To Ian Bradford, love seems unattainable. Women find him irresistible, but he only has eyes for one—his stepbrother, Kurt Ward. Kurt is also a huge hit with the ladies and has spent years chasing and catching many, much to Ian’s dismay.
Knowing Ian’s secret, Kurt enjoys watching his stepbrother, pretending ignorance while witnessing his torture, flaunting his body just to see Ian blush. But despite his womanizing, Kurt also finds love elusive. It isn’t until an unexpected encounter that Kurt starts to think there may be more to his desire to tease Ian than he realized.
“Hey, Ian! Wait up!”
Ian looked over his shoulder. “Oh, hey, Tess, where were you?”
“I got stuck helping Mrs. Grant clean up after class,” Tess said, catching up to him. “How come you didn’t wait for me?”
Tessa Balfour was Ian’s best friend, one of the prettiest girls in school and unlike anyone he’d ever known—kind, intelligent, mature, and unbelievably insightful. They’d met in the fourth grade and had been pretty much inseparable ever since.
“Sorry, violin lesson at four,” he said, lifting his shoulder to indicate the violin case. “I couldn’t wait. I’m still working on that piece I told you about.”
“Oh right, the song,” Tess said, giggling.
Ian narrowed his eyes at her to show he had heard her tone and didn’t appreciate the sarcasm.
She gave him a wide, exaggerated grin and then asked, “You’ve been working on that forever. How long does it take to write one song, anyway?”
Ian shrugged. “It takes as long as it takes. Composing isn’t easy you know, and I want it to be perfect.”
“Uh-huh.” Tess hooked her arm through his as they continued to walk. “So, school’s out in less than three weeks, are you going anywhere this summer?”
“Just hanging out here at home. Dad’s got too much going on with the business right now to take any time off, and Mom just started fulltime at the hospital, so I’ll be around. You?”
“I’ll be home too. My parents want me to go camping with them one weekend though. Dad says maybe Christina Lake or Syringa. Wanna come?”
“Oh, my God, Kurt would be so jealous,” Ian mused. Kurt had asked Tess out several times, and she always turned him down. It drove him crazy. She was the only girl who had ever said no to him, and he hated it.
Ian glanced down at Tess. She was every guy’s wet dream—really pretty with curves in all the right places and with short, streaked, spiky blonde hair, big brown doe eyes with long lashes, flawless skin and beautiful, pouty lips. Honestly, he loved her like crazy. He just wasn’t attracted to her. But as far as he was concerned, having her as his best friend was even better.
She knew absolutely everything about him. Last weekend, he and Tess had been down at Osoyoos Lake and were lying on a couple of oversized beach towels on the sand after having a swim. It was perfect weather. The kind of day where the sun was hot but didn’t really feel that way because of a perfect, constant breeze. The kind of day one could easily get burned to a crisp without even knowing it was happening.
Ian remembered how nervous he’d been, trying to work up the courage to tell her something. He’d been struggling with it all day, actually. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he sat up and blurted out, “Tess, I’m gay.”
“Yeah, I know,” she’d said matter-of-factly, not even bothering to open her eyes.
He sat there a moment, stunned. “What?”
“I said, I know,” she repeated, shielding her eyes and looking up at him.
She turned over and propped herself up on her elbows. “Sure. And you’re in love with Kurt.”
“What?” The blood drained out of his face. How could she possibly know that? He’d never told anyone that, no one! He felt naked, exposed, wondering what clues or signals he’d been giving out that people were picking up on.
“It’s okay, Ian,” Tess assured him. “Look, no one else knows. It’s just that we spend so much time together and I see firsthand what you get like around your brother.”
“Whatever. You look at him like he’s a movie star or something. I don’t blame you. He’s fucking gorgeous. Plus the fact that you’re the only guy I know who hasn’t asked me out, or any other girl in school for that matter.”
“Sometimes they talk about you, you know?”
Ian felt sick. “Oh, my God, you’re kidding me,” he said, sinking back down onto his towel, one hand to his forehead.
“Don’t worry. Like I said, no one else knows. You don’t look or act gay or anything, so you’re not trippin’ any gaydars. They just talk about how hot you are and how shy you must be because you never look at them or talk to them or ask them out.”
Ian laid there for a moment, feeling stupid. Then he backtracked. “Wait a minute, if you think Kurt is so gorgeous, why do you always turn him down when he asks you out?”
“Because we’re best friends, ya bonehead, and I know how you feel about him. I wouldn’t do that to you. Besides, no offense, but he’s kind of a jerk. I honestly don’t know what you see in him.” She shimmied over onto Ian’s towel, snuggling up to him, and he put his arm around her.
Ian thought a moment. “You don’t know him like I do. Sure, he’s a jerk most of the time, but sometimes he’s really nice to me. Looks out for me, you know? You have no idea how many times he’s taken care of me when I got hurt or sick. Remember when I fell off the tire swing and got knocked out? You said yourself he looked terrified. And then he carried me all the way home.”
“In his big strong arms,” Tess teased.
“Shut up,” Ian said, hiding a smile.
She shoved him with her shoulder. “I’m just bugging you. But yeah, you’re right. He was definitely looking out for you that day.”
“Exactly. It’s like the real Kurt is under there somewhere and only shows his face once in a while. Usually when there’s no one else to witness it. When I’m sick he brings me my homework and checks on me a lot, always asking if I need anything.”
A seagull appeared over them, hovering on the breeze as if trying to determine if the two humans had any morsels of food they might be willing to give up. Apparently deciding they had nothing to offer, it flapped its wings and headed out over the water.
Staring after the gull, Ian continued. “He stood up for me against some bullies once when we were eleven. Kept his arm around me while we walked home that day, like he was protecting me.”
Ian nodded. “Of course, when we got home he told me it served me right for playing such a faggy instrument.” Ian laughed self-consciously. He paused a bit and then added, “But there have been so many times that he’s shown that he really cares about me. That’s the Kurt I’m in love with. And now, lately, sometimes…” Ian let that thought hang unfinished until Tess urged him on.
“Well, I swear he looks at me every once in a while and it feels like maybe…” He paused. “Nah, forget it.”
“No, seriously, what?”
“I don’t know. Like maybe he likes me too.” He sighed, picking up a small rock and throwing it a couple of feet into the sand, dislodging a small, downy grey feather that fluttered away in the breeze. Ian watched it tumble across the sand, his eyes becoming vacant as he said, “But, then the next thing I know he’s acting like a jerk again, so I’m probably imagining things.”
“You never know,” Tess said. “Maybe he does want you but he’s too afraid to admit it, even to himself. I don’t know how you handle being around someone all the time who you want so bad.” Then she asked, “Does being around him ever give you a hard-on?”
She laughed. “I’m just asking. Does he get you hard?”
“I’m getting hard now just thinking about it,” Ian said, hoping that might shock her into silence.
“Ooo! Can I see?”
Ian groaned. He couldn’t believe she had asked that.
“Does it happen a lot?”
There was a long pause while Ian tried to decide if he wanted to say anything, and then he said quietly, “Yeah, sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” Tess needled him.
“Okay, lots of times. Happy now?”
She dropped the subject, and they soaked up the sun a few minutes more before Ian asked sheepishly, “So, your friends really think I’m hot?”
“Yes!” she said in exasperation. “You really have no clue what a hunk you are, do you?”
Ian blushed. “I’m not a hunk. Do people even say hunk anymore? I’m not a hunk.”
“Yes, you are. Oh, my God Ian, you’re gorgeous! You’re like the perfect cross between Edward Cullen and Jacob Black from Twilight. You have no idea how bad I wish you were straight.” She laughed. “And you have no idea how jealous all my friends are. They think we’re dating. I hope you don’t mind. I mean, I didn’t tell them that we are dating, but I didn’t tell them that we’re not. I just let them think what they want.”
“No, I don’t mind,” Ian said. He looked at her. “I love you, Tess. I’m really sorry it can’t be more than that.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Hey, that’s okay. I love you too, Ian. You’re the greatest. Best friend I’ve ever had, and I totally mean that.”
And that had been it, sand and secrets. The day he came out to Tess.
Now, as they walked home, Ian wished for the thousandth time that he wasn’t gay, that he wasn’t in love with Kurt, and that he could be Tessa’s boyfriend. That he could be normal and live a normal life like all the other kids he knew seemed to be happily doing.
“So, you’ll come camping with us this summer?”
“As long as I can bring my violin. I’ve only got three and a half months to finish the song, and it still needs a lot of tweaking.”
Tessa slapped his arm. “Excellent! My parents would love to hear you play, especially my mom. I’m always telling her how good you are. Hmm, classical violin around a campfire,” she mused. “That’ll be different.”
They rounded the corner onto their street and headed up the hill toward home, listening to the surprisingly loud hissing-buzzing-whirring symphony of the cicadas in the long, dry grass. Tess lived just a few properties farther up, and Ian always walked her home before coming back down. Although they both had their licenses, neither of them had a car yet. As they passed Destiny, they heard laughter and looked over to see Kurt and his best friends James and Trent playing football in the yard. All three of them were on the local football team, all three of them were toned and tanned and ripped, and all three of them were absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous. But Kurt, well Kurt had the monopoly on sexy, and everyone knew it.
Ian kept his head down, but Kurt poured on the charm and called out, “Hello, Tessa!”
“Hi, Kurt,” she answered without enthusiasm. She rolled her eyes at Ian.
One of the guys—probably Trent, since he was the one who liked to tease Ian the most—called out in a nasally, taunting voice, “Hello, Ian!” And they all laughed.
Ian ignored them, putting his arm around Tess and pulling her against him as they walked, stopping the laughter short. “Play along,” he whispered to her, and she put her head on his shoulder.
Once they were out of sight, Tess burst out laughing. “Holy shit. Did you see their faces? We could have so much fun with this. Let’s pretend all summer that we’re going out, okay? It’ll be hilarious.”
“But what if you want to go out with someone for real?”
“Nah, there’s no one I’m interested in, and I think it would be fun just pretending. And if some guy comes along who I want to date, then I’ll let you know and we’ll ‘break up,’” she said, making quotation marks in the air with her fingers. “In the meantime, I get to hug and hold hands with and kiss one of the hottest guys in the Okanagan without worrying about him trying to get into my pants. Seems like a win-win situation to me.”
Ian still had a hard time believing he was one of the hottest guys in school, let alone the entire Okanagan. That was certainly not what he saw when he looked in the mirror. His dark wavy hair was unruly and always flopping into his eyes, which weren’t even blue but rather a dull greyish-purple color, his skin was pale, and his features sharp, both of which made him look like one of the undead. He guessed that was why Tess said he was a cross between Jacob and Edward. And while he was developing some muscle and did have washboard abs, he was still way too thin. As far as he was concerned, the only thing he had going for him was that his skin had always been completely free of acne.
On the other hand, he didn’t think Tess would lie to him. That was too cruel a trick for someone as awesome as her to play on him. So he guessed there had to be something appealing about the way he was put together, although what it was he had no idea.
Anyway, he agreed to pretend to date her, thinking that maybe it would make him feel less conspicuous, like people weren’t always looking at him, wondering what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t get a date. He could relax a bit, having Tess on his arm.
They reached her driveway, and Tessa kissed him quickly on the lips before continuing. “See you tomorrow, honey!”
Ian laughed. “Bye, Tess,” he said, waving. He watched her hips roll as she walked up the driveway. Any straight guy would be drooling, but while Ian could appreciate it, it didn’t do much for him sexually. He sighed and glanced at his watch. He still had almost half an hour before he had to be at his lesson, which was about a fifteen-minute walk from Destiny. Enough time to go home, drop off his backpack, and grab something to eat before he had to leave.
Unlike the giant monster home and long paved drive at Tessa’s place, Destiny looked more like a small ranch. It had a huge, intricate log archway over the entrance to the dusty dirt drive with the name burned into a single flat wood panel at its center, and a crisscross log fence all the way around the six-acre property. He started toward the big, pale yellow, country-style house with white trim and wrap-around porch, trying to ignore Kurt and his friends, but he could feel their eyes on him as he passed. He ran up the few stairs to the porch and through the squeaky screen door into the house, dropping his backpack inside and hurrying for the kitchen.
He and everyone else who saw it loved that kitchen. It was extremely cool, designed to look like a 50s style diner, all done in teal with stainless steel accents, from the speckled laminate countertops to the teal-colored vinyl stools, to the old fashioned, rounded corner appliances
Just as he was placing his violin on the counter, he heard the screen door, and shortly after Kurt came in, his shirt off, all sweaty from playing football. He had recently had his brown hair shaved on the sides into a short Mohawk, and Ian thought it was the perfect look for him, especially with his hazel eyes and darkly tanned skin. He tried really hard not to stare at his uber-sexy stepbrother.
“So what the fuck was that?” Kurt demanded.
Ian knew what he was asking but played dumb. “What?”
“You know what. You and Tess.”
“Oh, that. Well, I asked her out today, and she said yes,” Ian remarked casually, opening the breadbox and selecting a loaf of sunflower-flax.
“You. You asked her out.”
Ian looked up, not quite understanding what he had heard in Kurt’s voice. “Yeah.” Then he frowned a bit, looking away because what he thought he saw was hurt, and it confused him. Kurt never showed any signs of vulnerability. But then he figured Kurt was probably just mad that Ian had gotten Tess when he couldn’t.
“And she said yes.”
Okay, the incredulity in Kurt’s voice was starting to sting a little. “Sure, why not? She thinks I’m hot,” Ian said smoothly, unscrewing the lid of the peanut butter, which was already sitting on the counter.
Kurt sneered, being the jerk once more. “No one thinks you’re hot.”
Ian frowned. “According to Tess, all her friends do. She said they’re always talking about me and that she can’t wait to tell them about us and make them all jealous.”
Kurt stared at Ian, chewing on his lower lip, and then turned to walk away with a muttered, “In your dreams.”
Ian smiled to himself, continuing to make his sandwich. He’d have to call Tess later and tell her what happened. He felt utterly devious. Even though he knew Kurt wasn’t jealous of Tess, it still felt good not to be the one getting hurt this time.
But as he bit into his sandwich, he realized that wasn’t true. It still hurt to know that Kurt didn’t feel anything for him, that Ian could probably date every girl in Osoyoos, and it wouldn’t ever make Kurt want him.
Suddenly he wasn’t hungry anymore, and the peanut butter felt like glue in his throat. He threw the rest of his sandwich in the trash, downed some water and grabbed his violin case on his way to the door.