I’M LATE, AND it’s the first day of class. I’d like to lay blame on something—car problems, couldn’t find my way to the room, got attacked by a swarm of bees while crossing the quad, anything. But I ride a scooter. I’m a senior, so I know where I’m going by now. And the bees kept to the flowers.
The truth is, I stopped to down a Diet Coke and a bag of cashews before heading to class. Because I was hungry and some things can’t wait. Even so, I hate being late. It sets a bad precedent.
Painfully aware of my professor’s stare, I berate myself as I scurry down one of the aisles between the rows of desks. I slide into a seat in the back just as a guy barrels down the aisle in the same hurried fashion and sits in the desk next to mine. Keeping my head down, I pull out my notepad and try to look organized and ready for the lecture. I don’t think I fool my professor, but she doesn’t say anything to me as she starts the introductory roll call.
Soon it’s my turn. I’m saying my name and year when I hear a sharp intake of breath to my right. The shocked sound has me turning.
That’s when I see him. The second our gazes connect, hot tingles zap through me, making my breath catch and my ni**les harden. The sensation is so unnerving that I can only sit there, my hand fluttering to my chest where my heart struggles to break free.
Oddly, the guy gapes back at me, as if he too feels the strange kick. Which must be wrong; no guy has ever gaped at me. So maybe it’s just that I’m staring at him. Only, he’s staring at me too, and he doesn’t look away.
Stranger still, it feels as if I know him, have known him for years. Which is ridiculous. Even though he looks oddly familiar, I’d remember if I’d met him before. A guy this gorgeous isn’t easily forgotten.
I don’t know why I feel the connection, but I don’t like it. Nor do I like the way something inside me gives a little happy squee, as if I’ve been mentally shopping for men and have just found the perfect one.
Still looking at me, he suddenly speaks. I’m so addled; it takes me a second to realize that he’s responding to Professor Lambert. “Drew Baylor. Senior.” His voice is dark chocolate on a hot summer night.
And it causes a stir. People snap out of their morning fog, turn, stare, and start whispering among themselves. He ignores them, watching only me. It flusters me. Drew Baylor. His name is a ripple through the room. Recognition sets in. The quarterback. I haven’t paid much attention to the members of our legendary football team, so I only know of him in that vague way one knows there’s a Student Union or that the library closes at 7pm on Sundays.
Disappointment is swift and sharp. I have zero interest in getting to know the star quarterback. Chest tight, I turn away and try to ignore him. Easier said than done.
As soon as class ends, I attempt to flee. And nearly run into a solid wall of muscled chest instead. I don’t have to look up to know who it is. We stand facing each other in silence, me staring at his chest, and his gaze burning a hole through the top of my head. Annoyed, I straighten my shoulders and force myself to look aloof. Shit, what does “aloof” look like? It doesn’t matter because our eyes meet again.
I think my knees go weak. I’m not sure because my brain has screeched to a halt.
Holy hell, he’s potent. Heat and vitality come off him in waves. I think I sway a bit. He is close enough that I notice the faint stubble along his strong chin and the glints of gold in his brown hair. He wears it cut short, and thick clusters of it spike along the top and front. It’s flattened a bit on one side as if he’d rolled out of bed and forgotten to brush it. But I doubt that was the case, because he smells fantastic—like warm pears and crisp air. I almost lean in for a better whiff, but manage to control myself.
The silence between us grows awkward until I can’t stop myself from glancing up, just in time to catch him jerking back, as if he too had taken a covert sniff. Doubtful. He’s casually stuffing his hands into his jeans pockets and smiling with ease, the gesture pulling a little dimple in on his left cheek.
I almost smile, start to rethink my earlier stance of avoidance. Then he opens his mouth and ruins everything.
The warm cadence of his voice rolls over me before the words actually make sense. “Hey there, Big Red.”
My world grinds to a loud, screeching halt. Big Red? What the ever-loving knuckle f**k?
I gape up at him, too shocked to even form a proper glare. And he squints back, that inane smile still in place, as if he’s waiting for me to answer. My mind is stuck on one thing.
He’d called me Big Red. Big Fucking Red.
His comment is a punch to the gut. Yet not entirely out of left field. I’m a redhead. Being called “red” goes with the territory. It’s not the “red” part that bothers me. It’s the “big” part. Having been chubby for most of my adolescence has left me sensitive. It doesn’t matter that I’m now more curves than chub; that I like my body. One stupid word from this guy and I feel the pain all over again, damn it. Somehow, I find my voice.
“What did you just call me?”
The corners of his eyes crease in what might be a wince. “Ahh… If I say ‘nothing’, can we move on and pretend it didn’t happen?”
I almost smile at that one, which irritates me further. “No.”
He shifts his weight to his other foot. “Relax, I was only trying—”
“Do not,” I point a finger at him, “tell me to ‘relax’ when you’ve insulted me, bud.”
“Bud?” He makes a strangled sort of half-laugh.
“I’m not ‘big’,” I snap. There’s more hurt in my voice than I’d like to admit. I hate that too.
His head jerks back like I’ve surprised him. It’s a small movement, one that he tries to hide by putting his hands low on his narrow hips. “I wasn’t trying to insult you. Believe me, I was referring to the best of places.” His butterscotch gaze drifts down and roves over my chest. Instantly, my br**sts feel exposed, heavy yet tight. And to my utter humiliation, my ni**les go stiff. As he is staring, he sees and sucks in a sharp breath.
Fuck this. “Eyes up, ass**le.”
He flinches again, his eyes snapping up to my face. “Sorry,” he says, not even a little sheepish. “I’d like to say it won’t happen again, but I honestly can’t promise that, Red.”
“Jesus, you’re unbelievable.”
He scratches the back of his neck, squinting at me as if I’ve become a painful sight. “Look, can we start over?” He thrusts out a massive hand attached to a forearm corded with muscle. “Hi, I’m Drew.”
I don’t take his hand, and he’s forced to let it fall.
“I know who you are.”
His smile returns. This one far too pleased.
“You said your name less than an hour ago,” I remind him.
His confident attitude falters, but he tries again, I’ll give him that. “Well, at least you remembered. I remember too, Anna Jones.”
I ignore the flush of surprise washing over me and cross my arms in front of me. “And I don’t need to start over. I’m not interested in talking to some egotistical meathead who ogles my br**sts and calls me idiotic names.”
I ought to walk away, but I’ve worked myself into a lather now. “I mean ‘Red?’ Seriously?”
He just gapes at me. This time dumbfounded, as if he can’t believe some mental chick is berating him.
“Why not be original?” I go on as if I’m not mental. “Why not call me Blondie?”
White teeth flash in a quick smile. “An esoteric approach, eh? Could work. Though it veers a bit too much toward sarcasm for my taste.”
I blink. His response sends a tingle through me. A pretty face is one thing. A quick mind is nearly irresistible to me. Especially when paired with that grin he wears. No anger there or even triumph, he simply waits for the next volley, enjoying it.
Stranger still, I enjoy it. I fight to maintain my bland look as I respond. “I’m not sure if anyone’s told you, Baylor, but there’s this thing called a person’s name.” I find myself leaning in closer, and as if on cue, he does too. His scent and his heat surround me, making my knees weak as I finish. “You might try using it.”
Little white lines fan out at the corners of his eyes from where he’s spent months squinting in the sun. Those lines deepen now as his voice drops to a murmur. “So no to Red Hot, then?” It’s clear he’s fighting a laugh.
I grit my teeth. “You’re just f**king with me now.”
Wrong. Thing. To. Say.
His nostrils flare on an indrawn breath, and his gaze goes liquid hot. “Not yet, Jones.”
Point two to Baylor, because he’s managed to unnerve me and give me a nickname in one stroke. And somehow I walked right into his trap. Heat rises to my cheeks as I stand there, staring back at him. Like a moron. But then I’m saved from further comment when a professor walks in to start up the next class.
The next day, a box of Red Hots sits on my desk. Baylor doesn’t say a word or look my way, but when I get up and chuck them into the trash, he ducks his head and studies his notes. Good. Now we’re clear.
Only I ruin this later, when, in the privacy of my room, I open the box of Red Hots that I bought and pop a handful into my mouth. Candy-sweet heat melts over my tongue, and all I can see behind my closed lids is Drew Baylor’s slow perusal of my body. I go so hot and achy with need that I moan into my pillow and don’t sleep for the rest of the night.
MY MOTHER ONCE told me that the most important moment in my life wouldn’t be when I won the National Championship or even the Super Bowl. It would be when I fell in love.
Life, she insisted, is how you live it and who you live it with, not what you do to make a living. Given that she told me this when I was sixteen, I basically rolled my eyes and worked on practicing my pass fakes.
But my mother was insistent.
“You’ll see, Drew. One day, love will creep up and smack you upside the head. Then you’ll understand.”
My mom, it turns out, was wrong in one regard. Love, when it came for me, did not creep. No, it walked up to me, bold as you please, you know, just in case I wasn’t paying attention. It did, however, slap me upside my head.
And while I’d be happy to tell my mom that she was right about that, she’s dead. A fact that hurts even more now that I’ve been struck down. More like shot down. Cut off at the knees. Totally f**ked. Whatever you want to call this disaster. Because the object of my affection hates me.
I am man enough to acknowledge that the cluster f**k that is my current love life is entirely my fault. I wasn’t prepared for Anna Jones.
I still cringe at the memory of when I first laid eyes on her at the beginning of the semester. Being late for class, I’d rushed to a seat in the back row, and was trying to remain unnoticed. I can’t go anywhere on campus without getting attention. And though it sounds like an awesome thing, it gets tiring.
When the roll call reached the back row, a soft voice, rich and thick as maple syrup, slid over me.
Just her name. That was all she’d said. It was like a hot finger stroking down my spine. My head snapped up. And there she was, so f**king pretty that I couldn’t think straight. I might as well have been sacked.
Breathless, my head ringing, I could only gape. I’m not going to say it was love at first sight. No, it was more like oh, hell-yes-please, I’ll have that. With a helping of right-the-fuck-now on the side.
Thinking maybe I was overtired and simply overreacting to something that wasn’t really there, I stared at Anna Jones and tried to make sense of my extreme reaction.
As if feeling my gaze, she’d turned, and f**king hell… Her eyes were wide, almost cat-like, with the corners tilting up just a bit. At first, those eyes appeared brown, but they were really bottle green. And so clear. And annoyed. She glared at me. I didn’t care. One word was playing a loop in my head: mine.
I don’t remember the rest of the class. I watched Anna Jones like a condemned man getting his last view of the setting sun. While she tried to ignore me. Admirably.
The second class ended I shot up, and so did she. We nearly collided in the middle of the aisle. And then it all fell to shit. Because at that moment, I became a bonehead.
I’ve never been nervous around girls before. To be brutally honest, my life has been fairly insulated. Football, and the fame that goes with it, has wrapped me up in its loving arms and given me everything I’ve wanted, women included. Unfortunately, it’s become crystal clear that, when it comes to my sport, Anna is not one of the converted. Poor thing.
Whatever the case, I was ill-equipped to handle her when she glared up at me, one delicately arched brow lifting imperiously, as if to say, “what the f**k do you want?”
Standing there, I became aware of myself, this big oaf, looming over her, my tongue thick in my mouth, a crazy twitch starting up on my cheek. God help me if she noticed that twitch. So I blurted out what is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever uttered in my life, “Hey, Big Red.”
Yeah. Shoot me now. What the holy hell had I done? What the f**k did ‘Big Red’ even mean? My mind screamed, Do something, you idiot! Apologize! Retreat! I swear I could practically hear an alarm blaring, a call to activate shields and arm the photon torpedoes.
But no, I just stood there and forced a grin as heat flooded my face and a sweat broke out on my back. Yeah. I was that cool.
Her dark green eyes had flashed in outrage.
And then she let me have it.
Needless to say, I hobbled away from that encounter and remain among the walking wounded. Rejection sucks. It sucks so hard that I haven’t said a word to her since. Instead, I just sit next to her during every class, silently pining. Pathetic.