Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(13)


by Tammara Webber

A month ago, I’d been sanctioned as Kennedy’s GDI girlfriend; now I was only poor Erin’s non-Greek roommate.

***

Laundry rooms were located on each floor of the dorm, but since everyone on my floor decided to run loads at the same time, the washers were all full. Heaving the overflowing mesh bag into the stairwell, I hopped it down the concrete steps one at a time, hoping the residents a floor down were less moved to cleanliness, at least tonight.

Ten minutes later, I headed back upstairs with my empty bag. Stopping just inside the stairwell when my phone buzzed, I answered a message from Maggie reminding me to email a link she needed for a Spanish assignment we were doing together. Itching to text Lucas or email Landon, I shoved my phone down into my front pocket. I’d promised Erin I’d do neither. She knew how boys’ minds worked, while my years with Kennedy left me woefully unprepared for these sorts of complex maneuvers. Frankly, the rules for hooking up didn’t seem that much less tricky to me than the rules for finding a committed relationship, but what did I know.

The door beneath me opened and shut as I rounded the corner, and ascending footsteps sounded behind me. There were hundreds of residents in my building, and though we all used the elevator or the main stairs for coming and going from the building, most of us employed the persistently dank stairwell when moving between floors. The creeped-out, claustrophobic sensation was something I felt every time, and I forced myself not to sprint for the door at the top.

I jerked to a stop, realizing that I was moving forward, but my laundry bag wasn’t. Assuming it was hooked on the handrail, I turned to liberate it and was almost eye to eye with Buck. The end of the bag was caught in his fist.

I gasped and my heart stopped, as though the moment was suspended in slow-motion, and then it began pounding like heavy machinery in my chest. He stepped up to the stair just beneath me—and sneered down at me. “Hey Jackie.” Bile rose in my throat at the sound of his voice, and I swallowed. “Or no. I guess it’s Jacqueline now, right? Isn’t that what you said? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” When he leaned closer, I tried to back up the stairs and tripped, sprawling. I used the opportunity to scramble backwards and up toward the door, but he reached down and pulled me up easily, both hands gripping my shoulders.

“Don’t touch me,” I choked.

He smiled as though he was hypnotizing small, trapped prey. Toying with me. “C’mon, Jacqueline, don’t be like that. You’ve always been real nice to me. I just want you to be a little bit nicer, that’s all.”

His words weren’t slurred this time. He was sober and resolute, and the malevolence in his eyes told me that I would pay for my escape the night of the party. I would pay for what Lucas had done.

I shook my head. “No. I’m saying no, Buck. Just like last time.”

His eyes narrowed, and I could barely hear the curse he hissed from the blood pulsing through my ears. Run. Run. Run, it seemed to say, and I wished I could obey. I let go of the bag, and it fell at our feet.

“I know what happened that night wasn’t your fault.” He shrugged. “You’re a pretty girl, and obviously that guy had the same idea I did. He just got the jump on me ’cause I’d been drinking.” His breath fell over my face, hot, not a trace of alcohol. He wouldn’t trip if I twisted from his grip and ran. “So did he f**k you in your truck, or did you let him take you back to your room? I know Erin was with Chaz that night. Just like she’ll be tonight.”

I flinched from his vulgar words. I hadn’t gotten a text from Erin yet, but it wasn’t impossible that she was staying with Chaz tonight, or that Buck would know before I would.

One arm snaked around and grasped my hip, squeezing it painfully. The pain was nothing compared to the degradation of being pawed against my will.

“The stairwell is rank and uncomfortable, but doable. Why don’t we go to your room, instead? I’ll make it good for you, baby.”

His threat was obvious. If I said no, he would rape me right here. “S-someone could come into the stairwell any moment.”

He laughed. “True. Too bad you aren’t wearing that little skirt you had on the other night. I could put you against this wall and do you in two minutes without taking a thing off of you.”

My head spun. I strained against him, trying to move, even just a little, but couldn’t.

“Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been caught with some hot little freak in an off-the-wall position. And hey—bonus—if you want to get Kennedy back for dumping you, then turning into the girl who’ll do anything, anywhere, with anyone, would make him crazy.” He shrugged. “You already started with that piece of shit—and who knows who else? So we can do it here, if that’s what you want.”

“No,” I said, and his eyes flared. “My room.” My breath panted out, shaky and hopefully mistaken for horniness in his pea-brained assessment. He smiled, and I almost threw up. I’ve never wanted to vomit more, but my body fought it down instinctively.

Arm around my waist, he turned me toward the door at the top, grabbing the laundry bag from the floor. I asked myself if I was willing to do what I was about to do. If I was prepared to scream, fight and claw him in the hallway, humiliate myself in front of everyone, in hopes that he wouldn’t succeed in getting me into my room. If he did that, I was done for. The walls weren’t sound-proof, but everyone was used to hearing all sorts of noises emanating from neighboring rooms. If anyone even heard anything over their music, televisions and video games, they’d likely think nothing of it.

We emerged into the hallway, and I evaluated the people I was about to depend on. My room was six doors from the stairwell. Two guys at the opposite end of the hall were practicing kick-flips on a skateboard. Olivia stood in the middle of the hall, talking to Joe, a guy from the fourth floor. When she spotted us, her mouth dropped open before she snapped it closed, and Joe looked over his shoulder, lifted his chin at Buck, and turned back to her with a low chuckle. This was bad.

Kimber, who roomed two doors down, came into the hallway with her laundry. I stopped. It was now or never. Buck took a step forward before realizing I was holding my ground. He turned back toward me. “C’mon, J,” he coaxed.

“No. You aren’t going into my room, Buck. I want you to leave now.”

The shock registered on his face. Kimber, Olivia and Joe froze, waiting to witness firsthand whatever was about to go down.

Buck’s hand was at my elbow. “That’s not what you said a few minutes ago, babe. Let’s have this talk in private.” He tried to pull me forward, but I wrenched my arm from his meaty hand.

“I want you to leave. Now.” I glared, my chest heaving.

Indecision played across his features. Five people were watching. He put both hands up, palms out. “Don’t be mad, okay? I tried to tell you that brick would be cold and rough. It’s not my fault you couldn’t wait five minutes.” Tossing the bag over my shoulder, he said, “Call me later when you cool down, pretty girl.” He bumped fists with Joe and sauntered to the stairwell, and I waited until he disappeared through the door to move.

My face burning, I unlocked my door while Olivia whispered not-so-discreetly behind me. “Ohmygod, they just did it in the stairwell? She had some other guy in her room like, Friday night! I wonder if she was screwing around on Kennedy and that’s why he—”

I shut my door, leaned against it, and slid to the floor, quaking. Tears skated in tracks down my face and my breath shuddered out, leaving my chest aching. I wanted to run away. To go home. To be ignorant of getting dumped, of having my dreams dashed, of constantly feeling too inexperienced and stupid to deal with my own life.

I’d outwitted Buck this time, making it twice that he’d not gotten what he wanted, and he was pissed. Popular and good-looking, he could almost take his pick of girls, and from what I’d heard and witnessed, he used that advantage to the fullest. I was no prettier than girls like Olivia, who constantly threw themselves in his path. There was no reason for him to fixate on me.

There had been some early rivalry between Buck and Kennedy, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Something that happened when they were pledges. Would he harass me like this because of some grudge against my ex?

He might, if he thought he could get under Kennedy’s skin by doing it.

I was going to have to tell Erin. She would be furious with me for keeping this to myself, and I dreaded her reaction, but I had no choice. Not anymore.

Me: I need to talk to you.

Erin: I need to talk to you too! Meet me in our room after your class.

“Jacqueline, did you hook up with Buck last night?” Erin hissed as the door to our room shut behind her.

I imagined I could feel the blood draining from my face. “Where did you hear that?”

She made a noise—pshh. “Where did I not hear it? Why didn’t you tell me this morning during astronomy? And why Buck of all people? I mean he’s hot and all—”

“I didn’t.” I swallowed with difficulty, and my eyes were filling. “I didn’t, Erin.”

She blinked at my expression and crossed the room in three strides, grabbing my arms. “J, what’s the matter? What happened?”

I sunk onto my bed and she sat with me, her eyes wide.

“I… have to tell you something.”

“Okay… I’m listening…”

Where to start? Last night? Two weeks ago?

“When I left the Halloween party early—a couple of weeks ago? Buck followed me.” I chewed a loose piece of skin on my lip and knew it was bleeding. The taste of blood brought that night back more vividly and my face flushed hot. “He was drunk. He pushed me into my truck.” I held myself rigidly, forcing the words out as her mouth fell open.

“He what?” Her grip on my arm tightened.

“He was going to r-rape me—”

“Going to?”

I shut my eyes. Licked the blood from my lip. “Lucas showed up out of nowhere. He stopped him.”

“Oh my f**king God.”

In the silence that followed, I finally opened my eyes. Erin still gripped one of my arms as she stared at the worn carpet beneath our feet.

“Do you believe me?” The tears wouldn’t stay dammed, though I felt sure I would run dry soon. The last time I cried—before Kennedy broke up with me, before the past month—had been over a year ago, when I fractured my femur snowboarding. Before that, when our old dog, Cissie, died.

“Jacqueline, how can you—of course I believe you! What kind of question is that?” She glared at me, insulted. “And by the way, why the hell didn’t you tell me this before now? Because you didn’t think I’d believe you?” Her lip quivered, transforming her expression from offended to injured.

“Chaz and Buck are best friends, and I thought I could just… avoid him…”

“Jacqueline, this is exactly the sort of stuff women need to share with each other! I don’t give a shit if he was drunk—”

“There’s more.”

She sat, staring and silent.

“Last night, he caught me in the stairwell.” Erin’s eyes grew round and I shook my head. “Nothing happened. I tricked him into coming upstairs by saying we could go to my room. When we got into the hallway, with other people around, I told him to leave.” I covered my face with my hands and choked out the rest. “He made it sound like we’d done it in the stairwell. Olivia heard him—”

“I get the picture,” Erin said, grabbing my hands. “That gossipy whore has no right to spread rumors about anyone. I don’t care about her. But be honest with me, J. Did he hurt you? Did he?” Her eyes flashed.

I shook my head. “He just scared me.”