No one should be subjected to blind dates, Eric thought as he struggled to get his tie on straight. He wrenched the top of it again and considered simply taking it off. However, they were going to Fire and Ice, and everyone who went to Fire and Ice wore a tie. With one more disgusted look at himself, he abandoned the mirror and went to find his shoes.
The better set up would’ve been if he had gone with Jeremy and Gwen to pick Mystery Woman up, but Jeremy had decided that as Mystery Woman’s apartment was closer to them, they would pick her up and bring her to Eric’s apartment. How was it he always let them talk him into everything? He had the distinct impression it had something to do with their intellect being greater than his.
Some little voice far down said they were trying to be nice, trying to include him, but he didn’t want to be “included.” He just wanted to be a part of the group—not the hanger on everybody went to great lengths to remember.
A knock sounded on his door, and with one jerk at his shoe and one more at his tie, he stood from the bed. Checking the apartment on his way to the door, he tried to get himself to be excited about this. A good first impression does not consist of, “Oh, great. You’re here.”
He took one more breath before he opened the door.
“Hey, bud,” Jeremy said in greeting.
“Hey,” Eric said with a small laugh when his gaze snagged on Gwen, tall, lean, and gorgeous as ever. It was confirmation—tonight would give him a heart attack for sure.
“This is Bianca,” Jeremy said by way of introduction.
“Hi.” Eric extended his hand to the small Asian girl who looked six shades of white. “I’m Eric. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” she said only barely lifting her gaze from the floor to smile at him. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Not all bad, I hope.”
Her gaze dropped to the floor. “No, mostly good.”
His own gaze searched for a secure place to look that didn’t bode terrible things for his future.
“Shall we?” Jeremy finally asked.
“We shall,” Eric said, putting on the best happy face he could muster.
Three books lay open across Rebecca’s bed when the lock clicked and Holly entered.
“I’m telling you I’m going to sue whoever came up with those promotional brochures on this place,” Holly said as her winter wear dropped layer-by-layer to her feet. “This cold is murder on my skin.”
“It’s not been too great on mine either,” Rebecca said absently as she ran a marker over her book with her left hand.
“How’s the hand?”
“Could be worse. Thanks to you, it’s livable.”
“Not as good. Thankfully I’m just reading so right now I’m making it work. How was your day?”
Holly shrugged. “It was there. It just seems like I’ve got so much more to do here than I did at Weir Junior. I guess I think that about every semester, but I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Rebecca said.
“Well, I’m glad somebody’s sure.”
The marker in Rebecca’s hand slowed and then stopped as she looked over at her roommate. “What’s wrong?”
Slowly the corn silk on Holly’s head moved back and forth. “I just didn’t think I’d be this homesick. I mean I knew it would be an adjustment and everything, but . . .”
A soft smile came to Rebecca’s face. Her roommate had been there for her in her time of need, now it was time to repay the favor. She slammed her books and transferred them to the desk.
“How about some popcorn?” Rebecca asked, stepping over to the drawer where she kept her late-night munchies stash. She pulled one package out and held it up. “Good for whatever ails you.”
The tears were shimmering on Holly’s lashes as she looked across the room at her roommate. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“Mind? Are you kidding me? I never pass up the chance to have popcorn.” She walked over to Holly’s bed and pulled her up. “Come on, girlfriend, we’re going to make you forget all about . . . Where is it again?”
Rebecca nodded. “Lanford. Thing of the past. No more memories. No more tears.”
She wished that was what someone had done for her back in the fall, taken her and given her popcorn and told her everything would be all right. It still wasn’t for her, but that didn’t mean it had to be awful for everyone else.
“So, what’s your major?” Bianca asked Eric over the music pouring through the speakers.
“Undecided,” he shouted back.
Her eyes narrowed. “I thought Gwen said you were a junior.”
“Hour-wise I am. I just haven’t zeroed in and put all that background stuff into something I’m interested in.” His head bobbed in time to the music. “How about you?”
“Pre-med,” she said. “I want to be a heart specialist.”
“A heart specialist?” That news took him back a few steps. “How…how nice for you. You must be pretty smart then.”
“President’s List the last six semesters.”
“One B from it,” she said with a nod.
“Huh.” He ducked his head just as ‘It must be nice’ ran through it. “You want to dance?”
“Sure.” She took his offered hand, and he had the distinct impression that if he wasn’t careful his hand might swallow hers whole.
His hands went to her waist as they began moving to the music. No part of him wanted to be here. He looked across at Jeremy and Gwen who were both watching him from across the dance floor. Jeremy gave him a thumbs-up sign, and with the fakest smile of his life, Eric acknowledged the signal. If they would just quit trying so hard, maybe he could get his own life back on track. Yes, it was a big maybe, but even that prospect was better than holding a girl, and trying to act like you were interested when all you wanted to do was run.
“So, what’s up with the ‘Gone With the Wind’ poster?” Holly asked as they sat on Rebecca’s bed, an old set of checkers spread before them.
Rebecca glanced back at her wall and smiled. “My all-time favorite movie. Vivian Leigh, ugh! What I wouldn’t give to be her.”
“You like Scarlet?”
“Yeah, who wouldn’t?”
Holly shrugged. “I don’t know. I kind of always liked Melanie.”
“Well, she’s more real than Scarlett for one thing. She isn’t all into what everyone else thinks. She’d just interested in keeping her life and her family together.”
“But Scarlett is so gorgeous.”
“But her life is all screwed up. I mean she loves one man, but she can’t have him, so she marries somebody else because he’s rich and can take care of her. That’s not love to me.” Holly reached into the bag and pulled out another handful of popcorn as Rebecca contemplated her next checker move.
Finally she moved once and reached for more popcorn. “Yeah, but look at all the guys she’s got falling all over her. That would be so cool.”
“Don’t bet the farm on that one,” Holly said as she moved a checker.
“You wouldn’t like for every guy in the place to stop dead when you walked in?” Rebecca asked, and then she remembered who she was talking to. Of course, Holly probably knew that feeling better than 90 percent of the population.
“No,” Holly said softly. “Just give me one guy that I’m crazy about, and all the others can go jump in a lake.”
As she moved a checker, Rebecca remembered Eric. Now there was a guy she wouldn’t mind giving up all the others for—not that he would ever notice her, but still. That was one of the problems with being one of the Melanies in life. If your true love didn’t trip right over you, they never gave you enough time to so much as get your foot in the door.
“King me!” Holly said triumphantly as she hopscotched her checker across the board, collecting three of Rebecca’s checkers en-route.
“Where did that come from?”
“Holly Jacobs.” She stuck out her hand, and Rebecca shook it playfully.
“Very nice, Holly Jacobs. Very nice.”
“Why thank you very much. I’m available at all hours for autographs.”
“Don’t say that too loud, they’re going to start beating down our door.”
“Oh, sorry,” Holly whispered teasingly. “I’m available at all hours for autographs.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I had a nice time,” Eric said, wishing only that the evening would end already.
“I did, too.” Bianca’s small body seemed to glide next to his lumbering frame. If they could be any more different, he didn’t know how.
At her door, he stopped, feeling no desire to kiss her, but knowing she expected at least that much.
“So, I’ll see you sometime?” he asked for no other reason than to put off the inevitable as long as possible.
Her fake smile told him all he needed to know. “Well, I’d better get back down before they freeze.”
In one motion he bent and swept his lips across her cheek. “Take care.”
“You, too,” she called as he descended the stairs two at a time.
Running. It sounded like a very good plan at the moment. He pushed through the door at the bottom and stalked out through the cold to the car. When he slammed the car door behind him, Jeremy smiled back at him.
“She’s nice, huh?”
“Yeah, nice,” Eric said as the depression dropped over him. The car started out into traffic as the effort of keeping his head up suddenly became too much. He leaned his temple on the cold window, praying he could just get home and into bed before he totally lost it in front of his friends.
His heart ached as his ears picked up their cooing conversation in front. They weren’t trying to be mean. They were trying to be nice, but nice was wearing really, really thin.
“Okay, so you know about me,” Holly said, sorting through the last of the kernels. “So how about you? What’s your family like?”
Instantly Rebecca yawned as the hour on her clock registered how tired her body was. “Did you know it was so late?”
“What? Did you just learn to tell time?”
“No, but I’m not used to staying up past ten.” She stretched her arms above her head, a movement which hurt and felt good simultaneously as her elbow had been bent to keep her hand next to her chest for the past six hours.
“Well, I’d better let Cinderella get her beauty rest then,” Holly said, beginning to slide off the bed, but just before she stood, she stopped and turned back. “Thanks for tonight. I think that’s exactly what I needed.”
“No problem.” Rebecca busied herself replacing the checkers in the box, and after a few seconds Holly pushed off the bed.
“You got plans for tomorrow?”
“Oh, there’s just a classic movie marathon at the Cineplex tomorrow. I was thinking…”
“What time does it start?”
“Night two of friendly Chinese torture,” Eric told his reflection as he splashed aftershave on his face. “Joy. Joy.”
At least tonight he could forego the tie. He pulled the green shirt over his head and then smoothed out his hair. It still looked frightful, so he grabbed the hairbrush and ran it through the locks quickly. A full night of being happy for everyone else while struggling not to let them see how lonely and miserable he was.
“Oh, you got new slipcovers,” he said to his reflection and practiced his brightest smile. “That’s so great.” He flipped the hairbrush to the sink disgustedly. “Should be a ton of fun.”
“Give me a guy like that any day,” Holly said as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ended and the lights grew to bright around them again.
“I take it that means you haven’t found Mr. Right yet,” Rebecca said as she dumped three Milk Duds into her hand and held the box up for Holly who shook her head.
“No, I haven’t even found Mr. Almost Right yet. They all seem to be out for one thing, and one thing only.” She shrugged. “Give me popcorn, a good friend, and old movies any day.”
Rebecca heard the sadness in her friend’s voice, and she tilted her head to look over at her. “But look at you. You could have any guy you wanted.”
“You mean any guy could have me,” Holly sneered sarcastically.
“I don’t understand.”
Holly smiled at her softly. “Be glad you don’t.”
“Eric!” Desiree cooed, loud enough for all of the assembled guests to hear. “We’re so glad you made it.”
He put both hands in his pockets as he looked at his petite but unbelievably gorgeous sister-in-law. “Yeah, well. Thanks for asking me.”
“Look, everybody.” Desiree grabbed his arm and pulled him into the apartment for everyone to see—in case they had any questions that it was really him. “It’s Eric.”
“Hey, Buddy.” Jeremy half-stood from his position on the couch where he was huddled with Gwen and extended his hand. “Glad you could make it.”
“Yeah.” Eric shook Jeremy’s hand, and then stepped gingerly toward Ransom and Zoë. “How’s everybody?”
“Great.” Ransom, a 20-year-old dark headed guy who had been Ryan’s best friend almost as long as Eric had been Ryan’s brother, reached up from his position on the floor and shook Eric’s hand. “How about you?”
“Great. Great.” Eric’s whole body nodded as his hand returned to his pocket.
“Well, well, look who’s here,” Ryan said as he entered from the back. “Come on, bro. You have to see the place.”
Eric shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and forced a smile onto his face. “Lead the way.”
“The hills are alive…” Rebecca and Holly sang at the top of their lungs as they walked to the car long after dark. They laughed uproariously.
“Now that was fun,” Holly said as she did an impromptu twirl on the sidewalk.
“Oh, that garden scene kills me every time.”
“That and Liesel jumping the benches in the gazebo.”
They looked at each other and jumped three squares across the sidewalk together. When You’re Sixteen flowed easily between them.
“She’s so pretty,” Rebecca said, getting lost in the memory. “There’s something about her eyes. They’re so deep and dreamy. Ugh!”
Holly unlocked her car door, and they crawled inside. “Yeah, but she sure did fall for a jerk.”
“I don’t know,” Rebecca said. “He was young and scared, and all he wanted to do was prove to everybody he wasn’t a baby.”
“By squealing on his girlfriend’s family? That’s low.”
Rebecca shrugged. “So he didn’t choose the best way to prove that.”
The car fired to life.
“Where to?” Holly asked.
“How about hot chocolate?”
In the darkness Holly looked at Rebecca’s hand tucked securely in her coat. “You sure?”
“I swear, I’ll be careful.”
“This is real nice, Ryan.” Eric took another cream-cheese filled celery off the serving tray.
Ryan leaned against the little kitchen counter. “We were beginning to think we were going to have to kidnap you to get you over here.”
“I’ve been busy,” Eric said through the bite of celery.
“So I’ve heard. How was your date last night?”
Eric picked up another celery and shrugged. “Oh, you know.”
Eric sighed. “Not even a dud.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well. It’s not that big a deal. I mean I’ve got a full load of classes and everything.” He looked over at the couch where the other twosomes were laughing and talking. Sullenly he bit into the celery and turned his back on the scene. “I’m too busy for a girlfriend right now anyway.”
Ryan looked at his brother like he wanted to say something to take away the sadness, but what that something was escaped him. “You seen Mom and Dad recently?”
“Not since I left Christmas. You?”
“No, we’ve been getting the place set up—that’s taken up most of our time.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, thinking of his own hollow shell of an apartment. “It looks nice.”
“Thanks. I don’t know that I wanted the flower motif in the bathroom, but Desiree wouldn’t back down.”
“Something like that.”
Eric nodded as if he knew exactly what that was like. Then the depression descended on him again, and his shoulders sagged under the weight. Laughter rained over him, and he looked back to the couch as Gwen leaned into Jeremy’s arms.
“I dropped it right on him,” she said as the weight pulled Eric’s heart down. “Ice water.”
“Gives new meaning to the word ‘cold,’” Jeremy said sarcastically.
“And you think she did this by accident?” Ransom asked, obviously trying not to laugh.
“No.” Jeremy looked at Gwen and the laughter fell from his eyes, instantly replaced by a look of awe. “But I love her anyway.”
In one heartbeat, Eric turned and dropped his only half-eaten celery back to the tray. “You know, I really appreciate the invitation, but it’s getting late.”
“Late?” Ryan asked, following his brother to the door. “It’s barely ten o’clock.”
“I’ve got work tomorrow.” With one hand he grabbed his coat, with the other he wrenched the door open. “Thanks for everything.”
“But . . .”
However, Ryan’s protest was drowned out by the slamming of the door between them. In the hallway, Eric looked at the drab brown walls and shook his head. He squeezed his eyes closed, fighting to keep the loneliness in its cage. Every piece of him wanted to be like them—happy, carefree, in love with the most special person in the world. Actually he was in love with her. The only problem was she wasn’t in love with him.
That was reality, and the sooner his heart got that, the better off they would all be.
“So how about you?” Holly asked as they sat in the Student Union Building at Rebecca’s table over two cups of steaming hot chocolate. “You got anybody special?”
“Mr. Right?” Rebecca asked as her gaze traveled to the counter sadly.
“Yeah. Mr. Wonderful.”
For a moment Rebecca allowed her mind to drift back to him. The long locks of gold streaked hair, the broad shoulders, the kind, stable eyes. “No.”
However, the no sounded far too much like a yes even to her.
“Who is he?” Holly asked.
Slowly Rebecca shook her head. “Just a dream I could never hope to have.”
“Sounds romantic. How’d you meet?”
“We haven’t.” Rebecca’s voice and eyes traveled back to the spot where her body met his. “Exactly.”
“Exactly?” Holly asked suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
“It means he doesn’t even know I’m alive,” Rebecca said, coming back to reality reluctantly.
“But you know he’s alive.”
The door on the other side of the room opened, and Rebecca’s gaze snapped to it as her heart dropped to her shoes when none other than the very topic of their conversation walked in. “Yeah.”
“So, what’s the plan then?” Holly asked as two distinct Rebecca’s took over. One was sitting at the table with Holly carrying on a conversation. The other followed him around the couch and over to the vacant pool table in the far corner. The fact he was actually here only barely registered. He had been with her so much in the past week, it was quite possible his presence was a mere mirage just as the other times she had seen him when he wasn’t really there.
“The plan…to get him to notice you of course.”
Absently Rebecca took a sip of her hot chocolate even as she watched him rack the balls and choose a stick. He was so smooth, so cool. “There’s no plan. I’m sure he wouldn’t be interested in me.”
Her gaze returned to the table. “Are you kidding? I’m not exactly on the campus ‘hot girls’ list.”
The snap of the balls as they broke across the room felt like the snap of her heart. “So, guys don’t notice me. I could run over him with a truck, and he probably wouldn’t notice.”
“How do you know? Have you tried?”
A picture of his brown stained T-shirt flashed through her mind. “Not exactly.”
Holly looked at her seriously.
“You could be really pretty if you just…”
“No!” Rebecca said forcefully.
“I’m not changing who I am just to get a guy.”
“Even if he’s super guy?” Holly asked, baiting.
“Trust me, I can’t change enough of me to get his attention,” Rebecca said. “Nobody can change that much.”
“I could help.”
Rebecca looked across at her gorgeous, perfect roommate. “Thanks, but no.”
“Well, if you change your mind, the offer still stands.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Holly downed the last of her drink and looked across at Rebecca’s empty cup. “You ready?”
“Yeah, I guess.” As she put her coat on, Rebecca’s gaze went once again to the pool table where he leaned over setting up a shot so that his hair obscured his face. If she looked like Holly, she would walk over there and drape herself across that pool table. If she looked like Holly, she would simply walk past, and he would notice her. But she didn’t look like Holly. She looked like Rebecca and that torpedoed every chance she had of getting him to notice her.
“Ten below, here we come,” Holly said, bracing for the cold as Rebecca followed her to the door.
Just before she followed her friend into the frigid night, she looked back once more. Lining up another shot as though the rest of the world didn’t exist, he didn’t even look up. Her heart said she wished there was a way to morph herself into someone else. Several people came to mind, but with a shove she pushed that thought from her mind. She was Rebecca Avery, and that meant her chances with gorgeous guys like Eric were in the sub-zero range.
Not unlike the weather outside, she thought as she followed Holly into the biting cold.
Stone. It was what Eric decided he would be better off being. His hands, body, and eye lined up the next shot although in all honesty, he never really saw it. What he saw was Gwen huddled with Jeremy on that couch and kissing in their apartment and the look in her eyes the night he decided he was moving out to make room for her.
He hadn’t wanted to, but getting in the way of their happiness to satisfy his own selfishness didn’t seem like what a real friend would do. So, he bowed out. Carefully he lined up the five ball as his heart ached at the memory of walking out of that apartment the last time. Snap. The cue ball cracked into the five, and with a deafening crash sent it careening into three balls he hadn’t even seen there.
Hating himself for the blurring of his eyes, he ran his fingers over his nose. He was kidding himself if he thought he could ever be all right seeing them together. Every time it got harder. He lined another shot up and sent the cue ball scurrying across the table. If he just would’ve asked her out sooner. If he just would’ve found his courage before Jeremy made his move…
At the time his actions felt noble—sacrificing his desires for the sake of their friendship, but that hadn’t stopped Jeremy. Oh, no. Crack. The balls came together. Jeremy had latched onto the first opportunity that came his way. Eric tried to remind himself that the retelling in his head was a slight revision of the past, but at the moment he didn’t care.
Right now, he wanted to be mad. Snap. Mad at them. Mad at the world. Mad at himself. Mad at him and his noble ideas. This is where they always got him. Playing pool by himself in an empty room. Even the two girls sitting at the table when he walked in had left.
That didn’t surprise him. He didn’t even want to be here. Why should anyone else? With a disgusted look, he gazed at the table. Five balls in various places were still lying there, but sadness was again overtaking the anger, and with a sigh, he set the cue stick back in the rack.
Alone. It was where he was destined to be sooner or later. It was just that sooner was coming a lot more frequently these days. With that thought, he pushed out in to the bone-chilling cold and pulled his collar up to his neck.
Cold. It felt exactly the way his heart did these days. Cold and completely alone. Yes. That was the picture of his life.
By Tuesday night Rebecca’s hand was mended—her heart, however, was a different story. She hadn’t seen him since Saturday night, and although she had managed to convince herself it was to be expected, she hadn’t managed to convince herself it was okay.
So, the wings on her feet crashed her into her Psychology chair fifteen minutes early on the off-chance that they would be early and she would have the undeniable privilege of hearing his voice again. The angels, she knew, wouldn’t sound as sweet.
The pen in her hand doodled across the page. Eric and Rebecca. Rebecca and Eric. Hearts and flowers. It was all she could see when she thought of him. When that page was full, she turned the page and had just started the scribbling intently when she heard the voice that echoed continually in her head coming from the door, down the aisle, right to the seats behind her.
“No, man, I didn’t blow you off,” Eric said as he approached her desk. “I had a lot of stuff to get done.”
“Like what? More studying?” spike-haired guy asked as she felt Eric take the seat behind hers.
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“From you? Yeah.” Spike-haired guy laughed in a way that made Rebecca want to turn around and knock his head off his shoulders. How dare he make fun of Eric.
“I needed to meet with Diane,” Eric said defensively. “She was going to help me with sign language.”
“At ten o’clock on a Saturday night?” spike-haired guy asked.
“It was the only time she could meet.”
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Saturday night?
“Well, the party was just getting started. You could’ve invited her over.”
“We studied at the Student Union it was quieter there.”
Saturday night he was playing pool—alone, Rebecca’s head said as she listened.
“Sign language?” spike-headed guy asked as if that was akin to cleaning cesspools.
“Well, what time did she go home?”
Clinging to every word, Rebecca pressed back against the chair, waiting to hear the answer.
“About 11:15. The place was a madhouse.”
“I thought you said it was quieter.”
“Oh, yeah. Well…”
Rebecca heard the stumble.
“It was, but then a ton of people showed up, so we decided to pack it in for the night.”
“Uh-huh,” spike-haired guy said. “And where did you go after that?”
“She went home, and I went home.” Eric’s story paused. “I know. Wonderful night, but she’s not my type anyway. She’s all interested in her studies. Glasses, books, notebooks—you know the type. Not the kind of girl I’m looking for.”
Unconsciously Rebecca pushed her glasses up as her heart dropped.
“Yeah,” spike-haired guy said. “Seems like I remember that.”
Mr. Templeton walked in down front, but Rebecca’s attention never wavered from the seat behind her. Eric was obviously lying. Yes, he was at the Student Union, but there was no girl. Was there? Fighting with her brain to recall every last detail of the non-encounter, Rebecca examined the clock in her mind. Although she couldn’t clearly remember the time they had left, it was 11:25 when she and Holly got back to their room.
How far was it from the Student Union to her dorm? Five minutes? Ten? But even so, his line about studying the rest of the time was totally bogus. And although she knew she should be paying attention to the lecture down front, one thought kept working its way into her brain. Why was he lying?
Eric was tired of the scrutiny. Tired of the questions. Tired of everyone knowing every last excruciating detail of his life—where he was, who he was with, what he was doing, how he was doing it. At any given moment of his life, his friends knew as much about his whereabouts as he did, and it was infuriating.
Okay, so the story about Diane wasn’t wholly the truth. It had just enough mystery behind it to get Jeremy to quit asking questions about Saturday. He was sure Jeremy didn’t believe him anyway, but if he stuck to this Diane, mystery woman story long enough maybe they would quit hounding him about finding somebody.
Finding somebody. It was a funny way to say putting your whole life on the line to entrap somebody you have never met before by being someone you aren’t for whole stretches of time to impress them so they wouldn’t reject you for somebody else. He couldn’t blame them for rejecting him. What, after all, did he have to offer? He wasn’t rich like Jeremy. He wasn’t great looking like Ransom. He wasn’t even all that stable like Ryan.
No, any girl in her right mind would run the other direction as fast as she possibly could when she got to know anything about him. His three-hour respite from the questions in his mind wound to a close as Mr. Templeton finished up.
“Questions?” he asked. No hands went up. “Good. Then I’ll see you next week.”
Before Jeremy could start the barrage again, Eric stood and grabbed his backpack. “I’ll catch you later, man. I need to ask Mr. Templeton something.”
“Lunch tomorrow in the U?” Jeremy asked, and Eric turned and pointed a confirming finger to him as he stepped down the riser. “You got it.”
Rebecca’s heart stopped with a blinding flash as her gaze chanced a glimpse of him standing right behind her desk. His smile burned holes through her soul. She could smell his aftershave like pine needles on a forest floor. Two inches from the edge of her seat but an entire abyss away, the soft blue plaid shirt called for her touch.
In her mind she did touch it. But swimmy headed and breathless, she managed to keep the hand that actually occupied reality safely on her desk.
One heartbeat more and he was gone, stepping down the aisle and then riser toward the front where he walked right up to Mr. Templeton with no hesitation. She watched him in awe. Never in her whole life had she approached a teacher like that. It was only with dread, reverence and a healthy sense of fear that she had ever summoned the courage to approach one even in high school. However, in college, the professors were far more intimidating.
Hoping she didn’t look like she was, she watched him as she crammed her book in her backpack. He looked so calm, so poised—not even a trace of fear clung to his frame anywhere. It was awe-inspiring. When the quiet enveloped the room with the ca-thunk of the door closing, she realized with a start that she, Mr. Templeton, and Eric were the only ones left in the room.
“Well, thanks,” Eric said. “I didn’t want to mess up your schedule.”
Quickly Rebecca stood, yanked the backpack to her shoulder, walked down the aisle, and stepped off the riser.
“You’ve saved us enough times, I’m not complaining,” Mr. Templeton said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Rebecca’s steps carried her past them just as Eric stepped away from the professor.
“Cool,” Eric said with a nod. “I’ll see ya then.”
At the door her hand started for the knob.
“Here, let me get that.” Eric suddenly reached past her to push the door open.
Like an out of control wildfire, heat scorched across her face. “Th—thanks.”
In seconds she was standing in the hallway watching him walk in ever-quickening steps in front of her. Even his back was gorgeous. When he turned the corner, she stopped. “Ahh.” The air escaped from her in a long slow sigh. She couldn’t wait for lunch the next day.
The next afternoon Rebecca’s notes ambled forward as she sat in history class. The notes—not coherent and barely legible—stopped and started in no visible pattern as her mind wandered every few seconds to him and lunch. The history lecture couldn’t keep her attention from her watch. Five more minutes.
How could five minutes take so long? She remembered full years that passed faster. Once more she looked at her watch. Four minutes and counting. If the professor didn’t wrap it up soon, she was tempted to walk out before the lecture was even over.
“I guess we’ll start there on Friday,” he finally said, and in the next second she was on her feet with her backpack on her shoulder.
She struggled to get her coat on under the backpack even as she climbed the steps out of the room. At the back, she joined the crowd already jamming the doorway. Pushing her way through them, she could barely say, “Excuse me” fast enough.
The winter wind slapped her face as she skidded out onto the icy concrete. In the winter at Boston Central there was a very fine line between hurrying and skating, and Rebecca was skirting that line dangerously. Skating had never been her forte. In fact, anything even mildly resembling athletics had never been her forte. Somehow when they handed out balance and coordination, she must have been absent because both were in short supply in her body.
Praying her feet would stay under her, she rounded the corner to the Student Union, but when she started up the first step, she very nearly met the pavement coming the other way. For one moment her foot slipped out from under her, but at the last second she grabbed the handrail and saved herself. Slowing down only slightly she finally reached the top and skated her way from the handrail to the door, thanking whoever was listening that she hadn’t broken a tailbone on her frantic journey to these doors.
The warmth of the Student Union engulfed her three steps in, and immediately she fought to get her coat off. She walked up to the counter, ordered, and took her food to her normal table. At every opportunity she surveyed the crowd for his face. Once at the table, she pulled out a book and then went about unwrapping her sandwich.
It was becoming more than obvious that she was going to have to concentrate on reading because she was getting little or nothing out of the lectures. A’s had never come easy to her—that was Liz Ann’s department. No, she was the one who had to work for every good grade she’d ever gotten. Despite that fact, there had been many. She had even made the top ten percent in her high school class by the tips of her fingernails. Sure Liz Ann had been Valedictorian, but her sister’s accomplishments only made her work harder.
There was a hierarchy to her family, and she had occupied the lowest rung on that hierarchy for as long as she could remember. That was a central fact of her life, but she wasn’t going to jeopardize falling further because of slacking off. That would be the death of any pride her parents had ever taken in her.
As one hand brought the food to her mouth, her other hand, still sporting two Band-Aids on the almost-gone blisters took notes on what she was reading. The Louisiana Purchase. She’d studied this in high school. Unfortunately she remembered precious little about it. With the test only two weeks away, she needed to get down to studying.
“I don’t know, man, I wish I could help you, but the only thing I remember from Hamlet was the witches,” spike-haired guy said right behind Rebecca, and she jumped.
“Witches?” Eric asked in panic as he flipped through the book in his hands. “What witches?”
Rebecca laughed out loud. “There aren’t witches in Hamlet. The witches are in Macbeth. Hamlet’s the one with the ghost.”
Instantly both gazes traced to her questioningly, and her heart jumped into her throat as her gaze went to them in surprise. They regarded her for a moment and then went back to their conversation without so much as addressing her.
“I’m just so lost.” Eric flipped through the book again. “I mean who’s Laertes anyway, and where the heck is he going?”
“Laertes is Polonius’s son,” Rebecca said defiantly because they seemed to disregard her so easily. “He’s also Ophelia’s brother, and he’s going to France to study.”
Again they looked at her only with more annoyance this time.
“Hello,” Eric said sarcastically. “This is a private conversation.”
Rebecca’s heart fell as she shrugged. “Public place. Public conversation.”
Their food arrived on the counter at that moment, and they collected it and paid.
“Come on,” Eric said to spike-haired guy in annoyance. “They’re waiting for us.”
Spike-haired guy followed Eric, and Rebecca’s gaze followed them both across the room to a tight knot of people on the other side. She surveyed them hatefully. The beautiful people. He was one of them, and he wanted nothing to do with her—that much was perfectly clear.
With a slam she closed her book, threw the rest of her sandwich away, and yanked her coat on. She would get more studying done in her room anyway.
Rebecca and Holly spent most of the weekend playing checkers and studying. Holly. Thank God for Holly. She was the one and only thing keeping Rebecca sane. She hadn’t so much as laid eyes on Eric since the Student Union, and for that she was glad. Her heart hurt every time she thought about how easily he had dismissed her—looked right through her really. He deserved every bad thing that could happen to him as far as she was concerned.
After all he was just like the rest of them. He was beautiful, and anyone who wasn’t didn’t count. By Psych class Tuesday night, she had worked herself into a frenzy of moodiness. Her creativity intensified as she wrote his name neatly on her notebook and then placed devil horns and a pitchfork next to it. A smile of defiant satisfaction swept over her just as her ears picked up the sound of his voice. Angrily she lowered her head until it all but touched the desk as they walked to the two desks right behind her.
“Maybe when it gets warmer, we can stake out Soldiers Field,” spike-haired guy said, and Rebecca’s jaw clenched. “You could take your pick of sunbathing beauties there.”
“Yeah,” Eric said. “Gwen wasn’t a half-bad find. Huh?”
“No, she wasn’t.”
Silence descended behind her, and Rebecca had to restrain herself from grabbing her textbook and whacking him with it. She wondered what the Psych authors had to say about violent fantasies.
“Hey, you coming Saturday?” spike-haired guy asked after a long pause.
“I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of studying to do. Hamlet is really kicking my butt.”
“Everybody’s going to be there. You really should come.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Where. Rebecca didn’t really care. He could go to the moon and stay there for all she cared. Her pen arched through his name furiously. He was a jerk, just like all the other jerks on campus. Soldiers Field Road. She hadn’t seen it herself, but she knew enough about that little drive to make her stomach turn.
The bathing beauties lined out like meat in a market window. If that was his idea of a good place to meet a girl, she wanted nothing to do with him.
Mr. Templeton walked in down front, and insolently she focused all of her attention on her work. Eric and his spike-haired friend weren’t worth the time of day.
Carefully Eric’s hands worked through the sign language test material in front of him as he sat in class Friday morning. It was strange how the intricate hand signals could hold his attention. Nothing else these days seemed to be able to. Even work, which in the past had held such a fascination for him, seemed more like work than it ever had before.
One sentence, two, he worked through them, adding in little comments of his own just to liven things up. Memorizing was always the hardest thing, and he closed his eyes as he started back through them, trying to get the hand movements into the right folder in his brain.
“You know it’s awfully hard to see someone’s reply with your eyes closed,” Diane said right next to him, and he jumped.
Softly he laughed. “Studying.”
“I can see that. Did you get through the whole chapter?”
“Couple times,” he said although his hands hadn’t gone still. They mimicked the words coming from his mouth.
“That one’s tough.” She tried to imitate him.
“No, it just looks that way. Start here.” He took her hands and repositioned them. “Use your wrist.”
“Hey, that’s easier.”
With a shrug and a smile, he turned back to his book as his hands went into motion again. “Course it is. You just have to know what you’re doing.”
“Well, I think you’re a natural.”
“Nope,” he said with the barest hint of a sigh, “just lots of work.”
“Please put your books away,” the professor said as she walked into the room. “If you’re not ready now, you’re not going to be.”
A sigh escaped from him. She was right. If he wasn’t ready now, he never would be. It would just be nice if she was only talking about one dumb test.
“Some of the girls from French class are going over to the Avalon tonight,” Holly said as she and Rebecca forked their way through dinner.
“Oh?” Rebecca felt Holly slip from her grasp. Their time together had been fun, but Holly finding new friends who were more exciting was only a matter of time. “Sounds like fun.”
“Oh, good. I was hoping you would think so,” Holly said with relief. “I didn’t want to go alone.”
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed in alarm. “You’re not. You’re going with your friends.”
“Well, I don’t really know them all that well. I mean they asked me, but I was going to tell them no if you didn’t want to.”
Instantly Rebecca scrambled backward. “Me? No, I meant…”
“But I’m so glad you want to. That room is getting awfully small.” Happily Holly munched on a carrot. “Have you ever been there?”
“To the Avalon?”
“No,” Rebecca said so softly she hardly heard it. “I haven’t.”
Crowds. Never in Rebecca’s entire life had she liked them, and as she and Holly stood in the line that snaked out the door and down the edge of the building, she liked them even less.
“Man, it’s cold out here.” Rebecca pulled the collar of her coat up over her ears while simultaneously wishing she could pull it further down her legs. She had been smart enough to wear more than hose under her short skirt, but not much more.
“’Don’t worry. It’s worth it,” Treva, one of Holly’s extremely good-looking friends, said. Treva’s outfit looked like she would fit right in, and her make-up and auburn hair looked right off of some Paris runway. “I’m telling you if you don’t get picked up here, you won’t get picked up anywhere.”
Rebecca looked at Holly in alarm, and the look was returned almost instantly. The line moved forward, and they moved with it as the conversation continued without them.
“Remember that guy…” Lena, a girl who presumably was the same age as Rebecca but who looked at least 30, began.
“The one with the mustache?” Treva asked, and Lena nodded right before they collapsed together laughing. “Yeah. He was a real prize.”
The line edged closer to the entrance as Rebecca’s feet threatened mutiny.
“Why? What was wrong with him?” Holly asked, obviously trying to add something to the conversation.
“Ugh, what wasn’t?” Treva’s face scrunched in disapproval. “Bad hair, bad clothes, glasses.”
“He looked like he’d never seen a mirror,” Lena added.
Self-consciously Rebecca readjusted her glasses, wishing she had taken more time with her hair. It was supposed to be one of those super cool high ponytails. What it looked like, however, was a peacock having a bad feather day. She shifted to the other foot as much to get warm as to get away from the conversation.
“So, I guess you guys come here a lot then,” Holly said, and Rebecca heard the apprehension in her roommate’s voice.
Treva shrugged. “Couple times a month.”
“At least,” Lena said as she slung her bleach-blonde hair over the leopard skin of her coat aimlessly.
As they neared the door, Rebecca could feel Holly huddling closer and closer to her, which was odd because if she was Holly, she would want to get as far away from her dowdy friend as she could get. It was becoming clearer the closer they got to that door that she was here for a shield although from what, she couldn’t quite figure out.
“I said you could go on in,” Eric said as he joined the group standing 45 yards from the front of the line. “You didn’t have to wait for me.”
“We said we’d wait, and we did,” Jeremy said although not terribly kindly.
Gwen hopped from foot-to-foot. “It is freezing out here.”
“Here.” Jeremy pulled her into his coat, and Eric wished he had gone with his first instinct and just stayed home.
“Where are Ryan and Desiree anyway?” he asked only to make conversation.
“Oh, you know them,” Zoë said. “They’re still newlyweds.”
“Huh, must be nice.” Slowly Eric’s feet carried him across the sidewalk as his gaze fought not to notice the two guys whose arms were wrapped tightly around their girlfriends. It would be nice to have someone to hold onto.
“How’s the computer business?” Ransom asked, reaching for something to talk about.
“We had one crash today,” Eric said as he shuffled down the sidewalk. “It just froze up right in the middle of this guy’s art history test.”
“Too bad,” Ransom said mockingly heart broken. “You don’t think you could hook me up with that one when I come for my sociology test, do you?”
“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” Eric asked teasingly.
“What’s the point of having your friend in the humanities computer lab if you can’t get some inside information once in awhile?”
Eric laughed. “I wish I had that much power.”
“You don’t?” Ransom asked.
“Then what good are you anyway?”
It was a joke, and Eric knew it was a joke, but it didn’t feel like a joke.
“Oh, Zoë,” Gwen said suddenly coming to life. “Desiree wants us to go shopping with her tomorrow. She wants to find a table for by her door.”
“Ryan’s not going with her?” Zoë asked.
Skepticism plowed across Gwen’s cool white features. “Ryan? Would you let Ransom decorate your place?”
Zoë looked at Ransom, her dark eyes dancing wickedly. “Not in this lifetime.”
“Good,” he said, matching her look. “I wouldn’t want to help anyway.”
“Hey, what do you say, Ransom,” Jeremy asked. “While the girls are out doing their little shopping extravaganza, why don’t we go over to Jullian’s and shoot some pool?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Fighting the fifth-wheel syndrome feeling, Eric shoved his hands in his pockets and took three steps forward behind the crowd.
“Hey, Eric, you can come too. It’ll be fun,” Jeremy said although it was obviously an afterthought.
“I’ll have to see what I’m doing.”
“Hamlet?” Jeremy asked.
Eric’s nose scrunched. “Don’t even say that word.”
Closer and closer they wound their way to the door until the burly bodyguard eyed Eric like a piece of sushi. The person at the door stamped his hand, and he stepped past her into the pure darkness of the Avalon.
“It’s so loud!” Rebecca shouted to Holly over the blaring speaker system.
“Where’d Treva go anyway?”
“Dancing. Some preppy looking guy,” Holly shouted. “I don’t think Lena even made it in the door before she got asked.”
“Oh.” Rebecca nodded and lowered her lips to her Sprite. At nineteen she was barely old enough to be here, much less old enough to drink. “You going to dance?”
“Probably not,” Holly said with a shrug. “I don’t get into this techno stuff much.”
Then why are we here? Rebecca’s mind asked, but it was too loud to carry on anything resembling a decent conversation. Her narrowed gaze traveled out over the crowd, through the smoke, to the dancers. The lights made them resemble some kind of nightmarish psychedelic dream. Red, blue, green, yellow. The colors flashed across their faces, making them look like they were wearing masks. If this was supposed to be fun, she wasn’t sure what she was doing wrong.
“Hey, there pretty lady,” a man who looked like her father’s age suddenly said from his position three feet above them. At the first boom of his voice, they both jumped and then looked up. “You want to dance?”
His gaze was trained solidly on Holly and never so much as acknowledged Rebecca’s presence.
“Oh, no, no thanks.” Holly shrank a full six inches into her seat. “I don’t really dance.”
“You’re at a dance club,” he said with a laugh. “What were you expecting to do—knit?”
“I…I really don’t want to.”
Rebecca’s fear jumped to the surface as she realized he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“Oh, come on. You’re too pretty to be sitting here. You should be out in the lights.” One big, meaty hand reached down and grasped Holly’s arm, raising her out of the chair with precious little effort.
The look of terror on Holly’s face yanked Rebecca to her feet. “She said she doesn’t want to dance.”
The mountain of a man turned his dark, dangerous eyes on Rebecca. “Nobody asked you.”
Never would Rebecca have believed the reckless next words out of her mouth, but she pulled herself up to her full five feet, four inches and stood her ground. “Too bad. She said she doesn’t want to go, so why don’t you take your meat hooks off of her?”
For one single second the mountain backed up as the barb hit him. Then he narrowed his eyes at Rebecca even as he clutched Holly’s arm. “Stay out of this.”
“Make me!” Rebecca said stonily.
“Hey. Hello. Is there a problem here?” A head of perfectly golden hair stepped between Rebecca and the mountain even as she prepared herself for the beating of her life.
“This is none of your business,” the mountain said menacingly.
“Well, it looks to me like you’re hurting this young lady.” In stunned bewilderment, Rebecca watched as he pried the man’s fingers off of her friend. “So that makes it my business.”
The mountain stood looking like he was about to knock them all into the next century.
“Besides, I’m sure a good-looking guy like yourself won’t have any trouble finding someone who wants to dance.” Their savior put his hand on the mountain’s shoulder and turned to lead him away from the table.
In one breath the music, the smoke, everything disappeared from Rebecca’s consciousness as Eric’s profile suddenly filled her entire field of vision. She didn’t hear the rest of his words as he led the mountain away from their table.
It was a full two seconds before she came back to her senses and glanced over to Holly who looked like she might faint dead away. Rebecca stepped to her friend’s side, took hold of her gently, and sat her in the chair. “Are you okay?”
“He…I…who was that?”
“Good question,” Rebecca said as the anger came back to her. “But he’s gone now, so don’t…”
“Are you all right?” the voice asked from behind Rebecca, and she froze.
Holly’s gaze never lifted from the darkness of the floor as her hand ran itself up her arm. “Yeah, I think so.”
With concern he stepped in front of Rebecca and half-bent, half-knelt in front of Holly. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” And Rebecca saw the gratefulness in Holly’s eyes when she looked at him. “I’m sure. Thanks.”
One second became two before he finally laid a hand on Holly’s shoulder. “Okay. If you’re sure.”
The beginning of a tiny smile crept onto Holly’s face. “I’m sure.” Her gaze followed him up as he stood.
“If you need anything, I’m right over here.” He pointed over to the bar.
Slowly Holly nodded. “Okay. Thanks.”
“No problem.” Without even glancing at Rebecca, he stepped away from their table and rejoined his friends who stood watching from the bar.
She inhaled sharply to get the trance to break its hold. Then she sat down next to Holly. “Man, I thought we were goners there for a minute.”
“Me, too.” Holly looked like she had traveled a million miles away, and Rebecca’s heart went out to her.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
Sadly Holly looked at her friend, and then her gaze dropped to her hands that were fidgeting on the table. “I just thought Boston would be different.”
“Different? Different than what?”
The sadness on Holly’s face deepened and then drained off into resignation. “Than every other place I’ve ever been before.”
Concern threaded past the questions in Rebecca’s head. “What places?”
Holly smiled desolately and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Hey.” Rebecca laid a gentle hand across Holly’s wrist. “It matters to me.”
For at least five seconds, Rebecca thought Holly would just break down right there, but finally she shook her head, and the smile she gave Rebecca was the saddest, most forced one she’d ever seen. “Maybe some other time.”
“I don’t get it,” Eric said from his perch on the barstool as he watched the crushed face across the way. “Why do guys do that?”
“They think we’re just little dolls on a shelf,” Gwen said heatedly. “Women are just objects to them.”
“But look at her,” Eric said, his voice soft as the inside of his chest ached for the pain on that face. “What could causing her to be that afraid possibly accomplish?”
“It was probably just some dumb bet,” Jeremy said, and he tipped up his beer. “But it’s not like you can save them all.” He looked at Gwen. “You want to dance?”
“Sure.” She slid off the chair, and Eric’s gaze barely followed her three steps before it was yanked back to the little table. He took a sip of his own beer as anger with the jerk who’d put the tears on her face came to the surface. Nobody had the right to treat someone else like that. Nobody.
He turned back to the bar and laid his elbows on it. Everyone else had gone out to the dance floor, and once again, he was alone. Five more sips and the beer bottle was dry. He turned to the bartender to get another one. He raised the bottle as the bartender looked down the counter at him and nodded.
“Umm, excuse me,” a fragile voice said at his elbow, and he turned. Like a dream the blonde stood there, looking even smaller than she had in the clutches of the jerk. “I just wanted to say thanks…for over there.”
He smiled at her gently. “No big deal. He was a jerk.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to step in.”
The blonde hair shook slowly. “Most of the time everybody else acts like they’re not watching, but you did something about it. Thanks for that.”
The bartender set the beer on the counter, and Eric paid him. However, she didn’t move. “You want to sit down?”
“Do you mind?” she asked uncertainly.
“No. I don’t mind. Please.”
From her vantage point couched in the smoke and mirrors, Rebecca watched them, and jealousy gripped her. Of course he deserved a thank you. After all he had single-handedly saved them both from a fate worse than death itself. But from the moment she had seen the look in his eyes when Holly stepped up to him, Rebecca knew that every chance she had ever had with him had just evaporated like water on a hot August day.
She watched their conversation begin as little more than a polite exchange between perfect strangers. However, in what seemed like seconds but what could’ve been hours for all she knew, they were laughing together like old friends. How easy life would’ve been if she was Holly.
Stinging tears stabbed the back of Rebecca’s eyes as she watched them slide from the barstools and head for the dance floor. Her realistic side should’ve tipped her off that tonight was a bad idea, that seeing him was an even worse sign; but still she had let her optimistic side hope. It was stupid. That optimistic side had led her into more heart breaks than she wanted to admit, and here she was again, in the middle of a shattered dream with absolutely no idea how to put it back together.
“Where’d Holly go?” Treva asked, bouncing up to the table and sitting down with a whoosh.
“Dancing,” Rebecca said, and even the word threatened to snap her heart in two.
“I’d better get back to my table,” Holly said as Eric led her back to the bar, her hand encircled by his.
“You don’t want to stay and meet my friends?”
Holly glanced over her shoulder to the table where her friend still sat. “No, I’d better go.”
In a rush he gathered his courage to him. “Well, do you have a phone number then? So I could call you sometime?”
Instantly she turned a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look on him.
He shrugged. “No big deal. I was just wondering.”
Her eyes smiled first, and her lips followed suit. She reached across him, grabbed a napkin, and picked up the pen next to the register. In seconds she pressed it into his hand. “I’ve got to go, but thanks.”
“Sure.” Eric lifted the napkin in a wave as she turned for her table. “Take care.”
He watched her sway to her table, and then he looked down at the napkin. The number of a gorgeous girl he’d definitely like to see again. Life had just taken a remarkably wonderful turn upward.
“How was dancing?” Rebecca asked when Holly sat down. It was hard to fight the feelings rushing through her, but she was fighting valiantly nonetheless.
There was no mistaking Holly’s smile. “Great.”
“So, why are you over here and he’s over there?”
“You were sitting over here all by yourself.” Holly ran a slender finger through her hair to push it back.
“So, I’m not going to leave you here sitting by yourself all night.”
“Well, I don’t want you to not have fun because of me.”
“What are you talking about? You stood up to Mr. Unbelievably Ugly for me. I’m not going to just go off dancing and let you sit here.”
It really didn’t matter, Rebecca decided rather quickly. She was determined to be miserable no matter where Holly sat.
Eric wasn’t sure when they left. One minute he was talking to Jeremy and the next they had disappeared, but as he stepped into his lonely apartment sometime after two, he fingered the napkin he took out of his pocket once more. Holly Jacobs. She was the girl he had been searching for, of that he was completely sure.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005