“Lily,” Connor calls.
I jump. “Yeah?” I squeak, not making eye contact. He can’t read my mind. He can’t see where I’ve just been. I sink into the bar stool.
“You stopped typing again, and you were breathing all weird. Everything okay?”
No. Sex literally invades my brain like enemy troops. I spring to my feet. “I-I have to talk to Lo. Can you give me ten minutes?”
I expect anger, but he nods casually. “Take your time. You’re useless until you can focus.”
My brain barely processes the insult as I beeline for Lo’s bedroom. Forget knocking. I storm through and shut the door behind me. I keep my hand on the brass knob, half of me still undecided about being here. My cowardly side says to go back to the kitchen and wait for Lo to talk, to apologize, to do something before I confront him with simmering heat in my pupils.
But here I am. Not able to move forward. Not able to flee. Lo meets my gaze, rubbing a towel through his damp hair. He looks like a member of the living again, dressed in clean jeans, a black crew neck tee, color returning to his cheeks, and his eyes not so glazed.
His amber irises hold me in a trap, and I forget why I bombarded through in the first place. Was it for sex? No, not when we haven’t discussed his disappearing act last night.
“Done studying?” he asks and tosses the towel on his leather desk chair. His muscles stay taught.
“No. I’m taking a break.” I can’t separate from his gaze and leave. Nor can I ask the festering question.
Lo just stares at me. He grits his teeth and veins pop from his neck, not out of anger. I see his restraint, trying not to burst out in a series of unfiltered words. He swallows and glances towards the wall of cabinets where his crutch hides. I can almost see him counting in his head before he turns his attention back on me.
“Say something,” he breathes.
I blurt, “I didn’t have sex with him. Or anyone else.”
His face breaks into a million shards and his chest rises. Pained, he puts a hand on his desk chair to steady the blow in his body. I guessed wrong—that’s not what this is about.
He holds the bridge of his nose, cringing. “Did you think I was obsessing over that? Wondering if you screwed your tutor?”
“I wasn’t sure.” I bite my fingernails. “So…you didn’t think I had sex with him?”
His eyes fall to the floor, and then very softly, he says, “I wouldn’t have blamed you, if you did.”
My lungs suffocate underneath invisible weight. Tears prick my eyes. He wouldn’t care if I slept with someone else? He expects it.
“I should have been here,” Lo explains, more to himself. He keeps shaking his head, probably wishing to reverse time and strangle the boy who passed out too early, who wouldn’t answer my calls. “If something happened, that’s on me, not you.”
“Please don’t,” I say, bracing my body against the door. It keeps me upright as much as the chair does him. “Don’t give me a free pass to cheat on you. If I cheat, it’s real. If you’re not here, it’s real. You want to save me from the guilt if I sleep with someone else? Well, you can’t.”
His eyes grow red. “I’m not any good at this.” Not good at a relationship? At being with me? At trying to drink less? He doesn’t elaborate what this actually means. So I’m left to guess. He finds a beer in his drawer and twists off the cap, a surprising choice considering the low alcohol content. Weirdly, it’s almost like a peace offering, an “I’m sorry” for Loren Hale. Only he can apologize with alcohol.
“Why didn’t you answer your calls?”
“My phone died sometime during the night. I didn’t know it until I woke up.” He motions to his desk where his cell docks in the charger. Then he edges closer to me and pries my hand off the door, intertwining his fingers in mine. He spends an awfully long time staring at the way they lace together.
“Where were you?” I breathe.
He licks beer off his lips. “A bar a couple blocks down the street. I walked.” He leads me into the middle of the room, my feet gliding with his. Something’s wrong. I see the cold, jagged pain in his eyes, so deeply cut that it can’t be all from guilt—from me.
He turns up a pop ballad and then draws me close. He lifts my arms around his shoulders and then slides his hands on my hips. Lo sways to the beat, drifting, but I plant straight in reality while he tries to forget.
He looks right at me and says, “Nothing.” I almost believe him. His brows even furrow a little, appearing confused.
“Maybe you’ll feel better if you tell me,” I whisper.
He stops moving, and his eyes cloud. Lo stares up at the ceiling for a moment, shaking his head before letting words slide off his tongue. “I called my mom.” Before I can ask, he says, “I don’t know why. I don’t know…” His nose flares, holding back an avalanche of emotion.
I wait for him to continue, even though a weight bears on me and my breath has been lost to the past. He knows the question I want to ask.
Quietly, he says, “You were at the library, and my mind started going. I just, I don’t know. I looked up Sara Hale on the internet and found her number.” Even after their seamless and discrete divorce, she kept Jonathan’s last name to retain some of his fortune. He constantly complains about it, but there’s nothing he can do now. She walked away with a billion dollars in assets and a chunk of the company as a shareholder.
“Are you sure it was the right number?” By his staggered breathing, the call must have gone badly.
He nods, his gaze flitting around the room. He looks lost. I keep my hand in his, but he’s somewhere far, far away. “I don’t know what I planned to say,” he tells me. “Maybe I should have started with, ‘Hey, thanks for getting knocked up just to marry my dad and take his money’ or ‘Hey, thanks for nothing.’”
“You know what I said?” he laughs, tears building. “Hi Mom. Like she means something to me.” He rubs his mouth in thought, and he lets out another short laugh. “After all these years of being satisfied with not knowing a thing about her, I finally call. And she says, ‘Who is this? Loren? Don’t you ever call this number again.’ She hung up on me.”
My mouth drops. “Lo, I’m…” sorry—for what, his mother being a freeloading, gold digger who willingly handed her child off after a billion-dollar settlement? “It’ll be okay. You’re not missing anything good. She’s a horrible person.”
Lo nods. “Yeah…yeah, you’re right.” He inhales a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have called her. I wouldn’t have gotten so trashed. I just wanted to stop thinking about it.”
I squeeze his hand. “I know.”
“Come here.” He draws me to his chest and then kisses my forehead. “I’ll do better. I’ll try harder for you.” He rubs my back, keeping me in the warm embrace for quite some time. I want to live here. In his arms. Where I know it’s safe. “We’re okay?” he asks softly.
“I think so.” I take a peek at the clock. Connor must be waiting, counting the seconds, each tick another point off my future exam.
Lo places his hands on my neck and inspects me closely. “You’re shaking.”
“I’m fine.” I glance hesitantly at the door, wanting to do things with Lo but not having the time. Not with my tutor in the kitchen.
Lo suddenly understands my reservations. “I’ll distract him for twenty minutes, and you can stay in here and watch something. I’ll bring you a tape from your room.”
“Really?” My face brightens.
He breaks into a small smile for the first time today, genuinely happy to help. “Really, really. Any preferences? Role playing, oral, BDSM?” He goes to the door, about to dig through my p*rn videos.
His grin widens. Moments later, he returns with three DVDs. His eyes dance mischievously as he hands them over. Scanning the titles, I find the source of his amusement.
“Anal?” I say, smacking him on the arm with the plastic cases.
He kisses me lightly on the cheek and gives my butt a small pat. “Don’t have too much fun without me.” He stops by the door. “Anything I should know about your tutor before I talk his ear off?”
Now I can’t help but laugh. “He says mildly offensive things. He thinks he’s smarter than everyone on the planet—that’s not an exaggeration. And he knows Rose.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “How does he know Rose?”
“Apparently, they met at an Academic Bowl competition. I don’t think they talk or anything, so you’re in the clear.”
“Good to know.” He creeps out of the room, leaving me to my own devices.
And I let all my troubles float away, even Lo’s story, last night’s events, and my impending failing grade. For this small moment, I just feel good.
* * *
Twenty minutes later and down from my high, I feel stupid. For taking a p*rn break during a study session with my tutor. The only way I justify my actions and not turn into a cherry red tomato is by remembering that I wouldn’t be able to memorize facts without feeding my compulsion.
I wash my hands, grab a Diet Fizz from Lo’s fridge, and gently close the door behind me. In the hallway, Lo and Connor’s voices breeze through, making me stop by the wall.
“Definitely B,” Lo says. “A, C, and D don’t even make sense.” Is he studying or talking about breast sizes?
“That’s right.” Connor sounds proud, a reaction that I couldn’t squeeze from him. Definitely studying. “Good job. You know you’re not half bad. If you weren’t so lazy, you’d probably reach the class average.” Reach the class average? Even though Lo barely mentions his grades, I thought he was doing better than that. Like gold-star worthy scores.
“Do you think I’m too dumb to notice that you just called me an idiot or do you just not care?” Lo asks.
“Honestly,” Connor says, “I don’t care.”
“Huh…” Lo mutters. I imagine his forehead wrinkling as he tries to process Connor Cobalt and his blunt (sometimes incorrect) honesty.
“Lily was pretty worried last night. We wasted a lot of studying hours looking for you. Where’d you end up going?”
“Wait,” Lo says in disbelief. “You helped look for me?”
I had the same reaction when he offered to search for Lo. It barely fazes Connor that accompanying someone he hardly knows to hunt for a drunken boyfriend isn’t at all ordinary.
“Yeah,” Connor says. “We tried the highlighter party on campus, but you weren’t there. I ruined a pair of pants doing it. Girls always go right for my ass. I don’t get it.”
“Lily didn’t hit on anyone, did she?”
I should be hurt that he doesn’t fully trust me. But I’m glad he’s cautious of my fidelity. It means he cares. And it’ll make me try harder to be faithful.