A teenage girl with my eyes and a familiar glare, strolls into my life and she’s calling me Dad.
Vanessa was my high school girlfriend and the smartest person I knew. She had a plan, a future, and she swore nothing would get in the way. Until she became pregnant. I thought we agreed on our plan. I sent her the money. Then she disappeared.
Her parents told me she was in South America for a year. They told me she needed space. I never heard from her again.
Seventeen years later and she’s back. I’m staring into those green eyes that used to tempt and taunt me. But it’s not just about us anymore. We have a daughter.
Wanting to get to know her, I convince them to move in with me for one month. I’m so angry with Vanessa and she seems to be equally upset. Every insult from her smart mouth invites me to engage. The brutal chemistry between us ignites old embers. I wish I could hate her. Instead, I want her.
But too much time has passed, and I fear some hurts run too deep to heal.
At the end of thirty days, I’ll have to let them go.
Unless I figure out a way to keep them.
AP Physics 1
“Come on, people, we went over this yesterday.” Mr. Lewis’s voice ricochets off the wall in the back corner of the classroom, jerking me awake.
I’d finally found a comfortable enough position, forehead in my hand, face pointed toward the open notebook on my desk. I managed to keep my pencil upright in my free hand so that I would appear to be deep in concentration rather than drifting in and out of sleep.
Offended by the blunt awakening, I scowl toward the front of the class at our teacher as he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Lanky and pale, Mr. Lewis is the walking definition of virginity over forty. With his mouth in a tight line and eyes magnified through glasses, his gaze darts through a sea of slouching students.
“No one, huh? Not even a guess?” He must feel me glaring because his bug eyes land on me.
“Shit,” I mutter to myself.
“Mr. North.” He manages to look down his nose at me from twenty feet away. He may make decent money teaching at Burton Prep, but he’ll never come close to the net worth of every student in his class—save for the scholarship kids. “What is the kinetic energy of the question on the board?”
Dawson, my hockey team’s left winger, chuckles beside me. Asshole.
“Eighty-two.” The answer’s wrong, but I say it with enough confidence that Mr. Lewis checks his notes before sighing in defeat. My dad always told me that if I’m ever unsure—fake it.
“Eighty-two,” the teacher mumbles with a you’ve got to be fucking kidding me tone. “That’s incor—”
“Six point five seven meters per second.” The confident female voice comes from the front row. Another nerd speaking nerdlish.
“Yes, Ms. Osbourne, well done. It’s nice to see at least one person is paying attention in class today.”
Of course, he’s looking right at me.
I roll my eyes and slump back into my chair with a shrug.
The great thing about paying private school tuition is it’s nearly impossible to get kicked out for something as petty as grades. Teacher salaries need to get paid by someone. Every ass in a chair represents forty grand a year in tuition. Can’t kill the cash cow.
“Thank you, Mr. Lewis,” the ass-kisser in the front row replies.
“Nerd,” I cough loudly into my fist. The class chuckles. Well, not the whole class. Little Miss Osbourne whirls around in her seat, sending an arc of long, shining, nearly black hair into the personal space of the person sitting behind her. Her eyes are light, I think. It’s hard to tell through the fuck you glare aimed my way.
“All right, let’s move on…” Mr. Lewis continues, but I ignore him in favor of the stare-down with little miss know-it-all.
I know this chick. Not personally, but she has a reputation. Vanessa Osbourne, only child to mayor Nicolas Osbourne. The man wins campaigns by touting family values and keeps his only daughter on a tight leash. She doesn’t go to parties or games, and she gets teased for milling about campus with her nose in a book. She’s a junior taking senior-level physics. Like I said… nerd.
As if reading my thoughts, she slings her arm around the back of her chair to face me more fully. “I’d rather be a nerd than deadbeat jock!”
The room erupts with a peal of laughter that cuts off abruptly when I scan the room to note who the fuck is laughing at me. No one wants on my shit list.
“That’s enough!” Mr. Lewis’s voice rises above the snickers and tension.
“Deadbeat?” I laugh through the discomfort of being called out publicly. There are only two people who have the right to talk to me like that—my dad and my coach. Not little Suzy Smartass, who shouldn’t even be in this class. I’m not a deadbeat. I’m a hockey player. And yeah, education comes second, but I get good enough grades. I may pay for help here and there, but she doesn’t know that. “Be nice, honey. You may need me to hire you someday, and I have a really long memory.”
Her glare gets impossibly tighter. “I’d rather lick sidewalks than degrade myself by working for you.”
I lean forward and smirk. “I’ll give you something to lick—”
She gasps, horrified.
“That’s it. Mr. North and Ms. Osbourne, to the office now!”
Fine by me. There isn’t a punishment in existence that would make me regret that little exchange. Shit, my heart’s even pumping a little harder—something I never feel off the ice.
I throw my crap into my backpack while she argues with the teacher. I’m out of my chair when she loses the battle and gathers her things. We hit the doorway at the same time, and her upper arm brushes mine. I don’t move. She jumps back a foot.
“Please.” I prop the door open and motion with a swing of my arm for her to go ahead. “Dorks first,” I whisper.
She ducks under the thick strap of a leather satchel and then stomps her high-top Docs as she marches through the door. “Thanks a lot, shit-for-brains,” she says soft enough for only me to hear.
My jaw drops open, and I stand dumbfounded for a second before I follow her out the door. This chick has balls to talk to me like that.
Call me intrigued.
I follow behind her, enjoying the view of her knee-length plaid uniform skirt, which is filled out quite nicely in the back. Her blazer is tapered at the waist, giving me an idea of the curves that lie beneath. Her long hair is straight, with not a hint of a curl or wave, and the ends sway at her lower back.
She can’t be taller than five foot five, and at my height of six foot two, my long legs help me catch up to her quickly.
I keep up with her pace easily, even though I can tell she’s trying to get ahead of me. She’d have to run to do that, but I can tell she has too much pride to run from me. Wouldn’t want me to think she’s scared. “Clearly, you don’t know who I am.”
She makes a sound like you would when your dog takes a piss on the floor—annoyed, disappointed, and offended. “Of course, you would think that,” she says dryly.
“Can I give you some advice?”
Her feet slam to a halt, and she turns to face me head-on. Her arms cross at her chest, and her chin is stiff as it angles toward me. Green. Her eyes are green.
“You’re already an outcast here.”
She tries to mask the flash of hurt my words cause, but she’s not fast enough to stop her wince.
“Don’t make things harder on yourself. Lay low, keep your opinions to yourself, and stay out of my way.”
She blinks, and for a second, I worry she might cry. That is until the corners of her full, pink lips jump and make a slow trip upward. She catches her smile, rolls her lips between her teeth, and shakes her head. “Wow.”
She grasps her hands together in a praying position. “Thanks so much for the helpful advice. How did I get this far in life without you?”
I think she’s being sarcastic, but—
She steps boldly into my face. “Let’s cut the shit. You know exactly who I am, and you see me as an easy target. But newsflash, fuckface—”
“Whoa, easy with the name call—”
“You.” She pokes me in the chest. “Stay out of my way.” She seems to grow taller instantly, but that’s impossible.
I check to make sure she’s not standing on her toes. Nope. Weird.
“Yes, I’m smart. I have a four-point-five GPA and plans. College plans. Career plans. And no one, not even a big…”
Okay, she must be on her toes now. I check. No. What the fuck?
Am I shrinking?
“Self-obsessed jock is going to stand in my way.”
We’re practically nose to nose now. I clear my throat, straighten my shoulders, and regain my height advantage.
“You treat me like shit because I’m one of the only girls at this school you don’t want to stick your dick into.”
I gasp in offense.
“And if being sent to the office because I defended myself against your abuse—”
“—ruins my chances of getting accepted to Stanford,” she sucks air through her teeth. Her eyes are tiny shards of emerald fire. “Then I will hunt you down, destroy everything you’ve ever loved, and nothing will stop me from ruining your life. Are we clear?”
“Goddamn…” I take in her rigid shoulders, stiff jaw, and flushed cheeks. In that moment, I believe she’s capable of carrying out her threat. “What climbed up your ass?”
“You.” She jabs me hard with a blunt, white fingernail to the chest. “You did.”
She whirls around and leaves me there, rubbing my chest, which is still tingling from her touch.
Four months later
The insulated to-go cup is set down in front of me at the same time I feel my hair get swept away from my neck. A mix of instinct and exhaustion has my head falling to the side to expose my throat, where warm, wet lips land and tease.
“Mmm, hey, sexy,” Hayes grumbles against my skin, sending a shiver through me. “You smell so good.” He runs his nose down my neck to the collar of my uniform shirt. He pushes the starched fabric aside and nips at my shoulder.
Who knew the utterly obnoxious prick from physics would end up being the love of my life? Okay, well, we haven’t been dating for long, and we haven’t exchanged those three little words, but nothing in my life has ever felt so right. So intense.
The day we were sent to the headmaster’s office, Hayes took responsibility for everything. He said he purposefully goaded me, and when Headmaster Jardin asked if I took any responsibility, Hayes asked Jardin how a woman should respond when faced with misogyny. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor that day. Hayes accepted the weeklong detention with a smile, and I was off the hook.
After we left the headmaster’s office, I asked him why he did it. Why not let me take the fall—or at least part of it.
“You have big plans,” he said. “I don’t.”
My feminist heart hates to admit it, but Hayes North put a fissure in the solid wall I’d erected to keep myself focused on school and avoid social trappings. One week later, after he wore me down with his persistence, we went on our first date.
We’ve been inseparable ever since.
Turns out Hayes North isn’t a dumb jock. He’s smart when he pays attention, and he’s driven. An incredibly talented athlete and leader as his team’s captain. He’s funny in an unintentional way. Surprisingly loyal. And he seems to really like me.
He’s an extrovert. I’m an introvert. But somehow, it works out.
Our relationship wasn’t a surprise to just us but to the entire school. We were voted “Most Unlikely Couple” in the yearbook, right next to me and Roland Rochester, who were voted most likely to become President.
On paper, we make no sense, but together… we’re fire.
“Stop,” I groan softly even as I lean my head back and close my eyes. “I still have three more European monarchs to memorize before I can quit.”
The heat of his mouth disappears. “Fine.” He drops into the seat next to me at the table. “I’ll wait. But not patiently.” His grin is lazy and so tempting. He is the most beautiful man I have ever seen, in competition only with his identical twin brother, who is equally handsome but lacks the edge and danger that Hayes wears like a second skin.
I frown, wishing I could blow off studying to go back to Hayes’ house and spend the rest of the night making out. We’ve come so close to having sex, but I told him I’d only do that with someone I love, and because neither one of us has said it, well… no sex.
But I think I do love him. I love his heart, something he lets only me see. I love his drive and determination because I share the same. But mostly, I love the way he looks at me when I catch him unaware. Like looking at me repairs something in his soul. Brings healing to something broken.
“Thanks for the tea?” I guess and grab the cup with both hands to keep them from looping around his neck and climbing into his lap.
“Green tea with honey.” He leans in and slides a hand up my thigh. “I know it’s late in the day, which would usually mean chamomile lavender, but you’re studying, so I made an executive decision and got the caffeine.” His smile is filled with a boyish charm that melts my heart.
“Good choice.” I place a kiss on his soft lips. “Thank you.”
“I’d say you’re welcome, but you know I bring you tea because I’m a selfish bastard that hates sharing you with books.” He grips my thigh possessively, something I never imagined would make me feel all squishy inside, but sadly, it does. I sink into the warmth of his hazel eyes and shiver.
He frowns. “Are you cold?”
Not. At. All.
He’s already pulling his Burton Prep hockey sweatshirt off over his head. He drapes the arms over my shoulders and ties them at my chest. I nuzzle into the soft, worn cotton, take a deep breath, and then sigh.
“This smells like you.” There’s a roughness in my voice.
A soft growl rumbles in his throat. “Fuck, Ness. We’re in the library. I have practice in ten minutes, and you’re looking at me like I’m a snack.”
I kiss him again, but this time I tug on his lower lip with my teeth.
Another delicious growl.
“Let me study,” I whisper against his mouth.
His whole body deflates like a sail that lost wind. He peers up at me through the longish brown hair lightened by the sun that falls over his forehead. “After practice, study session at my house.”
An embarrassingly girlish giggle bubbles up in my throat. “Is that what we’re calling it?”
His cheeks flash pink, and there is nothing sexier than a man as tough as Hayes North blushing. “Yes.”
“Yo, Hayes,” one of his teammates calls from behind me. “We gotta go.”
He leans in and presses his lips to my ear. “Human anatomy, baby.” He kisses my jaw. “I love you.”
That’s it. That’s how he says it. Those three words.
I love you.
Spoken like the simplest goodbye, and then he’s gone. Walking away.
He dropped the BOMB and then walked away!
I’m out of my chair and running through the library before my mind can think better of it.
Hayes and his friend are nearly to the door. He saunters like the high school god he is; as if all things begin only when he arrives, and he takes his time.
A girl shushes me.
He stops and pivots, his brows pinched in concern as he takes in my sprinting form. If I had more time to think about it, I’d worry about how stupid I look running. There’s a reason why I’m an academic and not an athlete. I do not run. I pump my arms, push my legs, and when I’m close enough, I launch myself into his arms.
He catches me on the fly. Big, strong arms form bands around me. “Whoa, Ness. What’s wrong?” His voice cracks with concern, which just makes me love him more.
I bury my face in his neck, my heart in my throat. “I love you, too.”
His arms grow tighter, and he hums softly as if my confession released a pressure valve in his lungs. “Happy to hear it, baby.” A tight squeeze. A soft moan. “So fucking happy.” He sets me on my feet, keeping a hold around my waist. His eyes dance with… What is that? Joy?
I should be worried. Spontaneous is not something I do. We have a lot to consider, like how Hayes will be leaving in a few months for Harvard, where he’ll meet other women, and I’ll be stuck here for another year. And if all goes to plan, I’ll graduate and move across the country for Stanford. We’ll be on opposite coasts. Things will never work long distance, and yet, I can’t find it in me to care about any of that. Because I love Hayes North, and he loves me.
And for now, that’s enough.