CLAIRE

Chapter One

My freshman year at Hart University started with me staring across a room at Claire Stone.

Okay, so, that’s not technically accurate. Other things happened first. Moving into my dorm, meeting my roommate… not to mention preseason football training camp. Important things.

But the first time I saw Claire felt like the beginning of everything.

And now, sophomore year was starting off exactly the same way.

Last year it was the dining hall in Claire’s dorm. This year, it was the big off-campus house I’d rented with some teammates.

We were throwing a back-to-school party and the place was packed. I’d broken up with my girlfriend back in June, but this was the first time I really felt single. I was trying to enjoy the feeling when I caught sight of Claire.

The moment I saw her, everything else went away. The noise, the heat, the hundreds of soon-to-be drunk college students—all of it.

My mother made me sit through West Side Story once. There were actually some pretty cool parts of the movie—the gang war between the Sharks and Jets, mostly—but there was one scene I couldn’t have cared less about: the scene where Tony and Maria meet for the first time. It’s at a dance, and when they see each other across the room, everything changes. The music slows down, all the other people fade into the background, and it’s just the two of them.

I made puking sounds when I watched that scene with my mom. Because until I saw Claire for the first time, I thought love at first sight was a load of crap.

Now I knew better.

It wasn’t just because she was gorgeous. I mean, she was… but there were girls here tonight some guys would think were hotter.

But it wasn’t the fact that she was a beautiful girl that got me. It was the fact that she was my girl.

Of course at the time I’d had that realization, we were both seeing other people—which made me officially nuts. Not only was Claire not my girl, but I already had a girl. A girl I loved.

I convinced myself that my stupid crush on Claire was some away-from-home-and-my-girlfriend thing and that it would go away over time. I texted Lissa every day and sent jewelry for her birthday and Valentine’s and felt like an asshole for thinking about another girl.

I saw Lissa back home in Ohio during winter break and after the school year was over. When she broke up with me in June, my biggest reaction was relief. I was pretty sure that also made me an asshole, or at least a really shitty boyfriend. I wasn’t even mad that she’d cheated on me with another guy, because I felt like I’d cheated on her all year… even though it was only in my head.

Every time I saw Claire my stupid fucking heart went out of control. And at night when I got myself off, it was Claire I fantasized about.

And now I was seeing her in person for the first time in three months.

Her hair was a little different. It was the same shade of blond, but she’d had bangs last year and she’d grown them out over the summer.

She still wore her signature hat—a white fedora with a black band. And she had the same body—the body I’d seen in my dreams a hundred times. The body that made me wake up sweating in the middle of the night.

For the first time that day I was grateful for the August heat, because Claire was wearing a tiny camisole top and cutoff denim shorts. There was hardly anything between my eyes and her bare skin. My palms itched as I imagined covering her breasts with my hands and then sliding them down to her curvy hips… and pulling her close as I cupped that perfect ass.

She must have just come in, because she was standing near the front door scanning the room. I was a little surprised to see her here, because this was definitely not her crowd. She preferred to party with the creative types who lived in Bracton—the Hart U dorm for students interested in the arts.

Then she saw me, and her face lit up with this huge smile—and I swear to God my knees went weak.

She started across the room toward me and I stood there like an idiot, just waiting. Was it possible she’d come here tonight looking for me?

I hadn’t seen Claire since the end of freshman year. A lot can happen over the summer, right? After all, she didn’t know I’d broken up with my girlfriend. Maybe she’d broken up with her boyfriend.

Maybe we were both single.

“Check out little miss hotness coming this way. Who the hell is she and where has she been all my life?”

“Shut up, Delford.”

I’d opened my mouth to say those exact words, but it wasn’t me who said them—it was Andre. I’d been so focused on Claire I hadn’t noticed that he and Delford were standing behind me in the keg line.

“That’s a friend of mine, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Andre said. “So keep your mouth shut, D.”

Delford was working on his response when Claire reached us. She hugged Andre hello, and I had just enough time to wonder if she would hug me, too, when she did.

“Wow, it’s so good to see you guys. How was your summer? When did you get back?”

It was a good thing Andre was there to answer her, because I needed a minute to recover from the hug.

For a good three seconds her body had been pressed up against mine. She was six inches shorter than me, but she’d gone up on her toes when she threw her arms around my neck and her breasts had been smushed up against my chest. She wasn’t wearing perfume but she smelled amazing… clean and sweet, like she’d taken a shower just before coming out tonight.

Then she smacked me on the arm.

“What?” I asked.

“She asked you a question, man.” That was Andre, who was grinning in a way that meant a shitload of mockery would be coming at me later on.

Before I could ask her to repeat it Delford stepped up.

Enter asshole, stage left.

“What do you say I show you around the place, sweetheart? Like say the bedrooms upstairs?”

I’ve never gotten so hot so fast. I think I would have punched him in the face if Andre hadn’t grabbed my arm.

“Claire’s got this, man,” he muttered.

Claire was looking at Delford with her eyebrows up. “What’s this about?” she asked, gesturing at his T-shirt.

I hadn’t noticed what he was wearing until now—a white tee with the words “Get off my back and…” emblazoned on it. Then Delford turned around to show us the rest: “…get on yours.”

Andre grabbed my arm again.

“Get off my back and get on yours,” Claire repeated. “Wow, that’s awesome. You’re going to have girls falling all over you tonight.” She shook her head slowly. “You know the message you’re sending with that shit? You’re saying to the world, I have a small dick and I’m bad in bed, so here’s me overcompensating. Good luck with that.”

Delford started to say something, but Andre hauled him out of the keg line and shoved him toward the stairs.

“Change that shirt and you can come back to the party,” he said. Delford looked for a moment like he was ready to argue the point, but Andre—a guy slow to anger but absolutely not someone to mess with—was staring him down.

They stayed like that for a few beats. Then Del held up his middle finger, but he also went upstairs.

“Impressive crowd you guys are hanging with these days,” Claire said. “I can totally see why you decided to get a house with a bunch of football players.”

“We’re football players, too,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, that’s something to brag about.”

“Come on, Claire. You know they’re not all like Delford.”

“Sure,” Andre said with a grin. “Some of them are like us.”

Claire punched him on the shoulder, but she also started to laugh. And as the two of them started to joke around, I wondered why I couldn’t be like Andre. Why I couldn’t handle Delford without hitting him and make Claire laugh a minute later.

“So what’s up with you and whatshisname?” I asked abruptly.

Claire and Andre stopped talking and stared at me.

“Your boyfriend,” I clarified, feeling like an idiot. “Are you guys still together?”

Andre would have found some smooth, casual way to get that information. Me, I asked a question with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

“Yes,” Claire said after a moment. “I’m still with whatshisname.” She paused. “He’s in town for a visit, actually. He’s coming by later to hear the band.”

Disappointment washed over me, followed by confusion. “The band?”

She stared at me. “Yes. We’re playing your party tonight. Didn’t you know?”

“I thought we hired a group called Sugar Lane?”

“That’s us.”

“It is?”

“You know we got a new lead guitarist, right? Well, last week we gave ourselves a new name.”

“Oh,” I said—the kind of brilliant response that captured my intellectual range when I was around Claire.

Claire took off her fedora, combed her hair back with her free hand, and put the hat back on. “Which reminds me—I’d better go help with the equipment. Where should we set up?”

“I’ll show you,” Andre said.

“Aren’t you in line for beer?”

“I’ll grab one later.”

And just like that, Andre was walking with Claire over to the part of the living room we’d cleared out for the band—and I was left standing in the keg line.

“Here you go,” someone said, and a red cup was shoved into my hand. I chugged it down without moving and tossed the empty into the big trashcan we’d put by the fridge.

“Give me another,” I said, and I chugged that one, too. Only after my third did I give up my spot, heading out to the living room to look for Claire again.

Because even though she was still with her boyfriend, even though she was at this party because of a gig and not because of me, I still wanted to be around her. I still wanted to be where I could see her.

I parked myself on the beat-up couch against the wall where I’d have a view of the band.

“This year is about football, Will.”

The couch sagged under Andre’s weight as he sat down next to me.

“Huh?” I asked.

“You were QB3 last year and didn’t take a single snap. This year you’re in line for the top spot—if you focus.”

“I’m focused.”

“I’m not saying forget about girls. In fact I’m saying the opposite. You want to play loose in games, right? That means having fun when you’re off the field. So have fun.”

“I’m having fun. I’m having tons of fun.”

“There are probably fifty girls here tonight who’d be thrilled to go out with you—or to hook up with you. So there’s no reason to waste your time on a girl you can’t have.”

I did not want to have this conversation.

“Do me a favor, man.”

“Yeah?”

“Shut the hell up.”

Andre grinned. “I can’t help it. You’re like a cute little seal pup or something. I worry about you.”

“The only place you should worry about me is on the field. You’re a guard and that’s your job. But off the field? I can take care of myself.”

“If you say so.”

“Is anyone else coming tonight?”

Andre stared at me. “What do you mean? A hundred people are here already and the party’s barely started.”

“I meant anyone else from Bracton.”

Andre shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask those guys.”

“Not even Dyshell?” Dyshell was his sister and Claire’s roommate last year.

“Dyshell’s still in Louisiana. She’s coming back tomorrow.”

“What about Rikki and Sam?”

“No. I mean, they know about the party, but I told them it wouldn’t be their scene. It’s kind of…” He hesitated. “I don’t know, weird? To think of the Bracton crowd being here. Like two worlds colliding. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” I knew exactly what he meant, and I was relieved he hadn’t invited anyone else from that dorm. “That’s why I kind of wish Claire wasn’t here.”

“That’s different. She’s in a band. It’s her job to go wherever the gigs are.” He paused. “I thought you knew she was in Sugar Lane when we hired them.”

“Nope.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have—I mean, if I’d known that you—”

He was veering closer to the topic I’d ruled out of bounds.

“Don’t worry about it.” I took a breath. “This is a party, damn it. Let’s have a blast.”

Andre nodded. “That’s all I’m saying.”