Copyright 2020 DJ jamison
Author’s Note: This is an unedited look ahead of publishing. It’s possible there will be changes before the book is completed.
I flicked the movie tickets in my hand nervously, scanning the block up and down. Searching for any sign of my date.
My first college date. First date ever.
A ball of nerves slowly unraveled inside me. I wasn’t good at this kind of thing, even in the best circumstances — and these were clearly not the best circumstances. My date was late. Really late.
In high school, I’d been relieved I was the only gay boy — at least who was out — because it meant no pressure. But I was trying to turn over a new leaf. Make a new start as the older, more sophisticated Ben. I wanted to leave timid Benji behind and become the vision my older brother had painted for me when he sold me on going to college: an artist finally spreading his wings.
Of course, Jeremy was supposed to be here teaching me to fly. He’d gotten into a fellowship program in Chicago — one too good to turn down to hold his baby brother’s hand. I hadn’t been angry, more terrified. I hadn’t wanted to continue after high school; Jeremy had been the one to convince me to enroll, and now he wasn’t here.
Just his best friend. His gorgeous, unattainable best friend.
Don’t think about Ace, think about Kaleb.
Kaleb, who was nowhere to be seen no matter how hard I stared at the trickle of people making their way to restaurants and bars. I was off-campus, but close enough that the streets were filled with twenty-somethings looking to hang out or hook up, or both. Maybe I should have suggested something more fun. Seeing a band, or even…meeting up in his room for the obvious. But I was embarrassingly inexperienced. Instead, I’d gone for the safe option: a movie.
Boring, right? So much for sophisticated Ben. I might have chosen an art exhibit instead, but we’d spent several afternoons working on art projects together. It felt a little been there, done that. Besides, I loved the historic theater. No, it was sophisticated. And it should have been perfect for a film major like Kaleb, but… maybe I was alone in that thinking because Kaleb still—wasn’t—here!
Behind me, a large marquee rose up, decked out with red letters. Inside, marble floors, velvety reupholstered chairs, and brass detail work set the historic theater apart from its more modern counterparts. It was beautiful, classy.
I checked my phone for the millionth time. No calls. No texts. My eyes skated over the texts I’d sent to him, going from calm and quizzical to just shy of frantic. Unable to write one more desperate message, I hit the call button instead.
It went straight to voicemail. I waited five minutes and tried again with the same result. Scanning over my texts, I realized only half of them showed the delivered tag.
Omfg! Did he block me?
I stared at my phone in betrayal. A dozen little clues began to coalesce. Kaleb’s flirty invitation for us to work on our art projects together. His frustration with the project, his worry about his grades, his indulgent smile when I helped him just a little too much.
I’d been played, hadn’t I? Of course I had.
I clenched the tickets so tightly they bent.
Why else would a cute guy like Kaleb ask me out? He was way out of my league. With floppy red hair and a freckled face a little too … freckly, I was hardly a prize.
I’d known, at some level, he might have asked me out as a thank-you of sorts. That he might not really be into me. But this was so much worse. He hadn’t planned a gratuitous date; he hadn’t planned any date at all.
I was so, so stupid.
And now my humiliation was complete.
Ace Baker, my brother’s impossibly perfect best friend, jogged up to me, wide smile on his handsome frat boy face. His dishwater hair, a nice normal color that didn’t make him stick out like a sore thumb, was stylishly ruffled up in the front. His hazel eyes, brown with gold and green flecks, reflected his uncomplicated happiness.
Of all the people to run into at this very moment …
My face heated, and I knew my skin wouldn’t hide my blush. I ducked my head, staring at our feet. Ace’s shoes were scuffed, his jeans hems frayed, but he made it look good. He could make anything look good.
“Going to a movie?”
“No hoodie today,” he said, a teasing lilt entering his voice as he plucked at the the sleeve of my button-down. “Wait, are you dressed for a date?”
I couldn’t take it. I spun, walking fast down the block. He fell into step even as I hustled. Stupid short legs. He had a good three inches on me because I was tiny. I kept waiting for a growth spurt that was never coming.
“Hey, wait, what’s wrong?”
My fist tightened, crumpling the tickets. At this rate they were going to become nothing but a wad of sweat and disintegrating paper. Ace grabbed my right hand, uncurling it to reveal my shame. Two movie tickets for a film that started forty minutes ago.
I’d stood there all that time, like an idiot. I should have gone home, not waited and hoped like a dumbass.
Ace withdrew the tickets, reading the details. He glanced back at the theater. He didn’t ask the obvious.
“Let’s hit Ice House,” he said. I glanced up in surprise to see him shoving the tickets into his jeans pocket. “Guy trouble calls for ice cream.”
My throat tightened. I wanted to disappear, but there was no rejecting ice cream when I felt this low. Dark chocolate ice cream infused with caramel was imperative. “Okay.”
Ace slung his arm over my shoulders, pulling me against his side as we walked, and I almost lost it then. Crying on his shoulder would feel good. He’d be there, a steady presence, accepting whatever I poured out. Ace had always been good that way. I hadn’t seen him for three long years after he graduated high school with my brother, but when I’d shown up on campus, he’d picked up our old relationship, a weird mix of brotherly and friendly, as if there’d never been an interruption.
If he knew some of the things I used to think about him, he’d run screaming.
“Need me to kick his ass?” he asked.
I snorted. “No.”
“I totally would.”
“It’s okay. It was my fault.”
“Your fault how?”
“I never should have believed he really liked me,” I mumbled. “It was dumb of me.”
“Did he ask you out?” Ace demanded, pulling us to a stop.
He interrupted me. “Did he know the time and place?”
“Then he’s an asshat who didn’t show, and that’s not cool. But it’s his loss. You deserve better.”
I scoffed. “Whatever.”
“You do,” he insisted. “You’ve got a lot to of offer.”
Like pale skin and a skinny frame. Yeah, I was hot stuff.
“You’re Jeremy’s friend,” I said dismissively. “You have to say nice things. It doesn’t mean anything. My brother might as well have said it.”
Ace stepped close, his eyes intent on me. “Yeah, well, I’m not your brother. And I think you’re pretty cool. Smart, cute, and a hell of an artist.”
I gave an embarrassed chuckle and rolled my eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “A-plus for effort.”
“Can we please just get ice cream?” I pleaded, gesturing to the parlor two doors down. “I need chocolate more than I need compliments.”
Ace’s smile sagged a little, causing guilt to niggle at me, but he nodded. “Sure, anything you want. My treat.”
Not anything. What I really wanted was for Ace to mean all of the sweet things he said. But as my brother’s straight friend, he’d never really see me that way. And yet, I could never not see him as the man of my dreams.
Even when I’d settled for a lesser version, it’d gone all wrong. College hadn’t been the magical new life I’d imagined. Turned out, wherever you went, your personality was sure to follow.
I frowned down at my unanswered texts. Benji was generally prompt about replying, as long as he wasn’t in class, but he’d ignored my messages all weekend. Probably depressed about the asshat who stood him up.
I really wished I knew who that guy was. I wouldn’t beat him up or anything, I’d just take a long look at him to try to figure out what Benji saw in him. And I’d make sure he knew he’d missed out on a great guy. Because Benji was great.
I’d always liked him as a kid, when he was stick-thin with a mile-wide smile.
He was still slender, though he’d filled out some with a cute little butt that he emphasized with skinny jeans. But the smile had been missing Friday night, and that was a damn shame. No one should dim that kid’s joy switch, because when he was happy, he was so bright he lit up the whole damn room.
“You stare at that phone any harder and the screen will crack.”
I jumped, startled by my co-worker’s voice. “Sorry,” I said, shoving it into my back pocket. “Just worried about a friend.”
She raised an eyebrow. “A friend or a friend? That was some intense worrying.”
“A friend,” I deadpanned.
Brenda had been trying to suss out my romantic interests for months now. I hadn’t set out to be mysterious, but I hadn’t dated anyone since I started working at All Occasions Boutique and Flower Shop. I also hadn’t responded to Brenda’s flirtations, or those of customers. I needed this job to pay my expenses, and I wasn’t about to risk it for a hookup. When the flirting failed to launch, Brenda pulled me aside to tell me she had a gay cousin who’d love a boyfriend like me.
I’d smiled politely, said I wasn’t looking to date anyone, and kept on working.
Brenda hadn’t pressed me or made any assumptions, but every now and then she tried to tease information out of me. It’d become a bit of a game. If she asked directly, I might tell her I’d always been straight, but she didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell.
Just as well, because even though I’d always dated girls, I wasn’t so sure that I always would.
Lately I’d been considering new possibilities …
The idea of Benji as more than a friend made a curious little flutter start up in my chest. I hadn’t lied to him Friday night, when I’d called him cute. Benji was adorable. But… not in a sexual way. I hadn’t really thought of him that way. But now that the thought popped into my head, my mind’s eye zoomed in on his mouth. I wondered, would a kiss with Benji really be so bad? Moot point. I couldn’t mess around with my best friend’s little bro, especially when I didn’t know what the hell I was feeling. I would never be that guy, especially with Benji.
“What’s got you worried about your friend, then?” Brenda asked.
I hesitated. “It’s just dating drama.”
When she nodded for me to continue, I spilled. Not like she knew Benji, so I wasn’t betraying his confidence.
“He got stood up for a date, and he seemed pretty hurt. He won’t tell me that, but I could tell, you know? Like, he’s always fairly modest, but he seemed to believe he deserved that kind of thing. And he really doesn’t. Plus, he hasn’t been texting me back all weekend.”
“He probably just needs time to mope.”
“Yeah.” I chewed my lip. Thing was, I didn’t want Benji to mope. I wanted to make it better. “I just wish I knew how to cheer him up.”
“Is he into girls?”
I didn’t see the harm in telling her. “He’s gay.”
“Too bad you’re not interested in him,” she said, a teasing tone to her voice. “Best way to get over someone is finding someone better.”
I smirked. “Nice try, but I don’t reveal my secrets that easily.”
She laughed. “Fine, but it’s true. Maybe you could set him up with someone?”
I hated that idea immediately. Set Benji up on a date? No. Who could I even find for him? I only knew a couple of guys on campus who were into men. I shared a class with Pete but didn’t really know him well enough to ask him. And Jonas, from the frat, was out of the question. Benji had met him, and they’d even seemed friendly, but Jonas was a major player. Last thing I needed was for Benji to get more hurt than he already was.
No. The idea of either of them with Benji felt all wrong.
Shaking my head, I said, “Guess I’ll think of something.”
“You could send him flowers,” she said. “I always love getting them. I don’t even care who they’re from. They just make me feel special.”
I didn’t know if Benji liked flowers, but it was an interesting idea. A gift of some kind to make him feel appreciated. It couldn’t come from me, though. I could still hear Benji’s words from Friday night. A-plus for effort. He hadn’t believed I was sincere. If I sent him a gift, he’d just blow it off as a pity prize.
I wanted to make him smile. Help him see that he was more than worthy of attention.
If he wouldn’t believe in me, maybe he’d believe in someone else.
An anonymous someone else, like a … secret admirer.
Secret Admirer is being finished now, with plans to release sometime in May or June.
Did you advance the advance look ahead?