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“Let’s get out of here!” My outburst surprised even me.

Both blinked at me a moment, then Trent started grabbing his stuff. “I second that. We can go to my house. No football game. We can study, or…” he paused, his gaze warming and holding on Siobhan, “just hang out.”

Her eyes got wide. “Is your roommate there?”

Her quick glance my way told me what she was thinking and shit, damn, fuck. I didn’t need that. I was so beyond needing that. Panic and claustrophobia and sheer terror rained down on me, and I had to stop. I had to breathe. I had to remain for a second, and then, another moment. It was still with me.

I was paralyzed, but I knew my face didn’t show it.

I’d perfected that bit over the last year. He couldn’t see me scared. I never gave him the satisfaction. I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction, and then I wasn’t there anymore. I was back at the Quail and I was in a college five states away.




Just be.

The cement grip that overtook me loosened and I blinked. I was past it, and I was the only one not putting my stuff in my bag.

“You gonna drink that?” Siobhan referenced my drink.

Drink. Alcohol. Right. “Can I ride with you?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

I downed my beer. All of it. A full sixteen-ounce glass.

Even Trent looked taken aback. A guy next to our table whistled, “Way to go! You open that throat, baby.”

I reacted without a thought, snarling at him, “Shut the fuck up.” And sweeping my stuff into my bag, I was off my stool and ready to go.

The guy’s face was clouding with anger, but he’d been there the whole time we were. He’d been drinking and watching the football game, and I knew he was too slow to react. And I’d been paying attention to his entire table in the back of my mind because that’s what someone like me does. We pay attention.

And once I got to my feet, I could see the words forming.

He started to reach out.

Nope. Not today.

I evaded him, but then he had my bag.

He wasn’t thinking clearly, and to an extent, past haunts were clouding my own thoughts, so I didn’t hesitate to twist out from my bag, then bring my elbow down hard on his arm. He dropped the bag. I caught it, and before he could react to that, I stomped down hard on his foot.

He howled, grabbing for it, but that brought his head to the table, and he cursed again.

His buddies were dumbfounded. Two started to get up, but I pointed at them and clipped out, “Not a move. He made an offensive remark. I replied. Then he grabbed me. I defended myself. You say one word, I’ll call the cops and I have witnesses and video to back me up.” I snapped my fingers, pointing to the corners of the ceiling. There were no video cameras there, but there were televisions, and the guys would be too confused to investigate.

Trent and Siobhan were almost gawking behind me. I didn’t wait. I’d handled this scene stronger than I should’ve and I knew the quicker you got free, the better.

I got free.

Siobhan and Trent stared at me outside the bar, both with owl-like expressions. Eyes blinking. Mouth pursed tight.

I didn’t like that I’d done that. I showed a side of myself I didn’t like to expose.

Coming here, five states away, was to start new. Not remember the old me. Me reacting to that guy just now, that was the old me. And I really didn’t want to get into why I had to be that way in the past. No way. No how. No, siree.

“That beer’s going to hit me in about two minutes. Can I still ride with you?”

Siobhan jerked awake, startling forward. “Yeah. Uh. My car’s over here.”

“Sha, you know how to get to my place?”

She was crossing the parking lot but nodded. “I remember. Last Biofest, remember?”

Trent’s face brightened. “Oh, yeah! I forgot. Yeah, okay. See you guys there. AJ’s there. You can ring up. I might stop and grab a few things on the way.”

I noticed the little grin on Siobhan’s face as we got to her car and got inside. And because I knew a friend would say it, I teased, “He’s getting a few things. Like condoms?”

“Shut up!”

But she was blushing and blushing hard.

Starting and reversing out of the parking spot, she moved around until we were following Trent out of the parking lot.

She waited until a stoplight before muttering, “Besides, I’m not that kind of girl.”

“What kind? The kind who likes sex?”

Back to the blushing. She was full-on red sea star. “You know.” She moved around in her seat, her cheek suddenly pulling in. “The kind who has sex on the first night.”

“How long have you known Trent?”

“It’s not the same thing.”

I wasn’t following. This I wasn’t faking. I said it almost tenderly, “Having sex with someone you have feelings for, no matter how many hours you’ve spent together, isn’t a bad thing.”

She swallowed, shoving upright in her seat. Her hands tightened on the wheel. “It is if he thinks you’re a slut after.”

The question wasn’t if she knew a guy who’d do that. Guys did that. It was a question if she thought Trent would do that.

“For what it’s worth, I’m pretty certain, and by certain I mean I’m like 99.8% sure that Trent is completely into you.” I nudged her arm, lightly. “I get the double standards, but if you like sex and you like Trent, then what’s really stopping you? I’ve known relationships that start that way. And honestly, life’s too short to worry about that stuff.”

A gnawing and hollow ache was forming in my chest, rooting and digging deep in there. My words hitting a little close to home.

I continued, faint even to my own ears, “French angelfish love should be cherished. Indulge while you can still feel those emotions.”

Yes, I was talking about myself.

Yes, I wish I could feel that again.

But yes, I believed in what I said.

You never knew when your time was up. Then what would you do? Die with regrets of not trying something? That’d be worse than dying having tried and been rejected. Who cared about rejection? That stuff was never remembered. But not living, that was remembered till someone’s death bed.

“Live, Sha.” I used his nickname on purpose. “Regret will eat you alive if you don’t.”

She was quiet, then burst out laughing. “Okay. Yeah. Where’d that philosophical side come from? And it’s not for sure that French angelfish mate for life, you know.”

I half grinned. “That’s my side major. Deep thinker here. Didn’t you know? And let’s just go with the analogy, yeah?”

She thought I was half-joking.

I wasn’t.

Chapter Eight

Siobhan and Trent played footsie all night. Literally.

We went to his apartment. Those two started on the couch together, their feet touching, while we watched a movie. Then we moved to their kitchen table with some wine poured and a game of Sequence. They sat across from each other, but the sly looks, flushed faces, and hushed giggling mixed with the constant squirming on their seats told me if they didn’t get it on that night, they were idiots. Or that I’d be in for a looong semester with them.

AJ wasn’t anything like Trent. A dad-bod, more than a dad-bod with a cut-off tee that had ‘Trees are old. Go digital.’ and hair that was sticking up in an almost adorable way, he was my cosigner on how Trent and Siobhan were cute, but verging on the line of being annoying.

I caught him watching them, a slight grin, but a slight grimace at the same time. The two weren’t hiding it anymore, and when I said my goodbyes after two games of Sequences, I was wondering if Siobhan was going to follow my advice and just live. Either way, I figured I’d get a call the next day or an earful on Monday in class.

I was looking forward to both.

Feeling good that I had a friend, at least one, my mood didn’t diminish when I got to the house to find a full party going. The house was busy, literally every room except mine had light streaming from the windows. The backyard light was dimmed, but a group of ten or so was standing around the picnic table. I recognized Mia and heard Nicole laughing as I walked past them, heading to my door.

None of them looked at me.

Well, glancing over, I was wrong. Dent was eyeing me, but his arm was around Nicole’s shoulders and she was half in his lap. One of her legs was thrown over his and her hand was splayed out on his chest. As I watched, his hand slid down around her back, cupping the other side of her hip so he was half-cradling her to him now and his head was bent down to hers.

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