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EVERYTHING IN THE ROOM SCREAMED that I didn’t belong. The stairs were crumbling, the rowdy patrons were shoulder to shoulder, and the air was a medley of sweat, blood, and mold. Voices blurred as they yelled numbers and names back and forth, and arms flailed about, exchanging money and gestures to communicate over the noise. I squeezed through the crowd, following close behind my best friend.
“Keep your cash in your wallet, Abby!” America called to me. Her broad smile gleamed even in the dim light.
“Stay close! It’ll get worse once it starts!” Shepley yelled over the noise. America grabbed his hand and then mine as Shepley led us through the sea of people.
The sharp bleating of a bullhorn cut through the smoky air. The noise startled me, and I jumped in reaction, looking for the source of the blast. A man stood on a wooden chair, holding a wad of cash in one hand, the horn in the other. He held the plastic to his lips.
“Welcome to the bloodbath! If you are looking for Economics 101 . . . you are in the wrong fucking place, my friend! If you seek the Circle, this is Mecca! My name is Adam. I make the rules and I call the fight. Betting ends once the opponents are on the floor. No touching the fighters, no assistance, no bet switching, and no encroachment of the ring. If you break these rules, you will get the piss beat out of you and you will be thrown out on your ass without your money! That includes you, ladies! So don’t use your hos to scam the system, boys!”
Shepley shook his head. “Jesus, Adam!” he yelled to the emcee over the noise, clearly disapproving of his friend’s choice of words.
My heart pounded in my chest. With a pink cashmere cardigan and pearl earrings, I felt like a schoolmarm on the beaches of Normandy. I promised America that I could handle whatever we happened upon, but at ground zero I felt the urge to grip her toothpick of an arm with both hands. She wouldn’t put me in any danger, but being in a basement with fifty or so drunken college boys intent on bloodshed and capital, I wasn’t exactly confident of our chances to leave unscathed.
After America met Shepley at freshman orientation, she frequently accompanied him to the secret fights held in different basements of Eastern University. Each event was hosted in a different spot, and kept secret until just an hour before the fight.
Because I ran in somewhat tamer circles, I was surprised to learn of an underground world at Eastern; but Shepley knew about it before he had ever enrolled. Travis, Shepley’s roommate and cousin, entered his first fight seven months before. As a freshman, he was rumored to be the most lethal competitor Adam had seen in the three years since creating the Circle. Beginning his sophomore year, Travis was unbeatable. Together, Travis and Shepley easily paid their rent and bills with the winnings.
Adam brought the bullhorn to his mouth once again, and the yelling and movement escalated to a feverish pace.
“Tonight we have a new challenger! Eastern’s star varsity wrestler, Marek Young!”
Cheering ensued, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea when Marek entered the room. A circular space cleared, and the mob whistled, booed, and taunted the contender. He bounced up and down and rocked his neck back and forth, his face severe and focused. The crowd quieted to a dull roar, and my hands shot to my ears when music blared through the large speakers on the other side of the room.
“Our next fighter doesn’t need an introduction, but because he scares the shit outta me, I’ll give him one, anyway! Shake in your boots, boys, and drop your panties, ladies! I give you: Travis ‘Mad Dog’ Maddox!”
The volume exploded when Travis appeared in a doorway across the room. He made his entrance, shirtless, relaxed, and unaffected. He strolled into the center of the circle as if he were showing up to another day at work. Lean muscles stretched under his tattooed skin as he popped his fists against Marek’s knuckles. Travis leaned in and whispered something in Marek’s ear, and the wrestler struggled to keep his stern expression. Marek stood toe-to-toe with Travis, and they looked directly into each other’s eyes. Marek’s expression was murderous; Travis looked mildly amused.
The men took a few steps back, and Adam sounded the horn. Marek took a defensive stance, and Travis attacked. I stood on my tiptoes when I lost my line of sight, leaning from side to side to get a better view. I inched up, sliding through the screaming crowd. Elbows jabbed into my sides, and shoulders rammed into me, bouncing me back and forth like a pinball. The tops of the fighters’ heads became visible, so I continued to push my way forward.
When I finally reached the front, Marek grabbed Travis with his thick arms and tried to throw him to the ground. When Marek leaned down with the motion, Travis rammed his knee into Marek’s face. Before Marek could shake off the blow, Travis lit into him, his fists making contact with Marek’s bloodied face over and over.
Five fingers sank into my arm and I jerked back.
“What the hell are you doing, Abby?” Shepley said.
“I can’t see from back there!” I called to him.
I turned just in time to see Marek land a solid punch. Travis turned, and for a moment I thought he had dodged another blow, but he made a complete circle, crashing his elbow straight into the center of Marek’s nose. Blood sprayed my face, and splattered down the front of my cardigan. Marek fell to the concrete floor with a thud, and for a brief moment the room was completely silent.
Adam threw a scarlet square of fabric onto Marek’s limp body, and the mob detonated. Cash changed hands once again, and the expressions divided into the smug and the frustrated.
I was pushed around with the movement of those coming and going. America called my name from somewhere in the back, but I was mesmerized by the trail of red from my chest to my waist.
A pair of heavy black boots stepped in front of me, diverting my attention to the floor. My eyes traveled upward; jeans spattered with blood, a set of finely chiseled abs, a bare, tattooed chest drenched in sweat, and finally a pair of warm, brown eyes. I was shoved from behind, and Travis caught me by the arm before I fell forward.
“Hey! Back up off her!” Travis frowned, shoving anyone who came near me. His stern expression melted into a smile at the sight of my shirt, and then he dabbed my face with a towel. “Sorry about that, Pigeon.”
Adam patted the back of Travis’s head. “C’mon, Mad Dog! You have some dough waitin’ on ya!”
Travis’s eyes didn’t stray from mine. “It’s a damn shame about the sweater. It looks good on you.” In the next moment he was engulfed by fans, disappearing the way he came.
“What were you thinking, you idiot?” America yelled, yanking my arm.
“I came here to see a fight, didn’t I?” I said, smiling.
“You aren’t even supposed to be here, Abby,” Shepley scolded.
“Neither is America,” I said.
“She doesn’t try to jump in the circle!” He frowned. “Let’s go.”
America smiled at me and wiped my face. “You are such a pain in the ass, Abby. God, I love you!” She hooked her arm around my neck, and we made our way up the stairs and into the night.
America followed me into my dorm room and then sneered at my roommate, Kara. I immediately peeled off the bloody cardigan, throwing it into the hamper.
“Gross. Where have you been?” Kara asked from her bed.
I looked to America, who shrugged. “Nosebleed. You haven’t seen one of Abby’s famous nosebleeds?”
Kara pushed up her glasses and shook her head.
“Oh, you will.” She winked at me and then shut the door behind her. Less than a minute later, my cell phone chimed. Per her usual, America texted me seconds after we had said goodbye.
staying w shep c u 2morrow ring queen
I peeked at Kara, who watched me as if my nose would gush at any moment.
“She was kidding,” I said.
Kara nodded with indifference and then looked down to the mess of books on her bedspread.
“I guess I’ll get a shower,” I said, grabbing a towel and my shower bag.
“I’ll alert the media,” Kara deadpanned, keeping her head down.
THE NEXT DAY, SHEPLEY AND America joined me for lunch. I had intended to sit alone, but as students filtered into the cafeteria, the chairs around me were filled by either Shepley’s frat brothers or members of the football team. Some of them had been at the fight, but no one mentioned my ringside experience.
“Shep,” a passing voice called.
Shepley nodded, and America and I both turned to see Travis take a seat at the end of the table. He was followed by two voluptuous bottle blondes wearing Sigma Kappa Ts. One of them sat on Travis’s lap; the other sat beside him, pawing at his shirt.
“I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth,” America muttered.
The blonde on Travis’s lap turned to America. “I heard that, skank.”
America grabbed her roll and threw it down the table, narrowly missing the girl’s face. Before the girl could say another word, Travis let his knees give way, sending her tumbling to the floor.
“Ouch!” she squealed, looking up at Travis.
“America’s a friend of mine. You need to find another lap, Lex.”
“Travis!” she whined, scrambling to her feet.
Travis turned his attention to his plate, ignoring her. She looked at her sister and huffed, and they left hand in hand.
Travis winked at America, and, as if nothing had happened, shoveled another bite into his mouth. It was then that I noticed a small cut on his eyebrow. He traded glances with Shepley and then began a conversation with one of the football guys across from him.
Although the crowd at the lunch table had thinned, America, Shepley, and I lingered to discuss our weekend plans. Travis stood up to leave but stopped at our end of the table.
“What?” Shepley asked loudly, holding his hand to his ear.
I tried to ignore him for as long as possible, but when I looked up, Travis was staring at me.
“You know her, Trav. America’s best friend? She was with us the other night,” Shepley said.
Travis smiled at me in what I assumed was his most charming expression. He oozed sex and rebelliousness with his buzzed brown hair and tattooed forearms, and I rolled my eyes at his attempt to lure me in.
“Since when do you have a best friend, Mare?” Travis asked.
“Since junior year,” she answered, pressing her lips together as she smiled in my direction. “Don’t you remember, Travis? You ruined her sweater.”
Travis smiled. “I ruin a lot of sweaters.”
“Gross,” I muttered.
Travis spun the empty chair beside me and sat, resting his arms in front of him. “So you’re the Pigeon, huh?”
“No,” I snapped. “I have a name.”
He seemed amused at the way I regarded him, which only served to make me angrier.
“Well? What is it?” he asked.
I took a bite of the last apple spear on my plate, ignoring him.
“Pigeon it is, then,” he said, shrugging.
I glanced up at America and then turned to Travis. “I’m trying to eat here.”
Travis settled in for the challenge I presented. “My name’s Travis. Travis Maddox.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know who you are.”
“You do, huh?” Travis said, raising his wounded eyebrow.
“Don’t flatter yourself. It’s hard not to notice when fifty drunks are chanting your name.”
Travis sat up a bit taller. “I get that a lot.” I rolled my eyes again, and Travis chuckled. “Do you have a twitch?”
“A twitch. Your eyes keep wiggling around.” He laughed again when I glared at him. “Those are some amazing eyes, though,” he said, leaning just inches from my face. “What color is that, anyway? Gray?”
I looked down to my plate, letting the long strands of my caramel hair create a curtain between us. I didn’t like the way it made me feel when he was so close. I didn’t want to be like the scores of other girls at Eastern that blushed in his presence. I didn’t want him to affect me in that way at all.
“Don’t even think about it, Travis. She’s like my sister,” America warned.
“Baby,” Shepley said, “you just told him no. He’s never gonna stop, now.”
“You’re not her type,” she hedged.
Travis feigned offense. “I’m everyone’s type!”
I peeked over at him and smiled.
“Ah! A smile. I’m not a rotten bastard after all,” he winked. “It was nice to meet you, Pidge.” He walked around the table and leaned into America’s ear.
Shepley threw a french fry at his cousin. “Get your lips outta my girl’s ear, Trav!”
“Networking! I’m networking!” Travis walked backward with his hands up in an innocent gesture.
A few more girls followed behind him, giggling and running their fingers through their hair to get his attention. He opened the door for them, and they nearly squealed in delight.
America laughed. “Oh, no. You’re in trouble, Abby.”
“What did he say?” I asked, wary.
“He wants you to bring her to the apartment, doesn’t he?” Shepley said. America nodded, and he shook his head. “You’re a smart girl, Abby. I’m telling you now, if you fall for his shit and then end up getting mad at him, you can’t take it out on me and America, all right?”
I smiled. “I won’t fall for it, Shep. Do I look like one of the Barbie twins to you?”
“She won’t fall for it,” America assured him, touching his arm.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, Mare. Do you know how many times he’s screwed things up for me because he one-nights the best friend? All of a sudden it’s a conflict of interest to date me because it’s fraternizing with the enemy! I’m tellin’ ya, Abby,” he looked at me, “don’t tell Mare she can’t come over or date me because you fall for Trav’s line of BS. Consider yourself warned.”
“Unnecessary, but appreciated,” I said. I tried to reassure Shepley with a smile, but his pessimism was driven by years of being burned by Travis’s endeavors.
America waved, leaving with Shepley as I walked to my afternoon class. I squinted in the bright sun, gripping my backpack straps. Eastern was exactly what I hoped it would be, from the smaller classrooms to the unfamiliar faces. It was a new start for me; I could finally walk somewhere without the whispers of those who knew—or thought they knew—anything about my past. I was as indistinguishable as any other wide-eyed, overachieving freshman on her way to class; no staring, no rumors, no pity or judgment. Only the illusion of what I wanted them to see: cashmered, no-nonsense Abby Abernathy.
I sat my backpack on the floor and collapsed into the chair, bending down to fish my laptop from my bag. When I popped up to set it on my desk, Travis slid into the next desk.
“Good. You can take notes for me,” he said. He chewed on the pen in his mouth and smiled, undoubtedly at his most charming.
I shot a disgusted look at him. “You’re not even in this class.”
“The hell if I’m not. I usually sit up there,” he said, nodding to the top row. A small group of girls was staring at me, and I noticed an empty chair in the center.
“I’m not taking notes for you,” I said, booting up my computer.
Travis leaned so close that I could feel his breath on my cheek. “I’m sorry . . . did I offend you in some way?”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Then what is your problem?”
I kept my voice low. “I’m not sleeping with you. You should give up, now.”
A slow smile crept across his face before he spoke. “I haven’t asked you to sleep with me.” His eyes drifted to the ceiling in thought. “Have I?”
“I’m not a Barbie twin or one of your little groupies up there,” I said, glancing at the girls behind us. “I’m not impressed with your tattoos or your boyish charm or your forced indifference, so you can stop the antics, okay?”
“Okay, Pigeon.” He was infuriatingly impervious to my rudeness. “Why don’t you come over with America tonight?” I sneered at his request, but he leaned closer. “I’m not trying to bag you. I just wanna hang out.”
“Bag me? How do you ever get laid talking like that?”
Travis burst into laughter, shaking his head. “Just come over. I won’t even flirt with you, I swear.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Professor Chaney strolled in, and Travis turned his attention to the front of the room. A residual smile lingered on his face, making the dimple in his cheek sink in. The more he smiled, the more I wanted to hate him, and yet it was the very thing that made hating him impossible.
“Who can tell me which president had a cross-eyed wife with a bad case of the uglies?” Chaney asked.
“Make sure you get that down,” Travis whispered. “I’m gonna need to know that for job interviews.”
“Shhh,” I said, typing Chaney’s every word.
Travis grinned and relaxed into his chair. As the hour progressed, he alternated between yawning and leaning against my arm to look at my monitor. I made a concentrated effort to ignore him, but his proximity and the muscles bulging from his arm made it difficult. He picked at the black leather band around his wrist until Chaney dismissed us.
I hurried out the door and down the hall. Just when I felt sure I was at a safe distance, Travis Maddox was at my side.
“Have you thought about it?” he asked, slipping on his sunglasses.
A petite brunette stepped in front of us, wide-eyed and hopeful. “Hey, Travis,” she lilted, playing with her hair.
I paused, recoiling from her sugary tone, and then walked around her. I’d seen her before, talking normally in the commons area of the girls’ dorm, Morgan Hall. Her tone sounded much more mature then, and I wondered what it was about a toddler’s voice she thought Travis would find appealing. She babbled in a higher octave for a bit longer until he was next to me once again.
Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he lit a cigarette and blew out a thick cloud of smoke. “Where was I? Oh yeah . . . you were thinking.”
I grimaced. “What are you talking about?”
“Have you thought about coming over?”
“If I say yes, will you quit following me?”
He considered my stipulation and then nodded. “Yes.”
“Then I’ll come over.”
I sighed. “Tonight. I’ll come over tonight.”
Travis smiled and stopped in his tracks. “Sweet. See you then, Pidge,” he called after me.
I rounded the corner to see America standing with Finch outside our dormitory. The three of us ended up at the same table at freshman orientation, and I knew he would be the welcome third wheel to our well-oiled machine. He wasn’t excessively tall, but still he towered over my five feet four inches. His round eyes offset his long, lean features, and his bleached hair was usually fashioned into a spike at the front.
“Travis Maddox? Jesus, Abby, since when did you start fishing in the deep end?” Finch said with disapproving eyes.
America pulled the gum from her mouth in a long string. “You’re only making it worse by brushing him off. He’s not used to that.”
“What do you suggest I do? Sleep with him?”
America shrugged. “It’ll save time.”
“I told him I’d come over tonight.”
Finch and America traded glances.
“What? He promised to quit bugging me if I said yes. You’re going over there tonight, right?”
“Well, yeah,” America said. “You’re really coming?”
I smiled and walked past them into the dorms, wondering if Travis would make good on his promise not to flirt. He wasn’t hard to figure out; he either saw me as a challenge, or safely unattractive enough to be a good friend. I wasn’t sure which bothered me more.
FOUR HOURS LATER, AMERICA KNOCKED on my door to take me to Shepley and Travis’s. She didn’t hold back when I walked into the hall.
“Yuck, Abby! You look homeless!”
“Good,” I said, smiling at my ensemble. My hair was piled on top of my head in a messy bun. I had scrubbed the makeup from my face and replaced my contacts with rectangular black-rimmed glasses. Sporting a ratty T-shirt and sweatpants, I shuffled along in a pair of flip-flops. The idea had come to me hours before that either way, unattractive was the best plan. Ideally, Travis would be instantly turned off and stop his ridiculous persistence. If he was looking for a buddy, I was aiming for too homely to be seen with.
America rolled down her window and spit out her gum. “You’re so obvious. Why didn’t you just roll in dog shit to make your outfit complete?”
“I’m not trying to impress anyone,” I said.
We pulled into the parking lot of Shepley’s apartment complex, and I followed America to the stairs. Shepley opened the door, laughing as I walked in. “What happened to you?”
“She’s trying to be unimpressive,” America said.
America followed Shepley into his room. The door closed and I stood alone, feeling out of place. I sat in the recliner closest to the door and kicked off my flip-flops.
Their apartment was more aesthetically pleasing than the typical bachelor pad. The predictable posters of half-naked women and stolen street signs were on the walls, but it was clean, the furniture was new, and the smell of stale beer and dirty clothes was notably absent.
“It’s about time you showed up,” Travis said, collapsing onto the couch.
I smiled and pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose, waiting for him to recoil at my appearance. “America had a paper to finish.”
“Speaking of papers, have you started the one for History yet?”
He didn’t bat an eye at my messy hair, and I frowned at his reaction. “Have you?”
“I finished it this afternoon.”
“It’s not due until next Wednesday,” I said, surprised.
“I just plugged it out. How hard can a two-page essay on Grant be?”
“I’m a procrastinator, I guess,” I shrugged. “I probably won’t start on it until this weekend.”
“Well, if you need help, just let me know.”
I waited for him to laugh, or to show some sign that he was joking, but his expression was sincere. I raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to help me with my paper?”
“I have an A in that class,” he said, a bit miffed at my disbelief.
“He has As in all his classes. He’s a freakin’ genius. I hate him,” Shepley said as he led America into the living room by the hand.
I watched Travis with a dubious expression and his eyebrows shot up. “What? You don’t think a guy covered in tats and that trades punches for a living can get the grades? I’m not in school because I have nothing better to do.”
“Why do you have to fight at all, then? Why didn’t you try for scholarships?” I asked.
“I did. I was awarded half my tuition. But there are books, living expenses, and I gotta come up with the other half sometime. I’m serious, Pidge. If you need help with anything, just ask.”
“I don’t need your help. I can write a paper.” I wanted to leave it at that. I should have left it at that, but this new side of him he’d revealed gnawed at my curiosity. “You can’t find something else to do for a living? Less—I don’t know—sadistic?”
Travis shrugged. “It’s an easy way to make a buck. I can’t make that much working at the mall.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy if you’re getting hit in the face.”
“What? You’re worried about me?” he winked. I made a face, and he chuckled. “I don’t get hit that often. If they swing, I move. It’s not that hard.”
I laughed once. “You act as if no one else has come to that conclusion.”
“When I throw a punch, they take it and try to reciprocate. That’s not gonna win a fight.”
I rolled my eyes. “What are you, the Karate Kid? Where did you learn to fight?”
Shepley and America glanced at each other, and then their eyes wandered to the floor. It didn’t take long to recognize I had said something wrong.
Travis didn’t seem affected. “I had a dad with a drinking problem and a bad temper, and four older brothers that carried the asshole gene.”
“Oh.” My ears smoldered.
“Don’t be embarrassed, Pidge. Dad quit drinking, the brothers grew up.”
“I’m not embarrassed.” I fidgeted with the falling strands of my hair and then decided to pull it down and smooth it into another bun, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
“I like the au naturel thing you have going on. Girls don’t come over here like that.”
“I was coerced into coming here. It didn’t occur to me to impress you,” I said, irritated that my plan had failed.
He smiled his boyish, amused grin, and I turned up my anger a notch, hoping it would cover my unease. I didn’t know how most girls felt around him, but I’d seen how they behaved. I was experiencing more of a disoriented, nauseated feeling than giggly infatuation, and the harder he worked to make me smile, the more unsettled I felt.
“I’m already impressed. I don’t normally have to beg girls to come to my apartment.”
“I’m sure,” I said, screwing my face into disgust.
He was the worst kind of confident. Not only was he shamelessly aware of his appeal, he was so used to women throwing themselves at him that he regarded my cool demeanor as refreshing instead of an insult. I would have to change my strategy.
America pointed the remote at the television and switched it on. “There’s a good movie on tonight. Anyone want to find out where Baby Jane is?”
Travis stood up. “I was just heading out for dinner. You hungry, Pidge?”
“I already ate,” I shrugged.
“No you haven’t,” America said, before realizing her mistake. “Oh . . . er . . . that’s right, I forgot you grabbed a . . . pizza? Before we left.”
I grimaced at her miserable attempt to fix her blunder, and then waited for Travis’s reaction.
He walked across the room and opened the door. “C’mon. You’ve gotta be hungry.”
“Where are you going?”
“Wherever you want. We can hit a pizza place.”
I looked down at my clothes. “I’m not really dressed.”
He appraised me for a moment and then grinned. “You look fine. Let’s go, I’m starvin’.”
I stood up and waved to America, passing Travis to walk down the stairs. I stopped in the parking lot, watching in horror as he straddled a matte black motorcycle.
“Uh . . . ” I trailed off, scrunching my exposed toes.
He shot an impatient glare in my direction. “Oh, get on. I’ll go slow.”
“What is that?” I asked, reading the writing on the gas tank too late.
“It’s a Harley Night Rod. She’s the love of my life, so don’t scratch the paint when you get on.”
“I’m wearing flip-flops!”
Travis stared at me as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “I’m wearing boots. Get on.”
He slipped on his sunglasses, and the engine snarled when he brought it to life. I climbed on and reached behind me for something to grab on to, but my fingers slipped from leather to the plastic cover of the taillight.
Travis grabbed my wrists and wrapped them around his middle. “There’s nothing to hold on to but me, Pidge. Don’t let go,” he said, pushing the bike backward with his feet. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled onto the street, and we took off like a rocket. The pieces of my hair that hung loose beat against my face, and I ducked behind Travis, knowing I would end up with bug guts on my glasses if I looked over his shoulder.
He gunned the throttle when we pulled into the driveway of the restaurant, and once he slowed to a stop, I wasted no time scrambling to the safety of the concrete.
“You’re a lunatic!”
Travis chuckled, leaning his bike onto its kickstand before dismounting. “I went the speed limit.”
“Yeah, if we were on the autobahn!” I said, pulling out my bun to separate the rats with my fingers.
Travis watched me pull hair away from my face and then walked to the door, holding it open. “I wouldn’t let anything happen to you, Pigeon.”
I stormed past him into the restaurant, my head not quite in sync with my feet. Grease and herbs filled the air as I followed him across the red, breadcrumb-speckled carpet. He chose a booth in the corner, away from the patches of students and families, and then ordered two beers. I scanned the room, watching the parents coaxing their boisterous children to eat, and looking away from the inquisitive glances of Eastern students.
“Sure, Travis,” the waitress said, writing down our drink orders. She looked a bit high from his presence as she returned to the kitchen.
I tucked the windblown hair behind my ears, suddenly embarrassed by my appearance. “Come here often?” I asked acerbically.
Travis leaned on the table with his elbows, his brown eyes fixated on mine. “So what’s your story, Pidge? Are you a man-hater in general, or do you just hate me?”
“I think it’s just you,” I grumbled.
He laughed once, amused at my mood. “I can’t figure you out. You’re the first girl that’s ever been disgusted with me before sex. You don’t get all flustered when you talk to me, and you don’t try to get my attention.”
“It’s not a ploy. I just don’t like you.”
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like me.”
My frown involuntarily smoothed and I sighed. “I didn’t say you’re a bad person. I just don’t like being a foregone conclusion for the sole reason of having a vagina.” I focused on the grains of salt on the table until I heard a choking noise from Travis’s direction.
His eyes widened and he quivered with howling laughter. “Oh my God! You’re killing me! That’s it. We have to be friends. I won’t take no for an answer.”
“I don’t mind being friends, but that doesn’t mean you have to try to get in my panties every five seconds.”
“You’re not sleeping with me. I get it.”
I tried not to smile, but failed.
His eyes brightened. “You have my word. I won’t even think about your panties . . . unless you want me to.”
I rested my elbows on the table and leaned into them. “And that won’t happen, so we can be friends.”
An impish grin sharpened his features as he leaned in a bit closer. “Never say never.”
“So what’s your story?” I asked. “Have you always been Travis ‘Mad Dog’ Maddox, or is that just since you came here?” I used two fingers on each hand as quotation marks when I said his nickname, and for the first time his confidence waned. He looked a bit embarrassed.
“No. Adam started that after my first fight.”
His short answers were beginning to bug me. “That’s it? You’re not going to tell me anything about yourself?”
“What do you wanna know?”
“The normal stuff. Where you’re from, what you want to be when you grow up . . . things like that.”
“I’m from here, born and raised, and I’m a Criminal Justice major.”
With a sigh, he unrolled his silverware and straightened them beside his plate. He looked over his shoulder, his jaw tense. Two tables seating the Eastern soccer team erupted in laughter, and Travis seemed to be annoyed at what they were laughing about.
“You’re joking,” I said in disbelief.
“No, I’m a local,” he said, distracted.
“I meant about your major. You don’t look like the criminal justice type.”
His eyebrows pulled together, suddenly focused on our conversation. “Why?”
I scanned the tattoos covering his arm. “I’ll just say that you seem more criminal and less justice.”
“I don’t get in any trouble . . . for the most part. Dad was pretty strict.”
“Where was your mom?”
“She died when I was a kid,” he said, matter-of-fact.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. His answer caught me off guard.
He dismissed my sympathy. “I don’t remember her. My brothers do, but I was just three when she died.”
“Four brothers, huh? How did you keep them straight?” I teased.
“I kept them straight by who hit the hardest, which also happened to be oldest to youngest. Thomas; the twins, Taylor and Tyler; and then Trenton. You never, ever got caught alone in a room with Taylor and Ty. I learned half of what I do in the Circle from them. Trenton was the smallest, but he’s fast. He’s the only one that can land a punch on me now.”
I shook my head, dumbfounded at the thought of five Travises running around in one household. “Do they all have tattoos?”
“Pretty much. Except Thomas. He’s an ad exec in California.”
“And your dad? Where’s he?”
“Around,” he said. His jaws were working again, increasingly irritated with the soccer team.
“What are they laughing about?” I asked, gesturing to the rowdy table. He shook his head, clearly not wanting to share. I crossed my arms and squirmed in my seat, nervous about what they were saying that caused him so much aggravation. “Tell me.”
“They’re laughing about me having to take you to dinner, first. It’s not usually . . . my thing.”
“First?” When the realization settled on my face, Travis winced at my expression. I spoke before I thought. “And I was afraid they were laughing about you being seen with me dressed like this, and they think I’m going to sleep with you,” I grumbled.
“Why wouldn’t I be seen with you?”
“What were we talking about?” I asked, warding off the heat rising in my cheeks.
“You. What’s your major?” he asked.
“Oh, er . . . General Ed, for now. I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning toward Accounting.”
“You’re not a local, though. You must be a transplant.”
“Wichita. Same as America.”
“How did you end up here from Kansas?”
I picked at the label of my beer bottle. “We just had to get away.”
“Oh. What about America? She has parent issues, too?”
“No, Mark and Pam are great. They practically raised me. She sort of tagged along; she didn’t want me to come alone.”
Travis nodded. “So, why Eastern?”
“What’s with the third degree?” I said. The questions were drifting from small talk to personal, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.
Several chairs knocked together as the soccer team left their seats. They traded one last joke before they meandered toward the door. Their pace quickened when Travis stood up. Those in the back of the group pushed those in front to escape before Travis made his way across the room. He sat down, forcing the frustration and anger away.
I raised an eyebrow.
“You were going to say why you chose Eastern,” he prompted.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said, shrugging. “I guess it just felt right.”
He smiled as he opened his menu. “I know what you mean.”