Jock Romeo by Sara Ney

PROLOGUE

LILLY

Go to a house party, they said.

It’ll be fun, they said.

Wrong.

Seems everyone else on campus had the same idea: hit Jock Row on the first Friday back for drinking and merriment and acting like asses.

This is not fun—at least, not in my opinion. There are way too many people here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. Not only that, I have to pee, and the line for the bathroom is insanely long. I’m not a camel—I cannot hold it for days, and I refuse to pee outside in a bush.

There has to be another bathroom somewhere in this massive house. The one beneath the staircase where everyone is lined up is probably just a powder room with a single toilet. My eyes roam the perimeter, scanning for random doors that could lead to relief, but I find none. Nor am I willing to push my way through the dense crowd to the packed kitchen in hopes of finding one—this party is body to body to body, and the closer it gets to midnight, the more people seem to congregate.

This has to be a code violation.

There is a staircase leading to a second story, and I assume it’s probably off limits up there. Private bedrooms and all that. So that’s the direction I go, shouldering my way through the throng until I reach the wooden stairs, eyes focused on the dark hall at the top. There’s a door and it’s closed, a white piece of paper taped up with bold black Sharpie letters scrawled across it: DO NOT ENTER.

I decide to enter.

After all, I’m a girl with a goal.

It may be a short-term one involving a toilet, but at least I have my sights set on something other than being drunk, yeah?

I turn the doorknob and push through, stepping up into the second level, making sure to close it behind me. It’s not as noisy up here but still not exactly quiet, the sounds of people and music finding their way in.

There is a bathroom straight ahead.

Bingo.

I make a beeline for it, sighing with relief as I lock its door, pushing down my jeans and plopping down onto the cool porcelain.

“Ahh.”

I haven’t even had that much to drink—room temperature beer holds no appeal for me tonight, but I didn’t want to sit at home in the dorm rooms on my first official Friday in college.

I’m a freshman!

In college.

Not only that, I made the university’s cheerleading team and have added that to my list of accomplishments this year, too. Wasn’t sure I’d make it; I was so damn nervous during my tryouts I almost biffed it during the basket toss, one of the most basic stunts. Cheerleading 101.

A few of my teammates convinced me to come out tonight. I’m a social person in general—you kind of have to be when you’re a cheerleader, jumping and dancing in front of thousands upon thousands of screaming, shouting fans at a football game—but every so often all I want to do is snuggle up with a good book on the beanbag chair. I brought it with me to college and it’s in my dorm room parked in front of the small television set that rests on a chest of drawers.

Built-in desk.

Metal bunk beds.

My roommate hasn’t arrived at school yet, but I know her name is Allison and she is bringing the microwave—and I suppose that’s another one of the reasons I came out tonight: I’m too nervous to be in the room when she finally arrives.

Classes start Monday.

Practice began two weeks ago.

The first game is Sunday.

I let out a loud sigh as I pee in the toilet of the baseball house, looking myself over in the mirror directly across from it. My dark blonde hair that’s lost its curl because of the humidity outside on the walk over. My big brown eyes, lashes coated in mascara that’s sure to smudge by the time we finally leave. The big, gold hoop earrings.

There’s a sound outside the bathroom door and I hold still, rigidly frozen on the pot, guilty of being a stowaway on a floor the residents of this house didn’t want anyone to come to.

Shit.

What if someone tries the door to get in and finds it’s locked?

I frantically wipe and flush, washing my hands before pressing my ear to the door and listening for footsteps.

Or voices.

All I hear is the music and noise from down below, muffled but loud.

With bated breath, I turn the lock then twist the doorknob, inching the door open and peering through the small gap. Shoulder my way through and tiptoe back down the hall toward the stairway, pulling open the door at the top so I can disappear back into the merriment below.

There’s someone at the top of the steps, and he’s sitting.

I know this because I literally crash into him when I put my foot out to descend, followed by an “Oof!” and a profuse apology.

“Oh my gosh, I didn’t see you sitting there.” I bend to take him by the shoulders as if the force was strong enough to send him flying.

He did not go flying.

“I am so sorry,” I enthuse, stepping around him, down two stairs and turning to face him.

“No—it’s not your fault. I’m the one who shouldn’t be sitting here.”

I tilt my head and look down.

It’s not easy to see him clearly in the dimly lit stairwell, but he’s a gangly boy with a buzz cut. Red t-shirt. Jeans.

Embarrassed half-grin.

“Then why are you sitting here?”

He shrugs, and I notice his lanky shoulders.

He can’t be any older than I am, probably a freshman, too.

“I guess I’m hiding.” His hands are clasped over his knees and his phone is out—he was probably playing on it as a diversion, if I had to guess.

“Hiding? From who?”

“Everyone.” He laughs, pushing up the glasses rested on the bridge of his nose.

“You’re hiding from everyone? Why don’t you just leave?” That’s what I would do if I hadn’t forced myself to come and be social tonight—one last hurrah before the football season kicks off and its curfews and check-ins by the coaching staff and rigorous workouts and nutritional regimens hinder my social time.

Also, I’m asking a complete stranger way too many questions.

“I came with my friends from high school.”

“So?”

“So—if I leave, they’ll make fun of me.”

Some friends. Why are guys such dicks to each other? All that toxic masculinity bullshit infuriates me.

“Well do you mind some company?” This perch is a great spot to stay out of the fray without actually leaving the party, which doesn’t appear to be dying down any time soon. Hunting down my teammates to say goodbye and leave on my own holds no appeal, either—safety in numbers and all that. It wouldn’t be a smart idea walking through campus by myself in the middle of the night.

“Um, sure.”

He does not look sure, but I plop down beside him anyway, scooching him over with a bump of my hips.

“I’m Lilly,” I say. “Freshman. How ’bout you?”

“Same.”

“What’s your name?”

His head dips in embarrassment. “Roman.”

“Cool name, bro,” I tell him, resting my elbows on my knees and gazing down at the bright lights of the living room below. A song has just started that everyone goes wild for, and the floor shakes as students jump up and down, dancing. “Holy crap, the floor is going to cave in on itself.”

“Might, depending on where the floor joists are if the weight’s not evenly distributed and how old the house is.”

Nerd alert. “Are you an architecture major?”

“No, it’s just basic physics.”

I think we’ve established that I’ve been botching up all things basic lately, so I’m no help when it comes to physics. Math. Science.

Not my strong suits.

“What is your major if it’s not architecture?”

“Tech.”

Oh.

That’s boring—everyone is a computer science major. He probably wants to create apps and stuff.

“Tech for what?”

The eyebrows above his glasses quirk up and down. “Automotive or aerospace.”

“Like—programming cars and stuff?”

Beside me, he nods. “I haven’t decided, but yes, something like that.”

Oh.

That makes what I’m about to say sound lame and juvenile.

I sigh. “I’m an English major with a business minor. My parents wouldn’t let me major in art, so I had to settle.” I have no idea why I’m telling him this; he’s a stranger and does not give a crap. “I like to craft.”

When Roman looks over at me, the lenses of his glasses catch the light from downstairs and I can’t see his eyes against the glare, but I can almost hear what he’s thinking: An English major with a business minor? What the hell are you going to do with that?

I know this because my father has asked me that question a million times, and I never have an answer for him.

“I’m sure you’ll find something you’re passionate about. We make our own destiny.”

I nod slowly.

We make our own destiny.

Those are some pretty profound words for a freshman guy at a kegger.

“Is that what you’re doing? Creating your own destiny?” I’m teasing him but I’m also curious—I’ve never heard a guy say something like that before, and it’s intriguing.

“Sure. I mean, every decision we make today impacts what happens tomorrow, don’t you agree?”

Um.

Yes?

“Of course I agree.”

Roman has his eyes trained on the action at the bottom of the stairs, where a small group of girls are congregating and whispering, their heads pivoting every few seconds to watch whatever—or whomever—is across the room.

Probably some hot dude one of them has a crush on but is too afraid to approach.

Roman is watching the girls intently before clearing his throat and glancing over at me.

“Are you seeing anyone?” I finally ask him. He doesn’t strike me as the type to be dating; I’m certain his course load will keep him as occupied as I expect to be during the school year, but you never know—maybe he has a cute little girlfriend hidden away somewhere.

“No.” He chuckles.

“Did I say something funny?”

“You honestly think I’m dating someone?”

“Why are you saying it like I insulted you—are you too good to date? Is no one smart enough for you?”

It would make perfect sense that he wouldn’t want to date a dullard; guys like him—ambitious ones with their lives planned out—rarely find time for a person who doesn’t possess the same drive and determination.

I would know because that’s how my dad is.

Roman is silent again, eyes trailing back to the girls at the bottom of the stairs.

I recognize one of them as Kaylee Sheffield; she’s a cheerleader, too, but she’s a flyer and we don’t practice in the same groups so I rarely have the chance to talk to her.

“They’re pretty,” I say. “Do you want to go talk to them?”

He snorts. “As if any of those girls would give me the time of day.”

Ahh.

I get it.

Roman doesn’t date because he doesn’t have the self-confidence. I’ve seen plenty of people like that before, not just guys but girls too, doubting and second-guessing themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough—the same way I’d never feel smart enough to date a guy who wants to work at NASA and program spaceships.

“I don’t think you should judge them based on their appearances. Everyone has a type.”

His neck swivels. “We’re on Jock Row at a baseball party—I’ll give you one guess as to what their type is.”

Fine, he’s got me there, but only on a technicality.

Still.

He’s stereotyping them the way he’s probably stereotyping me, but guess what?

I’m used to it.

Cheerleaders may not be considered the studious type, and sure, I’m no brainiac so some of the stereotypes in my case may be true—but I’m kind and determined and give everyone a chance. I try not to judge, and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

I fiddle with the bracelet on my left wrist, the one I braided a few nights ago in front of the television, sitting my bum on the floor while I watched a reality matchmaking show. It’s made of my favorite colors—green and pink—in an intricate pattern I learned one summer at camp.

I rub the soft yarn between my thumb and index finger.

“So, you think if you went down and talked to those girls, you’d get rejected?”

Roman doesn’t look at me. “Um, what do you think.”

“I think you shouldn’t doubt yourself.”

He’s silent, but in the dim shadows, I can see his lips purse; he wants to respond but isn’t going to.

Then, finally—

“What about you? Why aren’t you down there flirting and having a good time?”

My head gives a tiny shake. “I don’t have the energy—I have to be up early tomorrow, but since everyone was coming out tonight, I also didn’t want to sit in the dorms by myself.”

Plus, I didn’t want to be there when the new roomie arrived.

“Why do you have to be up early tomorrow? It’s Saturday.”

“Practice.”

“Practice for what?”

Oh god, he’s going to make me say it.

I sit up straighter, stiffening my spine. “I’m a cheerleader. We practice six days out of the week.”

I brace myself.

Wait for whatever sarcastic, biting remark he’s going to sling back about airheads or blondes or cheer—but none come.

“You must be good if you made a college team.”

I blush.

Golly gee. “I guess.”

“Why are you being so modest? You should be proud of yourself.”

“I am proud of myself.”

I am.

I’m proud. Like he said, it’s not easy becoming a collegiate cheerleader; I’ve busted my ass for the past five years, cheering for my high school, cheering on a competitive team, doing camps, workshops, training. And that doesn’t include working out to stay fit and strong.

It’s been brutal and certainly hasn’t been easy.

Not everyone can do it and not everyone does, but I’ve proven myself over the years.

“You look like a dancer,” Roman comments.

I look like a dancer? What do dancers look like? Is that a type?

“How can you even tell?” I laugh. “It’s dark up here.”

“I don’t know—I can just tell.” He laughs back.

“What dorm are you in?”

“I’m not in the dorms. I still live at home.”

“How do you still live at home?”

“I’m local. It only takes me fifteen minutes to get here, so to save money, I’m not living in the dorms.”

“Oh.” I pause, searching for some more words. “How is that working out for you?”

“Don’t know yet since school hasn’t started, but I imagine it’s going to be like high school, just have to drive farther.”

True. Good point.

“Why didn’t you go anywhere farther? Did you, like, not have any choices?”

“Yeah, I had plenty of options. I got a few scholarship offers, too, but my aunt lives with my parents and she’s kind of old. They sometimes need help with her, so I couldn’t go too far. Plus, I need time to figure out what it is I want to do, you know?”

“Oh. I thought you just said you wanted to work for NASA. Or an automobile company.”

“But those are two entirely different things and I don’t want to waste my time or anyone’s money until I know for sure what I want to do, what direction I want to go, you know?”

He says you know a lot, but I say like a lot, so I guess that makes us even.

“How old is this old aunt of yours?”

“I don’t know, maybe eighty?”

“Eighty! I thought you were going to say like forty-five or something. That’s how old my mom’s sister is.”

“I should have clarified. My aunt is actually my great aunt—so, my grandmother’s sister.” He fidgets with his hands. “Grandma died about three years ago, and she and my aunt lived together before she passed. After she died, Aunt Myrtle moved in with us.”

That makes much more sense.

“Aunt Myrtle? That’s adorable.”

Roman laughs. “Zinger of a name, isn’t it?”

“Super vintage.”

“Quite vintage,” he agrees.

“You sound so formal when you talk about it,” I finally say, because Roman has the vocabulary of an English professor and the posture of one, too. It’s so unlike the vocabulary of any of the guys I’m used to—male athletes, primarily football players, who do a lot of grunting and speak in mostly simple sentences. It’s not that I’m knocking them or saying they’re all like that—all I’m saying is not a single one of them wants to work for NASA.

“Sorry,” he apologizes, and I can see he’s embarrassed to be called out, though there’s no reason he should be.

Being smart is cool.

And sexy.

Sure, Roman is a tad nerdy, but it’s clear he hasn’t grown into himself yet. I bet when he’s older he’ll be really good-looking once he fills out.

“Don’t ever apologize for the way you are.” I speak with authority, wishing I could take my own advice, knowing that a solid few times a week are spent feeling inadequate and less than.

Blame it on my sport. Blame it on my coaches.

And yes—I can blame it on my parents.

My mother could have starred in a season of Stage Moms, pushing me to practice and excel and practice some more to the point of exhaustion. I’m not sure what she wants from me. I’m hardly going to become a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.

I don’t have the motivation for it, not that I’d ever tell her that.

I’m here at this state school because I couldn’t make the team at a Division One university, and I’m glad for it each and every night I lie down to sleep while hearing Mom’s voice echoing in my head: You don’t try hard enough, Lilly—you don’t want it enough. I want it more than you do, for God’s sake.

She’s not wrong.

She does want it more than I do.

Mom has never acknowledged that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I love it or like it. Far from it. I cheer because I can, not because it’s a passion of mine.

I’m still searching for what that passion is and hope I find it someday soon. I want to discover what my dreams are and chase them instead of being pushed into something by other people. I often wonder if my coaches could tell when I went through the motions, wonder if that’s why a few of them were always so impatient with me.

Guess I’ll never know.

“So you live at home so you can help out? Don’t you want to, I don’t know, have a life?”

I know I sound judgmental and I know I shouldn’t assume Roman doesn’t have a life, but if he lives at home because he needs to help out, that probably means he doesn’t get out much. Who knows, maybe he doesn’t even want to.

Maybe he’s one of those guys who like solitude.

Maybe he’s one of those guys who stays in his basement playing video games.

“I guess I don’t really need to have a life? I’m really focused on my grades right now.” He hesitates for a few seconds before adding, “Well, I shouldn’t say that. What I mean is I’m really focused on studying, so it’s not like I can afford any distractions. If you don’t count Aunt Myrtle.”

His laughter takes up all the space in our little corner of the party, sequestered high up on the stairs, away from all the chaos.

“No offense, but having Aunt Myrtle live with you sounds like a drag.” For a brief moment, I wonder what my problem is and why I can’t stop these thoughts in my head.

“Have you ever seen The Golden Girls?”

“Yeah, who hasn’t?”

“Aunt Myrtle is like a cross between Blanche Devereaux and Sophia. So picture that walking into the kitchen every morning—not to mention she loves giving unsolicited advice. I have no idea how my mom can stand it.”

“What about your dad? Are your parents still together, or are they divorced?”

“They’re still together. My dad works a lot—travels for work and stuff. He’s a structural and civil engineer, designs bridges and shit. Really stressful since he’s part of the family business.”

Dang, his dad is really smart, too. “Like gluing popsicle sticks together and creating a building?”

Roman laughs again, and I straighten under the praise, having amused him.

“What about your mom? What does she do?” Why am I asking him this? It’s so rude. What does it matter what his parents do for a living?

You’re being nosey, Lilly—stop it.

“She stays home—I have a younger brother in third grade, Alex. He’s a monster.”

“So your mom takes care of Aunt Myrtle and Alex the Monster.”

“Right. They’re a dynamic duo of chaos.” He looks over at me. “What about you? I feel like all I’ve done is talk about myself.”

Only because I’ve asked him a million questions.

I pull a bottle of water out of my bag, suddenly remembering I have it with me, twisting off the top and taking a chug.

“Well. My dad works a lot too, and my mom is a paralegal but also considers herself my manager. Unofficially.”

“Manager of what?”

“Nothing. The dancing career I’m never going to have and do not want.”

“Oh.”

I glance at him in the dim light. “Have you ever seen an episode of Stage Moms?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well, it’s this show about mothers who are obsessed with their children being famous or at least push them to be at the top of their game—in my case it’s dancing and cheering. I could be throwing up and my mother would still make me go to practice sick. And she would sit there watching the entire time, yelling instructions at me the same way my coaches would.” I take in a deep breath. “I couldn’t wait to graduate and get away.”

“How far from home are you?”

“Four hours—far enough that she can’t come to every home game and harass me, tell me all the things I do wrong afterward.”

“Isn’t that what coaches are for?”

My laugh is wry. “Ha. You would think. I honestly have no idea what my mom expects me to do with dancing—I don’t want to be on Broadway or in a show, and I’m not good enough to cheer for a professional sports team. I don’t have the motivation to do that.”

“Why does she want you to be a dancer so bad?”

“I have no idea.”

“Was she a dancer?”

“No. My mom was pre-law and wanted to be a lawyer but couldn’t get into any of the law schools she chose, so she quit and became a paralegal—which, by the way, required lots of schooling too.”

“Maybe she feels like a quitter and she doesn’t want you to be a quitter.”

“Well you can’t be a quitter if it’s not something you even want.” I pull at the bracelet surrounding my wrist. “I didn’t ask to be put into gymnastics and dance class and ballet. And I didn’t ask to be put in pageants when I was two years old.”

“Whoa—back up. You were in pageants?”

“Do you have to say it like that?”

“Sorry. But I’ve never met anyone from Toddlers and Tiaras.”

“Ha ha, very funny.” But I do pull out my phone and start scrolling through my photo gallery. “Hold on, I think I have a picture in here somewhere of me winning the Little Miss Coco Cabana pageant.”

I scroll and scroll and scroll down through the weeks and months and years to find pictures of myself I uprooted and then uploaded as a lark. Headshots of myself as a very little girl usually bring me some kind of amusement. Sometimes they even serve as a reminder that my mom has been pushing me to do things I don’t want for my entire life.

I find a photo of myself, blonde hair poofed up in the front and twisted into a professional knot in the back. For these particular headshots, my mother actually put a hairpiece on me so my hair appeared fuller. I mean, come on—what three-year-old has this kind of style? It looks absolutely ridiculous.

I’m spray-tanned, wearing makeup and teeny-tiny little dentures called a flipper.

Apparently my own teeth weren’t good enough for my mother.

I take my phone and hold it toward Roman so he can see. In the light from the phone’s glare, I get a good view of his surprised face. His raised eyebrows and mouth in the shape of an O.

“Dang.”

I take my finger and swipe to the next photograph. I’m dressed in western wear, hands on my hips, in the center of a stage. My pale blonde hair is braided and sticking out from beneath a hot pink cowboy hat. Matching fringe vest and skirt. Matching hot pink boots covered in sparkly rhinestones that I remember my mother painstakingly gluing on individually.

She spent hours on that costume. Was so upset when I didn’t place in the western wear category.

“You don’t look like you’re having very much fun,” Roman says after a few moments studying the picture.

“Really? You don’t think so? Most people think I look like I’m having a blast.”

“No, I can see it in your eyes, and you’re clenching your teeth.”

“That’s my toothy grin, see?” I flash him my best toothy grin.

“Nah, that’s a fake smile. Anyone with half a brain can see that.”

He’s not wrong—it was a fake smile, the same smile I’ve been perfecting ever since. Maybe someday I’ll feel joy in my soul, but for now I’m just playing along.

“Do your parents ever push you into anything?” I wonder out loud.

“Not really,” he says. “I’ve always known I wanted to be some kind of scientist.” Roman picks at the knee of his jeans, at the rip perfectly placed there. “My dad came home with a bottle rocket once after being in Florida, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve spent every moment trying to figure out how particles and atoms create…stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“I’m just trying to simplify it so you don’t get bored.”

“I don’t think scientists or science is boring at all—you don’t have to dumb it down for me.” I wonder if I sound defensive at the same time I wonder if he thinks I’m just an airheaded blonde with nothing going on inside my head but fluff.

He wouldn’t be the first, and he certainly won’t be the last.

“What kinds of things are your friends from high school into besides partying without you, ha ha.” It’s time to change the subject before I get all defensive. I take my phone, close out the photo gallery, and slide it back into my bag.

Roman shrugs. “I don’t know. In all honesty, we don’t actually hang out that much. Just so happens I’m the only one who doesn’t live in the dorms, and my parents basically forced me to come tonight because they don’t want me to become a hermit.”

“How did your parents even know?”

“My mom is friends with Jeremy’s mom, and Jeremy must have told her what they were doing tonight, so his mom told my mom and asked if I wanted to come, and my mom automatically said yes.”

“Kind of like how my mom used to say yes to babysitting jobs without asking me,” I tell him. “I wasn’t available often, but when I was, it used to drive me nuts. The last thing I wanted to do in my free time was babysit, especially without committing to it myself.”

“I mean I guess it’s better than sitting at home with Alex and Aunt Myrtle.”

Aunt Myrtle.

The name makes me giggle.

“Do you know what your situation reminds me of right now? There is a movie my mom used to love, and in one scene, this kid is dragged to the high school by his parents and they’re trying to force him to go to the dance but he doesn’t want to. They shove him through the gymnasium doors and hold them closed while he bangs on the other side shouting, ‘I want to stay home with you, I want to stay home with you.’”

Sort of makes Roman laugh. “That hits a little too close to home to be all that funny,” he says, but I can tell he’s saying it with good humor. “No, the truth is I don’t actually get out much, so it’s probably a good thing that everybody forced me to come tonight, even though Jeremy and his buddies couldn’t have given a shit.

“Maybe someday I’ll have a secret mad scientist lab I can lock myself in,” he continues. “But for now, I have to get out into the real world and show my face every once in a while.”

“I think I show my face too often.” I chuckle. “Every weekend during football season I’m jumping up and down on the side of the field, shaking my pom-poms for thousands of people, and let me tell you right now—it gets old.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“Probably because it’s the only thing I know? And I’m good at it even though I don’t absolutely love it.” I shrug, looking down at my feet even though they’re shrouded in the light. “I just keep waiting for something to jump out at me and change all that.” I sigh. “I wish I could craft and glue things all day long. That would make me a very happy girl.”

“Why didn’t you just major in art?” Roman wants to know.

“My mother would have a heart attack.”

“Your mom doesn’t even have to know,” he tells me, as if that’s not something I’ve already thought of. Eventually she would find out, and she would have a stroke. “Are your parents paying for school?”

I nod solemnly. “Most of it. It’s not like I can go and get a job with how much practice I have during the week—I would make a horrible employee, having to take days off all the time.”

“Have you ever had a job?”

Other than the occasional babysitting gig? “No, I never had the time. You?”

“Yes, I actually used to work for my family. My grandfather owns—well, he died, but it’s still in the family—an industrial factory, and I spend my summers in an assembly line plating paperclips and other office supplies.” Roman picks at the threads of his jeans. “The pay is shit, but I have to do it.”

“That sounds, um…”

“Boring. That sounds boring—you can say it.” He laughs. “Trust me, I could do it with my eyes closed—that’s how long I’ve been at it, and I only get half-hour breaks. Once, I had someone try to break into my car while it was parked outside because the factory is in the city and Grandpa gave zero fucks about security.”

“At least you’re making money.”

He grunts. “Barely. Like I said, he never paid me shit. And now my uncle owns it and he’s worse. This was my last summer, and I hope I’m not around next year.”

“Where will you be?”

“Traveling.” He gets quiet for a few seconds. “I’ve been applying for grants and scholarships—fingers crossed.”

Roman crosses his fingers and holds them out the way my girlfriends and I sometimes will when we need good luck, and I cross mine for him, too.

“Well, I hope it all goes well for you.” I sigh, peering into the abyss that is the party down on the lower level. The music is still blasting and people keep coming through the front door, arriving into the late hours. “I’m sure I’ll still be here in a few years, doing the same ol’ same ol’.”

“The good news is, we’ll be done in four years.”

“That’s true.” Then I can get an apartment far from my mother and her controlling ways. “Well…” I breathe out. Toy with the bracelet around my wrist and slowly slide it off. “We should probably get back to the party.”

“Probably.” He stands.

I stand. “It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah, you too.” His hands get stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, and I realize then how tall Roman actually is. It feels like he’s towering over me, even though I’m standing on the step above him.

Six two? Six three?

Hard to say, but I find myself craning my neck to get a look at his face, the lenses from his glasses catching the light.

“Do you suppose I’ll see you around?”

His shoulders shrug. “I’m not a fan of parties, and as it is, I still have to drive home.”

Oh.

Duh—no wonder he hasn’t been drinking. He has to drive. Fifteen minutes I think he said it was? Yuck.

“This was fun though. Thank you for keeping me company.”

“I wasn’t keeping you company, you were keeping me company.”

That makes me smile.

“Here.” Impulsively I hold the bracelet out to him. “This is for good luck this year.”

He hesitates in the dim light before his hand reaches out to take it from me. Slides it onto his own wrist.

He won’t know until he steps into the light that it’s hot pink and lime green, but it’s the thought that counts anyway, isn’t it?

“Thanks.”

“Does it fit?”

Roman smiles. “It fits.”

“Well.” I take a few steps down. “Guess I’ll see you around.”

“Good luck on Monday,” he tells me.

“Good luck.”