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Professor Sutton releases us from his hold, waving his arms high to usher us out of his classroom. I lean down and collect my backpack, shoving my notebook inside when Strawberry Shortcake rises on my left. I’ve barely had time to take another breath when her pleat-covered ass is in my goddamn face. She shuffles her way along the line, seemingly determined to get that rounded peach in the broody guy’s face before he can rise to his feet.

I sigh and drop my backpack on my lap. She spares me a sassy snarl over her shoulder, heeled shoe landing square on the toe of my boot. There’s no doubt she did it on purpose, but I can guarantee she didn’t expect my combat-style boots to be steel-capped. 

I snag the hem of her skirt between my fingers and tug down, hard. “You’ll get yourself in trouble with this hemline, darling,” I mock in my best motherly voice. 

Dark and Dangerous snorts, legs slung wide while he waits for Shortcake to shake what her momma gave her in his face. She utters a disgusted grunt and moves in front of him, arching her back a little more.

He turns his head to the side and looks me dead in the eye.

I fucking shiver. Crystal eyes ringed with a deep gray. It’s a contrast that spears me square in the heart. 

Shortcake makes it to the aisle, yet neither of us pays her any mind. I refuse to be the first to look away from this apparent power-play. The redhead mutters something I don’t care to pay any mind to and clops her heels down the steps toward the exit. Dark and Dangerous smirks, still without blinking or looking away.

I. Will. Not. Lose.

“It’s rude to stare, you know?”

My God, his husky timbre is nothing short of luscious. “Then why are you?” My fucking eyeballs burn.

“Because you learn more about a person from what hides in the shadows of their eyes than what a thousand words could ever say.”

Right. “What have you found, then?”

He chuckles and looks away. Ha! “Not what I expected.” Luscious rises to his feet and then extends a hand for me.

I ignore the dominant gesture and stand of my own accord. 

The rejection amuses him greatly. “What brings your candy tones to our black hole?” he asks as we start down the steps. “You’re new around here.”

“You know everyone in town?” Four thousand people. It’s unlikely a guy could know them all.

He glances over his shoulder as we hit ground level. “Yeah. I do.”

I call bullshit. 

“So?” He holds the door open for me, sparing our professor a glance. “Why are you here?”

The guy pores over papers on his desk as though we don’t exist. “To learn.” I step out into the bustling halls and stifle the urge to backtrack into the relative quiet of the lecture room.

“I didn’t mean why you’re at Black River U,” Luscious says on a sigh. “I meant here. In town.”

“Does it matter?” I meet his penetrating gaze and immediately look away. “A rather personal question when I don’t know who you are.”

His hand extends to my left. “Leonard Ambrose the third. Everyone calls me Leo.”

“The third?” I snort. “Wow.”

“Heritage means a lot to my family.” He doesn’t show a singular hint of amusement.

Yep. You could have handled that better. I take his hand and give it a quick pump. “Virginia Hughes the first. Everyone calls me Gina.”

He hasn’t let go of my hand. I glance down at the connection and then at Strawberry Shortcake and her magical entourage over his shoulder. It appears I’ve crossed some stalker line of hers by touching the object of her affection. I’d ramp up the torment and kiss this guy, but I have a gut feeling that I might enjoy his friendship better.

Leo drops our connection and backs away, rubbing his palms together as though to warm his hands. “What have you got next?”

“Sociolinguistics.” I frown, picturing the schedule in my mind. “I think.”

“I’ll walk you there.” He jerks his head and guides me past the clique of clichés.

Five of the crazies, all decked out in their cheerleader knits. I mean, I have a few things I’m hella passionate about, but I don’t feel the need to wear the uniform everywhere I go as though to prove my superiority. My gaze slides to their feet and, as I assumed, I find matching pairs of pumps.

I mean, who on earth wears heels to school?

Strawberry lifts one eyebrow and cocks her head when my gaze drags up her perfectly positioned frame, her mouth screwed up tighter than a cat’s ass. I gesture to her posse and turn my attention to Leo. “What’s the story with your admirer, there?”

“Phoebe?” His gaze hoods and he shakes his head. “She’s done the same thing since we were in kindergarten.” The corner of his lips tilt as he meets my gaze. “The game was old back then too.”

“Why don’t you tell her to back off?”

“It wouldn’t make any difference.” He shrugs. “Her family wants in on mine.”

“Oh.” Lineage politics. Haven’t missed this a damn bit. “And yours doesn’t?”

He frowns before he answers. “No.”

We walk in silence down the ornate halls, the timber lockers built into the walls so that they don’t give the same cluttered effect modern schools do. I could easily forget I was at university if it weren’t for the streams of students moving between lectures. 

“The student lounge is through there.” Leo gestures to double doors to our right, but I’m more interested in what happens around us.

People part like the Red Sea, making way for him as we approach. I’d think they’re avoiding the new girl, but nobody looks his way as they do this. It’s like they’re used to always giving Leo a wide berth. As though it’s second nature and their bodies work on autopilot. I make a point of ducking my head while I walk to forcibly connect my gaze with a tawny-haired girl. She locks eyes with mine, startled as a jackrabbit when she jolts and adds another step between us.

Nobody knows who the hell I am and yet, just by walking beside Leo, I’ve inherited his influence. I hate it. I’ve never needed anyone to pave the way for me before now, never needed anyone to do a damn thing for me that I could just as easily do myself. Even worse that it’s a guy because of course, a man would have this kind of influence over the masses. 

“Do people always do this?” I stick an elbow out and make a tech-geek swerve to avoid me, just for kicks.

Leo watches the play unfold with a hint of a smile. “Yeah. They do.”

“What did you do?” I glance his way, smile wide. “Shank someone in the bathrooms on your first day?”

All humor slides from his gaze, emotions on lockdown as he stares straight ahead with clear apathy. “Something like that.”

I wait for the grin, the elbow to my bicep, or some sign of humor. I don’t get it. Only silence the rest of the walk to my next lecture hall. 

“This is you.”

His shutdown is a stark reminder that I don’t know the guy. Five minutes of conversation does not a friend make. And like all the other ditzy females around here, I allowed his casual ease to trick me into letting my guard down. Amateur, Gina. Absolute rookie mistake.

“Thanks for the escort.” I press my lips into a thin line and lift both eyebrows.

He nods once and then turns away to continue in the same direction. With bustling students at my back, pushing and vying for a position through the hall door, I remain where I stand and watch Mr. Ambrose the third take his leave. Unlike, what I’m sure was his brother, I’m reluctant to let this one just vanish. He pops his coat collar and then shoves both hands in the pockets, long legs carrying him toward the one place I didn’t expect him to go.

Straight out the fucking front doors.

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