Broken Silence

Chapter One


Damn, this professor is hot.

I'd registered so late this semester, I was stuck taking a bunch of crap I wasn't interested in, like this class: Introduction to Poetry Writing. Like, what the actual fuck was I going to do with this in my life?

But maybe I could live with it if I could fantasize about Professor McHottie. I slid into the last desk in the back row, where I could check him out without notice.

I accepted the sheet of paper the pimply guy in the next seat handed me with the curriculum printed on it, and I scanned it for the prof's name: Professor Foster F. Harding. That was a mouthful. What did the F stand for? I wondered. Fuckable? I laughed to myself.

"Good morning. I'm Professor Harding."

I'd thought a guy who studied poems would be soft-spoken, old, and wear a bow tie. But Professor Foster F. Harding had to be in his late thirties or early forties and was broad-shouldered with a head full of honey-blond wavy hair. He did, however, wear a bow tie and a cardigan. How could I think him sexy? My mother wore those sweaters, for God's sake. The class quieted down, and he faced us with a gentle smile.

"This semester I hope to introduce you to the beauty of words—your words. Poetry is different for all people. There are love poems, fight poems, poems about war, poems about peace. Some rhyme, some don't. Some may be pages long while others are only a few words." He took off that stupid sweater and draped it over the back of his chair. "Now, how many here have been writing poems regularly?"

More than half the class raised their hands. I slouched down in my seat.

"Excellent. How about the rest of you? Occasionally, say once every few months or at least a few times a year?"

Almost all of those who hadn't raised their hands now did so, leaving me and maybe one other student looking everywhere but at the professor.

"Very good. Now as for those of you who are only here because you got shut out of a class you wanted to take in this time period, you're going to have to suffer along and do the best you can." I heard the amusement in his voice, and I had to press my lips together to hold back my laughter, even as I checked him out.

A smile rested on his face as he glanced around the classroom. His gaze passed over me, then returned. I raised a brow, crossed my arms, and settled in my seat. I knew I didn't look like most of the other students who'd barely reached the legal drinking age, if that. I was older by a few years and battle-weary. A year in jail would do that to anyone. I saw some of the girls checking me out, their eyes lingering on the tattoos on my arms, thinking I was a bad boy with a hidden poet's soft heart.

Don't kid yourselves, girls. No heart of gold here.

The professor's gentle smile faded and he blinked, then cleared his throat.

"Yes, well, let's get started. Since it's the first class, I won't keep you the entire period. Your assignment is to pick a word and write a poem about it. There's no limit on the length. It can be as long or short as you like. Of course, I'm not saying two words is appropriate, but as poets, you'll know when it feels right to stop."

A student raised his hand, and the earnest expression on his face made me want to laugh. Did they really think this class was going to make them a poet or that they'd make a living writing poetry?

The professor called on him. "Yes?"

"Do you have a list of suggested words, or is it any word we want?"

"I prefer for you to use whatever word you choose. I trust you all as adults."

I could see my poem now: "My Dick" by Justin Molina. I snickered to myself at the thought.

"Of course, there are some who might use this as an exercise in silliness, but I'm sure we're all beyond that kind of childish behavior."

I darted a glance at the professor to find his mild-mannered gaze resting on me as if he could read my thoughts. My face flamed. Fuck. This is stupid. There's my word. I'll go home and write a poem about how stupid it is to write poetry.

"I'll see you all here next week. Please have your poems ready by then." He collected the extra curriculum sheets and put them in his briefcase.

I hefted my backpack onto my shoulder and walked out of the classroom. Only one more year and I'd be done. The first in my family to graduate not only high school, but college as well.

I headed outside on Lafayette Street toward Washington Square Park, stopping first at the coffee cart. No four-dollar coffee for me. Every penny I made at my work-study job at the library went either to food or rent. I hadn't seen a movie in years, didn't have cable or a fancy computer. My phone came through the government. Dinner out was Papaya King or a ninety-nine-cent slice of pizza; otherwise it was whatever was on sale at the supermarket that week. I had the park to run through and could use the university gym if I felt inclined to exercise.

I sat on a bench, greedily inhaling the scent of weed from the group of frat boys two benches down. Another thing I didn't have money for, but damn, I missed the high. I'd never used hard drugs, but weed took the edge off if my day was shit. Which it was most of the time.

I sipped my coffee and checked out the guys and girls strolling by. The air blew warm, and the boobs and biceps were on full display. I'd always been an equal-opportunity appreciator, but lately my taste ran to guys. I'd lost my steady girl, Crystal, when I went to prison, but I wasn't surprised. We'd had no commitment, so I couldn't expect her to stay. Inside, I found plenty of guys willing to suck my dick, and not only was I satisfied with that, but I wanted more. As long as I returned the favor, it was cool with them. Once I got out, I'd never had trouble finding sex with a guy if I wanted to get off.

"Hey, I thought I'd find you here. How'd the first class go?" My friend Benny plunked himself next to me. Our junior year we'd worked together and became friends, especially when Benny confided in me that his stepfather and stepbrother didn't care for him and put him down whenever they could, which was all the time. I'd offered him my place to crash if he needed to hide out, but he didn't want to leave his younger sister alone in the house. Once their mom died, he took it upon himself to watch over her, and I had tremendous respect for him.

"Man, what do you think? Poetry writing." I snorted. "A fucking waste of time, but I didn't realize I needed one last humanities class to graduate, and everything else was closed out by the time I registered."

Benny snickered. "That's a riot. You all up in your feelings, writing mushy shit."

"Don't count on it," I said darkly, then grinned. "At least the professor is hot. Maybe I could write a poem about him." I pulled out my notebook and scribbled: My prof is hot, his face is sweet; if I could suck him off, my life would be complete. When I read it out loud to Benny, he made puking noises, and I punched him in the shoulder.

"Shut up. What's going on with you? Still working at that gym?"

"Yeah. I had to cut my hours, but it's okay 'cause my boss said once I graduate, I might be able to come work for him full-time as sort of a business manager. You know I had to switch my major around when I couldn't pass those science classes for pharmacology, but I'm hoping things work out at the gym. I really like working there."

I gave him a fist bump. "Proud of you, man. That's awesome. And what about that guy you had the hots for?"

Benny's face drooped. "Gino?"

"Yeah. The asshole who never asked you out."

"He's into guys way hotter than me. It's fine. I'm over him."

But from Benny's hangdog face and sad eyes, I knew he was fooling himself.

Benny sipped his coffee and pulled out his laptop. "I gotta add my classes to my phone, otherwise I'll never remember where I'm supposed to be and when. Plus, keeping up with two jobs…I don't know if I'm coming or going." He huffed out a laugh. "You meet anyone over the summer?"

"Nah. I worked at a supermarket and fucked around a lot, but nothing serious. And at least you got people who will hire you," I said darkly. "Once they find out I was in jail, they find some excuse to not hire me, even though it's illegal." I gulped down the rest of my coffee and crumpled the cup in my fist. "I gotta find a way to make more money—the work-study isn't gonna cut it, and the supermarket gig ended."

"You'll find something. I'll ask Jeremy at the gym if he needs anyone extra."

"Thanks, man. I'll do anything…mop the floors, clean toilets…anything. Except fuck someone for money. I draw the line there."

"Glad to hear," Benny said faintly. "Maybe you can tutor someone. You're good at writing essays. You helped me pass my English lit class."

Not a bad idea. "I'm glad. You think I can make money doing that?"

He shrugged. "It can't hurt to try. And yeah, tutors make good money. Check out the listings. I bet you could make twenty-five or thirty bucks an hour. Even if you get just two people every week, that has to help. And it's tax-free. All cash."

"Yeah." I thought a minute. "Good idea."

"Here," he said and shoved his computer onto my lap. "Look at the message board. Register and see if you get any takers. It's the perfect time, at the beginning of the semester."

"Okay." I scanned through the tutors' ads and thought about what I'd like to say. I handed Benny his computer. "Thanks. I'll definitely think about it."

"No problem." He stuck the laptop into his backpack. "Hope it helps." He tossed his cup into the trash can and stood. "I gotta get to class. Talk to you later."

"See ya." We clasped hands, and I watched him lope away, red hair ruffling in the breeze. My only other class for the day—Urban Families and Economic Development—wasn't until the afternoon, but first I had to put in a shift at the library in about half an hour. Fishing a protein bar out of the bottom of my backpack, I scanned the park. The frat boys had long gone, their seats now occupied by young mothers and babysitters with strollers. My eyes widened in surprise as my poetry professor entered the park and sat opposite me, two benches away. He undid his bow tie and collar and settled back with his eyes closed, raising his face to the sun.

The light picked up the golden glints in his hair, and as he hadn't seen me, I could study his face. He was good-looking, and his lips were full, pink and soft. It had been too fucking long since I'd gotten off, especially if I was thinking about my professor's mouth. But there were also bags underneath his eyes, and tight lines scored his face from nose to mouth. What could he have to worry about? He carried an expensive leather briefcase and wore a heavy gold band on his finger that would solve my rent problems for at least six months.

First-world problems, I thought to myself with scorn. Maybe he'd become lactose intolerant and could only have soy milk in his triple venti upside-down half-mocha latte. Or he couldn't get tickets to his favorite ballet. I ripped open the wrapper of my bar and chewed a bite off the corner. It was stale and hard, but I forced myself to finish it. I had twenty minutes to make it to the library and clock in, and I had neither the money nor the time to stop and grab something to eat. I got up, and giving my professor one last look-over, left the park.

When I walked into the library, the head librarian, Reggie Caldwell, was in the midst of showing one of the new work-study students the ropes. Reggie was cool to work for. He knew I needed the max number of hours to make the most money and was always willing to help me out.

"Hey, Reggie."

"Justin, my man. How was the summer?"

"Oh, great, just great. First I went to Paris, then jetted off to Italy, where I spent time on my yacht." I smirked, and Reggie, always one for a joke, played along.

"Bastard. You said you'd fly me over in your private jet."

The trainee, a pretty woman, about twenty, had light-brown eyes and long braids hanging halfway down her back. Her white tank top and shorts showed off her smooth, dark skin and hugged her curves in all the right places. As she listened to our conversation, her gaze ping-ponged between the two of us, and her mouth formed a perfect O until I figured to set her straight.

"Don't mind us. He's bullshitting and so am I. Hi, I'm Justin, the other poor scholarship work baby. The closest I've ever come to Italy is eating my microwaved frozen lasagna."

Her laughter tinkled like silver bells. "I was wondering what the heck was going on. Hi, I'm Serena." We made eye contact, but my head was still full of the sexy professor I left in the park. She offered her hand, and her long, red-tipped fingers squeezed mine, but I didn't follow up with any lingering touches.

"Okay, you two. I'm going to log in the new books. Justin, why don't you go over the basics with Serena?" He patted the counter, then left us alone.

"Sure thing. It's pretty easy. We just check the books in by swiping their ID cards and scanning the books they want to check out. Easy-peasy. We also have to reshelve the returns and pick up the books left on the tables."

"Okay, sounds cool." She twisted her braids over her shoulder. "Tell me about you. Reggie said you're a senior? What's your major?"


"Oh, cool. I'm a junior, majoring in chemistry."

"Whoa. That's tough."

"Yeah. This year is rough. Organic Chemistry Two." She shuddered. "I've heard horror stories since I was in high school. But when my dad died of cancer right before my high-school graduation, I wanted to do something that might help other people in the future. I worked in a lab for a couple of years before applying to college."

I nodded but didn't share my similar story. How I wanted to help disadvantaged children in the system so they could have a fighting chance and not merely become a statistic. It was too personal, too private, and I wasn't the kind of person to spill my guts to friends, never mind a stranger.

"What classes have you had so far?" She stacked the books Reggie had already checked in.

"I got stuck in a poetry-writing seminar."

"Oooh, with Professor Harding? He's so hot. I had him last year. I could've spent the whole semester staring at him."

I shrugged, but yeah. Same, I wanted to say but held my tongue.

"Poor guy. I feel so bad for him."

"Why? He looked fine to me." Really fine.

"Oh, his wife walked out on him the first day of classes last year, and it devastated him. They'd only been married a few years, I think. She was an actress or a wannabe, I hear. I only saw her once. She's okay."

Her begrudging voice led me to believe Mrs. Harding was more than okay and was probably as gorgeous as her husband.

"Oh well, shit happens," I said with a shrug.

"She was a lot younger than him. Like in her early twenties."

Now my interest was piqued. Who would have thought Professor Mild-Mannered would be playing around in the sandbox?

"How old is he? He looks pretty young."

Serena sat on the desk, in full gossip mode. "Oh, he's at least forty, maybe a few years older. Looks much younger, right?"

"Yeah, totally."

"He's so sweet and nice. I wouldn't mind hooking up with him, if he's into younger women."

"Well, he's probably going through a messy divorce, so I'm sure he's not looking for a girlfriend."

"I know." Her dark eyes raked me over. "Are you seeing anyone?"

"Uh, no." I decided to be up-front with her. As much as I could. "I'm into guys."

"Dammit. Every guy I meet these days is gay."

"Well, I'm bi."

"It's okay," she said moodily. She chewed on her bright-red fingernail. "I'm just lonely. My roomie is always with her boyfriend, and I miss having someone to hang out with."

"We can still hang out. Just nothing more." I liked her and understood about loneliness. "Sound good?"

"Yeah. How about tonight? We can go to that bar on MacDougal Street everyone's been talking about."

"Is there a cover? I'm a starving student."

"Oh. No, I don't think so. What do you say? Celebrate the first day of classes."

There was nothing I'd rather do less than stand around some bar filled with drunk students looking to hook up. But Serena was sweet, and I felt bad for her being dumped by her friend. I could go and drink water. I always was a sucker for big pleading eyes, and hers did a number on me. "Okay. You got a date."

"Oh, yay." She squeezed my arm. "You'll see. You'll have fun. I promise."

I doubted it. Fun wasn't a word I counted in my vocabulary. "Sounds good. I'm going to get started on my poem for that class so I can forget about it. We have to pick a word and write a poem on it."

"Ohh. What's your word?"

"Stupid." The word came out before I had a chance to think it through. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It was how I felt most of the time. "It's the perfect word for me."