Books, paper, pen, registration information…yep, I had it all. I sent another glare toward my espresso machine and headed out the door for seminar. Screw World Literature, I needed a course in how to use that.
Maybe it was good to kick my caffeine addiction. But morning coffee with Rachel was the one thing that had gotten me out of bed when I’d wanted the universe to swallow me whole freshman year, and now it was a habit I couldn’t break. It wasn’t even the drink itself as much as it was the routine, knowing that the world didn’t care if I wanted it to stop turning—it was going to keep going, and so was I…whether or not I saw the purpose to it.
So I’d gotten up every morning, carefully masked the pain, the hopelessness, and the dread that took up residence in my soul every time the alarm clock went off and I realized I was still alive…still the lucky one. I showered off the sweat from the nightmares, put on my clothes, and poured a goddamned cup of coffee with Rachel, because that’s what living people did. They…lived.
Sure, the time had passed, my memories of him softening enough to breathe, to move on. Brian. See? I could think his name now without crying. There was even a sweetness to it instead of the oppressive grief that had been my constant companion these last couple of years, but I still dreaded mornings.
Maybe this trip would change that.
Maybe my heart wasn’t pristine. Maybe it was stitched together. Maybe the seams were even a little frayed over the parts that refused to knit—the parts I had a feeling never would—but it was whole again. I was living.
And if I didn’t hurry, I was going to be late for seminar.
I glanced toward Paxton’s room and debated knocking on his door. Nope. He’s a big boy. There was zero chance in hell I was going to be his babysitter for the next nine months. I’d thought about it all night and came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to keep my sanity this year was to distance myself whenever possible.
But if he missed seminar, I’d be forced to fill him in.
His door opened, and I breathed a sigh of relief—until I realized that he wasn’t the one walking out of it. A beautiful brunette in bright white shorts emerged, pulling her hair down around her sunglasses to frame her face until she saw me standing outside my door.
Then she raised those glasses and stalked toward me.
“So you’re the one,” she sang sweetly, her eyes nowhere near matching the saccharine tone of her voice.
“The one, what?” I asked. It was too early to deal with this.
“The one who wormed her way into my harness yesterday.” Her eyes swept up and down my frame, her arched eyebrows making it fairly obvious that she found me lacking.
“Look, I don’t know who you are—”
The girl from yesterday. “Well, hi, Zoe. I’m Leah, and despite what you may think, given that you came out of Paxton’s room, I’m only his tutor. I had zero desire to be a part of that insanity yesterday, so if you have an issue with what happened, you can take it up with your boyfriend.” The worst part of it all was that I didn’t even have a sense of pride that I’d gone through with the stunt—just a nauseating fear that I’d have to do something like that again.
Her mouth opened, but before she said anything else, the door between mine and Paxton’s opened and a tall, willowy blonde walked out with her arms full of books. Was she the girl I’d seen yesterday on Paxton’s balcony? She glanced between us and shook her head. “Don’t be a bitch, Zo. If Wilder had wanted you on that line, he would have taken you.”
Zoe’s eyes narrowed, but she simply turned on her heel and dismissed me, as if she’d realized I wasn’t worth talking to. I breathed a little easier with every step she took in the opposite direction, swaying her flawless figure.
A stab of irrational jealousy ripped through me. Of course that was the type of girl Paxton went for. He wasn’t the guy to settle for anything less than perfection.
“Thank you,” I said to the girl as she approached.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, offering me a kind smile as we walked toward the elevator. “You’re Leah, right? Wilder’s tutor?”
I nodded. “That’s me. How did you know?”
Her laugh was musical. “You’re kind of the talk of our little town right now. I’m Brooke, Penna’s sister.” She must have seen the confused look on my face, because she took mercy and explained. “She goes by Rebel.”
“Ahh, one of Paxton’s Renegades.”
“Yep, one of the Originals. Those guys are inseparable and inflicted with the same daredevil disease. Wilder’s a magnet for those kind of people.” The way her voice softened caught my attention.
“Oh, are you two…?”
She hit the button for the elevator. “No way. And he’s not with Zoe, either, no matter how badly she wishes. She’s full of shit and probably crawled out of Landon’s bed, so don’t let her get to you about Pax.”
“I don’t care who he dates,” I protested as the doors dinged open. “I just need him to keep his grades up.”
“Well, that makes a whole bunch of us,” she said as we took the elevator to deck eight. “I know it’s odd, the position he’s put you in with the suite. Weird, but you’re kind of his Obi Wan.”
“Are you seriously telling me I’m his only hope?” I asked, unable to stifle my grin.
“A girl after my own heart.” She laughed. “And yes. You were selected for him for a reason, not simply tossed into the tutor pool.”
“Weirdest thing ever,” I muttered as we walked through the doors onto the deck.
The auditorium, which had been the theater before the ship was remodeled for the program last year, was filling quickly. “There’s Penna. Did you want to sit with us?” Brooke asked.
Without Rachel, who’d been my security blanket these last couple of years, I’d have to make new friends or sit in my room alone the next three months until she got here. “Sure, thanks.”
“Oh, and Leah,” she said, gently stopping me with her hand on my arm, “maybe the question isn’t why it’s weird that you’re stuck with the Renegades, but why you’re the one he chose.”
She patted my arm and walked toward her sister, leaving me a bigger mass of confusion. Chose? He chose me? He was allowed the choice? None of the other tutors I’d met had been chosen, they’d all simply been assigned.
We took our seats next to another blonde, and I immediately recognized her as the girl I’d seen outside on Paxton’s balcony. “Nice to meet you, Firecracker.” Penna waved from the other side of her sister.
Apparently Paxton’s nickname for me had traveled fast.
“You, too, Penna. Or do you prefer Rebel?” I asked, realizing my error.
She had a supermodel smile and matching legs. “Penna’s fine for you, Leah.” The genetics in that family were seriously enviable. “Of course Wilder is late. I barely got him up when I walked out the door.”
“Oh, you room together?” That would explain the balcony.
“Yeah, it’s a three bedroom, and they thought the team should be together.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say. Conversation wasn’t something I was particularly skilled at, and nodding usually saved me from whatever awkward comment was undoubtedly going to come out of my mouth.
My watch read 9:05 a.m. Of course he was late, but I saved the seat next to me anyway.
“Good morning, students, I’m Dr. Paul, Dean of Academics.” A middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair appeared from behind the curtain center stage. “Welcome to the Athena. I trust that your first night went well?”
A cheer went through the auditorium.
“Good. Now it’s time to buckle down. Today is your first full day of classes. The ship functions as a self-contained college campus. You’ll have regular classes, exams, homework—all the fun. You should have registered for the relevant shore excursions, but if you find that you need extra credit, contact your professors to see if they’re offering any extra field studies to boost your grades.”
“Morning, Firecracker,” Paxton whispered in my ear as he slid into the empty seat next to me.
“You’re late,” I chided, trying to ignore the way my stomach tightened at the sound of his voice.
He simply winked and slid a steaming cup of coffee my way. I took a tentative sip and nearly moaned in ecstasy. Where I’d had an outright battle with the huge espresso machine, he’d obviously had no issues with his.
“Thank you,” I said with a soft smile, more than aware that I hadn’t exactly been nice to him yesterday.
My stomach nearly dropped to the floor. How was something so simple so incredibly sexy? At least he has a shirt on today. I called that a win for womenkind. After all, we had to study somehow.
“All classes occur during at-sea days. When it comes to shore days, if we’re in port, you’re given free rein. You’re adults, after all. But you’d better be on board when it’s time to sail, or we will leave you behind. If you are so unfortunate as to be left, you’d better make it to the next port before we leave, or you’re out of the program. No exceptions. That includes you, Mr. Wilder.” He pointed up to Paxton, who grinned.
“Hey, I made it on before we left port.”
“Uh-huh.” Dean Paul didn’t seem amused. I liked him already.
He went on to explain meal times, activities on the ship, locations of the bookstore and our classrooms. I took copious notes while Paxton sat with his arms folded across his chest, looking bored.
“Now this is the first excursion of its kind. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Semester at Sea program, and that is not what we’re doing here. It’s a full academic year on board the Athena. You’ll go home for Christmas and return in the new year just like any other college. You’re expected to keep up your grades, and you can be expelled like at any other school. This program is unique in its makeup, its opportunities in port, the freedom you’re given, and its work-study program. Respect all the students aboard, stay out of my office, and we’ll get along fine.”
The differences in the programs were what made this one so much more expensive—hell, it catered to rich kids—but the work-study made it possible for people like me. The expense afforded the luxury for kids like Paxton.
“Ready for lit?” Paxton asked as we exited the auditorium.
“No cameras?” I asked, looking in both directions down the hall.
“I think the crew is still hungover. Besides, they’re not that interested in the academic side of this. Hey,” he said to Brooke as she started to pass us. “Little John said you had the Bermuda papers.”
“I did,” she answered. “Don’t worry, I popped them into your safe after I faxed them over to the permit office.”
“Sweet. Thank you,” he said before she went ahead to her class.
“It must take a lot of coordination to do…whatever it is you do.”
“It does. I’m lucky I’ve got some great friends to do it with.”
As we walked down the narrow halls, I was acutely aware of the eyes on us, but I did my best to ignore them. If this was the cost for taking the trip, then so be it.
“So, I met Zoe this morning,” I said, sneaking a sideways look at Paxton. “She’s…um…”
“She’s something else,” he said, shaking his head. “Was she a bitch?”
He flinched. “I’d apologize for her, but she wouldn’t be sorry. When they opened up the reservations for the team first, I figured she’d skip out. College was never her thing, but then she signed up, and I couldn’t tell her no. She’s a Renegade.”
He held the door for me into our classroom, and I buried my instinct to smile. This wasn’t a date, for God’s sake. He was just being a gentleman. “How many of you are there on the ship?”
“Three of the Originals who started the channel, and we do the majority of the stunts and all the larger ones, but the entire team is about fifteen of us, plus camera crew. Landon is another Original. Brooke and Penna handle a ton of our tech, but Penna’s also a badass on a bike. Don’t let her cute looks fool you.”
“Noted,” I said, taking an empty seat in the front. He surprised me by sliding into the one directly behind me instead of beside me.
“Some view,” he said quietly into my hair, which I’d left down today.
I took in the floor-to-ceiling windows that ran the length of the room. For miles there was only blue Caribbean water. “Breathtaking.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, but I felt the slight movement of my hair, and when I glanced back, he dropped a few strands from between his fingers.
I snapped my head to face forward. Not for you. That guy is not for you.
“Good morning, class,” our professor said as she sailed through the doors, headed for the podium. Her red hair was swept into a topknot, and she wore the same kind of linen pants I did. “I’m Dr. Mae, and I’ll be your professor for World Literature in the first trimester. If that’s not the class you signed up for, the door is behind you,” she added with a friendly smile.
“We take on a ton of reading in this class, and I’ve found that students work better in pairs to discuss reading on their own time. First and third rows, turn around and meet your partner.”
I turned so see Paxton grin, his blue eyes sparkling more than the water we were sailing through. “Hi.”
“Go figure,” I mumbled. There was no escaping him. Why do you want to?
I nearly scoffed at my own thoughts. There was wanting something you couldn’t have, and then there was being shown fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven and being told not to touch—they’d burn you, and besides, they were for the prettier, whole girls, not the broken ones.
Broken girls got the stale, crumbled, oatmeal raisin ones.
“Now find out a few things about your partner, because you’re going to give their introduction.”
“You have to be kidding.” If there hadn’t been twenty eyes on me, I would have slammed my forehead into the desk. Like Paxton needed an introduction.
“Okay, what do you want the class to know, Mr. Wilder?” I asked.
His eyes narrowed slightly, and he sucked his lower lip into his mouth, skimming his teeth over it. My stomach clenched in a way it had no business doing, imagining what he would do to my lower lip.
“I don’t care about the class. What do you want to know?”
I blinked, tearing my eyes away from his before I couldn’t think. “I want to know what’s not on Google.”
One of his dimples made an appearance, and I had the most insane impulse to run my tongue along it. Holy shit, get a grip. “Ask anything you want.”
“What’s your major?”
“Physics. Come on, you can do better than that.”
“Why even go to college, or do this program, if you’re already a superstar?”
“I took last year off when we made it big. Graduating is part of the legal agreement to get my trust fund, among other things my father likes to bargain for.”
Trust-fund baby. Of course. “So it’s all about money?”
He shook his head. “It’s about the movie, the stunts, the rush, doing something no one’s ever done before. The money just makes it possible.”
“I thought you were sponsored? You have that energy drink stuff all over your YouTube channel.”
“Checking up on me again, eh, Firecracker?”
I felt my cheeks heat. “If I’d forced you onto a zip line and into a documentary, scared the living crap out of you, and then nearly drowned you, you’d be checking up on me, too.”
“No, I’d be saying thank you. Everything you said sounds pretty damn good. Well, except the cameras. They get old fast.” He tapped his pencil on the desktop, and his eyes flickered toward the door, where there was, in fact, a camera with its lens against the glass panel. “Especially when they show up places they said they wouldn’t.”
“Then why keep them?”
“Because if no one sees the epic moments, did they ever really happen?”
Our eyes locked, and my breath became pure energy in my lungs, sending butterflies into my stomach while rushing a strange chill through my limbs. “I think it depends on who you define as no one. Not everything epic is meant for a worldwide audience.”
The cocky camera grin replaced the one I was quickly becoming enamored with, transforming him from Paxton to Wilder right in front of my eyes. “Well, that depends on what your definition of epic is. I can definitely say there are some one-on-one moments that aren’t meant for camera. Unless they’re giving the documentary an X rating.”
Well, if that didn’t kill the butterflies. Arrogant asshole.
“We’re going to get started,” Dr. Mae said, and the people down the line from us began their intros.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I whispered at him.
“Not nearly enough, Firecracker, but I can get through this.”
Why did I have the feeling that was going to be his entire attitude to schoolwork this year? Fine, if he wanted to skate by, I could do it, too.
Shit, it was already our turn.
“Begin when you’re ready,” Dr. Mae said from her desk at the front of the room.
“I’m Leah Baxter, and this is Wilder, but I’m sure you all know that,” I said, taking in every awestruck look on the guys and every wistful look on the girls. I nearly smacked Paxton in the stomach when I saw him raise his eyebrows for a girl in the third row. “Wilder is a senior, majoring in physics, most likely because he likes to hurl his body at every obstacle he can.” The class laughed. “He’s stubborn, ambitious, and has two X Game medals.”
“Five. I have five,” he corrected me, looking like I’d killed his puppy.
“He’s also a know-it-all. He’s all about challenges, doesn’t take no for an answer—”
“Except from you,” he muttered.
“—and likes pushing people outside their comfort zones.”
“I also speak fluent Spanish, German, and Greek, but that seems pretty trivial,” Paxton added with a shrug.
Cocky, arrogant…ugh. I couldn’t even think of a less-offensive word to describe him.
Dr. Mae cleared her throat, poorly stifling a laugh. “Wilder?”
He gave me a crooked grin, and I reminded myself not to melt into a puddle in front of the class. Hell, if he gave that grin out any more there would be a pile of panties in front of him in no time. Thank God I was wearing pants. They were an extra layer of protection.
Even your pants would join the pile if he really wanted. I was so screwed.
“Leah is a junior, majoring in international relations at Dartmouth. She wants to get her Masters in International Relations and is currently ranked second in her class, which means I think she’ll get into whatever grad school she wants. She’s an only child, raised in California, only a dozen miles away from my house, actually—”
“How?” I whispered.
He leaned to the side and whispered in my ear, “If someone actually agreed to strap into a zip line when they were terrified, and they held your future in your hands, don’t you think you’d Google them?”
I should have been flattered that he’d taken the time to research me, but I couldn’t get past the giant knot in my throat, the crippling sensation of complete paralysis. He’d Googled. What else did he know? How deep had he dug? Did he see pictures? Would his cool, flirtatious condescension turn to pity? God, I’d rather he ignore me completely than pity me.
“She’s had to work for everything she has, and that makes her proud, ambitious, which is a trait I recognize.” He looked over and locked eyes with me. “And she’s incredibly brave, which I respect above everything else.”
I swallowed, my emotions so conflicted that I wasn’t sure how to respond. Or breathe. Yeah. I was screwed.
Distance. That was it. Remember the plan. I needed to distance myself from Pax and the other Renegades when I wasn’t in class or tutoring him. Find a different circle of friends, or even a guy I might be interested in. Yup, that was the answer.
I made it through World Lit and headed back to the room during our two-hour break. Paxton walked me to the door and then promised to meet me before physics.
I walked in to find Hugo in my room, hanging up clean towels. “You don’t have to do that,” I assured him.
“You don’t have to tutor Wilder, either, but we both have jobs to do if we’re going to stay on our little trip,” he responded with a wide grin. “Besides, as people go, I lucked out when I got you. My friend Luke got Zoe.”
“See? I’ll fetch your towels all day long.”
I laughed. “Fine, but only if you show me how to work the freaking espresso machine.”
“I could make it for you,” he offered.
“Oh, no thank you. It’s honestly part of my routine.” The part that told me the day was coming for me whether or not I wanted it to, so I may as well hit the ground caffeinated.
He snapped his fingers and ran over to the machine, showing me with quick hands how to get my early morning caffeine fix.
“Perfect, now I’ll feel right at home. Thank you.”
“Speaking of at home, why haven’t you unpacked?”
I sipped my coffee, reveling in the dark taste. “Because I wasn’t certain I was going to keep the suite, honestly.”
“And now?” he asked.
“Given the rather odd circumstances of my scholarship, I don’t think I have a choice.”
His shoulders sagged with obvious relief. “Phew. Okay. I was scared you’d quit and they’d move Zoe in here.”
“You’re safe,” I promised him with a smile.
“In that case, I’ll go work on getting you unpacked.”
“No, I can—”
The doorbell rang.
“There’s a doorbell? Seriously?” It must have been Paxton, but we weren’t expected in class yet.
“Ah, how the other half lives.” He grinned.
“I’ll get it,” I said, walking over to the door and opening it to find Penna standing on the other side, two giant bags in her hand.
“Thank you, God,” she muttered, sliding in past me. “Which bedroom is empty?”
“The first one on the right,” Hugo answered.
“What…” I followed her into Rachel’s room, and she dumped her bags onto the bed.
“Oh, nice, it has a private balcony, too. Does yours?”
“Yes,” I answered. Benefits of a corner suite, I guessed. Not that I’d explored it. The huge one that ran between my room and Paxton’s was quite enough, thank you.
“I couldn’t stay in that room one more night, with the music, and the girls, and the fucking cameras. Pax said the cameras aren’t allowed in here, right?”
“Well, then I’m your roommate until your other one arrives. God knows if I have to listen to one more girl cry out Landon’s name I’m going to vomit. It’s like hearing your brother’s porn. Gross.”
My power of speech failed me.
“Besides, as much as we’re all adventurers, my parents had freaked about Brooke sharing with another girl, leaving me with the guys.” She wandered into the hallway, looking at the rooms. “What about your parents?”
“Um. They told me to have a good time?”
She walked into my room, where Hugo had my suitcase open on the bed and was unpacking my stuff Then she picked up a large box of condoms out of my bag. Oh. My. Fucking. Lord. No.
“Those aren’t mine,” I whispered, knowing how much of an idiot I sounded.
Her laugh was bright when she turned over the box, then showed me the sticky note in my mom’s handwriting. “Be safe. Have fun. Loosen up for crying out loud. There’s a whole wide world waiting for you, Leah-bug. Love, Mom.”
“That’s what I get for being born to hippies.”
Penna wrapped her arm around my shoulder and tossed the condoms at Hugo, who was redder than the pair of cherry pumps he’d unpacked.
“I think we’ll get along just fine.”
After I kicked Hugo out and unpacked with Penna telling me hilarious stories while sitting on my bed, I realized that I hadn’t distanced myself from the Renegades at all…
I’d moved in with one.
Thank you so much for checking out Wilder, Chapter Three!
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