The Hook Up
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In truth, I don’t understand how the world works the way it does. Grandpa Joe used to tell me that meanness never pays off. But I’m pretty sure whoever made up that saying never went to high school.
Standing next to Drew, I grit my teeth and fight the urge to run away. Or smash my fist into Whitney’s pug nose. Maybe he’s aware of my annoyance, because he touches the small of my back. I feel it like a brand of heat along my spine. “If you’ll excuse us,” he says to Whitney. “We have somewhere to be.”
Her smile falls flat. She catches my eyes, and a calculating look twists her face. “I know you.” Her head tilts as she peers at me. “I think.”
Oh, very nice. “You do. We went to high school together.” And junior high, and grade school, but whatever.
“Oh. Ann, right?” She laughs a little, like she’s embarrassed by her gaffe, but she isn’t fooling me. And she’s looking up at Drew, not me. “Some people aren’t as memorable as others.”
I tense, ready to lay into her. But Drew halts my response by laying an arm over my shoulder. The hold is proprietary and clearly marks us as a unit.
“Well, I don’t think I’ll forget you now,” he tells her, his tone not at all nice.
Not that Whitney notices his sarcasm. No, she beams.
And though I know Drew means well, I hate that he has to witness this. That he has to defend me. The way people react to us are as polar as true north and south.
Heart hurting, I stand rigid in his embrace and stare down Whitney. “Considering you’ve called me Anna Banana-pants since the third grade,” I add coolly, “you’re either extremely dense or a liar.”
Her mouth falls open as a flush works over her face. She hadn’t expected honesty.
Drew gives my shoulder a light squeeze as he looks at me. “Weren’t we going somewhere?”
He guides me around Whitney, neither of us saying goodbye to her. A muttered “bitch” follows us as we walk away, and Drew leans close, his breath buffeting my ear. “Kind of the pot calling the kettle, eh?”
A reluctant smile pulls at my lips, even as I step away from his hold. “You’d never convince her of that.”
“I’m sorry she was rude to you.” He frowns, concern darkening his eyes. I hate that.
I shrug. “Likely, she was flustered by your grand presence.”
His scowl grows. “Making excuses for her, Jones? She doesn’t deserve it.”
No, she doesn’t, but the alternative of telling him that she and everyone else I’ve known for most of my life behaved that way on a constant basis is unthinkable.
“Whitney was a cheerleader at my high school. She’s nuts for all things football.” I have no doubt she would have had her claws in Drew had he gone to our school.
Drew gives me a look, as if he knows all too well what I am thinking. I also kind of hate that he reads me so easily.
“I take it you don’t like cheerleaders?” he asks.
We sidestep a group of girls, all of whom eye Drew. Quiet giggles rise up as we walk by.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “Last year, in my study group, there was a girl who is on the squad here. Laney. She was nice. Worked her ass off to succeed at her sport, and I admired her for it.”
“I know Laney.” By the happy look in his eyes, I wonder just how well, but before I can voice that uncharitable thought, he adds, “She goes out with my friend Marshall.”
Drew opens the door to the stairwell for me.
“Then there are cheerleaders like Whitney,” I go on, “who seem to have studied the handbook for stereotypical bitches everywhere.” I shrug, pulling free a thick lock of hair that’s caught beneath my bag strap. “Why they feel the need to act accordingly, I’ll never know.”
Drew’s eyes, bleary as they are, crinkle at the corners with tired humor. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to play a part.” He pauses, his hand on the banister. “Or maybe not. Nonconformist that you are.”
Praise never sits well with me. Especially not Drew’s. I make a face and force my voice to be light. “Bah. Nonconformity is a role too.”
“Maybe, but…” Drew flashes a quick smile, genuine but tight with pain, “‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.’”
“Throwing Emerson at me?” I shake my head as we make our way up the stairs. “Now you’re just showing off.”
“What can I say? My mom was an English lit professor. Emerson was her favorite. Other kids got Goodnight Moon before bed. I got that and an Emerson quote.”
“Leave it to you to pick the chauvinistic one out of the bunch.”
“What?” His brows rise in outrage. “There’s nothing chauvinistic about that quote.”
I repress a grin. He’s too easy. And if teasing distracts him from his pain, more the better. “Right. Whatever. ‘Whoso would be a man’.” I make quote gestures with my fingers for emphasis. “Why not ‘human’?”
Unfortunately, Drew is too quick. His growing scowl suddenly breaks into a knowing smile. “’Man’ is generic, and you know it.”
“It is also sexist,” I retort, having way too much fun.
“I highly doubt they viewed it as such in 1841, Jones.”
I’m about to rib him further but then I take a good look at Drew. He’s getting paler, a light sweat breaking out on his high forehead. A pang centers in my chest.
“Come on.” I take him by the elbow and guide him down the hall. “Let’s get you settled, before you fall on your face.”
Upstairs we head for the campus radio station booth. It’s a large glassed in area, manned by Floyd Hopkins most afternoons. He’s there now, taking a break by the looks of the sandwich and soda he has on the desk outside the inner DJ booth.
He sees me coming and breaks into a smile. Tall, thin, with a bushy dark blond halo of curls and a scraggly goatee, he’s a modern day Shaggy. But there’s no denying his charisma. There’s always been something charming about the way he carries himself. A lazy confidence.
Floyd was the guy who introduced me to weed sophomore year. We got high and had sex. It was that eventful. But we remained friends. Well, ‘friends’ was kind of stretching it. More like acquaintances with carnal knowledge. Not that this stops him from hugging me for a bit too long. Or maybe he does so because of Drew standing next to me; Floyd’s eyes stay on him for too long as well.
“Anna Jones, how you doing?”
I break free of Floyd. This was a bad idea. One of many. “Fine.”
“Yeah…” Floyd looks between Drew and me as if waiting for an explanation. Drew appears ready to flee.
“Look,” I say, “can I use your back room…” Horror has my voice fleeing. Floyd’s instant creepy grin and Drew’s raised brows hit me like a brick. Holy shit. I really am a dumbass, because it never occurred to me how my request would sound.
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” I snap, flushed and wanting to die.
Thankfully Floyd laughs. “I’m just messing with you, Anna. I know you’d be the last girl to ask to borrow my couch for sex.” He glances at Drew. “Even with Battle Baylor here. She’s too discreet, you know?”
Drew merely looks at him, and Floyd kind of deflates like a day-old balloon. As for me, I want to hit something. Floyd runs a finger along his hairy chin. “It’s cool. Go on and take your seven minutes.”
“We really need more like an hour…” Again my voice dies on a gurgle.
Floyd’s grin erupts full force. At my side, Drew makes a smothered sound like he’s choking.
“God, just…” I tug Drew past Floyd and storm into the lounge, shutting the door on Floyd’s amusement.
Not on Drew’s. He bursts out laughing, even as he clutches his head. “Ow, shit.” He laughs again. “God, you should have seen your face.”
“Funny.” I turn on the lava lamp. Yes, the room boasts one, which I found cheesy the time I visited, but it serves a purpose now.
“I mean, that was not very subtle, Jones.” His eyes are both bleary and twinkling. Bastard even looks good in pain.
“You’re going to be sorry you teased me.” I turn off the overhead light and plunge us into a darkened world of dreamy blue moving shadows. “And if you make a crack about sex one more time…”
“You’ll get very angry?” Drew asks as he plops down onto the couch. A sigh leaves him as he leans his head against the padded back. He’s hurting but he seems pleased. “Thank you for finding me a place to lie down,” he says. “I needed this.”
Carefully, I sit next to him. “I’m just happy he didn’t notice the oil.”
Drew bursts out laughing again, but it ends with a groan. “Anna.”
The underlying emotion in the way he says my name robs me of my voice. My grip is unsteady as I uncap the oil and rub a bit between my palms. “Give me your hand.”
Drew’s brows rise but he complies. Usually, his hands are warm, but his skin is now cold and clammy.
“Most people think a neck rub is the best thing for a headache,” I say, holding his hand between mine for a moment to warm it. “But we carry an enormous amount of tension in our hands. They have pressure points that link directly to headache pain.”
His big hand is almost too much to manage. I concentrate at first on his wide palm, kneading my knuckles down the center of it. And Drew groans, letting his head fall to the side. His long fingers loosely curl, engulfing my smaller hand.
“My mom used to do this for me when I had migraines,” I say. “Aside from a shot, targeting pressure points is the fastest way to alleviate the pain.”
“You are a goddess,” he says on another groan. “A hand rubbing goddess.”
His forearm is carved oak beneath my fingers, his skin smooth and rapidly warming. “Only to you, babe.”
We’re quiet then.
“So, Floyd?” he says out of the blue.
My hands still for a second. “I’m supposed to answer that?”
He tilts his head, eyeing me. “Old boyfriend?”
I tug gently on one of his long fingers, squeezing at the end. “Not really.”
“You just leave a string of hook ups in your wake?”
Though it’s dark in here, he clearly sees too well. I stop and look him in the eye. “Like you can talk.”
His fingers thread through mine a second before I can pull away, and he holds firm. “I’m jealous.” The light of the lava lamp casts his face in undulating blue. Lines deepen around his eyes, but he doesn’t look away. “Okay? I…” His lashes lower. “I don’t like seeing you with a guy who knows you that way.”
“Do you know how many girls I’ve seen hanging on you?” My heart is pounding far too hard. “How many ass slaps you’ve given outside our class?”
He frowns. “I’m a jock. We slap asses by way of affection. And just because I’m friendly to those girls doesn’t mean I’m ha**ng s*x with them, you know.”
I make an unflattering sound of disbelief, and he gives my hand a small tug. “Fine, don’t believe me. The question is, did it bother you to see that?”
Trapped. By my own big mouth. I fiddle with the tip of his thumb, running the pad of my finger along his trimmed nail. “I wouldn’t like it now.”
He doesn’t say anything. Not for a long, excruciating minute. But I feel his gaze like a heated blanket. Then his thumb runs over my knuckles. “Well then,” he says gruff and stilted, “you can sympathize.”
A pang much like guilt shoots through me. “He was just a hook up.”
Drew waits a beat before answering in softly, “So am I.” The accusatory note is not missed.
And I swallow hard. “Yeah, but you’re the hook up that doesn’t seem to end.”
He snorts, but his grip tightens for a second. I ease it by pinching the fat pad between his thumb and forefinger where a world of tension hides. He grunts and slides further down on the couch, closing his eyes. “That’s good.”
“I know. Your hands are too tight.”
“Funny,” Drew murmurs, “that’s what Coach Johnson, my offensive coordinator, says. He’s always after me to stretch them more.”
The lines of his face are still tired and pinched, but there’s a smile hovering around his mouth. I set his hand gently down on his thigh and take his other one.
“You really love it, don’t you?” I ask.
His hand in mine jerks a little before he opens his eyes. “Football? Of course. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.”
“I don’t know,” I shrug, “some people would. To please their parents, to fit in, for the attention. There’s plenty of reasons.”
“Yeah, well they aren’t going to get very far if they don’t love it. The pressure will topple you otherwise.”
“Does it get to you,” I ask softly. “The pressure?”
He goes so silent that I know he doesn’t want to answer. Though his reticence shouldn’t hurt me, it does.