Ex-Beefcake by Zoe Lee

Chapter 1

Sam

Twelve Years Ago

“Oh! That’s gotta hurt,” I yelled in bloodthirsty excitement to my sort-of-date Rigo as two hockey players slammed into the plexiglass between the ice and our front-row seats. I’d won them in a radio contest and so far, it was the best phone call I’d ever made. I was a sports fiend and hockey beat the competition because it was a winter sport. I’d grown up in Florida before I came to Chicago for college, so I liked it the colder the better.

The horn blew to end the period and the player who’d done the slamming took off his helmet and shook out sweat-soaked hair. He spat out his mouthguard so it dangled under his chin like an upside down bobblehead and tossed a wink at the pretty girl on my other side.

She waved like a maniac and gushed as he skated away and hopped out of the rink, “He’s so hot, #87. I hope I can meet him after the game, you know what I mean?”

“Eh,” I said with a shrug, “he’s not my type of guy.”

Her jaw dropped and her eyes bugged out. I thought she was going to get homophobic on me, which was one reason I wasn’t out back home, but she just gasped, “Why not?”

“I love sports,” I said earnestly, waving my hands around at the arena. “But jocks? No.”

“When you see them after the game in their suits with all those muscles bulging and their hair all damp from showers, you’ll change your tune,” she said in that condescending, sage way people back home would say, Just wait until you meet the right girl.

“They’re arrogant and high-maintenance,” I countered.

She laughed and went back to her friends, giggling over my apparently crazy opinion.

Rigo shifted in front of me and asked, “Want to get some nachos?”

He was super cute, in the preppy, prissy way. From the look in his shining eyes, he’d accepted the second ticket I’d won for the opportunity to score with me after. Since I’d gotten to Chicago, determined to be my true, very gay self and discover the wonderful world of hookups and maybe even dating, I’d enthusiastically jumped into bed (or a bathroom stall or a frat house rec room couch) with all types of guys. I’d had zero experience before and had spent so much time trying not to get crushes I hadn’t even known what I might want. Chicago was a buffet and I’d sampled a little of everything that caught my eye or smelled good or looked like it would feel good in my mouth.

So I wasn’t about to ignore that look, but I didn’t want to miss any of the game either, and the next period was about to start. “Can we wait until a vendor goes by? I don’t want to miss any of the game,” I said, giving him a smile to let him know I wasn’t turning down the offer in his eyes, but I wasn’t about to miss a single play either. “Or we can go out after.”

“That sounds much better,” Rigo practically purred.

The period started with a roar from the crowd and I turned my attention back to the ice. I was mesmerized as #87 flew across the ice, dominating every play without being a show-off or that jerk who never passed the puck. He wasn’t the only great player, but he had this style I wanted to call relaxed, except that was a really weird word to describe an athlete.

Tense minutes flew by as Chicago scored again with an assist from #87, tying up the game, and Rigo kept leaning in close to ask questions. I wasn’t sure if he was playing dumb so he could try to get more of my attention, but I was a fantastic multi-tasker. I explained the positions and the names of the plays and why the whistle was blown every time he asked. But I didn’t take my eyes off the ice for more than a couple seconds.

When #87 scored with only eight seconds left in the final period, everyone went nuts, and I was on my feet screaming and jumping up and down, grabbing Rigo’s hand excitedly.

“Ready to get out of here?” I asked him, since I didn’t see a point in lingering in the arena after the game was done. Some people liked to hang around and wait for the crowd to empty out, but I loved being in the thick of it, all that camaraderie and adrenaline shared with thousands of strangers.

“Let’s do it,” he agreed instantly.

I kept a hold of his hand as we made our way outside and to his car and headed back into the city, to the bar-packed neighborhood around Wrigley Field.

“So are you liking our glass-blowing class?” he asked.

Honestly the last thing I wanted to talk about was the class where we’d met while I was still riding the high from the game, but I was interested in him or I wouldn’t have invited him. We needed to get to know each other to know if the interest could last.

“Yeah, it’s fun,” I said, “but I’ll have to keep looking for the right hobby for me.”

We talked about our jobs—I was an exec admin job at a pharma company, he was an engineer—and how we couldn’t wait to move up. Then he told me about a big party next weekend with “all the hottest gays” and things got flirty when we gossiped about who we’d hooked up with that we both knew. It got us both so hot that Rigo parked in a garage so we had the illusion of privacy while we fucked around in the car before going to a bar.

I picked a sports-themed bar I hadn’t been to yet and Rigo agreed even though he preferred gay bars. “That was fun,” he said as we pushed through the overflowing bar.

“Sure was,” I agreed, even though quick handjobs where there hadn’t been space to even kiss were actually disappointing. But the night was still young and so were we, so I was optimistic that after some food and conversation we’d have a better second round.

There were no empty tables, but there was one with a few empty seats, so I made my way over and then asked one of the guys, “Hey, do you mind if we take these?”

“Go ahead, man,” he said with a wave. “We have a few tables so it’s no problem.”

Rigo unsubtly scooted his chair closer to mine and smiled at me.

Then I hit pause so I could fight my way to the bar to get water and put in an order for loaded fries, hanging around joking with the people next to me until the fries came out.

When I got back to the table, half the guys who’d been sitting in the other seats were gone and a bunch of hulks had taken their places, pushing Rigo practically into a corner.

“Well this is cozy,” I quipped as I wedged back into my seat, knocking my knee into the leg of the guy on my right as I tried to avoid elbowing Rigo in the limited space.

The guy twisted his head around on his thick neck and grinned. “Sorry, man.”

“You’re #87,” I blurted out when I recognized him, dropping the basket of fries onto the table in my excitement.

“Only when I’m on the ice,” he replied by way of confirming his identity. “I’m Stern.”

I’d never met an athlete I admired, unless I wanted to count Ralph Dickens III, the quarterback of my high school football team, and I did not. Everyone liked to think they would be cool if they met a celebrity or one of their heroes, or even that hot guy from the club. But ever since I’d stopped caring what people thought of me, I’d never been cool again.

Normally it was a badge of honor to me, but not right then, when I kind of gasped, “This is the first time I’ve ever had a stranger sit next to me when I was happy about it.”

#87—Stern, which was a hilarious name for him because there wasn’t anything stern about his carefree expression or his larger-than-life body melted into his chair—smiled.

“I always like strangers,” he said.

“Well shit, I can’t introduce myself now,” I tossed back with a laugh.

Rigo cleared his throat in a pointed way from my other side.

Guiltily, I jerked back around to him and tried not to wince. “Sorry, babe.”

The word had just slipped out by accident, but apparently it made up for me ignoring him for a minute because he simpered and wove his arm through mine on the table.

I risked sliding a look over at Stern because in my admittedly limited personal experience with athletes, they were all about that masculinity. Most of the time, it required being anywhere from uncomfortable to downright hateful of men like me.

But Stern just dipped his chin and apologized, “Didn’t mean to interrupt your date.”

“We don’t mind,” Rigo said.

My eyes went a little wide in surprise at his one-eighty. I swung my head back around to Rigo and found the simpering had now turned into lip biting and batting his lashes.

Up until a minute ago, it seemed like Rigo was into me.

I sent Stern a sort of what the hell glance.

A slow smile spread across his lips as his eyes locked with Rigo’s. He leaned forward, angling his body so his shoulder pressed into mine while his neck craned, bringing him closer to Rigo. Now I was really wondering what the hell was going on. I wasn’t a mind reader so it wasn’t like I always knew who was into guys, but Stern wasn’t really… giving off any vibes. He was just giving Rigo a sexy look. I narrowed my eyes in suspicion.

“Oh yeah?” Stern murmured.

It was the sort of inane but leading question that could mean anything.

Rigo, it seemed, took it as an invitation. “Who doesn’t appreciate a big man like you?”

“Me,” I muttered.

But Rigo either didn’t hear or didn’t believe me. Either way, I’d lost interest in him. Yeah, I was young and I didn’t date, so I never had rules or expectations about exclusivity, especially before I’d even kissed someone. But it felt pretty rude to be on a date and hit on someone else… while also maybe angling for some kind of threesome involving me.

“Why don’t we all get out of here?” Rigo went on.

“Are you serious?” I demanded. He finally tore his eyes off Stern’s muscles and looked at me like I was the weird one here. “When someone invites you out, it usually means they’re interested. Specifically, I was interested in getting to know you a little. Maybe it was going to just be a hockey game, or maybe a hookup, or maybe turn into a date.”

Whatever charm he’d been using on me before slid off his face.

“Why don’t you get out of here before this nice stranger gets really pissed off?” Stern suggested in a mild tone, but his size made it into something most people wouldn’t ignore.

Sleazy or not, Rigo wasn’t dumb. He stood up and shrugged. “Both your losses.”

There was a beat of silence and then Stern and I busted up laughing.

“Shit, man, I’m so sorry,” I gasped.

“How did you miss the neon sign over his head that says Douchebag with an arrow pointing at him?” Stern asked, shaking his head and then lazily scooping up a handful of chips from a basket on the table and tossing them into his mouth. “I had to help out.”

I stretched out my legs now that there was room and rolled my eyes. “I’m twenty-five, I’m not shopping for a husband. Maybe he’s a douchebag who’s amazing in bed.”

Stern lifted his hand up between us and wobbled it back and forth. “All the girls I know say douches are disappointments. But if you’re actually mad at me, I’m sorry I overstepped.”

“Nah, man,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder. “But now you’re stuck with me.”

Looking at me in amusement, he joked, “You can’t keep up with a big man like me.”

Scoffing, I downed my glass of water and wiped the back of my hand over my mouth. “There’s, like, a thousand inappropriate things I want to say. But even though you gave that douchebag what’s obviously your let’s-get-sexy face, I know you’re straight. So I’ll swallow them down—sorry, couldn’t resist one—and say, bet you a brownie sundae I can keep up.”

Instead of firing off questions immediately, like most other competitive people I knew, Stern squeezed one eye nearly shut and cocked his head to one side. His blue eyes searched my face and skimmed my outfit like he was Sherlock Holmes about to detail everything about me. If there had been a hint of a smirk, I wouldn’t have been enjoying this at all.

“Who was your favorite skater when you were a teenager?”

“Matteo Guarise,” I sighed.

With a blank look, Stern motioned for me to explain.

“He’s an Italian figure skater,” I said, and now I was the one smirking, sprawling back out in my chair and waiting for Stern to make a face or disparage any other kinds of skaters.

Shaking his head sadly, Stern said, “He never even medaled at the Olympics.”

My face split into a big grin. “Why do you know that?”

“Is there a reason I shouldn’t know that?” he countered.

“Now you’re just arguing for argument’s sake,” I said, but it was a compliment.

He popped a chicken strip in his mouth and chewed slowly, like a cow, then swallowed the whole thing before answering. “My mom is obsessed with figure skating and ice dancing. It’s why I learned how to skate. She was pretty bummed when I decided that I wanted to learn how to play hockey instead of learning how to do a double Axel.”

“You’re just a big dude bro huh?”

“Must be,” he agreed. “I play hockey, but in school, I did martial arts, swimming, baseball, lacrosse, and football too.”

I finished a mouthful of my fries, then commented, “You must not have any free time.”

“I watch a lot of movies and TV shows during half my workouts and while I’m eating dinner,” he said. “Yes, before you ask, I am all about the action and adventure shit.”

Rubbing my hands together, ignoring the stickiness from the fries’ toppings, I started to quiz him on his favorites. We razzed each other about the ones we disagreed on and I started a list on my phone of things I needed to check out that I hadn’t heard of yet.

Before I knew it, it was last call and the other rowdy hockey players had all either found someone to take home for the night or were getting poured into Ubers.

“I should probably get going,” I finally said reluctantly.

“Here, give me your number,” Stern said as he stood up and stretched a little. “I need more friends who want to talk about all this, and not just talk shop about hockey all night.”

“Cool,” I said, giving Stern a big smile and then my number.

“My schedule is kind of weird, but we’ll find a time to hang out,” he said. “And let me know if you want to come to more games, I can probably get you some free tickets.”

He offered me his fat-knuckled fist to bump, so I knocked it lightly with mine, snickering because my friends were either huggers or just did the chin nod.

“You better check out the Clone Wars animated series or I’m blocking your ass,” Stern warned in a serious voice, but he was smiling warmly at me as we walked outside.

“I will,” I promised, then gave him a wave and we went our separate ways.