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       Xo, Zach, p.1

           Kendall Ryan
 
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Xo, Zach


  xo, Zach

  Copyright © 2018 Kendall Ryan

  Copy Editing by Elaine York, Content Editing by Becca Hensley, Proofreading by Virginia Tesi Carey

  Cover Design by Sara Eirew, Photography by Kevin Millet, Cover Model Mike Chabot

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission of the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes only.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  About the Book

  The first time we met was at a party.

  Your ex arrived to show off the person he'd left you for last month, and you asked me to pretend to be your date. I was more than happy to help. You were attractive, smart, and witty—and that kiss we shared? It left me wanting you for days.

  The second time we met was in my office on campus where we were both surprised to discover you were the new master’s degree student in poetry I would be working with. You promised to be professional. I did no such thing.

  The late nights and intense study sessions spent alongside you majorly throw me off my game. I want you, and I fight with myself daily over this fact.

  I know I'm crass, that my sexual innuendos and dirty mouth annoy you, but I live for those two bright spots of color in your cheeks. If that's the only reaction I can get out of you, I'll gladly take it.

  You hate Mondays, so every Monday I slip an anonymous poem into your bag and your smile gets me through the week.

  I think I'm falling for you, and I know it's wrong. I know that I'm only supposed to be the adviser to your program and nothing more, but here's the thing. I think you're falling for me, too.

  xo, Zach

  Chapter One

  Zach

  “When was the last time you’ve been laid, son?” Mom studied me over the rim of her reading spectacles with a knowing smirk.

  Jesus.

  I almost spit out my coffee. “Mom, we’re not discussing that. Boundaries. Remember? We’ve talked about this.”

  My mother lacked a filter, and she seemed inordinately curious about the state of my sex life. I kept telling myself that was only because she didn’t have one. Please let that be the reason.

  She merely shrugged. “I worry, you know.”

  The truth was, the only thing that went down on me this weekend was my Wi-Fi.

  But worse than that? My own fucking mother pointing out my dry spell to me in such vivid detail.

  “I’m fine, Mom. Seriously. You don’t need to worry.”

  I knew enough to know we probably didn’t have a normal mother-son relationship. My parents had divorced when I was young, and I was raised primarily by my mother, and so we'd always been incredibly close.

  “Zach, you don’t have to be in a committed relationship to have intercourse,” she paused to take a sip of her coffee, smiling again, “or so I’ve heard.”

  “I’m well aware of that,” I gritted out. “Thanks, Mom.”

  Twice a week, my calendar was marked for a date at the same café with one of the sweetest, and nosiest women in town—you guessed it—my mother. This probably didn’t help my limited social life outside of university events and the occasional evening out, but she was bored out of her mind after retiring, and since she lived not far from campus, it was a tradition we’d adopted. And one that I was quickly starting to rethink.

  I must have gotten my early morning gene from her because she always managed to beat me here, so that she was primed and ready to fire off questions as soon as I arrived. Admittedly, my commute was a bit longer than hers. Working at the university, I learned damn quick which coffee shops and bars were far enough from campus to avoid running into students, and I was more than willing to drive across town to avoid a student hearing my mother discussing my sex life a little too loudly.

  Mom leaned forward and patted the back of my hand. “So, what’s really going on, sweetie? What’s with the dry spell? Your aura is all out of whack.” She swished her hand in the air in front of my face as if to wipe the bad vibes away.

  “At least let me get some caffeine in my system before you cleanse my aura.” I plastered on a fake smile.

  After I’d taken a few more healthy sips of coffee, Mom placed her elbows on the table and leaned in.

  “If we’re not going to talk about your personal life, tell me about work. Classes start Monday, right? Do you think you’ll get mistaken for a grad student again this year?”

  Last year, my first year as the assistant director in the creative writing program, I was hit on by students all the time, and Mom loved to bring this up. Once they found out who I was, their embarrassment was almost palpable. But it came with the territory of being the youngest assistant director the department had ever had.

  “Not sure. I guess we’ll see.” My colleagues and I had spent the last two weeks in training, preparing for the arrival of students back on campus to breathe the life-blood into the prestigious university and into our dusty old offices.

  I had a good feeling about this year. And I loved what I did. I was an assistant director in the academic advising office. So, while the advisers who worked for me helped the undergraduate students with transferring credits and enrolling in courses, I oversaw the handful of graduate students we had each year, taking a personal interest in their success. It was a pretty low-key job that allowed me to work on the book I’d been writing for the past two years now.

  “And you’re still thinking about New York?” she asked.

  I nodded. “That’s the plan.” After this academic year was over, my plan was to leave my job at the university and move to New York City where I could focus on my writing career and finally finish my manuscript.

  I finished off the rest of my coffee and got up to toss the empty cup, then gave my mom a kiss on the cheek.

  “Sorry to head out early, Mom,” I said, lucky to have an excuse at the ready. “I’ve got meetings back on campus.” And I’d maxed out on sex life conversations with my mother for the day.

  “Bye, Zachary.” Mom smiled warmly at me, watching me go.

  As I climbed into my car for the drive over to campus, I mentally noted that it was Friday. Maybe I’d take her suggestion after all and go out tonight. You never knew when you might just meet the one.

  Chapter Two

  Poppy

  I shouldn’t have let Jodee drag me here. That much was certain. As we walked through the living room, I dodged a ping-pong ball as it went sailing past our heads from a nearby game of beer pong. Why had I let her talk me into this?

  “Aren’t you glad we came?” Jodee grinned excitedly and handed me a beer. I moved in next door to her a few weeks ago. We were both about to begin our master’s program—me in poetry, and her in creative non-fiction—but that was where our similarities ended. My life came with a lot of complications and added responsibility as the result of a one-time mistake that hers did not. I knew she wouldn’t get it, but there was a hint of underlying anxiety I felt about being away from home.

  But since I had a rare, free-night before classes started Monday, and Jodee couldn’t fathom the idea of me moping around at home alone on a Friday night, here I was.

  “Not particularly. I don’t do college parties.” Not even in my undergrad days.

  Jodee rolled her eyes. “It’s not a college party. It’s a house party. And it’s practically tradition.”

  That part may have been true. We attended a tiny, but prestigious East coast university in a little town with only a handful of bars. The bar scene got old, too, so house parties were pretty commonplace. My attendance at them, however, was not. I’
d gone here for undergrad too, but as a commuter student still living at home with my parents.

  “Guys are so weird,” I said, as two particularly preppy-looking guys in front of us started shot-gunning beers.

  “I think they’re kind of cute,” Jodee said, grinning at one of them over her drink. “Besides, you’re only saying that because of Jason.”

  I knew she was right, so I didn’t say anything. Ever since Jason dumped me out of the blue, I hadn’t been myself. Especially around men. Maybe if he’d given me a reason I could have moved on, but he just told me it wasn’t working out, that it was “him, not me.” It was bullshit, like the whole time we’d been together had meant nothing, and I’d only gotten more upset since it happened last month. We’d made a lot of plans together over our year-long relationship, but I didn’t realize Jason was making plans of his own, too. And one of them was to dump me shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday.

  Jodee turned to me. “Look, I know you aren’t stoked to be here right now, but I think this will help.” She grabbed my arm in excitement. “I know. You should hook up with one of these guys. That’s the best way to get over an ex. I’ll help you find someone.”

  I needed a man like I needed a second period each month. “I’m swearing off men,” I said to her, but it was useless. She was already peering through the crowd, even standing on tiptoes to look around. She pointed toward the door. “Look at that guy. He’s cute, right?” I tried to see who she was talking about but there were too many people crowding the party.

  “Oh, wait, he’s with a girl. Damn it.”

  The crowd parted, and my heart stopped. The room went dead silent; my ears were ringing, and I felt like I might throw up. My ex, Jason, had just walked into the party. And he wasn’t alone. Trailing behind him was his new girlfriend, the one he started dating about three seconds after we broke up. Of all the fuckery. Why were they here? Was there seriously nothing else to do tonight?

  I spun around and grabbed Jodee’s arm, whispering, “Jodee. That’s Jason.”

  She stared for a second, confused, and I saw her putting the pieces together as her eyes widened.

  “No way,” she said, narrowing her eyes in their direction. “Well, you’re way prettier than her.”

  They started walking toward us, but hadn’t seen us yet. Luckily, they were distracted by someone Jason knew. I felt like I’d been struck dumb, my mind was totally blanking. Thankfully, Jodee stepped in.

  “Okay, what should we do? Do you want to leave?”

  I thought about it. There was a back door … I could escape like Andy tunneling his way out of Shawshank with my dignity still firmly intact. I was about to open my mouth to tell her that when I realized I was being a coward. And I was not a coward. I was a strong ass woman and I wasn’t about to flee with my tail between my legs.

  I turned to Jodee, my brows knit tightly in determination. “No. We should stay.”

  “Are you sure? Really, I understand if you don’t want to be here, exes are a nightmare.” Jodee’s concerned eyes continued scanning my face for any trace of hesitation. I knew she was just looking out for me, but her concern made me even more resolute.

  “Positive. There’s no way I’m letting some dickhead scare me off that easily.”

  Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, a forced, hesitant grin on her face. “If you say so…”

  Suddenly, I had an idea. “What’s that saying … Don’t get mad, get even?”

  Jodee’s smile faded. “Poppy…”

  I didn’t wait for her to finish. This wasn’t a moment for second-guessing.

  “Don’t worry, I have a plan.” When one of the preppy-looking guys started waving her over to their beer pong game, I gave her a tiny push in their direction as she gave me a concerned look. “Go play. Seriously. I’ll be fine. I’ve got this.”

  She agreed, but before she headed off to play the obnoxious drinking game she made me promise to tell her if I needed her. I started scanning the party, looking for the right guy, all the while my lady balls growing larger with every beat of the bass that was coming out of the speakers. Then, I saw him, standing by the stairs. He was tall, at least six-foot-two, with dark hair that seemed effortlessly messy and groomed at the same time. His defined jawline was dusted with dark stubble, and he looked to be in his late twenties. Perfect. Hot as hell and obviously not one of these idiot college kids. Maybe he’d understand this insane predicament I was about to put him in.

  He turned in my direction for a moment, and I felt my mouth drop open as my gaze met his seductive, emerald green eyes fringed with black lashes. Just looking at him made me feel like I’d committed a sin. Like maybe I needed to head to the nearest confessional and unload all my dirty little secrets to whoever would listen and could atone me for my impure thoughts.

  I didn’t stop to think. I was being drawn to him in a way that was completely out of my control. As I got closer, I could have high-fived myself. He was so ridiculously attractive—I’m talking Abercrombie model attractive—that I knew he’d be the perfect sucker punch to Jason and his new whore. Never mind that this guy was totally out of my league in real life. This was make-believe. My make-believe…and I was about to make Jason believe that we were an item.

  He was talking to someone else, but that didn’t matter to me. All social decency had gone out the window the moment I’d decided on my plan. I tapped him on the shoulder and tried to look normal. He turned to me, looking down as though amused at me standing all of five-foot-nothing in my ballet flats. When our gazes collided, nothing could have prepared me for the wave of desire that surged through me as we locked eyes for the first time. The room tipped sideways as the full-weight of his sexual prowess hit me.

  Hefting up my lady balls for what I was about to do, I took a moment to compose myself, clearing my throat.

  “Look,” I said, as he observed me with a slight smile, “I know you don’t know me, but my ex just walked in with his new girlfriend, and he’s a total asshole, so I need you to pretend to be my date.”

  He paused for a moment, and I had a flash of fear that he might tell me to get lost, but then he grinned, revealing a row of straight, white teeth that couldn’t have been more perfect if they’d been featured in an advertisement for orthodontics.

  “Just one question.” His voice was deep and confident and sent another shockwave of lust rushing through me. My God, this man is hitting me in all the right places and I know I should back away, tuck my lady balls back into their appropriate hiding spot and run. But I was already so far in this that backing down wasn’t an option the moment we locked eyes.

  My heart dropped into my stomach. “Sure.”

  “Can I at least know your name before we start dating?”

  I let out a relieved laugh and held out my hand. “It’s Poppy.”

  He tested my name on his lips, and I very much liked the sound of it. He wrapped his hand around mine and my stomach did a backflip—a backflip because I was suddenly in way over my head, or because I was really going through with this mission to show Jason how quickly I’d moved on too.

  “Zach.”

  The way he looked at me made my mouth go dry, and it was all too easy to imagine his hands doing exactly what his eyes just did, running up and down my body, eventually reaching my…. Get a grip, I thought, stunned by my own intense reaction.

  I shook myself out of it. All I was here to do was make Jason jealous, not to swoon over some other guy. I motioned toward the kitchen. “Well, I guess you can start by getting me a drink.”

  “I like a woman who knows how to take control,” he said, and my heartbeat kicked up a few notches. I swallowed. Zach flashed that panty-dropping grin again and led me through the crowd, but it was so densely packed like pheromone-soaked sardines in a can. He reached back and grabbed my hand, sending butterflies rushing to the pit of my stomach.

  After we’d gotten our drinks, we opted to forego the suffocating interior and s
ettled into the backyard. It was impossible not to notice how romantic it was to be secluded in a corner of the yard, standing underneath rows of string lights that highlighted the colorful array of fall leaves. Jason was nowhere in sight, but I was finding myself not minding that too much.

  “I usually have to work a little harder than this to pick up a girl,” Zach said, and I felt myself grinning. I found that hard to believe, considering that I couldn’t even look at him without picturing myself on top of him, underneath him, in bed with him, running my tongue along his well-defined pecs. It didn’t help that the shirt and tailored jeans he wore were accentuating his perfectly toned body. I caught a wave of his scent. It was crisp, and decidedly masculine.

  It took a moment for me to realize he’d asked me how I ended up at the party. I tried to keep my voice from betraying my thoughts as I said, “My friend dragged me here, to be honest.”

  He grinned again. That grin alone was enough to make me wet. Jesus.

  “So, this ex of yours … should I go kick his ass, or…?” He interrupted my thoughts, then paused, waiting for my reaction. The story of my ex dumping me for another woman wasn’t exactly what I wanted to discuss with the painfully sexy guy I just met and begged to be my ‘make-believe boyfriend’ for the night.

  “No, it’s okay. We dated for a year, and then he just broke it off. It was kind of out of the blue.” I shrugged, trying to portray the candid indifference that my demeanor suggested. Yeah, nope, his rejection still stung. Especially because I suspected the real reason for our break-up and I hated to think of my situation being at the root of our separation.

  It seemed impossible, but Zach’s face was somehow more beautiful when he was being serious. His eyes more piercing, his full lips parted.

  “You weren’t kidding about him being an asshole. Well, he must be an idiot if he let you get away.”

  I stared pointedly at him. “That is seriously the worst pick-up line—like, ever.”

 
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