CHAPTER 1

Clay—May ’15

 

BACK TO the future and all of that were Clay’s first thoughts as he stepped out of the car. The campus looked the same—Midwest Americana at its best. Redbrick buildings and perfectly pruned trees surrounded him, but as if the last fifteen years hadn’t happened, Clay’s world narrowed to the man waiting at the top of the portico stairs. The only thing time had changed? Them.

“Here’s your receipt, Mr. Keller,” the valet said, interrupting Clay’s musings. He didn’t remember being as young as the valet. Mr. Keller was his father, but Clay didn’t feel like correcting the man’s error.

“Thank you.”

“Not a problem. The man in the light gray suit is Professor Grant. He will be your escort today.”

“Perfect,” Clay responded, smiling at the mention of having an escort at his service, especially one whose body he knew well. With a nod and a tip, Clay left the valet behind, turning his attention back to Professor Grant. Professor. Aaron had done it after all. Clay had never doubted it, even after Aaron decided to stay and work at his family’s farm instead of moving with him to LA. Now he needed to find out if he had a chance with Aaron. At least having him there, waiting for him, had to be a good sign. Today was his lucky day indeed. True, he hadn’t expected to see Aaron so soon. He had planned to stop by the farm after the commencement, but he was ready either way. Life had been rough lately, but having the opportunity to see Aaron again was worth coming back to the middle of Nowhere, Iowa.

He walked casually toward the man he’d left behind many summers ago—a man standing like a prizefighter, waiting for Clay to reach him. With only a couple of feet between them, Clay’s step faltered. Aaron didn’t seem happy to see him, more like he was ready to bolt before Clay got to him. Shaking his head and keeping his eyes on his prey, he closed the distance and extended his hand in greeting.

“Professor Grant, I believe you’re expecting me?” He hoped his smile would ease Aaron’s frown.

“That I am, Mr. Keller. As the university liaison, it is my pleasure to welcome you back to your alma mater and to convey the president’s and the board of trustees’ deepest regards.”

“How long did it take you to memorize that spiel? As far as I remember, you weren’t fond of formalities.” Neither of them let go of the other’s hand. Aaron’s touch, familiar and foreign, branded him in seconds.

“Ass.”

Aaron didn’t expect the hug that followed. As soon as their bodies touched, Aaron tensed, but Clay held him tighter.

“Relax, sunshine. It’s been a while.” Clay let Aaron go, but not before he rubbed his trimmed beard against Aaron’s clean-shaven face as he moved back. The shiver that ran through Aaron’s body gave him all the incentive he needed to continue with his advances. That was the idea until he looked at Aaron’s face, finding another frown directed at him. It would take some time to get into Aaron’s good graces, but the temptation to grab Aaron and forget about everything else was present.

“You look good, Professor.”

“Please, Clay.”

The longing mixed with the plea almost undid him. “Here and now?”

The lame comment slipped from his lips before he could stop it. Without hesitation, Aaron turned, and Clay bet he was rolling his eyes at Clay’s stupidity.

Walking with Aaron down the administration halls was surreal. They had followed the same path many times, to the registration office, financial aid, and all the other places for the boring chores students had to do before they were cleared for graduation. Other than Aaron, no one else looked familiar, but Clay took the time to stop and meet several students and one or two faculty members. Every time he did, Aaron stopped and waited for him. Aaron even interacted with some of his coworkers and students as if enjoying himself, but when Clay smiled at him, he didn’t get one in return. When they reached the hallway with the distinguished alumni portraits, Clay stopped to look at the new additions. He had always teased Aaron, telling him that his picture was going to be on that wall before Aaron’s, and now that it was a reality, it didn’t feel right. Looking away from a formal portrait of himself, Clay’s gaze met Aaron’s, and for a moment he thought something reflected in Aaron’s expression, pride perhaps. But before he had a chance to figure it out, Aaron walked away again.

“What’s your problem?” Clay had to catch up to ask the question. They were standing outside the faculty hall, but he didn’t care if people overheard them. Aaron shook away from Clay’s hold before pretending to adjust his suit jacket.

“I don’t know what you are referring to, Mr. Keller. I’m simply escorting you to brunch before we need to get ready for the commencement.”

Aaron delivered his answer with a formal demeanor that didn’t suit him.

“You were never a very good liar, Aaron.” Moving closer, until their chests were mere inches apart, Clay continued, “You have been nothing but a snob since the moment I arrived. Only when I had you in my arms, you relaxed.” Clay had no right to ask anything from Aaron since he had been the one who allowed their relationship to die, but they could at least be civilized until he figured out how to win Aaron back. He moved one step forward and pinned his prey between the wall and his body. “Are you happy to see me again, sunshine?”

Taking the risk, Clay kissed Aaron’s jaw softly, and for a second he was back in the fields during detasseling season—the sun high in the sky, nothing else but the two of them, pulling on the crops, and their need for each other. For that second, living seemed worth it. A spark of hope for him to reach for flashed for an instant, filled with the possibilities of a future, lasting only until a door opened down the hall, breaking the spell. Aaron jumped, and Clay cursed, returning to the here and now. They were only strangers with nothing more than good memories of what they had once been.

“Mr. Keller—”

Clay almost missed Aaron’s soft address. He followed the implied command and waited. Aaron fidgeted with the cuffs of his shirt before he spoke again.

“I’ve worked hard to gain the respect of my colleagues and my position at this institution. I’d appreciate it if we could keep our interactions as professional as possible for the rest of the day.”

Clay turned, signaling Aaron to walk ahead. He mentally berated himself for putting Aaron in a compromising position at work, but he followed him close enough to have another chance to get lost in Aaron’s scent. He exhaled longer than necessary, smiling when Aaron rubbed the back of his neck at the soft caress. His ex—too proud to admonish him—continued walking.

The faculty hall had been revamped since they had graduated over a decade ago. He remembered taking part in the same brunch before their commencement ceremony, and not eating anything either. Back then he had been a nervous wreck, not because he was about to deliver the valedictorian speech, but because he would be moving to California a couple of weeks later and Aaron was staying behind. Even then he’d known all the plans they had to get an apartment together and start a new life were slipping through his fingers. Now they were in the same place for the first time in fifteen years, and the food was less appealing.

Walking around, shaking hands, and talking with faculty members and other guests felt normal. Clay complimented the current valedictorian’s achievements and enjoyed placing his hand on Aaron’s lower back as they mingled. If he ignored the gap the years had opened between them, he could almost pretend that Aaron was his partner and they were at the brunch together, as a happy couple coming back to the place where they had fallen in love. He wanted to run his fingers over Aaron’s bare skin, to feel the warmth at their contact, to make him shiver—a promise of what would come after they had a chance to be alone.

“Stop.”

“Huh?”

“Stop rubbing my back, Clay. I’m not a kitten for you to pet.”

Clay shivered at Aaron’s proximity and the warmth of his breath by his ear. “I’m sorry. You know I can’t stop touching you. Your skin is addictive, and I wish I could touch it right now.”

His voice sounded a little deeper even to him. The startled look on Aaron’s face made it difficult for him to breathe. They just stared at each other. For a moment, Clay thought the opening he was looking for was there, but before he could push through, Aaron’s gaze changed, shutting him down.

“What we had was… intense, but it’s in the past. We’re just two men who knew each other many years ago. You have no right to touch me or talk to me like I’m yours.”

They had moved toward an empty corner of the room, and Clay wanted to kiss Aaron to make him stop talking. “Do you want to be mine again, sunshine?”

“Stop with the nickname. You’re infuriating. Call me Aaron or Professor Grant, okay?”

Clay loved seeing Aaron all riled up. It was always so easy to get him flustered. “Can I call you professor when you’re in my arms?”

“Your charm doesn’t work anymore, Clayton.”

“Duly noted. Seriously, I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I’m proud of you. I never imagined you would teach here, but I’m glad you didn’t let your dream to teach die. And talking about it, what are you teaching?”

“Nice sidetrack, man, but I don’t want anything to do with you. Can you understand that?”

“No, I can’t. And by the way, what I said is true. I am happy for you and curious to know if you’re teaching those poor freshmen everything about new fuel technologies and all that engineering baloney you used to talk about.”

“Like you were any better, talking about all the places around the world you wanted to visit.”

“That I wanted us to visit.”

“Yeah.”

“Have dinner with me.” Smooth, real smooth. “I—”

“Hear me out.” He raised his hand, trying to stop Aaron’s answer. “Only as friends. We haven’t seen each other in a while. I’d love to catch up. Please?” This was it. Aaron’s response seemed essential to Clay. He needed this, more time with Aaron. More time without a possible life sentence hanging over his head.

“Fine, but you’re paying, Mr. Mogul.”

“My treat indeed.” He added a wink, just for extra points.

“Clayton.”

“Damn. You have no idea how many people keep calling me Clayton.”

“Man, you know it’s hard to believe your name is just Clay. If I didn’t know your parents, I’d say they were too lazy to come up with a real name for you.”

And just like that, Clay’s world came back to life. “Should we go back to do the rounds?” He hoped Aaron wanted to stay in their quiet corner a little longer instead.

“I think we should engage with others. I’m sure the daggers I feel in the back of my neck are from senior faculty members, upset because I’m monopolizing all your time.”

“Very well, we can split up and conquer, since I was already assured I’d have more time with you.”

Winking at a fuming Aaron, Clay walked toward a group of men that had called for him. If he wasn’t wrong, the tall blond had been his advisor during his sophomore year. Not that he had paid any attention to the professor’s suggestion to transfer to a more renowned school, but he needed to admit that the man had planted the seed that had him ready to move to LA after graduation, not a second before. He had needed all the time he could get to convince Aaron to move with him, but not even the possibility of attending grad school in California had been enough to separate Aaron from the crops. For a wishful moment, he had hoped that what they had was strong enough, but the distance had been stronger.

Clay didn’t have time to say hello before one of the men spoke.

“It’s about time that fairy let you go. Be careful he doesn’t try to get a piece of you before the end of the day.”

Clay didn’t know whether to beat up the short round-faced man or feel sorry for him.

“Servoni, that’s enough,” the other man admonished.

“Don’t get jealous, Davis. I’m sure he will come back to you. After all, you are part of the committee considering his tenure.”

“Don’t worry about this distinguished… bigot, Professor. I’m sure Mr. Servoni’s lack of female companionship is a direct reflection of his impotence, and as I’m sure you know, Professor Grant is one of the best in his field. I’d be more than happy if he gets more than a piece of me before the night’s over. I think I should go and offer to blow him in the bathroom before my speech.” Clay delivered his words with a smile and a smirk, understanding why Aaron wanted to keep their interactions professional. He walked away, leaving the now-silent group of men behind. He had dealt with many like Servoni over the years and didn’t have the time or the patience for his ignorance.

Clay looked around for Aaron and saw him conversing with a group of young students who seemed to be basking in his attention. He had been one of those, hanging on every word coming out of Aaron’s mouth. If it hadn’t been for the promise they’d made to each other to put their careers ahead of their hormones, he’d have returned home when he realized Aaron was never going to join him in California. Everything was clearer in retrospect, and at the same time, he didn’t regret staying away. The story was different now, and with a stroke of luck he could keep his career and the man Aaron had turned out to be.

He sounded like a bad Hallmark card, even in his private thoughts. President Thompson’s arrival was a welcome interruption. After putting his robe on, he followed the university president out onto the grounds just like he had done many years ago, but now he walked beside the president instead of all the way at the back of the procession. Wearing the graduation robes again felt good, and even the weather was cooperating. The campus was familiar, like walking back into your parents’ house after a long absence. He tried to find Aaron, but in the sea of robes and regalia it was difficult to find anyone in particular.

“How long are you staying, Mr. Keller?” President Thompson asked.

“Unfortunately, I have to leave tomorrow, but if everything goes according to plan, I should be back soon.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“Pleasure.” Plain and simple. He kept his answer short, not wanting to go into details.

The president laughed, patting him on the back before the final procession toward the stage commenced. He wondered how much of his past the president’s office had dug up before inviting him to do the talk to the graduating class. It didn’t matter. He had walked the campus with Aaron proudly by his side back then, and if he had the opportunity to do it again, he would without hesitation.

Glad for the monotony of the event, Clay took his seat with the other guests—the faculty members behind them—and half listened to the introductions, invocations, and everything else that a graduation entails. The happy and clueless faces of the graduates closer to the stage reminded him of how keeping eye contact with Aaron during their graduation had helped his nerves. Today he didn’t have that benefit, but he swore he could feel Aaron’s gaze on the back of his head. He wished to be the one able to look to his heart’s content. But if everything went as planned, he’d have more than enough time to look at and, better than that, touch and taste Aaron.

A tap against his shoe had Clay looking up. He had been in his own little world and missed the young student at the podium reading his biography. According to the words she said, he was a pretentious ass. Clay had no idea why Claire, his personal assistant, hadn’t changed the media kit. That was the standard wording he used when trying to impress potential clients. But he was there to impress only one man, and he knew for a fact that none of his accolades would do anything to get him closer to his goal. He looked at Professor Davis, who had tapped him, and smirked at the knowing look on the man’s face. He had been caught daydreaming, but it seemed the professor didn’t disapprove.

Taking his tablet out of his suit jacket was more of a challenge than he had expected. Clay was glad the introduction was still going as he zipped his robe back up and looked for the e-mail containing his speech. He skimmed the first couple of lines and cringed. He should’ve read it before now, but in his defense, he had been busy lately. The battery of tests his doctor requested before giving him the okay to travel had taken a toll, and now he wished he had used the time in the waiting rooms to write his speech instead of imagining all the possible negative outcomes.

The clapping and cheers got his attention. Walking toward the podium, he took the time to collect himself. He thanked the graduate for the introduction and warm welcome before searching the prepared speech one more time for something useful. Looking toward his audience, he found his answer. All those bright faces were looking for assurance, something to let them know that walking out of the gates of Providence would be worth it. The same assurance Aaron had sought fifteen years ago.

“As all of you know,” he started, “commencement speakers are required to tell you that life, from this moment on, only gets better. I’m not going to lie to you. You have made it here today because you’ve worked hard. And from today forward, you’ll only have to work harder if you want to accomplish your goals. During my first department orientation, Professor Lindsay—” Clay turned, looking to see if she was still part of the faculty, and found her when she gave him a small wave. “—told us to look around, that at least one student sitting by our side was not going to be there by the end of the year. I can’t be sure if that was true or not because I only remember the one sitting to my left, and he was there at the end of the semester, and the year after, and the one after that. He is here even now, and not as a metaphor.” Clay had to smile. If he had to guess, he’d say that Aaron’s face, neck, and ears were really red just about now. No, he would not point at him directly, but he wanted Aaron to know how important he had been and still was to him.

“He’s here, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is for you to be sure of who you are, where you want to go, and what you’ll need to do to get there. After all the celebrations are over, take an hour or two to consider what you need. Go sit on one of the fields or down the gravel road outside town, by the creek. Close your eyes and just think. As was mentioned in the introduction, I stood on this same stage fifteen years ago, with no clue of what awaited me. The only real thing I had was the knowledge that someone had stood by my side for four years, and at that point, it was my turn to walk alone and find myself. Don’t be scared of the future. It always finds a way to bring you back to what you need, even when you aren’t fully aware of what that is. Let others help you, don’t be too proud to accept their kindness, but especially, never forget those who helped you get here: your parents, professors, strangers, and those significant others who will set you free to discover the world but will always be there waiting for your return with their eyes filled with pride and nothing but good intentions.”

Clay had to stop to rein his thoughts in. He was losing it, and he probably didn’t make sense to anyone but Aaron and himself. He drank from a water bottle on the podium and continued, “What I want all of you to understand is that being yourself and reaching for your dreams doesn’t mean leaving behind everything and everyone you know. It means that you are smart enough, strong enough, to find your way when everything seems too difficult, and there’s not going to be anything sweeter than looking back and seeing a familiar face.”

As if on cue, he looked back and found Aaron looking at him with an intensity he hadn’t felt in fifteen years.