There were certain things in this universe that could always be counted on. The smell of old socks coming from the boy's locker room. The pack of giggling females that crowded around the first-string quarterback as he slid down the hall. And the way Dillon Carver's heart slammed against his chest every time he saw Jamie Walker. James, he mentally corrected himself. He'd long ago lost the right to call him Jamie. But if God was as merciful as the preacher of the First Christian Church of Reed claimed, he'd get it back.

Dillon watched from his own locker two rows down the hall as James loaded books into his backpack. His white blond hair was in need of a good combing, as usual, but the haphazard style suited him. The sight of James's lean body, even encased in those baggy jeans, was enough to cause an involuntary tightening just below Dillon's belt. Jamie might be short--not an inch over five-foot-six--but he had long, muscular legs. Legs that had once wrapped around Dillon and held him as his body shuddered with release. With a bitter pang of regret, Dillon wondered how many times those legs had preformed that same service for Ben Lewis.

"You're gonna wear a hole in that boy with your eyes if you keep staring at him like that."

Dillon turned to see Megan Nash leaning against one of the lockers, her blue eyes watching him.

"I didn't mean to stare. I was just wondering where his pet dick head is." Hopefully, he slithered back under a rock.

"You mean Ben?"

Dillon snorted. "Who else? He and Jamie are more or less joined these days." He just hoped that wasn't the case, literally.

Megan tilted her head, her fiery curls trailing across her right shoulder. "I know you're less than thrilled about James and Ben, but if you keep staring at him like that, everyone is going to know."

Dillon shrugged. "Screw 'em. They'll know soon enough, anyway."

"Maybe, but I think it would be better to stick to the plan. It will be easier on you if you do this at your own place."

Dillon took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You know, I hate the fact that you're always right."

"Hardly. But having three gay brothers does make me a bit of an expert on this particular subject. Not to mention assorted cousins and poor relations."

Dillon raised his brows. "Three gay brothers?"

"When Brandon married Nate, he became my brother, too."

Dillon held up his index and middle fingers. "That's two. Who's the other one?"

"Randy. He came out to all of us just before the wedding."

"Only in your family could that ever happen." He laughed, but he envied Megan her family. Her brother, Brandon, was the sheriff of Reed. He was also openly gay, and had just married his partner, Nathan. Nate had even taken Brandon's name after the ceremony. He could only hope he'd be that lucky some day. Of course, it was Megan's parents Dillon envied the most. They loved their children unconditionally, unlike Douglas and Angela Carver. He was so caught up in his thoughts, he didn't realize Megan was still speaking to him.

"So, are we still on for the dance tonight?"

Dillon groaned. "I don't know, Meggie. I was gonna ask Jim at the pharmacy if I could work tonight. When my folks throw me out, I'm gonna need all the money I can get."

"You work plenty. What you need is one night to just be normal, something to take your mind off your troubles. What better way to do that than to spend the evening with yours truly, dancing that cute little butt off?"

Dillon closed his locker. "You're deranged, you know that?"

The last bell rang and Megan started for the door. As she went, she said, "Maybe, but it's all part of my charm. You know you love me."

Dillon laughed as he followed her out. "Yeah, yeah. I love you, though God only knows why I do." He and Megan went outside, and Dillon never saw the look of pain in Jamie's eyes as he went past.

* * *

Jamie watched from the corner of his eye as Dillon and Megan walked by, laughing and talking as if the rest of the world didn't exist. As if he didn't exist. When he heard Dillon tell Megan he loved her, he actually wished he didn't. Knowing the two of them were together was bad enough, but to have it thrown in his face was almost more than he could bear. Before he had time to work up a decent depression, though, he felt a familiar arm glide around his shoulders. He couldn't help but smile.

"Are you pervin' on me in the middle of the hall?"

Ben laughed and moved back to lean against the wall. "Nah. I figure after two years of trying to get into your pants only to have you resist my considerable assets at every turn, sex with you just ain't gonna happen. Besides, we'd have to exorcise the spirit of Dillon Carver from your soul, and I'm fresh out of holy water."

Jamie looked around the hall to see if anyone heard. "Keep it down, man. Someone might be listening."

Ben shook his head. "I don't know why you work so hard to front for that prick after what he did to you." Jamie started to speak, but Ben cut him off. "Never mind. I've heard it all before, and we're never gonna agree." His face softened. "You know I'll never tell anybody, J. Your secrets are safe with me." His face took on that cocky grin. "Anyway, since you aren't gonna let me get you into bed, I guess I'll just have to settle for the thrill of being close to you."

"You are so full of shit."

"You didn't think my eyes were this brown naturally, did you?" He jerked his spiky, black-haired head in the direction Dillon and Megan had taken. "I see Mr. and Mrs. Plunkett High are still going strong."

Jamie shrugged, determined not to think about it any more than he had to. "I guess they make each other happy. They've been together for almost four months now."

"Hey, if Dillon wants to play it straight, more power to him. If I was into chicks, I might go after Megan Nash myself. As much trouble as I've been in, it sure wouldn't hurt to be banging the sheriff's sister." He heaved his six-foot-two-inch body away from the wall. "But since I haven't found a girl yet who can rev up my engine, I guess I'll just stick with what I've got."

Jamie closed his locker and clicked the lock into place. "Ah, yes, the mystery man. Am I ever gonna get to meet this guy?"

Ben put his arm back around Jamie's shoulders and led him towards the door. "Patience, young Walker. In time, all will be revealed."

"No more Star Wars flicks for you."

"Yeah, yeah." Ben led him into the parking lot. "I can't tell you anything about him just yet, J. He's not 'out.' Besides, we're keeping it casual. He and I are both free to date other people." He grinned. "That reminds me. Are you gonna go to that Valentine's mixer thing tomorrow night?"

Jamie grimaced. "I've got to. The Gay-Straight Alliance is hosting the thing. Since I'm the president of the G.S.A., I have to at least put in an appearance."

"How did the G.S.A. get stuck putting on a dance?"

"Principal Morgan insisted. He thought it would help boost Plunkett High's 'gay friendly' image. He wants the world to know that gay and lesbian students are free to express themselves, whatever the hell that means. He says the city of Reed has a reputation as being ultra hospitable to homosexuals, so it's up to us as the next generation to further that rep." He shrugged. "At least ten same-sex couples have signed up to go, so it must be working."

Ben nodded and motioned Jamie over towards his car. The 1985 Firebird was Ben's baby. Every dime he earned doing odd jobs for his foster mother went into the sleek, black beauty. Not for the first time, Jamie wished he weren't so scared of learning how to drive.

Ben broke into his thoughts. "You gonna stand around all day, or are you gonna get in the car?"

"I hear ya." Jamie opened the car door and sank down into the bucket seat. He closed the door behind him and waited until Ben was seated behind the wheel before saying, "Weren't you about to ask me something?"

Ben turned to better see him. "Oh, yeah. I was thinking, since you have to go to that dance tonight, anyway, maybe you and I could go together."

"You mean, like a date?"

"Well, yeah, but just as friends. If a guy can't go to a dance with his best friend, what's the world coming to?"

"What about the guy you're seeing? Won't he care?"

"Nah. Like I told you, him and me, we're casual. Besides, it'll give us a chance to rub our presence in Dillon Carver's face."


"Look, J, the guy fucked you over six ways from Sunday. The least you can do is show him that you aren't pining away for him while he's off playing the happy hetero."

In spite of the present topic, Jamie found himself laughing. "You do have a way with words." He looked down at his hands for a full minute before looking back up at Ben. "All right, then. If you really want to do this, you've got yourself a date."

Ben pumped his hand twice in victory and started the car.

* * *

Jamie's Great-aunt Sadie was waiting in the archaic kitchen when he got home. He dropped his backpack into a near-by chair and bent to kiss her wrinkled cheek.

Sadie smiled up at him, her green eyes crinkling at the corners. "So, how was school?"

Jamie went to the fridge and scrounged around until he found what he was looking for. He slapped together three ham sandwiches, grabbed a bottle of Coke from the door, and closed the refrigerator with his foot. He settled into the chair next to his aunt and crammed his mouth full of sandwich. It wasn't until he was half-way through the first sandwich that he realized he'd been asked a question.

"School was okay. Same as always." This he said around a mouthful of ham and cheese on rye.

Aunt Sadie clicked her tongue. "For heaven's sake, Jamie, you don't have to gobble your food down in such a way. No one is going to take it away from you." She stared at him for a moment, then said, "So, do you have plans for this evening?"

Jamie swallowed hard, almost choking on a large chunk of bread. Here came the tricky part. "Yes, ma'am. I'm going to the Valentine's Dance with Ben."

Aunt Sadie made a grumbling trek across the black and white tile floor on her way to the white porcelain double-sink. Jamie winced at the sound of banging pots and pans, but it was nothing he wasn't used to. The Queen Ann home Sadie inherited from her father had seen more than one of her hissy fits. After a full two minutes of dish rattling and pan tossing, Sadie turned back to Jamie and said, "I wish you could tell me what you see in that hooligan."

Jamie almost laughed at Sadie's old fashioned term for Ben. Her short, iron-gray curls had frizzed up during her tirade, framing her face like a halo. At four-foot-ten, even Jamie towered over her. He couldn't help but marvel at how lucky he was to have ended up with her instead of in a foster home like Ben. Instead of laughing, he said, "If you don't want me to go with him, I won't." It was a bluff, and they both knew it.

"You know better than that. You're eighteen years old, and I figure that makes you old enough to pick your own friends. I just wish you had someone in your life besides Ben."

Jamie took a hefty swig of his drink. "Ben's a good guy. He just hasn't had the same advantages as the rest of us."

Sadie shook her head. "Not having had parents doesn't give him the right to do half the things he's done since Nora Slater took him into her home. You'd think he'd be grateful to even have a home after more or less living on the streets, but if he is, he certainly doesn't show it. Why she didn't send him packing the day he turned eighteen is beyond me."

Jamie stared down at the scarred surface of the ancient table. "Well, in that case, why didn't you send me packing when I turned eighteen?"

"James Winston Walker!" Aunt Sadie put down the bowl she'd been holding and came back to the table. Using one short finger, she tilted Jamie's chin so he was looking directly at her. "How can you even ask me that?"

Jamie shrugged. "It's a legitimate question. If Ben deserves to be thrown out of the only home he's had for the past three years, then why don't I deserve the same treatment. I've been sponging off you for a heck of a lot longer than three years. At least Nora got paid by the state to look after Ben. What did you get when my mom dropped me in your lap and took off fourteen years ago?"

Sadie released his chin and sat down in the chair next to his. "I got you, and I've never regretted it, not for an instant. I was fifty years old and had given up hope of ever having children of my own, spinster that I was. I'd just lost my only sister--your grandmother--to cancer, and my parents were long since gone. I just assumed I'd spend the rest of my days alone. You changed all that. I've cursed my niece a thousand times for choosing drugs and that worthless boyfriend of hers over her own child, but not a day goes by that I don't thank her for bringing you to me."

"Then why doesn't Ben deserve the same chance I've been given?"

Sadie stood up and smoothed the wrinkles out of her slacks. "I'll do my best to get along with him, Jamie, for your sake. But if he hurts you, he'll answer to me." She paused. "I wish you and Dillon could have patched up your friendship. He was a good influence on you. You were always so happy when the two of you were together."

Jamie held back a sigh. "It was Dillon's choice to end the," he forced himself to say it, "friendship, Aunt Sadie. There's nothing I can do about it."

"I just can't believe Dillon would break off a twelve year friendship just because you 'came out.' So what if you are gay? You're still you."

She didn't know the half of it, and he wasn't about to enlighten her. He couldn't resist ribbing her a little bit, though. "You didn't exactly jump for joy when I first told you, either."

"Nonsense. I admit, I was shocked at first. And I'm still not sure I understand it, exactly." She gave him a warm smile. "But I love you for who you are, not for who you're attracted to."

Jamie nodded. "I know that. But Ben is a part of who I am. When Dillon dropped me, Ben was there. He's never once let me down, and I refuse to turn my back on him just because he's gotten into a patch of trouble here and there." Aunt Sadie started to object, but Jamie said, "Just give him the benefit of the doubt. Please? For me?"

Aunt Sadie sighed and gave in.

* * *

Dillon stuffed the college acceptance papers into his desk drawer and locked it. He'd done it. He'd been accepted to Garman College in upstate New York. It was prestigious, private, and known for its policies protecting gay and lesbian students. It was also James Walker's school of choice. Even if--more like, when--his parents cut him off, he'd still be able to swing tuition, room, and board with student loans and the college fund his parents had made the mistake of putting solely in his name. Now that he was eighteen, the money was his. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough. It had to be. He could get a part time job to pay for books and living expenses, but he had to be close to Jamie. Living a lie was just no longer an option.

He glanced at the clock. Half-past five. He really should think about getting ready if he was gonna pick Megan up at seven. He was just about to hop in the shower when the phone rang. He grabbed the cordless and said, "Yeah?"

"Great phone manners, Carver."

"Since when did you give a rat's ass about manners, Barnes? Aren't you the same guy who can belch the Star Spangled Banner in three octaves?"

"Hey, a guy's got to have a talent. There's more to Mr. Ashton Barnes the Third than the handsome, athletic specimen I present to the world. I believe in being well rounded."

"Uh, huh. So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this phone call?" He and Ash were friends, but phone conversations were few and far between. He knew for sure something was up when Ash's voice dropped and all traces of the teasing tone he'd answered with disappeared.

"I heard some of the guys talking this afternoon at Hailey's. I stopped off to get a bite to eat after school and heard Rooster and some of the rest planning something for tonight."

Dillon's body went rigid. Rooster was Roy Carmichael, the biggest homophobe on campus. If he was involved, it couldn't be good. "What kind of something?"

"I'm not sure. They shut their traps when they realized I was listening, but I'm pretty sure I heard the word 'fag' mentioned more than once. My guess is they're pissed about the G.S.A. hosting that thing tonight and looking to stir up some trouble."

Dillon tapped his fingers on the back of the receiver. "Why did you call me? Why not Morgan or one of the teachers?"

He could hear Ash swallowing. "Because I know you and James Walker used to be tight. I thought you might know how to get in touch with him. I was afraid to do it myself. I don't want anyone to think. . ."

"You're afraid everyone will think you're gay if you get caught sticking up for a bunch of gay guys. Is that it?"

Ash went on the defensive. "Look, Dillon, I was trying to help. I should have known better than to come to you with this. I don't want to see anybody get hurt, but I could have guessed you wouldn't care. Everyone knows you ditched James the minute he came out. I'll handle it myself."

"Wait." Ash didn't hang up, so Dillon took that as his cue to continue. "I'm sorry, man. I'll handle it. You did the right thing by calling me. Thanks." There were only two things he could do, hang up, or change the subject. He went for the subject change. "So, you got a hot date tonight?"

"Yep. Chad and I are doubling with Blair Dees and Nina Ivan."

Dillon shook his head. The two easiest girls in school. He should have known, given Ash's reputation with the ladies. "Who gets who?"

Ash snorted. "Who cares? We're only going to be at that lame-ass dance long enough to put in an appearance, anyway. Then it's straight down to Pepper Road. You taking Megan?"

"Yep. I was on my way into the shower when you called."

"Hey, don't let me keep you. I had P.E. with you three years running. I know how nasty those pits of yours get. I'll catch you tonight. And Carver?"


"I'm sorry for what I said. About you dropping James, I mean."

"Hey, the truth's the truth. You and me, we're good."

"Sweet. See you tonight."

Dillon disconnected and debated his next move. He could call Principal Morgan directly, or any one of a dozen teachers. But as president of the G.S.A., it was pretty much Jamie's call. He picked the phone back up and punched in the familiar numbers. Even after two years, his fingers wove an automatic pattern over the keys.

Jamie answered on the second ring, his voice rich and smooth. "Hello?"

Dillon's mind went blank. Hearing Jamie's voice did something to him. Jamie said hello twice more before Dillon was able to say, "James?"

"Yeah, this is James." A pause. "Dillon? Is that you?"

"Ah, yeah. Have you got a minute?"

The surprise Dillon had first heard turned to wariness. "Just one. What do you need?"

If only he knew what Dillon needed. But he couldn't tell him. Not yet. Instead, he said, "I just got a call from one of the guys at school. He seems to think there's gonna be some trouble at the dance tonight." He repeated what Ash had said, without giving away his identity.

When he was finished, Jamie said, "Why?"

"I don't know. I guess some guys just like to start trouble."

"That's not what I meant. I want to know why you're calling me with this."

"I told you, some guys are planning on starting trouble. I thought you'd want to know."

"Not to seem ungrateful, but since when do you care what happens to a bunch of queers?"

Damn. "Jamie, I--"

"Look, Dillon, I've gotta go. Thanks for the info. I'll pass it along." He hung up before Dillon could say another word.

* * *

Jamie couldn't help but laugh at Ben's choice of attire. The dance wasn't formal, by any means, but somehow he doubted Ben's ripped jeans, black leather jacket, and white wife-beater were what the dance committee had in mind when the recommended casual wear. Jamie looked down at his black pants and his dark blue button-front shirt. "Why is it I always feel overdressed when you're around?"

"Probably because you are. Looks good on you, though." He stood in the doorway, giving Jamie a good looking over. "Are you ready to go, or do we need to say goodbye to your aunt first?"

"I'm ready."

"Good. Now, you wanna tell me why we have to be there so damn early? You were a little hazy on the phone."

"I got a phone call warning me there was gonna be trouble tonight. I called Principle Morgan and he suggested an emergency meeting of the G.S.A. and the Student Council to decide how we want to handle it."

"A phone call, huh? Who from?"

Jamie hesitated. "Dillon Carver."

Ben whistled. "Carver, huh? Wonder what he's up to?"

Jamie shrugged, trying his best to cover the confusion and longing inside him. "Who cares as long as we stop it before it starts. Besides, Dillon is on the student Council, so maybe he'll enlighten us." And Jamie would have an excuse to look at him outright without having to sneak glances when no one was looking.

Ben said. "If you say so." He pointed to his car as Jamie pulled on his coat. "Your chariot awaits."

Jamie closed the door but paused on his way to the car. "You sure you don't mind going in early? I can get Aunt Sadie to drop me off."

"Nah. It's not like I have anything better to do." He kept walking. "When are you gonna let me teach you how to drive?"

Jamie shuddered. "Ain't gonna happen, my friend. I told you what happened when Aunt Sadie tried to teach me. I froze."

"We can work on that." The expression of horror on Jamie's face was so comical, Ben laughed. "Alright, chicken, get in the car. But this conversation is far from over."

Jamie just shook his head and got in.

* * *

As usual at these meetings, the Student Council members sat on one side of the oak conference table in Principle Morgan's office and the G.S.A. officers sat on the other. Dillon, as Student Council vice president, sat next to Megan, the president. The other members of both groups wandered in a few at a time and started filling in the empty seats. Dan Morgan came in a few minutes later.

"I want to thank all of you for coming in early, and I assure you, we'll make this as brief as possible." His wavy brown hair didn't so much as sway when he stood up to take his place behind the lectern at the head of the table. Dillon wondered for the hundredth time if the guy used hairspray. He watched as Morgan's brown eyes took on a dull shine under the fluorescent lights. It wasn't that Morgan was bad looking. He was actually kind of attractive in a between thirty-five and forty-ish sort of way. He filled out the black pants and gray turtleneck shirt he was wearing as well as any G.Q. model ever could. But there was something about him that struck Dillon as false, no matter how good he looked. Maybe it was the wooden smile he almost always wore. Or maybe it was that he tried just a little too hard to convince everyone that he was the poster boy for gay acceptance. Whatever it was, he gave Dillon a weird vibe.

Dillon's gut tightened as Jamie ran in, Ben Lewis on his heels. He collapsed into a chair not far from Morgan and motioned for Ben to sit next to him. "Sorry we're late."

"No problem, James. We were just getting started." Morgan leaned into the podium. "Before we start--yes, Dillon? Was there something you wanted to say? I saw your hand go up."

"Yes, sir. If this is supposed to be a meeting of the G.S.A. and the Council, then what is he doing here?" He looked at Ben as if he were a squished bug on the bottom of his shoe.

Before Morgan could answer, Jamie said, "He has a name. Ben is my date, and he's here because I asked him to be."

Dillon felt the word date like a heart punch, but he'd be damned if he'd let it show. "I don't care whose date he is, he shouldn't be in here."

Ben shrugged. "If you want me out, Carver, you can always come over here and throw me out."

Dillon started to rise, but Megan grabbed at his hand. "No," she whispered. "Remember the plan. Don't blow it now."

Principle Morgan cleared his throat. "I suggest we get back to the reason why we're here in the first place. Since these are special circumstances, Mr. Lewis can stay. But I'm warning you both," he looked back and forth between Dillon and Ben, "If I hear any more threats from either one of you, you'll both be out of here and on your way to a three day in-school suspension. Am I clear?" They both nodded. When Morgan moved on to the business at hand, Ben shot Dillon a smug smile that made Dillon's fingers itch. He couldn't remember ever wanting to hit anyone so bad in his life.

Morgan tapped on the podium. "Now that we have that settled, I must inform you of the distinct possibility that we may have trouble tonight." Several of the students started speaking at once, but Morgan put up his hand for silence. "We don't know anything for certain, but there's a good possibility that our gay and lesbian students may be targeted. That's why I've called the sheriff and asked him to send some men over to patrol tonight." A murmur of complaints rose, but again Morgan threw up his hand. "I'm sorry if this cramps your style, but we have to send a message that bigotry of any kind will not be tolerated here at Plunkett." He turned to Jamie. "James, I want you to be especially careful. If these guys are upset about the fact that the dance is being hosted by the G.S.A., you're the most natural target."

"Don't worry, Mr. Morgan. I've got Jamie's back. He's in good hands with me. And I won't let him out of my sight. I'm gonna be all over him." There was so much sexual innuendo in what Ben said, several girls giggled, Jamie blushed, and Dillon gnashed his teeth until his gums hurt.

Morgan tugged at his collar. "Yes. . .well, I appreciate that, Ben, but we'll let the sheriff's men do their job." He looked down at his watch before readdressing the room. "If there's nothing further, you're free to go. I want you all to enjoy yourselves, but please be careful, and remember to report anything suspicious."

The room emptied shortly thereafter. Dillon and Megan were on the side opposite the door, so they were among the last to leave. Dillon was forced to watch as Ben took Jamie's hand and led him out. He felt Megan rubbing his arm through the flannel shirt he wore over his black t-shirt, in a gesture he was sure meant to soothe, but he was beyond comfort. The one thing he wanted more than anything else in the universe belonged to someone else. What in the hell was he supposed to do now?

* **

The darkened gym vibrated with one rock ballad after another while crepe paper hearts littered the floor. Not even the sight of no less than four men in police uniform had killed the romantic mood, if the throng of couples making out all across the dance floor were any indication. Ben pointed to a private spot on the edge of the dance floor. He gave Jamie a mock bow. "Can I have this dance?"

Jamie swallowed, hard. "I've never, uh. . .danced, before. Not really, anyway. I'm not sure I know how."

Ben shook his head. "Anybody can slow dance, J." He held out his arms. "Just lean into me and follow my lead."

Jamie's mind was a swirl of confusion. He couldn't understand this change in Ben. For two years, all his advances were playful, only half-serious. Tonight was different. From the minute they walked into Principal Morgan's office, Ben started treating him like private property. He was about to ask him about it when Ben said, "Come on, J. You know you can trust me. It's just a dance."

Jamie gave up and walked towards him. Ben circled his arms around Jamie's waist and began to rock his hips with the music, leaving Jamie to follow. Ben laughed. "See, this isn't so bad, is it?"

"Nah. It's kinda nice, actually." And it was. It had been two years since another guy had touched him, other than the occasional handshake or slap on the back. Dillon had been the first, and the only. And even with Dillon, the touching had been limited. Dillon's main focus had been to get off, to gain pleasure only for himself. Dillon had never even kissed him. Jamie had been the giver in everything from oral sex to jacking off. The only time Dillon ever touched him in an intimate way was to prepare him for sex, and then it was minimal. Dillon topped him, got what he was after, and was done, leaving Jamie to take care of himself if Dillon got off before he did. God, he'd been such an idiot.

Ben peered down into Jamie's eyes. "What are you thinkin' about?"

"Just about what a jerk I was two years ago."

"You mean with Carver?"


Ben's hand made circles back and forth over the small of Jamie's back. "You got that backwards, J. Carver was the jerk, not you. The guy didn't deserve you." His voice fell to a whisper, barely audible above the roar of the music. "I wish to God I'd met you first."

Jamie started to speak, but Ben put one long finger against Jamie's lips. "Shh. I know you don't feel that way about me, and it's okay. At least let me show you what you're missing." And before Jamie could protest, Ben lowered his head and covered Jamie's mouth with his own.

* * *

Dillon watched in something akin to horror as Ben rammed his tongue down Jamie's throat. If he'd had any doubts about their relationship before, he sure as hell didn't now. Losing Jamie to Lewis might be no less than he deserved for being such a selfish bastard, but he'd be damned if he'd go down without a fight. He and Megan were dancing not fifteen feet away from where the other couple stood, but when Ben started making out with Jamie, Dillon stopped and just stared, his whole body rigid. Megan turned around to see what was going on and put her hand over her mouth.

"Oh my God." She turned back to Dillon. "Are you okay?"

"Peachy as hell."


He moved back. "I can't do this. I'm not gonna stand here and do nothing while Lewis takes him away from me, Megan. I've waited too damn long to give up now." He watched as Jamie pulled away from Ben and stepped off the dance floor, heading towards the men's bathroom. He started forward, but Megan put her hand on his arm.

"What are you gonna do?"

Dillon ran his fingers through his hair. "I have to talk to him, Meggie. If I wait any longer, it's gonna be too late. It may be already, as far as that goes, but I have to try." He broke away from her grasp and headed in the direction Jamie had gone. He thought he heard her mumble something like "so much for the plan," but right now he could care less about any plan. All he knew for sure was that he had to talk to Jamie, and he had to do it now.

He opened the bathroom door and found Jamie bent over one of the sinks, splashing water on his face. The pants Jamie was wearing molded to his body, making Dillon want more than anything else at that minute to brush up against him, to feel the soft curves for himself. He forced that thought out of his mind. He had to take it slow. The last thing he wanted to do was scare Jamie away.

Dillon moved as quietly as possible to where Jamie stood and pulled a paper towel off the roll. The clicking of the dispenser caused Jamie to pop up in a sudden motion that sent water trailing down his neck. Dillon took advantage of Jamie's surprise and used the paper towel to sponge the water off his face. He followed one small bead down into the hollow of Jamie's throat, causing himself to harden and Jamie to swallow.

"Dillon, what . . . what are you doing?"

"Your face was wet. I was wiping it off."

Jamie snatched the paper towel out of Dillon's hand and backed away. "I can do it myself." He moved back even further. "What do you want?" He looked around as if he was making sure they were alone. Dillon doubted that he was happy about the fact that they were. "Did you follow me in here?"

Dillon didn't want to make him any more uncomfortable than he already was, but he wasn't about to lie to him. "Yeah." Jamie looked so alarmed Dillon put up his hand. "I didn't come in here to cause trouble, Jamie. I just wanted to talk."



"My name is James. Only my friends and family call me Jamie. As I remember it, you chose not to be in either category."

Damn. Well, it wasn't like he hadn't expected this. Forcing himself to take it slow, he said, "I just want to talk to you James. Please."

"Why would you want to talk to me? It's not like we're friends. Like I said, you made that choice."

As openings go, it wasn't much, but it was a start. "You're right. I did make that choice, and it's one I regret. We might not be close now, but we used to be. I was hoping we could be again."

"Why?" Jamie's voice was shaking, but even after two years, Dillon could tell that he was weakening. "Why, after all this time, do you want to talk to me? I tried for weeks after you dumped me to get you to even speak to me, but you pretended like I didn't exist. You got your mother to lie and say you weren't home when I called, and you ignored me in the halls like I was some freakin' stranger instead of the guy who--" He took a deep breath. "I can't see any reason why you'd want to talk now."

The door swung open. "I can tell you why, J. It's obvious that ole Dillon here has a hard on and he's looking for an easy way to get off. He figures you were good for a quick fuck once, so why not give your ass another shot?"

Dillon's jaw tightened. "What were you doing, Lewis? Listening at the door?"

"Actually, I came in here to take a leak. I pushed the door open just enough to hear what you were saying. Amazing how well the sound of bullshit carries."

"Yeah, well, James and I were having a private conversation. There are at least four other bathrooms in this gym. Why don't you go find one?"

"I don't think so." Ben turned to Jamie. "You okay, kid?"

Jamie nodded. "Yeah."

"Good." Ben held out his hand. "Come on. Let's get outta here."

Jamie edged around Dillon and followed Lewis out. The smart thing would have been to let them leave and try talking to Jamie when Lewis wasn't around, but Dillon couldn't afford to wait. He exited the bathroom, right on Jamie's heels.

"What are you, Lewis? His bodyguard?"

They'd reached the edge of the dance floor, and even with the music blaring, the raised voices were starting to attract attention. Dillon saw Megan coming over and cursed himself. He hadn't wanted to bring her into this, but it was too late now.

Ben turned, his face wreathed in anger. "Yeah, well, somebody's got to be. Haven't you hurt him enough?"

"I wasn't going to hurt him. All I wanted to do was talk."

Jamie tugged on the sleeve of Ben's leather jacket. "It's okay, Ben. Let's just get out of here."

Ben didn't budge. "No, it's not okay, J. Guys like Carver think they can just walk all over us. Who's gonna care what happens to a bunch of fags?"

Megan walked up behind Dillon. "Dillon, maybe we should go."

Ben sneered. "Why don't you listen to your little girlfriend, Carver? For a breeder, she makes good sense."

Dillon stepped in front of Megan, shielding her from Ben's view. "Leave her out of this, Lewis. Whatever's going on here is between me and you."

"Yeah? That's funny, because I could have sworn you were trying to make it between you and J." His expression went from go-to-hell sneer to evil grin in two seconds flat. "Maybe making it is your problem to begin with, Carver."

Dillon stepped forward, heedless of Megan's attempts to pull him back. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Maybe the reason you're so hot to 'talk' to my boy here is because the little lady wouldn't let you into her panties and you're looking to get it somewhere else."

"Shut the fuck up, Lewis."

"What's the matter, Carver? Did you catch yourself a frigid bitch who won't put out?"

Dillon had no memory of moving from point A to point B. All he remembered was the satisfying feel of teeth hitting flesh as he belted Lewis in the mouth. He'd have a row of cuts to his knuckles, but he could care less. No way was he gonna let that son-of-a-bitch talk about Megan like that.

Lewis pitched his body forward and sent them both tumbling to the ground. He and Dillon rolled, punches flying from both sides. Dillon wasn't sure who got in the most licks, and he might be sore as hell in the morning, but it felt so good to give Lewis even half of the beating he'd been dying to give him for weeks. He'd just landed a solid smack to Lewis's jaw when he felt himself being hauled to his feet. He looked across and saw Nathan Nash holding Lewis with his arms pinned behind his back. Ben was putting up a good fight, but Nate was obviously a lot stronger than he looked. Wait. If Nate was holding Lewis, then that meant . . .

Dillon titled his head to the side and stared up into the flashing blue eyes of Sheriff Brandon Nash. Brandon's dark hair was standing on end from the struggle, and the look on his face was a mixture of anger and pure annoyance. "Does anybody want to tell me what in the hell is going on here?"

Everyone started talking at once. Megan was hollering, "That cretin insulted my honor," while Jamie was going on and on about being "ambushed" in the bathroom. Dillon did his best to stammer out a defense, all the while being held tight with his back against a chest that closely resembled a brick wall. It was Ben that finally put the nail in all their coffins, though. Still struggling to break free of Nate's hold, he said, "I know my rights, and I don't have to tell you a damn thing without my lawyer present. And if your little wife here doesn't get the fuck off me, I'll file assault charges against every last one of you."

Brandon might have been willing to let it go if Ben hadn't opened his mouth, but Dillon had no doubt that the insult against Nate was the last straw. With an audible sigh, Brandon said, "So much for the idea of sneaking in a few dances with my husband. Let's take this down to the station. I have a feeling it's gonna be a long night."