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One summer can change everything.
Hi, I’m Topher Carlisle: twenty-one, pretty, and fabulous. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. But let’s get real. Walking the fake-it-til-you-make-it road to independence and self-respect isn’t easy. Especially since my mom’s a deadbeat alcoholic, and most of my family expects me to turn out just as worthless. Oh, and I’m close to losing my college swimming scholarship, so let’s add “dropout” to the list.
My BFF has invited me to stay at her beach house on the shore of Lake Michigan. That’ll give me one summer to make money and figure out what I want to do with my life. So of course I decide to have an affair with my BFF’s married, closeted dad. Because that always works out.
Now I’m homeless, friendless, jobless. Worthless. Just like my family expects, right? Except there’s this great guy, Jace, who sees it differently. He’s got it all together in ways I can only dream of—he’s hot, creative, insightful, understanding. He seems to think I don’t give myself enough credit. And if I don’t watch out, I may start to believe him.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Spoilery warnings (click to read):
non-explicit memories of sexual and physical abuse, and references to parental alcoholism
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Why must you wallow in all your delusions?
Nail yourself to the cross at least once a week
Well you’ve got some nerve to lay all your demons at my feet
Far too used to expecting so much from me
Casey Stratton, “Sacrifice”
God, the lake looked good.
No. Good didn’t cover it. Awesome, amazing, some other superlative the English language hadn’t invented yet. All of that. I wanted to be in it. I wanted to cleave through the water with distance-eating strokes. But it wasn’t warm enough yet, not without a wet suit, and I didn’t have one of those. I’d have to spend the next month driving to the aquatic center up in Holland to do laps. I absolutely needed to be in top shape when school started again in the fall; my swimming scholarship was hanging on the line. It might only cover half my tuition, and none of my books or living expenses, but losing it would catapult returning to school in the fall out of the realm of “difficult” and into “no fucking chance.”
But if I could train here, where my eyes didn’t burn from chlorine fumes and I could smell honest-to-God seaweed . . .
Jesus, I was gonna love staying with Mo and her family, especially once I could get into the water.
Speaking of Mo . . . I turned back to trudge up the beach toward the blanket she’d spread on the sand. It was sunny, but also windy and cool, especially this close to the water. We were both in long sleeves and jeans. Michigan had a way of flipping spring into summer like a light switch, so within a few weeks it could quite possibly be sweltering.
“Quit pouting,” Mo said as I sighed in yearning. I dropped onto the blanket beside her and looked back at the water. “It’s only a few weeks, then you can freeze your balls off to your heart’s content.” I gave her a dirty look. She was stretched out with a book, her freckled face covered in a sheen of SPF three gazillion. She shrugged off my glower and closed her book, grinning at me. “So, what do you think?”
“I think you lied, Mo.”
It was my turn to grin. “You said your family wasn’t rich.”
She narrowed her eyes and tossed her head, the lavender and teal chalk tones in her strawberry-blonde hair flipping like a rainbow in motion. “We’re not rich. Just, you know, comfortable. We inherited the beach house from my dad’s parents. I won’t say we’re living hand-to-mouth, but it doesn’t make us wealthy.”
Just wealthy enough to have two households, a vacation home, and the luxury of never wondering how they were going to pay for tuition. Her dad was a tenured professor at MSU and kept a house in Lansing. He drove to the other house in Ann Arbor to be with his wife—a pediatric surgeon at the U of M hospital—and only daughter on the weekends and during school vacations.
I didn’t point that out to Mo, though. She rocked her white liberal guilt pretty hard sometimes, and got very uncomfortable thinking about the advantages she had in comparison to my clusterfuck of a family and financial situation. And hey, I certainly wasn’t going to complain that my BFF’s family was loaded, not when they were putting me up in their beach house for the summer so I wouldn’t have to worry about rent or food. I could just concentrate on finding a job, saving for tuition, and figuring my shit out.
“I got no problem with comfortable,” I said with a careless shrug.
We fell quiet then, the only sounds the wind and the waves and the screeching of seagulls. I was definitely grateful to Mo and her family for making this offer. She wouldn’t be spending the whole summer here with me; she had a job counseling at a summer camp up in Traverse City, and would only be home every other weekend, but that was actually a good thing. We’d tried being roommates briefly, and had discovered that we were much better friends when we weren’t in each other’s back pockets all the time. In the beach house up on top of the dune behind us, I’d opted for the cozy attic bedroom, with its own little three-quarters bath and huge half-moon window overlooking the lake, rather than the one on the second floor that shared a bath with Mo’s room. It was perfect. We would be together, and yet not so closely or constantly that we got sick of each other.
I was looking forward to getting settled in. Maybe this evening I’d set up my keyboard and practice for a while. I knew Mo wouldn’t mind if I played and sang a bit, and her dad wasn’t supposed to arrive for another day or two. Of course I might have to stop playing once he got here, even if I kept it quiet in my room. My family had always complained because they could hear me through the heating vents, despite the fact that I was down in the basement.
Mo shook herself, breaking our silent camaraderie. “Oh, I almost forgot. Your phone rang when you were down by the water contemplating insanity.” She pointed to the cheap Android I’d left on the blanket. I frowned at it, reluctant to pick it up. Aside from Mo, the only people to ever call me were my family, and that was rarely a good thing.
Finally I dropped onto the blanket beside her and sighed when my sister’s name came up on the caller ID. Thumbing the callback button, I made a mental wager with myself as to how long it would take Colleen to disregard or casually insult me.
“Family drama incoming in three . . . two . . . one . . . Hey. You called?”
“Hey, Topher. I was wondering when we could expect you in Flint, to stay with Mom for a while.”
“Hi, big sis! Nice to hear from you! College is great! Swim season went well!” That wasn’t really true, but whatever. “I got great grades on all my finals.” That one was true, but it wasn’t going to change the mess I was in now. “Thanks for showing such a keen interest in my life and well-being! It’s so touching to know you care.”
“Oh. Sorry. Hi.” Wow, she actually sounded embarrassed at being called out. I didn’t expect it to last long, though. “So, you’re doing good?”
“I’m getting by. I need to train this summer—next season is going to be important if I want to keep my scholarship—and I’m looking for a job to help cover tuition, but other than that, I’m okay.”
“Oh. Good. Good. I’ve been working hard, too. Trying to save up for a vacation this year. My new boyfriend Terry wants to go to Hawaii, and I want to go with him.”
“Hawaii sounds fun,” I said noncommittally. Her duty to pretend to care about my life having been discharged, I knew exactly where this conversation was headed next.
Colleen didn’t disappoint. “So, anyway, yeah. Mom. Helping. When can I expect you?”
I gripped a fold in the blanket in my fist. “Hmmm, I dunno. What’s the weather in Hell looking like? Any ice storms lately?”
“Topher, don’t be a dick. She’s having a hard time getting around. I have to work all summer; I don’t get summer break like you do, and running her errands takes up a lot of my time. You’re not doing anything for almost four months. The least you could do is come help out. I would really love to take a vacation sometime this summer.”
“Oh, hey, did I just do the time warp back into last year? Because, damn girl, if this conversation isn’t giving me déjà vu all over again. The answer was no then, and it’s no now.” I grimaced at Mo. “And I’m not doing nothing over the next four months, thanks. I just told you, I need to train. A lot. Not to mention get a job.”
“They have a Y here in Flint, you realize.”
“And yet the answer is still no.”
“God, you’re such a selfish little prick. This is family.”
“Your family. Not mine. My association with Frederica ended when she took a truckload of pills, knowing I’d be arriving the next day to find her body.”
“Not this again.” I heard her growl on the other end of the line. “Right, it’s all about you, isn’t it? She can’t even get sick without you trying to make yourself the victim. She had a stroke and collapsed and spent a day and a half on the floor nearly freezing to death, and you still have to make it all about you and your self-centered fucking drama.”
I shook my head firmly, even if she couldn’t see it. “It wasn’t a stroke. I know what I saw.” I rubbed my forehead, where a headache was beginning to twinge. How many times were we going to have this fucking discussion?
“It wasn’t a suicide attempt!” Colleen practically shouted in my ear. “She’s too fucking melodramatic to do it that way, okay? If she’d been planning to kill herself, there would have been notes and she would have been giving shit away left and right, writing wills, making grand gestures.”
I slammed my fist down on the blanket, grateful for the sand beneath that prevented the little tantrum from hurting. “That was her grand gesture. You don’t know the way she thinks, Colleen! She never played the head games with you like she did with me. Why would she need to leave a note when she could arrange to have her funeral while everyone was home for the holidays already? She was putting on a show, and we were all cast in the roles of the grieving loved ones.”
“She said she didn’t try to kill herself!”
“No. She said she didn’t remember trying to kill herself. Which is Frederica code for Yeah, I did it, but I’m not going to cop to it, and hey, isn’t brain damage a convenient fucking excuse!” Damn it, now I was shouting.
Colleen heaved a long-suffering sigh and pitched her voice lower, adopting the tone that said she was trying to make herself the reasonable one. “There are a lot of other reasons things could have looked the way they did.”
“She didn’t want to be lying there alone, undiscovered, eaten by her damned cats. She knew I was coming that day.” I was jabbing my finger violently in the air, like I could point it in Colleen’s face, and made myself stop. “But you go ahead and pretend you’re some brilliant forensic detective in your own little episode of CSI. Stage a recreation to prove how the way things look like they happened isn’t the way they really happened. Convince yourself that there was some perfectly good, completely coincidental reason for her to have had a sixteen-ounce drinking glass full of pills spilled on the floor beside her.”
I glanced over to see Mo looking at me with gentle sympathy. She knew the whole story, of course. We’d met the semester before that incident, my freshman year, and bonded pretty much instantly. When I’d held my vigil in the ICU during Christmas break, I’d spent a lot of time talking and texting with her.
“. . . But you weren’t there, Colleen,” I continued, clinging to Mo’s understanding gaze. “You didn’t see the scene. You didn’t find her lying in a pool of her own puke. You weren’t the one in the ICU that first night, with the nurses telling you not to wait too long before making the decision to pull the plug. If Frederica’s having trouble getting around, it’s her own fucking fault. She’s pulled my leash for the last fucking time.”
“Topher . . .” Colleen groaned, and I could practically hear her making the effort to rein her temper in. “Even if you were right—and I lived with her four years longer than you, so maybe I know a bit more than you think about how she operates—she’s sick. Okay? If she tried to kill herself, it’s because she’s sick. You can’t hate her for that.”
Oh lovely. Now it was time for a recitation from the Enabler’s Handbook.
“I don’t hate her.” I busied my fingers trying to pick grains of sand off the dark blanket. “Hating her would require caring about her, and I don’t. Not anymore. She’s toxic, and I need to protect myself.”
She was silent a moment. Then: “You better hope you don’t ever need help from the family.”
“Don’t worry, sis. I learned long before puberty not to expect anything from this family.” My mouth twisted bitterly and I hung up before she could take another opportunity to tell me what an awful person I was. It was the same old refrain, and I’d heard it all before. Topher, you’re so self-centered. Topher, you’re too dramatic. Topher, you just want attention.
Feh. They used those insults to try to make me feel guilty so I would do what they wanted me to do. I had to remember that. I was doing what was healthy for me. Protecting myself. And that didn’t make me a bad person.
I sat beside Mo silently, staring out at the waves crashing against the beach as I tried to convince myself of that once again.
Thanks, Colleen. Way to fuck up a nice afternoon.
Mo didn’t press me to talk. She knew I’d open up in my own time. I wasn’t even close to manly enough to stuff down my feelings about shit. I wore them on my sleeve, and yes, that had gotten me my ass kicked regularly throughout my school years, thanks for asking.
After a while, she asked softly, “What do you think your mom will do if you go see her?”
I scrubbed my hands down my face. “Same thing she’s always done. Try to make me as sick as she is.”
She tilted her head and looked at me, waiting for me to clarify.
“She just . . . ever since I was a little kid—and by that, I mean, like, six years old—my job was to comfort her and make her feel better, you know? And probably at least some of that was my fault, because I was just one of those really oversensitive, overly empathetic kids who would do stupid things like bawl in sympathy with a cartoon character who was being picked on.”
I picked up a handful of cool sand and let it trickle through my fingers. “So whenever she got drunk and went on a crying jag, or just got into one of her woe-is-me-everything-is-horrible-nothing-will-ever-get-better riffs, I was the one who heard about it. I’m the one who spent hours and hours crying with her, telling her it would be all right, that she wasn’t a horrible person, a horrible mother, et cetera. And eventually she’d pass out, and then it would be fine until the next time. And she’d just . . . suck me in. Every damn time. I couldn’t not try to make her feel better. I had to try to fix it for her.”
“She never got help?”
I shook my head. “Her late husband kept offering to send her to rehab, but she always refused. She doesn’t get drunk anymore because she says she can’t handle the hangovers, but it doesn’t stop the other behaviors. She’s just a bottomless pit, emotionally speaking. She doesn’t want to be reassured, she just wants attention and pity.” My last shrink had called that “narcissistic supply.” Like I was a drug dealer helping her get her fix. It was either cut her off or stop caring about everyone and everything so I wasn’t left wide open.
Mo nodded and massaged my shoulder. We fell silent again, and she drew me against her and let me rest my head on her shoulder while she rubbed my back.
“You know what really makes me feel like a selfish asshole?” I said at length, as the afternoon began to age toward evening. “There was a while there in the hospital when she was starting to improve . . . and I didn’t want to believe it. I cried when they told me she was out of the woods, and not because I was happy. I had accepted it, you know? Years before, really. Around the time I was fifteen or so, when she made a big production of telling me she had lumps and that she knew it was cancer even though all the doctors told her they were just cysts, and if it was cancer, she was just going to let herself die since she couldn’t stand to lose her breasts. That’s when I accepted that she was going to die. I knew someday she’d drink herself to death or kill herself, and, then, once it seemed like it’d finally happened, I was okay with it. I was fucking relieved. I just wanted it to be over with, you know?”
“I don’t think that makes you selfish, Topher.” Mo’s voice was gentle, and I found myself thinking, not for the first time, that she would make a damned good therapist once she finished her degrees in psychology and social work.
My eyes stung, and I wiped them on the back of my hand. “I wished her gas hadn’t been shut off the week before. I wished for once she’d managed to be a responsible fucking adult and pay her bill on time. Core temp of, like, eighty degrees, can you believe that shit? If she hadn’t gotten hypothermic lying there on the floor overnight, it would have been game over. That’s the only thing that kept the brain damage in check, and I wished it hadn’t happened. What do you think Colleen would say if I ever admitted that?”
She squeezed my hand without a word. Eventually, I laced my fingers with hers and squeezed back. After a moment I shook off my bout of self-indulgent moping and straightened up, trying to be a good guest.
“So, what’s the nightlife like around here?”
She shrugged. “Well, there’s a really good theater company here in town. I thought we might go see a show or two this summer. And I expect we’ll head over to the club at the Dunes at least a couple times while you’re here. I mean, you can’t tell me you don’t want to party and check out the action at a famous gay resort. Other than that, I suppose we’ll drive into Grand Rapids if we want to hit some different clubs.”
“Just like we do when we’re at school.” I chuckled. I didn’t know why I had it built up in my mind that we were going away this summer. I knew how close Saugatuck was to the city near which I’d spent the last nine years of my life. I guess it had only felt far off and exotic because I’d never spent the summer in a beach house.
“Yeah, well, this time you’ll be twenty-one, so that’ll be different at least.”
I snorted. “Only a week more. You know, it fuckin’ blows that you’re not going to be here to take me out on my birthday.”
“Hey, the weekend I’m back after that, we’ll rock the fuck out of this town. Promise.”
“Sounds like a good deal.” I gave her a wan smile and stood. “I think I’m gonna go lust after the lake a bit longer before we head out for dinner.”
She started packing up her book. “Okay. I’m going to go up to the house and take a shower, scrape off all the sunblock. Meet you up there.”
I helped her fold the blanket, then padded down the beach and stood with my sandals off while the frigid waves lapped at my feet. I imagined myself stroking out for a vigorous swim, fighting the tide. It helped lift my mood out of its abrupt downward spiral. What Colleen wanted me to do didn’t matter. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was here for the whole summer, and here was awfully damn nice. Over the next four months, I’d find a way to make money and cover the shortfall from my scholarship so I wouldn’t have to deal with relying on my aunt and uncle’s dubious, strings-fully-attached assistance. And in a few weeks, I’d be in the water and everything would be good again.
I turned back to head up the beach toward the house.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs that climbed the dune, a man was coming down. He was dressed preppy-sharp—stonewashed blue oxford shirt with well-fitted tan slacks—and he looked like Robert Redford in his prime. Only not quite. His bone structure had that same sort of chiseled definition, but the eyes were long-lashed and feminine, more like Tom Hiddleston. And the mouth was softer and fuller, like David Wenham.
So, okay. He was basically an amalgamation of every redheaded man to ever turn my crank (and how!). And he lived in a popular gay resort town, which meant the chances were above average that he might actually be interested. Watching him trot lightly down those stairs to the beach, I realized what my third objective this summer would be.
Agent Carlisle, your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to find out which of these residences belongs to Mr. Strawberry-Blond Hunka Burnin’ Love and convince him to do you on every horizontal surface—and against a few of the vertical ones.
I was so up for that gig.
He appeared to be out for a stroll, not coming down to lie around the beach. He flashed a smile at me as he reached the bottom of the stairs and slid his sunglasses down his nose, revealing eyes such a dark and sparkling blue they made sapphires turn green with envy. He had deep smile-creases in his cheeks, too long to be called dimples. Suddenly I wondered if my loose shorts were loose enough.
And he was smiling like he knew me. What—?
His hand darted out to shake mine. “Hi, you must be Topher. I’m Morgan’s dad, Brendan Gardner.”
Abort mission! Abort! Abort! Abort!
Seriously? Fuck my life.
I want you
But I can’t have you
And I understand it
No one is wrong this time
Casey Stratton, “Cruel Hand of Fate”
“You can stop drooling over my dad anytime now,” Mo teased as we drove back to the beach house in Douglas after having dinner in picturesque downtown Saugatuck.
“Sorry,” I muttered, slinking down in my seat a little. Good thing my complexion was dark enough that blushes never really showed.
Of course, that could also be trouble for me this summer, in a town where less than five percent of the population was non-Caucasian and only about half of one percent was black. I foresaw the possibility of being pulled over for Driving While (Half) Black in my near future. Which, really, was nothing new after living in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, where I had been one of five students of color in a graduating class of over four hundred.
But at least I wasn’t blushing.
“Come on, though. Really. Damn, woman.” I recovered and sent her a chiding look. “Give a gay boy some warning next time.”
She chuckled. “Okay. Fine. If I weren’t obligated by all known laws of God and man to find the subject disgusting, I could possibly admit that my dad is a bit of a hottie and—except for him, you know, being straight and married—would probably appeal to any number of gay men. So, you came, you saw, you salivated, now stop being gross.”
I sniffed and lifted my nose. “I most certainly did not come.”
“Ew! Topher! Don’t you ever, ever link that word to my father in conversation again!” I laughed as she shuddered theatrically, then let my head roll back against the headrest and looked out the passenger-side window at the whitecaps on the waves below. It was on nights like this that I felt bad for people who went to schools with three-term years instead of semesters. Some colleges wouldn’t be letting out until early June. But here we were, free for an entire month longer. It was a gorgeous May evening, still a little chilly, but mild enough that after dinner, we’d taken a quick driving tour and stopped at a coffeehouse for lattes. Then we’d gone down to the boardwalk and looked at the boats in the marina there on Kalamazoo Lake. Now we were headed home, the back seat full of groceries, a couple Redbox DVDs, and a bottle of white zinfandel.
Brendan—Mr. Gardner. He’s Mr. Gardner. Mo’s dad. Mo, your BFF. Totally off limits. Straight. Married. No chance in Hell, so don’t even think about getting too familiar. It’s Mr. Gardner and never anything else—was in the living room with his laptop when we got back to the house, but he closed the computer and helped us put away the groceries. Then he leaned against the island cutting block as Mo poured two glasses of wine and microwaved the popcorn.
“So what are your plans for the summer, Topher?” he asked, snagging one of the glasses of wine out of her hand. “Thanks, sweetie.”
Mo rolled her eyes and poured a third.
I shrugged, pondering the question as I accepted my glass from Mo. “I’ll probably try to find a job around here to save up enough money to reenroll this fall, though I imagine most of the seasonal job openings have been taken by now. It’ll need to be something that still lets me swim twice a day. My scholarship isn’t a full ride, and between training and classes, I don’t know if I can balance having a job during the school year, too, at least not without my grades taking a nosedive.”
Mr. Gardner nodded as if this were familiar information, and I wondered what all Mo had told him. Had it just been about the need to live cheap and make money, or had she told him why I was in danger of losing my scholarship? She had been the one, for over a year after my mom’s suicide attempt, to drag me out of bed when I’d spiraled down too far to get myself moving. She’d been the one to convince me to finally go back to my psychiatrist and get my meds adjusted.
Did her dad know that about me? Did he know that this whole mess was almost all my fault? Well, not really—obviously I hadn’t been well—but I blamed myself anyway. Would he be like my family and think the depression was a cop-out? That I was lazy? Hadn’t been trying hard enough? He was a psychology professor. He’d know better, right?
It doesn’t matter. We’re not giving a fuck what anyone thinks of us, remember?
“Your family doesn’t help?” he asked, interrupting my self-lecture.
“Don’t be nosy, Dad,” Mo cautioned in a singsong voice.
I pulled the popcorn out of the microwave, my determined disregard of anyone else’s judgment stamped firmly into place, and tossed a snort over my shoulder. “Oh, please, girl. Like I got any secrets.”
She laughed and inclined her head in a semi-bow, acknowledging the point. Twelve years of nearly nonstop psychotherapy had accustomed me to talking openly about deeply personal stuff with near strangers, which sometimes meant I lost track of boundaries and gave people more information about myself than they really wanted. Besides, if my family was going to accuse me of being a drama queen—which they’d done pretty much from the time I was able to talk—I might as well actually be one.
Mo handed me a large bowl and I dumped the popcorn into it, then met Mr. Gardner’s eyes to answer the question he’d asked before Mo had tried to warn him off.
“My mom’s sister and her husband were helping me. I lived with them from the time I was in middle school. But I’m not going to ask them for anything anymore. My family is weird about money. Anyone gives you a cent and they think they have a right to weigh in on everything you do from there on out, and I get enough of that already. I don’t really want to be accountable to people who consider me an embarrassment.”
“That’s my girl.” Mo slung an arm over my shoulder, squeezing as she dug into the popcorn with her other hand.
“Ah.” To his credit, Mr. Gardner didn’t look a bit put off by the turn of the discussion toward my being gay. Not just gay but, like, two steps short of a RuPaul. “They’re religious?”
“Not really, but a lot of their friends are. You know, the Grand Rapids area being the seat of the Christian Reformed Church, which is just about as conservative as it gets. I mean no shopping on Sundays, that sort of thing. I once saw a groom’s family up and leave his wedding reception because there would be dancing after supper. My family attends, mostly just because it’s the done thing, though. They’re not so much true believers as they are very . . .” I drew a deep breath, trying to figure out how to word it politely. “Image-conscious.”
It was a better word than posers, which wasn’t a very nice thing to say. And yeah, okay, I couldn’t help but be bitter about it, and I’m sure he could hear it in my voice. My senior year in high school, I’d endured a three-hour lecture about how my behavior harmed the family because I’d been seen leaning my head on my first boyfriend’s shoulder. Not groping, kissing, snuggling, or even holding hands. Just a moment when I’d nudged Matt for making a bad joke.
I shrugged off the memory. “They think I draw too much attention to myself being, well, me. By not conforming. They think it makes them look bad. So, my choices are to try to pretend I’m not who I am, or find a way not to be answerable to them. And sorry . . .” I gave him a cheeky grin, pleased that he was being so cool about it. “I just can’t help it that I’m fabulous.”
Mr. Gardner smiled and (oh Jesus, don’t look at the smile lines) gestured to the Easter-egg chalk streaks in Mo’s hair. “You know, I think the first time Morgan wanted to color her hair was . . . was it sixth grade, honey?” Mo nodded, smirking. “A really purple shade of burgundy. I can’t say Adele and I weren’t put off by the idea, and a lot of that was fear of how other people would react, whether they’d be unkind or unaccepting toward her if she deviated from the norm. But we knew we had to let her be who she was, and let her know that we loved her, no matter how she chose to express herself.”
Another time, I might have taken someone down a peg for the obliviousness of comparing something as innate and ingrained as sexual orientation and gender expression to a preteen’s hair-color whim, but damn it, Mr. Gardner was just too cute to snap at. Not to mention he was letting me spend the summer in his house pro bono, and from what I understood, he’d be here much of that time. Mo said he was taking a sabbatical from teaching to work on writing a textbook. So, better to play nice and not let the occasional moments of obtuseness get to me.
“Well, it’s good that Mo has your support.” I slipped an arm around her waist and leaned on her. “She definitely deserves it.”
Mr. Gardner sipped his wine. “It’s a shame you don’t have the same from your family. But it’s good that you respect yourself enough not to pretend to be something you’re not.”
Oh, Brendan, honey, Mo obviously hasn’t told you nearly enough about me if you think I’m anywhere near full up on self-respect.
I gave him a slightly self-deprecating smirk, and took a long drink of my zin before it got warm and bitter. “It’s more just giving in to the inevitable, I guess. I mean, honestly, I sashayed before I could walk. It is what it is, you know? Might as well own it.”
“It should be self-respect,” Mo said fiercely, giving me a shake. “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
I shrugged uncomfortably, leaning my head against hers, almost forgetting Mr. Gardner’s presence as Mo and I fell into that sort of exclusionary, near-telepathic best-friends communion. She knew that I would argue that I wasn’t ashamed, but that I hadn’t quite figured out how to truly mean it when I held my head up high. My entire life, people had been telling me to keep it down and stop being an embarrassment. So, I was still in that fake-it-’til-you-make-it stage, hoping genuine pride would come if I pretended confidence long enough. For now, I was relying on bravado and a complete lack of give-a-fuck to carry me through.
“Thanks,” I murmured, squirming out from under Mo’s arm. I met Mr. Gardner’s eyes as he sipped his wine, studying us. He looked like I didn’t quite make sense to him and he was trying to figure me out.
Yeah, well, you and me both, Brendan, I sighed mentally, draining my glass.
“So where did you live before middle school?” he asked as Mo poured me some more.
“Jeez, Dad, what’s with the Twenty Questions?” She juggled her glass, the bowl of popcorn, and the rented DVDs out into the living room. “Avengers again, Topher? I’m thinking Avengers again. ’Cause I’m really not in the mood to cry, so sorry girlfriend, but Les Mis is out.”
“That works. We’ll do sing-along night tomorrow. I’m never not in the mood to check out Jeremy Renner’s ass.”
Mr. Gardner paused in taking his own glass of wine—along with the bottle—out to the living room, ducking his head as his ears turned dark red. Okay, so apparently I’d found the point at which acceptance tipped over into discomfort for Mr. Sexy Professor.
“Sorry, Mr. Gardner,” I muttered, suppressing a smile and slipping past him.
He waved a dismissive hand. “Call me Brendan, and don’t mind me. Will I be interrupting if I watch with the two of you, or are there secret rituals taking place here to which I’m not permitted entrance?”
Shit. He had to tell me to call him Brendan, didn’t he?
I shrugged. “Fine by me. There’s plenty of eye candy to go around. Choose your fantasy fodder and help yourself.”
“Ew. Can you not talk about my dad ogling people? Scarlett Johansson may be gorgeous, but still.”
“It’ll be a challenge, but I think I can refrain from licking the screen,” Brendan deadpanned, placing the wine bottle on the coffee table next to the bowl of popcorn before settling into the chair where he’d been working on his computer earlier.
I laughed so hard I had to set my wine down before flopping onto the sofa, rolling and giggling. When I caught my breath, Brendan grinned at me and dropped a conspiratorial wink.
Oh, Lord have mercy.
That was it, I decided as Mo pressed play. My new mission in life would be to find as many excuses as possible to stay away from the house all summer, before I embarrassed myself by giving away my cute little crush on my BFF’s dad.
Your kindness is foreign and strange to me
In silence I lived far too long in the valley of sadness
Alone and feeling nothing
Will it be easy to need you?
Casey Stratton, “In Silence”
Given her druthers, Mo didn’t wake up before noon. I, on the other hand, was used to getting up at the crack of dawn for swim practice, and decided that driving up to Holland to work out while Mo was still asleep would strike a good balance between my need to keep in shape and spending time with her before she had to leave.
As I came down the stairs, I heard the unmistakable high-pressure hiss of milk being steamed. I’d seen the espresso maker the day before, but hadn’t truly realized what it would be like to have lattes available every morning without leaving the house. Suddenly it felt like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one.
“Good morning, Topher,” Brendan said mildly. If I’d been slightly less groggy, I might have been self-conscious at being alone with him after stumbling out of bed, but mostly I was just waiting for my brain to get it in gear. Apparently my little crush wasn’t so all consuming that it trumped the need for caffeine. “Coffee?” he asked.
I should probably have waited until after my swim, but I was too damn tired. Last night had been one of those nights when turning my brain off to get to sleep had taken a long time. I nodded eagerly, and he slid me the first latte, then turned to make another.
“Thank you.” I took a sip and closed my eyes in bliss. “Wow, this is really good. What—”
“It’s the beans. I have no idea why they’re so good, but they are. A few years ago, a colleague of mine let us borrow his time-share at a resort in the Cascades near Sisters, Oregon. Adele loves to golf, you see, and they have two eighteen-hole courses.” Sheesh, time-share golf course condos. I gave Mo’s assertion that they weren’t loaded a mental side-eye. “When we got there, we just picked up whatever beans were available at the general store, which happened to be from Sisters Coffee Company.” He raised his voice to be heard over the hissing of the steam wand. “This roast is called Black Butte Gold, and we all loved it. First thing we did when we got home was order more beans from their website.”
I beamed and went full-on coffee nerd with him, babbling about working as a barista the summer after my freshman year at college. I think his eyes glazed over a bit, but it was nice to talk to someone who truly appreciated good coffee. Mo—the Philistine—would drink anything that was infused with caffeine, no matter how vile.
“So what are your plans for today, Topher?” he asked when he’d finished his own latte.
I cradled my cup between my hands, soaking in its warmth. “I’m going up to Holland to do my laps at the aquatic center there, then hitting some places and dropping off résumés or picking up applications. I figure I can afford the gas to commute this summer if I have to, since I won’t have to worry about rent and all that; so anything between here and Holland is fair game, though I’d prefer something closer if I can find it.”
Holy word vomit, Batman. I shut my mouth so hard my teeth clicked together, and forced myself to stay still when the nervous energy tried to emerge as fidgeting instead.
“Do you want breakfast?” Brendan asked once I’d (finally!) quit talking.
I shook my head. “I’ll just make a piece of toast. I don’t like swimming when I feel too full.”
He turned toward the toaster, and I hopped up from my stool. “Oh, I can get it! You don’t have to—”
Brendan waved me off. “I think I can safely pop a piece of bread in the toaster without feeling overburdened by unreasonable demands.”
I flushed and sat back down. “Sorry. Thanks.”
“Not sure why you’re apologizing, but you’re welcome.” He set out a butter knife and the jar of peanut butter and honey spread that Mo and I favored. He must have been familiar with Mo’s tastes. “So, you didn’t answer my question last night.”
“Hmmm, what’s that?” Wow. He had really long, gorgeous fingers, the bones and veins under the skin really well defined. From what I could tell, his physique was nothing to write home about. Middle-aged, sedentary lifestyle. He probably did enough time on the treadmill to keep his weight down and nothing more. The hands, though . . . I ripped my eyes from them.
“You said you lived with your aunt and uncle from middle school on up. Where did you live before that?”
“Oh. Grand Blanc, a bit south of Flint, with my grandmother.”
His eyebrows drew down thoughtfully as he slid a piece of toast across the counter toward me on a plate. “Where are your parents?”
“My mom’s around Flint, too, but I couldn’t live with her.”
“Should I ask why not, or would Morgan scold me for being nosy?”
I shrugged, slathering the spread on my toast. “We—my sisters and I—lived with her until I was midway through the first grade. Then one day, the cops showed up and took us away in the back of a patrol car. It was pretty upsetting. I thought we had done something wrong. We stayed overnight in a group foster home, and then my grandmother picked us up. The second time it happened, my aunt and uncle took custody of my younger sister, who was only about three at the time, while our grandmother took me and my older sister. Back then, you know, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought we must have done something wrong for the police to take us away like that. But now that I’m older, I’ve figured it out.”
I looked up as the troubled expression that had settled on Brendan’s face while I related being hauled away by the cops shift to gentle curiosity.
“The neighbors reported us, see? Because we were running around the neighborhood on a school day. My mom—who’s been an alcoholic my whole life—was too hungover to wake us up and get us ready for school in the morning, so we just stayed home, which got us reported for truancy.” I offered him a thin smile. “After that we lived with Grandma, and I spent my weekends and vacations with my mom.”
He blinked at that. Cue perfunctory apology in three . . . two . . .
“I’m sorry, Topher.” He slumped against the counter on the other side of the kitchen. “That must have been very difficult.”
Great. So now not only had I spewed words all over him, I’d made him uncomfortable. I hated this—hashing it over again—but there was no way around it. Not without rudely dismissing Brendan’s attempts to become better acquainted. But I had spent way too many of my teenage years brooding about it all, and now I just wanted to be over it and moving on.
“I think it would have been more difficult if we had lived with Mom,” I finally said, going for the perky I’m over it and can now look at it philosophically approach. “I have a rough relationship with my aunt and uncle, yeah, and let me tell you, my grandmother is so not the grandkid-spoiling, booty-knitting type. She’s a real ballbuster. But if I’d stayed in my mom’s custody, I probably would have wound up dropping out of some school whose diplomas weren’t worth the paper they were printed on anyway, and working for minimum wage the rest of my life. And that’s the best case scenario. But as it is, you know, I got to graduate from a top-notch school district and I’m enrolled in college, so really, I came out on top. In a lot of ways, I got lucky.”
And oh, had it taken a lot of hours of therapy and Alateen to get to the point where I could see it from that angle, even if sometimes I was just giving lip service to it.
“Your father wasn’t in the picture at all?”
“Nope. Never met the guy.”
His eyebrows lifted at that.
I shrugged again. “My mom’s first husband, the guy she married at seventeen while she was pregnant with my older sister, was in jail when I was conceived. She remarried a few years ago, but she’d been living with him for twenty years, and they were only married a few months before he died. I never lived with them, so I still think of him as my mom’s boyfriend, rather than my stepdad. But my biological dad? He was just some dude she hooked up with a few times after going out to the bar.”
Now Brendan was starting to look uncomfortable, as if he couldn’t fathom a family who was so lower class. White trash, as it were, my own genetics notwithstanding. Knowing that seemed to make him uncertain about how to deal with me, because I might as well be from a different planet. His parents had left him a beach house. His wife had gone to med school. He was a PhD. There was no way he was the first person on his family tree to be well-off.
Maybe he was starting to think I was too trashy to be hanging around his daughter. Shit, why had I blurted out my whole life story to him? I never knew when I was turning people off, and they were too polite to be obvious about how weirded out they were by me, but I knew they must be thinking it, which of course made me feel paranoid because I worried that they weren’t being honest with me, and that they really didn’t like me that much, and and and . . .
Yanking myself out of the sudden mental flail, I sprang up from my stool and practically scurried across the kitchen to load my plate and cup in the dishwasher, not daring to look at him.
“I’d better go do my swim. Thanks for the coffee,” I murmured, and beat a hasty retreat.
As I went down the driveway, I wondered when I was actually going to mean what I said about not caring what people thought of me.
When dreams are sent into a broken sky
They’ve got no chance to fly
And I’ve dreamed away my life
Casey Stratton, “Broken Sky”
Oh gosh. The latest coffeehouse Mo and I tried had a piano. Apparently, they had live music on the weekends. I stared at it yearningly while we waited for our coffees. Yeah, I had my cheap keyboard, but a piano was so much better.
Mo nudged me. “Why don’t you go play?”
“What? No!” I cast a self-conscious look at the crowded tables. “You know I just play to mess around.” Mo gave me her patented not buying it look, which I deserved. I didn’t play to mess around. But I hadn’t had a lesson since the sixth grade, and I needed practice if I wanted to remember how to play. I needed to keep teaching myself. But my own family hadn’t appreciated hearing me, so I certainly wasn’t going to subject a coffeehouse full of customers to it. “Besides, I don’t have permission.”
“So ask for it.”
I shook my head and grabbed my mocha off the counter, heading for a table. Mo was always doing that—urging me to go after the things I coveted but didn’t think I could have. I was way too familiar with that road, though. That way lay rejection and denial and disappointment. It was best not to encourage her.
After coffee, we went out for a walk around downtown Saugatuck.
“Oh my God, look at that!” Mo stopped in front of the window of a body art studio. “Have you ever seen anything like that?”
“It’s amazing,” I agreed, giving the design she’d pointed out its due admiration. I’m not a visual person; I’m verbal and auditory, all the way. I couldn’t even begin to describe why the design was unique, but it definitely stood out as the sort of tattoo art you didn’t see often.
“Should I get inked again? I think I might get inked again.” Mo didn’t really require an answer, so I didn’t give one. “Of course, I should probably wait until the end of summer. Do I really want to be taking care of a fresh tat up at summer camp?”
“Hmmm, good point.” I linked my arm through hers, and looked around highbrow downtown Saugatuck. It might be a vacation town, but it wasn’t a tourist trap. Aside from its popularity with gay vacationers, Saugatuck’s claim to fame was as an art colony. The clean, white buildings of downtown housed galleries, studios, and handmade-craft shops. They overlooked a boardwalk and marina loaded with pricey boats. The pristine town subliminally told its visitors to behave themselves and, please, do try not to be gauche.
It was more on the Martha’s Vineyard end of the vacation destination spectrum, as opposed to, say, Coney Island or Myrtle Beach.
Frankly, though? For my money, Myrtle Beach was a lot more fun. I’d gone there for spring break my senior year of high school with some friends, and lost my virginity to a college sophomore whose name I couldn’t remember now. He’d come from Pennsylvania or Delaware or someplace like that. That had been a good fucking time in every sense of the phrase.
But while Saugatuck might not be a huge party spot full of carousing people, it was calm and quiet, and I guessed that had its value, too. That was one of the reasons I was hoping to find work in town, rather than having to commute up to Holland or wherever. I wanted to spend as much time here as possible. Problem was, summer jobs were prime pickings in vacation towns. I definitely wouldn’t be the only one applying, and to be honest, I was late on the starting gun.
“Are you ever gonna get inked?” Mo asked, tugging on my arm to cut off my mental rabbit chasing and pulling me along to continue our stroll.
“I don’t know.” I frowned thoughtfully. “I definitely can’t afford it right now. And, I mean, tats are really cool, but I think I’d either have to be very drunk or very turned on to cope with it. No one reputable will do it while you’re drunk, and they probably won’t pony up with a handjob first, either. Besides, you’re not supposed to take them in the water and I can’t take time off training. Coach’ll have my ass if I get back to school and I’m out of form.”
Assuming I can even afford to go back to school.
I didn’t add that part. I didn’t think it had occurred to Mo that I really might not be returning to GVSU with her if I couldn’t hammer out the finances.
“Topher,” she groaned, switching gears abruptly. “I don’t want to leave for Traverse City tomorrow. I want to stay here and hang out with you and—I don’t know—smack you over the head when you get all defeatist and shit.”
“Gee, thanks.” I gave her a wry grimace. “But it’s gotta happen sometime. We’ve had a great week, and we’ll have another great weekend when you get back. It’s going to be a fabulous summer.” I wrapped my arm around her thick waist and squeezed, leaning my head on her shoulder. “You know you love working with those rug rats, God only knows why. So go forth and counsel. My defeatism and I will be just fine.”
“You won’t be bored? Or lonely?” she asked anxiously. “I feel like a bad hostess.”
“Darling, who needs entertainment when I’ve got that lake outside the front door? And if I need human company, I’ll just, you know, undress your dad with my eyes.”
She slugged me on the shoulder, hard enough to make my eyes water and possibly leave a bruise, which I fucking well deserved. But it got her laughing (while cringing), enough to quit asking me what I was going to do while she was gone, because I was damned if I knew. I’d been job hunting all week and had already checked around town. The most likely suspects for jobs already had all the help they needed. I left filled-out applications with them anyway, but got mostly the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” brush-off.
When I stopped rubbing my shoulder and complaining to Mo about the punch, she led us down the street again, heading toward the boardwalk. She was going to treat me to a seafood dinner, since she wouldn’t be there for my birthday. While we walked, she started throwing around ideas of what I could do while she was away.
“You know, you might not get paid for it, but you should see if the theater company needs any volunteer help. It would at least keep you occupied. Props, costumes, that sort of thing.”
“Woman, when am I going to have time to volunteer? I plan to be working, remember?” I shook my head, frowning. “Besides, I’m too big a diva for that. If I can’t be on stage, I don’t want to be involved at all. I’d be miserable, sitting backstage watching others doing what I want to be doing.”
“Well, find out what their production schedule is, see if they have open auditions.”
“Come on, Mo. You know I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’m lousy with choreography and I haven’t even sung in a choir for two years.” And I wasn’t good enough and would never be good enough, and no one wanted to listen to me anyway. I’d certainly received that message often enough.
“I don’t know that. What I do know is that you’re very talented.”
I gave her a quelling look, speaking as frankly as I could. How many times did we need to have this conversation? “No, I’m moderately talented. I don’t have the level of talent it takes to be great without training, and I never got the training to make anything more of what I do have. So it’s karaoke and shower singing for me for the rest of my life.”
I knew my limitations. My family had never let me forget them. They didn’t enjoy my concerts and shows, my style of music wasn’t to their taste, and if I dared to feel optimistic that I might actually get the part I auditioned for, they could always be relied upon to remind me that I didn’t get the part last time so why should this time be any different?
Mo sighed. “You’re doing it again, you know.”
“Coming up with excuses to not do the things you want to do.”
Oh. That. I looked back out over the harbor and didn’t answer, not that Mo expected me to. There was nothing I could say, and we both knew it. Talking myself out of wanting most things that meant anything to me was less painful than being reminded that I wasn’t good enough, though I could never make her understand that.
I squirmed, but we’d reached the restaurant, and the vinegary, oceanic smell of seafood surrounded us. Yay, distraction! I was off the hook.
I didn’t think Mo got how anxious it made me when she kept pushing me to go after something like that. As someone who had never been denied anything in her life, she didn’t understand that it was better to tell myself no than wait for someone else to do it. The pragmatic approach was definitely less disappointing, but it had taken me years to let go of my pipe dreams and get real. They say addiction runs in families. I might have dodged the bullet with drugs and alcohol, but cutting myself off cold turkey from my grandiose fantasies of ever being anything other than ordinary had been brutal.
“I’ll think about it,” I finally said, knowing I wouldn’t. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go through with it. I’m just too much of a perfectionist, I guess. I’d rather be nothing than be middle-of-the-road.”
She hugged me tightly. “You’re not middle-of-the-road, Topher. You’re fast lane, all the way. You just, you know, need to find the right car.”
I squeezed her back, sighing against her shoulder. I’d miss her. Something about the upcoming summer felt off as it hadn’t the day we arrived, and I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was all the discussion this past week about my family issues and my lost opportunities and my present situation, but I was now uneasy about the months ahead, like something was bound to go wrong. I didn’t know where that doomed feeling was coming from. Whatever it was, I had to find a way to stop it. I had enough to deal with this summer.
Maybe I just needed my meds adjusted again.
I pulled away, squaring my shoulders. “Come on, woman. Feed me some scallops before you dump me for two weeks.”
I can’t keep away from you
Even though I know what I must do
The cruel hand of fate, with you
Is slowly closing around this
Casey Stratton, “Cruel Hand of Fate”
Despite my resolution to spend as much time as possible away from Brendan and have a life, the first few days after Mo left, I really didn’t get out much except to swim and look for work. I signed on with some temp services in Holland the first time I went to the pool for a long, hard swim, and drove into Saugatuck occasionally for coffee, and to check for anyplace that might be looking to hire. No one seemed to be taking applications, but temptation and the echoes of Mo’s encouragement on our last visit to the coffeehouse proved too much for me. I ended up asking permission to use the piano for practice when I went in, and Aubrey, the gay and geeky manager, permitted it.
Other than that, I spent most of my time in my room, listening to music, playing my keyboard, catching up on reading, and searching for jobs online. When I made it clear that the sum total of my culinary expertise was ramen and mac & cheese (which was actually a bit of a lie, but I didn’t feel like explaining that my mom had taught me to make oatmeal and fry eggs and bacon when I was six so I wouldn’t have to wake her up when she was hungover), Brendan declared that he would cook if I did the grocery shopping and dishes. It was a fair deal and I jumped on it. Aside from meals, though, I was going to stick by my decision to avoid Brendan as much as possible until I got over my idiotic crush, before I did something awkward and made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I was actually tempted to act on it (though, true confessions time: I did spend a couple nights with my hand in my shorts, having fantasies about Robert Redford in his prime. Sue me.). I was just embarrassed by it.
What I should probably have done was get laid, preferably by someone without red hair.
And why wasn’t I out doing that, anyway, huh? Here I was, a pretty, pretty princess in full bloom, in one of the premier gay vacation destinations in the Midwest. Available gay men were practically jumping out of the water like hungry trout at sunset, and what was I doing? I was living like a monk on a private beach, nursing an awkward case of puppy love for someone upon whom I had no actual designs and who—even if he weren’t straight, married, and way too old—was my best friend’s father. Even if I did have designs on him, he was off limits on so many levels it wasn’t even funny.
So, seriously, just what the fuck was that all about?
I woke up on the morning of my twenty-first birthday determined to take one day off job hunting and treat myself to an afternoon of checking out the local scene, particularly the penis-bearing portion of it. It wasn’t Memorial Day yet, so tourist traffic wouldn’t be all that high, but there had to be at least a few early birds and residents around, right? Mo wouldn’t be home to celebrate my birthday for almost another week and a half, and I didn’t really want to wait. Besides, when I went out with Mo, I couldn’t really hook up with anyone without feeling like I was abandoning her. If we’d been back at school and I hadn’t been her houseguest, that would have been different, but as things were, if I wanted to get me some birthday sex, it was probably better to go out solo.
With that in mind, I packed up a beach bag.
“Going somewhere?” Brendan asked over the bowl of cereal he was eating at the counter. I decided not to eat a banana because, having psyched myself up to flirting and picking someone up, I’d probably end up deep-throating it in front of him (but, hmmm, hey, let’s pack one or two of those in the beach bag, shall we?). I opted for a cup of yogurt for breakfast instead.
“Yeah, I thought I’d check out Oval Beach for the day.”
“Oh, that sounds fun. A little cool still, but it looks like it’ll be a nice afternoon. You know, I’m getting a bit of cabin fever working on this book all day every day. If you want some company . . .”
My mouth fell open and I froze for a moment, unsure how to answer that. On one hand, my inner crush-stricken schoolgirl screamed a resounding yes! On the other hand, doing so would not only be a Bad Fucking Idea with regard to quelling my silly infatuation, it would be completely contrary to my purpose in going out to begin with.
Unable to come up with any tactful response, I decided to go for honesty instead.
“That sounds like a lot of fun, Mr. G—Brendan. But, um . . . I’m kind of trying to get out to, you know, meet people.”
With my dick. I left that part unspoken.
“Meet— Oh.” Enlightenment dawned. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little. Then his ears turned red. “Meet people. Right. Yeah, you probably don’t want me around for that.”
I shrugged a helpless apology, unable to deny the truth of the statement. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t mind hanging out some other time, though.”
“Sure.” He seemed like he had to force that indulgent smile. “Have fun, Topher. Make lots of, um . . . friends.”
I nodded back and shuffled out the door.
Well. That wasn’t a bit awkward.
After I spread my blanket, I left my beach bag lying on it, unconcerned for my iPod and phone inside. On most public beaches, especially upscale ones like this, there was a code of honor that kept unattended possessions from walking away—or so I hoped. Besides, it was still early enough that the beach was pretty sparsely populated, especially out of season as it was. I imagined more people would show up as it got closer to afternoon.
Determined that I was done waiting to experience the water, I stripped down to my Speedo and ran out to the lake. Fuck, it was dick-shriveling cold! Seriously. My efforts to get laid just might be jeopardized by the fact that it was going to be difficult to convince the Orb Brothers to creep back down out of my abdomen. Still, I threw myself into my morning swim, stroking hard against the waves until my arms began to ache with the effort of getting back to shore. Since I wouldn’t be able to time myself or track my distances on the lake, I compensated by just throwing as much speed and power into my workouts as I could. Then I staggered, shivering and no doubt purple-lipped, back up the beach to my blanket. I flopped down on it, rushing to dry off so I could pull on my shirt.
Digging in my bag for my iPod, I put in the earbuds and lay on my stomach, selecting one of my more upbeat Casey Stratton playlists—he was one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters—to pass the time until interesting, non-redheaded people began to show up. I listened and sang along to myself, rocking out a little because I was practically alone and hell, why not? I couldn’t quite match his range, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t determined to try.
I called up the e-reader app on my phone and scrolled through the books I’d downloaded. I’d developed a taste for erotica—porn without the pictures you wouldn’t want anyone to get a glimpse of over your shoulder, what a brilliant concept!—but I wasn’t going to risk a woody in a Speedo on a public beach. I finally chose the latest David Weber Honor Harrington book instead, and lost myself in the diabolical machinations of the ruthless, genetic-slave-breeding Mesans as they played the behemoth Solarian League against the plucky Star Kingdom of Manticore.
The day began to grow warmer as morning aged into afternoon, and the beach became slightly more crowded. It was Friday, which meant there would be at least some vacationers arriving to begin their weekend away. I’d decided to finish my chapter and then start eyeballing the crowd for likely prospects when a shadow fell over me.
I glanced up from my phone, but couldn’t get a good look at the face of the person standing above me because he was backlit by the sun. He wasn’t terribly tall; slender-to-medium build, too old to be a twink but not by much. His eyes and hair were dark, and tattoos were scrawled over his chest and arms. They trailed around his shoulders and ribs in a way that made me think his back would be similarly decorated. Rings and studs ran up both his ears, and pierced one eyebrow.
I pulled out my earbuds to find out what he had to say.
“Sorry, I just gotta ask what made you decide on the Justin Timberlake hair. I didn’t think anyone did that to themselves anymore.” There was a hint of laughter in his voice, and his eyes sparkled.
I rolled onto my side and propped myself up on my elbow, trying to get a better look at him.
“Well, gorgeous, the answer depends on whether you’re being bitchy or trying to genuinely strike up a conversation.”
“Definitely the second one!” He dropped down to sit on my blanket without asking permission, but I didn’t mind because I could finally get the whole picture. I notched my estimation of his age up by a couple years. Twenty-seven to twenty-nine, maybe. Nowhere near as femme as I was, but with a respectable amount of flash and sass. His eyes were so dark they were nearly black, with no discernible difference between iris and pupil at this range. I’d probably have to be face-to-face and up close to see that.
Which really didn’t sound like a half-bad idea.
“Topher.” I held out my hand, and he shook it warmly enough, adding a nice little caress on the release.
Oh yeah, he was on the hook and I had no interest in throwing him back without weighing him first.
“Nice to meet you, Topher.” He stretched out, leaning back on his elbows. “So?”
“The hair? It’s natural.”
“No fucking way.”
“Mm-hm.” I dug in my bag for my second bottle of Vitaminwater and offered it to him. Then I flipped through pictures on my phone until I got to the scan I’d had made for just this reason: the only baby picture that anyone had ever taken of me, aside from the ubiquitous just-born Polaroid from the hospital. I held it out to prove my honesty. There I was, dark skin topped with a froth of blond curls, at the age of nine months.
“Okay, so at the risk of being really tacky—and if I am, please accept my apologies and go ahead and call me on it, because I don’t mean to be—how does a guy with your skin tone get that hair?” He took a closer look when I slid my sunglasses down my nose. “Not to mention—holy shit—green eyes?”
I chuckled. The brush of our fingers as he accepted the bottle had made it clear just how much darker I was than him. In fact, he was way too pale for his eyes and hair, giving the impression that he was trying for a goth look, which it was pretty obvious he wasn’t. As for me, with my complexion somewhat darker than the whitewashed version of Halle Berry you see on the cover of magazines (closer to the real Halle Berry, actually) I couldn’t blame him for wondering, because the hair was incongruous—which was why I kept it. But his curiosity was just that: curiosity.
“Well, you see, when a green-eyed, blonde, white girl really likes a black boy with a green-eyed gene somewhere on his family tree . . .” I lifted my hand palm-up in an expansive shrug. “You kinda hit the genetic lottery. As for my hair, I suppose I could color it darker, but why?”
“Fuck yeah, why!” He waved off the idea with a flap of his hand. “Angel, you look damn fine just the way you are.”
“Or at least I do now that you know I’m not ten years out of fashion.”
“Oh, you looked good before that, I just couldn’t come up with another line of approach that wasn’t creepy or overused.” He cracked open the water, and I watched his throat bob as he swallowed. I really liked the balance his slightly square build struck between being too slim and too beefy. Compact. That was a good word for it. When he put the cap back on the bottle, he looked over at me, and about the only word I could come up with to describe the way his eyes danced was “devilish.” And he had enough thick, sooty lashes for any three guys. “So what brings you here?”
I shrugged, sipping my own water. “I’m staying for a while with a friend’s family at their beach house down the lakeshore, in Douglas.”
“But you’re here alone?” He glanced around, as if looking for some unknown companion to approach.
“Yeah, my friend’s working this week.” I frowned, suddenly feeling lame for being on the beach alone. “But it’s my twenty-first birthday today and I decided I didn’t want to sit around the house, so here I am.”
“No shit? Happy birthday!” He grinned, clearly delighted by the huge-ass opening I’d left for him. “Planning to party tonight?”
“I was if I could find some company for it.”
“Consider company found. First drink’s on me. A couple friends and I have a two-bedroom cottage this weekend at the Dunes. Come on over, we’ll hit the nightclub.”
Now it was my turn to grin. This was getting better and better. I trawled out a little more bait. “I’m in. I just need to be careful, since I won’t have a designated driver when I head home.”
“Stay with us if you get too smashed. There’s a sofa sleeper in the living room if you need it.”
I gave him my best flirty smile with a side of batting eyelashes. “Oh, please. You’re just trying to get me into your room.”
“Hell yeah, I am.”
Jace grinned and pushed himself upright, then reached over to me. His fingers trailed across my shoulder and down my arm. I didn’t bother to shift to hide my reaction to that. We each knew we wanted what the other was selling.
“I gotta run, angel, but I’ll be watching for you at the club tonight, whenever you decide to show.”
“Oh, I’ll definitely show.” I let the dick-joke innuendo purr in my voice and he laughed, then jumped up and jogged away.
I watched his ass as he went, satisfied to discover that my assumptions about his tattoos had been correct, and tried to decide—assuming we hit it off tonight—if I wanted to bottom or top.
I went back to the house to grab a nap before going to the club, because I really didn’t plan to sleep tonight if I could avoid it. It was too much to hope that I wouldn’t bump into Brendan as I went down the stairs, dressed for clubbing. I didn’t dress outrageously on a daily basis—it was my personality and mannerisms that gave me away to most people, more than my wardrobe choices—but tonight was special, so I’d gone for broke.
For all my determination to let my freak flag fly, however, I felt way too self-conscious when Brendan got a good look at me in a purple Lycra T-shirt thin enough to show my nipples, and painted-on black jeans slung so low on my hips that if they dropped a half inch more the world would know I shaved my pubes, because I damn sure wasn’t wearing underwear (though I had debated on a thong for a good long while, just as a sort of Easter-egg bonus to reveal as the clothes came off). My belt and low-heeled boots both had silver accents, and I had on a number of heavy silver rings and chains.
I’d gone all out and dusted glimmer powder over my cheekbones, and added a little bit of eyeliner and the subtlest hint of iridescent gold lip gloss. I’d even borrowed some of Mo’s hair chalk and added a few purple streaks to complement the shirt.
In short, I looked fucking fine. And with any luck, I was so getting laid tonight. So why was I very much Not Happy with the idea of Brendan seeing me dressed to kill?
He looked up as I passed by the living room and rubbed his neck, clearing his throat a couple times before asking, “I take it you’re going out?”
“Um, yeah.” I gave a bobble-head nod. “Some people invited me to meet them at a club tonight to celebrate my birthday.”
“It’s your birthday?” He blinked, frowning. Damn, did he look hurt? “You should have said something.”
Ah, fuck. It never occurred to me he’d want to know. Or maybe I just hadn’t allowed for the possibility. I mean, he’d been kind and friendly to me and all, but in an effort to make sure this crush didn’t explode into something problematic, I was really trying not to see his interest as anything more than polite.
“Oh God, I’m sorry.” I hastened to apologize, and came up with the first excuse I could to try to alleviate any injured feelings or insult. “I thought Mo would’ve mentioned it to you. If you want to have a celebratory dinner or buy me a cupcake or something tomorrow, I’ve got no problem with rain checks. Well, you know, after I get past the hangover.”
His frown deepened. “Will someone be driving you home?”
Once a dad, always a dad, I guess. It was kind of nice, actually. In my family, that sort of question would have been phrased in a way that assumed I would be doing the stupid or dangerous or just plain wrong thing.
Also, it gave me a good excuse for not coming home tonight that didn’t include fucking a near stranger I’d picked up on the beach.
“If I drink too much, I’ve got an open invitation to use someone’s couch. I’ll be sa—careful. Promise.”
“Okay.” He still looked dubious, and this was getting to be more than I wanted to deal with tonight. There was an unreadable subtext to the tension here, and I didn’t know if it was just my stupid crush or what. “If you do need a ride, call me. No matter what time it is. Morgan gave you her key, right?”
“Yep.” Another deep nod. It was wedged in my very, very tight pocket, along with my debit card, my ID, and a strip of condoms. There sure as hell wasn’t room in there for a wallet. I’d even already taken my evening meds so I wouldn’t have to bring them. Thank God my psychiatrist and I had agreed when I started college to find a cocktail of antidepressants that would keep me stable while still allowing me to drink.
“If I do come back tonight, don’t worry about leaving the door unlocked. But, seriously? I’m turning twenty-one. I’d say the chances of me not crashing out there are pretty slim.”
“Okay. Well, have fun, then.” He still looked almost distressed, his brow deeply furrowed and a funny edge to his tone. “Happy birthday.”
“Thanks.” I almost ran for the door, eager to be free from the awkwardness. I stopped and turned with my hand on the knob. “Good night, Brendan.”
“Good night, Topher.”
As I shut the door, I heard him clear his throat again.
[M]arvelously conceived and wonderfully realistic.
[T]he writing was amazing.
[H]its you hard.
This is my first Amelia C. Gormley read, but it definitely won’t be my last.
[S]tory of truth, deception, trusting, and healing.