SNOW CRINGED back toward Professor Kingsley as the group of visiting students glanced at him and giggled.
“—face like a girl.”
“Doesn’t look all that formidable.”
Snow turned away. Yes, he looked different. Well, different since he happened to be a guy. Yes, he hated it.
The visiting professor, Jacobs, frowned at his protégés, but didn’t seem to be trying very hard to make them act better. They stared, whispered, and laughed.
Professor Kingsley leaned down. “Wipe up the floor with this guy. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch.” Turning to the crowd, he clapped his hands and raised his voice. “Thank you all for coming. Today’s exhibition match between Grandmaster Professor Herman Jacobs and Grandmaster Snowden Reynaldi is about to begin.”
A chessboard and two game clocks were set up on a table raised on a small platform. The hundred or so people in the room pressed toward it. Professor Kingsley leaned over to Snow again. “Have fun, but don’t take too much time. We need to start practicing for the Anderson Tournament, and you need your rest.”
“Yes, sir.” Snow walked over to the table. Jacobs already occupied the chair in the “power” spot with the best lighting and view from his seat. He faced the black pieces. Snow flipped his hair over his shoulder and slipped into the chair opposite. A tall guy, probably twenty or so—about Snow’s age—walked over to Jacobs. He glanced at Snow and cocked a half smile. “Get this done fast, Prof. We all want to go out for drinks to celebrate.”
Jacobs laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He nodded his head. “Grandmaster.”
The referee stepped up and held out his closed hands. Jacobs tapped the left. The referee opened his hand. Black. That meant Snow moved first.
A little rumble from Jacobs’s group of students showed their displeasure.
Snow gazed at the board, vaguely aware the timers had started. In his brain, pieces floated on a sea of white, every move possible. His hand drifted into the storm and shifted the king pawn two spaces to e4. Measured and therefore absolute. His hand slapped the game clock.
Jacobs shifted in his chair. He glanced up. The muscles around his mouth tightened as he slid his bishop pawn two spaces to f5.
Snow kept his face placid. Trying to tempt me. So silly. His fingers snaked out. Capture at f5. Bam. He hit the game clock.
Jacobs frowned ever so slightly. Snow caught the movement, and his eyes flicked up—
Oh my. Oh. His breath caught. What a sight.
There he stood behind Jacobs, like a statue, one hand under his chin, the other supporting his elbow, eyes as golden as a chess trophy gazing at the board. His slim mouth curved upward as if he saw perfectly what Snow would do next, as if he saw Snow himself, saw through him. Prince. Riley Prince. His body was as tall, hard-muscled, and lean as the fairy tale his name suggested.
Here. He’s here.
His ever-present critic sniped You don’t think he came to see you, do you?
Snow’s hand reached out like it wanted to touch the prince.
What? Wake up!
Snow blinked and saw Riley’s golden brows draw together and his eyes flick up to Snow. Wide-eyed. Worried.
Snow took a breath and looked over to where his opponent stared at him with a little smirk. A glance at the board showed the man had moved his pawn to g5. Snow glared at his own hand, still suspended in space. Dear God, he’d nearly touched the piece. At their level, an illegal touch would have required a penalty and a possible loss. Wouldn’t every one of Jacobs’s students love to tell the story of how Snowden Reynaldi made a rookie mistake and lost to their professor? The game didn’t count, but his reputation did.
Get this over with.
But his eyes wouldn’t focus on the board. They wanted to look at Riley Prince again. Snow glanced up toward Riley.
Riley gazed at him, a tiny crease between his brows.
Don’t worry, my prince.
Every one of Jacobs’s students had a broad smile. Professor Kingsley looked neutral, which often meant he was worried.
Snow turned his head back to the board. Enough. He reached out a fingertip and gently persuaded his lovely lady to the edge of the board. Queen to h5. King trapped. He nodded. “Checkmate.”
He sat back, finished. All he wanted was to gaze at that perfect face.
The students gasped. Jacobs’s eyes widened. “No.” He stared at the board.
Riley smiled and applauded with the others in the small audience, which made Snow’s heart beat harder.
I could go over there. Say hello. Introduce myself. His stomach knotted.
His stupid inner critic, which had been his constant companion since childhood, said, Don’t be an idiot. Why would he want to talk to you?
Snow tried to look at Jacobs, who was still staring at the board, but his eyes drifted back to that beautiful face. A profile reminiscent of an ancient coin.
As he watched, a pretty girl stepped up beside Riley and slipped her hand through the crook of his arm. She stretched up to whisper something in his ear. Riley chuckled. Snow sighed. The golden girl to go with the golden boy. Courtney Taylor, yearbook queen. Of course, what his prince deserved.
Snow blinked once, twice, then looked down to the chessboard again.
Don’t want to watch.
What did you think? He just came here to see her.
“Son of a—” Jacobs swallowed and plastered on a smile. “In three fu—flaming moves. You got me.” He shrugged. “I guess I came to get beat, Reynaldi.”
Snow nodded but stared at the board. “I was just lucky.”
Jacobs snorted. “Cut me a break, Grandmaster. You haven’t been ‘just lucky’ at this game since you were three. Your modesty doesn’t become you.”
Snow’s head felt heavy. He didn’t look up. Jacobs’s hand thrust into his field of vision. “Thanks for the game. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to give you more of a go.”
Smile. Turn up your lips. “It was fun.”
Another snort. “Yeah, easy for you to say. Thanks again.”
As Jacobs walked away, someone patted Snow’s shoulder. “Good job, Snow. Guess you showed him not to mess with NorCal University.”
Snow ducked his head but really smiled this time. Hard to understand, but a lot of the students didn’t mind that he was shy and weird. They liked that he helped make NorCal famous.
Jacobs’s students had quit whispering. They stared at him now like he’d turned into a giant reptile. Was it better to be feared than ridiculed?
Just part of the game.
Professor Kingsley’s voice rang out over the large room. “Special thanks to Herman Jacobs for participating in our exhibition challenge today. Anyone wishing to join the chess club, we have sign-up forms on the table by the door, and there are refreshments in the connecting room.”
Snow craned his neck, staring around. No giant golden gods anywhere.
A hand grabbed his arm. “Hey, Snow, I knew a three-move checkmate was possible, but how did you know you could use it on him?”
Snow tried to refocus his eyes to stare at the guy. Didn’t remember his name. “I, uh, I don’t know.”
“But you must follow a string of logic.”
Snow shook his head. “No, all moves are possible. Until they aren’t.”
“I don’t get it.”
Professor Kingsley’s voice came from behind him. “It’s okay, Barry. Snow’s a physicist. He plays chess based on fundamental quantum theory.”
Snow glanced around the room. Where did Riley go so fast?
Barry frowned. “But if you look at the Fisher game versus—”
The professor slipped an arm around Snow’s back, dislodging Barry’s hold. “Sorry, son, I need to borrow Snow right now. We’ll discuss it at the next club meeting, okay?”
“Oh, sorry. Sure, no worries.”
“Not a problem.” He led Snow away and into the room where people gathered to drink punch and eat cookies. “You doing okay?”
Snow smiled. “Yeah, fine.”
“Thank you. He walked into it.”
The professor patted his arm. “I’m sure.” He grinned, which gave his handsome face an impish quality. “I must confess to a certain delight at your decimation of Jacobs. He was so sure he could bring his chess club here and at least play you to a draw. He’s such an ass.”
Snow smiled and nodded. Making the professor happy. Definitely a top five favorite thing.
“But no more Mickey Mousing around with exhibitions. Starting next week, we’ll go into serious training for the Anderson.”
“We need to work on your confidence in front of people too. The big prize at the Anderson and the quality of the competitors will attract a lot of press and fans. You’re going to have to survive it.”
Just the idea made him sickish. Snow glanced at the big table laden with every kind of sweet thing, which the students were decimating. “Oh look. All your favorite desserts.” He laughed.
Professor Kingsley made a face. Nobody hated candy more—especially marshmallows. He said they were a waste of air.
“Harold.” A hand descended on the professor’s shoulder.
Snow sucked in a little breath. Coach McMasters. The football coach. Did he bring Riley?
Kingsley turned and shook the big man’s hand. “Kurt, good to see you. Not exactly your usual hangout.”
“Actually, I knew I’d catch you here. I’ve got a problem you can help me with.”
Snow took a step back. “I’ll leave you—”
“No, no, this will only take a second. Don’t mean to disturb your celebration. It’s just that I need a physics coach. Uh, tutor, I guess. One of my boys is struggling in physics. He needs the credit to graduate, so he can’t drop it, but if he falls below a C, he’s not eligible to play, so he’ll have to pull out. I thought you might have someone who could help him.”
“I’m sure I can find someone to help. Who’s the boy?”
“Riley. Riley Prince.”
Snow felt his mouth open and forced it shut.
Professor Kingsley chuckled. “What? Your prince of the gridiron isn’t infallible?”
McMasters shrugged. “He’s smart enough. The best on the field, as you know. He just doesn’t get physics.”
The words popped out of Snow’s mouth. “He understands chess. Physics shouldn’t be hard. He must be approaching it wrong.”
The professor cocked his head. “How do you know he understands chess?”
“Oh, uh, I don’t, I guess. It’s just that he was here, and I thought I saw him anticipating my move.”
McMasters frowned. “He was here?”
Kingsley got a funny little smile. “Is that when you almost missed the move?”
“Who almost missed a move? Not my Snowball.” An arm slipped around Snow’s waist, and he glanced back to see Winston. Snow stepped forward to avoid the embrace, but the professor standing beside him gave him no place to go, and Winston managed to kiss his cheek. “Hi. What did I miss?”
The professor smiled. “Only Snowden wiping out Jacobs in three moves, that’s all.”
“Well, of course. So how could he have missed a move if he only made three?” Winston laughed.
“Not important. He won handily.”
Winston gave Snow a little hug. “So are you ready to go celebrate your victory?”
Snow shook his head. “It was nothing special. I don’t need to celebrate.”
“That’s okay. I don’t need a special reason to party.” Winston laughed again, and Professor Kingsley nodded approvingly. As the only two out gay men in the physics department, they’d been pushed together, and the professor strongly approved of Snow having “companionship.” Probably because he was lonely himself since his wife died. Snow liked Winston okay. Still, his heart yearned elsewhere.
Suddenly the double doors that led from the classroom into the courtyard beyond burst open. Snow looked up. Who?
The beauty of the woman who stood in the doorway inspired a few gasps, even from Winston, who didn’t like girls. He whispered, “Wow.”
Something about her seemed like a reverse image of Snow. Her long hair was as red as his was black, her skin as deep olive as his was pale white. The professor sucked in a noisy breath, and as he exhaled, he whispered, “Anitra.” He walked quickly to where the woman stood, his hands extended. “Welcome, my dear.”
She flashed white teeth and spoke just loud enough to be heard through the room. “Hello, Harold.”
Amazingly, the professor leaned over and kissed her cheek; then he turned toward the people still mingling in the room, most of whom were members of the chess club. “Everyone, I have a wonderful surprise. This is Anitra Popescu. She’s just joined the university staff as Assistant Dean of Students, and she’s a chess master in her own right, so I’ve persuaded her to assist me as advisor to the chess club. Since our club is growing and I’ll be devoting substantial time to preparing Snowden for the upcoming international tournament, I think you’ll all benefit from Anitra’s assistance.” He grinned. “I’m sure the volume of new members will also increase exponentially.”
Anitra smiled, and her dark eyes swept the room, then connected with Snow’s just for a moment. A shiver traveled from his tailbone to his head.
As if in slow motion, the professor’s fingers intertwined with the woman’s. “By the way, I should also announce that Anitra is my fiancée.” Kingsley beamed, the room erupted in applause, and for some weird reason, Snow felt sick.
Winston leaned over. “That’s great for the professor. He’s been so lonely for the last couple years, don’t you think? Man, she’s quite a catch for an old dude.” He laughed.
“Yes, that’s great. Just great.” The whole room spun.
The professor accepted congratulations all around, but his head rose as he looked toward Snow, while still holding Anitra’s hand.
Snow tugged at Winston. “Let’s go.”
Winston looked confused. “But I think he’s coming this way.”
“I want to go.” He looked up at the football coach, who stared at Anitra’s full-bosomed beauty like she’d just descended from Penthouse heaven. Snow took a deep breath. “Coach, I’ll help you, okay?”
The coach’s eyes widened. “But—”
Winston clasped his arm. “Help with what?”
Snow nodded toward McMasters. “I’ll do it. I’ll contact you. Come on, Win.” He started walking, pulling Winston after him, which must have looked funny since Winston stood six five of skinny while Snow barely made five eight.
Winston stutter-stepped to catch up. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing. Just the coach needs someone to explain physics to some of his players.”
“I can help with that. How do you have time?”
“It won’t take much.” He made it out the door of the room and down the hall. Move fast.
Winston glanced at him sideways. “If it was anyone else, I’d say you just wanted to stare at some football player ass, but I can hardly get your attention enough to look at mine.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Why are we moving so fast? Don’t you want to go back and meet Professor Kingsley’s fiancée?”
Snow shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
“Did he tell you about her?”
He shook his head again. Why hadn’t the professor told him? Why was he just finding out now?
“It sounds like she’s going to be a part of your life, so get over it. He’s your mentor, and she’s going to be his wife.”
His wife. “Yes, I’m so happy for him.”