Undecided, page 20
I make as much noise as I reasonably can as I let myself in, but I’m not greeted by the sight of naked, writhing bodies. Instead I inhale the stomach-pleasing scent of garlic and tomatoes and warm bread. I eagerly tug off my boots and hang my jacket on the rail, then climb the stairs, praying there’s some food left.
On the top step, I come to an abrupt halt.
There’s Kellan. There’s candlelight. There’s a table set for two.
And there’s no Marcela.
My eyes skip around the room, taking in the strangely romantic set up. “Er…what’s going on?”
He’s standing in the kitchen in dark pants and a white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to expose his strong forearms. His feet are bare and if I’m not mistaken, the apron he’s wearing was “borrowed” from Beans. He’s stirring a pot of what smells like tomato sauce and appears to have been waiting. For me.
I hope not. “Are you expecting someone?”
He grins, the devilishly handsome guy in every romantic comedy, the one you know doesn’t exist in real life. Except he does. And he’s right here. “I was,” he says. “Have a seat. I hope you’re hungry.”
I stare at the table like it’s a bomb. “What’s going on?”
He tastes his sauce, nodding appreciatively. “I’ve been thinking about how great you are,” he says. “How nice you’ve been about this whole situation lately, and just what a good roommate you’ve been. Then I remembered we were supposed to go out to dinner that time and I totally flaked so I thought I’d plan something special.”
I can’t convince my feet to move. The vibe in here is not special, it’s weird. He’s moved the dining table into the living room so there’s more space, and it’s covered in what looks like a white bed sheet folded in half. It’s set with plates and wine glasses and candles. There are even half a dozen votives spaced around the room, making for a very cozy—and confusing—ambiance.
The oven timer dings and Kellan pulls out a loaf of garlic bread, so hot and perfect the butter is still sizzling when he sets it on a cutting board. My stomach urges me to get my ass in a chair. My heart tells me this is going to send someone the very wrong message. And my head is telling me this will only end badly.
“Come on,” Kellan says, garlic bread in hand. I feel the gentle press of his fingers in the small of my back as he guides me to the table, then sets down the bread and pulls out my chair, resting his hands on my shoulder to urge me into the seat. This, of course, is the moment Crosbie walks through the front door.
The three of us freeze, a complicated, decidedly unromantic, garlicky tableau. Crosbie’s still wearing his jacket and holds a video game, mouth open in surprise. He stares at us, his gaze locked on Kellan’s hands on my shoulders, before shifting to take in the candles, the wine glasses, every damning detail.
“Crosbie—” I begin.
“Hey,” Kellan says.
Crosbie’s mouth moves, but for a second no words come out. “I wanted to drop off your game,” he says finally. Very stiffly he reaches out to place the game on the counter, and even Kellan—delightfully obtuse Kellan—realizes something is wrong.
“Are you okay?” he asks, dropping his hands and stepping toward his friend. “Cros?”
But Crosbie’s only looking at me now, his brown eyes hurt and bewildered all at once. I know he’s never had a girlfriend before—not that I am his girlfriend—and he’s definitely never been in a position to be cheated on. But I also know he’s the sidekick in Kellan’s story; Kellan gets Miss Louisiana, Crosbie gets the runner up. All those questions about whether or not I was into Kellan—I’d finally convinced him, and now this.
“Crosbie,” I say again, but he just shakes his head and disappears back down the stairs. A second later the door slams shut, the icy wind making the candles flutter.
“What the hell was that?” Kellan asks, running a hand through his hair. “I said he could keep the game until tomorrow if he really wanted to.”
I shake my head and blink away the guilty tears stinging my eyes. I should probably let him go. I should probably not follow him into freezing temperatures and beg him to hear me out. I should never have started this in the first place.
But I did.
I run down the stairs, pause long enough to shove my feet into my boots, and yank open the door. The cold air steals my breath but I can see him half a block down. I don’t even think about it, I just start running. The air is so crisp it feels like something might shatter. The faint dusting of frost on bare tree branches flitters down, glinting in the light from the streetlamps before melting into my hair.
“Crosbie!” I shout.
There’s no one else around, no sounds, no cars, no anything. I know he hears me, but he doesn’t stop. If anything he hunches up his shoulders and walks even faster.
“Crosbie!” I pick up the pace. My lungs hurt because it’s cold and I’m not in shape, and I shiver in my thin shirt and leggings, feeling my hair slip out of its bun and flop against my neck
“Crosbie!” I shout. “Stop!” I’m three car lengths away when he finally halts, though he doesn’t turn around. His hands are crammed in the pockets of his jeans and I can see his breath coming out in fast white pants. I’m gasping when I finally reach him, putting my hand on his arm for balance and nearly falling when he jerks it away.
I’m prepared for his hurt, but not the raw anger on his face.
“Crosbie.” My voice cracks on the word. “It’s not—”
“Don’t bother, Nora.” He stares past me up the street, at nothing.
“I’ve been home for two minutes,” I say. “I didn’t know he was planning this.”
“I thought he had a date with Marcela.”
“You said you knew they weren’t into each other.”
“They’re not. They—I don’t know. I don’t know, Crosbie. But I’m not into him. I never will be. This is just really bad timing.”
He shakes his head but doesn’t move. “You wanted to keep us a secret for a reason. It never had anything to do with me or that stupid fucking list.”
“It did, but it doesn’t now.”
His jaw flexes and his nostrils flare as he inhales. He’s angry, but he’s still here. He’s listening. He wants to believe me.
“I swear,” I add. “I swear. Please don’t…” I break off to catch my breath so I don’t start crying, like that’s the one thing that could make this situation worse. “Please come back with me.”
“So there are no more secrets. So we all have to eat spaghetti together. It’s going to be terrible, but let’s just do it.”
He finally looks at me. “I won’t tell anyone,” he says.
“If you’re doing this because you think I’ll tell everyone we slept together, I won’t. If you want to be with him—if you are with him—I’m not going to spread rumors. I’ll get the fuck over it. Don’t lie to me.”
“I’ve never lied to you.” I swallow past the guilty lump in my throat. A lie of omission isn’t really a lie, is it? “And I’m not afraid of you. I like you. Only you.”
He scrubs a hand over his face and finally notices that I’m freezing my ass off. My arms are wrapped around my still-growling stomach and I’m bouncing on my toes for warmth.
“Where’s your coat?”
“I didn’t stop to get it.”
“Well, you should have. It’s freezing.”
“Well, if it’s the coat or you, I choose you.”
It’s super lame, but his face softens, mouth quirking reluctantly. He looks down at me and believes whatever he sees. “All right, Nora. Let’s go.”
* * *
Five minutes later we’re sitting at the dining table to partake in the world’s most awful dinner party. I brought out my desk chair for Crosbie while Kellan wordlessly blew out every candle and set a third place. Now we sit in front of three untouched plates of spaghetti and garlic bread, unwilling
Kellan’s first to speak. “Seriously?” he mutters, shaking his head. He snatches up his garlic bread and takes a big bite. “You two?”
Crosbie and I look at each other. “Yeah,” Crosbie finally answers.
I nibble at my garlic bread like a guilty rabbit. “Halloween.”
“Hallo—” Kellan’s eyes widen. He gapes at me but points at Crosbie. “That’s who—?”
I know he’s talking about the condom, so I cut him off. “Yes.”
He glares at Crosbie. “You said you banged Miss Washington!”
“Well, she’s from Washington.”
“I cannot believe this. Under my nose.”
I can’t believe it either. And finally I start to laugh. I laugh so hard my shoulders heave and my eyes water and I even snort a little bit. I slump in my chair and toss back my head and just really fucking laugh.
“Are you just banging or is this for real? Boyfriend-girlfriend real?”
The question sobers me up pretty quickly. I straighten in my seat and Crosbie and I exchange a look.
“It’s for real,” he says quietly, picking up his fork and twirling it in his spaghetti. My heart lurches at the words, because I know he’s never said them about anyone before. Neither have I.
Kellan takes another bite of his bread and chews while he surveys us. “I knew it.”
“You knew?” Crosbie echoes, sounding doubtful.
“Yep. You’ve been different this year. I knew there was something going on.” He tilts his head, conceding. “I didn’t know it was Nora, but I knew there was something.”
Crosbie’s jaw twitches. “I see.”
“First you started noticing chicks with glasses after Nora came over to see the apartment that first time. I just thought you’d developed some new fetish, but it was that outfit she had on. She made you like nerds.” He nods at me. “No offense.”
I roll my eyes.
“And how you kept changing our runs so they would go past Beans, then talking about brownies so I’d suggest we go in.”
Kellan looks at me. “It was his idea to invite you to the Halloween party. I mean, I was on board with it, but it wasn’t my idea.”
Crosbie glares at him. “What are you—”
Kellan shrugs innocently, though I think we all know he’s far from it. And while Crosbie’s looking a little embarrassed to have his eighth-grade seduction strategy exposed, my heart’s beating a mile a minute. I don’t know anyone who works as hard as he does, for anything. Especially not for me.
“Thank you,” I say.
It appears to take some effort, but he pulls his attention away from Kellan and focuses it on me. “Thank you?”
“Yeah.” I nudge his leg under the table. “If what he’s saying is true, then thank you.”
He blushes when he smiles. “Any time.”
The rest of the meal is only slightly less awkward, though it’s admittedly more than a little weird when Kellan tidies the kitchen while Crosbie plays video games and I work on my archaeology paper. No one really speaks, and eventually Kellan joins Crosbie and they blow things up for a while. Around eleven I’m sick of analyzing cave finds in the fictional region of Malaruhu, and I shut down my laptop and head into the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash up. When I come out the explosions abruptly stop, and Crosbie looks from me to Kellan and back, then slowly stands.
He wipes his hands on his thighs, hesitant, and I realize we’re at a turning point. If he stays the night, the entire pretense of my arrangement with Kellan is shot to hell. If he goes home, the entire pretense of our relationship is undermined. We’re standing in a room with the most popular guy on campus, and we’re choosing each other.
“There’s an extra toothbrush in the bathroom,” I offer. “If you want to brush your teeth before you come to bed.”
I see heat flare in his eyes and very slowly, he nods. “Will do.”
“Fuck,” Kellan groans. “Is this what it’s going to be like from now on?”
“I know this isn’t what we agreed,” I say, balancing on the arm of the couch when Crosbie leaves to clean up. “I’m sorry to flip the script on you.”
He shakes his head. “I lived in a frat house last year,” he says. “You really think I didn’t hear Crosbie banging—” He cuts himself off way too late.
I cross my arms. “Huh.”
“Dude!” Crosbie exclaims from behind me.
Kellan hesitates, then unpauses the game, turning the volume way, way up, and studiously ignores us. Slowly I look at Crosbie.
“That was last year,” he says quickly. “I’m different now.”
I glare at him, then relent. “Me too.”
His relief is palpable as he follows me into the bedroom, closing the door and waiting until I’ve turned on the bedside lamp before shutting off the ceiling light. “Don’t be pissed,” he says.
“I’m not.” I slip out of my jeans and sweater and pull on a tank top, stopping as I reach for a pair of shorts. I glance over my shoulder to find him staring at my ass. “Should I bother putting these on?”
He yanks off his shirt and undoes his pants so fast he almost falls. “No,” he says, tackling me onto the bed. “You’re not going to need them.”
* * *
Crosbie Lucas is my boyfriend.
I’m not the only one who’s stunned by the news, but I really don’t care what other people say. Well, except for Marcela, who gave me an earful about keeping secrets.
Two days after the spaghetti debacle-turned relationship reveal, I’m sitting across from Crosbie at one of the tiny tables at Beans and splitting a cinnamon bun during my fifteen minute break. Nate attributes my excellent mood to all the orgasms I must be enjoying—and I do enjoy them—but my buoyed spirits are due in no small part to the phone call I’d gotten from the campus clinic this morning, informing me that my test results had come back all clear. It’s what I expected, but it’s still nice to have it confirmed.
I’m wearing a turtleneck under my apron, but I still shiver when a customer strolls in, the late November winds following. “Grr,” I say, trailing my finger through a smear of cream cheese frosting left on the plate. “I hate the cold.”
“Seriously?” Crosbie pops the last bit of cinnamon bun into his mouth. “I love winter. You get snow, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years—it’s awesome.”
“Thanksgiving’s in the fall.”
“Close enough. The point is, winter is great and you’re wrong.”
He smirks. “Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”
Thanksgiving is on Thursday, and my plan is to work overtime to save up money for Christmas presents. My reasoning is if I buy expensive gifts, no one will complain too loudly when I show up late on Christmas Eve and bail around noon on Christmas Day. I love my family, but I do not love the Kincaid family Christmas tradition of non-stop fighting, one small fire, and overpriced pizza delivery when the turkey inevitably winds up either burned or missing.
“No,” I say, when I realize Crosbie’s waiting for an answer. “Are you?”
“Yeah. I’m going to drive down, then join the guys for the mock meet right after.”
“That’s next week?”
“I told you about it.”
And he had, explaining it was a pre-Christmas thing they did every year to test their progress and also remind themselves not to overindulge during the holidays. Apparently they never learn and everyone returns in January ten pounds heavier and still hungover, but it’s a three-day visit of nearby colleges that brings them back to Burnham on Friday.
“I’d invite you for dinner if I was coming back,” he says, misinterpreting my distraction. “I mean, if you really want, you can still come. I’ll drive you back to campus, then turn around again. It’s only an hour, so—”<
“Crosbie.” I press my fingers to his lips. “It’s not a problem. I’m just thinking how nice it’ll be to have the apartment to myself. What will it be like to not smell powdered cheese every day?”
He grins, relieved. “I’ll bring you back some leftovers.”
“Leftovers that have survived the mock meet? Thank you, but I’ll pass.”
“What’s wrong with Thanksgiving? If you hate winter and Thanksgiving’s in the fall, it should be a safe holiday.”
I roll my eyes. “Nothing with my family is safe.” My parents are what they like to call “functional, friendly, and former.” Basically they’re a divorced couple, each of whom resides in one half of a duplex, and they tell everyone they get along, but really they hate each other. They divorced when I was ten and neither one has remarried, and they bring a different date to every holiday in a desperate attempt to show how mature they are. As the only child marching in this dysfunctional parade, I’d much rather hide in the woodshed and eat worms than sit down to dinner with whichever unsuspecting date is unlucky enough to show up that day.
I relay this information to Crosbie, whose eyes widen as I talk. “It’s torture,” I say. “And nine times out of ten, there’s not even any turkey. If it’s not—”
We glance over to see a trio of girls who look like they just stepped out of a winter catalogue. They wave at Crosbie over cups of steaming hot lattes as they take a seat nearby. I’m instantly transported back to the day we met, when Crosbie invited himself to join me for dinner then promptly abandoned me when something better came along.
Now, however, he just lifts a hand in a vague semblance of greeting and sips his water, gaze trained on me. “If it’s not what?” he prompts.
I shake my head. “If what’s not what?”
“You were saying there’s never any turkey. If it’s not…?”
“Oh. Um…if it’s not burned to a crisp it’s completely raw. They’ve actually sent three people to the hospital.”
“Nope. And once my mom got so angry at my dad that she threw the turkey into the street and it got run over by a bus.”
Other author's books:
- Team PlayerUndeclared (Burnham College #2)The Good Fight (Time Served Book 3)
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