I had never noticed Lucas before that night. It was as though he didn’t exist, and then suddenly, he was everywhere.
I’d just bailed on the Halloween party still in full swing behind me. Weaving between the cars crammed into the parking lot behind my ex’s frat house, I tapped out a text to my roommate. The night was beautiful and warm—a typical Southern-style Indian summer. From the wide-open windows of the house, music blared across the pavement, punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter, drunken challenges and calls for more shots.
As tonight’s designated driver, it was my responsibility to get Erin back to our dorm across campus in one non-mangled piece, whether or not I could stand another minute of the party. My message told her to call or text when she was ready to go. The way she and her boyfriend, Chaz, had been tequila-soaked dirty dancing before they linked hands and tripped up the stairs to his room, she might not be calling me until tomorrow. I chuckled over the thought of the short walk of shame she’d endure from the front porch to my truck, if so.
I hit send as I dug in my bag for my keys. The moon was too cloud-obscured and the fully lit windows of the house were too far away to provide any light at the far end of the lot. I had to go by feel. Swearing when a mechanical pencil jabbed a fingertip, I stomped one stiletto-clad foot, almost certain I’d drawn blood. Once the keys were in my hand I sucked on the finger; the slight metallic taste told me I’d punctured the skin. “Figures,” I muttered, unlocking the truck door.
In the initial seconds that followed, I was too disoriented to comprehend what was happening. One moment I was pulling the truck door open, and the next I was lying flat on my face across the seat, breathless and immobile. I struggled to rise but couldn’t, because the weight on top of me was too heavy.
“The little devil costume suits you, Jackie.” The voice was slurred, but familiar.
My first thought was Don’t call me that, but that objection was quickly dismissed in favor of terror as I felt a hand pushing my already short skirt higher. My right arm was useless, trapped between my body and the seat. I clawed my left hand into the seat next to my face, trying again to push myself upright, and the hand on the bare skin of my thigh whipped up and grabbed my wrist. I cried out when he wrenched my arm behind my back, clamping it firmly in his other hand. His forearm pressed into my upper back. I couldn’t move.
“Buck, get off me. Let go.” My voice quavered, but I tried to deliver the command with as much authority as possible. I could smell the beer on his breath and something stronger in his sweat, and a wave of nausea rose and fell in my stomach.
His free hand was back on my left thigh, his weight settled onto my right side, covering me. My feet dangled outside the truck, the door still open. I tried to pull my knee up to get it under me, and he laughed at my pathetic efforts. When he shoved his hand between my open legs, I cried out, snapping my leg back down too late. I heaved and squirmed, first thinking to dislodge him and then, realizing I was no match for his size, I started to beg.
“Buck, stop. Please—you’re just drunk and you’ll regret this tomorrow. Oh my God—”
He wedged his knee between my legs and air hit my bare hip. I heard the unmistakable sound of a zipper and he laughed in my ear when I went from rationally imploring to crying. “No-no-no-no…” Under his weight, I couldn’t get enough breath together to scream, and my mouth was mashed against the seat, muffling any protest I made. Struggling uselessly, I couldn’t believe that this guy I’d known for over a year, who’d not once treated me with disrespect the entire time I’d dated Kennedy, was attacking me in my own truck at the back of the frat house parking lot.
He ripped my panties down to my knees, and between his efforts to push them down and my renewed effort to escape, I heard the fragile fabric tear. “Jesus, Jackie, I always knew you had a great ass, but Christ, girl.” His hand thrust between my legs again and the weight lifted for a split second—just long enough for me to suck in a lungful of air and scream. Releasing my wrist, he slapped his hand over the back of my head and turned my face into the leather seat until I was silent, almost unable to breathe.
Even freed, my left arm was useless. I leveraged my hand against the floor of the cab and pushed, but my wrenched and aching muscles wouldn’t obey. I sobbed into the cushion, tears and saliva mixing under my cheek. “Please don’t, please don’t, oh God stop-stop-stop…” I hated the weedy sound of my powerless voice.
His weight lifted from me for a split second—he’d changed his mind, or he was repositioning—I didn’t wait to find out which. Twisting and pulling my legs up, I felt the spiky heels of my shoes tear into the pliant leather as I propelled myself to the far side of the bench seat and scrambled for the handle. Blood rushed in my ears as my body rallied for all-out fight or flight. And then I stopped, because Buck was no longer in the truck at all.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why he was standing there, just past the door, facing away from me. And then his head snapped back. Twice. He swung wildly at something but his fists hit nothing. Not until he stumbled back against my truck did I see what—or who—he was fighting.
The guy never took his eyes off Buck as he delivered two more sharp jabs to his face, bobbing to the side as they circled and Buck threw futile punches of his own, blood streaming from his nose. Finally, Buck ducked his head and rushed forward with bull-like intent, but that effort was his undoing as the stranger swung an easy uppercut to his jaw. When Buck’s head snapped up, an elbow cracked into his temple with a sickening thud. He collided with the side of the truck again, pushing off and rushing the stranger a second time. As though the entire fight was choreographed, he grabbed Buck’s shoulders and pulled him forward, hard, kneeing him under the chin. Buck crumpled to the ground, moaning and cringing.
The stranger stared down, fists balled, elbows slightly bent, poised to deliver another blow if necessary. There was no need. Buck was almost unconscious. I cowered against the far door, panting and curling into a ball as shock replaced the panic. I must have whimpered, because his eyes snapped up to mine. He rolled Buck aside with one booted foot and stepped up to the door, peering in.
“You okay?” His tone was low, careful. I wanted to say yes. I wanted to nod. But I couldn’t. I was so not okay. “I’m gonna call 911. Do you need medical assistance, or just the police?”
I envisioned the campus police arriving at the scene, the partygoers who would spill from the house when the sirens came. Erin and Chaz were only two of the many friends I had in there, more than half of them under-aged and drinking. It would be my fault if the party became the focus of the police. I would be a pariah.
I shook my head. “Don’t call.” My voice was gravelly.
“Don’t call an ambulance?”
I cleared my throat and shook my head. “Don’t call anyone. Don’t call the police.”
His jaw hung ajar and he stared across the expanse of seat. “Am I wrong, or did this guy just try to rape you—” I flinched at the ugly word “—and you’re telling me not to call the police?” He snapped his mouth closed, shook his head once and peered at me again. “Or did I interrupt something I shouldn’t have?”
I gasped, my eyes welling up. “N-no. But I just want to go home.”
Buck groaned and rolled onto his back. “Fuuuuuck,” he said, not opening his eyes, one of which was probably swollen shut anyway.
My savior stared down at him, his jaw working. He rocked his neck to one side and then back, rolled his shoulders. “Fine. I’ll drive you.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t about to escape one attack just to do something as stupid as get into a stranger’s car. “I can drive myself,” I rasped. My eyes flicked to my bag, wedged against the console, its contents spilled across the floor of the driver’s side. He glanced down, leaned to pick out my keys from the bits and pieces of my personal effects.
“I believe you were looking for these, before.” He dangled them from his fingers as I realized that I still hadn’t moved any closer to him.
I licked my lip and tasted blood for the second time that night. Scooting forward into the faint illumination shed by the tiny overhead light, I was careful to keep my skirt pulled down. A wave of dizziness crashed over me as I became fully conscious of what had almost happened, and my hand trembled when I reached out for my keys.
Frowning, he clamped his fist around them and dropped his arm back to his side. “I can’t let you drive.” Judging by his expression, my face was a disaster.
I blinked, my hand still extended for the keys he’d just confiscated. “What? Why?”
He ticked three reasons off on his fingers. “You’re shaking, probably an after-effect of the assault. I have no idea if you’re actually uninjured. And you’ve probably been drinking.”
“I have not,” I snapped. “I’m the designated driver.”
He raised one brow and glanced around. “Who exactly are you designated for? If anyone had been with you, by the way, you might have been safe tonight. Instead, you walked out into a dark parking lot, alone, paying absolutely no attention to your surroundings. Real responsible.”
Suddenly I was beyond angry. Angry at Kennedy for breaking my heart two weeks ago and not being with me tonight, seeing me to the safety of my truck. Angry at Erin for talking me into coming to this stupid party and even angrier with myself for agreeing. Furious at the barely-conscious asswipe drooling and bleeding on the concrete a few feet away. And seething at the stranger who was holding my keys hostage while accusing me of being brainless and careless.
“So it’s my fault he attacked me?” My throat was raw, but I pushed past the pain. “It’s my fault I can’t walk from a house to my truck without one of you trying to rape me?” I threw the word back at him to let him see I could bear it.
“‘One of you’? You’re gonna lump me in with that piece of shit?” He pointed at Buck, but his eyes never left mine. “I am nothing like him.” That was when I noticed the thin silver ring through the left side of his lower lip.
Great. I was in a parking lot, alone, with an insulted, facially-pierced stranger who still had my keys. I couldn’t take any more of this night. A sob came from my throat as I tried to remain composed. “May I have my keys, please?” I held my hand out, willing the tremors to subside.
He swallowed, looking at me, and I stared back into his clear eyes. I couldn’t tell their color in the dim light, but they contrasted compellingly with his dark hair. His voice was softer, less hostile. “Do you live on campus? Let me drive you. I can walk back over here and get my ride after.”
No more fight in me, I nodded, reaching over to get my bag out of his way. He helped gather the lip-gloss, wallet, tampons, hair ties, pens and pencils strewn across the floor and return them to my bag. The last item he picked up was a condom packet. He cleared his throat and held it out to me. “That’s not mine,” I said, recoiling.
He frowned. “You sure?”
I clamped my jaw, trying not to be furious all over again. “Positive.”
He glanced back at Buck. “Bastard. He was probably gonna…” He glanced into my eyes and back at Buck, scowling. “Uh… conceal the evidence.”
I couldn’t even contemplate that. He shoved the square package into his front jeans pocket. “I’ll throw it away—he’s sure as hell not getting it back.” Brow still furrowed, he swung his gaze to me again as he climbed in and started the truck. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call the police?”
Laughter sounded from the back door of the house and I nodded. Framed exactly within the center window, Kennedy danced with his arms around a girl dressed in a gauzy, low-cut white outfit, wings, and a halo. Perfect. Just perfect.
At some point during my battle with Buck, I’d lost the devil-horned headband Erin had stuffed onto my head while I sat on the bed whining that I didn’t want to go to a stupid costume party. Without the accessory, I was just a girl in a skimpy red-sequined dress that I’d refuse to be caught dead wearing otherwise.
The headlights illuminated Buck as we backed out of the parking spot. Throwing a hand in front of his eyes, he attempted to roll to a sitting position. I could see his split lip, misshapen nose and swollen eye, even from that distance.
It was just as well I wasn’t the one behind the wheel. I probably would have run him over.
I gave the name of my dorm when asked, and stared out the passenger window, unable to speak another word as we meandered across campus. With a straightjacket hug, I gripped myself, trying to conceal the shudders wracking through me every five seconds. I didn’t want him to see, but I couldn’t make them stop.
The dorm lot was nearly full; spots near the door were all taken. He angled the truck into a back space and hopped out, coming around to meet me as I slid from the passenger side of my own truck. Teetering on the edge of breaking down and losing it, I took the keys after he activated the door locks, and followed him to the building.
“Your ID?” he asked when we reached the door.
My hands shook as I unsnapped the front flap on my bag and withdrew the card. When he took it from my fingers, I noted the blood on his knuckles and gasped. “Oh, my God. You’re bleeding.”
He glanced at his hand and shook his head, once. “Nah. Mostly his blood.” His lips pressed flat and he turned away to swipe the card through the door access, and I wondered if he meant to follow me inside. I didn’t think I could hold myself together for much longer.
After opening the door, he handed me my ID card. In the light from the entry vestibule, I could see his eyes more clearly—they were a clear gray-blue under his lowered brows. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked for the second time, and I felt my face crumple.
Chin down, I shoved the card into my bag and nodded uselessly. “Yes. Fine,” I lied.
He huffed a disbelieving sigh, running a hand through his hair. “Can I call someone for you?”
I shook my head. I had to get to my room so I could fall apart. “Thank you, but no.” I slipped past him, careful not to brush against any part of him, and headed for the stairs.
“Jackie?” he called softly, unmoving from the doorway. I looked back, gripping the handrail, and our eyes met. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I bit my lip, hard, nodding once before I turned and ran up the stairs, my shoes rapping against the concrete steps. At the second floor landing, I stopped abruptly and turned to look back at the door. He was gone.
I didn’t know his name, and couldn’t remember ever seeing him before, let alone meeting him. I’d have remembered those unusually clear eyes. I had no idea who he was… and he’d just called me by name. Not the name on my ID—Jacqueline—but Jackie, the nickname I’d gone by ever since Kennedy renamed me, our junior year of high school.
Two weeks ago:
“Wanna come up? Or stay over? Erin is staying at Chaz’s this weekend…” My voice was playful, sing-songy. “His roommate’s out of town. Which means I’ll be all alone…”
Kennedy and I were a month from our three-year anniversary. There was no need to be coy. Erin had taken to calling us an old married couple lately. To which I’d reply, “Jealous.” And then she’d flip me off.
“Um, yeah. I’ll come up for a little while.” He kneaded the back of his neck as he pulled into the dorm parking lot and searched for a parking space, his expression inscrutable.
Prickles of apprehension arose in my chest, and I swallowed uneasily. “Are you all right?” The neck-rubbing was a known stress signal.
He flicked a glance in my direction. “Yeah. Sure.” He pulled into the first open spot, wedging his BMW between two pickups. He never, ever wedged his prized import into constricted spots. Door dings drove him insane. Something was up. I knew he was worried over upcoming midterms, especially pre-cal. His fraternity was hosting a mixer the next night, too, which was plain stupid the weekend before midterms.
I swiped us into the building and we entered the back stairwell that always creeped me out when I was alone. With Kennedy behind me, all I noticed was dingy, gum-adorned walls and the stale, almost sour smell. I jogged up the last flight and we emerged into the hallway.
Glancing back at him while unlocking my door, I shook my head over the charming portrayal of a penis someone had doodled onto the whiteboard Erin and I used for notes to each other and from our suitemates. Coed dorms were less mature than depicted on college websites. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of twelve year olds.
“You could call in sick tomorrow night, you know.” I laid a palm on his arm. “Stay here with me—we’ll hide out and spend the weekend studying and ordering take-out… and other stress-reducing activities…” I grinned naughtily. He stared at his shoes.
My heart sped up and I suddenly felt warm all over. Something was definitely wrong. I wanted him to spit it out, whatever it was, because my mind was conjuring nothing but alarming possibilities. It had been so long since we’d had a problem or a real conflict that I felt blindsided.
He moved into my room and sat on my desk chair, not my bed.
I walked up to him, our knees bumping, wanting him to tell me he was just in a bad mood, or worried about his upcoming exams. My heart thudding heavily, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Kennedy?”
“Jackie, we need to talk.”
The drumming pulse in my ears grew louder, and my hand dropped from his shoulder. I grabbed it up in my other hand and sat on the bed, three feet from him. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow, let alone speak.
He was silent, avoiding my eyes for a couple of minutes that felt like forever. Finally, he lifted his gaze to me. He looked sad. Oh, God. Ohgodohgodohgod.
“I’ve been having some… trouble… lately. With other girls.”
I blinked, glad I was sitting down. My legs would have buckled and sent me to the floor if I’d have been standing. “What do you mean?” I croaked out. “What do you mean, ‘trouble’ and ‘other girls’?”
He sighed heavily. “Not like that, not really. I mean, I haven’t done anything.” He looked away and sighed again. “But I think I want to.”
“I don’t understand.” My mind worked frantically to make the best possible situation out of this, but every single remotely-possible alternative sucked.
He got up and paced the room twice before planting himself halfway between the door and me. “You know how important it is to me to pursue a career in law and politics.”
I nodded, still stunned to silence and pedaling hard to keep up.
“You know our sister sorority?”
I nodded again, acknowledging the very thing I’d worried about when he moved into the frat house. Apparently, I hadn’t worried enough.
“There’s a girl—a couple of girls, actually, that… well.”
I tried to keep my voice rational and level. “Kennedy, this doesn’t make sense. You aren’t saying you’ve acted on this, or that you want to—”
He stared into my eyes, so there’d be no mistake. “I want to.”
Really, he could have just punched me in the stomach, because my brain refused to comprehend the words he was saying. A physical assault, it might have understood. “You want to? What the hell do you mean, you want to?”
He bolted out of the chair, walked to the door and back—a distance of a dozen feet. “What do you think I mean? Jesus. Don’t make me say it.”
I gaped. “Why not? Why not say it—if you can imagine doing it—then why the fuck not say it? And what does this have to do with your career plans—”
“I was getting to that. Look, everyone knows that one of the worst things a political candidate or elected representative can do is to become embroiled in some sexual scandal.” His eyes locked on mine in what I recognized as his debate-face. “I’m only human, Jackie, and if I have these desires to sow my wild oats or whatever and I repress it, I’ll probably have the same desire later, even worse. But acting on it then would be a career-killer.” He spread his hands helplessly. “I have no choice but to get it out of my system while I can do it without annihilating my future professional standing.”
I told myself, This isn’t happening. My boyfriend of three years was not breaking up with me so he could bang coeds with shameless abandon. I blinked hard and tried to take a deep breath, but I couldn’t. There was no oxygen in the room. I glared at him, silent.
His jaw clenched. “Okay, so I guess trying to let you down easy was a bad idea—”
“This is your idea of letting me down easy? Breaking up with me so you can screw other girls? Without feeling guilty? Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
The last thing I thought before I picked up my econ textbook and hurled it at him: How can he use such a piece-of-shit cliché in a moment like this?