Oh, God. As if a plug had been pulled, the jumbled excuses and realizations came pouring out. “My boyfriend broke up with me, and he’s in the class, and I can’t stand to see him, let alone sit next to him… Oh my God, I missed the midterm. I’m going to fail. I’ve never failed a class in my life.” As if that speech wasn’t mortifying enough, my eyes watered and spilled over. I bit my lip to keep from sobbing outright, staring at his desk, unable to meet the repulsed expression I imagined him wearing.
I heard his sigh in the same moment a tissue appeared in my line of vision. “It’s your lucky day, Ms. Wallace.”
I took the tissue and pressed it to my wet cheeks, eyeing him cautiously.
“As it happens, I have a daughter just a bit younger than you. She recently endured a nasty little breakup. My whip-smart, straight-A student turned into an emotional wreck who did nothing but cry, sleep, and cry some more—for about two weeks. And then she came to her senses and decided that no boy was going to ruin her scholastic record. For the sake of my daughter, I’ll give you one chance. One. If you blow it, you will receive the grade you’ve earned at the end of the semester. Do we understand each other?”
I nodded, more tears spilling.
“Good.” My professor shifted uncomfortably and handed me another tissue. “Oh, for Pete’s sake—as I told my daughter, there’s not a boy on the planet worth this amount of angst. I know; I used to be one.” He scribbled on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Here’s the email address of my class tutor, Landon Maxfield. If you aren’t familiar with his supplemental instruction sessions, I suggest you get familiar with them. You’ll no doubt need some one-on-one tutoring as well. He was an excellent student in my class two years ago, and he’s been tutoring for me since then. I’ll give him the details of the project I expect you to do to replace the midterm grade.”
Another sob escaped me when I thanked him, and I thought he might explode from discomfort. “Well, well, yes, of course, you’re welcome.” He pulled out the seating chart. “Show me where you’ll be sitting from now on, so you can earn those quarter-points for attendance.” I pointed to my new seat, and he wrote my name in the square.
I had my shot. All I had to do was get in touch with this Landon person and turn in a project. How hard could it be?
The Starbucks line in the student union was ridiculously long, but it was raining and I wasn’t in the mood to get soaked crossing the street to the indie coffee shop just off-campus to get my fix before my afternoon class. In unrelated reasoning, that was also where Kennedy was most likely to be; we went there almost daily after lunch. On principle, he tended to shun “corporate monstrosities” like Starbucks, even if the coffee was better.
“There’s no way I’m making it across campus on time if I wait in this line.” Erin growled her annoyance, leaning to check out how many people were ahead of us. “Nine people. Nine! And five waiting for drinks! Who the hell are all of these people?” The guy in front of us glanced over his shoulder with a scowl. She scowled back at him and I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing.
“Caffeine addicts like us?” I suggested.
“Ugh,” she huffed and then grabbed my arm. “I almost forgot—did you hear what happened to Buck Saturday night?”
My stomach dropped. The night I just wanted to forget wouldn’t leave me alone. I shook my head.
“He got jumped in the parking lot behind the house. A couple of guys wanted his wallet. Probably homeless people, he said—that’s what we get with a campus right in the middle of a big city. They didn’t get anything, the bastards, but damn, Buck’s face is busted up.” She leaned closer. “He actually looks a little hotter like that. Rowr, if you know what I mean.”
I felt ill, standing there mute and feigning interest instead of refuting Buck’s explanation of the events leading to his pummeled face.
“Well, crap. I’m gonna have to chug a Rockstar to keep from zoning out during poly-sci. I can’t be late—we’ve got a quiz. I’ll see you after work.” She gave me a quick hug and scurried off.
I scooted forward with the line, my mind going over Saturday night for the thousandth time. I couldn’t shake how vulnerable I felt, still. I’d never been blind to the fact that guys are stronger. Kennedy had scooped me into his arms more times than I could count, one time tossing me over his shoulder and running up a flight of stairs as I clung to his back, upside down and laughing. He’d easily opened jars I couldn’t open, moved furniture I could hardly budge. His superior strength had been evident when he’d braced himself above me, biceps hard under my hands.
Two weeks ago, he'd torn out my heart, and I’d never felt so hurt, so empty.
But he’d never used his physical strength against me.
No, that was all Buck. Buck, a campus hottie who didn’t have a problem getting girls. A guy who’d never given any indication that he could or would hurt me, or that he was aware of me at all, except as Kennedy’s girlfriend. I could blame the alcohol… but no. Alcohol removes inhibitions. It doesn’t trigger criminal violence where there was none before.
I shook off my reverie and looked across the counter, prepared to give my usual order, and there stood the guy from Saturday night. The guy I’d avoided sitting next to this morning in economics. My mouth hung open but nothing came out. And just like this morning, Saturday night came flooding back. My face heated, remembering the position I’d been in, what he must have witnessed before he’d intervened, how foolish he must consider me.