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xo, Zach by Kendall Ryan (1)

Chapter Two

Poppy

 

I shouldn’t have let Jodee drag me here. That much was certain. As we walked through the living room, I dodged a ping-pong ball as it went sailing past our heads from a nearby game of beer pong. Why had I let her talk me into this?

“Aren’t you glad we came?” Jodee grinned excitedly and handed me a beer. I moved in next door to her a few weeks ago. We were both about to begin our master’s program—me in poetry, and her in creative non-fiction—but that was where our similarities ended. My life came with a lot of complications and added responsibility as the result of a one-time mistake that hers did not. I knew she wouldn’t get it, but there was a hint of underlying anxiety I felt about being away from home.

But since I had a rare, free-night before classes started Monday, and Jodee couldn’t fathom the idea of me moping around at home alone on a Friday night, here I was.

“Not particularly. I don’t do college parties.” Not even in my undergrad days.

Jodee rolled her eyes. “It’s not a college party. It’s a house party. And it’s practically tradition.”

That part may have been true. We attended a tiny, but prestigious East coast university in a little town with only a handful of bars. The bar scene got old, too, so house parties were pretty commonplace. My attendance at them, however, was not. I’d gone here for undergrad too, but as a commuter student still living at home with my parents.

“Guys are so weird,” I said, as two particularly preppy-looking guys in front of us started shot-gunning beers.

“I think they’re kind of cute,” Jodee said, grinning at one of them over her drink. “Besides, you’re only saying that because of Jason.”

I knew she was right, so I didn’t say anything. Ever since Jason dumped me out of the blue, I hadn’t been myself. Especially around men. Maybe if he’d given me a reason I could have moved on, but he just told me it wasn’t working out, that it was “him, not me.” It was bullshit, like the whole time we’d been together had meant nothing, and I’d only gotten more upset since it happened last month. We’d made a lot of plans together over our year-long relationship, but I didn’t realize Jason was making plans of his own, too. And one of them was to dump me shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday.

Jodee turned to me. “Look, I know you aren’t stoked to be here right now, but I think this will help.” She grabbed my arm in excitement. “I know. You should hook up with one of these guys. That’s the best way to get over an ex. I’ll help you find someone.”

I needed a man like I needed a second period each month. “I’m swearing off men,” I said to her, but it was useless. She was already peering through the crowd, even standing on tiptoes to look around. She pointed toward the door. “Look at that guy. He’s cute, right?” I tried to see who she was talking about but there were too many people crowding the party.

“Oh, wait, he’s with a girl. Damn it.”

The crowd parted, and my heart stopped. The room went dead silent; my ears were ringing, and I felt like I might throw up. My ex, Jason, had just walked into the party. And he wasn’t alone. Trailing behind him was his new girlfriend, the one he started dating about three seconds after we broke up. Of all the fuckery. Why were they here? Was there seriously nothing else to do tonight?

I spun around and grabbed Jodee’s arm, whispering, “Jodee. That’s Jason.”

She stared for a second, confused, and I saw her putting the pieces together as her eyes widened.

“No way,” she said, narrowing her eyes in their direction. “Well, you’re way prettier than her.”

They started walking toward us, but hadn’t seen us yet. Luckily, they were distracted by someone Jason knew. I felt like I’d been struck dumb, my mind was totally blanking. Thankfully, Jodee stepped in.

“Okay, what should we do? Do you want to leave?”

I thought about it. There was a back door … I could escape like Andy tunneling his way out of Shawshank with my dignity still firmly intact. I was about to open my mouth to tell her that when I realized I was being a coward. And I was not a coward. I was a strong ass woman and I wasn’t about to flee with my tail between my legs.

I turned to Jodee, my brows knit tightly in determination. “No. We should stay.”

“Are you sure? Really, I understand if you don’t want to be here, exes are a nightmare.” Jodee’s concerned eyes continued scanning my face for any trace of hesitation. I knew she was just looking out for me, but her concern made me even more resolute.

“Positive. There’s no way I’m letting some dickhead scare me off that easily.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, a forced, hesitant grin on her face. “If you say so…”

Suddenly, I had an idea. “What’s that saying … Don’t get mad, get even?”

Jodee’s smile faded. “Poppy…”

I didn’t wait for her to finish. This wasn’t a moment for second-guessing.

“Don’t worry, I have a plan.” When one of the preppy-looking guys started waving her over to their beer pong game, I gave her a tiny push in their direction as she gave me a concerned look. “Go play. Seriously. I’ll be fine. I’ve got this.”

She agreed, but before she headed off to play the obnoxious drinking game she made me promise to tell her if I needed her. I started scanning the party, looking for the right guy, all the while my lady balls growing larger with every beat of the bass that was coming out of the speakers. Then, I saw him, standing by the stairs. He was tall, at least six-foot-two, with dark hair that seemed effortlessly messy and groomed at the same time. His defined jawline was dusted with dark stubble, and he looked to be in his late twenties. Perfect. Hot as hell and obviously not one of these idiot college kids. Maybe he’d understand this insane predicament I was about to put him in.

He turned in my direction for a moment, and I felt my mouth drop open as my gaze met his seductive, emerald green eyes fringed with black lashes. Just looking at him made me feel like I’d committed a sin. Like maybe I needed to head to the nearest confessional and unload all my dirty little secrets to whoever would listen and could atone me for my impure thoughts.

I didn’t stop to think. I was being drawn to him in a way that was completely out of my control. As I got closer, I could have high-fived myself. He was so ridiculously attractive—I’m talking Abercrombie model attractive—that I knew he’d be the perfect sucker punch to Jason and his new whore. Never mind that this guy was totally out of my league in real life. This was make-believe. My make-believe…and I was about to make Jason believe that we were an item.

He was talking to someone else, but that didn’t matter to me. All social decency had gone out the window the moment I’d decided on my plan. I tapped him on the shoulder and tried to look normal. He turned to me, looking down as though amused at me standing all of five-foot-nothing in my ballet flats. When our gazes collided, nothing could have prepared me for the wave of desire that surged through me as we locked eyes for the first time. The room tipped sideways as the full-weight of his sexual prowess hit me.

Hefting up my lady balls for what I was about to do, I took a moment to compose myself, clearing my throat.

“Look,” I said, as he observed me with a slight smile, “I know you don’t know me, but my ex just walked in with his new girlfriend, and he’s a total asshole, so I need you to pretend to be my date.”

He paused for a moment, and I had a flash of fear that he might tell me to get lost, but then he grinned, revealing a row of straight, white teeth that couldn’t have been more perfect if they’d been featured in an advertisement for orthodontics.

“Just one question.” His voice was deep and confident and sent another shockwave of lust rushing through me. My God, this man is hitting me in all the right places and I know I should back away, tuck my lady balls back into their appropriate hiding spot and run. But I was already so far in this that backing down wasn’t an option the moment we locked eyes.

My heart dropped into my stomach. “Sure.”

“Can I at least know your name before we start dating?”

I let out a relieved laugh and held out my hand. “It’s Poppy.”

He tested my name on his lips, and I very much liked the sound of it. He wrapped his hand around mine and my stomach did a backflip—a backflip because I was suddenly in way over my head, or because I was really going through with this mission to show Jason how quickly I’d moved on too.

“Zach.”

The way he looked at me made my mouth go dry, and it was all too easy to imagine his hands doing exactly what his eyes just did, running up and down my body, eventually reaching my…. Get a grip, I thought, stunned by my own intense reaction.

I shook myself out of it. All I was here to do was make Jason jealous, not to swoon over some other guy. I motioned toward the kitchen. “Well, I guess you can start by getting me a drink.”

“I like a woman who knows how to take control,” he said, and my heartbeat kicked up a few notches. I swallowed. Zach flashed that panty-dropping grin again and led me through the crowd, but it was so densely packed like pheromone-soaked sardines in a can. He reached back and grabbed my hand, sending butterflies rushing to the pit of my stomach.

After we’d gotten our drinks, we opted to forego the suffocating interior and settled into the backyard. It was impossible not to notice how romantic it was to be secluded in a corner of the yard, standing underneath rows of string lights that highlighted the colorful array of fall leaves. Jason was nowhere in sight, but I was finding myself not minding that too much.

“I usually have to work a little harder than this to pick up a girl,” Zach said, and I felt myself grinning. I found that hard to believe, considering that I couldn’t even look at him without picturing myself on top of him, underneath him, in bed with him, running my tongue along his well-defined pecs. It didn’t help that the shirt and tailored jeans he wore were accentuating his perfectly toned body. I caught a wave of his scent. It was crisp, and decidedly masculine.

It took a moment for me to realize he’d asked me how I ended up at the party. I tried to keep my voice from betraying my thoughts as I said, “My friend dragged me here, to be honest.”

He grinned again. That grin alone was enough to make me wet. Jesus.

“So, this ex of yours … should I go kick his ass, or…?” He interrupted my thoughts, then paused, waiting for my reaction. The story of my ex dumping me for another woman wasn’t exactly what I wanted to discuss with the painfully sexy guy I just met and begged to be my ‘make-believe boyfriend’ for the night.

“No, it’s okay. We dated for a year, and then he just broke it off. It was kind of out of the blue.” I shrugged, trying to portray the candid indifference that my demeanor suggested. Yeah, nope, his rejection still stung. Especially because I suspected the real reason for our break-up and I hated to think of my situation being at the root of our separation.

It seemed impossible, but Zach’s face was somehow more beautiful when he was being serious. His eyes more piercing, his full lips parted.

“You weren’t kidding about him being an asshole. Well, he must be an idiot if he let you get away.”

I stared pointedly at him. “That is seriously the worst pick-up line—like, ever.”

He laughed and took another sip of his beer. “Listen, you caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to have to impress my ‘brand-new girlfriend’ when I came out tonight.”

“That’s fair. Thanks for being a good sport and playing along.”

Zach took a sip of his beer. “That’s what I’m here for. No, really. I’m actually here to inconspicuously keep an eye on my buddy’s little brother. He was the dumbass shot-gunning a beer inside.”

I nodded. “So, you’re babysitting.”

“Pretty much.”

“Do we need to go back inside then?” I asked, hoping not because I much preferred the quiet out here to the party inside and the surprising comfort that was developing between me and this virtual stranger, even though we’d only been out here a short time.

Zach shook his head. “Josh is a good kid. He’ll have a massive hangover tomorrow, but he won’t do anything stupid. And I already snatched his car keys when I got here.” He patted his jeans pocket and I silently begged myself not to look at his crotch. Don’t do it. Don’t you dare fucking do it, Poppy.

“Plus, I think my presence alone is enough to deter him from any further bad behavior,” he added, drawing my gaze back up to his.

Zach wasn’t exactly imposing, but he was tall and muscular, so if he needed to, he could certainly put another man in his place.

“So, tell me, are there things I should know about my new date … hobbies? Interests? Strange fetishes?”

I smiled. “Fetishes are really more of a second date topic. As for hobbies …” I shrugged. “Reading books. Attempting to write them.”

Zach returned my easy smile. It was crazy how natural our conversation felt. “Please don’t tell me you write those horrible vampire romances.”

“So judgy.” I shook my head, frowning in mock disgust. “I may have. In high school. And if you tell anyone that—I’ll hunt you down and kill you.”

This earned me a laugh out of him, and I immediately decided I liked the sound way too much. “Okay. I can’t fault you there. I wrote some pretty awful sci-fi back then.”

Our shared interest of writing was intriguing, and while I was sure we could have talked about it easily for another hour, Zach changed the subject, and we bounced from topic to topic, finding more things in common as we did.

“I’m making an assumption here, but since you are at this party I’m assuming you’re a student at Vanderburg, right?”

I nodded.

“What are you studying?”

Before I could answer, Jason and his girlfriend walked into the backyard.

“That’s them,” I hissed at Zach. I wasn’t sure what to do. Just act casual? Or should I grab Zach’s hand? Suddenly, this whole idea seemed a tad dramatic. But Zach had his own idea. Just as my pencil-dick ex was about to look our way, Zach turned my face toward his. His warm palm rested on my cheek and I stared up at him helplessly.

In the span of a moment, I knew his lips were about to descend on mine, and my ovaries did a little happy dance. Suddenly coming to this stupid party seemed like the best idea ever.

And when he leaned down and pressed his lips to mine? Every thought left my brain, including Jason, his new girlfriend, and the mountain of responsibility in my life. I was totally blinded by the rush of desire that surged through my body, settling deep inside my core. His lips were full and soft, and when he nibbled against my lower lip, I put my arms around his neck just to keep my legs from giving out. Holy fuck! The man could kiss.

My lips parted in silent invitation and Zach responded, making a tiny grunt of approval before his tongue slid against mine. My body throbbed from the top of my head, through my nipples, which were now two hard pinpricks beneath my shirt, and even farther down, between my legs. His strong hands landed on my hips and pulled me in closer and I had to stop myself from moaning.

I could feel his hard, muscular body through his shirt as I pressed against him, sliding a hand down his chest to his stomach, lightly running my fingers over his six pack. Our bodies were touching in all the right places and I swear I could feel a bulge there…a bulge that I wasn’t sure I was the cause of, or if this was his ‘normal’ state. I wasn’t sure but in that moment, I wanted to find out—with or without Jason and his bimbo watching. The lady balls were growing larger with every pant and moan of our kiss.

It was all I could do to keep from reaching down into his pants right then and there. The desire to pet his one-eyed python was a sharp pulse of need. I was so not normally like this…this wanton woman willing to throw caution to the wind and grope and pull at anything with an XY chromosome. I was a serious graduate student who read two hundred books a year and didn’t even own a vibrator. I didn’t go all weak over a man. Ever.

But this guy? It was like his presence had set up shop in my womb, and my lady parts were ready to roll out the welcome-wagon for him.

I could have stayed like that forever, drunk on him and hanging on for dear life, but moments later, the kiss ended, and I felt like I’d just been slapped in the face.

We looked at each other, breathing heavily. It was like he was the only person in the world who existed in this moment. Then I blinked, and it felt like someone turned the party back on because I was suddenly remembering where we are and why we were here. I didn’t even check to see if Jason was still around. It seemed stupid that I ever cared. That was the best kiss of my entire life, and it was with a complete stranger.

“Shit, that was…” he started, his voice deeper, slightly breathless.

“Yeah,” I added, dumbly, touching a finger to my trembling, and still-damp lips.

When I did finally have my wits about me enough to look, I noticed that Jason and his new girlfriend were conspicuously absent.

Before either of us could say anything else, we were interrupted by Jodee.

“There you are. I’ve been looking for you.”

I turned in her direction, my hand falling away from my mouth.

“You were right, this party is lame. I’m going to head out soon,” she said, glancing at Zach and I could tell she was dying to hear what I was doing out here with this man.

I looked back at Zach. “Um, thanks,” I stammered, not sure what else to say. This guy was like an orgasm on two legs, and I was having a hard time keeping my cool.

“We’re breaking up already?” He grinned, and just as I was getting the feeling back in my legs, I melted again.

I smiled back. “Looks like it.”

“I should at least take you out on a proper date some time.” That sexy, deep voice, nearly took my breath away. Every part of my body was screaming yes, especially my lower half, but I forced myself to keep calm and collected.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea…” I saved him the lecture about how I just got out of a relationship, and how I wanted to buckle down and focus on my writing, and all the rest of it … and just left it at that. He had to know that the make-believe role I’d asked him to portray tonight was explanation enough that a relationship—hell, even a date—was something I was avoiding like the plague.

“Can I at least get your number?” He smiled, and I pictured leading him into my bedroom and ripping his clothes off. Bad, Poppy. I shook my head, trying to get ahold of myself. What is wrong with me? I just met this guy and I already can’t stop thinking about fucking him. And, sure, he’s sweet, funny and basically a human aphrodisiac, but I needed to relax. Jason really did mess with my head, if this was how I was acting. You’ve sworn off men, remember? So even though the last thing I want to do is walk away from the sexiest guy I’ve ever met, I forced myself to say, “Sorry, I’m not really looking for anything romantic right now.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

I thought I detected a hint of disappointment in his voice.

I started to walk away, then turned back. I was caught off guard all over again at the sight of his arresting green eyes and sensuous lips, but I put on a smile. “Who knows, if it’s meant to be, maybe we’ll meet again.”

Zach smiled, and nodded once like he believed me.

As I walked out of the party I could feel his gaze smoldering through me and even though it was a warm night, I shivered. I might have sworn off men, but I was pretty sure Zach would be creeping into my fantasies later that night. My stupid ovaries were clapping their hands and dancing like Ellen had just given us a brand-new car.

I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again, but I did know one thing—I’d never felt anything like that kiss before in my entire life and was almost certain I never would again. But the tightening feeling in my chest, and the realization that lightning didn’t often strike twice—well, I’d just have to find a way to push those from my brain, because I really didn’t have room for another man in my life. Connor was enough. Wasn’t he?

 

 

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