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Taking in the moonlit lawns littered with passed-out frat boys and half-empty red cups, I fight the buzz-fueled giggle that bubbles up in my chest. I mentally check off a list of things I’ve been warned against. Young woman walking alone, check. In the presence of inebriated frat boys, check. Impossibly high heels, check. Tiny dress and a tinier purse—containing only a key, a phone, and a small tube of lip gloss—that is noticeably too small for any weapon or attacker deterrent, check. I should be terrified but I’m not. This is what freedom feels like—well, freedom and two feet covered in blisters.
I hop around and struggle to remove my shoes without tipping over. I’m not drunk, but I’m not exactly sober and the uneven sidewalk along Fraternity Row is making these ridiculous heels impossible. With my shoes dangling from my hand, I take the last few steps toward my building, an old frat house that has been converted into living space for students. The sounds of a pool party echo through the night from the house next door, and I roll my eyes as a gleeful girl-scream pierces the air, followed by a large splash.
The grass is cold and wet beneath my feet as I tiptoe along the side of the building to the trellis that climbs the wall to the roof. I have lost track of exactly what time it is but hope I haven’t missed it. Having done this before, I know exactly what lies at the top, so I back myself up and begin throwing my belongings onto the roof. I can’t help but laugh; the freedom and ridiculousness of this moment is too much. The heels land with a small thud and I reach into my purse, remove my phone and tuck it into my bra with a grin of satisfaction before whizzing my bag into the air with the hopes of a smooth landing.
A low chuckle behind me causes my heart to jump into my throat. I turn around to find out if I have just become “that girl,” the one who ends up missing in her last year of college; the one we see on the news when they flash her high school picture and cut to a news conference on the lawn of her parents’ house. The lights from the party house are on and a large figure is cast in shadow, sitting on the short, dilapidated brick wall extending between the two properties. I struggle to see his face, until he leans into the light and raises his cup in my direction in an unofficial college salute that I believe means “carry on.”
My eyes travel the length of his arm and take in the tattoo that begins at his elbow, climbs his impressive bicep, then dips under his sleeve. His jaw is strong and clean shaven and his lips are curved into an amused smile as he gazes at me over his cup. I can’t make out the color of his eyes but the hair that peeks out from under his turned-around baseball cap appears to be short and dark. A feeling that is closer to lust than fear winds tight and heavy in my stomach. Killers don’t laugh at their victims, right? I turn back to my trellis and hike my small dress up my thighs so that I can climb without killing myself.
His eyes are on me as I climb up off of the ground but I try to focus instead on the low thump of the music playing in the distance. I imagine he has stepped out of the party that is raging inside the frat house for a little fresh air.
“Is this some LA tradition I don’t know about?” His voice rumbles low in my belly and forces the air from my lungs. I glance over my shoulder, feigning disinterest, and find him standing behind me at the bottom of the trellis working his bottom lip with his teeth, his eyebrows lifted inquisitively.
“How else am I supposed to get up to the roof? There must be twenty doors in the damn building and not one leads up there.” I’m rambling, somewhere between a rush of words and a low mumble to myself. I place my foot in the next small square, but the wood is wet from the dewy evening air and I slip, causing my body to dangle precariously.
The ground is not far below, but given the small heart attack I have just given myself and the clean, masculine scent of this intriguing stranger lingering around my head, I’m a little disoriented. His warm hands lightly brush the back of my calves and work their way up over the sensitive skin behind my knees, his rough thumbs leaving trails of heat along the insides of my legs. With a firm hold on the back of my thighs, he lifts me enough that I can slip my feet into the latticework, and I slowly let go of the breath I’ve been holding. Although it’s dark, there’s a good chance he can see straight up my dress, and I clamp my eyes closed and try to remember if I at least have on a pair of panties I can be proud of. A warm flush climbs up my chest and into my cheeks when I remember I chose my smallest black lace panties so no lines would be visible through my dress.
“I thought I’d discovered myself a new female quarterback for a minute with that perfect pass you threw to the roof, but clearly you have agility issues that keep you from the team.” With a quick slap to my ass he says, “Knees up, rookie, we’ll make a first-string player out of you yet.”
Then it hits me. This large, completely male being that stands below me, grinning as I burn from embarrassment and excitement, is our football team’s quarterback, and I have dangled my nearly-naked ass right in his face. Well, there’s no recovering from this, so I reach above me and climb the last few steps up to the top.
“Thanks for the help, coach, but I would like to get onto the roof with a little of my dignity still intact. Would you please turn around so I can disappear into the darkness and we can pretend this never happened?” My voice starts out strong but quickly becomes timid as I plead for his forgetfulness.
“Not a chance, rookie,” he drawls, shaking his head back and forth as his eyes trail up the length of my body and meet mine. “Can’t take the risk of you getting injured. Go ahead and climb on up there and I’ll spot you from here.”
“How big of you,” I bite out sarcastically.
He chuckles again, tightening the desire that has built in my stomach. I throw myself over the ledge and slide down with my back to the low wall that runs the perimeter of the rooftop. I wait in silence, half wanting him to leave and disappear forever, and the other half already sad at the loss.
“I know y’all do things a little differently here than we do in the South, but aren’t you going to invite me up, sweetheart?” His voice is gruff and the pronounced accent, coming from this man with his shirt stretched across his muscular chest and his jeans dipping low on his hips like a California boy, makes me giggle like a schoolgirl. I slap my hand over my mouth to make it stop. I sit for a minute, contemplating whether I should invite him up or see if he will go away. The creaking sound of the old trellis makes me realize he is climbing it, and I lunge over the ledge to check his progress, nearly knocking him over with my chest.
“Well now, this just keeps getting better and better, rookie.” When his eyes meet mine I glower in mock anger and cross my arms over my chest.
“You may be used to women throwing their assets in your face all day—”
“I’m not complaining,” he replies with a shrug, causing my lips to quiver as I try unsuccessfully to fight off a smile.
I put my angry face back on and begin again. “I wasn’t finished. Like I was saying, while you may have grown accustomed to women assaulting you with their assets, I have a little class and would not intentionally have done so, so can we please forget the last ten minutes and move on?”
His brow rises in question, but he quickly composes himself and climbs the rest of the way over the ledge. He reaches his hand out to me and I place mine in his firmly to shake.
“I’m Madeline Stone.”
“Nice to meet you, Madeline. I’m Jackson Rider.” His grip tightens and he pulls me so my body brushes against the side of his. Jackson’s lips touch my ear and the heat from his mouth causes my skin to flush. He releases my hand, wraps an arm around my back to steady me and then takes in a breath while his face is buried in my hair.
“You can try to pretend the last few minutes between us didn’t happen, but I’d rather think about what might happen next.” He slowly moves his hand from my back and slides it down to my hip before taking a step away from me. My head spins with a lust-drunk feeling. Our eyes lock again but we say nothing, both of us lost in the intensity of the moment.
“So, my beautiful rookie, what are we doing up here?” My heart speeds up at the realization that he just called me “his,” and even though it may have been a slip, a thrill of pleasure rushes through me at the thought. It takes a moment for me to remember what I came up here to do, and I shake my head to clear the fog.
“The meteor shower.” It’s a whisper that is thick with desire, and I clear my throat so he won’t hear my need. “There’s a meteor shower tonight. It should happen any minute now, and in order to see it best we need to be above the lights.” That’s right, that’s what I’m doing up here.
“Let me get this straight. You walked alone along Frat Row from God-knows-where to watch the stars by yourself on the roof of some old building?”
I nod and throw my shoulders back, ready to defend my decision, even though it does sound a little immature and dangerous now that he has put it into words. Jackson holds a finger up so he can continue. I’m afraid it will be a lecture, but instead he smiles. “This must be the best spot in town to see the stars for all of that risk.” I get the message and, after growing up in a house full of men, I appreciate the subtle delivery over the stern lectures I have grown accustomed to.
“I love to sit up here. I have a little spot set up over in the corner. I wasn’t expecting any company but I think there’s room for two if you want to join me. It’s supposed to hit around two a.m., but I have no idea what time it is now.” I could check my phone, but I’m not about to reach into my bra to drag it out.
Jackson reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cell. When he unlocks it, a chime sounds and the message icon blinks. I fight the urge to roll my eyes at the thought of all the girls who have probably tried to get ahold of him tonight. I expect him to return a few texts after he checks the time but he doesn’t. Instead, he smiles a smile that floods me with heat and says, “We’re in luck; it’s just about two.”
I begin to wonder what it would feel like to trace my hand down the side of his face, to run my finger over his lips, to taste him. Although I’ve had a few beers, nearly falling from the trellis has sobered me up a bit, so the dizziness I feel has to be induced by my proximity to Jackson. I want to be close to him again, to feel his hand graze my hip, and to feel his lips at my ear. His eyes rake over me, from my feet to the hem of my dress and then slowly up to my eyes again. I have never in my life been so consumed with a need to be near a man, and I understand what he meant when he said he wanted to imagine what would happen next.
I haven’t shown anyone my little oasis on the roof of this old building, because I need to have one place where I can’t be found. I adore my three older brothers, but there is very little time when one of them isn’t checking up on me to make sure I’m safe and protected. I don’t hold it against them; they’re just doing what is expected of them. It’s me who is not following the rules. Today is my twenty-first birthday and those damn unwritten rules I’ve grown up with dictate I should be finishing up my undergraduate work, marrying a suitable husband, and beginning my life as a trophy wife at some country club of my family’s choosing. For the most part I accept that; I could never disappoint my family. I just want some time to find myself first, a pause in this fast track to Babytown and charity events.
It’s very likely I will marry Greg, the junior executive I started dating last year. I will tuck away my secret dreams of leaving a mark on this world and settle down into a quiet existence in a big house on the hill. That way my father never has to worry and my brothers can breathe a sigh of relief and live their lives instead of trying to contain mine. Jackson can sit with me for a night on the roof in my little piece of the world that isn’t tainted by the stupid rules, but when the show is over he’ll go back to his world of football and women and I’ll go back to business as usual.
Most college girls spend their twenty-first birthdays drinking themselves into oblivion at some dive bar near campus. My roommate, Abby, tried very hard to make that happen for me, but for this rare night of freedom I wanted to be sober enough to watch it pass, to enjoy every minute I’m off the family map. Greg and my brothers think I’m at a sleepover, studying for finals with some girlfriends, and Abby went home with her boyfriend after I promised I would be fine walking back to our apartment alone. She gave me a sad smile when she left but knew better than to fight me on any matter that had to do with my independence.
Jackson’s phone chimes again and he silences it and shoves it back into his pocket. “You can answer it, Jackson. It’s not like this is a date.” I turn and walk past the skylight and find the blanket and small bottle of champagne I left earlier in the day.
“It’s not important.” He follows me around the skylight and a curious look crosses his face when he sees the champagne. “What are we celebrating?”
“It’s my birthday, or it was,” I say as I unfold the large blanket and make a place for us to sit on the ground.
“My mother would kill me if she ever found out I attended a party without an invitation or a gift for the guest of honor. I think it would reinforce her fears that I left my good manners behind when I moved here from Georgia.” He takes the edge of the blanket and helps to straighten it out, then toes his shoes off, sits down and reaches for the champagne.
“Don’t be silly, Jackson, your secret is safe with me.” I wonder how deep that southern heritage is in his blood. I won’t ask because there is no time, and questions about his family might lead to questions about mine. I don’t want any of that spoiling these precious moments in my space. I sit down next to him with my knees drawn up, hugging my legs while he uncorks the bottle.
“What’s a beautiful girl like you doing alone on her birthday, Maddy? Shouldn’t you be at home celebrating with some lucky guy who gets to tuck you in at the end of the night?” Hearing my name shortened for the first time in my life almost makes me feel like I’m someone else. Greg would never call me “Maddy.” The image of being tucked into bed and kissed tenderly flashes through my brain, but it isn’t Greg I imagine, and I quickly look away from Jackson as I realize I’m staring at his lips.
“I want to see the show and he isn’t one for getting a little dirty, even if the reward is worth it.” Now I’ve put it out there; Jackson knows there is someone in my life, so I can let go of the guilt that has crept in with the image of Jackson in my bed. “What about you, Mr. Quarterback? Shouldn’t you be tucking some girl into bed somewhere, or at least answering her text?”
“Who knows what tonight will bring? She can survive a few hours without being attached to my jock. I don’t make any promises during the season, so she knows what she’s gotten into.” The champagne opens with a pop and some of the bubbly fluid cascades over his hand, so he rushes the bottle to his mouth to catch it and then hands it over to me. It’s warm from sitting up here all day, but that just adds to the freedom of the night in that it isn’t perfect like everything always has to be.
We pass the bottle back and forth a few times and the warmth of the alcohol rushes through my veins. I relax as my muscles grow warm and pliant. Jackson lies down with one arm behind his head and begins to draw small circles on my back with the thumb from his other hand. I should stop him but I can’t. Desire is clouding my judgment and I swear I can feel the tingle from his touch in places I have never felt before. I drink from the bottle again, feeling the familiar buzz from earlier begin to take over my head. I finish the champagne so I won’t think too hard about tonight and what I can’t have. No one touches me as sensually as Jackson is touching me right now. Things are different with Greg. He follows the same rules I do, maintaining a respectable distance until we’re married.
A meteor streaks across the sky above us. Jackson tugs lightly on my hip so I lie back onto his outstretched arm. His warmth envelops me and the excitement of the shooting stars mixed with the warmth of his skin and the heat of the alcohol makes me press my body against his. I lean onto my side as he pulls me closer to him, draping his arm over mine and tracing lines with his fingers from my exposed shoulder to my elbow and back again. I cross my leg over his thigh, tangling our legs together as I rest my arm across his stomach. His breath catches when I slip my thumb under his shirt and graze the skin of his abdomen with my fingers.
“What are you doing, Maddy?” His voice is husky with longing and I’m playing a dangerous new game, but the inhibition is gone as I feel his skin against mine.
“Watching the stars, Jackson. What are you doing?” We each know the meteor shower has fallen a distant second to this game of light touches.
“Trying to remind myself that you already have someone to tuck you in tonight. Those fingers of yours are making that hard, though. I’d like to know if your lips taste as good as they look.” I look up into his eyes and want so badly to tell him to find out, to just forget about Greg and the stupid rules and feel what it would be like to have a man want me for more than how perfectly we could charm high society together. Jackson’s phone buzzes against the inside of my thigh and I reach into his pocket to retrieve it for him, keeping my eyes locked onto his. He is staring back at me with such intensity I could melt.
Jackson adjusts us so that I’m flat on my back and he is supported by his elbow, and uses his free hand to flip the lock on the phone and read the text. He types back a message and I can see that he has answered “Not tonight.” He has someone, too, I remind myself, and glance back up to the sky. He slips the phone back into his pocket, touches my knee lightly and then begins making a warm, slow trail up my thigh with his middle finger.
We’re both watching as his finger inches toward the hem of my dress. My excitement grows with each second and I can feel that he is fighting his own arousal at my side. When his fingertip reaches my hem, he slides it underneath and lays his hand flat against my thigh for the briefest of seconds before closing his eyes and releasing a breath. He removes his hand, tugs my hem down a fraction, then places his hand at my hip.
“It’s getting late, Maddy, and I think you might be a little drunk, so I want to make sure you get home safe. Let me take you there.” The disappointment I feel is intense, but he’s right. I am a little drunk and he needs to go home to someone else, someone who can be his. I take one last look at the stars, nod my head in agreement, and sit up. Jackson stands and extends a hand to me to help pull me to my feet. I drop his hand when our connection causes goose bumps to prickle my skin. We separate to look for my purse and shoes, and then meet up again at the top of the trellis.
Jackson descends first and waits for me at the bottom. I’m far more graceful this time climbing down the trellis, but I slip when my bare feet meet the wet grass, causing my ankle to twist. I don’t fall down, but the pain in my ankle makes standing on it impossible.
“Rookie mistake,” he whispers in my ear, and then swoops me up into his arms. “I hope you don’t live far,” he says in a low voice, both of us now aware of the late hour and open windows.
“I live here, in this building,” I laugh. “Did I miss the part where you rode up on a white horse? Aren’t you supposed to be wearing some sort of shining armor?” Once the giggles start I can’t get them to stop.
“Looks like the damsel I’ve rescued is not only in distress but is also tipsy.” A smile flashes across his face as he begins walking to the front entrance.
When we enter the building, I point in the direction of my front door and fish the key from my purse. He holds me while I open the door and I rest my head in the crook of his neck, preparing myself for the moment where he puts me down and rides off.
“Which way is your room?” he asks.
I point down the hall to our left and he kicks the door closed behind us. I lift my head and look into his eyes as he enters my room and the tension is instantly between us again. I’ve never had a boy in my room before, as ridiculous as that sounds. My heart speeds up with anticipation as Jackson moves to set me down on the bed.
My arms instinctively wrap around his neck as he bends to place me on top of the covers. I don’t let go right away and our eyes meet. “Let me help get you under the covers, just lift your hips a bit so I can pull down the sheets.” I do as he asks, still holding on to him loosely, and, when he has releases the sheets from under me, he helps to ease me back against the pillows. We are still for a minute and I drop my gaze to his lips, wanting them to meet mine more than anything I have ever wanted.
The energy between us is magnetic and our bodies are pulled together until my face is near his and our lips meet ever so lightly. The kiss is sweet at first, a slow exploration of tastes and tugs, until I open my mouth and his tongue sweeps inside, breaking my restraint, sending the kiss into a frenzy of desire. Jackson’s hands slide over my body, and his heat permeates my dress and scorches my skin. I arch into his hands, but he pulls away, shutting his eyes tightly.
“If we don’t stop, beautiful birthday girl, the regret you feel in the morning will be even more painful than that ankle is going to be.” We stare into each other’s eyes and try to calm our breathing. When his appears in control again, he kisses my forehead and I shut my eyes against the tenderness of it. I breathe him in one last time and then take my arms from around his neck.
Jackson pulls the covers up around me and whispers in my ear, “Happy birthday. It has been an honor to tuck you in, little rookie. Please don’t regret a minute of this in the morning, because it has been one of the best nights of my life.” He kisses me on my cheek before turning and walking out of my room.
End of Excerpt