As he rounded the staircase, Lucas McKenzie could already hear the pounding bass emanating from above. He cringed, knowing without a doubt it was coming from his room.
Well, Sam Kramer’s room.
It was also technically Lucas’s room, but Sam didn’t let that stop him from doing exactly what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it. As the star forward on Brookfield University’s basketball team, Sam was used to getting his way, and Lucas didn’t have the energy to argue most of the time.
Lucas trudged through the hallway, weaving around revelers celebrating the end of the December exam period. Everyone on the floor except Lucas was a senior, and although he knew some of them well enough to say hi to, it didn’t go further than nods and smiles.
Heart already skipping at the thought of making small talk, he stepped over the drunken people sitting in his doorway and was greeted by a can of cold beer that bounced off his chest and rolled to a stop under the foot of his bed.
“Buddy!” Everyone was Sam’s buddy. “School’s out!” He whooped loudly, his muscled arms thrust over his head. Dark-haired Sam was tall and gorgeous; his chiseled features and sculpted muscles would be just as at home on a movie screen as they were on the basketball court.
Lucas ignored the acid flooding his belly and gave Sam a thumbs-up. “I’m totally stoked!” He’d learned early on in the semester that the best way to deal with Sam was to agree with everything he said. Besides, Lucas should be stoked. Exams were over, and what kind of college student didn’t love partying and getting wasted?
From Lucas’s estimation, he was apparently the only one.
“Grab a beer and party with us!”
Nodding and smiling, Lucas retrieved the beer from under his bed and popped the top after stashing his backpack in the closet—currently the only part of the small room that wasn’t occupied by a fellow student. How were there so many people crammed in? Sweat prickled the back of his neck, and beer foamed out over his fingers. He gulped from the can.
A girl Lucas recognized as living down the hall was sprawled on his bed, sticking her tongue down the throat of a guy who looked old enough to be in his seventh or eighth year of college. Lucas thought wistfully of curling up under the covers and watching a movie on his laptop.
“Holidays are here!” Sam’s proclamation was met with a loud cheer from the partygoers. Lucas kept the rictus smile on his face as he worked his way into the hallway, holding his can of beer aloft in a toast. He escaped back toward the stairwell, hoping that he wouldn’t run into—
“Lucas!” Andrea Price materialized in front of him, grinning widely.
“Hey, Andrea. Um…” Say something. This is the part where you say something. “How’s it going?”
“Great! I’m so glad exams are over. I can’t wait to go home.”
“Me either.” Lucas found it easier to just lie. “Uh, well, enjoy the party.”
Andrea touched his arm, her fingers light on his bicep. “I thought maybe we could hang out in my room downstairs.” She looked up at him from under lashes thick with mascara.
Lucas groaned inwardly. Andrea was a fellow freshman and a beautiful girl—blonde and petite with a bright smile—but she just wasn’t Lucas’s type.
Not by a long shot.
He’d dated girls before, and he knew plenty of them found him attractive, but he wasn’t sure why. He had no fashion sense to speak of, and although he was almost six feet, he didn’t have bulging muscles like Sam and the other athletes. Yet the other day he’d overheard Andrea and her friend cooing about his “golden hair” and “sparkling green eyes—like emeralds!”
Unfortunately, he didn’t find women attractive. At least, not in the way they found him. “Oh, I… Um, I’ve got a really bad headache. I’m just going to get some air.” Wait, would she think that was an invitation to go make out? He blurted, “Alone.”
Her face fell just a fraction before she smiled again. “Sure, I understand. Feel better. And merry Christmas if I don’t see you again tonight.”
“Right. You too. Um, thanks.” He forced a bright, “Merry Christmas!” and winced inwardly at how awkward he sounded.
Leaving a disappointed Andrea in his wake, Lucas reached the stairwell and headed up one more flight to the roof. He would love to have her for a friend, but she seemed incapable of reading his signals, so he’d started avoiding her a few weeks earlier. He didn’t want to lead her on or anything.
He’d briefly considered dating her so he could meet some other people, but he’d sworn when he left Michigan he’d stop pretending. Besides, it would be a dick move to date Andrea knowing he was using her. He had to come out and start being himself—whoever that was.
All signs point to being a total loser, he thought, cursing himself.
He was too chickenshit to join the campus gay association, so now he didn’t date women or men. He told himself it would be his New Year’s resolution to have the balls to join the club and at least meet some other LGBT people. Joining would make it official—still a bit of a scary prospect.
Frigid night air greeted him as he pushed the door open. A group of five or six people huddled together nearby, puffing away on cigarettes. Lucas nodded to them and walked to the other side of the roof, which was usually deserted. Leaning against the waist-high brick wall, he peered out, his breath clouding in front of his face.
He knew being antisocial wouldn’t help him fit in at Brookfield, but parties made him stupidly anxious. What if he said the wrong thing? He was terrible at small talk. Plus, he looked like he was having a seizure when he danced, and he hated loud music and having so many people around.
Maybe he could just tell Andrea he was gay, and she would be cool with it and they could hang…
But what if she wasn’t cool with it? His stomach clenched. What if she told everyone and Sam freaked out? Sam had been pissed enough to get stuck with a freshman roomie, and though he’d warmed to Lucas in his way, what if he was a homophobe? Lucas hadn’t heard him using any slurs, but…
Thanks to his father’s job in sales for Ford, Lucas had moved around a lot over the years and never made lasting friends. He’d hoped college would change that, but so far, not so much. He only had himself to blame, but the more he stressed about making friends the more he screwed it up and wanted to hide.
The bass from downstairs thudded through the soles of his sneakers, more bearable now at least. The campus spread out before him, lights twinkling merrily on the trees that lined the drives, winding their way around the stately old buildings.
It was December eighteenth, the last day of the fall semester. Lucas was fairly confident he’d done well on his last exam—organic chemistry, ugh—and he had hoped Sam’s parents would have already picked him up. Sam lived in New York City, a few hours away from the tiny town in upstate New York that was home to Brookfield. Lucas wanted nothing more than to relax in his room and have an early night after being up late studying for the past two weeks.
Clearly he’d have to wait until tomorrow when the campus emptied to get some peace and quiet. Yet as much as he wanted some time to himself, Lucas knew that the next couple of weeks would be a little too quiet.
Tomorrow, all the students who hadn’t already gone home would be taking off, leaving the campus a ghost town. The dorm advisor had told him he was the only one on his floor not going home for the holidays, and although he would be glad for the respite from the constant partying, spending Christmas completely alone was a depressing prospect. He enjoyed being by himself for the most part, but he was afraid loneliness would creep in and make itself a home.
He thought of his father and quickly took a gulp of beer to ward off the tightness in his throat. Some more smokers arrived, laughing gaily as they piled out onto the roof. Taking another swig of beer, Lucas stayed in the shadows.
Another sharp rap on the door echoed through the room, and Lucas forced himself to open his eyes, since it sounded like Sam wasn’t yet able to form words. It didn’t feel like Lucas had been sleeping long, but the light streaming through the window told a different story.
“Samuel, it’s your mother.” Her voice was soft yet firm on the other side of the door.
“Uhhh,” Sam repeated, his head still buried under his duvet.
Lucas kicked empty beer cans under the bed and tried to cover up the evidence of the previous night’s activities, shoving Sam’s bong in a drawer. When he opened the door, he smiled brightly, not without some effort. “Mrs. Kramer? I’m Lucas.”
“How nice to finally meet you.” She extended her hand and shook his firmly, the jewels on her tasteful rings sparkling.
He stood aside as she swept into the room, surveying the piles of Sam’s dirty clothes, books, and discarded pizza boxes. Mrs. Kramer looked to be in her early fifties, although Lucas couldn’t be sure. Sam rarely mentioned his family; most of his conversations revolved around basketball, partying, and girls. Many, many girls.
Sam’s mother was an average height, with dark brown, bobbed hair betraying no hint of gray. Her black skirt and camel-colored coat were crisply pressed.
Sam groaned again unintelligibly.
Lucas smiled at Mrs. Kramer. “He’s not really a morning person, but I guess you know that.”
“Indeed I do.” She marched the few steps over to Sam’s bed, heels clicking on the tile floor. With a brisk motion, she yanked off the duvet. “Time to get up, young man.”
Sam, clad only in his briefs, groaned again before rolling over onto his back and opening his eyes. “Mom, chill. I thought you were coming later.”
“It is later. Almost noon.”
Sam whined, “What’s the rush?”
“Hanukkah starts tonight at sundown, which I’ve mentioned to you a number of times. So get up and get moving. It’s a three-hour drive home, and I have things to do.”
Grumbling under his breath, Sam stood and shuffled off to the bathroom down the hall, leaving Lucas and Mrs. Kramer alone. Lucas smiled. “I’d offer you a seat, but…”
Returning his smile, she perched on the side of Sam’s bed. “This is fine.” She glanced around the room one more time before focusing her attention on Lucas. “Are your parents coming today as well?”
Lucas hated this part. The creased faces and murmured apologies. The pity. “No, I don’t have any family.” He forced a smile. “But it’s cool. I’ll get the place to myself for a couple of weeks. It’ll be great.”
“No family? None at all?” Mrs. Kramer regarded him with a new interest that unnerved him a little.
“Well, I have some cousins in Texas, but I’ve never met them.”
“What happened to your parents?”
Lucas blinked in surprise. Usually people beat around the bush for a while before getting to that question. “My mom died when I was little; my dad in September. Cancer.”
“I’m so sorry to hear it.” Her face pinched in concern. “That must have been very difficult for you.”
Difficult didn’t really begin to cover it, but Lucas nodded. “Yeah.”
“That’s why you didn’t start school until October. I remember Sam wasn’t too happy to find out he’d be sharing a room after all. I told him he should have moved off campus, but he insisted on the dorm. I can only imagine that’s due to the large number of young ladies living here.” Her smile was wry.
“Yeah, Sam was thrilled to have me move in. But my profs were all really good about me starting late, especially since I’m only a freshman.”
His father had insisted Lucas finally enroll in university for the fall, since the doctors hadn’t expected him to make it to summer. When September rolled around, Lucas and his dad fought for days, Lucas refusing to leave his bedside while his father was adamant that at twenty, Lucas had already put off his future for long enough. Lucas won the battle, and had held his father’s hand as he slipped away.
The school had been very accommodating about his late start, but now he was alone on a campus where everyone in his classes already made friends at the start of the year and, thanks to a housing shortage, his roommate was a senior jock. Lucas could move out—aside from the life insurance, his dad had left him a fair amount of money—but then he’d be even more isolated.
He cleared his throat, eager to move on to another topic. “So, Hanukkah starts tonight. That must be fun.”
“Yes, it’s a nice time of year. What will you do for Christmas?”
“Oh, just hang out or whatever. I’m not religious, so it’s no big deal.”
“Hmm.” She stood and surveyed the room again. “Do you have a suitcase, or one of those duffel bags my son likes so much?”
“I’m sorry?” Lucas’s duffel was somewhere at the bottom of his closet, and unless—
“Pack your bag, Lucas. You’re going to spend the holidays with us.”
“Oh, that’s so nice of you, but I couldn’t impose.” Despite how lonely he might be over Christmas by himself, he was definitely looking forward to time away from Sam.
“You can, and you will. There’s simply no way I’m leaving you here all alone.”
“I really appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine. Really.”
Sam returned, looking marginally more awake than when he left. His mother turned to him. “Samuel, Lucas will be coming to spend the holidays with us. Do you know where he keeps his overnight bag?”
Getting to his feet, Lucas was very tempted to tug on Mrs. Kramer’s arm to get her to pay attention to what he was saying. “Thank you, but I’m not even Jewish. I don’t want to intrude on your Hanukkah.”
She waved him off. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re more than welcome, and I’m not leaving you to…” She gazed around, nose wrinkling. “This.”
Yawning widely, Sam clapped him on the shoulder. “Dude, there’s no point in arguing. Trust me.”
Lucas opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn’t think of a single good reason he should stay on campus alone for the holidays. Even if he had to put up with Sam, maybe he could do some sightseeing or something.
Half an hour later, Lucas found himself in the back of the Kramer family SUV, heading toward New York City as the first snowflakes of the season drifted down.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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