My nuts were about to freeze to my groin as I hurried across campus.
“Kelton!” Chloe Pitt’s voice carried on the breeze. “Wait up.”
I closed my eyes briefly, not wanting to deal with her. We’d broken up well over a month ago when the words I love you fell from her lips. Not only was that my cue to get the fuck out, but it sobered me up. She wanted the big house, the good-looking husband, kids, and someone to boss around. I certainly wasn’t that fucking guy.
She walked up wrapped in a parka and a thick orange scarf. February in New England can be brutal with below-zero temperatures, and today was one of those days. I guarantee that if I’d taken a piss right then it would have frozen before it hit the ground.
“I’ve been calling you. Why haven’t you picked up?” she asked, licking her lips.
Because I didn’t want to get married. “What are you doing at BU?” I asked through lips so cold they were having a tough time moving. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class at Harvard?”
“It’s Friday. I don’t have classes on Fridays.” She rolled her eyes like I was supposed to know her schedule. I could barely keep track of my own. “Are you on your way into Mr. Brewer’s art class?”
She knew my schedule. I’d bet she even knew when I took a shit. “Chloe, we’re not getting back together.” She’d been trying every possible angle, including having her cousin, Lacey, talk to me anytime she was home from college.
“You’re an ass. I need a date tonight for the art benefit my father is hosting, and you owe me.” She pulled her hood up over her blond hair as her nose started running.
“Owe you?” The only thing I owed her was a big fat no. She was definitely a sweet girl, and we had loads of fun in the sack. But she wasn’t my future.
Two people ran past us and into the warm building that was calling my name.
“That’s right. I kept you from getting killed by my bodyguard,” she reminded me in a snarky voice.
I vowed every day to stay away from women who wanted more than I could give—the women who wanted my heart in the palms of their hands, the women who wanted a life of forever. I didn’t do forever, and I wouldn’t open my heart to anyone. I’d seen how torn up my brother, Kody, was over the loss of his girlfriend and how my old man hurt when my mom fell apart after the death of my sister, Karen. The door to my heart was shut so tight that it would take someone with superpowers to pry open the lock. I bit my tongue. She wouldn’t leave me alone until she got what she wanted, and right now I didn’t have the patience to deal with her.
I glanced around. “Where is the jerk, by the way?” Chloe always had a bodyguard on her ass, compliments of her father, Jeremy Pitt, head of the Russian mob in Boston.
She shrugged. “I ditched him.”
If anyone was good at fleeing the confines of her father’s hold, it was Chloe. I flipped up the collar of my leather jacket. “I didn’t ask you to fight my battles for me.”
Chloe had shown up at a recent frat party. She’d scowled when she saw a girl sitting on my lap. Before the girl had had a chance to move, Chloe had her hands in the girl’s hair, pulling her off me. Needless to say, we got into an argument even though we weren’t dating, and her dense bodyguard had come in and tried to manhandle me. I was about to punch his lights out when Chloe maneuvered her curvy body in between Scar Face and me. My fists shook so hard with the need to hit the fucker. Not only for trying to rough me up but because the jerk had held a gun to my head once, and in the three years since the incident, I hadn’t had a chance to show him my gratitude for him almost shooting me.
“Regardless, you owe me.” Chloe touched her nose with the back of her gloved hand.
She wasn’t going to let this go, and I was about to become an ice sculpture. “If I take you to this artsy crap, then we’re done. No more trying to trap me into your love web. I’m not that guy. I’ve told you that.”
“Fine.” She smiled as though she didn’t believe me.
She knew I didn’t pass up sex. I stalked closer to her, my breath steaming as I exhaled. “I’m dead serious. You will not come between me and any of my dates. We will not sneak off and have sex.” Like we had the day after we’d broken up. I was a moron for leading her to believe I wasn’t serious about our breakup. Since then I’ve kept my distance. “And we sure as hell aren’t getting married.” There, I said it. Not in this fucking lifetime and not with a mafia princess.
Her smile vanished as snot slid out of her nose. “I said fine. Besides, Mr. Brewer will be there, and I’m sure he would want you to see some of his students’ artwork.”
I sucked in my bottom lip, the ice beads melting on my tongue. “We’re through after tonight.” I hesitated for a moment, drilling my gaze into her, then headed toward the building.
“Eight p.m. Malia’s Art Gallery on Newbury Street. It’s black tie. So wear your tux.”
Fucking penguin suit. I hated it. I had one tailored for me last year when I attended a few of her father’s charity events. He was always donating money to some cause. For a mob guy, Pitt wasn’t a bad dude. He was fiercely protective of family, a good businessman, and in the three years I’d known him, I still didn’t know what he did for the mob. I wasn’t about to pry either. The last thing I wanted was to get involved in anything illegal. Not when I wanted to protect and defend the law as a future lawyer.
I jogged into the classroom. A myriad of perfumes bombarded me. The scent of lilacs, lilies, clean rain, and jasmine seeped into my nostrils. The last one almost made me stumble. That scent was imbedded in my memory and took me to a place I wanted to forget, yet remember, but didn’t dare. I rubbed my nose lightly as I blew out some air, trying to rid my senses of a girl with dark hair, blue-gray eyes, and lips I could kiss all day long.
“You’re late,” Mr. Brewer said as he tried to quiet the whispers filling the room. “Undress and get on the platform.”
The whispers all but died when he said to undress. Thankful for the undivided attention, I grinned as I scanned the room. Four men sat among the sea of women whose gazes were riveted on me. Some women shied away when I set my eyes on them. Others stuck out their chins, while others licked their lips. I’d bet my life half the women in the room weren’t even artists. They were horny twenty-year-olds attending a class to get a glimpse of Kelton Maxwell. It always amazed me how women reacted to the male species. Maybe that was the reason I took the job. Maybe I should have majored in psychology rather than math. But I dumped that thought. I wasn’t there to analyze anyone. I was there for the adrenaline rush. I was there because I loved the attention. My brothers thought I was way beyond crazy. But I was never the cautious brother. Fuck caution. “You’re hiding behind something,” my old man, the psychiatrist, had once told me.
Maybe so, but posing and showing the world the physical side of Kelton Maxwell was a high like bungee jumping, and I needed that rush like a junkie needed his next fix. Because I sure as hell wasn’t about to reveal my fears or secrets.
I sauntered over to the makeshift dressing area in the corner of the room. Once behind the wooden wardrobe panel, I toed off my boots then peeled off my clothing right down to nothing. The room was warm, and my body began to thaw. Mr. Brewer always kept the temperature high. He’d mentioned something about the warmth keeping the body at its natural state and coloring.
As I wrapped a large terrycloth towel around my waist, Mr. Brewer doled out instructions to the class then added, “Since a couple of you are new in here, I also want to point out that we’re all adults. The human body is a beautiful specimen. I’m certain that most of you ladies have seen a naked man before. Therefore, refrain from giggling and talking and concentrate on the model.”
“Oh, we will,” a girl with a high-pitched voice said.
“Ms. Davenport, I warn you.”
Ugh! Trudy Davenport was an uppity bitch who thought her daddy’s money could buy her anyone and anything. I had to give her props though. Once she’d heard Chloe and I were no longer an item, she’d tried to get in my pants on several occasions. She struck out each time. Sure, I could get off on screwing a beautiful redhead with legs that went on forever, but I knew my limitations. One night with her and she’d dig her claws in and not let go. Or maybe I was afraid I’d want more. Either way, I didn’t want to find out, especially since her father owned one of the biggest law firms in Boston. The same law firm I’d applied to for a summer job. The job I needed to add to my résumé for my Harvard Law application. Sure, several other law firms in the city would suffice, but none had the clout Mr. Davenport’s did.
I walked around the partition and over to the platform in front of the room.
“Drop the towel, Kelton,” Trudy shouted.
“This is your last warning, Ms. Davenport,” Brewer said as he circled his desk. “One more and I’ll give you an F on this assignment.” His long stride ate up the space from the back of the room to the platform, and he tapped on Trudy’s desk twice as he passed.
Trudy mumbled under her breath, and the crimson-faced girl next to her giggled.
I winked at an auburn-haired girl who was sitting in the first row. When I did, I got a strong dose of jasmine, and my heart sped up. Suddenly, I had a strong sense that I knew her.
“Mr. Maxwell, let’s try a different pose today. I also want you to leave the towel on for now.” He waved long, thin fingers at the velour chaise longue on the platform.
“Sorry, ladies,” I said as I scanned the disappointed faces, finally settling my gaze on the auburn-haired girl.
She peered up at me then looked away. She must have been one of the newbies since I didn’t recognize her, and most who took this class were shy on the onset.
Mr. Brewer climbed up on the platform and spoke in a low voice. “Sit. And don’t make the new girl nervous. And keep your dick from making an appearance.” His voice dropped even more as he shifted his back to the class. “I don’t need you with an erection when I have twenty-five females with raging hormones ready to attack you. Even though you’re one lucky bastard.”
“That would be difficult since I think it’ll be shrunken for a week after standing out in the cold.”
I eased down onto the soft fabric. “Besides, that only happened once. Over a year ago.” Since then I’d learned how to control myself. Fuck. With beautiful women, flowery scents, porcelain skins, long hair, thick lips—the list went on—they made it difficult for me not to get a damn hard-on.
“Kelton.” Mr. Brewer’s gaze dropped to my dick.
“Sorry. You started me thinking about… Never mind.” I closed my eyes and thought about who was going to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots or the Panthers.
Mr. Brewer went over to the far end of the platform, lifted the wooden screen, and brought it over to block us from the class. “Take the towel off. Then I want you to sit up against the back of the chaise and angle your body toward me.”
I went through the motions. “I thought you said towel on.”
“Extend both legs then raise your left knee. Drape your left arm casually over your leg.”
After several more instructions about positions and angles, he moseyed over to a small round table next to the chaise longue and collected a cowboy hat.
“I don’t do bright-blue cowboy hats,” I said. The accessory was downright ugly.
“It will bring out your blue eyes against your black hair. And it will also showcase the colorful lizard tattoo on your abs.” He set the hat so it covered my dick.
The tat was inked in blues, reds, and greens with a hint of brown.
He scanned my body. “This pose should be perfect.” He rubbed his unshaven jaw. “I think you’re ready.” Slowly, he slid the panel open. “Don’t move or sneeze. Or the hat will fall.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Not that I cared. Most of the people in here had seen me naked already. Still, sometimes the poses were hard to hold for the entire class, but sitting wasn’t as difficult as the standing ones.
“Come on, Brew,” a female student piped up. “Don’t keep us waiting.”
Mr. Brewer moved the panel. “I want you to put all your effort into making this piece your best,” he said to the class.
Ooohs and aaahs and swear words were muttered by just about every person, except my little friend in the front row. She lowered her gaze, her long lashes fanning out into the shape of a perfect crescent moon.
“Get to work,” Mr. Brewer said as he returned to his desk.
Given the wide eyes and excitement on people’s faces, Mr. Brewer must’ve outdone himself.
As the students went to work, I kept my face relaxed and concentrated on something in the room. Usually, I stared at the windowless door, but today the shy girl drew me in. Her throat worked so much she seemed to be swallowing an elephant. Her cheeks flushed a bright red, but this time she didn’t shy away from my gaze. Her light-green eyes met mine, and I refrained from letting out a groan. Her bottom lip was slightly thicker than the top, and they had a pinkish color to them, reminding me of the girl I once knew.
The more I studied her, the more I was taken back to that hot summer day in Texas seven years ago.
The ground burned beneath my bare feet. I ran as though I was fleeing a serial killer. I pumped my legs and arms as fast as I could, my breath coming out in short gasps. I’d be surprised if I didn’t die of heatstroke. The hot Texas sun beat down, adding to the sweat pouring off my body. But I couldn’t stop. I had to see her one last time. I didn’t know if I would ever see her again, and that thought pierced my heart, sending waves of pain shooting through my body.
A car sped past. The driver honked his horn and spewed cuss words at me. I threw him the finger as I darted out of the road, in between two cars, then up on the sidewalk. Small rocks embedded in my feet, and I welcomed the pain. Pain was a sign I was alive.
One more block. One more chance. One more look before the one girl I loved walked away with my heart in her hands.
The moving truck came into view on the tree-lined street. Large men swarmed the lawn. Some were hauling huge appliances. Two others were moving boxes around.
I stopped across from Lizzie’s house, wiping the sweat from my face with my sweat-soaked T-shirt. I gulped in air as an elderly man walked past with his dog on a leash. The dachshund paused to lick my foot, the sensation a rather calming contrast to my racing pulse.
“Harvey.” The old man scolded the dachshund as he tugged on the leash.
I kept my eyes on the two-story stucco house. Would she come out? Was her father home? He’d forbidden her to see me. We’d had to sneak around for the last month. My mom even said it was best if I broke ties with Lizzie. How could she say that? Lizzie was my best friend. We did everything together. She’d loved to throw the baseball, play tackle football, and climb trees. She was beautiful. She had blue-gray eyes and a distinctive square gold speck in her left eye that I would always tease her about. I’d dubbed it the pot of gold.
“You just want to kiss her,” my big brother Kade had said. “Girls are trouble, especially at your age.”
I was a teenager. Okay, I was thirteen, and puberty was hitting me hard. Sure, I wanted to kiss Lizzie, but only because she had the prettiest lips I’d ever seen. The bottom one was slightly thicker than the top, and they always seemed to have a pinkish color to them.
A horn blew, shattering my thoughts.
Mrs. Reardon came out of the house, carrying a suitcase. “Elizabeth, get moving. Your father will be home any minute.” Then she disappeared behind the moving van.
At the sound of Lizzie’s name, my heart beat even faster than when I was running over there. I scanned the neighborhood in both directions. The coast was clear. So I hurried across the street. As my feet touched the burnt grass on the front lawn, Mrs. Reardon spotted me.
“Kelton, young man. You shouldn’t be here. If Mr. Reardon catches you, he’ll call your parents.”
He could call the National Guard. I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving until I said good-bye to Lizzie. I tilted my head slightly, trying to put on puppy-dog eyes. It always worked with my mom. “Two minutes.” Hell, I wanted more than two minutes. I wanted a lifetime to say the things I needed to say but didn’t know how.
“You’re young, Kelton. It’s infatuation. You don’t know what love is,” she said as she pulled out a small cloth from the pocket of her shorts and patted it along her neck.
Tell that to my heart. Lizzie’s voice always turned my insides to mush. I knew her tomboy personality made me love her more. I knew her touch gave me butterflies. Most of all, I knew when we were together the world around us didn’t exist. I knew without a doubt that the minute she drove away, the minute I didn’t get to talk to her, the minute I didn’t get to touch her, was the minute I would die inside.
“Kelton.” Mrs. Reardon snapped her fingers in front of my face.
I blinked away the hurt that was engulfing me.
“One minute,” she said softly.
I was about to dart around the house and slip in through the side door when Lizzie walked out of the front.
I drew in a breath as our eyes met. She had on a tank top, battered jeans shorts with the insides of the front pockets hanging out at the bottom, and a bandana around her neck. Her brownish-black hair was pulled into a high ponytail, which gave me the opportunity to stare at her satiny skin.
“Kelton, what are you doing here?” She searched the road. “My father will be home.”
Screw her father. He could beat me until I was blue. He’d chased me one time when he caught us kissing.
“I had to say good-bye. You’ve been ignoring me for a week.” It was summer break, so I didn’t get to see her every day like I did when school was in session. I shuffled closer to her, desperately wanting to touch her but afraid if I did I wouldn’t let go.
Her mother went inside.
Lizzie climbed down the steps, adjusting the pink bandana on her neck. “I’m sorry. I thought it would be best.” Tears clouded her eyes, but the pot of gold in her left eye shone through. She dropped her gaze to the ground.
With my thumb, I caught a tear. “Please don’t cry.” I couldn’t see her cry. It broke my heart even more. “We’ll talk on the phone.”
She lifted her watery eyes to mine. “It’ll be too expensive from England.”
It was going to kill me not to hear her voice. I leaned down until a tiny space separated our lips. “Then we’ll email each other.”
The sound of an engine drifted toward us, and as she moved to check out the oncoming car, her lips touched mine. I had to kiss her. I didn’t care who was around or if her father was the one in the noisy car. I had to taste the sweet bubblegum lip-gloss she wore. I had to inhale her jasmine scent and imbed the essence of Lizzie Reardon into my memory well enough to last a lifetime.
She stiffened when I pushed my tongue through her lips.
She melted into me as she always did when I called her Lizard. I took her in my arms as she trembled, and I tentatively kissed her. Her tongue slithered out until the roar of the engine slowed.
She gently pushed away. “You better go,” she said, almost out of breath.
Suddenly, a cold shiver gripped my body even though I was sweating like a pig. A car pulled to a stop in the driveway. Her father grimaced in our direction. But if he didn’t want me near his daughter, he would need to chase me with an ax before I moved. “Why does your father hate me?” I had to know why he didn’t want us to see each other. Every other time I’d asked her, she’d changed the subject.
“He doesn’t. He’s just torn up over what happened. And every time he sees you or any of your brothers, he can’t handle it. He blames himself.”
“It was an accident.” A pain shot through my heart at the still-too-vivid image of seeing Karen on a stretcher being wheeled out of the garage just over a month ago.
“That may be, but we’re all mourning, especially Gracie. You know how close they were as friends. She’s so distraught that she’s barely talked since the accident. My dad feels that keeping our distance from your family is best.”
Gracie and Karen had somehow gotten into my father’s gun cabinet in the garage. One thing led to another, and Gracie accidentally shot Karen.
I tried to push out the pain. I tried to erase the images of my mom crying and the sounds of sobs and screams coming from her bedroom in the middle of the night.
“Is that why you’re moving?” I asked.
The car door slammed shut, sounding like a cannon going off and making us both flinch slightly.
She nodded with sad eyes. “I’m sorry, Kel. Even if we stayed, I’m not sure I could be with you any more without seeing the hurt in your eyes or you blaming me and my family.”
The blood rushed out of me. As I stood in front of this girl, all I saw was her beauty and warm heart. I choked back tears. “I could never blame you.”
“But what about Gracie?”
I looked past her to Mr. Reardon. His short stature was unassuming, but his narrowed gaze was anything but. I didn’t know the answer to her question even though it was an accident. Maybe even my fault.
“I got to run.” She started to leave.
“Wait.” I dipped my hand into the pocket of my shorts and pulled out a chain with a half-heart charm. “I want you to have this.” I handed her the necklace I’d bought with my allowance.
She glanced at it then up at me, tears streaming down her face. “Where’s the other half?”
I grabbed her hand and flattened her palm against my own heart. “Right here.”
She drew in a sharp breath, her bottom lip trembling.
“I’ll find you one day, Lizard.”
She smiled weakly.
“You’ll always be the other half of my heart,” I said as she walked away.
In the art class, a chair scraped along the floor. I blinked away the past to find the auburn-haired girl hurrying from the room while the rest of the students were still absorbed in their sketchpads.
“You’re free to go,” Mr. Brewer said, standing in front of the platform. “You did well. You didn’t move a beat, although you made the new girl, Emma, a little squirmy by staring at her the whole time.”
“Did I scare her that bad?” I asked jokingly as I covered myself with the towel and pushed to my feet.
“She had to leave early. I’ll see you next week.” He ambled around the desks, checking the students’ artwork.
I was about to tell him I would see him at the art gallery tonight then decided not to. I didn’t need the girls in this class knowing my schedule. I stalked behind the partition and made quick work of getting out of the towel and into my clothes. I had a math class I had to get to on the other side of campus.
Once I was outside, the frigid February air hit me like a girl I’d once dumped had slapped me. It was a welcome relief at the moment from the heated room and the crazy trip down memory lane. I zipped up my leather jacket then pulled out my knit cap and covered my head. I made it a few steps before I spied Emma talking to a dude with shoulder-length hair next to an old, beat-up Camaro. He looked my way, causing Emma to do the same before she said something to him. The dude studied me.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and strutted over to them. I wanted to at least apologize to her if I’d scared her.
They scurried into the car like I was a criminal about to shake them down. He peeled out. I stopped in my tracks and winced at an oncoming SUV about to crash into them. At the last second, the SUV swerved, narrowly missing the Camaro. The driver in the SUV honked his horn as he slowed.
I watched the Camaro fade into the distance, wondering what I did to scare them.