Mark Talleo slid his hand up a smooth female thigh, pausing with his fingertips no more than a breath short of the gates of paradise.
“Oh, Mark,” she sighed, shifting her hips to press her hot, wet--
Mark jolted awake. His eyes popped wide as the dream shredded and blew away like so much morning fog. He fought to cling to the ragged edges of sleep, but it was no good. His dream girl was gone.
A bar of brilliant golden sunlight blazed across the foot of his bed, nearly blinding him.
Mark yanked the covers up over his face, as if by doing so he could shut out the morning.
What the hell was that?
Blinking away sleep, Mark cautiously lowered the blankets. He squinted against the light. His roommate stood by the door to their room, his face, as usual, stuffed in his phone. The obnoxious buzzing must be coming from the phone.
“Masterson, you asshole, shut that fucking thing off, will you? I’m trying to sleep over here.”
Masterson glanced up. “It’s not my phone, dude. It’s yours.”
Mark groped around on the shelf above his bed. A couple of highlighters, his keys, the empty cellophane wrapper from the peanut butter crackers he’d eaten last night, as well as a soda can. No phone. He knocked the can over. It rolled and clattered to the floor. At least it was empty. Or he thought it was empty.
Where the hell was his phone?
“On the floor,” Masterson said, like he’d read Mark’s mind. And wasn’t that a disturbing thought?
Rolling over, Mark located the jeans he’d left in a crumpled heap next to the bed. He hooked them by the waistband and picked them up.
His phone hit the floor and abruptly stopped vibrating.
Mark dove over the side of the bed and scooped it up. As if by retrieving it quickly enough he could mitigate whatever damage the phone had sustained in its close encounter with the floor.
From the display, the face of his pretty blonde ex--or soon to be ex--girlfriend smiled up at him as the call went to voice mail. Timing was everything. Mark sighed. He did not want to talk to Vi, not now, not later, maybe not ever, except that was probably not realistic.
“Was that Vi?”
“How’d you guess?”
Masterson grinned. “Dude, you really need to grow a pair and just tell her you’re done.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Though he knew Masterson was right, it was the last thing he’d ever admit.
“I take it you’re blowing off Autoethno. Again.” Masterson stuck his phone in his pocket and picked up his keys.
“Just let me copy your notes, okay?”
“Whatever, man. Way to get your tuition’s worth.”
Mark peered at the clock. But without his contacts, the numbers were nothing but a green blur. “What time is it?”
Masterson made an elaborate show of pulling out his phone and studying the display. “Five till.”
Five till. Ugh.
Mark flung an arm over his eyes. What had possessed him to schedule an eight o’clock class anyway? He was so not a morning person.
He heard the door open, then close as Masterson left for class.
Everybody thought Dave Masterson was just a big dumb jock, but Mark had roomed with the guy all of last year and knew he was a closet brainiac who finished his freshman year with some crazy high GPA that wasn’t perfect but was damn close. And, unlike Mark, Masterson never blew off a class.
Mark lay still for another ten seconds. He was so not a morning person. But since he was awake...
Flinging back the covers, he rolled out of bed. He pulled on his jeans commando before snatching up the sweatshirt he’d tossed at the foot of his bed the night before and dragging it over his head.
A shower would have been nice, but oh well. Hopefully he didn’t actually stink, or if he did, he wouldn’t run into any hot girls. Mark grabbed his phone and his keys, shouldered his backpack, and rushed off to his first class of the week.
He strolled into the lecture hall right in front of the professor and her graduate assistant, which, to his thinking, meant he was technically not late. Two girls with matching lime-green streaks in their hair walked in with him, and he checked them out, more from habit than any real interest. Clearly they were a couple. It was obvious from the tilt of their bodies as they talked and the way Blonde Ponytail leaned into Brunette Buzz Cut’s personal space as she pointed out two empty seats in the back row.
“Hey, Mark, sit here.”
His luck really was running cold today.
“Hey, Vi.” He sent her a friendly, but not too friendly, smile.
The prof rapped sharply on the lectern. “Okay, people, settle.”
With little choice and no time to find an alternative, Mark slid into the empty seat next to the girl he’d been trying to dump since the start of the new semester.
The professor continued. “Since I know you’ve all done the reading, we’ll start with that. Please open O’Reilly to the chapter on autoethnographic methods and--”
The girl with the dark crew-cut and the green sweats raised her hand.
“Yes? Is there a problem?”
“The syllabus said we were supposed to read the chapter on reflexive ethnography.”
“I changed the assignment at the end of last Friday’s class.”
“Oh.” The girl ducked her head and flipped pages.
“I tried calling you like ten minutes ago,” Vi murmured.
“I overslept.” Mark could smell her perfume, a spicy scent like ginger and freshly mowed grass. Unbidden, the memory of July fourth weekend at Vi’s parents’ house on Long Beach Island popped into his head. That was the weekend he’d known he’d have to end things with Vi. The weekend she’d whispered those three terrifying little words as they lay together in the damp tangle of her sheets. After...
Yet here he was sitting beside her in class, gutless wonder that he was.
Masterson was right. He really did need to grow a pair. Mark returned his attention to the prof who was still talking.
“Now as you know if you were here on Friday, this morning I’m breaking you into discussion groups. Since the groups are somewhat random, perhaps those of you who did the assigned reading will help your less informed classmates.”
She counted off students--one, two, three, four, five--breaking them into groups according to the numbers they’d received. Vi got a five. Mark was a two.
Mark turned to Vi. “I’m going to move up front with my group.”
“Wait. Maybe I can switch numbers with somebody so we can be in the same group.”
“You don’t have to--”
The blonde with the green streaks in her hair stopped in front of them. “Are you guys fives?”
“I am,” Vi said and sighed.
Seeing his chance to escape, Mark grabbed his own bag and laptop and scanned the front of the room, where two separate groups were forming. He found the rest of the twos and slid into the seat beside a girl with a mane of flame-colored hair that made him think of autumn sunsets. Trying to look like he wasn’t looking, he slid a sideways glance at her.
Mmm. Nice. Ever since Carlie Casey had kissed him under the sliding board in the second grade, he’d had a weakness for redheads.
As the professor distributed copies of the discussion questions, Mark tried for a better view of Red’s assets.
Her phone was out, held low in her lap. Her head was bent forward, a heavy curtain of hair obscuring most of her face as her thumbs flew over the screen.
When the stack of handouts came to him, he took one and held the rest out to her. When she didn’t respond, he shoved the papers between her face and her phone.
She looked up.
Their gazes met and held for the space of a heartbeat. Her eyes, a clear pale blue and fringed with thick lashes shades darker than her hair and brows, widened slightly.
“Handout,” Mark said unnecessarily and wanted to kick himself. Idiot, of course she could see that.
She nodded and accepted the pile of papers, removing one from the top before she passed the rest to the guy on her left. She returned her attention to her phone without another glance in Mark’s direction.
Holy shit but she was gorgeous!
He wanted another look at her. The brief glimpse of high cheekbones and skin so pale it seemed almost translucent was simply not going to cut it.
He willed her to look at him again as the prof’s voice faded to an annoying buzz in the distance. Finally he couldn’t take it any longer. Drastic action was required.
She looked up, a small frown that might have been annoyance dug between her golden brows.
“Do you have an extra pen?”
Her brows lifted. After a moment’s hesitation, she pointed. “What’s that?”
Mark looked down and saw the pen lying on his desk. “Out of ink.”
His dream girl sighed and dug in her handbag while Mark congratulated himself on the alacrity with which he’d produced the small white lie.
She passed him a pen. He took it and sent her his most dazzling smile.
She shrugged and returned her attention to her phone.
“Attention, please.” The professor tapped the lectern. “I suggest you each choose someone as group spokesperson before beginning your discussion.”
Mark uncapped the pen and flipped to the second page of his handout. The ink was red but, oh well, desperate times and all that. He wrote,
Want to get coffee after class?
He tore off the note and slid it onto Red’s desk.
She picked it up, read it, then rummaged in her bag and produced another pen. She wrote something and passed the paper back to him.
Mark turned the scrap over and wrote.
I’ll buy you a cookie. Or a muffin.
Once again she read his note. When her gaze lifted to meet his, Mark’s pulse picked up.
She shook her head.
Rather than answer, she crumpled the scrap of paper and dropped it on the floor before turning very deliberately away.
Well, that was clear enough.
Mark turned his attention to a skinny kid named Jeremy, who seemed to have appointed himself group spokesman. He read from the handout.
“Choose an event from your past which you believe altered the course of your life. Develop a series of questions that may be used--”
Mark tuned out. His redhead continued texting as the discussion ebbed and flowed around them. It seemed she had no more interest in participating than he did.
Time crawled. His classmates debated and discussed. His redhead--he was already thinking of her as his redhead--remained oblivious.
With five minutes left before the end of class, the professor called for the end of discussion.
Thank God, was all Mark could think.
“Next time I want to see a draft of the questions you’ll use for the basis of your final projects. Be sure whatever event you choose has wider societal implications. Questions?”
Nobody spoke up. Another big thank God.
“Okay, if there are no questions, that’s it for now.”
Red closed her notebook and reached for her handbag.
Mark opened his mouth, ready to take another shot at getting her to go out with him. But before he could say anything, she stood, gathered her stuff, and dropped her phone into her bag. Except it didn’t go into her bag.
Mark watched as it fell to the floor and slid under her chair. An idea came to him then, like a gift from that same God, and he held his breath.
Apparently unaware that her precious phone lay on the floor under her desk, the redhead hurried from the room.
Mark bent down and scooped up her phone. Hopefully she wouldn’t have a password. He clicked the home button and, voila! No password.
With a few taps, he accessed her contacts and swiftly entered his own name and number. He had just relocked the phone before someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“What?” Mark looked up.
Vi stood at his elbow.
“I asked whose phone that is. Unless you now have a case with pink flowers on it.” She laughed.
“I don’t think so.” Mark forced out a laugh. Heh-heh.
“Well then, whose is it? Because it looks like it belongs to a girl.”
And that girl is not me.
This part was left unspoken, though it reverberated as if blown through a megaphone.
“The girl who was sitting next to me dropped it.”
“What were you typing?”
“I saw you.”
“I was trying to see who she is so I can find her and give it back.”
There. That was plausible, wasn’t it? He waited to see if Vi would buy it. But she did better than that.
“I can tell you who she is. Her name’s Jodie or Julie something, and she’s a freshman theater major.”
“How do you know her?”
“She was in Dr. Feni’s office when I went over there yesterday to get my add/drop card signed.” She held out her hand. “Give it to me, and I’ll give it back to her tonight.”
“My audition is tonight. For My Fair Lady?
Remember? You were going to pick me up afterward, and we were going out. You forgot, didn’t you? God, Mark! Are you sure you’re not really a blond?”
Heh heh. Oh brother.
He hadn’t forgotten, not exactly. But neither had he promised to pick her up afterward. She just assumed like she always did.
“My bad.” Mark ran his fingers over the redhead’s phone. “So she has an audition tonight too?”
Vi nodded. “I saw the list. She has the slot right before me, so I can give it to her, if you want.”
He did not want.
“You’re still coming, right?”
“I guess so, sure.”
She smiled and, lowering her lashes, gazed up at him. It was her flirtatious look. Mark braced for whatever would come next.
“Any way I can change your mind about auditioning?”
“It’s too late, isn’t it?”
She took this as encouragement rather than the verbal tap dance it actually was.
“Oh, I’m sure Kierra would squeeze you in if we ask her.”
Mark let himself imagine being on stage with the pretty redhead, playing Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. He would see her every night, talk to her every night for the duration of the show, through all the rehearsals and cast parties and performances. Of course it would mean seeing Vi too, but some goals were worth a bit of blood, sweat, and tears.
“So are you going to sign up?” Vi was all smiles, positively glowing with charm and persuasion.
Mark smiled too. “I’ll think about it.”