Authors: H.M. Ward
on the sidewalk, alone, when Josh passes by. I watch him, but don’t move. We don’t walk toward each other or wave. There’s no laughter on his face today and all the mirth has been sucked from my soul at the moment. My arms are wrapped around my middle and I’m feeling small, wishing I didn’t have such shitty relationships. Every single friendship is tainted with something bad, something I can’t quite navigate.
Josh stops and stands there. It’s like he wants to come over, but won’t be the first one to step forward. I sigh, drop my arms, and walk toward him. When I’m close enough, he asks, “Are you all right?”
Nodding, I answer, “Yeah, I’m fine. I take it you saw that whole mess?”
“Unfortunately. I’m sorry, Kerry.”
“Yeah, well, don’t be. He’s not worth it. You were right all along.”
Josh hesitates and then asks, “Did you do what I asked? Do you know about me, about what I did?” His lips thin as he presses them tightly and stuffs his hands in his pockets. His gaze shifts so that it’s clear he doesn’t want to look me in the eye at the moment.
“I don’t believe it. There had to be a reason, or a misunderstanding, right?” My voice raises an octave and comes out like a whisper. “I just can’t believe you raped a girl.”
Josh’s face twists into disgust. “Are you serious? Even after reading all that, you think there’s no way I did it? Kerry, I did it—”
Shaking my head, I step back. “It’s not possible. You’re too—“
“You’re not listening. There was no mistake, no misunderstanding. There was nothing to misunderstand.” His green eyes bore into me as his lips curl in disgust. “How could you even think?” He pauses and then a moment later, adds, “You didn’t read the report. Someone told you and you didn’t bother reading anything about it.”
“No, I didn’t read anything. There’s no way that you did something like that. You’re not that kind of guy.” Before I can finish my thoughts, Josh pulls out his phone, navigates to an article and hands it to me.
“This is the truth and it’s something you need to know if you care about me in any way, shape, or form. Read it.”
My heart rises up into my throat and thumps there for a moment. I can’t swallow it back down, and I don’t want to see what he’s showing me. I take his phone and look down at a police report. An intoxicated Joshua Gallub sexually assaulted a co-ed at a party on Halloween his freshman year. There are pictures, a torn Cleopatra costume, bruises on her thighs and wrists. My lower lip trembles as I read in graphic detail the events of that night and what he did to that woman.
When I finish, I’m shaking, unable to hide it. Tears sting my eyes, but don’t fall. There’s only one word in my mind, one relentless question that won’t be still. “Why?”
His eyes avoid mine as he turns from me, and stares at a point on the horizon. “There was no reason. I did it. I wanted her, and when she said no, I didn’t stop. I lost everything important to me that night, but she lost so much more. I was horrified the next day when I realized what I did. I went to find her, to apologize, but there’s no way to make amends for something like that. Kerry, I killed part of her. She’ll never be the same because of me. No matter what I do, I can’t fix that.”
“She reported it to the campus police that night and they blew her off.”
“They didn’t believe her. She was dancing with me that night, and a lot of people saw us making out. They blamed her, said she must have sent mixed signals to a drunk guy and that she needed to get her story straight before she comes in crying wolf.”
“Oh my god. What happened? How did the police hear about this, then?”
He looks up at me. “I told them.”
“What?” I stare at his face, dually shocked. “You reported it?”
“There’s no way to fix it, but I didn’t want her thinking that it was her fault. It wasn’t. I reported it. There was no trial, no questioning. I put her through enough. I had my lawyer ask her what she wanted, how I should pay for what I did. She asked for leniency in exchange for a promise. I had to give my word that I would tell every woman who I had any interest in about that night. I agreed and kept my promise.”
No wonder why he’s a pariah. It’s something no one talks about, but Josh is isolated most of the time. “Was this Carter’s girlfriend?”
“Yes.” He says the word looking directly into my eyes. “People say I stole her, that we dated for a while. We didn’t. That’s just a nicer story to hear. Carter never forgave me, and I can’t blame him.”
“And the gay jibes at Carter? He said you started that.”
“I didn’t start it, but I didn’t stop it either. I may have added to it and made sure it stuck.” He sighs deeply. “Kerry, I fucked up. I ruined someone. I broke her.” Remorse fills his features and he continues, “I like you a lot, but I don’t trust myself anymore and you shouldn’t trust me either.”
I nod, finally understanding the pain in his eyes. Grief never released him and there’s no penance that can make up for what he did. I don’t know if I’m disgusted, disappointed, or just drained, but I want to cry. Josh wasn’t supposed to be the bad guy. I hand him back his phone and stare into space, not knowing what to say.
“You don’t have to pretend with me, Kerry. I was a bad person. Now, I don’t know what I am, but I don’t deserve your compassion.”
“Did you go to jail?”
“I can’t talk about it beyond what I’ve said. It was part of the agreement.”
I blink at him. “You don’t trust yourself anymore, with anything, do you?”
I want to punch him and hug him. I want to scream and weep. How could he do something so despicable? “I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s nothing to say.” We stand there for a moment in an uncomfortable silence. Josh turns away and leaves without another word.
of the week crawls by at slug speed. College was supposed to be this glorious chance to start over, to be the woman I always wanted to become. The problems that flared up around me like little evil infernos prevent me from seeing that far ahead. I’ve been in survival mode the entire time I’ve been here, patching things up with tape instead of actually repairing anything the right way. That would have taken too much time, and that’s a luxury that I don’t possess. My life is covered in Band-Aids at the moment and there’s no reprieve in sight. At least I have Beth. She’s been a true friend when everyone else disappointed.
Beth strides next to me as we walk across campus. The sky is inky and littered with stars. It’s late Saturday night and we’re both wearing ankle length full skirts with floral prints. Beth gave me mine as a present and I’m surprised how much I like it. I figured I’d trip over the hem, but so far there’s no problem. Coupled with a t-shirt and flip-flops, I feel cool, confident, and pretty, which is a nice combination.
I’ve wanted to talk to Beth about my meeting with Ferro tomorrow and get her caught up on Carter. I have no idea how to talk to her about Josh, so I don’t. I have to finish a painting I’ve been working on all semester and we were given access to the building on weekends in order to complete the assignment. I pull out my ID card, swipe it through the card reader, yank open the glass door, letting Beth pass through.
She glances over her shoulder, speaking as she walks. “I can’t imagine what he wants to ask you to do. The guy thinks you’re a criminal.”
I step in behind her and make sure the door closes and latches shut behind me. I don’t like being in the dark halls by myself at night. The building creaks and makes freaky sounds. “Not anymore. If he didn’t look me up as soon as I left, I’d die of shock.”
As we make our way up the staircase and down the darkened halls, there is amber light spilling beneath Nate’s office door as we pass by. Is he still here? I glance at my Fitbit to check the time, still wearing it because I’m worried about Carter ratting me out. It’s after ten. Why is Nate still here? I haven’t seen him outside of class after the night we were together. Since then he’s acted distant, detached. It irks me if I think about it too long, so I don’t think about it at all.
“Hottie is here, huh?” Beth tips her head toward the door as we walk by, her long skirt billowing around her ankles.
“Maybe he’s waiting for a booty call.” She smirks. When she sees the look on my face her smile falls. “What’s wrong?”
After we’re in the classroom, I flick the lights on and close the door. When I’m sure no one else is there, I confide in her, finally telling her what happened with Carter. “He’s tracking me with this. I can’t take it off or he’ll tell the dean and then I’m toast. Everything I worked for, all the respect I earned will be gone. If anything, Nate has been grading me harder to compensate for things. That’s the only class where I didn’t pull straight A’s. Beth, I don’t know what to do.”
Beth’s small face pinches together as she listens. “What an asshole.”
“Carter isn’t who I thought he was.”
“I’m sorry. I know how much that has to sting right now.”
“It does, but I don’t want him to lose it and say something. I’m the one who pissed him off, and I don’t want to take Nate down with me.”
“So there’s only one thing to do. Stop seeing Nate.”
I pull out my canvas as we are talking and put it on the easel. Then I grab my pallet, brushes, and paint and start mixing my colors. As I blend the right hues, I say, “I have, but there’s no promise Carter won’t say anything. He was really mad. He thinks I cheated.”
“Cheated with what?” Beth sits on the floor and leans back against a cabinet.
“I’m in upper level classes. It’s unusual.”
“Uhm, did he look at your work? It’s not like you’re drawing stick men, Kerry. You’re good at this.” She gestures to my painting. “I really like that. It’s different.”
“Thanks.” I step back, and examine my work before taking a brush to it again. It’s a dark piece made of swirling lines. A young girl wears a white shift. Her back is to us, and she’s standing in a garden facing an open gate that leads into darkness. I didn’t plan this piece. It just happened. I wonder how much of this reflects my life and cringe at making my thoughts so visible.
“What else do you need to do to it? It looks finished to me.”
I stand there, staring at it. “I wish I knew, but it’s not done. There’s something missing.”
The highlights and shadows are well distributed. The focal point is clear. The flow of the piece allows the eye to enter, rest on the focal point, and move through the work easily. It’s not an issue with the composition or the color, but something about it is lacking.
As I stand there and think, I tweak some highlights and shadows, but it doesn’t finish the piece. Beth and I talk for over an hour and eventually she pushes up off the floor. “I need to head back. Josh will have a fit if I’m not at the house tonight and I still need to crank out a paper before morning.”
I have no idea how she does it. Beth is the world’s worst procrastinator. She waits until the last possible second to write her papers, but manages to hand them in on time and keeps good grades.
“How is he?” I ask carefully.
Beth notices, walks over, and steps up next to me. “He’s been out of sorts for the past few days.”
“He told me about something.” I stand there, gaping at the paint, horrified that I said those words. I wasn’t going to tell her. I’m sure she knows everything about Josh.
Beth’s eyes are on the side of my face. “He told you.” It’s a statement, murmured quietly, unbelievingly. “Seriously? You couldn’t stay away from him?” Her face crumples and she shakes her head, backing away from me, scolding, “You’re nailing Nate and that’s not enough, you have to get with Josh, too?” Disgusted, Beth rushes away from me, throws open the classroom door, and takes off down the hall.
What just happened? Why did she behave like that? “Hey, wait a second!” I drop my brushes and rush after her, not catching up until we’re in the dark hallway. I grab her elbow and whirl her around. “I didn’t do anything. Beth, he just told me.”
Her eyes are glassy. “Right, because he likes you. And the one thing I asked was that you guys didn’t get together, because when it falls apart—”
“We’re not together. Beth, it’s not like that.”
“Did you kiss him?” She presses, pointblank. “Well?” When I don’t answer, her eyes cut to the side and she lets out a rush of air. “I’ve done this before and I’m not doing it again.” She turns on her Chinese slippered heel and stomps off down the hall, pissed.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to end up like this.” I call after her, apologizing, but she doesn’t answer, and doesn’t stop.
There were several reasons why I shouldn’t have kissed Josh, but this is the main one—Beth. She said no, and I didn’t listen.
into the classroom and start cleaning up. I screw the tops back on my paint tubes and head over to the sink to clean my brushes. As I stand there, rubbing my thumb over the fine hairs and watching a ribbon of colors run down the drain, I stare. The water softens the colors, blends them from one muted hue to another, tangling the colors, but keeping them separate. I lift my gaze across the room to my painting, and then back down to the brush. It’s that soft harmony that catches my attention and makes me wonder. I want to capture the opposite. I want movement and anguish. I suddenly see what I need to do, but I’m not sure if I have the guts to do it. If I’m wrong it will mess up the whole painting and I won’t be able to fix it.
I twist off the faucet and take the clean brush over to my canvas. The paint is piled on thickly, creating texture and depth. If I turn my brush around and scrape into the wet paint it could be everything I wanted. I can’t hesitate. I have to do it with confidence or it’ll show. There can’t be wiggly lines here. They need to be curved, drawn fast and hard.
Sucking in air, I stay my hand, bite my lip, and slash at the canvas with the wrong end of the paintbrush. I do it again and again, marking the work over and over, leaving no section untouched. The smooth surface is marred by gouges that cut all the way down to the canvas, leaving a pale streak of color in its wake across the fine weave of the fabric.
I have no idea how much time has passed. I’ve been slashing at it, filling the sky with swirls and her dress with little gashes, and flaying her hair until the entire canvas is covered in gouges.
I don’t hear him enter the room. The sound of the door opening never caught my attention. I’m so wrapped up in what I’m doing that I don’t notice Nate until he’s standing next to me. A dusting of dark stubble lines his jaw. His Oxford shirt is unbuttoned at the neck, cuffs rolled up, and pushed back over the thick muscles of his forearms. The hem of his shirt is untucked and he shucked his tie hours ago. He folds his arms over his chest and spreads his jean-clad ankles a shoulder width apart, surveying my painting with me.
For a while he says nothing, and then nods slowly like he appreciates what he sees. “This was brave. Did it have the desired effect?”
I’m still staring at the painting with my arms at my sides. “I think so.”
“Movement, anarchy, fear, wanting, and so much more is conveyed in this piece now. It wasn’t there before.”
I agree with him. “No, it wasn’t.”
Nate’s eyes are glued to the canvas, slipping over it, drinking it in. “It’s as if you added air to this piece. There’s breath and life in the girl, wind in the sky which gusts against the grass and foliage. At the same time the pattern makes it feel like there’s never enough oxygen. I can’t tell which way she’s going to run, but it’s clear she has to run.”
I turn and look at him. There are dark circles under his eyes like he hasn’t slept for days. “What’s wrong?”
Nate finally looks down at me, unfolds his arms, and then runs a hand through his hair. His beautiful face is weary, and the corners of his eyes are pinched with worry. “Nothing, just a long few days.” He inhales deeply and lets out a tired sigh.
My hair is in a ponytail with extra paintbrushes sticking out from the back of my head like a spiky crown. “Yeah, it’s been a long week.”
I feel his eyes on me, sliding down my face to my neck, and then dipping further before coming back up. He steps closer to me and breathes in my ear, “Do you want to talk?”
“No,” I say flatly. He hasn’t been around and everything is falling apart. I’m falling apart. I want to cry on his shoulder and tell him what’s wrong, but that’s off limits. There’s no relationship here, nothing like that can transpire between us. And with Carter’s threat looming, I should walk away. This conversation should stop right now.
Nate steps closer and his lips brush my cheek when he speaks, making my skin tingle. “Can I help you with anything?”
My eyes close as the pretend kiss sweeps over my skin. I want to fall into him and melt. I want to forget about everything else and just be his for a while. But I can’t do that either. Carter will know. I stare at the stupid device on my wrist and wish I could take it off.
“No.” I force out the word.
Nate remains where he is, too close, his breath tickling my neck in a delicious way that makes my insides warm and uncurl. “Let me rephrase, can I help you forget something, Miss Hill?”
The way he says my name, the sexy deepness of his voice is hypnotic. He doesn’t touch me, but he’s close enough that my entire body is on edge at his closeness. I feel him there, inches away, and want more. I want his hands on my skin and his lips on my body. I want to get lost in his kisses and be devoured the way he did last time. I want to scream out as I find my release and dig my nails into his skin, marking him, making him mine.
But he’s not mine.
And this can’t be.
I force myself to step away. The seduction spell falters, but doesn’t dissipate entirely. It never does when Nate’s in the room. I head to the sink and turn on the water. “Not tonight, but thanks for the offer.”
Nate remains by my painting across the room. He watches me at the sink, and notices how I avoid his gaze. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, everything is fine.”
I don’t want him to know about Carter, about the threats. I can handle it and if we stay apart, it won’t matter. The whole mess is over if I can keep my hands to myself.
“Nate, I’m fine.” I smile at him and pass by, playfully bumping my shoulder to his as I pass. “It’s just late and I have to be up early tomorrow.”
Nate folds his arms across his chest and eyes me as I finish cleaning up my paints. “You seem upset.”
“I’m not.” I flash a super big fake smile his way. “See? I’m good.”
He walks up behind me and places his hand over mine. “I know you’re not fine. You were rattled last time we talked, and now it seems worse. If you need help, you can ask me. For anything, Kerry—not just sex.”
The words are exactly what I want to hear, but I can’t accept them. I twist around and I’m between my easel and Nate, with little room to do anything. Wet paint is behind me and a very hot man is in front of me, saying magical words that make my insides melt. “Thank you.”
I plan to say the words and push him away, and put some space between us, but I can’t move. The way he watches me with such devotion and desire pins me in place. My pulse pounds faster and my skin prickles. My stomach swishes and flutters as the butterflies explode within me.
Nate doesn’t touch me, but as he steps closer, dropping his arms from the tight fold across his chest, our noses brush together. I suck in a ragged breath and freeze in place. Kissing him here would be incredibly stupid. We’re in a classroom. A student could walk in and see us. We’d both be screwed.
I finally confess, “Carter knows.”
Nate blinks rapidly and pulls away the tiniest amount. “About us?”
“Yes, and he threatened to tell the dean. I don’t want you to lose your job.” I don’t want to be labeled a whore either. I don’t want to have other people dictate what we do. I don’t want to hurt you. My eyes must say the rest of my thoughts because Nate seems to know.
Instead of pulling away, he leans in closer, presses his forehead to mine. “Neither do I.”
“Then why are you still standing here?” A smile tugs at my lips. “You’re too close.”
“Because I want to kiss you.” His voice is deep and rough. His dark lashes lower around those cool blue eyes as he speaks. “I’ve been thinking about you, about feeling your body against mine, slick with sweat. I want to make you cry out. I want to feel you tremble in my hands. I want to make you feel so good you can’t stop smiling.”
He watches me through lowered lashes, lingering. “Use me, Kerry. Take out all your worry and anguish on me. I want you.”
He watches my lips for a moment and then sweeps a kiss across them, gentle and teasing. My body tenses and I know I should push him away, but I don’t want to. His hands are on my face, as he pulls my lips to his and the kiss deepens. His tongue is in my mouth and I don’t want to stop. I feel his hard length pressing against my hip and visions of our naked tangled bodies flash behind my eyes.
Passion overtakes us and the kiss becomes frantic and heated. His hands are in my hair, tugging at the ponytail as he crushes his body against mine. The paintbrushes that are stuck in my hair fall to the floor. I nearly fall back into the painting, so Nate spins us around to the far wall and sets me down on the windowsill. He lunges to the side and swipes at the lights, dousing us with darkness.
I’m giddy when I realize what he wants to do. “We can’t do that here.”
Nate pushes my thighs apart and the fabric of my skirt offers plenty of room. He steps in between my legs so his hips are directly in front of mine. “We can do anything you want.”
An image of the two of us, naked, and covered in paint while rolling across a canvas comes to mind. I push the thought away. This is crazy enough. That would be totally insane. His lips are on mine and he kisses me sweetly. “Tell me what you want, Kerry.”
I sit there for a moment with Nate between my legs. He’s leaning in, close to my face. There’s a pale white light shining through the windows from the streetlamp outside. It spills across his face and dusts his dark hair with patches of white. “I want you, but—”
That’s enough. Whatever self-restraint Nate had is gone. His mouth crushes against mine and I’m lost in a kiss so hot it makes the spot between my legs pulse. When he pulls away, I gasp for air and say his name softly. His lips are on my neck as his hands push my skirt past my hips. I hear his zipper and know there’s only the thin fabric of my panties between us. He pulls my bottom to the edge of the counter and then positions himself just below me.
Looking into my eyes, he growls, “Fuck me, Kerry.”
I gasp when I feel him push into me with no forewarning, no careful fingers. Suddenly he’s there, filling me, hard and hot. I dig my nails into his neck and bite my lip to keep quiet. His hips press against mine and I take him deeper as he palms my ass, crushing me to him. I spread my thighs wider and latch my ankles around his hips. He watches my eyes as he rocks into me, pushing in deep and then pulling out. The movement repeats and I can’t keep my eyes on him. My head tips back and my mouth opens into an O. My ponytail dangles down my back as I clutch his shoulders and rock with him.
Nate breathes hard against my ear, pressing his cheek to mine, as he takes me harder and faster. The rhythmic movements become frantic until I’m wound so tightly that I nearly shatter. I buck wildly against his hips as I find my release and then still.
Hanging onto his shoulders, I open my eyes. “You weren’t supposed to do that.”
Nate’s voice is rich and rumbles when he speaks. “No one tells me who I can fuck. If you want me, take me. If you don’t, then leave.”
That was a weird answer. I respond carefully. “It’s not that simple.”
“Yes, it is,” he’s watching my face now. He’s still hard inside of me and presses his hips forward. I gasp and dig my nails into his shoulders. “Do you want this?” I nod slowly. “Say it, I need to hear you say it.”
“I want you, Nate. I just don’t want—”
He pulls away and I gasp with the sudden movement. He turns me around and commands, “Bend over.”
I hesitate. “Someone will find us here. Nate—”
“No one is here at midnight. Kerry, it’s just us.” He positions himself behind me and presses me down over the counter so my ass is right in front of him. “Tell me you want it.” He waits for me to say it, to agree with him before doing anything.
“Of course I want you. Nate, being with you is one of the best—” my words die in my mouth as he pushes into me. His thick shaft presses into my hot core and I gasp as I clutch the counter.
“Stop thinking. Let yourself feel and let go, Kerry.”
I lay there as he fucks me senseless. I like the feel of him inside me without the condom and get lost in the sensations. We move from the window to a desk, changing positions. Although it’s dark, I know he’s watching me with every thrust of his hips, devouring the look on my face. It’s incredibly sexy. I know he’s completely here now, with me. There’s nothing else in his mind, no one else breaks through. Not for either of us. I’m not comparing him to Matt anymore, or thinking about anything except how he makes me feel. Our bodies move together in silence until we’re both spent and completely satisfied.
I smooth my skirt, run my hands over my hair, then bend over to pick up the paintbrushes that splattered on the floor. I have the happy, heaviness of being so thoroughly satisfied. The lazy grin lines my lips as I lean back against the counter.
Nate zips up and then glances at his phone. After he shoves it into his back pocket, he glances at me. His voice is flat when he says, “See you Monday.”
I don’t know what I expected, but when he turns to leave my heart drops. He doesn’t offer to stay or even glance twice at me. I suppose this is what he felt like when he woke up alone last time.
I could linger back in the classroom and mope. I could act like it doesn’t hurt, and fake it next time I see him. I could plan to fuck him again and make sure I leave first next time—that plan sounds awesome—but I don’t want to wait. I rush after him, grabbing my bag, and following him down the hall.
“Hey,” I’m suddenly next to him matching his long stride. “You’re running off kind of quick.”
He glances at me as we head down the stairs. He stops on the landing and turns to me. “Me? You were practically packing up your paintbrushes before I zipped up. I can take a hint, Kerry.”
“What are you talking about? That wasn’t a hint.”
“Fine, call it whatever you want, but I get it. You just wanted a fuck and you don’t want to get caught. We did that. It’s over.” He’s cold and I don’t understand why.
“Nate,” I reach for his arm, but he shakes his head and rushes down the stairs.
He calls up to me without a glance in my direction. His feet hit the stairs in a quick rhythmic pattern, echoing in the darkness. “It’s fine. We both did exactly what we said we’d do.”