Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(2)


by Tammara Webber

At some point during my battle with Buck, I’d lost the devil-horned headband Erin had stuffed onto my head while I sat on the bed whining that I didn’t want to go to a stupid costume party. Without the accessory, I was just a girl in a skimpy red-sequined dress that I’d refuse to be caught dead wearing otherwise.

“I’m sure.”

The headlights illuminated Buck as we backed out of the parking spot. Throwing a hand in front of his eyes, he attempted to roll to a sitting position. I could see his split lip, misshapen nose and swollen eye, even from that distance.

It was just as well I wasn’t the one behind the wheel. I probably would have run him over.

I gave the name of my dorm when asked, and stared out the passenger window, unable to speak another word as we meandered across campus. With a straightjacket hug, I gripped myself, trying to conceal the shudders wracking through me every five seconds. I didn’t want him to see, but I couldn’t make them stop.

The dorm lot was nearly full; spots near the door were all taken. He angled the truck into a back space and hopped out, coming around to meet me as I slid from the passenger side of my own truck. Teetering on the edge of breaking down and losing it, I took the keys after he activated the door locks, and followed him to the building.

“Your ID?” he asked when we reached the door.

My hands shook as I unsnapped the front flap on my bag and withdrew the card. When he took it from my fingers, I noted the blood on his knuckles and gasped. “Oh, my God. You’re bleeding.”

He glanced at his hand and shook his head, once. “Nah. Mostly his blood.” His lips pressed flat and he turned away to swipe the card through the door access, and I wondered if he meant to follow me inside. I didn’t think I could hold myself together for much longer.

After opening the door, he handed me my ID card. In the light from the entry vestibule, I could see his eyes more clearly—they were a clear gray-blue under his lowered brows. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked for the second time, and I felt my face crumple.

Chin down, I shoved the card into my bag and nodded uselessly. “Yes. Fine,” I lied.

He huffed a disbelieving sigh, running a hand through his hair. “Can I call someone for you?”

I shook my head. I had to get to my room so I could fall apart. “Thank you, but no.” I slipped past him, careful not to brush against any part of him, and headed for the stairs.

“Jackie?” he called softly, unmoving from the doorway. I looked back, gripping the handrail, and our eyes met. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I bit my lip, hard, nodding once before I turned and ran up the stairs, my shoes rapping against the concrete steps. At the second floor landing, I stopped abruptly and turned to look back at the door. He was gone.

I didn’t know his name, and couldn’t remember ever seeing him before, let alone meeting him. I’d have remembered those unusually clear eyes. I had no idea who he was… and he’d just called me by name. Not the name on my ID—Jacqueline—but Jackie, the nickname I’d gone by ever since Kennedy renamed me, our junior year of high school.

***

Two weeks ago:

“Wanna come up? Or stay over? Erin is staying at Chaz’s this weekend…” My voice was playful, sing-songy. “His roommate’s out of town. Which means I’ll be all alone…”

Kennedy and I were a month from our three-year anniversary. There was no need to be coy. Erin had taken to calling us an old married couple lately. To which I’d reply, “Jealous.” And then she’d flip me off.

“Um, yeah. I’ll come up for a little while.” He kneaded the back of his neck as he pulled into the dorm parking lot and searched for a parking space, his expression inscrutable.

Prickles of apprehension arose in my chest, and I swallowed uneasily. “Are you all right?” The neck-rubbing was a known stress signal.

He flicked a glance in my direction. “Yeah. Sure.” He pulled into the first open spot, wedging his BMW between two pickups. He never, ever wedged his prized import into constricted spots. Door dings drove him insane. Something was up. I knew he was worried over upcoming midterms, especially pre-cal. His fraternity was hosting a mixer the next night, too, which was plain stupid the weekend before midterms.

I swiped us into the building and we entered the back stairwell that always creeped me out when I was alone. With Kennedy behind me, all I noticed was dingy, gum-adorned walls and the stale, almost sour smell. I jogged up the last flight and we emerged into the hallway.

Glancing back at him while unlocking my door, I shook my head over the charming portrayal of a penis someone had doodled onto the whiteboard Erin and I used for notes to each other and from our suitemates. Coed dorms were less mature than depicted on college websites. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of twelve year olds.

“You could call in sick tomorrow night, you know.” I laid a palm on his arm. “Stay here with me—we’ll hide out and spend the weekend studying and ordering take-out… and other stress-reducing activities…” I grinned naughtily. He stared at his shoes.

My heart sped up and I suddenly felt warm all over. Something was definitely wrong. I wanted him to spit it out, whatever it was, because my mind was conjuring nothing but alarming possibilities. It had been so long since we’d had a problem or a real conflict that I felt blindsided.

He moved into my room and sat on my desk chair, not my bed.

I walked up to him, our knees bumping, wanting him to tell me he was just in a bad mood, or worried about his upcoming exams. My heart thudding heavily, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Kennedy?”

“Jackie, we need to talk.”

The drumming pulse in my ears grew louder, and my hand dropped from his shoulder. I grabbed it up in my other hand and sat on the bed, three feet from him. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow, let alone speak.

He was silent, avoiding my eyes for a couple of minutes that felt like forever. Finally, he lifted his gaze to me. He looked sad. Oh, God. Ohgodohgodohgod.

“I’ve been having some… trouble… lately. With other girls.”

I blinked, glad I was sitting down. My legs would have buckled and sent me to the floor if I’d have been standing. “What do you mean?” I croaked out. “What do you mean, ‘trouble’ and ‘other girls’?”

He sighed heavily. “Not like that, not really. I mean, I haven’t done anything.” He looked away and sighed again. “But I think I want to.”

The hell?

“I don’t understand.” My mind worked frantically to make the best possible situation out of this, but every single remotely-possible alternative sucked.

He got up and paced the room twice before planting himself halfway between the door and me. “You know how important it is to me to pursue a career in law and politics.”

I nodded, still stunned to silence and pedaling hard to keep up.

“You know our sister sorority?”

I nodded again, acknowledging the very thing I’d worried about when he moved into the frat house. Apparently, I hadn’t worried enough.

“There’s a girl—a couple of girls, actually, that… well.”

I tried to keep my voice rational and level. “Kennedy, this doesn’t make sense. You aren’t saying you’ve acted on this, or that you want to—”

He stared into my eyes, so there’d be no mistake. “I want to.”

Really, he could have just punched me in the stomach, because my brain refused to comprehend the words he was saying. A physical assault, it might have understood. “You want to? What the hell do you mean, you want to?”

He bolted out of the chair, walked to the door and back—a distance of a dozen feet. “What do you think I mean? Jesus. Don’t make me say it.”

I gaped. “Why not? Why not say it—if you can imagine doing it—then why the f**k not say it? And what does this have to do with your career plans—”

“I was getting to that. Look, everyone knows that one of the worst things a political candidate or elected representative can do is to become embroiled in some sexual scandal.” His eyes locked on mine in what I recognized as his debate-face. “I’m only human, Jackie, and if I have these desires to sow my wild oats or whatever and I repress it, I’ll probably have the same desire later, even worse. But acting on it then would be a career-killer.” He spread his hands helplessly. “I have no choice but to get it out of my system while I can do it without annihilating my future professional standing.”

I told myself, This isn’t happening. My boyfriend of three years was not breaking up with me so he could bang coeds with shameless abandon. I blinked hard and tried to take a deep breath, but I couldn’t. There was no oxygen in the room. I glared at him, silent.

His jaw clenched. “Okay, so I guess trying to let you down easy was a bad idea—”

“This is your idea of letting me down easy? Breaking up with me so you can screw other girls? Without feeling guilty? Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

The last thing I thought before I picked up my econ textbook and hurled it at him: How can he use such a piece-of-shit cliché in a moment like this?

Chapter 2

Erin’s voice woke me. “Jacqueline Wallace, get your ass out of that bed and go save your GPA. For chrissake, if I’d let a guy throw off my academic mojo like this, I’d never hear the end of it.”

I made a dismissive sound from under the comforter before peeking out at her. “What academic mojo?”

Her hands on her hips, she was wrapped in a towel, fresh from a shower. “Ha. Ha. Very funny. Get up.”

I sniffed, but didn’t budge. “I’m doing fine in all of my other classes. Can’t I just fail this one?”

Her mouth dropped open. “Are you even listening to yourself?”

I was listening to myself. And I was every bit as disgusted with my cowardly sentiments as Erin—if not more so. But the thought of sitting next to Kennedy for an hour-long class three days a week was unbearable. I couldn’t be sure what his newfound single status would mean in terms of open flirtations or hookups, but whatever it meant, I didn’t want to stare it in the face. Imagining the details was bad enough.

If only I hadn’t pressed him to take a class with me this semester. When we registered for fall classes, he questioned why I wanted to take economics—not a required course for my music education degree. I wondered if he had sensed, even then, that this was where we’d end up. Or if he'd known.

“I can’t.”

“You can and you will.” She ripped the comforter off. “Now get up and get in that shower. I have to get to French on time or Monsieur Bidot will question me mercilessly in passé composé. I can barely do past tense in English. God knows I can’t do it en français at ass o’clock in the morning.”

I arrived outside the classroom at straight-up 9:00, knowing that Kennedy, habitually punctual, would already be there. The classroom was large and sloped. Slipping through the back door, I spotted him, sixth row center. The seat to his right was empty—my seat. Dr. Heller had passed around a seating chart the second week of class, and he used it to take attendance and give credit for class participation. I would have to talk with him after class, because there was no way I was sitting there again.

My eyes scanned the back rows. There were two empty seats. One was three rows down between a guy leaning on his hand, mostly asleep, and a girl drinking a venti something and chattering nonstop to her neighbor. The other open seat was on the back row, next to a guy who appeared to be doodling something into the margin of his textbook. I turned in that direction at the same time the professor entered a side door below, and the artist raised his head to scan the front of the classroom. I froze, recognizing my savior from two nights ago. If I could’ve moved, I would have turned and fled the classroom.