Title: The Second We Met
Series: Fulton U #2
Author: Maya Hughes
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Cover Design: Najla Qamber Designs
Photo: Wander Aguiar
Release Date: October 17, 2019
Dear Jerk Across the Street, sorry for accidentally walking in on you and catching an eyeful of your—equipment. And hard pass on the open invitation to join you in the shower “anytime”, A-hole.
That’s the note I should’ve written. Instead I sent a pleasant and apologetic version.
Had I known Phoenix “Nix” Russo would’ve been the neighbor from hell, I’d have told him right where he could shove my words.
Nix is the big man on campus with everyone lined up at his games to make sure he knows it. Sure, he’s got piercing green eyes, abs that don’t quit and a smile that could set fire to a set of panties from a hundred yards away, but he’s also the biggest pain in my ass.
Dear Pink-Haired Menace, learn how to take a joke and stop being such a kill-joy…
Elle Masterson called the cops on one of my parties—again. My sweet talking usually gets me out of trouble, but this time it got me into a nice pair of silver handcuffs. Now I’m on a reputation rehab tour with a stop at a spring break community service project.
Guess who’s my new boss?
Now we’re shoulder to shoulder, sweaty, tired and…she’s not anything like I expected. There might just be a heart under that hardass exterior. She’s invading my dreams and I can’t shake the feeling she’s the key to unlocking a piece of me that I’ve hidden away.
It’s only a matter of time until she finds out why I’m really here.
Maybe I can break through her walls and into her heart before that happens…one screw at a time.
Elle – Junior Year August
“I’d rather let Edward Scissorhands give me a manicure.” My eyelids drooped. I threw the car into park, thanking God I was finally there. Outside my driver’s side window, the bright and shiny brass sixty-six on the front of the house glinted in the afternoon sun.
“Now who’s being dramatic? You two used to be so close.”
“Who has a two-year class reunion?” I gathered up my road snacks from the passenger seat and shoved them into my frayed and battered, better-than-nothing tote bag. Mom had kept trying to convince me to buy a grown-up purse over the summer, but what good was a purse if you didn’t have any money to put into it once you bought it?
“She was your best friend for seventeen years.”
“Things change, Mom, and Alyssa has always done what’s best for Alyssa.” Like my ex-boyfriend. “So, I’m more than happy to not go. Plus, depending on how things go with the Huffington Award, I might not even be in the country when it rolls around.”
She let out the long-suffering sigh reserved specifically for moms with difficult children. “I know you’ve worked so hard for that, but I just don’t want you to lose touch with people who used to be so important in your life.”
“Some people aren’t worth having around, Mom. Not everyone is as awesome as you.”
Her soft snort made me smile. “By the way, we’ll get you the money for your tuition on the first of the month. You know how hard it’s been.”
“I’m glad I could help.” The money I’d saved all last year for my tuition had gone to the late mortgage payments to stave off foreclosure on the house.
“Thanks, sweetie.” It had taken us several weeks to convince my dad to take the money. If it saved the house, it was worth it, but that meant things would be tight—real tight.
The loan situation was a touchy topic. Apparently, bad credit and no credit were the best way to end up with not many options when it came to paying for college. My first two years had been paid for with scholarships, last semester I’d maxed out my student loans—which were racking up interest by the day—and now I was winging it.
“How’s the hair holding up?”
I pulled a handful of my electric pink locks over my shoulder. “It’s very pink.”
“They don’t call it Day-Glo pink for nothing. It’ll last so long your grandkids will come out with pink hair.” She laughed.
“Awesome. I need to get unpacked and then I’m off to the tutoring center.”
“Honey, you’re doing great work, but you need to make sure you’re taking time for yourself. You’ve only got two years left, and they’ll be over in a blink. At least try to enjoy them.”
Now it was my turn to snort. “Frat parties, terrible beer, and being groped aren’t exactly my ideas of fun.” In the past two years on campus, I’d had more than my fill of bullshit stuff you’re “supposed” to do, and I’d also had all the good I’d done since then rocketed back in my face. Maybe I just needed to work harder, or maybe it was me. Maybe I had a big neon sign above my head that only cheaters could see. I ran my hands over my face. Each blink felt like lifting twenty-pound weights.
“Well, when you sell it like that, you definitely don’t want to miss out. Get some rest, study hard, and we’ll see you for dinner soon.”
“Next month, I’ve got a night off.”
The gravitational pull of her eye roll on the other end of the line tugged at me from halfway across the city.
“I love you.”
After hanging up with my mom, I tugged my phone out of the jury-rigged rubber band phone holder I’d constructed on my dashboard. Jules wouldn’t be home for a few more hours, and my eyes weren’t cooperating with the whole ‘staying awake’ thing.
I looked up at the houses lining the street and surveyed my new front door, which was right next to my car. Lucky me—prime parking spot.
I hefted one of the boxes from the back seat into my arms. The freshly painted steps and porch with planters didn’t scream bargain-basement rent, but hey, I’d take it. Maybe the good deed gods were finally smiling on me. After catching Mitchell in bed with his ‘totally not a threat’ volunteer groupie two days ago, the last-minute scramble to find a place had begun. Most of the good apartments or townhouses in my price range were long gone, but Jules had a spot in the house she’d found at the last minute, and it was in a price range I could afford. Did I mention she’s way too awesome to even be my friend?
The navy shutters and whitewashed porch made it look like any other house on the block. Well, maybe not the one across the street that looked like the porch was made of eighty percent splinters.
The door was unlocked, and I walked straight inside. Hardwood floors and white paint gave the place an airiness I hadn’t expected. There was a lingering hoppy smell of beer, but what college dorm or apartment didn’t have that?
Water drummed upstairs. Maybe Jules had gotten in early. I walked up the gleaming wood steps and peeked into the rooms. The one at the front of the house had a stripper pole. Yup, I was definitely in the right place. She hadn’t even been able to wait to get it put up.
After leaving the one pole dancing class we’d attended with my body seventy-seven percent covered in bruises, I’d given anything to do with hard poles a hard pass (well, not everything…), but Jules had taken to it like a fish to water. She hadn’t gone to any more classes, but damned if she hadn’t run out and bought her own pole the next day.
This one looked bolted to the floor, though. When the hell had she had time to do that? I’d ask later. Now, I just wanted to unpack my sheets and pass out on my bed for the next seven hours.
“Jules, if I’m drooling on my pillow when you come out, just poke me with a stick before eight so I can get to the tutoring center.”
The shower turned off as I dropped my stuff in a back room and tugged open the box’s flaps. Damnit. I should’ve labeled these things like my mom had suggested before I packed them. It was the librarian in her coming out, and now I had to play a game of ‘Where the hell would a sleep-deprived Elle have shoved her sheets?’ With my luck, it would be the last freaking box I lugged into the house.
I headed out to get more of my stuff. One of the bedroom doors swung closed, but not all the way. I knocked and walked straight in. “You going to let me on your pole t—” But the words stalled in my throat like I’d taken a snowball to the face. It wasn’t Jules in her long-sleeved shirt and jeans; rather, I was met with the sight of the tanned, glistening skin of a guy who’d been carved from marble like a Greek statue with water droplets falling from the tips of his hair.
Definitely not Jules. There was a naked man standing in the middle of the room, a towel draped over his head as he dried his hair.
My mouth hung open. My gaze dipped lower like a tractor beam had been attached to my eyes. I didn’t know abs came in varieties above six-packs. He seemed to have them all, and that wasn’t all he was packing.
“What the hell?!” He snatched the towel from his head and wrapped it around himself.
Damn, I was eye-fucking him into next week. Snapping myself out of it, the reality of the situation dawned on me: psycho naked guy in my house. I edged toward the doorway. “What the hell are you doing in my house?”
“Your house? This is my house.” He tucked in the end of the towel.
No longer dick-matized, I shook my head. “No, it’s not. I signed the lease earlier this week—sixty-six Aspen Drive.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, muscles bulging and rippling. It had to be an optical illusion. No one was this cut. But any attraction I may have felt toward his body was killed by the smug look on his face. “This is sixty-nine Aspen Drive.”
“No, I saw the numbers outside.”
“Happen to check the numbers on either side of this house? They don’t usually go sixty-seven, sixty-six, seventy-one. A screw was missing from the nine when they repainted.”
His eyes swept up and down my body.
A shiver crept up my spine, licking at my skin. Maybe it was my drought of a dating life, or maybe I was deprived after tutoring at the center for underprivileged high school students all summer, but he was the kind of gorgeous that made you wonder if he weren’t real-life CGI.
“But you’re more than welcome to stay, especially if you’re looking for some pole exercise.”
And he killed it like a puppy with a hammer. My gaze snapped to his knowing, so-full-of-himself-he-might-float-away smirk. Cue the explosive rage, which was a hell of a lot better than soul-shriveling embarrassment.
I glared at him, and his face finally clicked into place. Phoenix “Nix” Russo, quarterback and pompous asshole. “Not on your life.”
Storming down the steps, I whipped open the front door and touched the shiny numbers beside the door. Sure enough, the second digit had a freaking screw missing, making my complete and total embarrassment complete. The scarlet burn of it crept its way up my back, and my ears were probably glowing like Rudolph’s nose.
Nix walked out with his jeans on, but it seemed someone couldn’t find his way around a button fly. The expanse of skin from his shirtless chest stretched down…nearly all the way down. Even if I hadn’t already seen all the goods, there wasn’t much left to imagine. His self-satisfied little grin made me want to scream or punch something. I hated football players, hated assholes who thought they’re a piece of heaven on earth, and I hated that I’d drooled over him—even for a split second. I stormed back inside.
“Need some help?” He leaned against the doorway as I picked up my box and shoved the stuff I’d dumped out while looking for my sheets back in.
Slamming the flaps closed, I glared at him. “No.”
Standing there like he was God’s gift to women, he stared at me with that grin that made my stomach flip and my fingers tingle to punch him all at once. Had I made a mistake? Yes. Did he need to be so smug about it, like I’d made his day by being a dumbass? No. Most of all, I was pissed off at how the damn butterfly wings in my stomach wouldn’t stop. I’d been around hot guys before. Generally, they came in two varieties: complete-and-total douchebag and excels-at-hiding-that-he-is-a-complete-and-total douchebag. Guess which camp Phoenix too-cool-not-to-shorten-his-name-to-Nix fell into.
I brushed past him with my arms cradling my box, but he didn’t actually move back, so it was less shoving him out of the way and more full-body contact topped off with the backs of my fingers grazing way too close to a part of his anatomy I’d been gawking at less than five minutes ago. “If you wanted a touch, all you had to do was ask.”
“I’d rather cut my hand off,” I ground out through gritted teeth before bursting free from the death wedge between him and the doorway.
“Have it your way.” He walked behind me, following me out of his house.
“Nix, I love you! Are you going to get to the championship this year?” A fawning sycophant pounced on him the second we made it outside.
“I’ll do my best. We’re a solid team this year, and we’re ready.”
His pat, practiced answers turned my stomach. That scripted humility and noncommittal response—he was trained like a pro, and he wasn’t even there yet. I welcomed the burn of anger. It was so much better than embarrassment, and I latched onto that. Nix was a total asshole, and the butterflies had just been sleep-deprivation-induced delirium.
Blowing my hair out of my face, I whipped my head around, squinting at the numbers on the other side of the street. Wouldn’t you know it, the haunted-slash-murder house that looked like it was held together with duct tape and gum had a nice sixty-six spray-painted on the curb.
“Just freaking great,” I grumbled under my breath as I crossed the street. A car horn blared, and I jumped back. I’d been so intent on not looking back at Nix that I might have neglected that kindergarten staple of looking both ways before crossing the street.
Charging up the rickety steps to my new place, my toe caught on a loose board and I banged into the front door.
“I’ll be seeing you soon, neighbor,” Nix called out from across the street.
Safely inside, I dropped the box and coughed at the plume of dust that shot up from the floor. “Perfect, just perfect.” I closed my eyes and rested my head against the door. Talk about starting this year with a bang. Looking around the place, I could see exactly how Jules had gotten such a great deal on it. I braced for the floor to collapse under my feet with each step. At least there is a roof over my head. A piece of plaster rained down on me from above like jimmies on top of my craptastic sundae of a day. I shook out my hair and brushed the beige dust off the tip of my nose. Junior year was starting off in fine form.
Bracing myself, I went back outside and grabbed another box from my car, which was parked right in front of his house.
“Do you need some help, B and E?” Nix called out from his porch, leaning against the railing with a beer in his hand.
“Not from you.” I stacked another box on top of the one in my arm and used my leg to heft them both higher. Picturing him with a beer gut in fifteen years lifted my spirits slightly.
“Don’t be silly.” He swung his body over the railing, and a solid thud landed behind me. Showoff.“Let me grab one. Those look heavy.”
I swung the boxes away. “Touch them and die.” It probably would’ve been a bit more convincing if the top box hadn’t toppled out of my arms and fallen over, spilling out some of my volunteer stuff all over the sidewalk and street, namely a jumbo box of condoms.
Everyone who’d been hanging around to get some face time with Nix watched our little tug of war, which meant everyone was now one hundred percent locked onto the two hundred blue-foil-wrapped discs splayed everywhere.
“Busy semester for you,” someone called out, and the please-open-a-portal-into-the-underworld feeling was back. Leaving the condoms, I rushed back across the street and into my house. I’d get the rest of my stuff after my shift later. Maybe the cover of night would be enough to tamp down my embarrassment.
At this point, I’d have napped on the mystery-stained couch if my sheets weren’t in the box I’d brought in. No way was I going back out there unless absolutely necessary until the semester started.
Was it too late to find another place? Yes. We’d been lucky to find this death trap.
The hard thump of a knock stopped my embarrassment spiral from pulling me down into the depths of my clown freak-out at Becky Smith’s ninth birthday. I tugged the front door open.
Nix stood there with his arms loaded with the discarded condoms. “You left these behind.” He turned up the charm, flashing dimples and everything, looking like a shiny new toy on my ramshackle porch.
“She forgot some more,” someone shouted across the street, the foil wrappers catching the later summer sun. Great, now I’d be known as the prostitute of Aspen Drive.
I glared at them and back at Nix. Grabbing the half-empty box off the floor, I held it out to him and let him dump the contents out.
“We’re having a party—”
The rest of his sentence was cut off by me slamming the door in his face. Really? And make my humiliation totally complete? ‘Hey guys, this is the chick who walked into the wrong house like a dumbass, gawked at me naked, and then exploded a condom factory all over the street.’ No thanks.
I was sure he thought I’d be all over him after the way I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. I slapped my hand against my forehead. I knew all about guys like him. Arrogant. Hungry for the attention of anyone around them. All about the adoring fans and accolades and expecting every woman under retirement age to throw herself at them. Screw that!
Wouldn’t you know it? My sheets were absolutely not in the box. Mystery stains and a balled-up sweatshirt would have to do.
The front door swung open and slammed shut sometime later. Jules pushed up her glasses with the back of her hand, her travel pole in its bag slung over her arm, backpack on her shoulders.
“Damn, you look like shit. I’ll make brownies.”
Her go-to solution for any situation was exactly what I needed right now.
She peered out the front window. “There are a ton of people out on the sidewalk blowing up condoms like balloons. What’d I miss?”
ALSO AVAILABLE IN THE FULTON U SERIES
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Maya Hughes can often be found sneaking in another chapter while hiding in the bathroom from her kids! 🙂 I’m a romance writer who loves taking inspiration from everyday life, namely my husband and biggest fan. Inspiration also strikes when I hear a song, meet someone new or daydream while at soccer practice.
I’m the mom of three little ones, the wife to an amazing husband and also work full time. Some of my favorite things are cinnamon rolls, white wine, laughing until I can’t breathe and traveling with my family.