Exclusive first chapter reveal for HOLD ME DOWN

 

When I graduated from high school, my dad offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse: all I had to do to secure a debt-free adulthood was major in business and graduate from the Darla Moore School of Business.

Three years later, I was absolutely miserable.

And if it was just the classes that were terrible, then okay. But, even as a junior, I had yet to make any friends in the department that I spoke to outside of classes. There was something foreign about me, or about them. Floppy-haired frat boys in pastel shorts and boat shoes, slavering at the thought of calculating Excel pivot tables, clamoring for the opportunity to discover and exploit target markets?

Kill me.

But the good news is no matter how much you hate your major, you still have to take electives. My freshman year, I stumbled into an Anthropology 100-level, and fell head over heels in love.

So I kept taking classes. And I didn’t tell my dad.

The Zooarchaeology class I took the fall semester of my junior year with Dr. Rennicks was my second one with him. He was one of those genuinely cool professors who sat on the desk because he liked to be comfortable, didn’t bother with PowerPoint, and hung out with students between classes. Which is why, in the second week of the semester, when he caught me after the end of class and asked if I was busy that afternoon, I didn’t even try to keep the smile off my face. My commercial law class had sucked out all my chill.

“No, this is my last class of the day.”

A guy I’d seen in his company before was already loitering in the doorway, playing with his phone. Rennicks said, “An old student of mine is in town for the game this weekend, and some of us are going to grab some food in a little. You in?”

I shrugged, which hopefully came off a lot cooler than I felt. “Sure,” I said, like this wasn’t the greatest thing that had happened to me all semester. “Where?”

*                *                *

Forty minutes later, I pulled into Oaxaca Grill’s nearly empty gravel lot. I was clearly the first one here, but I went inside anyway. This one of my favorite joints, cheap and delicious, if a little shaky on the air conditioning. Inside, it was decorated like a bad hangover: strings of shamrocks and glittery candy canes and grinning jack-o-lanterns, strands of little Corona bottles and jalapeno pepper lights, Mardi Gras beads, Mexican flags. I loved it.

I didn’t have to wait long before the door dinged and disgorged a boisterous stream of men into the vestibule. They clogged the entryway while we waited for the hostess, and Rennicks finally worked his way up to me.

“Hey, you made it,” he said brightly, like he was surprised and pleased to see me. It made me feel all warm and squishy, which in turn made me feel ridiculous. But in a school with almost forty thousand students, it was nice to know your favorite professor didn’t consider you part of the faceless undergraduate mass.

“I didn’t know how many, so I didn’t put in for a table,” I said. “Plus there’s like, nobody in here, so it probably doesn’t even matter.”

“We’ve got, uh…” He wiggled his fingers, scanning the group and counting, while two of the guys behind him bumped fists over something. “Nine.”

“Eight?” I suggested.

“We’ve got one more coming.” Rennicks looked at his watch. “He’s teaching a class right now, but should be on his way any minute.”

The waitstaff pushed us some tables together and everyone sat down, laughing and talking, shoulder-jostling each other for menus. The only one of them I actually knew was Rennicks, who sat across from me. Today’s end-of-class loiterer, Cooper, was on my right, and on my left was the one empty chair, because no one wants to be the guy who has to sit next to someone he doesn’t know.

Introductions were made. Chips were brought. Everyone ordered beer—except for me. I ordered water. The guy next to Rennicks (Hunter?) brought his sweating bottle to his lips and said, “Designated driver?”

“No,” I deadpanned. “Minor.”

He choked on his beer.

Rennicks slapped him on the back, and the guy on his other side (Steve? Maybe?) shouted, “Pooley!”

Everyone turned around, so, with, okay, maybe a little more eyeroll than was necessary, I did, too.

Uh.

Pooley was hot.

Hot like, Thor moved to Portland and got a job in a logging company hot. Blond hair pulled back into a little knot. Beard. Plaid button-down, solid tie. Flat front chinos, broken-in workboots, and—

Jesus. Legs for days.

He strode across the restaurant, a grin slowly spreading across his face. He walked around the table and Hunter managed to get his cough under control before he stood up and embraced Pooley. They pounded each other’s backs like rutting silverbacks.

“How’ve you been, man?” Hunter asked when they let go.

“Living the dream,” he replied. His voice was deep, smooth, like expensive bourbon. I wanted to get drunk on it. “My defense is in April.”

Hunter whistled in sympathy and sat down as Pooley came around to claim the empty chair next to me. I stared at the bowl of salsa in front of me, because I had no idea what to do with my eyes. The chair creaked under Pooley’s weight, and I felt it when he turned his attention on me.

And here I was, in ripped-up jeans and a sloppy bun, held together with bobby pins and prayer, because of course I was.

He extended his arms, reseating the fall of his shirt.

He said, “I don’t think we’ve met before.”

He started rolling up his sleeves. Tattoos, black lines and bright splashes of paint, in a slow revelation of skin.

My mouth was dry. Like the freaking Gobi. I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

He paused his forearm striptease to extend his hand. “I’m Sean Poole.”

I made myself look at him. Blue eyes. Of course. But dark, like the last gasp of twilight. I shook his hand, but it didn’t quite fit in mine. His index finger lay against my wrist, resting against my pulse.

I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I wanted to crawl into his lap.

And I really, really wanted that beer. “Talia Benson.”

One corner of his mouth crept up, and he took his hand away, returning his attention to his sleeves. My eyes followed, like a good little girl. “Nice to meet you, Talia. How’d you get suckered into hanging out with this bunch of degenerates?”

“Uh,” I said. “I’m in, um…” Those arms, Christ. I forced myself to look at his face. Not any better.

“She’s in my zooarch class,” Rennicks supplied.

I winced. Stupid Sean with his stupid forearms and his stupid eyes making it impossible for me to even carry on a conversation.

But he didn’t even look over at Rennicks. He just repeated, “Zooarch,” kind of thoughtfully. Was I being quizzed? Judged? Mocked? The whole conversation made me feel like I needed to justify my class choices to him, this guy I didn’t even know.

The hell with that. Embarrassment hardened into rebellion. I gathered the tatters of my dignity and said, “Yeah. Zooarch.”

He looked over at me without lifting his head. I looked away like I had been caught doing something naughty, my gaze jerking around the room like a mosquito stuck in a spiderweb. I looked at the windows, the bathroom sign, the kitchen pass-through. Anywhere but those eyes. He said, “Anthropology major?”

“Accounting,” I said.

“No wonder I haven’t seen you around.” I made the mistake of looking at him again. He was grinning. “I’d have remembered you.”

I blushed and looked away. Then I blushed harder, because it takes a lot to make me blush. It takes a lot to unnerve me, in general, yet there he was, effortlessly unnerving the shit out of me.

I liked it.

A lot.

He finished rolling up his sleeves and said, to the table, “Y’all ordered yet?”

“Drinks,” Hunter said. “We were waiting for you to grace us with your presence.”

“Well,” Sean said, leaning back and lacing his fingers behind his head, “here I am.”

Lord. Bodies like that should be illegal.

Speak, Talia.

“So,” I said, then cleared my throat when he looked over at me, “your defense?”

He nodded and ate a chip before he answered. “My dissertation is on the assimilation of communities of color in the Southeast during the first hundred years after European contact.”

“Shit,” I said, and he laughed. “I mean, that’s”—ugh, find something to say that doesn’t sound extremely undergraduate—“intense.”

Fail.

“Yeah,” he said, and looked away.

No. I was not going to be That Girl.

“Are you including the Spanish settlements in Florida?”

He met my eyes again, but there was some new tilt to his head that told me I had done the right thing. “No, I’m mostly focusing on the British and Scots-Irish in the Carolinas and Georgia. The Spanish cultural influence was so hugely different than it deserves its own paper.”

“So your timeline is more like, 1650-1750?”

He nodded, then raised one eyebrow conspiratorially. “Truth be told, including Spanish and Portuguese colonization would make me have to change the title, and honestly, that is just so much work at this point.”

I laughed, and he grinned back. “Got it. I understand priorities.”

For the rest of the meal, every time Sean looked at me—and he kept fucking looking at me—I got flustered, self-conscious. I couldn’t sit still. I kept touching my hair, my face, my neck. I covered my mouth when I laughed in case I had refried-bean breath or cilantro in my teeth.

And when he reached down for his wallet to pay his bill, his arm brushed mine. I looked down at where he’d bumped me, and when I looked up, those deep-sea eyes were waiting for me. They dropped to my mouth for a second, just a moment, just long enough to know I hadn’t imagined it.

He licked his lips and murmured, “Sorry.”

My body reacted to that little flicker of pink tongue, to that utterly insincere apology, as if he had actually touched me.

“It’s fine.” The words came out all whispery and loose, like I’d just finished a marathon.

My breath too shallow, my pulse high and hard in my throat, my cheeks hot as fire. Running, even though I wanted nothing more than to be caught.

It happened again when he put his wallet away. And when he stood up to go to the restroom. And when he sat down.

He didn’t apologize again.

The boys tumbled out of the door the same way they’d come in, bouncing, bumping fists, talking about how Carolina was gonna beat the shit out of ECU. For my part, I tried not to be too obvious about matching my pace to Sean’s.

Talk to me, look at me, anything. Anything.

“This you?” he asked as I pulled my keys out of my pocket. He gave my car a quirked-eyebrow once-over, which, to be fair, it deserved: it was a hand-me-down Volvo station wagon we’d used as a family car since I was in elementary school.

“Yep,” I said, rising up on my toes and patting her side. “Good ole Bea Arthur.”

He blinked. “You named your car Bea Arthur?”

“You should hear when I start her up,” I said. “Sounds exactly like you’d imagine.”

He laughed, and—well, he’d laughed before, in the restaurant, if you get down to the technical, physiological point of it. But out here, he lit up like the summer sky. He didn’t laugh because that was the appropriate social reaction, he laughed because I made him laugh.

Pride surged high in me, made me brave. I made Sean Poole laugh.

He said, “Star Wars Christmas Special.”

“Oh my God,” I groaned.

“I can pull it up right now,” he said, reaching into his back pocket.

“Do not.”

He was looking down at his phone, typing. “I’m doing it.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re a sadist?”

“It’s part of my aesthetic.”

“Your aesthetic sucks, you monster.”

“I want to take you out.”

I opened my mouth but nothing came out, the rhythm of the conversation broken by this unexpected announcement. Finally, I said, “Okay?”

“Okay. How about tomorrow?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, wait. Okay, like, okay, I believe you. Not, okay, I’ll go out with you. I mean, I will, but that isn’t what I meant. I mean—Jesus.” I put my hand over my eyes.

“So…tomorrow then?”

“Friday,” I said, removing my hand from my eyes, “I can’t Friday. Well, Friday night. I can’t do Friday nights. I mean, I shouldn’t, so I don’t.”

He’d tilted his head at some point and was watching me make a complete fool of myself. Maybe the ground would show mercy and swallow me whole.

“Saturday will be hard,” he said. “I’m going to the game.”

“Right,” I said. “Well. I—”

“Tell me your phone number.”

I was halfway through the number before I stopped myself. “Hold on. Just—hold on. This is nuts. I don’t even know you. I can’t just—”

“You can say no,” he said. “I’m a grown-up. I can take rejection.”

“It isn’t that,” I said. “I’m not saying no.”

“So what is it?”

I studied him. “How old are you?”

“Moot,” he said. “You said yes already, so my age can’t have affected your decision.”

I looked up at him. He still had his phone out, thumb poised over the screen, waiting for me to give him the last four digits. “Son of a bitch,” I muttered, and rattled off the rest of the number. “Are you sure you’re not a used car salesman?”

He pocketed his phone and pulled his car keys out. “No, I’m worse than that,” he said, and winked at me. “I’m charming.”

*                *                *

It’s not like I didn’t know how to deal with attention from men. I’ve had enough curves for enough years to know what that looks like. But Sean was different: he had edges. And this sharp intensity when he’d looked at me, like he could get to know me without asking any questions, like he already knew too much. It had run me through like a bayonet, skewered me and split me right open.

Now, my brain said, here’s someone who might indulge you.

That kind of attention? I had no idea how to deal with that.

I imagined what his face might tell me if I confessed my desires to him—my real desires, the ones that had ended my last relationship, the ones that had kept any others from starting. I imagined his easy grin turning into something wicked.

I imagined him acting on them.

Nope, gotta let that one go. Lunch had not driven me to masturbation yet, and I was not about to start.

My best friend and I shared a dorm suite, and the door was open, like virtually every other door on the hall this early in the year. I was a junior, but this was my first year living on campus; since my folks lived here in town, spending money on university housing had seemed a little silly to them. Financially, I couldn’t argue. Socially, it was the worst.

I walked in and dropped my bag on the couch. “Mal,” I called. “Mallory, you here, darlin’?”

The reply came through the half-shut door of her bedroom. “Yeah! Hang on, I—” Her thought died out, and was quickly followed by a grunt of frustration. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

I chuckled and opened the refrigerator. Only one Diet Coke left. I had had zero of these so far. No wonder she couldn’t sleep for shit.

“Hey!” Mal’s perky voice startled me so bad I slammed the back of my head into the freezer door. “Oh, shit, are you okay?”

I retreated from the fridge, rubbing the back of my head. “Fine,” I said, then held up the can. “Really? Last one?”

“Shut up,” she said as she slunk back out into the common room. “Could be worse. Could be Mountain Dew.”

“Have you tried water? Ever? In your life?”

She flopped into the armchair closest to the window. “I’ll let my dad know you’re concerned.”

I snorted and cracked the can open. “You going to the game this weekend?”

“Duh,” she said. She’d already pulled out her phone, thumbs going nuts on the screen. “Why? You hate football.”

“I don’t hate it,” I said, settling onto the couch on the other side of the little room. “I just don’t worship at the altar of the SEC like everybody else.”

“Are you at least going to tailgate with us?”

“Maybe after synagogue.”

She finally looked up at me. “You can’t take one week off? I only go to church like, five times a year.”

“I’m sorry, have we met?” I half-stood up from the couch and stuck my hand out to her. “I’m Talia.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think you’ve missed a service since you were twelve.”

“You are full of lies and evil.”

“I know what it is.” She snapped her fingers. “You’ve met a boy there.”

“Mallory.”

“A girl?”

I sighed.

“What was the last one’s name? Simeon?”

“Simon,” I said, laughing. “No one is named Simeon. And he was cute, whatever. I just wasn’t into him. Besides, you heathen, Hillel is not about getting laid.”

“All things are about getting laid, Talia.”

I snorted. “I don’t give you crap about not dating the boys you’ve met in that game of yours.”

“Gross,” she said, stretching the word out. “Dating a guild-mate would be like dating my cousin.”

“Which I think is legal in South Carolina.”

Talia.”

I snorted and set my can on the floor so I could lie down, my legs draped over the arm of the couch. “Rocky Horror tomorrow night,” I said. “You in?”

“Yeah. I’m bringing Dustin.”

“Mal.” I dragged out the syllable, as if every second spent on her name would emphasize my annoyance. I rolled my head to the side so I could look at her. “Really? I thought you and I had something. I thought we were friends.”

“Excuse you. I hear he’s crazy good in the sack.”

“So am I, and I don’t see you sniffing around my tail.”

She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Don’t be gross.”

“I have not yet begun to gross.”

“Okay.” She launched out of her chair. “Break’s over. Back to raiding.”

I grabbed the can and stood up. “Okay, well, don’t crank it up to eleven, because I’m going to take a nap, and you know how thin these walls are.”

She shuddered. “Oh, I know exactly how thin they are. You weren’t here trying to sleep when Jess was in there fucking her meth-head boyfriend last year. Jesus, thanks a lot. I’d almost blocked that out.”

I blew her a kiss. “Love you.”

She grumbled, but she was fighting a smile. I retreated to my room and lay down, lacing my fingers under my head and staring at the ceiling. Good thing Mal couldn’t read my mind, because she’d have given me the third degree about this boy from lunch, no question. And what would I have said? “He seems kinda bossy and I’m really into that”? Who’s into bossy guys? Lord. The last thing I needed was some dude who thought he knew what was best for me. Like I didn’t get enough of that at home.

Let it go, Benson.

Except when I closed my eyes, all I could see were those dark blues. Those painted tattoos.
Shit.

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