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Daring You by Ketley Allison (1)

1

Ben

6 Years Ago

Locker room cocks.

I’m surrounded by them, should be used to them, and I still think mine’s the biggest.

The boys and I are fresh off a game, where the Gators yet again beat the ’Noles, and the air is thick with sweat and success. Shouts echo across the walls and ricochet against the ceiling. Locker doors slam as towels are slung on benches or dropped into damp puddles on the floor.

I’m rubbing my head with a spare one I was lucky to snag before the towel shortage began, and don’t sense the approach before I’m rightly screwed.

A towel flicks like a whip against my bare ass cheeks and I flail against my open locker for a second.

“Fuck, man!”

“Ha-ha!” Locke crows. “Never gets old.”

“Save your rat-tails for the rookies, fucker,” I grumble, and avoid rubbing my ass like I want to.

“Not the same,” Locke says, leaning a shoulder against the locker beside mine. My teammate and best friend prefers to remain in his towel and cool off for as long as possible before getting into regular people clothing, so I’m forced to deal with his damp, half-naked body as I contort and slide into my shirt as fast as possible.

My dick, I don’t mind showing off. It’s the rest of me I’m more concerned with. The most obvious burn scar is on my right forearm, but it travels. The flames left a mottled tattoo that curls up my bicep and onto my shoulders. The fire also licked its tongue across my lower back and burned its liquid heat onto my thighs. The faster I get it covered up, the less questions I’m forced to deal with, not that my buddies ask questions anymore. It’s more the stares, these days.

“Get lost,” I say when Locke tries to trip me as I lift up a foot.

“You got places to be?” Locke asks. He wipes droplets from his forehead, his light brown hair still streaming from the shower.

“I’m craving some shut-eye,” I say.

“You’re not coming out with us tonight? But we just won, man!”

“I know, I know.” I give my face one last wipe from the towel before tossing it in the hamper across the room. “All this drinking is doing my head in. I’m tired, not gonna lie.”

Locke stares at me like I’ve morphed into his greatest nightmare, a sober nerd. “But not the fucking, right? Don’t tell me you’re tired of that. ‘Cause if you are, I gotta get me a new wingman.”

I palm my locker shut. “Yeah, ‘cause we need those.”

“There he is.” Locke grins. “Knew you were still in there somewhere. All right, go to bed, Granny. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“What, you’re not staying over somewhere?”

Locke is the only man alive I’ve seen actually waggle his eyebrows. “Not yet.”

I smack him on the back, remember he’s still wet, and shake out my hand. “Later, bro.”

“Later.”

I toss the strap of my duffel over my shoulder and make my way solo out of the locker room and then the stadium, the rest of the guys taking their time and shooting the shit after a tense, three point game. I’m not one to linger even on training days.

Taking the back way, I walk through the darkened parking lot, the tarmac wet with a flash storm Florida is known for, the air thick with the hot, static aftermath. My head is down, I’m looking for my car keys, and the voice catches my attention first.

“Can I get your autograph, Mr. Donahue?” someone says, and he’s leaning against my red Pontiac like he owns it.

My gut flattens, but I keep my expression smooth. “What are you doing here, Dodge?”

He pushes off the passenger side, his too-thin body coming into view under the sole street lamp above us. “Same as anybody else. Enjoying the game.”

“Glad you had fun. Get the fuck away from my car.”

“So mean.” Dodge covers his mouth in mock fear. “Shoulda used that on the field. Then maybe you wouldn’t have missed the last throw from the QB.”

Dodge McBarrow used to be on our team before he was kicked off for failing a drug test last year. Back then, he was messing around with weed, a layman’s drugs nowadays, but not if you’re an athlete. As he steps into the light, his cheeks are hollow, his dark skin marked with crusted-over sores.

“What happened to sticking to blunts, Dodge?”

“Bah.” He waves me off. “Those are for preteens looking to rebel against their mommies.”

I should shove him aside and get into my car. Every instinctual bone says to. “When did you start on the meth?”

“You my sponsor now?”

“No. But I’m concerned.”

“Funny you should say that, considering what you know I’m here for.”

Car. Now.

“Where you goin’, ‘Hue?”

“Home.”

“No you ain’t.”

“Buddy, you’re so high right now I’m shocked you know who you’re talking to. But since you do, you should also understand the serious ass-kicking you’re about to get if you don’t move.”

Dodge’s furtive movements work in his favor, because his twitches make him quick. He’s at my drivers’ side before I get there, blocking any entry.

I dump my duffel to the ground. “Last warning.”

“What happened to our deal, man?” Dodge crosses his arms, the flannel shirt he’s wearing dangling loosely like chicken wings.

Any patience I possessed because Dodge was a former teammate going through a rough time dissolves. “I’m not doing it, bro.”

His brown eyes skate from me, to the lamppost, to the parking lot, to the doors, where the rest of his former teammates remain.

“Deal’s off,” I say in a low tone.

Dodge’s brows jump, like I’m telling him something new. “There ain’t no deal, man. That’s not how this works. You’re lucky I didn’t hit you up for the cash you can’t afford instead.”

My chest tightens, but I cover it by folding my arms. He’s ditched his playful, innocent demeanor and grows snarky.

To assume Dodge is harmless is one’s greatest mistake, both as an opponent and friend. He collects information the same way he doles out weed, and makes money off both.

“You want to settle with me, that’s what you have to do,” he says.

Why, Dodge?”

Dodge shrugs, playfulness creeping back in, before it disappears into cold calculation. “It’s what you and your buddies do, right? Make bets. Dole out fucked up dares to each other. Well, I want to be included. Is that so bad?” A bold smile crosses his lips. “You said you’d do anything.”

“I said we could work something out.” I try shoving him out of the way at quarter-strength.

“Don’t matter.” Dodge stays firm, despite my clear indication to fuck off. “It’s what I want you to do. What you have to do.”

He possesses the boldness to latch on to my shoulder and try to stop me. I hitch my step and whip to the side, growling in his face. He’s a small little fucker. My teeth could clip his nose. But he’s speedy on the field. A true asset of mine where it counted, if only he weren’t such a slimy limpdick in normal life.

“Easy, boy,” Dodge chuckles.

He knew what touching me would do. Nobody’s allowed to lay a finger on me. Not my adoptive parents, not my friends, not even women. Not unless I give her the go-ahead, and that’s usually made very clear, in the form of guiding head to dick.

Tackling, however, is an entirely different matter, and I’m jonesing to lay this guy out right here and now.

My nostrils flare, my upper lip twitches, and if I don’t get in my car, I’ll break bones.

Dodge continues to chuckle. “Am I pushing your buttons, brother?”

“You are not my brother.”

“True,” Dodge muses, “But you’re about to fuck a sister.”

I rear, and this time the rules are out the window. I slam my palms against the car windows, making them rattle.

“Give me your answer, and I’ll move,” Dodge says, unaffected by my fury, or maybe too far gone on drugs to care. “You gonna fuck Acne Hayes or what? ‘Cause that’s what it’ll take, you know, to settle your debt with me.”

I breathe deep, wondering how many punches it would take to break his face. Probably one.

“Fuck Locke’s twin sister, and we’re even.”

I whirl and punch him target center.

Och!” Dodge stumbles back, clutching his nose. Blood streams out between his fingers.

That’s the thing about clocks to the nose. They bleed like I fuckin’ just tore open a full-bellied leech.

“Consider that my answer,” I say.

“You—you—this makes it worse, you moron!” Dodge attempts to scream through his fingers, but with his quickly clotting airways and swelling nose, he sounds exactly like he should on a regular day. His true voice coming to light.

I stalk close and grin when he flinches and retreats. “Then make it worse, I don’t care anymore.”

“Really? Really, Hue? You don’t care?” He cackles, but it’s wet and broken sounding, enough to grate against my ears and make me grind my teeth. “You know what I can do with this sort of information?”

I falter, but not because I’m going to cave and do as he asks. He’s a sick fuck, to want to settle a debt through me screwing my best friend’s sister and showing him some proof afterward. Probably wants a photo of Astor in bed, half-naked, something he can jerk off to later.

I falter because of what saying no to him will do. I breathe out the nausea as I think about Astor Hayes, and what she’s been doing to me since the day I met her. First day at college, I’m paired with my roommate, Locke Hayes, a fellow pursuer of the NFL, so we got along fine. Great, even. I don’t pride myself on becoming close with anyone, mostly because I don’t need camaraderie to function, but Locke was easy with me. If I talked, great, if I didn’t, that was okay, too. We grew close mostly through silence and allowing each other room to breathe in a tiny, 15x15 cell meant to be our living space for the next eight months. We practiced together, eventually studied together, until we ended up hanging out during our down time. We found stuff in common with our neighbors, Asher and Easton, and before we knew it, we were together, getting drunk and taking bets on each other’s idiocy. It was a helluva way to pass the time when we weren’t on the field, and became addictive shortly thereafter.

That’s when Astor Hayes walked in.

Locke needed help with physics, said his sister was a pro at all things scholastic, and asked her around for a study session. She came into the library one night, all windblown and agitated because Locke begged for her help last minute when she was supposed to be at mock trial tryouts. And she smelled like roses.

Actual, literal roses, and her scent reached my nostrils about the same time her gigantic eyes did.

They were overly large, like two circles on her face, and an incredible, piercing blue. Coupled with her pouty pink lips and flushed cheeks, she was basically a blow-up doll.

One I instantly wanted around my dick.

I blinked back the image about the same time Locke introduced us, covering my growing bulge with a quick adjustment under the study table, and shook her hand.

Long, lithe fingers. A skinny beanpole, really, with tangled, shoulder-length brown hair and one dimple on her left cheek. Did she have some rough skin to earn the nickname Acne Hayes? Sure, I guess. I didn’t focus on the bumps on her cheeks or the dots on her nose. There were too many other things about her calling for my attention. She looked nothing like her brother, and that was a good thing—for me, at least, since I was already picturing her naked.

Then she spoke.

“Astor,” she said while still shaking my hand. She had a firm grip, one I was impressed with, since most girls I met fluttered around shyly and turned into a limp fish in my grip. But she met me dead-on, and when she said her name it was like she wrapped it around smoke and velvet, making me the limp fish in our handshake.

“Ben,” I replied, real cool.

“You need help with physics, too?”

“Sweetheart, I’m fine in that department,” I said.

She arched a brow and managed to give me the once-over while half of me was under a table. I might as well have had my cock out for inspection. She was utterly unimpressed, and being one of the most pursued guys in our year, I was insulted.

“Yeah, I’ve heard you’re the Shrödinger’s Dick around campus,” she said.

My mouth fell open, since I didn’t know how to respond to something I couldn’t pronounce.

Locke barked with laughter and I thumped him good in the shoulder, because he wouldn’t have any more clue than me.

She smiled and elaborated. “Physics one-oh-one. Look it up, sport.”

Astor tutored Locke the rest of the night, and while I had my head pretend-buried in my Business Marketing textbook, I was drawn to her voice, to the curl she gave to every syllable, the clear dedication to her sentences.

Fuckin…dedication to her sentences? I wanted to punch myself after that.

I told myself to ignore her. She was Locke’s sister. Basically private property. And with everything going on, I couldn’t add that kind of complication to the the chemistry explosion that was my life.

Yet, I found myself pretending difficulties in subjects I excel at. Asking Astor to meet me at the library more and more. If she knew what I was doing, she didn’t let on, and definitely didn’t tell her brother about my shenanigans. She approached my questions patiently and thoughtfully, pointing out answers with the eraser end of her pencil, our fingers interlocking once or twice.

I had no idea if she liked me more than simply as her brother’s dumb best friend. No clue if she wanted anything above tutoring. All I knew was, I absolutely, positively, wanted my sheets to smell like roses.

That kind of conflict was hard to ignore, and I took it out on other women as much as I could. The hot ones, the loose ones, the tipsy ones, the skilled ones. I had my fix, my fill, yet still I felt this void. My heart—that annoying organ that keeps me alive—kept up its slow beats for those girls, then picked up the pace whenever Astor was around. I’d never seen her naked, never felt her tits or buried myself between her legs or smelled her sex scent. My imagination was doing that all for me, and before I knew it, I was waking up to a blown wad in my sheets after particularly detailed dreams that I somehow had to explain away to Locke when we woke up in the morning, when he had a chick in bed and I didn’t.

Almost two years of that. Two fucking years of jerking off to the image of Astor Hayes, and somehow, some little fucker named Dodge Hennessy figured it out.

And leverages it.

“I’ll tell everyone,” Dodge threatens, and it brings me painfully back to our current conversation. “Starting with Coach. You’ll lose everything. Is that what you want?”

“What’ll make you stop there, huh?” I say. Rage drums in my chest, my heart replaced by a warrior’s shield banging against my ribs. “What makes you think I’m so stupid as to believe this dare will make you keep what you know a secret?”

It’s a rhetorical question. I know exactly why he wants this. Dodge has been aching to get in with me and Locke since we were freshies, first trying hard, then trying harder, to impress us. Worse, he was convinced we’d started our own Skulls club or some shit, when really, these stupid tasks were more to enforce our egos and cement our status on college campus as royal badasses. I mean, why do most guys do this kind of shit?

Dodge twisted it all up into his own weird membership card where drugs and stolen exams could be involved. He was a bad egg, carrying with him a rotting smell I caught the day I met him during frosh week, only now, he’s decayed further.

Unfortunately, he’s a smart little corpse.

Cut to this moment, where he’s having his fun dangling this carrot in our school parking lot. It’s prudent to keep him happy, since there is the chance—slim, but there—that he will tell the wrong person, and any blowback would land directly on me.

Fuck, no matter what I do, he could always tell the wrong person. There’s only one way to end this blackmail cycle before it grows legs.

Dodge smiles through the blood. “I know it’ll break you. That’s why I want you to do it.”

I snarl and grab him by the neck, slamming him against a parked car. “Why do you hate me so much? Huh? What have I done to you?”

Remarkably, the bastard still grins. He says through the barricade of my strangle-hold, “You could lose everything. Locke will hate you. Astor will hate you. It’s perfect, for the sparkling, pristine, All American boy who’s catfishing everyone.”

I scowl and utter my last shot at losing his interest. “You’re a sick fuck. What makes you think I could get hard for some fucking pimple-faced string bean, anyway?”

Dodge shows his teeth, eerily white against the frame of blood. “Nice try.”

“You know what kind of pussy I pull? She’s nothing. You can’t think of something better? My boys could come up with a better dare while high as fuck and drunk off four bottles of whiskey. Why don’t I steal an exam, huh? Break into Coach’s office and spray paint my name across his walls? Throw a game so you can make a ton of cash for your Fentanyl-laced crystals?”

“None of them come close,” Dodge garbles out. “You’re ruined either way. This way, I get to watch. The other way, you’d get to disappear, and that’s no fun for me.”

I lean in, so close I can smell the metallic tang to his blood. “I’m not doing it.”

“Then expect to make the news tomorrow.”

On a roar, I toss his head against the car again. He grunts, something cracks, but I’m past caring.

“Let them know. Let them come for me. At least then, I don’t have to deal with rats like you, looking to make a buck off other people’s nightmares.”

Dodge’s eyes flutter, and I consider that maybe I’m knocking him unconscious.

Like I give a damn.

“You’ll never win,” I say after another rally and launch. His shoulder cracks against the windshield. The car’s alarm goes off. “I’m out. I’ll pack my bags tonight. I’m leaving. You’ve got nothing left to wager, Dodge.”

“Ben? Shit, Ben!”

Stomping feet come up behind me, hands gripping my shoulders to throw me back. I’m in beast mode and ready to maul whoever decided it was a good idea to touch me, but when I see it’s Locke, when I register his face, pale with fear, a palm held out to keep me away from Dodge, I think, So, this is how I’m going to say good-bye to you, brother.

“What the fuck?” Locke says. “What are you doing to him?”

“What he deserves.” I swipe an arm across my mouth, shocked to see the sleeve of my shirt slick with blood. Dodge must’ve gotten in a few hits himself.

“Do you know what this can do?” Locke asks. “Forget him, what about you? Coach finds this out—”

“I’m out anyway.”

Glancing around, I find my duffel in the middle of the parking lot. I sling it over my shoulder and start towards my dented car.

“You’re leaving?” Locke says behind me. “You don’t think I deserve some kind of explanation? Where are you going, Ben?”

“It’s better if you don’t know,” I say over my shoulder. But I falter. I’m annoyed I’m even thinking it, but I say it anyway, “You’ve been a good friend, Locke. I’ll never forget that.”

“Huh?”

Poor guy. Locke’s standing there with the crumpled form of a bloody former teammate on one side, and the supposed best friend on the other who won’t give him any answers. Locke doesn’t know Dodge very well, or what he represents. If I’m honest, Locke doesn’t know me very well, either. But it’s better if he stays away from both of us.

Ben!” Locke roars, but I don’t slow my steps.

Being a good guy, Locke won’t leave Dodge. He needs to grab help, maybe take him to a hospital.

Perhaps that’ll be where Dodge spills the beans. To the doctor, or a nurse, or some other medical professional. They’ll make a few calls. Police will get involved. Then I’ll get a phone call, probably from my handler, saying, “jig is up, Ben. We gotta move you.”

Well. That’s the nice version.

Either way, my dreams will be crushed. Everything I’ve worked for, gone. That whoosh of smoke that should’ve killed me as a kid will return, this time snuffing out my efforts, my luck, my fantasies of making a new name for myself.

If I thought screwing Astor would keep everything in place, I still wouldn’t do it. Astor doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment or require that kind of scar when she realizes why I slept with her. If she’d even allow it, that is. Jury’s still out on how she feels about me.

But I prefer the memories of making her smile, of drawing out her laughs and getting lucky brushes of her soft skin on the pads of my fingers. I’ll take those flashbacks with me, instead of seducing her in order to preserve this fictitious life I’ve crafted.

I should’ve known better.

The butt of my jeans vibrates, and I wonder if it’s my handler, if Dodge has put out some sort of mass email laying me out for all to see. If he’s capable of being that premeditative.

I pull my phone out, expecting the worst, but instead, it’s Astor.

Can you come by? I need to talk to you.

Wha?

That simple request has me debating everything. I should start my car and get on the road to disappearing forever, without looking back. But that’s the complete opposite of what I want to do.

Two years. I’d gotten comfortable in this life and I seriously didn’t want to leave it. Leave Astor this way. She deserves more…maybe not the full explanation, because I could never do that, but at the very least, a goodbye.

Yeah. That’s what I’ll do. I have time. Dodge is knocked out pretty good and may want to spend a few moments weighing his options before he sings like a canary. Even if I don’t have it, I’ll make the time.

Sure, I text back, and pocket my phone.

Expression grim, I duck in to my car and drive over to Astor’s place, but Locke’s confused, betrayed expression won’t leave my rearview until I turn the corner out of the lot.

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