CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Nine months later….

UPSTATE NEW YORK, March, 2012

 

 

MICHAEL skimmed the last hurdle, crossed the finish line, and whooped in the air. “Woo-hoo! Gotcha, bro!”

Jake checked the stopwatch. “I don’t believe it! You did it in 13.98 seconds!” He smacked Michael’s hand in a glorious high five.

Michael bent over, hands on knees, and worked to catch his breath. God, it felt good to run. It made him feel so damn free. “I finally got below fourteen.” He walked across the track, pulled a bottle of water from his bag, upended it, and let the water rain down on him.

“Still got a ways to go, man. You gotta get below 12.87 seconds to beat the world record in the hundred and ten-meter hurdles.”

Droplets flew as Michael shook his chestnut curls, and Jake threw a towel at him. He caught it, tossed the empty to Jake, and reached for another bottle of water. “Not gonna happen. My legs aren’t long enough.” He sat on the bench and gulped the water down.

Jake sat next to him and cuffed his shoulder. “Don’t drink so freakin’ fast. It isn’t good for you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Michael stretched his legs out in front of him, energy and exertion still ringing in his limbs.

Jake’s gaze scanned the bleachers. “He’s here again.”

Michael wiped the moisture from his face. “Who?”

“You know who. Mute boy.”

Michael wadded the towel and threw it at Jake. “Don’t call him that. His name’s Christy.”

“What kind of a name is that?”

“A pretty one.”

“He’s weird.”

“He’s pretty.”

Jake barked a laugh and shook his head. “I’m your BFF, man, but you slay me with that queer talk.”

“Can’t help it.”

“It’s like you have a crush on him or something.”

“I do. Have for two months.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“Michael, the guy’s a tool. He doesn’t speak, he follows you around like a lost puppy and seriously watches you. Like he’s stalking you.”

“Maybe he thinks I’m hot.”

Jake snorted. “Hate to break it to you, bro, but you’re uglier than sin.”

“Oh, so not true! Half the cats in school think I’m to die for.”

“I can fix that real quick.”

Michael would have been angry at the implied threat except he knew Jake would never out him. He merely laughed.

“Okay, you’re right, I’d never out you. And if you chose to out yourself, you know I’d support you.”

Michael hooked an arm around Jake’s neck and kissed the side of his head. “I know.”

Jake shoved him playfully. “Get off me, gay boy.”

“Be thankful I didn’t kiss your lips.”

Jake shook his head in good-natured dismay. “You always gotta push it.”

Michael turned serious. “You know I’m just messing with you, right?”

“Yeah, but you’re damn lucky I’m your BFF. Any other guy would freak.”

“Keep talking like that and I’ll make you take me to prom.”

“Shut up.”

Michael donned his best Scarlett O’Hara falsetto. “Oh, Jake, please take me to prom! I’ll never forgive you if you don’t! You simply must!”

Jake elbowed him in the side.

“Ow. Who are you taking anyway?”

“Like you have to ask.”

“Do you smell that?”

“What?”

“Entrapment.”

It was Jake’s turn to be serious. “Do you think she’d freak if I asked her to marry me right after graduation?”

Michael wanted to yell at Jake. To tell him that Becca wasn’t right for him. To tell him he could do a lot better than her. In fact, he wanted to flat-out tell Jake he thought Becca was a biatch. “Why so soon?”

“My dad wants me engaged before I start Columbia. You know how he is. He wants me concentrating on school, not on chasing girls. He’s old-fashioned like that.”

No pressure, Michael thought bitterly. He swallowed hard and tried to put a positive spin on it for Jake’s sake. “You’re both going to Columbia next year, you’re from the same astronomical money sphere, and you’re both gorgeous. From the outside looking in, you’re, like, the next royal couple. Doubt she’d freak. What’s important is whether she loves you.”

Jake left the bench and began packing up their things. “She says she does.”

Michael snagged another bottle of water and shoved the towel in the bag before Jake zipped it up. “I hear a ‘but.’”

Jake shrugged a shoulder. “Sometimes it’s like she isn’t paying attention, like I’m wallpaper.”

“Talk to her.”

“Tried. She says she adores me. Then we have sex. We don’t talk.”

“Tell her you want to talk.”

Jake studied the stopwatch for a long moment before packing it away. “Yeah, whatever.”

“You’re a great guy, Jake. Make sure she loves you.”

“Easier said than done.”

“I’m always here for you, bro.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to marry you.”

Michael choked on a laugh as he drank. “Are you implying I’m unmarriable?”

Jake made a face. “Is unmarriable even a word?”

“I just made it one.”

“Technically, you are no longer. More and more states are recognizing gay marriage.”

“Doubt it’s in my future.”

“Why?”

Michael glanced up the bleachers at Christy. “I’m beginning to wonder if what I like exists.”

Jake finished packing and took a seat next to Michael again. “Tell me what you like. Besides that Andrej guy.”

Michael leaned forward, elbows on knees, and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Telling his straight best friend about the fantasy dude he’d like to… well, his DILF, was… just too weird. “I can’t tell a straight guy what I like in a guy.”

“Bro, I already know you like dick. Unless you’re going to tell me you’re into satanic practices or have cannibalistic tendencies, I think I can handle it.”

Michael huffed a laugh. “Whatever.”

“Tell me what you like,” Jake pressed.

Michael blew a long breath. “You really want to know?”

Jake pinned him with his dark eyes. “Yeah, I do.”

Michael ran a hand through his damp curls. “Yeah, okay.” He tried to formulate the words, but they twisted in his mind, trapped behind a wall of unfamiliar embarrassment.

Jake studied him, humor filling his eyes. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen you at a loss for words.”

“Come on, man, this is awkward.”

“Be easy, bro. I see what you check out, so let’s see if I have the 411. You don’t do contrary, lazy, flamboyant, or whiny. Dramatic twinks aren’t your thing. Physically, you like small, almost delicate, but not willowy. You want substance there. I’m guessing you don’t want the guy to feel like he’s going to break when you hold him. And grace, graceful movement without it being too feminine. You prefer shy, someone you can take care of, but you also want sophistication, someone you can communicate with. Someone who’s comfortable in his skin, as comfortable being gay as you are. Most of all, you want kindness and honesty. Someone who knows a smile costs nothing. And I guess I’d add that you’d like someone pretty. Curly hair is a must, but the eyes are most important to you. Then, you study the architecture of a face, the cheekbones, the curve of a jawline, the hollow of a neck. You watch lips move. You like quality. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s like lace. You don’t want a replica like the machine-made stuff you find in a store, but lace tatted by hand over time. Sturdy, yet refined, and made with love in mind. And you want a good kisser. Kissing is important to you.”

Michael stared at him, dumbfounded.

Jake cracked up at his expression. “Did I totally miss it?”

Michael continued to stare at him.

“Say something, man.”

“You didn’t miss a freakin’ thing.”

Jake held a hand up for a high five, and Michael slapped it. “How’d you figure all that out?” Michael picked anxiously at the label on the water bottle, never having felt so revealed.

“We’ve only known each other since the day we were hatched, bro.”

“You know more about me than I do.”

“I pay attention to what goes on around me. Something you’d do well to do more of. Tell me why you like Christy. Besides that you think he’s pretty.”

Michael looked back over his shoulder again. Christy sat on the highest bleacher, far away, watching him as he and Jake spoke.

“He doesn’t leave until you do,” Jake said quietly.

Michael turned back, an eyebrow arched in query. “You keep tabs on him?”

Jake shrugged. “Don’t have to. Where you are, he is. He’s weird, so I checked around.”

“You checked him out?”

Jake huffed. “To the extent that I could. No one really knows anything about him except that he moved to Wellington Ranch last summer, and he’s a senior. And a poindexter. He spends a lot of time in Mr. Cooper’s art bungalow and is excused from phys ed. No one knows why. And he always wears a ridiculous scarf around his neck.”

Michael stared at Jake again.

“What?”

“Do you worry about me, bro?”

Jake made an unintelligible hand gesture. “You’re my best friend. Since you came out to me, I keep watch, that’s all. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Michael looked at the friend he’d had since the day he was born. Rather, the brother he’d never had. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I love you, man.”

Jake smirked. “Back at you.”

“Wellington Ranch is for troubled kids, right?”

“Troubled.” Jake pursed his lips. “How PC of you. It’s a home for abused and neglected kids.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed on Jake. “What kind of abused?”

“Does it matter?”

“Guess not. Every kind of abuse is all kinds of wrong, but you don’t know what kind?”

Jake gave Michael a long, considering look.

“Spit it, Jake.”

“Wellington Ranch is one of my dad’s clients, so I shouldn’t say anything but, from the paperwork I’ve seen in his office, the kids have been abused in more than one way. Verbally, emotionally, physically, sexually, starved, no health care. That kind of stuff. And they’re usually young. Not our age.”

Michael’s eyes traveled up the bleachers to settle on Christy again. His long, blond ringlets wafted on the breeze as he looked off into the distance. Christy’s posture was perfect, almost regal. The mere thought that anyone would hurt Christy, particularly in that way, filled Michael with anguish so raw his chest hurt. The need to protect Christy was sudden and vital, and entirely foreign to him. That decided it. “I’m going to go talk to him.”

Jake half laughed. “Did you forget that he doesn’t speak?”

Michael was immediately defensive. “So what?”

Jake stood. “Look, whatever, man. Do you want me to hang out?”

Michael grinned. “What’s wrong with you? You’re acting like a mother hen.”

Jake didn’t smile as he bent to collect his bag. “Nothing new, Michael.”

Michael’s grin slipped. Jake was right. It wasn’t anything new. He stood, slung his bag over a shoulder, and draped his sweatshirt around his neck. “Thanks, bro,” he said as he one-arm hugged him.

“You have your cell?”

“Yeah.”

“You have your cell in your pocket?”

A smile quirked Michael’s lips. “He’s no bigger than a minute, Jake.”

Jake grabbed Michael’s cell phone from the side pocket of his bag and shoved it into the hidden pocket in his running shorts. “Do I have to remind you to use condoms?”

A cherry-red flush rushed up Michael’s neck and came to full bloom in his face, and Jake burst into laughter. “Call me later and let me know you’re okay. Good luck, bro.”

Michael watched Jake walk away. Jake had taken care of him all his life. And he was right. Michael needed to pay attention to what went on around him.

He looked up into the stands and found Christy watching him intently. When their eyes met, Christy turned away quickly. Man, he’d wanted to talk to Christy since the day he ran into him, literally, but hadn’t been able to work up the courage.

Two months ago, Michael had been on his way to class early one morning when he realized he’d left his English Lit essay in the car. He turned abruptly to go back to the parking lot and ran smack into Christy. He tripped, nearly sending them both to the ground, and quickly caught Christy’s arm to steady him.

“Sorry, man, didn’t see you.”

Then Michael did. Christy’s eyes had sparkled in the bright morning sun like the crystal waters of the Caribbean. Mesmerized, Michael hadn’t been able to prevent the words that tumbled from his lips. “Your eyes are amazing.” A shy smile had flashed on Christy’s heavenly visage and, after a beat, uncertainty filled his eyes. Embarrassed, Michael blurted, “Sorry, man.” Christy had only nodded and walked away. Since that fateful morning, pretty Christy had been the object of Michael’s desire, making nightly appearances in his dreams and wreaking havoc with his, well, you know.

Michael had made it his mission to find out everything he could about Christy, which was nothing because, as Jake pointed out, no one knew a thing. But for the fact that Mrs. Thomas, the headmaster’s secretary, called after Christy one day and Michael just happened to be nearby, he wouldn’t even know Christy’s first name.

Michael wiped his sweaty palms on his shorts and was surprised to find that his usual confidence had fled him. He looked around and flexed his fingers as he wavered in indecision, carefully weighing his options. There was no one left on the field. Man up, Michael. Get your ass in gear. Sometimes Michael wanted to choke the little voice in his head. Blowing a long, nervous breath, he climbed the bleachers, watching the placement of his feet as he headed in Christy’s direction.