Prologue

 

The lights of downtown Seattle bled into the misty rain outside the Pucker Up bar. Inside the bar, Bryce Johnson, six-foot-five, two hundred and twenty pounds of first-line power forward for the Seattle Thunder professional ice-hockey team, hid in the bathroom from a tiny blonde woman in four-inch heels.

The bathroom wasn’t very big; two stalls, two sinks, and an out of order urinal, so Bryce occupied most of the room. The door slammed open, and Bryce jumped.

Robbie, the newest Thunderer, came in, the sounds of laughter and music from Bryce’s retirement party wafting through the open door with him. “Hey,” he said. “This is where you went. People were looking for you. Jess in particular.”

Bryce sighed before he could stop himself.

Robbie laughed. “She who you’re hiding from?”

“I’m not hiding,” Bryce said.

“If you say so,” Robbie replied, closing the door of the stall behind him.

Bryce tried to psych himself up to leave the bathroom. He stood awkwardly as Robbie came out and washed his hands.

“Want me to go out with you for moral support?” Robbie asked.

Bryce crossed his arms over his chest, testing the limits of the material of his black t-shirt. “Is she still out there?” he asked.

Robbie laughed as he washed his hands. “Yeah, those women are relentless, man.” His voice was loud in the confined space, and his eyes were glassy and sleepy from too much alcohol drunk too quickly. “I told my boyfriend that he’s lucky I’m not into that.”

“Boyfriend?”

Robbie gave him a look. “Yeah? Drew, that guy who is always with me? Who did you think he was?”

“I haven’t been around much,” Bryce said defensively. A serious knee injury during practice had benched him before the start of the season, and it was Robbie’s first year with the pros. Bryce was thirteen years older than Robbie. When he had left home to play Major Junior Hockey in Canada, Robbie had been learning to walk. God, Bryce felt old. “Is he, Drew, here tonight?”

Robbie grimaced. “No. He went back home for a while. He’s trying to decide if ‘he wants to be part of this life’ or not.”

The door banged against the wall as a striking brunette woman in tailored trousers and a deep red sweater strode in. “You can’t hide in here playing with your johnson forever, Johnson. There’s a cake with your name on it. Literally.” She smirked at her own joke.

“Nikki, this is the men’s room!”

She scoffed. “Like I’ve never seen a dick before.” She caught Robbie looking at her with a big smile. She tilted her chin at him. “Hey, Rookie.”

“You’re Nikki.” He sounded starstruck.

“The one and only.” She held out her hand for a shake.

Bryce hobbled over to his ex-wife who was still somehow, miraculously, his best friend. “Hey, Nikki.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Did you just get here?”

She hugged him tightly. “Yeah. When I didn’t see you in the crowd, I knew I’d find you hiding somewhere.”

“I’m not hiding,” he muttered not needing to see Nikki’s face to know she didn’t believe him.

“Right,” she said. ““So what are you boys talking about?”

“Robbie was just saying his boyfriend is still deciding if he wants to move here or not.” He stressed boyfriend the tiniest bit.

Nikki looked sympathetic. She dropped a hand on Robbie’s shoulder. “It’s a tough call, Rookie. Being a hockey player’s partner is hard. You guys are on the road a lot.”

“Yeah. I just thought we could make it work. It could be the start of something huge for us, you know?” He looked between them for support

“Oh, I know,” Nikki echoed giving Robbie a sad smile. “Let me give you my number. Tell your guy he can call me if he wants some straight talk about what he might be getting into.”

“Really?” He smiled at her wide-eyed.

“Really. But don’t get your hopes up. If we talk, I’m going to give him the whole gory truth; good, bad, and, horrific.”

The excitement in Robbie’s eyes dimmed. In a way, it made Bryce feel better. It showed that the kid had at least some idea what he was asking of his…boyfriend.

“You know,” Robbie said to Bryce as he stared at himself in the mirror and fixed his hair. “I always thought you’d come out after you guys split up. I mean, I get why you didn’t. Different times and all that.”

What? “Who? Come out of what?”

Nikki put her hand on Bryce’s shoulder.

Robbie caught Bryce’s eye in the mirror and gave him a shy drunken smile. “I had the biggest crush on you.” He blushed and turned away. “It just would have been cool, having a role model and all, you know? But I get it. You gotta be careful in pro sports. But you’re out of the league now, so you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Bryce did some quick math. “You would have been, what, eleven when Nikki and I divorced?”

Robbie’s eyes drift to the ceiling as he tried to remember. “Yeah. About. Had a poster of you and everything.” Robbie turned to Nikki, expression serious. “Do you think I’ll be okay if I’m out? I mean, the team knows, and the coach. But the fans? Should I get a beard, too? Keep the ladies off my back? Think Drew would appreciate that?” He laughed humorlessly.

Grasping Robbie with both hands, Nikki turned him towards the door. “Okay, Rookie. Back to the party. And I think it’s time you switched to water.”

“I’m not gay,” Bryce blurted out.

Robbie exchanged glances with Nikki who kept her expression carefully neutral. “Oh, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–” He blushed to the roots of his sandy blonde hair.

Nikki put her arm around Bryce’s waist. She was tall for a woman, almost five foot ten, but she looked small next to him. “Come on, big guy, let’s go meet your adoring fans. The Rookie and I will keep those big scary women away from you.”

Bryce rolled his eyes at her. “I think I would know if I were gay.”

“You’d think.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s get out of here.”

Bryce checked his hair in the mirror and then adjusted the brace covering his leg from mid-thigh to below the knee. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder. “I have cake to eat.”

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