Authors: Valentina Heart
Tags: #Gay, Contemporary, Romance
A legacy of bullying and insecurity has left its mark on Troy, affecting all his interactions in the present. Adam is an ex-hockey player turned tattoo artist who knows what he wants and isn't afraid to go after it. But no matter how hard he tries, time and again he sends the easily scared Troy running.
Though both are nearly convinced it could never work between them, they agree to give it one more try. But then bad luck and fate conspire to leave Adam floundering to reach Troy while Troy worries over losing touch with Adam.
By Valentina Heart
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Tan-ni Fan
Cover designed by Aisha Akeju
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition May 2016
Copyright © 2016 by Valentina Heart
Printed in the United States of America
Digital ISBN 9781620047767
As soon as the alarm went off, my heart started beating violently in my chest. It was Monday, another school day, and I was terrified.
After morning absolutions I dressed carefully, watching that my shirt was clean and tidy, my pants zipped up. Sometimes I resented the fact that I had to be so careful about every little detail because if I wasn't, the day tended to go worse than usual.
I combed my hair, checked my face for zits again, and wished for the thousandth time I was just a little bit taller and a little bit thinner. With a sigh, I picked up my school bag and went to make some breakfast.
My dad was already gone, and my mother would only get up once I was out of the house. So I made some toast with jam and ate slowly, always keeping one eye on the ticking clock on the wall, dreading the day.
I cleaned up after myself, took the money my dad had left and tucked it inside my sock. Even if I ended up without anything else on me by the end of school, they usually left me my socks. Another deep breath for courage, not that I had any to begin with, and I headed off to school.
Standing there, facing it, didn't get any easier no matter how many days passed, and even as I took some cover behind the bushes next to the bus stop, I could still see the crowd at the front steps, and knew there was no way I could slip by everyone.
The first bell rang and I bit my lip before rushing forward, hoping to reach the class with minimum damage, for once.
"Here comes Helen," I heard someone yell, and my chest constricted.
I would have rolled my eyes as I did so many times at home at the name, but at this point any reaction would be perceived as attack, and with so many of them around, it was better to just keep my mouth shut. But the name play must have been so witty even a teacher slipped once and called me Helen despite my name being Troy.
I was still far enough away no one pushed me, but as soon as I reached the steps, intending to take the first one, someone hit me from behind and I fell. It startled me how close my chin was to the edge of a step as I opened my eyes but I hissed only as my forearm flashed with pain from where I'd cushioned the fall.
I could hear everyone laughing, and I knew enough not to dwell on my ache. Instead I picked myself up as fast as I could and started up the stairs once again only faster.
"Hey, ugly, didn't anyone ever teach you what a comb was?" Another voice sounded and again I ignored it, wishing the door was closer.
"Helen, Helen. It's only polite to answer your betters," someone I knew too well said closer to me and I ran.
The door banged as I pushed into the school but I still had all my possessions, and Billy apparently wasn't in the mood for giving me another lesson in obedience first thing in the morning.
Unfortunately, the hallway was still full, and first, next to the lockers, were the popular girls.
"Helen, you forgot your makeup again." Judy smiled viciously at me and I averted my gaze, hoping I would pass her quickly enough on my way to the classroom.
"You know even makeup doesn't help cover that hideous face, Judy," Betty added her two cents, making sure it properly stung.
Someone else tripped me as I did my best not to cry, and I even managed to hold my balance before I was somewhat safe in the classroom.
English was first and I had to sit to the left side of the room to avoid all those likely to get me in trouble. I always kept my bag in my lap until the teacher came in, and even after I put it down, I wrapped one strap around my leg.
I exhaled in relief as Miss Janison entered, and I knew no one would try anything at least for a little bit. All I had to do now was face the rest of my hellish education.
Tonight was the night. The first time I got to see Gabriel after the way I ended things. Awkward, anyone? I sighed and washed my face in the sink, wishing the water could clean away the blush. But no: it was still there as I looked into the mirror. I was still there, as unremarkable as I'd always been. The dark hair—not black, nor really brown—dirty green eyes I always thought were too light for my complexion and pale skin. I'd stopped going to the beach after breaking up with Gabriel, and it would have been awkward hanging out with his twin brother Michael alone. Besides, I doubt he would have even wanted me around.
I combed my hair, forcing it to lie flat, and I thanked God again that at twenty-eight, zits were a thing of the past. Slacks, shirt, and a jacket were pretty much the whole of my wardrobe. It allowed me to stay forgettable and not stand out in any way. The school days were hard for me to shake off even on my best days, and especially considering I still turned whenever someone called for a Helen. And wasn't that funny—I was called ugly for a better part of my teens and Helen was considered the most beautiful woman in the world.
I snorted to myself as I heard my cab downstairs and rushed down the steps, cursing as my phone rang.
Mumbling the address to the driver, I answered the phone at the last second. "Yeah?"
"Troy, are you coming?" Michael yelled over the noise.
"I'm in the cab right now." My heart rushed.
"Good. I have some friends here I want you to meet," he said.
"Are you sure? I thought it would only be us three." I was so out of my comfort zone that I was close to hyperventilating.
"I didn't want to make it awkward for you, so I called a few of our other friends. Maybe you'll meet someone who's a better fit." Michael said it so confidently I almost laughed. He'd just made it three times as awkward. I would never meet a "better fit" because there wasn't anyone out there for me. Gabriel was good-looking, smart, and as good a person as I'd ever been with. But even he didn't like me. What chance did I have with someone not nearly as perfect? Besides, I had never liked crowds. They reminded me too much of bully gangs.
"Would you mind if I skipped it?" I tried, really not feeling ready to face the squad of strangers.
"Don't be ridiculous. I want to see you, and so does Gabriel. It's been months, and you said you're over him. If you're not, I won't push you, but otherwise I would like to see you. Don't worry, nothing is gonna happen to you. I'll keep watch." I could hear him grinning, and what's worse, I knew I could trust him. There was no way I could get out of it without hating myself afterward.
"Yeah, all right. I'm on my way." I sighed, completely unsure if that was the right decision.
"Great! I'll be up front. See you," he said and hung up the phone, leaving me alone to calm down my breathing and face the possible consequences of my acquiescence.
I had to remind myself that while Gabriel had been the one who caught my interest, it was Michael who made me feel safe. There was something in his carefree personality that gave the impression there was more beneath it. And boy was there. I was waiting for Gabriel to finish his shift once in the bar when a guy was making trouble. Somehow I found myself right next to Michael as he firmly escorted the guy out. It wasn't his strength, or even his words so much, but rather the way he looked at the guy, as if he could kill him right where he stood and not feel even an ounce of remorse. He was strong, wasn't afraid to show it, and still, he was never anything other than polite and inviting toward me. It was a drastic change and if nothing else, I was grateful for my failed relationship with Gabriel, because it had given me a friend, the first person ever who had called me and asked how I was doing and even invited me out, despite my doubts.
There was still that little voice in me whispering how all of it was a prank, how something was bound to go wrong, but for once I dared to end that train of thought and hoped for the best.
"You're here!" Michael yelled when he saw me and rushed to hug me even before I was all the way out of the car.
"How much have you had to drink already?" I asked, smiling.
"Aww, can't a guy hug another guy sober?" He moved me away by holding my upper arm and looked at my face.
I blushed scarlet and stumbled over my words, "Sure. He can."
"I'm just messing with you. I only had a couple of beers, but I would have hugged you even without them. You're the first guy my brother ever dated who's a decent human being. You're worth knowing, Troy." He threw his arm over my shoulder and pulled me with him into the bar.
"How many of you are in there?" I asked, holding onto his shirt.
"Just the five of us and you already know G." Without giving me the chance to respond, he got us inside and headed toward one of the filled booths.
I tried to control my breathing again but I could already feel my palms were sweating and the curious looks on the other people's faces didn't help matters. We were there way before I was ready, and suddenly Michael was introducing me.
"Everybody, this is Troy. Troy, I would like you to meet my best friend Zach, the guy next to him is his better half and an international star, Noah. The overgrown ape over there is our good friend and Zach's boss whom we haven't seen in a while, Adam. And, of course, you know G." He pushed me into the seat next to Adam while he squeezed in next to Gabriel on the opposite bench.
I waved shyly, taking everything in. Zach wore short sleeves and a black T-shirt, which made his tattooed arms stand out. He was cute enough and even seemed friendly. Noah, on the other hand, was extremely flashy, though he seemed somewhat familiar. His hair was gelled up; he wore makeup and a whole lot of leather, plus he had painted fingernails. The only thing packing a bigger punch than his image was his killer smile.
Adam, however, frightened the shit out of me. I could see a partial tattoo climbing up his neck, and another one sliding out of his long sleeve. But it wasn't only that. He had a full thick beard, connected to and the same length as his hair and it gave him some kind of a carefree but dangerous look I hadn't seen on anyone. Not that I socialized with many people from day to day.
"How you doing, Troy?" Gabriel gave me a soft smile, and even now I wasn't as heartbroken as I probably should have been because of our breakup.
"I'm all right," I said, raising my voice slightly to be heard and felt my cheeks warm. I wasn't used to attracting attention to myself.
"I've missed you around," he said, and I could see Michael nodding at his words. It made me feel accepted, something I'd rarely experienced, but I was probably still too sober not to notice the subtle differences between the two brothers. There was more to their closeness than before, more to the casual touches that seemed less accidental and very affectionate. Things were different, but I wasn't inclined to comment or butt in.
"I missed you guys, too." And it even seemed natural to say it, to share.
"Aww, you're all so fucking adorable. We should have found time to do this sooner, Zach. I want to just pinch their cheeks," Noah suddenly said, startling me from our mutual stare and I went scarlet, ducking my head down.
"Tone it down, you queen, you're gonna scare him away." The bear next to me rumbled, making me flinch and lean down even more.
"Troy's tougher than that; don't worry. He's just a little shy, and that means we need to pour a couple of drinks in him." Gabriel jumped in followed by Michael, "I'll be right back," who stood up to leave.