Chapter 1

Jess Peterson stepped off the bus onto the campus of Texas Tech and took a deep breath. Though it hadn’t been her first choice of colleges – she’d wanted to get farther away – it had at least gotten her away from her “handsy” stepfather. In fact, if she never saw Paducah, Texas and it’s one stoplight again, she would be completely fine with that.

She slung her black backpack over her shoulder and crossed the quad to Knapp hall. A folded map resided in the back pocket of her cutoff denim shorts just in case, but having a photographic memory, she’d memorized most of the buildings, on the east side of campus at least. Knapp Hall was a large, though non-descript, brick building of three floors built in 1948.

Jess registered the cracks in the cement steps as she pulled open the front door. They weren’t surprising as old as the building was, but she hoped the interior had been updated more recently.

It was not to be. Though the dorm had definitely been improved since 1948, it still looked to be about ten years behind the times in terms of decorating. Variations of browns and greens were the main colors, interspersed with a few streaks of gray.

After stopping at the information desk on the first floor just long enough to get the keys, Jess took the stairs at the end of the hall two at a time to the third floor. 316. The closed door elicited a glimmer of hope that they’d gotten her the single she had asked for. The last thing she wanted was a roommate.

The door swung open and Jess swore softly under her breath. A blond girl stood beside the left bed unpacking the suitcase in front of her. She looked up when Jess entered and smiled. “Who are you?”

The girl dropped the item of clothing she had been holding and stepped forward, extending her hand. “I’m Emily. I guess you’re my new roommate.”

Rolling her eyes, Jess pushed past the girl, ignoring the hand. “Crap. I told them I wanted a single.”

“Well, they ran out,” Emily stated, appearing unperturbed by the rude behavior. “See, I’m a sophomore, but I offered to room with an incoming freshman if it was needed. Since you’re here, I guess it was needed.”

Jess tossed her backpack on the right bed and glared at the blond. “Well, I’ll be asking them to look again. I don’t do roommates.” Her hand plunged into her backpack, rifling through the contents until she found the item she was looking for – the paperwork with the RA’s name on it. Ah, there it was. Clasping it in her hand, she glared at Emily again, and then abruptly left the room, slamming the wooden door behind her. “Nope, nu uh,” she muttered as she stomped down the hallway to the RA’s room.

Room 350 was at the far end of the hall, and Jess rapped loudly on the wooden door when she arrived. A tall leggy blonde with sparkly pink lips opened the door. “Hi, can I help you?”

Oh, great. My RA was probably the prom queen – every year. Jess shoved the paper clenched in her fist in front of the preppy blond’s face. “I’m Jess Peterson, and I’m supposed to have a single, but there’s some goody-two-shoes who has already unpacked her things in my room.”

Her perfectly arched eyebrows shot to the top of her forehead as she leaned back slightly and took the paper, lowering it to a level she could read it from. “Okay, well, first off, let’s try not to call our roommate names.” She unfolded the paper and glanced over it.

With crossed my arms, Jess tapped her foot against the carpeted floor as she waited for the RA to explain they had made a mistake. “This says we’d try to get you a single, but that we couldn’t guarantee it. I’m afraid we had more upperclassmen return than we expected, and they get their choice of a single first. So, I can add you to the waiting list, but I’m afraid you’re stuck for now.”

Heat erupted in Jess’s body and her hands clenched into fists at her side. “That’s it? That’s all you can do?”

The blond shrugged and held the paper out to her, “Maybe try to get to know your roommate. I bet she’s not as bad as you think.”

“Argh, you are worthless.” Jess snatched the paper back from the RA’s glittery pink nails and marched down the stairs. This could NOT be happening. She slammed the outside door open as she reached the final step. It banged against the wall before slamming shut, satisfying a small destructive desire burning within.

Leaning against the brick wall, she pulled a cigarette and a lighter out of the pocket of her shorts and flicked the lighter on. As she puffed on the cigarette, the nicotine went to work on her nerves, soothing some of the manic feeling. How was she going to make it through a semester with a roommate?

It wasn’t that she’d never lived with anyone. She’d had to crash with a few friends the last few months after moving out of her mom’s house, but that had been a necessary evil and she’d been hoping to finally have a place of her own when she arrived at college.

As she inhaled, plans formulated in her mind. Maybe if living with her was awful enough, she could get the girl to leave. What would it take? Loud music? Being a slob? A parade of men? She would have to try them all, until one worked. The cigarette burned to a nub, and she dropped it to the ground, squishing it into the dirt with the toe of her boot before deciding to take a walk to calm her anger and solidify a plan.

When she returned to the room later, the girl was still there, and she had decorated. Red and black towels hung from the handle by the sink. Pictures of the Eiffel tower covered the wall above a soft grey bedspread. The girl sat on the bed with a book open on her lap. Ice flooded Jess’s veins as she realized what the girl was reading. She hadn’t thought this roommate situation could get worse, but she’d been wrong.

“Oh heck no, you’re one of those?”

“I’m sorry, one of what?” The girl’s brow wrinkled as she looked at Jess.

“One of those Bible beaters.” Jess had known enough “religious” people in her lifetime to know that she wanted nothing to do with them. They always talked a big talk, but rarely did they live what they preached. Even her mother had attended a church for a time, but dropped it when she met Jim.

The girl smiled. “I am a Christ follower, if that’s what you mean.”

With another eye roll, Jess mumbled under her breath, “Great, they paired me with a religious nut job.” She grabbed her headphones from her bag, plugged them into her phone, and turned up the music. Though the girl said nothing, Jess could tell the music was bugging her, and she smiled a little inside. Maybe this wouldn’t be too hard after all.

A few minutes later, the girl motioned for Jess to remove the headphones. She pushed one back just enough to hear her ask something about food. Yeah, as if I’d want to eat with you. Jess flicked a hand at her in dismissal and sighed in relief when the door closed behind the girl.

Turning off the music, she began to unpack her own things. There wasn’t much, only what would fit in her large backpack. When she’d left home a few months back, she had taken only a few clothes and items, just enough to get by. She’d stayed with a few acquaintances through the summer before having to spend the last week in a shelter. It hadn’t been that bad, and it had allowed her to keep the small wad of money she managed to save up and keep hidden from her mother.

Thankfully, a scholarship had arrived her senior year that covered room and board. While Jess hadn’t had a great high school experience, she’d had a pretty amazing guidance counselor who had understood her unfortunate home situation and convinced Jess she was a good enough student that she could get a scholarship if she worked hard. The counselor had been right and that had been Jess’s ticket out of the abuse she’d lived with for the last several years.  

Jess pulled out her favorite black blanket, unrolled it, and covered the bed. Then she uncurled the few posters she had brought and hung them up on the walls. The contrast between her dark side of the room and the other girl’s happy bright side was nauseating and slightly comical.

An audible rumbling in her stomach sounded, and Jess realized she was hungry after all, but she had no idea which dorm the blond saint had gone to, and she didn’t want to risk running into her. It was time to see what the town had to offer.

University Avenue was to the east, and she trekked that direction having seen some restaurants from the bus when she arrived earlier. The sun still shone warmly, though it was nearing dusk, and beads of sweat began to trickle down one side of her neck. She had shaved the other side in hopes of deterring her stepfather’s advances, but it hadn’t worked. However, it had seemed to fit well with her “don’t mess with me” attitude, so she’d decided to keep it.

She crossed University at one of the crosswalks and debated. A pizza place, a burger joint, and a pancake house dotted the row of buildings. Not feeling much like breakfast, Jess decided to try the burger joint, Ollie’s.

The red and black building oozed Tech pride, and a picture of Ollie, a white dog with a black patch over one eye and a red bandana, completed the sign. Jess sighed at the gimmicky exterior, but figured the food couldn’t be too bad. It was rather hard to mess up a burger and fries.

As she opened the door, second thoughts flooded her mind. She might as well have walked into an updated version of Cheers. Huge television screens adorned the walls. Booths covered in red vinyl hugged the large windows, and a few tables and chairs sat near a large bar. A lively group filled the room, including a group of jocks at the nearest table cheering at the big screens. Pretty, blonde girls in designer clothes sat at another table tapping away on their expensive cell phones. If there were two things she couldn’t stand, it was jocks and Barbies.

She paused, hand on the door, debating her options. Though not her scene, she was hungry, and there were a few empty booths. The audible rumbling of her stomach finalized the decision and with a clenched jaw, she crossed to a nearby empty booth. Why couldn’t she be old enough to sit at the bar and order a stiff tequila drink?

She’d been drinking since the age of fourteen when she had found the liquor in her mother’s stash. The first swig had been awful, but she’d found after that the lightheaded sensation helped her forget the looks and the touches of her stepfather. Jess wouldn’t say she had acquired a taste for the liquor, but she had developed an appreciation to the mindless bliss it offered.

A college-aged waiter, clad in a white t-shirt and shorts, and wearing a bored expression arrived shortly and handed her a menu. New fears of the quality of the food deepened as the sticky menu audibly ripped open. Swallowing her disgust, Jess ordered a burger, fries, and a diet coke.

As the waiter turned away and headed to the kitchen, a large man slid in the booth across from her. With his short brown hair and broad shoulders, he looked very much like all the other jocks at the nearby table. A quick glance that direction confirmed her suspicion as the whole table had their eyes glued Jess’s direction. The man wasn’t bad looking, but Jess had no love for jocks. Perhaps if she could give him a cold enough stare he would leave, but alas he opened his mouth, and at the sound of his thick southern drawl, Jess felt IQ points begin oozing out of her head.

“I haven’t seen you ‘round here before,” the behemoth said. “I’m Randy. I’m a linebacker.”

Though Jess watched football – she was, in fact, a closet Dallas Cowboys fan – she had no intention of letting this dolt know it.

“That’s nice,” she said sweetly, plastering a fake smile on her face, “now get out of my booth.” The last words were filled with venom as her smile dropped and she glared daggers at him.

Randy held up his hands in defense. “Woah, no need to be rude now. I just thought I’d say hi.”

“Hi, now please leave.”

“Whatever.” He unfolded himself from the booth and lumbered back to his friends who cheered and clapped.

Jess rolled her eyes and sighed. Maybe she should have ordered in. She turned her attention out the window, and as she watched the cars pass, she wished for a different life. Thankfully, the table of jocks decided she wasn’t worth any more trouble and left her alone.

A few moments later, her plate of greasy food arrived. Jess hadn’t thought a restaurant could mess up a burger and fries, but she had been wrong. There was so much sauce on the burger that the bun had begun to disintegrate, and she was forced to eat the patty with a fork. The fries had evidently sat in the fryer a little too long as they were not golden yellow, but an odd brownish color. She shoveled down what little she could to satisfy the rumbling, paid the tab, and left. It was still better than home, she reminded herself as she stepped out into the humid night.

“Hey, you got a light?”

The voice came from the right, where a man with dark hair and a black leather jacket stood. Stubble covered his chin, making his blue eyes shine like a beacon in a dark storm, and the hint of a tattoo peeked over his collar. Jess’s breath caught as her heart hammered in her chest.

She nodded, forcing her voice to stay cool as she reached for her lighter. Her hand shook just slightly as she held it out, but The Highlander didn’t seem to notice. He lit his cigarette and then handed the lighter back. Jess shook out her own cigarette and lit up next to him.

“What’s your name?” he asked, nodding at her and taking a deep breath of smoke. It curled out of his thin lips in little wisps. Jess had never wanted to be a cigarette so badly.

“Jess. You?” She breathed in a deep lungful, careful not to overdo it. A coughing fit in front of this Adonis would be mortifying.

“Chad. You go to Tech?”

“Yeah, I just got here.”

He nodded again and continued puffing. Jess watched as his hand rose to his mouth and lowered to his side in a rhythmic motion, and she wondered what the stubble on his face would feel like against her cheek. Would it be rough like sandpaper or was it softer? A heat seared across her face, and she turned away.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you around.” He finished his cigarette, flicked it on the ground, and then mounted a black Harley Davidson parked at the curb. His bad boy quotient rose even higher, and her heart pounded faster as she envisioned herself climbing on the back and wrapping her arms around his waist, the smell of leather tickling her nose.

As the engine roared to life, the image vanished, and the pounding in her heart slowed. He flicked a mock salute and rode away. Sighing, Jess finished her cigarette and began the trek back to the dorm room.

When the building came into view, her good mood faded away. If only she didn’t have the perky roommate to put up with, today would have been nearly perfect.

With a sigh, she pushed open the door to the shared room. Emily looked up from her book, but said nothing. Crossing to the little sink, Jess brushed her teeth, changed into her sleeping attire of cutoff shorts and a t-shirt, and then flicked off the overhead light.

“Excuse me, but I was reading.” Emily’s voice held a note of annoyance, and Jess smiled to herself in the darkness.

“And now you’re not,” she retorted.

A sigh carried across the room, followed by the sound of rummaging around in a drawer. There was a click, and a little book light came on. Jess should have known Emily would be a prepared little girl scout. She rolled her eyes and turned to face the wall. Score one for the annoying blonde, but there was always tomorrow. She would just have to be more creative.

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