All Lined Up
Rusk University - 1
To my dad—
Thank you for enduring my endless questions and ideas. I couldn’t have written this book without you. Moreover, without you I wouldn’t be where I am today. Unending stubbornness, insane competitiveness, and unwavering heart—they’re all things I inherited from you. Like Dallas and her dad, we’ve had our share of arguments, but I have never doubted the fierceness with which you loved, protected, and championed me. There aren’t words to describe how glad I am to be your daughter. (I’m still a wee bit bitter about that time you made me do push-ups in class, but I figure that’s probably an indicator that I inherited my dark sense of humor from you, too.)
And now that you’ve read the dedication, you should hand this book to Mom and let her tell you which pages are safe to read.
In Texas, two things are cherished above all else—football and gossip. My life has always been ruled by both.
“This is a bad idea, Stella.”
Stella straightens her shirt. And by straighten, I mean she pulls it down to reveal what little cleavage she has (which is about twice as much as me).
“We’re in college now,” she says. “Bad ideas are the goal.”
“Maybe it’s your goal. You don’t have a parent on the faculty. If this gets back to him—”
It’s Friday night, our first on campus, and she stops just before the walkway of a frat house that hums with pent-up music. More than a head shorter than me, Stella reaches up and forces me to look at her. “Okay, sister. Let’s nip this in the bud right now. No one is telling anyone anything. There are like ten thousand people on this campus. You, my dear, are finally a small fish in a motherfucking ocean. Loosen up and enjoy it. This isn’t high school anymore.”
Could it really be that simple?
Loosening up has always been easy for Stella. Her mom is a bigger party animal than she is. She’ll probably get a high five if we get caught. Me . . . well, I’m a little scared to think of how my dad would react. What little freedom I have would disappear faster than the hot water in my dorm on days that end in a y.
For one glorious month, I had entertained visions and fantasies of what college would be like. Rusk wasn’t my ideal school, far from it, but it was something. I could finally make my own decisions and not have to worry about them migrating to the coach’s office before lunchtime. I had ached for high school graduation day like there was a knife in my gut, and I couldn’t pull it out until May. Then my dad was offered the open position here at Rusk, and I feel like I’m still gasping for breath around that knife.
Maybe we aren’t in high school anymore. But it’s the same damn misery with a different name.
Unless I do something about it.
But it’s easier to be miserable, so I shake off Stella’s grasp. “All it takes is one person to say something to someone, who tells someone else, who mentions it at church or practice or anywhere, and I’m dead. Stick a fork in me and dip me in hot lava. Dead.”
“God, you’re so overdramatic. Sooner or later, you’ve got to stop being scared of your dad. If you don’t, you’re going to graduate college a virgin with half a dozen cats, some dumb-ass degree he wants that you couldn’t care less about, and only professors and academic journals for friends.”
I wince, because she’s right about almost all of it. She would be furious if she knew I wasn’t a virgin and didn’t tell her. I’d always meant to, but it isn’t exactly my proudest memory, and the longer I’d put it off, the easier it had become to pretend that it wasn’t a thing. I refuse to let it be a thing. Instead, I roll my eyes and say, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Hey, I’m just being the voice of reason here.”
“More like the devil on my shoulder.”
“I accept that role.” Stella cackles and nudges her elbow in my side like she’s just said the funniest joke ever. And in spite of myself, I crack a smile.
I stare up at the Delta Sigma house. All the frat houses on campus are old colonial-style mansions with creeping ivy and pearly white columns. They look so presentable . . . probably in an effort to hide the absolute debauchery that happens inside.
God, I just thought the word debauchery. Stella’s right. I am going to end up a lame cat lady, probably yelling at people from my front porch and waving my cane around like a madwoman.
It just isn’t fair.
College is supposed to be a time to break free, to start fresh. You would think being the football coach’s daughter would be a benefit. I know more about the sport than half the guys at our school, knowledge that should make it easy to land a date.
If they weren’t all petrified of my father.
Or even worse . . . panting after him like he’s bacon dipped in Nutella wrapped in more bacon. I could probably walk into this party wearing only my bra and underwear (slathered in some of that Nutella), and some idiot would bumble over, completely unaware, to ask me about my dad, what his plans were for the season, or how many high school state trophies we have lying around the house.
Stella’s slim fingers snap in front of my face.
“Earth to Dallas. Are you actually frozen in fear right now?”
I roll my eyes, a habit of mine, especially around Stella. “I’m not afraid. I’m just . . . not optimistic.”
“Don’t tell me . . . you were brainstorming all the ways you could be a killjoy tonight.”
I give her a playful shove. “I was contemplating covering myself in Nutella, actually.”
“Now, that is what I like to hear! Ten points for creativity.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s just get this over with.”
Stella skips off ahead of me, and I have to mentally remind myself not to drag my heels. I love the girl, and she is my best friend in the entire world, but I honestly don’t have any clue how. She is outgoing, and I (frequently) prefer the company of books to people. Or movies to people. Anything over people, really. I’m easily self-conscious, even more easily irritated, and she blows through the front door of that frat house like we’re seniors instead of lowly freshmen.
And perhaps our biggest divide . . .
Stella loves football.
I’m talking majorly fanatic groupie. She goes to games and watches it on TV and reads the blogs and follows a bazillion players on Twitter. I’m convinced that if she weren’t a five-foot-tall little Asian pixie that she would be out there playing herself. Hell, maybe one day she will be. She’s a force to be reckoned with.
I go to games and watch it on TV, too. I know the players names and can rattle off the different plays and positions and whatever else you want to know.
But that’s not because I love it. I’ve just lived it. Every day of my life for as long as I can remember. Through every new town and new school and new friends, football was the one thing that never changed. And when you spend that much time with something, you either love it or loathe it.
One guess which category I fall into.
I step inside the house behind Stella, and the manic grin she shoots me over her shoulder lets me know she’s just stepped into her own personal heaven. A dozen or so people near the entrance glance up, and their eyes slide right over us. My shoulders relax their stone posture just a smidge.
A roar rises up from the kitchen, and I glance over in time to see two lines of people, one held at gunpoint. Water-gunpoint, anyway. Though from the cheers that ring out when one side starts shooting, aiming for the open mouths of their partners, I’m guessing they’re spraying beer instead of water.
“We are so doing that!” Stella cries out over the thumping music.
Note to self: stay far, far away from the beer guns.
Knowing my luck, I’d take a shot to the eye.
A guy runs past us in a tutu and a deep red wig, hollering something unintelligible at the top of his lungs. Stella grins at me, her eyes shooting to my own red hair. “I found your long-lost twin. Tutu and all.”
“What a coincidence! I found your twin, too.” I cast my eyes in the direction of two girls carrying a third friend between them toward the door. “Messy drunk and all.”
“You take that back! I am not a messy drunk.”
“And I’m not a giant dude with probable back hair and an identity crisis.”
She throws up her hands. “You’re right. Sorry.” Cue her mischievous smile. “He had way bigger boobs.”
I thump her hard, but we’re both laughing. And it feels as easy as the parties we attended in high school, easier really, because Stella was right. No one here gives a damn about me.
“Big D! Heard you were on campus. I’m surprised to see you here, though.”
And . . . I spoke too soon.
There’s only one thing in the world I despise more than football, and he’s making his way down the stairs toward me.
My eyes flit around me like I’m scanning a battlefield instead of a blowout: fraternity banners, litter of red Solo cups, and a freshman pledge dragging around a trash bag playing reluctant maid. Part of me wants to keep doing that, to pretend like I didn’t hear him.
But I can’t. If I ignore him, it will only prove to him that he still bothers me.
I face him as he steps off the last stair, crossing his arms over his broad chest and grinning at me. Levi. My ex.
He leans his hip against the banister of the grand staircase, and I spy not one but two girls sitting halfway up the stairs, obviously upset that they’ve lost his attention.
Behind me I hear someone shout, “Ready. Aim. Fire!” and I know the beer guns are back in play.
“Alcohol and bad decisions, Levi? Can’t say I’m surprised to find you smack-dab in the middle of that.”
He kicks off from the banister, swaggering a few steps closer. His dark hair and eyes are as striking as always. I’d fallen for him so hard my freshman year of high school: doodling our names together in my spiral, watching him play from the bleachers, wearing that monstrous mum he gave me for homecoming, beaming on his elbow at his junior prom.
The memory of all that just makes me nauseated now. But as Stella always says, hindsight is a pretentious, know-it-all bitch.
“You come here to make some bad decisions?” He moves closer, his voice pitching lower. Intimate. His gaze drifts down my body with an arrogant familiarity. “Because you know I can help you with that.”
Levi Abrams has been the cause of enough bad decisions for a lifetime.
Stella steps in, her voice colder than I’ve ever heard it. “I’m fairly certain she’d rather sandpaper her own skin off.”
I nod and plaster on the fakest smile in my arsenal. “And then take a bath in lemon juice.”
Levi smiles back, and I’m pretty sure the bastard is enjoying this.
He’s bigger than when I last saw him. Bulked up. I guess that’s the difference between high school and college ball. But it’s not just muscles . . . he reaches out a hand like he’s going to touch my hair, and as I jerk back, even his hands seem bigger than I remember. A man’s hands, rather than those of the boy I knew. Or maybe his head got so big that his inflated ego overflowed to other parts of his body. Also a possibility.
I knew Levi was here when I chose Rusk University—hard not to when he’s the starting quarterback—but I didn’t think I’d ever have to see him. Since Dad wouldn’t let me leave Texas, and only a handful of universities here actually have a true dance major, Rusk was the best option out of the schools to which I was allowed to apply.
Levi lets his hand fall away and turns to leave, but then stops to say over his shoulder, “You don’t have to pretend to hate me so much, you know. I’m here. You’re here. We could start fresh, D.”
Why does no one get that it’s impossible to have a fresh start when nothing has really changed? God, I knew that better than anybody because no matter how many new coaching jobs Dad took, every school ended up the same.
Levi is still a douche-bag who only cares about himself.
Dad still approaches parenting like I’m a member of his team.
And I . . . I’m still stuck. In my father’s shadow. In Texas. In this lame state school with a joke of a dance program.