Draw Me In
Jesse has a plan for love, and Brick isn't it.
Following his recent military retirement, the next chapter of Bainbridge “Brick” Hausman’s life has begun. He’s relocated to Texas to teach JROTC at the high school where his best friend, Zach, is principal and is ready to embrace his bisexuality after a long-overdue divorce. But for a man accustomed to structure and control, change is overwhelming.
Art teacher Jesse Berry’s school year isn’t off to a great start. He doesn’t trust his principal or the tank-sized JROTC instructor who seems to enjoy pushing his buttons. To keep an eye on a vulnerable student, he’s helping Brick coach the Academic Olympiad team instead of searching for true love. Yet their sizzling chemistry is undeniable, and they agree to some extracurricular fun. Until fun isn’t enough for Jesse. He’s ready to draw Brick into the husband-shaped placeholder in his fantasy life plan.
But Brick’s new life plan is still a blank page. All he knows is he wants Jesse and is in no hurry to take a repeat trip down the aisle. Brick’s not great at compromise and Jesse won’t sacrifice his vision, but with a little faith and patience, maybe they can create a picture-perfect future together.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: acceptance, angst, bullying, coming out, commitment, divorce, duty, enemies to lovers, family, fitting in, homophobia / transphobia, jocks / athletes, kids, military, politics / power struggle, protection, self-confidence, trust issues, workplace romance
I hoisted the lone remaining cardboard box to the kitchen table with the elation of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. The box cutter sliced through the multiple layers of tape as quickly as the first thousand. I inhaled and pushed out the breath slowly, pulled the flaps free, and peered inside. Oh, wonderful! Yet another mystery box my ex-wife, Jane, allowed the military to cart across the country for no reason other than she thought I should have helped unpack more when we were together. Cursing, I separated the copious amounts of paper from the contents—piece by piece, unwrapping old mail and the remains of a kitchen junk drawer from three addresses ago.
“It’s outdated, but it has good bones.” Zach Robinson, my oldest friend, strolled into the kitchen. He glanced around, apparently at the conclusion of his self-guided tour, displaying the same apprehensive expression I’d worn the first time I laid eyes on my new place.
I huffed. “Yeah, like us.” The house was from an era not long after we were born, but the previous owners had updated it about fifteen years ago. It was bad, but not quite “avocado green appliances” bad.
“Speaking of old. What’s with the gray?” I pointed to the salt-and-pepper hairs on his chin that had been reddish-brown when I’d last seen him a few months ago. I should have known he’d be one of the lucky bastards made more attractive by it.
“You don’t like it?” He stroked his beard.
I shrugged without answering, but he flashed a toothy grin that said he knew he looked good. “This place is exactly what I need. It’s turnkey, but chock-full of distractions. I’ve got a few projects planned before school starts.”
“I hope that gold wallpaper and red paint in the master is on the list.”
“Absolutely,” I answered, shuffling through the mail and setting aside anything that appeared remotely Army-related. Then I dumped all the paper, inconsequential flyers, and junk back into the carton. “Just a second.”
I made my way to the garage, sorted the contents between the recycling and trash container, broke down the box, and stacked it with the others. Exhaling a breath of relief, I surveyed the well-organized space. There. Done.
When I returned to the kitchen, Zach dangled a piece of junk mail I must have overlooked in front of me with a mischievous smile. “You missed one, Bainbridge,” he chuffed, still as amused by my legal first name as the day he’d learned it.
I shot him a knock-it-off expression accompanied by my middle finger. “You’re never allowed to call me that.”
His smile broke into a laugh, and I was filled with a warm sense of nostalgia. It was going to be nice living near Zach again. He was one of the few people in my life who knew the real me, even if that meant he could use that information against me occasionally. Lifelong friendship came with those sort of privileges.
Zach dropped the letter on the stack, and then picked up the pile. “Toss these?”
“No. I’ll shred them later. Want a beer?” I opened the fridge and placed a chilled bottle in Zach’s outstretched hand, led him to the sliding door, and stepped out on the sun-drenched deck. The weather was warm, but not uncomfortably so for Texas in early May.
“Sit.” I offered him a cushion for the new patio chairs. They cost a fortune, but I’d always loved outdoor living. One of the few vices Jane allowed me had been smoking a cigar on the patio in the evenings. It’d always been the best part of my day, even after my mother’s lung cancer diagnosis caused me to quit smoking.
Zach plopped onto the lounge chair, toed off his shoes, and put his feet up. His pasty-white legs extending from khaki cargo shorts created quite the contrast to his tanned arms. “Finally, time to relax and kick back, eh? This is what I thought ‘come over and see my place’ would be all about. I arrived an hour too early.”
Grabbing an extra pillow to support my back, I mirrored his position. “For the record, this was the plan.” I gestured around the deck. Why the previous owners had chosen to add an outdoor kitchen and kick-ass sound system before updating the inside remained a mystery, but it sold the place for me, so I supposed their strategy had worked. “It took me forever to get that damn garage put together, and you’ve seen how I like my shit organized.”
His brow peaked, and I knew he was thinking of the time he’d shown up unexpectedly at our place in Virginia about three years ago. It was a month after Jane and I had moved in. I’d been down at Fort Benning the week before and hadn’t unpacked, let alone cleaned. “That was all Jane.”
Zach laughed with a knowing smile. “Without you, that woman will end up on one of those hoarding shows.”
I tilted my head back and cast an amused smile in Zach’s direction. Jane was famously not a great housekeeper, which was a frequent source of aggravation in my life, but to the limited extent I’d had a “bash the ex” phase, it was over. I sipped my beer, imagining Jane’s new life in Maine. She’d gotten herself a job at a retail shop and, true to form, had made a gaggle of new friends. “She’ll be fine.”
Zach didn’t take the hint. He rehashed in Jane-like detail how unfair he thought our settlement was, particularly her share of my pension. Most of it was residual bitterness from his own divorce six years earlier, so I let him vent. There was no point trying to explain to him yet again that our situations were not the same. Zach’s ex had done him dirty, ripping apart both his heart and bank account on her way to another man. Jane and I had both known my retirement would be the end of the road for us. Our physical and emotional relationship had ended long before our legal one.
We were, dare I say, friends? Eh. We were getting there.
I only knew we were both trying not to harbor any resentment. The woman could have authored a how-to book on being a perfect military spouse. She learned the lingo, became an expert at navigating bureaucracy, and never missed a chance to flatter my chain of command or offer support to other spouses. I owed it to her to stick it out until our twentieth anniversary so she’d keep her spousal benefits and, yeah, max out her split of my pension. As far as I was concerned, she’d earned them, same as me. I didn’t begrudge her a fresh start. Our marriage was a little like that last box—we hauled it around from city to city because it was easier than offloading it, but I wouldn’t miss it.
“So, what else do you have planned for your summer?”
I’d been hotly anticipating having the ability to meet someone, invite them back to mine, and see where things led, but Zach didn’t need to know that. Gesturing to the vast empty lot behind the deck, I chuckled. “Definitely landscaping, and I have a few other minor projects here and there to keep me from losing my mind.”
Zach’s ears perked up. I knew that expression.
He took a swig, grinning roguishly around the head of his beer bottle. “So remember that whole debacle I told you about with Craig Nelms last month?”
“Is that the teacher that you fired? I thought you found someone to finish up the year.”
Zach nodded, his lips pursed in disgust. “I hired a permanent sub to take his classes, but Craig wasn’t only a history teacher, he coached the Academic Olympiad team, and since you’re officially a—”
My hands shot up as though I could physically stop the words from leaving his mouth. “No way. I don’t even know what that is, but I’m nervous about teaching JROTC enough already. Let me crawl before I walk.”
Zach huffed. “But you’d be perfect for it, and it’s actually a great program. The kids practically do all the work themselves. Jared Armstrong and Peter Lim would love you. Peter is JROTC battalion commander this year and applying to West Point. Jared is headed to the Ivy Leagues. He’s been on the team all three years. These are some of the most self-motivated students at Northridge.”
“If it’s so easy, why doesn’t an experienced teacher take over?”
Zach frowned. “Okay, I can’t lie . . . it’s intense. Most of my faculty have families or already have clubs or activities they sponsor. Craig didn’t exactly play well with others, so no one was eager to help him. But Northridge High has gone to the State competition three times in the last ten years and once to Nationals. Trust me, the superintendent notices these things.”
“Nationals?” I snorted. “So this is a whole thing?”
“Oh yeah. It’s a big competition. Think National Spelling Bee-level pressure. Each team comprises six students, three girls and three boys. The kids that win State get $50,000 college scholarships.”
I whistled. “Damn. But if these are the brightest kids in the school, don’t they already get scholarships?”
“They aren’t necessarily the smartest kids. They have academic weaknesses too. The rules say you have to have two students with no better than a B average and two kids with no better than a C average. I hope I can find someone to take over. Northridge isn’t exactly an affluent community, and fifty grand would make a big difference to these kids . . .”
I launched a pointed stare at his aggressive sales pitch. He paused and flashed his boyish Who me? smile. The one that always ended with me getting in trouble, or him getting laid, or—in one particularly regretful night—both.
“Knock it off with the puppy-dog eyes. I said no.”
“Okay.” He took a gulp, trying to wait me out in silence. When I leveled a this won’t work glare at him, he chuckled. “But is this the same no you gave me when I wanted to move the Virgin Mary statue into Father James’ bed at St. Bartholomew?”
I cracked up with the memory of one of Zach’s better pranks. “No.”
He bobbed his head a few times, no doubt taking the time to plan his attack. Zach wasn’t one to go down swinging, but that was only because he usually got his way without expending that much effort. Thankfully, his cocky smile didn’t do shit for me anymore.
“So it’s more like the no you gave me when I told you to get your teacher’s license so you can head up the JROTC program and move your ass to Northridge, Texas.”
I made a disagreeable noise, although he was right. I’d turned down Zach’s suggestion initially, multiple times, but then Jane announced she was moving to Maine, and I realized I had no reason to stay in Virginia. “That smirk of yours will get you punched one day. No, this will not be another thing you talk me into.”
“You offend my smirk. We’ve made it to forty-six without getting decked.”
“What about Melissa Villanueva’s dad?”
He tsked and rubbed his jaw with the memory. “That punch was because he caught me deflowering his daughter. The smirk came later when I was telling you and the guys all about it.”
My laugh into the neck of my beer whistled back, and I shook my head. “Forty-six and still a punk.”
“Hey, just because you married the girl you lost your virginity to . . . Oh shit.” Zach sat upright suddenly and grabbed my forearm with a wide-eyed expression that gave me heartburn. “New summer project idea! We have to get you laid.”
I choked on the rush of acid licking the back of my throat. “Um . . . No.”
He angled toward me. “Come on, man. You gave Jane a respectable courtesy period. She’s two thousand miles away. You’ve only been with one woman. It’s my duty as your oldest friend.”
“Zach . . .”
“C’mon. Brick. You’re an attractive guy. Ladies of Northridge will be all over you.”
“Zach.” Any of my subordinates would have heard my tone as a warning to knock it off, but not Zach. He rambled on about all the women he could fix me up with. Unprepared to go into details, I tried saying nothing until I couldn’t anymore.
“Zach,” I spat out and heaved an irritated sigh. “I’m not looking for ladies.”
He stared at me, his mouth gaping. I held his gaze for a few seconds to give him time to process, but it was clear his disbelief wasn’t going anywhere. I rolled my eyes hard. “You, of all people, shouldn’t be shocked.”
“But you married Jane.”
“Did you think it cured me from being bisexual?”
Zach stiffened. “No. I . . . I’m sorry. I assumed you had decided since you were into women too, you would . . . It was dumb. Sorry.” He twisted, slung his feet up again, and leaned back. Arms behind his head, he fixed his eyes intently on the sky.
So, I guess I was going there. “It’s fine. And I never mentioned it because of Jane, but it’s not like I didn’t explore that side of me for the last twenty years.”
“You cheated on Jane?” Another audible intake of air reminded me of the reasons I’d never corrected his perceptions of my marriage. Understandably, Zach could be sensitive about that topic, given his ex’s adultery. I should have eased him into this part, but what the hell? I was over being discreet, especially with my oldest friend.
“Jane and I had an arrangement.”
He trained one skeptical eye on me. “What kind of arrangement?”
“The kind that left both of us free to get our physical needs met elsewhere.”
“You both cheated!” He sat up again, judgment rolling off of him in waves, but I refused to feel bad. Any guilt or shame I had, I’d worked through years ago. An open relationship had worked best for both of us.
“No,” I said calmly. “She wanted the flexibility to explore as much as I did, so after they ended DADT, we agreed on the rules, the most important being discretion.”
“So you only—” he made a finger in hole gesture “—with men now.”
“Look. I’m out of the closet. I’m not in the market for a second wife any more than a first husband. I want to enjoy the freedom to pursue whoever catches my eye, but lately my eyes have been heavily seeking men. That going to be a problem?”
“No, of course not.” The words didn’t match his rigid body language, but I knew he’d get there. Not unlike the first moment I’d come out to him, we sat there together, in uncomfortable silence. When he took a sip of his empty bottle, shifting nervously, I put him out of his misery.
“You get two questions to help wrap your head around this.”
He smiled relief and without hesitation asked, “Are you still . . .” His pained expression was the only thing I needed to finish the sentence, but he gestured to himself anyway.
“Have I been hiding feelings for you for thirty years?” I released a hearty laugh. It was so like Zach to go there first. “Not even a little. You may have been my first crush, but I’m definitely not interested in straight guys. Besides, you’re not my type.”
“First, fuck you. I’m everyone’s type.” We both laughed, and I appreciated he was trying to recover from his earlier awkwardness. He was good like that. “Second, what is your type?”
I bit my lip as I contemplated his question and tried to picture the guys that had drawn my attention of late, but a single image didn’t come. The bars in a military town weren’t a safe option, so I’d made an early decision to keep my explorations professional. Literally. No chance of broken hearts or misunderstandings. While escorts didn’t offer ironclad guarantees of client confidentiality, it sure beat the odds of random hookups. Not that I wanted to explain any of that to Zach. “Is that really how you want to use your second question?”
“No.” He snorted. “I guess I want to know how that works? Like you only want a guy now? Does that mean you’re gay?”
“No. It means I’m still bisexual, but . . .” I stopped, pondering a Zach-friendly way to explain it. “Look. I married Jane because I loved her. Our issues had nothing to do with a lack of attraction. She was a beautiful woman. Still is. But on some subconscious level, I guess I proposed because I didn’t want to deal with myself. Getting caught with a guy back then would have ended my career, and being married gave me a good reason to not think about it. We rushed in. Too different and too young to realize we didn’t want the same things.”
Zach nodded sympathetically. He knew Jane and I were totally different people. She hated exploring a new city, and anything remotely outdoorsy or cultural bored her to tears. She much preferred socializing with friends and shopping, which I loathed. As we neared my retirement, staying together had felt like a prison sentence neither of us had earned.
“Jane and I dealt with our arrangement as a sexual outlet. Since our divorce, I’ve realized it’s bigger than that. At this point, I’d like to find someone I connect with and who turns me on to spend time with. That could be a woman, but I’ve always suspected I’d be happier with a man.” I sighed heavily and found comfort in Zach’s earnest expression. “I’m not straight and I don’t want to look back at my entire life and regret not living that truth.”
Zach’s face split into a grin. “Dude, if Brick Hausman is going to talk about living his truth, I’m going to need another beer.”
Chuckling, I retrieved another round and turned the conversation into something way less deep. We ordered a pizza and talked about the upcoming school year into the wee hours of the night. Zach was good like that. We’d been friends since we were teens, and he’d been a huge motivator in the second career I was about to embark on, but he wasn’t the guy you poured your heart out to. Especially not a rainbow-colored heart. I wasn’t trying to change the nature of our friendship after thirty-some years.
But after he’d left, I lay in bed staring at the truly horrendous wallpaper, thinking about what I wanted in this new stage of life. The evening had given my vague feelings of longing some clarity. I wanted to date a man. Jesus, that thought was overwhelming. I was forty-six years old and had dated no one since I’d met Jane. Where did I even begin?
“It’s clear in the flyer. Students must submit at least four finished pieces before they can take my AP class. Zach acted like it was my fault registrations were messed up.” Olivier Lesueur, one of the few coworkers I actually socialized with, nodded along as I ranted about our boss.
I grabbed the top rung of the ladder and stepped up, stretching my arm as far as it would go. Olivier fed me another section of the gorgeous three-dimensional floral panel I was installing to hide the institutional-gray paint.
“This is too heavy. Hand me that bigger fastener. I’ll need to hook this part to the ceiling.”
“Jesse,” Olivier chastised me. “Nothing should go in the ceiling tiles. They covered that about a million times. Mr. Samuel had to repair six classroom ceilings last year.”
Undeterred, I shook my hand at my desk until he handed it over. I was careful as I secured the installation and climbed down from the ladder. I took a moment to enjoy the flow of the piece and the way it obscured the drab portable wall that was better suited for inspiring arson than creativity. “Well, what do you think?”
Olivier stepped back, his eyes roaming critically. “Magnifique,” he said with a perfect French accent. “But the second Mr. Samuel sees it, he will take it down, so I don’t understand why you bother.”
I growled. Ever since they’d exiled me to the portables, it had been one custodial conflict after the other. “Mr. Samuel hates me for no reason.”
Olivier disagreed with a huff. “You bit his head off over the storage closet fiasco.”
“I didn’t bite his head off. How do they expect my students to do their best work with this prison motif they’ve sequestered us in?”
“Better find a way to deal with it, because we’re definitely not getting any more space until the TRE passes. You think last year’s budget cuts were bad? Next year will be a bloodbath.”
I shuddered at the thought. The Tax Rate Election, or TRE, was to fund a new elementary school and a math and science building, in addition to critical building repairs and program support. It was going to the voters in November. “If Zach cuts electives again, I swear I’m changing careers. I’ll work with Sierra at the Artsy Soul and give pottery lessons to preschoolers before I make one more concession. I am absolutely not combining the AP classes.”
With a sympathetic quirk of his lip, Olivier took a seat at my desk. “I’m sure Sierra would love to have her best friend with her, but unless you’re open to a volunteer position, I wouldn’t bank on that plan. The Artsy Soul is barely covering her salary these days. I’m not exactly sitting pretty with these latest changes either. French enrollment dropped thirty-five percent across the district.”
“I should have introduced her to a rich man,” I quipped.
“Too late. She’s mine.” He wiggled his ring finger, showing off his gold wedding band. Olivier checked his watch and stood, feet angled toward the door. “We need to get a move on. Faculty meeting starts in ten minutes.”
“Oh, good. Another tedious jeopardy game to see if we read the handbook.”
As usual, Olivier didn’t react to my sarcasm. He bumped the door with his hip and waited for me to wash my hands and grab my bag. On the way out, he gave me an uncharacteristically stern look. “You’ve made enemies of the principal, the custodian, and half the staff. Will you at least try to play nice this year? For me. S’íl teplait.”
My nose wrinkled. Despite my reputation, I never intended to be difficult, but my coworkers didn’t make it easy. “I’ll try to be nice, but I’m going to stand up for myself. Always.”
In the six years Zach Robinson had been Northridge High principal, I’d come to hate faculty meetings. Actually, hate might be too kind. I loathed them.
My mood improved ever so slightly when Olivier and I ran into Monique, who taught foreign languages with Olivier, and Marie and Tessa, my art and music teammates. It was hard not to catch their infectious energy as we caught up from the Summer and found our seats. They were the sort of teachers that inspired me and reminded me of why I’d chosen my career. Their optimism even carried me for about thirty minutes into Zach’s meeting when I heard the dreaded words.
“Don’t forget we’re here for the kids.”
I couldn’t recall a single faculty meeting where Zach hadn’t uttered that phrase. This time the comment came after he’d finished outlining two new policies that, “we were basically already doing anyway,” that we were absolutely not all doing.
Translation: Stop complaining.
It was such a belittling statement. My colleagues and I hadn’t had a raise in three years. He was delusional if he thought anyone was here for a reason other than the kids.
My hand shot in the air, and Olivier served me a warning glance accompanied by a chorus of sighs from the entire English department.
Zach’s head dipped to check his watch. “Yes, Mr. Berry.”
I did my best to be reasonable. “I appreciate the concern about propping doors open, but could you make an exception for the art teachers because the paint fumes overwhelm the portables? We don’t have the high ceilings like they do in the J building.”
“Since your concern is limited to the art program, can we discuss this after the meeting?” Poorly controlled frustration dripped from Zach’s tone.
I nodded, and Zach avoided my eye contact as he moved on in his agenda.
“Teachers, I realize you have a lot going on, but we had abysmal compliance with completing syllabus uploads by last Monday. We invested heavily in technology because it was the number one concern of our families. They asked us for better communication. When we issue deadlines, parents rely on those announcements.” I glanced at Olivier and a few other faces, but everyone seemed to accept the lazy teacher narrative Zach loved to dish out. Well, not me. My hand returned to the air.
“Yes, Mr. Berry.”
“The parent portal was down all weekend.”
Zach’s eyes started an upward track, but he caught himself before he fully rolled them at me. “Other teachers met the deadline.”
I explained as calmly as I could how the outage had impacted us and detailed the process that was far from the simple task he’d represented. Murmurs of agreement ran through the crowd. Then there was another swell of dissent as the teachers that had been successful tried to assist those who hadn’t.
Olivier raised his hand, casting a remorseful glance in my direction. “I finished mine. They told us in the training you have to remove the percent sign from all the averages. Enter everything as a decimal even though the field help text says to enter as a percent. Did you do that?”
I was still processing the tire tracks rolling over my back when an angel in the last row shouted, “They didn’t cover that in my training. What training did you have, Olivier?”
The topic devolved into mass confusion as we realized some people got in-person training and others watched a video.
“Okay, everyone. Please.” Zach’s voice carried above the throng and quieted the frenzy, but his eyes zeroed in on me. Which, screw that. All I did was point out that he shouldn’t be blaming teachers for things beyond our control. We had enough shit to deal with. “Please, guys. I will check into the training issue. Let’s return to the agenda. Classes start in one week, and I have several clubs and extracurriculars that need faculty sponsors . . .”
A deep, low laugh rumbled behind me as Zach moved on. I shifted in my seat to catch a glimpse at the source. The guy was huge—tall and built like a statue of Zeus come to life. His shirt and tie amongst the jeans and T-shirt crowd screamed, I’m from administration. Whoever he was, he was new. There was no chance I hadn’t noticed him last year.
Thick eyebrows jumped when he caught me glowering at him, but his expression registered more amusement than commiseration over our principal, so I returned my attention to the front of the room. His gaze weighed on the back of my neck as I tried and failed to keep my mouth closed. Whenever I said anything, I could hear his suppressed sounds of enjoyment, which I couldn’t quite interpret. Was he laughing with me or at me? It was hard to tell, but he sure found the dull meeting hilarious. Unable to resist my curiosity, I snuck another glance over my shoulder, covertly taking in as many details as I could.
Who was he?
When my first faculty meeting concluded, Zach became engaged in what appeared to be a heated discussion with the art teachers. Figuring that he’d be tied up for a while, I refamiliarized myself with my new workplace.
Northridge High School was a sprawling campus of one- and two-story buildings, connected by covered walkways. A spattering of parking lots seemed to fill all the open spaces. Except for the lack of security, it appeared much the same as my old workplace, with aging buildings interspersed with newer ones.
The administration offices and cafeteria were in A building, which served as the main entrance and was original to the school. The letters progressed alphabetically as the buildings moved out from there, with some oddities thrown in to keep me from getting too confident. The J building, where my classroom was located, was across the large parking lot adjacent to the F building, a much-older two-story building that housed the math and science classrooms. Behind it was the school football field and a track. To the east was a row of portables labeled K through O on the map.
The midafternoon sun beat down on me as I crossed the blacktop. I rolled up my sleeves, cursing my decision to wear a shirt and tie, then adjusted the computer bag I’d slung over my shoulder. When I reached the J building, I checked my watch. Seven minutes at a good clip. Guess I wouldn’t be using the teachers’ lounge in the A building for my thirty-minute lunch breaks.
The JROTC classroom was large and flanked by a wall of south-facing windows. On the back wall were pictures of the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Army. Sergeant Major Grant had left posters that emphasized good citizenship, uniform standards, and the various ribbons and awards handed out for students.
I took a seat at my desk and mindlessly opened the drawers. The only contents were a stack of postcard-size laminated cards printed with the Cadet Creed. I ran my fingers over the smooth edges and read it.
I am an Army Junior ROTC Cadet.
I will always conduct myself to bring credit to my family, country, school and the Corps of Cadets.
I am loyal and patriotic.
I am the future of the United States of America.
My brain tripped over that one line, transporting me back to high school, when thoughts of joining the Army filled me with all the good feelings. Every value in that creed had spoken to my younger self—honesty, integrity, good citizenship, accountability, patriotism, hard work, and leadership. I was the kid that fell asleep staring at a Be All You Can Be poster and not only because it had a picture of a hot guy on it.
May God grant me the strength to always live by this creed.
Something hit me sharply in the chest, shrapnel from the near lifetime of memories that had exploded into my consciousness. Forcing my brain to relive all the hope, anticipation, fear, and disappointment from my career all at once.
I’d bought the complete package. I wasn’t regretful about my career, exactly. Or cynical, even. While life as a soldier hadn’t lived up to all the “Mom and apple pie” dreams I’d once had, the Army had given me a lot and taken from me far less than I’d been willing to sacrifice for it. I’d had a good, rewarding career, and I’d retired with my mind and body intact. The Army was still giving to me now—a second career. A chance to mentor kids.
Emotions flooded into my psyche like they were pouring out of an open faucet. I took a few wet, deep breaths and tried to get my shit together. These kids were the future, and somehow Zach and the Army thought it’d be a good idea for me to prepare them. To instill in them a value system that had served our country well for generations.
This was real.
I mopped up my wet eyes and summoned the same level of enthusiasm and confidence I’d had when I accepted my ROTC scholarship. I put aside all my reservations and focused on my mission.
I got moving, organizing tables and moving flags to the back of the room near the door so they’d be more convenient for the color guard to take outside for drills. I worked on my seating charts and made a list of tasks for the cadet commander’s addressing, starting with the charlie foxtrot going on in the small office next to my classroom.
Zach had warned me I’d be in for a major reorganization, and he wasn’t kidding. The room had barely any shelving. Boxes of all sizes were precariously stacked on the floor and desk like a nearly over Jenga game. I’d be hard-pressed to locate anything, let alone safely remove it. The whole structure would collapse.
I looked around for something on-hand that might aid organization, unsure of the protocol for acquisitions. Given the temperament of the faculty meeting, I didn’t think the Army standard practice of acquiring whatever your fellow soldiers left unattended would go over well. I tabled that decision in favor of rearranging a few other things to make the classroom feel more mine. Since I walked when I talked, I made an aisle for pacing and moved the pictures of current officeholders out of my line of sight.
“Settling in?” Zach asked from the doorway, loosening his tie, clearly amused by my intensity. His suit jacket was off, but he wasn’t nearly as disheveled as I was.
“Attempting to,” I said, straightening and stretching my back. “Hey. Who is in charge of acquisitions and logistics? Is that you?”
Zach’s lips pursed, and he smacked them like he did when he was thinking. “What for?”
“Come with me.” I walked to the small office and attempted to fling open the door, which was immediately met with the boxes on the other side and swung back. I shot out my hand to stop it, and Zach and I slid into the opening.
“This will not work.” I pointed to the pile of supplies I had no room for that had grown with my other reorganization efforts. “I need shelves and storage space.”
“Well, first, I’d suggest talking to Jesse Berry about the shared closet space. It’s honestly where most of this stuff should be. Sergeant Major Grant found it easier to give up his office than fight Berry over the space after a skirmish last year. There is a district surplus area you have to check before you can order anything, but if you’re nice to Mr. Samuel, he can keep an eye out for something that might work.”
I nodded, laughing softly. “Berry? That’s the guy who had the vein bulging on your forehead, right?”
Zach nodded curtly. “The same. Talented teacher. Royal pain in my ass.”
“Now, now, Zach. Don’t forget we’re here for the kids.” I did my best impression of his condescending tone.
Zach pursed his lips. “I don’t sound like that.”
I slapped him on the shoulder. “You kind of do, my friend. I was reading the room, and I got to say it went over about as well as telling a bunch of corporals to ‘be all they can be’ when I needed them to dig latrines.”
Zach’s unamused expression was enough for me to back off. It would take adjustment to remember he wasn’t simply a friend anymore, but my actual boss. “C’mon.” I lassoed my arm around his shoulder. “You promised me a drink.”
I followed Zach outside and caught sight of Jesse Berry on the ramp between two portables, talking animatedly with a tall, dark-skinned man I recognized from the meeting. It appeared Jesse was giving him a piece of his mind too. Awfully intense facial expressions for a minor disagreement. I elbowed Zach. “Does he fight with everyone like that?”
Zach peeked up and when the other man noticed him, he waved and smiled. “That’s Olivier Lesueur.” Zach returned his wave.
“Olivier? As in Sir Laurence Olivier?”
Zach nodded, cringing. “Yeah. And definitely not a fan of being called Oliver, trust me. He teaches French. Good guy. Strong teacher. He and Berry are friends, so I imagine it isn’t fighting. Berry can be . . . passionate about certain topics. As you could undoubtedly tell from the meeting, he’s my resident shit-stirrer.”
Interesting. So Jesse was a hothead of sorts. My attention was drawn to his constantly moving hands. Since I’d been seated behind him during the meeting, other than the vague exchange of smiles, I hadn’t gotten a good look. I could see him clearly now as we walked toward the car.
He was handsome, if not conventionally so. On the shorter side with an average build. His facial features were sharp and way too intense for his bohemian style. Kind of like seeing one of the generals dressed up as a hippie for Halloween. It didn’t quite fit. He wasn’t someone that typically caught my eye, but there was something about him I found oddly captivating. Perhaps it was his passion or his outspokenness. Jane was no shirking violet, that was for sure.
The way Jesse dealt with Zach had gotten a small laugh out of me a few times. But watching him now, there was more to my interest than the way Jesse got that vein in Zach’s forehead bulging. Something about him made me want to see if I could redirect some of that passion toward me.
“You’ll want to buddy up to him when he gets to food week. You don’t want to miss the crêpes. It’s usually the week before fall break.”
I tuned back into Zach. “Sorry, what?”
“His students make crêpes as part of their French cultural studies.”
I shook my head to remove the rogue thoughts of Jesse Berry. The last thing I needed was to develop a crush on a coworker. Even if everything about him was totally working for me, it was a risky idea. If I’d learned anything from Jane’s insistence on discretion, it was you don’t shit where you eat.
Technically, the entire week before classes started were faculty workdays, but other than Zach’s welcome back faculty meeting and a few continuing education seminars, the schedule was pretty loose.
I cruised into the near-empty parking lot and secured my favorite spot—immediately outside my old classroom, under a large shade tree, and close to the handicap ramp. Full of enthusiasm, I used the handcart to wheel my summer accumulation of bargain finds and discounted bulk purchases from the Artsy Soul’s vendors to restock my closet.
Key in hand, I entered the J building, then proceeded to my storage area. Humming gently to myself, I stuck the key in the lock and . . . nothing. My heart sped up as I briefly considered someone had tampered with it again. My mind raced forward to a nightmare scenario where I couldn’t get in and was behind from the very first week. The lock appeared fine, so I tried again. “Damn it,” I muttered, turning the key as hard as I could without breaking it.
“That won’t work.”
“Oh, Jesus fuck,” I screamed, twisting to see the owner of the voice who had startled me. Disappointment hit me hard. First, because the body I’d been fantasizing about for days was draped in a military uniform, and second, because the dimple I’d spent an hour trying to capture from memory was on his right cheek instead of his left.
Hand still covering my racing heart, I glanced to both sides, grateful no one was around to overhear me swearing. I pulled myself together with an exhaled, “Sorry. I didn’t realize anyone else was in the building.”
“Didn’t mean to scare you. We haven’t met. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Hausman, the new JROTC instructor.” He extended a hand for me to shake, which I did. His face relaxed a bit. Damn, I’d got his eyebrows wrong too. They were much thicker and darker than I remembered and way more expressive than I’d done justice to.
“Jesse Berry. I teach the AP Studio Art Program. Welcome to Northridge.”
“May I . . .” He gestured to the door and without waiting for my response, stepped his imposing form in front of me.
I shuffled backward to make room, narrowly tripping over my handcart. “Oh. Um. I need to find the custodian. Someone changed my lock.”
“That was me. I understand you had issues with my predecessor.”
I nodded, although with his back to me he couldn’t have seen, and before I could get a word in, he continued, “I spoke to Mr. Samuel and attempted to get shelves for my office to store our supplies. Unfortunately, we could not because of the fire code.” He produced a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. Pushing it open, he gestured for me to enter first. “Since this was the only space allotted for our use and neither Mr. Samuel nor I had a key, I had your lock replaced.”
From outside the door, I could see the entire closet had been rearranged and brand-new shelves installed. I entered cautiously, trying to sort through my confusion among the meticulously arranged cubbies and boxes. “Is that a table?”
His lip quirked, and I couldn’t tell what about this gave him so much enjoyment. “Yes. Not only does this provide extra workspace, but it also serves as a neutral zone buffer. I have placed this sign here.” He flipped over the plastic stand so I could see it.
“No JROTC behind this table,” I read. My eyes whipped around the room, outrage growing as I noticed shiny white cards were under each section, half of which had neatly printed black labels and the other half messy handwritten scrawling I recognized as my old labels taped on top of new cards.
“Honestly, there was a lot of opportunity to maximize space. I don’t get what Sergeant Major Grant was thinking when he ordered those shelves.”
Offended, I huffed. “I ordered the original shelves. And I was thinking about what I needed for the art classes.”
“Noted. May I?” He gestured to my handcart and rolled it all the way into the room, lifting the boxes onto the table like they were full of feathers. The uniform didn’t show off his physique, but the effortless way he moved, after I’d broken a sweat loading it, gave my imagination plenty to work with.
“I’m sure you’ll agree that this is far more optimized. The label maker is here.” He pointed to a small plastic bin. “Feel free to use it.”
He glanced up and smiled. A knowing smile with twinkling eyes that reminded me of Zach’s. He expected to get his way. He totally thought I’d be putty in his rather large hands. Well, no sir. I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what he could do with his label maker when he kept talking, leaving me standing with my mouth gaped.
“There were some half-open boxes of the same thing, so we combined what we could and—”
The absolute nerve of this guy. “You moved my stuff? You cut off my lock, and you moved my stuff. Do I have that right?”
“Listen Sergeant Major Hausman—” I paused when he physically winced. “Hallman?” I guessed.
“Um . . . Hausman is correct, but you took away my commission. It’s Lieutenant Colonel Hausman.”
“My commission. I’m an O-5 . . . You know what? Never mind. You can actually call me Brick.” I swore his smile existed only to fluster me.
“Brick?” I repeated. “Did your parents not like you or something?”
Brick barked out a laugh, and I closed my eyes to get my bearings. It was rare to get laughter when I was about to explode. Not to brag, but most of the time, my colleagues tried not to piss me off. Why should he be immune?
“Seventh-grade football coach. Nickname stuck. So, did you want my help to reorganize or label?” He held up the label maker like he was showing me his favorite toy.
I drew up as straight as I could, still inches short of coming eye-to-eye. “Brick, as you can imagine art requires a lot of supplies. My colleagues and I need this entire space for our students. I’m sorry, but this will not work. Now, then. Where are the rest of our things?”
Brick cringed, glancing behind me at the shelves. “This is everything.”
“No.” I gestured to the room. “This entire closet was full of art supplies. So, if your stuff is taking half—”
“We have exactly forty percent of the room, which is what the space survey the custodian gave me showed.”
“You measured the room?”
Brick nodded proudly. “The replacement storage system has two extra shelves. We put the flatter, lighter stuff on top and the smaller stuff here.” He pointed to a cabinet with shoebox-sized bins. “Mr. Samuel was very clear that we can’t have stuff stacked to the ceiling because of the fire—”
“You moved my stuff.” A sullen teenage voice escaped my mouth. “Sorry.” I cleared my throat and restored my normal speaking voice. “I don’t think you’re appropriately reacting to the fact that you did all this without consulting me.”
Brick stiffened, but his tone didn’t shift to match his posture. “I organized our closet. You’re free to move your stuff around. I gave you this side so my students would not have reason to be near your area. I would have consulted you, but I didn’t have your number, and well, it’s not even the first day of school. It was practical and fair.”
Fair? He wanted to talk about fair? No fucking way. His calm, I’m logical and you’re being irrational attitude sent my blood pressure through the roof. “Glitter!” I shouted.
“Excuse me?” he chuckled.
“Last year. The JROTC made some posters for a fundraiser and spilled an entire bottle. There was glitter everywhere, and Mr. Samuel blamed me. Plus, I lost nearly two hundred dollars in supplies to other teachers who didn’t want to walk to the main supply building because JROTC students forgot to lock the room. I pay for much of this out of a different budget, Major Hausman. This will not work. Last year, teachers were treating this closet like a Hobby Lobby, and I’m not here to monitor it since—”
Brick held up a finger. He appeared genuinely upset. Perhaps I was finally getting through. “What?”
“Just, it’s Brick or Lieutenant Colonel Hausman. Major is actually a . . .”
I clutched the box, knowing if it wasn’t so heavy, it’d be hurling at his head right now.
His eyes widened, and I recognized the moment he decided to stop being a dick. “Never mind. I mean, it’s a demotion, but . . . Yeah. Not important.”
“So, you can have your students clear this out by, say, tomorrow end of day?”
“No. I’m afraid I already spoke to the custodian and the principal, and there aren’t other alternatives. Tell you what. I hear your concerns. This is what I can do. I promise controlled access to the closet and a rotation of daily inspections from my most reliable students. I’ll even put an inspection sheet here.” He tapped the wall. “Anything you’re concerned about, let me know, and we will check it as frequently as it needs to be. As for the lost supplies.” His eyes drifted up, and he tapped a finger to his ridiculously chiseled jawline. “Perhaps an inventory system is necessary? But if we leave the closet unattended or unlocked and you lose supplies because of our error, I will reimburse you for the lost materials. How does that sound?”
Completely fucking reasonable.
But I was far too worked up to negotiate rationally. “I must consult with my team. You can’t expect us to share a single key,” I said flatly buying more time. Tessa and Marie would back me up; it’d be three against one.
“I already provided them their keys. Tessa and I met yesterday. She was such a help. I’m afraid my art knowledge is rather limited. I like it though. Art, that is. I got to go to the Louvre once. I was on leave and my wife met me in Paris. It was a little overwhelming, but the history—”
“Louvre,” I repeated, pronouncing the name of the museum correctly instead of a homophone for lover.
He blushed. An actual rosy tint to his cheeks that was almost enough to erase the disappointment of learning he was straight. It so fucking figured. All those faculty meeting looks were him laughing at me. He had this entire thing already planned. Damn it.
“Right. The Louvre,” he repeated perfectly.
“I’m sure your wife appreciated you taking her.”
“Actually, she didn’t. She wanted to shop.” He huffed a laugh and trained his gaze on me, all dimples and sparking eyes, like he wanted to commiserate on the shopping proclivities of the fairer sex. Which was so not going to happen.
“I love to shop. Course, you know us gays . . .” I camped with a full limp-wrist to chest move to see if I could throw him off his cocky stance. It worked, but there was a slight head shake of confusion too, like he wasn’t sure he heard me correctly, followed by a heated stare. So his whole reaction was far less satisfying and way more arousing than it should have been. “Well, since it’s clear the only opinion that matters to you is yours, I guess we’re done here.”
“Hey—” He objected, and for second, I considered not storming off, but in for a penny and all that. He had to understand just because I was gay and wasn’t built like a tank, no one pushed me around.
My head was spinning with thoughts of Jesse when I met Zach for lunch. I couldn’t pinpoint why him being worked up over the closet had me worked up in a very different way. That sort of thing had never been a turn-on for me before.
We took a seat at a sports bar close to the school. I finished answering Zach’s question about my latest attempt to meet men, this time a gay men’s hiking Meetup group.
“So no hot guys there?” Zach’s disappointment still felt like he was rooting for me to get laid rather than actually meet someone, but I knew he’d come around. I was tempted to ask him a few more questions about Mr. Berry, but given what he’d already told me, I decided against it. I wasn’t sure why I was so drawn to Jesse, but I didn’t want Zach ruining it before I’d figured it out.
“Sadly, there were only six men, four of whom were already dating each other. The fifth guy spent the entire hike on his phone, and the sixth guy zoned in on this.” I lifted my shirt sleeve and flashed my ill-advised, much regretted Army tattoo I’d gotten when I returned from Afghanistan. “He seemed determined to educate me on American Imperialism. I tried to correct his understanding, but my degree in history and political science was no match for his degree in Google.”
Zach laughed. “Was it at least a pleasant hike?”
“Yeah. Ridgemont is a decent park, but it was basically a flat three-mile walk through the woods. If that was a moderate hike, I’d hate to see what they call easy.”
“A walk around the block?”
I chuckled. “Yeah. Probably. It was good to get out, I guess, but I don’t see myself making friends, let alone a more personal connection with any of those guys. What’s good here?”
After reviewing the menu, Zach and I ordered and spent the wait talking about my latest home improvement efforts. When we finished with our meals, I sighed and patted my full stomach. “After all this eating out, I’m going to have to let out my uniforms.”
“Better hurry. Classes start Monday. I’m kind of surprised you’re not freaking out. You’re taking all the change well. Aren’t you?” Zach punctuated his question with a concerned expression—friendship shorthand for You’d tell me if you’re not doing okay, right?
I held his gaze for a beat, debating how much I wanted to share. I wasn’t one to spill my guts usually, but it was Zach—he was the last guy to make me talk about feelings. There wasn’t any point in denying the transition was tough. “There was a moment in the classroom that hit me hard a few days ago.”
Concern washed over Zach’s face. “You okay?”
“Yeah. There was just a moment.” I paused, trying to come up with an explanation for the feeling. “You ever have this weird thing happen after a major event in your life? Something that requires a lot of planning. There’s all this anticipation and build up. You think you’re ready for it, but then the day arrives and it kind of knocks you on your ass. A flash bang goes off and it’s not something you’re planning anymore, it’s finally real?”
Zach’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t think so. After finishing college—a little, I guess. Or my wedding,” he added wistfully. “Although Catherine did all the planning.”
“Same thing happened to me when I touched down in Afghanistan for my first tour: there was this moment when my brain caught up to everything. These last few months I’ve been so wrapped up in getting my teachers certification, retiring, the divorce, moving—it’s all been kind of building, but it sort of hit me that my life has completely changed. I’m not in the Army anymore. I’m not married. I’m living in the future I’d been planning for. It’s wild.”
“Does it feel good?”
“Yeah. Overwhelming, for sure. But I think so. I can’t thank you enough, Zach. You’ve been a real friend to me through all this, and I haven’t exactly returned the favor.” I regretted not being around for him after Catherine left, but we’d been preparing for the troop surge, and since I was denying leave for everyone else, taking leave to help my brokenhearted buddy wouldn’t have been possible.
Zach dismissed my concern with a wave of his hand. “I’m just glad you’re finally here. I’ve missed you, man. It’s going to be a blast having you around. Just like old times. I’m only sorry I don’t know more bisexual or gay men to introduce you to. It’s opened my eyes a bit. My crowd is a little . . .”
“Straight?” I laughed and Zach nodded. “It’s okay. I’ve been thinking maybe I should get established in my new normal before I try to meet people anyway. Focus on teaching and getting the house spruced up.” Figure out if my type is art teachers with attitude problems.
“I realize it isn’t what you’re looking for, but we’re still searching for players on that recreational basketball team I told you about. It’s low-key, so I think your neck will be fine. You sure I can’t change your mind?”
“You know what? Sure. I need to stay physically active. It sounds fun.”
Zach grinned widely and did this weird wiggle thing with his eyebrows that spelled trouble. “Is there a chance you’d reconsider Academic Olympiad too, because I’ll admit I’m desperate.”
I shook my head at my buddy whose presence in my life seemed to be the only thing that hadn’t changed. A warm swell of appreciation accompanied a flood of shared memories—including some of my most cherished moments that began with me giving into Zach’s wiggling eyebrows and boyish grin.
“What the hell. Yeah, I’ll do it.”
Word Count: 95,000
Page Count: 288
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 10/24/2022
Release Date: 10/24/2022