Hazed by Brittany Butler

I don’t belong here. That much is obvious. The steady thump in my ears accelerated as I took in the last slap in the face to my upbringing.
Hazed
Hazed by Brittany Butler
The adjacent porch advertised beer. A rusted truck harnessed with an improvised tow, bounced from the lot with a car. The entire scene playing before my face is the very one I spent my Sunday mornings hearing of. They crammed hatred into my ears like a scolding, hot branding iron. Don’t fall into that lifestyle. It’s the devil’s trap. Now I sit in my car, crumpled newspaper ads in my hand, staring at the bar, and anticipating my ticket to hell upon arrival. My father’s voice rings through my head. I can almost feel his hard glare and the stern shake of his head as I glance at the newspaper, then back at the building. “Am I sure?” I ask aloud, almost hoping someone would answer as they always did. But I know the answer to that; I’m more than sure. This job will allow me the freedom I so desperately crave. One short weekend stands in the way of my first semester in college. I kill my car, and my thighs peel from the leather seat as I climbed out. East Texas is baking again. The thermometer in my red, hand-me-down, Volkswagen reads over one hundred degrees. The grim bar sits in front of me with promises of money and freedom. Tugging on the hem of my shorts, I stood on the porch, inspecting the new angle. I fussed with my auburn hair, raking my fingers through the chipped ends before I opened the heavy wooden door. The inside is bright and not what I expected. Signs decorate the dark walls. The black marble bar top is shiny and clean and chairs are stacked neatly on the tables. It’s so…quiet. I’ve never seen the inside of a bar in the day, so I take my time looking it over. Well, if I’m being honest, I’ve never seen the inside of a bar, period. Unless you count movies, but that’s just how it is where I’m from. My hometown hosts less than a thousand people, allowing each of them access to personal information. Being the daughter of a preacher, I’m under a watchful eye. Members of the community spilled into my dad’s church every Sunday morning, they were either living by the bible or making sure you were. But all of that is about to change. I moved an hour away to Nacogdoches into a dorm on campus, and this job is the missing piece. Aside from holidays, I now have absolutely no reason to go back to that place—my own personal hell. “Taylor Thompson?” I turn to see a dumpy gentleman holding a clipboard. The lighting casts a glare on his bald head, his cheeks sag into a deep scowl. His handkerchief wipes down his face, removing the beads of sweat from his shiny forehead. “That’s me.” “Let’s do the interview in my office,” he says, turning from me. “Randy! Miller tap needs to be refilled!” A deep voice booms from the kitchen. I follow him into the cramped, unruly office located behind the kitchen. He takes a seat in a chair, motioning for me to take the other. He lifts a cup from the desk and pulls my application out from underneath. With a brush of the paper, he pulls glasses on and skims over the details. Clicking his tongue, he says, “I read over your application. Basically all I need is to confirm your availability.” He tosses the paper on the cluttered desk and leans back; folding his arms on his stomach, using the plump article as an armrest. His head leans down and peers at me above his glasses. “Afternoons during the week and free all weekend,” I say, sounding more like a robot than a peppy college student. He murmurs something inaudible as he presses his pen to the paper. “Can you start tomorrow?” He asks, writing the information on my application. “Yeah!” His face is neutral, not showing any sign of happiness, so I contain mine. He probably has dozens of students come and go, moving from job to job. But none of them are like me. Their parents are thrilled to hear the news of their employment, whereas my dad would disown me. He rises and sticks out his hand. “Driver’s license and social,” he says. With the authority in his bored voice, I yank the cards from my wallet and place them in his hand with a grin. He walks to the dated copying machine and it roars to life, when his thumb mashes the light green button; each copy is a stark protest. “What’s the best number to reach you?” He clicks the pen to his chest and scribbles the numbers down as I call them out to him. He sits and rolls over to the dusty filing cabinet. After rummaging around, he tosses me a black shirt. I hold it at arm’s length to inspect it. “Here’s the shirt you will need to wear every night. See you tomorrow,” he dismisses me. I thank him again and leave with a grin on my face. I walk through the kitchen, with a new purpose. I follow the path that I was led, when I reach the bar, it’s no longer empty. My legs seize movement as I watch the stranger as he hustles around the bar. I take a step to introduce myself to my new colleague, but then I stop and watch him. He shoves a box on the floor and stands with his back to me, polishing glasses. As if he senses me, he stops and turns. My eyes linger up his hard chest to find an amused face. I know my face heats but I don’t look away. I rack my brain thinking of something to say, anything at all. I look like a freaking creeper as I stand here, watching him. His dark brown hair is spiked, but not the cringe-worthy, gelled spike the boys at my school did. This is what I assume is straight out of the bed, sex hair. His intense eyes capture mine; I stood still, like an animal trapped in headlights. His high cheeks elevate at the end of his confident smile. He wore a white shirt, tattoos bellowing from his right sleeve. The light stubble lining his jaw was the perfect touch. “You got the job?” He asks. His face lights with a quick smile, his dimples peek at me. I immediately recognize that voice from before. “I did,” I say, afraid to elaborate anymore. The last thing I want to do is say the wrong thing and embarrass myself. Well, even more than I already have. “Awesome. I’m Hayze, the bartender. Are you going to ETU?” He wipes his hands on his jeans. His amber eyes hold mine, out of habit I shift uncomfortably. I notice a scar above his left eye and the tattoos on his wrist as he offers his hand. “I’m Taylor. Starting my first semester.” He walks from the bar and comes to my side. Bending down, he hands me a shirt and I look at him, confused. “You dropped this,” he says. “Oh, right, I was about to grab it…On my way out,” I say. I grab the shirt from his hand and back away from him with a wave. “See ya around, Taylor.” He smiles, showing off a row of perfect teeth. I walk off, exhaling when I reach the door. I always thought my high school boyfriend was the most handsome guy I would ever see, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. Hayze seemed…nice, but I know I should stay away from him. He’s exactly what the rebellious side of me thrives to go after, and that scares the shit out of me. I walk from the bar, shielding the blinding sun from my eyes. My red Jetta lights with excitement as I press the clicker. I slide in and point my car in the direction of my dorm. I find a parking space, and pull in while checking my time. Nine minutes, and that’s with all of the traffic lights that plague this college town. I grab my shirt and hug it to my chest while climbing from my car. The crowd is thick in the lobby; I shove through a group equipped with suitcases, and weeping parents as I walk to my dorm. Lea, my roommate, is lying on the bed when I enter. She snaps her head up and props on her elbows. Her baggy sleeves slide down her arm, revealing bright art work displayed on her forearms. I literally ran into her after freshman orientation. With my map shoved in my face, I slapped into her and spilled my coke down her shirt. Fast forward a week and I can still feel anxiety bubbling in my stomach as if I saw her for the first time. She wore a white tank, exposing her right arm that’s covered in a sleeve tattoo. Her jagged blonde bob has streaks of faded blue highlights. The sunlight caught her nose ring as she turned and smiled, I could almost hear my dad yelling for me to run, screaming in the opposing direction. Instead, I stuck my hand out and introduced myself. I was drawn like a light to her no nonsense, fuck off attitude. I learned over coffee that her roommate filed for a transfer. We hit it off and bunked together. She’s a returning sophomore, and so far, it’s working in my favor. I would be lost without her showing me around. Our small room is divided in the middle. My side holds a lavender comforter neatly tucked on my bed and a shag rug to the side. The few decorations I have are strategically placed without clutter. Lea’s side is utter chaos. Her bed is never made, blankets are tossed across it along with clothes, dirty and clean. Posters hang above her bed and her desk is where clothes come to die. “Any luck with the job search?” She smiles, her deep set dimples appear. “Yes! I got a job at my first interview!” “Awesome, which bar?” She asks, flipping her straight out the box, blonde bob to the side. “Mystic Tavern, have you been to that one?” I pull the strap of my purse from my shoulder and lay it on my desk. She snorts and I turn to see her watching me, amused. “Oh yeah, many times. I have a… friend that works there. We went to high school together.” “Who is it?” I pull my brows together and sit on my bed. “Hayze, he’s the bartender.” She stands and walks to her desk. With a flick of her arm, clothes scatter on the floor. Once she’s satisfied, she dumps the contents of her makeup bag on the dusty surface. My eyes widen. “Oh.” I considered telling her about my encounter with him, but after that I decide against it. I pull my bottom lip in my teeth, anxiously chewing. I hope he didn’t notice how weird I was being, and even more than that, I hope Lea doesn’t find out. The last thing I want is to have high school happen all over again. She laughs once. “Yup, that’s the friend. Good luck.” I ignore her, but the sinking feeling in my gut tells me she means more than the job. “Oh, your brother dropped that off!” She points to a box on my side of the cramped dorm. I grab the heavy box and throw it on my bed. It’s labeled as mine but I can’t place it. I frown, “Which brother?” “There’s more than one?” She asks, wagging her eyebrows. “Scott,” she muses when she sees I’m serious. “I have two brothers. Scott and Sean, they’re twins.” I shuffle through the cluttered box he dropped off. It consists of pictures and decorations I left home. When I spot a homecoming picture, I close it and shove it under the twin sized bed. “Are they sportin’ the bible belt, too?” She laughs as she dramatically lines her eyes with makeup. “Sean is, he’s my dad made over. Scott’s your best bet. But don’t come crying to me when he cheats.” I shove my finger in her direction. “Noted.” Her face twists in deep thought as she peers at me through the mirror hanging on the wall. “Hey, do you have a fake ID?” She asks and places her right hand on her hip, the other hand points at me through the mirror. “Uhh… What do you think?” “You’re getting’ one. Here, check this out.” She tosses me an ID. I catch it and hold it up to inspect it. “Looks so real,” I say, impressed. The picture is Lea, but the information, name included, is someone else. “So will yours. So, school starts Monday, what are we doing this weekend?” She asks. I hand the ID back to her and she tucks it safely in her wallet. “I start work tomorrow,” I say and her face falls into a frown. “I’ll fill you in on everything you missed.” With a stroke of gloss, she pops her lips and throws the container in her bag. “Gee thanks,” I say and roll my eyes. She laughs then disappears into the hallway. Voices flood the hallway as students pass my door, while I’m left bored and fending for myself on my first Friday night in the dorm. I didn’t leave my childhood home for this, next weekend I’m going out. **** The next day arrived at the bar by three. I was a little ambitious today; I spent extra time and curled my hair. After a coat of mascara and flirty, pink gloss, I left my car and walked into the bar. Randy, the manager, sits at the bar top, reading. The bar is dim and I scan the room, finding no one else in sight. I nudge a chair to get his attention. His head snaps up with a soft smile. “You’ll be with Shea tonight. She’s in the back,” he says. He quickly loses interests in me and sets his eyes to the book in front of him. “She doesn’t know where the back is.” Hayze walks up and motions for me. “C’mon Taylor. Lazy fucker,” he whispers and shakes his head. He shows me to the back, the walls are a grimy yellow, and the gray tiles are slick from water. A small, industrial kitchen is to my left, but Hayze leads me further. A tall girl, with wavy blonde hair, is pouring ice into the bin when we walk up. I look up to her impressed, she stands at least six foot tall. She stops, wipes her hand on her dark apron and offers her hand. “I’m Shea. You must be Taylor,” she says. Her bright green eyes shine as she speaks. Her smile is contagious. I can see her becoming a close friend. “That’s me. Thanks Hayze,” I say as he leaves me with Shea. He nods his head then disappears to the front. “Finally, another girl in this place, I’m training you tonight!” She places the cover over the ice bin and walks to the front. “First things first, the menu,” she says. She brings it over her mouth, peaking at me over the top. “Luckily, we don’t sell a lot of food. Just alcohol, and of course, that’s easy to memorize.” “Of course,” I say, trying to sound convincing. No one I’ve met, aside from Lea, knows the extent of my innocence. The only time I ever had a drink was when I visited my nana alone. She swore to me wine was good for her blood and insisted I had a drink with her. Of course, she could’ve stopped at one glass and not finished off the bottle. But I had fun with her, we shared moments that no one else in my family had with her. She always sent me off, making me promise to not tell my dad. Shea hands me a paper copy. I fold it into a perfect square and tuck it into my back pocket as she moves from the seat. She skips to the bar, stopping in front of two guys I don’t recognize. The taller one has long, black hair. The guy to his right is shorter, stockier with a buzzed head. “Eric! Jace! This is Taylor, our new waitress.” I shake their hands. Eric the tall one smiles and welcomes me, while Jace waves from a distance. “Well, that’s everyone,” she says, looking around the bar and shrugging. “Besides the cook, but you won’t see him ever.” “Really?” “Yep, we’re only open Thursday through Sunday.” “Doors open in thirty,” Hayze says. He walks through the bar holding plates of food. Shea’s twig of an arm loops through mine, dragging me to the table. “And this is what we do until doors open. Eat some. You can thank me later when your nerves are shot, but your stomach is full.” “Jesus, Shea, you’re gonna run her off before she starts,” Hayze says. His brown eyes find mine. A brief smile plays on his lips. My head dips and breaks our contact. I pop a chip in my mouth as my eyes dance across the bar. “I’ll be fine,” I assure them. “Do you go to ETU?” Shea asks. “My first semester. You?” I scoop a chip in the queso, checking the time. The doors open any minute and my stomach is in knots. “I’m a junior. I guess it’s show time.” We each grab a plate. Shea shows me where to dump dirty dishes. I follow her around like a lost puppy, mimicking her moves. Randy unlocks the large wooden doors, and dims the lights as music blares over the speakers. “You’re just going to shadow me this weekend. Don’t get overwhelmed, everything will be second nature to you in no time.” She smiles, her bright eyes watch me, nodding her head until I agree with her. A group of rowdy patrons walks in. Their collars are popped, hats are backwards—as I study them closer I realize they’re wearing the same outfit, with different colors. A second group of guys join them. They drag a table across the floor until it connects with the first, while they shout over each other, retelling the night before. With a side grin, Shea flicks her wrists, pointing to them and I follow her to the table. “There’s our girl,” one of them shouts. He stands and his arms circle around Shea. “This is Taylor, she’s our new waitress. Be nice to her.” “Taylor, I’m Corey. You should come to the house this weekend, back to school party.” The shortest of the squad offers his hand to me. He laughs as he stumbles and slurs. His eyebrows wag at me, his eyes droop with intoxication. “The house?” “They’re in a fraternity,” Shea explains, rolling her eyes. She takes a step back and motions for me to do the same. “So, whatcha say?” “Uhh, maybe,” I answer. I reach for the drink tray on the table, but he grabs my arm. Scowling, I jerk away from his hold, but it doesn’t faze him. He kicks his grin up a notch and steps closer. “Maybe? You can do better than that.” Something about the grin of a drunken man turns me off. The way they regard women as if they are already a done deal. I’ve never understood the attraction. My blood boils and I almost tell him off, but Shea comes to my rescue. “Corey, she said maybe—” Shea starts. “Fuck with her again and you’re out of here,” Hayze says, cutting her off. His arms are folded against his chest; he looks slightly amused. As if he knows the guy won’t push him. With wide eyes, I turn and storm to the back. Shea catches up with me. “Sorry, he’s really drunk. He shouldn’t even be in here. He won’t say anything again. Hayze doesn’t let drunk douchebags mess with us.” “You’re right, sorry. Let’s get back out there.” “You have nothing to be sorry about.” She bumps her shoulder into me until I grin. “This is probably the last place I should’ve applied. I have absolutely no experience with this kind of thing,” I say, motioning around the bar. “Hey, don’t talk like that! It’s your first night, and you’re doing great! It’ll get better and don’t worry about experience. This is college, you’ll leave here having experienced everything,” she laughs. “Gee, is that supposed to make me feel better?” She slings her thin arm around my neck and tows me into the bar. The loudest table stands and shove their chairs under the tables. The contact sounds like nails on a chalkboard. A couple of girls walk in; the shorter one tugs her shirt down and leans over the bar. Hayze walks over, leans against the bar with his elbows propped on the counter. His face is smooth as he speaks to her, he winks and walks off. “I’m gagging,” Shea tells me. “Does he really fall for that?” I nod in their direction. “Correction, do they really fall for that?” With my nose scrunched, I ask, “What do you mean?’ “He’s just bored, and well, I think they hope they’re the one. That they will be the one to change him, or at least, that’s what I think. Or maybe it’s the bad boy thing he has going for him. I can understand it I guess…We made out once, it was nothing. I have a boyfriend now, but I do understand the attraction.” I look back at the pair. The girl is smiling as she rubs his arm. “So, what does he do? Just like date them ‘til he’s tired of them?” She laughs while dragging me to a table. “No, he doesn’t date them. I’m pretty sure he’s tired of them before the night’s over.” “And you are friends with this guy?” “He’s a good guy. Ya know…If you don’t do that…” She points to the bar. I turn to see him lean over, with an amused grin, as the girl slips a folded napkin into his pocket. “He’s not going to call her,” Shea says. “So, why do they even bother?” “My point exactly! C’mon, let’s greet that table.” I shoot her a quizzical look and she shrugs. “Hey, I was intoxicated and it was one time!” With the worst behind me, the night runs smoothly. The regulars are helpful and promise I’ll catch on quickly. When my shift ends, I walk with Shea to my car past one in the morning. She’s still perky as she invites me out. I politely decline and slump to my car in exhaustion. The bar door opens again, Hayze steps out and walks to a car parked in the back. The girl from before is leaning against the car, arms crossed at her chest. I slam my car in gear to escape the scene I don’t want to witness. With brows raised, Hayze waves once as I peel out of the lot. CHAPTER TWO Today’s the day. The day I’ve been dreaming of since I realized my home life wasn’t normal. My first day of college, no one is standing over me, telling me in disgust to change my immodest clothing, or expressing distaste in my new friends. After spending my weekend working at the bar, I woke up this morning, threw on clothes and walked out to explore my new life as a normal student. “Where’s L. Mueller Science building?” I ask Lea. She grabs my schedule and map and sits on the steps and pats the pavement beside her. She pulls out a book, slides my map over it and begins marking. I check the time, hoping I get to class on time and she hands me the map. I tried to talk Lea into taking me for a tour of the campus yesterday but she insisted that it was lame. I even found a tour for freshman and she managed to talk me out of it. Apparently no one is organized in college. I’m mentally kicking myself for winging it, as she suggested, when the panic attack builds up in my body. “Okay, I labeled the buildings you’re going to.” I read over the purple pen marks. The four buildings I have classes in are circled. She also made extra notes about food and coffee. I glance at my schedule again, frowning. “This campus is huge! I have to walk from the science building to the math building in fifteen minutes?” I groan. I look at her in disbelief and she smirks. That’s the difference between Lea and me. I graduated high school with thirty other students; every classroom was in the same building down one long hall. Lea grew up in Nacogdoches and that high school is practically as big as the university. She smirks every time I complain about the track or crowds, reminding me how different I’m from most students on campus. She laughs, “It’s not as far as it looks.” I arch an eyebrow as she stands and pulls her backpack straps in place. “You could get a bike,” she says, pointing. I follow the end of her finger where a student pedaled by, dodging a crowd. “I bet he went to the student tour yesterday.” “I think I’ll pass. This place is packed.” I stare at the campus, noting the sea of students walking to class. Coeds grip their backpacks, laughing and joking as the fresh semester begins. Most of them are sporting purple with the college logo on it. “That’s how it is first day of each semester. Give it a couple of weeks, some will drop out, maybe get kicked out, and some will have to move back in with mommy and daddy after their second arrest.” “There’s a fun fact I didn’t see on their website,” I laugh. “Yeah, well, that’s what happens when sheltered kids come to college.” I swallow the lump in my throat. “Class is about to start. I should probably get going,” I say. She sees the look on my face and frowns. “Ah shit, I didn’t mean that. Well, I did but that won’t be you.” I nod reassuringly. But I can’t pass the uneasy feeling that settles in the pit of my stomach. Scott, my brother, teases me about this all the time. He tells me he sees a lot of himself in me. Out of my two brothers Scott is the college dropout, he has a good paying job and a home now, but he had hell getting there after his rebellious days in college. I wave and start walking, my eyes glued to the map. When a pen thumps me in the back, I scoop it up and look behind me. Shielding the sunlight from my eyes, I spot Lea on the stairs. “You’re going the wrong way! Meet me in the dining hall after algebra!” I turn, her finger is pointing to my left. I nod my head and follow in that direction. Throughout my walk I follow signs, and groups of students. My mom tried unsuccessfully to make me try a community college first, but I wasn’t having it. Today, I fully understand the phrase ‘culture shock.’ My shoulders sag in relief as I see the building in front of me. Following the signs, I find the room number within minutes. Students fill the desks, only the first row is empty. I duck my head as I slide into the first seat I find. Thankfully, no one knows who I am. No one announced the Virgin Mary entered the room as I walked in. No one knows my father, or my family. Sighing, I open my used Biology book. I fish out my pencil from my bag. “We don’t do anything on the first day. Hey, we met at Mystic this weekend!” I turn in my seat, finding a familiar girl sitting next to me, smiling. I cock my brow, impressed she remembers. She was drunk when she stumbled in the bar. “Oh, right. I’m Taylor.” “Shelby. This is your first semester?” She leans in, curiously. Her hair is pulled back, its platinum top shines as the light hits it, the bottom layer is black. “It is. You?” I humor her with a conversation. I can already tell this girl will drive me insane. My biggest pet peeve was always hearing someone judge people before they knew them. Look at me, a walking contradiction already. “No, I’m a sophomore. I failed this class the first time,” she says, giggling. I nod, deciding to leave my book and pencil on my desk. For all I know, she didn’t attend the first day, or any day. She taps her finger nails on the desk. The professor burst through the door, carrying a bag. He pulls out a stack of paper, counting the students on each row, he hands the first row the papers to pass back. “So, you work at Mystic?” She studies me. Her finger nails snake to the corner of her lips, she begins chewing intently. “Yeah, this was my first weekend,” I say, focusing my attention on the paper in front of me. “I would work for free to be near Hayze. He used to be in the fraternity I’m a sweetheart for. Just hearing his name, it’s like he was destined to be hot.” I cut my eyes over to her; her face is flushed as she talks about him. Sure he’s hot, but what is it about him that leaves this girl in a frenzy? She doesn’t get the hint; instead her high pitched voice trails on about her weekend and I nod and pretend to listen. I shift around, meeting the professor’s eyes; he points his finger to us and goes back to the class. “I’m professor Dunphy. You should each have the syllabus in front of you. This is your bible for the semester.” He picks up his textbook. “This is the book you should have, by next week. Bring pencils and paper to each class…” He flips through the syllabus. “Okay, I don’t care what you did over the summer, so that’s it for the day. I will see you all next class,” he says and claps once to dismiss class. Students holler and rise from their seats. I remain in mine until the group thins out. “Told ya so,” Shelby grins. I shove my book in my bag, toss my pencil in and sling the strap over my shoulder. I walk from the building, stopping beside a tree. The shade blocks the angry Texas sun from scorching my pale skin. Pulling out the map again, I find the math building and set off in that direction. I’m not so lucky in algebra. The professor didn’t believe in first day bliss. We finished chapter one and left with homework due next week. The students all seemed to know one another, and I sat at the front, avoiding them. I pull my map out, shielding my eyes and squinting. “What ya lookin’ for, freshman?” A deep voice startles me. I jump, sending the map soaring from my grip. Hayze laughs as he picks up the paper and hands it to me. “The dining hall. I’m meeting my roommate there.” I attempt to compose myself. I stow my paper in my backpack and he laughs and murmurs something about the map. “The dining hall? You sure?” He grimaces. “Yeah, that’s what she said.” “Follow me,” he says. “Uh, you don’t have to take me.” My feet remain grounded to the sidewalk. He turns with a smug grin that I’m certain girls give into. “I know I don’t,” he says. He shoves aviators on his face and walks beside me. His white t-shirt doesn’t leave much to the imagination. I can see the outline of his tattoos; they peek out of each sleeve and stop at his shoulder. Although he’s slim, his arms are defined, his chest sculpted, but in a natural way. Like he doesn’t give any effort to look the way he does. “How’s the first day going?” He asks. “Overwhelming. How’s yours?” “Same as always,” he says. I nod my head even though I don’t know what he means. I’m sure it’s easy for him to make friends, with girls anyway. At the same time there’s something about him that’s terrifying. He’s friendly, but there’s something that I can’t place, something that isn’t being said that keeps me two feet away from him right now. I’ve always studied people and caught onto things that no one else would’ve known. My dad scolded me as if it was a flaw when I was growing up. People have secrets and they have a right to keep them that way; I know this. But isn’t that why there are people like me, to help them? Everyone needs to be rescued, even if they aren’t aware of it themselves. My hand comes to my brow, shielding the sun as I glance around. The circular, one story building nestles between tall, rectangular buildings. Students crowd in the door, while some pack the lawn outside. I pick up my speed when I see a Frisbee whisk by. Hayze chuckles and holds the door open for me. “Your fine dining experience awaits you. You see your friend anywhere?” I scan the crowd. When a group of guys crouch at a table, I spot Lea’s blonde hair and point. “There she is.” Hayze runs his hand over his face and shakes his head. He mutters something that I didn’t catch. With one hand shoved in his pocket, he motions for me to lead the way. The dining hall reminds me of my high school cafeteria, with students shoving into one another as they shout above the person beside them. A smile is present on each student’s face. The fresh buzz is sure to wear off within a week. “Lea,” he says as we approach the table. “Oh my God! Hayze Clarke!” He slumps in the seat in front of her and motions for me to the take the seat next to him. “We’re friends,” she reminds me. “I found this one roaming around campus lost…with a map,” he says, grinning. Lea looks to him then me and laughs. “There’s no hope for her after all.” “Very funny,” I say. He tosses his glasses on the table. I can’t help but notice the dark circles outlining his eyes. He rubs them once, yawning. I catch Lea watching him, her mouth twists to the side as she thinks. I want to ask what’s wrong but I don’t. “What’s going on this week? We need to take this one out. She’s sheltered” she says, pointing in my direction. “You sure you wanna be her friend? She drinks a lot,” he laughs as he steals a fry from her plate. “I don’t drink a lot! You really think I drink too much?” “I don’t think you drink too little.” He clenches his teeth, pretending to be serious. I laugh and then look at him in disbelief. “You don’t drink?” He shakes his head. “Not that much. Drinking isn’t really my thing.” Lea looks at him and he catches her eyes for a second before dropping his gaze. “I’ll be right back,” I say. I follow the group of students in front of me and stand in the short line behind them. Windows line the back wall, sunlight bathes in the dining hall. Beyond the glass, the campus trees dance in the wind, with picnic tables strategically placed beneath them. As the line moves up, I scan the food before grabbing a burger and going back at the table. I slow down as I approach the table. Lea is leaned over, whispering. Her face is lined with concern; Hayze’s jaw is clenched. The way they treat each other makes me believe they are downplaying their relationship. I would guess they’re dating, but apparently Hayze hooks up with every girl on campus, so I know that can’t be it. As much as I want to ask them about it, I won’t. I’ll wait until I have a better relationship with them. “I said I’m fine, Lea,” he warns. I slide my tray on the table and fix my eyes on my food, ignoring their conversation. Lea is the first to look in my direction. “Bad timing?” I ask. “Perfect actually,” he says, glaring at Lea. Lea slaps her hands down on her lap, filling the space with a loud clasp. “I forgot to ask! How’d your first night go?” “It was fine.” “That tool you dated tried to hit on her,” Hayze says. I bite the ketchup packet with my front teeth and rip the side open as I listen to them bicker. Lea’s mouth twists to the side, she taps her chin, thinking. “You’ll have to be more specific,” she says. “Corey.’ She shrugs her shoulders as she finishes chewing. “He wasn’t that bad…When he wasn’t drinking” “Unfortunately for everyone around him, he drinks all the time,” he says. “Guess you have a point,” Lea says. Hayze opens his mouth to say something, but rolls his eyes instead. The conversation is light throughout lunch, but I catch Lea watching him with concern. As the students thin out of the room, we stand and walk toward the trash bins. I toss my food and stay ahead of them. Lea grabs onto my bag, tugging me backwards. “Let’s go out Wednesday!” I smile, knowing this is the opportunity I need. Lea’s face lights when I nod my head in agreement. Hayze groans, “Fine.” Twisting my watch around my arm, I see I’m running late for my last class. “I have to get to class.” “See you at the room, Tay,” Lea says. I set out to find the fine arts building. After ducking a flying football and bumping into a group of girls, I finally find the building. The front is covered with windows. I walk inside praying that I’ll be released early from my last class of the day. My phone vibrates from my pocket. I glance around the class, but the professor isn’t in sight. Seeing that it’s from Lea, I open the text. Her text says: Pool party at Hayze’s. Wanna come? I respond: Do I have a choice? No, you don’t. Her response comes through immediately and I laugh. A sporadic, graying man flies in the lecture hall with seconds to spare. He shuffles the syllabus to each student, speaking excitedly as he works. I sigh as he directs us to flip to chapter one, and I tell Lea that I’ll be late for the party. The lecture hall is packed with students. One more trails in, leaving me boxed between two people. I doodle important notes in my notebook, half an hour later we are dismissed. “There you are,” Lea says as I walk in our dorm. Her dress flips into a whirlwind as she storms around the room, tossing things in her bag. She pushes sun tan lotion and two large towels before yanking the reluctant zipper in its place. “Do you have a suit?” She asks, pointing to the straps of her bikini. I bite my bottom lip. I want to lie and say I don’t, but that will just give her a reason to loan me one of her bikinis. And that is the last thing I want. “Yeah, in the closet,” I say. “Perfect, put it on and let’s go,” she says, smiling. I step in the closet and change quickly; I tug on a purple cover up before walking out. “So, what exactly am I getting myself into?” We walk down the narrow hall, bumping into passing students. Lea kicks the front door open, juggling her bag as she walks. When the humidity fills my lungs, I toss my thick hair in a ponytail. “Hayze and his roommate have cookouts sometimes. Their apartment has a pretty awesome pool we hang out at,” she says. I point to my car in the parking lot. She dumps the heavy bag in the back and slides in the passenger seat. She flips the visor in my car, checking her appearance in the mirror. “The apartment complex is fine with parties?” I already know the answer before she has time to respond. They aren’t fine with it, but I get the feeling they don’t need permission. “They’ve never said no. His apartment is the closest one to campus. It’s basically only students, everything slides in that place.” I pull on the packed street and she points. “Pull on the far lane, you’re about to turn right. Okay, turn there and park in front of the office,” A gap in the tree line appears and a complex comes into my view. The complex is huge. Red bricks line the outside, while the face consists of white paneling. Six buildings are scattered around the office. As we get out and approach the office, I hear music and chatter. Lea takes the sidewalk leading to a black iron fence that sits between each building. A pool with dozens of students comes into sight. My eyes immediately fall on Hayze. He isn’t hard to miss. The group of girls surrounding him makes him an easy target. Although he speaks to them, he looks bored. His leg anxiously jerks up and down on the chair, and a beer rests on one of his knees. With his chest bare, I take in the dark lines etching across his shoulders. A stray line of roman numerals sits below his chest on his left side. “Want a beer?” A guy taps me on the shoulder with a canned beer, I jerk from the coolness. He looks at me apologetically but holds the beer in place. “No, thanks,” I say. He shrugs and tosses it to Lea’s willing hands. Lea pops the top of the beer as she walks around the pool, like a lost puppy, I follow closely behind. She drags a chair next to Hayze’s fan group and motions for me to sit. Hayze spots us for the first time. He sets his beer on the table and walks over. “You came,” he says, watching me. He sits between Lea and me. The pool is scattered with loud students. Some are in the pool but most are at the tables, each table is shaded by an umbrella. Lea brings the silver can to her mouth and disposes the rest of the drink in one gulp. “How was the first day?” Hayze asks me, and I notice his voice is rushed. His eyes dart around the group, the pool, and finally land on me. He slips sunglasses on and taps the arm of the chair. When I saw him today he was so relaxed and easy going, and now he’s erratic. “Err fine. How was yours?” “Good. I don’t know why the fuck I’m even drinking that,” he says, distracted. He tosses the almost full beer to the sidewalk, frowning. Lea picks it up and sets it back on the table while scowling. “Doesn’t have the same affect, does it?” A guy from across the table asks. “Nah, I need to get out of here man. What else is there to do?” He tugs his hand through his hair and sighs as he looks around the group. Lea frowns. “You seem a little hopped up on something, you okay?” “Christ, Lea, say that a little louder, I don’t think the cop across the pool heard you,” he pauses, “I’m fine, why wouldn’t I be?” Pulling off her sunglasses, she matches his glare. “I don’t know, you tell me.” “Just fucking drop it.” He runs a hand down his face. He seems distant from their fight, but Lea crosses her arms, obviously mad at the way he’s acting. A blonde from Hayze’s fan club stands and walks over to us. She makes a show of sitting in his lap and wrapping her arms around his neck. When she whispers in his ear, he tenses and grips her side. “Seriously Hayze? Get a room,” Lea says. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea,” the blonde says. The shrill of her voice makes me cringe. Her thin lips curve into a grin as her hands rub his arms. He pushes her from his lap and stands. “It’ll get me the fuck out of here.” Smiling with victory, she grabs her clothes, and links her hand with his. “Out of here? I thought you lived here?” “Darlin’ we’re not going back to my place.” She frowns. “I live too far. I don’t wanna wait that long.” He walks off and she follows. Like a train wreck I can’t tear my eyes from him, I look behind me. A brunette has joined. Hayze has his arms slung over their shoulders, leading them from the pool. “Are they…” I look to Lea in horror. “Yup. Welcome to the “Hayze show;” and thank god Joel isn’t here. They like feed off of each other,” she says, cringing. “Wow.” Lea laughs, “This is your first day of college. Just wait.” Her words slice through me like a dull knife. “And you’re okay with that?” I ask, daring. I know it’s a huge step, but their relationship is so odd to me. She looks at me and wrinkles her nose. “Yeah? Why wouldn’t I be?” She stares at me as if I grew two heads, so I shrug my shoulders and drop it. I peek over my shoulder, but the threesome is nowhere to be found. Lea drags her chair in the sun and slings her beer back. As she reaches for another, I glance around the remaining crowd. I kick my feet on the cooler in front of me; with my ankles crossed I let out a sigh and get comfortable. Chatter illuminates around me, they hash out the fresh semester, making promises of nights to come. A girl rises from the pool and saunters by me, flicking drops of water on my dress. Lea shifts in her seat and pokes my arm. “Speak of the devil.” I follow her gaze; the bikini clad girl is leaning into the iron fence, begging for the attention of the guy in front of her. The olive-skinned guy searches the pool, his hands grip the tip of the fence and with one swift movement he hops over the fence. As he draws near, he takes one last puff of his cigarette and tosses it behind him. His black hair is buzzed; his deep set black eyes grow colder with each step. I’m certain if I tried, I could pop the top of a beer on his cheek bones. “Lea,” he grumbles with disdain as he passes. She shrugs, I almost ask what that was about, but I decide against it. Lea has odd relationships with everyone aside from me. “You sure you don’t want a drink?” The guy from before asks. “Do you have anything that tastes better?” I look at the beer then to him, grimacing. I’ve only tried beer once but it left a lasting impression on me. It was absolutely disgusting. Lea chuckles at me. With a curl of his lips, he pulls a box from under the table. “Slap the tit!” “Uh, excuse me?” I watch him, waiting for him to apologize. He gestures to the table and I cock my eyebrow at him. “C’mon, Fish, don’t tell me you have never played! Get your ass up.” The box unfolds as his knife glides the edges. He dangles a dark bag in front of my face. “Fish is a high school thing, not college.” I rise from my seat and ignore his accusation altogether. I don’t want to get into my strict upbringing with a guy that’s wasted in broad daylight. “You’ve seriously never done this?” Lea asks and I roll my eyes. “What do you think?” “You didn’t sneak off to a party after your parents fell asleep?” She asks with a laugh. The guy looks down at me, amused. “I’m almost convinced that my dad never sleeps,” I say, sighing. He holds the bag over my head with his fingers on the dispenser. With wide eyes, I take a reluctant step back. “You haven’t even told me what I’m supposed to be doing!” “Drink,” he deadpans. “Here, I’ll show you,” Lea says, pushing her way in front of me. She twists the knob and braces for the wine to flow. The chair angled behind me slides across the pavement, Lea stops, wiping the back of her hand across her lips and stares at the guy behind me. He twists his blue hat around, shoving it over his eyes and lights up. With a deep inhale he holds the smoke in then turns to us. With a cough, smoke tumbles from his mouth. “What?” He croaks out, staring at Lea. “Amazing, just amazing. I can’t even come over without you guys pullin’ some stupid shit! Taylor, let’s get out of here.” “What’s wrong?” I ask, grabbing her elbow. “Lea’s just acting like a fucking saint. She gets on her kicks sometimes. Like she’s never lit one up with us,” he chuckles. “There are cops standing at the gate. Someone probably called in on you idiots,” Lea says, shoving her finger in their direction. He dips his shades down and snorts. “Those are security guards, big difference.” “Yeah? Well don’t call me when they arrest you for possession.” “Wouldn’t dream of it. For the record, you’d get off my back if knew what Hayze did earlier,” he laughs. “I honestly don’t want to know. Fucking idiots,” she says and storms away. It takes all the energy I can muster to match Lea’s sharp strides. With her fist balled at her side, she curses with each step. When we reach the car, Lea’s anger has somewhat dissolved. “What was that about?” I reluctantly ask. She grabs my door handle and slings it open. She lets out a long exhale, trying to calm down. “Just a bunch of careless assholes; some of these guys can be very persuasive, just be smart.” “Okay.” “Be careful. Especially the idiots you saw today,” she huffs. I crank my car and sit. With cool air blowing in my hair, I tap my fingers on the wheel, waiting for Lea to elaborate. My mind has come up with a million different scenarios. I want to ask if she’s talking about Hayze, and what her warning means, but I patiently wait. “You ready? I need to make a call when we get back.” Shifting into drive, I smile, “Just waiting on you.” CHAPTER THREE “Yeah…That outfit isn’t going to work.” Lea scans my body, tapping her chin and shaking her head. Frowning, I look in our full length mirror. My jeans are tight, and my gray Beatles shirt clings to me, flattering my unfortunate figure. Then I look at her, shaking my head. Her purple halter top ties at her neck and her black shorts look more like underwear. Against my better judgment I agreed to go shopping with her today. It was…interesting, definitely something to remember. She made countless suggestions and I politely declined. She shrugged her shoulders and bought the outfits I vetoed. I ended up buying two dresses, and she teased me calling them Sunday morning dresses, but they’re not something I would show up to church in, or anywhere else. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” She promised we were going to a laid back bar tonight, but her reluctance with my outfit makes me think that she was lying. “Oh, it’s perfect… For your Sunday family dinners! I would be showing my body off if I looked like you! Here, wear this,” she says, tossing clothes at me. I wrinkle my nose and stare blankly at her. “What? You’re way skinnier than I am.” “Guys don’t want skinny, they want this,” she says, gesturing her hand up my body. I cock my eyebrow and inspect the black dress. The cheap material is shiny, too shiny and almost rubbery. Sighing, I walk to the corner to change. The tight dress stretches over my curves. I never thought of myself as fat, but a size six is rare to find on this campus. I can definitely tell that rooming with her might be a problem if she fails to understand we’re different sizes. “It’s a little tight,” I say, sucking in my breath. “Said no one ever, its perfect,” she says, rolling her eyes. She shoves me in front of the mirror. It’s different; maybe if I were looking at someone else this would be sexy. As my eyes reach my face, I know this is wrong. I tug on the hem of the dress, willing it to grow in length. She pulls my ponytail, letting my auburn hair fall down my shoulders. She dramatically wipes her brow. “There, now I can take you to a bar.” She tugs on my hand, leading me to the hallway. We bump into a pair of girls taking a selfie. The more girls I see scattered on campus, the better I feel about my outfit. If all of us were in a group, I would be the most modestly dressed one. My dad’s voice pushes its way into my head, if everyone else was jumping off a cliff…But I shake that thought. Whatever makes me feel better, right? “We’re meeting Hayze at his house,” she says, fumbling for her keys in her satchel style bag. She clicks her keys and an older Honda Civic headlights blink at us. When I open the door, water bottles tumble to the ground. I toss books in the back, kick bottles to the side, making a path to sit down. She smiles apologetically. “Just push everything over,” she says, scrounging to help make room for me. “We are taking mine next time,” I laugh. She turns her radio down as she starts the car. She pulls from the parking garage and out into the busy streets. We’re caught at every red light, but she manages to entertain me with lip synching. “We’re here! His apartment is ground floor,” she says as she pulls into the near empty parking lot. I follow her into the dark hallway and under stairs. She stops at the apartment marked one thousand twenty-two and knocks. Hayze opens the door, a guy, with a low fitting hat, passes by us. “Thanks man,” he says. “No problem,” he says, looking over us. His eyes stop on me, dropping to my bare legs. His eyebrow arches. He lifts his arms, letting us pass under to get inside. “Lea, did you dress her? What a damn shame,” he shakes his head. “What was that guy doing here?” She asks. “He had to pick something up,” he says, grabbing his keys. “What did he get?” “You should think about changing your major, you would do the police department some good. Where are we going, ladies? Lea, so help me God, don’t say anything that has to do with a dance hall.” “The Alley. Cowboys or frat daddies, I guess that’s all that’s in this town,” she says. She walks out the door, looking back at us with impatience. “I thought Hayze was in a fraternity?” I laugh, hoping he doesn’t get mad at our teasing, but his face is amused. “My freshman year,” he says. “Hold on a sec, I need to put on gloss before we go,” Lea announces as she rushes into the bathroom. He stops walking and turns to me. “I didn’t mean that back there. You look beautiful. It just doesn’t seem like your style,” he smiles. “It wasn’t exactly my first choice.” I bite my lip, letting my eyes fall to my feet. He moves to my side; his fingers lift my chin. “Don’t let anyone try to change you,” he says. His warm brown eyes are sincere; they burn through my gaze. My face flushes with intensity. My eyes dart around the room, noticing the clock on the wall, I change the subject. “It’s really late, does she always go out this late?” I ask him and to my embarrassment, he laughs. “It’s nine,” he says, watching me with amusement. “Yeah, I know, I saw the clock. On the rare occasion I could go to the movies or somewhere with my boyfriend, we would leave at like six…I would already be in the bed,” I say, laughing at how I sound. “You have a boyfriend?” He asks, missing the point. His face is no longer playful, he watches me intently. I don’t know him very well, but I think he’s mad. “No, I did…He was the only person I hung out with so I was just using him as an example. I guess I should’ve said ex.” A long, awkward moment passes. I look down at my feet, kicking around the rug. “She’s taking a while in there,” I say. I look up and find him smirking at me. “Lea, you’re taking for-fucking-ever!” Lea breezes through the room and flips him off. She walks ahead of us, leaving me alone with Hayze. She walks up to an older black muscle car. Although I know nothing about cars, I stare with wide eyes at this one. “Sixty-nine Mustang, I fixed it up myself.” He taps the roof, grinning. Lea pushes the seat up, climbing into the back. I adjust the seat in its rightful place before sliding inside. “Don’t ask him about it, he won’t shut up,” she says. Despite Lea’s effort to change the subject, Hayze talks about the car during the drive. I acted like I knew what he was talking about and laughed at their bickering. After a short drive across town we pull up to the bar. “We should’ve taken your car, Lea,” Hayze groans. The parking lot is full. College students fill the lot, stumbling and packed into groups. “Mine’s going to get scratched.” “And you don’t care if mine gets scratched?” She pretends to be offended. I laugh at her, I know little about Lea, but I’m positive nothing can offend her. He drives to the back and pulls into a space with an empty slot beside us. I get out of the car, mindful of my new dress. I tug on it and test the heels before meeting Hayze and Lea. I’m already regretting my outfit choice. “Ready?” He asks. Lea loops her arm through mine and we walk up to the metal building. A covered sidewalk lines the front. People stager through the door in front of us, and Lea stops with a gasp. “I almost forgot,” she says. She unzips her purse and hands me a driver’s license. I look at it with amazement. My smiling face looks back at me, the laminated, rectangular card holds lies that promise me a good night. “Impressive,” I tell her. “All is right in the world.” She smiles and drags me into the bar. We stop at a tall bar with a man sitting behind it. Lea and Hayze hand him their ID’s, I lay mine on the table and look away when my nerves get the best of me. He lingers on mine, glancing between me and the license. I want to tell him the truth and apologize while running out the front door, but Lea shoots me a look, telling me to act cool. “Never seen you in here before,” he says in a gruff voice. “She’s new.” Lea smiles and leans over the bar, earning a smile from him. He nods, satisfied with her answer, and hands me the license back. I tuck it safely in my satchel. I look around, the bar is calm, and guys stand around holding beers and talking. Music blasts from a dark hallway. Lea grabs my hand and pulls me in that direction. Hayze reappears with a beer and two drinks for us. Lea grabs her drink while I stand, staring at the drink in his hand. He shakes it in front my face, smiling. “What’s wrong?” His smile falls. “Nothing.” I smile and grab the drink. I take a sip, frowning from the taste. I could tell them I’ve never been drunk, but tonight I decide to let it go. I came to this school searching for a new identity and I’m not spoiling that opportunity the first chance I get. He laughs, taking a swig of his beer. “What is it?” I ask, with narrow eyes. He shakes his head. “You’re cute.” Embarrassed, and refusing to be another one of his conquests, I look away. Lea comes to my rescue, her small hands wrap around my wrist, tugging me to the hallway and Hayze follows behind us. We walk through a room leading to the bathroom and end up in a dark room equipped with flashing lights and blaring music. I’m shoved from behind as someone makes their way to the bar. Students line up, yelling their drink orders with impatience. Lea leads us to a table, and she sets her drink down. “Welcome to the next four years of your life. Wanna dance?” “Not right now,” I say, hoping she won’t ask me again. Two guys walk up, one clasps Hayze on the shoulder, the other hands us each a shot of amber liquid. Lea picks hers up, tosses it back, and slams it to the table. “Your turn,” she says, smiling. I eye her skeptically. I sigh, pick up the small glass and bring to my mouth. I clamp my eyes shut as the liquid scorches down my throat. I set the glass down and swipe a tear from my eye before it falls. The first time must be the worst; Lea took it better than me. “You shouldn’t take drinks from strangers,” Hayze says, clearly displeased. His mouth presses into a hard line. I shrug my shoulders. “I thought he was your friend.” He laughs once without humor. “You definitely shouldn’t accept drinks from my friends.” He turns from me and walks away. Before he makes it to the hallway, two girls flock to his side. I fix my gaze on the table; the two guys are standing at the table talking to Lea. “This is Taylor. She works at Mystic now. That’s Mark and Derek,” she says, pointing to them. Mark, the one that handed me the shot, shakes my hand and moves to my side. “Want another drink?” “What kind of question is that?” Lea asks, laughing. He salutes her and returns within minutes, handing us both a drink. I look around the room for Hayze, when I realize what I’m doing, I stop. Lea turns her drinks up and slams it on the table. She looks to me, dancing. “Let’s go!” She nods to the dance floor. I finish my drink, smiling. Suddenly, it sounds like a good idea, I let her pull me to the floor. I watch her for a minute before I sway to the music. We dance one song after the other until she pulls me back to the table. Hayze is back, Shelby from class is by his side with a girl I haven’t met. Her red hair is pinned to the side and her makeup is caked on. Their clothes leave nothing to the imagination. Shelby waves at me with a forced smile. Red clutches Hayze’s arm possessively. Her glare makes me question their relationship. “The three of us should get out of here,” she says, not so subtly. “Nah, I’m with my friends.” He lifts his beer, pointing it our way. “You will have more fun with us,” she says, one last attempt to get him to leave with her. She looks at me, then to Lea, with narrow eyes. “He said no! Jesus! Leave with some self-respect,” Lea says. The table howls with laughter. “I’ll go with you,” Derek says through bouts of laughter. Red leaves, face flushed and pissed off. Shelby follows behind her, laughing at her friend. Hayze shrugs his shoulders, chuckling. Lea pounds her fist on the table to get their attention. “Let’s get out of here,” she says. Hayze and I agree. We leave the bar, searching for fun. **** “That was killer,” Shea yawns after our long shift. I know the menu like the back of my hand now. Tonight was my first night to be on my own, and I nailed it. Even our manager was impressed with how quickly I picked up on the routine. Randy locks the bar as we walk to our cars together. The night air is thick with humidity. The lone light dims, suggesting we might be left in the dark. Hayze catches my wrist, stopping me. Shea smiles knowingly and waves goodnight to us. His amber eyes dance around my face. “Wanna grab something to eat?” I check the time on my phone, it’s past two in the morning, but I don’t have class tomorrow. “Sure,” I say reluctantly. He steps ahead of me, opening the car door. “C’mon,” he says. “I can take my car.” I point to my car; my eyes search his smirking face. “Nope, get in. I’ll bring you back.” He motions for me to join him. I roll my eyes and slide into the passenger seat. He shuts the door and jogs over to his side. The car roars to life, the air blasts, Led Zeppelin pours through the speaker. He adjusts the knobs before turning to me. “What’s open this late?” I ask as he leaves the parking lot. I clasp the seatbelt and shift my body away from him, realizing I’m cramped in a small space with him. “You’ll see.” The car turns into the lot next to the bar, he points to the sign. The car turns right and a bright purple sign comes into sight. I laugh and cut my eyes at him. “Taco Bell?” “It’s amazing at 2 a.m.” “Sober?” I giggle, remembering stories of my friends staggering in here after a long night. After years of being sheltered I no longer have to live vicariously through them. He looks past me, thinking. “You may have a point.” Once inside, Hayze orders an insane amount of food. The waitress, taps on her screen, looking flushed. He walks ahead of me, choosing a booth in a corner. My face twists into disgust. I grab a scratchy, brown napkin and wipe the table off. I ignore the crumbs that scatter the floor. Hayze watches me and laughs. “How’s rooming with Lea?” “I clean her side, too,” I say. I look around the booth and floor, satisfied with my area I look at him. “What made you chose ETU?” “I wanted out of my house, but at the same time I wanted to be near my mom,” I explain, he nods his head like he understands me. He glances through the window, thinking. “You lived with your dad?” I shake my head. “No, I lived with both. My mom and I get along. My dad’s a preacher. To say he was strict would be the understatement of the year.” “Daddy issues, nice, my plan will work,” he chuckles. I gasp, ball up a napkin and toss it at him; he swats it away. “Asshole!” I say and laugh. “Now you’re cussing? What would your dad have to say about that? Sorry, I’ll stop,” he says after he sees my expression. He holds his hands up, feigning innocence. “So what’s your major?” He changes the subject. “Undecided. I know. Typical freshman answer,” I say, between bites, and he smiles. “No, business it the typical freshman answer.” “What about you?” I ask. He snaps his head to the side, eyebrows arched. I follow his gaze to the window, a couple stands outside in a heated argument. The guy sees us, grabs his girlfriend’s arm and shoves her in the car. I shake my head, tossing my food down. “I’ll never understand that…” “What?” He asks. I watch the car pull from the lot. Hayze balls up his trash, tossing it on the tray in front of us. “Being in a controlling relationship,” I say, watching the taillights in disgust. His brows pull together. “We don’t know what that was about. They were probably drunk and he didn’t want her to get arrested. Cops are everywhere in this town,” he says, jerking his thumb to the vacant parking space. “You’re right.” His amber eyes hold mine, his smile is sincere. I look down, bringing the straw to my lips. The truth, is I know more about control than I’d like to admit. Control ran my life, my mom’s life; that’s the difference between my mom and me, the girl from the parking lot and me—I packed the necessities and left it behind. I’ll never be in their shoes. Yawning, I check my phone. “It’s past three.” He takes the cue, standing, he offers me his hand. When we reach the car I slide into the passenger side. I cock my eyebrow, studying him. “You didn’t answer any of my questions,” I say. “I know,” he says, matter of fact. He grins, with boyish charm. He props his hand behind my seat, turning as he backs out. “Huh uh, you aren’t getting off that easy.” He laughs, “What do you wanna know?” “The basics, where are you from? Any brothers or sisters?” I shrug, looking out at the vacant street. “Just the things you asked me. It’s only fair.” “I’m from here, and I’m not an only child.” He doesn’t look at me, but I can tell he’s amused. “You have the rare talent of answering a question without actually answering the question. I haven’t seen someone do that since my dad.” He smirks, “Comparing me to a preacher? Can’t say that’s ever happened.” “You won’t forget that, will you?” I ask. Chuckling, he shakes his head no, leaving me wondering if I shouln’t have told him about my family. “What about your parents?” I ask. “I lived with my mom. I don’t see either much.” “Why? I thought you said you’re from here. Did they move or something?” He shrugs. “No, I’m just busy. My mom understands.” “And your dad?” His knuckles turn white as he grips the steering wheel. He laughs once without humor. “I’m sure he’d like to see me more.” The rest of the drive is silent. He slings the car in next to mine. I turn to thank him and he has the same idea, his face is inches from mine. I jerk away, push the door open, and climb out. “I had a good time, thanks for dinner.” “Taylor, wait!” I turn, finding him standing, his arms propped on the top of the car. “I’m not going to kiss you. Unless, of course, you ask me to,” he smirks. “Trust me, I won’t.” He chuckles, shaking his head. “Goodnight Taylor.” **** Like clockwork Lea strolls on the patio with no time to spare. The strap of her purse slides down her arm and lands on the table with a loud thump. She huffs and places her coffee in front of her as she slides into the chair. Over the last few days we have an unspoken agreement to meet here for coffee before work. We hash out the day and get everything off our chest before we go in. It’s coffee therapy. “Stressful day?” I ask. “It’s like every professor ganged up on me and decided it was ‘be an asshole to Lea week.’ Seriously, you should see how many projects I have!” “What’s your work schedule like this week?” I cringe, taking in her packed notebook. Her notes are scattered everywhere; she’s unorganized and that only makes it worse. “Ugh, don’t even ask,” she says, rolling her eyes. “If you need help let me know. My classes are pretty boring and I basically only work on weekends.” I take the straw in my mouth and welcome the sweet, cool taste. She smiles, sets down her phone and looks me in the eyes. “You are awesome. So, Shea told me Hayze isn’t picking up girls at the bar anymore, what’s up with that?” With an eyebrow raised, I eye her skeptically. “I honestly haven’t noticed. Maybe he picks them up somewhere else.” “No, I don’t think that’s it,” she says, shaking her head. “She said you guys left together one night.” “We just went to eat,” I explain. I still don’t know what’s going on between the two of them so I didn’t mention it. It was innocent other than the almost kiss we had. Something about the way she watches me is amused with curiosity. “Maybe that’s why he’s slowing down,” she says. Her smile is smug as she brings the cup to her mouth and takes a fast sip. She slams it on the table and wipes her mouth. “Fuck, that’s hot!” I chuckle, “That’s what you get.” “You can’t blame me for being curious,” she says in defense. “I’m not the only one, ya know? I heard some girl dragging his name through the mud in my last class, another girl saw him with you, just curious,” she shrugs. “This place is worse than high school!” My jaw drops and I look at her in horror. “Not everyone. Just some groups. Stay away from the sorority girls and you will be fine.” I nod. “And most of the frat boys,” she says after taking some time to think. “Anyone else?” I laugh. She taps her phone then tosses it in her bag. “I’ll make you a burn book when I get off work,” she says with sarcasm dripping from her voice. “Very funny,” I say. I roll up a clean napkin and toss it at her. “You know Mean Girls? You mean you were actually allowed to watch that movie, preacher’s daughter?” She laughs. “I watched it at a friend’s,” I deadpan. “You rebel, you. Hey, I’ve gotta run. I have to be at work in an hour,” she says. “Oh, me too,” I cringe. With a quick change of clothes, I’m in my car and driving to work. I arrive early; the only car in the lot is Shea’s. My phone chimes with a text from my mom, but I ignore it until I figure out the best way to break the news to her. She isn’t going to be thrilled to find out I won’t make it to Sunday dinners because of my new job. “Hey Tay, we’re short tonight, it’s going to be crazy!” Shea calls to me. “Lovely,” I groan. “But, hey, more tips for us, right?” She smiles and disappears behind the bar. My phone rings; I slide it from my pocket, sigh and answer, “Hey, mom.” “Hey, Tater Bug how’s your first week?” I roll my eyes. At eighteen I’m still referred to as my childhood nickname. I’ve tried to explain that to her but she waves me off, saying she’ll call me that for the rest of my life. “It’s good. How are you? Empty nest syndrome kicking in?” I laugh. I balance the phone between my shoulder and face, attempting to fill the ice bin before we get busy. “Scott won’t allow it,” she says, laughing. I smile at that sound; it’s one that I miss every day. Her calm voice and soothing laugh got me through the worst times of my life. I laugh, “I think Scott’s more upset about me moving than anyone else.” “Hey, Taylor, we need ya out here. Randy opened the flood gates!” Shea calls. “Mom, I’m at work I gotta go,” I say. “One quick thing! Are you coming to Sunday dinner?” I cringe. “No, I work all weekend.” “Oh, okay. I’ll let your dad know,” she says, the spark missing from her voice. “I’ll have dinner with you this week, promise. Love you, mom.” “Love you, too baby.” I end the call and shove my phone in my jean pocket. As I round the corner I see Shea was right, the bar is packed. Hayze is behind the bar; Jace and Eric are in an angry rush with him. They pump out drinks, trading money and yelling over the crowd. “Get that group’s drink order!” Shea yells. The group of co-eds patiently waits to be served. I rush to their table, smiling. “What can I get y’all?” I ask. “Four Miller taps,” the guy near me says. “Two gin and tonics,” the girl clutching his arm says. I scribble the drinks down and shove my way through the crowd. Hayze walks to me, leaning over the counter. “Whatcha got?” He smiles, taking the paper from me. He reads over my messy drink order. He walks to the tap, pours my drinks and mixes the gin and tonics. I arch an eyebrow as he walks from behind the bar. He slips two drinks to me and carries the others to the table. “Uhh, thanks but you don’t have to do my job,” I say, feeling uncomfortable with his help. I don’t want people talking more than they already are. I look around, searching for Shea, but she’s busy with another table. I hope she doesn’t see us and tell Lea, the last thing I want is her teasing me about Hayze. “You’re new and I wanna help,” he says, shrugging his shoulders innocently. “Do you do that with everyone?” I ask, eyeing him closely. He shakes his head. I roll my eyes and blow the fallen hair from my face. He shoves his fists in his ripped jeans. He tosses me a sheepish grin as he walks back to the bar. I look around the bar, finding new groups to wait on. “Got it, Tay?” Shea asks. I nod my head as I wipe down a table. A group of guy’s stager to the clean table. I sigh when I see Corey is among the group. He loops his arm over my shoulder, spilling his drink on me. I laugh without humor, pull his arm over my head and shove it to him. “What will it be guys?” I ask, forcing a smile. I won’t let this guy ruin my night. “Well, that depends on when you get off.” Corey says. The table hoots with laughter, the guy leans back on a stool. I hold my hands in front of me, stopping him. “Okay, listen dude, if the jokes stop, I’ll wait on you. If you can’t help yourself, one the guys at the bar can help you. Now, what can I get you to drink?” I raise my brows, waiting for a response. They all look at me as if I grew two heads. “Ouch,” the guy in the back says. They laugh, and give me their orders. I walk in the direction of the bar, ripping the old pages from my pad. When I bump into someone, I jolt, looking up. Hayze stands, arms crossed. “Are they giving you problems?” He asks. I follow his gaze to the rowdy guys. I laugh at him, but he doesn’t look amused. “Nah, I handled it,” I say. “Lea dated one of the douchebags. If they give you any problems, come find me.” I laugh, feeling weird that he’s offering so much help. “You don’t have to protect me. I have two older brothers that do that.” “Yeah, well, they are not here right now. I mean it,” he says. I walk by him, brushing his shoulder. I find Eric working the bar top. Shea and Jace pace the room, retrieving empty glasses. Eric strides the bar, handing a beer to a waiting hand before grabbing my ticket. He pops the tops off the beer and hands them to me. “Thanks,” I say. “Let me take these. Check on the table next to them,” Hayze says. He grabs the drinks from my hands and walks off before I can protest. “Hayze!” He strides to the table as he sets the drinks down. He leans in to speak with them. I seethe, balling my fist at my sides. I walk to my second table. “You guys okay?” I ask the table close to mine. They answer yes in unison. I turn, stomping toward Hayze, but Shea steps in front of me. “You look pissed, everything okay?” She asks, “Peachy,” I say, glancing around her at Hayze. She turns, sees him and smiles. Her eyes dance between us. I’m sure she can feel the tension growing between us. “I need details later,” she says and walks away. Last call booms over the speaker, the crowd groans in protest. They shout over one another, searching for a party. As everyone pays their tabs, the last straggler walks out. Randy locks the door behind him. I find a clean table and collapse in the booth. I lay my tips out and start to count. “Wahoo, three-hundred-dollar night,” Shea yells. “How’d you do?” Hayze asks, sitting next to me. “You should know! You watched me all night,” I fire back. “I won’t apologize,” he says. Shea walks up and sits on the opposite side of us. She looks to Hayze, then back to me. “You did so good, Tay!” “Thanks,” I murmur. Hayze stands, shoves the chair under the table and walks off. My shoulders slump as I let out a long, shaky breath. I prop my elbows on the table, letting my face fall into my hands. I fight sleep, knowing I have an hour of cleaning up. “So, what’s this?” She asks and jerks her finger to me and in the direction Hayze walked in. Her eyes light with excitement. “Uhh, nothing, he’s insane,” I say, waving her off. She laughs, pushing herself from the table. “That’s too bad. I thought for once he might be with a good girl.” “No, no, no,” I say, shaking my head. “We are friends. Well…We were, but he’s acting so crazy I don’t even know if I want to be his friend at this point,” I laugh. “That boy doesn’t do friends, not with females anyway. They’re either fucking him or getting on his nerves.” She laughs, grabbing a rag from a bucket. “I thought maybe you would break that cycle.” “We are just friends,” I repeat. She smiles, arching her eyebrow as she wipes down the bar top. Hayze walks in, glancing between our exchange, brows furrowed. In a rush to leave the conversation, I turn and pick up the broom. The faster I clean, the faster I can get out of here. CHAPTER FOUR Lea drops her tray in front of me. I twist my mouth in disgust at her greasy food. She insisted on one of the many fast food places on campus. Two tables over Hayze sits by a Spanish guy who is surrounded by a sea of girls. “Who’s that by Hayze?” I ask, realizing it’s the guy from the pool. Lea looks back, dips a fry in ketchup and speaks with her mouth full of food. “Joel, his roommate, if you are talking about the guy…I don’t know the girls. They probably followed them out of bed this morning.” I glance in their direction, this time Hayze sees me. His arm rises and waves once as he smiles. I wave quickly and focus my attention on my table. I squeeze dressing from the package, spreading it on my salad. A chair slides next to me, my eyes snap up. “What are we doing tonight?” Hayze asks, sitting next to me. My face falls when he asks. I’ve been trying to keep my plans at the back of my mind all day. After my mom conversation with my mom last night, I texted her this morning and said I would come for dinner tonight. “Did you just ‘we’ us?” Lea asks, laughing between bites. He ignores her, looking to me. “I promised my mom I would go to dinner tonight,” I tell them. I frown as I say it. The last thing I want to do is spend my night explaining my new life to my dad. He won’t approve of anything, especially my job. Not that I need his approval, but I know he makes it hard on my mom, he thinks I tell her everything. “Damn, you’re driving back tonight?” Hayze asks, concerned. “Yeah, it’s not that far. I drove it all the time when I actually got out. Nothing’s in that small town,” I complain. Lea watches me, something flashes in her eyes. “Want me to come with?” “You would do that?” I ask and cock my eyebrow. “Uh, yeah,” she says. “That’d be awesome. I’m leaving after my next class. Is that okay?” I bite my lip, hoping she doesn’t back out. I know my dad will have negative things to say about her but I could use a friend there for support. “Yup, we will meet at the dorm and leave from there,” she says and I smile at her. “Well, I’m glad I could help you guys plan your night,” Hayze laughs, stealing a fry from Lea’s plate. She slaps his hand away. “Go back to your fan club,” she says. “That’s actually not a bad idea.” He chuckles, steals another fry, moving quickly from her reach. He walks away without another word. I look over, finding his groupies watching Lea and me. Their hard stares switch to whispers and giggles. Lea flips them off and I watch her, horrified. I dump my food and leave her to get to my last class on time. My last class ends in a rush, and I regret agreeing to see my family. Lea waits in front of the dorms, I find her on the phone, kicking rocks around as she talks. When she senses me, her jagged bob snaps up, revealing her smiling face. Her nose ring glimmers in the sunlight, her wrist tattoos show themselves as she holds up her finger. “Ready?” She asks, walking to my side, she tucks her phone in her pocket. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” I murmur. We walk to the parking garage and I hang behind her, thinking of an excuse to get out of this. “Why did you agree to it?” She asks as we slide into my Jetta. “For my mom,” I sigh, cranking my car to life. “It’s always for her.” “Well, what’s the occasion?” She yanks her seatbelt on as we turn on the narrow road leading me home. “We usually have family dinner every Sunday after church, but I can’t do that anymore. My mom called last night to tell me Sean is bringing a girl to meet us.” I roll my eyes. I leave out the fact that I’ll be shredded in front of her. My dad will lose his shit when he finds out where I’m working and what I’m doing. I have no intention of holding anything from him tonight. “Sean’s your dad’s spawn, right?” “Yes,” I say, knowing where she’s going with this. I cut my eyes at her, but I already warned her about Scott. The rest is up to her. “So, Scott’s the one I’m asking out tonight?” “Lea!” I shoot her a quick, displeased look before returning my eyes to the road. “Okay, Okay, I’ll wait ‘til the second meeting.” She laughs. “My dad’s kind of an asshole…” I finally tell her. I’m terrified to take her home with me but at the same time I’m happy she’s here. I know my dad will be rude to her and he’ll embarrass me. I don’t know why he insists that we meet up every week. Maybe it’s to remind us that he’s in control, and no matter how hard we try, he always will be. Even if we never talk to him again, he’ll know deep down that he ruined each of us. And I think that’s satisfying to him. “I know. So is mine,” she says. She looks at me, a sad expression on her face. “Whatever happens, whatever he says, he’s wrong. What’s up with Hayze is he like a man whore or something?” I ask, changing the subject. I’ve been dying to know what’s going on and now that we’re locked in my car for a while, it’s the perfect time to drag information from her. She laughs, “No more than any other college guy.” She chews on her bottom lip, thinking. “Well, maybe. He’s a good lookin’ guy and has the whole bad boy thing going for him. Girls get all hot and bothered by that, put out and then he’s bored with them.” She shrugs her shoulders as if that’s normal. I nod, soaking in the words. She cuts her eyes at me, amused, “Why do you ask?” “No reason,” I say, shaking my head. I feel her eyes glued to my face but I refuse to look at her. The long drive shifts as she cranks up the radio. She lifts my sprits with dance impersonations and lip synching. With the city limits sign in my rearview, I let out a long shaky breath. “This is it,” I tell her. “Slug Bug!” Her fist connects to my arm, making me jerk the wheel. My jaw drops, she doubles over in laughter, holding her stomach as she looks to me. “You have never heard of that game?” “Yes, I have! But I didn’t expect you to punch me with all your strength. You hit like a full grown man,” I complain, rubbing my arm. She continues to laugh. As the oil top comes to an end, I switch on my blinker, turning into the driveway. “As I was saying, we are here.” I glare at her. We look ahead. The log house appears as we top the hill. It’s exactly how I left it weeks ago, the porch wraps around the bottom floor, the rickety swing moves in the wind. The cozy, worn house looks inviting from the outside, but I know what waits for me once I step through the doors. Rugby, my one and only childhood friend, shoots through the yard and jumps on me, nearly knocking me over. His soft brown face is covered in grey fur, making me frown. He’s aging fast and I know it won’t be long, but the dorms won’t welcome a chocolate lab. “Cute,” Lea says as she slams the car door. The wooden front door creaks as it opens. My mom pops out with her arms raised, she walks toward me. “Tater Bug, I have missed you!” She wraps her arms around me, then drops them, holding me at arm’s length to get a look. “Who’s your friend?” “Lea, she’s my roommate,” I say, leaving Rugby to introduce my mom and Lea. “Nice to meet you Mrs. Thompson,” she says, holding her hand out. “Please, call me Carol. Is my daughter behaving herself?” She smiles, watching Lea. The way she regards her is surreal, in this town everyone is the same. Tattoo’s and piercings are not included in that package. And, well, if you are going to drink you better do it in the privacy of your own home. “Unfortunately,” Lea teases. “What about boys?” My mom pries, my eyes widen and I look at Lea with horror. She smirks at me; she wouldn’t. “She seems to be taken by Hayze.” She did. “Oh my gosh, Lea! Mom, no, that’s just a guy I work with.” I glare at Lea, she laughs innocently and holds her hands up. “How’s the new job?” My mom asks, ignoring the comment about Hayze. I know she’ll ask me a million and one questions when we’re alone, but she’s restraining herself right now. She leads us inside. Scott stampedes down the stairs pulling me into hug, when he lifts me off the ground I squeal until he sets me down. “Taylor’s here!” He yells. The wooden house is the same as I left it. The exposed wooden beams shine in the small living room; red plaid sofas fill the space. To my left, the dining room hosts a large wooden table. A bench sets on the backside, and five chairs are pushed under it. Beyond the dining room the white kitchen is scattered with food. Sean stands from the couch, holding out his hand to his girlfriend. My dad walks in with a scowl hanging just below his mustache. Sean and the shy brunette walk to my side, he pulls me in a safe, awkward hug and looks at her with a smile. “Taylor, this is Mandy,” Sean tells me. “I have heard so much about you,” she greets. Her voice is so soft; she leans into Sean, looking up to him with a smile. She seems timid, which is perfect for him. He’s my dad’s spawn and I’m sure he’s looking for someone to control. Like father, like son. “Likewise,” I lie. “Lea, this is my husband, Robert,” my mom informs Lea. She stands to the side, smiling but it doesn’t reach her eyes. She tugs on her shirt while her eyes shift around the room uncomfortably. It’s obvious to me, and maybe everyone else in the room, there’s something going on between my parents. “You can call me Mr. Thompson,” my dad says. My mom smiles sweetly, apologizing for this asshole again. Scott shakes his head at me when he sees my scowl. “We can all get acquainted at the table,” my dad says. He turns and storms into the small dining room. Lea and I steal glances; her eyes are wide. I sit next to my mom, Lea takes the space to my left and Scott grabs the seat by her. “Taylor, I see you brought a friend,” my dad says with a gruff tone. With a sigh, I hold down a sarcastic response. His judgmental stare doesn’t help me. I watch his eyes take in Lea’s tattoos and land on her nose rings. He disregards the fact that she’s been nice since she walked into the house. “Yeah, this is Lea, she’s my roommate,” I say. She waves at everyone. All, excluding my dad, murmur their names and what a pleasure it is to have her. My dad chews his steak, looking down at the table. “I understand you got a job,” he says. “You understand correctly, I’m waitressing,” I say, stressing sarcasm. I look to Scott then to Lea, she shakes her head with encouragement. “At a bar named Mystic.” I have no control over my shit eating grin as his face turns twelve shades of red. His fork crashes to the table, inaudible murmurs break out around the table. Sean crosses his arms; a look of displeasure fills his face. “No daughter of mine will work at a bar!” His voice booms, Lea sucks in a breath out of fright. “Do they still have karaoke Fridays?” Scott leans over, smiling. I cough, disguising my laugh and I shake my head no. “It won’t be so funny when you are walking everywhere,” my dad threatens. “Nana gave me that car before she died. It’s in my name,” I remind him. He slams his fists on the table and then grabs his plate. Before he leaves the room he turns, with his face beet red. “Taylor, next time you come in my house you better have a different job. Lea, it was good to meet you, but you need to take that ring out of your nose before you step through those doors. And cover up those marks on your arms,” he says in disgust before storming from the room. Scott leans back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. “Thank fuck.” “Scott, language,” my mom warns. She looks behind her, seeing that my dad didn’t come back, she throws a small grin his way. “It’s not the same when you are gone. No one knows how to piss off that man quite like you, Tater.” Scott laughs. “Believe me, it’s unintentional,” I say with a hint of sarcasm. “I have to agree with dad. We are men of the church and it doesn’t look good to have my sister, his daughter, working at a bar,” Sean tells us. “Yeah, well, no one asked you Sean,” Scott says as he throws his middle finger up. “Unless your church people go to bars, they’ll never know. Are you afraid they’ll go to the bar?” Lea looks to Sean, a smile plastered on her face. “BURN!” Scott booms, exploding with laughter. “It’s just a job with good tips, relax guys,” I say. I glance around the room. Sean is flushed red with anger. Mandy avoids my gaze, she rubs his arm in comfort and it takes everything I have to not shake sense into her. Scott and Lea are chuckling. My mom stuffs a bite into her mouth to cover her smile. “How are classes?” My mom asks, turning the conversation around. “Fine so far, everything’s easy.” “What about you, Lea? What’s your major?” My mom asks. “Early childhood development; it’s great so far, I just started my second year. I took classes in high school. Hopefully I’ll finish in four semesters,” she says, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin. I hear something shuffle in the kitchen and I look up, hoping that my dad won’t come in and ruin our dinner. “That’s great Lea. I’m a third grade teacher, you will love it,” my mom tells her. “You haven’t decided your major?” Sean asks, looking to me with a smirk. “Nope,” I say, daring him to start with me. “It took a year for me to find my calling. The church offered me an internship and I took it, a few years later I’m the youth minister. Are you interested in a paid internship?” He asks me and it takes all I have to not roll my eyes at him. “I’m not driving an hour…” I pick my glass up, finishing my tea. His eyes hold mine, intently. “Carol, dinner was amazing. I haven’t had a home cooked meal in too long. Thanks for having me,” Lea says, tossing her napkin on the plate. “I’ll send leftovers with you,” my mom says, frowning. She gathers plates and leaves the room. Sean pulls Mandy from the table, they sneak off to the living room. “So, what’s college life really like for you?” Scott laughs. He sits on the table, propping his legs on the chair. Although Sean is his twin, they couldn’t be more different. Scott’s boyish charm gives him an advantage over Sean. He flashes his perfect white teeth and pushes his dark, shaggy curls from his forehead. “She’s only been drunk one time,” Lea says, holding out her finger. “You can do better than that, Tater.” He looks at me, displeased. I give him a look that says you’re so stupid. Most older brothers would be happy their baby sister isn’t going wild, but he’s encouraging me. “Oh, she will,” Lea assures him. He shoots her the thumbs up as my mom enters the room. He tells us he has to get home because he has to go in early in the morning. We say our goodbyes and he squeezes me into a hug and shakes Lea’s hand before leaving. My mom, teary eyed, hands me a sack full of food and wraps her arms around me. “Don’t wait too long to visit,” she sniffles. “Apparently I’m not welcome here until I quit the bar, and that is not happening,” I remind her. I can practically see the thoughts tumble around her head. “We can tell him you did. He’ll never know the difference,” she said. She smiles but it doesn’t hit her eyes. I give her a warning glare; I’m not having this conversation again. “Mom, stop,” I say, pushing from her grip. “I’m not lying to him, and you shouldn’t either. You don’t have to put up with this.” “I want to meet this Hayze fella.” She dabs under her eyes, wiping tears away. “Again, he’s just a friend,” I huff, glaring at Lea. “Taylor has a boyfriend?” Scott asks, walking back into the room. “Whose ass do I need to kick?” “I thought you left! And there will be no ass kicking! I do not have a boyfriend! She was kidding, right Lea?” I look at her for encouragement and she shrugs her shoulders. “Language,” mom whispers. My mom and Scott eye me suspiciously, not buying it. Sean hugs me goodbye, and my mom and Scott grab a second hug. “I’m coming to see you soon, Tater!” Scott threatens with a smile. “Just call first.” Lea winks. I walk outside while Lea grabs the food my mom sent with us. Rugby comes trotting through the yard again. I crouch down and bury my face in his fur, squeezing him. I spent too many nights doing this with him. I would come out in the yard late at night just to get away from my dad. I found that if I buried my head in Rugby’s fur, it would drown out the yelling. Lea clears her throat; I jump up and murmur an apology. I pat his head once more before getting in my car. As we drive off, I watch as my house disappears behind the hill. I speed down the oil top, ready to have the city limit sign behind me. My blood boils with anger from my dad’s attitude, he didn’t even have the decency to tell me bye. “It wasn’t so bad. I liked your mom and Scott,” Lea tells me. I drive in silence. Moments pass before I unclench my jaw. “Yeah…My dad’s an asshole,” I seethe. “Yeah, he is, but so is mine,” she says and laughs once without humor. At least we have one thing in common. CHAPTER FIVE “What’s so funny?” Hayze opens the door with narrow eyes. Lea continues to laugh as she pushes past him. She walks inside and collapses on his couch. As I walk in I’m hit by a smell, not your usual bachelor pad, dirty clothes smell. No, a candle lit in another room smell. The first time I was in his apartment we were rushed to go out, this time I walk around looking in his private space. The living room has a sofa and your typical flat screen mounted on the wall, the walls are white and the laminate floor runs through the living room, kitchen, and hallway. The kitchen is spotless; nothing is displayed on the cabinets. I run my index finger along the bar that separates the living and kitchen area, pleasantly surprised I don’t find dirt. A small archway holds two doors. I inch closer to the lone shelf placed by the flat screen. DVDs and CDs line the space. With a cocked eyebrow, I move closer. I cut my eyes back to the couch and then to the shelf. I’m seeing this right, the movies and music collection are organized far beyond my comprehension. Placed in categories and alphabetically listed within each genre. “Did you do this?” I turn, inspecting Hayze. “Yeah, don’t touch it,” he says. He smiles but I see truth behind his threat. “That Corey guy from the bar asked me out today.” My face twists into disgust. Hayze looks to me, his gaze is stern. As Lea giggles over the scene and I watch him grow impatient. He sighs, takes a seat on the couch and watches her with a deep scowl growing on his face. “It was in public! And she shot him down, you should’ve seen his face,” She laughs. “You said no?” His amber eyes dart to me, searching my face. “Of course I said no!” Lea’s phone rings, she pats her pockets until she finds it. She brings it to her ear, rolling her eyes. “Its work, I’ve gotta take this,” she mouths and covers the speaker. She disappears into the hallway, leaving me alone with Hayze. He hasn’t taken his eyes off of me since she told him I said no. He’s watching me like I’m a weird science experiment. “What happened?” He urges. “Nothing, she’s making a huge deal out of it. He waited for me after class with his buddies and asked me out… I said no. No big deal.” I shrug my shoulders. “He wasn’t a douche?” “No.” Lea stumps down the hallway and throws her hands in the air. “Another no call, no show, I have to go in!” She groans and pulls her black flats on each foot. “Oh, that sucks.” I grab my bag that’s tossed on the floor and slip on my shoes. “Taylor, wait. I can take you home.” Hayze stands, his hand rubs the back of his head as he waits for my response. “I mean, if you want to.” “Yeah, that could be fun,” I say. Lea watches our exchange with amusement. Her lips press into hard line, her eyes crinkle as she fights a smile. She pulls her side bag over her head and pulls her keys out before leaving. “This doesn’t mean we’re not going shopping! See ya later,” she says, looking at me. She winks at Hayze and he closes the door behind her. “Want a drink?” Hayze asks. “No, thanks,” I say, gaining awareness of what I agreed to. I toss my bag on the floor and crash on the couch, ignoring the way he watches me. He falls on the middle of the couch, leaving only inches between us. He brings the rim of his glass to his mouth and takes a sip of water. With each breath I take, I grow more self-conscious. “How was the family dinner?” He asks, breaking the silence. “As good as it could be,” I sigh, “Lea fit in. My mom and brother loved her.” He nods. “I heard…You didn’t tell me what happened with that guy. He didn’t fuck with you again, did he?” I laugh, “No.” “Then why’d you turn him down?” I slip my shoes off, tossing them on the floor. I tuck my legs under me and face him. I shrug my shoulders. “I just didn’t want to date him, I guess.” “You’re not against dating completely, just that guy?” The corners of his mouth quirks slightly, his dimples make a brief appearance. I smile, nodding. “Just that guy, well, and pretty much every guy I went to high school with.” “But not all of them,” He asks. When he senses my reluctance, he nudges my shoulder and regards me with amusement. “Tell me, what was Taylor Thompson like in high school?” He chuckles, amused as if he already knows the answer before it slips from my mouth. “Well, since, it was,” I say, I squint and pretending to count. “Just a few months ago, I would say I’m the same person.” “C’mon, no stories? You never snuck out?” He questions, laughing as my face heats. “Absolutely not; all of my friends did but,” I sigh, “I guess I was waiting until my time.” “Gotcha, what time is your first class tomorrow?” He asks, changing the subject. “Nice try, but usually when you ask someone question after question, you have to cough up some answers, too.” I point my finger at him, he smiles. He doesn’t argue so I take the lead. “So, what about you, I’m sure one of the bar-flies wants more from you…” “You’re right, they probably do.” He looks to me, eyes lit with amusement. My jaw falls open. “You’re such an asshole,” I say, giggling. “Never claimed to be anything else,” he says, smirking at me. I cut my eyes at him and move on, “Why don’t you give them more?” He laughs once, all traces of humor removed. “The girls in this town…” He shakes his head. “When I look at myself I don’t see the person I am now. I see the person I’ll be in ten years, and no one measures up to that.” “Why in ten years? What’s wrong with who you are now?” I frown at him for being so hard on himself. “Never mind,” He tells me. “No, I’m serious Hayze. You’re going to college full time, and you’re working…” He cuts me off. “Those are surface things, Taylor. Not everything is so black and white.” “Is something bothering you?” My eyebrows pull together. I lift my hand, and I almost touch him for comfort. Instead, I let it fall to my lap. “I asked for a simple story of you turning a guy down and we ended up here,” he laughs. “This is some deep shit. I do have one more question for you.” I press my lips to the side, thinking. I guess it’s out of habit, but I always grow nervous when people ask me questions. I don’t want them to know more about me, about who I used to be. But I don’t have to answer it if I don’t want to, so I agree. “Okay?” “Can I call you Tater Bug?” Somehow he manages to get the question out before he throws his head back, laughing. My jaw flies open. “I’m going to kill Lea!” I declare. “I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ll settle for Tater,” he laughs. “NO! You can call me Taylor! I need a new roommate,” I say, blushing. “I’ll be your roommate.” “Ugh no,” I reply. “Never say never,” He says and his serious expression falters. “Never,” I repeat myself. “I’m not sleeping with you, if that’s what tonight was about.” I jump from the couch and gather my things. He watches me with mild amusement as I pull my purse strap over and stand by the door. When he walks to the kitchen bar, I take a step back. He chuckles, “That’s not at all what this was about.” He dangles the keys in front of me. “I have to take you to the dorms, remember?” “Yeah, I just have an early class tomorrow.” I look down, breaking the eye contact from his amber eyes. “Relax Tater, I won’t try anything,” he says, clearly amused with himself. “If you want to stay, I’ll take you home later? I won’t try anything.” The front door bursts open and I jump. His roommate, Joel, walks through the apartment. He tenses when he spots me. “Hayze, we’re about to have some company,” Joel said, he clasps him on the shoulder and walks to the kitchen. “Oh, I’m taking her back to the dorms anyway. Joel this is Taylor,” he says, pointing to me. I smile awkwardly, hoping he doesn’t sense my unease. What happened to our conversation seconds before when Hayze was practically begging me to stay? Now he has company coming over and wants me out. “I know who she is,” he laughs without looking back. He walks by, beer in hand and disappears into a back room. “Let’s go, don’t want you to be late for your company,” I say as I pass by him and walk to his car. I hear him jog to my side, and I look away from him. “You mad about something?” He shoves the key in his car, unlocking it. He reaches over and switches my lock up to let me in. “No, just disgusted by your lifestyle,” I say with a calm voice, despite my anger. He laughs, “You were just raving about what a great person I am.” “Yeah, you are smart, you have good work ethics, but I’m not a fan of the parade of women that fall into your bed every night,” I say. He bursts into laughter, of course, because everything is a joke to him. It’s amazing how a person I just met can get under my skin so much. For a second I understood what everyone sees in him, he had a serious conversation with me and was really sweet. But that moment is long gone. I’m counting the minutes until I can get to my apartment. “Parade of women? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re jealous.” He cuts his eyes to me and I fix my sight on the road ahead of me. He chuckles, “For your peace of mind, some of the guys from the frat are coming over tonight.” “Okay,” I say, nonchalantly. “The parade will resume tomorrow night.” I press my lips in a hard line. His grin stretches from ear-to-ear; I roll my eyes. His tone is playful but I know there is truth behind his words, and it makes me hate him. After an eternity we pull up to the dorms. I rip open the door and slam it closed. When the window rolls down, I sigh. His grin is so smug. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.” “What?” I ask, confused. He waves once and drives off without any explanation. **** “We’re both off tonight, ya know what that means?” Lea says as I walk in the dorms. “That I can study for my tests next week?” I ask, hoping she’ll leave me alone for the night, but I know better than that, Hayze warned me last night. I toss my backpack on my twin sized bed. I collapse on my bed, pull out my notes to study. My notebook is ripped from my hands; loose papers scatter to the floor. “Hey!” I yell and look at her in horror. “I promised your brother you’d get a full college experience,” she says, dangling my notebook in front of me. “Yeah, but to stay in college I need to pass,” I huff and drop to the floor. I gather my notes, arranging them in dates before I lay them on my desk. “Everyone has two freshman years. C’mon, let’s get dressed! Hayze will be here soon.” She senses my reluctance. I sit on the bed, not moving with a deep frown on my face. Her bottom lip pokes out. “Please,” she whines. “You can study all weekend! I promise I won’t ask you out again!” She stops, looks around the around the room, thinking. “Well, I won’t ask you ‘til after your tests.” “Fine.” I toss my books down and hop from my bed. She squeals and claps her hands together as she walks to the small vanity in our room. “Okay, your hair is good.” She looks me over, face pressed in deep thought. “More makeup, less clothes,” she says, her dimples greet me. I fall in the chair, letting her tweeze and apply makeup. I blink, adjusting to the mascara and find the mirror. My eyes are smoky on top, with a small trace underneath. I turn my head, inspecting her work. “Not too bad,” I tell her honestly. She looks pleased with my compliment. She digs through our shared closet, her blonde bob pops out with material in her hand. She tosses me the clothes and I hold them out to get a good look. The cheetah shirt is a modest, three quarter length with a high neck. But my smile drops as I see the shorts. Or, I think that’s what we call them. The black spandex material will cover nothing; why even bother with the shorts? I strip and pull the clothes on without reservation, hoping she’ll change her mind when she sees the sleazy material on my body. After she adjusts her dress she walks over with a smile. “Perfect!” I sigh, no such luck. “Uhh…” A knock on the door stops my protest. She swings the door wide, revealing Hayze in the background. He walks in, his brows furrow as he looks at me. His light jeans hang from his hips; the simple black shirt makes his dark eyes stand out against his sandy hair. “Nice shorts,” he said, pointing to my legs. “Did you pick them out?” “Not exactly,” I say and glare at Lea. “Change,” he demands. “What?” Lea whines, “She looks hot! She’s attracting attention now; just thought I’d help.” She winks at me. “She doesn’t need the kind of attention she’ll get with those shorts, Lea!” Hayze raises his voice to her but she doesn’t budge. “Hey, um, guys I’m right here. I can speak for myself,” I say, mainly to Hayze. I’m uncomfortable in the shorts, but his attitude makes me want to wear them in spite of him. They both snap their head in my direction. Hayze sighs with a clenched jaw, he asks, “Is that what you wanna wear to the bar?” His eyes are sincere. I know he’s just trying to help me, somehow he knows that I won’t tell her no, but he could go about it a better way. “Maybe longer shorts, Lea do you have longer shorts?” I ask Lea. The relief in Hayze is obvious, his shoulders sag and a small smile plays on his lips. Lea shoots him a hard glare as she storms to the closet. She pulls out a pair of black shorts and tosses them to me. Hayze stands, watching me with his arms still folded on his chest. “Get out,” I tell him. He throws his arms up. “Nothin’ is more revealing than those shorts.” “Out!” I point to the door. He chuckles and walks with Lea into the hallway. I switch my shorts and slide on flats before meeting them in the hall. Hayze is starring at his phone and Lea stands next to him, her face is concerned. “What’s going on?” I ask when I walk into the tension. “Joel’s having a party at their apartment,” Lea tells me. Waiting for an explanation, I cock my eyebrow. “He doesn’t like people over there. He’s a control freak.” “I’m not a control freak,” he says with a defensive tone. “I just don’t like people over there, especially when I’m not there.” “Why don’t we just go to the party?” They look at me, then at each other. They shake their head and agree as if they didn’t consider this wonderful revelation. “Yeah?” Hayze nods his head. “We could do that,” Lea says. We pile in Hayze’s mustang. Lea complains about his music and he turns it up. He stops at a gas station along the way for drinks. With alcohol filling the trunk, we pull into the apartment complex. He gets out rips the drinks from the car, and stalks off to his apartment. “No one better be in my room,” he rants. He slams the door open, everyone stares at us as we enter. Joel, two other guys, and four girls fill the space. The eager girls smile at Hayze, one tugs her top lower, as if she could show more cleavage. He sets the drinks on the bar and hands me one. Hayze walks over and says something to Joel. He shakes his head at him. With a heated argument sure to come, I stand close to Lea. “Does this happen a lot?” I ask her. “It used to, that’s why they moved, Hayze is so weird about people knowing where he lives,” she says, shrugging. “Hey, I’m Mike, you came here with Hayze?” I turn finding a brooding guy, with a buzzed head and too many tattoos to count. “Yeah, he’s a friend of mine, I’m Taylor. This is Lea.” One brave girl walks over and cranks up the music’s volume. She turns and does a little dance as the others cheer her on. Soon they’re all up and dancing. They have watched one too many music videos, I cringe as they paw each other, putting on a show for the guys. My face flushes crimson red as one bends over. “Come with me.” I jump, startled by Hayze. He grabs my hand and pulls me into a room. When he switches the light on I glance around the room. The large bed sits in the middle, a bedside table, and a television fill the space. That’s it, no pictures, nothing. “Are you comfortable being here?” He asks. “Yeah,” I say, wondering why he brought me in here to ask. “I’m hoping if we stay in here long enough the show will end.” He sits on the navy blue bed, I laugh and sit down. “Did they give you the same show last night?” “Not going to let that one go, are you?” He chuckles which only makes me angry. “Hell no, I don’t bring girls here. This is all Joel’s doing.” “C’mon, you expect me to believe that?” I laugh, shoving his shoulder. Although there’s a hint of amusement in his eyes, he doesn’t smile or act like he’s joking. “I found out the hard way. I don’t fuck girls here; I go to their place. They show up here wantin’ more and shit.” My jaw falls and I look to him in horror. “I’m officially repulsed by you! Do you even hear yourself talk?” He laughs, “Let’s get back out there. You and Lea can get piss drunk and stay the night. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay with being here.” “I’m not staying here!” I tell him, ignoring the sincerity in his voice. “I won’t steal your virtue, promise.” Needing to put space between us, I stand and walk across the room. “What if I show up wanting more tomorrow?” I giggle, feeling light from the drink. He stands and walks to my side. “Well, Taylor, I wouldn’t slam the door in your face.” His fingers brush my chin, tilting it up. My stomach grows nervous. He repulses me more than any guy I’ve ever met but listening to him now, it’s like I’ve been waiting to hear him say that. I’m not comfortable with this conversation so I don’t bring up what I think he’s trying to tell me. “You slam your door in girls’ faces?” I scowl and pretend that I’m not reeling. “Lea’s probably looking for us,” he says and opens the door, letting me pass through before he shuts it. He seems frustrated as we leave but I don’t know why. “Where the hell have you been?” Lea looks at me and glares over my shoulder at Hayze. “Talking, we missed the show? What a shame,” I say, grinning. “Yeah… I’m not buying that,” she says. She wrinkles her nose and shakes her head at my excuse. I almost spill everything to her, but Hayze’s hand touches the small of my back. The music has been lowered, but he leans close to my ear anyway. “Want another drink?” He says in my ear. I nod and he starts to walk away. Mike comes to our side. “How you feeling? Hayze gave you the hook-up?” “What?” I look to him then Lea, who’s staring at him wide eyed. “What the fuck did you say?” Hayze shoves him from behind. “Get the fuck away from her!” Before Mike can react, Joel appears and stands between them. Mike looks to Joel, dumbfounded. “I don’t know what happened, man all I said was…” Mike starts but the thought trails off as Hayze jumps, Joel holds him back. “Get the fuck out! Don’t bring him back to this apartment,” Hayze voice booms. “Actually, everyone just get the fuck out.” “Come on, Taylor,” Lea says, she jerks my hand and pulls me in his bedroom. “What just happened?” I ask. She closes the door, turns the lock and walks from the door. Her eyes hold mine. The concern is evident as the shouting continues. “Nothing, that guy was hitting on you. He was just being a dick.” “Is he always like that? Hayze I mean…Is this normal for him?” I ask. She looks to me; her expression is sad. “He can be. It kinda depends—Taylor, these are not my secrets to tell.” She goes through his clothes and tosses me something to sleep in. I change quickly and crawl into the large comfortable bed. As I lie in his bed I hear his voice, but it’s not the calm, laid back sound I have grown accustomed to. I wince as glass crashes to the wall, but Lea doesn’t move or say a word. And now I know this happens often. I don’t know him at all. CHAPTER SIX The sky rumbled, threatening to open up before I make it to the dorm. My first round of tests passed in a breeze. Lea was right, freshman year is a complete blow off. I tighten the strap of my backpack as I pick up my speed. The bottom falls out of the sky when I swing the dorm door open. After a hectic work weekend and a week jammed full of tests, I collapse on my small bed. I haven’t had time to think about everything that’s happened. I think that’s for the best. The road I was headed down wasn’t one that I need to be on right now, not after the year I’ve had. I’m still pulling myself back up, and the last thing I need to do is be drug back down. The knock on the door is so faint, I almost don’t hear it. Hayze appears behind the door. He’s leaning on the door frame, I hold it open wide, letting him step around me. He walks in and sits on my bed. “We, uh, haven’t really had the chance to talk since the other night,” he says. His right hand reaches to the back of his head, rubbing nervously. “Yeah,” I sigh. I flop down beside him, our thighs touch briefly and I slide away from the contact. That’s the last thing you need, I remind myself. “I could lie, I could give you excuses but I’m not,” he says. The spark in his eye is dim, and the dark lines under his eyes are back. I touch his forearm for support. “What’s bothering you, Hayze?” “Right now?” He asks, and I nod. “Right now I’m pissed at what you saw the other night. I knew what kind of people would be at that party and I took you anyway. And the way I acted… I know I’m an asshole, everyone around me knows that. But I don’t want you to see it, to witness it and I damn sure don’t ever want it directed at you.” “You were taking up for me,” I remind him. When the corner of his lips quirk into a smile, I release my hand from his arm. “Better?” “I would feel better if you’d let me take you out. Are you free tonight?” I know I shouldn’t, but the hopeful look in his eyes makes me second guess myself. He’s obviously been beating himself up over what happened. Maybe I was overreacting; I have a tendency to do that. There’s no harm in going out with him, he’s been a good friend to me. “I am,” I say. I tighten my ponytail and glance down at my clothes. “You look perfect,” He says as if he’s reading my mind. He smiles and stands from the bed. “You are sure? I mean I can put on Lea’s shorts or a dress.” I laugh as I point to the closet. The amusement vanishes from his face and his brows furrow together. “Absolutely not,” he says, shaking his head. His hand grabs mine to pull me from the bed. He doesn’t take it back like I expect. Instead, he entwines our fingers as we walk from my room. As we leave the building I find the rain has subsided, the sunlight bathes the damp parking lot. The East Texas humidity fills my lungs, suffocating me, and threatening to take my life at any moment as I walk to his Mustang. With each step I take, I’m thankful I pulled my hair back this morning. Hayze opens the door for me and jogs over to his side. When his car comes to life he rolls the volume down, but I hum along to the tune. “I can’t think of a song you don’t know, Aerosmith, really? You’re like eighteen,” he teases me. “I like classic rock. I have an older brother. Well, two older brothers, but one doesn’t count,” I say and he smirks. “Is it just you three?” He asks. “Yeah, What about you? Any brothers or sisters?” I ask, not passing the opportunity to find out more about him. “Yeah,” sighs, “Two half-brothers, one half-sister, we share the same dad.” His blinker clicks, I look at the building in front of us. The taco house glows with neon lights, the heavy traffic of college students trek in and out of the building. He slides the car into a parking spot directly in front of the door. Hayze steps to the bar and places our order. “Do you have your ID?” He asks in a hushed whisper. I fish through my purse and locate the laminated, rectangular card Lea gave me. Hayze hands it to the bearded guy at the counter. I walk ahead of him and choose a table secluded in the back, Hayze slides the beers on the table and sits across from me. He takes a sip of the beer, and then runs his free hand over his face. “You look tired,” I say. I drag my finger along the rim of my beer, shoving the salt inside. I take another drink, hoping my efforts make the drink taste better. “I’m always tired.” He laughs once. “You said you lived here all your life? Do your parents still live here?” “My mom does,” he nods. He takes another swig of his beer and glances around the restaurant. “Are you close to your brothers and sister?” “My little brothers live in Colorado now, so I don’t get to see them much. I guess you could say I’m pretty close to my sister. I see her every day.” He smirks and looks at me, his eyes are amused. “Does she go to the university?” I take another sip of beer; the taste makes me grimace. I push it away from me and he laughs. “She does,” he says. His eyes are almost patronizing. “Well, do I know her?’ I urge, annoyed by his short, and clipped responses. “You do,” he nods. “Just freaking tell me!” I lean back in the booth and throw my hands up. “Freaking?” He doesn’t bother hiding his smile as he teases me. “Yeah, I’m trying to bring that word back.” I shrug my shoulders. “Don’t change the subject. Who’s your sister?” I point at him with narrow eyes. “Only if you promise to stop using that foul language around me,” he sighs. “Okay, fine. Lea’s my sister.” “What? Why didn’t you tell me?” I shriek with wide eyes. Everything makes sense now. They both used the excuse as being old school mates but the more I hung out with them I knew it was deeper. At first I feared they had something going on and I tried to distance myself from him, but she always shoved me to him. Encouraging us to hang out and it all makes sense now. “She doesn’t like telling people.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Why?” I ask, confused. The bearded guy stops in front of our table, reading our order off. I move my elbow as he slides a plate of tacos in front of me. When he walks off, I lean in closer to Hayze. “She doesn’t get along with our dad,” he says and unwraps the silverware. He pushes the forks away and sets the napkin in his lap. “Do you?” His eyes snap up and I know I asked the wrong thing. “What’s up with the third degree?” He asks and his voice is harsh. “Sorry,” I murmur. He takes a bite of a taco and I fix my eyes in front of me. Despite the complaints from my stomach, I don’t have an appetite. I force a taco down before I toss my napkin on the plate. “I was going to take you out but I’m tired as fuck. We can go back to my place and watch a movie, if you want?” I nod in agreement. He finishes his beer, then mine before we leave. With a simple crossover, we are at his apartment. I glance in the hall and notice Joel’s door is closed. When I don’t see a light glowing from the bottom, my shoulders sag with relief and I walk over to Hayze. I’m reluctant, but relaxed. “Here, pick something out,” Hayze says. He’s still quiet from the restaurant. I want to bring it up to apologize, but I don’t. Something about his dad set him off and I’m sure he doesn’t want me to know. I get that; I wouldn’t open my heart up to basically a stranger if they asked about my dad. He tosses the remote and collapses in the middle of the couch. I sit and tuck my legs underneath me. I stop on the first movie I see and turn to ask Hayze if he’s watched it, but I find him slouched on the couch with his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open as he takes evened breaths. He looks boyish, so much younger, and without stress. When he shifts his head slides in my lap, I jerk my hands from my lap. I look around the room and let out a long, shaky breath. Moments skip by and he hasn’t budged. I watch his shoulders rise and fall with each breath. My left hand falls to my thigh. With a mind of its own, my right hand pushes his hair from his forehead. I run my finger through his sandy hair until he stirs. My phone dings with a text. Carefully, I dig my phone from my pocket. I find one new message from Lea asking where I am. I smirk and send: At your brothers She says: Which one? I roll my eyes. Shut up. Come get me. I slide my hands under his head, picking him up, slide off the couch and walk away. I pull a pen and piece of paper from my purse and jot down a quick note with my number. I leave out the fact that I touched his hair like a freaking creep. I slip the note on the bar and walk out of the apartment to wait for Lea. **** “I’m coming! I’m coming!” I fire back at the persistent knocker. I open the door to find Hayze standing behind it, he lifts the note I left on his bar. He has switched his jeans for a pair of black athletic shorts. “So, this is what it feels like to be left while you’re sleeping?” He points to the note, smirking. My jaw flies open. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m surprised by what comes out of his mouth anymore. I should be used to it by now. “You are such a pig!” Scowling, I cross my arms over my chest. “Never said I wasn’t,” he says laughs and walks past me. He looks around the empty room, seeing Lea’s not here and lies on my bed. “Why’d you leave? We were havin’ fun.” He pats the bed beside him and against my better judgment, I sit. He moves his hand to rest on my back. “You passed out… with your head in my lap.” “So? You probably watched me sleep, played with my hair, and other weird shit girls do.” I blush and duck my head down, hoping he wasn’t pretending to be asleep to see what I would do, because that’s exactly what I did. “Not even close,” I say. “If I pass out while we are hangin’ out just wake me up, seriously.” He rises from his back. When he shifts to hang his feet off my bed, our thighs touch. With him inches from my face, I study him. His amber eyes, the stubble lining his jaw, and the mystery scar above his brow. “Well, you shouldn’t do that to girls, maybe it was a wakeup call,” I whisper, needing to distract myself from him. I can’t think straight with him this close to me. He leans in, holding my gaze. “Maybe it was.” I don’t have time to think of a snarky response or move away, his lips touch mine, he pulls back to judge my reaction. His right hand snakes up my neck and rests in my hair. He pulls my mouth back to his, this time it’s not brief. His tongue parts my lips and caress my mouth. I used to question why I never kissed anyone, why I didn’t date. Within a second of Hayze’s touch I know the answer. Nothing would compare to this, every nerve in my body awakens as he deepens the kiss. I lean back on my bed and prop my body up with my elbows. He pulls back. His eyes are burning as he looks at me. When he pushes himself from the bed, I even out my labored breathing; he sits, this time at the end of my bed with space between us. “That was a first for me too, ya know?” He said. “You don’t even bother with kissing? You just go straight to home plate?” He smirks, “Nah, pulling away from you, having enough respect to stop.” “You never cease to amaze me. You made yourself sound like an asshole and a saint all within the same sentence.” He laughs and walks over to me. He leans down, places his hands on the outside of my thighs and brushes his lips against mine. “See you tomorrow?” I nod my head, “Tomorrow.” CHAPTER SEVEN “Are you dating my brother or not?” I lose interest in my textbook and toss it to the table. Lea watches me, anxiously chewing the side of her mouth. I drag my legs from the top of the table and sit straight in my chair. The month of October treats Texas well. The angry brown leaves scatter on the ground from the drought, but the cool wind allows us to spend this gorgeous day outside. I take another sip of my coffee and sit it down on the table. “Well?” Lea urges me to answer. Her face is anxious, yet excited. “Oh, he’s your brother now?” I taunt her. Her face screws into a scowl. “Seriously, I’m dying over here!” “C’mon Lea, Hayze isn’t the dating type,” I say, swirling my Frappuccino around with my straw. I know she’s wondering what’s going on between Hayze and me, and, well…that makes two of us. We haven’t had the talk, and I’m not sure where we stand. We hang out, we kiss, and that sums us up in one sentence. “That’s bullshit and you know it!” She yells and I bring a finger to my mouth, silently asking her to quiet down. I shrug my shoulders and slide my sunglasses back over my eyes. She groans in frustration. I smile bringing the cup to my mouth. Lea keeps badgering me about Hayze, but I won’t tell her anything. I have tried and then I imagine hearing about my brother’s experiences and I stop dead in my tracks. “Look who it is, maybe I should ask him what’s going on,” Lea says. I turn and find Hayze walking up. He looks so simple in a white V-neck and jeans, even still he draws attention. I won’t deny that the girls looking in his direction piss me off. “You wouldn’t,” I say, daring her to. She leans over the table and waves. Hayze cuts across the sidewalk and hops the iron fence that separates the patio from the campus. He pulls out the chair beside me. “What are you doing over here?” Lea asks. “I was going to the dorm, you saved me the trip,” he says, smiling at me. “Why were you going to the dorm?” Lea asks and winks at me. My eye roll is shielded by my glasses. “Just seeing if Taylor wanted a ride to work,” he says. He looks at me with a boyish grin; his dimples are in full force. “That sounds promising,” Lea chimes in. “Taylor, what do you think? Do you want a ride?” “I’d love a ride.” My voice is short and much harsher than intended. Hayze looks between us before standing. “You two are so fucking weird. I’ll come by in an hour,” he says. He surprises me when he places a quick kiss on my cheek before walking away, Lea smiles, pleased with herself. “I’m going to change,” I tell her before she can make a comment. I walk to the dorm and change my clothes. I smooth my black Mystic shirt and tie my hair back. I inspect myself in the mirror, usually I don’t wear makeup to school or work, but today I decide to. I’d like to believe I’m doing it for myself; I chew on my bottom lip and pull out my small makeup bag. One coat of mascara, lip gloss and I slip on my shoes as there’s a knock on the door. “Ready?” Hayze asks. I nod and follow him to his car. I send my mom and Scott an update text on the ride to work. They’re the only two that keep in contact after the family dinner situation. Although my mom is upset about it, cutting ties with my dad isn’t considered a loss to me. Hayze parks in the back, facing away from the bar. He slides the key out and shoves it in his pocket. He leans in and kisses me once. I peel my eyes open to find that he’s watching me in amusement. “That’s all I get?” I ask, bravely. I’m surprised at my words as they tumble from my mouth. His lips find mine again. The kiss lingers, I part my mouth and he pulls back. “You’re gonna make me late, woman.” I giggle and he mutters than I’m insatiable. I climb out of the car, and he jogs over to me. He takes my hand in his and we walk to the bar. When the door comes into sight I drop his hand. He looks at me, his brows furrow. I can tell that his mood instantly sours. “What?” I ask. “You don’t wanna be seen holding my hand,” he says. His mouth presses into a hard line, he walks ahead of me and holds the door open. “I didn’t say that.” I shake my head, looking at him as if he’s lost his mind. “You didn’t need to, Taylor.” “I just don’t know if we should walk into the bar holding hands,” I say. Hoping no one comes this way, I step in the corner. “Why? You don’t want other guys to see?” My jaw drops and I push past him. He catches up to me and grabs my wrists. “Taylor, stop.” “What!” I seethe. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he says. His hand runs down his face with frustration. “Okay, whatever. Let’s talk about it later,” I say. “No, we’re talking about it now!” I narrow my eyes at him. I want to tell him off, I want to yell that no one demands that I do something, but I’m embarrassed and it’s the only reason I’m giving in. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate to walk in our place of work holding hands. Now move!” His face falls with defeat, but he lets me pass. I spot Shea sitting in a booth alone, crunching on nachos. Her eyes snap from her phone when she sees me. “Hey Tay, join me,” she says. She shoves her purse and plate over to make room for me. Cheese sticks and nachos fill the plates. I collapse in the booth next to her. She has an open textbook in front of her. This corner of the bar is always closed off, the lights are dimmed and the booths are dusty, yet we seem to migrate to the room. “Is something bothering you?” She closes the book and folds her arms on the table. “Nope,” I say. “You sure? You look pretty upset after that little argument,” she says and points to the front of the bar, I sigh. “Hayze is,” I sigh, trying to think of a word to describe him. I’m almost positive Webster would have to add an entire new word to the dictionary to accomplish that. “Intense,” I say, finally. “Yeah…But why is that affecting you?” She pops a chip in her mouth, crunching as I think. That is the question of the year, right? Why is he even affecting me? “We’ve hung out a few times and we kissed and it’s just getting, well, intense,” I say, repeating myself. She rolls her eyes and pops another chip in her mouth. “He’s trying to sleep with you,” she groans with frustration. I shake my head. “No, that’s the thing. He’s not trying to sleep with me.” I realize how naïve I sound, but he’s had opportunities to try, and he’s the one that stops us from going further. I frown at that thought; he’s the one with restraint. Weeks ago I was repulsed at the stories I heard about him and the things I witnessed. But now that’s changed, and I don’t know how I feel about that. “And you want him to?” Her brows furrow, her eyes drop to the table, thinking, as she scoops cheese with a chip. “What? No, I didn’t say that! I don’t know what I want. I just, I want him to calm down, I guess.” I shrug my shoulders. I rest my forehead in my hands. I thought venting would help sort things out in my head, but I was wrong. Now I feel dumb not only to myself, but to Shea. “It’s stupid,” I say. “He’ll be over it in a few days. He never goes after just one girl,” I laugh. “You are right about that, he never goes after a girl,” she says, stressing each word. Randy walks up and slaps the back of the booth to get our attention. “Doors are open,” he says and walks off. Shea picks up her mess, stacks the plates and stands. “My boyfriend can be like that, but now that we have space things are better,” she says. “He’s not my boyfriend,” I tell her. She winks and walks away with the plates. I walk in the main room, thinking about what Shea said. Space. I’m surrounded by Hayze throughout my day. Our paths cross at school, we work together, and his sister is my freaking best friend. She might be right about one thing; we do spend a lot of time together, but is it too much? The bar is quiet but steadily filling up as Friday night’s crowd shuffles through the door. Eric and Jace are greeting tables, Hayze stands at the bar, pouring drinks. I scan the room for new tables, spotting a group of girls. I walk to them, but their sights are set on Hayze. With reluctance, the girls give me their drink orders. Their disappointment is evident as I walk away, but the guys are busy with other tables. A huddle of guys walks in; they take the tall table next to the girls. I cringe when Corey staggers in behind them. How is he always here? His eyes are not glossed over, so that’s a good sign. “Taylor!” He calls out as he sits next to them. “Hi…” I trail off, hoping to embarrass him. Maybe he’ll leave me alone. “Corey,” he says. His face falls and the guys laugh at him. “Right,” I said. I snap my fingers and slap my hand to my forehead. “I’m bad with names.” I write their drink orders on my pad and take it to the bar. Hayze grabs it from my hands, looking over my head to the table, then his eyes are fixed on me again. “Shea’s taking that table,” he says. I frown. “Why?” “She doesn’t have a table yet,” he says. He fills the beers to the rim and sets them on the bar for Jace. I scan the room, finding Shea talking to a table. “She has that one,” I say pointing to her, he looks up and shrugs. “Oh, guess you are right. Well, she wants your table.” He continues to make drinks without glancing up at me. “You mean you asked her to take it,” I deadpan, catching onto his trick. I cross my arms, waiting for him to defend himself, but he doesn’t look like he cares. “Same difference,” he says, shrugging. He passes off drinks to Jace and moves around the bar to avoid me. “No,” I yell over the music and his head snaps up, glaring at me. I grab the drinks from the bar and walk to their table. Hayze storms in my direction. “Taylor.” He grabs my hand and tries to pull me to the corner of the bar. “You are insane, that guy is actually being really nice to me. I don’t need you to save me,” I say and shove past him. “You are new, Shea handles this all the time,” he says. “I’m not going to hide every time some drunk idiot comes in the bar. He’s fine tonight,” I said. He looks unsure. “I have got this,” I stress to him. “Yeah, well we’ll see what happens when he gets a few drinks in him,” he shouts back. “I’ll handle it. You don’t have to keep an eye on me just because I’m your sister’s best friend,” I say with narrow eyes. “You know it’s not like that.” “Whatever, Hayze, I honestly don’t care,” I say. With his jaw clenched, he walks to the bar. Shea’s warning replays in my head, he won’t let guys bother us here. I stalk over to my tables, as friendly as possible I ask them if they want more drinks. With Hayze’s glare beating down my back all night, I handle any situation that arises. I don’t ask him for anything, I only speak to him when he’s the only one at the bar. When the bar closes I sit by Shea and count out our money together. “Nineteen is sneaking up on you,” Shea says. She counts her tips out, leaving a percentage to the bar. “What…When?” Hayze eyes glue to my face as he slips in the booth beside me. “Halloween,” I tell him. Shea folds her arms on the table and smiles at me. “Just so you know, we’re throwing a party,” she says. “No! We can go out or something! No party!” I threaten with my finger pointed at them. I look at Shea, then to Hayze. She frowns and shakes her head. “We’ll think of something. We still have time to decide,” she says. Hayze disappears into the back. Shea stands and pulls her keys from her pocket. I’ve been going back and forth about this all night, but I know what I have to do. I glance around the room before standing with Shea. “You live in the dorms, right?” “Yeah,” she says. I look over my shoulder and back to her. “Mind if I ride with you?” She nods her head. “Yeah, where’s your car?” “I rode with Hayze,” I say. I watch her face shift from happy to concerned. I know I shouldn’t drag her into it, but I have no choice. I’ll start driving myself, but tonight I need her help. I need space to figure out what I’m getting myself into. “Oh boy, what am I getting in the middle of?” I laugh once, but she doesn’t look convinced. “Nothing, I just don’t want him to drive all the way back to the dorms. It’s kinda late,” I say. “I’ll wait in the car,” she tells me. Her eyes drift behind me, and I look up to see Hayze walking to me. “You ready?” He asks. He walks to me wraps his arms around my middle. I pat his chest and step back. “Actually Shea said she would give me a ride, since we are in the same building. I don’t want you to have to drive out of your way.” His face falls. He steps back and grabs his keys from the table. “Okay.” “See you tomorrow,” I say. I walk from the bar. Shea is standing next to a Corolla. When I hear someone stomping behind me, I stop. Hayze slams into me from behind and wraps his arms around my shoulders. “Hayze,” I say, breathless. My intentions were protest, but my voice comes out flustered. He plants a kiss on my cheek and walks away, then he turns and winks. “Goodnight Shea,” he says. She waves to him then turns to me. Her eyebrows shoot up. She climbs into the car without saying anything. “Does your boyfriend go to ETU?” I ask. I’m eager to get back to our conversation. She made it sound like they had problems before they distanced themselves. “No, he’s in Louisiana now.” She frowns and shakes her head. As she pulls in the dorms she laughs softly. “What is it?” I ask. “Hayze,” she laughs. “I never thought I’d see the day.” “We are friends,” I remind her. “Just wait, when he sees this little flirtation isn’t going anywhere, he’ll move on.” She watches me, with one brow cocked. Her eyes inspect my face, with a funny look, as if she sees something I don’t. “Okay, Tay. Get some rest.” CHAPTER EIGHT The dreaded last day of October approached, Halloween. My birthday. But this year is different because I no longer have to explain to my friends why I can’t have a party, or celebrate. They would crinkle their nose at my dad’s rules and even laugh behind my back. That’s in the past though; this year I can be whoever I want to be. Like the Texas forecast, Hayze’s mood swings were unpredictable. As I let myself inside the dorm, a dancing figure catches my eye. Flipping on the light, I find a balloon tied to side table and a banner draped above my bed. “Surprise,” Lea yells from her bed. “Is this really necessary?” My brows pinch together. I toss my backpack on the floor and plant my hands on my hips. “I thought we’re going out tonight, what’s this?” I point to the silly decorations crowding the corner of my space. “That’s just for fun…We’re still going out.” “What’s the plan?” I ask her. She shrugs her shoulders, with huge grin crowding her face. “You’ll see.” “Ugh. Did I tell you how much I hate surprises?” I roll my eyes and fall on my bed. I crawl to the top and push my hands under my pillow. “You’ll love this one,” she assures me. A smile is engraved on her face; her dimples dance as she speaks. “Oh! I got you something.” “You didn’t have to get me a present,” I say. “It’s not really a present, more like an outfit for tonight.” “Oh God,” I whisper. She tosses me a sack. When I see the orange logo on the side, I cringe. I pull the metallic material from the bag and hold it out for inspection. “What the hell is this supposed to be?” I ask. “It’s your Halloween costume, look.” She pulls it from my hand and lays it across my bed, then tosses hers down. “You’re Catwoman, and I’m Wonderwoman.” “Someone fights crime in this?” I tug on the black fabric. “This is my first Halloween costume, ya know?” Her eyes widen, “Wait, what? You are kidding.” I shake my head, tracing the material that stretches across my bed. “My dad wouldn’t let us celebrate Halloween. Or Christmas…” “That’s child abuse.” She frowns. “Put this on, and drink enough vodka for two people, it’ll make me feel better.” I grab the scanty material from the bed and dress quickly. I exhale, testing the thin, yet clingy material. The top of the costume is visible in the small vanity mirror; the long sleeves cover my arms and every part of body aside from my chest. My sparse cleavage is boosted and pushed underneath my chin. Lea fusses over my hair, adds false eyelashes, and smears my lips with red lipstick. “Tada,” she exclaims. She steps from the mirror, allowing me to see myself for the first time. I blink, growing accustom to the heaviness on my lids. My hair is teased, my side bangs are pinned to the top of my head, but my face is what makes me cringe. “This is a freak show, Lea! Seriously, this is what girls look like on Halloween?” My hands cling to my face, poking it. I grab a tissue from the table, but she takes it from me. A knock comes from the other side of the door. Lea saunters over in her barely-there costume and swings the door open, watching me with a grin. “Scott?” I gasp as she opens the door wide. “Ah shit, Taylor.” Laughing hysterically, he bends over, clasping his palms to his knees. “Please let me get a picture of you. Dad needs to see this.” “What are you doing here?” I narrow my eyes at him. He pulls his phone out and aims it at me. I walk over, snatch it from his hands and slap the back of his head. He waltzes in the room, unfazed by my assault and makes himself at home. “Lea invited me. And all of a sudden, I’m glad I came. This is something I need to see,” he says, chuckling at me. “What exactly do you need to see?” I stand and place my hands on my hips. He motions his hands from my head to my feet. “Preacher’s daughter takes on college,” he says. “What are you supposed to be, anyway?” I huff, taking the attention from me. He glances down at his jeans, tan leather jacket, and shrugs. “Uhh, myself,” he says. I throw my arms up. “Lea, what are we doing?” She glides the glossy brush across her lips, and smacks them together. “We’re meeting up at Hayze’s.” I sigh; this just keeps getting better and better. “Of course we are,” I murmur and she smiles at my pessimism. “You could at least pretend you are happy I’m here,” Scott says, frowning, “Happy birthday, see if I come to another party for you.” I groan, “I’m happy to see you. I just wish I knew before.” I look down at my second skin clinging to me and my face twists in disgust. “Cheer up,” he says. He wraps his arms around me, squeezing me in a hug. “This is your first birthday, enjoy it!” “What?” Lea’s face scrunches as we leave from the dorm. “Yeah… We couldn’t celebrate birthdays either…” I explain to her with my eyes fixed on the ground. She gasps and mouths ‘oh my god’ when I look up. “We were deprived,” Scott chimes in. “At least Dad has Sean to carry on his beliefs,” he snorts. “Just what the world needs, another asshole and more kids with daddy issues,” I say. Looking at my outfit, he coughs through laughter. “Clearly,” he says. I almost say something back, but I don’t because…he’s right. I slide in my car and Scott informs me he has to leave early. Lea protests, saying he doesn’t need sleep and that seems to make him happy. He jumps in his truck, leaving me alone with Lea, and she fusses with me over the radio. Several long minutes later, we pull into Hayze’s apartment complex. “Who is this guy again?” Scott asks as we approach the door. “Hayze, he’s Lea’s brother,” I tell him, hoping he doesn’t remember Lea mentioning him at my parent’s dinner. He hums, like he’s thinking about it and I know I’m caught. “Hayze? That was the guy you were tellin’ Mom about.” He snaps his finger as the light bulb sparks in his head. “I for sure didn’t tell mom about a guy, that was Lea. And she was joking,” I assure him, but he doesn’t look convinced. I raise my hand to knock, but Lea speaks up. “I wasn’t joking.” “So… Is this guy your boyfriend?” Scott looks to Lea then me. “No! I’m about to knock on this door and when I do, I don’t want to hear another word about that!” I point my finger at them, and they nod. Before I have the chance to knock, the door opens. “I thought I heard shouting out here,” Hayze says, looking behind us. I grow nervous, thinking they might tell him what we were arguing about. “And you opened it? What if it was an angry mob of women?” Lea teases him. She walks past him to go inside. “This is my brother, Scott. Scott, this is Hayze,” I say. After their brief introduction, I join Lea. Hayze stops as if he sees me for the first time, his eyes fall down my body. He shakes his head, displeased. “Jesus Christ, Lea,” he mutters and walks into his room. “Tonight should be…Fun,” I say, clicking my tongue with annoyance. “Well, the good thing is, you don’t have another birthday to compare it to,” Lea says with a shit eating grin on her face. She walks to the kitchen and pulls a white box from a cabinet and lifts the lid to reveal a cake equipped with candles. “Oh my god, you guys!” I smile at her. “Hey Taylor, come here for a sec,” Hayze calls. I walk in his room, finding him standing with a pink bag in his hand. I smile, take it from his outstretched hand, and toss the tissue to the floor. My eyes dart to him; his hands are shoved in his pockets, smiling at me. Inside a blanket is folded neatly, I lay it on the bed, carefully looking at each square. “Hayze,” I breathe out. “Where did you get this?” “I went to these concerts with my dad, they were shirts and I had them made into a blanket for you. You sing every damn song that plays in my car. Seemed like the perfect gift,” he says, downplaying the thought he put into this. I inspect each square, a few of them, including Nirvana, has squiggly signatures on them. “I can’t accept this; this is too much,” I tell him and hand it to him. He shakes his head. “I want you to have it. They have bad memories attached to them now.” I look at him in surprise, thinking about it before I speak. “What kind of bad memories? Do I really want this?” I smile and clutch the blanket to my chest. “Kidding.” He smiles and shakes his head. “A tale for another day, c’mon,” he says. “It’s my birthday, and I say we have time,” I say, pushing my luck. “What’s the plan?” I eye him suspiciously as he waits for me by the bedroom door. “To pack nineteen birthdays into one, happy birthday, Taylor,” he says. His arms wrap around my waist. His face is now inches from mine, I brace for a kiss, a consuming kiss. Instead I get a small peck. “Now I’m afraid,” I say. He chuckles as he opens the door to the hallway. “As you should be, sweet Taylor.” He smirks at me as I pass by. I fold the blanket up, place it inside the bag and put it on the couch. I don’t want anyone to see it, especially Lea. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and I know it would embarrass him if they saw it. I’m surprised that he brought up his dad in front of me, I want to ask more about it but I’ll wait until we’re alone. I don’t want to ruin the night they have planned for me. “Finally, let’s go!” Lea says as she flings her hands up dramatically. I throw her a look that says, ‘you’re so stupid,’ I’m positive we were only in his room for five minutes. “Where am I meeting you?” Scott asks as we leave the apartment. “Alley is first on our list,” she says. “I’ll only be able to stay for that one. I’ve gotta get back,” he says. He pulls his phone out and checks the time. Scott climbs in his ridiculously large Chevy truck while we pile into Hayze’s car. When we arrive I find that The Alley, along with every other bar in Texas, is crowded on this overrated holiday. Hayze slows the car as drunken girls’ flaunter by dressed in next to nothing. My face screws into disgust until I remember what I have on. I throw my head back on the seat and groan. “Lea, why did you make me wear this? I look like the sorority girls,” I complain. “No way, you look way better,” she says, patting me on the arm from the back seat. I turn around and narrow my eyes at her. Once inside we flash the guy our ID’s and walk into the crowded room. Decorations line the hallway, and the bartenders hustle around dressed as cats. Fog dominates the room, and I cough at the sight. “You have a fake ID? This just keeps getting better and better,” Scott laughs. “That was me,” Lea says, clearly pleased with herself. She pushes her way to the bar. Moments later, she emerges from the crowd that engulfed her, with a tray of shots. “Happy birthday!” A pair of long arms wrap around my shoulders from behind. I untangle myself to find Shea behind me. “Four shots from the four of us,” Lea says. She sets the tray down on the table near us. We move over to it, my eyes study her face, looking for any sign that she might be joking. “C’mon, drink up. All at once, let’s see it.” She claps. “Lea, this is like her third time to drink.” Hayze says. They lock eyes, then she looks back at me. “Scott, what do you think?” She asks, patronizing Hayze. Scott shrugs his shoulders and grins. “I think she should do it.” “Guys, you do know that she is standing right here?” Pointing to myself, I laugh, “I can speak for myself.” “Well, birthday girl, what do ya said?” Lea taunts, leaning over the table. She picks up a shot glass and dangles it in the air. I snatch it and toss it back, and I do the same with the second, third, and fourth. I set the glasses down, and the table cheers. Everyone except Hayze, his arms are crossed at his chest, glowering at his sister. Lea tosses the tray to another table, smiling. I smile, and thank all of them as my head swims. My throat still burns, and I have a hard time standing still in the heels Lea made me wear. “Hayze, you wanna shoot a round of pool?” Scott asks. “Why not,” he shrugs. He gives Lea a pointed look as he walks off. We follow them and sit at the nearest table. Lea looks in their direction with disgust. “Look at those skanks flirting with Scott,” she says. I laugh loudly, too loud, and she looks at me knowingly. She knows that was too much for me to handle at one time. However, it is my first birthday, and if I wake up in the morning throwing my guts up, well, I have nothing else to compare it to. I watch their uneventful game of pool; Scott attracts the attentions of two girls. Hayze keeps his head ducked, but on his last shot, he’s approached. The tall brunette leans over the table, smiling, she introduces herself. When he doesn’t speak she moves closer to him. I’ll never understand the nerves that these girls have. I mean sure they’re attractive, but is it really worth getting shot down in front of everyone? Especially Hayze, with his reputation you’re either being shot down or used for the night. I can’t decide which would be worse. My stomach feels sick; I don’t know if it’s the drink or thinking of Hayze’s past. The brunette stands behind him, her eyes rake up his body. He bends down, lining the pool stick with the ball, it bumps her. “Can you move?” He asks, not so politely. She huffs, embarrassed and stalks off. Lea laughs loudly. “If only he would do that,” she said, pointing to Scott. “Don’t hold your breath. He has to leave early anyway. Maybe you can hook up another night,” I say and bring the straw to my lips. I can’t believe those words just came out of my mouth, about my brother of all people. But she doesn’t seem to mind. “Is that what you think of me?” She smiles, lays her hand over her heart, as if I could offend her. “Tater Bug, I really hate to leave, but I have gotta get goin’,” Scott says. “What a shame, it looked like you were really getting somewhere with your new friends,” I say, laughing too hard at my own joke. Lea elbows me. He doesn’t say anything; he looks to Lea and shakes his head at me. He hugs me. “Thanks for coming,” I say. “Don’t let anything happen to her tonight,” he tells Lea. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” He leaves and Lea drags Shea to the dance floor. Hayze hasn’t spoken to me since I tossed back the shots. I drain my last drink, looking at the packed bar, I frown. I yank on the stretchy material, willing it to cover my chest. The neckline is too low and the way it clings to me leaves nothing for the imagination. “I have a hoodie in the car, if you want it, it’s yours,” Hayze says. I look up to find him watching me with an amused grin. I guess he’s done with his tantrum. I look around, not seeing Lea in sight, I nod. “That would be great, actually.” We walk from the bar, Hayze waves our arm bands to the guy at the desk, and he nods his head. I stumble twice, giggling as the alcohol pounds its way through my veins. His hand finds my waist as we walk down the crowded sidewalk. When we find his car he unlocks it and manually pops the trunk. He pulls out a black hoodie and hands it to me. I pull it on quickly, finding that it comes to the top of my thighs and covers my chest. “Thank you,” I say, smiling appreciatively. He smirks, “No…Thank you.” I almost ask what he means by that, but I don’t think I want to know. The crowd on the sidewalk roars, I look over to find someone lying on the parking lot, laughing as they try to stand. The pavement beneath me shakes as the songs blend into one. “I don’t wanna go back in there,” I say. He slams the trunk and walks to the driver side. “Slide in,” he instructs me. I climb in the driver side and uncoordinatedly slide to the passenger side. He takes the driver’s seat and slams the door. With alcohol raging through my blood, suddenly the only thing keeping me from him is the middle console. He doesn’t look at me. His warm eyes stare out the window. His arms grip the steering wheel. Finally, he turns his body to me and his eyes lock with mine. They’re full of anguish. “I’ve been fighting this daily struggle... You see, I could be good and walk away right now. You could be free of my shit. You wouldn't be sucked into my life. But that's not what I want. That may make me a selfish asshole, but I want you to be by my side." "I’m not going anywhere," I say. "I hope so, Taylor. More than that, if you do put up with my shit, I hope you don't end up hating me." “Why would I hate you?” I laugh. His eyes drop to his hands, and that’s when I realize he’s serious. “Hayze?” “I hope I never have to answer that question,” he says truthfully. “You’re talking in riddles, and I’m drunk. Cut me some slack,” I giggle, hoping it lightens the mood. I’ve been wondering about the way he feels about me, but I’m too afraid to ask. I would rather be out of the loop, going with it then know he doesn’t want anything from me. Before tonight I shoved it to the back of my mind, marking him as my first college fling. I wouldn’t admit that I wanted more, because I could protect myself that way. All rational thoughts flow from my brain as I cross the middle barrier and climb in his lap. He’s surprised at first, but he cups my face and brings his mouth to mine. It starts out too slow for my fuzzy mind. I deepen the kiss as I fumble to remove my hoodie. I toss it in the back seat and my hands return to him. I skim down his arms and tug on the hem of his shirt, but he stops me. “Stop; I’m not having sex with you in my car,” he says out of breath. “Since when do you have morals?” I tease him, but his face is pressed in a scowl. “Since you came around, and believe me I don’t like it either,” he pauses and smiles. “But I can’t let your first time be in a car.” “Who said this was my first time?” I ask defensively. He chuckles, but doesn’t say anything. With blood rushing to my face, I return to my seat, too embarrassed to be near him. As much as I try I can’t hide who I’ve been my whole life. I try to be normal like everyone else, but he can see right through me. “You wanna go back in?” He asks. “Yeah, I guess we should. Lea’s probably wondering where we went,” I say. He leans in, holds my face with both hands. “Nineteen,” he says. He presses his lips to mine. My intoxication heightens with each touch. “To a night you will never forget.” He smiles and gets out of his car. CHAPTER NINE Weight hits my middle. I open my eyes, then snap them shut. I toss my arm across my face, blocking the sunlight that pours from the window. My head is pounding to the beat of my heart, each breath I take hurts worse. The bed shifts, and my eyes pop open. I cringe, hoping my hangover is just playing tricks on me. Maybe I’m still drunk. God, please let me be drunk! I peek to my left, Hayze is lying on his back, and his arm is resting on his bare chest. “Hayze!” I exclaim, shaking him. “Hayze, wake up!” His eyes peel open. He focuses on my face and smiles as his eyes close again. He turns on his side and tugs me closer. I relax as his arms engulf me. For a second I stop freaking out, then I remember I’m in his bed after a night of drinking. I pat down my body and let out a sigh of relief when I feel clothing. “We didn’t do anything last night, did we?” I peek up at him. Smiling he shakes his head. “No, you all but raped me in the parking lot, but I stopped you,” he chuckles. “Did not,” I say, willing it to be true. The night is fuzzy and the more I learn, the more satisfied I am with that. “Whose shirt is this?” I ask, pointing to the foreign white shirt on my body. “Mine.” “What? Why am I wearing your shirt? Why am I in your bed?” I raise up, glancing around the room. He watches me in amusement as I frantically stand and search for my clothes. “You threw up on yours. Keep your voice down, would ya?” He laughs. “Did you change me?” I ask, horrified. “No, Lea did.” “Okay,” I sigh, “Okay. That’s fine.” I relax after he tells me that. Maybe he’s kind of a gentleman after all. Maybe. “Jesus, when girls wake up next to me, they usually are not this upset,” he says, grinning. “Like you would know! You probably sneak out while they’re still asleep.” I huff, crossing my arms across my chest. I know he’s only teasing me, but I don’t like that he brought up other girls right now. And I really don’t like that it bothers me. “Yeah, I guess you have a point. But that shit stops now, okay?” He stands beside me and rubs his hands up my arms. I glance around the room, then to him. My brow arches. “Okay?” “You don’t sound so convinced,” he says. “About what?” I inhale a sharp breath, knowing what could come. My memory is fuzzy, but I remember the beginning of the night when we talked in his car. The unbelievable thing is I hope my prediction is right. My life has been paved for nineteen years. I have a certain image to uphold, and the unpredictable guy sitting before me promises everything but my old life. “About this, me and you,” he says. He waves his finger between us. I don’t respond with words. Instead, I grab his shoulders and lean in to plant a shy kiss on his lips. His smug grin is satisfied as I pull back. “I take that as a yes?” He asks. “That’s a yes,” I say, nodding. “Well, in that case, what are you doing tonight?” I shrug, smiling. “No plans,” I say. “Let me take you out.” **** Lea breezes through the door, she tosses her headphones on the bed. Her hair is stuck to her forehead and her workout attire is wet. As long as we’ve lived together I’ve never seen her workout, and I wonder if it’s a temporary thing or if I’m a terrible roommate. “Hey, I’m going to my mom’s tonight,” she says. “Are you staying the night?” I ask. She stops digging through her bag and turns to me. “Why are you so fancy? And why are you asking if I’m staying away tonight?” “Not that it’s any of your business, but I have a date,” I smirk. “Does my brother know about this?” She laughs. I shrug my shoulders. “It was his idea.” “I knew it!” She exclaims as she laughs. “Tell me everything, what’s the plan?” “He didn’t say. What does he usually do on dates?” I scrunch my nose, wondering why I asked that. Do I really want to know? “I’m almost positive he’s never taken a girl out,” she says. “The man whore of ETU hasn’t taken a girl out? How stupid do I look, Lea?” I laugh, giving her a pointed look. She lowers her head, staring at me until it clicks. “Pretty stupid, he doesn’t take girls on actual dates. He doesn’t have to…” “Oh.” I hold my hands out, silently asking her to say no more. A knock on the door halts the questions swirling in my head. Lea tugs a sweater over her head and opens the door. Hayze walks past her; she swats his arm. “Where are you two going?” She asks. “The cabin,” he says. With a boyish grin, he shoves his hands in his pocket. “You ready?” His mustang is cranked and waiting by the curb. I tell him that he’s lucky no one steals it but arrogance shines through, and he tells me no one messes with him. Thirty minutes later my sight is on the cabin for the first time. He turns the radio down and grins at me. The secluded log house sits within yards of the lake. To the side, a dock houses a ski boat. When he slides the car in park I jump out. “Is this your place?” I twirl around the yard, taking in the forest and the secluded night sounds. “My dad’s parents,” he corrects me. He catches my elbow, guiding me on the porch and to the front door. The wood continues inside, the dimly lit living room is open to a small kitchen and dining room. “Hayze, it’s beautiful! I’m so happy you brought me here.” He comes to me and wraps his arms around my middle. Smiling as he looks down at me. “I’d do anything for the look on your face right now,” he says. He lips brush mine, but he pulls away too soon. “You hungry?” He asks. “That depends, are you cooking?” His brow arches as he points his finger. “You’ll be sorry you said that after you take a bite.” I laugh and follow him into the kitchen. “We will see. What are we having anyway?” “Lasagna, my specialty,” he says. “That’s like the easiest thing to make. What? I’m just saying.” I say. He shoots me a playful glare. I hold my hands out, feigning innocence. I look around, taking in the house from a new angle. “Do you come here a lot?” I ask. “Yeah, not as much as I used to though, I come out here to be alone.” “So, this is your grandparents place?” I ask. He nods his head. He grabs a bottle of water, unscrewing the lid with an amused expression. He tosses the bottle back then throws it into the trash can and waits for me to pry more. He doesn’t offer information so I get what I can, beginning with small details. “Are you close to them?” I ask. “I am.” “What about your dad?” I push a little further, remembering how upset he got the first time I asked about his dad. But this time he doesn’t seem upset; he doesn’t snap at me. He stops and seems to consider the question. Sighing, he says, “Not as close as we used to be.” As tension fills the room, my questions subside. He points to a bar stool. I take a seat and watch him navigate around the kitchen. As he pulls the lasagna from the oven, the smell fills the room, instantly watering my mouth. He sets the attractive dish of food on the counter and pulls a bottle of wine from the fridge. I have to admit that I’m surprised he can actually cook. “No more questions?” He smirks. “I have a ton, actually. Do you want to hear them?” Chuckling, he shakes his head as he pours the wine to the rim of each cup. “No, pace yourself,” he says. “Can I help you with anything?” I ask. “You ask me now that I’m finished.” Laughing, he sets the wine in front of me. “It looks good,” I say, scanning the food. “And smells good, let’s see how it tastes,” I grin. Two plates of food and a bottle of wine later, I sit giggling on the couch. A string of profanity flows from Hayze’s mouth. He sighs with relief as the ancient entertainment center powers on. He turns on a movie and sits beside me. “I have never witnessed an adult tantrum,” I laugh. “Yeah, well, get used to it,” he says. His tone is playful but I know there’s truth behind his words. “Thanks for the entertainment,” I smile. “It was worth it.” In an instant I’m flat on my back, with him hovering over me. “Entertainment’s not over,” he says. His lips tease my neck, brushing my skin as he runs along my jaw. My fingers dig in his back, urging him closer. “Patience, sweet Taylor,” he whispers. His voice is dangerously low. The nip on my ear is almost my undoing. I tug on the hem of his shirt. I pull it over his head and toss it to the floor. My fingers eagerly trace the new territory, following the inked patterns by memory. From the day I laid eyes on him, his white shirt clung to his chest, showing the dark lines. Each day was a constant reminder of what lies beneath his shirt. I roll on top, slowly kissing the lines. I tug my dress off, when it hits the floor his eyes snap open. He scans my body. His eyes are fiery with lust. “I didn’t bring you here for this,” he says. His voice is strained. It’s as if he’s warning me, but without a lot of strength. “I know,” I said. My voice is breathy. “But I want it.” With his lips pressed in a hard line, he studies me. He sits, guiding me off of him. My face falls. I look at the floor to avoid him seeing my disappointment. He bends down and kisses me. It’s deep, yet soft, hinting he wants more. I feel him holding back. His hands grip my thighs. He lifts me from the couch and my legs wrap around his waist. Still kissing me, he begins to walk, flipping on the hallway light, he walks me into a bedroom. He ungracefully runs into the door frame and trips before he lays me on the bed. My hands glide down his bare back. They travel to the top of his jeans and stop at his zipper. He presses his hips to mine and I feel how much he wants it. “Are you sure?” He groans. “I thought I was the virgin,” I say. “I feel like an asshole. This isn’t why I brought you here, babe. If you want to wait, I understand,” he says. His eyes bore into mine, full of question and restraint that dims by the second. I place my finger over his soft lips. “I have never wanted anything more,” I say. His lips curl into a smile before returning to mine. As he unsnaps my bra, his reluctance slips from the room. I pull his jeans down, but he stops and pulls a square package from the pocket. I cock my eyebrow at him. He shrugs his shoulders. A cocky grin takes over his face. “Ya know, just in case.” I pull him back to my mouth. His hands slide down my body, stopping at the top of my panties. He slides them off then does the same to his boxers. I can’t look away as he tears the foil package and slides the protection on. His mouth comes back to mine when his finger pushes into me. I gasp in surprise. He pulls back and inspects my face. “I’m fine,” I whisper. He retracts his finger. My eyes find his amber irises; they watch me with intent. With a thrust of his hips he’s inside me. I clench my eyes from discomfort. “Look at me, Taylor.” His voice is hoarse. I pry my eyes open, fighting to keep them on him with each thrust. Slowly, the pain turns to pleasure. His movements become jerked and rigid before he collapses on top of me. He lies beside me, panting for breath. As his breathing evens, he wipes his forehead with the sheet and sits up. He positions himself over me, kissing and nipping until he reaches my stomach. My eyes lock with his, they widen as he continues further down. I feel his warm breath hit me. I throw my head back and grip the sheets. The entertainment’s not over. **** Waking to a trail of kisses across my arm beats my alarm. I grin, but remain silent as he reaches my face and my lips. The warmth of his touch causes a tremble through my body. His hand runs through my long hair. My eyes pop open. His head is propped on his elbow and he’s looking at me, grinning. “Mornin’, class is in an hour,” he says. I jump out of bed, searching for a bathroom. “Thanks for the show,” he calls out. I shoot him a glare as I tug on his shirt. “Where’s the bathroom?” “Second door on the left,” he says. He points to the door, smiling as his eyes run down my bare legs. Half an hour later his knuckles tap on the bathroom door. “Thirty minutes, babe,” he said. I step in my jeans and pull my auburn hair back. “People are going to talk, you know?” I said. “About what?” He bunches his brows together and walks in the bathroom as I walk out. “The ‘Hayze Clarke’ is bringing a girl to class?” “You’ve been around Lea too much.” He slaps my back side as he passes by me. “Let them talk.” “And the girls at the bar?” I eye him. He hands me my purse and shoes, rushing me out the door. “It will be hard to miss you,” he says, “when my hands are all over you.” He wraps his hands around my waist, kissing my cheek. “I’m serious Hayze.” I push him away. He scowls and folds his arms across his chest. He leans on the side of his car propping a leg on the front tire. “Are you sure you want this?” He chews on his lip, looking at the trees. He kicks off his car and walks to the driver side. “Why don’t you just come out and say it, Taylor. You don’t think I can be faithful?” I shake my head. “I didn’t say that!” He laughs without humor. “You didn’t have to.” He gets in the car and I follow him. As he cranks the car, he runs his hands through his hair in frustration. “Why do you think I’ll cheat?” “I didn’t say…” “Just stop beating around the bush,” he said, holding his hand out. I gaze out the window. The Mustang picks up speed as we leave the tree lined, dirt driveway and turn on the highway. “It’s not you that I don’t trust,” I say. “So, you don’t trust girls? Or what?” He snaps. “I don’t know!” I groan, “You were thinking about this before. You didn’t just pull this out of the air! Tell me,” he urges. I shrug my shoulders. His knuckles turn white as he grips the steering wheel harder, his jaw works under his skin. “This just seems too good to be true,” I say. “I feel like something shitty is going to happen.” He pauses as the thought plays through his mind. He sighs as we pull into the campus. “I won’t cheat on you,” he says. “But something shitty might happen?” I tease. His face remains serious as he pulls into a vacant space. “Never say never,” he says as he climbs from the car, leaving me behind. He walks from the car. I speed up and catch his arm, spinning him around. “What is that supposed to mean?” “Taylor,” he sighs, bringing his hand to his forehead. “Just stop reading into everything.” And just like that, everything changed. Suddenly I was in high school again, vowing to keep my virginity intact until marriage. I was with the same guy for years and never moved passed the kissing stage, never wanted to, but one date with Hayze and my head is all fucked up. I handed my virginity over to him without a second thought, knowing who he is and what he does to girls. I don’t know why I’m surprised at his attitude today. “God, I’m an idiot,” I say, pushing past him as I stalk by. I’m not sure where I’m going, certainly not class, or to my dorm where his sister could throw ‘I told you so’ at me. “Fuck, what was I thinking?” “Excuse me?” I snap around. “What were you thinking? What was I thinking?! I’m the one that gave my virginity to some guy that couldn’t care less—” “Stop,” he says, cutting me off. His voice comes off almost as a plea. A group of students pass by us then he looks at me again, shaking his head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. So whatever crazy ass scenario you’ve come up with in your head, drop it.” “I’m not making this up; you’re acting like an ass,” I say, shoving my finger in his direction. I’m standing a foot away from him but I’m keeping my voice calm and low, student’s pass by us without any indication of our fight that’s going on. “I believe you’re the one that started this…you said I would cheat,” he says. I roll my eyes, then check my watch, seeing that it’s close to class time I walk away from him. He, of course, follows me. “I did not say that, Hayze.” “You didn’t have to,” he says, trailing behind me. Turning, I shrug. “I’m sure you have some concerns, too. I can’t be the only one.” He cocks an eyebrow, and gives me a smug grin. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, after spending twenty-four hours with you I’m concerned about my mental health,” he says, laughing. I roll my eyes. I should’ve known he wasn’t capable of a serious conversation. “Whatever, see ya around,” I say and walk off. “C’mon babe, that was a joke,” he says. “Yeah, that’s the point. Everything’s a joke with you.” Do you even remember what we’re arguing about?” I finally reach the building, when I walk up the stairs I stop, knowing he would follow me into the classroom. His eyes are lit with amusement when I face him. “Yeah, I do, the way you treat women. It’s repulsive. I’m starting to feel like one of them…” Last night everything was perfect. Obviously it was too good to be true. Since we got in the car, we’ve fought and he’s been distant. I’m starting to feel like one of his one night stands. He pulls me into his arms and presses a light kiss on my forehead. “You’re much more than a conquest,” he whispers on my skin, sending chills down my body. “Was that your attempt at being sweet? Don’t call girls that, it’s degrading,” I scold him. His body shakes with laughter. I try to push from him but he keeps me locked to him. “Okay, I’ll personally go to each of ‘em and ask them on a proper date, would that make you feel better?” I untangle myself from him, searching his face, I frown. We didn’t have the official talk last night. Not only did I give my virginity to the biggest player I know, but I did it without figuring out his intentions. He could leave here right now, screw half of the university’s population, and I could say absolutely nothing to him about it. “Do whatever you want Hayze.” He grabs my arm. “Hey? I’m joking, okay? I wouldn’t do that, not anymore.” You mean you would actually take girls you’ve already slept with on a date? Not ever,” I say. Hoping it insults him, but his grin grows wider and I know he has no conscious. “You have a point,” he says, grinning at me. “I’m late for class.” He pulls me into a quick, second hug. “Pay attention; don’t let your crazy mind get the best of you in there.” I swat at him, playfully but he steps away at the last second and I hit air instead. He chuckles at me as I walk off without another word. My classes drag by. I doodle pictures on notes, keeping my eyes buried in my notebook. Hayze met me during lunch and after both classes. He’s unfazed after our argument. “We will pick up where we left off next week,” the professor says. As students file from the room, I gather my things and leave. Hayze is leaned against the opposite wall, his foot kicked back. His eyes meet mine, and he smiles with relief. Out of the corner of my eye I see a girl standing next to him, she looks in my direction as he waves at me. The notebook slips from his hands, papers scatter to the floor. He stalks over to me, cups my face in his hands and kisses me. He pulls from my mouth, but his hands stay cuffed around my face. “Not that I’m complaining but what was that about?” I ask. He turns and I peek over his shoulder. I catch a glimpse of the girl, turning and storming away. “I think she got the idea,” he laughs. “You don’t have to grope me in public. You could just tell them,” I say. He smiles. “I know, but where’s the fun in that?” Once we are on the sidewalk, I spot Lea’s blonde bob running toward us. She waves with both hands as she approaches. “There you are! I have been looking all over for you. You didn’t come back last night,” she says. Hayze walks up and slings an arm around my shoulder. “Oh,” she said, with a brow cocked. “Yeah, we uh, stayed at the cabin last night,” I tell her. She winks. “I can see that. So, are we still on for shopping?” “Ah, I forgot!” “Well you are not getting out of it,” she says. “Maybe we already had plans,” Hayze says. Lea taps on her phone, ignoring him. “Okay, so let’s go to the hall.” I crinkle my nose. “What?” “Yeah, that’s what we call the mall here. You can literally stand on one side and see the other. It’s craziness,” she says. Hayze groans, “Can we at least take my car?” Lea covers her smile. “You are actually comin’ with us?” “Sure, why not?” He rubs the back of her head and puts his aviators in place. “Because you hate shopping; that’s it, I have seen it all.” I shoot her a look, hoping she’ll stop teasing him. The truth is, I’m happy he agreed to come with us. After this morning I was afraid last night was a mistake. Once we’re stuffed in the car, Hayze exhales. “You really wanna go to the mall?” “That’s the plan. By the way, Taylor, you will never guess who sent me a friend request.” I hear Hayze sigh. I know he already regrets agreeing to girl’s day. “Who?” I ask. “Scott!” I turn to face her. Her dimples greet me in a shit eating grin. “What? When?” “This morning. He sent me a message asking for my number, and then he was like let me know when you guys go out again.” “I thought you guys already talked? How did you invite him to my party?” I ask, confused. She waves me off and laughs. “I just texted him from your phone,” she says. “What the fuck did I sign up for?” Hayze sighs. “This is obviously going to be a problem. We need to draw up a timesheet for Taylor. And for the record I’ll never let you date a friend again.” I frown at her choice of words. “You will never have to,” he smiles. “Why are we here?” “It’s getting cold outside. We need new winter clothes, and Taylor needs going out attire,” Lea says. “I think her clothes are fine.” “Of course you do,” Lea says and her voice drips with sarcasm. I get out of the car and let Lea out of the back. She smooths down her clothes and motions me to follow her. “So, what about Scott?” She shrugs, playing it off, but her grin gives her excitement away. “We’ve been texting back and forth today. We both kinda want to hang out, but I wanted to ask you first. Would that be weird?” “I’m dating your brother.” I stare at her blankly. “Oh yeah, you don’t care!” Hayze shakes his head at his sister. His fingers snake around mine, leading me to the small building. I’ve never been to the Nacogdoches mall. It’s a town over from Lufkin, the only place I was allowed to drive to. While that mall is sadly small, it has nothing on this place. With just a handful of stores, we’re finished after two stops. Lea’s arms are filled with sacks. I leave with only two, against her will. I spend the night at Hayze’s. It crosses my mind that we are rushing whatever this is. But I push that thought to the side. I may look back on my college years with regret when I’m old and gray, but for now I’m living in the moment. Because right now I regret being compliant, I regret the old me and I welcome the new girl that surfaces more each time Hayze comes around. CHAPTER TEN As the week closed, Hayze and I fell into a relationship. The hesitation of having him in each aspect of my life subsided. He drove me to work and walked me to class, continually proving to me and those around us that he's capable of change. Students buzzed through the dorm. Thanksgiving break lingered near with promises of the semester’s end. I strip my shirt and replace it with my black Mystic tee. I grab my purse, check the time and walk outside to wait for Hayze. My eyes scan the parking lot, searching. I check the time again, seeing he's late. I collapse on the top step and sigh with frustration. I watch students trudge up the stairs as the last class lets out. I call and text him repeatedly. Nothing. Finally, I text Lea. I type a text and press send. Have you seen Hayze? Nope. Why what's up? She responds immediately. I don’t respond, I shove my phone in my purse and run to the car, furious he forgot to pick me up. I blare my music the entire drive and unintentionally run a red light. When I pull in the bar’s parking lot I search for his car. Nothing. I walk inside, checking every room. “Hey Taylor.” Shea waves, smiling. “What’s wrong?" "Is Hayze here?" I ask. Her face falls. "No... He isn't with you?" I shake my head. I walk over to the door, searching the parking lot again. Cars trump by, but Hayze isn’t in sight. I close the door in defeat and force a smile on my face. “He’ll be here,” she promises. Randy walks from the back. “Hey Taylor, how are classes going?” “Fine, thanks for asking,” I say politely. He’s so awkward to talk to. I know he only speaks to us to be polite. He usually sits in a corner and reads, only coming out when he has to help. He turns, looking around the bar. “Where’s Hayze?” “Uhh, um, he’ll be here,” I say. “Have you talked to him?” He pulls his glasses off and rubs his eyes. His voice is urgent and it doesn’t sit right with me. He shoves money in the bar register and pulls out the bar keys. Eric and Jace walk into the bar. “I haven’t talked to him today, but he’ll be here.” As the words leave my mouth, I’m unsure if I’m trying to convince him or myself. “Not this shit again!” Eric complains. “If Taylor said he’ll be here, he’ll be here!” Shea warns. “I’m just sayin’ if…” Eric’s voice trails off, Shea plants her fists on her hips and he walks away. I turn to Shea; her face is worried. “I feel like I’m in the dark on something,” I whisper. She opens her mouth to speak, but Randy holds out his hand, cutting her off. “Doors are open! Sorry Tay,” she says as she whisks away. Regular patrons flooded the floor. I trumped the floor during my shift, returning to tables as they complained. Eric, Jace, Shea, and I picked up the slack of Hayze’s disappearance, even Randy contributed. I watched the door each time it swung open, hope swelled in my stomach, only to be squashed by drunken frat boys. It was unsettling to find out how much he’s needed; especially by me. After clean up, I grabbed my keys and returned to my car. I searched the lot again, coming up short. I sent a text, called him, and texted Lea again; nothing. I shove my car into drive and head in the direction of his apartment. As I parked I realized his car wasn’t in the lot. My stomach lurked, warnings were going up. I knew something was wrong. I knocked on the door and stood back, waiting. No longer than a minute later, I tested the door knob, to my advantage it was unlocked. “Hayze?” I say as I enter the apartment. I search the dark rooms and knock on Joel’s door, all leading me to a dead end. Finally, I go into Hayze’s room and wait. I lie on his bed, popping up with each sound. Every car door, stomping upstairs, and voice is him. The last time I looked at my phone it was past two and eventually my heavy eyes win. A sound stirs me. I open my eyes and clamp them shut. The bright light filters through the blinds. I check my phone seeing that it’s after seven in the morning. The door to Hayze’s room slams open, hitting the back of the wall. “Fuck,” he groans. His hands brace his head, his eyes shut. As he walks toward the bed, my jaw drops. I gasp when I spot the white band on his wrist. “Hayze! You have a hospital band on your wrist!” He looks at me, disoriented. “When did you get here?” “I’ve been here… You didn’t show up to work last night, so I came by.” I quickly explain myself, my cheeks heat with embarrassment. He grunts something inaudible before collapsing on the bed. He lands on his stomach, feet hanging off the bed. His arms are on each side of him, I bring my hand to his right wrist to inspect the bracelet. “What happened?” I ask. “Tell you later,” he mumbles. “Hayze, I don’t like this. Just tell me!” “Fuck you’re loud,” he grumbles, his mouth is pressed into the pillow. “SERIOUSLY? I was worried about you all night. People kept coming up to me at work, asking where you were. I feel like everyone knows something I don’t!” “We can talk when I wake up,” he mutters. “No, we won’t! Because I won’t be here!” I threaten. “HAYZE!” I yell. Moments tick by. Like the stupid, naïve girl that I am, I sit by his side waiting for him to open up. I shove his shoulder and he rolls to the side. His eyes are closed and his breath is even. He drifted into a peaceful slumber while I yelled and demanded to know where he was. I jump from the bed, grab my coat and keys and slam his door. The drive back to my dorm is horrible. I decide to skip on classes today. I know it’s a bad idea because everyone skips on Mondays and professors always assign homework when there are a lot of absences. I swipe every tear that falls down my face. More than anything else, I’m angry with myself. I knew what I was getting myself into. I suspected he was out all night, but I didn’t know it was that bad. He didn’t even have the decency to call me. **** Hours later, Hayze knocks on the door and Lea lets him in. He stumbles in, still in the same clothes, and the hospital band is in place. He sits on the bed beside me, I scan his face. His eyes, the deep amber eyes that are framed with thick lashes, are lined with dark circles. His complexion is pale. “You look like shit,” Lea says. He flips her off. “Yeah, well, I’ve felt better.” I push his hair from his forehead then grab his arm for support. “Are you okay?” “I will be,” he says. My lips press in a hard line. Suddenly, the clipped responses are not enough. I stand and place my hands on my hips. He looks at me, his face lined with exhaustion. “Here we go,” he whispers. “You can’t just disappear and show back up with a hospital band on and expect me not to be upset! Your attitude is pissing me off! What happened, Hayze? What the hell happened?” I yell. His hand cradles his forehead. “First of all, stop yelling, I have a headache. I had my stomach pumped. It’s no big deal, babe.” “Wait…What? Why?” I look to Lea then to Hayze. “You dropped me off at school, drank so much you had to get your stomach pumped, and then you don’t come to work? Or even call me!” “Yeah…Something like that,” he says. “Just tell her,” Lea says. “Yeah, Hayze, just tell me!” I seethe. “Lea,” he warns. She stands, frowns at him and walks outside. He hangs his head and props his elbows on the knees. I take a seat beside him and place my hand on his thigh. When he looks at me, my face falls. He just doesn’t look like Hayze. “You have gotta give me some answers,” I say. His eyes dance across my face; he looks down and shakes his head. “Is this a regular thing?” “Not anymore,” he says. I stare at him with my lips pursed to the side, thinking. He knows how to manipulate answers. I ask a question and he gives me an answer that could go either way. I get so frustrated with him. Either way, I’m led to believe that this used to happen a lot. “So, whatever this is, you just can’t talk about it right now? You will tell me some day, right?” I urge and he looks away from me. “I hope I don’t have to,” he says. “You left class, got drunk. Some random person took you to the hospital? Did you lose your phone?” He sighs, “The details are not important. It won’t happen again,” he promises. “But what won’t happen again?” “Your something shitty,” he says and the corners of his mouth quirk in a weak smile. I wipe my palms on my jeans and keep my eyes focused on the wall in front of me. “I don’t know what to do,” I say and shrug my shoulders. “What were you doing? Do you even remember? I mean, you could’ve cheated on me.” I shake my head in anger. “I said I wouldn’t cheat on you!” His voice booms, startling me, I jump. “You are not exactly forthcoming with answers, so I don’t know what to believe,” I seethe. “I wasn’t with a girl, Taylor! I was with Joel, my roommate! We were,” he stops, groaning in frustration. I throw my hands up, “Please, for the love of God, finish that sentence,” I say. “You trust me right?” He grabs my wrists, pulling me to him. “I thought I did,” I say honestly. That’s the only answer I can give him. I thought he was capable of changing, that he had already started changing. But I was wrong. I don’t know how I still manage to be optimistic with people. “Girls can talk to me in class and flirt with me at the bar. You name it, but I’ll never do anything to hurt you, I promise. You are it for me, remember that. Stupid shit like this may happen, but it’s not another girl, Taylor, it never will be.” “Then what is it?” I manage to ask through clenched teeth. “Something that will never come between us again,” he says. He runs his thumb across my cheek. “I don’t wanna be responsible for that frown on your face.” He kisses my lips. “Then just freaking tell me what it is!” “Trust me, that wouldn’t make your frown go away,” he says, and for the first time today, I actually believe something that came out of his mouth. He studies me, but I give nothing away. I fix my eyes on the wall and shift to the floor. Lea comes in the room, her eyes dart between us. “I have homework to do, so, I’ll uhh… I’ll call you.” His brows shoot up, his eyes cut to the side. “That’s it?” He asks. “That’s it,” I repeat. His face falls, his hands grasps my arms. “C’mon Taylor, don’t do this!” “Just go,” I say. Despite the thoughts swirling in my mind, my voice remains calm. He doesn’t move. His hands clench my arms. He lowers down to be even with my height. His soft eyes plead with me and it almost works. “Hayze, go.” When he doesn’t move, Lea steps toward us. “Maybe you should go,” she says. His face holds a forced smile as she studies him. “Don’t do this,” he says. “What…. Me? Hayze, you don’t do this! Call me when you’re ready to grow up!” I said, his chest rises with each breath. “Go,” I whisper. He unclasps my arms and storms from the room. **** I knew who was at the door before I opened it. Against my better judgement, I let him in. He looked miserable. With the dark circles lining his eyes, it was evident he didn’t sleep much last night. “Let’s grab some coffee,” he says. I grabbed my purse, walking past him, and not saying a word. The closest coffee shop was just a few yards away on campus. I grew nervous with each step I took. He didn’t say a word, and I knew he had rushed over here and was now thinking of a lousy excuse for me to forgive him. It’s not that I didn’t want to; I didn’t need to. We were no good for each other. He put me in the position I was in while living with my father, and I angered him in ways I’m positive no one had before. I sat outside, away from the other students while he ordered. He came back, setting a cup in front of me. I swirled the straw around, destroying the perfectly placed whipped cream. I wasn’t going to be the first to talk. “About last night,” he said, sighing. I cocked my head to the side. “Just last night? Or the entire relationship?” He actually rolled his eyes at me. “I’m trying to apologize.” I shook my head, frustrated. “I don’t want an apology. I want you to change. You can’t keep things from me…. Not anymore.” “I don’t want to.” The sincerity in his eyes almost won me over. “And you’re controlling,” I said, shaking my head until tears almost spilled over. “And you get so angry at me.” He grabbed my hand from across the table, but I took it back, refusing to give in right now.” All that’s about to change. Give me another chance. I’ll show you.” Exhaling a long shaky breath, I considered what he had said. I could get back with him now and he would probably be back to his old ways tomorrow. He needed to think on it. He needed to know that he could lose me and what we have. I stood, grabbing my coffee. “I can’t. Not right now.” His face always makes me break. His face fell with defeat and filled with pain as if I’d physically hurt him. I wouldn’t let him talk me out of it though. I turned and walked away from him. As I walked back to my dorm, knowing he was still sitting there, I had to keep telling myself that we needed this. CHAPTER ELEVEN Two weeks fly by, before I can comprehend time, Thanksgiving hangs over my head. I clench my phone in my hand, convincing myself not to shatter it each time it chimes. I sit on the patio of my favorite coffee shop. My eyes are fixed on my book, avoiding the stares of strangers. Things have been different. Hayze feels the need to hang around me constantly even though I tell him I need distance, but what I want to say is I need answers. I know he can’t give me either. He still hangs out with me and Lea; annoys the shit out of me at work and manages to run into me every day on campus. Some days are better than others, I can feel my walls beginning to crumbles every time he flashes his dimples, or when we’re hanging out and I catch him watching me like I’m the only one he sees. It’s hard, he makes it hard, but I think he likes it to be that way for me. “Hey Taylor.” I look up, finding Corey standing near me. I close my book and brush my bangs from my eyes. I force a smile. “Hi,” I say. Without invitation, he slides a chair out and takes a seat across from me. “What subject?” He points to the book in front of me as he takes a sip of coffee. “Biology,” I say, lifting the book from the table. I close it and prop my elbows on the table. “I’m actually really glad I saw you. I feel like an ass for how I have acted at the bar. Forgive me?” His blue eyes are sincere. I wave him off. “Yeah, sure, Hayze was overreacting,” I add. “He tends to do that,” he says. My brows shoot up as I nod my head in agreement. “Is something going on between you two? That’s the talk around here.” “We are just friends.” His face lights with a smile. “In that case, would you like to go out sometime?” “Yeah, sure,” I smile. “Awesome,” he says. He claps his palms together, he looks around, thinking. “What about tomorrow night?” “I don’t have any plans.” “Great, okay, here’s my number. Text me your address and I’ll pick you up at six?” I nod. He smiles and walks from the table. My eyes are glued to him as he walks away, his light hair touches the collar of his polo. He matches every other guy on campus. No tattoos, no scars, no temper, he’s probably looking for a friend, even a girlfriend—not to fuck up my head, total opposite of Hayze Clark. **** With an empty dorm, I saunter around the room in bliss. My auburn hair hangs down my back in bouncy curls and my face is made to perfection. After three wardrobe changes, I pull on the right one. The dark green dress falls to my knees. The sleeves run to my elbow but the neckline is cut low. I only agreed to this date because I want to forget about him, but I’m looking forward to it. I slide on nude heels and quickly change my purse as a knock hits the door. “You look gorgeous,” Corey tells me. He hands me roses, I smile and thank him. “Oh, I don’t have a vase.” I give him an apologetic look as I lay them on my bed. “No worries, maybe we can pick one up later.” He leads me to a shiny truck parked in front of the fire escape. A sign reads ‘No Parking’ in ugly red letters. He doesn’t open my door. Instead he walks ahead of me and gets in. I press my lips in a hard line, if Hayze Clarke opens the door for me, chivalry is not dead. “I made reservations at the new Italian place downtown. I hope that’s okay,” he says. “That sounds great. Italians great,” I say, cringing at how stupid I sound. “So, Hayze?” He eyes me. “Yeah?” I wrinkle my nose, fighting the urge to ask if he invited me on this date to talk about Hayze. He seems to enjoy bringing him up, which is weird. Maybe they had something happen in this past to make them hate each other. “You guys aren’t a thing? I’m just having a hard time believing that,” he laughs. “The only girls he lets hang around him are his sister and…Well, that about sums it up.” “He’s a good guy,” I tell him. My face is stern. He looks at me, amused, but doesn’t press the topic. The restaurant is packed; patrons line the porch outside. The lobby holds drunken guest, with drinks in their hand, they pass time until their table is ready. The hostess leads us to a table in the bar. “What can I get you two to drink?” The waitress asks, distracted. The bar booms with excitement, the dining area is stuffed with families as more shuffle through the doors. “I’ll just have water,” I say. She smiles and marks it on her pad. “You can do better than that,” he laughs. Corey scans the drink menu, clicking his tongue. “I’ll have a jack and coke, double, short glass.” “Impressive,” I say, sarcastically. “So, tell me about yourself. What brought you to ETU?” “I only live an hour away,” I say, pointing in the direction I think my hometown is in. “I wanted to be close to home,” I shrug my shoulders. I hope he doesn’t ask where I’m from, I hate admitting that I’m from the smallest town in the county. “I’m a local,” he says. He clasps his palms together, thinking. “Business major, thinking about law school, uh…graduate in the spring. I live in the frat house. What about you?” He’s so rushed, I feel like I’m speed dating. “Still kind of undecided…I started working at Mystic this semester, and I’m just wingin’ everything,” I say. He nods, unimpressed as he picks up the menu. Business major; I bring the rim of my glass to my mouth, hiding the growing smile on my face. A basket of bread slides across our table, I smile at the deliverer and watch, with raised brows, as Corey dips a piece into butter. The aroma of freshly baked garlic bread sent me in frenzy. As a distraction, I picked at the napkin in my lap. “What type of law will you go into?” I ask, my eyes are glued to the napkin. He chomps on bread, gulping down the remnants. “Defense; you sure you don’t have any clue? Everyone has some idea of what they want to do…What about when you were little?” With crossed arms, he leans against the booth, watching me with hawk eyes. “I always thought I wanted to be a teacher, like my mom. Now I’m kind of leaning toward being a nurse,” I say. “You and every other girl on campus,” he laughs. “So, how’d a girl like you get hooked up with Lea and Hayze?” “Lea’s my roommate,” I tell him, not elaborating further. I didn’t agree to this date to be asked question after question about Hayze. For one night I thought I could push him to the back of my mind, but like the annoying, persistent ass that he is, he always pops up. “I went to school with them,” he says. He tilts the amber liquid back, finishing the drink before sitting it on the table. “Hopefully you’re smart enough to not get involved with them.” The old Taylor sits somewhere behind my conscious, avoiding confrontation, as I palm the sweating glass before me, I know she’s long gone. “I consider Lea a good friend,” I say, calmer than expected. He shrugs, grinning. “All I’m saying is watch out. You should ask her about her little brothers and why they don’t live here anymore. Better yet, ask Hayze.” With my hands braced on the table, I prepare to stand. “I didn’t come here for this.” “Ah shit, I’ve pissed you off. Look, I’m sorry, just wanted to warn you. You seem like a nice girl, different from the others around here.” I nod. A moment of silence clings to our table. I focus on the bar, the group of people crowded in the foyer, and waitresses hustling by the table. Calloused palms circle around my wrists, pulling me back to my company. “Do you wanna order? Should I take you home? You tell me.” His cold blue eyes dance around my face, and his sympathetic smile almost wins me over. I shake my head. “I’m actually kind of tired, do you mind taking me back?” The corner of his mouth quirks, “Only if you promise me a second date,” he says. “Yeah, sure,” I lie With a victorious grin, he grabs my hand and leads me from the restaurant. On the drive home, he talked endlessly about his frat and the school he hopes to attend after graduation. I smiled and added feedback. I sighed with relief as he pulled in front of the dorm; I did a quick scan of the parking lot. I told myself I wasn’t looking for that black Mustang. I turned to face him, with a forced smile. “Goodnight.” His hands palm my face, pulling me to his. Thin, bird lips mashed into mine, forcing a kiss that shouldn’t have happened. His tongue slips in my mouth in sharp pecking motions, I pull back as he continued to molest my mouth with his overeager tongue. With raised palms, I pressed firmly against his chest; I fumbled for the door handle behind me and slowly eased it open. Still dazed from our kiss, he grins as I slid from the truck. I wave then fall into the darkness, with one foot in front of the other, I slumped to the building. My lips clamped, I cover them to keep from gagging. Having only kissed two guys, I thought bad kisses were a myth. My first boyfriend was awkward, neither of us knew what we were doing but somehow it worked. With Hayze it’s as if he was placed on this Earth to kiss. He touches me in a way I didn’t know I wanted to be touched; he always leaves me frustrated and wanting more. With a groan, I slam the door much harder than intended. I shoot an apologetic wave to the girl sitting crisscrossed on the floor, with her face absorbed in a book; she rolls her eyes without looking up. I throw my purse down and stomp my feet as I walk into my room. I flip on the light and scream as a figure rises from my bed. Lea turns in her bed, grunting in her sleep. Hayze pulls his finger to his lips and points to her. “What the hell are you doing here?” I whisper, crossing the space between us. “My sister lives here.” “I call bullshit,” I seethe. He holds out his hands and rises to his feet. “Okay, so I wanted to see you?” His eyes rake down my body, his brows bunch together. “You look beautiful. Where have you been?” My eyes dart around the room, avoiding his hard glare. “Out with a friend.” “What friend? Did this friend get you the flowers?” He shoves his finger in the direction of the roses on my table. “Yeah, it was nothing,” I say. Anger flares in his eyes. He exhales and pinches the bride of his nose. “After you made a big fucking deal about cheating,” he says, pacing the floor. “I didn’t cheat on you! It seems like you forgot we aren’t even together!” His eyes snap to me as he closes the space between us. “So, you are telling me if I went out on a date with another girl, you’d be okay with that?” I look down at my feet. “Answer me,” he demands. “No! I wouldn’t be okay with that! Are you happy now?” With my fists balled at my side, I meet his glare. “Far fucking from it! Who was it?” My eyes widen. “What?” “Who. Was. It.” He stresses each word through clenched teeth. “You don’t know him, just a guy from class,” I say. He folds his arms, smirking. “Try me, I grew up here and I have worked at the busiest bar in town for two years.” “Corey.” I’m almost positive he didn’t hear me. I could hear a pen drop in the next room. This wasn’t the reaction I expected. Finally, he looks at me his are eyes wide, he tugs on his hair in frustration. “Oh, just that guy?” He laughs once, “The one that mauled you in the bar?” “He put his arm around me, I think you are overreacting a little,” I say. “Have you lost your damn mind?” “Obviously!” I shout at him, making a point of gesturing to him with my eyes. “Did he touch you?” I drop my head in my hands, wishing he would let this go. “Hayze,” I warn. “No, Taylor, humor me. What did you do on this date?” His cold eyes hold mine, I open my mouth to say something, but I stop. It’s not like I wanted the kiss to happen. “Remember our first date, Taylor? Did history repeat itself?” “Are you suggesting I slept with him?” I yell, forgetting Lea’s asleep in her bed. “He kissed me! And I left after that!” Since he was expecting the worst, I thought he would be relived. Instead, my roses are sent flying across the room, along with everything else that was on my desk. The room is dark, so I don’t know where the glass shatters came from. I shake my head, keeping my eyes fixed on the floor. When I look up, my eyes find his, my stomach falls with regret. “I’m sorry, Hayze” I whisper. “After the hospital thing I just, I didn’t know where we stand and that guy asked.” “If you would just ask you wouldn’t have to question that. C’mon Taylor, I told you it wouldn’t happen again.” His jaw is clenched, but he keeps his temper in check and doesn’t yell. “How am I supposed to know that?” I stalk away from him. I tear my dress from my body, kick my heels off and pull a t-shirt over my head. His brows shoot up. “You’re turning this around on me?” I throw the covers back and lay in my bed, hoping he’ll get the point and leave. When he crawls beside me, I bawl my hands into fist and slam my hands beside me. “I’m not turning this around! You started this entire thing. I worried all night about you and it didn’t help that everyone in the damn world seemed to know what was going on except me! And you still won’t even tell me the truth!” “I told you what happened, Taylor.” His voice remains neutral. I prop on my elbows and look him straight in the eye. “I think you are lying,” I say. He watches me then looks to the left. “Well, I’m not.” “I think you should leave, Hayze.” “I’m not going anywhere until we figure our shit out!” “You lied to me and I went out with another guy. There. Done,” I say as I throw my hands in the air. His eyes narrow. He shakes his head. “Not done. I’m not leaving you while you are this mad.” “Oh, yes you are! I’m always mad when you’re around! I think I sense a pattern.” I grab his arm and pull him to the door. His shoulders relax. He slips his fingers around my hand. “Look we’ve both said some shit we don’t mean, let’s just sleep it off and talk tomorrow,” he says. I open the door and slowly push him out. “Great idea,” I say. His foot catches the door as I try to close it. “Goodnight, Hayze.” He sighs, exasperated and throws his hands up. “I meant sleep it off together…” A dozen thoughts swim in my mind, threatening to spew out. I hate you. Get the hell out of my room, indefinitely. I can’t think straight when I’m around you. He watches me intently; he bends his arm and rests it against my open door. With my arms crossed, I stand up straighter. “My mind’s made,” I say. I place my hand on his chest to guide him from my door. I close the door and walk back to my bed. As I lay down, he knocks on the door. Groaning, I shove my ear buds in my ears to drown him out. I press shuffle and breeze through each song suggestion. Tonight, all songs speak to me. As my indifference subsides, I skip tunes that remind me of him. When Make Damn Sure by Taking Back Sunday creeps onto the screen, I freeze. I listen to the words and start the song once more. Each second that ticks by, my chest grows heavy. Although I’m alone, I can feel Hayze’s stare boring into me within the lyrics. And I know he won’t ever leave me alone. CHAPTER TWELVE I walk across the manicured lawn. The damp air is cool, no longer threatening to claim my life at any moment. The stale dorm lobby sours my mood each time I walk inside. Not all dorms resemble a dark, damp prison cell, but unfortunately for a late registration freshman, mine does. Lea whirls around the room, grabbing scattered clothing as I walk inside. She stops, lifts her head, and waves to me. Hayze sits on her bed, watching me as I walk in. “You’re cleaning?” I look around the stale room, impressed. She pops out an ear bud and smiles. “Yeah, I guess so. We’ll both be gone for Thanksgiving break…” My mouth forms an O. “I don’t think I’m going home for Thanksgiving,” I say. “I’m not either, but I’m not staying in this shithole all week.” She shrugs, her eyes cut to Hayze. “What are you doing over the break?” “What I do every year,” he deadpans. He throws his body back on her bed, tucking his hands behind his head. “You should go see your mom,” she says. He exhales, “You should see yours.” She throws the clothes in her hands to the floor and crosses her arms. “If I had the type of mom you have I wouldn’t give a second thought about going home! I wouldn’t skip holidays!” “Knock it off, Lea. Thanksgiving, Christmas,” he shrugs, “They’re just another day.” “Maybe to you, but your mom would be thrilled if you went,” she says. “She has Glenn.” He cuts his eyes to Lea. She rolls her eyes and groans. “I’ll go with you,” she says. Her eyes rise with hope as she waits for his answer. He stares into space, reluctant to show emotion. “If you wanna go somewhere, just go to Colorado and get off my back.” “Hayze…” She whines. “Oh for fucks sake,” he sighs, exasperated. He pushes himself from the bed, watching me. “Taylor will you go with me to my mom’s for Thanksgiving? Apparently it’s a huge fuckin’ deal.” My brows shoot up. “Uh, when you put it like that,” I laugh, “Sure.” Lea clasps her hands together in victory. “Your mom is going to be so excited!” She squeals. I look to both of them. Hayze is slumped on her bed, his fingers tap anxiously on his lap. Grinning, Lea taps on her phone, probably alerting Hayze’s mom. Before I can stop the question from tumbling from my mouth, it happens. “Can someone explain to me what’s going on?” “Hayze has fuckin’ Mother Teresa for a mom and he won’t even go see her,” she says. So many questions flood my mind. I pinch the bridge of my nose, piecing together their family and their relationship. “Ok, so, what’s up with your mom? Why won’t you go home?” I ask her. She pushes her thick blonde bangs from her hair and chews on her lip. “We just don’t get along. I stayed with my grandparents or Hayze’s mom growin’ up.” He shifts uncomfortably on her bed and stands. “Hey Taylor, I’ll call ya later, okay?” Her hand rests on my arm. I turn to see her watching me with empathy. He acts so strange each time family is brought up. He can’t get away from the conversation fast enough. “He gets like that,” she explains. “It’s not you, trust me, that guy’s in love with you.” I swallow the lump in my throat and walk back to the bed, pacing several times before sitting. That has never crossed my mind. She can’t just blurt something out like that and move on. Has he said something to her about it? We aren’t even together right now; at least I don’t think we are. He doesn’t love me, right? That would be…weird. “I mean I could understand if his mom was like mine, but she’s not. I know it’s a shitty situation and his mom takes the blame but she doesn’t bring it up anymore.” I glance to her, nodding my head without knowledge. “Yeah,” I say. “I’m fucked up, too. I mean how many people’s dad is going to spend the rest of their life in prison? It sucks, I get it, but what he’s doing is unhealthy. He’s gotta stop.” I start coughing, no, choking on air as the words leave her mouth. Prison? Her eyes hold mine as if I hold the answers. My face is cool, showing no emotion. “What’s he doing, Lea?” She sighs and blows her bangs from her face. “I’ll never let a friend date one of my brothers after this.” “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to put you in the middle of this, but what is he doing? What am I getting myself into here?” My eyes dance across her face, she thinks and slowly a soft smile curls on her lips. “Nothing either you can’t handle. Especially together,” she says, nudging my shoulder. “Go easy on him right now. This month has been a year since everything happened…” “Yeah, of course, I will.” I nod my head and offer a tight smile. **** Hayze tosses my small, floral backpack in the trunk of the Mustang. He turns and looks at the ground, making sure he got all of the bags, then slams the trunk. Lea’s engrossed with her phone. She trips on the gravel and runs into the open car door before looking up. “Sorry…Texting your mom, I don’t want her to stroke out when you show up with a girl,” she says. He huffs, “Save the effort. She knows about Taylor.” With wide eyes, Lea looks baffled. “Oh,” she mumbles. I’m shocked too. I feel bad because I ensure my family that there’s nothing going on between us, but we have a different situation. He holds the seat for her as she climbs in the back. With a twist of the key, the engine roars to life. Hayze’s hand finds mine, with a solicitous look, he navigates from the campus. Excluding the soft melody of Nirvana, the drive is silent. Lea pecks anxiously at her phone, occasionally giggling. I glance at her but she shrugs me off. We turn into an older subdivision on the outskirts of town. The houses are mostly worn, single story brick homes. Hayze turns left before the roundabout. The house is dark red brick with white shutters and a manicured lawn. When the engine shuts off the front door flings open and a woman walks out. Her light brown hair hits her shoulders and frames her small face. She adjusts her squared glasses and tugs her sweater together as the chilling wind blows. A tall, graying man walks out and rests his arm on her back. Hayze lets Lea out of the back seat and walks toward the pair. Grinning, the lady clasps her hands together at her mouth. “Hayze,” she chokes out as she wraps her arms around him. I pull my backpack from the trunk and Lea grabs their bags. As I approach them, she lets go, with misty eyes she grins at us. Lea walks over and awards her with a hug. “You have no idea how long I have waited for you,” she says to me. I offer her my hand, but she pulls me into a stiff hug. My body relaxes as she pulls me at arm’s length; she smiles and looks me over. I want to explain to her that Hayze and I aren’t exactly on good terms right now, I don’t want to get her hopes up, but I can’t bring myself to crush the look on her face. “I’m Taylor,” I say, feeding into the game we’re playing. I wish Hayze would’ve filled them in before we came. “I’m Janelle. It’s chilly out, c’mon inside dear,” she says. She pulls Hayze ahead of me, holding his arm tight. “She is so pretty,” she whispers. Lea and I fall into step behind them. We walk inside to a small, warm home. The living room is covered in tan carpet; the walls are lined with wood paneling. The décor leads into the dining room. “This is Glenn,” Janelle tells me. The tall man waves and offers his hand. “I hope you kids are hungry,” she smiles. “I am!” Lea beams. “Oh, Hayze, show Taylor where she can put her things.” He throws his arm over my shoulder, guiding me into the hall, when no one can see us, his lips press against my forehead. He opens the second door on the left and reveals a scattered room; I suspect it’s the exact way he left it. The walls are peppered with band posters, the curtains are black and the bedding is black, a stark contrast to the tan carpet and white walls. I search the room, stopping at pictures. My eyes are glued to the small wooden table placed by the bed. A picture of Hayze as a child posing with an older man, I grab the iron frame and study the faces. “That’s my dad,” he says, coming up behind me. You look just like him,” I say, hoping I don’t cross a line. He nods his head once; his mouth is pressed in a hard line. “Uhh, you can just throw your bag anywhere.” He motions around the room. “Your mom’s going to let me sleep in here with you?” My eyes widen in shock. “Yeah,” he says. He pulls the bag from my arms, looking at me as if I’m clueless. “My parents would not be down for that, well, my dad wouldn’t…” “Yeah?” He chuckles and looks at me amused. “This isn’t your house and my dad’s not a preacher.” He smirks. “Where’s Lea staying?” I ask, wanting to steer the conversation from me. “She has her own room down the hall. She used to stay a lot when we were in school.” I nod, remembering her mentioning that to me. As we walk into the kitchen, the smell fills my senses. My tongue swells from the aroma. Lea hits the stove as it rings; she bends down to grab the turkey from the oven and places it on the table. “Is there anything I can do?” I ask. “Nonsense, you are a guest in this house! Hayze help your sister,” Janelle says. “Yeah, don’t just stand there,” Lea teases him. He grabs a damp dish towel, rolls it up and pops Lea’s thigh. She yelps and goes after him. “No fighting in the kitchen,” Janelle says. Her tone is harsh, but her face breaks into a grin. Once we are seated at the dated table, Janelle passes behind us, tapping Hayze as she takes her spot. She sniffs and dabs a napkin under her eye. “I’m so happy you’re here, Taylor. Hayze has told me so much about you.” “Thanks for having me,” I smile. A strong hand captures mine underneath the table. Slightly uncomfortable, I cut my eyes at him and he winks. “I hope you’ll be back every holiday, if you get Hayze here, you are welcome anytime. What’s it been hun, two? Three years?” She looks to Glenn then Hayze. “Three,” Hayze says. A knock comes from the front door. Hayze head snaps up, his eyes pass between his mom then to Lea. Lea brings a glass to her mouth, with her brows raised she shrugs. His mom shamelessly grins as she stands and saunters toward the door. A woman walks in, her arms wrap around Janelle. Two teen boys step around her; the shorter one has dark rimmed glasses peeking from his shagged, curly brown hair. The taller one dumps his duffle bag on the floor; his eyes scan the room without focusing on us. The floor complains as Lea shoves her chair back in a rush. She clamps a hand over her mouth then walks over to the strangers. “I didn’t know you guys would be here!” “We weren’t sure either, that’s why Janelle and I didn’t say anything.” The tall red headed woman with a strong face declares. Hayze stands, bumps into my chair and trips as he rushes from the room. Everyone notices, their faces drop but quickly go back into conversation with one another. “Taylor, there’s a couple of boys you need to meet,” Janelle says. They gather around the table and take their seats as if they have been here before. “Casey,” she says, pointing to the shorter boy. He perks his head up briefly and waves. “Chance,” she motions to the taller one. He holds my gaze, studying me. “These are Hayze and Lea’s brothers from Colorado,” she explains. “We haven’t seen these kids in like five years!” Lea booms with excitement. “It has been awhile,” the woman agrees. “And I’m Anna.” “I’m Taylor,” I add with a smile. The group grabs a plate, adding food as they chatter. I tug my jacket around my chest and cross my arms. Twenty minutes flicker by without a hint of Hayze's departure. They carry on as if they're immune to him. Every growing minute brings a new, frustrating insecurity. Being accustomed to him, Lea slid to the screaming vacant seat. "Where is he?" I ask in a hushed whisper. "Probably in the bathroom," she shrugs. The spoon lifts, pushing overcooked turkey into her mouth. She smiles at me, then chews, her dimples flicker around her cheeks. "Why’s is he in there for…?” I jingle the face of my watch to my eyes, "twenty-three minutes?" "It's hard for him to see the twins," she says, pointing her fork to the tall one. "They shouldn't have sprung it on him like this." My eyes shift to the twins then back to Lea. "...Why?" "Taylor, how's the food?" Janelle asks. I dab my napkin at the corner of my mouth before placing it on the table. "Everything is wonderful," I sing praises to her. "I’m going to check on him," I say, standing. She nods; an appreciative smile casts over her face. I walk mindlessly down the long hallway until I find the door with an under glow of light. I rest my back on the frame and bend my knee with my foot propped on the wall. I hear each rugged, fast breath he takes. Drawers open and belongings flail through them, then the drawer closes and the process starts again. He stops and I suck in a breath, waiting for his erratic noise to commensurate. A boom jolts me, followed by a pile scattering on the floor, he curses once. I knock. "Hayze?" "Shit. Yeah?” "Can I come in?" I ask. He doesn’t respond, but light fills the dark hallway, he walks from the doorway and to his room without speaking. “Hayze?" He turns to me, watching me with reluctance. He cocks his head and points to the door. "You need in there?” "No... I uh, I just wanted to check on you." With a swift nod of his head, he turns and walks from me. “I’m confused,” I say. Sighing, he stops. “Why am I even here? Why did you ask me to come?” He forks his fingers through his hair. His shoulders dipped then he turned to face me. “I wanted you to be here...With me; I wanted you to meet my family.” “Is this normal? Am I the only one that sees anything wrong with this picture? You run out of the room and leave me with your family. And what was that about? You couldn't get out of the room fast enough when your brothers came.” His brows bumped into a scowl. “That's not true. I was just looking for something then I was coming back.” “You were walking to your room,” I remind him. With an inaudible curse, he brings his hands over his face. “I don't know what you want, Taylor. You went out with another guy...” I cut him off. “But you asked me to be here. And here I am!” I say, my finger slams into my chest, dramatically. “Asking you to let me in; I don't want you to invite me over just to ditch me. If you have a problem with someone out there just tell me.” With long legged strides, he edged closer to me. “Come with me.” With his hand presses against the small of my back, he guides me into his room and shuts the door. I collapse into his childhood bed and the springs squeal in protest. Sighing, he sits beside me with his hands braced on his knees. “Those two boys in there are my little brothers, Casey and Chance,” he says. “Yeah I know. Lea filled me in.” With a brow cocked, he laughs once. “Well now I’m telling you. I stayed with my grandparents a lot growing up. I don’t know why, my mom’s a fucking angel. My dad would always come in drunk or high and start shit sometimes. One night he took it too far, he was pissed at something and came in... And my little brother was on the couch... He realized it was him after the blade was shoved through his stomach. Wanna know what his excuse was? He thought it was me. He wouldn't have done it if he knew... I know how they look at me now. Some of them blame me, some feel sorry for me.” “No one blames you, Hayze. Did he ever hurt you? Like that bad?” “Not to that extent, no,” he says, shaking his head. Involuntarily, I brush my thumb across the scar lining his brow. The scar, along with Hayze, has lost its mystery. His eyes find mine and something shifts between us. All logic and fear of the unknown fly out the window. “Beer bottle,” he says, clasping his hand around mine to pull it from his face. “What?” “That’s from a beer bottle. That was probably the worst. Nothing like what he did…” He stops midsentence and groans. “Have you considered talking to anyone about this?” He sighs, knowing where this is going. “I’m talking to you.” “I mean a professional.” “Huh uh, I’m not talking to a shrink. What I just did here is a first, and I only told you because I know that’s what you want.” “I want you to tell me when you’re ready…” “I won’t ever be ready, baby. I don’t wanna talk about it again, I don’t need to rehash my feelings, let’s just forget it. I told you to keep you here; when you leave it won’t be because I kept shit from you.” “So, there’s nothing you want to tell me now?” I ask him, searching his face. I know there’s more, and I need him to tell me. But I can wait. He proved a lot to me tonight. “No.” “I guess we should probably go back. I’m sure your mom is wondering where we went,” I say. He nods. “We’re good?” I chew on my bottom lip, debating what I’m about to ask. I know it’ll just lead into a fight, but I just need to know that he’ll at least tell me when he’s ready. Sighing, “One more thing…What happened the night you had your stomach pumped?” “Fuck! Really?” He runs his hands through his hair, tugging at it in frustration. “I just need to know.” He shakes his head. “Not yet. Someday when it’s behind me I’ll tell you. Can you live with that?” “For now,” I say. I push past him and open the door before he stops me. “I can’t go out there,” he says. I cuff his face, pulling him close to me. I lean on my tiptoes and press a swift kiss on his lips. “Hey, if you’re not ready, then we don’t have to go.” “You shouldn’t have to stay in here with me,” he says. “What kind of girlfriend would I be if I left you in here alone?” I interlace our fingers and pull him back to the bed. I sit down and he crouches in front of me, with his palms pressed on my thighs, he leans in for a soft, lasting kiss. “You don’t know how long I have waited to hear that,” he says. “What did I do to deserve you?” He asks, nuzzling his face in my neck. I giggle and push him back. Before I get too distracted, I type a quick text explaining that Hayze doesn’t want to come out and send it to Lea. I wanted to spend this night getting to know the family, but the look on his face keeps me locked in this room with him. “Have you talked to you brother since it happened?” I ask. “Chance, it was Chance, and no I haven’t talked to him.” “Do you visit your dad?” “No, Taylor, I don’t,” he mutters as he takes his place beside me. I face him and tuck my legs underneath me. “Do you write or call? Does he even try to reach out to you?” “He has before… No offense, babe, but I don’t want to talk about this.” “You shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. Everyone has secrets, some are better at hiding them,” I say, grinning. “Yeah, guess you’re right,” he says. “You asked me about ‘The High School Taylor Thompson.’” I say, adding air quotes. “I dated this guy all throughout school. His dad was our youth preacher, I was around him all of my life and it just made sense that we should date.” “What happened?” He asks his brows bunch into a scowl. I know he has a jealous side so I’ve never talked about him. Now that I’m looking at his face, I feel bad for keeping this from him. He was a big part of my life growing up. “My dad had an affair. I found out my senior year, the night of homecoming. I lost faith in everything and I ended it with him. I never cared for him in that way. He was a good friend and he’s a good guy. But that year I found out that, it didn’t matter how good of a person you thought someone was, or what their position was, they could still do some shitty stuff.” “Does your mom know?” “Oh, yeah. So does everyone else. Surprise! The fucking saint that won’t let his family embarrass him was sticking his dick in his secretary.” He tries his best to hide his surprise at my language. I usually don’t speak like…Well, Hayze, but something about my father makes me want to cuss. “Why’d she stay with him?” I shrug. “For the family, knowing her…maybe she felt stuck. I’ve honestly never talked to her about it. They just pretended like it never happened.” He exhales, “Shit.” “Yeah,” I mumble. He places a soft kiss on my lips then tucks a lock behind my ear. “Don’t let that worthless piece of shit determine your choices. Not everyone’s like that, Baby.” My heart does a flip every time he calls me ‘baby.’ I shake my head. “I don’t. Not now, anyways. I just pushed through school because I knew it wouldn’t always be like that. I knew one day I would leave and never go back. Then I met you,” I laugh. “God, I was so disgusted with you. Your lifestyle choices repulsed me,” I laugh. “Please, tell me you have a point,” he says, clearly not amused. “I do. Then I spent time with you and it was refreshing. You were like a breath of fresh air. Your flaws were on display for everyone to see. You didn’t put on a front or try to be someone you’re not to impress people. And I think I started to fall for you…” I know I look like I saw a ghost. I can’t believe I admitted I’m falling for him out loud. Honestly, I wasn’t sure until it came out of my mouth. His lips press to mine. “I started falling as soon as I saw this wide-eyed, innocent, out of place girl stumbling around the bar.” I bite my bottom lip and look down at my hands tucked in my lap. “I think I wanna go in there,” he says. I stand and hold my hand out to him. He takes it, sighs, and then walks out of the door. As the hallway comes to an end, I place my hand on his back to let him know I’m still behind him. “There he is,” Janelle chimes. Anna greets him with a hug then holds him at arm’s length. “It’s so good to see you, Sweetheart. I never hear from you, this one stays in touch,” she says, nodding to Lea. “I know, I just get caught up with school and work…” She nods knowingly. “We’re planning a trip with Lea. Wanna come for a visit to Colorado for Christmas?” She beams at him, her eyes cast to me. He looks at me. “We can talk about it later,” he says. His face smooths into a boyish grin when he spots the twins sitting on the couch, Chance is engrossed in his phone and Casey flips through channels. When Hayze crashes between them on the couch, Chance’s head snaps up and he studies Hayze. “How’s it goin’?” Hayze asks, and just like that Chance grins and the tension eases. “You realize you’re stuck with this family forever now, right?” Lea says, slipping behind me to watch them. “Catch phrase anyone? Taylor?” Janelle opens a box and sets its contents on the table. Everyone crowds around and I look at them, confused. “I’ve never played,” I say. “Well now’s the time to play. Hayze isn’t playing and he’s an asshole,” Lea says. “Lea can’t handle losing. And no one wants to be on her team because she sucks,” he fired back. “He cheats,” she says. “Okay girls, you two against Anna and me?” Janelle asks, ignoring their fight. “Sounds good to me,” Lea beams. I take my seat in between Anna and Janelle, Lea sits across the table from me. “Okay, so you are given a word and you have to explain it without using the word, or what it rhymes with, starts with, you get the point. If the buzzer goes off in your hand the other team gets the point and they get to guess your word,” Lea said. “Kinda like charades?” I ask. “Exactly! Except you don’t act it out and you can talk.” “So, absolutely nothing like charades,” Hayze says, laughing. I shoot him a look and then turn around in my chair. “And hold it until the buzzer is about to go off then pass it,” he says. He walks up and leans over the back of my chair. “Baby, do you want me to teach you the right way to play?” Lea slaps him away. “Go away, cheater!” I get the hang of it after the first game. Janelle and Anna were good, and they beat us every single game. We called it a night after three games. Hayze was right, Lea sucks. And so do I. The parents turned in for the night and Lea took the opportunity to bust into the wine cabinet. “Goodnight. It was nice to meet you, Taylor.” I turn and find Casey waving as he passes down the hall. “Nice to meet you too,” I reply with a smile. “Goodnight, love you,” Lea says. Lea turns her attention back to me. “I’m pretty surprised Hayze came out of the room earlier. What did he say?” She asks in a hushed whisper. “He told me…everything.” With wide eyes, she asked, “He did?” “Well, almost everything. He told me about your brother and dad. He just still won’t tell me about that night I couldn’t find him,” I say, searching her face. “I wouldn’t worry with that,” she says. “Easy for you to say; it’s eating at me,” I tell her. “Seriously, I think all of that has stopped. Don’t let it bother you.” “You think it’s stopped?” I deadpan. “Just don’t get hung up on little things. Think about all of the progress you two have made,” she says. She does have a point. I chew my lip anxiously. I spot him on the couch, laughing and playing a video game with Chance. We have come a long way, even from this morning. We left, not knowing where we stood in a relationship and somehow throughout the night we admitted to falling for each other. The rest can wait. I know one day, when he’s ready, he’ll tell me. “Yeah, I guess you are right,” I say. “I’m turnin’ in, we’ve gotta leave early. I have to work in the morning,” Lea says. She tosses her glass back then sets it in the sink before walking to her room. “Fuck this game!” Hayze says through laughter. Ruffling Chance’s hair, he stands and tosses the controller down. After a hug, Chance passes by me with a wave. “Are you drunk?” Hayze asks, pointing to the empty wine bottle on the table. “Oh, I had help with that. I have only had two glasses.” “So you are drunk?” He laughs. “Pretty much,” I say. His hands slip around my waist. “I owe you a thanks.” “What for?” I ask. “I wouldn’t have come out of my room if it wasn’t for you. Hell, I wouldn’t have even been here.” “I can’t think of any place I’d rather be,” I say. His grin is contagious. He nods to his room then makes a gesture that I’m positive he has never made in this house before. My face heats, but I bite my bottom lip and go along with the game he’s playing. “So, everyone’s asleep.” “Noticed that, captain obvious,” I laugh, walking past him to his bedroom. He catches me by the waist before I walk in his room. “You like to play games, do you?” Giggling, “That depends on what you had in mind.” When his lips find mine, he groans. “I’ll give you a hint, it’s not charades.” CHAPTER THIRTEEN There’s something magical about the campus in December. The tall timbers are decorated with lights, glowing through the windows of the dining hall. Tacky, metallic centerpieces fill the tables and the air is vibrant as students discuss their plans. I squeeze between the line and toss my purse on the seat. I slide decorations out of the way, listening to Lea babble on about the upcoming break. With finals behind me, I debate what to do with my open month. Lea lifts her roll and tosses it, after smacking me in the face; it falls into my lap, leaving a greasy residue on my dress. “Earth to Taylor,” She says. I toss it back to her, she swats it. “Really?” Yanking the napkin from the table, I dab the mess on my sweater dress. The brown, crochet material returns to its original state after countless swipes. She shrugs, “You weren’t paying attention; I had to. Are you finished with finals?” “I finished yesterday,” I say, cutting my eyes at her. She nods then pops a french fry in her mouth. “Are you going home over the break, or what?” Sighing, I say, “At least for Christmas day.” The seat beside me shifts as Hayze takes his place beside me. “I wanna meet your parents,” he chimes in. His dimples greet me with a genuine grin. The grey, long sleeved shirt brings out his eyes. “You sure about that?” I ask, snapping out of my daydream. “Yeah, why not,” he says. His face screws into confusion, like he can’t fathom the horror of my family holidays. “Um, for starters my dad’s an asshole,” I remind him. “He won’t say anything to me,” he says, confidently. I twist my lips to the side, thinking. I knew as soon as the words tumbled from his mouth how that introduction would go. My mom wouldn't comment; she would sit back as my dad tore into me. But deep down she would love him. She would whisper thanks of my returning smile into his ear as he left. But I don't need her approval, nor do I need my dad’s. As I watch Hayze's eyes dance across my face, waiting for an answer, the need for their approval is long gone. “If you want, but don't say I didn't warn you.” I say, then turned my attention to Lea. “When’s your flight?” “Four, ugh, I’m leaving after lunch.” “I’m so jealous. Take lots of pictures!” “I will! I’ve never been to Colorado before, and Anna said they live close to the ski lift! So what are you tellin’ your mom?” “She just texted me again,” I say, pointing to my phone. “I guess she knows I’m ignoring her. I mean I guess I could handle a few days there. Maybe I can go tomorrow? That’s only,” I stop and count the days in my head, “Four days before Christmas. I could leave that night.” “You would probably survive that,” Lea laughs. “What are you two doing tonight?” “Joel wanted to go to the cabin. There’s a couple four wheelers there and he’s swinging by his parents to get his. But now that I won’t see Taylor for a few days…” he says, he looks at me and shrugs. I frown, this is the first I’m hearing about this. I hope he just planned it and didn’t hide it from me. “That sounds…dangerous. Oh my god, Hayze, what the hell are you going to do without us? Taylor and I will both be gone the entire Christmas break!” “Um, I didn’t say that,” I tell her, needing her to calm down. The thought of staying with my parents for a day is frightening. She can’t imagine what that just did to me. “Won’t be that long, I guess I’ll go to Taylor’s on Christmas Eve and stay the night…” Lea and I both burst into laughter. “Did Hell just freeze over? Taylor’s dad isn’t going to let you within a mile of that house when the sun goes down.” I nod. “The only things that are open after dark are legs and the ER.” “Shut up! He did not say that,” Lea howls with laughter. I shake my head, wishing it wasn’t true and she laughs even harder. It’s funny now, but I didn’t find the humor in it when I repeated the words to the kids at school. “I’ll just come Christmas day and we can ride back together?” He asks and I nod in agreement. “You okay with riding four wheelers at the cabin tonight?” “Yeah, sounds fun!” I think. “You two be careful, okay?” Lea’s eyes hold mine. “We will, Mom,” I tell her. When we get back to the dorm Lea scoops up her carry on and hugs us as she leaves. Hayze helps me gather enough clothes to last while I visit my family then we go to his apartment. When we arrive Joel comes out of his room with two very blessed girls on his flank. “When we goin’, man?” Joel asks. “I’m riding down there in an hour to gas up before dark,” Hayze says. “Alright, we’ll see ya down there. I’ve gotta go by my parents first. Is the cabin unlocked?” “The key is under the mat, but don’t go in there and fuck around,” Hayze says, holding his gaze. Joel’s face lights with amusement. “I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do,” Joel says, tantalizing Hayze as he opens the door for the girls. He winks at me and shuts the door behind him. I’ll never understand how the two of them started rooming together. Hayze shakes his head as they leave. “My next roommate will sign a very detailed contract.” I laugh, “What’s wrong?” “That son of a bitch always has girls over here. He needs to do that shit at their place,” he says. He walks over to the kitchen and digs through the cabinet. He pulls out a whiskey jar and I cringe. My eyes never leave him, he pours more sweet and sour into a cup and sets it on the bar. “What’s wrong with having them over?” I ask, smirking. “We’ve been through this.” “Do you guys go to the cabin a lot?” I sit on the couch, tuck my feet underneath me and watch Hayze make another drink. “We used to, not so much anymore. And Chandler would come, too. I think he’s coming tonight.” He walks over and joins me on the couch, handing me the less strong drink and I thank him with a kiss. “Have I met him?” “No, he’s in the frat I was in…I got out of it, but I still hang out with some of the guys,” he explains. I thought it would be us and Joel’s entourage. I didn’t consider that there would be more people. My stomach sinks. “Who’s all going?” “Chandler, Joel, those chicks he was with. I think that’s it.” “Chandler isn’t bringing a slew of girls, is he?” He laughs, “I’m sure he’ll be entertained.” I nod even though I don’t know what that means. He stands, then disappears into the hallway and comes back minutes later with a backpack. He tosses it next to mine and steps back into the kitchen. “What do you want tonight? Wine? Whiskey?” My face screws into disgust. “Hayze we are riding four wheelers tonight, should we drink?” “I’m driving. You’re riding, drink enough for both of us.” “I’ll be hung over when I see my family tomorrow, lovely. And you’ve already had a drink…” “I have had one drink, stop insultin’ my manhood, woman. C’mon, we need to get down there before Joel fucks the place up,” he says, patting my thighs to get me up. Even though I protest, he grabs drinks and we leave the apartment. Half an hour later Hayze is cleaning the dusty four wheelers in the shed behind the cabin. We’re nestled between the trees and lake. Birds chirp in the distance, leaves dance in the wind, and most importantly, cell service is nonexistent. Although I told my mom I would be home tomorrow, she still insists on giving me instructions. What to say to my dad, what not to say, what lies to tell. Each attempt to reach out to me has been ignored; tomorrow I’ll deal with them. I have no plans of lying to my dad this week, and when Hayze shows up, tattooed and different, I have a feeling I won’t be asked to come to another family function. “Thought I heard something,” Hayze says, staring behind me. I find a guy walking toward us with a beer in hand. He wears a heavy brown coat and he stops and tucks his jeans into his boots before walking further. Stray blonde hairs poke from his cap. “Where’s Joel? He’s bringing Kassi and Jenny?” “He had some chicks, I don’t know their names,” Hayze replies, shrugging. He laughs, “And who are you? I’m Chandler.” He offers his hand; his mouth is curved into a charming, side grin. “That’s Taylor,” Hayze says. There’s a warning in his slow response. “Well, shit, you are not a myth. Good to meet ya,” Chandler says with a laugh. Car doors slam, Chandler snakes his head around and grins. “Speak of the devil. Be right back,” he says, then turns and joggs toward the cabin. The trio piles out of a large blue truck. The guys distance themselves from the truck, as Joel slips something to Chandler; I realize I’m undoubtedly starring at them. “Babe?” I turn, finding Hayze watching me intently. “Drive one to the front.” “Yeah, sure, what were they doing?” I ask. “Looks like he’s about to unload the four-wheeler,” he says, sarcastically. I turn around and find that he’s right. Chandler and Kassi are now leaning against the truck, limbs tangled in one another. Joel unloads the red four-wheeler he brought. Frustrated with his answer, I bring the four-wheeler to life and meet the others at the front. The voluptuous blondes walk toward me; they must stand a whole foot above me. Surprisingly, they each offer a hand and smile. "I’m Kassi," the girl in the plaid says. "Jenny," the other says. Kassi gives me a natural, easy going smile, leading me to believe we could be friends. Jenny, on the other hand, probably hasn’t heard the word natural since she was a child. Even in the overcast of clouds, her teeth sparkle as if the sun is shining in her mouth. Her boobs sit below her chin and probably each weigh more than I do. Although she’s nice in her own way, I can see why she’s with Joel. "I’m Taylor," I tell them. "Oh, we know," Kassi said, winking. "Ladies, we ready?" Joel snakes his arm around Jenny's waist and tugs on her. "Ready," they say in unison. Hayze mixes me a drink in a red, plastic cup and hands it to me. He throws a leg over the seat and pats the space behind him. "You sure you don't want me to drive?" "I don't understand your sense of humor. Drink that down before you climb on." He shoots me a shit eating grin and I chug my drink until its only half way to the rim. The engines start up and I slide on the seat. My hands wrap around Hayze, hugging his middle. His fingers entwine in mine and he takes off. "Let's hang back," he yells over the engine. They fly in front of us, staying on the main trail through the woods. Hayze slows and turns off on another trail. I duck behind him, hiding from bugs and branches that slam into his arms. “It’ll clear out in a minute,” he yells. The four wheeler flies over a bump, sending us bouncing into a wider trail. He laughs as I shift back into place after slamming into him. Headlights approach us and our engine goes silent. “We need music!” Kassi exclaims. “Here, plug your phone in the cooler, it has an aux. Hayze, come here for a sec,” Joel says. Joel steps off the ATV and walks towards the woods. “Be right back,” he tells me. With a kiss on the check, he hops off and follows the two guys into the woods. When the speakers blare, Kassi hoots. Jenny stands on the seat, the lyrics flow from her mouth as her body rocks to the rhythm. Wishing Lea was here, I tighten my jacket and look away. When the guys walk back, Jenny doesn’t sit down, instead she puts on a bigger show but Hayze doesn’t watch, instead, he stalks toward me with a grin. He slides on the seat, facing me, in a swift movement my legs are wrapped around his waist. His lips are on mine like he needs this kiss to breathe. I push him away. “We’re in public.” “Nah, we’re in the woods, and I’m pretty sure my friends have seen a kiss before,” he says, smirking. “Not like that,” I breathed. “I’ve never even seen one like that.” “You want some privacy?” He asks as his lips find my neck. “What…Hayze?” “Have you ever fucked on a four-wheeler?” He laughs. “Seriously, Hayze? What’s gotten into you? Why are you acting so weird?” My voice is hushed as I push off of him. “If you two are done, we’d like to ride,” Joel yells. The group chuckles and my face heats. I lower my head and glare at Hayze. “Looks like we are,” Hayze says. I know he’s joking, but it makes me mad. He turns and starts the four-wheeler. I smile as we drive by the group, refusing to let them get a glimpse of my feelings. “Slow down!” I yell over the engine. “I’m not going to hurt you.” I groan in frustration and hold on tighter. Refusing to look up, I rest my forehead on his shoulder. We cut off on another trail; this one is wider with no rogue branches slamming into us. When we make it back to the main trail, I spot the red, tail lights of the two four-wheelers. As we approach I see that everyone is off and Jenny is sitting on the ground with her face in her hands. When we stop near the other four wheelers, I jump off and run toward them. Jenny’s left leg is burned, her arm is bleeding and she’s holding her head. “What happened?” I ask. They all look at me as if they didn’t see us drive up. “Uh, Jenny and I wanted to ride together and she was driving, we hit a tree,” Kassi sobs. “Is she okay?” I ask, moving closer to Jenny. “She’s fine; she doesn’t want to go to the hospital. We are just giving her a minute,” Joel says, warning me to stay away. “If she hit her head I really think she needs to get it checked out,” I say. I don’t care what he thinks, if she’s hurt, she’s getting help. “Me too,” Kassi agrees. “She said she’s fine,” Joel snaps. “What’s going on?” Hayze walks to my side. “Jenny was driving and she hit a tree! I really think she needs to get her head checked out but Joel is saying no,” I tell him, hoping he’ll take my side. “I didn’t say no! Jenny said she’s fine!” “Don’t yell at her,” Hayze seethed. He glares at Joel until he holds his hands up and steps away. He turns his attention back to Jenny when he calms down. “Jenny? You wanna get your head checked out?” “No,” she says, weakly, shaking her head. I grab him by the hand and lead him away from the group. I glance over his shoulder, seeing that no one notices we are gone I sigh. "Hayze I really think she needs to go to the hospital," I say. "She probably does." He shrugs his shoulders and doesn’t look concerned. "Then do something!" "What do you want me to do? Throw her over my shoulder and run her there? We asked and she said no. End of story." "Talk to Joel, maybe he'll get her to agree. Or call an ambulance!" "I can’t call an ambulance! Cops will come out here. Everyone here will get charged with something," he says. "You won't... You haven't even drank tonight and I can throw mine out!" "Yeah but I’ve... Nothing, fuck, never mind." He covers his eyes with his palms and groans. "Finish that, you have what?" I ask, turning him to face me. "Nothing; it's nothing! Look, I’ll go talk to Joel if it will make you feel better.” I catch his wrist when he turns. "What did you do, Hayze?" "One thing at a time," he says. He jerks his wrist from my grip and walks back to the group. "Hey man, maybe we should get her to the ER she probably has a concussion." "She said she's alright," Joel snaps at him and I realize this may have been a bad idea. Joel is such a selfish asshole, and Hayze’s temper is a ticking time bomb. "I know, but she's drunk so she probably doesn't know if anything’s wrong. Let's just drive her up there," Hayze says. He’s doing a good job of keeping his voice level. "We’ll be there all damn night just for a doctor to tell her what we already know, that she's alright.” Joel stands up, leaving Jenny alone and I can tell he’s mad. "That might be, but I think we should. If it was Taylor or Lea I would want someone to look after them. C'mon Jenny, Kassi do you wanna come?" Hayze motions for them to follow him. "Oh fuck. Holier than thou Hayze is back, what did I tell you Chandler? Listen man, when that girl leaves you, and she will, I don't want to hear you bitching about it after the way you have been acting," Joel laughs. "Shut the fuck up Joel," he says, his voice is dangerously low. I glance between the groups; the girls now understand the severity of the situation. Chandler tosses his beer bottle down and steps closer to them. "I’m just sayin' man, don't act like a whipped bitch when she's around. Don't forget I was with you an hour ago when you walked into the woods and...." That's all it takes, Hayze's fist connects to Joel's face. He strikes him two other times; the sound of flesh being pounded makes me cringe. Chandler steps up and drags Hayze back when Joel hits the ground. "Get the girls out of here. I’ll take care of this," Chandler says. He grabs his phone and calls for an ambulance to get Jenny. After a cramped drive back, Hayze parked the four-wheeler in front of the cabin. "Ambulance should be here in a minute. Kassi, you think you can sit with her until then? I need to get Taylor home," Hayze says. “Yeah, of course, get her home,” Kassi says, waving at me. “Do you think it’s a good idea to leave now?” I ask as I slide in the Mustang. “Kassi said it’s okay,” he sighs. "Hayze, what are you hiding? What is so important that you had to punch someone in order to keep a secret?" "I’m not hiding anything! He was disrespecting you and I shut him up!" "No! No, no, no, that's not how I remember it! You’re right, he did disrespect me and you told him to shut up. Then he almost slips your precious secret and you knock him out!" I ball my fists at my side and keep my eyes on the road. "If that's how you wanna see it, whatever. Go ahead!" "I just need to know that you are telling me everything. I hate the feeling that I’m walking around blind, like everyone knows something that I don't," I say. Frustrated, he runs his hand down his face. "Do you tell me every little fuckin’ thing, Taylor?" "Yeah, I do! If it's important!" "And if it's not important you just don't bother, right? Well then think of what Joel said as not important. Just like every other fucking word that comes out of that stupid fuck’s mouth," he says. I roll my eyes and cross my arms. "You’re starting to sound like my dad! Always hiding something!" I instantly regret saying that. I know I should keep my mouth closed. When we’re this angry we should separate. We’re the victim of one another’s out lash; we always say things just to hurt the other. The air in the car shifted when the words tumbled from my mouth. His knuckles grip the wheel and his breath speeds up. I sit, waiting for him to fire something back but nothing comes. Instead he turns the radio up and disregards our entire conversation. I watch him, stunned. "This is bullshit, Hayze," I say. I don’t want to drag the fight out, but I need him to say something to me. Anything, even if it’s mean. "Such a strong word from the preacher’s daughter," he chuckles, antagonizing me. "Just take me back to my dorm!" Tears threaten to spill from my eyes. "No," he says. "Excuse me?" I huff, I’m baffled at the authority in his voice. "No, you heard me. You’re acting insane right now and I would like nothing more than to take you home, but you are drunk and I love you. So you’re staying with me." I want to argue. I want to scream at him, jump out of the moving car and run all the way back to the dorm. But I don’t. I don’t want to be alone tonight. Maybe the secret is something from the figment of my imagination, but it’s driving a wedge between us. Unless he comes clean to me or proves to me that I’m wrong, we won’t make it. I don’t want to look back on this night and wish that I would’ve stayed with him one last time. “Did you even hear what I said to you?” He asks as he turns into the apartment. I groan, not wanting to talk to him right now. “Yeah, I’m staying at your apartment tonight. Whatever, I’ll sleep on the couch and go to the dorm tomorrow,” I say, yawning. I’m too tired to fight with him anymore tonight. I unclick my seatbelt and catch him staring at me. His eyes are like ice, I shift uncomfortably. “What is it?” I murmur. “I just told you…I…You know what? Fuck this,” he says. In a quick movement he jumps from the car, slamming the door as he storms away. Sighing, I fall against the back of the seat. Arguing with him sobered me up. I wait for him to come back and apologize or tell me his erratic attitude was a joke, but nothing happens. I walk into the apartment, finding him passed out on the couch. From the time it takes me to walk to his room, my slumbered thoughts piece together. He spilled his feelings out, I’ve been waiting an eternity for him to say those things to me and it finally happened. But I didn’t hear him, because I was so wrapped up in throwing the next hurtful thing at him. CHAPTER FOURTEEN “Hello,” I said, walking into the other room. Three pair of eyes were on me as I left. They were nosey as usual, but I didn’t expect anything less of my family. I knew my mother genuinely wanted to know about my life, but my dad and Sean were being assholes. “Hey babe. We’re still on for tomorrow?” I rolled my eyes at him. “If you’re referring to meeting my family, yeah. Sure.” I sat on the couch, playing with a dated throw-pillow, waiting for him to talk. Things were so tense, but he wasn’t making an effort to change that. “I’ll be there. Is everything alright?” He asked. Sean walked in the room, glaring at me. “Taylor, we’re waiting on you to eat in here.” I held my finger up at him, needing another minute. Huffing, he stalked in the other room. As if someone was listening to my conversation, I turned from the door. “Yeah. Fine. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” “Who were you talking to?” He asked. “My brother,” I snapped. Typical Hayze. Call me while we weren’t on the best of terms and pick a fight with me about who may be around me. “That didn’t sound like Scott…” Standing from the couch, I narrowed my eyes as if he could see me. “I have another brother. Maybe I forgot to tell you…Do you forget to tell me things sometimes, Hayze?” “Taylor, I’m trying here.” “I know you, but,” sighing, “But I barely know anything about you….and you’re acting like an ass lately!” “I said I’m trying,” he said through clenched teeth. I wasn’t fighting with him again. I started walking to the dining room where my family was waiting for me. “Try harder. I have to go.” My dad was sitting at the head of the table with his hands clasped together. His glare hardened as I walked in. Without talking to him, I sat at my assigned seat and began putting food on my plate. “I hope that boy learns some manners before he gets here tomorrow,” he grumbled. “Sean, will you bless the food?” Like the obedient child he is, Sean went into his prayer. As he was blessing the food and asking forgiveness of the families’ sin, I hoped tomorrow would go as planned. The last thing I needed was for my family to hate Hayze. **** I tap my phone again, wondering why he hasn’t bothered to answer me. He promised last night that he would make it by lunch, yet here it is, five minutes’ past and he hasn’t even bothered to call me back. I was dumb enough to believe things would be better. We worked things out after our huge blowout. I thought maybe he was right; maybe everything’s in my head. I always assume the worst, because I’ve always had the worst. But not even my pessimistic mind could've seen this little stunt coming. At least he could’ve thought of an excuse. Any lame excuse I could give my family that would explain his absence. My mom, the hopeless romantic, will be crushed. My dad, the assface, will have a field day with the fact that the guy I actually chose for myself is standing me up. I look in the living room and frown. There he sits with my dad, laughing and talking sports. Of course my dad would invite Joseph after I announced Hayze would be here. Joseph, being the nice guy he is, complied and came to the family dinner, thinking that this was just a friendly visit. “Anything?” My mom asks, coming up behind me. I swipe away the stupid tear that forsook me. “Yeah, his sister had something come up and had to move her flight, so he picked her up.” A grin stretches across her face. “That is so sweet,” she exclaims. I can’t tell if she’s being sincere or just being supportive of me. “Yeah, he’s a real…sweetheart.” She wraps her arms around me and places a kiss on my head before walking away. I follow behind her as she gathers the family into the dining room. My dad’s eager grin hits me, he props his elbows on the table and rests his chin on his hands. His eyes dart to Joseph, who sits across from me, then they fall on me. “Taylor, where’s your friend?” He asks, clearly amused. “My boyfriend can’t make it today. He had a family thing come up,” I explain. Scott doesn’t look like he believes me but he keeps his opinion to himself. The rest of the family looks around at the awkward scene my dad painted out. “He went to get his sister from the airport. Isn’t that nice, sweetheart?” My mom gushes and pats my dad on the arm. “Yes, it is. If it’s the truth,” he huffs. Everyone falls silent. “What is that supposed to mean?” I snap. “I don’t think anything should come before meeting your girlfriend’s family. The way your mother talks about the two of you it seems like things are pretty serious. I don’t think a serious relationship is going in the right direction if lies are being told this early,” he says. I throw my head back, laughing without humor; “Oh, the irony!” “I’m going to be honest with you, Taylor, I don’t like this new attitude you’ve developed while you have been away. Does this Hayze boy have something to do with that?” A knock at the door interrupts our fight. My mom briskly walks away away and shoots me a pleading look. I exhale and look to Joseph. “How’s school going?” I ask. He grins; his boyish charm shines through as he leans against the table. “Well, thank you. I was able to complete two years of credit during high school. Next year I’m starting an internship and graduating.” “Isn’t that nice, Taylor?” My dad chimes in. “What is that you are doing again? Sorry, I forgot.” “I’m an economics major, but I’m applying for Optometry school after graduation,” he says. My dad smiles as if he’s a proud parent showing off his honor roll child. “I can’t believe you two are on the same campus every day and haven’t ran into each other,” Sean says, watching me. I shrug. “We have different classes.” “And different ideas on fun,” Scott chimes in. “Look who’s surprising you!” My mom says. I find Hayze, standing awkwardly in my mom’s grasps. His tattoos are covered behind a black leather jacket; his jeans are light with holes lining the knees. His brown hair is wild as if he drove the hour with his windows down. He takes the vacant seat to my right and captures my hand under the table. “I wanted to surprise you after I picked Lea up,” he says, cocking a brow. “How thoughtful of you to show up after that,” I say. I hope no one else picks up on the sarcasm in my voice. Hayze does, but he doesn’t seem fazed. The momentary shock and confusion are over. The family carries on with conversation. “I lost my phone,” Hayze whispers. “You’re late,” I shoot back. “I’m here.” “Are you going to introduce us?” My dad asks. He strokes his graying mustache and glares at Hayze. For the first meeting I’m glad he covered his tattoos, my dad already has enough to hassle me about throughout dinner, like the prodigal son sitting at his side. “Uh yeah, Hayze this is my family.” “And this is Joseph. The guy she dated throughout high school, she’s mentioned him, right?” My dad says, pointing to Joseph. “Yes sir, she’s mentioned him,” he says, surprisingly calm. I braced when my dad said that, at the very least I expected a sarcastic response. Maybe a chair thrown across the room, maybe my dad getting punched in the face. I’m finding that Hayze is anything but persistent. “Tell us about yourself, where do you work? What’s your major?” My dad urges. “He works at the bar with me,” I say. “Figures,” he mumbles. “I’m a Psychology major. I graduate in the spring and I’ve already applied to the graduate program,” Hayze answers. I cut my eyes at him, realizing this is the first I have heard of his plans. “And what happens if you don’t get in?” My dad asks. “I have a four point oh, with all due respect sir, I’m getting in.” “Joseph here is going to optometry school,” my dad says, clasping him on the shoulder. For the first time, Joseph realized what his purpose is for the dinner. He smiles and shifts nervously in his seat. Scott doesn’t wait for the blessing or the go ahead on making his plate. He looks up as he dumps dressing on his plate and laughs. “These guys are preachers,” Scott laughs, pointing to my dad and Sean. “And I’m a college dropout with a hangover. Now that it’s settled, let’s eat.” “Scott, for once can you not be yourself?” Sean cuts in. “We have guests,” my mom reminds them, sweetly as she smiles at Hayze. Aside from forks clinking, dinner was silent. Occasionally we would entertain a light topic, but we would always fall silent. Truth be told, my family always forced these things. We are split and my mom is Switzerland. After dinner my mom gathered plates. Like always, Scott helped her. “Taylor, why don’t you show Hayze around the place,” my mom says, smiling. Once outside I show him the swing on the back porch. I collapse on it, but he stands and pats down his jeans. “Hold on, let me send Lea a text,” he says. I watch him type up a text then send it before I cross my arms. “Glad you found your phone.” Sitting beside me, he exhales and places his hands on his knees. His eyes remained fixed on the porch. An eternity passes before I grow impatient. At this point I know he’s stalling to think of some bullshit to feed me. “You’ve gotta give me some answers. I was blindsided back there. It never occurred to me that I didn’t even know your major, or your passion and why you chose it,” I say, clasping my hands on my face. “We obviously need to slow way down. And…and you need to give me some answers or I can’t do it anymore, Hayze.” “Slow down? Fuck! I just told you I loved you…we don’t need to slow down!” I groan in frustration. I jump from the swing and pace the narrow porch. “Is it someone else?” “Your dad brought your ex-boyfriend to flaunt him in my fucking face. I don’t know what the hell’s been goin’ on while I’m away. You think that doesn’t bother me?” “I don’t mean that, it’s just that I have this gut feeling that you are not always honest with me. And sometimes I don’t think I know you at all.” “I was detained last night,” he says, finally. “Detained?” I wrinkle my nose. He shrugged. “Yeah, arrested is kind of a strong word. I was held overnight with no charges so no big deal.” “YOU WERE ARRESTED?” He brings his finger to his lips. “Keep it down. No, just held overnight like I said, there’s no charges they just kept me ‘til I sobered up.” “You were drunk?” I throw my arms up and take a step away from him. “This just keeps getting better and better, Hayze! You told me you don’t drink!” “You wanted to know!” He says, going on the defense. “What happened?” “When I got home Joel was having another party. The cops had already been called to it, but he didn’t quiet down,” he says. “Where had you been?” “Jesus, Taylor, I was at my mom’s.” I roll my eyes. “Do you expect me to believe that?” “Call her! She asked me to come over for Christmas and I told her I was coming here, so I went last night.” His voice is hushed, but threatens to break at any second. “Why were you drunk?” I ask. “They were having a Christmas Eve party, so yeah I drank with them.” “You drove home drunk?” “This is startin’ to feel like an interrogation. Back to the point, when I got home Joel was having a party and we got into it again. The cops showed up, arrested us, but we wouldn’t say what happened so they just held us ‘til we were sober. I’ve never been arrested before, it scared the shit out of me.” “You and Joel don’t need to hang out anymore, Hayze. You guys bring out the worst in each other,” I say. I’ve wanted to bring that to his attention for a while. “Yeah, I’m breaking my lease this month. I, uh, actually wanted to talk to you about that,” he says. I sit next to him and he takes my hand in his. Nervously, he rakes his hand through his hair. The screen door pops open, lighting the porch. “Am I interrupting somethin’?” Scott asks as he steps on the porch without our consent. “Nope, nothing’s going on out here. I think I’m about to head back to the dorms,” I say, forcing a yawn. “Good luck gettin’ out, dad has a bunch of questions,” he laughs. “Ugh maybe I should go around the yard and get in my car,” I say. “No, don’t do that, c’mon I’ll walk with you,” Hayze says, standing and offering me his hand. “Later, Tater bug,” Scott says. I wrap my arms around his middle and squeeze. “Love you,” I say as I walked inside. “Bye Hayze.” Hayze waves once then we walk inside to face the wrath of my father. He’s perched in his recliner, watching the door like a hawk. His frown deepens as Hayze comes into sight behind me. Without a word, I jog upstairs with Hayze following. “And just what do you think you’re doing?” Dad shouts. “Leaving,” I say. “Hayze can wait down here with the family,” he calls, jogging after us. I turn in my room, throw my backpack on the bed and toss my clothes inside. I grab my toothbrush and makeup from the small attached bathroom, then throw them inside. I look in the mirror and inspect my outfit for the drive home. The tan sweater fits snugly, stopping mid-thigh. My dark jeggings disappear into my boots. Since it’s comfortable, I leave my outfit and sling my backpack on just in time for my dad to stalk in. “Did you hear me?” Dad asks. “Yeah Dad, I did, Hayze and I are not hormone-crazed teenagers. We can keep it together long enough to get my clothes.” With his deep brows bunched together, he cheeks puff full of air and redden on the surface. As soon as I think he’s about to explode, he shoves his sausage of a finger in my direction. “I warned you last time about your job and that girl you brought home, but this…This is different! You took this to a whole new level, Taylor! You came in my house and embarrassed me in front of my guest the way you flaunted working at a bar and this… This guy you think you care about,” he says, looking at Hayze in complete disgust. “YOUR GUEST?! You mean the guy you wanted me to date in high school? And don’t you dare talk about Hayze and me! I’m in love with him and there’s nothing you can do about it!” I watch as he turns ten shades of red before responding. “Get out!” Refusing to cry, I jog downstairs, searching for my mom; I find her sitting on the couch by Sean. She perks up as I stalk toward her. “We’re going home, Mom.” “Home? You mean you two are living together?” Dad huffs. “No sir, I have an apartment off campus. I’m driving back with Taylor to make sure she gets home safely,” Hayze says. Then he crosses his arms and looks my dad in the eye. My dad is furious, but what can he say to that? “But for the record, I’ve tried to get her to move in with me,” he says. I throw my hands up at Hayze, he only shrugs and remains unfazed. My dad’s bushy eyebrows raise and he looks between us before he leaves. “Do something with that guy,” I say, teasing Mom. “Oh, honey, I trust you.” She stands in front of me, taking my hands in hers, she looks into my eyes. “If you ever need me for anything, just call. What you tell me is a secret between the two of us, you know that right?” “I do, thanks mom. See you next time,” I say. Her thin arms wrap tightly around me. “I love you,” she says. “Love you, too.” I hold her tight, taking in the fresh scent of floral perfume. I stay safely tucked in her arms until I hear Hayze shuffle, taking that as our cue to go, I step out of her reach. She places a soft kiss on my cheek. “I’ll see you soon,” she whispers. “It was nice meeting you, Hayze. Take care of my girl,” she tells Hayze. I knew Hayze coming here would not end well for anyone. My dad always had a certain imagine he expected me to uphold—for all of his children to uphold. Growing up here was lonely; although Scott has always been the same, I chose a less confrontational childhood. He always pushed my dad to his breaking point. Years of rebellion forced my dad to lay down the law when it came to his other children. I always obliged. Every fiber of my being held onto the belief that once I was gone I could paint myself as who I thought I should be. I was the trophy of the family, I dated the boy my father carefully chose for me, sat in the front row of every church service, and turned down every party invitation. Then Hayze crashed into my life like a massive tsunami, crushing my dad’s dreams one by one, but at the same time he turned me into the person I was supposed to be. When I stepped outside the cool wind whips my hair into frenzy. I tug a beanie on, willing my hair to cooperate. Once it’s in place, I run to my car, clicking unlock until I no longer need the headlights. I slide inside and crank the heat up. The gravel crunches under his steps. He walks up and holds my door, blocking my opportunity to close it. With a raised eyebrow, I rub my forearms, waiting for him to get to the point. “You want my jacket?” He asks. He looks into my eyes and reaches for my hand. The gesture is middle ground between consoling and passionate. “No, my sweaters fine,” I say, swatting his hand from me. “Are you going back to the dorms?” He asks flatly, adding a sigh with my reluctance. “Yeah, I guess I am. I really need to put everything up, I’ve been gone awhile.” He doesn’t respond right away. He stands by my side, looking at the sky, and thinking. His hands slide on the door, closing it a little at a time. “Okay, I’ll see you there,” he says, slamming the door. He jogs over and slides in his car. “HAYZE!” I yell, running after him. He begins to back up. “Stop!” He leans against the window, pointing to his ear, he mouths ‘I can’t hear you.’ I throw my hands in the air and walk back to my car; “REAL MATURE, HAYZE!” My cell service returns as I turn on the highway. I call Hayze and he declines. I try three other times with the same result. Fine, if he wants to spend the night together, we will talk and I’ll drag everything out of him. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Hayze is laying on my bed with his feet hanging off of the end when I walk in my dorm. I slap the light switch, hoping it would jolt him, but it doesn’t. His elbow is crocked over his face and his chest rises and falls in a steady tune. The illogical, naïve part of me doesn’t want to wake him. I feel drawn to collapse on the bed beside him and nuzzle in his neck. I long to shove my worries from my mind, then Hayze wouldn’t be keeping things from me, we wouldn’t fight. We could wake up in the morning in bliss, without memory of weeks before. Instead I toss my bag on the floor and unnecessarily throw my keys on the desk. Without moving he groans. “Fuck. Could you be any louder? I’m tired,” he says. “Oh, so sorry…I’m sure you’re exhausted after your night in jail. I’ll try to be more sensitive next time,” I say, making my sarcasm known. “Look, I’m sorry but this time it wasn’t my fault.” He remains on his back with his eyes covered, unfazed. “It never is!” I rip the chair from under the desk and crash into it. With my head held back, I stare into the dim light. If I keep looking up, my tears can’t fall. He sighs and rises from his slumber. He blinks then rubs his face. “Keep it between us. Lea would flip shit.” “Oh, Lea would? How do you think I’m handling it?” I laugh without an ounce of humor. He grabs my hands and pulls me beside him. “Better than I thought. I wasn’t gonna tell you…” Sighing, “I’m glad you did…I don’t want you to keep things from me. What are you gonna do now? Did you and Joel talk?” “Uh kinda, I guess I’m going to look for a new place,” he says, rubbing the back of his head. “And until then?” He shrugs, “Lea won’t be back for another week. I guess I’ll crash here; I’ll find an apartment in a week. Two weeks’ tops,” he says. “If you get caught, I’ll be kicked out, you know that, right? What am I saying? Of course you know that, you just don’t care!” “You’re getting worked up over nothing,” he says, chuckling. His lips start a light trail down my neck. When my breath speeds up, he grins, knowing how he affects me. I swat him away. “You were arrested, Hayze.” I scold him and he rolls his eyes. “Yeah, and so is every other college student.” “Your attitude is pissing me off,” I say, managing to sound calm. “The way you’re blowing this off…I think you’re just making a joke of it on purpose. It has to have some effect on you. And if it doesn’t then that’s the last red flag I’ll ignore.” Finally, the walls tumble down. His smile falters then he drops his head. When my phone vibrates, I glance at the name and look back at Hayze. He looks at it then shakes his head. “Don’t answer that. It was all I could do not to punch him in the fucking face tonight.” His tone is low, daring me to answer. “Joseph?” My face screws into anger. “I know what that was about. That guys in love with you and your dads pushing it. Your dad probably put him up to calling you!” My eyes probably resemble an animated character as they shift excitedly between Hayze and the phone. “Don’t answer it, Taylor.” “He’s not like that. He probably just wants to make sure I made it home okay,” I say, waving him off. “Hey, Joseph,” I say. Hayze snatches the phone from me and puts it on speaker. I reach for it but he holds it out of my reach and shakes his head at me. I don’t want to do this while Joseph is on the phone so I stop my attempt and ignore Hayze. “Hello Taylor, I wanted to see that you made it home safely,” he says. I raise my eyebrow and bump my shoulder into Hayze. He shakes his head, furious. “Not buying it,” he says. Obviously he doesn’t care if Joseph knows he’s listening. “What was that?” Joseph asks. “Oh, nothing, sorry, I made it home. Thanks for checking on me.” Sweat beads on my neck, rolling down with every second that ticks by. Hayze’s glare is unsettling and makes me question the motive of his call. “There’s actually something else I wanted to talk to you about.” “Oh?” I bite my bottom lip, hoping he doesn’t bring up Hayze. I told him that Joseph wouldn’t say anything about us, but honestly, I don’t know him anymore. He was always kind and laid back in school, always avoiding confrontation. But just like me, he’s been on his own at college, and that changes people. I only know who Joseph used to be. “So, this guy Hayze? You’re actually dating him, because, to be honest I was kind of caught off guard. Your dad didn’t mention him and he’s…He’s really not your type.” I pick nervously at my nails, ignoring Hayze and wanting this conversation to end. “Yeah, about that, sorry for the confusion, you know how my dad is…” “…He wants the best for you,” he says, interrupting me. “I guess some would see it that way. I see it as trying to control me. I’m …dating Hayze…Sorry you were brought in on that.” “He seems like bad news, Taylor. I know we don’t talk anymore, but I don’t want to see you get hurt.” “And I don’t think Taylor wants to see you get hurt either. Want to know how to avoid that? Hang up the fucking phone and don’t call this number back,” Hayze says. I sigh and let my face fall into my hands as he hangs up. “You just couldn’t resist. You push me and push me until I’m fucking threatening a preacher’s son.” “You were right this time! But that doesn’t give you the right to tell me not to answer my phone! I never do that to you, even with everything you keep from me!” I jump from the bed and gather my clothing and toiletries to take a shower. “We have the same fight over and over again. You’re so convinced I’m hiding something from you, you’re so obsessed with that idea that you bring it up every chance you get!” I reach for the door knob but he grabs my hands. “You’ve made it very clear you don’t want me to stay here. I’ll be the one to leave,” he says. His features are hard, but his eyes are wide and full of hurt. After he storms out, I clench the door handle, thinking. “Hayze, wait!” I yell. But the hallway is empty, I sigh. I grab my things and walk down the narrow hall to the showers. The showers are empty and I blissfully stride to the nearest stall until I remember the reason that no one is here. I turn on the hot water, letting it warm while I strip my clothes off. Once inside, I stand under the flow and a sob racks through my body. I cry until the steam fills the whole room and my hands begin to prune. I towel off and yank on pajamas. I check my phone, convincing myself that I only want to know the time. My shoulders sag, when I see a blank screen starring back at me. No texts. No missed calls. I don’t know what hurts me the most, my family or Hayze’s silence. One made the gash while the other threw salt, both hurt equally. Two hours have passed by the time I drag my feet back to my room. My slippers slide against the floor, causing a sound that makes me cringe with each step. I kick them off as soon as I open my door then I jump in bed, only to find that I’m not alone. With a squeal I jump up and turn on the light. Hayze is lying on his back with one arm across his chest and the other splayed on my night stand near a half empty Vodka bottle. I knock the bottle on the ground and shake him. “Hayze? Can you hear me?” I rip my phone out and dial Lea’s number. My thumb hovers over the call button as I wonder if I’m making a big deal over nothing. I shove in back into my pocket and get on the bed, straddling him. “Baby, wake up,” I say, shaking him. “Wake up, wake up, please wake up,” I say over and over again. I pull out my phone again; at this point tears are streaming down and splashing on his face. “What’s wet?” He grumbles, rubbing his face. “You're alive," I say. "Humph." He turns with a groan and I fall slightly to the side. When I unhook my leg I catch his phone on my knee. In his pocket his phone pokes from the top, I toy with it, looking at him then biting my lip. I take a step from the bed, thinking. If I do this, I’m officially crossing a line that I can’t come back from. Suspicious behavior or not, I know that I would be furious if he dug through my belongings while I sleep. Before I can make any relationship altering decisions my phone rings. I pray that it’s not Joseph or any of my family members. Surprisingly it’s not, it’s Lea. “Hey Lea,” I breath out. “Taylor? Is something wrong you seem stressed? Did something happen? Is it Hayze?” She asks, her voice shifts to panic and I laugh her off. “One thing at a time, no…Not really, we had a big falling out at my parent’s house. And before that…and after,” I whisper the last part, suddenly feeling stupid. “Where’s Hayze? He left me a weird voicemail last night and he texted me tonight…And, well, I think it was meant for someone else,” she says. “What do you mean, ‘meant for someone else’?” I ask, switching my hand on my hip. “I just think he was probably texting Joel…Is he acting weird?” “Do you mean weirder than normal? Wait, he got into a fight with Joel last night, and the night before I left to go to my parent’s. I don’t think they’re on speaking terms. He’s actually passed out in my bed right now.” I look around my room, my eyes finally land on Hayze. A light snore comes from his lips. When did my life become a bad reality show? “What happened?” She shrieks, I cringe and hold the phone from my ear as she lets out a slew of vulgarity. “I’m not sure. He showed up at my parent’s house late because he was freakin’ arrested the night before!” “WHAT THE FUCK! Let me talk to him! Wake his ass up!” “Lea he’s passed out. Like literally passed out from drinking a half bottle of vodka, he got pissed at me and left,” I say, sighing. I cross the room and sit on Lea’s bed, wishing she was here. I can almost hear her thought process with each passing moment. “He has really fucked up this time. UGH! Let me see what I can do when I get home, something must have happened. I’ll call his mom and be home tomorrow, okay?” She exhales against the phone. “What was he charged with? Assault? Possession?” “Nothing, apparently it wasn’t that bad so they just held them overnight… And what do mean possession?” “Forget I said it,” she says, quickly. “Huh uh, what are you not telling me, Lea? Tell me, don’t make me pull the friendship card,” I say with warning. I brush my hair back nervously, and pace the room. “I don’t know, sometimes they smoke weed…I just wanted to make sure they didn’t have anything on them…” Although I’m not buying it, I glance to Hayze and narrow my eyes. I have other ways of finding out. “Okay,” I say then hang up. I sleep in Lea’s bed tonight, not trusting myself around him. His pocket stares at me, mocking me with the secrets it holds. Sleep never comes. Sunlight casts a glare through the closed blinds, birds chirp on the branch outside of my window. I expect to hear students trump the hallway but the sounds of laughter and conversation never comes. Sometime during the late morning, my mind turns in for the day and allows me a few hours of uninterrupted, restful sleep. **** When I wake the scene has changed. The sun has set and all is quiet. I blink and stretch my limbs before looking over at my empty bed. I climb out of bed and check the clock for the time. Seeing that it’s past six in the afternoon, my stomach growls, so I tug on fresh leggings and a baggy sweater before grabbing my purse, but I stop at the door. A folded, rectangular piece of paper waits for me on the floor. Against my better judgment I pick it up and read it. I wish I could tell you the truth. I wish I could tell you to leave. I drove to your dorm twice today. I know that’s fucking crazy. I sat in my car and tried to work up the courage to knock on your door. One day you’ll know the truth and if I fall back in this again promise me you’ll run. If you never remember anything else remember this: When all else fails, save yourself. I love you. Please don’t hate me. “What the hell does that even mean, Hayze?” I ball it into my fist, crumbling the pages with anger. At this point I can’t pretend that our relationship is healthy. All of the going back and forth is taking a toll on both us. Lea seems to be taken off guard by his erratic behavior and lately I’m wondering if I’m to blame for some of his new rebellion. Either way, this has to end. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Three days pass before I could really process that I hadn’t heard from Hayze. I jumped at every chance I could to work, pulling doubles and staying later. The day after Christmas I powered off my phone and shoved it into my drawer. I thought I could think without a distraction, without the constant fog that crowds my mind each time Hayze shoves his way into forgiveness. The first two days he was gone I took time to cool off and clear my head, thinking he was doing the same. On the third day I had an unsettling feeling, but I went into work and shoved him out of my mind. When everyone asked where he was I lied, telling them he was with his brothers in Colorado. It sounded like a good idea until one of the bartenders told me he saw Hayze at one of Joel’s parties the night before. That day was the worst. I could no longer lie to myself. Hayze was avoiding me, and the truth is, I should’ve been done long before this. I keep waiting for him to show up, shoving his way into my dorm and picking a fight with me. At some point that became normal to me, I almost need to fight with Hayze like I need to breathe, because, without a fight, we’re nothing. I haven't checked my phone, but actions speak louder than words. And I'm getting the sinking feeling that he's moved on from our erratic relationship. I couldn't get him out of my dorm fast enough Christmas night, but now that I look back on it, replaying the night in my head; I wonder where the relationship went so horribly wrong. I shake my head, clearing my thoughts and decide to walk down to the showers. Unlike me, most students have families that didn’t kick them out during the break. Once again I shower in privacy. When I get back I apply the bear minimal makeup just as my stomach lets out a growl. I slip on a pair of jeans and tug a tee over my head. I stow the clutter of paper in my desk drawer. The bar was closed today, leaving me with nothing better to do than draw out my schedule for the next semester. After I grab a bite to eat, I run across the road and back into my dorm. My phone vibrates and I answer it without checking the screen, knowing who it is. "What is it?" I huff, unlocking the door to my dim, unwelcoming room. I knew this would happen, although I thought it would be much sooner. I guess Hayze finally sobered up long enough to see he fucked up. A soft female laugh greets me. "Is that anyway to greet your mother?" Of course, I slap my palm to my forehead. "Sorry, I thought you were... I thought you were someone else," I say, hoping she doesn't push me on that. "Hmm... I suspected that. I figured he wasn't picking up his sister at the airport," she laughs. "What's going on, Taylor?" "Nothing... I mean, something is. I just don't know what." Although she can't see me, I force a smile, hoping it makes my voice sound peppy. "You two argue a lot," she says without question. She can read me like an open book. I don't talk to my mom as much as I would like and my dad is to blame for that. I know she wouldn't run and tell him everything I say, but I would hate to cause any more problems between them. "Yeah, sometimes we do." "Well, I'm in the car alone so tell me about him. Tell me about the relationship," she urges. I don’t want to get into this, but I know there’s no way to avoid it. Once my mom has her mind set she isn’t afraid to guilt me into it. I laugh once and toss my purse on my small bed. I crouch on my bed, arranging the pillows on the wall to get comfortable. We might be here for a while. "I wish someone would fill me in on the relationship, too," I say, sighing. "There's never a dull moment. The thing is, I never question my feelings for him. I question everything else though, like if we're even good for each other. But never my feelings, he brings out the best in me and the worst in me…sometimes at the same time. I know it wouldn't be like that if I didn't lo—you know.... Really care for him." She hums, taking her time to respond. “I see. Your dad and I were like that at your age. And you know how that turned out. I'm not trying to scare you and I'm not trying to tell you how this thing with him will turn out... I guess what I'm trying to say is slow down. Be careful. I saw the look on your face when you didn't think he would make it for Christmas. It looked like the world had ended. I tried to be upbeat and positive for you because the last thing I want is your dad to find out. But don't turn that around, Taylor, I did that for you. Not your boyfriend. You shouldn't ever make up excuses or lie for a man. Don't get in the habit it of it, baby, that's a hard habit to break." A single tear streaks down my face and pounds into my shirt. I swipe my eyes, refusing to cry anymore. "I know Mom. I just didn't want to deal with Dad. I don't make excuses for him," I assure her. "Okay, baby," she says, trying to make her voice steady. "I'm trying to keep my head straight. I know when I need to take a step back," I say. "One more thing then I'll let you go," she says, ignoring my comment altogether. Her voice is calm but I don’t miss the urgent, underlining tone. "Okay?" I chew on my lip anxiously. “Your dad got the impression you're living with Hayze. He's in touch with the dorm manager. Just watch what you're doing," she breathes out. "WHAT?!" I push off the bed and place my free hand on my hip. "Baby, he said he's not going to help you out if you move in with a boy outside of marriage." I press my eyes shut, shaking my head. I knew he would pull something like this. He always does, and if he’s nothing else, he’s at least persistent; persistent at being an asshole. "I don't need his help," I huff and pace around my small room like a caged animal. "Your valedictorian scholarship only covers four semesters," she reminds me. I want to bring up other scholarships, I had perfect grades in high school, and I know I’m more than qualified to receive university scholarships. Or even student loans just to avoid dealing with him any longer. But I keep everything to myself, the last thing I want to do is hurt my mom when she’s just trying to help. "I'm not living with Hayze! I haven't seen him since Christmas night, mom! This is bullshit, if he's going to act like that, I don't need his help!" I say calmer than I thought it would come out. "I didn't tell you that to upset you. I just want you to be careful and be smart," she says. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Taylor. I really don’t.” She sighs into the phone and I drop my head. My last lifeline has given up. Sighing, “Whose side are you on, Mom?” I snap. “The side that won’t leave you a broken mess when this thing is over,” she replies. My door flies open and I look away. “I just got back into my room. Let me call you back when I get settled,” I lie then end the call. A pang of disappointment shoots through me when Lea breezes through the door. Annoyed by my reaction, I go over the top with my welcome. “You’re home,” I shout as I wrap my arms around her thin frame. She looks at me quizzically. “Maybe I should leave more often?” She laughs and hugs me back. I take a step back and wait for her to fill me in on the trip to Colorado. After she sets her bags on the bed, she sits down and crosses her legs to get comfortable. “How was it?” I urge when she doesn’t say anything. She rolls her eyes while she checks her phone. “Umm, good, other than it being cut short,” she says. I wrinkle my nose. “Short? You stayed a day later,” I say, with a short lived laugh. She catches herself, throws down her phone and crosses the room to sit by me. “Yeah, I told you Christmas night I was coming home. And Hayze told you…?” I avoid her eyes and look around the room. She’s so happy and I don’t want to sour her mood with our drama. “I haven’t talked to him a lot in the last few days.” She rolls her eyes, “Yeah… Hey let’s catch up over some coffee?” Her eyes widen with hope, and I agree. I don’t feel like leaving the room, but I know at some point I have to get over it. I grab my purse and my phone before we leave our dorm. There’s a text from my mom. I’m sorry Taylor, I really am. If I don’t do anything else for you, I want to encourage you to be positive; because you may not always have the opportunity to be. My heart hurts for her when she says things like that, I know she’s really saying that she hopes I don’t end up like her. Lea asks me if I’m ready and I nod as I follow her out. I shove my phone in my pocket without responding to my mom. We walk across campus to our usual coffee shop, Lea orders me to sit while she gets our drinks. That’s when I spot him sitting with Joel and some girl. I begin to walk across the coffee shop and he looks up. All color drains from his face, he looks over at his friends, pretending I'm not here. I could walk away from him without another word, but I think I owe myself more than that. I stalk in his direction and this time when looks up, he stands and walks to me. "Where have you been?" I waste no time with pointless greetings. He seems so off, his spark is missing. He doesn't smile or tease me. He looks like he hasn't slept in days. “Around," he says. He shrugs and rubs the back of his head as he looks around the coffee shop. "Yeah...everywhere except work and my dorm." "Do we have to do this?" He asks, exasperated. I have to stop and count to ten, reminding myself I’m in public. I don’t want to cause a huge scene. "I think you owe me an explanation, Hayze! You don't get to just decide it's over and never speak to me again!" He looks at me with wide eyes. "It's not over...I just, I've been busy." He knows I'm not buying it. He takes my wrist in his hands and leads me outside. The temperature dropped today and no one’s sitting on the patio, giving us the privacy we need. "You were fine until I came along..." He sits down in a chair and looks through me. "You're not making any sense," I say, sitting across from him. "I am, for the first time in my life. Hear me out, it actually makes sense. You were doing fine and I fucked everything up for you. When I woke up after getting so drunk that night, I knew something had to change...So I left." He shrugs as if it’s a simple solution. I laugh without humor. "Something had to change? So instead of making the effort to let me in or change, you just completely write me off?" "God-Damnit Taylor, it isn't like that. Stop putting words in my mouth!" "Then tell me what it's like!" "You'll hate me soon enough anyways. Why not just step out now?" "You're making zero sense, Hayze! You said it isn't over now you're talking like we're done...like you're leaving me as a favor." He doesn’t say anything, not a word. I watch him as he rests his face in his hands. I can hear my own fast, ragged breathing and I try to calm down. I drag my chair out and stand up, hoping he’ll look up. “Let me make this easy for you! Fuck you!" I say and start to walk off. He snaps up. "See! Like that! You wouldn't have said shit like that before I came around. You wouldn't do half of the things you do...and you don't know half of it." "You didn't know me before! I was going to be like this with or without you," I say. I don’t wait to see what happens next. I walk away, keeping my pace even. It would be easy to run away, but people are already watching us. I hear Lea call out to me, I don’t turn around I keep walking to the dorms. Once I’m inside the lobby I run down the hallway and slam the door shut. Before I have time to set my things on the table, the door swings open, slamming into the wall behind it. “You never give me enough time to explain myself, that’s one of the many things you do that pisses me the fuck off. Should I go on?” Hayze continues the fight as soon as he walks in my room. “If you’re going to do this, you need to leave. That shouldn’t be hard for you anyways…You seem to like leaving!” I throw my hands up, glaring at him. I know I’m acting immature, but he brings that out in me. “If you were listening earlier you’d know I said I didn’t want to. I did that for you!” “Don’t pretend like you did that for anyone but yourself,” I say. I sit on my bed and look up at him. He doesn’t look like he’s leaving anytime soon. He kicks off his shoes and sits beside me without asking. “W-What are you doing?” I ask, hesitantly. “Sitting beside you…After Lea left, I started thinking a lot.” He falls back on my bed, tucking his hands behind his head; he stares at my dated ceiling. He looks relaxed now, not ready for a fight and I exhale a sigh of relief. “I kept telling her I was done; I was leaving you alone. But being Lea, she told me a hundred times that she was going to pick you up and take you to get coffee. Telling me it would be nice if I’d stop by…She’s the only person that gets under my skin more than you.” I swat his arm playfully and he laughs. For a brief moment we’re what we used to be. No fighting, no secrets, just teasing and flirting. But my anxious mind doesn’t let me stay there long, I snap back into reality when I remember he told Lea all week that he was done with me. I fake a yawn, dramatically patting my mouth and wiping my eyes. “Can you hurry up? I’m getting sleepy—” He snorts, “Nice try. I tried so fucking hard to stay away. It’s ridiculous when you work with the person you’re avoiding. My mom asked where you were every single day…If my phone would go off; she would have to make a stupid ass comment about you. What you were saying and shit…I never told her.” “You’re getting off track,” I say, trying to sound firm. “I couldn’t get Joseph out of my head, the way your dad threw him in my face. Like he knew that’s who you would end up with and he wanted me to know. And it hit me, that’s who you should be with…” I look at him like he’s insane. His eyes meet mine and they’re sincere, he truly believes what he’s saying. “Your big, life changing revelation is that I should get back with my ex-boyfriend?” I laugh loudly. He shakes his head. “No, it’s not like that…I’m afraid you’ll hate me. You should be with someone your family likes, too. Not someone…like me.” “It’s just my dad, and he will literally never be happy. It doesn’t matter who I’m dating…And besides I tried that for eighteen years, you know? It wasn’t really my thing…” The corners of his mouth quirk; this beautiful, scarred boy just needs to be reminded how much I actually need him in my life. Maybe he goes about it the wrong way, but I’m not exactly innocent in our relationship. He rises, inches from my face and tucks a stray hair behind my ears. When his soft, amber eyes find mine, I know I can’t hold onto my anger. He smiles, knowing what he does to me, his dimples are full force. “Are you really going to sleep?” He asks. I shake my head once. “No, I was pissed and wanted you to leave.” He leans in slightly, his lips brush against mine and I steady my breathing. “And now? Do you still want me to leave?” “I don’t want you to leave, but you probably should,” I say. Confusion casts over his face while he searches mine. He pushes himself from the bed, the mattress gives in to the sudden movement and I lose my balance. For a moment I think he’s going to apologize, but the sincerity is replaced by a scowl. “Do you have someone coming over?” “WHAT?” “You said I should go…And that look you gave me! You always pull this when you’re pissed at me!” I stand, knowing I can’t sit anymore. “Yeah, I said you should probably go, not because I don’t want you to stay, but because this happens every single time.” To my surprise my voice is calm. His shoulders slump and he runs his hands through his tangled hair. From the look on his face, you would think he had just physically hurt me. I know he’s sorry, I know he’s insecure, and the logical part of me knows that with everything he’s been through, this is normal. But I don’t know if I can drag myself down anymore to help him. And besides, how can you actually help someone that refuses help? He’s told me he won’t talk to a professional, he won’t talk to me anymore and I know there’s so much more that needs to be said. I know there’s huge life changing factors that he hasn’t told me. I know I could be with him if he was willing to change, willing to talk to me, but I don’t know if he is. “Fuck,” he groans. He rubs his face and falls back on my bed. I don’t move and I don’t say anything, I wait for his apology or explanation. Anything he can do to stall, I know he wants to stay with me, but he can’t stop finding excuses to pick a fight. “Why didn’t you just say that?” He complains, he lifts his hand from his face, peaking at me. “I shouldn’t have to explain myself. Normal couples don’t do that…You’re going to have to tone the jealous boyfriend thing down. Just a tad,” I say, holding my thumb and finger up. “Fuck normal,” he grumbles with a smile on his face. He stares at the ceiling, thinking. He sits up, eyeing me. “Boyfriend? So do this mean…?” “It just slipped,” I say, blushing. Throughout this roller coaster of a relationship, we really haven’t labeled ourselves. It just slipped carelessly from my mouth, and it couldn’t have been worse timing. His grin is smug, almost tantalizing as he walks to me. He knows I meant it, whether I want to admit it to myself or not, I did mean it. His arms wrap around my middle, tugging me closer. I know I should move away from his touch. But he’s a constant storm in my life, clouding my head, ensuring I make bad decisions. He doesn’t do it on purpose, he knows we’re not good for each other, but there’s something about us that makes us fight back harder, thinking we can overcome it. He kisses me lightly and pulls back, watching me, waiting for me to make the first move. “Tell me you want me to stay, Taylor, or I’m leaving right now,” he says. His voice is low, warning me, but I hear the underlying plea. I chew anxiously on my lips, hesitant under his intent gaze. I don’t answer him, not because I don’t want him to stay. Words are lost on me. He kisses me again, testing me. He pushes me back on the bed and climbs on top of me, one knee falls between my legs, knocking them apart. With his elbows on each side of me, he holds himself up, we lock eyes and I know what he needs from me. “Stay,” I whisper. And that’s all it takes, all restraint melts from him and he gives himself wholly to me. His lips move down my neck, nibbling as he goes. I feel his fingers at my waist and I lean up, encouraging him to unbutton my plaid shirt. When he hesitates, I pull his off and throw it on the floor. His smile is smug as he lowers his lips to my ear. I shiver at the closeness. “Impatient, are we?” He whispers. It feels like an eternity has passed when he finally reaches the last button. I watch him with hooded eyes, my breathing is shallow. Needing him to be closer, I rock my hips into him and that’s all of the encouragement he needs, after tossing my shirt to the side, he dips down and sucks on my right breast. Looking up at me with a sly grin, he gives my nipple a tug. I dig my heels into the sheets, and thread my fingers through his hair, tugging. Our first time was great, but now I know he was holding back on me. “These fucking pants. Don’t wear them when I’m not around,” he says. His fingers slide under the band of my leggings, then he gently tugs them down my legs. My hands travel down his chest, stopping on the small tattoo, the only one on his torso. My finger traces the inked skin, when he sighs, I move on. I fumble with his belt, unbutton his jeans and he kicks them off. “Shit,” he mumbles. He pushes himself off of me and crouches by his jeans. The crinkling package makes its presence known before I see it. As he brings it to his mouth, I sit up, enjoying my favorite part of the show. Using his teeth, he tears the top off the package. His eyes never leave mine as he tugs his boxers down. He leans over the bed, with his hands placed on each side of my thigh, he kisses me softly. It’s easy to forget the scene he just caused when he kisses me like that. “This your last chance to make me leave…and keep your virtue.” His grin is wicked as I cock my eyebrow. “I think you ran off with that long ago.” He shakes his head. “It comes back to you when I leave. And then I fuck everything up…” I silence him by pressing my lips to his. Finally, he disposes of the only clothing separating us and rolls the condom on while whispering he loves me. He lies on me, half of his weight is supported by his left hand, the other half crashes into me. His right hand glides up my thigh, only stopping when he reaches my center. His fingers plunge inside and I let out a gasp. “Let’s try something new,” he says. I nod my head, silently cursing him. He knows that I’ll agree to anything right now. “You on top.” Unsure of what to do, I roll over and straddle him. He lets out a laugh and I blush. “No, babe, turn around. Face the other way,” he says. I scan his face, not finding a hint that it’s a joke. Without a word, he rubs his hand on the small of my back, grinning. That’s the thing about Hayze, he can read me like an open book. He knows when I’m nervous, he’s patient with me. He tugs me down to his chest, his lips meet mine with a slow, sensual kiss, and then he pulls away. “Trust me, you know I want to make you feel good,” he promises. All doubts melt away and I turn around. His hands loop around my waist, helping me position over his length and gently presses me down so that he slides in. I tense, and he doesn’t move right away. I hold my breath, getting used to this new position. It’s much different than the other times, I can feel every inch of him in me. I shift, testing out the new pressure, and he groans from the movement. The sound shoots pleasure down my body. With new found confidence, I begin to rock, biting my lip when it becomes too much. I know these walls are thin and with students arriving back, I don’t want them to hear what Hayze is doing to me. His fingers trail down my spine, stopping at my waist. He bumps into me, matching my rhythm. The pain blends into pleasure each time he slides into me. “Turn around, I wanna see you riding me,” he says. He pats my back side, encouraging me to move. With his help, I face him without skipping a beat. His pace speeds up, pushing me to keep up. His face is flushed with desire, and his eyes snap shut. I circle my hips around, loving the look on his face. His hand drops down and rubs my center. “Oh, Hayze,” I moan. “That’s right baby, I’m the only one that make you feel like this.” He gently tugs me down and hooks his arm around my neck. With his hand rubbing me, and the new pleasure, my body trembles in pleasure as I cry out. I mash my lips into his, hoping to drown out the noise, and I feel him tremble. His hand slides down and in one movement I’m lying flat on my back, looking up at him in awe. He pumps in and out of me, giving all of himself to me. **** I lay, panting and wrestling with my own doubt. After he collapsed beside me, his breathing evened out and he hasn’t said anything. My hair is tangled around my arm, I want to move and readjust, but I’m afraid of waking him up. What would I say? We were mid fight when this happened—nothing has been resolved, will we go back to the fight or continue on like it didn’t happen, like the last three days didn’t happen? If I know him at all, he wants to forget it happened. And that won’t work for me, along the way we’ve collected so much baggage that we can’t possibly add anymore. He needs to know he can’t follow me to my dorm, pick an argument, then fuck me until he falls asleep. That solves nothing. “Stop over thinking it,” he mumbles. I jump, thinking he was asleep. He chuckles and tosses his arm around me to pull me near. “I’m not thinking about anything,” I say, defensively. “Bullshit. I didn’t come over here for that…Just so you know.” His words soothe me, but only for a moment. He knows I’m thinking about what just happened, maybe he’s lying. “Sure you didn’t, Hayze,” I say, my tone is loaded with sarcasm. I stare at the ceiling, studying each stain, nail, and anything I can find to take me away from here. My mind overthinks, it always needs something to do, and recently its job is to overanalyze Hayze. I keep replaying today, over and over, wondering where it went wrong. Why can’t we sit down and have a normal conversation, without yelling? I believed he followed me over here to apologize, but now laying here beside him, I’m afraid he was using me. He sighs, “I uh, I’ve been thinking…We’ve never been on an actual date. I tried once, but it doesn’t count, you couldn’t keep your hands off of me. Like today,” he says. I nudge him in the side, he holds it dramatically and groans. He sits up and the sheets pool in his lap, leaving him exposed. He rubs the back of his head, like he always does when he’s nervous and I cock my head to the side. “What is it?” “Do you wanna go out…with me? On a date?” The fact that he’s nervous is everything to me. “No.” He looks surprised; I start laughing and he grins. “You just used me? What are you going to say next, that you want me to leave?” I shrug my shoulders, looking up him innocently. “Well—” He leans over, quieting me with a kiss. “Huh uh, not happening. You’re stuck with me forever.” My stomach does a flip when he says forever. His head falls on my chest and I tangle my fingers into his hair. If every day could be like tonight, we would be okay. We would be forever. But if he leaves again—if the doubts, or what ifs come back, we have to stop. This isn’t good for us. The door slams into the wall, I squeal and hold the covers over me. Hayze lays over me, blocking me from the visitor. “Fuck, Lea! You could knock!” “What in the actual hell, guys? I ran after you when Joel told me about your little scene! Seriously?” She laughs. “I guess I’ll come back…Please be decent.” “My place?” He asks as he falls to my side again. “Hayze! That could’ve been Joel coming after you! Why didn’t you lock the door? If she would’ve walked in two minutes before,” I say, rubbing my temples. “First of all, I said I didn’t come in here for this. It would’ve been a little cocky to lock the door,” he says and I scowl at him. “And if Joel, or any of my friends ever walk in on us they won’t make it out the door.” He chuckles and moves around my room, searching for his scattered clothes. I help him gather his clothes then dress before anyone has the chance to walk in. Lea is nowhere in sight and I thank god for that, I don’t think I could face her after what she walked in on. His fingers wrap in mine, and he taps me with his thumb. I look up at him, finding that he’s watching me. “My place?” He looks at me, amused. He puts his hands on my shoulders, swaying me from side to side. I look down, fixing my eyes on my mismatched socks. “Actually, I think I’m gonna stay here.” He shifts then lets out a long sigh. “I thought we were okay.” I look at him, matching his scowl. “But we’re not, Hayze…You can’t just follow me back to my dorms after being gone for days, have sex with me, and think everything’s okay. That’s not how it’s works.” He rolls his eyes at me, exasperated. “I don’t know recall you saying no.” My body goes rigid, with my arms slung across my chest, I walk to the door and hold it open for him. “That’s not the point,” I seethe. “Then tell me the point! Why didn’t you say no, huh?” With long, precise strides, he crosses the room and slams the door. Frustrated, I blow my bangs from my face and place my hands on my hips. “Because I wanted to, and now I want you to leave,” I say, nodding my head to the door. “Since when did a casual screw mean so much to you?” “Since you changed me,” he says. If I didn’t know him, the puppy eyes would win me over. But I do know him, and I know he’s full of shit. He hasn’t changed, not yet; and after the past three days I’m wondering if he’s capable. “Lea’s probably ready to come back in,” I say, opening the door again. “What happened in the last few minutes for you to put this wall up?” He asks, motioning his hand up an invisible wall in front of my face. I shrug my shoulders, feigning indifference. “Nothing, we both know it shouldn’t have happened.” “Where does that leave us?” His eyes are holding mine, willing me to change my mind. Confused. My eyes drop to my feet again. Not for the first time, I’m frustrated at what happened tonight. We could’ve talked, we could’ve worked through things, but now I’m standing in front of him wishing I would’ve locked the door behind me. Sensing my dilemma, he grows impatient. “Say you’ll go out with me,” he begs. “Before you make your decision, please.” I hold the door open wider, sighing. Lea is standing at the end of our hall, looking bored. I look back at Hayze, he’s planted in front of me, and I know he won’t leave until I agree. After everything we’ve been through, we should go out, even if it’s for closure. “I’ll go,” I say, reluctantly. His shoulders visibly relax as he takes a step to me and wraps me in his arms. He kisses my cheeks, and his lips trail down my face, stopping on my lips. “You won’t regret it,” he says. He walks from my room, leaving me doubting my decision. I hope not, Hayze. I really hope I won’t regret it. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN I do a final mirror check. I opted for less makeup tonight, strictly powder and mascara. I pinch my cheeks, making natural color flow to them. Knowing Hayze, my face will be red all night, I think he enjoys embarrassing me. My beige sweater is tight and low cut, without being immodest. I chose a pair of maroon skinnies and brown combat boots. Now that I’m checking every angle in the mirror, I’m having second doubts. I wanted to be myself, not over the top, but maybe I should try for another outfit. It’s basically our first date. My nerves get the best of me and I chew anxiously on my bottom lip. He hasn’t told me where he’s taking me and that worries me a little. I don’t have enough time to panic, a knock on the door draws me out. I stand, smooth my clothes and my unruly hair and answer it. Hayze stands in front of me, simply dressed in jeans and a tee. His black leather jacket covers his tattoos, there’s something about the combination of his classic car and leather jacket that makes me want to call off the date and pull him in my bed. But I shake that image from my head. I breathe a sigh of relief that he’s not dressed up, but now that I think of it, when has he ever been? “Ready?” He asks, kissing my cheek. “You tell me. I don’t even know where we’re going,” I say, gesturing to my outfit. “You look fine, Babe.” I close my door, locking it behind me. “More than fine,” he whispers, coming up to my backside. With a stroke of his hand, he sweeps my hair back and places a kiss behind my ear. “Stop it,” I giggle and slap him away. Or we won’t make it out. When we get to the restaurant my stomach is in knots. It’s the same place Corey took me on that…unforgettable date. The smell of Italian knocks into my senses when I open the car door. People spill from the front doors, waiting for their names to be called. “We have a reservation,” Hayze tells me, seeing my reluctance. I smile at him, thankful; I’m surprised that he thought ahead. When we get to the lobby, I freeze. Chandler and Kassi are seated on a bench. There’s no way to avoid them. They were really nice, but I haven’t talked to any of the group since the night at the cabin. Kassi is the first to see us. She stands and walks unbelievably fast in heels that have to be over five inches. Her soft blonde hair is braided and hanging off her shoulder. Her smile is genuine, making me feel worse about my reaction. “Taylor, it’s so good to see you again,” she says, smiling. Chandler walks over and slings his arm over her shoulder, splashing his beer in the process. “Clarke,” he says, tilting his head to Hayze. “Was wondering when I’d see you again.” Hayze laughs once, but it’s missing humor. “You just saw me last week.” “Yeah, last time I saw you, you were taken off in cuffs. Good to see you’re out, what happened?” My body goes rigid, I do a quick scan, hoping no one heard him. Chandler’s smiling and I can tell Hayze is trying to play it off as a joke. “They let us go…It was just a misunderstanding.” Chandler snorts, “Joel seems to have a lot of those. Goddamn idiot, he was just arrested for shit at your cabin. He won’t ever learn.” I look at Hayze, confused. “What happened?” Kassi laughs nervously as she places her hands on Chandler’s chest. “They probably need to get a table, hon, it was good to see you guys.” She waves and practically tows him away from us. Hayze walks to the front podium tells the hostess his name. Her cheeks heat as she gathers menus. She looks right through me, flirting and batting her eyelashes at him. I find myself, not for the first time, wondering how many girls he’s actually been with. He ignores her, but that just makes her try harder. My head has been foggy since Chandler dropped the bombshell on me. Kassi and Hayze couldn’t separate us fast enough, and that makes me suspicious. We’re seated in a booth in the back, but it’s still surrounded by people. This restaurant is always packed. Hayze settles in across from me, he grabs his menu and starts looking it over. His eyes are glued intently to the menu, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s doing it on purpose. “What was Chandler talking about?” He starts coughing, abruptly, his eyes snap up and I see that he’s laughing. I scowl at him and he pulls it together. “I had a bet going on with myself…I thought you would wait until after the food got here.” “Cute,” I deadpan. “You never cease to amaze me,” He says with a smirk. “Stop, what happened?” I grab the menu from him, forcing him in the open. He groans and rolls his eyes at me. “That night of the wreck he got arrested. And I didn’t tell you because it’s not our business. What the fuck do we care about that guy anyway?” A gangly redhead walks to our table, pausing our conversation. “Hey guys, I’m Rance, I’ll be your waiter tonight. What can I get you to drink?” He asks passing out drink napkins. His eyes fall on me and he smiles. “Water is fine,” I say, smiling back at him. “Miller tap,” Hayze says, his tone is cut dry as he glares at the waiter. “Can I see…your…never mind,” He says, backing off from Hayze’s hard glare. I smile apologetically as he scrambles from the table with our drink order. “He was fucking flirting with you right in front of me,” he says, defending himself before I can say anything. “Yeah? But did you see me glaring at the hostess for flirting with you?” His nose crinkles as he stares at me, clueless. “What are you talking about?” “Nothing, forget I said anything. So, Joel, why was he arrested?” Another waiter drops our drinks off at the table and leaves garlic bread in front of us. The aroma fills my senses and it takes all restraint I have to stay away from the bread until we finish talking. He sighs, “He had something on him that he shouldn’t have had.” And then it hits me. He was adamant about not calling the cops that night. He said we would get arrested. I had to fight to get him to call an ambulance for Jenny and then he rushed us out before they could get there. “So, that’s why you wanted to leave? You didn’t want us to get arrested?” He takes a bite of bread, watching me as if I just said the most stupid thing he’s ever heard. “Yeah…That’s exactly why I left…I don’t want my girlfriend getting arrested, why would that be a problem?” “You could’ve stayed and helped them clean up, or do anything you could for them. You don’t just leave your friend to get arrested!” My voice is low, but I still look around, hoping no one hears our constant bickering. “He’s not my friend.” “Really, Hayze? Really?” He drops the breadstick, rubs his hands on the napkin, and tosses it in front of him. The way he looks at me makes me want to back down—pull all of the words hanging in the air back in my mouth, and have a quiet dinner like everyone else in the restaurant. “If I remember correctly, and I do because I was the only fucking sober one there, I beat the shit out of him for being a dick to you. I got you out of there as fast as I could so you wouldn’t get arrested, and I didn’t say a damn word about it. Any sane person would be thanking me, but you,” He laughs without humor, attempting to calm himself down. “You, just want to pick a fight with me. Why the hell does it matter that some dumb fuck was arrested for having coke after we already left?” “Coke?” I scrunch my nose and he nods his head. “How much of it did you actually do for me, Hayze? You’re telling me Joel didn’t piss you off about something else, or maybe you didn’t want to get arrested?” “Look, this can go two ways, we stop fighting…or not.” He shrugs, nonchalant. “Either way, I’m not leaving you alone. I’m not going to give up on this because we can’t get our shit together. You can make me the happiest man in the world or nag me until I throw this fucking bread basket through the window, but I’m not going anywhere, because you do both of those things better than anyone I’ve ever known. And for some reason un-fucking-known to me, you love me, I’ll take you either way, any day of the week.” “You’re right, sorry,” I say. “You’re what? I couldn’t hear you,’ he says, laughing. I shake my head at him. “That was a one-time apology.” He slides over on my side of the booth and kisses me. It’s not a long kiss, it’s one reserved for public places, and yet, it still leaves me breathless. “I need you to trust me, Taylor, I’ll tell you anything you need to know,” he says. His eyes are wide, the way they look into mine, willing me to trust him, almost makes me break down into tears again. “I trust you,” I lie. His mouth quirks into a smile and he presses his lips to mine. A simple white lie erased all doubt from his mind. I trust him as much as I can, but I’m incapable of fully trusting anyone. I hope more than anything that when I let go of everything, the first person I trust is Hayze. But my overactive mind won’t allow it right now, especially when I hear things like my roommate got arrested for coke casually flow from his mouth as if it’s the most natural thing that’s ever happened. “Do you need more time to look over the menu?” Rance asks, looking at Hayze. “You know what you want?” Hayze asks me as he glances over the menu one more time. “Yeah, I wanted to try this pasta last time I was here,” I say, pointing to his menu. “But we left before we ordered.” This piques his interest and I mentally kick myself for bringing that up. “When did you come here?” He asks, his eyes boring into mine. “I can come back if I need to?” Rance asks. Hayze shakes his head and tells him our orders. Without another word Rance walks off, leaving me alone to an interrogation. Much to my surprise, Hayze doesn’t bring up the date. I don’t forget about it though; I feel more anxious as time passes. He’s putting off the inevitable. “Do you have your schedule for next semester?” He asks, smirking like he already knows the answer. A food runner sets our food in front of us and wishes us a great dinner. “Of course. I met with my advisor the first day of early registration, and I…When you and Lea were gone, I ordered my books and found the buildings.” He looks at me apologetically and nods. “Sorry,” he murmurs, surprising me. That is a huge step for him. “What about you? Everything set for your last semester?” I ask and his eyes light. I still can’t believe he’s graduating next semester and I had to find out at a family dinner. But everything is need to know basis, or a surprise with Hayze. He could’ve showed up at my dorm on his way to graduation and told me, and he would think that’s fine. “Yup.” “I can’t believe I didn’t know.” He laughs, “Why would I tell anyone? It’s not a big deal…” “That’s a huge deal! Were you just going to tell me that day or what? Oh, surprise I’m graduating and moving away,” I say, sarcastically. He looks at me with his brows raised. “I’m graduating and immediately coming back in the fall…I still have three more years of being here…” “I see your point…It’s stupid but I see it,” I laugh. I take the first bite of my food, moaning in approval. “It’s good, right?” Hayze asks and I nod. And that’s how dinner goes. No more fighting. No more surprises. We leave the restaurant, looking for something to do. As we leave the parking lot and pull out to the main road, I look to my right, seeing police cars parked outside of a bar. “What’s going on over there?” I ask. He stops at the red light directly in front of the bar and looks. “The building right there,” he says, pointing to the building in front of the bar. “Is a police station. Cops are always outside. They just sit there and wait for it to close and arrest people.” I laugh, “Who puts a bar by a police station?” “The same person that would open a dance hall…In any location,” he deadpans. The light turns green and I catch the sign as we pass by. “Lea talks about that place all the time! She wants to take me there,” I say, laughing at him. He clearly doesn’t like the place, but I don’t think Hayze likes anything country. “Of course she does,” he mumbles. He jerks to the left last minute, sending me flying to the middle console. “Shit, sorry, I don’t wanna go that way. The brick fucks with the car’s alignment.” “Oh, we can’t have that. Please slam me around the car to protect your baby,” I say, patting the dashboard. He laughs, “I appreciate your cooperation, but I was going to do it anyway.” “Are we going back?” I ask, noticing that we’re approaching the campus. “We’ll do whatever you want,” he says, shrugging. “I never do anything,” I frown. “I don’t even know what there is to do here…All I do is go to work and class, and sometimes Lea drags me to a bar.” “Well, let me show you around.” He looks at me for approval and I nod. He drives through the narrow, main road, telling me about the town. He seems to have a story about every building and street we pass. The further away from campus we get, I perk up. “Oh my god, there’s a miniature golf and bowling alley here?” “Yeah…” “Is the bowling alley open? Do you wanna go bowling?” I ask, bouncing in my seat. His face twists into disbelief as he watches me. “Bowling?” “My nana used to take Scott and me bowling all of the time. I haven’t been in forever!” He sighs and pulls into the parking lot. “What about Sean?” He asks, smirking. We get out of the car and walk toward the building. The parking lot is almost empty, so we’ll get a lane immediately. I laugh, remembering my childhood with her. “She didn’t get along with him. She stopped asking after he told on her to my dad. She liked to drink, but according to her it was for medical purposes,” I say through laughter. “Sean wasn’t having it.” “I need to meet this lady. She’s probably the only one in the family that would like me,” he says, holding the door open for me. “She passed away.” I look down as I walk through the door. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been or how many times I say it; it still hurts just as bad as the day it happened. He cringes. “Shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” I rub his arm, hoping to take the tension from the air. “You didn’t know. And by the way my mom likes you and so does Scott.” “Half way there,” he says. “I break the tie.” “Great, so half of the family hates me most of the time,” he laughs and I nudge him. We walk to the tall counter and Hayze tells the man our shoe sizes. The man acts like he knows Hayze, calling him by his first name. Given his appearance, it makes me uneasy. I grab the purple, seven-pound ball and find our lane. I bypass the name selection and start our game just as he walks up. “Why’d you leave our names as one and two? I had the perfect names picked out,” He chuckles, knowing why I did it. “I thought you were trying to be nice to me,” I say with narrow eyes. He shrugs, “I am. This is as nice as I get. Besides, you don’t know what I was going to name you. I would have to tweak it a little but something like your tits are…” I run over to him and clamp my hand over his mouth and he bursts into laughter. I look around, seeing no one is within earshot, I feel better. “Hayze,” I say, hushed and daring him to continue. I pull my hand back and point a finger at him as I walk away. I can still hear him laughing as I pick up the ball and try unsuccessfully to hit a pin. Hayze tries to look sincere, but I’m not fooled. To my dismay he gets a strike on his first bowl. “Seriously? You didn’t even want to bowl,” I say, throwing my arms out. I’m smiling and playing it off as a joke, but I really hate losing. He walks back, grinning and cocky as ever. He wraps his arms around my middle and I swat at him, giggling. “I’m good at everything,” he whispers, then walks off. I watch him skeptically. “Name one thing I’m not good at,” He says, his smile is devious. I roll my eyes, suddenly embarrassed and grab my ball. “That’s what I thought,” I hear him say as I roll the ball. “Ha! I’m warming up,” I say, clapping as the ball makes contact with at least one pin. He sits up in the seat with his eyes on the screen. “Wow, three pins. That brings your grand total to three.” “I still have one more!” I toss the ball down the lane and it goes straight into the gutter. I curse under my breath and turn around to walk back. My eyes are avoiding Hayze, because I know he’ll have a comment. “I really didn’t see that one coming,” he says as I get back. I collapse into the chair and fold my arms across my chest. “Obviously competitive dates are going to be a problem for us,” I say, shooting a glare in his direction. “If you don’t like losing, yeah, they will,” he says, amused. He walks over and sits next to me. Without permission, he pulls me into his chest, it’s vibrating with bouts of laughter. “I won’t say anything else, promise. You can stop pouting.” “I’m not pouting! It’s your turn, so I just sat down over here,” I say, defending myself. “Whatever you say,” he says. He grabs the bowling ball, turning to see that I’m watching him and I roll my eyes. He rolls the ball down the gutter and looks back at me, shrugging. “Hayze! Don’t lose on purpose,” I say, complaining. He looks at me and laughs. “I already have ten points; it would be impossible to lose.” I glare at him and he holds his hands up feigning innocence. “Let me help you.” We spend at least ten minutes going over my wrong form until he’s satisfied. After my first strike I have to endure a round of ‘I told you so.’ Even though we have another game, we leave after our first. I pull the grimy bowling shoes off and hand them to Hayze to take to the front desk. I put our bowling balls up and grab my purse. Realizing he’s been gone for a while, I look around for him and find him at the desk. The man points to me and Hayze jogs over. “Ready to go?” He asks, reaching for my hand. I nod and walk beside him. “Who was that guy?” “That guy,” he says, pointing behind him. “Oh…He use to work at the bar.” He holds the door open for me and I walk through. I have a hard time believing he worked at the bar. Only college students work at Mystic. But I refuse to say anything, we’ve both made promises to each other. Other men have lied and let me down before, but that doesn’t mean that Hayze will. I have to remind myself that before my accusations ruin us. On the drive back to the dorms I notice he seems nervous. He holds my hand, kissing it at every stoplight. “Why are you being so nice?” I tease him. He shrugs as he parks his car in front of the dorm. “I don’t want tonight to end. We’re actually getting along,” he says. I smile, thinking I feel the same way. Tonight was perfect. It started out rocky, and after the fight at the restaurant I was unsure how the rest of the date would play out. But I’m ending the evening pleasantly surprised, maybe we fight more than other couples, but this proves we can work through it. We’re the two most mentally fucked up people I know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a happy ending together. I press my lips to his. He’s surprise at first, but he melts into it, without holding back. “I love you,” he says, brushing his lips across mine. “I love you, too. Thanks for the perfect evening.” I grab my purse and place my hand on the door handle, considering inviting him inside. Lea’s home, but we don’t have to do anything. I just don’t want tonight to end. “What are you doing tomorrow?” He asks. I look up, thinking. “Lea mentioned doing something, why?” He cocks an eyebrow, leaning across the counsel, he looks me in the eye. “It’s New Year’s Eve, you’re not going out with my sister.” “Don’t tell me what do, Hayze,” I warn him. He falls back in his seat, groaning. He pinches the bridge of his nose, before responding. I know it takes every drop of restraint that he has to not yell or fight with me, and I appreciate him trying, but he still can’t tell me what to do. “If you respect the last ounce of sanity I have, you’ll go out with me tomorrow,” he says. I laugh at him and he looks at me, confused. I swipe my eyes and try to stop laughing long enough to speak. “Do you hear yourself when you talk? You can go out with us,” I say. He shakes his head, sighing, “I’ll go. The last thing I wanna do is piss you off after the night we had. But, Taylor, I’m always lookin’ out for you, I’m not letting you and Lea go off together on New Year’s Eve night. You probably haven’t thought about a DD or the idiots that go out.” “C’mon, do we ever plan ahead?” I look at him in disbelief. “My point exactly, what time do you wanna meet up tomorrow?” He starts the engine in his car. Apparently he’s done with the conversation. “I’ll have to talk to Lea,” I say. “Or you could just stay over tonight. You wouldn’t have to worry about…” “Hayze!” “No?” he asks, amused. I know he’s kidding, but my face still heats. There’s an unsaid promise between us to take things slow until we figure this out. But tonight…Tonight changed things. I bite my bottom lip and shake my head as I climb from his car. “Goodnight, Babe,” he says as I close his door. I wrap my arms around my middle as the wind picks up. Within the last week the temperature has dropped drastically, sending us into the miserable month of January. I run up the steps, shielding myself from the cold and watch his taillights disappear. My heart drops when he pulls on the main road, I know this is good for us but a part of me wanted him to come back and talk me into staying over. Sighing, I walk inside, maybe tomorrow night. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN “I don’t understand why you don’t just stay here…They have one bedroom apartments and you wouldn’t have to move your stuff far,” I say, popping another chip in my mouth, I flip through the listings again. I don’t want to be negative, but these places aren’t as nice as his apartment now. Hayze collapses beside me on the couch, leaning over my shoulder, he looks with me. “This place is only college students. All anyone does is party here and I wanna get away from that. Besides, when you come to your senses and move in, you’ll want a quiet place.” He brings the rim of his glass to his mouth, taking a sip to cover his grin. “I’m not moving in with you,” I say for the millionth time today. “And why are you drinking already?” “Babe, everyone will be here in an hour.” I gasp and jump from the couch. “What? I haven’t even started getting ready!” He chuckles, shaking his head. I walk in his bedroom and he follows behind me. He was at my dorm this morning, convincing me to help him pick an apartment. I grabbed the essentials for tonight and left with him. He’s keeping his word so far, that includes breaking his lease with Joel. I tear my clothes off and grab my dress from the hanger and pull it on. “Will you zip me?” I ask, holding my hair up. His hands find my back, they’re cool from the glass, making me shiver. His fingers deliberately trail up my back as the pulls up the zipper. He places a kiss on my neck and steps away, I sigh in frustration and he grins. “Why are you puttin’ your dress on right now?” “I’m about to touchup my hair and I don’t want it to get messed up,” I say, pawing at my hair. To my surprise it’s still curly, all I need to do is touchup a few strands. I plug in my wand and pull my makeup bag out. I look in his full length mirror, turning in every direction to inspect this dress. It screams New Year’s Eve. The black metallic jewels catch light from all angles, the thin spaghetti straps are black. And the back…well, its nonexistent, only a thin strap connects each side. I tug a little on the bottom hem when I slip my nude heels on. It’s short, much shorter than I remember. “What do you think?” I ask, looking at Hayze through the mirror. He’s leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. When his eyes meet mine, I already know the answer. I pull my bottom lip in my mouth, bracing for his reaction. His arms drop to the side then he stalks over, I watch from the mirror as his arms snake around my waist and falls down my thighs. The gesture is so simple, it’s one he’s done countless times, but there’s something about watching him touch me that makes it erotic. The girl that stares back at me, isn’t me, her eyes are wild, and she’s confident as the thin fabric grips her curves. His face falls into the crook of my neck, his breathing picks up. “I think you know how I feel about this dress,” he says, meeting my sight in the mirror. “You’re the sexiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, but if you leave out of my apartment with this on, we’re gonna have problems.” I pull away from him, giggling, I sit on the floor in front of the mirror that stretches across his closet. I wrap a strand of hair around the wand, Hayze watches me with amusement. “You’re going to be on your best behavior tonight,” I say, teasing him, but at the same time, I’m serious and he knows it. This might be the longest we haven’t fought and I don’t want to mess that up. He walks from the room without a word and I continue to touchup my curls. When I’m satisfied, I start on my makeup. I’ve always been the worst at this part, Lea makes it look so easy. I, on the other hand, couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life. Still, I try in vain. It was against the rules to wear makeup in my house. I roll my eyes, angry that my father deprived me of the ability to wing my freaking eyeliner. Hayze walks back in the room, his glass is filled to the top. “We’re taking a cab,” He says, shrugging off my expression. “What time is Lea comin’ over?” I look at my phone and panic when I see how late it is. Everyone is meeting at the apartment to drink before we go out. “She should be here in like fifteen minutes,” I say. “Do you want a drink?” He asks, pointing to his cup. “Not right now.” I stand and step into my heels, with one last mirror check, I smile and follow him into the living room. “Who’s coming?” He falls on the couch and pulls me into his lap. “Chandler, Kassi, Lea, your brother,” He sighs, “Joel, because the stupid fuck lives here.” I giggle at his disdain. “I can’t believe my brother’s coming. So awkward,” I say, scrunching my nose. Not that I’ve asked, but I get the feeling something is going on between Lea and Scott. And it’s not something I want to witness first hand tonight, or ever. His lips find my ear. “We have fifteen minutes…What to do,” He whispers. Like a child, I grab my ear, and move away from him. “Hayze…Lea will be early, you know that and Joel’s in the other room.” He rolls his eyes. “You’re right, fuck, this is why we need our own place.” “You’re getting your own place…I already have one.” “You wouldn’t have to share a room with Lea, you could shower alone…We could fuck in the living room without getting caught,” He says, patting my backside. “Hayze, no,” I complain. I need him to stop because his plan is working. I’m afraid if he says one more thing I’ll pack my bags immediately and move in. “Taylor, yes,” He mocks my voice, sounding spot on; I nudge him with my elbow. “I have a dorm that’s completely paid for. It would be crazy,” I say. At this point I’m not sure who I’m trying to convince, him or myself. “By the way, how is someone that doesn’t show up to work anymore paying for an apartment?” He laughs once and pats my leg, moving me as he stands. “I’m doing something else right now, I’ve talked to Randy about it. I’m not working there as much. No big deal,” he says, then walks into his room. “What are you doing?” I ask, following him. I cross my arms across my chest and lean against the door frame, watching as he changes shirts. He pulls the black button down shirt on, buttoning it as he looks at me. “It’s nothing really…I…” There’s a knock at the door and he walks past me to get it. I groan, knowing this conversation is dead. A lot could’ve happened in the days we didn’t talk. “Tay!” I recognize that voice, my head snaps up and I go into the living room. Lea wastes no time; she’s pouring a drink when I walk in. Shea walks from the kitchen, greeting me with a hug. Lea’s dress makes me feel better about mine, Shea’s navy blue dress is modest, her heels are short, and still put her over six-foot tall. “I didn’t know you were coming,” I tell Shea. I’m thrilled she’s here. I know I can’t handle being around this dysfunctional group of people without Shea and Lea. “I’m full of surprises. Hey, your brother’s running late,” Lea says. She kicks off her heels and sits on the couch with her drink. “This is gonna be so awkward.” Joel’s door swings open and my eyes snap to him. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been around him, I’m nervous when he’s around. I can count on one hand how many bad experiences I’ve had with him, but it doesn’t help shake my uneasy feeling. The door swings wider and Jenny walks out. I haven’t seen her since the accident, and I feel bad about not checking on her. As she sways her hips through the apartment, looking smug, I remember why I don’t care to ask. “You guys have fun tonight. Some people have to work for a living,” she says on her way out. “Try working at a bar that’s closed during the week,” Shea fires back, wrinkling her nose as Jenny closes the door. Joel turns to us, forcing a tight smile. He walks to his room and lets out a long breath. “If you guys could not mention what you just saw, that would be great,” he says, motioning his hand between himself and the front door. Lea throws her head back, laughing. “You mean don’t tell the new girl about the old girl?” He nods his head. “Yeah…I have no control over my tongue when I’m drunk, but here’s to a good night. May we make better choices in the new year,” she says, raising her glass in his direction. He flips her off and walks to the kitchen. “Does he have to go with us?” Lea whispers but I look at him, hoping he doesn’t hear her. Hayze sits in the recliner, beside the couch, and pulls me in his lap. I lean closer to her, holding my hands around my mouth, I say, “Stop! Hayze is breaking his lease…This is the last time we have to endure him.” “You’re breaking your lease? Are you two moving in together?” Her eyes glance between us so quick, she looks animated. Hayze says yes at the same time I say no. His hands wrap around me pulling me closer, I feel his chest vibrate with laughter. “Eventually,” he tells her. “How much have you had to drink?” I ask him, hushed. He looks at me, baffled. “I’ve had three glasses of wine.” I shake my head, pulling further away from him. “But you’re filling them to the rim! That’s double!” “It’s New Year’s Eve, we’re all gonna drink too much. I’m just saving myself an extra trip,” he says, laughing at his own joke. “You two are like watching a train wreck,” Lea says. “We’re actually getting along really good right now,” I say, smiling. The door swings open and Chandler walks through, without an invitation. Kassi follows him, waving when she spots me. Chandler throws his thirty-pack on the counter and comes in our direction. I stand, getting out of his way and walk over to Kassi. “Hey! Want anything to drink?” I ask. Crinkling her nose, she shakes her head. “Nah, I have to be up early in the morning. My parents are coming in and I thought maybe I could see them without a hangover,” she says, giggling. “Understandable.” “I think they planned that on purpose,” she says, then walks over to join Chandler. She loops her arm through his and leans into him. She laughs, hanging onto every word he says. A pang of jealousy shoots through me. I don’t think Hayze and I ever went through that phase. I can’t remember looking like that, but maybe we’re different. Maybe their love is an infatuation that lights quick and fades just as fast. Maybe our feelings are the real deal, the type that light slowly and the flame doesn’t go out, it carries on, nagging your sanity until you wonder how you have hair left. I find two glasses on the counter and pick up the one nearest me. I take a gulp and slam the glass down, coughing. Hayze looks at me, brow cocked and I wave, letting him know I’m fine. The drink leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, I take a sip of water, mentally preparing myself for another drink. The second drink isn’t as bad, I quickly finish it and pick up the other glass. Whoever made them has a heavy pouring hand. Lea motions for me so I scoop up the cup and walk to the couch. “What are you drinking?” She asks when I sit beside her and Shea. Hayze is standing near the door, talking to Chandler and Kassi is by his side. “It was on the counter.” I shrug my shoulders, feeling the fast effect of the drink, my speech is a little slurred. “You look hot, by the way. I was afraid of what I might find… Just know that I came over here with a change of clothes for you,” Lea says. “She really did,” Shea giggles. “Where are we going tonight?” Lea perks up, anxious to lay out her plans. If nothing else, I have the best nights when I go out with her, she knows how to plan a night out. She dives into planning mode with Shea at the same time the door opens, bringing in another guest. She doesn’t bother speaking to us, instead she goes straight to Joel’s room and closes the door. Every time I see that happen, I feel sick, how many girls are in and out of this apartment every day? I look at Hayze, slightly frowning, he winks at me and I giggle. I feel…drunk, maybe. Lea and Shea continue to talk, they even laugh at something but I can’t focus on them. I haven’t heard a word they’ve said. “Taylor!” “Hmm?” I look at Lea; my eyes are unfocused. I blink, but I’m still not able to see her clearly. “You okay?” She asks, concerned. “Yeah.” Minutes tick by and my mood is souring. I know something is off, maybe I’m coming down with something. Yeah, I’m sick, I have to be. I just need to walk over and tell Hayze. I brace my hands on each side of me and push from the couch, luckily I kicked my heels off before because I’m having a hard time walking. I stumble, but Hayze catches me. “Baby, what’s wrong?” He coos. Why does everyone keep asking me that? “I feel…” I almost say bad, but I stop myself. I don’t feel bad, just different. “You feel what, Taylor?” I hear panic in his voice, I close one eye and find that I can focus better on his face this way. “There you are,” I giggle. I hear movement all around me. Hayze sits me on the couch and I close my eyes, willing myself to fall asleep. When I wake up I’ll feel better. “Lea, what the fuck happened?” “I don’t know! She got a drink and came back and started acting weird!” “Can we stay here?” I ask him, reaching out for his hand. “Yeah, Baby, we’re staying here.” “Who the hell got my drinks?” Joel asks. His voice is so muffled then everything goes quiet, I’m certain I’ve passed out. “WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?” Hayze yells, I wince, knowing I’ve never heard him so angry. Why is he so angry with me? “I didn’t do shit!” Joel says. “Oh my god,” Lea shrieks. I sit up, trying to find out what’s going on. What happened that has everyone so upset? “What did you put in those drinks, Joel?” Shea asks, her voice has an edge to it I’ve never heard before. “Oh shit,” Joel says, amused as he laughs. “Did she drink both of those drinks?” “Yeah, she did, Asshole! So why don’t you tell us what was in the damn drink,” Lea yells. I feel weight shift from the couch. “Lea, I’ll handle this,” Hayze says, his voice is dangerously low. “Did you drug my girlfriend?” “No…I was drugging myself and your girlfriend interfered with that,” he says, still laughing. Everything starts to click in my foggy head. “Look, man, she’ll enjoy it, go out and have a good time. Calm the fuck down.” Hayze chuckles and honestly the sound scares the shit out of me. It’s not the laugh he makes with me, it’s twisted, dangerous; I want to yell at someone to get him away from Joel. It’s not worth it! “I’m far from calm. What was in the drinks?” “Whiskey…And a few Xanax. Four of ‘em” “What?” A girl shrieks, I’m assuming it’s the second girl of the night. I want to tell her to run and get out while she can. “You were planning on giving that to me?” He doesn’t respond. Minutes later I hear heels clicking and the door slam shut. “I had to do something. Lea was gonna tell her about Jenny,” he says, unfazed. “Lea, take Taylor in the bathroom. See what you can do,” Hayze says, his voice is cold. I can’t respond. I can’t move. I can barely focus my eye sight. “Maybe you should go with her, Hayze… She needs you right now,” She tells him. “I’ll be there in a minute,” he says, his voice is clipped. I feel two people help me up from the couch. I blink many times before I can see Shea and Lea helping me to the bathroom. “Please don’t do anything stupid,” Lea mutters and Hayze laughs, sending a shiver down my spine. I focus on moving one foot at a time. My friends are dragging me, but I’m trying to walk; when we get to the bathroom, they lay me on the cool tile. “I find it absolutely hilarious the guy that use to snort coke and eat pills like fuckin’ candy, is mad because his girlfriend drank a spiked drink. Grow a pair of balls dude, I had to listen to you cry all last week when she dumped your ass, you’re just pissed she’ll breakup with you again when she wakes up.” If Hayze responds, I don’t hear him. There’s an eerie calm throughout the apartment. Lea and Shea fuss quietly over me, deciding what to do, but I ignore them. “It was just a few pills, she’ll be fine. You’re seriously worried? You did coke for three days straight last week, I thought you were gonna die, but…” A loud crash makes me wince. I hear something slam into a cabinet and I try to get up. “Get him,” I manage to say. “Chandler’s in there…He’s handling it,” Lea coos, attempting to soothe me, but I know she’s worried. “HAYZE!” I hear Chandler yell; he says something else but I can’t make it out. Someone slams the bathroom door. “Turn the water on to drown out the sound,” Lea whispers. The water twists on and I grow frustrated. “Taylor? Sit up. Look, this won’t be fun but you’ve gotta throw up. This has to come out, you’ll feel better.” I try to protest but her fingers jab down my throat before I can say anything. They’re leaning me over the toilet. Shea twists my hair back and Lea moves her fingers before I throw up. Then everything goes black. CHAPTER NINETEEN Someone near me groans. I cover my ears, hoping to block it out. It happens again, and this time, I feel it. It’s me…It takes all the energy I can muster to move my hands to my stomach. I weave my fingers around the strong hand gripping my waist. I try, unsuccessfully, to turn into him, my body feels like Jell-O. Sensing my dilemma, he gently pulls me to him and turns me on my side. I smile against his neck, and place a soft, weak kiss on his damp skin. I peel my eyes open, immediately regretting it. With every blink I take, it feels like sandpaper is scratching my eyes. I close them for good, ignoring the way they burn, how dry my mouth is, and my general misery. I just enjoy the feeling of his arms draped around me. “You smell good,” I croak, my voice sounds worse than I feel. “I just took a shower,” he says, his voice is blank, lacking emotion. He could feel bad, like I do, but his voice isn’t rough or hoarse. It’s just off. “I made breakfast and there’s water beside the bed. Can you sit up? You should drink some.” I open one eye, squinting at him, I nod my head and he helps me sit up. The pain that was spread out over my body, rushes to my head as I sit up. I lean against the headboard, taking my head in my hands, I want to scream, but I know that would only make it worse. He hands me the glass of cool water and I take a sip, testing my stomach. I don’t wait for it to respond, I turn it up, sucking down the contents. Hayze grabs the cup from me and sits it on the table. He pushes my hair from my face, tucking it behind my ear. He places a soft kiss on my forehead and looks me in the eye. His soft amber irises are full of sorrow. “Better?” “Much better,” I say, nodding. I glance around the room for the first time. It takes me a moment to figure out we’re at his cabin. I don’t hear anyone moving around, so I assume we’re alone. I laugh, softly. “What happened last night?” “You feel like eating breakfast?” He asks, hesitantly. I let him help me from the bed. I cringe, noticing what I’m wearing for the first time. His sweatpants are rolled down multiple times and engulf my legs. I walk in the bathroom; my jaw drops at my reflection. I look like death. No, worse, I look like I died last month and have been lying in his bed since. Despite Hayze’s best effort, my hair sticks out behind my ears. I grab the ponytail holder on my wrist and pull my hair back. My mascara is streaked down my face and my powder is blotchy. I turn on hot water and grab a washcloth, I don’t stop scrubbing until I’m positive I’ve scrubbed away two layers of skin. I meet Hayze in the kitchen, he’s standing beside a barstool with a plate of food in front of it. “Bacon and eggs,” I say before I see it. The smell greets me as soon as I walk in. “My favorite, how did you know?” “It was just a hunch.” I hop on the stool, not wasting anytime, I pop a piece of bacon in my mouth. I laugh at his seriousness. “Do you feel as bad as I do?” “Worse.” With his hands on the counter, he drops his head. “I wish I looked like you when I was hungover,” I laugh. “I’m not hungover, Taylor.” I toss my bacon down with a sudden loss of appetite. I rack my brain, trying to remember the night. What happened to make him so indifferent toward me? I can’t remember a thing past the apartment. Everyone was there drinking, having a good time. But Joel and Hayze got into an argument. “Okay, what the hell happened last night?” His head snaps up. He takes his time, sighing, he rubs the back of his head. My eyes narrow, I’ve seen him do this before, many times, he better not lie or play it off as nothing. “You were drugged…It was an accident, but it happened.” “What? How?” “Joel made some drinks and you didn’t know what was in them…I wasn’t paying attention,” he says, his voice cracked at the end. My plate soars across the room, the food splatters to the wall, mixing in with shards of glass as it hits the floor. I look at him with wide eyes, he leans against the wall, panting with anger. “Chandler pulled me off of him and he left. When I see that fucker again…” I hold my hand up. “He didn’t do it on purpose…Just let it go. What was in the drinks?” “Xanax. A lot of them, you threw up. It helped. I was freaking out, I wanted to take you to the hospital, but Lea said you were okay. Your brother is pissed, he showed up after Joel left.” I rest my forehead in my hand, staring at the counter. My mind is racing as I try to make sense of everything. “Why did he even have that in your apartment? Are they his prescription?” “No,” he says, the color drains from his face. We both know where this is going but only one of us holds the answer. I’m sitting here in the dark, where I’ve been the entire time I’ve known Hayze. He watches me with reluctance. “Are you prescribed?” “No.” “Do you take them?” The words tumble from my mouth before I can think it through. Part of me wants to take them back, laugh it off and stay ignorant to whatever is going on with him. Looking down, he nods his head. “And sell them.” “What else, Hayze?” I urge him, knowing there’s more from the tone of his voice. He wants to say more, but do I want to hear it? I could probably forgive this, but once I know more, can I let it all go? “Weed…And coke.” I’ve had a weird feeling all along. Maybe I knew, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it. A sob escapes my throat and I hop down from the bar stool, backing away from him. “Was this some sort of joke to you?” I swipe tears from my eyes and walk away. I go in the bedroom, close the door and curse when I find there’s no lock on it. I fling myself on the bed anyway, hiding my face in the pillows. “Let me explain everything…” “I’ve given you chance after chance to explain, Hayze! This is your fault! If I would’ve known you were on drugs, I wouldn’t be here! I wouldn’t have been in that position last night!” His hands catch my wrist and he jerks me from the bed. “You think I don’t fucking know that?” He shouts, veins are popping from his neck. I move further away from him. “Take me home. Now!” He shakes his head no. “I know last night and everything else wrong in your life is my fault. You think I don’t know that?” My face plants in my hands. “You’re on drugs,” I say, dumbfounded. I just needed to hear it out loud, remind myself that I need to get the hell away from him. And this time, stay away. “I’m not on drugs. I was…I barely do anything anymore, Taylor, you have to believe me…When you came around everything changed.” I narrow my eyes at him, daring him to say anything else about his change. “Yeah, well everything changed for me when you came around.” “It’s different now…I use to need it, but I don’t anymore. I’ve done it a few times for fun, and it’s you that’s changing me. I probably should’ve told you, but every time I saw you, I found myself doing less, wanting to see you more. And I knew I couldn’t tell you after we started dating, you would’ve left without letting me explain,” He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I just thought if I waited long enough, it would go away. No one would remember, you wouldn’t find out…I wouldn’t do any of that shit again.” “Problems don’t just disappear, Hayze,” I say. He nods his head. He paces the room twice then sits on the bed next to me. “That’s really screwed up…You can’t keep something this big from me and hope it goes away. I could’ve forgiven you for that. Everyone has things they’re not proud of from their past, but you intentionally kept it from me. You could’ve told me so many times, Hayze, now I’m just wondering if this is another lie. Maybe you’re scared I’ll find out that you’re still using every day and this is just another cover-up.” He reaches for my hand and I jerk it away. “Baby, I’m finally telling the truth, you’ve gotta believe me.” “I’ll never trust you again. I always wonder…” I stand up and pull on a pair on his shoes, they’re big but I have to get out of here. “I don’t know what’s worse. The lies or the fact that you wouldn’t tell me because you thought I’d leave you as soon as we hit a bump in the road. I could’ve helped you, Hayze.” “It’s not like that. You deserved more, you didn’t need to help me; I had it under control. It’s just that…” He sighs, “Last night got out of hand. I should’ve been watching you. It’s my fault.” “You didn’t have it under control. Look, I’m going for a walk…I’ll let you know something when I get back,” I say, leaving the room. He catches my wrist. “Let me know something? Want me to come with you?” He looks confused. “No…I need space from you,” I say, my voice is much harsher than intended, and I almost apologize. Sighing, he drops my wrist and lets me go. I walk out the back door and go toward the sound of moving water. Hayze once told me he came out here alone to think. Right now that’s exactly what I need. I walk to the shoreline and stop. It’s beautiful. The overcast is bright at first, I shield my eyes from it and drop my hands when I adjust. The water goes on for miles and miles. I walk across the beach, hoping answers will pop out at me. I grab the nearest rock, toss it in my hand, watching as it drops and soars into the air again. I chunk it in the water, as the rock sinks to the bottom, ripples cast in each direction. Unsatisfied I do this again. And again. I only stop when I feel him approach. I stop and steady myself, I don't turn. I know it's him, my body turns rigid and my heart speeds up as if the devil himself is behind me. Moments tick by before he sighs. I hear the rocks crunch as his feet make each step on the beach. "If you're looking to release anger, you'll have to throw something much heavier," he says. "Maybe I should throw you," I say. Unsurprisingly, he chuckles. As the laughter escapes from his body, I can tell by the sigh of relief, he thinks this is okay; that we're okay. "Yeah, maybe you should," he responds. I tug the zipper on my jacket up and hug my middle; when my eyes land on Hayze, his head is bowed as his kicks rocks around the shore. His eyes lift and find mine; he pulls his hands from his pockets and walks to me. To an onlooker, his face would be unreadable, but to me I know that look. His thoughts roll around his head like a frantic ball as he considers each excuse he'll give me. I wish I were the onlooker, a stranger. I know he can't quit for good, not yet. He's searching for the perfect sentence, the perfect touch to bid time until I'm safely sucked into his trap. When he reaches me, he doesn't ask for permission, he pulls me into a hug, wrapping his arms around my back and pulling me into his chest. He's willing me to forget, to forgive because somewhere deep down, he knows this time I won't. "You wanna go back in? I'll make you some coffee," he whispers into my hair, kissing me as he breathes the final word. "I, uh, need to get back to the dorm," I say. He pulls me at arm’s length and studies my face. "Is that what you want?" The question ends, but his eyes continue to say much more. He knows. "That's what I need," I tell him. My dorm is silent and empty. To my dismay, Lea is gone, she left behind a note saying she’s staying at a friend’s for a few days. I crushed the paper in my fist and tossed it in the trash. I need her. I need someone. I can’t stay here by myself after everything that happened. Hayze paces my room until I’m certain there’s a permanent trail in the floor. I slump in my desk chair, exasperated. I want to ask him to leave, I know I should. His anxiety is rubbing off on me and his presence is clouding my head, but honestly I’m afraid of what will happen to me if he goes. "Taylor, look…don't do this! What do I have to do?" He runs his hands through his hair, and paces my room twice before stopping in front of me. "You know the answer to that," I say, my voice is calm. I’ve already had this fight and I don’t intend to go through this again right now. I can’t. "I told you I would quit! I haven't used in a week, Taylor! And I’m not doing it again!" "I don't know if I believe you, Hayze. I don't know that I'll ever believe you! Every time you don't text back, every time you do something off, I'll always go back to this. I'll always wonder if you're using, if you’ve been arrested, if you overdosed, if.... I just can't do it!" His brows bump together in a scowl. “You don't have to worry about it anymore. I promise! Fuck, I'll let you drug test me if that's what you need." "That's not normal..." "Fuck normal!" His face is crimson with anger; he slaps everything off my side table. I clench my fist and snap my eyes shut, nothing good will happen if we’re both angry. "Maybe I need a better word… Healthy! That's not healthy. Relationships shouldn't require someone to drug test!" "What do I have to do? I'll do it! I'll do anything, just don't look at me like that," The corners of his eyes soften and the anger melts away. His look is pleading as he crouches in front of me, taking both of my hands in his. "Like what?" I snap, refusing to cave in. "Like you're done," he says, his tone is soft. He jiggles my hands, begging for my attention. I don’t want to look at him, I’m afraid to see those pleading amber eyes. "I am." "No, no you're not," he says, shaking his head. "What do I have to do?" I push past him and fall on the bed and turn my head to the side, avoiding his intrusive stare. I know I’ll never move past this. I’ll never trust him, but if I give him a slither of hope, maybe he’ll leave. I can avoid him and he’ll eventually move on. My heart sinks at the thought, too soon. "Prove it," I say. He sighs, exasperated. "That's what I'm trying to do," he says and pinches the bridge of his nose. "How should I prove it?" "I need time. I need…some space," I say. He stands over my bed, watching me, I don’t look at him. I’m staring at the ceiling, willing him to leave because of my indifference. “I don't like that, but if it's what you need, I'll try." "It's what I need,” I say. He steps toward me, but I shake my head. He doesn't attempt to hide the hurt in his eyes, when he turns and walks out of the door, a sob releases in my throat. Quietly, I whisk to the door and peak out. I catch a glimpse of his back as he walks slowly down the grim, narrow hall. When a group of students pass by I fight the urge to yell stop him. An overwhelming desire comes over me to yell I didn't mean it, come back, but I don't. I inch into the hallway to catch a last peek, he turns and catches my eyes. Confusion casts over his face, I open my mouth to speak but nothing comes out. All that needs to be said has been said. He stopped walking and is now facing me, waiting for me to ask him to come back, to continue this ugly cycle that neither of us can win. With his eyes boring into the back of my skull, I run for my door and slam it as my back slides down it. My face plants into my waiting hands, I tuck my feet under my legs and get comfortable. This could be a learning experience and a break that we both need in order to have a healthy relationship with one another. Or this is how the shittiest relationship of all time comes to a close. But in the now, the fights, the feelings, the love I thought I felt, it’s all gone.

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