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Excuse Me, First Love

College Daze: Book One

Danielle Burton



COPYRIGHT

Excuse Me, First Love

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2015 Danelle Burton

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author, except brief quotes used in reviews.

Cover Design: Danielle Burton



Thank you for downloading this free ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Smashwords.com, where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.


DEDICATION

To my beautiful mother. Though you never got to see me accomplish this dream I know you’d be proud. Gone but not forgotten. I love you always.


To my amazing husband, for being amazing and my gorgeous daughter. May this encourage you to fulfill your dreams and never give up as far out of reach as they may seem.


To my incredible Wattpad readers and fans. Without you none of this would be possible. Your continued support means the world to me. Thank you for giving me the courage to continue this journey when I have felt like giving up so many times.


To my fifteen-year-old self. Thank you for choosing life;



CONTENTS


Copyright

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

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Chapter One


Gabi


Don’t do it Gabi. A throat punch is not the proper way to start off your freshman year of college. I stared after the idiot who’d just darted past, knocking me flat on my butt. Luckily, I’d landed on a soft bed of grass instead of the pavement. Mr. Rudeness hadn’t even so much as glanced over his shoulder. Clearly chivalry was dead and he was missing a vital organ known as the brain.

“What are you doing down there?”

I squinted up at my dad while rising to my feet. “Just resting a bit.” No need to send him chasing after anyone either. “Are we almost done?”

“Just a few more boxes.”

Hooking my thumbs through the belt loops of my shorts, I fell in step beside him as we walked back to the moving truck.

He leaned against it and studied me for a few seconds before he spoke in a somber tone. “I still don’t understand why you had to come down so early. You could’ve at least given your old man another week with his baby girl before running off to college. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to get away from me.”

“Not you…or Kas.”

His chest inflated with a heavy sigh. “I wish you and your mom would get along.”

“Maybe if she’d stop trying to dictate my life.”

“Your mother means well, sweetheart.”

“Oh, I know. She just loves me to pieces, that’s why she’s not here.”

His shoulders drooped and he reached over and brushed one of my wild, reddish curls away from my face. “Your mom wanted to be here, she just –”

“Had to work? What’s new?”

His eyes remained on me a moment longer, but he didn’t press the issue. I suppose because he knew, just like all the other times, that it was a pointless argument. We’d gone ‘round and ‘round about my ‘relationship’ with my mother most of my life. It always ended in a stalemate. 

With another heavy sigh, he pushed away from the truck then grabbed another tote from the ground. “Let’s finish up.”



Once everything was inside of my dorm, my dad stood with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans. “Sure you don’t need any help unpacking, or you know, wanna hang with your old man for a while?”

“I’m fine, Dad, and you need your rest before you get back on the road.” I closed the space between us and squeezed his waist as tight as my arms would allow. “Love you. Call me when you get home so I know you made it safe.”

“Love you too, baby girl. And I sure will.” He brushed one of my frizzy curls behind my ear and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Be good.”

“When am I ever not good?”

He narrowed an eye at me and lifted a brow, his ‘who you think you foolin’ look.

I giggled, shaking my head at his expression. “Point taken. But don’t worry, I’ll be on my bestest behavior. Cross my heart.”

He hugged me one last time before heading out, leaving me to relish in the feeling of being on my own for the first time in my life. A grin crept over my face and I pumped my fist, before hopping up on to the bed and commencing to shake my groove thang.

Several minutes later I was still at it, swiveling my hips and singing the chorus to ‘Break Free’ by Ariana Grande.

A throat cleared behind me sending my heart into a frenzy. I turned and found my dad standing in the doorway smirking.

“When you’re done celebrating, here,” he held out my laptop bag. “You left this in the truck.”

I climbed down and shuffled to the door, my cheeks burning the entire way. “Thanks, Daddy.”

Once he was gone, for good, I locked up my dorm and headed down to the one place I’d been dying to go since being accepted at River Crest University.


~ * ~


I slipped off my sandals and dug my toes into the sand, enjoying the breeze coming off the lake as joggers passed by giving friendly waves. That was one of the things I missed most about River Crest, the sense of community.

It wasn’t exactly a small town but it was far from the big city of Chicago where I’d spent the last three years. Even though I’d only lived in River Crest for a short while before moving, I’d fallen in love with everything about it. Devastation didn’t begin to describe my feelings when I found out my dad’s job was relocating us.

It was one of those places people only dreamed of moving to. Big houses with white picket fences and spacious yards, beautiful parks, and the most gorgeous winters. But the thing I loved most about this town was where I stood right now, Juniper Lake.

I’d spent every day here the summer before my parents had dragged me kicking and screaming to the Windy City. On the last night of that particular summer, I’d sat in this exact spot with the best friend a girl could ever hope for, Jayson Adams. My Jayson.

A lot of promises were made that night, none of which were kept. I toyed with the dolphin charm hanging from the thin chain around my neck. A parting gift from him, or rather my half of a matching set. The other hung above his heart the last time I’d seen it.

There had been so much I’d wanted to say to him that night, but my fear had gotten the best of me. I’d been a fourteen-year-old girl in love with her best friend. A friend she would never see again. I’d resigned myself to the fact that revealing how I felt was a moot point. We were kids, I was moving a thousand miles away, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The next morning he’d kissed my cheek, told me he’d never forget me, and promised to call me every day. And he had...at first. After a few weeks, the calls had tapered off until one day they’d stopped completely.

I’d hated my parents for months for tearing me away from him. I hated him for breaking his promise. And I hated the world for being so unfair.

Every day I told myself it was just a childhood crush and the feelings would eventually go away. I’m still waiting.



When I made it back to my dorm it was overflowing with boxes, none of which were mine. My mother had packed all my things in bright colored totes and fancy garment bags. Everything was so well organized, unpacking would be a breeze.

I navigated through the maze until I reached my side of the room. A large silver makeup case sat on my bed. The professional kind you’d usually see at a photo shoot. One side was open revealing an array of eye shadow in every color of the rainbow – and then some.

A hand shot out, snapping the lid shut and scaring the crap out of me in the process.

“Sorry about that. I was looking for something and didn’t have any room.” A petite girl with flawless sepia skin moved the makeup case to the floor. “You must be Gabrielle.” She beamed at me, showing off perfect white teeth, and stuck out her hand.

“Gabi,” I corrected, and shook her hand.

“I’m Camryn,” she said, brushing her long, straight brown hair over her shoulder. “But friends call me Cam. People who want to die call me Cammie. Please don’t call me Cammie.”

I offered a small smile, unsure if it was a joke or a threat, and sat on the edge of my bed, looking around the room. A mountain of boxes, some with clothes spilling out, hid the door. “You sure have a lot of things.”

“I know.” She gave an exaggerated eye roll and shook her head. “As soon as my mom found out I’d be living on campus she converted my room into her ‘yoga space.’” I had to bring most of my stuff with me.” She busied herself pushing boxes over to her side of the room. “Plus, I bought a whole new wardrobe during the summer. High School is over now. I have to look the part if I’m going to land me one of these sexy college guys.”

Classes hadn’t even started yet and she was on the prowl for men? I could already tell we didn’t have a thing in common.

A knock on the door interrupted my assessment and I rose to answer it. Camryn followed close behind. Clearly personal space was of little importance to her.

When I opened the door, there was a man leaning against the frame picking at his cuticles. He was a few shades lighter than Camryn, and had a baseball cap turned backward on his head.

“Can we help you?” I asked him.

His hazel eyes caught mine and he smiled. For a long moment he didn’t speak, just stared. It wasn’t until I cleared my throat that he pushed away from the frame and found his words. “Thank God. The girls in the last dorm were trolls.”

He handed us each a bright orange sheet of paper. “My name is Haikeem. I’m part of the unofficial welcoming committee. That there,” he said, pointing to the flyers in our hands. “is a list of all things important here at RCU. Hotspots, bangin’ parties, and even a few romantic spots for the couples. It’s updated monthly, and we encourage all the sexy ladies to attend our parties.” His gaze lingered on me as he ran his tongue over his plump lips.

“I bet you do,” I mumbled. That troll remark had rubbed me the wrong way. Any chance he might’ve had went out the window with that one statement.

He took a step back and smiled at us again. “Well, I’ll be seeing you ladies around. Especially you, Red.” He winked at me before turning and heading down the hall

In your dreams.

I skimmed over the flyer while walking back to my bed, not even giving the parties a second glance. My eyes stopped near a section at the bottom of the page. Live Music & Poetry: Every Saturday night at Angelo’s. Poetry was my weakness. Though I couldn’t write it worth a damn, listening to poets pour their emotions out in melodic rhythms moved my spirit in a way I couldn’t quite put into words.

Camryn’s voice pierced my reverence and I looked up to find her butt planted on my nightstand. “I’ll definitely be at all these parties, especially if Mr. Sexy from the welcoming committee is there.”

After a relaxing breath to stave off an eye roll, I tossed the flyer on my pillow and went over to the tote labeled ‘shoes.’ Leave it to my perfectionist mother to have every pair scrubbed clean and separated into dividers. I grabbed my favorite pair of sneakers, and then sat on my wooden chest to change into them. “Between studying and track meets I won’t have time for any.”

“You run track?” If the shock in her voice wasn’t enough evidence, her gaping mouth gave away her surprise.

“Yeah.” River Crest was famous for track. There were teams at the Elementary, Middle, and High Schools. I guess you could say it was kind of our thing.

“I always wanted to join the track team, but my mom wouldn’t let me.”

“Why not?” I stood after I had laced and tied my shoes.

Camryn went back to pushing boxes around. “Sports are for manly girls.”

“Excuse me?” My gaze narrowed on the back of her head. I don’t know who Miss Priss thought she was, but if –

She faced me and her eyes went as wide as saucers. “Those are my mom’s words, not mine. She said I couldn’t go out for sports because boys don’t like girls that act like boys. Gymnastics was also out of the question. Boys don’t like girls with more muscles than them. Again, my mom’s words. I ended up cheer-leading, which I hated.”

I took a deep breath, my gaze softening and anger dissipating. I needed to stop with these knee jerk reactions, the only thing my mother and I agreed on. “Wow, your mom sounds like a pill.”

Camryn threw her head back and groaned. “She’s the worst. I was so glad when I graduated, I don’t ever want to go back there.”

She turned back to a box that was almost as tall as her and began pushing it. Or at least that was her attempt, but the thing wasn’t budging.

With a little shrug, I went over to help. If we were going to be roommates, I suppose I could at least try to get along with her, even if we were polar opposites. “My mom didn’t want me to run either. My dad had to talk her into it, and she only agreed if I worked for her. She’s a caterer. She wants me to go into business with her, but it’s not my thing. I just want to win a few more medals and get my degree in Astrophysics.”

She stopped pushing the box, and I slipped, almost hitting my face on it.

“You’re majoring in Astrophysics?”

I nodded and gestured for her to keep pushing.

“Wow, you’re like every little girl’s role model. I could never do something so ambitious.”

It was clear the box was staying put, so I turned and leaned against it. “What’s your major?”

“Yours is so awesome I’m embarrassed to say.”

“Come on, it can’t be that bad.”

She pursed her lips, staring down at the box. “Accounting.”

“Accounting isn’t bad. It pays well.”

“Yeah, but it’s boring and safe. Plus, I’m too damn cute to be sitting behind a desk.”

I couldn’t help but to crack up at the seriousness in her expression. I shook my head and glanced down at my watch. “Are you going on the campus tour?”

“Yeah, you?”

I nodded, lifting my wrist for emphasis. “It’s in less than thirty minutes so we should get going.”

“Fine with me,” she said, a grin spreading across her face. “Anything to get out of working.”


~ * ~


During the tour, I’d taken a few notes and tried to memorize where everything was. Camryn had spent most of her time making eyes at the tour guide. I couldn’t blame her. He looked like a younger version of Brian White. 

It was close to lunch when the tour ended, so we decided to head to Angelo’s. According to the guide, not only did they have live music and poetry, but the best pizza for a hundred miles in any direction. Living in Chicago had spoiled me, so I had my doubts anything could compare.

Camryn walked next to me, scrolling through her phone.

I looked over at her and shook my head. “I can’t believe you asked for his number.”

She grinned from ear to ear. “Girl, he was damn fine. Check out his Instagram pics.” She handed me the phone which had a shirtless image of Omar, the guide, displayed on the screen.

I almost drooled at his well-defined, toffee colored body. “Good lord.”

“I know, right?” She took the phone back and dropped it into her purse. “I am so jealous of your hair. Is that your real color?” She lifted one of my reddish curls from my head and examined it.

“Yes, and you shouldn’t be. It takes a lot to tame this lion’s mane. Half the time I look like I stuck a fork in an electrical socket. Don’t even get me started on what weather does to it. Let’s just say, me and fog don’t get along.”

“Well you have me now,” she said, draping her arm over my shoulder. Which was a bit awkward considering she couldn’t have been more than 5’5” even in heels, and I was 5’ 10” without them. “I can fulfill all your hair and makeup needs.”

We walked the rest of the way in silence with Camryn once again scrolling through Instagram. If it hadn’t been for me guiding her, I’m pretty sure she would have walked into something.

When I pulled open the door to Angelo’s, a blast of cool air gushed out mixed with the aroma of fresh marinara sauce and garlic. As if on cue, my stomach rumbled, telling me to hurry up and feed it.

We grabbed the last table available and waited for the busy wait staff to notice us.

Melodies of conversations mixed together, giving the restaurant a sort of low buzz. The atmosphere was comfortable and inviting, a lot different than the places I’d frequented during my high school years in the big city.

There were no families or older patrons. In fact, everyone in the place looked like they attended the university. The thought made me smile. I couldn’t believe I was a college student now. Well, not for another two weeks when classes started, but still.

I released a contented sigh and took in the sights. Booths lined one wall, upholstered with bright red leather. Rectangular lanterns of the same shade hung from above. The other side held a long bar, various bottles of alcohol stood on the shelves behind it.

Toward the back, three carpeted steps led to a separate part of the restaurant. Unlike the area we sat in, that side had a fancier quality. There were a couple dozen tables, all empty at the moment, covered with a white table cloth and set for two. Further back, and up even more steps, was a large stage. That must have been where they had the music and poetry.

A wide, wooden column in the center of the room caught my eye. Engravings covered the mahogany wood, but it was hard to tell what they were of from this distance. I’d have to check it out later.

After fifteen minutes of me studying the interior and Cam scrolling Instagram, a waiter finally came over. He gave us a big smile before taking his note pad from his apron pocket and retrieving the pencil from behind his ear.

He had a Channing Tatum look to him. Scruffy, dirty blonde hair, a light tan, and twinkling green eyes that roamed over the length of me. What was it with these college guys? I’d barely gotten a second glance in high school. According to Sasha, one of my team mates on the track team, I wasn’t approachable. Supposedly guys were intimidated by me. For what reason, I hadn’t a clue. Though it was possible it had something to do with me punching Samuel Lewis in the nose our sophomore year. I’m sure he never grabbed another butt after that.

The one boyfriend I did have lasted less than a month. He was nice enough, but there was only one thing on his mind, and I was not giving that up to a guy I’d known for three weeks.

Mr. Tatum tapped his pencil against his pad and stared at me with his brow raised.

Camryn nudged my foot under the table and gestured to the menu that had somehow materialized in front of me. “Your drink, Gabi?”

“Oh, sorry.” Heat crept over my cheeks and I just knew they’d turned a deep shade of red. I flipped to the drink section and placed an order for an iced tea while avoiding eye contact with the server.

Camryn and I both ordered a personal pizza, mine meat lover’s, and hers, sausage and mushroom. I almost gagged at the thought of that slimy fungus sliding down my throat.

After Marc, not Channing, left our table, Camryn laughed and wiggled her brows at me. “I would’ve never guessed you liked white boys.”

“What makes you think I like him?” Marc was pretty good looking, but far from being my type. I could appreciate a handsome white guy, but preferred deep, dark, skin that was kissed by the gods themselves.

“Well you were staring at him for a long time.”

“I was not. Was I?”

She nodded.

I buried my face in my hands. How embarrassing. “I didn’t mean to. My mind sort of drifted.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be a bad way to kick off the semester.”

I shook my head at my boy crazy roommate. “I’m not looking to date right away. I have a lot on my plate as it is. I don’t need any distractions.”

Marc came back to the table with our drinks, taking his time and watching me from the corner of his eye.

“No matter how cute they are,” I finished after he left, then took a sip of my tea and almost spit it back out. “Eww, I forgot to tell him to add lemon. I’ll be right back.” I stood, drink in hand, and headed over to the bar.

A group of guys blocked my path, holding what seemed to be an animated conversation. One of them was facing away from me and laughing. He backed up, paying no attention to his surroundings.

I tried to dodge him but wasn’t quick enough. He slammed into me, sending freezing tea down the front of my brand new halter top. The glass slipped from my hand and shattered against the hardwood. Thank goodness I’d changed out of my sandals. “Dammit! Watch where you’re –”

“Gabi?”

My heart leapt into my throat when I looked up at the jerk who’d crashed into me and came face to face with Jayson Adams. My Jayson.



Chapter Two


Jay


I drank in the face that I never thought I’d lay eyes on again. It’d been so long since I’d spoken her name it sounded foreign on my lips. It was hard to believe so much time had passed since I’d erased it from my vocabulary. Since I’d tried to convince myself that she never existed. I won’t lie and say I hadn’t thought about her. Hell, for the first year after she left, hardly a moment passed when Gabi wasn’t on my mind.

I’d spent months begging the universe to bring her back to me. As messed up as it sounds, I even prayed for her dad to lose his job in Chicago so that maybe they’d move back home. Whatever it took to have her in my life again. Three hundred sixty-five days of wishing for her, and now she stood in front of me and all I could do was stare.

My blank look must have made it seem as though I was unhappy to see her because a second later she brushed past me and made a beeline for the restroom. A few seconds after, a small blur rushed by, headed in the same direction.

Turning, I stared after Gabi, a familiar feeling fluttering in my gut. She was back.

Benji elbowed me, drawing my attention. “Wasn’t that –”

I took off in the direction she’d gone, not wanting to risk her thinking I was anything less than excited she was here. As I stood in the hall waiting for her to exit, it hit me. She hadn’t run because she was upset, the tea had soaked her top.

I’d never been so ecstatic for having worn two shirts in the blistering heat. I pulled off my checkered button up then knocked on the restroom door.

The same girl who’d rushed by me earlier stuck her head out. “Yes?”

“Do you know Gabi?”

She nodded.

“Could you give this to her?”

She accepted the shirt with a smile and closed the door.

A few excruciating minutes passed before anyone emerged. Gabi didn’t make it a foot out of the restroom before I pulled her into a bear hug.

She squealed in my ear as I spun her around.

“Gabrielle Tanner. Damn, it’s good to see you, girl.”

I sat her down and reluctantly freed her from my embrace so I could get a look at her. My shirt never looked that good on me. She’d tied it in the front revealing her toned honey brown stomach – and belly ring?

So much had changed, yet…not. Her reddish brown hair still hung past her shoulders, but instead of its natural frizzy state, it framed her face in loose curls. She’d always been tall for her age, which had once made her thin frame appear lanky. Now…boy oh boy. While still on the slender side, areas where bones once jutted awkwardly had been replaced with soft curves.

When my gaze finally made it to her face, her brows were furrowed and her mouth twisted into a small frown. Likely due to me staring at her like an idiot. But damn, could you blame me? It’s not every day you get to see that awkward friend flourish into…that.

Leaning back against the wall, I took a moment to swallow down the saliva that’d collected in my mouth before I drooled on myself. “What are you doing here?”

Her lips curved upward into a smile I never could forget. “Well I was trying to get some food until some goofball knocked tea all over me.”

I chuckled. “Funny. I mean in River Crest.”

“I’m attending the university.”

“Word?” I almost jumped up and clicked my heels together. Her being on campus meant I’d likely see her every day. I hoped. “Freshman.”

She rolled her eyes and nudged my shoulder. “Hush.”

Before she’d left I’d always teased her that I was a grade ahead. She’d been excited that the following school year I wouldn’t be able to call her a freshman anymore. That was until…

A throat cleared beside us and we both turned to Gabi’s friend.  “Well, let me just get out of the way of your little love connection, since I seem to be invisible.”

Gabi’s cheeks flushed, a bit of red tinging them as her wide eyes flickered to me. “Um…Jayson, this is my roommate, Cam. Cam, this is my Jay – uh, Jayson. This is Jayson.”

Cam lifted a brow at Gabi then shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, Jayson. Gabi, I’m going to head back to the table and wait for our food.” With that she turned and left us standing there.

“Why don’t you sit with us?” I offered. “It’s just me and Benji.”

She nodded, flashing me that beautiful smile. “Sure.”

Benji stood when he saw us, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s good, Gabriel? You done got grown on me?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her.

A strange pang clenched in my chest and I found myself frowning.

She giggled and smacked the back of his head before pushing him away. “I see you still live to annoy me.”

“You know it.”

I chuckled, recalling these two constantly going at it back in the day. Benji, my cousin who might as well have been my brother, and I grew up together, at least our adolescent years. He’d lived with us so he always ended up hanging out with me and Gabi, making fun of her affinity for sports. Hence calling her Gabriel instead of Gabrielle.

Gabi left for a moment to ask her friend to come over. When they joined us, Benji and Cam sat on one side while Gabi and I shared the other.

No sooner than Cam was beside him, Benji was putting the moves on her. And being his usual self, did so without an ounce of charm or stealth. “Damn, you’re small as hell, girl.” His gaze roamed over her body as he licked his lips. “The positions I could put you in.”

I thought for sure she’d go off on him, instead she smirked and gave him a sideways glance. “Boy, please. You couldn’t handle this if I gave you the handbook.”

“Baby, I wrote that book.”

Cam had no idea what she’d just gotten herself into. If there was one thing Benji loved, it was a challenge.

I shook my head at them and turned my attention to Gabi. “So, how’ve you been, Little Red?”

She giggled at her childhood nickname, then turned in the booth to face me, pulling her leg up as she did so that her knee rested on my thigh.

“I’ve been okay. What about you, track star? You asked what I’m doing here, what about you? I thought colleges would be fighting over you.”

“They were, and it was tough choosing from so many, but I’ve run for River Crest my whole life. It only seemed right to finish here, you know?”

She nodded and stirred her fresh tea with her straw.

A silence fell over us and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Our conversations had once flowed so effortless. Now it was almost like we had no clue how to be around one another. I didn’t like it in the slightest. “You know I missed you, right?”

When she looked up at me the smile had vanished from her eyes, replaced with something I’d only seen from her on rare occasions; tears. “Did you? Because you stopped calling, and whenever I phoned you were never available to talk. You forgot about me, Jay.”

Her words hung in the air. That coupled with those big brown. tear-filled eyes ripped my soul in half. I could kick myself for causing her to believe I’d forgotten her. As if such a thing were even possible. Not only was she my best friend and so completely different than any girl I’d ever come across, but it wasn’t like you could ever forget your first –

Benji’s rambunctious laughter sliced through my thoughts. “Trust me, Gabe, he missed you. Cried like a baby for the longest. It got so bad I hated to spend the night in his room. Kept getting woken in the middle of the night by this guy sobbing your name into his pillow.”

Shaking my head at my supposed ‘friend’, I plucked a sausage from my pizza and tossed it at him. “Not cool, man.” After giving him a threatening glare, I turned my attention back to Gabi.

She rested her elbow on the table with her head on her fist and gazed at me with those pretty browns. “If you missed me so much, why’d you disappear?”

With a heavy breath, and heart, I met her gaze. “Gabi, I’m so sorry I –”

“What the hell, Jayson?”

I winced at the squeaky voice behind me, knowing it could only belong to one person. Shit. I turned and found Brooke killing Gabi with her eyes.

I rocketed from my seat and led her away before all hell broke loose. “Babe, what are you doing here? I thought you were sick.”

She cocked her head to the side and placed her hand on her hips. Aw, hell. ”That’s all you have to say to me after I find you cuddled up in a booth, entertaining some bitch?”

My eye twitched at her reference to Gabi, but I let it slide, for now, seeing how things may have looked from her perspective. “No one’s cuddling. Gabi’s just a friend.”

“Yeah, I bet. Just what kind of friend is she?”

“It’s not like that. We grew up together, that’s all.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits while she crossed her arms under her breasts. “That’s funny, I don’t recall you ever mentioning her.”

“We lost touch for a long time. I thought I’d never see her again.”

She continued her visual assault, probably having killed me in her mind several times by now.

I could see that this situation, as well as many others involving me and a female that wasn’t her, would not end well. Unless I calmed her down in the next few seconds, Angelo was gonna have my ass for causing yet another scene in his establishment.

“Babe, relax.” I rested my hands on her shoulders, and then moved them up and down her arms. “There’s nothing going on, okay?”

She started to relax into my touch until her gaze shifted over to Gabi. The smile forming on her face twisted into a scowl and she pushed my hands away. “Why the hell is she wearing your shirt?”

Shit. I’d forgotten about that. “There was an accident. Tea spilled on her top. It was my fault so I loaned her mine.”

She stared at me for a long time, no doubt deciding if she was buying my story. Over the past few weeks her distrust in me had increased. I couldn’t even look at a girl without her accusing me of something.

Her eyes cut over to Gabi again, a grin creeping over her face. She cupped the back of my neck and pulled me into a kiss, shoving her tongue into my mouth.

The only reason I didn’t push her away was to save her from embarrassment. Brooke knew how I felt about public displays of affection. A hug or peck on the cheek was fine, anything more belonged behind closed doors.

Once she released me, she sauntered past the booth, smirking at Gabi the entire way.

My fist clenched, desperate for a wall to punch for not realizing what she’d been up to sooner. The kiss, in full view of the table, had been her marking her territory, daring Gabi to touch what was hers.

She and I were going to have a long talk later. I was beyond fed up with this little act of hers.

When I made it back to my seat, Gabi stood wringing her hands. I couldn’t quite read the expression on her face, but it was far from the smile she’d worn less than fifteen minutes ago.

“Cam and I have to go.”

I looked to Benji for an explanation. His only response was a shrug.

Cam stood and eased out of the booth. “Right, we have a lot of unpacking to do.” She linked her arm through Gabi’s and they hurried toward the exit. Just as they reached the door, Gabi looked back at me. Our eyes locked and she held my gaze for a second before lowering her eyes and continuing forward.

All I could do was collapse into my seat and close my eyes. I leaned my head back, mulling over the last three minutes of my life. I couldn’t comprehend why I was more upset over Gabi leaving the restaurant than the possibility of Brooke leaving me.

Benji snickered and I opened my eyes, awaiting his smart ass comment.

“Well, that was interesting. Better than a soap opera.”

“Shut up.”

He continued to laugh at my expense before stopping to frown at the table. “Hold up, did they just leave us with their bill?”


~ * ~


I sat on the edge of my bed, holding my aching skull, emotionally drained from the reappearance of Gabi and the drama with Brooke. Luckily Brooke had gone back to her dorm. I wasn’t in the mood to argue. Not when all I could think about was the frizzy red head and her sad smile.

A thought came to me and I went over to my dresser and cleared out the bottom drawer. I threw everything into an unorganized pile, then yanked the drawer from its place and set it to the side.

It was still there, where I’d hidden it away months ago when my mom had sent it. I hadn’t wanted to see it or accidentally stumble across it so I’d left it at home, which she knew.

I held the scrapbook on my lap and ran my hand over the embroidered names on the front, tracing the curve of the G with my fingertips. For the first time the old album brought with it a smile instead of pain. Flipping through the pages brought back a rush of memories. Ones I’d never quite succeeded at burying.

I paused at a photo of me and Gabi play wrestling in my bedroom. My mom had always been snapping pictures back then, saying our kids would want to see what we were like. She’d always had this idea that Gabi and I would end up together. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that she and my dad had gone from friends to lovers, a story she loved to tell to anyone who’d listen. She’d been almost as upset as I was when Gabi left...almost.

Benji came in and made his way over to my desk, glancing at the dresser as he passed. “Do I even want to know?”

“I was looking for something.”

He plopped down in the desk chair and started a slow spin, eyeballing me with each pass.

“What, Benj?”

“Why’s there have to be a what? Can’t I just enjoy the company of my friend?”

“I know you, that’s why. Go ahead with whatever remark you think is so clever.”

He stopped spinning and faced me. “First of all, I am clever. And I was just going to say...it was cool seeing Gabi again.”

I sat waiting for his punchline.

Instead he picked up a magazine and flipped through it.

“Yeah it was. Wish I’d gotten to chill with her longer though.” And explain myself. I couldn’t blame her if she hated my guts after I’d all but abandoned her. Scratch that, that’s exactly what I’d done. I’d never considered what my separation would do to her. I’d let my pain make me selfish.

“If only the ol’ ball and chain hadn’t shown up.”

“Benj...” I hated when he insinuated that I was somehow whipped by Brooke, which was far from being the case. I just got tired of her drama and liked to avoid it when necessary.

He flashed that stupid goofy grin of his. “Just sayin.’”

I gave him a hard stare to let him know it was time to drop the subject, which he of course pretended not to notice.

“I know you like to ignore this little fact because she’s your girlfriend, but…Brooke is a bitch. Hopefully one day, sooner rather than later, you’ll realize that and drop her ass.”

Pushing out a heavy sigh, I stood and leaned against the dresser. “I know she’s not the easiest person, but she’s not all bad.”

He scoffed and shook his head. “Right.”

It was no secret that Benji didn’t care for Brooke, but that dislike had morphed into hatred a few months ago. Now they couldn’t even be in a room together for five minutes without getting into an argument. The shit was stressful to say the least.

“When you were alone with Gabi and Cam, did they mention what dorm they were in?”

He stared at me for a second, thankfully going along with my subject change, then smiled. “Well at least you got some type of sense.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Chuckling, he shook his head. “Nothing. And nah, the subject didn’t come up. But maybe you should go back to Angelo’s and look around. Perhaps she left a glass slipper.”

I pushed away from the dresser and headed to the door. “Something’s wrong with you.” I left him chuckling to himself in the room and went to search for Gabi. I needed to make things right.



Chapter Three


Gabi


“It isn’t fair.” I lay back on my bed staring up at the ceiling, a deep ache penetrating my soul.

Cam flopped down next to me and mimicked my position. “What isn’t?”

“He has a girlfriend.”

“And it’s not fair because?”

“Because it isn’t me.”

She turned on her side and lifted a sculpted brow at me. “Didn’t you just say this morning that you weren’t interested in having a boyfriend?”

I stood and sulked over to the window. Somehow the breathtaking view of Juniper Lake further dampened my mood. “He’s not just a boy…he’s Jayson.”

When I’d gotten accepted at RCU, I was excited to come back to River Crest. Even more so at the slim possibility that Jay would be here. Now I’d give anything to be back in Chicago away from the heartache.

“Is he your ex or something?”

“No, we were just...really good friends.” Best friends.

“But you’re in love with him.”

I faced her, leaning against the windowsill. “I don’t know. It’s been three years. He could be a different person now.” Who was I kidding? When our eyes met, I was that helplessly in love fourteen-year-old girl all over again. Only this time I realized it would never be mutual. When he’d kissed her... I tugged at my necklace, grasping it in my fist like part of me wanted to rip it away and fling it into an ocean. “I hoped I’d have a chance to figure it out, but now...”

“But now what?”

“He has a girlfriend.”

“And?” She pulled her feet up and sat with her legs crossed. “A girlfriend isn’t a wife. Besides, did you see the same girl I did? She seems bitchy, and that voice.” She pretended to shiver and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“So, because she’s annoying, I should try to steal her boyfriend?”

“Of course not. Just wait a little while, those types of relationships crash and burn.”

I took a seat on the trunk at the foot of my bed, still twisting at the chain around my neck. “So, I sit patiently and bide my time until he gets tired of her?”

“No, you sit patiently until he figures out whom he really wants.”

“And what makes you think that’s me?”

A smile crept across her face. “I just have a feeling.” She hopped up, then dragged me to my feet. She was strong for such a tiny little thing. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“Nowhere.” She skipped over to the stereo we’d set up, and a few seconds later ’Piano’ by Ariana Grande played through the speakers. “We’re dancing.”

I stood with my arms folded while she wiggled her hips to the music. “I’m not in the mood to dance.”

“Come on,” she said pulling me to the middle of the floor then dancing around me. “It’ll make you feel better.”

I doubted that was possible, but her smile was infectious, and soon I was laughing and moving along to the beat.

We danced around the room and got busy unpacking. I finished long before her, so using some of my mom’s super organization skills, I helped Cam find room for most of her things.

When night fell, Cam got glammed up and left to hunt for a party. I stayed behind and curled up in bed with some Thai food and my favorite movie, Love & Basketball.

I used to think me and Jay would be like Quincy and Monica, minus the long break up. So much for that.

After watching the movie twice, I slipped back into Jay’s shirt and lay in bed forcing the tears not to fall. When had I become such a crybaby? I lifted the shirt collar and inhaled the scent of his cologne, trying to put a positive spin on the situation. Sure, the boy…man I was hopelessly, completely, irrevocably, in love with was unavailable, but hey, at least I had my best friend back. Because that’s exactly the role I wanted Jayson to play, not

As the first tear broke free, I found myself wishing death on whoever the liar was who’d said ’time heals all.’


~ * ~


Forty-eight hours had passed since my life got flipped turned upside down and I’d yet to catch even another glimpse of Jay. If not for the shirt currently enveloping me I’d swear I dreamt the whole thing. Over the past couple of sleepless nights, I’d spent a lot of time contemplating if that would be so bad. At least then there’d be no ache in my chest from yet another shattered heart. 

The rest of my time had been focused on wishing I hadn’t come back here. I could’ve been in California right now instead of one of the coldest states in the Midwest on a maybe. Even if Jay was single, it still wasn’t a guarantee that he’d be with me. I must have been delusional to think so.

In the contemplative silence of my dorm, and now the bench in the courtyard, I’d finally come to terms with the truth behind my single status all throughout high school. A truth I’d denied to myself time and time again. That someway, somehow, Jay and I would be in each other’s lives again. That our friendship would blossom into something else. That he’d pick up that damn phone and call me. Message me. Tweet me. Something!

And yeah, I could’ve took the initiative, looked him up. A few times I actually had, the looking anyway. But when it came time for the messaging, I’d always chickened out. Afraid of what he’d say, or worse, that he wouldn’t respond at all. How pathetic was I, wrapped up in a childhood crush who probably hadn’t thought about me once? He’d stopped calling, so our friendship couldn’t have been all that important to him.

In the weeks before accepting my admittance at RCU, I’d gone back and forth so many times. In the end, I’d justified it as needing closure. Besides, what were the chances he’d still be here anyway? Turns out, very likely.

Blowing out a hard breath, I tried to focus on the book I was reading, or at least attempting to. The glare from the sun wasn’t making it easy.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere. “

My heart constricted at the deep voice coated in silk, only to be followed up by a series of palpitations. I raked my gaze upward until it landed on a dark brown face framed with a neatly trimmed goatee. The sun caught his pecan colored eyes, causing a sparkle that would’ve made Edward Cullen jealous. “H-hi. Guess you found me.”

My eyes stayed glued to Jay as he sunk down beside me on the bench and smiled, flaunting a set of dimples so deep I could swim in them.

His gaze shifted from me to the book that sat in my lap. He pushed the cover up and examined it. “All That and a Bag of Chips. Interesting title. Any good?”

I nodded, keeping my eyes anywhere but on his, and closed the book. “So…you were looking for me?”

“Yeah. I wanted to apologize for what happened at Angelo’s the other day. I don’t know if you heard – ”

“Her call me a bitch?” I finally looked up at him and found his jaw a bit slack.

He closed his eyes and pushed out a sigh before continuing. “Yeah. I’m sorry about that. Brooke can be a little…territorial.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to explain.”

His eyes searched over mine and then he gave a single nod. A weird silence loomed over us. One that told of many things left unsaid.

Jay cleared his throat while strumming his fingers on his thigh. “So, uh, three years, huh? Sure doesn’t feel like it. Seems like just yesterday you were trying to kill Benji for throwing your bra up a tree.”

My stomach knotted from laughing so hard at Benji’s past antics. “Ooohh, that boy used to get on my nerves. I don’t know why you always brought him with you when you came over. Like you weren’t aggravating enough on your own.”

His smile dropped, bringing his laughter to an abrupt halt. “Me? Aggravating?”

“Yeah you.”

He reared his head back with both brows lifted. “Says the girl who spent a week tackling me at random or was constantly jumping on my back and biting my ears. You were abusive,” he finished with a chuckle

Giggling, I shifted on the bench so I faced him. “I remember no such thing.”

He looked me up and down then smirked. “Sure you don’t, Mike Tyson.”

I made a face and stuck out my tongue. “Anyway.”

“Yeah anyway, abuser. How’s life been? Still that tough girl I remember?”

I took my time mulling over his questions. How’s life been? Besides lonely? Well, after I left and you abandoned me, I never made another friend like you. Associates, maybe. People to hang out with, sure. But not once have I been able to replace the friendship we once shared.

“It’s been pretty good, I guess. I’ve mellowed that’s for sure. Trying to be more ‘zen’ now. What about you?”

He shrugged. “Nothing too exciting. High school was fun. Graduated Valedictorian.”

I nodded, pulling a strand of hair between my lips. I was more than a little curious about his relationship, which he failed to mention in the rehashing of our lives apart, but asking would be prying into his business.

Before I could speak again, his phone rang.

I sat, gnawing on my hair while he answered.

“Hey, Pops. What’s up? No, I didn’t forget. Yeah. Alright, I’m leaving now.” He hung up then gave me an apologetic look. “I gotta get going. My dad needs me to do something for him.”

“Okay. Guess I’ll see you later then.”

Our eyes met for a moment, his unreadable. His lips twitched like he was about to say something, instead he smiled and took my hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze. “See you later.”

Sweet electricity danced through my fingers and up my arm. “Later.” Wait didn’t I already say that?

He stood and just like that he was gone.


~ * ~


Apparently ‘later’ meant never because even more days had passed and no more Jay. Maybe it was better this way. Out of sight out of mind, right? I laughed at that notion while stepping into my dorm room.

I paused at the door, shaking my head at my roommate. I’d been for a run, came back to shower, attended a campus safety seminar and she was still knocked out cold. She’d been out every night for almost a week, partying until the wee hours. Each morning when I woke at five for my run, she’d be just getting in.

It was now past ten, and she lay on top of her covers, still in her clothes from the night before. She was going to have a hard time with class if this continued.

I went over to the bed and shook her. If we were going to be friends, I had to at least try to get her on the right track. When she didn’t stir, I shook a bit harder and called her name.

Her lids lifted just a bit before she squeezed them shut and groaned. “What?”

“Wake up.”

“Why?” She turned her back to me and covered her head with a pillow.

“Because classes start in a week and you need to learn to get up earlier.”

She mumbled something beneath the pillow that I couldn’t make out. Cursing me to hell, I figured.

I snatched the pillow away, getting a glare for my effort. “Get up.”

“Gabi!” she whined then poked out her lip.

“Cammie.” I left her and went over to the window and opened the blinds. “Up.”

“I hate you so much right now.” She swung her feet over the side of the bed and folded her arms like a child.

“Yeah, yeah. You’ll thank me later.” I headed into the bathroom, my hair was long overdue for a wash and deep condition.

No sooner than I closed the door, it opened again. Cam came in, forced me out, and closed the door in my face.

“Hey! Rude!” I stood fuming on the other side.

A minute later she came back out, brushing past me with a smirk on her face. “What? I had to pee.” She stuck her tongue out at me then fell back into bed.

She was so lucky I liked her. I grabbed my hair washing clothes and went back in, locking the door this time. After collecting my supplies, I jumped in the shower ready to wrangle my stubborn locks.

An hour later, I stared in the mirror cursing my genes. I didn’t understand it. My mother’s hair was always smooth and flawless, never a strand out of place. I’m sure flat ironing had something to do with it, but even that didn’t work on my tangled mess for more than a day. Neither did a blow dryer. It wasn’t like the commercials where women blow dried their hair, turning it silky smooth and sleek. No, blow dryers hated me. I looked like Cousin It had discovered electricity.

Maybe Cam could do something with it. Her go-to style was a sew-in, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, but I’d take that over Ms. Frizzle.

I stepped out of the bathroom, stopping with my hand still on the knob. Balloons hovered in several places, and a cake with yellow frosting sat on my dresser.

Cam sat on the edge of her bed with a goofy grin on her face.

“Cam…what did you do?” I tried to smile at her, appreciating the gesture, but I wasn’t too keen on surprises, especially ones that involved my birthday.

She threw her hands up in mock surrender. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t even know it was your birthday.”

“Then who –”

She nodded toward the window, still grinning.

I looked over my shoulder and my heart dang near sprang from my chest. Jay leaned against the wall near the window with his hands shoved in his pockets. He looked all kinds of yummy in a crisp white t-shirt and matching shorts, a gorgeous contrast to his deep chocolate skin. When we were younger I’d thought he was cute, adorable even. This man before me was not cute, and there was nothing adorable about him. He dripped sex appeal, and I wanted to catch each drop on the tip of my tongue.

He smiled at me, revealing those caverns he called dimples.

Had I not been holding on to the door I would have swooned. I tore my eyes away from him and found a spot on the floor to keep myself from staring, or drooling rather. “Hi, Jayson.”

“Hey, Little Red.” His voice moved closer, and before I could prepare myself, his arms wrapped around me.

There was that electricity again, coursing through my body without relent. This hug was different from the one at Angelo’s. Longer, tighter, I clung to him. Then he let go, leaving me empty and cold.

When his gaze drifted to my hair I wished I could disappear. I’d forgotten how much of a mess I looked. Not only my hair, but also my attire. A pair of worn cotton shorts and a tank top, with no bra. Kill me now.

He dug his fingers into my hair and massaged my scalp with a big smile on his face. “Frizzy.”

One action, one word, seemed to squash every insecurity I had about my hair. I bit my tongue to stifle a moan as his warm fingertips moved against my scalp. Don’t stop doing that. Don’t ever stop.

He stopped.

“I feel like an idiot. We’ve talked twice and both times I forgot to get your number. I had a hell of a time finding you. You’d think a tall, redheaded black girl would be easy to spot. I’m sure I asked about a hundred people about you before I finally ran into Cam yesterday.”

I glanced over my shoulder, giving her the evil eye. “She didn’t tell me she saw you.”

“I asked her not to say anything. I wanted to surprise you.” He took my hand, giving it a gentle squeeze, and making the million butterflies in my stomach take flight.

“You did. Thank you.” I bit my lip and fixed my stare on his chest. Only Jay had the ability to make me love something I hated. Growing up, birthdays had been depressing. My dad tried his best, throwing me a party every year, but nothing could fill the void left by my mother always being too busy to attend.

“No problem at all, Little Red. So, how does it feel to finally be eighteen?”

I shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I don’t feel any different.” I looked around the room again and smiled at all the decorations. “I can’t believe you did all this for me.”

“Why not? You’re still my best friend.”

Yay me.

He draped his arm over my shoulder and led me over to the cake. My name was scrawled across the top in orange frosting, my favorite color.

“It’s lemon,” he said, smiling down at me.

I wasn’t big on baked goods, but I had a weakness for double lemon cake. It was amazing how he remembered all the little things. He really hadn’t changed. “Thank you.”


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