirt. “Seriously, Cupcake, what were you thinking, taking on four grown men by yourself?”

Calvin’s all-American grin is back as he ruffles my hair. “Probably thought she could seduce them into submission.”

Nikki snickers. “She doesn’t have your sick mind.”

The playful banter continues on, and it’s as if nothing happened.

It’s past two in the morning, and fresh fog has covered the outside. The moon is high in the sky, illuminating the bright colors on everyone’s clothes. We’re all walking down the street, joking and laughing. Calvin is sure to stay next to me, an arm wrapped casually around my neck, the other shoved in the pockets of his jeans.

“Shame you couldn’t get someone to take home,” Nikki says, snickering up at him from the other side of Leon.

Calvin grins and pulls out several slips of papers. “They don’t have to come home with me tonight.” He wriggles his eyebrows. “That also means that someone owes me dinner.”

“I said five numbers,” TJ points out. “You only have three.”

“That’s the same thing, man!”

“Nope,” he pops. “Deals a deal. You owe me.”

“Bullshit.”

Nikki laughs. “You should give that up for a moment and hope none of those girls see you crowding Cupcake.”

He waves her off, pulling me closer. “Ever heard of a threesome?” I elbow him in the side, and he grunts. “Okay, maybe not.”

Everyone laughs.

When we get to the corner of Fifth and Elm, I unwrap Calvin’s arm and give Nikki a hug. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Okay~” she whines, returning the hug. “Thanks for taking out those guys for me, by the way. I had no idea there were two more hiding.”

“Neither did I,” I lie, smiling at her. “Have fun.”

Her eyes dart to Leon, who’s chatting with Calvin about god-knows-what, and her face heats up. “Shut up.”

I chuckle and step away to give TJ a hug. He squeezes me, lifting me off of the ground. “I was so worried about you! I’m glad you didn’t get hurt.”

“Love you, too, TJ. Can I breathe now?”

“No,” he mutters but sets me down anyway.

“Will you be okay getting home on your own?” Leon asks.

I nod. “It’s only a ten-minute walk to my house from here. I’m probably going to stop at the convenience store on the way, so I’ll be on well-lit roads.”

He turns the idea over in his head, thinking it through. “If anything happens, I want you to go back to the convenience store and call one of us, okay?”

I sigh, expecting as much. “Alright.”

“I mean it, Cupcake. Tonight was a close call in itself. Please don’t do anything careless for the rest of the weekend. Stay home. If you wanna go somewhere after dark, call Nikki or Whit or something and hang out with them.”

“I got it, Leon. I’ll even make sure to brush my teeth twice a day and be in bed by eight.”

“That’s all I ask,” he says, pulling me into a hug.

I shake my head, earning a chuckle from Nikki and Calvin, and head down the street.

“Don’t get attacked by the boogieman~” Nikki sings.

I flip her off, rolling my eyes at the laughter. When their voices are too far away to hear what they’re saying, I take a deep breath, running my fingers through my hair in defeat.

It had to be Calvin. Out of everyone, it just had to be Calvin. He’s going to be as paranoid as Leon now, demanding to see my arms, using sex jokes as a cover-up for feeling for fresh wounds, using sex as a reason to come over to my house, even though everyone knows that I’d never sleep with him. If my mother and sister leave before Preston is taken care of, I’ll probably be stuck at his house, unless he tells Whit. Or she figures it out for herself.

I sigh. I know the conversation with him isn’t over, and I’m dreading it.

The high, gleaming sign for the convenience store comes into view. The big, lighted red circle around the K is hard to miss. The store itself is small compared to the Walmart a few blocks down, but it’s well stocked. I can get everything I need here for a reasonably cheap price.

A bell dings when I walk in, and the cashier, an old woman named Maggie, nods at me before looking back at her newspaper. I grab a lot of gauze, enough Spaghetti-Os and Chef Boyardee’s Ravioli to last me the next couple of weeks, a couple two liters of Pepsi, and some candy for my brother and sisters.

“Stocking up?” Maggie asks as I set everything on the small, holey counter.

“Gotta stay in for a while, I guess,” I answer.

Her smile is wide, the crows’ feet near the corner of her eyes worsening. “Another big brawl?”

I shrug. “More or less.”

The bell dings again, and Maggie looks over my shoulder as I hunt down the money in my bra. “Welcome.” Lower, she adds, “Wowee, he’s a looker. Check him out, honey. I’m sure he’s your taste, especially in all that leather.”

I smirk a little and turn slightly, eyes widening.

Mr. Kingsley is dressed in a black, leather jacket that’s conforming to his arms a little too well. It’s not zipped up, so I can see the black shirt underneath, defining his chest in the right places. His jeans are a dark blue, bordering black, and have various holes in them. He looks like a gangster.

A wickedly attractive gangster.

Luckily, I’m not drunk enough to hit on my teacher, and I can still remember, very distinctly, what he said to Nikki and TJ earlier today.

I look back at Maggie, who snickers. “You look like you wanna eat him, sweetheart.”

A little.

I shake my head. “Too old,” I lie.

She knows it and lowers her voice. “You like older men.”

“Yeah, like, mid-twenties.”

“He looks like he’s twenty-eight, twenty-nine at most.” She grins. “Besides, you’re not underage, so what’s it matter?”

“He’s a professor!” I defend in whispers.

Her eyes widen. "He’s a professor? You mean he’s not in an allied gang or something?”

“I’m not in a gang, Maggie. I’m just in a group of really good fighters. That doesn’t mean—”

“You’re in a gang, sweetheart. A small one, but a gang nonetheless~”

I groan. “Am not!”

Before she can retort, a deep voice says, “You’re out a little late tonight.”

I lift a shoulder, not looking at him as Maggie smirks and starts ringing my things up. “It’s a Friday.”

“Technically, it’s Saturday.” He nods to the digital clock scattered amongst old newspapers that’s blinking 2:13am in red.

I roll my eyes. “Whatever. It’s still the weekend. It’s normal for college kids to go clubbing and crap.”

“So you went clubbing?” he asks. “I suppose I should have known.”

“Why?” I wonder out loud.

“Because of your clothes.”

I follow his gaze.

I guess he’s right. The long-sleeve half shirt is black with neon green stitching along the sides and down the arms. It only goes down to the top of my stomach, just below my chest, showing the clear paint all over it. In the black lights, the paint looks bright yellow, but now it just looks like I have something shiny on me. My shorts are too short for my liking (Nikki picked them out), and a bright green color to match my half-shirt. The leg warmers I’m wearing are so fluffy, you can’t tell I’m wearing black flats.

“Were you assaulted by someone?” His voice pulls me out of my thoughts.

My head snaps to him so fast, I have a kink in my neck. “What?” How does he know?

He raises an eyebrow at my reaction, pointing to the gauze Maggie’s shoving in a plastic bag. “You’re getting bandages.”

“Oh,” I say lamely, turning back to my stuff. Of course. What was I thinking? “That’s just in case something happens.”

“Are you expecting something to happen?”

“With this one,” Maggie interrupts, “you never know.”

I shoot her a look, and she returns it with a sly grin. “That’ll be twenty-two dollars and eighty cents,” she says, her voice unusually sweet.

I hand her two twenties. “Keep the change,” I say curtly.

Her smirk is seriously scary sometimes. “Here you go, honey.” She pushes the bags in front of me, and I snatch them up.

Mr. Kingsley decides to pipe in, placing a thing of Menthol cigarettes and a bag of pretzel M&Ms on the counter. “Do you like those that much?” He nods to one of my bags that have nothing but Spaghetti-Os and Ravioli in it.

My face heats up. “They’re cheap, okay? And they’re fast and easy to make. Don’t judge me.”

He chuckles. “Don’t you know how to cook?”

“If you consider microwavable dinners and pre-cooked pizzas cooking, then yes.”

He purses his lips, considering this. “Doesn’t your mother or father cook for you?”

I stiffen, my grip on the bags tightening. “Does it matter?” I demand. “Why’re you asking all these questions anyway?”

He shrugs casually, grabbing his things. “Just curious.”

Why am I even talking to him?

Shaking my head, I walk out the door, ignoring the mischievous grin on Maggie’s face as Mr. Kingsley follows me out. That old woman is crazy.

“Do you want a ride?” he offers, pressing a button on something in his hand.

In the middle of the parking lot, there’s a beep and white lights flash, showing a sleek, navy blue car. The top looks like its down, so I’m guessing it’s a convertible (he doesn’t seem like the type of person to ride around in a broken vehicle), and the seats look beige and leather. Must be expensive.

“My father always told me not to ride with strangers,” I say.

“I’m not a stranger, I’m your professor,” he answers easily. “Besides, it’s late and you’re a young girl carrying a lot of money on you. It’s not safe.”

I almost want to laugh and tell him that if there’s any place that’s not safe, it’s in a fancy car with the first person to ever be able to stop one of my punches, but something else piques my interest. “How do you know I have a lot of money?”

“You told the woman to keep over seventeen dollars in change like it was nothing,” he explains.

Oh. Right.

I shrug. “I have no use for it, and Maggie needs all of the money she can get.”

His eyes seem to widen a fraction, but it’s gone in a second, a smile on his lips. “Doesn’t change the fact that someone might try to attack you for it,” he murmurs. “If it bothers you that much, I can drop you off a few houses away from yours.”

I study him.

Honestly, what can it hurt? He’s right; it’s late, and Preston is aiming for me. While I don’t think it’s likely, there’s still a chance that he or his little friends will wait somewhere near my house for a chance, and even if I’m good at fighting, I can’t handle more than three or four guys by myself. There’s also some murderer on the loose. Besides, Mr. Kingsley is my professor. He may be new, and he may be able to block my right hook, but he doesn’t seem like a bad person, especially not with the bag of M&Ms in his hand.

“Alright,” I agree, “but if I find this car snooping near my house, I’m calling the cops and getting your ass fired.”

He chuckles. “Understood.”

Surprisingly, he slips off his jacket, holding it out for me. I furrow my eyebrows and wrap my fingers around it in confusion. He uses my momentary lapse to grab the plastic bags from my hands, heading to his car. He puts them at the foot of his backseats and looks at me still standing there with his leather jacket in my hand. “It’s a chilly night, and all you have on is that thin long-sleeve. With my top down, it’s only going to get colder, so you should wear that.”

I blink and stare at the jacket in my hands. Somehow or another, I manage to slide my arms through the too-long sleeves and wrap it around me, shivering a little.

Jesus, this guy must be freaking twenty-below because this damn thing feels like my hoodie does when I first put it on in the morning.

“Coming?”

He’s in front of me, green eyes smoldering.

As I look up at him, I get this strange feeling that I should be worried, scared. His eyes are still the same green they were earlier today, but something’s different. Have they always had that silver flare in them?

He breathes out through his mouth, warm air bushing my face. “The door’s unlock,” he says finally, voice rough.

I catch his eye as he steps around the car and looks at me, smirking.

“You okay?”

My eyes narrow, watching him, before I sigh, opening the door. I really need to get more sleep; any less and I’ll start claiming to see monsters or something.

His seats are leather like I thought, but more of a soft leather, like suede. Thanks to my fishnet leggings and neon purple legwarmers, I don’t have to worry about my skin sticking to the surface. As I buckle my seat belt, Mr. Kingsley watches our surroundings, eyes focused on the dark houses on the other side of the street.

“Something wrong?” I ask.

He looks at me, judging something, before shaking his head. “Nothing. Ready?”

I nod.

He pulls out of the parking lot smoothly, the car humming as he drives down the empty streets. The streetlights pass us at a fast pace, but I ignore it, leaning back into the seat to enjoy the wind whipping my hair around me, cooling my face. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realize that I should be embarrassed about letting my overly attractive professor see my hair acting like it’s been possessed by a demon, but I don’t to care.

The air slows down until my hair stops moving. I open my eyes to see that we’ve stopped at a small intersection.

“Straight,” I say.

“I didn’t say anything.” He smirks.

I roll my eyes. “How else are you going to know where I live?”

“There are rumors all around campus,” he says matter-of-factly. “How the great Vixen Tyler lives in a huge mansion with no one but her butler to take care of her.”

“As if my mother would waste her money on a butler for me,” I scoff. “And my house is not a mansion. It’s only two stories high with a basement. Big deal.”

“How wide is it?”

I close my mouth.

He chuckles. “Does that mean the rumor about you living alone is a lie as well?”

“People don’t know when to keep their mouths shut,” I grumble, but let out a breath. “Actually, no. My mother has these spurts of adventurous needs where she travels the world with her latest husband. My sister just does whatever she wants, using Mother for money when she runs out.”

“Latest husband?” he repeats.

“She’s on her third,” I say absently.

He’s quiet for a few minutes, thinking it through. “So they leave you alone from time to time?”

I laugh. It’s bitter and full of dark humor. “You mean they come home from time to time. They’re usually gone 362 days out of the year. Mother only comes home for things like a need for a babysitter or Cassadee coming in.”

He doesn’t say anything, so I look at him. One hand is on the steering wheel, the other leaning against the door, fingers covering his mouth in thought. He’s facing the road, but I get the feeling he’s not really looking at it.

It should be a crime for anyone to look that attractive without trying.

“It must be hard,” he murmurs, pulling me from my thoughts.

I blink, caught off guard. “I wouldn’t say that.” I smile, picturing what the gang is doing now. Leon’s probably walking Nikki home. TJ’s probably home and hanging out with his dad, playing video games or something. Trent more than likely decided to go home and sleep, which is probably where Whit is after her big test. Calvin either went to another club or called one of the girls whose number he got earlier. “I have my friends.”

He nods, like he expected an answer like that. “You’re a strong girl, Vixen.”

That completely throws me for a loop. My head snaps to him, eyes wide. “What?”

He sends me a smirk. “Where to now?”

I look around, resisting the urge to blink at my surroundings. Oh, we’re at the stupid fork in the road. Where do we go from here again?

“Right,” I say. “Up the hill. On the left, they’ll be this—”

“Mansion?” he interrupts.

“Two-story house,” I correct, “with two overly-expensive cars parked on the road.”

He smirks. “You really like showing off, huh?”

I roll my eyes. “My family does. Didn’t I just explain this?”

“No. You said they leave you alone,” he points out.

Why do I have a feeling he changed the subject?

I sigh, letting it drop. “Why would I want people spreading more outrageous rumors about my wealth? Then I really will get attacked.”

“Fair,” he gives me.

Our conversation falls silent as he pulls up to my house.

“Thanks for the ride,” I say, opening the door.

“Don’t mention it,” he says. “Does this mean I’m forgiven?”

I purse my lips as I grab my bags. “Since Nikki and TJ don’t seem upset about it anymore, I guess... Yeah, you’re forgiven. This time.”

He smirks. “Good night, Vixen.” My name rumbles from deep in his chest, low, rich. I almost shiver.

“Uh, night,” I mutter, ignoring the sudden pounding in my chest.

He watches me as I get to the door, waiting until I have it open before driving off. As his car disappears into the night, I can’t tell if I’m thankful he’s gone or disappointed.

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