The Deal (Off-Campus #1)(6) by Elle Kennedy

But the best thing about Briar is how safe it is. Seriously, our crime rate is next to zero, which probably has a lot to do with Dean Farrow’s dedication to the safety of his students. The school invests a ton of money in security in the form of strategically placed cameras and guards that patrol the grounds twenty-four hours a day. Not that it’s a prison or anything. The security guys are friendly and unobtrusive. In all honesty, I barely notice them when I’m wandering around campus.

My dorm is a five-minute walk from the music building, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I walk through Bristol House’s massive oak doors. It’s been a long day, and all I want to do is take a hot shower and crawl into bed.

The space I share with Allie is more of a suite than a regular dorm room, which is one of the perks of being upperclassmen. We have two bedrooms, a small common area, and an even smaller kitchen. The only downside is the communal bathroom we share with the four other girls on our floor, but luckily none of us are slobs, so the toilets and showers usually stay squeaky clean.

“Hey. You’re back late.” My roommate pokes her head into my bedroom, sucking on the straw poking out of her glass. She’s drinking something green and chunky and absolutely gross looking, but it’s a sight I’ve grown accustomed to. Allie has been “juicing” for the past two weeks, which means that every morning I wake up to the deafening whir of her blender as she prepares her icky liquid meals for the day.

“I had rehearsal.” I kick off my shoes and toss my coat on the bed, then proceed to strip down to my underwear despite the fact that Allie is still in the doorway.

Once upon a time, I had been too shy to get naked in front of her. When we shared a double in freshman year, I spent the first few weeks changing under my blanket or waiting until Allie left the room. But the thing about college is, there’s no such thing as privacy, and sooner or later you just have to accept that. I still remember how embarrassed I was the first time I saw Allie’s bare breasts, but the girl has zero modesty, and when she’d caught me staring, she just winked and said, “I’ve got it going on, huh?”

After that, I didn’t bother with the under-the-blanket routine anymore.

“So listen…”

Her casual opening raises my guard. I’ve lived with Allie for two years. Long enough to know that when she starts a sentence with “So listen,” it’s usually followed by something I don’t want to hear.

“Hmmm?” I say as I grab my bathrobe from the hook on the door.

“There’s a party at Sigma house on Wednesday night.” Her blue eyes take on a stern glint. “You’re coming with me.”

I groan. “A frat party? No way.”

“Yes way.” She folds her arms over her chest. “Midterms are over, so you don’t get to use that as an excuse. And you promised you’d make an effort to be more social this year.”

I had promised that, but…here’s the thing. I don’t like parties.

I was raped at a party.

God, I hate that word. Rape. It’s one of the few words in the English language that has a visceral effect when you hear it. Like a bone-jarring slap to the face or the chill of ice water being dumped over your head. It’s ugly and demoralizing, and I try so hard not to let it control my life. I’ve worked through what happened to me. Believe me, I have.

I know it wasn’t my fault. I know I didn’t ask for it or do something to invite it. It didn’t steal my ability to trust people or cause me to fear every man that crosses my path. Years of therapy helped me see that the burden of blame lies solely on him. There was something wrong with him. Not me. Never me. And the most important lesson I learned is that I’m not a victim—I’m a survivor.

But that’s not to say the assault didn’t change me. It absolutely did. There’s a reason I carry pepper spray in my purse and have 911 ready to dial on my phone if I’m walking alone at night. There’s a reason I don’t drink in public or accept beverages from anyone, not even Allie, because there’s always a chance she might unwittingly be handing me a cup that’s been tampered with.

And there’s a reason I don’t go to many parties. I guess it’s my version of PTSD. A sound or a smell or a glimpse of something harmless makes the memories spiral to the surface. I hear music blaring and loud chatter and raucous laughter. I smell stale beer and sweat. I’m in a crowd of people. And suddenly I’m fifteen years old again and right back at Melissa Mayer’s party, trapped in my own personal nightmare.

Allie softens her tone when she sees my distressed face. “We’ve done this before, Han-Han. It’ll be like all those other times. You’ll never be out of my sight, and neither of us will drink a single drop. I promise.”

Shame tugs at my gut. Shame and regret and a touch of awe, because man, she truly is an incredible friend. She doesn’t have to stay sober and remain vigilant just to make me feel comfortable, but she does it every time we go out, and I love her deeply for it.

But I hate that she has to do it.

“Okay,” I relent, not just for her sake, but my own. I had promised her I’d be more social, but I also promised myself that I would make an effort to try new things this year. To lower my guard and stop being so damn afraid of the unfamiliar. A frat party might not be my idea of a great time, but who knows, maybe I’ll end up enjoying it.

Allie’s face brightens. “Boo-yah! And look, I didn’t even have to play my trump card.”

“What trump card?” I ask suspiciously.

A grin lifts the corners of her mouth. “Justin is going to be there.”

My pulse speeds up. “How do you know?”

“Because Sean and I ran into him in the dining hall and he said he’ll be there. I guess a bunch of the meatheads were already planning on coming.”

I scowl at her. “He’s not a meathead.”

“Aw, look how cute you are, defending a football player. Hold on—let me go outside to see if pigs are flying in the sky.”

“Ha ha.”

“Seriously, Han, it’s weird. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally on board with you crushing on someone. It’s been, what, a year since you and Devon broke up? But I just don’t understand how you, of all people, are into a jock.”

Discomfort climbs up my spine. “Justin is…he’s not like the rest of them. He’s different.”

“Says the girl who’s never spoken a single word to him.”

“He’s different,” I insist. “He’s quiet and serious and from what I’ve seen, he doesn’t bang anything in a skirt the way his teammates do. Oh, and he’s smart—I saw him reading Hemingway in the quad last week.”

“It was probably a required reading.”

“It wasn’t.”

She narrows her eyes. “How do you know that?”

I feel the blush rising in my cheeks. “Some girl asked him about it in class the other day, and he told her Hemingway is his favorite author.”

“Oh my God. You’re eavesdropping on his conversations now? You’re such a creeper.” Allie heaves out a sigh. “Okay, that’s it. Wednesday night you’re exchanging actual dialogue with the guy.”

“Maybe,” I say noncommittally. “If the opportunity arises…”

“I’ll make it arise. Seriously. We’re not leaving that frat house until you talk to Justin. I don’t care if it’s just you saying hey, how are ya. You’re talking to him.” She jabs her finger in the air. “Capiche?”

I snicker.

“Capiche?” she repeats in a strict tone.

After a beat, I release a defeated breath. “Capiche.”

“Good. Now hurry up and take a shower so we can watch a couple episodes of Mad Men before bed.”

“One episode. I’m too exhausted for any more than that.” I grin at her. “Capiche?”

“Capiche,” she grumbles before waltzing out of my room.

I chuckle to myself as I gather the rest of my shower supplies, but I’m sidetracked yet again—I’ve barely taken two steps to the door when a cat meows in my purse. The high-pitched wail is the ringtone I chose for text messages because it’s the only one annoying enough to get my attention.

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