“When it comes to chicks, yeah,” said Jimmy, heading toward the exit doors. “But it ain’t my problem. I just want our booze replaced.”
By the time Rachel and I headed back to the frat house, everyone looked spent. The sun had been blazing hot and everyone had ended up inside with the fans pointed toward the large family room. Some of the sorority sisters had stayed and Brian’s girlfriend, Tracey, sat next to me on one of the couches. Rachel found her ballplayer and was sitting with her legs crossed on the floor next to him. Jimmy, Quinn, and a couple of other players had joined us on the periphery of the room.
Joel was on the other side of me, sweaty and groggy from the sun. I found myself staring at him—really looking at him—trying to remember what it was about him that attracted me in the first place. Sure, he was cute and charming. But could he and I really talk about things on a deeper level? Could I trust him with my feelings?
The answer came as a resounding no.
The longer I hung in there, the less respect I was starting to have for myself. Maybe others were respecting me less as well. Like Avery and Rachel. And Tracey. And Quinn. That thought alone propelled me forward.
As I took in the Sigma crest painted on the far wall, it hit me that I wouldn’t be hanging at the frat house anymore after I broke it off with Joel. I had never truly felt like I belonged here, anyway. Come to think of it, Quinn didn’t seem to belong, either—not that it mattered. It was bound to make things awkward all the way around.
All breakups were awkward, weren’t they?
“Let’s play a game,” Lucy said. We were spread out on the couches and chairs, looking worn and tired, and Joel’s eyes were slits.
At least those other girls weren’t here tonight. The ones that hung around the frat houses all the time. The ones that made me just a little bit suspicious of Joel. Had he hooked up with any of them?
“Like what?” Tracey asked. “As long as it doesn’t involve heavy drinking. I am spent.”
“How about Truth or Dare or Would You Rather,” Lucy said.
“Ugh, sick of those games,” another sorority girl named Katy said.
“I know a game,” I piped in. “We played it in high school. It’s called Five Fingers.”
I hadn’t played the game in years. Avery told me that she’d used the game to get to know Bennett on a weekend trip to one of his art shows.
“How do you play?” Quinn asked as he squeezed himself into an empty spot on one of the couches. Our gazes crashed for the first time in a couple hours. His eyes lit me up from across the room and sent the butterflies in my stomach into a drunken tizzy, slamming them against my sides.
“You ask someone a question and they have to answer in five words or less,” I said, looking at Lucy instead of Quinn. “The more you drink, the worse you become at counting the words.”
“Never heard of it before,” Joel mumbled as if he was suddenly aware I was next to him. He reached for me and attempted to pull me across his lap. My whole body went rigid. Joel was on the verge of being sloppy drunk so when he thrust his tongue in my ear, it had the opposite effect of what he was after.
“Stop it,” I pushed away from him. “Not here, in front of everyone.”
He tried shoving his hands beneath my tank top and I yanked them from under my shirt.
“You’re never any fun,” he slurred.
“If I’m not fun,” I hissed in his ear, “maybe you should find someone who is.”
“Maybe I will,” he said a little too loudly.
Everyone in the room went silent, their eyes on me, seeing how I’d respond.
Quinn’s jaw ticked and his hand balled into a tight fist. Jimmy jutted his arm out as if to hold him back. All at once Quinn yanked a pillow off the couch and flung it across the room at Joel. “Why don’t you go sleep it off, man?”
The other guys piped in, calling him a drunk and a douche, and I was saved from crawling into a hole in the ground.
“Let’s get back to the game,” Lucy said, puffing out a breath.
“We can do boys versus girls,” I said, swallowing roughly, trying to make things seem normal. “One side asks the question and everyone on the other side takes a shot at answering.”
Quinn looked longingly toward the stairs like he was going to call it a night, and I held my breath while he decided. I wondered if he would have gone after Joel had Jimmy not held him off. Was that because he disliked Joel or because of how Joel had treated me?
I needed to break it off with Joel sooner than later. No way did I need to be considered some damsel in distress who couldn’t take care of myself.
“Cool,” Lucy said and all the girls moved over to sit by me on the one side of the room. Joel was too tipsy to move, so he stayed put. But at least a few girls were crammed between us now.
“Ready?” I looked across the room. Quinn had decided to stay and I gave him the hint of a smile.
I thought of a question I’d want him to answer. I was curious about so many things. Who he’d dated. How he’d grown up. Where he’d grown up. Just . . . everything.
“Okay, five words or less. Describe your first kiss.”
The guys groaned but Quinn’s eyes met mine in a challenge. And suddenly I wished Quinn and me were all alone in the room, so I could ask him any question I wanted.
“No talking it out beforehand, just go ahead with your answers,” I said.
“Why don’t you go first, Joel,” Jimmy said. “Before you pass out on us.”
He nodded and I held up my fingers to count the words.
“Sexy redhead . . . behind the bleachers . . . tongue in my mouth before I could . . .”
I mimicked the sound of buzzer. “You went over five words, dude. Not so easy, is it? Take a sip of your beer.”
I rolled my eyes. Like you even need it.
The guys went down the line, using words that would only be found in some erotic novel—and in their wildest dream. Boobs, short skirts, hot, tongue action. Full of shit was what I’d thought. Nobody’s first kiss could be that good. The girls surrounding me were reduced to giggles, and most of the guys had to gulp their drinks.
Then it was Quinn’s turn. His eyes focused in on me. He looked sure of himself, in control, and hot as ever.
“Cousin’s friend . . . backyard . . .” Then he shrugged. “Sloppy mess.”
“Finally, someone with a reality check,” I said and motioned toward him for a high five. His eyebrows drew together right before his hand met mine in midair.
“No one’s first kiss could be that great,” he said. “You have to practice to be good at it. And not with your pillow, either.”
That opened up the floodgates for his frat brothers to pounce.
“Quinn, my boy,” Joel said. “Just how much practice have you had?”
“Probably not as much as you, asswipe,” Quinn spouted off. “Besides, that’s not something I talk about in front of the ladies.”
His scalding gaze remained locked on Joel. And then he seemed to reign himself in by taking a very deep breath.
“Come on, guys, it’s your turn to ask us a question,” Lucy said. She settled into the couch cushion and crossed her legs beneath her.
The guys on the other side of the room congregated together. And before we knew it they were smirking and grinning like damn fools.
“We can ask any question?” Jimmy asked.
Uh-oh. I shrugged. I didn’t want to egg them on.
Todd cleared his throat. “Describe your first time giving a guy head.”
The girls groaned in unison. This was a bad idea.
“I’ll go first,” Rachel volunteered.
We made eye contact and silently agreed to come up with ridiculous answers.
“Gross, disgusting, horrible taste . . . puny.” Rachel high-fived all of the girls while we busted up laughing.
“You guys are cheating,” Jimmy said. “We gave honest answers.”
“Yeah right,” Lucy said. “All of your first kisses sounded like they were straight from porno movies!”
After two more rounds where the answers got even more absurd, we decided to quit while we were ahead. Quinn’s responses left an indelible impression on my brain. He’d described his last girlfriend as funny, smart, tall, blond, and older. That certainly didn’t portray the redhead who’d showed up at Zach’s bar. And I’d wondered whether he’d made it up just so the guys wouldn’t razz him anymore.
“I’m heading up to bed,” Quinn announced, standing up. “Got an early practice in the morning.”
He didn’t look my way and I was half-relieved. I didn’t want anyone thinking we’d made too much eye contact. As he made his way toward the stairs, something gleamed from the cushion he’d just sat in. I moved over to where he’d been, complaining about needing more room. I shoved my hand between the cushions and my fingers closed around a set of keys.
I’d take them to him before I left. I definitely wasn’t sleeping in Joel’s bed tonight.
Everyone else began moving outside to the bonfire.
“You heading out there?” I asked Joel as the room cleared. His gaze had been fixed on a blond sorority girl moving out the door. The same girl who’d sat on the other side of him during our game. He didn’t answer me. “Joel?”
“Hmmm?” He turned to the sound of my voice, barely even registering me, and right then and there, I decided I’d had enough.
I was dating him for all the wrong reasons.
When I’d asked him questions about my brother, I’d gotten this sense that my time was limited before we needed to move on to lighter things. Funner things.
And maybe that was what it had been about all along. Maybe I was hanging in there until the next time he’d allow me an opening to talk about Christopher again. To permit me to live in my brother’s world, for brief snatches of time, where we were both on the same page. Where we both could reminisce about the person I’d loved most in the world.
So maybe I was using him.
And, whoa, that realization struck me so hard that I had trouble keeping it contained inside me any longer. My lips trembled and my fingers clenched Quinn’s keys even tighter.
“It’s okay, you know.” The words rushed from my lips. I needed to get them out.
“What is?” His eyes were bloodshot and scarcely focused on me.
“If you want someone else,” I said it so low I wasn’t even sure he’d heard me.
His eyes became round and wide. “I don’t want anyone else.”
“You certainly haven’t wanted me lately. At least not when you’re sober.” My stomach was churning, but I needed to keep levelheaded. “We can talk about this like two adults. We’ve been drifting apart for weeks.”
I realized I was trying to have a conversation with a drunken person. But sometimes alcohol could bring out the truth. And I certainly had my own truths to own up to.
“S . . . sorry, Ella. You’re a good girl,” he garbled. He leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees. “Didn’t want to disappoint you. Or your family.”
Tears stung my eyes. Damn, he was being honest.
This may have been the most candid conversation we’d ever had.
“I wanted to be an upstanding guy for you.” He relaxed against the cushions and covered his eyes with his forearm. Maybe he thought I was going to slug him one. “I did. But I’m just not a good boyfriend.”
“I know. I see that now,” I said, more for myself than for him. I realized how much I’d neglected or ignored about him. Avery had tried to warn me. But I didn’t want to listen.
And now I was attracted to someone else who might not want to be boyfriend material. So who was to blame here for poor decision making? But I knew in my heart that Quinn would never disrespect me like Joel had done. And I was at fault for allowing it to go on for far too long.
“I wasn’t a good girlfriend, either, Joel. Because I was dating you . . . for reasons you probably wouldn’t even understand.” I stood up, my knees wobbling a bit and my eyes welling up with tears. The shock of this honest conversation left me feeling a bit off-kilter.
“It’ll be okay, Joel. Maybe we can still be friends.” I leaned over to give him one last hug. He grabbed my face and tried shoving his tongue down my throat.
“Joel, stop.” I pushed at his shoulders. “You can’t kiss me if we just broke up.”
It was then that I realized he might not remember this conversation in the morning.
He tried thumbing beneath my shirt. “I’m going to miss these fantastic tits.”
After I’d wrenched myself from his grasp, I straightened myself and smoothed down my T-shirt and shorts. I took the beer from his hand and dumped it down the drain. “You’re cut off for the night.”
Looking out at the blazing fire in the backyard, I noticed the same blond sorority girl close to the glass doors, watching our display. When I motioned for her to come inside, she stiffened like she’d been caught.
The girl timidly stepped inside the room. “Yeah?”
“I’m going home and wondered if you could give me a hand,” I said. “I think Joel wants to head out by the fire and I don’t want him falling in.”
Not unless I pushed him myself.
Her eyes widened like she couldn’t believe I’d be naïve enough to give away my boyfriend so easily. Joel stared at me with mournful eyes.
But when he looked at the blond, a devilish grin crossed his lips.
And that’s when I knew he’d be just fine without me.