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A rash vow of celibacy puts Valentine Michaels in the path of seduction.
Val is at a crossroads in his life. A college dropout, he's gone as far as he can in his career as a cosmetologist, owning his own style salon. He no longer finds satisfaction in it, though he's put years into proving to his bigoted parents that a college degree and the veneer of straightness aren't the only roads to success. They'd turned their backs on him, and he proved he didn't need them to make it.
His love life is no better than his working life. His relationships always start with a bang and fizzle into boredom, or worse, anger.
Adrian has his own agenda for helping Val: he's been in love with Val since they were freshmen. The intervening years of listening to Val's gossip about his lovers and relationships have taught Adrian just what it was he did wrong all those years ago, and he thinks this time around he now knows exactly how to get—and keep—his man.
Adrian sat on his bed, statistics book open in his lap, studying for the test he had in the morning. The subject matter fascinated him, but his attention kept drifting to the clock on the desk across the room. The closer midnight came, the more frequently his gaze returned to the red numbers. Where had Val gone? He'd said, but Adrian had barely listened, absorbed in his book. What if something had happened to him?
His hand drifted toward the cell phone on his night table, and he picked it up. He stared down at the little device, the latest technology available. His parents had bought it and brought it up to him with his clean laundry last Sunday. They'd been so proud of it, Dad explaining all the neat features of the phone, Mom insisting on snapping a few pictures of him with it.
Adrian had stayed in their dorm room since he'd left the library at five. Val hadn't called. He flipped the phone open and checked anyway. Fully charged, as always. No messages, no calls. Except the three from his mother earlier, making sure he'd hung up the shirts she'd ironed for him, reminding him to keep the phone charged, and to eat vegetables with his dinner. He saved the messages. She would like that.
He tried to turn his attention back to his book and the test that loomed, but thoughts of what Val might be doing, and who he might be doing it with, kept intruding. They hadn't made any commitments, but he and Val had shared a bed for the past week, and he'd known he loved Val since October, when he'd kissed his blue-haired roommate for the first time. A spontaneous, awkward, drunk kiss during a dorm Halloween party, neither he nor Val had mentioned it when they sobered up the next day, though Adrian treasured the memory as the most wonderful kiss he'd ever experienced.
That had been a month ago, and in the last few weeks Val had broken up with his boyfriend, and Adrian secretly thrilled to hold his friend and offer support. One thing had led to another, one fumbling kiss to a caress, the caress to sex. From that night on, they had slept here together, exploring and learning each other's bodies, wants, and desires.
But this morning, Val had mumbled something about not waiting up for him. Adrian, too busy rushing to get ready for class and his upcoming exam, paid Val little attention. Now he wished he had. It might have saved him this anxious, sharp pain in his stomach, the heaviness of his heart. Events were scheduled all over campus. He had no chance of finding Val at any of them. Pep rallies, concerts, lectures, study groups. He wouldn't even recognize any of Val's punky friends if he ran into them.
The thump of feet in the hallway stopping outside their door drew his attention. His gaze fastened on the door and he heard the click of Val's key in the lock as the knob turned. The sight of his roommate's flushed cheeks, plump, red, kiss-swollen lips, and crazily mussed blue hair sent his heart plummeting and his stomach churning. He swallowed to keep from throwing up, and forced himself to speak.
"Where have you been?" Adrian cringed at the whiny need in his voice.
Val's head turned in slow, languid fashion and Adrian flinched. Fuck. He tried the word out inside his head, ignoring the heat along his cheekbones. His mother would freak if he ever said it out loud. It fit though. He knew that look. Val had just that look when he came. When Adrian sucked his cock, or stroked him to orgasm, he looked exactly like that: sated, flushed, and happy. But Adrian hadn't put that look there tonight.
Val's eyes lit up when he saw Adrian watching him, and he stumbled forward to collapse in a heap across the neatly folded quilt Adrian's grandma had hand-stitched for him as a graduation gift. "I'm in love." He moaned, twisting onto his side gingerly to face Adrian.
Adrian struggled to keep his face interested and not show his devastation. He was in love too. "You went on a date?"
Val nodded, his eyes drifting closed dreamily. "He's so awesome, Adrian. He's on the football team. Blond hair, blue eyes, the broadest shoulders…" Voice trailing softly away, Val's own blue-eyed gaze snapped up and locked on Adrian's. "And man, he's got skills. I've never felt like that before."
Adrian nodded, keeping an encouraging look on his face, and he closed the statistics book in his lap. No studying would happen now. He listened, his heart breaking slowly, as Val described his new boyfriend in elaborate detail.
Impatiently, Val flipped his powder-blue locks over his shoulder, tapping the little whisk broom against the counter where his supplies were arranged neatly. "Derek, you left me standing around at Paul's for an hour, a place I totally hate by the way, without even a phone call to say you weren't coming, and then I walk past you playing ball in the park with your friends on the way back here. I'm not overreacting!"
He ran a swift eye over his supplies. Scissors, combs, spray bottle with water, gel, mousse. Everything in order. While he prepared his workstation, he listened with half an ear to the deep voice on the other end of the phone, trying to explain or rationalize or whatever, but he wasn't into hearing what Derek had to say. The guy was an immature jerk who put his own wants ahead of everything, even if it meant leaving Val standing in a group of young college kids he barely knew, in a bar he usually avoided like the plague. He'd gone to the party in the first place for Derek. Being stood up while doing something so selfless pissed him off. Just once in a relationship, Val wanted to find a guy who put him first, who loved him more than sports, friends, and all the other temptations the wicked world offered. "Just forget it, Derek. You don't get it. It's not just last night; it's the whole last few months."
More rumbling and babbling in his ear. He ran a dust cloth over the client's chair and then adjusted its height. Prepping his station at the salon was second nature and required little of his attention. Kind of like listening to Derek. Why the fuck do I listen to this shit? Derek had all the emotional understanding of a two-ton truck. Cute as hell, but clueless about what would melt Val's heart. In fact, Derek might accurately be called dense altogether. A little consideration, a romantic gesture or two, would go a long way. Hell, an apology instead of an excuse would probably have gotten him a second chance even this morning. Eh. Who are you kidding? Derek is a symptom, not the illness itself. "Fuck off, Derek. It's over. Do me a favor and lose my number, okay?"
Flipping the phone shut, he shoved it into the pocket of his smock and busied himself cleaning up his workspace. A quick spray of glass cleaner to the mirror, a swipe or two with a rag, and he was done. Done with Derek, done with men, done with romance and love and sex, and fuck it all. He could be celibate. Masturbation didn't count as sex, did it? He'd need something if he wasn't getting any.
"Hey, Smurfette, your professor is here."
It happened. Just like that. Ted's sarcastic statement, delivered in his superior nasal twang, made Val's vow of celibacy probably the shortest in history. He put down the small whisk broom he'd been using to clean up his already spotless workstation and dusted his hands off on his powder-blue smock. The smock he had chosen deliberately to match his hair this morning because it highlighted his eyes and skin tone, even though he knew wearing it would invite the gangly receptionist to make Smurf comparisons. He'd only just made the solemn promise to himself to take a break from men and get his head screwed on straight before venturing back into the dating arena. He'd been celibate for all of five minutes maybe, if you didn't count the previous six days when he could have had sex with Derek if he wanted to, but he hadn't because he didn't. Want to, that was.
He'd almost forgotten about his regular ten fifteen appointment with Adrian Grey. Val shook his head. He knew better than that. That would be a lie and Valentine Michaels knew better than to lie. He did it so very badly. He could never completely forget about Adrian. They'd been friends for nearly ten years, since they were roommates in the dorm freshman year at NCU. Heck, for a few brief days, they'd been something more than friends, even. Though he didn't usually primp like this for his exes.
Adrian Grey, though hot as hell, exemplified everything Val was not looking for in a man. Where Val liked big, muscular men who towered over him, Adrian was only an inch or so taller than he was. Val preferred blonds, but Adrian wore his straight black hair cut long enough to curl under his jawline in front and curved higher in back to meet the university library's requirement that all male employees wear their hair above the collar. The wire-rim glasses he wore on a fine rope around his neck gave him a distracted air of intelligence and emphasized the almost delicate aspect of his refined features. His jawline was smooth and silky, whereas Val preferred the sexy appeal of rough, two-day stubble.
Everything about Adrian said successful, young professional. Adrian was solid, dependable, and reliable. All those -able words that no one had ever applied to Val. There was intelligence in those blue eyes, and humor in the tilt of that rosy mouth, and sexy didn't begin to describe his lean, firmly muscled body.
"He's a librarian, you ass," he snapped at Ted. "And he's not my type." Type or not, Val found himself checking out his hair in the mirror, adjusting the powdery blue strands as he bit then licked his lips. Ah, well, he was a beautician, wasn't he? He had to look good, even for the clients who didn't want something creative in their personal look. Surreptitiously he breathed on his hand, checking his breath, and swiped his lips with a tube of clear gloss he pulled from the pocket of his smock. And, he reasoned triumphantly, he could appreciate beauty where he saw it for the exact same reason! And Adrian was beautiful in his geeky way.
He looked up and met Adrian's eyes in the mirror as the other man strode to the reception desk to receive his share of the crap that Ted dished out without prejudice. Mmm. That blue oxford really brings out the sparkle in Adrian's eyes, doesn't it?
"Come on back. I'm all ready for you." You have no idea how ready, he snickered inside as he spun the chair and waved Adrian to sit.
He always chatted away while trimming Adrian. It wasn't like he needed to concentrate in order to trim Adrian's hair into the same style he'd been wearing for the past six years. He rolled his eyes. Another thing about Adrian that was so not his type: Adrian resisted change. He even used the same fucking cell phone he'd had in college. Val used to try to convince Adrian to try a new cut once in a while, but Adrian liked what he liked and refused all offers to dye, cut, or curl his hair into something other than the style he already wore. The chat distracted him from the heat of Adrian's body and the enticing scent of his cologne. It prevented his imagination from running away with him. In the past, the conversation had served as a reminder that Adrian was off-limits.
Gesturing slightly with his scissors and comb, he asked, already knowing what the answer would be, "So, are you going to let me cut this in a different style for you today?"
As expected, Adrian simply shook his head and seated himself in the waiting chair.
"So," Adrian said, when Val found himself tongue-tied for the first time in their long history of Friday morning haircuts, "what's new in your life? Or should I say, who's new in your life? Ted just told me you broke up with Derek."
Val flushed. Was that really the impression he'd given of himself? He came off as the kind of guy who couldn't last a week without a lover?
A bit hurt, he snapped, "What? Like I always have to have a boyfriend? There's no one right now. After that dumb-shit Derek, I'm taking a break from men for a while."
Adrian jerked in the chair, and Val cursed. "Be still. You could end up with a new hairstyle whether you want one or not, jumping like that!"
"Sorry. Just what exactly do you mean by taking a break from men?" The other man seemed bewildered for some reason.
"I mean," he declared dramatically, tossing his head, "I've taken a vow of celibacy. I'm swearing off men, drama, and love."
Adrian laughed softly. "Oh. That'll last. The next pretty boy with bulging muscles who strolls through that door for a haircut, or offers to buy you a drink at the bar, and you'll be back in the game, heartbreak forgotten."
Val gasped. "Oh, that was uncalled for! I'm not exactly heartbroken, just reevaluating where I stand on some issues. I'm tired of leading such a messy life. I need to figure myself out before I get involved with anyone else."
"I'm sorry," Adrian apologized. "I shouldn't tease you. It's just that I've known you since we were freshmen at the university, and ever since then, for ten years, you've always had a boyfriend—usually some muscle-bound, superhero jock-type."
Sighing, Val stilled his hands and met Adrian's eyes in the mirror. There was sympathy in the blue depths, but more, there lurked something indecipherable that he hadn't seen before. "It's not just Derek, Adrian," he confessed in a low voice. "It's all of it. Everything. The shop bores me. The bars and clubs are filled with younger and younger people every time I go, and I'm like a babysitter, or God forbid, my mother. Have you heard that crap they call music now?" He shook his head and went back to trimming fractions of hair from silky black locks and brushing strays from the blue oxford collar. Finished, he put aside the tools of his trade.
Adrian rose from his chair and scribbled something on a card he pulled from his shirt pocket. "Here's my cell number. Call me anytime if you need someone to listen or want to get together."
Val stared as the other man turned and left the salon brushing stray hairs from his shirt as he did so. Down, boy. He glared at his cock where it arched up beneath the buttons of his 501s. He's not your type, remember? No amount of lecturing could convince his dick though. Maybe type was one of the things he'd need to reevaluate. He tossed the number in the trash, almost hoping Adrian would see him do it. Like he needed it. He'd had that phone number memorized for ten years. Not that he used it. Who needed a phone call when Adrian arrived every Friday, regular as clockwork? Slowly he wandered to the front of the shop, past Ted in his black, horn-rimmed glasses and bleach-splattered clothing, and on out the door, startling as he realized he was following Adrian.