TIMES like this, every tiny scar on Jesse’s forearms tingled, like they were trying to crawl off his skin. He rubbed at them, trying to calm the discomfort even as his heart rate soared and heat climbed up into his hairline. Those deep blue eyes captured and held his attention.
Well aware he was staring like an idiot, Jesse tore his gaze away from the big blond on the other side of the room and turned back to his work.
“His name is Aadon.”
The voice in his ear made Jesse start. “Shh!”
“Shh-ush!” Jesse scowled at the woman grinning at him across the library checkout counter.
She smiled her knowing, annoying little smile and flipped her book closed. “You are so busted.”
She leaned close and whispered the next tidbit directly in Jesse’s ear. “He’s looking over here again.”
Jesse shifted his shoulders, shrugging off her nearness. In the close, quiet confines of the library’s checkout counter, her breath on his neck was unwelcome. It felt like a hot gust, blowing the debris of old, sharp memories over his skin, and he shuffled a step away. He did glance over, though, just in time to see Aadon’s head lower.
Sarah shrugged and hopped off her stool. “Jesse.” She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “I’ll see you at home?”
“Whose home?” Jesse blinked at her, forcing himself to pay attention.
“Yours. I’ll order pizza.”
“Yes, again. Only way we can get half vegetarian and half carnivore.”
“You and your meat,” he muttered.
She leaned across the counter and pecked his cheek. “Puts hair on your chest. You should try it some time.”
She gathered up her books and sauntered out the door.
Jesse managed to keep his eyes on the work of scanning books from the return bin for a whole three minutes more before glancing back at the object of their conversation.
Aadon still sat in the nearest cubicle along the wall, his back to the sea of heavy wooden tables stretched down the center of the room. His head, sporting a glorious mane of blond hair, bent over an open textbook. The view Jesse had of his broad shoulders and long, lean back spoke of an athletic body not dependant on a gym membership for its tone and shape. His profile showed a prominent nose and generous lips, and long, thick lashes gracing eyes Jesse already knew were a clear, vibrant blue. He wished, suddenly, he could chase away the frown that turned those full lips down at the corners and creased his brow into sharp furrows.
He caught himself imagining his own fingers teasing away the frown lines, pictured himself plucking at the down-turned lips with his own until Aadon finally caught his face in a firm grip and kissed him breathless. The thought did catch Jesse’s breath and caused his heart to trip over itself inside his chest. He let out a soft curse, sure it was an image he was never going to get out of his head.
For the next half hour, between checking out books and logging those returned, he watched the blond man’s head bent over his studies. He couldn’t drag his attention away from the big sure hands taking notes and holding the paper cup from which he drank his coffee. Jesse should have stopped him from even bringing the coffee into the library, but admonishing him for something he did himself and setting that kind of double standard wasn’t the first impression he wanted to make. Trouble was, he didn’t know what kind of impression he did want to make. Maybe none at all. That seemed safest. Shaking his head at the thought the gorgeous man would even notice him, Jesse turned his full attention back to his task. Eventually, the soft murmur of voices from the tables and the background hum of the old fluorescent lights made him feel at home again. Beige and staid the library might be, but the smells of book dust and quiet suited him.
He’d managed to convince himself he didn’t really care by the time he worked up the nerve to look again, only to find deep blue eyes turned on him, a thoughtful look steady in their depths. Jesse momentarily panicked. What if he and Sarah had been talking too loud? Had the guy heard them discussing him? Shit. Did he know what Jesse was thinking? That imaginary kiss flashed through his mind again, and he flushed hot the way it stirred every nerve ending. Jesse swallowed the sudden, quivering lump in his throat and nodded slightly. Acknowledge. Be polite. He’s not a mind reader. Probably isn’t even gay.
Aadon smiled, baring perfect white teeth and showing dimples.
Jesse froze. Guys did not smile at other guys like that unless…. The lump was back, along with a creeping spread of heat rising up his neck and into his cheeks and curling down his spine to tingle in his groin. He looked away quickly.
A book shushed across the counter, bumping into Jesse’s fingers, and he whirled just in time to catch it from spilling over the edge and onto his toes. A man stood at the counter, a few more books in his long-fingered hands. Freckles cascaded down his nose, across his cheeks, and down his bare arms, even sprinkled across the backs of his hands as he spread the array of books in front of him. “Can I sign these out please?”
Heat rose further up Jesse’s cheeks.
The guy’s gaze flicked over to Jesse’s left, where Aadon sat, then back to Jesse, too neutral not to have noticed he’d been obviously spellbound by a stranger. And a male one at that.
“Uhh… sure. Yeah.” Jesse sighed. There should be a rewind button for his life. Or at least for this day. He’d have called in sick.
The man just smiled. “Don’t worry about it.” He pushed a thatch of red hair out of his eyes. “He’s worth looking at. My girlfriend is in his ethics class, and she barely takes a note.”
Jesse laughed nervously. There was his answer about Beautiful’s orientation. He took the guy’s student card to scan. Leo Quinn. The yellow bar across the top proclaimed him to be in his third year, the same as Jesse, but his campus was the Engineering University, as opposed to the General Arts College Jesse was affiliated with.
“I’d be jealous,” Leo was saying, leaning in slightly and winking, “if I didn’t know he’s firmly in your camp.”
“’Scuse me?” Jesse’s head shot up in alarm. He found himself once again the focus of those very blue eyes. Aadon was watching him, a slightly shocked look on his face.
The man at the counter waved a hand dismissively, drawing Jesse’s horrified attention back to him. “It’s all good, dude.”
“Right.” Trying to hide the blush behind the plastic rim of his coffee cup, Jesse sipped at the cold brew as he handed the card back. He picked up one of the books. At least his hands didn’t shake. Carefully, he damped the flash of panic and set the book down again. “That obvious, am I?” He didn’t much care if people knew he was gay. He didn’t hide it. But this was hardly a conversation he wanted to be having with Aadon watching him so closely.
Leo smiled and leaned closer to Jesse, offering a wink and a huge grin. “Aadon and I go back a long way, and he hasn’t fallen for a straight guy since we were thirteen and he tried to get me to pull his taffy.”
Jesse almost snorted coffee out his nose. “Pull his taffy? Now there’s one I haven’t heard before.”
Leo grinned and held out his hand. “I’m Leo, by the way.”
Jesse pointed at the card still sitting on the counter and nodded. Heavy calluses on Leo’s palm made his firm grip seem that much harder. Jesse pulled his hand free quickly. “Jesse.”
“Oh, I know.”
Jesse blinked in surprise. “You do?” He hid new discomfort by concentrating on checking out Leo’s stack of books. The rhythmic beep of the computer scanner served to calm his nerves some with its familiarity. Still. People shouldn’t know who he was. He was careful that people didn’t know who he was. He’d come to school halfway across the country so people didn’t know who he was.
Leo smiled, and Jesse found the expression less than comforting. “I do.” He tilted his head in Aadon’s direction, tossed a hank of red hair out of his eyes, and grinned. “He’s had you under observation for a while now.”
“Shithead,” Aadon muttered from right behind Leo.
Jesse dropped the book he was holding. “He has? You have?” Shit, shit, shit!
“You sound surprised,” Aadon drawled, enthralled by Jesse’s obvious shock, but not amused at how Leo had put him on the spot. He’d kick his ass for that, later.
“I—” Jesse didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing for a moment. When the silence stretched way past awkward, he mumbled: “Not like we’re quite in the same league.” He squeezed his eyes closed in belated realization that sounded pathetic. “College. Not in the same college,” he muttered. Best let Aadon know now he wasn’t expecting anything to come from Leo thrusting them into this ridiculously awkward situation.
Leo flicked his eyes from Jesse’s face down his body and back up again. “I don’t know what league you think you’re in, but I promise, even I can see what Aadon sees, so I would hardly count myself out of the game if I were you. Besides, you have that whole”—he waggled his fingers in the air—“mysterious never-seen-with-a-boyfriend thing going on, which is plenty to catch Aadon’s attention all by itself.”
“Leo! Shut it!”
Leo laughed, picked up his books, and grinned at them both.
Jesse couldn’t catch his breath. His chest tightened, and he blindly leaned back on the far counter, away from the other men. How did they know he didn’t have a boyfriend? How did they know he even wanted one?
Backing away from the counter, loaded down with books and that huge grin on his face, Leo just shrugged. “All I know?” he said to Jesse. “I plan on seeing a lot more of you before the semester’s out.”
Aadon smacked Leo on the back of the head as the other man passed. “Asshole.”
Leo just smirked at him. “Stop procrastinating, dude.”
Leo laughed, glanced at Jesse, and snickered even harder before dodging another blow from Aadon. “Later!”
Jesse watched the door swing closed behind him. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
“You all right?” Aadon asked, concern bubbling up at the pale cast to Jesse’s features.
Jesse nodded. Perfect first impression. Have a panic attack at the thought he might talk to you. Excellent.
“Hello, Aadon.” Out of nowhere, Jesse’s boss appeared, her sharp tone clipping the words off. “I see you’ve taken to studying on weekends too, then? This is the third weekend in a row.” One of her eyebrows rose above the cold metal rim of her glasses, though she didn’t actually look up from the books she was sorting. “I thought you were strictly a weeknight researcher.”
“Unlike you, Miss Stathopoulos, lovely as you are, I need my beauty sleep.” He nodded in Jesse’s direction. “I see you have new help.”
Stathopoulos barely acknowledged the flippant flattery. “He’s coming along, I suppose. Jesse, dear, go in the back and fetch the new magazines, please.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Grateful for the offered escape, Jesse hurried off.
“Really, Thea? You going to be Jesse’s aunt too, now?”
“Leave him be, Sobrino.” She waved her hand in his face even while she was already turning her attention to the books. “Nephew. You, my sobrino make all the pretty ones blush,” she muttered.
“Is he all right?” Aadon watched Jesse’s hastily retreating back until he disappeared through the door to the back offices before turning his gaze back to his aunt.
The old librarian peered at Aadon over the rims of her glasses. “A panic attack, Sobrino. Or damn near. Do not get in his business unless you mean it. You understand?”
“Since when do you care so very much about your staff, Thea?”
She opened each of Aadon’s books, scanning them one at a time, not taking her eyes from the bar codes, except to glance at the computer screen to her right.
“I don’t know his story, Aadon. I only know….”
“What?” He leaned over the counter, trying to get his aunt to look up at him. “What do you know, Thea?”
“He’s careful about everything, Aadon. A person like that?” She shook her head. “Someone that protective of themselves has been hurt, and you,”—she finally looked at him and poked her scanner in his direction, the bright light in her eye making him flinch—“you don’t have a long record of being careful yourself.”
“So… what?” Aadon glanced toward the door to the back room, more intrigued than ever. “He’s fragile or something?”
“Or something.” She sighed and set the books down, finally looking at her nephew for real. “I don’t know, Aadon. He’s never said anything to me about it, but he reminds me too much of Ricky. Not”—she held up a hand when Aadon would have said something—“the drugs or any of that. He’s not gone down the same road your brother has, but maybe he comes from some place similar. Just… he’s got walls up, and he isn’t about to knock them down or jump over them for just anyone. I can see that much.”
Aadon gazed at the closed office door. If anyone knew about watching the world from behind a wall of “careful” and “not worth the risk” it was his aunt. He knew she was telling him not to get involved. He knew she was. But if he was like Ricky, if something had happened to Jesse like what happened to Ricky to make his brother close off, turn to drugs, ruin himself over it, maybe Aadon could help. Maybe, knowing how it could go, he could make whatever it was better for Jesse before it got any worse.
Across the counter from him, his aunt shook her head. “How you can be your father’s son, I will never know.”
Aadon frowned. “What does that mean?”
She had already turned her attention back to completing his scan out. “A smart man would walk away now.”
Aadon grinned. “I am the smartest person you ever met, Thea. You’ve said so yourself.”
“And I take it back,” she muttered.
Aadon leaned over the desk and kissed her forehead. “No you don’t.” He gathered up the books she shoved at him. “Don’t worry. I promise I won’t get my heart broken.” With one last look at the sealed door, he flashed another grin and sauntered out, pretending not to hear her last whispered, Not your heart I’m worried about. He wasn’t an asshole. He had no intention of breaking anything except maybe Leo’s head for putting Jesse on the spot like that. But then again… maybe not that, either. Now, at least, the ball was rolling, and he was past the odd paralysis that had kept him from speaking up sooner. This was good. This could be good. He smiled to himself and turned toward Leo’s and the free dinner his best friend’s girlfriend was sure to have almost on the table by now.