Because Bad to the Bone is a Dreamspun Desires category romance, the storyline is based on several tropes, one of the most prominent being “opposites attract.” On the surface, Alex Morrison and Ricky Lee Jennings have nothing in common. In high school, Alex was the stereotypical golden boy—a good student and star football player—while Ricky Lee was poor, from the wrong side of town, and branded as a troublemaker. What brought them together was their love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy, which they both felt they had to hide for fear of being harassed. Their meeting place is town library, and more than a decade later, a threat to the library forms one of the subplots of the story.
Libraries are very special places for me. When I was a child, as soon as I was old enough to walk to school alone, my mother took me to the local branch of the Chicago Public Library and got me a library card. At least once a week, I’d make a trip to return the books I’d checked out and pore through the stacks to find new ones. When I got to high school and could ride the “L” on my own, I discovered the wonder that was the central downtown library. Built in 1897, this building has since been converted to the Chicago Cultural Center, its books moved to a more modern location; but I’ll never forget the Saturdays I’d spend under the Tiffany dome in the main reading room, absorbed in The Lord of the Rings or any of the other fantasies, science fiction, or historical novels I’d hunted down.
I’ve never understood why some people consider reading to be “nerdy” or unmasculine, but that was certainly the case when Alex was in school. It was easier for him to hide in an isolated recess of the library than to put up with teasing from his teammates on the football squad because he liked to read fantasies. When Ricky Lee discovered the same hiding space, it was the beginning of an unlikely friendship that had the potential to develop into much more.
That it didn’t is something Alex has always blamed himself for, and those happier memories may be why the library remains so important to him. He volunteers on the library board, and when Ricky Lee’s high school nemesis threatens its existence, Alex takes a personal interest in trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. But then Ricky Lee roars back into town, and suddenly Alex has more than just the fate of the library to worry about.
Title:Bad to the Bone by Nicki Bennett
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Imprint: Dreamspun Desires
Genre: Contemporary, Gay, Romance
Length: 210 pages/Word Count: 51,881
A second chance at first love—if he has the courage to take it.
Alex can’t think of himself as anything but a failure. In high school, he was on the fast track to a career in pro football when he forged an unlikely friendship with a half-Comanche boy from the wrong part of town, Ricky Lee Jennings. Their shared love of books could have grown into more—but a homophobic teammate attacked Ricky Lee, and Alex wouldn’t risk his scholarship to defend him. Ricky Lee was kicked out of school, and Alex never heard from him again.
Now Alex’s glory days are nothing but a memory. An injury ended his football aspirations, his marriage fell apart, and his dreams of making a difference as an environmental lobbyist are as dead as his fantasies of sports stardom.
But all that could change in one magical night, when Ricky Lee shows up at their high-school reunion.
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Purchase Link: Dreamspinner Press
For a Monday night, Alex was pleased by the number of people taking advantage of the library’s resources. Several clusters of high school students gathered in the reference section, where many of the shelves that once held thick volumes of encyclopedias had been replaced by a half-dozen computer stations. To the other side of the circulation desk, in the library’s media collection, he spotted an older woman in headphones listening to a CD while several others browsed the shelves of magazines and DVDs—with more than a few VHS tapes still mixed in. Other racks held a variety of video games and computer software.
Alex took the steps to the second floor, where the bulk of the fiction and nonfiction books were shelved. It was quieter there, the open children’s area in the center—which had suffered the brunt of the leaking roof—unoccupied this late in the evening. He took a deep breath, the indescribable yet unmistakable scent of thousands of books calming him. Surely they’d be able to make the town council see how vital it was to maintain this resource.
The fiction stacks to his left beckoned, each genre marked with an inviting endcap display highlighting new and recommended titles. Intrigued by its cover, he paused to read the blurb of the latest release in a popular mystery series, but his meandering steps were leading him along a well-worn path toward the science fiction and fantasy section. He turned between two shelves, moving out of view of anyone sitting at the tables or the handful of more comfortable chairs in the open reading area. Past a cross aisle and another row of shelves, still more bookcases lined the back wall. Even though there was no one nearby, Alex glanced both ways before slipping around the corner of the last case to a hidden alcove where the shelves covered an oriel window facing the green space behind the building.
This spot had been his sanctuary since middle school. He’d been a quiet, introspective boy, much happier reading than playing outside or with his sister—the six-year difference in their ages, a seemingly impassible gulf as children, meant they didn’t have many interests in common until they were both older. To counter his introversion, his father had pushed him to participate in team sports. Football wasn’t Alex’s first choice—he’d made the track and field team in seventh grade, but when the JV coach saw him at an intramural event, he’d quickly been drafted as a running back. He’d enjoyed the challenge, and what insecure teen wouldn’t love the adulation of the crowd whenever he broke a tackle to score a touchdown? And it made his dad so proud of him. He could have done without the macho posturing some of his teammates engaged in, but he did his best to distance himself from it.
He soon learned that required hiding his choice of reading material. In his first year on the middle school team, he’d been caught engrossed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and taunted for reading a “sissy book”—though he suspected the concept of reading for pleasure was in itself enough of an aberration, at least to Odell. After that, he found it easier to avoid confrontation by taking to his reading nook when he wanted to indulge in something that might be judged insufficiently “manly.”
One evening halfway through his freshman year, Alex had struggled to complete an algebra assignment and was anticipating diving into the latest novel from China Miéville when he found his refuge already occupied. The tall, skinny boy with long black hair seemed as startled as he was. He jumped to his feet, dropping the book he’d been reading to the floor. Alex bent to pick it up.
“The Return of the King?” He grinned. “I’m impressed. Most people think since they’ve seen the movies, they don’t have to read the books.”
“I haven’t seen the movie.” The boy snatched the book back and held it to his chest. “And don’t tell me what happens. I don’t want to spoil it.”
Alex made a locking motion near his lips. “Not a word.” Taking a closer look at the interloper, he asked, “Aren’t you in my math class? Ricky something?”
“Ricky Lee Jennings.”
“Alex Morrison. Mind if I join you?” When Ricky Lee shrugged, Alex dropped his backpack and sat cross-legged on the floor. “I thought I’d never get through those equations.”
Ricky Lee sat again too. “Seriously? That stuff’s easy.”
“Easy for you, maybe. All those symbols and formulas look the same to me.” Alex grimaced. “If I can’t figure it out, I might have to drop from the JV team. Can’t play football if I’m not passing all my classes.”
Ricky Lee pushed a hank of dark hair from his forehead. “I could show you, if you want.”
That had been the start of their friendship, right there. Thanks to Ricky Lee, Alex avoided the mandatory tutoring Coach Tyler made anyone on the team participate in if their grades slipped. Odell, who struggled with math as much as Alex had before Ricky Lee, complained to anyone who’d listen about the twice-a-week sessions he had to endure at the library after practice. They’d helped enough to keep Odell on the team, though they’d also led to the night at the beginning of senior year when he followed Alex to his hidden nook and caught Ricky Lee surprising him with a kiss….
The lights overhead flashed twice—the signal the library would be closing in fifteen minutes—breaking Alex out of the memory. He touched a finger to his mouth, as if he could still feel the brush of Ricky Lee’s lips. Shaking his head, he headed out of the stacks and back downstairs.
Growing up in Chicago, Nicki Bennett spent every Saturday at the central library, losing herself in the world of books. A voracious reader, she eventually found it difficult to find enough of the kind of stories she liked to read and decided to start writing them herself.