Authors: Mia Watts
Copyright © 2012 Mia Watts
Edited by Darlena Cunha and Liza Green Cover art by Adrian Nicholas
Published by Resplendence Publishing, LLC 2665 N Atlantic Avenue, #349
Daytona Beach, FL 32118
Warning: All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or occurrences, is purely coincidental.
Aaron Hedlund stumbled out of the pub laughing, his arms draped over the shoulders of his companions. He’d missed these guys. No one understood a law student like another law student. The whoops of the revelry carried on behind them, oblivious to their departure.
“You sure you wanna leave so soon? We’re continuing the party back at my place.” Beside him, Barney shouted at the third friend heading for his car. “I told the others to meet us there.”
“I’m sure. I’m a year ahead of you two. I did my celebratory thank-God-I’m-not-afreshman-law-student-anymore thing at the beginning of last year. Raise a glass for me. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.” The upperclassman waved at them, walking backward, then pivoting and jogging to his car.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, kid,” Aaron teased. “Your roommate’s probably fending off the partiers right now with empty threats. We’d better get over there.”
“In a minute.”
Barney had that twinkle in his eye that said he had a plan. He hooked his arm tighter on Aaron’s neck and dragged him into the dark against the bar wall. Aaron laughed, tripping after him awkwardly.
“I’m not peeing on the alley,” Aaron protested. “Weren’t you listening to Professor Dougeray’s misdemeanors lecture? I have the notes from last semester if you still need them.”
Barney laughed. “I was thinking of something completely different.”
“This.” Barney hit the wall, bringing Aaron with him.
Their lips bumped, and Aaron was prepared to laugh, but the urge left him as soon as he realized it wasn’t an accident. Barney’s mouth tasted hot and sharp with whiskey. Math may not have been Aaron’s strong suit, but one and one added up, and he relaxed into the kiss.
He broke away, breathing as heavily as Barney. “What brought that on?”
“Don’t know why I didn’t do it last year, but I decided not to waste anymore time.”
“What are you thinking?” Aaron asked, nipping Barney’s lips between words. “A fuck, or a
“One could argue that it requires a thing to have a fuck, counselor.”
Aaron laughed. “I’m not a counselor yet, and you’re evading the question.”
Barney cleared his throat importantly. “Forgive me. If it pleases the court, I’d like to recommend a merger between the two parties in question.”
He hauled Aaron back for another kiss. Aaron accepted when his friend’s tongue swept inside to tangle with his. The arm around his neck fell away as Barney’s hands cupped Aaron’s waist and tugged.
Aaron pulled away to catch his breath. “What are the proposed terms?”
“Courtship, extensive dialogue between the parties, unsupervised private consultations requiring the consumption of foods, and the copious exchange of bodily fluids over the duration of time,” Barney answered.
“Ah. A binding merger with an oral contract,” Aaron teased back.
“Or anal. I’m not so picky,” Barney breathed.
“Is this an exclusive contract?”
“I suggest exclusivity be allowable in the contract for discussion at a later date, if those are acceptable terms for your client, Mr. Hedlund.”
“Non-exclusivity. I accept. Terms may be revisited after time has proven the partnership of mutual benefit.”
Barney rubbed his hips against Aaron’s. “God, I love it when you talk law.”
Barney shrugged. “We just make sense.”
“A convenience boyfriend?” Aaron supposed it was as good a reason as any.
“Why not? We’re too busy during the school year to date. We’re friends and a solid fuck works miracles for stress relief.”
“I was hoping you’d bend to logic,” Barney grinned. He pressed another firm kiss to Aaron’s lips.
“Bending is not currently my problem.” He tucked his hips so that Barney wouldn’t miss his meaning.
Aaron’s pocket buzzed. Barney swore with surprise as the phone vibrated against his thigh. Aaron laughed, reaching into his pocket to see who was calling.
“Don’t answer it,” Barney insisted.
Glancing at the display, he accepted the call. “Have to. It’s my kid brother.”
Barney groaned. “Tell him to call back
He pressed his finger over Barney’s mouth.
“Hey Mike. What’s up?” Aaron stepped away from his friend.
“Can you come home?”
“I’m kind of at school.”
“I’m a minor or something. Mom and Dad—they’re—I can’t do it alone.”
A cold knot grew in the pit of Aaron’s stomach. “What are you talking about? What’s wrong?”
“They’re dead.” Mike’s voice cracked over the distance.
His heart might have stopped. He wasn’t sure. Hot and cold washed over him and his ears rang. Bile rose up in his throat, and he thought he heard himself ask another question, but Aaron didn’t remember forming it.
“If you come home, Child Protective Services won’t take me away. I can’t plan a funeral. I don’t know how. I don’t—”
His little brother’s reason fractured under the weight of grief, or shock, or whatever the hell this miserable disbelief was. Aaron’s heart pounded hard, painfully.
“I’m coming, Mikey. I’m coming. Where are you?”
“St. Joe’s Hospital. They want me to identify Mom.” Mike’s voice shook.
Aaron plucked his keys out of his pocket and strode to his car.
“Aaron,” Barney called after him. “Where are you going? What about the party?”
Aaron didn’t bother to answer. There was time for that later. Right now, his brother needed him. “Keep talking, Mikey. I’m on my way. Just keep talking to me, and if they ask you again, tell them I’ll take care of it when I get there.”
Ian Mitchell collected the essays on his desk and clapped their edges on the surface to align them into a neat stack. His gaze traveled over the room at the remaining students still fighting their way through his history test.
Mike Hedlund stared out the window, a far-away expression on his face. Pencil poised, his blue book remained open on the first page, as it had been since Ian’s class had begun. Mikey looked so much like his brother with the dark curly hair and endless brown eyes. Lean and strong as he was, he lacked the confidence Ian remembered about Aaron.
But he had something Aaron had never had in high school: grief. It hollowed Mikey’s smile and emptied his expression. He radiated pain and, like any teenager in pain, he refused to express it in words, choosing instead to hurtle himself into a pit of bad choices.
Gone was the kid who’d been first-string on the soccer team, surrounded by friends and full of pranks, whose good-natured sense of humor had kept many of the staff at Westwood High School on their toes.
This year sadness shrouded him in a cocoon of depression. His hair had grown shaggy, and he’d opted for all-black clothing with chain accents and leather wristbands. He’d pushed away his sports friends, dropped the team and started dating a girl known for her access to marijuana. Mike had adopted her Emo-rocker look.
The bell rang. Ian flicked a glance at the clock even though he already knew the time. “Don’t forget, your theses are due next Wednesday! One week! Jake, you hear me?” Ian raised his voice above the collected sounds of backpacks zipping, shoes scuffing, conversation swelling and general end of day chaos.
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell,” the kid called back over his shoulder.
“No extensions. No excuses!” No one acknowledged his words, but he said them anyway.
He smiled and shook his head fondly as they filed out. “Mike,” Ian called after the sullen boy. “Stay back for a few minutes.”
Ian waited for him, one hip propped on the front edge of his desk.
Mike skulked over, his backpack thrown over one shoulder and a heavy fringe of dark
hair obscuring both eyes as he hung his head.
“You want to talk about it?” Ian asked once the rest of the class had filed out. Mike shrugged. “Nothin’ to say.”
“I don’t buy it.” Ian ducked his head to try to see Mike’s face. “Have you thought about
going to the guidance counselor?”
Mike looked up, his eyes daggers of hatred.
“Okay, so not the counselor. What about talking to me? Or your brother.” Ian asked,
searching his expression. The brothers might look alike, but there was nothing of Aaron in
Mike’s expression. Nothing of the confident yearbook editor and senior class president reflected
in the younger version.
Mike hiked his bag up his shoulder as though it had been slipping. It was almost like a
shrug, a tell-tale uncertainty that presented the first weakness Ian had seen in Mike since the
school year had started.
“Do you talk to Aaron about what happened?” Ian asked.
“No,” Mike answered. He looked toward the hallway. The boy’s brows shifted and
smoothed. He’d grown good at masking his emotions, but for an instant Ian had seen the guilt. “He might need to talk to you as badly as you need someone to talk to,” Ian suggested. “He’s fine. He works and studies.” Mike put on a wry smile. It was tight, false. “He’s
doing fine. I’m fine. We’re both fucking fine.”
Ian leveled a censuring look on the boy.
“Sorry, Mr. Mitchell.”
Ian nodded his understanding.
Mike wouldn’t let Ian keep him for much longer. They had already reached the limit of
conversational length from previous attempts. He missed the kid. Missed his energy and his humor, missed the spark that he’d come to recognize as the impish naughtiness at the core of
The wreck had doused it completely. Only Ian seemed unwilling to let the old Mike go. A
new frustration began to simmer in his chest that Aaron could live under the same roof with
Mike and not get involved. Ian had tried to contact him. He’d left messages on the home phone
and requested a guardian-parent conference. For all intents and purposes, Aaron couldn’t be
“How’s having your brother home?” Ian asked, changing tactics and trying to lighten the
mood with a friendly smile. “I haven’t seen him since he returned.”
“He’s been busy.” Mike huffed impatiently. “Can I go, Mr. Mitchell?”
“You may if you ask Aaron to call me. I’d like to catch up with him.”
“Yeah, sure.” Mike dodged around him and disappeared from sight. The kid was
drowning before Ian’s eyes and didn’t seem to care.
“Ten bucks says he doesn’t tell his brother,” Ian murmured to himself. He shook his
head. Maybe it was time to stop by the front office for the work address and make a personal
“Talking to yourself again?” Leanne Mallory poked her head into his room. He smiled. “Hey, Leanne.”
“Hey. That was Mike Hedlund that just left here, right?”
“He didn’t show up to class today.” She frowned, glancing down the hall as she entered
“Damnit. Do you think you can hold off on reporting it? I want to talk to his guardian and
see if we can work something out.”
“I know you mean well, Ian, but maybe a suspension is the kick in the pants he needs.”
She folded her arms across her breasts, her lips pouted into a thoughtful moue. “Don’t even think it. I know this family. Or I did, before the accident, and he just needs a
“Really? Really, Ian?” She looked disbelieving, as though she questioned his sanity. She
sighed, put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “You’re such a good guy. I hope the students
know how much you care about them.”
Her hand felt heavy, but he didn’t move or shrug it off. He and Leanne had been dancing
around a pseudo-relationship for a year now. Every time he got close to asking her out, he
panicked because it meant pretending to be something he wasn’t. He wasn’t prepared for that,
even if he also wasn’t prepared to come out as a gay man.
They worked together, he rationalized. With at least that much in common, maybe it was
possible to lead a straight life.
But that wasn’t the question on the table. Mike Hedlund’s truancy was. “Just let me talk
to the kid’s guardian. Can you hold the absence until Monday, at least?” he asked. Leanne sighed again, this time heavily, and sat beside him on the edge of the desk. “We
have these rules in place for a reason.”
“Not every kid benefits from the same kind of teaching. We all know that.” “This isn’t teaching,” she argued.
“Of course it is,” he told her gently. “Is the goal to get him through school successfully,
or throw him under the bus at every opportunity just because he’s having trouble dealing with the
death of his parents? I don’t know about you, but that would’ve destroyed me at his age. He was
in the car, Leanne. Not at home waiting for them to get there. Not at a friend’s house. Not
passively hanging out,
but in the car
. Cut him some slack.”
She bumped his shoulder with her own. “And what about you? Do I cut you some slack
for being wrapped up in his family drama?”
“What? Why would you need to? What have I done that deserves patient understanding?”
he asked, feeling the flare of annoyance.
“Never mind. It’s bad timing.”
“I don’t think so. You’re hinting around some flaw I’m apparently oblivious to. Just say
what you mean.”
Leanne blinked rapidly and looked away. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing wrong with you.” “But?”
She shrugged, stretched her long legs out and arranged her feet neatly side by side. He
knew she’d say it. Leanne was hardly shy, but he’d clearly caught her off guard. “I wish you’d let me help you. I don’t mean holding off information from the office or
discussing the trials and tribulations of the student population, but that you’d let me
.” “I talk to you more than anyone else.”
“About superficial stuff or teaching, sure.” She tilted her head to look at him. “When are
you going to ask me out?”
Oh, God. There was that feeling of panic again. This time it clutched his windpipe and
seized his chest whenever he entertained the idea of dating her—which had nothing to do with
her, and everything to do with making a decision to date straight.
“Go to dinner with me,” she said. “We can debate merit pay or talk about Mike Hedlund.
Whatever you want. Just come have some pizza and a beer with me.”
The request didn’t scare him. The time alone with Leanne did. She was pretty enough in
the traditional blonde hair, curvy body kind of way. She could carry her half of a conversation
too. She even seemed interested, so what was his problem? Which is probably what she asked
herself too. The problem was that in the quiet recesses of his mind, Ian knew he was gay but
every time he tried to mentally correct that thought, he balked.
“Sure,” he answered before he thought about it too much.
“Tonight, before you change your mind on me.”
! I’m not asking to have your baby. I’m asking you to pizza.” He smiled ruefully. “I know. How about Thursday?”
“Now you’re talking.” She smiled, jumped up and dropped a kiss on his cheek. “It’s a
date.” Leanne hurried out of the room almost as though she was afraid he’d cancel on her.
* * * *
Aaron juggled the bag of groceries on his hip to unlock the door from the garage to the
house. The kitchen was cold and dark. He flipped the switch.
“Mike!” he yelled.
Not a light had been turned on, and it was after nine o’clock. Aaron dropped his keys on
the kitchen table and put the groceries on the counter. Methodically, he put stuff away. At least
there was milk and sandwich meat now, instead of old spaghetti and yogurt in the fridge. He’d
even bought a head of lettuce, although it was more likely to go moldy than to get eaten. “Mi-ike!” He tried again, knowing the effort was pointless.
He unpocketed his cell phone and dialed Mike’s number. It went to voicemail. He hung
up before leaving a message.
“Great. Just great.”
Walking over to the phone, he lifted the receiver and heard the rapid triple beep of a
message waiting to be listened to. He punched in the access codes and shouldered the phone as
he made himself a sandwich.
“Aaron, this is Ian Mitchell,” the message began. “I know you’re busy, but we need to
talk. If you could give me a few minutes, or call me back, I won’t take up much of your time.
I’m worried about Mike. Please. Call me back.” Mr. Mitchell left his phone number. Aaron’s pulse skidded into double time. Ian Mitchell. Dark hair, pale eyes that were some
gorgeous combination of amber and gray, tanned arms with thick wrists. He’d had a lot of sexy
daydreams about Mr. Mitchell and almost all of them started off with the teacher scrawling
something on the chalkboard, stretching out those tanned arms with the flash of his wide silver
He shook himself. In all his fantasies, Mr. Mitchell had said his name with the same rich
baritone, he’d remembered. Hearing it in his ear like a caress now, made him just as hot and cold
as it used to. Except this time, Mr. Mitchell sounded annoyed.
Aaron replayed the message, jotted down the phone number and hung up. He alternately
stared at the digits as he finished making his sandwich and took a bite.
Should I call him now? It’s late.
Deciding against it, he left the kitchen with his sandwich and went back out to the car for
his computer bag and books. He set up on the dining room table where all his papers and study
materials were stacked. He backtracked, poured himself a glass of milk, swallowed the last bite
of sandwich, glanced nervously at Mr. Mitchell’s phone number and returned to the table. An
uncomfortable chill grew in the pit of his stomach. Eleven hours until his shift at the store began.
He wanted to give himself six hours of sleep, so he’d better get through his coursework. He had
four hours before he’d have to go to bed.
Mike traipsed across the back of his mind in a swirl of guilt. That wasn’t unusual. What
was, was the looming shadow of Mr. Mitchell wanting to talk to him about his brother. Aaron needed time to get a grip on everything. Just a little more time, then he could try to
pull his brother out of the funk he seemed to have crawled into. Nothing about raising his brother
had been as easy as the way Mom and Dad had made it look.
He missed their laughter, the table laden with food at dinner, the jokes about Dad eating
too much and falling asleep in the reclining chair. Tears burned behind Aaron’s eyes that he refused to give in to. There wasn’t time for memories right now. There were bills to pay, and law school coursework to go through online until he exhausted his options for distance learning and had to go back. At the rate he was going, that would coincide with Mike’s graduation in a little
over a year and a half.
He glanced at the stack of bills and frowned at them. Everyone wanted a piece. The
insurance money had covered the emergency costs. The rest of it, he’d put away for Mike’s
college fund. That left Aaron with house payments on fifteen more years of mortgage, utilities
and his own schooling costs. The job at the mom and pop shop where he worked barely covered
those, meaning he still had to dip into the savings they’d been left, every month. Aaron dropped his head on the dining room table. God, it was hard. It was so
Sometimes he forgot and wished he could just ask Dad how—but then he’d remember. Dad was
dead. Mom was dead. It was up to him to keep what was left of the family together. Up to him to
make sure they kept the threads unknotted until both of them could break through the
dysfunction to find their way again. He prayed it was soon because Aaron wasn’t sure how much
he could shoulder.
A text from Barney rattled his phone on the table surface by his head.
“When are you coming back?” it read.
Reluctantly, he picked it up. “I don’t know,” he typed out. He should have just owned up
to the fact that it wouldn’t be until Mike finished high school, but he didn’t know if his place at
law school would still be open for him then. So the truth was,
Stubbornness swallowed his self-pity. He put the phone down and ignored the next text
message. He’d left off on something with Barney, even if it had been more about testing the
waters than dating. Circumstances didn’t always let you do what you wanted. Right now, he
needed to log in and take notes on the online lecture, then begin researching those notes. With that in mind, Aaron shut down his distracting thoughts of dating and bills and
missing his parents. Too much depended on him holding it together. If he didn’t think about it, it
couldn’t get to him. He’d gotten good at this. He’d be better with a little more practice. Aaron logged on to the distance-learning site and opened his notebook.