“You don’t want me, Summer,” he said firmly. “I’m quite old, used-up, and I don’t even know how to be with someone anymore.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Summer murmured.
Silence, before Summer said slowly, “Maybe I’m wrong. . . I’m probably wrong. Or maybe you were a good enough teacher that I can figure some things out. But either way, I think you shut yourself away while you needed to…but your protective walls turned into a cage when you didn’t need them anymore, and now you can’t find your way out.”
Shut yourself away while you needed to.
The simple memory of just why he’d shut himself away cut deep, digging down to a tiny pain that lived at his heart. He’d made it tiny deliberately, so he could compact it down into a thing so small it could fit in the palm of his hand, all of that agony crushed down into nothing so that he could never touch too much of it at any one time, its surface area barely the size of a fingerprint.
And then he’d tucked it away, burying it down where he couldn’t reach it.
But those simple words threatened to expose it, even if it meant cutting him open to do so.
He stood, reminding himself to breathe–to breathe, and to wrap himself in his calm. He was nearly twice Summer’s age, and quite accustomed to rebellious boys who thought they were intelligent enough to outsmart their teacher, put him on the spot, leave him floundering. Summer was just an older, larger version of that.
And Fox could not forget that he was the one in control here.
“Is that so?” he asked, looking down at Summer–the top of his head, the hard slopes his shoulders made as he leaned back on his hands. “If that’s your analysis, you aren’t fit to teach elementary school psychology.”
“They don’t teach psychology in elementary school.” Summer chuckled, those firm shoulders shaking. “Insulting me already didn’t work, Professor. Why do you think it’s going to drive me back from the walls this time?”
Fox turned his nose up. “Is that your intent, then? To breach my walls?”
“Not breach them, no.”
Summer tilted his head back again, then, but this time instead of looking at the sky. . . he looked up at Fox with his eyes full of that sky, the first morning clouds reflected against liquid blue.
“I’m not going to get inside unless you let me, Professor Iseya. But I can stand outside the walls and wait. . . and ask.”
He could not be serious.
One minute Summer had arrived to apologize for that egregious and utterly ridiculous kiss, and now he. . . seemed to be emboldened to some kind of designs on Fox?
All because Fox had not summarily dismissed him from his position?
He pressed his lips together and took a few steps away from Summer, drifting along the lake’s shore, putting more distance between them. Giving himself space–to think, to sort himself out, when he wasn’t accustomed to this.
Wasn’t accustomed to someone who took one look at his walls and saw not someone cold, not someone cruel, distant, detached, inhuman…
But simply that those walls were made not of stone, but of pain.
He did not like it.
His walls had served him quite well for some time, and they did not need to be broken down.
“Do you think Rapunzel was comfortable in her castle?” he asked. “Perhaps, since it was all she knew. . . it never even felt like a cage.”
Summer let out a sunny little laugh. “Are we talking Grimm’s Rapunzel or Disney’s Rapunzel?”
“Does it matter?”
“Considering in one I end up losing my eyesight trying to reach you, and the other I just get hit in the face with a frying pan?” A wickedly amused sound rose from the back of Summer’s throat. “Yes.”
Fox wrinkled his nose. “Please do not project us into the roles of fictional lovers.”
A soft rustle rose, denim moving against grass, the sounds of fabric against skin. It was an oddly intimate sound, one that made Fox remember the sound of flesh on sheets, the pad of soft footsteps in the dark, a quiet room where he never wanted the light to find him and wake him from a dream of being in love.
He couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t breathe, and he couldn’t seem to move even though everything inside him wanted to run as Summer drew closer, closer, until he was a warmth at Fox’s back, this bright thing that kept trying to chase away the cold touch of ghosts, of yurei whose icy spirit-fingers wrapped around Fox’s neck, choking off his air, but Fox didn’t want to let them go. Didn’t want to let in the breath they were strangling from him.
When if he remembered how to breathe, that one tiny swelling of his chest might just shatter him.
“What about real lovers, then?” Summer asked, husky, low, his breaths and his voice like a lick of flame on a frozen night.
Fox stared blankly straight ahead, curling one hand against his chest, against his shirt, clutching up a handful of the fabric. He couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t face that warmth.
Didn’t Summer realize?
Didn’t he realize if he burned away Fox’s wall of frost…
There was nothing beneath, and he’d just melt and evaporate and wisp away?
“Why?” he whispered. “Why do you want something like that?”
“You told me to be bold.” Soft, entreating, yet. . . so inadvertently seductive, too. Fox didn’t think Summer realized just how seductive his sweetness was. “I can’t think of anything bolder than asking the most terrifying man in Albin Academy to kiss me.”
Summer drew closer, the crackle of grass beneath his feet, his shoulder brushing Fox’s in a sudden quiet shock-jump of sensation before it was gone as Summer stood at his side, looking out over the water as well with that strange, gently melancholy smile on his full red lips. “Once per day.”
Fox watched him from the corner of his eye, brows knitting. “That’s. . . a bizarre proposition.”
“Is it?” Summer slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his shirt drawing tight against leanly toned musculature, wrinkles seaming against the flex of his biceps. “It’s motivation. If I’m bolder, if I prove to you I can do this job. . . I get rewarded with a kiss. With one caveat.”
There. One caveat.
All Fox would need to end this ridiculous game.
“And what would that be?” he asked.
“Only if you really want to.” Summer shook his head slightly, messy hair drifting across his eyes. “I couldn’t stand it if you felt like you had to. Like you were obligated, or like. . . ” He trailed off, eyes lidding, voice quieting. “. . . like I didn’t really care what you want. I think. . . I kind of think ‘no’ is the most important word we know, and not enough people listen to it.”
“You have to know that I would say no right in this instant, Mr. Hemlock,” Fox said through his teeth. “Which makes your proposition quite pointless, as it is.”
Summer lifted his head, then, once more looking at Fox directly. Considering how he avoided eye contact so pathologically, Fox. . . didn’t understand why Summer seemed inclined to so often look at him so fully, so intently, when he claimed to be afraid of Fox, claimed to be so anxious he actually found Fox terrifying.
But perhaps that’s what bravery was, Fox thought.
Summer was afraid of him. . .
And yet still looking at him.
Trying to see him.
And telling him, in his own way…
That for some bizarre reason, he found Fox to be worth facing down that fear.
(C) 2020, Cole McCade, Carina Press. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Albin Academy #1
Summer Hemlock never meant to come back to Omen, Massachusetts…
But with his mother in need of help, Summer has no choice but to return to his hometown, take up a teaching residency at the elite Albin Academy–and work directly under the man who made his teenage years miserable.
Professor Fox Iseya.
Forbidding, aloof, commanding: psychology instructor Iseya is a cipher who’s always fascinated and intimidated shy, anxious Summer. But that fascination turns into something more when the older man challenges Summer to be brave. What starts as a daily game to reward Summer with a kiss for every obstacle overcome turns passionate, and a professional relationship turns quickly personal.
Yet Iseya’s walls of grief may be too high for someone like Summer to climb…until Summer’s infectious warmth shows Fox everything he’s been missing in life.
Now both men must be brave enough to trust each other, to take that leap.
To find the love they’ve always needed…
Just like that.
Carina Adores is home to highly romantic contemporary love stories where LGBTQ+ characters find their happily-ever-afters.
Romance LGBTQ [Carina Press, On Sale: June 30, 2020, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781335146458 / eISBN: 9781488076299]
About Cole McCade
Cole McCade is a New Orleans-born Southern boy without the Southern accent, currently residing somewhere in Seattle. He spends his days as a suit-and-tie corporate consultant and business writer, and his nights writing contemporary romance and erotica that flirt with the edge of taboo–when he’s not being tackled by two hyperactive cats.