With tears streaming down his face, Preston Grant ran out of his house straight into the wooded area out back. He ignored his mother’s voice calling after him. Like a homing pigeon, he let his instincts guide him when his vision blurred. It led him through the tunnel of trees into a small clearing near a ridge that looked out onto a massive manmade lake, the setting sun at his back. Rubbing his forearm across his face, he glanced around and took a deep, shuddering breath. Good. Nathan hadn’t arrived at their hideout yet. He couldn’t show his best friend this face. Not when snot dripped down his nose and his cheeks burned hot. He let the tears flow freely, unashamed while alone.
A rustling among the bushes surprised him into silence. He bit his lip to keep the whimpers in while he furiously wiped his nose against the sleeve of his sweater. He wished he’d brought his jacket. With winter coming, the air had a harsher bite to it.
“Preston,” Nathan said. “You there?”
He didn’t respond. Nathan would spot him soon enough. He merely stood there, concentrating on keeping the rest of his emotions from spilling over.
“There you are.” The moment Preston turned around, his best friend stopped. “Why are your eyes red?”
The question sent him over the edge. Sobs, actual sobs left him along with the words, “I can’t take it anymore! My father keeps—” He sniffed, unable to continue.
“What did he ask you to do this time?” Nathan asked simply.
“Be nice to Alicia,” he whined back. “Alicia! She does nothing but beat me up. Sometimes I didn’t even do anything…”
“This one time…” He wiped at leaking eyes furiously. “I was just passing by while she was playing with one of her dolls and…”
“Preston, listen to me.”
Still he kept talking—more like babbling—until Nathan came closer and kissed him on the mouth. It took Preston a second to realize what was happening before he stepped back in complete shock. His face grew several degrees hotter.
“You kissed me!”
Nathan shrugged as if it was no big deal. “Because you wouldn’t have listened to what I had to say otherwise.”
“But you kissed me!”
He sighed. “Look, Alicia is leaving. You don’t have to be nice to her if you don’t want to. Just avoid her by coming to me.”
Preston opened his mouth to argue, but no words came out. What Nathan said actually made sense. Like a sudden drought had come, his tears dried up.
“Now come on,” Nathan said. “It’s getting late. I’ll walk you home. If we run into Alicia I’ll pull her hair for being mean to you.”
Still speechless from both the spontaneous kiss and his best friend’s advice, Preston walked side by side with him. Fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Every so often the backs of their hands brushed, sending a jolt of awareness up Preston’s arm. They remained quiet until a shiver ran down his back and he cupped his hands over his mouth and blew on them.
“It’s getting really cold,” he said.
Nathan unwrapped his scarf. “Come on.”
Preston blinked. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“We’ll share the scarf.” Nathan stepped closer and began wrapping one end around Preston’s neck.
Remembering the kiss, he froze. “That’s just silly. How are we going to walk without strangling ourselves?”
“That’s why you’re going to hook your arm around my waist and I’ll do the same to yours. Like when we’re running a three-legged race.” Not waiting, he pulled Preston against his side and secured his arm around his waist.
“But we’re both boys. People will see,” Preston said, yet he still snaked his arm behind Nathan so he could hold on to his other side. He was warm against him. And soft. Like his favorite pillow.
“It’s getting dark and we’re alone. Don’t worry about it. Are you still cold?”
Red-faced, Preston shook his head. “No.”
Brooding into his soda, Preston had no idea why that particular memory from when they were eight chose this moment to invade his thoughts. The first time he’d fallen in love. Ten years later, what did he have to show for it? Attending a party he didn’t want to be at. After a grueling day of training, he’d rather be home, resting. He only said yes to Amber’s post-graduation party because both Nathan and his cousin, Caleb, were going. What Caleb saw in the vapid social-climber baffled him. They’d been dating since the beginning of senior year. He gagged. Of all the girls in their class, Amber was the worst of the lot. He wouldn’t date her for all the sex in the world. Well…if he was being completely honest with himself, there was only one person he wanted. His feelings were very clear, as far as he was concerned. Years’ worth of feelings. Whether the he felt the same? That was murky waters. But it didn’t matter. He’d keep at it even if he had to swim through mud to get him to see they were meant to be together.
He scanned the crowd. In a dimly lit corner, Caleb was talking to a guy known at their school for supplying whatever recreation one might need. Preston stayed away from him. Even a rumor of possible drug use by associating with a dealer could get him into serious trouble. His swimming coach had a no tolerance policy. His eyebrow rose when Caleb reached into his pocket and handed the guy a folded bill who then palmed him something. Nathan’s cousin never struck him as a user. He shrugged. Not his business until Nathan made it his business.
He scanned the crowd again. He hadn’t seen Nathan for a while. Worry niggled at his nape. He reached up and squeezed the back of his neck. Throwing the red solo cup into the bin beside the drinks table, he set off in search of his best friend, who at last count was already three cups into the beer.
The music pumped into the house via hidden speakers change from a techno mix to Fall Out Boy’s The Phoenix. The pulsing beats seemed to lift the house off its hinges. Someone had the volume turned up way too loud, yet nobody else seemed to mind. A whoop above the din told Preston what he needed to know. Nathan had found his way to the entertainment system and convinced whoever was manning it to change the music to whatever he wanted. Most likely his phone was now plugged into the player with his party mix on cue.
Grinning, he stepped into the living room. All the furniture had been cleared to make way for a dance floor. And there in the middle of the writhing bodies bounced Nathan. Preston stuffed his hands into his pockets and leaned his shoulder against the doorframe. Their junior year, he’d finally mustered the courage to confess his feelings. Nathan brushed him off with the reason that he didn’t want to mess with their friendship. Preston kept his mouth shut and bided his time, enduring having to watch Nathan go from relationship to relationship. Each guy less worthy of the man he loved than the last. Still Preston remained patient.
From the looks of Nathan’s jerky movements, his best friend was way past three cups. He wished he had that kind of coordination outside the water. Maybe if he danced like that, even drunk dancing, his feelings would reach Nathan and he would finally admit to himself what they had was stronger than the bonds of friendship.
Preston loved watching him let loose. Nathan was usually off helping someone else—mostly Caleb. The cousins were tighter than skinny jeans on a girl. Despite the prick of jealousy, he reminded himself to be thankful that he was part of the Parker family inner circle.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed Amber taking Caleb’s hand and leading him out of the house. Preston shook his head. They’d been warning him about her for weeks. Maybe tonight Caleb would finally see why he shouldn’t be with her anymore.
When he returned his gaze to the dancing crowd, one of the juniors who scored an invite to the party moved toward Nathan. He came up from behind and put his hands on Nate’s hips. When drunk, Nathan cared little about what was happening. That was why Preston always took it upon himself to stay sober. He didn’t move from his position by the door. Nothing happened yet. They were just dancing. But the hands inside his pockets clenched into tight fists. This had got to stop. He was tired of seeing Nathan in the hands of someone else. If Preston didn’t make a move now, he feared he never would.
He rolled his head over his shoulders until vertebrae cracked along his neck when Nathan reached up and tangled his arms around junior boy’s shoulders. Their hips swiveled left then right to the rhythm of the music. Preston pushed off the doorframe and distributed his weight on both feet as Nathan ground his backside against the sleaze that shoved his hands inside Nate’s front pockets. Who the hell invited this guy to the party anyway? This was supposed to be for seniors only. Preston saw red when Nathan’s head rolled back against the guy’s shoulder and his lips parted. Junior prick bent his head down.
Preston charged. He didn’t care who he bumped into when he entered the dance floor. He ignored the yelled protests until he reached the center. Breathing hard, he closed his hand around the douchebag’s collar from behind and yanked him off Nathan before their lips could touch.
“Hey!” the junior protested.
“Preston, what the hell?” Nathan glared.
Not replying, Preston put himself between Nathan and the guy who was about to die. The junior was tall, but Preston was taller and broader. He took a step toward his prey, fists at his side. As if sensing the tension in the air, the once dancing crowd scattered into a loose circle around them. The music cut off. All someone had to do was shout fight and Preston would gladly throw the first punch. The junior didn’t back down.
“We were just dancing,” he said defensively.
Preston bared his teeth. “That wasn’t just dancing.” He moved to advance on the guy who dared to think he could kiss his best friend when a hand on his arm stopped him. He glanced down at a pale Nathan who could barely stand on his own feet anymore. With all the adrenaline of dancing gone, the alcohol took over. He turned his back on the junior and bent Nate over his shoulder. In one heave, he carried his best friend out of the house to the tune of stunned silence.
“Pres, I think I’m going to be sick,” Nathan said weakly, followed by a hiccup.
“Go ahead,” he replied, not minding the chance of puke down his back. “I’m not putting you down until we reach your car. Where are the keys?”
At the red Roadster convertible, Preston set his cargo down. Nathan lost his balance the second his feet hit the ground. Without hesitating, he pulled Nathan forward until his best friend leaned against him heavily. With one arm around his waist, Preston used the other to fish around his back pocket for the car keys. He did his best to ignore the firmness of the ass his hand grazed against. Nathan was one of those people gifted with a great body—lean with clean lines. He didn’t have to slave away at the gym to achieve perfection.
Biting down on his lip to keep from getting distracted, Preston finally found the keys and opened the door to the passenger side. He eased a dozing Nathan onto the seat, but when he moved to stand, Nathan’s arms wrapped around his shoulders.
“Where are we going?” he asked in a voice slurred by the alcohol.
“I’m taking you home,” Preston whispered.
“Kiss me first.”
Heat crept up Preston’s neck. From where he bent over all he had to do was shift slightly and he’d give Nathan what he wanted. Hurt pricked at his chest knowing Nathan would never ask if he were sober. He flicked his gaze toward the house where a group of girls stumbled out of the front door, all of them giggling. He silently thanked them for distracting him from the temptation. Not here. Sighing, Preston reached up and untangled Nathan’s arms from his shoulders. Then he buckled him in and sprinted to the driver’s side.
Nathan slept throughout the drive. Preston chuckled when he parked the Roadster beside his green Jeep Wrangler in the Parker’s garage. Nate could never hold his liquor. He’d hate himself in the morning for sure. Preston unbuckled his conked out friend before getting out of the car. He rounded to Nathan’s side and opened the door. Sitting on his hunches, he eased Nathan out of the passenger seat. But instead of throwing him over his shoulder like he’d done at the party, Preston opted for another way. He hooked Nathan’s arm over his shoulders then eased his arm beneath Nate’s knees.
As if Nathan knew just what to do, he snuggled closer against Preston’s chest and rested his head on his shoulder. After making sure his best friend was secure, Preston used his knees to push up to his feet. He kicked the car’s door closed before climbing the steps to the door that led into the house via the kitchen. Thank God for the moonlight streaming into the house. He didn’t have to switch on lights in every room he entered on the way to the second floor staircase.
He also sent a silent prayer of thanks that the door to Nathan’s room was left ajar. Reaching up, he flicked a switch. Nathan grumbled angrily when the lights turned on. Hurrying to the bed, Preston lay him down gently. Then he turned on the bedside lamp before switching off the main lights. Nathan sighed, falling back to sleep.
Rolling the kinks out of his shoulders, Preston shuffled back to the bed. The soft snores made him smile. Hands on his hips he assessed the situation. He couldn’t just leave Nathan like this. Sleeping in the previous day’s clothes annoyed him. So Preston began with his shoes then socks, letting them fall to the floor. When he reached Nathan’s belt buckle, he paused. His hands shook slightly. It wasn’t like this was the first time he was undressing Nathan. He’d seen him naked before. For a second, he allowed himself to entertain thoughts of becoming more intimate, but ravaging someone—especially a drunk someone—wasn’t his style. Taking a deep breath, he unfastened the belt and pants and pulled them off to join the shoes and socks on the floor. He didn’t bother with the shirt since Nathan hated sleeping shirtless.
Once he settled Nate under the covers, Preston sat at the edge of the bed beside him. The lamplight softened his features, making him look younger than he was. That afternoon years ago at their hideout returned to Preston’s mind. The decision had been made the second he carried Nathan out of that party. It was his turn.
Vowing he would do everything in his power to show Nathan a relationship beyond friendship was possible between them, he reached out and ran his fingers through his tousled dark hair. The strands were silky beneath his touch.
Murmuring, Nathan leaned into the caress like a cat craving for more. The pounding in his chest doubled when Nathan’s lips parted in sleep. Here, in his room, while they were alone, the words left Preston’s lips without him having to think twice about it, affirming what he had to do.
“I love you,” he said then bent down and stole a kiss.
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