Excerpt for Relay by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

Relay

Copyright © 2018 by Layla Reyne

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: G.D. Leigh, blackjazzdesign.com

Editor: Sarah Lyons

Layout: L.C. Chase, lcchase.com/design.htm

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher, and where permitted by law. Reviewers may quote brief passages in a review. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact Riptide Publishing at the mailing address above, at Riptidepublishing.com, or at marketing@riptidepublishing.com.

ISBN: 978-1-62649-677-4

First edition

January, 2018

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-678-1

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Captain is not a title Alejandro “Alex” Cantu takes lightly. Elected by his teammates to helm the US Men’s Swim Team, he proudly accepts the role, despite juggling endless training, team administrative work, and helping out on the family farm. And despite his ex-lover, Dane Ellis—swimming’s biggest star—also making the Olympic Team.

Dane has been a pawn in his celebrity parents’ empire from crib to pool, flashing his camera-ready smile on demand and staying deeply in the closet. Only once did he drop the act—the summer he fell in love with Alex. Ten years later, Dane longs to cut his parents’ strings, drop his too-bright smile, and beg Alex for another chance.

Alex, though, isn’t ready to forgive and forget, and Dane is a distraction he doesn’t need on his team, until an injury forces Alex to accept Dane as his medley relay anchor. Working together, their passion reignites. When Dane’s parents threaten reprisal and Alex is accused of doping, the two must risk everything to prove Alex’s innocence, to love one another, and to win back their spots on the team, together.

For Tera

About Relay

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Dear Reader

Acknowledgments

Also by Layla Reyne

About the Author

More like this

Dane slammed the wall beneath the starting block so hard the tips of his fingers bent back and pain shot down his knuckles. With Mo’s wake a lane over lapping at his side, Dane hadn’t let up, charging hard to the very end of the hundred-meter race. He pushed off the wall and broke the water’s surface, gasping for breath as he tore off his cap and goggles. The crowd roared. He twisted to check the stadium’s giant scoreboard and understood why.

He’d hoped that’s what the ruckus was all about.

“You bastard!” came a laughing shout beside him.

Dane sloshed around to face his grinning mentor. Mo had finished two-hundredths of a second behind him, both of them shattering Mo’s existing freestyle record.

“Not too bad yourself, old man. Madrid, here we come!” Dane clasped Mo’s offered hand and held their arms aloft in victory, the crowd cheering louder. They’d done the same at countless other meets when they’d swum together at UNC, but this was their first time both competing at the Olympic Trials.

They climbed out of the pool, and Mo slapped him on the back. “I’d say you’re healed up just fine.”

Not even a slight twinge of pain. It’d been a while now since Dane had felt any aftereffects of the injury that’d sidelined him during the last Games. “I’ve been back on the circuit for two years. Are you getting senile in your old age?” At thirty, Mo was far from old, but he would be the oldest member of the USA Swimming squad.

“You’ve been back, but now you’re up to full speed. Better than.” He pointed at the scoreboard as they finished toweling off. “That’s what we need. Good job, Ellis.”

Dane basked in the praise, until two swimmers strolled out of the tunnel. Lockstep, arms thrown over each other’s shoulders, the one had a fly-stroker’s massive upper body, much of it covered with tattoos, and blond dreadlocks piled atop his head. Sebastian Stewart, California native and the world’s best at butterfly. The other swimmer was leaner in build, a backstroker, but no less ripped, his light brown skin and dark curls glowing under the arena’s lights.

He’d been scarce since Dane’s return, rumors flying about a sick family member, but there was no mistaking Alejandro Cantu. Dane would never forget that body or those deep brown eyes. Lifting and clashing with his, those eyes were no less captivating in the here and now, freezing Dane to the spot. He was caught, between the past and present, between jealousy and envy, between love and hate.

Bitterness stung the back of his throat, bile surging up on a rising tide of memories best left forgotten, never forgotten. Dane swallowed hard to force it all back down. Harder still when Alex paid him no further mind and returned to carousing with Bas. Thick as thieves, the best friends and former college roommates walked with the easy confidence of being themselves, not caring if Dane, the press, or anyone thought they were more.

Resentment bubbled, at their freedom, and at their nonexistent regard for the world record he’d just shattered.

Well, eff that.

For the first time in a long while, Dane didn’t begrudge the horde of reporters bearing down on him, or his parents and publicist in the lead. They shouldn’t have been allowed on deck, but “the country’s minister” and home shopping’s reigning TV queen had a way of getting what they wanted, rolls of bills always at the ready. Dane met them at the corner of the pool, close to where Alex huddled with Bas.

His mother, dressed in navy blue Chanel with an orange scarf around her neck, the colors of his home swim club, clasped his towel-covered shoulders in imitation of a hug. “We’re so proud of you,” she said, loud enough for the reporters. Then, on her tiptoes, for his ears only, “Five minutes before they shoo us off deck for the next event. Make it count.”

Translation: always be selling.

She lowered back to her stiletto heels and stepped to Dane’s side. His father, in his trademark three-piece suit, complete with red, white, and blue striped tie, gave him a firm handshake. “The good Lord was with you in that pool, son.”

Dane bit back a retort. God had nothing to do with it. Twice-a-day swims with one of the country’s best clubs, plus daily dry-land workouts and yoga, were why he was now the fastest swimmer in the world. No time to argue though, as reporters lobbed questions at him.

“How’s it feel to be a first-time Olympian?”

He slicked back his wet hair, biceps flexing. Cameras clicked and spectators tittered. He hated his role as swimming’s current poster boy, so much of the image a lie that turned his stomach, but it served his purpose in this instant. Alex canted his head toward him, listening.

“Great!” Dane replied. “I can’t wait to represent Team USA.”

“Do you think you’ll win your other events?”

He smiled big and drew out his Southern accent, amping up the charm. “Well now, that’s certainly the plan.”

“We sure hope so,” his publicist said. By we, Roger meant the sponsors, who counted on their wares being displayed as much as possible, and his mother, who would in turn feature those products on one of her many shows. A vicious cycle, always turning.

“Will you be team captain?”

Motion in Dane’s periphery—Alex approaching.

“That’s voted on by the team,” Dane said. “But I’d sure be honored if they chose me.” Truth be told, he hadn’t even considered the captaincy, assuming it’d go to Mo or Alex, but he’d play up the possibility to get a rise out of Alex.

“Will you be swimming on the relay teams?”

Before Dane could answer, Alex joined their group, standing at the outer edge, and directly addressed the reporters. “Relay teams are drawn from the top six qualifiers in each event. Lineups will be decided after Trials and announced at Media Day. We’ll look forward to seeing you then.”

“Alex, are you going to win your races?” one of the reporters asked.

Alex glanced over their heads at Dane, barely concealed fury swirling in those bottomless brown eyes. “What was it you said, Ellis? Well now, that’s certainly the plan.”

He had the good grace not to mime the accent. Dane’s manners, however, were lacking. “Buena suerte,” he replied, snidely wishing him luck in diction-perfect Spanish.

Alex’s nostrils flared and red streaked across his cut cheekbones, but before hostilities escalated further, event staffers surrounded the group, indicating their five minutes were up.

“Dane, honey,” his mother drawled. “We’ll see you in San Antonio.” She tugged him down for a kiss on the cheek, pausing long enough for the cameras.

Roger stepped forward, handing out business cards. “Dane and Reverend and Mrs. Ellis will be available for interviews in San Antonio.”

That sounded like more than just Media Day. Dane groaned internally.

“If you’ll follow me,” Roger carried on, “I’ll get those scheduled.”

Dane’s father gave him another cold, hard handshake, then Roger and the staffers whisked the road show away, leaving only Dane and Alex locked in a stare down.

Do not bring that shit with you to Colorado,” Alex gritted out.

“I don’t control my parents.”

Alex took two long strides toward him, and Dane’s blood revved at his closeness, then chilled with his next words. “Oh, I’m well aware it’s the other way around.”

Dane’s bravado waned. “Alex . . .”

“And that’s not the shit I’m talking about. I know I’ll never get the real you.” Direct hit, right to the gut. “But at least leave the poster boy at home. Bring me the swimmer; anything else and we’re going to have problems.”

“Problems are unavoidable.”

Alex’s dark gaze swept his body, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. “Don’t I know it.”

“If I bring you the swimmer,” Dane said, “am I on the relay teams?”

“Coach makes that call, not me.”

“I want on medley.” Team USA had lost the medley relay gold by the slimmest of margins at the last Games, and Dane had cursed from his recovery room an ocean away. If he’d only been there. Well, he was here now, and they wouldn’t lose it with him swimming anchor.

Alex’s eyes hardened, glittering. “We can’t always get what we want.”

“But we get what we need?” Dane retorted, unable to resist.

He should have.

“Not that either,” Alex replied, an iceberg of anger in those three words. He turned on his heel and stalked back to Bas, leaving Dane to sink, shivering all the way to his soul.

“Cantu!”

Startled out of sleep by Coach’s bark, Alex jerked up his head as his arms splayed out, sending stacks of papers flying. His laptop careened in their wake, sliding off the side of the desk, headed for certain death, but Alex’s big foot and long arms saved it, barely. With a relieved sigh, he hauled himself upright, set the dinosaur back on the desk, then gave his boss and mentor his attention.

Coach Hartl was standing in the office doorway, shoulder leaning against the wooden jamb. His USA Swimming shirt was pressed, his whistle shined, and his black hair slicked neatly back. Dressed to impress for their first official team meeting.

“You sleep here?” he asked, dark eyes assessing.

Wrinkled clothes, check.

Pen imprint on his cheek, by the feel of it, check.

Puddle of drool on the desk, sadly, check.

No use denying it.

Alex rolled back his desk chair and slid out of it onto his knees, crouching on the floor. “I was just finishing up these training schedules.” He waved a hand at the mess of scattered papers.

Coach crossed the tiny office and knelt beside him, helping collect them. “Have you slept at all since Trials last week?”

“Some.”

Less than a little, if he were being honest.

Standing, Alex tucked the schedules into a red bucket file. Coach held up his stack, and Alex gestured at the desk. “Anywhere is fine.” It was all a paperwork wasteland. He’d organize it later. At that mythical time in the future when he’d ever get ahead of his to-do list.

“Do I need to get another admin to take over some of this?”

Alex shook his head. “It’s under control. Just a lot of predeparture prep.” He could afford to lose sleep. He couldn’t afford to lose income.

“I need you in top shape, Cantu, especially in the pool. If the job and training are already too much together, maybe we should reconsider the captaincy.”

“No, I want it.” Of that he was sure. His teammates, all but one, had voted for him to lead the squad, and he couldn’t let them down. “I’ll be in top shape by Madrid. That’s what these next few weeks of training are for. The admin work will be out of the way by then.”

After another bout of intense scrutiny, Hartl bought it, or at least decided to ignore Alex’s bald-faced lies. “Let’s go, then. Team’s waiting.”

“Everyone’s here?”

Coach nodded. “Ellis arrived five minutes ago.”

Versus Alex, who’d slept here overnight, buried in work and too afraid, if he’d gone home to sleep in an actual bed, that he’d get caught in traffic and be late for the meeting this morning. Which he now was, because he’d fallen asleep at his desk instead.

Fuck.

His gaze flickered back to the computer screen, catching on the man whose ripped torso and freckled right arm were lifted out of the water in victory. He snapped the screen shut. “I don’t want him on my relay.”

He and Coach had debated this decision all weekend, and now they had to make a final call, before going out there to the team. And Dane. After the show Dane had put on at Trials, and their confrontation afterward, Alex had lobbied hard for his exclusion from the medley relay. He just needed to sway Coach to his side, once and for all.

“He’s swimming five other events. We can’t risk another injury.” Alex rested back on the desk’s edge, fingers curled around the lip, nails digging into the underside of the worn wood. “After me, Jacob, and Bas swim, we’ll have enough of a lead by the time Mo swims anchor.”

“You sure about that? Dane’s the fastest in the world at free. He all but guarantees gold.”

“We’ll be fine.” Before Hartl could argue further, Alex added, “But you’re the coach. It’s your call.”

“And you’re the squad captain. You know these guys better than anyone. If you think Ellis will disrupt your relay team, then he’s not on it.”

Dane Ellis, with his too-bright smile and cult of personality, couldn’t help but be a disruption—to the entire USA Swimming Team, to all the relay teams, and to Alex. It was like dropping Brad Pitt into an ensemble cast and asking him to play a supporting role. That shit only worked in the Ocean’s movies and only because Clooney was hotter.

Alex was no Clooney. It wasn’t going to work here. He’d take his victories where he could get them, and Dane off his medley relay was a win. Striding across the office, he yanked his spare ironed shirt off the hanger on the door hook. “Thanks, Coach.”

“You gonna tell me what Ellis did to piss you off? You’re a backstroker. You guys are the calm ones, and you get along with everyone. What gives?”

“He exists.”

Alex shrugged out of his wrinkled shirt, down to his threadbare tee, and before he could get the fresh shirt over it, Hartl’s hand wrapped around his biceps, wrinkled fingers pale against Alex’s sun-darkened skin. “There’s more to it than that.”

“That’s between me and him.”

Black eyes stared back at him, hard as onyx. That stare was what kept a group of rowdy, adrenaline-fueled jocks in line. “Ellis might not be on the medley relay, but he is on this team. Of which you are the captain. You’re both representing this country. Whatever’s between you and him, set it aside.”

Alex respectfully lowered his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

Satisfied, Coach released his arm and started down the hall toward the pool. Alex finished changing, grabbed the training schedules off his desk, and followed, infusing his spine with the confidence his twisted insides lacked.

Set it aside.

Like Dane had set him aside.

The anger and hurt still lingered. So did the attraction and jealousy.

Set it aside.

Easier said than done.

Transitioning out of the paper-thin Colorado Springs air into the chlorinated soup of the US Olympic Training Center’s Natatorium was a learned skill. As a local kid who’d taken swim lessons at USOTC, then as an Olympic trainee and US Olympic Committee employee, Alex was accustomed to the abrupt shift in air density.

Dane, however, didn’t have a lifetime of practice here, and much to Alex’s satisfaction, he was struggling. Chest heaving, their resident celebrity sat on the upper-most bleacher, closest to the circulation fans, with his eyes shut and his red-gold head lolling against the cement wall.

Alex savored another victory.

“Welcome to Colorado Springs and the US Olympic Team,” Coach said, amid claps and cheers from the gathered swimmers. He launched into his welcome spiel, and Alex tuned out, having heard it before.

So did the other repeat performers on his squad. Mo, a three-time Olympian, tapped away at his phone, occasionally looking up to give the impression of attention. More than could be said for Bas, who drew on a waterproof graphics tablet, probably another tattoo for his personal or professional collection. Ryan, their individual medley ringer and Alex’s backup, watched over his shoulder.

Only the noobs were listening, including their youngest teammate, Jacob, the nineteen-year-old breaststroke champ. And Dane, who, breathing marginally better, eked open his eyes. Slits of blue-gray mist swept the pool and coaches, trailing down the line to where Alex was standing at the end next to the women’s team captain. A passing glance, then Dane’s icy gaze floated back to Coach.

Alex’s gut burned. Resisting the urge to curl his hands into fists, he shoved them in his pockets and focused on Hartl. Coaching staff introduced, a round of applause and chants of “U-S-A” broke out, followed by hugs and handshakes, greeting teammates old and new. The coaches let the reunion go on a few minutes longer before the women’s team adjourned and Hartl called the men to order again.

“All right, lineups.” He rattled off where everyone placed at Trials, then announced the tentative heats for Olympic prelims and finals. When he reached the relay teams, Coach turned the floor over to Alex.

Stepping forward, Alex started with the four-by-one-hundred freestyle relay, his gaze lighting on each member as he called out their names: “Mo, Kevin, Mike, Dane.”

“Four-by-two-hundred free,” he continued. “Sean, Kevin, Mike, Dane.” No objections were raised to swapping out Mo, a sprint specialist, for Sean, one of their distance swimmers.

“Medley relay will be me, Jacob, Bas, and Mo.”

A smattering of confused whispers rippled through the group, but the man atop the bleachers didn’t speak. Auburn-stubbled jaw locked tight, eyes glaring daggers, Dane dug his too-white teeth into his full lower lip, biting back what was sure to be a torrent of privileged anger.

And he let it rip, as soon as Hartl left the deck. “Why am I not swimming medley relay? I beat Mo in the hundred-meter free at Trials.”

Mo extended an arm and middle finger toward his protégé.

Dane slapped the hand away, gaze unwavering. “Well, Alejandro? Answer the question.”

Alex prickled at Dane’s use of his full name, accent perfect and dripping with condescension. Quite a contrast from the last time he’d heard Dane use it. Whispered in the dark, his honeyed Southern drawl wrecked by lust. Alex shook off the flash of damning nostalgia. “Because you’re swimming five other events.”

“I swam as many as eight in college.”

“Four years ago, and you got injured,” Alex replied. “This is the Olympics. Our goal is medals, as many gold ones as we can bring home. We stand a better chance if you don’t get reinjured and we allocate our resources accordingly.”

“This isn’t an economics problem.”

“Well, actually—” Jacob started, before Dane snapped, “Shut it, Pup,” and the rangy first-timer shrank where he sat on the front row, curling in on himself.

“That’s enough.” Alex drew himself up to his full six and a half feet and reasserted control over the deteriorating situation. “The decision’s made.”

“Who died and made you captain?” Dane challenged.

Mo reached over and swatted the back of his head. “The rest of the team, jackass.”

“I didn’t get a vote.”

“Yes, you did,” Bas said, not looking up from his tablet. “You couldn’t be bothered to reply.”

“Among those who voted, it was unanimous,” Alex said, drawing Dane’s deadly glare off the back of Bas’s head. “Does anyone want to change theirs now? Throw in with Dane instead?” No one raised a hand or gave the slightest indication of wavering support. “So that’s that.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Jacob chimed in a pirate accent, breaking the suffocating tension. Everyone laughed, except Dane, who slouched back against the wall in ill-tempered defeat.

“All right, then.” Alex crossed to the starting block where he’d left the folder of training schedules. He passed stacks down the rows.

“Paper, Cap?” Mo’s pitiful eyes shifted between the printed schedule and his phone.

Alex was beginning to think he was surgically attached to the latter. Then again, his wife was eight months pregnant with twins.

“Electronic copies will be emailed later today.”

Mo sighed dramatically and tossed his paper schedule in the air, right into Dane’s face.

Alex grinned. “Take the rest of the day off, and get adjusted to the time zone and altitude. Tomorrow we get started. We’ve got a week before domestic training moves to San Antonio. Let’s make the most of it.”

“Yes, let’s,” Ryan called from behind him.

Turning, Alex wondered when and why the team jokester had snuck behind him, until a blast of water from a pool hose nailed him in the chest. Sputtering, he batted uselessly at the spray of water. His other teammates piled on, grabbed more hoses, and chaos erupted.

When the impromptu water fight finally ended, all of them were drenched and smiling, and the paper schedules were ruined. Alex didn’t care, his insides warmed by the first flickers of team camaraderie. This was his favorite part of competing in the Olympics, why he sacrificed sleep, his body, and precious time with his family for hours in the pool. He glanced around at each of his teammates, counting himself lucky to swim with such gifted athletes.

But the most gifted of all, Alex noticed with a passing chill, was nowhere to be seen.

Dane threw the paper schedule down on the desk in his private room and bolted for the attached bathroom, crashing to his knees on the hard tile floor and clutching the sides of the toilet bowl. By now it was only dry heaves, his stomach long emptied of its meager contents. Between the press interviews before he had left Charlotte, a layover in New York for a GQ photoshoot and ESPN interview, and the overwhelming anxiety at seeing Alex again, he’d subsisted on airplane peanuts alone the past twenty-four hours. Once he’d arrived in Colorado, the altitude had gone to war with his stomach, and he’d had to ask the driver to pull over twice on the way here, making him late. His insides were apparently still set to expel, whether or not there was anything left in him. Only his injured pride was more miserable. Alex had banned him from the medley relay, from the freestyle anchor spot he deserved.

Dane had told him at Trials that he wanted it. He should have known from Alex’s response then that he wasn’t going to get it.

And the heck of it was, as much as he deserved that spot, Dane couldn’t deny he also deserved Alex’s retribution.

Memories filtered unbidden through his mind.

Dancing in the dark with Alex, smiling, as he hummed Van Morrison in Alex’s ear, changing that one crucial word.

Chapped lips pressing together.

Pruned fingers gliding over sharp angles and sinking into hidden places.

Lanky limbs entwined, hard bodies grinding together.

Short, ragged breaths and muffled cries of release.

Alex’s stricken face when Dane’s parents and cheerleader girlfriend had arrived in a stretch limo on the last day of developmental training to take him home.

Dane heaved again.

He didn’t move from his spot on the cool floor, curled around the toilet, too tall to stretch out and too exhausted to crawl to the bed, until a knock sounded on his door some time later.

He lifted his head and shouted hoarsely, “It’s unlocked.”

The door opened and closed, plastic bags crinkled, and the savory smell of takeout ramen wafted into the room. Dane’s stomach cramped but failed to force his body upright. Heavy footfalls approached, and his mentor’s deep chuckle rumbled above him.

“I thought this might happen.”

“I haven’t felt this bad since—”

“Squaw Valley,” Mo finished for him, and Dane groaned, recalling their disastrous spring break in the Sierra Nevadas.

“You spent all week just like this.” Mo knelt beside him and wrapped his big hands around Dane’s shoulders. “All right. Up, you big baby.” He hefted him up to seated.

Dane breathed deep and rested back against the wall, careful not to hit his head on the towel rack. “I can’t help that my body rejects higher altitudes.”

“We’re here for a week. Your body’s gonna have to get over it. Put that big brain of yours to use and get the rest of you in line.”

“You gonna tell your wife that when she’s pushing out your evil spawn? Spawns? What’s the plural of spawn?”

“Spawn, and hell no, I ain’t gonna tell her that. I’m not suicidal.”

Dane couldn’t help but laugh. Morris Mayfair may have been a towering black man, but his pint-sized, high school civics teacher wife put the fear of God in everyone, especially her husband.

“There he is,” Mo said with an answering smile. “Think you can stand?”

Dane accepted the offered hand and used Mo and the towel rack to lever himself up. Halfway to standing, the metal bar gave, tearing from the wall. “Shoot!” He scrabbled for purchase against the glossy-painted wall as Mo shouldered the rest of his weight.

“There you go . . .” Mo clicked his tongue against his teeth, playfully chiding. “Breaking the fancy suite.”

“I didn’t ask for it,” Dane grumbled back. They hobbled out of the bathroom and into his “performance suite.” He wondered if his parents or his publicist had paid for his lodging in the exclusive private room, versus the dorm-style doubles where most of the athletes bunked.

Mo dumped him on the end of the king-sized bed. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You could be stuck with a horrible snorer.”

“Who’s the unfortunate victim?”

“The pup.”

Poor Jacob. Dane felt doubly bad for snapping at him earlier. To be the new kid and be stuck with the Slumbering-Morris freight train. He’d kept a box of earplugs on him whenever traveling or rooming with his mentor. He made a mental note to check his bag for spares—a peace offering, if Jacob needed them. “I don’t know how Vanessa does it.”

“Her dad snores. Her mom breeds pugs. We have two of the runts,” Mo said as he unpacked the bag of food. “Nessa’s immune to it.” He held out paper-wrapped chopsticks and a quart-sized container of ramen. “Think you can stomach this?”

Noodles, broth, protein. Everything Dane needed, even if his stomach protested. “Have to, if I’m getting in the pool tomorrow morning.”

Mo grabbed his own quart, opened his chopsticks, and dug in, bypassing the desk chair for the desktop. “You slipped out of the meeting awfully fast.”

Dane cut his eyes to the bathroom. “Did you miss the part where I was curled around the toilet? I could have sworn you were just there.”

“Silly me, I thought it had more to do with Cap.”

“Look, no disrespect—”

Mo waved his chopsticks in the air, cutting him off. “You’re the better, faster freestyler. Everyone knows that.”

“Then why?”

Shoving in a mouthful of noodles, Mo chewed and swallowed. “Alex earned his spot as captain. He earned the right to make that call.”

“But—”

“You can’t deny you’ll be a disruption on his relay.”

“It’s been ten years.”

Mo glanced up, his gaze sharp and assessing, something he’d picked up from Nessa. “He loved you, and you turned your back on him. Not because you didn’t want him, but because someone told you to. You’re still turning your back—on who you are, and by doing so, on him.”

Dane stared into his container of soup, wishing he could somehow dive inside and avoid the world. “Can we not have this conversation? It’s all I can do to stomach these noodles as it is.” There was no room left in his stomach, all the space taken up by a boulder-sized knot.

“All I’m saying is, Alex’s decision is understandable. Because of your history, and because he’s right about the possibility of injury. I might be getting old, but I’m still the second-fastest freestyler in the world. That was my world record you broke at Trials, and I was right behind you. We can win the medley relay without you.”

“It’s not fair.”

“Life’s not fair. Alex knows that better than most. Time for you to learn.”

Indignation seared through him. “You don’t think I know that?”

Mo bowed his head and sighed, deep and weary. Dane knew that sound, all too well. Lecture coming his way in five, four, three . . . Mo hopped off the desk, capped his soup and stood in front of Dane, staring him down with his mentor-face on. “Get your shit together. Be prepared for Alex to ride you, harder than the rest of us, which you’ll soon learn is pretty fucking hard.”

Deflated, Dane set his half-eaten noodles aside and folded his hands in his lap, cracking his knuckles. “What if I can’t?”

“Can’t is not an option. You brought your computer?”

He nodded.

“Good. You get frustrated, you don’t take it out on Cap. You hack something instead. Take your frustrations out on someone who deserves it. Do not go after Alex, or you won’t be on the team at all. We may not need you on medley relay, but we do need you.”

“Gee, thanks, old man,” he said, rolling his eyes and earning another slap upside the head for it.

“What the fuck am I going to do with you?”

Dane rubbed the spot where he’d been hit. “Give me a concussion, apparently.”

Mo pointed to the soup he’d left on the desk. “Eat that one too.”

“Yes, Dad.”

Mo moved to whack him again, but Dane dodged, the contents of his stomach sloshing in a way that made him double over and groan.

Mo settled for sympathetic hair ruffling. “You feel up to it, some of us are going out later tonight. I’ll swing by and check on you then.”

The door clicked shut behind him, and Dane stood slowly, waiting for his insides to settle before making another move. Steadier, he retrieved his computer bag from the closet, pulled out his laptop, and set it up on the desk, plugging it in and powering it on.

He waded through the layers of encryption he’d installed on his personal files; the folder he was looking for was the very reason he’d started hacking. He’d wanted to protect the one precious thing he’d returned home with from developmental camp. At sixteen, finding a way to hide, and keep, that lifeline to his real self had seemed like the only thing he could do to rebel. As he became more skilled, his rebellion evolved too. From behind his hacker tag of LBKnight16, he skimmed funds from his parents’ accounts each month—just enough they wouldn’t notice—and anonymously donated them to LGBTQ charities.

And he had his own personal ways of rebelling every day too, including this one.

He located the folder labeled Knights, after the mascot of the college in Laurinburg where their camp had been held, and double-clicked. Pictures filled his screen. In the foreground, his favorite, a selfie of him and Alex, a decade younger, embracing and gazing at each other with every bit of desire he still felt for his captain.

Dawn was just beginning to brighten the horizon when Alex’s alarm went off the next morning. He slapped the clock radio quiet, plunging the morning back into silence, and stared unseeing out the window at the open plains east of Pueblo. After a night spent tossing and turning, he wished he could lock his bedroom door and call in sick. But that wasn’t an option. He was the team captain, and today was their first practice.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Yesterday could have gone worse. Dane aside, the team was already gelling. They had three and a half weeks until Madrid. Plenty of time to renew bonds with returning members and form new ones with the rooks. Plenty of time to get their starts sharp and their relay exchanges down.

As long as everyone got in line.

Coach was depending on him. And Alex was depending on Mo to wrangle Dane. But who was going to wrangle Alex, if his buried anger at Dane—or the even deeper buried desire—got the better of him? It was going to be a daily exercise in self-restraint not to wipe that thousand-dollar smile off Dane’s face, one way or the other.

An exercise he wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for, already stretched too thin. School was out for the summer, so substitute teaching was off his plate, but then so was another source of income. To make up for it, he was working overtime at USOC, banking every spare cent so his family could hire extra farm help while he was in Madrid. When he wasn’t in the office, he was in the pool or gym training, or making the long drive back and forth from Pueblo. He’d been offered on-campus housing with the rest of the athletes, but Pueblo was closer to the family farm in Vineland. At least traffic was light at six in the morning and ten at night, just him in his beat-up Ford Ranger and the long-haul semis making the drive up and down I-25.

The silent morning didn’t last but another minute, his sister double-tapping his bedroom door. “¡Levantate, levantate!”

“I’m up, I’m up.” He threw off the sheets and stumbled out of bed.

Carla was the other reason he kept an apartment in Pueblo. Five years his junior, she took year-round classes at the community college, trying to finish up her accounting degree in record time. The apartment provided a place close to campus for her to study and crash. And hide. She was as bad, if not worse, than him about getting roped into chores and obligations at home, taking on more than she could handle. As it was, she went out to the farm after classes each day, stayed there on her days off, and drove their mom back and forth to chemo treatments.

Another swift knock as she coasted past again in the hallway. “Breakfast in ten.” She cooked for him too and straightened the apartment each morning. He’d told her she didn’t have to, but since he paid all the rent, she’d insisted.

By the time he showered and dressed, eggs, turkey bacon, sliced avocado, and wheat toast were laid out on the table. At home, they’d get shit for the healthy pickings, but Carla took his training diet seriously.

Thank God she still let him have his coffee, though. She sat an extra-large mug next to his plate and claimed the mismatched chair on the other side of the dumpster-find card table. “You look surlier than usual and like you didn’t sleep. What’s up?”

He shot her a narrow-eyed glare. “You’re getting worse than Mom.”

She shrugged, sipping from her mug, then nibbling a piece of toast. “You didn’t show at the farm this weekend, and you haven’t called since getting home from Trials. She’s just going to hound me, wanting to know what’s up with you. If I have answers, less hounding for both of us.”

“Sorry I missed Sunday dinner. I was with Coach, putting together training schedules and heat seedings.”

Esta bien, hermano.” She reached across the table and squeezed his forearm. Her skin was shades darker than his, more brown than tan. Either she’d been studying outside or she’d picked up some of his farm chores on top of hers. “So, dish,” she said, but it was faint over the roaring guilt in his ears.

“How’s Mom this week?” he deflected.

“Better.” Carla folded her toast around slices of bacon and avocado. “It’s an off week between treatments. She’s weak but holding down solid food again.”

“That’s good,” he replied, his next bite tasting like ash in his mouth.

Alex hoped like hell this round of post-operative chemo, following her second mastectomy, would be the last of it, but the same treatment plan had failed before, since the cancer had come back. Three years, two major surgeries, and countless rounds of chemo and radiation later, his vivacious mom was worn down and the rest of the family along with her.

His sister most of all. Her curly black hair hung dull and limp, smudges darkened her under-eyes, and she’d lost weight. An unhealthy lot. He needed to do more, he couldn’t do more.

Fuck.

“I promise to get out there before I leave. I want to check the swather and baler, in case anyone has to use them before I get back.”

“Rafe’s better with the farm machinery, and you know it.”

Because his younger brother had gone to the local vocational school, practically for free, and earned two associates degrees in farm management and automotive technology, all while continuing to work on the farm. Versus Alex, who’d gone away to USC for four years and come home with a trunk of swimming medals and a degree in education. Admirable, but not useful for the farm, nor very lucrative. He didn’t have the smile or charm to turn his medals into dollar bills like Dane, and his substitute teacher’s salary was shit, but all he could manage with training. He supplemented it with USOC admin work, but all those extra hours meant less time for the farm.

Double-checking the equipment wasn’t much, but it was the least he could do before disappearing for two months. “For my own peace of mind,” he said, meaning it in more ways than one. God forbid anything happen to his mom, or any of his family, while he was gone; he’d never forgive himself if he hadn’t said goodbye.

Carla shrugged one shoulder and rose, collecting their dishes and carrying them to the sink. Alex followed with their empty mugs, dropped them into the basin of soapy water, and grabbed the dish towel from where it hung over the fridge handle.

His sister let the silence carry for a single plate. “So, back to my original question. What’s up with you?”

As persistent as their mom. He had to give her something. “Team shit,” he said.

“It’s been one day, and you know most of the guys. How is there shit already?”

He swiped the towel over the plate. “There was some . . .” he considered his words carefully, falling back on his habit of downplaying things, “debate about who should swim the medley relay. Odd man out wasn’t happy.”

“You’re the captain. Did Coach agree on the lineup?”

“Yeah.” He shoved his clothed fist into a washed mug.

“Then what’s odd man out’s problem?”

“He’s used to getting what he wants. And he’s the fastest.”

A slow, knowing smile spread across her face. “Ah, the poster boy.” She handed him the last plate, unplugged the sink, and dried her hands on the end of his towel. “Red hair, big smile?”

“That’s the one.” He avoided her gaze, hoping his cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “Dane Ellis.”

“He’s a looker.” She bumped his hip with a snicker. “You gonna hit that?”

He nearly dropped the stack of plates he was putting away in the cabinet. While his family knew and accepted he was gay, they didn’t know about his decade-ago summer fling with swimming’s biggest star. He’d kept that piece of heaven that had devolved into hell to himself. “I’m not his type.”

“His loss.” In the living room, she levered the futon where she slept back into a couch. Another dumpster find. “If he’s the fastest, why isn’t he on your relay team?”

“He’s swimming five other events. Mo’s only swimming three others. Fresher arms and legs and more senior leadership.”

“Makes sense to me.” She folded her sheets and blankets and dumped them, along with her pillow, into the leather footstool that tripled as a coffee table and storage.

He needed to check again with the complex’s main office to see if any two-bedroom units had opened up. He could work more hours at USOC, maybe pick up an extra teaching period or two in the fall, if it meant Carla got her own room. He startled out of his thoughts when she laid a hand on his forearm. “You tell Big Red who’s boss.” She looked up at him with the same brown eyes they’d both inherited from their mom. “I’m gonna hit the shower. You set?”

“I’m good. Thanks, sis.” He dropped a kiss on the crown of her head. “Plan on me for Sunday supper, and have Mom call me for an update.”

“Because you’ll answer, right?” Just a jest, the wink she threw over her shoulder indicating it was said in good humor.

Alex drowned in guilt all the same.

The guilt lingered through Alex’s early morning swim in the deserted pool, eighty laps, alternating strokes. Through two hours of office work, making sure each swimmer’s passport was valid. Through the phone call with his mom, her breath labored and energy fading after only ten minutes. By the time he trudged into the locker room and observed the three-ring circus underway, it was all he could do not to channel his sour mood into anger and aim it directly at the big top’s ringleader.

Smile bright in his auburn scruff and chest bare but for a light smattering of hair, Dane, decked out in the latest performance jammers, stood at the end of the second row of lockers, holding court for a group of reporters. While some athletes came off model smarmy in these situations, Dane exuded boy-next-door charm, easily engaging the press in conversation about advancements in swim gear. Standing on one side of him was his publicist and on the other a swimwear rep, dropping well-timed remarks about his company’s research in cooperation with SwimMAC, the prestigious club in Charlotte where Dane swam.

No one mentioned the money Dane made every minute he stood there.

Or every dollar Alex lost while staring.

But Dane wasn’t his only problem.

Ryan, dressed in last year’s jammers, was standing across the aisle with Mike, snapping their biceps, futilely trying to get the reporters’ attention. And one row back from them, Jacob was straddling the bench, forearms pressed to the wood, head resting on his clenched hands. He looked sleep-deprived and nausea-tossed, with one half of his shaggy blond hair shorn off.

Maybe Alex should have taken that room on campus.

And maybe Dane distracting the reporters wasn’t all bad.

But as Jacob turned a sickly shade of green, Alex realized Dane’s distracting charm wouldn’t hold much longer. They didn’t need the press catching on to the fact their youngest teammate had been hazed and was hungover on the first day of practice.

Running both hands over his hair, smoothing down the unruly curls, Alex straightened his USA Swimming shirt and approached the peanut gallery, positioning himself to draw their attention away from Jacob.

“Good morning, everyone.” His smile was nowhere near as bright as Dane’s, but he looked official, if nothing else. “I’m sorry to cut this short, but we’ve got a practice to get to.”

Official attire didn’t matter. But his skin tone did. Like vultures, the reporters descended, pouncing on the line of questioning they hadn’t had time to get to at Trials. “Alejandro,” one of them called, even though everyone used his nickname, Alex. Even the television title cards read Alex Cantu. Less opportunity for misspelling. “How does it feel to represent the Hispanic community at this year’s Olympics?”

One of the other reporters chimed in. “In Madrid too? That must be special.”

And another. “Will the team be looking to you to translate?”

Never mind that the pasty-white swimmer beside him spoke fluent Spanish. Never mind that he had more in common with Dane than anyone in Madrid. Never mind that his family had been in the States for three generations, descended from Mexican immigrants, many, many generations removed from the Spanish conquistadors.

Never mind all that.

He smiled and gave his canned response. “I’m not the only person of color on the team. We’ve got other Latina and African American swimmers, two Latino ball players, an Asian American gymnast, and many more. We’re a diverse group, just like our country, and we’re all proud to represent the US and its many faces, wherever we compete.”

“You’re representing the LGBTQ community as well,” the first reporter tried to redirect.

“Yes, I am.” He didn’t make a big deal of his heritage or his sexual orientation—his prowess as a swimmer and USA team member were more important to him—but he didn’t hide those other vital parts of himself either.

That was Dane’s specialty.

And by the barely there flinch only a few people would know to look for, the reporter’s question had hit Dane right where it hurt. But an expert at hiding and covering, he clapped Alex’s shoulder and smiled big. “Anyone here would be honored to be captain, regardless of their heritage or sexuality, and we stand behind Alex.”

“Why aren’t you the captain?”

Dane’s fingers dug into his shoulder. “Alex was elected by the team.”

“Speaking of, who’s swimming medley relay?” the same reporter from Trials asked.

Dane’s hand dropped from his shoulder, as another tagged on, “Will you be bringing home the gold this time?”

“Gold is always our goal,” Alex answered. “As I said last week, final lineups will be announced in San Antonio on Media Day.”

“How many events are you swimming, Dane?”

“Five,” Dane answered without hesitation, and Alex bit back a curse.

Brows furrowed and notebook pages flipped. Before the reporters could put it together, Alex ushered them toward the door. “Like I said, we’ve got a practice to get to. We look forward to seeing you all next week.”

The team’s PR rep met them in the hallway and led the reporters the rest of the way out. Unfortunately for Alex, that meant he had to handle Dane’s very irate swimwear rep. “He’s only swimming five events?”

Alex spread his legs shoulder-width apart and crossed his arms. “Yes.”

“He’s the face of our brand. We need him out there as much as possible.”

“We’ll sort this out,” Roger said.

“We expected him to swim six,” the rep insisted.

“You’re welcome to take it up with Coach Hartl,” Alex said.

“Don’t worry, I will.” He stormed off, Roger on his heels, and Alex rounded on Dane, his earlier rage boiling over. “You just had to say something, didn’t you?”

He shrugged, nonchalant and entitled as hell. “They asked; I answered.”

Closing the distance between them, Alex put two hands to his chest and shoved, hard. “You backed me into a corner.”

Dane shoved back. “You backed yourself there when you didn’t put me on the relay.”

Kevin approached, hand out toward Dane. “Let it go, man.”

“He’s the one who jumped all over me.”

“Because you can’t keep your damn mouth shut.” Alex stepped into Dane’s space again, ready to shove, but then a tattooed arm sliced around his chest and yanked him back.

“Cool it,” Bas warned.

Not a moment too soon, as Coach’s voice boomed off the locker room walls. “What’s going on in here? Why aren’t you fools in the pool?”

Alex shook off Bas’s hold and shouted over his shoulder. “On our way, Coach.”

“That’s right,” Dane sneered, leaning forward. “Hide behind Hartl.”

If Dane was going to give him such an easy target . . . Alex cocked an arm.

Bas grabbed his elbow, diverting the punch he’d intended for Dane’s smug face.

“Freestylers in the water first,” Alex said instead.

“Thank fuck,” Jacob groaned from the bench where he was now laid flat out, clinging to the wooden plank like it was a life raft.

Alex shrugged out of Bas’s hold, glaring at Dane. “Did you do this?”

Dane brushed past him, shoulders knocking hard. “Maybe you should be here watching out for your teammates more.”

As Bas held him back, all Alex could think about, beyond blinding fury and crushing guilt, was that after ten years, the first time he’d touched Dane again was in anger.

So much for setting hostility and the past aside.

Dane was sitting by himself on the bottom bleacher, arms hanging like limp noodles between his legs, goggles and cap dangling from his pruned fingertips. He’d swum and trained with the best, SwimMAC was at the top of every professional club list, and he was the fastest in the world.

None of that had prepared him for the past three days.

Mo had warned him that Olympic training was hell. First, there was the altitude to contend with. While his stomach had finally stopped rejecting food, there was no help for the thinner air. He felt the reduced oxygen in his muscles, legs, and head. Everything hurt and burned, forced to work twice as hard with half as much. Taxing his body further, Coach rode them hard, three times a day. He blew his shiny whistle every time someone missed a start or switch, ordered extra laps if anyone dared make a whale turn, and if a swimmer’s eyes drooped during tape review, he assigned the entire team more tape duty.

And then there was the biggest challenge of all—Alejandro Cantu.

Head bowed, Dane watched through his lashes as Alex’s arms cut through the air, a perfect arc of droplets following each trailing limb, splattering his broad chest breaking the water’s surface. Coach and Ryan shuffled down the deck alongside him, the former timing the run with a stopwatch, the latter shouting and clapping. When Alex tapped the wall, Ryan slapped the starting block and reached out for a high five.

“You just broke your own record, Cap!”

Coach went to mark down the time in his books as hoots went up from the rest of the team gathered around the pool. Victorious, Alex yanked off his cap and goggles, smiling wide. The late-day sun streamed in through the overhead glass, reflecting off the water and warming his deep brown eyes.

Dane’s body tightened, tension rippling out from his chest to his fingers and toes. He still wanted Alex as much as he had the first time he’d laid eyes on him. Only then, a decade ago, neither of them had had their names splashed across the headlines. They’d been tucked away at an obscure little college in an obscure little town, with no prying eyes except their fellow trainees’, most of whom were too wrapped up in their own dramas to notice the quiet roommates who’d become fast friends. And inside their dorm room, more. It’d been the first time Dane acknowledged his attraction to men, the pull between him and Alex too strong to resist. He’d never been happier, before or since.

There’d been another critical difference that summer. Alex had been flipped the other direction, swimming freestyle. He only swam backstroke and relay now, but he used to compete in all four strokes, a gifted all-around swimmer. He’d honed his specialties in college, but here in practice, there were days he gave Bas and Jacob a run for their money swimming laps of fly or breaststroke. Never free, though, at least not when anyone was watching.

Or so he thought.

That morning Dane had arrived early, still on East Coast time. On deck before anyone else, standing unseen in the shadows, he’d timed Alex’s freestyle laps. He was a solid third behind him and Mo. Together with his other times against Bas and Jacob, he could certainly qualify for the second individual medley spot behind Ryan. But he chose not to, sharing the wealth with his teammates instead.

Dane had no frame of reference for such selflessness. He’d only ever been taught the opposite, his parents and Roger shouting in his ear to hog as much of the spotlight as possible. Alex’s easy relinquishment of attention and his effortless team spirit made Dane envy all the things he couldn’t have, Alex most of all. Being around him here, he’d seen the swimmer and man Alex had become. Confident, reliable, a leader, a friend. Dane could have been in his sphere, in his life, and learned from that example the past ten years, if he’d only made a different choice. But there had been so many obstacles, his own fear the biggest, and it was torture, knowing everything he’d missed out on. And that torture bred anger and resentment, two ugly emotions Dane clung to desperately to keep from acting on the desire that wouldn’t go away.


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