CHAPTER ONE OF 

THE TRUTHS ABOUT DATING AND MATING

by Jaycee DeLorenzo

 “Where is he?” I demanded of Matt Frye as I barreled into the second floor suite in Seligman Residence Hall.

Matt, one of the four residents of 236, looked up at me from his perch on the shabby couch with glassy eyes. Stoned off his ass, as usual. “Ivy, hey.” He gestured to the wall behind him with the Wii controller in his hand. “I don’t think he’s alone.”

“Even better,” I said as I stormed by the couch and into the semi-circular hallway containing four doors. Turnabout is fair play, after all, and after the crap he pulled today . . . 

I pursed my lips as I stopped outside Ian’s door and pounded my fist on its heavy walnut surface. “Ian Hollister, you’ve got exactly ten seconds to open this door before I’m coming in!” While I had no qualms about breaking up whatever was going on behind the door, I had no desire to view the physical act itself. “Ten . . . nine . . . ”

Muffled voices and shuffling sounded from the crack under the door. Ian pulled the door open just as I spat out a terse “Three!”

A pair of dark blue jeans rode low on his hips, the button undone. His feet and muscular chest were bare, displaying the biohazard tattoo that covered the entire left side of his torso. It extended into a tribal design over his shoulder and dipped far into the waistband of his pants. His inky-black hair was an even bigger mess than usual, and I figured the spiky strands had been finger-combed more than once by the slender redhead standing behind him. Her baleful look as she slid her slinky black dress into place over her narrow hips said she wanted to squish me under her peep-toe stilettos.

Ian scratched the back of his neck and gave me a wary look. “Ivy, what’s up?”

I crossed my arms over my chest and stared hard into his mossy-green eyes, telegraphing that playtime was over and we needed to talk. I was not having this conversation in front of one of his random hook-ups.

The redhead dipped below Ian’s extended arm, and slid her body between us, forcing me to back up. Her fingers slid into his belt loops and she yanked him toward her so her ample breasts pressed against his chest.

Ian’s lids lowered and he gave her a half-smile.

“Call me anytime,” she stressed in a sultry voice, pressing her lips to his neck.

Call me crazy, but if a guy had just kicked me out for another woman, I certainly wouldn’t be rubbing up against him like a bitch in heat. I wanted to shake her and tell her to have some self-respect . . . or at least do what any other normal slighted girl would do and march her ass out of there with a steady stream of epithets spewing from her mouth. But girls never acted like that with Ian. One turn around his dorm room and they were hooked.

“Sure thing.” Ian’s eyes slid my way, and then quickly darted away.

My presence made him uncomfortable. Good, I thought, trying to ignore the small sliver of guilt prickling at me.

The girl lifted her head and flicked her tongue over Ian’s lower lip. “See you later, sexy.”

And I think I just threw up in my mouth.

The redhead’s head swung my way. She looked me up and down, snorted and rolled her hazel eyes. She recognized me. I could tell by the look on her face - the one that said I was an annoyance, but not a threat. Flipping her hair over her shoulder, she strolled out of the room in four-inch kitten heels that displayed a pair of toned thighs and shapely calves I would kill to have.

“Where’d you find that one?” I asked.

“Laundry room.”

“In that getup?”

Ian scratched his head and shrugged. “She said she was all out of clean clothes.”

“I’ll bet.” More than likely, she’d spotted him carrying his basket downstairs, threw on her slinkiest dress, and then dashed down to the basement to offer him a little “bachelor bundle.”

But why was I questioning him about his latest hookup? We had much bigger matters to discuss. I rounded on him. “What did you say to Brian Sellars?”

Ian’s eyes swung to mine, his dark brows knitting together. “Who?”

I took a threatening step forward. “Don’t act innocent with me. You know exactly who I’m talking about.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” He was lying. Well, I knew he was lying but the twitching muscles at the corners of his wide mouth confirmed it.

“Let me remind you, then.” I stepped forward until we were less than a foot away. “Sandy blond hair, blue eyes,” I rose on my toes and leveled my hand at the tip of his ear, “about yea high. The guy I had a date with tonight until you had a talk with him this afternoon.” Catching his smirk, I cuffed him upside the head.

He chuckled and rubbed the side of his skull. “Oh, that Brian.”

“Yeah, that Brian.” I propped my balled fists on my hips. “What did you say to him?”

“Nothing. I just told him it would be in his best interest to be a gentleman.”

“Your. Exact. Words.”

Ian squinted at the ceiling and scratched the whiskers on his chin. “Well, I can’t remember the exact words, but I may have mentioned it wasn’t illegal to dig a hole in the desert, and I had one all dug out for anyone who mistreated you.”

“Ian!” I shoved him in the middle of his hard chest. He stumbled back a few steps, releasing a bark of laughter. “Why would you do that?” He’d always been good at the silent intimidation, but this was the first time he’d actually progressed to a verbal threat.

“Oh, come on. The guy had douchebag written all over him. I was just making sure he treated you with the respect you deserve.”

“You were just making sure I’d never get laid!”

“Ahh!” Ian cupped his hands over his ears. “Don’t say stuff like that in front of me.”

I shook my head in disbelief. We spent Tuesday and Thursday nights at our campus radio station, advising people on the topic of relationships and sex, and yet, somehow, the idea of me actually having sex really seemed to freak him out.

“Don’t say stuff like what?” I asked, moving in closer. “Don’t say . . . ” I paused and made my voice breathy, “that I wanted Brian’s gorgeous body all over mine?” I slid my hands over my torso and lowered my eyelids, hissing a breath in between my teeth. “That I wanted to feel his hot, sweaty, rippling muscles rubbing all over my—”

Ian’s brows slanted and the corners of his mouth tipped further down. “Cut it out, Ivy.”

I closed my eyes and ran my hands through my long, dark blonde locks, really getting into my act. “To feel him sliding between my thighs?” I moaned a little for effect. “Giving me pleasure like—”

He clamped his hand over my mouth. “Knock it off! I get it.”

I batted my lashes at him. The look of horror on his face was pure comedy. “I’m sorry, was that bothering you?” I asked, my voice muffled against his hand.

He glared down at me for a long moment before shaking his head. An affectionate smile moved over his face. “Man, you’re twisted.”

I threw off his hand. “And you’re a pain in my ass. This overprotective brother routine is getting real old.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, giving me big, round puppy dog eyes. “I just wanted to make sure you were treated the way you deserve.” He blinked twice and his lower lip jutted out so far you could land a B-52 on it. “You’re my best friend. I couldn’t bear it if someone hurt you.”

While I knew part of him was just trying to get on my good side, I also knew his concern was genuine. I sighed. “You . . . suck. I hate you.”

A slow, adorable grin spread over Ian’s face. “No, you don’t. You looooove me.” He splayed his arms wide and came at me for a hug, but I sidestepped his reach.

“Nuh-uh, buddy. You’re not touching me while Miss Fluff n’ Fold’s sweat is still drying on your body. Go take a shower, and then we’ll talk.”

“Oh, all right.” He nodded his head to the room behind him. “Come on in.”

I sneered. “Not a chance. It smells like cheap sex and knockoff perfume in there.” The only thing I could smell was fresh air, since his window was wide open, but I had to give him a little crap for his cavalier sex life; it’s what I did. “I’m going to go play a few rounds with Matt. Now that I don’t have a date—thank you very much—you’re giving me a ride to work tonight. And don’t think we’re done talking about this.”

He winked, giving me a devilish grin. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”



*****

 

Ian spun around the cramped radio station booth with a look of panic on his face. “Where the hell is my headset?”

I deleted Brian’s text message breaking our date from my Android and looked up, spotting Ian’s missing equipment. I sank into my cushy swivel chair, kicked my legs up on the console, and bit down a chuckle. My gaze slid to Amery Archer in the adjacent engineer’s room, where she was prescreening calls. She looked over at Ian and giggled into her hand. I winked, then ducked just in time to avoid Ian’s elbow as it swung toward my ear. The time on the computer ticked down to forty-five seconds. In light of the time crunch, I let out the husky laugh bubbling in my throat. “They’re behind your ears, brainiac.”

Ian stopped short. He raked both hands through his hair, knocking the headphones askew. “I knew that,” he said after a beat, easing into his best lazy grin. It was one he’d perfected over time, one that had the power to turn otherwise smart and capable college girls into mindless, giggling twits, ready to drop their panties at first sight.

I rolled my eyes, immune to his charms. “Sure you did.” Dropping my legs to the ground, I tossed my phone into my bag and fished around for an elastic band. Finding one amongst the lint and scone crumbs along the bottom of a pocket, I then swept my long hair up into a sloppy ponytail. I glanced at the computer before me. “Fifteen seconds.”

Ian flopped into his chair and spread his long wide. His grin widened, making the cheekbones he’d inherited from a distant Native American ancestor more pronounced. A teasing glint flickered in his eyes. “Ready to get down and dirty?” He jiggled his brows at me.

I licked my lips and winked, playing along with his meaningless flirtation. “I’m always ready, baby.”

He waved his hand to the microphone. “Then by all means . . . .”

I sprung upright and flicked the mic on, positioning my mouth near the windscreen.

Three . . . two . . .  

“Welcome back, Razorbacks, to another edition of Riordan College’s most titillating talk show, The Truths about Dating and Mating, with your favorite campus sex-edutainers, Ivy Rossini and Ian Hollister.”

Ian’s head appeared beside mine. “That’s right, ladies . . . and gentlemen, too, I suppose,” he said with less enthusiasm. “It’s time to call in with all your dirty little stories. First time girl-on-girl experimentation, sweaty sleepover secrets, naughty camp stories, illicit touches in the showers—”

Oh brother. I snapped my fingers in front of his face. “Earth to Ian.”

He gave a start and snapped out of his spell. “Okay, I’m back. Anyway, I . . . ”

I cleared my throat.

Ian gave me a cheeky grin. “We want to hear all about them. Have a question? Ain’t no problem too big or too small. Don’t be shy—we sure as hell aren’t. So give us a call at 555-KRAZ.”

“And while Ian wipes the drool from his chin,” I grinned at his scoffing noise, “we’ll take our first caller of the night. Let’s welcome Vanessa to the show,” I said, reading the name from the computer screen.

Ian tapped a button on the keyboard and canned applause filled the station. “So, Vanessa, any sleepover secrets you want to share?” he asked, playing up his on-air personality of the libidinous rogue.

“Sorry?” she asked.

He snapped his finger and feigned a heavy sigh. “Never mind.” Sliding further down in his chair, he propped his left arm behind his head. The sleeve of his black T-shirt rode up, revealing the bottom tendrils of the tattoo on his defined bicep, still a little red from the work he’d had done the previous weekend. “So, what’s up, Vanessa?”

“Okay, so I have a question about masturbation.” She tittered nervously.

Ian nodded, his eyes on the padded ceiling. “Ah, one of my favorite topics. And let me tell you, you’ve called one of the world’s leading experts.” He shot me a wink.

I chuckled into my hand and Ian drew a check mark in the air. We had a long-running competition to say the most outrageous line of the night; the more creative we were, the more cool-points we earned with each other.

“Well, I’ve never had sex,” Vanessa said, “but I’ve been masturbating since I was about thirteen—”

“Tell me, Vanessa.” Ian lowered his voice. “You wouldn’t happen to be thinking of girls when you do it, would you?”

I rolled my eyes in amused disgust. “Feel free to ignore him.”

“Sure, Ivy, ruin all my fun. Please continue, Vanessa.”

“Okay, so my roommate told me that if I keep on masturbating, it’s going to ruin my ‘adult’ sex life. Is she right?”

It never ceased to amaze me how misinformed some people were, and it flat-out annoyed me that it was the most-uninformed who tended to spread their ignorance. “Not even a little bit, Vanessa. In fact, your ‘adult’ sex life will probably be all the better for it.”

“Really?” Vanessa sounded both relieved and hopeful.

How sweet, I thought, feeling a rush of satisfaction. There weren’t many rewards to the job we did. We didn’t get paid, there was no college credit, and there wasn’t much respect, either, so feeling like I’d helped a person gain more knowledge about their sexual health was the gratification I thrived on.

“Of course, honey,” I said to her, my sisterly-instincts coming out. “Masturbation helps us discover what feels good, what doesn’t, and what really pushes us over the edge. Knowing these things can pave the way for more fulfilling sex, as long as we’re willing to communicate what we’ve learned in our self-exploration.”

“Ivy makes a great point,” Ian said, taking over. “There’s nothing more frustrating for a guy than being unable to pleasure his partner. We want to know what makes you lukewarm, hot, and downright nuclear. If you can’t, or won’t, express your preferences, your guy will have to fly blind, which can lead to frustration and disappointment between the sheets. The more help you give us, the better.”

I smirked. “And just think: at least you’ll know the quickest way to finish yourself off once your guy falls asleep.”

Ian’s head whipped to the side. “Damn!”

I giggled; knew he’d like that one. “What can I say? More often than not the guy lacks the staying-power to finish the job . . . or the consideration.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Ian crossed both arms behind his head with a self-assured smile. “I’ve never heard any complaints.”

Neither had I. Ian’s reputation as a very skilled, very intense lover was widespread on campus, even to the point where I was wild with curiosity. Not that I’d ever let him know. He’d been my best friend for fifteen years, and we’d never crossed that line.

I gave him a humoring nod. “I’m sure you haven’t.”

“What are you insinuating? That I’m somehow lacking in skill?”

“I would be the last person to know, now, wouldn’t I? But the fact is most guys want to hear they’re gods in the sack, and most women are too kind to tell them the truth. We save that info for our girlfriends.”

Ian scowled. “You know, you knock us for kissing and telling, but you women are twice as bad.”

I dismissed his comment with a wave of my hand. “Please, that’s totally different. Guys do it to brag about their conquests. We call in the reinforcements to help analyze every little detail and discern what it all means.”

“Like that’s so much better. And no generalizing.” Ian wagged his finger, reminding me of our long-standing rule against that kind of thing. “Not all guys brag.”

“Yeah, I know.” I conceded the point, well aware Ian fell into the latter category. He was as tight-lipped about the details of his sexual encounters as he was about anything else truly personal. Well, except with me. I knew all the nitty-gritty details of his life; the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there had been plenty of all three.

“So, Vanessa, were we able to answer your question?” Ian said.

“Yes. Thank you.”

“We’re here to serve.” He killed the call. “And on that note, we’re going to have to take a short break. When we return, more listeners’ calls and our letter of the night. So stick around for more of The Truths about Dating and Mating. It’s ten after eleven, and we’re just getting warmed up on KRAZ.”

As soon as the ON-AIR light went out, I raised my brow. “World’s leading expert in masturbation, eh?”

A sheepish smile spread over Ian’s face. “Well, you know. Expert, practitioner . . . same difference.”

I pulled my hair from its tie and ran my fingers through the long strands. “Between classes and dropping your pants for every girl on campus, how do you find the time?”

Ian ran a hand over his neck, mussing up his dark hair even more. “Come on, Ivy, I don’t date that many girls.”

I scoffed. “You don’t date any of them. ‘Dating’ implies you actually spend time with the girl before taking her to bed.”

“Ahh . . . ” Ian averted his gaze, looking just the tiniest-bit flustered. Which, for a guy who bedded as many girls as he did, was all kinds of ironic. “You know, I’m hardly the only one guilty of casual sex, here.”

One time,” I stressed. Only three men in the wide world could answer the perennial question—natural blonde or bottle job? (Both, as a matter of fact; my dirty-blonde hair was often treated to a pick-me-up with Garnier’s Champagne Fizz). Two of my lovers had been semi-serious relationships, and yes, the third had been a sexier-than-sin Navy Seal Leap Frog. Adam something-or-other 2nd Class had been in town for one weekend only, doing a parachuting event at my old high school. We met at a club downtown, and after challenging his occupational claims—A Navy Seal? Sounded like a B.S. line to me, but he was smokin’ hot and I was feeling adventurous—I accompanied him back to his hotel room to view his . . . ahem, equipment.

“And I don’t regret it one bit,” I added, just because I knew how much it would irritate my overprotective friend. It was a bald-faced lie. While the sex had been enjoyable, the whole experience left me feeling hollow and . . . well, crappy. The guilt and shame ate at me for weeks. I eventually made peace with what I’d done, and decided to chalk it up as a learning experience; one I never wanted to repeat.

Ian reached for a C.D. from the wooden rack behind him and studied the song list. “I still can’t believe you went home with that guy,” he grumbled.

“I still can’t believe we made our escape before you could scare him off. You were off your game that night.”

“I don’t scare guys off,” Ian said indignantly. “I just give them incentive to act like gentlemen.”

I goggled at him in disbelief. “Need I remind you of what you said to Brian?”

The corners of his mouth quirked. “So?”

“Don’t ‘so’ me! That’s not incentive, it’s interfering where you don’t belong.”

“Again, Sellers is a douche.”

I groaned, letting my head fall back. “Can we, for once, skip the ‘every guy you date is a douche, or a chode, or an . . .  assclown’ discussion?”

Ian snickered down at the C.D. “Assclown? When have I ever called anybody an assclown?”

Way to steer the conversation off the topic. “Whatever.”

Ian held up his hands. “All I’m saying is that any guy who has to one-up everyone, just to prove how ‘knowledgeable’ he is? That’s the classic definition of a douche. A guy like that doesn’t deserve your time, let alone your attention. And, good God, don’t even get me started on the spray-on tan.”

Well, I had to give him that one. I’d been a little turned off by it myself, but willing to let it slide because of desirable qualities Brian possessed that more than made up for it—broad shoulders, a killer smile, and a genuine interest in me. “What about the girls you hook up with?”

“What about them?”

“Brainless Barbies.” I ticked the words off on my fingers.

Ian smirked and rubbed his lower abdominal muscles in a suggestive manner. “I’m not looking to discuss particle physics with ‘em.”

“Ugh, how did I ever become friends with such a pig?” I made a face of disgust, giving a halfhearted voice to my inner-feminist. My outrage would’ve been more genuine if I believed, for one second, that he was just another opportunistic playboy. Like his On-Air personality, this was just another face Ian presented to the world because the world responded favorably to it.

“A pig?” he cried in mock-affront. “I’ll show you a pig.” He captured my wrists in his large hands, yanked me side-saddle into his lap, then thrust his nose into the crook of my neck and oinked.

“Ian!” I squealed with delight as he tickled my waist. “Ian, stop! No! I’m going to pee my pants!”

“All the more incentive for me to keep going.” His hands went to the sensitive undersides of my knees.

I squirmed on top of him. “Kinky pervert! Hey! Come on . . .  ah! Stop! Look, we’re on in less than a minute.”

“Fine.” Ian let me go, and I fell back into my seat, flushed and winded. “Killjoy,” he teased.

“Big meanie.” I huffed and thrust out my lower lip.

“Wimp.”

“Man-whore.”

Amery’s chiding voice came over the speakers. “Hey, you two, as much as I hate to break up insult volleyball, we still have a show to do.”

Ian hooted when I stuck my tongue out at him and glanced at the monitor. Swiveling 180-degrees in his chair, he turned his attention to the engineer’s booth. “So, Amery, what’s tonight’s letter about?”

*****

 

 “Thanks again for the ride.” I climbed off Ian’s prized gray Ducati Diavel outside the Ocotillo apartment complex and pushed his helmet off my head.

The look on Ian’s face in the waxing moonlight was full of censure. “Like I’d let you walk home. What’s the latest on your car?”

“It’s supposed to be done tomorrow. Maybe you can give me a ride to the mechanic’s after SHAZ-Fest? You’re coming, right?” SHAZ-Fest—otherwise known as the Sexual Health from A-to-Z Festival—was Riordan College’s annual spring semester event which promoted smart and safe sexual lifestyles among college students.

Ian grimaced. “Ehh . . . do I have to?”

I yawned. “We did sign up to man the booth.”

You signed us up.”

“Well, it’s kind of expected that we do something. We do claim to be semi-authorities on sex and relationships. I don’t see that we had much choice.”

A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Yeah, but . . . ”

“Come on, it’s two measly hours of your life. Besides, what else are you going to do between classes?”

Ian gave me a wicked grin. “Oh, I’m sure I can find someone.”

I groaned. I was tired and a little sick of dealing with “Playboy Ian” tonight. “Give it a rest.”

“Sorry,” he said in a low voice, then released a long sigh. He turned his head to a sodium light on the first floor, and I saw all the humor leave his face. “Pete called this afternoon.”

I sobered in an instant, my stomach rising and falling like I was on an elevator. Pete was Ian’s stepfather and the man who raised him after his mother split because the responsibilities of parenting didn’t suit her party-girl lifestyle. Pete was also a raging alcoholic whose violent temper had broken Ian—physically, mentally, and emotionally—more times than I could count. I knew, because I was always there to pick up the pieces.

“What did he want?” I asked, struggling to keep the contempt out of my voice. It would only put him on the defensive.

Ian reached out to scrape his nail against a bit of sticky residue on one of his handles. “He’s back in AA.”

“Another attempt at amends?” I was less successful at hiding the acid in my tone this time. Pete played hopscotch with sobriety. This was his sixth—seventh?—time enrolling in AA in as many years.

Ian’s nod was almost imperceptible. “He asked me to meet him at noon tomorrow.”

I closed my eyes and exhaled through my nose. Here we go again. I opened my eyes and fought to keep my voice even. “What did you tell him?”

“I didn’t answer one way or the other.”

“But you’re considering it.”

“I didn’t say that. I don’t know. He sounds like he’s doing okay. And he’s made it six months, which is longer than any of the other times.”

If that was supposed to convince me, it was a miserable failure. Pete always did well at first. “Good for him. I wish him the best of luck, I do, and I hope it sticks. But—”

Ian’s eyes swung to mine. “Don’t get my hopes up, right?”

I winced at the edge in his tone then nodded. I hated being the pessimist here, especially knowing how much Ian wanted Pete to be the guy he was before his mother left, but someone had to say it. Every time Pete tried for sobriety, he’d make overtures and apologies for years of being an abusive asshole, and Ian would get his hopes up that things would change.

Reading the turmoil in Ian’s eyes, I reached out and touched his face, rubbing my thumb against the scar hidden beneath the facial hair on his chin. A cracked jaw and seven stitches was his reward for one of Pete’s slips, and it was far from the only physical evidence of Pete’s temper. “How many times are you going to do this to yourself?” I whispered.

His nostrils flared and he jerked his head away. “I haven’t decided if I’m doing anything yet.”

“Haven’t you?” Despite what he said, I knew it wasn’t a matter of if he’d go see him, but when. He didn’t need my approval—Ian was going to do what Ian was going to do— and he wasn’t really asking for it. I think he just wanted my reassurance that I would be there for him when Pete went down in flames again. And I would.

“You know what? Fuck him.” Ian rolled his shoulders, like he was squaring off with someone. “Besides, we did sign up to do SHAZ-Fest, right?”

I could see in his eyes that nothing had changed. He’d still see his stepfather and get his hopes up, just not right away. The delay was of some consolation to me.

My mouth curved. “I signed us up.”

“Yep, and I’m not gonna let you down. I’ll be there for . . . at least the first hour.”

“Stay for the whole two hours and I’ll treat you to lunch afterwards,” I said in a singsong voice. When he still looked reluctant, I gave him a coy look and dangled the ultimate bait: “Luna’s?”

He narrowed his eyes at the mention of our favorite restaurant. “You’re evil.”

I giggled, knowing I had him. “That’s why you love me.” I leaned in and pecked his cheek. “Sleep tight. Drive safe.”

I jogged toward the A-frame building I shared with my roommate, Chelsea Prince. I took the steps to the third floor two at a time and waved down from the balcony rail when I reached the landing. Ian wouldn’t leave until I was safe inside. His motorcycle roared in answer only after I closed the door behind me.

I found Chelsea sitting at the computer off the kitchen. Even in the middle of the night, she wore her typical business casual best: smart black slacks, a burgundy shell with a ruffled neckline, and a polished pair of black leather flats. Her narrow face was still in full makeup, but she’d let down her long hair from its usual French twist. It hung to the middle of her back in dark, unruly tangles from twisting it up while wet.

At five-foot-two and ninety-five pounds, Chelsea went the extra mile to make herself look professional and presentable at all times, because, as she often told people: “You never know when you’ll need to make a good impression.” But to me, she’d confided: “And in casual clothes and no makeup, I look like a twelve year-old.”

I didn’t disagree.

“Hey, what are you still doing up?” I asked, eyeing the microwave display. It was nearly two. Chelsea liked to get at least eight hours of sleep a night, and we both had classes at nine.

Chelsea glanced up from the screen. “I’m working.”

“You’re not still working on your Winter Queen speech, are you?” She’d been working on it when I set off to chew Ian out earlier that evening.

Chelsea’s petite fingers tapped a few keys on the keyboard. “No, my organic chemistry report is due tomorrow.”

“Didn’t you finish that last week?” I had a vague recollection of her mentioning it.

“I did, but the conclusion has been bugging me, and I wanted to check it for any errors.”

I was tempted to tell Chelsea that I was sure the paper was A-plus material, but why waste my breath? Chelsea wasn’t just a perfectionist, she was a borderline obsessive-compulsive, and wouldn’t be able to rest until she’d checked the paper twice-over. Or twentieth-over.

I stopped at the refrigerator for a Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. “Do I have any messages?”

“On the pad.”

I popped the top of my can and took a sip as I crossed into our tidy living room. Our apartment was a two-bedroom, two-bath, with a rectangular great room that housed the kitchen and living room, and bedrooms flanking the east and west walls. Our shared living areas were decorated in neutral shades: off-white walls, beige micro-suede furniture secondhanded to us by Chelsea’s parents, and a set of glass-covered coffee and end tables. Wrought-iron candle sconces and paintings of white flowers hung on the walls, and our 19-inch television sat on a stand I scored outside the dumpster after last year’s crop of seniors graduated. The only true splashes of color in the room were a rattan Papasan chair with a cardinal-red cushion, and a like-colored blanket that sported Rocky, our college’s beloved razorback, folded neatly over the back of the sofa.

The whole place had a very adult feel and didn’t represent my more eclectic tastes, but I wasn’t about to complain. One of Chelsea’s many scholarships paid three-quarters of the apartment’s monthly rent, so my share was dirt-cheap. Good thing, too, since my work-study position at the student health center had been axed due to budget cuts at the end of the last semester, so I was living on my partial tuition waiver and student loans.

I retrieved the notepad from its place by the phone. The first message was from my mom, reminding me of dinner on Thursday with her latest boyfriend. Not that I’d forgotten; visits home meant free access to the washing machine and I was running desperately low on clean panties. The second message was from the mechanic at Gallo’s Garage, informing me that my car would be available for pickup in two days. “What the . . . ? Hey, did the mechanic mention why he needed to keep the car longer?”

My VW Golf had been in the shop for over two weeks, taken in for what I’d been told was a simple recharge of the air conditioner. Every other day since, I received a call reporting problems with the compressor, then the condenser, and most recently, the evaporator. The words were gibberish, but one thing was becoming alarmingly clear: my bank account was about to take a serious hit, and it was still only the beginning of February. I wasn’t just going to be living lean for the next four months, I’d be living anorexic.

When Chelsea failed to answer, I looked over my shoulder to find her staring at the computer screen with single-minded focus. “Chelsea? Hey, Chels!”

Chelsea jumped, upsetting the keyboard on the pull-out drawer. “What?” she asked, her voice ringing with exasperation. She flicked back a lock of brown hair from her forehead.

“The mechanic?” I waved the notepad. “Why does he need more time?”

“It didn’t occur to me to ask. I’m just the messenger.”

I flung the pad down. The one time I try to be proactive by fixing the car before lack of A.C. became a critical issue and it bites me in the ass. “This is getting ridiculous. This guy has got to be taking me for a ride.”

Chelsea’s willowy shoulders rose and fell. “So, drag Ian down there and make sure everything’s on the up-and-up.” And, please, let me get my work done, was the unsaid statement trailing her words.

I didn’t take offense to the undercurrent of irritation in my roommate’s voice. Chelsea lived a regimented life, full of structure and schedules. Being up this late meant she was off her schedule, which tended to put her on edge. She was normally sweeter than pie.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll leave you to fondle your keyboard.”

Chelsea gave me a sarcastic smile. “Thank you.”

Walking into my bedroom was like walking into another apartment—one representative of me. A patchwork quilt done in primary colors was thrown over my bed. Curtains I’d knotted together out of multi-colored squares of organza hung over the window, dark for now, but during the day they painted my room like a stained-glass window. I had an old white dresser by the door, with my stereo, docking station, and jewelry box on top. A small desk stacked with textbooks and my ancient laptop—1999, baby!—was positioned by the window to give me a view of the White Mountains. My favorite art print, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, hung over the length of my bed.

Mine was the smaller of the two bedrooms, not much bigger than a prison cell, really, but it came with its own private bath and was on the end of the building. Chelsea’s room was almost twice as big as mine, but hers was the bathroom guests used and her wall backed a quartet of noisy soccer players, hence her computer setup off the kitchen.

Yawning, I tossed my bag on my bed and stripped, leaving a trail of clothes on the carpet on my way to the bathroom. Pandora, my grumpy Russian Blue rescue cat darted out from beneath my bed to pounce on one of my socks, almost knocking me over.

After washing away the day’s dirt, I threw on an oversized Riordan Athletics XXL Tee and climbed into bed. I had to be up for class at eight. Unfortunately, sleep didn’t come easily. It never did after a show. I fleetingly considered engaging in a little ménage a moi, knowing it was a surefire way to help me fall asleep, but the truth was, masturbation was becoming less and less satisfying. Plus, I was pretty confident I was starting to feel the first pangs of carpal tunnel in my wrist.

I snuggled deeper into the blankets and released a wistful sigh, thinking about what I really wanted: an active sex life. I missed the feel of warm skin, of heated kisses and large hands on my flesh. I missed the euphoric, frenzied rush of joining together with someone who stimulated my mind, heart and body.

Eight long, dry months had passed since I last had someone in my bed. Not for a lack of offers, mind you; I was just very particular. And cautious. Too often I encountered the kind of opportunists who simply wanted to nail the campus sex-guru. And on the rare occasions I met someone whose interest seemed genuine—like Brian’s had seemed to be—Ian managed to get in the way.

I punched my pillow and rolled onto my side. Ian had run some of my prospective dates off, but some guys were just too insecure to accept that I had a male best friend, especially one as . . . okay, hot as Ian. Oliver, my last serious boyfriend, had even given me an ultimatum. I chose Ian—no contest.

Boyfriends would come and go, but Ian Hollister was a permanent fixture in my life.

Still, it would have been nice to find a way to have both.