Exchange of Heart
by

Waitress Michelle Medena was used to the attention she got from men. They were always hitting on her, but none seemed interested in anything but her good looks. Then one night Zak Tover, the teaching assistant in her economics class, sat at her table. With his socialist-themed t-shirts and tendency to leave extravagant tips he was like no one she’d ever met. He seemed to find her beauty of little value.

Zak Tover was completely intimidated by beautiful women and knew better than to try to hit on them. Michelle, however, was particularly difficult to ignore, especially when her class papers revealed a clever mind behind all that loveliness. Still, they come from very different socio-economic backgrounds and Zak knew better than to expect that there could never be a fair trade between them…that was, until Michelle’s wayward brother stepped in with his own radical economic theory and completely altered the exchange rate. (F/M)

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Chapter 2: Passionate Manifestos


“You owe me,” Zak snapped at Jamar as they played chess in the South Campus Coffee Room, haven and hideout for the geekiest of political science grad students.

Jamar had been invited to a frat party by a giggling debutante he desperately desired. Not wanting to risk his one chance to get somewhere with her, but terrified of going by himself, he’d begged Zak to play wingman. Zak had known it was a mistake, but he’d agreed. Once they were there, Jamar had vanished with the girl and Zak had been stuck drinking alone in the corner.

Worst thing of all, he’d caught sight of Michelle! He hoped to God she hadn’t seen him. Sometimes, in class, he felt her eyes on him. It made him want to hide under his desk.

He’d spoken to her a few times since that first assignment, always in class and always about classwork as he couldn’t seem to talk on any other subject in her presence. Those short talks, however, had given him glimpses into her rich mind, and he felt he’d kinda-sorta gotten to know her over these few months. He wondered if she knew she was a political science geek. Her papers, each one better and sharper than the last, certainly read that way.

Likely she didn’t know, and wouldn’t be flattered to hear it. He’d seen the crowd she hung with, jocks and co-eds, confident and popular. Why would she want to know she belonged not among the socially affluent but with impoverished pariahs like him?

“I can’t believe you guys went to a frat party,” Steve said from his favorite seat, a battered armchair squeezed into one of the corners.

“You make it sound like it was a Nazi youth rally,” Jamar muttered.

“That would have been better,” Ron chimed in from behind the coffee kiosk that sold over-priced drinks to the South Campus regulars. “What were you thinking?”

“Yeah?” several others demanded.

“The ruling class is the ruling intellect,” Zak paraphrased. “So if you want to know what kind of minds are dominating this campus—”

He left off to move his pawn. More arguments passed overhead. Then, abruptly, the room went quiet.

“Are you lost?” Zak heard Ron say, and finally looked up.

He felt his muscles go rigid. Michelle was standing in the doorway. Her eyes flickered over them with distaste, as if she’d just discovered hobos on a freight train. Zak felt his face go hot with embarrassment.

“Looking for the mall?” someone sneered.

“We read books here, not fashion mags,” someone else pointed out.

“Sell political reality, not shoes,” Ron added.

“I… was just after a cup of coffee,” she said. Her brandy eyes had found Zak. She was looking directly at him, half-angry, half asking for help, but Zak found it impossible to move.

“Undergrads have to earn the coffee,” Steve arrogantly asserted. “Here’s a quote for you: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ What abilities do you offer that we should see to your needs? Double points if you relate your answer to the quotation.”

Steve’s tone infuriated Zak. How dare that fuck make fun of Michelle! He was about to get to his feet when Michelle’s clipped voice responded, “You should see to my needs because I’m a proletariat, one of those workers who will overthrow the corrupt capitalist system.” She glared. “Unlike you, I labor for a living. I don’t just talk about it.”

The South Campus Coffee Room froze in shock. The last thing they’d expected out of the mouth of this pretty co-ed was a reasoned political argument, let alone a working knowledge of Karl Marx. Zak, himself, was stunned. They hadn’t gotten to communism in Socio-Economic History and Michelle’s last paper, discussing the effects of fascism on a free market economy, hinted that she was still an evangelical capitalist. So when and why had she been studying up on Marx?

“There is no way—” Steve began.

“Shut up,” Zak cut him off. “She nailed you dead to rights.” He stood up and forced himself to meet Michelle’s challenging gaze. “Coffee’s on us if you still want it.”

“Thank you.” Michelle was holding her head high. “Regular coffee to go.”

No one said anything as Zak fetched the drink. He diffidently handed it to her, then walked her out. Halfway down the hall, he stopped.

“They were morons.” Shit. If she didn’t already loathe him, she must now. But he had to try and set things right. “And you were… nicer than they deserved. I mean, you could have taken those guys down by… by….”

“Cutting off their balls instead of challenging their brains?” she said tersely. “You’re right. I was nice.”

He blushed. “You have to understand, there are different kinds of poverty. Not to undermine real poverty, but you were born with your own kind of wealth—looks and confidence. The guys in there don’t have any of that. When we… they see a socially rich girl like you they get scared. It was just a defensive reaction. It was still wrong, really wrong, but I hope you can understand why. I’m sorry none of us acted better.”

She tilted her head and he half-hoped that he was forgiven. “Thanks for the coffee,” was all she said, however, before marching off.

“Looks like your creep isn’t coming tonight,” Lisa said to Michelle.

“I guess not,” Michelle agreed. It bothered her. Wednesdays were Zak’s night. He always came in around nine to drink his root beer floats and read. But it was going on eleven, the end of Michelle’s shift, and still no Zak.

Was he still embarrassed? On Monday she’d gone searching for him hoping to ask him a few questions about the latest assignment. That’s how she’d stumbled into that strange place. Those grad students had looked ready to shoot her. Even Zak had been dismayed to see her, as if an enemy spy had infiltrated his hidden lair, but she’d handled herself well. She’d undercut that Marx-quoting idiot and Zak had apologized. He’d been ashamed of his friends, but he’d also tried to explain them.

His observations, as always, had been a revelation. Back in high school she’d know similar nerds who’d gazed at her like beggars hoping for scraps. Self-absorbed with her own problems, she’d shooed them away. It had never occurred to her that she might have shared her wealth with them in the form of a smile or a kind word. Had beautiful girls treated Zak that way? Snubbed and humiliated him? Her stomach turned over, remembering her sneering peers, remembering how she’d originally viewed Zak.

She’d been as snobby as a bejeweled princess. No wonder he’d expected her to be vindictive toward his rude friends. Was that why he never spoke to her when he came to the diner? Because he thought she’d slight him?

Quitting time came. Michelle changed out of her uniform into a sweater and skirt and headed home to the three-bedroom bungalow she and Ted rented. The lawn was small and brown, fenced in with chain link. The windows were protected by rusted security bars. She heard dogs barking, televisions blaring and a baby squalling. This, she thought opening the front door, was why she was getting an education—to escape this fucking neighborhood.

Ted and Gil were in the living room watching basketball and surrounded, not surprisingly, by empty cans of Budweiser. “Michie!” Ted said, his words slurred. “Where’s your camera?”

“How many times do I have to tell you? You don’t get to borrow my camera. I paid a lot for it and I’m not risking you breaking it. Use your damn phone.” She set down her purse and removed her jacket.

“Come on, please. We need this to be a really good picture. You can take it for us.” The two men were on their feet now, following her to her desk.

“Pretty please?” Gil begged, putting a heavy arm around her and breathing beer fumes into her face. Great. She’d planned to hit the books, but there was clearly no escaping these two.

“One picture,” she negotiated sternly.

“One,” Ted agreed.

“Stay here.” She went to her room and fetched the camera out of an old jewelry box. “Okay. What do you want me to photograph?”

“Spare room,” Ted said, leading the way. The spare room had been their dad’s. Even though it had its own half-bath, neither Ted nor Michelle wanted it and so it remained empty. There was a key in the old fashioned lock. Ted turned it, and threw open the door.

On their father’s old brass bed was a man. He was seated, knees up, naked and blindfolded, his hands were bound behind him with a plastic tie. It was Zak.

“Surprise!” Ted crowed, as if he’d just won the lottery.

Fuck! Michelle slammed the door and shoved at her brother and Gil, herding them back into the living room.

“ARE YOU CRAZY?”

“Michie, Michie, listen—” Ted whispered, grabbing hold of her.

“Have you gone completely out of your mind? What the fuck?”

“He’s rich,” Gil put in.

What?

“We did some checking,” Ted said, “for your sake.”

“Zachary Tover,” Gil rushed in, “your creep… his granddaddy is Nicholas Vaughn!”

Michelle shook her head. “You’re drunk. He’s just a TA—”

“No,” Gil insisted. “We searched the internet and stuff. Honest. He’s Nicholas Vaughn’s grandson.”

Michelle tried to catch her breath. If Gil was telling the truth, then Zak was the grandson of a filthy rich hotel mogul. Not a little rich—Filthy rich—the kind of rich that gets raised with servants, limos, yachts, and private-island-getaways.

That fucking hypocrite! Was that why he left her those huge tips? To share his wealth? Well screw him!

“… knew he’d be coming by the diner tonight,” Ted was saying proudly. “So we lay in wait and, bam! nabbed him easy as that.”

“We need your camera so we can take a picture of him,” Gil filled in, “and e-mail it to his granddad with our demands. We’re thinking four or five million. Does that sound too low?”

Michelle’s hot anger went icy cold. Jesus H. Christ! She handed Gil her camera and riffled through a kitchen drawer for scissors.

“What are you doing?” Ted asked.

“I’m going to cut Zak free,” she said taking the scissors and heading for the back room. “And then I’m going to try and convince him that you two are drunken idiots and he shouldn’t press charges. Though God knows how I’ll ever face him again—” Her words ended in a yelp as Ted snatched her up from behind, pinning her arms.

“We’re doing this for you,” he insisted.

“You son-of-a-bitch! You put me down!” He had her arms pinned in such a way that she couldn’t stab him with the scissors. She kicked back with her heels instead.

“Ouch! Ouch!” Ted cried, barely keeping hold of her. “Come on, knock it off, Michie! This is the answer to all our money problems.”

“Stupid asshole!” She fought her brother even as Gil unlocked the spare room and took a couple of quick pictures with the camera. Then Ted abruptly tossed her from his arms. She landed hard on the floor, hurting her shoulder. By the time she scrambled to her knees the door was closed and the antique key was turning in the lock.

“TED!” she shrieked, and threw herself at the door. She pounded on it and rattled the knob. She peered through the keyhole. She could see her brother and his friend examining the pictures on the digital camera, arguing about which one to use.

She could not believe this! There was a simple bolt lock on the door in addition to the old-fashioned key lock. Michelle snapped it shut. There. Now the door was locked from the inside as well and neither Gil nor Ted could get at her or their prize, not without breaking down the door. It wasn’t much, but having that small leverage over them calmed her.

She finally turned around. Blindfolded, Zak was huddled on the bare mattress, head to knees, trying to protect himself. He was a very sad sight, scrawny and pale. For all that, Michelle couldn’t help noticing the sensual curve of his ass and thigh, the alluring pink hint of his scrotum and cock. The flush she felt wasn’t quite embarrassment.

“Stay still,” she told him, and came around to unknot the blindfold. Zak gulped as the scarf fell away.

He glanced over his shoulder, saw her and started gasping alarmingly.

“Oh, my God,” Michelle cried, “oh my God, are you all right?”

“Don’t look at me,” he choked, “please don’t look at me!”

“Okay, okay.” She turned her back on him. Surreptitiously, however, she watched him in the wall mirror. He was working to get control of his breathing. His face was an alarming shade of red.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded.

“Outside of being naked and kidnapped, you mean?” he asked. “You scare the shit out of me.”

“I do?”

“Yeah. Girls as beautiful as you always do.”

Even under such bizarre circumstances, that charmed her. He thought she was beautiful. “We do, huh? Wait, is that why you almost never look at me?” She glanced back at him. He had his head to his knees again. “I thought you didn’t like me.”

“I don’t. I mean, I didn’t. I do now.” His Adam’s apple bobbed. “H-how… how long have you been planning this?”

She spun on him. “What? I didn’t plan anything! How dare you suggest that!”

“I-I’m sorry—”

“This was my stupid, drunk brother’s doing,” Michelle ranted. “Him and his ridiculous friend. I had no idea what had happened to you until I came home. When I told them I was going to release you, they locked me in here.”

“Ah.” He didn’t sound as if he quite believed her. “So, those scissors are for cutting me free?” He lifted his chin to where the scissors had fallen from her hand.

“What’d you think they were for?” she asked, retrieving them.

“Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for years. The Lindbergh baby, Patty Hearst, those were my bedtime stories. The most nightmarish tale was that of John Paul Getty III. His grandfather refused to pay the ransom, so the kidnappers cut off the kid’s ear and mailed it in.”

“Ugh! You thought I was going to cut something off?” She started forward then hesitated. She couldn’t help remembering the first time she’d seen Zak, how she’d thought he might be stalker.

“What?” he asked. He was still working for breath, his eyes lowered.

“If I cut you free, what will you do?”

“Scream in pain,” he said. “The circulation to my hands is gone and it’s going to hurt like hell when it comes back.” He swallowed. “Jesus, Michelle, I’m so intimidated by you I hyperventilate when you look at me, and you’re worried I’m going to hurt you?”

She got onto the bed and up behind him. He hissed as she worked the scissors under the band. It took some effort, but the plastic finally snapped.

“Agh!” Zak cried out, un-bending his arms. He set his swollen hands under his armpits.

“Let me—” Michelle said.

“No—”

“Give them!” she insisted, shifting around him and pulling his hands forward. His poor, beautiful fingers were red and puffy. Tears spilled down his face and he sucked in air as she began to massage them.

“Stupid bastards!” she hissed.

“In more ways than one. What are they up to?”

“They’re going to send an internet ransom note with your picture.”

“Fuck.” His eyes finally came up. “If that note goes through, the FBI will be involved, no question, and they take ransoms very personally. Your brother and his friend will be in jail by breakfast.”

“They deserve it,” she said, rubbing his hands more fiercely. “Doing this to you. Ruining my life!”

“That’s what I’m worried about. No matter what I say, you might end up arrested, too. Maybe we should try to escape before that happens?” The swelling was going down. He flexed his hands.

“Why’d they take your clothes?” she asked.

Zak blushed beet-red and tried to angle his legs to hide more of himself. “They said something about a How Kidnappers Kidnap website—probably got the idea from that. Actually, it’s pretty smart. Hard for me to get far like this even if I could escape. Speaking of which, is there any getting out that window?” He looked toward the one over the bed.

“I don’t know,” Michelle said doubtfully. “I don’t think those security bars have been opened since they were put up. We can try. But we should wait till Gil and Ted have passed out or something. We don’t want those idiots to hear the noise and come investigating.”

Zak nodded and shifted till he had his back against the headboard. Michelle removed her boots and curled her legs under her.

“So you were raised rich, huh?” She still didn’t know how she felt about that. Curious certainly—a little betrayed as well. “Is that why you’re a Marxist? You don’t want to be put up against the wall when your grandfather’s hotel workers revolt?”

“I wasn’t raised wealthy,” he demurred. “My mother ran away from her poor-little-rich-girl life and married a nice, middle class doctor. I’m part of the bourgeoisie, if you want a label. Raised in the suburbs, public school education, much to Granddad’s disgust.”

Michelle didn’t know if she was disappointed or relieved. So he was just a regular nerd.

“I used to visit Gramps three or four times a year,” Zak went on. “I saw enough of the ultra-rich lifestyle to know I didn’t want it. It fucks people up.”

“You sound like you feel sorry for them.”

He shrugged. “Does that surprise you?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, most people argue politics like it’s a religion. They’ve no sympathy for those on the other side. But you… you’re pretty lenient.”

He blushed, which was curiously attractive. “If I really want a fair society, then I have to be fair-minded.”

“God, you’re a whole lot better person than I am,” Michelle sighed. “I don’t believe for a minute that if you give people a fair chance they’ll be fair in return. I’m a realist.” She paused, wondering if this was the right time to break it to him. What the hell? “That’s why I’m leaning towards libertarianism.”

He finally looked directly at her, his blue eyes aghast. “Libertarianism? You’re not serious!”

“Afraid so.”

“No, no. No way! I can’t be in love with a libertarian!”

Michelle blinked. “Love?”

“Ah, no,” Zak backpedaled, swollen hands waving, “not love, I didn’t mean—”

“You said love,” Michelle insisted, her heart beating faster. At that moment, if she’d had the key she’d have swallowed it rather than giving it to him. She wasn’t going to let him go anywhere till he explained that remark.

“I didn’t mean it.”

She stiffened. “Why not? What’s wrong with me? Do you think I’m not smart enough? Is that it? That is it, isn’t it?”

“No, God no! You’re super-smart—”

She leaned in on him across the bed, causing the springs to creak and the thin mattress to sink under their combined weight. “Is it because I’m a waitress? An undergrad? What?”

He cringed. “You think I’m a creep.”

Michelle froze. How had he known?

“You think I’m a creep and you’re right,” he went on. “I want to pin pictures of you to my bedroom wall and light candles under them. I want to write comments on your papers so you’ll come argue with me and I can hear your voice. I always pick your table at the diner so I can get near you.” He was huddled up again, looking miserable. “But if we get out of this alive and well, I promise I’ll stop. I don’t want you thinking of me like that.”

“I don’t think of you like that,” she insisted. “How could I? You’re the only one who knows what I’m worth, what I’m really worth. You refuse to let me sell myself short.” She drew in a breath. “And what you just said was probably the most romantic thing any guy has ever said to me.”

“Not creepy?”

“Maybe a little. But still romantic.” She touched him then. His bare skin twitched. Tentatively, she put her lips to his. His mouth opened for her, as if she’d turned a key.

She caressed his lips with her tongue, even as she trailed her fingertips down his flat stomach, feeling it flutter. She found his cock, erect and ready. It jumped at her touch and fit snugly in her hand. A strangled sound of alarmed excitement came from his throat, and drops of pre-come oozed from his tip.

She pulled back; there was a mix of terror and desire in his eyes; he could fall either way. Time to give him a push.

“Are you sure you can’t love a libertarian?” she whispered, slipping off her sweater. “There’s got to be something you like about them.”

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