One encounter with antisocial Xander Fairchild’s artwork is enough to turn Skylar Stone’s carefully orchestrated one-percenter life upside down, unlacing his secrets and inviting him into a secret anime-soaked world with a new set of friends. But will they be brave enough to embrace their fragile new relationship and let it last beyond the summer?
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A single stroke can change your world.
Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten College to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.
Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.
Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.
The painting, three by four feet and propped on an easel in the center of the room, arrested Skylar Stone, emptying every thought from his head, save one. This piece of art was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen.
He paced a semicircle around the canvas, unconsciously hooking his index finger into his collar to loosen his tie, as if looking at this painting required more room to breathe. It assaulted his senses and made him too dizzy to think. How did it possess so many colors and yet seem kind of purply blue? There was gold in there, somehow, and red, and…God, everything. What was the figure in the foreground? A man? A dog? A boulder? Somehow it was all three. A hulking mass of darkness looking out at…stars. Or perhaps it was someone lying on a blanket. Or it was a gargoyle looking over a city. A city on fire.
Or maybe it was a city being formed?
It looked like a child had painted it. Or a grand master. It took Skylar’s breath away.
“I said, can I help you?”
Blinking, Skylar turned toward the speaker, a mousy, scrawny, hunched male student with a permanent glower stitched on his face. He wore a dark-blue apron stained with paint, several brushes sticking out of the right-side pocket. The plaid shirt the apron protected was frayed at the collar and cuffs, and it fit the man so poorly it looked like he’d dressed in his father’s closet. His jeans were equally worn, and his tennis shoes sported soles flopping open at the toes.
The man glared at Skylar with dark-brown eyes peering from a shag of slightly curly, too-long bangs as he waited for Skylar’s reply.
Skylar cleared his throat and struggled to find his usual confidence, feeling clearer with the artwork out of a direct line of sight. “Sorry. That painting is so gorgeous it knocked me off my game a little.” Digging his smile out of his stupor, he crawled back into what his fraternity brothers called Silver Stone Mode and stuck out his hand. “Skylar Stone. I’m the risk manager for Delta Eta Sigma. I’m looking for Mr. Xander Fairchild. Can you tell me where I might find him?”
The mousy guy didn’t accept the handshake, and if anything, his scowl deepened. “What do you mean, the painting is gorgeous?”
Skylar turned back to it, rubbing the smooth line of his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “I mean that the painting is gorgeous. I feel like I could look at it for hours.”
“The paint is too thick, and the brushstrokes are a mess.”
“That’s kind of what I like, though. The thickness. The roughness. It feels almost 3-D. I don’t know anything about art, so I wouldn’t know a brushstroke if you hit me with it, but I love this painting. Do you know who did it?”
Scowling Guy snorted. “Me.”
“Wow. Really? That’s fantastic. I can see someday I’ll be forking over an arm and a leg for the right to hang your work in my living room.”
The artist hunched his shoulders and glared harder. “What do you want?”
Right, no more compliments. Skylar got down to business. “Like I said, I’m here to see Mr. Fairchild. Do you know where I can find him?”
“You already did. Now tell me what you want, so I can tell you no and get back to work.”
“You mean—you’re Xander Fairchild?”
“Yes. And you’re one of the frat boys who spray-painted penises all over my mural.”
Here, finally, Skylar found his groove. “No. I’m one of the officers of the fraternity where three members are on probation for vandalizing your work. I’m here to apologize on behalf of Delta Eta Sigma and see what we can do to make amends for our brothers’ inappropriate behavior.”
“There’s not much you can do. It can’t be replaced. I’d have to repaint the whole thing, and it’ll never be the same as the first time. It’ll always be a copy, which means it’s going to suck. I told the dean to take it down and forget it. I’ll do another mural somewhere with less chance of roving drunken monkeys. Or I won’t do it at all. I have my portfolio and BFA project to think about.”
That news disillusioned Skylar on multiple levels. He’d assumed he could sentence the freshmen to eons of community service beginning with cleaning, but hearing the mural was ruined meant things were more serious than he’d been led to believe. Also, he’d liked that artwork. It was on the wall of Gama Auditorium, which meant he passed it every time he walked into school, and he walked almost every day. It made sense, he supposed, that he’d liked the mural so well, since it was by the same artist as the painting in front of him. He liked the painting so much better, though. The mural had been stylized, designed to represent Benten College more than being art. It depressed Sky to think it would be removed, not repaired.
He realized he was woolgathering, not focusing on his mission, and he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to hear the mural is ruined. That will change our punishment of the offenders, though I can’t imagine that’s much recompense for having your work destroyed. At the very least, I’d like to apologize on behalf of Delta Eta Sigma. As someone who enjoyed your mural, I will miss seeing it every day.”
Xander turned away and wrestled the lid off a paint can. “Whatever.”
Normally Skylar would enjoy the challenge of someone so difficult to smooth over, but he wasn’t on his game today. “Are you sure the mural can’t be saved? Because believe me, these two have days of community service ahead of them. If that can’t be done, maybe there’s some particularly grueling work they can do here in the studios?”
“You think I want them in here? Anyway, why are you asking me? I did the mural as a sophomore special project. I don’t have any authority over what happens to it. That said, if you try to stick me in a room full of frat boys grousing about their punishment—”
Skylar held up a hand. “Hey—first of all, I’m asking you because you’re the artist. Yes, we’re in discussion with the head of the art department, and the Interfraternity Council, as well as campus security, but your thoughts on this situation are also important. Second of all, no one will be sticking you with anything. These two are facing all manner of charges and suspensions, and at this point they’re doing nothing but groveling. We take this seriously. That’s why I’m here, asking how Delta Eta Sigma can make it up to you.”
Xander had the lid off the paint can and waved it angrily at Skylar. “Nothing. Thanks for the effort. Talk to the building secretary about donating money for paint or something, but don’t let your goons clean any of my brushes. Meanwhile, I need to get back to work.” After dunking a fat, wide brush in the can, he wiped it on the rim and aimed it at the canvas.
Skylar frowned at him. “What are you doing?” When he realized the brush was about to slide across the top of that night sky, he didn’t think, only knocked it out of Xander’s hand, sending it clattering to the floor.
“Christ!” Xander faced down Skylar with his fists clenched. “What the hell is your problem?”
Skylar felt queasy and slightly shaky. “You were going to paint over it.”
“Yes. It’s a piece of shit, and I need the canvas.”
Piece of shit? “It’s stunning. If you don’t like it, sell it and buy a new canvas.”
Xander’s nostrils flared. “Like I said, you can leave now.”
Skylar should have. He’d done what he’d come to do—he hadn’t succeeded, but if he wanted to achieve his goal, he’d need to leave, regroup, and try again another day. But he couldn’t leave and let the painting be ruined, so instead of walking out the door, he reached for his wallet. “How much do you want for it?”
This only enraged Xander further. “I said, get out.”
Skylar thumbed through his bills. “I only have forty-five on me, but I’ll go to the nearest ATM and get the rest of whatever price you name. I want to buy the painting, Mr. Fairchild.”
“I’m not letting you take this back to your stupid frat house so you and your brothers can use it for a dartboard.”
Skylar lowered his wallet and swallowed the impulse to give in to temper. “I have no such intent. I would never use a piece of art so callously. I gather you don’t have a high opinion of Greek life, which I’m sorry to hear.” Gears turned, and Silver Stone Mode ground back to life. “You don’t seem to have much regard for your own skill, either, if you’re so unwilling to sell your work. As far as I’m concerned, you belong in a gallery.”
Xander blinked at Skylar. For a moment he looked vulnerable, almost eager, his veneer cracking at last. Just as quickly, however, his owlish demeanor was back. He set his jaw as he picked the brush up from the floor. “This is my painting. I can destroy it if I want to. I can paint over it, use it as a coffee table, chuck it against the wall. It’s not going to hang in a gallery. The closest thing to that I’ll be seeing anytime soon is my senior art show, and there’s no way in hell I’m letting that get laughed down.”
“What’s to laugh at? I love the painting. The idea of a room full of your work sounds perfect.”
“Oh yeah? Tell me why you like my work, then.”
Skylar turned to the painting. The power of it hit him every time he looked at it, and he felt self-conscious attempting to articulate why when Xander was so derisive. He considered giving up and leaving. He’d delivered the apology and started trying to engender goodwill. The rest of his work would be done with research and carefully orchestrated gestures. But he really did hate the idea of this painting being covered up.
“I don’t know. It gets me, right in the gut. It’s so many things at once. It makes me feel aching and lonely but not desolate. This guy who has lost everything and retreated from the world, maybe even hates it, still has hope he can find his niche.” He sighed and gestured with his hand. “I don’t know anything about brushstrokes or forms or whatever. All I know is I’d hand over a lot of money to take this home with me. I wouldn’t use it as a dartboard. I’d hang it in my room, and I’d stare at it while I lie in bed.” He rolled his eyes at himself. “Now you’ll tell me how off my interpretation was. But it’s why I love it.”
Xander looked pale, almost trembling, like someone had slapped him in the face. He stared at Skylar with that same vulnerable, aching expression. Then he turned away. “Take it.”
Skylar frowned. “Take what?”
Xander made shooing motions at him. “The painting. Take it. Take it and go.”
The painting? Skylar pulled out his money again. “Here, let me pay—”
“Just take it.” Xander put down the paintbrush, hauled the painting off the easel, and thrust it at Skylar. “It’s yours. Go away.”
Skylar struggled to accept the painting without dropping his wallet. “I really would pay for it. I want to pay for it.” He needed to.
“We don’t always get what we want. You have the painting, and you’ve apologized for the frat. I accept. There, see? Everyone’s happy. Go have a kegger or something.”
Xander didn’t look happy. He looked upset. Skylar was too. It bothered him to pay nothing for the painting. He didn’t like that Xander was so dismissive of Delta Sig, as if they were some reboot of Animal House. Though he supposed with the mural incident they looked like it, dammit. Skylar wanted to tell Xander about the two friends who had founded Delta Eta Sigma while caring for the sick, about Delta Sig’s connection to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and how much service they did a year. He wanted to talk about how his housemates truly were his brothers, how the social network the Greek life provided was as fundamental if not more so than his own family upbringing.
He would have, but Xander took off his apron and disappeared out of the studio and down a hallway. The door closed behind him with a quiet snick.
Skylar stared at the place where he’d disappeared, letting the quiet ring in his ears. Pulling his business card out of his wallet, he spied a backpack at the foot of the easel and slipped the card into an open flap. Then he tucked his wallet into his pocket, the painting carefully under his arm, and wove his way out of the building and down the hill toward Delta Sig.
The last goddamned thing Xander Fairchild needed was a frat boy interrupting his studio time.
His day had been packed tight as it was, and Pretty Boy’s interruption had basically shot everything all to hell. Xander’s plan had been to paint over the shit painting, letting it dry while he finished the last panels due for Lucky 7. The chore of recycling the canvas so he could paint tomorrow should have taken him a quick ten minutes, and inking only another forty, leaving him time to get the pages across campus to the magazine offices in Tori Hall on his way home. Instead, he had to stretch a new canvas over a frame, and he was priming it and grumbling under his breath when Sara came looking for him.
“I’m so sorry.” He put down the brush and wiped his hands on his apron. “I haven’t even started. Something came up, and I’m completely behind.”
She waved a hand at him, indicating he should stay where he was. “You have the panels drawn, right? I can do the inking, if you don’t mind.”
Xander did mind, in fact, but he didn’t want to sound like a controlling ass. “I have to tweak a few things. Sorry.” He washed his hands briskly in the sink. “It won’t take me long. I swear.”
“No worries. Oh—and Jacob wanted me to tell you, he’s not sure when, but he wants to get the guys together to move the last of the boxes to storage until they give us our new space assignment for the fall. He says make sure you either answer your phone, check your messages, or read your email this time.”
Xander’s cheeks burned, but he nodded, keeping his gaze on his hands as he washed them. “Got it.”
She hiked herself onto a stool at the table where Xander had his manga materials spread out, her actions indicating she intended to watch him finish. He suppressed a sigh, knowing damn well he couldn’t ask her to leave on several counts. One, he was the one late with his work. Two—he glanced over his shoulder at Sara’s leg braces. He was an asshole, but he wasn’t that much of an asshole, to send her away after coming all the way over from the Lucky 7 offices. If it had been Cory, Jacob, or Zelda, he might have.
Which, he suspected, was possibly why they’d sent her. Damn it all.
He dried his hands and took up a stool across from her, opening his folio and his ink supplies. “I’m sorry you had to come all this way to find me.”
She shrugged. “I texted you as a formality, but then I started walking.”
Pausing with his Zebra G nib in hand, Xander winced. He hadn’t even brought his cell phone today. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. Nice day out.” She rested her chin against her wrist, which was also in a brace. “Do you have a lot of screentone to add?”
“A bit, but it doesn’t take me long.” Less time if he wasn’t watched, but there wasn’t much helping that now.
Damn that frat boy anyway. Xander would already be on his way home, if not for him.
Xander tried to focus on inking the characters in front of him, but all he could see was the way what’s-his-name had stared at his shitty painting.
And called it gorgeous.
“Seriously, I can help, if you want.”
Xander snapped out of his stupor and glowered at the paper, hunching deeper over it. “No. I’m fine. Thanks.”
He worked diligently after that, giving life to the manga. Lucky 7 had existed as a student magazine since the college was founded in 1899, and The Adventures of Hotay & Moo had been a serialized story since day one, but the format had morphed along with the magazine. The name Lucky 7 was of course a riff on the Japanese seven gods of fortune, though The Adventures of Hotay & Moo were almost entirely based on one of the seven gods, Hotei, and Fudō Myōō, who was a god and one of the five wisdom kings but not one of the gods of fortune.
In the 1940s the short stories had become comics, and in the 1990s a resurgence in the college’s Japanese cultural roots had inspired the editorial board to turn the comic into a manga, going so far as to flip the printing order so that the magazine opened to what westerners would consider the back.
Xander was the manga artist for the magazine and had been since his sophomore year, having apprenticed to the senior mangaka his freshman year and been a coartist that first year. Sara had been, theoretically, his apprentice this year, but he had been a shitty mentor. Which he felt bad about, but not bad enough to change his ways.
The characters were a true pleasure to work with, and drawing them had taught Xander more than his actual coursework. They’d done nothing but thrive in the hands of devoted artists over the decades. Xander understood the honor given to him, to have the torch of creating them passed to him, and he did his best to take it seriously.
It helped that at this point the two leads basically wrote themselves. Hotay was jolly and eternally optimistic, always leading the duo into the sun—in one story arc, this was literal—and Moo was sour and pessimistic, skeptical of everyone and everything they encountered, ready to do battle. Hotay could get himself out of a scrape if need be, but if a flaming sword were needed, that was when Moo came into play. There had definitely been artists who favored more battle-themed arcs, but under Xander’s charge, the storylines tended toward Hotay and Moo having adventures together, encountering problems, and above all arguing.
Well, Moo argued, and Hotay cheered him up and coaxed him into drinking sake and forgetting his problems. Sometimes The Adventures of Hotay & Moo was guilty of not having enough plot in its storylines. Which was probably why the readership was dying off.
When Xander finished adding the screentones and everything had set, he handed Sara the folio. “Sorry again that you had to come get it.”
“No worries. But maybe this summer, since we’re both staying in town, I can teach you how to use the digital drawing software, and all of this can go faster.”
That, right there, was why Xander had been a shitty mentor. “I have to get home. See you later.”
He left before she could start yet another campaign to convince him to convert the manga.
The walk between the art building and Xander’s apartment was just over a mile and a half, and with shortcuts and a pass through the local hospital’s campus, Xander had the trek between home and studio down to twenty-eight minutes. The day Pretty Boy confiscated his painting, however, the walk took Xander almost an hour.
This was because he went the long way, winding his way through the state park so he could lose himself in the trees and spend some time staring out across the bluff at the top of the ridge. He could have shaved off ten minutes if he’d used the regular path, but he didn’t want to run into people walking their dogs, so he took the hiking paths instead. He stood at the bluff for a good twenty minutes, replaying the exchange in the studio over and over again before stalking the rest of the way home, determined to not think anymore.
He worried he’d run into his landlady, but she wasn’t home, thankfully. It was common for her to hear him arrive and come out to greet him, roping him into unwanted conversation, but today the gods looked fondly on him and allowed him to stop at his mailbox in peace before hiking up the side stairs to his attic apartment. After letting himself inside and tossing the mail on the kitchen counter, he shut the blinds tight and collapsed in a flop on the couch, staring up at the ceiling.
A soft thunk on his legs preceded a plaintive meow and a second, heavier thud against his chest. Xander lifted his head to see both his cats peering intently at him.
With a sigh, Xander ruffled their fur. “Yes. I’ll feed you. Let me wallow here a minute.”
Hokusai, the leg-thumper, mewed again, but Hiromu focused on purring like a jet engine and rubbing her head along Xander’s jaw. Xander continued to pet them as he addressed the ceiling.
“It was a fluke that he saw exactly what I’d meant to paint. Probably he has some ninja people-reading skill and figured it out from my face.” When Hiromu head-butted his chin, Xander sighed and dipped his head to nuzzle back. “I shouldn’t have given it to him. Better to have it painted over than have it go with them.”
The cats, comprehending their human wouldn’t be leaping up to feed them, settled into their perches on his thighs and chest to wait.
Xander stroked Hiromu idly, her long, fluffy coat silky beneath his fingers. Despite his vow in the park, he played the exchange with the frat boy over again, trying to show himself where it had been a trap, but mostly, to his shame, the memory of that smile and those twinkling eyes made Xander’s heart flutter. He’d already forgotten the guy’s name, but it would be a week before he’d stop fantasizing about Mr. Fancy-Talk pressing Xander gently into the wall, nuzzling his nose down Xander’s cheek. If only he’d had a little bit of beard, he’d have been perfect.
Groaning, Xander pushed the cats off his body and shuffled to the kitchen, where he drizzled kibble into their bowls. While they ate, he examined his mail. He had all his bills on autopay, so most of it was garbage, but there was one fat full-size envelope tucked inside the local advertising circulars, and when he saw the icon in the return address, his belly did an uncomfortable backflip.
Benten College Department of Art & Art History. When Xander pried the envelope open, it was exactly what he’d expected it to be: the paperwork for his Bachelor of Fine Arts Exhibition.
He grimaced as he flipped through the pages of the application. If only it were as simple as showing up with a rack of paintings, but no. In addition to requiring their students submit material matching the standards the art department felt represented Benten and the department’s vision for postgraduate work, they insisted their BFA students understand the full weight of what they’d be expected to do if they intended to live off their art.
He must package himself and his work. He must advertise his work. He must put forth—he glanced at the official wording—significant good-faith effort to promote his exhibition to the public in the spring or fall of his senior year. When each student’s show landed in the calendar was determined by lottery, and lucky Xander was one of the early birds. The application was due May 20, which was just around the corner. This was the third notice, reminding him he still hadn’t filled it out.
The only reason Xander hadn’t was because of the damn promotion bullshit.
It didn’t come out and say he’d be judged on attendance, but Xander knew he would be. And he knew however great he might make his paintings, in this aspect, he would fail. No one would come to his show. His advisor, the handful of undergrads filling their exhibition credits. Possibly his aunt, but he doubted it, since she lived too far away. No one else in the entire state of New York or anywhere in the northeastern region of the United States would give a damn. Xander didn’t have friends. He barely had acquaintances. The only people he knew at Benten were the art majors and the staff of the Lucky 7, and they all basically tolerated him.
Well, except for Zelda, but they more tortured him than anything.
Xander’s lack of people to drag to his show didn’t upset him half as much as the lengths he was supposed to take to advertise, whether or not anyone would come. Social media. The department expected him to promote his work on no less than three social networks. They had a handy little bullet list of different types and what each was good for, which probably most students rolled their eyes at because it was so obvious—except Xander wouldn’t understand any of them even with a full-on manual. The hell he was tweeting. He’d never get a single follower, so what was the point? He refused to even think the word Facebook. As for the rest, he didn’t know much about them, and he didn’t want to learn.
Except he had to learn. Three of them. And make a significant good-faith effort.
Shoving the application to the back of the table, Xander rose to make a pot of coffee. While it brewed, he thumbed through his records, rerouting his brain from anger and fear over the art show and his encounter with the frat boy and nudging it to make a vinyl selection instead.
He was going to paint.
He didn’t have a studio in his apartment, but his living space essentially was his studio. He kept the paint and supplies away from the cats, but his easel and canvases took up most of his living room. His apartment had plumbing problems and got too cold in the winter and didn’t have AC, but it had high ceilings, great natural light, and a more aesthetically pleasing floor plan than the boxy apartments most students lived in. And because it was so simply arranged, getting ready to work was a matter of opening a cupboard, pouring turpentine, donning an apron, and squirting some color onto a palette. The first song wasn’t finished before Xander stood at his easel, staring at the blank space while he mixed paint together. He didn’t think about what he would paint, he just let the canvas tell him what was there.
Probably he shouldn’t have been surprised he painted the frat boy. Smiling, suited, hard and angular yet beautiful as he beamed knowingly out of the painting. Hands in his pockets, a casual stance. Above him Xander painted pretty swirls that almost sparkled. In fact, as that thought occurred to him, he retreated to the kitchen to pick up some glitter and added it to the paint. After he flipped the record over, Xander painted a shadowy shape behind his subject. Crouching. Reaching. Ugly where the frat boy shone. He added Gamblin Cold Wax Medium to those darker browns and blues, just a hint to turn the paint flat. He used thicker paint there, letting it sit in fat, awkward globs.
He’d forgotten the coffee, but he drank it cold as he switched albums. He rinsed his brushes and splashed pastels in a halo around the two figures. When the record turned off, he kept painting as the echo of the music pulsed inside his head and the paint laced the canvas. After he finished, he poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and sipped it as he sat in the kitchen and stared at what he’d done.
It wasn’t awful. He wasn’t sure it was great, though a stupid part of him was trying to argue this should go into his BFA show. He shut that down, but after a half hour and quarter cup of coffee which once again had gone cold, he had to admit it was better than average, especially for basically fucking around.
But the muses weren’t done with him. Somehow painting the man wasn’t enough. Still drunk on creating, Xander stumbled to his desk, turned on his light, and pulled out his markers. Just a quick sketch, he told himself. A little something different. Less abstract. Something to capture that other side. That…that smile…
When he looked up, it was pitch dark, except for his desk light. He’d drawn more than one sketch. It was a full panel, with shading. He’d gotten out his ink and nibs and done the thing up properly. It was some kind of weird cross between Hotay & Moo and something new and strange, and it was…a mess. He left it unfinished, frustrated because it hadn’t satisfied him the way he wanted, but it had been a heady rush of creation, and now the beast was spent.
Rising, dizzy and cranky, he glanced at the time and realized he hadn’t eaten for about twelve hours. After a poke in his fridge turned up nothing, he put water on and pulled out a packet of ramen. While it cooked, he fished his art history homework out of his backpack.
A business card fell out and drifted gently to the floor.
It was cream with gray stripes, and they were glossed, so when Xander tipped the paper toward the light, the stripes shimmered. SKYLAR STONE, the card read in classy, conservative DeSoto font in small caps. An email and phone number were listed below, and when Xander flipped the card over the stripes were repeated, but in a small square below a list of titles. Risk Manager, Delta Eta Sigma. Executive Vice President of American Marketing Association, Benten College Chapter. Vice President of Public Relations for Students in Advertising.
Skylar. That was the guy from the studio. The one who had taken Xander’s painting. The frat boy. How had his card gotten into Xander’s bag?
Pursing his lips, Xander tossed it at the mini trash can beside the table, put his ramen in a bowl, and did his homework. When that was done, he heated up the last of his coffee in the microwave and poured over the BFA paperwork again.
Halfway through, he set aside the coffee and got out a beer.
Skylar Stone’s business card burned in his head like a mocking brand as Xander took in the full depth of what he was expected to do in addition to painting a show’s worth of material. Probably this kind of marketing crap had been Frat Boy’s freshman first semester. Probably he could do it in his sleep.
Well, Xander couldn’t do it sober with a gun to his head. His advisor would be no help. He could maybe ask Sara. Though she’d want to talk about making Hotay & Moo digital while they were at it. No thanks.
There was always Zelda, of course. But asking Zelda to help him with a social media campaign was like asking a nuclear weapon to help you clear out a brush pile. Another hard pass. Ditto Jacob and Cory. They’d just complain because they were overworked as it was, and why couldn’t he figure his shit out like everyone else?
Well, that was officially everyone he knew, except for his landlady, who had more trouble accessing the internet than he did.
Xander washed out the coffeepot, his mug, beer bottle, and his bowl, and fed the cats their evening treat of wet food. On his way to the bathroom he passed the garbage can and saw Skylar Stone’s business card gleaming on the carpet beside it.
You could ask him. That could be his payment for the painting.
Hope flared, tangled with yearning. Across the room the frat boy painting beamed at Xander, bright and shining Technicolor.
On the desk, the four panels lay in silent black and white, harking to a past Xander didn’t let himself forget. Unfinished, reminding him of his shortcomings and the roadblocks to his future.
Nostrils flaring, jaw set, Xander picked up the card, ripped it into tiny pieces, and flushed it down the toilet.
💕 Guest Post & Exclusive Excerpt
Antisocial is a new adult gay and asexual romance set in a fictional college in upstate New York between a one-percenter fraternity boy and a highly antisocial artist. One encounter with Xander Fairchild’s artwork is enough to turn Skylar Stone’s carefully orchestrated life upside down, unlacing his secrets and inviting him into a secret anime-soaked world with a new set of friends.
And it truly is a large set of friends. The community hub in Antisocial is the old Victorian house owned by Xander’s landlord, where she has a studio for her folk art projects and space enough to house the Lucky 7 office space when the occasion calls for it—and living space for almost the entire staff. The kitchen and living room of the Palace of the Sun (the name Pamela, Xander’s landlord, gave her home) becomes the hearth and gathering place for all the characters. They make meals, share joys and sorrows, drink, laugh, and make grand plans.
Many romance novels and series are known for their rich senses of community; no wonder, since as vehicles of hope, romances want to create safe spaces where readers can feel the characters—and by extension they themselves—are happy and nested. As humans we all want connection, we all want somewhere to belong. We love seeing other people connect, fictional and nonfictional, and we love having our own communal spaces. But there’s something about reading those senses of community that warms the heart.
I think it’s because no matter how well an author describes the community and the members, the places they inhabit, we must imagine what they look like and where they live. We provide that last element of the tale—we author the last spark. What the Palace of the Sun looks like to me will be different than what it looks like to you, and that’s perfectly okay. Wonderful, even. Because that simply means each one of us gets our own space, our own place to call ours inside our hearts. We each get our own way to belong.
I hope when you read Antisocial you feel the community can belong to you too—and that your Palace of the Sun is as rich and wonderful as you need it to be.
Right now, though, Xander’s dreams extended no further than getting a shower, but when he arrived at home, a note from his landlady was on his front door.
Hey, kiddo. Need some help with an order for a shop. Could I borrow you for the evening? Will pay your usual rate plus a meal and conversation. — P
Pamela Stolarz had been a professor and celebrated modern artist back in the day, and she’d been married to one of Benten’s most famous Japanese literature and language professors, Takahiro Oshiro. She’d bought the convoluted old Victorian house she lived in with her husband’s life insurance money when he passed, and named it the Palace of the Sun because she said it had the best view of the sunrise in town. The fact that it sounded Japanese and reminded her of her recently departed and beloved spouse didn’t hurt anything, either.
But Pamela was lonely in her huge, ramshackle house, and though she made a brisk business selling her folk art at events and collecting commissions through area shops, she had difficulty keeping up because of arthritis in her hips and shoulder. So when she found out Xander’s scholarships didn’t quite cover all his costs and he needed a more economical place to live and a part-time job, she offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse. She dictated to Xander what she wanted set up, he did the heavy prep work and even some of the base painting, and then she did the artwork she loved to do. In return he got to live in her attic apartment with a steal of a deal on his rent and utilities.
She was already there waiting for him when he arrived in the garage, standing in the middle of a stack of cement slabs. She smiled as she heard him enter. “Good afternoon, honey. How are you?”
She didn’t look up from her work, but she nodded at a large box sitting on the bench beside her. “Another package came for you from your mom. It said perishable, so I brought it out of the sun. I assume it’s cookies again.”
Xander saw the familiar red-and-white label and sighed. “She just sent a box two weeks ago.” He took in the sight before him, assessing. There had to be at least fifty six-by-twelve two-inch-thick cement slabs stacked on wooden pallets. “Do you want to paint them yet, or are you still thinking about what you want to do?”
“Still thinking. I don’t think I have enough time to do anything with them for the June show, but we could make some nice hay with them for the fall festival, and of course Christmas.”
Pamela—and by his turn, Xander—made bank on folk art at Christmas. “You’re the boss. Tell me what you want done, and I’m your guy Friday.”
“That you are.” She patted his shoulder. “All righty. Let’s start with the fence pieces you brushed down yesterday. If you could give them a nice white patina—not too much, just enough to give me a surface, that ought to be enough to keep you busy.”
It did at that—her instructions were vague, but Xander had both enough experience with what Pamela wanted and enough artistic sensibility to understand what she meant by a “nice white patina”—she wanted that distressed look that would make it seem as if the fence pieces had been once painted white and then left out in the rain to peel away over time. In fact, what he ended up doing was using a thin layer of white house paint and sometimes scraping away bits with the edge of a trowel—this was all work she could do herself, but why should she, when she could pay him to do it for her?
When it was time for dinner, Pamela had a bowl of soup ready for him, and a sandwich, which he ate on a stool while he watched her work on some smaller boards he’d prepped for her the week before. Her artistic style was markedly different than his, and her folk art style wasn’t the same as some of her oil paintings he’d seen in the house, but folk art paid the tax man and kept her in trinkets. “Plus it keeps me social,” she was fond of saying.
Xander curled his lip over the rim of his spoon just thinking about being social at a folk art show. She’d tried, many times, to get him to help her sell her wares, offering him more of a cut if he came along, but he’d always declined. Not his cup of tea, he told her. Over and over.
“So.” She smiled at him as she paused mid-brushstroke. “My day has been full of exciting blood work and doctor’s appointments. What have you been up to today?”
He finished chewing before he replied. “Helping the editor of Lucky 7 pack up our supplies. We have to move out of Tori Hall.” He frowned. “Blood work? Is everything okay?”
“Just routine checkup stuff. Nothing to worry about. I forgot they were renovating Tori Hall this summer.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe they’ll find a shrine.”
“Have you ever seen one?” She’d worked at Benten for twenty-five years. She might have.
“Takahiro and I looked, but we never found anything. We used to take Lucky 7 staff on hunts, back in our day—he was their academic advisor, you know. But we never got anywhere.”
Xander didn’t even know who their academic advisor was now. “Do you honestly think the shrines exist?”
“I want to believe they do, so yes. Belief is powerful and important. Without it, we’re nothing but ants crawling across the dirt.” Her face took on a faraway, sad look as she continued to paint. “Takahiro always used to say that. I’d roll my eyes at him when he did, and now here I am, saying it for him.”
Pamela talked about her late husband a lot. Xander didn’t mind, except that he hated how lonely Pamela sounded when she did. “I wish I could have met him.”
“Oh, you’ve met him. We were soul mates, he and I. He’s with me every day. He’s just invisible now. Nagging me to stop being such a sad mouse and enjoy the life I have left.” Her lips pursed, and she painted with a touch more terseness. “To which I tell him I’d like him to try being the one left behind and see how he handles things.” She rolled her eyes. “Though he’d only wave his hand at me and tell me I’m doing fine. Takahiro was type A, like you. Maddeningly calm.”
Pamela believed in the Asian blood type personality system and referred to it often. Xander, not so much. “I’m not calm.”
“You are, though. You’re calm and you avoid confrontation, as much as I, a type B, seek it out. And look, I knew I could erase that scowl, at least for a second. You were plenty cross when you came in here. Did they threaten to make your manga digital again?” When that brought his scowl back, she laughed. “Oh, there I go, ruining my own work.”
Xander swirled his spoon in his soup. “I understand it would be easier for everyone else, and cheaper. But it changes my work in ways I don’t like. Mostly I want them to wait one more year to switch so I don’t have to deal with it.”
“Unfortunately life likes to hand us challenges on its timetable, not ours.” She glanced at him over the top of her glasses. “Not to get your back up, but wouldn’t it be a good skill set, to learn how to use the digital software?”
“I already know how to draw digitally. I’m getting my BFA. I’ve had four digital drawing courses, and I own a drawing tablet of my own. It’s not that I don’t know how to do it. It’s that I don’t like it. It’s not the same feel as marker or pencils, and I don’t like that I have to look at the screen while my hand moves on the pad.”
“Fair enough. Well, I wish you luck in your campaign of resistance.”
Xander hmpfed and picked up his bowl to drink the remainder of his broth. He had a feeling he was going to need all the luck he could get.
💗 About the Author
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys playing with new recipes, reading romance and manga, playing with her cats, and watching too much anime. Find out more about Heidi at heidicullinan.com.
Praise for Heidi Cullinan:
Heartwarming and achingly beautiful —USA Today
Emotionally heartwrenching…with self-deprecating humor. — Romantic Times
Cullinan balances … love-conquers-all romance in a context full of real contemporary challenges. — Publisher’s Weekly
I fell in love with the sheer beauty of the writing. — Dear Author
Cullinan reached inside and pulled out ALL the feelings: fear, guilt, sadness, anticipation, happiness, love, lust, bitterness, loneliness, togetherness, and coming of age. — The Book Pushers
- Romance Writers of America
- PEN America
- Independent Book Publishers Association
- Midwest Fiction Writers
- Iowa Romance Novelists
- Fever Pitch – Finalist, RITA® Award, Romance Writers of America • RT Reviews Top Pick • Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Best Book Nomination
- Dance With Me – Winner, Rainbow Awards, 3rd Place Contemporary • Nominee, Cupid & Psyche Awards, Contemporary • Golden Blush Award from Literary Nymphs • Best Romance of 2011 from Joyfully Reviewed • To-The-Pain Top Pick
- Double Blind – Dear Author, Best of 2010 • DABWAHA Finalist 2011
- Family Man – Recommended for libraries by Library Journal • Smart Bitches Trashy Books Sizzling Book Pick for April 2013
Paperback copy of Antisocial, 11×17 cover art poster, 7 gods phone strap
asexual graysexual demisexual new adult New York Artist Manga Painting Anime Gay romance Japan College-set romance Seven gods of fortune Community Self-discovery contemporary romance misanthrope no graphic sexual content slow-burn romance swooning romance snuggly romance difficult parents highly romantic