First Two Chapters of Can’t Fight It



“You excited about today?”

I stare at my toaster, my reflection comically distorted in the dented stainless steel. How long do Pop-Tarts take to cook, anyway?


“Oh, yeah.” I mentally shake my head, tuning back in to Mia on the phone. “Just trying not to psych myself out too much.”

“You and Joel will do great,” she assures me. “Dr. Price loves your study.”

Easy for her to say. She already has a published one under her belt.

No, that’s not fair. Mia’s been nothing but helpful. She helped me design the experiment, for Christ’s sake. I should be kissing her boots.

“You really think he likes it?” I ask as my Pop-Tarts finally pop up. I snatch them from the toaster and drop them onto a plate, sucking on my burned fingertips. How do I manage to do that every time?

“He wouldn’t have approved it if he didn’t. Besides, even Tyler said what you guys have is good. And you know he doesn’t say things just to be nice.”

Now that does make me feel better. Her boyfriend pulls no punches when it comes to the Stress Lab.

I shoulder my backpack and grab my keys off the kitchen counter, stuffing them in my back pocket before I pick up my water bottle and plate. Breakfast will have to be in the car if I’m going to make it to my Abnormal Psych class with enough time to review my notes before our quiz today. It’s only the third week into the semester and the pace is already picking up.

As I near the front door, the distinctive jingle of keys has my steps slowing, though. “Ugh.”

“What, Tyler?” Mia asks.

“No, no. My neighbor.” I peek through the door’s peephole. Yep, it’s him. “I don’t like being outside when he’s around.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

I sigh, studying him through the warped lens. That’s the thing. I can’t pinpoint any one issue that sets off my internal alarm. “He’s… intimidating.”

Too tall. Ridiculously muscled. Shoulder-length blond hair and overgrown beard that reminds me of some Viking warlord ready to pillage. Plus, in the month since I’ve moved in, I’ve never once seen him smile.

Not that I’ve been looking.

“Did he threaten you?”

My lips twitch at the hardness in her tone, as if she’s prepared to come over here and avenge me. “No. I can’t explain it, but there’s something about him that seems… dangerous. I’d just rather avoid him.”

And after everything I’ve been through, danger is the one thing I’ll never invite into my life. It’s better to play it safe.

Through the peephole, he pauses before leaving, swiveling in the direction of my door.

My heart falters in its rhythm. He can’t see through here, right? No, don’t be ridiculous.

Everything in me freezes, though, as he knocks on my door, his broad shoulders encased in a scuffed leather jacket filling the peephole’s view.

I cover my mouth to contain my gasp, forgetting that I’m holding my plate of Pop-Tarts in that hand, which promptly clatters to the floor. Wonderful.

“I know you’re in there,” he says, his deep voice making me jump.

Crap. Crap. Triple crap.

I push aside my ruined breakfast, my stomach rumbling in annoyance, and undo the chain lock, opening the door a crack. His gaze bores into me, the stormy gray of his eyes unexpected in their intensity.

“Just so you know, when you’re in the hallway, you can hear everything inside. The doors aren’t soundproof.”

Heat washes over me, climbing up my neck and over my cheeks until my resemblance to a tomato is uncanny. So that means he heard me tell Mia I find him intimidating, dangerous, and purposely avoid him?

“I… um… okay.” My voice is a faint breath of air, hardly qualifying as a response, but I’m in no mental state to reply. What would I even say that could make things better?

His gaze lingers over me for a moment, further intensifying the heat, then he walks away without a backward glance, his footfalls heavy on the concrete.

I can’t move as I watch him stalk into the parking lot and straddle a black motorcycle, the rev of the engine as it kicks on finally startling me into slamming the door.


I clue back in, remembering Mia’s still on the line, and race to my bedroom, shutting and locking the door behind me, as if that makes any difference when he’s already gone.

“Did you hear that?” I ask, practically breathless with how hard my heart is beating.

“Yeah… I couldn’t help it. That was your neighbor?”

I nod, then realize she can’t see me. “Yep. Just my luck, right?”

Better to joke about it. Make light of the situation. It doesn’t have to be serious. Just because he overheard me say that doesn’t mean he’s mad. Doesn’t mean I’ve made an enemy. Doesn’t mean he’ll retaliate.

I’m safe here. This apartment is safe. Nothing bad will happen.

“Listen, I have to go,” I tell her before she can say anything. “I’ll talk to you in the Stress Lab later.”

“Yeah, okay. Text me if you need to.”

“Thanks,” I whisper as I end the call, my eyes squeezing shut. Making friends with her last semester in one of our Psych classes had been a stroke of luck. God knows I have hardly anyone else to rely on.

I take deep breaths, consciously slowing down my heart rate, and progressively tense and relax my muscles, going through the familiar routine until I’m calmer. In a way, I guess it’s helpful to go through the process myself before I guide others through it later today during the study.

Heading into the minuscule kitchen area, I rip open a new package of Pop-Tarts, not bothering to heat them this time before stuffing one in my mouth in an attempt to distract myself.

Why would I think it’s a good idea to announce all that stuff right near the door? It’s not like I could even use the excuse of saying I was talking about someone else. I outright said my neighbor, and there are only the two of us on the ground floor.

What the hell am I going to say the next time I run into him? Yeah, I’ve successfully avoided him so far, but it’s bound to happen at some point.

No, what I need to focus on right now is getting to class and preparing for my quiz, not run-ins with my neighbor.

No matter how awkward they may be.


Chocolate melts on my tongue, creamy and sweet, and I quickly grab a second cube of fudge from the container Mia holds out to me, sampling another bite. “I don’t understand what you do to make it so good,” I mutter around a mouthful. “And how you just happened to have a tub of fudge on the day I need it most.”

Her lips tip up at the corners. “Well, I made it to celebrate the first day of your study. It’s a coincidence you need it for… other reasons, too.”

I wave off her enigmatic statement, not wanting to relive my embarrassment for the trillionth time today. It was the only thing running through my mind during my two classes earlier. I probably bombed my quiz.

“Don’t tell anyone. Please. If I don’t talk about it, it’s like it never happened.”

“Right,” she drawls. “Mum’s the word, then.”

I nod, licking the remaining chocolate off my fingers as my lab partner, Joel, arrives and slings his backpack on the floor. His plaid button-up is rumpled as usual, brown hair messy after he rakes a hand through it.

“Whatcha got there, Mia?” he asks, studying the container with curiosity.

“Fudge. Don’t eat too much or you’ll get sick.”

“Me?” He holds a hand to his chest, faux affronted. “Never.”

I bite my lip to hold back a smile, remembering how nauseated he’d made himself after eating too many desserts at our holiday party. “Seriously,” I tell him. “We don’t want a repeat of last month. Everything needs to go perfect today.”

“Don’t get your panties in a wad,” he mutters, already chowing down on a piece. “Trust me. I’m completely prepared. How about you?”

I take a deep breath and recite my spiel. “Scalp, face, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, arms, hands, stomach, back, butt, legs, feet.”

He grins, chocolate all over his two front teeth. “Now say that three times fast.”

Mia hands the container of fudge to me. “Be responsible with this,” she says with mock seriousness. “And text me later to let me know how everything goes.”

I can’t tell if she means it as a friend or because as a senior, Dr. Price assigned her to be our point person to reach out to if there’s any trouble with our study. Tyler is the point person for the two other juniors running their study this semester.

Either way, I nod, faking my confidence in front of her. “I’ve got this.” I waggle my thumb between me and Joel. “We’ve got this,” I amend.

She smiles. “I know you do. And I told you your last guy of the day is Tyler’s gym buddy, right?”

I grab my roster off the desk. “Austin? I’ll be extra nice to him.”

“Do the Stress Lab proud,” she says, exiting the room.

Without her, my faith wanes until Joel rests a steady hand on my shoulder, his gaze earnest. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

I let out a slow breath, releasing the tension lingering in my shoulders. “Yeah, of course.”

“I’ll be right next door if you need help.”

I shrug off his hand, rolling my eyes as I adjust the participant’s chair. “Like I’m going to interrupt your meditation session.”

“I’m just saying you can if you have to.”

“And mess up the study? Yeah, right. We’ve only got a fifteen-minute cushion before Noah and Chris need our rooms.”

He blows out a breath, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Listen, I was thinking afterward we could—”

There’s a knock on the door and then Kelly, the Stress Lab’s receptionist, pokes her head in. “Your first participant is here, Joel.”

He nods, but makes no motion to leave. “Great. Thanks.”

I pick up my script for one last run-through before my own participant shows up. “Were you going to say something?” I ask, half my mind already on running through the applied relaxation sequence I’m teaching everyone today.

“Oh, um, no.” He shuffles his feet long enough to have me glancing at him, nervousness crossing his features. “I’ll catch you later.”

He speeds past me and out the door. Must be more anxious than he let on.

I finish going over my notes and head into the lobby to wait by Kelly’s desk, smoothing my palms down the front of my jeans.

I’ll do fine. This is what I’ve been waiting for. Dr. Price picked two studies out of all the juniors who applied and mine is one of them. That has to count for something.

The nerves leave me as a girl I recognize from a class last semester walks in with a smile on her face. That’s why the name looked familiar on the roster sheet.

I lead her down the hall and into the room, going over the informed consent form and then guiding her through the procedure of progressive muscle relaxation.

This is where I’m in my element. I don’t know why I was so nervous earlier.

The time flies as I run through my first five participants, my mind relaxed as I head back down the hall to wait for my last one of the day. I hope Joel’s sessions have gone as well as mine.

As I reach the waiting area, though, the loose, easy feeling inside me tightens as I spot a familiar head of dark blond hair turned away from me.

No. There’s no way.

Lots of guys have artfully messy hair that exact shade. With the same broken-in leather jacket. And the same impossibly broad shoulders. It’s a coincidence. Has to be.

“A-Austin,” I croak out, my voice all high and squeaky.

It can’t be him. Mia said it was Tyler’s friend from the gym. Mia goes to that gym, too. That’s another connection I can’t afford if it turns out he’s…

He stands, all six feet plus of him, steel-toed work boots heavy on the carpet as he pivots in my direction, that flinty gray gaze finally lifting to meet mine. Surprise flitters over his face for the briefest of seconds before he shuts it down, stoic again as he crosses the room toward me.

It’s him. Definitely him. My neighbor. The one I unwittingly insulted this morning.

Crap. Crap. Triple crap.



Is it wrong that I find the tiniest bit of satisfaction in her discomfort? She insulted me this morning, after all.

Intimidating. Dangerous. Some might take the words as a compliment, but it was clear she didn’t intend them that way.

Then again, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before.

Her mouth gapes open awkwardly, pink spreading across her cheeks like wildfire until she turns, her dark hair falling over her shoulder to shield her features as she strides down the hall.

Am I supposed to follow her? She called my name, so it must be her I’m meeting with.

And I sure as hell won’t be the one to speak first.

She stops in front of a door, her hand pausing on the knob before opening it, and waits until we’re both in the room before she speaks.

“Look, I’m…” She releases a breath, peeking over at me through the curtain of her hair. “That was awful of me to say earlier. I’m sorry.”

I shrug, appreciating her apology even if it’s unnecessary. “You can think whatever. Doesn’t affect me any.”

Since she moved in a month ago, she’s scurried away any time I’ve remotely come near, either racing into her apartment or the Kia in the parking lot with the rear fender that’s about to fall off. I got the message pretty quickly.

“No, that’s not fair to you. I don’t even know you.” She picks at her thumbnail, studying it. “I’ve been letting some… past experiences color my thinking.”

I stay silent, sensing she has more to say.

“Sometimes big guys scare me,” she mumbles, barely audible.

Well, shit. How am I supposed to respond to that?

Tugging at the ends of my beard, I’m reminded I need to trim it soon. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” Taking a step back, I glance behind me at the door. “I can go if—”

“No.” She reaches forward, her delicate fingers unable to completely encircle my wrist.

She snatches her hand back just as quickly, holding it to her chest as if I’ve hurt her.

“This is my issue, not yours. I’m only explaining why I haven’t really been friendly as a neighbor. It has nothing to do with you personally.”

I’m not sure how else to take it, but whatever she says. “Listen, I signed up for this study as a favor to Tyler, but if it’s not going to work out—”

“No, it will,” she interrupts. “You don’t have to leave.” She merely holds out a hand this time, not willing to risk touching me again.

Message received.

“Why don’t we go over the informed consent form?” she says brightly, her smile forced.

I sigh, tugging off my jacket before sitting in the chair she indicates, ignoring the way her eyes widen as I push up the sleeves of my henley. It’s getting ready to snow outside, but it’s a lot warmer in this office.

She positions herself behind the desk, a clear division between us. “First, did you have any questions about the paperwork we emailed to you?” 

“I didn’t get to it.” It had all been a bunch of legalese I couldn’t fully decipher. Maybe she can explain it face-to-face better.

She blinks at me for a moment before jumping into a clearly rehearsed spiel. “Well, it’s a six-week study looking at how different forms of non-physical stress management impact athletes. You’ll get paid seventy-five dollars a week, made payable at the three-week and six-week mark, which is dependent upon your attendance in the Stress Lab weekly and completion of the exercises we’ll go over.”

Exercises? Tyler didn’t say anything about that. At least the money part sounds good.

“The two main stress management techniques we’re studying are applied relaxation and meditation,” she continues. “We’ve randomly split the participants and you’re in the applied relaxation group.”

Sure. Whatever.

She picks up a handful of papers off the desk, shuffling through them. “What kind of, um, athlete are you?”


Her gaze rakes me up and down, giving me a once-over. Based on her earlier admission, I shouldn’t read into it at all, but something about it has a tingle racing down my spine, the baser part of me ready and at attention.

Down boy.

The girl made it clear she couldn’t be less interested. And if she was the one that wrote that paperwork, she’s obviously way out of my league in the smarts department.

She looks down at her papers. “I didn’t realize the university offered that sport.”

“I have no idea. I don’t go here.”

“Oh. I guess I assumed.”

“Yeah, well…” I rub the back of my neck, not liking this turn in conversation. “I never went to college.”

She’s quiet for a moment. “That’s not a big deal,” she says softly. “Lots of people don’t.”

I nod, not having anything to say about it.

“Anyway, today I’m going to teach you progressive muscle relaxation. You’ll practice it daily on your own throughout the week and next Tuesday when you come back, we’ll go over a shorthand version of it.”

Okay, that sounds more involved than what Tyler made it seem like. “What’s, uh… muscle whatever you said?”

“Progressive muscle relaxation. We’ll contract and relax different muscle groups of the body, with the goal being to reduce somatic anxiety symptoms.”

I cross my arms over my chest. What the hell is she talking about?

She must notice my blank look because she immediately says, “Sorry, I got used to using all these technical terms when writing the IRB application. I forget they mean nothing in the real world. Basically, what we’ll do is learn a tool you can use to lessen the physical effects of stress.”

“Sure,” I grunt. “Sounds good.”

She goes over some form with me, spouting stuff about methodologies and confidentiality, but I can’t keep track of it all, and sign my name at the bottom when she’s finished. Pretty sure I’m not signing away my life’s rights or anything.

She hands me two other pieces of paper. “Before I forget, here’s the baseline questionnaire you’ll need to fill out tonight. You can bring it back next Tuesday.” She pauses. “Or I guess you could bring it to me next door.” She gives a weak chuckle, then stops when she sees I’m not laughing. “And this has the instructions for the progressive muscle relaxation sequence you’ll do at home twice a day.”

I place the papers on the edge of the desk. What did I get myself involved with?

“So, if you’re ready, we can start now.”

“Uh, sure.”

She dims the lights and tells me to sit back in my chair. “For each muscle group, you’ll tense as you breathe in for five seconds, hard but not to the point of pain. Then as you exhale, you’ll relax all at once, letting go of the tension.”

I shake out my limbs, settling further into the seat.

“Close your eyes,” she murmurs in a soft tone, “and be aware of any sensations you experience during today’s session.”

The hesitant girl from earlier is gone, something hypnotic about her voice as my eyelids drift shut, listening to her tell me to bring my eyebrows high and tense my forehead and scalp, hold, and relax.

I do as she says, the exaggerated motions ridiculous. “This feels kind of silly,” I mutter.

“Don’t worry how you look. It’s only me in here.”

Yeah, I know.

“I want you to notice how relaxed you are as you let go of those muscles. The way your body feels light and loose in the immediate moments afterward.”

We repeat the movement, then move on to the face next.

“Here, you’ll need to tense the middle of your face by squeezing your eyes tight and wrinkling your nose like this.”

I open my eyes, finding her face adorably scrunched.

Whoa… adorable? Where’d that come from?

I quickly shut my eyes before she catches me staring at her and copy her expression, ignoring how stupid I must look.

We move on to the jaw and then the neck, the strangeness of the actions gradually fading the longer we go.

“Now bring your shoulders up,” she says, “as if you’re trying to touch your ears with the tops of them. Good.”

I peek at her, not realizing she was doing the movements along with me.

“And exhale, relaxing. One more time now, tense up… and let all the tension drain away. Pay attention to how it feels when the muscles soften.”

I focus on her words, conscious of doing what she says, noting the weightlessness of my shoulders. If I’m going to be here, I might as well go all in.

My chest is next, then my back as I squeeze my shoulder blades behind me.

“All right, now rest your arms on your thighs, bending them at the elbow, hands facing up. Tighten your biceps, making sure not to clench your fists.”

This time, she doesn’t perform the action along with me, staring instead at my upper arms.

I let go of the tension after five seconds, even though she doesn’t instruct me to, and wait the normal ten seconds before doing it again like we’ve done for the other muscle groups.

“Am I doing it right?” I ask, unsure since her gaze is still transfixed on me.

She glances up. “What? Oh, yeah.” She clears her throat. “Good job. Um, fists now.” She holds her hands out in front of her to demonstrate. “Clench them as tightly as you can, taking note if there’s any tingling in your palms. And then let the tension flow from your hands and out your fingertips, replaced with a sense of relaxation.”

She’s back to her calm, soothing voice as we continue to the stomach, where we draw our belly buttons tightly toward our spines, then our backs as we arch like there’s a pillow behind us.

“Allow the relaxation to spread to all the muscles of your back, going deeper and deeper. Then we’ll move on to the… the…”

Her words trail off and I look over, finding her cheeks as pink as they were when she discovered it was me in the waiting area.

“The…?” I ask, confused as to why she’s flustered again.

“The butt,” she whispers, more a breath than a sound.

Oh, that’s why.

We can be adults about this, though. Right? “So, I should clench my butt?”

She nods, a strangled noise escaping her. She pounds on her chest twice before dropping into the chair behind the desk. “Let’s move on to the thighs.”

She doesn’t join in on the exercises for the rest of the session, and I finish up my thighs, legs, and feet by myself, following her instructions.

Her cheeks return to a normal shade by the time she’s finished, her professional mask in place again as she asks me how I’m feeling after completing the sequence.

I take stock of my body, not sure how to describe it aloud. “You said something earlier about the relaxation spreading throughout me. It’s like that, I guess.” A warm easiness in my joints, different from the warmth that runs through me after an intense session at the boxing gym. “I don’t know, I’ve never been good with words.”

Not like with her. Everything she’d said during the lesson today had been… soothing. Flowing. Peaceful.

Except when it comes to butts. Is she that put off by me?

“No, no. That’s fine,” she assures me. “You should feel relaxed. That’s the goal.” She runs a hand up and down her arm. “Thanks for being so cool about everything. After all the stuff I said.”

“You don’t have to keep bringing it up.”

She bites at her bottom lip. “Right. Well, I’ll see you here next week?”

I stand, putting on my jacket. “Or at home.”

A sheepish expression crosses her face before she tilts her head down. “There, too.”

Ah, shit. I didn’t mean to rub it in.

I grab the papers she gave me earlier and leave before I can say another wrong thing, speeding past the woman at the front desk and down the stairs, slowing as I exit the glass doors. Picturesque snow covers the grounds, stately historic buildings within sight as far as the eye can see. What must it be like to go here? To be smart enough to attend a university like this?

A group of girls in wool pea coats and knee-high boots passes by ahead, looking over at me, then twitter among themselves, obnoxiously obvious. Two of them glance over their shoulders again, then one whispers loudly, “Do you think he goes here?”

Do they recognize how out of place I am? Wondering why I’d be in a psychology building when I can barely spell the word?

I shrug off the thought and make my way down the sidewalk toward the parking lot where my bike is. Undoing the lock around my helmet, I stuff it on my head, appreciating the meager warmth it provides, and throw the papers in the tail pack on the back.

Raising the kickstand, I climb on and rev the engine, letting it warm a bit before I go. At least the roads aren’t icy. But that leaves me time to think again.

Is all this worth seventy-five a week? Having to come here on campus, knowing a place like this has never been an option for someone like me? Dad would laugh his ass off if he saw me here pretending to fit in.

Not that I pretended anything. I’d told that girl I wasn’t a student. And she’d seemed surprised of all things. Does that mean everyone else in the study is? I’m the odd man out? She’d said it wasn’t a big deal, but that could have been pity talking.

You know what? If she believes I’m good enough for her study, then that’s all that matters. Any issue she has with me as a neighbor is just that—her issue. And if she wants to avoid me outside of the Stress Lab, that’s fine.

Doesn’t bother me any.

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