I pressed my lips together and bit back a sarcastic reply as I roused myself from the bench and ducked into the car. It smelled cool and expensive, like spicy cologne and fine Italian leather. I didn’t have a towel or anything to place on the seat beneath me, so all I could do was pray I didn’t damage the expensive interior.
“Thanks for picking me up. I appreciate it,” I said in an attempt to break the icy silence.
I failed. Miserably.
Alex didn’t respond or even look at me as he navigated the twists and curves of the slick roads leading back to campus. He drove the same way he walked, talked, and breathed—steady and controlled, with an undercurrent of danger warning those foolish enough to contemplate crossing him that doing so would be their death sentence.
He was the exact opposite of Josh, and I still marveled at the fact that they were best friends. Personally, I thought Alex was an asshole. I was sure he had his reasons, some kind of psychological trauma which shaped him into the unfeeling robot he was today. Based on the snippets I’d gleaned from Josh, Alex’s childhood had been even worse than ours, though I’d never managed to pull the details out of my brother. All I knew was, Alex’s parents had died when he was young and left him a pile of money he’d quadrupled the value of when he came into his inheritance at age eighteen. Not that he’d needed it because he’d invented a new financial modeling software in high school that made him a multimillionaire before he could vote.
With an IQ of 160, Alex Volkov was a genius, or close to it. He was the only person in Thayer’s history to complete its five-year joint undergrad/MBA program in three years, and at age twenty-six, he was the COO of one of the most successful real estate development companies in the country. He was a legend, and he knew it.
Meanwhile, I thought I was doing well if I remembered to eat while juggling my classes, extracurriculars, and two jobs—front desk duty at the McCann Gallery, and my side hustle as a photographer for anyone who would hire me. Graduations, engagements, dogs’ birthday parties, I did them all.
“Are you going to Josh’s party?” I tried again to make small talk. The silence was killing me.
Alex and Josh had been best friends since they roomed together at Thayer eight years ago, and Alex had joined my family for Thanksgiving and assorted holidays every year since, but I still didn’t know him. Alex and I didn’t talk unless it had to do with Josh or passing the potatoes at dinner or something.
Okay, then.Guess small talk was out.
My mind wandered toward the million things I had to do that weekend. Edit the photos from the Graysons’ shoot and, work on my application for the World Youth Photography fellowship, help Josh finish packing after—
Crap! I’d forgotten all about Josh’s cake.
I’d ordered it two weeks ago because that was the max lead time for something from Crumble & Bake. It was Josh’s favorite dessert, a three-layer dark chocolate frosted with fudge and filled with chocolate pudding. He only indulged on his birthday, but since he was leaving the country for a year, I figured he could break his once-a-year rule.
“So…” I pasted the biggest, brightest smile on my face. “Don’t kill me, but we need to make a detour to Crumble & Bake.”
“No. We’re already late.” Alex stopped at a red light. We’d made it back to civilization, and I spotted the blurred outlines of a Starbucks and a Panera through the rain-splattered glass.
My smile didn’t budge. “It’s a small detour. It’ll take fifteen minutes, max. I just need to run in and pick up Josh’s cake. You know, the Death by Chocolate he likes so much? He’ll be in Central America for a year, they don’t have C&B down there, and he leaves in two days so—”
“Stop.” Alex’s fingers curled around the steering wheel, and my crazy, hormonal mind latched onto how beautiful they were. That might sound crazy because who has beautiful fingers? But he did. Physically, everything about him was beautiful. The jade-green eyes that glared out from beneath dark brows like chips hewn from a glacier; the sharp jawline and elegant, sculpted cheekbones; the lean frame and thick, light brown hair that somehow looked both tousled and perfectly coiffed. He resembled a statue in an Italian museum come to life.
The insane urge to ruffle his hair like I would a kid’s gripped me, just so he’d stop looking so perfect—which was quite irritating to the rest of us mere mortals—but I didn’t have a death wish, so I kept my hands planted in my lap.
“If I take you to Crumble & Bake, will you stop talking?”
No doubt he regretted picking me up.
My smile grew. “If you want.”
His lips thinned. “Fine.”
Ava Chen: One.
Alex Volkov: Zero.
When we arrived at the bakery, I unbuckled my seatbelt and was halfway out the door when Alex grabbed my arm and pulled me back into my seat. Contrary to what I’d expected, his touch wasn’t cold—it was scorching, and it burned through my skin and muscles until I felt its warmth in the pit of my stomach.
I swallowed hard. Stupid hormones. “What? We’re already late, and they’re closing soon.”
“You can’t go out like that.” The tiniest hint of disapproval etched into the corners of his mouth.
“Like what?” I asked, confused. I wore jeans and a T-shirt, nothing scandalous.
Alex inclined his head toward my chest. I glanced down and let out a horrified yelp. Because my shirt? White. Wet. Transparent. Not even a little transparent, like you could kind of see my bra outline if you looked hard enough. This was full-on see-through. Red lace bra, hard nipples—thanks, air-conditioning—the whole shebang.
I crossed my arms over my chest, my face flaming the same color as my bra. “Was it like this the entire time?”
“You could’ve told me.”
“I did tell you. Just now.”
Sometimes, I wanted to strangle him. I really did. And I wasn’t even a violent person. I was the same girl who didn’t eat gingerbread man cookies for years after watching Shrek because I felt like I was eating Gingy’s family members or, worse, Gingy himself, but something about Alex provoked my dark side.
I exhaled a sharp breath and dropped my arms by instinct, forgetting about my see-through shirt until Alex’s gaze flicked down to my chest again.
The flaming cheeks returned, but I was sick of sitting here arguing with him. Crumble & Bake closed in ten minutes, and the clock was ticking.
Maybe it was the man, the weather, or the hour and a half I’d spent stuck under a bus shelter, but my frustration spilled out before I could stop it. “Instead of being an asshole and staring at my breasts, can you lend me your jacket? Because I really want to get this cake and send my brother, your best friend, off in style before he leaves the country.”
My words hung in the air while I clapped a hand over my mouth, horrified. Did I just utter the word “breasts” to Alex Volkov and accuse him of ogling me? And call him an asshole?
Dear God, if you smite me with lightning right now, I won’t be mad. Promise.