Chapter 1

 “OH, look!” Fielding said. “They have a new latte flavor—‘Santa’s Death by Peppermint.’ I’m getting that.

It was the second of December and we were waiting in line at The Coffee Clatch. The campus coffee joint was bedecked and bedazzled with holiday spirit including colored mini-lights, tiny, fuzzy Santa hats on all the espresso machine handles, and displays of giant holiday cookies. Great. Fielding would be bouncing off the walls on a sugar high all month long.

“Do you have any idea how many calories are probably in that latte?” I asked. It was more or less a hypothetical question.

“Lots and lots,” Fielding answered enthusiastically. “Oooh! Cookies!-”

I was about to get more serious about my anti-sugar lecture when someone pressed into my back. By the feel of the soft curves along my spine that someone was female. Normally that would have been a good thing, but I wasn’t seeing anyone at the moment, and I didn’t care to be groped in a coffee shop while trying to talk my best friend. More to the point, before I’d had my morning pick-me-up. A little annoyed, I turned to see who it was.

A slim blonde in blue eye shadow and a tight pink sweater smiled up at me. She put her hand on my arm.

“Hey, Mick,” she gushed. “Long time no see.”

I recognized her, despite the lack of a perky red and white uniform. It was Regina, a Cornell football cheerleader. Had we ever messed around? I had to actually think about it. But no, we hadn’t. Regina had been into Dylan McDermont when I was on the team. But the appreciative look in her eyes made it clear that Dylan was now buried in the Cemetery of Abandoned Interests. Probably right next to subtlety.

“Hey, Regina. Uh… this is my housemate, Fielding.”

“Hello,” Fielding said.

Regina gave Fielding a quick once over and a polite hello before she turned her attention back to lucky me.

“I can’t believe you quit the team!” Regina put on a cute little pout. “The girls were just chatting the other day about how much we miss seeing your fine ass out on the field.”

What do you say to something like that? Why yes, I do have a fine ass, thanks for noticing? or Maybe you and my ass can work out another arrangement?

I went with, “I decided I needed to focus on my studies.”

“Well, you are missed! I was hoping to get to know you better. In fact, the girls were just talking about you at dinner the other night. There seems to be a general consensus that…” Regina paused, looking coy, “…that you’re the best kisser on campus.”

A surprised huff escaped me. It sounded appropriately dubious.

“I was sort of hoping I’d get a chance to test that theory for myself.” Regina blushed prettily at her own boldness and slid her hand from my arm to my chest.

Man. As a freshman, I would have been all over that. I’d have been thanking my lucky stars and my insides would have been auditioning for Riverdance. Regina was cute and enthusiastic, and that sweater showed off her C cups to perfection. But getting girls had never been an issue for me. I inherited dirty blond hair and blue eyes from my mom and a rough, somewhat lumpy face from my dad. I’d been told I looked like Daniel Craig. I didn’t get the appeal, but I wasn’t exactly sorry for it. Still, by my junior year of high school getting girls became less of an issue than getting rid of them. And Regina was setting off big red warning lights in my head.

“Sorry, I’m seeing someone,” I said, giving Regina a regretful smile. “But it was really great running into you. Say hi to the other girls for me.”

The people in front of us moved and we were up to place our order. Thank the god of awkward moments.


It was a decent enough day considering that it was December in Ithaca, New York, so we took our drinks outside and sat at the fountain. I had my usual hot green tea with soy milk. Fielding had ignored my warning and gotten his sweet Santa sludge. I’d learned to pick my battles and I let go of this one. I was double-majoring in Nutrition and Physical Therapy and I took healthy eating very seriously. But Fielding looked too happy for me to be a Scrooge about a little holiday treat.

“Why’d you tell Regina you were seeing someone?” Fielding asked, as soon as we sat down.

Inwardly I sighed. I’d had a feeling I wouldn’t get out of that encounter unscathed. “It’s called a little white lie, Bud. The truth would have been rude: I’m not interested, buzz off.”

“Ah! I see.” Fielding smirked. “Away with thee, thou silver-tongued succubus.”

I laughed. “Piss off, oh ye of the cleavage-which-shall-not-be-touched.”

Fielding chuckled, a low hearty rumble which made me grin. My science geek housemate hadn’t grown up with a lot of laughter. But Fielding laughed now. He did a lot of things now that he hadn’t when we’d first moved in together. I felt pretty damn good about that, peppermint lattes notwithstanding.

“But why should her cleavage not be touched?”

I shrugged. “Been there. Done that. Have the T-shirt.”

Fielding blinked at me, a frown of confusion on his brow. “You slept with her? But she said she wanted to test the theory about your—”

Damn. Fielding missed nothing.

“I didn’t sleep with her. Girls like her.” And really, having a thing with three members of the Cornell football cheerleading squad was more than enough for any man. More than that, and I’d seriously have to seek counseling.

Fielding still looked puzzled. “So when you say ‘I’m seeing someone,’ and you really aren’t, is that the equivalent of saying ‘Let’s just be friends?’ That’s the common brush-off, isn’t it?”

He said it with a bit of a blush, like maybe he’d heard that once or twice before himself. And, wow, that kind of made me feel like a heel for what I’d just done to Regina.

“I guess. So, um, anyway, you have a late lab tonight?” I asked, artfully changing the subject.

“It’s Tuesday,” Fielding said dryly, as if I should have his schedule memorized. I did, but any port in a storm.

“Right. There are still two servings of that chicken casserole you like in the freezer. So I’ll plan on dinner around seven, then. Okay?”

I tried to catch Fielding’s eyes to get a confirmation of that, or at least a sign that he’d heard me. It was not unusual for the things I said to go in one ear, get lost in the vast contortions of Fielding’s massive intellect, and never make it to central processing. But Fielding wasn’t gazing off into space, mind on some physics problem or another. No, he was looking at me. More specifically, Fielding was looking at my mouth. He was intently looking at my mouth, a frown of concentration furrowing his brow. He sucked on his bottom lip.

Christ. Something hot rolled over in my stomach. It felt like uneasiness that maybe shared a condo wall with terror. And maybe arousal lived a couple of doors down. It was not a good feeling. I took a hasty drink of green tea, trying to hide my mouth from Fielding’s gaze. It also kept me from screaming like a little girl.

Covering up my mouth seemed to work, because Fielding broke off staring at it and met my gaze instead. There was a light in his eyes that I didn’t care for at all. When Fielding’s eyes said Eureka! civilizations crumbled and gods wept.

“Bye,” Fielding said abruptly. He pulled on his backpack and hurried away, head down.


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