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Study Abroad

Laurel showed up a week early with her parents and brother for a family vacation before her study abroad trip started. She e-mailed her professor to make sure this arrangement was okay since she would not be travelling with the rest of the class on the flight to London. The professor assured her that would be fine and to meet them at the dormitory the following week to begin the class. She took a deep breath and started packing for her trip with her family. At the last minute her brother invited his girlfriend on the trip. Great, now she’d be stuck babysitting her parents while he got to have a great time seeing the sights with his partner. She was of course happy for him on some level, she loved her soon-to-be sister-in-law. But selfishly she wanted to spend time with her brother one on one. Since he went away for college 4 years ago to Florida when she was a freshman in High School, and she didn’t get to see him much. She’d already become the focus of the family these last 4 years with him in another state. She had decided to stay in her hometown and go to community college since her parents didn’t really have the money to send her out of state. Also, she was also unsure of what she wanted to declare as her major after graduation last year from high school so she decided to take some fun electives to see what color her parachute would become. After a lot of the basics the first two semesters she saw a flyer in the cafeteria for a “British Literature Study Abroad,” for the summer. It counted as one of her English credits, so she figured she’d look into it.

Her family had been wanting to take a family vacation together since James, her brother, had gone off to college. One more for the books before the children had settled into their adult lives and wouldn’t want to spend time with their aging parents. At 19 and 22 they didn’t really want to spend time with their parents but a free trip to England sounded like a fair deal. When she had brought up the study abroad trip at dinner one night she wasn’t sure how she was going to pay for airfare and when her parents immediately erupted into excitement and started plotting for the trip she fell silent. After dinner her mother started calling their cousins in Yorkshire and she figured it was out of her hands at that point. She felt pangs of anticipation and perhaps embarassment.

She was registered for the class and packing for the trip a month later and it felt surreal. She’d never been out of the country before, and she dug out the old photos of her grandmother taking pictures with the palace guards in the 60’s. Her grandmother’s dress was burnt yellow with pale pink daisies all over it. She had the quintessential white patent leather boots on. Her grin and hair were almost as high as the guard’s fuzzy helmet. Laurel laughed at the photo and slid it back into her desk drawer. Her grandmother would be so proud of who she was becoming. She thought about when she was little, her grandmother would grab her as she’d be running around with her cousins every weekend at her house and squeeze her tight and whisper in her little ear, “you can be anything you want to be in this world my little strawberry.” Grandma would let her go from her grasp as quickly as she’d picked her up. Laurel remembered looking back at her and just seeing smiles and tears in her eyes. She had a freedom her grandmother never had. Laurel never understood the tears until last year when her grandmother died. Her grandmother held her hand and said, “baby, you can be anything you want to be in this world…I couldn’t but you can. Promise me you’ll see the world and promise me you’ll never let anyone get in the way of you following your dreams.” Laurel of course promised her through tear-soaked eyes and fervent nods. Laurel packed up the last of her things in remembrance of her Grandma. Wiping a tear from her eye, she dragged her bag out to the car.

The taxi van dropped the family off and they managed to get to the gate on time and with most of their sanity. Laurel’s brother and his girlfriend of course were on a different row than her and her parents, but she was distracted on her plane ride by her “Complete Works of Jane Austen” book and got lost in Northanger Abbey and the moors of Mansfield Park on the ride “across the pond.” She’d been reading Jane Austen since 8th grade and was a firm Austenite. The flyer for the class advertised going to the home of Jane Austen and she was looking forward to seeing the writing desk in the museum of her home and hoping to get a little vicarious energy from it.

She’d always been a hopeless romantic (thanks to her mother’s obsession with rom-coms and daytime soap operas.) In high school she’d had a boyfriend for a few months during her senior year, but he broke up with her to “focus on baseball. My coach said I can’t have any distractions…” and from then on, she’d sworn off anyone less than Jane would approve of. She thought of the letter Captain Wentworth wrote to Anne where he said “I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan.” She also thought of her promise to her grandmother. Anything less than a love that allowed her to be free but was also full and present would just not do.

The week with her family turned out to be fun and her dad took more photos than necessary as usual. They went to Big Ben, rode many tall, red buses, took tours of castles and bridges and had lots of coffee and mostly didn’t argue or get on each other’s nerves. It was actually fun having her brother’s girlfriend there and she was glad for all the bonding time they ended up getting. Her brother was happy, and she wished for that kind of happiness for herself someday. She was reading a steamy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and thoughts of a tall, dark, Mr. Darcy-type had been occupying large swaths of her daydreams. On their last day her family and her took a tour by the palace on her family’s last day and she took a picture with one of the guards just like her grandmother…

She stepped out of the cab and waved to them as she stood on the sidewalk. As the black cab pulled away, she felt a few moments of peace and reflection on the time she had with her family. They weren’t perfect, but they loved and supported her. She stood gratefully waiting for the next chapter of the summer and for her classmates to arrive. The first one to arrive was a bubbly blonde with a southern accent, “Hiiii, I’m Julie” as she shook hands with Laurel in a sweet, slightly southern accent. “Gosh, I’m so excited, aren’t you?!” Laurel was very excited. She liked Julie right away…

A week later she arrived with her classmates for their overnight trip to Chawton to see Jane Austen’s house and museum. When they’d finally put their things down in their rooms she realized she was starving. She unpacked some of her things and asked Julie if she wanted to go grab a bite. Julie agreed and they wandered down the road until they found an old Tudor-style tea house. They went upstairs and ordered tea, sandwiches and yes, crumpets. They were taking pictures of each other with their pinkies out and laughing maybe a little too audibly for the old tea house. The tea house was sparse with patrons. It had stark white walls with old portraits throughout. Large brown beams ran across the vaulted ceilings. The girls were giddy to say the least. Laurel was in heaven. She’d never been in a building or in a place this old. It was just how she’d pictured the small town to be. She was lost in her daydream and loving every minute.

She felt someone staring at her as she was laughing and glanced over at the table next to her and sitting with what appeared to be his family was a tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed boy giving staring at her in seeming disapproval. She looked back at him with a smile and a nod, proving her impertinence towards his blank expression. Nothing was ruining her mood today. She might be a “rude American,” but she wasn’t over-the-top. She looked again as he was engaged with the waiter, and she felt kind of bad for him that he seemed to be lacking the freedom she had. She noticed he was nice looking. Kind of a Harry Stiles meets Tom Hiddleston. Dark hair falling in his face that he’d brush over his head here and there. Pale but vibrant. And when he clenched his jaw in concentration, she felt a little butterfly in her stomach. He was actually kind of devastatingly hot.

Of course, she was out with a friend. If she’d been with her family, she might have been in a less-than-bright mood too. She was thinking about a few cringe-worthy meals with her parents and by the time she thought to look back he was getting up and walking out. She saw that he was tall, thin but athletic and was dragging her eyes across his body when she looked up and saw he was staring back at her again with a black look. She batted her eyes a few times and smiled at him with an open heart, feeling a little sympathy again for him. Before he broke her gaze to turn, she saw the corner of his mouth turn upwards. “Ah-ha!,” she thought, he does have a playful side. She didn’t think long on it, just happy she could turn someone’s opinion of her around. The butterflies had returned with that smirk and that dimple. She sat content as she turned back to Julie taking selfies with her teacup…

They had the evening free to roam around the small town and get dinner on their own. About half of the group wanted to go to dinner and the other half wanted to hit the pub. She didn’t drink but she was still full from eating at the tea house, so she tagged along with the pub crawlers.

The Duck and Crown was only a few blocks away from their accommodations and looked full and warm from the large windows hugging either side of the large wooden entrance. The sign swayed in the wind blowing down the street. They lugged open the heavy door and crowded inside. She was happy to get out of the cold. It was springtime in England but still pretty cold in the evenings. All 6 girls walked into the pub chatting and unwrapping scarves as they all took in the cozy spectacle. There was a man singing and playing guitar in the far corner surrounded by tables and chairs. The tables were mostly full of friends and patrons chatting and laughing. It was warm and friendly. The bar was in front of her to the right but there were quite a few people standing in front of it, so she hung back while a few of the girls pushed through to reach the bar tenders.

She was looking around and feeling content to people watch tonight. She felt grateful for the trip and her new friends. She loved it here. She was part English which she knew thanks to an ancestry site she’d used a few years prior and something about it felt a little like a home she’d never known. She was mid-thought when Julie came back from the bar and said, “Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” with a devilish look on her face. Laurel grinned a little confused but swiveled her head toward the bar.

After a few long moments, she saw them, the brown eyes from the tea house. He was wiping the bar and taking an order from a man when he looked up mid conversation and his eyes met hers. He looked down trying to hide the smirk forming on his beautifully chiseled cheeks and managed to compose his face when acknowledging his patron. He disappeared and reappeared with the man’s libation and looked back up at her. She was all of a sudden walking toward him as he tried to maintain even composure when she reached his bar.

For a moment or two she just stared at him and thankfully he broke the silence and uttered, “uh, what can I get for ya?”

She said a little dazed but grateful, “oh, um, how about some water?” He leaned down on to the bar on his elbows and looked at her with a laugh, “no alcohol for ye then?”

“No, I don’t drink,” she said.

He smiled and walked off to get her order. She turned to see Julie with the biggest beam on her face she’d ever seen. Laurel’s cheeks went flush, and she turned around with her head down willing the redness to go away. What was she thinking? She was not looking for anything romantic. Especially not here, in a small town in the middle of England. But what was with his eyes? “I mean who has eyes like that?” she thought.

She looked up and he was standing there holding out the glass of water and she could feel the hotness persisting in her face. She consciously reached for the glass with two hands and said, “oh, thank you!” with maybe slightly too much glee.

He said, “no problem, erm, I don’t drink either,” with a sweet half-cocked smile.

His statement softened her a little out of her panic and she smiled her open-hearted smile again.

His lips turned up again and he asked, “what’s yer name?”

“I’m Laurel, and that crazy girl over there is Julie,” as she pointed back to the blond-haired, blue-eyed, ball of joy waving from the back. She wasn’t sure why, but she blurted out “sorry for being so loud in the tea-house earlier.”

He looked at her and shook his head, it was pretty loud in the bar, so she was leaning in at this point. He leaned in too and was about to say something when the other bartender shouted “Hey Romeo! Little help please?!” making a gesture towards the waiting patrons. He nodded at his coworker and then smiled back at her, “Nice to meet you Laurel, I’d better run.” She nodded and stood there holding her water with her two hands still as he made his way down the bar.

Time slowed down a little as he was walking away, his eyes darted to hers a few times and as he was speaking to the other people at the bar his grin was plastered to his face.

She turned and walked back toward Julie, and they walked over to the rest of the girls listening to the music at a table. She thought about his smile and how he only had a dimple on one cheek and the squareness of his teeth when he smiled and that laugh when he leaned in towards her. “What did he smell like?” she caught herself thinking. “Don’t” she chided herself, “he’s just being nice. That’s as far as it goes.”

She felt a warmth come over her body in that moment. She felt all of a sudden like it was 100 degrees in the small pub. She took a sip of her water and said she needed a few moments of fresh air. Julie asked if she was okay and did she want her to come with and Laurel replied quickly “no, no, I’ll be right back.”

She pushed her way across the pub and suddenly needed to be out of the warmth. She felt flush in her cheeks and a very hot and claustrophobic. She made it to the door after what felt like a hundred “excuse me’s,” and shoved it open…

Suddenly she was in the street, quiet and cold and decidedly alone. She walked to the side of the building to a narrow alley where there were a few crates and old kegs, and she plopped down on a crate catching her breath. She leaned her head back against the brick wall behind her head, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. And then another. She thought to herself “just let it go. You don’t even know his name. He’s just a guy, there are billions of them.”

She had decided she was just going to walk back and text Julie that she was going to head home, that she was tired. She heard some footsteps and realized she could just tell Julie herself, but when she opened her eyes, she was looking up at the bartender…

She stood up and quickly assessed that there wasn’t much room in the alleyway. She was closer than felt comfortable. He was rubbing his hand on the back of his neck and he asked her if she was okay. She remembered nodding but mostly she was fixated on his neck, then his chest, and the fact that he was about 6 inches taller than her, looking up at his jawline, his hair, and eventually his eyes. Now she was close enough to smell him. Hops and something like Cedar…

He parted the silence by saying quietly “my name is Ethan.”

“Nice to meet you,” came out of her automatically and he took a step closer to her and they were now what felt like an inch apart. Her knees weren’t really cooperating, and she wondered if she should sit down but realized quickly that’d put her eye level with his oh-so-close crotch. Her awkwardness must have been palpable because he reached up and put a hand on her arms that had stiffened by her sides. The warmth of his hand began to melt her shoulders and she sighed a tiny sigh as she looked down at his hand moving up her arm, to her shoulder and then his hand was on the side of her neck! Tipping her head in sync with his hand, her awkwardness was replaced with thirst. Her lips went dry and her breath almost stopped. As she looked up at him, he hesitated when he met her eyes and without a word asked with an arched brow “is this okay?” She gave the slightest nod and sucked in a breath as his lips reached ever so slightly towards hers. Her hand instinctually went to the small of his back, but she did not pull. She waited patiently for him. He lightly kissed her slowly and as he pushed his lips against hers his tongue ever so slightly grazed her bottom lip, and she felt a feral, fire light deep within her body and a second later her grip tightened behind him as she pulled his hips to her hips.

She was overcome with hunger for him. His hand was gently pulling on the nape of her neck as she pulled him in but soon after she could feel his hand loosen and drag softly across her collarbone and she let out a small moan in appreciation. He moaned almost in unison and she thought she heard him growl a little.

She wanted him. She had never felt this kind of need before. She felt an ache form between her legs as she lost track of time and space. Her head was out at sea under a starry sky. Up and down and wave upon wave of dark water consumed her as he kissed her demandingly. She pressed her body against his and he reciprocated with just as much pressure. She’d only heard one sentence from this man. “My name is Ethan…” “Holy shit’ was the feeling and simultaneous thought. She heard herself whisper “Ethan” longingly in his ear as he nipped and kissed her throat with his fingers still playing with her collarbone and jaw. She felt him smile when she said his name and he let out a small but deep sigh filled with demand and desire…

She started to notice her heart beating so fast and finally a thought came. “What are you doing?” She backed up the half inch she had up against the crate she had been sitting on earlier and she looked at his face. His eyes were full of craving, and he bit his lip and looked away for a second then back to her almost pleading. He said, “are you ok?!” She nodded and managed to squeak out, “I’m sorry, I’m not usually like this,” as she looked down. She felt his hand bring her chin up to meet her eyes again and he said kindly, “however you are like, it’s all okay.” She felt herself melt a little again, her body relaxed. His hand was still holding her chin and she was so close to him.

She registered his thighs and stiffness on her and how hot she still was. Dark thoughts about him turning her around and taking her right there in the alley raced through her. He saw her wheels turning and bit his lip again. She was fighting with pure wildness and also pure reason.

He broke the silence and said in a pained voice, “I’m so sorry, I came out to check on you.”

She looked up at him and laughed a little with a playful smile and he looked relieved as the tension eased a hair. “I’m okay she said, I just needed some air, or I guess something else…”

He straightened and looked her in the eye and said, “I want to see you tomorrow.”

“Yes,” she said a little too quickly as she stared back at him…

Time had stopped again as she stood there in that moment. She eventually sucked in a deep breath as he took a deep breath and said, “sadly, I guess I should get back,” as he reached into his pocket for a note with his number on it.

He put it in her hand and grabbed the other one at the same time. As he looked down at her hands and held them for a second with the note sitting there staring up at him, he took in the moment. She smiled, realizing he must’ve written it down quickly and ran out after her. She looked up at him and he clenched his jaw. She could see he was having some dark thoughts of his own. He closed his eyes and sighed, shaking off any desire he could manage. Still holding her hands, he stepped backward and to the side, slowly releasing her hands and waved in silence with a huge grin on his face as he rolled his eyes and stumbled back toward the door playfully. She laughed and watched him open the door and walk back in with a dejected wave. She just stood there smiling and once the door shut behind him, she looked up at the night sky and a tear fell from her right eye. How in the world was she supposed to sleep tonight?

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