CHAPTER ONE

TEN O’CLOCK on a Friday and Warren Douglas was burning up the night. Life of the party, that was him, the center of everyone’s attention. Showing his moves, pulling every bystander into his spell, asking with a glance or a smile, Will you be the one?

Right. Warren scribbled a red 91 at the top of an organic chemistry exam and dropped it over the edge of the couch into the messy pile of blue booklets all bearing lower numbers. Some action, here at Club Living Room, where the music throbbed from bookshelf speakers attached to an iPod and the drinks were whatever chilled in the fridge. Taking another pull from the cola can, he made a face at the slightly bitter tang lurking under the chemical sweetness. Chad bought diet soda again. Didn’t he look at the labels?

That wasn’t fair. Warren’s roommate did look at labels, at least when the food had labels. The kitchen had yielded a bag of fresh snow peas as the closest thing to an actual snack. Not a chip or a pretzel to be found, not a chocolate or even a stale gummy bear. Warren had considered adding cheese poofies to the shopping list, but if he was going to get his allotment of modified corn starch and orange salt, he’d have to do the weekly grocery run himself. And then eat his contraband in his room, where Chad never came and wouldn’t observe each toxic morsel with that strange mixture of loathing and longing he’d silently directed at Warren’s last bag of potato chips.

Warren bit into another snow pea and turned his attention to the next student’s imaginings of how alcohols oxidized to aldehydes. All this healthy eating was going to kill him.

Starving grad student that he was, he still didn’t have to be grading the Chemistry 202 exams on a Friday night. Tick. Double bonds have two lines, not one, oh student who cannot be broken of sleeping in class. His slender frame looked good in the mesh T-shirts and tight jeans now lying at the back of the bottom drawer, where somehow they’d migrated for lack of use. When had he become such a stay-at-home? Tick—the electron goes from here to here, oh student who needs to see me during office hours. A year ago he would have been shaking his booty and batting his mascara’d lashes down at The Underground or studying applied ethanol chemistry at Shenanigans with his arm around that night’s chosen “study-buddy.”

Seven months ago Warren’s roommate and favorite partner in clubbing left Boulder, Colorado, with his newly minted PhD and headed west to Santa Cruz to pursue his flipto-glipto-plipto-kinases or whatever the hell his enzyme of interest was. Six months ago one of Warren’s former students moved in. A student who had stayed awake during both Chem 201 and 202 sections and broke the curve on tests. A student who had asked intelligent questions during study sections and bolted for the door fifteen minutes before the hour, a long, clanking athletic bag slung over his shoulder. A student three semesters past taking any class Warren was responsible for.

Five months ago, Warren ate his last bag of chips.

Another snow pea died in his jaws. Maybe if he salted the damned things, he could pretend they were junk food. Sometimes, salt, fat, and empty calories washed down with a beer were the correct accompaniment for stupid tasks.

Beer—another item that didn’t grace their kitchen. Chad never said a word when Warren brought home a six-pack, but drinking alone when Mr. Sprouts had a glass of water made Warren feel like a lush. He’d offered to share. And Chad had reached out, only to drop his hand at the last moment. “I have a match tomorrow” had been his reason then, but he’d never reached again. Good for him and his discipline, but still…. He’d wanted it, and why couldn’t he have one stupid beer once in a while? The guy was over twenty-one, as if it really mattered. Okay, he was in training, but it wasn’t like he was headed to the Olympics.

The rest of that six-pack had gone to a football game at a fellow grad student’s house and never been replaced. Warren didn’t need a beer badly enough to torture his roommate, and if he wanted a brew that badly, he could get one at the club. Which he didn’t and he hadn’t, and instead, here he was on a Friday night, grading exams as an exciting contrast to last Friday, when he’d read nuclear-magnetic resonance charts of the latest molecule in his planned synthesis. That doctoral dissertation wasn’t going to write itself.

At least Chad was out having a good time. With some girl who’d called every day for two weeks before Chad agreed to meet her for a movie on campus. Warren scrawled “64 See me during office hours” on the blue booklet and let it fall to the floor. Three more to go.

The front door opened and shut, and Chad was no longer out. Judging from his face, he hadn’t had a good time while he was.

“Uh-oh, she just wasn’t that into you?” Warren diagnosed the problem. “Or did the movie suck?”

“The movie was fine. Something in French with subtitles, but survivable.” Chad pulled his arms out of his lightweight black jacket and hung it on the hook by the door.

“What was it about?” Warren couldn’t recall what was playing in the art house series that week. He hadn’t been to a movie in a while. Too date-y to do with Chad. Their first movie would be their last movie if Warren forgot how un-date-y it was and slipped his hand into Chad’s. They’d had a really good time at the Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland last week, though. Chad came in sixth in frozen turkey bowling.

“No idea.” Chad knuckled one eye. “I had a headache, couldn’t concentrate.”

“That’s too bad.” Warren had his own headache from trying to read chemical formulas in faint pencil on low-quality paper. “What else did you do?”

“I friend-zoned myself.”

Not having met Chad’s current dating disappointment, Warren didn’t know why that was a good idea. “Huh. Because…?”

Chad shrugged, making his deep purple polo strain at his shoulders and rise over his belly. Another layer showed its hem, a white T-shirt. Guess he’d expected the theater to be chilly. “It was just going that way, and I figured I’d save her the trouble of finding some kind words to drape around the fact.”

Warren sat up and pulled his own shirt back into position. Tugging it down even farther might disguise his reaction to a sliver of flesh peeking for an instant from beneath the layers of fabric. “I thought she was the one pursuing you.”

“She was.” Chad glanced away. “Boy was she.”

“I don’t understand.” The pursuit Warren understood just fine. The transition to friend zone, that had him confused, headache or no. “Didn’t you just skip over weeks or months of what could be some good times before calling it off?”

“Good times for who?” Chad pussy-footed through the living room to their tiny kitchen. “Sec, let me get some ibuprofen and an antihistamine. My sinuses are killing me.” He returned with a glass of water. “Better just to cut to the chase.” Warren swung his feet off the second cushion, freeing up some space for Chad to sit. A little bit of gut overlapped his jeans but the general physique was good, six feet tall and some width to his shoulders. Maybe a tad ample in the rear, but what was a cushiony bum between friends, besides fun?

Warren would be happy to cut to the chase, if Chad wanted to be the quarry. Or better yet, the pursuer. “So, you just discount the option of going out a time or two, seeing what develops, maybe you like each other, maybe you get laid, maybe it lasts, or maybe it’s just fun while it lasts?”

“If that’s how it goes, it would be fine. But….” Chad buried his face in the glass, sipping for what seemed like a very long time for a very small amount of fluid. Warren watched his profile—eyes closed to lay sandy lashes against his cheek, partially disguising the dark circles that seemed to be a permanent fixture. His straight nose with the hint of upturn at the end bent farther with the glass’s refraction, and his Adam’s apple bobbed slowly. The level of his drink didn’t seem to be changing.

“But…?” If he didn’t like her at least enough to try for what seemed like the dating minimum, why’d he go out with her at all?

Chad glanced at Warren, then found something fascinating at the bottom of his glass. “But what will happen is that we like each other, except she likes me, and pretty soon it devolves into screaming and tears and accusations, and then we can’t get to the friend zone because she’s convinced I think she’s a dog, or stupid, or… or… or something I don’t think at all, and then I get to feel bad, and she gets to feel bad, and I’d kind of like to skip over all that crap and just be friends.”

“Oh.” Warren cast back over the last six months. He’d landed in the friend zone shortly after Chad moved in. Maybe they’d skipped past a lot of screaming because Chad had known coming in Warren was gay; all he’d ever offered Chad was a beer and some chips. Warren counted. “So of the four women you’ve gone out with since you moved in, how many are friends?”

“Two.” Chad set his glass down on the scarred pine coffee table in front of the couch. “Wish it was all of them, but…. They get so mad.”

How did anybody get mad at Chad? Were they insane? He never rocked the boat. He never made demands, although he tended to get things his way just by silent negotiation. Plus he was cute and athletic, even with the bit of dunlap. Probably Chad was the single most restful person Warren had ever lived with, and the best company at everything from a basketball game to their morning runs. “Why?”

“I don’t know why, and I don’t want to talk about it.” Chad leaned back against the cushions, tipping his head as if he hoped his sinuses might drain. His light brown hair fell back away from his face.

Warren forced his eyes to Chad’s face, away from that exposed throat that needed to be licked. “If you don’t know why it’s a problem, it’s going to keep being a problem.”

Chad opened one blue eye enough to glare sideways. “I mean, I do know why, but not the why of the why.”

“Then you don’t know why.” Warren opened the second-to-last blue booklet. A guy who didn’t want to talk might accidentally talk to someone who didn’t seem to be paying complete attention. Like this student when the professor discussed vinylogous esters. He drew red lines through the first three problems.

“I guess I haven’t met the right one yet.” Chad started massaging below his eyes, as if he could push whatever fullness in his sinuses out right through a layer of bone.

That was his second antihistamine today. At least. Maybe third or fourth. His allergies had to be terrible, except he never seemed red or puffy or congested. Maybe the pills worked that much. Good thing they didn’t have a cat. Enough pollen and crap floated around Boulder all year to keep anybody’s sinuses full.

“Could be,” Warren agreed, leaving red arrows on a molecule to indicate how the reaction should go, which wasn’t at all the way this student had drawn it. “What do you think will be different with the right one?”

Maybe Chad was really stirring his thoughts around with his fingertips on his forehead. “I’ll….”

Warren let him ponder, finishing the disastrous test and getting halfway into the last, which fortunately for his faith in students, had been written by someone who actually studied and understood the material. “You’ll…?” he prompted softly.

“I’ll get exci—” Chad sat up abruptly, maybe too fast. His angry eyes lost focus. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You okay? You looked a little swimmy there for a minute.” Chad’s words almost got lost in Warren’s concern.

“Just the med kicking in.” Chad seemed to be collecting himself by force of will. “I should go to bed. I have practice in the morning.” He scooted forward to the edge of the couch, as if standing needed more planning.

“Okay.” Should Warren believe that? How much loratidine did it take to make you woozy? Did it even work that fast? He leaned forward, watching Chad sway. “Um, going back to that ‘right one’ business. Ever consider that the right one might not be a girl?”

“Uh….”

Okay, that wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no, either. It wasn’t an answer at all, even followed by “Huh.”

“Girls aren’t the right ones for everybody.” Warren dropped the last exam, an easily graded 95, in the general vicinity of the rest. He’d get them in the morning. Right now he needed to be standing just in case Chad wobbled when he hit upright. “Give it some thought.”

On his feet now, Chad looked a little shaky. For a silent moment he stood, though it wasn’t clear whether he was forcing his body to behave or thinking.

“Uh. You’re a scientist….” Why did Chad make that sound like a question? Unless it was part of his medicine head. “I need some data.”

Oh. Oh!

Warren didn’t flinch or pull away when Chad leaned in. Both his hands rested on Warren’s upper arms, which didn’t keep him from lurching forward so fast Warren thought he’d get hit in the face with Chad’s forehead. But no, he stopped short and came in slow for the last inch. Eyes open and questioning, he didn’t stop, but met Warren’s mouth in a smooth, gentle kiss. Lips not quite parted, he brushed against Warren’s, searching, not demanding.

What had gotten into him? Warren kissed back, not too startled to respond in kind, adding nothing that might frighten Chad away. He wouldn’t lift his arms, he wouldn’t offer tongue, but he would meet Chad’s mouth for as long as he was offered it. He had to tip his face up slightly and fight to stay in place when he wanted nothing more than to step forward into Chad’s arms, to plaster himself against that inviting chest, and thrust his tongue into the depths of Chad’s mouth.

Chad’s eyes were blue drowning to black, his pupils dilated widely. Questions, but not fear, dwelled behind his irises, questions that Warren wanted to answer for him. Yes, you like this, yes, you want more, yes, you want it with me. Yes.

But they were Chad’s questions, and they remained even after he pulled back.

“Do you….” Warren had to clear his throat. “Do you need any more data?” Like how hard is my cock, and what does it feel like in your hand or your mouth or your ass? Did that kiss make you as hard as it made me, and what will you let me do to make you come on my skin? Chad’s support kept Warren from swaying on knees newly weak, or maybe they wavered together.

“I probably do,” Chad muttered. “But not tonight. Sorry.” He lifted one hand to press against his face.

“You’ve got a headache.” Had he kept the sarcasm out of his voice? Lord, he hoped so. Warren knew from the minute Chad walked in that he was hurting; it wasn’t an excuse. “Sex has been known to improve headaches.”

“Not in my experience.” Taking his hand away from Warren’s arm gave Chad two hands to press against his face. “And I don’t think I’m ready for that much data yet.” He shifted his hands so the bases of his palms pressed below his eye sockets. “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I don’t want to be a tease.”

“I don’t want to be in the friend zone if there’s a way out of it.” Warren swallowed hard. He’d said that, when he’d never said a thing about wanting Chad. Of course he’d never make a pass at a straight guy. And he hadn’t made a pass just now. Chad had come on to him, for the scant moments it had lasted.

As an experiment. Fuck.

“If there’s not, I need to know before I get my hopes up.” Everything else was already up, but deflating fast in this discussion. “I don’t want to waste a friendship over you having a college gay fling.”

Chad took his hands away from his face. He hadn’t been able to press the pain lines off his forehead. “I don’t do flings. And I try really hard not to get anyone’s hopes up. But you—you made me think. So I needed to know, and if I can’t kiss a friend, who should I kiss? Someone I don’t trust?”

Put like that…. “Okay. Good night. I hope your head stops hurting.”

“Me too.” Chad grimaced. “Maybe I can sleep it off. I need to be on my toes tomorrow. Master Daniel’s seeding for a tournament.”

“Good luck.”

Chad turned toward his bedroom, his hands against his face again. Warren watched him go, his fingers against his lips. Chad had kissed him, Chad trusted him, and there might be more. It would have to do for tonight. But damn, he wanted more.