Growing up in the Bible Belt, Paul Dunham learned from a young age to hide his sexuality. Now he’s teaching psychology at a conservative college in Georgia—and still hiding who he really is. If Paul hopes to get tenure, he needs to keep his desires on the down-low. But when an old college crush shows up on campus—looking more gorgeous than ever—Paul’s long-suppressed urges are just too big for one little closet to hold . . .
Brandon Mercer has come a long way since his freshman year fumblings with Paul. Now he’s confident, accomplished, proudly out—and the sexiest IT consultant Paul’s ever seen. When Brandon asks Paul to grab some coffee and catch up, it leads to a steamy reunion that puts their first night of passion to shame. But when Paul’s longtime crush turns into a full-time romance, he receives an anonymous email threatening to expose their secret to the world. If Paul stays with Brandon, his teaching career is over. Yet if he caves under pressure, he risks losing the one true love he’s been waiting for. . .
“Qualls provides a sweet romance with some spice while tackling issues such as coming out as an adult, family relationships, and religious acceptance or denial of LGBTQ lifestyles.” —Library Journal on Worth Waiting For
“A sexy new voice, full of promise. These heroes stole my heart!” —Annabeth Albert
“Sexy, fun and well written, Wendy Qualls’ new novel, Worth Waiting For, is the perfect book for a cozy night at home reading. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Qualls has in store for us next.” —J.L. Langley, bestselling author of The Tin Star
“A charming, sexy, and beautifully crafted tale that tugs at the heartstrings. Can't wait to read more from this talented author!” —Sara Brookes, award-winning author
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The chair of the psychology department was a mean, small man with a bad toupee and a permanent air of smugness pervading his office. His summons always evoked a feeling of impending trouble, but Paul stepped inside and closed the door anyway.
Doctor Kirsner looked up briefly, then went back to his typing. Paul waited in awkward silence for a full minute before his department head finally sat back in his chair and nodded for Paul to take the seat opposite.
"There have been some complaints about you," Dr. Kirsner announced.
He slid a stapled sheaf of papers across his desk toward Paul. "Employee code of conduct — you may remember signing it when you were first hired. I gather it's been giving you trouble recently."
Paul took the papers and flipped through, his mind whirring. Saint Benedict's wasn't officially a Christian college any longer, but it did hold its staff to a fairly archaic standard of behavior. Still, he'd done everything expected — more than anyone could reasonably expect — to ensure he never put a toe out of line. Tenure was so close he could taste it, and a major violation of the code of conduct would have been the easiest way for this new department head to knock him out of the running.
"I don't know what I could have done wrong," he said aloud.
Dr. Kirsner seemed to expect the denial, and leaned in for the kill. "Kissing," he hissed. "In front of students, no less."
"I'm sure that's not against the rules, and I wouldn't be dumb enough to do it in front of students if it were." Plus I haven't kissed anyone in ages.
"Ah. So your girlfriend didn't kiss you good-bye this morning in the parking lot, right outside my window?" Dr. Kirsner gestured to the quad outside. "You arrived at campus together well before classes started. She had an overnight bag. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what the two of you had been doing without the benefit of marriage." He tapped the code of conduct. "Which I'm sure is against the rules."
Oh. Paul heaved an internal sigh of relief that it was something he could explain. "She's not my girlfriend, and it wasn't really a kiss."
"Girlfriend, one-night stand, lady of the evening, it doesn't matter. The 'no immoral sexual conduct' clause covers having a partner stay at your place of residence overnight."
For all you know, we could have been having a tea party and playing videogames. Paul took a deep breath and counted to three before releasing it. "What you — and any student up that early — saw was my sister giving me two friendly kisses on the cheek as I said good-bye. She's been in France for the last two years and the kiss on both cheeks is a French thing she's picked up — there's nothing sexual about it. And surely whoever's complaining also noticed that she and I have the same color hair, same eyes, nearly the same facial structure, and a similar build. Not a girlfriend."
Dr. Kirsner's self-satisfied smirk froze on his face for a long moment, then slowly dissolved into a poor attempt at neutrality. "Sister?"
"Twin sister." Paul shrugged and tried not to grin too blatantly at seeing his overbearing department head at a loss for words. "We're not identical, obviously, but when we're together most people pick up on the family resemblance. I don't get to see her much anymore, so she stopped by after her flight got in — it's a long drive to my parents' house from Atlanta and I'm on the way. We took my car last night so I gave her a ride back to campus this morning to pick up her rental from the visitors' lot."
Paul was treated to the delightful sight of Dr. Kirsner trying very hard to fake a relieved smile and failing miserably. It was no secret the man wasn't fond of him. Paul refused to allow his private life to become cannon fodder in the departmental pissing match for dominance the way everyone else did and Dr. Kirsner could never quite wrap his head around why. The truth — Paul was clinging to the lingering security of being firmly in the closet — would have been the coup de gras for what would have been a short but promising academic career at St. Ben's. Much better to keep his mouth shut and let everyone think he was shy.
"Was that all, Dr. Kirsner?" Paul returned the department chair's fake smile with a much more genuine one of his own. "Because if so, I should really go prepare for class."
The air still had a bit of a bite to it, but the sunshine felt wonderful and it was a beautiful Georgia spring day. Paul was more than ready to escape Dr. Kirsner's office and get outside for a while. The "prepare for class" line had been a bit of an exaggeration — his first lecture on Thursdays wasn't until eleven, which meant he technically didn't have to be on campus yet — but Danielle had been in a hurry to get home so Paul had planned to spend the morning in his office. Not that he'd accumulated all that much paperwork to do, with spring break so recently out of the way and no major assignments currently looming on the horizon, but sometimes it was nice to at least feel professional.
The quad was starting to awaken, too, some students stumbling blearily into the campus coffee shop and others wandering between early classes. Someone was bravely attempting a game of Frisbee shirtless, despite the temperature. Paul tried not to look, but it was hard not to notice that whoever-it-was had a lot to show off. He settled himself onto the low stone wall outside the psychology building and pulled out his phone, angling the screen to compensate for the bright glare.
Paul looked up. A striking dark-haired man in khakis and a smart jacket stood before him. "Hi?"
The man grinned and held out his hand. "Been a while, so you may not remember me, but I sure as hell remember you. Brandon Mercer — we were hallmates freshman year."
Paul shook the offered hand on autopilot. It couldn't be, after all this time. Brandon Mercer. Holy crap! "Of course I remember," he said, his voice breaking a bit. "You were pretty memorable."
"So were you." Brandon took a seat on the wall next to him and cocked his head. "You teach here now?"
Paul smiled and shrugged, careful to seem casual. "Psychology. Finally got on the tenure track last year, so hopefully I'll be sticking around for a while. What have you been up to?"
"IT consultant," Brandon said. "Mostly security issues and such."
"I should have guessed from the beard." Paul nodded toward Brandon's neatly-groomed chin. "Your look screams 'computers.'" Brandon laughed; the humor lighting up his eyes. "I'd say you were exaggerating, but you're right — in this field, it's practically a uniform."
It looked good on him. Very good. Brandon had been handsome enough ten years ago, when they were both eighteen-year-olds on the tail end of puberty, but the beard sculpted his face a bit and brought out the angle of his jaw. Which in turn matched the very nice angles making up the rest of him. Handsome was now a grossly inadequate word.
"What brings you back here, then?" Paul asked, managing to keep his thoughts from coming through in his voice. "I assumed you were off to make your mark on the bigger world."
"I'm based out of Atlanta now, but St. Ben's wanted someone on-site to take a look at something and I thought it would be interesting to see what's changed around here." Brandon raised his head and looked out over the quad, a small smile on his face. He was much less subtle about ogling the shirtless Frisbee player. "Not a lot, I'm guessing."
That was truer than Paul wanted to admit. "I like it better from this side of the desk, at least."
"Oh, I bet." Brandon fixed him with a knowing smirk and one delicately raised eyebrow. "Should I even ask?"
"Um." Paul could feel his face heat from the insinuation behind the otherwise innocent question. Not really the time or place to talk about my personal life, especially after Dr. Kirsner's attempt to ream me out this morning —
And Brandon seemed to get it. "Coffee," he announced. "You and me. Not here. Well, if you've got time, that is? I'm parked just around the corner. It'd be nice to catch up."
Paul swallowed and nodded. "That ... sounds good. Thanks."
The coffee shop was an independent little hole-in-the-wall, one Paul had heard of but never been inside. Its primary benefit seemed to be its distance from campus; the coffee certainly wasn't anything to write home about. Paul and Brandon got a corner table in the nearly-empty dining area and sat in silence for a little while. It felt oddly normal. And didn't at all explain the butterflies in Paul's stomach.
"So," Brandon started. "You finished up your degree at St. Ben's, then stuck with psychology?"
"Yeah." It had been the only field that interested him, even back then. "It's a pretty campus and it has a good cognitive program. Once I finished undergrad I went ahead and applied for the graduate program — it's close enough to my hometown to see my parents sometimes, and I didn't really want to go farther away."
Brandon nodded. "And St. Ben's doesn't have a problem with you being gay?"
Paul couldn't suppress his flinch, even though he knew nobody was listening. "I, um ..."
Brandon's eyes widened. "You're still in the closet? Seriously?"
Like I have a choice. "Coming out isn't really something I can do right now," he admitted.
Brandon took a long sip of his coffee and didn't say anything, but the silence was just as eloquent as words. Finally he put his cup down and sighed. "I don't regret leaving, you know."
"I didn't ... I mean, I assumed my parents would freak out. When I came home that summer and told them I was gay. But they were fine with it. My mom gave me a hug and my dad and my brothers clapped me on the back and the next morning there were brochures for Emory and Georgia Tech sitting outside my room. Mom even called to get all my transcripts and paperwork from St. Ben's, so I'd have everything ready to transfer whenever I wanted to. And I lucked out. Georgia Tech doesn't usually take transfer students that late, but my dad's got a friend who works in admissions there and somehow they managed to pull some strings." Brandon flashed Paul a crooked smile. "It was the best thing to ever happen to me."
And it left me behind. Paul tried to smile back, but it probably came out more as a grimace. One year, then nothing. One year of longing looks and the uncomfortable awareness that this attraction wouldn't go away. One fabulous night when fate happened to put them both in the right place at the right time to admit to each other it was mutual. Paul had been forced to confront the fact that yes, he really was gay. And then finals were over and they both went home, and Brandon had never come back.
"How did you ..." Brandon seemed to be picking his words carefully. "How was it for you? Staying?"
"It wasn't anything, really." Confusing and frustrating, but that was nothing new. "I just went back to not doing that. Nobody thought anything of it. Plenty of students here don't really date."
"So did you ever ..." He trailed off and waved vaguely.
Paul stared down at the polished wood of the table with more focus than was probably warranted. There was a slight wave to the grain under the varnish. "Once," he admitted quietly. "Sort of. When I was in grad school there was a guy, and we kind of clicked. We got an apartment together eventually, to save on rent. It went from there."
"You said 'sort of,'" Brandon pointed out. Paul didn't look up, but he could hear his amusement. "How's that work?"
God, this is awkward. How can I possibly describe Christopher? "He was — is — kind of a lot to take in," Paul finally explained. "Friendly guy, but abrasive too. We never made it official or anything, but I never said no either. He made it clear he was interested in me after we had been living together for a while. We tried that for a bit, but I just couldn't. At least, not with him. It ended badly."
"You dumped him?"
"I guess so." Paul let out a long breath. "I didn't want to ... to do everything he wanted to. We got in an argument and he wouldn't let it go. I finally moved out about a year and a half ago, when I realized nothing was going to change. Got my own place. He stayed at St. Ben's until this past September — not my department, but I still had to see him sometimes and it was always awkward. Honestly I was kind of relieved when he quit; the new IT lady is much easier to work with."
"And all this time, you stayed in the closet."
I did, and it sucks. "Pretty much." The words came out more evenly than he expected. "I had to, though — I can't leave St. Ben's. I have another year or two until my tenure review. And even though they don't require a statement of faith from their faculty anymore, having an openly gay professor isn't something the administration could easily overlook."
"I see." Brandon leaned back in his chair and studied Paul for a long moment, his face inscrutable. "So you're not claiming you're straight now? Dating women?"
Not really. He wasn't in denial, didn't argue with the label, just — being gay was inconvenient. Paul made a vaguely negative noise.
"You're missing out, you know."
He winced. Yes, he knew. The whole darn world seemed to be conspiring to tell him exactly how much he was missing out on. That kind of life wasn't compatible with working at St. Ben's, though. Speaking of which ... Paul checked his watch and stood. "Look, I hate to cut this short —"
"Don't suppose you'd want to do dinner sometime?"
Paul snapped out of his self-pity party and only barely prevented himself from gaping at Brandon. "Like, dinner-dinner? Or date-dinner?"
"Either." Brandon smirked. "Don't you feel like we got separated too soon, back then? I agonized for ages over whether to call you once we went home for the summer, and even now I'm not sure why I didn't." He leaned forward in his chair, his long fingers practically caressing his little paper cup of coffee, as if he was about to impart a secret. "I truly would love to hear what you've been up to and all," he confessed, "but I'd also love to ... well. I've got some time — I have no idea how long it will take me to tease out these glitches in St. Ben's servers, but it will probably be at least a week or two. I assumed I'd spend it skulking around my hotel room and feeling stupid sitting all by myself in restaurants, but spending some of that time with you would be infinitely more appealing." His tone — and the glint in his eyes — made it clear exactly what he was offering. "Dinner-dinner would be perfectly fine, of course, but I'd love it to be more than that."
He leaned in further, close enough Paul could smell the coffee and a hint of toothpaste on his breath, and ran one gentle forefinger over the vein in the back of Paul's hand as Paul clenched his cup. "I get that you'd rather keep your private life private, but I'm not exactly a co-worker," he murmured. "And after you were so absolutely breathtaking freshman year, I couldn't stop thinking about it for ages. Kept wishing we'd had the chance to do more. And if you've decided to never do anything like that again — in that case, I'd say it was a real shame. Because I've picked up a few tricks over the years, too, and I'm a pretty damn good teacher."
Oh God. Paul berated himself for each and every time he lay awake at night, fingers tracing over the outline of his cock, remembering back to how Brandon's confident hands had felt on him. They say you never forget your first time. Well, whoever "they" were, they seriously understated the situation. "You will obsessively replay the encounter over and over" would have been more accurate. And it would be so easy to lapse back into that memory, to give in and take Brandon up on his offer and try to recreate that one golden middle-of-the-night experience, but then where would he be? Alone again afterward, furious with himself and twice as miserable as before. A heroin junkie relapsing after staying clean for the last year and a half. (Almost a year and three-quarters, a voice inside his head pointed out.) Even if the physical sensations left him darn near rapturous, it wouldn't be enough to counterbalance the negatives.
He must have been quiet too long, because Brandon sat back again and made a big show of finishing his coffee. "Sorry," Brandon finally said. "I guess I forget what it was like, before. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
Excerpted from "Worth Waiting For"
Copyright © 2017 Wendy Qualls.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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