Saturday, March 31, 2018

March Book of the Month: Winter Cowboy by RJ Scott


Summary:
Micah Lennox left Whisper Ridge after promising the man he loved that he would never return. But the only way he knows to keep his pregnant sister and nephew safe is to go home. Spending winter in Wyoming opens too many old wounds, but he's on the run from justice which can't be far behind, and this is his last chance at redemption.

After a hostage situation leaves Doctor Daniel Sheridan struggling with PTSD, he returns to Whisper Ridge. Joining his dad in family practice is a balm to soothe his exhausted soul, and somehow, he finds a peace he can live with. That is until he meets Micah in a frozen graveyard, and the years of anger and feelings of betrayal boiling inside him, erupt.

Two broken men fight and scratch for their lives and that of their families, and somehow, in the middle of it all, they find each other.

Is it possible that love can be rekindled and become a forever to believe in?


When Micah Lennox promised the man he loved he would never return he intended to keep that promise but now he has to protect his pregnant sister and nephew. Whisper Ridge and the family ranch is the safest place he can think of to do just that.  Dr. Daniel Sheridan has returned to Whisper Ridge after a hostage situation has him living with PTSD and a certain level of survivor's guilt.  The last thing he wants to hear is that his former lover has broken his word to stay away.  Will Micah and Daniel be able to leave the past where it belongs and find a new future living in the same community or will the heartache and pain of long ago win out?

First, I just want to say a huge thank you to RJ Scott.  Not only is the book amazing but because of its awesomeness, I had an amazingly entertaining and relaxing trip to the Mayo Clinic.  It turned one of those "routine" days with Mom's doctors(you know the kind where you have to be there at 7am for blood, than 9 for an x-ray and then sit around till 4pm for the doc) into . . . well like I said it was just relaxing and entertaining, I got more than a few sideway glances when I gasped or grinned like a chesire cat but I loved every minute of it, so once again Thank You, RJ for making a long strung out day not so long and not so strung out.

Now as for the story, don't think because I used the term "relaxing" that its all sunshine and unicorns, oh no quite the opposite really.  Winter Cowboy is full of drama, heartache, and tears BUT its also jam packed to overflowing with amazing characters, incredible settings, second chances, and heart.  I'll admit that Daniel grated on my nerves at times with putting all the blame on Micah for the past, which I won't spoil, but I am going to say as a reader hearing both sides if I was in Daniel's shoes I would like to think I would be more honest about the situation but I can't say for certain I would do it differently.  Sometimes fate has their own clock, we may not agree with how its set but it usually gets us where we need to be and when.  I will admit I loved how both Micah and Daniel had issues to deal with and accept, more often than not it comes down to one character with the problem and the other "dealing" with it but not these boys they are both looking for a second chance.

I just want to finish by saying I have read many books and many authors over the years, both as a blogger and my personal reads and I have a small list of authors who continually ingratiate the secondary characters into a story to make them more than just window dressing, page filler, or fodder for the bad guys and RJ Scott is at the top of that list.  Whether its a character that will probably be at the center of a future tale(πŸ˜‰πŸ˜‰hint, hint at NeilπŸ˜‰πŸ˜‰), family that gives the main characters reason to return, or that judgmental couple you really want to knock on their ass.  They all add something that makes the journey better and has left me hungry for more from Whisper Ridge, Wyoming. I can't wait to see what RJ has in store next for this ranching community.

RATING: 


Chapter 1
2009, Daniel
A figure stood beside Isaac’s grave and I knew immediately who it was.

There was no marker yet for the boy who had died two weeks ago and who would forever be nineteen. Flowers marked his resting place, but snow had long since covered them and softened the raised earth so it wasn’t as obvious against the gravestones around the figure. A car accident had taken Isaac, killed him on impact, and his family grieved for a future that would never be realized.

I’d just left my brother, Chris, in the hospital, broken beyond repair in the same accident. At least we had the possibility of a future with him, even though the road to recovery would be hard. He was still in a medically induced coma, not yet awake to know he’d lost his leg, or that fire had marked his face. But he would wake up. They told us he’d live.

No one had asked me where I was going when I’d left Chris’ room, each of us lost in various stages of shock and grief, and we all dealt with what had happened in our own way. I’d needed to connect with Isaac. Needed the peace to balance the loss and guilt that ate away inside me.

Isaac dead on impact, Chris’ future destroyed, and in front of me, hunched over Isaac’s last resting place, was the man responsible for it all.

The man who left my bed in the dead of night to become a murderer.

Micah.

He was huddled into his coat, the January ice bitter by the buried, hands forced into his pockets, and his hood pulled around his face. Micah must have heard me, because he glanced my way, startled, grief written on his face. And then his expression changed.

He stepped toward me, his expression full of something like hope.

“Daniel?” he said. “Is Chris okay? No one will let me see him.”

He stopped walking when I didn’t reach out for him and looked at me uncertainly.

“His leg is gone, down from his knee,” I explained dispassionately, and then touched my face, “and his burns are bad, the left side of his face from his temple to his chin.”

“Shit. Shit.” Micah bent at the waist, as if he couldn’t breathe, and he was crying.

“How is it you don’t have a mark on you?” I asked, still eerily calm, and utterly focused.

He took his hand from his pocket, and pulled up his sleeve, exposing bandages. “I was burned,” he began. He dropped his hand when I didn’t comment, forced it back into his pocket, wincing as he did so.

I imagined the burn hurt a little, maybe even a lot, but he was there, as whole and real as when he’d left my bed on that terrible day.

In my mind I saw Chris in the hospital, the covers raised over the cage which protected his surgical site, then dipping lower where his ankle should have been. I saw a clear image of Isaac the day before he died, knocking for Chris and grinning at me as if he had the greatest secret to tell his best friend.

And here was Micah, telling me he had slight burns on his arm? The same man who’d told me in one breath that he loved me and then had stolen my car, driving it into a bridge and killing one boy, leaving another maimed and in a coma.

My fist flew, clenched aggression targeting Micah’s face, his cheekbone, and I heard a satisfying crunch. He staggered back a step, but he didn’t go down, and he didn’t take his hands from his pockets. I was too fast. I hit him again, blood flecking his face, dissipating into the icy air. He moved again, the force of my blows shoving him back.

Still, his hands remained in his pockets, and he was unnervingly quiet, taking my hits as if they were nothing at all. Another punch connected with his lip and split the skin, and this time he grunted in pain. He staggered backward toward the next grave and bent back over the stone marker with the force of that final blow. I stepped closer. I hit him again, connecting with his jaw, but the hit wasn’t hard. There was nothing to it; he didn’t move away.

“You took my car,” I yelled, right in his face.

“You said I could borrow it,” he pleaded.

I raised my hand to hit him again, but he winced, and closed his eyes, and I wanted him to look at me. “Open your damn eyes!”

He did, and he wouldn’t avert his gaze, naked grief in his expression.

“Daniel, please listen.”

“You’ve destroyed Chris’ life.”

“I know.”

“You need to leave Whisper Ridge, and never come back. I don’t want to see your face, I don’t want Chris to ever see you again. You understand?”

“I understand,” his tone low and broken.

“You will never come back here.” I shook him. He was smaller than me, thinner, lighter, and I shook him so hard his head snapped back. “Promise me!”

“I pr—promise,” he said through tears.

I was disgusted by him, hated him, wanted to kill him right there on Isaac’s grave.

“I hope they lock you up and throw away the fucking key!” I was still shouting, and he didn’t move, just stared at me with those pale eyes, red and wet from crying. He wouldn’t stop crying. “Don’t fucking stare at me!”

I shoved him one last time, and then before I could work out what the hell I was still doing there shouting at him, I pivoted and turned my back on him, and on Isaac’s grave, and the entire carnage.

Author Bio:
RJ’s goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.

RJ Scott is the bestselling author of over one hundred romance books. She writes emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn’t with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.


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Saturday's Series Spotlight: The Rainbow League by Kate McMurray


The Windup #1
Summary:
Ian ran screaming from New York City upon graduating from high school. A job offer too good to turn down has brought him back, but he plans to leave as soon as the job is up. In the meantime he lets an old friend talk him into joining the Rainbow League, New York’s LGBT amateur baseball league. Baseball turns out to be a great outlet for his anxiety, and not only because sexy teammate Ty has caught his eye.

Ty is like a duck on a pond—calm and laid-back on the surface, a churning mess underneath. In Ian, he’s found someone with whom he feels comfortable enough to share some of what’s going on beneath the surface. The only catch is that Ian is dead set on leaving the city as soon as he can. Ty works up a plan to convince Ian that New York is, in fact, the greatest city in the world. But when Ian receives an offer for a job overseas, Ty needs a new plan: convince Ian that home is where Ty is.

Thrown a Curve #2
Summary:
Mason made headlines when, after his professional baseball career was sidelined by an injury, he very publicly came out of the closet. Now he’s scratching the baseball itch playing in the Rainbow League while making his way through New York’s population of beefcakes, even though they all come up short. Plus, he’s still thinking about last summer’s encounter with hot, effeminate, pierced and tattooed Patrick—pretty much the opposite of the sort of man he has long pictured himself with.

Patrick hasn’t been able to forget Mason either, and now that baseball season is back upon them, he’s determined to have him again. Mason is unlike any man Patrick has ever been with before, and not just because he’s an ex-Yankee. All Patrick has to do is convince a reluctant Mason that their one night wasn’t just a crazy fluke and that they could be great together…if only Mason could get past his old hang-ups and his intolerant family.

The Long Slide Home #3
Summary:
Nate and Carlos have been the best of friends since their childhood playing baseball together in the Bronx. For the last few years, Nate’s been in love with Carlos, though he’s never acted on it, and Carlos has never given any indication that he returns Nate’s feelings. Nate has finally given up, determined to move on and find someone else, especially now that Carlos has shacked up with his boyfriend Aiden.

Carlos doesn’t understand why Nate has suddenly gotten weird, acting cold and distant at team practice for the Rainbow League. But if that’s how things are going to be, Carlos is done trying to figure Nate out. But then Aiden starts to show he might not be the man Carlos thought he was, and Carlos needs his best friend’s support. Worse, he starts to realize his feelings for Nate might not be limited to friendship. But in the aftermath of his relationship with Aiden, and with Nate having problems of his own, the timing is all wrong to make a real relationship work. As emotions run high, both have hard time figuring out what is real and what is just convenient.


The Windup #1
Chapter 1
IAN HAD been back in New York City for three whole weeks before he had a panic attack.

It happened one evening after he went to visit his mother. He felt off balance as he descended the front stoop of his childhood home, a gorgeous brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that Ian’s family had bought for peanuts back when the neighborhood was home to gangs and drug dealers instead of yuppies with strollers. When a ponytailed woman in yoga pants nearly ran over his foot with her double-wide stroller, Ian was not entirely convinced the neighborhood had improved. He had to admit, though, that it was prettier than it once had been, that the renovated old brownstones on Sixth Street had taken on a new sheen. The cherry trees lining the sidewalk were a nice touch, certainly.

So it was good to know that his mother was in a good place, even if he still basically hated the house. He’d spent the early part of the evening lounging on the same brown-and-cream plaid sofa that had sat in the living room since 1984. Then he’d had dinner at the scuffed table in the dining room, and it had all been routine, except not quite. Ian’s father had not been there. And that was cause for rejoicing.

His father’s decision to leave Ian’s mother and move to the suburbs was part of why Ian had moved back to New York to begin with. The paycheck his new employer had dangled before him was an even bigger incentive.

Although none of that mattered now that he was back in the relative safety of his nostalgia-free block on Eighty-Fourth Street, the Upper West Side of Manhattan being the farthest from Brooklyn he could move while still being reasonably close to the new job. Now his breathing had suddenly become a labored thing and his heart was beating faster. A vague disquiet plagued him, one he couldn’t quite put a finger on. He hadn’t been in New York long enough to establish a routine to deviate from, so that wasn’t the trigger. He was a few miles away from his childhood home, so that couldn’t be it either. Maybe it was just the noise of the city, louder than the neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs he’d just left, or the taxi that whooshed by him when he put his foot on the street to cross it. Maybe it was job stress. Maybe he had no business being back in New York.

He jaywalked, cutting across Eighty-Fourth Street to get from the north side to the south, where his building sat, and he could see the gold numbers above the glass doors that led inside, but then they went blurry. Armand, the doorman, took a step away from the door and shot Ian a quizzical look. Then, bam, right in the middle of the goddamn street, the panic attack seized him and all was lost. His vision went fuzzy, his heart rate kicked up too fast, and he gulped for air, but nothing was going to stave this off.

“Sweet Jesus,” he heard someone—probably Armand—say, and then a hand wrapped around his arm and yanked him into the building. Swiftly he was pushed into one of the ugly red chairs in the lobby, and a man—again, probably Armand, who was earning a larger holiday tip with each passing minute—shoved Ian’s head down so that he was hunched over, his head between his legs, and Armand was muttering, “Breathe. Just breathe.”

Though the symptoms eventually abated, the unease didn’t.

“I don’t even know what I’m panicking about,” Ian said softly to a furrow-browed Armand.

“You and everyone else in this neighborhood,” Armand said.

As he rode the elevator up to his apartment, Ian tried to remember what his mother had said. “Get out there. Meet new people. Make some friends.” Re-entrench was the implication. She wanted Ian to make New York his home again, even though he didn’t see how it ever could be. He’d work this job for a year or two and then he’d be off to the next one.

Besides, he had friends.

Once he felt almost normal again, Ian called Josh, not for advice but just to say hi. Unfortunately he ended up unloading instead. Not about the panic attack—Josh knew enough about Ian’s anxieties to frequently compare him to a yappy little Chihuahua on speed, but he didn’t need every symptom of Ian’s anxiety catalogued, certainly—just about the visit with his mother and the whole speech about what an asshole his last boyfriend had been and how he really should meet someone new.

“You know,” Josh said, “there was an article in the Times last weekend about how gay sports leagues are the new hookup spot. More so than bars.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “Here we go with the baseball league. Josh, I already told you—”

“Not that the bar scene is dead, but we’re a little old for it, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that you’re married to a very nice man who would not appreciate—”

“Seriously, sign-ups are on Saturday and you really should come. If not for me or the love of the sport then because the league will provide you with about a hundred opportunities to hook up with some guy.”

Ian laughed despite everything. “I bet this article also had some stats about how many deeply committed, loving relationships had resulted from gay sports leagues.”

“There may have been a mention of that.”

“I don’t want a deeply committed relationship.”

Josh made a raspberry sound into the phone. “Oh, honey. I hope you end up on my team. I’ve got just the guy for you to meet.”

“In that case, forget it.”

“Ian. Honey. Please. Just come to the sign-ups. See what the league is about. If you hate everything about it, fine, but I think you’ll have fun.”

TY TOSSED a baseball up and watched it arc through the air before he held out his hand to catch it. He did it again, enjoying the satisfying slap each time the ball hit his palm.

“Showing off?” Josh walked over, a stupid grin on his face.

Ty snatched his baseball out of the sky. “Someone has to,” he said.

Josh crossed his arms over his chest. He scanned the scenery. They were standing at the periphery of one of the East River Park ball fields, next to a card table they’d set up for league sign-ups. A colorful banner advertising the Rainbow League, New York’s premier LGBT amateur sports league, hung from the front. On this particular cool spring afternoon, they were signing up new players for summer baseball. Ty hadn’t had much else to do that afternoon, so he’d volunteered to help with registration. Somehow he’d been left there by himself for the past twenty minutes while Josh and a few other volunteers had thrown a ball around on the field. Ty was bored out of his mind.

At least Josh had come back. He walked over to the table and flipped through the binder that served as their roster.

“You know,” Ty said, “there’s this thing called the Internet. Much as I like sitting out here in the sun, we could have saved time and manpower by getting that damned website up.”

“Hey, I argued that we should,” Josh said with a shrug. “This was Will’s directive.”

“And where is His Majesty?”

“He just got here. He’s trying to get Nate and Carlos to play a real game instead of just tossing the ball around. They don’t seem to be having any part of it.”

Ty sighed. “Sounds about right.”

“Whatever.” Josh pressed his palm against an open page, the sign-up sheet for his and Ty’s team, the Brooklyn Hipsters. “So, look, with Bryan gone and that Adam guy going MIA, there are two slots open on the team. Everyone else re-upped.”

“Good.” They’d had a great team the previous season, and after a few seasons in the league, Ty had come to loathe adjusting for new players. New guys were too unpredictable.

“I’m hoping my friend shows up while we’re manning the table so we can get him on our team before someone else gets him,” said Josh. “Once it becomes knowledge that he’s actually played baseball, everyone will be fighting for him.”

Ty cocked an eyebrow and shot Josh what he thought of as his best sexy insouciant look. “Actual baseball experience.”

Josh was unfazed. “We played together in high school.”

Ty tossed the ball in the air again. “Ha. And here I thought you were going to tell me he’d been a pro. If playing in school is the only measure, I had actual baseball experience before I joined the team.”

“You played T-ball in elementary school.”

Ty just smiled. “We have Mason, though. Much to the envy of everyone else in the league.” Actually, most of Ty and Josh’s teammates had some kind of baseball experience. Nate and Carlos—who, along with Mason and Josh, were Ty’s closest friends on the team—had played on the same Little League team when they were kids, for example. Joe and Shane had played college ball.

“Sure,” said Josh, “but it’s nice to have more than one person on the team who knows how the game works. As opposed to some other people.”

“Hey, just because I don’t give a shit about pro baseball doesn’t mean I’m totally ignorant.” Ty really pulled out the Texas when he said that, so it came out sounding like “tote-ly ig-nant.” He cleared his throat. “So where is this baseball god?”

“Dunno. He wasn’t that keen on joining, but I tried to persuade him that it would be worth it for the hookup opportunities. He seemed intrigued.”

Ty laughed. “Well, sure. Who wouldn’t be? I saw that article in the Times. Allegedly the New York gays are all joining sports leagues instead of going to bars. Which is horseshit, as anyone who has been in Hell’s Kitchen lately knows perfectly well.” Ty considered that for a moment. “Although I guess I did make it my mission to, er, work my way through the entirety of the Queens team last season.”

Josh took a sip from his water bottle and narrowed his eyes. “How did that work out for you?”

Ty shrugged. “Well enough. Every team has to have a token slut. I’m happy to fill that role.”

Josh shook his head. “Did Bill James say that?”

“Who?”

“Hey, Josh!”

Ty turned and saw a blond guy making his way across the park. He was, well, he was pretty good-looking, actually. Slender in an athletic way. Jaw that looked like it could cut glass. Package nicely highlighted by the dark jeans he was wearing. “This your secret weapon?” Ty asked.

Josh looked smug.

Ty tossed the ball again.

“Hi,” the guy said as he arrived. “I made it.”

Ty took a moment to really scope out the man. He’d started cataloguing his merits when Josh slapped his arm.

“Stop that!” said Josh. “So. Ty, this is my friend Ian from high school. He just moved back to New York after many years away and blah blah.”

“And blah blah?” Ian said. “That’s my whole backstory?”

“This,” Josh went on, “is Ty. He’s second base.”

“And I Don’t Know is on third,” said Ty, holding out his hand to shake.

Ian shot him a wry smile. “Nice to meet you.” He shook Ty’s hand.

Ty supposed that this would be the moment in the movie when the music swelled, or the moment in the novel when the characters touched and electricity passed between them, but even though Ty was absolutely attracted to Ian and had already begun his strategy to get the man naked, nothing like that happened. They merely shook hands, casual as you please, as if this were a business transaction.

“I don’t get a cute tidbit of information?” Ty asked Josh. “Just ‘second base’?”

Josh shrugged. “What do you want me to say? Ian, this is Ty. He’s from Texas, as I imagine you’ve gathered from the accent. He’s been in New York about ten years. And he fancies himself the team slut.”

Ian laughed. “Nice. Every team needs one.”

“That’s what I told Josh.”

Josh crossed his arms over his chest. “So, you’re here,” he said to Ian. “Are you signing up or what?”

“Is Ty here as a sample specimen? Are all the guys on the team this hot?”

Ty guffawed. “Look at you, indirectly flirting with me. It’s the slut thing, right? The fact that I’m easy makes me intriguing?”

“Sure,” said Ian. “The ginger hair doesn’t hurt.”

“Josh, let’s sign him up right now.”

“Can you play third base?” Josh asked.

A matter of minutes later, Ian had registered for the league and was on the roster as the new third baseman for the Brooklyn Hipsters. “But living in Brooklyn is not a requirement, obviously,” Josh explained. “That’s just the way they do the team designations. There are eight teams in the league.”

“All gay men?” Ian asked.

“No, some teams have women too.”

“The Mermaids, man,” Ty said.

“They’re kind of our rivals,” Josh explained. “The all-woman team representing Coney Island. Totally ruthless, those women.”

“I see,” said Ian, looking a little dazed.

“So, quickie rundown? Each team has a twelve- or thirteen-man roster which includes every position plus a couple of pitchers and a backup utility player. We do all our games here at this park.” Josh pointed at the perimeter of the park. “You’ll play one game a week, probably, at least until the play-offs, which happen at the end of the season in October. After each game, both teams go to this bar in the East Village for postgame drinks.”

“The owner of the bar is sort of the league mascot,” Ty chimed in.

“So that’s it. And it’s just fun.” Josh gushed a little.

Ian laughed. He had a pretty great laugh, Ty could admit. And his voice was low and had a husky quality to it, like he’d smoked once upon a time. “I don’t know why you’re giving me the sales pitch after I’ve signed up. You got me, Josh.”

“Did my presence sweeten the deal?” Ty asked, mostly out of curiosity. He certainly hoped it had.

“Maybe a little.”

Josh rolled his eyes. “I see how this is. You’re already fucking, aren’t you?”

Ian sputtered. “Okay, first of all—”

At the same time, Ty said, “That’s not what’s going—”

Josh let out an exasperated sigh. “All right. Well. Welcome to the Hipsters, Ian. We practice in Prospect Park every Sunday too, just to make sure we don’t completely suck. I’ll e-mail you the info.”

“Fair warning, though,” said Ty. “Our manager, Scott? He’s kind of a dick and super competitive. And according to the calendar, we’re playing Hell’s Kitchen first.”

Josh grumbled.

Ian’s eyes went wide. “What’s wrong with Hell’s Kitchen?”

“Will manages the Hell’s Kitchen team. He’s the guy over there with the mustache, pretending to play catch with the skinny guy in the yellow T-shirt.”

“Pretending?” asked Ian.

“He’s probably berating that poor guy,” Ty said. “Will is constitutionally incapable of having fun.”

“He is a tiny bit competitive,” said Josh.

“Sure, if by ‘a tiny bit’ you mean ‘sacrifices children and small woodland creatures before each game to ensure victory,’” said Ty.

“A couple of those other guys are on our team, though,” said Josh. “That’s Nate and Carlos throwing the ball back and forth over by the backstop. Nate’s the best pitcher in the league.”

Ian shook his head. “This is a lot of information all at once, guys. But thanks, I think.”

“You will learn the ropes quickly,” Ty said. “Just come to practice next week and we’ll, uh, ease you into it.”

Ian narrowed his eyes. “Are you coming on to me?”

This guy. Ty was definitely interested. “I was making a sexy pun, yes.”

“Geez Louise,” said Josh. “I kind of suspected this might happen when I introduced you two, but the league certainly doesn’t need any drama. So, you know. Fuck if you want, but keep it off the field.”

Poor Ian looked startled by that. Ty laughed. “And you, Joshua, never start any drama, of course.”

“I’m married!” Josh said.

“I don’t see how that makes you immune to drama.”

Josh huffed. “Well, whatever. Welcome to the team, Ian.”

Will suddenly barked at the five guys standing on the field, snagging everyone’s attention.

Ty laughed. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

“You said that guy’s not on our team, right?” said Ian.

“You learn fast,” Ty said.

ACROSS THE field, Nate fiddled with his glove while he avoided Will’s gaze. It wasn’t too hard, especially now that poor Jake had shown up. Will sometimes held back when yelling at players he didn’t know well, but if you were on his team, all bets were off. Jake was now bearing the brunt of Will’s aggression with a resigned expression on his face.

Carlos picked up three balls and started juggling them. “Check out the fresh meat talking to Ty and Josh.”

Nate looked over at the registration table. There, indeed, was a guy Nate had never seen before, and Nate could tell by their body language that he and Ty were flirting madly with each other.

“I bet it would have been nice knowing that guy,” said Nate.

Carlos chuckled. From the other side of the diamond, Zach yelled, “Practicing your ball-handling skills, Carlos?”

“You know it!” Carlos shouted back.

“Ball handling? You’re doing it wrong!” said Aiden.

“I’ll handle your balls later, papi!” Carlos said. He pursed his lips and made a kissing motion.

“You’re all clowns!” said Nate, mostly to deflect from the fact that watching Aiden and Carlos flirt drove him bananas.

Carlos tossed the balls high in the air one at a time before catching each one. He said, “You see the game last night?”

“Caught the end of it.” Nate didn’t have to ask which game. For two guys who had grown up in the Bronx, there was only one baseball team worth anything. “Hell of a hit Gardner got in the ninth.”

“Yeah, it was a beauty. What do you think of the new catcher?”

Nate could already see where Carlos was going with that. “As a player or as a man?”

“Either. Both.”

“I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”

Carlos motioned to Aiden and hurled one of the balls at him. Aiden caught it deftly. “Lourdes said he came into her nail salon last week. One of the other girls gave him some crazy trippy manicure.”

“That’s the thing catchers are doing now, I guess.”

“Can you imagine Joe getting a manicure?” Carlos said, mentioning the Brooklyn Hipsters’ catcher.

Nate laughed. “Nope. Well, maybe with black polish.”

“Oh, oh, new guy is signing on the dotted line over there.”

Sure enough, back at the registration table, the blond guy appeared to be filling out the registration form.

Aiden jogged over to Nate and Carlos. Carlos stared at him, starry-eyed. Nate wanted to throw up.

It wasn’t that he was jealous. Well, okay, that was a lie. Nate was extremely jealous. Carlos should have been with Nate, not that asshole Aiden—who, sure, was handsome, but man, he was a dick. Nate had no right to complain, though, since he had never said a word about his feelings for Carlos. Although, Christ on a cracker, it wasn’t like Carlos and Aiden were even doing more than flirting at this point. Nate had gotten an earful already about how much Carlos wanted Aiden and how frustrating it was that Aiden hadn’t made a real move yet.

“Who’s the new guy?” Aiden asked, gesturing toward the registration table.

“Ty’s next victim,” said Carlos.

“Do you know if they filled the rosters for all the teams yet?” Aiden asked.

“Probably not if they’re still letting that guy sign up,” said Carlos.

“We’d get more people if Will would just get the goddamn website done,” said Nate.

“Sshh!” said Aiden. “Don’t anger the beast.”

Nate rolled his eyes. He didn’t want to incur Will’s wrath any more than anyone else, but he was not in the mood to deal with Aiden. Maybe he could bow out of this gracefully. “Do you think we really need to hang around much longer? Ty seems to be getting the job done over there.”

Nate, Carlos, and Aiden watched for a moment. When Josh gestured toward them, they all turned and pretended to be doing something else.

“Eh, probably not,” said Carlos. “Did you need to be somewhere else today?”

Nate didn’t really have to be anywhere in particular, but he didn’t want to hang around here if he was going to have to watch this bullshit. “I’ve got some work stuff.”

Carlos looked at him as if he were trying to communicate telepathically. Nate and Carlos had mostly volunteered because they found out Aiden was going to be here, and Carlos wanted an excuse to spend more time with Aiden. Nate, apparently, was a sucker. Carlos wanted someone to lend him some courage to ask out Aiden, and here was the opportunity for the two of them to be sort of alone.

“I think we’re all going to Barnstorm whenever this wraps,” Aiden said.

And now alcohol would be involved. Nate schooled his face to not betray his frustration. “I should probably go get my work done. Give the new guy my regards.”

Carlos gave Nate a halfhearted hug and then turned the full force of his attention back on Aiden. Nate gave them both a little wave before he left the field.

Damn it.

Josh snagged him before he could leave, though. “Nate is the pitcher I mentioned,” he told the new guy. “Nate, this is my friend Ian. He’ll be our new third baseman.”

“That’s great! I heard Adam moved to Chicago.”

Josh scrunched up his face as if he found the mere thought of Chicago distasteful. “Are you headed out?” he asked Nate.

“Yeah, I… have a thing.”

“Okay. Well, we’ll see you at practice next week.”

“Sure. Nice to meet you, Ian. Don’t let Ty scare you off.”

“I’m not scary,” Ty said. He turned to Ian and shook his head. “I’m really not.”

Ian laughed. He tugged on Ty’s sleeve playfully.

Nate wanted to scream. Instead, he gave those assembled a quick nod and then made a beeline out of the park.

Thrown a Curve #2
Chapter 1
MASON SIPPED his beer and watched Odell mack on some girl. She was pretty, with smooth, dark skin and a petite frame. Not Mason’s thing, but he could see the appeal.

He turned his attention to the TV over the bar, which was showing SportsCenter. The hot topic of the evening was the Yankees and their abysmal season to date, a discussion Mason could have done without. When the show broke for commercial, he looked for the bartender, who fortuitously seemed to be headed back in his direction. The bartender was a cute, dark-haired white guy with a gym-sculpted body, obvious under the black tank top he was wearing. Mason kind of wanted to lick his arms, just because they were there. He smiled at the bartender and motioned that he wanted another beer. The bartender winked.

That was more like it.

Of course, just as the bartender slid another pint toward Mason, Odell leaned over and slapped Mason on the back. “And this here’s my brother, Mason,” he said to the girl. “He used to be a Yankee.”

And here they went. Mason was mostly unfazed by people using his past notoriety for their own personal gain—this certainly wasn’t the first time they’d done this act so Odell could pick up a girl. But still, it grated on him a little.

“You used to be a Yankee?” said the girl, her eyes wide. “Do you know Derek Jeter?”

Mason sighed. “I played with him for a couple of seasons, yeah. But we’re not, like, best friends or anything.”

That seemed to satisfy the girl, who nodded and hooked her arm around Odell’s. “Jeter is so hot,” she told Odell, who probably didn’t care. Then she turned back to Mason. “Why did you stop playing? Did you get injured?”

Mason had answered this question many times in the four years since his contract had ended. For whatever reason, people thought it was noble to give up a career as a professional athlete because of an injury.

Odell shot him a warning look, but Mason didn’t much care what he thought and also hoped Odell would go away so he could flirt with the cute bartender.

“I did get injured,” Mason said. “It wasn’t debilitating. I fell badly when I was running toward first base during a postseason game. Tore up the tendon in my foot.” He pointed at his foot as if that would be enlightening. “It healed pretty well and I probably could have played a few more seasons in the minors at least, but I left when my contract was up.”

“Why?” asked the girl. “How could you give that up?”

This was where it got dicey. For one thing, most people assumed that if you played ball professionally, you must have made millions of dollars. That had never been the case for Mason, who had been drafted right out of college and bounced around the minor leagues until he got called up to the Yankees. His first contract wasn’t bad, and he’d made enough smart investments to keep him supplied with beer at sports bars with cute bartenders well into the future, but a millionaire he was not.

Also, Odell was now giving him the “I don’t know what this girl’s deal is, so tread carefully” look.

Fuck it, though.

“Well,” Mason said, “I decided not to re-up my contract so that I could come out of the closet.”

Odell rolled his eyes and gave Mason the finger behind the girl’s back.

The girl’s eyes went wide. “You’re gay?”

It was hard to read her tone of voice. Surprised, yes, but it was not clear whether she thought this piece of news was good or bad. Mason inwardly braced himself for either possibility.

“Yes,” Mason said. “I’m gay.”

The bartender was hovering and seemed very interested in this piece of information.

The girl turned back to Odell. “It’s really cool that you have a gay brother and that you two get along so well.”

Score one for Odell. He grinned. “It is cool.”

They flirted, so Mason turned back toward the bartender.

“My shift is up at ten,” the guy said, sliding Mason a bar napkin. The name Travis was scrawled across the top above a phone number.

“Excellent,” said Mason. “I live three blocks from here.”

“How convenient,” said Travis.

“I’m Mason, by the way.”

“Yeah, I got that.” Travis smiled. He had a dimple in his right cheek.

“I need to powder my nose,” the girl said. “I’ll be right back, sweetie.”

When she was gone, Odell turned his triumphant smile back on Mason. Travis slid down the bar to help another customer.

“That could have gone badly,” Odell said.

“Or it could have gone the way it did, which is that now your lady friend thinks you’re sweet and sensitive because you’re friends with your gay brother.”

“Hmm.”

“And honestly, do you want to go out with a girl who hates gay people?”

Odell shrugged. “Date, no. Hook up with tonight, doesn’t matter.”

Mason suppressed a tired sigh. “What’s the girl’s name?”

“Bettina. Pretty name, right?”

“At least you have that much figured out.”

She came back a few minutes later and smiled beatifically at Odell. When Odell suggested they leave, he gave Mason a fist bump and wished him luck with the bartender. Once Odell and Bettina were gone, Mason turned back to watch Travis work.

This guy Travis was basically every guy Mason had dated since last summer: athletic, muscular, too much testosterone. Every last one of them had been unfailingly wrong for him. Mason’s friend Nate kept suggesting it was a sign that Mason should stop dating meatheads. He had a fair point; the parade of butch guys had not helped him forget that he’d had the best sex of his life in the bathroom at a gay bar in the East Village with a small, femme-y guy named Patrick the summer before. Mason didn’t have high hopes that Travis would break the slump, but it might be fun to try anyway.

Still, the central problem was Mason thinking he should be with a guy like Travis but his dick thinking he wanted a guy like Patrick.

Mason’s family had had a hard enough time with the gay thing, completely mystified that a guy as masculine as Mason could possibly be gay. Odell was better than their mother and her extended family, for the most part, but he grudgingly approved of guys like Travis. What the hell would any of them say about a guy like Patrick?

Patrick didn’t lack athleticism. Hell, they’d met because they both played baseball in the Rainbow League, an LGBT amateur sports league in New York City. But Patrick had piercings and tattoos, and he talked too much. So even though that encounter had been awesome, once the baseball season had ended, Mason had—literally—kissed Patrick good-bye. They hadn’t seen each other since. Mason had never bothered to reach out.

And in Mason’s defense, Patrick hadn’t tried to get in touch with him either.

So when Travis’s replacement showed up and Travis shrugged into a very nice leather jacket, Mason was game, though he knew this couldn’t last.

“Did I overhear you say you used to be a Yankee?” Travis asked as they walked outside.

Mason hated trading this bit of trivia about himself in exchange for sex, but since it was only for the night, he nodded.

THE WOMAN at Patrick’s station had amazing hair. It was thick and wavy, naturally a bright caramel color, the sort of hair many women spent a lot of money trying to achieve. It made the crimes perpetrated against her hair such a shame.

He ran his fingers through it. God, it was healthy and silky too. If only all of his customers took such good care of their hair.

“They really butchered you,” he said.

“I know. I said to leave it long in the front and short in the back, which is the opposite of what happened, and the layers are so uneven. Last time I’m going there.”

“You came to the right place, girl. I can fix it. It’ll be on the short side because I have to cut a lot to fix these uneven layers, but it’ll look great, I promise.”

“Cut as much as you need to. You are a lifesaver,” said the woman. She frowned. “I literally cried when I looked in the mirror after I got home from the salon.”

Her name was… Michelle? Patrick was terrible with names. He tended to remember his customers by their hair, and he liked to remember some bit of trivia about each so he could bring it up with his repeat customers. This one, with the thick caramel-colored waves, was a first-timer, here to fix the wretched haircut she’d gotten at some discount salon. Dimensions, where Patrick worked as a stylist, wasn’t cheap, but it was a fantastic salon.

He spent the next twenty minutes repairing Thick Caramel Waves’ hair, giving her a kicky bob that was trendy enough to be interesting but not so edgy that corporate America would balk. He learned as he was cutting her hair that she worked as a paralegal at a huge law firm in Midtown, so nothing too strange for her.

As he was finishing, his next customer—Black Dye Job, Color #315—came in. The whole day had been this way, back-to-back appointments, which was great for Patrick’s wallet, but he was starting to get tired.

After he got Color #315 set up at a sink to get her hair washed, he checked in at the front desk. Valerie was on the phone, but she said, “Oh, he’s right here, hang on.” She put her hand over the mouthpiece and said, “You free next Tuesday night? It’s for Melissa Schneider.”

He had no idea who that was. It was irrelevant, though. “Baseball starts Tuesday. So, no, I’m not free.”

Valerie tilted her head and looked at him quizzically. “Oh, right. I keep forgetting you do that baseball thing.” Patrick knew his appearance didn’t exactly scream “athlete.”

He couldn’t deny that he’d put on a few pounds over the winter, but not enough that he’d gone to waist. His fatigue was making him irritable, and he knew it, so he opted not to get defensive. “Well, I put my schedule in the computer, so the days I have games or practices should already be marked.”

“Can you see Melissa on Friday, then?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

He left to go check on Color #315 and then slipped into the back room to mix up the color. It was nice to get out of the salon for a few minutes, although the mention of the impending baseball season was a reminder of what else this summer could bring. He was most looking forward to seeing Mason again, although he was a little worried about that too. Mason had made it pretty clear at the conclusion of their encounter at Barnstorm, the East Village bar Rainbow League members frequented, that it was a one-time thing. Which was a damn shame, because sex with Mason had been mind-blowing.

So, okay, they’d gotten off on the wrong foot. Patrick had put that foot right in his mouth, saying some pretty stupid things. Mason had rightly called him on something racist he’d said. Patrick had wanted a second chance, especially after he’d availed himself of Mason’s amazing body. But then the season had ended without them exchanging contact information.

Patrick had pushed the encounter out of his mind. He’d spent part of the winter warming his bed with a sexy personal trainer who worked at the gym up the block from Dimensions, but that had ended as soon as the snow finally melted.

And still Patrick hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Mason.

Which was really fucking stupid, because all they’d had was a quick fuck—a spectacular, sensational fuck, but a quick one nonetheless—in a bar bathroom, and yeah, Patrick had never had a hotter encounter, and Mason was so goddamned sexy, but they didn’t know each other at all. Probably they had nothing in common. And at the end of the day, what business did Patrick have with an ex-Yankee?

Patrick sighed and finished with the dye. Then he rejoined the chaos in the salon.

CARLOS WATCHED as Aiden did… whatever the hell he was doing. Pacing? Strutting? Looking for his underwear?

Carlos himself was on the bed in Aiden’s apartment, the big down comforter pulled over his groin, but otherwise just as naked as Aiden, who, yes, was displaying his spectacular body, but also was kind of freaking Carlos out.

So Carlos said, “Uh, what are you—”

“Sorry, I have a lot of nervous energy.”

Carlos sighed and sank back into the pillows. He’d learned a lot in the not-quite-a-year he and Aiden had dated, so he knew that this was one of their strange incompatibilities. For whatever reason, a good orgasm always made Aiden want to run laps, while Carlos just wanted to curl into a ball and fall asleep.

On the nightstand, his phone buzzed. Carlos grabbed it. A text message from his best friend, Nate, flashed on the screen: You see that play?!

“Hey, if you’re going to skulk around, can I put the game on?”

Aiden turned toward the bed and tilted his head. “Uh. Game?”

“The Yankees?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Carlos crawled across the bed to grab the remote on Aiden’s side table. He flipped on the TV and cycled through the channels until he found the Yankees game. Luckily they were still showing a slow-motion loop of the play Nate must have texted about. A clean double play had ended the inning. The Yanks were up by three runs.

Carlos picked up his phone and texted back: Yeah, that was great!

Aiden sat at the foot of the bed and stared at the TV for a moment. When the game went to commercial, he turned around and looked at Carlos. “How can you watch this?”

It took a lot for Carlos not to make a sarcastic comment. “Uh, dude. We both play in a hobby baseball league. If you were not aware that I was a baseball fan, I don’t know what to tell you. You should have seen that coming.”

Aiden turned back toward the TV. Carlos took a moment to admire the line of his back. Then Aiden spoke again. “TV baseball is so boring.”

Not the first time they’d had this argument, so Carlos just said, “Disagree,” and turned up the volume.

Aiden announced he was going to go for a run, so Carlos spent the next forty minutes watching the game and texting Nate.

When Aiden returned, he jogged right through the bedroom and into the bathroom. Then he stuck his head back out. “You just gonna lie there?”

Carlos shrugged. “Game’s almost over, papi. I figured once you were done working through your energy burst, I’d talk you back into bed and we could….” He waggled his eyebrows.

Aiden laughed. “You’re insatiable.”

“True.”

“Let me just hose off some of the sweat from my run.”

“You’re just going to get sweaty again.”

“I know, but….” He pointed back into the bathroom. Then he went inside and closed the door.

Carlos rolled his eyes and went back to his text conversation discussing the relative hotness of the Yankees’ rookie outfielder.

Carlos and Nate had never had anything like romantic feelings for each other, so Carlos had made a habit of keeping his relationships with Nate and Aiden in separate boxes. Maybe that was a problem, given that he’d seen a lot less of Nate since he’d started spending more time with Aiden. Carlos made a note to make it up to Nate soon, though.

As the game ended with a Yankee victory, Carlos texted, Gotta go. As soon as Aiden is out of the shower, I expect to be too busy with other things to look at my phone. ;)

Gross was the reply.

Then: Have fun. Go Yankees!

And that about summed things up.

The Long Slide Home #3
Chapter 1
NATE HAD pressed the buzzer for apartment 4D several thousand times in his life, but it felt different now. He took a deep breath and pressed it with his thumb, waiting for the telltale static squawk of the ancient intercom system. Eventually Mama Lulu called out, “Hello?”

“It’s Nate.”

“Come on up, mi hijo.”

When the buzzer sounded, Nate pushed through the door and went up the stairs, the same way he had nearly every day from when he was six until he was eighteen. By the time he got to the fourth floor, he was out of breath, a little out of shape after being lazy all winter. He dutifully knocked on the door. Luisa Ruiz—Mama Lulu to everyone—answered, her round body resplendent in a floral dress, waving her arms to welcome him into the apartment.

It was chaos inside, but then, it always was. Even though all of the Ruiz children had fled the nest, here were two more. Nate recognized them as Lourdes’s kids, Lulu’s grandchildren. Mia was not quite two, toddling around in a frothy pink princess dress complete with a little plastic tiara. The baby—Nate couldn’t remember the baby’s name and hated himself a little for it—wore a onesie covered with footballs, and was having a grand old time in his bouncy chair on the kitchen table. The baby also sucked on a blue pacifier. No gender ambiguity for these kids.

“Uncle Nate,” Mia said, opening her arms to give him a hug.

He knelt to hug her back. “Hi, sweetie.”

“I’m babysitting,” Lulu explained.

“Ah.” Nate stood back up and patted Mia’s head.

“What brings you here, Nate?” said Lulu. “No, wait, sit at the table.”

This was part of the ritual too. Nate would come in and sit at the kitchen table, and within moments some sort of food would appear before him. Mama Lulu was never happier than when she was feeding people. This time it was a bowl of paella, yellow rice with bits of chicken and chorizo and maybe some kind of fish in it. Nate’s mouth watered, so he took a forkful. It was salty and savory and delicious.

Mia toddled over and climbed onto one of the other chairs. When she sat, the table came up to her nose, but this didn’t seem to bother her.

“Now,” said Lulu, plunking down a glass of lemonade in front of Nate, “talk to me. It’s bad news, yes?”

Nate sighed. Just being inside the Ruiz home made him feel many times better, so much so that he almost didn’t want to bring up his reason for visiting in the first place. But he’d come here seeking comfort, so he said, “I was in the neighborhood. Mom’s in the hospital.”

“Oh, Nate. What happened?”

He rubbed his forehead. “The cancer’s back.”

Mama Lulu’s face fell.

“I’m not sure how I feel about it,” Nate said.

Mama Lulu rubbed the back of Nate’s hand. He loved that he didn’t have to explain. Lulu already knew that Nate’s mother, Rebecca, was cold and stoic, that she and Nate weren’t very close, that her working so many hours when Nate had been a boy had driven Nate into the Ruiz home to begin with. The cherry on top was that Rebecca was devoutly Catholic and Nate’s homosexuality had never quite sat well with her.

Of course, the Ruiz family was Catholic too, but matriarch Lulu was everything Rebecca was not: she was warm and welcoming and loved her children fiercely and without condition. When her son, Carlos, Nate’s best friend since first grade, had come out, she’d given him a hug and carried on with her day. And Nate had never felt unwelcome here. Even though he wasn’t blood related, he had been a part of the family since his elementary school days.

Nate’s mother was currently in the hospital being treated for breast cancer that the doctors had apparently not completely excised the first time. Now it had spread to other parts of her system. Of course she hadn’t told Nate about it, not at first. Only when she started coughing up blood did she decide it might be a good idea to call her son and ask him to take her to the hospital.

He put his fork down. Mama Lulu stroked his head.

“I don’t want bad things to happen to her or anything,” Nate said, “but we’re so distant these days that, I don’t know. I think I should be sadder than I am?”

“You feel how you feel, mi hijo.”

“Yeah. Well, anyway. The prognosis is not good. The doctors are saying she may not last the summer.” He shook his head, more frustrated than sad. “Her doctor won’t say it, but I get the feeling this might have been more treatable if she’d gone to see him sooner. She has insurance now. I don’t understand why she would wait so long. The oncologist told me she must have felt unwell for months while the cancer progressed. Months!”

Mama Lulu smiled sadly at Nate and stroked his hair some more. “Maybe she thought it was just the flu. Maybe she did not want to admit to herself that the cancer was back.”

Nate swallowed and picked up his fork again. He ate a piece of chorizo. In many ways, he was grateful to his mother, who had always kept a roof over their heads even if it meant working two jobs, who had helped pay for his college, who bought him new clothes every year. But Lulu Ruiz continued to show Nate every day that there was a lot more to being a mother than paying for stuff.

Rebecca had once come to Ruiz family functions. The big Puerto Rican family certainly knew how to throw a party. Often Rebecca would arrive quietly and then sit on the edge, awkwardly eating and not talking to anyone. Around the time Nate turned sixteen, she’d started begging off, and once Nate left home, she stopped going entirely.

Bottom line was that Rebecca may have been Nate’s mother, but he’d long felt that the Ruizes were his real family.

“She has a few months left,” Nate said. “Then I’ll have to say good-bye.”

“That’s never easy.”

“No.”

“Abuela!” little Mia said.

“You want some arroz con pollo?”

Mia screwed up her face in confusion. Nate guessed that Lulu’s Spanish dishes were not in her diet or vocabulary yet.

“How about some animal crackers?” Lulu offered.

Mia nodded enthusiastically. Lulu got up to fetch the box from the counter. She offered Mia her high chair, which Mia adamantly refused. So Lulu put some animal crackers on a plastic plate and then placed it in front of Mia. Mia had to reach above her head to pick them off the plate, but she sat there, crunching happily.

As Mama Lulu walked around the table and settled back in her chair, she asked, “Have you talked to Carlos about this?”

“Ah, well. I haven’t really talked to Carlos much at all since he moved in with Aiden.”

Lulu made a disapproving guttural noise and pushed back from the table. “Why is that?” she asked, her voice wary.

“I may have let it be known that I don’t really like Aiden and I thought Carlos was making a mistake, and now Carlos hardly talks to me. You must know that.”

She nodded. “He hasn’t said as much, just that you had an argument. You really told him you thought moving in with Aiden was a mistake?”

“I did.”

That hung in the air. Nate supposed he didn’t need to explain why. Lulu had always been extraordinarily intuitive.

“I worry about him,” Lulu said. “Carlos loves Aiden, I know that, and Aiden seems like a decent man, but I just don’t….” She shook her head. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“No. There isn’t.” Well, except that Aiden was the man Carlos went to bed with each night, not Nate. And Nate just got a bad vibe off him, but Nate was so crazy with jealousy that he didn’t trust his instincts. Carlos had never really shown bad judgment with men in the past—his exes were mostly good guys with whom things just hadn’t worked out, or that was how it seemed before Nate’s heart decided he and Carlos should be together. So Nate should have trusted Carlos’s judgment, but something about Aiden…. “I’ve never been able to put a finger on why I don’t like him, but I don’t. Besides the obvious reason. I don’t know. And probably I’m saying too much.”

“It’s all right, Nate. I appreciate your honesty.”

He ate a few more forkfuls of rice and watched Mia carefully chew on her animal crackers. The baby—was his name Jorge, maybe?—had fallen asleep in the bouncy chair and looked serene, his little pacifier bobbing occasionally as he sucked on it in his sleep.

“It’s funny,” Lulu said. “I always thought you and Carlos would end up together.”

It hurt Nate to hear that, like a punch in the stomach. It was a recent thing, wanting Carlos, and it had sprung on Nate quite suddenly two summers ago when they were both single for the first time in a while and Nate started thinking, Maybe…. Carlos had been his best friend forever, his family, and they cared about each other deeply. Nate had always thought Carlos objectively attractive—he had that tall, dark, and handsome thing going for him, for one thing, and he was in good shape and a little obsessed with proper grooming. He wore too much cologne, but Nate had come to miss the cloud of it that always surrounded Carlos.

One day, though, Nate and Carlos had been tossing a ball back and forth in Central Park and Nate had noticed how much Carlos’s brown eyes sparkled, how neat his eyebrows were, how plush his lips looked; he’d seen musculature he hadn’t noticed before, strength, physique. He noticed that Carlos actually had quite a nice ass, that the swishy way Carlos walked was kind of seductive, that Carlos’s husky voice could sometimes make Nate hard even if he was talking about unsexy things like baseball or work.

Of course, within weeks of Nate discovering all of these things, Carlos had discovered Aiden.

“I thought we would end up together too,” Nate said.

He realized suddenly he’d spoken out loud and put a hand to his mouth.

Mama Lulu stared at him.

“I’m so sorry,” said Nate. “That was an inappropriate thing to say to his mother. I swear, I’ve never even made a move on him.”

Then Lulu laughed. “Oh, Nate. No. It’s all right. Carlos loves Aiden, but something nags at me when I see them together. I don’t know what. Aiden may be a good man, but I do not think he’s the right one for Carlos. But Carlos will not be dissuaded. I made my peace with it. If this is what Carlos wants and Aiden makes him happy, who am I to stand in the way?”

“And arguing with him just makes him more stubborn.”

Lulu balked but then nodded slowly. “Yes, he is that way. These are matters of the heart, though.”

Still, Nate hadn’t been able to shake the idea that this was his fault somehow. Instead of talking about his feelings like a mature adult, he’d lost hope and let Aiden claim Carlos. Then he’d acted like such a pill about it that Carlos had stopped talking to him. He worried that being an ass about Aiden had spurred on Carlos’s stubborn streak, and even though Carlos himself had been having second thoughts about moving in with Aiden, Nate agreeing it was a bad idea had seemed to inspire Carlos to do it anyway.

“It’s too late now,” Nate said. “They have happy domestic bliss and I have nothing.”

Lulu sighed. She put some more animal crackers on the plate in front of Mia. Then she said, “So dramatic, mi hijo. You have plenty. You are just having a rough year. No matter what your relationship with your mother, it can’t be easy seeing her sick. And I know you care about Carlos, so stop picking fights and make up with him.”

Nate nodded. “No, I should. I will.”

“You boys have been such good friends for so long. I do think you could make each other happy, but this is the way life has dealt the cards. It is hard for me to talk about since you’re both my boys.” She tilted her head. “I would not give up hope just yet. But there are other fish, Nate. I know there is a man out there who will make you very happy.”

“Thanks, Lulu.”

“And if you need anything, you obviously know where to find me. We’ll get you through this, okay?”

“Yeah.” Nate couldn’t tell if she meant his mother’s illness or his feelings for Carlos. Picking Door Number Two, he said, “I mean, you know, I care about him, but he’s made his decision.”

Lulu frowned. “It seems that way.”

“So I’m dating. I’m moving on.” Although that was an exaggeration. He’d been on a lot of first dates in the past year, but none of the guys measured up.

“Good. Eat your rice, mi hijo.”

CARLOS WAS tired of having the same fight. He mentally prepared himself for the inevitable “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” conversation that would stretch on and on because lately Aiden was so noncommittal about everything. They could go out or they could eat leftovers, Aiden didn’t care. He’d eat sushi or pizza. He’d go get a drink if Carlos wanted, but he didn’t care if they went here or there.

Carlos figured he’d start with an easy question. He walked into the living room, where Aiden was lounging on the couch in just his underwear, flipping through the TV channels.

“You want to go to Mason and Patrick’s wedding with me?” Carlos asked.

Aiden shrugged. Of course. “We’ve been together almost two years and I’m still just a plus one?”

“Actually, you were explicitly invited.” Carlos flipped over the invitation envelope and showed it to Aiden. It was addressed to Carlos Ruiz and Aiden Smith.

“Oh.”

“It’s not until August, but the RSVP date is about a month away, so we should probably let them know.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Was Aiden even paying attention? “I just figured, you know, I’d ask without assuming, since these are really more my friends than yours and you don’t love weddings.”

Aiden finally turned to face Carlos where he stood at the arm of the sofa. “Are all the Hipsters going?”

Carlos interpreted that to mean Is Nate going? “I haven’t asked, but I assume so.”

“I’ll go.”

All right. One item off the list. Carlos put the invitation on the little table behind the couch. Next up, that afternoon. “Don’t know if you remember, but Rainbow League sign-ups are today.” Carlos and Nate had joined the Rainbow League together, back when they’d still been the sort of best friends who talked daily, and they played for the same team. He’d met Aiden through the league, in fact; they’d been together since they first made eyes at each other two years before.

“Oh, yeah! I almost forgot.” Aiden sat up. “And Will finally finished setting up the damn website, so we can register online this year.”

“I thought it might be fun to head into the city. Drop by the park. Ty and Josh are in charge of sign-ups again this year.”

Aiden tilted his head as if he were considering that. “I suppose if we went, it would be easier for you to switch teams in person.”

“Wait, what? Switch teams?”

Aiden crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t you think it would be more fun if we both played for the Queens?” He spoke in a patronizing tone, as if he had just asked if it would be better for Carlos to avoid spicy food if it was upsetting his stomach.

“Okay, first of all, we never talked about that. Second of all, why would I switch? Your team already has a good player in my position. Actually, all of the outfielders on the Queens are pretty good. And third, you don’t think it would be weird if we played for the same team? Couldn’t that get awkward?”

“For who? We’d spend more time together.”

Carlos pressed his lips together to keep from pointing out that they already spent almost all of their time together outside of their respective jobs, to the point where Carlos hardly ever saw his friends anymore. “Aiden. I wouldn’t make you leave your team. These are my friends and I want to continue to play alongside them. I’m sure it’s the same for you and the Queens.”

Aiden looked a little angry now. “Sure.”

“Let me have this. I’ve played with the Hipsters for five seasons, you know? And I mean, just because we consolidated living spaces doesn’t mean we have to consolidate our whole lives, does it?”

But even after that little speech, Carlos worried that the real issue here was Nate. Carlos didn’t know why, but his best friend and his boyfriend hated each other. Aiden thought Nate was jealous, but Nate wasn’t into Carlos in that way. But then Nate kept saying he didn’t like or trust Aiden, but not for any specific reason. He and Carlos had gotten into it last summer because Nate felt ignored while Carlos spent all of his spare time with Aiden. That had some logic to it, since Carlos really had been neglecting their friendship. Carlos had promised to try harder, and he had, but then he’d also finally relented to Aiden’s increasingly frequent pleas to move in together, and now here they were in Aiden’s Brooklyn apartment that they hardly ever left.

Carlos wanted to scream.

He loved Aiden, he did, but he couldn’t figure out how to maintain his freedom without pissing off or hurting Aiden, and he didn’t remember Aiden being quite so needy before they moved in together.

Aiden was glaring at him now.

“We can have separate social lives sometimes,” Carlos said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. Besides, I invite you along to all of the Hipsters’ events, don’t I? You don’t even want to come half the time.”

Although he usually came anyway. Probably to keep an eye on Nate. As if leaving Carlos alone would be all the invitation Nate needed to make a move. Which, please. It wasn’t like Nate hadn’t had an opportunity in the nearly thirty years they’d been friends.

“Fine,” Aiden said, though he didn’t sound pleased.

Was this weird tension between them just relationship growing pains or the sign of a bigger problem? They’d only been living together about six months, and at first, Carlos had been happy, but lately it was just tension and arguments—and fine, pretty hot sex—but none of the joy Carlos had felt when they first got together. Aiden was too noncommittal or too irritable most of the time. And Carlos missed his friends, especially Nate, but he stayed away for fear of rocking the boat.

That was a problem, wasn’t it?

Carlos groaned. “Just come with me to the park, okay? We’ll chat with whoever’s there, maybe get a drink at Barnstorm after. What do you say?”

“Sure, if that’s what you want to do.”

Carlos dug his nails into his palms rather than shout or throw himself out the window. He said, “Yeah. That’s what I’d like to do.”

Aiden stood. “I’ll get dressed, then.”

“Yeah.”

Six months ago, Carlos would have made a sexy joke about how Aiden could go to Manhattan in the altogether and turn a few heads, if only Carlos wouldn’t get jealous, or something like that. But he wasn’t feeling like he wanted to joke just then.

From the bedroom, Aiden called, “Is Nate gonna be there?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it.”

This was not going as well as he’d hoped, basically. And Carlos had no idea how to fix it.

Author Bio:
Kate McMurray is a nonfiction editor. Also, she is crafty (mostly knitting and sewing, but she also wields power tools), she plays the violin, and she dabbles in various other pursuits. She’s maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with a presumptuous cat.


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