“Coming through!” My fingers slip and the box I’m carrying tilts, the contents—and the weight—shifting to one side. I lose my grip and it’s all I can do to hold on as I crash into the front door of my new apartment with an unflattering oof, the air punching out of my lungs.
Mierda. Using the doorjamb for leverage, I reposition my sweaty fingers and hoist the box in the air, silently praying that, once inside, I can make it to the second floor of the townhouse without getting crushed to death by God knows what.
That would be rampant consumerism and a penchant for hoarding.
Whatever. I’ll worry about that in the spring when it’s time to move out.
Today, I just need to get my crap inside and up the stairs without killing myself, which really shouldn’t be this hard because I’m a freaking D1 gymnast. Strong. Graceful.
I make it all of two steps into the front hall before I lose my grip on the box again. “Moving days are the goddamn devil.”
“There’s my little ray of sunshine.”
I turn toward the living room and my roommate Madison appears, a big-ass grin on her heart-shaped face.
“Why are these boxes so big?” I grumble. “It’s like they’re made for giants with freakishly long arms.”
“I told you not to get the extra-large ones.”
I don’t bother replying. The extra-large boxes were the only ones left because I waited until the last minute to pack—something else Maddie warned me to avoid.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” she chides, sounding just like our coach as she darts into the hall and hefts the other side of the box. “And injured athletes—”
“Don’t compete,” I say, finishing the sentence. It’s Coach Miller’s mantra, one she’d happily tattoo on our foreheads if the NCAA would allow it.
Maddie snickers and then we’re inching toward the stairs like an awkward turtle, the box suspended between us. I let her ascend first, so I’m bearing the brunt of the weight. It’s slow going and by the time we reach the second-floor landing, I’m sweating like a pig and my t-shirt is plastered to my back. We shuffle into my room and drop the box onto the bare mattress.
“One down.” Maddie bumps my shoulder, beaming like she’s just scored a perfect ten.
Eight to go. I sigh and glance across the hall at Maddie’s room. She’s already unpacked and decorated. There’s a familiar mountain of yellow pillows on her bed and a strand of fairy lights glow softly overhead, giving the room a warm, inviting look that is completely at odds with my own, which, at the moment, is stark white and empty aside from a few cardboard boxes.
Her parents moved her in yesterday, and they would’ve helped me too, but I had to work, because while Maddie spent her summer lounging by the pool, perfecting her tan and acquiring natural highlights for her golden curls, I was coaching youth gymnastics camps here at Waverly.
I love working with the kids, and the money is good, but it’s exhausting. You can’t let them out of your sight for a second, which I learned the first week of camp when I caught two of the girls sneaking into the locker room with a bottle of itching powder.
Devious little monsters.
“So your parents really aren’t coming?” Maddie asks, pulling me back to the present. “I thought for sure they’d change their minds. I mean, it’s our first apartment.” She smirks. “No more messy suitemates. No more communal bathrooms. No more cranky RAs watching our every move.”
Thank God. Two years of dorm living was pure hell.
“Sorry to disappoint. I told them I could handle it.” I shrug, not wanting to admit the truth—even to myself—that they would’ve bowed out because my sister Gabby, the real star of the Cruz family, had an event this weekend. “It’s not like I have that much stuff.”
Maddie arches a slender brow.
Which, fair. Because, yes, I’m a packrat, but I didn’t hear her complaining last semester when she needed a copy of the freshman orientation packet and I was the only one on our floor who could produce one.
She sighs dramatically. “Not gonna lie. I was really hoping for some empanadillas.”
“Help me move these boxes and I’ll make all the empanadillas your little heart desires.”
“Do that and I’ll split my leotard before the season even starts.”
Yeah, right. The girl can eat, but she never seems to gain any weight. I’d kill for her metabolism, but maintaining a strict diet is a small price to pay for the sport I love and the thrill of flying through the air and landing the perfect vault.
“Come on.” Maddie spins on her heal. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we get ice cream.”
A slow smile curves my lips. “From The Creamery?”
The Waverly U dairy makes the best ice cream. It’s smooth, decadent, and made with whole milk. Which is why I only eat it on special occasions, because…gymnast.
“From The Creamery.” She nods decisively. “We deserve a treat to celebrate our first apartment. Plus, we’re going to work it off moving all these boxes.”
Who needs conditioning when you can drag all your crap up and down the stairs in ninety-five-degree weather?
We trek outside for another box—the prospect of Alumni Swirl is a powerful motivator—and are greeted by the thumping bass of hip hop music and a blast of air so hot I swear it scorches my lungs. The sun is blistering and I shield my eyes, squinting against the bright light as Maddie grabs my arm and lets out a high-pitched squeal.
“Do you know who that is?” she whisper-hisses, gaze locked on a couple of guys playing frisbee next door.
“No clue.” They’re big and beefy. Probably student athletes. No surprise there. College Park Apartments has a notoriously long waitlist because of its proximity to the athletic facilities. “And unless they’re going to move all these boxes, I really don’t care.”
I turn my attention to the mountain of cardboard filling my ancient Ford Explorer as Maddie ogles frisbee dude.
“You know,” I say, pulling a box to the edge of the trunk. “If we each take one, we can do this in half the time.”
Not to mention half the trips.
“No way.” Maddie shakes her head, ponytail bouncing. “If you fall down the stairs and break something, Coach will kill me. Then I’ll be dead, you’ll be benched, Coach will get suspended, and Michigan will kick our asses at the Big Ten Championships in the spring.”
I snort-laugh. “You really think Coach would get suspended?”
“Fair point.” She sighs and grabs the other side of the box. “Gymnastics is life. They’d probably just slap her with a fine and tell her not to miss a practice.”
Laughing, we slide our cargo out of the trunk and shuffle toward the townhouse. This time, I walk backward, relying on Maddie to let me know if I’m going to crash.
We’re halfway to the door when she says, “Don’t look now, but I think Cooper DeLaurentis is checking us out.”
There’s a giddy thrill in her voice and I instinctively turn to the frisbee players, all of whom are shirtless and glistening like gods under the midday sun. Sure enough, Waverly’s star wide receiver is watching us—probably because Maddie’s staring like a creeper—and my stomach drops.
Puñeta. Please don’t let Parker be among them.
I took precautions. I wrote a strongly worded letter. I—
Heart pounding, I scan the guys’ faces, searching for the one that haunts my memories.
DeLaurentis. Reid. Smith. Some dude I don’t recognize.
Relief washes over me like a Gatorade shower. They’re all football players, but I don’t know them. Not personally, anyway.
I draw a steadying breath and steel my resolve.
It’s fine. I can do this. There are thousands of people in this complex. It’s not like I have to socialize with the neighbors. I’ll mind my business and they’ll—
Maddie groans. “I said don’t look!”
“Which basically guaranteed I was going to look.” I peek at my roommate over the top of the box. Her cheeks are flushed, but I can’t tell if it’s from the heat or embarrassment. Oh, who am I kidding? Maddie hasn’t been embarrassed a day in her life. The girl has no shame, which is why I love her. “If you didn’t want me to look, you shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Yeah, but then you would have missed the eye candy.” She flashes me a mischievous grin. “You’re welcome.”
I roll my eyes, but she’s back to admiring the view as we inch our way toward the apartment, cardboard digging painfully into the palms of my hands.
“I cannot believe we’re going to be living next door to Cooper DeLaurentis.”
“Yeah,” I deadpan. “It’s like we won the hot neighbor lottery.”
“Right? Brooke and Soraya are going to be so jealous when we tell them.” Her cornflower eyes light up, and I can practically see the cartoon lightbulb glowing over her head. “Maybe he’ll invite us to party since we’re neighbors. I would give my left ovary to hook up with that man.” She wiggles her brows. “Rumor has it football players have amazing stamina.”
“Eww.” I shoot her a dark look. “There’s exactly a zero percent chance I’ll be partying with the football team this semester.” Or ever. Been there, done that, have the emotional scars to prove it. “And you shouldn’t either. It’s like begging for an STD.”
Maddie clicks her tongue. “No slut shaming. This is a sex positive environment.”
A bead of sweat slides down my temple. She’s right, but…
“It’s not shaming if it’s true.” I wipe my cheek on my shoulder. “Besides, I thought you were hooking up with that lifeguard?”
“Do the words summer fling mean nothing to you? We’re not like, committed or whatever.” She laughs and the box shifts between us as I turn to glance over my shoulder. “I don’t have time for a relationship.”
Real talk. Between classes and gymnastics, free time is nonexistent.
“Fine, but I still think you can do better than some jacked up baller with a tiny dick and a god complex.”
“Sounds like the voice of experience,” she shoots back, eyes narrowed. “Spill.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
Because some secrets are so humiliating— so damaging—they can only go to the grave.
“So you’re saying that if one of those hard bodied hotties asked you out, you wouldn’t be the least bit interested?”
There are plenty of women on this campus who’d be thrilled to score with one of Waverly’s gridiron gods, but I’m not one of them.
“I’d rather eat mat on national TV than hookup with a football player.”
“Parker, get your ass over here and put Vaughn out of his misery!” Coop hollers, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead.
“It’s too damn hot.” I’m not trying to get heatstroke playing Ultimate Frisbee, which is why I’m lounging in the shade while my roommates run themselves ragged. Football training camp is in full swing and Coach Collins will have my balls if I’m not one hundred percent on Monday. “Besides, you and Vaughn make such a great team.”
If you enjoy watching them get their asses kicked, which I do.
“Dude. He can’t even see the frisbee around that giant bush on his face.”
Vaughn gives him the finger, but says nothing. He’s always been a man of few words. It’s a trait I admire since the rest of us are loud as fuck.
“Are we doing this or what?” Reid—our team captain and fourth roommate—asks, spinning the frisbee on his pointer finger. “Because I’m happy to take the win if you want to forfeit DeLaurentis.”
Coop bristles, squaring his shoulders. “Fuck, no.” He turns to me, a calculating look in his eyes. “Come on, man. I’ll owe you one.”
And there it is. A favor from Cooper-I’d-sell-my-soul-for-a-W-DeLaurentis.
Here’s the thing. Athletes are competitive by nature, myself included, but Coop and Reid are on another level. They’re the real deal. All-Americans. Heisman contenders. Guaranteed first round NFL draft picks. The prospect of losing at anything—even a meaningless game of Ultimate Frisbee—rankles.
“Well.” I peel myself from the lounger. “When you put it like that, how can I resist?”
Vaughn snorts and flops down in my chair as I jog across the lawn.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Once camp ends and classes start, free time will be a thing of the past. The team is poised for a championship run, but with the loss of our kicker, it’s going to take all of us busting our asses to make it happen. Long practices. Brutal conditioning. Late night study halls.
So, yeah. Just the most challenging semester of my entire college career.
My gut tightens, but I breathe through the nerves.
You’ve got this, asshole.
I’m sure as hell not going to be the guy who drops the ball. Not when most of our starters are graduating in the spring and this is their last shot at a national title. I’ve still got another year of eligibility, thanks to redshirting as a freshman, but once Coop and Reid graduate, the Wildcats will be in rebuilding mode.
It’s just as well. It’ll give me a chance to focus on my grades, like I did freshman year. Most guys hate redshirting, but it allowed me to transition from high school to college without being completely overwhelmed. Fact is, if I’d been expected to memorize the playbook and pass English Lit, I’d have been screwed.
Goodbye, scholarship. Goodbye, Waverly.
“Get your head in the game,” Coop says, clapping me on the back. “If we lose, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
No kidding. Smith is still bragging about the Madden beatdown he gave Coop last spring.
“What’s the play?”
“Go deep.” He shoots an appraising look at Smith. “He’s fast, but you’ve got a better vertical jump.”
We bump fists and line up, ready to rock the instant Reid pulls the frisbee. Like in football, he has to pass it to the opposition. At which point Coop will catch it, and, if things work out, pass it to me in the end zone.
“Let’s do this.”
Reid puts the frisbee in motion and I haul ass across the lawn, pivoting around Smith. Reid counts down the possession—six, five, four—and fuck, I need to get open or Coop will have to turn the frisbee over. Smith bumps me from behind, a little friendly contact, and I turn, jogging the last few steps backward as Coop slings the plastic disc my way.
It sails through the air, sun glinting off the shiny white surface as I jump, arm extended, ready to make the grab.
Smith elbows me in the ribs and I get a face full of locs, but it’s all good because I’ve got the disc, fuck you very much.
I come down on one foot, but the momentum of the jump carries me backward and I crash ass-over-elbow into God only knows what.
One second, I’m sailing through the air, disc in hand, the next I’m flat on my back, staring at the summer sky, something sharp as hell stabbing me in the side as I gasp for breath.
“Get. Off. Me.”
I’m on my feet in an instant because holy fuck, that stabbing pain is a girl.
Well, a woman. A tiny woman. With cobalt hair.
And she does not look happy.
Not that I blame her. I mean, I did just smash her. Well, not like smash smash, but…fuck.
“Shit. I’m so sorry.” I extend a hand, prepared to help her to her feet. “I didn’t see you.”
She stares at my outstretched hand like I’ve got leprosy and I’m not sure how to proceed. On the one hand, I almost knocked her out. On the other, it was an accident, and it’s not like I have fucking cooties.
The look on her face would suggest otherwise.
It’s not the first time someone’s looked at me that way. Doubt it’ll be the last.
I plaster a smile on, pretending she’s not looking at me like something foul stuck to the bottom of her shoe, and try the apology again. “I’m really sorry. I— I didn’t see you.”
Her nostrils flare and I swear to Christ, flames are going to shoot out of her mouth.
Which might be cool if I weren’t standing directly in the line of fire.
“You didn’t see me?” She huffs out a breath, the silver hoop in her nose catching the light as she gestures to the moving box that’s spilled its contents all over the grass. “Then I guess you didn’t see my giant box, either.”
My teammates cackle like a bunch of fucking hyenas and she mutters something that sounds like “Asshole ballers” as I withdraw the hand she clearly has no intention of taking.
Fine. She wants to lie in the grass, that’s on her.
“Are you okay?” A petite blonde springs into action, kneeling beside the blue-haired demon as she sits up. “You didn’t break anything, did you?” The blonde inspects her elbow, and she lets out a quiet hiss. “You’re bleeding.”
Fuck. I didn’t mean to plow her over. I just got caught up in the game.
“It’s fine. It’s just a scrape.”
The blonde pops to her feet, ponytail bouncing. “I’m getting the first aid kit.”
She bolts before her friend can argue, darting up the sidewalk without a backward glance.
“Well, at least I know where to go if I’m ever in need of First Aid.” It’s a pathetic attempt to lighten the mood, as evidenced by the howling of my roommates. Jackasses. “Ignore them. They’re not laughing at you. They’re laughing at me getting my ass handed to me by a girl half my size.”
“I couldn’t care less what you or your obnoxious friends think.”
Damn. This girl doesn’t pull punches. “I said I was sorry.”
She looks up at me, dark eyes brimming with animosity. “Yeah, well, sorry won’t fix my broken shit, will it?”
No, no it will not. “I’ll pay for whatever’s broken.”
I’ve got a little money saved up from my summer job working construction. Assuming the box wasn’t full of overpriced designer crap, it’ll be okay.
“It’s fine,” she says, words steeped in sarcasm.
Yeah-fucking-right. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but even I can tell it’s anything but fine. I should probably walk away now. Clearly this chick isn’t into apologies, or even common courtesy, but I’m not a complete prick, so I crouch down to help her put her stuff back in the box.
It’s the least I can do after plowing her over.
“Here, let me give you a hand.”
I reach for the first thing I see and she springs forward, eyes wide. Our heads knock together—which hurts like a motherfucker—and she lets out a string of curses. At least, I think they’re curses. The only word I recognize is pendejo, thanks to two grueling years of high school Spanish.
I hold up the hot pink object she was so desperate to grab. It’s silicone and has two rounded prongs like rabbit ears and— Holy shit, it’s a vibrator.
She snatches it from my hand and heat floods my cheeks.
I’m a hot-blooded twenty-one-year-old and I’ve had my share of hookups, but I’ve never handled a woman’s vibrator.
Hell, I’ve never even seen one in real life.
I watch, speechless, as she shoves it in the box.
Could this be more awkward?
Yes, it could. Because my roommates are here to bear witness.
I stare at the girl with the blue hair, forcing myself to meet her icy glare. There’s something familiar about her, though I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe we had a class together? Or—
Right. This isn’t the time for a trip down memory lane.
I need to fix this, assuming that’s even possible. “I’m s—”
“I swear to God, if you say you’re sorry one more time, I’m going to shove that vibrator down your throat.”
I freeze, brain scrambling to switch gears before she makes good on her promise.
“I’m DJ Parker.” I flash her a lopsided grin for good measure. We’re going to be neighbors for the next nine months, and I sure as hell don’t need her glaring daggers at me every time our paths cross. “And you are?”
An emotion I can’t identify flickers across her face, but it’s gone in an instant. “Not interested.”
Irritation blazes up my spine. Is this chick for real?
“I wasn’t hitting on you.” I throw my palms up in self-defense. “Just trying to be neighborly, but clearly you’re not into that sort of thing.”
She stands, and because no way am I going to let this woman look down her nose at me, I follow suit.
It’s the wrong move. She really is a tiny thing. Maybe five-three or five-four. I’ve got a solid twelve inches on her and the last thing I want to do is use my size to intimidate her.
“Look, Parker.” She plants a hand on her hip, making it clear she’s in no danger of being intimidated by my dumb ass. “Some of us are here to get an education, not to play ball, party, and screw our way across campus, okay?”
No. It’s not fucking okay.
I’ve spent my life dealing with other people’s assumptions about me and my academic abilities, and I’m not about to stand here and let this girl unload her preconceived, stereotypical notions about football players on me.
“You know what? If you feel so strongly about your education, maybe you should talk to the rental office about changing apartments. You know, so all the partying and fucking don’t interrupt your studying.” I gesture to the trunk of her Explorer, which is still half-filled with boxes. “I’ll even help you load your stuff to speed up the process.”
She opens her mouth—probably to say something scathing—but no words come out.
My pulse thrums at my temple and we stare at one another in heated silence.
After what feels like an eternity, she turns on her heel and marches up the sidewalk to her apartment, her pert, denim clad ass swaying with each step.
Because of course the devil has a perfect fucking ass.
“And that, my friends, is why Parker will be eternally single.” Coop smirks, looking entirely too pleased with himself. “The man has no skills.”
Guilt tugs at my conscience, but I shove it aside. No way am I going to feel bad about trading barbs with the she-devil. Not when she started it.
“Well,” Reid says, rubbing the back of his neck. “At least if the townhouse gets egged, we’ll know who did it.”
Vaughn just shakes his head, like he can’t believe I’ve stooped so low.
That makes two of us.
But with neighbors like that, it’s going to be a long semester.