Chapter One

 

 

University of New Hampshire, 1996

 

 

JAKE COULDN’T remember the last time he’d been so nervous, sitting in the middle of the lounge on a beat-up wooden chair with upholstery like frayed orange burlap. And it was so lame! The three people seated at the table in front of him weren’t parents or professors or any other real authority figures. They were just college students like him. But right now he desperately needed them to like him. Otherwise he was fucked.

“I admit,” the girl said, “I’m a little puzzled by why you want to move into this dorm.” She was small—“petite” might be the word—with long, jet-black hair and olive skin. She looked vaguely Mediterranean, though judging by the way she talked, she was probably as much a New Hampster as he was. Jake thought her name might be Eva.

“Like I said, I love art.”

“But you’re majoring in business?” She sounded skeptical, as if he might be putting them on. A lot of people reacted that way. Jake seemed so clean-cut, so conservative… so boring. How could he possibly be an artist?

It probably didn’t help that, with the themed dorms like Eaton House being exempt from the housing lottery, a lot of students tried to get in, even if they weren’t particularly artistic. Eaton House was the creative arts dorm and it was supposed to be just for students who were involved in the arts.

“I’m taking an oil painting class.”

The chubby guy to her right—Paul, if Jake remembered correctly—asked him, “Have you taken other art classes before that one?”

Jake hadn’t. His father hadn’t allowed it in his freshman and sophomore years. This was the first year he’d let Jake take a class in something “useless,” as he liked to put it. And that was only because Jake had taken more credits last year than he needed to, so he would be ahead of schedule.

Jake had been fidgeting with the sketchbook in his lap, not really wanting to show his work to these strangers. But the other guy on the panel was looking skeptical too. He was going to lose his chance if he couldn’t prove he really was an artist. “I brought my sketchbook,” he said, trying to dodge the question. “I’ve been sketching since I was in high school.”

He held the book out to them and for one sickening moment, they just glanced at it, seeming disinterested. Then the third boy leaned forward and took it. This guy Jake had no trouble at all remembering. His name was Danny, and he was beautiful. The moment Jake had walked into the dorm lounge, he’d been struck by Danny’s delicate features, smooth golden skin, and hazel eyes that seemed smoky and almost gray, smoldering beneath long, unkempt light-brown bangs.

Jake hadn’t told anybody he was gay. Certainly not his father—not after what had happened with Tom. His older brothers were just as bad as his father. And he didn’t have any close friends now. But the moment he’d seen Danny and been introduced to him, Jake’s jaw had hit the floor. He’d probably even drooled a little. Had Danny noticed? Christ, he hoped not.

Danny flipped through Jake’s sketchbook slowly, looking at rough sketches of nudes from books of photography taken out of the campus library—sketches Jake had shown to Professor Harriman to get into his oil-painting class but nobody else. To his immense relief, Danny raised his eyebrows as if he was impressed. “Pretty good,” he said.

He handed the sketchbook to Eva and she flipped through it a little before saying, “The thing is, Jake, we have one other student who interviewed to get into the dorm this semester….”

Jake felt his heart sink. “In other words, ‘no thanks.’” He knew it was a childish reaction, but he no longer cared. He just needed to get the hell out of there before he was humiliated any further.

He could always find other ways to connect to the art community on campus, of course. But he knew, with his tight schedule, it was unlikely. He’d hoped he could spend his last couple of years in college surrounded by the life he’d always longed for, even if he had to spend most of his time in tedious classes he loathed about accounting and business management.

But his hope died as he saw the look of cold disapproval on Paul’s face and, even worse, Eva’s look of pity. Poor boring future corporate drone. Isn’t it cute that he thought he might have some artistic sensibility?

Only Danny seemed to be taking him seriously, as if he hadn’t entirely dismissed him. Not yet, anyway.

Eva gave him a smile that might have been intended to be reassuring as she handed the sketchbook back to him. Paul didn’t seem interested in looking at it. “I’m just saying we need to think it over. We’ll let you know what we decide in a day or two.”

 

 

DANNY WATCHED Jake take back his sketchbook, looking as though he’d just been told his life’s work was total shit. But it wasn’t shit. Danny wasn’t a visual artist himself—music was his thing—but he thought the sketches were really good. And sexy. Somehow, this guy who looked like he’d be more at home in a military academy, who’d been dumb enough to show up to this interview in a tie, for goddess’s sake, had managed to make the nude men in his sketchbook look amazingly hot. There had been women in the sketchbook too, and they’d been well done from a technical standpoint, but the men….

Jake was gay. He had to be.

“What the fuck?” Paul asked the moment Jake closed the door in the glass divider that separated the lounge from the upper hall and headed down the stairs. “He takes an oil painting class and suddenly he’s declaring himself an artiste!”

“You didn’t even look at his sketches,” Eva pointed out.

“I don’t need to look at them. Everything about the guy screams ‘uptight conservative asshole.’”

“He didn’t seem like an asshole to me.”

“He was just trying to impress us, so he could get out of the lottery. He should have tried Richardson.” Richardson’s theme was politics, and it was the odd duck of the minidorms, housing mostly conservative students.

While they bickered back and forth, Danny got up out of his seat and went over to the piano in the corner. Playing always helped him relax, and for some reason he couldn’t quite define, the interview with Jake had made him very tense. It wasn’t anything the guy had done, really. He seemed nice enough and, despite Paul’s assertion, Danny thought he was sincere. The drawings in his sketchbook hadn’t been a put-on to get into the dorm. They showed talent and passion.

That passion was part of the problem, Danny reflected. Jake was gay. If the sketchbook hadn’t been enough to convince him, the look Jake gave him when they were first introduced certainly was. And the guy was hot. Close-cropped red hair and just a smattering of freckles, mixed with handsome features and a tall, muscular physique—the epitome of the all-American boy. Plus soft baby-blue eyes that made Danny want to melt.

Just like Steve’s eyes—too much like Steve’s eyes. Jake reminded Danny entirely too much of Steve. The red hair, the athlete’s body… even the freckles were the same. That, in and of itself, was reason for Danny to say “no” to letting Jake move into the dorm. He’d gone to college to escape from Steve and the hell the guy had put him through.

But Jake wasn’t Steve. And it wasn’t fair to slap him down because of a chance resemblance to someone in Danny’s past. Getting into Eaton House was obviously a huge deal to Jake. And Eva had been lying. There wasn’t another candidate for the open slot. There had been, but he’d apparently been attracted to the dorm, thinking it would be a great place to get stoned all the time. He didn’t even have a major yet and really hadn’t seemed artistically inclined.

“What about you?” Eva called to him, interrupting Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. “Did you like him?”

Danny played a bit quieter as he mulled the question over. “I suppose so.”

“You think we should let him in?” Paul asked incredulously. “Don’t forget, Mark’s been pushing for the single that just opened up. You could end up with this guy as your roommate!”

The mention of his asshole roommate made Danny stop playing, a sour look on his face. Mark was a homophobic jerk, and Danny hoped he did get into the single. He was sick of Mark’s snide comments and looks of disgust. Jake had to be better than him.

Of course, if Mark moved into the single, Danny could have his own room. At least for a semester. But then he recalled the look of desperate pleading he’d seen in Jake’s eyes….

Oh hell.

“Sure,” he responded. “Why not?”