“Hi,” Abby said, taken off guard. She clearly didn’t know why he was suddenly talking to her. It was written all over her face. “Who’s that?” she asked me.
I shrugged casually, but I wanted to tear across the room and beat his preppy ass. “Parker Hayes,” I said. His name left a bad taste in my mouth. “He’s one of my Sig Tau brothers.” That left a bad taste, too. I had brothers, both frat and blood. Parker felt like neither. More like an archenemy that you kept close enough to keep an eye on.
“You’re in a frat?” she asked, her little nose wrinkling up.
“Sigma Tau, same as Shep. I thought you knew.”
“Well . . . you don’t seem the . . . fraternity type,” she said, eyeing the tattoos on my forearms.
The fact that Abby’s eyes were back on me immediately put me in a better mood. “My dad is an alumnus, and my brothers are all Sig Tau. It’s a family thing.”
“And they expected you to pledge?” she asked, skeptical.
“Not really. They’re just good guys,” I said, flicking her papers. I handed them to her. “Better get to class.”
She flashed that flawless smile. “Thanks for helping me.” She nudged me with her elbow, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
She walked into the classroom and sat next to America. Parker was staring at her, watching the girls talking. I fantasized about picking up a desk and hurling it at his head as I walked down the hall. With no more classes for the day, there was no reason for me to stick around. A long ride on the Harley would help keep the thought of Parker sleazing his way into Abby’s good graces from driving me crazy, so I made sure to take the long way home to give me more time to think. A few couch-worthy coeds crossed my path, but Abby’s face kept popping into my mind—so many times that I began to annoy myself.
I had notoriously been a piece of shit to every girl with whom I’d had a private conversation over the age of sixteen—since I was fifteen. Our story might have been typical: Bad boy falls for good girl, but Abby was no princess. She was hiding something. Maybe that was our connection: whatever it was that she had left behind.
I pulled into the apartment parking lot and climbed off the bike. So much for thinking better on the Harley. Everything I’d just unraveled in my head made no fucking sense. I was just trying to justify my weird obsession with her.
Suddenly in a very bad mood, I slammed the door behind me and sat on the couch, and became even more pissed off when I couldn’t find the remote right away.
Black plastic landed beside me as Shepley passed to sit in the recliner. I picked up the remote and pointed it at the TV, turning it on.
“Why do you take the remote to your bedroom? You just have to bring it back in here,” I snapped.
“I don’t know, man, it’s just habit. What’s your problem?”
“I don’t know,” I grumbled, flipping on the TV. I pressed the mute button. “Abby Abernathy.”
Shepley’s eyebrow pushed up. “What about her?”
“She gets under my skin. I think I just need to bag her and get it over with.”
Shepley eyed me for a while, unsure. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate you not fucking up my life with your newfound restraint, but you’ve never needed my permission before . . . unless . . . don’t tell me you finally give a shit about someone.”
“Don’t be a dick.”
Shepley couldn’t contain his grin. “You care about her. I guess it just took a girl refusing to sleeping with you for more than a twenty-four-hour period.”
“Laura made me wait a week.”
“Abby won’t give you the time of day, though?”
“She just wants to be friends. I guess I’m lucky she doesn’t treat me like a leper.”
After an awkward silence, Shepley nodded. “You’re scared.”
“Of what?” I asked with a dubious smirk.
“Rejection. Mad Dog is one of us after all.”
My eye twitched. “You know I fucking hate that, Shep.”
Shepley smiled. “I know. Almost as much as you hate the way you feel right now.”
“You’re not making me feel any better.”
“So you like her and you’re scared. Now what?”
“Nothing. It just sucks that I finally found the girl worth having and she’s too good for me.”
Shepley tried to stifle a laugh. It was irritating that he was so amused about my predicament. He straightened his smile and then said, “Why don’t you let her make that decision for herself?”
“Because I care about her just enough to want to make it for he r.”
Shepley stretched and then stood, his bare feet dragging across the carpet. “You want a beer?”
“Yeah. Let’s drink to friendship.”
“So you’re going to keep hanging out with her? Why? That sounds like torture to me.”
I thought about it for a minute. It did sound like torture, but not as bad as just watching her from afar. “I don’t want her to end up with me . . . or any other dick.”
“You mean or anyone else. Dude, that’s nuts.”
“Get my fuckin’ beer and shut up.”
Shepley shrugged. Unlike Chris Jenks, Shepley knew when to shut up.
THE DECISION WAS CRAZY, BUT FREEING. THE NEXT DAY I walked into the cafeteria, and without a second thought, sat in the empty seat across from Abby. Being around her was natural and easy, and other than having to put up with the prodding eyes of the general student population, and even some professors, she seemed to like having me around.
“We studying today or what?”
“We are,” she said, unfazed.
The only negative about hanging out with her as friends was the more time I spent with her, the more I liked her. It was harder to forget the color and shape of her eyes, and the way her lotion smelled on her skin. I also noticed more about her, like how long her legs were, and the colors she wore most often. I even got a pretty good handle on which week I shouldn’t give her any extra shit, which fortunately for Shepley, was the same week not to fuck with America. That way, we had three weeks to not be on guard instead of two, and we could give each other fair warning.
Even at her worst, Abby wasn’t fussy like most girls. The only thing that seemed to affect her was the occasional questions about our relationship, but as long as I took care of it, she got over it pretty fast.
As more time passed, people speculated less. We ate lunch together on most days, and on the nights when we studied, I’d take her out to dinner. Shepley and America invited us to a movie once. It was never awkward, never a question of whether we were more than friends. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, especially since my decision not to pursue her in that way didn’t stop me from fantasizing about making her moan on my couch—until one night I was watching her and America poke and tickle each other at the apartment and I imagined Abby in my bed.
She needed to get outta my head.
The only cure was to stop thinking about her long enough to land my next conquest.
A few days later, a familiar face caught my eye. I’d seen her before with Janet Littleton. Lucy was fairly hot, never missed a chance to show off her cleavage, and very vocal about hating my guts. Fortunately it took me thirty minutes and a tentative invite to the Red to get her home. I’d barely shut the front door before she was removing my clothes. So much for the deep well of hatred she had harbored toward me since last year. She left with a smile on her face and disappointment in her eyes.
I still had Abby on my mind.
Not even postorgasm fatigue was going to cure it, and I felt something new: guilt.
The next day, I rushed to history class and slid into the desk next to Abby. She already had out her laptop and book, barely acknowledging my presence when I sat down.
The classroom was darker than usual; the clouds outside robbed the room of the natural light that usually poured in through the windows. I nudged her elbow, but she wasn’t as receptive as usual, so I snatched her pencil out of her hand and began doodling in the margins. Tattoos, mostly, but I scrawled her name in cool letters. She peeked over at me with an appreciative smile.
I leaned over and whispered in her ear. “You wanna grab lunch off campus today?”
I can’t, she mouthed.
I scribbled in her book.
Because I have to make use of my meal plan.
I wanted to argue but was running out of room on the page. Fine. Another mystery meal. Can’t wait.
She giggled, and I enjoyed that on-top-of-the-world feeling I experienced whenever I made her smile. A few more doodles and a legit drawing of a dragon later, Chaney dismissed class.
I tossed Abby’s pencil in her backpack as she packed away the rest of her things, and then we walked to the cafeteria.
We didn’t get as many stares as we had in the past. The student populace had grown accustomed to seeing us together on a regular basis. When we went through the line, we made small talk about the new history paper Chaney had assigned. Abby ran her meal card and then made her way to the table. I immediately noticed one thing missing from her tray: the can of OJ she picked up every day.
I scanned the line of husky, no-nonsense servers who stood behind the buffet. Once the stern-looking woman behind the register came into view, I knew I’d found my target.
“Hey, Miss . . . uh . . . Miss . . .”
The cafeteria lady sized me up once before deciding I was going to cause her trouble, as most women did right before I made their thighs tingle.
“Armstrong,” she said in a gruff voice.
I tried to subdue my disgust as the thought of her thighs appeared in the dark corners of my mind.
I flashed my most charming smile. “That’s lovely. I was wondering, because you seem like the boss here . . . No OJ today?”
“There’s some in the back. I’ve been too busy to bring any more to the front.”
I nodded. “You’re always running your ass off. They should give you a raise. No one else works as hard as you do. We all notice.”
She lifted her chin, minimizing the folds on her neck. “Thank you. It’s about time someone did. Did you need orange juice?”
“Just a can . . . if you don’t mind, of course.”
She winked. “Not at all. I’ll be right back.”
I brought the can to the table and sat it on Abby’s tray.
“You didn’t have to do that. I was going to grab one.” She peeled off her jacket and laid it across her lap, exposing her shoulders. They were still tan from the summer, and a little shiny, begging me to touch them.
A dozen dirty things flashed in my mind.
“Well, now you don’t have to,” I said. I offered one of my best smiles, but this time it was genuine. It was another one of those Happy Abby moments I sort of wished for these days.
Brazil snorted. “Did she turn you into a cabana boy, Travis? What’s next, fanning her with a palm tree leaf, wearing a Speedo?”
I craned my neck down the table to see Brazil with a smartass grin. He didn’t mean anything by it, but he ruined my moment, and it pissed me off. I probably did look a little bit like a pussy, bringing her a drink.
Abby leaned forward. “You couldn’t fill a Speedo, Brazil. Shut the hell up.”
“Easy, Abby! I was kidding!” Brazil said, holding up his hands.
“Just . . . don’t talk about him like that,” she said, frowning.
I stared for a moment, watching her anger subside a tiny bit as she turned her attention to me. That was definitely a first. “Now I’ve seen it all. I was just defended by a girl.” I offered her a small smile and then stood, glaring at Brazil one last time before leaving to dump my tray. I wasn’t that hungry, anyway.
The heavy metal doors easily gave way when I shoved through them. I pulled my cigarettes from my pocket and lit one up, trying to forget what had just happened.
I’d just made an ass of myself over a girl, and it was particularly satisfying to my frat brothers because I had been the one giving them a hard time for two years for even mentioning they might want to do more than just bag a girl. It was my turn now, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it—because I couldn’t. Even worse? I didn’t want to.
When the other smokers around me laughed, I did the same, even though I had no clue what they were talking about. Inside I was pissed off and humiliated, or pissed off that I was humiliated. Whichever. The girls pawed at me and took turns trying to make conversation. I nodded and smiled to be nice, but I really just wanted to get out of there and punch something. A public tantrum would show weakness, and I wasn’t havin’ that shit.
Abby passed, and I cut off one of the girls in midsentence to catch up with her. “Wait up, Pidge. I’ll walk you.”
“You don’t have to walk me to every class, Travis. I know how to get there on my own.”
I admit it: That stung a little. She didn’t even look at me when she said it, completely dismissive.
Just then a girl with a short skirt and mile-high legs passed by. Her shiny dark hair swayed against her back as she walked. That’s when it hit me: I had to give up. Bagging a random hot chick was what I did best, and Abby wanted nothing more than to be friends with me. I planned to do the right thing and keep things platonic, but if I didn’t do something drastic, that plan would get lost in the mess of conflicting thoughts and emotions swirling inside of me.
It was time to finally draw a line. I didn’t deserve Abby, anyway. What was the point?
I threw my cigarette to the ground. “I’ll catch up with you later, Pidge.”
I put on my game face, but it wouldn’t take much. She had crossed my path on purpose, hoping her short skirt and hooker heels would get my attention. I got ahead of her and turned around, shoving my hands in my pockets.