Excerpt for Antisocial by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A single stroke can change your world.

Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten College to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.

Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.

Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.

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: 978-1-945116-09-4

Edited by Christa Soule and Sasha Knight

Cover Art by Natsuko

Cover Design 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 2017

www.heidicullinan.com

Antisocial

HEIDI CULLINAN

For Sayo Yamamoto and Mitsurō Kubo

Thank you for removing my impediments and restoring my happiness.

山本沙代先生、久保ミツロウ先生へ

困難に立ち向かう勇気を与え、私を幸福に導いてくれたお二人に、感謝の気持ちを込めて。

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Thomas Merton

Table of Contents

About the Book

Copyright Page

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Acknowledgments

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

About the Author

Other books by Heidi Cullinan

Acknowledgments

This book took me several years to complete and wouldn’t be possible without the help of many, many people carrying me.

Thank you, Anna Cullinan, for your in-house artist advice and for putting up with all of Mom’s asinine questions. Thank you, Dan Cullinan, for being an unparalleled assistant and guy Friday, man-about-house, and above all, my perfect husband and partner. Thank you, Damon Suede, for beta reading, for letting me call you when you’re spent and busy, for being a font of knowledge, and of course, thank you for all the blood. Thank you, Sara, for reading, for advising, for listening, for cheering me on, and for being a cherished and wonderful friend. You aren’t a starfish, but I think you might, in fact, be a demigod, because you have talents and powers that forever leave me in awe. Thank you, Christa and Sasha, my two amazing editors who helped me make this book better, and Lillie, my beloved proofer who made sure all one hundred twenty thousand words were in order. Thanks to Paul for making the book look great inside, and Nathalie and Natsuko for the breathtaking outside. Thanks to September Scanlations translation help so we could get to that gorgeous cover. Thank you, Iggy Toma, for giving the seven gods (and Fudō Myōō) their voices. And thank you to Tenjin-sama for accepting my offerings these months and listening to my prayers as I found my way through this book.

Most importantly, thank you to my patrons. Without you this book would not be possible. Thank you for the financial support, the emotional support, the community, the spiritual center you provide to me and to everyone in our hub. You are my gods, the precious gift I cannot believe I deserve and yet there you are, every day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and soul. It is a joy to create books for you, with you. Thank you, all of you, especially Pamela Bartual, Rosie M., Marie, Sarah Plunkett, Tiffany Miller, Erin Sharpe, Chris Klaene, Sandy C., Sarah M., Deandre Ellerbe, Deanna Ferguson, Michele C., Kaija Kovanen, Jennifer Harvey, Katie M Pizzolato, Ninna, Karin Wollina, and Maija.

Now let’s go make more art.

Chapter One

THE PAINTING, THREE by four feet and propped on an easel in the center of the room, arrested Skylar Stone, emptying every thought from his head, save one. This piece of art was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen.

He paced a semicircle around the canvas, unconsciously hooking his index finger into his collar to loosen his tie, as if looking at this painting required more room to breathe. It assaulted his senses and made him too dizzy to think. How did it possess so many colors and yet seem kind of purply blue? There was gold in there, somehow, and red, and…God, everything. What was the figure in the foreground? A man? A dog? A boulder? Somehow it was all three. A hulking mass of darkness looking out at…stars. Or perhaps it was someone lying on a blanket. Or it was a gargoyle looking over a city. A city on fire.

Or maybe it was a city being formed?

It looked like a child had painted it. Or a grand master. It took Skylar’s breath away.

“I said, can I help you?”

Blinking, Skylar turned toward the speaker, a mousy, scrawny, hunched male student with a permanent glower stitched on his face. He wore a dark-blue apron stained with paint, several brushes sticking out of the right-side pocket. The plaid shirt the apron protected was frayed at the collar and cuffs, and it fit the man so poorly it looked like he’d dressed in his father’s closet. His jeans were equally worn, and his tennis shoes sported soles flopping open at the toes.

The man glared at Skylar with dark-brown eyes peering from a shag of slightly curly, too-long bangs as he waited for Skylar’s reply.

Skylar cleared his throat and struggled to find his usual confidence, feeling clearer with the artwork out of a direct line of sight. “Sorry. That painting is so gorgeous it knocked me off my game a little.” Digging his smile out of his stupor, he crawled back into what his fraternity brothers called Silver Stone Mode and stuck out his hand. “Skylar Stone. I’m the risk manager for Delta Eta Sigma. I’m looking for Mr. Xander Fairchild. Can you tell me where I might find him?”

The mousy guy didn’t accept the handshake, and if anything, his scowl deepened. “What do you mean, the painting is gorgeous?”

Skylar turned back to it, rubbing the smooth line of his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “I mean that the painting is gorgeous. I feel like I could look at it for hours.”

“The paint is too thick, and the brushstrokes are a mess.”

“That’s kind of what I like, though. The thickness. The roughness. It feels almost 3-D. I don’t know anything about art, so I wouldn’t know a brushstroke if you hit me with it, but I love this painting. Do you know who did it?”

Scowling Guy snorted. “Me.”

“Wow. Really? That’s fantastic. I can see someday I’ll be forking over an arm and a leg for the right to hang your work in my living room.”

The artist hunched his shoulders and glared harder. “What do you want?”

Right, no more compliments. Skylar got down to business. “Like I said, I’m here to see Mr. Fairchild. Do you know where I can find him?”

“You already did. Now tell me what you want, so I can tell you no and get back to work.”

“You mean—you’re Xander Fairchild?”

“Yes. And you’re one of the frat boys who spray-painted penises all over my mural.”

Here, finally, Skylar found his groove. “No. I’m one of the officers of the fraternity where three members are on probation for vandalizing your work. I’m here to apologize on behalf of Delta Eta Sigma and see what we can do to make amends for our brothers’ inappropriate behavior.”

“There’s not much you can do. It can’t be replaced. I’d have to repaint the whole thing, and it’ll never be the same as the first time. It’ll always be a copy, which means it’s going to suck. I told the dean to take it down and forget it. I’ll do another mural somewhere with less chance of roving drunken monkeys. Or I won’t do it at all. I have my portfolio and BFA project to think about.”

That news disillusioned Skylar on multiple levels. He’d assumed he could sentence the freshmen to eons of community service beginning with cleaning, but hearing the mural was ruined meant things were more serious than he’d been led to believe. Also, he’d liked that artwork. It was on the wall of Gama Auditorium, which meant he passed it every time he walked into school, and he walked almost every day. It made sense, he supposed, that he’d liked the mural so well, since it was by the same artist as the painting in front of him. He liked the painting so much better, though. The mural had been stylized, designed to represent Benten College more than being art. It depressed Sky to think it would be removed, not repaired.

He realized he was woolgathering, not focusing on his mission, and he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to hear the mural is ruined. That will change our punishment of the offenders, though I can’t imagine that’s much recompense for having your work destroyed. At the very least, I’d like to apologize on behalf of Delta Eta Sigma. As someone who enjoyed your mural, I will miss seeing it every day.”

Xander turned away and wrestled the lid off a paint can. “Whatever.”

Normally Skylar would enjoy the challenge of someone so difficult to smooth over, but he wasn’t on his game today. “Are you sure the mural can’t be saved? Because believe me, these two have days of community service ahead of them. If that can’t be done, maybe there’s some particularly grueling work they can do here in the studios?”

“You think I want them in here? Anyway, why are you asking me? I did the mural as a sophomore special project. I don’t have any authority over what happens to it. That said, if you try to stick me in a room full of frat boys grousing about their punishment—”

Skylar held up a hand. “Hey—first of all, I’m asking you because you’re the artist. Yes, we’re in discussion with the head of the art department, and the Interfraternity Council, as well as campus security, but your thoughts on this situation are also important. Second of all, no one will be sticking you with anything. These two are facing all manner of charges and suspensions, and at this point they’re doing nothing but groveling. We take this seriously. That’s why I’m here, asking how Delta Eta Sigma can make it up to you.”

Xander had the lid off the paint can and waved it angrily at Skylar. “Nothing. Thanks for the effort. Talk to the building secretary about donating money for paint or something, but don’t let your goons clean any of my brushes. Meanwhile, I need to get back to work.” After dunking a fat, wide brush in the can, he wiped it on the rim and aimed it at the canvas.

Skylar frowned at him. “What are you doing?” When he realized the brush was about to slide across the top of that night sky, he didn’t think, only knocked it out of Xander’s hand, sending it clattering to the floor.

Christ!” Xander faced down Skylar with his fists clenched. “What the hell is your problem?”

Skylar felt queasy and slightly shaky. “You were going to paint over it.”

“Yes. It’s a piece of shit, and I need the canvas.”

Piece of shit? “It’s stunning. If you don’t like it, sell it and buy a new canvas.”

Xander’s nostrils flared. “Like I said, you can leave now.”

Skylar should have. He’d done what he’d come to do—he hadn’t succeeded, but if he wanted to achieve his goal, he’d need to leave, regroup, and try again another day. But he couldn’t leave and let the painting be ruined, so instead of walking out the door, he reached for his wallet. “How much do you want for it?”

This only enraged Xander further. “I said, get out.”

Skylar thumbed through his bills. “I only have forty-five on me, but I’ll go to the nearest ATM and get the rest of whatever price you name. I want to buy the painting, Mr. Fairchild.”

“I’m not letting you take this back to your stupid frat house so you and your brothers can use it for a dartboard.”

Skylar lowered his wallet and swallowed the impulse to give in to temper. “I have no such intent. I would never use a piece of art so callously. I gather you don’t have a high opinion of Greek life, which I’m sorry to hear.” Gears turned, and Silver Stone Mode ground back to life. “You don’t seem to have much regard for your own skill, either, if you’re so unwilling to sell your work. As far as I’m concerned, you belong in a gallery.”

Xander blinked at Skylar. For a moment he looked vulnerable, almost eager, his veneer cracking at last. Just as quickly, however, his owlish demeanor was back. He set his jaw as he picked the brush up from the floor. “This is my painting. I can destroy it if I want to. I can paint over it, use it as a coffee table, chuck it against the wall. It’s not going to hang in a gallery. The closest thing to that I’ll be seeing anytime soon is my senior art show, and there’s no way in hell I’m letting that get laughed down.”

“What’s to laugh at? I love the painting. The idea of a room full of your work sounds perfect.”

“Oh yeah? Tell me why you like my work, then.”

Skylar turned to the painting. The power of it hit him every time he looked at it, and he felt self-conscious attempting to articulate why when Xander was so derisive. He considered giving up and leaving. He’d delivered the apology and started trying to engender goodwill. The rest of his work would be done with research and carefully orchestrated gestures. But he really did hate the idea of this painting being covered up.

“I don’t know. It gets me, right in the gut. It’s so many things at once. It makes me feel aching and lonely but not desolate. This guy who has lost everything and retreated from the world, maybe even hates it, still has hope he can find his niche.” He sighed and gestured with his hand. “I don’t know anything about brushstrokes or forms or whatever. All I know is I’d hand over a lot of money to take this home with me. I wouldn’t use it as a dartboard. I’d hang it in my room, and I’d stare at it while I lie in bed.” He rolled his eyes at himself. “Now you’ll tell me how off my interpretation was. But it’s why I love it.”

Xander looked pale, almost trembling, like someone had slapped him in the face. He stared at Skylar with that same vulnerable, aching expression. Then he turned away. “Take it.”

Skylar frowned. “Take what?”

Xander made shooing motions at him. “The painting. Take it. Take it and go.”

The painting? Skylar pulled out his money again. “Here, let me pay—”

Just take it.” Xander put down the paintbrush, hauled the painting off the easel, and thrust it at Skylar. “It’s yours. Go away.”

Skylar struggled to accept the painting without dropping his wallet. “I really would pay for it. I want to pay for it.” He needed to.

“We don’t always get what we want. You have the painting, and you’ve apologized for the frat. I accept. There, see? Everyone’s happy. Go have a kegger or something.”

Xander didn’t look happy. He looked upset. Skylar was too. It bothered him to pay nothing for the painting. He didn’t like that Xander was so dismissive of Delta Sig, as if they were some reboot of Animal House. Though he supposed with the mural incident they looked like it, dammit. Skylar wanted to tell Xander about the two friends who had founded Delta Eta Sigma while caring for the sick, about Delta Sig’s connection to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and how much service they did a year. He wanted to talk about how his housemates truly were his brothers, how the social network the Greek life provided was as fundamental if not more so than his own family upbringing.

He would have, but Xander took off his apron and disappeared out of the studio and down a hallway. The door closed behind him with a quiet snick.

Skylar stared at the place where he’d disappeared, letting the quiet ring in his ears. Pulling his business card out of his wallet, he spied a backpack at the foot of the easel and slipped the card into an open flap. Then he tucked his wallet into his pocket, the painting carefully under his arm, and wove his way out of the building and down the hill toward Delta Sig.

THE LAST GODDAMNED thing Xander Fairchild needed was a frat boy interrupting his studio time.

His day had been packed tight as it was, and Pretty Boy’s interruption had basically shot everything all to hell. Xander’s plan had been to paint over the shit painting, letting it dry while he finished the last panels due for Lucky 7. The chore of recycling the canvas so he could paint tomorrow should have taken him a quick ten minutes, and inking only another forty, leaving him time to get the pages across campus to the magazine offices in Tori Hall on his way home. Instead, he had to stretch a new canvas over a frame, and he was priming it and grumbling under his breath when Sara came looking for him.

“I’m so sorry.” He put down the brush and wiped his hands on his apron. “I haven’t even started. Something came up, and I’m completely behind.”

She waved a hand at him, indicating he should stay where he was. “You have the panels drawn, right? I can do the inking, if you don’t mind.”

Xander did mind, in fact, but he didn’t want to sound like a controlling ass. “I have to tweak a few things. Sorry.” He washed his hands briskly in the sink. “It won’t take me long. I swear.”

“No worries. Oh—and Jacob wanted me to tell you, he’s not sure when, but he wants to get the guys together to move the last of the boxes to storage until they give us our new space assignment for the fall. He says make sure you either answer your phone, check your messages, or read your email this time.”

Xander’s cheeks burned, but he nodded, keeping his gaze on his hands as he washed them. “Got it.”

She hiked herself onto a stool at the table where Xander had his manga materials spread out, her actions indicating she intended to watch him finish. He suppressed a sigh, knowing damn well he couldn’t ask her to leave on several counts. One, he was the one late with his work. Two—he glanced over his shoulder at Sara’s leg braces. He was an asshole, but he wasn’t that much of an asshole, to send her away after coming all the way over from the Lucky 7 offices. If it had been Cory, Jacob, or Zelda, he might have.

Which, he suspected, was possibly why they’d sent her. Damn it all.

He dried his hands and took up a stool across from her, opening his folio and his ink supplies. “I’m sorry you had to come all this way to find me.”

She shrugged. “I texted you as a formality, but then I started walking.”

Pausing with his Zebra G nib in hand, Xander winced. He hadn’t even brought his cell phone today. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Nice day out.” She rested her chin against her wrist, which was also in a brace. “Do you have a lot of screentone to add?”

“A bit, but it doesn’t take me long.” Less time if he wasn’t watched, but there wasn’t much helping that now.

Damn that frat boy anyway. Xander would already be on his way home, if not for him.

Xander tried to focus on inking the characters in front of him, but all he could see was the way what’s-his-name had stared at his shitty painting.

And called it gorgeous.

“Seriously, I can help, if you want.”

Xander snapped out of his stupor and glowered at the paper, hunching deeper over it. “No. I’m fine. Thanks.”

He worked diligently after that, giving life to the manga. Lucky 7 had existed as a student magazine since the college was founded in 1899, and The Adventures of Hotay & Moo had been a serialized story since day one, but the format had morphed along with the magazine. The name Lucky 7 was of course a riff on the Japanese seven gods of fortune, though The Adventures of Hotay & Moo were almost entirely based on one of the seven gods, Hotei, and Fudō Myōō, who was a god and one of the five wisdom kings but not one of the gods of fortune.

In the 1940s the short stories had become comics, and in the 1990s a resurgence in the college’s Japanese cultural roots had inspired the editorial board to turn the comic into a manga, going so far as to flip the printing order so that the magazine opened to what westerners would consider the back.

Xander was the manga artist for the magazine and had been since his sophomore year, having apprenticed to the senior mangaka his freshman year and been a coartist that first year. Sara had been, theoretically, his apprentice this year, but he had been a shitty mentor. Which he felt bad about, but not bad enough to change his ways.

The characters were a true pleasure to work with, and drawing them had taught Xander more than his actual coursework. They’d done nothing but thrive in the hands of devoted artists over the decades. Xander understood the honor given to him, to have the torch of creating them passed to him, and he did his best to take it seriously.

It helped that at this point the two leads basically wrote themselves. Hotay was jolly and eternally optimistic, always leading the duo into the sun—in one story arc, this was literal—and Moo was sour and pessimistic, skeptical of everyone and everything they encountered, ready to do battle. Hotay could get himself out of a scrape if need be, but if a flaming sword were needed, that was when Moo came into play. There had definitely been artists who favored more battle-themed arcs, but under Xander’s charge, the storylines tended toward Hotay and Moo having adventures together, encountering problems, and above all arguing.

Well, Moo argued, and Hotay cheered him up and coaxed him into drinking sake and forgetting his problems. Sometimes The Adventures of Hotay & Moo was guilty of not having enough plot in its storylines. Which was probably why the readership was dying off.

When Xander finished adding the screentones and everything had set, he handed Sara the folio. “Sorry again that you had to come get it.”

“No worries. But maybe this summer, since we’re both staying in town, I can teach you how to use the digital drawing software, and all of this can go faster.”

That, right there, was why Xander had been a shitty mentor. “I have to get home. See you later.”

He left before she could start yet another campaign to convince him to convert the manga.

The walk between the art building and Xander’s apartment was just over a mile and a half, and with shortcuts and a pass through the local hospital’s campus, Xander had the trek between home and studio down to twenty-eight minutes. The day Pretty Boy confiscated his painting, however, the walk took Xander almost an hour.

This was because he went the long way, winding his way through the state park so he could lose himself in the trees and spend some time staring out across the bluff at the top of the ridge. He could have shaved off ten minutes if he’d used the regular path, but he didn’t want to run into people walking their dogs, so he took the hiking paths instead. He stood at the bluff for a good twenty minutes, replaying the exchange in the studio over and over again before stalking the rest of the way home, determined to not think anymore.

He worried he’d run into his landlady, but she wasn’t home, thankfully. It was common for her to hear him arrive and come out to greet him, roping him into unwanted conversation, but today the gods looked fondly on him and allowed him to stop at his mailbox in peace before hiking up the side stairs to his attic apartment. After letting himself inside and tossing the mail on the kitchen counter, he shut the blinds tight and collapsed in a flop on the couch, staring up at the ceiling.

A soft thunk on his legs preceded a plaintive meow and a second, heavier thud against his chest. Xander lifted his head to see both his cats peering intently at him.

With a sigh, Xander ruffled their fur. “Yes. I’ll feed you. Let me wallow here a minute.”

Hokusai, the leg-thumper, mewed again, but Hiromu focused on purring like a jet engine and rubbing her head along Xander’s jaw. Xander continued to pet them as he addressed the ceiling.

“It was a fluke that he saw exactly what I’d meant to paint. Probably he has some ninja people-reading skill and figured it out from my face.” When Hiromu head-butted his chin, Xander sighed and dipped his head to nuzzle back. “I shouldn’t have given it to him. Better to have it painted over than have it go with them.”

The cats, comprehending their human wouldn’t be leaping up to feed them, settled into their perches on his thighs and chest to wait.

Xander stroked Hiromu idly, her long, fluffy coat silky beneath his fingers. Despite his vow in the park, he played the exchange with the frat boy over again, trying to show himself where it had been a trap, but mostly, to his shame, the memory of that smile and those twinkling eyes made Xander’s heart flutter. He’d already forgotten the guy’s name, but it would be a week before he’d stop fantasizing about Mr. Fancy-Talk pressing Xander gently into the wall, nuzzling his nose down Xander’s cheek. If only he’d had a little bit of beard, he’d have been perfect.

Groaning, Xander pushed the cats off his body and shuffled to the kitchen, where he drizzled kibble into their bowls. While they ate, he examined his mail. He had all his bills on autopay, so most of it was garbage, but there was one fat full-size envelope tucked inside the local advertising circulars, and when he saw the icon in the return address, his belly did an uncomfortable backflip.

Benten College Department of Art & Art History. When Xander pried the envelope open, it was exactly what he’d expected it to be: the paperwork for his Bachelor of Fine Arts Exhibition.

He grimaced as he flipped through the pages of the application. If only it were as simple as showing up with a rack of paintings, but no. In addition to requiring their students submit material matching the standards the art department felt represented Benten and the department’s vision for postgraduate work, they insisted their BFA students understand the full weight of what they’d be expected to do if they intended to live off their art.

He must package himself and his work. He must advertise his work. He must put forth—he glanced at the official wording—significant good-faith effort to promote his exhibition to the public in the spring or fall of his senior year. When each student’s show landed in the calendar was determined by lottery, and lucky Xander was one of the early birds. The application was due May 20, which was just around the corner. This was the third notice, reminding him he still hadn’t filled it out.

The only reason Xander hadn’t was because of the damn promotion bullshit.

It didn’t come out and say he’d be judged on attendance, but Xander knew he would be. And he knew however great he might make his paintings, in this aspect, he would fail. No one would come to his show. His advisor, the handful of undergrads filling their exhibition credits. Possibly his aunt, but he doubted it, since she lived too far away. No one else in the entire state of New York or anywhere in the northeastern region of the United States would give a damn. Xander didn’t have friends. He barely had acquaintances. The only people he knew at Benten were the art majors and the staff of the Lucky 7, and they all basically tolerated him.

Well, except for Zelda, but they more tortured him than anything.

Xander’s lack of people to drag to his show didn’t upset him half as much as the lengths he was supposed to take to advertise, whether or not anyone would come. Social media. The department expected him to promote his work on no less than three social networks. They had a handy little bullet list of different types and what each was good for, which probably most students rolled their eyes at because it was so obvious—except Xander wouldn’t understand any of them even with a full-on manual. The hell he was tweeting. He’d never get a single follower, so what was the point? He refused to even think the word Facebook. As for the rest, he didn’t know much about them, and he didn’t want to learn.

Except he had to learn. Three of them. And make a significant good-faith effort.

Shoving the application to the back of the table, Xander rose to make a pot of coffee. While it brewed, he thumbed through his records, rerouting his brain from anger and fear over the art show and his encounter with the frat boy and nudging it to make a vinyl selection instead.

He was going to paint.

He didn’t have a studio in his apartment, but his living space essentially was his studio. He kept the paint and supplies away from the cats, but his easel and canvases took up most of his living room. His apartment had plumbing problems and got too cold in the winter and didn’t have AC, but it had high ceilings, great natural light, and a more aesthetically pleasing floor plan than the boxy apartments most students lived in. And because it was so simply arranged, getting ready to work was a matter of opening a cupboard, pouring turpentine, donning an apron, and squirting some color onto a palette. The first song wasn’t finished before Xander stood at his easel, staring at the blank space while he mixed paint together. He didn’t think about what he would paint, he just let the canvas tell him what was there.

Probably he shouldn’t have been surprised he painted the frat boy. Smiling, suited, hard and angular yet beautiful as he beamed knowingly out of the painting. Hands in his pockets, a casual stance. Above him Xander painted pretty swirls that almost sparkled. In fact, as that thought occurred to him, he retreated to the kitchen to pick up some glitter and added it to the paint. After he flipped the record over, Xander painted a shadowy shape behind his subject. Crouching. Reaching. Ugly where the frat boy shone. He added Gamblin Cold Wax Medium to those darker browns and blues, just a hint to turn the paint flat. He used thicker paint there, letting it sit in fat, awkward globs.

He’d forgotten the coffee, but he drank it cold as he switched albums. He rinsed his brushes and splashed pastels in a halo around the two figures. When the record turned off, he kept painting as the echo of the music pulsed inside his head and the paint laced the canvas. After he finished, he poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and sipped it as he sat in the kitchen and stared at what he’d done.

It wasn’t awful. He wasn’t sure it was great, though a stupid part of him was trying to argue this should go into his BFA show. He shut that down, but after a half hour and quarter cup of coffee which once again had gone cold, he had to admit it was better than average, especially for basically fucking around.

But the muses weren’t done with him. Somehow painting the man wasn’t enough. Still drunk on creating, Xander stumbled to his desk, turned on his light, and pulled out his markers. Just a quick sketch, he told himself. A little something different. Less abstract. Something to capture that other side. That…that smile…

When he looked up, it was pitch dark, except for his desk light. He’d drawn more than one sketch. It was a full panel, with shading. He’d gotten out his ink and nibs and done the thing up properly. It was some kind of weird cross between Hotay & Moo and something new and strange, and it was…a mess. He left it unfinished, frustrated because it hadn’t satisfied him the way he wanted, but it had been a heady rush of creation, and now the beast was spent.

Rising, dizzy and cranky, he glanced at the time and realized he hadn’t eaten for about twelve hours. After a poke in his fridge turned up nothing, he put water on and pulled out a packet of ramen. While it cooked, he fished his art history homework out of his backpack.

A business card fell out and drifted gently to the floor.

It was cream with gray stripes, and they were glossed, so when Xander tipped the paper toward the light, the stripes shimmered. SKYLAR STONE, the card read in classy, conservative DeSoto font in small caps. An email and phone number were listed below, and when Xander flipped the card over the stripes were repeated, but in a small square below a list of titles. Risk Manager, Delta Eta Sigma. Executive Vice President of American Marketing Association, Benten College Chapter. Vice President of Public Relations for Students in Advertising.

Skylar. That was the guy from the studio. The one who had taken Xander’s painting. The frat boy. How had his card gotten into Xander’s bag?

Pursing his lips, Xander tossed it at the mini trash can beside the table, put his ramen in a bowl, and did his homework. When that was done, he heated up the last of his coffee in the microwave and poured over the BFA paperwork again.

Halfway through, he set aside the coffee and got out a beer.

Skylar Stone’s business card burned in his head like a mocking brand as Xander took in the full depth of what he was expected to do in addition to painting a show’s worth of material. Probably this kind of marketing crap had been Frat Boy’s freshman first semester. Probably he could do it in his sleep.

Well, Xander couldn’t do it sober with a gun to his head. His advisor would be no help. He could maybe ask Sara. Though she’d want to talk about making Hotay & Moo digital while they were at it. No thanks.

There was always Zelda, of course. But asking Zelda to help him with a social media campaign was like asking a nuclear weapon to help you clear out a brush pile. Another hard pass. Ditto Jacob and Cory. They’d just complain because they were overworked as it was, and why couldn’t he figure his shit out like everyone else?

Well, that was officially everyone he knew, except for his landlady, who had more trouble accessing the internet than he did.

Xander washed out the coffeepot, his mug, beer bottle, and his bowl, and fed the cats their evening treat of wet food. On his way to the bathroom he passed the garbage can and saw Skylar Stone’s business card gleaming on the carpet beside it.

You could ask him. That could be his payment for the painting.

Hope flared, tangled with yearning. Across the room the frat boy painting beamed at Xander, bright and shining Technicolor.

On the desk, the four panels lay in silent black and white, harking to a past Xander didn’t let himself forget. Unfinished, reminding him of his shortcomings and the roadblocks to his future.

Nostrils flaring, jaw set, Xander picked up the card, ripped it into tiny pieces, and flushed it down the toilet.

Chapter Two

WHILE THE REST of his fraternity enjoyed a beautiful May afternoon in a nearby park, Skylar sat at his desk in his room at Delta Eta Sigma, staring out the window at the gleaming white brick and glass of Gama Auditorium, trying to figure out what he should submit for his senior project.

He wanted it to shine in a particular way, and he hadn’t sorted out how to make that happen yet. His senior project was a practicum, essentially: take what we’ve taught you all these years and show you know how to apply it. It didn’t have to be something actually implemented, but it certainly looked better on a resume if that’s what happened. He needed to find someone—an individual, an entity, or a business—to let him play guinea pig with their brand. To showcase and market them.

The choice he made would define him. Hardcore business? That was what his father would expect, and that would fit with the place in the law firm waiting for him. Except…going that route felt like a trap. It was the obvious choice, which made it wrong as far as Skylar was concerned. His instinct was to find a mom and pop store on Main Street and give them a corporate polish. That still didn’t feel quite right, but it felt closer to the mark than anything else he’d come up with so far.

This project was his last chance to showcase himself as the package of Skylar Stone. After this, he’d be lost to the dull halls of law school, fighting the urge to be turned into a drone. This was where he staked his claim on his individuality, his artistry. To show he wasn’t going to be just any corporate lawyer. He’d be Skylar Stone.

Whoever that was.

Of course, the other project he had to focus on this summer was his LSAT study. He was slated to take the test in September and had a tutor he was supposed to check in with regularly. As of yet he hadn’t been able to get the practice score he’d need for Yale Law, which was more than something of a problem.

He tried to find a perfect project so he could send in the form, get that ball rolling, and get back to his LSAT prep. But all he could do was stare at the ruined mural and think about Xander Fairchild and his angry scowl and how he’d refused to let Skylar pay for the painting.

He managed to get in a good hour of studying, but when he glanced up and saw it was almost two, he closed his book and picked up his phone. His father’s secretary answered on the third ring.

“Good afternoon, Skylar. How’s your studying going?”

“Very well, thank you for asking, Ellen.” Skylar drummed his fingers on his desk, smiling as he thought of the woman on the other end of the line. “How are the girls?”

“They’re doing fine, thank you for asking.”

“Are Chris and Marie stressing about their finals?”

Ellen chuckled. “They are, but they loved the survival package you sent them. You’re ever the thoughtful one, Skylar.”

He smiled, feeling warm and soothed under her praise, as he always did. “Well, you’re the one who raised me.

“I should think some of the credit goes to your nannies.”

“Yes, but you’re their mother.”

She laughed again, the rich, low envelope of sound that always made Skylar wish she’d been his mother, and not simply the woman who had organized most of his life. She hadn’t always been his father’s executive assistant—in fact, for much of Skylar’s youth she was a low-ranking secretary who got stuck managing the care of the Stone child. Sometimes she hired nannies and babysitters. Sometimes she did the work herself. When her own children were old enough, though, she installed them in the positions of caring for Skylar. Meanwhile, Ellen continued to climb her way up the ranks of the office pool, until her patience, curried favors, and wit landed her a job at the right hand of Leighton Stone himself.

Skylar loved Ellen. He loved her family too—her children Sandy, Rosie, and Erin had been his nannies, but so had her sisters Tiffany and Sarah. Ellen’s youngest children, Chris and Marie, were Skylar’s age, and they had been his playmates. He’d considered them sisters when he was young, and he’d been upset when he couldn’t go home with them or that they couldn’t stay longer to play with him.

In so many ways, Ellen’s family had raised Skylar. Yet he was also aware they were not his family, that he did not belong with them. Of course, he was equally conscious of how little his actual family wanted anything to do with him, and so Skylar kept trying to find ways to attract their attention and show them he could in fact be a Stone after all.

Which was what he was doing right now, in fact.

“Ellen,” he began, “I wondered if you happened to know when might be a good time to reach my father.” His cheeks heated. “I’ve…been having trouble reaching him.” Again.

There was a beat, slightly uncomfortable, before she said, “He’s not in at the moment, unfortunately. But let me check his schedule and when might be a good time to try again.”

Skylar pushed his smile wider, so his disappointment didn’t telegraph through. “I have some information for him he might find illuminating. Maybe…tell him that.”

Ellen’s voice took on a whip-like quality that said, Don’t you worry, hon, shit is about to happen. “I’ll see to it your father has some time in his schedule to make a phone call as soon as possible. All right?”

Skylar’s smile eased into something no longer forced. “All right. Thanks, Ellen.”

“Of course, sweetie. Take care of yourself. Good luck studying for that test.”

Skylar hung up and stared out the window. Ellen’s voice rang in his ear, lifting his spirit, but it faded all too quickly. He wondered how long it would take his father to call.

Beside him on the desk, his phone beeped. Glancing down, he saw a bubble preview notification, and he couldn’t help it, he hoped it might be from his father. But it was only Carolyn from Tau Alpha Kappa.

Could use your company tonight.

Ah. Raising his eyebrows, Skylar opened his phone and checked his calendar. Technically he was free, outside of wanting to get his project turned in. With a sigh, he decided to hear her out. I might be free. What are you thinking?

My family’s having a fundraiser for the new senate candidate, and I was hoping you’d be my date.

Skylar’s heart skipped a beat. Senate fundraiser. Oh, Carolyn knew how to sway him. I can give you a few hours. Shall I pick you up at six?

Great. Thank you so much. You’re the best, Sky.

Skylar turned his phone over and tried to focus once more on his application. He got nowhere fast, however, so he gave up and went downstairs.

Despite most of the brothers having gone to the park to play Frisbee, the main living room still hummed with activity. Many of the guys were getting ready to move out for the summer, and some had already left for internships and opportunities abroad. Skylar felt a pang thinking of how the house would be empty soon, because he would miss the commotion when his brothers were absent.

Thankfully, they weren’t all leaving. Jeff Turner, better known as Unc, was one of the Delta Eta Sigma members who was staying. Unc could be an acquired taste, but Skylar didn’t mind him. Unc sat with headphones on, curled up in a corner of the sofa, decked in his usual well-worn sweats and sporting messy hair—the top section bleached blond over his dark-brown undercut that matched his close-cut beard.

He was nibbling absently on the end of a highlighter while he stared intently at the pages of his econ textbook, but when he saw Skylar, he grinned and waved him over.

“Hey, you.” Unc pulled the band to his Beats back with a lusty sigh and shut the textbook. “I hate econ. Like, I hate econ.”

“You’re nearly through it.” Skylar plunked down beside him. “Let me know if you need to borrow my notes. I think they’re still in my closet.”

“I will take those notes, gladly.” Unc tipped his head back and shut his eyes, sighing again, even more dramatically than the first time, but he also opened one eye and focused it on Skylar. “So. Did Donovan break it to you about the Delta Sig Executive Council yet?”

Skylar sat up straight. “No, he didn’t. What happened?”

Unc sat up too, grimacing. “We’re getting fined for the vandalism. The council is pissed.”

Skylar had been afraid of this. “We need a meeting. You or Donovan need to call one. I wish you’d have said something to me sooner. We need to be out kissing administrative and art department ass. Right now.”

You need to kiss their ass.”

Skylar considered pointing out he was a risk management officer and that his term was up in a matter of days, but despite his insistence he wasn’t running for office his senior year, everyone assumed he was president-elect. He was always in charge, even when he wasn’t.

Unc held up a hand. “I know, I know. I should handle this. Hear me out, though.” He leaned forward on his elbows, his silver hoop earring swaying gently. “I seriously thought about going over and talking to the Interfraternity Council and the whole deal. But you know how I get. I thought about taking Donovan with me, in case I put people off. Except.” He raised his eyebrows and gave Skylar a knowing look, inviting him to finish the thought.

Skylar sighed. “Except I know how he gets too. Goddamn it, Unc. I’m serious, I’m not running.”

“I know, and I don’t think you should. I’m not either. I’m going to be on the Interfraternity Council, and that’s enough.”

Skylar’s heart sank. “Jesus, if you don’t run, and I don’t run—”

“Then someone else will have to run.”

Skylar looked around the room. “What kind of leadership will we have, then?”

“I don’t know. But here’s the deal, Sky. Both of us have law school to prep for. I’ve got more prep to do than you, since I’m pretty much a fuckup. Someone else can fill the gap.”

No one else was going to fill the gap, though. Not anyone who wasn’t going to fulfill every stereotype Xander had just lobbed at Skylar. “You’re not a fuckup.”

Unc snorted and waggled his eyebrows. “Come on now. You know better than that.” He put an arm around Skylar. “Stop worrying. Here’s what I’ve cooked up. You go smooth things over with the IF, and tonight I take us out. Anywhere you want to go. All the booze is on me.”

Skylar pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know I don’t drink.”

“You do, sometimes. The way you’ve been grinding your nose against those books, I figure you’re overdue.” He leaned in closer, pitching his voice low. “I’ll get us dates too. For decoration or function.”

Skylar untangled himself from Unc and stood, pursing his lips against the warning signs of a headache. “Forward me the email from the council. I’ll take care of it.”

“I’ll tell Donovan. You just let me know when we’re going out—”

“I have to study.” He remembered he’d agreed to meet Carolyn. “And I have somewhere to go at six. But if you’re here when I get back, I’ll have a beer with you.”

“How about when you get back you have a beer with me and a couple of girls?” When Skylar only arched an eyebrow, Unc threw up his hands. “Dude, this is why you get those migraines.”

“This is why your dad tells you to apply yourself.”

“I do apply myself. Just not to the things he wants me to.” Unc splayed his arms over the back of the couch and grinned at Skylar. “Thanks, man. I owe you big. Don’t you worry. I’ll make sure I pay you back.”

Skylar was, to be honest, more worried about the payback than the favor.

He didn’t have time to dwell on that, however, so he focused instead on hunting down the phone number of the president of the Delta Sig Executive Council and apologizing, promising he’d take care of this right away and report back as soon as he had news. He sent out an email to the chapter loop. Then he took a shower, shaved, put on his suit and tie, and began the trek to the student union.

He didn’t have an appointment, but he understood the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life well enough to know how to handle her. Though it wasn’t even remotely on his way, he stopped by the Java House and picked up a blueberries-and-cream latte and the biggest chocolate muffin in the display. He stopped at a flower cart and picked up a bouquet. Once he wound his way down the hill to the student union, he stopped in the men’s room to tidy his hair, and apply his secret weapon: a spritz of L’Homme Libre cologne.

When he breezed into Leslie’s office, she was on the phone, but she brightened and waved him over, making a silent fuss of oh, you shouldn’t have as she accepted the muffin, coffee, and flowers without missing a beat of her conversation. Shortly she ended the call, but before she could speak, Skylar held up his hands. “I’m not going to bother you—I’ll send an email to make an appointment, but I couldn’t wait that long to apologize for the headache we’re giving you, especially this close to commencement.”

She all but melted. “Oh, Skylar—don’t worry for a minute about it. Here, sit down—I’ve got some time. Let’s discuss everything now.”

Since he’d known this was exactly what she’d say, Skylar sat and dove headlong into his fraternity’s fracas. “Let me make it simple. We’re obviously expelling the members.” He hadn’t cleared that with the board, but if they were going to turf everything to him like this, they could live with his fiat. “We’ll pay for whatever damages need paying for. My concern is the reputation of Delta Eta Sigma and the Greek community. As much as you’re comfortable with, I want us involved personally in cleanup, and I’d like to do something for the art department if we can.” He recalled his conversation with Xander Fairchild. “I understand there’s not much we can do to save the mural, and it might not be our place to do any painting or cleaning. But we’re largely business majors, and we all have arms and legs. We can help them administratively. In any capacity.”

Leslie looked thoughtful as she sipped her coffee. “That’s good. Really good. It’s true, the liberal arts aren’t as represented overall in fraternity and sorority life, where most of you major in business.”

Skylar nodded, processing this as quickly as he could through his knowledge of Benten history and its current demographics. “Which is such a tragedy, if you think of it. Since the college was founded primarily as a haven for artists, it’s a shame to see us so divided.”

“You know, you’re right. This effort could be bridge-building. I’ll call the department head and ask what they need.”

The idea formed in the air between them, so crystalline and perfect Skylar wished he could close his eyes and breathe it in for a few moments. “Tell me what you think of this, Leslie. I’m working on my proposal for my senior project right now. I’ve been unable to land on anything I like, and I think it’s because I was waiting for this opportunity. What if my senior project was to help the art department? They have exhibits and such. They could use public relations or marketing or all kinds of things that fall into the purview of my project. What if that was part of our offer?”

Leslie beamed like a sun. “That is brilliant. Only you would think of such a thing, Sky. And nobody could do anything quite as amazing as you would. I’m calling over there right now. In fact, I’ll go over.”

“Perfect. I’ll walk you, as it’s on my way. Unless you’d like me to come along? Do you think that would be appropriate?”

“I think it’s the best idea I’ve heard all day. Let’s go.” Leslie rose, then stopped and winked. “But let me put these beautiful flowers in some water first.”

“Absolutely,” Skylar replied, winking back.

XANDER CUT HIS hand on the way into the art building, which felt like an ominous sign.

He was trying to duck around a group of freshmen he knew were going to ask him for advice on their projects, and when he misjudged the width of a doorway, he reached out to brace himself against a piece of metal sculpture and earned himself a gash along his palm. It wasn’t deep, and thankfully it wasn’t on his left hand, but it required him to stop at the office and get a bandage and a lecture from the secretary about tetanus shots, and in the end he got jumped by the freshmen anyway. He stood in the corner of the office, cradling his throbbing hand, explaining the best way to arrange still-life composition and lighting, wondering the whole time why they wanted to talk to him when all he was doing was telegraphing how much he didn’t want to engage with anyone.

They talked so damn much he was late for his appointment with his advisor, so when he arrived at Peterson’s door, he felt more awkward and unsettled than usual.

“Come in,” Dr. Peterson called when Xander knocked. Xander opened the door enough to tentatively lean into the room, and Peterson gave Xander the first smile he remembered seeing on his advisor’s face. “Fairchild, what excellent timing.” He gestured to the part of the room blocked by the door. “I have someone I want you to meet.”

Xander pushed the door open wide enough to step inside. He cast a glance in the direction Peterson indicated and flinched in a brief shock of unease when he recognized Skylar Stone. Suit, smile, and all.

“We’ve met before, in fact.” Skylar strode forward, smile widening, and held out his hand. “Good to see you again, Xander.”

Xander extended his hand toward Skylar, realized this hand had a big goobery bandage on it, and withdrew it. He tried to extend his left hand instead, but that made his backpack slide down his arm, so in the end he tucked both hands against his body and glared at Skylar before glancing dubiously at his advisor. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is I was about to return your BFA exhibit paperwork to have you redo your marketing plan, but before I could do that, this charming young man arrived.” Peterson clapped a hand on Skylar’s shoulder. “His fraternity is making the art department part of their service work this coming year, but he is making us his senior project. He’s helping any art student needing assistance with promotion for their work, but he needs one student to serve as a centerpiece. The department looked over all the BFA exhibit applications, and we’ve decided that student is you.”

Xander took a step backward. “What? No. No.

Peterson’s smile faded to the glower he usually reserved for Xander. “Don’t be an idiot. You need his help. Your proposal was a disaster.”

Skylar’s megawatt smile mellowed to comforting. “I promise I’m advisory only. I won’t get in the way of your work. I’ll simply help you draft a marketing plan.”


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