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Pushing the Limits(8)

By:Brooke Cumberland



I feel a hand on my shoulder and jerk around so quickly the paintbrush  between my fingers follows. A streak of blue paint wipes across  Professor Hampton's face before I even realize it's happened.

"Oh my God!" My eyes go wide as I feel my cheeks heat with  embarrassment. I quickly yank my earbuds out. "I'm so sorry!" I lower my  hand and examine the damage.

He smiles and a small laugh escapes his throat as he blinks. "Guess I deserved that."

I frown. "It wasn't on purpose."

"Never sneak up on a painter," he confirms. "Sorry about that. I was trying not to startle you, but apparently, my plan failed."

"It's fine," I assure him. "I wasn't expecting anyone to come in yet."

"Yeah, I figured I'd come early and prepare." He smiles that crooked,  drop-your-panties and beg-for-it smile, sending a rush of excitement  through me. I've had some amazing professors in the past, but they've  never made me feel as nervous to be around them as he does.

I can feel his breath against my bare arm, alerting me to take a step  back. I put the brush down and look away. I start cleaning up my  supplies, but I feel him grip my wrist and squeeze.

"Wait."

I turn to look at him staring at the painting. I swallow at the  intensity of his voice and eyes. His hand stays wrapped around my wrist  as he stares intently at it, almost as if he's examining every detail.

"You started this just today?"

"Yeah, about an hour ago." I look back at the painting. "It's a rough start. Something I did on a whim."

He releases my wrist and smiles at me. "It's stunning. The contrast  between the warm and cool colors really catches your attention, drawing  you into the tones. It's almost like they are forcing you to feel the  agony and heartache she's feeling from her struggles."

"Thank you." I lower my head to hide the blush creeping over my cheeks.  When I need to get out of my own head, I just start painting. Getting  lost in whatever piece I'm working on helps me cope. It's the only  non-medical thing that keeps my anxiety under control. "I was trying to  show her two contradicting personalities by putting them side by side," I  explain.

"So she's struggling with inner demons but doesn't reveal it on the outside?" he asks, intrigued, and I nod.         

     



 

"There's a struggle with who she wants to be on the outside and what she feels on the inside."

"Sounds intense." His lips tilt down slightly into a frown. "I love it,  Aspen. Would you mind if I kept it in the classroom to exhibit for a  bit?"

I look down and bite my lip. I slowly bring my head back up, his eyes  trying to read me. "Um … " I hesitate. "Actually, it's kind of personal."

"I won't tell anyone it's yours." He grins slyly, and I find myself having a hard time resisting those damn dimples.

"Okay, so if anyone asks … " I prompt.

"I'll claim it's a student from the old college I used to teach at. Someone named … " He pauses briefly. "Regina Hopintale."

I bite my lip to keep myself from laughing but fail. "Thanks."

His lips curl up even higher, showing off his dimples again. Lord, those  dimples are like fresh strawberries covered in melted chocolate. They  look so delicious and perfect that you can't deny the explosive flavor  once it hits your tongue.

Oh my God … did I just compare my professor's dimples to chocolate covered strawberries?

I seriously need to get some fresh air. Or perhaps a second pair of panties.

He walks to the front of the classroom, setting his briefcase down on  the desk. I clean up my area and put my supplies away before the first  few students walk in.

"How's it goin'?" Ellie asks in that southern twang of hers as soon as she sits down in the chair next to mine.

"You're surprisingly early … " I narrow my eyes at her suspiciously.

"Not that early … " she denies, her cheeks turning a soft red.

"Does this have anything to do with that guy over there eye-fucking  you?" I noticed it during our first class. He stares at her every chance  he gets.

"Who? Kyle Simmons?" She pretends to not notice him as she digs through her supplies bag.

I playfully scowl at her. "I don't know his name! But it's apparent you do."

"We might've had a couple classes together last semester."

"And?" I prompt, knowing there's so much more to the story.

"And … " She lingers. "We might've hooked up at a party."

"So you came to class early to what? Have a staring contest?"

She wrinkles her nose at me. "No … I don't know. It's just once class starts, the easel will block my view."

"So … go sit next to him. Wouldn't that solve your problem?"

"Oh, bless your heart, Aspen." I furrow my brows, confused. "He should  come sit next to me. It'd be the gentlemanly thing to do." She crosses  her legs and folds her hands in her lap.

"Ah … " I say, it finally clicking. "So what you really want is to  eye-fuck him and play hard to get until he makes the initiative to come  talk to you?"

"Is that too much to ask?"

I laugh at her sharp-witted southern accent. "Oh, so you were ready to  jump on the professor in a heartbeat, but Kyle needs to be a southern  gentleman and come to you?"

"That's exactly right," she answers sharply. I shake my head and smile at her.

Soon, class begins, and I watch Professor Hampton walk around the front  of the room and discuss our assignment. I should be listening, but my  mind wanders to the abstract I painted earlier. The one that portrays  her inner demons …



It'd been raining all night long, and eventually, the storm woke me up. A  flash of lighting temporarily blinded me as I squinted, trying to see  if Ari was awake. Her bed was empty and the light in the hallway peeked  under our bedroom door.

I threw the covers off and opened the door, deciding to tiptoe down the  hallway to see where she had gone. "Ariel?" I whispered. I stood in  front of the bathroom door that was closed, but I knew she had to be in  there. "Ariel, you in here?" I knocked lightly.

Silence.

I slowly opened the door, hoping I wasn't interrupting her, but when I  stepped in, my entire world stopped. "Oh my God, Ariel!" I ran to her  where she lay on the cold bathroom floor, blood running down her hand  and fingers. "Ariel, wake up!" I screamed, pulling her into my lap.

I grabbed a towel from the hook and wrapped it around her wrist. A razor  blade lay next to her, covered in dried blood. Tears fell down my  cheeks faster than I could wipe them off. I couldn't understand what was  happening … why had she done it?

Why hadn't I known she was hurting?





The sound of chairs sliding on the floor knocks me out of my past  nightmare. Everyone's hustling to grab their easels and spread out their  supplies. I grab my project that we started last class after our memory  exercise and drown in my thoughts as I keep my eyes down and to the  canvas in front of me. Professor Hampton continues walking around, but I  don't need to glance up to know he's studying me from the front of the  room.         

     



 

Before we're dismissed, he reminds us to keep an eye out for his email about our first blog assignment.

I have a feeling Professor Hampton is going to take up much more of my time than I suspected.





CHAPTER FOUR

ASPEN



The sound of my alarm wakes me up and before I can even manage to open  my eyes, I reach for my phone and tap on the screen until the noise  stops. It's Saturday, and I have to be at work in less than an hour, but  the heavy weight lying next to me reminds me that I'm not alone.

Jake, or maybe it was John, is a guy I met during happy hour, and when  two drinks turned into four and six, I invited him back to my place.

But I don't have time to casually escort him out and exchange  numbers-not that I'd give him mine anyway. That's not how this works. I  avoid any kind of attachment, friendship, or even a fuck buddy. I don't  feel that compassion toward relationships that most women do. I can't be  open, discuss my feelings, or have ‘talks' about my past. It's the  exact reason I avoid it all in the first place. One-night stands and  casual hookups are all I'm emotionally capable of giving.

I need to shower and leave before I'm late to work again. So I slide out  of bed¸ grab my towel hanging on the back of the door, and walk to the  bathroom.

He has exactly forty-two minutes to leave before I kick him out.

I wash my body and hair, trying to remember the events of last night.

Kendall and Zoe met me at Happy Joe's for the two-for-one happy hour special.

It was only meant to be a quick, fun girls' night out, but it soon  turned into a party of six after Kendall invited her boyfriend, Kellan.

Jake, or John, was there with a friend from work-some name that I can't  remember either-and I can only assume Zoe took him home after Kendall  and I left.

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