Authors: AMY JO COUSINS
Tags: #lgbtq romance;m/m;college romance;coming of age
Everyone's got secrets. Some are just harder to hide.
Bend or Break, Book 1
With his father's ponzi scheme assets frozen, Tom Worthington believes finishing college is impossible unless he can pay his own way. After months sleeping in his car and gypsy-cabbing for cash, he's ready to do just that.
But his new, older-student housing comes with an unapologetically gay roommate. Tom doesn't ask why Reese Anders has been separated from the rest of the student population. He's just happy to be sleeping in a bed.
Reese isn't about to share his brutal story with his gruff new roommate. You've seen one homophobic jock, you've seen 'em all. He plans to drag every twink on campus into his bed until Tom moves out. But soon it becomes clear Tom isn't budging.
Tom isn't going to let some late-night sex noise scare him off, especially when it's turning him on. But he doesn't want any drama either. He'll keep his hands, if not his eyes, to himself. Boundaries have a way of blurring when you start sharing truths, though. And if Tom and Reese cross too many lines, they may need to find out just how far they can bendâ¦before they break.
Warning: This book contains cranky roommates who vacillate between lashing out and licking, some male/male voyeurism, emotional baggage that neither guy wants to unpack, and the definitive proof that sound carries in college housing.
Amy Jo Cousins
For Tamsen. Thanks for keeping my guys out of the Back End of Boston. Someday we will be crotchety old ladies with recalcitrant grandchildren who roll their eyes at their grannies' dirty books. It's gonna be great.
His bed was missing.
Exhaustion gnawed at Tom's bones and crawled up the back of his neck to settle in at the base of his skull, a tightening ache that radiated all the way through to his eye sockets. His eyes were scratchy and dry, his entire body felt grimy, and his arm might fall off if he couldn't put his duffle bag down.
He'd been driving for forty-eight hours straight and the only thing keeping him going in the last twelve hours had been the promise of a hot shower and a bed, a real, honest-to-God bed, at the end of the road.
But his bed was missing.
He opened the dorm room door again and double-checked the number on the plate above the bulletin board covered in quotes, comic strips and photos he was too tired to examine. The need to sleep was kicking in hard. Hallucinating the dorm room number was not out of the question.
Nope. That's what it said on the letter from Residential Life he'd been carrying around in his wallet since July. The words “You have been approved for off-campus housing at the Frances Perkins House for returning students,”â
being a polite way of saying “too old to tolerate the kids in the dorms”âhad been a mantra for him the last two months of gypsy-cabbing it in Boston this summer, knowing he still had to come up with another ten grand before September 1st.
He'd damn near gotten that room number tattooed on his ass, he was so fucking happy to have made this happen.
Turned out that losing everything
turn you into an entirely new person overnight.
He dragged his brain back under control before he started obsessing again about everything that was different, all the shit he'd had to figure out how to do, or do without, and took three steps back into the room.
He dropped the duffle bag.
This was home for the next nine months, with a bed or without one. Damned if he was going to worry about this tonight. The right half of the room was clearly taken by another student, a neatly made bed lengthwise against the wall and a wooden desk and bookcase in the corner by the window. The left half of the room, though, had been transformed into something like a living room, the desk buried under a mammoth TV/DVD/stereo set up and the bedâ
was his bed, damn itâtransformed into a couch via a shitload of pillows.
Seriously. He didn't even know they made pillows in that shape, long narrow cylinders that lined the length of the bed against the wall, with another manic spread of throw pillows smothering the whole thing. The entire setup looked comfortable enough to have him knocked out and unconscious in seconds. But judging by the coordinated frigging color scheme, his new roomie might not be the kind of guy who appreciated an unwashed, smelly dude passing out on his designer blankets.
He thought of the one set of shitty sheets stuffed deep in his duffle bag and wondered whether he'd pass out first if he had to dig them out and make a bed before he could go to sleep.
He bent down and started tugging on the zipper. No sense bitching about it. Just get it done. He could leave a note on the door maybe, so his roommate knew not to wake him up. Assuming he wasn't stuck with some asshole who would take that as some kind of challenge.
If anyone woke him before dawn, he'd cut their arms off with his teeth.
Now, where the fuck were those sheets?
He heard the door open behind him, but his reaction times were so slow with the need for sleep he was still figuring out what that sound was when the light tenor voice smacked him from behind.
“Not that I don't appreciate the view, babe, but what the hell?”
Tom stood up and turned so fast that his head spun and he put out a hand to steady himself. The kid who'd moved up right behind him jerked back and pulled his hands up in front of his chest, his head leaning back even farther. Almost as if he thought Tom was coming at him.
The kid so clearly didn't want to be touched that Tom yanked his hand, about to grab the guy's arm for balance, back to his own shoulder and then had to catch himself before he stumbled and tripped over his own feet.
“Sorry,” he muttered, not entirely sure what he was apologizing for. Probably for being here, which by the look on the kid's face, was not cause for a happy happy, joy joy party.
His roommate, he assumed, grimaced and waved a hand in the air as if to say,
He looked at Tom for a minute, not saying a word. Finally he raised an eyebrow and looked pointedly from Tom to the half-opened duffle on the floor, wrinkled clothes spilling out like the stuffing from an old couch with a split in the seat.
Tom looked back at him. Caught himself leaning forward and drifting into an upright snooze after a moment and stood up again.
What were they talking about?
“Dude.” The kid waved a hand in front of Tom's face.
Wake up, guy.
“What the hell are you doing in my room?”
Oh right. Introductions.
“I'm your roommate.” He couldn't tell if it was shock or irritation on the kid's face. What the fuck was his name again? They'd put it on the sheet with the rest of the info, while apologizing that they didn't have a single for him like most of the Perkins students enjoyed, but all Tom could remember was 23B. Damn. Way to make a good impression. “Sorry. Tom.” He stuck his hand out.
“Aww, hell no.” The kid had the grace to look a little abashed when Tom took a step back at his vehement denial. But he didn't back down. “I do
have a roommate. The dean promised me a single. I've been here for three days. Nobody told me anything about a roommate.”
Tom would've felt bad for him if he weren't so fucking exhausted. Screw the pillows. He'd just lie down on the floor and wrap himself up in a sweatshirt if he had to.
“Sorry, man. The paper says 23B.” He held up the crumpled letter he'd kept in his wallet for two months. Almost jerked it away when the kid reached for it. He had to remind himself that he was actually here, back at school after being gone for fifteen months, and he didn't need that letter any more to prove it to himself. He let go.
“Shit. Shit.” The kid glared at the letter and started pacing back and forth between Tom and the door, as if he were thinking about busting out into the hall and calling for help to remove the intruder from his room. “But they
When he looked up for one unguarded moment, Tom was shocked to see his eyes glitter with tears that weren't allowed to spill over carefully applied black liner around thickly lashed eyes. That struck Tom as unusual enough to inspire him to take an actual look at his new roommate.
The kid looked like some kind of skinny British rock star, tight black jeans slung low and held up with a studded metal belt. He wore a skintight T-shirt with a band name on it that Tom was sure he should recognize. Bright green Chuck Taylors and a wrist cuff that matched the belt. Straight jet black hair that spilled over his face, blocking most of one eye, giving an odd pirate effect to his glares, which he was shoveling in Tom's direction like a pile of shit that needed to be tossed out of a stable.
Tom felt irritation give an adrenaline jump-start to his system. Fuck. If he got into an argument with this kid, it'd rile him up and take him that much longer to settle down and get to sleep. He was too tired to hold up his end of a debate. He'd end up lying there, wherever
turned out to be, and he was not kidding about the floor, coming up with all his good one-liners long after they'd stopped talking to each other and become the kind of roommates that had to draw a line with tape down the middle of the room and forbid each other to cross it.
The kid was still pushing back at him, now practically throwing the letter in his face.
“Listen, I don't know why they sent you that, that, piece of crap in epistolary form, but the dean promised me a single and I guarantee you this is a mistake.” He crossed his arms over his slim chest and nodded.
“Great, kid. I'm thrilled for you. Even though I don't have the faintest fucking clue what you're talking about.” New rule: People using big words when he was dead tired would be shot. “But it's nine p.m. on Sunday night. Nobody's gonna straighten this out until tomorrow morning. So, since I have a freaking piece of paper that says I should sleep here, maybe I can justâ” a huge yawn ripped out of his mouth, catching him off guard mid-sentence, “âsorry, sleep here.”
He saw the doubt creeping in halfway through his little speech. Really, there was nothing they could do about it tonight. Maybe in the morning he'd find out that the school had come up with a single for him after all. Good news all around, if so.
After the months where he couldn't set foot outside his front door without being swarmed by people, Tom was looking to fly low and solo under the radar. A nice anonymous single room, no matter how small and crappy, in an off-campus dorm where no one knew him would be a fucking slice of heaven.
But that was tomorrow. No chance for good news tonight. And he wanted to sleep, goddamn it.
“Please. If I don't get some sleep, I'm gonna die.” Begging was not at all out of the question.
Maybe being too tired to argue was gonna work in his favor. His maybe temporary roommate sighed and directed the air up to blow his bangs out of his eyes. The kid looked at the bed with regret.
“I have my own sheets,” Tom offered. “I won't mess up your things. If you tell me where I can put your pillows and stuff for tonight. Bet they can figure this out tomorrow.”
He didn't know why he wasn't telling this kid to fuck off and leave him alone to sack out on the bed that by rights belonged to him. Maybe because of those suspiciously shiny eyes, clear now, in that moment when the kid had seen that Tom's letter was real, crumpled and faded with re-readings though it was. For whatever reason, he wasn't looking to pick a fight or try to muscle his way into making this kid back down.
He just wanted to stop moving for one night. One night under a roof that belonged to him, even temporarily.
In the end, the kid was too nice to make a big stink out of an unpleasant situation. Tom could see the moment his resistance gave up the ghost, at least for tonight. His shoulders dropped from where they'd been lodged up around his ears and his hands relaxed, hung loose and open at his sides.
“Ahh, fuck it.” His voice, when he stopped bristling with anger, was lower. Smoother. “Just, let me do it. Okay? Go, get a snack or something. It'll be ready in fifteen minutes.” He eyed the bed-cum-sofa again. “Make it twenty.”
In the end, he told Tom about the bar across the street that served decent food and beer in glasses that weren't dirty.
“Not that I've been there. Ten more months to go,” he said as he held the door open, silently pushing Tom out of it and pressing up against the wall as he squeezed by. And that was weird, because Perkins House was supposed to be for older returning students who didn't want to put up with the chaos and noise of the dorms. Or for scandal-ridden students like Tom, who the college would just as soon keep out of sight. The door was almost shut when Tom turned back for a second.
“Hey, kid!” The crack widened and the kid looked out, most of his body hidden behind the door. “What's your name again?”
“Reese. Reese Anders.”
He didn't stick a hand out. Just shut the door.
Tom abandoned his duffle with a kid whose name he'd known for all of three seconds and headed across the street.
At the bar, he slid his ass onto the cracked red vinyl of a round stool and groaned at the sight of two dozen microbrews on tap. The bartender was old and grizzled around the jaw, chewing on a mangled stir stick. Tom ordered a pint of whatever was cheapest on tap, flushing a little but aware that whatever was left in his wallet had to last him until he could get back to the city for a couple of nights driving over the next weekend. When the bartender carded him, he didn't know whether or not to hope the man blamed his cheapness on his barely legal age or not. He'd be turning twenty-two this winter, but he felt about a hundred and three. If he could make enough cash on the weekends, legitimate cab driving or gypsying it, he could focus on his classes during the week. But his budget wasn't going to allow for much more than ramen noodles and generic two-liters of soda this year, so he might as well get over feeling shitty about looking cheap right now.
He also hadn't eaten since that morning. When the bartender slapped a pint of something pale as straw on the coaster that was obviously going for a third or fourth use, Tom added a basket of cheese fries to his tab.
He'd grown used to eating crap in the last year. Amazing how expensive it was to eat good food. But junk was cheap wherever you went.
He started nodding off over his fries with a half a pint still sitting in front of him.
“Hey, kid.” For a second, he thought he was listening to himself talk to Reese. The guy made him feel ancient. Probably the same for the bartender, watching him. “Go on home before you faceplant in that grease. G'wan.”
He stood, streamed the rest of his beer down his open throat in one long swallow, and pushed the glass and two dollars for a tip toward the rail.
Back at the room, Reese was nowhere in sight. Probably went to rustle up some friends and bitch about the asshole who'd showed up in his nice, put-together room. Which was only fair if he hadn't been expecting a roomie. But most of the pillows were gone from the bed and the countertop cleared off the second dresser in the room. Tom's shitty sheets must still be in his duffle, because the bed was made up with a matching set of some kind of semi-shiny bronze sheets and pillowcases on the two more obviously made for a bed pillows.
A folded piece of white notebook paper stood out on one of the pillows.