The trip out of the building and back to the apartment wasn’t easy. I was still strung tight as a bow. Nothing seemed to make the raw edge go away. I tried reciting the alphabet backwards, tried thinking about the old lady who lived in the building nearby, who sometimes walked her dog in a white nightgown. The sight was not pretty, but it still didn’t work.
The rain was still coming down as we dashed across the parking lot and under the awning. I shook my head, spraying water everywhere. Avery stopped at the base of the stairwell leading up to our apartments, and I thought it was all the rain I’d just pelted her with. I opened my mouth to apologize, but she turned sideways, her face pale as she peered up at me.
A very different kind of ache sliced through my chest, stirring up that knot in there, at the stark confusion and fear in her eyes. Fear. I didn’t get it. Had I done that to her? No. I couldn’t believe that. Not the way she had reacted to me. I saw it in her eyes. She had wanted me to kiss her, probably even as badly as I wanted to kiss her, but she had pulled away because . . . I honestly didn’t know.
I thrust my hand through my hair, pulling it off my forehead. “Go out with me.”
“No,” she whispered.
I grinned slightly, and her chest fell, her shoulders relaxed, as if she needed to hear this. “There’s always tomorrow.”
She followed me up the stairs. “Tomorrow’s not going to change anything.”
“There’s nothing to see. You’re wasting your time.”
“When it concerns you, it’s never a waste of my time.”
And that was the damn truth.
The Wednesday before fall break, I skipped nutrition again and searched Avery out, finding her where she always was during this class: in the Den with Brittany and Jacob. It was a good thing that I had. I discovered three important things.
Shortcake was talking about me to her friends, because they knew that I had been asking her out. Score for that.
And she also compared me to a serial killer.
Not that I was offended, but it wasn’t every day that one found himself mentioned in the same sentence as Ted Bundy.
But her friends totally supported a date. I liked them.
“Anyway,” Brittany was saying, her eyes glimmering with amusement as she stared at a blood-red, absolutely mortified Avery. “This is not about me and my vast knowledge of serial killers. I can wow you later about that. This is about you, Avery. This fine young gentleman, who is not a serial killer, is asking you out. You’re single. You’re young. You should say yes.”
“Oh my God.” She moaned, planting her hands against her face. “Is it time for all of you to go home yet?”
I laughed deeply. “Go out with me, Avery.”
She turned to me, somewhat surprised-looking. “No.”
“See?” I addressed Brittany and Jacob. “Keeps turning me down.”
Jacob looked dumbfounded. “You’re an idiot, Avery.”
“Whatever.” She stood, grabbing her bag. “I’m going to class.”
“We love you!” Jacob shouted.
She muttered, “Uh-huh,” but stopped to say good-bye. Fall break kicked off tomorrow and they were going home. I was still surprised that Avery was remaining behind. Traveling to Texas was a hell of trip for four days, but she could’ve gone home with one of them. Admittedly, I didn’t like the idea of her being alone here.
I waited until she was done and then followed her across the Den. She arched a brow at me. “Following me?”
“Like a true serial killer,” I replied.
“You know we weren’t being serious, right? And I’m sorry about saying something to them about it. They just started pestering me about you and the next thing I know—”
“It’s okay.” I dropped my arm over her shoulders, steering her toward the cluster of trees outside of the building. It was chilly and she hunkered down, pressing closer, whether she realized it or not. “I don’t care.”
“You don’t care?”
I shook my head. Maybe it should bother me that there was now an audience to my repeated rejection, but it just didn’t. I glanced down at her and smiled. Her attention was focused on one of the blue vans that were always on campus.
“Uh-oh,” I murmured.
“What?” She looked up at me.
I lowered my arm, catching a strand of hair blowing across her face and tucking it behind her ear. Ever since the night on the roof of Byrd, I took every freaking opportunity to touch her and she let me. “You’re thinking.”
“Nothing important.” She smiled absently. It wasn’t a huge smile, but she was smiling more. “You going home this weekend?”
“I am.” I moved closer, gathering up her hair and separating it into two long sections. I smiled, thinking she looked cute like that. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning, bright and early. I’m not coming back until Sunday night. So, no eggs for you this week.”
“Boo.” Her face fell a little.
“Don’t cry too much about it.” I brushed the ends of her hair across her cheek and tried again with her doing something this weekend instead of being alone. “Are you going to take Brit up on her offer and go home with her?”
She shook her head no. “I’m just going to hang out here and get some reading done.”
I smiled as I spread her hair over her shoulders. “You know what?”
Taking a deep breath, I stepped back and shoved my hands into the pockets of my jeans. “You should go out with me tonight since I’ll be gone all weekend.”
She laughed. “I’m not going out with you.”
“Then hang out with me.”
Her brow puckered. “How’s that any different from going out with you?”
“How is me asking you to hang out with me tonight any different than us hanging out on Sunday?”
The knit between her brows started to fade. “What do you want to do?”
I shrugged casually, but my heart was pounding like a drum. “Order some food in and watch a movie.”
She shifted her weight, wary. “That sounds like a date.”
“That’s not a date with me, sweetheart.” I laughed. “I’d take you out, like out in public. This is just two friends hanging out, watching a movie and eating food.”
Her lips formed a tight line as she looked away. Several moments passed, and I steeled myself for yet another rejection. For some reason, if she said no to this, it would sting worse than the others. I didn’t know why, but if I couldn’t get her to do this, I was really going to have to reevaluate what the hell I was doing.
Shortcake sighed. “Yeah, sure. Come over.”
Holy shit? She said yes? I had to force myself to play cool, because I was about to fist pump the sky or some shit. “Wow. Calm down before you get too excited.”
“I am excited.” She playfully shoved my shoulder. “When are you coming over?”
She smiled as she fiddled with her bracelet. “Works for me. See you then.”
I let her get to the sidewalk before I stopped her. “Avery?”
“Yeah?” she replied, turning.
My lips curved up as a bolt of nervous energy rolled through me. “See you tonight.”
“You’re spending a lot of time with this girl.”
“Whoa!” I stepped out of the shower, buck-ass naked, finding Ollie standing in the doorway of the bathroom. “What the hell, man?”
“What?” He shrugged. “Not like I haven’t seen your junk before.”
Shaking my head, I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my hips. “What in the hell are you yapping about? And can it wait? Kind of have stuff to do.” Namely dinner and movies to acquire.
Ollie followed me into my bedroom. “I was asking about Avery. You’ve been spending a lot of time with her.”
I didn’t respond as I pulled on a pair of jeans, buttoning them up and then dropping the towel.
“Free balling it tonight?” Ollie grinned as he smacked his hands on the upper frame of the door. “Planning on getting laid?”
I shot him a dark look as I turned and grabbed a shirt. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
He leaned forward, stretching out his arms. His hair fell forward, shielding most of his face. “Nope. Not at this moment.”
“Great.” I pulled the shirt on.
“Steve’s having a party tonight. You going?”
“Of course not.”
I arched a brow as I brushed him out the way, heading into the living room to find my sneakers. “If you’re not surprised, why did you ask?”
Ollie shrugged. “You used to go to all the parties.”
Sighing, I pulled my shoes on and straightened. That part was true. So was the fact that my face had been absent from all of them since late August. “I’ll go to the Halloween one. I won’t miss that.”
“Uh-huh.” Ollie plopped down on the couch.
I looked at him a moment, then shook my head as I grabbed some movies off the rack. Sometimes I wondered if Ollie even knew what he was talking about or doing.
He tipped his head back and grinned. “I think it’s pretty cool that you’re spending time with Avery. I like her. She’s nice.”
“Thank you.” The moment those words came out of my mouth, I had no idea why I said them. My cheeks heated when Ollie laughed. “Fuck you.”
Ollie’s laughter followed me out to the hall and down to my truck. Thank you? That didn’t even make any sense. What the hell was I thanking him for? But as I headed down to the nearby Chinese restaurant and ordered Avery’s favorite—shrimp stir-fry—I realized I felt thankful. Strangest damn thing, because all Shortcake had done was say yes to hanging out, but I knew she didn’t allow people to get very close to her. This . . . this was a big step she was taking.
Avery was such a mystery to me; a paradox of innocence and allure—a mystery I was determined to solve.
“Let’s go with Resident Evil,” Avery said as she stood in front of the counter, doling out the shrimp stir-fry. Her hair hung in loose waves all the way to the middle of her back. She was dressed low-key, in a pair of tight workout pants and a loose-fitting shirt that slipped over one shoulder, revealing a swath of smooth, golden skin and a thin strap.
The girl had no idea how good she looked like that and I resisted the urge to move closer to her. When I’d walked up on her in the kitchen earlier, she had reacted strangely, stiffening and paling.
“A girl after my own heart,” I replied, picking up two DVDs and taking them into the living room. “Zombies for the win.”
A sudden soft glow alerted me to her presence. “What do you want to drink?” she asked.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Do you have milk?”