A queer retelling of Romeo & Juliet, except no one has to bury their gays.
A decades-old family rivalry is reaching a boiling point as the patriarchs vie for a seat in Congress. Democrat vs Republican, Muslim vs Christian, Hashmi vs Swain—the Midwestern town of Arbor Hills is one spark away from an explosion of violence. So when two men find themselves irresistibly drawn together at a party, only to discover they were born on opposite sides of a bloody battle line, Matthew Swain and Rabi Hashmi know they should leave well enough alone.
The pull between them is magnetic, though, and it’s too strong to ignore. Unable to resist, they meet again in secret. Generations of hatred can’t temper the passionate love growing between them, but two men falling for each other in the middle of a war zone can’t hold back the inevitable clash.
And when decades of political, religious, and personal strife finally come to a head, there will be blood.
Rabi Hashmi could not wait for this stupid election to be over. As he and his cousin Mustafa canvassed yet another neighborhood, reminding people to vote for his father, his feet hurt and he was just done. Completely done.
At the end of a driveway, Mustafa stopped. “I, uh, think we should probably skip this one.” He gestured at the lawn, and on it, the Bob Swain for US Senate sign.
“Good idea.” Rabi kept walking, his cousin on his heels, to the next house, which didn’t have any political signs out front or stickers on the minivan parked in the driveway. It was anyone’s guess, then, what their affiliation was. This wasn’t one of those explicitly red or blue neighborhoods, and it wasn’t unusual to find rabid pro-Swain and pro-Hashmi voters right next door to each other. That was the dividing line in the city of Arbor Hills these days. Not just red or blue, not just Republican or Democrat—Swain or Hashmi. As if the rivalry between the two families hadn’t caused enough tension for the last several decades.
Smart move, Dad. Run against a Swain for the Senate. That’ll stop the fighting for sure.
He rolled his eyes at his own thought. It would be pointless to try to talk his father out of it again. The election was just a few weeks away now, and millions of dollars—not to mention countless man hours—had been poured into the campaign. There was no turning back. Rabi just hoped that when the dust settled and the votes were counted, the results didn’t ignite violence. He hoped, but given the long and bloody history between the families, he wasn’t optimistic.
No one answered the door at the house with the minivan out front, so Rabi tucked an Emir Hashmi for US Senate flyer into the storm door and headed back down the driveway.
“You think there’s any point to this?” Mustafa scowled at the handful of flyers he was carrying. “Kinda seems like anyone who cares has already made up their mind.”
“I don’t know if it helps or not.” Rabi started up another driveway. “But Dad’s going to need every vote he can get, so we gotta do it.”
Mustafa grumbled something.
Before Rabi could respond, an engine revved, and he turned just as a diesel pickup stopped at the end of the driveway.
Derek Swain leaned out of the driver’s side window. “You boys lost?”
From the passenger side, his younger brother Nate called out, “Or did you lose your camel?”
Rabi forced his expression to stay neutral. His father had driven it into his head that everything a Hashmi did, every word they said, reflected on him, and being unprofessional in front of potential voters could cost votes. And hell, even if votes weren’t an issue, the last thing Rabi and Mustafa needed was a confrontation with a couple of Swains. Those never ended well for Hashmis.
Calmly, he said to Mustafa, “Come on,” and gestured for him to continue toward the next driveway.
Mustafa planted his feet, though, and smirked at the Swains. “Hey, while you assholes are here, is that hot cousin of yours still single? Because I’ve got—”
“Dude, shut up.” Rabi elbowed him hard and backed it up with a glare. “Really?”
Mustafa rolled his eyes.
“You touch a member of my family,” Derek snarled, stabbing a finger at Mustafa, “and that little fight we had in the locker room will be nothing compared to what’s coming to you.”
Mustafa started to speak, but another glare from Rabi made him shut his mouth. Rabi nodded sharply up the driveway.
“Hey!” Derek barked. “I’m talking to you, Hashmi. Stay away from my family.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Rabi said through his teeth.
Derek flipped him off. Mustafa returned it. Nate almost came unglued, and it looked like he was reaching for his door, but Derek put a hand on his chest and pulled him back.
Then the tires squealed and the truck was gone.
Immediately, Rabi whirled on his cousin. “What is wrong with you?”
“What?” Mustafa put up his hands. “Am I supposed to just take it when they—”
“Do you want shit to hit the fan? Huh? Because things are going to get ugly, and you’re not doing a whole lot to keep the peace.”
“‘Keep the peace’?” Mustafa snorted. “Please. Fuck that bunch of assholes.”
It was Rabi’s turn to roll his eyes. “For fuck’s sake.” He wasn’t going to explain—again—why it was fucking suicide for someone in their family to taunt someone from that family into violence. He shook his head and started walking again. “Let’s just get out of here. I’m done.”
Mustafa didn’t move. “We still have two blocks to canvas.”
“Yeah, and I don’t really feel like getting our asses beat because you can’t stop yourself from pissing on hornets’ nests.”
Mustafa protested, but Rabi ignored it. It was no wonder his cousin had been involved in an “altercation” with the Swain boys back in high school. He was hot-tempered, and he’d swallowed every drop of the anti-Swain poison they’d both been raised on. Rabi wondered if Mustafa even knew why the Hashmis and Swains hated each other so much. Or if anyone did anymore. The Swains were unapologetic racists, of course, but they devoted a disproportionate amount of their energy to hating the Hashmi family in particular, and no one really seemed to remember what had ignited that.
As if it mattered. The rivalry had existed for decades, fueled by every Hashmi misstep a Swain could use as an excuse for retaliation. If this race for a seat in Washington didn’t bring that fight to a head, Rabi didn’t know what would. He understood his dad’s political ambitions. Hell, he admired them, and anyway the last thing this state or country needed was another right-wing white supremacist in a position of power. But Dad running against him? That was asking for trouble. Just them running against each other for city council had been incendiary, but vying for a seat in the Senate? Actively campaigning and mud-slinging all over the state for the better part of a year? How was his father not asking for hell to rain down on every Hashmi within a hundred miles?
Maybe thinking that made Rabi a coward. Or maybe he was just too used to walking on eggshells because of his faith, his skin color, and his name. He was too scared to rock the boat. So maybe he was a coward, or maybe his father was reckless, but he didn’t see how this would end well. Not for their family.
His stomach knotted and he picked up speed toward his truck. The outcome of the election was up in the air, but deep in his heart, he knew that no matter who won, it was going to cause an explosion between the Swain and Hashmi families like no one had ever seen.
And he had no idea how to stop it.
Lying back on his bed, Matthew Swain was grateful to be done with yet another of his father’s campaign rallies, but he still felt like shit. That probably had less to do with the rally—God but this election was exhausting—and more to do with the pictures he kept thumbing through on his phone.
He’d been down and depressed all day, and now he was wallowing in it. One photo after another, he tortured himself with the man he couldn’t have and the ache in his chest that refused to budge.
With his heart in his throat, he gazed at photos of Raymond. Candids. Some selfies they’d taken together. That bright, magical smile Matthew had fallen so hard for. Each time he swiped to another photo, his heart hurt a little more.
He had no idea what Raymond saw in Kyle Whaley, but it didn’t matter. Maybe he’d been restless about dating a man who was holding on to his virginity. Maybe he’d just . . . No, really. It didn’t matter. In the end, Raymond and Kyle had sent him a selfie from Kyle’s bed, and that had been it. For weeks now, Matthew had been aching over it, but tonight it was bad.
Part of the problem was that he was no longer running around the state with his father, helping him campaign. The summer was over, and like his brothers, Matthew was going to classes again, attending rallies, and helping out with the campaign when he could.
The worst part was that going to classes also meant occasionally crossing paths with Raymond. Today, he’d seen Raymond and Kyle on campus in the commons. Just one glance, and Matthew’s spirits had splatted on the pavement like a dropped snowball. Since then, he’d been feeling sorry for himself, and now that he was home with a little privacy, he kept looking through all the pictures he couldn’t make himself delete. It was oddly comforting that no gay man in his right mind would engage in public displays of affection in Arbor Hills. As much as Matthew hated the conservative town’s deep-seated homophobia, at least he didn’t have to watch Raymond and Kyle being lovey-dovey and holding hands or something.
Talk about cold comfort.
He frowned as he stared at his screen. There was a shot of Raymond in sunglasses and a baseball cap. It was a photo Matthew had taken from the passenger seat of his now-ex-boyfriend’s car, and just looking at it—God, it hurt. He didn’t want to be over it yet. Okay, he didn’t want to hurt anymore, but he just wanted to wallow and—
The phone vibrated, startling him so bad he almost dropped it, and a FaceTime request popped up. Matthew was in no mood to chat, but . . . eh. It was his best friend. At least Jude understood what he was dealing with.
So, he accepted the chat, and a second later, Jude appeared on the screen. He must have been lying on his bed too, because his tight black braids were splayed on his pillowcase. “Hey, honey. How are you?” His voice was playful as always, but held a note of concern.
Matthew shrugged and didn’t care how pathetic he sounded as he said, “Meh.”
Jude scowled. “You’re pining, aren’t you?”
“Just a bit.”
His friend huffed. “Matthew. Ugh. You have got to let that boy go. Unrequited love is a waste of time.”
“Yeah, well.” Matthew sat up and rested the phone on his knee. “You fall for someone like him and get dumped like I did, and then tell me what a waste of time it is.”
Jude shook his head. “You just need to get out and find somebody else. That’ll get your mind off Tweedle Dickhead and his new Tweedle Dumbshit.”
Matthew managed a laugh, but it was half-hearted. “Yeah, I’ll pass.”
“The hell you will. Do you know your mom is so worried about you, she actually asked me tonight to find out why you’re so depressed?”
“When did you talk to my mom?”
“Bumped into her at the gas station. She told me she’s worried and wanted me to find out what’s up.” Jude eyed Matthew. “Of course I know what’s up, and no, I didn’t tell her you’re nursing a broken heart over your stupid ex-boyfriend.”
“Thank God for that,” Matthew muttered. Lord help him if his family found out he’d ever dated a man.
“Yeah, well, I promised her I’d cheer your ass up, which is why I’m taking you to Beta Phi’s Halloween party tomorrow.”
Matthew’s stomach turned. The thought of going out and socializing did not appeal nearly as much as another night of staying home, licking his wounds, and feeling sorry for himself. He shook his head. “Like I said—I’ll pass.”
Jude scowled. “Come on. You need to go.”
“Oh yeah?” Matthew laughed dryly. “Why is that? And why the hell are they having a Halloween party two weeks before Halloween?”
“Don’t change the subject.” Jude practically groaned the words. “They’re having it now so they don’t have to compete with all the other parties. Duh. And you should go because you need to get out of this post-Raymond funk.” A little smirk played at his lips as he singsonged, “And Levi Mason will be there.”
Matthew swallowed. Oh God. Levi Mason, the smoking hot basketball player who’d been the stuff of Matthew’s fantasies since middle school. If there was anyone alive who could still get Matthew’s attention after Raymond, it was Levi.
“Come on,” Jude pressed.
Matthew chewed his lip. He really didn’t want to go to the party, but admittedly, he got a little thrill from the prospect of being in the same room as Levi. They’d crossed paths a million times, even exchanged smiles once or twice, and Matthew had been bound and determined to work up the courage to talk to him. Especially once he’d heard—ironically by way of one of his homophobic brothers—that Levi was gay.
“Fucking fag doesn’t belong in a locker room,” Derek had snarled after practice one night. “I don’t care how good he is. I’d rather have a damned towelhead on my team than a cocksucker.”
That had sparked a heated debate over the dinner table, culminating in the Swain family bellowing back and forth over whether gays or Muslims were worse. Eventually everyone had agreed that if they ever came across a gay Muslim, they’d shoot the son of a bitch, and then there’d been some musing about whether conversion therapy would help both “issues.” Matthew had come away with a sick feeling, and also with the knowledge that the man he’d been lusting after did, in fact, play for his team. And now that Raymond was out of the picture . . .
“So?” Jude prodded, bringing Matthew back into the present. “You in?”
“Are we invited?”
His friend grinned wide. “We don’t need to be. It’ll be a huge party. And besides, everyone will be in costumes and drunk out of their minds. Who the hell is going to be looking at us?”
Matthew still hesitated. While Jude could walk among any crowd, the Swain family wasn’t exactly popular in certain parts of town right now. Particularly where college students—bleeding heart commie liberals, according to his father—congregated. Then again, if there were costumes and beer, Matthew probably wouldn’t even be noticed. And maybe Jude was right. Maybe a party would get Raymond out of his head. At this point, he was ready for anything—risks be damned—that would get Raymond out of his head. Especially if that something turned out to be Levi Mason.
“Okay,” he said with a nod. “I’m in.”