PI KAPPA Phi versus Theta Omicron.
Jackson took the snap and dropped back. Holding the football in front of him and yelling, “Hut!” hardly qualified as a real snap, but the stakes had Jack in game mode.
Theta players counted out Mississippis, and Jack scanned the field for his receiver—Ryan? Rodney? Ray! That was it. The guy played for the Harrison football team and ran like the wind. And damn could he run a pass route and be where the ball was going to end up.
Grunting loudly, his fraternity brothers met the Theta rush long enough for Jack to let the ball fly. A perfect tight spiral soared the length of the field, heading for the spot where Football Team Guy sprinted. He’d put six or seven steps between him and the flailing defenders and was in the clear.
A pass rusher shoved him in the chest with both hands—clearly too late to be a sack. Jack staggered back but kept his eyes on the flight of what promised to be his tenth touchdown pass of the game. Game? More like an annihilation. Theta Omicron should have known better than to pick a touch football game to settle the bet. Football Team Guy glided over to the ball right as it came down, gathered it in, and all but danced into the end zone.
Jack pumped his fist. “Yes!”
“Fuck!” someone shouted. Jack glanced over. The guy who’d shoved him was shaking his head. “Who is this dude?”
“Jackson Murphy and bestest friend ever.” Marcus Reynolds slapped him a high five that had his palm stinging. “Awesome, man.”
The guys from the neutral frat who’d agreed to referee blew the whistle seconds later to end the game. Seventy-seven to twenty-eight. Pi Kappa won, no contest.
Marcus nodded toward the other team, and he and Jack changed course to head over.
“What happened?” the Theta captain asked the Harrison football team players who had joined them. “You guys said you’d help us win.”
“You didn’t tell us that guy—” One of the team hitched his thumb at Jack. “—could throw like Aaron Rogers.”
Jack preferred Tom Brady, but Rogers wasn’t so bad.
The captain glared over his shoulder at Marcus. “Come to gloat, Reynolds?”
“Just came to confirm you’re moving your formal to a different weekend.”
Jack didn’t give a shit about the stupid formal, but he had no problem trouncing Theta Omicron’s collective ass—despite their attempt to cheat by recruiting three ringers from the university football team.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. We’ll change our date.”
Marcus belched out a hoot as they moved back to their team. Their fraternity mobbed Jack. No one in Pi Kappa Phi had doubted they’d win, but now that it was over, they could celebrate for real. To Jack it was a tiny victory. They could easily have moved their formal event one week either way.
It mattered to Marcus, though, so Jack had given it his best shot. Literally.
Someone dumped the ice water bucket over his head. The cold water ran down his back and made his boxers stick to his buttcheeks. He shook his head violently, hurling water over the guys, and laughed. “Seriously, guys, the formal means that much?”
“As much as winning against Theta.”
That Jack understood.
Who didn’t like to win a bet?
JACK TRIPPED up the bookstore staircase.
He cursed under his breath as he caught his balance and subtly checked for witnesses. None, thank God. A Rise Against poster caught his eye, and the caption at the bottom had him beelining toward it. They were touring here in July? Shit! He had to get tickets. Now that would have been a great birthday gift if Marcus had any taste in music.
Jack made for the “how to” area and thumbed his way through the books until he swiped over the title: Build Your Own Electric Motorcycle. He pulled out the green book with hungry yellow lettering. A step-by-step guide to building from scratch. Damn, that would be cool.
He snapped the book into a firmer grip, then lost his self-congratulatory smile. Marcus’s dad, their dad, would kill him for encouraging this. No way he’d let either of them get or build a motorcycle.
Jack muttered as he slipped the book back onto the shelf. He looked up to find a customer in the next aisle staring over at him. Tall, hair the color of sand, light dusting of stubble that gleamed golden in the store light. Hot. Tall Guy quickly averted his eyes.
Jack grabbed a book off the adjacent shelf, one that gave him license to check out the other aisles. A woman crouched in the aisle to the left, and Tall Guy had his head buried in a…. Jack squinted to catch the title. Something about businesses.
Tall Guy looked up before Jack could look away. A slither of a smile quirked his lips, and Jack rushed a small acknowledging smile before sharply turning to the shelves behind him.
Marcus. Gift. Marcus. Tall Hot Guy in next aisle— Gift, dammit.
Jack ducked out the aisle and moved toward the stairs. He’d try the sci-fi section.
Before leaving the nonfiction section, he glanced back once more.
Tall Hot Guy had gone.
Jack shook off the slight disappointment and charged down to the lower level, taking the stairs two at a time.
Twenty minutes later, he found the right gift—an audio collection of the Harry Dresden books. By the time he’d purchased it, he had ten minutes to spare before he had to leave to meet Brittany. The prospect of several hours in the chemistry lab left Jack in desperate need of caffeine. White Chocolate Mocha with an extra shot. Caffeine and sugar sounded good right now.
The walk to the café took him through most of the store, a frustrating trip that turned up no sight of Tall Hot Guy. At least the line was short.
Drink in hand, he headed toward the exit, but came to an abrupt stop when a young boy in a wheelchair rolled in front of him. Before the kid could pass, someone bumped him hard enough to knock him off balance. Unprepared for the contact, he watched his much needed caffeine and sugar splatter over the floor.
“Oh fuck, sorry.”
Jack twisted around, a fire in his eye that cooled off instantly. Tall Hot Guy quickly shoved his phone in his pocket, looking totally cute as he gawked wide-eyed at the mess he’d caused. The flush of red to his cheeks had Jack staring. “It’s all right.”
“Oh man, I’m so sorry.” Casting about for a place to put his bag, Tall Hot Guy settled on the counter and started snapping up napkins by the handful. He bent over to spread them on the tiles, and the waistband of his dark blue boxers peeked above his jeans. Jack’s gaze lingered a moment.
An employee came over with a mop, and Tall Hot Guy, still looking embarrassed, moved out of the guy’s way. No longer able to stare freely, Jack tossed the empty cup before getting back in line.
The guy appeared suddenly at his left hip. “Sorry again. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“It’s really okay.” Jack tried not to stare, but Tall Hot Guy had startling green eyes. Prickles skittered over Jack’s skin and heat crept to his face. This insta-attraction was far more intense than he’d experienced before. Maybe because they were standing so close and he wasn’t out drinking in a dark club.
The line moved up and Jack stepped forward with it. To his pleasant surprise, Tall Hot Guy came too. He had one hand shoved into his pocket and didn’t look like he was in any rush to leave.
The customer in front of them finished, and a teenage girl beckoned Jack forward.
“One medium White Chocolate Mocha to go.”
“Please,” Tall Hot Guy burst out from his side, “let me get this.” Jack jumped, startled. “I feel bad. It’s the least I can do.” He already had his wallet out before Jack could respond. He slid a twenty across to the girl. “Also one large cappuccino for here.”
“You really don’t have to.”
“Yeah, I do. Besides, it’s done now.” The girl handed him his change, and he dropped a dollar in the tip jar.
“Uh, thanks,” Jack said as they waited for their drinks. He tried to use the time they had to appreciate the lean, fit figure, casually resting one hand on the serving counter, but they must’ve had the fastest barista in the world, because way too soon their drinks were ready.
“You want sugar?”
Jack lifted his cup. “This is sweet enough.”
Don’t say goodbye. Let’s sit and drink together….
Jack opened his mouth to voice the thought, but only breath funneled out. Tall Hot Guy gave him a slight nod and moved off to an empty table in the corner of the café.
Using the excuse of refitting his lid, Jack watched him a moment longer, then headed out the store by way of Tall Hot Guy’s table. As he passed, their gazes connected once more, and Jack hesitated.
Stomach whipped with a flutter, he set his coffee on the table and plunked himself in the opposite chair. “I can’t let you sit by yourself after you bought my drink, now, can I?” He extended an arm over their purchases. “I’m Jackson. Jack.”
Tall Hot Guy stared at his hand a second, then gripped it firmly. A solid shake that had electricity rippling up to his shoulder. “Eddy—Ed.”
Jack’s iPhone dug uncomfortably into his hip. He took it out and put it on the table along with Marcus’s gift.
Tall Hot Guy—Ed—was probably straight and wondering why Jack was at his table. The confused look on Ed’s face told Jack it was time to go.
Ed said something Jack missed. “Sorry?”
Ed smirked over his drink. “Do you live around here?”
“Oh, sorry.” He shook his head. “Not really. I go to Harrison.”
Ed’s face scrunched slightly. “Good school.”
“I guess. How about you?”
“Yeah. Grew up around here.” Ed suddenly looked down at his cup. What was that about?
“Cool. Where do you go to school?”
Ed’s cheeks flushed slightly. “I work full-time and go to the community college to get my associates degree in Business Admin.”
“That’s cool.” Twice now he’d used cool. How much of a dork did he sound like? “What kinda work do you do?”
“I, ah, work for a heating and cooling company. Once I get my degree, I hope to open my own shop.”
“Really? How cool is that?” Jack was going to bash his head into his car door later for this. “I wish I was mechanically inclined. Marcus and I keep talking about building our own motorcycles, but we’re both such klutzes that we’ll probably screw it up and the thing will blow up when we start it.”
Maybe it was the genuine interest he expressed or perhaps the self-deprecating humor, but Ed finally looked up, smiling.
“Motorcycles?” Before he could say more, Ed’s phone rang. Fishing it from his pocket, he groaned when he saw the name. Running his hand along the side, he switched the iPhone into vibrate mode. “My mom.”
“Do you need to get that?”
“I’ll call her back when I leave.” Suddenly the smirk was back. “So, you and your friend want to build a motorcycle?”
“Yeah, Marcus and I have been talking about it for years. But aside from our lack of mechanical ability, our dad would kill us if he found out.”
“So Marcus is your brother?” Was that a hint of relief Jack saw in his eyes?
“Not by blood, but he’s like my brother.”
“Oh, so he’s your frat brother? Best friend?”
Jack bit back a grin. “Marcus is my frat brother too, but he and I are more than best friends. He’s family now.”
“Now?” Ed’s voice sounded slightly confused.
Jack’s face tingled and his stomach tightened. He stared at the worn surface of the small round table in front of him. He said the words as detached as he could manage. “My parents”—died four years ago—“they aren’t around…. Marcus’s parents are my legal guardians. They treat me like their son and we act like we’re brothers, so that’s how we think of ourselves.”
Ed played with the sleeve on his cup. “Siblings are… great. For the most part.”
Glancing over Ed’s shoulder, Jack noticed a clock on the wall. “Shit. I’m late.”
When Ed glanced up, Jack searched for something in his expression that suggested Ed wanted him to stay. Nothing.
“I’m sorry, I lost track of time.” He checked again, hoping Ed would ask him to stay. Still nothing. “I… um… need to meet Brittany, my chem partner.” He took his time getting up from the chair. But it was clear Ed didn’t have anything else to say.
Disappointed, Jack grabbed his phone from the table, stuffed it into his pocket, and then picked up Marcus’s gift. “I was heading to my car before I… dropped my drink.”
“Oh yeah.” Ed nodded. “Sorry again about that.”
“Don’t worry about it, really.” He picked up his mostly full drink, wiggled it gently, and smiled. “Thanks to you, I’ll still get my caffeine fix before I make it back to school.”
“Least I could do.” Ed cracked a small smile, but it faded as fast as it appeared.
“Well, I better go before Brittany sends out the campus police to find me.” He tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice but didn’t completely succeed. “Nice meeting you, Ed.”
Ed stood up, and Jack heard a muted “Sure, no problem,” as he hustled to get away.
Outside, he shook his head. In all likelihood, things would have ended just as they had; Jack would have left without a number and never seen the guy again. It was no wonder he was still single. Ah well. Live and learn, right? Maybe, but damn, Eddy was hot.
His eye caught on Marcus’s gift; at least the afternoon held some success.
The parking lot for the fraternity was nearly full, so he took the spot farthest from the door. Before he got his seat belt undone, his pocket vibrated. He shook his head, grinning. That would be Brittany demanding to know where the hell Jack was. Raising his hips off the seat, Jack pulled out his phone. He flipped it over, and his thumb froze before he could unlock it.
“What the fuck?” The caller ID read “Mom” not “Brittany.”
The unsettled feeling quickly passed as things clicked. For the first time, he noticed the black case was matte, not shiny and smooth like it should be. Shit. The phone wasn’t his.
It continued to vibrate, forcing him back in his seat. He didn’t need three guesses to know Ed was on the other end. Now it was his turn to feel stupid and embarrassed. How had he grabbed the wrong one? After a loud gulp, he took a breath and answered.
He recognized Ed’s voice. “Hey, Jack, yeah….” A gracious laugh rang down the line.
Jack hurriedly spoke. “Guess this time I was the one not paying attention, huh?”
“I’d say I’ve done it before, so it’s no problem, except I haven’t. I would’ve sworn this is something only meant to happen in movies.” An edgy laugh followed a brief pause. “Ah, but, you know, it really is no problem.”
Jack smiled at the nervousness in Ed’s voice. Maybe Tall Hot Guy wasn’t straight after all?
“We can just meet up and exchange phones.” With his free hand, Jack started to tug at the belt, ready to drive back into town, and then stopped. “Crap… I need to meet Brittany ten minutes ago. Can we get together around six?”
“No… I mean, yes, I want to meet up but, uh—thing is, I have dinner with the family tonight. How about around nine?”
Jack perked up at the idea of meeting later that night. Maybe they could get a drink or something. “That would work. I don’t go to sleep till much later. Just tell me when and where.”
“You sure? I mean, I can wait until tomorrow if it’s a problem. My mom said I could borrow hers until I get mine back.”
Don’t lose it, Jack. “Truth is, I kinda need mine. I don’t have anyone to bum a phone off at school.”
“One of the very few advantages of still living at home at twenty-three, I suppose. You might want to turn my phone off. My little sister, Becky, just got a new phone and she’s gone text crazy.”
Cute. “Sure, but that goes double for you. My friends are bound to be worse.”
“I noticed.” Another chuckle. “I turned yours off after the fifth text asking if you were going to be on time, where you were, and why aren’t you answering.”
Jack snorted. “That’s so her. Sorry.”
“No worries, it was entertaining. Meet you back at the Barnes and Noble parking lot?”
“Sure.” Jack smiled. “I have a navy blue Jeep Wrangler. I shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Great. I have a red Ford pickup. Hey, I gotta go or I’m gonna be late. See ya later.”
The phone went dead before Jack’s “See ya” left his mouth.
Jack held back from kissing the dang phone as a coil of excitement burst inside of him. He’d be seeing Tall Hot Eddy again. “He’s still probably straight,” he murmured to himself to curb his enthusiasm. “Best to cool it.”
His self pep talk did nothing to drain the smile from his face.