Some people wait decades to meet their soul mate. Courtney Kaufman suspects she met hers in high school—only to lose him at seventeen. Since then, Courtney’s social life has been a series of meaningless encounters, though she’s made a few close friends along the way. Especially her roommate, Max Cooper, who oozes damaged bad-boy vibes from every pore.
Max knows about feeling lost and trying to move beyond the pain—he’s been on his own since he was sixteen. Now it’s time to find out if he can ever go home again, and Courtney’s the only one he trusts to go with him. But the trip to Providence could change everything…because the more time he spends with Courtney, the harder it is to reconcile what he wants and what he thinks he deserves.
It started out so simple. One misfit helping another. Now Max will do anything to show Courtney that for every heart that’s ever been broken, there’s another that can make it complete.
If my life was a romantic comedy, I wouldn’t be the star.
I’d be the witty, wise-cracking friend, telling the Reese Witherspoon character to follow her heart, and I’d be played by America Ferrera, Hollywood’s idea of an ugly duckling. But not conforming to societal beauty standards didn’t cause me any angst; I wasn’t harboring a secret desire to take off my glasses and flip my hair, so my secret love interest would realize I was beautiful all along. In my view, my looks supplied simplicity. Anyone who got with me wanted the real me, no question. Romance ranked dead last on my to-do list at the moment, however.
“You’re too picky,” Max said.
He was curled up on my bedroom floor, skimming emails on his tablet. With her boyfriend’s help, our soon-to-be-ex-roommate Nadia was currently carting the last of her early belongings downstairs, and the other half of my room was conspicuously empty. I scowled and threw a common cold plushie at his head. He batted it away with impressive reflexes, still scrolling. Since he’d posted flyers around campus, along with his email, Max was handling first contact on the apartment.
“Swap with me. You and Angus can share the master bedroom and then you can put whoever you want next door.”
As expected, he passed with an as-if gesture. “We’ll keep looking. How about this one? ‘Hey, my name is Kara. I’m a physical education major, I work part-time at Kelvin’s, and I’m a sophomore. I saw your flyer, and I’d love to meet you guys. My apartment fell through when the landlord sold the place out from under us and now I’m scrambling.’ She seems fine. All the words are even spelled correctly.”
I pretended to mull it over. “Basic language skills are important to me. Put her on the call-back list.”
“You make it sound like we’re casting a movie.”
“This is way more critical,” I reminded him. “This person will be living in my room, potentially watching me sleep.”
“I wish you’d let me help,” Nadia said, coming in to grab the last of her boxes.
Ty, her tall, ginger boyfriend, plucked a carton from her arms. His kid was running around the living room, bothering Angus, who didn’t seem to mind. I waved at both of them but didn’t get up. Truthfully, I was more than a little verklempt over her leaving, even if she was only going downstairs. In the six months since I’d moved in, we’d become good friends. When I moved in, I took over Lauren’s half of the room; she had been Nadia’s best friend from high school, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if Nadia had resented me. Instead she did her best to make me feel at home. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t given us notice. I just didn’t act on it because I secretly hoped their cohabitation wouldn’t pan out, like maybe she’d realize what a huge step it was to take on someone else’s kid.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m the one who procrastinated.”
Max nodded. “If I hadn’t made flyers, Kaufman here would still be waiting for the perfect roommate to drop out of the sky.”
“It could work. A skydiving roomie would be pretty sweet.”
Ty grinned. “I’d be worried about the rent.”
“The man makes a good point.” Max waved as they left, taking the rest of her worldly belongings. “Here’s another possible. ‘Saw your ad. About me: Carmen, drama major, junior. I have no annoying habits and an aversion to being homeless. Email me back!’”
“How am I supposed to choose—”
“She attached a picture.” Max handed me the tablet. “I’m inclined to say yes.”
When I saw it, I knew why. Carmen had long silky black hair, golden skin, big brown eyes, and an amazing body. While I’d definitely bang her, I didn’t want her living in my room. The possibility for problems boggled the mind.
Shaking my head, I passed the Ipad back. “No way.”
“Why not? She’s perfect!”
“She sent a wet T-shirt contest photo, dude. To random strangers. Does that speak highly of her common sense?”
He sighed. “Not really.”
“I don’t want to come home to someone shooting amateur porn in my room.”
“Are you sure? I’m positive that would look great on a resume.”
“You’re such a weirdo.”
“Guilty.” Max glanced toward the doorway, where Angus had propping himself like a fashion model.
In different ways, my two roommates were both hot as hell. Blonde-haired, green-eyed Angus radiated the moneyed, GQ vibe; he was always put together, clean-shaven, well-dressed and delicious smelling. Max, on the other hand, was a dimpled and scruffy, tattooed, motorcycle-riding hooligan. Right then I had the bad boy and the dream boy in my bedroom, pretty much winning the whole hot guy lottery, but neither was interested in me. Angus had a boyfriend, and Max always had women blowing up his cell phone. But it wasn’t like I was pining; I hadn’t been in a relationship since Amy, and I wasn’t looking either. Still, for pure eye candy, it didn’t suck to be me.
“House meeting,” Angus said, sauntering over to flop across the foot of my bed. “Any progress on the roommate issue?”
Hunching my shoulders, I wrapped my arms around another plushie microbe, an adorable ovum this time. “I’m working on it.”
“It’s true. She’s rejected four possibles since I came in.”
I cut Max a look. “You’re not helping.”
“But I’ve been reading emails to you for the last ten minutes.”
Ignoring that, I nudged Angus’s thigh with my foot. “Do you know anyone who’s looking? Preferably not a random stranger.”
“Actually that’s part of the reason why I’m in here.”
When I bounced, his head jogged on my mattress. “Spill it.”
“I’ve been in pre-med with Kia since freshman year. She mentioned she wants to break up with her boyfriend, but she’s been putting it off because it’ll mean moving out. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to talk to you guys first. But—”
“Is she nice?” I cut in at the same time Max asked, “Is she hot?”
Angus smirked. “Yes and yes. I think she’d make you both happy.”
Then he got out his phone, flipping through the gallery until he found a selfie of him with a pretty African-American girl. She had a great smile, bright and friendly, dark skin and short, natural hair. Sometimes the faces people made in photos gave me a vibe about them, and she seemed like she’d be fun.
I took his cell, brought up her contact info, and said, “Call her.”
“You mean I made flyers for nothing?” Max grumbled, but I could tell he was glad to have it settled. Maybe.
He got off the floor and wormed his way between Angus and me. Three people on a twin, probably not what the manufacturer intended. “If you break my bed—”
“Shh. It’s ringing.” Angus frowned at us like we were delinquent children. “Kia? It’s me. Do you have a minute?” That sounded like code for, can you talk freely?
The volume was loud enough for me to hear her reply. “Yeah, I can email you the notes.”
“I get it. Call me back when you can.”
“Whoa,” Max said. “Sounds like he’s a controlling asshole.”
Angus nodded. “I’ve been telling her to get out for three months.”
“Is he abusive?” The answer wouldn’t change my mind about rooming with her, but we might need to amp up security around here.
“Depends on your definition. In my view, he’s overly invested in where she goes and who she talks to. And he disapproves of me. A lot.”
“Homophobe?” I asked.
“Young Republican, so… probably? He wears a lot of sweater vests, comes from a conservative political family in the Bible Belt.”
“Ah. He’s lousy with privilege,” Max guessed.
Angus’s phone buzzed then and he grabbed it on the first ring, putting it on speaker. “Kia?”
“Is Duncan giving you a hard time today?”
“Always.” She sounded tired.
No wonder. Between the last year of pre-med and a demanding boyfriend, she must be sick of the drama. But we needed to speak up before she said something she’d hate revealing to strangers. “Hey, this is Courtney, one of Angus’s roommates.”
“And I’m Max, the other one.”
“Are we on a conference call? What the hell.” She sounded amused more than annoyed, so that was a decent start.
“I talked to them and if you really want to dump the D-bag, you can move in here. Courtney would be sharing with you. Want to come over, see if it’s a good fit?”
“Yes, please.” Her response was heartfelt.
An hour later, Kia was on our couch, after a quick tour of the apartment and my half-empty room. She was taller than me, thinner too, no surprise there, but nowhere near as imposing as Nadia. From listening to her conversation with Angus, I already knew I wanted this to happen. If it didn’t work out and we had to call in Physical Education Kelly, I’d be bummed.
“I feel like I need to be up front about this,” I said.
Max elbowed me. He thought I was going to tell her that I was bi, but there was no reason to lead with that. Frowning at him, I went on, “I’m a touch OC and I might alphabetize your books and/or CDs if you decide to move in.”
She laughed. “Girl, have at it. That’s not my thing, I don’t have time to obsess. But it won’t bother me if you organize. Just don’t move stuff so I can’t find it.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t come home to find all your makeup sorted by brand.”
“Hey, I’d much rather be sharing with somebody who cleans. My boyfriend doesn’t.”
“You mean your ex?” Angus asked hopefully.
“Give me a few days. Is next weekend soon enough?” Kia pushed to her feet with an inquiring look.
“Yep, it’s great.” I fought the urge to hug her, mostly because it was settled.
“Let’s swap numbers.” Angus forwarded her info before she finished speaking and I sent a test text. Her phone pinged again, suggesting Max had done the same.
Kia grinned. “I guess I don’t have to worry about being welcome. Wish me luck.”
“Dump him.” That was my best encouraging tone.
Max walked her to the door. “Agree. Dump the crap out of him.”
Once the door closed behind her, I grabbed Angus’s hands and whirled him around in a circle. “She’s perfect. Seriously, thank you. You don’t know how relieved I am.”
“Save the victory dance until she moves in. You never know, Duncan could talk her into giving him a second chance. She’s been on the verge of leaving him for like a year.”
I sighed as the satisfaction drained away. “Now you tell me.”
“You worry too much. If need be, we’ll split the rent three ways until we find the right person. I can manage a month of that, and I know Angus can.” Max slung an arm over my shoulder and hauled me to the sofa. “Come on, let’s shoot stuff.”
Angus ruffled my hair and I pretended to swat him. “Hey. Hands off the purple.”
“Can’t help it, it’s all adorable and spiky.”
My mother called my current look a ‘punk’ phase, and she expressed a devout wish for me to get over it, every time I saw her. She hoped I’d trade Doc Martens and cargo pants for dresses that sparkled, grow my hair out, and get a nose job. That would never, ever happen. Which bummed my mother out; she’d rather I married a nice Jewish doctor over becoming one. Of course, that wasn’t on the table, either. Since I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I was studying business, though friends who’d already graduated were telling me I needed to specialize or there was in way in hell I’d find a job.
But the idea of wiping my originality like a dry erase board for a corporate gig bummed me out; I liked my piercings—at last count I had eight: eyebrow, nose, three in my left ear, two in my right, plus the belly button ring; I couldn’t remember if my mother had ever seen the latter. Maybe I’d use the money my granddad left me to start my own company, though at this point, I had no idea what product or service I’d offer.
Max bumped me with his shoulder. “Are you playing or not?”
“I’m in.” Picking up the controller, I joined him onscreen, though it pissed me off that in most of these shooters, I always had to play a dude.
“Have fun. I’m out with Del tonight.” The brightness in Angus’s voice told me things were going well, so I just waved as he left, focused on not shooting Max in the back.
We played for an hour before I got hungry. I pushed pause on the controller and ambled to the kitchen. Max came up behind me, resting his head on my shoulder as I peered into the fridge. Max was exceptionally hands-on with his friends; maybe he didn’t get hugged enough as a kid or something. When I first moved in, I thought he was hitting on me, but he thumped and patted Angus about as much, so I went with it.
“Cook something,” he pleaded.
I jabbed him in the gut with my elbow. “Get off me and maybe I will. How do patty melts sound?”
“Like manna from heaven. I speak for all starving college students everywhere when I say, words cannot do justice to your munificence.”
Snickering, I put the ground beef in the microwave. “Calm down, I already agreed to make the food. No need for sweet talk.”
“But it’s fun. Your nose wrinkles when you laugh at me.”
I fought the urge to cover said nose. Some girls could do adorable bunnies wriggles, but mine was too long, beakish, according to an ex who’d had enough of my shit. As personal problems went, however, it wasn’t exactly original. There were tons of other Jewish girls in the same situation; I wasn’t special. In fact, I probably wasn’t even the only princess rebelling with piercings and alt-hair. So I made a face instead of revealing that he’d made me feel self-conscious for a few seconds. On two occasions, Max and I had made out. Both times, we were messed up emotionally and it was good that we’d confined the rebound sex to kissing. Otherwise it might be tough to fry meat while he talked about the work he was doing on his motorcycle.
“Wait, I thought you were done?”
He sighed at me. “The mechanical overhaul is done, but now I’m working on cosmetic restoration. I can’t stop until it’s finished.”
“The fate of the world hangs in the balance?” I teased, shaping the thawed meat into patties. Next I sliced up some onions to caramelize.
“I promised somebody, that’s all.” His expression was strange and serious, unlike the guy I’d known for three years.
But Max was… odd. Like, he gave the impression he was all jokes, all about the party, but then he flipped a switch and revealed glimpse of the real person underneath. In all honesty, I was much more interested in that guy—the serious, smart, intense one. Most people had no idea he was a mechanical engineering major, which required knowledge of physics, thermodynamics, kinematics, structural analysis, and electricity. And hell, I only knew that because I looked it up on Wikipedia, after finding out what he was studying.
“That sounds like a story,” I said quietly.
He held my gaze for two beats, then looked away. “I guess it is.”
I finished our food and we ate in front of the TV, then went back to killing things in the game. But by nine, I was bored. I put down the controller, stretching my stiff muscles in an exaggerated arch of my back. “Okay, I’m done.”
“Don’t go,” he said.
“Huh?” Startled, I swung back toward the couch, catching a bleak, sad look from his dark, dark eyes.
It was like realizing a friend had been hiding raw slashes under their sleeves all this time. His thick lashes swept down, covering, but it was too late. I can’t unsee it. My chest felt tight with indecision. If I made a joke, he’d take his cue from me, and it would be like this never happened. Maybe that would be for the best.
“I don’t want to play anymore,” I answered.
“We could go for a ride.”
To me, it seemed like Max didn’t want to alone tonight. He rode his bike when he was running from something, but he’d never invited me along. There was no excuse to refuse since classes hadn’t started up again. I made a snap decision.
“Okay, let me get a jacket.” My pants and concert T-shirt were fine, so I added boots and a hoodie with a skull on the back.
“That was fast.” He jingled his keys with one hand and grabbed me with the other, yanking me out of the apartment and down the stairs. As we approached his bike, he asked, “Have you ever ridden one of these before?”
“What do you think?” I was curious what he’d say.
“You are correct, sir. Don’t worry, it’s not my first time.”
“If you knew how happy it makes me to hear that.” He flashed a flirty grin over one shoulder, but I identified it as bullshit.
The wounded eyes? That was real. Not this. So I put on the helmet and wrapped my arms around his waist, content to be the warm body on the back of his bike. I didn’t need to be beautiful to be a friend when he needed one.
Just for a few seconds, he set his hands over mine, where they rested on his abs. “Hold on tight. I’m about to show you something amazing.”