She sat across from me, this beautiful girl who had to be both the cutest and sexiest thing I’d ever seen. A rich tenor rang in her words, this modest kind of confidence that sucked me in, while her cheeks seemed to continually light with a gentle flush when she said anything that embarrassed her in the slightest way. A sublime contradiction, self-assured and shy.
How ironic it was her. But really, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. I always knew what I wanted it the moment I saw it.
Shifting against the hard wood of the chair, I leaned forward and struggled to pay attention to the words she spoke as I stared, mesmerized by that perfect mouth. One elbow was propped on the table, her head tilted to the side as she supported it with her fingertips. Sun-streaked waves of dark blonde hair fell down around one side of her heart-shaped face as she thumbed through the thick textbook resting on the table between us. Concentration edged her brow, her pouty lips pulling into a thin line whenever she became engrossed in something she read.
I’d shared two short emails with her last night, and we arranged to meet at this little café during the time we both had a break in our classes. Of course, at that time, I had no idea who my American Government study partner would turn out to be. The little description she had given I’d scribbled on the note that was now crumpled in my front pocket. Elizabeth Ayers, long, blonde hair. At the bottom, I’d jotted her cell phone number.
Yeah, I’d be holding on to that.
A groan of apparent dread slipped through her lips and the sound almost caused me to release one of my own. “Have you looked through this syllabus?” She glanced up, then back at the small stapled pack of papers laid out between us. “There’s going to be a ton of memorization. I’m pretty sure this is going to be a pretty difficult class,” she said seriously, completely focused on the information she was devouring as her eyes roved over the page. “You have no idea how happy I was to find that sign-up sheet for a study partner. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to get a bad grade in this class.”
She scribbled something in her notebook, licked her lips, rambled mostly to herself.
And I just stared.
Fifteen minutes ago, before I’d walked through the door of the café and seen her, I’d been all wrapped up in this grade, too. I’d been just as worried about who my partner would be, figuring it’d be my luck to get paired with some loser who would take advantage of my time and my hard work. I’d have dealt with it, too, sucked it up and worked my ass off because I had no other choice. There was no way in hell I’d give my dad another reason to ride me because I had a grade slipping below his approval.
But no, I’d walked through the door and it was her, and since then, I’d had a really hard time focusing on anything but the fluid lilt of her voice and the amber warmth of her soft brown eyes.
Shock had frozen me in the doorway when I entered and was met with the face of the same girl I hadn’t been able to shake from my mind since the first day of our American Government class last week. When the class was dismissed, I gathered my things and stood to leave. Looking up to make my way down the aisle of steps, I glimpsed just the side of her face when she cast a furtive glance behind her as she headed out the door. My breath had caught. Since then that face had slipped in and out of my mind, creeping into my thoughts, making recurrent appearances in my dreams.
My reaction to her had been just as strong when I walked through the door today.
Girls didn’t do this me. And she’d managed it twice. Sitting across from her now, I knew I had to have her. Even if it was only once.
Pausing, she looked up at me, her eyes narrowed in what appeared both humor and mild agitation. “Christian, did you hear anything I said?” she asked, her gaze wandering my face for an answer. “Please tell me you’re not going to make me do all this work myself.”
I attempted to shake off the visceral reaction that had my body itching to take what I instinctively knew would be mine. “Of course I heard you. Class is going to be a ton of work. I’m good with that.” I grinned at her. “And no, I’m not going to make you do all the work.” I nudged her foot under the table with mine, flashing the same smile I’d learned years ago was the surest way to get what I wanted. And what I wanted right then was her. “What kind of guy do you think I am?”
Heat rose to her cheeks. I could almost feel her warmth radiating across my face in confused waves, this sweet shyness that seemed to be lacking from every other girl I’d run across since I came to this city. Lacking in every girl I’d come into contact with in the last four years, really. I could feel the attraction that mingled with it, though it was flanked by a strong current of self-preservation.
“I haven’t figured that out yet,” she said as she straightened and pitched her head to the side as she slowly tapped the backside of her pen on her notepad, studying me for intent.
Her steady gaze locked on me, as if she contemplated who or what I was, while mine was unruly, my eyes wandering on their own accord. They traveled the curved line of her jaw, down her neck, to the expanse of perfect skin exposed above the V of her T-shirt. Could anyone blame me that I wanted to bury my face there? I wondered how long it’d be before she let me.
When I brought my attention back up, her expression had shifted and she sat back, a knowing smirk settling on her face, though it seemed to be hiding something deeper in the warmth of her honey eyes. It looked like disappointment.
An unfamiliar feeling curled in my stomach.
I looked away, down at my hands clenched together on the table in front of me.
Everything about her swam with innocence, but her eyes were too sharp to speak of naivety. She knew exactly what I was thinking as my gaze caressed the soft slope of her neck. Most girls would be crawling all over me by now, but Elizabeth looked like maybe she’d just decided she didn’t want anything to do with me.
Swallowing, I tried to reel myself in.
I was f**king this all up, and I had no idea why I cared. But I did. I mean, I didn’t want a relationship or anything, but I wanted...something. The expression on Elizabeth’s face told me she’d already decided what that was.
Yeah. Definitely f**king this up.
She went back to flipping through the pages, meticulous as she mapped out our study plan for the semester. She asked me several questions about my strengths, my schedule, when and where I preferred to have our study sessions. Even though she was so obviously worried about her grade, there was no doubt in my mind she was going to ace this class.
“Where are you from, Elizabeth?” The words were abrupt, and I shifted in my seat, leaning farther across the small table with my elbows digging into the wood, edging her direction. Honey kissed every inch of her—her hair, her eyes, her skin—and I knew she couldn’t be from around here.
“Uh...San Diego,” she said almost absently, absorbed in the words she wrote, before she surprised me by stopping and looking up at me with a wistful smile. “I lived there my whole life. This is the first time I’ve been out of California. I still can’t believe I’m in New York City. It’s crazy.” With a small, contented shake of her head, she bit at her lip and picked up where she’d left off, the fluid sweep of her hand across the paper as she planned.
“This is the first time you’ve been out of California?” Incredulity dropped from my mouth. How was that even possible?
I’d traveled the world with my parents, forced to go on trip after boring trip. When I was young, I would get excited as I sat in a first-class seat on the plane, antsy to get into the air, to see new things—for my father to be there. But soon I realized it was always the same, me stuck alone in a huge hotel room, playing my old Nintendo Game Boy with a nanny I didn’t even know, while my parents went off to do whatever they did. Vague memories of my mother’s promises lingered in my mind, but they were always an excuse, a lame apology that next time she would take me sightseeing or to a theme park or some other cool place I wanted to go. By the time I was fifteen, whenever they went out of town, I refused to go with them.
“I guess that’s not normal for most people,” she said, “but my mom raised me and my sisters by herself, so there wasn’t a lot of money left for vacations.” She lifted her head and I could see her face. A gentle casualness framed her mouth, something that spoke of respect and grace.
My mother would have rather died than admit she lacked the money for something. But here was this girl who couldn’t be more than eighteen, laying it all out, setting her private world on display. And without an agenda.
A tiny laugh slipped through Elizabeth’s lips. “But we always had our beach.”
For a second, sadness clouded her features, an almost indiscernible twitch of her muscles.
“You miss it,” I blurted through a whisper. It wasn’t a question. I felt it as it suddenly saturated the air around us.
Shrugging, she began to doodle on the margin of her notepad. “That obvious, huh?” She grimaced a smile. “It just kinda hit me a couple of days ago. I’ve never been away from home, and here I am, all the way across the country with no friends or family. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I worked my entire life to get here, and I’m beyond thankful for it.” She wet her lips, swallowed, and averted her gaze as she hunched her shoulders. “I just really miss my mom.”
Something that resembled pain struck me deep in the chest. I was so far out of my element, a million miles from what I knew. What I knew were girls who wanted the exact thing I wanted, ones who climbed in my bed without a second thought. Our intentions were never dishonest, and that was where it always ended. I never pretended I would give them any more. And they never pretended they wanted it.
But right then, the only thing I knew was I really wanted to hug this girl.
I didn’t even know her, though it didn’t take a lot for me to realize I wanted to.
“Hey,” I said as I leaned in low to capture her gaze, sliding my palm across the table to rest next to her notebook. My fingers twitched, and I resisted the urge to take her hand that lay an inch away. “You’re not alone.” I raised a brow, lightening my tone in hope of lightening her mood. “Just think of all the time you’re going to have to spend studying with me.”
Her head was still bowed when she laughed and looked up at me from under the hedge of hair that had fallen like a veil to the side of her face, though the sadness that had temporarily hazed her expression was gone. She smiled, and it was as if I could see everything inside of her, as if in that moment I knew her better than I’d ever known anyone, even though I really didn’t know her at all. Elizabeth was strong and driven, incredibly intelligent, but what was most apparent was she was genuinely kind.
She emitted a slight snort and raised her own brow. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, Christian.”
It was all tease and truth, playful words loaded with innuendo that confirmed she’d already made assumptions about me.
“How about you?” she asked. “You’re from here?”
“Nah, I’m from Virginia.”
“Virginia.” She seemed to ponder it as if it were some foreign, exotic place. “So what brought you to New York?”
I laughed low, but it lacked any humor. “I’ve known I would be going to Columbia since I was a little boy.”
There was never any choice. Anything less and all my father’s careful grooming, priming me for the future he’d picked out for me, would have all been in vain.
She frowned, reaching out to wrap her slender fingers around her coffee mug, sipped at it as she waited for me to continue.
I answered her as simply as I could. “My dad went here.”
“Ah.” She nodded as if she understood what I meant, as if she recognized she’d hit a nerve. She looked like she was tempted to ask me more.
I quickly changed the subject because my parents were the last thing I wanted to talk about. “So what about you? Why New York?”
She got that wistful smile again, her eyes soft and her words softer. “It’s kind of embarrassing, but have you ever had a place that just became a fairy tale to you?”
I blinked, not really understanding, but wishing I could. I offered a little shrug. “No. Not really.”
She reddened again, dipping her chin in the way she did every time she seemed to get self-conscious. “New York has always been like that for me, from the time I was a little girl. I always thought it had to be the most amazing place in the world. Then when I decided I wanted to be an attorney, I knew it had to be Columbia.”
“Wait...what? You’re pre-law?”
Could she be any more perfect for me?
And where the hell did that thought come from?
“Me too,” I said.
She sat up, both of us more excited than we probably needed to be. “Really?”
“Yeah...you know, my dad’s headed a firm for years. Real estate. I’m going to take over for him when he retires.”
“Oh God...that’s amazing.” She was grinning, maybe happy for me, maybe happy to find out we had more in common than we’d initially thought.
“What are you going into?” I asked.
She was still smiling, her body vibrating in her seat. “I’m not sure yet. Some sort of family law...I want to work for the state or a non-profit.” Passion poured from her mouth, her heavy exhale thick with emotion. She hugged herself, as if she were imagining herself there, what her future would be like. “Something where I can help kids.” Her face glowed. “An advocate of some kind. I don’t know.”