Title: Not Without You
Series: By Your Side #3
Author: A.P. Watson
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: August 7, 2019
I have one rule in life—never fall in love. Sure, I loved my father and my best friend, but being in love with someone? Out of the question . . . It just wasn’t worth the risk. I saw the agony my father went through as my mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground, and he has never fully recovered from the depths of those sorrows. I won’t put myself through the same misery. I can’t.
Instead, I lose myself in my art. As a painter, I push my emotions into the colors I paint with. I usually put my entire being into every single painting, driving my fingers past the breaking point, but lately, my creative well has run dry. For over a year, my mind has taken a creative sabbatical, locking me out of my own reprieve. But everything changed when I met him. One glance into those bright blue eyes had my hands twitching with the desire to paint again.
If I thought remaining friends with my new muse was going to be easy, I was in for one hell of a letdown, because I was falling for him—fast. Handsome as hell, funny, and kind, he was everything I didn’t need, couldn’t have. I needed to remember my philosophy—live a happy, fulfilling life without falling in love. But deep down, I’m beginning to realize such a fate isn’t possible . . . Not Without You.
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Chapter One: White
White. That was the color that reigned supreme in places like this, places promising all the enlightenment that follows a higher education. Frankly, I would rather be surrounded by any other color in the crayon box. Yes, that meant puke green, sunshine yellow, and even the bright orange screaming at us from every inch of campus. In my opinion, anything was better than white. White was the color of a blank canvas, a stark reminder of the creative sabbatical my soul was currently taking.
“Why do you look like your grandma just flipped you off?”
The sound of Wren’s voice threw me out of my train of thought.
“Because I hate this class. Anything not related to art is a waste of my time.”
“Yeah, that might be true, but everybody is required to take Probability & Statistics.”
“And the probability of me passing this class is slim, so as you can see, no further instruction is needed,” I quipped, sticking my tongue out at her.
She flung her long copper locks over her shoulder and plopped in the seat to my left, pulling out a spiral notebook and a green pen. She was feeling sassy today, and that was an incredible sign. If I had to deal with everything she’d been through the past few weeks, I would have curled up in a ball and flipped the world the middle finger. But not Wren. She was a damn force to be reckoned with.
Placing my hand on her arm, I gave it a little squeeze. Instantly, her body stilled. Although I didn’t reveal my thoughts, my gesture meant she could count on me. It meant she wasn’t alone.
“Thanks, babe,” she whispered, setting her hand on my knee. “You’re the best.”
To my right, I could just make out the form of the hot blond guy who had been staring at me for half the class on Tuesday. Not that I hadn’t done my fair share of staring. My eyes had wandered in his direction more than a couple of times since the start of the semester. After all, no harm ever came from looking. He stepped closer, intent on occupying the empty chair next to me.
“If you’re going to sit there, you’d better have a good handle on what the hell is going on in this class,” I stated. My less-than-stellar performance on our first test meant I needed to get my ass in gear if I had any hopes of making it through this class with my GPA intact.
“You mean you don’t?” he asked, humor evident in his tone. “Because you seem like the type of person who has a handle on everything.”
I glanced up at him. Most of the time whenever a guy hit on me, I would dismiss them with little more than a wave of my hand. But his comment had more than piqued my interest. His shaggy blond hair and golden skin tone were so much hotter than I remembered. “Oh,” I whispered with a smile, “you’re good.”
He sat down next to me, sliding a pen out of the pocket of his jeans. “That’s what I hear.” And Hottie was apparently telling the truth, because when he opened his notebook, the first test we took slid out, landing in my lap. “Sorry.” He leaned in my direction.
But I was too quick for him. I grabbed the paper, completely at a loss for words, which was really fucking rare for me. Holy hell. Hottie got a ninety-six? “Look, we got the same grade!”
Wren snickered at my exclamation, trying her best to keep from laughing, since Professor Leigh had already started passing out the attendance roster.
“Really?” asked Hottie.
“Yeah, if you reverse the numbers on your test, that’s what I got.”
The bitchy chick who always wore a red headband turned around to glare at me. “Shh,” she spat, holding her finger over her lips.
“Oh, shut up. It’s not like we’re going to use this fucking bullshit in everyday life.” My retort either offended or shocked her, because she scoffed at me before spinning back around. God, I hated that fucking headband.
“That girl annoys the shit out of me,” Wren mumbled.
“Me too, babe.”
“Eh, she’s just pissed because she got the second-best grade in the class,” Hottie said.
“That seat is yours for the rest of the semester if you want it.”
“I may hold you to that. And my name is Ryan Evanston, by the way.” He held out his hand for me to shake. Crystal blue eyes met mine—the color so pure and pristine my fingers twitched with the need to recreate it.
For some people, sexual dry spells ruled their existence. For me, my artistic dry spell was worse than being stranded in the Sahara without a canteen. Sure, I’d been creating art projects for school, but my desire to paint—to let the world fall away and just create—had been non-existent. Wren believed I was uninspired, and she was probably right. But here, at this moment, all I wanted to do was paint those eyes.
Eventually, I slid my hand into his, noting the warmth radiating from his flesh. “Terayn Andrews.”
“And you?” he asked, leaning toward Wren.
“Wren Williams,” she answered.
“Nice to meet both of you.”
“Likewise,” I muttered for both of us.
Professor Leigh droned on for what felt like an eternity. So the guy had his passions, and they all happened to lie within statistics, but that still didn’t warrant the need for him to subject each of us to said passions. Alas, the board of this higher education establishment somehow feels we will benefit from taking a statistics course. And it was a load of freaking bull too.
I tried to concentrate on the sound of Leigh’s voice, but my brain was only capable of withstanding so much torture. I copied down a few notes from the lecture, but my willpower was obliterated by the color periwinkle. My hand had been twitching since I caught sight of those blue eyes. Pulling a few colored pens from my purse, I decided to let my fingers do their bidding.
Line after line flowed together, forming a perfect representation of the human eye. That iris and the multitude of colors it possessed were astounding. I used not one but three different blues in order to capture the intricacy of the hue. And I still wasn’t done. Something about his expression when he had looked at me caught my interest. It needed to be captured too. Now, the drawing had a set of eyebrows to accompany those eyes.
A sharp elbow to my side pulled my attention from the growing portrait in front of me.
“If you keep at it, you’re going to wind up drawing a full portrait,” Wren whispered in my ear.
“And you might want to stop before you get to Hottie’s body.”
“Fuck,” I muttered, the momentary enchantment his eyes had cast over me finally breaking.
I scrambled to cover the drawing that had now taken up over three-fourths of my notebook paper, but my efforts were too late. Hottie had already caught sight of my sudden artistic breakthrough.
He pointed to my drawing. “You’re really talented.”
“Thanks. Art major, so I have a bad habit of doodling all the time.”
“I like it.”
I swept a strand of hair behind my ear and glanced at the clock. Thank God, this hell pit of a class was nearly over. I was in the middle of straightening my papers when a page full of notes landed right on top of my stack.
I glanced to my right, staring at Hottie, or rather, Ryan. “What’s this?”
“Notes for today’s lecture.”
“Don’t you need these?” I asked.
“Not really. This class is almost fun for me. I’m double majoring in corporate finance and business.”
He laughed, turning that blue gaze on me. “That’s one way to put it.”
“Thank you for the notes.”
To my left, I could just make out Wren’s body stiffening. Her phone was clutched in her hands, and she squeezed the plastic case dangerously.
That couldn’t be good. I glanced at her and the phone. A text from Liam lit up the screen.
Fuck that fucking jackass.
Even after all the shit he had pulled on her birthday, he was still trying to fuck with her life. I was just about to throw my arm around her when she stood and bolted from the class. I grabbed my stuff and flew after her, ignoring the astonished stares of our fellow classmates. The moment I reached the doorway, my head turned in either direction. Wren was at the end of the hall, clearly fighting back tears. The girl didn’t cry. In fact, the only time I’d seen her cry—other than at my mother’s funeral—was on her birthday last week when she caught Liam fucking his ex.
I approached her with caution. “Hey, babe. Talk to me about it?”
She shook her head, water shining in her brown eyes. “I am so over him and all his bullshit! Why can’t he just leave me the fuck alone?”
Her raised voice garnered a few curious stares. Not thinking, I grabbed her hand and pulled her into what I thought would be an empty room. Instead, we were met with a wall of urinals. Oh well, it would do.
“What is he doing now?”
“Trying to apologize. As if I would even take his lying, cheating ass back.”
“The nerve of that fucker.”
“Hey! This is the men’s restroom!” A guy I’d never seen before held the door open, staring at us in shock.
“Ask me if I care,” I replied, glaring at him with nothing but hatred in my eyes.
“But—” the guy began.
“Find another restroom. This one is occupied.” Hottie from our statistics class loomed over the guy. All right, he wasn’t just another pretty face. He had some nicely muscled arms to back up his threat.
“My mistake.” The guy scurried away a second later.
“Are both of you okay?”
“Wren?” I questioned in a soft voice.
“Not really,” she replied, her fingers twisting around a long strand of her hair. Her eyes were glued to the floor, but the faint trace of tears still lingered on the curves of her cheeks.
“I see.” He nodded, looking thoughtful as he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “You guys hungry?”
“Yeah,” Wren answered.
“I could eat,” I added.
“My Jeep is parked right outside this building. Why don’t I take you guys to get something to eat?”
I looked to Wren so she would know this was her call.
“Okay,” she muttered.
He held the door open for us while Wren and I filed out of the men’s restroom. The three of us exited the building, stepping out into the overcast day. Yesterday was nearly seventy degrees. Today, it was barely above fifty. I really wished Tennessee would decide what the hell it wanted to do with the weather.
Hottie drove us to a diner not far from campus. I’d always been told not to get in the car with a stranger, but Ryan put off nothing but good vibes. He had opened and closed the car doors for Wren and I, and he even held open the door to the diner. Everything in my gut informed me he was a nice guy.
We slid into an empty booth just as our waiter arrived. He handed each of us a menu and a glass of water before he scurried away, stating he’d be back in a minute to take our order. I sipped on my water, watching Wren out of the corner of my eye.
“Do you have any more classes today?” I asked Ryan.
“Nope. I’m free. What about you two?”
“I’ve got art history tonight at seven but that’s it.”
“I’m done too,” Wren stated.
“And you’re an art major. What about you, Wren?”
“Nursing. I’m still getting a few requirements in now, though.”
“What about you?” she asked. She’d been too distracted by Liam’s earlier message to hear Ryan’s answer in class.
“I’m double majoring in corporate finance and business.”
“Damn. Guess that explains the A you got on the first statistics exam.”
“If either of you need help in that class, just ask. I really don’t mind.”
“Thanks,” she answered.
“I think I’m the only one who really needs the help,” I added.
Wren grinned, nudging me with her shoulder. “Numbers so aren’t your thing.”
“I’m tragically left-brained.”
No sooner than the words left my mouth, and our waiter popped up out of nowhere to take our order.
“Alright. What can I get y’all to eat?” He turned in my direction first, awaiting my order.
“I’ll have a burger with a side of onion rings.”
He jotted down my order. “And for you?”
“I’ll have two pancakes and a double side of bacon.”
“Oh, we stopped serving breakfast at noon.”
Wren’s expression dropped at his words. It was only two in the afternoon. I figured this place served breakfast all day, and she must have too. She picked the menu back up, scanning through the lunch dishes.
“Give her whatever she wants,” Ryan ordered, pulling out his wallet.
“I wish I could, but we stopped serving breakfast two hours ago.”
Ryan set a fifty-dollar bill on top of the guy’s order pad. “Surely a few pancakes and two sides of bacon won’t be too much trouble, right?”
“It’s okay! I’ll just order something else,” Wren said.
“Nope, you want pancakes and bacon, and you’ll get it.” Ryan’s voice wasn’t angry, but it did err on the side of being extremely dominant. And I kind of liked it.
“Two pancakes and two sides of bacon it is,” the waiter agreed, scribbling on his pad.
“We really appreciate you being so accommodating,” Ryan stated.
“And for you?” the waiter asked.
“A burger with a side of fries and a strawberry milkshake.
“Okay. I’ll have that out to you as soon as possible.”
“Thank you,” Ryan answered, collecting all the menus to hand back to the waiter.
“Thank you so much for what you did, but you didn’t need to do it,” Wren said once our waiter was out of earshot.
Ryan shrugged, acting like it wasn’t a big deal. “You seemed like you weren’t having the best day, so it’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you,” I added, staring into those sapphire eyes.
“I really do appreciate it,” Wren replied.
“Happy to help. Besides, what kind of diner doesn’t serve breakfast all day?”
“I was thinking the same thing!”
I nodded, completely in agreement with Wren. “I thought it did too. Kind of weird that it doesn’t.”
“I suppose next time we eat out, it’ll have to be at Street City Grill. They serve breakfast all day.”
“Bacon should always be served all day.”
“I agree wholeheartedly.” Ryan smiled at her. “So, how long have the two of you been friends?”
“Since we were six,” Wren and I answered in unison.
Ryan nodded. “I can tell.”
“This copper-haired beauty is my number one babe.” I slid my arm around her neck and squeezed tight.
“What the hell would I want one of those for?”
“I don’t mean to put down my own gender, but you’re probably better off without one,” Ryan joked.
“No kidding,” Wren agreed.
“Look, I’m not one to pry, but if you want to talk about whatever has been making your day so shitty, feel free to get it off your chest.”
“I appreciate the thought.”
“It’s either about relationship or family troubles. And while I’m well-versed with the latter, I’m also a good listener if you ever need to vent about it.”
Wren gave him a slight smile. “Thank you. I’ll definitely keep your offer in mind. It might be nice to have a guy’s perspective on everything.”
“Relationship trouble then,” Ryan muttered more to himself than to Wren and me.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Sorry, I figured it was guy trouble, but I didn’t want to pry.”
“Oh,” Wren breathed. “Yeah, it is.”
“Figures. Men are dicks most of the time.”
“Oh, so you’re gay?” I questioned. The way Ryan had been staring at me in class led me to believe he fell to the charms of the female population, so I couldn’t help but be curious.
I blamed his eyes.
“What?” His eyebrows pinched together as he quickly shifted his attention from Wren to me. “I’m not gay.”
“If you are, we don’t care. Actually, it will probably make us like you more.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but I like pussy.”
His reply caught me off guard. Those periwinkle irises held my gaze for a second before tearing through me like a damn power drill. “Um, I-I . . .” What the hell was I even going to say? I was not the type of woman to be at a loss for words, so this development was pretty strange for me. And Hottie’s looks were definitely responsible.
Wren burst into a fit of laughter beside me. “Oh my God! You made her blush! Jesus Christ, Ter, I don’t think you’ve blushed since ninth grade.” She leaned across the table and held out her hand, giving Ryan a high five. “You are crass and awesome! We can be friends.”
Ryan licked his lips and grinned like the freaking Cheshire cat. “Happy to have your approval.”
Thank God, my embarrassing moment was cut short by the arrival of our food. Our waiter placed a plate in front of each of us before scurrying away.
“Bacon!” Wren bounced happily as she shoved a strip of crispy goodness into her mouth.
“In the world of Wren, bacon makes everything better,” I explained.
“I can see that. And in the world of Terayn, what makes everything better?”
Usually, that answer was painting and Wren’s mom making me a chicken pot pie. But with my creative hiatus seeping into every part of my being, I was going to have to settle for baked goods. “Wren’s mom makes the best chicken pot pie I’ve ever had in my life.”
“So, it makes everything in your life better?”
“Pretty much.” I shrugged my shoulders and shoved an onion ring in my mouth as I watched Ryan devour his burger. “And what makes everything in your life better?”
“Foodwise? A burger and fries. Not foodwise, I guess hitting the gym. It’s a good way to burn off steam.”
“We can tell.”
Wren snickered beside me, quickly shoving a bite of pancake into her mouth.
“Was that meant as a comment or a question?” I asked Ryan.
“Both, I guess.”
We finished the rest of our food, and I couldn’t help but be thankful for the distraction Ryan had given Wren. Her life had been turned upside down, so any excuse to forget the shit storm Liam had brought on her? I was all for it.
Although, the part of my brain continuously stressing about my future career as an artist was thankful for the distraction as well.
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A.P. Watson is a contemporary and paranormal romance author who discovered her love for reading at a very young age due to her rural upbringing. She enjoys a variety of genres and authors, from Jane Austen to Charlaine Harris. When she isn’t reading or writing, she loves to dance. A.P. has been an avid pole dancer for several years and thoroughly enjoys the challenging nature of the sport and the thrill of performing onstage. Professionally, she has worked as a registered nurse for several years, and she graduated with a Master of Science in Nursing in 2019. Her goal is to combine her love for aesthetics and skincare by utilizing her Family Nurse Practitioner certification in the field of dermatology. A.P. currently resides in Johnson City, Tennessee, with her adorable rescue pup, Elle.
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