Winter van Aerden knows never to trust a boy who likes his ego stroked more than his… well, let’s just say there’s a lot of the wrong kind of stimulation going on. He stands below a set of stone steps, staring at fathers and sons heading into the Academy. The pretentiousness nauseates him and he groans at having to start the charade all over again. Four schools in three years must be a record.
He checks his phone. The background image of him and his boyfriend stares back, the screen otherwise blank. No texts from Wyatt, who’s stuck back in Wyoming. It’s unusual to go more than an hour without hearing from him, and on a day Winter needs moral support? He shoots off a quick message, his third this morning: I’m here. Kill me now.
The thought of another year away from Wyatt makes him hate his surroundings even more. His hand twitches to his inside breast pocket, fingers brushing the cold metal stainless steel cigarette case, but stops when he feels his father’s presence. He buttons his suit jacket instead.
“You could send me to public school, since there aren’t any private ones left at home.”
His father pauses. “This is the best place for you.”
Winter works his jaw. “Funny, I thought it would be better not to have me two thousand miles away from my family.”
“You left us little choice.” Mr. van Aerden clears his throat. “And we all know it’s not the family you want to come back to.”
Winter’s cheeks flush, but he doesn’t rise to the bait.
They follow the crowd of men and boys into the building, a converted church. The heavy wooden doors stand open beneath arches of age-stained stone, each engraved with saints and other religious icons. He glances up, past immense stained-glass windows, to a pair of grotesque gargoyles standing guard near the apex, their grey eyes bulging, tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths. Where the hell am I?
The mass of bodies pulsates around him, all dressed in crisp suits and pressed jackets. Any hopes for a cool September afternoon are long gone. He marvels at the fact that, even in the twenty-first century, sending a son to an all-boys school is still a man’s affair. No women anywhere.
Plenty of femininity, though, even if most choose to ignore it.
Winter and his father join the registration queue. Elder classmen sit behind a long table and type on laptops, each wearing the same dark blazer, the school’s crest affixed to the outside of the left breast.
Chatter buzzes in Winter’s ears and he wishes he’d thought to pregame the registration; a couple shots of Patrón would make this way more bearable.
“Welcome to Eustace,” says the perky boy behind the table. His blond hair is brushed to the side and falls slightly in his face, and the tag pinned to his jacket reads ‘Martin.’ “Name please?”
A nudge from his father. “Winter… van Aerden.”
The keyboard ticks as his name is entered into the computer. What else he can do with those dexterous fingers? Winter and his boyfriend have an understanding: sex with other boys is okay, but no kissing. Their lips are for each other.
“Right-o,” Martin says, and Winter instantly loses all attraction. Then again, does he need to talk? “We’ve got you over in Messer Hall, suite 8B.” He swivels in his chair and digs a leather-bound folder from a box, the school’s crest shining in bright gold leaf on its front. Hands it to Winter. “Your course list is in here, as well as a copy of Eustace Law, the rules and regulations of the Academy. Please read them thoroughly.” Winter’s father nudges him again. “Welcome Ceremony will commence at 4pm sharp in the Observatory.”
Winter smiles the same way he does during his father’s business dinners, the one that feigns interest, then edges away from the table. After a few feet he hands the folder to his father.
Mr. van Aerden stares at the cover.
“M. L. Eustace Ogden Academy,” he says. “What an unfortunate name.”
“Yes,” comes a voice from behind them, “but no other preparatory academy in the country has produced more leaders of industry in the past five decades.”
Winter turns to find a wet dream standing before him. He is almost exactly the same height as Winter, but his brown hair is longer and brushed over his forehead. What mixture of parentage would give his skin that rich, honeyed tone? His hazel eyes fix on Winter and they exchange wry glances.
“And considering most of our fathers are leaders of industry themselves,” he continues, “it seems only proper. Aaron Sommers.”
He proffers his hand.
“John van Aerden. And this is my son.”
They all shake. Aaron’s finger grazes Winter’s wrist in a purposeful twitch before they let their arms fall to their sides. Winter raises an eyebrow at him.
Aaron’s eyes leave Winter’s only after he starts talking. “John van Aerden of Aerden Telecom. You were recently bumped from the ten richest people in the country, I believe.”
Winter’s father turns red and his eyes narrow. Aaron winks at Winter, almost imperceptibly, and Winter tries to hide his grin. His father’s been griping about that loss in title since Forbes announced their new Top Ten Rich List, having been unceremoniously demoted to number eleven. Winter bought several copies and found pleasure leaving them randomly around their family manor in Wyoming.
“I believe I have your father to thank for that.”
Aaron smiles sympathetically. “Yes, well, these things do sometimes happen.”
“So it would seem,” his father replies, though the expression on his face says, “But not for long.”
“He’s here, if you’d like to chat with him. A group of fathers are gathered in the smoking room. I’m sure there are others in there you’ll know. And I’ll look after Winter here.”
Winter and his father exchange glances. It’s not a suggestion. They say curt goodbyes and Aaron grabs Winter by the arm, pulling him away.
They walk the length of the hall and through a set of rear doors, entering a tree-lined courtyard. Winter’s body blazes with possibility.
The converted church is shaped like a large T and a second building surrounds its base in the form of a giant U. The inner sanctuary it creates is replete with stretches of rich lawn and cement walkways edged with stone benches. A sticky breeze blows past, bringing the scent of mowed grass and exhaust from the street. Cars and busses rumble past on the other side of the building, but the noise is muffled. “The main hall is named after Saint Eustace,” Aaron says. His arms are now wrapped around Winter’s, his touch gentle yet possessive. “Patron Saint of hunters and firefighters, as well as anyone facing adversity, among other things. Seems appropriate, considering.”
Winter doesn’t have to ask what he means. He leans against his new friend as they continue down the path, pulling in the scent of Aaron’s cologne: Armani?
“They retracted his sainthood in 1969—I know, you’re shocked—but we kept the name. The church got converted into the school, then bought the old factory behind it for dormitories. So we’re all ensconced in this happy little world they’ve created for us.”
“Are we headed there now, to your room?”
Aaron grins coyly at him. “We’re going to be best friends.”
The words sound so simple, and yet Winter believes them. Too bad he’s going to get kicked out of Eustace soon.
Just like all of his other schools.
Doesn’t mean he can’t have fun first. That’s the benefit of an open relationship.
“Besides, I’ve heard about your exploits. And you and me, we’re the same, Winter. If our sexual energy ever joined, it would rip a black hole through the universe.”
Winter fake sighs. “Which wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment?”
He leans in, intent on gently nipping the side of Aaron’s neck, but Aaron twists away. It’s not every day that Winter gets rebuffed. His heart races at the thought of having to chase.
“Definitely not,” Aaron says.
“You seeing someone?” He doesn’t give up easily.
Aaron laughs. “Reign it in there, Ponyboy.” He turns his head and winks. “The fun is just beginning.”