Chapter One

 

“Did you remember to bring your homework?” Theodore Walters glanced over his shoulder at his son.

“Da-ad.” The word, as usual, had two syllables. “Being at Grandma and Grandpa Anderson’s is lame enough. I’ll finish it on Sunday night.”

Theodore frowned in the rearview mirror at Andy as he turned right off Pacific Coast Highway toward the guard gate. “You know how your grandpa likes to help you with it.”

Andy peered at him through dark eyes so much like his mom’s—and nothing like Theodore’s brilliant blue. He grinned. “Just kidding. I’d never do that to you—or me.”

Was this kid only seven? Theodore smiled. “Derp.”

“Da-ad.” Two syllables again.

He gave Andy a wink as they pulled up to the inspector general. Theodore nodded. “Hi. I’m dropping off Hanson Anderson’s grandson.” Pretty sure they never gave the guard my name.

“Oh, yes, sir.” The guard bent down to look in at Andy and gave him a wave. “Have a great weekend.”

Andy flashed his best phony grin. “Thanks.”

They drove into the not-at-all-Laguna-like Laguna neighborhood by the sea. Laguna defined eclectic—small cottages and near-shacks next to multimillion-dollar homes. But in Ruby Ridge—not so much. The Andersons lived in the less fashionable part of the elegant community on the uphill side of the highway, farther from the ocean. Still, they paid a bundle for their view and short walk to the beach. “If Grandpa likes your homework results, he’ll let you go in the ocean, right?”

Andy sighed. “Sometimes. But I can’t go alone, so if he doesn’t feel like going out, I can only go in the pool.”

“Terrible how you suffer.”

“Yeah.” He snorted. “But you’ll come and get me early on Sunday, right?”

Theodore turned onto the Andersons’ street and slowed as they approached the big house. “You know I can’t come until after church.”

“Dad!”

“Andy!”

“Crap, I hate that church.”

“Watch your language. One visit a month won’t kill you.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

Theodore parked and turned to face Andy. “Your grandparents love you and are proud of you.”

Andy stared at the back of the passenger seat of the old Toyota. “I guess so. They just have all these things they want me to do.”

“Like what?”

“Like be good and be careful who I make friends with and stuff.”

Shit. Theodore looked up and saw Hanson Anderson waving from the front porch. Medium height, stocky, he was only in his early fifties. After all, if Esther had lived, she would just have been twenty-six now, a little older than Theodore. “We can talk more about this when you get home, okay? I think if you work at it, you might even have a good time. Grandma Anderson’s a lot better cook than I am, right?”

“True.” Andy laughed. “But she’s got to stop reading her romance novels long enough to cook something.”

Theodore barked an answering laugh. “Okay, grab your stuff.”

Theodore crawled out the driver’s side as Andy opened the rear passenger door, unfastened his belt, and pulled his backpack from the seat. Theodore grabbed Andy’s boogie board from the trunk and carried it around the car as Andy ran up the lawn toward Hanson. “Hi, Grandpa.”

Hanson Anderson leaned down and gave Andy a brief hug. Hanson had the dark hair and eyes of his grandson. Fortunately, Theodore’s blond hair and light eyes generally qualified as recessive, so the fact that Andy looked nothing like his father never came up. “Hey, Hanson.”

Hanson nodded. “Theodore.” He shook hands with that overly firm grip he maybe always used and maybe reserved for the gay guy. “Thanks for bringing Andrew. You’ll give us enough time for church on Sunday, right?”

Andy rolled his eyes behind Hanson’s back, but Theodore nodded gravely. “Of course.”

“You studying for your orals this weekend?”

“Yes.”

“It’ll be wonderful for you and Andrew when you get the PhD—a raise, tenure.”

Theodore smiled like he hadn’t heard those exact words fifty times before, and he only saw Hanson once a month at most. “Yes, sir. That’s why I’m working so hard at it.”

“Just don’t get sidetracked.”

“I try not to.” He forced a smile. When the fucking hell would he have time to get sidetracked? Of course, Hanson had very specific ideas about what “sidetracked” looked like.

“Sorry Grace isn’t here to greet you, but she has a new romance novel.” He sighed, then smiled. “Can’t get her away from her great literature.”

Theodore made a face that might say I know how that is.

“Well, thanks again.” Hanson shook Theodore’s hand and guided Andy toward the front door.

Theodore waved at Andy and walked slowly back to the car. Grace Anderson might have a new romance read, or her minister’s sermon might have focused on the evils of homosexuality that week. He released the breath he never seemed to be able to expel anywhere around the Andersons. In the almost eight years since that fateful day he’d spontaneously jumped in to help a friend—and radically altered every detail of his life—he’d become one damned practiced tightrope walker. Back then, the balancing act had been a fun challenge he and Esther shared.

Now his whole life depended on it.

He wound his way slowly toward the gate, careful not to speed. Why he’d agreed to late-afternoon counseling, he couldn’t quite remember, but he had two students to see.

He flipped on some Chopin and let it seep into his bloodstream like antistress pills. Such a weird feeling he got each month when Andy visited his grandparents. Kind of lost. Aimless. Sure, he had hella studying to do, but he did that every night, curled in his chair, sometimes with Andy sitting on his lap figuring out his homework. When he sat for his orals, he’d probably start quoting second-grade spelling instead of defending his dissertation on the modern romance novel as the inheritor of the tradition of Jane Austen. But that was how life was supposed to be. His life, anyway—all based on one decision made almost on the spur of the moment when he was eighteen years old. A decision made possible by an asshole named JP Rellico.

He stopped at the light at Pacific Coast Highway. The traffic going north wasn’t too bad yet, but the south lane toward Laguna already backed up to Ruby Ridge. The drivers had that Friday afternoon look of combined relief and weariness.

A rumbling roar sounded and Theodore jumped. Threading through traffic came a shiny Harley, moving with more assurance than such a big machine should muster. But the motorcycle definitely took second place to the rider. The guy stopped and put his foot down just yards from where Theodore waited, the booted foot attached to a long, long leg with thigh muscles that challenged the black denim covering them. Unlike a lot of Harley drivers, this man had no fat of any kind; his long-sleeved T-shirt hugged a narrow waist and broad shoulders. Theodore strained to see his face, but a dark-visored helmet hid it, although strands of shaggy dark hair escaped the bottom. Most of all, Theodore noticed the tattoos that crawled in beautiful winding patterns up the guy’s forearms where they showed below his pushed-up sleeves. Whoa. Just the energy of the rider screamed free. One of those tats had to say I don’t give a shit.

It was like Theodore could feel the vibration of the bike all the way across the street and deep in his balls. What would it be like to live so unrestrained? Go and do what you want and not worry about anyone else? His cock rose like sunrise on a summer day.

A beep behind him woke him up. Shit. Quit dreaming, idiot. He stepped on the accelerator and pulled out into the northbound lane just as the rider turned his head toward Theodore. Theodore’s foot faltered, he craned his neck to see the guy’s face—just a glimpse—and got the squeal of tires and another, more pissed-off beep for his trouble.

Hell! He stepped on it and sprang—to the extent the Toyota had any spring left—toward the college. The buzz of his phone made him jump again. He glanced at the screen and answered. “Hi, Mary.”

“Hiiii.” With Mary, every word chirped. Despite a PhD in astrophysics, her worldview managed to be unerringly optimistic. “How’s my favorite scholar?”

“Doing okay, thanks, dear.”

“You sound shaky. What’s wrong?”

“Just missed a traffic accident.” He neglected to say he almost caused it.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine.”

“Good. Am I correct that this is your weekend without Andy?”

“Yep, just dropped him off.”

“Oh, lovely.” She giggled. “Not that we don’t adore the little critter, but I have someone I want you to meet.”

Oh no. What would a Mary fix-up look like? “Uh, I’ve got a lot of studying.”

“Yes, and tomorrow you also have to eat. So you’ll be meeting me and Burt and our friend, Jimothy, for dinner at Laguna House at seven. Don’t try to weasel out. It’s not more than ten minutes from your apartment. You don’t even have to dress up.”

Did she say Jimothy? “Were you a member of the Borg in your last life?” They shared a love of old Star Trek episodes.

“Yes, resistance is futile. See you there at seven tomorrow. Expect good things. Bye.” She hung up.

Good things? What the fuck would he do with a good thing if he met one?

He glanced in the rearview mirror. That motorcycle rider sure looked like a good thing. Right. A thing designed to wreck his career and get his son taken from him. His pubescent fantasies—the ones he had in lieu of having had any real gay adolescence—were going to ruin his life.

He took the right-hand turn up the hill and, eleven minutes later, pulled into the Fairhaven College parking lot next to the English department.

He took a quick look in the rearview mirror to be sure his hair hadn’t turned into a fright wig in the sea air, ran a hand through it to fight it back, then gave up and hauled his papers out of the back seat and walked into the building. One female student waved. “Hey, Mr. Walters, you’re going the wrong way. It’s Friday, remember?”

He smiled and pointed toward his armload of test papers. She made a face as she stepped into the evening sun while he entered the more subdued lighting of the entry hall to the building. He could practically hear its old air-conditioning system straining against the late spring heat.

He bounded up the steps and down the hall toward his office—aka broom closet with a desk. Hell, no complaints. As a teaching assistant, he was lucky to get a space of his own. Of course, he’d completed his dissertation and now just had to get through his orals. Well, “just” wasn’t exactly the right descriptor. It scared him witless.

As he approached his door, Sean Rance came toward him in all his slick-haired glory—the other senior TA in the program. Theodore wanted to like Sean. Never quite got there. Sean carried a set of golf clubs over his shoulder. “Hey, Ted.”

Theodore slowly gritted his teeth. Only Sean called him Ted. Shit, even his mother called him Theo. Purposefully, he looked all around him.

Sean clamped a hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“I just didn’t see anyone else here.” He raised his eyebrow. “You know, like somebody named Ted.”

Sean laughed. “You’re funny.”

“So, headed out for a game?”

“Yeah, I think I can fit in nine holes before it gets too late.”

“Have a good one.”

“What are you up to?”

“I’ve got some student appointments.”

“Damn, man, you gotta learn how to relax. Have some fun. Find yourself a cute guy.” His eyes glittered with that sort of prurient fascination he seemed to have with Theodore’s homosexuality.

“You’re not the first to say it.” He stepped toward his door. “See ya.”

“Good evening, Mr. Rance. Mr. Walters.”

Theodore looked over his shoulder at the head of the department, Dr. Ashworth, walking down the steps from the third floor where the offices of the senior academic staff lined the halls.

Sean sprang to life. “Good evening, sir. Going home?”

“No, just going to get a bite before my faculty planning meeting.” He nodded at Theodore. “Heading back to the office, Mr. Walters?”

“Yes, sir. I have a few student appointments this evening. I had to pick up my son at school and take him to his grandparents.”

“Oh, I’m sorry you weren’t able to just go straight home.”

“I didn’t plan my time well.” Theodore shrugged.

“Efficiency, Mr. Walters. Makes everything possible.” Dr. Ashworth eyed Sean’s clubs. “Getting in a few holes, Mr. Rance?”

“Uh, well, I was, sir. But a student texted that he needs help, so I came back.”

What? Theodore stared at him. Wasn’t he just leaving when he walked up?

“Well, I’m impressed to see both our TAs so dedicated to your positions. Have a productive evening, gentlemen.” He glanced at Sean’s clubs. “Looks like an excellent set, Mr. Rance. You’ll have to tell me about them sometime. I’m an enthusiastic golfer, if not very skilled.” He gave Sean a slap on the shoulder. “See you in church.”

So they went to the same church? Maybe that made sense since Fairhaven was a religious college. Theodore shoved the key in his door and opened it. Why did he feel like someone had just shoved something into him—and not in a good way?

“Night, Ted.” Sean walked straight toward the stairs that led to the front door—and out of the building. Help a student, my ass.

Theodore flopped into his desk chair. Since there wasn’t a window, he stared at the wall. Damn. He wanted to teach because he loved inspiring minds and hearts to appreciate and delve into the magic and mystery of words. But academia didn’t live on brains; it thrived on politics at a level that made government pale in comparison. Only the strong survived, and when it came to political machinations, Theodore was a mere fence painter at the mercy of a department full of Tom Sawyers.

“Mr. Walters?”

He looked up. “Oh, hi, Petra. Come on in.” He had to smile. Petra Novak with her bright green eyes, freckled face, killer curves, and amazing brain was one of his brightest students, with a quirky turn of mind he really appreciated.

“You looked a millions miles away.” She sat in the not-very-comfortable chair in front of his desk.

“Yeah. I think I’ll be living inside my head until I’ve completed my orals.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “No way. You’ll ace them. You’re the smartest teacher in the department.”

“I appreciate your thought, and don’t say that too loud.” He laughed. “So how can I help you?”

She looked down at her lap. “You know I had to take that History of Medieval Literature with Professor Ashworth, which means I’m taking it from Mr. Rance.”

“Yes. Is it a problem?”

She glanced up, then back at her hands. “Kind of. I mean, I think I’m doing okay in the course, but I got a note from Mr. Rance that said I didn’t seem to be grasping the central issues of the material and that he wanted to talk to me about it.” She bit her lip. “He—uh.”

“What, Petra?”

“He makes me uncomfortable.”

Theodore frowned. “Has he been acting inappropriately?”

“No. I mean, not yet. But he, I don’t know, stares at me a lot, and he suggested we should go out for drinks to talk about it. I don’t think that’s such a great idea.”

“No, of course not. Have you spoken to Dr. Ashworth?”

She shook her head. “Rance is such a fair-haired boy around here. I’m scared to. I’m afraid they won’t believe me, or they’ll blame me for it.”

He nodded. “I understand. It’s just that he and I are essentially equals. I don’t have any authority to call him on his behavior myself, and if I go to someone, they could think I’m jealous of him and discount the story. In other words, it could make it worse, not better.”

“I thought of that.” She sighed. “Sorry. I should just keep this whole thing to myself.”

He sat back in his chair. “No. You did the right thing. But it’s possible he was just fishing to see your reaction, or, if we really give him benefit of the doubt, he might not have realized how creepy he sounded.” She gave him a look, and he shrugged. “Would you feel comfortable waiting to see what he does next? Then, if he persists, we can go to Dr. Ashworth together.”

She frowned a little but nodded. “That would be fine, Mr. Walters. I’d sure feel better if you were with me. Colleges aren’t notoriously kind to women’s sexual harassment problems.” She stood. “Of course, I think Dr. Ashworth is kind of a homophobe, so maybe I have it better than you.”

He looked up at her. Shit, news to me. “Why do you say that?”

She shook her head. “If you haven’t felt it, maybe it’s not true. I hope not. It’s just my mom met him at a church function once and said he was a real piece of work. All Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and crap like that.”

“Maybe he’s grown. I haven’t been aware of it.”

She grinned. “Of course, somebody practically has to push you off a cliff before you know you’re high, Mr. W. You do give people a lot of leeway.” She grinned. “And that’s why I came to you. Thank you for listening.” She left his office.

Well, damn. Suddenly that tenured position he dreamed about felt far, far away.