Then I reached into the bag for a pair of panties, but there were no panties to be found. In their place were several hardened, three-dimensional shapes vaguely resembling birds. Was this his way of telling me he wanted to put his bird in my panties? I sat there, laughing hysterically, until I tried unsuccessfully to unfold one. At that point, I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry; I just knew I’d be going to class without underwear.
It wouldn’t be a big deal as long as he shaved. I didn’t doubt there’d be a damp spot on my crotch within five minutes if he showed up sporting the stubble. When I arrived at lab, he was already at our table, stubble intact, looking as hot as ever. My only hope was to ignore him.
Too bad he wouldn’t let me.
“You’re even surlier than usual. What’s gotten your panties in a bunch?”
“Nice choice of words.”
“What?” he asked, throwing his hands in the air.
“Speaking of bunched-up panties, was it necessary to fold my underwear into origami?”
“I majored in art history, remember? Presentation is important to me.” He turned back to the lab table. “Did you happen to notice anything else unusual in your laundry bag, or are you one of those glass-half-empty kind of girls?”
“I did. I’m guessing that the portrait is also an example of your handiwork?”
“Somehow, the fact that you can draw doesn’t surprise me. Your other artistic talent, however…” I thought of the perfectly starched folds he’d placed in my panties. Making swans out of cotton bikini underwear couldn’t have been easy. “How did you do it? I mean, it must have taken you hours.”
“I’m used to spending hours putting my cock in random women’s panties.”
“You must have only seen the swan. There were also some roosters.”
“I was serious.”
“And I’m seriously trying to live up to your expectations. You’ve put so much effort into one-upping me, you’d be disappointed if you were to find out I’m actually a nice guy.”
“It was an honest question.”
“Fine. Here’s an honest answer. I used an iron to press the folds and heavy starch so they’d stay in place. As far as the drawing is concerned, I watched you as you slept Saturday night and began sketching as soon as I got home.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so surprised.”
“It’s not that I’m surprised–”
“No, you’re in shock, and it’s insulting. Regardless of how you feel about me personally, you must know Princeton isn’t in the habit of conferring art degrees on individuals who don’t possess at least a modicum of ability.”
“But you majored in Art History.”
“Yes. Because as a little kid, I liked to color. Then as a big kid, I liked to draw. In high school, I discovered I liked to paint. I knew I wasn’t talented enough to do it professionally, so I found another area in which to focus. You’d think given your background in music, this wouldn’t be so hard for you to grasp.”
“It isn’t your artistic ability that surprised me. I don’t pretend to know you; obviously, you have interests outside of playing doctor…uh…I mean studying to become a doctor. It was the idea that you’d put all this time into doing something for me.”
He turned to face me and took a few steps forward. When he spoke, he was close enough for me to feel his breath on my face.
“That shouldn’t surprise you, either.”
Our other lab partners arrived, ending our discussion. Though Cullen turned his focus to the cadaver, I remained focused on him. Something was different about him that I couldn’t place.
Chin cleft? Check.
Bulge hanging to the left side of his scrubs that would seem to indicate the presence of his sizable package? Check.
The luster in his eyes that announced to the world exactly how highly he thought of himself? Noticeably absent.
Maybe the stress of first year was starting to wear on him—it sure as shit was wearing on me. Wanting to give him some space, I went to the library to study so he wouldn’t feel obligated to walk home with me. Three hours later, I was so exhausted I thought my eyes would fall out of my head. I gathered my things and left the building, only to find Cullen leaning against the wall, his hands hiding his face. With his shoulders slumped forward in defeat, he groaned, pulling at his hair. As much as I wanted to offer him comfort, I knew if I were upset, he’d be the last person I’d want to witness it. I’d just started to back away when his eyes met mine.
If he was anything like me—and I was beginning to think he was—he’d need to save face.
“Just the person I was hoping to find.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Look, Esme. If my day gets any worse, I’ll end up in Byberry. I’m not in the mood for your insults right now.”
“Byberry, huh?” I smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “You realize I want to specialize in psychiatry.”
“And I want to be a pediatric gynecologist. Now call me an asshole, and be on your way.”
I refused to take the bait.
“I just wanted to thank you. Though I thought there was an outside chance you’d do my laundry after you offered, I never expected the drawing or the origami, both are lovely. I’m sorry if I seemed ungrateful. Then again, the beak in my butt crack my be causing me slight discomfort.”
“In other words, my cock’s in your ass.” His smile was so sexy, I didn’t care if it came at my expense.
“Are you heading home?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Not if I can help it.”
“I’m sorry if Maggie’s semi-squatter status is bothering you.”
“My sister. I know she’s been hanging out at your place nonstop since she found out you had cable.”
“What does cable have to do with anything?”
I shrugged. “MTV.”
“As if you don’t have cable.”
“Actually, we don’t.”
“Oh. Well, your sister isn’t the problem. My brother, on the other hand…” He shook his head. “Never mind.”
“Regardless, I won’t keep you. I’ll let you get back to…well…whatever one does in dark alleys.”
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“I thought you were avoiding your apartment.”
“I am, but I’d also like to avoid see you end up a crime statistic.” We were a black away from our building before he spoke again. “What are your parents like?”
“My mom is a tailor for Wanamaker’s, and my dad works on campus.”
“That’s what they do; I asked what they’re like.”
“Oh. Normal, I guess.”
He laughed. “What is that?”
“They love each other, and they love us.”
Looking straight ahead, he nodded. When he spoke, his voice was cold, almost detached.
“My brother’s crashing at my place. He’s the reason my parents aren’t talking to me at the moment, so the fact that he came running to me is making that situation worse. He was supposed to start college last month, but he had some legal trouble over the summer. After a great deal of negotiation, it was determined he could defer his admission for a year, he completed community service and a drug rehabilitation program. He doesn’t think either is necessary, so rather than report to detox, he came to me. I don’t know what the hell to do. My father can’t be bothered, my mother is oblivious, and though I know it’s not my responsibility, I feel as if I have to take care of him.”
“At eighteen shouldn’t he be capable of taking care of himself?”
“I told you I didn’t know what normal was.”
“Right. You make birds from panties.”
We reached our building, and he walked me to my door. He offered me a slight smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. I didn’t want it to go away, so I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Spend the night with me.”
“Maggie is probably at your place, so it’s only fair. You can have a few hours to think, and maybe in the morning, you’ll know what to do.”
I unlocked the door, and he followed me inside. Just as I thought, Maggie was nowhere to be found.
“Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t.” I went into the bathroom to wash up and change out of my clothes. For reasons I didn’t completely understand, I donned a black lace slip instead of my sleepshirt. It wasn’t because I wanted to take advantage of the situation; it was because I didn’t want the situation to take advantage of me. As long as I felt sexy, I’d be able to hold my own with him.
When I came reemerged, Cullen was lying on the floor of the living room with his eyes closed, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. I cleared my throat, and he jumped to his feet.
“If you want to sleep on the floor, I’ll get you a pillow and some blankets.”
“Where do you want me?” he asked, moving toward me.
I rolled my eyes. “Sounds like someone has his game on.”
“Do you honestly think this is a game?”
I shrugged. “Because you’re a player.”
His fingertips trailed up my bare arms before brushing my hair from my shoulder. “Except I’m not playing you. And if you’d stop trying to play me, you could win.”
“Win what?” I asked.
“Everything you’ve ever wanted.”