Strong Enough Excerpt

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Chapter 1

“Ahem. What are you doing?”

Spencer Derdinger jumped away from his office window at the unexpected sound of a voice behind him.

“Nothing!” he shouted defensively as he turned toward the door to see Maria Lee, his colleague and friend, watching him with a smirk on her face. The wooden blinds clanked loudly against the window, making Spencer flinch.

Maria raised one eyebrow, slowly walked over to the window, placed a perfectly manicured finger on one slat, and pulled it down.

“When did you turn into such a cliché?” she asked without looking away from the window.

“I don’t know what you mean.” Spencer skittered over to his desk and started stacking the randomly strewn-about papers into equally random piles.

After turning around, walking over to an empty chair, and sitting down with her thin ankles crossed, Maria flipped her hair back over her shoulder and said, “Spencer, please don’t insult my intelligence by pretending you weren’t staring out the window and drooling over the men working on the new addition to the math building.”

Spencer blushed and started rearranging the papers. “Well, technically, the cliché would be construction workers checking out women walking by, not men checking out construction workers from the privacy of their offices. So you see? I wasn’t being a cliché.”

“Fine,” Maria said. “It was an inverse cliché.”

“Is that a real thing?” Spencer asked, furrowing his brow.

Maria crossed her slender legs, causing her skirt to move up her thigh. “I have a doctorate in applied mathematics, not English, same as you. I have no idea whether it’s real or not. Now quit deflecting and tell me which of those men caught your eye.”

“Did you wear that outfit to class?” Spencer asked as he looked his colleague up and down.

“Why, yes, I did.” Maria tilted one corner of her mouth up and tugged on the bottom of her tight sweater, causing the V-neck top to dip low enough to show impressive cleavage.

“What did you teach this morning?” he asked.

“Introductory Algebra,” she answered with a glint in her eyes.

Spencer didn’t bother holding back his laugh. “How many football players are in the class?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Maria held her hand up and inspected her long nails. “I’d say at least half the team.”

Spencer snorted. “You are evil.”

“I’m strategic,” she corrected as she raised her eyes to meet his.

“You tortured a bunch of eighteen-year-olds on the off chance that they’ll talk about you in front of their coach.”

“Like I said,” Maria drawled. “Strategic. And, honey, after the number of times I turned around and stretched, there is no off chance about it. I can guarantee you those boys will talk about me in front of Thom. But that’s enough about me. Tell me which of the builder babes has you all hot and bothered.”

There was no way Spencer would give Maria any more ammunition than she already had, so he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Maria crossed her arms over her chest, pushing her breasts up and halfway out the top of her sweater. “Don’t be coy, Spencer.”

Spencer crossed his arms over his significantly less endowed chest and raised his eyebrows. “I’m not an eighteen-year-old straight boy, Maria.” He tilted his chin toward Maria’s breasts meaningfully. “Those don’t hypnotize me.”

“Fine.” Maria humphed. “Don’t tell me which one you’re into. I’ll figure it out on my own.”

Fear trickled up Spencer’s spine at those words. Maria was sharp, shameless, and stunning. When she set her sights on something, she succeeded every single time. Thom Bramfield, the head coach of the football team, didn’t know it yet, but he didn’t stand a chance against her advances. Spencer, on the other hand, knew enough to realize he had to protect himself from Maria’s schemes.

“There’s nothing to figure out,” he said in a rush. Then he forced himself to take a breath and calm down. Maria would recognize his panic otherwise. And if she smelled blood, she’d know she was on the right trail and Spencer would never be able to shake her from her newest mission. All hope would be lost. “I mean, fine, I was looking at the men working outside,” he conceded. “They’re attractive and muscular, and there’s no crime in looking. End of story. There’s nothing to figure out here.”

For the first time since she’d walked into his office, Maria’s expression softened. She now looked genuinely concerned rather than calculating. “Spencer, since you and Peter broke up, I haven’t seen you take an interest in any man. And even before then, I have never known your interests to be purely carnal. You’ve been looking out that window every day for two weeks. Those men out there are attractive, but not more attractive than lots of guys you can find online, wearing less clothing.” She leaned forward and took in a deep breath before continuing. “You’ll need to take a chance sometime, honey. You can’t live your life holed up in that little house all alone.”

Saying he and Peter broke up made it all sound so civil, like they’d amicably decided to part ways over drinks one day. Which, in a way, was true. Spencer had heard from a friend that Peter had left a bar with another man…after spending most of the night with his tongue down the man’s throat.

Wanting to give his boyfriend the benefit of the doubt, Spencer had brought the topic up calmly. Then he spent twenty minutes at a little table in the coffee shop around the corner from his house, mute with shock, mug of cooling liquid between both palms, while Peter cheerfully admitted to sleeping around and then explained the things lacking in their eighteen-month relationship. All of which, according to Peter, sat squarely on Spencer’s shoulders. Then Peter said they should keep in touch, brushed some crumbs off his pants, got up from his seat, and walked out the door.

Given those details, Spencer would classify the ending of his last relationship as an unequivocal dumping rather than a breakup. But he didn’t want to sound pathetic, so he swallowed down that clarification and instead tried to look affronted as he said, “My house is just over eighteen hundred square feet. That’s not little for a historic neighborhood.”

“Fine,” Maria said with a roll of her eyes. “I’ll let this go.”

Spencer sighed in relief. “Thank you.”

“For now,” she added, boring her dark-eyed gaze into him. “I’ll let it go for now. But at some point you’re going to have to get back on that horse.”

Maria meant well, but she didn’t understand. He was thirty-eight, which was considered past his prime on the bar circuit, not that he’d ever felt comfortable in bars. At five foot nine and barely shy of one hundred sixty pounds, he was average height and average weight. Add in brown eyes and brown hair, with a little bit of gray around the temples, and Spencer knew he wasn’t somebody who turned heads when he walked down the street. And, as his ex had helpfully pointed out, if by some miracle he managed to get a guy to notice him, he was far too dull to keep the guy’s attention for long.

“I’ve never ridden a horse,” he mumbled, trying once again to deflect.

“I haven’t either,” Maria said thoughtfully. “Though I have a feeling Thom Bramfield is hung like one, so if all goes as planned, I’ll be saying giddyup and bouncing away this weekend.”

“Oh Lord.” Spencer cringed and shook his head. “I so did not need that visual.”

“My girls are completely lost on you,” Maria said as she cupped and squeezed her breasts. Then she shrugged and said, “Oh, well. I’ve got plenty of admirers.”

“You’re a member of Mensa,” Spencer said. “You can’t say things like that!”

Maria took a deep breath and looked at him sympathetically. “Sure I can. There’s nothing that says being intelligent precludes being sexy or fun or quirky or anything else. I can excel at statistical theories, make crass jokes, and look fabulous. All at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive.” She got up, straightened her skirt, then looked meaningfully at Spencer. “Nobody can put me in a box except myself.” She waltzed over to the door, turned the knob, and looked back over her shoulder. “The same is true for you, Spencer,” she said, and then she walked out of the room.


Emilio Sanchez saw the blinds on the second floor office of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas math building flick shut and knew the sexy man with chinos in every shade of brown and a lifetime supply of sweater-vests was no longer watching them. He had first seen the professor two weeks earlier, when his brother called him in to take a look at the electrical panel in the building they were adding on to. When he’d answered Raul’s call that day, he had expected to stop by for a few minutes and figure out the best way to move the existing panel, which was currently located on an exterior wall that would soon become interior. But then he’d locked gazes with that man and all his plans changed.

Brown eyes with specks of gold were what he noticed first. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to look for long before the man lowered his gaze as a red heat traveled up his neck to his cheeks. Then he scurried into the building.

Shy. The stranger was shy. And Emilio thought it was utterly charming. So he’d found a reason to stay on at the construction site, hoping he’d be able to meet the intriguing stranger.

“Yo, bro, you sure you want to stick around here?” Raul asked, diverting Emilio’s attention from the now empty window. “We won’t need to start the wiring for another few weeks, and I can get one of the carpenters over to work on the framing.”

Sanchez Construction had started out as a family business, and though they were now big enough to require hiring outside the bloodline, his father, mother, sister, and three brothers were still the heartbeat of the company. Being raised on construction sites had made each of them a jack-of-all-trades, but they definitely had individual strong suits. Emilio was the youngest of the bunch at twenty-two, and the only licensed electrician. He figured that’d always be his specialty, even after he took the general contractor exam the following year. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a damn fine carpenter as well.

“Nah, I don’t mind.” Emilio pushed the front of his thick black hair back and settled his gaze on his brother. “My side work is all dried up right now, and I checked on the other job sites this morning.”

It was a true statement, but he could find another project in a heartbeat if he let his buddies know he had free time. Since the day he finished high school, Emilio had worked for the family business during the day, which usually started at six in the morning and ended at two in the afternoon, and then taken on small side jobs after hours. At first he’d done favors for friends or relatives who needed assistance with home improvements. But over the years, Emilio found he liked the diversity in the work—commercial projects for the family company during the day, fixing residential messes made by weekend warriors during the evening—plus he appreciated the extra money it put in his pocket.

A couple hours later, Raul said, “Hey, hermanito, we already went long and it’s Friday, so we’re wrapping up now. We’re heading over to Joe’s Pub for a couple of beers.”

Emilio finished shooting a few more nails into the support beam he had put up and then climbed down the ladder. He stepped outside the partially framed space and glanced up at the sexy professor’s window for what had to be the hundredth time that day. It looked dark. Though he had concentrated on his work, something he learned early in life was important when handling power tools, Emilio had kept watch for the guy he’d been hoping to meet but hadn’t caught sight of him. That meant Emilio wasn’t as observant as he thought…or the guy had left in a different direction. Either way, his plan for the night was thwarted.

“I’ll skip it tonight,” he said with a sigh, unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice. He’d been half-hard a good portion of the day imagining what he could do to the professor once he got him alone. Not being able to realize those fantasies left him frustrated.

“You gotta come, Emilio,” Bruce Simms, one of their newer employees said as he walked over to where Emilio was packing up his tools.

Bruce was a nice guy and a hard worker, so Emilio found a smile for him as he finished loading up his gear. “Thanks, man, but I don’t think I’ll be very good company tonight.” He stood and hefted up his tool chest. “Maybe next time, yeah?”

“No!” Bruce practically shouted. “It’s gotta be tonight.”

That was an odd reaction. Emilio raised both eyebrows in surprise and said, “Uh, you got something you want to tell me?”

“No. Yes.” Bruce sighed and scratched at his cheek. “Fuck,” he groaned. “Okay, here’s the deal. My wife’s sister saw you when you dropped me off at the house last week. You know, when my truck was in the shop?”

Bruce paused and looked at Emilio meaningfully, so he nodded and said, “Yeah?”

“Well, she wants to meet you, so my wife told her I’d set it up without it looking like a setup. She’s gonna happen to be at the bar today and then she’ll see me walk in and come say hello and then I’m supposed to introduce you and…” Bruce sighed deeply and scratched his temple, the conversation seemingly making him itchy with discomfort. “Fuck, man, you get the idea.”

Yeah, he got the idea, which was why he now wanted to go to the bar even less. Making polite conversation with some guys from work seemed like too much right then. Fending off advances from a coworker’s sister-in-law was unbearable.

“Like I said, thanks for the offer, man, but I’m not up for it tonight.”

He gave Bruce a friendly punch to the shoulder and started walking away.

“Wait, Emilio, I have a picture of her on my phone.” Bruce clasped Emilio’s shoulder, trying to halt his escape. “Don’t you at least want to see what she looks like before you say no?”

“You do understand how weird this is, right?” Emilio asked as he turned back around to look at Bruce.

“Oh, yeah, I get it. But she’s my wife’s sister, and if I do this, I’ll be getting lucky for weeks. Plus, I think you two will really hit it off. I think she’s exactly your type.”

How this man thought he knew Emilio’s type was anybody’s guess, but he was dead wrong.

Raul must have heard the last part of the conversation, because he started chuckling. “Boy, are you barking up the wrong tree,” he said to Bruce.

“What do you mean?” Bruce asked as he furrowed his brow.

Emilio had come out at age eighteen. Living within a few miles of where he grew up and where his siblings still lived meant secrets never lasted long. He was done with high school and had enough skills to get a job working for any construction company in town if the shit hit the fan worse than he expected with his family. Plus, he had an older cousin who had been out for as long as Emilio could remember.

He had seen his cousin Asher a handful of times at family gatherings, and nobody had ever given the big man a hard time. Of course, harassing a person with Asher’s temperament was asking for a permanent limp, but Emilio never even heard people bad-talk him when he went home to California. So he figured his family would probably be fine and coming right out with the information would be better than trying to hide.

The resulting drama was short-lived; once the initial shock wore off, everyone went back to living their lives. After that, Emilio figured he was out. Done and done. But in the four years since, he had realized that he’d never really be done, that coming out was an ongoing process.

There was always someone new at work or someone dating one of his relatives or someone showing up at his weekend pickup soccer games, and small talk often included seemingly innocuous questions about his personal life, like whether he was married. Emilio wasn’t ashamed of being gay, but sometimes it was exhausting to have to come out yet again, and he’d find himself analyzing whether ignoring certain questions or diverting conversations away from certain topics was easier than making the “I’m gay” speech.

Now was one of those times. It had been a long week and he was in no mood for conversation. But with a setup looming and his brother teasing, Emilio had to say something.

“He means,” Emilio said as he glared at his brother, “that I’m sure your wife’s sister is nice and pretty and all, but she’s not my type.”

“Oh.” Bruce seemed to deflate, and then he squinted and got tense once again, seemingly offended by Emilio’s explanation. “Why isn’t she your type? She looks a lot like my wife. Are you saying Sue ain’t pretty?”

Well, diversion tactics weren’t going to help. He might as well come out with the truth, field any annoying questions, and then go home, where he could drink a six-pack in relative peace. Relative because he had three roommates, which meant quiet was a rare indulgence to be savored. On a weekend night, though, he figured his chances were better than average because his roommates would probably be out getting laid or getting drunk or both.

“No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m gay, so no matter how pretty your sister-in-law is, she isn’t my type,” Emilio said matter-of-factly, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. He wanted to go home and relax after a long, frustrating week.

Bruce’s initial reaction was to chuckle at what he presumably thought was a joke, but when Emilio kept looking at him seriously and Raul nodded, he seemed to realize Emilio was serious. “Oh,” Bruce said in surprise. “Uh, cool.”

Emilio tilted his chin toward Bruce in acknowledgement of his comment and then started walking toward the parking lot again.

Bruce trailed along next to him. “So you’re sure about that, huh?” he asked.

“Am I sure I’m not romantically attracted to women?” Emilio asked sarcastically and then shook his head. “Yeah, man, I’m sure. Tell your wife she needs to focus on someone else to set up with her sister.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bruce said with a nod. Then, looking incredibly nervous, he added, “Does that mean you’re attracted to me?”

“No way,” Emilio answered immediately.

“Oh, okay. Good.” Bruce sighed, seemingly relieved to hear this information. But after a matter of seconds, he suddenly glared at Emilio, looking offended. “Why the fuck not?” he asked.

There was no way for Emilio to hold back his laugh. “Calm down, man. It’s nothing personal.”

Bruce looked down at his body and flexed. His build was similar to Emilio’s—thick muscles, broad shoulders, over six feet in height. “Are you saying I’m ugly?” he demanded.

Great. First he got accused of insulting Bruce’s wife’s appearance, and now it was Bruce directly. Emilio didn’t have the energy for this shit. They were getting to the parking lot and his truck was in sight, so he figured the conversation would, mercifully, end soon.

“No, man. I’m just saying you’re not my type,” he explained.

“What’s your type?” Bruce asked disbelievingly.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Emilio grumbled as he heaved his toolbox into one of the locking equipment boxes in his truck bed. “I cannot believe I’m having this conversation with you. Like I said, it’s not personal. I’m into guys who are—” His words were cut short when he looked up and saw the perfect embodiment of his type—the sexy professor was two rows away from them. “Him. He’s my type,” Emilio said in a rush. “And I’m going to go talk to him. See you Monday.” And with those words, he hustled toward the professor, hoping to finally have the chance to hear the intriguing man’s voice and wondering if it’d be as mesmerizing as his eyes.

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