“Stop. It wasn’t that long ago. And there was that one night.”
Oh, God. We weren’t going to talk about that one night, were we? The only night we’d talked outside of class. Well, not talked. We’d been at the same frat party. The theme had been a very vague “Classics.”
Gus and his friend Parker had come as Ponyboy and Johnny and spent the night getting called “Greased Lightning” by drunk frat boys. Shadi and I had gone as truck-stop Thelma (her) and Louise (me).
Gus’s girl-of-the-hour, Tessa, had gone home for the weekend. She and I lived in the same student apartments and wound up at a lot of the same parties. She was the latest reason Gus and I had been crossing paths, but that night was different.
It was the beginning of the school year, not quite fall. Shadi and I had been dancing in the basement, whose cement walls were sweating. All night, I’d been watching Gus, fuming a little because his last short story had been so good and he was still ridiculously attractive and his criticism was still on point and I was tired of him asking to borrow my pens, and furthermore, he’d caught me staring at him, and ever since, I’d felt—or thought (hoped?) I’d felt—him watching me too.
At the makeshift bar in the next room. At the beer pong table upstairs. In the kitchen at the keg. And then he was standing still in the throng of bodies jumping and spastically dancing to “Sandstorm” (Shadi had hijacked the iPod, as she was wont to do), only a few yards away from me, and we were both staring at each other, and somehow I felt vindicated by this, sure that all this time, he’d seen me as his competition after all.
I didn’t know if I’d made my way to him, or if he’d made his way to me, or if we’d met in the middle. All I knew was that we’d ended up dancing with (on?) each other. There were flashes of memory from that night that still made me buzz: his hands on my hips, my hands on his neck, his face against my throat, his arms around my waist.
Coldly horny? No, Gus Everett had been all hot breath and sparking touches.
Rivalry or not, it had been palpable how much we wanted each other that night. We had both been ready to make a bad decision.
And then Shadi had saved the day by shaving her head in the bathroom with clippers she’d found under the sink and getting us both kicked out and banned from that particular frat’s parties for life. Although we hadn’t tried to go back in the last few years and I suspected frats had a rather short memory. Four years, max.
Apparently, I had a much longer memory.
I looked up and startled at the dark gaze I’d been remembering, now here in the car with me. I’d forgotten the tiny white scar to the right of his Cupid’s bow and now wondered how I’d managed it.
I cleared my throat. “You told Pete we just met the other night.”
“I told her we were neighbors,” he allowed. Eyes back on the road. Eyes back on me. It felt like a personal attack, the way he kept looking at me then away after just a second too long. His mouth twitched. “I wasn’t sure you remembered me.”
Something about that made my insides feel like a ribbon being drawn across scissors until it curled. He went on: “But no one calls me Gus except people I knew before publishing.”
“Because?” I asked.
“Because I don’t like every whack job next-door neighbor I’ve ever had to be able to Google me and leave me scathing reviews?” he said. “Or ask me for free books.”
“Oh, I don’t need free books,” I assured him.
“Really?” he teased. “You don’t want to add a fifth level to your shrine?”
“You’re not going to distract me,” I said. “I’m not done with this conversation.”
“Shit. I honestly didn’t mean to offend you,” he promised. “Again.”
“You didn’t offend me,” I said uncertainly. Or maybe he had, but his apology had caught me off guard yet again. More so, I was baffled. “I just think you’re being silly.”
We’d reached our houses without me even noticing, and Gus parked along the curb and faced me. For the second time I noticed how small the car was, how close we were, how the dark seemed to magnify the intensity of his eyes as they fixed on mine. “January, why did you come here?”
I laughed, uncomfortable. “Into the car you begged me to get into?”
He shook his head, frustrated. “You’re different now.”
I felt the blood rush into my cheeks. “You mean I’m not a fairy princess anymore.”
Confusion rippled across his face.
“That’s what you called me,” I said, “back then. You want me to say you were right. I got my wake-up call and things don’t work out like they do in my books, right?”
His head tilted, the muscle in his jaw leaping. “That’s not what I was saying.”
“It’s exactly what you were saying.”
He shook his head again. “Well, it’s not what I meant,” he said. “I meant to say … You were always so …” He huffed. “I don’t know, you’re drinking wine out of your purse. I’m guessing there’s a reason for that.”
My mouth jammed shut, and my chest tightened. Probably Gus Everett was the last person I’d expect to read me like that.
I looked out the window toward the beach house as if it were a glowing red emergency exit sign, a savior from this conversation. I could hear waves breaking on the shore behind the houses, but the fog hung too thick for me to see anything.
“I’m not asking you to tell me,” Gus said after a second. “I just … I don’t know. It’s weird to see you like this.”
I turned toward him and folded my legs up on the seat as I studied him, searching his expression for irony. But his face was serious, his dark eyes narrowed and his brow pinched, his head doing that particular half tilt that made me feel like I was under a microscope. The Sexy, Evil stare that suggested he was reading your mind.
“I’m not writing,” I said. I wasn’t sure why I was admitting it, least of all to Gus, but better him than Anya or Sandy. “I’m out of money, and my editor’s desperate to buy something from me—and all I’ve got is a handful of bad pages and three months to finish a book someone other than my mom will spend US dollars on. That’s what’s going on.”
I batted away thoughts of my tattered relationship with Mom and the conversation we’d had after the funeral to focus on the lesser evil of my situation.
“I’ve done it before,” I said. “Four books, no problem. And it’s bad enough that I feel like I’m incapable of doing the one thing I’m good at, the thing that makes me feel like me, and then there’s the added fact that I’m totally out of money.”
Gus nodded thoughtfully. “It’s always harder to write when you have to. It’s like … the pressure turns it into a job, like anything else, and you might as well be selling insurance. The story suddenly loses any urgency to be told.”
“Exactly,” I agreed.
“But you’ll figure it out,” he said coolly after a second. “I’m sure there are a million Happily Ever Afters floating around in that brain.”