Beautiful disaster, p.2
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       Beautiful Disaster, p.2

         Part #1 of Beautiful series by Jamie McGuire
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  “Sshh,” I said, typing Chaney’s every word.

  Travis grinned and relaxed into his chair. As the hour progressed, he alternated between yawning and leaning against my arm to look at my monitor. I made a concentrated effort to ignore him, but his proximity and the muscles bulging from his arm made it difficult. He picked at the black leather band around his wrist until Chaney dismissed us.

  I hurried out the door and down the hall. Just when I felt sure I was a safe distance, Travis Maddox was at my side.

  “Have you thought about it?” he asked, slipping on his sunglasses.

  A petite brunette stepped in front of us, wide-eyed and hopeful. “Hey, Travis,” she lilted, playing with her hair.

  I paused, recoiling from her sugary tone, and then walked around her. I’d seen her before, talking normally in the commons area of the girls’ dorm, Morgan Hall. Her tone sounded much more mature then, and I wondered what it was about a toddler’s voice she thought Travis would find appealing. She babbled in a higher octave for a bit longer until he was next to me once again.

  Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he lit a cigarette and blew out a thick cloud of smoke. “Where was I? Oh yeah…you were thinking.”

  I grimaced. “What are you talking about?”

  “Have you thought about coming over?”

  “If I say yes, will you quit following me?”

  He considered my stipulation and then nodded. “Yes.”

  “Then I’ll come over.”

  “When?”

  I sighed. “Tonight. I’ll come over tonight.”

  Travis smiled and stopped in his tracks. “Sweet. See you then, Pidge,” he called after me.

  I rounded the corner to see America standing with Finch outside our dormitory. The three of us ended up at the same table at freshman orientation, and I knew he would be the welcome third wheel to our well-oiled machine. He wasn’t excessively tall, but still he towered over my five feet four inches. His round eyes offset his long, lean features, and his bleached hair was usually fashioned into a spike at the front.

  “Travis Maddox? Jesus, Abby, since when did you start fishing in the deep end?” Finch said with disapproving eyes.

  America pulled the gum from her mouth in a long string. “You’re only making it worse by brushing him off. He’s not used to that.”

  “What do you suggest I do? Sleep with him?”

  America shrugged. “It’ll save time.”

  “I told him I’d come over tonight.”

  Finch and America traded glances.

  “What? He promised to quit bugging me if I said yes. You’re going over there tonight, right?”

  “Well, yeah,” America said. “You’re really coming?”

  I smiled and walked past them into the dorms, wondering if Travis would make good on his promise not to flirt. He wasn’t hard to figure out; he either saw me as a challenge, or safely unattractive enough to be a good friend. I wasn’t sure which bothered me more.

  Four hours later, America knocked on my door to take me to Shepley and Travis’. She didn’t hold back when I walked into the hall.

  “Yuck, Abby! You look homeless!”

  “Good,” I said, smiling at my ensemble. My hair was piled on top of my head in a messy bun. I had scrubbed the makeup from my face and replaced my contacts with rectangular black-rimmed glasses. Sporting a ratty T-shirt and sweatpants, I shuffled along in a pair of flip flops. The idea had come to me hours before that either way, unattractive was the best plan. Ideally, Travis would be instantly turned off and stop his ridiculous persistence. If he was looking for a buddy, I was aiming for too homely to be seen with.

  America rolled down her window and spit out her gum. “You’re so obvious. Why didn’t you just roll in dog shit to make your outfit complete?”

  “I’m not trying to impress anyone,” I said.

  “Obviously.”

  We pulled into the parking lot of Shepley’s apartment complex, and I followed America to the stairs. Shepley opened the door, laughing as I walked in. “What happened to you?”

  “She’s trying to be unimpressive,” America said.

  America followed Shepley into his room. The door closed and I stood alone, feeling out of place. I sat in the recliner closest to the door and kicked off my flip-flops.

  Their apartment was more aesthetically pleasing than the typical bachelor pad. The predictable posters of half-naked women and stolen street signs were on the walls, but it was clean, the furniture was new, and the smell of stale beer and dirty clothes was notably absent.

  “It’s about time you showed up,” Travis said, collapsing onto the couch.

  I smiled and pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose, waiting for him to recoil at my appearance. “America had a paper to finish.”

  “Speaking of papers, have you started the one for History, yet?”

  He didn’t bat an eye at my messy hair, and I frowned at his reaction. “Have you?”

  “I finished it this afternoon.”

  “It’s not due until next Wednesday,” I said, surprised.

  “I just plugged it out. How hard can a two-page essay on Grant be?”

  “I’m a procrastinator, I guess,” I shrugged. “I probably won’t start on it until this weekend.”

  “Well, if you need help just let me know.”

  I waited for him to laugh, or to show some sign that he was joking, but his expression was sincere. I raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to help me with my paper?”

  “I have an A in that class,” he said, a bit miffed at my disbelief.

  “He has As in all his classes. He’s a freakin’ genius. I hate him,” Shepley said as he led America into the living room by the hand.

  I watched Travis with a dubious expression and his eyebrows shot up. “What? You don’t think a guy covered in tats and that trades punches for a living can get the grades? I’m not in school because I have nothing better to do.”

  “Why do you have to fight at all, then? Why didn’t you try for scholarships?” I asked.

  “I did. I was awarded half my tuition. But there are books, living expenses, and I gotta come up with the other half sometime. I’m serious, Pidge. If you need help with anything, just ask.”

  “I don’t need your help. I can write a paper.” I wanted to leave it at that. I should have left it at that, but the new side of him he’d revealed gnawed at my curiosity. “You can’t find something else to do for a living? Less—I don’t know—sadistic?”

  Travis shrugged. “It’s an easy way to make a buck. I can’t make that much working at the mall.”

  “I wouldn’t say it’s easy if you’re getting hit in the face.”

  “What? You’re worried about me?” he winked. I made a face and he chuckled. “I don’t get hit that often. If they swing, I move. It’s not that hard.”

  I laughed once. “You act as if no one else has come to that conclusion.”

  “When I throw a punch they take it and try to reciprocate. That’s not gonna win a fight.”

  I rolled my eyes. “What are you, the Karate Kid? Where did you learn to fight?”

  Shepley and America glanced at each other, and then their eyes wandered to the floor. It didn’t take long to recognize I had said something wrong.

  Travis didn’t seem affected. “I had a dad with a drinking problem and a bad temper, and four older brothers that carried the asshole gene.”

  “Oh.” My ears smoldered.

  “Don’t be embarrassed, Pidge. Dad quit drinking, the brothers grew up.”

  “I’m not embarrassed.” I fidgeted with the falling strands of my hair and then decided to pull it down and smooth it into another bun, trying to ignore the awkward silence.

  “I like the au naturel thing you have going on. Girls don’t come over here like that.”

  “I was coerced into coming here. It didn’t occur to me to impress you,” I said, irritated that my plan had failed.

  He smiled his boyish, amused g
rin, and I turned up my anger a notch, hoping it would cover my unease. I didn’t know how most girls felt around him, but I’d seen how they behaved. I was experiencing more of a disoriented, nauseated feeling than giggly infatuation, and the harder he worked to make me smile, the more unsettled I felt.

  “I’m already impressed. I don’t normally have to beg girls to come to my apartment.”

  “I’m sure,” I said, screwing my face into disgust.

  He was the worst kind of confident. Not only was he shamelessly aware of his appeal, he was so used to women throwing themselves at him that he regarded my cool demeanor as refreshing instead of an insult. I would have to change my strategy.

  America pointed the remote at the television and switched it on. “There’s a good movie on tonight. Anyone want to find out where Baby Jane is?”

  Travis stood up. “I was just heading out for dinner. You hungry, Pidge?”

  “I already ate,” I shrugged.

  “No you haven’t,” America said before realizing her mistake. “Oh…er…that’s right, I forgot you grabbed a…pizza? Before we left.”

  I grimaced at her miserable attempt to fix her blunder, and then waited for Travis’ reaction.

  He walked across the room and opened the door. “C’mon. You’ve gotta be hungry.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “Wherever you want. We can hit a pizza place.”

  I looked down at my clothes. “I’m not really dressed.”

  He appraised me for a moment and then grinned. “You look fine. Let’s go, I’m starvin’.”

  I stood up and waved to America, passing Travis to walk down the stairs. I stopped in the parking lot, watching in horror as he straddled a matte black motorcycle.

  “Uh…” I trailed off, scrunching my exposed toes.

  He shot an impatient glare in my direction. “Oh, get on. I’ll go slow.”

  “What is that?” I asked, reading the writing on the gas tank too late.

  “It’s a Harley Night Rod. She’s the love of my life, so don’t scratch the paint when you get on.”

  “I’m wearing flip-flops!”

  Travis stared at me as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “I’m wearing boots. Get on.”

  He slipped on his sunglasses, and the engine snarled when he brought it to life. I climbed on and reached behind me for something to grab on to, but my fingers slipped from leather to the plastic cover of the taillight.

  Travis grabbed my wrists and wrapped them around his middle. “There’s nothing to hold on to but me, Pidge. Don’t let go,” he said, pushing the bike backward with his feet. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled onto the street, and took off like a rocket. The pieces of my hair that hung loose beat against my face, and I ducked behind Travis, knowing I would end up with bug guts on my glasses if I looked over his shoulder.

  He gunned the throttle when we pulled into the driveway of the restaurant, and once he slowed to a stop, I wasted no time scrambling to the safety of the concrete.

  “You’re a lunatic!”

  Travis chuckled, leaning his bike onto its kickstand before dismounting. “I went the speed limit.”

  “Yeah, if we were on the Autobahn!” I said, pulling out my bun to separate the rats with my fingers.

  Travis watched me pull hair away from my face and then walked to the door, holding it open. “I wouldn’t let anything happen to you, Pigeon.”

  I stormed past him into the restaurant, my head not quite in sync with my feet. Grease and herbs filled the air as I followed him across the red, breadcrumb-speckled carpet. He chose a booth in the corner, away from the patches of students and families, and then ordered two beers. I scanned the room, watching the parents coaxing their boisterous children to eat, and looking away from the inquisitive glances of Eastern students.

  “Sure, Travis,” the waitress said, writing down our drink orders. She looked a bit high from his presence as she returned to the kitchen.

  I tucked the windblown hairs behind my ears, suddenly embarrassed by my appearance. “Come here often?” I asked acerbically.

  Travis leaned on the table with his elbows, his brown eyes fixated on mine. “So what’s your story, Pidge? Are you a man-hater in general, or do you just hate me?”

  “I think it’s just you,” I grumbled.

  He laughed once, amused at my mood. “I can’t figure you out. You’re the first girl that’s ever been disgusted with me before sex. You don’t get all flustered when you talk to me, and you don’t try to get my attention.”

  “It’s not a ploy. I just don’t like you.”

  “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like me.”

  My frown involuntarily smoothed and I sighed. “I didn’t say you’re a bad person. I just don’t like being a foregone conclusion for the sole reason of having a vagina.” I focused on the grains of salt on the table until I heard a choking noise from Travis’ direction.

  His eyes widened and he quivered with howling laughter. “Oh my God! You’re killing me! That’s it. We have to be friends. I won’t take no for an answer.”

  “I don’t mind being friends, but that doesn’t mean you have to try to get in my panties every five seconds.”

  “You’re not sleeping with me. I get it.”

  I tried not to smile, but failed.

  His eyes brightened. “You have my word. I won’t even think about your panties…unless you want me to.”

  I rested my elbows on the table and leaned into them. “And that won’t happen, so we can be friends.”

  An impish grin sharpened his features as he leaned in a bit closer. “Never say never.”

  “So what’s your story?” I asked. “Have you always been Travis ‘Mad Dog’ Maddox, or is that just since you came here?” I used two fingers on each hand as quotation marks when I said his nickname, and for the first time his confidence waned. He looked a bit embarrassed.

  “No. Adam started that after my first fight.”

  His short answers were beginning to bug me. “That’s it? You’re not going to tell me anything about yourself?”

  “What do you wanna know?”

  “The normal stuff. Where you’re from, what you want to be when you grow up…things like that.”

  “I’m from here, born and raised, and I’m a criminal justice major.”

  With a sigh, he unrolled his silverware and straightened them beside his plate. He looked over his shoulder, his jaw tense. Two tables seating the Eastern soccer team erupted in laughter, and Travis seemed to be annoyed at what they were laughing about.

  “You’re joking,” I said in disbelief.

  “No, I’m a local,” he said, distracted.

  “I meant about your major. You don’t look like the criminal justice type.”

  His eyebrows pulled together, suddenly focused on our conversation. “Why?”

  I scanned the tattoos covering his arm. “I’ll just say that you seem more criminal and less justice.”

  “I don’t get in any trouble…for the most part. Dad was pretty strict.”

  “Where was your mom?”

  “She died when I was a kid,” he said, matter-of-fact.

  “I’m…I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. His answer caught me off guard.

  He dismissed my sympathy. “I don’t remember her. My brothers do, but I was just three when she died.”

  “Four brothers, huh? How did you keep them straight?” I teased.

  “I kept them straight by who hit the hardest, which also happened to be oldest to youngest. Thomas; the twins, Taylor and Tyler; and then Trenton. You never, ever got caught alone in a room with Taylor and Ty. I learned half of what I do in the Circle from them. Trenton was the smallest, but he’s fast. He’s the only one that can land a punch on me now.”

  I shook my head, dumbfounded at the thought of five Travises running around in one household. “Do they all have tattoos?”

  “Pretty much. Except Thomas. He’s an ad exec in California.”
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  “And your dad? Where’s he?”

  “Around,” he said. His jaws were working again, increasingly irritated with the soccer team.

  “What are they laughing about?” I asked, gesturing to the rowdy table. He shook his head, clearly not wanting to share. I crossed my arms and squirmed in my seat, nervous about what they were saying that caused him so much aggravation. “Tell me.”

  “They’re laughing about me having to take you to dinner, first. It’s not usually…my thing.”

  “First?” When the realization settled on my face, Travis winced at my expression. I spoke before I thought. “And I was afraid they were laughing about you being seen with me dressed like this, and they think I’m going to sleep with you,” I grumbled.

  “Why wouldn’t I be seen with you?”

  “What were we talking about?” I asked, warding off the heat rising under my cheeks.

  “You. What’s your major?” he asked.

  “Oh, er…General Ed, for now. I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning toward Accounting.”

  “You’re not a local, though. You must be a transplant.”

  “Wichita. Same as America.”

  “How did you end up here from Kansas?”

  I picked at the label of my beer bottle. “We just had to get away.”

  “From what?”

  “My parents.”

  “Oh. What about America? She has parent issues, too?”

  “No, Mark and Pam are great. They practically raised me. She sort of tagged along; she didn’t want me to come alone.”

  Travis nodded. “So, why Eastern?”

  “What’s with the third degree?” I said. The questions were drifting from small talk to personal, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.

  Several chairs knocked together as the soccer team left their seats. They traded one last joke before they meandered toward the door. Their pace quickened when Travis stood up. Those in the back of the group pushed those in front to escape before Travis made his way across the room. He sat down, forcing the frustration and anger away.

  I raised an eyebrow.

  “You were going to say why you chose Eastern,” he prompted.

  “It’s hard to explain,” I said, shrugging. “I guess it just felt right.”

 
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