He doesn’t know I’m alive.
For the millionth time in forty-five minutes, I sneak a peek in Justin Kohl’s direction, and he’s so beautiful it makes my throat close up. Though I should probably come up with another adjective—my male friends insist that men don’t like being called beautiful.
But holy hell, there’s no other way to describe his rugged features and soulful brown eyes. He’s wearing a baseball cap today, but I know what’s beneath it: thick dark hair, the kind that looks silky to the touch and makes you want to run your fingers through it.
In the five years since the rape, my heart has pounded for only two guys.
The first one dumped me.
This one is just oblivious.
At the podium in the lecture hall, Professor Tolbert delivers what I’ve come to refer to as the Disappointment Speech. It’s the third one in six weeks.
Surprise, surprise, seventy percent of the class got a C-plus or lower on the midterm.
Me? I aced it. And I’d be lying if I said the big red A! circled on top of my midterm hadn’t come as a complete shock. All I did was scribble down a never-ending stream of bullshit to try to fill up the booklet.
Philosophical Ethics was supposed to be a breeze. The prof who used to teach it handed out brainless multiple choice tests and a final “exam” consisting of a personal essay that posed a moral dilemma and asked how you’d react to it.
But two weeks before the semester started, Professor Lane dropped dead from a heart attack. I heard his cleaning lady found him on the bathroom floor—naked. Poor guy.
Luckily (and yep, that’s total sarcasm) Pamela Tolbert stepped in to take over Lane’s class. She’s new to Briar University, and she’s the kind of prof who wants you to make connections and “engage” with the material. If this was a movie, she’d be the young, ambitious teacher who shows up at the inner city school and inspires the fuckups, and suddenly everyone’s putting down their AKs and picking up their pencils, and the end credits scroll up to announce how all the kids got into Harvard or some shit. Instant Oscar for Hilary Swank.
Except this isn’t a movie, which means that the only thing Tolbert has inspired in her students is hatred. And she honestly can’t seem to grasp why nobody is excelling in her class.
Here’s a hint—it’s because she asks the types of questions you could write a frickin’ grad school thesis on.
“I’m willing to offer a makeup exam to anyone who failed or received a C-minus or lower.” Tolbert’s nose wrinkles as if she can’t fathom why it’s even necessary.
The word she just used—willing? Yeah, right. I heard that a ton of students complained to their advisors about her, and I suspect the administration is forcing her to give everyone a redo. It doesn’t reflect well on Briar when more than half the students in a course are flunking, especially when it’s not just the slackers. Straight-A students like Nell, who’s sulking beside me, also bombed the midterm.
“For those of you who choose to take it again, your two grades will be averaged. If you do worse the second time, the first grade will stand,” Tolbert finishes.
“I can’t believe you got an A,” Nell whispers to me.
She looks so upset that I feel a pang of sympathy. Nell and I aren’t best pals or anything, but we’ve been sitting next to each other since September so it’s only reasonable that we’ve gotten to know each other. She’s on the pre-med path, and I know she comes from an overachieving family who would tar and feather her if they found out about her midterm grade.
“I can’t believe it either,” I whisper back. “Seriously. Read my answers. They’re ramblings of nonsense.”
“Actually, can I?” She sounds eager now. “I’m curious to see what the Tyrant considers A material.”
“I’ll scan and email you a copy tonight,” I promise.
The second Tolbert dismisses us, the lecture hall echoes with let’s-get-the-hell-outta-here noises. Laptops snap shut, notebooks slide into backpacks, students shuffle out of their seats.
Justin Kohl lingers near the door to talk to someone, and my gaze locks in on him like a missile. He’s beautiful.
Have I mentioned how beautiful he is?
My palms go clammy as I stare at his handsome profile. He’s new to Briar this year, but I’m not sure which college he transferred from, and although he wasted no time becoming the star wide receiver on the football team, he’s not like the other athletes at this school. He doesn’t strut through the quad with one of those I’m-God’s-gift-to-the-world smirks or show up with a new girl on his arm every day. I’ve seen him laugh and joke with his teammates, but he gives off an intelligent, intense vibe that makes me think there are hidden depths to him. Which just makes me all the more desperate to get to know him.
I’m not usually into jocks, but something about this one has turned me into a mindless pile of mush.
“You’re staring again.”
Nell’s teasing voice brings a blush to my cheeks. She’s caught me drooling over Justin on more than one occasion, and she’s one of the few people I’ve admitted the crush to.
My roommate Allie also knows, but my other friends? Hell no. Most of them are music or drama majors, so I guess that makes us the artsy crowd. Or maybe emo. Aside from Allie, who’s had an on-again/off-again relationship with a frat boy since freshman year, my friends get a kick out of trashing Briar’s elite. I don’t usually join in (I like to think gossiping is beneath me) but…let’s face it. Most of the popular kids are total douchebags.
Case in point—Garrett Graham, the other star athlete in this class. Dude walks around like he owns the place. I guess he kind of does. All he has to do is snap his fingers and an eager girl appears at his side. Or jumps into his lap. Or sticks her tongue down his throat.
He doesn’t look like the BMOC today, though. Almost everyone else has gone, including Tolbert, but Garrett remains in his seat, his fists curled tightly around the edges of his booklet.
He must have failed too, but I don’t feel much sympathy for the guy. Briar is known for two things—hockey and football, which isn’t much of a shocker considering Massachusetts is home to both the Patriots and the Bruins. The athletes who play for Briar almost always end up in the pros, and during their years here they get everything handed to them on a silver platter—including grades.
So yeah, maybe it makes me a teeny bit vindictive, but I get a sense of triumph from knowing that Tolbert is failing the captain of our championship-winning hockey team right along with everyone else.
“Wanna grab something from the Coffee Hut?” Nell asks as she gathers her books.
“Can’t. I’ve got rehearsal in twenty minutes.” I get up, but I don’t follow her to the door. “Go on ahead. I need to check the schedule before I go. Can’t remember when my next tutorial is.”
Another “perk” of being in Tolbert’s class—along with our weekly lecture, we’re forced to attend two thirty-minute tutorials a week. On the bright side, Dana the TA runs those, and she has all the qualities Tolbert lacks. Like a sense of humor.
“’Kay,” Nell says. “I’ll see you later.”
“Later,” I call after her.
At the sound of my voice, Justin pauses in the doorway and turns his head.
Oh. My. God.
It’s impossible to stop the flush that rises in my cheeks. This is the first time we’ve ever made eye contact, and I don’t know how to respond. Say hi? Wave? Smile?
In the end, I settle for a small nod of greeting. There. Cool and casual, befitting of a sophisticated college junior.
My heart skips a beat when the corner of his mouth lifts in a faint grin. He nods back, and then he’s gone.
I stare at the empty doorway. My pulse explodes in a gallop because holy shit. After six weeks of breathing the same air in this stuffy lecture hall, he’s finally noticed me.
I wish I were brave enough to go after him. Maybe ask him to grab a coffee. Or dinner. Or brunch—wait, do people our age even have brunch?
But my feet stay rooted to the shiny laminate floor.