Calculus. Why the hell did I agree to calculus? Passing this class would be a miracle. Keeping my grades up was part of the deal with my scholarship. If I failed a class, then I lost it. I couldn’t lose this. If I played this season the way I played last season, I should have my next two years at a state college covered. I had to pass this one class first. I’d been putting it off. It was time I faced it.
Walking into the room, I did a quick scan for a desk close to the front. Instead, my eyes found Amanda. She was laughing at something another girl was telling her, while some guy was leaning on her desk looking directly down her shirt while laughing along with whatever the other girl was saying. The douche.
Amanda was close enough to the front. A few girls called out my name as I walked toward her, but I ignored them. I kept my focus on Amanda. Her eyes lifted to meet mine as I made my way to her. The smile on her lips faltered. She was trying to keep her distance because she was smart. I was the a**hole not allowing it. I should be letting her run, but every little inch she pulled back I confused her. I was a shithead. This realization wasn’t going to keep me from sitting beside her, though. The other guy needed to back the f**k off. His eyes were looking places they hadn’t been invited. Manda needed a damn bodyguard.
“Hey, Preston,” the brunette who had been making Amanda laugh greeted me first. The cooing tone of her voice was familiar. She was interested. She knew what I was like, and she was still willing. I got that a lot. I managed a small smile and nodded, but I didn’t take my eyes off Amanda’s.
“Hey, Manda,” I said as I took the seat on the other side of her.
“Preston. Uh, hey.” Her nervous reply was expected. She didn’t want me near her. I couldn’t blame her or take offense.
“You taking calculus first semester of college? I’m impressed. I’ve been putting it off.”
Amanda shrugged a shoulder. “I like math.”
Calculus was not math. It was a f**king science experiment gone wrong. I started to reply when the guy standing beside her cleared his throat. I glanced up at him with an annoyed snarl. Why was he still standing there?
“You took my seat,” he said.
Now, that made me smile. “Then I guess you should have been sitting in it.”
I turned my attention back to Amanda, whose bright pink cheeks told me this was embarrassing her. I didn’t want to do that, either.
“I may need help. I’m glad you’re good with numbers,” I told her, leaning back and getting comfortable. The guy started to say something else, and I cut my eyes back his way in a silent warning. I wasn’t moving, but I’d sure as hell move his ass.
He let out a loud sigh and moved away. Smart boy.
“What are you doing, Preston?” Amanda whispered as she leaned over toward me.
“What exactly do you mean, Manda?”
“You know what I mean. Why are you sitting here? I thought we’d agreed to keep our distance. After . . . everything.”
I didn’t want to keep my distance. I might not get to have her again, but I liked being near her. She made me happy. She made the darkness not seem too smothering. “I want to be friends,” I explained, watching her chew her bottom lip nervously.
“How can we do that?” she asked in a low voice.
I had no idea. All I wanted to do was cuddle her up and keep her. That wasn’t an option, though. “We just do.”
The worried look in her eyes made me feel guilty. I was asking her for something that she wasn’t ready for. But I needed it.
“Okay. If that’s what you want,” she finally replied.
The professor walked in and started talking, so our conversation was over. For now.
She didn’t look at me during the entire class, and I had a problem looking at anything but her. Was the memory of what we’d done going to drive me insane? Normally, once I slept with a girl and I was over any attraction, I moved on. But something about Amanda was holding me. Was it because I was drunk and the memories are so blurry?
* * *
Once class was over, Amanda stood up quickly, grabbed her books, and shoved them into her backpack. She was in a hurry to get away from me. Not what I wanted.
“You have another class?” I asked, standing up and stretching.
Amanda looked over at me and her eyes zeroed in on my lower stomach. I lowered my arms slowly and my shirt covered back up the patch of skin she’d been checking out. The appreciative gleam in her eyes had me wanting to strip the damn shirt off. If that was what it took to hold her attention, I’d do it.
“Um, I—uh—no. Not right now,” she stammered as she pulled her backpack up higher on her shoulder.
“Want to go get some coffee? I didn’t have time for any this morning.”
Amanda glanced back at the door, and the girl who’d been talking to her before class stood waiting on her. “I was going to the library, but I wouldn’t mind some caffeine first,” she replied, looking back at me.
Yes. She had caved easy enough. “Can we go alone? I wanted to talk to you about some things.”
Her eyes widened a bit, and I could see the understanding. Did she want to pretend it hadn’t happened? I wasn’t going to be able to do that.
“Okay. Let me go tell Kelsey I’ll meet up with her later.”
Why was I doing this? I deserved the Stupid Award. But then again, how was a girl supposed to tell those pretty blue eyes of Preston’s no? It was impossible. When he set out to get your attention, he was insanely hard to ignore. He hadn’t made peace with what had happened between us. I knew that was what all this was about. He needed to feel okay with everything. He and Marcus were close. He probably felt guilty. The sooner I eased his guilt, the sooner I could get my distance. This friends thing was not what he wanted. He wasn’t friends with girls. He had friends. Lots of friends. None of them were female.
Once we got outside the math building, I grabbed Preston’s arm and pulled him away from the crowd and underneath an oak tree. There was no need for us to go get coffee and pretend. It would only give him a chance to get more under my skin than he already was.
“Listen, I know what’s bothering you. I get it. This is about Marcus. So whatever you need me to do to ease your conscience so you can go on with your happy-go-lucky self, just tell me. Let’s not pretend that we’re going to be friends. Because honestly, I can’t be your friend. It would never work.”
Preston stood silently staring at me while my little “clearing of the air” became a full-blown rant. I hadn’t meant to get carried away, but I had. Just looking at him and feeling my body get all excited by his nearness made me mad. What did the guy have to do to me to make me hate him?
“This isn’t about Marcus. I wish to hell it was. But it isn’t.” Preston reached out and put a hand on my waist and pulled me closer to him. Oh my. Not what I was expecting. “I can’t stop thinking about you, Manda. I try. I try all the damn time, but I can’t.”
Wow. My knees were a little weak.
“I want to be near you. I can’t seem to keep away.”
Double wow. I couldn’t form words at the moment. A strand of his pale blond hair was falling in his eye, and I wanted to tuck it behind his ear. To touch it. But I didn’t. He pulled me closer.
“Can we be friends? Will you forgive me for that night?”
The word “friends” was back again. I hated that word. I had never been friends with anyone who made my heart race and my body tingle. How could I even manage that kind of relationship?
“We can try,” I choked out.
His hand slid behind my back and settled on the curve above my bottom. Friends didn’t stand like this. He wasn’t doing a very good job with this friends thing.
“I’ll be good. I promise. I’ll be the best damn friend you’ve ever had.” His voice had lowered into a husky whisper. I shivered from the sexy sound.
“Mmmm, I’m gonna have to work on that,” Preston added. “Feeling you shiver. I like it. I’m gonna want to feel it more.”
I swallowed hard and tried to control the emotion in my voice. “Friends don’t get this close, Preston,” I said, and I started to take a step back when he pulled me tightly against him.
“No, Manda, they don’t. But I can’t stop wanting you close. Can we be close friends?” He asked, lowering his head until his warm breath tickled my ear. Closing my eyes tightly, I grabbed his arms to keep myself steady. What was he doing? “I like you close. Real close.”
“Have you lost your f**king mind?” Cage York’s voice broke the spell I’d fallen under, and I found the power to shove away from Preston.
“Stay out of this, Cage,” Preston snarled, turning his heavy-lidded eyes from me to Cage.
“And let you get the shit beat out of you? ’Cause if you touch her, not one of those buddies of yours is gonna have your back when Marcus kills you.”
“I said to back the hell off.”
Cage smirked and shook his head. “I ain’t gonna do that. You can go find another f**k buddy. Amanda is off-limits. You hurt her, then you hurt Low. I can’t let that happen. So you see, this gets personal.”
Cage had always been protective of Willow. They’d grown up together and were best friends. Marcus had issues with it sometimes, but over time he had started accepting it more and more. Especially since Cage had fallen in love with Eva.
“We’re friends. Leave this alone.” Preston turned to face Cage. This wasn’t looking good.
“Cage, he’s right. We are just friends. Let it go. We aren’t and will never be anything more than friends. I promise.”
Cage shifted his eyes from Preston to me. The concern and disbelief in his eyes as he met my pleading gaze was hard to miss. He didn’t believe either of us. But this really wasn’t his business.
“Fine,” Cage drawled. “But I’d make sure it stays that way.”
Preston’s hands fisted at his sides.
“It will,” I assured him.
Cage gave me one last nod, then turned and headed for the math building we’d just exited.
“And that is one of the many reasons our being friends might be a problem. Everyone knows you aren’t friends with girls.” It wasn’t like we could tell them that he’d already bagged me and was over it.
“Cage York is the last person on earth either of us needs to take advice from. Sure, I’ve never been friends with a girl before, but there has never been anyone I wanted to be friends with. You’re different. I want to keep you close.”
I wasn’t going to do the right thing here. I was going to do the stupid thing.
“Okay. Friends it is, then.”
Preston’s face broke into a big grin that made my stupid decision seem brilliant in the moment.
“Can we go get that coffee now?” he asked.
“Sure. Lead the way,” I replied.
* * *
Several girls looked our way as we walked across the street to the campus coffee shop. Preston did a real good job of ignoring them. I’d known him long enough to know he normally didn’t ignore it at all. He typically measured them up with one quick glance and decided he was interested or not.
“What do you drink?” Preston asked as he walked us over to a table inside in the back corner.
“One of those icy coffee things. Anything mocha.” I hadn’t tried the coffee options out here yet, so I didn’t have a specific order.
“Got it. The girliest drink they have,” he replied with a wink, and turned to head to the counter to order. There weren’t a lot of people inside. Several were outside under the umbrellas, but inside it was almost empty.
My phone played, alerting me to a text message. Pulling my phone out, I glanced down to see Kelsey reminding me that we had study group for economics tonight. When a class came with a built-in tutor to help you get through it, then you knew you were in trouble. I intended to make every study group the tutor offered.
“It’s called an Ice Rageous, for future orders,” Preston said as he set a drink in front of me that was topped with whipped cream and caramel.
“Thank you,” I replied as I watched him sink down into the seat across from me.
“You can also order ‘girlie drink’ and the guy behind the counter knows what you mean.” The teasing tone of his voice made me laugh. I’d never really had an actual conversation with Preston that didn’t involve pre-sex or drama. This was nice.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Preston took a drink of his coffee and leaned forward on his elbows, watching me. “Why do I make you nervous, Manda?”
Why did he make me nervous? How was I supposed to answer that? Maybe because I’d had a crush on him for years, I’d given him my virginity, and he was gorgeous.
“You don’t. Well, I mean, you do, but we’ve never really talked before. Not like this.”
Preston set his cup down, but his eyes never left my face. “Then why did you go outside with me at the club? I can’t let that go. I keep going back to the fact that you went out there with me. Why?”
If we were going to be friends, I needed to be honest with him. At least mostly honest with him. I was working on getting over him, so that wouldn’t be an entire lie.
“I had a crush on you. I’d had one for years. I wanted to be the one you took home that night. That didn’t happen, exactly. We made it to your Jeep, and then you hauled me off to the storage shed. I got over my crush after that night.”
Not exactly true, but close enough. He didn’t need the gory details. Or to know that I still used him as inspiration at night when I needed to feel him again. I wasn’t sharing that piece of info either.
“You had a crush on me?” he repeated, and muttered a curse. “Manda, I’m so sorry. I wish I’d been sober.”
I laughed for the first time since we’d started this uncomfortable conversation again. “Had you been sober, I would still be living in my fantasy world that one day you’d look at me and want me too. That night finally rid me of that delusion.”
“You figured out you were too good for me that night.” The tight, pained look in Preston’s eyes confused me.
“No, I figured out that I am never going to be ‘that girl’—the kind you’re attracted to. I’m okay with that now.”
Preston reached out and took my chin in his hands, and lifted my face until my eyes met his. “There are a lot of things that I’m not. But trust me when I tell you I’m more attracted to you than is safe for either of us.”
“Amanda, hey!” someone interrupted us. “I haven’t seen you in a while. And Preston Drake, let go of Marcus’s little sister before I slap you for her.” Jess, Rock’s cousin and the town slut, pulled out the chair on the other side of Preston.
“Hey, Jess,” I replied.
“Leave, Jess,” Preston said in an annoyed tone as his hand left my face.
“Tsk-tsk, touchy, touchy. Cool down, lover boy. You’re barking up the wrong tree with this one. She ain’t your type.”
“I know that. We’re friends,” he snapped. leaning back in his chair and taking a drink of his coffee.
“You stopped coming to Live Bay and drinking with me, Amanda. Wondered what happened to you. We had a few fun nights,” Jess said, grinning at me with a wicked twinkle in her eye.
Back this summer after Preston had left me in that storage room, I’d done everything I could to get his attention, including drinking and partying with Jess. But one night when a guy had gotten a little too out of hand and Dewayne had showed up and beat his face in—that had been my last night out with Jess. It had been the wake up call I’d needed. I wasn’t that kind of girl. I never would be. And no amount of partying was going to get Preston to look at me again. He’d had his fill.
“Yeah, I’ve been busy,” I replied.
“Weren’t you going off to college? Auburn or some crazy shit like that?”
The main reason I wasn’t going was sitting across from me listening to every word I said. “Yeah, I was. But I didn’t want to miss the wedding planning for Marcus and Willow. And my mom still needs me. She isn’t ready for me to leave her just yet. Especially with Marcus getting married.”
“Sure about that?” Jess asked with a knowing look on her face.
I’d probably told her something I shouldn’t have one of the nights I drank too much. Dang it. I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe my little secret wasn’t as secret as I’d thought. I was no better than Preston. Dewayne knew something. Now Jess. Crap.
“I’m positive,” I replied with a forced smile.
“If you’re done with the twenty questions, Jess, we were talking about calculus. You can leave now,” Preston said, setting his cup down on the table. His long tanned fingers wrapped around the cup made me think of the other things I’d felt those hands do.
“Calculus my ass,” Jess replied, standing up. “You don’t normally go sniffing back around where you’ve already been.”
Preston’s annoyed frown transformed into a furious glare, and he slowly stood up. “Whatever the hell you think you know, you don’t. I don’t care who your cousin is. Friend or not. You won’t repeat any of it to anyone.”
Jess raised her eyebrows and met his glare with one of her own. “I’d never repeat a word. But not because your sorry ass threatened me—because I like Amanda. That’s the only reason. ’Cause, Preston Drake, I’d love to see you hung up by your balls.” Jess swung her gaze to me and smiled. “I’ll see ya around, Amanda.”
I nodded, but I was afraid to say anything else. I’d obviously told Jess about Preston and me. This was humiliating. Who else had I told while I’d had my few weeks of drunkenness?”
Jess spun around and strutted out the door. It took all my courage to look at Preston again. He was studying his coffee cup. Guess he was wondering who all I’d told too.
“I can’t believe you won the loyalty of that one. She’s a mean bitch,” Preston finally said, lifting his gaze to meet my anxious one.
I shrugged. I wasn’t sure how I’d managed that either. But we’d bonded over vodka. Weird but true. “Jess is misunderstood. That’s all.”
Preston chuckled. “No, Manda. Jess is a conniving, manipulative slut. She doesn’t make friends with females. Ever.”
“She’s not that bad,” I replied, needing to defend her.
Preston raised one eyebrow and twisted his cup around in his hands as he held my gaze. “We’ll agree to disagree. How’s that?”
He let out a weary sigh. “I didn’t know those drunk episodes of yours this summer were with Jess. I thought those two times I found you and took you home were flukes. It was your attempt at rebelling.”
“They were my attempt at rebelling. I figured out pretty quick it wasn’t for me.”
“Why’d you do it?” he asked.
I knew he wasn’t ready for this answer. Giving him something else to feel guilty about wasn’t what I wanted. Instead, I shrugged, reached for my drink, and took a sip through the straw.
“Please tell me it wasn’t because of what I did. . . .”
I didn’t want to lie to him, but this was one of those instances when lying was the best policy. “No, Preston. It had nothing to do with you.”
The relief on his face made me glad I’d lied.
“Do you have any more classes today?” he asked.
I didn’t. I was going with Willow to pick out bridesmaid dresses, and we were taking Larissa with us to find her a flower girl dress. “No, this is my easiest day of the week.”
Preston tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. “I’ve got to head to the gym to work out with the team, but later you want to do something? Maybe help me figure out what the hell we did in class today? I’ll buy you a meal.”
He was really determined to do this friends thing and get free tutoring out of it too. As much as I’d like to spend time with him, I knew it was bad. “I can’t. I’m going with Willow and Larissa to pick out bridesmaid dresses and Larissa’s flower girl dress.”
Preston titled his head to the side, and the blond hair that brushed his shoulders drew my attention. He looked like one of those airbrushed models in a magazine. No guy should be that perfect-looking. It wasn’t fair.
“What about after? Stores close at six. You should be free then.”
He was right. I’d probably be home even earlier than that, but I had to have some self-preservation. “Yes, but I have an economics study group tonight,” I said, slipping my purse back up on my shoulder. I needed to head to Willow and Marcus’s to pick her and Larissa up. And I needed to get out of here before Preston convinced me to forgo my good sense.
“Okay,” he replied. He leaned back in his chair and stared up at me with those sexy you-know-you-want-me eyes of his.
With a firm nod, I said, “See you around,” before walking swiftly to the door.