Amber to Ashes
Four Months Earlier
A WHIFF OF FAST food hits me as I scan Hadley University’s student dining hall. Juiced-up jocks, bad boys, and uppity sorority girls to my left, creepy loners, hipsters, and random misfits to my right. Every type of personality is present and accounted for, each huddled at their socially segregated tables.
Whoever said college wasn’t filled with them must’ve been smoking crack.
I can do this. I can do this. I can do this, I chant in my head, having not a speck of faith that I can. But what the hell is faith anyway? One huge misconception if you ask me. Either way, college has to be a better experience than the twelve years of mental tedium of public school.
At least I hope to God it is.
Inhaling, exhaling, right foot in front of the left, I start for an empty table—right before I feel myself . . . falling?
Kill. Me. Now.
Attention so focused on making it to that damned empty table,
I fail to notice a duffel bag in my path. Falling forward—momentum picking up—books and papers fly from my hands as my heart flies from my chest.
With nothing to grab, I face-plant onto something that feels like concrete, my knees buried between two jean-clad, muscular thighs. The chair Concrete’s sitting in screeches sideways across the laminate floor as laughter erupts, exploding in my ears like grenades. Mortified, I wrap my fingers around his firm shoulders, my nose inches from his.
My “savior” flashes me a heart-stopping smile as he curls his arms around my waist, absorbing our impact. My breath falters, catching like a snagged sweater on a rusty nail.
Embarrassment hijacks my body as my gaze falls upon a pair of tattoo-sleeved arms. Streaks of orange fire, shaded skulls, and what appears to be Chinese writing twine their way over every inch of thickly roped muscle, from his biceps down to his wrists. My attention travels back north. A blast of jet-black hair, spiked up messily above the most striking I can fuck you into oblivion blue eyes I’ve ever seen, nearly stops my heart.
In those eyes, I see amusement. I also see trouble, a healthy dose of rebellion, and pure, unadulterated sex. I tighten my grip around his shoulders as his smile widens. There’s a heavy air of arrogance in his smile, and something screams at me to run—that this dude’s going to be my undoing—but I can’t. I’m stuck, Super-Glued by my thoughts to his lap. His features are disarming, perfectly . . . imperfect. Lush, sculpted lips. Hard, chiseled jaw. He’s a perfect composite of every piece of gorgeous, drop-my-panties-now-and-hold-on-for-dear-life male specimen I’ve ever come across.
God help me.
A lone dimple dots his kissable cheek. “Have you decided to be my lunch? If so, I fully approve of the meal.”
“Excuse me?” I try to ignore his clean smell of soap and woodsy cologne. Woodsy? Did I just describe cologne as woodsy? Whatever it
is, it’s making me high. He’s making me high. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He chuckles, and the realization of just how moronic my question was makes me want to crawl under the table and die.
“It means you’re in my lap and you look good enough to eat.” He runs his callused hands up and down my arms. I tremble, his touch lighting me up from head to toe. “Actually,” he continues, “ ‘eat’ is nowhere near the correct word. ‘Devour’ is more like it.”
An aggravated huff electrocutes the air, making me whip my head around. Some porcelain-looking blonde is clearly annoyed by our exchange. I narrow my eyes right back at her and bring my attention back to the dude whose lap is holding my body captive.
“Oh, really?” Though it comes out snarky, it’s the only thing I can think of.
“Yes, really,” he answers, his voice a low rasp. He flicks his pale blue eyes to my mouth, dragging his bottom lip between his teeth. “ ‘Devour’ is a better term for what I’d do to you.”
Although we’re surrounded by laughing spectators, an unexpected urge to taste his lips tickles deep within my belly.
Wait. What the hell am I thinking?
Control. He’s stripped it from me, and I need to take it back.
Despite my inner whore’s protest at not becoming a permanent fixture in his lap, I attempt to compose myself as I get to my feet. I smooth my hands through my wavy black hair, and with steely resolve I straighten my spine with every intention of walking away without further handicapping my brain.
My efforts mean shit when he stands, his smile spreading into a crooked grin. His eyes hold steady on mine, and the sexual intent behind them not only sends a hard punch of desire crackling through my body but also vacuums the air right out of my lungs.
At this, I mentally berate myself.
I’m so not one of those girls. A guy’s good looks have never left me
a gooey puddle of idiotic hormones. Well, with the exception of right now. But either way, Christ, my traitor body does a flip-flop as I take in the whole length of him.
This guy’s a beast, standing a good foot taller than my five-foot-three frame. I feel like a speck—a tiny, little speck. To make matters worse, while I thought his lickable tattoos only graced his arms, I find I’m so very wrong. On the right side of his neck, peeking up from his plain black T-shirt, are the delicious horns of what appears to be the devil himself.
I was right. It’s an omen. He’s the devil, and I’m in a heavenish hell.
In an attempt to yank myself from my absurd reaction to him, I decide now is the perfect time to pick up my belongings and get the hell out of . . . well, get the hell out of hell.
“So, what time should I pick you up tonight?” he asks as I drop to my knees and reach for my English Lit book. “I’m thinking somewhere around seven. Go home and take a nap. You’ll need your energy. I’m definitely keeping you up late.”
I glare at him, my jaw nearly hitting the floor. I’m no stranger to one-night stands, and usually a guy this arrogant would have me on my back in a nanosecond, but for some strange reason, one I may never understand, all this one’s doing is pissing me off. “Are you for real?”
A smirk hits his face. “When I looked in the mirror this morning, I was as real as they come.”
He kneels and hands me my sociology book. I yank it from his grip. Great. Another smirk that has my resolve coming close to taking a hike.
We both rise, and amusement once again flashes in his eyes. His unfairly gorgeous face is way too close to mine. Close enough that I can feel his minty breath feathering over my cheek.
“Were you born conceited or did you just morph into an asshole over time?”
He cups his chin, his brows dipped in mock thought. “I think I was born this way, but I could be wrong. You’d have to ask my mother about
that if ya want the honest story behind how I turned out this way.” He smiles, clearly getting off on my reaction to his straightforwardness. “Any more questions for me? I’m finding your curiosity cute as all hell.”
I snort, amazed that I’m still a willing participant in this conversation. “Figures. Honestly, I don’t give a shit that you find anything I do cute.” I pause, tilting my head. “Thanks for catching me, but seriously, can you just go away?”
Laughter riots from his chest. “Whoa, killer, I’m simply trying to lend you my services. And what’s happening between us is sexual tension at its finest. It’s good—healthier than a cold glass of milk. Just go with it.”
Oh. My. God. This is getting worse by the minute.
“Services? Do you take pride in being a male whore? Oh, wait.” I bounce my palm against my forehead, feigning stupidity. “How could you not? You have a dick that shoots orgasmic flames into a girl. Am I right?”
Laughter sounds from the group around the table as he smirks again, this one cockier than its predecessor. “Yeah. You’re definitely in need of my . . . services. A good lay will brighten your pretty little ass right up.” He tosses me a wink, offering me his hand. “Oh, I’m Ryder Ashcroft, by the way.”
Exasperated, I don’t take Ryder Ashcroft’s hand. Nope. The only thing I take is an unsteady breath right before I smack him clear across his pretty face, the pain searing my hand worth every bit as I watch Pretty Boy’s eyes go wide. An atom bomb of laughter explodes from all directions, adding to my absolute enjoyment of the payback’s-a-bitch moment.
I barely have time to catalogue the look on Ryder’s face when I hear him mumble, “Fuck. That was brilliant,” half a heartbeat before his mouth is devouring mine.
Stunned, I gasp, my traitor lips parting as his sinfully delicious kiss absorbs the uninvited moan that jumps from my throat.
Some douche yells, “Go for it, dude!”
A girl squeaks, “He’s officially lost his mind!”
I also catch several whistling catcalls.
A split second before I slam my hands against Ryder’s chest, I feel his soft tongue—which I now know has a piercing in it, a barbell to be exact—languidly caress over mine. Oh Jesus. It sends a full, down-to-the-bone shiver up my spine. I unclog my brain from its temporary high and push Ryder back a few feet, leaving us both panting.
His eyes, intense with lust and shock, darken and lock on mine, another one of his infamous smirks twitching the corners of his lips as he studies me.
With a huff and a flip of the bird in his direction, I swipe the back of my hand across my lips, gather the rest of my books, and head toward the stupid table I’d originally tried to sit at before I’d fallen into his lap. As soon as I take my first step, I feel a large hand touch my shoulder. With every intention of knocking homeboy out, I spin around, my gaze snagging wide green eyes that do not belong to the previous offender.
What the? Is every male in this building on growth hormones? This guy’s just as big as Ryder Ass-Croft, if not bigger.
Hands held up in surrender, my schedule in their possession, he flashes me a cautious yet impish smile. “You forgot this.” He places the paper on top of my books, and throws his thumb over his shoulder, motioning to Ryder. “Don’t mind him.”
“Don’t mind him?” I parrot, flicking my eyes in Ryder’s direction, who’s now sitting at his rowdy table.
Blondie, who seemed annoyed earlier, is in his lap, consoling him, her arm wrapped around his neck as she whispers some shit in his ear. Ryder glances at me, a megawatt smile splitting his conceited lips.
Annoyed, embarrassed, and beyond sexually frustrated, I grit my teeth and turn on my heel. “He’s an asshole.”
“That asshole’s my best friend.”
I whip around, but Asshole’s buddy chucks his two cents into the tension-wired air before I can.
“Still, there’s no disputing his assholeness. It defines brutal, some of the worst shit out there.” His emerald eyes light up in amusement, a grin hugging his lips as he rests a forearm on a metal post. “I also think his mother breast-fed him longer than what’s deemed socially appropriate, so that could be the culprit to his problem.”
I raise a brow, watching as the dude before me chuckles at his joke.
“My name’s Brock Cunningham. I was bottle-fed, so I’m nothing like my friend, and I might be wrong, but you look like you could use some help.” Somewhat cautiously, Brock reaches for the mountainous stack of books and papers that are slipping from my grasp.
With little resistance, I allow him to take half the pile.
“Cunningham, huh?” Anger waning some, I make my way toward a table and decide that sitting with a group of geeky debate team members suits me. “As in Richie Cunningham?”
“Richie?” Confusion peppers his voice.
“Yeah, Richie Cunningham from Happy Days.” I claim a seat next to a freak wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses, drop my half of the stack of books on the table, and watch Brock pull out a chair across from me. “It’s only the best sitcom from the seventies,” I continue. “You have to have seen it.”
Expression bewildered, he scratches his jaw. The sun dripping in through the windows catches his eyes, their flecks of gold shimmering like diamonds. I see a twinkle of mischievousness in their mossy green depths that feels familiar, but I can’t quite place it.
I freeze, only just now realizing how sickeningly good-looking Asshole’s best friend is.
To be honest, he’s equally as good-looking as Asshole, but in a different way. The angles of his face aren’t as hard and defined; they’re softer, less intimidating. His hair’s lighter, its blond-caramel blend reminding me of cream soda. I lick my lips, my fingers tingling to test
if the wavy strands feel as soft as they look. His boyish smile makes my heart thump erratically, and I find myself getting lost in the cute, confused look planted on his face.
“Now you have me curious,” he says. “I have no idea who Richie Cunningham is, or Happy Days.” He shrugs, his smile broadening. “You gotta give me something.”
I can’t believe I’m about to go there.
I clear my throat, gather my nerve, and do just that.
I go there.
I sing the show’s theme song, trying to hit the notes without shattering the windows. Forget about the nomads sitting at the table, who are now looking at me like I’m the freak; a chuckle escapes Brock’s throat, and I want to find the nearest bridge and jump right off it.
“Although you have a beautiful voice,” Brock points out, “I can’t say I’ve ever heard that song before.”
“You’re seriously deprived, Cunningham. You are aware of this, right?”
I adamantly believe this. It’s my generation’s loss that they didn’t grow up watching Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham raise the perfect family. Happy Days was exactly that.
Days when parents didn’t get high, craving their next hit more than they craved a hug from their child. Days when that child wasn’t left scared, hungry, and alone without a whisper of heat to keep her warm when winter gripped the city. Days when innocent eyes didn’t witness bloodshed in the home where they were supposed to feel safe, unharmed, loved.
I steal myself away from my dark, shadowy past as Brock clasps his hands behind his neck. “I might be deprived because I haven’t watched this show you’re talking about, but I felt deprived before you sang that . . . weird melody.”
“Weird?” A frown crinkles my forehead. “It’s so not even close to being weird.”
“Sure as shit it’s weird.” Brock crosses his arms, his gaze locked on mine. “Still, you made me like it more than I should.”
His flirtatious stare makes me swallow hard. What the hell’s wrong with me today? I’m convinced the Frappuccino I inhaled earlier was laced with some kind of date-rape drug, because this is the second time in ten minutes that the opposite sex has made me feel high.
I draw in a calming breath and attempt to divert the conversation. “So, uh . . . why did you feel deprived before I sang my ‘weird’ melody?”
The tiniest of smiles tugs his lips. “That’s because I don’t know the name of the beautiful girl who sings weird songs on introduction.” He shrugs, his pectoral muscles bulging beneath his polo shirt. “It’s impossible not to feel deprived without that information. Wouldn’t you agree, Miss . . . ?”
Oh, he’s good.
I release the breath I’m holding, my nerves cracking my response into a whisper. “Ber.”
“Ber?” He spikes an incredulous brow, his smile widening. “No doubt that’s a . . . different name, but I’m digging it.”
“No, wait!” Mortified, my words come out rushed. “It’s not Ber.”
Brock cups his chin, his smile ridiculously cute as he studies me. “Are you trying to confuse me, beautiful girl whose name’s not Ber? If that’s your intent, it’s working.”
Seriously, someone just put me in the ground now, ending this embarrassing moment. “No. I’m not trying to confuse you, I—”
“You’re nervous around me, then.” He wets his lips, the act nearly stopping my heart. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“No,” I retort, praying to every God in existence that he can’t see the lie I’m miserably failing at trying to hide. “I’m not nervous around you.”
“Yes, you are, but it’s sexy as fuck, so it’s all good.” Brock leans forward, fastening his eyes to mine. “So what’s your real name . . . Ber?”
I sigh, another whisper clogging my throat. “Amber. Amber Moretti.”
“Amber,” he repeats, tasting my name on his tongue. I like the way he says it. “Well, Am . . . ber, I know my asshole friend might’ve dampened your day, but I plan to make up for his lack of couth, if you’d let me.”
Yeah. I feel like a helpless fish out of water, hooked by a hungry angler. At the same time, I feel like a giddy schoolgirl as a spark of excitement bubbles in my stomach, and to be honest, it makes my skin crawl.
Just like faith, love is another misconception held by those who believe in fairy tales. Fairy tales don’t exist; neither do knights on white horses. In my honest opinion, every book princess in history was a stupid, naïve twit.
I can’t deny that I want to be touched by love so I can feel something . . . anything. But the reality of what love ultimately ends up like screams loudly in my ears, its warning seeded deep within my numb, hollow heart. I open my mouth to tell Brock Cunningham he can take his white horse and fake suit of armor and ride off into the sunset with some other dumb chick who will fall for his future lies and bullshit promises, but he speaks before the words hit my jaded lips.
“Besides, I think it’d be cool watching reruns of Happy Days with you.”
I snap my mouth shut as he casts me a shy smile, his green eyes zoned in on mine with nothing but warmth behind them. “That is,” he adds, “if you promise to sing that weird melody while we get amped up on too many Red Bulls and nauseate ourselves with disgusting amounts of popcorn.” The smile drops from his lips, sincerity replacing it. “But you also have to tell me the secrets those gorgeous eyes are attempting to hide from the world.”
It’s here, on the first day of my freshman year of college, that I’m aware a fork in the road of my life has reared its ugly head.
Part of me wants to hoist myself up onto Brock Cunningham’s white horse, wrap my hesitant arms around his suit of armor, and maybe, just maybe, start to feel something. But the other part wants to jet, running as far away from him as humanly possible.
I mull it over and decide that I’m up for playing the role of a naïve princess, but I’m not about to make Prince Charming’s battle an easy one. “You talk a good game,” I say. “But it’s going to take a lot more than a few pickup lines to get into my head.”
He crosses his arms. “A challenge?”
“Yes, a challenge,” I toss back, my face devoid of emotion. I’m sure that alone will scare him off. Emotionless girls aren’t appealing to guys. They want sugary sweet; I’m piss and vinegar.
He watches me carefully, his face anything but emotionless. Intrigue lines his forehead, debate hindering his response.
Yep. He’s outta here.
“Challenge accepted,” he says, shocking me some.
Actually, he comes close to shocking me right out of my seat. I thought for sure he was a runner.
“But you have to tell me a few things before I let you fuck up my head,” he says.
“Fuck up your head?” I scoff, deciding this is a failed effort at being swoony. The wounded guy who needs to be fixed. Most chicks fall for that fluff.
“Yeah, fuck up my head. You girls seem to think we’re the only ones capable of doing it, but it’s a fifty-fifty playing field.”
I’m convinced he’s handing me bullshit. Still, I go with it. “Okay, so your heart’s been broken. Whose hasn’t been?”
“Has yours?” His eyes soften. “I’m not sure, but something’s telling me that it has, or some kind of shit’s happened to you to stop you from ever opening up. It’s one or the other.”
Who is this guy? A mind reader?
The truth is my parents’ wicked excuse of a marriage left me chained, bound to the anger that’s blossomed over the years. Their union—or lack thereof—poisoned me, soiling my spirit. It made me a hater of love, never once allowing anyone to step into what’s left of my world.
But that doesn’t mean my heart hasn’t been shattered. It’s been hacked to pieces in ways the average person can’t fathom. Trembling on a blood-soaked carpet, I cried more tears than most people purge over a lifetime.
Still, I’m sure my past isn’t stamped across my forehead. I’ve hidden it well, masking it under a bravado most take years to master. Well, up until this point, I thought I did a good job of hiding it. “That question’s a no-go,” I say, firm on not letting him in on too much. “You can ask me anything else, but nothing that has to do with what my heart has or hasn’t been through.”
“That’s cool for now.” Brock leans back, brushing a hand through his hair. “Can I get your favorite color, then?”
Simple enough. “Green.”
“Florida or Montana?” he continues.
“I can’t stand the beach, and cowboys don’t do a thing for me, so neither.”
“Well, young lady,” he says, deepening what I already consider a Southern drawl, “I don’t own a ranch, but I’d take a spicy little snow bunny over fake implants any day.”
His response strikes me as odd, but I can’t help but laugh. He doesn’t fit the mold. I like it.
“Flowers or chocolates?”
“Are you aiming for clichéd?”
“Mental note taken.” He nods, acting as if he’s writing this down. “Spiked heels or dirty sneakers?”
I look down at my three-year-old, seen-better-days Chucks. “Uh,
sneakers.” The answer should be obvious considering I’m also sporting Walmart-brand jeans and a faded vintage Nirvana T-shirt.
Brock studies me a moment. “That’s the response I was hoping for. I dig different.”
I feel red paint my cheeks in a flush as his gaze stays locked on mine.
As if sensing my nervousness, he clears his throat. “First number that pops into your head?”
“Beer or hard liquor?”
I roll my eyes. “Duh . . . both.”
He chuckles. “A Perfect Circle or Coldplay?”
“Polar opposites. They’re both awesome bands. Plus, that’s like choosing your favorite book boyfriend. You can’t.”
“Agreed, but I have no idea what a book boyfriend is. You’ve sparked my curiosity, though.”
I smile, not even about to go into detail of their importance to the hordes of women who compare them to every male on earth. “We need a full day for that topic.”
“Got ya.” He laughs, rubbing his hands together. “Vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry?”
“All three combined into one magnificent flavor.”
“A walk in the park or a day spent riding on the back of a motorcycle?”
“Have you heard of Deuce West?”
He gives me a confused look.
I smile again. “Definitely a day spent on the back of a motorcycle.”
“Very cool,” he replies. “Summer or winter?”
“Winter. I hate the heat.”
“Christmas or Thanksgiving?”
“I’ll take a turkey over a fat man wearing red any day.” That garners me a smile.
“Favorite sexual position?”
Sneaky. I like. I almost spill that any position—in any public or private place—is just fine by me, but I stick to innocence and widen my eyes.
“I figured I’d try,” he admits with a smirk. “Favorite food?”
He crinkles his nose.
“For real?” I ask, rocked that any human in their right mind wouldn’t want to consume it every day. “You don’t like sushi?”
“I only like certain . . . female things raw.” He wiggles his brows.
“Hardy-har-har,” I tease, giving him a look that tells him I know exactly what he’s referring to.
Pussy—not money—is the root of all evil.
“You’re quick.” He swings his chair around to my side of the table, straddles it, and rests his forearms on the back as he stares at me with laser-like precision. “Football or baseball?”
“Baseball all the way. Football sucks.”
His eyes widen, a frown dragging down his mouth. He looks like a lost, lonely puppy.
“What’s wrong?” I’m somewhat disturbed by the sudden change in his demeanor. “Are you an overwired, crazed football fanatic or something?”
“Huh?” Now it’s my eyes that are wide. “Oh God. Not a jock. Please don’t tell me you’re a jock.”
Considering he’s sporting a polo shirt and Dockers, he doesn’t dress like a jock. He looks preppy and unjuiced by steroids. Okay, so he’s built like a jock—broad, sculpted shoulders, pumped yet lean forearms. I crane my neck and peek at his stomach, confirming that under his polo shirt exists a six-pack slab of raw muscle. Still, he could’ve gained his glorious physique by lifting weights, lifting tiny girls with fake implants, or lifting cars on impulse.
But, Jesus, not a jock.
Brock nods, a dot of a grin hinting at his lips. “I’m the university’s football captain. Does that kill any hope I’d had?”
“It comes close to it.” I nervously pick at the edge of my schedule. “Really close. Like borderline-walk-away-now close.”
Curiosity slants his brows. “And why is that?”
“It just is. But whatever. I can deal with it if you give me enough reasons to.” My thoughts travel back to the night I all but sold my virginity on a muddy high school football field to a dick named Josh Stevenson. I was fourteen and wanted beer. He was seventeen and had a fake ID.
A deal was struck.
Thank God the whole, sickening ordeal lasted less than five minutes. I guess I’d expected him to treat me like the whore I’d acted like, and that’s exactly what happened. By the next morning the rest of his teammates knew what we’d done, making sure to call me the appropriate names every time they saw me.
In a small fishing community just outside of Rivers Edge, North Carolina, I was the new girl known as the slut who’d fucked the captain of the football team for beer. I can’t recall if it was the second or third town I’d lived in by that point—I just know it as the one where my hatred of jocks, and my self-loathing for what I was morphing into, began.
I shift, uncomfortable with Brock looking at me like he’s trying to figure me out. “What?”
“I’m just happy you’re willing to tolerate me and my . . . jockiness.” He slides me a grin. “And I will give you enough reasons to deal with it.”
I sense that he wants to say something more, possibly deeper, but I don’t push.
“Okay, so you’re stuck alone on a deserted island,” he continues, “and you can only have two things other than water. What are they?”
“That’s easy. Twizzlers and my journal,” I answer, wishing I had
both right now. Mainly the Twizzlers. They’re one of my many crutches. My nervous, go-to addiction. Any flavor—the almighty Twizzler owns me.
“Twizzlers?” He looks at me like I’m the worst kind of crazy. “The squiggly licorice candy? Out of anything in the world, that’s what you’d go with?”
“You’re quick,” I smart back, shooting him my best amused expression. “Very quick, Cunningham.”
A hint of inner debate settles across his face, but soon confidence replaces it. “Well, since we’re two quick young adults, and we’re both in mutual agreement that Ryder’s the asshole of the goddamn universe, I’m wondering how soon I can get you to go out on a date with me?”
“You have to work harder for an actual date.” Though my words come out with conviction, even I can hear the doubt behind them. My conscience is bugging, asking what the hell’s wrong with me. “Again, it’s going to take work on your part.”
Brock nods, extending his hand to me. After a beat, I take it, not sure where he’s going with this.
Eyes on mine, he gently circles his thumb over my knuckles. “I’m gonna work my ass off to get you to go out on a date with me. But I’m warning you now, no matter what I have to do, I will get into your beautiful head, Amber-Ber.” He cracks a smile. “More than I already have. You’ll see.”
Before I can blink, he brings my hand to his lips and plants a soft kiss on it. I shiver in the best way possible, his light stubble causing my flesh to pop with goose bumps. He smiles, but without another word, he rises and walks clear across the dining hall and out the doors.
With my pulse knocking around like a Ping-Pong ball, I’m left not only speechless but wondering if Brock Cunningham can do what no one else has ever managed.
Slide past every defense I’ve created.