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Before I even put pencil to paper to start my homework, I dug out the tiny container of replacement leads and set them beside me on the desk. I’d be needing a new lead — and a huge eraser — soon enough.
An empty space stared up at me from my homework sheet, and I tapped my pencil anxiously on the desk as soon as I started reading the question. At what pH could histidine best be precipitated and filtered from a solution of amino acids? I sighed, letting the breath puff out my cheeks before it escaped my lips. I understood the words in the problem, but how to actually solve it? No frickin’ clue.
I massaged my temples with one hand while flipping through my notebook with another, trying to replay what the professor had said about this type of problem and match it up with my notes. Unfortunately, the answer only came to me in bits and pieces. I’d have to go back to the textbook to try to fill in the blanks.
It probably didn’t help that I was more in love with the idea of being a doctor than the classes it took to actually get me there. I freely admit that my daydreams were centered around all the medical drama TV shows I’d devoured. I’d be able to help people — really help them. Maybe, once I was a resident, I would avert some medical crisis that only I would see because I had a fresh, open mind. Maybe I’d figure out a mystery disease haunting some little kid, and his mom would cry tears of happiness. Maybe I would finally meet that hot doctor, and he’d kiss me in the supply closet or in the on-call room between shifts. That was part of the med-show drama, too, so why not? There were certainly no decent guys here at Temple. They were all cocky douchebags who didn’t know how to use their tongues for anything worthwhile.
I put down my pencil; quickly scanned the symbols, letters, numbers, and exponents I’d scrawled there; and then flipped to the back of my textbook.
Yep. Wrong in almost every way.
I let my forehead fall on my open book and tried to stifle a groan. I’d made it through the first semester of Orgo with a B, but Orgo II was a famous weed-out class, picking off wannabe med school students like the flies we were. If I couldn’t get a decent grade, I would suck at the MCAT. If I sucked at the MCAT, I wouldn’t get into med school. And if I couldn’t get into med school… Well, I had to get into med school. I just had to.
I was in year three of one of the most rigorous pre-med programs in the country and — despite hours and hours of studying — still only scraping by on straight Bs and the occasional devastating C. I freaking hated every second I spent with the numbers and the formulas, but I got through by telling myself it would translate to hands-on time with patients soon enough.
Which is why, when I saw a girl across the library working from the same text, her pencil flying over her notebook, I wanted to both stalk her and strangle her at the same time. I desperately needed friends who were in my classes to help me have some kind of a life even while I was constantly studying. But I just couldn’t swallow the idea of having a friendship framed by endless digits and parentheses and equal signs.
That hot doctor and steamy night wouldn’t be so unwelcome, though.
I started to pack up my stuff, my thoughts drifting to how I’d expertly pull off that hot doctor’s white coat, when a small paper rectangle fluttered out of my planner onto the desk.
I snapped it up in my fingers and, even though I knew what it was, took a minute to look at it anyway. A casual picture of my dad and me, one summer afternoon at the park. I could still read half of the “Dr. Daly” embroidered in the corner of his white lab coat, the rest of it obscured as he scrunched my scrawny body into a hug. I was a fifteen-year-old with a swinging ponytail and cutoff shorts, and he had round, smiling cheeks and all his hair. Six months before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Two years later, he was gone, leaving my mom, my two older sisters, and me with a house, a retirement account, and a huge trust fund designated for one purpose only: Joey’s medical school. Stage III stomach cancer had snuck up on Dad, even though he was one of the country’s leading oncologists. We’d spent long weekend days in his hospital room, cracking jokes about all the signs he’d somehow missed.
Except I don’t think that either of us really thought they were funny.
I’d never forget the tears that dripped off my cheeks and the tip of my nose the day he told fifteen-year-old me that he was going to pay for medical school.
“I won’t see you graduate, Miss Josephine,” he’d said, “but I can leave you something to see you through it. You won’t ever have to worry about that.”
Money had been the least of my worries then — I had just wanted Dad to live — but if he couldn’t be here now, I was damn sure going to fulfill our pact. I was going to complete medical school and figure out how to do even more for cancer patients than he had in his career. The Daly Legacy, as he called it, had been in force for decades — I’d be the fourth generation of doctors on his side of the family.
Which would be great if I didn’t feel like the Organic Chemistry textbook was sucking my soul out and holding it tight in its crackling binding every time I opened it.
I let out a deep, shaking breath as I crammed the damn gigantic textbook into my bag. I hoisted it to my shoulder with a grunt, but as I leaned across the desk to grab my keys and phone, the pack suddenly felt lighter.
My head whipped around to see my best friend Cat grinning at me. Cat, with six full inches on me and some insanely buff arms, was holding my bag up from the bottom.
“Need some help with that?” she joked.
“Actually, yeah,” I replied. “Want to carry it home for me?”
“Sorry, babe. I’ve got this monstrous thing to haul around.” Cat swung what looked like a giant, flat, brown leather briefcase onto the table. “I wish I could work on this damn portfolio at the house, but the tables aren’t big enough.”
“What about the studio?”
“It’s even farther away from the house than the library, and it’s too damn cold to lug this any farther.”
“Well, was it worth it?”
Cat grinned and plopped down in the chair I’d just left. “Yeah, want to see?”
I was so exhausted, all I wanted to do was go home, but the sparkling smile in Cat’s eyes was so infectious that I agreed. Cat spent the next ten minutes hauling out sketch after sketch of gorgeous clothing, painstakingly drawn in pencil. Even though purple rings swooped under her eyes and her hair was tied up in a messy bun with pencils sticking out all over, her eyes had that same dance to them that they did when she was getting ready to go out with Nate or when she was psyched for a sorority party.
“These are all for your classes?” I asked, trying not to sound too wistful.
“Yeah. Professor Anderson is a fucking slavedriver.” But her glowing face didn’t match her words. Cat was exhausted and exhilarated by her work at the same time.
A wave of jealousy crashed over me, consuming me for just a moment. When I thought of my Orgo textbook or mixing formulas in chem lab, my skin felt crawly, and all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball in the corner and sob.
I would kill to love my major the same way Cat loved hers, especially since I had at least four more years in the classroom before I could start fighting cancer, one patient at a time. Still, even if I didn’t love it, I’ had to finally make Dad proud.
But how the hell was I going to do that if just getting through my Anatomy homework made me want claw my eyes out and wish I could be a witch doctor in Belize? At least there I could go lay on the beach.
Before I could stop it, a huge sigh escaped me, and Cat’s eyes jerked up.
“You okay, Joey? Too much work?”
I tried to smile, but I just felt the skin at the corners of my eyes crinkle. My best effort. “I don’t think it’s too much for normal people…but I suck at this.”
Cat’s forehead scrunched. “Not possible. You’re a future Doctor Daly. And you got a decent grade in Orgo last semester, right?”
“If you call busting my ass studying for 40 hours a week to scrape by with a B ‘decent,’ then yeah.” I didn’t mention that I could practically feel the class curve climbing up beneath my feet and the kids who were always at the front of it laughing at me over their shoulders. I hated intense competition like that, even if my smart mouth hid it.
It would have been one thing if I was struggling in classes but liked the subject matter. Or if I wasn’t too wild about the classes themselves but was up for the challenge of solving problems. The fact that I hated everything about my pre-med major meant I was doing what I’d always done as the resident-good-girl-second-child-and-generally-book-smart one in my family — exactly what was expected of me.
“Well, you only have — what? Three years, right?” Cat asked, hoisting her portfolio down from the desk.
“Four. Then residency and research and…”
Cat’s eyes were worried. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“I promised my dad,” I replied, a hard lump forming in my throat. “This was all he wanted.”
“Oh, Jo,” she said, slinging an arm over my shoulders. “He probably didn’t want you to be stressed and exhausted either.”
“I’m not all the time,” I protested. “Only when I’m studying.”
Cat raised an eyebrow and stared at me. “Which is all the time.”
“No. Like now, for instance, I’m going to walk home with you.” I rubbed my temples and tried to push down the feeling in my chest that said Cat was right and insisting on following through with all the promises I’d made to Dad was wrong. Mostly because, when that feeling was gone, nausea and panic over having no frickin’ clue what else I would do with my life took its place.
“Let’s get out of here.” I slung my backpack over both shoulders, and we trudged to the double doors.
Cat swiped at her cell phone, scanning her texts. “Apparently, Nate’s at the house with pizza, and he says all the girls are looking at him like they’re hungry.”
“Hungry for him or the pizza?”
She winked and pushed a door open for me. “Probably the pizza, but I can never been too careful.”
I’d always thought big, muscly guys like Nate were my type, since those were the kinds all my sorority sisters loved in movies and pinned to their Internet boards. I didn’t know if it was because Cat was my best friend or what, but I never felt that spark of attraction when I saw her boyfriend.
Just another thing that’s not the way you thought it would be, my brain mocked.
I told it to shut the hell up and listened to Cat chat about all the kinds of pizza Nate could make. Anything was better than thinking about Organic Chemistry.
If there was anything I dreaded more than a second semester of organic chem, it was the introductory level business class I was being forced to take. At the beginning of that semester, Temple had decided that even science majors had to take a third-level writing class, and this business class fit the bill. I chose it because it was the only one that fit into my schedule — at a completely ridiculous eight thirty in the morning.
I actually didn’t mind the time all that much — strictly speaking, I was a morning person, waking up at 6 o’clock without a problem and falling asleep by midnight most evenings. When I was eight years old, I’d started accompanying dad to his practice for early weekend appointments, helping him sort through files and stock supply cabinets. One week, Dad was busy with his first patient while his second came into the waiting room. I kept her entertained for almost twenty minutes. That day Dad told me I had a great bedside manner and would make a wonderful doctor. Since then, that was all I’d ever wanted to do.
Having some business knowledge might help me set up a private practice one day — something Dad had always dreamed of doing but abandoned because oncology at a big hospital was more lucrative.
But my real reason for taking it was I knew general education classes were easy and the Orgo, Anatomy, and Stats courses that crowded the rest of my schedule spelled trouble for my semester GPA. An easy A would come in real handy.
So here I was, at the butt-crack of dawn, trying to find something cute to wear that would also keep me from freezing my ass off. The building where the class would be held was one of the newer, sleeker ones the University used to impress incoming freshmen. For the same reason, it was nestled deep inside campus at the far edge of a quad, a quarter mile away from any bus stop or road.
Which meant I had to seriously bundle up.
I flung open my closet door and sighed. The ratio of scuzzy clothes to anything cute in my closet since the beginning of freshman year had become embarrassing. Cat always said I looked good in anything, but I seriously doubted my uniform of t-shirts and yoga pants or worn jeans and sweaters was super attractive. When I did manage to get away from my schoolwork, I borrowed a top, trendy jewelry, or sparkly shoes from one of my Kappa Delta sisters.
What would a girl who’s serious about business class wear?
There were a couple of button-down shirts and even a simple dress with clean lines, but January in Philly called for a sweater. Sighing, I finally settled on a cardigan, clingy jeans, and some classic black boots my sister, Julianne, had given me for Christmas.
I glanced at the clock and frowned. All the time spent agonizing in front of my closet, combined with oversleeping — again — left zero minutes for my hair. I pulled it up in a ponytail. On the way out, I passed a mirror and rolled my eyes at my own reflection. Despite the cute little heel on my boots, I might as well be going to Thanksgiving dinner at the frickin’ Kennedy’s house. All I needed was a strand of pearls.
Yeah, this was prep school, goody-two-shoes fashion at its finest, but I didn’t have time to change now. The bus that stopped half a block from our house was merciless to anyone half a minute late and running after it.
Exactly seventeen minutes later — I always checked my watch every time I went anywhere new so that I knew exactly how long it took to get somewhere — I slumped, relieved, into a classroom desk. I was four minutes early, and one of only three students there — the other two were freshmen from the looks of them, with their huge backpacks and anxious glances at the University’s central website, looking for a syllabus.
Which, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t done. Dammit. I pulled out my laptop and got it fired up while I blew into my frozen hands, then pressed my fingers to my cheeks. The wind out there wasn’t messing around, and it had left any exposed skin red and cold to the touch.
Winter was going to suck if it kept up like this, especially with how far our sorority house was from the actual campus. Nice price to pay for the cutest and newest house in University City, I thought, rubbing my hands together. We’d moved into it at the beginning of my sophomore year, and the walk was only enjoyable in the nicest of weather.
Three minutes later, I’d regained feeling in my fingers, and most of the chairs behind me had filled up. I always sat near the front of the class because I had an addiction to my smart phone and needed the watchful eye of the professor to keep me focused in class.
Just one more reason I wasn’t cut out for pre-med.
I scolded myself for the thought, took a deep breath, and sat up straight in my chair just as the professor walked in. His eyes swept us, and his face fell just a bit before it molded into a soft smile. He was young — couldn’t have been older than thirty — and looked in surprisingly good shape for an academic, with his shoulders filling out his button-down shirt pretty decently. Dirty blond hair brushed against the upper rim of his glasses. He glanced at the clock and cleared his throat.
“Eight thirty on the dot then.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the soft British accent that came out of his mouth. From the way half the other girls in the class sat up and tossed their hair when they heard it, I could tell I was one of the few who hadn’t developed an insta-crush on him.
“As you can imagine, each semester one of us draws the short straw to teach the early morning Introduction to Business class. Suffice it to say, for the last six weeks, my colleagues have been calling me Shorty, a nickname I fail to appreciate on several levels.”
There was a chorus of giggles from behind me, and I rolled my eyes.
“You can call me Professor Simon or Rob, if it suits you better. Either way, I grade the same.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. The fact that this guy was friendly and knew how to crack a joke and so far hadn’t tried to look down any of the female students’ shirts already made him leaps and bounds better than a majority of the professors I’d had.
Professor Simon explained that attendance would be worth 15 percent of our grades, then read through the list of students in the class, marking us off as we raised our hands in response.
“Right,” he said, nodding at the group of us. “Just missing one today. Now, if you’ll open your syllabi…”
Just then, the door banged open, and a guy with wildly messy dark hair, heavy boots, and a ratty backpack filled the doorway. Even standing there, he looked like he could pass out at any minute, either from boredom or disinterest. What kind of insane individual would wear only a t-shirt and jeans in this weather? He was either stupid or crazy. Or both.
As he strode into the classroom, the scent of stale cigarette smoke followed him in a cloud. My stomach sunk when I realized where he was heading — to the only empty seat left in the class. The one right next to me.
He took a hard look at me when he slid into the chair, staring right into my eyes. I had no chance to think about just how bold that was because when their ice blue color flashed at me, it felt like a knife in my chest and the thrill of riding a rollercoaster all at the same time. I thought eyes like that only happened on models and movie stars in magazine photo shoots and, even then, only because they were Photoshopped.
It was so far beyond cheesy, but this guy’s eyes took my breath away.
Too bad the stench of smoke on his clothes did the same thing and not in a good way. I couldn’t help it — I turned to the side and coughed. When I looked back at him, he was leaning back in his seat, sliding his heavy black boots far out in front of the desk.
“William Hawkins?” Professor Simon asked, peering down at him.
The guy yawned. “Hawk,” he said. “Just Hawk.”
And with that, he leaned forward, folding his arms on the desk and resting his head there, like speaking those three words had been all the effort he could handle for the day. When he buried his face in his arms like a pillow, I glimpsed the edge of some dark ink snaking along the skin just under the collar of his shirt. I leaned forward the slightest bit to see it before I caught myself and sat upright again, my face burning hot.
Professor Simon’s eyebrows shot up as he regarded Hawk for a second, and then he said, “Mr. Hawkins reminds me of a very important point on the syllabus. I am relaxed, but not so relaxed that I tolerate students strolling into class late. I expect you early or on time if you have any hope of passing with an ‘A.’”
The guy’s shoulders twitched up, and a small noise came from his buried nose. I couldn’t tell whether it was a snort or a laugh. Maybe both. Either way, it meant that he didn’t give a shit.
Whatever. I rolled my eyes and wrinkled my nose at the stale cigarette smell still lingering in the air. I wasn’t going to spend a single extra second worrying about this loser piece of trash.
“I know that fifteen weeks in a semester sounds like a lot of time right now,” Professor Simon said, “but it’s not at all. You’ll need to start thinking about your final projects this week. There are forty of you, and each project will include a 20-minute presentation, meaning we’ll need three-and-a-half class sessions to get through them all.” He turned back to the desk and took his laptop out of his bag.
I did the math in my head, and my hand shot up almost before the calculations were done. “No,” I said when he looked at me. “That would be for twenty of us.”
Realization flashed over his face. “Yes, twenty pairs. It’s a group project.”
I hated group projects more than anything. It made me twitch to think that someone else was partly responsible for my grade in a class, especially when grades were everything when it came to med school admissions. I scanned the room, mentally cataloguing my classmates. Hopefully, I’d be paired with one of the more responsible-looking underclassmen or maybe — ooh! — there was a tallish guy with a nice jaw, I noted approvingly. He was wearing sweats, but if he swapped them out for jeans and shaved…
Holy shit. My total lack of a boyfriend and/or sex life was showing.
Plus, I should probably pay attention to the details of the project. I tried to hold back a sigh and tuned back in to what Professor Simon was saying.
“…a business plan for the business of your choice. Present it to the class, and they’ll decide how much from the general pot of money to give to you. And that’s about all you need to know!”
Shit. I’d missed his whole intro to the project. I scrolled through the syllabus to see if it was in there, but all it said under “Final Project” was “To be discussed in class.”
Shit. At this point, I just had to hope that my partner had taken good notes — and it seemed most of my classmates had been because they were winding down from some mad keyboard tapping. Everyone except Hawk, whose head still rested on the desk.
“I’ve already matched you all with partners using a randomization software program so pay close attention. Just raise your hand as I call your name so you and your partner can find each other after class. You’ll want to meet as soon as possible because this project, if done well, will take several planning and work sessions.”
As Professor Simon called names and I watched hands go up around the room, the supply of responsible-looking underclassmen and other suitable partners dwindled before my eyes. He had called out a dozen pairs and then fifteen and then eighteen before it became clear who the randomization program had paired me with.
“Josephine Daly…” I was almost afraid to raise my hand. There were only three people left who hadn’t been paired off. “…and William Hawkins.”
From the smoky, sleeping, gorgeous-eyed pile of humanity that was William Hawkins, two fingers waved up once, then went back down again.
“Now,” Professor Simon said, “you’ll need to bring your idea for a business and a basic introduction with your reasoning for why this could be lucrative to next week’s class. Every step should be collaborative, so no trading jobs. Business is about working together and exchanging ideas and skills. Is that clear?”
A defeated breath whooshed out of me. Of course. Of course this would happen to me. As if there was nothing else ruining my semester.
The rest of the class passed quickly enough. Professor Simon wrote some definitions on the white board, assigned us to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, then let us out ten minutes early.
All around me, people gathered their bags and pulled out their cell phones, crossing the classroom to exchange phone numbers with their project partners. I packed up my bag, sighed audibly, and stared at Hawk, still a heap of arms and head on his desk. My stare lasted one, two, three long seconds before I stood up and walked over to him. Only then did I hear the deep breathing of someone who had fallen fast asleep.
Gingerly, I reached out a hand and touched his shoulder. Which — holy hell — was solid muscle. My fingers accidentally brushed just under the sleeve of his t-shirt, moving it up a bit and revealing even more ink. I yanked my hand away, shocked both by the smooth, warm, hard feel of his skin and the fact that I had actually touched it.
His head jerked up, and he sucked in air while blinking. “Oh, Christ. Did I seriously fucking fall asleep?”
Something about the completely boyish shock on his face mixed with the swear word made me laugh out loud. “You did. Do you remember the part where we were matched as partners on the group project?”
He yawned and swept his eyes down my body. I tugged at the edge of my cardigan, wishing I’d worn my usual plain t-shirt for no reason that I could identify.
“You’re Josephine?” His eyebrow quirked again. “Guess that makes sense.” He grabbed the strap of the dingy backpack, slung it over his shoulder, and headed for the door.
Something made me propel my short frame after him. “Yeah. Joey, actually. And what’s that supposed to mean?”
He turned around and shrugged. The smell of cigarette smoke was back. I wrinkled my nose.
“Josephine is the kind of name a girl like you would have.”
My mouth dropped open, but he continued right over the words I wanted to say but hadn’t been able to form — or think of — yet.
“So you want to meet to work on this project, is that right?”
“Um, yeah. The sooner, the better.”
He just kept staring at me, waiting for me to say more.
“Um…we could go to the library?” Why was I stumbling so much? Probably his basic lack of social capability. “Tomorrow? I’ll be there all night.”
The corner of Hawk’s mouth quirked up in a smile, and my cheeks burned when I realized what I’d just said and how he had interpreted it. I pulled an eye roll to cover it up. “What time can you get there?”
He yawned again and turned toward the door. “I can do quarter after eight, earliest. Okay with you?”
“Yeah, I…I guess.” By the time I’d stuttered out my answer, he was already halfway down the hall.
“Wait — where?” I asked.
“At the library, like you said,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll find you.”
I shook my head and threw my hands up in the air. “Okay…” I called lamely back.
One second later, he’d left the building.