Excerpt for Lonely Hearts by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Even hot messes need a happily ever after.

With the quiet help of his wealthy family, Sebastian “Baz” Acker has successfully kept his painful past at bay. But as the end of college draws near, his friends—his buffer zone—are preparing to move on, while his own life is at a crippling standstill. With loneliness bearing down on him, Baz hooks up—then opens up—with Elijah Prince, the guy Baz took a bullet for last year. The aftershocks of their one-night stand leave giant cracks in Baz’s carefully constructed armor. For the first time, the prospect isn’t terrifying.

Accustomed to escaping his demons by withdrawing into his imagination, Elijah isn’t used to having a happy herd of friends. He’s even less comfortable as the object of a notorious playboy’s affections. Yet all signs seem to indicate this time happiness might be within his grasp. When Baz’s mother runs for a highly sought-after public office, the media hounds drag Baz’s and Elijah’s pasts into the light. In the blinding glare, Baz and Elijah face the ultimate test: discovering if they’re stronger together…or apart.

This ebook is not transferrable. Any effort to sell, share, or give this title away constitutes an infringement of the copyright of this work.

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale, or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Heidi Cullinan, POB 425, Ames, Iowa 50010

Copyright © 2017 by Heidi Cullinan

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-945116-05-6

Smashwords Edition

Edited by Sasha Knight

Cover by Kanaxa

Proofing by Lillie’s Literary Services

Formatting by BB eBooks

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

First publication 2015

Second publication 2017

www.heidicullinan.com

Lonely Hearts

Heidi Cullinan

For K.A. Mitchell.

Table of Contents

About the Book

Copyright Page

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Epigraph

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Epilogue

About the Author

More Books in the Love Lessons Series

Other books by Heidi Cullinan

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Elizabeth Perry for alpha reading and letting me bleed off some production nerves during the initial draft, Damon Suede for helping me clean myself up, Sasha Knight for being my favorite editor in the entire universe, Kanaxa for the amazing covers, Dan Cullinan for doing all the dishes, laundry, and general cleanup, Anna for eating weird things out of cans instead of actual meals while I holed up in my office, and Pastor Larry Trachte for being the best campus pastor there ever was. Thanks also to Sandy C for some excellent eagle-eye notes, and as always huge, huge love to Lillie for combing through this series on the second edition and helping me make it a bit smoother all around. I am Lillie for life.

Thanks as always and especially to my patrons, especially Rosie Moewe, Pamela Bartual, Erin Sharpe, Tiffany Miller, Sarah Plunkett, Sarah M, Sandy C, Chris Klaene, and Marie. I couldn’t drive the Tesla without you.

I think we ought to live happily ever after.

—Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle

Chapter One

AS FAR AS Elijah Prince was concerned, gay weddings could choke on their own cheery goddamned glitter and die.

He sat alone in the back of the overflowing reception hall, framed by floral, ribbon, and balloon garlands aesthetically balanced on the head of the most fabulous of pins. The decor came courtesy of the high-priced wedding planner one of the grooms, Walter, had imported from his native Chicago, because only the best would be procured for his darling Kelly. The chairs and tables, decorated with runners of Italian silk, were Disney-movie themed, because Kelly ate, breathed, and farted Disney.

The grooms had arrived at the reception via a fucking horse-drawn carriage. The wedding party’s table was bedecked in Tangled colors and paraphernalia: little-girl purple and Rapunzel-hair gold weaving between toy figurines and play sets. The space for parents and immediate family sported colors and action figures from Beauty and the Beast, a sea of bright blue and a gold which should have clashed with the Rapunzel yellow yet somehow didn’t.

Elijah was at one of the sections reserved for the choirs and orchestra. His table’s theme was light blue and white, for Frozen. It made him want to gag. He was the only social orphan at the music table, possibly at the entire wedding. Giles Mulder, Aaron Seavers, and Mina Stevenson were at the table legitimately. Giles and Mina were in the Saint Timothy orchestra, Aaron choir, and they all three had roles in one form or another in the all-male and all-female a cappella groups from their college.

Aaron had already broken ranks, leaving the wedding party to snuggle at the music table with Giles, but though Elijah attended Saint Timothy too, he was in zero musical groups. No doubt someone, probably Aaron, had pleaded with Walter and Kelly on Elijah’s behalf to give him an exemption to sit with the musical people.

It didn’t matter how bitter and nasty Elijah was. Giles and Aaron had decided to adopt him, and apparently they intended to never leave him behind. Elijah often loathed the level of their intrusion, except when he was weak enough to admit it was sometimes the only thing keeping him going.

“What are your plans for this summer, Elijah?” Mina asked this as Aaron made his Anna figure flirt with Giles’s Kristoff. When Giles had Kristoff respond with bald innuendo, Mina laughed and launched a handful of table confetti at them so it appeared to come from her Elsa doll.

Elijah nudged his plate hard enough to knock his Sven figure onto its side as he slumped deeper into his seat. “Pastor Schulz got me a job at the cafeteria. Doing dishes and taking out the garbage.” He felt bad about the note of complaint and cleared his throat. “I’m glad to have it.”

“You’re still moving into the White House with us this fall, right?”

Elijah nodded without enthusiasm. The White House was the old mansion north of the music building that traditionally provided off-campus housing for music students. Aaron and Giles would be there, as would Mina and her friend Jilly. Elijah was slated to room with Giles’s old roommate, Brian, who with Elijah would be the other non-music person. It was all tidily arranged.

Except everyone else would be paying rent, whereas Elijah’s portion would be paid out of the pity fund Walter Davidson, née Lucas, had set up for Elijah because he was now officially without parental support. The money in the trust would cover his tuition and any books and supplies his summer job wouldn’t.

A familiar chuckle sent a shiver down Elijah’s spine, and he let his gaze slip to the tall, smiling young man wearing sunglasses at the other end of their table. Baz Acker would be at the White House too.

Mina caught Elijah’s hand discreetly under the table and squeezed. “Let people care for you, okay? You’re owed a little kickback from the game of life.”

“It feels weird.” Elijah buried his Sven figure deeper under his plate and cast a caustic glare Aaron’s direction, waiting for him to point out Elijah used to hate how no one would help him.

Aaron fixed his gaze on his plate, his pretty-boy expression taking on shadows. “I know. But it gets easier, I promise.”

It should have comforted him, this reminder that yes, Aaron did understand. He’d been a stalwart protector of Elijah since he found out they both had remix variations on shit-tastic parents. But as usual, Elijah exhibited an allergic reaction to kindness. “Maybe I should find an even sorrier sap than me to coach through his hell, since it worked so well for you.”

Giles glared at Elijah and punched him in the arm.

“You’re going to be fine. It hasn’t been long since…everything.” Mina put a hand in the center of Elijah’s back. “Give yourself space to find your feet. Take comfort in people removing some of your concerns.”

“I’ve helped myself since I was in middle school. I don’t like this attention, the owing people.”

This comment turned the gentle massage at his back into a pointed nudge. “When you were helping yourself in middle and high school, your parents hadn’t attempted to gun you down in the middle of a college campus.”

“Yeah, well, they did plenty of shit almost as bad before, but nobody saw.”

“I think it’s why we want to help you. We know you faced worse, and it upsets us.”

“Yes, but these people donating to the damn trust fund don’t know me. They only feel sorry for me.” Given the burgeoning tally of how much poor Elijah money Walter had collected, a whole lot of people felt sorry for him. It weirded him the fuck out.

“They won’t feel sorry for you if they talk to you for more than five minutes,” Giles drawled. This time Aaron punched him in the arm.

Mina ignored them both and kept soothing Elijah. “Maybe some feel sorry. But anyone there that day, any of our parents and families—we understand exactly what kind of hell you were living with. We want to take some of it away from you.”

You can’t erase hell with a check. Before Elijah could figure out a less caustic way to phrase that, Walter’s friend Cara stood up to make a toast, and the conversation came to a blissful end.

The first attendant’s speech was cute, but a little too much so. When it ended with someone clinking a spoon against a wineglass, inspiring the grooms to kiss, Elijah slipped a flask of cheap whiskey out of his suit coat pocket and took a heavy pull. When everyone whooped and catcalled because Walter pulled Kelly across his lap and kissed him deeper, Elijah emptied the flask some more.

“Go for the tonsils, Lucas,” Baz Acker called.

Elijah tipped his head all the way back, fully intending to drown himself in blissful, drunken oblivion, but before he could, Giles leaned across the table and swiped the flask from Elijah’s hand.

“Hey.” Elijah glared and tried to retrieve his alcohol.

Giles moved it out of reach. “You’re sleeping in the same room as me, and I’m not spending the night listening to you retch into the toilet.” He tucked the flask into his jacket pocket and passed over a bottle of water. “Salvo is going up to sing. Mina will want you to watch.”

Elijah pasted on a polite expression as Salvo assumed their position on the stage. Though Elijah still didn’t want to be here, Giles was right about Mina, and he kept his grouchiness to himself.

They performed an a cappella version of “Something That I Want”, which Elijah knew from watching the girls rehearse was a song that played over the credits of Tangled, Kelly Davidson’s favorite movie of all time. The song was cheesy and this Disney movie shit was totally fucking OTT, but Mina sang wicked lead, and Elijah tapped his toe despite himself. Kelly got up and danced with them, sort of singing but mostly vacillating between blushing and flirting outrageously with his groom, who sat on a chair in front of the stage and ate up the performance with a spoon.

As the song concluded and the audience clapped, Salvo retreated to the wings, and the Ambassadors got up from the table to take their place.

Saying the Ambassadors were hot was like saying water was wet. Each member was either out-and-out gorgeous or exuding so much raw character their rougher mugs only added to their draw. They smelled good as well—this close up, one good deep breath filled Elijah’s sinuses with enough man sweat to give him a semi. Aaron was in the Ambassadors, and while he wasn’t Elijah’s type, he wasn’t painful to look at, especially when he was lost in the joy of a song. In the same way Kelly had joined Salvo for their number, Walter became an honorary Ambassador, and his winks and smiles poked through Elijah’s natural crankiness and cranked up his libido. Walter was Exhibit A of gay-boy crack: flirty, charming, sexy. It was no accident Walter was the one singing about being a heartbreaker tearing girls apart. Anyone with a pulse would go home with Walter.

There was another Ambassador Elijah couldn’t stop watching, though while he was even more handsome than Walter, he also came with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Intellectually Elijah knew the limp and occasional hitch as Sebastian Acker danced was from the hush-hush accident in high school that had severely eclipsed his vision and graced him with a partially titanium skeleton. Yet there was no question the harrowing events of the nightmare afternoon with Elijah’s parents only a few short months ago had done anything but aggravate those ancient wounds.

How did you say I’m sorry when your dad shoots someone in the shoulder? When someone takes a bullet so you and others around you don’t have to? What did it mean when said hero had already saved you once before—but then, as now, never had so much as a casual smile for you in the aftermath?

Baz smiled tonight—a dark, delicious leer pulling at Elijah’s gut.

Elijah endured the performance in sullen and sadly sober silence. Beside him Giles whooped and applauded when Aaron sang solo. When Walter descended into his adoring audience during the final chorus and the Ambassadors urged everyone to close in on the groom, Giles rose, laughing, to join them.

Unfortunately, at the last second he also grabbed Elijah’s hand.

“No.” Elijah clamped a hand on his chair to keep himself from being dragged off to the gulag.

Giles tugged Elijah to his feet. “Yes. It’s a fucking wedding. You can resume being a caustic asshole tomorrow, but today is Walter and Kelly’s happily ever after, and today you’re going to dance.”

Elijah wanted to argue, to wrestle out of Giles’s hold and describe the full detail of how he wasn’t dancing at a wedding, ever, but Giles was stronger than he seemed for a scrawny geek with big ears. And Elijah might be a caustic asshole, but no, he couldn’t make a scene. Not today, not with these people.

It was hell. The whole day had been acid down his back, but this dance, this moment, surrounded by the great music nerd herd, Baz less than six feet away from him as he flirted with Walter and Kelly’s friends—this was dancing on knives. Everyone smiling. Everyone happy. Everyone laughing, connected, joyously united for those they loved.

Everyone but Elijah.

He moved woodenly, trying not to stand out. Trying not to look like the short, skinny freak he was. Mina drew him into a circle with her and Jilly. When the song was over, Mina squeezed his hand. He stiffened, thinking she’d haul him off for yet another fucking heart-to-heart/pep talk, but she let him go and went to the stage. There must be another Salvo-Ambassadors number.

Whatever. Elijah wasn’t staying for it. He’d done his time. He’d danced and faked merry. Now he needed to find somewhere to hide until this was over, do his best to forget it ever happened. Retreating to his chair, he scooped up his jacket, made sure his cigarettes were still there, then dug inside Giles’s suit coat for his flask.

He’d closed his fingers around it when the music started up. Soft, lyrical strings caught the edge of his heart. Glancing up, he saw Giles, Mina, and a few other orchestra people playing at the edge of the stage. In the center, Aaron and Walter’s friend Rose stood at the mic as Salvo and the Ambassadors fanned out around the room.

On the dance floor, Walter and Kelly stood alone, poised and ready to dance.

The song was “I See the Light”, another Tangled number. Aaron sang the male part of the duet, and Walter’s friend Rose did a less-than-Mina soprano, but mostly the music fell away in the brilliant presence of the two young men on the dance floor. Walter glided with suave grace, and Kelly followed with an untutored gait as charming as Walter’s practiced moves. Around and around the floor they spun, the soft lighting mimicking the lanterns from the song’s source scene in Tangled, the whimsically elegant atmosphere amplifying the moment until it resonated like a string.

It shafted Elijah through the heart.

The flask fell from Elijah’s hand, as did his jacket. Hypnotized, he watched the two men dance, the song cracking open the rough leather casing he’d wrapped around himself.

Perfection. Happy ending. Walter and Kelly Davidson would end up in a fucking suburb. They’d adopt, or have a surrogate for their kids. Same went for Aaron and Giles—oh, Elijah had seen their faces. They wouldn’t go quite this fucking Disney, but they’d be just as goddamned cute. Probably do some big song-and-dance number for the proposal too. They’d have the singers strung out around the perimeter same as this. They’d have an equally exquisite moment for the ceremony itself, one defining and celebrating the two of them. They’d have each other forever, and their union would be witnessed by a thousand friends.

The song ended, and everyone clapped, many also wiping away a tear. Elijah bent to retrieve his things, but his hand trembled, and when he dropped the flask a second time, it skittered away from him into the crowd. He thought about leaving it, but only for a second. He may not get a happily ever after, but he damn well was having his fucking whiskey.

This time when he picked it up, he gripped it tight, clutching it to his chest as he rose. He stood on the edge of the dance floor, which was filling up with the wedding party as the orchestra-chorus began “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.

Elijah glanced around desperately for an exit. He found one, but not before his gaze once more grazed Baz, and weakened by the hole in his armor, Elijah let his gaze linger as the truth seeped into his heart.

I’m never going to have this. Not this kind of family. Not these kinds of friends. Not with an Aaron or Kelly or Walter or Baz or anyone. No one’s ever going to love me this way. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, even if they did.

He let himself have one moment of wallowing in misery, and then he packed the pain away, back into the dark corner it had lived in since as early as he could remember. He ducked through the beaming, swaying guests and escaped out the side door, safe in the knowledge nobody was going to miss a scrawny, scowling loser, knowing while he wasn’t ever going to get a happily ever after, he could still find a way to get high.

AS THE WEDDING guests applauded, Sebastian Acker tracked Elijah’s exit behind the darkened panels of his glasses. That last, naked glance ghosted on his conscience the same way everything about Elijah did. Leaning over to Marius, Baz spoke quietly in his best friend’s ear. “Gonna nip outside.”

Marius frowned and nodded at Damien, the third leg of their dynamic trio, who was also the Ambassadors’ student director. “Don’t be long. He said something about doing last call, in case people go to the hotel early.”

Last call. The comment sent a jolt of sorrow through Baz, which he did his best to smother from Marius’s notice. “Right. I’ll keep it quick.”

“If you miss it because you were getting high in the Tesla, I’ll never forgive you.”

“I’ll be there.”

With a squeeze of Marius’s shoulder, Baz wove his way through the crowd, winking and flirting in an attempt to hide his discomfort. When Baz slipped around the corner of the building, he found Elijah a polite distance away from an amicable group of middle-aged smokers. His shoulders hunched as he sucked on a cancer stick between swigs of alcohol.

Safe and sound.

Reminding himself Elijah was out of the woods, Baz returned to the reception. Howard Prince was in jail, and there was no way he could shoot an Acker and do anything but stay there. Except no matter how Baz reassured himself, the urge to shadow Elijah, to protect him, hadn’t faded away after the shooting.

For now, however, Baz had an entirely different dragon to slay.

As Baz returned to the reception, Damien nodded toward the rest of the upperclassmen Ambassadors leaving the banquet hall. “We’re going downstairs. Marius found a room we could use, where we can have some privacy. I have everybody but Aaron. You mind fetching him?”

Baz spread his fake smile as wide as it could go. “Not at all.”

He was glad for his sunglasses as he approached his friend, who was chatting with Giles and two Salvo members near one of the speakers. When Baz smiled, nobody knew the gesture didn’t make it all the way to his eyes.

“Ambassador, you have one final performance of the year.” He ruffled Aaron’s hair. “Let’s go.”

Aaron followed Baz out of the room. “Is something wrong? You look upset.”

“Nothing’s wrong. Nothing I didn’t know was coming, anyway.”

“But what—?”

“You learned the Pink Floyd song, right? The one Damien handed out before the graduation ceremony?”

Through the heavy tint of his sunglasses, Baz saw Aaron blink. “Yes, but what—Oh.”

Yeah. Oh.

The Ambassadors had been Baz’s lifeline since he joined as a freshman. They hadn’t given a shit he was gay—some, of course, were happy to hear it and had shown him a good time. They didn’t care about his senator uncle and crazy political family except to crack a few jokes about where was his Secret Service. They did care about his grim high school history and the reason for his disabilities, but they loved him enough not to bring it up, to help him move away from the past.

The Ambassadors were everything to Baz. But once a year, they had to have this moment, when the graduating seniors sang their last song. This year the remainder of Baz’s first-year class would say goodbye—not Baz, because he’d put off reality as long as possible. He’d had an extra year to avoid the inevitable because anyone in music therapy or other five-year program was still with him, but that year was up. He couldn’t make time stand still completely.

He couldn’t keep his Ambassadors around forever.

They wove their way through the crush toward the basement of the marina, passing silent rooms, a small kitchen, a storage area. In the distance, Baz heard the other Ambassadors speaking in hushed voices.

In the center of the room, Damien cleared his throat. “It’s been a hell of a year. We got six new amazing members. We gained a sister choir—and don’t think for a minute they’re not gonna kick your asses in any tournaments you enter together.” He squeezed Baz’s hand tight. “We had our scares. Our challenges. But we made it through. Every man here is a hero. A brother.” He let out a shuddering breath and lowered Baz’s hand. “I’m gonna miss each one of you like a fucking arm.”

Baz told the tears to fuck off. “You’ve got a lot of arms, man.”

Damien swung Baz’s hand, lifting it, a quiet acknowledgment. “Yeah. I do.” He pulled out a pitch pipe, blew the note and counted them in.

For the fifth time in his life, Baz sang the graduating Ambassador brothers goodbye.

The group had been singing “Goodbye Cruel World” at their final concert since the early eighties, when pulling a Floyd was current. The arrangement was pretty pedestrian, but it never altered. Maybe the original composers could have done better, but this wasn’t a moment for flash. This was sending graduating members home.

Baz didn’t let himself dwell on that, not during the song. He pushed Damien up under his solo. He felt Marius beneath him, rumbling the basement floor of the bass section with a resonance no one would ever be able to replicate. Baz swelled with his brothers, with Aaron and Sid and all sixteen of the Ambassadors. He belted the last chorus with his whole soul, his heart. The final note hovered in the air, held until the last Ambassador ran out of breath. They kept still another four beats after, suspending the moment as long as they could.

Then it was over.

They embraced. They man-patted, they wept, they whispered promises to stay in touch, vows they all knew would be more difficult to keep with each passing day, until they were the old Ambassadors lingering alone in the homecoming crowd, grasping for their ghost of this moment, this time. Aaron and the other first-years had the same stunned look of horrible realization they all did when they were the newbs—comprehension that this was only the first goodbye, and someday it would be them singing their last note.

If Baz could have gotten his shit together, this would have been his last call. Someday it would have to be. But the panic this thought instilled in him made his paranoia about Elijah’s safety seem a moderate worry in comparison, so he boxed the fear in the mental cell it had crawled out of.

Baz deliberately left embracing Damien and Marius for last. He flirted with Aaron, teasing him about how he’d have to be Baz’s choir wingman now. He baited Sid about being the old man in the White House with him. He put off approaching his best friends as absolutely long as he could, but at last they found him, and the bastards hugged him together.

“This isn’t goodbye.” Damien’s voice was gruff. “We’re only moving into the Cities, and I’ll be in town a lot until Stevie graduates in December.”

Marius’s cheeks were already salt-streaked as he spoke in his calm, steady voice, so sexy he could seduce a nun. “I’m not moving out of the White House until the end of the month. And as Damien said, I’m not moving far.”

Baz shut his eyes tight. “I know.” But Marius would be in med school. How much time for hanging out would he realistically have?

Marius removed Baz’s glasses, bringing an uncomfortable wave of brightness that threatened a headache, but Marius had already pulled Baz in low, blocking out the light with his hands. “I’m not leaving you alone. I don’t give a fuck how you try and shut me out, you can’t. You’re my brother, and I’ve got your back. Damien and I both do. Always.”

Marius’s and Damien’s vows couldn’t soothe Baz’s soul. They said they weren’t leaving, but they were. They were starting their real lives, ones where the three of them didn’t share a living room and a daily schedule. Damien was getting married. Marius would be right behind him as soon as a girl hooked him in the mouth. People moved on. Everyone did, eventually.

Everyone but Baz.

Damien clutched Baz’s head, kissed him on the cheek, sighed. “Enough. This isn’t goodbye, and we have a wedding to dance at. And one of us has to stay sober enough to drive to the hotel.”

“Well, thank God that’s not me,” Baz quipped. “Though I suppose I have to audition a new driver soon.”

Marius hooked his arm. “You still have a driver.”

For now.

Baz punched Marius in the arm, teasing him about how was he going to survive without Baz’s sick wheels. He did what he could to distract himself from the heavy truth. No matter what they said, this was the end.

Distraction, however, never came cheap to Baz, and lingering with people he was about to lose did him no favors. He knew he should celebrate this last moment, drink up their companionship one last time, but he couldn’t. Every second with them now was a reminder they were almost gone. What he needed was a way to check out. He had a handful of narcotics and a few other pharmaceuticals in his car, which combined with the fifth stashed in the glove box would go a long way to smoothing out the jagged edges the evening had left on him. Sex would be good too—a rush, a release, and a blissful crash. Except everyone at this wedding came with strings.

The memory of Elijah’s naked gaze returned, but Baz shoved the thought away the same as he always did. Elijah was off-limits. Baz wasn’t able to articulate why. He only knew it was the same kind of instinct as the one urging him to protect Elijah. Ignoring those impulses never came with pleasant consequences.

Except tonight, something had changed. Tonight Elijah lingered in Baz’s mind like a cancer. Made his feet itch, sent him to the bar for four too many whiskey sours. Made him yearn for the pills and better booze in his car.

Sent him out the door via the patio where he’d last seen Elijah.

This time he didn’t tell Marius or Damien where he was going. He was too busy talking up a mental justification for seeking Elijah out a second time, preemptively staunching the panic he’d feel if Elijah wasn’t still standing there or somewhere else equally obvious. It kept mingling with the memory of that terrible gaze, sending his anxiety higher.

His breath caught in exhausted relief as he saw Elijah huddled on the deck, staring out at the lake with the same hollow expression.

Emboldened by alcohol, driven by a loneliness scraping the bottom of his soul, Baz sauntered over to Elijah with a rakish smile. “Hey, sailor. Care for a drink?”

Chapter Two

AS BAZ GRINNED at him and waited for a reply, Elijah, king of the acid quips and one-liners, could find nothing to say.

Better yet, he completed his village-idiot look by letting his mouth hang open. Was this a joke? Would Marius and Damien pop out of the bushes giggle-snorting at how moronic Elijah was? Would he end up on the stage holding flowers, and they’d laugh as pig’s blood splashed on his head?

With a chuckle, Baz plucked the flask from Elijah’s hand. “Whatever this is, it must be good, if you’re numb already. Mind if I give it a sample?”

Elijah continued his impression of a potted plant. His erection thickened as he watched Baz’s Adam’s apple work against the whiskey, but this was as animated as Elijah got.

Baz lowered the flask and spat, making a face as he wiped his mouth. “Holy shit, it tastes like rancid, hairy ass. What the hell is it, and how in God’s name are you swallowing it?”

Elijah’s cheeks burned. “It was the cheapest.”

Baz’s expression remained unreadable behind his glasses as Elijah chastised himself for finding infinite ways to be a tool in front of the one guy he wanted to impress. He tried to crawl into his trick head, the mental fortress allowing him to blow anybody and sleep like a baby after, but he couldn’t get there. All he could do was stew in the knowledge that the only thing he was blowing right now was the remotest prayer of Baz ever speaking to him again.

What a fuck of a nightcap to the greatest shitshow on earth.

Except Baz didn’t laugh, didn’t roll his eyes. He said, “I have an eighteen-year-old bottle of Oban in my glove compartment. It’ll ruin you for other stuff forever, but if you’re okay with that, I’m more than willing to share.”

Baz was looking at Elijah the same way he had the day in the parking lot in March, his glasses knocked away and his shoulder bleeding out onto the snow as he regarded Elijah with the strangest cocktail of hope and relief.

“S-sure,” Elijah replied.

“Excellent.” Rakish grin in place, Baz held out his arm.

Telling himself he finally understood why Carrie had gone with Tommy to the prom, Elijah tucked his slim hand into the crook of Baz’s elbow.

They walked in silence around the marina to the parking lot, where Baz strode with purpose toward the farthest row. For a moment Elijah tried to guess which vehicle was Baz’s, then got completely distracted by a sleek red car tucked beside a copse of trees. It looked about two seconds old and slightly space-age. Elijah entertained a delicious image of getting fucked over the hood, imagining the fit the stuck-up middle-aged asshole who owned the thing would have if he knew a scrawny gay kid was thinking about using his midlife crisis as a fucking post.

Except they kept getting closer to the car, until the only conclusion Elijah could reach was that this wet dream of a machine belonged to Baz.

Baz grinned at Elijah. “Nice, right? I’ve wanted a Tesla forever. Got it last week. They were holding off until I got my ass together enough to graduate, but me taking a slug in the shoulder made them soft.”

Tentatively, Elijah ran his hands over the frame. The car was sexy as fuck, largely because it was so quiet about it. “It’s incredible.”

“I tricked out everything I could. I wanted the Model X for the Back to the Future doors, but I soured when I realized it’s more of an SUV. Plus my ceiling was $100k, and I’d get less bells and whistles with the X.”

One hundred thousand dollars. This car costs one hundred thousand dollars. If Elijah had one hundred dollars, he felt dizzily rich. Of course, with his poor Elijah fund, he could technically buy this car. And feel guilty as fuck for wasting other people’s money. He ran his hand over the trunk, trying and failing to comprehend the gap in economics between the two of them.

Baz beamed like a proud father. “I love the all-glass roof. With the performance package, it smokes down the road. Well—so I hear. Rides pretty great.”

“You haven’t driven your own car?”

“Can’t.”

Elijah’s body locked up. “You—can’t? My dad—?”

“No. I haven’t been able to drive since I was sixteen. In fact, I got in one good day and one godawful night before I was done for good. Your dad had nothing to do with this. But even if he did, it would have nothing to do with you.”

That was a load of shit, but Elijah was so busy being relieved he wasn’t responsible for Baz not being able to drive his own car, all he could do was exhale in relief.

Baz punched Elijah lightly in the arm. “You want to molest the outside a little longer, or you ready to sit in the cockpit?”

Everything inside Elijah lit up. “You mean—drive?”

“Not after your cheap whiskey and the good stuff I intend to offer you once we’re inside. But we can put it on the agenda for later. Go on. Get in the driver’s seat.”

They were going to have a later? Elijah cast a sidelong glance at Baz, again wondering if he was walking into some kind of a setup. What the fuck is going on? You’ve acted as if the sight of me revolted you ever since you discovered we were attending the same college. Except for the time you saved my life.

He couldn’t ask any of those things, though, because as soon as he went to open the driver’s door, he paused. “Um—where the fuck are the door handles?”

Baz’s grin split his face as he kept walking closer. “They’re right there. The silver things.”

“Yes—the silver things flush with the side of the car. How am I supposed to—”

He stopped talking as the handles popped out.

“They retract for aerodynamics. Also, because it’s bitching cool. Reappear when the keys get close.” Baz cracked the door and held it open for Elijah. “Your car, sir.”

Elijah slid into the Tesla. The seats were butter. It didn’t just smell like a new car—it smelled like money. Money and geekery and excellence. He ran his hands over the steering wheel and ghosted his fingers over the huge glass panel on the dashboard between the wheel and the passenger side. It was almost a built-in iPad. It was dark at the moment, and Elijah itched to see it light up and blow his mind.

“That’s the dashboard control center.” Baz gestured at it as he climbed into the passenger side. “Full touchscreen, controls everything. It has internet too—all but video.”

Elijah was about to ask for the keys, but he couldn’t see an ignition switch. “How do I turn it on?”

“Put your foot on the brake.”

Elijah did. The lights lit, the fan purred softly, but the car itself made no sound.

“Never gets louder than this.” Baz gestured to the hood. “There’s no engine there. It’s in the rear, between the wheels. About as big as a breadbox. So in addition to the hatchback, we have storage at the front end—they call it the frunk—where the combustion engine would be.”

Elijah let out a sigh full of arousal. “Holy shit, this is so fucking cool.”

“Oh, honey, this dog has so many tricks it needs a circus. You can raise and lower the suspension manually or let it adjust itself according to weight. You can manipulate how the sound comes out, so it’s perfectly situated around you as the driver or balanced between us.”

Baz whipped through a dizzying array of features, all of them fifty times more decadent than anything Elijah would have ever thought to dream of, let alone expect to actually have in a car. Elijah was still hung up, though, on the first magic trick. “How did you start the car without a key?”

Grinning, Baz pulled a black fob out of his pocket and dangled it between them. “This is the key. Just needs to be in the car. Pretty standard on new vehicles these days, but I like to think the Tesla’s is cooler. I don’t think many start by a foot on the brake. It turns off when we get out too, and locks itself after thirty seconds, sucking the door handles in.”

Elijah had no idea magic keys were standard now. He thought of the 1996 Oldsmobile his parents had occasionally allowed him to drive, wondered briefly what had happened to it. Since his mother was in a mental institution and his dad in prison, neither of them could drive it right now.

Baz opened the glove compartment and withdrew a bottle of golden alcohol. “Care for a drink?”

Yeah, Elijah could handle a little oblivion. He accepted the bottle, and after a glance at Baz to make sure it would be okay, took a hit straight from the fifth. The buttery, smoky scotch played on his tongue, making goose bumps break out across his skin.

“Whoa.” The taste kept exploding in his mouth, long after he’d passed it to Baz. “God, it makes me want a cigarette.”

“Go for it.” Baz touched the glass screen, slid an image on the panel, and half the car roof peeled away to reveal the increasingly purple sky.

“I can’t smoke in your brand-new car.”

“Why not? I’m going to.” Baz pulled something else out of the glove compartment—a baggie full of small, white, rolled joints. “Unless you have a moral objection to weed.” He waggled his eyebrows over the top of his glasses. “They’re medicinal.”

“I only mind if you don’t intend to share.”

The grin splitting Baz’s lips gave almost as good a buzz as the lit joint he passed to Elijah.

Leaning back, Elijah stared up through the moonroof as the scotch and marijuana unkinked his brain. The rawness and tension seemed to mist out of his body, rising up toward the jet trails above. “This is nice. The only thing that could make it better would be if I still had the Xanax they gave me in the hospital.”

Popping the console between them, Baz withdrew a brown bottle and tossed it into Elijah’s lap.

Elijah stared at it. He remembered well the blissful unplugging the drug gave him, and he hadn’t been kidding when he’d said it would make the moment perfect: the scotch, weed, and Xanax combined would untether him completely, sending him blissfully into happy land. But he also knew it came at a steep cost.

He gripped the sides of the bottle, running his thumb over the label prescribing the medicine to Sebastian Percival Acker. “If I take this, I’m gonna turn into a pile of mush. I’ll grin like an idiot, dance like a hooker, and sing like a canary.”

“Sounds good to me.”

It did to Elijah too…except. “I’ll also offer to blow you. A lot. And if you don’t let me, I’ll wander off and keep trying until someone does.”

He glanced to the side to check how that comment was received but mentally cursed as he remembered the glasses rendered that impossible. All he got was Baz settling into the corner between his seat and the door, rolling the bottle of scotch on his upraised knee. “So Xanax makes you horny.”

Elijah thought about letting the remark stand, then decided, fuck it. It had been fun to ride the fairy tale of Baz Acker actually giving a shit about him, but he knew firsthand fairy tales were a lot more Grimm brothers and much less Walt Disney. Time to lay his cards on the table. “No. More shuts down the part of me keeping me from wandering around like a fucking idiot. Xanax puts my internal babysitter to sleep. I’ll want to have a good time.”

With you. Because I’ve wanted a good time with you for a long, long while.

Baz kept quiet, moving only to retrieve the joint and take a long drag. “It more puts the demons to sleep for me. Though I’m impressed. I don’t think I could cut loose enough to want to fuck just anybody.”

Elijah slugged some scotch before he could bring himself to reply. “Less cutting loose and more…letting out the lonely.” He played numb fingers over the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t sleep with just anybody.”

“But you would sleep with me, because I’m not just anybody? You’re gonna give me a big head, Prince.”

I want to give you all of the head. But the ribald response got swallowed by another wave of guilt. “You saved my life.”

Beside him, Baz went still. “Is that what this is about?”

Elijah frowned, not sure what this was. “Why I want to sleep with you? No. That’s because you’re hot. But the other thing…makes me feel weird. And bad.”

Baz didn’t respond right away, and Elijah kicked himself for fucking up getting laid. He should have refused the Xanax and ridden the scene out. Except he knew he’d have broken at some point. It was too weird.

It was fucking unfair how he had to go and be rational and cautious right now. Why couldn’t he have one good night? One good time? Wasn’t he fucking owed one?

Baz cleared his throat. “You still haven’t said if you want a Xanax, only what will happen if you do.”

Say no. Be safe. The thought drifted into Elijah’s conscience before being drowned by a slosh of Oban. “Oh, I want one.”

Fuck those fucking glasses. “So you were letting me know what I was buying?” He retrieved the pill bottle from Elijah and rolled it around in his hand.

Elijah tracked the movement, all his emotions and fears smashing against the weed and booze in his system. Baz cracked the medicine cap off with one hand and split a pill with the deftness of one who’d done it a lot. After pocketing the bottle, he held up the half-circle.

Elijah stuck out his tongue.

Laughing, Baz put the pill between his teeth and dropped it into Elijah’s mouth.

As Elijah swallowed the Xanax with scotch, Baz whispered kisses along his jaw, trailed down the center of his throat, mimicking the medicine’s descent. Elijah shut his eyes and slid his hands over Baz’s shoulders, into his hair. When Baz pressed the nearly spent joint to his lips, Elijah took a deep hit, holding the smoke inside him as long as he could, wanting to fly as high as possible.

With Baz.

Baz brushed a dry kiss over Elijah’s parted lips, catching the lower mound of flesh with his teeth. “I haven’t shown you the Tesla’s backseat.” He ran fingers down Elijah’s chest, popping one button, another. “I can still drive there, baby.”

Elijah leaned into those exploring fingers, wishing the futuristic Tesla had teleportation capability. Since it didn’t, he only let himself shiver under the blistering heat of Baz’s touch a moment before he said, “Race you there,” and opened the door of the car.

AS ELIJAH STUMBLED out of the front seat, Baz clutched the bottle of Oban and tried to gauge how big of a fuckup he’d initiated. He hadn’t meant to let it go this far. The idea of hanging out in his car with Elijah had felt so good, so safe, he couldn’t stop himself.

Elijah opened the passenger-side door and glared. “Fuck. You’re having second thoughts, aren’t you. I knew it.” He pushed away from the car.

Baz grabbed him before he escaped his reach. “Slow down, tiger. You’re not going anywhere.”

If Baz hadn’t held him so tightly, he’d have lost Elijah in the squirming. “The fuck I’m not. I can read that expression through those fucking glasses. Take your pity somewhere else.”

With a growl, Baz yanked Elijah onto his lap. He winced at the impact on his bad hip, but he swallowed the yelp of pain and focused on the more important issue. Pulling off his glasses, he held Elijah’s chin tight.

“I don’t pity you. I wouldn’t fucking do that to you.”

The manhandling and rough tone took some of the wind out of Elijah’s sails, but not all. “What are you doing? You’ve been fucking with me ever since we met in Saint Paul. You haul me out of a nightmare, but when I try to thank you, you shove me on a bus to South Dakota with a wad of money like the sight of me revolts you.”

Baz winced. “I didn’t—”

“I was there. You fucking did. And when you saw me years later in the computer lab at Saint Timothy, you all but vomited on your way out the door. You looked away anytime you saw me on campus—right up until you leapt in front of a fucking bullet for me. But then you ignored me until tonight, when you get me drunk and high and promise me sex, don’t follow through, and I catch you wearing that face. So fucking figure it out. You want me or not?”

Jesus Christ. Baz opened his mouth to argue, but Elijah shifted and let in a shaft of setting sunlight directly into his eyes. This time he did cry out, a tight gasp of exquisite pain as he slammed his eyes shut and hunched forward to reclaim the shadow.

Swearing under his breath, Elijah pressed Baz’s glasses clumsily onto his face. “You shouldn’t have taken them off.”

No, he shouldn’t have, not facing the setting sun with a headache from the wedding already killing him. “You said you couldn’t read my face with them on.”

“So that’s what you listen to? You won’t fuck me, but you’ll blind yourself? What kind of screwed up are you?”

Baz pushed his glasses into place. “I wasn’t pitying you. I was trying to decide if I’d fucked up by hunting you down. For once I thought I’d try to see the train wreck coming and stop it. I don’t pity you. I worry about you.”

“How would you fuck this up by doing me? Do you have some stupid idea I’d get all gooey over you if you put your dick in my ass? My name’s not Aaron Seavers, thanks.”

“I fuck shit up. I worry about you.”

“The name is Prince, bitch, not princess. I can take care of myself.” He flicked Baz lightly on the nose. “You’re a lot wetter than I thought.”

Baz nipped at Elijah’s fingers as he pulled them away. “This the Xanax kicking in?”

“Yes. I warned you.”

Baz skimmed his hands up Elijah’s sides, lingering on his hipbones. Stared up at that dark hair framing his pale face, angular features. Angry eyes that couldn’t hide his arousal. “Still wanting to fuck me, even though I’m wet?”

“You’re more damp than wet.” Elijah ran his fingers through Baz’s hair. “Plus you’re one of those assholes who looks hot when you’re emo. So, yes.”

“Climb into the moonroof and I’ll blow you.”

To his surprise, Elijah pouted. “But I was going to blow you.”

Baz squeezed his hip. “Climb up there now, hooker, or I won’t put my finger in your ass.”

Elijah skimmed his body over Baz’s on his way to the roof, pausing to suck briefly on Baz’s bottom lip. “Crying shame. I’d be the best you ever had.”

Baz pinched his nipple. “Up. Roof. Now.”

Elijah’s wink tipped Baz’s erection from semi to full-on painful wood. “Yes, sir.”

His foot slammed into Baz’s hip a second time. Biting his tongue, Baz moved it to the console and arranged Elijah’s knees against the seat, putting his groin level with Baz’s mouth.

“Whoa.” Elijah’s torso undulated as Baz undid his dress pants and tugged the waistband down. “Hard to keep my balance. This moonroof is huge. Nothing to hold on to.”

“My hair.” Baz skimmed the trousers to Elijah’s thighs and let the mound of tiny ass fill his hands. Before him, Elijah’s long, red cock swayed in front of his face.

A pinch of Elijah’s ass sent those hands onto either side of Baz’s head. “I’ll end up pulling it.”

“Good.” Baz sucked on the patch of skin above the dark nest of Elijah’s groin, rubbing his chin in the wiry hair. He smiled as Elijah’s abdomen quivered, going concave as his cock teased Baz’s throat. Baz buried his nose in the thatch, drinking in the sweat and smell of dick. It did more to erase the shadows from his brain than a bottle of scotch, a bale of weed, and a basket of Xanax ever could.

“Fuck, suck it already.” Elijah didn’t pull Baz’s hair, but he buried his fingers deep. “And where’s the finger in my ass?”

Baz licked Elijah’s belly and slapped his butt. “Bratty.”

“I haven’t gotten laid since…before.”

Empathy washed Baz out. He stroked Elijah’s ass, his thighs. Baz licked the underside of Elijah’s shaft. “Then let me make it good.”

“I don’t want it good, I—” He gasped, tugging Baz’s hair as Baz sucked on his balls and teased one finger at Elijah’s asshole.

As one hand kept up insistent pressure, Baz reached the other into the console for the vial of lube. When he found it, he switched his mouth to the other sac and greased his finger.

Elijah cried out in falsetto when the finger breached his ass, and he thrust his cock into Baz’s face. “Ohgod. Please. Please.

“I won’t leave you hanging, baby.” Baz sucked on the creases of Elijah’s thighs, moving counterpoint to the finger gently fucking from behind.

“It feels so good.” Elijah ripped at Baz’s hair now, desperate, crazed. “Everything feels so good.”

“Let me make it last.” He whispered the words over Elijah’s skin, pausing to slide his tongue up the dick brushing his cheek. “Let me make it better.”

“People might come—ah.” He panted as Baz added a second finger inside him. “I’m sticking out the roof of your car. It’s pretty obvious what we’re doing.”

Baz sucked on the tip of Elijah’s cock, digging his tongue in the slit before pulling away to speak. “Stick your head out the roof and enjoy your blow job.” Baz reached for the dashboard controls with his free hand. “We need music, though. Who’s your favorite artist?”

“RuPaul, but that’s not good make-out music. Try Hi Fashion. Unghf. Oh my God, your fingers are long.”

Baz hadn’t heard of the band, but Spotify had—except as soon as he keyed them up, Elijah jerked out of euphoria.

No. Not the 70s shit. Hi Fashion. H-I Fashion, not H-I-G-H Fashion. ‘Amazing’ and ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘I’m Not Madonna’.”

Baz tried again, and sure enough, there were all the songs Elijah had rattled off. He hit random play, and as a bass backbeat thumped through the Tesla, he pushed deep into the sweet ass and took Elijah’s cock into his mouth.

Elijah was right—everything felt so good. His car, sexy and sleek and keeping them safe. The music, which was kind of distilled Scissor Sisters. The sweet abandon of Elijah’s body as Baz made love to it, fucked it, sucked it down. The tug of Elijah’s grip on Baz’s hair. The buzz of drugs and alcohol—it all swirled around them, erasing the pain and darkness, leaving them with nothing but light.

Baz wanted to make it last forever.

“I want you to fuck me.” Elijah thrust deep into Baz’s mouth, whimpering as a third finger speared his ass. “I need you to fuck me.”

Baz couldn’t answer, mouth too full of dick, but he didn’t have to reply as sensation quickly overwhelmed Elijah’s ability to speak, leaving Baz to focus on the feast. Elijah was a perfect handful, perfect mouthful. If they moved to the backseat, Baz could sit in the center, have Elijah straddle him backward or forward—or both—and as the song they listened too suggested, park and ride.

Except the two jabs to his hip and the flash of sun in his eyes had exacted their toll. Sometimes the right kind of bang could make all his metal insides light up, and they did now, a nice complement to the spiderweb cracks of pain across his skull. He needed topical analgesic for his hip, two oxycodone and twenty minutes for it to kick in before he could entertain any action. His flagging erection was testament. Pain could be an aphrodisiac, yes—but not this kind.

So he drove Elijah to a punishing climax, making him howl into the marina parking lot. He swallowed the spray hitting the back of his throat in three thick gulps, teasing deep into Elijah’s ass to milk him as much as possible. Spent, Elijah went limp, and Baz lowered him to his lap, carefully arranging him away from the angry hip.

Elijah collapsed on Baz’s shoulder, breathing rough against his neck as he returned to earth. Baz shut his eyes and cradled him close, aching at the way he fit. The song playing now was sweet, and it wrapped the moment in safety and softness.

I don’t want this to end.

The thought sent an electric thrill of terror through Baz. It had to be a side effect of the drug cocktail—projected yearning from last call, watching a high school friend get married and chase down a life Baz knew he couldn’t have anymore. Yearning to keep Elijah close couldn’t be real, because Baz Acker was the dictionary definition of dissatisfaction and distraction.

Yet he couldn’t shake wanting this moment with Elijah to stay. When Elijah pressed a drugged, open-mouthed kiss on Baz’s neck, Baz shut his eyes and sank into a well of safety he would have sworn ten seconds ago didn’t exist.

This was worse than wandering around agitated and lonely. This was what had led him chasing after Aaron last year and eventually breaking his friend’s heart. He couldn’t hurt Elijah. He couldn’t let anyone hurt Elijah. He needed to text Marius, have him take Elijah to the hotel, pour him into a bed, and apologize on behalf of his asshole best friend. Again.

Elijah lifted his head. Baz touched his smooth cheeks, grazing the barest hint of fuzz on his jaw. He stared into those dark, endless eyes and got lost all over again.

“How about you have a cigarette and fill your flask with Oban while I take a few pills, and we go in and dance?” When Elijah’s mouth flattened into a thin line of complaint, Baz pulled Elijah’s lip into the pout he loved. “Then I’ll bring you back here and fuck you.”

He expected a protest—not naked yearning. “You’ll change your mind.”

Baz stroked the open line of Elijah’s neck. “No.”

“You really want to dance with me? In front of people?”

Baz pressed a reverent kiss on his chin. “Especially in front of people.”

Elijah still seemed wary. Baz vowed if he did nothing else tonight, he would wash that doubt away.

Chapter Three

IF DRUGS COULD make Elijah feel the way being with Baz Acker did, he’d have died of an overdose years ago.

Baz kept his hand on Elijah at all times, usually on his ass. When people gave them questioning glances, Baz became more proprietary, all but pissing a circle around Elijah.

They had to linger at Baz’s end of the table, where he reassured Damien and Marius he was fine, just occupied, which he punctuated with an open grope of Elijah. For his part, Elijah tried to play giddy trick, which wasn’t hard, but he came up short when Damien started to lecture Baz.

“Do you think that’s appropriate?” A darting glance indicated Elijah.

Setting his teeth in a feral grin, Elijah leaned into Damien. “Oh, sweetie. I’m sorry. Were you jealous?”

A feminine gasp reminded Elijah Damien had a fiancée, but Baz’s bright laughter cut through before panic could set in. “Down, Cujo. He’s being a nice guy.”


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