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Switching colleges the summer before my junior year sucked hairy balls. You know, the kind with hair that is wiry, rough to touch, and escapes too easily so gets caught between your teeth? Yeah, those ones.
But heading to Brixham University in a small-ass town not too far out of Atlanta was a necessary evil. Not that I’m overly dramatic with the whole “evil” concept, but still, back in LA, I’d been comfortable, happy with my classes, my friends, and close enough to my kid brother to keep an eye on him but have my freedom.
Three weeks at my new school, and it’s a struggle to feel settled. That hasn’t stopped me from dressing and behaving however I wish. Screw that. What it does mean is I’m rolling my eyes so often I’m worried about RSI in my eyeballs. Not that anyone has come out and said anything derogatory, but since I grew up in a blip of a community not so dissimilar to this one, I hate to admit I expect some sort of homophobic derision.
So yeah, feeling like I have to stay on guard sucks those furry balls.
But at least I have Lester and Simone, my two newfound friends I’ve been lucky enough to attach myself to. There’s also my mom and my brother, Zeke, the two people I love most in the world and the reason I left LA in the first place. There wasn’t a chance I couldn’t be close by to Zeke.
“Did you read the email from Professor Henderson about the group project?” Simone speaks into her handheld mirror while applying extra eyeliner.
I squint at the bright blue she’s penciling on, not quite sure it’s her color, but with the way she blinks and grins at her reflection, she’s clearly happy, so I sensibly keep my mouth shut. “I did,” I grumble. “Does he usually add such limitations?”
“He did something similar last year, so I suppose, yeah.”
“And we really can’t request who we’re grouped with?”
Simone shakes her head, her platinum-blonde curls bouncing with the movement. “Nope. He’s a little old-school. We just have to suck it up.”
“Figured.” While the group project doesn’t sound overly complicated, the class is big and filled with such a range of students that the likelihood of me being stuck with at least one person who’s a pain in the ass, if not a slacker or possibly an asshole, is high.
It’s hard to not embrace the negative Nelly in me, but with my reluctant, albeit sensible move to be closer to my mom and my fifteen-year-old brother, being super upbeat seems impossible. Sure, I make an effort, honest, but I can’t be “on” all the time, you know?
Not that I blame either of them for the move; it was my choice, after all. And Mom being evicted from their rental as the owners were selling was hardly her choice. What neither Zeke nor I expected was her to move halfway across the country for a new job and more affordable accommodation. I understand, though.
But more than that, and the truth of my move, is affording to live in LA, and attend school there, became exponentially more difficult. Adulting is hard, people. For real. Making the sensible decisions, not being in a mountain of debt when the reality is post-college I’ll have a shitty teacher’s salary, well, yeah… moving ended up being the logical thing to do.
Doesn’t mean I can’t pout or kick the sand about the change, though.
I am super grateful Brixham U offered me a partial scholarship—something I never had in LA. Plus they were awesome about transferring my credits. I seriously lucked out.
But the last couple of months with the move have been stressful, and finally with Zeke settled, I’m able to allow myself a few moments of feeling sorry for myself for leaving my friends and my regular hookups behind.
Yeah, yeah, I’m all woe is me, and these are totally first world problems.
“You may be grouped with someone great, Dean.” Simone eyes me and bobs her thick brows, adding, “Or someone hot.”
I snort. Chance would be a fine thing. I may have noticed a sexy guy or five on campus, but I have a terrible weakness for athletes. And in my experience, jocks don’t take kindly to being crushed on by five-foot-seven twinks who wear mascara and like to top. Such a jock is my unicorn. Add in a guy who’s genuinely smart and, heaven forbid, has a sense of humor, and perhaps I need to think of something more fantastical than a unicorn to compare my ideal man to.
A griffin maybe. Or a dragon.
“Come on. Let’s pack up, drop our bags in my room, and head to Jack’s party.” Simone puts away her mirror and indicates for me to get my ass into gear.
“A couple of drinks would help me relax,” I admit, pushing aside my athlete fantasies. I know better than to dive headfirst into such impossible dreams.
“That’s the spirit. Did you tell your mom you’re going to be MIA tonight?”
“Yeah.” And don’t I feel and sound like a dork with that answer? I set about packing away my laptop and handwritten notes. “I managed to catch up with her this morning before her shift at the hospital.” With my mom doing extra shifts as a nurse at the hospital in the slightly larger town about twenty miles away from campus, I’ve tried my hardest to select courses that will give me enough time to easily commute and spend with Zeke so he’s not home alone too often.
A few weeks in, and it’s working so far. It’s still a shock to the system no longer living on campus and having the freedom of my own space, but not spending the extra cash is a blessing. Plus there’s the reassurance of seeing Zeke for myself and making sure he really is as okay as he professes to be.
“Remind me if there’s a reason this Jack is having a party again.” I have no idea who Jack is. While Brixham U is nowhere near the size of my old college, it’s a big enough place to get lost in. Well, for maybe ten minutes before you spot someone you’ve seen at least once before.
“It’s Friday night.” She follows up with a wink and stands.
I chuckle as we leave the quiet library together. Unsurprisingly, it’s all but empty since it’s close to nine on a Friday night. Stepping outside into the dark, I peer up, marveling at the stars not made invisible by smog or light.
“You’re doing it again.” Amusement lifts Simone’s words.
“And I’m not sorry.” I grin, not looking away from the inky blackness and twinkling stars. “This is one thing I love about being out here. Far enough away from the city not to be doused in fumes.”
“Hey,” she jeers, nudging me. “One thing? I know it’s only been a few weeks, but I better rank high on that list of yours.”
I pull my attention away from the sky and to her, still smiling. “You do. You may even rank number one if you make sure a red cup is in my hand within the next forty minutes.”
“Done.” With a tug on my arm, she leads the way to the small house she shares with a couple of other students just off campus. Once there, I wash up, put on a fresh spray of deodorant, and after a swipe of mascara, I call myself done.
I’m not in the mood to get dressed up. My jeans, slim-fit tee, and hoodie featuring a small rainbow and stating boldly Queer AF are good enough. While I like my eyes to pop a little, beyond a hilarious array of T-shirts and hoodies, I live in my jeans and Converse.
Despite Simone’s questionable eye makeup choices, she’s fairly low-key too so doesn’t take long to get ready, and with ten minutes to spare, we’re at Jack’s, where she fills a Solo cup with beer, places it in my hand, taps her own against mine, and winks. “And relax,” she orders.
I take a healthy gulp and sigh contently at the crisp flavor. I’m far from a big drinker, mostly because never in a million years growing up could I get away with passing for older than I was. It meant I relied heavily on my friends and parties just like this to give me a taste and help me unwind enough that, for just a little while, I can behave like a twenty-one-year-old.
“You finished that fast.” Simone draws my focus to her wide eyes. A frown pulls her brows low. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Was just thirsty,” I lie, not even realizing I downed the drink, too lost in my woe-is-me thoughts. “I’m going to get another. You want one?”
She studies me for a beat. “Yeah, sure. I’ll just wait over there. I see my friend Tammy.” I follow her line of sight so I’ll know where to find her among the growing crowd.
“Sounds good.” I head off, reminding myself to sip the next drink. I have work tomorrow at the diner. Locating the beer, I smile at a pretty blonde who’s pouring a drink from the keg.
“You having one?” she asks, her gaze floating down to take in the writing on my hoodie before she makes eye contact again.
“Yeah. Well, two actually.”
She nods and passes me the filled cup. “Take this, and I’ll get you one more.”
“Absolutely.” She pours away. “You’re the guy who recently transferred from LA, right? Lester’s friend?”
My brows lift in surprise. “You know Lester?”
She chuckles. “I’m his cousin.”
“Oh wow, this really is a small town,” I tease. “Please tell me there’s a whole clan of you on campus so I can make hilariously bad jokes and tease Lester mercilessly.”
She passes me another filled cup, grinning. “Afraid not. Just the two of us. Name’s Lana.”
I nod at her in greeting. “Dean.” I tilt my head. “What gave me away that I’m Lester’s friend? My dreamy good looks and wicked dress sense?”
She chuckles. “Well, that, and Lester was showing me a couple of photos of his art project, and we swiped through to a few of you guys.”
“Lester does like selfies.”
She laughs loudly. “Right. His phone’s practically a permanent extension of his hand. Are you—”
Her words are cut off by loud shouts and laughter as a group of guys pours into the house. I angle to observe them, taking in their laughter, their clothes, their physiques.
I can sniff out an athlete and identify their sport with a 95 percent accuracy. Legit, I tested myself both in high school and college.
“Looks like the Bears won their game.”
I return my attention to Lana. “Basketball?”
I give myself a mental pat on the back. At this rate, my accuracy rating is going to rise. Turning my attention back to the incoming players, I take my fill like the sucker for sexy forearms and built biceps I am. Damn, there are fine specimens on the team. I also know the season doesn’t officially start for another month, so I’m assuming they’re having friendly games with other colleges in the state.
“You follow basketball?” Lana draws my attention back to her.
“Go Eagles!” I smirk.
She chuckles again. “I’m a Pandas fan myself, but I can understand the draw to the Eagles.” Her wink is less than subtle.
With a snort, I nod. “Right. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely love the game, but Minnesota knows how to seduce the hot-as-Hades players to join their team. I suppose it makes up for the less-than-stellar couple of years and the injuries they’ve been having.”
“I often take in a school game if ever you’re up for it. The team was away today, but they’re at home next Thursday if you want to come. It’s only against the Marlins and not for points, but it should still be a decent game.”
I force myself to focus on Lana rather than take my fill of the eye candy who’ve since spilled through the house, some heading in our direction, no doubt seeking a drink. “I’d like that, thanks. Simone and Lester aren’t sports fan—” I grunt and lurch forward, my drink sloshing and spilling on my hoodie. “Fuck.”
“Shit, sorry, man.”
Scowling, I shift my gaze to the six-foot-whatever beast of a guy peering down at me and not looking overly apologetic at all. I offer a tight smile and fight hard to keep my mouth shut. I refuse to say it’s okay, as hello, beer on my awesome hoodie, but there’s no point challenging him. Turning my back on the guy, I focus on Lana and roll my eyes.
“Hey, I said I was sorry. No need to be a dick.”
With my stomach plummeting, I shake my head. Hearing murmured words, I refuse to look back. My buzz is already on the way to being ruined.
“What?” the same voice says, clearly responding to the lower voice with words I can’t catch. “Whatever, man. I just need a beer and then I can get away from guys with sticks up their asses.”
Heat hits my cheeks, and my gaze connects with Lana’s. Her brows shoot high as her focus drifts from me to the people behind me. When a toned arm appears over my shoulder, reaching for the stack of cups before me, I snap, “The fuck. Rude much?” I spin on my heels and am greeted with a gray T-shirt straining over a broad chest not concealed by the unzipped college hoodie he’s wearing. The guy lifts his hands immediately, palms open.
“Sorry. Just trying to get a cup so I can get a drink and shut my friend up.”
“By being in my space?” I finally meet his gaze after a slow trail up to the face. Holy shit, he’s fucking handsome and has the prettiest deep brown eyes I’ve ever seen. Rather than panting, I manage to keep my scowl in place.
I know guys like this, thinking they can do whatever they want with no consequences.
He shrugs, nothing but sarcasm in his voice when he says, “Sorry. I just thought you’d want my friend, who bumped into you by total accident, by the way, out of your hair. I was trying to be a good guy.”
I quirk my brow, if only to give myself an extra moment to not start salivating or rubbing up on the man. While he’s behaving like an arrogant jerk like most players I’ve known over the years, it doesn’t mean he’s not devastatingly gorgeous. “Perhaps next time use your words. If that’s at all possible for that pea-sized jock brain of yours,” I sass, my bitchiness front and center, having no patience for anyone using either their size or status to behave like an asshat.
Surprise registers on his features for the briefest of moments before he narrows his gaze. “No need to be a jerk about it.”
In response, I turn my back to him, pour myself a fresh drink, and indicate to Lana I’m leaving.
She nods, her expression startled and still bouncing from me and then over my shoulder. “Dean, hold up. I’ll come.”
I smile, no longer quite sure if the guy and his clumsy friend are who I’ll be supporting if I take in a basketball game. I turn, the guy with the pretty eyes still in my space. “You wanna move so I can leave you to get a drink you so desperately want, please?” Proud as punch I remembered my manners, I even add a tight smile.
He takes a step back, narrowed eyes drifting down to my hoodie before meeting my gaze. “Nice hoodie.”
I clench my jaw, certain he’s being a sarcastic prick, and leave to find Simone.
As soon as we’re out of earshot, Lana grabs my arm and leans in. “Holy shit, that was Kieran Kendall.”
“I have no idea who that is.”
“He’s the Bears’ captain, their star player.”
I snort. “Figures. It explains why he thinks he can be rude, leaning over me like that.” While I’m not the shortest guy in the world, I’ve been told more than once, often loudly, that I’m petite and cute. Sounds nice, right? Those descriptors? Yeah, they can be, unless it’s with dripping derision, as though being a little shorter than average is something I should be ashamed of. Screw that, fuck you very much.
I’m perfectly compact and just the right side of fabulous. I promise I’m not completely egotistical either. But seriously, ego is my armor, as well as my long lashes and my snippy mouth.
We stop near a wall and angle to take in the rest of the room.
“He’s usually really decent and down-to-earth. I’ve never known him like that before.”
I sigh. It seems I have a gift for bringing out the asshole in people. “Lucky me.” I hate that I’m shaken and frustrated. What’s also pissing me off? How freakin’ hot the guy is.
She nudges me. “Don’t sweat it. Focus on having a few drinks and having a good night.”
“Now that I can do.” I bring my red cup to my mouth and take a large gulp, peering around to track down Simone. I need to unwind after that encounter. Maybe I overreacted—probably… maybe—but defensive, remember?
Kieran Kendall isn’t someone I need to be worried about. We clearly don’t run in the same circles. Nor can I imagine being in any of the same classes. Athletes are known for general studies, right? Shh, I know I’m being totally judgmental, but the dude deserves it. I can begrudgingly admire him from afar when he’s on the court. Well, if he proves he really is a god on the basketball court. Admittedly, I’m interested to see for myself if that’s true. Purely for my love of the game, of course.
© Becca Seymour | 2022