I stared at the nameplate by the doorbell. Tilting my head, I lifted my finger, then hesitated. I clenched my hand into a fist. The drama of the last few days rushed through my head all over again.
Weeks of fighting with my parents. One thousand seven hundred miles. A twenty-four-hour drive. It was all behind me now. I’d arrived in Woodshill two nights ago, crashing in a run-down hostel. For the first few hours I’d fought the urge to turn back. But now things were clear.
Because I’d made it. I was here.
Actually, things hadn’t exactly started out as expected. Of course I’d had a glimpse of my new home from a distance; it was like I already knew the mountains of Oregon, the endless forests, and even the university campus, thanks to the Internet. Yesterday was freshman orientation on campus, and then I went to check out some apartments I’d found online. It turned out to be a waste of time, because they were all complete dumps. But I didn’t care. I had arrived in Oregon.
It was the only thing that had kept me going these past few months. Now I could start my own life, do things the way I wanted. The past nineteen years had been so damned suffocating.
To my parents, appearances were everything. My hair was colored to fade into the perfect golden ombré, and I wore only the best labels. Chanel. Hermès. Saint Laurent. I could flash a charming smile practically at the touch of a button. I had to be perfect little daughter—or at least look the part. So that’s why my first act as a college student had been to hit up the nearest beauty salon for a drastic cut and color. No more long, blonde tresses: Now my cheeks were framed with unruly brown fringes. For the first time in years, I kept my own natural wave. Mom wouldn’t have approved.
Every time my short-cropped hair tickled my cheeks, it reminded me that I was finally allowed to be me. It was my first step toward freedom, and even if it seems silly, I felt like an entirely new person.
Unfortunately even my new style hadn’t helped much with the apartment search. Unlike most incoming freshmen, I hadn’t applied for a place in the dorms—I wanted to be out on my own.
But the clock was ticking. Only a handful of apartments were still available, and I could write them all off as total disasters.
At the first one, my potential roommate was more interested in my bra size than in my bad habits. Gross. Just the thought of that pervert gives me the creeps. Then there was the young mother who not only wanted a roommate but also a live-in babysitter. Not much better. At apartment number six, I met a couple who were practically going at it during my visit—and asked me to join in. All the other places were either trashed or contaminated with mold. Somehow, I’d thought finding a place would be easier.
Which is probably why I couldn’t bring myself to ring the last doorbell of the day. The letters on the nameplate were illuminated from behind, and burned into my retinas.
This was it. There weren’t any other available apartments near campus. If I couldn’t move in here next week, I’d be out on the street. Everything else seemed to be booked out for the start of the school year.
I needed this place. I didn’t even care that I’d be rooming with a guy, because if I didn’t get this place, I’d have to find a park bench for the start of the semester, or make a cozy little home in my car. Whatever happened, no way was I going back to Lincoln, Nebraska. Never. I was starting over here, whatever the cost. And if I had to spend a few nights in the open air, so be it. Anything but Nebraska.
I pressed the doorbell and waited, inhaling the warm evening air. I hardly noticed the pressure rising in my chest.
One, two, three …
Inhale. Exhale. Breathe. I counted to myself and squeezed my eyes shut.
Finally the buzzer sounded to let me in. I took another breath before pushing the door open.
Mr. White—I didn’t know his first name at that point—had mentioned in his email that the apartment was on the second floor, left. As I set foot on the stairs, I heard a door open upstairs and then the sound of muffled voices.
“You’ve got my number,” a female voice purred.
Someone cleared his throat. “You know that I … ”
“Nothing serious, I get it. You made that perfectly clear.”
Followed by a slurpy sound. Were they making out in the hallway? I listened more closely. Before I knew it, footsteps from above were approaching me on the stairway.
A light breeze wafted over me, and I looked up: She passed me on the stairs, the girl who’d left the apartment that I was about to enter. She didn’t seem to see me as she floated down the stairs with a blissful, dreamy smile. Considering her reddened cheeks and tousled hair, I could imagine what she’d just been up to.
Frowning, I climbed the last few steps. Mr. White was nowhere to be seen. I walked down the corridor and looked to either side. On my left, a door stood open a crack. That had to be it.
I pushed the door in and hesitated at the threshold.
The hallway was neat, and I could see a few jackets hanging on the wall. Various sneakers, a few work boots, and hiking boots were lined up in a tidy row. Appreciatively, I raised my eyebrows: The shoe collection revealed eclectic interests. I took the plunge, crossing the threshold, and entered the narrow hallway.
“Sorry, dude!” A muted voice bellowed from the room that opened directly onto the hallway. “I’ve been trying forever to get her out of here without looking like an ass. But some people can’t take a hint.”
Wow. He sounded like a winner.
The voice got louder. “I know this apartment showing was planned last-minute, but glad it still worked out.”
I heard his footsteps as he approached.
“If you’ve got a girl, too, that’s fine. At least as long as—”
Mr. White appeared in the doorway. And it wasn’t only his mouth that dropped open.
I gasped, too.
The first thing I noticed was his torso. His naked, taut belly rippling with muscles. Then his tattoos. I tilted my head and looked at the designs inked onto his tanned skin.
Holy mother of God.
He cleared his throat and shook me out of my trance.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I stared at him open-mouthed. He wasn’t much older than I was, maybe a year or two. He had warm, caramel-colored eyes, stubbly cheeks, and brown hair that was longer on the top and shorter on the sides.
Finally my voice came back. “We had an appointment. I’m here to see the apartment. We emailed,” my words gushed out too fast.
Mr. White cocked his head and glared at me. “A. Harper … ” he muttered. And then something seemed to click in his head. “Why the hell didn’t you sign your email with your first name? I assumed you were a guy.”
I didn’t feel like explaining to him that I was still getting used to my new identity, hence just the initial. He let his eyes wander over my entire body for a second time; his features darkened, and he shook his head slowly. “No.”
No? I was about to retort when he repeated: “No.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” I folded my arms in front of my chest. “I can pull up the email on my phone if you need proof.”
“It must have been a misunderstanding. You’re definitely not moving in here,” he said and turned away. Then he disappeared into who knows where. All I knew was that I hadn’t even seen the damned apartment. “Let yourself out,” he called back over his shoulder.
My mouth dropped open again.
The guy had actually left me standing alone in the hallway without even giving me a chance. Not even one word of my prepared speech. The last forty-eight hours had been filled with so much crap, but this … this pushed me over the edge.
I blew a fuse and stomped after Mr. White.
“Hey!” I yelled, marching into what looked like a well-lit, cozy living room. The jerk stopped mid-stride and turned to face me, his eyebrows knit in anger as I shouted, “You can’t just throw me out without even showing me the place!”
Something like shock flashed through his warm, brown eyes; it didn’t fit with his cold aura. “See if I can’t.” Now he crossed his arms.
“Well, you can’t. We emailed, dammit! You invited me to check out the apartment, so I should at least be able to see the room and have the chance to convince you that I’d be a good roommate.” I tried not to snarl.
“Like I said, there’s been a misunderstanding. I thought you were a dude. But you’re definitely not.” He gave me another dismissive once-over. “I’m looking for a male roommate. Not a female.” He practically spat out the word.
By now, my rage was about to boil over. The other apartment viewings had been bad, but this one took the cake.
“Do you have any idea what I’ve been through the last two days?” I spat, and my pulse skyrocketed. “In one place, a guy was sitting in his kitchen in his underwear—his UNDERWEAR—and asked me my bra size. In three apartments, I was told that sexual favors were part of the rent; in another I was told I’d have to be the nanny; and twice I could barely keep my potential roommates from going at it right in front of me!” By now I was almost yelling, but it didn’t occur to me to lower my voice. The avalanche was flowing full-force at this point. “I saw rooms with walls covered in black mold. I was in apartments so crammed with trash that you couldn’t even see the floor. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell if I was standing on a carpet or a pile of flattened pizza boxes. I was in apartments that smelled so much like pot that I could have gotten high just from breathing the air.” I took another step toward him and drew back my shoulders. “Things have gotten off to a shitty start for me in Woodshill, dude. So don’t tell me to just disappear. I want to see the damned room!”
The mistrust on his face had faded into general indifference, as if I were using up his precious time.
“And this is exactly why I don’t want a woman in here,” he said calmly. “I don’t need the endless whining and girly emotional stuff.”
Now adrenaline propelled me with such force that my shoulders shook. Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to dump my problems on this guy. But sometimes I just couldn’t stop until I got it all out.
“Are you done, or do I have to take any more of this? If the answer is yes, then I’d like to dress for the occasion,” he continued in a flat voice. His indifference only spurred me on.
“Fine,” I hissed, turning my back. Walking out, I could hear a phone ringing: the ringtone was a song by the group Fall Out Boy. Wow, the jerk actually had good taste in music.
Tears burned in my eyes as I faced the door. I didn’t want to go back to Lincoln, back to a life that was so fake and scripted.
My entire personality had been a façade that my mother had manipulated according to her wishes. I’d only realized it about three years ago—when I learned just how far she was willing to go. That day my trust in her was shattered into a thousand pieces. I’d thought my mom would always protect me. But instead she’d just heaped more and more lies on me, until I could barely stand under their weight. After that, nothing was ever the same.
I swallowed hard and tried to banish the negative thoughts.
By now my hands were shaking with frustration. I overheard the jerk’s muffled voice as he chatted with someone on the phone. A few second later he cursed loudly.
Again I heard his naked feet flapping on the floor, as he came to the hallway.
“Hey,” his voice rang out behind me. I turned to face him.
“What?” I barked, glaring at him.
He had put on a tight navy blue shirt that stretched over his torso. Folding his arms over his chest, he frowned at me. “My other potential roommate just jumped ship,” he said, showing me the smartphone in his hand.
“And?” I said, unconcerned, digging into my bag for my car key.
He sighed and tapped his foot so long on the floor that I had no choice but to lift my eyes.
“There will be rules,” he started after a moment’s hesitation, narrowing his eyes.
“Rules? For what, if I may ask?” I couldn’t take any more of this. I was ready to go back to the hostel and immerse myself in self-pity until I had recovered enough to look for new ads. I could really do without the drivel of unfriendly shitheads.
“For you. If you want the room, there will be rules you have to stick to.” He moved his arm in a way that looked like an invitation, and turned back toward the living room. As if I would follow, just like that.
“I don’t want your fucking room!” I shouted after him.
He poked his head out the door again and drew his hand through his hair. “Listen, I need the money, and I’m sick of showing the place. People keep bailing on me.”
“I wonder why.” I retorted.
He ignored me. “And you need somewhere to stay. So stop complaining and check out the room.”
I opened my mouth to reply but the jerk was already in the living room, not bothering to wait for my response.
What I really wanted was to storm out and slam the door in his face. But instead I paused.
To be honest, this hallway alone was nicer than all the apartments I’d seen—and I’d prefer to begin the semester here than on a park bench. It couldn’t hurt to take a look.
“All right.” I stepped into the living room. Now that I’d calmed down, I could see how nicely things were arranged.
“You already know the living room; back there is the kitchen. Here’s the bathroom,” continued the jerk, leading me through the living room. He gestured toward a half-opened door, and I caught a glimpse of pale blue tiles and a large bathtub before we came to one last door.
“This is it. Not too big, but still better than a dorm room.”
He turned the doorknob.
I held my breath and walked in.
The room was tiny. Just big enough for the essentials. But the cream-colored walls and the window that let in the last rays of daylight made up for it. Clearly no one lived here anymore—it was empty except for a desk, a white swivel chair, a small bookshelf, and a bed.
“Don’t worry, Ethan will pick up his bed,” said the jerk with a nod toward the item in question. “You can keep the desk and shelves, if you want.”
I nodded, tearing my eyes away from the bed. The floor of this room, too, was a rich hardwood. My eyes darted to examine every corner to see if there was even the slightest hint of dampness or mold. Everything seemed okay.
I’d be able to study over there. And after the bed was gone, I would get a sofa bed, to save space. I could already imagine the beautiful spread that I would cover it with. And string lights! This room had to have string lights!
Mom had always hated them; she thought they looked cheap.
Oh yes, here I would have string lights! And I would fill the entire room with things that I’d never been allowed to have, because they didn’t meet Mom’s high standards.
Just like this guy would hardly meet her standards—the thought bolted through my mind. She’d probably have a heart attack at first sight. Or throw up. The thought almost made me laugh.
“I’ll take it,” I said. I turned to him and hesitated for a moment, noting his pensive expression.
“You don’t know the rules yet,” he warned me, an amused sparkle in his eyes.
“Shoot,” I said and turned around again. I hadn’t felt this way in any of the other rooms I’d viewed.
Instinctively, I knew I belonged here. Whatever the rules.
Mr. No-way-will-I-live-with-a-female walked slowly toward the desk. He leaned back against it, his arms still crossed in front of him. His pose didn’t seem offensive anymore—actually the opposite.
“First of all,” he raised a finger, “don’t bother me with your girl stuff. I don’t give a shit about your private life. So don’t impose your company on me. We won’t have any ‘girl’s nights’ in my living room. I pick the TV channel, and you don’t come crying to me about your problems.”
“I can live with that,” I replied coolly.
“Second,” he continued unmoved, “keep your mouth shut if I hook up with someone. I don’t need anyone telling me what to do in my own home.”
“I don’t give a shit who you’re with,” I shot back, but looked toward the door a bit concerned. True, his room was on the opposite end of the apartment, but who knew how loud he could get? I frowned. Hopefully I wouldn’t notice if he was getting it on with someone.
“And finally … ” He pushed away from the desk and leaned in toward me. He was a few inches taller, and I had to narrow my own eyes to return the scowling look in his caramel-colored eyes. “I don’t care how good your legs look in those shorts.”
My cheeks suddenly were burning, but I didn’t blink. Two could play at this game.
“There’s no way you and I will end up in the sack,” His dark voice swept over me, and his breath tickled my temples. “So don’t get your hopes up.”
I felt a tingling sensation in my stomach, and it had nothing to do with hunger. He smelled good—a mixture of spice and mint.
Distracted by his sudden closeness, it took me a few seconds to process what he’d just said.
“I’m sorry if it hurts your ego,” I gathered myself and retorted, “but I got over my need for ‘bad boys’ years ago.” Which was the truth. I had no plans to get into a relationship any time soon, especially with a jerk like him.
He hadn’t been counting on that. Surprise flickered in his eyes; he rubbed his face and stepped back.
“In that case, welcome to Casa de White.” He held out his hand. “I’m Kaden.”
For a second it didn’t register. Then I opened my eyes wide and hopped in excitement. “Does that mean I can move in?”
Kaden winced. “You’re already breaking rule number one.”
I stopped my bouncing and turned down the volume. “Sorry. I’m Allie.” My new name was getting easier and easier to say. Allie. Probably because that’s how I’d been introducing myself at all the apartment viewings.
I went for it: Kaden’s hand was warm and rough. I wasn’t prepared for the bolt of lightning that the handshake triggered. It struck me right in the chest.
And I certainly wasn’t ready for the tingling sensation that sparked when Kaden started drawing soft circles with his thumb on my back of my hand. I tore my hand from his grip and shot him an angry look. “What the hell was that?”
“I just wanted to see if you understood rule number three.” Grinning smugly, he dug both hands into the pockets of his pants.
The guy was hot, but not all that. His so-called rules were a joke.
“So, when can I move in?”
Kaden shrugged and turned toward the door. “As soon as you pay the rent and the deposit, the room’s yours.”
I didn’t do my dance of joy until he’d left the room.