Chapter One

 

THE SUN had long ago set over the ocean, casting long rays of golden light on the guests. There was nothing left of the cake but crumbs. Nevertheless the party was still going strong.

Ryan was over by the bar slamming back his tenth round of shots since dessert with a couple of the other guys from the Newport shoot. The music was loud, and the crowd was dense on the dance floor. Despite the late hour, people didn’t seem to be slowing down. In the center of it all were Evan and Bran, still wrapped up in each other, seemingly oblivious to the hundred guests that swirled to the music around them. Colt watched Bran smiling down at Evan. He was happy for them. It had taken a lot for them to end up together, but against the odds, they’d made it.

Bran proposed a few months earlier, getting down on one knee on the beach in Newport. It was a long time coming, but Bran wanted to wait for Evan to finish his master’s program before they got married. The wedding planning was a whirlwind, the boys finally deciding on Cannon Beach in Oregon to tie the knot. The ceremony was beautiful, and Colt was man enough to admit he choked up a few times during their vows.

He watched them sway together, just lost in each other, and for a moment Colt felt a pang of envy. He’d always been somewhat envious of them, having witnessed his share of lovey-dovey moments over the last six years that they’d shared the small single-level rancher with him and his dog, Snickers.

“Dude, I’ve barely seen you all night,” Ryan said, sidling up to him and handing him a drink.

Colt laughed. “I know. You’ve been wrapped around the blond with the tattoos.”

“What can I say? I got a thing for blondes.” Ryan threw his arm around Colt’s neck and pressed a loud, sloppy kiss to his cheek. “Come dance with us!”

“I can’t, Ry. I gotta be back home tonight. I got a job interview tomorrow, and it’s gettin’ late.”

Colt quit doing porn the year before, and since he was in school, he’d done his best to limit the number of videos he appeared in online. He knew having a past in the sex industry was risky if he was to become a teacher. Being a gay man, he already had a strike against him in some people’s eyes.

“Okay, yes. Think about it. You sure you don’t wanna dance?”

“I should really get goin’.”

Ryan shrugged. “Okay. Call me later okay?”

“You got it.”

And with that, Ryan was bounding across the dance floor to meet up with the other guys. Colt pulled back the cuff of his tuxedo jacket to glance at the time. Seeing it was past two in the morning, he groaned inwardly, knowing the next day would be painful with little sleep. As much as he wanted to stay and celebrate with the newly married couple, he doubted his presence would be missed with how focused on one another they were.

For a moment, he considered slipping out unnoticed, but even though he lived with them, he couldn’t leave without saying good-bye. He crossed the dance floor and slid his hand over Evan’s shoulder.

“Hey, Ev, Bran, I’m goin’ to head out for the night,” he said, gesturing toward the door in case he couldn’t be heard over the loud music.

The look of joy on Evan’s face slipped for a moment, before Colt found himself sandwiched between his two favorite men. Evan laid his head on Colt’s shoulder and hugged Bran to Colt’s back.

“You can’t leave yet,” he said, swaying the three of them to the music.

“I gotta go soon. I have an interview in the mornin’,” he reasoned.

“I know, but just a little while longer. It’s a special occasion. Besides, after our honeymoon we’re moving, and we’re going to miss you.”

“I’m goin’ to miss you too,” Colt said, meaning it deeply. “But you two have a life to start together. This time tomorrow you’ll be doin’ lord knows what on a tropical beach somewhere.”

Evan laughed. “Yeah, but it won’t be the same without you.”

Bran growled playfully behind him. Evan released Colt long enough to smack Bran in the shoulder. “I meant our lives, not the honeymoon sex!”

Colt stepped to the side, kissing Bran on the cheek, then Evan. “Have a great time and call me when you get back. Just because we’re not livin’ together anymore doesn’t mean we can’t keep in touch. I wanna hear all the dirty details.” He winked and was pulled into one last good-bye hug before slipping from the reception.

 

 

THE SOUND of the back gate of his truck slamming echoed off the walls of the reception hall. He climbed in, then rubbed his eyes, the lids feeling gritty. He was tired, but staying had been worth it. He was going to miss his friends. They’d been living together in a little house just off campus since Evan and Colt started as freshmen there five years earlier. Of course Bran showed up soon after and never left, and the three men and Snickers had made a happy home together.

After clicking the cord into his iPod, he fired up the truck and pulled out onto the street, steering toward the interstate and south in the direction of home. Once past the denseness of the city, he navigated his way down the highway, through the various suburbs and toward the open freeway.

The deeply rich sounds of Josh Turner’s voice filled the car as he watched the landscape change from the overarching concrete to densely wooded areas and finally to open space. By the time he reached Salem, the landscape almost flattened out completely, and there was nothing to be seen for miles upon miles but dried out grasses and the occasional farm that met up with the low hills in the distance.

A little ways past Albany, Rascal Flatts’ “Life is a Highway” played, and Colt got his second wind. He shifted in his seat, straightening up a little bit, and sang along all the way home. By the time Colt pulled into his driveway, that short-lived second wind had faded. His eyelids were getting heavy, and his arms felt like they weighed three hundred pounds.

After grabbing his bag, he walked into the house. There was something missing in the quiet house, Colt realized, when he wasn’t greeted by an overexcited dog. Coming home just wasn’t the same without Snickers, who he’d kenneled for the weekend. Colt dumped everything on the floor and made a beeline for the coffeemaker in the kitchen. If he could have hooked himself into a caffeine drip IV, he would have. He needed the energy and quickly. He glanced at the clock on the stove and saw it was a little past nine. He had less than two hours before he had to be at his interview—there was no time to sleep.

He left the coffee to brew and trudged into the bathroom, stripped down, and stepped into the shower. He fiddled with the taps, adjusting the water to as hot as he could stand it, and quickly rinsed the road grime from his body. Before he turned the water off, he tweaked the temperature, blasting himself with a quick shot of cold.

He stepped out, skimming the towel across his skin to mop up the leftover droplets before rubbing it across his short blond hair to remove the excess moisture. Enjoying walking around the house naked, he padded to his bedroom.

Strangely enough, he and Evan and Bran had never really embraced nudity in the house. It wasn’t that they hadn’t seen one another naked before—the week they’d spent in Newport shooting scenes for Sonic Street, they’d been less than decent most of the time. Somehow it was different in their home, though, a fact that Colt attributed to Bran’s excessively possessive streak. On anyone else that trait may have seemed obnoxious, but on Bran he found it endearing.

He loved the dynamic Bran and Evan shared and one day hoped to have something similar himself. Not necessarily a guy that would grunt and growl every time someone encroached on Colt’s space, but someone who was as devoted to him as Bran and Evan were to one another.

He shook himself out of his musings and sauntered to the closet, choosing the shirt that looked the least like it needed to be ironed, a nice pair of pants, and a tie. It might have been a little more formal than needed for an interview, but this was his first experience with a charter school. He didn’t know how they ran things.

Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to look his best, and after several failed interviews with the school district in their area, he wasn’t willing to take any chances. He needed this. Between the payments that were still coming in from Sonic Street, and his two part time jobs, he was making ends meet, but barely, and time was running out before he’d be on his own. When Bran and Evan left, he’d need a lot more income to stay in the house with Snickers, or he’d have to consider moving.

He looked in the mirror, giving himself a pep talk as he dressed.

You are goin’ to rock this. You’re qualified and smart—you would make a fantastic teacher. All you lack is experience, and that comes with time. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, you’ve got this.

His coffee was ready, so he poured it into an oversized travel mug to take with him. Then he adjusted the knot of the tie, making sure it was centered, before stepping into his shoes, grabbing another copy of his résumé just in case, and walking out the door.