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Last Defense (Harrisburg Railers #5)

Copyright © 2018 RJ Scott, Copyright © 2018 V.L. Locey

Cover design by Meredith Russell, Edited by Rebecca Hill

Published by Love Lane Books Limited

Smashwords Edition


All Rights Reserved

This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. This book cannot be copied in any format, sold, or otherwise transferred from your computer to another through upload to a file sharing peer-to-peer program, for free or for a fee. Such action is illegal and in violation of Copyright Law.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.


Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Epilogue



Chapter 1

Ben

“No, see… that’s not exactly the kind of… We’re hoping to open up the search for more volunteers to help out over the summer.” I leaned back in my chair, grimacing a bit when the old gal creaked loudly. The AC blowing into my face was measly but given I’d had it in that window for years and it had been donated, it was doing all I could ask of it. Papers shuffled about on my desk, the semi-cool air rustling over the mounds of paperwork that now fell to me. Gone were the days spent working with the animals at the Crossroads Shelter. Now I spent most of my time in this damn office, talking on the damn phone, trying to wheedle rich people into giving the shelter more of their money. It really kinda sucked.

Leaning back a bit more, I let my eyes drift shut. Lenny, over at the Harrisburg Herald, rambled on and on about the cost of ads and how he didn’t feel he could continue giving us a discount.

“No, we do understand. I need you to understand we need every penny of help we can get. We’re a no-kill shelter. We’re not state supported. Every dime— I know I tell you this all the time. That’s because you complain about taking five percent off the cost of an ad every time I call.”

Lenny prattled on a bit more about overheads.

Yeah, tell me about overheads, Lenny. I know all about them.

The harping turned into a droning noise, like Charlie Brown’s teacher, and my mind began to wander. My gaze touched on the personal stuff practically buried under the piles of papers on my desk. A laptop with the shelter logo of a dog, a cat, and a human standing at a crossroads, bouncing around the screen. The laptop made a funny squeaking sound when I turned it on in the morning, but I ignored that. An empty coffee cup with the same logo on it, several books about miserable things like fundraising objectives and managerial and administrative duties in today’s modern shelters, and a gay romance.

I picked up the book, flipped it open, and continued reading about a con man and a stripper who were working together to outfox some Mafiosi. The plot was a little weak, but the sex was hot, and, oh my stars, the romance was incredible. I missed romance. I missed that emotional connection to another man. I missed meaningful sex too. The few hookups I’d had since losing Liam had been cold and mechanical. I missed Liam so badly I ached. Yet I was too much of a coward to date. If I dated I might meet someone. And that someone might be perfect, as Liam had been. And that someone might marry me. And then that someone might die. No. No way was I capable of surviving that again. Better to have hollow fucks behind some gay club. That only hurt a little when the futility sank in.

Two years he’d been gone. My gaze left the romance novel and traveled to the picture that was almost obscured by stacks of folders. I reached over the debris and shoved the folders aside. Liam smiled at me from within the frame, his goofy face so endearing and special, and so beloved. Both of us had been hamming it up at the fundraiser it had been snapped at.

His blond hair glistened in the summer sun. Blue eyes sparkling. I was hanging off my husband, laughing like a fool, cradling Bucky, our new malamute pup, a shelter rescue of course. We’d had no idea then that within a month Liam would be dead. Multiple myeloma. Stage four bone cancer. He found a lump in his groin and three weeks later he was dead. At thirty-three years old. What the ever-loving fuck!? I mean, how did something like that even happen to a man that strong and vibrant?

“Yeah, no, I get it,” I said after the long pause on the other end of the phone finally registered. I picked up the image of Liam and me in happier times and held it up in front of the AC. He’d always hated to be hot. Slept with a fan on all winter long. There I’d be under four layers of covers in long johns and wool socks, cussing about the icy wind blowing over us, and he’d just stretch those long athletic limbs out and sigh. Tennis players from Sweden were not right in the head.

“Stupid man, sleeping naked all winter,” I mumbled wistfully. “Right, I get it. Just for another month? Thanks, Lenny. You’re the best. Yeah, the standard plea for volunteers and helpers in the kennels. Kitten cuddlers, puppy smoochers—you know. Play up the fuzzy factor. Next week’s paper sounds good. Thanks again.”

I hung up before he could change his mind. Not that he would. I didn’t think. I hoped. We were walking a financial tightrope now as it was. Having to shell out more for advertising to lure people in to work for free would mean one less paid staffer. And that was just not a doable thing. We only had one kennel manager, Diana Pierce, and an adoption counselor, Abby Barnes, on the payroll, and that was about all we could manage.

Our vet, Dr. Vince Owens, was a visiting vet who volunteered his time and never charged us unless it was something major that required surgery. Then the animal went to his office and we had to cough up the cash. Shots and routine stuff, Vince provided for free. And that was a real lifesaver. Paying for routine veterinary care would sink us, and the city really needed a no-kill shelter.

Sure, we had a big shelter over on the other side of the city, but they euthanized. A sad fact to be sure, and something that I hoped to avoid at all costs. If Crossroads closed, every dog and cat there would be shuttled across town. The majority would be put down, as they were older or had health issues. Hell, we were still trying to find homes for the old dogs people had dumped on our stoop last Christmas.

What kind of bastard dumps their old dog to make room for a Christmas puppy?

I was getting morose again. Time to get out of this stuffy box and maybe make the rounds. I pushed to my feet, stretched, and peeked around the desk at Bucky. Clear blue eyes blinked at me, his face resting on his front paws. Since malamute breeders cringe at blue eyes, we suspected that was why Bucky had been left outside a bar when he was about three weeks old. I guessed the breeder—rotten shit that he or she was—had seen those blue eyes and decided to get rid of that unwanted gene in a dumpster. Luckily for Bucky, Liam had found him, led to the trash receptacle by the whimpering, and brought him home to me.

“Morning, Winter Soldier,” I whispered. His left ear twitched. “You know your other dad named you something pretty amazing, right?”

He yawned, stretched, and slowly got to his feet. He knew he was kickass.

“Let’s go see what the other dogs are doing this morning.”

Bucky and I escaped the office for over an hour. Part of my job, aside from paperwork and groveling, was making sure all the animals were being treated humanely and that the facility was as clean as a whistle. Volunteers were saviors and angels in my book. Old women, college students, and those with gentle and loving hearts did some of the nastiest jobs in the shelter. You had to have a good heart to clean kennels and scoop litter boxes for nothing.

“Hey, boss.”

I glanced over my shoulder to see Diana jogging toward me. She was the kennel manager, but her title also covered the “Cat House”, a name we had wittily coined for the feline area.

My conversation with an old lab mix came to an end, but Bucky and the silver-muzzled black dog continued visiting.

“You have a call from Layton at the Railers,” Diana said.

Layton Foxx worked on the social media for the Harrisburg Railers and we needed to discuss how the team and the shelter could work together.

“Is he on the line now?” I left the kennel, which had been recently sanitized with pine disinfectant. I was aiming for the main office, which was where the public entered and began adoption proceedings.

“No, he said to call him when you had a minute. You think they’re going to let us go to the arena with more dogs? That last visit netted us eight adoptions!”

Diana was a darling woman. Mid-forties, divorced, daughter in college. Short, kind of plump, curly brown hair cut short, and trustworthy. She was the only person in the shelter who knew the horrid details of Liam’s last month. She’d suffered through his loss with me. And now, bless her, she felt she needed to guide me back into the world of romance.

“Yeah, that was a great idea. They seemed open to that becoming a regular thing, but since they’re now in the playoffs, our visits are going to be limited.”

“Well, he said he wanted to talk to you at your earliest.”

I whistled for Bucky. “Maybe I’ll just ride over to the arena.”

“Office getting a bit claustrophobic?” She gave me a knowing look.

“Just a bit,” I confessed, snapping a leash onto Bucky after he stopped the “WEAREGOINGINTHECAR!” dance. “I’ll be back in an hour. Call if anything massive happens.”

She shoved me out the door. Bucky and I crossed the parking lot, stopping to chat with a family eying Fifi, a female poodle who had been bumped by a car about two months ago. She was an older dog, and her healing had been slow, but now she was back in form and looking for a forever home.

After I directed the man and woman to the office, Bucky led me to my old Jeep Cherokee. We got him buckled in first, then I snapped the seat belt around my chest. I sniffed the air.

“Why does my Jeep smell like dog?” I looked at Bucky. He looked at me. “You need a bath.”

He whined a bit. Bucky hated water but loved the snow. Snow could melt all over him and that was fine, but you fill up the tub and he was hiding behind the couch.

“Okay, so what do you want to listen to? Earth, Wind, & Fire, or Kool and the Gang?”

He picked EW&F. I could tell. Dog loved that band as much as I did.

Traffic was light this time of day. The morning commuters were where they needed to be, and lunch was a couple of hours off. I checked my phone, found nothing from my great-aunts, whispered a thanks to the Big Guy, and turned up The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Cruising to the north side of town, jamming and singing, I pulled into the East River Arena and parked by the same door I had used when I’d been there before. There were no people to be seen, just cars, some pretty damn expensive.

“Bet that Jag over there doesn’t smell like dog,” I mentioned to Bucky. He sneezed. “Oh hell, Shining Star.”

Damn, but I loved this song. I cranked the volume up and started seat-dancing. I would have gotten out and danced, since I was a pretty good dancer, but seat-dancing and singing would have to suffice. I liked singing too. Pastor Bert at my church thought I had a fine voice. Course, he said that to everyone in the choir, but I took it to heart.

I was belting out the lyrics, the windows down, enjoying the living hell out of my hour of office freedom. Someone slapped me on the arm through my open window. It hurt. I mean, like it really hurt. I threw a look to the left, and there stood the huge Russian I’d met a couple of times previously. Stan. The Railers’ goalie. He was grinning widely.

“I make dance too! Like Dick Clark!”

I gaped at the moose shaking his ass all over the parking lot. The man with him, a leaner guy with a head of blond curls, chuckled at him but never once asked him to stop.

“I am making milkshake to bring boys for to my yard,” Stan yelled.

That one got me, and I laughed out loud. Bucky barked loudly, picking up the happy vibes.

“Dude, you are for sure going to have all kinds of boys in your yard,” I told Stan after I’d exited my Jeep and had Bucky’s leash in hand.

“Thank you. I am good with shaking money maker. Is this dog for us?” Stan crouched down to run his fingers over Bucky’s soft head.

“Stan, we really can’t do a dog yet,” the blond said.

“Oh, well no, but soon. We win Cup and then make dog. Big one. Like this, but ugly with long teeth.”

“I’m not sure we can find you an ugly dog with long teeth,” I confessed.

“Yeah, we’re not looking for an ugly dog. Stan,” the blond said, and extended his hand. We shook, then he led Stan off, fingers linked with the big Russian’s. Well, huh. Gay people were just all over the place. I did recall reading about Tennant Rowe coming out but had never heard anything about the goalie. I wasn’t a huge Railers fan. My heart was with the Washington hockey team, since I’d been born and raised in D.C. and only moved here after college to keep an eye on my two elderly great-aunts.

Aunts who were awfully quiet today.

I checked my phone again, saw nothing from the police or the neighbors, and decided to enjoy a peaceful and tranquil day.

“Nice dog.” I paused just this side of the players’ entrance at the deep voice coming from behind me. There was something about that man’s voice…the timbre of the bass or the way he spoke. Not sure what it was, but the last time he’d spoken to me my body had had the same kind of reaction. A spear of latent heat low in my belly followed by a shiv of icy dread.

“Thanks.” I wanted to stare at the door. Or run. I couldn’t do either of those, though, so I turned to face the bearded man. Christ, but he was fierce-looking. Like a Viking, with piercing eyes and an aura that screamed berserker. He was bigger than me. Taller by at least four inches and probably sixty pounds. He was wearing a suit, as Stan and Erik had been, but his looked incredibly fine on his burly frame. Dark blue with a silver tie and a white shirt. His biceps strained the material trying to contain them.

“His name is Bucky.” There now, I had spoken to the man who made my heart leap around inside my chest like a frog on a highway.

“Like Captain America’s sidekick?” He looked down at my worn T-shirt with Cap’s shield on it.

“Exactly like that.”

He took another step, which put him into my little personal space bubble, his gaze and mine locked. I wet my lips and jerked my chin up a bit. I wasn’t going to let some hockey player intimidate me.

“Cute dog. Hot owner.” He gave me a long, slow look, petted Bucky, and stepped around the dull-witted man trying to digest the fact Mr. Fear had said he was hot. “Are you coming in, or are you teaching your dog to open doors mentally?”

“I’m here to see Layton Foxx.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m here to participate in morning skate.”

“I know who you are. Max van Hellren. You played for Washington four years ago.”

He tugged the door open and settled a kind of bored look on me. “Yeah, that was me. You like Washington?”

“Hometown team.” Bucky barked to back me up. Max smiled. All the ferocity that oozed out of him dissipated when he smiled. The man was seriously fine.

“Maybe I can change your mind about which team to cheer for, Mr. Washington Fan.”

“Ben. My name is Ben.”

He nodded just once, his hand still keeping the door open. “Ben. I like that. Suits you. So, are we coming in or are we going to flirt here in front of Pete?”

A security guard peeked around the door and winked at me. I wanted to die. Right there.

“I don’t flirt,” I snapped. I stalked around Max and Pete and went off to find Layton Foxx. Determination hot in my breast kept me from looking back to see if Max was checking out my ass. I hoped he was and I prayed he wasn’t.


Chapter 2

Max

I followed Tall Dark and Gorgeous into the arena, kind of disappointed when he turned left, heading for the admin offices, and I had to carry on into the bowels of the arena and the locker rooms. I wasn’t stupid; there was a spark there with Ben-the-Washington-Fan, and you know, love is love, and sex is sex, and I’d surely like some of the latter with him. Of course, he’d have to leave his dog outside the room, but we could work around that.

Still, it didn’t matter. This was the Railers, the biggest rainbow-flag-flying team in the history of the NHL, I wasn’t one to go around flirting with strangers in front of people who might see me. I had a reputation as a hard guy to uphold, and flirting was a hundred kinds of soft and sexy and hot.

“A word?” Coach Madsen asked as he stepped out from the shadows. As if he’d been waiting for me.

“I’m not late,” I said, and looked at my watch just to check. As soon as I saw I was in fact at least an hour early, I felt a familiar dread seep into me and I had to stop myself from pressing a hand to my head.

No one knows. No one will ever know.

Coach Madsen, or Mads as we called him on the team, frowned at my exaggerated reaction. “No, jeez, cool your jets—I’m not a school principal, and you’re not late. I just wanted to go over some video with you from Saturday’s game.”

Relief flooded into me as quickly as dread had, and yet again I was in the position of having to look as if nothing in the world worried me at all. I wouldn’t have to lie for very much longer; this was my last year in hockey. I knew it, Coach Madsen knew it; hell, the entire NHL was painfully and vocally aware this defenseman, over thirty now, was on his last hurrah on an expansion team.

Never mind the Railers had made it to the first round of the Stanley Cup, the gleaming goal for any hockey player, I was still a man on his way out on a team that still hadn’t shown exactly how far they could go in the standings. Last year they’d made it this far and been knocked out. This year they had me.

Oh, and wonder boy Ten, also Toly, Dieter, and poor Arvy at home with a fucked knee, and Stan in goal, and…yeah, it wasn’t just me, but anyone who looked at my record would be able to see I could make a difference.

If I don’t collapse and die on the ice first.

Way to be melodramatic.

“Okay, Coach, we can do that. You want to do it after practice?”

“It was just one thing—come in now,” Mads said, and began walking toward the office he shared with the goalie coach. He expected me to follow, and I did. I respected the hell out of Jared Madsen. A solid defenseman, he would have gone all the way on a team that loved him if it hadn’t been for a heart issue. He’d chosen to stop then, wanting more from life than the rush of playing. But then he’d found Ten, so he was okay, living his dream vicariously through his lover and being the best D-coach I’d ever had the fortune to play for.

Why would I want to give up skating, even with my issues? I had no one to replenish the gap that skating filled. I had glory and success in my future, and nothing was getting in my way.

Although I wouldn’t mind the odd pit-stop with a strong, sexy, cute, dog-owning man who’d caught my eye.

Mads sat at his desk and swung his chair around, pressing a button to start the VT.

“This,” he said, and pointed at the screen.

It was another Flyers game. All we’d done was watch game tapes over the last few weeks since we’d captured our place in the finals. We’d drawn the Philly team as our opponent and needed to get as much information as we could to make our game plans. Coach Benton was all about the process, about playing the game and not worrying about tricks from the other team. His mantra was that we played right and we’d have a greater chance to win.

But we all wanted that edge; that one small thing that could light the lamp.

“See?” Mads gestured with a laser pointer. “See how they lose control on the rebound here? If you could get in, you could collect that and shuttle it up without losing sight of Ten.”

“Play it again.” I sat on the corner of his desk, making sure not to put my entire weight there in case the damn thing collapsed. I wasn’t one of those D-men who were light on their feet and all about finessing the puck off the other team’s offense. I was the grinder, the heavyweight who wasn’t afraid to take punches and give them straight back. I was an instigator, a defender, the man who could take a lagging game and give the team the impetus to fight back. A throwback to the old and bad days of hockey, and every team needed someone like me when they had generational phenoms like Ten on their team.

I was good at what I did, and the problem there is that when you're really good at what you do as a D-man, you get sent out against the opponents' most skilled scorers. Damn, it’s hard to keep up with some of them. Like Ten for instance, although luckily for me I was on his team now.

The coaches put me with Ten, I had his back, and for that I knew Jared respected me.

I thrived on that, on respect, being the hero, hearing the roar of the crowd and knowing they loved what I was doing for their team.

Christ knew what I would do when this was over. I couldn’t be a coach, not like Mads. I’d want to be on the ice all the time, muscling my way through another game.

“So, what do you think?” Mads asked as he played it for the third time. I could see what he was showing me, and I needed to get my head out of thinking about the next part of my sorry life and focus on the here and now. Here was the arena; now was our upcoming first game against the Flyers.

“I think they should tone down the orange,” I quipped, in reference to the brightness of the Flyers’ gear.

“About the—”

“I know what you mean, I can see it, I’ll work on it.” And then because this was Ten I would be looking out for, I added what I knew Mads wanted to hear. “I’ll get to the puck but I won't let them get to Ten.”

“I wasn’t worried about that,” he lied to my face.

“Of course not,” I lied back.

That was how we rolled.


When I left the small office, heading for the locker rooms, I came face to face with Stan on his hands and knees, in his full goalie kit, ass in the air, fussing over the dog Ben had brought in with him. No sign of Ben at the moment.

Stan spoke Russian to the dog, who had rolled on its back, exposing its belly for a rub. I made out one word, the name Noah, then a lot more curiously shaped vowels and consonants that meant nothing to me.

I’d played with a hundred Russians in my time, and they all had a place in my heart, these big strong guys with the weird language that made no sense to me at all.

“You like?” Stan asked, and I realized he was looking up at me, the big goofy idiot.

“Dogs?” I asked, and crouched down to fuss over Bucky as I’d overheard Ben call him. He was soft, and warm, and reminded me of this mutt we had when I was a kid, a collie lab mix who had never left my side. I’m not ashamed to admit when Scooter died at eleven, I cried for days. I was already in the draft, called up for the AHL team attached to the Hawks, but I cried like a baby for the dog who had been mine.

“I love dogs,” I said, simple and to the point.

“I’m steal him,” Stan joked. “Not tell Erik.”

I stood up and smiled down at the Russian and the dog he wanted to steal. "Think Ben might have something to say to that."

Talk of the devil and there he was, with Layton Foxx at his side. Truth, I’d never seen such a fine-looking pair of men standing together.

I really need to find someone to scratch this itch. I need to get laid soon, before I spontaneously combust.

“There he is,” Ben said, and reached for the leash. “I take my eye off him for one minute…”

Stan looked so disappointed Ben was there taking the dog it was comical. I didn’t want to laugh but it just happened.

Stan huffed and stalked away, and that left me with Ben, Layton, and the dog in the lonely corridor.

“We meet again,” I said to Ben, then groaned inwardly. Lame. My game was so not on point.

I eased past Ben, which was a tight fit, and sue me if I didn’t press a little more that I needed to on his arm. He stepped back, nearly falling over Bucky, and I gripped him to stop him from barreling into Layton. Call it a hockey instinct, or just a need to get my hands on him. Who knows, but I was there, and I held him until he shrugged me off. He glared at me, then pointedly turned his back to me.

“So, this would be all the team for the calendar, or can I pick who I want?” he said to Layton, as they walked away talking. I heard my name, and a chuckle from Layton, before they headed out to the kitchen.

“Heads up,” someone shouted, and I only just ducked in time to avoid getting a soccer ball to my head. I retrieved the ball and threw it back to Westy and Mac.

“Stupid rookies,” I muttered, and muscled my way through, ignoring their laughter as much as I’d ignored Ben and Layton’s.

No one laughed at the big bad defender.

And when I took both rookies to the floor at the beginning of practice, I felt vindicated when I saw in their eyes that it was a lesson from me.

If only I could get Ben on the floor under me, all wriggling and cursing at me.

Now that would be a Very Good Thing.

Practice was hard. Our first game in the finals was on the Flyers’ home ice, which meant a plane, and hotels, and messing with the rhythms of our day. We’d deal with all that; at the end of the day, it was all about the hockey.

Ten cornered me, as much as you can corner someone on an oval piece of ice.

“Did Mads show you the—”

“Yes.”

“And did you—”

“Yes.”

“Okay then.”

We fist-bumped, because we just got each other. I’ve seen a lot of kids come up and be labelled the next great one when they were still wet behind the ears, but Ten here, he had hockey smarts, and speed, and everyone genuinely liked him.

Well, except for the section of the Railers’ fans that felt Ten was defined by what he did with his dick. Morons.

I’d already heard some of the chirping he got from certain skaters on opposing teams, just enough to inform me which assholes I was taking off their skates into the boards. No one said things loud enough to get caught, no one spoke clearly, but nevertheless it was an easy go-to thing to comment on a man’s sexuality.

I preferred using my brawn over my brain when it came to getting things done.

Didn’t mean I was short of a brain, though.

Just that my brain had this thing in it, and it wasn’t good, and I didn’t even want to think about it.

“Again,” Mads said, and had me and James “Westy” Sato-West, a newbie up from the minors, going two-on-one with Ten. Little shit still got past the both of us, a slap shot to the net, and not even Stan could stop that one.

Ten crowed a little—he’d earned that—and then he snowed to a stop right next to me.

“Better luck next time,” he said with a grin.

“Little shit,” I cursed, but I was smiling, because fuck I felt alive out here.

We finished with what I affectionately called circle time, all of us around the inner Railers’ logo on the ice, all taking a knee and listening to assessments and timetables.

We were flying out the day after tomorrow. Flight left at five p.m. Hotel was assigned. Optional practice in the Flyers’ place the morning of the game. We were told to skip the ice tomorrow, spend our time in the gym, work with the therapists on any lingering issues, and then be ready to fly out.

Some of the guys were beaten and bruised after the end of a heavy season; we all needed some TLC, but I wished we could have got the skate time tomorrow, early, when the ice was new and maybe I was the only one out on it.

Just me, the ice, and the echoing ghosts of the cheers from the last game.

I was the last off the ice. It was kind of a thing I had going on at all my teams; it didn’t bother me when I got on the ice and in what order, there was no superstition there, but leaving the ice at practice? That was all me being last.

God knows why. Maybe it was that part of me that said if I wore the same shirt on game day, or a particular tie to a game against LA, then we would win. Hockey superstition is a weird thing.

I saw him before he saw me, or at least, he was staring off in the other direction, making shapes with his hands as he talked to Layton, who was grinning at him as if Ben was telling him the best joke ever.

I wanted to walk over and see if they were still laughing about me, but I didn’t.

Not at first, anyway. Only when Layton answered his cell and that left Ben on his own did I think about culling him from the herd.

I used all my best moves, coming up on his blind side, nearly tripping over the dog, and sliding effortlessly between Ben and Layton, who took his call a little farther away.

Me and Ben. Alone. Finally.

“We should get coffee. Or beer. Or a hotel room,” I announced, because hell, life was too short to mess around. Ben could say yes or punch me in the face, and either I could handle.

“You just don’t take a hint, do you?” he said, and wrapped Bucky’s leash around his hand, ready to move off.

“You know you find me hot.”

“Jesus, you’re an arrogant ass—”

I leaned in to him. “I don’t mess about. You’re fucking gorgeous and I want to fuck you into tomorrow.”

“What if I want to be the one doing the fucking?” he snapped, then blanched when he realized what he’d said.

God, I was so hard my cup was cutting off circulation. The idea of this man getting it on and taking charge was exactly my kind of thing.

“I can go for that,” I whispered.

“Why are you messing with me like this?” he asked, horrified, and looked around him. “Is this some kind of sick joke? A game?”

“No joke, and Ben, I don’t play games,” I said.

Something in that must have resonated with him because he stopped in his tracks and there was something in his expression—a hope, a need—and it was the same as mine.

“Max—”

“I’ll be at Blue. It’s a bar on—”

“I know where it is.”

“I’ll be there at eight. Your choice.”

I didn’t give him any time to discuss or argue. The offer was there—we met at Blue, we had a drink, we talked, maybe we had sex up against a wall. Either way, I’d found the way in to this beautiful man’s mind. A simple promise I didn’t play games.

“Wait,” he called after me as I headed for the lockers. I didn’t stop. I’d laid it out there, and now it was on him what happened next.


Chapter 3

Ben

Longest. Day. Ever.

I’d spent hours debating and whining, bouncing back and forth over whether I should meet Max or not. It had taken me until four o’clock to slap myself and make the call. Yes. Drinks with the big man who looked at me as if I was filet mignon. Why? Because there was a current, sharp and hot, and it had been years since I’d felt that kind of spark.

Getting out of the office at six—an hour past my “official” quitting time, which I never actually saw because shelter manager—added another sixty minutes to the torture.

“What do I say to him when I show up?”

You say you want to fuck him until he passes out. Then fuck him—or have him fuck you—until you or he passes out. Simpleton.

“That really wasn’t a question I needed answered, brain.” Bucky glanced over at me as we made our way to Allison Hill and the red brick row houses me and my two great-aunts called home. “Talking to myself. Go back to what you were doing.”

The malamute gave me a knowing look and returned to his previous entertainment, which was riding along with his snout out the six-inch dog-nose-sized gap in the window, slobber flying off him on occasion to coat said window and speckle my arm.

Pulling up to a red light, I glanced at the clock on the stereo. Quarter after six. Why was I so obsessed with time today?

You know why.

“Okay, seriously, I will shut your shit down, brain!” Bucky rolled those blue eyes toward me, the whiskers over his eyes twitching in what seemed to be amusement. “It’s not funny.”

No, it was not funny. Not at all. I’d made an ass of myself over a man. That hadn’t happened since…forever. Since Liam.

“Right, so what we’re going to do is just meet for drinks. No fucking.”

Bucky woofed out the window.

“No, see, fucking is for the nameless men. Max has a name. Well, okay, yeah, the other men did too, but they didn’t make me feel as if I’d swallowed live goldfish when I thought about them.”

The light turned green just as I cranked up the volume on some slow stuff from Lionel Ritchie. We drove as I talked. When I came out of the conversational fog, we were about four blocks from my street. I shook off the spike of fear I’d felt after realizing I’d driven for ten minutes and not once noted my surroundings. I’d get myself killed over a man with whiskey-colored eyes and a voice like a chainsaw on idle.

Allison Hill was a rough neighborhood or had been. It still was in pockets, but there were now areas that had been gentrified. And then, on the south side of Allison Hill, there were abandoned houses filled with squatters, many with addicts who slept on beds of empty syringes and shattered dreams.

The bad side of the city was why I’d moved up after I’d gotten that spiffy major in business administration with a minor in animal science. My two great-aunts on my father’s side had lived there all their lives. When crime had started taking over their neighborhood, instead of moving down to D.C. with my parents as they’d been begged to do, they’d simply dug in like ticks and begun speaking out for the people of the area. That had brought them a lot of trouble from criminal elements who didn’t want the streets cleaned up. Enter Benton Worthington, nephew extraordinaire and bail-payer for two wild women who should be home knitting and baking cookies instead of playing social justice warriors in their late seventies and early eighties.

The job offer from Crossroads had come before I’d even fully moved in, which had been a miracle, but one didn’t question blessings. They just thanked God for them.

And I had every day for the past several years. My job, Liam, good health, and a full life had been in my grasp. Life had been good. So good that I’d been rapidly promoted. Only two years after I’d become shelter manager, the owner, who had been aged and sickly, had offered Liam and me the shelter. We’d talked, plotted, begged, borrowed, and came close to stealing to raise the down payment. Legally, all had been settled after the transfer of ownership had taken place. Our wills had both stated that should one of us die before the other, the shelter went to the surviving spouse. Little had we suspected that one of us would be gone within a few years.

When Liam had died, the sunny gloss had faded from my existence. So had passion and feeling and the hot lick of attraction for another man. All gone. Until I’d gone and looked into Max van Hellren’s eyes and seen fire and life there.

Bucky whimpered, and I stared at our house while moving past.

“Shit. Next time tell me I drove past our place before I drive past it. Sorry, not your fault. Totally on me.”

Bucky’s tail thumped against the seat. I circled the block, parked in my designated slot in front of the row of townhomes, and unbuckled my dog. He leaped out of the Jeep and trotted to number 20, knowing we’d go check on the old gals before entering our own small house.

My aunts were in the kitchen, at the table, the small kitchen smelling of coffee and rebellion.

“What are we protesting this week?” I asked, giving each of the short women a kiss on a leathery cheek. Both were gray, wrinkled, and as lean as whippets. Neither had ever married, and they had never borne any children.

“Unfair wages,” replied Aunt Carol—the youngest, at seventy-seven—as her brush moved with confidence over the blank top of a picket sign.

“That prick Senator Rudy wants to vote down a raise in the minimum wage. Don’t those rich politicians know that a higher minimum wage will mean poor people can buy more goods, which will help small businesses and lower crime since stealing and robbing folks isn’t needed if you can earn a decent living?” Aunt Glenna—the older at eighty-one—waved a hand at the microwave. “There’s a plate of pork chops and scalloped potatoes for you.”

“Thanks, but I grabbed something at work.” That was a lie—I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. My stomach was too knotted to eat. I stole a look at the clock on the wall. Ten after seven. I had to get a move on or risk being late.

“If you’re free on Saturday, come march with us,” Carol said, tongue between teeth as she painted some sort of slogan on her sign. I began inching toward the back door.

“Yeah, come join us as we stick it to the man,” Glenna chimed in, then stapled some poster board to a slat of wood.

“I’m pretty sure no one says ‘the man’ anymore,” I commented, my eyes darting back to the clock. “And if I go and get arrested, who will bail your backsides out?”

“He makes a good point,” Carol said as she painted.

“You okay, baby? You look off.” Glenna reached out to take my hand.

I gave her a wobbly smile. “Just low blood sugar.”

They both stopped making signs and gave me that look. The one that was stuffed with frustration.

“Benton, baby, have you been running too hard again?” Carol looked at me through paint-smeared bifocals. “You know all that jogging during the summer makes you faint.”

“Once. That happened one time.” I held up a finger, then slid toward the door, Bucky waiting with his nose flat to the screen in the door. “And that was only because I didn’t hydrate properly. I have to run to stay in shape. My job has me behind a desk for…” I sighed. I gave up. We’d been over my need to jog a thousand times. There was no changing some minds.

Both old women gave me surly looks.

“I have to go out tonight. Can you check on Bucky in a couple of hours and let him out? Thanks. Night!”

I ran out, tripped over the dog, and nearly went on my nose.

“Where are you heading to, Benton?”

“Is it a date?”

God above, save me from old women. “Just a meeting. About dog crates.”

I grabbed Bucky’s leash, and we hightailed it next door.

My skinny house was stuffy. Bucky ate dinner, then curled up on the bed to nap while I opened the windows, showered, shaved, and tried to find clothes that said I was maybe interested but not madly in lust.

“So, clothes that lie,” I said to my reflection in the mirror that hung on the back of the closet door. I settled on a short-sleeved cotton shirt, soft blue, one Liam had said was my color. Then jeans, clean but not pressed, and some loafers. Maybe a watch? I yanked open my underwear drawer, and there it was. The small soft square of velvet that I’d wrapped my wedding band in just two months ago.

Suddenly I felt traitorous. I sat on the bed beside Bucky, gently opening the folded swatch. The thin gold band blinked at me in the late day sun. I slid it on, eyes closing, memories rushing over me. The day Liam had proposed right after we’d graduated college, our frantic plans to get up into Canada to get married, and the sheer joy of the day we exchanged bands and vows. Rubbing my finger over the smooth circlet of gold, I could see Liam’s brother Rolf storming into the small venue we’d rented upon coming back to the States. Rolf, the sneering hateful bigot who never could decide what sickened him the most: his brother marrying a fag or his brother marrying, in his words, a black fag. Only he didn’t use the word black, but loved throwing the most offensive terms he could to describe the color of my skin. Never mind Liam was also gay. It was all me. I had led his baby brother astray.

“Man was a flaming jackass,” I told Bucky. My dog rolled onto his back, so I rubbed his belly for a moment, letting the memories fade away just a bit. The dog dozed off, and I glanced at the clock beside the bed.

“Shit.” I rushed from the bedroom, grabbed my wallet and keys from the side table by the front door, and slid out, promising Bucky I’d be home in an hour.

I cruised into Blue’s parking lot on South Cameron Street nearly thirty minutes later. Parking was a hassle, but I finally found a slot around back. I inhaled, exhaled, and let the dulcet tones of The Miracles wash over me.

“Right. Drinks with a sexy man. You got this, Benton.”

The moment I entered the bar I could feel those predatory eyes on me. It felt as if cougars had spotted a newborn lamb bounding across the pasture.

Max watched me walk to him, sipping from a tumbler that held something amber. The tables were full, as were the booths along the wall, where Max held the last one by the jukebox.

“I thought you were going to blow this off,” Max said as I sat down across from him in the wide booth.

“Had to work late.”

He waved at the bartender as he sipped. His tongue darted out to grab a small droplet of liquid, the sight spearing me in the groin, unfurling into hot fingers of lust.

“Whiskey and water,” I told the barkeep. Max looked pleased with my drink choice.

“Glad you came,” he said, his gaze roaming over me as a smile worked along his lips, pulling up the corners then fading. “So, you go and get married since this morning?”

My eyebrows knotted, then I remembered the band on my finger. “Oh, uh, no. I was just trying it on and forgot to take it off.”

“Planning on getting married, then?” His demeanor seemed chilly now.

“No, I was married. He died. I was feeling…” I leaned back to let the bartender place my drink in front of me. I paid, and the barkeep left. “I’m not sure what I was feeling.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He sounded sincere. I nodded, picked up my drink, and met his gaze. “You sure you’re into this?”

I drained my glass. “I thought we could maybe talk. Get to know each other.”

“If that’s really what you want? I mean, if that’s what you came here for, then I’m happy to shoot the shit, but what I’m feeling simmering between us hasn’t got much to do with talking.”

A shiver of want skittered over my flesh. He was right. He was wrong. He was too damn masculine to be real.

I slid out of the long seat, my gaze locked with his. He followed me out the door, neither of us saying a thing until we stood by my Cherokee. Then I turned to look at him.

“I thought we could maybe talk out here. See, there’s this spark…”

He reached for me, massive hand latching onto the back of my neck. The kiss was rough, hungry, fierce. Kind of like how he played hockey. It stole my breath, and my senses as well it seemed, because somehow, as tongues tangled and teeth scraped, we managed to fall into my car. There was no way we had enough room. We were behind a damn bar. People could walk out and see us. Didn’t stop us. I guess neither of us had much sense.

“Shut the door,” I panted as we broke apart in the mad rush to touch each other. He did, thankfully not on anyone’s leg. Max was under me, his hands now pushing at my shirt, shoving it up to bare my chest. As his mouth settled over my left nipple, I found the lever and the seat slammed back as far as it would go.

“You taste like pure sin,” he murmured, then tugged soundly on my nipple. My spine tightened. I rotated my hips after my legs settled on either side of him. Stiff cock moved over stiff cock. He inhaled, pulling cooler air over my already sensitive nipple. “Turn around.”

“No. What? Oh shit.” He was shoving at me roughly. Our legs were far too long for this shit, but we managed to untangle ourselves. I leaned in to suckle on his mouth before facing forward. He was hot single malt whisky on my tongue. His thick beard scratched my face. Kissing. I’d not done this since Liam had been alive. The hookups? No, no kissing for them. That made things too personal, I guessed. I’d missed the taste and pressure of a man’s mouth on mine.

He was forceful but gentle, if that makes sense. Pushing and pulling, wild to get me how he wanted me yet never making me feel caged. “Get these down.”

Hands on my hips, he yanked my pants down, taking my best boxer briefs down with them. God above, it was getting stuffy in this car. His hands roamed over my ass, fondling the tight orbs, his skin calloused and scratchy. Perfect.

“Need a condom.” He lifted himself as if reaching into a back pocket.

I jerked and pulled until I had one leg free, then I leaned up, arms over the dash, ass open and needy. Hearing him rip open a condom packet then spit onto his hand had me whimpering.

“Yes…hell fire, yes,” I mewled, fingers grasping at the dashboard while he eased me back into position. He spat again. My eyes rolled back into my head. Sweat beaded on my brow and upper lip.

“Sit back on me, Ben. Easy. Fuck. Oh fuck, you should see this…”

It took all I had not to faint from the sheer delight of a man’s fat cock breaching me.

“Your ass is perfect. Yeah, good, sit down now. Easy, easy. So hot.” He thrust upward, driving his cock so far into me I yelped, then groaned. “Ride me. Hard. Yeah, good man. Fuck yeah. Good man.”

With his fingers biting into my hips, we fucked like beasts, my chest thumping into the dash when he drove up into me, his knee slapping the door each time I dropped to impale myself. We paused a few times for him to spit on his hand and spread the spittle on his cock, then I was back on him, eager as hell for the stretch and burn.

“You close?”

“Yeah,” I huffed while rolling my ass in circles, his dick deeply embedded in me. Max made this guttural sound every time I did that. I did too.

He slid a sweaty arm around me, hoisting me up. My head slammed into the roof, then I arched back to lie on him, arms locked overhead, hands splayed on the headliner fabric.

“Just sit there and move your hips as you do.” His voice was even grittier now. He fisted my cock. “Fuck but you’re juicy,” he murmured into my skin as he worked precum over the head of my prick. “Come for me now. Sit still. Come for me and let your sweet ass sucking and grabbing me pull me over. Do it. Let go, Ben. Yeah, that’s it, baby. Fuck yeah. Shit. Ah, shit.”

The orgasm came quickly. I shot hot and violently, garbled sounds that were barely human burbling out of me. He held me tight to him with his left hand, his hold slightly painful, which made the release that much better.

His teeth found the nape of my neck, and he latched on as he came. Writhing, slick with sweat and covered with my own cum, I squeezed tightly, grabbing his kicking cock internally, milking him wantonly.

“Ah hell,” I gasped, spent and soaked with sweat and semen, my muscles contracting then loosening over and over.

“Fucking beautiful man,” Max growled beside my ear as the mating frenzy abated.

There I sat—lay, whatever—my back on his chest, his cock so far inside me that drawing deep breaths was hard, eyes closed, blissed out.

“I think I came on the dash,” I finally blurted out. Max chuckled. It was a dirty little laugh that made me smile. Fuck, but that had been fantastic. Messy. Messy. Oh fuck. So messy and sweaty and rough, just as sex should be. “We never talked about our status.”

That kind of cut through the rosy afterglow. Max muttered something against my shoulder, licked a hot path up my sweaty neck, then eased me up off him.

“Sorry, yeah, things kind of got stupid.”

I fell into the driver’s side, my pants dangling off one leg, my ass over the console. I tensed for a second when I felt his fingers slipping down the crack of my ass. He rubbed at my hole with two fat fingers, working them into me. I shuddered and pushed back against those digits, begging for more of him in me. Fingers, dick, tongue—didn’t matter. As long as he got inside me again.

“I’m negative. Always careful,” he said.

“Mm, mmm.” I couldn’t speak while he was fingering me so gently.

“Like that?”

“Yeah, so much. Me too. Negative. Use another finger.”

I got that raunchy chuckle again, then, sadly, he pulled out and gave my ass a loving little pat.

“Let’s go somewhere private. With some air.”

“I can do air.” I wiggled into the seat, rolled this way and that until I had my pants up over my ass and was sitting up facing the wheel. Max leaned over the console and kissed me, his hand falling to my cock still out in the air. “Need keys.”

“My place is close. I have stuff. Lube. Condoms. Toys. I’m easy. I just need more of you.”

“Where are my keys?!” I dug into my front pockets. My phone slid to the floor and started ringing. “Oh man, no…” I groaned as the familiar ringtone of a friend of mine—a fine member of the Harrisburg Police Department—filled the car. “I have to take that.’

“Okay, take it.” He flopped back into his seat, his hand still cradling my cock.

I placed the phone to my ear. “Dwayne, if my aunts are in lockup tell them I’ll be there in an hour.”

“Make it three,” Max said, hand still stroking my cock back to life.

“Three hours. Tell them I’ll be there in three—”

“Ben, it’s not your aunts. It’s the shelter. It’s been vandalized. The glass in the front door is busted in. Someone passing by saw it and called it in the same time the alarm from the security system rang through. We need you down here to tell us if anything has been stolen.”

“Dammit!” I threw a look at Max, who decided things weren’t going as we would have liked, so he dropped my cock. “Okay, I’ll be there in thirty. Thanks, Dwayne.”

“Any time, man.”

I hung up on the cop who’d adopted two of my older dogs for his kids.

“Trouble?”

Keys now in hand, I cranked the Jeep over, eager for the rush of stale but cool air.

“Shelter issues. Vandals. I have to go.” I looked to the right, sure he’d be pissed, but he seemed cool. Sweaty, and still with his big soft dick out, but cool.

“You want to do this again?” he asked.

“Can we make it to a bed next time?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

We tucked and zipped, and then I reached for him. My mouth took his, and he responded with passion. When we parted, his gaze was smoldering again.

“Give me your phone.”

I didn’t argue and watched as he typed in some numbers, took a selfie as the contact picture, sent himself a message, and handed it back to me.

“Now we have each other’s numbers. I’ll call when we’re back from Philly, beautiful man.” He patted my face, softly, then left the Jeep, closing the door and disappearing.

“Sweet baby Jesus,” I whispered, taking just a moment to try to work on a face that wouldn’t show the cops I’d just been fucked senseless in a parking lot. I needed more AC. Stat.


Chapter 4

Max

Coach Benton wasn’t moving. He didn’t walk up and down the locker room like my last head coach. He didn’t curse at us like the one I had before that, even. After twelve years in the league and seven different teams, I’d seen coaches pace, scream, throw things, and even cry. But Coach Benton was a whole new ballgame.

“So, we lost,” he summarized, quietly, controlled, his hands loose at his sides.

Yep. Too right we fucking lost.

All tied at three goals each, then the Flyers had got one past us twenty-three seconds into overtime. I’d been on the damn ice. It was me they’d got a goal past.

Now Coach would lose it, and I glanced at Mads, the defensive coach, who stood, arms crossed over his chest, just watching the room. I couldn’t get a fix on him either. I’d have thought he’d be consoling Ten, who was slumped in his stall looking as if someone had stolen all his toys and burned them in front of him.

“This is game one,” Coach continued. "We’re here again in two days, and we can win. We played a good game tonight; I saw a lot of smart moves out there.”

And then he left, and Mads followed him, as did the other assistants, and Julio the equipment guy, who exchanged looks with me as he went out.

I’d spent time on the plane yesterday talking to Julio. After all this time in the NHL, with my experience on varied teams, I knew the first person you made friends with was the guy in charge of the equipment. Leave coffees, Danishes, gifts, and leave them at the skate-sharpening altar, and they will respect that you respect them.


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