Today, I am honored and happy to welcome Heidi Cullinan to my blog. Heidi is on tour for her new release Antisocial, and she’s one of the main reasons I love this genre so much. The first M/M book I ever read was Nowhere Ranch, and I absolutely loved it. I adored the characters—especially Roe—and I was in awe of the juxtaposition between the kinkiness and the intense emotional connection between the Roe and Travis.
It remains one of my favorite books to this day and it makes it extra special for me to have Heidi as a guest here on my blog. So please, join me in welcoming Heidi and let’s talk about Antisocial 🙂
Thanks so much for having me here today, Nell!
I’m here to give you a little teaser from my upcoming novel, Antisocial. Antisocial is a new adult gay and asexual romance set in a fictional college in upstate New York between a one-percenter fraternity boy and a highly antisocial artist. One encounter with Xander Fairchild’s artwork is enough to turn Skylar Stone’s carefully orchestrated life upside down, unlacing his secrets and inviting him into a secret anime-soaked world with a new set of friends. But will they be brave enough to embrace their fragile new relationship and let it last beyond the summer?
Here’s an excerpt from the novel. I hope you enjoy it!
Skylar arrived at the crooked bench at 12:20, ready to apologize for being late, only to discover Xander wasn’t there either. He frowned and pulled his phone out, wondering if he’d missed a message. It turned out he had.
sorry late b there soon
He tapped back a reply. No worries. See you when you get here. Then he sat on the bench, stared out at the river, and exhaled a slow, happy breath as he drank in the view. He was so lost in his reverie he listened to the heavy breathing and sharp footsteps on brush for several seconds before his brain suggested he might, possibly, want to see who was running toward him so quickly.
It turned out Xander was running, looking like a racehorse run seven laps longer than he should have gone. His hair was matted with sweat, his face flushed, slender chest heaving as he leaned on a tree and gasped for air. He’d been walking by the time Skylar turned around, but he had the look about him people got when they were trying to appear they’d been walking the whole time but were in fact nearly dead from booking like hell. Thankfully Skylar processed that before he made the mistake of commenting on Xander’s bedraggled appearance. Instead, he smiled, held up the takeout bag, and shook it enticingly.
Xander offered the most fake, sorry excuse for a smile Skylar had ever seen, huffed a few more desperate breaths, and shuffled to the bench. He smelled of sweat, but it wasn’t worse than Unc in the kitchen after a run. What did concern Skylar was the way Xander’s hands shook, and the way he seemed like if he had the stamina left, he’d turn around and run the other direction.
The poor guy. Empathy washed through Skylar, followed by a renewed determination to save Xander. Or at least to teach him how to save himself.
Skylar set down the bag of food. “I got a smoked turkey with gouda, a vegetarian, and an order of hummus with veg. I love all of it, so pick what you want. Alternatively, if you can’t decide, I had them split the sandwiches, and we could mix and match.” When Xander mostly huffed and puffed, Sky passed over a bottle of water, uncapping it on the way. “Here, drink this. I’ll lay the food out like a picnic, and you can decide what you’re in the mood for.”
Xander took the bottle, hand still trembling as he glugged the liquid into his system.
Skylar kept track of him out of the corner of his gaze, making a show of getting up, crouching behind the bench, and laying out the spread in the space where he’d been sitting. “We’re so spoiled for great restaurants in Takaketo. I swear there’s a new one every week.”
Xander’s huffs and puffs had slowed. “We don’t have much in Mason.”
“Mason—you mean Mason City?” Yes, let’s chat a little bit about home. “You get back there much?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“I heard from the art department your mom is famous for her cookies.”
He’d known that was a potential land mine, but Skylar wasn’t prepared for the way Xander’s whole body tensed, how his entire system threatened to shut down. Shit, was that a miscalculation. He worried for a second Xander would bail.
But Xander didn’t, thankfully. He only nodded and said, his tone flat and conversation thread-ending, “Yes.”
Skylar cleared his throat and smiled, Silver Stone beam on full blast as he gestured to the food. “All right. Take your pick. And I promise, I’m happy with all of it, some of it, or however it shakes out.”
Xander hesitated only a moment before taking the whole of the turkey sandwich. “Usually I just have peanut butter.”
Having noticed that, this was why Skylar brought the vegetarian option. “I’m happy to provide a treat, then.”
“I can give you money.” Xander looked awkward, like he wasn’t sure if he should have said that.
Skylar gave him a breezy wave. “It’s a paltry exchange for your painting, but it’s a start at least.”
He didn’t miss the way talking about Xander’s art made his whole demeanor change—he was still guarded, but eager, too, like a starving man afraid to accept sustenance.
Skylar let him dig into the sandwich for a minute or so, but when the silence seemed too much, he pressed on. “I have to admit, I’m entirely jealous of your ability to create art like that.”
“To be honest, usually it feels like a relief, because by the time I’m halfway through I’m convinced it’s shit, and getting out of it is like escaping a portal of hell.”
That made Skylar laugh. “Come on. You don’t have to be modest.”
Xander grimaced at his sandwich. “It’s not modesty. I haven’t created a project and not felt like I’d gone outside without pants since I was ten.”
“But surely I’m not the first person to tell you your work is incredible.”
“It’s not that.” He worried the crust of his bread. “I think most artists feel that way. You start excited about the idea, like a honeymoon phase. Halfway through it all gets real, and doubt creeps in. You have to keep pushing. Eventually you’re done, and you have your work. But it’s rarely this big, satisfying thing. Because you worry you didn’t do it right, or stopped too soon, or went on too long, or that you’ve lost the spark that got you started.”
Skylar considered this as he chewed a bite of hummus-laden carrot. “Okay, when I do a project, I feel that way in the middle too, but by the end I feel satisfied because I can see it’s successful. I’m not saying I don’t see where I could improve the next time, but I have a sense of accomplishment, for sure. You’re saying you don’t have any sense of satisfaction?”
He thought back to the writing he used to do, way back when, but decided against bringing it up. It would be too embarrassing, compared to what Xander could do.
“Maybe some, but not always, and not like you’re talking about. Da Vinci said ‘art is never finished, only abandoned.’”
Skylar raised an eyebrow. “I thought it was Paul Valéry talking about poetry who said that.”
“Whoever said it, I cosign the sentiment. Art is never, ever as magical on canvas as it is in my head. I’ve come to terms with that, which I can tell you, took some time. But every finished project will be bittersweet because when I put the brush down, no matter how much other people like it, I only ever look at it and see the ghost of the idea I couldn’t capture.”
All the shakiness was gone from Xander now. He wasn’t exactly happy, but he was definitely centered in a way he hadn’t been before. Art truly was his zone—though maybe, Skylar thought, his own wheels turning, Xander’s wider brush was the creative process. He slid a piece of cucumber through the hummus. “So talk to me about why you didn’t like the painting you gave me. Were you too caught up with the failure to realize your vision?”
“No. The focal point wasn’t strong enough, and I didn’t have enough color balance. I didn’t like the texture, either. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do.”
“But I love that painting. Does that mean I don’t know anything about art? I mean—okay. I don’t know anything about it. I’ve always wished I could draw, or even simply write.”
He hadn’t meant to say that. Hadn’t he decided not to bring that up? But his recalcitrant mind flickered to the stories he used to write at the summer house, and he wondered what had ever happened to those.
Clearing his throat, Skylar pushed those thoughts aside. “I don’t understand visual art. I admit that. But explain this to me…is your dislike of it an illustration of that failed vision, or is it something else?”
“No.” Xander leaned forward a little. He was intense now, focused and arresting. “See, this is the magic of art. I can love or hate my own work, but the viewer is who turns it into something. I made that painting, but you gave it life. Art isn’t real until it’s viewed.” He grimaced, lowering his sandwich, but even as he retreated, he still had his inner fire. “This is where I always get it wrong. I know I need to connect to people in order to understand my own art, but…I’ll be honest. I hate people.”
You don’t say. Skylar laughed. “Maybe that feeds your art, though. Maybe you don’t have to go to all the parties, just some of them.”
“I don’t want to go to any party, ever. I get nervous around people. I’d rather be by myself.”
And yet you ran until you nearly had a heart attack, hurrying to have lunch with me. “Even hermits need a few friends.”
“I’m a shitty friend. Ask Zelda. It’s better if I stick to cats.”
Zelda? Skylar wanted to ask about this Zelda person, but he knew better. Not yet. “You have cats?”
This turned out to be another point of entry, as Xander softened. “Yeah. Hokusai and Hiromu.”
The names sounded…familiar. Sky took a shot in the dark. “Painters?”
A tiny smile. “A printmaker and a manga artist. Both Japanese, as it happens. Hiromu—the cat—is a longhair, and a real softie. Gets her feelings hurt easy. Always wants me to hold her. Hokusai is an asshole, but he mostly gets bored. He can be good, when he feels like it.”
Cats and art. Skylar wanted to ask about the cats’ namesakes, especially the manga artist, but he tucked those points of entry away as topics to bring up the next time Xander started to shut down.
He considered, briefly, bringing up Hotay & Moo, but he had the same ridiculous fanboy flutter as the last time, so he didn’t go near the subject.
He kept the conversation light—asked Xander how much time he spent in his studio, at home, and at the college. Once Xander was fully at ease again, Sky led him gently into a more back-and-forth conversation, laying bait for Xander to ask him about his major, his life at the frat house. Unsurprisingly, the latter made Xander sour again. “I couldn’t imagine living with so many people.”
“It gets tough at times, I won’t lie. But when I need somebody, my brothers are there for me.” Skylar hesitated, a shadow falling over that line he’d said so many times. “It’s been a little tougher this year. The mural incident was a blow to our reputation, and the leadership hasn’t been as on point as I’d like. Next year may be even worse. But I can’t do much, because I’m only the risk management officer. Well—I’m not supposed to be doing much, but they keep acting like I’m still president.” He realized he shouldn’t have said that, and tried to sweep it under the rug with a smile. “Don’t mind me. I just can’t let go of the reins gracefully.”
Xander cocked an eyebrow, his look saying, I don’t believe you, but whatever you need to tell yourself.
Skylar’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out to glance at it. It was only Unc inviting him to a party he absolutely wouldn’t be going to, but the time caught him up short. “It’s already one thirty?”
Xander jolted, panicked. “Oh, shit. I have to get going.”
Skylar waved him on. “You go. I’ll pack this up. But I’ll see you tonight at seven, yes? At Java House? Or would it be more convenient for me to meet you at your studio this time?”
“I—I don’t know.” Xander ran a hand through his hair.
“Tell you what. Let’s make it seven thirty, and I’ll swing by your apartment and pick you up. Or we can stay there, if you’ve had enough running around town by that time.” He flashed his phone. “Just give me a text and let me know what you’d like to do.”
“Okay.” Xander hovered, looking like he wanted to say something, couldn’t find it, then hunched into himself and gave an awkward wave. “Bye.”
Skylar waved back, projecting as much nonthreatening confidence as he felt Xander could take. “See you later. Have a great day.”
He watched Xander go, then went about putting away the remains of their picnic. As his hands worked, so did his mind, rushing forward as it sifted and sorted everything he’d learned during lunch. He ruminated on it on the way back to Delta Sig, and when he got there, he gave the most perfunctory of greetings to Unc before hurrying to his room, opening his computer, and typing as furiously as he could. He ignored three texts from Carolyn—he wasn’t in the mood to go anywhere with her or any Tau-Kapp.
Art is not finished, only abandoned. The quote rang like a bell in his head, tearing down everything he’d set up for Xander’s project, and in the ruins he saw the glittering, terrible scaffolding of some art all his own.
A single stroke can change your world.
Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten College to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.
Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.
Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys playing with new recipes, reading romance and manga, playing with her cats, and watching too much anime. Find out more about Heidi at heidicullinan.com.