It would work perfectly, if only she were willing to cooperate.
And apparently, she wasn’t.
“Okay, let me get the sequence of events straight,” she said. “He told you was in love with you-”
“He said he was in the process of falling in love with me.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “So he qualified it slightly. Big fucking deal. He still put it out there. You responded by—correct me if I misheard you—telling him to fuck off?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Now you want me to go upstairs under the pretense of returning his cooler and blanket and engage him in small talk so I can figure out whether or not he was serious?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“I took all the leftovers out and put them in the fridge. Obviously, I’m not giving those back to him. I consider them asshole tax for drinking half our coffee this morning. Besides, we kind of have to keep them, since I blew the grocery money paying my own way when he took me out to that pretentious dinner two nights ago.”
“For fuck’s sake, Esme, this isn’t about cheese.” She paused, and her face lit with realization. “Wait, there’s leftover cheese and prosciut?”
She went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. “Score!” she yelled.
I rolled my eyes.
“Sorry, but eating something other than Instant Lunch makes me obscenely happy.”
“Awesome! So bring Cullen his cooler back, thank him for the food, and report back on his mood and general demeanor.”
“Let’s assume for a moment he is sincere—do you really think he’ll talk to me about his feelings? And since when do guys just go around making declarations to women who’ve already offered to have sex with them? Think about it.”
“Maybe it’s not just about sex. Maybe he gets off on power. I don’t know.”
“He’s really under your skin, isn’t he?”
I sighed. “I don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t even like him.”
“Maybe not, but you’re obsessed with him.”
“Is it that obvious?”
She lifted one of her shoulders in a small shrug. “It is to me. Okay, Esme. I’ll do it, but only because I love you.”
She walked to the door, threw the blanket over her shoulder and picked up the cooler.
“Thank you,” I said.
She gave me an exaggerated eye roll then vanished into the hallway. Unable to focus on anything else, I paced the living room while I waited for her return.
And I paced.
Half an hour passed.
I paced some more.
An hour and a half.
What could she be doing up there?
Okay, this was Maggie I was talking about. More like who could she be doing up there. Cullen did say he lived with a few other guys.
Two hours and forty-five minutes.
She’d better not be doing Cullen!
I didn’t know if I should call Cullen or call the police, just that it was getting late and I was getting tired. I got into bed with a book and tried to wait up for her. The next thing I knew, my alarm clock buzzed, confirming my failure. I threw off the covers and ran into the hall. Maggie’s bedroom door was open, and she wasn’t in it. Upon closer examination, it didn’t appear as if she’d been home at all.
She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. Would she?
Then again, Maggie was capable of anything if alcohol was involved.
There had to be an explanation as to why she spent the night upstairs, I just wished I’d be able to hear it before I faced Cullen in lab. I showered quickly, threw on my scrubs, and hauled ass to campus. I wanted to get out of the building long enough before class that Cullen wouldn’t have an opportunity to accost me on Walnut Street.
By the time I took my place at our table, both Cullen and his stubble were already in attendance. When the rest of our team arrived, we got to work. Over the course of the morning, he was quiet and respectful—almost contrite—to the extent that I couldn’t help but wonder if he had a reason to feel guilty.
Genteel Cullen was all wrong. It felt contrived—like it was just another part of his game. I found myself irrationally consumed with rage to the point that I wanted to take my scalpel and remove his spleen, rather than the cadaver’s. How could his simple presence have me contemplating murder?
“You’re nowhere near where you should be cutting.”
His voice brought me back to the present. I looked down at my hand holding the scalpel, and sure enough, it was a few inches away from where I was supposed to make the incision. Maybe it wasn’t a good time for me to be handling sharp objects.
“Why doesn’t someone else take a turn?” I asked.
After one of our lab partners volunteered, I took a small step away from the table, sighing. I needed to get a grip. I’d never let a guy distract me like this. That it was happening now after I worked so hard to get where I am was just icing on my shit cake. Something about this—about him—was different. It was an equation that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t balance. There were too many unknown variables. X—or in this case, (se)X—was a big nul.
That had to be it. No one had ever talked such a big game then refused to follow through. Then again, that said very little about me. Was I really so simple to be obsessed with a man I couldn’t have just because he was unattainable?
“Are you okay?” Cullen whispered to me.
“Peachy. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“It’s not like you to be so distracted.”
“You presumptuous motherfucker. You eavesdrop on a single personal conversation between Maggie and me, and all of sudden, you’re my freaking biographer. I hope for all of our sakes you put more effort into your medical training than you put into taking an interest in your would-be conquests. “
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. I didn’t just eavesdrop–”
“Is this when you try to tell me it isn’t your fault Maggie has a big a mouth? Though that’s true to a point, any person with a modicum of decency would have made his presence known.”
“That’s just it—I have no decency. You’ve been saying so ad infinitum since the day we met, yet you hold me to higher standards regardless. Why should anything I do surprise you?”
“It doesn’t surprise me; it infuriates me.”
“And for the record, what I know about you goes well beyond what I overheard yesterday morning. After all, I did spend last night with your sister.”
I snorted. “Love how you go from being in love with me to trying to convince me you did the nasty with Maggie. Nice try, but I know her better than you do. She wouldn’t fuck you with a borrowed pussy.”
“In other words, you have lower standards than she.”
That unbelievable asshole. I no longer cared how godlike he was; I didn’t want him anywhere near me.
“Actually, I’ve upped my standards. Up yours.” I flashed him an evil smile and stepped back to the cadaver. As much as I hated Cullen—and I did hate Cullen—I didn’t hate him as much as I loved medicine. If I focused on the former, maybe I’d be able to forget about the latter.
That was the plan, anyway, but it changed the moment I arrived home from class.
“Hi honey, you’re home.” Maggie looked up from painting her toenails just long enough to blow me a kiss.
“That’s it? You can’t treat this as if it’s any other day.”
“Maggie!” I wailed. “What the hell happened last night?”
“Oh my god,” she exclaimed. “It was the greatest thing ever. They have cable. Can you believe it? Cable! Do you know how much I’ve missed television? I haven’t seen MTV since we moved here. Did you know Madonna is having a contest to make a video for True Blue? We’re going to enter it—me and two Cullen’s roommates. We have the whole thing planned out—it’s going to be totally rad.”
“Just so you know, Cullen claims you two spent the night together.”
“Technically, we did, but there were like, five other guys there.”
My jaw dropped.
“No, not like that. Eww! Gag me.”
“Wait, Cullen lives with five people in an apartment the size of ours?”
“No, it’s bigger. They have the entire fifth floor. Besides, two of the guys don’t technically live there; they’re just squatting.”
“What, like crack-house style?”
“I don’t know what the hell is going on. I just know that Cullen’s baby brother, Wes, showed up at some point yesterday afternoon, and Cullen wasn’t happy about it. They spent of the night talking in Cullen’s room. I couldn’t make out much of the conversation, just that it wasn’t pleasant. Anyway, I’m sorry I don’t have information for you. I wasn’t about to be like, ‘Uh, hey, I know you’re in the middle of what appears to be a pretty big family fight, but my sister sent me upstairs to find out if you like her.’”
“Ugh!” I threw myself onto the sofa, groaning. “He’s such an asshole. You wouldn’t believe the games he was playing in lab.” I lowered my voice an octave. “‘I know much more than what I overheard, Esme. I spent the night with your sister.’”
“Technically, he isn’t lying. But we weren’t alone, and you weren’t discussed.”
“I hate him.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything.
“Just keep telling yourself that. Maybe eventually, you’ll start to believe it.”
“Whatever.” I stood up and went to my room. At the moment, I wasn’t any better equipped to deal with Maggie than I was to deal with Cullen.
I gathered my dirty clothes into an IKEA bag, grabbed detergent and my book bag, and headed out to the laundromat across the street. I hated doing laundry even before the majority of my clothing smelled like cadaver juice and formaldehyde; the fact that no matter how I tried to clean it, it still smelled like death only increased my disdain for the chore. But if it got me an hour to myself, it was worth it.
After divided my clothes into two washers and adding the detergent, I slammed the lids of washers down, jumping in surprise at the volume of the noise they made.
“Now that wasn’t very nice. What did those washers ever do to you?”
I didn’t have to look to know who was standing behind me.
Note to self: regardless of how wretched other aspects of my life might seem, there was no solace to be found in domesticity.
I turned to face him, leaning against the washer. “What are you doing here, Cullen?”
“You got into med school, so you must be somewhat perceptive. Why do you think I’m here?”
“My first guess would involve a quickie and the spin cycle, but since you seem to be alone, I honestly have no clue.”
“Very funny. And the idea that I might be here to get my clothes clean didn’t occur to you?”
“Don’t your whores take care of that sort of thing for you?”
“Not anymore,” he admitted, smiling.
“Look, no offense, but I’m not in the mood for your shit right now. Just tell me which machines your clothes are in, and I’ll bring them to your apartment when they’re finished.”
“The lengths to which you’ll go to get in my pants.”
“Right. Because despite the fact I hate doing laundry, this is all about me wanting to play with your underwear. It has nothing whatsoever to do with wanting to get rid of you.”
“If that’s what this is about, fine. Except since I like to do laundry, why don’t I take care of yours and drop it off to you later?”
He had to be kidding.
“You like to do laundry?” I asked.
“Yes. It makes me feel useful.”
“I think you’re full of shit. And I don’t believe for a second you have any idea how to wash my stuff without ruining it.”
“How is your stuff any different than mine? Scrubs are standard-issue, you know.”
I folded my arms and cocked an eyebrow.
“Oh,” he said, laughing.
He moved toward me, and when he spoke, I could feel his breath against my face. “I know what to do with panties, Esme.”
As much as I wanted him, I didn’t want him to have the upper hand.
“Fine then. Knock yourself out.” I strode to the door, but paused before leaving. “Don’t forget to add the fabric softener.”
Cullen may have won the morning, but I liked to think the afternoon was a draw.