We’re less than a month out from Cora Carmack‘s All Played Out releasing, so we probably need an excerpt, no? This third Rusk University tale is tackles the opposites attract trope, in the form of smarty pants Nell, who fears she’s missed out on the full college experience. So she does what any smart, self-assured coed would do, she makes a college bucket list. First up, hook up with a jock. Only, if you’ve ever read a romance, you know there this is headed: wide reciever Mateo Torres doesn’t want just a one night stand. To the tape!
Nell’s To-Do List
Check off Normal College Thing #2:
Make New Friends.
Do some laundry, you bum.
“You know,” Dylan says, “when I invited you to go play Ultimate Frisbee with Silas’s friends, I never expected you to accept.”
I wince. “Did you not want me to come?” I tug at the too-tight sports bra that has my boobs pushed so high that I feel like they might rebel and rip the fabric right down the middle. I borrowed the stupid thing from Dylan because I’ve never had much of an occasion to own a sports bra myself. But she’s at least two cup sizes smaller than me, and now I’m afraid I might suffocate in my own cleavage. “I don’t have to. Really.”
I make a mental note to put “buy a sports bra” on my to-do list.
“No! No. I’m excited for you to meet them all. I just … I was surprised, that’s all.”
I shrug. “I’ve been thinking about what you said last week. About exploring all that college has to offer.” Dylan smiles at me, and I’m fairly certain that look I’m seeing on her face qualifies as smug. I add, “Plus I have no tests coming up, and I’m caught up on all assigned work through the next week and a half.”
She shakes her head and leans forward to fiddle with the air-conditioning in her car.
“Of course you are.”
She turns the air up, and I’m grateful for the cool blast. Only in Texas is it still this warm in October. I pull my hair up off my neck, glad at least that I always have a hair band on my wrist. The air feels good across the newly liberated and sweaty skin of my neck.
“So, tell me what I need to know about these people.”
Dylan drums her fingers thoughtfully on the steering wheel and says, “Well, you’ve met Silas. Sort of. He is … he’s … well, he’s hard to describe, but he’ll be nice to you. So you don’t have to worry about that. They’re all really nice. Both of his roommates will be there. Isaiah Brookes—the guys call him either by his last name or Zay—I think you’ll probably like him. He can be a little hard to pin down sometimes, but he’s very … thoughtful. Smart. Straightforward. The two of you have that in common. His other roommate is Torres.”
“Another last name?” I ask.
“Mateo Torres. But everyone calls everyone by their last names. It’s a sports thing. Or a guy thing. I’m not really sure. But you get used to it.”
“I don’t want people calling me De Luca. That’s just weird. I’ll have to become accustomed to answering to a different name, and while learning a sport I’ve never played. That seems stressful.”
“They don’t do it as much with the girls. And really, Ultimate Frisbee isn’t complicated. You’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Fine. Back to the people. You were talking about someone named Torres.”
Dylan makes a face and cagily replies, “Maybe it would be better if you didn’t spend too much time with Torres.”
“Why? Is he dangerous?”
“God, no. He’s just shameless. I know how you don’t like being embarrassed, and with Torres around . . . well, that kind of thing is inevitable. He’ll either say something or do something or take off his clothes.”
More naked guys? Seriously?
“Steer clear of Torres. Got it. Check. Next.”
“Then there’s Carson and Dallas. They’ve been dating for about a year now. They’re sort of the calm center of the group. Carson is the quarterback, so he’s the team leader, and he tends to take on that same role off the field.”
I purse my lips. “Interesting. Is that common? Do they all display their athletic tendencies and strengths off the field?”
Dylan considers that for a moment. “Maybe. Yeah, I guess. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but yes. Carson is the one who controls the team, who reads them all. Silas is the strength on the field. He makes the short, hard runs through tough defense. He’s like that in real life, too. He can weather just about anything. Torres is flashy on the field and off. Brookes plays the same position as Torres, but he tends to be the more reliable one. He’s the one they go to for the simpler throws, whereas Torres makes the bigger, riskier plays.”
I think about that for the moment, but it’s too much information to digest about people I’ve never even met. So I file it away for later, when I can put faces to the names.
“Okay. Who else?”
“Well, there’s also Ryan. He’s not on the team, but he’s the manager. He’s funny, Easygoing. I mentioned Dallas. She’s fun. Spunky. Honest. I’m not sure if Stella will be there or not. She’s Dallas’s roommate. She’s cool, but …”
“Nothing. She’s just been a little unpredictable lately.”
“It just depends on the day. Normally, she’s vibrant and outgoing and the center of the crowd. But she’s just … she’s dealing with some stuff right now, and so there are some moments when she’s … different.”
Dylan sighs, and I’m pretty sure I’m asking too many questions. A fault of mine. Or an advantage, depending on the situation.
“I don’t know, Nell. It varies. Just be understanding with her, and I’m sure everything will be fine.”
I decide not to ask any more questions for a while, and she doesn’t continue, so I’m guessing that’s the group in its entirety. It’s Sunday, so when she pulls into the parking lot near the open fields by the science building, it’s fairly empty.
“You ready?” she asks, and I nod. “Don’t be nervous.”
There’s not much point in being nervous yet when I don’t know what I’m up against. And really, how hard can the game be?
Within ten seconds of stepping onto the field, a Frisbee from a nearby game in progress comes sailing toward me, and in its wake is a large sprinting, sweaty guy heading straight toward me. I yelp, throw my hands over my head, and crouch down low. There’s a burst of air over my head, something heavy knocks into my forearms, forcing me onto my knees, and then there’s a loud thump a few feet away from me.
When I lift my arms enough to peek out, I see the guy who’d been running toward me, now flat on his stomach on the other side of my body.
He jumped over me.
Suddenly the uncomplicated and unintimidating game of Frisbee that I’d been picturing gets much more stressful. The guy rolls over onto his back and then hops to his feet. Dylan grabs my arm and tugs me up and away from the game that I’m still in the middle of. As soon as we’re clear, they start up again at full speed. When we approach a group of people seated around a picnic table, I hear a loud voice say, “I vote that one is on Brookes’s team.”
The guy that goes with the voice is tall with broad shoulders. His skin is a warm bronze, and his dark hair is shorn close to his head. His teeth are a brilliant white when he directs his smile at me. And I’m fairly certain he’s just insulted me, despite that grin.
Dylan’s boyfriend punches him in the arm. “Don’t be a dick.”
“I’m not being a dick. I’m just teasing the girl to make her feel like part of the group. It’s part of my welcome strategy. What do you say, beautiful? Do you feel welcome?”
His tone is playful and light, but there’s an intensity to his gaze that unnerves me. I freeze and study him, and I know immediately. “You’re Torres.”
Everyone laughs, and a girl with fiery red hair says, “Somehow she made just your name sound like an insult, Teo. I think she’s going to fit right in.”
Teo. I think back, trying to remember what first name Dylan had mentioned. Mateo?
He lifts a hand to his chest, the left side where his heart is, and shoots me a wounded expression that is like puppy-dog eyes to the tenth power. I’m not sure whether it makes me want to step closer or run in the other direction.
“At least she knows who I am,” he says. “None of you suckers are that important.”
I survey the rest of the group, and slowly try to guess which person goes with which description. The girl with red hair is the most obvious. There’s a tall, attractive guy with an arm looped over her shoulders, and they’re clearly the nucleus of the group.
I point at them. “Dallas and Carson.” The guy I deemed to be Carson raises his eyebrows in surprise. There’s only one other girl present, a petite Asian with dark hair cut and shaped around a pretty face. “You must be Stella.” She smiles and points a finger at the curly-haired guy close to her. She mouths, “Ryan.” I nod and take her hint, pointing him out, too. Next up is the guy I saw naked in my kitchen just a few days ago. That’s one face I’m not going to forget anytime soon. “That’s Silas, which means …” I face the last unidentified guy. He’s a large black guy with sculpted muscles and a symmetrical face. I get what Dylan said about him being the hardest to pin down. But he’s looking at me with a calculating expression that reminds me of myself, and I smile. “And you’ve got to be Isaiah Brookes.”
Torres whistles and draws my attention back to him, “How come you know his full name?”
He hops down from where he’s sitting on top of the picnic table and meets me in a few long strides. He loops an arm around my shoulders as if he’s known me for years instead of minutes, and suddenly I’m pressed up close and personal to the hardest body I’ve ever touched in real life. In fact, the closest I’ve ever come to someone this defined is one of those CPR dummies that are made of metal and rubber and plastic.
Torres says, “Forget having her on my team. I want her on my homework. She’s a genius or something.”
“Or she saw a picture of us,” Brookes says, his gaze still assessing.
Torres asks Dylan, “Did you show her our pictures, Captain Planet? I hope you got a good one of me.”
“Actually, I told her you were flashy and shameless. She put together who you were all on her own.”
The laughter that follows Dylan’s announcement is even louder than before, and it lasts for several long seconds. My eyes flit around the group as they laugh, and I try to take in all the dynamics at work, but my thoughts unravel completely when I feel hot breath against my ear, and then what must be lips brushing my skin as Torres asks, “What’s your name?”
It has to be autopilot that has me answering because all my conscious thoughts are too wrapped up in this body that’s crowded too close to mine, and how warm he is, and the faint scent of something citrus-y and woodsy that comes from his skin.
I pause. I still don’t want to be called by my last name.
“Well, just Nell. I’m Mateo.”
His lips keep barely brushing against the shell of my ear, and the heat of his breath tickles, and I can already feel my face flushing hot. And who gets this close to a complete stranger?
I shrug his arm from my shoulders and say the first thing that comes to my mind. “I’m supposed to stay away from you.”
I sound crazy. And like a child frightened of a stranger trying to offer me candy, but as nonsensical as it seems, that’s how I feel. All my senses are on high alert, and the hairs on my forearms are raised, and my breaths are coming faster than they should be considering all I’m doing is standing still.
I feel like prey.
And all he’s doing is smiling at me. And it’s a smile that tells me he has exactly zero intentions of putting any distance between us.
Just then a slim, shorter black guy comes jogging up and says, “Hey. Sorry I’m late, McClain.” When he’s standing a few feet away, I amend my description to less tall. He might not be as towering as the boundary-defying guy beside me, but he’s still big.
Carson, the one Dylan called the leader of the group and the apparent owner of the last name McClain, steps up and says, “No worries. We didn’t give you much notice.” He introduces the new guy as Keyon, and then introduces me and Dylan in turn. I guess Keyon must know everyone else. Then Carson adds, “And that puts us at an even ten. So we can pick teams and get going.”
Torres raises his hand. “I’ll be team captain.”
His proclamation makes my stomach tumble with nerves, and I’m not sure why.
Carson pauses for a moment and then shrugs. “Fine. You and Brookes are probably the fastest. So you can be captains.”
They flip a coin, and Brookes gets first pick. I expect him to pick one of the guys. They’re the obvious choice. As football players, they’re in shape and more naturally athletic. But he fixes his eyes on me for the briefest moment before turning to Torres, his gaze narrowed. He looks at me again.
“Your name is Nell?” he asks.
There’s something about him that feels simultaneously commanding and trustworthy, almost soothing. If he looks at me like that too much longer, I might just tell him my full name, birth date, Social Security number, and anything else he wants to know.
Instead, I nod.
He raises an eyebrow at Torres and says, “I’ll take Nell.”
All Played Out will be available in stores and online Tuesday, May 12. In the meantime, why not check out our Everything YA page?