True love stabs you in the front.
Nick Steele just wants a normal life, cliché or not. He had one once, back in Chicago. Before his father died and he took a year off from college to grieve. Now, he’s starting fresh at a prestigious—but tiny—Catholic university. Adjusting to small-town life will be a challenge, along with making friends and keeping his scholarship. All he wants to do is blend in, get his diploma, and go back home.
But Sebastian Prinsen—campus heartthrob and a notorious player—has other plans. He notices Nick right away and makes a bet with his two best friends: Who can kiss the new kid first? Nick seems immune to Sebastian’s charms, and yet genuine chemistry sparks between them. Even worse, real feelings do too. Sebastian falls more and more every time Nick blows him off, but if he comes clean about the bet, Nick will hate him forever.
The last thing Nick wants is to fall in love while he’s still grieving, but Sebastian feels like home to him. Nick wants that so badly he may ignore the warning signs and risk his fragile heart once more.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Outside the car window, trees slid by in a green and brown blur. Nick let his eyes go unfocused, mind wandering. Today was the day. Today, he’d have a shot at a fresh start. Today, everything would change, possibly for the worse. His stomach acid churned.
Nick twitched in his seat, making the leather creak. He glanced at the driver: a woman, dressed in a sharp pantsuit, who had even sharper features. Dark-red lipstick, a pointed chin, and skin that was thin and white like paper. She’d introduced herself as Dr. Finn, but Nick had been calling her Jane Austere in his head.
One of her finely penciled eyebrows rose above the top of her black sunglasses. She alternated between glancing at him and watching the road. “Are you excited for your first day?”
She probably wanted him to elaborate, but instead he pulled down the sun visor and checked his appearance. Blue eyes stared back at him, bloodshot from lack of sleep and framed by unkempt strands of blond hair. He’d attempted to make himself look presentable that morning, but there was nothing he could do about the smell of public transportation that clung to his clothes.
Pretending to be absorbed in running fingers through his messy hair, he prayed she’d lose interest in him.
He had no such luck.
Dr. Finn cleared her throat. “This is an extraordinary opportunity, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
She’d told him as much no fewer than a dozen times over the course of the past few months. Officially, Dr. Finn was part of the admissions board for the Academy of Holy Names—a private Catholic university in Evanston, Illinois—but sometimes she seemed more like the Academy’s PR rep. She’d done nothing but extol its virtues since Nick had first put in a transfer application.
“Sorry I couldn’t pick you up sooner,” she said, not sounding the least bit sorry. “There was so much to do to prepare for the new semester.”
“It’s fine.” Nick meant it. He hadn’t expected someone from the college to pick him up regardless. He was twenty-one. He could have taken a cab. Though his bank account appreciated the gesture, and the delay had given him a chance to say goodbye to all his favorite places in Chicago. His home city. Now his past.
“Your first class isn’t for a few hours, so you have time to settle in. When we arrive, I’ll take you to the administration building, where Dr. O’Connor—your student advisor—will be waiting for you. She’ll go over everything you need.”
“Student advisor” seems like a fancy way of saying “guidance counselor for baby adults.”
Nick had gotten an email from the Academy—as the university was colloquially known—that’d explained all the same things Dr. Finn was telling him now, but he didn’t mind hearing them again. There had been a lot of new information to absorb about classes, the town, and the college itself. Thankfully, the administrators had held his hand through all of it, probably so he wouldn’t have a breakdown before he’d even arrived.
This car ride alone was proof of that. A higher-up like Dr. Finn had better shit to do on the first morning of a new semester than pick him up, and yet here she was. Judging by the thin line her lips had been pressed into since they’d met, she thought so as well.
Then again, they need me almost as much as I need them.
After a lifetime of being bullied for liking science, Nick had found a way to put his nerdiness to good use. He’d majored in physics at his old college, and the Academy, which focused more on the arts than hard sciences, was trying to bolster their STEM programs. One full-ride scholarship later, Nick had agreed to finish out his degree at the Academy.
Thank God too, or I’d be fucked.
His thoughts drifted to the circumstances that had led him to transfer, to being unable to pay the tuition at the University of Illinois. But the second they did, his eyes stung in a way that had become embarrassingly familiar this past year.
He slammed a mental door shut on the subject and stared hard out the window again. It was impossible to pick out any individual features as the car sped down the country road, but trying kept his mind off things.
Dr. Finn continued. “If you have any trouble adjusting to campus life, there are plenty of resources available to you. The Academy takes the wellness of our student body very seriously. We have counselors, academic advisors, peer mediators, and more. There’s no reason you shouldn’t find your niche.”
Despite her reassuring tone, Nick heard a message underneath her words: if you fuck this up, it’s not our fault.
But Nick had no intention of fucking up. Not after the year he’d had. He was going to keep his head down, get a diploma, and graduate at long last. After that . . . Well, he’d figure the rest out when he got there. The way he saw it, he was already a year behind. First, he had to catch up. Then, he could worry about everything else.
Dr. Finn seemed to take his silence as acquiescence. She didn’t prod him for a response. Fifteen minutes later, the trees melted away, and they pulled up to a large, redbrick building with a white stone sign out front: the admissions building. Nick could make out other structures off to the side, but from this angle, the campus didn’t look terribly impressive.
As if reading his mind, Dr. Finn said, “The front entrance is much more picturesque, with the stone arch and the famous wrought-iron gate. You looked at the brochures I gave you, right?”
“Then it should come as no surprise that the Academy is considered one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. The redbrick edifices date back to the 1800s, and the original buildings are still in use today.”
Nick didn’t care if the walls were gold and beer came out of the drinking fountains. But Dr. Finn seemed determined to get him to say something nice about the Academy, so he relented. “The photos in the brochures were stunning. I’m sure the real thing is even more impressive. I can’t wait to see my new school.” He plastered a smile onto his face.
She pursed her lips. “Your enthusiasm is truly infectious.”
I never was much of an actor.
Dr. Finn cut the engine and popped the trunk. Nick took the cue to exit and grab his shabby duffel bag. By the time he’d shut the trunk again, she was waiting for him on the sidewalk, arms crossed over her starched navy suit.
“This way, please.” Her heels clicked on the brick path leading up to a set of glass doors.
Nick scrambled after her, shouldering his bag. It housed all his worldly possessions: a few sets of clothes, his dinosaur of a laptop, and the MP3 player he’d gotten for Christmas years ago. Dad had scrounged for months to—
His eyes prickled, and he shook that last thought off. He’d done enough blubbering in the past year. Today wasn’t the day for more. Stuffing his free hand into the pocket of his jeans, he fingered his smartphone. The cracked screen nipped at his finger.
Soon as he got through this impromptu orientation, he needed to find his dorm and plug it in. All the outlets at the bus depot had been taken. He hadn’t charged it since he'd left home at the crack of dawn. Or rather, what had once been his home.
What is it about today? I can’t go five minutes without depressing myself. Must be because this whole transition is finally real.
The glass door caught his heel behind him, nearly pulling his sneaker off with it. Dr. Finn led him down a series of carpeted hallways that looked like they could have been transplanted from any administrative building in the world. Same went for the banal artwork on the walls and the fluorescent lights. Eventually, she dropped him off in front of a closed office door that read Dr. O’Connor in black letters.
“Here you are.” She stood back and gave him a once-over, as if determining if she wanted to change anything before handing him over. “Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.”
“All right. Thanks for the ride. It was nice meeting—”
But Dr. Finn had already waltzed off, her heels somehow managing to sound sharp even on carpet.
Nick fought the urge to stick his tongue out at her retreating back. So much for caring about the wellness of the students.
Sighing, he hefted his bag—which felt like it weighed twice as much as it had that morning—and rapped his knuckles against the frosted glass.
The door opened immediately, revealing a black woman with a big, pretty smile and even bigger glasses. Her eyes were huge behind the thick frames as they darted across Nick’s face.
“Nickolas Steele?” She didn’t wait for an answer before opening the door wider. “You’re right on time. Come in.”
“Thanks.” Nick walked through the door and took in his surroundings. His suspicions that Dr. O’Connor was secretly a grown-up guidance counselor seemed confirmed by the inspirational cat posters on the walls and the dog bobbleheads lining her desk.
Better than Dr. Finn, though. No contest.
He set his bag on one of the patterned chairs across from the desk and threw himself into the other. As Dr. O’Connor settled behind her desk, Nick studied her as discreetly as he could. There was something about her that made him relax. Something that felt parental, which was funny, considering he had only the vaguest memories of his mom from when he was little. Before they’d lost her. Though he supposed there was no “they” anymore.
Keep it together, Nick. Crying in front of the guidance counselor on your first day won’t make the best impression.
“So, Nick.” Dr. O’Connor turned to her sleek computer and tapped on the keyboard. “In case no one has said it yet, welcome to the Academy. We’re very pleased to have you.”
“Do you go by Nick, or would you prefer Nickolas?”
“Nick is fine.”
“And you’re coming into the fall semester as a junior, correct?”
“Yes.” Is this necessary? She obviously knows who I am.
Dr. O’Connor hit a few more keys, and the printer next to her sprang to life. She reached for the pages the moment they’d been spat out. “Here’s a map of campus and a copy of your schedule. You can review it at any time using the online student portal, which I’m sure you’re familiar with by now.”
She selected a pink highlighter from a mug shaped like a cat head and marked several buildings on the map. “The dorm you signed up for is here: Powell Hall.” She held up the map and pointed with the tip of the highlighter before moving it to another section. “And your first class is here. You can pick up your student ID in this building, three doors down, on the left. Use that to check into your dorm, get your room assignment, and settle in before class. Any questions?”
“No.” Nick reached for the paper in her hand, but when he tugged on it, she tightened her grip.
“No questions at all?” Her large eyes searched his face. “I realize you’ve had all summer to prepare for this transition, but surely there’s something you’d like to know. It doesn’t have to be about the Academy. Maybe you’d like to hear about Evanston? What there is to do for fun around here? Anything?”
Nick suppressed a sigh. All people did these days was ask him questions. How was he doing? Was he holding up okay? Irritating as it could be, they meant well, and considering Dr. O’Connor’s vocation, she likely did as well.
His eyes skimmed over the dog figures on her desk. Cooperate, and she’ll let you go.
He let his hand drop. “Actually, I do have a question.”
She smiled, perking up like a sunflower at dawn. “Yes?”
“This is a Catholic school, right?”
“It is.” She gave him a quizzical look. “Is that your question? Because Dr. Finn should have given you brochures explaining the history of the Academy, and—”
“Oh, she gave me brochures all right.” If I never see another tri-folded paper. “I was wondering if I’m going to have to attend Mass or anything? There was nothing in the brochures about that, and when I googled the Academy, I couldn’t find anything on your site.” Besides enough pictures to start a school Instagram account.
Dr. O’Connor nodded. “The Academy is a Catholic university in the sense that a large portion of the students are Catholic. Notre Dame is the same way, along with a few other big-name schools. But no, you’re not required to attend Mass, and you won’t be considered strange for abstaining. Students of other faiths are welcome here, so long as they conduct themselves respectfully.”
“Okay, good.” Nick grimaced. “I mean, thanks for clarifying.” Thank fuck, because I’m about as Catholic as a sock monkey. And queer to boot.
“You’re welcome.” She eyed him in a way that made him feel transparent. “Well, if that’s your only question, I suppose I should let you go. You have lots of preparing to do before your first class. Remember, you’re here on a full scholarship, so you must—”
“—maintain a high GPA, especially within the Physics Department, or I’ll lose my scholarship, be unable to afford the tuition, and get tossed out on my ass. Yeah, I know.”
Nick regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. You’re supposed to be keeping your head down, jackass, not pissing off the administration.
He braced himself for her reaction. Anger, he could handle. Or being reprimanded for his language. But unfortunately, when Dr. O’Connor looked at him, it wasn’t with annoyance. It was with something much worse. Pity.
“I’m sorry, Nick.” She sounded like she meant it. “You’re under an extreme amount of pressure right now, not that you need me to tell you that. Rest assured, everyone here at the Academy wants you to succeed, and not just because more students majoring in STEM fields means more funding.”
“Why then?” Nick blurted out before he could consider the wisdom of such a question. “There are hundreds of students at this school. What’s it matter if I succeed or not?”
I’m getting myself a muzzle as soon as this is over.
Dr. O’Connor looked off into space for a moment before she answered. “I’ve seen your file. I know what you’ve been through in the past year. Losing one parent is bad enough, but to have your father die so many years later . . . It can’t be easy. Especially when the law considers you an adult and expects you to magically have all the answers. For what it’s worth, if you ever need to, you can talk to me.”
Nick glanced down at his lap and didn’t respond.
Dr. O’Connor cleared her throat. “I also saw in your file that your grades were phenomenal before you took your bereavement leave. You should have no trouble getting back into the swing of things and maintaining your GPA. If you find yourself struggling, here’s my contact information.” She plucked a business card out of a ceramic holder shaped like a weiner dog and slid it across the desk.
Nick took it and stuffed it into his pocket without looking at it, face burning. “Thank you. I’ll keep your offer in mind.”
“Please do.” She stood up from her desk and held out a hand. “I’ll let you get going so you can find your dorm and settle in. It’s been lovely meeting you, Nick. I’m certain we’ll see each other again soon.”
That was probably intended to be comforting, but to him it sounded ominous. He rose to his feet and shook her hand regardless. “Thanks for taking the time to meet with me.”
With that, he left her office and pulled out his map. It looked like his dorm was located near the center of campus, which was fine with him. He liked to sleep in, and this way, he could roll out of bed five minutes before class and still make it on time.
He started to head that way, but then remembered what Dr. O’Connor had said about picking up his student ID. Navigating down the hall, he followed her instructions to the correct room.
Inside, a bored-looking guy sat at a folding table with a smattering of student IDs lined up in front of him. After showing him his driver’s license, Nick was given a blue plastic card that had his name, student number, and the photo he’d submitted printed on it.
Nick stowed the card in his wallet and exited back into the hall. Instead of heading to the front of the building again, he followed the hallway down the other way to an exit.
Pushing it open, he stepped outside and was given his first real look at the Academy of Holy Names. The campus was small—especially considering he was used to UIC, one of the biggest colleges in the state—but what it lacked in size, it made up for in aesthetic.
The buildings were all redbrick, like the admissions building, with white stone columns and eaves. A number of them had ivy growing across their faces and stained-glass windows. They looked old too, but not in a dilapidated sort of way. Seeing them made Nick self-conscious about how little time he’d been on this earth.
People milled down the stone paths that sliced through the manicured grass. They looked more or less like proverbial college students. Even on the first day of a new year, they all had tired eyes and backs that were hunched from carrying textbooks.
Nick took a deep breath. You’re going to be fine. No one knows you here. You can be whoever you want, or no one at all. Once you make some friends and get into a routine, everything else will fall into place.
His internal monologue did nothing to calm the razor-winged butterflies in his stomach. Taking another breath, he consulted his map. According to it, the music building and the gymnasium were the big, fancy-looking buildings to his right. Beyond them, there was the science building—where Nick would attend most of his classes—and the dining hall, in which he hoped to spend a lot of time.
To his left lay classrooms, the arts building, an auditorium that housed both classes and student plays, and then two dorm houses. At the center of it all was the quadrangle in which he now stood. Mossy willow trees cast shade on the many picnic tables dotting the grass, and there were flowers planted everywhere. Nick imagined he’d spend a good bit of time hanging out quad-side, eating lunch and talking to his friends, once he had some.
For now, however, he headed in the direction of his dorm to unload. His shoulder was starting to ache from carrying his bag. He kept his head down as he trotted along the path he’d selected. He wasn’t interested in meeting anyone until he’d had a chance to find a mirror. His hair had a tendency to turn into a straw Gordian knot at the slightest provocation, and he always looked exhausted these days. When was the last time he’d slept through the night? Probably a year ago.
Halfway down the path, the smell of roasted coffee beans stopped him dead in his tracks. Off to the side, at the base of a tree, was a sight so beautiful it had to be a mirage: a food cart. He’d kill for a good cup of coffee right now. The shit at the bus station had been no better than murky water.
The girl operating the cart saw him staring and flashed an amiable smile. “What can I get you?”
“Um.” He scanned the small menu board. There were six options, and none of the drinks had prices. Not that it mattered, considering his wallet currently contained his IDs, a debit card with a zero balance, and a colorful assortment of lint. “How much is a regular cup of coffee?”
“Two dollars. Got your student card on you?”
He pulled out his wallet and tried to slide the ID out of its new home. It stuck, of course, and took an embarrassingly long time to pry free. “Sorry. It’s hot off the press. Here.”
“Thanks.” It was out of his hand and into hers faster than he could blink. She swiped it through a machine and then handed it back with a smile. “It looks like you have the meal plan. The cost of the coffee will come out of that. Since your ID is new, I figure you are too. Are you a freshman?”
“Not exactly.” Though he was certainly acting like it. His last university had used student IDs for multiple functions as well. Had he been away from school for so long he’d honestly forgotten how things worked? He’d known his scholarship came with a meal plan. Bet that would have come rushing back to him the moment his stomach gurgled.
The girl smiled kindly at him as she snapped a plastic lid onto a steaming cup of coffee. “Well, welcome to the Academy anyway. Need any milk or sugar?”
“No, thanks.” Nick took the coffee, shoved his ID into a back pocket, and scuttled off. As he walked, he took a sip and immediately scalded his tongue. Fuck. Off to an excellent start.
He stopped in the shade of a willow tree, popped the lid off his coffee, and blew on it until he felt confident taking a second, albeit more tentative sip. His tongue stung, but the rest of his mouth—and his exhausted psyche—welcomed the warm liquid.
Digging in his pocket, he pulled out his phone and checked the time. He still had two hours before his first class. If unpacking went quickly—which it should, considering how little he’d brought with him—he might have time to see what the food here was like. Judging by the greener-than-green lawns and well-kept buildings, he was expecting more than the usual cafeteria slop.
While he pondered his plan of attack, his eyes drifted across campus. There were a dozen or so students within sight, scattered around the quad. Compared to his last school, the place was a dead zone. But then, he’d read in one of the dreaded brochures that the Academy only had about nine hundred students. His high school had been bigger than that.
He’d never experienced life outside of a big city before, but he’d watched enough TV to know what to expect. Everyone here probably knew everyone else, and word traveled fast. He’d do best to avoid attracting attention to himself, lest he end up in the rumor mill.
Right as he thought this, his eyes landed on a group of guys sitting at a picnic table beneath a nearby tree. They weren’t doing anything to catch his notice, but all three of them were attractive. Like, teen-TV-drama attractive.
One had dyed-red hair and skin that could give Snow White a run for her money. The guy next to him was black with prominent, symmetrical features. He was what Nick would have called “Instagrammable.” Beautiful in a classic way that was destined to go viral.
The last guy was sitting on the table with his feet propped on the bench. Messy dark hair like a stray brushstroke topped his aristocratic face. Between his Roman nose and pink cheeks, he might’ve climbed out of an old oil painting. Gangly and lean to the point of looking underfed, he was the farthest from Nick’s type of the three.
So why was Nick staring at him like he had winning lottery numbers scrawled across his face?
Nick, he scolded himself, you can’t check out boys on your first day at a Catholic college. The religious types tend to frown on that. Save the gay shit for another day.
He ordered himself to look away, but his eyes disobeyed. He frowned. What the hell was his problem? The guy was cute, sure, but so what? His friends were cuter, and he was far from the first attractive man Nick had ever seen. Why couldn’t Nick move on?
As if sensing Nick’s stare, the guy looked dead at him.
Shit. Turn away!
But Nick didn’t. He met the other student’s gaze unflinchingly. Close as he was to the table, he was able to make out his eye color. Gray. Deep gray, like storm clouds or rain water.
Damn. There was a word to describe eyes like that. Something Nick had read in a poem once. What was it? He scrambled to remember, but the best he could come up with was that he thought it started with an L. His thoughts were so scattered, he couldn’t smash them together well enough to remember.
Does he . . . remind me of something? Yeah, I think that’s it. But what?
Three of the longest seconds of Nick’s life passed before he managed to jerk his head away. Holy shit. Having just come from a bus station, he was inured to making uncomfortable eye contact with strangers, but that’d been something else.
The weird thing was, right before he’d broken eye contact, Nick could have sworn the other student had smiled. In a smug way, though. More like a smirk.
Nick brushed off the odd encounter and started walking again, though his feet dragged with reluctance.
Jesus. If this were a movie, I’d think that was some kind of fated meeting. I mean, our damn eyes met from across the way. Doesn’t get much sappier than that.
Nick shook his head and took another sip of coffee. The bitterness and heat brushed away the last of the cobwebs clouding his thoughts. He had way too much going on to get sidetracked by a pretty face. One that could be attached to a Catholic boy with some deep-seated ideas about Nick and his preferences, he reminded himself.
Best to put the whole bizarre moment behind him. Small school or not, he’d probably never see that guy again.
Powell Hall—Nick’s new home for the foreseeable future—was a four-story, moss-covered building that resembled an old man who had hair growing out of . . . well, everywhere. It was located smack-dab in the middle of campus, no more than a five-minute walk from everything. Nick instantly loved it. Looking at its brick-and-stone façade, he saw a lot of late mornings in his future.
As he walked inside, his expectations were low. The last dorm he’d stayed in had been all prisonlike cinder block and fluorescent lighting. To his surprise, he was greeted by hardwood floors, ivory walls, and a tastefully decorated foyer.
Peering through the doorways on either side, he spotted a lounge with a fireplace and some sort of rec room. All in all, it was a big improvement. He could have done without the paintings of stern-faced saints on the walls, however.
According to Dr. Finn, orientation had been last week, so everyone else had already moved in. A few students were lounging in chairs near a large front window, and they peered at him curiously. Nick peeked around for some sign of where he should go. Before he could move, a man in a blue shirt that read Resident Assistant appeared.
“Hi there, I’m Don.” His tone said he’d done this a hundred times in the past week and was operating on autopilot. “I’m the RA for Powell Hall. Are you moving in?”
“ID, please.” Don held out his hand.
Nick pulled his ID from his pocket and handed it to him. He’d expected Don to consult a list of room assignments, but at the sight of the card, Don nodded.
“I thought as much. You’re the last one to check in, Steele. Welcome to Powell Hall. You’re on the fourth floor. Head up the staircase until you can’t anymore.” He pointed to a polished wooden staircase set along the far wall. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out two identical keys on a simple metal ring, which he tossed to Nick.
“Got it.” Nick caught the keys. “How will I know which room is mine?”
“Easy.” Don flashed a prepackaged smile. “It’s the only one up there. You’re in the attic.”
Nick was about to ask if it was, like, a spooky attic, but there came a muffled crashing sound from somewhere in the back of the building. With a knowing sigh, Don darted off.
Guess I’m on my own.
Nick did as Don had instructed and headed up the stairs. He was winded by the third floor and made a mental note to add some cardio to his next workout. Panting, he forced himself up the last flight and came upon a short hallway that led to a single door.
He set his bag down and started to unlock it, but no sooner had he inserted the key, the door opened. Standing on the other side was a tall brown boy with the prettiest eyes Nick had ever seen. So dark they were nearly black and ringed by lashes like ink smudges.
“Oh hey.” The stranger blinked at him. He was dressed in black slacks and a button-down shirt. His formal attire was offset by bare feet and silky hair that was sticking up like he’d been shocked. “You must be my new roommate. Cutting it a little close, aren’t you? I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show.”
Damn, he’s handsome. Is everyone at this school preternaturally good-looking? Or have I been single for way too long?
“Um.” Nick fiddled with his bag’s strap. “Hi, I’m Nick.”
“I’m Deenabandhu. Nice to meet you.”
Panic punched Nick in the gut. “Nice to meet you too, um, Deena . . . Deenaba . . .”
Deenabandhu held up a palm. “No offense, but I can’t listen to another white person butcher my name. Just call me Deen. Everyone does. Unless you’re a bully, in which case, call me Deena.”
Nick snorted. “Deen it is.”
Deen stepped back, allowing him to enter the room. As soon as Nick did, he whistled, eyes sweeping from the high, steepled ceiling to the large windows. Two beds had been set up on opposite sides of the room, along with identical desks, nightstands, and bureaus. To the right, by the entrance, was a closed door that must lead to a closet or a bathroom.
His unspoken question was answered a second later when Deen waved at the room. “Everything’s pretty self-explanatory. Feel free to use my minifridge and microwave if you like.” He pointed out the appliances before jabbing a thumb at the closed door. “Bathroom’s through there. We have to share with the whole floor, but fortunately, the whole floor is us.”
Nick snorted again, and Deen beamed, like he wasn’t used to people laughing at his jokes. He walked over to the bed on the right. It was piled with textbooks, and judging by the tangled sheets, it’d been slept in. “I hope you don’t mind, but I got in a week ago, and I had to sleep somewhere, so I staked my claim.”
“No worries. I’m just glad there aren’t bunk beds. My last dorm had those, and I got stuck beneath a snorer.” Nick deposited his bag onto the left bed and took a seat. The mattress was the perfect combination of soft and firm. If he didn’t know any better, he would think the university had spent actual money on the dorm rooms. “Though honestly, if I’ve got a blanket and a horizontal surface, I’m happy.”
“Awesome.” Deen hopped onto his bed, facing Nick. “So, you’re new here, but you’re not a freshman. Are you a transfer?”
“Yeah, and I’m a junior. How’d you know?”
“Well, I’ve never seen you around before, for one thing. This is a tiny school, and everyone knows everyone else. Most of the students came here from the same feeder Catholic high school and have been classmates for years. I would have assumed you were a freshman, but you said you’d lived in a dorm before. Ergo, transfer student.”
Nick whistled. “Damn, that was some Sherlock Holmes shit.”
“Elementary, my dear Nickolas.” He pretended to puff on an imaginary pipe. “It is Nickolas, right? And not like, Nickstopher or something?”
Nick laughed, relaxing for the first time since he’d been on campus. It seemed he’d lucked out in the roommate department. If the rest of the year went this smoothly, he’d be set. “Nah, it’s Nickolas. Nickolas Steele. What year are you?”
“I’m a sophomore, so I’m a year younger than you.” Deen waggled his eyebrows. “That makes you my senpai.”
Nick started to correct him—thanks to his year off, he was older than most juniors—but at the last second, he clamped his mouth shut. That would invite questions he didn’t have the energy to answer right now. Not on the first day of a new semester.
Instead, he repeated what Deen had said earlier. “So, everyone knows everyone else? I’m going to stick out, huh?” So much for keeping my head down.
“Pretty much. Where are you from?”
“Chicago. Born and raised.”
“What made you decide to go to school in Evanston?”
Fuck. Avoiding the subject is going to be harder than I thought.
“The Academy offered me a full ride,” Nick answered truthfully. “Without that, I wouldn’t be here. What about you? Did you go to that feeder school you mentioned?”
“No, I moved here from out of state, believe it or not. I got a great scholarship, since I’m studying engineering.”
“Oh, hey. I bet we got similar scholarships. I’m in the STEM department too.” Nick figured he might as well unpack while they spoke, so he hopped up and opened his bag.
“No shit. What’s your major?”
“Physics. That makes us science bros.”
Nick deposited his clothing into the bureau, pulled out a tangled charger, and plugged his phone into one of the outlets above his desk. Then he tossed his bulky laptop onto the mattress.
Deen eyed it, lips puckering like he’d bitten into a lemon. “You might want to invest in some new tech, buddy. That thing looks like it’s on its last legs.”
“Once my disbursement gets in, I’ll see if I can swing it. Until then, I’m stuck with what I’ve got. But honestly, even with a full ride, it’s not like I’ll be eating filet mignon. Like any other college kid, I microwave my noodles one cup at a time.”
“I hear that. The scholarship I got was good, but I still have to pay out of pocket for a lot of shit. My parents are helping me so I won’t have to apply for loans. Are yours helping you?”
Nick pretended to dig in his now-empty bag so Deen wouldn’t see the way his face contorted. “Nah, the Academy hooked me up. They offered me the freest of free rides. Tuition. Room. Board. I won’t have to get a part-time job like I assumed I would. I can focus totally on my degree. Some of the big state schools offered me money too, but I couldn’t pass this up.”
Deen oohed. “That’s awesome. You must be a genius to get a full ride.”
“Uh, no. I mean, I did pretty well at my last school, but nothing newsworthy. It helps that I’ve always liked science and math.”
“Same. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but considering my older brother went to art school, they’re not going to push the issue. Are yours excited to have a future physicist in the family?”
Fuck. Was there no way to get to know someone without talking about the past? Nick supposed he should give up the avoidance routine, especially since Deen and he were going to be living together. Plus, Deen seemed cool. They might genuinely become friends.
Taking a breath, Nick turned around and shrugged. “My parents don’t think anything of it, actually. I don’t have any family.”
Deen’s beautiful eyes widened. “Oh shit, man, I’m sorry.”
Nick waved him off. “Don’t be. You didn’t know. My dad actually died last year, and I took time off to deal. But life marches on, so here I am.”
“I’m legit sorry though. I didn’t mean to dredge up bad memories.”
“Don’t worry about it. I mean it. Anyone would have asked me the same questions. It’s not your fault my answers are so depressing.” He offered Deen a smile. “Although, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone.”
“Of course!” Deen seemed to cling to that as if it were a life preserver. “Thanks for being cool. I’ve always wanted a chill roommate. And hey, if you need a bright side to look on, you’re going to be super popular.”
Nick raised a brow. “What makes you say that?”
“You took a year off, right? That means you’re twenty-one. You can buy beer.”
They both laughed, and the tension in the room dispersed.
Deen stood up and stretched. “When’s your first class?”
Nick checked the time on his phone. “At 10:40, so about an hour from now.”
“Perfect. How about I give you a quick tour that ends in the dining hall? We can grab some breakfast, and then I’ll show you where your class is.”
Nick could figure it out on his own, thanks to his map, but he wasn’t about to pass up on a chance to bond with his roommate. Besides, he didn’t want to be that guy navigating campus with his nose buried in a map. He’d been mistaken for a freshman enough already.
“Sounds great. Give me five minutes, and we’ll go?”
Deen grabbed his own laptop off his desk—a sleek MacBook that was thinner than Nick’s pinky finger—and started typing at lightning speed. Nick booted up his dinosaur, and the fans made sounds like an old man wheezing for breath. If any of his classes involved quiet note taking, he was going to be embarrassed.
Once his desktop had loaded, Nick connected to the university’s internet and pulled up his bank’s website. He’d been checking it fanatically for the past week, waiting for his financial aid to come in.
He was no stranger to disbursements, but this was the first year he’d had no backup money to rely on in the meantime. There had been some life insurance money, but that had gotten eaten up by medical bills, cremation, the funeral, et cetera. Plus bills and his bus ticket here. Everything cost money, and he was well and truly on his own. He’d thought he’d been independent when he’d first left for college. Now, he realized how much help his dad had been.
Time was running out too. There were certain things he could only put off buying for so long. Like textbooks for the classes he was starting today. As far as school supplies went, he had a broken pen and a crumpled napkin to his name.
With aching slowness, his laptop loaded his account statement what seemed like one pixel at a time. Finally, a number appeared in the column representing his checking account. The breath left his lungs in a whoosh. His disbursement had come in. After his tuition and board had been paid, he had a few thousand dollars leftover to get him through the semester. Thank Christ.
Nick looked up and found Deen watching him. “Yeah, my financial aid came in. Just in the nick too.”
“Nice. If you want, we can drop by the bookstore for anything you need.”
“I might pick up some notebooks there, but I prefer to buy used textbooks. New ones are so expensive.” Speaking of which, Nick quickly loaded some pages he’d had bookmarked for weeks now and ordered a few much-needed texts. He’d have to shell out for expedited shipping, but he’d finally be prepared for class. One more thing he could tick off his to-do list.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Deen said. “My organic chemistry class made me buy a supplemental note package that was legitimately just printouts of our slides, and it cost two hundred dollars. I’m not ashamed to admit I wept in the checkout line.”
Nick grabbed at his throat, pretended to gasp for breath, and collapsed onto his bed, tongue lolling out of his mouth.
Deen smothered his laughter with a hand before climbing to his feet. He rooted under his bed for a pair of shoes and pulled them on. “I don’t want to jinx anything, new kid, but I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”
“It could be, provided you never call me ‘new kid’ again.”
“Spoilsport. If you’re all finished, let’s get going. We have a lot of ground to cover on our tour, and I’m starving, so we’d better get started.”
Deen led the way out of their dorm and downstairs, nodding to several other students they passed on the way. They all ignored him, but that did nothing to flatten the spring in Deen’s step.
Once outside, Deen swept his arms out as if to encompass the whole of campus. “This, my dear Nickolas, is the Academy of Holy Names. It has a rich history, surpassed only by its party-school reputation.”
“Really? With this being a Catholic school, I kinda assumed everyone here was pretty tame.”
“Dude, no. It’s because it’s a Catholic school that everyone’s a hedonist. You can practically smell the repression. Plus, college is already a perfect petri dish for growing debauchery, and everyone here has money. Money means outlandish partying.” He shrugged. “Not that I would know. I never get invited to the parties. Which is a good thing, of course, because I’d become the most popular boy in school, and then I’d never get anything done. I’d drop out, join the circus, and the world would be short one brilliant engineer.”
Nick laughed before he could stop himself.
Deen punched him on the arm. “Hey, it could happen.”
“Are most of the students here Catholic?”
“In name, yeah, if not in practice. But you have your atheists and your new-age types. And your Muslims.” He pulled the collar of his shirt aside, revealing a tattoo of star and crescent moon just under his collarbone. “Like me.”
Nick nodded. “Cool. I didn’t think Islam allows tattoos.”
“It doesn’t, and that’s why it’s so deliciously ironic that I chose to affirm my faith this way. I crack me up.”
“Do you feel like you have to keep your faith a secret?”
“Nah. I wouldn’t have come here if they weren’t tolerant. So long as I don’t go around preaching my faith to others, they leave me alone.” He patted his shirt back into place. “Let’s begin our tour. Our first stop is the bookstore. We can buy school supplies and get high off an artificial sense of productivity.”
The bookstore was yet another old-looking redbrick building. Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of sunlight, and the smell of fresh coffee emanated from a little café tucked behind the dozens of shelves.
Nick picked up a couple of notebooks and a pack of his favorite pens—the fancy gel kind—along with a messenger bag to stow everything in. His total was nearly fifty dollars, which made him want to sob, but he’d picked the cheapest items he could find. He would have had to go into town to find a better deal, and without a car, there was no way he’d make it there and back in time for class. This was one expense he’d just have to eat.
Nick stuffed his new supplies into his bag and then slung it across his chest.
Deen seemed to scrutinize him, his index finger and thumb placed beneath his chin in a sideways L shape. “Very broke-college-kid chic.”
“Thanks. That’s what I was going for.”
Laughing, they exited the bookstore and headed back to the quad. Once there, they circled the perimeter. Deen named every building as they went, giving Nick a chance to learn where the rest of his classes were. With the campus being so small, he doubted he’d have trouble finding any of them, but better safe than sorry.
As they walked, Nick allowed himself to feel his first real glimmer of excitement. There was nothing quite like the energy of a college campus, or the first day of a new school year. It was like there were little sparks dispersed in the air, and every now and then, one would zap him. In a new town, at a new college, he almost felt like a freshman again.
As they strolled, Nick checked out the student body—somewhat literally. He was here to get an education, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the view. His earlier theory about everyone being attractive was disproven, but several of his now-peers caught his eye. Though none so powerfully as the three boys he’d spotted earlier.
In general, the students were outfitted with the typical college fare—backpacks, casual dress, and coffee cups in every other hand—but something niggled at him. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Deen unwittingly supplied the answer. “You can tell this is a private school from all the name brands.” He gestured to a nearby cluster of coeds. “It’s like walking past a Coach display at the mall.”
Understanding lanced through Nick. From the backpacks to the polo shirts, designer labels abounded. One guy who passed them on the sidewalk was sporting a briefcase that bore a Medusa head Nick recognized from billboards he’d seen back home.
“Damn.” Nick surveyed the people around them in a whole new way. “You weren’t kidding about everyone having money, huh?”
“Well, not everyone. There are scholarship students, like us, and people who took out loans. And the ones who are wealthy aren’t necessarily millionaires. They’re here on their parents’ dimes, and some are middle class. But exceptions aside, college is already expensive, and if you make it private on top of that?” He mimed an explosion with his hands and imitated the sound. “You tend to attract a certain tax bracket.”
“Yikes. Are the students stuck-up about it? You mentioned bullies earlier. Am I going to get shit if I wear off the rack?”
“For the most part, no. We’re all adults here. But on occasion, you do get your elitist assholes, same as you would anywhere else.”
“Is that why those guys in the dorm ignored you?”
“No, they ignored me because I’m a geek.” Deen winked. “Don’t fret. An athletic-looking guy like you is bound to fit in. And I promise no one’s going to stone you for the crime of being poor. Besides, you’re new. Everyone’s going to be interested in you.”
God, I hope not. Attention was the last thing Nick wanted. Unless it was from that guy he’d seen earlier. Gray Eyes had been drifting into his thoughts at regular intervals, though Nick still wasn’t sure why.
He toyed with the idea of asking Deen about him—since everyone allegedly knew everyone—but he discarded it. What would he say? Hey, I know we’re relative strangers still, but I saw a guy earlier who looked like a French aristocrat and had rain eyes. Know anyone like that?
They finished their tour of the quad and ended up outside the dining hall. The smell of pizza emanated from it, and right on cue, Nick’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since dawn, and his vending-machine breakfast hardly counted. Through the glass façade, Nick could see his new peers sitting at tables, chatting and smiling and stuffing their faces. Any one of them could be a friend in the making.
Deen gestured at the swinging doors. “Ready for food?”
They walked inside and were greeted by a sight that Nick would have sworn was familiar, despite never having set foot in this building before. Some places were glitches in the Matrix. The same no matter where in the world you went. Malls. Convenience stores. Bus depots, for sure. And college dining halls.
A man at a desk swiped their IDs, and they were in.
Nick moved a few feet away and breathed in deeply, almost feeling at home in the familiar setting. “Oh, man. I’m so down for pizza.”
“Let’s see if they’ve started serving lunch yet first.” Deen trotted off toward a steel serving table with a clear, plastic partition separating them from the food. Nick was taller than everyone ahead of them, and so he was able to see delicate pink fish fillets set out with lemon slices and capers.
“All right!” Deen grabbed one of the plates. “Salmon piccata. Score! Do you like fish?”
Nick blinked. “Is this place for real?”
“I think so, barring the usual theories of alternate-yet-parallel universes. Why?”
“No reason. I’ll stick with the pizza.”
“Suit yourself, but FYI, they only serve the fancy food at the beginning of the semester, when parents are still dropping off their kids. It’s to con the grown-ups into buying an overpriced meal plan. Next week, it’ll be all burgers and mac.”
Thank God. I only have to make it to next week.
Nick headed over to the pizza station, piled a plate as high as gravity would allow, and then followed Deen to an empty table near the front. From there, they could look out the windows at the students strolling by. It was funny to people-watch and think that in the course of the next two years, one of them could become a friend, an enemy, or a lover. A fresh start meant a whole world of possibilities. The idea was equal parts exciting and terrifying.
They enjoyed some peaceful small talk over their food, and eventually Deen convinced Nick to try the salmon. Though Nick still felt it went against the spirit of a campus mess hall, he had to admit, it was restaurant-quality.
He polished off his last slice of pizza and was considering taking a gander at the salad bar—because looking at vegetables was the same as eating them, right?—when a group of guys sailed past the window. Nick spared a quick glance at them only to do a double take. He recognized them in a big way.
Those are the guys from before. The redhead, the handsome guy, and Gray Eyes.
As Nick watched, the three men strolled into the dining hall. They headed straight for the fancy food as if they’d known it would be there. That suggested they were neither freshmen nor new like Nick.
He craned his neck to watch them as they made their selections. Gray Eyes took two plates of salmon with one large hand, grabbed an apple from a bowl, and strode off toward a table in the center of the room without waiting for his friends.
The redhead went Nick’s route and headed for the pizza, while the handsome one took a plate of salmon only to dump it onto a bed of greens he’d gotten from the salad bar. Nick’s eyes lingered on him. He was so symmetrical, Nick wanted to take an overlay of the Marquardt Beauty Mask and hold it up to his face.
Deen’s voice broke him from his creepiness. He turned back to Deen, heat working its way into his cheeks. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“I asked how much time you have left before your first class.”
“Oh shit. Class. I almost forgot.” He pulled his phone out. “I’ve got twenty minutes. It’s next door in Nassar Hall, so I have plenty of time.”
“What’s the room number?”
“Uh.” Nick checked his schedule. “Five-oh-one.”
Deen snickered. “Good luck, buddy! That’s on the fifth floor, and there’s no elevator.”
“Fuck my life. I have that class three times a week!”
“Better invest in some hiking boots.”
Grumbling under his breath, Nick snuck a peek over his shoulder again. The two boys had joined their gray-eyed friend, and all three of them were eating together, absorbed in their conversation as well as their food. Which was why it came as such a shock when Gray Eyes suddenly caught Nick’s eye.
Nick froze in his seat. Jesus, not this again.
Before Nick could defrost, Gray Eyes turned to his red-haired friend and said something. The redhead shot the quickest of glances at Nick and then nodded. Gray Eyes stood up and made a beeline for the exit. He held Nick’s gaze until he reached the door. Then, he waltzed outside and headed down a weed-riddled dirt path to the right.
When he was gone, Nick gave himself a shake. Christ, what a weird reaction. It was like his brain clogged up whenever he saw Gray Eyes. What was that? If he were a more romantic person, he might read into it, but he didn’t have the time or the energy. It was probably a combination of nerves and exhaustion.
Gray Eyes might’ve left to get away from you. He could be calling you Creepy Staring Guy in his head. That’s twice now he’s caught you looking at him. Way to make a first impression.
Sigh. He stood up and grabbed his plate. “Well, I’d better get going. Can’t be late on my first day.”
Deen nodded. “Good plan. You’ll want to give yourself extra time in case you need to take breaks on your way up all those stairs. Bring a tent so you can set up camp at the midway point.”
“Right? Between class and our dorm, this year’s going to be a cardio year.” He disposed of his trash, collected his belongings, and with a final wave to Deen, exited the dining hall. But once outside, he hesitated. Gray Eyes floated into his thoughts for the hundredth time.
Nick glanced to the right, at the overgrown path. Gray Eyes was long gone, of course, but Nick couldn’t stop thinking about the deliberate way he’d looked at Nick, stood up, and then exited without breaking eye contact.
Did he . . . want me to follow him?
Nick shook his head. That was ridiculous.
But was it? Nick was pretty sure he’d seen that exact move in a movie or two. Then again, why would a complete stranger want to signal Nick?
That’s easy: he wouldn’t. This is wishful thinking. You saw a cute guy, and you want to believe he noticed you too. Stop being weird, and get to class. You can’t afford to be late on your first day.
Nick turned his back on the path, mentally and physically. To his left lay a cement sidewalk that led to Nassar Hall, and by extension, his class. He stared at it, willing his feet to move, but they remained rooted to the spot.
As if of their own accord, his eyes drifted over his shoulder. The path Gray Eyes had taken cut through a patch of trees before curving off behind the dining hall. It was impossible to see where it led from here.
Should I see what’s down there? For curiosity’s sake? It won’t take more than a minute. I have some time to kill before class anyway, and at this rate, I’m going to be distracted if I don’t get some closure.
His excuse was thin as tissue paper, but he glommed onto it. After another prolonged pause, he turned right and trotted down the path. The trees weren’t thick enough to obscure him from view, but they did give him an odd sense of privacy. Especially as the path wound off to the side, and the main part of campus got left behind.
After thirty seconds of walking, Nick found himself behind the dining hall. The trees thinned into a clearing with an old, disused picnic table in the center.
Sure enough, Gray Eyes was sitting on the picnic table, in the precise same pose he’d taken up earlier that day: feet planted on the bench seat.
As soon as he saw Nick, he smirked again. “Oh, good. You’re as smart as you look.” He stretched one long leg to the ground and stood up. Nick hadn’t realized it before—since one or both of them had been sitting—but Gray Eyes was taller than him. That didn’t happen to Nick often.
He scrambled to think of something to say. Unfortunately, his heart was beating so loudly, it drowned out all thought. “Um . . . hi?”
Nice one. Very original.
Gray Eyes slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans—which looked both new and expensive—and strolled up to him, stopping a few strides away. “I’ve never seen you around before. Are you new?”
Nick loosened up enough to roll his eyes. “I’ve been getting that all day. Do they make you guys memorize the student roster, or what?”
Gray Eyes laughed. “You’ve never attended a small school before. I can tell.” He took another few steps forward, bringing them within a foot of each other.
The air left Nick’s lungs. From this miniscule distance, he could count the freckles on Gray Eyes’s nose.
Limpid. Nick met his gaze. That was the word I was trying to think of before. He has limpid eyes.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Gray Eyes lowered his voice to a murmur, as if they were sharing a secret. “You’re new here, right? What’s your name?”
“Nick Steele. And you are?”
Gray Eyes studied his face in a manner that was both unnerving and flattering. “Are you a freshman or did you transfer?”
“Now who’s not answering questions. And why did you bring me here?”
“Because I wanted to welcome you to the Academy, Nick.”
Before Nick could react, Gray Eyes reached out and cupped his chin, sweeping a thump across Nick’s bottom lip.
Nick made a surprised noise. His brain told him to pull away, but his mouth wanted to lean into the soft touch. The very gray eyes Nick had been so focused on latched on to his lip, and for a bleary moment, Nick wondered if this stranger was going to kiss him. Even more confusing was the fact that Nick wanted him to.
Before Nick could decide what to do, Gray Eyes released him. Nick stumbled, weak in the knees and blinking.