Chapter One

 

I TOLD Aidric Bates the same thing in person as I had on the phone.

“No.”

“Come on, mate,” he muttered, pushing my front door open from his side while I held it closed from mine.

“I’m not your mate and I’m not going.”

“But he’s runnin’ it with or without you.”

“Fine.”

“’Tis not fine, Brian.”

“Go. Away.”

He groaned loudly. “Brian.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Get off my porch, Aid.”

“You’d have him race without you, then?”

“I don’t want him to race at all, but it’s hardly my concern anymore.”

“Brian—”

“No.”

“He almost died the last time.”

“Yes, I know. I was there, if you recall.”

“Not then! Since you’ve been gone!”

But the time I’d seen it had been enough to haunt my dreams. I didn’t need to hear about his most recent brush with death. I used to see him fall over and over every time I closed my eyes.

We had all been there when the rear wheel of his bike suddenly slid out from under him. Because he was moving so fast, easily two hundred miles an hour, the motorcycle had simply flipped over with him still on it. It was called a high side—but I just called it a horror, because that’s what it looked like.

He’d broken four ribs, punctured his left lung, and fractured his collarbone as well as his left arm. Pins had been needed to hold bones in place, and the worst part was he had just gotten through physical therapy as a result of a previous crash, and now he was going to have to do it all over again.

It made sense; it did. Racing was the love of his life, and he wasn’t going to stop for anyone. The rush of adrenaline, the howl of the bike engine on the road, the way the world whooshed by him—it was all he needed. The rest of us were just window dressing in his dream.

“He canna win if you’re not there,” Aidric informed me as he kept trying to push his way in. The more upset he got the thicker his brogue became.

“Winning should not be your goal.” I grunted as I continued to hold the door mostly closed. “Aim lower. Keep him breathing.”

“Open the door!”

“Okay! Let go and I will.”

He stopped pushing—and the minute he did, I slammed it shut, locked it, and clicked the deadbolt into place.

“Brian!”

“Go away, Aid,” I ordered. “I’m not coming, and you don’t need me, anyway. Really, truly, you and the guys are all he needs. Think about how long I’ve been gone.”

“You’re wrong, mate; you’re the only one who really matters. It doesn’t mean anythin’ if you don’t see it.”

“I’m sorry, Aid.”

“Open the door!”

“Get off my porch!”

He banged the door hard with his fist, but I heard him retreat and then the car started out on the street.

He was wrong. I knew Varro better than that. The only thing Varro needed was the rush of being on his bike and the blurring speed.

 

 

WE’D been friends since the fourth grade. I was on the sixth of what I didn’t know at the time would be the last of my foster homes. The Rossers lived next door to Varro and his family, and I looked over one day—a week after moving in—and from my second-floor bedroom window, I saw him on the roof of his house. I would come to find out that the other boy with him was his brother, Nico. But really, neither of them was the real attraction at first glance. It was the go-cart he was sitting in, and the ramp it was pointed at.

When you’re nine, the thing you say when you open the window is not the same thing you’d say when you’re twenty-seven. Now, I would have yelled at him to get the hell down before he killed himself. Then, as I watched him put on a bike helmet and fasten the chin strap, I leaned out onto the sill and asked if I could have a turn.

His gaze took me in.

I waved.

“Yeah, come on!” he called back. “You can go next!”

Since I was alone in the house, there was no one to check with. I was downstairs, out the back, and knocking on the door of the three-story Georgian Colonial next door moments later. The woman who answered was, to me, stunning. Her long black hair, big and warm dark-brown eyes, her smile, and the smells emanating from the kitchen—I was in love at first sight.

“And who are you?” she wanted to know.

“Brian,” I answered. “Brian Christie. I live next door.”

“And what can I do for you, Brian who lives next door?”

“He said I could go after him.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Who said you could go after him?”

“The boy on the roof.”

She gasped and grabbed my hand, yanked me into her house and into her life, and both of us made it up to the slanted roof just in time to see the go-cart whip by, hit the edge of the ramp, flip over (there had been no way to get it flush against the wood shingles), and propel the boy through the air and into the maple tree next to the house. The cart didn’t have the same luck. It hurtled to the ground, thirty feet below, and smashed into a hundred pieces.

The boy, her son, Varro Dacien, broke his right arm, was scratched and bruised, and had his left wrist run through by a branch, but was thankfully rendered unconscious on impact. The sound that came out of his mom, the high-pitched horrified scream—I had no idea anyone actually made sounds like that outside of the movies.

“I’m going inside to call 911. You watch him,” she ordered.

“Mom, I’m here,” the brother said to her retreating back.

But she wasn’t speaking to him.

“I knew I was gonna be in trouble too,” he grumbled, turning to look at me. “I guess you have to watch Varro now.”

I wasn’t looking at him. My gaze stayed on the boy in the tree, who was waking up. “Hi.”

His eyelids fluttered and then he started.

“Don’t move,” I instructed, smiling and getting as close to the edge of the roof as I could. “You don’t wanna fall.”

He groaned when he saw his wrist.

“Does it hurt?”

“Kinda.”

“It doesn’t hurt with tree in you?”

His gaze met mine. “Nuh-uh.”

“That’s good.” I nodded.

He looked around and groaned. “Man, she’s gonna kill me.”

I was pretty certain of that fact myself. “Your mom is calling an ambulance, or firemen, maybe.”

He swiveled his head back to me. “You think maybe they’ll hafta cut down the tree?” he posed sadly, like that was the worst thing he could think of.

“Or they get you with a helicopter,” I offered brightly.

“You think?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. Have you been stuck like this before?”

“Yeah, but not this high.”

“It was awesome,” I assured him.

His smile was blinding, and that fast, I was addicted to seeing it.

Firemen brought a ladder with one of those baskets at the end that they stood in, and one of the men held Varro still while the other used a small jigsaw to cut the branch instead of pulling him off it. Paramedics wrapped the hand and the piece of the tree up together.

We all followed the ambulance to the hospital. Me too, since I was alone in the house. It turned out that Varro and his older brother, Nico, were big believers in speed. Even as we rode to the hospital in the minivan, Nico was considering modifications to the ramp. Mrs. Dacien was having a heart attack.

From the passenger seat, I reached over and put my hand on her thigh, patted it gently, and told her everything would be all right. Once we were there, she took my hand in hers, rolled it palm up, kissed it, and pressed it to her cheek. She then parked where I wasn’t sure we were supposed to and marched through the emergency room doors after the paramedics. The fact that the nurses there greeted her by name, the looks on their faces sympathetic and not judgmental, clued me in that her boy was a frequent visitor. What was nice was that she had taken hold of my hand on the walk in and did not let go.

Five hours later, she, Nico, and I were home. Mr. Dacien—Ancel, Varro’s dad—was at the hospital with him, in Varro’s room keeping vigil over his son, crooning soft words in lilting French. I hugged Mrs. Dacien good-bye, waved to Nico, and headed back to my house, still dark even though it was after seven at night.

I never made it out of their yard. Mrs. Dacien came after me, took hold of my hand like she had all day, and pulled me back inside with her. She was on the phone to Child Protective Services minutes later. I never went back to the empty house next door.

People came—a social worker, a policeman—and my things, which fit in my one suitcase, were moved into the Daciens’ guest room. There was no fanfare, just Mrs. Dacien with her flashing eyes and crossed arms. Everyone scurried around her, intimidated by the woman talking about neglect and nonsupervision, my weight for my age, and the holes in my clothes. Who was supposed to be checking on me? What in the world was going on? Her voice rose with righteous indignation and judgment, and because no one had ever been mad for me, only at me, it was a revelation. It turned out her lawyer was a great deal scarier than anyone working for the state of California, so what normally would have taken months happened very quickly. Mrs. Dacien was not a patient woman, a trait she had passed on to both sons.

I saw the Rossers after that, but only in passing. They were nice people, both in their midsixties, and if they missed the money I brought in, they never acted like it. They still waved when I walked by their house for another two years before we moved, the Daciens and I, from Dublin, California, back to Manhattan, where the family was from originally. Mr. Dacien was a DOD contractor and worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I had no idea what he did there. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t tell me. All I knew was that when they moved, I went as well.

New York was a big change for me, but I fell in love with it very quickly. Central Park, the Met, the neighborhoods, the food, ice skating in the winter, and the subway. I told Mrs. Dacien it was exciting.

“No.” She shook her head. “The real adventure is the three of you.”

Just getting me and Nico and Varro to all our various activities took up a good portion of her day. At least one of us always had a game or a meet. Nico played football, basketball, and baseball; Varro played lacrosse and ran track, and he played soccer with me. I played hockey, which neither Varro nor Nico liked, as well as tennis. I also swam, which I loved the most. How she kept all our schedules together and kept us fed, I had no idea. It was a full-time job she always said she was thrilled to do. She loved her boys—me included—and was thrilled her family, as well as her husband’s, treated me the same as her birth sons.

I loved my new family. I had never known my own. My mother had turned me over to foster care when I was an infant, and there was no father listed on my birth certificate. Supposedly blond-haired, green-eyed little boys were in demand, but no one ever wanted me, so I got passed around the system until the day I saw Varro on the roof.

It turned out I had fallen in love at first sight.

When Varro came home from the hospital and saw me in the room across the hall, he was more than happy to have another brother to plot escapades with. When he found in me a willingness to follow, blindly, wherever he led, I quickly took Nico’s spot as his preferred partner in crime.

The bond just strengthened the older we got. It was always me and him, inseparable, and while Nico had at first been upset about being replaced, when he discovered girls we were forgotten anyway.

I didn’t get Nico’s fascination with every girl he saw. I had no interest in them, and by the time I hit high school, I understood why. Women were not alluring. They were nice, I liked them, but not to kiss or do anything else with. Men were a whole different story. The posters in my room were not on the walls because I loved the teams they played for, but instead for the various stages of undress. Removal of sports equipment was a convenient excuse for them to all be half naked. Of course, David Beckham was on the ceiling above my bed in all his tattooed glory, and when Varro was there, splayed out, he never missed a chance to remark on how weird it was.

“That would creep me out, waking up and seeing that poster every morning.”

By seventeen, it took everything in me not to say I wished it was him I could wake up to instead. More than anything, I wanted to sleep with my best friend, have him in my bed, between my sheets.

I dreamed about him being the one who did things to me I read about and saw pictures of on the Internet. Every cell in my body screamed for him, yearned for him. Having him in my room, close to me, stretched out beside me, was maddening, but worse was the realization that, just as Nico did, Varro loved girls. And they loved him back.

I finally got it through my head that my life was not a movie. My best friend would never one day just turn, grab me, and kiss me breathless, no matter how much I hoped. It was a painful realization, but owning it made me feel better, and soon after, I started putting distance between us.

When I came out, the Daciens were fine with it, supportive and accepting, giving me the same safe-sex lectures Varro and Nico got, especially since I was going away to college and they wouldn’t see me every day. Mrs. Dacien was worried as much about me not eating as she was about me not using a condom. I promised to be vigilant about both.

Leaving for school was easier than I thought it would be—with the one exception of Varro. Being apart after nine years of constant togetherness was painful.

It turned out the whole sharing-a-brain-with-someone thing was not something you could just turn off and on. I was in Chicago, getting my business degree, but Varro was calling, texting, and e-mailing me because he was excited to give me the news.

“Motorcycles?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No,” he snapped. “Why would I be kidding?”

“Why are you mad?”

He was always pissed off lately. The happy-go-lucky guy I’d known for years and years had disappeared once we weren’t living together anymore.

“I just don’t need one more person telling me it’s stupid.”

“So now I’m just another person.”

“No.”

“That’s what you just said.”

“Fuck you, Brian!” he yelled, and then he was gone.

I was stubborn and didn’t call back, so the next communication I got was an e-mail directing me to join the SuperbikeSteel website so I could watch videos and basically stay on top of all the news related to racing on the international stage. My foster brother, first crush, first love had decided he was going to race motorcycles for a living.

I called Nico, absolutely frantic.

“Don’t get me started.” He was trying not to hyperventilate himself.

A trust Varro’s grandfather had set up for him that he received when he turned twenty-one made his dream happen. We were all worried—the whole family—and when I checked in with Varro, finally got him on the phone, I asked him.

“Why not a car?”

“Too constrictive.” He yawned and made a noise like he was stretching, which I could imagine him doing. All the long muscles moving under his smooth skin…

“Brian?”

“Sorry.” I coughed. “But, uhm, motorcycles are dangerous, V.”

“Oh c’mon,” he husked. “Riding a motorcycle at two hundred miles an hour—it doesn’t get any better than that.”

I understood, of course. Speed had always been Varro’s greatest love.

And so it went. Nico and I were the boring ones: he was going to be a doctor; I was learning about finance and marketing. Varro called me from places like Monaco at all hours of the night and day, always drunk, always with noise in the background. Circumspect Varro was a thing of the past.

After I graduated with my bachelor’s in business administration, I went to work for a real estate developer while going to school for my MBA at night. It felt good; I was on track toward my goal of security. Varro didn’t get that. He wanted me to go on the road with him.

It became a weekly thing. He’d call from clubs, parties, places I didn’t want to know about, and beg me to come to wherever he was and stay with him.

“Are you doing body shots off a model?”

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

I’d groan and tell him I was hanging up.

“Just come stay with me.”

Always he entreated me to just get on a plane. And I understood: he didn’t know what had happened. It wasn’t his fault I fell in love with him. He wanted his best pal back, his adopted brother. I was the one carrying the torch and interfering with our lifelong friendship. But we were also simply growing up.

“We weren’t going to live together forever.”

“Why not?”

I was incredulous. “Because we’re grown men.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, you’re gonna want a family someday––so will I.”

He scoffed. “You’re my family, Brian.”

“I’m a member of your family, yeah, but—”

“No. You’re it.”

He didn’t understand.

“Come see me. Come watch me race.”

I felt like crap about it, but being around him, having him manhandle me, hug me, kiss me in the whole touchy-feely way he had, was agony. My body heated when I was near him, my skin ached to touch and be touched in return. I was hungry to taste him, and it was a consuming, unrequited desire. The only way I knew how to deal with it was to impose distance.

So I went home for Christmas only when I knew he couldn’t make it. Mrs. Dacien always had the same lament, that someday, before she died, she would like all her boys home together. Little did she know that I checked the Internet and his blog, stayed on top of his status on Twitter and Facebook to make sure I knew where he was at all times. There were no surprises. I became the master of last-minute changes.

“So you’re not coming now?” he would snarl into the phone from his parents’ home.

“No, I gotta work,” I reported, and really, it wasn’t a lie. I covered the office all the days before and after the holidays so people with families could have the time off. “I have a real job, you know?”

“Racing is—”

“A real thing, I know.”

“You’re such a dick sometimes.”

“Well, then, lucky for you, you don’t have to see me.”

He hung up and it hurt, like a knife in my gut, but it saved me the pain of seeing him and not having him. I was also sparing him the humiliation of being grossed out by my advances. I was keeping us both safe from a shitload of grief.

What I didn’t anticipate was that the better he got at his sport, the more dangerous it became. You had to keep taking bigger chances, the bikes got more powerful, and the competition grew so much more fierce.