Their lives didn’t turn out as they’d imagined as boys, but they never forgot each other.
Personal trainer Oliver Knox is strong and graceful, dedicated to his clients, and fiercely loyal to friends and family. But the thing he takes pride in the most, his business, is failing.
Single father and entrepreneur Nico Kastellanos knows success is hard-won and tries to give back to those who, like him, have to fight for their dreams. His one regret is how things ended with his childhood best friend. Their friendship and their secret kisses linger in his mind.
When Oliver unwittingly hires Nico’s PR firm to breathe life into his failing gym, their connection rekindles instantly. The chemistry is potent, the memories heart-wrenching. They’re no longer awkward, troubled kids. They are adults who know what—and who—they want.
Will Oliver and Nico finally get their long-overdue forever together, or will the ghosts from their past continue to haunt them?
Sixteen Years Ago
Nico had a secret: he wanted to kiss his best friend.
He had other secrets, too, but this one was on his mind the most. Nico had been planning to kiss Oliver for weeks, but he kept losing his nerve. Would Oliver push him away? React with confusion? Disgust? Nico didn’t care how the rest of the world saw him, but everything with Oliver was different.
Nico’s heart raced as he leaned in and brushed Oliver’s lips, barely touching. It was his first time kissing. Was he doing this right? His nose was too big, so he should turn his head. Could Oliver feel how Nico was shaking?
Oliver gasped and grabbed Nico by the shoulders. “Did you mean to do that?”
Nico stilled, his mouth hovering just above Oliver’s. Oliver thought the kiss was an accident? Like Nico would somehow fall into his lips?
“Um…yeah? Is this okay? Should I stop or—” That was the real question. Did Oliver want to be kissed?
Making a small sound of protest, Oliver lifted his gaze to Nico’s. There was a spark in Oliver’s eyes, a flush at his cheeks. “Don’t stop.”
Kissing in an alleyway wasn’t exactly the romantic setting of his dreams, but Nico wasn’t complaining. The city noise might as well be sunshine and birdsong when Oliver’s soft lips touched his.
This time kissing was easier. Nico circled his arms at Oliver’s waist and gathered him close. Oliver parted his lips suddenly, and Nico felt the shocking, warm dart of his tongue. He moaned against Oliver’s mouth, his grip at his waist more possessive. He really was doing it—kissing his best friend.
Maybe Nico had only been in town for ten months, but he and Oliver spent every day together. He’d immediately liked Oliver. Had been drawn to his serious nature that had a hidden sweetness. Only, as time went on, Nico began to be drawn to other things besides Oliver’s personality—things like Oliver’s mouth. Those lips.
He could die on those lips alone.
Nico only wished he’d kissed Oliver sooner, instead of waiting these agonizing weeks, wondering if Oliver would reject him.
“Shoot,” Oliver murmured as the kiss ended. He frowned, and his eyebrows knitted together. “I gotta go home. I’m sorry, but it’s already late. And my parents are strict about being out after dark.”
Nico released his grip from Oliver’s waist. “Oh, okay.”
He wanted to ask Oliver if his kiss had been all right, but he didn’t dare. Nico noticed Oliver was breathing hard, though, like him. That must be a good sign.
At least he’d done it. He’d kissed him. Not kissing Oliver had been driving Nico bananas.
“You could join us for dinner? Mom always makes plenty.” Oliver gnawed his lip.
The full, pretty lip Nico had just kissed.
“Sure, okay.” Nico’s mom wasn’t going to be home until after midnight since she worked a late shift, and they had barely any food in the fridge.
“Great. And we can hang out in my room afterward. My cousin isn’t here yet.”
“When does he come?”
“Summer, we think. I only wish I didn’t have to share a room with Zane.”
“I bet it’ll be fun.”
“What was that?”
“You’ll love having your cousin.” Nico slowed his speech. He often slurred his words. But Oliver never grew impatient, never made fun.
“Oh, maybe.” Oliver made a face. “But I won’t love sharing a room with him. I like my stuff where it is. I have a system for where everything goes.”
“I bet you do.” Nico snorted. Oliver was hyper-organized. He was not one to be patient about mess.
“Shut up. My system is why I get As. And Zane is gonna be like a tornado hitting my room.” Oliver sighed. “But I’ll give it a chance. I don’t like being a jerk about it.”
“You could never be a jerk,” Nico replied loyally. But Oliver could be stony-faced. When he was mad, he had a pretty angry glare. But when he smiled, it was like sunlight after a hard winter.
“So, after dinner we should strategize about the Academic Matchup. I got lots of ideas on how to beat the other teams.”
Nico rubbed the back of his neck. “You think we have a chance?”
“Hell, yeah. Why wouldn’t we?”
A lump rose in Nico’s throat. Nobody had ever thought Nico was smart before. Not even when his mom showed his past school his test scores—they’d put him in the gifted classes reluctantly, afraid his scores were all lies. His teachers were doubtful of his intelligence too. Some didn’t call on him, not ever, and others visibly winced at Nico’s speech. Only Oliver, the best in the class, treated him differently.
Oliver rubbed his palms together. “Basically, I’m ready to smash the competition to smithereens.”
“Same. I want to demolish them.” Nico grinned. “Grind them under my feet.”
“I knew there was a reason we’re friends.” Oliver poked his side.
His heart was so full it hurt. Oliver showed him what a best friend was all about. In return, Nico couldn’t wait to show Oliver that he could be a good teammate, that they would win the Academic Matchup, and then they’d go on to win a ton of other events.
“So, we agree? Study after dinner in my room and—I don’t know—maybe we could do other stuff?” Oliver blushed.
Did Oliver mean the kissing stuff?
“Other stuff sounds good,” Nico agreed, heat rising to his cheeks.
They stared at each other for a long moment, both smiling and blushing. What would Oliver do if he told him just how long he’d wanted to kiss him? A lifetime. Nico was glad he finally had.
Slowly they made their way to Oliver’s house, which was a bright-yellow one-story on a quiet block. Oliver wasn’t rich or anything, but he was rich compared to Nico. Nico would like a nice house someday. Something far prettier than the dull cement apartment complex he called home. His house would have green grass, trees, and tons of flowers. A place where anything was possible.
Oliver got a little ahead of Nico, who limped behind him. It had been a long day, and his calves were tight. Oliver banged open his door and yelled, “We’re home.” Then he turned and waved Nico inside. “Come on, Kastellanos. I’m starving!”
Before they escaped with a snack, Oliver’s parents greeted them with hugs. Mr. Knox’s hug was a bit formal, with more back-patting than hugging, while Oliver’s mom was all warm exuberance, but both his parents were always affectionate. And they always included Nico.
Oliver, embarrassed by them, stood and tolerated his hugs. But when they were alone, Oliver often touched him with little pats or a squeeze of his shoulders. That was Oliver. A rule-following, stern kind of guy in public but a softie in private. So Nico knew deep down Oliver was as affectionate as his folks, and Nico liked it.
Nico’s mom wasn’t affectionate. She spent her time working and when she was home, she stared at the door, her body hunched in defense. Their secret always weighed between them, like a barrier they couldn’t cross.
“Don’t ruin your appetite with those Cheetos,” Oliver’s mother scolded. “And don’t take the whole bag to your room. I don’t want orange stains all over the furniture.”
“I’ll clean it up,” Oliver vowed and hurried with Nico to be alone. Dinner went quickly, and then they studied. Oliver, being Oliver, was super serious about it, but Nico found ways to make him laugh. Not that Nico didn’t care about winning—he did. The Academic Matchup was important to them both. Nico wanted the chance to prove to Oliver that he’d made the right choice in asking Nico to partner with him. He wanted to make Oliver proud. But he also wanted to hear him laugh deeply. To add a splash of color to Oliver’s plain, sparse room. To kiss him again.
Nico wanted to live in the moment. All the moments with Oliver that he could.
“If we win, this will be good on our college applications.” Oliver spread out several large textbooks on the bed. He sat on one side and Nico on the other.
“We’re freshmen. Too young to be applying to colleges, Oliver.”
“But we’re not too young to put activities like the Matchup on it when we do apply.”
Nico averted his gaze. Oliver assumed things like this. That after high school and before work there would be college. He liked that Oliver imagined their lives rich and full and together. He liked how Oliver talked to him about anything and everything, but Nico knew his mother had no money to send him. And though Nico was smart, he wasn’t so smart colleges would beg to have him.
“I might get a job instead of college.” It was easier to pretend he didn’t want it. To lie about college. He had practice in lies.
“A job? Doing what?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be sick of school after we graduate.” Nico shrugged. He did want to go to college but couldn’t see it happening.
Still, it would be nice to get that dream. His health might always be a struggle, and his family life might always be rocky, but an education was something nobody could take away from him. Or question his value once he had it.
No one could say I was worthless then…
Oliver scooted closer. “You can work while you go to college. Like a work-study job in the library or something. And we’ll room together in a dorm at first, then an apartment. Or maybe right to the apartment and screw the dorm. Most people there would annoy me.” Oliver scowled. “But we could get a place.”
“Maybe.” Nico shot him a smile. Oliver always included him in every version of their future selves. But he had no idea how dark Nico’s home life was.
He brushed his fingers against Oliver’s over one of the textbooks.
Oliver laced their fingers, and Nico’s face flushed a deep pink.
When Nico imagined a future, all that mattered to him was Oliver.
“Let me see if you’re going to college by reading your fortune.” Oliver lifted Nico’s palm for his inspection. “Huh, I see a long line here.” He traced the thin line across Nico’s upper palm. “And here.” Oliver followed the curve of another line down to Nico’s wrist, where his pulse was beating erratically.
“What’s it all mean?”
“It means long life and even longer love.” Oliver leaned close. “It means all your dreams come true.” He stroked his finger along the center of Nico’s palm. “Including college.”
And you, Nico thought silently. As long as I have you.
Oliver kept holding his hand, staring into his eyes.