A Serpentine Series Book
Reeling from the news that his parents are divorcing, Pete Morgan starts his junior year at college cynical about love and commitment. Although his new openness to one-night stands does wonders for his sex life, fighting his romantic nature proves harder than he’d anticipated. He soon finds himself pining for a glamorous senior, Aidan, who doesn’t mind taking Pete to bed but shows no interest in commitment—at least not with Pete. And Pete’s attempt at a “friends-with-benefits” relationship with sophomore Jed leaves Pete feeling empty.
One bright spot in Pete’s year is Matthew, an easygoing graduate student who assists Pete in making his first film. Matthew has some baggage too, and has sworn off relationships and sex altogether, so Pete feels safe to enjoy their friendship. But he falls for Matthew anyway, not able to fight his growing conviction that Matthew is the perfect guy for him. Even if Pete can accept that he made a mistake when he turned his back on relationships, that doesn't mean Matthew will feel the same. With a few life lessons under his belt, Pete’s ready to take a chance on love. As he finds the courage to bare his heart to Matthew, he can only hope that Matthew will take a chance with him.
- 1 To Be Read list
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Heat Level: 4
Romantic Content: 5
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Alpha Character, Coming of Age, First Time, Friends to Lovers, Most Mindblowing Sex Ever, One Night Stand, Slow Burning Love, True Love, Coming Out / Closeted
Word Count: 83,000
Setting: USA, Virginia, Charlottesville, University of Virginia
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
“WHAT’S taking him so long?” John glared out the car window at Bud’s house. “It’s almost nine.”
“It’s Bud. You know he’s always late.” Pete stifled a yawn and took a sip of his coffee. He hadn’t been getting much sleep lately and didn’t have the energy to get pissed at Bud this early in the morning.
“Totally. I better let Cleo know we’re going to be later than I said.”
John texted Cleo while Pete pulled his damp T-shirt away from his stomach. A bead of sweat trickled down his neck. Ah, Northern Virginia in August: not yet nine in the morning, and the car already felt like a sauna. He just wanted to get this drive back to U.Va. over with. The sooner they got on the road, the sooner they’d get air conditioning. And the sooner he put Arlington and his whole fucked-up family in the rearview mirror, the better.
“So?” John said as he set down his phone. “How’re you doing?”READ MORE
Lounging in his seat, John was the epitome of laid-back. His dark-brown hair stuck out in several places, and his wrinkled Black Keys tee looked like he’d slept in it, which he probably had. Right now, however, he was fixing Pete with one of his tell-me-all-about-it-and-don’t-bullshit-me looks.
Pete drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He knew what John meant, but he didn’t want to get into it. John had been his best friend since childhood, and okay, John also happened to be majoring in psychology, but Pete didn’t feel like being psychoanalyzed this morning.
As if reading his thoughts, John added, “Hey, you don’t have to talk about it now, man. I guess I’m still in shock. Your parents are the last people I thought would split up.”
Pete nodded, feeling his throat tighten. “Yeah.”
The house door opened, and Bud appeared, baseball cap on backward like always.
“Yo! I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Does Bud know?” John asked.
“I don’t know. Mom just told us this past weekend, so maybe not. I think Aunt Barb and Uncle Jerry know.”
“I won’t bring it up.” John gripped Pete’s shoulder before opening his car door. “Gonna help Bud with his stuff and try to move his ass along.”
Pete yawned, watching John jog up the steps and knock on the front door; Aunt Barb appeared, looked around John, and waved at Pete. He waved back. She gestured to him to come in, but Pete just smiled at her and stayed in the car.
Hi, Aunt Barb. No way in hell I’m going in your house so you can pretend to be concerned. I’m sure you’re praying for us, though.
He took a breath, trying to shake off his crappy thoughts, and got out to open the trunk when Bud and John emerged from the house laden down with luggage.
“Hey, bro,” Bud boomed, handing over two of the four bags he was carrying. “I got another load of stuff in the house.”
Face red with exertion, Bud was already sweaty despite the tank top and gym shorts that clung to his slightly overweight body. Bud had always been the pudgy kid with the loud voice, but Pete thought he was looking good these days. Getting on the U.Va. rugby team last August as a first year seemed to have done wonders for him. He was even a little less obnoxious than he used to be.
Of course, as soon as Pete had that thought, Bud glared into the almost-full trunk. “Bro, where’m I s’posed to put all the rest of my crap? You and John took up all the room, and I still got three boxes of stuff in the house! This sucks.”
“Hey, cuz, you could’ve taken your own car, you know. Or had your parents drive you.”
“Dad won’t let me take a car to school after I totaled the Mustang.” Bud pouted, clearly considering this an outrageous decision on his father’s part.
Pete didn’t grace that remark with a comment. He piled the two bags he was holding into the trunk and slammed it shut. “Well, that’s it on trunk space.”
“I’m glad Pete takes his car and can give us rides.” John threw the last of Bud’s bags on top of the pile in the backseat. “It’s too much of a hassle to keep one at school. Cleo has a car down there, so I’m all set.”
“Shit, okay, fine. I’ll have to get the rest of my crap mailed to me or something.” Bud stomped back into the house, calling, “Ma! Hey, Ma!”
Pete smiled wryly at John, who laughed and opened the front passenger door. “Good old Bud. What do you wanna bet he bitches about having to ride in the backseat?”
“Poor baby. He’ll bitch about the music for sure.” Pete got in and turned the key in the ignition. “Oh yes, come to me, air conditioning.” The music came on, and he started singing along with Luther Vandross.
“I love Luther.” Even though he couldn’t carry a tune, John claimed he liked listening to Pete sing—one of the many things that made John an awesome friend.
Bud came back out of the house carrying a duffel bag.
“Of course he’s got one more bag,” John said. “Wonder where he’s going to put that?”
“On his face, preferably.”
Pete and John chuckled. Bud was Pete’s cousin, and he did love the guy, but he’d had to put up with him his whole life. John was pretty tolerant of Bud, given what a royal pain he’d been when they were kids, always barging into whatever room Pete and John were in and demanding to be included in their games.
“Hey, turd, open the trunk!” Bud stood on the curb, jiggling his foot, sweat trickling down his forehead as he passed his duffel from hand to hand. “We gotta get on the road.”
“So now he’s in a hurry,” drawled John.
Pete lowered his window. “No room, moron. Put it in the backseat or don’t bring it.”
“Aw, crap,” Bud grumbled, but he walked around, yanked open the back door, and crammed the duffel into the pile of luggage stacked on the other side of the seat.
Pete winced. “Watch out for my guitar.”
“S’cool, bro. Let’s get a move on.” Bud settled in his seat and yawned. “Change the station, okay?”
“Not likely.” Pete pulled away from the curb. “Soul and R&B are your penance for making us late. Now we’re gonna have to sit in traffic.”
“BS, you know 66 always sucks unless we leave at, like, five in the morning.”
Pete didn’t answer, intent on getting them to the freeway by the shortest route possible.
After a few minutes of silence, Bud spoke again, sounding cheerful. One thing about Bud, he was never grouchy for long.
“Where’re you guys living this year? Lambeth?”
“No,” John said. “Cleo’s got an apartment near the Corner. I’m moving in with her.”
“Ohhh—big step, man. Yes! You’ll be getting it regular, and she’s a fox.”
Pete tried not to roll his eyes. “Uh, Bud, there’s usually more to a relationship than ‘getting it regular.’ Not that you’d know.”
“Cruel, man. You wouldn’t know either, unless you got some boyfriend you’re moving in with that I don’t know about.”
“No, Angie and I are sharing a place off of Rugby.”
“You and Angie? Man, I’d love to get into her pants. Set me up, bro!”
“Jesus, is sex all you think about?” snapped Pete. “And no way I’m setting you up with her. Ask her out yourself.” No chance in hell she’d say yes.
“I did, man. In high school. She shut me down. ’Course I was kind of an asshole back then. She should give me a shot now—I could take her to paradise!”
Pete and John caught each other’s eye, then burst out laughing.
“Bud, my man,” John said after they calmed down, “you most definitely have what’s known as a healthy ego. And you’re great for comic relief.”
“Thanks, man! I think. Oh, and I’m living at the frat house this year, in case you guys were wondering.”
“Living at SAE? You’re becoming a true Southern good ol’ boy, Bud,” Pete said.
“Damn straight, bro,” Bud said, Pete’s sarcasm sailing over his head as usual.
Once Pete got them onto I-66, the conversation lapsed into a welcome silence. Or not so welcome, because Pete started thinking about stuff he didn’t want to think about: his mom driving him to the shopping mall last weekend, and as she stared resolutely at the road, telling him that she and his dad were getting a divorce. His dad dropping by the house to pick up a bag with that redheaded bitch in the car. Right before school began, of course.
—Great timing, Mom and Dad.
—Fuck, shut up, you selfish prick.
—No, screw them. They had no right to fuck up our family like this.
—Ugh, shut up.
“Anything happening tonight?” Pete asked. He’d even talk to Bud right now, to escape the argument in his mind.
John opened his eyes. “Cleo knows about a party. We should go.”
“Party?” Bud piped up from the backseat.
Damn. Before Pete could think of something to dissuade Bud from attending, John came to the rescue.
“Yeah. It’s the art department crowd and you have to come dressed as your favorite fairy or Disney princess.”
Pete glanced over at John, who gave him a barely perceptible wink.
“What?” Bud made a face. “That’s gay, man. Oh—sorry, Pete. Think I’ll pass on that party. But you should go, bro! You’ll get some action!”
Oh God, here he goes. For some reason, Bud was quite invested in Pete’s sex life, or lack thereof. Pete sighed and concentrated on the road as Bud continued his rant.
“You’re hot, bro. I ain’t gay”—duh, Bud—“but even I can see that.”
All Pete ever saw when he looked in the mirror was a guy of average height and proportions, reasonably fit, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He’d been told he was handsome ever since his early teens, and he could sort of see it, but hot? He wasn’t sure about that.
Bud was, though. “Isn’t he, John? You tell him. I don’t think his ego’s too healthy if he doesn’t even get he’s hot.”
“Can we change the subject?” Pete said.
“Pete,” John intoned, “you are a most attractive specimen of the male persuasion.”
“Atta way!” Bud said. “Get him some action tonight at your fairy party.”
“Okay, that’s it! No more talking. You guys are distracting the driver, here.”
John nudged him. “You mean the hot driver.”
“PETE! Thank God!” Angie barreled into him for a hug. “Everything’s a mess, but this is gonna be great!”
Pete dropped his bags on the floor and hugged her back. “Sorry I’m so late.” He took in the living room of their new apartment, where boxes, bags, and clothes sat in disarray. “What mess? Looks like my room at home on a good day.”
Angie’s grin lit up her whole face, as usual. “Let’s go get the rest of your stuff, and then I’ll show you your bedroom. I think you’ll like it.” She followed Pete out to his car. “I’m sooo psyched about this year.”
“You’re always psyched.” Pete handed her his guitar.
“Your guitar! You’re going to play and sing for me every night, right?”
“Yes, dear. Right after I read you your bedtime story. Here, take this too.” Pete gave her a suitcase and grabbed two more.
“Ha, ha, very funny. But seriously,” she said as they crossed the lobby into the apartment and put down their load, “us being roommates is perfect. Last year was nothing but drama at Lambeth. Remind me never to room with five other girls again.” She shuddered as they returned to the car.
“Sure thing. Never do that again.” He handed her a box and gathered the remaining bags. “Okay, that’s it. I’ll move the car around to the back later.” They made the final trek into their place. “So what else are you psyched about?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just—getting to third year, living off campus with you, and also being able to take the classes I’m interested in. I can’t wait for Film Aesthetics, I’ve been hearing about Professor R forever.”
“Yeah, that should be good. Show me my room.” Pete’s bedroom was large and square, its window facing trees and the garden next door. “Wow, this is nice. Thanks, Ang. You did great finding us a place.”
Angie beamed. She was pretty, with her long dark-brown hair and big blue eyes, but every time Pete tried to tell her so, she denied it, moaning to him about being fat. It drove him crazy. Angie wasn’t “fat” at all—she was curvaceous—a fact that hadn’t escaped the notice of guys like Bud and the others who’d expressed interest in her over the years. But she persisted in believing she was unattractive and a loser in relationships.
“Are you hungry?” Angie asked, watching Pete open a suitcase. “The kitchen stuff isn’t unpacked, but we could go to the Corner and grab some lunch. Then we can go grocery shopping.”
“Yeah, sounds good. Oh, and John has a party for us to go to tonight. It’s at one of Cleo’s friend’s, so there’ll be lots of artsy types.”
“Oh, goodie! Sounds like fun.”
“Yup. Maybe you’ll find that sensitive artist guy you’re always fantasizing about.”
“Sensitive gay artist guy, you mean. But hey, you might finally meet someone good! I don’t know why someone hasn’t snapped you up yet, Mr. Gorgeous.”
“God, you sound like Bud.” Pete pulled out the top drawer in his dresser. “He’s trying to help me out with my love life by telling me how ‘hot’ I am.”
“Uh-oh. Although it’s true.”
“Oh, and he wanted me to set you two up.”
“Bud? Oh God, no.” Angie laughed. “See, that’s the problem. He’s interested in me, and I’m like, ew! But you—you’re perfect. I’d date you in a heartbeat.”
Pete automatically shook his head.
“I mean it!” Angie said, handing him a pile of socks. “You’re fun and smart and did I mention gorgeous?”
“Jeez, Ang. I could say the same about you. You’re funny, you rock, and you’re a babe too.”
“See? You appreciate me, you think I’m great. I wanna date someone like you.” She flopped down on the bed with a glum expression. “Why are all the good ones gay? Or taken, like John?”
“Brian isn’t,” Pete pointed out, shutting the top drawer and opening the one underneath. Brian was the proverbial nice guy who’d crushed on Angie ever since junior high and in whom Angie had no interest, despite his curly brown hair and sweet smile. Pete thought Brian and Angie would be great together.
“Brian. Please.” Angie rolled her eyes.
“Poor guy. He’s still gone over you. I don’t think he’s ever gotten over us going to Senior Prom together, instead of you and him.”
“Pete.” Angie’s eyes were wide, her face solemn. “I just got a strong feeling.”
Pete waited. Angie’s “strong feelings” had made appearances throughout the years, and at times they were eerily on the mark.
“I just got that this is the year that you and I are gonna find The One.”
Pete finished filling the second drawer and shut it. “‘The One’? As in our soul mates or some shit? You go right ahead—I’ll pass.”
“Fine. But I’m going to remind you of this conversation once it happens.” Angie hopped off the bed. “Let’s go to lunch, I’m starving.”
Following her out, Pete couldn’t help but think of his parents. The One. Right. That’s what Mom and Dad thought, and look what happened to them. He tightened his jaw as they emerged into the hot sunshine and told himself to get over it.
Serpentine Walls is one of those novels that is a journey. If you’re looking for instant gratification — an easy romance — this is the wrong book for you. This is also why I liked it so much. It kept me reading because I didn’t really know where it was going. There was a large cast of characters and the path to true love was a bumpy one. It didn’t always go in the direction that I would’ve liked, but it got where I wanted eventually, and I thought it was a rather interesting trip to get to that point.
The characters are the star of this book. Pete is surrounded by a wonderful group of friends, who are supportive and lovely and everything you’d want from a university experience. From his adorable roommate to his long-time, loyal best friend, to his crazy cousin, Bud, they were all multi-dimensional and intriguing and made me wish they were my friends as well. The plot isn’t that revolutionary, but the characters make it exciting to read and easy to get involved in.
The biggest problem I had with this novel was the reason the two main characters are kept apart for so long — the celibacy decision. I have no problem with people who decide to remain celibate, as long as their in a convincing reason, like waiting until marriage or religious ideals, etc. Remaining celibate for three years because you were in a relationship that went sour seems highly unlikely. Especially when you have strong feelings for someone and that is the only thing keeping you apart. As this was the framework of the entire novel, it was the one repeated problem I saw throughout.
Overall, though, I’d recommend this novel by new to me author CJ Elliott. It was well-written and a lot of fun to read, and I love a book that leaves me guessing until the end.
Rainbow Awards Finalist for Contemporary Fiction 2014