Double scotch in hand, Steve pasted on a smile and ventured out into Connor’s crowded living room. Mingling and making small talk didn’t usually bother him—hell, it was what he did best—but tonight, it took a monumental effort to keep his attention focused. Same dull stuff as every end-of-school-year party—everyone droning on about budget cuts and next year’s curriculum, when all he really wanted was to go home and conk out on the couch watching ESPN.
Just like every other night. Why couldn’t he learn to live a little?
He started heading toward the patio door, until Dr. Richardson, the head of the physics department, waved him over. Great. Now he couldn’t avoid saying hello. He walked across the room, barely stifling a grimace as Richardson promptly dug his plump fingers into Steve’s arm. “How are you, Campbell? We haven’t spoken in ages.” Smiling, Richardson nodded at another passing colleague before turning his attention back to Steve. “Any exciting summer plans? A trip to Hawaii, or Europe perhaps, with all that money burning a hole in your bank account?”
Was it his imagination, or did Richardson seem a bit jealous? Okay, more than a bit—it radiated from his watery brown eyes like a searchlight. Another bitter, second-rate academic stuck making his career in administration rather than science.
There but for the grace of God . . . “Afraid not,” Steve said, forcing a chuckle. “Connor and I have a full slate of new projects, plus there’s the optics conference in July to prepare for.”
“Ah, yes,” Richardson sniffed. “No doubt you and Dr. Morrison will have the most talked-about presentation again this year.”
Irritation did a slow crawl up Steve’s neck, settling into his shoulders like lead. Still, he laughed it off. “Here’s hoping.” He upended his drink and cocked his head toward the bar. “Care for another?”
“No, thank you. Some of us need to keep our wits about us.”
Unlike you at last year’s Christmas party hung unspoken in the air, but Steve merely flashed his widest grin—the one usually reserved for investors and beautiful women—and made a beeline for the nearest bottle of single malt.
Another half hour, and a pleasant, alcohol-drenched haze set in. He stood staring at the Wyeth print above Connor’s battered old leather couch until that cute blonde lab assistant walked by. He swung around and trailed after her.
“Hey, Pamela,” he called, stopping dead as she pivoted, the smile sliding off her face. “Um, how’ve you been?” Oh, smooth move. Could he sound any lamer?
“It’s Patricia,” she snapped. God, now he remembered. They’d gone out a couple weekends ago, and . . . well, the evening hadn’t exactly ended on a high note. “I guess that explains why you haven’t called me.”
Ouch. And he’d meant to call her, too, if for no other reason than to apologize. “Sorry about that, it’s just been crazy lately—”
She raised a hand, cutting him off. “I don’t even know why you’re bothering. It’s pretty clear you weren’t attracted to me.” Her gaze dropped to his crotch.
Face burning, he glanced around, expecting to find the entire room staring at them. But no one was listening to their little exchange, or else they just didn’t care. “No, no, you’re lovely. And I’m sorry our date was so . . . disappointing.” He gave her his best smile—or at least, the best he could summon under the circumstances. “I’ve been under a lot of stress, and probably had too much to drink.” Now her gaze settled on the scotch in his hand, lips tightening into a scowl. Jesus, woman, give me a break. I’m trying here. “If you’d like to give it another go, I’d be happy to make it up to you.”
The anger seemed to drain from her face, replaced by a tiny not-quite smile and a slightly warmer expression in her eyes that looked a lot like . . . sympathy?
“Look, you’re a nice enough guy,” she said slowly—and down came the boom, right on schedule—“but honestly, I just didn’t feel a spark. Sorry.” She spun on her four-inch heels and strode off.
Steve stood there watching her walk away, a half-dozen heartfelt apologies popping into his head the moment she was out of earshot. Sighing, he knocked back another mouthful of scotch. What was wrong with him? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so off his game.
He’d just started eyeing the front door when Connor came over, brow knit with concern over his wire-rimmed glasses. How did he manage to look more put-together in jeans and a plain white dress shirt with the collar open and sleeves rolled up than all their stuffy colleagues decked out in sports coats or three-piece suits? “What’s the matter? I’m usually the one looking for a quick exit at these soirees.”
True, though in the last few months, Connor had finally managed to pull his head out of his books and become more social. No doubt he had Wes, his new boyfriend, to thank for that. Steve had never seen Connor so happy. And, well, he wanted to be happy for him, he really did, even if it meant he and Connor hardly saw each other anymore outside the lab. No more late-night brainstorming sessions over a bottle of red. Their usual Saturday morning beach volleyball sessions had dwindled to once or twice a month—although, judging from Connor’s still whipcord-lean frame, Wes was making sure he got plenty of indoor exercise.
Steve took another sip of his scotch, trying to tamp down a sharp pang of, what? Unease? Nervousness? “Post–school year exhaustion setting in, I guess. It’s been a rough semester.”
“I know, I know, and I’m sorry,” Connor said. “Between Wes and I moving in together, and classes, and buying the house, and trying to get the Noriyuki project finished, I left a lot of work on your plate. Next fall everything’ll be back to normal, I promise.”
“Jesus, Conn, stop apologizing. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have half a dozen patents.” Okay, that came out way harsher than he’d intended. After all, Connor might be the better scientist (oh, who are you kidding? He’s brilliant), but Steve was the one in charge of wining and dining potential investors and buyers—and more often than not coming away with a nice fat check. “And you wouldn’t have this amazing house,” he added with a smile.
“And all you’ve seen is the living room. C’mon, let me show you around.”
It was one of those great old craftsman houses in the Berkeley hills, all hardwood floors and sculpted wainscoting. The buzz of a dozen different conversations faded as they climbed the creaky staircase. Three bedrooms, the two smaller ones converted into offices for Connor and Wes. A bathroom with what appeared to be the place’s original blue and white floor tiles, porcelain sink and claw-foot tub. Freshly painted, with heavy wood furniture and plush throw rugs—a far cry from Connor’s ratty old one-bedroom in the physics apartment building near campus.
“Looks like we’ve both moved up in the world,” Steve commented, sidestepping as Connor tried to show him the master bedroom, then heading down the hall to peer out a window that overlooked the backyard. It looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with a huge live oak spreading its branches above a perfectly manicured lawn and garden. Guests milled around the small fountain in the far corner of the yard, chatting and puffing on cigarettes. He and Connor being two of UC Berkeley’s resident superstars—not to mention the country’s most sought-after innovators in 3-D optics— had paid off handsomely for them both. “It’s a gorgeous place. Hard to believe you’ve only lived here a few months.”
“Hard to believe you’ve never come by before.” Connor leaned against the wall, raking a hand through his ginger curls. “I was starting to think I’d have to throw you in my trunk and bring you over here by force.”
Oh, for another double scotch. “I, um . . . wasn’t sure how Wes would feel about it.”
“I wouldn’t have asked you if he wasn’t okay with it.”
“I know, but . . .”
“Just come downstairs and say hello. It’s his graduation party, after all. You can’t leave without congratulating the guest of honor.”
And he couldn’t escape by jumping out the window, either. So he stood there clinking the ice in his glass until Connor came over and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Steve’s spine went instantly stiff, a lightning bolt of surprise and strange euphoria zinging through him. “The past is past, okay? Besides, if it weren’t for you, Wes and I would’ve never met.”
No elaboration on how that had happened, thank God. Steve let out a shaky chuckle. Buying the kid for Connor as a birthday gift hadn’t been one of his more inspired ideas, but luckily for everyone, it’d turned out well.
They headed back downstairs, then down a short hallway to the kitchen, where Wes and a few of his classmates were hanging out, bottles of Bud in hand. Wes’s huge blue eyes locked on Connor, then flicked over to Steve with a touch of, what? Surprise? Apprehension?
What the hell did you say to a guy whose dick you’ve sucked? Granted, it was before Wes and Connor had met, and Wes had been peddling his ass for tuition at the time, but still . . . awkward.
Looked like it was up to Steve to break the ice. “I hear congratulations are in order, Mr. Summa Cum Laude,” he said, flashing that fake smile again. Was it his imagination, or was Wes blushing? Made him look about twelve years old, despite the stubble dusting his cheeks and chin. No wonder Connor had gone head over heels for this kid—he was absolutely adorable.
And a genius to boot. Just like Connor.
Wes’s buddies were slapping him on the back, but he just grinned and shook them off. “Thanks, Dr. Campbell. Connor and I are glad you dropped by tonight.”
Spoken like he’d rehearsed it a gazillion times. “Looking forward to seeing you back on campus this fall. Though I’ll warn you, grad school’s nothing like the cake walk you just finished.”
Great. He’d done his duty. Now he could go. “Enjoy your summer, Wes.” He set his glass in the sink and nodded at Connor. “I’ll see you at the lab tomorrow.”
He headed back down the hallway, and finally—mercifully—out the front door. Took him about thirty seconds to find his car, a candy-apple red Ferrari sticking out like a teenager’s hard-on among all the Priuses and Volvos parked on the street. Made it to the freeway in record time, though he was halfway across the Bay Bridge before he realized he was nowhere near drunk enough to face his empty penthouse.
* * *
A couple more drinks, and the foggy view of San Francisco Bay from Steve’s balcony started going blurry. He half-staggered back inside, through his living room and down the hall to the bedroom. Didn’t even bother flicking on the light, just wrestled himself out of his clothes and fell face-first into his pillow.
His alarm jolted him conscious promptly at seven, awakening a throb over his right eye at the same time. He hit the snooze button and lay there another five minutes until it beeped again. He was half-tempted to call in sick—after all, a headache (even a self-induced one) was a perfectly good excuse, right?
But there was that conference call with the Noriyuki people scheduled, and it wouldn’t be fair to make Connor handle it solo. Plus, he needed to get back to the gym. He’d been slacking off the past few weeks, what with his usual hectic end-of-school-year schedule, and he’d already noticed a few extra pounds around his equator.
C’mon, lazy ass—you want everybody to start calling you a fat, four-eyed freak again?
Never mind that he’d dropped fifty pounds and switched to contacts twenty years ago. Painful memories died hard. “All right, all right,” he muttered, rolling onto his back, and his morning wood popped up, tenting the front of his boxers. Oh, sure, now it decided to salute, when he couldn’t get it to do a damn thing with what’s-her-name?
He rolled out of bed and headed into the bathroom, cringing as his bare feet slapped the cold tile. Kicked off his boxers and climbed in the shower, stuck his head under the hot spray, and let it blast away his lingering wooziness. Of course, now his dick was practically screaming, “Hey, remember me?” So he soaped up his hand and started stroking, that tiny old twinge of guilt creeping in at the back of his mind. To hell with that—he wasn’t a pimply-faced teenager in Catholic school anymore, and touching himself wasn’t dirty and shameful. It felt good. So good he wanted it to last . . .
He slumped back against the tile and closed his eyes, his mind drifting. Sifted through the usual collection of faces and bodies in his erotic solo-dex, trying to zero in on the perfect get-off-free card, but it just wasn’t working. His erection started to flag, until suddenly an image of Connor popped into his head, smiling and relaxed, in that plain white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, those amazing well-muscled forearms sprinkled with ginger hair, that triangle of pale, freckled skin at his throat—
His orgasm flattened him like a bus, leaving him shaking, grabbing blindly for the shower rail to keep from falling on his face. God, he’d come so hard he’d splattered the glass door . . .
Guilt washed over him again, sending every drop of blood formerly in his dick to flood into his face.
Jesus Christ . . . Connor? What the hell?
* * *