Chapter 1

December

 

ZEB ARANEDA tried to concentrate on his roommate’s queer tutorial. With gay dads who led by example—and his own out and proud status—Luca Dilorio knew a lot about being in a same-sex relationship, and felt duty bound to teach him the basics.

Because Zeb was clueless.

And a recently hatched queer.

In love with Alex Boulet, the stunning trans guy who graced this month’s cover of GQ magazine.

“Dude, are you listening?” Luca asked when Zeb didn’t respond.

“Sorry—what?”

“Repeat after me so I’ll know you understand.”

“Quit it,” Zeb grumbled. “I might be new at this relationship, but I’m a smart guy.”

“In case you need a refresher,” Luca persisted. “Rule number one, no PDAs, rule number….” Zeb sighed and allowed Luca’s words of wisdom to trail off to another section of his brain. Great at compartmentalizing, Zeb tucked away today’s lessons, having every intention of revisiting at a later date.

He realized knowledge was crucial to the success of his romance, but right then, he couldn’t focus for shit. All he wanted to do was pack his bag and catch the bus to Manhattan to start Christmas Break with his lover.

Luca and his boyfriend, Chyna, Alex’s roommate, were flying off to Grand Turk Island to meet up with assorted family members. Which meant he and Alex would have the entire apartment to themselves—for seven days!

Zeb’s friendship with Luca had gotten off to a rocky start back in late August when they’d first laid eyes on each other. He could still remember the outrage in Luca’s voice.

“Dude! You’ll have to downsize. There’s no room for all your crap.”

“Right,” Zeb agreed. “Poor planning on my part.”

“I’m Luca,” he offered, sinking down on a bed. “We’re stuck with each other for a year, so let’s try and make the most of it. Why not start with some ground rules?”

“My name is Zeb, and rules work for me.”

“Good,” Luca said absently, glancing at his phone. He tossed it to the side. “Da fuck.”

“What’s wrong?” Zeb asked. “Girlfriend troubles already?”

“Boyfriend,” Luca clarified. “He’s not picking up his phone or answering my texts.”

Zeb blinked and did his best not to react to the revelation that Luca was gay. It was the last thing he’d expected but a huge relief. Maybe he’d finally get some answers to the questions that had been plaguing him for a while.

“Where is he?” Zeb asked.

“Manhattan.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“Modeling.”

“Wow.” Zeb approved. “Sure beats college.”

Luca studied Zeb. “What are you doing here if you’d rather be somewhere else?”

“My parents decided I was going to be an architect the minute I was born. No one bothered to ask if that’s what I wanted.”

“That blows,” Luca said sympathetically.

“Back home it’s like that,” Zeb explained.

“Where’s home?”

“The Philippines.”

“My mom’s Filipino,” Luca mentioned. “She can be a bit Napoleonic at times. Drives my dad nuts.”

Zeb hooted. “Are they still married?”

“They never were.”

“Ouch. How come?”

“My dad’s gay,” Luca said evenly. “I was an accident, but he says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.”

“He can’t be that gay if he got it up for a chick.”

“No, he’s definitely gay. What happened with my mom was a one-off.”

“I can’t believe you’re so accepting,” Zeb commented.

Luca squinted. “Do you have a problem with gays? Tell me now and I’ll request a new roommate.”

“No, not at all,” Zeb said quickly. “I’m totally cool with your orientation, but my family’s strictly Catholic and they frown on same-sex love. I admire your self-confidence.”

“I’ve had my own run-ins with the Catholic Church, and I can tell you they’re full of shit. Love is love. Period. You’ll never hear me complain about my childhood. I’ve got the two best dads in the world, and my mom and her husband—who also happens to be my dad’s brother—have given me a great life.”

Zeb’s eyes widened in shock. “Did you just say your dad’s brother is married to your mother?”

Luca smiled. “Yup.”

Zeb leaned forward. “So he’s your uncle/stepfather?”

“Which part of this aren’t you getting?” Luca asked.

“No blood was spilled?”

“Nah,” Luca said. “It’s ancient history. We’re one big, happy blended family now. I have a half sister who’s also my first cousin.”

“Dude, that’s convoluted as hell.”

Luca snorted. “How about I unravel the mysteries of my family tree over pizza? It’ll take my mind off Chyna for a bit.”

Zeb still had a hard time figuring out Luca’s intricate family dynamic. As days turned into weeks, and more info was shared, a solid friendship was born. Perhaps it was because Luca was half Filipino himself and understood parts of Zeb’s culture most strangers found perplexing and somewhat annoying. Like Zeb’s complete lack of basic survival skills. When he first arrived at Cornell, he had no idea how to use a washing machine or dryer.

“Dude, you’re clueless,” Luca remarked the first time he watched Zeb frowning at his pile of formerly white undershirts and briefs. They’d turned an ugly shade of gray after he’d washed them with several pairs of black jeans. The jeans themselves were dotted with white lint.

“Am I going to have to buy new underwear?” Zeb asked plaintively. “Most of this stuff is brand-new. And those are Diesel pants!”

“Next time, separate the whites from the darks,” Luca advised. “We can probably salvage your underwear with bleach, or you can go commando.”

“Hell no! I don’t want my dick caught in the zipper.”

“Yeah, you’d end up in the ER for sure,” Luca predicted, shaking his head. “Grab the bleach.”

“What about the jeans?”

“We’ll wash them again,” Luca said. “Fucking high maintenance….”

Luca warned him to get with the program or end up spending all his money at the cleaners. So he did. Life lessons with his anal-retentive roommate had been painstakingly awkward at times, but more often than not, they reduced them both to hysterical laughter.

Zeb made up for his domestic malfunctions by killing it in the classroom. Always a great student, he excelled in math and drafting, very often helping Luca. It was his way of repaying the embarrassing hand-holding.

Since September, he’d perfected his laundry smarts, kept his space tidy, stopped his whining about having to take a bus rather than be chauffeured, and begrudgingly did his own manis and pedis, a luxury he missed above all others. He knew there were nail salons outside campus, but nothing beat having the technician come to your house every other week.

Luca’s lessons on American living had slowly dropped off as Zeb became acclimated to his new world. Caught up in his own relationship, Luca didn’t pay much attention to Zeb’s new romance until after Thanksgiving. By then, he and Alex had spent the holiday together and were definitely a couple. When Zeb admitted he’d fallen hard, Luca embarked on another mission. Teaching Zeb how to keep a low profile to avoid getting his or his boyfriend’s head bashed in.

Not that Zeb was flamboyant or anything, but he was a touchy-feely type of guy and had a tendency to forget that PDAs weren’t always welcome, especially between two men. Since the latest presidential election, the tide of public opinion with regards to same-sex love was shifting back to the Dark Ages, and it was imperative Zeb realize he couldn’t act like he was in a heterosexual relationship. No matter how much he wanted to climb Alex’s bones, he had to wait until they were in a safe place.

Alex himself was more than aware of the pitfalls. Transgender men or women were like blinking lights, drawing haters for no good reason. Throw in Alex’s biracial card, and he might as well draw a bull’s-eye on his forehead. Mindless aggression against people of color, or the men and women brave enough to live their authentic lives, was all too common.

It certainly explained why Alex kept a low profile in public. It was difficult to blend in with a crowd when you were over six feet tall and drop-dead gorgeous, but Alex managed it by muting his colors, wearing a beanie or ball cap, and generally keeping his head down. A pity, in Zeb’s opinion, because underneath the drab black and gray beat the heart and soul of a beautiful peacock. Alex was a photographer’s dream, after all, and loved preening in front of the camera. Fashion was his thing, and dressing down instead of up went against his very nature, but there had been an incident in his past. Something he’d alluded to but hadn’t shared, and his fear of attracting unwanted attention when he wasn’t in front of a camera was palpable.

Zeb could understand Alex’s reticence, considering how quickly they’d gone from friends to lovers. Perhaps Alex felt it was more prudent to take a wait-and-see attitude rather than possibly sabotage their budding relationship with an injection of harsh truth. For the next week, they would bask in the glow of new beginnings, and if Alex felt comfortable enough to talk about his past, then Zeb would lend a sympathetic ear.

 

 

ON THIS Friday, the twenty-third of December, Zeb and Luca stood outside the Cornell Club at 6 East Forty-Fourth Street waiting for their respective boyfriends. A cab pulled up to the curb, and Alex and his teacup poodle, Bacon, stepped out. Luca’s last-minute advice to cool it with the PDAs was ignored the moment Zeb locked eyes with his boyfriend. He threw his arms around Alex’s neck and was rewarded with a dazzling smile and an uncharacteristic peck on the lips.

“You don’t listen for shit,” Luca mumbled, shouldering past to enter the cab, where Chyna was patiently waiting. The couple was heading straight to John F. Kennedy Airport to catch their flight while Alex and Zeb took the subway back to the apartment on West Ninety-Seventh Street.

“Merry Christmas,” Zeb called out before picking up Bacon, who was pawing at his pants.

“Back atcha,” Luca said, glancing back. “Be careful, newb.”

“Don’t worry,” Alex said reassuringly. “I’ve got this.”

From inside the cab, Chyna said, “Have a great holiday.”

“You too, sugar,” Alex said warmly. “Enjoy the sun.”

“You bet,” Chyna replied, waving goodbye.

“Peace out,” Luca added.

“Ready to go?” Alex turned to Zeb after the cab pulled away.

Zeb put Bacon back down and nodded. “Yup. Let’s go home.”

Home was the two-bedroom apartment Alex had been sharing with Chyna since September. It was in a good neighborhood with easy access to the subway. Zeb had never been happier to lay eyes on the red brick structure as he was right then. He’d been sitting on his hands the entire subway ride home, forcing himself to curb his need to climb all over his boyfriend and show how much he’d missed him. They hadn’t been together physically since Thanksgiving weekend, which had been twenty-six days too long. Bacon seemed just as eager to get home, pulling on the leash and whining pitifully.

“What’s his problem?” Zeb asked, referring to the dog.

“You’ve got a treat for him in your pocket,” Alex surmised.

Zeb cracked a smile. “How could he possibly know?”

“Smell.”

Zeb turned to Alex. “I stink of doggy treats?”

“Bacon associates your unique scent with good things,” Alex said, adding, “just like me. One sniff of your cologne and I’m at your mercy.”

“Let’s hurry or I’ll break all of Luca’s rules.”

Alex’s plucked eyebrows rose imperceptibly.

“I’m interested in hearing these pearls of wisdom,” Alex mused as he pulled out his keys. He swiped the blue fob across the metal pad, unlocking the door. Zeb and Bacon hurried past the doorman, who acknowledged them with a head bob. With Alex on their heels, they got into the elevator, and Zeb was all over Alex the moment the door swished shut.

“You do know there’s a security camera in here,” Alex said, grabbing Zeb’s ass and lifting him.

With his legs wrapped around Alex’s waist, there was no longer an eight-inch height discrepancy, and Zeb could gaze fully into the gorgeous green eyes bright with amusement.

“I know,” Zeb said breathlessly. “This PDA falls under rule number one, category two.”

Alex slanted his mouth over Zeb’s, and the next words were swallowed in the sweetness of the kiss. Zeb had worried that time and distance might diminish the passion, but it sparked anew, sending bolts of pleasure throughout his body. He moaned and Alex let out a low growl, squeezing Zeb’s asscheeks possessively. When the elevator dinged, announcing their floor, they were breathless and ready to tear off their clothes.

“What’s rule number one?” Alex asked, breaking away reluctantly.

“No public sex,” Zeb said, following Alex as he headed out of the elevator. Bacon had his leash in his mouth, aware that his master was otherwise occupied, and he nonchalantly trotted toward the door.

“And category one?” Alex asked, giving Zeb a sideways glance as he inserted his key and turned the lock.

“Restrooms,” Zeb replied, slipping through the opening.

“Elevators ranked two?”

“Yes.” Zeb slammed the door shut, grabbed Alex by the hand, and led him toward the bedroom.

“What’s three?”

“Alleys.”

Alex chuckled. “Four?”

“Cars,” Zeb said, voice rising. Fiddling with Alex’s buttons, he implored, “Help me or you’ll be minus a shirt.”

Alex complied, and when the cloth parted, revealing well-defined pecs and dark brown nipples, Zeb brushed the hard nubs, searching Alex’s face for a reaction. The raspberry-tinted flush that traveled from Alex’s upper chest to his neck was a good sign, as was his quickening breaths. Zeb lowered his head and licked a hot swath in between each peak while guiding Alex closer and closer to the bed. When they could go no farther, Alex sank down onto the mattress, and Zeb landed on his chest, grinding his straining cock against Alex’s prosthesis.

“Is this okay?” Zeb asked, suddenly unsure. His first instinct was to seek more friction, but, as always, he didn’t want to come off as a selfish lover. It was important they were mutually satisfied, and having been together for only a short time made for a lot of uncertainty.

Alex licked his lips and trained his catlike eyes on Zeb, who’d never seen anything more beautiful.

“Rules don’t apply in our bed,” Alex said in a husky voice. “You do whatever it takes to make you feel good.”

“Sure, but what about you?” Zeb asked. “I’m so horny right now this won’t take long.”

Alex canted his hips in reply, beginning a slow rotation.

Zeb squeezed his eyes shut as pleasure shot through his groin. Panting sounds escaped his throat while he strained toward the orgasm Alex was gifting him. For a multitude of reasons, he thought about pushing down his pants, but erased the idea the minute he felt the sweet sensation in his cock telling him it was too late. Sweat dotted his forehead, despite the cool room, and he gasped as his cock jerked and released. Strong arms encircled his torso, and now it was Alex’s turn to twist and squirm. Zeb’s hand seemed to move of its own accord, instinctively knowing what to do next. He unbuttoned Alex’s fly and began a path downward, like a heat-seeking missile, past physical barriers until he got to the heart of the matter. Alex shuddered and cried out, clutching at Zeb with taut fingers that would surely leave marks by morning.

No matter. Zeb’s sense of accomplishment trumped the small discomfort, and the pliant, satisfied man whispering words of endearment in his delicious Southern drawl was the perfect way to start their Christmas holiday.

Several hours later, after they took warm showers and Zeb’s cum-soaked jeans were spinning around in the washing machine, they sat on the sofa in front of the TV, devouring bowls of homemade mac and cheese Alex had thoughtfully prepared ahead of time. Bacon snuggled between their thighs.

“Hey,” Alex said softly after he put his empty bowl down on the coffee table. “Did you have anything special you wanted to do this week?”

Zeb shook his head. “Being with you is as special as it gets.”

“Likewise,” Alex said. “Having your undivided attention for seven days is the best present I could have received. But, I made a list of activities in case we get bored hanging around the apartment all day.”

“What did you have in mind?” Zeb asked sleepily. He could feel the carb coma taking over fast.

“I thought we could get a small tree and decorate. Then I’ll make us a nice dinner. I’ve already baked over six dozen different kinds of cookies, so that’s out of the way.”

“Really?” Zeb asked, perking up. “What kind of cookies?”

Alex chuckled. “Is that all you took away from my statement?”

“Cookies are my passion,” Zeb admitted. “The first time I went to an American grocery store, I stood in front of the shelves trying to decide what to buy. I ended up with two armfuls and made myself sick.”

“Don’t they have cookies in the Philippines?”

“Yeah, but they’re not the same.”

“What’s your favorite?” Alex asked.

“Nutter Butter,” Zeb said. “Turns out I love anything with peanut butter.”

“You don’t have that back home?”

“Sure they do, but my mom’s a big proponent of fresh food. The idea of buying bottles of imported peanut butter didn’t fly, and the local stuff isn’t quite the same.”

“What else do you like?”

“Anything with chocolate chips, salted caramel, or pieces of toffee. Chewy oatmeal with fat raisins and toasted coconut,” Zeb continued, “and I also like Walkers Shortbread from Scotland.”

“My lord,” Alex said. “I had no idea you were such a cookie monster.”

“Can I taste one of yours?”

“Hold that thought.”

Alex headed for the kitchen and came back with a small plate piled high with an assortment of his freshly baked goods. Zeb felt like a kid in a candy shop, overwhelmed by his choices. He picked one up that looked like oatmeal with cranberries and raisins in it, and one bite was all it took to convince him they were his new favorite.

“I’m never going to let you go,” Zeb said sincerely. “You’re so much more than a GQ cover, Alex. How did I get so lucky?”

“I think I’m the lucky one, sugar,” Alex said. “Finding someone who cares for me so unconditionally is a minor miracle.”

“Come here,” Zeb said, reaching for Alex’s hand.

Alex scooted over and laid his arm across Zeb’s shoulder. They leaned into each other and didn’t say anything else. There would be time for words in the days to come, but for the moment, being together was more than enough.