“Are you for real right now?” I heard my best friend Penny ask me from the other side of the room. I stood up and turned to look at her with a frown.
“What are you talking about?” I asked as I shoved the same chunk of hair out of my eyes for the thousandth time with annoyance. It was times like these that I really wanted to just hack the crap off.
Penny looked at me dumbfounded. “Seriously? Ash! – You brought every book and DVD you own with you.” She gestured toward the boxes near her. “Not to mention, you brought what has to be every sheet, blanket and towel that your mom ever bought!” She declared as she pointed accusingly to the large moving boxes that were stacked up against the wall.
I opened my mouth to defend myself when she held up a hand to stop me. “Don’t. You have no excuse. There is no reason that you can give me to justify needing,” she paused and flipped through one box quickly, “twenty-two towels. That doesn’t include wash cloths.”
I glared at her through narrowed eyes.
“And don’t get me started on the clothes,” she continued.
I rolled my eyes and sighed. Great, it was time for one of the infamous Penelope Anne Sutters Lectures. This was probably #8: Aislinn always packs way too much shit. Whereas sometimes she let me off easy, this time the redhead let me have it with both barrels. I’ll admit, I stopped listening after the first forty-five seconds or so. I’m not entirely sure what and all she said, but I can guarantee that somewhere in it was that I was inconsiderate for not thinking about the people helping me move.
OK. She might have been right on that one. But just that one.
I crossed my arms and shifted my weight from one hip to the next as I waited her out. Given that she had been complaining since we started loading the vehicles up at six this morning, I knew we were going to be a minute. She’d had the whole trip from Quincy to Gainesville to stew and build up her justification for her lecture.
Fifteen minutes later I needed to pee, I was thirsty and now completely confused. At some point, obviously while I wasn’t paying attention, we had changed from Lecture #8 to something else. It was now something that dealt with how I expected her to hang out with my Douche Nozzle Brother Connor even after everything that happened.
That one had me straightening up with a head tilt as I dropped my hands to my sides. I was shocked and had no idea what that meant. “What?” I looked at her, torn between being confused and pissed off.
She started to respond when a head poked in through the doorway. “Hey! How’s it going, ladies?” The guy asked us in a cheery voice.
“Just peachy,” I muttered, barely sparing my boyfriend a glance. I took a slow breath when I saw him frown out of the corner of my eye and step into the room.
“Baby? What’s going on?”
I shrugged but kept my eyes on Penny. “I’m not sure. Penny here was just explaining to me how I seem to expect her to hang out with my brother,” I told him. He walked into the room a bit more.
“Is that so?”
I nodded. “I’m waiting for the rest of what should be a fascinating explanation.” I had no doubt that the sarcasm ran deep and true just then. In fact, I counted on it.
I looked at my best friend of seven years with a raised eyebrow. The fact that she would even say something like that bothered me more than I wanted to admit. I expected her to socialize with Connor? Hell! - I could barely tolerate him right now! After what he’d done three months prior that almost cost me the best thing in my life, he was pretty high up on my fecal roster. What’d he’d done to Penny was almost as bad.
Connor had hooked up with an old ‘friend’ of my boyfriend Teagan’s and a friend of hers. He’d brought them back to his and Teagan’s place. Things went X-rated and afterwards he passed out. Teagan was out of town at the time for a family emergency and had left his phone behind. His ex found the phone, took a suggestive photo of herself with her friend’s help and texted it to me from Teagan’s phone. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well.
Now things wouldn’t have been too bad, I’d have been ticked but over it, but Penny was involved, too. See, she’d had a crush on Connor from the day she had met him all those years ago. He’d always blown her off until him and Teagan had come home for Spring Break this year. It had been two years since he’d seen her and boy did he see her then! Come to find out they had started sort of seeing each other.
This meant the asshat had cheated on her.
Going through all of it in my head just pissed me off all over again. I narrowed my eyes and glowered at Penny. “So, are you going to finish explaining to me how I’ve ever given you that impression?”
She studied me with an angry frown and I could feel Teagan’s attention flipping between the two of us. It was like he was watching a ping pong match and had I not been so pissed off, I’d have probably laughed at him.
“You know what?” She threw her hands up in defeat. “I’m done. I have a five hour drive up to school. I’m going to head out, “she announced as she walked to the bed and picked up her bag. She dug through it until she found her keys then turned to me. “Maybe you do expect it, maybe you don’t, I don’t know. I just… I can’t be here.” She pursed her lips as she jingled the keys in her hand for a moment, seemingly deep in deep thought. She suddenly snapped her hand shut around the key ring and stepped forward, pulling me into a fierce hug.
I stood there in shock, arms hanging down by my sides before she pushed back from me. I tried to form words to ask her what was going on, but I could only open and close my mouth like a carp. After a second, I got myself under enough control that I could reach out and snag her arm. “What the hell was that about?”
“Nothing,” she stated as she pulled away. “I just wanted to give you a hug goodbye.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think so. That wasn’t a hug, bitch. That was strangling with affection,” I informed her. I heard a cough as Teagan tried unsuccessfully to smother a laugh and I shot him a glare. He quickly glanced down with an abashed look. I returned my attention back to Penny. “What’s going on?”
Penny’s gaze dropped to the floor for a moment before she looked back up. When she did my breath caught and I took a step toward her before I realized it. Her eyes were wet with tears. “I have to go, Aislinn. I can’t be here, OK? In case he… I just, I can’t. Please understand!”
I nodded my head with a jerk and she gave me a grateful smile before she walked over to Teagan. She reached up and gave him a hug and before anything else could be said, she was gone. Teagan walked over to me and pulled me into his side and gave me a kiss on the side of the head.
“I wanna hate him,” I murmured.
He gave me a squeeze and then whispered, “I know.”
I stood there at the sink lost in thought as I rinsed the dishes to go into the dishwasher. Being at Teagan and Connor’s place caused me to sit and dwell on everything that had happened. I found myself playing the earlier incident with Penny over and over in my head. Did I somehow give her the impression that I wanted her to make nice with Connor? The instant the thought entered my head, I dismissed it. I loved him, but I could barely stand to look at him at the moment.
I had just closed the door to the washer, was still bent down, when I felt a warm, hard body press against mine. I stood up as strong arms slipped around my waist and pulled me tight back against a well-muscled chest and stomach. My belly started doing little flip-flops as I felt the man behind me nudge my hair out of his way and bury his face into my neck. I closed my eyes as I leaned into him and enjoyed the close quiet that the moment held.
“I love you,” he murmured into my neck.
I smiled at the words I never got tired of hearing come from him. I turned around and looped my arms around his neck with a smile that he returned. My fingers played with at the nape of his neck, running through the short silken strands casually. His eyes began to darken to the color of stormy skies and a shiver worked through me.
When his eyes changed like that, it always meant that things were about to get interesting.
I bit my lip to hold back a gasp when the hands that he’d had clasped at the small of my back loosened and slid down until they rested at the top of the swell my backside. We hadn’t spent much time alone over the summer, so the whole intimate making out thing was something that was still being learned along the way on my part. But the feelings that he could evoke with a touch even this simple made me wonder what more with him would feel like. Yet another shiver worked its way through me at that thought and I bit my lip harder to keep quiet.
“Christ, Aislinn,” he groaned. “I told you not to do that!” He muttered as he brought a hand around and used a thumb to gently pry my lip from between my teeth. I blushed as he watched his thumb stroke the abused flush before he licked his lips and suddenly his lips were molded to mine.
All thought abilities that I might have at one time possessed went out the window at that point. The firm smoothness of his mouth on mine and his arms pulling me tight to his hard body rendered me an idiot that primordial ooze would have had more intelligence over. Just then I felt something against the small of my back and that’s when I realized he’d back me up to the counter. My breath caught when he suddenly lifted me to sit on the edge before he stepped close between my legs and crashed his mouth back to mine.
The kiss was hot and wet. Our breaths came out in loud pants when we would separate long enough to suck in a lungful of air. I was wrapped as tightly around him as I could be short of being absorbed into him. My legs were tight around his lean waist and arms and hands clutched his hair and shoulders in frantic need. His grip on me was just as desperate.
Teagan moved a hand slowly up my side until his thumb brushed the underside of my breast. The sensation pulled a gasping moan from me that had him growling in response. His mouth moved from mine to trace its way down to my neck as he bent me back over his arm that was wrapped around my waist. Caught up in the heat, I could only arch back more and whimper in need as his hand twisted and he cupped my breast with his palm.
“Teagan!” I gasped loudly as I tried desperately to pull him closer.
I could feel his lips pull into a smile against my neck as he placed open-mouthed kisses along it. He nipped the delicate skin under my ear then soothed the sting with his tongue. By now my hands had worked their way up under his shirt and I ran them over the smooth skin stretched taught over his well-defined back. At the feel of his tongue tracing my ear my hands clenched and the nails dug in. The noise that came from him was almost animalistic.
“What the fuck is this shit?”
Teagan and I sprang apart so quick that I almost fell off the counter. Luckily, he was still close enough that he was able to catch me. His eyes were full of laughter and I glared at him. I could feel the heat of my blush stealing across my face and down my neck. I licked my lips and winced when I felt how swollen they were. A quick glance at my boyfriend revealed him to be in a similar state. He winked at me and I couldn’t stop the grin. A throat being cleared pulled me back to the situation at hand.
“Care to explain, Aislinn?” Connor demanded with his arms crossed over his chest. He stood just inside the kitchen, glowering at me. Maybe it was because of Penny, but something about the way he stood there looking at me just pissed me off.
“No, Connor. I don’t care to explain.”
Connor’s eyes widened in surprise and Teagan’s head whipped around so fast it was a wonder it was stayed attached. I watched as my brother’s face shifted from confused shock to anger. There had been a point in our lives when I would have done anything not to see that look directed at me. That time had long passed, it seemed.
“What the hell has gotten into you, Ash?”
I just stood there, silent, but kept my eyes locked to his. I sensed Teagan shift closer to me and took comfort in his quiet support. I didn’t understand why, but I knew that what happened over the next few minutes, what I decided to do, would have a lasting impact on my life. Therefore, I refused to back down from Connor.
He narrowed his eyes as he studied me and it took everything in me not to squirm under his regard. Just when I was about to admit defeat and turn tail and run, he spoke and had me bristling in shocked outrage. “So,” he drawled, “I guess now that you’re eighteen and in college, you can just screw around anytime you like?”
My jaw dropped open in surprise, but he wasn’t done. “Well, whatever, you’re not doing it here in my house,” he said mildly.
“What the - ?” Teagan burst out. “Dude! It’s my house, too! I pay rent here!”
Connor shrugged. “Don’t care.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” I shouted. “You used to bring girls home all the time!” I pointed at him as I took a step toward him. “You have a lot of nerve, Connor Munroe! Where do you get off?”
I felt Teagan grab me by the arm and attempt to pull me back to him but I was too angry to care. “After everything you’ve done you’re going to have a problem with me making out with my boyfriend?” I demanded, incredulous at the whole situation. “Are you serious?”
Connor stared at me with an impassive look on his face for a long moment before he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He scrubbed his face then looked at Teagan. I glanced at him and saw that he was returning Connor’s look with a steady one of his own. I frowned in confusion at what I could tell was a silent exchange of words. My brother finally nodded and relaxed.
“You’re right, sis,” he told me in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry.”
I could only gape in disbelief when he then turned and left. As the front door closed, I felt Teagan come up behind me and slip his arms around my waist. I leaned back against his chest with a sigh and shook my head. “What the hell just happened?”
“I think,” he said as he placed a kiss against my temple, “that your brother just treated you like an adult.”
A giddy feeling of warmth welled up inside me. Was it possible? Could that be true? Had I finally made some headway toward breaking that childhood barrier with Connor? I looked at Teagan and smiled.
Anything was possible.
I looked at the other freshman running around the campus with their schedules and maps and felt sorry for them. Thanks to dating a final semester senior I knew the place like the back of my hand. Teagan had insisted on teaching me how to get to every class so that I’d have no problems. Now that I was faced with first day madness, I was more than grateful that he’d been so insistent. Not for the first time, I realized how lucky I was to have him in my life.
I had already suffered through my Calculus, Physics and English classes that day. All that was left was my language class. I had originally chosen Arabic to take since my major required a year of foreign language. A couple of week ago, however, an announcement was made that Russian was going to be offered for one year as a trial to see if anyone was interested. I had taken one glance over at Zver and immediately switched classes. Teagan would never admit it, but I could tell he’d been pleased about the change, too.
I made my way into the building where the class was held and fought my way through the unwashed masses. My nose wrinkled yet again at the differing, overpowering smells; too much perfume and cologne from the over-zealous freshmen and the smell of hangovers and stale cigarettes from everyone else. Once again, I found myself saying a silent thank you to my boyfriend who had prepared me for all of this and so I wasn’t a rocking, overwhelmed mess in a corner somewhere.
I found the class and made my way in, surprised that it was already half full. It was one of the standard college auditoriums and to see so many students in it caused me to misstep and stumble forward, almost falling down the steps face first. If it hadn’t been for the strong arm wrapped around my waist, I’d have been an embarrassed, injured mess down in front of the professor.
As it was, I was an embarrassed, rattled mess with some guy’s arm wrapped around me. I stiffened when it became apparent that said arm wasn’t moving, either. Only one person got to do this and he wasn’t in this class. I tapped the arm to get the owner’s attention. “Excuse me? Do you mind?”
“Nah, sugar,” a deep male southern drawl said from behind me. “I don’t mind at all.”
If possible, I stiffened more when the guy behind me tightened his hold on me and tried to pull me closer. “Why?” He asked low in my ear. “Do you?”
I narrowed my eyes and started to try and wiggle a hand under his arm to work my way out from it. “Yes! I do mind! Let me go.”
He chuckled but didn’t let go. I started to get myself worked up onto an ‘Aislinn Fit’ and from the looks of it, it was going to be a doozy. Just as I was on the verge of about to cause bodily harm, either to myself or him, the professor spoke up.
“Mr. Caldwell, do we have a problem here?” The professor asked from down at the podium, his voice thick with a Russian accent. I glanced at the man speaking and saw that he was glaring over my shoulder. I tossed a look over my shoulder and had to do a double take.
Mr. Caldwell was hot.
A part of me felt that I was being unfaithful by how attractive I thought he was. But the rational side of my brain reminded me that there wasn’t a red-blooded female on that campus that wouldn’t think he was hot. The smirk and twinkle in his eyes told me he knew it, too. He let me go and I stepped away, not taking my eyes from him.
He was tall, though not as tall as Teagan. He had the body build of someone who played football, probably a running back or wide receiver. He had light brown hair and brown eyes. His hair was cut so that it was a bit shaggy and just brushed his ears and he had a bit of scruff covering his jaw from not shaving that morning. His well-worn and washed out shirt and shorts definitely showcased the muscles his athletic body had and skin bronzed from the time spent outdoors completed the picture.
He was gorgeous. If I hadn’t had Teagan to compare him to, he’d easily have been the best looking guy I’d ever seen. The grin on his face showed he had the ego to match it all, too. All that aside though, he didn’t hold a candle to my boyfriend.
“What’s your name, gorgeous?”
Shocked laughter escaped as I stared at him. “Excuse me?”
He went to answer me when the professor informed us that class was starting. I scrambled around and found a seat in the general area of where I wanted to be and got myself situated. I was in the process of passing on the stack of papers that contained the class syllabus and weekly exercises when I looked beside me and groaned. At some point, Mr. Grabby had maneuvered himself into the empty seat beside mine. When he saw me glaring at him, he smiled sweetly, took the papers from me and passed them on. He then leaned toward me.
“You never thanked me, you know,” he said quietly.
I shot him a bewildered look. “For what?”
He gestured toward the steps with the papers in his hand. “I saved your life. You never thanked me.”
I stared at him blankly. Was he serious? “You didn’t save my life. I was never in any danger of dying,” I stated, completely ignoring the fact that the thought had flashed through my head at one point.
He hummed a disbelieving sound as he sat there and studied me. Without warning he straightened in his seat and said, “I’m Ryan. You are…?”
I eyed him for a moment, all of Teagan’s warnings racing through my head. However, something told me that avoiding him was a lesson in futility. I watched as he held a hand out for me to shake and with a resigned sigh I took it. “Aislinn. My name is Aislinn.”
Something told me I’d made a very, very bad decision just then.
I trudged up the steps to Teagan and Connor’s townhouse in complete exhaustion. Between my first day of classes and then working for five hours in the student center, I was ready to drop. I knew that college was going to be rough, but I had no idea that it was going to be like this. And this was only the first full day I’d had! I had no idea how I was going to last another seven semesters.
I opened the front door and smiled. Seated there as if in wait was one large mound of furry canine. As soon as I stepped through the entry and closed the door, Zver bounded to me in doggy glee. Even as tired as I was, his exuberant licks and wiggles had me laughing and giving him the rubs and pats that he loved so much.
“How was your first day?” I heard Teagan ask from the stairs. I looked up and my breath caught as my mouth went dry. He had obviously just gotten out of the shower as his hair was still damp and he had a towel tossed over a shoulder.
A naked shoulder.
He had no shirt on and the sweat pants that he wore rode low on his hips as he made his way down to me. I thanked the clothing gods for creating those just for him right then as I could see every ridged muscle of his abs and with no shirt, that gorgeous chest. As I stood there, taking all that beauty in, a thought occurred to me.
“Connor’s not here, is he?” I wondered out loud.
“Nope. Why?” Teagan responded with a smirk.
I shrugged and looked up at him from beneath my lashes. “Hmm, no reason.” I grinned. “Any idea when he’ll be back?”
His smirk widened. “A while.” He laughed when I suddenly let out a massive yawn. “But it doesn’t matter because we’re going upstairs and getting some sleep.”
I pouted but felt all the parts that had perked up at Teagan’s appearance give way to exhaustion again. I yawned and nodded, although I was incredibly disappointed. We had been dating for almost five months and had barely hit second base. I was beginning to wonder if things were ever going to progress. My thoughts must have shown, because he leaned down and gave me a long kiss before pulling me to him.
“It’s all about timing, Aislinn. It needs to be right and there needs to be a plenty of time. So, trust me. I’m watching and waiting, too,” he said with a grin and wink that had me blushing. With a chuckle, he took my hand and turned and started back up the stairs. I followed him, so tired I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached his room and he tugged me in.
I would give Teagan credit for one thing; he knew how to make me feel loved. After the whole Renee fiasco and I started coming and staying with him, he went out of his way to try to erase that memory. He rearranged his room, painted his walls, bought a new mattress and bed set… He said he wanted no reminders to taint the new memories of us. Now tell me, how could I not fall in love with that man all over again? That’s what I thought.
I had been so lost in my exhausted mental wanderings that I hadn’t realized that he’d somehow gotten my shoes off, taken my shorts off of me and was in the process of putting me into bed. I looked at him in confusion. “How?” I gestured to my pile of stuff by the dresser. “I didn’t…”
“I’m just that good,” he said with a wink. I met that statement with a silent stare as he slipped into the bed next to me. “You’re about to fall out, sweetheart. It wasn’t that hard.”
I went to respond but yawned again instead. I decided that sleep sounded like a much better option and curled in close to his warmth. I hummed a sound of content as he wrapped me secure to him and then brushed a kiss against my forehead.
“Goodnight, Aislinn. I love you.” I heard him whisper to me in the dark.
“I love you, too,” I murmured and that was the last thing I remember.