FUCKING VULTURES. THEY COULD WAIT YOU OUT FOR hours. Days. Nights, too. Staring right through you, picking which parts of you they will pull away first, which pieces will be the sweetest, the most tender, or just which part will be most convenient.
What they don’t know, what they’ve never anticipated, is that the prey is faking. It’s the vultures that are easy. Just when they think all they have to do is be patient, to sit back and wait for you to expire, that’s when you hit them. That’s when you bring in the secret weapon: an utter lack of respect for the status quo; a refusal to give in to the order of things.
That’s when you shock them with how much you just don’t give a fuck.
An opponent in the Circle, some random douche bag trying to expose your weakness with insults, a woman trying to tie you down; gets them every time.
I’d been very careful from a very young age to live my life this way. These bleeding heart assholes that went around giving their soul to every gold-digging banshee that smiled at them had it all wrong. But somehow I was the one swimming upstream. I was the man out. Their way was the hard way if you ask me. Leaving emotion at the door, and replacing it with numbness, or anger—which was much easier to control—was easy. Letting yourself feel made you vulnerable. As many times as I tried to explain this error to my brothers, my cousins, or my friends, I was met with skepticism. As many times as I had seen them crying or losing sleep over some dumb bitch in a pair of fuck-me heels that never gave a shit about them anyway, I couldn’t understand it. The women that were worth that kind of heartbreak wouldn’t let you fall for them so easy. They wouldn’t bend over your couch, or allow you to charm them into their bedroom on the first night—or even the tenth.
My theories were ignored because that wasn’t the way of things. Attraction, sex, infatuation, love, and then heartbreak. That was the logical order. And, it was always the order.
But not for me. No. Fucking. Way.
I decided a long time ago I would feed on the vultures until a dove came along. A pigeon. The kind of soul that didn’t impede on anyone; just walked around worrying about its own business, trying to get through life without pulling everyone else down with its own needs and selfish habits. Brave. A communicator. Intelligent. Beautiful. Soft-spoken. A creature that mates for life. Unattainable until she has a reason to trust you.
As I stood at my open apartment door, flicking the last bit of ashes off my cigarette, the girl in the bloody, pink cardigan from the Circle flashed in my memory. Without thinking, I’d called her Pigeon. At the time it was just a stupid nickname to make her even more uncomfortable than she already was. Her crimson-spattered face, her eyes wide, outwardly she seemed innocent, but I could tell it was just the clothes. I pushed her memory away as I stared blankly into the living room.
Megan lay on my couch lazily, watching TV. She looked bored, and I wondered why she was still in my apartment. She usually got her crap and left right after I bagged her.
The door complained when I pushed it a little wider. I cleared my throat and picked up my backpack by the straps. “Megan. I’m out.”
She sat up and stretched, and then gripped the chain of her excessively large purse. I couldn’t imagine she had enough belongings to fill it. Megan slung the silver links over her shoulder, and then slipped on her wedge heels, sauntering out the door.
“Text me if you’re bored,” she said without glancing in my direction. She slipped on her oversize sunglasses, and then descended the stairs, completely unaffected by my dismissal. Her indifference was exactly why Megan was one of my few frequent flyers. She didn’t cry about commitment, or throw a tantrum. She took our arrangement for what it was, and then went about her day.
My Harley glistened in the morning autumn sun. I waited for Megan to pull away from the parking lot of my apartment, and then jogged down the stairs, zipping up my jacket. Dr. Rueser’s humanities class was in half an hour, but he didn’t care if I was late. If it didn’t piss him off, I didn’t really see a point in killing myself to get there.
“Wait up!” a voice called from behind me.
Shepley stood at the front door of our apartment, shirtless and balancing on one foot while trying to pull a sock onto the other. “I meant to ask you last night. What did you say to Marek? You leaned into his ear and said something. He looked like he swallowed his tongue.”
“I thanked him for taking off out of town a few weekends before, because his mother was a wildcat.”
Shepley stared at me, dubious. “Dude. You didn’t.”
“No. I heard from Cami that he got a Minor In Possession in Jones County.”
He shook his head, and then nodded toward the couch. “Did you let Megan spend the night this time?”
“No, Shep. You know better than that.”
“She just came over to get some morning nookie before class, huh? That’s an interesting way to claim you for the day.”
“You think that’s it?”
“Anyone else gets her sloppy seconds.” Shepley shrugged. “It’s Megan. Who knows. Listen, I’ve gotta take America back to campus. Want a ride?”
“I’ll meet you later,” I said, slipping on my Oakleys. “I can take Mare if you want.”
Shepley’s face contorted. “Uh . . . no.”
Amused at his reaction, I saddled up on the Harley and ripped the engine. Even though I had the bad habit of seducing his girlfriend’s friends, there was one line I wouldn’t cross. America was his, and once he showed interest in a girl, she was off my radar, never to be considered again. He knew that. He just liked to give me shit.
I met Adam behind Sig Tau. He ran the Circle. After the initial payout the first night, I’d let him pick up the tote returns the following day, and then give him a cut for his trouble. He kept the cover; I kept the winnings. Our relationship was strictly business, and we both preferred to keep it simple. As long as he kept paying me, I stayed out of his face, and as long as he didn’t want to get his ass kicked, he stayed out of mine.
I made my way across campus to the cafeteria. Just before I reached the double metal doors, Lexi and Ashley stepped in front of me.
“Hey, Trav,” Lexi said, standing with perfect posture. Perfectly tanned, silicone-endowed breasts peeked from her pink T-shirt. Those irresistible, bouncing mounds were what begged me to bag her in the first place, but once was enough. Her voice reminded me of the sound made by air being slowly let out of a balloon, and Nathan Squalor bagged her the night after I did.
I pinched the cherry off my cigarette and threw it into the bin before walking quickly past her through the doors. Not that I was eager to tackle the buffet of limp vegetables, dry meat, and overripe fruits. Jesus. Her voice made dogs howl, and children perk up to see what cartoon character had come to life.
Regardless of my dismissal, both girls followed.
“Shep.” I nodded. He was sitting with America, laughing with the people around him. The pigeon from the fight sat across from him, poking at her food with a plastic fork. My voice seemed to pique her curiosity. I could feel her big eyes follow me to the end of the table where I tossed my tray.
I heard Lexi giggle, forcing me to restrain the irritation boiling inside me. When I sat, she used my knee for a chair.
Some of the guys from the football team sitting at our table watched in awe, as if being followed by two inarticulate tarts was an unattainable aspiration for them.
Lexi slid her hand under the table and then pressed her fingers into my thigh as she made her way up the inseam of my jeans. I spread my legs a little wider, waiting for her to reach her mark.
Just before I felt her hands on me, America’s loud murmurs traveled down the table.
“I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.”
Lexi turned, her entire body rigid. “I heard that, skank.”
A dinner roll flew past Lexi’s face and bounced off the floor. Shepley and I traded glances, and then I let my knee give way.
Lexi’s ass bounced off the cafeteria tile. I admit, it turned me on a little hearing the sound of her skin slap against the ceramic.
She didn’t complain much before walking away. Shepley seemed to appreciate my gesture, and that was good enough for me. My toleration for girls like Lexi only lasted so long. I had one rule: respect. For me, my family, and for my friends. Hell, even some of my enemies deserved respect. I didn’t see a reason to associate longer than necessary with people who didn’t understand that life lesson. It might sound hypocritical to the women that have passed through my apartment door, but if they carried themselves with respect, I would have given it to them.
I winked at America, who seemed satisfied, nodded to Shepley, and then took another bite of whatever was on my plate.
“Nice job last night, Mad Dog,” Chris Jenks said, flicking a crouton across the table.
“Shut up, dumb ass,” Brazil said in his typical low voice. “Adam will never let you back in if he hears you’re talking.”
“Oh. Yeah,” he said, shrugging.
I took my tray to the trash, and then returned to my seat with a frown. “And don’t call me that.”
“What? Mad Dog?”
“Why not? I thought that was your Circle name. Kind of like your stripper name.”
My eyes targeted Jenks. “Why don’t you shut up and give that hole in your face a chance to heal.”
I’d never liked that little worm.
“Sure thing, Travis. All you had to do was say so.” He chuckled nervously before gathering his trash and heading out.
Before long, most of the lunchroom was empty. I glanced down to see Shepley and America still hanging around, talking with her friend. She had long, wavy hair, and her skin was still bronzed from summer break. She didn’t have the biggest tits I’d ever seen, but her eyes . . . they were a weird gray color. Familiar somehow.
There was no way I’d met her before, but something about her face reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on.
I stood up and walked toward her. She had the hair of a porn star, and the face of an angel. Her eyes were almond shaped and uniquely beautiful. That was when I saw it: behind the beauty and fake innocence was something else, something cold and calculating. Even when she smiled, I could see sin so deeply ingrained in her that no cardigan could hide it. Those eyes floated above her tiny nose, and smooth features. To anyone else, she was pure and naive, but this girl was hiding something. I knew only because the same sin had dwelled in me my entire life. The difference was she held it deep within her, and I let mine out of its cage on a regular basis.
I watched Shepley until he felt me staring at him. When he looked my way, I nodded in the pigeon’s direction.
Who’s that? I mouthed.
Shepley only responded with a confused frown.
Her, I silently mouthed again.
Shepley’s mouth turned up into the annoying asshole grin he always made when he was about to do something to piss me off.
“What?” Shepley asked, a lot louder than necessary.
I could tell the girl knew we were talking about her, because she kept her head down, pretending not to hear.
After spending sixty seconds in Abby Abernathy’s presence, I discerned two things: she didn’t talk much, and when she did she was kind of a bitch. But I don’t know . . . I kind of dug that about her. She put on a front to keep assholes like me away, but that made me even more determined.
She rolled her eyes at me for the third or fourth time. I was annoying her and found it pretty amusing. Girls didn’t usually treat me with unadulterated loathing, even when I was showing them the door.
When even my best smiles didn’t work, I turned it up a notch.
“Do you have a twitch?”
“A what?” she asked.
“A twitch. Your eyes keep wiggling around.” If she could have murdered me with her glare, I would have bled out on the floor. I couldn’t help but laugh. She was a smart-ass and rude as hell. I liked her more every second.
I leaned closer to her face. “Those are some amazing eyes, though. What color is that, anyway? Gray?”
She immediately ducked her head, letting her hair cover her face. Score. I made her uncomfortable, and that meant I was getting somewhere.
America immediately jumped in, warning me away. I couldn’t blame her. She’d seen the endless line of girls come in and out of the apartment. I didn’t want to piss America off, but she didn’t look angry. More like amused.
“You’re not her type,” America said.
My mouth fell open, playing into her game. “I’m everyone’s type!”
The pigeon peeked over at me and grinned. A warm feeling—probably just the insane urge to throw this girl on my couch—came over me. She was different, and it was refreshing.
“Ah! A smile,” I said. Simply calling it a smile, like it wasn’t the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, seemed wrong, but I wasn’t about to fuck up my game when I was just getting ahead. “I’m not a rotten bastard after all. It was nice to meet you, Pidge.”
I stood, walked around the table, and leaned into America’s ear. “Help me out here, would ya? I’ll behave, I swear.”
A French fry came hurdling toward my face.
“Get your lips outta my girl’s ear, Trav!” Shepley said.
I backed away, holding my hands up to highlight the most innocent expression on my face that I could manage. “Networking! I’m networking!” I walked backward a few steps to the door, noticing a small group of girls. I opened the door, and they swarmed through like a herd of water buffalo before I could let myself out.
It had been a long time since I’d had a challenge. The weird thing was, I wasn’t out to fuck her. It bothered me that she might think I was a piece of shit, but it bothered me more that I cared. Either way, for the first time in a long time, someone was unpredictable. Pigeon was the total opposite of the girls I’d met here, and I had to know why.
CHANEY’S CLASS WAS FULL. I TOOK THE STEPS TO MY seat two at a time, and then waded through the bare legs crowding my desk.
I nodded. “Ladies.”
They hummed and sighed in harmony.
Vultures. Half of them I’d bagged my freshman year, the other half had been on my couch well before fall break. Except the girl on the end. Sophia flashed a crooked smile. It looked like her face had caught fire and someone had tried to put it out with a fork. She had been with a few of my frat brothers. Knowing their track records and her lack of concern for safety, it was best to consider her an unnecessary risk, even if I was habitually careful.
She leaned forward on her elbows to make better eye contact. I felt the urge to shudder with disgust, but I resisted. No. Not even close to being worth it.
The brunette in front of me turned around and batted her lashes. “Hey, Travis. I hear there’s a date party coming up at Sig Tau.”
“No,” I said without pause.
Her bottom lip formed a pout. “But . . . when you told me about it, I thought you might want to go.”
I laughed once. “I was bitching about it. Not the same.”
The blonde next to me leaned forward. “Everyone knows Travis Maddox doesn’t go to date parties. You’re barking up the wrong tree, Chrissy.”
“Oh yeah? Well, no one asked you,” Chrissy said with a frown.
As the women argued back and forth, I noticed Abby rush in. She practically threw herself into a front-row desk just before the bell rang.
Before I took a second to ask myself why, I grabbed my paper and popped my pen in my mouth, and then jogged down the steps, sliding into the desk next to her.
The look on Abby’s face surpassed amusing, and for a reason I couldn’t explain, it caused adrenaline to rush through my body—the kind that I used to experience before a fight.
“Good. You can take notes for me.”
She was utterly disgusted, and that only pleased me more. Most girls bored me outta my gourd, but this girl was intriguing. Entertaining, even. I didn’t faze her, at least not in a positive way. My very presence seemed to make her want to puke, and I found that strangely endearing.
The urge came over me to find out if it was really hate she felt for me, or if she was just a hard-ass. I leaned in close. “I’m sorry . . . did I offend you in some way?”
Her eyes softened before she shook her head. She didn’t hate me. She just wanted to hate me. I was way ahead of her. If she wanted to play, I could play.
“Then what is your problem?”
She seemed embarrassed to say what came next. “I’m not sleeping with you. You should give up, now.”
Oh yeah. This was going to be fun. “I haven’t asked you to sleep with me . . . have I?” I let my eyes drift to the ceiling, as if I had to think about it. “Why don’t you come over with America tonight?”
Abby’s lip turned up, as if she’d smelled something rotten.
“I won’t even flirt with you, I swear.”
“I’ll think about it.”
I tried not to smile too much and give myself away. She wasn’t going to roll over like the vultures above. I glanced behind me, and they were all glaring at the back of Abby’s head. They knew it as well as I did. Abby was different, and I was going to have to work for this one. For once.
Three doodles of potential tattoos, and two dozen 3-D boxes later, class dismissed. I slid through the halls before anyone could stop me. I made good time, but Abby had somehow ended up outside, a good twenty yards ahead of me.
I’ll be damned. She was trying to avoid me. I quickened my pace until I was next to her. “Have you thought about it?”
“Travis!” A girl said, playing with her hair. Abby kept going, leaving me stuck listening to this girl’s irritating babble.
“Sorry, uh . . . ”
“Sorry, Heather . . . I’m . . . I’ve gotta go.”
She wrapped her arms around me. I patted her backside, shrugged out of her grasp, and kept walking, wondering who she was.
Before I could figure out who Heather was, Abby’s long, tan legs came into view. I popped a Marlboro into my mouth and jogged to her side. “Where was I? Oh yeah . . . you were thinking.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Have you thought about coming over?”
“If I say yes, will you quit following me?”
I pretended to mull it over, and then nodded. “Yes.”
“Then I’ll come over.”
Bullshit. She wasn’t that easy. “When?”
“Tonight. I’ll come over tonight.”
I stopped midstep. She was up to something. I hadn’t anticipated her going on the offensive. “Sweet,” I said, playing off my surprise. “See you then, Pidge.”
She walked away without looking back, not the least bit affected by the conversation. She disappeared behind other students making their own way to class.
Shepley’s white ball cap came into view. He was in no hurry to get to our computer class. My eyebrows pressed together. I hated that class. Who doesn’t know how to work a fucking computer anymore?
I joined Shepley and America as they merged into the flow of students on the main walkway. She giggled and watched him yap at me with stars in her eyes. America was no vulture. She was hot, yeah, but she could have a conversation without saying like after every word, and she was pretty funny at times. What I liked most about her is she wouldn’t come to the apartment for several weeks after their first date, and even after they watched a movie all snuggled up at the apartment, she went back to her dorm room.
I had a feeling the probationary period before Shepley could bag her was about to end, though.
“Hey, Mare,” I said, nodding.
“How’s it going, Trav?” she asked. She acknowledged me with a friendly smile, but then her eyes were right back on Shepley.
He was one of the lucky ones. Girls like that didn’t come along very often.
“This is me,” America said, gesturing to her dorm around the corner. She wrapped her arms around Shepley’s neck and kissed him. He gripped her shirt on each side and pulled her close before letting her go.
America waved one last time at both of us, and then joined her friend Finch at the front entrance.
“You’re falling for her, aren’t you?” I asked, punching Shepley in the arm.
He shoved me. “None of your business, dick.”
“Does she have a sister?”
“She’s an only child. Leave her friends alone, too, Trav. I mean it.”
Shepley’s last words were unnecessary. His eyes were a billboard for his emotions and thoughts most of the time, and he was clearly serious—maybe even a little desperate. He wasn’t just falling for her. He was in love.
“You mean Abby.”
He frowned. “I mean any of her friends. Even Finch. Just stay away.”
“Cousin!” I said, hooking my elbow around his neck. “Are you in love? You’re making me all misty-eyed!”
“Shut up,” Shepley grumbled. “Just promise me you’ll stay away from her friends.”