Authors: Gail McHugh
Days when parents didn’t get high, craving their next hit more than they craved a hug from their child. Days when that child wasn’t left scared, hungry, and alone without a whisper of heat to keep her warm when winter gripped the city. Days when innocent eyes didn’t witness bloodshed in the home where they were supposed to feel safe, unharmed, loved.
I steal myself away from my dark, shadowy past as Brock clasps his hands behind his neck. “I might be deprived because I haven’t watched this show you’re talking about, but I felt deprived before you sang that . . . weird melody.”
A frown crinkles my forehead. “It’s so not even close to being weird.”
“Sure as shit it’s weird.” Brock crosses his arms, his gaze locked on mine. “Still, you made me like it
than I should.”
His flirtatious stare makes me swallow hard. What the hell’s wrong with me today? I’m convinced the Frappuccino I inhaled earlier was laced with some kind of date-rape drug, because this is the second time in ten minutes that the opposite sex has made me feel high.
I draw in a calming breath and attempt to divert the conversation. “So, uh . . . why did you feel deprived before I sang my ‘weird’ melody?”
The tiniest of smiles tugs his lips. “That’s because I don’t know the name of the beautiful girl who sings weird songs on introduction.” He shrugs, his pectoral muscles bulging beneath his polo shirt. “It’s impossible not to feel deprived without that information. Wouldn’t you agree, Miss . . . ?”
Oh, he’s good.
I release the breath I’m holding, my nerves cracking my response into a whisper. “Ber.”
” He spikes an incredulous brow, his smile widening. “No doubt that’s a . . . different name, but I’m digging it.”
“No, wait!” Mortified, my words come out rushed. “It’s not Ber.”
Brock cups his chin, his smile ridiculously cute as he studies me. “Are you trying to confuse me, beautiful girl whose name’s
Ber? If that’s your intent, it’s working.”
Seriously, someone just put me in the ground now, ending this embarrassing moment. “No. I’m not trying to confuse you, I—”
“You’re nervous around me, then.” He wets his lips, the act nearly stopping my heart. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
,” I retort, praying to every God in existence that he can’t see the lie I’m miserably failing at trying to hide. “I’m not
“Yes, you are, but it’s sexy as fuck, so it’s all good.” Brock leans forward, fastening his eyes to mine. “So what’s your real name . . .
I sigh, another whisper clogging my throat. “Amber. Amber Moretti.”
“Amber,” he repeats, tasting my name on his tongue. I like the way he says it. “Well, Am . . .
, I know my asshole friend might’ve dampened your day, but I plan to make up for his lack of couth, if you’d let me.”
Yeah. I feel like a helpless fish out of water, hooked by a hungry angler. At the same time, I feel like a giddy schoolgirl as a spark of excitement bubbles in my stomach, and to be honest, it makes my skin crawl.
Just like faith, love is another misconception held by those who believe in fairy tales. Fairy tales don’t exist; neither do knights on white horses. In my honest opinion, every book princess in history was a stupid, naïve twit.
I can’t deny that I want to be touched by love so I can feel something . . . anything. But the reality of what love ultimately ends up like screams loudly in my ears, its warning seeded deep within my numb, hollow heart. I open my mouth to tell Brock Cunningham he can take his white horse and fake suit of armor and ride off into the sunset with some other dumb chick who will fall for his future lies and bullshit promises, but he speaks before the words hit my jaded lips.
“Besides, I think it’d be cool watching reruns of
I snap my mouth shut as he casts me a shy smile, his green eyes zoned in on mine with nothing but warmth behind them. “That is,” he adds, “if you promise to sing that weird melody while we get amped up on too many Red Bulls and nauseate ourselves with disgusting amounts of popcorn.” The smile drops from his lips, sincerity replacing it. “But you also have to tell me the secrets those gorgeous eyes are attempting to hide from the world.”
It’s here, on the first day of my freshman year of college, that I’m aware a fork in the road of my life has reared its ugly head.
Part of me wants to hoist myself up onto Brock Cunningham’s white horse, wrap my hesitant arms around his suit of armor, and maybe, just
, start to feel something. But the other part wants to jet, running as far away from him as humanly possible.
I mull it over and decide that I’m up for playing the role of a naïve princess, but I’m not about to make Prince Charming’s battle an easy one. “You talk a good game,” I say. “But it’s going to take a lot more than a few pickup lines to get into my head.”
He crosses his arms. “A challenge?”
“Yes, a challenge,” I toss back, my face devoid of emotion. I’m sure that alone will scare him off. Emotionless girls aren’t appealing to guys. They want sugary sweet; I’m piss and vinegar.
He watches me carefully, his face anything but emotionless. Intrigue lines his forehead, debate hindering his response.
Yep. He’s outta here.
“Challenge accepted,” he says, shocking me some.
Actually, he comes close to shocking me right out of my seat. I thought for sure he was a runner.
“But you have to tell me a few things before I let you fuck up my head,” he says.
head?” I scoff, deciding this is a failed effort at being swoony. The wounded guy who needs to be fixed. Most chicks fall for that fluff.
“Yeah, fuck up my head. You girls seem to think we’re the only ones capable of doing it, but it’s a fifty-fifty playing field.”
I’m convinced he’s handing me bullshit. Still, I go with it. “Okay, so your heart’s been broken. Whose hasn’t been?”
?” His eyes soften. “I’m not sure, but something’s telling me that it has, or some kind of shit’s happened to you to stop you from ever opening up. It’s one or the other.”
Who is this guy? A mind reader?
The truth is my parents’ wicked excuse of a marriage left me chained, bound to the anger that’s blossomed over the years. Their union—or lack thereof—poisoned me, soiling my spirit. It made me a hater of love, never once allowing anyone to step into what’s left of my world.
But that doesn’t mean my heart
been shattered. It’s been hacked to pieces in ways the average person can’t fathom. Trembling on a blood-soaked carpet, I cried more tears than most people purge over a lifetime.
Still, I’m sure my past isn’t stamped across my forehead. I’ve hidden it well, masking it under a bravado most take years to master. Well, up until this point, I thought I did a good job of hiding it. “That question’s a no-go,” I say, firm on not letting him in on too much. “You can ask me anything else, but nothing that has to do with what my heart has or hasn’t been through.”
“That’s cool for now.” Brock leans back, brushing a hand through his hair. “Can I get your favorite color, then?”
Simple enough. “Green.”
“Florida or Montana?” he continues.
“I can’t stand the beach, and cowboys don’t do a thing for me, so neither.”
“Well, young lady,” he says, deepening what I already consider a Southern drawl, “I don’t own a ranch, but I’d take a spicy little snow bunny over fake implants
His response strikes me as odd, but I can’t help but laugh. He doesn’t fit the mold. I like it.
“Flowers or chocolates?”
“Are you aiming for clichéd?”
“Mental note taken.” He nods, acting as if he’s writing this down. “Spiked heels or dirty sneakers?”
I look down at my three-year-old, seen-better-days Chucks. “Uh,
sneakers.” The answer should be obvious considering I’m also sporting Walmart-brand jeans and a faded vintage Nirvana T-shirt.
Brock studies me a moment. “That’s the response I was hoping for. I dig different.”
I feel red paint my cheeks in a flush as his gaze stays locked on mine.
As if sensing my nervousness, he clears his throat. “First number that pops into your head?”
“Beer or hard liquor?”
I roll my eyes. “
. . . both.”
He chuckles. “A Perfect Circle or Coldplay?”
“Polar opposites. They’re both awesome bands. Plus, that’s like choosing your favorite book boyfriend. You can’t.”
“Agreed, but I have
idea what a book boyfriend is. You’ve sparked my curiosity, though.”
I smile, not even about to go into detail of their importance to the hordes of women who compare them to every male on earth. “We need a full day for that topic.”
“Got ya.” He laughs, rubbing his hands together. “Vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry?”
“All three combined into one
“A walk in the park or a day spent riding on the back of a motorcycle?”
“Have you heard of Deuce West?”
He gives me a confused look.
I smile again. “Definitely a day spent on the back of a motorcycle.”
“Very cool,” he replies. “Summer or winter?”
“Winter. I hate the heat.”
“Christmas or Thanksgiving?”
“I’ll take a turkey over a fat man wearing red
day.” That garners me a smile.
“Favorite sexual position?”
Sneaky. I like. I almost spill that any position—in any public or private place—is just fine by me, but I stick to innocence and widen my eyes.
“I figured I’d try,” he admits with a smirk. “Favorite food?”
He crinkles his nose.
“For real?” I ask, rocked that any human in their right mind wouldn’t want to consume it every day. “You don’t like sushi?”
“I only like certain . . .
things raw.” He wiggles his brows.
“Hardy-har-har,” I tease, giving him a look that tells him I know exactly what he’s referring to.
Pussy—not money—is the root of all evil.
“You’re quick.” He swings his chair around to my side of the table, straddles it, and rests his forearms on the back as he stares at me with laser-like precision. “Football or baseball?”
“Baseball all the way. Football sucks.”
His eyes widen, a frown dragging down his mouth. He looks like a lost, lonely puppy.
“What’s wrong?” I’m somewhat disturbed by the sudden change in his demeanor. “Are you an overwired, crazed football fanatic or something?”
Now it’s my eyes that are wide. “Oh God. Not a jock.
don’t tell me you’re a jock.”
Considering he’s sporting a polo shirt and Dockers, he doesn’t dress like a jock. He looks preppy and unjuiced by steroids. Okay, so he’s built like a jock—broad, sculpted shoulders, pumped yet lean forearms. I crane my neck and peek at his stomach, confirming that under his polo shirt exists a six-pack slab of raw muscle. Still, he could’ve gained his glorious physique by lifting weights, lifting tiny girls with fake implants, or lifting cars on impulse.
But, Jesus, not a jock.
Brock nods, a dot of a grin hinting at his lips. “I’m the university’s football captain. Does that kill any hope I’d had?”
“It comes close to it.” I nervously pick at the edge of my schedule. “Really close. Like borderline-walk-away-now close.”
Curiosity slants his brows. “And why is that?”
“It just is. But whatever. I can deal with it if you give me enough reasons to.” My thoughts travel back to the night I all but sold my virginity on a muddy high school football field to a dick named Josh Stevenson. I was fourteen and wanted beer. He was seventeen and had a fake ID.
A deal was struck.
Thank God the whole, sickening ordeal lasted less than five minutes. I guess I’d expected him to treat me like the whore I’d acted like, and that’s exactly what happened. By the next morning the rest of his teammates knew what we’d done, making sure to call me the appropriate names every time they saw me.
In a small fishing community just outside of Rivers Edge, North Carolina, I was the new girl known as the slut who’d fucked the captain of the football team for beer. I can’t recall if it was the second or third town I’d lived in by that point—I just know it as the one where my hatred of jocks, and my self-loathing for what I was morphing into, began.
I shift, uncomfortable with Brock looking at me like he’s trying to figure me out. “What?”
“I’m just happy you’re willing to tolerate me and my . . . jockiness.” He slides me a grin. “And I
give you enough reasons to deal with it.”
I sense that he wants to say something more, possibly deeper, but I don’t push.
“Okay, so you’re stuck alone on a deserted island,” he continues, “and you can only have two things other than water. What are they?”
“That’s easy. Twizzlers and my journal,” I answer, wishing I had
both right now. Mainly the Twizzlers. They’re one of my many crutches. My nervous, go-to addiction. Any flavor—the almighty Twizzler owns me.
“Twizzlers?” He looks at me like I’m the worst kind of crazy. “The squiggly licorice candy? Out of anything in the world, that’s what you’d go with?”
“You’re quick,” I smart back, shooting him my best amused expression. “Very quick, Cunningham.”
A hint of inner debate settles across his face, but soon confidence replaces it. “Well, since we’re two
young adults, and we’re both in mutual agreement that Ryder’s the asshole of the goddamn universe, I’m wondering how soon I can get you to go out on a date with me?”
“You have to work harder for an actual date.” Though my words come out with conviction, even I can hear the doubt behind them. My conscience is bugging, asking what the hell’s wrong with me. “Again, it’s going to take work on your part.”