CHAPTER 1

 

“I WAS rushing across campus one afternoon, my head just spinning with everything I had to do, and spotted her sitting alone beneath that oak near the science building.” Lonnie Bellerose shrugged and managed a smile as he explained to a group of art patrons how he’d come up with the idea for his thesis show. He shook the hair out of his eyes, but it fell right back.

“She looked so quiet and peaceful, so different from how I felt at the time, and that caught my eye. I began to notice her more frequently, always in the same spot, so one day I approached her and we talked.” Lonnie gestured at the portrait. “Malloy plans to become a trial lawyer. The scar is from a childhood car accident, so she’s had it for as long as she can remember.”

The group stood silently and stared for a few moments. Then one of them muttered, “She’s beautiful.”

Lonnie smiled and turned toward the voice. “Yes, I agree. Malloy was my first subject. After that I began taking notice of other students who were often ignored, not part of the university brochure, or not looked at twice. And this is what’s come of it,” he said, sweeping his arm past the portraits lining the wall.

Members of the group smiled, nodded, and thanked Lonnie for his time before wandering away to corner the next graduate. One of the last, a vaguely familiar professor, shook his hand and congratulated him for his “intriguing work.” Lonnie couldn’t decide if that was a compliment, but he managed to pleasantly send the man on his way. His attention immediately went to the entrance as another person, who wasn’t his boyfriend, joined the festivities.

Absently greeting someone else who crossed his path, he noticed the other graduate students each had family, in one form or another, attending the show, but he was on his own tonight, at least until his date arrived. He smiled. My date. Lonnie’s twin sister was home with her newborn, her husband, and her in-laws. The elder Belleroses were still in France, collecting Lonnie’s grandmother.

They had all sent their good wishes and expressions of pride for a job well done, and they promised a group celebration when they finally gathered in one room. Though disappointed, Lonnie understood and was fine with it. Each student had received a number of invitations for family and friends to attend on opening night, but he’d only needed one for Jamison. The rest he gave to other students who could use the extras.

A burst of laughter sounded to his right, and Lonnie jerked in that direction to see a father congratulating his daughter on her sculpture as the mother stood by snapping pictures of everything. Across the room he witnessed another artist explaining a photograph to his parents and younger brother. They appeared enthralled… well, his parents seemed to be. The brother looked as though he’d rather be anywhere else. The kid—about thirteen or fourteen—eyed the champagne flutes on the trays the waiters carried. I see trouble ahead for that one.

Lonnie sighed and hugged himself, trying to appear at ease as the crowd moved around the room. After all, he was an artist standing in a gallery that displayed some of his best work to date. He should be all smiles and charm and wit. Instead, he felt as though he stood out like a two-headed goat, afraid to move, all hooves and confusion, bleating above the conversations.

On top of that, Lonnie had the distinct impression of being watched. He couldn’t shake it. He looked to his right and his left, then settled again on examining the campus beyond the wall of windows at the gallery’s entrance. He searched the mist-shrouded grounds for any sign of Jamison, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Here, have a drink, Mr. Bellerose.” Professor Eloise Bink smiled and sipped her champagne, urging him to do the same from the flute she’d provided. She taught several art history classes, and Lonnie had been her assistant while earning his master’s.

He took a sip, then said, “Just call me Lonnie, please. I’m not your TA anymore.”

She smiled and tossed her short and sassy new haircut out of her eyes, the silver-gray strands catching the light. “I’ll call you Lonnie when you call me Eloise.”

He frowned in thought. “I think I can handle Bink but nothing more casual. Will that do?”

“Acceptable.”

They sipped in unison, the bubbles nearly making him sneeze.

“You appear agitated. Waiting for someone?”

“Jamison’s coming, though he should be here by now.”

“No family?”

He shook his head. “Parents in France, Amber birthed a new human being, and brother-in-law is hovering, so… no. No family tonight.” A chill ran through him, so he took another sip of his champagne. It didn’t warm him, and this time he did sneeze, loudly, causing a few heads to turn in fright. His face heated, and he nodded his apologies before depositing the flute on a passing tray.

He turned to the entrance again and gasped softly. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, he caught a glimpse of a tall, broad-shouldered silhouette hurrying toward the building. The campus lights along the path reflected off what little fog lingered above the lawn, giving the approaching figure a mysterious, superhero-like quality. To Lonnie, he seemed to be moving in slow motion and to his own soundtrack. Lonnie’s heart soared, and he excused himself from Bink to cut through the crowd and meet his man at the door.

“Hi,” he said, beaming up at Jamison as he walked in looking all kinds of gorgeous.

The worried frown on Jamison’s face vanished as he smiled down at Lonnie. “Hi, yourself.”

“You look fantastic.” He stood on tiptoes to give Jamison a peck on the lips, but Jamison pulled back, the frown returning, his gaze darting around the gallery. Lonnie sighed, took his hand, and tugged him deeper into the room. “I have someone I want you to meet.” He paused to look over the faces surrounding them, and when he spotted Bink again, he resumed his tugging.

Glancing around as he followed Lonnie, Jamison asked, “Isn’t your fam—?”

“No,” Lonnie said, “but they sent their congratulations.”

“Ah, Lonnie, back so soon?” Bink said, turning to face the two of them as they reached her. She blinked up at Jamison, her expression remaining warm and friendly. “Whom do we have here?”

“This is Jamison Coburn. Jamison, this is Professor Eloise Bink. I’ve mentioned her before. I was her teaching assistant.” His words rushed out as he gripped Jamison’s big left hand tightly. Mine.

“Yes,” Bink said. “I’m certainly going to miss you in that capacity. Perhaps I’ll find something else for you.” Lonnie laughed at that.

Jamison’s hand swallowed hers. “Good to meet you, ma’am.”

“And you, Mr. Coburn.” She grinned at Lonnie before continuing. “Anyone who can make him daydream at his desk is definitely someone I want to get to know.”

Lonnie gazed up at Jamison and caught the embarrassment as it crossed his handsome features. His chest filled with joy and pride that Jamison was here for him.

“Oh… I don’t know about that, ma’am,” Jamison said.

“Bink, Mr. Coburn. Please call me Bink.”

“If you’ll call me Jamison.”

She grinned. “Agreed. Champagne?” she asked, grabbing fresh flutes from a passing waiter. She handed them each a glass, and they clinked them in a toast to Lonnie’s accomplishment.

 

 

JAMISON SIPPED his drink, then turned to hide his grimace. Champagne was not going to be a favorite, which was good since he probably couldn’t afford it. After several minutes of polite interrogation from Bink, she left to circulate while he watched the other fancy, educated folk meander about, gazing at the artwork, smiling, laughing, oohing, and aahing. He fought down the urge to loosen his tie and focused on Lonnie instead—the familiar, the miraculous.

I’m here with him.

It had been a simple statement on the face of it. A month ago, standing in a house he had helped renovate, he took the hand of the man he loved and uttered those four little words, outing himself to virtual strangers. It had rolled off his tongue, just as sweet as you please, but it meant so much. For Jamison, it was like stepping off a cliff. The moment it was out of his mouth, he had felt chilled, had braced himself for the sky to fall on his head, but that hadn’t happened. Not yet, anyway.

One of the strangers was a longtime friend of Jamison’s boss, Lincoln Frye. And surely the man would mention it to Lincoln—something along the lines of “I didn’t know your boy Jamison was a faggot.” To which Lincoln would undoubtedly say, “Neither did I!” and promptly fire him. But no, that word wouldn’t be used. The stranger was related to Lonnie by marriage and knew Lonnie was gay… maybe not as gay as Christmas, but definitely gay as… what? Easter? Which was gayer? How gay am I?

A waiter approached him with a tray of tiny food. He knew he was supposed to take only one or two, but he was so hungry he wondered if the guy could be convinced to simply upend the tray into his mouth. With one hand captured by Lonnie and the other holding his nasty-ass drink, Jamison watched the food glide out of reach before he could even catch a whiff. He sighed and went back to watching Lonnie be delightful.

Since he came out, very little had changed for Jamison. He could count the number of people who knew about him on two hands. Aside from Lonnie—who knew better than anyone just how gay he was—there was his best friend, Torpedo, Jamison’s mother, and his aunt Jo. They loved him and knew him best, especially now. Finally. They had various reactions: his mother was devastated and probably still in shock, Torp was unnerved but remained his friend and brother, and his aunt Jo seemed fine with it, had possibly seen it years ago. Who knew?

Cackling laughter broke out across the room, startling him, and he sipped his champagne, remembering too late that he hated the taste. Gah! He set the glass on a passing tray to make sure that didn’t happen again and wiped a sweaty palm on his pants. His gaze found Lonnie again. He was animatedly telling some story to a couple of stodgy professor types. Jamison grinned.

Whatever happened down the line, the look in Lonnie’s beautiful green eyes on the day Jamison claimed him had been worth it. He watched him now as he greeted and chatted with anyone and everyone who approached him. Lonnie appeared relaxed, but Jamison knew he was probably a wreck inside, uncomfortable with all the attention and fuss. He would need some comforting later.

Jamison grinned as wicked, lustful thoughts floated through his mind. He was going to peel his man out of that suit and—

“What are you thinking about?” Lonnie asked suddenly, staring up at him.

“Oh… uh,” Jamison said, glancing around. “This is nice, this show….”

“Okay….” Lonnie smirked. “It shouldn’t be much longer. Then we can head out.”

“You can tell, huh?”

“That you’re uncomfortable? Yes, but I’m right there with you, babe.”

“You deserve to celebrate, Lon. You worked so hard for this.”

Lonnie leaned against him and stroked Jamison’s lapels. “There are things I’d much rather be doing with you right now.”

The two of them had fallen into a comfortable routine of movies, meals, and spending hours in bed at one apartment or the other. Jamison smiled, recalling those hot, sweaty moments with Lonnie in his arms, followed by ice cream and cuddling. It was heaven.

This thesis show, however, was their first big-deal date in public as a couple. Lonnie had earned his master’s, and Jamison had been determined to celebrate the event with him. He’d showered and dressed up, getting ready as he’d done in the past when taking out a woman. Tonight the people surrounding them might assume he was just a good friend of one of the artists—if not for the hand-holding, kissing, and possessive affection from Lonnie. It’s not like they could look at him and know he was gay. Could they?

Jamison recalled how he had worriedly rushed around as he got ready earlier that night. Checking himself in the mirror, turning to see how the jacket he’d purchased fit across the shoulders, smiling widely to check for all-white teeth, then tilting his head to locate any errant nose hairs or… other things. He’d blown into his palm to sniff his breath, then checked the time. He’d patted his breast pocket for the invitation, his jacket pocket for breath mints, and his pants pocket for his keys. Then he’d headed for the gallery and Lonnie, trying not to think about all the college types he’d be mingling with, those educated, worldly people, people like Lonnie but so unlike him.

“And who’s this?” an elderly lady with faintly lavender hair asked Lonnie, both of them gazing up at Jamison.

Lonnie smiled and touched his arm. “Oh, this is my—”

“Jamison Coburn, ma’am,” he said quickly, smiling at her and taking her veiny hand gently in his. “Good to meet you.” He thought he saw a bit of color reach her cheeks as she smiled and giggled like a little girl.

Jamison wished he’d been able to convince Torp to attend so he’d have someone to talk to while Lonnie was busy schmoozing, but his best friend hadn’t wanted to be surrounded by the smarty-arty crowd any more than he had. However, for Lonnie? To support the most magical, wondrous man he’d ever met? Jamison would don “business casual” and do his best not to embarrass them both.