A Higher Education - Chapter One (Preview)
This book is several years in the making, and I’ll speak more on that as we get closer to release date. But for now, I’d like to share the first (unedited) chapter. A Higher Education will be available exclusively from Amazon on April 10, 2018.
Warning: Contains references to past sexual assault and drug abuse. A buttoned-down hero with a mile-wide guardian streak, a brash heroine with a nine-mile-wide streak of feminism, a little prejudice, a little more heat, a lot of pride, and a whole lot more love.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that first impressions are a bitch.
In a sea of college freshmen, Elizabeth Bennet feels more like a den mother than a returning student. She’d rather be playing Exploding Kittens than dodge-the-gropers at a frat party, but no way was she letting her innocent, doe-eyed roommate go alone.
Everything about Meryton College screams old money—something she and Jane definitely are not—but Elizabeth resolves to have some fun. That resolve is tested—and so is her temper—when she meets Will Darcy, a pompous blowhole with no sense of fun, and his relentlessly charming wingman, Charlie.
Back at school after prolonged break, Will Darcy is far too old and weary for coeds. Yet even he can see why Charlie spontaneously decides the captivating Jane is “the one.” What throws Will is his own reaction to Jane’s roommate.
Elizabeth’s moonlight skin and shining laugh hit him like a sucker punch. And he doesn’t like it. Elizabeth Bennet is dangerous, not only because she has a gift for making him make an ass of himself, but because she and her razor-sharp wit could too easily throw his life off course, and he can’t afford for that to happen again.
Yet he also can’t seem to stay away.
It wasn’t that Elizabeth didn’t like parties. In fact, she liked them just fine. But when parties included drunken assholes drooling all over her as they stared at her chest and tried to feel her up, they stopped being fun. Unfortunately, this was one of those parties.
“You’re hating this, aren’t you?”
Elizabeth turned a smile to her roommate Jane, who regarded her with wide, worried eyes. She had only known the girl a few days, but had liked her immediately, which probably had something to do with the fact that Jane had been bemoaning her own organizational skills. Turned out she had packed her inventory list in with her luggage, so she hadn’t the slightest clue which of her boxes might be important and which could wait until after mid-terms to be opened.
Jane was the walking antithesis to the horror stories about college roommates. If Elizabeth had to start over, at least she had a leg-up with an early jackpot.
“I’m not hating this,” Elizabeth said. “It’s just been a while.”
That was an understatement. In a sea of college freshmen, she felt a bit more like the den mother.
“Are you sure?” Jane asked, tucking a fallen lock of brown hair behind her ear. “Because if you’re hating this, we can always head back. I bet Mary would be up for a round or two of Exploding Kittens.”
Elizabeth should her head. “I’m not leaving, so stop asking.”
“Jane, stop worrying about me. You’ve been talking about this party for three days. Relax, dammit.”
Jane arched an eyebrow. “’Relax, dammit’? Has that ever worked on anyone?”
“There’s a first time for everything.” Elizabeth cracked a grin and turned her attention to the sea of writhing bodies. The frat house, she’d admit, was the nicest one she’d been in, or at least she’d guess so if it weren’t filled with tables of food and booze. But then, the Greggii House was an institution at Meryton College—established by the wealthy for the spawn of the wealthy so the dears didn’t feel too lost among the plebeians.
Apparently this mixer was one that was thrown every semester by the trust fund brats. Their way of saying welcome and see how much better we are to those coasting by on scholarships and financial aid. Everything about this place—from the interior Corinthian columns to the crown molding around each doorway—screamed money, old money, and lots of it.
Peers they were not, but Elizabeth supposed inviting the have-nots over to gawk was about as charitable as some trust-funders ever got. They might even find a way to write off the experience on their taxes.
A guy who had either lost his shirt or forgotten to put one on stumbled as he attempted to navigate the throng of people near them. He managed to save himself from face-planting, but the same could not be said for the beers he carried. Elizabeth tried not to squeal—she did—but the splash of cold, fizzy liquid on her skin forced her to lose all control over her vocal chords.
“Goddammit, watch where you’re going,” the guy spat, an angry slur to his words. “You have any idea how much a case of that costs?”
“You ran into us, fuzz butt,” Jane snapped.
There was something about the way Jane managed not to swear like a sailor while channeling her inner rage monkey that had caused Elizabeth to fall in instant like with her. This was no different.
The guy frowned, his brow furrowing. “What butt?”
Elizabeth just laughed and ignored him, hooking her arm through Jane’s. “I need to find a bathroom,” she said. “I smell like a mini-bar.”
“But he was rude—”
“He’s drunk. Some people are rude when they’re drunk.”
“Hey!” the guy shouted. “I’m not drunk.”
“Okay, fine. He is rude,” Elizabeth retorted, biting back a grin when his face tightened. “Excuse us, fuzz butt.”
Elizabeth managed to steer Jane a safe distance away before the urge to laugh got the better of her. She’d forgotten how seriously college guys took their beer.
It took Jane a few seconds to join in, as though she wasn’t sure whether or not Elizabeth was genuinely amused. Once she got going, though, she couldn’t stop, and soon both were laughing several degrees harder than Elizabeth figured the situation warranted.
Still, it was nice to laugh. It was nice to have something to laugh at, even if it was just a dumb college kid.
Jane drew her thumb under her eyes to wipe away stray tears. “For the love of god, please tell me that they’re not all like that.”
“Umm, they’re all like that. You should know. You’ve been here much longer than I have.”
“Can’t let me live in my delusion, can you?”
“Hey,” Elizabeth said, “you’re the one who wanted to come. I’m just collateral damage.”
The words were a mistake. Jane sobered almost immediately. “You don’t really feel that way, do you?”
“No. No, of course not.”
“Yes, really. Sorry.” Elizabeth waved a hand. “Sometimes my mouth does things without permission of my brain. This has been one of those times.”
Jane still didn’t look convinced, and there wasn’t much Elizabeth could think to say to help rectify the situation. So she decided not to rely on words, instead flinging her arms around her roommate and dragging her in a lopsided circle. In easy seconds, Jane’s worry dissipated among a cacophony of laughter, her large brown eyes sparkling with light.
“You certainly know how to win an argument,” she said after they stopped twirling.
Elizabeth nodded. “One hundred percent full-proof, that method.” She slung an arm around Jane’s shoulder. “Shall we get smashed?”
Jane giggled again. “We shall.”
Will was not having a good time. Then again, he hadn’t expected to—something Charlie would undoubtedly say was part of the problem. But he wasn’t sure, exactly, how anyone was supposed to have a good time here. Every corner of the frat house was occupied, mostly by shiny guys who had run into a clothing shortage. Apparently all of the hosts had decided they would be more easily identified if they went topless.
If that wasn’t enough, the music thundering from the speakers made it damn near impossible to hear himself talk, let alone anyone else. The air was thick with the scent of sweat, underscored with hints of beer. Not even good beer.
The second he’d stepped inside the frat house, Will had had to fight down the urge to do an about-face and get as far away as his legs would take him. But he’d promised Charlie he’d go along for the ride, and he was determined to do that. Even if it killed him.
Which, honestly, it might.
How anyone, much less a guy he called his best friend, could look around with anything but a desire to flee was beyond him. Yet Will also admired that about Charlie, begrudging as he was to admit it. No matter where the man went, he found himself right at home, and rather happy to be there.
Case in point…
“I love this song!” Charlie screamed before starting some hopping motion that made him look like the Easter Bunny on steroids.
Will had long ago consigned himself to the fact that he had been born at the ripe old age of seventy-seven. There were so many things he didn’t understand—not in a to each their own way, but in the how does anyone capacity. He wasn’t sure he’d call whatever was offending the air at the moment music.
Yet Charlie was bounding up and down, a dopey grin on his face. Granted, the dopey grin faltered a bit when Charlie realized Will was not joining him in his excursion into aerodynamics. After a few prolonged seconds, he rejoined the ground, a fine layer of sweat lining his brow and molding his curly blond hair to his forehead, which wrinkled as he frowned.
“Come on, Will,” Charlie whined. “Can’t you take the stick up your ass out for just one night?”
“I said I’d come. I made no promises about enjoying myself.”
Charlie rolled his eyes and released a dramatic sigh. “You could suck the fun out of just about anything. You know that, right?”
Will shrugged. “And yet you still insist I come along.”
“’Cause you need to learn how to cut loose. I’m not going to be around forever, you know.”
Will paused and seized Charlie by the shoulder. “Wait. You didn’t bring me here to tell me you’re dying, did you? I’d think you’d at least have the decency to get me a drink first.”
There was a moment where Charlie was very clearly struggling to keep a straight face—a feat that had never been easy for him. When the serious moments came, he could usually pull himself together long enough to absorb the important stuff, but he was happier in the space between them. In that regard, he was Will’s polar opposite, and likely one of the reasons they had managed to stay friends as long as they had. Will was there to translate when people suspected Charlie wasn’t taking anything seriously, and Charlie was there to explain that Will had been born in a bad mood and never grown out of it.
Charlie attempted to glare at him a few seconds longer, then gave up with a wry smile. “Fine,” he said, and turned, scouring the room. “Drinks are—oh, yes. Let’s go get one. Now. Let’s go now. Over there. To get drinks. Now.”
Translation: Charlie had seen a woman he found attractive.
In other words, it was Tuesday.
Will sighed and clapped his friend on the shoulder again. “Lead the way, will you?”
And then he was off, and Will followed, weaving between bouncing frat boys and grinding, practically nude couples, and a few giggling girls who looked just barely out of high school. Charlie didn’t spare them a glance, much to Will’s relief. Instead, he continued in a solid bee-line toward the table spread with the night’s alcoholic fares.
Two girls were standing next to an ice-filled bucket, which crested with the bottlenecks of subpar beer, and Will knew immediately who had caught his friend’s eye. The girl on the right wore a cream sweater that looked soft to the touch, and a pair of hip-hugging slacks of the same color, and the contrast to her rich, dark skin almost made it seem like she stood in a perpetual spotlight. Her brown hair had been pulled from her face and pinned at her name in an elegant twist. She was smiling brilliantly and looking at her friend with open adoration. She was, in a word, stunning, and every bit Charlie’s type.
Her friend was laughing so hard her body seemed to be caving in on itself for support. Her eyes were squeezed shut, sparkling with tears under the weak lighting. She wore black leggings paired with boots that wrapped around her calves, and a vibrant red blouse that was shorter in the front than the back. Her skin was the color of moonlight, a beacon a sea of spray tans. Her long brown hair fell in tumbles around her shoulders, a bit wild but in such a way he could tell it was intentional. And the earnest way she laughed made her shine.
For a moment, Will felt like he had been sucker punched. His chest tightened, a ball of pressure collapsing somewhere in the vicinity of his gut. The air seemed to pulse, pulling on him until his feet gave way and he found himself moving closer. It had been a long time, a damn long time, since he’d had such a visceral reaction to a woman. Since his skin had hummed and his palms had started sweat and his tongue had found itself stuck to the roof of his mouth.
He didn’t like it. Especially here. He was too old for coeds. Didn’t matter that he was one himself—the forced break he’d taken from finishing his degree meant the students who were his peers also happened to be dramatically younger, and he had no interest in getting involved with someone who couldn’t yet legally drink.
Or at all with anyone from Meryton. They had a reputation.
He knew this. He had known it for years—well before life had pulled him home. Yet knowing it didn’t magically make the woman he was looking at—no, the girl; she couldn’t be a woman yet—less appealing.
It just made her dangerous.
Charlie nudged him hard in the shoulder, breaking Will out of his stupor. “Come on. Introduce me.”
Will blinked. “What do you mean, introduce you?”
“What do you think I mean?”
“I think if I’m going to introduce you to someone, I should know who that someone is first.”
Charlie pointed as though it was obvious. “Her,” he said. Will noted that his eyes had taken on a somewhat dreamy, faraway look.
“Yes,” he said, torn between irritation and amusement. “I put that together.”
“So what’s the problem? Introduce me.”
“The problem is I don’t know her. An introduction from me isn’t going to mean much, is it?”
That seemed to snap Charlie out of his stupor. He blinked and gave his head a shake, then favored Will with a skeptical look.
“What?” Will asked.
“Everyone on campus knows who you are and you know it.”
Ah. There it was. The curse of his family legacy surfaced again. Will sighed heavily. “I still don’t know them, so I’m not going to—”
“Do that thing from How I Met Your Mother.”
There was an embarrassingly long moment during which Will wasn’t sure if he’d been given a directive or asked a question. Then his brain decided to kick in out of sympathy. “The old sitcom?”
Charlie nodded with barely contained enthusiasm. He had turned his attention fully to his target again, and the dreamy look was back.
Will refused to follow suit. He didn’t need to find the brunette any more intriguing than he already did. It was bad enough that he could hear her talking, her voice animated, and the few words that cut through the noise were not only multi-syllabic, but used in the correct context.
“Just walk up to them,” Charlie instructed, “and ask if they’ve met me.”
“Why on earth would I do that?”
“Because you’re a good friend and that’s what good friends do.”
“Make asses out of themselves?”
“Why can’t you introduce yourself?”
Charlie broke away from salivating over the pair long enough to favor Will with a smirk. “’Cause I have you here to do it for me.”
Will rolled his eyes. “You’re a grown man, Charlie. You pay your taxes and everything. Go introduce yourself.”
“That’s boring.” But Charlie didn’t need any actual encouragement, it seemed, because he had stumbled forward without further prompting.
Will would have been annoyed if he weren’t amused, because that was his friend all over.
Charlie didn’t need help with women. He enjoyed getting it where he could, and even further enjoyed pushing Will hard against his own boundaries to see if his comfort level had any give. On occasion it did, but not by much and not often. And when push came to shove, Charlie thankfully knew when it knock it off and respect that the line was there in the first place.
It seemed this was not one of those times.
Will watched Charlie approach the women, the one on the right—the one he seemed most interested in—noticing him first. She flashed him a smile, her eyes immediately alight with warmth, and extended her hand to his almost at once.
“Jane,” he heard her say. “Pre-law.”
“Of course you are!” Charlie boomed enthusiastically. “Excuse me while I take the fifth on everything.”
She laughed, and it was a sweet, pleasant sound that seemed authentic, as though his joke was actually clever.
“Third,” Jane replied, beaming wider still. “You?”
“Same. Though in nothing as exciting as law.” He looked to Jane’s friend briefly, then flashed the same smile that had gotten him laid throughout high school. “Business.”
“That’s exciting,” Jane said.
“You’re sweet to say so,” he replied, grinning at her.
Finally, Jane’s friend stepped forward and decided to insert herself into the conversation. “I’m Elizabeth.”
“Of course you are!” Charlie boomed again. “Elizabeth, I want you to meet a friend of mine.” Then he turned and grinned at Will.
Don’t do it. Don’t—
“Will, stop being antisocial and get over here.”
There was every chance he would murder Charlie when they were again alone. Will drew in a deep breath, tried to resurrect the polite smile he’d always worn at his parents’ various functions, and marched over with all the enthusiasm of a man headed toward the gallows.
“This is Will,” Charlie said loudly, throwing an arm around him once he was within arm-throwing range. “Now, don’t let his soulful eighty-six year old eyes fool you. He is actually a bit older than me…” His voice dropped conspiratorially. “A freshman.”
If ever a hole were to spontaneously appear beneath his feet, now would be the time. Either to drag him into the pits of the underworld or provide him some sort of weapon with which to bash over his so-called best friend’s blond head—either would be appropriate.
“I am too, actually,” Elizabeth said. “Glad to know I won’t be the oldest freshman in the class.”
“That remains to be seen,” Will said immediately, his mouth acting of its own accord. “How old are you?”
Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow. “Pretty sure that’s one of those questions you’re never supposed to ask, isn’t it? How old are you?”
She blinked. “Wow. You are an old freshman.”
Yes, like he needed a reminder of that.
She looked at him expectantly, the way everyone did when they learned he wasn’t a doe-eyed recent graduate of a preppy high school. Of course, once they learned his name, most people were smart enough to keep their stupid mouths shut. Somehow he didn’t think that tactic would work on her.
Finally, Will realized the conversation wasn’t going to change without help, and cleared his throat. “There were circumstances.”
The none-of-your-business kind. “My mother died.”
That was actually just the tip of the iceberg, but he didn’t need to say more. Elizabeth’s cheeks had turned pink. Served her right for prying.
“Do you live on campus?” Charlie asked, his gaze pinned on Jane. The guy had never once learned how to be subtle.
“Yes,” Jane said, a pretty blush staining her cheeks. “Elizabeth and I are roommates, actually. We’re at the Longbourn dormitory.”
They might as well be rooming on the moon. That proclamation alone told Will everything he needed to know.
Meryton had a reputation—the sort of reputation grounded more in truth than gossip. It was twenty miles outside of New Hertfordshire, where some of the oldest families in the damn country still called home. Except the income discrepancy was dramatic—many of the families, particularly those set in tradition and slow to adapt—had lost everything as the world around them changed. The illusion might have lasted longer had the economy been more cooperative. After the housing bubble had popped, those who had been struggling to remain ahead, or spending extravagantly with money they didn’t have in order to look like they still belonged, had crashed and burned.
But those families still sent their kids to Meryton. Some riding the school’s scholarship program, if their children were bright enough to qualify, and others taxing out exorbitant student loans just so it could appear to their snooty neighbors that they weren’t as bad off as everyone thought. Second and even third mortgages taken out on old estate homes just so the neighbors didn’t gossip about how the Calhouns couldn’t afford to send their daughter to the alma mater.
Pride didn’t have a price for these families. It didn’t matter how much debt they needed to take on to keep up appearances; they took it up happily.
Because Meryton was a family legacy for most of New Hertfordshire. Because more US presidents had graduated from Meryton than any other college. Because that was where the money was.
Where New Hertfordshire’s elite still sent their eligible sons.
Where New Hertfordshire’s struggling but prideful poor sent their daughters.
And that was the exact reputation Longbourn dormitory had. Right or wrong, fair or not. It was the catch-all dorm for students who didn’t have rich parents to pull strings.
“Longbourn,” Will said shortly. He tried to catch Charlie’s eye, but his friend was too enraptured with Jane.
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied. “Why? Where are you guys?”
The question was enough to peg her as a scholarship student rather than someone relying on loans. Student loan recipients at least knew enough to try and fake it for the first few days.
Something flashed in Elizabeth’s eyes. “Ah.”
Will arched a brow. “Ah?”
“Yes. It’s a noncommittal sound people make when they have something they want to say but aren’t sure it’s appropriate for polite company.”
Jane’s jaw fell. She elbowed her friend hard enough to earn a croaky wheeze. “Lizzie!”
“That was rude.”
“So was trying to pry apart my ribs with your elbow.” She made a face and rubbed at her side. “Remind me not to panic if we ever lose the can opener. Your bones can cut through steel.”
“What inappropriate comment did you want to make about Netherfield Heights?” Will asked.
“Nothing,” Jane said. “She’s just kidding.”
Elizabeth, though, wasn’t paying attention. “You guys are snobs.”
Charlie burst out laughing, and Jane followed with a nervous titter.
“You’re funny,” Charlie said, slapping Elizabeth hard on the back and flashing a good natured grin. “Isn’t she funny, Will?”
“You guys should talk more.” Charlie seized Jane’s hand and she didn’t put up a fight. Not that Will had expected her to; if she did, she’d be the first. “Come on,” his friend said, tugging. “Let’s let them talk.”
Jane nodded, her face brightening—either at the prospect of leaving the conversation or getting some alone-time with Charlie or both. “What are we going to do?”
“Don’t answer that,” Will advised.
Elizabeth watched her friend disappear into a mass of people, a small smirk playing with her lips. It was, he conceded, a pleasant smirk, and a pleasant set of lips. But then, he’d known that across the room.
Things he hadn’t known when he’d been across the room? She was a pain in the ass.
Not surprising. Somewhat disappointing. Overall, a blessing in disguise. Because if she wasn’t a pain in the ass, he might be tempted to do something stupid like ask for her number or follow Charlie’s example, and the last thing he needed was another goddamn complication.
“I haven’t known Jane long,” Elizabeth said after a long moment. “Just long enough to understand she’s one of the nicest people on the planet. So I’m not sure if your friend is just dicking her around or not, but one of the things I do know about her is she isn’t the casual fuck sorta girl.”
Will’s jaw became entangled with a sudden, embroiled battle with gravity. “Excuse me?”
“I’m just saying. Your friend hurts my friend in any way and I’m going to become your least favorite person in the world.” She favored him with a smile. “I’ve been away for a while, but I do remember that trust-funders rarely had anything to do with us we mortals unless it was to get their dicks wet. And I really have no patience for that kind of thing anymore.”
Heat flared in his chest and began straining up his neck until he thought his ears might blow steam. “Are you always this crude?”
Her eyes—perfect, almond-shaped eyes—narrowed. “Do you always have a stick up your ass?”
“Well, I suppose that answers one question.”
“I’m just looking out for my friend.”
“They’re just dancing.” Though, from the glance he stole across the room, their version of dancing was apparently simulated sex. He’d never understood how two people could go from not knowing each other’s name to ready to fuck in the span of ten minutes. Perhaps why he’d never fit in here, even with his last name credentials. “She doesn’t look like a hostage, does she?”
“Again,” Elizabeth said, her tone annoyingly measured. “I’m just looking out for my friend.”
“By implying mine’s an asshole.”
“Rich boys used to getting what they want and damn the consequences. Sound familiar?”
Will swore hotly under his breath. He needed to get away from this woman. Now.
Though the thing that really pissed him off was she wasn’t too far off the mark. Charlie liked everyone. Hell, he was an equal opportunity man-whore. He fell in and out of love faster than a hormonal teenager, and while he never meant to cause anyone harm or heartache, there had been the notable scorned ex or two who didn’t realize his attention was on the fleeting side. He was just so damn nice that people rarely called him on it.
But truth had nothing on loyalty. Charlie was the best friend a man could ask for, and would not stand by as anyone, especially a woman he’d just met, dragged him through the mud.
Except when he opened his mouth to fire back at her, his eyes connected with hers—damn almond-shape—and his stomach dropped. He saw his own fire reflected back at him—the same drive to protect and defend—the part of him that was hard with anger began to soften.
He didn’t think he’d ever met a girl here who didn’t go out of her way to kiss his ass.
It didn’t help when she released a long sigh and seemed to deflate. “Look,” she said. “I’m really not some psychotic mega-bitch. Not that, you know, you’d know it from this conversation. I’m just…” She trailed off, seeming to consider her words, then shook her head. “Never mind.”
Will forced a small smile. “I don’t think anyone could blame you for being protective.”
“As long as protective isn’t mistaken for rabid.” Elizabeth smiled, and this time it lit up her face. Brown had never been one of Will’s favorite colors, but there was something both mischievous and sincere in her eyes, more expressive and telling than anything he’d seen before.
Elizabeth waved at the throng of writhing coeds. “You wanna…”
“Ahh, no,” Will said shortly. The words came before his brain could catch up, so it occurred to him after the fact that he might have sounded more clipped than he intended. He couldn’t help it—it was a visceral reaction to the suggestion of entering any swarm of sweaty, half-naked people. He’d been groped a time too many, thank you very much.
The smile that had begun to brighten Elizabeth’s face fell just as quickly. “Oh. Well, I’ll just…” She waved magnanimously. “Leave you to it, then.”
A thousand synapses in his brain began firing at once, screaming at him to do something, say something, to clarify what he’d meant. This rendered his tongue overwhelmed with options and lacking any direction from the man behind the curtain, he wound up staring at her as she turned and disappeared into a sea of people.
For a few dumbfounded seconds, Will stood completely still, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Though he regretted not being more eloquent in his refusal, the larger part of him couldn’t help but feel that perhaps his brain’s lack of preparation had been for the best. Because the last thing he needed—the very last thing—was to get involved now. Fresh back from a break longer than either he or Georgiana had anticipated—and his little sister had practically forced him to enroll.
His father had known returning to college would be an issue after the funeral, which was why he’d had stubbornly made Will’s education a stipulation of his inheriting the Darcy Media empire. Still, the old man hadn’t known the funeral would be the easy part compared to what had come after. He couldn’t have.
Now that he was here, Will needed to remain focused.
And something told him that Elizabeth, or any woman like her, would not help with that goal.
In the end, this had to be for the best.