Sweet Young Thang (A Theta Alpha Gamma Novel)
When Plan A fails, turn to Man A.
Thanks to Collin Montes, Theta Alpha Gamma now welcomes gay and bisexual students. Persuading his Uncle Monty, president of the TAG Alumni Association, that the open approach won’t adversely affect TAG’s reputation is Collin’s own first step toward coming out. As long as there are no repercussions, he’ll escape the closet by graduation.
Enter repercussions, stage left: someone rigs the TAG House water heater to launch through the ceiling, then plants a bomb—thankfully unsuccessful—in the fraternity’s basement. Now Collin has his hands full not only trying to convince his uncle that this might not be the work of homophobes, but also dealing with a fratful of brothers worried about their kegger fridge.
Paramedic Eric Dixon can’t stop thinking about the kid he met during a call at his former college fraternity house. The age gap between them is trumped by sexy eyes, so when Eric sees Collin again at the bomb scene, he pursues him. Soon, Eric is dreaming of being a househusband, fighting to keep Collin safe from whoever’s trying to destroy the fraternity, and helping his sweet young thang realize that repercussions sometimes have silver linings.
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“I’m probably going to die, aren’t I?”
Eric Dixon fiddled with his patient’s IV for a few seconds, collecting his thoughts. Mr. Siskin was on a fair amount of pain medicine, but his speech seemed clear. Eric met his gaze. “Do you remember what I said the problem was?”
Siskin grimaced. “Uh . . . aneurysm in my abdomen, right?”
“Well, that’s what I think, but we don’t carry the equipment on the ambulance to know for sure.” Not to mention he wasn’t a doctor. Eric watched the pulsing swelling just below Siskin’s navel and could only imagine that was one thing, though. “It’s called a thoracic aortic aneurysm. It means your aorta—the main artery supplying blood to your body—is in danger of rupturing. If I’m right, and that happens, you’ll bleed to death.” So fast that even if he was already in surgery and opened up, they might not be able to save him.
“How much danger?”
Eric blew out a breath. “You hear the sirens?”
Mr. Siskin nodded tightly. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
Eric leaned forward to adjust the drip, giving his patient more medication. “We don’t always go to the hospital code three, meaning with the lights and sirens on. Only when someone’s in imminent danger of death or permanent injury.”
Mr. Siskin nodded again, closing his eyes. Maybe he believed in the power of prayer. Eric hoped it’d work, because there was nothing he could do except keep the patient as comfortable as possible. This sort of call frustrated the crap out of him. In this case, Lincoln’s job—getting them to the fucking hospital as fast as he safely could—was the more important one.
Lincoln’s job was extra hard today, though, because the Siskins had been vacationing at their cabin up on the McKenzie River, right at the border of their ambulance service district. Eric glanced at his watch. Best-case scenario, ten more minutes to the hospital.
Crap, he should have fucking called for a helicopter. But no, it wouldn’t have been any faster. He’d had Siskin nearly ready to go when the swelling in his abdomen had started. One of those cases where even though the patient had shown signs of a heart attack, the EKG hadn’t backed up the diagnosis. Eric’d had a bad feeling, and he and Lincoln had to take the guy in anyway, so they’d been working fast.
Siskin flinched, grimacing again. Even though his eyes were closed, when Eric reached for the IV again, he said, “No.”
Eric looked down at him. “How bad is the pain? Remember the pain scale? Give me a number between one and ten—”
“I don’t care.” Mr. Siskin waved him back. “I don’t want to die while I’m stoned.” He smiled for a split second. “More stoned, I mean.”
“Gotta tell you, Mr. Siskin, in my professional opinion, you need to believe you’re going to live.” He’d seen some people who should be dead refuse to die, and he’d seen a few who had no medical reason to die go ahead and do it.
“Call me Bryson.”
“I can only do that if you promise me you’ll live.”
Siskin’s eyes opened again and he actually grinned. Not for more than a couple of seconds, but he met Eric’s gaze and shared a moment of humor.
Humor is a good thing. Eric smiled back, trying to make it genuine.
“Okay, it’s a deal.” Siskin sucked in another breath. “What’s your name again?”
“Eric. At work, people call me Dix.”
“Okay, Eric, I’m a numbers man. My whole career is about numbers—I’m an actuary for an insurance company. What are my odds of living? Give me a number.”
“I really don’t know,” Eric said, relieved he didn’t have to lie. “We can’t know how bad things are without a CT scan, and I couldn’t guess how much time you have before it ruptures even if we did.”
Siskin looked at him levelly. “If it ruptures while I’m still in this ambulance . . .”
Crap. He nodded.
Siskin closed his eyes again. His breathing had evened out. Eric thought their discussion was over, but Siskin asked, “Do you have any kids?”
He knew—and hated—where this was going. “No, I don’t. I’d like some, but it hasn’t worked out.”
Siskin grabbed his hand and gripped it tighter than Eric thought he could. “I have a son, you met him up at the cabin. If I don’t make it, you tell him having him was the smartest, best thing we ever did. Tell him not to wait to give his mother grandchildren, more than one. Then tell him to take all the damned money I’m about to leave him and do something stupid with a little of it.”
“I will. Promise.” He craned his head, looking through the front seats to see out the windshield. “But we’re nearly there. You can tell him yourself.”
Siskin scrunched his brow. “Well, I can’t tell him if I don’t die, because I’m not giving him the damn money then.”
Eric blinked. “I meant tell him how you feel.”
Siskin nodded, and Eric could read the pain in his expression. Not the physical kind—the kind that made his whole face draw in, as if fighting to keep something from getting out. “I’ll tell him, I gue—” He gasped, eyes opening wide and face paling.
Fuckfuckfuck. There was nothing he could do. Eric leaned closer, still holding his patient’s hand. All Siskin’s fear of dying that he hadn’t shown before now welled up. Looking into his pupils felt like staring out into space. “I’ll tell him, Bryson,” Eric said.
Siskin licked his lips. “Do that.”
“It’s okay.” Death. Death was okay, if you accepted it.
“Seems l-like it might b—” Siskin sucked in another quick breath, shaking with it, but he wouldn’t ever get enough again. He was so pale now that Eric could see the black-blue voids under his eyes. He sucked in air once more, and squeezed Eric’s hand reflexively. His body relaxed, and for a split second Eric could see the whole universe in his pupils, but all the stars were winking out one by one, until they dulled. Eric couldn’t see in, and Bryson wasn’t there to see out anymore.
Thank fuck. One of the better deaths.
Collin held his cell phone to his ear, but was listening to the thoughts in his head rather than to his uncle.
For a young gay man like himself, college should be the best time of his life, right? He should do things with wild abandon; he should openly—publicly even—experiment with his sexuality; he should do stupid shit like light articles of furniture on fire and push them out of second-story windows; he should fail a class. Not get put on academic probation or anything, just flunk one measly economics class.
Which he was in danger of doing if he didn’t pull at least a C on the midterm. And no, the first week of the quarter wasn’t too early to start freaking out about that. He sucked at Econ.
He should have the freedom to flunk that damn class—to do all those things, and then laugh about them later (probably in some embarrassment) with friends who’d done equally stupid things.
Well, he had the friends part down cold; they came with the fraternity membership. Okay, and he’d made inroads on being a slut, but mostly in secret. But his stupid, overdeveloped sense of obligation had repeatedly kept him from pulling a variety of crazy, college-student capers. Obligation to his family, particularly his uncle.
The uncle he should probably be listening to, rather than daydreaming about throwing his desk through the window, soaking it in gasoline, and sparking it up.
“Now, Collin, I know you registered for that International Business Communications class, and I’ve been thinking it might make an excellent final project if you—”
Never mind, he didn’t need to listen to Monty yet. He slumped further over his desk, resting his cheek on his fist, staring out at the gray, drizzly day. January was such a horrible time of year in Oregon. The month would totally benefit from a pile of furniture blazing merrily on the lawn.
Yeah. A raging fire would be an excellent way to dispel the current drizzle of life.
Instead, he had his uncle yammering in his ear about this term’s courses and how each one was important to his future in the family business, including Econ. Or whatever.
“I think I’ve found a replacement for Sooty as liaison to the Alumni Weekend Committee,” Uncle Monty said, snapping Collin back to attention. Well, for a moment, until Collin started wondering why they called the corporate realtor from Delaware “Sooty.” Probably because at some Theta Alpha Gamma bacchanalia, he’d pushed a flaming sofa out a window.
Now Sooty was pushing up daisies, or would be in the near future.
Collin hadn’t earned a nickname in college, not even once he’d joined the fraternity. It was probably for the best—he’d have ended up with a nickname like Jeeves, the Theta Alpha Gamma Butler. Or they’d name him after that kid in the Dutch fairytale that had held back the sea by sticking his finger in a dyke.
Not that Collin had any intentions of sticking his finger in any dykes. Shudder. But there was no denying he was the guy who always stepped up to the plate when no one else would. He felt like he managed the whole damn frat sometimes.
Okay, not the whole frat, but a lot of it.
Thank God Kyle had run for frat president for their senior year or Collin might not have escaped that fate.
“Collin, are you listening to me?”
He didn’t even bother unslouching. “Of course I am, sir.”
Julian acted far more like a frat butler than Collin ever had. Although, come to think of it, Jules’s butlery was sort of a hollow performance. He posed as the guy who had his finger on the pulse of the place by answering the front door and dusting off random picture frames or the odd piece of furniture, but he was more footman than head of staff. If it didn’t happen in the entryway, Jules didn’t have a clue. He wouldn’t survive a second belowstairs.
“ . . . I’ve made reservations for you to play golf with him on Saturday morning. Seven a.m. at the McKenzie Club.”
Collin sat up straight and nearly dropped the phone. “What?” Him who? Jesus, not Saturday morning. “Is it necessary for me to meet him so soon?” But more importantly, was it necessary for Collin to meet him on Saturday morning? Everyone knew Saturday morning followed Friday night, and if things went as hoped, he’d be sticky, sated, and sleeping at seven on any given Saturday. “Isn’t it disrespectful to Sooty’s memory to replace him so quickly? He only died a week ago.” He cringed at using a dead man as an excuse, but it was necessary. Hopefully Sooty would understand. Collin had never met him in person, but a man who lit furniture on fire must realize the importance of Friday night.
“Sooty would have wanted it this way,” Monty intoned.
Collin rested his forehead in his hand—the one not occupied with holding his phone—and massaged his temples. Could he possibly find a way out of this? “I’m sorry, but what time did you say I’m meeting, um, him, again?” He could have heard wrong.
“Seven.” Monty must have swiveled around to stare out the windows overlooking his olive groves, because Collin could hear his uncle’s chair making that familiar squeak. “Collin, as you know, I have a limited amount of time and I would appreciate it if you listened to me so I don’t have to repeat myself.”
“Sorry, sir.” It was better to apologize and move on; experience had told him that.
“It’s only golf, son. I know how you are about your Friday nights, so I didn’t commit you to a dinner, which is what Sparky suggested.”
“His name is Sparky?”
Monty sighed, and Collin flinched.
“It’s Donald, but he earned the name Sparky in college and it stuck. After all, Sparky Donaldson is obviously preferable to Donald D. Donaldson.” Monty paused before adding pointedly, “And you’ll be meeting him at the McKenzie Club.”
Collin fell back in his chair, holding in a groan. “Um, yes, I caught that part. But thank you.” For taking time out of your busy schedule to repeat it. He cringed at the thought—he shouldn’t think such disrespectful things about the man who’d all but raised him.
It probably wasn’t a good sign that Collin had started reminding himself of that every time they spoke. I love my Uncle Monty. I love my Uncle Monty. I lo—
“I’m expecting a lot of you, I know, but I wouldn’t give you such responsibility if I weren’t confident you were capable of it. Once you’ve finished this chapter of your education and you take your position within the company, you’ll appreciate these experiences. It’s why I wanted you as the Theta Alpha Gamma alumni liaison. The position is very high profile, and as principal organizer of Alumni Weekend, you’ll have the opportunity to make many valuable business contacts.”
“Of course,” Collin said, nodding into the phone.
“Now, as I said before, Sparky is only going to be in the Eugene area this weekend, and since he’s available, I think a meeting would be advantageous.”
Collin knew his uncle was only warming up to the topic, so he needed to ask what he wanted to know now. “Do you know how he got that nickname?” He figured it was the most pertinent information about the dude. Nicknames seemed very telling.
“Well . . . I shouldn’t spread this around since it’s unsubstantiated, but I’ve heard he was a bit of a firebug when he was younger. I’ve had quite a few business dealings with him, and he seems perfectly normal to me. Now, let me give you some more background—he’s a very successful stockbroker, class of ’86.”
Collin’s head began to fill with images of loud plaid golf pants, an engraved hip flask, and endless stories of a youngblood’s early days on Wall Street. Groan. He couldn’t keep his mind from drifting off again while Monty droned on, giving the socio-economic background of Sparky What’s-his-name.
The dude sounded like a great time. Saturday morning was really shaping up to be lovely, wasn’t it? Instead of sleeping off his bout of semi-anonymous sex, Collin would be blurry eyed on the golf course in freaking midwinter. “Sir,” he said suddenly, seizing on that, “I’m sure you remember what Oregon can be like in January, are you certain—”
“I checked the weather report, and it’s going to be clear. Brisk thirty-nine degrees, winds from the northeast. You’ll be fine.”
Shit, he was going to freeze to death. Dying at twenty-one, seated in a golf cart next to a corpulent moneychanger, wasn’t how he’d imagined his death. He’d never imagined it, but if he had to, he’d prefer dying in his nineties, lying in bed beside a sexy, naked stripper in his twenties.
Monty cleared his throat, signaling an uncomfortable change of topic—one Collin thought he might benefit from listening to. “You should know Sparky is one of the alums who opposed the new membership policy.”
Collin closed his eyes and counted to ten. “Uncle Monty . . .”
“I didn’t deliberately set you up, Collin. He found out about Sooty passing on—they were friendly—and contacted me about taking the man’s place. You know we need someone on that committee. The Alumni Weekend is coming up quickly, and you increase your chances of having a successful event if you work with more alums. And we both know the more alumni you impress, the better it is for you in the long term.”
“It’s not for twelve weeks. You can’t give me time to find someone who isn’t a homophobe?” Oops.
“Opposing the new membership policy does not make one a homophobe,” Monty said curtly.
Oh God, headache. Right between the eyes. “Yes, sorry, sir.” He needed to end this conversation, because he’d just implied that his uncle was a bigot.
“One might oppose this new ‘open’ membership policy because one feels, as do I, that it makes the fraternity a target. Especially since your friend is so publicly gay and continues to be an active member.”
Collin sat up straight, matching Monty’s tone and formality. “Please remember that, in fact, the fraternity has always accepted gay members because the policy didn’t specifically exclude them. It was simply a tacit Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell system. We voted to codify the acceptance of those members, and show them that being out is acceptable and safe here at TAG.” Monty could never seem to discuss just the policy; he had to make it personal by bringing up Collin’s friend Brad. His uncle had been poking him with the pointy end of that argument since Brad had come out last spring, and it had worn right through his need to placate his uncle.
“That doesn’t affect my opinion of it in the slightest. You persuaded me to accept this new policy by convincing me that it wouldn’t alter the position of respect that generations of Theta Alpha Gamma brothers have worked to acquire at Calapooya College. I’ve placed my trust in you on this issue, and I interceded on your behalf with the Alumni Association members who questioned it as a favor to you. In return, I expect you and the other active brothers to ensure that TAG is just as influential on campus after this as it was before.”
Collin swallowed, but used his “confident” voice. “I’m making certain of it, sir.”
After an awkward good-bye, Collin sat staring out his window for a long time, imagining his cell phone ablaze in the front yard.
At the hospital, Eric wrote a letter to Mr. Siskin’s son, telling them his father’s last words. He’d only ever had to pass on last words once before, but it had taught him that doing so while they were still in shock was pointless. Better to write it down so they could take it in later.
Lincoln went off to find some coffee while Eric finished the rest of the paperwork. When he was done, Lincoln met him by the emergency doors, holding two cups. “One’s for you,” he said before Eric could ask.
Eric took it. “Thanks, man.” They started out toward the ambulance.
“Bad one?” Lincoln asked.
Eric shrugged. “Not really. Just so weird when they go that fast and they know what’s happening. But he didn’t get that terrified look they sometimes do.”
“If they have to die in the ambulance, I’m glad most of them aren’t conscious.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Eric said. Even though it hadn’t been a “bad” death, it took something out of a paramedic when he or she lost a patient. “Kind of makes me wish I hadn’t taken this shift for TimTam.” Normally he worked C shift, but he’d helped out another paramedic in need (of a free night for a date) and taken a B shift also. Now he had to work a double and he’d lost a patient.
“Saw your ex,” Lincoln said. “Couple weeks ago when Mandy and I got a babysitter and we were eating dinner at the Water Station. Jay came in hanging on some rich-looking fucker and he acted all surprised to see us there, but I watched him detour halfway across the restaurant to accidentally walk past our table. He made a big show of asking about you.”
“When was this?” Eric asked, but he had to wait for the answer, because they’d reached the rig and split up, Eric walking to the passenger door.
Lincoln started talking as soon as they’d both opened their doors. “I just said it was a couple weeks ago. Since I switched shifts I don’t see you as much, so I forget to tell you this shit. You should come over soon, man. Mandy’d love to see you, and you haven’t seen Greta in so long she’ll forget who Uncle Eric is any time now.”
Eric snorted and pulled on his seat belt. “You’re really starving for some male company, aren’t you?” Lincoln and Mandy had two daughters; Greta was three and Cecily was nine months. He hadn’t seen the baby in a while either. “Okay, I’ll come over next week someday.”
Eric nodded and figured their conversation had wound down, but Lincoln wasn’t done talking about Jay. Crap. He grinned over at Eric as he started the engine. “So Jay the other night, he asked me if you’ve found the right man yet.”
Eric laughed shortly. “What, like he wants me back?” As if that would ever happen.
Lincoln grunted, checking his mirrors and putting the ambulance in reverse, starting the dumb back-up beacon noise. “Yeah, if you let him fuck whoever he wants on the side. I can’t stand that bastard. When I see him—you know, if I don’t manage to hide from him before he sees me—he acts all concerned for your welfare or something, but it’s bullshit. Still kinda pissed Mandy wouldn’t let me crawl under the table.”
“He just wants you to tell me what he said. It’s a mind game.” Jay’s way of getting all possible attention, even if he wasn’t around to enjoy it.
“I guess.” Lincoln started heading back to the station, quiet for a few seconds, fooling Eric into thinking the subject had finally died.
But it hadn’t. “He also asked Mandy if you were ‘over it.’”
“Jesus,” Eric groaned. “It’s been four years since I kicked that little prick out.”
“Hey man, you know our deal: no details about your sex life or your dates’ attributes.”
“Anyway, you know what Mandy did—she says, ‘Over what?’”
Eric laughed along with Lincoln. Mandy always had his back when it came to his love life. Thank God, because it had taken him a while to get over that asshole. He should have realized that it was a setup when Jay had said he didn’t know if he could be faithful. Then when he did fuck around, he’d been able to say, “Well, I warned you.” As if that had made it all right.
“Then he made that comment that really pisses Mandy off.”
Eric opened his mouth, because he knew what was coming and he didn’t need to hear it again, but Lincoln didn’t pause.
“He was like, ‘Oh, he finally found someone as domesticated as he is to settle down with, then?’”
Eric blew out a breath. As if it might clean out the bitter aftertaste that comment always left in his heart.
“So Mandy says, ‘I think the word you’re actually looking for is domestic. Domesticated refers to animals, and I’m sure we can all agree that Eric was never your pet.’” This time Lincoln laughed much more than Eric did.
Once back at the substation, they restocked and went back to bed. “Wake me up when the shift’s over,” Lincoln said as he stumbled off.
By some miracle, they slept the rest of the night without another call. When Eric woke up at 6:30 and made it into the crew kitchen, he found Val—his new partner on C shift—already there, sipping coffee. He kind of liked that about her, that she usually came to work early, just like he did and the opposite of how Lincoln operated.
When she saw him, she raised her eyebrows over her mug. It looked like more of a challenge than an invitation to talk. He’d worked with her just long enough to know what that meant: she was not in a mood to be bothered. Heh. As if she’d get away with that—they already had a habit of messing with each other.
“This fresh?” he asked, pointing at the coffee pot.
She grunted at him.
Excellent. “Does one grunt mean yes?”
She grunted again.
He opened the cupboard, looking for mugs and forcing patently false cheer into his voice. “Didn’t stop for coffee on your way in, huh?”
She grunted twice.
“Does two grunts me—”
She grunted loudly, shoved her chair back with a screech of legs against linoleum, and stalked out of the kitchen.
Chuckling to himself, Eric poured two cups of coffee and went to harass Lincoln into consciousness. He set the cups on the nightstand in his partner’s quarters and leaned really close to his friend’s ear. “Hey!”
Lincoln flinched. “Go away,” he mumbled.
He needed to get some new material. “Val’s already here.” Eric tickled Lincoln’s cheek with a few strands of his hair. Lincoln slapped at his hand, but missed, hitting himself in the side of the head.
Heh. “You could go home,” he singsonged, leaning over until his lips nearly touched Lincoln’s ear. “Wake up your wife before the girls are up.”
“Fucking faggots,” someone said from outside the room. Eric turned to see Rod walking away from them toward the kitchen.
“Fucking homophobe,” Lincoln called after him, suddenly awake.
Rod flipped them off over his shoulder.
Lincoln propped himself on his elbow, scowling out into the hallway. “Asshole. I’m not even gay and he’s harassing me.”
Eric sat on the edge of the mattress. “Yeah, well, apparently if you aren’t my enemy, you must be gay too.”
“Gonna sic my wife on him someday,” Lincoln muttered, then sat up, struggling to untangle from his bag, kicking Eric in the process. “Just forget about him, man.”
Eric nodded. Rod wasn’t anything to get worried about, not really. He didn’t need to go getting anxious over the few dickheads at the department. Most of the other firefighters and staff didn’t have a problem with him or the few other members of the rainbow family.
Still, it didn’t add anything positive to his morning.
“Hot Rod getting all uppity again?” Rudy asked from the doorway. He stood outside it, black hair corkscrewing up everywhere, in uniform pants but no shirt, scratching his taut, ribbed belly. Drool. He yawned after Lincoln nodded, then held up a hand to Eric. “Morning, Dix. You working your regular shift, too?”
Eric nodded. “Yeah, I’m working a double.”
Rudy tipped his head, then smirked. “You checking out my chest, boy?”
Eric grinned. “Hell yes.” Rudy was the opposite of a homophobe.
Rudy laughed at him, flexed his pecs, and walked on down the hall.
“Get off my bed, man, I’m trying to get up,” Lincoln complained.
Eric ignored him. Well, at least he didn’t move. “You going home early?”
“Since no one will let me sleep anymore,” he grumbled, then kicked Eric again. Probably on purpose this time.
Eric was about to say, “Have a good time with your wife,” but the station tones sounded over their radio system before he could. The dispatcher’s voice followed. “For engine twenty-three, rescue twenty-three, medic twenty-three, and ladder two. Report of an explosion and possible bombing at 460 South Willow Street—”
“Bombing?” Lincoln repeated.
But it was the address that caught at Eric’s brain for a second, until the drone of the dispatcher’s voice demanded he listen to more details.
“—caller is advising of a twenty-year-old male victim with unknown injuries. Reports smoke but no visible flames. Police are responding, five minutes out. For engine twenty-three, rescue twenty-three—”
Eric stopped listening as she repeated the information, and he had to move so Lincoln could grab his boots and zip into them. “You gonna go?” he asked, standing up and heading toward the kitchen to grab his jacket.
Lincoln was right behind him. “Not if Val will go for me, I need to find her—”
“I’ll take it,” Val said, standing in the hall. “Go home.”
“Thanks,” Lincoln called after her—she was already walking away. He grabbed Eric, surprising him, and gave him one of those bro-hugs straight guys liked so much, then let go as if Eric had burned him. Must have surprised himself too.
Eric hid his smile. “Tell Mandy ‘hi’ for me, and give her a good time,” he said as he hurried toward the ambulance bay.
It wasn’t until he was in the rig, Val in the driver’s seat (she always drove if she could wrangle it), and he was looking at the map info on the screen that he realized why the address seemed familiar.
The explosion was located at his old college fraternity house, Theta Alpha Gamma.
On Friday morning, Collin woke up to the bed swaying and bouncing under him, and his first thought was that the last guy he’d picked up at the Slaughterhouse—before Christmas break—was here to rock his world again. He opened his eyes just in time to watch some books topple off his desk in the dim daylight.
What the fuck?
His next thought was, I’d never bring a guy back here. Not to Theta Alpha Gamma House, even though he didn’t currently have a roommate, through some miracle of seniority.
“Hey! I think it’s an earthquake!” Someone yelled from the hallway, then screamed, followed by a thud-thud-thud-thunk.
That thoroughly woke Collin up.
Holy shit, earthquake!
He half fell out of bed, expecting to feel the floor jolting under him, but there was no sound or movement—even the dust motes had suspended all motion. The sudden stillness stifled him, gluing his butt to the carpet. Like something had thickened the air to jelly, encouraging him to blink in stupefaction.
He heard a moan from outside his room. Possibly from the bottom of the stairs? He fought off his inertia and scrambled up, reaching for the knob and yanking hard a couple of times before the door would open. The air swirled sluggishly as he ran the three feet to the right that brought him to the top of the stairs.
“Help!” Someone shouted from the bottom just as Collin reached it. The railing had cracked in half a few feet down, and some spindles were missing, along with some of the actual steps. Seriously scary-looking wooden spikes were poking out above the foyer, and the whole thing hung in midair.
What the hell did that?
As he started down the staircase, it creaked loudly. He hugged the wall, but he could see far enough over the side to make out Julian crouched over a pair of legs. One of them looked really, really wrong—legs couldn’t bend that way naturally, could they?
Even more alarming, he could swear he smelled smoke. “Oh, no,” he whispered, back sliding down the wall past the broken part of the banister.
Jules looked up at him, face pale and eyes open wide. “It’s Ricky, I think he’s injured.”
Uh, yeah. “Don’t move him,” Collin said out loud. “Do you smell anything?”
“What the hell?” Kyle’s voice came from above him, and Collin looked up to see him and a bunch of other guys looking down the stairs, gape mouthed. Some stared at Collin and some peered into the foyer. “Shit . . . earthquake?” Kyle asked, looking uncertain. They all seemed as slow-moving as he’d been; being shaken awake had stunned the fraternity house occupants into a daze.
“I don’t think that was an earthquake,” Collin said. “Do you smell something burning?” He was past the break in the railing, so he gave up his caution and rushed down the last steps. He could hear Kyle and the other guys starting down the stairs. It sounded like a herd of very heavy lemmings rushing a cliff edge. One that creaked alarmingly.
Suddenly everyone was talking and moving in normal time. Jules stood up and waved Collin over, looking at him as if he could somehow fix things. Guys spilled into the entryway and under the stairs, shouted, moved into other rooms to check for damage. Collin knelt next to Ricky’s leg, but he wasn’t sure what to do next. He didn’t want to touch the guy’s knee—just looking at it made his skin crawl. He turned to ask how it felt, but Ricky’s eyes were scrunched tightly shut and his skin was white and dotted with sweat.
He took a guess that it didn’t feel good.
“Does anything hurt?” Kyle asked, coming up behind him and stepping over Ricky’s feet to kneel on the other side.
“I think it’s his leg,” Jules said. Kyle reached to probe the knee, but Ricky hissed.
He yanked his hand back. “Okay, no touching.”
“Dude, what the fuck is this?” Tank asked from under the stairwell, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a couple other guys join Tank. Whatever “this” was, they’d have to deal with it.
Jules leaned forward and gripped Kyle’s shoulder, nearly pushing him over onto the mangled limb. “Can you do anything for him? Is he going to be all right? Is it his leg?”
Ricky moaned, and Collin barely stopped himself from telling Julian to stop being such a drama queen. Maybe he was in shock. Or just being his stupid self.
“How am I supposed to know? He needs an ambulance.” Kyle shook Jules’s hand off, turning to look up at him. “We need to call 911.”
“Oh!” Jules nodded vigorously. “Someone should do that.” Then he dropped down to kneel next to Ricky’s head.
Kyle looked up at Collin, raising an eyebrow.
He was about to stand up and find the house phone when the door to the basement burst open, and Turbo and Danny spilled out into the hall off the foyer—they must have fallen asleep in the TV room again. They hacked and waved their arms around, like they were trying to clear something out of the air.
Possibly the smoke pouring into the house from behind them.
Turbo heaved in a breath. “Fire—” hack, hack “—Explosion. Furnace. Dudes!”
In spite of lots of the guys being hungover, the frat house was evacuated surprisingly fast without a lot of wailing or freaking out. Collin even managed to throw on shoes and grab his jacket from the entryway. For once he appreciated Julian’s insistence that they leave those things by the front door. Tank packed Ricky out over his shoulder—there was some wailing going on there, but it was totally understandable. Even Billings’s pet chameleon, Snake, made it out.
“We really shouldn’t have moved him,” Kyle said, while he and Collin followed Tank across the street to the lawn of the Nu Omicron Mu sorority. “He could have a spinal injury.”
“What else were we gonna do? Leave him in a burning building?”
By the time Tank set Ricky down on the lawn of the sorority, the dude was making enough noise to assure Kyle that he still possessed a fully functioning nervous system and was capable of feeling pain.
One of the Nu Omicron Mu girls had called 911, so Collin didn’t have to after all. Instead, he ended up helping Kyle try to keep Ricky . . . well, “comfortable” seemed like a lot to hope for. They just aimed for no screaming. Crying was acceptable.
“The ambulance will be here soon,” Collin said for the third time. This time he could hear sirens, though, so it wasn’t a lie.
Ricky groaned, and more tears leaked down his cheeks. Maybe they should give him whiskey? Collin turned to ask the sorority girl talking to Kyle about it and heard her say, “—and I told them I thought it might be a bomb.”
“What?” Kyle yelled, red in the face.
Why would she think someone had tried to blow them up?
“You seriously thought someone’s that pissed off we have an openly gay fraternity brother? That they’d bomb us?”
Oh, no. Collin went suddenly cold all over, thinking about his conversation last night with Monty.
The girl planted her hands on her hips and leaned forward, right into Kyle’s face. “Well, considering the boom I heard this morning and the way the last Greek Council meeting went, yeah, I think it’s possible.”
Kyle looked away, muttering curse words under his breath and turning even redder.
Collin stood up and asked calmly, “Kyle, how did the council meeting go?” And why hadn’t he said anything? He knew Collin had a stake in this shit. They all did.
Kyle ran a hand through his hair and wouldn’t look at him. “Not very well.”
Collin gritted his teeth. “Kyyyyle . . .”
“Later, okay?” Kyle gave him a pleading look. “Let’s get through this and I’ll tell you later.”
Collin pointed at him. “You better. I need to know.” So much for all that work convincing Monty that Brad coming out and the new policy wasn’t going to be a problem. This could be a fucking disaster.
Kyle’s hand landing on his shoulder startled him, and he looked up from the grass he’d been staring blindly at. “We’ll figure this out, I swear, but we gotta get through this situation first. Maybe she’s overreacting.” Kyle jerked his head slightly toward the sorority girl, who was watching them, arms crossed and shaking her head. Kyle lowered his voice. “I know how important this is to you.”
Important? His uncle believing that gay was okay was absolutely necessary to Collin’s own future.
“Does someone need a paramedic?”
Collin whirled around to see a man coming through the crowd toward them. A fireman in navy blue cargo pants and a white uniform shirt under a navy jacket, carrying an oversized, screaming orange duffle, another fireman—whoops, firewoman. Firefighter? Whatever, she was walking along just behind him.
The guy in front seemed to take in the scene, first looking at Kyle, then zeroing in on Ricky. Just as he reached them, he glanced at Collin, then away. When their eyes met, Collin absently noted that he was cute. More than cute. Sexy.
Suddenly, eyes widening in what Collin thought for sure was recognition, the firefighter looked at him again.
They didn’t know each other. Did they? He remembered every guy he’d ever been with before. Didn’t he? Collin shook off the weird momentary pang in his chest, whatever the hell it was. He couldn’t afford to stress out now; Ricky still needed him and the frat was burning to ashes.
The firefighter—paramedic?—dropped his gaze and looked back down at Ricky. “So, I guess he’s the patient?”
At the fire scene, a group of guys wearing TAG shirts—one of them holding a wire cage with a lizard inside it—stood on the sorority side of the street and watched smoke pour out of the Theta Alpha Gamma House. Eric ignored the fire for now. He’d have to get all nostalgic and maudlin about the frat burning down later. When asked, the TAG guys directed him and Val to their patient, farther up on the lawn behind the crowd.
“I think Ricky has a broken leg, dude. Tank had to carry him out of the house,” one of them said.
So weird to be back here; he’d spent some time at this sorority, pretending to be into girls. And it was a typical “Greek event”—people everywhere, watching the show. “Kind of a circus, huh?” he asked Val as they walked closer to the big white sorority house. Instead of answering, she poked him in the shoulder and pointed to a group standing around a figure lying on the ground. Eric pushed his ancient history to the back of his mind and focused on work.
Then he saw the boy with the sexy eyes.
They were amazing—huge and swirly hazel irises ringed with long, dark lashes, making him look almost as if he wore eyeliner. And they looked familiar. Like the eyes of a guy he’d gone to school with—been in TAG with.
Crap. He made himself look down at the very obviously broken leg of the guy on the ground. “So, I guess he’s the patient?”
“Here,” Val said, handing him the oxygen and taking the C-collar. “I’ll get this on and then fetch the traction splint.” She knelt next to the patient’s head on one side while Eric knelt on the other, setting down the kit and the bottle of oxygen.
What had those guys by the street said this kid’s name was? “Hey, my name’s Eric. Can you tell me yours?” He started sorting out the oxygen mask.
He got a gritted-teeth, two-syllable grunt in return.
“His name’s Ricky.” Sexy Eyes knelt next to him.
Eric nodded in acknowledgment, but didn’t look at him. “Hey Ricky, I’m going to put a mask over your mouth and nose to give you some oxygen. Just breathe normally, okay?” As normally as could be expected under the circumstances. He’d be light-headed in seconds. As Eric started the oxygen, Val stood and nodded at him when he glanced up, then headed back to the ambulance. He moved down to the patient’s foot and dug the trauma shears out of his kit.
“Do you need me to do anything?” Sexy Eyes asked. Out of the corner of his eye, Eric could see him gripping his knees tightly, digging his nails in.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Not that it probably mattered, but it would make him feel useful. “Did anyone do anything to stop the bleeding?”
“Bleeding?” someone asked faintly. The guy still standing with the TAG sweatshirt on.
“Keep it together, Kyle,” Sexy Eyes said.
Eric ignored them in favor of cutting into the hem of the patient’s pajamas and ripping the shears up to the break. His radio squawked while he worked—dispatch responding to something from fire command. Were they going to have to call out more engines? If they went to a second alarm, he bet that building would be a total loss.
“We just got him out of there as fast as we could. We didn’t even realize he was bleeding until we got him here and there was blood on Tank’s—oh my God,” Sexy ended in a gasp.
Not surprising—Ricky had an open fracture. Blood seeped out of the wound just above his knee, and the bone protruded obviously from it. Eric heard the sweatshirt wearer gag a couple of times.
Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. “How far did he fall?” Grabbing a sterile gauze pad, Eric pressed down on the gash, keeping as clear of the bone as possible. Ricky stifled a scream with his hand. The guy who didn’t like the bleeding whimpered. He grabbed Sexy Eyes’s hand, ignoring the warmth of it. “Press on this for me, right here. Wait, put a glove on first.” He had to let go of the hand to dig one out of his belt pouch.
The guy took the glove and did as he asked—he was pale, but he did it. Eric checked the pulse in the patient’s foot while Sexy started telling him how Ricky had gotten into this state.
“He fell over the side of the stairs. Maybe twelve feet onto a wood floor. Um, is this hurting him?”
What? Oh, the pressure. “I’ll give him something for the pain.” The pulse in the patient’s foot was strong enough, so Eric put a line in and started a saline drip, then gave him some painkillers just as Val made it back with the splint and the stretcher. Once he was in traction, Ricky’s pain would lessen considerably.
“It’s a fucking zoo here,” she bitched. “There are a bunch of rubberneckers who brought lawn chairs to watch the damned spectacle, and everyone’s color coordinated. Fire’s almost out, I don’t know what they’re going to watch after the engines go home.”
“Huh?” Eric asked absently, but whatever she meant, it caused the kid holding the dressing to start talking to the other guy. Something about keeping things friendly. He ignored it—as long as Sexy kept the pressure on, he didn’t care, and the guy was. The other dude left, which was probably for the best.
Val pulled traction for him once he had the ankle cuff on. Eric watched the patient’s face ease as the muscles in his quad stretched, stopping his bones from mashing together. He found his own muscles relaxing—that always looked so damned painful, when bodies got all messed up like that. Compound breaks were a bit of trigger for him, he didn’t know why.
Val was prepping the stretcher when Eric finally looked at Sexy Eyes again. He was staring down at his hands, still applying pressure to the leg. His shirtsleeves were pushed up above his elbows so Eric could see all the corded muscles in his forearm, the veins sticking out, and how he shook from pushing down on the dressing.
“You can ease up, he’s okay.”
Sexy looked up at him, eyes wide, and his face looked so young. Way too young for a guy like him. If Eric had even been considering something, which he hadn’t. Who picked up someone on a call?
That’s how Lincoln met Mandy.
Still, this kid was just a baby. But Eric found himself brushing a clean bit of his hand across Sexy’s forearm anyway—because he needed to get him to ease up, so it was totally a legitimate touch.
About half the tension shuddered out of the kid when Eric touched him, and he fell back on his heels. Still holding the gauze, but not so hard.
“What’s your name?” he heard himself ask.
The boy with the sexy hazel eyes looked away and then back. “Collin.”
He nodded, turning away to get something to bind the wound. “I’m Eric,” he added like it was an afterthought, then he gently moved Collin out of the way, being careful not to get blood on him. More touching and that warmth he should ignore. “Has anyone informed Ricky’s parents? We’re going to need someone to do some paperwork, too.” He bandaged the gash.
“Oh, shit,” Collin muttered, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead. “So much happened so fast. Um, I’ll get someone working on the parents, and someone to help you with paperwork, I guess.”
“Okay, great. Whoever it is can meet us at the ambulance and Val will get some info down.”
“Sure. Um, thanks. Eric.”
He smiled quickly at the kid, but focused on what he was doing, not looking as Collin got up and walked away.
The last thing he needed was to get hung up on someone who was half his age, even if he did look like a guy Eric had wanted to fuck twenty years ago. That wouldn’t even be fair. Besides, he was thirty-six and he had no business jonesing after a twenty-year-old kid who may or may not even be gay.
Lecherous old fart.