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by Jaime Samms
Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
Description: After filing charges that put his abusive ex-Dom behind bars, Jesse Turbul relocates halfway across the country, hoping to escape his past--but, of course, it's never that easy. When Jesse meets third-year law student Aadon at the library where he works, their mutual attraction is instant and obvious. Despite the sparks, they just can't seem to make it work. Aadon is mired in guilt over his inability to help his older brother, damaged by events far too similar to Jesse's past. Jesse is stuck in his own desperate wish to forget the painful shadow that continues to threaten him and any hope of a happy future. The only way to move forward is for Jesse to acknowledge he's broken and for Aadon to accept he can't make him better.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: March 2012
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [356 KB]
Reading time: 238-334 min.
Times like this, every tiny scar on Jesse's forearms tingled, like they were trying to crawl off his skin. He rubbed at them, trying to calm the discomfort even as his heart rate soared and heat climbed up into his hairline. Those deep blue eyes captured and held his attention.
Well aware he was staring like an idiot, Jesse tore his gaze away from the big blond on the other side of the room and turned back to his work.
"His name is Aadon."
The voice in his ear made Jesse start. "Shh!"
"Shh-ush!" Jesse scowled at the woman grinning at him across the library checkout counter.
She smiled her knowing, annoying little smile and flipped her book closed. "You are so busted."
She leaned close and whispered the next tidbit directly in Jesse's ear. "He's looking over here again."
Jesse shifted his shoulders, shrugging off her nearness. In the close, quiet confines of the library's checkout counter, her breath on his neck was unwelcome. It felt like a hot gust, blowing the debris of old, sharp memories over his skin, and he shuffled a step away. He did glance over, though, just in time to see Aadon's head lower.
Sarah shrugged and hopped off her stool. "Jesse." She snapped her fingers in front of his face. "I'll see you at home?"
"Whose home?" Jesse blinked at her, forcing himself to pay attention.
"Yours. I'll order pizza."
"Yes, again. Only way we can get half vegetarian and half carnivore."
"You and your meat," he muttered.
She leaned across the counter and pecked his cheek. "Puts hair on your chest. You should try it some time."
She gathered up her books and sauntered out the door.
Jesse managed to keep his eyes on the work of scanning books from the return bin for a whole three minutes more before glancing back at the object of their conversation.
Aadon still sat in the nearest cubicle along the wall, his back to the sea of heavy wooden tables stretched down the center of the room. His head, sporting a glorious mane of blond hair, bent over an open textbook. The view Jesse had of his broad shoulders and long, lean back spoke of an athletic body not dependant on a gym membership for its tone and shape. His profile showed a prominent nose and generous lips, and long, thick lashes gracing eyes Jesse already knew were a clear, vibrant blue. He wished, suddenly, he could chase away the frown that turned those full lips down at the corners and creased his brow into sharp furrows.
He caught himself imagining his own fingers teasing away the frown lines, pictured himself plucking at the down-turned lips with his own until Aadon finally caught his face in a firm grip and kissed him breathless. The thought did catch Jesse's breath and caused his heart to trip over itself inside his chest. He let out a soft curse, sure it was an image he was never going to get out of his head.
For the next half hour, between checking out books and logging those returned, he watched the blond man's head bent over his studies. He couldn't drag his attention away from the big sure hands taking notes and holding the paper cup from which he drank his coffee. Jesse should have stopped him from even bringing the coffee into the library, but admonishing him for something he did himself and setting that kind of double standard wasn't the first impression he wanted to make. Trouble was, he didn't know what kind of impression he did want to make. Maybe none at all. That seemed safest. Shaking his head at the thought the gorgeous man would even notice him, Jesse turned his full attention back to his task. Eventually, the soft murmur of voices from the tables and the background hum of the old fluorescent lights made him feel at home again. Beige and staid the library might be, but the smells of book dust and quiet suited him.
He'd managed to convince himself he didn't really care by the time he worked up the nerve to look again, only to find deep blue eyes turned on him, a thoughtful look steady in their depths. Jesse momentarily panicked. What if he and Sarah had been talking too loud? Had the guy heard them discussing him? Shit. Did he know what Jesse was thinking? That imaginary kiss flashed through his mind again, and he flushed hot the way it stirred every nerve ending. Jesse swallowed the sudden, quivering lump in his throat and nodded slightly. Acknowledge. Be polite. He's not a mind reader. Probably isn't even gay
Aadon smiled, baring perfect white teeth and showing dimples.
Jesse froze. Guys did not smile at other guys like that unless.... The lump was back, along with a creeping spread of heat rising up his neck and into his cheeks and curling down his spine to tingle in his groin. He looked away quickly.
A book shushed across the counter, bumping into Jesse's fingers, and he whirled just in time to catch it from spilling over the edge and onto his toes. A man stood at the counter, a few more books in his long-fingered hands. Freckles cascaded down his nose, across his cheeks, and down his bare arms, even sprinkled across the backs of his hands as he spread the array of books in front of him. "Can I sign these out please?"
Heat rose further up Jesse's cheeks.
The guy's gaze flicked over to Jesse's left, where Aadon sat, then back to Jesse, too neutral not to have noticed he'd been obviously spellbound by a stranger. And a male one at that.
"Uhh... sure. Yeah." Jesse sighed. There should be a rewind button for his life. Or at least for this day. He'd have called in sick.
The man just smiled. "Don't worry about it." He pushed a thatch of red hair out of his eyes. "He's worth looking at. My girlfriend is in his ethics class, and she barely takes a note."
Jesse laughed nervously. There was his answer about Beautiful's orientation. He took the guy's student card to scan. Leo Quinn. The yellow bar across the top proclaimed him to be in his third year, the same as Jesse, but his campus was the Engineering University, as opposed to the General Arts College Jesse was affiliated with.
"I'd be jealous," Leo was saying, leaning in slightly and winking, "if I didn't know he's firmly in your camp."
"'Scuse me?" Jesse's head shot up in alarm. He found himself once again the focus of those very blue eyes. Aadon was watching him, a slightly shocked look on his face.
The man at the counter waved a hand dismissively, drawing Jesse's horrified attention back to him. "It's all good, dude."
"Right." Trying to hide the blush behind the plastic rim of his coffee cup, Jesse sipped at the cold brew as he handed the card back. He picked up one of the books. At least his hands didn't shake. Carefully, he damped the flash of panic and set the book down again. "That obvious, am I?" He didn't much care if people knew he was gay. He didn't hide it. But this was hardly a conversation he wanted to be having with Aadon watching him so closely.
Leo smiled and leaned closer to Jesse, offering a wink and a huge grin. "Aadon and I go back a long way, and he hasn't fallen for a straight guy since we were thirteen and he tried to get me to pull his taffy."
Jesse almost snorted coffee out his nose. "Pull his taffy? Now there's one I haven't heard before."
Leo grinned and held out his hand. "I'm Leo, by the way."
Jesse pointed at the card still sitting on the counter and nodded. Heavy calluses on Leo's palm made his firm grip seem that much harder. Jesse pulled his hand free quickly. "Jesse."
"Oh, I know."
Jesse blinked in surprise. "You do?" He hid new discomfort by concentrating on checking out Leo's stack of books. The rhythmic beep of the computer scanner served to calm his nerves some with its familiarity. Still. People shouldn't know who he was. He was careful that people didn't know who he was. He'd come to school halfway across the country so people didn't know who he was.
Leo smiled, and Jesse found the expression less than comforting. "I do." He tilted his head in Aadon's direction, tossed a hank of red hair out of his eyes, and grinned. "He's had you under observation for a while now."
"Shithead," Aadon muttered from right behind Leo.
Jesse dropped the book he was holding. "He has? You have?" Shit, shit, shit!
"You sound surprised," Aadon drawled, enthralled by Jesse's obvious shock, but not amused at how Leo had put him on the spot. He'd kick his ass for that, later.
"I--" Jesse didn't know what to say, so he said nothing for a moment. When the silence stretched way past awkward, he mumbled: "Not like we're quite in the same league." He squeezed his eyes closed in belated realization that sounded pathetic. "College. Not in the same college," he muttered. Best let Aadon know now he wasn't expecting anything to come from Leo thrusting them into this ridiculously awkward situation.
Leo flicked his eyes from Jesse's face down his body and back up again. "I don't know what league you think you're in, but I promise, even I can see what Aadon sees, so I would hardly count myself out of the game if I were you. Besides, you have that whole"--he waggled his fingers in the air--"mysterious never-seen-with-a-boyfriend thing going on, which is plenty to catch Aadon's attention all by itself."
"Leo! Shut it!"
Leo laughed, picked up his books, and grinned at them both.
Jesse couldn't catch his breath. His chest tightened, and he blindly leaned back on the far counter, away from the other men. How did they know he didn't have a boyfriend? How did they know he even wanted one?
Backing away from the counter, loaded down with books and that huge grin on his face, Leo just shrugged. "All I know?" he said to Jesse. "I plan on seeing a lot more of you before the semester's out."
Aadon smacked Leo on the back of the head as the other man passed. "Asshole."
Leo just smirked at him. "Stop procrastinating, dude."
Leo laughed, glanced at Jesse, and snickered even harder before dodging another blow from Aadon. "Later!"
Jesse watched the door swing closed behind him. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
"You all right?" Aadon asked, concern bubbling up at the pale cast to Jesse's features.
Jesse nodded. Perfect first impression. Have a panic attack at the thought he might talk to you. Excellent.
"Hello, Aadon." Out of nowhere, Jesse's boss appeared, her sharp tone clipping the words off. "I see you've taken to studying on weekends too, then? This is the third weekend in a row." One of her eyebrows rose above the cold metal rim of her glasses, though she didn't actually look up from the books she was sorting. "I thought you were strictly a weeknight researcher."
"Unlike you, Miss Stathopoulos, lovely as you are, I need my beauty sleep." He nodded in Jesse's direction. "I see you have new help."
Stathopoulos barely acknowledged the flippant flattery. "He's coming along, I suppose. Jesse, dear, go in the back and fetch the new magazines, please."
"Yes, ma'am." Grateful for the offered escape, Jesse hurried off.
"Really, Thea? You going to be Jesse's aunt too, now?"
"Leave him be, Sobrino." She waved her hand in his face even while she was already turning her attention to the books. "Nephew. You, my sobrino make all the pretty ones blush," she muttered.
"Is he all right?" Aadon watched Jesse's hastily retreating back until he disappeared through the door to the back offices before turning his gaze back to his aunt.
The old librarian peered at Aadon over the rims of her glasses. "A panic attack, Sobrino. Or damn near. Do not get in his business unless you mean it. You understand?"
"Since when do you care so very much about your staff, Thea?"
She opened each of Aadon's books, scanning them one at a time, not taking her eyes from the bar codes, except to glance at the computer screen to her right.
"I don't know his story, Aadon. I only know...."
"What?" He leaned over the counter, trying to get his aunt to look up at him. "What do you know, Thea?"
"He's careful about everything, Aadon. A person like that?" She shook her head. "Someone that protective of themselves has been hurt, and you,"--she finally looked at him and poked her scanner in his direction, the bright light in her eye making him flinch--"you don't have a long record of being careful yourself."
"So... what?" Aadon glanced toward the door to the back room, more intrigued than ever. "He's fragile or something?"
"Or something." She sighed and set the books down, finally looking at her nephew for real. "I don't know, Aadon. He's never said anything to me about it, but he reminds me too much of Ricky. Not"--she held up a hand when Aadon would have said something--"the drugs or any of that. He's not gone down the same road your brother has, but maybe he comes from some place similar. Just... he's got walls up, and he isn't about to knock them down or jump over them for just anyone. I can see that much."
Aadon gazed at the closed office door. If anyone knew about watching the world from behind a wall of "careful" and "not worth the risk" it was his aunt. He knew she was telling him not to get involved. He knew she was. But if he was like Ricky, if something had happened to Jesse like what happened to Ricky to make his brother close off, turn to drugs, ruin himself over it, maybe Aadon could help. Maybe, knowing how it could go, he could make whatever it was better for Jesse before it got any worse.
Across the counter from him, his aunt shook her head. "How you can be your father's son, I will never know."
Aadon frowned. "What does that mean?"
She had already turned her attention back to completing his scan out. "A smart man would walk away now."
Aadon grinned. "I am the smartest person you ever met, Thea. You've said so yourself."
"And I take it back," she muttered.
Aadon leaned over the desk and kissed her forehead. "No you don't." He gathered up the books she shoved at him. "Don't worry. I promise I won't get my heart broken." With one last look at the sealed door, he flashed another grin and sauntered out, pretending not to hear her last whispered, Not your heart I'm worried about. He wasn't an asshole. He had no intention of breaking anything except maybe Leo's head for putting Jesse on the spot like that. But then again... maybe not that, either. Now, at least, the ball was rolling, and he was past the odd paralysis that had kept him from speaking up sooner. This was good. This could be good. He smiled to himself and turned toward Leo's and the free dinner his best friend's girlfriend was sure to have almost on the table by now.
* * * *
"That boy," Stathopoulos muttered as she pushed into the tiny, crowded back office.
"What boy?" Jesse asked, looking up from where he was unwrapping the latest edition of Vogue for the library shelf. He suspected he knew who she was talking about, but he asked anyway.
"You have to watch a boy like that, Jesse."
"Like what's his name?" He nodded at the door propped open now with a box of books Miss Stathopoulos shoved in front of it with one foot. "Aadon?" As if he could forget the name. Or the blue eyes. Or Aadon's blond hair flopping across his forehead, almost obscuring the way his brow wrinkled with every grin and frown. Oh, I'm watching. How could he not watch that?
"You have to be careful around boys like that. You never know what they are after," Stathopoulos admonished, shaking her head, a troubled look on her face.
Jesse knew what he wanted Aadon to be after, but he said nothing. That was a precarious thought. Precarious because he had not thought it about any guy in such a long time. Precarious because for the first time since he'd moved here, even if the thought made his heart stop with fear, he still wanted to pursue it.
"Boys like that...." She stared at Jesse a moment longer, as if there was something else she wanted to say.
"What about him?" She had Jesse curious now.
"Just be careful, Jesse. You never know what you might end up in."
She shook her head again and wandered off with a cart of books headed for the stacks.
Jesse wanted to stick his tongue out at her back, childish as it was. For the first time in how long he was actually interested in a guy and not freaking out about it, and she had to pour disapproval all over the feeling. Why? Because they were both guys? Jesse grimaced. He hoped not. People like that never cared to change their attitudes. He wanted to tell her--every time she commented--he was a boy like that. But he needed this job. His rent was already overdue, and his hours were sketchy to begin with. He saw no point alienating her. He just waved away the lingering stench of her perfume and pulled more plastic wrapping off the magazines.
* * * *
Aadon left the library humming, an armload of books he didn't need weighing down his limbs, but not his mood.
He hadn't been able to miss the whispers between Jesse and the girl Jesse was with, or the quick glances in his direction. He'd definitely caught the way Jesse blushed each time those shuttered brown eyes met his. Aadon had to admit that particular shade of pink was a complete turn on. He couldn't help but wonder if the tendency to blush so prettily was accompanied by a tendency to defer. The idea that the guy might be single, gay, and lean toward submissive was one Aadon found impossible to get out of his head.
He just wished he had been able to hear what they had been saying. He hadn't had the same problem when Leo had approached Jesse. He'd managed to overhear every pointed thing his best friend had said to the shy stranger. Later, he'd kick Leo's ass for that. Still. It was nice to know for sure that two of his three criteria were indeed met. Jesse was single and gay. He smiled to himself. Sometimes, submissive was something a guy didn't know about himself until it was pointed out to him.
Aadon could do that. And if Jesse didn't bend that way, that would be okay too. It wasn't a hard limit for Aadon. There was still something very seductively vulnerable about the man that Aadon couldn't get out of his head.
He'd been watching Jesse since the beginning of the semester, about a month, now, and not only was it intriguing that he never seemed to go on a date, there was a kind of innocent charm about him that drew Aadon's attention like a flame might draw a moth. Aadon chose to end the comparison there because everyone knew how that ended for the moth. And besides, Jesse didn't seem dangerous. Just interesting, in a quiet, oblivious sort of way, which Leo had confirmed with his not-so-subtle probing today.
Another smile flitted across Aadon's face. The expression felt so unfamiliar lately, and that observation drove it away almost instantly. The books felt heavier, and the sun dipped behind a cloud. There was every chance that no matter how interested he was in Jesse, the interest wouldn't be returned beyond the first date. Most guys, when they got a good glimpse of the life behind Aadon's careful front, had no real interest in the amount of baggage he had hidden in his closet. There was no reason to assume Jesse would be any different.
"Idiot," he admonished himself quietly as he crossed the street and fumbled for his car keys. "You don't have to make your life about Ricky."
Isn't that what Perry had told him? "Just forget your screwed up life and your screwed up brother and fuck me already."
If Aadon hadn't already told himself he was through with the occasional fucking Perry offered, that little gem would have done the trick. Even with his wrists bound behind his back and his ass in the air, Perry could be a class "A" jerk. He got off on the bondage, and when Aadon really wanted a good, mindless fuck, Perry was a good partner. When Aadon wanted a bit more docility, a chance to really take charge and take care of someone, well, Perry had no interest in that sort of submission, even once surmising, out loud, Aadon only wanted to pretend to care for someone to make up for Ricky. Which had just pissed Aadon off royally. Not only was it not true, it was downright presumptuous of Perry to assume he knew either Aadon or Ricky's situation well enough to say it. More and more these days, Aadon simply found that mindlessness wasn't enough. He wanted an actual relationship, with an actual person who wasn't an ass. A relationship that didn't revolve around easy sex.
Tossing his load of books on the passenger seat next to him, Aadon let out an explosive sigh. Perry was not worth the time or energy it took to get worked up over him. Ricky... well, Ricky wasn't going anywhere, and that situation wasn't changing any time soon. He glanced at his watch and made a note of the date. One week from Ricky's next psych appointment. He could call his father and ask him to go, but the argument and the stress of worrying if he actually did or not wasn't worth having the weekend free.
He did, however, call the clinic and change the appointment from Monday morning to Sunday afternoon. Ricky's new doctor was more than willing to meet on a weekend if she didn't have to meet with their father. Adamos Dounias was not an easy man to talk to, even when you were giving him news he wanted to hear. Receiving yet another report that his eldest son was not responding to his treatment, or that he'd once again turned violent in the face of a seemingly innocent gesture from another patient, was never news Mr. Dounias ever wanted to hear.
Hanging up the phone, Aadon caught himself letting out another sigh and instead, called to mind the memory of Jesse's shy but interested glance from over the librarian's shoulder. He stole a glance of his own at the mountain of books he'd signed out just to get a chance to talk to Jesse and found the tune he'd been humming. Sunday afternoon would come soon enough. In the meantime, he would pluck every tidbit of information he could from Leo's head and figure out a way to ask Jesse on a date
What was the worst that could happen? They'd go out, have a nice dinner, maybe dance a bit, and if that was all that came of it, it was better than Perry. Mind made up, he pulled out of the parking lot and pointed his car down the street toward the house Leo shared with his girlfriend and her cousins.
* * * *
"Hey." Leanne was just pulling into her driveway as Aadon got out of his car. "I guess you're here to see Leo. What'd he do now?"
"Only tried to embarrass the crap out of me."
She smiled wickedly. "He did say he was going to talk to that guy you've been eyeing once and for all. And I must say"--she opened the front door and ushered him inside--"you don't usually moon quite so long before making your move. So what's up with this guy? Leo!" She dumped her purse and keys and kicked off her shoes. "Addy's here!"
"Really, Lee?" Aadon complained. He'd known both Leo and Leanne about as long as he could remember, but that didn't mean they had to still use that old nickname.
"Of course, sugar. You staying for supper? Krissy's making that thing she does." She whirled her hand in the air, and gave a little shrug. "And Leo just made bread, by the smell."
"You are spoiled rotten, Lee, you know that."
"So stay and share in the spoils, yeah?"
Aadon shrugged. He never refused Leo's fresh baking or Krissy's cooking.
"Hey, Addy." Leo tossed off an unholy grin and snapped the kitchen towel he was holding when Aadon made a lunge for him. The material landed a stinging snap across Aadon's thigh, and he yelped. "Hey, you swung first."
"And you deserve it," Aadon griped, rubbing a palm over the sting. "I cannot believe you talked to him."
Leo turned back toward the kitchen, talking over his shoulder as Aadon followed. "I cannot believe you've been mooning for over a month. What is it about this guy, anyway?"
"I do not moon," Aadon said, flopping into a chair at the table. "And there's nothing special about him."
"Oh, I think there is." Leo winked in Aadon's direction. "He's got the hots for you, for one thing. Did you see the way he was looking at you?"
"Ya think?" Aadon straightened and let the lid of the sugar bowl he'd been fiddling with fall back with a clink.
"Oh yeah. I mean, as far as a guy like that gets the hots for anyone."
"What do you mean, 'guy like that'?" Aadon's brow furrowed, and he went back to spinning the lid on the sugar bowl.
"I mean"--Leo grabbed the entire bowl and set it on the counter out of Aadon's reach--"he's no Perry fucking Sunshine."
Aadon laughed. "Perry Sunshine?"
"Oh, didn't Lee tell you? He's the new spokesperson for Sunshine Sandwiches and"--he waved a hand in the air--"whatever."
"Spokesperson? You mean he wears that stupid foam sun and stands on the corner handing out fliers?"
"Apparently, it's all part of his program," Leanne interjected from where she was standing at the counter peeling carrots.
"I thought he was in marketing." Aadon couldn't quite picture the Perry he knew parading around in yellow tights and a foam billboard. Trying just made him want to giggle.
"Oh, he is. The research class Krissy's in had a shakedown. The new prof was not impressed by the papers people handed in last week, apparently. She handed out assignments based on what she thought the flaws in each paper were. Krissy'll be cold calling some cell phone company's client list next week trying to up-sell digital packages, or something."
"How is any of this supposed to help them graduate?"
"Still," Aadon mused. "Perry as Mr. Sunshine. Might be something to see."
"Hopefully," Leo said, turning to face him, "only to get that jerk out of your system once and for all. Because he is a jerk, and this Jesse guy"--he gave a tiny shrug--"he seems nice."
"Decent. Shy, maybe, and a little not so aware of how hot he is, but yeah. Nice." He turned back to the bread he was tipping out of the pans. "And nice is good, Aadon." He glanced up to where Leanne was smiling at him, and he smiled back. "Nice lasts. You should give it a try."
"Well shit." Aadon slumped into his chair.
"Here I was going to be all up in your face for interfering, and kick your ass or something, and you go all... nice on me." He made a face.
Leo shrugged again, but smiled. "Self-preservation, my friend. I am not an idiot."
But on his way home, Aadon had to admit, to himself if no one else, that Leo's approval went a long way toward convincing him it was time to make a move. Shy or not, Jesse was a good-looking guy, and surely he wasn't going to stay single for long. He drove home, once again humming, and with his mind made up. He could spend the week finishing the paper that was due on Monday, and on Friday night he'd go to the library and take the plunge. How hard could it be to ask a guy out anyway?
* * * *
That week, Jesse got more studying done than he had in the entire previous semester. He went to the library every night, books under his arm for cover, but never saw Aadon once. It meant he knew what he was doing Friday on his Anthro test, but not even catching a glimpse of Aadon disappointed him just the same. And maybe, it distanced him from the idea that either Aadon or Leo had any interest in--or even knew about--his past. Maybe a simple flirtation was just that. Simple.
Disappointing that it hadn't amounted to anything, but even still, the idea he was disappointed was a nice alternative to the constant lump of agitation and tension he'd lived with for so long. It made him think maybe, maybe he could do this again. With Aadon, or with some other guy, but either way, it was a yank out of the closet he'd tried to stuff himself back into. It was a relief to find he wasn't as scared as he thought he'd be.
So on Friday, rather than getting up, shaving, showering, and dressing practically on his way out the door, late for work, he was up just past dawn. He did shave and shower, then spent the next half hour staring at the contents of his closet in dismay. He had to pick something, though. He couldn't show up with a threadbare Eeyore towel wrapped around his waist, so he pulled on black jeans and a long-sleeved Death Cab T-shirt, decided the dark tones were too stark against his pale skin, and reached for the blue jeans and a cotton sweater that was the exact right golden brown to match his eyes. Then he spent an hour on his hair, wet it down twice, and it was wet again when Sarah knocked and let herself into his apartment.
"What are you doing?" She watched from the bathroom doorway, peering over the pink ceramic rim of her coffee mug as he fussed.
"Getting ready for work, what does it look like?"
"It looks like you're having a nervous breakdown." She came into the room and sat down behind him, perched on the edge of the tub.
His shoulders slumped, and he let the hairbrush clatter into the sink. "I am."
"Stop trying so hard, sweetie. You're fine. He's been watching for a month now, and you never did anything special to attract his attention."
Jesse peered at her through the mirror. "You sure? I look okay?" He wondered if she could read his other, unasked question in the slump of his shoulders. Is he just playing? Does he know? "Maybe he doesn't even--"
"You look fine." She stood and pulled the hair out of his face. "You look perfect. If he doesn't like you for what you have to offer, forget it." She kissed his cheek and drew back to give him a warm smile. "Jesse, if he's fucking around, I'll skin him, okay? But I saw him watching you when you weren't watching him. I honestly don't think he is. I think he really likes you."
"Then where was he all week?"
"Uhh?" She shrugged. "His life? Maybe he was doing that."
"Right." Jesse flushed and slumped against the sink again. "I'm an idiot."
"You're nervous." She smiled at his reflection, and he met her eye, seeking the mocking bite she was so good at. There was just patience there, and understanding. "This is a big thing, right? Aadon, or not Aadon. This"--she indicated his attire, his bathroom still in disarray from his morning preparations--"getting out there again. Jesse, this is scary. And good. You need this." She grinned. "I'm proud of you, bonehead, now fix your hair, and get a move on before Stathopoulos has your nuts in a sling and has you making up for being late with extra weekend shifts."
"Okay." With a deep breath, he squared his shoulders. "Have to do this some time, right? And I mean... look at him." He grinned. "Worth a shot." He left the bathroom and went to the door, pulling on his sneakers and grabbing his bag. "Let's go."
She stood just outside the bathroom door.
"What?" he demanded, the door already pulled half-open.
"You're not really going to wear those shoes, are you?"
"Umm." He looked down at his feet. "No?"
She pushed her mug into his hand and left him standing there while she disappeared into his room. He heard the sound of his closet door scraping open and her rummaging in the bottom. Peering into her cup, he lamented her sweet tooth. He could smell the sugar, and it kept him from stealing a sip. Finally, she came back with a pair of brown loafers he'd forgotten he owned. "Put these on."
"They're dress shoes."
"And they'll look killer with that outfit."
He tilted his head, unconvinced.
"Fine, fine." He toed off the sneakers and replaced them with the dress shoes. The polished leather poking out from under his jean cuffs looked smart.
"See? Auntie Sarah knows what she's talking about."
Jesse nodded. "So she does." He shot her a grateful smile. "Thanks."
"You know me." She took back the mug. "Always willing to help you get yourself out there."
His smile thinned a little with the realization he was actively trying to get another man's attention, and her left eye narrowed a tiny fraction.
"Listen, honey, it's not going to be like last time."
"You don't know that."
"Any more than you know it will be. You have to at least try, don't you?"
He nodded. She was right. It was time to try again. It wouldn't be like last time. He shuddered at the memory. Nothing could be as bad as last time.