Chapter One

 

 

“WHAT’S taking him so long?” John glared out the car window at Bud’s house. “It’s almost nine.”

“It’s Bud. You know he’s always late.” Pete stifled a yawn and took a sip of his coffee. He hadn’t been getting much sleep lately and didn’t have the energy to get pissed at Bud this early in the morning.

“Totally. I better let Cleo know we’re going to be later than I said.”

John texted Cleo while Pete pulled his damp T-shirt away from his stomach. A bead of sweat trickled down his neck. Ah, Northern Virginia in August: not yet nine in the morning, and the car already felt like a sauna. He just wanted to get this drive back to U.Va. over with. The sooner they got on the road, the sooner they’d get air conditioning. And the sooner he put Arlington and his whole fucked-up family in the rearview mirror, the better.

“So?” John said as he set down his phone. “How’re you doing?”

Lounging in his seat, John was the epitome of laid-back. His dark-brown hair stuck out in several places, and his wrinkled Black Keys tee looked like he’d slept in it, which he probably had. Right now, however, he was fixing Pete with one of his tell-me-all-about-it-and-don’t-bullshit-me looks.

Pete drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He knew what John meant, but he didn’t want to get into it. John had been his best friend since childhood, and okay, John also happened to be majoring in psychology, but Pete didn’t feel like being psychoanalyzed this morning.

As if reading his thoughts, John added, “Hey, you don’t have to talk about it now, man. I guess I’m still in shock. Your parents are the last people I thought would split up.”

Pete nodded, feeling his throat tighten. “Yeah.”

The house door opened, and Bud appeared, baseball cap on backward like always.

“Yo! I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Does Bud know?” John asked.

“I don’t know. Mom just told us this past weekend, so maybe not. I think Aunt Barb and Uncle Jerry know.”

“I won’t bring it up.” John gripped Pete’s shoulder before opening his car door. “Gonna help Bud with his stuff and try to move his ass along.”

Pete yawned, watching John jog up the steps and knock on the front door; Aunt Barb appeared, looked around John, and waved at Pete. He waved back. She gestured to him to come in, but Pete just smiled at her and stayed in the car.

Hi, Aunt Barb. No way in hell I’m going in your house so you can pretend to be concerned. I’m sure you’re praying for us, though.

He took a breath, trying to shake off his crappy thoughts, and got out to open the trunk when Bud and John emerged from the house laden down with luggage.

“Hey, bro,” Bud boomed, handing over two of the four bags he was carrying. “I got another load of stuff in the house.”

Face red with exertion, Bud was already sweaty despite the tank top and gym shorts that clung to his slightly overweight body. Bud had always been the pudgy kid with the loud voice, but Pete thought he was looking good these days. Getting on the U.Va. rugby team last August as a first year seemed to have done wonders for him. He was even a little less obnoxious than he used to be.

Of course, as soon as Pete had that thought, Bud glared into the almost-full trunk. “Bro, where’m I s’posed to put all the rest of my crap? You and John took up all the room, and I still got three boxes of stuff in the house! This sucks.”

“Hey, cuz, you could’ve taken your own car, you know. Or had your parents drive you.”

“Dad won’t let me take a car to school after I totaled the Mustang.” Bud pouted, clearly considering this an outrageous decision on his father’s part.

Pete didn’t grace that remark with a comment. He piled the two bags he was holding into the trunk and slammed it shut. “Well, that’s it on trunk space.”

“I’m glad Pete takes his car and can give us rides.” John threw the last of Bud’s bags on top of the pile in the backseat. “It’s too much of a hassle to keep one at school. Cleo has a car down there, so I’m all set.”

“Shit, okay, fine. I’ll have to get the rest of my crap mailed to me or something.” Bud stomped back into the house, calling, “Ma! Hey, Ma!”

Pete smiled wryly at John, who laughed and opened the front passenger door. “Good old Bud. What do you wanna bet he bitches about having to ride in the backseat?”

“Poor baby. He’ll bitch about the music for sure.” Pete got in and turned the key in the ignition. “Oh yes, come to me, air conditioning.” The music came on, and he started singing along with Luther Vandross.

“I love Luther.” Even though he couldn’t carry a tune, John claimed he liked listening to Pete sing—one of the many things that made John an awesome friend.

Bud came back out of the house carrying a duffel bag.

“Of course he’s got one more bag,” John said. “Wonder where he’s going to put that?”

“On his face, preferably.”

Pete and John chuckled. Bud was Pete’s cousin, and he did love the guy, but he’d had to put up with him his whole life. John was pretty tolerant of Bud, given what a royal pain he’d been when they were kids, always barging into whatever room Pete and John were in and demanding to be included in their games.

“Hey, turd, open the trunk!” Bud stood on the curb, jiggling his foot, sweat trickling down his forehead as he passed his duffel from hand to hand. “We gotta get on the road.”

“So now he’s in a hurry,” drawled John.

Pete lowered his window. “No room, moron. Put it in the backseat or don’t bring it.”

“Aw, crap,” Bud grumbled, but he walked around, yanked open the back door, and crammed the duffel into the pile of luggage stacked on the other side of the seat.

Pete winced. “Watch out for my guitar.”

“S’cool, bro. Let’s get a move on.” Bud settled in his seat and yawned. “Change the station, okay?”

“Not likely.” Pete pulled away from the curb. “Soul and R&B are your penance for making us late. Now we’re gonna have to sit in traffic.”

“BS, you know 66 always sucks unless we leave at, like, five in the morning.”

Pete didn’t answer, intent on getting them to the freeway by the shortest route possible.

After a few minutes of silence, Bud spoke again, sounding cheerful. One thing about Bud, he was never grouchy for long.

“Where’re you guys living this year? Lambeth?”

“No,” John said. “Cleo’s got an apartment near the Corner. I’m moving in with her.”

“Ohhh—big step, man. Yes! You’ll be getting it regular, and she’s a fox.”

Pete tried not to roll his eyes. “Uh, Bud, there’s usually more to a relationship than ‘getting it regular.’ Not that you’d know.”

“Cruel, man. You wouldn’t know either, unless you got some boyfriend you’re moving in with that I don’t know about.”

“No, Angie and I are sharing a place off of Rugby.”

“You and Angie? Man, I’d love to get into her pants. Set me up, bro!”

“Jesus, is sex all you think about?” snapped Pete. “And no way I’m setting you up with her. Ask her out yourself.” No chance in hell she’d say yes.

“I did, man. In high school. She shut me down. ’Course I was kind of an asshole back then. She should give me a shot now—I could take her to paradise!”

Pete and John caught each other’s eye, then burst out laughing.

“Bud, my man,” John said after they calmed down, “you most definitely have what’s known as a healthy ego. And you’re great for comic relief.”

“Thanks, man! I think. Oh, and I’m living at the frat house this year, in case you guys were wondering.”

“Living at SAE? You’re becoming a true Southern good ol’ boy, Bud,” Pete said.

“Damn straight, bro,” Bud said, Pete’s sarcasm sailing over his head as usual.

Once Pete got them onto I-66, the conversation lapsed into a welcome silence. Or not so welcome, because Pete started thinking about stuff he didn’t want to think about: his mom driving him to the shopping mall last weekend, and as she stared resolutely at the road, telling him that she and his dad were getting a divorce. His dad dropping by the house to pick up a bag with that redheaded bitch in the car. Right before school began, of course.

Great timing, Mom and Dad.

Fuck, shut up, you selfish prick.

No, screw them. They had no right to fuck up our family like this.

Ugh, shut up.

“Anything happening tonight?” Pete asked. He’d even talk to Bud right now, to escape the argument in his mind.

John opened his eyes. “Cleo knows about a party. We should go.”

“Party?” Bud piped up from the backseat.

Damn. Before Pete could think of something to dissuade Bud from attending, John came to the rescue.

“Yeah. It’s the art department crowd and you have to come dressed as your favorite fairy or Disney princess.”

Pete glanced over at John, who gave him a barely perceptible wink.

“What?” Bud made a face. “That’s gay, man. Oh—sorry, Pete. Think I’ll pass on that party. But you should go, bro! You’ll get some action!”

“Doubtful.”

“Whaddya mean?”

Oh God, here he goes. For some reason, Bud was quite invested in Pete’s sex life, or lack thereof. Pete sighed and concentrated on the road as Bud continued his rant.

“You’re hot, bro. I ain’t gay”—duh, Bud—“but even I can see that.”

All Pete ever saw when he looked in the mirror was a guy of average height and proportions, reasonably fit, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He’d been told he was handsome ever since his early teens, and he could sort of see it, but hot? He wasn’t sure about that.

Bud was, though. “Isn’t he, John? You tell him. I don’t think his ego’s too healthy if he doesn’t even get he’s hot.”

“Can we change the subject?” Pete said.

“Pete,” John intoned, “you are a most attractive specimen of the male persuasion.”

“Jeez.”

“Atta way!” Bud said. “Get him some action tonight at your fairy party.”

“Okay, that’s it! No more talking. You guys are distracting the driver, here.”

John nudged him. “You mean the hot driver.”

 

 

“PETE! Thank God!” Angie barreled into him for a hug. “Everything’s a mess, but this is gonna be great!”

Pete dropped his bags on the floor and hugged her back. “Sorry I’m so late.” He took in the living room of their new apartment, where boxes, bags, and clothes sat in disarray. “What mess? Looks like my room at home on a good day.”

Angie’s grin lit up her whole face, as usual. “Let’s go get the rest of your stuff, and then I’ll show you your bedroom. I think you’ll like it.” She followed Pete out to his car. “I’m sooo psyched about this year.”

“You’re always psyched.” Pete handed her his guitar.

“Your guitar! You’re going to play and sing for me every night, right?”

“Yes, dear. Right after I read you your bedtime story. Here, take this too.” Pete gave her a suitcase and grabbed two more.

“Ha, ha, very funny. But seriously,” she said as they crossed the lobby into the apartment and put down their load, “us being roommates is perfect. Last year was nothing but drama at Lambeth. Remind me never to room with five other girls again.” She shuddered as they returned to the car.

“Sure thing. Never do that again.” He handed her a box and gathered the remaining bags. “Okay, that’s it. I’ll move the car around to the back later.” They made the final trek into their place. “So what else are you psyched about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just—getting to third year, living off campus with you, and also being able to take the classes I’m interested in. I can’t wait for Film Aesthetics, I’ve been hearing about Professor R forever.”

“Yeah, that should be good. Show me my room.” Pete’s bedroom was large and square, its window facing trees and the garden next door. “Wow, this is nice. Thanks, Ang. You did great finding us a place.”

Angie beamed. She was pretty, with her long dark-brown hair and big blue eyes, but every time Pete tried to tell her so, she denied it, moaning to him about being fat. It drove him crazy. Angie wasn’t “fat” at all—she was curvaceous—a fact that hadn’t escaped the notice of guys like Bud and the others who’d expressed interest in her over the years. But she persisted in believing she was unattractive and a loser in relationships.

“Are you hungry?” Angie asked, watching Pete open a suitcase. “The kitchen stuff isn’t unpacked, but we could go to the Corner and grab some lunch. Then we can go grocery shopping.”

“Yeah, sounds good. Oh, and John has a party for us to go to tonight. It’s at one of Cleo’s friend’s, so there’ll be lots of artsy types.”

“Oh, goodie! Sounds like fun.”

“Yup. Maybe you’ll find that sensitive artist guy you’re always fantasizing about.”

“Sensitive gay artist guy, you mean. But hey, you might finally meet someone good! I don’t know why someone hasn’t snapped you up yet, Mr. Gorgeous.”

“God, you sound like Bud.” Pete pulled out the top drawer in his dresser. “He’s trying to help me out with my love life by telling me how ‘hot’ I am.”

“Uh-oh. Although it’s true.”

“Oh, and he wanted me to set you two up.”

“Bud? Oh God, no.” Angie laughed. “See, that’s the problem. He’s interested in me, and I’m like, ew! But you—you’re perfect. I’d date you in a heartbeat.”

Pete automatically shook his head.

“I mean it!” Angie said, handing him a pile of socks. “You’re fun and smart and did I mention gorgeous?”

“Jeez, Ang. I could say the same about you. You’re funny, you rock, and you’re a babe too.”

“See? You appreciate me, you think I’m great. I wanna date someone like you.” She flopped down on the bed with a glum expression. “Why are all the good ones gay? Or taken, like John?”

“Brian isn’t,” Pete pointed out, shutting the top drawer and opening the one underneath. Brian was the proverbial nice guy who’d crushed on Angie ever since junior high and in whom Angie had no interest, despite his curly brown hair and sweet smile. Pete thought Brian and Angie would be great together.

“Brian. Please.” Angie rolled her eyes.

“Poor guy. He’s still gone over you. I don’t think he’s ever gotten over us going to Senior Prom together, instead of you and him.”

“Pete.” Angie’s eyes were wide, her face solemn. “I just got a strong feeling.”

Pete waited. Angie’s “strong feelings” had made appearances throughout the years, and at times they were eerily on the mark.

“I just got that this is the year that you and I are gonna find The One.”

Pete finished filling the second drawer and shut it. “‘The One’? As in our soul mates or some shit? You go right ahead—I’ll pass.”

“Fine. But I’m going to remind you of this conversation once it happens.” Angie hopped off the bed. “Let’s go to lunch, I’m starving.”

Following her out, Pete couldn’t help but think of his parents. The One. Right. That’s what Mom and Dad thought, and look what happened to them. He tightened his jaw as they emerged into the hot sunshine and told himself to get over it.

 

 

“SO, WHO are these people having the party?” Angie asked.

She, Pete, John, and Cleo walked along the sidewalk in a residential area off of Rugby Road, not far from the apartment.

“Matthew and Parker,” Cleo answered, her hand in John’s. “They’re grad students in the art department. They actually live with a bunch of other people, but Matthew and Parker are the ones who put on the parties.”

“What are they like?” Angie asked.

“Matthew rocks. Parker, I can do without.”

Cleo sported spiky pink-and-black hair and an all-black ensemble tonight. A fourth-year art major, she had a unique style, and Pete considered her way cooler than the rest of them could ever hope to be. She was beautiful too, Asian American, with delicate features, although there was nothing delicate about her. Her personality was as intense as her style, and she and John couldn’t be any more different on the surface, but she loved him with a fierceness that Pete found almost scary, even as he sometimes envied it.

“Are they a couple?” Angie bounced along with her usual enthusiasm as they approached a blue two-story house complete with white shutters and a screen porch on one side. “Nice house.” Angie had gone with all black tonight also, although her attempt at a Goth look was completely at odds with her upbeat personality and friendly face.

“No. Parker has a boyfriend. I don’t know what Matthew is. I’ve never seen him date anyone, guy or girl. This should be fun—their parties are legendary in the art department.”

They walked up the steps, hearing through the open window someone doing a better-than-passable rendition of “Mack The Knife” amid a cacophony of laughter and talking.

“I like this music.” Pete hummed along as they entered the house.

Inside, a lively crowd stood laughing and talking in groups. A garishly made-up woman in a wig and tiara posed in a corner while a short man wearing angel wings took her picture. On second glance, Pete realized the person in the tiara was actually a man. He turned and surveyed the room: definitely an art-school crowd—a sea of hip, black clothing dotted here and there with the bright colors of some over-the-top outfit. He felt out of place in his khaki shorts and light-gray T-shirt with the colored thunderbolts Angie had made him wear because it was so tight, but he took consolation in John, who had on his trusty Black Keys tee and denim cutoffs.

“Cleo!” A cute guy approached, and as he leaned over to kiss Cleo on the cheek, Pete checked out the ass showcased in his tight jeans. Hmm, attractive. He had wavy reddish-brown hair and, amazingly enough, wasn’t wearing black. Pete approved of his navy-blue T-shirt with a poster of Cinema Paradiso; he loved movies.

“Hi, Matthew,” Cleo said. “Thanks for the invite. I think you’ve met John, my boyfriend. John Borden, Matthew Layton.” Matthew and John nodded to each other and playfully bumped fists. “And these are our friends, Pete Morgan and Angie Miles.”

Matthew turned to them, and when Pete saw his bright-blue eyes and great smile, he revised his internal rating from “attractive” to “wow.”

“Welcome to our humble abode, y’all. There’s booze and food in the dining room, and the karaoke and dancing is through there.” Matthew pointed to a beaded curtain. “Oh, and Parker might drag you somewhere to take a picture, so be ready to pose. We have boas, wigs, angel wings—all that good stuff.” His eyes seemed to linger on Pete, as if he liked what he saw, but Pete decided that was wishful thinking when a blonde girl with a low-cut sequined halter top came over and put her arm around Matthew, whispering something in his ear that made him laugh and give her a hug.

“He’s dreamy,” Angie murmured to Pete as they headed for the dining room to get something to drink.

“Go for it,” Pete said, looking over the booze selection. They had everything imaginable to drink, but he settled for a beer.

“Me? I’m not the one he was staring at.”

Pete was about to respond when he caught the sound of a male voice doing a killer rendition of Prince’s “Kiss” over the karaoke system. The guy’s falsetto sounded so amazing that Pete was pretty sure he knew who it was.

“Let’s go see who’s singing,” he said to Angie, and, drinks in hand, they wove their way through the crowd in the living room and parted the beaded curtain to enter a large den.

A few people danced. A larger number stood listening to the song being belted out, and yes, it was Aidan Emery doing the belting.

“Oh, him,” Angie breathed. “He’s so gorgeous.” She gave Pete a look. “And so, so gay.”

“I know, don’t remind me.”

He eyed Aidan—tall and sexy, with those striking green eyes and that shaggy mane of blond hair. (He and John called it “Fabio hair.”) Pete knew he was a little obsessed with him—he’d gone to every single performance of the student plays Aidan had starred in over the last two years, which John found hilarious. He wasn’t surprised to hear John’s voice in his ear right now; he must have followed them in.

“There’s your crush. Better make a move, my man, he’s graduating this year.”

Pete nodded but didn’t answer; he was too busy gaping at Aidan. He wore a dark-purple shirt unbuttoned to show most of his chest, a silver belt, and tight black pants that left little to the imagination as he writhed and channeled Prince, mesmerizing the crowd with his performance. Pete wondered how Aidan wasn’t melting in those long sleeves—it was still muggy and hot, even at nine in the evening—but he looked cool and comfortable.

Aidan finished, bowing with a flourish to appreciative whistles and applause, and then relinquished the microphone to a quartet of women who were jabbering about singing a Spice Girls song. He and a group of his fellow theater students were exiting the room when Aidan caught Pete staring, smirked at him, and winked before vanishing through the beaded curtain.

“He winked at you!” Angie exclaimed, nudging him.

Pete was as surprised as she was but tried to act casual. “Yeah, well, we’re in U. Singers together, so we kind of know each other.” Kind of—more like not at all. “He—uh, he’s probably just a winker.”

Angie, John, and Cleo, who had joined them, holding a glass of brandy, started to laugh.

“A winker?” John said. “Is that like a wanker, only better?”

“Sod off, you wanker!” Angie said in a terrible British accent.

Pete groaned.

“Yeah, and stop wanking in Matthew’s den!” Cleo said.

“Who’s beating off?” John looked around the room, feigning horror. “And how’d we get to sex so soon?” He pulled Cleo against his side and kissed her temple.

Although Pete joined in the laughter, he was still reeling from being noticed by Aidan at all—Aidan the sex god, who always seemed to be surrounded by male admirers. Pete had spent all of last year in University Singers staring at the back of Aidan’s head and having inappropriate sexual fantasies while singing Mozart and Bach. University Singers was a large ensemble, though; Aidan probably didn’t even know his name.

When the women finished their Spice Girls number, Aidan returned to the karaoke machine with a couple of guys who were also in University Singers—Jay and Lee. They looked through the selections, and then Aidan pointed to one. After a brief discussion, Aidan called out, “We need another guy for this one, preferably a baritone.”

“Aren’t you a baritone?” John asked Pete and, without waiting for an answer, pushed him forward while pointing at the top of his head and shouting, “Here ya go!”

Oh God. Pete turned to scowl at him but stopped when he heard Aidan say his name.

“Pete! Yeah, come up here. We need you on this next one.”

“Yay, he wants you! Get up there.” Angie took Pete’s beer out of his hand.

Well, fuck. He knows my name? Pete started up to the front. He didn’t mind performing—he came from a long line of hams. His dad and siblings were all loud and boisterous, and while he and his mom were the quieter members of the family, Pete loved to sing. But doing it tonight while standing next to Aidan, his super-crush, was another matter. He hoped he didn’t choke.

Pete reached the karaoke machine. He was noticing how striking Aidan’s green eyes were up close and wondering how someone could look this good in real life when Aidan put his arm around his shoulder and pulled him into the group. Holy shit. He even smells amazing. Pete swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.

“We’re going to do ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.’ Temptations. You know it, right?”

“Yeah.” He sounded hoarse even to himself and cleared his throat. God, get it together.

“Okay, you’ll take the main part and I’ll come in on the tenor lines and we’ll all harmonize behind you.”

“Okay,” Pete said, trying to sound nonchalant. Main part? Oh, shut up. It’s fucking karaoke. How bad can it be?

Aidan leaned over to start the music and motioned Pete to come sing through the mic he was holding while Jay and Lee shared the second mic.

“Ready?” Aidan asked. He flipped the switch.

The intro music started and the four of them tensed in readiness, but the intro went on… and on… and on as Pete kept looking at the machine for the words to start appearing. Jay finally said, “Damn, when do we get to sing?” and they all laughed. Aidan feigned a yawn, which caused Pete to laugh harder and promptly miss the first line.

“Crap—’the day we’ll always remember,’” he sang, trying to keep a straight face and ignore Aidan, who was cracking up.

“Lame!” someone called out from the audience.

“Shut up!” Aidan yelled back while Pete kept going about the day his daddy died.

They managed to pull it together, and their harmonies got tighter by the time they were singing about Papa being a rolling stone. Aidan poured on the theatrics, and Pete had so much fun playing to him as they sang, imitating his poses and gestures, that he was surprised when he looked out and saw the crowd in the room clapping along and dancing—he’d almost forgotten about them.

When the music stopped, Aidan threw back his head, laughing, and then hugged Pete while around them people hooted and applauded. Pete had time to feel the heat of Aidan’s body as his face was pressed into his shoulder before Aidan broke away and the four of them did a group high five.

Angie ran up to them, beaming, with John and Cleo not far behind. “That was awesome! You guys should totally go on the road!”

“Right,” scoffed Pete, but he couldn’t help smiling at Angie’s enthusiasm.

“That was actually really good,” John said in his laid-back drawl.

“Don’t sound so surprised, jerk-face. You’re the one who pushed me up there.”

Aidan turned away from the people gathered around him to say to John, “And thank you for doing that! Pete’s a great singer.”

“Not compared to you,” Pete protested.

John raised his hands and bowed his head in false modesty. “Anytime. Greatness must be recognized—ow! Pete, no stepping on the toes.”

Lee and Jay had disappeared into the crowd by the time Matthew came over, clapping his hands. “Excellent rendition! You two were hilarious up there!”

“Totally,” agreed Cleo, which for her was high praise.

“Y’all deserve a drink after that,” Matthew said. “What can I get you?”

Kind of overwhelmed at all the accolades, Pete looked at Angie for his beer, and she opened her hands apologetically. “I put it down and then it disappeared.”

“Another Satan’s Pony,” he told Matthew. “Thanks.”

“That’s a great name,” Cleo said.

“It’s a microbrew from South Street Brewery.” Matthew lifted his eyebrows at Aidan. “Drink?”

“I don’t know. What should I have?”

Cleo raised her glass. “This brandy is delectable.”

“Mm, I like delectable. Okay, I’ll have that.”

“Shove over, darlings. The show must go on.” Parker, Matthew’s housemate, stood in front of them, adorned with a boa, holding hands with a woman of Amazonian proportions who towered over him in a green wig and bright-red strapless bustier, her long legs encased in black fishnet hose.

“The Queen song?” Pete asked.

Parker tilted his head to one side. “How very Moulin Rouge of you, dear heart, but no. It’s Lady Gaga or nothing.”

Pete was walking out of the den to look for Matthew and his microbrew when he heard Aidan’s voice in his ear.

“That was fun. Wanna go sit down somewhere and talk?”

Trying not to act as if his wildest fantasies were coming true, Pete nodded coolly. “Sure. Where to?”

“Their screen porch is really nice on a summer night. Let’s go out there.”

Pete followed Aidan through the living room, pretending not to notice Angie’s saucer eyes and John’s thumbs-up from where they were standing by the beaded curtain. In the dining room, Aidan signaled to Matthew, who was by the drinks table, and pointed in the direction t