Someday when people ask what it was like growing up gay in the White House, Rafael Castillo will tell them it sucked donkey balls.
And not in a good way, for the record. (Not that Rafa had any desire to fellate a donkey, but he was keenly interested in going down on a guy before his own balls went so blue they shriveled up and fell off.)
“Babe, I’d better get to sleep. It’s, like, ass-o-clock in the morning over here.” Ashleigh yawned loudly. “Glad you made it home from the bullshit seminar okay.”
Home. Even after seven years, it was still weird to think of the White House that way. “Thanks. Have fun eating croissants and reading existential poetry by the Seine. Or whatever people do in Paris on their days off.” Rafa twisted his foot in his sheet idly, staring at the old Kelly Slater surfing poster he’d had up since they moved in. His mother had forbade thumbtacks and insisted on framing it in tasteful red wood on the pale cream wall.
Ashleigh laughed. “I’ve been telling you what people do in Paris for two hours, and I did not once mention pastry or angsty poetry. But it is all rather glamorous, I admit. Even as a lowly intern, it’s still Vogue. I got to take home a negligee from the closet. That is the legendary Vogue closet, by the way.”
“Oh la la.” He pitched his voice low. “Are you wearing it now?”
Her voice went husky. “Sure am. It’s lacy and black and almost completely see through.” She paused. “What are you wearing, lover?”
He laughed. “The usual.” With Ash, he could talk and have fun and not have to think about every word. He wished it were so easy with the rest of the world, but Ashleigh was really the only person who knew him. The real him.
“Hmm. Since you’re in your room where no one can see you, I’m guessing you’ve traded your usual slacks and button-down for boxers and a Yankees T-shirt with some variety of food stain on it.”
“Close. It’s an old UVA tee from freshman orientation. Stain is of the pizza variety.”
“Hot. And hey, tell your dad thanks again for pulling those strings, okay?”
“I will when he gets back from wherever.” Rafa glanced at the digital clock on his bedside table. Just past eleven, so perfect timing. Downstairs should be nice and quiet.
“When was the last time you talked to him?”
“I thought you wanted to go to sleep?”
Ashleigh huffed, and he could imagine the roll of her eyes. “Answer the question.”
“I dunno. A few weeks ago. He’s been busy. You know—the G7, the Chechnyan peace talks, backslapping with the NRA. Anyway, get to sleep. Glad you met a friend who loves Renaissance art as much as you do.”
“Yeah, me too. I think it’s going to be a fun summer. Love you, babe.”
“Love you too, Ash.”
He tapped off the phone and tossed it on the bed beside him, chuckling to himself. While Ashleigh appreciated Michelangelo as much as the next person, the staff who monitored his calls must have marveled over her passion for it. While he knew the Secret Service and White House staffers didn’t care about his personal life and were only interested in protecting the president and his family, Rafa still maintained the charade at all times.
He and Ash had come up with the code not long after they’d started dating—or should he say “dating.” In their secret language, motorcycles filled in for hot guys. For example, if Rafa said, “I saw a gorgeous ride today—a Ducati with red trim,” that meant he’d spotted a sexy redhead he wanted to bang. Anyone who shared Ash’s interest in Renaissance art was a lesbian she wanted to hook up with.
At first it had been a fun game to talk in code, but now it was just normal. Most importantly, it was effective, since it had been three years and they hadn’t been outed. They’d played their roles as young lovers perfectly, and it had served them both well. Ashleigh hadn’t been ready to come out to her incredibly conservative parents, and Rafa couldn’t either. Not yet, anyway.
Most of the world might have come a long way on the subject of gay rights, but the neoconservatives in the States had pushed back hard. A Republican president with a gay son living in the White House? It would have been a nightmare for his father, let alone for him. Rafa had about seven months to go in DC until the new president’s inauguration in January, and then he was free.
He wished Ash had been at the young leaders’ summer seminar his mother had forced him to suffer through after his exams. Sitting in lectures just wasn’t the same without his best friend. While the rest of the class in Intro to American Studies at UVA in freshman year had stared and whispered furtively, splitting their attention between Rafa and the Secret Service agents in khakis and polos at the back of the lecture hall (who were not blending in even a little), Ashleigh had plopped next to him and started complaining about the water pressure in her dorm. She’d also inquired as to whether his “goons” could kill her snoring roommate and make it look like an accident.
Yawning, Rafa stretched out on the mattress. Before he’d moved in at fourteen, there’d been a four-poster bed in his room, complete with canopy. Fortunately they’d redecorated in tasteful earth tones of rich, reddish brown and green, and his bed was canopy-free. They’d even redone the ensuite bathroom for him in gleaming white and silver. Aside from the surfing poster, it might have been a hotel room.
He’d already unpacked, and everything was neatly tucked away in his closet and shiny mahogany dresser. His sister Adriana’s room had typically looked akin to a hurricane disaster zone, but Rafa always kept his neat and tidy. Their parents had insisted they be responsible for keeping their own rooms and bathrooms clean, and the fewer things he gave them to criticize, the better.
After getting up and yanking on his jeans and sneakers, Rafa took a quick glance in the mirror, frowning at his stupid freckles, already more prominent even though summer had just begun. His thick, dark brown hair tended to curl, and after his evening shower he hadn’t parted it and slicked it back with his usual extra-strength pomade. He brushed the gentle curls off his forehead, making a mental note to ask Henry, the chief usher, to get the barber in since there were waves forming just above his ears. And the last thing Rafa needed was to be called a Chia Pet again.
His cheeks still got hot when he thought about the internet meme with his face Photoshopped on a fuzzy ceramic animal with bushy chia growing from it. He’d just started his new high school in Washington mid-year after his father’s inauguration, and at fourteen he’d been gangly and pimply with a mouth full of metal.
Suddenly his new classmates would say “Ch-ch-ch-Chia!” when he came into a room, and he hadn’t even gotten the joke until he’d Googled it. The kids at school had usually been nice to him, but they’d gotten a kick out of the meme. Even though Rafa had cut his hair an inch from his scalp the next day, the nickname had stuck.
He edged open the door and peeked out of his room—officially known as Bedroom 303. There was really no need for stealth since the second and third floors of the residence in the White House were the only place in the world he had freedom from his Secret Service detail, but it was a habit.
His eldest brother Christian’s room was across the center hall, but Chris was twenty-seven and hadn’t ever really lived at the White House full time. Now he was in New York, and Rafa was alone up on the third floor as usual. To his left were the Music Room and Workout Room.
As he headed to the stairs he passed the Cedar Room, a little space paneled entirely of cedar that had been used for winter storage back in the day, and the Linen Room, which was exactly what it sounded like. The Game Room sat on the other side of the hall, and a few bedrooms dotted the rest of the level.
Behind the Linen Room was his favorite place in the whole world—the Diet Kitchen. The dictionary said a diet kitchen was used to prepare special meals for invalids in a hospital. FDR had the Diet Kitchen built because he’d hated the housekeeper’s food and wanted his own meals made there.
Rafa went down the little passageway. The small rectangular kitchen was right over the north portico, and the moon shone through the skylights in the sloped roof. Along with a stove, fridge, and sink, a counter and cupboards wrapped around the space. Rafa didn’t need to turn on the light to navigate it, and he ran his hand over the smooth counters.
It was a basic kitchen, and he had no special or fancy equipment. But it was his. At least for the time being. Most of the year he was stuck in his dorm, and he itched for the sizzle of butter in the pan and freshly ground spices in the air. He’d make the pasta tomorrow and roll it out in sheets to create ravioli, but he could start on the filling tonight.
Rafa went back to the center hall and tiptoed down to the ground floor, using the back stairs next to the family elevator. These stairs went almost right to the kitchen, but one of his agents still appeared, straightening his suit jacket.
“Heading out?” Brent asked. He was tall and a little paunchy, and his dark hair was graying.
“Just getting a snack. I won’t be long.”
Brent nodded. “Thanks for letting me know, Rafa.”
Rafa continued into the darkened kitchen. It was blissfully empty, and he exhaled. If he’d been Adriana or their brother Matthew, Brent would have probably followed in a minute to double check that they weren’t trying to sneak out. Not that they’d be able to get past the gate, but just being outside on the grounds without their detail was a big no-no. But Rafa had never tried to give his agents the slip. They were only doing their jobs, and there was no sense in being a pain.
Low lights under cabinets cast shadows over the counters and huge island, and he could see well enough to keep the overhead lights off. As he opened the door to the walk-in fridge, his pulse raced. Goosebumps immediately spread over his bare arms, and the light automatically came on over his head.
He surveyed the shelves quickly, scanning the containers for what he needed. He was sure Magda would keep prosciutto on hand, and hoped he’d luck out on the goat cheese. She never minded if he borrowed a few ingredients.
Okay, it was technically stealing, not borrowing. His parents paid for all the food the family ate that wasn’t for an official state function or party, and he knew the ingredients he snuck out were added to their tab. In the early days, Chris had had his college friends over for a party while their parents were out of town, one of his rare displays of rebellion.
He’d ordered a ton of snacks from the kitchen, and their parents had made him pay back every penny. Rafa would happily buy the prosciutto and cheese himself, but then there would be the inevitable questions. He couldn’t just drop into the ShopRite. His detail would know, and if his mom asked them, he didn’t want them to have to lie. Besides, it was a dumb thing to even ask them to lie about. It was easier to just make do.
He grabbed a log of goat cheese and moved to the walk-in freezer. He kept the door open, shivering as he surveyed the shelves for prosciutto. “Come on, come on…” He went through what little meat there was, hoping Magda kept some emergency ham on hand. Most ingredients were fresh, and it looked like he was shit out of luck.
Over the hum of the industrial fan, heels clacked a moment before he heard, “Darling, shouldn’t you be in bed?”
He jumped despite himself, blinking into the blank darkness of the kitchen as he tucked the goat cheese onto the shelf by his hand. His mother’s tall silhouette moved into the freezer doorway, and Rafa forced a smile. “Just getting a snack.” He reached for the nearest carton of ice cream. Had she bribed Brent to narc on him? Not that First Lady Camila Castillo needed to grease the wheels—she only need ask, and most people were too terrified not to comply immediately.
“Good idea. Still need to put some meat on those bones.” She said it with a smile, but a hot rush of embarrassment washed over him. He’d grown to almost six feet during college, and though he’d put on muscle over the years, he still felt like he had knobby knees and elbows. He hunched his shoulders as he closed the freezer door.
Rafa went to one of the many cutlery drawers for a spoon, feeling his mother’s eyes on him. When he glanced up, she raised her hand to the string of pearls around her neck. Even in the low light, they shone. She wore an unwrinkled pencil skirt and white blouse, and her black hair was sculpted into an up-do. Sometimes he suspected she slept in a hermetically sealed tube especially designed not to muss her hair.
“Still working, Mom? Shouldn’t you be in bed too?” Camila Castillo had many rules, one of which was to always dress appropriately for the task at hand. If she was working, she was dressed for success, no matter how late or early it might be.
“Touché. But yes, I have quite a bit of foundation business to take care of before my next trip.”
“Why don’t you let your staff do it? Isn’t that what they get paid for?”
She smiled, her lipstick shimmering. “Sometimes to have a task done right, one must do it oneself.”
Since he’d likely done plenty of things wrong lately, Rafa changed the subject and asked, “How’s Aunt Gabby?”
“She’s well. Visiting her cousins.”
His mother had a habit of talking about her extended family as relations of her sister and brother, but not her own. “In Mexico City? How long is she there?” Rafa twirled his spoon. His grandparents had all passed away by the time he was old enough to really know them, and he hadn’t seen his Aunt Gabriella since Christmas. Granted, he didn’t see her much. She’d never gotten along with his father, and he felt like his mother thought her family was simply far too…ethnic. “Maybe I could—”
“Darling. You know how dangerous it can be there. It’s not a good idea.”
“But I’ve still never been. It can’t be that dangerous. I mean, you lived there when you were little.”
His mother’s full name was Camila Castillo de Saucedo, but after his father had quit his law firm and gone into politics full time to make a run at the Jersey governorship, she’d dropped the traditional Mexican naming convention. Rafa and his siblings had always just been Castillo, his father’s name.
His parents had worked hard to make them into the whitest, most non-threatening Hispanics Republican money could buy while still courting the Latino vote with great success. He still wasn’t sure how they’d pulled it off, but here they were.
“Besides, I’d have my detail, Mom.”
She tilted her head, looking at him with clear exasperation. “We’ve discussed this before. My parents left the old world behind to make a new life for us here in America.” For a moment he was afraid she might launch into her full American dream speech. “Why would I ever want to go back? Or want my children to go back? This is your home. The greatest country in the world.”
Before she could really get going, Rafa nodded. “Yeah, okay. You’re right. As always.” He smiled.
“Of course I am.” She laughed softly and then was silent for a moment. “Well, I wanted to tell you I had a chat with your detail leader today.”
Rafa’s heart skipped a beat even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Okay.” He dug his spoon into the carton and stuffed his mouth with mint chocolate chip so he didn’t have to say anything else.
She grimaced. “A bowl, Rafael, please. Let’s be civilized, shall we?”
He mumbled, “Sorry,” through his ice cream and pulled down a bowl from one of the cupboards. “You want some?”
“No, dear.” She patted her trim waist. “As I was saying, there’s going to be a change to your detail starting tomorrow.”
Rafa paused with his spoon hovering over the carton. “What kind of change?”
“Five of the agents are being reassigned, and you’ll only have two agents total at a time with you.”
“Who’s being reassigned?” His twenty-four-hour detail had three rotating shifts with two primary agents who stayed close to him when he was outside the White House, and at least one or two secondary agents on point, depending on where he was going and the threat level.
“I’m not sure.” She waved her hand dismissively, her polished nails catching the light. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”
He scooped a few blobs of ice cream into the bowl. “It matters to me. I get to say goodbye, right? I want to say goodbye.”
She sighed. “Darling, you know this is why they change our details every year. We can’t get too attached. The agents are less effective when we do. We’re all being switched.”
With his mother on one side of the island, Rafa stood across from her. He filled his mouth before he could snort derisively. The Secret Service changed their detail teams every year so the agents wouldn’t get too attached to them, but no one was under any illusions that would happen with Camila. The only time she remembered any of their names was to order them to perform some menial task not in their job description. He could only imagine how eager her agents were to be reassigned. But Rafa’s agents had always seemed to like him. Not that they’d show it if they didn’t.
“But it’s June now, and the election’s in November. We’ll be gone in January. Why change now? We’re almost done.”
“The more experienced agents are needed with the candidates’ families, especially as the election draws nearer. Livingston has six children, and all those grandchildren. Apparently they need to beef up security. We all know he’s going to win, whether we like it or not.”
Camila Castillo most decidedly did not like it. Rafa ate another spoonful so he wouldn’t smile. His mother would clutch her pearls if she knew he was totally going to vote for Democrat Stephen Livingston instead of his father’s Republican successor, Tom Margulies. The country was ready for a regime change, even though nothing would really change at all with Congress and the Senate so partisan. Having been at the heart of the American government half his life, Rafa found it all rather depressing how little ever changed for the better.
“I still want to say goodbye to my agents.” With a pang, he hoped Joanna and Stuart weren’t going. “I guess it makes sense, though.”
She sighed, and her voice was unusually sad. “Yes, I suppose. Soon we’ll be out on our ear.” If she could, Rafa’s mother would surely hang on to the White House until they pried it from her cold, dead hands. Abe Lincoln’s ghost was definitely going to end up with some company down the road. Rafa could already imagine his mother floating around the sedate hallways, passing judgment on future First Ladies’ choice of china patterns.
“Mom, we had two terms. Not too shabby. Won’t it be nice to get back to regular life?” It was beyond weird to think of his parents moving back to New Jersey. “You must miss it, right? Even a little?” he asked hopefully. He didn’t like to think of her unhappy.
She smiled. “A little.”
Leaning across the island, he held out a spoonful of ice cream. “Come on. One bite won’t hurt.”
“I suppose not.” She met him halfway and gracefully took the spoon. After she swallowed, she stared at the curved metal. “It’ll all just seem so…small. I…” She stopped.
Rafa barely whispered, holding his breath. “What?” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his mother anything but perfectly poised and on message.
“It’s a strange feeling, to know the most important days of your life have gone by.” She kept her eyes on the spoon. “That you’ll never do anything else that could possibly compare.”
“Mom…” Rafa wanted to reach out to her, but as he moved, her gaze snapped up and she smiled, her mask back in place.
“Never mind that silliness. Have you talked to Ashleigh? How’s she enjoying Paris?” She held the spoon back over the island.
He took it and played with the melting ice cream in his bowl. “It’s good. She loves it.”
“Won’t you be lonely all summer?”
“It’s fine. We still talk all the time.”
“Rafa, just be sure you stay connected. This is a crucial time in your relationship as you go into your last semester of university. You have to plan for the future. We need to talk about where you’d like to start your career in the new year. Your father and I have some ideas. Why don’t you tell me more about what you learned at the seminar? We haven’t discussed it properly.”
“I told you it was good.”
She raised a delicately penciled eyebrow. “That’s all you have to say about it?”
What he wanted to say was: Actually, I hated every minute. I don’t want to be a young leader, or make connections and smile and pretend to be interested in goddamned politics or the Republican Party. But it counted as an extra half credit, and I’ve worked my butt off to be able to graduate early. He shrugged. “It was interesting, I guess. Helped me think about the future.” In that it cemented his determination to stay far, far away from politics or the corporate world.
“Did you make any promising connections? You know you can’t just ride your father’s coattails. You have to make a name for yourself the way Christian has.”
“Uh-huh.” He chewed on a minty sweet mouthful, and his stomach clenched. He knew he’d have to tell his parents the truth before too much longer, but he still had a little time.
“And a lovely young lady like Ashleigh isn’t going to wait around forever to settle down. Don’t take her for granted, sweetheart.”
“I won’t. I promise.” He and Ash had already planned their breakup for after the new president’s inauguration. They’d taken summer school and every extra credit they could to be able to finish classes in December. In January, they’d both come out to their parents, and with any luck Rafa would be heading to the other side of the world—without Secret Service agents tailing his every move. His parents would have protection for life, but he would finally be free. The thought of the secret plan quickened his pulse. Not long now.
“She’s a keeper, Rafael. Don’t let her go. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
Rafa stared at his bowl, and his mother’s gaze across the island felt unbearably heavy. He’d always been so diligent in hiding any hints of who he really was. Hadn’t he? Here in the shadows, he felt certain his mother could peer right into his heart. And was she telling him to stay hidden? Or was he letting his imagination run away on him?
“All right, we should get to bed, don’t you think?” Her soft laughter was lilting. “I know, I know, you’re not a baby anymore.”
Rafa rinsed the bowl and spoon in one of the sinks. “I’ll be right up, Mom.” He needed to get the goat cheese out of the freezer.
As if she could read his mind like a news ticker, she said, “Darling, you’re not planning on using the Diet Kitchen again for your little…experiments, are you?”
He shrugged as he continued rinsing the now-clean bowl. “I was maybe going to make a few things. It’s just for fun.”
“We talked about this. You really should be devoting your time to more substantial activities. I’d like you to take a bigger role this summer at the foundation.”
“Uh-huh.” His mother’s foundation did good work, and as long as he didn’t have to do any public speaking, he was happy to help. “I will.” He finally put down the bowl and turned off the tap, plastering a smile on his face as he turned. “It’s only a hobby.”
“I wish your sister was as interested in cooking. Her poor future husband!” His mother laughed throatily. “But really, it’s not fair to go dirtying up the other kitchen, dear. The staff have so much to do already.”
As if you give a shit about the staff’s workload. “I always clean up after myself.”
His mother’s smile faded. “You know that your father and I don’t think it’s an appropriate use of your time. Tomorrow we’ll go over your expanded foundation duties. I think you’ll be very excited with what we have planned. All right?” She didn’t wait for a response. “Excellent. Now let’s get to bed.”
There was no point in arguing. Even though Camila Castillo had eaten the food of hundreds of male chefs, cooking wasn’t a suitable interest for her son. Period. Rafa regretfully abandoned the cheese to the freezer and followed her out of the kitchen and down the hall, the only sound her high heels echoing on the polished floor. As she swept up the stairs, Brent grimaced sympathetically, and Rafa shot him a fleeting smile.
At the second floor landing, Rafa’s mother pressed a kiss to his cheek, undoubtedly leaving a red stain from her glossy lipstick.
“Get some sleep. This is your last summer in Washington, and we’re going to make it memorable. Be up early, all right? Wonderful.”
Head high and her back as straight as a ballerina’s, she was already walking toward the master bedroom as he answered, “Okay.”
His last summer in Washington.
After more than seven years, freedom was so close he could almost feel it like sunshine on his face. Next year he’d be a million miles away in Australia, learning to cook and finally dating men. The thought of actually being able to have sex sent a thrill zipping down his spine, followed by a sticky pang of longing that filled every pore.
Rafa took a deep breath. Soon. In the meantime, he just had to keep his head down. Seven years done, and only seven more months as the president’s son.
Piece of cake.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
Buy the ebook or borrow in KU:
Buy the paperback:
Buy the audiobook: