Monday, January 4, 2016

11th Day of Christmas Author Spotlight: RE Hargrave

Author Bio:
R.E. Hargrave lives on the outskirts of Dallas, TX where she prides herself on being a domestic engineer. Married to her high school sweetheart, together they are raising three children from elementary age to college age. She is an avid reader, a sometimes quilter and now, a writer. Other hobbies include gardening and a love of a music.

A native 'mutt,' Hargrave has lived in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, and California. She is fond of setting her stories on location in South Carolina and Texas, but its anybody's guess as to what the genre will be!


To Serve is Divine #1
Catherine O’Chancey is a reserved, demure, and graceful submissive. All traits she trained hard to enhance when she discovered the world of Dominance and submission in college. In an attempt to start fresh after the unexpected death of her last Dom, Catherine moves to Dallas, TX to escape the shroud of darkness he left behind in her life. She has tried to fight the need that resides deep within her to submit, but finally has to admit she can’t for it is not a choice, but part of who she truly is. After months of mental preparation, she ventures back into the lifestyle by attending a coveted open-night event at Dungeons and Dreams, an exclusive BDSM club.Is it fate or coincidence that Catherine garners the attention of one of the club’s board members who happens to be on the hunt for the perfect sub – a partner who enjoys receiving pain and pleasure as much as he enjoys doling it out?Jayden Masterson is many things: a firm Dom, a shrewd businessman, and a gentleman. What he isn’t, is someone who partakes in relationships outside of contractual ones with his multiple, uncollared, regular submissives. While he likes rough sex, he is not an animal, and can find pleasure only if it is consensual. What his harem is missing is a pain slut; could there be one in his future?

Upon meeting Catherine, Jayden feels an instantaneous spark inside him that has him wanting to know not just her body, but her mind. He wants to unravel her mysteries and discover her secrets. Through pain can they find the pleasure they seek? Can part-time pain lovers find full-time fulfillment when it’s not in their contract?

***Contains explicit sexual content (including multiple partners and gender pairings) and mature situations which could be trigger-inducing for some readers. Not meant for underage readers.***

A Divine Life #2
Over the past year of being Jayden Masterson’s collared submissive, Catherine O’Chancey has worked through the mental terrors left behind by her old Dom—she thinks. To celebrate their collaring anniversary, Jayden organizes a special day, during which her final limits and fantasies will be realized. Will it prove to be more than she can handle? Can she endure the erotic onslaught her mind and body will experience and survive unscathed?  While Catherine faces dark shadows and pleasurable highs, Jayden finds his own inner strength being tested. He has come to realize that, somewhere along the way, Catherine has taken possession of his heart, mind, and body. Now he faces his biggest challenge ever; he must let go of all his submissives but one: his jewel, Catherine. Can he leave his philandering ways behind? Has he made the ultimate mistake by putting his jewel into the hands of others?

***Contains explicit sexual content (including multiple partners and gender pairings) and mature situations which could be trigger-inducing for some readers. Not meant for underage readers.***

Surreal #3 
Catherine O'Chancey is a young submissive who has found her happily ever after, with a man far better than she’d ever dreamed.  Or has she? Is life that easy?  Jayden Masterson first opened his playroom to Catherine—a provocative Irish beauty with a penchant for pain—and then his heart to her everyday persona, Erin. For him, life has never been more perfect . . . Or more confusing.  He's comfortable as a Dominant, but still finding his way as a lover and equal partner. Jayden is also learning that he can't protect his jewel from everything—nor should he. Some battles she must fight on her own.  The travesties of Erin's past still haunt her, and as the couple move forward in their merging relationship, they must now cope with the physical damage left behind by her abuser.  Catherine and her Master have a lot to learn—about each other, and about themselves. If Jayden and his jewel can overcome the challenges they'll face on the next leg of their journey, their ending just might be . . . Surreal.

***Contains explicit sexual content (including multiple partners and gender pairings) and mature situations which could be trigger-inducing for some readers.***

The Food Critic 
Serena Peters has made her place in life writing an exclusive column for a popular foodie magazine. She has fame and fortune, what she doesn’t have is companionship or love. Chef Stuart Wellings comes from an embittered past and has had to fight for the simple way he lives. When Serena shows up to interview him and his small town diner, will an appreciation for food be the only thing they have in common, or will there be more?

Unchained Melody
Marshall Chandler is a true American who grew up wanting nothing more than to serve his country to the best of his ability, by becoming a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. On the eve of his first assignment, he meets the woman that will haunt his dreams and change his life.  A single night to connect, but a decade to realize it . . . when one man is torn between the love of his country and what might have been the love of his life, how does he stay sane? How does he cope? And will he ever get a second chance at love?  Sometimes fate works in mysterious ways.

Haunted Raine 
Distracted by the everyday routine of raising children, being a wife, and keeping a home, Lorraine Morrissey let life pass her by. Her wake up call comes when she realizes that with their children gone, her husband Richard is rarely home, and she’s filling her solitary days with trivial tasks. A crazy idea to save her marriage leads to a summer beach vacation unlike any she’s ever taken; one that involves unknowingly buying a haunted house.

Fire Lust 
Heather Marsden and Cody Stevens have been an item since their first year of high school. With their future planned and their college graduation within reach, Cody gets devastating news from his doctor. Heather must now cope with the knowledge that she might lose the man who was supposed to be her forever.  While trying to come up with a grand final birthday surprise for him, Heather ends up befriending the new girl in town. Suzanne Cross lives a hippie life full of color and extravagance, seemingly without a care in the world. In truth, she’s all alone and hides a secret.  Heather’s new friend is something more than human, but how far will she be willing to go to save Cody? Just how much faith in “love” can she muster?

***Contains adult material, including sex and recreational drug use. Meant for readers 18+***

Sugar & Spice
Lacey Harrison has been dealt an unexpected hand in life: being a single mom. With her father's help and that of the residents at Royal Hills Nursing Home, she thrives and goes on to become a successful baker. She is content with her life but knows that she and her daughter Candy are missing something. Will things change for the better when Trent Childress moves into town and adds some spice to her sugar?

Monday's Montage Mantlepiece: Home for the Holidays

Home is where the heart is.

The December holidays mean many things: food, presents, traditions, stress, peace, renewal. But most of all, they mean families—good and bad, biological and chosen—and finding our way home, whatever the definition and wherever it might be. The four holiday-set romances in Home for the Holidays all explore characters leaving home, finding home, returning home, and discovering what home means to them.

And to help people discover home in the real world, 20% of all proceeds from this collection are donated to the Ali Forney Center in New York, whose mission “is to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth from the harm of homelessness, and to support them in becoming safe and independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood.” To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visit Ali Forney Center.

***Please note that while the Home for the Holidays ebook bundle contains all four holiday stories, the Home for the Holidays paperback contains only the three novellas; it does not contain the novel Christmas Kitsch by Amy Lane. Christmas Kitsch is available as a standalone.***

Stories Included: 
How I Met Your Father by LB Gregg
The man of your dreams could be sitting right next to you. 

Former boy band member Justin Hayes isn’t looking for a man. He just wants a quiet, scandal-free Christmas at home in Chicago, out of the public eye. But his best friend and bandmate is subjecting everyone to his destination wedding, and Justin can’t dodge the “best man” bullet. All he has to do is get to the island on time, survive the reunion, and get Chuck to the altar with as little drama as possible. What could possibly go wrong?

Jack Bassinger’s own plans for a quiet Christmas have been dashed by the summons to his daughter’s hasty wedding with a man Jack has hardly met. On the bumpy flight to the island, he finds himself comforting a nervous—and extremely attractive—young man. One hasty sexual encounter in an airport bathroom later, they both feel much better. No one ever has to know, after all.

Now Justin and Jack must find a way to explore their attraction, despite the distractions of disapproving family members, unexpected announcements, an impromptu concert, and an island paradise that proves there’s no place like home.

A great holiday read full of fun, sun, beach, wedding ups and downs, and most importantly romance.  LB Gregg had me smiling from beginning to end.


Long the Mile by Ally Blue
When Judah went to prison for insider trading, he lost everything he thought was important: his business, his money, his power. But when he gets out, homelessness strips him of the one thing he has left: his self-respect. When another homeless man saves him from a beating, he begins to learn to rely on the goodness of those around him.

For Toby, life on the streets has become familiar. Comfortable. So comfortable he wonders if he’s given up on changing his life for the better. Then comes Judah. Formerly rich, newly homeless, all his pride and attitude gone along with his material possessions. Helping Judah feels good. Their unexpected connection—physical and beyond—feels even better.

Their shared situation nurtures a growing closeness that blossoms into something deeper. But when change comes knocking, it will take all their strength to keep fear and insecurity from tearing them apart.

Lost and Found by ZA Maxfield
RV resort security chief Ringo never believed in love at first sight . . . until he saw Gavin playing his sax on the beach for the tourists. But their on-again, off-again affair—even counting all the great makeup sex—doesn’t come close to the relationship he wants. All he really wants for Christmas is a commitment from Gavin.

Instead he discovers that Gavin has had surgery without telling him, so he lays down a relationship ultimatum while Gavin recuperates. Complicating matters even more, Gavin’s beloved dog Bird runs away, and Gavin blames Ringo for the disappearance.

While Ringo throws every resource he has into finding Bird, he learns deeper truths about Gavin—how hard it is for him to trust and how little faith he has in love. Maybe if Ringo can find Bird, he can salvage Gavin’s faith. Maybe this Christmas, they can all find each other.

Christmas Kitsch by Amy Lane
Sometimes the best thing you can get for Christmas is knowing what you really want.

Rusty Baker is a blond, rich, entitled football player in a high school full of them—just the type of oblivious jock all the bullied kids hate. And he might have stayed that way, except he develops a friendship with out-and-proud Oliver Campbell from the wrong side of the tracks. Rusty thinks the friendship is just pity—Oliver is very bright, and Rusty is very not—but then Oliver kisses him goodbye when Rusty leaves for college, and Rusty is forced to rethink everything he knows about himself.

But even Rusty’s newfound awareness can’t help him survive a semester at Berkeley. He returns home for Thanksgiving break clinging to the one thing he knows to be true: Oliver Campbell is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

Rusty’s parents disagree, and Rusty finds himself homeless for the holidays. Oliver may not have much money, but he’s got something Rusty has never known: true family. With their help and Oliver’s love, Rusty comes to realize that he may have failed college, but he’ll pass real life with flying rainbow colors.

Amy Lane has done it again!  Even if it took months away at Berkeley for Rusty to see what Oliver was to him this story is so much more than Rusty's self-discovery.  Maybe this belongs more in my Christmas library but there are so few Thanksgiving stories that I had to include it here instead.  Maybe it's a idea that tends to be done more than not but when done well it is heartwarming and that is what Amy Lane has done.  Family is not always blood.  Family is heart.  Family is being there. Family is love.  Rusty's parents may have not been there for him but what he finds at Oliver's door is what we all want and throw in his little sister and you have what makes any tale great.


How I Met Your Father
Chapter One
The flight attendant steadied herself against the turbulence as she’d probably done a million times before—absently. Like it was no big deal. She simply slapped a hand against the overhead bin and waited, and when we leveled, she smiled directly at me as she walked by.

I pushed my sunglasses back into place, swallowed a straw-full of watery rum and coke, and concentrated on the view outside my window before the stewardess got it in her head to speak to me again. A few wispy clouds separated us from the wide blue Caribbean waters sparkling thirty thousand feet below. In twenty minutes or so, we’d land in San Juan, and I’d flee this tin tube. We were basically coasting at this point. I could make it. I could fly. I’d been in the air all day, shitty as the flights had been.

My stomach lurched as we dipped, and the Fasten Seatbelt indicator binged a split second later.

“Return to your seats . . . fasten your seatbelts . . .” I lost half of what the captain was saying as his voice crackled over the intercom. Panic seized my gut as I caught a bit about “rough air,” and I squeezed my drink until the cup crackled. I almost crossed myself.

I focused on the passenger in the seat beside me. He hadn’t moved, resting like we all weren’t about to go down in a giant ball of flames. His thick arms were still folded across his chest and, while his eyes were closed, he wasn’t sleeping. Golden hair sprinkled his wrists and forearms. A big watch glimmered in a ray of warm sunshine. Blond and red whiskers stippled his square jaw, and his hair seemed too shaggy for the boardroom, curling at his neck and around his ears.

He frowned and sighed, “Goddamn San Juan,” and because he hadn’t said anything other than “more coffee” since we’d boarded, I nodded. Goddamn San Juan, indeed.

Turbulence wasn’t new to me. I’d never flown to San Juan without experiencing bumps along the way, like a trial by fear was the price one paid to enter paradise. And it was because of this vast experience with Caribbean bumps that I’d proactively ordered a drink as soon as Florida’s coastline had faded from view.

I clung to that drink as the plane plummeted like a roller coaster hitting its first, death-defying drop. We dipped hard to the squealing delight of some teenager girls seated in coach. I remained silent, but inside, a litany of fuck fuck fuck rattled around my head.

The flight attendant stumbled as the aircraft righted itself as suddenly as it had wronged itself, and while I knew, knew, it was only turbulence—we’d simply flown into rising air currents, as Bill Nye the breezy Science Guy had once explained at the Nickelodeon Awards—my heart pummeled my sternum.

The man next to me remained unfazed, but something mechanically significant could have happened and none of us would be the wiser. Crazy things happened every day—all you had to do was watch the news. Engine failure. Pilot error. Flocks of birds took entire aircrafts out of the sky. Wings fell off planes. Batteries caught fire. It happened all the damn time.

Yet the world beyond my window remained sprightly sunshine and clear skies. No smoke trails. No flaming engines. No burning feathers, and no ocean rushing to meet me at five hundred miles per hour. Just endless, cerulean water. I peeled my knuckles from the armrest and laid my hand in my lap. My fingers twitched.

Turbulence. It’s nothing.

Though it felt like something when the plane stuttered again through the wild blue yonder and the next dip lifted my ass clear off the seat by a good three inches. I freaking floated above my flotation seat cushion and my stomach dropped to my toes, because technically? We were falling. And the man beside me? His eyes finally snapped wide as we slammed back into our seats.

“Jesus.” I downed my drink before it soaked my crotch. The engines roared healthily as an anxious silence descended throughout the cabin. Not one word of comfort or explanation from the pilot either, that dick.

Maybe he had more important things to do—like fly the plane.

The blond guy had flattened a palm against the seat back in front of him during the last drop, probably to keep himself from smacking his skull on the overhead compartment. His eyes narrowed on our flight attendant.

She smiled woodenly, and we shot through another wall of rough air. This time, the teens wheee!’d less energetically. The wings tilted as we rolled to the left, then the right, and as I rechecked the security of my seatbelt, the plane leveled.

“Fuck. Me.”

The Golden Man actually smiled. “Relax. It’ll be over in a minute. We’re fine.”

I didn’t feel fine. I felt like I was having a heart attack. “Sure.”

He didn’t look fine, either. Beneath his tan, he looked . . . impatient, like the flight would go much more smoothly if he were the one at the controls. He checked his watch.

Another dip launched our flight attendant sideways. She smacked into the cockpit door face-first and dissolved to the carpet. I moved to help, but my neighbor gripped my sleeve. “Stay. She knows what she’s doing. You’ll only distract her.”

The stewardess staggered to her feet, a sober trickle of blood running from her nose. She staunched the flow with a napkin as her gaze swept the cabin, landing briefly on each of us as she cataloged our welfare.

The captain’s voice returned. “Flight attendants, please be seated.” Anxiety ripped through me and threatened to chuck up my rum and coke.

A redheaded stewardess arrived through the curtain. She flipped the jump seats down, and the two women fastened themselves into individual five-point harnesses that were a hell of a lot sturdier than the flimsy two-pointers we passengers had buckled over our laps. Once the women were settled, the redhead frowned over her coworker’s injury.

We were all pretty much frowning.

The blond man’s stare met mine, his irises gleaming like quicksilver. Unfriendly lines bracketed his mouth. “I’ve flown in worse. This is nothing.”

I’d flown through worse too, and for that reason, I’d considered washing an Ambien down with my drink while we were still on the ground in Atlanta. I would have, except drink mixed with drug never turned out as well as one hoped, and besides, I needed to function upon arrival. I had twenty minutes to connect with a commuter flight to Nevis and get my ass to Chuck’s hasty Yuletide wedding. I had the gang to reconnect with—we were the groomsmen, after all.

We shot toward a new pocket of rough air. Bang, bang, bump, lift. Fall. Fear. Fuck. My cup hit the floor, and I didn’t retrieve it.

We were so damn close to Puerto Rico. Goddamn, we were almost there. It had been what? Five minutes of turbulence? Not much to most seasoned travelers, though it felt like an eternity to me as adrenaline leaked into my system. But if we were in actual danger, the flight attendants would do something heroic, right?

I glanced at the bleeding woman strapped securely in what looked like a parachute. Then I prayed.

Please don’t let me miss Chuck’s wedding.

Please don’t let me puke, and if I do, don’t let anyone recognize me.

I needed to get a grip.

Keep the plane in the sky. Let us land. It’s turbulence, for crying out loud. I refuse to die by cloud fart.

Something brushed my knuckle. Something warm and rough and steady. Mid full-blown panic attack, my eyes jerked open.

Mr. Golden Man.

He’d reached over the armrest—hand hovering above my lap, fingers stroking the backs of mine.

What. The. Hell? I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t flinch or pull away, which I should have, but fear of imminent death pinned me in place. My throat clicked as I swallowed, my skin tingling, my face burning. His posture didn’t reflect impatience now. No. He appeared rock steady.

The plane shuddered again, accompanied by the tinny, metallic sound of struts and bolts straining, and instead of rational and strong and fucking normal—I clung.

He stroked my knuckles with a tender brush of skin against skin. “We’re fine”—voice pitched so only I could hear—“Relax.”

He moved against the armrest, and our shoulders bumped. His fingertips breezed across my clenched fist, and that simple contact traveled dart-like through bone and sinew, from knuckle to joint, ball to socket, tendon to ligament, from wrist to elbow, and shoulder to chest. His touch pierced my ribs, and the fear dissipated. I loosened my grip as a strange new feeling nestled behind my breastbone.

“I’m okay.” I cleared the lump in my throat and breathed a little easier. “But what . . . are you doing?”

“Distracting you.” He smiled easily, no hint of recognition in his eyes, and I realized he didn’t know. He had no clue who he was sitting next to. Whose hand he was holding. “Your color’s better. You’re not hyperventilating now. See? You’re fine.”

I nodded, not because I agreed, but because I couldn’t speak as the plane bounced through the air like a rubber ball, rattling my skull and flinging crap inside the overhead bins. Engines whistled outside the windows, and a beverage cart crashed in the galley.

He turned my hand over so we were palm to palm. Firm and tight—he measured our hands. Did he think they fit together? They felt right to me. Almost like his hand had been made for mine. I glanced at the flight attendants, and thank God, neither one appeared interested in us. Dying by fiery airline crash was one thing; having a witness to this public coddling was another.

And no shit, he laced our fingers and actually held my hand. Held it like he meant it.

Maybe I wanted to die after all.

Or maybe embarrassment would flat out kill me. If I could sink through the floor, into the baggage hold, straight through aluminum alloy, and freaking free-fall thirty thousand feet to the cool water below, I totally might do it. No one would ever know that Justin Hayes—whose face had once graced a million lunchboxes across America, for God’s sake—needed his limp-wristed hand held on the scary airplane ride.

And, Jesus, I did. I really, really did.

The man’s eyes crinkled at the edges, and when he squeezed my hand again, my heart skipped. Woodsy aftershave flooded my senses.

The tiny second hand chased a staccato path around the face of his watch, tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick, and as time whipped by, my pulse marched with Tag Heuer. Mr. Golden Man and I bumped in our seats, fingers forged together like iron.

For better or worse, I couldn’t let go.

“It’ll be over in a sec,” he said.

“You keep saying that. Like you know.”

“I’m right. You’ll see. Piece of cake. He’s found a better altitude.”

And as if by his command, the flight leveled. A few more seconds ticked past, then voices began to peck through the silence. Someone laughed. The captain made his crackling reappearance on the intercom, that foot-dragging asshole, saying we’d “dropped to a more comfortable altitude” and we were “on our approach to San Juan.” Outside the narrow window, I caught a glimpse of Puerto Rico’s rocky coastline.

My champion or protector or whatever he was—this touchy-feely stranger—held tight. When his thick thumb nudged into the hot space between our joined hands, I finally found my balls and shook free. I didn’t need his help. I shoved his hand from my lap, my skin so hot I expected to spontaneous combust, ironically bring the whole fucking plane down anyway.

Scrubbing my hand against my jeans didn’t remove the feel of him. Did it offend him? I didn’t give a rat’s ass. I glared out the window, wishing I’d swallowed an Ambien in Atlanta after all.

What kind of person held a stranger’s hand? And, God, what sort of grown man allowed it?

I let the sun fry the last few minutes away. It cooked my burning face as the urban sprawl appeared below.

We didn’t make contact again. Not when we landed and the passengers offered the usual Welcome to San Juan applause. Not as we taxied and I texted my assistant a curt, Landed. Not after we arrived at the gate and I tossed my seatbelt and shoved my sunglasses back onto my nose as far as they would go. Not as I crammed my Cubs cap on my spectacularly blond hair and radiated not to be fucked with.

I didn’t say Merry Christmas or Nice to meet you or Thanks for holding my hand. Goddamn. I didn’t even bother to say Excuse me as I climbed over the sun-streaked hand-holder’s knees like a rabid billy goat and bolted from the plane.

Not a Thank you to the flight attendant, either, as she wiped her bloody nose and blushed. She didn’t meet my gaze, and I clued in. Not only did she know me—I bet she still had a Rhythm Method poster packed away with her pom-poms and her prom dress—but she had witnessed that Sun God babying me.

The redheaded flight attendant opened the forward door, and I was first off the plane.

Chapter Two
A wall of stifling humidity swamped me on the Jetway, but it didn’t slow me. My first stop in San Juan would be a tour of the restroom. Sure, I needed to clean the feel of him from my hands, right freaking now, but a bigger problem presented itself thanks to that grabby man-coddler. I wasn’t the only one who’d sat stiff and silent for the last few minutes of the flight, because that final slide and push of his thumb against my palm hadn’t been innocent. It had been sexual. More than a pass, it had been a promise.

I sped through the jam-packed terminal, ignoring announcements, the garish Christmas displays, the crush of overburdened holiday tourists, and any form of directions to my gate—both in English and Spanish. I fast-tracked my way through the crowd, sporting an unprecedented, uncomfortable, and very public erection. If anyone recognized me in this boned-up state, just one celebrity-savvy stranger with a handy-dandy cell phone, one TMZ where-are-they-now parasite, I could kiss my hard-earned privacy good-bye.

I’d nearly made it to safety, too, my dumb dick rubbing wantonly inside my underwear as I jogged, when a firm hand landed between my shoulder blades and shoved me.

“In here.”

The scent of aftershave gave him away.


A wide palm splayed high on my spine. Hot breath tickled my neck as he hustled us toward the family restroom. We were steps away. Something nudged my backside, probably his carry-on bag, but I came to an impossibly stiff point anyway as he all but threw me inside the bathroom.

The door slammed, the lock clicked into place, and like that, we were alone in an antiseptic, white-tiled lavatory. A couple of handrails, a toilet, a sink, and a plastic changing table strapped to the wall. Two fat koalas stared at us. The sound of our breath filled the small space.

He moved fast. Caging me against the wall, gray eyes full of sin. Cool tile chilled me through my shirt. My heart thumped. Tall. Jesus, he was so tall the top of my head barely came to his chin. He could tuck me right under. “Just trust me.”

Trust him? I didn’t trust anyone, but right now? I was in. Maybe it was the leftover adrenaline from our hellish flight, or the fact that he’d chased me from the plane, through the gate, and halfway to the next terminal, or maybe I was just desperate for human contact, or maybe this kind of trust was the easiest kind—so, yeah, I was in.

I nodded and wet my lips and his gaze followed the swipe of my tongue. A lock of golden hair touched his collar. Stubble peppered his jaw, but I focused on the shadowed spot where his open shirt met tanned skin.

Say something, you moron.

“Do you know who I am?” Instant regret. I swallowed and tried again. “I mean—”

“I don’t care.” A growl, and the world went black with a click. Our bags hit the ground, and I made room for him between my feet, my palms resting flat against the wall. He could come to me. That’s what he wanted. I was no novice at the quickie-in-the-restroom experience. I’d been on tour for years, my love life both a public relations challenge and a closely guarded industry secret. I was Justin Hayes. Spotless. Untarnished. Perfection. A real American heartthrob and favorite pinup for a generation of hormonal teenage girls. My real sex life had always been private—Chuck’s, TJ’s, and Matt’s livelihood depended upon it then—and my sanity relied on it now. So, I’d become a pro about sex on the sly.

He hovered, his breath flavored of coffee and mint, and slowly, he traced the tight seam of my mouth with a smooth stroke of tongue. He laid a gentle, teasing, nice-to-meet-you kiss on my lips.

I let go of the wall, grabbed his hair, and yanked him close. I didn’t have time for bullshit. I had a fucking plane to catch. I needed him to open his damn mouth, which he did with a groan. Lust ripped through me, drowning everything beyond the four bathroom walls, because everything I needed was right here. Right now. Right inside his mouth, in the exquisite taste of him—whoever the hell he was.

It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he jacked me up that wall, hands touching everything. Holding me, grinding me, fingers sliding buttons free like a libertine. He used his strength, his height, his obvious expertise, and shoved me right to the raging edge.

He freed my belt as our whiskers scraped together and his hot mouth explored my neck. His knuckles brushed my stomach as he slid into my underwear, then rooted for my cock.

My dick met his hand, and need clawed a path from my balls to the head of my dick. I yanked his shirt from his pants, fumbled his impossible belt, until, at last, I slid home and a soft spring of hair grazed my fingers. I clutched his hard cock.

Man, this was gonna be quick. It needed to be, so I let it happen. Seesawing together, jeans at half-mast. Somehow my shirt pushed to my armpits, and we just kept working and sweating as Flight 702 pre-boarded for any passengers needing a little extra assistance.

“Oh fuck yeah.” Airport talk. I didn’t care if it was twisted, it turned me the fuck on. I spun to face the tile, backing into his boner until his hard dick hit the cleft of my ass. “Bite me.”

Sweet pain pierced my neck as his teeth closed on my skin, and I was lost. We dry fucked each other into a frenzy. He masturbated me with one hand and worked himself against that dirty spot between my thighs, nudging into the worn space there, pinching the flesh of my balls. I trapped him with my legs.

Fast. So fucking fast and full of the kinds of noises no bystander should hear outside the family restroom. I couldn’t have predicted that this moment, this sex, this stranger, would trip me into a mind-shattering, life-altering orgasm.

“Talk to me.” He grunted against my neck. “You like this?”

I babbled something incoherent, fuck yeah, yes. I loved it. Faster, harder, who the fuck knew what I said—but everyone in the airport probably heard it—and my cork popped as he jackhammered my cock in his fist. He blasted cum into my underwear, his teeth working the tight edge of my trapezium the whole time. I’d have a mark there—a toothy round bruise to remember him by. His cheek grazed mine and he groaned and I groaned and people passed on the other side of the thin door. A cart beeped. My fucking heart exploded, or it felt that way to me. I couldn’t breathe, but I sort of didn’t want to anyway. I just wanted to stay right there, quaking into this stranger’s talented hand.

“You okay?” I wheezed like a smoker running a four-minute mile.

“Pretty much. I’m good.” He didn’t move, and I felt a flicker of concern as he pinned me. How old was he anyway? Did he have a heart condition? Jesus. Maybe I’d killed him.

I wiped sweat from my face with the back of my wrist, and another second passed before he finally tucked himself into his pants. Harsh fluorescent light exploded against my eyeballs, and I grabbed for my jeans. The water ran. He cleaned up. I did my best to quickly do the same, because my flight must be boarding. And as soon as I got on that plane, my Calvin Kleins were getting tossed in the lav.

“I’m Jack, by the way.” He buttoned his silk Tommy Bahama shirt, and I just smiled stupidly. He looked exactly like a Jack. He waited, and I realized I hadn’t offered him my name.

“I’m . . .” Some long practiced sense of self-preservation kicked in and I held back. “. . . I’m hoping you don’t tell me you’re a cop.”

“Nope.” He checked that fancy watch again. “And no one saw us come in.”

“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

“I am.” His smile confirmed it. “We should go. My flight’s about to leave.”

“Yeah. Mine too.” It was almost too easy.

“You go first. I’ll follow in a sec.”

I cracked the door an inch. “So. Uhm. Thanks.” I returned his smile. “For what you did on the plane, I mean. And, uh . . . I . . . appreciated it.”

“The pleasure was all mine.” He winked, and thin lines radiated from his pale eyes. Strands of silver and ash highlighted his wanton hair. My heart actually skipped a beat. Justin Hayes paled next to Jack’s rugged matinee idol smile.

“Merry Christmas.” I opened the door to the packed corridor and hadn’t taken a single step before a woman’s voice cut through my happy haze.

“Justin? Is that you? Justin Hayes?” A young woman in a yellow sundress zeroed in on me from behind her enormous white sunglasses. A fan? A stalker? TMZ? Sometimes the line blurred impossibly, and one couldn’t read ill intent until it was too late.

I ducked backward, content with hiding in the bathroom. I should have pushed forward, but post-orgasm, I didn’t have the energy. Had she taken a photo? I hadn’t seen a cell phone or a camera, but that meant nothing—everyone had a cell phone.

Before I could shut the door, Jack collided into my back. “What the—”

He acted quickly, assessing the threat almost as if he were trained to do so. Instead of hiding, he shoved me forward, just as he had earlier, his broad hand settling again between my shoulder blades. He wordlessly threaded us through the teaming masses before anyone else recognized me, or before my fan realized I’d just left the private restroom with another dude. Jack towered over me, and he sort of hid me as well. A bag hit my knee and I went ass over tip into the food court, but he yanked my shirt and in no time, we hit the stairs to the tiny lower concourse. When Jack’s hand eased, I turned to look, and he was gone.

Long the Mile
Chapter One
The bus dropped Judah Jackson off at the Coxe Avenue stop in Asheville, North Carolina, with a bag containing two pairs of pants, a shirt, the underwear and socks his lawyer had brought him when he’d been released from prison, and three hundred dollars in cash.

He made his way up to Patton Avenue and stood on the corner waiting for the walk signal with a group of people who looked like tourists. They eyed him with caution, and he hunched his shoulders, embarrassed. Prison hadn’t done his appearance any favors.

The apartment he’d rented via email was only a few blocks away, just down the road from the Civic Center. It wasn’t exactly what he’d been used to before prison, but his business and the majority of his personal assets had been seized as part of his sentence, including his penthouse condo atop the Kress building in the heart of the city. He had to pass right by it on the way to his new place. Looking up at the stately old structure with its art deco carvings and huge arched windows hurt. After paying his team of lawyers, he had less than two thousand dollars to his name. He could no longer afford Kress building real estate.

He stifled a bitter laugh as he started across the parking lot toward the building where he’d been reduced to living. All that money, and the idiots hadn’t even been able to get his sentence lessened. They’d shrugged and said the courts were cracking down on insider trading and wanted to make an example of him, and they’d done all they could.

Judah didn’t buy it. His team hadn’t put in their best effort, and he’d paid the price for it.

But that was in the past. He’d served his sentence, and he was free now. Free to rebuild his brand and the fortune he’d begun to accumulate before everything went to hell. He’d done it before—turned himself from a kid with nothing but ideas and ambition into an entrepreneur with one of the fastest growing businesses in the country. He could do it again.

A few yards short of the apartment building door, a man walked up and planted himself directly in front of Judah. “Hey, man. I’m out of work and I need money. You got anything I can do for you? I’ll work for food. Whatever you want me to do.”

Judah studied the young man—about Judah’s height, a little too thin, sandy hair falling in waves to the shoulders of a well-worn blue T-shirt. A ragged blond beard and mustache framed a wide mouth, and large gray eyes squinted at Judah between thick, pale lashes. The man smiled, obviously hopeful, and shuffled from one foot to another. His jeans and sneakers both had holes in them.

Judah knew a homeless person when he saw one. They’d accosted him plenty of times in the past. Normally he ignored them. He’d especially like to ignore this one and the reminder he carried with him of the narrow ledge Judah inhabited these days, but this man apparently was not going to give him that option.


Judah sneered, knowing exactly how cruel he looked when he did it. “The only thing you can do for me is get out of my way and go back to whatever bridge you’re sleeping under.” He skirted around the man, deliberately not looking at the flush of color in his cheeks or the way his head hung down. “And take a bath, for Christ’s sake. You smell.”

He didn’t, actually, but some cold, angry corner of Judah’s psyche made him want to lash out. To hurt someone else. Maybe transfer some of his own unfocused fear to them. Because the plain, unwelcome fact was that he’d never been more scared in his life.

“I’m sorry, man.”

The words stopped Judah in his tracks, one hand on the door handle. He didn’t want to turn around, but he did it anyway, because . . . Well, honestly, he couldn’t remember anyone ever saying sorry to him without equal parts terror and resentment behind it, and he wanted to know what honest regret looked like.

The homeless guy stood there, watching him with something uncomfortably like pity on his face. Through all the struggles and triumphs of his life, Judah couldn’t remember anyone ever pitying him. The unexpected sympathy—from a stranger, no less—triggered a war of conflicting emotions in Judah’s gut. Embarrassment, anger, and a whiff of gratitude he hardly liked to acknowledge wound themselves together until he could barely tell which was which.

He shook his head, as if he could physically rattle his worldview back into place. “What?”

“I said I’m sorry.” The man shrugged. “Look, obviously you’re having a bad time. It fucks with your head, right? I’ve been there, man. I get it. Happens to all of us sometimes.” A smile lit up the stranger’s face, turning it from average to handsome. “I hope things get better for you. Peace.”

Judah just stared, shocked into silence, as the man turned and sauntered away. The worn-out jeans clung to his thighs, emphasizing the flex of his muscles as he walked, and the sun caught on the strands of gold in his hair.

I am eyeing up a homeless man. The thought shook Judah into motion. He yanked open the door and stomped inside. The sooner he got settled into his new place, the sooner he could begin moving back up in the world and rid himself of the dread lingering like a poisonous aftertaste on the back of his tongue.


Tobias Simonsen walked away from this latest humiliation with jaw tight and hands clenched into fists at his sides. He’d done the right thing by wishing the guy well—the fear had shown right through the worn-thin mask of superiority he’d tried to wear—but damn, it was hard. Anger churned in his stomach, the way it did every time some jerk looked at him like being homeless made him less than human. He was working on overcoming that.

Hector Poole was waiting on the sidewalk at the corner, grinning. “Hey, Toby.”

Toby eyed his friend with deep suspicion. “What?”

“Nothin’, man. Just figured we could walk up to the church together.” Hector fell into step beside Toby as he started toward the center of town. “It’s almost dinnertime. Father Bill’s expecting us to help out.”

“Yeah, I know.” He forced a smile for Hector, who he’d known since the first night he’d slept on the street, over a year ago. “I could use the company. Thanks.”

“Sure thing.” Scratching the black stubble on his neck, Hector glanced back toward the apartment building behind them. “So. Nothing from Richie Rich then, huh?”

Toby scowled. “He said I needed a bath.”

“Seriously?” Hector turned and walked backward for a few steps, apparently just so he could glare at the asshole stranger’s building. “Dude, you’re not letting that bother you, are you?”

Toby shrugged. He wanted to say no, but he’d never been good at lying.

Hector groaned. “Jesus Christ. You don’t stink, you fucking idiot.”

“I know, okay? I showered this morning at the shelter. MayBelle even let me wash my clothes.” Toby rubbed his beard, trying to work out why he’d felt so embarrassed about a stupid insult when he knew damn well it was just the other guy lashing out at the world. “I don’t know why it bothered me. It just did.”

“Probably ’cause the dude was hot, and he shot you down.” Hector shook his head. “You always did think with your dick.”

“Jackass,” Toby muttered without any real heat. Hector always said shit like that, even though they both knew it wasn’t true.

He was right about one thing, though. The man who’d sneered at Toby and made him feel about an inch tall was hot. Average height, same as Toby, with great big eyes the color of the expensive dark chocolate Toby had always loved but could no longer afford. Thick black hair cut close to the scalp emphasized a sharp-featured, ridiculously handsome face that looked like it had seen too much. Best of all, the black slacks and snug gray shirt clung to the sort of hard, wiry body Toby liked best.

Yeah, the guy was a looker. That wasn’t it, though. Toby had been sneered at by hot guys before without it bugging him. But this one gave off an air of someone who’d had money once and didn’t anymore. For some reason, that gave his words an unaccustomed sting, though Toby knew he was being stupid by letting it get to him.

He and Hector walked on in silence for a while. As they turned onto the side street leading to the church where Father Bill fed Asheville’s homeless every day and led jubilant, unconventional services, Hector nudged Toby with his elbow. “I got a lead on some landscape work with a new company in town. It’s temporary, but it’ll get us food money enough to last a little while. You in?”

“Yeah. That sounds great.” Toby grinned. “Come on, I’ll buy you lunch to celebrate.” He gestured toward the church.

Hector laughed. They walked down the sidewalk together toward the group already gathering on the front lawn.


“I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson. We simply don’t have anything for you at this time.”

Judah resisted the urge to scream bullshit into his cell phone. “Mr. Owenby, I think you’ll find my qualifications—”

“My company does not need qualifications that involve breaking the law.”

Fuck. Leaning over the cheap Formica counter in his tiny kitchen, Judah rested his head in his free hand. “I’ve served my time. I’m trying to start over here.”

The man on the other end of line laughed, trailing off into a rough, loose cough. Smoker, Judah thought, remembering his grandmother’s constant, gravelly hacking. She was still at it, for all he knew. He hadn’t spoken to his grandparents since he’d left their nominal care for New York City at age seventeen, almost thirty years ago.

God, time sped up when you got older.

“Yes, very noble,” said Mr. Owenby, his dry tone expressing pretty clearly what he thought of that. “I wish you luck. Truly. But I’m afraid I can’t have my business tarnished by a criminal element, even one attempting reform. Goodbye.”

The connection cut. Judah scowled. “Pompous old ass.”

With a deep sigh, he thumbed off his phone, wandered over to the window of his small apartment, and stared out at the less-than-ideal view of the back of the Civic Center. Christ, if he didn’t find a source of income soon, he wouldn’t be able to keep even the relatively cheap phone plan he’d gotten when he’d arrived back in Asheville twelve days ago.

His plan was to re-create Jax Enterprises. He was no idealist, though. He knew that would be a long time coming. Re-building a business like JE would require plenty of capital, and he’d need a hell of a lot of it himself before he could even think of approaching anyone else to invest. The idea was to get a job in upper management in one of the companies flocking to Asheville over the last few years—or maybe one of the ones already embedded, like the Biltmore Estate, he wasn’t that picky—and build a nice capital cushion, then start putting out feelers for possible investors in the new Jax. Under a different name, of course. The name Jax Enterprises was eternally tarnished now. But that was only a small thing. With any luck, two or three years would give him enough time for people to forget. Then he’d think of a new name for his company, find investors, and reclaim his former life.

The big snag in his grand plan was that no one would hire him. To be fair, he’d only heard back from a couple of places so far, but he’d considered them the most likely to hire him, and both had told him the same thing: they had no room for an ex-con.

The whole thing burned his ass. Especially in Owenby’s case. The only differences between the two of them were that the old man had engaged in truly egregious insider trading—more than once, from what Judah had heard—and he’d never gotten caught. Hypocritical prick.

Oh well. No sense in brooding. He still had a couple of applications in, and two or three other prospects in mind before he had to come up with a plan B.

In the meantime, it was almost 7 p.m., he was out of anything that might resemble a meal, and the idea of taking the bus to the grocery store made him want to curl up in a corner and die. Strange, how he’d never felt the need for a car when he had money for restaurants, delivery, and a driver when he wanted it.

Groaning, he leaned his head against the window. It had been a long, long time since he’d been poor. He didn’t want to go back to those days. But it looked as though he had no choice.

The thought terrified him.

“Stop that. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.”

Talking out loud to himself might be stupid, but it helped. Feeling slightly more confident, he pulled away from the window, grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair to ward off the unseasonably early September chill, and headed for the door. He’d decide where he was going once he got outside.


“Coffee’s on, boys and girls.” Father Bill pushed a cart loaded with three beat-up old metal urns into place at the front of the church fellowship hall and grinned at the crowded room through his wild beard. “Come and get it.”

Toby stood from the wobbly card table where he’d been sitting with Hector, Vicki, and the boy who never talked, and lined up with the others for coffee. He needed it this morning. The folks who’d been on the street for a long time had warned him about Halloween, and boy, they’d been right. The full-to-busting shelters and increased police presence meant he hadn’t slept at all. Kept getting kicked out of every place he’d found to curl up out of the cold. So he’d spent the whole night moving from place to place, trying to stay warm.

He filled a Styrofoam cup with hot, strong coffee and moved out of the way for the next person in line. Yawning men, women, and children, all with cold-reddened faces, packed the church hall this morning. Obviously Toby wasn’t the only one who’d had a bad night. He walked to the bench under the window and sat down, sipping the bitter brew and blinking the grit out of his eyes.

Father Bill sauntered over with a steaming cup in his hand. “Toby.”

Toby found a smile for the priest. He was a real oddball, with the owl feathers in his beard and his penchant for leading his mostly homeless congregation through the streets singing gospel tunes instead of holding more traditional worship services. But he had a big heart, and he’d done more to help the city’s street people than probably anyone else.

“Morning, Father.” Toby moved over so Father Bill could sit. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“God’s house belongs to all of us. So does God’s coffee.”

Toby laughed. “God’s coffee tastes especially good this morning. It was a long night.”

“Yeah. I’d’ve brought you a blanket, but I couldn’t find you.” Father Bill scratched his chin, blue eyes fixed on Toby in a thoughtful stare. “So. Hector said you dropped the landscaping job.”

Toby wrinkled his nose. “Hector has a big mouth.”

“He worries about you, that’s all.”

“I know.” Toby gazed out the window at the small church parking lot. “It just felt weird finishing out the temporary job when they hired Hector on permanently. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy for Hector. They couldn’t’ve gotten a better guy. But, yeah. It felt weird being there after that. So I quit.” He shrugged and took a sip of coffee, not looking at the priest because he would definitely see the jealousy Toby couldn’t quite hide. “There were only a couple of days left anyway.”

Father Bill shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. How’s that gonna look next time you apply for a job?”

“Like three weeks’ worth of winterizing somebody’s lawn would make my résumé more impressive.”

He got a snort of laughter in answer. “Still, you know you quit, and that makes a difference in the attitude you bring to the table.” Father Bill took a swallow of coffee, peering at Toby over the curve of his cup. “You’re a smart guy, Tobias. You have education, experience, and talent. Don’t give up on yourself just because you’ve had a tough year.”

Startled, Toby widened his eyes at Father Bill. “Huh? I haven’t. Given up, I mean.”

“You say that, but I wonder sometimes.” Father Bill glanced toward the kitchen, where Vicki and Silent Bob—as one of the girls had dubbed the boy who couldn’t talk—were pulling out pots and pans to cook whatever happened to be in the fridge. “I better go make sure they don’t try to feed everybody outdated bacon or anything.” He rose and clapped Toby on the shoulder. “I’m keeping the sanctuary and fellowship hall open as long as it stays this cold. Come on by tonight if you want.”

“I will, thanks.” Toby smiled as the priest hurried away. He’d slept on the church pews before. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was a damn sight better than sleeping outside in the cold.

Toby wasn’t particularly hungry, in spite of not having eaten in almost twenty-four hours, but he forced down a plateful of scrambled eggs, toast, and oatmeal anyway when Vicki beckoned him to the table. The most important lesson he’d learned over the last eleven months was to eat every time you got the chance. The second most important lesson? Save something for later if you could, because you never knew how long it might be before your next meal.

With that in mind, Toby wrapped a couple triangles of toast in a napkin and tucked them into his jacket pocket before heading out into the city again.

By now, the sun had risen high enough to melt some of the icy bite from the morning. Toby breathed deep as he strolled up the sidewalk toward Patton Avenue. The mouthwatering smell of pastries and strong coffee drifted from the bakery up the block. Every building, every tree, every weed-sprouting crack in the sidewalk stood out sharp and clear in the cold, crisp air. Birds sang in the nearby park. Even the men and women hurrying by in business suits seemed happy today, exchanging smiles with one another as they rushed to their jobs. A couple of them even spared a nod and a smile for Toby, which made him laugh. Usually he was only visible to cops and other street people.

When he reached Pack Square, Toby lifted his face to the bright blue sky, his exhaustion ebbing away with every step. On days like this, sunny and clear and practically vibrating with a hopeful energy, all his worries faded into the distance and his possibilities felt limitless.

He wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. But when you felt lucky, you had to go with the flow, right?


Squaring his shoulders and hoping he looked presentable, Toby marched across the square, heading for Barley’s Taproom. He knew his beer, he’d tended bar to help pay for his college tuition, and he’d waited plenty of tables, working his way up to manager of a couple of the best hotels in the South before the crash of ’08. He’d be an asset, if he could talk the management into hiring him.

He’d started down the street toward the pub when he saw a man coming out of the museum at Pack Place. A very familiar man.

Toby stopped and stared. It was a bad idea and he knew it. But he couldn’t help himself. The man who’d managed to get to him with a sneer and a weak-assed insult looked like he’d been put through the wringer over the intervening weeks. He’d lost weight, his shoulders were slumped, and dark circles bruised the skin under his eyes. Before, he’d looked down his nose at the world. Now, he studied the sidewalk at his feet like he couldn’t bear to meet anyone else’s gaze.

Toby knew that look—desperation. Fear. Shame. All jumbled together into a toxic brew that sat like lead in your veins and turned you into a shadow of your true self. He’d felt it himself—fucking drowned in it—not so long ago. It had taken him long months and a whole lot of painful inner struggle to make a tentative peace with his situation. Even now, he still struggled with it. He wouldn’t wish what he’d gone through on the most evil man who’d ever lived.

Well. Okay. Hitler. Or Saddam Hussain. A few others. But not some formerly rich dude who dished out knee-jerk insults based on insecurity more than anything else.

Several seconds passed before Toby realized Mr. Used-to-Be-Rich was coming his way. Toby put his head down and picked up his pace. He had no idea why he was so nervous all of a sudden, but there it was. He felt like he’d ridden a magic slingshot back in time to his pudgy, painfully shy, socially awkward teen years.

Pathetic. Absolutely fucking pathetic.

Which did not stop him from literally sighing with relief when he managed to turn the corner onto Biltmore Avenue before the weirdly intimidating stranger crossed his path.

The itch at the back of his neck told him the man was watching him. Why, Toby had no clue, and he didn’t really want to find out. Ignoring the urge to turn and look, he locked his gaze resolutely on the entrance to Barley’s and kept walking.

Lost and Found
Chapter One
Ringo had knocked on Gavin’s door plenty of times. This time he had his heart in his throat. He could feel the cold chill of trouble coming same as he could feel the thunderheads that gathered out over the ocean, ready to pound the Newport Sands Resort with relentless rain.

Strings of Christmas icicles fluttered in the breeze along the edge of the RV’s awning. At night, they were pretty, but right now, in the weak afternoon light, they were cheap bits of dirty plastic Gavin kept up all year round.

He knocked again. “Gavin, it’s me, Ringo. Open up.”

After a minute or so, the flimsy metal door opened a crack. “What do you want?”

“Where’s Bird?”

“Bird? He’s inside.” Gavin opened the door the rest of the way, but didn’t come down the steps.

“He wasn’t inside an hour ago when he ran into someone’s RV after their cat.” Ringo shook his head. “Goddamn it, how many times do I have to tell you? You can’t just let that dog out to wander around.”

Irritation played over Gavin’s features. “What’s your damage, Ringo? So he pees on the grass. If he shits, I’m sorry. I’ll pick up some other dog’s shit sometime, as penance.”

Ringo folded his arms across his chest. “Some lady from the As said Bird scared her grandkids. She was hysterical.”

“Oh, well. If she’s from the As then—”

“Aw, Gav. Cut me some slack here, will you?” Ringo leaned in. He wasn’t above pleading a little. Gavin had more than once insinuated that the resort had different rules for people with better rigs or bigger wallets, which was bullshit. Everyone had to behave like they paid for a spot in the As. Ringo didn’t ride Gavin for half the shit Bird got up to, but he was forced to respond when Bird caused a mess. “This isn’t a trailer park, it’s the Newport Sands Resort. These RVs are multimillion-dollar land yachts and the people expect to be able to open their doors without your dog charging inside. If Bird leaves this rig, you have to go with him. You take him out on his leash from now on, or you keep him in.”

“Sir. Yes, sir.” Gavin saluted smartly. “No letting Bird out off leash.”

“It’s nothing personal. Management gets on me if they think I’m not doing my job—and they won’t hesitate to have your ass and your rig hauled out of here.”

“You couldn’t just leave the form letter I normally get when someone from your security team sees Bird off leash?”

Ringo was too embarrassed to meet Gavin’s eyes. “Don’t you just throw those away?”

“But nothing personal, right?”

Christ, there was everything personal between them. Ringo felt it in his gut and his heart and his empty goddamn bed. They hadn’t spoken in over a month and he’d missed Gavin every single day. But that’s not why he was here today. “No. Nothing personal.”

“If that’s all then, I’ll just haul my ass into my rig and—”

“Look.” Ringo raked a hand over his buzzed hair. “I don’t know why you gotta be like this. You never heard anyone say, ‘You can’t fight city hall’?”

“I hardly ever let Bird run, only when it’s absolutely necessary. And with it being Christmas, the park is half-empty anyway. You know people only say that city hall shit when the government is taking advantage.”

“You signed the lease. You know the rules. How is asking you to walk your own dog taking advantage?”

“Never mind. Message received and noted.”

Ringo sighed. “Why should the rest of us deal with Bird if you’re too fucking lazy to do it? While you’re wallowing, he’s scaring off the tourists.”

“Is that what you think?” Gavin eyed him sourly. “I’m wallowing?”

“I think you need to walk your dog on a leash, like everyone else around here. What if you let Bird out and he eats something bad? Even a lick of antifreeze could kill him. What if he gets into a fight with another dog? You need to think what your neglect could cost Bird, too.”

Ringo was about to turn away and leave when Gavin reached out and caught his arm. “Wait.”

“What?” Ringo took a step up toward Gavin. Even with another step between them, he was taller, especially since Gavin had a way of slouching lazily against his doorframe. His posture now was relaxed, and yet closed off. Typical.

Gavin sighed. “I did let him go out alone this morning. I couldn’t take him, so—”

“What do you mean, you couldn’t take him?” Ringo looked Gavin over closely and realized he didn’t just look tired, he appeared to be in pain.

Gavin grimaced. “Look, it’s nothing. Right now, I can’t take him out, is all.”

“Wait. What?” Ringo asked. “Did something happen? Are you sick?”

“No, I’m not sick. I finally had to have my knee repaired. I stepped in a hole on the beach the other day and tore it again. The doc said I didn’t have a choice anymore.” Gavin looked anywhere except into Ringo’s eyes. “I figured I had some time off between Christmas and New Year’s, might as well get it taken care of. But I just got home, and it’s been tougher than I thought, and I—”

“Jeez.” That’s why Ringo had seen Gavin come home in a cab the day before. Christ. Alone and hurting and you still won’t ask anyone for shit. “You couldn’t have told me that?”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’d have helped you. I’d have taken Bird out for you, for one. At least I can ask one of the interns—”

“I had that Jules kid take care of Bird yesterday, but I thought—” Gavin chewed his lower lip “—I don’t know what I thought.”

“Jules is a good kid, but he’s gone home until after New Year’s. Do you want me to see if I can get a couple of the other kids to take shifts? They can walk Bird until you’re well enough to do it yourself.”

Gavin gave a reluctant nod. “I’d appreciate that.”

Ringo sighed. “Goddamn it, Gavin. I’m only a phone call away. We’re not seeing each other anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask me for help if you need it.”

“I don’t know why you’re surprised I didn’t. We didn’t work out because you always tell me I don’t ask for enough.”

Ringo frowned at him. “I thought it was because I wanted to give you too much.”

They stood nearly nose to nose. Ringo could smell the warm, smoky campfire scent of Gavin’s skin, could feel desire building between them, even from that brief contact. But he couldn’t make Gavin meet his gaze.

He sighed. “I didn’t come here to autopsy us.”

“Not much left to dissect, is there?” Gavin wrapped his arms around himself. Maybe he was cold, and maybe he needed holding. Ringo had a lousy habit of wondering what Gavin needed, as opposed to just giving him what he asked for, and Gavin hated it.

God, Ringo wanted to hold him. He wanted to wrap himself around Gavin and never let go. How did everything between them always go to shit?

Instead, Ringo said, “Go back inside, you look like hell. I’ll ask around, or I’ll come back and walk Bird myself.”


“Don’t get your panties in a wad. Everybody has to learn to ask for help, just like every so often people ought to seek out someone who needs help and give it. It takes your mind off shit to look outside yourself for a change.”

Gavin snorted. “The Gospel According to St. Ringo.”

“Right.” A gentle tease, instead of Gavin’s customary porcupine spines. That was better. “Yeah. Well. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

“I’ve tried it.”

Ringo ignored that. “I’ll be back later. I’m assuming you have pain meds. What about food?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m going to infuriate you by checking on you every so often, and I’m going to do it with hot meals. Just warning you ahead of time.”

“Ringo, don’t make this a big deal.” Gavin started back inside.

“Gav—” Ringo reached for him, but he jerked away. “Don’t make me pull information out of you like this. I need to know. Please, if you need me, call me.”

“And then what?”

Ringo shifted his weight from his right leg to his left. “What do you mean, and then what?”

“What would happen if I needed something?”

“I’d get you what you need. What do you mean what would happen?”

“What if I need to be left alone?”

“Do you really need to be left alone?” Ringo asked. “’Cause the Gavin who plays his sax at midnight because he knows I’ll have to come and tell him to knock it off loves my company. It’s the Gavin who pushes me out of his bed before dawn the next morning and tells me I’m—”

“Smothering,” Gavin snapped. “Hovering. Blocking the exits and taking up all my space.”

God, Ringo’s shoulders ached. “Just tell me what you need, Gav. What can I do for you?”

“Nothing. I’ll be fine.”

“Sure you will.” Ringo sighed. “I’ll see you later.”

Gavin lobbed him his slow-pitch softball smile, round and a little wobbly. Ringo guessed that was the best he was going to get. “See you.”

“Yeah.” Ringo nodded.

Ringo wished Gavin would say more, like he was looking forward to it, or he’d be glad for the company—something Ringo knew was true, even if Gavin would rather die than admit it—but if he waited for that, he’d stand there forever.

Instead, Ringo got in his golf cart and took off because it never paid to give Gavin even the gentlest squeeze. If Ringo squeezed, Gavin would slip through his fingers like a bar of soap, and they’d end up back at square one.

What do they mean by square one, anyway? Was that a reference to a game or the first stone on a path? The first bubble on the SATs or the first letter they turn on Wheel of Fortune?

Ringo’s square one was the very first time he’d seen Gavin playing saxophone for the summer crowd at the picnic tables. He’d looked like a young Carlos Santana in shades, with a mustache and a highly kissable soul patch. He’d worn a weathered fedora.

Gavin always wore a hat, but that was mostly because his hairline was receding. Ringo went along when Gavin pretended his hats were some kind of fashion statement. They were that too, from skull caps to stingy-brimmed straw fedoras to out-and-out wool felt mafioso lids, but Gavin kept his hair buzzed short and his head covered because he was vain about going bald.

The first time Ringo had seen him, he’d thought Gavin had stepped right out of the movies.

Central casting, get me a Latino street musician.

Ringo drove back toward his office, five miles per hour, waving at the tourists. Trying to look strong and silent. Reassuring, as if he were “the law” in this here town.

As if he were doing something besides pining for a guy who didn’t want him around.

His sister had warned him musicians were dogs, but Ringo had never listened.

God knew, Gavin was a musician. To paraphrase Ringo’s mother’s favorite poem, music was the thing with strings that perched in Gavin’s soul. Wherever Gavin went, he had to blow his horn or pick at his guitar or drum on the park benches and the trashcans with chopsticks. He bought instruments whenever he could, and he always had a half a dozen or so on his patio undergoing repairs. He was constantly tinkering with some broken guitar or refurbishing a brass instrument that needed a little TLC. He sold some on eBay, and some he got attached to.

What he couldn’t live without one day, he gave away the next.

Ringo stopped to bag up some garbage that had blown off a picnic table, and even that reminded him of Gavin: give Gavin a milk carton, a plastic fork, and a couple of rubber bands, and you’d get an entire symphony orchestra.

Gavin had warm golden skin and cold brown eyes, and he lived in a crappy camper because it made him feel free. He didn’t have to live like that; he liked it.

He drank too much, and he laughed too loud, and when Ringo got near the cracks in the shell Gavin had built around himself, Gavin chased him away like a junkyard dog. Gavin had a miserable fucking temper. He could lash out.

It hurt a lot to love a man like that.

Especially when Gavin was always the center of attention and could pick and choose from any man around. He never kept any of his lovers for long; he didn’t know how. He always seemed lonely to Ringo, even if he was rarely alone.

Ringo had pried his way into Gavin’s life through persistence and the judicious application of alcohol, and although they’d washed out, they still kept company sometimes. Lots of times.

Ringo always said that if he had it to do over again, he’d do it over again.

He pitched the trash he’d policed into the Dumpster as he rode by. Hole in one.


That was probably his entire quota of “win” for the day, the rest of which would be spent filing incident reports and making sense of client complaints. He was responsible for lost or stolens, and there was one case of employee pilfering at the snack bar to deal with.

When he got back to the office, he shut himself inside for the better part of the morning, until a knock sounded at his door.


Jurgen, one of the interns, a college kid from Germany, entered and stood nervously in front of Ringo’s desk.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

Ringo took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was only thirty, but he couldn’t read without glasses for shit. It made him wonder if he was going to be like his nana, with her bottle-bottom trifocals, when he got old.

“You know the guy who lives in the Cs over by the laundry room, Gavin Lopez?”

“The musician?” Jurgen nodded. “Is there a problem?”

“Little bit. He’s out of commission for a few days because he had to have some knee surgery. Would you mind walking his dog? I’ll pay you, but don’t tell him I said anything about money.”

“I can do that.” The kid spoke English well, with little to no accent, and he was respectful and polite. The smile he gave Ringo was unforced.

“Maybe if you went first thing when you get to work, at lunch, and before you leave?”

“Sure.” Jurgen gave another bob of his head.

“The dog’s name is Bird. Let him run in the fenced off-leash area by the volleyball courts while you’re at lunch. Otherwise keep him on a leash at all times. Give him some exercise; he’s an energetic, curious pooch, so if he gets loose he’s likely to wander into people’s rigs.”

Jurgen smiled wryly. “I can see how that might create concerns.”

“I’ll let you know when to stop—just a few days probably. You’ll be here over the holidays, right?”

“Yes, I’ll be here. Is that all?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Once dismissed, Jurgen left. Ringo wondered what his story was, if he was studying for a career in hospitality, or if he just wanted to work in America for a while. The resort always had foreign interns as part of an exchange program with the local university. Whether they had aspirations to stay in the States, or just wanted a chance to work where they could surf and go to Disneyland and tour the beaches where Baywatch had been filmed, they came and went.

Jurgen seemed like a nice kid. He’d be good for Bird, and maybe Bird would be good for him.

When Ringo made his rounds later, he saw Jurgen and Bird on the beach together, Jurgen running along the water and Bird bounding happily along beside him in puppylike high spirits when he wasn’t busy chasing after sea birds. The sight warmed Ringo’s heart. A boy and a dog could be a beautiful thing.

He watched Jurgen play tug of war with Bird for a while, and then he continued on his rounds, making sure everyone was in their proper space. He liked to greet the campers and check in with the groundskeepers. He needed to make sure the empty cabins were locked up tight.

Since the economy was still in the shitter and the price of gas was at an all-time high, some of the resorts streets echoed with emptiness. The holidays hadn’t brought crowds to the resort the way they usually did, but they still had the die-hard snowbirds.

The size of the population didn’t matter, though. He had to keep security tight, and his crew had to stay dialed in to any potential problems so they could prevent mishaps or react quickly if they were needed.

A case of illegally dumped trash was the most he had to deal with before he sat down at his desk again after lunch to write up incident reports. His security detail for the day, Gunn and Frisbo, patrolled the grounds together while he caught up on paperwork.

Most days, their lives revolved around a series of small, inconsequential matters and the paperwork that went with them.

Most days were dead boring, but it went with the job.

Yessir, I am the sheriff in this here town. Evildoers, beware.

Chapter Two
Ringo watched as the sun dropped below the western horizon. All his minor irritations seemed to disappear with it.

Winter was his favorite season at the resort. Holiday lights brightened the darkness, shimmering in the algae-laden water like sunken treasure. Several of the fancier rigs were overdressed for the occasion, as tacky as they were festive, with mirror balls and singing Christmas trees.

Summers were crowded with people who drank too much. There were way too many small kids to watch out for. Summer gave Ringo ulcers. But in December the weather was mild and color scintillated everywhere, from the bright orange of fires on the beach, to the rigs, to the sparkling trunks of majestic palms wrapped halfway up with twinkle lights.

The glittered reflection of all that luminescence shivered on the water—balm to Ringo’s soul.

Ringo pulled his golf cart up next to Gavin’s place. He was sitting on a canvas lawn chair with one leg propped up, playing Christmas music on a ukulele. He had a good fire going in a black iron fire bowl with Kokopelli cutouts. Bird lay by his side, his muzzle draped contentedly over Gavin’s bare foot.

Ringo thought he’d probably lie down like that with his face on Gavin’s foot if Gavin would let him.

Gavin caught sight of him and lifted his chin. That was all the welcome Ringo was going to get, so he made the most of it. He got out of his cart and stepped onto Gavin’s woven hemp patio rug. He gave Gavin a light kiss on the top of his head in lieu of a greeting.

Gavin broke off playing to pick up his beer and take a swallow, then put it down to play some more. Ringo recognized “Winter Wonderland.”

“I brought you In-N-Out.” Ringo headed toward the door of Gavin’s RV. “Mind if I go in and get some plates and things?”

“Make yourself homely.” Gavin shifted slowly in his chair and grimaced with pain. “Help yourself to a brew while you’re in there.”

Gavin had a bag of peas cooling his knee. “You hurting?”

“Yeah.” Gavin shrugged. “I got pills, though.”

“Peas still cold?”

“I have another bag, maybe you could switch them since you’re going in . . .?”

“Sure.” Ringo plucked the bag off him. The knee itself didn’t look too bad from the outside. A little swelling, a little bruising. He probably had a couple of small incisions under the Band-Aids. Ringo went inside Gavin’s RV and got a fresh bag of peas from the freezer. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Gavin eat a pea. He must have kept them just for their medicinal benefit. While he was in there, he put their burgers and fries on paper plates and got himself a beer.

When he returned, he sat down in a camp chair opposite Gavin’s. Sure as shit, the smoke turned direction and headed his way. He waved and blinked his eyes. “Why does that always happen? No matter where I’m sitting, I get smoke in my face.”

“Smoke seeks out the pretty boys.” Gavin followed that up with a musical rimshot—bah dum bump—on his ukulele.

Ringo rolled his eyes. “So, you had arthroscopic surgery?”

“Yeah. I tore the meniscus. I got a video of the surgery if you want to watch it sometime. It looks like a tiny dragon is tearing off bits of cotton candy in the dark.”

“I’ll pass.” Ringo wasn’t much into that sort of thing. He’d seen all the blood and gore he’d needed to see in the Army. “Should you be drinking that if you’re taking pills?”

Gavin slanted an irritated look at him. “I only had one beer, mami. I’m fine.”

Ringo twisted the cap off his beer. “I like you better when you call me papi.”

Gavin narrowed his eyes at that. “So act like a man instead of smothering me.”

Ringo itched to twist Gavin’s neck. Why did Gavin always have to give him attitude when he was only checking in to make sure everything was okay? Gavin’d had surgery, for Christ’s sake. Why couldn’t Gavin tell him when things weren’t okay?

“You got plenty to eat for snacks and something to drink besides beer?”

“For today.” Gavin looked away. “But I could use some stuff.”

That’s new. Was Gavin asking for help with something? Had the world come to an end and nobody told Ringo? “Like what? I can make a list.”

“I need some first aid shit. Mine’s so old it’s moldy. I think it came with the rig.”

“Like bandages and antibacterial ointment?”


“What else? Bottled water? Coffee? Pop? Those cookies you like with the peanut butter?”

Gavin shot him a genuine smile. “You remember that?”

“Yeah.” Ringo felt his cheeks heat up. “I remember. Soft oatmeal with raisins too. You don’t like chocolate chip like normal people.”

“I like chocolate chip.”

“But they don’t make your eyes light up,” Ringo murmured.

Gavin sighed, and his fingers drifted into another song, this one in a minor key so it sounded a little sad.

Ringo shook his head and sat back. Gavin was right there in front of him. Was he feeling lonely? On more than one occasion, he’d used the intel Gavin’s restless musicality sent out and they’d ended up making out or in the sack, despite the fact that they weren’t together anymore.

Ringo generally acted on Gavin’s haunted, lonely music, not on his words, until one or the other of them burst the magic spell he’d woven.

Usually it was Ringo who messed up, and Gavin who chased him away.

Just now, Gavin was more than a little high. If Ringo pushed things, if he approached Gavin like Bird did—like he had a right to Gavin’s affection, or like he was just too dumb to know he wasn’t always so welcome—he’d be allowed to stay the night.

It might be worth it, just to see if he could make Gavin smile for a while.

“You should eat,” he said instead.

If Gavin was frozen inside his melancholy, then Ringo was caught in the web of his macho. He didn’t want to crawl on his knees and beg to be petted like a dog. He wanted Gavin to want him. To ask for what he wanted out loud with his words instead of his goddamn music.

Christmas Kitsch
Chapter One
The Home Pond

It was sort of a shock. I mean, I was supposed to be coming home for Thanksgiving, not getting kicked out of the house a month before Christmas. If I’d been mean about it, I would have blamed Oliver, but I couldn’t. I mean . . . you can’t really blame Oliver for anything. He’s just too damned nice.

In fact, that was why we hung out together all through our senior year. I mean, I’d been hanging with all those other jokers for my entire life. Kindergarten, grade school, middle school—you could have thrown our jock genes in a blender and pretty much swapped all our parts. We were interchangeable. White boys, blue/green eyes, sandy blond/sandy brown hair, good bones, good nutrition, some sort of Teutonic conspiracy to produce a football team in the nouveau riche suburbs of the foothills—that was us. I mean, I had brown eyes and blond hair, and I was the closest thing to an ethnic minority our high school had ever seen.

Until Oliver.

Oliver showed up in early September of my senior year, slender, brown on brown on brown. Dark brown hair cut with long bangs around his narrow face, dark brown eyes with thick, thick lashes, and light brown skin. He slouched quietly in the back of Mr. Rochester’s English Literature class and eyed the rest of us with sort of a gentle amusement.

“Yo, Rusty,” Clayton called to me as I took my seat by the new boy. “What’s the new guy?”

I looked at Clayton blankly. He was one of those big white-blond kids with a face that ran to red whenever he exerted himself. He was a defensive lineman on the football team, and his father sold insurance. He was also a sadistic fuck who liked to haze freshmen by slamming them against lockers and calling them names until they cried. That shit had been sort of funny when we were sophomores, but my little sister told me the last kid he’d done that to had needed to change schools and see a shrink, and that’s sort of a horrible thing to do to a kid.

It suddenly occurred to me that the dark kid slouching in the corner of the room was a prime target for Clayton, but he was looking at us, all amused like he didn’t give a crap, and that might have offered him a little protection right there.

I liked that. He didn’t give a crap. The last girl I’d dated had been so excited about dating a football player, she’d literally gone down on me before dinner, and, well, I’d liked her, but I hadn’t been sure I wanted to know her that well. I’d also been hungry. I’d sort of pulled her away from my crotch and asked her if we could go eat steak. I think I hurt her feelings—she didn’t say much during dinner, and she’d taken my kiss on the cheek like it was some sort of insult or something.

So this kid, smiling at us friendly but not slobbering all over us or being afraid of us—that was sort of nice.

I didn’t like Clayton saying “What” in conjunction with those laughing brown eyes.

“What do you mean ‘what’?” I’m not that smart but I knew I probably wasn’t going to like that answer either.

“I mean Indian, Mex, darky, what?”

That snapped my head back. My mother wasn’t the warmest person on the planet, but she was not pro on us being rude like that.

“Where the hell were you raised?” I snapped, appalled. “Jesus, he’s a kid. Leave him the hell alone!”

Clayton rolled his eyes at me. “Oh my God, Baker, could you be any more of a fairy princess?” That was fine, though. He was so miffed at me, he’d forgotten about the kid, who was watching our byplay like he was watching a tennis match.

“Do you see me in a dress blowing you?” I asked, and the rest of the class chortled. Clayton turned red(der) and glared at me as the teacher walked in. I leaned back in my seat and gave the kid a reassuring grin.

“He should leave you alone now,” I said quietly as Mr. Rochester pointed to the warm-up on the board. “See that? That’s the page number. There’s a quick assignment we do in our grammar books, and then we correct it.”

“Thanks,” the kid said. “But you know, I’m gay. I’m not really big on the princess dress, but if he wasn’t an asshole, I wouldn’t mind blowing him.”

And that was Oliver.

I sat there, my mouth open, while the class got out their books and started the assignment. After about a minute, the kid looked at me sideways, and finally I saw a waver of uncertainty in him.

“You never met a fag before?” he asked, and again, those painful manners that had been beaten into my and my little sister’s hard heads—pretty much in the cradle—asserted themselves.

“Nope,” I said honestly, “but my mother wouldn’t let me use that word.” I wasn’t sure she’d let a homosexual sit at our dinner table either, but then, that was my mother.

The kid looked at me for a minute, considering. “Okay, if we keep that word off the table, could you make sure I don’t get stuffed in a trash can during lunch?”

I grinned at him. “I can do that. Can I copy what you got on the grammar warm-up? You scrambled my tiny brain with the big, scary word.”

The boy laughed and handed me his paper so I could copy super quick before Mr. Rochester could call on me. That’s when I saw his name: Oliver Campbell, which wasn’t Hispanic or Indian, but he didn’t look African American either.

I sat with him at lunch that day, and a few of my friends sat with us. (Not Clayton—he had his own squad of goons, and that was a relief.) My buddies harassed Oliver, don’t get me wrong. Brian Halliday asked him if he got a thrill out of sitting with all us football players, ’cause we were all buff. All Oliver had to do was look him up and down once and say, “I may be gay, but I got better standards than that,” and Brian was smirking and talking about cheerleaders. They kept at it, but Oliver was great at rolling his eyes or saying something just as good, and my buddies would start giving each other shit and leaving him alone.

It’s kind of sad when I think about it now. At the time, I thought I hung out with a bunch of okay kids. I figured we were spoiled and sheltered, but that wasn’t our fault, really. I mean, I was proud because we sat down with someone new and different, and didn’t beat him into the ground. Pathetic, really—that’s what I had to be proud of, right? That my peer group didn’t bully people too badly? But it was something to hold on to, even if it was something small. I needed any pride I could find, because I knew college was coming along like a big steamroller to cream me into the fucking pavement.


Now see, I know I’m not that bright. I mean, give me time, and some hints, and an example, and directions carved in rock, and I can power through almost anything.

Not like Oliver. There’s a quickness to him.

When he walks, his elbows come out from his sides in fluid, graceful little motions, and when he talks, his hands dart around his face and shoulders like fish. He can tell jokes, stupid ones but really funny, and rattle off the joke, and then the punch line, and before I have a chance to laugh, surprised because he’s always surprising, he’s on to the next joke.

“Hey, Rusty, why did the chicken cross the road sllloooowwwlllly?”


“Because he doesn’t believe in cars. Why did the squirrel haul ass across the road?”

“Heh heh . . . doesn’t believe in . . . wait—why?”

“Because he does believe in the ghost of chickens past.”

“Wait, is that because the damned things are always getting killed on the—”

“What did the werewolf say to the vampire on the night of the full moon?”

“I have no idea.”

“Things are about to get hairy. What did the vampire say when he got the power vac?”

“Hairy! Hah! Uhm, I dunno—”

“I vant to suck your mud.”

And so on. We could spend an entire lunch, and Oliver would be dropping one-liners like firecrackers behind him, and the rest of us would be dancing in his wake. Most times, he knew what the class assignment was going to be before Mr. Rochester finished his usual joke about his own name.

“We’re going to find the allegory in Jane Eyre, right?”

“Very good, Oliver. How’d you guess?”

“’Cause no one names a guy St. John unless they’re making a point about saints—especially if he’s the guy who gets dumped for some guy whose name sounds like a rock.”

The whole class laughed at that, me included, but I’d had to spend some time in the bathroom the next morning, contemplating God, before I finished, flushed, and said, “Wait. That St. John guy wasn’t real warm, and Mr. Rochester was really solid and good . . . Is that what Oliver meant?”

So Oliver—hellsa quick. Me—hellsa slow. He should have laughed at me, right? Written me off as a dumb jock and gone and huddled with the coven of übergeeks who watched anime, or the girls who read yaoi. But he didn’t. I guess because I’d been nice to him when I hadn’t needed to be, he’d spent our entire senior year returning the favor.

By the end of senior year, after he’d helped me study for the SATs when my football friends were out getting drunk, I was really fucking grateful.

I also felt bad, because I sucked ass on the SATs. My scores were (and Oliver said this, and I’d had to spend another morning in the bathroom to get it) toiletastic! I’d applied to Berkeley and Stanford, because my grades were pretty good and my old man made me, but it wasn’t until I saw the second round of SAT scores that I realized just what a meatloaf I really was. I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t look Oliver in the face for an entire day. I bailed on him during lunch, and most other guys, they would have been hurt and bitchy and whined to their friends about what a conceited asshole I was, but not Oliver.

“What the fuck is up with you?”

He cornered me in the locker room of all places, because I was taking PE sixth period for elective credit like the dumb jock I was.

“What do you mean?” I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t know what to say.

“You don’t email me this weekend, you don’t talk to me today—c’mon, Rusty—I thought we were friends.” His black eyebrows were drawn together over his eyes, and his mouth was all pursed and pillowy. He looked cute, like a little kid, and I wanted to hug him and tell him it was okay and make the tantrum go away.

I looked down at my toes instead and clutched my towel tighter around my waist. I wasn’t afraid of him checking me out—I’d been naked in front of girls before, and, well, I’d stopped caring—but I felt naked inside too, and that was new.

“Nothing, I . . . you know. You . . .” I had a lightbulb then—a truth I could tell him that would mean he didn’t have to waste his time with me. “You have smart people to sit with.” I looked up and met his eyes then and smiled, because I was proud of that—it made me sound like an asshole, but it meant he didn’t have to waste his time with me neither.

Something funny happened to his face then. He squinched one eye and wrinkled his lip and sucked air through his teeth. His front teeth were a little big, and his canines a little crowded back—like he maybe could have had braces, but it wasn’t so bad that he had to, so he didn’t. He opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it, and then opened it again, and then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“Didn’t you get your SATs back?”

Oh God. It was like he’d read my mind. I looked at my toes again—I had really long toes, to match, well, you know. Not to brag. “Uhm . . .”

“How bad?” he asked, and his voice was absurdly gentle.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” I said, crossing my big toe over my middle toe. I could wiggle them from that position too.

“That’s pretty bad. What’d your dad say?” Because we both knew my dad had this vision: me in some big college with a letterman’s jacket or something.

And this was the part that really made my toes curl on the wet concrete. “He said he could pull strings. Get me into Berkeley anyway. Told me I’d have to really study when I got there, because this slacking shit wasn’t going to cut it.”

I was surprised when his combat boots snuck into my field of vision and a hand came out and touched me awkwardly on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Rusty.”

I shrugged away, feeling worse than shit now, and ignored the shiver down my arm where Oliver had touched me. “I don’t know why you’re sorry. You’re not the idiot who sucked up all your time trying to learn to fuckin’ read and write. You’re the kid who should be going to Berkeley, but you gotta go to junior college instead.” I turned to my open locker and tucked my towel tight around my waist and started to rip out my cargo shorts and tennis shoes and tank top so I could get dressed and give him a ride home. He lived sort of far from my neighborhood—in fact, I’m pretty sure he’d transferred to my school for the AP classes only—but the house itself was cherry. It was small, but painted white, with red and pink flowers growing up the white fence that surrounded the yard. From where I usually sat in the car when I dropped him off, I could see four tiny dogs, who always about lost their minds with pure joy that Oliver was home, and it was getting so I could relate. Anyways, our pattern was for me to let Oliver off outside the gate of his little house, and since I had the car, and it meant he didn’t have to take the bus, I didn’t have a problem with that.

“Yeah,” Oliver agreed, back here in the locker room. “Berkeley would be great. Ain’t gonna lie. But a JC will give me a chance to get my skills up and running, and I’m damned grateful. Rusty, you’re gonna get killed if you go there and you’re not ready. Can’t they see that?”

I leaned my forehead against my locker and swallowed, trying to breathe past the panic. “I’ll be fine,” I lied. “You know me. Time and an instruction book, and I can conquer the frickin’ world.”

“Yeah,” he said, but he didn’t sound optimistic.

The week after that, he asked me if I wanted to work for his dad that summer, part-time or full-time, my choice. His dad was a contractor, and I’d get to do real simple stuff—carry boards, push brooms, run water to the guys with nail guns and screwdrivers who were framing houses or sanding drywall. It wasn’t a lot, but, well, my other job prospect was pushing papers for my old man or someone else’s old man (cause we were swapped around like action figures) in an office.

Guess which one sounded better, right?

Not that the old man saw it that way.

“Rusty, this job could get you valuable contacts in whatever field you pursue—” Dad’s hair had gone brown and gray, but I’ve seen pictures. It used to be blond like mine, streaked by the sun, with undertones of red-brown. His cheeks used to be wreathed with smiles too, but his mouth was a lot thinner now. I couldn’t remember seeing his smile for a while.

“But Dad, this job doesn’t need a suit.”

“Well, maybe you’re old enough to actually think about your future instead of the next girl or the next sunny day. Have you thought of that?”

I hadn’t had a girlfriend since the girl who’d rather have had dick than dinner. It just didn’t seem worth the trouble, really, explaining to them that they didn’t need to put out. And getting some wasn’t as much fun as it used to be—but then, having a friend at the movies had always seemed to be the best part of girlfriends anyway. But, well, Dad had this vision of me, and football-jock-superbanger seemed to be it.

“Dad,” I said, trying to sound grown-up. “You know, maybe this . . . this thing you’ve got set up for me in the future, maybe it’s not really a good fit. You ever think of that? I mean, a college education, I get that, but maybe not Berkeley and the whole nine yards—maybe a JC and some life experience, you think?”

“Russell, we’re not screwing around here—this is your life. You go to a good college, you network, you move on to graduate work. Why would you think that’s changed?”

I opened my mouth, a lot like Oliver had, and closed it, and opened it again. “I . . . I mean, I’m not great at school—you know, there’s tech schools and vocational schools all over the place for guys who don’t, you know—”

“You are not graduating from Western Career College,” my dad snapped, and I grinned and tried to get the smile from him that I vaguely remembered from when I was a kid.

“You can do it!” I sang to the commercial, and apparently that was exactly the wrong thing to sing, because Dad rolled his eyes and walked away.

So I tried Mom.

Now in some houses, Mom would be the guaranteed win, right? “Oh, honey, of course. I understand that you’re feeling out of your depth and you’d like to see if maybe something a little less cerebral might be a better match for your much-vaunted future.” Or, you know, at least “Yeah, go out and sweat in the sun, you’re eighteen, who gives a shit?” right? But that wasn’t the way it was in my house. It wasn’t like Mom was the guaranteed win; it was more like she was better at calculating what was in it for her.

“What will you be spending your money on?” she asked, narrowing her brown eyes at me as though trying to figure the angle. I’d gotten her eyes, but there was something wrong with mine. They were wider and nothing about me looked like I had anything to do with angles. I was all about the curved muscle and brick walls.

I blinked. “I don’t know. Clothes, the car—I mean, you guys pay for everything else. Maybe I’ll put it in savings and see what I need.”

She nodded consideringly. She worked part-time from home. She had a degree in finance, and she did business for a day-trading firm. “That sounds prudent,” she said. “And I think once you spend some time doing manual labor, it might lose its charm.”

As. If.

Best summer of my life. Oh my God, give me simple tasks and a logical progression and I am a happy boy. And you know what I figured out after, like, the first month? I figured out that once I understood where I was and what I was doing, once I was comfortable with things, I could think for myself.

On my third day, if someone left a bucket of nails in the middle of the path I was walking, I walked around it. On the sixth, I picked the bucket up and moved it out of the way. The second week I was there, I found the guy with the nail gun and set it next to him. During the third week, I checked to see if the bucket was full enough, and if it wasn’t, I filled it. Then I asked the guy with the nail gun if he could show me how to use it, and by the second month, I could spell the guy with the nail gun, and then, when he came back to do his thing, I went and asked the guy sanding the drywall exactly what the hell he was doing.

They thought I was a frickin’ genius. It was awesome. After the first week, I was totally full-time.

And Oliver’s dad couldn’t get enough of me. I loved that guy! When I moved the nail bucket, he told me good job. By the time I was using the gun, he was telling me I was a natural and asking my opinion and showing me how to use the equipment and shit. He was great. I mean, my dad probably wouldn’t have thought much of him. He was a short Latino guy, his black hair going iron gray, with beefy forearms and a thick middle. He had a bushy mustache and faded tattoos on his sunburned brown skin, but not a day went by without him asking me how I was doing and telling me—hell, telling everyone on the site—what a good job we were doing, or asking our opinion, or letting us know if we needed to hustle and why.

Oliver would come by the site on his lunch hour—he was working at the library, and he seemed to love the hell out of that—and brought us sandwiches and told us funny stories and made sure we drank lots of water. I wanted soda, but Oliver, he told me that shit was bad for me.

“Man, I know it, but I’ve been drinking water all my life; I want something bad for me that doesn’t give me a headache.” My mom didn’t let Estrella pack the good juice in our lunches. It was all this high-end shit that tasted like crap but was good for us.

Oliver studied me over his turkey on dry wheat toast. “Well, if it doesn’t give you a headache, and it makes you feel good, it’s good for you, right?”

I had a sudden thought about his little oval face, and how just looking at it, with the bright and shiny black eyes staring out at me—that was good for me.

“Yeah,” I said, forgetting about food. “Yeah. Good for me.”

I don’t recall what he said after that. I do remember talking him into going swimming at my house after work, that’s what I remember doing, and after he laughed and agreed, and then left for his job, his dad looked at me, head tilted to the side.

“I thought Oliver said you weren’t that kind of friend,” he said quietly.

I looked at him blankly. “What kind of friend?”

Arturo Campbell, whose dad was white and whose mom was Venezuelan (I know this because he told me the first day I met him, which was funny because I really wasn’t curious), shook his head. “Kid, I think that’s gonna be the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question for you, you know that?” And then, before I could embarrass us both by trying to figure that out when we both knew I wasn’t capable of that shit, he took my napkin and my water bottle from me. “Tomorrow, I’ll bring you a soda. Just one. I think you’ve earned one lousy fucking soda.”

So Oliver came over to my house that afternoon and swam, wet and agile as an otter, moving with the same quick little motions with which he walked and spoke. My mom saw him and smiled in greeting, and then walked away. My father walked in and out of the house without acknowledging he was there. My sister was a freshman—she knew all about Oliver. As we were swimming in the cool water under the oppressive heat layer, she came out and asked him if he liked to shop. When he said no, he liked to read, she blew a raspberry at him.

“What was that for?” he asked, smiling that innocent white smile up at her. She was on the deck and he was in the pool. I was in the deep end, treading water, hoping my little sister wouldn’t be shitty to him so I wouldn’t have to act like a three-year-old and call Mom to make her go away.

“That was for being the wrong kind of gay. Jesus, what are stereotypes for?”

I snickered, because she was sharp, and Oliver cracked up so hard he splashed water when his otter-swift hands moved. “Well, mostly they’re to throw back in people’s faces,” he said. “But I’ll go shopping in a bookstore, if that counts.”

Nicole stripped out of her T-shirt and dropped it on the patio, wearing a plain old blue one-piece because she was a little curvy and Mom said it was tasteful. Suddenly I sort of yearned to see her in a paisley bikini; not because I’m a sick perv or anything, but because Nicole was a lot more interesting than that plain blue bathing suit and the plain white T-shirts that she always wore.

“Hmm . . .” she said, thinking hard as she walked gingerly down the pool steps. It was hot enough outside to make the cool sort of a shock. “Would it be the kind of place that served cappuccino and had poetry readings and music nights?”

Oliver’s grin grew a little dreamy. If you went up toward Placerville, there were arty little places like that, but here? Nope. Everything was the big bland Costco of its stock. Pottery Barn was considered unique and one of a kind, because God forbid anything stand out or anything. I always figured that’s why people liked the football team and the basketball team and the marching band so much: put everyone in a uniform, and they all looked the same. I think in our community that was reassuring.

So it didn’t take a genius to figure that small, brown Oliver would be excited about a place not populated by big hunks of clone meat like myself.

“If we get a place like that up here, you let me know, okay?”

My sister laughed and then dove into the water with a little shriek. When she surfaced, a few feet from me, she said, “I think we’re going to have to build one, sweetheart—and that means we’ll have to shop together after all.”

Oliver laughed and conceded that maybe they would have to bond via retail. Whether she knew it or not, my little sister—who had been a giant ugly bug crawling up my ass when I had my football buddies over—was suddenly on our side.

Estrella came out then with sandwiches and snacks, and I was surprised. She’d never done that when I’d had my other friends over, although there had always been potato chips we could serve.

I climbed out of the pool and toweled my hair before coming over to check out the spread. “This is awesome,” I told her, meaning it. She’d always been really nice to Nicole and me, cooking our favorite stuff, smiling at us when we were eating dinner in the kitchen, or asking us about our day. When we’d been younger, she’d been the nanny, but as we’d gotten past needing one, Mom had kept her on as the housekeeper/cook. I always thought it was because Mom loved her too, but that was something else I think I got wrong. For Mom, she was just super competent help. It was only to Nicole and me that Estrella meant something special.

“Well, I like this friend,” Estrella said, smiling. She had little teeth, with a gap in the front, and a round face and body. She was probably my mom’s age, but she seemed older somehow—maybe it was the softness. I knew that she’d listened to Oliver and me talk in the kitchen when we were studying for the SATs, and that she and Oliver had sometimes had snow-flurry conversations in Spanish that had felt intimate and real. She’d never spoken Spanish to me and Nicole. I felt like I knew her better after she’d made us sandwiches and hot chocolate—and the snacks, by the way, were pretty much one of the best things about the SATs, period.

“I know. I like him, too. His dad is pretty awesome. I wish I could work for him forever.”

Estrella looked at me thoughtfully. “I don’t think your father would like that very much,” she said kindly, and I shrugged.

“Yeah, well, he might change his mind when I flunk out of Berkeley.”

She sighed and patted my hand, which was still wet from the pool. “Maybe you should think of a way to avoid that?”

I winked at her to make her smile. “You know me—anything to get out of hard work.”

Estrella shook her head. “You’re a good boy, Rusty. Keep bringing Oliver by. He’s a good boy, too.”

Nicole and Estrella were smart—they saw the lines being drawn. But not my parents.

They treated Oliver like they treated all of my other friends, and didn’t, not once, notice that the enemy, the secret marauder who would topple all of their hopes and their plans for their baby boy, was in their swimming pool, smiling up at me with bright brown eyes, wearing a pair of plaid shorts that weren’t made for swimming at all.


He came over to swim a lot that summer. I remember little photo shoots in my head, his thin, brown limbs shiny and wet as he stood on our white concrete patio. I liked the way he flipped his hair out of his eyes, and the way he’d swim with his arms at his sides, rippling his long, skinny body. In the water, standing on the bottom step of the pool, he looked exotic, like a merman or something.

I started to think about him, dream about him, in his plaid not-swimming shorts, standing mostly naked on my parents’ patio.

At first, the dreams weren’t anything remarkable. He’d just be smiling at me, like I’d done something great. I mean, I’m not a complete asshole, but great? I have never, ever been accused of greatness. As a football player, I was good enough to play, but that was when I was pushing myself into the ground. As a student, I was in the honors classes because I had outstanding tutors, but that was their smarts, even if it was my sweat that made it stick. But at least in my dreams, Oliver was staring up at me like I had just won the Super Bowl and solved world hunger during the commercial break.

The first time I dreamed that, I woke up almost in tears. I wanted to be back asleep, having that dream so bad.

I didn’t think about it then, and when I did think about it, I tried to focus on the fact that maybe I should stop being a pussy about how bad I didn’t want to go to Berkeley. That if I wanted people to look up to me like that, maybe I should try to be someone worth looking up to.

When I wasn’t working, or at the pool, I was reading. I figured if I could read some of the books that Oliver read, I’d maybe get some of his quickness. I read A Separate Peace and The Chocolate War, but all I really got out of them was that big clots of peer pressure really fucked a kid up. I figured that I didn’t have to worry about that shit anymore. My friends had all taken off.

I mean, we still texted and saw movies together sometimes, but they were all working the same internships and jobs that my dad had wanted me to work. Between the working, the reading, and the swimming, more and more and more, my world revolved around Oliver.

I was okay not having that crowd of friends anymore. With all the reading Oliver and I were doing, we were starting to get the same jokes. Like, when him, me, and Brian Halliday saw that new Bourne movie. We were sitting there, watching guys kick ass on screen, when suddenly it hit me. These movies were about spies who didn’t want to spy anymore. They were getting reborn as someone else. And then, bing-bang-boom, I was back with that Crime and Punishment book that Oliver had given me, and then holy shit and hallelujah, I remembered Mr. Rochester and St. John and Jane Eyre.

“Omigod omigod omigod!” I hissed at Oliver. “Bourne! Get it? It’s like he’s been reborn!”

Oliver jerked, like I’d given him a wedgie or something, and then he turned to me with a smile so big, I swear it made the theater brighter. “God, Rusty, you totally nailed that one.”

I grinned and then turned to Brian, and he was shoving popcorn in his face. “Get it?” I whispered. “It’s his name, but it means something. It’s like . . . like allegory.”

Brian squinted at me. “Shut up and watch the movie,” he muttered. “People are looking at us funny.”

For a minute I was real disappointed. I felt like I was seeing the sun for the first time, but Oliver elbowed me and grinned and gave me the thumbs-up. For an irrational, terrifying moment, I thought about grabbing his hand and kissing it, because I was that fucking grateful, right?

But I didn’t. I turned my attention back to the movie. Afterward, Oliver and I asked Brian if he wanted to go out to ice cream with us, but he said no.

“I gotta be up early in the morning,” he said, sounding like my dad. “If I’m not there on time, your dad gets on my case. Jesus, Rusty, I can’t believe you came from that guy.”

Yeah. Brian had taken the internship in my dad’s office, and I guess I was supposed to have taken the one offered by his dad. Nice. Swapping us like the little game pieces we were supposed to be seemed more and more cold-blooded.

“Don’t look at me.” I shrugged. “I’m working construction. I get there at nine, I leave at five, and my boss buys me soda when his son’s not looking. I got it good.”

“He does not.” Oliver looked properly horrified. I smiled back at him. I loved grinning at him. I wanted to wrap my arm around his neck and ruffle his hair, but that had never been us.

“He does too,” I told him, figuring Mr. Campbell wouldn’t mind too much if I gave this away. “But only once a week. The rest of the time it’s horchata.” Which I didn’t particularly like, but he meant well, so I drank it anyway.

Oliver smiled, very proud of himself. “Yeah. My dad, he listens to me if he knows what’s good for him.”

I looked at Brian to try to share the awesome that was Oliver’s dad. “He does, too,” I told him seriously. “I mean, I never in a million years thought anyone could actually . . . you know . . . listen like this guy. He’s awesome to work for. I wish I lived with him.”

Brian sneered. “Yeah, well, you and Oliver get any cozier, maybe you can.”

I recoiled. “Man, what crawled up your ass?”

“Not the same thing that’s about to climb up yours.”

I looked at him, floundering. “That’s so ugly,” I said at last, my voice low. “How come you gotta be like that? You weren’t like that in school. You guys were always really nice to Oliver in school.”

“Yeah, well, that’s when we thought he was your friend. It’s a little different when he’s your boyfriend. You know that, Rusty. It’s like . . . like we can let them hang around us, but there’s got to be a line.”

“Besides,” Oliver said quietly at my side. “They were like this in school. You were just too sweet to take it that way.”

“Is that how you like ’em? Sweet?” Brian’s voice was nasty, and something in his face was hurt, too. It hit me that he felt like he was losing me. And he was mad at Oliver because Oliver was the one who would get me in the end.

“I . . .” I shut my mouth and opened it again, and I wished suddenly that I was a kid again, in grade school, where all you had to do was go out and catch the ball, and that made kids your friends. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning to Oliver. “I’m sorry I was too stupid to know they were being mean. You’ve been a real good friend to me. I wouldn’t have let anyone be mean.”

Brian scoffed—and I never knew what that word meant until I heard that sound come out of his mouth.

“God, Rusty. Have a nice life. Give your mom my apologies for your going-away party. I’m not going to make it.”

“You’re having a going-away party?” Oliver asked, brightening, and I wanted to sit down and cry on my knees.

“I guess it was a surprise,” I said.

“And I guess you weren’t invited,” Brian said to Oliver. “Which is great. It’ll just be Rusty and his family staring at each other. I’m pretty sure after tonight, nobody else is going to want to have a damned thing to do with you, either.”

And he turned and walked off to his car. I watched him go, feeling empty and dumb.

“You know,” I said into the warm night, “you’re really the only person I would want to come.”

Oliver reached up and patted my shoulder. “That’s okay. I’ll show up anyway. You tell me where and when, and I’ll be at your party.”

I was planning to tell my mom, but she brought it up first. She’s like a ninja. I was walking out of my room after my post-work shower, going to hunt up some more food in the kitchen. I swear that woman heard the floorboard creak as I passed her office, because her voice shot out like an arrow and stopped me in my tracks.

“Rusty, have you had a falling out with your friends?”

I turned around and looked into her office and saw the back of her head. Mom had blonde hair. I think it was dyed, though, because if she missed her stylist appointment, her roots were brownish gray. But I rarely got to see that, it was almost always perfect. Some guys had moms who went running in public or sometimes wore sweats or went camping and didn’t wash their hair for a week. My mom only sweat at the gym, and since she went to one of those women-only gyms, we had to take her word for it. Every day: slacks, a twinset, and pearls. I don’t think I remember her wearing jeans.

Right now, she turned the chair away from the dark-wood desk to face me and brushed her blonde hair from her eyes in a way that looked like ballet.

“Yeah, Mom,” I said, because apparently being not bright meant I couldn’t lie either. “They were being mean to Oliver.”

Mom blinked and adjusted her summer cardigan. This one was pink. “The little dark-haired boy?”

He wasn’t that little. Five six? Five feet seven? Sure, I was almost six feet tall, but Oliver wasn’t child-sized.

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“What would they have against him? I mean, I know his father’s in construction, but I don’t think any of your friends are that poorly mannered—”

“He’s gay, Mom—”

Mom jerked her head back. “I did not know that,” she said. Her voice didn’t really rise, but she gave the impression of a big ocean wave: same thing on the surface, but a vast swell of power underneath. “Why is he here so often?”

I swallowed. I reminded myself I’d suspected this. I’d thought my friends were decent, and I’d been wrong, but I’d always known my parents were dicks, and I’d been right about that.

“He’s my friend. He helped me study for the SATs. And his father gave me my job.”

“Oh,” she said, and her eyes were narrowed. She was doing some sort of calculation, I could tell. “You owe a debt. I understand. Well, then . . .” Her voice trailed off, and I could see that she was struggling with the sham of the “surprise party.” And then an odd look crossed her face. Her eyes got big and shiny, and for a moment her chin wrinkled. She took a deep breath, and everything smoothed out. “You should invite him to your going-away dinner,” she said simply, as though this was something I’d always known about. “It’s Tuesday, in two weeks. We’ll be going out. Make sure he dresses appropriately.”

I heard her later, cancelling caterers and fighting for her deposit back, and I felt bad. Maybe that had been what the shiny eyes were all about. She was going to lose money on this deal. That sucked, but I wasn’t going to go make up to all my shitty friends and drop Oliver. For one thing, I was almost done with that Crime and Punishment book, and I needed to talk to Oliver and find out if that really scummy guy was a bad guy or just doing that stuff because he felt like he was supposed to.

So Oliver came with us. He was wearing an old suit jacket and jeans, with a white shirt underneath, and he looked good. His wrists stuck out of the sleeves, though, like he’d grown since he got it, and the color was blue. I don’t think the fabric was that good. But that was okay. We sat through dinner while Nicole teased me about how I was supposed to send her all the skinny on the professors and the quad and the good places to hang out. I rolled my eyes and asked her how I’d know these things anyway.

“You’ve always been better at knowing the cool stuff,” I told her, and it was true. Nicole did like to shop, but she liked to shop vintage music stores and antique shops and stuff. She went to poetry readings in her spare time and could tell you who on the bookstore shelf had actually grown up in our little spot in the foothills. Before our town exploded into feeder suburbs to Intel, it used to be a little artsy place with windy roads and lots of trees and big stretches of nothing. A lot of our local authors wrote about the evil of industry and the soullessness of the suburbs, which did absolutely nothing for me. At least Raskolnikov killed people, right?

Nicole sighed and rolled her eyes. “At least look for the places that Oliver would like to hang out, okay?”

I grinned at Oliver. “That’s easy. The library.”

Oliver grinned back. “I even think that’s on the campus map,” he conceded.

I was suddenly struck by a thought. (Which, you know, gets me into trouble.) “Wait, Oliver. Where do you like to hang out?” I couldn’t remember him ever being anywhere besides my house except for his house or the library.

Oliver’s face did a weird thing then, and in a way, it reminded me of my mom’s face when she’d had to cancel my party. “With you, dumbass.” He said it with a smile, and for a moment, I thought he was going to zing me, but he pulled back somehow. Dumbass didn’t sound like an insult when he said it. It sounded like sweetheart or baby or one of those other gross words that girls liked us to call them.

But because it was dumbass, it didn’t make me gag.

“Oh my God!” Nicole rolled her eyes. “That’s gross. Men should never talk to each other that way. Ever. I don’t care who they sleep with!”

“Nicole!” my mother snapped, and my sister turned to her chicken and asparagus with a meekness I did not believe. Sure enough, she looked up at me under her lowered brows, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Her shoulders shook and her look shifted to a glare, and then she looked next to me, to where Oliver was sitting (he got the end on account of being left-handed), and I saw him sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes.

Nicole burst into giggles, and Oliver and I joined her. My parents glared at the three of us, but they weren’t going to start shrieking about manners in the middle of the restaurant—that would be rude.

So it was a good dinner. I thought I might miss Nicole when I was gone. When we were little, she used to sneak into my room at night and sing silly kids songs to me. I don’t know where she heard them—kindergarten, maybe? Preschool? Our mom wasn’t one for singing nonsense songs, but Nicole remembered every one she heard. Probably why she loved vintage vinyl records so much. Anyway, as we all walked through the balmy air to the parking lot, I remembered that.

We’d driven in two separate cars so I could pick Oliver up, and my Prius with the moonroof had a decent backseat. I thought maybe some company would be nice.

“Nicole, you want to ride with us?” I asked all of a sudden. “We can go for ice cream, and then get home.”

Nicole looked up at me with a smile on her round face while she pushed brown hair out of her eyes, and for a moment, it looked like she was going to say yes. Then she grew thoughtful, and she said, “No, Rusty. You go ahead. We’ve got tomorrow before you leave, but you’ve only got Oliver for tonight.”

I shrugged and got into the car, but, as dumb as I am, there were a few things I didn’t miss.

I didn’t miss the way my parents glared at Nicole, and I didn’t miss the way she looked at them, innocent as pie, which is how she usually looked when she’d been robbing my drawers for those awful white T-shirts.

And I didn’t miss the way Oliver beamed like a dark sun, either. It made me feel good, right? Because he was my friend.


I meant to take us to ice cream, but as I neared the turnoff for the strip mall that had the Ben & Jerry’s in it, Oliver made a no sound.

“Just keep driving,” he murmured, and so we did.

We rolled down the windows and the wind was perfect. It smelled like cut brown grasses, because the hills were scorched, and we drove the long straight highways through Amador, listening to music and talking about what we thought college was going to be like.

I said, “You know, it’s probably going to look like the inside of my dorm room. I’m never going to cut it.”

Oliver sighed, and then I sighed too. It would have been nice if he could have lied to me, just once, but that wasn’t him.



“You know, you can email me when you’re gone, right? Text, Skype, all of that.”

I brightened a little. All that shit. I’d forget. Oh crap, I should tell him that. “You’re going to have to poke me a little, okay? You know, like now? I forget.”

Oliver shook his head. “You don’t, really,” he said with an apologetic smile. “You just don’t like calling people out of the blue. Once I text you or something, you’re all okay.” His teeth glinted a little in one of the rare streetlamps, and he shook his bangs out of his eyes. “Actually, Rusty, you’re sort of a little bit shy.”

My face heated in the confines of the car, and I wished I could have stuck my head out the window like a big yellow dog.

“You say that, and now I’m all embarrassed,” I told him, and his laugh was a soft sound blown away by the wind.

After about an hour of driving out in the mostly rural country off Jackson Highway, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. Oliver trotted inside and came out with two frosties in cups, mine with lots of caramel and nuts.

He waited until I was done pumping gas and said, “Pull over to the back of the station. You can savor it then.”

I looked at him quick and saw that he was laughing a little at the idea of savoring gas station ice cream, and I laughed too. But behind the gas station, there was miles and miles of nothing. Far off in the distance, you could see the lights that meant the urban sprawl of Sacramento was starting, but there wasn’t even one light behind the store.

Oliver and I both leaned against the Toyota and “savored” our sweating ice cream. A breeze blew across all of that dried nothing and I found I was scooting up against Oliver a little for warmth. He didn’t seem to mind.

For a few moments, we didn’t say a word, and the world was perfect.

Then, into the quiet, Oliver said, “Rusty, if I try something, do you promise to still call me if it doesn’t work?”

God, I’m dumb.

“Try something like what? That thing with the computer so we can see each other? Because I can do that already.”

Oliver laughed into his empty ice-cream cup and talked about something else. “Rusty, who was the last girl you dated?”

“Jennifer Brukholtz—you remember, I told you about her?”

“No dick before dinner,” Oliver said dryly. “Yeah. Not easy to forget.”

I sulked and scooped out the last of the ice cream with my spoon, and then sucked the spoon upside down on my tongue, creating a perfect seal. Oliver turned toward me, looking up at me with those eyes that said I was all that. My tongue got sucked in around the spoon and for a minute I was stuck, Oliver laughing at me, my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth like every bad dream I’d ever had about public speaking, except I wasn’t naked.

I had a sudden thought then, of me naked, and Oliver in front of me the same way.

I stopped breathing, and the spoon loosened from the top of my mouth and started to slide out. Oliver caught it before it could stop dangling off my lips and put it in his ice-cream cup. Very deliberately, he took the cup from me, put it in his own, and set them both on top of the car behind me.

“You just thought about it, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.

I’m dumb, remember? No lying. I nodded my head and swallowed. “Yeah.”

There was just enough light from behind us to see it dancing in the brown of his eyes.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said quietly. “And you’re leaving tomorrow. Which means if this doesn’t work out, it’ll be okay. We’ll be friends and we’ll text and—”

“If what doesn’t work out?” I asked, and his lips quirked upwards, leaving perfect apostrophes on either side of his brown mouth.

“Just close your eyes,” he said softly, and I did.

He moved slowly, reaching behind my head and pulling it down, and when I was right where he needed to be, he raised up a little. I could feel puffs of breath against my mouth, and then a tickle against my lips. And another, harder. And one more, warmer.

I gasped, opening my mouth, and his tongue swept in, teasing a little, until I teased back.

He sighed into my mouth, and for a moment it felt like he was going to pull away, but I wasn’t ready. I reached behind him and pulled him closer to me, and his tongue went deeper. Ohhh . . . this was kissing. I sighed back at him, and he pulled away, leaving me to suck on his tongue until the last minute, because I wanted him some more.

And then it hit me.

Oliver had kissed me, and I’d kissed him back.

I dropped my arms and jerked back, cracking my elbow on the side of the car. Oliver took a hurried step backward himself and gave a startled laugh, clapping his hand over his mouth.

“Oh my God, Rusty, are you okay?” His words came out muffled from behind his fingers. He was still laughing.

I rubbed my elbow and tried to breathe through that funny-bone pain that is almost as not funny as getting kissed by your best male friend when you thought you were straight.

“I’m a little confused,” I told him honestly. “And my elbow hurts.”

He ventured closer and hesitantly put his hands on my shoulders. I wanted to shrug them off and remind him that I wasn’t gay, but I didn’t. They felt good there, soothing, and I lowered my head and let him touch me.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to kiss me back or worry that I’ll do that again. Just . . . think about it, okay? Just think about it, and we’ll be friends like we always have been.”

I nodded, but I didn’t move. I must have at some point, I know, because we eventually got back into the car and drove home, but I don’t remember that moment when we stepped away from each other. In fact, for a long time, my head was still there, listening to cicadas and feeling the touch of his hands and the tender wind of his breath on my face.

Author Bios:
LB Gregg
LB Gregg (Lisabea) writes fun, fast-paced contemporary male/male romances for a variety of publishers including Riptide, Samhain, and Carina Press. Her wildly successful Men of Smithfield books feature hot, hunky men looking for love in small town New England.

Ally Blue
Ally Blue is acknowledged by the world at large (or at least by her heroes, who tend to suffer a lot) as the Popess of Gay Angst. She has a great big suggestively-shaped hat and rides in a bullet-proof Plexiglas bubble in Christmas parades. Her harem of manwhores does double duty as bodyguards and inspirational entertainment. Her favorite band is Radiohead, her favorite color is lime green and her favorite way to waste a perfectly good Saturday is to watch all three extended version LOTR movies in a row. Her ultimate dream is to one day ditch the evil day job and support the family on manlove alone. She is not a hippie or a brain surgeon, no matter what her kids’ friends say.

ZA Maxfield
Z.A. Maxfield is a fifth-generation native of Los Angeles, although she now lives in the O.C. She started writing in 2007 on a dare from her children and never looked back. Pathologically disorganized and perennially optimistic, she writes as much as she can, reads as much as she dares, and enjoys her time with family and friends. If anyone asks her how a wife and mother of four manages to find time for a writing career, she’ll answer, “It’s amazing what you can do if you completely give up housework.”

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.

LB Gregg

Ally Blue

ZA Maxfield

Amy Lane