“Come in,” I called, hearing a knock on the door.
Travis walked in, and froze in the doorway. “Wow.”
I smiled and looked down at my dress. A bustier that elongated into a short skirt, it was admittedly more daring than I had worn in the past. The material was thin, black and see-through over a nude shell. Parker would be at that party, and I had every intention of being noticed.
“You look amazing,” he said as I slid on my heels.
I gave his white dress shirt and jeans an approving nod. “You look nice, too.”
His sleeves were bunched above his elbows, revealing the intricate tattoos on his forearms. I noticed that his favorite black leather cuff was around his wrist when he shoved his hands in his pockets.
America and Shepley waited for us in the living room.
“Parker is going to piss himself when he sees you,” America giggled as Shepley led the way to the car.
Travis opened the door, and I slid into the back seat of Shepley’s Charger. Although we had occupied that seat countless times before, it was suddenly awkward to sit next to him.
Cars lined the street, some even parked in the front lawn. The House was busting at the seams, and people were still walking down the street from the dorms. Shepley pulled onto the grass lot in the back, and America and I followed the boys inside.
Travis brought me a red plastic cup full of beer, and then leaned in to whisper in my ear. “Don’t take these from anyone but me or Shep. I don’t want anyone slipping anything in your drink.”
I rolled my eyes. “No one is going to put anything in my drink, Travis.”
“Just don’t drink anything that doesn’t come from me, okay? You’re not in Kansas, anymore, Pigeon.”
“I haven’t heard that one before,” I said sarcastically, taking a drink.
An hour had passed, and Parker was still a no-show. America and Shepley were dancing to a slow song in the living room when Travis tugged on my hand. “Wanna dance?”
“No thanks,” I said.
His face fell.
I touched his shoulder. “I’m just tired, Trav.”
He put his hand on mine, and began to speak, but when I looked past him, I saw that Parker was walking toward us. Travis noticed my expression and turned.
“Hey, Abby! You made it!” Parker smiled.
“Yeah, we’ve been here for an hour or so,” I said, pulling my hand from under Travis’.
“You look incredible!” he yelled over the music.
“Thanks!” I grinned, glancing over to Travis. His lips were pressed together, and a line had formed between his eyebrows.
Parker nodded toward the living room and smiled. “You wanna dance?”
I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. “Nah, I’m kinda tired.”
Parker looked at Travis, then. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I changed my mind,” Travis said, irritated that he had to explain.
“I see that,” Parker said, looking to me. “You wanna get some air?”
I nodded, and then followed Parker up the stairs. He paused, reaching to take my hand as we climbed to the second floor. When we reached the top, he pushed open a pair of French doors to the balcony.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“A little chilly,” I said, smiling when he pulled off his jacket and covered my shoulders, “Thanks.”
“You’re here with Travis?”
“We rode together.”
Parker’s mouth stretched across his face in a broad grin and then he looked out onto the lawn. A group of girls were huddled together, arms hooked together to fight the cold. Crepe paper and beer cans littered the grass, along with empty bottles of liquor. Among the clutter, Sig Tau brothers were standing around their masterpiece: a pyramid of kegs decorated with white lights.
Parker shook his head. “This place is going to be destroyed in the morning. The clean-up crew is going to be busy.”
“You have a clean-up crew?”
“Yeah,” he smiled, “we call them freshmen .”
“He’s not on it. He gets a pass because he’s Travis’ cousin, and he doesn’t live in the House.”
“Do you live in the House?”
Parker nodded. “The last two years. I need to get an apartment, though. I need a quieter place to study.”
“Let me guess…Business major?”
“Biology, with a minor in Anatomy. I’ve got one more year left, take the MCAT, and then hopefully I’m off to Harvard Med.”
“You already know you’re in?”
“My Dad went to Harvard. I mean, I don’t know for sure , but he’s a generous alumnus if you know what I mean. I carry a four-point-oh, got a twenty-two hundred on my SAT’s, thirty-six on my ACT’s. I’m in a good position for a spot.”
“Your dad’s a doctor?”
Parker confirmed with a good-natured smile. “Orthopedic surgeon.”
“How about you?” he asked.
“Typical freshman answer.”
I sighed in dramatic fashion. “I guess I just blew my chances at being exceptional.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. I noticed you the first day of class. What are you doing in Calculus Three as a freshman?”
I smiled and twisted my hair around my finger. “Math is sort of easy for me. I packed on the classes in high school, and took two summer courses at Wichita State.”
“Now that’s impressive,” he said.
We stood on the balcony for over an hour, talking about everything from local eateries to how I became such good friends with Travis.
“I wouldn’t mention it, but the two of you seem to be the topic of conversation.”
“Great,” I murmured.
“It’s just unusual for Travis. He doesn’t befriend women. He tends to make enemies of them more often than not.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve seen more than a few that either have short term memory loss or are all too forgiving when it comes to him.”
Parker laughed. His white teeth gleamed against his golden tan. “People just don’t understand your relationship. You have to admit it’s a bit ambiguous.”
“Are you asking if I’m sleeping with him?”
He smiled. “You wouldn’t be here with him if you were. I’ve known him since I was fourteen, and I’m well aware of how he operates. I’m curious about your friendship, though.”
“It is what it is,” I shrugged. “We hang out, eat, watch T.V., study and argue. That’s about it.”
Parker laughed out loud, shaking his head at my honesty. “I’ve heard you’re the only person who’s allowed to put Travis in his place. That’s an honorable title.”
“Whatever that means. He’s not as bad as everyone makes him out to be.”
The sky turned purple and then pink as the sun broke above the horizon. Parker looked at his watch, glancing over the railing to the thinning crowd on the lawn. “Looks like the party’s over.”
“I better track down Shep and Mare.”
“Would you mind if I drove you home?” he asked.
I tried to subdue my excitement. “Not at all. I’ll let America know.” I walked through the door, and then cringed before turning around. “Do you know where Travis lives?”
Parker’s thick, brown eyebrows pulled in. “Yes, why?”
“That’s where I’m staying,” I said, bracing for his reaction.
“You’re staying with Travis ?”
“I sort of lost a bet, so I’m there for a month.”
“A month ?”
“It’s a long story,” I shrugged sheepishly.
“But you two are just friends?”
“Then I’ll take you to Travis’,” he smiled.
I trotted down the stairs to find America, and passed a sullen Travis, who seemed annoyed with the drunken girl speaking to him. He followed me into the hall as I tugged on America’s dress.
“You guys can go ahead. Parker offered me a ride home.”
“What?” America said with excitement in her eyes.
“What ?” Travis asked, angry.
“Is there a problem?” America asked him.
He glared at America, and then pulled me around the corner, his jaw flitting under his skin. “You don’t even know the guy.”
I pulled my arm from his grip. “This is none of your business, Travis.”
“The hell if it’s not. I’m not letting you ride home with a complete stranger. What if he tries something on you?”
“Good ! He’s cute!”
Travis’ expression contorted from surprise to anger, and I braced myself for what he might say next. “Parker Hayes , Pidge? Really? Parker Hayes ,” he repeated with disdain. “What kind of name is that, anyway?”
I crossed my arms. “Stop it, Trav. You’re being a jerk.”
He leaned in, seeming flustered. “I’ll kill him if he touches you.”
“I like him,” I said, emphasizing every word.
He seemed stunned at my confession, and then his features turned severe. “Fine. If he ends up holding you down in the backseat of his car, don’t come crying to me.”
My mouth popped open, offended and instantly furious. “Don’t worry, I won’t ,” I said, shouldering passed him.
Travis grabbed my arm and sighed, peering at me over his shoulder. “I didn’t mean it, Pidge. If he hurts you — if he even makes you feel uncomfortable — you let me know.”
The anger subsided, and my shoulders fell. “I know you didn’t. But you have got to curb this over-protective big brother-thing you’ve got going on.”
Travis laughed once. “I’m not playing the big brother, Pigeon. Not even close.”
Parker rounded the corner and pushed his hands inside his pockets, offering his elbow to me. “All set?”
Travis clenched his jaw, and I stepped to the other side of Parker to distract him from Travis’ expression. “Yeah, let’s go.” I took Parker’s arm and walked with him a few steps before turning to say goodbye to Travis, but he was glowering at the back of Parker’s head. His eyes darted to me and then his features smoothed.
“Stop it ,” I said through my teeth, following Parker through the remnants of the crowd to his car.
“I’m the silver one.” The headlights of his car blinked twice when he hit the keyless entry.
He opened the passenger side door, and I laughed. “You drive a Porsche?”
“She’s not just a Porsche. She’s a Porsche nine-one-one GT-three. There’s a difference.”
“Let me guess, it’s the love of your life?” I said, quoting Travis’ statement about his motorcycle.
“No, it’s a car. The love of my life will be a woman with my last name.”
I allowed a small smile, trying not to be overly affected by his sentiment. He held my hand to help me into the car, and when he slid behind the wheel, he leaned his head against his seat and smiled at me.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Tonight?” I asked.
“It’s morning. I want to ask you to dinner before someone else beats me to it.”
A grin extended across my face. “I don’t have any plans.”
“I’ll pick you up at six?”
“Okay,” I said, watching him slink his fingers between mine.
Parker took me straight to Travis’, keeping to the speed limit and my hand in his. He pulled behind the Harley, and like before, opened my door. Once we reached the landing, he leaned down to kiss my cheek.
“Get some rest. I’ll see you tonight,” he whispered in my ear.
“Bye,” I smiled, turning the knob. When I pushed, the door gave way and I surged forward.
Travis grabbed my arm before I fell. “Easy there, Grace.”
I turned to see Parker staring at us with an uncomfortable expression. He leaned over to peer into the apartment. “Any humiliated, stranded girls in there I need to give a ride?”
Travis glared at Parker. “Don’t start with me.”
Parker smiled and winked. “I’m always giving him a hard time. I don’t get to quite as often since he’s realized it’s easier if he can get them to drive their own cars.”
“I guess that does simplify things,” I said, teasing Travis.
“Not funny, Pidge.”
“Pidge ?” Parker asked.
“It’s uh…short for Pigeon. It’s just a nickname, I don’t even know where he came up with it,” I said. It was the first time I’d felt awkward about the name Travis had bestowed on me the night we met.
“You’re going to have to fill me in when you find out. Sounds like a good story,” Parker smiled. “Night, Abby.”
“Don’t you mean good morning?” I said, watching him trot down the stairs.
“That too,” he called back with a sweet smile.
Travis slammed the door, and I had to jerk my head back before it caught me in the face. “What ?” I snapped.
Travis shook his head, and walked to his bedroom. I followed him, and then hopped on one foot to pull off my heel. “He’s nice, Trav.”
He sighed and walked over to me. “You’re gonna hurt yourself,” he said, hooking his arm around my waist with one hand, and pulling off my heels with the other. He tossed them into the closet, and then pulled off his shirt, making his way to the bed.
I unzipped my dress and shimmied it over my hips, kicking it into the corner. I yanked a t-shirt over my head, then unsnapped my bra, pulling it through the sleeve of my shirt. When I wrapped my hair into a bun on top of my head, I noticed him staring.
“I’m sure there’s nothing I have that you haven’t seen before,” I said, rolling my eyes. I slid under the covers and settled against my pillow, curling into a ball. He unbuckled his belt and pulled his jeans down, stepping out of them.
I waited while he stood quietly for a moment. I had my back to him, so I wondered what he was doing, standing beside the bed in silence. The bed concaved when he finally crawled onto the mattress beside me, and I stiffened when his hand rested on my hip.
“I missed a fight tonight,” he said. “Adam called. I didn’t go.”
“Why ?” I said, turning to face him.
“I wanted to make sure you got home.”
I wrinkled my nose. “You didn’t have to babysit me.”
He traced the length of my arm with his finger, sending shivers up my spine. “I know. I guess I still feel bad about the other night.”
“I told you I didn’t care.”
He sat up on his elbow, a dubious frown on his face. “Is that why you slept on the recliner? Because you didn’t care?”
“I couldn’t fall asleep after your… friends left.”
“You slept just fine in the recliner. Why couldn’t you sleep with me?”
“You mean next to a guy who still smelled like the pair of bar flies he had just sent home? I don’t know! How selfish of me!”
Travis winced. “I said I was sorry.”
“And I said I didn’t care. Goodnight,” I said, turning over.
Several moments of silence passed. He slid his hand across the top of my pillow, resting his hand on mine. He caressed the delicate pieces of skin between my fingers, and then he pressed his lips against my hair. “As worried as I was that you’d never speak to me again…I think it’s worse that you’re indifferent.”
My eyes closed. “What do you want from me, Travis? You don’t want me to be upset about what you did, but you want me to care. You tell America that you don’t want to date me, but you get so pissed off when I say the same thing, that you storm out and get ridiculously drunk. You don’t make any sense.”
“Is that why you said those things to America? Because I said I wouldn’t date you?”
My teeth clenched. He had just insinuated that I was playing games with him. I formed the most direct answer I could think of. “No, I meant what I said. I just didn’t mean it as an insult.”
Travis sighed. “I just said that because,” he scratched his short hair nervously, “I don’t want to ruin anything, Pigeon. I wouldn’t even know how to go about being who you deserve. I was just trying to get it worked out in my head.”
“Whatever that means. I have to get some sleep. I have a date tonight.”
“With Parker?” he asked, anger seeping through his tone.
“Yes. Can I please go to sleep?”
“Sure,” he said, shoving himself off the bed and then slamming the door behind him. The recliner squeaked under his weight and then muffled voices from the television drifted down the hall. I forced my eyes shut and tried to calm down enough to doze off, even if it was just for a few hours.
The clock read three P.M. when I peeled my eyes open. I grabbed a towel and my robe, and then trudged into the bathroom. As soon as I closed the shower curtain, the door opened and shut. I waited for someone to speak, but the only sound was the toilet lid smacking against porcelain.
“Nope, it’s me,” America said.
“Do you have to pee in here? You have your own bathroom.”
“Shep has been in there for half an hour with the beer shits. Not going in there.”
“I hear you have a date tonight. Travis is pissed!” she lilted.
“At six! He is so sweet, America. He’s just…” I trailed off, sighing. I was gushing, and it wasn’t like me to gush. I kept thinking about how perfect he had been since the moment we’d met. He was exactly what I needed, the polar opposite of Travis.
“Rendered you speechless?” she giggled.
I poked my head from the curtain. “I didn’t want to come home! I could have talked to him forever!”
“Sounds promising. Isn’t it kind of weird that you’re here, though?”
I ducked under the water, rinsing away the suds. “I explained it to him.”
The toilet flushed, and the faucet turned on, making the water flash cold for a moment. I cried out and the door flew open.
“Pidge?” Travis said.
America laughed. “I just flushed the toilet, Trav, calm down.”
“Oh. You all right, Pigeon?”
“I’m great. Get out.” The door shut again and I sighed. “Is it too much to ask for locks on the doors?” America didn’t answer. “Mare?”
“It’s really too bad you two couldn’t get on the same page. You’re the only girl that could have….” she sighed. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter, now.”
I turned off the water and wrapped myself in a towel. “You’re as bad as he is. It’s a sickness…no one here makes sense. You’re pissed at him, remember?”
“I know,” she nodded.
I turned on my new hairdryer and began the process of primping for my date with Parker. I curled my hair, and painted my nails and lips a deep shade of red. It was a bit much for a first date. I frowned at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t Parker I was trying to impress. I wasn’t in a position to be insulted when Travis accused me of playing games, after all.
Taking one last glance at myself in the mirror, guilt washed over me. Travis was trying so hard, and I was being a stubborn brat. I walked out into the living room and Travis smiled, not the reaction I expected at all.
“Thank you,” I said, rattled by the absence of irritation or jealousy in his voice.
Shepley whistled. “Nice choice, Abby. Guys dig red.”
“And the curls are gorgeous,” America added.
The doorbell chimed and America smiled, waving with exaggerated excitement. “Have fun!”
I opened the door. Parker held a small bouquet of flowers, wearing slacks and a tie. His eyes did a quick once-over, from my dress to my shoes and then back up.
“You are the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen,” he said, enamored.
I looked behind me to wave to America, whose smile was so wide I could see every one of her teeth. Shepley had the expression of a proud father, and Travis kept his eyes on the television.
Parker held out his hand, leading me to his shiny Porsche. Once we were inside, he let out a puff of air.
“What?” I asked.
“I have to say, I was a bit nervous about picking up the woman Travis Maddox is in love with…from his apartment. You don’t know how many people have accused me of insanity today.”
“Travis is not in love with me. He can barely stand to be near me sometimes.”
“Then it’s a love/hate relationship? Because when I broke it to my brothers that I was taking you out tonight, they all said the same thing. He’s been behaving so erratically — even more than usual— that they’ve all come to the same conclusion.”
“They’re wrong,” I insisted.
Parker shook his head as if I were utterly clueless. He rested his hand on mine. “We’d better go. I have a table waiting.”
“Biasetti’s. I took a chance…I hope you like Italian.”
I raised one eyebrow. “Wasn’t it short notice for reservations? That place is always packed.”
“Well…it’s our restaurant. Half, anyway.”
“I like Italian,” I smiled.
Parker drove to the restaurant at exactly the speed limit, using his turn signal appropriately, and slowing at a reasonable rate for each yellow light. When he spoke, he barely took his eyes from the road. When we arrived at the restaurant, I giggled.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re just…a very cautious driver. It’s a good thing.”
“Different from the back of Travis’ motorcycle?” he smiled.
I should have laughed, but the difference didn’t feel like a good thing. “Let’s not talk about Travis tonight. Okay?”
“Fair enough,” he said, leaving his seat to open my door.
We were seated right away at a table by a large, bay window. Although I was in a dress, I looked impoverished compared to the other women in the restaurant. They were dripping in diamonds, and wearing cocktail dresses. I’d never eaten anywhere so swanky.
We ordered, and Parker closed his menu, smiling at the waiter. “And bring us a bottle of the Allegrini Amarone, please.”
“Yes, sir,” the waiter said, taking our menus.
“This place is unbelievable,” I whispered, leaning against the table.
His green eyes softened. “Thank you, I’ll let my father know you think so.”
A woman approached our table. Her hair was pulled into a tight, blonde french bun, a gray streak interrupting the smooth wave of her bangs. I tried not to stare at the sparkling jewels resting around her neck, or those swaying back and forth on her ears, but they were made to be noticed. Her squinty, blue eyes targeted me.
She quickly turned away to look at my date. “Who’s your friend, Parker?”
“Mother, this is Abby Abernathy. Abby this is my mother, Vivienne Hayes.”
I extended my hand and she shook it once. In a well-practiced move, interest lit the sharp features of her face, and she looked to Parker. “Abernathy?”
I gulped, worried that she had recognized the name.
Parker’s expression turned impatient. “She’s from Wichita, Mom. You don’t know her family. She goes to Eastern.”
“Oh?” Vivienne eyed me again. “Parker is leaving next year for Harvard.”
“That’s what he said. I think that’s great. You must be very proud.”
The tension around her eyes smoothed a bit, and the corners of her mouth turned up in a smug grin. “We are. Thank you.”
I was amazed at how her words were so polite, and yet they dripped with insult. It wasn’t a talent she had developed over night. Mrs. Hayes must have spent years impressing her superiority upon others.
“It’s good to see you, Mom. Good night.” She kissed his cheek, rubbed the lipstick off with her thumb and then returned to her table. “Sorry about that, I didn’t know she would be here.”
“It’s fine. She seems…nice.”
Parker laughed. “Yes, for a piranha.” I stifled a giggle, and he offered an apologetic smile. “She’ll warm up. It just takes her awhile.”
“Hopefully by the time you leave for Harvard.”
We talked endlessly about the food, Eastern, calculus, and even about The Circle. Parker was charming, funny, and said all the right things. Various people approached Parker to greet him, and he always introduced me with a proud smile. He was regarded as a celebrity within the walls of the restaurant, and when we left, I felt the appraising eyes of everyone in the room.
“Now what?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I have a mid-term in Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy first thing Monday morning. I have some studying to do,” he said, covering my hand with his.
“Better you than me,” I said, trying not to seem too disappointed.
He drove to the apartment, and then led me up the stairs by the hand.
“Thank you, Parker,” I smiled. “I had a fantastic time.”
“Is it too early to ask for a second date?”
“Not at all,” I beamed.
“I’ll call you tomorrow?”
Then came the moment of awkward silence. The element of dates I dread. To kiss or not to kiss, I hated that question.
Before I had a chance to wonder whether he would kiss me or not, he touched each side of my face and pulled me to him, pressing his lips against mine. They were soft and warm and wonderful. He pulled back once, and then kissed me again.
“Talk to you tomorrow, Abs.”
I waved, watching him walk down the steps to his car. “Bye.”
Once again, when I turned the knob, the door yanked away and I fell forward. Travis caught me, and I regained my footing.
“Would you stop that?” I said, closing the door behind me.
“Abs ? What are you, a workout video?” he sneered.
“Pigeon ?” I said with the same amount of disdain. “An annoying bird that craps all over the sidewalk?”
“You like Pigeon,” he said defensively. “It’s a dove, an attractive girl, a winning card in poker, take your pick. You’re my Pigeon.”
I grabbed his arm to remove my heels, and then walked to his room. As I changed into my pajamas, I tried my best to stay mad at him.
Travis sat on the bed and crossed his arms. “Did you have a good time?”
“I had,” sigh , “a fantastic time. A perfect time. He’s…” I couldn’t think of an adequate word to describe him, so I just shook my head.
“He kissed you?”
I pressed my lips together and nodded. “He’s got really soft lips.”
Travis recoiled. “I don’t care what kind of lips he has.”
“Trust me, it’s important. I get so nervous with first kisses, too, but this one wasn’t so bad.”
“You get nervous about a kiss?” he asked, amused.
“Just first kisses. I loathe them.”
“I’d loathe them, too, if I had to kiss Parker Hayes.”
I giggled and left for the bathroom to scrub the makeup from my face. Travis followed, leaning against the door jamb. “So you’re going out again?”
“Yep. He’s calling me tomorrow.” I dried my face and scampered down the hall, hopping into the bed.
Travis stripped down to his boxers, and sat down with his back to me. A bit slumped over, he looked exhausted. The lean muscles of his back stretched as he did, and he glanced back at me for a moment. “If you had such a good time, why are you home so early?”
“He has a big test on Monday.”
Travis wrinkled his nose. “Who cares?”
“He’s trying to get into Harvard. He has to study.”
He huffed, crawling onto his stomach. I watched him shove his hands under his pillow, seeming irritated. “Yeah, that’s what he keeps telling everyone.”
“Don’t be an ass. He has priorities…I think it’s responsible.”
“Shouldn’t his girl top his priorities?”
“I’m not his girl . We’ve been on one date, Trav,” I scolded.
“So what did you guys do?” I shot him a dirty look and he laughed. “What? I’m curious!”
Seeing that he was sincere, I described everything, from the restaurant, to the food, to the sweet and funny things Parker said. I knew my mouth was frozen in a ridiculous grin, but I couldn’t stop smiling while describing my perfect evening.
Travis watched me with an amused smile while I blathered on, even asking questions. Although he seemed frustrated with the situation regarding Parker, I had the distinct feeling he enjoyed seeing me so happy.
Travis settled in on his side of the bed, and I yawned. We stared at each other for a moment before he sighed. “I’m glad you had a good time, Pidge. You deserve it.”
“Thanks,” I grinned. The ringtone of my cell phone reverberated from the night table, and I jerked up to look at the display.
“It’s tomorrow,” Parker said.
I looked at the clock and laughed. It was twelve-oh-one. “It is.”
“So what about Monday night?” he asked.
I covered my mouth for a moment, and then took a deep breath. “Uh, yeah. Monday night is great.”
“Good. I’ll see you Monday,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice.
I hung up and glanced at Travis, who watched with mild annoyance. I turned away from him and curled into a ball, tensing with excitement.
“You’re such a girl,” Travis said, turning his back to me.
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
He turned over, pulling me to face him. “You really like Parker ?”
“Don’t ruin this for me, Travis!”
He stared at me for a moment, and then shook his head, turning away once again. “Parker Hayes ,” he sighed.