For some the game of love and college seems rigged. After a few tough losses they resort to doing things they thought they would never do to turn their challenges into championships…
Ciara and Xander each came to Aurbor Grove University (AGU) with the perfect game plan. She would score another chance at finally living up to her college dreams and the high academic expectations set by her mother. He would become the star quarterback and hometown hero he was groomed to be. Yet they find themselves entangled in drama—from the exes who refuse to live without them to the financial struggles that make it seem like college is meant only for the elite to win.
Their friendship has a rocky start, but as the semester passes along they find that their most peaceful moments are spent with each other. Will the pains of the past and pressures on the fields of love and learning squash all hope for their future?
Exes and O’s is a drama-filled, romantic follow-up to Don’t Let Me Fall.
“…the author creates a richly believable atmosphere of college life—the parties, the academic pressures, the swings between tedium and debauchery, the struggles of students to forge their own identities as they move into adulthood, the emotional baggage of ex-lovers and new attachments, etc. (Poole also refreshingly works in an element of real-world, old-fashioned financial concerns, an aspect usually left out of campus fiction.) The action of the book takes place independently from its predecessor, although the two novels are best read in sequence; together, they present a warmly convincing tale of 21st-century university life…” ~KIRKUS REVIEWS
Aurbor Grove University didn’t feel like just a place. Not anymore. It was a living part of Ciara Capers. Like a phantom limb, she felt remnants of her life from before dangling, but not really there.
Families carting luggage, mini refrigerators, and large containers whizzed by her. Housing assistants offered bottled water and waved directional signs pointing the herd to the appropriate check-in lines. AGU’s village of residence halls towered over everyone. The flurry of move-in day activity made Ciara feel so small, like a period in a sweeping, 100,000-word epic novel.
Her eyes darted away from her old dorm, Caldwell Hall. It glowered at her anyway, demanding she acknowledge its presence and her past.
The line for MacDonald Hall spilled from the front desk all the way outside, curving around the gushing fountain in the center of the Village courtyard.
Ciara loosened her grip on the duffle bag stretched to the seams.
“You’re not getting tired on me already, are ya?” Nick asked, stopping at her side.
“Not yet.” The edge of her lips curved up into a half smile.
He craned his neck, peering over the line slowly edging forward. A black AGU baseball cap shaded him from the South Georgia sun beating down on them. Still the dense heat reddened his cheeks and created dark gray splotches on his t-shirt.
“I don’t have much,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“If we ever get your keys, it shouldn’t take too long to unload everything.” He pulled a bottle of water from his khaki cargo shorts and handed it to Ciara.
She took a sip, leaning into him. “I know. I’m just—”
“Having second thoughts?”
“No, I’m glad to be back.”
The lie rolled off her tongue smooth and easy, because Ciara had practiced. She’d repeated it to family members, friends, and even herself with the high pitch of fake excitement.
When she decided to return to AGU after a yearlong absence, so many thoughts of what could go wrong raced through her mind.
What if my ex comes back too? What if the classes are too hard? What if everyone still blames me for what happened to Tala?
Ciara kept last summer’s pain and unspoken secrets tucked away, but ever so often regret popped up, tapped her on the shoulder, and whispered in her ear: ‘You do not deserve this.’
She brushed that voice and the perspiration turning her bangs into a crinkly mess to the side. She shaded her eyes with one hand and looked up at her new home: MacDonald Hall or the Mac as many lazily, coolly called it.
The Mac offered a long list of amenities like free yoga classes, private bathrooms, and walk-in closets, which made it sound more like a resort than the typical dormitory. A breezeway bearing AGU’s iconic, cursive A connected two 12-floor towers of curfew-free, coed living. Trees lined the sidewalk, their leaves and branches forming an arc over the sliding door entrance.
Ciara felt an urge to fix the maroon and white ‘Welcome to Move-In Day!’ banner hanging crookedly, but turned to Nick instead.
“Thanks for being here with me today.”
“No problem. You’ve gotta promise me you’re not quitting again.” The lightheartedness of Nick’s joke didn’t dull the sting of his words about her being a quitter.
With every mishap, Ciara wondered if the universe wanted her to quit again. A pre-dawn text message from her sick father left her scrambling to find help. Then an accident on I-75 turned her ride from Atlanta into a five-hour, stop-and-go nightmare. And now she stood in a line that didn’t seem to move.
She closed her eyes, willing the negativity away.
Today’s a perfect day to begin again.
While antsy, red-faced students and families rushed for the doors, Ciara took in the special moment marking her second chance.
She breathed in the hot, magnolia-scented air, held on until she couldn’t stand it anymore and let go.
* * *
In the sixth hike from the parking lot, her body overloaded with bags, an ache settled into Ciara’s muscles.
She scrunched her nose at the earthy odor of the outside lingering in the chilly hallways. Glancing in the open doors, she felt behind in the move-in process. Her hall mates busily unpacked, decorated their rooms with AGU flags, bright-colored plush rugs, and bammed together pieces of furniture.
Nick followed closely behind her, the hand truck squeaking like it might break under the weight of Ciara’s baggage. He stopped short of entering the suite, gazing at the maze of brown boxes.
“So, where do you want me to put this?”
He tilted up the emerald trunk, grunting. “What’s in here? A dead body?”
“Ha-ha, you’re not that funny.”
Unlike Caldwell’s white cinderblock prison walls, she welcomed the spaciousness of her new home. But at the moment, the bare walls, unorganized bins and boxes filling every corner, and clothes strewn over the sofa made Ciara fidget.
“I need to start going through some of this,” she said.
“You and Faraji took over the whole spot. Where’s Brooklyn gonna put her stuff?”
“Ugh.” She groaned at the mention of Roommate #3.
The original plan included only rooming with her best friend Faraji. She didn’t want to chance living with another crazy roommate, but three roommates meant cheaper boarding fees. Ciara could barely afford the $4,000–per-semester price tag, so she caved.
Nick rolled the empty hand-truck back into the living room area. He wiped the sweat dribbling down his broad forehead with the tail of his shirt.
“You’re not cool with Brooklyn or something?”
“I don’t know her.”
“She and Faraji hung out a lot last year. The two of ya’ll will probably end up best friends or something.”
“I don’t know about that. You can’t live with anybody. That’s one lesson I learned,” Ciara said, resting her hands on her hips.
A low growl came from Nick’s stomach. He laid a hand on his side, but the sound didn’t stop. They laughed at the seemingly never-ending grumbling.
“I got some snacks on the counter,” Ciara said.
“I need some real food. What’s taking Faraji so long with the pizza?” he asked, grabbing a Doritos bag from the snack basket. When he popped open the bag, a funky whiff of artificial nacho cheese floated her way.
He thumbed in a text message, pacing back and forth until his phone trilled with a response. “She said she’s on her way back.”
“In Faraji-speak, on my way means 30 more minutes,” Ciara said, shaking her head.
“I’ll have all your stuff moved in by the time she gets back.”
“And I’ll have half of it unpacked.” Ciara pulled a box marked FRAGILE across the light gray carpet.
“How’s it feel to be back on campus?” he asked.
Ciara lifted her shoulders, then exhaled. “Weird. So much has changed. I’m a little nervous. It’s like it’s my freshman year all over again.”
“So what do they call you—a freshman? Sophomore?”
“Almost a sophomore. I took some online classes and registered for 18 credits, so I should be back on track soon.”
Nick whistled, sucking the orange cheese dust from his thumb. “Are you gonna be able to handle all them hours?”
“I hope so. I am not trying to stay around Aurbor Grove for six years.”
“Shoot, I’m taking my time with this school thing. Ain’t no rush to get out into the real world,” Nick said. “It’s cold out there.”
She waved the box cutter in his direction. “I’ve said it a million times, but I appreciate you helping me move in. You didn’t have to.”
“I’m just trying to be a good boyfriend.”
Ciara scrunched her nose at the mention of his title. “I’m still getting used to that.”
“What do you mean?” Nick asked, frowning.
“I leave and come back, and all of a sudden, you and Faraji are officially a couple,” she said, using air quotes. “I thought with how you were going back and forth when I was here. And the last time we talked about…never mind.”
“Go ‘head.” He pushed her with his words and his eyes.
She ran her tongue across the roof of her mouth, considering her words carefully. “I’m…glad you worked it out.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Do you remember when you came up to me and Faraji last summer talking about our heads blocking your view in class, asking if we were twins?”
“Ah, yeah. That.” Nick brought his fist to his mouth, catching the laugh rumbling out. “My game has gotten better.”
“Time has moved so fast, but sometimes it feels like I’m sitting still.”
“A lot’s changed. But for the good, you know? My anniversary’s comin’ up.”
“Wait, what?” Ciara sputtered.
“I ain’t had a drop of liquor in almost a year. Three-hundred forty days and counting.”
“That’s great. I’m really proud of you.”
“I swear my grandma calls every four hours checkin’ on me to make sure I stick with it.”
“Aw. She’s so sweet,” Ciara cooed, unwrapping the newspaper around a stack of framed photos. The old photo of her and her mother, Carolyn posing back-to-back after a long, sweaty day riding roller coasters at Six Flags made her smile.
Nick peeked over her shoulder and chuckled. “Look at all them ponytails.”
“Shut up, silly! That was the style back then.”
“You got more gel on them edges than Chilli’s baby hair,” he said, making her laugh harder.
Ciara’s joy halted suddenly, and her head dropped between her shoulders.
Suite 341 fell eerily quiet. The noise from other residents trekking up and down the hallway and banging against the walls came in through the open door.
“Hey, I was just playin.’ I didn’t mean no harm,” he said, kneeling down. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “You alright, CC?”
She didn’t breathe. She was afraid to. Taking in any air would spur the tears to fall and she was tired of crying over him. Her ex-boyfriend Trey did not deserve any more of her—especially her tears.
Ciara held the newsprint between her fingers like dirty underwear. The thin paper meant to protect precious moments from breaking had instead brought forth memories and shattered her spirit into pieces.
“What’s that?” Nick reached for The Georgia Tribune clipping, smoothing out its crumpled edges. He read aloud the salacious headline: “Love on Trial: Triangle’s Tragic End.”
“What are they saying now?” she asked, wanting to know, but bracing herself for any answers she didn’t want to hear.
His eyes scanned over a few paragraphs. “Um, a legal expert said the case is too circumstantial. Even though Tala died, no one can prove he intended to kill her. A source is claiming Trey’s folks might’ve paid some people off. Crazy, ain’t it?”
Ciara scoffed. The source’s words rang true. Trey’s family had shallow morals, deep political clout, and even deeper pockets. She dug in the box for the remaining half of the newspaper.
Investigative reporter Dani Juarez recapped private moments from Ciara’s life for the public’s entertainment.
The article featured every detail—from the date of Trey’s first virtual flirtatious conversation with her roommate Tala to the night he confessed to letting the girl fall to her death and Nick comforted Ciara in his arms.
Here he was doing it again.
“They said that Trey could come back this semester if he wanted to.”
“They say a lot of things,” Nick said. “You can’t listen to none of that.”
“I came to AGU because of him. But this time, I’m here for me. Stuff like this makes me wonder if I should even try again.” She waved the paper in the air. “This is all people think of me.”
Ciara remembered trying to explain to her academic advisor why she left AGU for a year, and the woman flatly responded, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that story.’
This wasn’t just a story. This was her life.
“I’ll leave. Give you a minute,” Nick said.
“No. Stay. Please.”
An odd expression flickered across his face.
She’d spotted that same look throughout their day together and ignored it because the truth hurt her: Nick didn’t want to stay.
The burden of her—and the baggage of Trey and Tala eternally strapped on her back—had become too heavy for him to carry.
His fake eagerness mirrored her own performance. They were lying to each other. The empty words, awkward hugs, shifting body language, and omissions were way easier to manage than the truth.
“Why are you acting like this?” Ciara asked.
He grimaced. “Like what?”
“Did you tell her?”
“You know. Faraji.”
Nick let out a deep sigh, pulling at the stubbly hairs on his chin.
“Did you talk to her?” she pressed.
“Stop playing around. About us,” Ciara whispered, even though they were alone.
Nick cursed—not verbally but within.
They shared the same sin but carried the shame differently.
“What happened between me and you…that was a mistake. But I’m trying to move forward,” he said. “I don’t wanna mess up what me and Faraji have. At the same time, I don’t want it to get weird between us either. That’s why I stepped up to help you today.”
The words sounded right, but his tone isolated Ciara.
“I was a little surprised you actually answered the phone. It feels like you’ve been avoiding me,” she said.
“I haven’t. I just…I’ve been busy.”
“Nick, for real? I’ll text you and won’t hear back for days, but see you online posting pictures and status updates.”
“I’m not arguing with you about this again. I’m here helping you and you’re tryin’ to say I’m not a good friend? What else do you want from me?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I wish…” Ciara paused to find the words to explain what she needed. “Can’t we all go back to how things were before?” she asked.
Before the drama with Trey and Tala.
Before the night she committed one stupid mistake.
Before…when she, Nick and Faraji were ‘just friends’ hanging out, studying, and looking for a little fun between classes.
“I want a fresh start.”
Nick shook his head. “It don’t work like that. You can’t take the good and act like the bad stuff never happened.”
During her time away, Ciara contemplated how her reunion with Nick would go, but she had imagined it unfolding a lot smoother than this.
She thought maybe they would fall right back into the comfortable gray area of a flirty friendship. The truly delusional side of her had envisioned him professing his love and choosing her. The fact that neither scenario happened left her flustered.
Side-glances and silence had replaced the looks of longing and words of comfort Ciara had grown accustomed to receiving from him.
Now, Nick treated her like he didn’t quite know what to do with her.
“I’ve learned the hard way that being upfront is way better than trying to hide something like this,” he said.
“Oh so this has happened to you before?”
“No. But it’s different with you being back. She’ll figure it out. It don’t even feel right being here with you.” He delivered his truth with a quiet confidence, but his eyes pleaded with her.
She’d lost him. Doing what he asked of her would certainly lead to her losing her best friend too. She would be alone.
Ciara crossed her arms. “I’m not telling Faraji.”
“Telling me what?”
The two of them whipped around to see Faraji in the doorway, struggling to balance grocery bags and a large red pizza box.
“Um, can somebody help a sista out, please?”
“Babe, I got you.” Nick rushed to her side and grabbed everything.
Faraji looked up at him, smiling with her bubblegum-pink colored lips and hazel eyes. He ran his thumb over the sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks and kissed her there, then her lips. Once. Twice more.
Nick couldn’t get enough of her. He had replaced one addiction with another—one taste of Faraji left him seeking the next high of her touch.
The intimate scene made Ciara desire before even more.
Faraji broke away, pointing fingers at Nick and Ciara.
“What are you two trying to hide from me?”
Ciara giggled nervously, pushing her hands in the back pockets of her pineapple-yellow shorts, hiding that invisible secret somewhere tangible.
“Girl, nothing. We were joking about not telling you about the Theta party tomorrow night. We know you’re gonna try and drag us out.”
“Oh, you already know I know about the Theta party. And ma’am, we are going! How else will I celebrate the return of my bestie?” Faraji cheered, hugging her tightly.
Ciara held on to her best friend longer than she should have.
What if Nick was right and no matter how much she practiced, pretended, tucked, and pushed away, life would never return to what it had been before?