When they were kids, Chris Mitcham rescued Theo from the neighborhood bullies and taught him how to “be cool.” Now, years later, Theo’s developed feelings for his best friend that arise at the most inopportune times. Theo hates lying to Chris, but in coming out, he might lose the one person who understands him best, a risk he’s not willing to take.
When a relationship with another young man goes south, Theo is forced to confront his own sexuality along with his growing attraction to Chris and his stunted, tenuous relationship with his father. Will Chris abandon Theo when he learns the truth, or will he stand by him in this tumultuous season of self-discovery?
In this quirky coming-of-age romance, Theo’s path to manhood is fraught with awkward firsts and a few haters, but also the unexpected comfort of a friend turned lover.
- 1 To Be Read list
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: Under 18
Protagonist 2 Age: Under 18
Tropes: Coming of Age, First Time, Friends to Lovers, Geek and Jock, Interracial Relationship, Coming Out / Closeted
Word Count: 78,381
Setting: West Palm Beach, FL
Languages Available: English
BEING HORNY and almost sixteen is the absolute worst.
Take it from me, Theodore Wooten III, resident expert in the spontaneous boner. The cause of my lovesickness: Christian Mitcham. The cure: hell if I know.
With his sun-bleached hair, warm brown eyes, and devil-may-care attitude, people gravitate to Chris like sugar ants on a soda can, me included. He’s been my best friend since sixth grade when some neighborhood punks held me down on the sidewalk and tried to spit in my eyes. Chris called them off and threatened to beat their asses even though he was outnumbered and outgunned. I guess they believed in his conviction. I know I did.
“Chris is back.”READ MORE
My twin sister, Tabitha, rushes into my room, even though the door was mostly closed. When we moved into this apartment, the owner paid a contractor to split the master bedroom into two bedrooms, so that we could each have our own room. Tabs got the en suite bathroom, and I got the window. Considering the view overlooks Chris’s property, where he can often be found strutting around shirtless in the wild, it now seems like a fair trade.
“You’re supposed to knock,” I grumble. My gut is a brew of excitement and nerves at the knowledge that Chris is back. My feelings toward my best friend have become more complicated over the past year or so. I’d hoped a summer apart would simplify things.
“I did knock, Theo. You just didn’t hear me,” says Tabs, she of the last word.
I was watching some skate videos online with my cans on. The music was loud, but not that loud. I toss my tablet on the bed, stand, and stretch, delaying the inevitable.
“Oooh, he looks good,” Tabs says as she opens my window, piquing my interest even more. “Buff and tan. He’s been working out.”
“Probably just surfing.” A cloud of swampy Florida air envelops me as I steal a glance over her shoulder. She’s right. He’s even more godly than two months ago. Lucky bastard doesn’t even need to try. Ever since Chris turned thirteen, his muscles have been bursting out like microwave popcorn. He lifts a burger to his mouth and sprouts biceps, sits up in bed and boom, there are his abs. Meanwhile, I grow taller and lankier and have to deal with my mom telling me to stand up straight or I’m going to get scoliosis, which I’m pretty sure isn’t how that disease works, but it’s hard to argue with my mom when she thinks she’s right.
My sister calls down to Chris. He’s carrying a new surfboard—midnight blue, probably a gift from his dad. He glances up and lifts his free hand in a friendly wave.
My gut twists in a nausea-inducing way. The feelings are still there, the sharp knife of longing that slices down my sternum and scrambles my guts. I lift one hand in greeting and hope I’m far enough away so he can’t see anything unusual on my face.
“Come down,” Chris calls. “Bring your suits.”
I’m already wearing my board shorts and a T-shirt. Standard summer attire. We live close enough to the beach that I can bike or skate there, even though my mom hates me going through all the traffic. Sometimes I just go to skate along the seawall and smell the ocean. It reminds me of Chris.
The twist in my stomach coils into a hard knot of anxiety at the thought of our reunion, but it’ll be weird if my sister goes and I don’t. Plus, I’ve missed him like crazy. I got so bored this summer, I was finally able to nail a nightmare flip on my skateboard. Something to add to my college applications.
“Be right down,” Tabs calls to Chris, then bounces out of my room like a happy Pikachu. My sister’s always been the cheerful, outgoing one. I’m slightly sour.
I glance back out the window to find Chris still looking up at me. Of course I’ll be down. As if there was ever a question. I always do what Chris tells me. And until recently, I’ve been happy to do it. I trust him to know what to do in just about any situation.
Me, not so much.
I trail behind Tabs across our driveways and through the gate into his backyard. He’s laid out on a lawn chair, shirtless of course. His hair’s gotten longer. He likes it that way, so he can tuck it behind his ears. He’s got a deep summer tan, and his abs are even more ripped than when he left for summer a couple of months ago. His sunglasses are reflective so I can’t see his eyes. I worry he can tell I’m checking him out, so I stare at the shrubbery instead.
“What is this, a race?” Chris rises from the lawn chair to give me our usual bro-hug. He means my height. I must have grown two inches over summer, but I didn’t realize the difference until I have to lean down a little to embrace him. I catch a whiff of his hair—a mixture of sunshine, salt spray, and coconut shampoo. His skin is warm and feels good in my palms—dangerously good.
Chris hugs my sister too and asks her if she highlighted her hair. She did. He tells her he likes it, and my sister’s smile cracks wide open. We have good teeth, my sister and I, bright white and straight thanks to orthodontia. Our dad’s a dentist and our mom’s a dental hygienist. Our smiles are the one trait people say we have in common, though they probably see a lot more of Tabs’s teeth than my own.
“I wish my hair was your color naturally.” Tabs tugs at Chris’s golden locks playfully, which draws another deep chuckle from him. I study the flecks of quartz in the concrete and try to ignore the fact that my sister is flirting with my best friend. And she’s doing a really good job of it.
“How have the waves been?” Chris asks, drawing me back into the conversation. He never lets me stray too far.
“A couple tropical depressions came through and kicked up the surf. We got a few good days down at the pier. Probably nothing like an average swell in Cali, though.”
Chris shrugs. “It was all right. Nothing too special. I kind of missed it here.”
He looks at me then with his mile-long gaze, and I wonder if he’s saying that he missed me or if it’s just my lovesick imagination trying to bridge the gap between friendship and something else.
“It was pretty boring.” I glance out at the chemically blue water. The summer has been drab and gray without Chris. Feels like the sun is just now breaking through.
“Learn any new tricks?” he asks, meaning skateboarding. I don’t usually surf too much without him.
“Yeah, a nightmare flip.”
“Yeah, landed primo a few times and almost sliced my balls in half.” I stop at the mention of my balls, feeling my whole face flame up, which is stupid because we’ve probably talked about our balls a million times before, so why is it so weird now?
“Ew, Theo, gross. No one wants to hear about your junk,” my sister says, saving me.
Chris chuckles. “Can’t wait to see it. The flip, that is.”
I feel intensely hot under the heft of his stare, like my body might spontaneously combust. Instead of saying something else weird, I drop my towel on a chair and take off my shirt, then dive into the water and start doing laps. I spent a lot of time swimming laps in Chris’s pool over the summer. I like being submerged.
When Chris and I met, he was in seventh grade and I was in sixth. At the time my mom, my sister, and I had just moved into the gardener’s cottage next door because my parents had recently separated. I told Chris they were getting back together—I was so sure of it. But I’ve realized since then we were only my dad’s starter family.
Chris told me about his own parents’ divorce and then, when it happened to me later that year, he was there to talk me through it. I’ve never met another person I connected with like that. It felt special from the beginning.
And then last year, I started noticing things more—Chris’s muscles for one, the texture of his skin—warm and golden like honey—the pucker of his lips when he’s thinking, his hands. His smell. I started imagining what it might be like to kiss him, and when we’d happen to touch, it made my body go completely bonkers. It got to the point where I couldn’t be in the same room with him without getting a hard-on. Then he left for California for the summer, and I hoped the feelings would pass.
But they haven’t, and I’m scared they won’t.
After about twenty laps, I climb out of the pool feeling a little more relaxed. There are snacks on one of the tables, probably brought out by Paloma, their housekeeper. I towel myself off and check out the spread. Chris lowers his sunglasses and looks me up and down, not even trying to hide it. I don’t know if it’s out of competition or appreciation.
“Been working out?” he asks in that bro-code way.
I flex my barely there biceps as a joke, but they’re not as puny as I remember. “Just swimming and mowing lawns. Got a jobby job.” I grab a grilled cheese sandwich off a plate. Paloma must have made it special for me, knowing they’re my favorite. There’s also cut celery and carrots for Tabs, who it seems is always on a diet, and chicken wings for Chris. He loves bar food—the greasier the better. He should weigh five hundred pounds, but he’s doesn’t. He’s perfect. Le sigh.
“Who you working for?” Chris asks. Beads of sweat have collected on his bare chest, drawing my eyes to the growing patch of rangy brown hair between his chiseled pecs. And, yeah, there it goes again. There must be some kind of pill I could take—the anti-Viagra—for when you want your dick to be cool.
“A patient at my mom’s office,” I answer, glancing anywhere but at him. “Jack Lawson. Owns Lawson’s Lawns. He needed someone who can speak Spanish to the crew.”
My mom’s Puerto Rican, and she and I mostly spoke Spanish in the house while Tabs and I were growing up. Tabs understands it, but she hardly ever speaks it. She’s always trying to fit in, telling us to “act normal,” whatever that means. Half the people in South Florida speak Spanish, so it’s not even that uncommon.
“Saving up for college?” Chris asks.
I grin at that. Chris is always telling me not to worry about college, that I’ll get a scholarship with my grades and his parents will probably have to pay extra to get a university to take him. He’s always trying to even things out between us so that money isn’t an issue—him having it and me not. Even though my dad’s a dentist and comes from money, he’s working on his fifth kid with his third wife, which means the child support well is drying up fast.
“I’m trying to buy a car,” I remind him.
“What do you need a car for?” His sandy eyebrows draw together, giving him a stern appearance. He looks put out by it. He’s been giving me rides since he got his license last year. Sometimes I feel like I’m taking advantage of his generosity, and I don’t like it.
“You know, to get around. I’m getting my license soon.”
“I thought I was your ride.”
A bit of melted cheese gets stuck in my throat and I have a little coughing fit. Chris jumps up and slaps my back, though I’m not sure it helps. I recover pretty quickly but not before noticing the hesitation of his hand, his warm palm against my cold skin and a slight, reassuring rub that sends the exact wrong message to my dick.
“You going to let me drive your car, Theo?” Tabs calls, hitting me like an anvil to the head.
“Not without a license.” My sister has shown no interest in learning to drive. She only got her learner’s permit because my mom made her, and she hardly ever practices. I don’t understand how she can be so reliant on others. I hate asking people for things.
“You’re still going to ride with me to school, though, right?” Chris says, moistening his lips with his tongue, drawing my attention to the pink that stands out against his tanned skin. His jaw is smooth. No more soft, downy hair. He must have started shaving this summer. Makes me think I should too.
I shrug. “Or, you could ride with me.”
He looks pleased with the suggestion. “Hopefully you’ve gotten better at driving this summer.”
“Like you’re the expert, Curby.”
He throws his shirt at me and I throw it back, but not before catching a whiff of it. Ack. Sensory overload. I claim the lawn chair on the other side of my sister. Physical distance helps. I close my eyes and try to envision the perfect wave instead of imagining what Chris looks like naked. Unfortunately it morphs into what Chris would look like surfing the perfect wave while naked, so then I imagine my fingernails being pulled from their nail beds because only thoughts of physical torture seem to work in these situations.
Tabs sits up, hands the sunscreen to Chris, and asks him to do her back. Without waiting for a reply, she angles toward him and sweeps up her ponytail. Like it’s nothing.
I tell them I have to use the bathroom so I won’t have to watch the rub-a-thon. Inside, I say hello to Paloma and ask about her mother, who’s still recovering from a recent illness. They’re from the Dominican Republic, and I think she likes speaking Spanish to me. We catch up for a bit. Then I hang out for a while in the bathroom, wash my hands meticulously, and count to a hundred until I’m sure the sunscreening is over.
When I come back, they’ve traded places and Tabs is doing Chris’s shoulders. I can tell she’s enjoying it. Really working it in there with the palm of her hand and taking her time. Who wouldn’t? All that warm, teasing skin…. I don’t want to watch, but I can’t seem to look away, so I stand there trapped with a crampy feeling in my balls.
“You need sunscreen?” Chris asks.
I turn fifty shades of red and stammer, “No, I’m good.” The last thing I want is to sprout a hard-on while Chris rubs my back. Jesus, I hope this is just some weird hormonal thing. I’d take acne and voice cracks over impromptu erections any day.
“Brown people burn too,” Tabs says, our mother’s constant reminder.
“I’ll be all right,” I say tightly.
The three of us lounge around in the shallow end, soaking up the sun and our last few days of freedom before school starts. My sister gossips about what went on while Chris was away visiting his dad in California, which couples from school have broken up and who’s gotten back together, who’s cheated or been cheated on. Who’s pregnant or on drugs or in rehab. I tune her out and quietly float on a raft until I hear her start talking about our birthday.
“Guess who’s turning sixteen soon?” she says to Chris.
“Ummm, Theo?” he says with a smile on his face.
She punches his arm playfully. “And me.”
“Really, I thought you were at least seventeen by now.”
She shakes her head and laughs. It echoes across the water, and my twin-sense tells me she’s working up to something. My ears perk up.
“So, I was thinking…,” she says in that nasally voice she gets with my dad whenever she wants something.
“What were you thinking?” Chris asks, playing along.
“I was thinking maybe I could have my birthday party here.” She motions with her manicured hands at the pool and surrounding veranda.
“No,” I call from my inflatable island in the deep end. I hate it when she asks our dad for things. Asking Chris is, like, a million times worse.
Chris ignores me and says, “Will there be a lot of hot chicks here?”
I roll my eyes and groan at his predictability.
“A ton,” she says with this huge smile on her face, and I already know he’s going to give in to her. Everyone does. My sister’s a master at getting her way.
“Will you plan it without any help from me?” he asks.
“Of course I will.” She claps her hands together.
“Will you help clean up?”
“A thousand times yes!”
“One last question.” He glances over at me. “Will I be invited to this party?”
She laughs and strategically places one hand on his bare shoulder. Seeing her touch him like that gets me all moody and pissed. I hate feeling that way toward Chris. And my sister too. I wish I could stop it, or even better, rewind my biology back to when I didn’t have these feelings at all.
“You’ll be my guest of honor, Christian Mitcham,” she says dramatically.
Chris waggles his eyebrows at me. “And what about birthday boy over there, is he invited?”
Tabs turns and lowers her sunglasses, stares at me like I’m the mutant tail she just can’t seem to shake. “I guess so. It’s his birthday too.”
“I’m not going,” I announce. I hate birthday parties, especially joint ones with Tabs. I’m always on edge because she’s so uptight about me not making her look bad.
“You have to go, Theo,” Chris whines in a high-pitched voice and splashes me. “It’s your sweet sixteen.”
A car horn interrupts my everlasting groan.
“Oh, that’s Lizbeth,” my sister says, climbing up the stairs and quickly toweling off. She dons a slinky sundress over her bikini and grabs her bag. “Going shopping at the Gardens. Want to come with?” She directs the question at Chris, not me. My sister rarely asks me to do things with her and her friends. I’m too weird, she says. I don’t talk enough and when I do, I say strange things.
“I’ll stay here and catch up with Theo.” Chris smiles warmly at her. He has this amazing quality of making you feel special just with a smile.
“See ya, Tabs,” I call.
“Yeah,” she responds and saunters off with this swishy walk she does when she thinks somebody might be watching. She has a nice little body, and she knows it. Her sandals go clack-clack-clack on the concrete, and then she’s gone.
“Same old Tabs,” Chris says with a chuckle.
“Yep,” I agree, though I don’t find it at all amusing. She could have at least asked me about her birthday plans before springing it on Chris. I’d have said no—hell, no—which is probably why she didn’t. Maybe too I feel a little possessive over Chris. She has a ton of friends already. Does she have to add Chris to her collection?
“A party could be fun,” he says, trying to warm me up to it.
“I’ll be up there.” I point to my bedroom window.
“Like hell you will. If I have to put up with Tabs’s friends, you do too.”
I groan again even though I think Chris and Tabitha have both become immune to my resistance. The only thing I want to do on my birthday is go down to the DMV and get my license, then drive down A1A in my mom’s car with the windows down, unless I have my own car by then. I’ve got a few thousand saved up from a lifetime of being cheap, along with my pay from summer work. A car means freedom, independence, and not having to rely on Chris or my mom to cart my ass around town all the time.
Chris turns on me then with a mischievous grin, crosses the pool in two strides, and upsets my float, dumping me into the cold water. It’s a bit of a shock to the system. Even more so when he wraps one muscular arm around my neck and dunks me under just to show me he still can.
I come up with a full-body shiver and shake the water from my hair. “Had to get that out, huh?” I ask, hardly even annoyed.
“Got to make sure you still know who’s boss.” He punches my shoulder lightly.
Boss is my nickname for him, whenever he’s being pushy or trying hard to get his way, which is most of the time.
“So, what have you been up to?” Chris asks. “You hardly texted me at all this summer.”
He’s right about that. Mainly because it just made me miss him more. I did send him a few pictures, mostly of the beach and the waves, since that’s always been his favorite view.
“Nothing too exciting happened while you were gone. Didn’t seem like much worth mentioning.”
He scowls like he doesn’t believe me, though he should know nothing fun ever happens when he’s not around.
“I got a new board. Want to see it?” Chris has a lot of toys, but he gets super excited about his boards.
“I’m surprised you held out this long.”
“I figured Tabs wouldn’t be into it. Not the way you would.”
We climb out of the pool and towel off. I follow Chris over to one of their outdoor sheds where he keeps his half-dozen surfboards, all quality-made, on wooden racks. If the boards don’t stand up to the test, Chris trades or sells them, which means his collection is always evolving to suit his style of surfing.
The floor is a concrete slab and the couple of dusty windows light the shed in a buttery yellow haze. I can’t see the color and design as well as if we were outside, so I run my hand along the edge of the board where it straddles two sawhorses. It’s a shortboard with a slightly upturned nose. The epoxy resin is smooth as glass, not a drop of wax on it. It’s probably never even been floated before.
“You haven’t used it yet,” I remark. Usually Chris takes them out his first day, or he arranges to test drive them before buying.
“This weekend. Taking a trip to Sebastian before school starts. You coming?”
I have nothing planned other than working with my lawn crew, which I can probably get covered for the weekend, but it’s hard enough keeping my junk in check when we’re alone. I don’t want the pressure of being around his ultrahetero friends or watching him make out with his squad of surfer girls.
“I don’t know, Boss. School starts on Monday.”
“Whaaat?” he whines and I shrug like What can I do about it? “Come on, T. I really want you to come with me. We haven’t hung out all summer.”
“I know, but….” I drift off, not knowing how to finish that thought without telling him the real reason—it’s too damn hard to be constantly tempted with something you can’t have.
“I’ll give you Lady Macbeth.” Chris grins slyly, sweetening the pot. Lady Macbeth is my favorite of his collection, a longboard made by a local guy named Casper. We named her that because we’re convinced she’s suicidal. On good days that board can sail. On bad ones she drops me on my ass. I can relate to her temperament.
“I always get Lady Macbeth.”
“To have.” He crosses his arms over his broad chest, accentuating the swell of his biceps and the meat of his pecs.
Chris is always giving me stuff. Before I got too tall, he used to give me his old clothes. My bike used to be his, too, and a couple of my skateboards. He’s too generous, especially to me.
“That board’s worth, like, $500. Not including sentimental value.”
“It’s practically yours anyway. I never ride it.”
“So you’re telling me you want me to store it in my garage,” I say to mess with him. I don’t want him to think I’m using him for his stuff, part of why I started working this summer. To give back.
“No,” he says, getting a little flustered. It doesn’t happen often, but I do enjoy seeing Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected squirm. “You can still store it here. You probably should. Don’t want to make the others jealous.”
“Ha,” I say as my eyes land on the ridgeline of his collarbone and the gold chain that rests there with a shark’s tooth attached. I found it way back when on the beach and gave it to him—biggest tooth we’d ever seen. Chris had it made into a necklace. The tooth belongs to a great white, he always tells people when they ask, the same shark that chomps on surfers up and down the coast. Not us, though. By wearing its tooth, it shows the sharks we’re one of them. Like most surfers, Chris is a bit superstitious.
I turn away so he won’t see my face and pretend to inspect Lady Macbeth. “She’s pretty dinged up, though.”
“You little shit.” He shoves me lightly. “You’re the one who dinged her.”
I smile. He’s so protective of his boards. “If I take her off your hands, she might not answer to you anymore.”
“She never did. I’d have sold her if it weren’t for you.” He lays his hand on the board’s edge and gives her an affectionate little squeeze. His ruddy golden hand with his sun-bleached nails, next to mine, so close they’re practically touching. Chris is always just an inch too far away.
“So, you’ll come to Sebastian with me?”
Is it my imagination, or is there some unspoken plea in his voice? I don’t know how I’m going to survive the weekend with him, much less my entire sophomore year. Lots of cold showers. But like most things with Chris, I don’t have the willpower to say no.
“Yeah, I’ll come. But I get shotgun.” I always get shotgun unless there’s a girl in the car, Hopefully he’s not bringing a girl with us.
“Damn, Theo, I go away for a summer and you’ve turned into a shark.”
I shake my head and nudge him lightly with my shoulder, my bare skin brushing against his. I glance over, and even though I can’t see them in this light, I know that’s where he collects his freckles, on the tops of his shoulders. I’ve spent way too much time memorizing them, but it’s partly his fault for never wearing a damn shirt.
“You know you always get what you want in the end,” I tell him. As if there was ever a question.
He smiles with an arrogance that only adds to his appeal. “Don’t make me work too hard.”
That deep, gravelly voice gets me every time. Feels like my heart is being rubbed over a cheese grater. I remind myself to breathe, then make up an excuse about something I need to do at home and walk back out of the shed with his fumes still in my nostrils and his voice humming in my head.
Our summer apart hasn’t changed a thing. If anything, it’s only gotten worse. I’m still hopelessly infatuated with my best friend.
My straight best friend.COLLAPSE