First Chapter: The Fifteenth Minute

My Own Personal Darth Vader

 

Lianne

I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend my second semester of college huddled in my room playing DragonFire. So even though I have just broken into the Dark Portal with fifty golden life credits and a new set of magical nunchucks, I reluctantly freeze my avatar and put my controller down.

Naturally, my screen erupts with messages from other players. Hey, Vindikator? Where are you going? And, Don’t leave now, we’re close to the diamond palace!

My reply is brief but truthful. Gotta go to class! Grabbing my trusty baseball cap, I pull it down low over my eyes. Then I put on my coat, lift my bag and run out of my dorm room.

Over the holidays I considered quitting DragonFire cold turkey. But that seems too harsh, because gaming is how I relax. Instead I’ll restrict myself to no more than ninety minutes a day. That leaves me almost an hour tonight to feed my dragons and explore a few of the corridors I found this morning.

It will have to do.

Trotting down the stairs and out into the pretty stone courtyard, I start to wonder if ninety minutes is enough. If my cyber pals send me a bunch of messages, responding will eat into my gaming time…

The semester is only a couple of hours old, and I’m already rationalizing.

Running late now, I dash across College Street and then take a shortcut through the English Literature building. The brick theater department is just in the distance. I love the old architecture of this place—the gargoyles and the gothic archways. But I didn’t choose Harkness College because it looks like a well-styled movie set. I chose it because I wanted to be a real college student. I wanted the whole package—stodgy professors, thick books, parties and hanging out with friends in the dorm.

I hadn’t meant to spend the first semester hiding in my room, but fitting in here is a lot harder than I expected it to be.

Before Christmas, though, things started looking up. I have two good friends now, even if I’m kind of their third wheel. And I’ve made a pact with myself to spend even more time with people rather than screens.

Though screens are pretty awesome. And I like my other identity—Vindikator. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re an actress who made millions wielding a magic wand. I can go all day without hearing a single Princess Vindi joke.

I’ve almost reached my destination when my phone begins ringing like a broken doorbell, each new chime a text from my manager. I pull it out and skim the messages. Lianne, answer my calls. Where are you? Call me back ASAP.

When I’d decided to go to college at age nineteen like a normal girl, I’d tried to lay down the law with my manager. When school is in session, I want him to at least try to respect my schedule.

He doesn’t.

Now my phone begins to play the “Imperial March” from Star Wars. I would happily ignore my own personal Darth Vader, except I’m heading into class, and I don’t want to have to shut my phone down to avoid his impatient updates.

“Bob?” I answer, stopping on the slate pathway. “I’m heading to class. What’s the big deal?”

“I sent you a script. You should have it this afternoon.”

No lie, I get a little tingle just hearing those words. Even though the next two years of my life are already spoken for, everyone wants to be wanted. My heart flutters like a butterfly. “What is it?”

“Your next Princess Vindi part.”

Crunch. The butterfly hits the pavement. “And that’s news?” I ask, my tone becoming less polite. That’s the trajectory of a call with Bob—I start out promising myself I’ll be nice. Thirty seconds later, I’m yelling. “We’re not shooting until May. Why do I need to read it in January?” Besides, I’m doing that film whether I like it or not. I’m under contract.

Luckily, this will be the very last Sorceress film. After this summer, I never have to be Princess Vindi again. I never have to wrinkle my nose and turn anyone into a frog or wave my scepter to fight off the devil.

“You need to read it because there’s a clause we need to renegotiate. You need a nudity clause, babe. The Princess is supposed to get it on with Valdor in this film.”

“What?” I yelp. “That’s not in the book.”

“But their relationship is implied. So the screenwriters put it in.”

My stomach turns over. “A sex scene? Seriously?”

“It won’t be too spicy because they need a PG-13 rating. Read the script, and then we’ll negotiate what you’re willing to do. We’ll try to get them to pay you more.”

Shit! I can hear in Bob’s voice how much he likes this idea. The man would sell me into slavery if it meant more cash for him.

“I have to take a call with Sony now,” he says. “Look for my FedEx.”

“Wait!” I yelp. “What about the Scottish play? Have you heard from the director?”

“We’ll talk later.”

“Bob!” I shout. “I know it’s against policy for you to listen when I talk. But that part is everything to me. You said you’d—”

“Gotta jump,” he says, and the line goes dead.

Damn. It. All!

Not only am I now unsettled, but I’m late for my class. Shoving my phone into my bag, I jog up the steps and into the building, then down the hallway toward the room where my seminar on twentieth-century theater will be held.

I prefer to get to my classes early and sit in the front row. It’s not because I’m a nerd. It’s just that I don’t like making an entrance. But today I’ll have no choice. When I finally arrive, it’s exactly one minute past eleven. And the door to room 201 squeaks.

Of course it does.

At least a dozen heads turn in my direction as I slip into the room. The professor—he would be the skinny man holding a sheaf of hand-outs and speaking to the group—pauses mid-sentence to witness my arrival.

That’s when I hear the first snicker and see the first pair of eyebrows arch in amusement. From somewhere in the room comes a hissed whisper. “Princess Vindi!” It’s followed by a chuckle.

I don’t look around for the source of the laughter, because it’s better not to know which asshole is already poking fun at me. And anyway, I’m scanning for a seat.

It’s just my luck that this room features a giant conference table instead of rows of chairs. Feeling panicky, I realize there aren’t any more empty seats at the table. The rest of the heavy wooden armchairs are pushed back against the wall. I grab one and wrestle it toward the table. The quicker I can sit down, the quicker those eyes will go back to the professor. But the chair squeals in protest on the wood floor, and if I’m going to sit at the table, two students are going to have to scoot apart to accommodate me.

There is a terrible pause while I wait for someone to catch on and make a space.

Kill me already.

The professor sighs and pulls his own chair aside. The student next to him clues in and makes a bit more space. So now I’m dragging a beast of a chair past three other students to finally fit myself into the only available slot.

Eight years later I’m finally seated, and the table nearly reaches my chin. Did I mention that I’m quite vertically challenged? Tease me and die.

“Where were we?” the professor says. “Ah, yes. On your syllabus, please make a note of the due dates listed on page two. There is no web page for this course. I like to do things old-school.”

The reading list is lengthy, but I don’t mind. This is why I came to Harkness—to swim in the deep end of academia. To get out of Hollywood and to be a normal college student. I picked Harkness for its rigor, not for the benefit of my social life.

Good thing, because I don’t have a social life.

It’s not that I expected to find fangirls at a place like Harkness. Students here are too busy taking over the world to care about me. But I didn’t count on being mocked for my strange little career. On the first day I asked an upperclassman where to find the bookstore. His answer: “You just ride your broom over there, right?”

The howl of laughter he got for that little joke echoed through me for days.

It’s not something I’d say out loud, but it’s weird to find myself in a place where I’m utterly uncool. Take me a few miles from here, walk me down the hallways of the local middle school—it would be a mob scene. I’d be asked to sign so many autographs that the Sharpies I carry in my bag would run dry.

Here? I’m a pariah. I’m the girl who got into Harkness by being famous, instead of by slaving away on the math team or the debate squad in high school. I get it, I really do. I’m a poster child for privilege. Before he died, my father was Hollywood royalty. And my mother is a known diva and playgirl. The first time I rode a yacht to the Cannes film festival I was four.

Though I’ve been earning my own wad of cash on the big screen since I was seven, nobody cares. At Harkness, it’s all held against me—something I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t known that, by choosing such an elite college, I’d found the one place on earth where I was least likely to be respected. The epicenter of my own uncoolness.

Live and learn.

Good thing I didn’t come here to be popular. I came here to earn a degree so when I finally reach the limits of my patience with Hollywood’s bullshit, I won’t be too old to go to college.

“Now let’s begin by introducing ourselves,” the professor says. “Just give us your name, your year, and which of the plays you’re most excited to read this semester.”

Easy enough. I skim the syllabus to pick out my answer. There are a lot of plays by dead white men here, but I guess that’s to be expected.

The student beside the professor is Bill, a junior. And he tells us how excited he is to read Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht.

Ugh. Well I guess Bill and I will never be friends. I hate Brecht.

Weirdly, five out of the next eight students also pick that play. And then the skinny dude in the beret sitting next to me practically orgasms while telling us how much he loves Brecht. “His treatment of corruption is seminal,” Mr. Beret says. “The twentieth century would not have been the same without his character Arturo Ui. That play is transcendent.”

Really, dude?

Now it’s my turn, and I remember I promised myself I’d speak up more often this semester. “I’ll play devil’s advocate,” I offer when everyone’s eyes fall to me. “Brecht is clever, but he isn’t subtle. Sometimes I’d rather lose myself in a story and let the play make its points in a way that isn’t so brutal. So I’m looking forward to reading Wendy Wasserstein with all of you.”

There is a deep and terrible silence, which makes me feel panicky. Was that too pushy? Really?

Mr. Beret snorts audibly. “Brecht’s genius is not always accessible.”

The second after he says it, my neck begins to burn. I’m not used to having my intelligence insulted to my face. It takes a great deal of effort not to argue with him. I mean, I first saw Pacino perform Arturo Ui when I was six years old! I’ve probably seen more onstage genius than anyone in this room. Times ten!

Instead of defending myself, I just sit there grinding my teeth.

“You didn’t tell us your name or your class,” the nerdy professor says quietly.

And that’s when I want to sink into the floor and die, because he’s right. I was so busy speaking up I forgot to follow the instructions. Even worse, it’s such a Hollywood asshole thing to do—to assume everyone already knows your name. “Sorry,” I say quickly. “I’m Lianne and I’m a freshman.”

The death silence lingers a moment longer before the girl on my right speaks up. “I’m Hosanna, a sophomore, and I like that the syllabus has a mix of serious and less serious plays. I’m looking forward to reading the Neil Simon.”

Beret boy groans, and I’m grateful to my neighbor for thumbing her nose at what is clearly a room full of hardcore intellectual snobs.

The professor starts speaking again, inviting us to dive right into the first play on our list, which is Private Lives by Noël Coward. Nobody is staring at me anymore, but I still have that sweaty, uncomfortable feeling of having put myself too far out there. I just want to go back to my dorm room and play another round of DragonFire. Is that so wrong?

I write my name on the top of my syllabus, and then read the second page. There’s one big paper due in place of a midterm, and then a final exam. Fine. But class participation counts as thirty percent of our grade. Oh, joy.

But it’s what I read at the bottom of the page that really horrifies me. The Professor’s bio. Dr. Harlon Overstein has most recently published in American Arts and Letters and is the foremost American expert on the plays of Bertolt Brecht.

Well, slap my ass and call me Sally. I’ve just insulted our professor’s taste in twentieth-century theater and his entire career.

Kill me already.

 

Somehow I make it through the ninety-minute class without embarrassing myself again. When I finally emerge, blinking in the January sunlight, it’s past noon. Last semester I would have bought a take-out salad to eat alone in my room. But since I’ve promised to turn over more new leaves than a hurricane in the rain forest, I head over to the Beaumont dining hall instead.

This bit of bravery is rewarded when I spot my neighbor (and one of my only friends) Bella at a table just inside the door. She’s sitting with Bridger, one of her ridiculously attractive hockey player pals. “Hey munchkin,” Bella says. “How’s the first day back?”

I let the short joke slide, because Bella has never once asked me where I keep my magic wand, or asked me to cast a spell to clean up the bathroom we share. “Pretty painful. Can I sit?”

“Of course.”

I drop my bag over the back of the chair. And after I grab a cup of soup and a salad, I collapse into the seat. “I’ve had a stupid morning. You?”

“Fricking scary. Back-to-back science classes are going to kick my ass.” She tips her head to the side to acknowledge the redheaded guy sitting beside her. “But these are the classes that Bridger takes for fun.”

“I’m available for tutoring,” he says over the rim of his coffee cup. “But I don’t accept money. You have to pay in babysitting. An hour for an hour.” Bridger has custody of his ten-year-old sister.

“I see,” Bella says. “So you and Scarlet could go out alone some night?”

“Exactly.”

Bella winks. “Okay. It’s a deal. How is Lucy, anyway? I haven’t seen her in a while.”

Bridger sets down his mug. “She’s having a rough time. We just passed the one-year anniversary of mom’s death. So that kind of sucked. And then Lucy’s best friend moved away, so she’s down in the dumps.”

“Poor baby,” Bella sympathizes.

“We’ve had better months.”

Now I feel like a jerk, because I’ve just spent the last half hour fuming about berets and overzealous ass-kissers. But I don’t really have it so bad.

“I feel a night at Capri’s coming on,” Bella says. “Bridge, you could feed Lucy pizza for dinner tonight.”

“We might make it over there if she doesn’t have much homework,” he says.

“You’re coming too, Lianne.”

“Is that so?” My voice may not show it, but the idea of a night out with the hockey team gives me a little thrill.

“You know you want to.” Bella’s smile turns sly. “DJ will probably be there.”

I’ve been an actress all my life. So I don’t blush or go all shifty-eyed when Bella mentions DJ. But she isn’t wrong. Before Christmas break, I’d met him once at Capri’s Pizza when Bella and her hockey team friends dragged me there. That was a month ago. But ever since then I’d found myself scanning the campus walkways for the hottie I’d met that night beside the jukebox.

Do I want to see him again? Heck yes.

“Huh,” I say casually. “I am trying to get out more. But I’m not going to drink so much this time.”

“Good call,” Bella agrees. “I wasn’t going to mention it. But it is easier to get a guy’s phone number if you can still focus your eyes at the end of the night.”

I groan, because Bella is never going to let me live that night down. “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome. Be ready at seven.”

 

* * *

 

After lunch I have a History of Art lecture. But once that’s done, I’m free to go back to my room and obsess about seeing DJ again.

The weird thing about being me is that I never have to wonder, “Will he remember my name?” Everyone under the age of thirty knows my name. It’s not vain of me to say that—it’s just a fact. And not because I’m amazing. It’s because the Sentry Sorcerer films are so popular. The first one came out ten years ago when I was nine. The script that arrived this afternoon from Bob’s office is for the fifth one.

I haven’t opened it yet, because I’m afraid to read the spicy scene. Getting naked on a sound stage in front of forty crew members sounds terrifying. In the meantime, it would be awesome to have actual sex with a person who isn’t getting paid to touch me.

That sounds simple enough. But in my life, nothing ever is.

For tonight’s adventures at the pizza place, I do my face in a style I’ll call “Monday Casual.” Brown mascara, but no eyeliner at all. A whisper of gold eyeshadow. I want to look good, but I don’t want to appear too eager.

When Bella sticks her head in from the door to the little bathroom that connects our rooms, I’m just finishing my lips— a lip stain by Stila and my favorite drugstore brand gloss over it. The gloss tastes like cherries, but it’s been two years since I got close enough to a guy to share it with him.

Sad but true.

“Let’s go,” she says.

My stomach does a dip, and I grab my trusty baseball cap and follow her out the door.

 

It’s a Monday night, so Capri’s isn’t crowded. Bella sets us up at the hockey team’s favorite table. “You’re eating pizza with me,” she announces.

“Great. I’ll have a slice.”

Wow. Who are you and what have you done with Lianne?”

I flip her my middle finger on the way to picking up the beer she’s poured me.

Last semester I’d followed the rules set out for me by my asshole manager—no carbs or beer (because of carbs). But my New Year’s resolution is to stop listening to all the assholes in my life who want to control me. If I gain a couple of pounds, my career won’t end. Right?

I hope so, anyway.

Bella wanders off to order pizza. “Where’s Rafe tonight?” I ask when she reappears.

“He took a catering gig at the dean’s office. They pay time-and-a-half for wearing a shirt and tie. He might turn up later.”

The hockey team begins to arrive two or three guys at a time. “Hey, Bella!” they greet my friend, plunking their big bodies into chairs around our table. Trevi, the team captain, ends up beside me. He shrugs off his team jacket and gives me a friendly smile. Then he tosses his wallet on the table and announces that he’ll buy the next round.

“Hi, Lianne,” Bella’s friend Orsen greets me. (It’s a huge help to me that the team wears their names on their jackets. I never get anyone’s name wrong.) “Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” I say a little too brightly. I’m trying not to watch the door for DJ. Since I spent my Christmas vacation at Bella’s house in New York City, I’ve socked away quite a bit of intelligence about the hockey team. So I know DJ is Trevi’s younger brother. And I know DJ lives in an off-campus house with Orsen, the goalie.

But Trevi and Orsen are here already, and I’m starting to worry that DJ isn’t going to show.

More people trickle in, and I scan their faces hopefully. There’s Bridger and his cute little sister, who slides into a booth against the wall. And Bridger’s girlfriend Scarlet who plays goalie for the women’s team.

I’m oddly jittery, waiting for DJ to appear, which is crazy. The room is full of attractive guys, but none of them affect me the way DJ did that night in December. It was partly those dimples and the way his big, dark eyes crinkle in the corners when he grins. But it wasn’t just his looks. His smile makes me feel warm inside. While we talked, he looked at me the way a boy looks at a girl he’s trying to get to know—not like a fan or a dude who thinks I’m an amusing celeb sighting. And DJ knows a lot about music, which means that we had plenty to talk about. The night I met him, we nerded out about the rise of EDM during the last decade.

Distracted by this geeky memory, I accidentally knock over my beer in its plastic cup. “Damn it,” I swear, standing up so it won’t run off the table’s edge and onto my jeans. Smooth, Lianne. Real smooth.

Trevi moves fast, tossing a small wad of pizza napkins onto the spill. “Let me get some more,” he says.

“I’ll grab them,” I insist, darting away before he can do it.

When I return, there’s another girl sitting in my seat. She’s very attractive. I’d almost say stunning, except there’s something hard in the smile she gives me.

“Hi?” I toss the napkins onto what’s left of the spill and brace myself for a Princess Vindi joke.

The interloper smirks. “Can’t you, like, wave your wand to clean it up?”

Yep. There it is. A Princess Vindi dig, and she’s taken my spot.

“Amy, seriously?” Bella snaps from my elbow. “You’re in her seat.”

The girl puts a hand on Trevi’s arm. “I need to see my man. You don’t mind, right?” She grabs the dampening wad of napkins and chases the last of the liquid across the wooden surface.

From across the table, Orsen winks at me. Then he moves over one seat, making space on the other side of Bella.

So I move, because it’s the path of least resistance. Besides—Amy’s portion of the table will be sticky, and now that’s her problem. Though I still want to punch her. Sitting in my ex-chair, she’s angling her body toward Trevi, showing me her back.

I’ve noticed that some people at Harkness are determined to ignore me. Like they’ve decided I’ve had more than my share of attention, and it’s their job to even things out.

The hockey team has been mostly nice to me, though. Maybe it’s because these are the real celebrities of Harkness College. Their team made it to the Frozen Four last year, and with most of the team still intact, they’re expected to do well this year, too.

Trevi refills my beer and then pours one for his evil girlfriend. He’s missed Amy’s bitchy exchange because he’s busy arguing with another hockey player about the Winnipeg Jets.

I’m just about to ask, aren’t the Jets in New York? But then I remember those Jets are a football team and save myself the embarrassment. My sports ignorance knows no bounds. I’m bored by their conversation, but I wish I weren’t. It’s nobody’s fault I grew up among people who bet on the outcome of the Tony Awards instead of the Stanley Cup.

I want to fit in—it’s just that I don’t speak the language.

Even as I’m rounding out this depressing thought, another male body appears in the doorway.

I don’t have to turn my head to be sure it’s DJ. I’ve been waiting so long to see him again that I just know. He’s there in the periphery, hands stuck in his jacket pockets, leaning against the door frame talking to one of the players. The muscular breadth of his shoulders is exactly how I remember it. His confident stance draws me in.

All at once, my pulse quickens and I feel a little dizzy. As if I’d walked out onto the edge of a diving board, and felt it wobble beneath my feet. Am I going to talk to him again tonight? Could it possibly be as much fun as last time? And what will I find to say?

The sad truth is that I’m better when I’m holding a script.

For several minutes I sit still, as if enthralled by the complexities of the Jets-who-don’t-play-football. DJ stays where he is, and so do I. There aren’t any seats open near me, though. So if I want to talk to him, I’m going to have to make my own luck.

Rising, I dig a couple of quarters out of my pocket. I don’t head over to DJ, because I’m not that brave. Instead I make a beeline for the jukebox in the corner. I put in my quarters and then I check out the selection. The last time someone updated this puppy looks to be during the 1990s. And it’s a problem, because I need to play something that reflects the girl I wish I was—easygoing, casual, a little bit hip.

Hard to do that when I’m staring down at choices like Madonna’s “Vogue” (a perfectly good song, but not exactly cutting edge) or “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Then my heart kicks into a higher gear, because I feel him approaching. I’m desperate to turn and look, but I make myself pick a song instead. I’m proud to say I don’t spare him a glance until I’ve tapped in the code for the track of my choice.

Only then do I stand tall and turn to him. And, whoa—my memory hasn’t even done him justice. I’d remembered the thick brown hair and the dimple that’s darkened by his five o’clock shadow. But his eyelashes are darker and more devastating than I remember, and was his mouth always so full and sinful-looking?

And now I’m staring, damn it!

“Hey there,” he says, parking one hip against the scarred wooden paneling. “Remember me?”

“DJ, right?” It comes out as a croak. Because I’m cool like that.

God help me—his smile is slow and sexy. “That’s right. I’m surprised you remember, though.”

I clear my throat and try again. “Are you saying that because we only met once? Or because I got senior-prom drunk that night?” I never went to a prom, but I heard another actress say that once and it sounded cute.

He rewards me with an even bigger smile. “You said it, not me.” His eyes drop to the jukebox. “Pick out something good?”

“It wasn’t easy.”

“Right? I love this old thing, though.” He rubs the gleaming surface of the jukebox, and I am suddenly fixated on his wide, masculine hand. I wish I could pick it up and compare the size of it with mine. I want to know if his skin is rough or smooth…

That’s when I notice the abomination coming from the jukebox. An electro-beat that I’d never choose, and some ridiculously high male voices…

“Interesting pick,” DJ says, and the corners of his mouth are twitching.

“Hell!” I bend over the box, peering at the song codes again. “How is this possible? I was trying to play MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t Touch This.’”

DJ chuckles. “And instead you got…”

The chorus from the long-forgotten Color Me Badd kicks in, singing “I Wanna Sex You Up.”

Nooooo! Either my subconscious has betrayed me or the machine is miscoded. It’s probably fruitless, but I have to at least try to distance myself from this error. “You should know that I would never willingly play a song by somebody who can’t spell ‘bad.’”

“Really?” He grins. “Yet you went for some Hammertime. And that dude spells ‘mother’ with a ‘u’ and an ‘a.’”

Argh. If my daggers from the DragonFire game were real, I might turn one on myself. “DJ, your grasp of nineties hits is…”

“Impressive?” His smile is cocky, and I have to restrain myself from reaching up to measure it with my fingertips.

“I was going to say thorough, if useless.”

He puts one of those strapping hands on his chest. “Woman, bite your tongue. I get paid cash money for knowing my nineties hits. It’s the best job ever.”

“Oh. The hockey rink gig, right? That’s why they call you DJ.” It’s coming back to me now. For the hundredth time I curse myself for getting sloshed the night I met DJ. But I’d been so immediately attracted to him that it made me nervous. Kind of like I was feeling now.

He smiles again, and I’m staring. Who knew I was a sucker for dimples? “That’s right,” he says, and I try to remember what we were talking about. “There are some nineties hits that would never see airtime if it weren’t for hockey games.”

“Really? Name one.”

“‘Ice Ice Baby,’ by—”

“Vanilla Ice,” I finish. “Yeah, okay. I can see that.”

“‘Cold as Ice,’ by Foreigner,” he adds.

“That’s not a nineties tune,” I argue. “It’s 1977.”

DJ tips his head back and laughs. “Your knowledge of seventies hits is—”

“Impressive.” I finish. “‘Cold as Ice’ was B-sided originally before it was released as its own single.”

His eyes widen. “Marry me,” he says after a beat.

I giggle like a schoolgirl. (Footnote: I was never a schoolgirl. But if Hollywood scripts are to be believed, they giggle plenty.)

“Are you, like, a Foreigner fan girl?” he asks. “Or do you have encyclopedic knowledge of all seventies music?”

With a shrug, I just shake my head. The truth is that my father was friends with Lou Gramm. In fact—one of the reasons I know so much about music is that my father loved to talk about it. He’s gone now. But when I listen to my iPod, I feel closer to him.

I don’t mention any of this to DJ for two reasons. It’s name dropping, which I loathe. But also—so many Harkness students assume I’m stupid. I don’t mind at all if DJ thinks I’m smart. It’s a nice change.

“What other songs are kept alive by hockey?”

He starts talking again, and I do my best to listen. But I’m distracted by the way his full lips move when he talks and by the five o’clock shadow roughening his jaw. He’s wearing a flannel shirt that looks soft to the touch. And there’s a V of skin exposed at his chest that teases me. I get just a glimpse of a dusting of dark hair against olive skin.

I have to work hard not to stare, wondering what he’d look like without that shirt on.

So this is what people mean by attraction. He is the magnet, and I feel the pull. It tingles in my belly. It resonates in my chest whenever he laughs. Hopefully I’m nodding and agreeing at all the right junctures in this conversation. Because whenever he smiles I experience a loss of executive function. Last time beer was the culprit. Tonight it’s just him.

The loudspeaker crackles to life. “Pie thirty-seven! Thirty-eight! Forty!”

DJ cocks a thumb over his shoulder. “I gotta get that. Be right back.”

When he walks away, I return my attention to the jukebox. My heart is pounding and my palms are sweaty. Talking to him is exhilarating and terrifying.

If there’s another nineteen-year-old in the world with less game than I have, I pity her.

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