“Goddamn, Red. You’ve got a mean right hook,” he whispers in my ear before he takes a full step back and speaks loudly. “I’m so sorry, Penelope. I just couldn’t resist kissing you…” He lifts his hand and rakes it through his hair, appearing to fidget as he moves from one foot to the other.

His voice carries the few aisles over to where Connor is, and I feel the gazes of several patrons move to us.

I’m impressed.

Has Ryker taken a drama class?

“Just keep looking at me like you’re angry,” he says in a lowered voice. “He’s trying to get up the nerve to come over here.”

“How do you know?” I hiss.

“Because I know dudes. He can’t resist being a knight in shining armor.”

I nod, his eyes steady on mine as we stare at each other, and I’m acutely aware that I like him saying those pretend words to me.

I just couldn’t resist kissing you.

“Er, is everything okay over here?” comes a low masculine voice. It’s Connor and he’s moved to stand next to me, looking earnest and concerned as he takes us in. A tingle of excitement shoots through me. Oh, wow… This close up I see the luminous gold color of his eyes and the cleft in his strong chin. He really is handsome in a boy next door kind of way.

“It’s none of your business, Dimpleshitz,” Ryker says tightly, but his tone lacks heat.

Connor ignores him—good for him—and moves his attention to me. “Are you okay? Should I alert the security guard?”

I shake my head rapidly and clear my throat. “No, but thank you for checking on me. Everything is fine. Ryker and I just…” My words trail off. Shit, we don’t have a backstory except for the article, and that doesn’t fit here. “He’s sorry. Right?” I look over at the first-rate kisser, and my eyes implore him. Is this what I’m supposed to do—be the helpless female he rescues?

Ryker gives me a little nod. It’s about time you figured out the plan, his eyes say. Then a smirk dances across his face and I read it well: My kiss really knocked you out.

“In your dreams,” I mutter.

“What was that?” Connor asks me, and I dart my eyes from Ryker to him.

“Nothing,” I say, shaking myself. “Ryker was just…uh—”

He interrupts me. “I asked her out, and she turned me down. I thought kissing her might change her mind. Guess you can’t win them all.”

“Well, just don’t do it again,” I say as I cross my arms, playing my part.

“If that’s what you want,” Ryker says sardonically.

“I do.”

“If you say so.”

“I just did,” I snap.

“Sometimes your body says more than your words,” he retorts, arching one eyebrow.

How does he do that? It’s virtually impossible for me to only lift one eyebrow.

“Sometimes you need to just move on,” I quip back.

He smirks. “If you really mean that, why do you think about me all the time?”

How does he know I think about him?

I frown. “I don’t.”

“Uh-huh.” He gives me a look like he knows something I don’t.

I glare at him, widening my eyes. What’s his game? He’s gotten Connor over here—shouldn’t he be moving on now?

“Uh, did you guys used to date?” It’s Connor speaking as he moves in closer, and he’s definitely wearing Polo cologne. My nose flares at the familiar high school scent, and my first reaction is to recoil, but it’s not the worst scent in the world, I suppose. It’s not Old Spice.

“No,” we both say.

“Ah, well, you heard her then,” Connor says. “Maybe you need to give her some space.”

A long exhale comes from Ryker. “I think you’re right, Dimpleshitz.” With that, he grabs his backpack, gives us one more look, and takes off down the aisle.

I shake my head, watching his broad shoulders as he walks away. “He might be a genius,” I say, mostly to myself. Even though Connor does hear it, he doesn’t appear to understand my meaning.

He watches him, a small scowl buried in his forehead. “He’s an enigma for sure. Too bad about his involvement in the gambling thing.”

I turn toward him, wearing a frown. “It wasn’t gambling, and he was cleared by the NCAA.”

He gives me a careful glance. “I see…but didn’t you write an article about him?”

I nod. “I wrote a follow-up one as well.”

“Ah, you’re defending him.”

My lips flatten. “No.”

Connor’s face is thoughtful. “But you’re into him?”

I shake my head. “Absolutely not.” Work with this, Penelope. Ryker has given me an opportunity, and I’m not going to screw it up. Make conversation. I touch his arm and smile brightly. “Trust me, we’re just friends.”

He smiles boyishly, one corner of his lips turning up in a crooked grin. “I thought you two didn’t like each other, but then I can be a little oblivious.”

I nod. “Same here. I barely notice anything. Look at us, two peas in a pod.” I laugh. “So, how are you? How’s calculus?” I’m rambling and gazing up at him with doe eyes, and the attention seems to be working.

He blushes and dips his head. “Great. I saw that you were in there. Are you on your way to class?”

I nod, and when he helps me pick up some of the books I scattered on the floor in my earlier haste, it’s the closest we’ve ever been. I take in a small pimple near his chin and the tiny piece of pepper he has stuck in one of his teeth, probably from breakfast—I hope—and it’s a decidedly unromantic thought, but I figure he’s human like the rest of us. We make small talk, and I nod right along as he goes into a rather long and detailed discussion about Professor White and how much he enjoys his teaching style.

I try to pay attention—I really do—but before long I feel a pricking, as if someone is watching me, and I glance around the bookstore.

My perusal around the establishment lands one aisle over where I see a sliver of khaki pants behind a tall display of atlases. Craning my neck, I see his mass of wild hair.

I stuff down my grin. Ryker.

He’s listening to us.

Maybe it’s part of his…tutelage?

Admittedly, it does encourage me to try harder.

My phone vibrates with a text, and while Connor is checking out the mechanical pencils and going into detail about which one is best for each class, I pull it out stealthily and read.

Good job with the talking, Red. Keep it up and he’s all yours.

“Hmmm,” I say to Connor’s question about paper choices as he bends down to look for a five-subject notebook.

What do I talk about? I text.

Find things you both like. Books? Chess? Dungeons and Dragons? Hell, I don’t know. Nerd stuff.

I’ve seen you reading in the library before. Does that make you a nerd, Baby Llama?

I get no reply and focus on Connor, who’s still talking as he stares at the notebook selection. I feel my phone buzz and arrange it on top of the workbook so I’m not actually holding it but I can still read it. Being stealthy, I peek at Ryker’s response.

I’m guessing you call me Baby Llama because of my hairy chest, is his reply. I see you looking at it. It hypnotizes you. I actually wore my button-down today so you’d get a good view.

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