“Women clamoring for your attention? You poor thing.” And although I’m trying not to think of him as a piece of meat, I can’t deny he is one incredible specimen. Hands down, the most beautiful guy I’ve ever encountered. Not to mention the sexiest. He’s still clutching my hand, and the angle of his body causes every muscle of his sculpted arm to bulge enticingly.
“C’mon, stay and talk with me.”
“What about your friends?” I remind him.
“I see them every day at practice.” His thumb rubs a gentle circle over the inside of my wrist, and I’m done for. “Taylor. Please stay.”
This is a terrible idea. Right now is the moment I’ll look back on a year from now after I’ve changed my name, dyed my hair, and started going by Olga in a diner in Schenectady. But his imploring eyes, his skin against mine, they won’t let me leave.
“Okay.” I never stood a chance against Conor Edwards. “Just to talk.”
Together we settle back onto the bed, the pillow fortress between us dismantled by the bouncing and thrashing. And Conor’s charm. He picks up the stuffed turtle that had migrated to the end of the bed and sets it on the nightstand. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in here, now that I think about it. Rachel’s room is…a lot. Like a VSCO girl and a mommy blogger threw up on a Disney princess.
“Help me figure you out.” Conor crosses those sexy arms over his chest. “This isn’t your room, is it?”
“No, you first,” I insist. If I’m going to humor him, there has to be a little reciprocation. “I feel like I’ve monopolized the conversation. Help me figure you out.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything. Everything.” What you look like naked… But no, I’m not allowed to ask that. I might be lying in bed with the hottest guy on campus, but our clothes are staying on. Especially mine.
“Ah, well...” Toeing his shoes off, he kicks them off the bed. I’m about to tell him we’re not staying that long, but then he continues. “I play hockey, but I guess you figured that out.”
I nod in answer.
“I transferred here from LA last semester.”
“Oh, okay. That explains a lot.”
“Does it now?” He puts on an expression of mock offense.
“Not in a bad way. I mean, you’re a magazine cover definition of surfer dude, but it suits you.”
“I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment,” he says, and ribs me with his elbow.
I ignore the little shiver that happily tickles my chest. His playful demeanor is way too appealing. “How did a west coast boy wind up playing hockey of all sports?”
“People play hockey on the west coast,” he says dryly. “It’s not exclusively an east coast thing. I played football too, in junior high, but hockey was more fun and I was better at it.”
“So what made you want to come east?” New England winters are an acquired taste. We had a sister freshman year who made it six days into knee-high snow and caught a plane back to Tampa. We had to mail her stuff home.
Something flickers across Conor’s face. For a moment his gray eyes become unfocused, distant. If I knew him better, I’d think I hit a nerve. When he replies, his voice has lost some of its prior playfulness.
“I just needed a change of scenery. The opportunity to transfer to Briar came up and I took it. I was living at home, you know, and it was getting a little cramped.”
“Brothers and sisters?”
“No, it was just me and Mom for a long time. Dad ran out on us when I was six.”
Sympathy softens my tone. “That’s awful. I’m sorry.”
“Eh, don’t be. I hardly remember him. My mom married this other guy Max about six years ago.”
“And, what, you two don’t get along?”
He sighs, sinks deeper against the pillows while staring at the ceiling. A vexed line forms on his forehead. I’m tempted to backtrack, tell him he doesn’t have to talk about it and it wasn’t my intention to pry. I can see the subject unsettles him, but he pushes on.
“He’s alright. My mom and I were living in a shitty little rental house when they met. She was working as a hairdresser sixty hours a week to take care of us. Then this slick, rich businessman comes along and whisks us out of our misery to Huntington Beach. Like I can’t even tell you how much better the air smelled. That’s the first thing I noticed.” With a self-deprecating smile, he shrugs. “Traded public school for private. Mom cut her hours then eventually quit her job. Changed our whole lives.” There’s a pause. “He’s good to her. She’s his whole world. He and I, though, we don’t connect. She was the prize; I was the stale cereal forgotten in the cupboard.”
“You’re not stale cereal,” I tell him. That any kid would grow up thinking of himself that way breaks my heart, and I wonder if this cool, laidback persona is how he’s survived the scars of feeling otherwise abandoned. “Some people aren’t good with kids, you know?”
“Yeah.” He nods, his expression wry, and we both know it’s a wound that won’t be healed with my simple platitudes.
“It’s always just been me and my mom, too,” I say, changing the subject to stave off the sour mood descending over Conor like a shadow. “I was the product of a fervid little one-night-stand.”
“Okay.” Conor’s eyes light up. He turns on his side to face me and props his head up in one hand. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Oh yeah, Iris Marsh was a nerd in the streets and freak in the sheets.”
His husky laughter elicits another shiver. I need to stop being so…aware of him. It’s like my body has locked in on his frequency and now responds to his every move, every sound.
“She’s an MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering, and twenty-two years ago she met this big-shot Russian scientist at a conference in New York. They had a single romantic interlude, and then he went back to Russia and Mom went back to Cambridge. Then about six months later, she had to read about it in the Times when he died in a car accident.”
“Holy shit.” He jerks his head up. “Do you think your dad was, like, assassinated by the Russian government?”
I laugh. “What?”
“Dude, what if your dad was into some serious spy shit? And the KGB found out he was a CIA asset, so they had him whacked?”
“Whacked? I think you’re confusing your euphemisms. Mobs whack people. And I’m not sure the KGB is still a thing.”
“Sure, that’s what they want you to think.” Then his eyes go wide. “Whoa, what if you’re a Russian sleeper agent?”
He has an active imagination, I’ll give him that. But at least his mood’s improved.
“Well,” I say thoughtfully, “the way I see it, that would mean one of two things: Either by becoming self-aware I’d soon be marked for death.”
“Oh fuck.” With impressive agility, Conor leaps up from the bed and comically peers out the window before closing the blinds and turning off the light.
The two of us are now illuminated only by Rachel’s turtle nightlight and the glow of streetlamps filtering through the spaces between the blinds.