SHE SAT ACROSS FROM ME, this beautiful girl who had to be both the cutest and sexiestthingI’deverseen.Arichtenorranginherwords,thismodestkindof confidencethatsuckedmein,whilehercheeksseemedtocontinuallylightwith agentleflushwhenshesaidanythingthatembarrassedherintheslightestway. Asublimecontradiction,self-assuredandshy. Howironicitwasher. But really, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. I always knew what I wantedthemomentitsawit. Shiftingagainstthehardwoodofthechair,Ileanedforwardandstruggledto 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 downaroundonesideofherheart-shapedfaceasshethumbedthroughthethick textbookrestingonthetablebetweenus. Concentration edged her brow, her pouty lips pulling into a thin line whenevershebecameengrossedinsomethingsheread. “Doyouthinkyou’reupforthis?”sheasked,soundingoverwhelmed. “Definitely.” Noquestion. Iwasupforallkindsofthings.
Lastnight,I’dsharedtwoshortemailswithher,andwe’darrangedtomeet atthislittlecaféduringthetimewebothhadabreakinourclasses. Ofcourse,atthattime,IhadnoideawhomyAmericanGovernmentstudy partnerwouldturnouttobe.Thelittledescriptionshehadgiven,I’dscribbled onthenotethatwasnowcrumpledinmyfrontpocket. ElizabethAyers,long,blondehair. Atthebottom,I’djotteddownhercellphonenumber. Yeah,I’dbeholdingontothat. A groan of apparent dread slipped through her lips, and the sound almost causedmetoreleaseoneofmyown. “Areyousure?Becausehaveyoulookedthroughthissyllabus?” She glanced up, then back at the small stapled pack of papers laid out betweenus.“There’sgoingtobeatonofmemorization.I’mprettysurethisis goingtobeaprettydifficultclass,”shesaidseriously,completelyfocusedonthe informationshewasdevouringashereyesrovedoverthepage. “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.”Shescribbledsomethinginhernotebook,lickedherlips,rambledmostly toherself. AndIjuststared. Fifteenminutesago,beforeI’dwalkedthroughthedoorofthecaféandseen her, I’d been all wrapped up in this grade, too. I’d been just as worried about whomypartnerwouldbe.I’dfiguredit’dbemylucktogetpairedwithsome loser who wouldtake advantageof mytime andmy hardwork. I’dhavedealt withit,too,suckeditupandworkedmyassoffbecauseIhadnootherchoice. TherewasnowayinhellI’dgivemydadanotherreasontoridemebecause Ihadagradeslippingbelowhisapproval. Butno,I’dwalkedthroughthedooranditwasher. Sincethen,I’dhadareallyhardtimefocusingonanythingbutthefluidlilt ofhervoiceandtheamberwarmthofhersoftbrowneyes. ShockhadfrozenmeinthedoorwaywhenIwalkedthroughthedoorofthe caféandwasmetwiththefaceofthesamegirlIhadn’tbeenabletoshakefrom
mymindsincethefirstdayofourAmericanGovernmentclasslastweek. Whentheclasshadbeendismissed,Igatheredmythingsandstoodtoleave. Lookinguptomakemywaydowntheaisleofsteps,I’dglimpsedjusttheside ofherfacewhenshe’dcastafurtiveglancebehindherasshe’dbeenheadingout thedoor. Mybreathhadcaught. Since then that face had slipped in and out of my mind, creeping into my thoughts,makingrecurrentappearancesinmydreams. MyreactiontoherhadbeenjustasstrongwhenIwalkedthroughthedoor today. Girlsdidn’tdothisme.Andshe’dmanagedittwice.Sittingacrossfromher now,IknewIhadtohaveher. Evenifitwasonlyonce. Pausing, she looked up at me, her eyes narrowed in what appeared both humorandmildagitation.“Christian,didyouhearanythingIsaid?”sheasked, hergazewanderingmyfaceforananswer.“Pleasetellmeyou’renotgoingto makemedoallthisworkmyself.” Iattemptedtoshakeoffthevisceralreactionthathadmybodyitchingtotake whatIinstinctivelyknewwouldbemine.“Ofcourse,Iheardyou.Classisgoing tobeatonofwork.I’mgoodwiththat.”Igrinnedather.“Andno,I’mnotgoing tomakeyoudoallthework.” I nudged her foot under the table with mine, flashing the same smile I’d learnedyearsagowasthesurestwaytogetwhatIwanted.AndwhatIwanted rightthenwasher.“WhatkindofguydoyouthinkIam?” Heatrosetohercheeks.Icouldalmostfeelherwarmthradiatingacrossmy faceinconfusedwaves,thissweetshynessthatseemedtobelackingfromevery othergirlI’drunacrosssinceIcametothiscity.LackingineverygirlI’dcome intocontactwithinthelastfouryears,really. I could feel the attraction that mingled with it, though it was flanked by a strongcurrentofself-preservation. “Ihaven’tfiguredthatoutyet,”shesaidasshestraightenedandpitchedher head to the side. She slowly tapped the backside of her pen on her notepad,
studyingmeforintent. Her steady gaze locked on me, as if she contemplated who or what I was, whileminewasunruly,myeyeswanderingontheirownaccord. Theytraveledthecurvedlineofherjaw,downherneck,totheexpanseof perfectskinexposedabovetheVofherT-shirt. CouldanyoneblamemethatIwantedtoburymyfacethere? Iwonderedhowlongit’dbebeforesheletme. WhenIbroughtmyattentionbackup,herexpressionhadshiftedandshesat back, a knowing smirk settling on her face, though it seemed to be hiding somethingdeeperinthewarmthofherhoneyeyes. Itlookedawholelotlikedisappointment. Anunfamiliarfeelingcurledinmystomach. Guilt. Ilookedaway,downatmyhandsclenchedtogetheronthetableinfrontof me. Everythingaboutherswamwithinnocence,buthereyesweretoosharpto speakofnaivety.SheknewexactlywhatIwasthinkingasmygazecaressedthe soft slope of her neck. Most girls would be crawling all over me by now, but Elizabethlookedlikemaybeshe’d justdecidedshedidn’twantanythingtodo withme. Swallowing,Itriedtoreelmyselfin. Iwasfuckingthisallup,andIhadnoideawhyIcared. ButIdid. Imean,Ididn’twantarelationshiporanything,butIwanted...something. TheexpressiononElizabeth’sfacetoldmeshe’dalreadydecidedwhatthatwas. Yeah.Definitelyfuckingthisup.... Shewentbacktoflippingthroughthepages,meticulousasshemappedout our study plan for the semester. She asked me several questions about my strengths,myschedule,whenandwhereIpreferredtohaveourstudysessions. Even though she was so obviously worried about her grade, there was no doubtinmymindshewasgoingtoacethisclass. “Where are you from, Elizabeth?” The words were abrupt, and I shifted in
myseat,leaningfartheracrossthesmalltablewithmyelbowsdiggingintothe wood,edgingherdirection. Honey kissed every inch of her—her hair, her eyes, her skin—and I knew shecouldn’tbefromaroundhere. “Uh . . . San Diego,” she said almost absently, absorbed in the words she wrote,beforeshesurprisedmebystoppingandlookingupatmewithawistful smile. “I lived there my whole life. This is the first time I’ve been out of California.Istillcan’tbelieveI’minNewYorkCity.It’scrazy.” Withasmall,contentedshakeofherhead,shebitatherlipandpickedup whereshe’dleftoff,thefluidsweepofherhandacrossthepaperassheplanned. “This is the first time you’ve been out of California?” Incredulity dropped frommymouth.Howwasthatevenpossible? I’dtraveledtheworldwithmyparents,forcedtogoontripafterboringtrip. WhenIwasyoung,IwouldgetexcitedasIsatinafirst-classseatontheplane, antsytogetintotheair,toseenewthings—formyfathertobethere. ButsoonIrealizeditwasalwaysthesame. Mestuckaloneinahugehotelroom,playingmyoldNintendoGameBoy withanannyIdidn’tevenknow,whilemyparentswentofftodowhateverthey 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 sightseeingortoathemeparkorsomeothercoolplaceIwantedtogo. BythetimeIwasfifteen,whenevertheywentoutoftown,Irefusedtogo withthem. “I guess that’s not normal for most people,” she said, “but my mom raised meandmysistersbyherself,sotherewasn’talotofmoneyleftforvacations.” She lifted her head and I could see her face. A gentle casualness framed her mouth,somethingthatspokeofrespectandgrace. My mother would have rather died than admit she lacked the money for something.Butherewasthisgirlwhocouldn’tbemorethaneighteen,layingit allout,settingherprivateworldondisplay. Andwithoutanagenda.
A tiny laugh slipped through Elizabeth’s lips. “But we always had our beach.” Forasecond,sadnesscloudedherfeatures,analmostindiscernibletwitchof hermuscles. “Youmissit,”Iblurtedthroughawhisper.Itwasn’taquestion.Ifeltitasit suddenlysaturatedtheairaroundus. Shrugging,shebegantodoodleonthemarginofhernotepad.“Thatobvious, huh?” She grimaced a smile. “It just kinda hit me a couple of days ago. I’ve neverbeenawayfromhome,andhereIam,allthewayacrossthecountrywith nofriendsorfamily.Imean,don’tgetmewrong,Iworkedmyentirelifetoget here,andI’mbeyondthankfulforit.” She wet her lips, swallowed, and averted her gaze as she hunched her shoulders.“Ijustreallymissmymom.” Somethingthatresembledpainstruckmedeepinthechest.Iwassofarout ofmyelement,amillionmilesfromwhatIknew. WhatIknewweregirlswhowantedtheexactthingIwanted. Oneswhoclimbedinmybedwithoutasecondthought. Ourintentionswereneverdishonest,andthatwaswhereitalwaysended.I never pretended I would give them any more. And they never pretended they wantedanythingmorefromme,either. Butrightthen,theonlythingIknewwasIreallywantedtohugthisgirl. Ididn’tevenknowher,thoughitdidn’ttakealotformetorealizeIwanted to. “Hey,”IsaidasIleanedinlowtocapturehergaze,slidingmypalmacross the table to rest next to her notebook. My fingers twitched, and I resisted the urgetotakeherhandthatlayaninchaway.“You’renotalone.” I raised a brow, lightening my tone in hope of lightening her mood. “Just thinkofallthetimeyou’regoingtohavetospendstudyingwithme.” Herheadwasstillbowedwhenshelaughedandlookedupatmefromunder the hedge of hair that had fallen like a veil to the side of her face, though the sadnessthathadtemporarilyhazedherexpressionwasgone. Shesmiled,anditwasasifIcouldseeeverythinginsideofher.
Inthatmoment,IhadthisstrangesensethatIknewherbetterthanI’dever knownanyone,eventhoughIreallydidn’tknowheratall. Elizabeth was strong and driven, incredibly intelligent, but what was most apparentwasshewasgenuinelykind. Sheemittedaslightsnortandraisedherownbrow.“Idon’tknowifthat’sa goodthingornot,Christian.” Itwasallteaseandtruth,playfulwordsloadedwithinnuendothatconfirmed she’dalreadymadeassumptionsaboutme. “Howaboutyou?”sheasked.“You’refromhere?” “Nah,I’mfromVirginia.” “Virginia.”Sheseemedtoponderitasifitweresomeforeign,exoticplace. “SowhatbroughtyoutoNewYork?” I laughed low, but it lacked any humor. “I’ve known I would be going to ColumbiasinceIwasalittleboy.” There was never any choice. Anything less and all my father’s careful grooming,primingmeforthefuturehe’dpickedoutforme,wouldhaveallbeen invain. Frowning,shereachedouttowrapherslenderfingersaroundhercoffeemug andsippedatitasshewaitedformetocontinue. IansweredherassimplyasIcould.“Mydadwenthere.” “Ah.” She nodded as if she understood what I meant, as if she recognized she’dhitanerve.Shelookedlikeshewastemptedtoaskmemore. Iquicklychangedthesubject.MyparentswerethelastthingIwantedtotalk about.“Sowhataboutyou?WhyNewYork?” Shegotthatwistfulsmileagain,hereyessoftandherwordssofter.“It’skind ofembarrassing,buthaveyoueverhadaplacethatjustbecameafairytaleto you?” I blinked, not really understanding, but wishing I could. I offered a little shrug.“No.Notreally.” Definitelynot. She reddened again, dipping her chin in the way she did every time she seemedtogetself-conscious.“NewYorkhasalwaysbeenlikethatforme,from
thetimeIwasalittlegirl.Ialwaysthoughtithadtobethemostamazingplace intheworld.ThenwhenIdecidedIwantedtobeanattorney,Iknewithadtobe Columbia.” “Wait...what?You’repre-law?” Shenodded. Couldshebeanymoreperfectforme? Andwherethehelldidthatthoughtcomefrom? “Metoo,”Isaid. Shesatup,bothofusmoreexcitedthanweprobablyneededtobe.“Really?” “Yeah . . . you know, my dad’s headed a firm for years. Real estate. I’m goingtotakeoverforhimwhenheretires.” “Oh God . . . that’s amazing.” She was grinning, maybe happy for me. Maybehappytofindoutwehadmoreincommonthanwe’dinitiallythought. “Whatareyougoinginto?”Iasked. Shewasstillsmiling,herbodyvibratinginherseat.“I’mnotsureyet.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.Idon’tknow.” She shrugged, but clearly not because she didn’t care. It didn’t have to be perfect.Itjusthadtoberight. Iwasfloored. I’dnevermetanyonelikeher. Iknewwhatthosejobspaid.Obviously,Elizabethdidtoo.Shewasafterthe worst position any attorney could ever have, what my father called scrounge work. For years, he pounded it into my psyche that it would be required before I madeittothetop.Hewouldn’tevenconsiderallowingmeintohisfirmuntilI’d spentatleasttwoyearsscrubbing.Iexpectedittobethetwoworstyearsofmy life. AnditappearedtobeElizabeth’sultimategoal.
For my dad, it wasn’t about giving back. It was about paying dues. He wantedtoseemescrapethebottomofthebarrelsoI’dunderstandwhathewas givingmewhenheultimatelyhandedmeajobonasilverplatter. “What?”sheaskedwhenshenoticedmyexpression.Confusiondimmedthe lightthathadglimmeredfromherface. Istaredatherfortoolong,mymouthdryandmypalmswet.HowbadlyI wantedtoclimbinsideher,toreallyunderstandher,toknowwhatit’dfeellike nottobedrivenbymoneyandgreed. ButthelastthingIwantedwashertoseeinsideofme. Ishookmyhead.“Nothing.That’sjust...reallycool,Elizabeth.” “Thanks,Christian.”Ahumblesmiletuggedatthecornerofhermouth.She flipped the textbook shut and shoved the syllabus into a folder. “I need to get going.ArewegoodtomeethereonMonday,then?Sametime?”sheasked. Monday was five days from now. Something inside me protested. I didn’t wanttowaitthatlongtoseeheragain. “WhatareyoudoingFridaynight?” “Me? Studying.” She emitted a low laugh and shook her head as if anticipatingwhatIwouldsaynext. “How about you go out to dinner with me instead?” I asked her anyway. I smiledthatsmileagain. “That’snotgoingtohappen.”Redcoloredhercheeks,butsheseemedtobe fightingasmile.Shegatheredafewloosepapersandtappedthebottomedgeof thepileonthetabletostraightenthem. “Whynot?” “BecauseI’mnotthekindofgirlyou’relookingfor.” “AndhowdoyouknowwhatkindofgirlI’mlookingfor?” Shesatbackinherchair,levelinghergazeonme. Ifidgetedunderit. All traces of that shyness were gone and set in its place was a steely determination as she lifted her chin high. “Okay then, Christian, answer me something.” Itiltedmyhead.Iwassogoingtoregretagreeingtothis,butIcouldn’thelp
butbite.“Allright.” Asmiledancedinherbrowneyes.“HowlonghaveyoubeeninNewYork?” IletoutthebreathIwasholding.Okay,thatwaseasy.Relieved,Iincheda littlecloser.“Myparentshadmemoveduphereatthebeginningofthesummer. They said they wanted me to have a chance to get used to my surroundings. I figuretheyjustwantedmeoutoftheirhair.” She nodded subtly, her brow cinched together as if she’d been struck with someunknownsuspicion. “Areyouhappyhere?”whisperedfromhermouthasifshewereaskingme torevealmydarkestsecret. Iblinked,caughtoffguardbythesuddenintensityofhervoice.“Anywhere is better than spending another minute in my parents’ house.” I answered her honestlybecauseIfoundIdidn’tknowhowtolietothegirlsittingacrossfrom me. For a second, her expression softened, and she just nodded as she held my gaze. I was pretty sure I’d never felt more exposed than I did in that single moment. Sheclearedherthroatandlookedaway,breakingtheconnection.Whenshe lookedbackup,everythinghadshifted,thesamechallengeglintinginhereyes. “Andhowmanygirlshaveyousleptwithsinceyougothere?” Ohshit.Ofcourse,shehadtoasktheonequestionIdidn’twanttoanswer, voicingthejudgmentshe’dalreadycast. “Uh...um...”Istumbled,thenbitdownonmybottomlip,shakingmy headasIreleasedaself-consciouslaugh. She crossed her arms over her chest, the smile at the edge of her mouth lifting.“What?Youcan’tcountthathigh,oryoudon’twanttotellme?” Hertonewaslight,aneasymirthatmyexpense. But I could see it, set there in the perfect lines of her face that I wanted nothingmorethantotracewiththetipsofmyfingers.Shereallycaredaboutmy answer.She’dbaitedme,strungmeup,andleftmewithnowheretohide. Red-faced,Iscratchedthebackofmyneck,knowingnomatterwhatanswer Igave,it’dbethewrongone.IfIlied,she’dknow,andIknewtherewasnoway
she’dbeokaywiththetruth. “Comeon,Elizabeth...Ijustaskedifyouwantedtogotodinnerwithme.” “So,you’resayingyoudon’twanttosleepwithme?” Frustrationtumbledfrommymouthinastrainedgroan.Still,Icouldn’tlieto her. Likeitwasn’tobvioushowbadlyIwantedtotakeherbacktomyplaceand coaxthatblushfromeveryinchofherbody.“That’snotwhatIsaid.” She leaned down to her backpack that was sitting on the floor and slid her things into it. Her face was lifted to look up at me as she did. “Well, then, Christian,Ithinkit’ssafetosayI’mnotthekindofgirlyou’relookingfor.” Thesharppealofherzipperannouncedherdeparture. I really couldn’t remember ever being turned down before. I’m sure I had, butit’dmadelittleimpactonme,somethingforgottenasI’dimmediatelymoved ontothenextandbetterthing. Thisslammedme. IcoulddonothingbutstareatElizabethasshestoodandslungherbackpack overhershoulders.Itwasn’tasensationIwasfamiliarwith,thebiteofrejection, butnowithadmepinnedtomychair. Whythehelldidthisbothermesomuch? Shereachedupandpulledoutherhairtrappedbyherbackpack,grippingthe bulkofitinafistthatsherandownthelength.Itspreadoutinasoftwaveover oneshoulderasshereleasedit. Iswallowed. God, looking at this girl and not being able to touch her was complete torture. “I’llseeyouaround,”shesaid,takingasteptowardthedoor.Shetwistedto lookatme,walkingbackwardasshespoke.“Ifyoudon’tfindanythingbetterto doFriday,I’llbestudying.Youhavemynumber.” Shegrinned,andallIcoulddowaslaugh.Iwasdefinitelynotexpectingthat. She spun back around, and for the first time, I was able to appreciate her perfectassinthosetightjeans. No,Idefinitelydidn’thaveanythingbettertodoonFridaynight.
Shit. Iwasinsomuchtrouble. “It’sadate,”Ihurriedtocallafterher. She swung the door open, shaking her head with a small laugh. “No, Christian,it’snot.”
OH,hewassoofflimits.Sounbelievablyofflimits. The door to the café shut behind me with an echo of his throaty laughter ticklingmyears. I hitthesidewalk,hurryingtoputsomespacebetweenus.Ihadfivemore minutesIcouldhavestayedbeforeIneededtoleaveformynextclass,butIwas gettingoutoftherebeforehetalkedmeintosomethingIwoulddefinitelyregret. People swarmed around me as I cut a path against the flow of the approachingcrowd.Imutteredunheardapologiestowardmyfeet,edgingoffto therightandblendinginwiththebodiesheadingbacktowardcampus. Ihikedmybackpackhigherandtriedtoridmymindofhim. There was no way I could allow myself to get lost in this guy, and by the thoughtsthat smile had left swirling through my head—that stomach-flipping, heart-lurching,earth-shatteringsmile—IknewjusthoweasilyIcould. OhGod. ChristianDavisonhadtobethemostgorgeousguyI’deverseen. ThesecondInoticedhimwalkingthroughthedoor,I’dbeencaughtinthe darknessconcealinghisface,thehalooflightstreaminginbehindhimpartially castinghisfaceinshadows. It was as if my body knew what hid behind them was worth waiting to discover. Anddamn,ifitwasn’tright.
Thedoorhadslippedshutwhenheinchedforward,swallowingtheshadows andrevealinganunrulyshockoftheblackesthairI’deverseen.Pairthatwith thoseblueeyes,andIwaslost. Theyweresointense. Sounsettling. Hisjawwasallsharpanglesandhopelesslylosingthebattlewithacoatof coarsestubblethatwasjustasdarkasthehaironhishead. But his mouth was flirty and soft—full—something to smooth out the severityofeverythingelse. It was the first time in my life I’d had the urge to reach out and touch a complete stranger, to run my fingertips over his jaw, maybe across his lips, wondering how his skin would feel under mine—wondering how I would feel doingit. For a moment, he’d searched the room, before recognition had dawned on his face when his eyes landed on me, his stride purposed as he’d walked my direction. Each step he’d taken had radiated confidence, those lips curving with an arroganceasheapproached. Itonlytookacoupleofsecondsformetounderstandwhyhispresencehad seemedtofilluptheentireroom.Whyhe’dseemedtostoptimewhenhewalked throughthedoor. Theguywascompletelyfullofhimself. It’s not like I was all that experienced, but I wasn’t stupid, either. I knew exactly what Christian wanted. It had gleamed in his eyes and rippled through hismuscles.Iwasn’topposedtoguys—tohavingaboyfriendorsomeonewho caredaboutme. WhatIwasopposedtowasgivingmyselftosomeonelikehim. The man would own me with one passing touch, and I was certain that’s exactlywhatitwouldbe. Passing. ThelastthingIneededmyfirstyearincollegewastogetmyheartbroken byaboywhowasundoubtedlyafteronething.Ididn’tworkthishardtogethere
togetmyhearttrampled. AfterallthesacrificesIhadmadeIwasn’tabouttodosomethingsofoolish. Giving up on most activities my friends had reveled in—the parties, the shopping,thefun—infavorofstudyingandstrivingtowineveryscholarshipI couldearn. The extra hours my mother had worked to scrape together a few extra dollars,everygrantI’dappliedfor,andeverystudentloanIhadtoonedaypay back. I’dworkedtoohardtowastemytimehere. A complication like Christian Davison was something I definitely didn’t need. Butman,washepretty. Thereallyirresponsiblesideofmethoughtit’dbeworththerisk. Somethingrecklessandcompletelyunlikemetoaddtothelistofcherished collegememories. Aflingwithaboywhowouldsoobviouslymakemeforgetmyself. Oneglimpseofhissurehandsandstrongbodyleftnoquestionthathewould makemeexperiencethingsI’dneverexperiencedbefore. Ashivertraveleddownmyspineandpooledsomewhereinmystomach. Shakingmyselfoutofit,Iforcedthatdangeroustrainofthoughtaside. I knew myself better than that. It wouldn’t be a cherished memory, but somethingthatwouldeatatmeforyears. Ididn’tdoflings. Ifellinlove,andfallinginlovewithsomeonelikeChristianwasamistakeI couldn’tafford. ButifIcouldsomehowputtheunknownlonginghecreatedinmeaside,I realized I liked him. I liked the way he seemed to get lost in thought, disappearing somewhere deeper beneath the façade I doubted few people ever penetrated.Icouldalmostfeelit,anundercurrentofvulnerabilitytherebeneath hisperfectexterior. Maybethat’swhatheneeded,someonetolookpastthatgorgeousfaceand hisarrogantsmile.MaybeheneededafriendinthiscityasmuchasIdid.
Therest of the week passed in a blur. Every time I stepped out my apartment door,Istillfoundmyselfinawe,amazedbythiscity.AsmuchtimeasI’dspent hoping for it—working for it—there was a part of me that never believed I’d makeit. Eventhoughlivingherewasalifelongdream,ithadtakensomegettingused to.Themassofpeopleateveryturn.Thebuildingsthattoweredoneveryside. ThereweretimeswhenIfeltclosedin,liketheskycouldcrashdownonme andI’dhavenowheretorun.Butforthemostpart,Iloveditandreveledinthis citythatIhadonlyknowninpicturesandmovies. WhenmylastclassoftheweekletoutonFriday,Iwoundmywaythrough thecrowdstowardmyapartment.I’msureIappearedatourist,myheadraised asIsoakedupthedetailsofeverybuildingandlandmark. My building was a drab block of gray brick, glued between two taller buildingsoneachside.Ijoggedupthestairstothesecondfloor.Turningthekey inthelock,thedooropenedtomysmallstudioapartment. Well,smalldidn’treallydescribeit. Atwinbedwaspushedlengthwiseupagainstthefarwalltotheright,anda miniaturekitchenlinedtheoppositewalltomyleft.Straightbackwastheonly separateroom—abathroomsosmallIcouldfititinmybackpocket. ButIlovedit. Itwasmine,myownspace,arewardforwhatI’dworkedsohardtoachieve. Crossingthefivestepstotheotherendoftheroom,Isighedinsatisfaction anddroppedmybackpacktothebed,shruggedoutofmyjeans,andpulledon someblackyogapants. IfIhadtospendmyFridaynightstudying,Iwantedtobecomfortable. Floppingontomyunmadebed,IdugoutthebooksIneededfrommybag. Afternoonlightfilteredinthroughthewindow,wrappingtheroominacozy glow.Isnuggledupandhunkereddown.InordertostayinNewYork,Ihadto keepallmyscholarships,soIcouldn’trisklettinganyofmygradesslip.
I dove into my first class, reading through the materials that were due the nextclassperiod. Lateafternoonbledintoevening,timepassingquickly.Theroomhadbegun todarken,andIreachedovertotwisttheswitchtothesmalllampthatrestedon thefloornexttothebed. Thelightbulbflickeredon. A dim light seeped up the back wall and illuminated my book. I figured I couldn’tputitoffanylonger,soIchangedtomymostdreadedsubject—math.If there was onesubjectthatwould ruinme, mathwasit.Iflippedtothecorrect chapter. My mouth moved slowly as I struggled to absorb the instructions and somehowmakesenseofthenumbers. Ilookedtotheceilingandgroaned. Completelyhopeless. My phone rang from the front pocket of my backpack. It was a welcomed distraction. Momcalledmealmosteveryevening,andIwasanxioustohearhervoice, forhertotellmeshemissedmeasmuchasImissedher. Unzippingthepocket,Irummagedaroundtopullthephonefreeandglanced atthescreen. Butno,itwasn’ther. IfrownedasIstaredatthenumberlituponthescreen.ItwasanumberI reallyhadn’tanticipatedseeingtonight. Actually,Iwaskindofshocked. Itdidn’tmeanhisfacehadn’tflutteredinandoutofmyconsciousnessover thepastweekorthatIhadforgottenthatsmile.ItjustmeantwhenImadethe offer,Ineverreallybelievedhe’dtakemeuponit. A flicker of excitement sparked in my stomach. I chalked it up to being lonely. Acceptingthecall,Iplaceditagainstmyear. “Hello?” I realized I was smiling. No doubt, he could blatantly hear it coloringmyvoice.
Ridiculous. “Hey, Elizabeth, it’s Christian.” His voice was easy, filled with the same confidencehe’dapproachedmewithatthebeginningoftheweek.Thistimeit didn’tthrowme.Iexpectedit.Welcomedit,even. “Hi,Christian.Whatareyouupto?” “Ijustgotoutofmylastclassfortheday.Wantedtofindoutwhereyou’re studying.” “Um...”IglancedaroundmytinyapartmentthatIcouldonlyimaginewas smallerthanChristian’scloset. Itriedtopicturehimhere. Ridiculous. “I’mactuallystudyingatmyplace.”Ibitatmylip,andIcouldn’thelpbut tease,“What,nohotdatefortheevening?” Hisvoicedroppedlow,hintingathumorandsomethingelseIdidn’twantto recognize.“What,youdidn’tbelievemewhenIsaidIwasgoingtospendthe eveningstudyingwithyou?You’regoingtolearntotrustme,youknow.” Ishookmyhead,tryingnottolaugh.“Isthatso?” “Yes,that’sso.”Acurrentofsuggestionslippedthroughhisvoice.Thisguy hadtobethemostdangerouspredatorwalkingthestreetsofNewYorkCity. SowhydidIseemtolikehimsomuch? Irattledoffmyaddress,thentoldhim,“Allrightthen.I’llbewaiting.” Ending the call, I hopped off my small bed and ran around to pick up the dirtyclothesI’dleftinrandompilesaroundtheroom. Itwasn’tlikethestudiowasdirty—itwasjustcluttered. Myarmswerefullofclotheswhentherewasatapatmydoor. Itossedthemintothehampernexttomybedbeforerushingovertounlatch it. Andjustlikehepromisedtobe,Christian,inallhisperfectglory,stoodat mydoor. OhGod. Menshouldnotbethatpretty. Andofcourse,hehadtounleashthatsmileonme.“Hey,Elizabeth.”