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Still Yours: Mistview Heights, Book 1 by Ruebins, Raleigh (1)

Prologue

Adrian, Ten Years Ago

“To my son, Adrian—may he finally, one day, find his path in life.”

That was my father, holding up a champagne glass to hundreds of people, doing his best impression of a person who cared about me.

The Terrance Hotel ballroom, full to the brim with smiling faces, erupted into applause. It wasn’t the party guests’ fault, after all. They couldn’t know. They certainly weren’t aware of my father’s very different words to me this morning, last night, and pretty much every day of my life so far:

You’re an embarrassment to the family.”

“What am I supposed to tell people when they ask about you?”

“You’re throwing your life in the garbage, after everything we’ve done for you.

I looked around the room, trying my best to smile politely at the faces of acquaintances and strangers, before turning back to the tiny plate full of salami and cheese in my hand. I stuffed my face as the crowd quickly resumed their chatter. In my other hand was a paper napkin that read, along with the hundreds of printed green balloons filling the ballroom: Congratulations, Adrian!

Right. Congratulations to me. I had done it—endured four years of school at Grandview Prep.

The letters on the napkin were emblazoned in gold and green—the colors of the Terrance Hotel brand. My parents owned this hotel, and they wanted everyone to know it. My mom had spent hours on the phone with the printer to make sure the gold leaf would be perfect for the napkins.

She hadn’t once asked me what I thought of them, or if I’d even wanted a party at all.

Because of course she didn’t. That wasn’t the way our family worked.

And I couldn’t wait to be three thousand miles away from them.

* * *

I crumpled the napkin in my fist and tossed it forward, watching as it ricocheted off the wall and landed on the floor, a solid foot away from the gold garbage can across the room.

“Nice shot, man,” Mike said, appearing at my side with Vince. The two always came as a pair.

“What can I say? I have a natural talent for putting garbage where it belongs,” I replied. “I’ll pick it up in a second.”

“Dude, harsh,” Vince said, grinning at me. “Those are some pretty nice napkins. Y’know, if... you’re the kind of person who cares about something you wipe your mouth with.”

I pulled in a breath, letting it out slowly. “I know. The napkins are nice, the balloons are nice, this whole party is really, really nice. And I cannot fucking wait until it is over.”

“Your dad being a dick to you again?” Mike asked, chewing on one of the six pigs in a blanket he had on his plate.

I nodded. “This morning. Nothing new,” I said.

A caterer walked over toward us carrying a tray of fresh fruit and I grabbed a dish of cherries. Early this morning, my mother had scolded the catering company for not pitting them—“how can my guests eat a cherry with a pit? What do I pay you people for?”—and I’d watched as a couple young workers hastily moved through the whole platter, rushing to pit them by the time the party started. I stayed and helped them out until Mom stole me away to ask which exact shade of ivory dress looked best on her.

It had been more or less like this ever since Grandpop had died. He had been the only one in my family who actually treated me like a real person. I remembered the night I told him I wasn’t going to go to college—we were standing in the kitchen making his homemade lasagna together, the kind my mom always said had too many calories. It was perfect.

Grandpop had disagreed with my choice. He said he thought I should go to college, but he accepted that I needed to make my own choices. He offered his opinion, and then moved on—layering another sheet of pasta into the tray, asking me to pass him the oregano. No yelling. No freakouts. I had nearly cried at how freeing it felt.

He wasn’t here anymore, though. For the last year, my parents were now the ones in charge of the hotel, in charge of my life, in charge of everything.

And I was finally about to get the hell out.

“You know what my dad brought up this morning?” I said, shaking my head as I chewed on a perfectly-ripe cherry. “Rachel Yount.”

“Who?” Mike asked.

“The girl you dated for like, two weeks in freshman year?” Vince asked me.

I nodded. “Dad asked why I wasn’t dating a nice girl like her. That maybe if I had a girlfriend, she would straighten me out, convince me to go to college.”

Vince snorted. “Rachel Yount transferred to a different school, like, two years ago.”

I nodded. “Yep. And they still constantly ask me—whatever happened to that nice girl?

“Your old man’s just looking out for you,” Mike said with his mouth full. “He wants you to snag some tail.”

“Ew,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him. “Snag some tail?”

Mike and Vince had been your bog-standard jocks for all of high school, chasing girls and embellishing stories about sex, but I’d somehow missed the boat. Sure, girls were nice—some of the most comfortable conversations and friendships I’d had in school had been with girls. Rachel’s long blonde hair had smelled nice, and my friend Mara’s skin had felt ludicrously soft when she hugged me. But I definitely hadn’t been concerned with snagging tail in school.

I’d been too busy planning on how to get the hell out of Mistview Heights. For so many people, this place was a dream, but for me it felt like a gilded cage. It was full of wealth, but everyone was judgmental and obsessed with gossip.

Mike shrugged. “I’m just sayin’. I want to go home with someone cute tonight.”

“No, I get what Adrian’s saying,” Vince said. “I’d be annoyed as hell if my pops tried to force me to date some girl I didn’t want. Simple solution, though, Adrian: drown your sorrows in all these delicious pork products and bite-sized desserts like I am.”

“Believe me, I’m trying,” I said. “Do you think if I eat enough creme brulee, I’ll pass out after the sugar high and I can sleep through the rest of this?”

“Who is that?” Mike said, gesturing toward the entrance, his brow furrowed. I turned to look, but a crowd of students had blocked the view.

Vince held his hand up to his mouth, covering a laugh. “Dude. Is that Crane? I can’t believe Josh Crane actually came.”

“Crane who?” I asked.

“Josh Crane.”

Josh Crane. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put a face to it. My parents had invited the entire senior class at Grandview Prep and their parents, too. It was a monster of a party, the kind my parents loved, but I probably only knew half of the people in attendance.

Finally there was a break in the crowd, and I saw him: near the big double-doors was a rumple of ill-fitting clothes, a small scowl, and unkempt dark hair.

The name Josh Crane slowly gelled with the person I was looking at. I’d gone to high school with him for four years, but our paths had never crossed. Grandview Prep was the biggest private high school in the city, and the most interaction I’d ever had with Josh was walking by him in the narrow hallways.

I watched as Josh scanned the big entryway to the hotel, his eyes first glancing up at the vaulted ceiling and chandelier, before peering around at the crowds of people. He pushed his hands into his pockets, then pulled them out again. He ran his fingers through his hair and shifted on his feet, but made no effort to approach anyone.

He looked completely lost and alone—but still a little indignant, as if he had somewhere better to be than a big, fancy party at a hotel.

And I fucking loved that.

“I mean, have you ever seen Crane at a party?” Vince said. “The kid doesn’t do shit like that. At prom, he sat in a corner and read a book the whole time. A book. At prom. I don’t know why he even bothered to go.”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “I probably would have had a better time at prom if I’d been reading.”

“Come on, we had fun,” Mike said.

“I’m never drinking schnapps again,” I said.

I knew Vince and Mike from the lacrosse team. I’d never really decided to be friends with them, but after grueling hours of practice every week alongside each other, we’d become permanent fixtures in each other’s lives. They always seemed to know school gossip like this—the fact that this Josh Crane person apparently had read a book at prom—but I missed it every time.

It was just another reminder of how different I was. Vince was headed to Columbia for business school in a few weeks, and Mike was going to Duke for engineering. That was the typical path for Grandview Prep kids. Prep school, good college, stable career.

Mike snorted, shaking his head and turning away from Josh. “Looks like Crane could use a book right about now. Anyway—what were we talking about before the gay little turbo-nerd entered the room? Oh, right. Where is Andrea Wilson? Maybe she’ll finally kiss me, now that we’re, like, never going to see each other again….”

Something twisted inside my chest, and I was glad when Mike and Vince broke away from me, venturing out into the party and leaving me on my own. Something about the way Mike had said it—“gay little turbo-nerd” had felt like an ice-pick to my heart.

Was Josh gay? And if he was, why would Mike care about that?

Josh was still near the entrance looking like he’d rather melt into the ground than be here. He’d positioned himself at the edge of a circle of chatting people, and I watched as the circle slowly closed him out, like he wasn’t there. A waiter with a tray of tiramisu squares came by a moment later, and right as Josh went to reach for the last one, a woman snatched it up.

He rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh. No one else likely caught it other than me—no one else in the room was even looking at him.

I watched as he knelt down, reaching to pick up the crumpled napkin I’d thrown earlier and neatly put it into the trash. He was clearly looking for anything to do.

And then I realized that it didn’t matter if I’d never spoken to him before. I knew Josh Crane. I knew that look, that impulse, that feeling—being shut out, left out, not belonging at all, even in a room full of people you’d known for years.

I felt it every day.

My parents didn’t understand me. My sister Alora might as well have been an alien. My brother Sean ignored me, busy with his own life away at college. And everyone else at Grandview Prep was on a different planet entirely—going off to fancy, expensive colleges and beginning the lives their parents had already planned out for them.

But this party was the last hurrah for me. In two short weeks I would be moving to Oregon, alone. I was pretty sure my parents would rather see me dead than move to what they called “Granolaville,” and they only humored me because they thought I wouldn’t be able to take it, that I’d be back home for good by Christmas.

As Vince and Mike reappeared at my side, hands full of more food, I saw Josh Crane meander through the hotel entryway, over toward the bar, and then disappear around the corner.

My parents had owned this hotel for my whole life, and Grandpop and Grandma had owned it for their entire lives before that. I knew that the hallway Josh went down only really led to two places: a small closet that held vacuums and brooms and a patina of dust, and a door that led to the back lawn. If Josh was headed outside, he could easily slip off through the back gate, and I would never see him again.

And even though I hadn’t known his name until just now, the thought of never seeing him again felt a strange sort of unbearable.

“Can you hold this?” I said to Vince, pushing my little glass hors d'oeuvres plate into his hand.

“What? Sure, dude—wait, where are you going?”

I took off across the main room. A couple of my parents’ friends tried to stop me along the way—either to give me congratulations or to warn me that I was making a huge mistake moving to Oregon—but I waved them off, making a pit stop at the dessert bar before heading quick toward the back lawn. Crowds of people were out here, too, and the jazz band my parents had hired was setting up on the big patio.

I didn’t see Josh. I pushed forward toward the garden at the side of the building, a place where I knew no one would be congregated. Just past the garden was a parking lot and a stone wall where all the service people took their smoke breaks.

The garden looked empty, and I felt myself deflating. But then there it was—a flash of movement in the corner, and that same dark mess of hair emerging from behind a big oak tree.

* * *

I didn’t approach Josh right away. He was turned in the opposite direction, looking out at the tree-lined horizon and the cityscape beyond. I stood at the edge of the garden, just watching him.

After a moment he did something strange: he lifted his hand up and moved his finger along the horizon as if he were tracing every tree and building there. As if he were painting it with his hand.

And then suddenly I felt like a voyeur—like I was seeing something I was distinctly not supposed to be seeing. Josh thought he was alone.

“Hey,” I said softly. “Josh?”

He jumped at the sound of my voice, whirling around. I saw then that he was holding a glass of red wine, and as he spun, some splashed out onto his crisp white shirt.

“Fuck,” he said, looking down. “Shit,” he said next, looking at the wine glass itself. “Um—it’s just grape juice—the guy at the bar gave it to me.”

“What?” I said, stepping a little closer. He looked like a skittish animal, dark lashes framing his wide eyes. “It… it’s okay if you took a glass of wine,” I said. “They’re out on the table for a reason.”

“But…” Josh said, looking down at the glass and then taking a long swig, like he needed the courage.

“Trust me, it’s fine,” I said. “My parents have let me have a small glass of wine with dinner for practically my whole life. My Grandpop used to say it was very European.”

Josh snorted, glancing back up at me. After a moment the joy drained from his face though, and the scowl returned. “Well, my mom would kill me.”

I shrugged. “I won’t tell.”

He was silent for a moment, eyeing me warily, and I realized that I hadn’t even introduced myself.

“...I’m Adrian. Adrian Terrance.” I held out my hand and he gave it a quick shake.

“Josh,” he said. “Crane. And I knew who you were. I mean, we are in the Terrance Hotel, aren’t we?” He lifted an eyebrow.

“Right,” I said, feeling my skin get a little hot. “I just… know we’ve gone to school together for four years, and we haven’t really talked.”

Josh took another swig of wine, downing half of the glass in one gulp. “Yeah,” he said finally, nodding.

It was strange—from far away, I’d almost felt a sort of pity for Josh, seeing that his pants were a little too short, his skinny frame a little too small to fill out his suit, his seeming desire to disappear behind any corner he could find.

But now, here, up close, I actually found myself a little intimidated by him.

I was probably twice his size, and definitely had more muscle in my right arm than he did on his whole body. But there was something fierce about him. Maybe it was the ice-gray of his eyes, the severity of his cheekbones. Just his gaze felt like a challenge.

The combination of the raw vulnerability and the startling confidence was making my head spin.

“Can I have a sip of that?” I said, gesturing at the wine.

“Your hotel, isn’t it? Hell, you could just rip this from my hand if you really wanted to.” He looked at me with a furrowed brow, smiling a little, maybe like he was laughing at me. But after a pause, he held out the glass to me anyway. “I mean… yes. Sure.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking a sip. It was a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon—not far at all from where I’d be living in two weeks. The wine on my tongue soothed me, warmed me from inside, and I felt again like I might be able to handle talking to this strange person in front of me.

And God, did I need that confidence, because I realized that I needed to come up with a reason to keep talking to him, quick.

“Make me spill wine on myself and then steal some of it, too,” Josh said, cocking his head to the side. “That’s bold, Terrance.”

I swallowed hard, passing him back the glass. “Shit. I forgot about your shirt. I’m sorry, let me go get a napkin—”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, his voice firm. “I’m not going back in there, anyway. I’m leaving after this glass is done.”

“Oh,” I said, watching with disappointment as he took another big sip, suddenly wishing I hadn’t depleted the glass so quickly. He was nearly finished, and then he’d be gone, and then I’d have to go back inside instead of talking with him.

He paused for a few moments, just giving me a sidelong look. “Why did you come out here, Terrance?”

I looked down, remembering the plate of tiramisu and spoon in my hand. “I wanted to bring you this.”

He blinked at me, genuine surprise on his face. “You came out here just to give me a tiramisu?”

I scratched the back of my neck, holding out the plate in my other hand. What was I supposed to tell him? I couldn’t keep my eyes off you, and I noticed when you didn’t get a chance to try the tiramisu? “It’s pretty good,” I said. “They use Kona espresso.”

Josh gingerly took the plate from me. “It did look pretty good,” he said. He took a small bite, nodding in approval.

I let out a long breath that I didn’t know I’d been holding. “I also just... had to get the hell out of there,” I said. I looked behind me, craning my neck to make sure no other guests had heard me. But everyone was still safely shrouded behind the trees that framed the garden. I sat down on the grass, crossing my legs and scrubbing my palms over my face.

Josh was still standing when I looked back up again. He was just staring at me, his brow furrowed. “You wanted to leave?”

I nodded. “God, yes.”

“But… it’s your party,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said. “And it’s awful. It’s not really my party, anyway. More my mother’s.”

He paused for a while, just staring at me, until finally, a small smile appeared again on his face. “It really is awful, isn’t it?”

“That’s the spirit,” I said. “Trust me, you don’t have to worry about hurting my feelings or something. I didn’t want any part of this. I’d rather be alone than in there.”

“Oh. I understand—I’ll be out of here quick,” he said. He quickly chugged the rest of his wine.

“No,” I said, probably a little too loud. “Don’t—don’t go just yet,” I said, searching for the right thing to say. “I just… want to talk to someone who isn’t a total asshole for two minutes.”

“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong,” he said. “I’m a total asshole. The most extreme kind, actually. Could win the asshole Olympics.”

I laughed, rolling my eyes. “You seem pretty cool to me.”

He snorted. “You don’t even know anything about me.”

I hitched up one shoulder in a shrug. “Did you feel comfortable in there?” I asked.

“God, no,” he said.

“There you go. That’s why I think you’re cool. You don’t fit in with those people, and that can only be a good thing, in my book.”

“I’m still not convinced you’re not out here on a dare or something,” he said, eyeing me. “Did your friends tell you to come make fun of the weird kid out back? Is this a prank?”

“Yeah, it’s a prank,” I said. “Just like it’s a prank that I felt I was going to suffocate in that place. Or it’s a prank that I was seriously considering running away and sleeping in the park instead of staying at home for the two weeks I still have left in this town. It’s a prank that my friends are all already moving past me, talking about college and sex and a million other things I don’t understand. It’s a prank that I feel totally lost.”

Josh’s eyes were wide. His expression had softened from mistrustful to something else. Maybe pity.

“No, it’s not a prank,” I said, shaking my head. I let out a long breath. “You just… seemed… easier to be around than anyone else in there. Okay?”

“Okay,” he replied.

“You know, you can sit,” I said, looking up at him. “I don’t bite.”

Josh slowly lowered himself, sitting a good few feet away from me on the grass. He didn’t get too comfortable, though—he sat cross-legged, his back straight, as if he was ready to get up and leave at a moment’s notice. He finished his tiramisu before he started talking.

“It... makes sense that it would be awful for me,” Josh said, eyeing me. “I don’t know anyone here, and anyone who knows me definitely doesn’t like me. But why do you hate it?”

I shrugged. “Same reasons, really.”

“Bullshit,” he said, so quickly that it surprised me.

“Huh?”

“That’s kinda bullshit, and you know it,” he said, softer this time. “You’re… Adrian Terrance. You know everyone. You’re popular as hell, you play lacrosse, you’re a jock.”

I stifled a laugh.

I only came here because I was trying to push myself out of my comfort zone,” he said, raising his fingers into air quotes for the last two words. “People tell me that’s supposed to be good for me. But I don’t know if those people have ever felt shut out of an entire room of people before.”

I nodded, just watching him as he plucked individual blades of grass from the lawn and wrapped them around his fingers. The din of the party carried on behind us, floating through the air.

“I mean, I also kind of just wanted to see what the inside of the Terrance Hotel looks like for the first time.”

“And?” I asked. “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful, of course. So beautiful it kind of makes me angry.”

“Why angry?”

“Because only rich people can actually stay in this hotel,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Sometimes I feel like the world would be a much better place if everyone got to enjoy everything. And that horizon…” he said, gesturing over at the trees in front of us that led up to the outlines of tall buildings. “It’s unbelievable. I want to paint it. That’s what I was thinking about when you came out here and scared the shit out of me and made me get wine down my only good shirt.”

I laughed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I will pay for dry cleaning, I swear.”

“You’re fine,” he said.

I watched him for a moment, turning him over in my mind. I was afraid that if I said the wrong thing, he would leave. I wanted to do anything to make sure that didn’t happen.

“Hey,” I said, standing. “I’ve got a deal for you.”

He lifted an eyebrow at me.

“If you promise to stay put, I’ll go grab us another wine and tiramisu.”

He looked away. “Adrian, I should probably just go home—”

“Come on,” I said, almost pleading. “If you go home, what are you going to do all night? Huh?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know… phone call with the Queen of England? Organize my sock drawer? Paint a wall and watch it dry?”

I puffed out a laugh. “Okay, fine, you do win the asshole Olympics.”

He shook his head. “If I go home, I’ll... probably feel sorry for myself about not knowing anyone at this party, read Vonnegut until I’m tired, and then jerk off and fall asleep,” he said, shrugging up at me. “There’s the truth, Terrance. Are you happy now?”

“Yes,” I said. “Because you’re not doing that tonight. You’re going to hang out and drink wine with me instead.”

Josh rolled his eyes, but a smile appeared on his face anyway, and I knew I was in. “Just go get the wine,” he said. “I’m gonna need another drink.”

“Perfect,” I said. “I mean—you can still do the jerking off part, later, I don’t have any say in that, but you’re certainly not going to feel sorry for yourself—”

Go get the wine, Terrance,” he said, letting out a laugh. “For fuck’s sake. You’re a piece of work.”

“See? You know me so well already.”

* * *

“No way. You actually liked Ms. Gallega’s class?”

“Of course,” Josh said, his arms flying into the air as he nearly sloshed more wine onto himself. “Are you kidding? She was great.”

“She was not great to me,” I said, incredulous. “Said I didn’t put effort into my verb conjugations.”

“Well, c’mon, Adrian, don’t you know that verb conjugations are the most important part of Spanish?”

“Shut up,” I said, reaching over to punch Josh in the arm.

“But honestly, though,” he said, after a laugh, “Gallega was probably one of the most important teachers I’ve ever had.

“Why?”

“She was the first person to suggest I pursue my art. She saw all my doodles on the margins of my homework, and after yelling at me about it, she told me that I have natural talent. She talked to Mr. Carroll and got me the last open spot in AP Art.”

“Wow,” I said, “That actually is awesome.”

Josh took another sip of wine. We were on our third glasses of the night, and with every passing minute, I felt more and more comfortable around him. He had warmed to me, too—he was smiling freely, now, and his cheeks had taken on a rosy color thanks to the alcohol.

It was almost like we’d made some grand escape, discovered our own oasis away from the party inside. My body was buzzing with the sheer excitement of finding someone who I could really talk to. I didn’t think someone like that had existed at Grandview Prep, and yet I saw now that he’d existed right under my nose for four years. It was maddening, discovering someone new right before they were about to slip away from me.

“Yeah, I… never really had any good moments like that in school,” I said. “Everything was a struggle. Working my ass off to get Bs, and having my parents gut me because they weren’t As. I’m so fucking ready to never go to school again. My brother Sean is the only one who’s any good at it.”

“You don’t know what you’re going to do in Oregon?”

I shrugged, shaking my head. “No. And you know what? I kind of love not knowing. I’ll get a minimum wage job somewhere, hopefully work my way up. But if I’m on my own, in a place I love… what more do I really need?”

Josh nodded, watching me. “I understand. I really do,” he said.

I peered over at him. What was it about him that made me feel so… at ease? I knew I was tipsy, but there was also something about Josh’s face, the way he talked to me, the way he looked at me. With Mike and Vince, I always felt like I needed a break after ten minutes of being in their presence. But with Josh... I felt like I could spend hours on end with him and never get sick of him.

He was staring at me, a strange smile on his face, and for some reason, it made me smile, too.

“...What?” he asked.

“What do you mean, what?”

He reached over and gave me a little push, holding back a laugh. “Why are you staring at me, Terrance?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said, trying to piece together some version of my alcohol-soaked thoughts that wouldn’t sound strange. “Just tryin’ to figure you out.”

“Figure me out? Buddy, you’re in for a wild fuckin’ ride. I don’t even have me figured out.”

“You’re really fucking cool, Josh,” I blurted out, paying no attention to how strange it might sound.

He scrunched up his face, shaking his head. “I’m really not,” he replied. He drank another big sip of wine, and when a little spilled down onto his lip, he wiped it away. He was clearly not too sober, either.

And now I couldn’t stop staring at his lips.

“You wanna know what’s really fucking weird?” I asked.

“Yes. I love weird,” he said. “Spill.”

“Okay. So… I’ve known you for what, an hour, and already you’re so much easier to talk to than almost anyone I know.”

“It’s pretty easy to talk to you, too,” he said. “God. Never would have thought I’d be saying that to Adrian Terrance. Things really do get strange after school ends.”

“They do,” I agreed. “I certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to come talk to you until now.”

He snorted. “You, scared to talk to me,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s fucking backwards.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Well, we’re adults now. Time to do daring things, huh?”

I let out a long breath. “No time like the present.”

“I cannot fucking wait for this year,” Josh said, shaking his head as he looked out at the sky.

“Headed off to college?” I said. I was waiting for him to tell me he was going to Harvard or Yale or MIT—he was certainly whip-smart and more intelligent than I could ever hope to be.

“Art school,” he said. “My dream school. Rhode Island School of Design. I cried like a little fucking baby when I got accepted.”

“Wow, holy shit,” I said. “You’re going to be studying painting?”

He nodded. “Painting, but also everything else—sculpture, drawing, photography, all of it. I think I’m finally going to be around other idiots like me, though, and that’s the important part. I can’t fucking wait.”

“That sounds incredible,” I said. I meant it. The idea of a room full of people like Josh sounded a little bit perfect to me right now. “So far away.”

He nodded, then held up one finger. He dug his other hand in his pocket, extracting a tiny, flexible notebook.

“Here,” he said, opening it and tearing out a page. He then sat up straighter and began to fold the paper back and forth, creating some kind of shape.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Hang on,” he said, biting his bottom lip as he stared intently at what he was crafting. And then a minute later, he seemed satisfied. He held out the folded paper to me, and I held out my hand.

“Paper crane,” he said with a smile. “I learned to make them when I was young, because I liked that they were named after me. But now I just do it all the time for fun.”

“I can have this?” I said, turning it over in my hand, inspecting the delicate folds.

“Of course,” he said. “It’s yours. From me to you. Remember me, when you’re off in Oregon.”

I smiled. “I love it,” I said, setting it next to me on the grass. “Crane’s crane. I’m sure everyone in Oregon will be jealous.”

He laughed. “I’m sure everyone in college will get sick of me making them all the time. Or, hell, maybe they’ll make even better ones than I do. It is an art school after all.”

“You’re going to have so much fun.”

“I sure hope so,” he said. “Maybe I’ll finally get to kiss a boy for the first time, without worrying about some asshole spray painting the word ‘gay’ on my backpack. Maybe I’ll even be able to date someone—go figure,” he said, looking down at the ground.

“Did… did that really happen to you?” I asked. “The backpack thing?”

He nodded, looking out at the trees. “Found it one day after gym class. They broke into my locker to do it, too. Most of the school never even saw it. But it happened last year.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Who the hell would do something like that?”

He shrugged. “Could be one of many idiots. I know why it happened—in health class, I made the mistake of raising my hand and asking if there were any nearby LGBT-friendly doctors. I swear, half the class couldn’t contain their laughter. People said ‘homo’ under their breath, then the backpack thing happened a few days later.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, furrowing my brow. I sat up straighter, looking down at a weed I’d plucked out of the lawn.

I hadn’t even known Josh had been gay. Sure, I was incapable of keeping up with school gossip, and I hadn’t really interacted with Josh before today. But this—the locker, the harassment—was a big thing I had missed.

“You’ve never even kissed someone?” I asked.

Josh shook his head. “No.”

“But you’re so…”

“What?”

“I don’t know… you’re so… charming? I would think that guys—gay guys, you know—would want you real bad, or something.”

For the first time that night, Josh let out a peal of real, genuine laughter.

“Jesus Christ, Terrance,” he said, wiping at his eye. “You’re honestly hilarious.”

“What? I wasn’t joking, dude,” I said. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. You’re… confident. And you’re not afraid to be openly gay, even in the face of such bullshit. If I were gay, I’d be racing to kiss you.”

Josh laughed again, but this time it sounded a slight bit more forced. “No you wouldn’t,” he said softly.

I looked up at the horizon. The sun had finally set behind us, and the sky was dusky, blue giving way to hazy pink and orange. And then I saw the moon peeking above the trees, full and bright like a saucer.

“Holy shit,” I said, pointing. “The moon looks like a fuckin’ pancake.”

Josh sat up taller, looking over. “That’s a harvest moon. God, that is beautiful.”

It was so low on the horizon that it was colored burnt orange, and looked about four times the size as it usually did.

We sat and watched it come up further and further, both of us silent. For a moment, Josh reached out again, using his finger as a paintbrush, but this time he didn’t seem to mind that I was watching.

“Harvest moon means new beginnings,” Josh said. “It’s about wine, too, y’know,” he said, holding up his glass to me and swirling it around. “The harvest moon would come in fall, right around the time when they harvest the grapes to make wine.”

“How do you know all that? Didn’t you say you’re not even allowed to try wine?”

“My mom and I don’t have cable. I watch a lot of long, boring PBS documentaries.”

Josh’s face was softened by the low light. I realized all at once that he didn’t seem awkward, like earlier, or fierce, like when I’d first approached him. Maybe I was a little tipsy, or maybe it was that he was relaxed, but I saw for the first time a distinct beauty to his face. His jawline, those cheekbones, the dark lashes around his eyes. He had kicked off his shoes and loosened his shirt and tie, and he looked resplendent in the evening light. I almost wanted to reach my own finger up, to trace him like he traced the horizon.

I didn’t, though. Instead I just watched him as he watched the big, golden moon.

“I have a confession to make,” I said, and Josh’s eyes finally fixed on me again, soft and relaxed.

“What?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you’re the one who spray painted that shit on my locker—I want to like you, Terrance, but I don’t think I can anymore if you did that—”

God, no,” I said, shaking my head. “Jesus. No. It’s… a much more embarrassing confession.”

He smiled. “Alright, good. Go for it.”

“I’ve never kissed anyone either,” I said.

“Yeah, right.”

I lifted an eyebrow at Josh.

“You are absolutely shitting me,” he said, staring at me like I was insane. “There’s no way. You’ve got to be getting every girl in school. All you lacrosse types are like that.”

I shrugged. “Still confused as to why I don’t feel like I fit in?”

His mouth hung open for another few moments before he closed it, shaking his head. “You’re an enigma, Adrian Terrance. Never kissed a girl before. What’s next, are you going to tell me gravity doesn’t exist? That the sun doesn’t rise in the morning? What other undeniable truths in my life have been wrong?”

I laughed. “We both graduated high school without even kissing anyone.”

“I know,” Josh said, shaking his head. “What losers, right?”

“Total losers.”

“Hopeless.”

I smiled, watching as the moon lifted further and further into the sky.

A thought came to my mind, and I let it out, not thinking at all about what it could mean. “We should really just kiss each other,” I said. “Get it over with. Right now.”

Josh paused for a moment, silent, before breaking out into laughter. “Very funny.”

“Fuck it,” I said with a shrug. “I’d do it. You don’t have to start college having never kissed, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore, either.”

“Okay… this is the prank. I’m definitely being, like, recorded by your friends right now, right?”

“Shut up, Josh,” I said. I reached over to my wine glass, taking another sip. My heart had started beating a little faster, and I realized all at once that I really wanted this: I wanted to get it over with, my first kiss, and I was excited for it to happen tonight.

I scooted over closer to him. “No, it’s not a damn prank. Do you want to kiss me, or not?”

His deer-in-the-headlights look was back again and his eyes were bigger than ever.

“Okay,” he said finally, his voice cracking a little. “So kiss me, then, Terrance.”

I leaned closer toward him. Immediately I was met with his scent—like clean laundry and wine, but decidedly masculine, too. It dawned on me pretty quickly that this was real, now—not just some joke I’d made. I was really going to kiss him.

I paused, my face close to his. He leaned back just a little, as if he thought I wasn’t going to go through with it.

And so I closed the gap between us, pressing my lips to his.

I realized then that everything was fine. This was fine. It was just a kiss—something everybody else did every day. Just my lips on someone else’s. Warm and simple. Just me, breathing close to somebody else, like I never had before.

It was over as soon as it had started, and then I was leaning back, looking into Josh’s eyes again.

“Easy,” I said softly, studying his face.

“Easy,” he echoed me, bringing his fingers up to his lips, touching them as if he was making sure they were still his.

I leaned in again, pausing to make sure Josh wouldn’t move away. But he didn’t move an inch, his eyes fluttering down toward my lips again as I moved closer.

And then I kissed him again. At first it was the same, a soft peck, sweet and dry and chaste.

But something wicked inside me had come loose, and was slowly and steadily taking over. I had an opportunity, right here and now, to kiss someone, risk-free and consequence-free. And I desperately wanted to jump on this opportunity for all it was worth.

And besides, I was starting to think I liked it. I didn’t care that it was a guy’s lips— it was just pleasant, and the more I did it, the better it felt.

I kissed Josh again, and again, each time lingering a little longer, spending a little more time exploring his lips with my own.

And he was kissing me back, too. He parted his lips for me, just a little, but it felt like so much—so much slick heat, wet and warm and something I wanted more of. I barely even felt in control, anymore. Instead I was a vehicle for some deep desire, a need for this closeness, this wordless exchange with someone who understood the real me.

Josh had been silent, our breath the only sound. But as my tongue slid across his for the first time, he moaned—just a little, barely audible, and it felt like my body had been plugged into an electrical socket.

I was so aware of his heat. His body, so close to mine. And then everything came rushing through me, and I realized that this was more than just two people using their lips and tongues for practice. This was Josh. He felt this good to me.

I pulled back a little, realizing only then that my hand had ended up on his hip, gripping him tight.

“Jesus,” I whispered, feeling like I’d become more drunk in the past minute than I had from all of the wine we’d had all night.

Josh was staring at me, his lips rosy and wet and perfect. Why did I love them so much? Why hadn’t I been able to stop staring at his mouth all night?

“It’s… really nice,” he said, nodding at me. “I mean, hah, hell, what were we thinking, not kissing anyone earlier?”

“Right,” I said, trying and failing to string together more than a one-word sentence. “Good.”

“Thank you, Adrian,” Josh said, his voice completely genuine, a far cry from the dry sarcasm he’d had all night. “Thanks for doing that for me. You didn’t have to.”

“We could practice a little more,” I said hastily, worried that Josh was about to move away from me or worse, leave the party altogether. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was dimly aware that I’d just plunged into the deep end of uncharted waters—I knew that I was kissing a guy, and that I’d never even considered doing anything with another guy, and that this was all staggeringly terrifying and intense and strange—but at the moment I couldn’t think about any of that.

All I could think about were his lips. And I wanted to ignore everything in the face of that blind desire.

Josh laughed softly, smiling at me. The corners of his eyes crinkled up a bit when he smiled, and it gave me a weird squeezing feeling in my chest. “You’re pretty damn good at it,” he said. “You really think you need any more practice?”

“Yes,” I said, my voice urgent. “I mean—only if you don’t mind—”

“Of course I don’t mind, you big dumb jock,” he said, leaning in again. This time he was the one in complete control, pushing me back by my shoulders onto the grass until I was lying down. He leaned over me, kissing me deeper, and for that moment, my whole world was filled with him. The scent of his shampoo, the wine on his shirt and on his lips, his hand at my chest, clutching the fabric of my shirt into his fist.

I couldn’t remember ever feeling so much at once. Adrenaline raced through me, making me shake.

It was just a kiss. But it was becoming very clear to me that it was more than just the kiss, too. It felt like something in me that had been dormant was now set free, and that wild beast was running frantically across every corner of my mind. My cock was aching between my legs, hard and heavy, and I didn’t know if it was just from the sheer physical contact or something more.

Most of all, for the first time in so damn long, I felt less alone. I was pretty sure that everything would be alright if I could just live in this moment forever, if Josh and I could make a world of our own that no one else would intrude upon.

Josh was pressing me into the ground, the scent of fresh cut grass all around us. He tasted like wine, like promise, like the idea that there might be some good future for me beyond what I’d ever known.

I heard noise coming from behind us before I ever processed what it might be. I don’t know if I can blame the alcohol, Josh’s kiss, or the fact that I was in the midst of some sort of revelation, but my reaction times were slower, like molasses at that moment.

It was Josh who realized before I did.

Adrian?” came the shrill voice, and in an instant, Josh had launched up, breaking off the kiss and standing. He was still all I could see, and I watched as fear shattered across his face. His eyes went wide for a split second before he faced away, toward the moon, and buried his head in his hands.

It was only then that my blood turned cold as steel.

“Adrian—what the hell is going on here?” It was my mother’s voice, clear as day. And when I turned I saw her, towering in her ivory heels, her gaze like a million tiny daggers. I propped myself up from my position on the grass, knowing full well how this all looked.

“It’s nothing,” I said, desperate. I couldn’t think of a single thing better to say. I felt like a frog pinned to a dissection tray.

“Adrian Charles Terrance,” she said, her voice quieter now, as if she didn’t want to risk people on the lawn hearing her. “You will not disrespect me like this in our hotel. What on earth is going on here?”

My head was swimming. I felt like I was freefalling down a cliff and I could see so clearly the jagged, gnarled rocks below me. Josh was still facing away, buttoning up his shirt, frantically putting his shoes back on. But Mom wasn’t looking at anyone but me.

This could end me. If my mother didn’t like the answer I gave her, it was possible that she could revoke her monetary help for my move to Oregon. No matter how much my parents disagreed with my decision, they were still willing to fund my move there, to humor me until I “got it out of my system.”

And all I could see now was her finger on that trigger, just waiting to take it all away from me.

“He—he said he just wanted to practice on me,” I said, feeling the weight of the lie sink into my skin as soon as I’d said it. “He said it was just practice.”

“Practice? Wait a minute—you there—who are you? Who are your parents?” She took a few steps further into the garden, toward Josh.

“He’s no one,” I said firmly, standing and positioning myself between my mother and Josh.

And for a split second, even in the dim light, I saw it: Josh turned to me, his expression radiating every kind of hurt and pain imaginable. It was the kind of hurt that could only exist when someone had trusted you—for however briefly—and you’d completely ruined that trust in one fell swoop.

Because of course that’s exactly what I’d done with my lie. What I was still doing.

I knew I deserved every shred of contempt in that gaze.

And that’s when Josh turned on his heel and took off, running fast as he could out the gate and through the parking lot. He was gone.

“Come back here,” my mom yelled, taking a few steps into the parking lot before sighing and giving up.

“Adrian,” she said calmly, her face still pure hardened steel. “I know that you and I have had our differences. And I know that you are making a decision that we in no way agree with. But there was always one thing that was true of you: you were not a child who would simply rebel for no reason. You’re nothing like...”—her nose turned up in a sneer— “...those Crawford children. So I’d like you to explain to me exactly what was going on out here. Do you think I haven’t noticed you’ve been missing from the party for nearly two hours?

I paused. I didn’t want to say a thing. I didn’t owe my mother a word, and I was heavy with guilt after the lie I’d just told in front of Josh.

But if I didn’t appease her, it could mean that I’d never leave this place. Everything I’d been hoping for would be gone, ruined, lost forever.

And so I said whatever I had to in order to satisfy her.

“I told you, he wanted to practice. We both had too much wine. It was a stupid fucking joke. That’s it.”

“Adrian, you’re not gay,” she said, as if it were a fact that she decided upon, rather than anything having to do with me. “I know you aren’t. So engaging in behaviors like this is clearly little more than a pitiful cry for attention.”

“Of course I’m not gay,” I said. I didn’t know who I was trying to convince—her or myself.

“Do you have any idea who could have stumbled upon your little practice session? Did you not listen at all when I told you that Mary Stern and Jim Gadley were in attendance tonight? If they pulled their investments—Adrian, the Terrance Hotel would be finished—”

“I know,” I said.

She drew in a sharp breath. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know who that was, but he certainly is never stepping foot inside the Terrance Hotel again. Ever.”

I held my tongue, because I knew I couldn’t say what was at the front of my mind: after two weeks, neither will I.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry my eyes out. I wanted to douse the whole fucking hotel in gasoline and set it on fire. But I knew, deep down, that I was angrier at myself than I was at anything or anyone else.

I had just hurt Josh, and now I’d never see him again. I could still feel the ghost of his lips on mine, warm and pliant and opening for me.

But instead of crying, or screaming, or destroying something, I just stood there, my hands at my side, watching my mother walk away. As I trudged back through the grass, I saw the paper crane that Josh had made. It had been crushed under my mother’s shoe, and was crumpled and blackened, wet from the grass.

I was alone, now, and with a surgical precision, I forced myself to bury every rotten feeling deep inside me.

In two weeks, none of this will matter, I told myself. In two weeks, you’ll be out of this world forever. Because I had promised myself that I would never step foot in my family’s hotel again.

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