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Nick, Very Deeply (8 Million Hearts Book 5) by Spencer Spears (1)

1

Eli

I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.

That’s why I did it. Because I kind of thought he’d vanish into thin air, that I’d just daydreamed him into existence, and there was no way this could be real, so I’d better kiss him, right there on the platform in front of the train, before I woke up.

Yeah, part of me hoped maybe we’d keep running into each other, and that we’d fall in love from just these few, stolen Sunday morning moments waiting for the Midtown Direct. That one morning, finally, we’d get in the same train car, instead of him going his way and me going mine.

The way it went in my head was that on that day, he’d glance to the left when the train pulled into the station, instead of the right, and he’d be like, “Want some company this time?” And I’d laugh and be all cute and say something like, “I thought you’d never ask.”

And he’d get all flustered when the train pulled into Brick Church or Maplewood or wherever he got off—because even though I’d constructed this elaborate fantasy, I still didn’t even know his usual destination—and he’d be in the middle of telling me a story, and he wouldn’t have realized we were this close to his stop.

And then I’d have to wait until the next week to ask him to continue the story, and when I did, his cheeks would get all pink as he tried to remember where he’d left off, and then he’d ask me why I was smiling, and I’d say it was because if he didn’t realize by now that it was him I was interested in, and not the story, then he was even more hopeless than I thought, and then he’d lean in and kiss me and when I was still trying to catch my breath, he’d raise an eyebrow and say, “Still think I’m hopeless?”

So yeah, part of me hoped that would happen.

But most of me knew that that was ridiculous. Things like that didn’t happen in real life, only in the stories I told myself. My parents always told me I daydreamed too much—well, my mom did, my dad barely seemed to know I was alive—and that I needed to get my head out of the clouds.

Besides, the fact of the matter was that I didn’t go into New York that much anyway. I wasn’t going to be there next week, for instance, and what if that was the week he’d decided he’d ask for my number? What if, when I didn’t show up, he moved on?

There were too many what ifs, too many factors I couldn’t control. If I was going to do it, it had to be today.

And so, when the woman cleaning the floors of the donut shop in Penn Station woke me, pushing me with the end of her broom and shooing me out, I started to panic. I could have sworn I’d only closed my eyes five minutes ago, but my phone said it was 6 a.m., so apparently it had been more like five hours. I still felt a little drunk from the night before. I hadn’t missed the train, had I?

I grabbed what was left of my now-stale donut, the receipt I’d scrawled my number on the night before, and booked it down to Track 4, my heart in my throat. What if he was the one who didn’t show up this week? What if all of this had been for nothing and—

No. He was there, standing next to the broken escalator, looking as unbelievably hot as ever. Dark hair, a night’s worth of stubble on his cheeks, and warm brown eyes that I couldn’t see at the moment, because he was looking away from me, but that I knew if I could see would make me feel all cozy and special, like he was smiling just for me.

I grinned in relief, then tried to get my face under control. Just because I was excited was no excuse to go around looking like an idiot. But then he turned to look back in my direction, and he smiled, and I gave up. I was just going to have to look like the way-too-excited, hopeful moron that I was. It’s not like I’d ever stood much of a chance of hiding that, anyway.

I jogged down the mostly empty platform as the train shrieked and groaned and came to a halt.

“Began to wonder if you weren’t coming,” he said, that easy smile warming me to my core. “I was late myself, but I thought you’d be here by now.”

“What, you miss me?”

Yeah, I was definitely still a little drunk, but even if I hadn’t been, his presence was intoxicating. He blushed, and it was as perfect as I’d remembered.

“All aboard the Midtown Direct to Dover.” The announcement came over the loudspeaker and he turned to look over his shoulder towards the car he usually boarded.

It was now or never.

“Hey, Nick? I, uh, I don’t know if this is insane,” I said in a rush, “and please don’t feel like you have to say yes, or like I’m going to stalk you or something if you say no. Like, you don’t have to switch to taking a new train or anything. But anyway, I’m not homeless, I’m not in trouble, and I’m not in a relationship. I was sleeping here last week because I wanted to make sure I actually saw you and had time to talk to you, instead of our usual thirty seconds, but then I made it awkward, and it’s not like I’m making it unawkward now, but if I haven’t totally creeped you out, uh—call me sometime, if you want.”

I shoved the crumpled up receipt into his hand and before he had time to react, pushed up onto my tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.

Then I darted away down the track and up into my usual car, like the very mature and totally-not-an-anxious-wreck adult that I was. When I peeked out of the door to look back, Nick was staring at the receipt—uncrumpled now—where I’d written my number. His hand came up to touch his face.

The loudspeaker went off again, and Nick shook himself, then headed for his usual car. But not before folding the receipt up into a square and putting it in his pocket. And not before blushing again.

I smiled as I turned to find my seat. I touched my cheek, too. I could still feel the scratch of his stubble.

* * *

“This is so not going to work,” Aisling said for the fiftieth time as we turned the corner and found the bar we were looking for, Adriatic, at the end of the block. The way its neon pink and blue sign flashed, it would have been hard to miss.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, also for the fiftieth time. I tried to sound like I believed it. I turned to Caden, walking on my other side. “Right?”

“Yes, Jesus, I told you guys. The bouncer likes me.”

“That’s because you blew him out by the dumpster behind the bar,” Aisling retorted. “Even if Eli chooses to go in that direction, that’s not an option I have. He has no reason to let me in.”

“Okay, number one, you don’t have to make it sound so slutty,” Caden protested. “It was a mutual blowing situation, and you know that.”

“Pardon me.” Aisling’s eye roll was big enough to be seen from space.

“And number two,” Caden continued, undaunted, “he’ll let you guys in because you’re with me. Bars always want more cute twinks—they can water down our drinks and we’re not as likely to fight and break things when we get too drunk.”

“And again, I say: that might apply to you two, but not so much to me.”

“Aww, Aisling, are you calling me cute?” I asked, batting my eyelashes at her. “That’s so sweet.”

“Well, I’m calling you a twink, for sure,” she said. “And if you bat your eyelashes at me again, I’ll beat you up and prove it.”

“Ash, I know you’re feeling insecure, but taking it out on other people through violence isn’t the answer.”

That earned me a punch in the shoulder.

Aisling glared at me. “I’m just saying, if I spent $80 on a fake ID and I get it taken away from me four hours later, I’m holding you responsible.”

“Me?” I blinked. “What did I ever do? Coming to this bar was Caden’s idea. All of this was Caden’s idea.”

“Yeah, but you’re an enabler.” She stared straight ahead at the bar, the front door of which was only twenty feet from us now, like she was trying to will the building into letting her in. “I still say this isn’t going to work.”

“Well, it’s definitely not going to if you keep talking about having a fake ID so loudly that people back in Jersey can hear you,” Caden said, returning her death glare—and including me in it, which was hardly fair. I hadn’t said anything inappropriate. “Just smile, act normal, and try to remember your birthdays.”

No difficulty there. The guy at the shop had given me a fake with a birthday of December 31st. Hard to forget being fake-born on New Year’s Eve. I actually wished it weren’t such a memorable date. I didn’t want to stand out to the bouncer—whether he was intimately acquainted with Caden’s tonsils or not.

To be honest, I was just as nervous as Aisling. I knew that, because she and I had spent the entire train ride into the city talking about what a bad idea this was. I still wasn’t sure exactly why we’d agreed to do it, except for the obvious reason—we were bored.

High school, in case you’ve forgotten, is mostly really, really ridiculously boring. Especially if you live in a town as Stepford-y as ours. Quincy, New Jersey was tiny, quaint, adorable—and so boring it made me want to cry. There was nothing to do, unless you wanted to go to a paint-your-own pottery studio or shop for antiques. The parking lot of the local Quick Check was the most exciting place to be on a Friday night, and that was working with a very liberal definition of the word ‘exciting.’

Aside from Aisling and Caden, I wasn’t close with anyone else in school. And it’s not like any of us were popular enough to get invited to parties. So when Caden got a fake ID this summer and started using it to sneak into New York City on the weekends—his parents thought he was doing Model UN—and started regaling us with stories of how fun it was…

Well, Aisling could say whatever she wanted, but the truth was, Caden had never needed an enabler. Caden was impulsive, completely brazen, and the one who always came up with ideas of how to entertain ourselves. Aisling was the voice of reason who got sucked into half of Caden’s dumb plans anyway. And me? I just wanted to do something, anything, that got me out of Quincy and away from my controlling parents. Going along with Caden’s schemes was a good way to get myself grounded, I’d learned over the years, but it was also a hell of a lot more interesting than anything I’d be doing on my own.

Aisling and I had met in Sunday school when we were five, Caden and I in elementary school, and Aisling and Caden in seventh grade, when all the elementary schools in town had dumped into one junior school. We’d been inseparable since then—well, except for a rocky period in tenth grade when Aisling told me she liked me and I had to tell her I was gay.

On its own, that probably would have blown over quickly, except for the fact that a week later, Aisling found out Caden and I had been, uh, experimenting together for a few months. It wasn’t even that we liked each other—not like that, anyway—but since Caden was the only other gay guy I knew, it was kinda natural to want to explore some stuff.

Aisling was mad we hadn’t told her, convinced we were laughing at her behind her back, and for two months, she refused to talk to either of us. But then Caden ended up in the back of a police car after trying to climb Quincy’s water tower with some college guy, and he’d needed Aisling to distract the cops and me to help break him free.

While Aisling sweet-talked the officers, I’d caused a scene, and Caden had sprinted away—and by the end of the night, things were normal among the three of us again. It didn’t hurt that Caden had moved on to doing his ‘exploring’ with that college guy, and I’d gone back to daydreaming about what my life would be like when I finally made it out of Quincy.

Which brings us back to how we’d ended up following in Caden’s footsteps and getting fake IDs. It might be stupid, but at least it wasn’t boring. I swallowed hard as we approached Adriatic. Even if they took our ID’s away and we ended up in jail, it’d make a good story someday, right?

I tried my best to look natural as we got to the door, but in the end it didn’t even matter. The bouncer took one look at Caden, arched an eyebrow, and waved the three of us through. So much for my New Year’s Eve birthday.

Caden had called Adriatic a dive bar, and maybe it was, but it didn’t fit my mental image of what a dive was supposed to be. I always pictured dive bars as tiny holes-in-the-wall with old men in grease-spattered flannel, wood paneling from the 1970s, and a bartender who’d rather yell at you than serve you. Not that I had a lot of experience with bars, of course, but that was my mental image.

Adriatic was… not that. With its three levels, two dance floors, pulsing music, and bartenders in fluorescent mesh crop tops—well, your sketchy uncle’s basement from 1974 wasn’t exactly the vibe Adriatic was going for. More like a cruise ship on acid. But it was definitely seedy, and I didn’t want to look too closely at the sticky substance I felt with my arm as I leaned back against the wall.

Caden got us our first round of drinks—two dollar rum and cokes that tasted the way gasoline smells, and not in a good way. I offered to get the next, but he waved the offer away.

“If you pay for more than one drink here, you’re doing it wrong,” he shouted over the noise of the music. “Just look cute, flirt, and someone will buy one for you.”

And then, with a shameless grin, he slipped away in the flashing blue light, taking the arm of some muscular, dark-haired guy in a tight t-shirt and pulling him onto the dance floor.

I looked at Aisling in confusion. “I thought he was hooking up with the bouncer. Does he even know that dude?”

“Does it matter?” Aisling laughed. “I can guarantee you it doesn’t to Caden.”

Fair point.

“So,” I said, looking around and drinking my rum and coke way too fast. “This is what a bar is like, huh?”

“Well, it’s what a sketchy gay bar in Chelsea is like,” Aisling said with a shrug. Her dad was French, an artist, and up until this year, they’d spent every summer in Paris visiting her relatives. She knew way more about bars—and pretty much everything—than I did. “Honestly, I’m kind of surprised they can afford the rent here. But I, uh, wouldn’t base your entire opinion of bars on this one.”

I wrinkled my nose. “It’s kinda gross, isn’t it?”

“I mean…” Aisling snorted. “I don’t know what we expected, given Caden’s tastes.”

“God, you’re right. It could be so much worse.”

Caden’s parents were incredibly strict, and sometimes it seemed like he picked his activities and interests based solely on how much his parents would hate them.

I glanced around, feeling awkward. “So what do we do, now?”

“Well, we could stand around talking to each other all night. Or, you could go talk to that blond guy over there who keeps staring at you.” Aisling smiled, looking over my shoulder.

“What blond guy?” I turned around, scanning for someone who fit her description. There was a guy in the corner who might have been blond—but he couldn’t have been looking at me, could he?

“Don’t look, dumbass.” Aisling punched me again. “Real subtle.”

“I’m sure he wasn’t staring at me.” I made a face. “He’s like, hot. I’m—”

“A cute twink, remember?” She giggled. “Go talk to him. Get him to buy you a drink.”

“What about you?”

Aisling shrugged. “I think I saw a female bartender on the far side of the room. Maybe I’ll go offer her some solidarity. That, or I’ll pull out my phone and play games and be antisocial until you’re ready to leave.”

I glanced back over my shoulder, checking to see if the blond guy was even still there. “You sure?”

I kind of hoped she’d say no. I knew this was the whole point of coming out to bars—meeting people, talking to them, living the kind of life I’d never get to back home. But now that I actually had the chance to do that, I was nervous.

What if the guy thought I was weird? What if he hadn’t even been staring at me at all? Cute twink was a generous description. Blond-haired shrimp was more accurate. At 5’8” and 140 pounds soaking wet, I wasn’t exactly impressive.

But when I’d turned around, Aisling had already started moving in the opposite direction, off to find her female bartender.

“Go get ‘em, tiger,” she called as she walked away.

I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. Go get ‘em. Sure. Easy.

* * *

It wasn’t actually that bad.

But it wasn’t actually that good, either. The blond guy was cute, but he turned out to be kinda boring, and what was worse, he was a biology teacher. An AP bio teacher in a high school only a few towns over from Quincy. Far too close to home.

When Aisling drifted back over to me around 11 p.m., I was ready to nope out of the conversation and head home. She’d apparently traded phone numbers with Celia, the bartender, after bonding over a love of shitty thrift stores, so at least one of us had had a successful night. But when we went to track Caden down, he begged me to stay.

“Julio asked if I wanted to come over,” Caden said, glancing at the dude in the tight t-shirt again. “But I need you to come with me so I don’t get murdered.”

“If you’re actually worried he’s going to murder you, maybe you shouldn’t be sleeping with him?” Aisling pointed out.

Caden gave her a long-suffering look. “Where’s the fun in that? Anyway, I don’t actually think he’s going to murder me. I’m just saying that the buddy system is never a bad idea.”

“So you want me to find some random dude and bring him back to this guy’s apartment?” I asked, confused. “Or do you mean I’m supposed to go by myself and just—what, sit and watch you hook up with him?”

“I mean, if you want, weirdo.” Caden gave me a withering look. “Or you could watch TV or something. You don’t have to be a creep about it.”

I didn’t think I was necessarily being the weird one in this situation, but Caden begged and Aisling washed her hands of both of us, and before I knew it, I was sitting in Julio’s apartment in Murray Hill, trying to figure out how to make his Apple TV work and doing my best to ignore the sounds coming from the next room.

They stopped eventually, but by that time, Caden and I had definitely missed the last train home. So I checked the schedule for the first one to leave on Sunday morning, set my alarm, and curled up on the couch. Only, when I tried to get Caden up in the morning, he told me to go home without him. Or, rather, he mumbled it into the guy’s sheets, and it took me three tries to understand him.

“What if you get murdered?” I asked, when I finally figured out what he was saying. I tried to say it quietly, so as not to wake up a very naked Julio who seemed to be passed out next to Caden.

“S’not gonna murder me now,” Caden grumbled.

“Why not? Now he’s gotten what he wants from you. If I were a murderer, this is totally when I’d kill you.”

“Good thing it’s not your bed I’m sleeping in then, asshole. Just go. I’ll text you when I’m home.”

“For someone who insisted on using the buddy system—”

“I swear to God, Eli, if you don’t get out of here, I’m gonna be the one murdering you.”

So I left, and made it back to Penn Station with only minutes to spare. When I got there, the screens were already listing the Midtown Direct as departing from Track 2. I was starving by then, but I wasn’t sure I had time to stop and get anything to eat. All in all, it had been a kind of frustrating 12 hours. I wished I’d left with Aisling when I’d had the chance.

Naturally, once I made the decision to go straight down to the platform, the train took forever to arrive. I kept looking over my shoulder towards the up escalator. It was broken, but maybe I had time to go and get something after all? Peering into the gloom of the track wasn’t any help—I could see the lights of some train, but it wasn’t moving, and I wasn’t even sure it was mine.

“Sometimes it stops for literally no reason,” a voice said behind me. “There’s never any explanation, either. But it usually doesn’t last too long, so it probably won’t make you late for anything.”

I turned around in surprise—and then stared. It wasn’t just a voice behind me. It was a very hot voice behind me—and suddenly the last 12 hours didn’t seem like such a complete waste of time after all.

The guy who’d spoken was maybe six foot one, with dark brown hair, a scruffy two-day beard, and rich brown eyes that crinkled when he smiled—which he was doing right now. His teeth were ever so slightly crooked—like maybe he’d gotten his braces off a few months too early—and his red lips quirked up in a way that almost made me forget to breathe as I wondered what they’d feel like to kiss.

He was leaning back against a tiled wall, a messenger bag full of books slung over his shoulder. A college student, maybe? He seemed self-assured, in a quiet sort of way, and disarmingly friendly.

“I—what?” By the time I realized I’d been staring silently for way too long, I’d completely forgotten what he’d said.

The guy shifted and grinned, and I was pretty sure I caught muscles rippling under his dark purple sweater. I liked his grin—it didn’t feel like he was laughing at me, though he totally should have been. It just felt warm. In the space of five seconds, I’d become more interested in this stranger than anyone I’d met last night. Why was he talking to me? And where the hell did he get off looking so bookishly cute?

“I was just saying that it probably won’t make you late,” the guy said. “Sorry. You looked like you were worried about the time, and—well, I just assumed.”

He pulled a book out of his bag and started to open it, and my heart clenched. He’d spoken maybe 50 words to me, but I knew I’d regret it all day if I let our conversation end here.

“No, it’s fine,” I stammered, trying to think of something to say. “Not worried about being late, exactly. Just wondering if I have enough time to get back upstairs and buy a donut. I missed breakfast. But that escalator’s out of service and it’s been an excruciatingly long night and I might actually throw myself on the tracks if I miss this train, so I probably should just stay here.”

“Ah.” The guy gave me a sympathetic smile and pulled three more books out of his bag, peering into its depths. “Sadly, all I can offer is a zinc-infused cough drop and some lint-covered Skittles that have been rolling around loose in there since—” he shuddered “—too long.”

I snorted. “As appetizing as that sounds…”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t take me up on it either.” The guy smiled, and it did something weird to my stomach. I kind of felt like I might throw up, but also like I was melting, at the same time? “Though if you’re looking to commit bodily harm, starvation is probably more effective than throwing yourself on the tracks.”

“What?” I blinked, wondering if I’d missed a step somewhere. Had I actually gotten so hung up on what he was doing to my stomach that I’d missed a chunk of the conversation? Jesus, I might not have that much experience with guys, but I usually wasn’t this much of an airhead.

“You said—just—that you’d, you know—if you missed the train.” The guy winced. “I just meant, well, if you missed the train, throwing yourself onto the tracks wouldn’t do much good. Because it would already be gone, and couldn’t run you over. Sorry. Bad joke. My friends tell me I have a terrible sense of humor. I should probably listen to them.”

“Oh,” I said, my mouth gaping open like a fish as I finally understood what he was saying. “No, you’re fine. I’m just an idiot. Weak with hunger, I guess. Kinda slow on the uptake this morning.”

“Right.” The guy nodded. “You said it had been a long night?”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “To say the least. I’m currently trying to decide if I should murder a friend of mine, or if it’s actually myself I should kill, for being dumb enough to let him talk me into things.”

“Well, I guess you could wait for the next train, and drag your friend down onto the tracks with you, as it approaches. Unless he’s here with you now.”

“If only.”

The guy looked past me for a second. “Looks like the train’s finally moving. Decision time.”

I sighed. “Ugh. No murder, then, I guess. Or self-harm. Or breakfast, come to think of it.”

He smiled. “What a lame morning.”

“Tell me about it.”

“But hey, there’s always time for grievous injury and death next week. And if you manage not to starve in the interim, maybe I’ll see you then.”

“Uh—yeah,” I called out as he walked away—realizing that I didn’t even know the guy’s name. And in all likelihood, I wouldn’t see him again. This probably wasn’t a regular commute for him. It certainly wasn’t for me.

But still, I was in a much better mood on the ride home than I’d anticipated. Maybe the trip into the city hadn’t been a total bust.

* * *

“You guys wanna go in again this weekend?” I asked later that week over lunch.

Aisling frowned. “Why? I thought you said your night was boring.”

I’d caught Aisling up on pieces of the evening when I’d seen her Sunday evening. We were co-chairs of our church’s youth group this year, which meant, among other things, getting drafted into cleaning classrooms and manual labor by Gwen, the church’s minister, in preparation for the school year starting.

We both adored Gwen—somehow she managed to make being a crusty biker, extreme cat lover, and minister seem like the most natural combination in the world—but I still didn’t think she’d entirely approve of us getting fake IDs and going into the city, so I hadn’t been able to talk as freely as I’d wanted.

Besides, we’d ended up getting distracted when Gwen informed us we’d be getting a new youth group advisor, someone who was apparently in divinity school and would be working with Gwen for the year. Apparently he was going to come down to the first district-wide con in a few weeks, so in between sweeping, organizing pipe cleaners and magic markers, and speculating about whether the new advisor would be horrifically awkward or only moderately awkward, I’d only been able to update Aisling in snippets.

“Technically, it was,” I said, taking another bite of my sandwich. “The night part, anyway. But I, um, maybe kinda sorta—I mean, not really, but kinda—met a guy? When I was waiting for the train? The morning after?”

“What does kinda-sorta met a guy mean?” Aisling asked.

“And was he hot?” Caden put in, popping another forkful of kimchi into his mouth. “What did you guys do? Train sex? Train sex would be very hot.”

I shot Caden a withering look. “Dude, I talked to him for like, five minutes. We didn’t do anything.”

“You’d be surprised at what I can accomplish in five minutes,” Caden said with a smug smile.

If we could get back to the matter at hand,” Aisling said. “I only have ten more minutes till I have to be back at the shelter, so if Eli’s got a story to tell, I want to hear it now.”

Caden grumbled, but it was true. We all had summer jobs, and since Aisling’s work at the animal shelter was the furthest from the center of town, she had the shortest lunch break. We’d been sitting in the park eating for the past 30 minutes, but I had to get back to the paper, and Caden to his dad’s ophthalmology practice, sooner rather than later.  So I caught them up on the rest of the story, not that there was a whole lot left to tell.

“Anyway, it got me thinking, he kinda joked about seeing me next week, so I know it’s a long shot, but maybe if we go in again this weekend, I could find him.”

“You don’t have to ask me twice,” Caden said, grinning. “Julio’s been asking when we can meet up again anyway.”

Aisling gave me a put-upon look. “You’re actually proposing signing yourself up for another long, boring night of doing nothing, just for the tiny chance that you might see a guy whose name you don’t even know again at 6 a.m.?”

“Yes.” I nodded solemnly. “Yes, that is exactly what I’m proposing.”

“He doesn’t have to do nothing,” Caden added. “There’s plenty of stuff… or people… he could do while he waited.”

I flushed. It was true, of course. But it already felt like it would be wrong to be looking for someone else when I was really hoping to see Sexy Bookish Train Guy again. Which was stupid. The guy probably didn’t remember even our conversation anymore. He probably wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t owe him anything.

But still—the prospect of hooking up with someone else just seemed… wrong.

“You don’t have to come,” I offered to Aisling.

“Yeah, but she will.” Caden laughed. “She likes to pretend to be morally superior, but you know she’ll be bored out of her mind if she stays home.”

Aisling stuck her tongue out at him.

“It’s true!” Caden said, throwing a carrot stick at her.

“I guess I can text Celia and see if she’s working again,” Aisling said.

“Who’s Celia?”

“Aisling’s new girlfriend,” I said with a grin, which earned me a carrot stick projectile to the face.

“Hey, at least I talked to her for more than five minutes, unlike some people I know.”

I threw the carrot right back at her, but I couldn’t actually get mad. We were going into the city again, and I had a chance to see the guy. The week was looking up.

* * *

Our second time at Adriatic, I spent most of the night hanging out with Aisling and Celia. I followed Caden’s instructions and flirted enough to get free drinks, but cut the conversations short with any guy who seemed to get too interested. Not just because I didn’t want to lead them on, but because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to lie convincingly.

The story was that we were all students at Mann University, the college in our town. Our IDs made us out to be 21, which wasn’t even that far off from my actual age of 19. Technically, I could have been in college already. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t really want to invest that much energy describing my non-existent life on campus to guys I hoped I’d never see again.

“You’re sure you wanna stay?” Aisling asked as she got ready to head out. “It’s not too late to save yourself from a night of misery and regret.”

“Thanks for the encouragement,” I said as I waved goodbye.

I could have gone home, but hell, I’d already come all the way in here and made it as far as 11:30. Only six and a half more hours to go. I ended up spending most of those hours at some guy named Brandon’s apartment in Harlem—Julio hadn’t been able to make it, but that hadn’t stopped Caden from finding someone to take his place. Brandon’s TV was easier to work, at least, and I ended up losing track of time as I watched reruns of House Hunters International, so I had to sprint to catch the subway down to Penn Station.

It would be just like me to wait all night and then miss Sexy Bookish Train Guy because I was late. If he was even there. He probably wasn’t, and I was probably running through Penn Station, out of breath, looking insane for absolutely no reason, because the guy wouldn’t even be—

“Hey, you made it!”

I skidded to a stop at the sound of a voice behind me. Not just a voice. The voice. I was grinning from cheek to cheek when I turned around and I couldn’t hold it in even a little bit.

“Yeah,” I said, inhaling sharply as I took in the fact that the train was just pulling up. “I thought—for a second—I was going to miss you—I mean, the train. Miss the train. I’m just glad—glad I didn’t.”

The guy smiled. “Another long night?”

“Something like that.”

The loudspeaker came on, announcing the train’s imminent departure, and my mind suddenly blanked on how to make conversation. I’d run all the way here and now I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I looked around wildly, like I might find something witty and fascinating to say hidden in a corner of the platform.

“Escalator’s still broken,” the guy said, misinterpreting my glance. “You miss breakfast again?”

“I uh—yeah,” I said sheepishly. “I’m not so great at timing, I guess.”

“All aboard,” the loudspeaker said again.

Shit, why had I had to come so late? I could have had ten minutes to talk to this guy—more, if I’d just remembered to get here on time—and now he was probably just going to—

“Here.” The guy pushed a white paper bag towards me, one I’d only just noticed he’d been holding the whole time.

“What is it?” I asked, staring at it like I’d forgotten what bags were, and how hands worked.

“Breakfast,” the guy said. “I was getting some for myself anyway—I just got off work—and I figured—well, if I didn’t see you, it would just be more donuts for me, so no harm, no foul, you know?”

“You bought me breakfast?” I said, stunned.

I’d spent the whole week convinced the guy had forgotten me, convinced I was an idiot for going mostly sleepless for another night on the off chance I might see someone whose name I didn’t even know—and he’d bought me breakfast? I took the bag from him in wonder.

“I—well—I mean, it’s just donuts.” The guy looked down at his shoes. “You don’t have to eat them.”

“No, I didn’t mean—”

“I should probably—I’ll uh—see you—or—it’s—nevermind,” he said, rapidly backing away. “Uh, I gotta go. I’ll—bye.”

“No, wait!” I said towards his rapidly retreating back. Fuck. How the hell had I managed to get that so wrong?

“Thank you for breakfast,” I called, belatedly, when he was probably out of earshot anyway.

I didn’t even eat the donuts. I just stared at them, cursing myself, the whole way home.

* * *

The third time we went into the city, Aisling and Caden wouldn’t stop making fun of me, for not even knowing the guy’s name, for being so obsessed with him, for the way I’d completely fucked up last time.

I was determined not to do it again, so after I walked Caden to his tryst of the night’s house and waited for 45 minutes or so until I was certain he wasn’t going to get murdered—I mean, there were some choking sounds coming from the bedroom, but I was pretty sure they were the good kind of choking—I went straight to the train station. And waited.

I plunked myself down on a bench in the NJ Transit waiting area and I tried to stay awake, I really did, but I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, someone was nudging my foot and saying, “Is this seat taken?”

My eyes snapped open and I stared. Sexy Bookish Train Guy was standing in front of me. God, he was dreamy. Maybe too dreamy. Was I actually still asleep?

I pushed myself up and slid over, pinching myself surreptitiously as I made room for him on the bench. The guy sat down, and I could see those little crinkles around his eyes when he smiled. I was so fucking ecstatic and surprised to see him again that I blurted out the first thing I could think of.

“What’s your name?”

I blushed immediately. Way to play it cool.

“Nick,” the guy said, still looking at me with that smile that made my breath go all fluttery. “Nick Sawyer.”

“Hi, Nick Sawyer,” I said, still a little groggy from sleep, and more than a little amazed this was happening.

“Here,” Nick said, producing a bag of donuts and a little cardboard thingy holding two cups of coffee. “I thought maybe we could do a proper breakfast this time.”

“I think I’m in love with you.”

Oh God, what was wrong with me? What had happened to my brain?

“For the coffee, I mean,” I added lamely. “Just to clarify.”

Dammit, the point was to be less awkward this time, not convince him to take out a restraining order against me.

“Good to know,” Nick said, and this time his smile felt all warm and fuzzy, like a nap under an afghan on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon, and I felt silly for freaking out.

The guy had brought me coffee, so he couldn’t hate me, right? And he’d come here early, too. And honestly, he really was kinda perfect, wasn’t he, and his arms looked all strong and muscular as he handed me a cup, and I wondered what he’d look like without his—

Jesus, get a grip or you really will fall in love with him.

In my defense, though, that smile was lethal. It cut right to my heart and planted a seed there and now I felt like I had sunny, yellow daffodils blossoming in my chest.

“So, do you have a name, Guy-Who’s-Definitely-Not-In-Love-With-Me?” Nick asked.

I blushed again, not because he was teasing me, but because I’d completely forgotten that when you asked for someone’s name, you usually offered yours in return.

“Eli,” I stammered. “Eli Winter.”

“Nice to meet you, Eli Winter. Or re-meet you, I suppose.”

“You too.”

We were quiet for a moment, as Nick took a sip of his coffee and I mimicked him. I felt like I should say something, then wondered if I was being weird for wanting to fill the silence. Maybe Nick was one of those people who was okay with silence. But was anyone really that comfortable sitting quietly next to a total stranger?

Well, no, I didn’t actually want to answer that—because I suspected that if pushed, you could get me to admit that I’d sit quietly, happily next to Nick, not saying a word, for as long as he’d have me.

But then I thought I was thinking too much, so of course, I just said the first thing that occurred to me, which, this time at least, wasn’t completely mortifying.

“Where are your books?” I gestured to Nick’s messenger bag, which for once wasn’t overflowing with books that looked like they’d been published in the 1400s. There were only two books visible, in fact—practically nothing, for Nick.

“Home,” Nick said. “I’m not staying out in Jersey tonight, so I didn’t have to lug a library around with me today.”

You live in the city?” I asked.

“Yeah. My family’s in Jersey, though, and I visit most weekends.” He cocked his head to the side. “What about you?”

“Oh, no, I live—I’m a student. At Mann University,” I said, feeling awkward. It was one thing to lie to guys at Adriatic, and completely different to lie to someone I actually liked.

I had the uncomfortable sensation that by choosing to lie, I’d just sent my life hurtling down one path, instead of another. Like I’d been standing at a crossroads without even realizing it, and it was too late to go back and change my mind.

I just wondered if I’d made the right decision.

There was no reason to lie, exactly. Only, would Nick still want to talk to me, if he knew I was in high school?

The fact that I was 19 didn’t help matters. It actually made it more depressing. 19 year olds were supposed to be in college, not still in high school because they’d been held back by their parents as children for not being ‘emotionally mature’ enough for their grade. I shoved the thought away.

It was probably dumb to lie. It wasn’t like I could keep up a ruse that I was in college when I wasn’t. And even if I could, Nick lived in New York and I didn’t, and what was I going to do, come into the city any time I wanted to see him and carry on an increasingly convoluted fiction about being a college student? Still, I couldn’t help wanting to extend this for however long I could.

“Cool,” Nick said. “I have a friend who went to Mann, but a while ago. You probably wouldn’t have overlapped.”

I just nodded, relieved I wouldn’t have to invent a reason for why I didn’t know anyone Nick might know on campus.

“So what brings you to the city, then?” Nick asked.

You, I thought, and smiled at the idea of actually saying that to Nick. He’d probably bolt.

“Just a friend who thinks New Jersey is boring,” I said instead. “He insists on coming into the city every weekend.”

If by friend, you meant me, and by coming into the city every weekend, you meant coming into the city to stalk a guy I barely knew. But those were just little details that Nick didn’t need to know right now.

Nick gave me a wry glance. “Why do I get the impression you don’t think the city’s all that interesting?”

I stared at him in surprise. How the hell had he picked up on that?

I wrinkled my nose and found myself answering honestly. “You ever feel like you spend your whole life looking forward to something, only to finally experience it and realize it’s kinda a let down?”

I shrugged. “I guess I just thought it would be different. I grew up in a small town. And go to school in one now, too,” I added hastily. “I always told myself I’d get out someday, move somewhere different, actually explore the world. But maybe letting my friend drag me around to shitty bars and then napping on benches at Penn Station isn’t the best introduction to the wonders of big city life.”

“I can’t disagree with you there,” Nick said with a laugh. “But then why do you do it? If it’s so boring?”

“Because I’d rather be bored in New York than bored in the suburbs, I guess?” I said ruefully. “It’s a pretty lame reason, but until I can actually get out and travel and live my exciting life as an expat novelist sipping absinthe in Paris and writing about modern ennui or whatever, this is the best I can get. Better than suffocating to death in a quaint, safe college town, anyway.”

“That’s one way to look at it.” Nick smiled sadly. “Though there’s something to be said for quaint, safe college towns, too.”

“Spoken like someone who’s never lived in one,” I said darkly. “You wouldn’t be so nostalgic if you ever had.”

Nick looked at me in surprise. “You know, you’re probably right.”

I bit my lip, realizing I’d taken the conversation in way too serious a direction for 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

“Sorry,” I frowned. “I’m probably just grumpy from sleeping on this bench all night. I’m not normally so dour.”

“You’re fine,” Nick said, waving my objection away. But then he frowned. “Wait, you were sleeping here all night?”

“Um. Yeah?” Did that make me sound pathetic? Probably.

“Did you not have some place to stay?” Nick looked confused. “I thought you were with a friend—”

“I was, but he went home with this guy and I—

“Is everything okay?” Nick asked, suddenly. “I don’t mean to pry, and it’s none of my business if you and that guy—I mean, your friend—if you guys—”

“No, no, I just missed the last train home and I—”

“It’s just, if you need help, or even just someone to talk to, I know I barely know you, and this is probably overstepping my bounds and if you have a boyfriend, or that guy is—well, I’m just trying to say that you’re not alone and you can—”

“Oh, God, no, I’m—it’s—nevermind,” I said, jumping up off the bench. “Everything’s fine, I just—I have to go.”

I ran for the bathrooms, and stayed there until I was sure Nick was gone. I was supposed to make Nick think I was cool, and instead I’d made him think I was homeless or in some kind of abusive relationship and in need of fucking help.

God, I was so embarrassed. And to top it all off, I’d run away instead of sticking around to actually explain myself, because I was too afraid that if I tried to explain anything, I’d end up accidentally confessing that I was still in high school and make things even worse.

I thought about it all week. There wasn’t much else to think about, anyway. It was the last week before my senior year started, and my job at the paper was winding down. My mom was already on me to start college applications, which I definitely didn’t want to do—I’d known since I was 12 that I was either going to get into Wrenville College’s creative writing program or save money and go to state school—so I didn’t see the point in applying to ten more schools ‘just in case.’

I knew there was no real future to anything with Nick. And even if there were a potential future, I’d probably convinced Nick I was insane, if not also a pathetic baby bird incapable of taking care of himself in the big city.

But on the off chance that I hadn’t, and despite the total futility of it all, I wanted to give this one last shot.

When was the last time I’d felt this excited about my life? This excited about meeting someone new? When was the last time my life had been anything other than swaddled in bubble-wrap and mind-numbingly dull?

Caden’s family was going to a weekend-long event at the Korean Baptist church in New Providence, and Aisling’s dad had a show at a gallery that Aisling had to tag along to, which was how I ended up back at Adriatic by myself the next weekend, getting drunk and telling an increasingly astonished Celia all about Nick. She even offered to let me crash at her apartment once the bar closed, but I didn’t want to risk missing Nick again, so I headed to Penn Station instead.

Not just Penn Station, but the donut shop itself. That way, if Nick came in there again, I’d see him first thing. I bought a donut and a cup of coffee and sat down to wait and think of what I wanted to say. I wanted to come off cool, and casual, and maybe a little mysterious, but definitely competent and not at all like a dumb kid who needed someone to take care of him. I wanted Nick to like me.

Only, by the time the cashier was poking me with her push-broom and telling me I was going to miss my train, I’d completely forgotten what I wanted to say. Which is why I shoved the receipt at Nick so gracelessly, my words tumbling all over themselves in decidedly uncool fashion, and why I almost fell when I stood up to kiss him. On the cheek, but still—a kiss.

It was probably the stupidest thing I’d ever done. But I’d done it.

I smiled the whole way home.