Exclusive Excerpt from For What It’s Worth
by S.M. James
A Sal’s party never disappoints. All the lanterns hung over the lawns glow orange, and smoke fills the air from the bonfire. Reya is cooking some type of spiced vegetables, and Gena, along with her twin brother Kyle, are playing folk music on the steps of St. Albian’s.
I recognize nearly everyone here; most are vendors, and a fair few people come from the local colleges, some I used to go to school with and some I do now. The atmosphere isn’t quite as relaxed as it normally is—there’s too much talking and not enough dancing and laughter. I wish I could have shown Justin what it’s normally like.
I grab some kombucha, and Rory and Justin go for the un-spiked punch. No one here has ever carded us in the past, but again Rory makes the smart choice. I don’t know what his dad said to him, and I’m torn between being glad they had that conversation and wondering how much it upset Rory for him to be set on going to school tomorrow.
“I was thinking next week …” Justin says to Rory as I tune in to their conversation.
“For what?” I ask.
“We’re going to drive up to Princeton,” Rory says. “You coming?”
“Wednesday and Thursday. They’ve got a tour on.”
Thursday … Thursday … I groan. “I can’t. I’m getting the info for my major assessment that day.”
Justin kicks at the ground. “Damn, well, that’s okay … maybe I could see if there’s another one?”
“No, you’re not here for that much longer. You should go.” I sigh. “You guys are allowed to go places without me.” It sucks to be missing something like this, though. Because I want to be there for him.
“We know that.” Rory rolls his eyes. “But two’s boring—three’s a party.”
I snort and shove him a bit.
“If it helps, I’ll bet their tour is shit compared to yours,” Justin says.
I start to laugh. “I was so damn nervous that day.”
We share a quick look, and I wonder if he felt it, even back then. The draw I seem to have toward him has been there almost since we met. If I’d been able to get around what I saw between him and Rory, I probably would have paid attention to him from the start.
“Come on, let’s go talk to people.”
Rory and I stick to our word and make sure we don’t leave Justin alone all night. He’s still hard to read, but he’s not shaking or blushing and is actually making conversation with people, so I’d say we’re good.
It’s a pretty cold night, but my wool-lined denim jacket is enough. Rory’s wearing a hoodie under a vest, but poor Justin’s sweater doesn’t seem to be helping, and the later it gets, the more his teeth start to knock together as he talks.
“J-just a li-ittle.”
“Want to go?”
“N-no.” He shakes his head for emphasis.
“Rory, we’re heading to the fire.”
He nods under his hood. “Okay, I’m going to grab a vegetable kebab. Either of you want one?”
Justin nods shakily.
“Both of us, please,” I say in case Rory missed it.
Rory ducks away, and I lead Justin over to one of the closest bonfires. He’s pulled his hands up inside his sleeves and crossed his arms.
“You going okay?”
He steps closer to the wall of warmth radiating from the fire, and his shoulders seem to relax. “Yeah. Just not used to the cold. Even out on the farm, winter is barely cold enough for more than jeans and a jacket.” His chin is still trembling as I step closer.
“You know … I’m big and cuddly. You could snuggle up to me for warmth.”
Justin doesn’t look at me, but the orange glow from the fire lights up the way his lips curl into a smile. “Oh yeah?” His eyes flick my way really quickly. “Why don’t you make me?”
My cheeks hurt from the force of my smile, but I step closer, not wanting to treat him with kid gloves but not wanting to overwhelm him either. Hooking one finger through his belt loop, I tug him closer, then slowly slide my hand across his back until my arm is wrapped loosely around his shoulders. Justin huddles into my side, and the temperature must win out against his hesitation because he slides one hand under my jacket and links his arm around my waist.
“Even though you only want me for my body heat, this is nice.”
He shakes his head against my chest. “That’s not the only reason.”
“Hmm … tell me more.”
“No way. Rory already has a big head—I don’t need you developing one too.”
I run my nose through his hair and give his shoulder a light pinch. “Careful, that’s my boyfriend you’re talking about.”
His body shakes lightly with the laughter he’s always trying to suppress. My hands run from his shoulder down to his arm as I pull him a little tighter, and … I frown, giving his very defined bicep a squeeze. “What is this?”
Justin squirms in my hold, turning his face down as Rory joins us.
“That, Micah, is a sexy-as-fuck body that Justin hides away under those ugly oversized sweaters.”
“Oh my god,” he squeaks, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how embarrassed he gets sometimes. Also, sexy-as-fuck body? What?
“How am I only hearing about this now?”
Rory hands over my kebab, and I grab the still warm stick left-handed, not willing to let Justin go yet. I squint at the chargrilled chunks of vegetables, identifying eggplant, tomato, and pumpkin.
“I mean,” Rory says, not quite meeting my eye. “I couldn’t exactly tell my new boyfriend all about the hot Aussie I’d made out with.”
“I’m glad you can now.” With both hands occupied, I lean forward and press a kiss to Rory’s forehead, wanting him to know it’s okay, it’s not weird. And okay, it’s kinda weird, but not awkward weird.
“Okay,” Justin sighs. “Now I’m getting a big head.”