Chapter One“Your father ain’t gettin’ no better.” If ever a voice dripped with worry, Christian’s mother’s certainly did then. The quiver of her words. The raspiness of her tone. She sounded utterly exhausted. How long had she been at the hospital this time?“I can get away this weekend,” Christian said, rubbing his hand across his furrowed brow, looking over the stacks of papers he hadn’t graded and the essay questions he hadn’t finished composing.The I think remained implied.Truth be told, Christian Grayson, professor of sociology, didn’t have time to put his life in Florida on hold to go back to Tennessee. Students needed him. The school needed him. However, Christian Grayson, first son of Pastor Richard Grayson, would make all the time he needed for his family. Because good children made sacrifices for their parents.“I can fly out Friday after class,” Christian continued, arranging a plan in his head.“I think that’ll be wonderful.”“Then that’s what I’ll do.”“Christian?”His murmured name finally stilled him. He stopped shuffling papers. His body turned rigid. Her once warm, motherly tone was now laden with sadness. Sadness and worry.“Pray ’til then?”The plea gripped his heart like a tightened fist. His mother had always been such a strong, inspiring woman, with an unwavering faith in God. Now… well, she sounded as though she’d already lost the love of her life.“I promise, Mom. I’ll see you Friday. I love you.”“I love you too, Christian. Be safe.”With those soft words left between them, Christian hung up his phone and all but melted into his chair. The weight of the world was firmly planted on his shoulders, pinning him down in his seat. He leaned his forearms on his messy desk, clenching both hands together. Thanks to a blossoming headache, he imagined his brain in the same sort of vise.A soft rapping at the door pulled Christian away from his internal breakdown. He raised his head to find a student standing between the jambs. She was a bright girl with a sparkling personality who could’ve used a bit more clothing and had a good chance of making something of herself if she stopped using her sexuality to get ahead.“Miss Morris.” Christian sat back and squared his shoulders, folding his hands in his lap like his father used to do when he was about to school his son on being a proper man of God. “How can I help you?”“May I come in?”“Please.”She did, sauntering into his office like a streetwalker. Christian only made the connection because of the black skirt barely covering her bottom. Her spiked heels were so high she would’ve towered over him by an easy inch had he been standing, and Christian wasn’t a short man. Not quite six feet tall, but close enough.When she sat down, she made a show of crossing her legs. She leaned her elbows against her knees, pushing her breasts up into the V of the skimpy plaid top she wore. It might have looked nice with a black sweater to cover the parts better left to a straight man’s imagination. But Christian wasn’t interested.“How can I help you?” he asked, hoping she would drop the seductiveness. Somehow, he knew he wouldn’t be so lucky.“Well, remember I told you I needed help with my women’s studies assignment?”Nodding, he recalled how odd he thought it was for her to ask for his help. He wasn’t sure what he could do, but Christian never said no to a student.“Miss Morris, what exactly is the assignment?”“I have to write a paper on women in religion, and I’m trying to do something fresh. Something that hasn’t been drilled into the ground a million times already.”“And you’re asking me because…?”She frowned, straightening in the chair. Her cleavage no longer peeked from the neckline of her plaid blouse. Christian silently thanked God. He’d been uncomfortable since she’d walked in the door.“Don’t you have a theology degree?” she asked.“Well, yes, I do, but I—”“Then you’re the only person I know who can help me with this.”Was now the time to tell her he’d been raised in a home where the woman knew her role—mother, homemaker, unwavering supporter of her husband? While his mother was always strong in his eyes, she still followed the roles society and the Bible prescribed for her. He wasn’t the man for this particular job. Not at all.Christian sighed. “Miss Morris, I—”“But, you’re a believer,” she objected. You go to church.”Maybe, but being a believer and going to church didn’t mean he had any right preaching to her, especially not in the case of a woman’s role in the church. He wasn’t even sure he had a proper role in the church anymore. What about abominations? What about sodomy? About his being gay? He had no right speaking to anyone about God. Right?“Professor Grayson?” Miss Morris reached across the desk. She laid her hand over his. Worry washed over her face. “Are you okay? You paled.”“I’m fine.”He pulled back, tucking his hands in his lap again. When had he sat forward? When had he leaned his elbows on his desk? Christian never did such a thing. It was a no-no in the Grayson household. His mother would’ve scolded him terribly.“Miss Morris—” Christian cleared his throat and cleared his head. “—you need to determine your subject on your own. Do some research. Come back to me when you have an idea of what you want to talk about. I will gladly help you, but I’m not doing the paper for you.”“I understand.” She nodded.She stood, squared her shoulders, and poked out her cleavage—as if he hadn’t already seen enough. “I really wish we could work on it together.” She pouted. No doubt the look had seduced many unsuspecting men, and maybe if Christian liked that sort of thing….Licking her lips, she pressed both palms down on his desk, leaning in to, again, highlight her ample cleavage. “Or we could get dinner and talk, or—”“Such a suggestion is highly inappropriate, Miss Morris.” But I wouldn’t be interested if it wasn’t.“I’m sorry.”“You’re dismissed.”Without another word or a moment of hesitation, she made an about-face and click-clacked her way out of Christian’s office with surprising speed, considering the height of those heels. Christian lowered his eyes to the picture of his family: his mother and father, Ashley, his baby brother, and his sister, Linda.His father looked so healthy and virile, so full of life, in the photo. It was taken more than a decade ago, right before Christian had left for Florida in hopes of making a new life for himself, in hopes of finding himself and finally being honest about who he was inside.Now here he was, ten years later, with nothing to show for the move save for a pretty good job. He hadn’t fallen in love, and honestly, hadn’t really tried. The idea of being out and proud seemed like such a ridiculous notion, what with all the God Hates Fags propaganda blowing up the media. The idea of a deity he revered hating him, not to mention the danger of soiling his family’s good name, made shoving himself to the back of the closet so easy to do. So much for being honest with himself, for being the true Christian Grayson. That man had yet to show his face.And now, to add more fuel to a blazing fire, his father’s cancer had reached the point the doctors had been promising for months. The time no one looked forward to was finally upon them.The family’s patriarch, their anchor and their shepherd, was sick and dying, and there Christian sat chastising some desperate child over her inappropriateness. It seemed so unimportant now. Before, the only thing he had ever wanted to do was mold young minds and create freethinkers. He wanted a better future for men and women like him—those who loved the same sex but were too afraid to own their sexuality. He’d wanted to help build a new world, a world where people could love God and be gay and no one would bat an eye. Now, he only wanted to be there for his mother and father, even if they didn’t know the truth their son hid from them.He turned his eyes toward the ceiling, toward off-white corkboard tiles and fluorescent lighting, and silently asked God why his life had to be so difficult. Why couldn’t he have been blessed with the simplicity of being straight, with uncomplicated ideals he shared with his family? He could be harvesting corn or green beans rather than dealing with the inappropriateness of oversexed twentysomething children. His brother and sister had spouses and children already. They had homes in Tennessee, close to the farm, and they worshipped in their father’s church. Christian was the outsider. He was the one who had to be different, even though he’d spent nearly every night of his young adulthood praying to be normal like them.With a sigh, Christian ran his fingers through his hair. The older he got, the coarser it became. He was starting to find slivers of gray mixed in with the chocolate brown. Those tell-tale grays even sprinkled the faint dusting of hair around his jawline. He was getting older, old enough his parents expected him to be settled down now, and while he wanted to be, it seemed so much easier to lie and say school kept him too busy than to tell them he was gay.Another tap at the door tore a groan from Christian’s lips. None of this was out of the ordinary, and yet today he wished for something different. He wished he could get a minute alone to deal with everything tornadoing through his head.“I’m sorry. I can come back,” the person in the doorway said.Christian’s head jerked up. His gaze landed on the one person he wouldn’t mind talking to right now—a man who he’d grown fond of over the past three years or more, a student who’d proven his genius, whom Christian respected.“No, please. Come in,” Christian said, righting himself in his chair.CJ’s smile did Christian in, made warmth radiate from his heart and through his limbs. If a single curl of lips and flash of teeth could brighten an entire room, CJ’s could. And Christian’s mood brightened right along with it.
CJ hesitated a moment before walking into Professor G’s office. Poor guy didn’t look too good, his face a little pasty, when CJ had first knocked. “You sure? I can come back if now’s not good.”Professor G sat up, smiling brightly and squaring his shoulders. “No, please. I was just resting my eyes for a second. What can I help you with, Mr. Hata?”CJ struggled not to roll his eyes. Not only had he told Professor G not to call him Mr. Hata—he’d been in the man’s classes for over three years—but Professor G mangled the pronunciation of CJ’s last name every time he said it. CJ blamed his need to correct people on his father’s being so particular about the way Americans slaughtered Japanese words. If CJ were totally honest, he’d admit he liked the way Professor G’s Southern drawl made his name sound like “Hawt.”Hot. If only Professor G saw him that way. CJ would’ve gladly done any number of things—all those things failing students did with the promise of an easy A—without expecting anything in return. He’d spent three years looking at those broad shoulders in every manner of farm-boy-cum-edumacated-man button-down shirt. And nothing was quite as distracting in an advisory meeting as those piercing blue eyes. Or maybe it was the lips. Or—“You needed something?” Professor G’s smile hadn’t dimmed; he looked more amused than anything.Shit. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I just… zoned out.” CJ mentally kicked himself. This was about graduation. If there was one thing he would in no way jeopardize, no matter how sexy the professor, it was his education.“I saw something on my transcript I needed to ask you about.”“Of course. Let me pull it up.” Professor G rolled his chair closer to his desk and moved files around until he unearthed a keyboard. He clicked rapidly over the keys, pounding out in loud succession a series of letters and numbers that eventually granted him access to the records of every student in his care. It seemed to take fifteen forevers. When the sound ceased, the professor shifted his eyes toward CJ.What the hell was he looking at? Why were his cheeks turning pink?Oh. Wait. Maybe because CJ had his bottom lip sucked between his teeth like a baby with a freakin’ pacifier. Yeah. Professor G was so cute, though CJ was as sure a guy who had to be close to forty wouldn’t enjoy being called cute any more than CJ liked being called a “twink” at twenty-two.Get. Your shit. Together, Hata. He shook off his crushing man crush as best he could as he made his way to one of the chairs facing Professor G.“Oh, I see.” Professor G turned a sardonic glare CJ’s way, and it was CJ’s turn to look embarrassed. He’s seen your incomplete in music appreciation.“Music appreciation,” the professor said drily. “Again.” And drawly.Focus. “I thought you said if I did those other electives….”“CJ. You’re the only student I know who has grades like yours and doesn’t want to take the easiest elective at this school.”“It’s Dr.—”“Dr. Fielder. I know. ‘He’s incompetent, obviously uneducated, and not worth his tenure.’”Well. Fuck Professor G for his perfect imitation of CJ’s snobbery. “It’s not polite to mock people.”Professor G laughed. It was a joyous sound, and he looked much better than he had when CJ walked in, but he wasn’t sure he liked the professor’s joy being at his expense. He chose to believe the professor was laughing because of him, not at him.Regardless, CJ glared at him. “It’s not nice to mock your students, is it?”“Even if it’s true?” Professor G arched a brow.CJ snorted. “What? That the man is a hack? Of course it’s true.”Okay. So maybe CJ was a bit judgmental. No newsflash there. But Professor G closed his eyes, smiling and shaking head. So CJ couldn’t help but think if his being an ass made someone else’s day better, why change it? Right?“Okay. Well. How do I get out of this?”“CJ, you don’t. You need to register for the class. You’ve still got three days to get a spot.” Professor Grayson looked back at his computer screen, clicked his mouse a few times, then gave a triumphant “You’re in.”“Thanks,” CJ grumbled.Professor G looked back his way, expression much more serious this time. “CJ, we’re friends, right?”CJ raised his brow. Yes, friends is what they were. CJ wished it were more, but he could live with the fact that he’d earned enough of the man’s respect over the years to be on a more personal level with him.They’d worked on committees, been two of the few volunteers for most of the student government events. Professor G had recommended CJ to the education center where CJ worked as a tutor. There’d even been the one trip to a political debate they’d organized for the sociology department. Unfortunately, only five people had decided to go, so it wasn’t an official trip, but CJ and Professor G ended up hanging out and discussing politics and the social relevance of the events the speakers had gotten on their soap boxes about long after the others in their group had dwindled away.Now, CJ helped more than Professor G’s paid TA, equally to stare at the man and to pick his brain. He was smart and timidly funny, if not a bit unwordly for a man his age.So, yeah. They were friends, albeit in a strange and more formal setup than CJ liked.“Friends. Yeah, we’re friends.” CJ groaned when he realized what was coming. “Oh, no. Dude. This is where you do the ‘Professor G is disappointed in CJ’ thing?”Christian smiled warmly and rolled his eyes. “Of course it is. You’re too smart to have to take another semester because of one elective, a very simple elective at that. I’ve helped you slide by, but you shoot down all the others.” Because they all suck. “Can you please just take the class and play nice with Dr. Fielder?”“I don’t—”“For me?”CJ blinked.Oh, but there was a list from here to Timbuktu of the things CJ wouldn’t mind doing for Professor G—none of which included anything remotely close to taking a stupid class and playing nice with Dr. Half-wit. Nope. His list contained items that had little to do with academics… or clothes. CJ couldn’t stop the blush or the way his tongue flicked out to wet his lips.Professor G’s eyes widened slightly and he hurrumphed before averting his gaze and shuffling papers. “I’m running out of excuses for bypassing their classes.”Definitely overthought that one, dumbass. “Okay.” CJ also averted his eyes, scratching the back of his neck and trying to play off his stupidity. God, he hoped his cheeks weren’t too red. “I’ll do the class.” He snatched his book bag up before he could do anything else to make himself look like an idiot.“Would you do me a favor?” Professor G’s soft, almost expressionless voice stopped CJ from disappearing back into the sea of students shuffling down the hall. He raised his head, shooting a glance over his shoulder. “There’s somewhere important I need to be this weekend and I’m already running behind. If I gave you a list of topics I want covered, could you maybe put together some good essay questions and hand them to my TA by Monday? You know this material well. Better than him, even.”The last bit was mumbled, probably not meant for CJ to hear. The grave look Professor G had been wearing earlier slid back over his face—skin pale, eyes dark. CJ wanted to ask what the hell was up, even waffled between being blunt and asking the question or hinting around about his professor’s look of certain doom.“Yeah. Sure. I can handle it.” CJ frowned. “You okay?”“Mhm….” The sound was an acknowledgement. Not an answer to the question. And Professor G wouldn’t look him in the eye.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Teaching Professor Grayson: Excerpt
Here's an excerpt from my upcoming release with Allison Cassatte (Nov 21 on Dreamspinner. PREORDER HERE)