Tease

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“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped in disappointment. One look at her face and I knew she wasn’t interested in going.

“I can go alone, but I told you about it a month ago, Georgia.” He paused, letting that sink in. “They’re expecting me to bring a date.”

She nodded. “No, of course. I’ll go. I said I would.”

I took a long sip of my cappuccino, further committed to the idea of staying single as I observed their little byplay. I wondered how much longer Georgia could tolerate him, and then reminded myself it had already been four years. Some habits were hard to break—including, it seemed, a sucky relationship.

Georgia looked back at me. “Well, sorry, but maybe you can go to that party with Pepper and Reece.”

I shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe.” It could be fun. Pepper and Reece didn’t do too many parties. Most of their time consisted of staring into each other’s eyes and other activities that I wasn’t privy to—rightfully so.

“C’mon, Georgia. It’s cold. I’m going in.” Harris let go of her hand and entered the Java Hut. I watched Georgia as she stared after him. She looked troubled. The smooth skin of her forehead creased.

“You two okay?” I murmured.

She snapped her attention back to me. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”

About what? That her boyfriend was an asshat? I shrugged like it was no big deal. It wasn’t my place to tell her who she should and shouldn’t date. I’d tried that once with my own mother and it didn’t go over too well.

“Harris is just stressed. He’s got a big test coming up. And he’s looking for an internship for the summer.”

I nodded like I understood.

“Want to go to breakfast tomorrow? It’s been a while. We’ll get Pepper to join us, too.”

It had been a while since the three of us had one of our breakfasts. I missed those mornings. Maybe I’d even tell them about Mom pressuring me to attend Justin’s wedding.

But then you’d have to tell them about Justin. I mentally shuddered at that idea. I didn’t want to think about my prick of a stepbrother much less talk about him. Some things were better buried in the past.

“Yeah. That would be great.”

She gave me a quick hug and disappeared inside the Hut. I set a brisk pace across campus, eager to get to the studio and lose myself on the canvas . . . the only place where it felt safe to let emotion run free. Where I could let myself lose control.

Chapter 4

I LOST TRACK OF time as I worked. A few other students worked in the studio, intent over their projects, but silence was an unspoken rule in this place. It was a large room. Larger than any classroom save for maybe the few stadium-style ones on campus. Floor to ceiling windows allowed natural light to pour in. Every once in a while I would glance up and gaze out at the lawn of flawless white, tapping the end of my brush idly against my chin as I soaked up the serene sight, letting it feed my soul.

The studio was my church. A holy sanctum. Wild Emerson who guys only saw as a toy to play with for as long as I would allow it didn’t exist here. The wrecked fifteen-year-old who went to her mother expecting help and support? She didn’t exist either.

It was just me here. Where I could be real. It was freedom. Peace. On the canvas there was no threat, no risk in letting myself go.

I dipped my brush in various colors, mixing and blending until achieving just the right shade of blue. I worked the colors on my canvas, not even thinking, just going with it. Flowing. Being.

It was always like this. I never deliberated. I just did. Whenever I sat back to observe the end result, it was almost like I was seeing it for the first time.

My phone hummed on my workstation, beside me. Blinking, I looked up and noticed long shadows creeping in from outside. Looking down, I read the text:

Pepper: Where r u?

Setting down my brush, I wiped my hands on a well-used towel and picked up the phone to type back.

Me: Studio.

Pepper: Wanna go out? Party tonight.

For a moment, I hesitated and actually contemplated saying no. But then I’d be stuck in my room all night, alone. Even though I could study for my upcoming art history exam, I didn’t relish that.

Me: Sure. On way to room.

Standing up, I gathered my brushes and palette. I walked to the sinks in the back of the room and rinsed everything off. Once my supplies were clean, I took them back to my station. Untying my smock, I lifted my gaze to my canvas and froze.

I had been vaguely aware that I was creating something inspired from the winter wonderland currently going on outside, but this was totally unexpected.

The scene was plucked straight from this morning. A pair of glass-paneled doors that looked out at a snow-covered world and cerulean blue sky. Just the hint of a bed with rumpled blue sheets.

Clean lines. Bright colors. Very modern in theory. My heart was in this, which only made me wonder why I would have painted this scene. What was I telling myself?

The only thing more shocking would have been a portrait of Shaw himself. Clearly he was still on my brain. Standing back and observing the canvas, I shook my head. Maybe I’d prime over it. Start over. Use the canvas for something else.

I glanced down at my phone. It was almost six. My stomach twisted and growled. I pressed a hand against my belly, certain it was devouring itself. A painful reminder that I hadn’t eaten all day. Slipping on my coat and wrapping a scarf around my neck, I nodded at Gretchen a few stations down working on an elaborate collage. She worked with a lot of textiles. She paused amid ripping up what looked like old curtains to wave good-bye to me.

I hurried from the building and started across campus, burrowing into my coat as my boots crunched over the snow-packed ground. It felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees from this morning.

When I entered my room, it was dark and empty. Georgia was already gone, but I could hear Pepper’s and Reece’s voices floating from the other side of the suite. Our adjoining door was partially cracked so they probably weren’t making out in there. Still, I knocked once before peeking inside.

“Hey!” Pepper grinned brightly, untangling herself from Reece’s arms. He sat in her chair, looking his usual hot self. Dark blond hair cut close to his head. His body lean and hard as he lounged there all relaxed looking, totally at home in Pepper’s room. Tattoos crawled out from beneath one of his short sleeves and down his toned bicep.

The guy actually looked pouty when she left him to approach me. Like he wanted nothing more than to haul her back in his arms.