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     “Is this all of them?” Marco studied the crowd of lanky drummers milling around the undersized room we’d been assigned and then checked the time on his phone. A quick glance at the standard school clock on the wall confirmed it was four past eight in the morning. The shitty acoustics and incessant, discordant sound of thirty pairs of drumsticks tapping away on whatever surface was handy – the cinderblock walls, cheap plastic chairs, the thin carpet whose original color was no longer discernable – grated on my last nerve. Combined with the stink of so many guys trapped in subpar air-conditioning and Marco’s surly attitude, I couldn’t help but feel like a popcorn kernel in the microwave. Annoyed and hot with a temper ready to explode. 

   Normally, I loved this.


   Auditions. The beginning of band camp. That easy month before the fall semester actually started, when the only ones on campus were the über-nerds who took summer classes, the football team, and the marching band.


   But not today.


   Today, I was fucking cranky. Tired from last night’s bullshit with my dad and his unreasonable expectations, hungry since my fridge was empty except for some hot sauce and half a bottle of mustard, and frustrated because I hadn’t been laid in the last month and my balls were aching to empty themselves somewhere other than the down the shower drain. And the fucking gas station had been out of coffee. Eight was considered the asscrack of dawn in a college town. How the hell did they already run out of coffee?


   I shot Marco a warning look and yanked the plastic clipboard from his loose grip. Ignoring his scowl, I scanned down the list of names and reviewed today’s schedule. An hour of admin stuff, and then PT.


   Fucking great. It was already over eighty-five degrees in the shade.


   Trying to summon up some iota of motivation, I chugged the rest of my nasty energy drink that was not even remotely a substitute for coffee and crushed the aluminum can in my fist before tossing it in the trashcan. The harsh metallic rattle caused heads to swivel our direction and the chatter to die down.


   I took a deep breath and let it sit in my lungs for a few seconds before I exhaled. It probably wasn’t cool to admit it, but drumline was generally the highlight of my year. The transition time for the new crew to gel into a cohesive unit at the beginning was always a bitch, but after that, things were golden.


   And this was my year. As snare captain, it was my rules to follow, my ass on the line. Rodner University had the reputation of having the best snare line in Alabama — arguably the whole Southeast — and upholding that standard would fall on the shoulders of the ten best drummers this side of the Mason-Dixon.


   But mostly mine.


   Good thing I had some big fucking shoulders.


   Marco glared menacingly at the motley bunch of wannabes mixed in with last year’s guys. He took his role as lieutenant way too seriously. His thin lips twisted in a sneer as he flicked his gaze over the newbies who thought they had the skills to hang in the Shark Tank — the affectionate name we gave our football stadium.


   He opened his mouth to speak, but I noticed the movement and rushed to cut him off. I liked the guy, but he loved nothing more than stealing my thunder and my patience was wearing thin. “Welcome!” Ugh, the saccharine in my voice even had me wincing.


   “If you’re in this room, you should be auditioning for the snare line. If you’re not, time to get your ass out of here.” My eyes drifted from face to face before settling on a chick in the corner, waiting for her to rise and kiss her boyfriend goodbye and skedaddle.


   Nothing against her, but I wanted to get started already. By tradition, Rodner’s snare line had always been an exclusively male domain. It wasn’t so much that girls weren’t allowed, just that none had ever been good enough, and over the years, they’d simply stopped trying out.


   She met my gaze steadily, her shoulders relaxed and her full mouth set in an unimpressed line. I paused a beat, then tipped my head toward the door, signaling to her. Her dark eyes flicked that direction, then returned to me, her expression unchanged. She blew a pink gum bubble languidly and crossed her toned arms below her chest, and my attention automatically dipped to assess her small, but perky rack outlined by a tight gray tank top. Her tits weren’t that big, but she was wearing a sports bra, so they were probably fuller without it. And they looked real. Lord knows that small hint of cleavage was the first good thing I’d come across all week.


   My lonely dick stirred behind my thin nylon shorts, and I casually moved the clipboard in my hand to waist-height to conceal the evidence.


   The bubble popped and she sighed like she was bored.


   “Hey, girl, that means you.” Marco wasn’t big on subtlety.


   “Pretty sure I’m right where I’m supposed to be.” Her voice was light, unconcerned, and she lifted one shoulder in a shrug, as if his comment wasn’t even worth the effort of moving them both. It was like waving a red flag at a pawing bull. Marco stiffened, his hand already rising to point at her, when she continued. “Reese Holland. Check the list. I signed in earlier.” She looked down at her fingernails and it was then I noticed the pair of drumsticks held loosely in her grasp.


   Well fuck me.


   Marco tore the clipboard from my hand, then dragged his finger down the column of names, and I shifted my stance to look over his shoulder. And hide my burgeoning erection.


   Sure enough, number nineteen on the list was none other than a Reese Holland from Morgantown, West Virginia. Freshman. Eighteen years old. He stabbed at the paper, wrinkling it with the motion.

   But, you’re a girl.” Marco’s snarl of indignation had me cringing at his delivery.


   She tipped her head to the side, her dark ponytail spilling over one smooth shoulder as she considered him. “Pretty astute there.”


   Snickers from some of the other guys in the room had him turning to glare at me, as if her gender was my fault. I bit back a grin. Very few guys had the balls to go up against Marco, and to see this chick giving him shit right back was kind of doing it for me. It was a dumb move on her part, but I couldn’t deny that I enjoyed it just the same.


   Too bad she likely wouldn’t last the day though. Again, it wasn’t personal. Most of the freshman auditioning would be cut — and soon. The math didn’t stack up in her favor. But still, it was a shame. I could get used to the view.


   “Right.” I nodded like an idiot, trying to regain control of the situation. “So. It’s the first day of auditions. I’m Laird Bronson, this year’s captain, and I’ll be running the camp for the next two weeks. To get this far, you’ve already submitted a video to the faculty, proving you at least know the difference between a triple and a flam, and now it’s time for the real testing to begin. But before you all go getting hard-ons about making the line, know this. There are thirty-seven names on this list, and we only have ten spots on the field. Seven of those belong to returning drummers.”


   While everyone technically had to tryout, it was an unspoken rule that once you made the line, you had a guaranteed spot. Assuming you weren’t a total fucktard the year before and we needed an excuse to get rid of you. And since what remained of last year’s crew was solid, that left another seven spots to fill between those who made the cut to march on the field and a couple of alternates for back up.


   Time for the motivational part of my welcome speech.


   “You can do the math yourself, but the bottom line is, most of y’all are going to wind up getting cut. I expect about half of you will be gone by the end of the day. Definitely by the end of the week.”


   I let that sink in as I looked at the overconfident faces hanging on my every word. Yeah, they all thought they were special, special snowflakes. The one that would beat the odds. Only the top ten percent of them would spend any time under the floodlights of the stadium on game day, playing for forty-thousand screaming fans.


   “Drumline is always the heartbeat of any marching band, but more than that, this snare line is unrivaled. We’re the quarterbacks. Sure, as a whole, the band is great, but let’s be honest, the drumline is what people are really coming to see. And if we don’t hold up our end, the entire performance falls apart. So we’re not just looking for someone who can keep time and bang out some rhythms and throw in some fancy stick work. We’re looking for those of you who can perform.” I paused to emphasize my next words. “Reliably. With distractions. And under pressure.”


   A proud smirk stretched my lips. “We’re looking for the drummers who can take it all the way to the end zone.”


   “Damn straight!” The hoot came from Bubba, the only returning senior besides Marco and myself.


   I nodded at him and the other veterans grouped together in the corner, knowing they understood exactly what I meant.


   We were the main attraction that drew the crowds. Yeah, okay, they were there to watch some pretty fucking intense football too, but at Rodner, no one left their seats at halftime until we were done. Only then would they go swarm the overpriced concessions for BBQ nachos and slushes.


   We ran the show all right, on and off the field. And making the line meant surviving not just auditions, but drumline hazing.


   These NADs — our purposefully raunchy nickname for the Newly Acquired Drummers — had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Hours of practice. Mandatory parties. Stupid pranks. Dumb objectives to achieve and tight deadlines to reach them in. It’s how we bonded, learned to read each other’s movements and finish each other’s sentences.


   But first things first. Weeding out the weak and pathetic. The bottom-feeders.


   Because snare line was the very top of the food chain.


   “To start with today, we have a five-mile jog. This one’s pretty straight forward. You’ll have backpacks with twenty-five pounds of sand bags inside, which you’ll wear on your chests to mimic the weight of the snare. You have an hour to complete the laps around the track in the heat, or you’re out. Later today, we’ll move onto stick work, some sight-reading, and start going through the first song of the show.” I ticked off the rules. “Stay hydrated. Don’t bitch. Help each other out. If a vet asks you do something, do it. Don’t ask questions. All the vets are wearing red shirts to make it easy on you idiots. If you’re asked to leave, exit without making a scene. Most of you will be gone in the next two weeks and that’s just reality. No need to throw a fucking tantrum like a girl.”


   After the last sentence left my mouth, I froze, my eyes automatically sliding to Reese.


   Okay, yeah, poor word choice there. Reese’s face twisted like she’d just tasted something sour and she looked… was that disappointment she was aiming my way? A wedge of discomfort poked at my ribs and I found myself wanting to say something more, to fix my gaffe, but I held my tongue.


   The captain didn’t cater to anyone, least of all a NAD. In fact, the only special treatment they got was to work longer and harder to earn that field spot.


   But, damn, if I didn’t want to erase that look in her eyes. Replace it with something else. Something hotter. I bet she looked incredible when she was aroused. Those lips swollen and slightly parted, wet from earlier kisses. Eyes dilated and half closed. A flush painting those high cheekbones. Pulse throbbing at the base of her throat. Dark hair mussed from where my hands had been buried — wait a second. My hands?


   I forced my gaze to the tips of my Nike’s, where the rubber on the right one was starting to curl away from the leather, and counted to ten to calm myself down, but couldn’t stop my eyes from seeking hers out again. This time, amusement brightened her gaze and, fuck, if she didn’t have a dimple on one side where her lip had pulled up in a smirk, as if she knew what I was thinking and found it laughable.


   I wanted to lick it, that dimple.


   “Be trackside in twenty minutes to suit up and check in,” I barked. “Grab a folder with the paperwork and release forms, fill that shit out, take a piss, make sure you have a water bottle, whatever else the fuck you need to do. The weights will be down at the starting line and the clock starts at nine sharp. Questions?”


   Two guys raised their hands and I stared right through them, not acknowledging either one. Behind them, Reese stretched her arms over her head, her hands gripping both end of her drumsticks, and I would’ve given my right nut for the AC to choose that minute turn on, to get a glimpse of her hardened nipples against the fabric straining at her tits as she arched her back. I must’ve bargained with the wrong deity though, because she relaxed back into her seat without the telltale rattle kicking in. 


   Beside me, Marco made a small noise of appreciation and a quick glance confirmed his eyes were planted where mine had been just a moment before. Anger swelled my chest and my fingers curled into a fist I wanted to bury in his gut for noticing.


   “No? Great. See you there.” Cursing under my breath, I turned and left the room. If there were other things to discuss, questions to answer, shit to deal with—Marco could have at it. As long as he stayed away from her.


   Fuck, what was wrong with me this morning? Was that damned energy drink laced with Viagra or something? Was the passionfruit flavor an indicator of some other side effects I hadn’t anticipated?


   I needed to splash some cold water on my face and pull myself together. But my feet walked right by the water fountain, took me out the heavy steel double doors, and across the grassy courtyard dotted with picnic tables to the white stucco English building.


   Burton Hall was guaranteed to be empty this time of day, the men’s bathroom on the second floor deserted.


   I had twenty minutes to relieve the ache.


   Turned out, I only needed eight.

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