“That would be great,” Kelli gushes as she scoots her chair closer. “Alex and I are totally lost.”
“You don’t mind?” he asks me, his voice quiet.
I stare into his blue eyes, the earnest expression on his face. Is he trying to make up for his earlier slip at the party? Helping me with this shitty class would be awesome, but will I be able to concentrate with him sitting this close? What if he wants to keep helping us? I mean, why would he want to torture himself with statistics. Maybe he’s some weirdo who actually likes math.
“I don’t mind,” I finally say, my voice soft. “We really need the help.” Heavy emphasis on the word we.
“I’d be glad to help,” Tristan says. “But you have to come with us to Ladies’ Night afterward.”
“He likes to pick up on all the ladies,” Kelli adds.
“Shut up, Kel,” Tristan mutters. “What do you say, Alexandria?”
I like how he says my full name. I like how he looks at me. I shouldn’t. I should tell him to go fuck himself and leave. But I need help with this stupid class…
“Okay.” I lick my lips, notice the way his eyes track my every move. Pressing my thighs together, I lean forward and focus on the open textbook. “But no promises until you teach me this latest formula. I seriously don’t get it.”
“I’ll teach you,” he says confidently. “I’m good at math, particularly stats.”
He is one of those math weirdoes. Ugh. “I’m sure you could teach me a lot of things,” I say sarcastically, surely stealing his line. A few guys have said that to me a time or two before.
“I could.” His lips curve in the barest smile and my heart flutters. “Watch me.”
Somehow, I was able to concentrate as Tristan went over the chapter Kelli and I were stuck on. After he broke down a few examples, showing us step by step how to get to the answer, I think I actually got it. When I did one on my own—all the while Kelli was too busy texting someone to bother actually trying to learn—he actually touched me when I got it right.
“Good job,” he’d said as he rested his hand over mine for the briefest, most heart pounding moment of my life. That quick touch had nearly given me a heart attack.
Stupid, I know.
The minute we finished our homework, I escaped, promising Kelli and Tristan I would meet them at The Advantage, a bar not too far from campus. I’d never been there. Since arriving in Santa Augustina, I’d kept my head down and my mind focused. School, studying, home. Despite the financial downfall that destroyed my family, I had a trust that was earmarked for my education that no one could touch, thanks to my grandma.
But the money was dwindling. Upper education is expensive and for the first two years, I went to a private college. I switched to a state university, found a house that came with three other roommates and secretly sold off my designer purses on luxury consignment websites. I make a killing doing that. I have a lot of Louis Vuitton and Chanel bags in storage. Designer clothes and shoes too, but I’m holding on to some of that.
Why, I don’t know. Not like I have anywhere to wear that stuff. It’s hard enough, trying to figure out what to wear to the bar. I didn’t want Tristan to think I’m trying to impress him. I didn’t want him to think I’m a total slob either.
So I chose my tightest jeans and a fitted black sweater, along with knee high black leather boots I bought at Saks on a shopping excursion with my mother.
Longing filled me as I twirled this way and that in front of the full-length mirror I picked up at Wal Mart for cheap. I miss her. I miss Dad too. Despite how awful they were to me in the end. When everything first went down, I desperately wished for a sibling. So I could have someone to share the burden with me.
Now though, I’m over it. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone.
I walk to the bar since it’s not that far from my house and of course, the first person I see is Tristan, standing outside on the front steps, his hand cupped around his mouth as he lights a cigarette.
“You smoke?” I say in greeting as I clomp up the steps. I’m sort of pissed.
And disappointed. I mean really? Smoking? How…gross.
Like I should care.
He snuffs out his lighter and shoves it in his pocket, the cigarette dangling from his sexy mouth. I should not find the smoking thing hot. Absolutely not. But he looks like a total bad boy standing outside with the wind blowing through his hair, wearing a gray thermal long sleeved shirt and jeans. No jacket. The fabric molds to his shoulders and chest almost lovingly and my gaze lingers on his torso for a beat too long.
“You walk over here by yourself?” He sounds just as pissed as I feel. “I don’t like that.”
My spine stiffens at his tone. “I’m literally three blocks away.” I point in the direction I came from before turning to face him once more. He’s sucking on that cigarette as if his life depended on it, blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth before he inhales yet again.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says once he pulls the cancer stick out of his mouth. “Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be out walking alone.”
“I’m not a defenseless female,” I tell him, resting my hands on my hips. He’s infuriatingly sexy. His worry for my safety should not make me feel protected. More like I should be angry because he believes I’m helpless.
“Never said you were.” He inhales so strongly I swear I hear the crinkle of the paper burning on his cigarette. Yikes.
“You okay?” I peer at him, noting his agitation.
“I only smoke when I’m nervous.” He flashes me a quick smile as he pulls the cigarette from his mouth, pinches off the burning end with his fingers and then tosses it into a nearby trash container. “Ready to go inside?”
Without bothering to protest, I enter the bar as he holds the door open for me, dying to ask him why he’s nervous. He steps directly behind me, his hand going to my lower back as he guides me through the crowded bar. His fingers seem to burn through the fabric of my thin sweater and I wish I could shake him off but that would be rude. Instead, I turn to face him, his hand streaking over my side and across my middle with the action, making me shiver.
“W-where’s Kelli?” I ask, my voice shaky.
He leans in close, his lips parted. I see the flash of a white, square mint in his mouth and I wonder when he popped it. “What did you say? I can’t hear you.” His lips are right at my ear, so close I can feel his warm breath.
Someone walks by us, jostling me right into Tristan and we collide, my hand coming up to rest against his chest. His heart seems to throb beneath my palm, steady and fast and I look up at him, no doubt offering him a glimpse of the surprise and wonder that I know is filling my gaze. “I asked where Kelli is,” I yell at him.
He smiles. God, he’s so warm. And attractive. Scarily attractive. He smells faintly of soap, the outdoors and a whiff of cigarette smoke. It’s an intoxicating combination, as surprising as that is. His hand somehow returns to my lower back, fingers splayed, palm pressed firmly. I try to step away but there’s nowhere else for me to go unless I want to run directly into his chest.
This is clearly a no-win—or win-win—situation.