Chapter 1

 

WAS THAT guy really wearing eyeliner?

As Connor counted out the reps at the lat pull-down machine, he stared at the boy across the weight room. The muscles in Connor’s shoulders burned, his triceps quivered. The boy doing arm curls paused to wipe sweat from his forehead with the long sleeve of his T-shirt. He was definitely a stranger. Connor would have noticed those bright blue eyes heavily outlined in black gunk before if the guy had been a regular.

The guy’s dark hair was cut kind of short along the sides but shaggy in the front, nearly hiding his amazing eyes. Shit, not amazing eyes. Just eyes. Besides, what kind of dude wore eyeliner? The contrast between the darkly lined eyelids and the pale irises caused something to tighten in his gut. They were part of a narrow face that was just saved from being pretty by sharp cheekbones and wickedly slanted eyebrows.

Wow. Connor pulled the bar to his chest for the last time. Eyeliner Boy is hot.

Connor’s hands suddenly lost their grip on the bar, and the handle swung up and clipped his chin as the weights crashed down.

“Shit!” He jumped to his feet, tasting blood.

All around him, athletes stared. The small noises of weights clanking into position and athletes’ grunts and pants as they strained at the equipment disappeared. Embarrassment burned up his torso and over his neck. Each of the thirty or so sets of eyes trained on him left a prickling sensation in their wake.

“Fitzpatrick!” Coach Petrewski stormed over from the bench press, where he’d been helping a freshman outfielder with his form. “What the hell was that?”

Connor eyed the tips of his cross-trainers. He wasn’t about to tell Coach what had really happened. Yeah, there was a conversation to avoid. Well, Coach, I was startled by how hot the new guy is. Oh, and by the way, I’m picking up your daughter, my girlfriend, for a date tomorrow night…. So, yeah, not happening.

“Sorry, Coach. My grip slipped.”

“Be careful. Do you know how much it costs to replace those weights? And we can’t afford any injuries to our star catcher, can we?”

“Yes, sir.” Connor shook out his shoulders and arms and moved to the next station in the weight room. He settled into the leg extension machine and adjusted the weights. A quick glance around showed him that most of the team had returned to their exercises. Only a couple of guys, including his best friend Marc, still watched him.

Marc grinned at him from his spot at the bench press. “Spaz,” he mouthed. Connor flipped him off before starting the first set of leg extensions.

At first he applied himself to the exercise, but the familiar rhythm and measured breathing didn’t keep his mind from wandering back to the stranger. As much as he tried to keep his eyes on the rise and fall of his feet under the ankle pads, his gaze darted back to the new kid, cataloguing details.

He hadn’t heard that anyone new had enrolled, but this guy had to be a transfer student. Green Valley posted a population just this side of Podunk, and the school enrollment was similarly small. He recognized everyone who attended, at least by sight. Since Connor knew for a fact that Eyeliner Boy wasn’t on the baseball team, he had to be a soccer player. A storm thundering outside made it too wet and muddy to practice on the field, so the baseball and soccer teams were stuck in the gym, getting in some weight training and lap running.

The new kid finished his curls with the twenty-pound dumbbells and set them on the rack. Unlike the other athletes who wore sleeveless shirts or T-shirts, this guy wore a long-sleeved shirt. It had to be ninety degrees in the weight room, and the guy wore full sleeves? Was he hiding crazy tattoos or something? He had on the thin shorts that soccer players seemed to prefer and which showed off lean, toned legs.

Lightning cracked, shaking him out of his thoughts. Connor tried to concentrate on his workout again but was distracted when the soccer player moved to the hyperextension station. He shimmied onto the bench, hooked his ankles under the restraining bar, and settled his hips across the padded seat, leaving the rest of his body in midair. Connor’s breath caught as the soccer player began the inverted sit-ups that would work the lower back and glutes. He made the movement—drawing his body up, fighting gravity the whole way—look easy. That’s why he stared, Connor told himself. It had nothing to do with the way the other guy’s muscles tightened and shifted below the silky soccer shorts. Really. Nothing at all.

“Fitzpatrick! Do you think this is a vacation?”

Connor jerked. He hadn’t even realized he’d stopped moving.

He sighed in relief ten minutes later when Coach Petrewski called a halt to the practice. The baseball players all headed out, leaving the room to the soccer team. Before he reached the door to the locker room, Coach pulled him aside.

“What’s going on with you today, Connor? This isn’t like you.”

“Sorry, Coach.” What else could he say? Just enjoying the scenery? Probably not.

“Well, I expect you to be on your A game Monday, okay? Whatever you’ve got on your mind, leave it off the field.”

“Yes, sir.” He watched as Coach Petrewski turned into his office.

When he reached his locker, Connor pulled off his shirt and wiped his sweaty face with it before tossing it onto the bench. His chin throbbed and his lip was swollen, just another reminder of his strange behavior. He prodded the lip with his tongue, feeling where the sharp edges of his teeth had cut into flesh.

“Dude!” With his usual abrupt style, Marc charged over to where Connor stood. “What’s the deal? You’re totally off your game today.” Turning to his locker, Marc whipped off his sleeveless T-shirt. “Did you get a load of the new kid? Man, what a freak. Who wears makeup to the weight room?”

Connor sat on the bench and untied his shoes. “Where’s he from?”

“I’m not sure, but he just started on Monday.” As he talked, Marc finished pulling off the rest of his workout clothes.

Connor found himself a little freaked out by his best friend’s bare chest. They’d been friends for years, and it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d seen Marc’s naked skin, but now he wanted to look away, like Marc might get suspicious if Connor happened to look too closely or too long at him while he undressed. Connor tried to find a neutral area to rest his eyes, but everywhere he turned there was another half-naked ballplayer. He’d been in and out of locker rooms for years without thinking anything of it; then he catches sight of some hot new kid, and he suddenly loses his mind and his focus? He’d always been able to avoid looking too deeply—or ignoring entirely—feelings and thoughts that were best left alone. Now was not the time for that to change. “Hey, Connor, aren’t you going to shower?”

He glanced up, then jerked his head higher. Marc was looking down at him, completely naked, with his towel slung over his shoulder.

Connor made himself look only at Marc’s dark eyes and curly dark hair. Not that he was tempted to check out Marc’s body—Marc was Marc, and they’d been friends forever—but it seemed like a good idea to focus on less dangerous territory. And now he was acting like a moron. It wasn’t like he was going to suddenly develop the overwhelming urge to hit on his best friend. He cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah. I’m coming.”

Marc propped his shoulder against the lockers next to Connor and eyed him with concern. “Dude, you all right? You and Allyson have a fight or something?”

“No.” Connor quickly pushed down his own shorts and briefs and wrapped his towel around his waist. “Just out of it, I guess. Worried about the physics test on Tuesday.”

His friend snorted. “Like you need to worry about a test, Mr. I’ve-got-a-four-point-oh. You’ll ace it, like you do everything else.”

“I don’t know.” He was glad for a chance to concentrate on the everyday. “Now that baseball season is starting up again, I don’t have as much time to study, and rotational dynamics is crazy-hard.”

“That reminds me, do you think you can help me with the kinematics stuff? Mr. Larson is letting me retake that quiz, and I still don’t get what that’s all about.”

“How about on Saturday? I’m working at the shop until about three. We can meet up after.”

They made plans while they showered. They had finished dressing and shoving their workout gear into their bags when the soccer team streamed in. Connor nodded to a couple of friends as they went to their own lockers and tried to convince himself that he wasn’t looking for one soccer player in particular. His heart did a funny little leap in his chest when he watched the new kid walk past, though.

He and Marc slung their sports bags over their shoulders and headed out to the parking lot. They dashed through the deluge of rain, making their way to Connor’s ancient Dodge Neon. By the time they stowed their bags in the backseat and buckled themselves into the front, they were soaked.

Marc shook his head like a dog, scattering drops of water around him. He laughed when Connor rolled his eyes and slicked his own hair back.

“Hey, look.” Marc pointed at the school building. “I guess Makeup Boy decided not to shower. I wonder if he thinks the rain is enough to wash away the weight room stench.”

Sure enough, the new kid leaned against the wall beneath an overhang, still in his practice clothes. He kept glancing at his cell phone and scanning the parking lot. Connor put the Neon in gear and drove to the entrance.

“What are you doing?” Marc asked.

He didn’t answer. Using the automatic controls in his armrest, he rolled the passenger side window down and shouted through the storm, “Hey, you need a ride somewhere?” He ignored Marc’s exasperated stare.

The boy peered into the window. Their eyes met and held. Connor caught his breath, desperately wanting him to say yes, but equally terrified that he would.

After a brief pause, the kid shook his head. “Nah, I’m good. I’ve got a car, but I’m meeting someone. Thanks, though.”

Connor nodded and rolled the window up.

“Do you always have to do the right thing?” Marc asked as they drove away. “You put a lot of pressure on us lesser mortals.”

“Whatever.” Connor brushed this aside. “It’s probably good that he didn’t need a ride, though. I’ve got to pick up Becca.”

“See what I mean? Always doing the right thing. Even playing taxi to your little sister. Seriously, man, it’s annoying.” Marc cranked up the radio and spent the rest of the trip dancing in his seat and playing dashboard drummer.

After dropping Marc off at his house, Connor picked up his sister at the community center where she volunteered with their after-school program.

“Cute.” She nodded to his fat lip. “Someone finally knock the Golden Boy off his pedestal?”

“Ha-ha.”

Despite the nearly two-year gap between their ages, they usually got along. The family resemblance between them was strong. Both had thick blond hair, though Connor kept his short to avoid the unruly curls his sister had to deal with. Both had the same wide hazel eyes and golden-tinted skin. The only real difference was their build. Connor took after their father, broad and muscular. Becca was more like their mother, thinner, with a dancer’s body.

They only made it a couple of blocks before he gave in and fished for info. Though she was only a freshman, she definitely had her finger on the social pulse of the school.

“So,” he said, trying to sound casual. “What do you know about the new guy?”

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, you mean Graham? Did you meet him?”

“Not really. I noticed a new face in the gym at practice.”

“Practice? Rumor has it he’s a soccer guy.”

“We were stuck in the weight room with the soccer team because of the rain.”

“Right. For a second I thought my sources got it wrong.” Becca nodded. “Well, let’s see. His name is Graham Parker. He transferred here from somewhere around St. Louis. Coach Mullin was pumped when he moved here. I guess he’s some kind of soccer stud. Margo overheard him in the office—she works there during her free period—going on about how the state championship is in the bag this year ’cause the new guy’s a spectacular goalie with magic hands.”

Images of those hands gripping the dumbbells caused the temperature in the car to shoot up about thirty degrees.

Becca, oblivious to the sudden heat wave, continued. “Jamie said she saw him in the arts wing and that he’s totally hot. What do you think?”

Connor choked. “What do you mean, what do I think? Do I think he’s hot?”

“That’s not what I meant. I haven’t seen him yet. What does he look like? You have eyes, right?”

“I don’t know. Dark hair. Kind of tall, I guess.” Amazing ice-blue eyes. “The dude wears makeup, though. That’s weird.”

Becca’s eyes grew round. “Really? What kind?”

“You know—” he gestured to her face. “—that black stuff you put on your eyes.”

“Ooh, guyliner.” She sighed and fanned her face.

“What? There’s actually a word for it?”

“Sure. Lots of guys, at least famous guys, do it. You know, musicians, actors. It’s kind of hot on the right guy.”

Intrigued, Connor asked, “Girls actually like boys who wear makeup?”

“On the right guy, absolutely.” She looked sideways at him and grinned. “Am I going to have to lock up my cosmetic bag?”

“Brat.”

“I don’t know. I’ve got this great metallic purple liner that’s really supposed to bring out the oomph in hazel eyes.”

He grinned at her as he pulled the Neon in behind his mom’s Explorer, killing the engine. “Shut up and get out.”

He waited for his sister to get out. The rain blurred his view of the Explorer while he sat there. He had to get over this. He’d seen the guy for a few minutes. This sudden attraction was ridiculous. Sure, he’d thought other guys were attractive before, but he’d been able to brush aside the thoughts, or block them. Deny them. For the first time, Connor was afraid brushing those awkward thoughts aside wasn’t going to be easy. All because he found an eyeliner-wearing soccer player too fascinating, too hot to ignore.

It didn’t matter anyway. He had a plan, and nothing was going to get in the way of it. He would escape this piece of crap small town and make a future for himself. Somewhere bigger, better. Nothing could distract him from his goals. So this weird fascination with some guy—based on no more than a quick glance—needed to end. There. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel. It’s over. It’s done. Back to reality.