Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(3)


by Tammara Webber

The attack came flooding back. The helplessness. The terror. The humiliation. I’d curled into a ball on my bed and cried all night, thankful for Erin’s text that she was staying with Chaz. I hadn’t told her what Buck had done—partly because I knew she’d feel responsible for making me go, and for letting me leave alone. Partly because I wanted to forget it had happened at all.

“If everyone will be seated, we’ll begin.” The professor’s statement shook me from my stupor—I was the only student standing. I bolted to the empty chair between the chatty girl and the sleepy guy.

She glanced at me, never pausing in her weekend confession of how trashed she’d been and where and with whom. The guy unsquinted his eyes just enough to notice when I slid into the bolted-down chair between them, but he didn’t otherwise move.

“Is this seat taken?” I whispered to him.

He shook his head and mumbled, “It was. But she dropped. Or stopped coming. Whatever.”

I pulled a spiral from my bag, relieved. I tried not to look at Kennedy, but the angled seating made that effort challenging. His perfectly styled dirty blond hair and the familiar uncreased button-down shirt drew my eyes every time he moved. I knew the effect of that green plaid next to his striking green eyes. I’d known him since ninth grade. I’d watched him alter his style from a boy who wore mesh shorts and sneakers every day to the guy who sent his fitted shirts out to be pressed, kept his shoes scuff-free, and always looked as though he’d just stepped from the cover of a magazine. I’d seen more than one teacher turn her head as he passed before snapping her gaze away from his perfect, off-limits body.

Junior year, we had pre-AP English together. He focused on me from the first day of class, flashing his dimpled smile in my direction before taking his seat, inviting me to join his study group, inquiring about my weekend plans—and finally making himself a part of them. I’d never been so confidently pursued. As our class president, he was familiar to everyone, and he made a concerted effort to become familiar with everyone. As an athlete, he was a credit to the baseball team. As a student, his academic standing was in the top ten percent. As a member of the debate team, he was known for conclusive arguments and an unbeaten record.

As a boyfriend, he was patient and attentive, never pushing me too far or too fast. Never forgetting a birthday or an anniversary. Never making me doubt his intentions for us. Once we were official, he changed my name—and everyone followed suit, including me. “You’re my Jackie,” he told me, referencing the wife of Jack Kennedy, his namesake and personal idol.

He wasn’t related. His parents were just weirdly political—and also at odds with each other. He had a sister named Reagan and a brother named Carter.

Three years had passed since I’d gone by Jacqueline, and I fought daily to regain that one original part of myself that I’d put aside for him. It wasn’t the only thing I’d given up, or the most important. It was just the only one I could get back.

***

Between trying to avoid staring at Kennedy for fifty minutes straight and having skipped the class for two weeks, my brain was sluggish and uncooperative. When class ended, I realized I’d absorbed little of the lecture.

I followed Dr. Heller to his office, running through various appeals in my head to induce him to give me a chance to catch up. Until that moment, I hadn’t cared that I was failing. Now that the possibility had become a probability, I was terrified. I had never failed a class. What would I tell my parents and my advisor? This F would be on my transcript for the rest of my life.

“All right, Ms. Wallace.” Dr. Heller removed a textbook and a stack of disorderly notes from his battered attaché and moved around his office as though I wasn’t standing there. “State your case.”

I cleared my throat. “My case?”

Tiredly, he peered at me over his glasses. “You’ve missed two straight weeks of class—including the midterm, and you missed today. I assume you’re standing here in my office in order to make some sort of case for why you should not fail macroeconomics. I’m waiting with bated breath for that explanation.” He sighed, shelving the textbook. “I always think I’ve heard them all, but I’ve been known to be surprised. So go ahead. I don’t have all day, and I presume you don’t, either.”

I swallowed. “I was in class today. I just sat in a different seat.”

He nodded. “I’ll take your word for that, since you approached me at the end of the lecture. That’s one day of participation back in your favor—amounting to about a quarter of a grade point. You still have six missed class days and a zero on a major exam.”

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.

“Next.”

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.

But then, he’d said it wasn’t my fault.

And he’d called me by my name. The name I no longer used, as of sixteen days ago.

My split-second wish that he wouldn’t recall who I was went ungranted. I returned his penetrating gaze and could see he remembered all of it, clearly. Every mortifying bit. My face burned.

“Are you ready to order?” His question pulled me from my disorientation. His voice was calm, but I felt the exasperation of the restless customers behind me.

“Grande caffé Americano. Please.” My words were so mumbled that I half expected him to ask me to repeat myself.

But he marked the cup, which was when I noted the two or three layers of thin white gauze wrapped around his knuckles. He passed the cup to the barista and rang up the drink as I handed over my card.

“Doing okay today?” he asked, his words so seemingly casual, yet so full of meaning between us. He swiped my card and handed it back with the receipt.

“I’m fine.” The knuckles of his left hand were scuffed but not severely abraded. As I took the card and receipt, his fingers grazed over mine. I snatched my hand away. “Thanks.”

His eyes widened, but he said nothing else.

“I’ll have a venti caramel macchiato—skinny, no whip.” The impatient girl behind me gave her order over my shoulder, not touching me, but pressing too far into my personal space for comfort. His jaw tensed almost imperceptibly when he shifted his gaze to her.