But there’s so much information. A mere five minutes of Googling on my laptop leaves me overwhelmed with facts. And the more I read, the broader the topic becomes. I have no idea how to narrow it down, and the panic hits me like a fist to the stomach.
I take another breath, but it’s quick and choppy, and I don’t think any of the oxygen actually enters my lungs.
I hate this. I hate this essay, and I hate myself.
My eyes feel hot. They start to sting. I rub them, but the act of touching them unleashes the tears I’m trying to suppress.
Stop crying, my inner critic scolds. You’re being ridiculous. It’s just an essay.
I try again to draw air into my lungs. My brain begins to scroll through the exercises my counselors and parents encourage me to do during a panic attack: I repeat that I’m going to be okay. I visualize giving myself a big hug. I think of Nana Celeste (who always calms me). But the scrolling stops when my gaze drops to the sea of yellow stickies on the floor, the jumble of thoughts that make up my nutty brain.
Another choked sob slips out.
I freeze at the sound of Fitz’s voice. It’s followed by a soft knock on my door.
My breath escapes in a trembling wheeze. “F-fine!” I manage to answer, and cringe at the crack in my voice.
He hears it too. “I’m opening the door now, okay?”
“No,” I blurt out. “I’m fine, Fitz. I promise.”
“I don’t believe you.” The door eases open and his handsome, worried face appears.
He takes one look at me and curses roughly. Before I can blink, he’s kneeling beside me. One warm hand grips my chin, forcing my gaze to his. “What’s wrong?” he demands.
“Nothing.” My voice shakes again.
“You’re crying. That’s not nothing.” His eyes drop to the dozens of notes stuck to the floor. “What’s all this?”
“Evidence of my stupidity,” I mumble.
“Stop saying nothing. Talk to me.” His thumb rubs a gentle line up my wet cheek. “I’m a good listener, I promise. Tell me what’s wrong.”
My lips start quivering. Dammit, I feel another wave of tears coming. And that makes me angry again. “I can’t fucking do this, that’s what’s wrong.”
I fling a hand out and sweep the Post-It notes away. Some of them remain stuck to the hardwood, while others fly across the room or slide under the bed.
Fitz plucks one of the notes and reads it. “Is this for a paper you’re working on?”
“Midterm,” I whisper. “Which I’m going to fail.”
Letting out a breath, he shifts positions so he’s sitting. He hesitates for a beat, before reaching for me.
Maybe if I wasn’t feeling so vulnerable at the moment, I would’ve been strong enough to push him away. But I’m weak and I feel defeated, and when he holds out his arms, I climb into his lap, bury my face against his chest, and allow him to comfort me.
“Hey,” he murmurs, running a soothing hand up and down my back. “It’s okay to be overwhelmed by school. We all stress about it.”
“You get stressed?” I ask in a small voice.
“All the time.”
His fingers thread through my hair, and I suddenly feel like a child again. My mom used to stroke my hair whenever I got upset. Sometimes my brother Nick did too, if I scraped a knee or bumped my head thanks to whatever daredevil stunt I’d attempted that day. I was a rambunctious kid. Hell, I’m a rambunctious adult.
The warmth of Fitz’s strong body seeps into me. I press my cheek to his collarbone and voice an embarrassed confession. “I have a learning disability.”
“Dyslexia?” His voice is thick with understanding.
“No. It’s more of a cluster of symptoms related to ADHD. I have a very hard time concentrating and organizing my thoughts on paper. I was on medication for it when I was a kid, but the meds gave me terrible headaches and made me nauseous and dizzy, so I went off them. I tried taking them again in my teens, but the same symptoms kept happening.” I give a harsh, self-deprecating laugh. “My brain doesn’t like the meds. Unfortunately, that means it’s up to me to focus my thoughts, and that’s really hard sometimes.”
“What can I do to help?”
I jerk up in surprise. “What?”
His gaze is earnest, shining with sincerity. Not even a hint of pity there. “You’re having trouble with your midterm, so how can I help?”
I’m a bit dazed. Awkwardly, I slide off his lap and sit cross-legged beside him. The moment we’re no longer touching, I miss the warmth of his body. For a fleeting moment, THE KISS floats into my mind, but I swat it away like a pesky fly. Fitz hasn’t mentioned the kiss, and right now he’s not looking at me like he wants to stick his tongue in my mouth.
He looks genuinely eager to help me.
“I don’t know,” I finally answer. “I just… There’s so much information.” Anxiety fills my stomach again. “We’re talking fifty decades’ worth of fashion. I’m not sure what to focus on, and if I can’t condense all the info, this paper will be like fifty pages long, and it’s only supposed to be three thousand words, and I don’t know how to streamline all the ideas, and—”
“Breathe,” he orders.
I stop and do what he says. The oxygen clears my brain a little.
“You’re letting yourself get carried away again. You need to go one step at a time.”
“I’m trying. That’s the point of the stupid sticky notes, to break it all down.”
“How about talking it out? Does that ever help?”
I nod slowly. “Yeah. Usually I’ll dictate the points and ideas and transcribe them afterward, but I’m not at that stage yet. I was trying to get the basic premise down when the panic struck.”
“Okay.” He stretches out his long legs in front of us. “Then let’s talk about the basic premise.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m sure you have better things to do with your time. Like draw. Or work on your video game.” I shrug weakly. “You don’t have to help me with my essay.”
“I wouldn’t be doing it for free.”
I narrow my eyes. “You want me to pay you?”
His eyebrows shoot up. “What? No. Of course not. I just meant…” He takes a quick breath, avoiding my gaze. “I need your help with something too.”
He glances over again, oddly sheepish. “How about an exchange? I’ll help you with this midterm—the outline, the thesis. And, as you write it, I can proofread and help you organize ideas. And you help me out by…” He mumbles the rest—“Letting me draw you.”
This time it’s my eyebrows taking flight. “You want to draw me?”
His head jerks in a nod.
“Like one of your French girls?” Heat scorches my cheeks. Is he saying he wants to draw me naked?
Oh my God.
Why does the idea kind of turn me on?
“What French girls?” he asks, confused.
“Are you sure you weren’t secretly watching Titanic with me and Hollis the other night?”
He snorts. “Ah, the naked portrait. Forgot about that scene. And no, you wouldn’t be naked.” His voice thickens at that, and I wonder if he’s imagining the same thing I am.
Me. Lying naked in front of him. My body on full display.
My breath quickens as the vision takes a dirty turn. Suddenly Fitz is naked too. Naked and hard. His tattooed biceps flexing as he lowers his long, muscular body on top of me and—
He coughs, and I don’t miss the flash of heat in his eyes. “You’d be fully clothed,” he says. “I’d be basing a character in my game on you. Well, on your appearance. I’ve had a tough time figuring out what this woman looks like, and…” He shrugs awkwardly, and it’s insanely adorable. “I think she might look like you.”
My jaw falls open. “You want to base a video game character on me? That’s so cool. What’s her name?”
“Oooh, I like that. It’s very elfin princess.”
“She’s actually a human.”
I grin. “You should reconsider. That’s totally an elf name.”
He grins back, then gestures to the mess on the floor. “Do we have a deal? I help you out, you let me sketch you?”
“Yes,” I say immediately. It takes a second to realize that all traces of defeat and despair have left my body. I feel rejuvenated, and the gratitude filling my chest threatens to overflow. “Thank you, Fitz.”
Our gazes lock. I wish I knew what he was thinking. I wish he’d bring up our silly Spin the Bottle kiss so I could figure out his feelings about it.
I wish he’d kiss me again.
His throat bobs as he visibly swallows. He licks his lips.
Arousal courses through my body. Oh God. Is he actually going to do it?
Please, I beg silently. With any other guy, I’d probably take the bull by the proverbial horns. As in, put my literal hand on his literal penis.