Laurie is still talking when I push open the doors and flee the lecture hall. I’m halfway down the hall when someone calls my name.
“Summer, wait.” Ben rushes over to me, concern etched into his face. “Are you all right?”
“Not really.” I gulp repeatedly, once again trying to suppress the tears.
“That’s really fucking shady what Laurie’s doing in there,” Ben says flatly.
“Tell me about it.”
“You need to report this to the department head.”
“And say what?” I ask in a sardonic tone. “‘Hey, I got a D-minus on my midterm. Fire the professor.’”
“No, but you can tell them that he humiliated you in front of your peers and implied that you’re an incompetent writer and—”
“I’m sorry,” I cut in, because I’m barely holding on by a thread here. “But I have to go.”
“Ben, please. Just drop this.” I gesture to the doors. “Go back inside and wait for your midterm. I bet you did great.”
“Summer.” He shakes his head angrily. “This isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair.” My voice cracks. “But I appreciate you coming out here to check on me. I really do. You’re a good guy, Ben. Thank you.”
I squeeze his arm and then walk away.
At home, I find Fitz at his desk. He’s wearing his headphones and tapping on the game controller that plugs into his computer. Or I think it plugs into it. I don’t really understand his gaming system. He tried to explain it to me once, but I’ve already forgotten.
I pluck his earphones off, causing a startled Fitz to swivel in his padded chair. “Fuck, you scared me, babe.” When he sees the look on my face, concern fills his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
I inhale a slow, even breath. “I need to ask you something, and you have to promise to be honest with me.”
“Okay…” His expression grows wary.
“Was my essay a piece of shit?”
“What?” He scrapes both hands over his face, clearly confused. “You mean the fashion essay? About New York and the first half of the twentieth century?”
I nod. “You told me I did a good job on it,” I say shakily.
“You did a great job.”
I search his expression and find nothing deceitful about it. And his voice is nothing but sincere. “Do you really believe that, or are you only saying it because we’re dating?”
“Summer, if I thought your midterm sucked or that something about it was highly problematic, I would have told you,” he says firmly. “And I would have offered to help you fix it. I don’t see the point in lying about stuff like that.”
I sink onto the edge of his bed. Once again, my eyes begin stinging, but this time I can’t control a few teardrops from popping out and sliding down my cheeks.
Fitz is on his feet in a heartbeat. He kneels in front of me and places his big hands on my thighs. “Talk to me,” he urges thickly. “What’s going on?”
“I got a D-minus on the midterm.”
That startles him. “For real?”
I nod slowly.
The surprise on his face slowly transforms into skepticism. “But that’s practically a fail.”
“I know,” I moan, and as the tears continue to fall, I tell him everything that happened in class today. And then, since I’m already confessing humiliating things, I also reveal what happened in Laurie’s office.
Fitz’s eyes blaze. “That motherfucker. And now he’s punishing you because you didn’t want to sleep with him?”
I swipe at my wet eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe I really did deserve a D.”
“Bullshit. That was not a D paper, Summer. I’m sorry. I don’t claim to be some essay-writing genius, but if I was a TA, I would’ve given you a B. Maybe a B-minus if I was being nitpicky about grammar, or a C if I was just in a bad mood that day. But a D-minus is total bull. He’s absolutely punishing you.” He angrily shakes his head. “You need to appeal the grade.”
His confidence in my midterm dries my tears. “Can I do that?”
“I’m not sure how the Fashion department does it, but there’s definitely an appeal process at this college and you need to take advantage of it.” He cups my cheeks with both hands, sweeping his thumbs over my jawline. “You can’t let him get away with this. You do not deserve that grade, babe.”
But what if you do? my inner critic counters. You’re not exactly the brightest bulb in the—
Shut up, I interrupt, mentally bitch-slapping the negative part of my brain that’s been tormenting me for years. Just. Shut. Up.
I’m not going to listen to the critic. I’m going to listen to Fitz, who sounds so adamant that I did a good job on the paper.
And his faith in me steals the breath from my lungs. I throw my arms around him and hug him tightly. “I love you,” I whisper. “You make me feel…” I pause to think it over. “Smart.”
His husky laughter tickles the top of my head. “Smart, huh?” He runs his hands up and down my back before tightening his hold on me.
“Yes.” I smile against the warm column of his neck, breathing in his familiar masculine scent. “I didn’t appeal the plagiarism paper at Brown because I thought nobody would believe that I didn’t intentionally cheat. But I should have done it. I didn’t deserve to fail—I deserved extra help.” I steel my jaw. “Because I have a learning disorder.”
I tip my head to find Fitz gazing at me with pride in his eyes.
“I’m not stupid,” I tell him, and for once, my inner critic remains silent. “I just learn differently. I worked my ass off on that midterm, and maybe there were a few run-on sentences and a paragraph or two that I could’ve rearranged. And fine, there was one spelling error—but come on, do you expect me to believe that not a single other person in the class had so much as a typo?” I jut my chin. “I’m appealing this shit.”
“Damn right you are. Laurie can eat a dick.”
“Damn right he can.” I run my fingers over the stubble dotting his strong jaw. “Thank you for making me feel better about all this.”
“Hey, it’s my job as your boyfriend to make you feel better.” Fitz’s lips brush over mine in a reassuring kiss. “Don’t worry, babe. You’re going to appeal the grade, and the college will overturn it because it’ll be clear that Laurie is a vengeful asshole. It’s going to be fine.” He kisses me again. “I promise.”
Due to a scheduling conflict with the Arbor House, our venue in Hastings, tomorrow’s junior fashion show will now be held at 7 p.m., rather than 9 p.m. We apologize to ticketholders for any inconvenience this may cause.
“Can. You. Frigging. Believe. This.”
Rage twists Summer’s beautiful features into something dark and primal. She looks as if she’s prepared to drive to Erik Laurie’s home and strangle him with her bare hands.
I don’t blame her.
“A scheduling conflict?” she screeches. “The day before the event? He did this on purpose. He’s trying to fuck me, literally and figuratively”
I don’t laugh, because I’m furious on her behalf. When she’d emailed Laurie reminding him that half her models won’t be available until this earlier show is well underway, she’d gotten a cold response stating that she’d simply have to redo the independent study next year.
Which is a slap in the face after she’d worked her ass off all semester.
“Are you sure he knew that Rex and the guys wouldn’t be available until eight?”
“He knew,” she says tightly. “I mentioned it several times during our check-ins. He wanted me to open the show, and I told him I’d prefer a later slot to give the football guys time to regroup after their retreat. Plus, it’s a lot of pressure to go first.”
“Can you go over his head?” I ask.
“To who? My academic advisor? Richmond can’t stand me. And he’s in love with Laurie.”
“Maybe he’ll see reason. It’s not like you didn’t do any of the work. You still have six models.”
“I told all this to Laurie,” she reminds me. She tosses me her phone.
I read over their email exchange again. After his rude reply, Summer pleaded her case, saying she has six models ready to walk in the show, and asking if she could simply not show the men’s line. Laurie tells her that either all twelve models need to be there, or none of them. He once again reiterates that she will need to repeat the independent study.
“What am I going to do?” Her expression is dismayed, but she’s not crying, which tells me she hasn’t admitted defeat yet.
“There’s gotta be a solution. You talked to Rex—there’s no way they can make it back early?”
“Nope. Coach Deluca has them on lockdown. Apparently this hippie-dippie retreat is in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization. The bus doesn’t collect them until five. They’ll get back a couple hours after that.”