Soundtrack: Bright, Echosmith
I spun my car into the parking spot like a stunt driver and was already half out when I slammed the shifter into park. According to the dashboard clock, it was 7:27 am, and I had less than three minutes to get to class. I grabbed my backpack and my sandals from the backseat and jogged in bare feet across the parking lot to the science building.
I didn’t exactly make the best impression, sliding into the classroom just as the teacher was beginning his introduction, shoes dangling from my fingers instead of on my feet. But it wasn’t the first time I’d been late to school. This wasn’t even the first time I’d been late to class that week. My first week of senior year, and I was three for three. Procrastinating was kind of my thing. “Always Late Kate,” that’s what my friends called me.
“Nice of you to join us,” the teacher greeted me, basically inviting the whole class to look at the slacker who’d just disrupted their learning experience.
“Sorry, sir. I got stuck in traffic.” I dropped my eyes to the floor apologetically, remembering too late that my feet were naked. He lifted a hand to stroke his salt-and-pepper beard while pointedly staring at my toes. My sandals slapped as they hit the ground, and I stabbed my feet through the straps sloppily.
“Take a seat over there.” He pointed to a seat at the back of the room. Good, I would be safely tucked away in the corner, away from all of the curious eyes currently roving over me. “Next time, do try to be on time. And fully dressed.”
I slunk across the room and squeezed by all of the conscientious students who’d been on time. I’d almost made it to my seat when I tripped over someone’s foot. My embarrassment couldn’t end with me just being late to class. Oh no, that would be too easy. I yelped once and teetered for barely more than a second before toppling face-first into the boy sitting next to my empty seat. I’d almost made it to my chair, one seat to go, and now I was in my neighbor’s lap with my face squashed against his incredibly hard chest.
Ugh. Could I just die now? I pulled myself off my unfortunate victim and looked up into his face as I knelt to grab my backpack from where it had landed during my fall. To say he had the face of an angel would be an understatement. Chocolate-brown eyes were emphasized by an arrow-straight nose and strong, square jaw. His skin was creamy smooth, and my mouth watered at the sight of full, rosy lips. As if sensing the turn of my thoughts, his tongue darted out to wet those lips.
“If you’re finished introducing yourself to your classmate, I’d like to continue with the class.” The teacher’s gravelly voice brought my surroundings into sharp focus. I was on my knees between this guy’s legs, and the whole class had been witness to it. I scrambled up into my seat and did my best to disappear. The guy next to me shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Now, as I was saying—I’m Mr. Carson. Welcome to Chemistry.” Teach grabbed a stack of papers from the podium in front of him and headed for the nearest student as he spoke. “Please take out a pen. Take a copy of the syllabus and pass the stack on. This semester, we’ll use a combination of learning tools . . .”
While I waited for the syllabi to make it to my row, I grabbed a hair-tie out of my backpack and yanked my unruly, blonde curls into a crude ponytail, then dug into the bag in search of a pen. A minute later, I was forced to admit defeat. Obviously, I was cursed. Being late to class, falling into the lap of another student, and now finding out I had no pen.
I leaned over to the guy whose personal space I’d inadvertently violated and whispered, “Do you have an extra pen?” Without skipping a beat, he fished a spare BIC out of the cargo pocket of his khaki shorts. He passed it to me, without looking my way, but froze when our fingers brushed.
One quick glance at his face was enough to see he was blushing furiously. The poor kid was more embarrassed than I was. Luckily, the jock on the other side of him chose that moment to slap the last two syllabi down in front of my new pal. Hot Embarrassed Guy tossed mine onto the desk like it was on fire. Or I was.
“The last page of your syllabus is the syllabus quiz. It doesn’t count for a grade, but it will be used for attendance and to show that you understand the syllabus,” Mr. Carson intoned, now seated behind his desk. I scanned the document while the teacher continued his instruction. “Everyone with a seat near the aisle and everyone next to the wall please look to the student next to you . . .”
Hot Guy next to me cleared his throat, drawing my attention. Oh me! I was next to the wall. And Hottie was next to me.
Mr. Carson continued, “This person is going to be your lab partner for the remainder of the semester. If he or she transfers out of the course, or just doesn’t do the work, you’ll be responsible for their share. You’re going to be spending a lot of time working together, both during and outside of class. I recommend you get to know each other well . . .” He paused to stare pointedly at me. “Some of you have already started.”
Yep, it was official. I could die from mortification now. I could try to transfer into another class, but that would leave Hot Guy to fend for himself with double the work. I’d already been enough of a headache for him. The least I could do was pull my own weight.
The teacher returned his attention to the class as a whole. “Get started on the quiz. When you’re finished, you may have the rest of the period free. Just drop your paper off on my desk on your way out when the bell rings.”
I sighed. Apparently, there was no chance of being able to avoid this boy for the rest of my life. Or the rest of the semester even.
I scooted my chair closer to the table and settled my elbows on top. “I guess we should get started.” I turned slightly toward my new partner but was careful to keep as much distance between us as possible. “I’m Katie.”
“Roman.” He still wouldn’t look at me.
“Look, I’m really sorry about . . . you know . . . earlier.” Before I could stop myself, I’d underlined my breasts with my hands and followed the action up with an awkward gesture toward his lap. Jeez, get it together, Katie. He must’ve thought I was a total whack-a-doo.
The pink of his cheeks deepened to a strawberry red, but he finally cast his eyes my way. To his credit, Roman managed to keep his gaze on my face for a full five seconds before it dropped to my cleavage. He cleared his throat and turned to the papers in front of him. And he was back to avoiding looking at me. Lovely.
“So . . . question number one is about the grading schedule.” His voice was deep and rich and left me imagining all the things I’d like to hear him say to me. None of them included the grading schedule, but I flipped to the last page of my syllabus anyway. At least he was speaking to me.
Forty-two awkward minutes passed before the bell rang. When the period finally ended, I fled my seat like I was being chased—by something other than my own humiliation. I set my quiz down on the small stack of papers left by other students and made for the door. With any luck, I’d make it through the rest of the semester without humiliating myself any further. But right at that moment, my only focus was getting through the day, driving to my house, and burying myself under a pile of blankets so big, no one would ever find me.
I was hyper-aware of Roman close behind me, placing his paper on the stack, keeping up with me stride for stride out the door and down the hall. When I got to the stairs, I clung tight to the rail and paid extra attention to each step as I descended. I didn’t want to add a graceless fall down the steps to the morning’s list of embarrassments.
An eternity stretched between the second and first floors of the science building. We were the only two people on the stairs, but Roman seemed to fill every inch of that space, own it. Own me. I should have known that being in such close quarters with the hottest boy to ever grace a high school campus would lead to butterflies taking up residence in my stomach.
A million miles later, we reached the bottom, and I headed out into the warm mid-morning air toward the Language Arts building. Halfway down the hallway, he was still trucking along behind me. When we reached my class, I turned to face him. “Are you following me?”
He sputtered and stepped back. He shook his head vehemently and opened his mouth, but it was a few seconds before he managed to say anything. “No! Definitely not! I’m right over there.” He pointed to the class across the hall.
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. There probably wasn’t anything I could say to salvage any shred of dignity at that point. I dug my hands into my pockets and turned toward the relative safety of the classroom.
“Hey.” Roman pressed soft fingertips to the inside of my elbow, and I turned to face him. He made a show of checking the syllabus he still held. “We um . . . we’re supposed to read the first three chapters of the book and be prepared for the quiz.” He paused to stare at the toe of his sneaker as he scuffed it along the pavement.
I shook my head. “It’s the first quiz of the semester. He’ll probably drop the grade anyway.”
He looked me square in the eyes for the first time that morning. The action gave me a glimmer of hope that maybe working together for the next few months wouldn’t be devastatingly awkward. It also set those butterflies off in my stomach again. “Maybe we should get together before the next class and study. You know . . . since we get a shared grade on the classwork and all.”
Ah, he wanted to make sure I knew my stuff so he didn’t get a bad grade. Well, it was good enough for me. “Sure, here.” I dug his BIC out of my backpack and grabbed his arm, turning it to bare the smooth underside for prime writing space. When I’d finished writing on him, I recapped his pen and handed it back to him. “That’s my phone number.”
“Okay, cool. I’m open Friday, if you want to get together then.” His voice rumbled in the quiet hall.
“Friday it is.”