CHAPTER 1 Preview
I sucked in a deep breath, taking in the beloved scent of aged, crisp paper, combined with dust and freshly brewed coffee. There was something about the library—the atmosphere—that spoke to me. It reached down to the deepest depth of my quirky girl soul and sang like a nightingale. The library understood me better than anyone else. It recognized my need to be a part of the whole, while satisfying my desire to be alone. I’d always loved the library, even as a young girl. The books, filled to the brim with stories and adventures I could enjoy in the safety and restricted confines of my room. At home I had to follow a long list of strict rules, but here, among the stacked shelves and free Wi-Fi…I could rule the world.
Eyeing my usual spot in the back left corner, across from the long row of computers, I took a quick detour to the coffee cafe. It wasn’t Starbucks, but it served varying shades of brown stuff for budget minded caffeine addicts. I eagerly bounced on my heels as I waited in line, mentally calculating my choices, even though I’d revert back to my usual mocha standby. I enjoyed pretending to be an actual coffee connoisseur in the same way I pretended to be a normal college freshman.
Normal had never been my forte.
I picked at the floral printed tights underneath my bright purple skirt. I hated tights. It didn’t matter the brand; they caused me to itch like a dog with fleas. But I liked to wear pants even less and with the nippy spring weather in Maryland, I had to resort to the dreaded things so I wouldn’t freeze to death. The weather was the one thing I missed about Hollywood. I scratched the back of my leg with the heel of my shoe with the same enthusiasm a bear might scratch his back on a tree. The judgy girl in front of me turned around to stare.
I tucked my chopped off waves behind my ear and stared back. “Can I help you?”
She eyed me a moment, resembling the pissed off turtle on her shirt that represented our college mascot before turning around with a roll of her eyes.
I got that a lot. I probably still had flour on my clothes or icing on my face. Then add on my unusual wardrobe, Marilyn Monroe hair, general dislike of people, and I was bound to catch a few odd looks. It was normal…for me.
It wasn’t my fault I spent my morning perfecting recipes for the bake shop I planned to open when I finally managed to graduate with my business degree instead of attending frat parties, singalongs or whatever regular college students did. One of the many things my father expected me to do at college was pay my own rent since I begged him to let me leave the dorms, and working early mornings and late evenings at the Sugar Cube bakery was my meal ticket. It was also my passion.
I reached into my purse and pulled out my clunky black compact which depicted the wedding scene from The Little Mermaid on the cover and used the mirror to reapply my cherry red lipstick while I waited. The barista called out my name.
“That’s me.” I held up my hand, the sparkly bangle bracelets falling up to my elbow. I stuck my compact back in my purse and stepped around the guy in front of me. The girl next to me stared again. And again I stared back at her. “What? You don’t give them fun, fake names?”
She pretended not to hear me this time.
The barista handed over my extra giant coffee. I cradled the steaming cup of ecstasy in my hands and made my way to my seat, already smiling as I sat. Today was Monday. Mondays meant I worked at Sugar Cube until noon then met my friends for a brief study session before laboring my way over to the other side of campus for night classes.
It sounded like any other day in the life of a broke college student, except today was Monday!
I mentally threw confetti in the air. I would have danced and started a High School Musical scene, but I didn’t want to spill my coffee. The point was…Mondays were the best.
Besides all the normal stuff, today held one special, week-defining difference.
My deep, dark secret, that until this year, I’d managed to keep secluded in the farthest corner of my fantasy vault. It wasn’t until I met my friends Sloan and Ava at orientation back in the fall that they prodded the confession out of me. I leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath as I prepared myself for the admission.
I liked a very specific type of guy.
I, Eloise Duncan, had a thing for nerdy boys.
Skinny jeans and comic book t-shirts. Black rimmed glasses and hair that never followed the rules. Forget a flashy car. Show me those A’s on your report card.
Hundreds of students passed noisily by me on their way to class or to a private, quiet corner in which to torture themselves. I, on the other hand, sat in the back corner of the main study hall amidst all the action. I threw my books across the desk in front me, papers crumbled in small piles here and there, while my thirty-pack of new pencils rolled where they may. It was my way of pretending to study.
I had no intention of actually studying.
Studying was the last thing I had on my mind at the moment. A logical person might be tempted to ask why would I walk seven blocks from my apartment to the library—in death heels, mind you—to sit at a desk and not study? Lucky for me, I had a very reasonable, at least in my mind, answer. It was all due to the numero uno nerd of my dreams sitting about twenty feet in front of me.
I didn’t know his name, but he also had his books thrown out in front of him. Unlike me, though, he read them. Line by line. Word by word. Advanced chemistry and physics were his torture of choice today.
Yes. I had been nerd stalking him for weeks.
It all started when I sat at the computer checking my email one day. Deep in my free Wi-Fi daze, I caught the sight of his chemistry book as he passed by me. Well, technically, it was his glorious backside that caught my attention, but the chemistry book definitely upped the appeal. Unfortunately, that was all it took. One glance at a pair of faded skinny jeans, and I was hooked. Shoot me up, max out my credit cards, pawn off my own dog hooked. I needed some form of intervention. I could already see myself on Dr. Phil explaining how it all started.
“Well, Doc, first it was the pants. They were really tight. Then he walked right by me. It’s only polite to scope out the scenery when they flaunt it right in your face.”
“But, Eloise,” Dr. Phil would say, “it’s not just the pants, is it?”
I’d shake my head remorsefully and maybe even let out a regrettable sigh. “No, Doc, it’s not just the pants. It’s the glasses too.”
“Tell me, Eloise,” he would insist seriously, “tell me what the glasses make you want to do.”
That would be when I would break out into full Tom Cruise mode, jump on the couch, and start singing like a crazed maniac about love, puppies, and magic unicorns that leave boxes of nerdy boys on your doorstep at night.
I rubbed my temple and shook my head at my overactive imagination. I cupped my hand over my eyes and stared at him from underneath my jittery fingers. His tousled brown hair stuck out in every direction today. I wanted to run my hands through it and…pull. Then, on top of that, every two minutes he would take his finger and push his little, adorable glasses back up his nose. I growled and clenched my free hand on the edge of my seat. Weeks of desire and admiration bubbled inside of me.
I had a real problem.
“Down, tiger. You look like you’re ready to pounce.”
I didn’t need to turn around because I already knew the teasing voice belonged to Sloan, my snarky angel of a best friend. The long sheath of her shiny black hair dangled effortlessly over her shoulder. Sloan was this tiny, pixie-like Latin goddess. Instead of acknowledging her, I kept my eyes on the unbearably beautiful boy and the way he bit his lip as he concentrated on his book. “He’s wearing a tie today.” I halfway moaned each word as she sat down next to me. “A freaking tie, Sloan.”
A mocking smirk spread across her face. “It’s just a tie, Elle.”
I groaned again. Sloan didn’t understand the fine qualities that made up a lust-worthy, intelligent, “make you want scream the periodic table backward” kind of man. No, Sloan had her own preference.
Good, old fashioned, howdy y’all, cowboys. She found her solace lusting after Preston McCoy, the southern gentleman of her wildest fantasies who worked down at the local coffee shop next to our apartment complex. We stalked him on Thursdays.
“You don’t get it.” I rolled my eyes even though we’d already had this conversation twice this week.
“You’re completely right. I don’t get it.” She turned her head to the side, scrutinizing my nerdalicious goodness. “I don’t get the allure of the glasses. I mean, he’s definitely hot, don’t get me wrong. Throw some boots and a ten-gallon hat on that boy and I’d be saying ride ’em cowgirl, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, Sloan. I always know what you mean.” I laughed and returned my attention to the object of my desire as he so perfectly turned the page in his book.
Another chair pulled up behind us. “Oooh, a tie. No wonder I heard Eloise’s ovaries growling from outside.”
“Don’t tease her, Ava.” Sloan giggled and gave me a just-joking elbow into my side. “You’re very close to being correct.”
I grunted my displeasure at them. Ava Morrison, goddess of all things born with a y chromosome, at least in her own mind, was my other best friend. She also did not understand. Ava was your typical all-American beauty. She walked around ready to accept her homecoming queen crown seven days a week. Ava liked her men big and beefy with a letterman jacket. Ava got her fix from Brad “if I had any more muscles I’d turn green” Helton. Brad was the captain and resident hunk on the Maryland baseball team. We had plans to stalk him every home game.
“Come on, Elle.” Ava shook my arm, her eyes round and pleading. “At least find out what his name is.”
“I’m perfectly fine not knowing,” I said, almost freaking out at the mere idea of walking up to him.
I didn’t do that kind of thing—talk to people I didn’t know. Normally, I didn’t talk to people in general, but strangers were a definite no. Make that stranger the cute library boy and, well…words refused to form in my mouth. I would never be able to control myself in such close proximity anyway. I’d end up grabbing him in some fan-crazed bear hug, or poking him somewhere inappropriate and embarrass myself. Because that was what I did when I interacted with regular civilians—I embarrassed myself.
Sloan propped her chin in the palm of her hand, thinking the situation over. “You could go ask him if he has an extra pocket protector or something.”
“Or,” Ava said, bouncing in her seat at her apparent brilliant idea, “ask if he knows what the weather is like outside.”
Sloan and I looked at her. “There is a window right there,” I said, pointing out at the bright sunshine beaming in through the glass.
Sloan smiled and patted Ava on the back. “Oh, Avie-bug. You better be glad you’re pretty.”
Ava huffed, but I already had my attention back on my nerd. He tugged at the knot of the tie, and I whimpered. Sloan and Ava sniggered loudly.
I glared at them. “You two ruin this for me, you know that?”
It was time to go to our actual study group anyway. I chucked what was left of my coffee in the nearest waste bin, and then started slamming my props shut so I could stuff them in my bag. The third slam was followed by two very high pitched gasps. I glanced up, not at the girls, but at the boy across the room. A pair of big blue eyes stared at me through thick lenses.
He saw me.
My limbs forgot the meaning of movement and little heart-eyed tweety birds sang Whitney Houston ballads around my head. I stared back at him because I couldn’t look away. One long second later his gaze dropped back down to his book. It was only then I finally managed to make my mouth and voice work. “Sorry.”
It was barely a feeble squeak, easily buried beneath the low thrum of chatter around us.
“Go now.” Sloan frantically shoved me forward two feet. “You got his attention.”
I only huffed and finished cramming my books into my backpack. Heat filled my cheeks. That all too familiar wrench in my gut at another social failure. “No, what I did was embarrass myself. Again.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d done something stupid in front of him. I spilled hot coffee down my cleavage last week, and yelped like it had taken my head off. Then my books fell off the table, and I almost flipped my chair over backward as I tried to scramble away from the burn. He’d looked at me then too. Unimpressed by my wackadoodle antics.
I picked up my stuff in horrified silence. I grabbed my backpack and started to run off with the Bobbsey Twins tagging along behind me. Sloan caught up with me first. “You didn’t embarrass yourself. He totally gave you bedroom eyes.”
“Bedroom eyes?” I scoffed, jumping up the flight of stairs, three steps at time. “More like ‘why don’t you shut up so I can study’ eyes.”
“Give it up, Sloan.” Ava sashayed up the steps beside us. “Elle’s got her hots in a knot. You know there is no dealing with her when she’s like this.”
Sloan growled. “All right, fine. We’ll change the subject. What are you doing tomorrow evening? I have my eye on some new knee high black boots. I think it’s what I need to catch Cowboy Joe’s attention this Thursday.” Sloan struggled to catch up to me. She grabbed my arm, pulling me to a halt. “I know you only have class until ten.”
“I have work after class.” I stomped up a few more steps. “I have to get some extra cash if Ava wants us all to buy season tickets to freaking baseball.”
“Yes.” Ava squealed with excitement. “Go earn that money, because we’ve got some hunky monkey to scope out next week on that trapezoid thing they play on.”
“It’s a diamond, Ava.” Sometimes I really worried about her. “It’s not that hard, honey. We learned shapes in preschool.”
Sloan stepped in front of me to cut off my escape. “If you must go to work, then go. But I will see you Thursday at the coffee shop, though, right?”
“Yes.” I sighed because I knew there would be no getting out of it. Unlike me, Sloan was determined to land her fantasy boy one way or another. “Just don’t hump the boy’s leg off before I get there to hold you back.”
“I’ll try.” She shot me her innocent smile, but it wasn’t convincing. Wicked wasn’t something you could cover up. “It depends on how many times Cowboy calls me Miss Sloan in that little chicken fried accent.”
I rolled my eyes, stepped around her, and hopped up the last step. I tried not to think about my screw-up and focused on getting to our study group. I needed to get my English paper finished before I had to leave for work. I made a promise to myself I would only allow thirty minutes of nerd appreciation each day, and I’d reached my limit about ten minutes ago. I sighed at the thought of that tortuous tie, but reminded myself there would always be tomorrow.
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