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Play By The Rules





By





Frey Ortega



Play By The Rules



It was just supposed to be an interview.

It was just supposed to be one morning.

It was just supposed to be a memory...

How did it end up like this?



Sensitive and melodramatic Emmett Yang has had enough of the dating world. Enter Joe Kaminski, former quarterback--driven, determined, recently out of the closet--and knows exactly who he wants. That just happens to be Emmett.



Emmett is convinced that their chance meeting is just a one-time thing: a memory to be cherished. He doesn't think that Joe would ever really want to be with him. After all, he's...him, and Joe is Joe. He's nowhere near Joe's nebula, and there are rules and norms and mores to be followed about this sort of situation, none of which end with Joe and him together.



But can the former quarterback show Emmett that there are no rules in love?



Copyright ©2017 Frey Ortega

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof

may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever

without the express written permission of the publisher

except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Website: http://www.freyortega.com/

Cover by: Covers by Combs

Edited by: Angela Campbell

http://addictedtoreviewsediting.com/









Play by the Rules is a standalone gay romantic comedy in the first-person perspective. This book is steamy and includes full sex scenes, searing kisses, dramatic declarations of love and a protagonist's questionable knowledge of sexual health. It is a HEA, has no cliff-hangers or cheating, and is approximately 59,000 words.



Acknowledgements



My sincerest thanks to the people who were kind enough to lend me their time and talents—Pat Fischer and Angela Booth, as well as my editor, Angela Campbell, who helped me make this story shine as brightly as it could. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart!

To my readers, who, in spite of whatever rut I’ve been in, have been with me since the beginning.

To Cree Storm and JP Dagenais, thank you for being there for me. This past year has been tough, but having amazing friends can really uplift a guy when they’re down. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

To Ariel Halford, who puts up with my bitching! LOL! :)

I would be lying if I said I made this for you, but I definitely wrote this and kept you all in mind. I love you all!

And finally, to my own personal Joe—I hope to find you someday.



Chapter One



Hey, look, before we go any further than this, I just want to be completely honest. I met someone else that I’ve taken a great liking to, and though I love talking with you and I love nerding out with you, I just don’t want to lead you on. Anyway, I have to go. Maybe we’ll talk later?

I couldn’t help but feel the sting of heartbreak at reading that, but I guess I was a fool for believing I could find something on a dating website.

I’ve always been told to be careful online, that sharing personal information was never a good idea. But with this one guy, I did. I shared parts of myself that were vulnerable, information that I’d never shared with anyone else before, even when the voice of my mother and my siblings echoed in my head.

“That’s a dumb idea, Emmett,” I heard my mother’s voice nag and niggle in my head constantly. “Don’t tell him that. That’s embarrassing. Don’t talk to him about nerdy stuff. Nerdy things equal being alone forever. You’re gay, my dear, they don’t want to hear about how you used to hold a pool-stick and thought you were a wizard as a child, like in those online games you played. They wanna hear about how much of that pool-stick you can fit down your throat, so they can have you do the same for them.”

Dating websites seem contrary to this internet-age adage, but I had friends who told me to put myself out there. They wanted me to lower my guard. They wanted me to let myself be vulnerable. Chase and Rye, my closest friends, once told me they were happy that I was putting myself out there by trying online dating.

That didn’t really matter to me. Not at this moment, anyway.

I was a twenty-five-year-old virgin who had never had a boyfriend. Sure, I’d come out, but did that really matter when I was basically a non-entity in the dating world? I was an overly sensitive and incredibly lonely non-entity who was beginning to think that maybe nihilism was the right philosophy all along—that there was no reason for our existence, that I was only going to live once before becoming stardust once more, that it would have been easier if I just lived my life as a series of transactions and equations, and that my consciousness would cease to be without ever having known romantic love—and that there was no meaning to our lives except one which we attached to it ourselves.

But then again, simmering in my own negativity and dealing with the cold, hard facts seemed to be much easier than dealing with facing the undeniable reality that there might have been something about me that just…wasn’t attractive to anyone else. Having no boyfriend and having never had one was a fact. Being extremely emotional was a fact. Both of those added up to no love life.

I stared down at my phone, feeling the heat build behind my eyes. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. This was nothing. Other people in this world were legless, blind, had terminal illnesses that still had no cure. The only problem with me was that I was too guarded for my own good, too sarcastic, and kept everyone at a safe distance to keep myself from being hurt.

Still, as I pressed down and swiped an entire tray of apps right into the delete button of my phone, I couldn’t help but feel like this was it.

I should just face it.

I was going to die alone.

Emmett Yang’s hopes for a husband, possibly two kids, though preferably just one or none, white picket fences, and a dog—born 1992, died 2017.

The confirmation screen popped up, and I was never surer of anything in my entire life.

Are you sure you would like to delete these applications?

I tapped the button, and watched the progress bar. As soon as I did it, I was surprised to find a little droplet of water on my screen. My eyes had started to heat up, and my vision blurred.

I promised myself I wasn’t gonna cry, but my body betrayed me.

Fuck.

I pushed up my glasses and felt the quiver in my lips. I sat up on my bed, and covered the lower half of myself with my soft comforter. Tucking myself in and watching the progress bar, I took a deep breath to try and calm myself down. I closed my eyes.

It was so easy to cave beneath all the negativity. It would have been so easy to just let go. As the morning sun began to peek in through my windows to blind me with its summery brilliance—a brilliance that probably wasn’t supposed to be that bright, but I wasn’t feeling all too happy about this new day—the same time as my clock radio burst to life at exactly seven in the morning, I knew it was going to be a shit day.

The song that greeted my morning started off quite aptly.

Hello darkness, my old friend…

Well, if that wasn’t fucking apropos and a sign from the universe, then nothing was.

Still, simmering in my own sadness wasn’t going to fly. I had work to do. I had fluff pieces to send my editor at The Stylish, which was one of those webzines with a limited print presence, manuscripts to look over for my other clients, and a lot of other work to busy myself with. Maybe I would be okay at the end of today, after I slave through this next fifty-thousand-word manuscript from one of my author clients.

Hell, if nothing else, I could put word to paper and get all of this out of my system.

Fuck dating. Fuck sex. Fuck the white picket fences and “being on the bottom rung of the gay social ladder.” Fuck “no fats, fems, or Asians.” Fuck being made to feel unattractive because I was born too brown to be yellow and too yellow to be white, and fuck those guys with six pack abs who make you feel like you’re worthless just because you’re a little curvier, a little chunkier, and you love yourself regardless of your size.

Basically, fuck the world. Did I really need a boyfriend? No. I wanted one. There was a difference.

Dying alone, clutching my life alert while twenty-seven cats waited to devour my face—because that was the most tender part of the body and easiest to eat—seemed like an interesting, and all-together too real proposition. Damn, could my thoughts be any more morbid?

I didn’t need a man. Not really, anyway.

At least, that’s what I wanted to tell myself. That’s what I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, and burst out crying afterward, and just let myself dissolve into my own filth. I wanted to forget that I existed, even if just for a moment.

But I couldn’t. So, I scrambled up from my bed, even if the comfort of the mattress and being wrapped by a comforter made me feel some sort of…I don’t know, umbilical, womb-like warmth? And it was a nice feeling. It felt like I didn’t need to do anything but just grow, and become accustomed to life.

But I was a quarter-century in, and I wasn’t even accustomed to dating. How could I ever be accustomed to life?

Even though everything felt like shit to me, I went straight for the bathroom and started on my daily rituals. One small thing at a time. My brain needed the little pick-me-up, and making sure that all these small tasks were accomplished was a good way for me to feel human again.

“Brush your teeth. Take a shower. Maybe let out a long, relaxing poo. That’ll cheer you up in no time,” or so my sister, the great Dr. Emily Yang, would say. And I’d believe her. She studied that shit.

I’m just a writer, an editor, and a homebody.

Maybe it was just the placebo effect, but it felt nice to think that all these little chores would really make me feel better. As soon as I was clean, I started to feel better. Just a little bit, at least, because at least the filth of my outside could be easily rectified. The inside? Not so much. But wiping the grease off a car was easy. Rinsing off the inside while making sure you didn’t break anything was a whole different ballpark.

Then again, I didn’t know anything about cars.

I combed through my hair and set myself down in front of my desk. God, it looked like a warzone fought with red ink and a bunch of manuscripts. A haphazardly strewn-about pile of papers lay just right on top of my keyboard and my monitor. I fished for my glasses somewhere in the chaos and pushed them up on my nose when I found them.

Then, I set all the papers aside before I put on my headset and turned on my computer. As soon as everything loaded, a notification pop-up appeared on my sidebar.

My editor wanted to talk as soon as I was able.

Well, there was no time like the present. Without hesitation, I immediately clicked on the chat client and tapped the call button on his profile.

The image of my managing editor, Dale Brunson, appeared in front of me. He resembled the quintessential corporate schmoozer, with a bright white, winning smile, and a deadness in his eyes that made him look a little more insincere than most people. Blond hair, blue eyes, a smile that could have powered up a solar panel, and he looked like the kind of guy Hitler might have approved of in his heyday. Maybe ten years of working for a news site did that to you. He’d only started working on the lifestyle and entertainment section in the past two years, and it looked like he was absorbing the lifestyles of the rich and famous through his editorial writing.

But a part of it might have been that he liked bossing people around, and he just came into his own now that he was at managerial level.

The brightness of Dale’s smile was as fake as his tan. Maybe my mood was worse than I originally thought. Usually, he was about as annoying as a mosquito buzzing around one’s head. “A slight nuisance” wasn’t enough of a reason for me to get so uppity so early on in the day, though the fact that Dale looked so perfectly coiffed first thing in the morning just irritated me a little bit more than usual. How could someone look so chipper and ready to take the day on at eight o’clock?

“Emmett! You’re a doll for getting to me so quick. I’m sorry to have to call you out like this,” Dale’s cloying voice felt like an ice pick lobotomy at the moment, but I powered through my distaste for him and plastered the fakest smile that I could on my face. I had to remain professional, after all. “We need to call you into the office. I know freelancers don’t need to show themselves at HQ, but it’s a bit of an emergency and I think you’re just perfect for the assignment. Are you available to be briefed about it sometime this week?”

“Okay,” I said blankly. “Can I ask what the assignment is about? This is a first.”

“Of course, you can!” Dale replied, as he lifted up a cup from off to the side, just out of frame. He brought it to his lips—pinky finger up, of course—and took a loud, almost obnoxious slurp. As Dale swallowed, he grimaced. “Sorry, I heard something about aerating warm kombucha, to make it taste better. It just tastes even more like piss now. But it’s good for you, so who am I to complain, right?”

Dale’s smile was…effervescent. I wanted to slap the shit out of him.

He set his cup to the side once more. “Anyway, the assignment is completely out of your wheelhouse because it’s about sports,” Dale said. “Specifically, someone in sports.”

I immediately grimaced. I knew nothing about sports. “Football is the one with the goalposts and the people tackling each other, right?” I asked. “Or is it the one with the goalies and the kicking?”

Dale shrugged. “Hell if I know.”

Bless his little gay heart. He should thank the universe he was born pretty.

“Why did you think I’d be perfect for this?” I asked. I knew nothing about sports. How could this assignment be anywhere near doable for me?

“Well, you’d be providing an outsider’s perspective. It’ll be a fun, wink-y, lifestyle-and-entertainment-type story celebrating the celebrity of being a sports superstar, or something. I can tell you more details when you head over here. Speaking over video conference is so…gauche.”

Ooh, someone’s been reading their word-of-the-day calendar, I thought to myself. But rightly so, I bit my lip from saying anything that might have soured Dale’s impression of me.

I was just having a bad day, is all.

But I wondered, how long would that excuse be valid?

I nodded. “Okay. Color me intrigued. I’ll learn more when I head over there, right? How’s today looking?”

“Oh, you want to come in today?” Dale asked, though I knew the question was rhetorical. I was almost in a caustic enough mood to reply sarcastically, too. No shit, Sherlock. If I didn’t want to come in today, I would have said I’d be coming tomorrow, right?

But instead, I widened my smile. “My schedule’s a little free this week. The sooner I can get started with this, the better,” I said, trying to remain as calm and cool with my answer as possible.

Dale’s smile widened in response. “Sure, why not? How’s lunch looking? I’ll get us a table at Wakaba’s. I’ll bring all the info you need over lunch.”

“You really don’t need to treat me to lunch, Dale,” I said.

“Nonsense. You’re the most loyal writer on this staff. Two years of your human-interest stories has put us on the map!” Dale exclaimed, as though I was this exalted writer on his staff.

It was a lie, of course. My pieces were nothing more than fluff, with no real rhyme or reason to them except to keep people calm in between reading about gay men being killed in an eastern European country or some other war on trans peoples’ rights to use the bathroom, or something. They were tailor-made to be pleasant and pander to the audience, and to show off that the world wasn’t always a crap shoot. It could be pleasant, too.

I hadn’t written anything that really spoke to me in a long, long time.

Sometimes, I felt like it showed. I had to work hard to hide my inadequacies. There was a lack of passion in my words. It had become cold, clinical, and sometimes far too cynical, even for my tastes.

“Maybe something out of left field would be good for me,” I said.

Dale smiled. “Why, dear Emmett, did you just make a sports pun?”

I rolled my eyes. “I did. I guess I know more about sports than I thought.” A lie, and we both knew it. “I’ll see you at lunch, Dale. Thanks for the treat. And the assignment.” I paused, and made sure to look my boss right in the eyes. Or, well, an approximation of where his eyes would be by staring into my web-camera. “I needed it.”

For once, that Stepford-esque glimmer in Dale’s eyes seemed to give way to something to something…well, soft. It almost seemed like he cared. “You got it.”

The call ended.

Huh. Maybe Dale wasn’t so bad after all.

At least I had something new to look forward to, now. I had barely even noticed the little pop-up notification on my phone.

Five apps deleted.



Chapter Two



Wakaba’s was this great little Japanese restaurant about twenty minutes away from my apartment. The best thing about it was that it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill sushi place, but rather a ramen-and-curry place, which wasn’t as popular but definitely wasn’t as expensive.

After all, Japanese cuisine wasn’t always just about sushi. I could go on for hours on that particular topic, but I could already hear my mother’s voice chastising me…again.

“Emmett, if you want a boyfriend, don’t go getting your panties in a twist all over nothing,” she would say. Her heavily accented English rang in my ears, making me grin, albeit coolly. “Do you want to die alone? My son, being gay is already so hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself by being so critical and nit-picky.”

I kept the thought in mind as I adjusted the bag slung over my shoulder. The minimalist, Zen décor was interesting. It was all muted hues of ash gray, black, and white. The only sprinkling of color were these large pop-art paintings of ramen that hung in perfect symmetry to one another. Everything else, from the bamboo slates on the windows to the muted uniforms the waiters wore, seemed like a perfectly calculated attempt to attract a certain kind of clientele.

Some people called such establishments pretentious. I couldn’t care less, truth be told. I was just there for the good food, which Wakaba’s served with panache, flair, and an extra-large helping.

It was that last part that really appealed to me. Nothing beat an extra-large bowl of curry udon noodles. The warmth, which wasn’t enough to be anywhere near spicy, could probably heat up a heartbroken person’s cold, dead heart.

That sounded good to me.

Dale stood up as soon as I arrived, waving me toward the table and placing his cellphone to the side. As soon as he did, the professional inside me rose to the surface. I offered up that same, outwardly-pleasant smile I mastered just for social situations.

Truthfully, I didn’t really want to leave the house. If I thought that curling up in bed and crying myself to sleep while listening to a British woman belt out soulful melodies about how better off she is now than when she was with her ex was better for me than a free lunch and the promise of a busier tomorrow, I wouldn’t have stepped foot outside..

Sadly, I knew that this was much better for me than hiding away would be.

“I’m so glad you could come! And here I thought you’d cancel,” Dale said, that winning smile ever present on his face. “We both know how fond you are of solitude.”

Ouch. Well, he was right, but it just felt like an extra knife to the heart to hear someone say those words. “I wouldn’t say I’m fond of solitude,” I hedged, clearing my throat and hoping that I didn’t sound like I’d gargled glass from my sudden bout of melancholy earlier. I took a seat right in front of Dale. “But you’re right. I don’t tend to leave the house much.”

“And that’s perfectly acceptable,” Dale said. “The office only requires that you come in for the weekly meeting. You’ve been writing excellent content for us working from home.”

It felt different to be under Dale’s gaze in person and when there were no computer screens between us. For some reason, Dale’s smile seemed brighter. His gaze seemed more penetrating, and it made me feel uncomfortable and small.

After all, the guy was six feet tall and looked like he could easily be the replacement of one of those perfectly polished male models on those billboards. I could feel my insecurities settling in, and the flash of perfect white teeth from the blond man in front of me did nothing to assuage my looming, all-encompassing feelings of inadequacy.

Dale’s blue eyes felt a little judgmental scanning me from top to bottom. Despite wearing my favorite checkered button-up and a pair of jeans that fit well, I still felt like the ugly step-sister. I dressed casually because he said we were meeting at this restaurant, after all, but in front of Dale, I still felt frumpy. Maybe it was the extra donut of fat wrapped around my midsection, but when I compared myself to the man before me, it was no contest.

“I’m glad you think my writing is excellent,” I replied as diplomatically as I could. It’s not as though I could tell him my articles had been crap to me for a long time now. “So, what’s this about a sports piece?”

Dale nodded. He clasped his hands together in front of him, and leaned forward. Everything about him oozed confidence. The constant, self-assured eye contact was downright disconcerting. “Right. Do you know much about our home football team here?”

I shook my head. “I know that they’re called the Phantoms, and that’s about it.”

“Right, well, there was an old joke about how their name was apt because they don’t win anything, and they can’t get past any of the other teams at the start of the season. But a couple years ago they finally started to improve. They even got some good press because they were able to compete at the Super Bowl semi-finals about two years ago.”

“You’re surprisingly well-versed about them,” I said. I hadn’t known any of this before. Then again, I really didn’t have much of an interest in sports in general.

“I did my research for this meeting. I didn’t want to come ill-prepared, and I wanted you to know you have my full support on this task,” Dale said. “The reason for how well they were playing was the star quarterback, Joachim Kaminski. They call him Joe. He retired before the start of the current season.”

“Was it an injury?” I asked. It was almost always an injury, or something cliché like that.

“No. He’s thirty-five years old, and didn’t want to play anymore, so he retired. For all intents and purposes, he’s set for life. I’m talking tens of millions of dollars at his fingertips,” Dale replied. “Anyway, the story we’d like you to do is a human interest piece on Joe Kaminski and the team. More specifically Joe, though. Run the angle of what he’s been doing since retiring. Maybe we’ll include some information on how the team is doing, although anyone who’s even remotely interested in sports won’t be reading The Stylish, anyway. We’re just doing it to provide a more rounded image of where Joe came from, and what the team is up to now and if they’re providing a safe environment for non-heteronormativity in their team. Because we’re aiming for a human-interest piece with this one, and I know how well you write those, I thought you’d be perfect.”

Dale leaned back against his chair, and he sighed. I raised a single eyebrow at him in question. This still didn’t really add up. “Why does The Stylish want to interview Joe Kaminski, anyway?”

“Besides the fact that he’s eye candy, our avid readers will want to see him on the main page of our website in various levels of undress, and he’s an unattainable bachelor?” Dale asked rhetorically. “He’s just come out of the closet on social media. A shame he didn’t come out sooner, but score one for us gays, I guess.”

I blinked. There wasn’t really much I could do or say at that moment, and instead I just let that sink in. “So basically, you’re telling me to do this interview with a handsome, rich, ex-football superstar who happens to be gay? And you’re expecting me to keep my cool all throughout?”

Not that I would lose my cool. I’d probably stammer a little bit and grow hot under the collar, but I was a damn professional. It was easy enough to keep whatever sexual fantasies I might have to myself.

It’s not like I hadn’t had to do that before.

Somehow, I kind of understood why Joe would want to keep his sexuality a secret until he was completely out of that world. Homophobia in sports was still a big issue. It didn’t surprise me one bit. The world’s biggest homophobes were the ones who wore their masculinity on their sleeve, after all.

“Yes,” came Dale’s succinct answer. “Because you’re a professional.”

“And why exactly did you choose me for this assignment, again?” I asked.

“Well, apart from the fact that he’s only opening up to The Stylish, and therefore we have an exclusive with him, I figured you’d be the best fit for this assignment. The other editors were all clambering to take this assignment on, but I knew I had to have you do it.”

Dale seemed so assured about his decision, I was almost afraid to ask why.

Almost.

“Why did you pick me?” I asked yet again. He hadn’t given me a real answer. I grasped the glass of water that had been carefully laid out for us by one of the brightly-dressed waitresses nearby. “Can you give me a straightforward answer to that, please?”

Dale sighed. “Well, if it were anyone else, they’d probably screw up the interview by offering to do unspeakable things to a very important client, which I know you wouldn’t do. Even if you were attracted to the guy, I know that you won’t do anything to fuck your work up,” Dale explained. “But even more than that, Joe specifically requested you.”

At that point, I was gob-smacked and almost choked on my own water. “What?”

“You heard me, Emmett. Joe Kaminski specifically requested you to do the interview,” Dale stated once more. There was that unsettling smile on his face again, and a glimmer of mischief that passed through his eyes. “Well, actually, no he didn’t.”

I sighed a small breath of relief at that. Now, that was more like it. I was just a no-name writer on a news site, after all. Some people might’ve been offended by the little joke, but I knew Dale well enough that I knew he didn’t mean anything by what he’d said. He just wanted to see me get as excited as him.

He’d have gotten what he wanted, if by “excited” I meant “on the cusp of hyperventilating.”

Dale continued. “He told me that he wanted his interview to be full of levity, to be written by the happiest, most positive member of our writing staff. You were the first person that came to mind, so I was quick to recommend you.”

This was a little bit too much to process right then and there. Positive? Full of levity? Happy? And why did it need to be those things? Weren’t truthful and honest more important?

There were too many questions buzzing through my brain.

Granted, I’d written my fair share of positive articles. My work was quintessentially a bunch of fluff pieces. I made sure that each piece was upbeat and hopeful. With the reports of gay concentration camps and queer-bashing in mass media, I was tasked with providing a little hope. Even in my spare time, with the manuscripts I edited and the stories I wrote on my own, I was trying to provide an escape.

This intrinsic human desire for the romantic, for the optimistic, for the happy, was a job that paid the bills, but didn’t really describe who I was as a person.

I’d say I was generally unhappy, negative, and full of bullshit, for the most part. The complete antithesis of what Dale needed.

“But… but…” I stammered.

Dale tilted his head slightly in question. “But what?”

“Dale, have you met me?” I asked. “I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine here...”

Dale, bless his heart, rolled his eyes at me. “You aren’t that bad.”

I really wasn’t. Or maybe I was, but I felt like what I’d said was a pretty accurate description of who I was as a person.

“I guess I have to ask, why does he want a fluff piece?” I asked. Technically it wasn’t very polite to call my work fluff pieces, but what better, blunter way was there to say it?

Dale shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him yourself. He’s already giving us the exclusive, and I’m sure you can make time in between your editing work, right?”

There was no use whining about it. Dale was watching me, as if waiting for another question, or another witty comment. But I’d said my piece, and he still wanted me to proceed. He was my boss. I couldn’t say no. I simply remained quiet, placing my hands on my lap and noted how my belly seemed to be slightly farther out than a few weeks ago. Well, it sure felt that way, anyway.

Looking smugly satisfied, Dale leaned back against his seat. “Anyhow, the interview, I’m guessing, is going to be at his home. I’ll double-check for you and we can coordinate the details later. In addition, you’ll have some creative control over the photos so that the content of your piece and the pictures are in sync,” Dale said. “And he’s scheduled it for Friday this week, so you have the rest of the week to prepare your interview questions and work your jitters out.”

I gawked, but only nodded slowly. “Okay,” I said after a few moments. A little bit of numbness set in.

Numbness always set in before the panic attack.

“May I take your order now?” the waitress chimed in, almost as if she telepathically knew our conversation was finally over. She was standing there with her hands primly clasped in front of her and an upbeat smile on her face, mimicking the one on Dale’s own.

“Yeah, I’ll have the vegetarian ramen with the vermicelli noodles and the tamari base,” Dale said. “I want some of that hot springs egg, but only the egg white, none of the egg yolk, please.”


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