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Out in the Deep by Hayes, Lane (1)

1

“The deeper the waters are, the more still they run.”—Korean proverb

Mist rose from the placid water, lending an ethereal aura to the foggy morning. The stands were sparsely populated at this hour. An eight a.m. Saturday game was a tough sell for most people in the summer, especially for a glorified scrimmage. There should have been a rule stating that all non-crucial collegiate events were banned until after noon in the summertime. Or maybe year-round. I glanced at our crosstown rivals at the opposite end of the pool, lined up on either side of the goal.

Water polo was an insular sport with a strong presence in coastal communities like Southern California. Chances were good that if you’d played in high school and college, you knew the competition well. I recognized the Panthers’ goalie first. Jake was a fifth-year senior like me. We’d been friends since high school. He was six foot five with a wingspan that rivaled a professional basketball player’s. My gaze wandered to Mike Hoskins, on Jake’s left. He was a big partier. I bet he was out late last night and no doubt, he had a hangover. Not a morning threat, I mused. Tim Berkus was slow to start, but he ramped up quickly and—oh, fuck. I forgot about Gabe Chadwick. I fucking hated that guy. I wasn’t a fan of anyone who believed they were God’s gift to humanity. So what if he was tall, dark, good-looking, smart, and a world-class athlete? Gabe was still a dick if you asked me.

And it looked like I was guarding him this morning. Great.

Adrenaline rushed through me when the ref blew his whistle, signaling the start of the game. I checked the tie on my cap, then swam into position and waited to see who won the sprint. Us. I moved closer to the net on the far right side and waved my hand. The second the ball was passed to me, I threw a cross-cage skip shot and scored just before Gabe reached over, pulling me under in a blatant attempt to drown me.

Okay, fine. That was a slight exaggeration. But only a slight one. Gabe yanked me sideways and then pushed me under. It was excessive force and as I held my breath and stared at his enviable six-pack underwater, I figured it was a matter of seconds before the ref called a foul. I popped back up when I realized I wasn’t going to get the call and retaliated by kicking Gabe in the stomach, then swimming partially over him before getting into position on defense.

Like any other sport, the main objective in water polo was to score. The team with the most points won. In that way it was a lot like basketball or soccer. I’d been told that it looked much easier, which always made me laugh ’cause water polo was fucking vicious. Maybe it seemed like keep-away above water, but underneath it was like football. Anything was legal as long you didn’t get caught. The best players knew how to get away with murder. And Gabe was definitely one of the best.

A pissed-off Gabe meant trouble for me. By the third quarter, he was all over me. I’d been kicked in the ribs, the head, and scored on twice. But I somehow managed to hang in the game, jockeying and battling for position and making it difficult for Gabe to maneuver around me. Maybe it was inevitable that he’d lose his cool and “accidentally” kick me in the balls. He grazed my left nut. It didn’t actually hurt, but after getting the crap beaten out of me nonstop for thirty minutes while treading water, it was the last straw. Or maybe it was when he crawled over my back and taunted, “You fucking love having me on top of you, don’t you?” that I came unglued.

I dragged him under and kicked him in the gut. Hard. The surprise factor worked in my favor…for five seconds, anyway. As soon as it wore off, Gabe came after me in his patented subtle way. He gouged my side, then flailed to the surface and put on a show for our meager audience. He should have won an award. His dramatic gasps for air and subsequent coughing fit sent a twitter of worry through the crowd. When he swam to the edge to gather himself and catch his breath, he received a round of applause. And me? I got kicked out of the game.

I was forced to endure the last quarter from the bench in disgrace. And to add insult to injury, we lost. Everyone was pissed…my coach, my teammates. But no one was angrier than me. I shouldn’t have let Gabe get under my skin. There was no excuse. I’d played this game for more than half my life. I knew better than to let an opponent inside my head.

Coach Burton pulled me aside afterward. I braced myself for a long-winded, expletive-filled verbal beatdown, knowing on some level I probably deserved it. But I had to admit—at twenty-three, this shit was getting old. I secured my towel and cocked my head, focusing on the angry vein pulsating at Coach’s temple.

He was a super-fit, no-nonsense drill sergeant in his late forties with graying hair, who lived and breathed water polo. He’d won numerous accolades in his career as an athlete and a coach. I had the utmost respect for him, but I hoped he’d finish berating me sooner rather than later.

“…you better learn to control your fucking temper,” he yelled, pointing a warning finger at my chest. “You’re an important member of this team, Vaughn. You and Chadwick will be unbeatable together if you get your head out of your ass and—”

“Sorry, sir. Um, what do you mean by ‘unbeatable together’? He plays for the enemy.”

Coach Burton lifted his bushy brows and leaned in conspiratorially. “Not for long. He’s coming to Long Beach.”

No fucking way. I frowned and then shook my head, hoping he’d crack a smile and laugh at me for taking everything so damn seriously.

“You’re kidding, right?” I prodded.

“Nope. I’m serious. And after the way he handed us our lunch, I’m fucking thrilled.”

“But when…and why?”

“Next week and who cares?” he quipped. “We need Chadwick to be competitive this year. But the only way this works is if you play nice. I need you to make him your best goddamn friend. Got it, Vaughn?”

I nodded distractedly. “Got it.”

Coach patted my shoulder and bellowed at someone behind me before ambling away. I let out a beleaguered sigh, then pushed away from the wall and willed myself to relax. I had one year left. It was pointless to stress about personnel changes. If I were smart, I’d concentrate on my future after graduation and remember that some things were beyond my control.

But having Gabe for a teammate was just…alarming.

The problem with being a type A control freak was that I couldn’t let anything go. I had a terrible habit of twisting and turning over minute details and sweating the small stuff. I’d lie awake at night thinking about a test I had to ace or an appointment I had to make. Timeliness and general organization mattered to me more than they did to most of my friends. Evan was a great example. He lay sprawled on our sofa in front of the flat-screen with a bag of chips on his stomach, typing something into his phone with his left hand while he reached aimlessly for the remote on the coffee table a foot away.

“What are you doing?” I asked, picking up the remote and swiping the chips away in one fell swoop.

“Hey! I was eating those and watching that and—why are you all dressed up?” Evan furrowed his brow and sat up when I perched on the armchair next to him.

“We’re going to Chelsea’s party, remember? You need a shower. Hop to it.” I tapped my watch obnoxiously, then busted up laughing at Evan’s blank stare.

Evan di Angelo and I had been roommates since our freshman year in the dorms. He transferred to a nearby private college to play football our sophomore year, but he didn’t want to deal with finding a new apartment and new roommates, so he commuted twenty minutes to school. Truthfully, the deal here was too cushy to pass up. My parents bought this bungalow two blocks from the beach because they wanted to be sure I lived in a good neighborhood. In other words, they were overprotective helicopter parents. They liked Evan and invited him to stay at the beach house free of charge. Kinda like they were bribing him to be my friend. We’d laughed about it at the time, but there was something a bit…overbearing about the offer.

“Dude, chill. I took a shower after my game. I’m exhausted. Have a beer and watch some football. We don’t want to be the first ones there. Trust me,” he said, giving me a dose of sideways realness.

“I guess you’re right. Want another?”

“You’re reading my mind. Thanks, man.”

I returned with two bottles. I uncapped them both and slid one across the coffee table before reclaiming my seat.

“This game sucks,” I commented, noting the twenty-four to zero score in the fourth quarter.

“Yeah, there’s nothing much on. Might as tell me who got in your grill. You look pissed.”

Evan’s intuitive side always took me aback. He might have seemed like a typical jock, but he was surprisingly sensitive. He was six foot two, two hundred and thirty pounds with light-brown hair, brown eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and a straight nose. And he was built like a brick house. No one in their right mind would mess with Evan. Until they got to know him and realized he was a big, good-natured teddy bear who liked watching sports, hanging with his buddies, and playing video games. Other than height, we were complete opposites. I was lean and broad-shouldered with short dark-blond hair, blue eyes, and tan skin. I looked like a typical California kid, except I lacked the stereotypical easygoing attitude. I thrived on stress.

“Pissed isn’t the right word. I’m…”

“Irked, befuddled, annoyed?”

I nodded in agreement. “You sound like you swallowed a thesaurus but yes, that’s exactly it.”

I gave Evan a brief rundown from my game that morning, highlighting key points of my underwater wrestling match with Gabe.

“Sounds like a regular day at the office. What’s the big deal?”

I yanked my button-down shirt from my jeans and turned to show him the wicked-looking scratch on my side. “Look what he did to me!”

Evan gamely leaned to check out my war wound. “Poor baby. Didn’t Amanda do that to you too?”

“That was different,” I huffed. “This isn’t a love mark in the heat of the moment. This fucking hurts!”

“Hmph. But it was a heat of the moment thing. Maybe Gabe swings both ways, and he’s trying to let you know he wants you.” Evan’s faux-serious tone made me laugh.

“You’re an idiot.” I smacked him upside the head, then flopped back into the armchair. “But you’re right. I wouldn’t think twice about any of this, except Coach informed me Gabe is transferring. He’s going to be my new teammate.”

“Oh…the plot thickens.” Evan rubbed his hands together gleefully and waggled his eyebrows. When I didn’t crack a smile, he cocked his head. “C’mon, Der. You’ve been talking about what a kickass player Gabe is for years. And if he’s occasionally kicked your ass, doesn’t that mean he’ll be a fierce teammate?”

“Maybe, but he’s a dick,” I groused.

“Hey, he could be a great guy outside of the pool, but who gives a shit? If you ask me, I bet you’re mad no one cleared his transfer with you first. You like to be consulted on these things.”

“Yeah, well…” I didn’t deny it. As team captain, I would have appreciated a heads up. My anally retentive nature demanded to be in the know.

“Why’s he transferring anyway? Isn’t he a senior?” Evan asked, glancing back at the television distractedly.

“Yeah, but I don’t know if he’s staying on for another year or not. As far as why…I think he just made the national team. It’s basically a pre-Olympic training squad. Their coach runs practices at a nearby pool. But that’s just a guess. I have no idea.” I swiped my hand through my hair, then reached for my beer.

“You can ask him tonight. I bet you twenty bucks Chelsea invited Gabe to her party.”

“What? Why would she?”

“You know Chels. She loves fresh blood. If she’s heard Gabe’s transferring, she’ll invite him. Which means…your new best buddy may be there tonight. If he is, it’s a great time to shake hands and agree to be friends. And if things go well, maybe you can get him to scratch you in a way you might actually like.”

“You’re hysterical. Get dressed and let’s grab something to eat. I’m hungry.”

We stopped at a bar on 2nd Street for a pre-party dinner. We chatted about sports, school, and current events over burgers, fries, and a couple of beers and then walked to Chelsea’s place. It was a wise decision to leave our cars behind. There was no parking in front of her house. I had a feeling that would be the case. School started next week and summer wasn’t quite over, which meant beach towns up and down the Southern California coast were bombarded, and parking spaces were hard to come by.

I paused in the doorway to get my bearings and blinked at the instant sensory overload. The lights were dim, the music was at near concert-level decibels, and the living room was a swarm of humanity. I spotted our hostess dancing on a coffee table. Chelsea Ramirez was one of my best friends and a self-proclaimed party girl. She was outgoing and friendly, and she loved hosting impromptu get-togethers for fifty or more people. Her roommates were obviously in on the fun, but we all knew Chelsea was the catalyst. Her bi-monthly parties were a staple in the five years I’d lived in Long Beach.

Chels was a pretty, petite Latina with long brown hair and a bohemian vibe that drew people to her. I glanced at the good-looking blond, blue-eyed guy dancing with her. Mitch was one of Chels’s “party pals.” Her words, not mine. He was one of those high-energy, life-of-the-party types. In other words, Chelsea’s male equivalent. Over the past few years, he’d morphed from a shy, quiet kid to an out-and-proud member of the cheer squad and a leader in the university’s Queer Alliance club. I didn’t know Mitch well, but I liked him and I respected his relentless confidence.

Chelsea yelled my name, holding Mitch’s arm for support when she teetered on her high-heeled boots. I couldn’t hear a word she said, but I thought she was inviting me to dance. Hell, no. Not without liquid courage. I waved, then tipped my hand toward my mouth in a universal “I need a drink” gesture before greeting a couple of my teammates standing near the galley-style kitchen.

“What’s that?” I yelled above the din of an old Drake song, pointing at the pink cocktail in Troy’s red cup.

“No clue. It’s in the punch bowl in the kitchen. It’s pretty good.”

“Dude. Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to drink from the community party bowl? Someone could have slipped something in there,” I admonished.

“Don’t be a party pooper, Vaughn. At least taste it,” he said, pushing his cup at my chest.

I held my hands up and shook my head. “No, thanks. I’m gonna find a beer.”

I weaved through the mass of people, braving the impossibly small and very crowded space. I stopped to give a couple of high fives on my way to the keg located outside the kitchen door.

The evening air felt refreshing after the claustrophobic press of bodies inside. I sucked in a deep breath before skirting around a makeshift bar and heading for the keg. I filled my cup, then stepped into the shadows and surveyed the backyard. Two separate groups were chatting near the barbeque. Their inebriated laughter almost drowned out the telltale sounds of a couple engaged in a heavy make-out session a few feet away under a giant pepper tree. I sipped my beer and was about to head back inside just as one of the lovebirds stepped out of the shadows.

“Oh. Derek, it’s you. Hi.”

I couldn’t see her well in the dark, but I’d recognize that voice anywhere. I pasted a smile on my face and turned to greet my ex-girlfriend and—

No fucking way.

I knit my brow and cast a wary glance between Amanda and my nemesis.

“Hey,” I said awkwardly. “How’s it going?”

“Good. Um…you guys know each other, right? Water polo and…stuff.” Amanda pushed a strand of her long blonde hair behind her ear and bit her already swollen bottom lip.

The sudden wave of jealousy took me by surprise. I broke up with Amanda last June. We’d been together for two years and we’d had a good run, but there was no real passion between us. We’d become a habit, and I hadn’t seen the point in drawing out a relationship we both knew wouldn’t last. She’d seemed hurt at first but okay after a few weeks, and I’d been relieved. So I didn’t understand. Why would I care if Amanda and Gabe got together? Sure, it was weird…but we were all adults. I had no right to envy, and I certainly shouldn’t feel like I’d been sucker-punched. The weird thing was that my angst had nothing to with my ex. This was all about Gabe. I couldn’t tell if I was upset he was with her or with anyone in general. I was too confused to touch that.

I refocused and nodded brusquely. “Yeah. We know each other.”

Amanda stepped away from Gabe and shot a wan smile at both of us. “Um, I’m going to use the restroom. I’ll see you guys around.” 

I smiled tightly and watched her walk away before turning to Gabe. He looked good tonight. He was dressed like me, in jeans and a short-sleeved button-down shirt. He was the kind of guy most people considered hot. And why the fuck did that even cross my mind? Okay, it was probably because I usually saw him in a Speedo and he always looked hot but—oh, fuck.

“Um, are you and Amanda…?”

“Nah. We were just…foolin’ around.”

“Oh. Do you make a habit of sticking your tongue down random girls’ throats?” I asked in a sharper tone than I intended.

Gabe snorted. “No, but she came on to me after I asked about you and…bam! Before I knew what hit me, she backed me against that tree. Then you came snooping around and ruined everything.”

His tone was jocular and laid-back. The polar opposite of the warrior I did battle against in the pool this morning. The personality shift was jarring. I didn’t trust him at all.

“Why did you ask about me?”

“I didn’t. It was a joke,” he snarked.

“Oh. Right.”

A Saturday that began and ended with Gabe wasn’t good for my sanity. I started to turn away when he spoke again.

“Good game today.”

“Better for you than me,” I huffed. 

He gave me a lopsided grin and shrugged. “Win some, lose some.”

“So says the guy who gouged my side, then somehow convinced the ref he was the injured party.”

Gabe’s smile lit his eyes. I could practically feel the warmth emanating from him. It made me want to return the gesture, which didn’t make sense. Gabe and I weren’t friends. Hell, I’d caught him with my ex five minutes ago.

But that smile…

“I’d apologize for the teensy scratch, Vaughn, but you kicked me in the stomach one too many times. You were aiming for my nuts, and I wasn’t going down without a fight. The key is to not get caught,” he said with a wink. “You oughtta know that by now.”

“Hmph.” I sipped my beer, then slipped my free hand into my pocket so I wasn’t tempted to wring his neck when I inched closer to him. “Coach told me a funny story after he chewed my ass out for getting benched. He said you were transferring and…crazier still, he said you were joining my team.”

Your team?”

“I’m the captain so yeah, it’s my team. Is it true? It must be. Why else would you be at Chelsea’s party? Did she invite you? If she did, don’t get too excited. She’s awesome but she’ll be the first to admit, she extends random invites to hot guys.”

Gabe’s eyes twinkled good-naturedly. “So you think I’m hot?”

“What? Fuck you. No,” I sputtered.

“Aw. I think that’s super sweet. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you like me,” he teased.

“I don’t.”

“Maybe a little? I kinda hope so, ’cause to answer your earlier question…yes. We’re gonna be teammates and probably best friends before you graduate. You are graduating, right? You’ve got to be twenty-five now.”

“I’m twenty-three, dickhead. And yeah, I’m graduating. Why are you transferring?”

“Long story short, the national team is training in Long Beach now. I can’t waste time commuting to LA for school, then back here for practices. The only way to get a degree and have a shot at the Olympics is to be in one central location.”

“Oh,” I said like a true lame-ass. “When are you gonna start practicing with us?”

“Next week.” Gabe rubbed his hands together before offering me his right one. “Let’s call truce, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal. What d’ya say?”

I stared at his outstretched hand for a moment and was about to shake it when someone bumped my elbow.

“This stuff is fucking awesome. Take a drink,” Evan insisted, prying my beer from my fingers and replacing it with another red cup. “And don’t worry, I made it myself. No funny business. Hey, Gabe. I think we’ve met at a water polo game or something. I’m Evan.”

I sipped the cocktail while they exchanged bro-style fist bumps and introductions. “Not bad. What’s in it?”

“Vodka, triple sec, vodka, lime juice, and more vodka,” Evan replied proudly.

“In other words, it’s a very strong kamikaze.”

“Exactly. You’re welcome. Give Gabe a taste. If you like it, I’ll make another one,” Evan said.

“No, thanks. I don’t drink during the season.” Gabe smiled at Evan, then turned and clasped my shoulder. “I’ll see you at practice Monday…Captain.”

Gabe moved away before I could respond, which was probably for the best. I’d just spent five minutes alone with him and miraculously, it wasn’t horrible. In fact, he was vaguely…pleasant. Although that parting line might have been a judgment call. Like he couldn’t believe the team captain would party during a crucial time. Technically, this was still pre-season. I took another drink, then handed the red cup back to Evan.

“Keep it. Look at you—making friends with the enemy. I’m proud of you, little buddy,” he gushed sarcastically.

I scoffed. “We’re not friends but if we’re going to be teammates, I might as well make the best of it.”

“Good idea. It’s cool of you to make an effort. That’s what counts.”

“Don’t give me too much credit. I didn’t go looking for Gabe. I bumped into him and Amanda making out,” I informed him with a world-class eye roll.

“Your Amanda?” he asked incredulously.

“She’s not my Amanda. She’s a free agent. We broke up,” I reminded him as I lifted the cup to my mouth. “Damn, this is strong.”

“Mmmhmm. Isn’t that gonna be weird for you if your ex starts showing up at your games drooling all over the guy you hated until ten minutes ago?”

“Nah. Gabe said they aren’t a thing anyway.”

“I like your attitude, man. But if they aren’t a thing, I think she’s trying to change that.”

Evan gestured toward the grassy area where a large group convened around a fire pit. Some were chatting, some were dancing. And on the fringe next to a potted plant, Gabe stood with his arm draped over Amanda’s shoulder. I noted her hand dipped in his back pocket and fuck, there it was again…a stabbing pang of something that felt a lot like misdirected jealousy.

I gulped the cocktail greedily, tipping the cup back until it was empty. “Who cares? It’s not my business. Make me another one? This might be your best drink yet,” I enthused, moving toward the side door.

I studiously averted his gaze and tried not to care that Evan probably assumed I regretted my decision to end a perfectly fine two-year relationship. I had zero regrets. But I couldn’t explain what was really going through my head when I didn’t understand it myself. This visceral, possessive feeling deep inside me had nothing whatsoever to do with Amanda. It was all for Gabe.

And it freaked me the fuck out. I thought I had this bi thing under control. I hadn’t looked at another guy twice in a long time. Why now? Better question…why Gabe? I couldn’t begin to process my reaction, which meant…this was a job for alcohol.

Two and a half hours later, I was drunk. Toasted, bombed, schnockered. Whatever the word was for total incapacitation with a limited ability to speak coherently or walk without bumping into inanimate objects. I wasn’t the only one. Some of my fellow partiers were dancing on tables; others lost key articles of clothing as they grinded against each other. And I was pretty sure I heard the telltale sounds of sex in progress when I passed the guest bedroom. Then again, I wasn’t “sure” of anything. I was dazed and confused.

I cut myself off just after midnight and sat on the deck in the backyard, guzzling water while my friends debated the state of hip-hop music’s cultural influence. Or maybe they were just talking about scoring tickets to Coachella next year. I had a hard time following. Thankfully, it wasn’t a conversation that required much input. I was happy to hang out, stare at the stars, and be grateful Gabe had disappeared. And not with Amanda. I eyed her across the lawn, chatting with a couple of her sorority sisters and Mitch and Evan.

I’d have to ask Evan what they talked about tomorrow. But now…I just wanted to go home. I sent Evan a quick text and waited for him to respond. I watched him pick his phone from his pocket, glance at the screen, and then shove it back without replying. Asshole. I tried again.

Are you ready?

Evan retrieved his cell again, then shot a dirty look at me and shook his head no just as one of Amanda’s friends slipped her hand under his shirt. Or maybe it was Amanda. I couldn’t tell and I no longer cared. I gave a series of exaggerated hand signals to let him know I was leaving. Then I stumbled to my feet and said a round of good-byes before making my way through the house and out the front door.

I paused to uncap my water bottle on the sidewalk and noticed a figure standing in the street next to a smallish car. The contrast of the tall man and the tiny vehicle caught my attention. I couldn’t tell who it was but when he waved, I returned the gesture and continued down the block.

“Hey, Vaughn! Did you hear me?”

“Huh?” I stopped in my tracks, then walked back toward the car and cast a wary gaze between the Mini Cooper and the guy I’d been avoiding for the past three hours.

“It’s me…Gabe. Do you want a ride?”

Did I? My head felt clearer than it had an hour ago, but I was still tipsy. “Um…”

When I hesitated a second too long, he laughed, then moved to open the passenger-side door. “Get in. You’re drunk.”

I obeyed but of course, I felt the need to defend myself. “I’m not drunk.”

“Yeah, you are,” he countered without heat.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little drunk, but I’m not totally gone. I just feel loopy, you know?”

“I’ve been there. But I’ve been drinking water all night, so you’re in good hands. Where do you live?”

“Four blocks away. I’m on Coronado. Why are you still here? I thought you would have invited my ex back to your place by now,” I said conversationally, setting my empty water bottle in the cupholder before fastening my seat belt.

“You’re a dick, Vaughn.”

I chuckled at his beleaguered sigh and twisted in my seat to face him. God, he was so…chiseled. He reminded me of a Greek statue with his high cheekbones and strong jaw and—oh, fuck. I willed myself not to say anything stupid when that odd, crushy feeling came over me again. It made me feel tingly inside and reckless.

“I have my moments. But you’re a bigger dick than me,” I argued.

“How did you know I have a bigger dick than you?”

“Ha. Ha.” I unbuckled my belt and was about to unzip my jeans when Gabe set his hand over my wrist.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m gonna prove my dick is bigger,” I slurred. Yep, my hidden reckless side had resurfaced and gone rogue.

Gabe paused at the stop sign and looked over at me. “Not necessary. Put your python away, Vaughn, and tell me where to go.”

I chuckled heartily. “It’s four blocks up on your left. I think.”

“Got it. Just so we’re clear, I’m not into your ex. She seems cool, but there’s nothing between us.”

“Did I say there was?”

“Yeah. When you first got in my car. Are you okay?” he asked, sounding slightly concerned before adding, “Zip up those jeans. If we get pulled over, I don’t want to have to explain why my passenger has his dick out.”

This time, I threw my head back and laughed like a loon. “That would be hilarious. Don’t worry. My dick isn’t out.”

“Zip up your jeans,” he repeated.

“I can’t. They’re too tight. I’ll do it when I get home. Thanks for the ride, by the way. Sorry if I was a jerk earlier,” I said, adjusting myself.

I noted Gabe’s double take as he homed in on my crotch. No doubt he was wondering what the hell had gotten into me. I was definitely not myself. I was known for being cool under pressure and always in control. I hardly recognized this vodka-infused version of myself, though I had to admit, it felt strangely liberating to speak my mind and—literally and figuratively—let it all hang out.

Gabe refocused on the road and pursed his lips. “I never said you were a jerk.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, Amanda is a great girl, and she’s obviously into you. If you like her and she feels the same, I wish you well,” I assured him.

Gabe scoffed sarcastically. “Gee, thanks.”

“Hey! I’m trying to be cool here. You probably don’t know many people at college outside of water polo, and the entire team hates you,” I teased. “We’ll adopt you as one of our own eventually but in the meantime, you should meet more people like Chelsea and Amanda. Chelsea especially. She knows everyone.”

“That’s what my mom said. She’s either worried I’m gonna get mugged or worried I’ll never meet anyone ’cause I never go out.” He huffed in amusement as he turned onto my street. “One minute it’s, ‘Gabe, you need to meet kids your age’ and the next, ‘Gabe, watch out. They all do drugs.’ I can’t win. And reminding her that I’m twenty-two doesn’t seem to make a difference.”

I snickered at his affected falsetto, tapping the window when we approached my house. “It’s the one with the big olive tree in the front. Where do your folks live?”

“Mom lives in Glendora. Dad lives in Arizona. New wife, new family. I’ll see him when I graduate or if I make the Olympic team.” He pulled into a parking spot in front of my neighbor’s house, then turned in his seat to face me. “What about you? I’ve seen your parents at games. Not today, though.”

“Thank God. They would have been pissed at me for winding up on the bench. Even if it was your fault,” I huffed.

“Whatever you say, Der. Water polo is a rough game. You’ve got to give it your all, take risks, and occasionally put on a show. I’d say it was bad luck that the ref caught your jab last but the truth is, you let emotion get the better of you. You got mad, and it made you careless.”

I glared at him in the darkened car and leaned across the console. In a Mini Cooper, I probably looked like I was trying to sit in his lap.

“Just when I think I could like you, you open your mouth.”

“I thought we agreed to a truce.”

Gabe cocked his head and gave me a wicked lopsided grin. It was slow-growing and kind of…sexy. Fuck. Wait. No, I didn’t mean that. He wasn’t sexy. ’Cause your teammate wasn’t sexy; he was just another guy. My dick didn’t get the memo. It swelled in my boxer briefs, making me extraordinarily glad I’d unzipped. I would have passed out otherwise.

“Hmph. It’s hard to trust the guy who slashed open my side with his fingernails,” I snarked without heat.

Gabe rolled his eyes. “Oh please. I may have accidentally scratched you but—”

“Scratch?” I unbuckled my seat belt, then yanked my shirt from my jeans and pulled it up over my right side, twisting to show him my wound. “Look at this.”

Gabe undid his seat belt too and squinted as he turned. “Can’t see a thing. You must be overreacting.”

“You must be blind,” I retorted. I stuffed my shirt back into my jeans and nudged my half-hard dick. Fuck. I had to get out of there before I embarrassed myself. I reached for the door handle and inclined my head. “Thanks for the ride. I guess I’ll see you at practice next week.”

“Right. Hey, do you mind if I use your bathroom before I go? I’ve had four bottles of water, and I’m not sure I can make it home. At least not comfortably.”

“Yeah. Come on.”

I led the way up the hedge-lined path to my Craftsman-style bungalow, rezipping and reassembling myself as I moved. I’d forgotten to leave the porch light on, so it took me a second to get the key in the lock. Once we were inside, I flipped the switch in the living room and directed Gabe toward the bathroom down the hall before heading for the kitchen. I grabbed a bottle of water, twisted the cap off, and guzzled half of it in record time. Then I set it on the counter and glanced around the pristine space.

My place was a two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow built in the 1940s. A lot of the original features were intact—like hardwood flooring, subway tiles, arched doorways, and interesting niches carved in random walls. We even had a fireplace. And the backyard was killer. A massive wood deck just off the kitchen led to a huge grassy lawn with lemon and apricot trees lining the perimeter. In other words, this wasn’t a typical residence for a couple of early twentysomethings.

I leaned against the counter and finished my water. My head was beginning to clear. Of course, that was what I’d thought before I’d almost pulled my dick out of my jeans. Maybe I just needed a good night’s sleep. It had been a long day. And a weird one. I could never have dreamed up a scenario featuring Gabe Chadwick in my house after this morning. But here he was.

I gave him a thorough once-over as he walked into the kitchen. And again, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Wow, he’s really fucking hot.”

“Nice place.”

“Thanks. Do you want some water or something?” I asked, awkwardly pointing at the fridge.

“No, thanks. I’ve had enough tonight,” Gabe replied with a laugh.

I should have said good-bye then and escorted him to the door, but I had a strong desire to keep him talking and maybe dispel the weird admiring thoughts going through my brain. Yes, Gabe was a good-looking guy, but I shouldn’t be fixating on his long eyelashes and the way the kitchen light framed him in a halo of sorts. I couldn’t let him go until my brainwaves returned to normal, and he was the same annoyingly smart and talented opponent I’d played against occasionally for years. The thing was, I didn’t really know him and at that moment, I wanted to.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“About fifteen minutes away. I scored an apartment by campus. I have one roommate. Brent’s a volleyball player. We might get a third to cut expenses, but I don’t want to share a room, so that’ll be up to him.”

“Sharing a room gets old fast. Evan and I knew we wanted to live together, but I’d probably smother him in his sleep if I had to listen to him snoring every night a few feet away from me,” I said in a lame-ass effort to keep him talking.

Gabe chuckled. “That would be rough. Evan seems like a cool guy. Is he as neat as you? This house is spotless.”

“No, that’s all me. I can’t help it. I have a thing about order. Evan’s a slob. You should see his room. At least he tries in shared spaces. I don’t bug him about his unmade bed, scattered clothes, and random dishes he leaves on his nightstand as long as he keeps the bathroom and kitchen tidy. He’s been on the receiving end of a couple of classic Vaughn meltdowns,” I said with a self-deprecating shrug.

“A Vaughn meltdown,” Gabe repeated. “That must be a version of what I experienced this morning when you tried to drown me.”

“Fuck off.” I laughed, then looked away quickly when a rush of heat flooded my cheeks. Oh, my God. Please don’t let me blush. Not now. He’ll know something’s wrong.

Gabe stepped closer and cocked his head. “Are you blushing?”

Great.

“I don’t blush.”

“Whatever you say. So what’s a Vaughn meltdown out of the water like? Do you scream and throw shit?”

“No, I save the physical stuff for the pool. In my normal life, I tend to get passive-aggressive.”

“How so?” he prodded.

“Well, last week Evan left his sneakers on the coffee table. I repeat. On the coffee table. That kinda pissed me off, so I threw them outside. Usually he’d laugh it off, but there was a thick marine layer the next morning, and his shoes were sopping wet when he found them. He wasn’t happy.”

“What did he do?”

“He hid the remote and my car keys, and he wouldn’t give either back until he blasted me for my passive-aggressive asshole tendencies.”

“So you call each other on your bullshit.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, I guess we do.”

“You’re lucky. You must be good friends,” he commented somewhat wistfully.

“We are. It probably helps that we don’t play the same sport. I’m close to my teammates too, but Evan and Chels are my best friends.”

Gabe shot a puzzled look at me. “Chelsea? You barely said two words to her tonight.”

“How would you know? Were you watching me?”

He looked vaguely uncomfortable when he replied. “No, I just—”

“Well, Chels and I aren’t party friends,” I intercepted before I inadvertently made things awkward. “We’re real-life buddies, if you know what I mean. We bonded over Thoreau in American Lit our sophomore year. We meet for coffee a couple of times a week and talk about school, family, and boring everyday things. But at parties, she’s usually dancing on tables while I hang out in a corner with the other wallflowers. She’s a little wild and I’m…not.”

“So says the guy who’s gonna wake up with a massive hangover,” he teased.

I let out a half laugh. “I’ll be fine. I just need some sleep. Hopefully, the gaping wound in my side won’t keep me awake all night.”

“Right,” Gabe snorted. “Let me see it.”

I pulled my shirt off and gestured at the angry red scratch above my hip. “Do I need a tetanus shot?”

He rolled his eyes, then bent to examine my side. His expression went from derisive to vaguely concerned in a heartbeat. “I did that?”

“Yeah. Thanks, asshole.” I kept my tone light, expecting him to taunt me for being a wuss, but he seemed genuinely puzzled. Maybe even remorseful.

“Did you put any antiseptic cream on it?”

“No. I figured the chlorine would work its magic. I’m fine. I’ve had worse,” I said with a laugh.

Gabe straightened and frowned. “Do you have any Neosporin?”

“Uh…I think so. But don’t worry about it. I told you, I’m fine,” I insisted.

“C’mon. I’ll help you put some on. It’s in a weird spot, so it might not be easy to reach on your own.” He grabbed my elbow and steered me toward the bathroom.

“Gabe, I—”

“Humor me. A little Neosporin won’t hurt you, and it’s better to be safe than sorry anyway. Where is it?” he asked, pointing at the medicine cabinet and then the row of drawers under the bathroom sink.

I sighed heavily as I opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out the small tube of cream. Gabe plucked it out of my hand and squeezed a tiny amount onto his forefinger before instructing me to turn around.

“Really?”

“Really.”

He seemed more determined than me, so I obeyed. I leaned against the counter and watched him in the mirror. He bent slightly, then smeared the cool cream along the scratch. I nearly jumped out of my skin. His touch was warm and soothing. I sucked in a breath and bit my lip when my dick twitched in immediate response. This couldn’t be happening. I tried to think of anything and everything un-sexy to minimize the damage and hoped he didn’t notice the growing bulge in my jeans inches away from his head. Family vacations, cafeteria food…fuck, it wasn’t working. Desire and need tingled at the base of my spine. I didn’t understand what was going on with me, and I couldn’t begin to sort through my thoughts with him so close.

“Uh…thanks,” I said in a strangled-sounding tone when Gabe straightened.

He recapped the tube and set it on the counter, then smiled. “It’s the least I can do. Sorry about that. It must hurt.”

I swallowed hard and turned to face him. The scratch didn’t register anymore. My cock was the only thing that hurt at the moment. “I’m fine.”

Gabe smiled sweetly. “Good.”

We stared at each other in a surreal standoff of sorts. The air crackled and buzzed with carnal heat. He had to notice it too. I had no clue what was going on in his head, but I couldn’t seem to get myself under control. I wanted to touch him. Just once. I wanted to feel him against me.

I catalogued his handsome features: his thick dark hair, chiseled jaw, perfect nose, those full lips…and worked like mad to rein in my impulses. When I fixated on his mouth a moment too long, I sealed my fate. My heartbeat skyrocketed and my palms went instantly damp as something bigger than me took over my body and propelled me forward. I grabbed the back of Gabe’s neck and crashed my mouth over his.

And unbelievably, he didn’t push me away.

Any second now, I expected him to shove me against the counter and punch me. But he didn’t. Maybe he was in shock. Hell, maybe we both were. I couldn’t move now that I’d come this far. I was fused to him in the best possible way, and a little voice in my head—probably the same one that encouraged me to drink unlimited kamikazes and unzip my jeans in his car—encouraged me to revel in the moment while I had the chance. So I breathed Gabe in, savoring the feel of his mouth on mine and the brush of his hair on the back of my hand and waited for him to do something…anything.

We stood with our lips frozen in an almost manic press. Then he set one hand on my waist, angled his head, and softened the connection. I closed my eyes and followed his lead. I was in awe, or maybe it was plain ol’ shock. I didn’t know where to go from here but oddly enough, Gabe did. He traced the seam of my mouth with the tip of his tongue. I parted my lips instinctively, and that was when he pulled away.

He sucked in a deep breath, casting his gaze frantically between my eyes and my mouth and back again.

“What are you doing?” Gabe whispered.

“I don’t know.”

His nostrils flared and his chest heaved. He didn’t seem angry or disgusted. Just bewildered. I wasn’t sure how I felt, but I had to figure out a way to laugh this off. Fast. I licked my lips and prepared my “I should have warned you I was an equal opportunity drunk” speech. Of course, I hadn’t known that was the case until this very moment. I’d never lost control like this before.

“You kissed me,” Gabe said in a breathy voice. His eyes were glued to my mouth now. He seemed fascinated by the lazy glide of my tongue over my bottom lip.

I cocked my head. “Did I?”

My head buzzed, and my heart sputtered out of control. I couldn’t begin to guess what was going through his mind. I wondered why he hadn’t bolted at the same time I wanted him to move in closer. But when he did, I thought I might pass out.

“Yeah.”

“You kissed me back.”

Gabe frowned and if possible, he looked more intense than ever. And then he pounced.

He captured my face in his hands and covered my mouth. There was nothing innocent about this kiss. It was rough and demanding and full of pent-up need. He pushed his tongue between my lips as he wrapped one arm around my waist and tilted his hips, so his crotch rubbed against mine. Holy fuck. I’d never felt anything like it. I was rock hard, and so was Gabe. And that tease of friction felt like an awakening. I groaned into the connection and widened my legs to give him more room to do whatever the hell he wanted.

Gabe broke the kiss and licked my lower lip.

“Do you like this?” he asked, grabbing my ass and bucking his hips rhythmically.

“Fuck, yes. Do it again.”

He did. The sweet, seductive glide of tongues and the tease of friction below made me hungry for more. I pushed aside all attempts at cohesive thought and let my body take over. I clutched his belt loops and met him thrust for thrust. At some point in our frenzied groping, it occurred to me that this would feel even better with fewer layers between us. I unbuckled and unzipped in a rush, then pressed my boxer-clad erection against his as I sucked on his bottom lip.

“Are you sure you—”

I shook my head and backed up slightly. “No questions. This feels amazing, and I want it…if you do too.”

“Yeah…I want,” Gabe growled. He made quick work of his belt and zipper and pulled me close.

We hissed at the sensation. It was remarkable how much more I could feel with our jeans out of the way. I wasn’t brave enough to pull our boxer briefs aside. Somewhere in my alcohol-soaked brain, that thin barrier kept me in a “drunk and curious” zone. Yeah, I knew that was weak justification, but I needed something to give me permission to let go and enjoy the incredible feel of his thick shaft riding mine.

Our frantic hump session escalated to epic proportions. It wasn’t long before our boxer briefs were wet with precum. Gabe ravaged my mouth with passionate kisses, squeezing my ass and pumping his hips manically. When he slipped his fingers underneath the elastic and traced my crack, I knew I was done for.

I pulled back slightly and gazed into Gabe’s eyes. “I think I’m gonna come.”

“Fuck, me too,” he grunted, clutching my bare ass and slamming his hips against mine one last time before falling apart.

My orgasm hit seconds later. I shook like crazy as wave after wave of pleasure rolled over me like a tsunami. We clung to each other until the trembling slowed.

And then panic set in.

The immediate jolt from euphoria to fear made me sick to my vodka-soaked stomach. I swallowed against the bile in my throat and pushed at his chest. When he stepped back, I pulled my jeans up in a rush. I winced at the feel of my jizz-covered boxer briefs, but I had a bigger mess to deal with at the moment.

“I don’t know what just happened,” I squeaked.

Gabe stared at me until I looked his way. Then he glanced at the box of tissue on the counter longingly. If this hadn’t gotten extremely awkward in record time, I would have told him to help himself and clean up. I’d seen plenty of other guys’ penises in the locker room, but I’d never…I repeat, never, seen another man’s erection live and in person. I might actually have fainted after what we’d just done.

“You don’t know what happened?” he repeated incredulously as he zipped his jeans.

“No. I’m not—I mean…are you? I’m…it’s cool. I just—”

“Nothing,” Gabe said sharply.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing happened.” His Adam’s apple convulsed theatrically in his throat as he shook his head. “Nothing.”

I met his eyes again and gave what I hoped passed for an apologetic look. “Gabe, I—”

“No. Don’t say anything,” he said in a low, raspy voice.

Tension rolled off him in waves. When he balled his hand into a fist, I braced myself for attack. My mind was spinning out of control as the feverish look in his eyes grew, and his gaze darted back to my lips.

“If you’re going to punch me, could we just get it over with? The suspense is killing me,” I admitted.

Gabe furrowed his brow; then the corner of his mouth lifted in a ghost of a smile. “I’m not going to punch you, Der. I—fuck. I should go.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll see you around.”

He moved to the doorway and gave me a thorough once-over. In my current messed-up state, I wanted to believe he was admiring my abs, but fuck only knew what he was really thinking. He was guarded and serious-looking, kinda like he was in the pool. I knew what to do in a game, but not now. I was lost.

“See ya.”

I inclined my head and watched him disappear. I listened to his footsteps on the hardwood floors, the sound of the front door opening and then closing. And then nothing. I let out a ragged sigh and turned to face my reflection.

Oh. My. God. What the fuck did I just do?