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A LONG TIME COMING

PROLOGUE

**LIA**

 

“Excuse me,” I say, bumping into a lanky guy in a jam-packed dorm hallway. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. I’m all kinds of lost.”

“Not a problem,” says a deep voice that pulls my gaze up to the tall figure with shaggy-brown hair, dark-rimmed glasses, and a mustache so thick that it almost looks fake. Who knows, maybe it is. “What are you looking for?” he asks while he brings a sixty-four-ounce Slurpee cup to his lips.

“Uh.” I glance around, then whisper, “Room 209. But I keep getting turned around because it doesn’t seem like there’s a room 209.”

A smile tugs at his lips. “Scrabble nerd?”

“What?” I ask.

He leans forward and whispers, “It’s okay. I’m part of the SSS. Room 209 is hidden for a reason.”

SSS = Secret Scrabble Society.

But the first rule about SSS is that you don’t talk about it. At least, that’s what it said in the invite I received last night. It was a letter delivered to my dorm room. A thick envelope sealed with wax with an SSS melted into the red liquid. When I saw the symbol, I quickly locked my door, turned off my lights, and switched on my desk lamp. With bated breath, I delicately opened the envelope and unfolded the sides, revealing the writing on the inside.

I had been handpicked by the SSS to join them tonight. During the grueling, three-week tryout process, I played ruthless battles against different members online. After a few losses, a few wins, and two ties, the tryouts were over, and all I had to do was wait. Well, that time has come. I have the invite in hand, and all it says is to show up to room 209 in the Pine Dormitory at 10:23 p.m. sharp, ask no questions, and say nothing. And then I’m to knock with a specific pattern and provide the secret password to get in.

But now that I’m here, lost and confused, I feel like I’m breaking the rules already.

Unfortunately, time is ticking, and I have no idea how to proceed. I don’t want to show up late, especially on the first night. But I can’t find the room, and . . . this guy with the stache and the Slurpee seems like he knows what he’s talking about.

Ugh . . . but what if this is a test? What if he was planted by the SSS, and I already failed because I mentioned room 209 and Scrabble and . . . God, I’m a failure.

Unsure of how to proceed, I rock on my feet, my hands twisting in front of me as I glance around the hordes of people. What is going on in here anyway? It’s a dorm hallway, not a cafeteria. Where are all these people going? I think I need to ditch Slurpee Boy. He knows too much already. And I will not put my position with the SSS in jeopardy. I worked way too hard for an invitation.

“You know, it was nice talking to you, but I think I’ll just go look for the room myself. Thanks.”

I turn away and head for a dark corridor, only for him to call out, “Not going to find room 209 down there.”

I glance over my shoulder to see him sipping on his Slurpee with a smile, his playful eyes intent on my annoyed expression.

“I wasn’t actually going that way,” I respond with indignance.

“Seemed like you were.”

“I was faking you out.”

“Were you now?” he asks, that smile growing wider. “Why would you be faking me out?”

I straighten to face him and raise my chin as I say, “Because between your ungodly thick mustache and your shaggy hair, you look like a predator. How can I be sure that you’re not attempting to snatch me up?”

His brows raise as he runs his fingers over his mustache. “You know, you’re the third person who said I can’t rock this mustache. I thought I was looking pretty legit.”

The man needs to get a better mirror.

“Your mustache is offensive. I’m pretty sure it would make even the most randy of women go dry.” The words fly out of my mouth before I can stop them. Lack of filter—it’s my downfall.

I wince as his eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. Yeah, I was surprised too, buddy.

“Uh, I don’t know—”

Before I can finish telling him I’m not quite sure where in the depths of my being that insult came out of, he grips his stomach, bends forward, and lets out a long-drawn-out laugh, his Slurpee shaking in his hand.

Well, at least he wasn’t offended. I’ve got that going for me.

Either way, I don’t have time for this.

Moving past him, I head down the right of the hallway, where I find an unmarked door. Initially, when I was first looking around, I thought this was a utility closet. But paying a little more attention to the door, I think there could be a faint marking of a number on the wall. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . it’s what I’m looking for.

On a hopeful breath, I knock on the door three times and then kick the footer like I was told just as a tall figure closes in behind me.

“You know, I’ve never had a girl tell me that I possess the uncanny ability to dehydrate the nether regions of the female race with just my facial hair.”

I hold back my smile. “Be glad I’m honest.”

The door cracks open, and a single eyeball comes into view. “Password.”

“Walla-walla-bing-bang,” I answer just as the guy behind me leans forward over my shoulder.

“You missed the ching-chang part,” he says.

“What? No, I didn’t.”

“He’s right,” the eyeball says. “Sorry, no entrance.”

“Wait, no,” I say as I prevent the eyeball from shutting the door. I pull the invite out from my pocket and say, “I have the invitation . . . errr, I mean . . .” Ugh, stupid, Lia. You’re not supposed to show the invitation. Backpedal. “Actually . . .” I slip the invite back into my pocket and fold my hands together. “There is no invite, and I have no idea what this door leads to. I just know that I’m supposed to be here at ten twenty-three, and I am, so therefore, I believe I should gain entrance.”

“But you forgot the ching-chang,” Slurpee Boy says while sucking on his straw.

“There was no ching-chang,” I reply with aggravation. “It clearly said, knock three times, kick the footer, and then say walla-walla-bing-bang. I know this because I read the, uh . . . thing, twenty-seven times precisely. So either this is not the right door, which perhaps it’s not, or you two have not read the instructions yourself, and in which case, I demand to speak to an authoritative human.”

“An authoritative human?” Slurpee Boy asks. “Is that a professional term?”

“Dumbing it down for you,” I say with snark. “You know, since you have that look.”

“What look?” he asks.

“One that’s lacking intelligence.” Call it my nerves or my irritation, or just the fact that I can’t hold anything back, but I just let my insult fly.

Thankfully, that smile of his once again tugs on the corners of his lips right before he says to eyeball, “She’s good, man. Let her in.”

“What?” I ask, so utterly confused that I wonder if being part of the SSS is even worth it.

But then the door opens, revealing a very large room, larger than all the other dorm rooms, and it’s a haven to all the things I love. Off to the right is a raised bed with a desk underneath which holds three computer screens, speakers, a massive keyboard as well as a giant mouse and mouse pad that expands the length of the desk . . . Lord of the Rings themed. Hanging on the beige walls are posters, flags, and framed art ranging from Star Wars to board games to a large yellow-and-blue model airplane suspended from the ceiling. To the left is a futon sofa with a coffee table and crates with cushions all along the edges. In the middle, a Scrabble board on a turntable—the fancy kind.

I could totally spend an hour nerding out in this room.

The whole collection of Harry Potter books rests on the bookshelf—and they look like the originals. My mouth salivates.

A framed poster of Adam West as Batman hangs over the sofa, Adam standing tall with a “Kerpow” in comic detail directly behind him.

And under the small television on a flimsy-looking TV stand is what looks to be an original Atari game console. If the owner of this residence owns Pitfall, we will be best friends for life.

“Wow, cool room,” I say. The fantastic décor speaks to my geeky heart. And the precise organization, from the labeled folders on the bookshelf next to the desk to the stacked shoes on the shoe rack, is next level.

“Thanks,” Slurpee Boy says. “It’s mine. I’m also the authoritative person, as you like to call it.” He holds his hand out. “Breaker Cane. It’s nice to meet you. Maybe as you hang out with us more, you can lower yourself to my lack of intelligence on a more personal level.”

My mouth goes dry.

The tips of my ears go hot.

And I feel a wave of sweat crest my upper lip.

Good job, Lia. Really good job.

“Uh, yeah . . . I didn’t really mean—”

“No, no. Don’t take it back.” He holds up his hand. “I like your brutal and brash honesty. Made me feel alive.” He winks.

“Oh, okay. In that case.” I clear my throat. “Although your room seems like a dream to explore, you could have tucked the corners of your bed better, not quite ‘nurse’s corner’ tight, your framed picture of Rory Gilmore is crooked, and you have to get rid of the mustache. It’s atrocious.”

He chuckles and nods while moving his fingers over the bush beneath his nose. “Still trying to perfect the nurse’s corner. If you have expertise in this endeavor, then, by all means, present a tutorial. The room I share a wall with plays music loud enough that they force Rory to dance, making her crooked. I’ve given up. And the mustache, well, I thought it looked good. Seems to me everyone’s been lying to me.”

“They have been.”

“But you don’t seem to have that ability . . . to lie to someone to forsake their feelings.”

“Depends on the moment and the person.” I look him up and down. “You seemed sturdy enough to handle the truth, and also, stressful situations—i.e. not knowing where the room was—snatching any social decorum I might have stored away.”

“Well, that can only mean one thing.”

Confused, I ask, “What’s that?”

“That there is no other choice than to become the greatest friends of all time.”

I smirk. “Only if you shave.”

“Ehhh, that’s something we might have to work out.” He rocks on his feet and continues, “Given that you are the only new recruit to the Secret Scrabble Society, you must be Ophelia Fairweather-Fern.”

“That would be me. But just call me Lia. My entire name is far too many syllables for anyone to carry around, let alone my first name.”

He chuckles. “Your name was a check in the plus column during tryouts. But your brutal use of words we’ve never even heard of was the real reason you were chosen, especially since we play on a timer.”

“That was an added challenge I appreciated. Although the timer startled me at first and took a second for me to get used to. That and not being able to see your new letters or the gameboard until your turn started. I had a lot of fun. I’m glad I was chosen.”

“It was an easy choice.” He sets his Slurpee cup down. “Everyone, this is Lia. Lia, that’s Harley, Jarome, Christine, and Imani.” From where they’re seated at the coffee table, they all raise their hands for a brief hello and then return to the gameboard. “Yeah, they’re not really social.”

“Well, good thing I didn’t come here to socialize.” I rub my hands together. “I came to play.”

Breaker chuckles and then reaches for his Slurpee again. “Then what are we waiting for? Game on.”

 

***

 

I stare Breaker down and then glance at the last two tiles on my shelf.

He has one tile left.

The room has cleared out.

The rest of the SSS has left, claiming early morning classes.

“Your move,” he says while purposely running his finger over his mustache. I’d dominated this entire game until about three moves ago when he somehow pulled out an eighty-point word, completely shattering my lead.

“I know it’s my move.”

“Really, because you’ve been sitting there catatonic for at least five minutes.”

“I’m making sure I have the right move.”

“Or any move at all.” He leans back on the sofa, a smug look painted across his face.

“I have a move.”

“One that won’t win you the game, though, right?” he presses. He knows he has this game. It’s evident in his cocky disposition.

“You know, it’s not polite to gloat.”

“This coming from the girl who was dancing only a few minutes ago because she had a tremendous lead on me.”

I slowly look up at him and, in a deadpan voice, say, “It will behoove you to know that I can dish it, but I can’t take it.”

He lets out a low chuckle as I reluctantly place an E after a W for a measly five points.

“Nice move.” He stares down at his single tile and then lifts it dramatically, only to place an S after Huzzah, giving him thirty-one points. “But not good enough.” He leans back again and crosses his leg over his knee. “I win.”

I groan and flop backward onto the floor. Staring up at his model airplane, I say, “I had you.”

“Never celebrate too early. You never know what can happen at the end of a Scrabble game.”

“That’s such a cheap move by the way, holding on to an S to the very end.”

“How did you know I was holding on to it?”

“Because I watched you pick up the tile a while ago and set it to the side.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those players. The one who counts the tiles and knows what everyone could possibly have.”

“Not to that extent, but I watched you baby that tile and not touch it until now. You saved it on purpose.”

“When you’re trailing by eighty points, you have to be strategic, and I was. No shame in playing the game.”

“I hate to admit it since you won, but it was a good game. I enjoyed the challenge.”

“It was a good game. You’re going to fit in nicely here.” He starts picking up the board, and I lift to help him. “Your application said you’re majoring in research and statistics. What’s the plan after college?”

“Getting my master’s and then becoming a survey research specialist.”

He pauses. “That’s really specific,” Breaker says. “And not a job you hear on a list of what you want to be when you grow up.”

“Not so much, but I’ve always been into surveys. Growing up, I loved filling them out. I spent a great deal of time filling out every survey my parents came across. I loved the idea of someone being able to listen to me and gather information to make a change. And of course, I would make surveys on my own, handwritten ones on construction paper, and pass them around at family gatherings to see how everyone enjoyed themselves. Then I would draw up a report and send out an end-of-the-year letter, showing everyone where we excelled and where we could improve.”

Breaker smirks. “And did you find out anything constructive from these family surveys?”

“Yes.” I nod as I hand him the last few tiles that need to be picked up. “Whenever my uncle Steve decided to take his pants off after dinner, it always led to him doing the invisible hula hoop on top of the cleared-off dining table—which no one relished. I made sure to convey this to the family and Uncle Steve, but unfortunately, I have no control over their behavior. I can only survey what needs to change. Changes are made from within.”

“Uncle Steve sounds like a good time.”

“He had a mustache . . . and he’s known as the pervert in the family. So yeah, maybe you two would get along.”

“Not a pervert,” Breaker says while packing up the rest of the game.

“That has yet to be determined.”

“Can we make a quick assessment because I can assure you, I’m not a pervert.” He sets the board game to the side and then leans back on his futon while I press my weight on my hands behind me. I should probably leave. Everyone else has, but for some reason, I feel comfortable here, and I don’t want to leave just yet.

“If you wish.”

He touches his nose and points at me. “I believe the phrase you’re reaching for is, as you wish.”

Princess Bride fan, are we?”

“What’s there not to be a fan of? Revenge, swords, master tales of times before. It’s got it all. Not to mention . . . Fred Savage.”

“I actually agree, which puts a check mark in your column of not being a pervert.” He fist-pumps to himself, which makes me chuckle. “But that’s only one check mark. There are more questions.”

“Hit me. Watch me pass with flying colors.”

“We shall see about that. Have you ever, since you’ve donned the mustache, peeped into someone’s window, preferably the sex you’re attracted to?”

“That would be women, and no.”

“Good answer. Next question, have you ever felt the need to walk into the ladies’ room because you wanted to take a gander?”

“I’ve heard there are way more stalls, which I’m jealous of because sometimes I just like to sit and pee. But no, I have not.”

My brows pull together. “Sit and pee?”

He shrugs. “I get lazy.”

“Okay, seems like more work to sit down and pee, but to each their own. One more question. Have you ever started a club for men with mustaches and purchased mini mustache combs and creams so you can have mustache care parties?”

“Wow, now that sounds like a good fucking time, but no, I have not.” He drapes his arms along the back of the futon. “So . . . have you deduced that I’m not a pervert?”

“Temporarily. I’m putting you on probation.”

“That’s fair.” He places one leg over the other.

“But I do need to ask a few rapid-fire questions, just to double-check.”

“Hit me.”

“Favorite singer or band?”

“Blondie.”

“Really?” I ask, surprised.

“Yup.” He pops the P, looking so relaxed that, in return, he makes me feel comfortable. “Obsessed.”

“Okay, good answer. How about favorite candy?”

“Smarties because I’m smart, and I think they make me feel extra clever.”

I chuckle. “I guess that’s a good reason. Favorite TV show?”

Wonder Years. Hence, the Fred Savage comment earlier. Love him. Second to Wonder Years is Boy Meets World, as fuck, did I crush on Topanga so goddamn hard. And of course, Cory is my man crush.”

“Fan of the Savage brothers?”

“They’re my ride or die.”

“Makes you seem very relatable.”

He drags his finger over his mustache as he says, “Stick around, Lia. You’ll see just how relatable a finance major with a penchant to crash his model airplane every time he flies it is.”

“I always thought Shawn was whiny.”

“Join the club,” Breaker says with an eye roll. “Thoughts on Mr. Turner’s mullet?”

“Hot,” I answer.

“So if I were to, let’s say . . . grow this hair out to be a mullet, what would your thoughts be on that?”

“Pitiful, get your own look.”

He chuckles. “Man, you sure know how to bring a man down to his knees.”

“Apparently, it’s what I do best.”

“Apparently, I like that about you, though.” He moves his teeth over his lip before saying, “So, Lia, what did you think about tonight? Have fun?”

“I had a lot of fun.” Not wanting to sound like too much of a loser, I gently say, “It’s been hard meeting people here, you know, people who are on the same level as me. I just recently transferred, so not coming in as a freshman and making friends has been a challenge. Although”—I glance around his room—“I do feel comfortable here, despite these dwellings belonging to a mustache.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment. And meeting new people is hard. Took me a second to figure it all out too. They always say college is where you get to reinvent yourself and find like-minded people. Well, they don’t tell you it doesn’t happen immediately. I’m a junior now and feel like I’ve just hit my stride.”

“Same. No one seems to like spending countless hours poring over a game of Scrabble or knitting hats for cats.”

“Hats for cats?”

“Quite fetching. I sell them to old ladies who think dressing up their cats is fun.” I shrug. “Started it for some side cash, but now, I’m invested. But yeah, tonight reminded me that there are like-minded people out there for me, making me feel like myself for the first time in a long time.”

His expression softens. “I’m glad, Lia.” He strokes the hair under his nose and says, “I bet a lot of you feeling comfortable has to do with the mustache.”

“It’s not the mustache,” I answer with feigned irritation.

He chuckles. “Do you have a boyfriend?” When I eye him skeptically, he holds his hand up. “Not because I’m getting all pervy on you, just genuinely curious.”

“I did until he broke up with me and told me I was lame because I started a fan fiction for Supernatural. I was into different things than he was, so it was hard to connect. Doesn’t seem like I can find many people at all who understand the desire to make Sam and Dean not brothers, but rather . . . secret lovers.”

His eyes widen, and he lowers both legs to the ground as he says, “Hold the fuck on . . . you’re the author of Lovers, Not Brothers?”

“Wait.” I sit up taller. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Heard of it?” he nearly shouts and then lowers his body to the ground, so now we’re at eye level. “Lia, that shit is addicting. I’m not even gay, but Jesus Christ, their first kiss was the best fucking thing I’ve ever read. I had actual sweat forming on the back of my neck while Dean slowly rubbed his nose along Sam’s jaw, waiting for the cue that Sam was ready. And then . . . when their mouths collided, I let out a fucking wallop of a cheer. The sexual tension was unnerving.”

“And you didn’t think it was weird that we know them as brothers in real life?”

“Isn’t that what fan fiction is all about? Creating a world that’s separate from the original?”

I smile. “You get it.”

“Of course I get it. I’m not a moron.” He pushes his hand through his shaggy hair. “Christ, you need to write some more. That was some good shit. I’ll never forget the scene when Dean is naked, gripping his penis, and singing Eye of the Tiger to Sam as he closes in.” He kisses the tips of his fingers. “Chef’s kiss.”

Jokingly, I ask, “Are you fanboying over me?”

“Got a problem with that?”

I shake my head, then whisper, “I can’t believe you’ve read it.”

“I can’t believe you wrote it.”

And then we stare at each other for a few moments. Silence fills the room, an unspoken truth forming between us—this is the start of something new.

“Breaker?”

“Yeah?”

Shyly, I ask, “Will you be my friend?”

That smile of his I’ve grown to know tonight widens. “Are you asking me to start a . . . friendship with you?”

“I believe I am. Is that weird? I mean, we barely know each other. I find your mustache absolutely repulsive, but our commonalities are endless at this point. The fact we can agree that the Winchester brothers being lovers is erotic is unprecedented. I believe that means we need to be friends.”

He slowly nods. “I believe it’s imperative.”

I hold up my hand. “And friends only because that mustache has ruined any sexual feeling I might have toward you.”

“I understand. I knew the risks of what could happen if I adorned facial hair solely along my upper lip.” He holds his hand out. “Friends?”

I take his hand in mine. “Friends.”

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