Sean doesn’t show any emotion, instead he slowly untwists my n**ples and eases up on the pressure, but he doesn’t let go. I glance up at him. As if he can read my mind, he explains, “It’ll hurt more if I just let go.”

“More than before?”

He nods and then asks, “Why can’t you just take what you want?”

I can’t shrug because his hands are still on my br**sts, holding me. “Why do you have to manipulate me? Why can’t you just say you want to f**k me?”

“Because I don’t want to f**k you.” He releases more pressure and then let’s go. Those blue eyes burn like twin flames.

My br**sts ache because of what he did and because he’s gone. “Yeah, you want to own me. I got it and I’m not for sale. Well, I am, but that’s more like renting than buying me.” I have no idea what I’m saying. I’m mad he did that and angry that he got a confession that was so deep, so fast, and then he says he’s not interested.

I lift my hand to slap him in the face. Every single time the man grabs my wrist and stops me, but not this time. There’s a loud crack when my wet palm lands on his cheek. His sapphire eyes stare at me without remorse as I slip my hand away. “I don’t want to buy you. I don’t want to f**k you. Ask me why, Avery.”

I’m trembling, wondering what came over him. The water is hot, but I shiver anyway and look away. “No.” I can’t fathom why or what he wants. Not after everything we’ve been through. I want to cry. He doesn’t want me at all anymore? He just wants to cause me pain? I can’t deal with this.

“No?” He sounds shocked. “You can’t say no.”

“Yes, I can and I just did.” He’s looking at me like he wants to throw me through the wall. I plaster my arms across my n**ples so he can’t make me say anything else I’ll regret.

Sean’s gaze drops for a moment. When he looks back up, his eyes flash. “If that’s the way you want it.”

I’ve won. He’s backing down. Sean turns around and opens the bathroom door. He’s leaving, but then he turns back and grins wolfishly before stepping into the shower with me. I screech as the water sprays everywhere. It streams down his cheeks and plasters his hair to his face, as Sean presses my back into the cold tile wall.

Sucking in a sharp breath, I try to move, but he pins me. “Ask me why.” His eyes search mine and I’m no longer sure what he’s going to say. “Ask me why I don’t want a fuck, or why I don’t want to buy you. Ask me why I don’t want to share you with Black or anyone else. Ask me why my dick is hard and I’m still wearing pants, pressing my body against the most beautiful woman in existence. Ask me why she’s nak*d and I’m not. Ask me, Avery. Ask me anything. I’m begging you.” There’s a soft plea in his voice that nearly breaks me, but I can’t bear to hear his answer.

I don’t want to talk and I’m afraid of what he has to say, I’m afraid it’s horrible and I can’t take more bad news without falling apart. I want him to take me in his arms and pull me against his chest. I want to sleep with him beside me and pretend that my life isn’t falling apart.

The question I ask eases the fear that’s strangling me. Looking up into his eyes, I press my lips together and say, “Can you hold me?”

Sean pulls me into his arms and holds on tight. The water continues to pour over us, and he stays like that with me, until I ask to move to the bed. We crawl under the covers, Sean in boxers, and me totally nak*d. He wraps his arms around me and lets me nuzzle against his chest. I’m in forbidden territory and I don’t know how I got here. Resisting the urge to touch, I close my eyes and try to sleep.

Something changed. I can feel it, I just don’t know what.

CHAPTER 7

Sean needs to head out to Long Island and I manage to talk him into returning me to my dorm for an hour or so. My argument for doing so was ironclad. I have no clothes. No, he can’t buy me more because I need some specific things—girl things for work—and they’re in my dorm. Plus, I need my books and all the crap I photocopied for my term project. That thing is due at the end of the week.

Sean hesitates when we finally pull up in front of the dorm. “I don’t like this Avery.”

I slip off the back of his bike and shuck my helmet. My hair is plastered to my head and I’m sure I have that greasy used car salesman thing going on. “Sean, I know you’re worried about me, but Mel is up there. And have you met Amber? Evil guys are afraid of hags. She’s vile. No one will mess with me while the two of them are there. It’s not like I’m walking down a dark alley alone, on Halloween, with an axe murderer on the loose. I’m not TSTL.”

“What does that mean?”

“Too stupid to live.” I don’t mean to laugh, but I do. “What, do you live in a cave?” I make a roaring sound and claw a pretend paw at him. His head tilts to the side and he’s ready to get off the bike. Pressing my hands to his, I add, “Seriously, Sean. Treat me like an adult even if I don’t sound like one. If I don’t take care of myself—at least a little bit—I’ll go crazy. This is so minor. It’s day time. It’s a freakin’ dorm.”

Sean glances up at the building again and back at me. “Fine, but I’ll come up with you.” He puts his kickstand down and starts to turn off the bike, but I stop him.

“No, you’re not. Sean, you have something to do. Go do it as fast as you can, and when you come back, I’ll be packed and ready. You said you’d be right down the street. I can call you if I need help. I promise.”

After a lot more groveling and pleading, Sean finally agrees to let me go inside by myself. He’ll be back in a heartbeat if I need him, and he makes me swear to call him if something isn’t right.

The truth is, nothing’s right. Last night I laid in bed with him and it was perfect, in a surreal sort of way. I wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing and it wasn’t weird. It didn’t feel forced. I didn’t care what I looked like. It was more about how I felt, and with Sean’s strong arms around me, I felt good. It makes my stomach churn to think of the desperation in his eyes when he wanted me to ask him why I was out of bounds. I don’t want to know. I can play make-believe a while longer, can’t I?

When does pretending become a mental illness? I’ve had to pretend day in and day out that I’m fine, that I’m not falling apart. How is this any different? Sean’s my friend. I can live with that. Sort of. It’s unfair for me to expect more from him. Sean’s the way he is for a reason. He isn’t asking me to leave my baggage behind, not that I could. Besides, it’s not really baggage. It’s more like scars. Those don’t go away no matter what kind of high priced goop you slather on them. Some people say scars build character, but I think they make weak points in my suit of armor and the more scars that appear over my heart, the more likely I am to skewer myself and never get up. There’s no way to get through the day without that suit. Some people call that suit sanity, others call it the ability to deal with life. Either way, I know mine has been etched away, as if acid has been placed over my heart for years on end. The piece that protects my heart is paper-thin and too weak to protect me from much more.

For some reason, when Sean’s around it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like someone healed me and that constant aching at the center of my chest vanishes. The grief that strangles me in my nightmares is gone. I can sleep when he’s next to me. There are no shadows pulling me into the icy waters and clawing at my hair until I stop struggling and drift beneath the waves.

And that’s the thing. Life is a struggle. Who am I to complain because it isn’t easy? Mel’s life has been so much more horrifying and would have crushed a weaker person. I couldn’t walk a foot in her shoes, never mind a mile. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how she finds laughter when there is none.

I’m pulled from my thoughts as the doorknob twists. I’m hunched over the sink, up to my elbows in bubbles. Expecting to see Amber, I speak over my shoulder, saying sarcastically, “Thanks for cleaning the room.”

Translation: she didn’t clean up anything. Her and one of her boinking buddies must have cooked something fishy on the hotplate and left it in the room all night. The smell when I came in was so bad that no amount of air freshener will cover the stench. I already bleached the dirty dishes and have been spraying Lysol since I got here. I’m pretty sure there’s a cloud of disinfectant mist hovering in the center of the room like a tropical depression.

“You’re welcome, but it’s not my mess, babe. Amber had over that other guy she sees when I’m not around.” Naked Guy is standing in the door way with low rise jeans and no shirt. It’s still cold enough to snow.

I repress the urge to roll my eyes, and scrub a nasty pan in our little sink. Do you know how hard it is to clean pots and pans in a micro sink? Amber’s an idiot. That’s the first thought that enters my mind, and the second one is more alarming—what if it was him? Naked Guy is a few screws short. I shove my paranoia away, and say over my shoulder, “She’s not here.”

Naked Guy lets the door shut behind him and makes his way across the room to where I am. He leans against the counter opposite me and grins. “Oh? I guess she’ll be here soon. Mind if I wait?”

Yes. “No. I’m leaving in a sec anyway. My friend is coming to pick me up. He’s a big scary guy.” Ha. I added that for good measure, but the dim wit doesn’t seem to care. It so wasn’t him. This guy couldn’t find his way out of a barrel. He’s too obsessed with his pecs.

I feel his eyes on the side of my face and know he’s watching me. “So, are you and Amber going to the Astronomy Lab to watch the meteor shower this weekend? I heard it’s supposed to look really cool from up there.”

“Not my thing, babe. If a girl wants to see big rocks, I got a pair right here. ‘Nuff said.” He grabs his crotch as he pushes off the counter and steps closer to me, which makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. Ack, I can’t stand him. What the hell does Amber see in this loser? Still holding the pan, I turn to look at him. There’s a smile on his lips as his eyes dip to my chest, and then back to my face. Asshole. “But I don’t think that’s what you really want to talk about right now, is it? I mean, not after the other night.”

I try not to react. That damn video was seen by way too many people, and they were happy to let me know it when I walked into the dorm. The girls nicknamed me ‘slut,’ which was very clever, and the guys let their eyes rove over my body in hope that I’d give them a second glance. I assume Naked Guy is in the ogling camp. What a jackass.

My eyes narrow to slits before I roll them. “Which night are you talking about? The one where you f**ked my roommate and locked me out? Or the one where you two did it against the window so everyone in the quad could see?” I step toward him and press a finger to his chest, even though he towers over me. “Let’s get one thing straight, my sexual life is none of your goddamn business and if you want to keep your head on your shoulders, you won’t mention that video to me ever again.” I turn back to the sink and scrub the pan so hard that the sponge tears.

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