Welcome to Magnolia, Mississippi, where locusts are as big as your hand and iced tea comes with a double helping of sugar.
It’s also home to the best damn annual bonfire party at prestigious Waylon University, which is currently happening right now in the middle of a cotton field.
I shouldn’t even be at this party.
It’s mostly for Greeks and jocks and popular people, yet here I am, a mere freshman, hanging out with my bubbly redheaded roommate, Skye.
“See?” she says as we take in the bonfire. “Isn’t this better than watching cat videos on a Saturday night? What do you want to do first?”
I sigh, feeling nervous. Ever since I moved here from North Carolina, I’ve been pushing myself to try new things. Might as well put a crazy college party on that list. “Let’s get a drink.”
She claps and excitedly replies, “Done. Alcohol at two o’clock.” We weave through the crowd, headed in that direction, and eventually we reach the bar, which is really just a long collapsible table someone set up. On top are various bottles of alcohol, and I grab the Fireball to pour shots. I’ve just tossed mine back and set down my cup when a prickling sensation washes over me, giving me goose bumps.
My gaze moves across the crowd, stopping on a tall guy with dark blond hair, broad shoulders, and a cocky smile. Aha. He’s been staring at me, and now that he’s caught, he raises his glass as a half-grin crosses his face.
I blush wildly as I adjust my black cat-eye glasses. I’m not used to such blatant male attention.
Skye—who’s followed the trajectory of my gaze—spits out part of her drink. “Oh my God, do you know who that is?”
“Obviously I should,” I say dryly.
Her mouth flops open. “You really need to get out more.”
My eyes drift back to him but keep moving as if I’m not staring. “So who is Mr. Hottie McParty Pants?”
“If you don’t know him, you don’t deserve to know. But, he’s H-O-T—like Chris Hemsworth hot. I dare you to flirt with him.” She wiggles her eyebrows at me, knowing full well that for some reason, I can’t resist a dare. Normally rather reserved, a dare gives me permission to be someone I’m not.
So does Fireball. I sling back another shot.
“I’ll bring you a donut every day for a week if you flirt with him,” she adds, watching me.
My ears perk up. “The ones with edible glitter?”
She nods, and I toss a quick glance back to him. Our eyes collide again, and a zing of connection fires between us. He has a strong, handsome face and a stance that has masculine written all over it. A smile tips up his full sensuous lips, and—
Two brunettes—twins, no less—approach him, one on either side, and wrap their arms around his waist. He smiles down at them. Oh. Well then.
I turn back to Skye and frown. “Player. Not interested.”
She waves her hands in my face. “He likes you—I saw it on his face.”
I snort. “Probably gas pains. Your dare is not accepted.”
We hear our names being called from the other side of the party and turn to take in the helmet-haired Martha approaching us, which is taking some time due to the fact that she’s wearing stilettos and a slinky halter dress. She carefully picks her way through the crowd, nudging people out of her way—sometimes rudely—as she focuses on us. Great.
“Incoming mean girl,” I mutter under my breath.
Like us, Martha Burrows is a freshman and lives on our floor. Rather full of herself, she announced within a week of meeting us that she’d no longer answer to anything but Muffin, a nickname she’d given herself.
She eyes us both, a look of superiority on her pretty face. “I didn’t know you two were invited to this little shindig. Obviously, I know all the right people, so I’m always invited.” Her gaze zeroes in on my outfit and she rears back. “What on earth are you wearing, Nerd Girl?”
“Clothes.” I stiffen at her name for me as I tug on my fitted Star Wars shirt and the pleated red miniskirt I made from a man’s shirt. My long pale blonde hair is up in curled pigtails, and I went a bit heavy-handed with the shimmery eye shadow and red lipstick. It’s not your typical look for WU—which is anything monogrammed—but I’m learning to ignore the raised eyebrows.
Skye, the peacemaker among us three, clears her throat and nods her head at the guy who’s been staring. “Delaney has an admirer, but she doesn’t know who he is.”
Martha-Muffin follows Skye’s gaze, eyeballing the mystery man over my shoulder. She gives me an exasperated look. “That’s Maverick Monroe, you idiot. He’s the biggest football star in Mississippi and the freshman recruit of the year. Word is, though, girls like you aren’t his type—not at all.” Her hand flicks a stiff honey-colored curl over her shoulder.
My teeth grind together. “Martha, if you think I care what you think about me and whether or not a quasi-famous football player is interested in me, then you are confused.”
Her lips tighten. “It’s Muffin now, and why do you have to use such big words? What does quasi even mean?” is her cutting reply.
Skye’s eyes get as big as saucers, and I assume it’s because Martha-Muffin and I are about to finally have it out. I can’t stand her, and she can’t stand me. We just…clash.
But that isn’t what has Skye in such a titter.
She points over my shoulder, and I get it.
It’s the person standing behind me, the one I can’t see. I feel a nervous sneeze coming on and—thank God—I somehow push it down.
A husky voice reaches my ears. “Quasi means seemingly or supposedly. What she means is I’m probably not a famous football player but rather one that’s been highly touted but is without merit.”
Oh, shit. The voice is rich and smooth with just enough southern drawl to make a girl swoon. He also sounds halfway intelligent.
I turn around slowly. Mr. Tall, Blond, and Football is right in front of me wearing a cocky smile.
How in the hell did he get over here so fast?
You know that moment when everything stops and the next breath you take is the first one of the rest of your life? That’s what it feels like as Maverick Monroe stares at me with his piercing blue eyes.
I glance down and take in the sculpted chest and hard biceps.
I look back up and see a chiseled jawline that’s defined and lined with a slight scruff. I see the thin pink scar that slices through his left eyebrow, and it does nothing to detract from his appeal.
Which I desperately need right now, because I can’t breathe.
He smirks, as if reading my mind, and I scramble to pull myself together. Someone calls his name—it’s a girl’s voice, probably one of those twins—but he doesn’t budge.
His eyes rove over my skirt, glasses, and lips. “The question is…do you even know what makes a good football player?”
His lips twitch. “Hardly.”
“A tight end?” I smirk, feeling sassy…which is weird. I don’t know who I am right now, but it’s like my mouth has a life of its own, saying things I normally wouldn’t.
Martha-Muffin chokes on her drink at my remark and Skye watches me with glee, clearly excited that I have the attention of someone who is apparently very important at Waylon.
I put my hand on my hip. “The question is…why do I need to know?”
“You don’t. All you need to know is I’m the best.”
I suck in a little breath at his arrogance.
A guy walks past us and claps him on the shoulder. “Badass game last week, Mav. Rock on.”
“Thanks, man.” Maverick acknowledges the compliment and lifts his chin, his eyes never straying from mine.
“What position do you play?” I ask. “Quarterback?”
He smirks. “Middle linebacker—defense.”
Skye, who’s been eavesdropping unabashedly, sighs with a dreamy expression on her face. “His stats are the best in the country.” She clears her throat. “I-I only know that because my brother is a huge fan, I swear.”
“Hi, Maverick,” Martha-Muffin says as she edges closer to him, nudging me out of the way with her sharp shoulders. “Remember me?”
He focuses on her. “No.”
She glowers. “I was in your dorm room with your roommate last week. You said hello to me.”
He shrugs. “A lot of girls come through. I can’t remember them all.”
Oh. My. God. He is arrogant, but I like how he just shut her down.
Martha-Muffin’s face reddens and she mutters something under her breath, flips around, and flounces off. Good riddance.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Skye is drifting away too, giving me a thumbs-up.
Whatever. I am not going to flirt with this guy…am I?
He’s definitely got something about him, something that makes my body buzz. I tilt my chin up, taking in how tall he is. He has to be at least six-four.
His gaze drifts over my face. “You know there’s a legend here at Waylon about our famous bonfire party?”
He smiles, a flash of white on his handsome face. “Legend says the first person you kiss at the party is the one you’ll never forget. It might be years later, and still their face is the one you dream about.”
“Sounds like hocus-pocus.”
He lifts that mesmerizing left eyebrow. “I like to believe in legends—after all, I am one.”
I smirk. “Probably a game made up by some frat-boy-slash-jock wanting to kiss all the girls.”
He pauses for a moment as if thinking, and then he steps in closer, so close that I can see the varying shades of blue around his pupils. “May I?”
My heart does somersaults.
“May you what?” I ask, my voice low, but I know what he wants. My body is already leaning toward him, wanting it too.
“This.” He kisses me, an almost imperceptible touch as he brushes his full lips against mine. The contact of our mouths is electric, sparks of fire skating along my skin.
As if from a distance, I hear someone calling his name. It’s a female, and she’s pissed.
It’s one of the twins probably.
And I’m jealous.
But, I don’t look. We pull away, and I stare at him as he stares right back. A stillness settles over the party, although I don’t think anything’s actually changed. The music is still playing. People are still talking. Beers are being passed around.
Two stars in the black velvet sky.
Two ships passing in the night.
Oh, fuck, stop the nonsense, I tell myself.
“What was that?” I ask, my voice breathless.
“That’s your first kiss of the bonfire. Now you’ll never forget me.”
And then, before I can think of a reply, he’s gone.
I watch him go back to the twins, frustration coiling inside of me as I exhale.
It would be two years before I kissed him again.