BRAN KENDRICK had a crush. Objectively, he knew it was a crush. He knew nothing would come of it, that nothing could. That didn’t stop him from watching the short young man a year ahead of him passing him in the halls of Champlain College, laughing with his friends, brown eyes sparkling with amusement, that clever mouth quirking as he talked or set in concentration as he sat on the green, surrounded by people, and drew in the sketchpad that seemed permanently grafted to his hands.
It’s just a stupid crush, Bran told himself at night, curling his long frame up in his hard bed and trying desperately to ignore his obnoxious roommate, who’d clearly come to college for the beer pong.
But that didn’t stop Bran from going out of his way so he could cross the senior’s path just to catch a glimpse of him, hands waving animatedly in the middle of a discussion with several classmates. It was definitely Bran’s imagination that the young man winked at him as Bran passed, though.
The next day Bran saw him with his arm around a girl with short blonde hair, and his heart sank. He walked a little faster and tugged his hoodie up as he passed, very carefully not looking anywhere but straight ahead.
Dave’s voice rang out behind him. “Bran, hey, wait up!”
Bran pushed the hood back and shoved his brown hair out of his eyes as his friend jogged up to him, wheezing a little.
“You and your long legs, man. Where are you going in such a hurry?”
Bran hefted his books. “Class. College. Figured I should get something out of this education my brother’s helping me pay for.”
“Oh, right. I’ll walk you to class,” Dave said and fell into step beside him. “So how’s it going?”
“Fine,” Bran said, a little shortly.
“Did you see Malachi back there? I wish I had half his self-confidence.” Dave sighed and shifted his armload of textbooks.
“The… um… with the blonde girl? Is that his name?”
“Malachi Warren. Yep.”
“Do you know him?” Bran desperately hoped his tone was casual, but he had a feeling it wasn’t.
“Only a little. We have a few mutual friends, but he’s crazy popular, so he doesn’t have much time for a loser like me.”
Bran rounded on the shorter man, glaring at him. “You are not a loser, Dave. You’re funny and smart and you play the guitar like Bruce Springsteen wishes he could and you’re an amazing writer and don’t you dare call yourself a loser again, do you hear me?”
Dave blinked at him, stunned.
“Well said, Bran!” came a merry voice from behind him, and Bran spun to find Malachi smiling at him, the blonde girl nowhere to be seen.
Bran’s mouth fell open, and he couldn’t figure out how to form words.
Malachi just winked, slapping Dave on the shoulder as he swung past them. “Listen to your friend, Dave. He speaks truth.” With that, he was gone, whistling a jaunty tune, hands shoved in his pockets.
Bran and Dave stared after him, speechless.
Bran could only manage a single thought: He knows my name.
FRIDAY BROUGHT invitations to several parties on and off campus, but Bran turned them all down. He worked bright and early Saturday morning, and he’d never been fond of hangovers.
Instead he stayed in and studied, or tried to. His mind stubbornly refused to focus on literature and kept straying to golden-brown eyes and mobile eyebrows, chestnut hair that wouldn’t stay in place, and expressive hands.
Bran sighed and dropped his textbook, collapsing back onto his pillow. This was ridiculous. And it wasn’t like it could even go anywhere, not once Malachi knew what Bran was.
Bran hadn’t figured it out for himself until his last year of high school, and he hadn’t told anyone, not even his brother Callan.
The word had dropped in passing on a TV show he and Callan had been watching, and on a whim, Bran had looked it up. It was simply defined as the lack of sexual attraction, experienced by approximately 1 percent of the population. He was still a virgin, so he didn’t know for sure, but he thought he might be willing to have sex for the sake of his partner, if they understood that he didn’t feel sexual desire and had no need for orgasms.
In any case, he’d been shocked to discover that the term described him perfectly, and the welling sense of relief that maybe he wasn’t just a freak—or that if he was, then at least there were other freaks out there like him—gave him a sense of peace he hadn’t dared hope for. So maybe he still had a lot to figure out, but at least he had a name for what he was.
But Malachi had a girlfriend. And Bran didn’t know if he was even interested in guys. And even if he was, he’d never want someone who wasn’t really interested in sex.
Bran rubbed his face and groaned. He picked up his textbook and started reading aloud, hoping that would help him focus.
EVEN IN early September, Vermont meant that Saturday morning dawned crisp and cool, and Bran tugged on his favorite beanie and scarf before making the trek across campus to the Grind, the tiny coffee shop that was his main source of income.
He couldn’t help the smile that flickered across his face when he walked into the kitchen, breathing in the smells of bread, cinnamon, almonds, and toasted sugar. He could feel the tension draining from his shoulders as he mentally flipped through the list of things he needed to do before he opened the café.
Start the blueberry muffins first. They can bake while I put together the topping for the coffee cake. Sweet-talk the cappuccino maker into starting up and leave yet another note for Naomi about getting a new one. Put the croissants in the oven last; I really need to set aside a couple of days to perfect making those myself so I can actually recommend them with a clear conscience. Call Katie and find out where the hell she is and why I’m here alone again.
He spent the morning making cappuccinos, espressos, and Americanos for the students who straggled in, bleary-eyed and hungover from the night before. He knew a lot of them—it wasn’t a large college, after all—and he dispensed smiles and the occasional aspirin along with the blueberry muffins and croissants.
When the bell jingled midmorning, Bran was in the back. He was handling the store alone, since Katie had phoned in sick.
“Be right there!” he called. He tugged a tray of muffin batter out of the massive refrigerator and slid it into the industrial-size oven before wiping his hands on his apron and hurrying back into the storefront.
Only to slam on the brakes and stare at Malachi leaning against the counter, smiling at him.
“Um,” Bran said eloquently.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Malachi agreed. “What’s good this morning?”
Bran dragged his brain into gear. “The, uh, coffee cake is decent. I made it myself. Or the blueberry muffins. I don’t recommend the croissants—we don’t make them in-house.”
“Coffee cake sounds good, Bran! Can I have a hot chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles with that, please?”
“Sure,” Bran said, and he moved to obey, mind whirling.
Malachi leaned on the counter and watched him, and Bran still couldn’t figure out what to say.
“Did you go to any good parties last night?” Malachi asked, and Bran jumped.
“I, uh, no,” Bran said, cursing his fumbling tongue. “Had to study. I don’t… party much.” And there goes any chance of Malachi wanting to get to know me, he thought a little despairingly.
“I know what you mean,” Malachi said, and Bran turned to stare at him, nearly dropping the coffee cake. Malachi lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, I party plenty, don’t get me wrong. But this English class is kicking my ass, and I can’t seem to get my head wrapped around it.”
“Do you have a study group?”
“I did,” Malachi said, popping a toothpick in his mouth. “But we went our separate ways at the end of last year, and I haven’t found anyone else to work with yet.”
“You should talk to Dave,” Bran said, and then he wanted to kick himself. Why hadn’t he volunteered himself? He could study with a senior, couldn’t he?
“Dave’s a great guy,” Malachi agreed, “but what about you?”
Bran did drop the coffee cake that time, and stood there staring at the mess on the floor for way too long. Idiot. He went to his knees and began picking up shards of pottery.
“You okay down there?” Malachi asked.
“Fine,” Bran said, and then he gasped as he sliced his hand on a sharp edge, blood welling up and then dripping onto the mangled coffee cake on the floor.
Malachi rounded the counter and pushed Bran away from the wreckage, gripping his wrist. “You idiot, what were you thinking?” His voice was warm with concern, and Bran couldn’t think of anything but how gentle Malachi’s hand was on his skin.
Malachi reached up, grabbed a clean towel from the counter, and wrapped it around Bran’s hand with deft movements. Then he stood up. “Stay there,” he told him, and disappeared.
Bran obeyed, resting his head against the cabinet. Dimly, he heard Malachi’s voice and the jingle of the coffee shop door. Silence fell.
That was that, then. Bran sighed. He was a klutz, and he’d scared off the cutest boy he’d ever seen by being a fumbling idiot who didn’t know how to talk to people like a normal person.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when Malachi appeared above him again.
“Whoa, hey, easy there!” Malachi said, grabbing his shoulder.
“I… thought you left,” Bran said, then wanted to kick himself.
“Nah, I closed the shop. Kicked out the few people savoring their muffins and locked the doors behind ’em. We’ve got the place to ourselves. Now get up, c’mon, we need to clean that wound and bandage it properly.” He steadied Bran by the arm as he levered himself to his feet, holding the red-soaked towel aloft with a grimace.
“Not feeling faint from blood loss, are you?” Malachi asked, steering him toward the back.
Bran shook his head. He was light-headed but it wasn’t blood loss. It was the firm hand that held his arm, steadying him as he led Bran to the bathroom, and the concern in those bright brown eyes.
Malachi opened the bathroom door and tugged Bran inside. It was a tiny room, and Bran held his breath at his proximity to the other young man. Malachi turned on the sink and unwrapped the towel with careful fingers. Bran hissed as it pulled at the edges of the gash, and Malachi winced.
“Sorry, kiddo,” he murmured. He dropped the bloody towel on the floor and held Bran’s hand under the running water, tightening his grip when Bran involuntarily pulled back at the stinging pain. “Gotta clean it out,” he reminded him. “Where’s your first-aid kit?”
“Under the sink,” Bran managed through his teeth.
Malachi fumbled for it one-handed, his soft hair brushing Bran’s arm as he bent down, and Bran swallowed hard.
Malachi came up triumphantly with the kit clutched in his fist and set it on the edge of the sink. After turning off the faucet, he gave Bran a gentle push toward the closed toilet lid.
“Sit. I’m gonna put my astounding first-aid skills to work here, and I don’t need you passing out halfway through. I need constant positive feedback or I shrivel up and die, you know.”
Bran huffed a laugh and sat down. “Are you a trained medical professional?” he teased, and Malachi grinned at him.
“Nah, I just play one on TV.” He examined the edges of the wound, tsking to himself. “The bleeding’s almost stopped, and I don’t think it’ll need stitches, but I can take you to the emergency room if you want?”
Bran’s head swam at the thought of having that long with Malachi, of being in a car with him, having his attention, but he shook his head regretfully.
“I can’t leave the store,” he said. “There’s muffins in the oven and, I have a lot more to bake, and Naomi would kill me if I took off now, especially since Katie’s not here to cover.”
“Sense of duty, huh?” Malachi said as he pressed gauze into place and began to wrap the wound. “I like that in a man.”
Bran blinked. Was Malachi… flirting with him? He fumbled for something to say, something witty, something that would make Malachi laugh, but then the moment passed, and Malachi was standing back to admire his handiwork.
“I can’t guarantee you’ll play the piano again,” he said, “But you’ll be able to impress all the girls with your wicked scar, so that’s something, right?”
“I’m not… interested in girls,” Bran mumbled, ducking his head.
There was silence from above him for a moment, and then Malachi laughed quietly. “Neither is my brother. Me, I figure the more the merrier.”
“What, like threesomes?” Bran said, then nearly clapped his hand over his mouth.
Malachi snorted. “No, I mean I don’t care what someone has down their pants. Attraction, for me, isn’t based on gender. But Tris is like you: he’s gay. Although he’s also the most socially awkward dude I’ve ever met, so if he ever gets a boyfriend, I may keel over in shock.”
“I’m not gay either,” Bran blurted. He wanted to run, to hide and never look at the young man standing in front of him, but at the same time a weird feeling of relief was stealing over him. Malachi was the first person he’d told. Come what may, he’d admitted to someone what he was, and that was a step forward, no matter how Malachi reacted.
Malachi was utterly still above him, and Bran swallowed hard. This was it, the part where Malachi told him to have a nice life and took off back to his normal friends.
Malachi tilted Bran’s chin up, and Bran’s eyes widened as he met his gaze.
“Nothing to be ashamed of, kiddo. So you’re ace?”
Bran nodded jerkily.
Malachi smiled at him. “Are you aromantic too?”
“I, uh….” Bran floundered for words.
“Haven’t gotten that far in your research yet?” Malachi winked at him. “Look it up. We can talk about it when we get together to study tomorrow.”
Bran stared at him. When had they agreed to that?
“In the meantime, you have a coffee shop to run, so let’s get you back to it, shall we?” He flapped his hands at him until Bran took the hint and stood up, feeling a mile tall as he towered over the shorter man. Malachi just tilted his head back and grinned up at him. Then he shooed him out of the bathroom and back into the store, where he grabbed a chair from the dining area and dragged it behind the counter.
“Sit,” he said firmly, and he cocked an eyebrow when Bran hesitated. “You can’t serve food with an open wound, kiddo. So you’re going to direct me and work the register, and I’m gonna run this place for you.”
Bran just stared at him as Malachi grabbed the dustpan and began cleaning up the coffee cake mess on the floor.
Malachi whistled as he cleaned and then opened the front door, and Bran stayed quiet and watched him, head swimming.
Malachi hadn’t run. He hadn’t disappeared when Bran had told him what he was. Why not? Bran was different, not normal. Malachi couldn’t possibly be interested in Bran, so why was he still hanging around?
Malachi snapped his fingers, and Bran blinked, looking up.
“You’ve got a customer, kid, and the oven just dinged at me. Either it’s flirting with me, or the muffins inside are done. Could go either way. What do you want me to do?”
Bran gathered his thoughts. “Um, get the muffins out, put the tray on the cooling rack back there, and set the timer for five minutes. Then you’ll take them out of the tray, but they need to set up a bit before you do that or they’ll collapse.”
Malachi winked. “You got it.”
He disappeared, and Bran stood up to take the first customer’s order with a smile on his face.
THE MORNING passed far too quickly for Bran’s liking. He and Malachi worked well together, stepping around each other in a smooth dance as they maneuvered for room in the small space. Bran relaxed enough to laugh at Malachi’s jokes and even make a few of his own. He discovered that he really liked Malachi’s laugh, the way his head fell back and his mirth came tumbling out, the way his eyes turned golden and his shoulders shook.
When two o’clock rolled around, Bran greeted his replacement, Blake, with a sigh that was equal parts relieved and disappointed. He’d had more fun than he remembered having all year, but his hand was throbbing, and he desperately wanted to curl up in bed with some painkillers.
He explained the situation to the freshman, whose eyebrows climbed his forehead in surprise, then tugged his apron off and threw it in the dirty-laundry bin in the back. Malachi followed suit, tossing a cheerful wave at Blake as he stayed on Bran’s heels out the door.
“So, three o’clock tomorrow?” Malachi asked.
Bran blinked. He’d forgotten all about the study date Malachi had suggested. But he was free tomorrow, so… why not? He nodded.
“I’ll ask Dave if he wants to come along,” he said.
A flash of something crossed Malachi’s face. Was it… disappointment? But he just smiled. “I’m in Cushing, room 12. See you then. I’ll tell you all about the time my friends and I filled our buddy’s room with Styrofoam packing peanuts!” And he walked off, hands in his pockets again.