মুখ্য The Dare
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I love your books you are an awesome writer and I'm a huge fan????????. Im positive this one will too be amazing
18 September 2020 (21:18)
When you find that one amazing book and realise there's a whole collection .Sooner than soon you realize that you're addicted to Elle's writing.I really prescribe this addiction.Epic doses of humor and kink and perfect grammar.Love yah❤️❤️????
07 October 2020 (09:03)
one must read this once atleast
18 March 2021 (09:24)
I love all your books. Please don't ever stop writing.
02 April 2021 (16:01)
love this bk & the couple was great
07 April 2021 (09:42)
Love all your books
Can wait to start reading this series ????
Can wait to start reading this series ????
30 April 2021 (16:42)
The Dare Get ready for another binge-worthy romance from New York Times and international bestselling author Elle Kennedy! Some risks are meant to be taken… College was supposed to be my chance to get over my ugly-duckling complex and spread my wings. Instead, I wound up in a sorority full of mean girls. I already have a hard time fitting in, so when my Kappa Chi sisters issue the challenge, I can’t say no. The dare: seduce the hottest new hockey player in the junior class. Conor Edwards is a regular at Greek Row parties…and in Greek Row sorority beds. He’s the one you fall for before you learn that guys like him don’t give girls like me a second glance. Except Mr. Popular throws me for a loop—rather than laughing in my face, he does me a solid by letting me take him upstairs to pretend we’re getting busy. Even crazier, now he wants to keep pretending. Turns out Conor loves games, and he thinks it’s fun to pull the wool over my frenemies’ eyes. But resisting his easy charm and surfer-boy hotness is darn near impossible. Though I’m realizing there’s much more to Conor’s story than his fan club can see. And the longer this silly ruse goes on, the greater the danger of it all blowing up in my face. Contents 1. Taylor 2. Conor 3. Taylor 4. Taylor 5. Conor 6. Taylor 7. Taylor 8. Taylor 9. Conor 10. Taylor 11. Taylor 12. Conor 13. Taylor 14. Conor 15. Taylor 16. Conor 17. Taylor 18. Conor 19. Taylor 20. Conor 21. Taylor 22. Conor 23. Conor 24. Taylor 25. Taylor 26. Conor 27. Taylor 28. Conor 29. Taylor 30. Taylor 31. Conor 32. Taylor 33. Taylor 34. Conor 35. Taylor 36. Conor 37. Taylor 38. Taylor 39. Conor 40. Taylor 41. Conor 42. Taylor 43. Taylor Epilogue Other Titles by Elle Kennedy About the Author 1 Taylor It’s Friday night, and I’m watching the greatest minds of my generation get destroyed by Jell-O shots and blue concoct; ions served from ten-gallon paint buckets. Sweat-beaded bodies writhing half-naked, frenzied, hypnotized with subliminal waves of electronic arousal. The house is wall-to-wall psych majors acting out their parental resentment on unsuspecting future MBAs. Poli-sci students planting the seeds of the blackmail checks they’ll be writing in ten years. AKA your typical Greek Row party. “Have you ever noticed how dance music kind of sounds like listening to drunk people having sex?” Sasha Lennox remarks. She’s standing beside me in the corner, where we’ve wedged ourselves between the grandfather clock and a standing lamp to best blend in with the furniture. She gets it. It’s the first weekend back from spring break, and that means the annual Spring Break Hangover party at our Kappa Chi sorority house. One of the many events Sasha and I refer to as mandatory fun. As Kappas, we’re required to attend, even if that means our presence is more decorative than functional. “Like it wouldn’t be so offensive if there was a melody, at least. This…” Sasha crinkles her nose, and her head twitches to a siren wail that blares through the surround sound system before another shattering bass line thunders in. “This is some shit the CIA used on doped-out MKUltra test subjects.” I cough out a strangled laugh, almost choking on the cup of whatever YouTube party punch recipe I’ve been nursing for the last hour. Sasha, a music major, has an almost religious aversion to anything not performed by live instruments. She’d rather be front row at a concert in some dive bar, the reverb of a Gibson Les Paul ringing in her ears, than be caught dead under the flashing techno kaleidoscope of a dance club. Don’t get me wrong, Sasha and I certainly aren’t fun-averse. We hang out at the campus bars, we do karaoke in town (well, she does, while I cheer her on from the safety of the shadows). Hell, we once got lost in Boston Common at three in the morning while stone-cold sober. It was so dark that Sasha accidentally fell into the pond and almost got molested by a swan. Trust me, we know how to hang. But the ritualistic practice of college kids plying each other with mind-altering substances until they mistake inebriation for attraction and inhibition for personality isn’t our fondest idea of a good time. “Look out.” Sasha nudges me with her elbow at the sound of shouts and whistles from the foyer. “Here comes trouble.” A wall of unabashed maleness crashes through the front door to chants of “Briar! Briar!” Like Wildlings storming Castle Black, the towering goliaths of the Briar University hockey team trample through the house, all thick shoulders and broad chests. “All hail the conquering heroes,” I say sarcastically, while Sasha smothers a snide smirk with the side of her thumb. The hockey team won their game tonight, putting them into the first round of the national championship. I know this because our Kappa sister Linley is dating a benchwarmer, so she was at the game snapchatting rather than here with us cleaning toilets, vacuuming, and mixing drinks for the party. The privileges of dating royalty. Although a fourth-stringer ain’t exactly Prince Harry, but maybe somewhere closer to the coke-addict son of someone prince-adjacent. Sasha pulls her phone from the waistband of her skin-tight faux leather leggings and checks the time. I peer at the screen and groan. Oh man, it’s only eleven p.m.? I already feel a migraine coming on. “No, this is good,” she says. “Twenty minutes flat and those goons will have the keg killed. Then they’ll blow through whatever’s left of the liquor. I’d say that’s quitting time for me. Half-hour, tops.” Charlotte Cagney, our sorority president, didn’t explicitly mandate how long we had to stay to fulfill our attendance requirement. Usually, once the drinks run dry, people go looking for the afterparty, at which point it’s easy to sneak out unnoticed. With any luck, I’ll be back in my apartment in Hastings and in my pajamas by midnight. Knowing Sasha, she’ll drive into Boston and find a live show. Together, she and I are the outcast stepsisters of Kappa Chi. We each came to be among their ranks for our own ill-conceived reasons. For Sasha, it was family. Her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother, and so on, were all Kappas, so it was never a question that Sasha’s academic career would include carrying on the legacy. It was either that or kiss something as “frivolous and self-indulgent” as a music major goodbye. She comes from a family of doctors, so her decisions are already heavily contested. For me, well, I suppose I had grand designs of a college glow up. From high school loser to college It Crowd. A reinvention. Total life makeover. Thing is, joining their clubs and wearing their letters and enduring their weeks of sacramental indoctrination didn’t have the desired effects. I didn’t come out the other side all shiny and new. It’s like everyone else drank the Kool-Aid and saw the pretty colors, but I was just left standing there in the dark with a cup of water and red food coloring. “Hey!” a bleary-eyed guy greets us, staggering to sidle up next to Sasha while openly talking to my tits. We tend to make one perfectly desirable female when standing side-by-side. Her exquisite facial symmetry and slender figure, and my enormous rack. “You wanna drink?” “We’re good,” Sasha shouts back over the pounding music. We both hold up our mostly full cups. A strategic device to keep the horny frat bros at bay. “Wanna dance?” he then asks, leaning toward my chest like he’s speaking into the box at a fast food drive-thru. “Sorry,” I retort, “they don’t dance.” I don’t know if he hears me or understands my contempt, but he nods and strolls away just the same. “Your boobs have a gravitational force that only attracts douchebags,” Sasha says with a snort. “You have no idea.” One day I woke up and it was like two massive tumors just erupted on my chest. Ever since middle school I’ve had to walk around with these things that arrive everywhere ten minutes before I do. I’m not sure which of us is the greater hazard to each other, me or Sasha. My boobs or her face. She causes a stir just walking into the library. Dudes stumbling over themselves to stand in her presence and forget their own names. A loud pop bursts through the house, causing everyone to cringe and cover their ears. Silence ensues in the confusion while our eardrums drown in the lingering echoes of tinnitus. “Speaker’s blown!” one of our sisters yells from the next room. Boos fill the house. A mad scramble ensues as Kappas scurry to find a quick fix to save the party before our restless guests revolt. Sasha doesn’t even try to hide her excitement. She eyes me with a look that says we may get to escape this party early after all. Then Abigail Hobbes happens. We see her sashay through the tightly packed crowd in a skimpy little black dress, platinum hair curled into perfect tendrils. She claps her hands, and in a voice that could cut glass, demands all attention fall on her bright red lips. “Listen up, everybody! It’s time to play Dare or Dare.” Cheers erupt in response as the living room swells with more bodies. The game is a popular Kappa tradition, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Someone dares you to do something and you do it—no truth option. Occasionally amusing and often brutal, it’s resulted in more than a few arrests, at least one expulsion, and rumor has it, even a couple babies. “Now let’s see…” Our house vice president puts one manicured finger to her chin and turns in a slow circle to survey the room, deciding on her first victim. “Who shall it be?” Of course her evil green eyes land squarely on where Sasha and I are plastered against the wall. Abigail strides up to us with pure sugary malice. “Oh, sweetie,” she says to me, with the glassy stare of a girl who’s had a few too many. “Loosen up, it’s a party. You look like you just found another stretch mark.” Abigail’s a mean drunk, and I’m her favorite target. I’m used to it from her, but the laughs she elicits every time she uses my body as a punchline never fail to leave a scar. My curves have been the bane of my existence since I was twelve years old. “Oh, sweetie,” Sasha mimics, making a show of flashing her the bird. “How about you eff right off?” “Aww, come on,” Abigail whimpers in a mocking baby voice. “Tay-Tay knows I’m just kidding.” She punctuates her statement by poking my stomach like I’m a goddamn Pillsbury Doughgirl. “We’re keeping your thinning hairline in our thoughts, Abs.” I have to chomp down on my bottom lip to stop from laughing at Sasha’s retort. She knows I disintegrate amid conflict and never shies away from a chance to trade barbs in my defense. Abigail answers with a sarcastic laugh. “Are we playing or not?” demands Jules Munn, Abigail’s sidekick. The tall brunette saunters over to us, donning a bored look. “What’s the matter? Sasha trying to back out from doing a dare again like she did at the Harvest Bash?” “Fuck off,” Sasha shoots back. “You dared me to throw a brick through the dean’s window. I wasn’t about to get expelled over some juvenile sorority game.” Jules arches a brow. “Did she just insult an age-old tradition, Abs? Because I think she did.” “Oh, she did. But no worries, here’s your chance for redemption, Sasha,” Abigail offers sweetly, then pauses. “Hmm. I dare you to…” She turns toward her spectators while contemplating the dare. She’s nothing if not in it for the attention. Then she snaps back around to face Sasha. “Do the Double Double then sing the chapter symphony.” My best friend snorts and shrugs, as if to say, Is that all? “Upside down and backwards,” Abigail adds. Sasha curls her lips and sort of snarls at her, which gets the guys in the room hooting in amusement. Dudes love catfights. “Whatever.” Rolling her eyes, Sasha steps forward and shakes out her arms like a boxer warming up for a fight. The Double Double is another Kappa party tradition, which entails downing two double shots of whatever’s lying around, then a ten-second beer bong followed by a ten-second keg stand. Even the sturdiest drinkers among us rarely make it through the gauntlet. Throwing a handstand on top of it while singing the house song backwards is just Abigail being a spiteful bitch. But as long as it won’t get her expelled, Sasha is never one to back down from a challenge. She ties her thick black hair in a ponytail and accepts the shot glass that materializes out of nowhere, dutifully tossing back one shot, then the next. She powers through the beer bong while a couple Theta guys hold up the funnel for her, the crowd around her screaming their encouragement. To a cacophony of cheers, she muscles her way past the keg stand with a six-three hockey player keeping her legs in the air. When she’s right-side up again, everyone’s impressed to see her even able to stand, much less looking mean and holding steady. That girl’s a warrior. “Stand back!” Sasha declares, clearing people from the far wall. With a gymnast’s flourish, she thrusts her arms in the air and then sort of half-cartwheels so that her backside is flush against the wall in a handstand. Loud and confident, she belts out the words to our house song in reverse while the rest of us stupidly try to keep up in our heads to make sure she’s getting it right. Then, when she’s done, Sasha completes an elegant dismount back to her feet and gives the crowd a bow to resounding applause. “You’re a fucking robot,” I say, laughing when she prances over to resume her spot slouching in our losers’ corner. “Beautiful dismount.” “Never met a landing I couldn’t stick.” Freshman year Sasha was on her way to Olympic qualifiers as one of the best vaulters in the world before she busted her knee slipping on some ice, and that was it for her gymnastics career. Not to be outshined, Abigail sets her gaze on me. “Your turn, Taylor.” I take a deep breath. My heart races. Already I feel my cheeks burning red. Abigail smiles at my discomfort like a shark alerting to the vibrations of a wriggling seal in distress. I brace myself for whatever evil endeavor she’s concocting for me. “I dare you to...” She drags her teeth across her bottom lip. I see my impending humiliation in her eyes before she even opens her mouth. “Get a guy of my choice to take you upstairs.” Bitch. Debauched hoots and catcalls burst from the men still watching this display of female aggression play out. “Come on, Abs. Getting date-raped isn’t a party game.” Sasha steps forward, shielding me with her body. Abigail rolls her eyes. “Oh, don’t be so dramatic. I’ll pick someone good. Someone anybody would want to get sweaty with. Even Taylor.” God, please don’t make me have to do this. To my sheer relief, help comes in the form of Taylor Swift. “Fixed it!” a sorority sister yells, just as music once again fills the house. T-Swift’s “Blank Space” elicits a wave of excited cheers, drawing attention away from Abigail’s stupid game. The crowd promptly disperses to refill their drinks and get back to the rhythmic foreplay of dancing. Thank you, hotter and skinnier Taylor. To my dismay, Abigail is undeterred. “Hmm, who will the lucky boy be…” I swallow a groan. I was naïve to think she’d drop it. Once a dare has been issued, any sister who fails to complete the task to the best of her ability is punished mercilessly until some poor sap is unlucky enough to take her place. And if Abigail were to get her way, that’d be three weeks after forever. I already have a hard time fitting in with the rest of the sisters. This would make me a pariah. She scans the room, standing on her tiptoes to peer over people’s heads and get a thorough look at available options. A wide grin spreads out across her face when she turns to me again. “I dare you to seduce Conor Edwards.” Fuck. Fucking fuck. Yeah, I know who Conor is. Everyone does. He’s on the hockey team and a regular face at the parties on Greek Row. A regular face in the sorority beds on Greek Row, too. But his real claim to fame is being arguably the hottest new guy in the junior class. Which puts him way out of my league. A perfect choice if the goal of this dare is my utter humiliation at being resoundingly rejected by a guy laughing in my face. “Rachel is still in Daytona,” Abigail adds. “You can use her bedroom.” “Abigail, please,” I say, begging she let this go. But my plea only emboldens her. “What’s wrong, Tay-Tay? I don’t recall you having a problem kissing other guys on a dare. Or is your kink just hooking up with girls’ boyfriends?” Because that’s what it always comes back to with Abigail: revenge, and the mistake she’s been making me pay for every single day since sophomore year. No matter how many times I apologize, or how sincerely I regret hurting her, my life is but to amuse Abigail with my suffering. “You should see a doctor about your raging bitchitis,” Sasha snaps back. “Oh, poor Taylor, such a prude. Don’t turn your back or she’ll steal your dude,” Abigail sings. Her mockery becomes a chorus when Jules jumps in to sing along. Their taunting stabs at the nerves behind my eyes and makes my fingers go numb. I want to shrink into the floor. Disappear into the wall. Burst in spontaneous flames and become ash that settles in the party bowl. Anything but me, here, now. I hate unwanted attention, and their mocking has recaptured the eyes of several drunken faces around us. A few more seconds and the whole house will bust out in song about how I’m a prude, like a horrible scene out of my worst nightmare. “Fine!” I burst out. Just to make it stop. Anything to shut them up. “Whatever. I’ll do the dare.” Abigail smiles in triumph. She couldn’t be more obvious if she were drooling. “Go get your man, then,” she says, extending a gracious hand behind her. I bite my lip and follow the line of her thin arm, finally spotting Conor by the beer pong table in the dining room. Fuck, he’s tall. And his shoulders are impossibly broad. I can’t see his eyes, but I do have a clear view of his chiseled profile and longish blond hair slicked away from his forehead. It should be illegal for someone to be that good-looking. Big-girl pants, Taylor. On a deep breath, I steel my nerves and make my way toward an unsuspecting Conor Edwards. 2 Conor The boys are getting absolutely ripped tonight. We’ve been at this sorority party all of twenty minutes and already Gavin and Alec have torn open their shirts with their bare hands and are strutting around the beer pong table like a couple of barbarians. Got to admit, though, after winning our playoff game, I’m feeling pretty primal myself. Two more victories and it’s on to the Frozen Four. While no one will say it out loud for fear of jinxing the team, I feel like this is our year. “Con, get over here, asshole.” Hunter calls out to me from across the room, where he and some of the guys have lined up rows of shots. “Bring those two knuckleheads with you.” We gather with our teammates, all red-faced and high on adrenaline. Each of us hold up a shot glass while our captain, Hunter Davenport, makes a speech. He doesn’t even have to shout, because the music stopped about ten minutes ago. I keep seeing panicky sorority girls darting to and from the speaker system in the living room. Hunter’s gaze sweeps over everyone. “I just want to say I’m damn proud of all of us for how we’ve persevered as a team this season. We’ve had each other’s backs, and everyone has put in their maximum effort. We’ve got two more, boys. Two more and we’re in the hunt. So enjoy tonight. Let’s turn it up. And then it’s time to get your heads back in it for the final push.” It still doesn’t feel real sometimes. My punk ass at an Ivy school, interloping among the well-bred sons and daughters of old money and founding fathers. Even with my boys, the closest thing I’ve ever had to family after my mom, I can’t help sometimes checking over my shoulder. Like any day now they’re going to figure me out. After a shout of “Briar hockey!” we throw back our shots. Bucky swallows and releases a guttural war cry that startles everyone until we all bust out laughing. “Easy there, killer. Save it for the ice,” I tell him. Bucky doesn’t give a shit. He’s too stoked. Young, dumb, and full of bad intentions tonight. He’ll make some young lady very happy, I’m sure. Speaking of ladies, it doesn’t take long for them to coalesce around the beer pong table once we get another game going. This time it’s Hunter and his girlfriend Demi against me and Foster. And Hunter’s girl plays dirty. She’s peeled off her zip-up hoodie and is now in just a thin white tank top over a black bra, which she’s using to strategic effect to push her tits up in our faces as a means of distraction. And it’s fucking working. Foster goes boob blind and misses the table completely with his shot. “Fuck, Demi,” I grumble, “put those things away.” “What, these?” She grabs two handfuls and lifts them practically up to her neck while making the worst attempt at looking innocent. Hunter lands his shot in one of our cups easily. Demi winks at me. “Sorry not sorry.” “If your girlfriend wants to take her top off, I’ll forfeit right now,” Foster says, trying to get a rise out of Hunter. He’s too easy. Caveman mode activated, Hunter yanks his T-shirt over his head and pulls it down over Demi so it looks like a baggy dress on her. “Eyes on the cups, dickhead.” I swallow a laugh, deciding not to point out that Demi Davis would look hot even if she were wearing a burlap sack. There was a time I might have hit that, but even before Hunter knew it, we could see that our team captain was already stupid for that girl. Just took those two a little longer to catch on. So far, my prospects tonight aren’t great. Gorgeous girls, sure. A brunette all but tries to climb me and plant a kiss on my neck when I sink the next shot into one of Hunter and Demi’s cups. But these chicks have a thirsty vibe about them and so far, no one’s doing it for me. Truth be told, all the women are starting to blur together in my mind. I’ve slept with a lot of ’em since I transferred to Briar this past fall. Rocking a woman’s world, making her feel special, is a skill of mine. But—and I’d be mocked relentlessly if I admitted this to my boys—none of the chicks I hook up with bother to make me feel special. A few pretend they want to get to know me, but for the most part I’m a conquest to them, a shiny prize to wave in their friends’ envious faces. Half the time they don’t even attempt to make small talk. They just stick their tongues down my throat and their hands down my pants. Buy a man flowers, at least. Or hell, lead off with a good joke. But it is what it is, I suppose. Besides, it’s not like I’m in the market for a relationship. I can show women a good time for a night or a week, maybe even a month, but both parties are wholly aware that I’m not anyone’s long-term option. Which is fine. I bore easily, and relationships are the epitome of boring. But tonight I’m equally bored with the parade of chicks that passes the beer pong table, all of them flashing the same coy smiles as they not-so-innocently graze my arm with their side boobs. Yeah, I’m not feeling any of these girls right now. I’m weary of this tired old mating ritual that always ends the same way. I don’t even have to chase them anymore, and that’s half the fun. A round of cheers breaks out in the house as the music comes back on. One chick tries to take advantage by pulling me to dance, but I shake my head and try to refocus on the game. It’s kinda difficult, though, because some commotion out on the front lawn has now drawn everyone’s attention to the bay window. A distracted Foster completely blows his shot, and I’m about to chastise him when my peripheral vision catches a blur of motion. I turn toward the living room to see a frightened, sort of panicked-looking blonde girl scurrying toward us. Like a rabbit bolting for the safety of its hollow after spotting a hungry fox. At first I think she’s going to run to the window to look at whatever the hell is happening outside, but then something truly bizarre happens. She comes right up, grabs my arm and yanks me down so she can speak in my ear. “I’m so sorry for this and you’re going to think I’m a total psycho, but I need your help so please just play along,” she babbles, so fast I’m having a hard time keeping up. “I need you to come upstairs with me and pretend we’re going to hook up, but I don’t actually want to touch your penis or whatever.” Or whatever? “It’s a stupid dare and I’ll owe you a major favor if you could do me this solid,” she whispers rapidly. “I promise I won’t be weird about it.” I must admit, I’m intrigued. “So, if I heard you right, you don’t want to hook up with me?” I whisper back, unable to hide my amusement. “I don’t. I want to pretend to do it.” Well. I’m certainly not bored anymore. Getting a good look at her, she’s got a cute face. Not a drop-dead stunner like Demi, but nice. Her body, though. Fuck me. She’s like a walking pinup girl. Hidden under an oversized sweater that’s falling off one shoulder is a set of tits I could spend all night sliding my dick between. I steal a peek at her ass and can’t help thinking about getting her bent over my bed. But all that evaporates when I see her look up at me with these pleading turquoise eyes and something in my heart just crumbles. I’d be some kind of jackass to turn my back on a woman in such dire need of saving. “Alec,” I call out without taking my gaze off the pinup girl. “Yo,” my teammate calls back. “I’m tagging you in. Kick the captain and his evil girlfriend’s asses for me.” “On it.” I don’t miss the knowing chuckles from Hunter and Foster, along with Demi’s loud snort. The blonde’s uncertain eyes dart past my shoulder to the beer pong table, where Alec has taken my place. “Is that a yes?” she murmurs. In answer, I sweep a few strands of hair behind her ear and brush my lips against her skin to speak. Because whoever is torturing this poor girl is certainly watching us right now and they can eat shit. “Lead the way, babe.” Her eyes go huge, and for a moment I think her hard drive’s crashed. Not the first time that’s happened in my presence. So I take her hand, and then, leaving several shocked gasps in our wake, guide her through the maze of bodies loitering throughout the house. Fact is, I know my way around this place well enough. As we climb the stairs, I feel the eyes following us. She grips my hand a little tighter as her brain reboots. On the second floor she pulls us into a room I’ve yet to visit and locks the door behind us. “Thank you,” she breathes the moment we’re alone. “No problem. Mind if I make myself comfortable?” “Um, yeah. I mean, no. I don’t mind. Sit if you want. Or—wow, okay, you’re lying down.” I grin at her visible nervousness. It’s cute. While I stretch out my six-foot-two frame amid the stuffed animals and decorative pillows on the bed, she remains the startled rabbit plastered against the door and breathing heavily. “Gotta be honest,” I tell her, entwining my hands behind my head, “I’ve never seen a girl so unhappy to be locked in a bedroom with me.” This has the desired effect of loosening her shoulders and even eliciting a shy smile. “I have no doubt.” “I’m Conor, by the way.” She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I know.” “What’s the eyeroll for?” I ask, playing wounded. “No, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it. Just, I know who you are. You’re, like, campus famous.” The more I watch her, hands braced at her sides against the door, one knee bent, dirty-blonde hair a little messy and draped over one shoulder, I can’t help picturing myself holding her arms above her head while I explore her body with my mouth. She’s got very kissable skin. “Taylor Marsh,” she blurts out, and I realize I don’t know how long we were silent until then. I scoot to the far side of the bed and put a pillow beside me as a divider. “Come on. If we’re going to be in here awhile, let’s at least make friends.” Taylor laughs out a breath and with it she releases a bit more tension. She’s got a nice smile. Bright, warm. It takes a bit more coaxing, however, to get her on the bed. “This isn’t like a move,” she tells me, lining up stuffed animal guards to patrol the pillow wall between us. “I’m not some sort of weirdo who tricks men into getting in bed with her and then mauls them.” “Sure.” I nod with mock seriousness. “But a little mauling would be okay.” “Nope.” She shakes her head with too much animation, and I think I might have just about cracked her shell. “No mauling. I will be on my best behavior.” “So tell me then, why would someone who is presumably supposed to be your friend put you in what is clearly a nightmare scenario?” Taylor lets out a deep sigh. She picks up a stuffed turtle and clings to it against her chest. “Because Abigail is a grade-A bitch. I hate her so much.” “Why’s that? What’s the story there?” She slides a dubious look toward me, clearly debating whether to trust me. “Cross my heart,” I say. “This is a safe space.” She rolls her eyes but flashes a playful smile. “Last year. It was a party like this one. I was dared to walk up to a random guy and make out with him.” I snicker. “I’m sensing a pattern.” “Yeah, well, I wasn’t any more enthusiastic about it then, either. But that’s their thing. The sisters. They know I have hang-ups about approaching guys, so they love to poke at my insecurities. The bitchy ones, at least.” “Girls are fucking vicious.” “Dude, you have no clue.” I adjust myself on the bed to face her fully. “Okay, so go on. You have to make out with a guy.” “Right, thing is…” She fidgets with the turtle’s little plastic eyeball, twisting it between her fingers. “I walked up to the first guy I saw who wasn’t so drunk he might barf on me or something. I grabbed his face, lay one on him, and just, you know, closed my eyes and went for it.” “As one does.” “Well, when I pulled away, there was Abigail. Looking like I just cut her hair in her sleep. I mean staring daggers. Turns out, the guy I mouth-assaulted was her boyfriend.” “Damn, T. That’s ice-cold.” She blinks those forlorn Caribbean-blue eyes at me with a sad pouting lip. Watching her talk, I become obsessed with the Marilyn Monroe beauty mark on her right cheek. “I didn’t know! Abigail goes through boyfriends like boxes of cereal. I wasn’t keeping up with her love life.” “So she didn’t take it well,” I say. “She went apocalyptic. Made a huge scene at the party. Didn’t talk to me for weeks, and then only in snide remarks and insults. We’ve pretty much been mortal enemies ever since, and now she takes every possible opportunity to humiliate me. Hence, tonight’s indecent proposal. She was banking on you turning me down in spectacular fashion.” Damn. I do feel bad for this girl. Guys are dicks, and even on the team we find all sorts of evil ways to mess with each other, but it’s all in good fun. This Abigail chick is something else. Daring Taylor to pick up a stranger in the hopes that she’d be brutally rejected and embarrassed in front of the entire party…now that’s ice-cold. An irrational pang of protectiveness starts to throb in my gut. I don’t know much about her, but Taylor doesn’t strike me as the kind of girl who would betray a friend so callously. “Worst part is, before that we were actually friends. She was my closest ally during pledge week freshman year. I almost quit a dozen times, and she’s the one who helped me to stick it out. But after I moved off campus, we sort of grew apart.” Voices outside the room pull Taylor’s attention. I glance over and frown when I notice shadows move under the door. “Ugh. That’s her,” she mutters. By now I’ve come to recognize the sound of dread in her voice. She blanches and her pulse visibly thrums in her neck. “Shit, they’re listening.” I resist the urge to shout for our audience to get lost. If I do that, Abigail and Co. will know that Taylor and I aren’t doing the dirty, otherwise we’d be laser-focused on each other instead of the bedroom door. Still, the nosy little shits need to learn a lesson. And while I can’t solve Taylor’s problem with these girls, I can give her this one night. “I hope they’re paying attention,” I say with an impish smile. Then I jump to my knees and put both hands on the top of the headboard. Taylor eyes me with suspicion, to which I just grin again and start thrusting my body, driving the headboard into the wall. Bang. Bang. Bang. “Fuck, babe, you’re so tight,” I groan out too loudly. Taylor slaps her hand over her mouth. Her dark-blonde eyebrows shoot up her forehead. “You feel so good!” The wall shakes with every pounding blow against the headboard. I bounce on my knees, making the bedframe squeak in protest. All the necessary noises of a good time. “What are you doing?” she whispers in amused horror. “Putting on a good show. Don’t leave me hanging, T. They’re going to think I’m fucking my hand in here.” She shakes her head. Poor terrified rabbit. “Ah, fuck, babe, not so fast, you’re gonna make me come!” Just when I think I might have pushed her too far, Taylor throws her head back, closes her eyes, and lets out the sexiest noise I’ve never heard come out of a woman I wasn’t balls deep inside of. “Ugh, right there. Right there,” she calls out. “Oh God, I’m so close. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.” I lose my rhythm, laughing hysterically. The two of us are beet-red and convulsing on the bed. “Mmmm, that’s it, babe. That feel good?” “So good,” she moans back. “Don’t stop. Faster, Conor.” “You like that?” “I love it.” “Yeah?” “Oh, yeah, put it in my butt!” she begs. I collapse and hit my forehead on the fucking headboard. I stare at her, dumbstruck. “What? Too much?” she asks me, all wide-eyed innocent. This fucking girl. She’s something else. “Yeah, dial it back a little,” I croak. But we can’t stop laughing as it gets harder to breathe and we struggle to keep up the lusty moans. After probably way longer than necessary, we finally relent. Still shuddering with laughter, she buries her head in the pillows, bent over with her ass in the air, and suddenly I’m having a hard time remembering why we’re only faking it. “Was it good for you?” I ask, sprawling out on my back. My hair is damp with sweat and I comb it out of my eyes with my fingers as Taylor comes to lie beside me. She regards me with a look. One I haven’t seen from her tonight—staring at me under heavy-lidded eyes her lips red and swollen from biting them as she moaned. There’re fathoms behind that mask, fascinating depths I’m becoming more eager to explore. For a fleeting moment, I think she wants me to kiss her. Then she blinks, and the moment’s gone. “Conor Edwards, you’re a decent guy.” I’ve been called worse. Doesn’t mean I don’t notice how totally delectable her cleavage looks when she rolls onto her side to face me. “That was the best fake sex I’ve ever had,” I say solemnly. She snickers. My gaze sweeps over her flushed cheeks, her flawless, glowing skin. Then it dips to her amazing cleavage again. I know what she’s going to say before I even voice the question, but it slips out of my mouth regardless. “So, you want to fool around?” 3 Taylor He isn’t serious. I know he isn’t. Propositioning me after our little performance is just Conor’s way of making me feel better about a shit situation. Further evidence that beneath the chin-length blond hair, steely gray eyes, and chiseled body, he has a soft heart. Which is even more reason to get the hell out of here before I catch feelings. Because Conor Edwards is absolutely the guy you fall for before you learn that girls like me don’t get guys like him. “Sorry, we agreed to a strict no mauling policy,” I say firmly. He flashes a crooked half-smile that makes my heart skip a beat. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.” “Anyway. It’s been fun,” I tell him, scooting off the bed, “but I should—” “Hang on.” Conor grabs my hand. A rush of nervous energy shoots up my arm and tingles the back of my neck. “You said you’d owe me a favor, right?” “Yeah,” I say, wary. “Well, I’m calling in your marker. We’ve only been up here five minutes. I can’t have people downstairs thinking I don’t know how to show a lady a good time.” He lifts an eyebrow. “Stay awhile. Help me keep my reputation intact.” “You don’t need me to protect your ego. Don’t worry, they’ll assume you got bored of me.” “I do get bored easily,” he agrees, “but you’re in luck, T. Boredom is the last thing I’m feeling right now. You’re the most interesting person I’ve spoken to in ages.” “You must not get out much,” I crack. “C’mon,” he coaxes, “don’t make me go back downstairs yet. It’s too thirsty down there. All the chicks act like I’m the last steak at the meat market.” “Women clamoring for your attention? You poor thing.” And although I’m trying not to think of him as a piece of meat, I can’t deny he is one incredible specimen. Hands down, the most beautiful guy I’ve ever encountered. Not to mention the sexiest. He’s still clutching my hand, and the angle of his body causes every muscle of his sculpted arm to bulge enticingly. “C’mon, stay and talk with me.” “What about your friends?” I remind him. “I see them every day at practice.” His thumb rubs a gentle circle over the inside of my wrist, and I’m done for. “Taylor. Please stay.” This is a terrible idea. Right now is the moment I’ll look back on a year from now after I’ve changed my name, dyed my hair, and started going by Olga in a diner in Schenectady. But his imploring eyes, his skin against mine, they won’t let me leave. “Okay.” I never stood a chance against Conor Edwards. “Just to talk.” Together we settle back onto the bed, the pillow fortress between us dismantled by the bouncing and thrashing. And Conor’s charm. He picks up the stuffed turtle that had migrated to the end of the bed and sets it on the nightstand. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in here, now that I think about it. Rachel’s room is…a lot. Like a VSCO girl and a mommy blogger threw up on a Disney princess. “Help me figure you out.” Conor crosses those sexy arms over his chest. “This isn’t your room, is it?” “No, you first,” I insist. If I’m going to humor him, there has to be a little reciprocation. “I feel like I’ve monopolized the conversation. Help me figure you out.” “What do you want to know?” “Anything. Everything.” What you look like naked… But no, I’m not allowed to ask that. I might be lying in bed with the hottest guy on campus, but our clothes are staying on. Especially mine. “Ah, well...” Toeing his shoes off, he kicks them off the bed. I’m about to tell him we’re not staying that long, but then he continues. “I play hockey, but I guess you figured that out.” I nod in answer. “I transferred here from LA last semester.” “Oh, okay. That explains a lot.” “Does it now?” He puts on an expression of mock offense. “Not in a bad way. I mean, you’re a magazine cover definition of surfer dude, but it suits you.” “I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment,” he says, and ribs me with his elbow. I ignore the little shiver that happily tickles my chest. His playful demeanor is way too appealing. “How did a west coast boy wind up playing hockey of all sports?” “People play hockey on the west coast,” he says dryly. “It’s not exclusively an east coast thing. I played football too, in junior high, but hockey was more fun and I was better at it.” “So what made you want to come east?” New England winters are an acquired taste. We had a sister freshman year who made it six days into knee-high snow and caught a plane back to Tampa. We had to mail her stuff home. Something flickers across Conor’s face. For a moment his gray eyes become unfocused, distant. If I knew him better, I’d think I hit a nerve. When he replies, his voice has lost some of its prior playfulness. “I just needed a change of scenery. The opportunity to transfer to Briar came up and I took it. I was living at home, you know, and it was getting a little cramped.” “Brothers and sisters?” “No, it was just me and Mom for a long time. Dad ran out on us when I was six.” Sympathy softens my tone. “That’s awful. I’m sorry.” “Eh, don’t be. I hardly remember him. My mom married this other guy Max about six years ago.” “And, what, you two don’t get along?” He sighs, sinks deeper against the pillows while staring at the ceiling. A vexed line forms on his forehead. I’m tempted to backtrack, tell him he doesn’t have to talk about it and it wasn’t my intention to pry. I can see the subject unsettles him, but he pushes on. “He’s alright. My mom and I were living in a shitty little rental house when they met. She was working as a hairdresser sixty hours a week to take care of us. Then this slick, rich businessman comes along and whisks us out of our misery to Huntington Beach. Like I can’t even tell you how much better the air smelled. That’s the first thing I noticed.” With a self-deprecating smile, he shrugs. “Traded public school for private. Mom cut her hours then eventually quit her job. Changed our whole lives.” There’s a pause. “He’s good to her. She’s his whole world. He and I, though, we don’t connect. She was the prize; I was the stale cereal forgotten in the cupboard.” “You’re not stale cereal,” I tell him. That any kid would grow up thinking of himself that way breaks my heart, and I wonder if this cool, laidback persona is how he’s survived the scars of feeling otherwise abandoned. “Some people aren’t good with kids, you know?” “Yeah.” He nods, his expression wry, and we both know it’s a wound that won’t be healed with my simple platitudes. “It’s always just been me and my mom, too,” I say, changing the subject to stave off the sour mood descending over Conor like a shadow. “I was the product of a fervid little one-night-stand.” “Okay.” Conor’s eyes light up. He turns on his side to face me and props his head up in one hand. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” “Oh yeah, Iris Marsh was a nerd in the streets and freak in the sheets.” His husky laughter elicits another shiver. I need to stop being so…aware of him. It’s like my body has locked in on his frequency and now responds to his every move, every sound. “She’s an MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering, and twenty-two years ago she met this big-shot Russian scientist at a conference in New York. They had a single romantic interlude, and then he went back to Russia and Mom went back to Cambridge. Then about six months later, she had to read about it in the Times when he died in a car accident.” “Holy shit.” He jerks his head up. “Do you think your dad was, like, assassinated by the Russian government?” I laugh. “What?” “Dude, what if your dad was into some serious spy shit? And the KGB found out he was a CIA asset, so they had him whacked?” “Whacked? I think you’re confusing your euphemisms. Mobs whack people. And I’m not sure the KGB is still a thing.” “Sure, that’s what they want you to think.” Then his eyes go wide. “Whoa, what if you’re a Russian sleeper agent?” He has an active imagination, I’ll give him that. But at least his mood’s improved. “Well,” I say thoughtfully, “the way I see it, that would mean one of two things: Either by becoming self-aware I’d soon be marked for death.” “Oh fuck.” With impressive agility, Conor leaps up from the bed and comically peers out the window before closing the blinds and turning off the light. The two of us are now illuminated only by Rachel’s turtle nightlight and the glow of streetlamps filtering through the spaces between the blinds. Laughing, he climbs back on the bed. “Don’t worry, babe, I got you.” I crack a smile. “Or, second, I’d have to kill you for discovering my secret.” “Or, or, hear me out: you take me on as your muscle and handsome sidekick and we hit the road as soldiers of fortune.” “Hmm.” I pretend to study him, deliberating. “Tempting offer, comrade.” “But first we should probably strip search each other to check for wires. You know, to establish trust.” He’s adorable in an insatiable puppy sort of way. “Yeah, no.” “You’re no fun.” I can’t get a read on this guy. He’s sweet, charming, funny—all those sneaky qualities of men that trick us into believing we can turn them into something civilized. But at the same time bold, raw, and completely unpretentious in a way almost no one in college ever is. All of us are just stumbling through self-discovery while putting on a brave face. So how does that square with the Conor Edwards of lore? The man with more notches on his hockey stick than snowflakes in January. Who is the real Conor Edwards? Why do I care? “So, uh, what’s your major?” I ask, feeling like a cliché. His head falls back and he blows out a breath. “Finance, I guess.” Okay, not what I expected. “You guess?” “I mean, I’m not really feeling it. It wasn’t my idea.” “Whose idea was it?” “My stepdad. He got it in his head I’ll go work for him after I graduate. Learn how to run his company.” “You don’t sound stoked about that,” I say, throwing out some west coast jargon just for him. It earns me a chuckle. “No, not stoked,” he agrees. “I’d rather get strung up by my balls than put on a suit and stare at spreadsheets all day.” “What would you rather major in?” “That’s the thing. I have no idea. I guess I ultimately caved on finance because I couldn’t come up with a better excuse. Couldn’t pretend I had some other great interest, so…” “Nothing?” I press. For me, I was torn by so many possibilities. Granted, some of them were leftover fantasies from childhood about being an archeologist or astronaut, but still. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I had no shortage of options. “The way I grew up, it’s not like I had any right to expect much,” he says gruffly. “Figured I’d end up working minimum wage with a name tag, or in jail, rather than going to college. So I never really gave it much thought.” I can’t imagine what that’s like. Staring into your future and having no hope for yourself. It reminds me how privileged I am to have grown up being told I could be anything I wanted, and knowing the money and access were there to back it up. “Jail?” I try to lighten the mood. “Give yourself more credit, buddy. With your face and body, you would’ve made a killing in porn.” “You like my body?” He grins, gesturing to his long, muscular frame. “All yours, T. Climb aboard.” God, I wish. I swallow hard and pretend to be unaffected by his hotness. “Pass.” “Whatever you say, buddy.” I roll my eyes. “What about you?” he asks. “What’s your major? No, wait. Let me guess.” Conor narrows his eyes, studying me for the answer. “Art history.” I shake my head. “Journalism.” Another shake. “Hmm…” He stares harder, biting his lip. God, he’s got the sexiest mouth. “I’d say psych major, but I know one of those and you aren’t it.” “Elementary education. I want to be a teacher.” He raises one eyebrow, then scans me with a look that’s almost…hungry. “That’s hot.” “What’s hot about it?” I demand, incredulous. “Every guy fantasizes about banging a teacher. It’s a thing.” “Boys are weird.” Conor shrugs, yet that hunger still colors his face. “Tell me something…why aren’t you already here with someone?” “What do you mean?” “There isn’t a guy in the picture somewhere?” It’s my turn to shrink away from the topic. I’d probably have more to say with regards to thirteenth-century textiles than dating. And since I’ve embarrassed myself enough for one evening, I’d rather not compound my humiliation by sharing the details of my non-existent love life. “So there is a story there,” Conor says, misreading my hesitation for coyness. “Let’s hear it.” “What about you?” I volley back. “Haven’t settled on that one special groupie yet?” He shrugs, unbothered by my teasing jab. “Don’t really do girlfriends.” “Ugh, that sounds slimy.” “No, I just mean I’ve never dated anyone for more than a few weeks. If it’s not there, it’s not there, you know?” Oh, I know the type. Bores easy. Constantly looking over his shoulder at the next thing passing by. A walking meme in the flesh. Figures. The pretty ones are always aching for their freedom. “Don’t think you’ve distracted me,” he says, giving me a knowing smile. “Answer the question.” “Sorry to disappoint. No guys. No story.” One unremarkable entanglement sophomore year that hardly fulfilled the definition of a relationship is too pathetic to warrant mention. “Come on. I’m not as dumb as I look. What, did you break his heart? He spend six months sleeping on the sidewalk outside the sorority house?” “Why do you assume I’m the kind of girl a guy would pine over in the rain and sleet?” “You kidding?” His silvery eyes sweep over me, lingering on various parts of my body before returning to meet my gaze. Everywhere he looked is now tingling like crazy. “Babe, you’ve got the kind of body that boys build in their heads under the sheets after dark.” “Don’t do that,” I tell him, all humor draining from my voice as I start to turn away. “Don’t mock me. That’s not nice.” “Taylor.” I jerk when he takes my hand, keeping me in place so that we’re still facing each other. As my pulse kicks into overdrive, he presses my shaky hand against his chest. His body is warm, solid. His heart beats a quick, steady rhythm beneath my palm. I’m touching Conor Edwards’ chest. What the hell is happening right now? Never in my wildest dreams did I envision the Kappa Chi Spring Break Hangover party ending this way. “I mean it.” His voice thickens. “I’ve been sitting here having filthy thoughts about you all night. Don’t mistake my manners for indifference.” A reluctant smile pulls at the corners of my lips. “Manners, huh?” I’m not sure I believe him. Or that a porno clip in his mind starring me qualifies as a compliment. Although I guess it’s the thought that counts. “My mother didn’t raise a scoundrel, but I can be downright improper if you’re into it.” “And what passes for improper on the west coast?” I ask, noting the way his top lip twitches when he’s being cheeky. “Well…” His entire demeanor shifts. Eyes narrow. Breathing slows. Conor licks his lips. “If I weren’t a gentleman, I might try something like pushing your hair behind your ear.” He skims his fingertips through my hair. Then down the column of my neck. Just a gentle whisper of skin-to-skin. My neck erupts in excited little bumps and my breath catches in my throat. “And dragging my finger across your shoulder.” He does so, quickening my pulse. An ache builds inside me. “And skimming along until—” He reaches my bra strap. I hadn’t realized it was exposed with my V-neck sweater hanging off my shoulder. “Alright. Down, boy.” Regaining my wits, I remove his hand and adjust my sleeve. Jeez, this guy should come with a warning label. “I think I get it now.” “You’re ridiculously attractive, Taylor.” This time when he speaks, I don’t doubt his sincerity, if perhaps his sanity. I suppose someone like him doesn’t get around so much by being picky. “Don’t spend any more time believing otherwise.” For the next few hours, I don’t. Instead, I give myself permission to pretend that someone like Conor Edwards is actually into me. We lie there in the ridiculous cocoon of Rachel’s stuffed animal collection, talking as if we’ve been friends for years. There’s surprisingly no shortage of things to say, no lag in the conversation. We move from banal topics of favorite foods and our mutual appreciation for sci-fi movies, to more serious ones, like how out of place I feel amongst my sorority sisters, to hilarious ones, like the time his sixteen-year-old punk-ass self got drunk after a road game in San Francisco and dove into the bay with the intention of swimming to Alcatraz. “Fucking Coast Guard showed up and—” He cuts himself off mid-sentence, yawning loudly. “Shit, I can barely keep my eyes open.” I catch his contagious yawn and cover my gaping mouth with my forearm. “Me too,” I say sleepily. “But we’re not leaving this room until you finish that story because holy shit, you were one stupid kid.” That triggers a wave of laughter from the Norse god beside me. “Not the first time I’ve heard that, and it won’t be the last.” By the time he finishes the story, we’re yawning on a loop, blinking rapidly to try to stay awake. The stupidest, drowsiest discussion ensues as we attempt to find the strength to get up. “We should head downstairs,” I mumble. “Mmm-hmmm,” he mumbles back. “Like now.” “Hmmm, good idea.” “Or maybe in five minutes.” I yawn. “Five minutes, yeah.” He yawns. “Okay, so we’ll close our eyes for five minutes and then get up.” “Just rest our eyes. You know, eyes get tired.” “They do.” “Tired eyes,” he’s muttering from beneath thick lashes, “and I played a game tonight, got a bit bruised up, so let’s just…” I don’t hear the rest of his sentence, because we’ve both fallen asleep. 4 Taylor Knock. Knock. Knock! KNOCK! The last pound on the door jolts me upright. I squint and shield my eyes from the beams of light streaking across the room. What the hell? It’s daylight. Morning. My mouth is dry, a bitter taste thick on my tongue. I don’t remember falling asleep. On a yawn I stretch my limbs, feel the muscles releasing. Then another sound stops my heart. Snoring. Beside me. Fucking fuckturtles. Sprawled out on his stomach, Conor lies shirtless and in only his boxers. “Hey! Open the door! This is my room!” More knocking. Pounding. Shit. Rachel’s home. “Get up.” I shake Conor. He doesn’t stir. “Dude, get up. You need to leave.” I don’t understand how he’s still here or when I fell asleep last night. A quick glance shows I’m still dressed with my shoes on, so why the hell is Conor practically naked? “Get the hell out, assholes!” Any minute now Rachel’s going to start trying to kick the door down. “Come on, get up.” I give Conor a stiff smack to the small of his back, which makes him jump in a bleary confusion. “Mrrrmmm?” he mumbles incoherently. “We fell asleep. My sister’s home and she wants her room back,” I whisper urgently. “You need to get dressed.” Conor falls out of bed. He stands a bit unevenly, still muttering nonsense under his breath. Cringing, I unlock and open the door, where an irate Rachel stands fuming in the hall. Behind her, the entire house is awake, loitering in their pajamas and bed hair with mugs of coffee and cold Pop-Tarts. Sasha is nowhere to be seen, so I assume she wound up finding a concert in Boston and crashing with her friends in the city. “What the hell, Taylor? Why was my door locked?” I spot Abigail’s cruel smirk among the faces crowding the hall. “I’m sorry, I—” Without letting me finish, Rachel shoves open the door and bursts inside, allowing everyone a good look at Conor shirtless, buttoning his jeans. “Oh,” she squeaks. Her ire is quelled almost instantly by the sight of Conor’s immaculate body. I don’t blame her for gawking. He’s exquisite. Broad shoulders and defined muscles. The perfectly smooth, inviting planes of his chest. I can’t believe I slept next to that and don’t remember any of it. “G’morning,” Conor says with a smirk. He nods to the other sisters outside the room. “Ladies.” “I didn’t know you had company,” Rachel talks to me but stares at him. “My fault,” he says easily, then pulls his shirt over his sculpted chest. He steps into his shoes. “Sorry about that.” To me, he winks on his way to the door. “Call me.” And just as suddenly as we became two unlikely allies, he departs. Every single gaze remains glued to the taut ass hugged by his jeans, until finally he’s out of sight, heavy footsteps thudding down the stairs. I gulp a few times before speaking. “Rachel, I—” “I didn’t think you had it in you, Marsh.” She looks surprised, of course. But also impressed. “Next time you slay a dragon in my room, be out before breakfast. ’Kay?” “Sure. Sorry,” I say with relief. The worst is averted, I suppose. I live to fight better battles. And whether I courted it or not, whether this pries another thin sliver of my dignity from me in favor of my social standing, at least for today all these girls will live vicariously through my supposed exploits. Then there’s Abigail. While the others return to their morning cartoons and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, she lingers at the top of the stairs waiting for me. I want to push past her, ignore her, maybe trip her a little down the steps. Instead, like a dumbass, I stand there and meet her eyes. “You must be pretty satisfied with yourself,” she says, arching one perfectly tweezed brow. “No, Abigail, just tired.” “If you think you proved something last night, you’re wrong. Conor would fuck a wet sock if it smiled at him. So don’t think this makes you special, Tay-Tay.” This time I do brush past her. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” “And he didn’t make a single move?” Sasha demands on Sunday morning after I’m done filling her in about Friday night’s exploits. Unlike me, Sasha still lives in the Kappa Chi house, so she came to meet me for breakfast at Della’s Diner in town. Usually she’s too lazy to come to Hastings and coerces me into meeting at one of Briar’s dining halls, but I guess my vague text to her yesterday—“I’ll tell you when I see you”—was insufficient in satisfying my best friend’s curiosity. At least now I know what it takes to drag her lazy ass off campus: dirty details. Or lack thereof. “Nope,” I confirm. “No moves whatsoever.” I’m not worried about Sasha blabbing to any of the Kappas. I trust her implicitly, and there was no way I was going to allow my closest friend to think I’d hooked up with a notorious jock playboy. She’s the only one who even knows I’m a virgin. “He didn’t try to kiss you?” “Nope.” I slowly chew a bite of whole-wheat toast. I always order the same sad breakfast items at Della’s: brown toast, egg-white omelet, and a small fruit bowl. If “calorie counting” was a career option, I’d be richer than Jeff Bezos. “I find this shocking,” she announces. “I mean, his reputation precedes him.” “Well, he did flirt a bit,” I admit, reaching for my water glass. “And he pretended he liked my body.” She rolls her eyes. “Taylor, I guarantee he wasn’t pretending. I know you think men only get hard-ons from stick women, but trust me, you’re wrong. Curves drive them wild.” “Yeah, curves. Not rolls.” “You don’t have rolls.” Thankfully, not at the moment. I’ve been diligent about eating healthy since the New Year, after overindulging during the holidays and putting on nearly ten pounds. In three months I’d shed about nine of those ten, which I’m happy with, but I’d love to lose more. My ideal body goal is somewhere between Kate Upton and Ashley Graham; I tend to fluctuate between the two, but if I could get down to Kate size I’d be thrilled. I truly believe that all body types are beautiful. It’s only when I look in the mirror that I forget. My weight has been a source of stress and insecurity my entire life, so maintaining it is a priority for me. I swallow the last bite of my omelet, while pretending not to notice how fucking delicious Sasha’s breakfast looks. A mouthwatering stack of chocolate-chip pancakes bathed in a sea of sugary syrup. She’s one of those fortunate girls who can eat anything and not gain a single pound. Meanwhile, I take one bite of a cheeseburger and gain ten pounds overnight. That’s just the way my body is and I’ve accepted it. Cheeseburgers and pancakes taste great in the moment, but they’re not worth it for me in the long run. “Anyway,” I continue, “he really was a gentleman.” “Still can’t believe that,” she says through a mouthful of pancakes. She chews quickly. “And he told you to call him?” I nod. “But obviously he didn’t mean it.” “Why is that obvious?” “Because he’s Conor Edwards and I’m Taylor Marsh?” I roll my eyes. “Also? He didn’t give me his number.” She frowns. Ha, that shut her up fast. “Yup, so whatever fantasy romance you were concocting in your pretty head, you can forget about it. Conor did me a favor the other night.” I offer a shrug. “Nothing more to it than that.” 5 Conor If any of us harbored notions that Coach Jensen might take it easy on us after securing our berth into the NCAA Division One championship semi-finals, that delusion is quickly put to rest when we take the ice for Monday morning skate. From the first whistle, Coach has been on a rampage like he just found out Jake Connelly knocked up his daughter or something. We spend the first hour on speed training, skating until our toenails bleed. Then he calls a series of shooting drills and I take so many shots on net it feels like my arms might melt out of their sockets. Whistle, skate. Whistle, shot. Whistle, kill me. By the time Coach orders us to the media room to study game footage, I’m all but crawling off the ice. Even Hunter, who’s tried his damnedest to maintain a positive attitude as team captain, is starting to look like he wants to call his mommy to come pick him up. In the tunnel we share a pitiful look. Same, dude. After a bottle of Gatorade and one of those jelly nutrition tubes, I’m feeling half-alive at least. The media room offers three semi-circular rows of plush chairs, and I’m in the first row with Hunter and Bucky. Everyone is slouched over from exhaustion. Coach walks over to stand in front of the projector screen with the static image of our game against Minnesota bleeding onto his face. Even the sound of him clearing his throat gives me the jitters. “Some of you seem to think the hard part’s over. That you’re just going to coast to a championship and it’s all champagne and afterparties from here on out. Well, I got news for you.” He slams his hand twice against the wall and I swear the whole building shakes. We all snap upright in our seats, wide the fuck awake. “Now’s when the work begins. You were running on training wheels until today. Now Daddy’s dragging you to the top of the hill and giving your asses a good shove.” The footage rolls in slow motion on the screen. The D-line gets caught out of position on a breakaway and gives up a shot on net that pings off the post. That’s me there on the left, and watching my dumb ass scramble to chase down the shooter puts a pit in stomach. “Right here,” Coach says. “We checked out mentally. Got caught puck watching. It only takes a second to lose focus and then bam, we’re playing catch-up.” He fast-forwards the tape. This time it’s Hunter, Foster and Jesse who can’t string their passes together. “Come on, ladies. This is basic stuff you’ve been doing since you were five. Soft hands. Visualize where your teammates are. Get open. Follow through.” Around the room, we’re all taking hits to our overinflated egos. That’s the thing about Coach; he doesn’t suffer divas. For a few weeks now we’ve felt damn near invincible on our rise to the top. Now that we’ve got our fiercest opponents ahead of us, it’s time to get our feet back on the ground. That means taking our licks in practice. “Wherever that puck is, I want three guys ready to take it,” Coach continues. “I don’t ever want to see someone standing around looking for an open man. If we want to square up to Brown or Minnesota, we need to play our game. Quick passes. High pressure. I want to see confidence behind the stick.” My coach back in LA was a real son of a bitch. The kind of guy who burst into a room screaming and shouting, slamming doors and throwing chairs. At least twice a season he’d get ejected from a game, then come to the next practice and take it all out on us. Sometimes we deserved it. Other times, it was like he needed to exorcise forty years of shame and inadequacy on a bunch of dumb kids. No wonder the hockey program was shit. Because of him I almost didn’t bother going out for the team when I transferred to Briar, but I knew the program’s reputation and had heard good things. Coach Jensen was a relief. He can be hard on us, but he’s never malicious. Never so focused on sport he forgets he’s coaching real people. One thing I’ve never doubted is that Coach Jensen cares about every one of these guys. Even busted Hunter out of jail last semester. For that, we’d follow him anywhere, toenails be damned. “Alright, that’s it for today. I want everyone to check in with the nutritionist and make sure you’re clear on the meal plans for the next few weeks. We’re going to be pushing ourselves harder than we have all season. That means I want you guys taking care of your bodies. If you’ve got bangs and bumps, get with the trainers and have them evaluated. Now’s not the time to hide any issues. Every man needs to know he can count on the guy next to him. Okay?” “Hey, Coach?” Hunter speaks up. He sighs, cringing. “The guys were wondering if we could get an update on the mascot situation.” “The pig? You idiots are still on about the damn pig?” “Uh, yeah. In the absence of Pablo Eggscobar, some of the boys are experiencing withdrawals.” I snicker under my breath. Not gonna lie, I kinda miss our stupid egg mascot too. He was a cool dude. “Jesus Christ. Yes, you’re getting your damn pet. Sometime in August, last I heard. There is an absurd amount of paperwork involved in the acquisition of a swine for non-agricultural purposes. Okay? Satisfied, Davenport?” “Yup yup. Thanks, Coach.” We all start getting up to leave, conversations breaking out while guys head for the doors. “Oh, hang on,” Coach booms. Everyone halts, like good little soldiers. “Almost forgot. Word’s come down from the higher-ups that our attendance is required at some alumni grip-and-grin Saturday afternoon.” Groans and protests erupt. “What, why?” Matt Anderson calls from the back of the room. “Oh, come on, Coach,” Foster whines. Beside me, Gavin is pissed. “That’s bullshit.” “What’s a grip-and-grin?” Bucky asks. “Sounds like we’re supposed to be jerking them off or something.” “Essentially,” Coach replies. “Listen, I hate these things, too. But when the provost says jump, the athletic director says how high.” “But we’re the ones doing the jumping,” Alec protests. “Now you’re getting it. These things are all about kissing ass for cash. The university counts on these little dog-and-pony shows to support things like athletics and building you princesses fancy training facilities. So get your suits pressed, comb your hair, for fuck’s sake, and be on your best behavior.” “Does this mean I’m going to be getting my ass pinched by rich cougars?” The whole room laughs when Jesse raises his hand to speak. “Because I’m cool with taking one for the team, but my girlfriend is the jealous type and I’m gonna need a note or something on letterhead if she asks me about this.” “I’d like to go on record as stating I find this premise sexist and exploitative,” Bucky chimes in. In a flat tone that suggests he’s well sick of our shit, Coach digs his fingers into his eyes and recites from what I assume is Briar’s code of conduct. “It is university policy that no student shall be required to behave in an unethical or immoral manner, or that which may conflict with their sincerely held religious or spiritual beliefs. The university is an equal opportunity institution based on high academic achievement and does not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religion or lack thereof, or the temperament of your girlfriend. Satisfied, everyone?” “Thanks, Coach!” Bucky says with an exaggerated thumbs-up. Dude is going to give him an aneurism one of these days. But Jesse and Bucky aren’t that off base. There’s something fundamentally broken about a system that has us paying fifty grand a year to still be treated like prostitutes. Those of us who aren’t here on a free ride at least, like myself. If there’s one thing I’m good at, though, it’s playing the boy toy. I’ll say this much for these bunch of goons, we sure clean up nice. The team came looking sharp in our best attire on Saturday afternoon. Beards trimmed. Hair gelled. Bucky even plucked his nose hairs, as he made sure to inform us all. The alumni luncheon is being held in Woolsey Hall on campus. So far, it’s consisted of listening to a bunch of people get up and talk about how Briar made them the men and women they are today, giving back, school spirit, blah, blah, blah. The assigned seating cards have split up the athletics department, along with representatives of the Greeks, student government, and a handful of other notable student organizations, among the many tables with the alumni guests. Mostly it’s been smile, nod, laugh at their bad jokes, and tell them, yes sir, we’re taking the championship this year. It’s not all bad, though. The food’s decent and there’s plenty of free booze. So at least I’ve got a little buzz going. No matter how good I look in a suit, though, I still feel like they can smell it on me. The stench of poverty. The hospital stink of new money. All these rich assholes who probably spent most of their college years snorting coke through hundred-dollar bills from trust funds that have been earning interest since their ancestors were involved in the slave trade. Seven months ago I showed up at Briar a punk-ass kid from LA. Exactly the type the good folks of Ivy institutions prefer to have mopping their floors rather than attending classes. A stepfather with deep pockets, however, does wonders for one’s image in the eyes of the admissions board. Yeah, I clean up nice, but shit like this reminds me I’m not one of them. I’ll never be one of them. “Mr. Edwards.” The older woman seated next to me has what looks like the entirety of the Queen’s jewels hanging off her neck. She slides one boney hand over my thigh and leans into me. “Would you be a dear and see if you can rustle a lady up a gin and tonic? Wine gives me a headache.” She smells like cigarettes, peppermint gum, and expensive perfume. “Sure thing.” Hoping she can’t pick up on my relief, I excuse myself from the table, thankful to break away for a bit. Outside the main ballroom I find Hunter, Foster, and Bucky at the cocktail bar, where the catering staff is packing up after the hors d’oeuvre reception. “Can I bother you for a gin and tonic?” I ask the bartender. “Yeah, no problem.” He starts pouring the drink. “More bottles I empty, less I have to carry out of here.” “Gin and tonic? Bro, when did you become my grandmother?” Bucky jokes. “It’s not for me. It’s for my cougar.” Hunter snorts and sips his beer. “Please don’t laugh. A couple more gin and tonics and she’ll legit be trying to hop on my dick.” I nod at the bartender for permission, then steal one of the Stellas he’s got sitting in a box on the floor. “From what I hear,” Foster says, “your dick’s been pretty busy this week.” I pop the cap on my beer with the ring I wear on my right middle finger. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Way I hear it, you spent the night with a Kappa last Friday and jumped right into bed with a Tri-Delt on Thursday.” It sounds crass when he says it that way. But yeah, I suppose that’s how it looks. He doesn’t know, of course, that Taylor and I shared a lovely platonic evening of conversation. And I can’t defend her honor without also blowing her cover. I trust these guys, but it’s inevitable that anything I say gets back to their girls and, well, people talk. “Who told you about the Delta hookup?” I ask curiously, because Natalie’d snuck me into the sorority house after midnight. Apparently the Delta house has some ridiculous rule about dudes sleeping over. “She did,” Foster answers, snickering. I furrow my brow. “Huh?” Bucky slides his phone from his pocket. “Oh yeah, we all saw that pic. Hold on.” He taps the screen a few times. “Yeah, here it is.” I peer at Bucky’s Instagram feed. And yup, there’s Natalie in a selfie giving the camera a thumbs-up while I’m in the lower corner of the frame, sound asleep. Below it, the caption reads, Look who scored. #Briarhockeyhottie #StickIt #BuzzerBeater #Goooaaalll Real nice. “I give it high marks for lighting and composition,” Foster says, laughing. Jackass. “Hashtag puckbunny,” Bucky adds. “Hashtag—” I take the gin and tonic from the bartender and head back inside to deliver it, shooting a middle finger at the guys as I leave. It’s not the ribbing that bothers me. Or even the picture, really. I just feel kind of…cheap. Someone’s fuck for likes. I might be a little promiscuous, but I don’t treat women like conquests. A simple exchange of physical pleasure, where everyone gets what they want and no lies are told, is perfectly healthy. Why go and make the other person feel like a piece of meat? Then again, I guess it isn’t any more than I deserve. Act like a fuckboy, get treated like a fuckboy. When I return to the ballroom, the concert jazz band is playing and the plates from lunch have been cleared. Most of the guests have taken to the dance floor now, including my bejeweled cougar. I set the drink on the table and have a seat, praying that nobody comes over to force me to dance. So far, so good. I sip my beer and people-watch. Soon, a conversation a couple tables away catches my ear. “Oh please. Don’t give her so much credit. It was a dare, okay? It’s not like he was hitting on her or something.” “Trust me,” a girl’s voice answers, “I heard what was going on in there. He saw those porn star tits and ass and probably figured as long as he fucked her from behind, he wouldn’t have to look at her butter face.” “I’d bang Taylor’s body with your face,” a dude responds. My fingers tighten over the beer bottle. These asshats are talking about Taylor? “Are you kidding me, Kevin? Say that again and I’ll put your balls in my flat iron.” “Damn, Abigail, I’m kidding. Down, girl.” Abigail. Taylor’s sorority sister who made her take that stupid dare? I spare a quick peek over my shoulder. Yeah, that’s her. I remember her standing in the hall at the Kappa house when I made my walk of shame that morning. She’s sitting with a group of Kappas I recognize from the party, and a few other guys. Taylor was right; she’s a grade-A bitch. Assuming she must be here somewhere, I scan the room for Taylor, but I can’t find her. “You know she wants to be a teacher?” another girl says. “She’ll totally end up like one of those chicks who gets pregnant banging their students.” “Oh, dude, she should do teacher porn,” one of the guys responds. “Those double Ds would make mad money.” “How does anyone still make money on porn? Isn’t that shit free now?” “You should see the stuff we have on video from pledge week. It would crash your spank bank.” It isn’t until the cougar returns for her gin and tonic and leaves a smudged lipstick print on my cheek that I realize my fists are clenched under the table and I’ve been holding my breath. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. These people suck, yeah, but why I am getting all bent out of shape about a girl I knew for one night? My teammates always joke that nothing ever fazes me, and normally they’re right—I’m very good at letting shit slide off my shoulders. Especially when it doesn’t directly pertain to me. But this entire conversation is pissing me off. “You see that Delta’s post on Insta? Conor wasn’t even coming back to Taylor for seconds.” “Some girls are just made to be one-night stands. That’s her place,” Abigail says, her tone smug. “Landing a guy like Conor is an unattainable goal for Taylor. The sooner she realizes that, the happier she’ll be. It’s sad, really.” “Omigod! I bet she’s already doodling Taylor Loves Conor on her notebooks.” “Writing Taylor Edwards in blood in her diary.” They laugh, rolling all over themselves. Assholes. It crosses my mind to go over there, confront them. Taylor didn’t do anything to deserve this shit. She’s a cool chick. Smart, funny. It’s been a long time since I’ve actually wanted to spend a whole night talking to a total stranger. And not because she was a pity case or I needed an alibi. I had a legit good time with her. These assholes aren’t allowed to talk smack about— Speak of the devil. My shoulders stiffen when I catch sight of Taylor walking in my direction. Her head is bent, engrossed with her phone. She’s wearing a knee-length black dress, a short pink cardigan buttoned up to her neck, and her hair in a messy bun at the nape of her neck. I remember the way she’d lamented about her curves, and I honestly don’t get it. Taylor’s body is a thousand times more appealing to me than, say, Abigail’s scrawny one. Women are supposed to be soft and curvy and squeezable. I’m not sure when they were brainwashed into thinking otherwise. My mouth goes a bit dry as Taylor approaches. She looks really fucking good tonight. Sexy. Elegant. Undeserving of these people’s scorn. Something compels me. A sense of justice, maybe. The triumph of good over evil. I get a tickle on the back of my neck, the one that says I’m about to have a stupid idea. As she passes the table beside mine, unaware of me sitting here, I jump to my feet to catch her. “Taylor, hey! Why didn’t you call me?” I say loud enough to draw the attention of Abigail and her group two tables away. Taylor blinks, stunned and rightfully confused. Come on, babe. Play along. I implore her with my eyes as I repeat myself, my tone extra forlorn. “Why didn’t you call me?” 6 Taylor I’m trying to listen to what Conor is saying to me, but the sight of him in a suit is affecting my concentration. His big shoulders and broad chest fill out that navy-blue jacket like nobody’s business. I’m tempted to ask him to do a little spin so I can assess the butt situation. I bet his butt looks amazing. “Taylor,” he says impatiently. I blink, forcing my gaze back to his face. “Conor, hi. Sorry, what?” “It’s been a week,” he says, with a strange eagerness about him. “You haven’t called me. I thought we had a good time together at the party.” My mouth falls open. Is he serious right now? I mean, yeah, he technically said “call me” as he left Saturday morning, but that was part of the performance, right? He hadn’t even provided his phone number! “Uh, sorry again?” I wrinkle my forehead. “I guess we got our wires crossed.” “Are you avoiding me?” he demands. “What? Of course not.” He’s acting weird. And sort of whiny. Suddenly I’m wondering if this is some kind of personality disorder thing. Or maybe he’s drunk? There have been a lot of free drinks at this thing. Hence why I’d been making a beeline for the restroom before he’d lunged from out of nowhere and ambushed me. “I can’t stop thinking about you, Taylor. Can’t eat, can’t sleep.” He rakes an agitated hand through his hair. “I thought we made a connection that night. I wanted to play it cool, you know. Not come off too aggressive. But I miss you, babe.” If this is a joke, it isn’t funny. Clenching my fists to my sides, I take a step back. “Okay, I don’t know what this is, but for what it’s worth, I saw that Instagram post of you in bed with some girl. So I’d say you’re coping just fine.” “Because you messed with my head.” He lets out an agonized groan. “Look, I know I screwed up. I’m weak. But only because I’ve been so hurt thinking that amazing night we spent together didn’t mean anything to you.” Now I’m worried about him. Exasperation has me stepping forward again. “Conor, you’re—” He grabs me without warning. Envelops me in his arms, digging his big hands into my waist as he dips down to bury his face in the crook of my neck. I freeze, stunned, and honestly a little scared of what’s happening right now. Until he whispers against my ear. “I promise I’m not a weirdo, but I need your help and I won’t touch your penis. Just go with it, T.” I pull back to meet his eyes, glimpsing a gleam of urgency and a twinkle of humor. I’m still not sure what’s going on, though. Is he trying to get back at me for what I did to him last weekend? Is it a joke? A silly callback? “Con, man, leave the poor girl alone,” an amused voice remarks. I turn toward the dark-haired guy who’d spoken—and that’s when I notice Abigail and Jules. My sorority sisters are sitting with their boyfriends and some of the Sigma guys and this is all starting to make more sense. My heart melts a little. The world doesn’t deserve Conor Edwards. “Get lost, Captain,” Conor drawls without turning around. “I’m wooing my woman.” I swallow a laugh. He winks at me and squeezes my hand in reassurance. Then, to my complete dismay, he drops to his knees. Oh God, everyone who wasn’t staring at us before is sure as shit staring at us now. My good humor comes precariously close to evaporating. With his heart-stopping face, I’m sure Conor is used to being the center of attention. Me, I’d rather have wood slivers shoved under my fingernails than be on the receiving end of it. But I can feel Abigail’s eyes laser-beaming into me, which means I can’t convey weakness. Can’t show even a trace of the anxiety currently eating away at my stomach like battery acid. “Please, Taylor. I’m begging. Put me out of my misery. I’m ruined without you.” “What in the actual hell is happening?” another male inquires. “Shut up, Matty,” the first guy admonishes. “I’m dying to see where this goes.” Conor continues to ignore his buddies. His gray eyes never leave my face. “Go out with me. One date.” “Um, I don’t think so,” I reply. A shocked gasp sounds from the vicinity of the Kappa table. “C’mon, T,” he pleads. “Just give me a shot to prove myself.” I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. Hysterical tears well in my eyes. When I hesitate for a long time, it’s not because I’m trying to create drama and tension. I’m worried if I open my mouth, I’ll either burst into laughter or sob from embarrassment. “Fine,” I finally relent, shrugging. To appear even more aloof, I sort of gaze off toward the stage, as if I’m bored with this entire exchange. “One date. I guess.” His entire face lights up. “Thank you. I promise you won’t regret it.” I already do. We don’t stay at the alumni banquet much longer after Conor’s big performance. Considering I hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, I’m more than grateful to leave. Last year Sasha and I got tipsy and had a blast, but she couldn’t attend this time because she had a last-minute rehearsal for her spring showcase. Which means I’d just spent the past several hours smiling and mingling and pretending to be BFFs with Kappas who either hate me or are just indifferent. Not to mention this stupid cardigan I’m wearing; I’d thrown it on earlier after growing weary of all the ogling being directed at my cleavage, and I’ve been sweating like crazy. Conor offers to give me a lift back to my apartment since we both live in Hastings, but turns out he’s some kind of sneaky mind-wizard because somehow we end up at his place instead. I don’t know what compels me to agree to dinner and a movie. I decide to blame the two glasses of champagne I drank at the banquet, even though I feel completely sober. “Fair warning,” he says, as we stand outside a townhouse on a quiet tree-lined street, “my roommates can be a bit excitable.” “Like trying to hump my leg excitable, or easily startled and afraid of loud noises? “A bit of both. Just smack ’em on the nose if they get out of hand.” I nod and square my shoulders. “Got it.” If I can handle a classroom full of two dozen six-year-olds raging on a sugar high, I’m well up to the task of taming four hockey players. Although it’d probably be easier if I had pudding cups. “Con, that you?” someone calls when we enter. “What do you want in your grain bowl?” Conor takes my coat to hang on one of the hooks by the door. “Everyone put your dicks away,” he announces. “We’ve got a guest.” “Grain bowl?” I ask, confused. “Team nutrition rules. We’re all eating like mice. No wasted calories.” He sighs. I know the feeling. He leads me around the corner into the living room, where three men of imposing figures are spread out on the couches, two playing Xbox. They’re still in their suits from the banquet, albeit in various stages of disarray, with ties undone and shirts untucked. Together they look like a GQ cologne ad that ostensibly attempts to portray the aftermath of a fashionable boys’ night out in Vegas or something. All that’s missing is disembodied female legs in heels draped over their shoulders, and maybe a pair of lacy red underwear elegantly slung over the armrest. “Guys, this is Taylor. Taylor, these are the guys.” Conor strips out of his suit jacket and tosses it on the back of a chair. For a moment I’m transfixed, watching the way his muscles push against the crisp white fabric of his shirt. His chest straining against the buttons. He may have just ruined me for suits. In unison the guys reply, “Hi, Taylor,” like we’re all in on a joke. “Hi, guys.” I wave, now feeling awkward. All the more so because it’s hot in this room and I really, really want to take off my sweater. But the dress I’m wearing must have shrunk in the wash yesterday, because my tits have been attempting to jailbreak out of it all afternoon. It’s discouraging to walk around a room full of former White House officials, Nobel laureates, and Fortune 500 CEOs, and find that they still haven’t perfected looking a woman in the eyes since their fraternity days. Men are a failed species. “So you’re the one.” Hunched forward with a game controller in his hand, one of the roommates raises an eyebrow at me. He’s handsome, with the kind of dimples that leave bodies in their wake. I recognize him from the banquet as the dude standing with Conor’s team captain. He’d beat Conor home, but that’s my fault—I needed to hit the ladies’ and the lines had been atrocious. “What one?” I ask, playing dumb. “The one who sent Con to his knees and turned him into a slobbering, love-professing fool?” Mr. Dimples eyes me expectantly, waiting for me to fill in the gaps. “Oh shit, that was you?” another guy demands. “Can’t believe we skipped out before the big show.” He pins an accusing look on the guy beside him. “Told you we should’ve stayed for one more drink.” “No interrogating my guests, Matt,” Conor grumbles. “Same rule applies to all of you.” “Are you our new mommy?” The third guy cracks open a beer, smiling with stupid puppy-dog eyes, and I can’t help but laugh in return. “Alright, that’s enough.” Conor kicks Matt off the smaller of the two couches and gestures for me to take a seat. “This is why you dumbasses don’t get visitors.” Their house is huge compared to my little apartment. A big living room with old leather sofas and a couple of reclining chairs. A massive flat screen TV with at least four different game consoles hooked up to it. When Conor said he lived with four roommates, I expected to walk into a nightmarish cave of man smells, pizza boxes, and dirty laundry, but the place is actually pretty tidy and doesn’t smell at all like feet and boy farts. “Yo, visitor?” A fourth face appears in the doorway that separates the living room from the kitchen. “What do you want from Freshy Bowl?” he demands, a cell phone pressed to his ear. “Grilled chicken salad, please,” I call back without delay. I’m very familiar with the menu of one of Hastings’ only healthy eating choices. “On me,” Conor murmurs when I reach for my purse so I can chip in. I glance over. “Thanks. I’ll get the next one.” The next one? As if this rare occurrence of me having dinner at Conor Edwards’ house will ever fucking repeat itself? There’s a better chance of Halley’s comet showing up a few decades ahead of schedule. And I’m not the only one marveling over this unforeseen turn of events. When Sasha texts a few minutes later and I inform her where I am, she accuses me of pranking her. While Conor and his roommates debate over which movie to stream, I surreptitiously text my best friend back. ME: Not a prank, I swear. HER: You’re actually at his HOUSE???? ME: Swear on my signed poster of Ariana Grande. That’s the only pop star Sasha allows me to fangirl over. Usually it’s “if they can’t sing live without lip-syncing or using their auto tuner, then they’re not a real musician, blah blah blah.” HER: 50% of me still thinks you’re lying to me. Is it just the two of you? ME: Six of us. Me + Con + 4 roommates. HER: Con???? WE’RE ON NICKNAME BASIS NOW? ME: No, we’re on shortening his name for texting convenience basis. I’m about to punctuate that with an eyeroll emoji when the phone is unceremoniously snatched from my hand. “Hey, give it back,” I protest, but Conor just flashes an evil grin and proceeds to read my entire text convo with Sasha out loud to his roommates. “You have a signed poster of Ariana Grande?” Alec demands. At least I think it’s Alec. I’m still trying to learn all their names. “Do you kiss it good night before bedtime?” inquires Matt, which evokes a howl of laughter from the others. I glare at Conor. “Traitor.” He winks. “Hey, like my junior high teacher Ms. Dillard always warned, if she catches you writing notes in Geography, she’ll read ’em out loud to the whole class.” “Ms. Dillard sounds like a sadist. And so are you.” I roll my eyes dramatically. “What if I’d been texting about my horrible period cramps?” Next to Alec, Gavin blanches. “Give ’er the phone back, Con. Nothing good could come of this.” Conor’s gray eyes dip back to the screen. “But T’s friend doesn’t believe we’re all hanging out. Hold on, let’s show receipts. Smile, boys.” Then he has the gall to snap a picture. My jaw drops when all four roommates flex their biceps for the camera. “There,” Conor says with a satisfied nod. “Sent.” I forcibly wrest the phone from his stupid hand. Sure enough, he’d sent Sasha that pic. And her response is immediate. HER: OMFG. I want to lick Matt Anderson’s dimples. HER: And then suck his dick. I burst out laughing, which prompts Conor to try to steal my phone again. This time I win the battle, and firmly shove the iPhone into my purse before anyone can get their grubby hands on it. “See this?” I tell the room, holding up the leather purse. “This is a sacred place. Any man who dares snoop through a woman’s purse will be murdered in his sleep by the Bag Butcher.” Conor snickers. “Damn, babe. Your serial killer is showing.” I just shoot him a saccharine smile. Then I finally shrug out of my cardigan, because all these big male bodies are generating a crazy amount of heat. The moment the material slides off my shoulders, I feel more than one set of eyes travel to my chest. A flush rises in my cheeks, but I ignore it and purse my lips. “Everything okay there?” I ask Gavin, whose brown eyes are completely glazed over. “Um, yeah, all good. I’m…you’re…ah…I like your dress.” Matt snickers from his new perch on one of the recliners. “Pick your tongue off the floor, loverboy.” That snaps Gavin out of his stupor. And despite their initial ogling, the rest of the guys go back to acting normally, which I appreciate. I wouldn’t quite call them perfect gentlemen, but they’re not sleazebags, either. Once the food arrives, the guys stream DeepStar Six. I eat my grilled chicken salad and watch as the underwater naval station is under attack by a giant crab monster, all the while wondering how I’ve been hypnotized into hanging out with Conor Edwards. Not that I mind, exactly. He’s fun. Sweet, even. But I still haven’t figured out his angle. When it comes to men and unprovoked friendship, I tend to lean toward skeptical. In the car I’d quizzed him about why he’d made that big show in front of Abigail and her cronies, and he’d merely shrugged and said, “Because it’s fun to mess with the Greeks.” I do believe he had fun messing with them, but I also know there’s more to the story. I just can’t ask him in front of his roommates. Which makes me wonder if he knows that, and is therefore using them as a shield so he doesn’t have to answer any questions. “Like how does that even make sense?” Joe, who told me to call him Foster, hits a bong while reclined on the La-Z-Boy. “The pressure variance between such extreme depths would require several hours of decompression before ascent.” “Dude, there’s a giant crab monster trying to eat their mini sub,” Matt says. “You’re thinking too much.” “Nah, man. This is preposterous. If they expect me to take their premise seriously, they have to stick to certain basic laws of physics. I mean, come on. Where’s the dedication to storytelling?” Conor’s shaking his head beside me on the love seat, visibly holding in a laugh. He is so ridiculously attractive it’s hard to concentrate on anything other than the chiseled cut of his jaw, the perfect symmetry of his movie-star face. Every time he glances over at me, my heart flips around like a happy dolphin, and I have to force myself to play it cool. “I think you’re taking this a bit hard,” he tells Foster. “All I’m asking for is a little pride in one’s work, okay? How do you make a movie about an underwater sea station and just decide that the rules don’t apply? You going to make a space movie where there’s no vacuum and everyone can breathe outside without a space suit? No, because that’s fucking dumb.” “Take another bong hit,” Gavin advises from the couch, then shoves a forkful of food in his mouth. “You’re cranky when you’re sober.” “Yeah, well, I’m gonna.” Foster takes a long hit, releases a plume of smoke, then goes back to sulking as he angrily eats his quinoa. He’s a weird one. Hot, though. And obviously highly intelligent—before the movie started I was informed that Foster is majoring in Molecular Biophysics. Which makes him a science geek/hockey player/stoner, the strangest of combinations. “Aren’t you guys drug-tested?” I ask Conor. “Yeah, but as long as we keep the intake to a minimum and not too often, it doesn’t pop up on the piss test,” he says. “Trust me,” mumbles Alec, who’s draped over the armrest and not entirely conscious. He’d fallen asleep on the couch beside Gavin pretty much as soon as the movie started. “You don’t want to know Foster without weed.” “Bite my ass,” Foster barks back. “Could you jackasses try not embarrassing yourselves in front of the company?” Conor chides. “Sorry, they’re not housebroken.” I grin. “I like ’em.” “See that, Con,” retorts Matt. “She likes us.” “Yeah, so fuck you,” Gavin says cheerfully. I wish living in the Kappa house had been more like this. I had hoped for sisterhood and got season one of Scream Queens with my very own Chanel Number One instead. Not that all the girls became as unbearable as Abigail, but it was all too much. The noise, the constant commotion. Every detail of life being a group activity. I’m an only child, and for a while I entertained the idea that having siblings would fulfill some hole in my life I hadn’t known was there. Well, I learned real quick that some people are built to share a bathroom and some would sooner poop in the woods than spend one more morning waiting for ten other chicks to finish brushing their hair. When the movie ends, the guys are gunning for a scary one next, but Conor says he doesn’t feel like another film and tugs me off the sofa. “C’mon,” he drawls, and my heart does a couple more backflips. “Let’s go upstairs.” 7 Taylor Conor and I retreat to his room to whistles and suggestive grunts from the guys. They’re only a step or two on the evolutionary scale from feral chickens, but they’re certainly not boring. I know they think we’re going upstairs to have sex, but I have a different goal in mind. “Now that I’ve got you alone…” I say after Conor closes the door behind us. He has the master bedroom, which is big enough for a king bed with a dark wooden frame, a loveseat across the room and an entertainment center with another massive TV. He’s also got an en suite bathroom and a big window that takes up half the wall and overlooks a small backyard where most of the winter snow has finally melted. “Yeah, babe, I’m game.” Conor rips his tie from his shirt collar and flings it across the room. I roll my eyes. “Not that.” “Tease.” I take a seat on his bed against the headboard and put one of his pillows between us like he did the last time we found ourselves alone in a room together. The blue plaid bed set says his mom picked out something masculine for him at Neiman Marcus. It’s very soft, and smells like him—sandalwood, with the salty hint of the ocean. “I want to know—what was that display at the banquet really about?” “I already told you.” “Yeah, and I think there’s more to the story. So, spill.” “Wouldn’t you rather make out?” He climbs onto the mattress beside me, and suddenly the bed feels very, very tiny. Is this actually a king-size? Because he’s right there, and one measly pillow isn’t going to protect me from the heat of his athletic body and the scent of his after-shave. I force myself not to be affected by the sexy grin he flashes me. “Conor,” I say with the tone I use with my first graders when one of them won’t share the crayons. His flirtatious smile evaporates. “If I said you didn’t want to know, would you just trust me and let it go?” “No.” I meet his gaze head-on. “Tell me why you did what you did at the alumni banquet.” On a deep sigh he rubs his hands over his face and combs his hair out of his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you.” The confession comes out in a mumble. “I’m a big girl. If you respect me, tell me the truth.” “Damn, T. Right in the fucking feels.” He looks at me with such pained eyes, I have to brace for the worst. That maybe Abigail put him up to the whole thing, that they planned it together. That first dare, the love-bombing at Woolsey Hall…it was all a big scheme to make me catch feelings for him. Only now he’s having regrets? It’s a mortifying scenario, but it also wouldn’t be the worst thing Abigail’s ever done. “Fine. But keep in mind, these are their words, not mine.” He recounts overhearing Abigail and Jules talking with their boyfriends earlier about my “hook-up” with Conor. I flinch when he explains in an unhappy tone that their conversation included discussion of my potential as a porn actress, among other digs. Lovely. He’s right, I could have lived without the gory details. Before he’s even stopped speaking, I’m feeling nauseated. My stomach twists at the thought of Conor hearing them say all that shit about me. “I’m still twenty pounds from my goal porn star weight,” I joke at my own expense. Most of the time, if you make fun of yourself first, it takes all the wind out of the fat-shaming sails. Showing people you’re self-aware softens their aversion to having a chubby friend. Because it’s important to everyone that we know our place. “Don’t do that.” Conor sits up to level me with narrowed eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with the way you look.” “It’s okay. You don’t need to make me feel better. I have no delusions about how people see me.” The jabs land every time, but by now the nerve endings are mostly dead. At least, that’s what I tell myself. “I was a chubby kid. I was a chubby teenager.” I shrug. “I’ve struggled with weight my whole life. This is what I am, and I’ve accepted that.” “No, you don’t get it, Taylor.” Frustration crosses his expression. “Your body isn’t something you have to make excuses for. I know I’ve said this before, and I guess I’ll keep saying it until you believe me, but you’re smoking hot. I’d do you right now, in a heartbeat, six different ways if you’d let me.” “Shut up your whole face.” I laugh. He doesn’t laugh with me. Rather, he gets off the bed and turns his back to me. Oh crap. Is he mad that I told him to shut up? I thought we were kidding around. That’s our thing, right? Wait. Do we know each other well enough to have a thing? Fuck. “Con—” Before I can fix whatever I’ve broken, Conor starts unbuttoning his shirt, then peels it off his shoulders. Stunned, I sit in admiration of his bare back. Tan skin over long, lean muscles. God, I want to press my mouth against that spot between his shoulder blades and explore it with my tongue. The notion sends a shiver running through me. I bite my lip just to keep from making a totally unbecoming noise. He throws the shirt across the room, then undoes his trousers. They hit the hardwood, and now he’s left in nothing but black socks and boxer-briefs that cling to the tightest butt I’ve ever seen. “What are you doing?” My voice comes out breathier than I intend. “Take your clothes off.” He turns around and stalks back to the bed with fierce determination. “Excuse me?” I scurry on my knees to the far edge of the mattress. “Get naked,” Conor orders. “I certainly will not.” “Listen, Taylor. We’re going to settle this and then there’ll be no more arguments.” “Settle what, exactly?” “I’m going fuck your brains out and prove my dick is totally into you.” Excuse me? Even as I gape at him, my gaze unwittingly drops to his crotch. I can’t tell if the bulge beneath that stretchy black fabric is a hard-on or just his normal old package. Either way, Conor’s declaration is so preposterous it summons a loud, hysterical bark of laughter from deep in my gut. Then another. And another. Soon I can’t breathe, doubled over in a painful fit. It just won’t stop. Every time I look at his face, a new wave of laughter overtakes me, and tears spill down my cheeks. He’s too fucking much. “Taylor.” Conor rakes both hands through his hair. “Taylor, stop laughing at me.” “I can’t!” “You’re doing irreparable harm to my ego here.” Gasping, I take deep breaths. Eventually, the laughter subsides to giggles. “Thank you,” I manage to croak out. “I needed that.” “You know what?” he growls, a cranky scowl on his face. “I take it all back. You’re dick kryptonite.” “Aww. Come here.” I climb back on the bed and pet the spot beside me. Instead of being a normal person, he takes it upon himself to lie down and drop his head and sho