Home > Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(18)

Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(18)
Tammara Webber

“Yes,” he said.

I turned and walked into the building, and didn’t hear the engine of the Harley rumble to life until my foot was on the bottom stair.

Chapter 16

“Ms. Wallace, please see me for just a moment after class.”

I glanced up to meet Dr. Heller’s gaze at the end of the lecture Monday, and nodded my assent.

“Ooohhh,” Benji said. “You little troublemaker.” His smile fell when he saw my face. “What’s the matter? You aren’t actually in trouble are you?” He glanced to the back of the classroom, zeroing in on the only reason I could be in hot water with the professor. “Did he find out about—you know.” He inclined his head in Lucas’s direction.

“Yes.”

His eyes widened and he lowered his voice. “Oh, shit, are you serious? How?”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. He found out, and it’s over.”

Pinning his lips together, he stuffed his notebook into his backpack and sighed. “Oh, man. I’m sorry.” His hazel eyes were full of sympathy. “Anything I can do?”

I shook my head again, needing to redirect the conversation. “I’ll be fine. How did the coming out go?”

Smiling broadly, he held his arms wide. “As you can see, I’m still in one piece, with all essential parts accounted for.” He waggled his brows, tossing his backpack over his shoulder after I gave him a shove. “It was good. Getting everything out in the open was a relief—to both of us, I think.”

“Good.” I was happy for him, though I’d not had the same experience with recent public revelations. I wouldn’t glance back at Lucas. He’d stared at his sketchbook when I’d entered the classroom, resolutely against even looking at me.

“Hey, Jacqueline.” Kennedy smiled as we passed in the aisle, as though he was proud of himself for finally remembering my name.

“Hi,” I returned, slipping by him on my way down to the front of the lecture hall.

When I stopped on the lowest step, Dr. Heller glanced over the heads of the students clustered around him and requested that I come in during his afternoon office hours to pick up my paper. His unflinching expression said it wasn’t an invitation as much as a directive. My face warm, I told him I would be there.

***

“You haven’t done anything wrong, so you have nothing to be worried about. Probably he just wants to make sure Lucas-Landon-Sideshow Bob-whoever the hell he is didn’t take advantage of you.”

I appreciated Erin’s reassurances, as mistaken as they might be.

Reclining on my bed, booted feet hanging off the end, I stared at the square of leaden sky visible from our single four-by-four window. Even in our overly warm room, I shivered. Erin and I discovered last winter that the ancient central heating would pump hot air into our little room until it was a sauna, only to click off and resume a slow slide back to frigid before rebooting back to sauna. It was a wonder we hadn’t both ended up with pneumonia by February.

“Landon was the perfect tutor. What’s between Lucas and me is no one’s business.”

“Except mine,” Erin quipped.

I turned my head and half-smiled. “Except yours.”

She added the finishing touches to a glitter-covered, sorority-themed poster. “What time are you supposed to be there?”

“Between 3:30 and 4:30.”

“You’d better scoot. I’m heading to work as soon as I finish this thing. Text me and let me know if I need to kick anyone’s ass. Don’t forget—tomorrow we’re getting dresses for the Bash this weekend.”

My roommate’s ability to change subjects rapidly was legendary. “I remember.”

***

Dr. Heller regarded me from the opposite side of his desk for the second time this semester, and I struggled not to squirm in the chair. I’d never been a kid who earned teachers’ disapproval; finding myself in this position twice in a matter of weeks was unbelievable.

He’d not looked at me since inviting me to have a seat. Rifling through a stack of folders and papers, he pulled out my research paper with a muttered, “Ah-ha.”

My hands clenched in my lap as he perused it, skimming through the stapled pages. I wondered if he’d already written a grade on it, or if what I said or didn’t say in the coming minutes would influence it.

He cleared his throat and I flinched. “I’ve spoken with Mr. Maxfield, which I assume you know.”

I took a nervous breath. “No, sir. We haven’t spoken.”

His eyebrows rose, eyes widening. “I see.” He frowned as though he was confused. “Well. I’ll ask you what I asked him, and I would appreciate your honesty, please. Did he assist you in producing this paper?”

I returned his perplexed frown, unsure what, exactly, he was asking. “He gave me some leads on research sources. And he read the completed paper and pointed out a few errors I needed to correct before turning it in. But the work is mine.”

He nodded and sighed. “All right. There’s also a matter of a quiz you may have been given some… let’s say notice of… ahead of the other students?”

I swallowed. “He suggested that I do the worksheet he’d sent.” Dr. Heller examined me with a direct look and one raised, bushy eyebrow, and I amended, “He suggested very strongly that I do it. But he never told me there was going to be a quiz, and frankly, I just thought he was being bossy—I didn’t even pick up on any hint—” Shit.

“He’s taken complete responsibility for his error in judgment, Ms. Wallace.”

I couldn’t breathe, my thoughts rioting. From the first moment I saw him—facing Buck in that parking lot after, I can only assume, pulling him off me—he’d been protecting me. Was he in danger of being fired from his job because of our relationship, whatever it had been?

I moved closer, my hand on the desk. “Lucas didn’t—he didn’t take advantage of me in any way. He was very helpful as a tutor. I have another class during his group sessions, so I couldn’t attend them, but he emailed the worksheets to me.” Breathless, I stopped, not wanting to make this worse than it already was. I couldn’t resemble some infatuated girl or my declarations wouldn’t carry any weight at all. “He shouldn’t be in trouble because of me.”

My professor stared at my paper, still in his hands. If anything, he looked more concerned than he had moments ago. Forehead creased, he raised his eyes and stared at me a moment. “He also says that you weren’t aware of the fact that the boy you were… seeing… was your tutor. That your academic relationship was carried out through email only.”

I nodded, unwilling to contradict anything Lucas said.

He sighed again, sitting back in thought, one hand covering his mouth. Finally, he slid the paper across the desk to me. “Your research and the conclusions reached were impressive for an undergrad. Good job, Ms. Wallace. If you do well on the final, your grade in the course shouldn’t suffer from the, um, emotional upheavals you faced mid-semester. A word of advice, though. This won’t be the last time you have to deal with something in life that throws you off your game. In future courses, as well as in the real world—such as it is—professors and employers won’t always be accommodating. We all have to—what’s my daughter’s terminology—suck it up and deal?”

I resisted flipping to the last page to check my grade. “Yes, sir.” I knew I should stand up, thank him, and scramble out of his office while I was still on his good side. I couldn’t do it. “And Lucas? Is he in trouble? Will he… will he lose his job?”

He shook his head. “There doesn’t appear to have been any real harm done, although I’ve reminded Landon—er, Lucas—that sometimes, how a situation is perceived carries more weight than the reality of the matter. With that in mind, I suggested that he limit himself to appropriate tutoring interactions for the duration of the semester.”

Lucas hadn’t mentioned any possibility of future interactions. His answer to whether or not it was over had been conclusive, and he hadn’t emailed or texted me to contradict it, nor had he looked my way in class today that I knew of.

“Thank you, Dr. Heller.” I waited until I was outside to check the grade I’d received—a 94. Unquestionably better than I would have done on the midterm, had I been present for it.

***

I ignored Lucas on my way to my seat before class on Wednesday and Friday, and ignored him again as I left, especially as I found Kennedy waiting in the aisle to walk me out both days. On Wednesday, my ex asked me how the tutoring was going.

“What?” I stumbled on the next step and he caught my elbow.

“Was it two eighth-graders or two ninth-graders who had massive crushes on you?” He laughed, turning the heads of two girls we passed on the way outside; per typical Kennedy, he didn’t seem to notice. “Or do they all have a crush on you by now?”

Ah—bass lessons, not economics tutoring. I tucked my chin into my fuzzy scarf and pulled my coat’s zipper to my throat when we rounded the corner of the building and a blast of frigid air hit us, and he turned up his collar and shoved his bare hands into his coat pockets.

“I have no idea what they’re thinking, most of the time. They’re all a little surly.”

He glanced at me and smiled, that dimple riveting my attention as it had since the first time I saw it, and from there, his beautiful green eyes. He bumped me lightly with his elbow. “Surliness is sound evidence that they’re all crushing on you.”

Scowling, I faced forward and picked up the pace. I couldn’t imagine where he was going with that, but I wasn’t following. “I’ll see you later, Kennedy. I have to get to Spanish.”

He caught my arm. “Maggie said you were coming to the Bash on Saturday?”

I nodded. Erin and I spent four hours shopping for dresses and shoes Tuesday night. She was going all out in her intention to make Chaz regret any decision he’d made that didn’t include worshipping at her feet.

“What happened to ‘I love the hunt’?” I’d asked as she discarded the tenth or eleventh not-quite-perfect cocktail dress before shimmying into a bit of silver fabric with a thigh-high split.

Smiling into the mirror with predatory resolve, she’d waited for me to zip her up and examined her body in the reflective dress that set off her red hair like she was on fire. “Oh, I’m hunting all right,” she’d purred.

I split away from Kennedy without a backward glance, and he called, “See you later, Jacqueline.”

I considered and rejected every excuse I could cook up for why I needed to bow out, belatedly wishing that I had never agreed to accompany Erin to the annual Bash. My normally sane roommate was determined to make her ex-boyfriend’s life a living hell for at least one night. At dinner Friday, she said, “I have to do this. For closure.” Maggie arched a brow at me from across the table. Between the Erin/Chaz drama, Kennedy’s attempts to reverse our breakup, and the likely presence of Buck, Saturday night couldn’t be over soon enough for me.

***

Avoiding eye contact during the self-defense class Saturday morning proved more difficult than dodging each other during economics, but Lucas and I managed it for the first hour. The oddest part of the past week was the worksheets he continued to send, but without any note beyond. The entire email consisted of: New worksheet attached, LM.

“Where a kick is more likely to be miscalculated by the victim or evaded by the perp, a knee-strike is close-range and more easily executed, so we’re going to focus on this defense first.” Ralph’s voice brought me back to the self-defense class. “And I assume you ladies know what you’re aimin’ for with that knee.”

Dividing into two groups as we had two weeks ago, I went to stand in Don’s group and Erin followed. He held a thick pad with straps for his muscular forearm to hold it in place, explaining knee-strike basics and asking for a volunteer to help demonstrate, which Erin readily answered. I was proud of her resounding No! as she grabbed Don’s shoulders and slammed her knee into the pad. I recognized the move from Lucas having used it on Buck—though he’d struck him under the chin rather than the groin. Buck had gone straight to the ground. And stayed there.

When it was my turn, my self-conscious hesitation disappeared with my group’s vocal encouragement and Don’s “Again!” between each strike. Exhilarated, I walked back to Erin wide-eyed and shaking with adrenaline. She laughed and said, “I know, right?”

We progressed to kicks, and every time I landed one and heard Don’s gratifying grunt, my fear that I could never replicate these in real life lessened. Vickie—the white-haired woman who’d unknowingly given me the courage to remain in the class two weeks ago—asked how, even if we hit the right place with enough force, we could win against a man his size.

Don reminded us that we didn’t have to win a fight—we just had to get away. “Every second buys you time to run.”

When Ralph announced a short break, I stole a look at Lucas. Over the heads of two girls, one of whom was talking to him, his eyes were on me, their icy gray-blue almost colorless from across the bright room. After the physical activity of the morning, my response was overwhelming. My breath went shallow and quick, neither of us turning away until Erin hooked her arm through mine and tugged.

“C’mon, lovergirl,” she murmured, inaudible to anyone but me.

I flushed as I let her lead me into the hallway, toward the locker room. Leaning over the sink, I splashed water on my face and stared into the mirror, wondering what Lucas saw when he looked at me. What Kennedy saw. What Buck saw.

“Got it bad, don’tcha?” Erin handed me a paper towel and pursed her lips, angling her head as she examined my face in the mirror, too. Her dark eyes met mine. “I should have known that hookup therapy wouldn’t work for you. If it makes you feel any better, he doesn’t look any less strung out than you do.”

I rolled my eyes, patting the water from my cheeks. “Believe it or not, that doesn’t make me feel better.”

She arched a brow, her gaze moving to her own reflection as she smoothed an imaginary imperfection on her lip and adjusted her wild ponytail. “Mmm-hmm.”

***

“We’re ready to learn the last few moves over the next hour or so—defense against holds and chokes. Next week, we’ll integrate everything you’ve learned into potential scenarios.” Clapping his hands together, Ralph added, “Divide up and let’s get started.”

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