CH. 2

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"So you're trying to be a writer." Luke Derwent looked heavily at Willa, like he wanted nothing more than to desperately help her re-evaluate this life decision.

    "I am one," she stressed, fiddling with the dangling charm on her bracelet, forcing herself to keep the bite out of her voice. Whether it was opposition from her mother, who continuously bemoaned that her daughter had an MBA and wasn't working for a Fortune 500 company, skepticism from her friends, and her own general insecurity that she had anything to say that was actually worth saying, it was an uphill battle reminding herself that she was, in fact, a writer.

    "Well, sure." Luke smiled gently.

    Humoring her, Willa realized.

    "But you haven't actually gotten anything published, have you?" he pressed, still smiling pleasantly. "You haven't gotten paid to write. So it's sort of like a hobby. You should probably think about something more financially secure. Like a real job. Not just doing grunt work for Paige." As if the words coming out of his mouth were mere conversation starters and not a complete and total assassination of Willa's career choices, he looked casually down at the menu. "Should we order?"

    Her body felt hot and cold at the same time, Willa thought miserably. Were these hot flashes? Did her left arm hurt? Was she having a heart attack out of pure rage? She didn't know what to say and even if she wanted to, her mouth was dry and her tongue was sticking to the roof of her mouth the way cloth strips stuck to wax if you waited too long to pull it off your skin.

    I've lost my appetite is what she should have said, before balling up her napkin and throwing it dramatically on the table as part of her grand exit. Instead, she just nodded mutely.

    Luke, as she learned over the course of the meal, had just returned from teaching English to schoolchildren in China and had dumped his girlfriend after he'd discovered she was waiting on the proposal that would would propel her into an American Green Card. He had started his MBA just a few weeks ago at the start of the fall semester, he liked Android better than Apple, and he'd never read the Harry Potter books because his parents were religious. Like most people, he enjoyed talking about himself, and wasn't deterred by Willa's recalcitrance.

    "So what about you?" He speared his last piece of pasta on his fork, hovering it just shy of his lips. "Why did you join Tinder?"

    Broken out of her reverie of wondering exactly how self-involved he was and whether his ancestors had taken part in the Salem Witch Trials, Willa flushed. "Honestly, my friend thought it would be a hoot."

    His eyebrows drew together in concern. "So you're not here to meet someone?"

    "I am. It's just that this isn't the sort of thing I'd normally do."

    "So how would you go about meeting a S.O. normally?"

    At Willa's questioning look, he amended, "Significant other."

    The truth was, Willa had no idea how to answer that question. It wasn't like in her parents' day, when people made friends just by sitting next to each other in class. At college people rarely spoke together unless they had to, content to bury their heads in their phones and text their friends. Conversation was limited to how drunk you were over the weekend, exchanging congratulations and commiserations about the after-effects, and trying to bum answers from each other about the homework questions they forgot to do. It was hard to meet anyone, let alone someone she liked enough to want to date and who wanted to date her back.

    "Around," she shrugged in what she hoped was a nonchalant manner. "Usually through a friend."

    "You don't sound too brokenhearted, so I'm assuming this isn't a rebound thing?" Luke's tone was light, but his eyes were serious.

    Completely taken aback, Willa was at a loss for words. Did he actually sound concerned?

    "It's just that, you know, I think we've hit it off." For the first time in the conversation, he actually sounded like he was being a real person and not Willa's inquisitioner. The only problem was that Willa couldn't fathom why he liked her when he had made it so clear what he really thought about her.

    "It's been a nice evening," she replied cautiously.

    "So maybe you'd want to go out again sometime?" Luke gave her a lopsided smile as a waiter came to clear their plates away.

    No. "Sure." What?!

    His face broke into a relieved grin. "Do you want dessert? My dad took my mom here for their anniversary and he said their tiramisu shouldn't be missed."

    Truth be told, she just wanted the evening to be over. Cyn would never understand, because she just wasn't wired that way, but Willa felt mentally exhausted talking to other people. Smalltalk and idle pleasantries she could do, because no one expected anything out of that exchange other than a few half-hearted comments. But being around people who wanted to get to know her, who wanted to dissect her, who expected her to be flirty and witty and charming and intelligent all at once?

Cyn just thought she was a loner who needed to get out of her shell. Willa had been the butt of her jokes many times, teased because of what Cyn incorrectly perceived to be anxiety and had rudely termed Willa's "failure to launch".

"I'm actually pretty stuffed," Willa admitted, taking the easy way out to avoid further prolonging the date.

He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Me too, but it feels wrong not to send you home with something to remember me by."    

It was so stupid and didn't in the least make up for what a colossal foot-in-mouth jerk he'd been, but she felt ridiculously, incomprehensibly charmed. So she didn't complain when he ordered one tiramisu to go and accepted it mutely when it arrived, the mint-green box heavy in her hands.

"Let's go dutch," she tried to insist when the check came, but he waved her offer aside.

"What kind of guy do you think I am?" He neatly tucked his credit card inside the leather bill folder. "You can get the next one."

As swiftly as she'd been charmed, she suddenly felt the skittering sensation of goosebumps spreading across her arms. Right. That second date that she'd agreed to.

By the time they left the restaurant, the sun had nearly set, the sky a watercolor of pink and orange streaks of grapefruit. Luke walked her to her car and held her takeaway box while she fumbled for her keys in her bottomless pit of a purse. "Thanks," she said a little breathlessly, taking the box from him and sliding it on the passenger seat. "I had fun."

"Me too." He was looking at her intently, maybe a little too intently. Before the lightbulb could go off in her head, he leaned in and slanted his lips over hers. For a long moment, she kept her lips together, despite the fact that his tongue was tracing against them insistently. It wasn't a bad kiss, nor an entirely unwelcome one, but it was certainly unexpected. His lips were soft, like he wore Chapstick, and his tongue was wet, but not to the point of making her want to recoil and wipe the drool off her face.

She resisted the urge to squeak when his hands landed on her hips, pulling her closer to his frame. What was hidden under that American Eagle button-down was toned and lean muscle, and Willa automatically sucked her stomach in, cursing herself for ordering beef ravioli instead of a salad.

"I'll text you later, okay?" he murmured against her lips.

She made an inconclusive noise, still a little dazed.

Luke was looking eagerly at her, his glance dropping to her lips like he wanted to try for a round two. "Bye, Willa." He didn't move, still looking at her with a vaguely predatory demeanor.

"Bye."

She glanced in the rearview mirror as she left the parking lot. Even though he couldn't know that she was looking back, his hand rose in a wave.

"Even though I'm probably going to eat you as soon as I get home because I have no self control, I want you to know that I definitely, absolutely, without a doubt do not like that boy," Willa said sternly to the tiramisu. "Don't give me that passive aggressive silence, either. I can have my tiramisu and eat it too."


Author's Note: Do we like Luke? Do we hate him? Let me know what you think about Willa's date (& more)! I always reply to feedback :)

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