USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR
The morning air is cool against my face as I walk past unfamiliar storefronts. I’ve got one hand clutching the strap of my bag and the other hand is sitting purposefully over the open zipper. Every few minutes, I allow my fingers to graze the edges of the blue folder poking out. It’s like a part of me is afraid the paperwork inside is going to sprout legs and jump out of my bag. And somehow, that wouldn’t surprise me.
As I pass a small coffee shop, the aroma of sugar and freshly ground coffee beans hits me like a dull ache in my stomach. The smell reminds me of home.
A hollowness snakes its way into the pit of my stomach. I tell myself it’s hunger, even when I know it’s much more complicated than that. I skipped breakfast this morning, dinner last night and I’ve walked three miles from my uncle’s house to the far end of campus. Hunger is easy to fix, in my case, and I would rather pretend to have a problem I can solve than admit I’m in way over my head.
I glance at my watch.
I walk into the coffee shop and take my place in line. The house I’m headed to is only a three-minute walk from here. I should have more than enough time, even if this line seems to be moving at a snail’s pace. The girl behind the counter fumbles to punch orders into the screen in front of her, then ducks behind the machines to make the drinks.
My arms are crossed over my chest now, and I do my best to avoid eye-contact with everyone around me, even as the tiny voice in my head nags at me.
You’ll never make friends this way.
I never used to care about making friends. But then again, I lived in the same town all of my life—up until recently. Moving here was supposed to be my fresh start, but I never considered how hard it would be to outrun the paranoid feeling I get from someone looking at me. The ridiculous fear whispering in my ear.
They’ve seen it…
The line moves a few times. I keep my eyes glued to the display of pastries, making a mental note of which one I will order. The longer I stand here, the more I realize I really am hungry after all. I haven’t had breakfast and last night after class, I rushed to my uncle's guest room to avoid another tense interaction with his wife. I knew from early on in the day she was in a bad mood, her passive-aggressive comments amped up a few degrees higher than usual.
She doesn’t want me in the house, judging by the disapproving glares she throws my way whenever she thinks I’m not looking. I’m not really sure how much she knows about what happened, but the way she looks at me is enough to suggest she's made up her mind about the events, just like everyone else did back home.
The hunger in my belly now mixes with the fresh anger that’s now simmering on low.
I can’t wait until I can give my uncle the definitive news that I’ve found a place to live. It’s a small house I will be sharing with two other students. I’ve already met one of them. Ava's a tall, strawberry blonde with an infectious smile. I liked her the moment I laid eyes on her. She has a way about her that puts me at ease. There was a second girl, who I also liked, but she backed out of moving in earlier this week. Ava sent a message two days ago letting me know her cousin will take the spot. And even though I'm a little nervous that Ava's cousin might turn out to be a fire-breathing dragon, I know I'll have to find a way to live with the girl, regardless.
The line continues to crawl forward until there's just one person in front of me. I hadn’t paid attention to him until now, but he’s a tall guy with light-brown hair. The girl behind the counter seems to perk up at the sight of him. She gives him a smile that easily reaches her eyes.
"Morning," he replies, his voice velvet and gravelly all at once. “I’ll have a medium cappuccino.”
She tilts her head and lifts a hand to her mouth. “Wait. Where do I know you from?”
“I’m not sure,” he says, drumming his fingers on the counter as though in contemplation.
They seriously just stare at each other for at least three seconds, which may not seem like that long of a time, but it is when there's a line of people behind him and all that's required of him is his order and his money.
This is just my luck. These two are going to have a love-connection and cause me to be late. I have seven minutes to grab my drink and eat my pastry on the walk to the house.
I let out a loud breath and tap my right foot to a slow rhythm.
“I think you’re in my economics class,” the barista offers, with a sudden bout of recollection that rings false. She’s pretending she didn’t immediately know who he was.
“That could be it.”
She glances at the register, but I doubt she remembers what it’s for because she’s yet to ring up his order. Instead, she tucks her hair behind her ear and says, “Hey, that final is supposed to be a killer, there’s an opening in my study group if you want to join?”
Right. I bet that study group consists of her and her vagina.
“Sounds interesting. I might take you up on that,” the guy says, a smile evident in his tone. A smile the barista returns as she bites her lip coyly and glances down again.
They're flirting. And with a line of people to witness. Flirting and oblivious to my death stare of impatience, though it should be strong enough to burn a hole into the back of this guy’s neck.
The person behind me shifts their footing. I sense it more than I hear the ruffle of fabric. I do the same, and my hand lands on my hip, where a finger taps to the same rhythm as my foot.
“Maybe you should make that two cappuccinos,” he adds. “Assuming you’ll have one with me later.”
She laughs before remembering by some miracle that she’s working, and finally rings up his order.
"Name?" she asks, pen in one hand and cup in the other.
"Giles. And what’s your name?"
Okay, that’s enough.
I lean in beside the guy just as he finishes his question in order to ask my own. "Can we move this along? Some of us are in a hurry."
The barista blushes and nods. The guy, on the other hand, turns slowly to face me, with an air of surprise that I would interrupt his little flirting session.
He’s got one of those faces that can give off a playful expression without even trying. It’s something in the way his eyebrows are low over his eyes, making him look like he’s squinting slightly. But his eyes are a pretty green color that swallow you up where you stand. And that playfulness can quickly make the air feel too thick to breathe.
A flicker of recognition flashes in his eyes, which meet my own for those few short seconds before darting down the center of my V-neck shirt.
Is he for real?
"Are you looking for something?" I snap, resisting the urge to cover my chest with my hands.
I'm by no means showing any cleavage, not that he’d have a right to gawk if I was.
He goes to say something but then seems to resist. Instead, he scrunches his mouth up in the universal gesture for 'not bad' before turning to make his way to the other end of the counter.
I glower after him so long I forget I'm holding up the line, as well. After I order, I have no choice but to walk over to where that guy stands with his eyes fixed squarely on the barista as she prepares our drinks.
There’s something about his demeanor that gives me the impression, for a split second, that maybe he’s my type.
The truth is, he is my type. And that’s exactly the reason I’m so annoyed by the very sight of him.
He’s exactly the type of guy that ruined my life.
I keep my arms crossed and stare straight ahead, all too aware of him beside me.
His posture is so relaxed, shoulders angled downward, shirt hugging the curve of his chest before swooping down over an abdomen I'm sure is as firm as the rest of him seems.
And…why am I even imagining that?
There's no need for that image to pop into my head. Just like there's no need for me to take note of his hands in his pockets, thumbs pointing toward the crotch of his pants.
"Are you looking for something?"
My eyes snap up at his question, only to be met by smug satisfaction.
"Yeah, you wish," I say, turning away from him to stare straight ahead.
"Yeah…yeah, I do." And though he says it low, it's obvious he wants me to hear. I pretend not to.
Every pore of my skin is hyper-aware of standing there beside him. And like I always do when I feel self-conscious, I pull my shoulders back and pretend the opposite. Because guys like him get off on the effect they have on women. And I’ll be damned if I let him rattle me.
"You go to school here?" he asks after a moment.
We're on the last week of classes and I don't remember ever seeing this guy around campus—which isn't surprising since it's a pretty big campus—but I have the sudden fear he's been sitting behind me in one of my psychology classes all semester without me noticing. Except that's pretty unlikely. Male psych majors tend to stick out like a sore thumb, at least in my classes.
My gaze flicks to him. "Are you seriously trying to make small talk with me?"
"Yeah?" His head tilts and I inadvertently catch how the lighting overhead brings out a coppery hue to his hair that complements his skin.
I snap my gaze forward again, deciding I don't want to look at him again as I respond. "I guess you need to brush up on your nonverbal cues."
"I'd say I'm already pretty good in that department."
Even from the corner of my eye, I catch his smile. I turn to face him straight on.
"So how is it you're missing that I'm not interested in talking to you?"
"You couldn't have decided that already. We haven't even met, yet."
Once again, my hands are at my hips before I decide to put them there. "Yet for every two words you say to me, you look down my shirt."
"What's your name?" he asks with a laugh.
My eyes narrow automatically and I turn to face the barista as she finishes up a drink on the machine. She sets his coffee down and he takes it. Their fingers graze but her smile is cut short when she realizes how quickly he turns away. He thinks he's found a new object for his attention, has he? Well, he's mistaken.
Cup in hand, he faces me, tapping his palm on the surface as though securing the lid, but his eyes are on mine. And I want nothing more than for him to turn his attention somewhere else. I'm not going to lie. The guy is good looking. But damn it if one glance isn’t enough to tell me what he’s about. I’ve got a lifetime of grudges held against guys like him. He’d better leave me alone before I let them all loose on him at once.
“Can I guess?" he asks.
I stare back, straight faced, as his gaze moves over me like he’s trying to sum me up in a single word.
"Is it Camila or Gabriela…something like that, right?"
He takes a sip, waiting for my response.
I don’t get it. It’s obvious I’m annoyed by his attempt at small talk, yet it’s almost like he’s finding entertainment in my aggravation.
I have just a few minutes to reach my destination. All the while, I'm aware of this guy's eyes watching me. I can feel them, perusing around at will. Shamelessly.
"Julia," the barista calls out as she sets my drink down.
I grab the cup with one hand, adjust my purse strap with the other, and ignore the soft chuckle rising from Giles as I make my way past him.
"See you around, Julia," he says, in that sly way he seems to say everything else.
Yeah, I don't think so.
Once outside, I indulge in a long sip of my drink, only to immediately resist the urge to spit it back out. What meets my tongue isn’t the mocha latte I ordered. It’s something that tastes like vanilla and cardboard. Not only that, I realize as I reach the end of the sidewalk, the barista never handed over my pastry, which was supposed to be warming up as she made the drinks.
I toss the ruined-drink into a trash bin at the streetlight, thankful I will never have to see that guy again.