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"Maybe it would help to talk about it. Holding stuff in only makes things harder."
"What are you, like a psych major or something?" I joke.
He shrugs. "No, I'm undecided."
"What year are you?"
"That's a little late to be undecided," I say, wondering if he's lying. I retrieve another book off the cart, astonished that he can detour me from my worries. He's made me feel better and normal; my thoughts less heavy. That is all I want from life; a clear head and direction. "Don't people generally declare majors around their soph.o.m.ore year?"
He edges to the side as a guy ambles up the aisle, whistling an off-key tune. "What are you majoring in?"
I scoot the book into its correct place on the shelf. "General Studies."
"Isn't that about the same as undecided?" he accuses and captures my gaze. "It's like saying I can't make up my mind, so I'll just have a vague major to get by."
"Yeah, maybe," I mumble, deflated. He's struck a touchy subject. My future. My indecision. The fact that I never can envision myself doing anything.
His gaze flicks to my lips and he inhales slowly. "If you ever need to talk, you can come to me."
I eye him over. "Are you being serious?"
"As serious as I was when I said we should skip out on Astronomy and go for a road trip." A leisurely smile unfolds across his face and he sticks out his hand. "Here, give me your phone."
Confused beyond belief, I take my phone out of my pocket and give it to him. He swipes his finger across the screen to unlock it, pushes some b.u.t.tons and then hands it back to me, brushing his finger along the inside of my wrist. Even though it's probably accidental, my heart and mind connect in a lively dance that nearly sends my knees buckling.
"I'll see you later, Gemma." He winks at me before he reels on his heels and vanishes around the corner. I feel a tug inside my chest and for a second it feels like he's ripped my heart out and taken it with him. I feel disconnected as I read the notes section of my phone: 24432 Monarch Road Apt 34 Meet Aislin and me there at 9:00 pm tonight so we can finish the project.
I put my phone back into my pocket and begin putting books on the shelf, letting the puzzlement, antic.i.p.ation, and sheer loathing entwine inside me, like a tethered knot, until they form one single coherent emotion.
I remain numb the rest of the day; oblivious to anything except my work task. If someone approaches me with a question, I answer with as few words as possible. It's like I've died or traveled back in time to when I was unemotional and withdrawn; my body still moving, but my soul and spirit disconnected from each other.
The feeling lingers during the entire drive to Alex's place, which is in a nice area where all the buildings have a similar, newly-built look to them. His apartment is located at the farthest corner building, on the upper floor. It's snowing hard and by the time he opens the door, my hands and lips are numb, like my heart.
Except suddenly, it isn't.
The sight of him launches my body into a fit and a ma.s.sive volume of emotions surge through me, toward my heart, like they are racing. I'm just not sure which one will get there first: anger, pa.s.sion, sadness...
Alex has a serious case of bed-head, but it looks so s.e.xy and touchable. He also doesn't have a shirt on and his jeans hang low on his hips. His flawless skin is stretched over his solid, tight muscles and a black circle, trimmed by a golden ring of flames, is tattooed on his ribcage. As he raises his arms to brace his hands on the doorway, my gaze skims lower, my breath clouding out in front of my face.
"Are you going to come in?" he asks, pleased that I'm ogling him. "Or, just stand there and enjoy the view."
Oh dear G.o.d, oh h.e.l.l almighty. I've never experienced mortification, but I'm verging toward it at this moment; not quite there, but close. "I wasn't enjoying the view," I lie and not very well.
He rolls his eyes, then moves back and I walk inside, stomping snow off my boots before I step onto the carpet. He shuts the door behind me, picks up a plaid shirt off the back of the sofa, slips his arms through the sleeves and does up the b.u.t.tons; covering up those wonderful abs of his. "Aislin's not here yet."
I nod, glancing around at the bare white walls, the empty counters in the kitchen and the two chairs that surround the small, square table in the corner. There are boxes near the back of the room, a coffee table in the center, and a hallway leading to somewhere. That's it. His house is about as vacant as my old bedroom, which is sad.
"How long has it been since you moved in?" I ask, feeling the awkwardness filtering the air.
He shrugs as he heads for the refrigerator in the kitchen. "A few weeks ago or so."
I unzip my jacket and wander around gawking at the labels on the boxes: dishes, bedroom stuff. "Weapons?"
"It's a hobby."
A hobby for what? "That's an interesting hobby... why haven't you unpacked yet?"
He takes two cans of soda out of the fridge and kicks the door shut. "I'm used to living out of boxes."
Returning to the living room, he offers me a soda as I aim a questioning look at him. "How come?"
He sits down on the couch as he flicks the tab of the can. "When I was younger, my dad moved us around a lot, so it became easier to keep things packed. It's part of life now, I guess. Honestly, I'd have no idea what to do with stuff all over the house."
I nod as I tap my finger at the tab, internally cringing at the silence that settles in. "When's Aislin going to be here?"
He kicks his bare feet up on the table. "Her boss made her work late. She called me about thirty minutes ago and said she was going to be like an hour late."
"Oh." I take a sip of my soda, unable to think of a single word to say to him, but I've never been much of a conversational wizard, only on rare occasions.
"You can sit down." He pats the spot next to him on the couch. "I don't bite."
What if I want him to bite me? I blink the thought away, set my leather jacket on the back of the kitchen chair and join him on the sofa. The electricity scorches my skin, dispersing through my body and blood roars in my ears. I press the ice-cold soda can to my forehead, feeling like I'm on the verge of pa.s.sing out.
"Do you have a headache?" Alex tips his head back and takes a sip of his drink with his eyes on me the entire time. He moves the can away from his lips and observes me with curiosity. "I have some Tylenol in the cupboard."
I shake my head. "I'm fine. I'm just a little tired."
"Is it your nightmares? Are they keeping you up at night?" There's laughter in his tone.
"You know I really wish I wouldn't have told you that." I grimace and swallow a large mouthful of soda.
He sets his can down on the table. "Why not? I'm just trying to get you to smile. You don't do that a lot."
I shrug, flipping the tab until it snaps off. "Don't you think that at twenty-one years old, people shouldn't have nightmares? It seems like I should be pa.s.sed that?"
He shakes his head, takes the broken tab from my hand and discards it on the table. "Nah, nightmares and dreams last forever. It's part of life."
"Yeah, I guess." I hesitate. "Do you have them?"
"Have nightmares?" he asks with a quirk of his lips. "Not really, but I'm completely dead inside so nothing scares me."
I a.n.a.lyze his expression. It's one of pa.s.sivity and gives no detection on whether or not he is joking.
"I'm being serious," he says with a one-shouldered shrug. "It's how I've been forever, hence the reason why I'm a douche bag and rarely feel bad."
He's the most perplexing person I've ever met, besides myself. "You're not being a douche right now. In fact, you haven't been much of one the last few times I've been around you."
"Yeah, give me some time. It takes me a while to warm up." He is unreadable; there's an indifferent expression on his face, his mouth sits in a straight line, his eyes give nothing away. "I have this theory." He changes the subject as he scoots to the side, relocating closer to me on the couch. "About you."
I force down the ma.s.sive lump in my throat. "What kind of theory? Or do I not want to know?"
The c.o.c.ky gleam revisits his eyes and he stretches his arm along the back of the chair so it lies beside my head. "The kind where I think you're extremely innocent."
That is the last thing I expected to come out of his mouth. "Excuse me?"
"I can tell these things," he says as his fingers tangle through my hair. "It's a gift."
And Mr. s.e.xy Douche Bag returns. I withdraw my head away from his hand as the jolt of electricity webs my thoughts. "Just because you think something doesn't mean you have to say it out loud."
He grins haughtily and reaches for my hair again. "The simple fact that you can't even deny it, tells me I'm right."
"Don't touch me." I start to get to my feet, but his fingers spread over my thigh and he forces me down, kind of roughly.
He rotates to the side on his hip and his body conforms over me. "I'm not trying to make you mad." He kneads my thigh with his fingertips, causing an effervescent feeling to coil up between my thighs. I cross my legs to suppress a shudder as my head hits the armrest of the sofa. "Only to get to know you a little better."
I'm conflicted between slapping his hand away and letting his fingers sneak up my leg further. "You said you warm up." I can't take my eyes off his hand on my leg.
His eyebrows knit and his hand stops traveling upward. "What?"
"To being a douche." I smack his hand off my leg, even though it nearly kills me. Then I place my hands on his chest, noting the racing of his heart, and push him away from me so I can sit up. "But there was no warming up. You went from hot to cold in about two seconds."
He looks down at his hand as he flexes his fingers, appearing befuddled. "You know, you're nothing like what I expected." He elevates his chin and meets my eyes. "The first time I saw you, I expected you to be quiet and less... feisty."
Was that a compliment? My lips part to question, but his phone starts playing "Mad World" by Evergreen Terrace and my words drift off as he answers it, gets to his feet and heads down the hallway. I grab my coat, slip my arms through the sleeves, and zip it up. It's definitely time to go. a.s.signment or not, it's not a good thing to be here. He drives me crazy, in both really bad and really good ways, and it is emotionally unhealthy.
As I open the door, a below-zero breeze carries into the house, bl.u.s.tering snowflakes across the floor and against my cheeks. There's a snowstorm blowing in as usual. Tucking my lips underneath the collar of my coat, I start to step out.
"Gemma, wait," Alex calls out. I pause with one foot over the threshold, waiting for... something. "I want you to go somewhere with me."
I turn my head toward him and lower the collar away from my face. "Are you being serious?"
He's slipped a pair of boots on, but the laces are still undone. "I'll knock it off. You just get me all riled up for some reason." He lowers himself onto the edge of the coffee table and kicks his boot up on his knee to tie up the laces. "But I promise I'll be Mr. Nice Guy the entire time." He pauses, setting his foot back down on the ground and amus.e.m.e.nt sparkles in his eyes. "I cross my heart and hope to die."
An image presses up at the back of my mind and pops in my head like a burnt out light bulb.
"Cross my heart and hope to die," someone whispers.
A little girl with long brown hair spins circles in a field with her arms out. "Stick a needle in your eye?"
"Stick a needle in both eyes," the voice answers with laughter.
I flinch and then for no reason whatsoever say, "Stick a needle in your eye?"
I half expect him to return my question with the same response as in the memory, but all he does is stand up and nod. He grabs his coat off a hook in the wall and then moves past me, steps outside and gestures at me to follow.
"What about Aislin?" I ask as he locks up the door.
"She's actually going to meet us at the place." He puts the house key in his pocket, turns for the stairway, and zips up his jacket as snowflakes stick to his brown hair. "Although, I don't think we'll be getting any of our project done."
I trot down the stairs after him, holding onto the railing. "Why not?"
He reaches the bottom of the stairway, dusts the snow out of his hair, and glances over his shoulder at me. "Because we're going to a party."
I slam to a stop, slip on a patch of ice, and smack my elbow on the railing as I try to catch myself. Alex's hands snap out and his fingers enfold around my waist, saving me from a very painful fall. The sparks attempt to fire up against my skin, but the air is freezing and the sensation is m.u.f.fled.
"You're very accident p.r.o.ne." He releases me and tugs his hood over his head. "You need to relax. It's just a party and we're not even going there to join in. We just need to pick something up."
I follow him down the sidewalk, hiding my hands in my sleeves to keep them warm. "Then, why are you bringing me with you?"
He shrugs as he swerves to the left and heads toward the carport. "I find you entertaining to be around. You say things normal people wouldn't say." I frown and he shakes his head, smiling, as he adds, "It's a good thing so stop pouting."
It almost sounds like a compliment. Stunned, I shove all my reservations aside and follow him, drawn by an impulse that I have no control over, as if I'm a puppet. Or a lovesick girl. Either one isn't that flattering.
Alex drives a 1969 cherry-red Camaro with black leather on the inside. It's the s.e.xiest car I've ever laid eyes on and I'm not even a car person. It's embarra.s.sing to admit, but it kind of turns me on a little or maybe it's him driving the car that is getting my insides throbbing. That way sounds a lot better.
He drives fast, which is extremely dangerous for how icy the roads are, but, for some unknown reason, I trust him; somehow I know that he'll never let anything hurt me. I keep my seatbelt buckled, though, listening to the engine purr as I watch the curves of the road.
It's getting late, the sky is black, the snow is thick, and the headlights light up the way. The inside of the car smells like cologne and there is a hint of a lilac sent. I realize there are pressed flowers hanging from the rearview mirror. I reach up and spin them around, glancing over the browned edges and the crisp stems.
"I didn't picture you as a flower person," I tease, releasing the flowers and rotating in the seat to face him, drawing my knee up with me.
He has one hand resting comfortably on top of the steering wheel and the other is on the shifter. "You're funny." He flashes me a grin as he slows down for a very sharp corner. "Someone gave them to me."
"A girl someone?" I request casually as I shuffle through his playlist on the iPod.
He nods and I feel my heart sink in my chest, ram against the inside of my stomach, and rile up the motion of my blood. "Yeah, she gave them to me quite a while ago."
I feel like an idiot. This whole time I've been drooling over him and I never bothered to ask if he has a girlfriend. "Oh, sorry. It doesn't seem so bad then. To have them, I mean; especially if she means something to you."
He twists the string, securing the flowers to the mirror, his eyes glazing over as if he's floating back into a memory. "I should probably take them down."
"Why? Did you break up with the girl?" Could I be any more obvious?