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Eden O'Neill



⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 647 5-Star Reviews

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“What do you say, Jersey girl?”

He asked me that over a deep dish, a man I met at a wedding when I’d been trying to forget the epic disaster that was my life. He was too young, but I was hurting, sad, and recently divorced. Basically, the trifecta for bad decision-making.

Did I mention I’m divorced?

Because I am, and he made me laugh. God, did he make me laugh and I didn’t do that. Not anymore. My ex-husband stole something from me I could never get back, and my pizza companion was there to offer an alternative. A night with him to forget old wounds from the past.

And I’m totally not a terrible person because he was running from something too. We both were. Two strangers drowning in the sea of our own pain. He had a past and a woman he was trying to get out of his mind, and I had a trauma that needed the same prescription.

One night to forget all the crap and the people who came before. One night of rash decisions. One night with a beautiful man who made me smile. Made me laugh.

He’s in his twenties.

I’m in my thirties.

Ramses Mallick may prove to completely unravel me.

It’s only made worse that he’s my student.

Author’s Note: Lover is a NA age-gap, student/professor romance. Unlike the previous books in the Court University series, it is a non-bully romance and is recommended for readers 17+ due to sexual content. It’s a standalone novel with no cliffhanger. It's also book four in the Court University series, which is a spin-off series about characters featured in Eden O'Neill's Court High books. Reading the Court High books first is not necessary for the enjoyment of Court University. The characters origin stories merely begin in Court High and can be referred to at any time if the reader so chooses. Enjoy!

*Hardcover and Paperback books purchased after 1/26/24 will include author's stamped signature

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Chapter One


I suppose it’d been around the last two or three top one hundred songs when it all finally hit.
This was almost over.
Like everything, every little moment was done. No more circulating every bridal shop known to man. No more late-night runs to craft stores looking at tulle and other kinds of stuff far beyond the male psyche to even be able to comprehend or understand. No more 3 a.m. phone calls to see how she’d been. To determine if she was stressed or had everything she needed. The bride wasn’t stressed anymore. She had it all.
And I finally had to let her go.
I’d stayed away most of the night, keeping to myself. I told myself it was to make sure everything flowed well. I was the go-to guy, the one people came to if the happy couple needed absolutely anything. I was basically the best man without technically being the best man. The actual best men I hadn’t seen half the night either, but that was because they were either helping themselves to the bride and groom’s booze or their own girlfriends. I mean, that’s what they should be doing. That’s what normal people should do. All the planning and shit was over. It was time to have fun now.
My fingers played against glass, the condensation on my beer bottle long gone. Who knew how long I’d been holding it. Even still, I sucked it back, hot yeast traveling down my throat in a lump. I’d managed to make this beer last the whole night, some kind of weird record, I was sure.
Swirling it around, I watched the final dances on the floor, the crowd long thinned out. People started dipping out after the cake cutting and opening dances. Now, it was just the ride-or-dies out there, the bridal party and a few other younger girls and guys like me. I watched friends both old and new have a good time under glistening lights, the winter theme of the event in full swing. It actually appeared to be snowing in the reception hall at one point, mostly a strobe light effect I’d been told.
I just knew it suited the new couple perfectly, hard not to get lost in all the magic and wonder of this place. Windsor House, the wedding and reception’s location, had some history, but tonight, it wasn’t about any of that or the trials and tribulations of the past. It was about everything but that.
“Can I have this last dance?”
It was about dark hair and brown eyes that twinkled under those snowy lights. It was about her, the blushing bride.
Who also just so happened to be my best friend.
Leave it to the woman of the night to find me of all people for her final dance. I’d been trying to do everything but stand out.
Grinning, December waved her hands at me, the epitome of the most gorgeous bride in the world. She’d changed into a shimmering gown, making her look like a mermaid the way the precious silk glided along her frame. Elegant as hell, she attempted to convince my loner ass into a dance like she knew I’d been trying to lay low all night. Light touched her dark eyes. “Come on. We don’t have long.”
We didn’t have long. Really, this was it.
I think that’d been the only reason I put my beer down, shaking my head before taking her hand. I was the damn guy and wouldn’t let her have this one.
A spin and I had her out on the dance floor, taking her close but only just. I was well-aware her new husband was around here somewhere, and I wasn’t trying to get my ass kicked. Prinze could be a territorial motherfucker, and where I might normally poke at that, I didn’t tonight.
Tonight, a lot of things were different.
Tonight, I made myself be at peace with events from the past. That this was what December and I were now. We’d been friends for a long time, since high school, but with states between us and our lives on different trajectories, it’d been really easy to pass off old ways. At least, for me. It’d been easy to say this girl was just my friend. I hadn’t had to see her every day.
I hadn’t had to feel this every day.
Her in my arms, her close and rehashing old shit that didn’t need to be rehashed. I almost told her no when she asked me to be her man of honor. I mean, there’d been more than one reason why I’d left town and decided to go to school out of state. A few of those reasons surrounded her in varied ways, but that decision would not only have been selfish but foolish. It’d be admitting to something that I didn’t want to admit. That the past was harder to put away than I believed.
That I still hadn’t dealt with this.
I held the bride close, being foolish for just a moment. December was all heat, all memories, and God, how I’d wanted her back then. Somewhere along the way, after she’d dropped into my life, she’d been everything. Had I found her first, that might have been our destiny. We were so good as friends.
But you lost.
I had been aware of that. Another man had gotten to her first and actually, was responsible for the reason December and I met in school. Prinze had this thing set up and on lock before I could even step foot in the game. I’d had no chance, my current reality with December already predetermined. She’d always been meant to be his.
December placed two fingers to my chin, doing the worst fucking thing by making me look directly at her. Tawny brown eyes sparkled in that snowy white dress of hers. This girl was Snow White from her fair skin to the ruby red tone of her lips. Her dark hair was nearly black, but make no mistake. December Lindquist was no fair maiden, no damsel in distress.
And I guess she was December Prinze now.
I held on to that as much as I had her secure in my arms, forcing myself to smile down at her. I had at least a foot on her up here.
“You’ve been scarce tonight.” Her hand moved to my shoulder, and I breathed. This location was okay, easier. Her lips parted. “You all right? I haven’t seen you since the bouquet toss.”
Oh, and how fun that’d been. I’d actually caught that shit, like she’d been aiming for me, and possibly had. My best friend had been known to meddle more than once in my personal life, and whenever we did see each other, it was like she was always trying to hook me up with someone.
I folded my hand around hers, chuckling. “Yeah, and thanks for that. You pissed off more than one single woman tonight, I’m sure.”
I mean, a dude catching the bouquet wasn’t ideal, and I got way more attention than I’d wanted. Like stated, I’d been trying to avoid action tonight, not be at the center of it.
December rolled her eyes. “Don’t act like you didn’t get a million digits.” She jostled me with a grin. “You’re welcome by the way. Pretty sure you’re getting laid tonight, and I’m totally responsible for that.”
“I didn’t ask to get laid.” Spinning her, I brought her back to me, the dance floor a mix of chill sways and swinging hips. I eyed her. “I was perfectly fine hanging out. Being single.”
“Hmm. And how’s that working for you?”
Not as fine as I would have liked, but I was in a good place now that I was back home and out of the fray of all that. I just wanted to chill. Having someone else in my life was not a huge priority.
Truth be told, I’d had my fill of a social life just trying to help her with this wedding. It was unbelievable how women did this shit every day. I considered myself a pretty good multitasker, but having to help her work through the minutiae that was her wedding planning hadn’t been easy. Especially since I had to book a lot of her appointments and man her bridal party, the epitome of awkward as fuck since I was a guy and like, her entire party I’d gone to high school with. I’d been given my fair share of handling from the other women, came with the territory since we’d known each other.
It’d been all worth it, though—a good time and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I’d do anything for this girl. Always.
“I’m okay.” I attempted to convince the bride now and needed to do a good job at that, too. Tonight wasn’t about me and my problems. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
“But don’t I?” Our dance slowed in place. She squeezed my hand. “You still haven’t said what happened. Why you came home?”
Because I didn’t have to, and I was not talking about that here. And definitely not now. My choice to leave Brown University and transfer closer to home to finish out my senior year had nothing to do with her.
Even if I had dealt with the issue in the same way.
I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t have a track record. Running away was how I dealt with things. In this case, I really didn’t have a choice. I’d made the ultimate fuck-up, and rather than staring that shit in the face every day, I made a choice. Coming home was the best decision, and I stood by that.
I wet my lips. “Here’s not the place. Nor the time.”
“Well, where and when is?”
“How about when you’re not about to go on your honeymoon.” To another guy. I shook my head. “We’re not doing this. We won’t do this.”
She needed to let me go too, in more than one way. This was our last dance, and we shouldn’t do this, ruin it.
Her fingers worked in my hand, her head, ultimately, laying on my chest. The fucker threatened to beat out of his cage she was so close.
This is the last dance.
December gave up the topic of discussion, but that didn’t mean she wanted to. I think she too knew this was it. It wasn’t the time for fighting. This was her day, a happy day. We let everything go on that dance floor, just drifting into the motions of the dance. We were two friends with a shared past that resulted in two different futures.
“Plan on giving me back my wife any time soon, Mallick?”
She’d obviously found hers, my eyes rolling when I faced her husband. A scowl in a five-thousand-dollar suit.
That was Royal Prinze.
The guy had a face that animators typically reserved for Disney princes. But considering the number of smiles (or lack thereof) the guy allotted over his lifetime, I had a feeling his particular good looks landed him more on the Disney villain spectrum. He was a celebration of a thousand glares and had a healthy amount of those reserved for me over the years.
Truth, we put our beef away long ago, but the guy seriously made it too easy to get a rise out of him. It was almost a game. What could I say to get Royal Prinze to scowl at me?
“Relax, Prinze.” I swung December away, sashaying to the beat with a grin. “You’ve had her all night, and the song’s not quite over.”
Turned out, it wasn’t much.
His scowl deepened, and I even gave myself ten bonus points for the eye tick. It always hit his left, a hard squint before he cuffed December’s arm. He eased her over. “Considering she’s my wife, that’s justified,” he growled. His finger shot out. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten about that shit you pulled in Miami.”
I may or may not have participated in a coup to keep himself and his groomsmen busy the night of December’s bachelorette party. I will say, though, I had nothing to do with the fact that there’d be strippers there… I just happened to know about them. Anyway, that was water under the bridge, and he’d gotten over it—obviously. The fact that I was still alive and standing there now told me that.
Unbuttoning my jacket, I stamped hands on waist. “Don’t act like you’re still mad about that.”
Because he wasn’t, not by a long shot. Again, if he was, I wouldn’t be standing here tonight, let alone December’s man of honor. The two of us just liked to handle each other, and he even secretly liked me.
He’d even told me once.
Really, I should have recorded that shit, because I’d never hear it again. A snarl formed on Prinze’s lips before he took his new wife’s hand. December, of course, rolled her eyes at both of us. She was used to the caveman shit, and odds were, we’d bicker for the rest of our days. Sometimes, two people were just always meant to be rivals. The common link was that we both passionately cared about the woman between us. He’d won, and the only satisfaction I did have was that he’d love her as fiercely as I knew she deserved to be loved. He’d be there for her.
He’d treat her well.
He will.
My mantra as I allowed my moment to become his. Kissing the back of her hand, he asked if she was ready to go. I guess his three best men had gotten their car ready for them. Knight, LJ, and Jax were his ride-or-dies, still closer than shit. Even after high school. There were some bonds that never broke, some people who stayed close instead of pushing others away. These people grew together. They didn’t get lost on the outside even with miles apart for some of them. They had their shit together.
December’s hypnotic eyes landed on me, letting me in on her world. She didn’t forget about me and probably never would. That just made all this so much harder. I wanted her to let go, to forget.
To let me forget.
She remained my ride-or-die, always in my corner. The issue was, she’d grown where I hadn’t. She moved on. She loved.
Prinze was behind her. She told him she’d be just a second, smiling at me. She’d called me the name we both called each other since we met in Arizona.
“‘Zona.” I shortened the name for her, always my Arizona. Taking her hand, I gave her a hug, and from behind her, Prinze let his entire demeanor slip. Something of a smile touched his eyes before he eyed away and pretended to talk to someone else on the dance floor. I said this guy allotted only so many smiles.
I suppose he spared one for me.
We really didn’t hate each other, not anymore. How could I hate him? He was the sole source of the exuberant happiness that radiated off his new wife. He was her joy, her air.
Her breath.
I couldn’t hate that. It was like hating her if I did, and I didn’t. I only wanted what was best for her and if that was him, well, that was him.
Taking my attention away from him, I placed it back on December, so much smaller than me. She was like bite-sized to my lanky-ass frame.
“We’re going to talk when we get back,” she said, smelling like everything wonderful about the world, all flowers and honeysuckle. She pulled away. “You can’t escape from me.”
She wouldn’t let me either, goddamn her. Grinning, I passed what she said off, our fingers laced. “You’re going to miss your ride.”
“They’ll wait. I’m the motherfucking bride.”
Fuck yeah, she was. The pair of us chuckled. We just stood there like two goobers, hands together, and I wished for so many things. I wished for do-overs, for do-betters. Maybe if I’d been the one to grow, she’d be on my arm. It’d be our wedding here, now.
A glow hit her eyes as she reached for me, her tiny arms around my waist. She buried her face in my chest, and my insides caved.
“I love you, Arizona,” she said, and since I didn’t trust my voice, I stayed silent. I merely let her hold onto me, knowing what that love meant to her. It meant this moment, two friends with a shared history. It meant our past.
Whereas mine could have meant our future.

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