Excerpt from Stacking the Deck

CHAPTER ONE

Twelve years earlier…

She’d never felt more exposed

Beth tried to focus, but her brain was misbehaving. As in not working. Instead, she was acutely aware of the creaking of his aged leather jacket, the heat radiating from his lean, muscular, oh-so-swoon-worthy body and the knowledge that she was going to have to give Mrs. Peabody, the school guidance counselor, an extra-large Whitman’s Sampler at Christmas this year for the gift of assigning her to tutor [insert choirs of angels singing here] Carter. McIntyre.

“Twizzler?”

Beth started and realized Carter was looking at her expectantly. “We’re not supposed to have food in the library,” she blurted.

Stupid! What was she saying? Everyone ate in the library! You just couldn’t get caught eating in the library!

He shrugged and snagged a long, strawberry-scented strand from somewhere in his backpack and took a bite. She watched as if in slow motion. He had good teeth. Not that he was a horse or anything, but they were nice and straight without being perfect-straight like all the girls that went to Dr. Lewalski’s Orthodontics in the old mill building. She didn’t think Carter ever had braces. That’s how perfect he was.

Perfectly unattainable.

Beth licked her lips and frowned hoping she wasn’t having a reaction to the new lip gloss she’d bought just for this occasion. Like he wanted to stare at inflamed lips for an hour. The thought made her stifle a nervous giggle.

She shouldn’t be nervous. She could do this. She’d had two full days to prepare for this moment, and even the weather gods were on her side, for Pete’s sake. There wasn’t a hair-frizzing storm cloud in sight.

It was a picture-postcard late September day. The leaves of the giant sugar maple outside the library rustled softly, and a light breeze drifted through the open window, carrying with it the scents of leather, Twizzler and something intangible, hopeful and slightly wild.

Beth held her breath in her lungs and pressed her hands down her thighs, willing herself not to fidget. She wasn’t prone to fidgeting as a rule, but she’d never been this close to Carter McIntyre before either. And he was here. Next to her. Talking to her. Asking her, God help her, questions…

“So, ah, do you tutor a lot?” Carter waited for her to answer, his lips tilting in that slight, irresistible, not-quite-a-smile way that made every sophomore girl’s heart beat like a chipmunk’s. He swallowed his bite of Twizzler, his long, tanned throat working. Beth glanced up at his eyes, then away again. My God. His eyelashes were to die for.

“Um. No. You’re my first,” she murmured. Then she froze.

Oh God! That sounded so…!

“I’ll try not to be hard on you.”

She flushed, a tidal wave of awareness and shock flooding up her neck and into her cheeks. Ohmigod, she did not do innuendo! She dove for her backpack on the floor to avoid looking at him and pulled out a highlighter as if it were a vital piece of tutoring equipment she’d nearly forgotten.

His leather jacket creaked as he moved restlessly in his chair. “I meant, I’ll try not to make it hard. Tutoring me. Shit.” He muttered that last word softly, and Beth realized with a start that maybe they were both uncomfortable. Obviously him for other reasons than that he was intensely, madly crushing on her, but still.

She cleared her throat and busied herself tidying the books and notebooks on the library table in front of them. “Of course! ” she said, not quite sure whether to believe him. One never knew what to believe where Carter McIntyre was concerned. Rumors followed him around like swooning girls and the smell of freshly-applied Lip Smackers.

She set the highlighter parallel to her notebook and tried to breathe through her nose, quietly and calmly. How could she find his mumbled swear a turn-on?

She would not survive. This guy was so hot, so unsettling and so out of her league, she’d burn to a teenaged, hormonal crisp by the end of the quarter, for sure. They’d find her charcoaled remains in this very seat….

“So, what is your current grade?” she asked briskly, trying to pretend she knew what the heck she was doing.

“Twenty-eight.”

She made a noise which she hoped sounded like a small chuckle. “No, not the date. Your grade.”

He shrugged and rat-a-tat-tapped a pencil on his thigh.

She stared at him. Closed her jaw. “I see.”

He tossed the pencil on the table and pushed his chair back, a loud scrape on the hardwood floor. “If you don’t want to do this…”

She grabbed his arm. “No! No. It’s okay. I like a challenge.”

He turned and raised one dark eyebrow. He had the shadow of what would one day be stubble across his upper lip. The shadow of impending manhood coupled with the arch of that brow made him look… unpredictable. Dangerous. Like the bad boy you’re not supposed to want, but do. Oh, yes, by all that’s holy, you most. definitely. do.

The leather of his jacket was smooth and warm under her palm, and she didn’t let go, even though she probably should have, until he settled back in his seat.

“A challenge,” he repeated. “I don’t think you know what you’re getting into.”

“Are you stupid?” she asked, the question blurting out of her.

His eyebrows slashed down and his jaw hardened. “No.”

“Neither am I. I know perfectly well what I’m getting into. Chapter two. Rational numbers.”

He didn’t move, so she opened the thick text and lay it in front of him. Her hand shook slightly as if a current of electricity was coursing through her. “Don’t underestimate me, and I won’t underestimate you. Deal?”

Her heart beat like a wild thing in her chest as she waited for his response. Had she pushed him too far? He’s out of your league, Beacon! the rational part of her screamed. What do you think you’re doing? And even though she’d never felt more vulnerable in her life, she did the unthinkable.

She smiled at him.

He watched her a moment, his dark green eyes inscrutable. Then he reached into his backpack, pulled out another Twizzler, and held it toward her like a dare. “Deal.”

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