Eleven Years Earlier
LIFE IN THE Pearson household was pretty standard week after week. That was the one sure thing that Derek relied on to survive, day in and day out. He knew his father’s routine as well as his own and made it a habit to give the fucker a wide berth whenever he could—less trouble for all of us in the long run that way.
Three nights a week, his dad worked the graveyard shift and dragged his sorry ass in just as the sun was rising. So each morning, Derek’s goal was to be out of the house and running his way up the long stretch of hard-packed sand by then. That way, when he finally finished his morning exercise his father would either be passed out drunk in his recliner or facedown in his bed.
Isn’t life grand, he thought, as he came to a stop at the back of their tiny, run-down home that morning, and looked up at the screen door. The bottom of the three stairs that led up to the patio was broken, and one side of it was wedged down into the sand, making it a hazard to anyone who wasn’t aware should they try climbing it. But that wasn’t really an issue, considering no one in their right mind would bother coming to visit the Pearson household. If anything, they steered clear of it—one of the perks of being the town’s pariahs. Well, he wasn’t so much because he kept his head down and his attitude in check…most days. His father and brother, however, were a different story.
By some miracle of fate, he’d managed to distance himself from the two men who resided in this home over the past nineteen years. Yet he still hadn’t worked up the nerve to leave altogether. Not to mention, he had no fucking money. That was something he was determined to change this year. He was going to find a job. One that paid well. And he was going to work as hard as he possibly could to get the hell away from the clusterfuck that was his everyday life.
That’s the plan, anyway.
Using the bottom of his shirt, he swiped the sweat away from his face and ran a hand through his short hair. Fuck, best to get this part of the day over with. It was such a fantastic feeling to be scared to set foot into your own home, and that was exactly the way he felt each morning, knowing he may come face to face with the monster who lurked inside.
After stepping over the broken plank, he carefully climbed the other two steps and winced when his foot hit the washed-out wood of the patio deck. The groaning creak was difficult to avoid because no matter where you trod, the timber was going to protest. He froze in place, hoping the door wasn’t about to slap open and reveal his hulking father, but when nobody came out he figured he was safe—for now.
He crossed the deck and slowly opened the door and yep, there was good ole Dad sprawled back on the recliner with a beer bottle resting in his lap. It wasn’t even seven in the morning.
Keeping a wary eye on the sleeping man, Derek cautiously walked around the footrest and was almost home free when his sneaker landed on an empty cigarette carton his dad must’ve dumped on his way inside.
“Derek?” his dad slurred out in a low, raspy voice, and Derek bit the inside of his cheek in an effort not to speak. Their encounters were always smoother if he kept his mouth shut. He’d learned that the hard way.
“Derek,” his father said again, but this time turned in the chair to see where he was. “Didn’t you hear me, boy? I’m speaking to you.”
Reminding himself that the quickest way out of this situation was to reply and then hightail it out of there, Derek ordered himself to turn around and face the man who was barking at him. “Dad.”
“Where’ve you been?”
Like it wasn’t obvious from his attire or that he did the same exact thing every morning. Though it was a testament to the fact that, just as he’d always suspected, his father didn’t give a shit about him or what he did one way or another.
“Out for a run.”
“With that faggot friend of yours?”
The words were jarring, like a slap to the face, and Derek balled his fists at the familiar slur. It was nothing new. He’d been hearing this homophobic bullshit ever since his father had found out he was gay back when he was sixteen. That didn’t mean it galled him any less.
God, he wanted to punch the fucker in the face. He had the muscles to do it now, too. The only thing that held him back was the desire to be the total opposite to the piece of shit now kicking down the footrest and getting to his feet.
Like himself, his father was an intimidating wall of a man. Both topping out at six four, they each looked the other in the eye. He was sure that pissed his father off to no end, too, because it made him harder to push around. So did the big fucking muscles he’d worked his ass off to build.
“No,” Derek finally answered. “I was running alone.”
“Why?” his father said. “Your boyfriend stand you up?”
Derek prayed for patience as he looked out the lone window in the back of their home. “He’s not my boyfriend. And Finn doesn’t run. You know that.”
His dad half staggered, half walked over to him, and when their shoulders collided Derek glared at him and saw an evil twinkle light his eyes.
“Yeah? Well, good thing. His knees are probably shot from all the cock he sucks.”
He should’ve just walked to the kitchen, but Derek felt the tight leash that’d been holding him back finally snap. He reached out, grabbed hold of his father’s thick wrist, and halted him. “What did you just say?”
His father’s bloodshot eyes narrowed an inch and he gave a menacing grin. “I said, his knees are probably—” But before he could finish, Derek had swung his arm around and sucker-punched the prick right in the jaw. As if on instinct, and without giving it a second thought, his father backhanded him so hard that he went stumbling across the room.
Jesus, the fucker can hit. He has that skill down to an art form, Derek thought as he raised a hand to his eye. That’s gonna leave a goddamn bruise. There were two things his father excelled at in this life: drinking and fighting. It just so happened the fighting was usually with him.
As his dad seethed, he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and muttered, “Get out of my sight.”
The words didn’t hurt, not anymore. Derek had grown used to the idea that he disgusted his father. What he would never be able to understand was the stranger glaring at him. It was hard to fathom you could come from such a vile creature filled with so much hatred. Yet at the same time, the physical resemblance was so uncanny it was difficult to refute.
Cradling the side of his face, Derek congratulated himself on getting one in before he’d been clobbered, and then gingerly stepped around his dad. He knew nothing else would follow. Ever since the age of seventeen, when he’d packed on the height, weight, and muscle and could actually fight back, it never went further from there. But until the day he moved out, Derek would always be on guard and watching his back, because fuck only knew if one night his father would crack and ambush him.
Stomping down the hall, he told himself over and over that no matter what happened this year he would get a job, and he would get the hell out of this house for good.
* * *
JORDAN DEVANEY STOOD under the hard-hitting spray of warm water and let the jets from his three showerheads hit every possible muscle on his deliciously aching body.
Yesss, last night had been exactly what he needed. He’d decided to indulge himself in a little nighttime delight before his new rule of no party shenanigans during the work week kicked into full effect after accepting his new position at the local university.
He laughed to himself as the water slicked down over him, still unable to believe that he was going to be in charge of educating future generations. He’d decided that the dean could quite possibly be mad for giving him such a position of authority, but he knew that wasn’t the case.
He was brilliant; there were no two ways around it. A certified genius according to his IQ and the bachelor’s degree he’d received at the ripe old age of fourteen before going on to complete his PhD by his twenty-first birthday. And on top of those two facts was the recommendation from one of the university’s most beloved professors. The woman whose job he would be taking over—Professor Anne Hamilton. God rest her soul.
When he’d been nothing more than a smartass kid getting in too much trouble for his own good, his mother and father had pulled him from school on the recommendation of his teachers, who said that his test scores may require he have “special” schooling. Soon after, they’d hired several tutors to home-school him.
As money wasn’t ever an issue in the Devaney household, his parents threw the best minds in the business at him, and when he showed a special interest in history they hired on the brightest, and toughest, teacher in the nation.
Professor Hamilton. The woman who’d recently recommended him, of all people, to take her place when she found out she was going to need her energy to fight a new crusade: her ailing health.
He still couldn’t believe it. He had more money than he knew what to do with and he’d always assumed he’d travel to far-off and exotic places to take part in exciting archaeological digs, not be stuck in some stuffy room teaching uninterested teens about ruins from a slide show collection. But around six months ago she’d asked him a question he hadn’t been able to answer.
“Are you satisfied with your life, Jordan? You have so much, and everything has always come so easy to you. But is your mind challenged? Or do you want more? Don’t you want to make a difference?”
He’d taken a long look at his life the night after that conversation and the answer had been simple—no, he wasn’t challenged. He’d become bored with his privileged lifestyle, and yes, he wanted to make a difference. He still remembered what she’d said to him moments before she’d passed.
“You were my biggest challenge, Professor Jordan Devaney. Now, go and find what makes you work the hardest, and dare yourself to make a difference.”
That had been a couple of weeks ago.
So there he was—he, Jordan Devaney, was going to endeavor to be…responsible.
Her final words still lingered as he stood there under the shower getting ready for whatever life was going to “challenge” him with. He tipped his head back and let the water sluice over his face as he thought about the day ahead.
Three classes before noon and one after. If he managed to get through those in one piece, maybe he could track down that gorgeous Professor Hayes he’d met on his campus tour and see if he would be interested in dinner.
As a friend, of course, he told himself. Even he wasn’t stupid enough to pursue that. Sex in the workplace was just too messy. Not that he’d know, since he’d never taken a job before, but that was what he’d heard.
With a sigh, he turned off the water and snagged one of the fluffy white towels hanging over the pewter hook on the wall. He rubbed it over his hair then toweled off his body before he headed to his walk-in closet to get ready for the day.
The wooden floors were the perfect temperature under his feet as he threw the towel over an armchair and perused the pants hanging in front of him. As he evaluated his choices, he groaned.
Ugh, dressing for school was going to be so boring. He much preferred dressing for fun. Maybe when he did finally speak to Hayes he could ask if he had any tips for him that didn’t include sweaters. Because really, who wore sweaters in Florida? Then a brilliant idea struck him. He didn’t have to dress boringly, just…appropriately. So why not have a little fun with his students on his first day? Go for the shock factor. His age would already be a topic of discussion, so why not add a little outlandish attire to go with?
He reached for the brightest pair of pants he owned and smiled as he tossed them over the top of his back-to-back chest of drawers in the center of the closet. He then slipped into a pair of tight black briefs before searching the opposite rack of hangers for a shirt. Hmm. He glanced back at the pants. What color, what color… Oh! Yes, perfect.
Settling on a vibrant button-down, he finished getting dressed, slipped his feet into some loafers, and went back to the bathroom to brush his teeth and finish styling his hair. It wasn’t until he walked back into his bedroom that he spotted the long line of a muscular leg sticking out from under his navy sheets.
Oh, shit. Caught up in his head about his first day of being an adult, Jordan had completely forgotten he’d left a man in his bed. One who was still there. Awkward.
Not possessing one iota of shame, he walked to the double sliding doors that led to his balcony and tugged open the curtains. As the morning sun pierced through the glass and right into the sleeping man’s eyes, Jordan stopped by the edge of the bed and flung back the sheet, revealing one very naked man.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he singsonged.
As the mountain of muscle started to shift, Jordan took a moment to admire the play of skin over that firm ass and toned back. The man had such a different physique to his own, one that he had really, really gotten off on having under him the night before.
Yes, what a shocker—he liked to top.
“Oh, sorry, man. I didn’t realize the time.”
“Not a problem, big guy. But alas, our night together is over. I have to go and earn a living, and you need to exit the building.”
Rob…Rod, or shit, whatever his name is, sat up and swung his legs over the bed, and when his giant feet hit the floor and he stood, Jordan grabbed his jeans and held them out to him.
The guy was massive. He had him by at least three inches and fifty pounds, but hell if that hadn’t made it more exciting when he’d been begging for Jordan to give it to him harder, harder… Shit. Focus. He’s leaving. “Seriously, hon, you need to get dressed and skedaddle,” Jordan said with a waggle of his fingers toward the bedroom door. “Or I’m going to be late.”
Rod—yes, I’m positive it’s Rod—pulled on his jeans and buttoned them as he gave a shy smile that was at odds with his pierced nipples and shaved head. “Can I call you?”
And there was the rub. The problem he’d always had with letting someone wake up beside him: they never just…left. Jordan opened his mouth to say something along the lines of probably not, but he was saved from having to break the poor guy’s heart because his phone started an incessant ring throughout his condo.
He held his finger up and dashed into his closet to hunt down the cell.
Shit, shit, shit… Where had he left the damn thing? Flinging several shirts over his shoulder to the floor, he hunted under a pair of shorts, and a bathrobe, then spotted his messenger bag slung over the closet handle. Jackpot.
Racing to it, he got his fingers around the noisemaker just as his mother’s call went to voicemail. Oh great. Just great. She will not let me hear the end of that, he thought, as he spotted Rod heading toward the private elevator.
Pocketing the phone, Jordan followed and then leaned around him to press the down button. As the door opened, Rod walked backward inside and raised a brow. “Do you ever visit North Carolina at all?”
Pursing his lips a little, Jordan shook his head. “Hmm, not recently.”
“No problem. Last night was…unexpected. You’re a real firecracker.”
Jordan gave a shrug and winked. “Like lightning in a bottle, baby. I’m hard to capture or contain,” he said as the door slid shut and his guest went down one more time during their acquaintance.
Jordan dashed back into his bedroom, grabbed his car keys and the bag he’d been rifling through a minute ago, then snagged a banana and headed back to the elevator.
First day of college, here I come. It was time to head for class. Huh, he thought with a grin. This felt eerily reminiscent of his teenage years. A boy leaving his bed and his mother calling just in time to ruin the moment, or in this case, save him from an awkward one.
He really was lucky to have such wonderful parents, and he counted his blessings each and every day for that. It had taken him a few years before he’d been comfortable enough to embrace all that he was, but now that he had, he lived by a simple motto.
And not one damn regret.