“You need to breathe, Katelyn, otherwise you’re going to pass out and I sure as hell am not hauling your ass all the way to campus myself.”
I bounced in the four-inch heels, which I’d borrowed from Megan and were a half size too small. The expensive torture devices were currently cutting into my little toe.
“What do you mean, all the way to campus? It’s right across the street.” My order came up and I grabbed my soy latte.
“It’s still too far to drag you.” Megan took a sip of her coffee. Her sun-kissed skin and platinum blond hair made her look more like a beach babe than a city girl. “You just need to take a deep breath…” Megan inhaled deeply and locked her brown eyes on me, expecting me to mimic her. So I sucked a breath in through my nose and released it through my mouth. Every draft of oxygen calmed the familiar hum of anxiety pulsing through my veins.
“Good,” Megan said in a soothing voice she had picked up from all those yoga videos she forced me to watch—and participate in—with her.
Despite making me exercise, she was amazing. Ever since second grade, when Bridget Burgess pushed me off the monkey bars, slinging a string of insults directed at everything from my ratty clothes to my white-trash mother and effectively throwing me into my first panic attack, Megan had stood up for me. From the age of seven, she had always been there, reminding me to breathe and trying her damnedest to keep me from the brink of a meltdown.
“You’re going to be great today, Katelyn. You’re one of the top students in the program and the professor is going to love you.”
We stepped out into the busy downtown Chicago morning. Traffic was booming. The cool September weather was crisp and carried the smells of gasoline and pastries fresh out of the oven. This time of year, when red and yellow leaves blew past the skyscrapers like tiny flecks of paint, was my favorite.
Megan held out her hand. She knew I wasn’t a hugger. People coming into my personal space made me uneasy, no matter how much I trusted them. And there was no one I trusted more than Megan. But having lived for years with my mother’s fists and nails coming at me, I shied away from any physical contact.
Reaching out, I took her hand. She gave it a gentle squeeze. “Remember, if anyone gives you trouble, gets too close, or you feel like you’re on the brink of a panic attack—”
“I know. I need to breathe.”
She nodded. “And if that doesn’t work, you just give their face a high five and run.”
I laughed. Megan wasn’t the only person who knew about my past, but she was the only one who was aware of how it affected me.
“I’ll see you tonight. Good luck!” Megan’s hand slid from mine and she walked toward my uncle’s real estate firm.
We had graduated last summer with our undergrad degrees. Megan now worked for my uncle, Tim St. Roy, while I’d made the choice to return to school and go for my master’s in sociology. Two more years of school and volunteering at the Children’s Home and I’d be on the fast track to being a full-fledged social worker.
With every step, the clicking of my pumps on concrete sent a shiver up my calves. But when my heel got momentarily stuck in a crack in the pavement, I faltered. One of these days I would have to learn to walk in these damn shoes without looking like a stumbling drunk person.
I ran a hand through my red curls, trying to tame them—not working—and continued my trek toward the university.
Graduate school had been tough to get into, but when the opportunity to T.A. for the head of the sociology department opened up, I’d jumped at the chance.
Clutching my coffee, I fished my cell phone out of my purse to check the time—
A horn blared and headlights flashed.
A shriek caught in my throat as I stared down a black town car coming straight at me. Brakes screeched, I jumped, and my coffee tumbled down the front of me.
The car stopped abruptly, just inches from my toes. Air finally found its way from my lungs as I struggled to breathe. Almost being crushed by oncoming traffic was not my ideal way to start the week. I stood dazed in the middle of the street, into which I hadn’t even realized I had walked.
“Are you all right?” The driver stood by his door. He was older and outfitted in a black hat and jacket. The chauffeur.
Looking down at my ruined blouse, I slowly nodded. My knees shook as I made my way back to the sidewalk. Once I stepped up on the curb, my body relaxed a bit. The driver got into the car, pulled up alongside me, and parked.
Standing outside the back passenger door was a man dressed in a three-piece, steel-gray suit and dark purple tie. His eyes were like frosted ocean water, two icebergs shinning at me.
His black hair was thick and coiffed perfectly in a rugged yet professional way that made my heart beat harder.
The driver stayed behind the wheel this time while the sinfully corporate-looking man walked toward me on the sidewalk. Those intense eyes never left my face.
“You should watch where you’re going.”
“I…” I looked up at him. Even in Megan’s four-inch heels, he towered over me. Jesus, he had to be pushing six-three.
He was close enough that I could smell him. Crisp and clean and amazing. He radiated power and confidence, from his broad shoulders to his lean hips. Who knew suits could look so good on a man. Every stitch molded over him perfectly. His strength was very apparent even through the layers of expensive fabric.
“Are you all right?” His voice was deep, but this time, there was a slight rasp when he spoke.
“I’m fine. Thank you.” A tremor slipped out and coated my voice.
“Can I offer you anything?” He looked down my body. Heat rushed over me. Shifting my weight, I tried to get a grip on my hectic heart rate. I knew I was staring—primarily at his mouth. It was thick and firm.
His gaze slid over me again. When it focused on my br**sts, I inhaled sharply. Men had looked at me before, but none as blatantly as this. That heat that was pulsing? It surged so hot that my bloodstream caught fire.
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, then realized he was really looking at the soy latte splattered all over the front of me.
“I—I’ve got to go. I’m late.” And now I needed to find a new shirt.
Anger decided to spark just then, and irritation that this man—this sexy, sleek man—had interfered and made me feel all…weird.
Even though it was I who had walked into the street—and I who was lingering like a goon, undressing him with my eyes. Still! This morning was turning to hell quickly, and standing in the middle of downtown Chicago looking like a rumpled mess and being stared down by Mr. GQ was not helping.