I’M LATE, AND it’s the first day of class. I’d like to lay blame on something—car problems, couldn’t find my way to the room, got attacked by a swarm of bees while crossing the quad, anything. But I ride a scooter. I’m a senior, so I know where I’m going by now. And the bees kept to the flowers.
The truth is, I stopped to down a Diet Coke and a bag of cashews before heading to class. Because I was hungry and some things can’t wait. Even so, I hate being late. It sets a bad precedent.
Painfully aware of my professor’s stare, I berate myself as I scurry down one of the aisles between the rows of desks. I slide into a seat in the back just as a guy barrels down the aisle in the same hurried fashion and sits in the desk next to mine. Keeping my head down, I pull out my notepad and try to look organized and ready for the lecture. I don’t think I fool my professor, but she doesn’t say anything to me as she starts the introductory roll call.
Soon it’s my turn. I’m saying my name and year when I hear a sharp intake of breath to my right. The shocked sound has me turning.
That’s when I see him. The second our gazes connect, hot tingles zap through me, making my breath catch and my ni**les harden. The sensation is so unnerving that I can only sit there, my hand fluttering to my chest where my heart struggles to break free.
Oddly, the guy gapes back at me, as if he too feels the strange kick. Which must be wrong; no guy has ever gaped at me. So maybe it’s just that I’m staring at him. Only, he’s staring at me too, and he doesn’t look away.
Stranger still, it feels as if I know him, have known him for years. Which is ridiculous. Even though he looks oddly familiar, I’d remember if I’d met him before. A guy this gorgeous isn’t easily forgotten.
I don’t know why I feel the connection, but I don’t like it. Nor do I like the way something inside me gives a little happy squee, as if I’ve been mentally shopping for men and have just found the perfect one.
Still looking at me, he suddenly speaks. I’m so addled; it takes me a second to realize that he’s responding to Professor Lambert. “Drew Baylor. Senior.” His voice is dark chocolate on a hot summer night.
And it causes a stir. People snap out of their morning fog, turn, stare, and start whispering among themselves. He ignores them, watching only me. It flusters me. Drew Baylor. His name is a ripple through the room. Recognition sets in. The quarterback. I haven’t paid much attention to the members of our legendary football team, so I only know of him in that vague way one knows there’s a Student Union or that the library closes at 7pm on Sundays.
Disappointment is swift and sharp. I have zero interest in getting to know the star quarterback. Chest tight, I turn away and try to ignore him. Easier said than done.
As soon as class ends, I attempt to flee. And nearly run into a solid wall of muscled chest instead. I don’t have to look up to know who it is. We stand facing each other in silence, me staring at his chest, and his gaze burning a hole through the top of my head. Annoyed, I straighten my shoulders and force myself to look aloof. Shit, what does “aloof” look like? It doesn’t matter because our eyes meet again.
I think my knees go weak. I’m not sure because my brain has screeched to a halt.
Holy hell, he’s potent. Heat and vitality come off him in waves. I think I sway a bit. He is close enough that I notice the faint stubble along his strong chin and the glints of gold in his brown hair. He wears it cut short, and thick clusters of it spike along the top and front. It’s flattened a bit on one side as if he’d rolled out of bed and forgotten to brush it. But I doubt that was the case, because he smells fantastic—like warm pears and crisp air. I almost lean in for a better whiff, but manage to control myself.
The silence between us grows awkward until I can’t stop myself from glancing up, just in time to catch him jerking back, as if he too had taken a covert sniff. Doubtful. He’s casually stuffing his hands into his jeans pockets and smiling with ease, the gesture pulling a little dimple in on his left cheek.
I almost smile, start to rethink my earlier stance of avoidance. Then he opens his mouth and ruins everything.
The warm cadence of his voice rolls over me before the words actually make sense. “Hey there, Big Red.”
My world grinds to a loud, screeching halt. Big Red? What the ever-loving knuckle f**k?
I gape up at him, too shocked to even form a proper glare. And he squints back, that inane smile still in place, as if he’s waiting for me to answer. My mind is stuck on one thing.
He’d called me Big Red. Big Fucking Red.
His comment is a punch to the gut. Yet not entirely out of left field. I’m a redhead. Being called “red” goes with the territory. It’s not the “red” part that bothers me. It’s the “big” part. Having been chubby for most of my adolescence has left me sensitive. It doesn’t matter that I’m now more curves than chub; that I like my body. One stupid word from this guy and I feel the pain all over again, damn it. Somehow, I find my voice.
“What did you just call me?”
The corners of his eyes crease in what might be a wince. “Ahh… If I say ‘nothing’, can we move on and pretend it didn’t happen?”
I almost smile at that one, which irritates me further. “No.”
He shifts his weight to his other foot. “Relax, I was only trying—”
“Do not,” I point a finger at him, “tell me to ‘relax’ when you’ve insulted me, bud.”