Welcome to LEARNED REACTIONS, the second in my Higher Education series. You got a chance to meet Carlton and get a brief glimpse into Deion in LEARNED BEHAVIORS, but there’s a lot of emotional turmoil mixed up in their almost twenty-year friendship. Carlton is convinced all he wants from Deion is friendship…until Deion takes him at his word. Playing like everything is okay is the name of Carlton’s game, and as you can see below, Deion’s not sure whether to pay attention to Carlton’s words or his actions. Enjoy!
He must’ve gotten lost in the conversation, because he didn’t hear the door open until Carlton dropped his keys in a bowl. Deion startled and dropped the phone. It landed face-up, the profile picture of the guy smiling up at them.
Carlton frowned, crossed the short distance to the couch, picked up the phone and glanced at it, his brow furrowing slightly.
“Everything okay?” Carlton asked, his hand outstretched. Deion snagged the phone and sat up to make room for Carlton next to him.
“Yeah.” His voice sounded like he’d gargled with glass. He coughed, trying desperately to clear his throat, then spoke again. “Yeah, I’m fine. Really.”
Carlton’s disbelief had to be swinging from the rafters, but he nodded and didn’t press. He scooted closer, until their thighs touched, then leaned back and threw his arm over the top of the sofa. Almost like he was wrapping his arm around Deion, except he was absolutely not.
“What’ve you been up to?” he asked, his voice almost…apprehensive somehow, like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. “You were on the phone pretty hard when I walked in.”
Deion didn’t want to have this conversation. And he could tell Carlton didn’t really want to either. That thought gave him pause. Carlton had no reason to be apprehensive about what Deion did. He should be happy to know Deion was actively trying to move on, right?
Who’re you trying to convince? Deion squeezed his eyes shut for the briefest moment before opening them and trying for his best smile. “I was talking to a guy online.”
Carlton’s jaw tightened, and Deion watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. Then he smiled, and it was big and broad and full of the friendly affection that was the hallmark of their relationship. Deion kinda fucking hated it right now. “That why you got your hair hanging down like some sort of a sex god?”
Deion barked out a laugh and pushed his shoulder. “Yeah, okay, man, whatever.”
Carlton chuckled, but it faded quickly, leaving that all-too-knowing stare that always made Deion feel stripped naked, no matter how many layers frigid Chicago winters had forced him to wear. Carlton’s gaze dropped, and he reached out to flick a loc. “It looks good, man. I like it. Bet he did too, huh?”
The shudder that threatened to ripple all the way down Deion’s frame was kept in check by the barest of strings, and he bit into his lower lip hard enough he drew blood.
This was good, Carlton showing an interest in Deion’s love life. He should be grateful, and he was. Seriously. He sucked in a breath and matched the smile. “He did.”
Carlton grinned. “Let me see what you sent.” Deion fumbled for his phone and pulled up his photos. Carlton snatched the phone and started scrolling. And typing.
“What’re you doing?” Deion asked, reaching for it.
Carlton held it out of reach. “Sending them to myself. Gotta have pics of my best friend and shit.”
And… Deion didn’t know what to do with that. Nothing about that read “just friends,” but maybe Deion was reading too much into it. No, he was absolutely, definitely, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt reading too much into it.
So he settled down, answered Carlton’s questions, laughed along with him. Tried his damnedest not to read too much into Carlton’s—inability? refusal? Deion couldn’t tell—to look him in the eye. Whatever truth Deion wanted to pull from it was purely in the form of speculation, and was a one-way track to heartbreak.
Eventually Carlton gave the phone back and they settled into silence while a preseason basketball game played in the background. But it wasn’t comfortable, not really. An underlying tension filled the space between them, a disquiet Deion couldn’t pinpoint the cause of.
After who knows how long, Carlton yawned and stretched his long arms high overhead. “Think I’m gonna hit the sack, man. It’s been a long week and we only have a few days left.”
They hadn’t even eaten, but as Deion watched his friend stand and shake himself, he realized he wasn’t hungry. Nerves had taken up residence where his hunger should be. Nerves about what Carlton really thought, really felt about Deion’s dating, even though he’d been outwardly supportive.
Carlton rounded the back of the couch, pinned Deion with a stare that made him want to haul Carlton down and kiss that grin off his face, then walked off in the direction of his bedroom. Deion could imagine him pulling back those cool, tight sheets, climbing into the center of the bed—no sides for him—and letting sleep take over.
Deion wanted to be there with him. To snuggle close, wrap a hand across Carlton’s chest and feel the press of his lips against Deion’s forehead.
He sighed. He was a goddamn fool, and he was going to have a strong come-to-Jesus moment when he got back to Chicago.
He nestled onto the couch and grabbed the remote. Basketball was off, and a UFC match was starting. Good. Something short and hopefully bloody was exactly what he needed.
He must’ve fallen asleep just like that, because the sharp knock at the front door, the ringing of his—no, Carlton’s—phone, and the pounding thud of bare feet on hardwood all combined to jar Deion awake. He pushed up, scrubbing a hand over his face, and stared at the door. Carlton fumbled with the locks, like he couldn’t get them open soon enough, then yanked the door open.
On the other side, soaking wet from a storm that must’ve started while Deion was asleep, stood Carlton’s niece, Olivia.
“Uncle C,” she started, then hiccupped. “Can I stay with you?”
(c) Jayce Ellis, Carina Press, 2021. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Higher Education #2
Carlton Monroe is finally getting his groove back. After a year playing dad to his nephew and sending him safely off to college, it’s back to his bachelor ways. But when his teenaged niece shows up on his doorstep looking for a permanent home, his plan comes to a screeching halt. Family is everything, and in the eyes of social services, a couple makes a better adoptive family than an overworked bachelor father. A fake relationship with his closest friend is the best way to keep his family together.
If things between him and Deion are complicated, well, it only needs to last until the end of the semester.
Living with Carlton is a heartbreak waiting to happen, and once the adoption goes through, Deion’s out. He’s waited two decades for Carlton to realize they’re meant for each other, and he’s done. It’s time to make a clean break. But it’s hard to think of moving away when keeping up the act includes some very real perks like kissing, cuddling and sharing a bed.
Even the best charades must come to an end, though. As the holidays and Deion’s departure date loom, the two men must decide whether playing house is enough for them—or if there’s any chance they could be a family for real.
Book 1: Learned Behaviors
Book 2: Learned Reactions
Buy LEARNED REACTIONS: Kindle
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About Jayce Ellis
Jayce Ellis started writing as a child (just ask the poor sixth-graders forced to listen to her hand-written cozy mystery), then made the tragic mistake of letting the real world interfere for the next two decades. When she finally returned to her first love (her husband and two turtles, Chompers and Desi, remain locked in an eternal battle for second), she’d transitioned from mystery to romance, and there she’s found her true passion.
Jayce writes about people a bit like her, Black and queer, and striving to find the good in a world fixated on the bad. She prefers her angst low and her characters hot—a term encompassing all shapes, sizes, and complexions.
There may be a hint of irony in Jayce’s day job as a family law attorney, but she soothes herself in worlds where people communicate and find a way to work things out and reach a real and true HEA, even if there’s rarely a neat, tidy little bow wrapping everything else up. Because really, where’s the fun in that?