Steve’s front door swung open and Connor’s stomach promptly bounced off the white marble floor tiles. Oh, fuck. Nothing like everyone he knew gaping at him to make him want to dash behind the potted palm in the corner. Not that it’d help, since he towered above the damn thing. For a long moment, he stood there staring at Steve’s wide, cheesy grin and the huge bouquet of silver balloons bobbing in the background, until the urge to flee overtook him.
He’d barely gone two steps before Steve latched onto his arm and dragged him back. “C’mon, Conn, it’s too late to bolt now. Get in here and take it like a man.”
“I’m gonna throttle you,” he hissed at Steve through gritted teeth, pasting on a smile that couldn’t have felt more fake if he’d drawn it on with a red marker. He let Steve lead him over to the bar, his shoulders stiffening and his gut tightening with every slap on the back he got as they maneuvered through the throng. “Make it a double,” he added as Steve poured a glass of Scotch. “It’s the least you can do after pulling this shit.”
Steve tossed him a sour look. “Jesus, quit complaining! You don’t turn thirty-five every day. Just relax for once and celebrate.”
“That’s what I thought we were gonna do—with a couple of steaks and a nice bottle of wine.”
“Like last year, and the year before. Don’t you get bored doing the same damn thing over and over?” Steve handed him his drink. “Don’t bother answering. You worked your ass off this year. We both did. Nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of our labor, right?”
Easy for him to say. Steve had always been the articulate, outgoing one—every bit as good a salesman as he was a physicist. With his easy charisma and blond, tanned good looks, he had no problem charming the pants off potential investors—or women. Of course, his snazzy new penthouse condo and candy-apple red Ferrari didn’t hurt his chances with the latter.
Connor knocked back half his drink, stifling a sigh as he scanned the living room, packed to bursting with the entire UC Berkeley physics department, plus a dozen or so other people crammed around the buffet table. Thank God Steve hadn’t sprung for streamers and funny hats. “Who all did you invite? I don’t recognize half these people.”
“I thought it’d do you some good to meet new people, mix it up a bit. Make a little effort, and you might actually get laid.”
Connor rolled his eyes.
“Stop it,” Steve added. “It won’t kill you to get out there and mingle.”
It might, if Connor’s quickening pulse was any indication. God, he was absolute shit at anything social. Talking to people he’d never met turned his tongue to spaghetti and sent a hot flush up the back of his neck. All he’d wanted was a quiet evening wit¬h Steve, discussing their latest project over too many glasses of Cabernet. Why the fuck was that too much to ask?
He opened his mouth to tell Steve he’d gladly pay him to make everyone leave, but Steve had sidled up to the pretty blonde TA he’d been trying to charm into bed since last semester. Left alone at the bar with weak knees and half a glass of Glenlivet, Connor downed his drink, straightened his glasses, and ventured into the living room with all the joy of a man heading off to his own execution.
The relative peace of Steve’s balcony lay at the far end of the room, but he had to run the gauntlet to get there. Fortunately, he got waylaid only by people he already knew—his department chair and a couple other professors eager to discuss the 3-D optics conference coming up next weekend. After exchanging some obligatory small talk, he managed to slip away, stepping onto the balcony with a grateful sigh.
Blessed peace and quiet washed over him as he lit up a Marlboro and stared over the railing at the twinkling city lights, the sky a gorgeous, deep blue with barely a hint of the ubiquitous San Francisco fog nipping at its edges. It was usually like nuclear winter here even in July, but for the past week or so the weather had been positively balmy. Might as well enjoy it while it lasted.
“Can I bum a smoke?” A voice jolted him from his solitary musings, and he swung around. A young man stood in the doorway. Dark hair, pale skin. Couldn’t have been more than twenty. Smiling, the young man wandered over. Not very tall—in fact, he only came up to Connor’s shoulder. But, God, he’d never seen anyone, male or female, with such perfectly pink lips, or eyes so blue they rivaled the night sky. Where the hell had he come from?
It dawned on him that he was staring. “Um, of course. Here.” His fingers suddenly rubbery, he fumbled in his pocket for his cigarettes and nearly dropped them trying to get one out of the pack. Luckily, the young man hadn’t noticed—or maybe he just had the good grace to pretend not to.
The young man propped the cigarette between those full lips, and Connor lit it for him, watching half-mesmerized as he took his first drag and then exhaled, the smoke issuing from his mouth in a long, steady stream. “Thanks,” he said. “I should probably quit. Everyone keeps telling me it’ll stunt my growth, but I guess it’s a little late for that, huh?” An awkward, silent moment, then he laughed, holding out his hand. “I’m Wes, by the way.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Connor’s eyes widened. “You do?”
“Well, you are the guest of honor.”
Wes had a firm grip and small hard calluses at the base of his fingers. Must’ve done a bit of manual labor at some point. Didn’t quite go with that sweet-looking face. Connor rubbed a clammy hand down the front of his shabby old tan corduroy jacket, staring down at his shoes. God, why couldn’t he have worn something a little nicer for a change? At least he’d remembered to shave this morning.
“I’m looking forward to your presentation with Dr. Campbell at the conference next week,” Wes said.
Knocked for a loop twice within five minutes. If he wasn’t careful, he’d end up toppling over the railing. “You’re interested in lens-free optical tomography?”
“Oh, hell yeah. The medical applications alone are staggering. An MRI scanner the size of a cell phone? It’ll revolutionize everything. In fact . . .” Wes took another drag, slower and jerkier this time. Almost as if he was nervous. “I was kind of hoping to work with you. That is, if I get accepted into the doctoral program next year.”
“You’re a senior?”
“Yup. Can’t wait ’til classes start next month.” He grinned. “D’you mind telling me more about your new project? I promise not to breathe a word.”
Tempting. Really tempting. Especially with this charming young man looking at him like he was God, Einstein, and Jonas Salk all rolled into one. Steve would kill him if he spilled any crucial details, but what harm would it do to drop a few hints to an eager student? The whole world would know about it by this time next week anyway.
So he started talking. Caught up in the excitement of describing his work—and the avid interest in Wes’s eyes—his anxiety melted away. It wasn’t until his cigarette almost scorched his fingers that he realized how long he’d droned on. “Sorry.” He dropped the butt and ground it with his heel. “I’ve been babbling, haven’t I?”
“Hey, I like a guy who’s passionate about his work. Usually means he’s passionate about other things, too.” Wes flicked his own cigarette over the railing and stepped closer. Close enough for Connor to feel his breath puffing slow and warm over his skin.
But when Wes reached up to cup his cheek, he froze. “What’re you doing?”
“It’s okay. I pulled the curtain when I came out. Nobody can see us.”
“But—” Wes’s lips on his stifled Connor’s protest. Soft lips that felt every bit as sensual and lush as they looked, his moist, velvety tongue sweeping inside Connor’s mouth. He hadn’t been kissed like this—or at all—in ages. Weaving on his feet, he staggered back to grab hold of the railing. Wes followed, refusing to break their lip-lock until Connor pushed him away. “Jesus, give me a chance to breathe!”
“Sorry.” Wes smiled, arm looping around Connor’s waist. “Can’t blame me for a little enthusiasm, right? I’ve been thinking about this ever since you walked in.”
Connor gaped at him. “You mean, you came out here intending to . . .”
“What can I say? I’ve got a thing for brilliant ginger-haired guys with glasses.” Wes’s other hand skimmed down Connor’s torso to his crotch, Connor’s rising erection cradled in his palm. A tiny squeeze, and Connor’s hot flush rose from his collar to his hairline.
When Wes began fumbling with his fly, Connor almost leaned back and let him do it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt someone else’s hand on his cock—and, God help him, the thought of those pink, pink lips swallowing him down nearly made him come on the spot—but no, he couldn’t. This kid was younger than most of his students, for Christ’s sake.
“Stop it!” He slapped Wes’s hands away, then yanked his zipper back up. “I don’t know what made you think I wanted this, but . . . I don’t.” Liar, his mind—and his still-hard cock—shouted, though Wes’s mortified expression served as a pretty damn effective bucket of ice over his head.
“Sorry,” Wes murmured, stepping back. “I mean, he said you . . .”
“He? What the hell are you talking about?”
“No one. I made a mistake. I’ll go.” He practically sprinted for the door.
Hands trembling, Connor lit another cigarette and inhaled slowly until his erection subsided and the night air stuck a chilly finger down the back of his collar. Shivering, he went back inside. He scanned the room for Wes, heart sinking when he didn’t see him. Not that he’d expected him to stick around after what’d happened.
Might as well have another drink or three. It was the only way he’d make it through the rest of this crappy evening.