“What are they laughing about?” she finally asked, gesturing to the rowdy table.
I shook my head.
“Tell me,” she insisted.
My lips pressed together into a thin line. If she walked out, I’d probably never get another chance, and those cheese dicks would have something more to laugh about.
She watched me expectantly.
Fuck it. “They’re laughing about me having to take you to dinner, first. It’s not usually . . . my thing.”
When the meaning sunk in, her face froze. She was mortified to be there with me.
I winced, waiting for her to storm out.
Her shoulders fell. “I was afraid they were laughing about you being seen with me dressed like this, and they think I’m going to sleep with you,” she grumbled.
Wait. What? “Why wouldn’t I be seen with you?”
Abby’s cheeks flushed pink, and she looked down to the table. “What were we talking about?”
I sighed. She was worried about me. She thought they were laughing about the way she looked. The Pigeon wasn’t a hard-ass, after all. I decided to ask another question before she could reconsider.
“You. What’s your major?”
“Oh, er, general ed, for now. I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning toward accounting.”
“You’re not a local, though. You must be a transplant.”
“Wichita. Same as America.”
“How did you end up here from Kansas?”
“We just had to get away.”
She was running. I had a feeling the cardigan and pearls she wore the night we met were a front. But, to hide what? She got irritated pretty quick with the personal questions, but before I could change the subject, Kyle from the soccer team shot off his mouth.
I nodded. “So, why here?”
Abby snapped something back. I missed whatever it was. The chuckles and asshole comments from the soccer team drowned out her words.
“Dude, you’re supposed to get a doggie bag, not bag the doggie.”
I couldn’t hold back anymore. They weren’t just being disrespectful to me, they were disrespecting Abby. I stood up and took a few steps, and they started to shove each other out the door, tripping and stumbling over a dozen pairs of feet.
Abby’s eyes penetrated the back of my head, bringing me back to my senses, and I planted myself back in the booth. She raised an eyebrow, and immediately my frustration and anger melted away.
“You were going to say why you chose this school,” I said. Pretending that little sideshow didn’t happen was probably the best way to continue.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said, shrugging. “I guess it just felt right.”
If there was a phrase to explain the way I felt at that moment, that was it. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or why, but something about sitting across from her in that booth brought me a weird sense of calm. Even in the middle of a rage.
I smiled and opened my menu. “I know what you mean.”
SHEPLEY STOOD AT THE DOOR LIKE A LOVESICK IDIOT, waving to America as she pulled out of the parking lot. He shut the door, and then collapsed in the recliner with the most ridiculous smile on his face.
“You’re dumb,” I said.
“Me? You should have seen you. Abby couldn’t get out of here quick enough.”
I frowned. Abby didn’t seem in a hurry to me, but now that Shepley had said something, I remembered that she was pretty quiet when we got back. “You think so?”
Shepley laughed, stretching back in the chair and pulling the footrest up. “She hates you. Give it up.”
“She doesn’t hate me. I nailed that date—dinner.”
Shepley’s eyebrows shot up. “Date? Trav. What are you doing? Because if this is just a game to you and you fuck this up for me, I’m going to kill you in your sleep.”
I fell against the couch and grabbed the remote. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m not doing that.”
Shepley looked confused. I wouldn’t let him see that I was just as baffled as he was.
“I wasn’t kidding,” he said, keeping his eyes on the TV screen. “I’ll smother you.”
“I heard you,” I snapped. The whole feeling-out-of-my-element thing was pissing me off, and then I had Pepé Le Pew over there threatening my death. Shepley with a crush was annoying. Shepley in love was almost intolerable.
“It’s not like that,” Shepley said, exasperated. “It’s different with Mare. She’s the one.”
“You know that after a couple of months?” I asked, dubious.
“I knew it when I saw her.”
I shook my head. I hated it when he was like this. Unicorns and butterflies flying out of his ass and hearts floating in the air. He always ended up getting his heart broken, and then I had to make sure he didn’t drink himself to death for six months solid. America seemed to like it, though.
Whatever. No woman could make me blubber and get slobbering drunk over losing her. If they didn’t stick around, they weren’t worth it anyway.
Shepley stood and stretched, and then ambled toward his room.
“You’re full of shit, Shep.”
“How would you know?” he asked.
He was right. I’d never been in love, but I couldn’t imagine it changing me that much.
I decided to turn in, too. I stripped down and lay back on the mattress in a huff. The second my head hit the pillow, I thought of Abby. Our conversation replayed verbatim in my mind. A few times she had showed a glint of interest. She didn’t totally hate me, and that helped me relax. I wasn’t exactly apologetic about my reputation, but she didn’t expect me to pretend. Women didn’t make me nervous. Abby made me feel distracted and focused at the same time. Agitated and relaxed. Pissed off and damn near giddy. I’d never felt so at odds with myself. Something about that feeling made me want to be around her more.
After two hours of staring at the ceiling, wondering if I would see her the next day, I decided to get up and find the bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the kitchen.
The shot glasses were clean in the dishwasher, so I pulled out one and filled it to the brim. After hammering it back, I poured another. I tossed it back, set the glass in the sink, and turned around. Shepley stood in his doorway with a smirk on his face.
“And so it begins.”
“The day you appeared on our family tree, I wanted to cut it down.”
Shepley laughed once and shut his door.
I trudged to my bedroom, pissed that I couldn’t argue.
MORNING CLASSES TOOK FOREVER, AND I WAS A LITTLE disgusted with myself that I had all but run to the cafeteria. I didn’t even know if Abby would be there.
But, she was.
Brazil was sitting directly across from her, chatting it up with Shepley. A smirk touched my face, and then I sighed, both relieved and resigned to the fact that I was lame.
The lunch lady filled my tray with god-knows-what, and then I walked over to the table, standing directly across from Abby.
“You’re sittin’ in my chair, Brazil.”
“Oh, is she one of your girls, Trav?”
Abby shook her head. “Absolutely not.”
I waited, and then Brazil complied, taking his tray to an empty seat at the end of the long table.
“What’s up, Pidge?” I asked, waiting for her to spit venom in my direction. To my extreme surprise, she showed no signs of anger.
“What is that?” She stared at my tray.
I looked down at the steaming concoction. She was making random conversation. Yet another good sign. “The cafeteria ladies scare me. I’m not about to critique their cooking skills.”
Abby watched me poke around with my fork for something edible, and then seemed distracted by the murmurings of those around us. Granted, it was new for my fellow students to see me make a fuss over sitting across from someone. I still wasn’t sure why I did.
“Ugh . . . that bio test is after lunch.” America groaned.
“Did you study?” Abby asked.
America’s nose wrinkled. “God, no. I spent the night reassuring my boyfriend that you weren’t going to sleep with Travis.”
Shepley immediately became sullen at the mention of the previous night’s conversation.
The football players seated at the end of our table quieted down to hear our conversation, and Abby sunk down into her seat, shooting a glare at America.
She was embarrassed. For whatever reason, she was mortified by any attention whatsoever.
America ignored Abby and nudged Shepley with her shoulder, but Shepley’s frown didn’t fade.
“Jesus, Shep. You’ve got it that bad, huh?” I threw a packet of ketchup at him, trying to lighten the mood. The surrounding students turned their attention to Shepley and America then, hoping for something to talk about.
Shepley didn’t answer, but Abby’s gray eyes peeked up at me over a small smile. I was on a roll today. She couldn’t hate me if she tried. I don’t know why I was so worried. It wasn’t like I wanted to date her or anything. She just seemed like the perfect platonic experiment. She was basically a good girl—albeit slightly angry—and didn’t need me fucking up her five-year plan. If she had one.
America rubbed Shepley’s back. “He’s going to be okay. It’s just going to take him a while to believe Abby is resistant to your charms.”
“I haven’t tried to charm her,” I said. I was just getting ahead, and America was sinking my battleship. “She’s my friend.”
Abby looked to Shepley. “I told you. You have nothing to worry about.”
Shepley met Abby’s eyes, and then his expression smoothed. Crisis averted. Abby saved the day.
I waited for a minute, trying to think of something to say. I wanted to ask Abby to come over later, but it would be lame after America’s comment. A brilliant idea popped into my head, and I didn’t hesitate. “Did you study?”
Abby frowned. “No amount of studying is going to help me with biology. It’s just not something I can wrap my head around.”
I stood, nodding toward the door. “C’mon.”
“Let’s go get your notes. I’m going to help you study.”
“Travis . . .”
“Get your ass up, Pidge. You’re gonna ace that test.”
The next three seconds might have been the longest of my life. Abby finally stood. She passed America and tugged on her hair. “See you in class, Mare.”
She smiled. “I’ll save you a seat. I’ll need all the help I can get.”
I held the door open for her as we left the cafeteria, but she didn’t seem to notice. Again, I was only horrifically disappointed.
Shoving my hands in my pockets, I kept pace with her during the short walk to Morgan Hall, and then I watched as she fidgeted with her door key.
Abby finally pushed the door open, and then tossed her biology book onto the bed. She sat down and crossed her legs, and I fell onto the mattress, noting how stiff and uncomfortable it was. No wonder all the girls at this school were cranky. They couldn’t possibly get a good night’s rest on these damn mattresses. Jesus.
Abby turned to the correct page of her textbook, and I went to work. We went over the key points of the chapter. It was kind of cool how she watched me while I talked. Almost like she was both hanging on to every word, and amazed that I knew how to read. A few times I could tell by her expression that she didn’t understand, so I’d go back over it, and then her eyes would brighten. I started working hard for the lights-on look on her face after that.
Before I knew it, it was time for her to go to class. I sighed, and then smacked her playfully on the head with her study guide.
“You got this. You know this study guide backward and forward.”
“Well . . . we’ll see.”
“I’m going to walk you to class. I’ll quiz you on the way.” I waited for a polite rejection, but she offered a small smile and nodded.
We walked into the hall, and she sighed. “You’re not going to be mad if I flunk this test, are you?”
She was worried if I was going to be mad at her? I wasn’t sure what I should think about that, but it felt pretty fucking awesome.
“You’re not going to flunk, Pidge. We need to start earlier for the next one, though,” I said, walking along with her to the science building. I asked her question after question. She answered most right away, some she hesitated about, but she got them all correct.
We reached the door of her classroom, and I could see the appreciation on her face. She was too proud to admit it, though.
“Kick ass,” I said, not really knowing what else to say.
Parker Hayes passed by and nodded. “Hey, Trav.”
I hated that douche. “Parker,” I said, nodding back.
Parker was one of those guys that liked to follow me around and use his White Knight status to get laid. He liked to refer to me as a womanizer, but the truth was, Parker just played a more sophisticated game. He wasn’t honest about his conquests. He pretended to care and then let them down easy.
One night our freshman year, I took Janet Littleton home from the Red Door to my apartment. Parker was trying to get lucky with her friend. We went our separate ways from the club, and after I bagged her and didn’t pretend to want a relationship afterward, she called her friend all pissed off to come get her. The friend was still with Parker, so he ended up taking Janet home.
After that, Parker had a new story to tell his conquests. Whatever girl I bagged, he usually swept up my sloppy seconds by recounting the time he saved Janet.
I tolerated him, but only just barely.
Parker’s eyes targeted Pigeon and immediately lit up. “Hey, Abby.”
I didn’t understand why Parker was so insistent on seeing if he could land the same girls I did, but he’d had class with her for several weeks and was just now showing interest. Knowing it was because he saw her talking to me nearly sent me into a fury.