Wes swung into the driveway, frowning at the sight of Connor’s car. It wasn’t often that Connor got home before he did, and he normally pulled his Lexus into the garage instead of letting its pristine white paint job get splattered in the December downpour.
Shivering, he grabbed his backpack and climbed out of his battered Kia, pulling up his rain slicker’s hood as he sprinted for the front door. It was chilly inside too. Goose bumps crawled all over him, under his jacket and thick sweater. What the hell? Connor had never forgotten to turn on the heat before. Wes went over to the thermostat do it himself, rubbing his hands together as he waited for the ancient furnace to stop groaning and hum to life.
No sign of Connor in the living room or kitchen, though the telltale creaking of floorboards overhead signaled he was in his office. Wes stopped to plug in the tree, smiling at the tiny blue and white flickering lights. A fake tree this year, since they wouldn’t be home on the actual holiday. Still, it wouldn’t be Christmas without one, or without the stockings hanging under the framed Wyeth print they’d bought to celebrate moving in last February.
His smile widening into a grin, he charged upstairs. “Hey, you big goof, next time remember to turn on the heater when—”
He stopped dead in front of Connor’s closed office door. Connor rarely shut his door unless he was on some insane deadline or dictating notes. Either way, Wes knew better than to enter without knocking.
He lifted his hand to do just that, but then he heard Connor’s voice. “It’s been a year and a half, for God’s sake. I don’t understand why they’re making such a stink about it now . . . No, of course not, but Steve, I can’t just . . .” Wes leaned in closer, practically gluing his ear to the door, but all he heard was the muffled tick of the clock on Connor’s bookshelf. Then came a gusty sigh, followed by, “All right, all right, let me talk to him. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
The squeaky old rollers on Connor’s chair made Wes backpedal with a start. What was going on? It wasn’t like Connor to be so secretive. And he’d be pissed if he knew Wes had been eavesdropping . . .
Another groaning floorboard on the other side of the door was all it took to send him bolting back downstairs. A fresh chill shot through him, and no wonder—he still had on his damp, dripping slicker. He’d just stashed his jacket and backpack in the closet by the kitchen door when he heard Connor’s footsteps on the stairs.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” Connor said, going over to start a fresh pot of coffee.
That’s it? No hug, no kiss, no “How was your day?” Okay, so they’d been together awhile now. They were settled. They’d bought a house. Did that mean seeing each other was nothing special anymore?
“Just a few minutes ago.” Wes toed off his wet sneakers and socks and left them on the mat near the furnace grate, then went over to the cabinet to grab a couple of mugs. “I told you my last tutorial was over at four, didn’t I?”
“Oh. Yeah, you did. Must’ve slipped my mind.”
Typical Connor—he didn’t know what day it was half the time. Kind of sweet, even if it didn’t excuse the fact that Connor still hadn’t looked him in the eye. Time to take care of that. Wes set the mugs next to the coffee pot, then leaned his head on Connor’s shoulder. It felt like a hunk of granite under his cheek. “Relax, okay?” Wes murmured. “The semester’s over.”
Connor exhaled softly, his arm sliding around Wes’s waist and pulling him close. Finally. Wes’s eyes drifted shut as he drank in Connor’s fresh cotton and coffee smell, carded his fingers through Connor’s ginger curls. Now if he’d just let loose the tension in those long, lean limbs of his.
“Sorry I’ve been so absentminded lately,” Connor whispered, pressing a stubbly kiss to Wes’s throat. He’d left the house before Wes had gotten up this morning, obviously in such a hurry he’d skipped shaving, not that Wes minded one bit. “These last few weeks have been . . .”
“Brutal? Yeah, I’ve noticed.” Still nothing about the closed door or the weird phone call, but it was probably none of his business. Connor’s lab had landed some defense contracts this past year, and he wasn’t allowed to talk about them. “But now we’ve got a whole month to decompress and catch up.” He rubbed his thumb over the smooth, warm platinum band Connor had given him when he’d proposed last summer. An honest-to-God engagement ring. “And go to New York to make this official.”
As if that wasn’t enough to make them both grin like idiots, the pot chose that moment to chime its bouncy “coffee’s ready!” fanfare. But then Connor pressed his forehead to Wes’s, his happy expression fading. “Let’s go sit in the living room. There’s something we need to talk about.”
Not none of his business, then. “Trouble at the lab?”
Connor gave a start. “Um . . . yes and no.”
Well, that was informative. “What’s the matter? You and Steve fighting over those defense contracts again?”
He sighed. “I wish.”
God, what could be worse than that? Connor and Steve hardly ever disagreed about business—or at least, not long enough for it to become an issue—but last time they’d come close to severing their partnership. Stomach tightening, Wes grabbed his mug and trailed Connor to the couch. Connor’s gaze lingered on the tree, but the cheery lights failed to wipe the anxious look off his face. “I, um . . . well, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just spit it out. I’ve been put on probation for a code of ethical conduct violation.”
Wes’s hands—hell, his entire body—went so cold he could’ve sworn the furnace had gone off. “You, you mean, because of us?”
“But we’ve been living together over a year. Nobody’s said a word about it before.” In fact, the entire physics department had come to their house for his graduation party last May. There’d been some tut-tutting from one of the stodgy old emeritus professors about him and Connor living together openly, but no one had paid the man any attention. “Why the big deal about it now?”
“Apparently, someone’s lodged a complaint with the chancellor’s office.” Connor’s fingers trembled as he pulled off his glasses. “And no, they wouldn’t tell me who it was. Only that they’ve threatened to alert the media unless the situation’s dealt with.”
“Dealt with?” Wes echoed. “What does that mean? Are they going to fire you?”
“I’ve hired an attorney to look into my options. Hopefully we can work something out.”
“What’s there to work out? The university’d be crazy to let you go, what with all the patents and grants and prestige you’ve brought them. You’re one of the biggest draws the 3-D optics department’s got.”
Connor cracked a tiny smile and reached for Wes’s hand. “That’s very flattering, but sadly, it doesn’t cancel out the ethics issue.”
“But, but we’re not doing anything wrong! You’re not supervising my thesis. I’m not taking any of your classes—”
“The administration’s well aware. But evidently, adhering to the letter of the law doesn’t matter. The chancellor feels we’ve violated the spirit of it, which means I’ll probably have to take a leave of absence while they iron out the legalities.”
And if this actually made it into the news, Connor would have no choice but to resign. That would kill his business and make it nearly impossible for him to find a position at another university.
Wes clutched his belly, wincing at the hollow ache swelling inside. All this grief, all because of him. “Would it be easier if I just left?”
Connor’s eyebrows arched. “When you just started grad school last semester? That won’t look good on your transcripts. Besides, it’s way too soon for that kind of talk.”
“Too soon?” A shocked jolt nearly sent him springing off the couch. “School starts up again in a month!”
“Let’s wait and see what my attorney says, all right? I should be hearing back from him after the holidays.”
Two more weeks. The soft tick of the clock on the mantel sounded like a bomb counting down. “That’s cutting it pretty close, isn’t it?”
“Even if I end up sitting out next semester, it’s not the end of the world. More like an extended vacation.” He gave Wes’s fingers a gentle squeeze. “I know it’s a lot to process, but—”
“But if I go, they might ease up on you. It’d show them we’re willing to do whatever’s necessary to resolve the conflict.”
“And put your degree on hold?” Connor leaned forward and set his mug down on the coffee table. “You do realize you’d have to wait until next fall to start at another school?”
Actually, he hadn’t thought that far ahead, but it was still better than Connor getting kicked out. “If that’s what it takes, I’m okay with it. I’m sure Professor Redmond will keep me on as his research assistant.”
“Not if you’re not currently enrolled. Those jobs are earmarked for Berkeley grad students.”
Something else he should’ve realized, but hadn’t. He shifted on the couch, absently stroking its nubby wool upholstery. “Then I’ll get a regular job and keep up with my reading in my spare time.”
“Or you can stay where you are and let me handle it.”
Frustration and anger rose inside him, his free hand curling so tight his nails cut into his palm. Why wouldn’t Connor listen to him? “But I want to help. There’s no reason you have to take the fall for both of us.”
“Take the fall? You make it sound like we’re on trial.” Connor sighed. “Look, this isn’t your fault. And you leaving won’t make any difference in what they decide to do about me. What’s important here is that we do what’s best for your education.”
“Which means three or four more years at Berkeley without you, and you’re the reason I wanted to come here in the first place. Besides, I can just imagine all the dirty looks I’ll get when my classmates hear you’ve been forced to resign for my sake.”
“Let’s stop worrying about what everyone else thinks, all right? It won’t do either of us a damn bit of good.”
Maybe if we’d thought about that—and everything else—sooner, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The words danced on the edge of Wes’s tongue, but he bit them back. Connor was already upset; the last thing they needed was to start yelling at each other.
Still, this was all too much, too fast. Wes stared down at his ring, the clock’s ticking echoing inside his skull like a struck bell. He couldn’t believe this. Everything he’d been looking forward to—hell, his and Connor’s entire lives—had been thrown into turmoil. But did that mean . . . “Um, would you rather postpone the wedding until this is all settled?”
“No, of course not! Look, Wes . . .” Connor scooted close, putting his arm around Wes’s shoulder. Always so gentle, as if he were afraid he’d break him. “This doesn’t change anything. I still want to marry you. I wanted us to run off to New York last summer, remember? You’re the one who said we should put it off until Christmas so we could invite your family.”
And how many times since last June had he kicked himself for insisting on waiting? How many mornings had he opened his eyes to find Connor lying next to him, and felt certain he’d wandered into a wonderful dream that wouldn’t—couldn’t—last?
But it was easy to forget all that when Connor wrapped his arms around him and kissed him softly on the lips. Easy to watch the tree’s twinkling lights and listen to the rain coming down in sheets outside, and let himself be content in this warm, peaceful moment.
“Shall I get dinner started?” Connor asked at last.
Wes nodded. He usually helped with the cooking, but tonight he wasn’t in the mood. Instead, he sat watching the tree and listening to Connor bustle about in the kitchen, while he tried very hard to think of another solution.