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WAR PAINT

Devyn Morgan


Copyright © 2017 by Devyn Morgan

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.




CHAPTER 1


The locker room, cold and institutional with its gray walls and black-and-red steel lockers, was subdued after yet another loss by the Frederickstown Vultures. The players were staring around listlessly, speaking in hushed voices as they went through the motion of tossing their gear on the ground and digging in their lockers for toiletries and towels.

Brent Dixon dawdled a bit, not in any hurry to take the gear off his hurting body. Not only was he not looking forward to pain, he always waited until most of the guys were done with their shower before he sauntered in, all casual and naked, just like they were.

He did everything to make the guys think he was just decompressing after the game.

Brent knew better – the delay was a part of his overall strategy. He always paid overt attention to where he was putting his feet. “Damn slick tile, last thing I need is fall and get hurt for the season,” he had grumbled occasionally, along with “I’m pretty over-socialized right now... I just need some breathing room!” Those were his lines, and he was sticking by them. He much preferred looking like an eccentric who worried about slick shower tiles and didn’t field many social invitations, rather than risking getting caught while idly gazing at his teammates while they were all wet and naked and joshing around. Brent might have been out to his family and closest friends, but he had not broached the issue with his new team.

Nor with his old team.

As a wide receiver, he got more than his share of the spotlight, not just because of the position he played, but also because so many football pundits believed that his 6 foot even, 195 pound body wasn’t quite big enough for the job. Add the gay bit into it, and he just knew his performance would be overshadowed by personal details, and his personal details weren’t anyone’s business.

His height, along with his performance, had been more than adequate for his first two years, which he spent playing a second-string wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins. Except the Dolphins had traded him to the Vultures, which was kind of too bad because he’d make less money with a brand-new team. It was also kind of good, though, because his financial haircut came with a prestigious starting position, and being on a new team would help redefine his persona as he helped the new team solidify and grow into a strong competitor.

Frederickstown was too small to call itself a real city here in Maryland, just a shout away from Baltimore. Even though many considered it just another long-commute bedroom community for Washington, DC, the property values and the cost of living here were a lot lower than in Miami. The weather wasn’t oppressively sunny all the time, either, and Brent was looking forward to seeing a bit of snow for the first time in years. All in all, the move had plenty of upsides – especially since his sister and her daughter lived here.

The downside of being on a newly formed team was their general suckiness, which, in his case, translated into a distinct lack of coverage as he tried to run fast and catch those long passes. When he’d been with the Dolphins, the other players were old hands at providing coverage, making sure the wide receivers wouldn’t get roughed up as they jumped into the air to catch the ball at full extension.

The Vultures, sadly, lacked that level of finesse, which is why Brent got clobbered today. It was a small wonder his ribs weren’t broken from the impact of the Steelers player’s helmet.

The Steelers got their fifteen-yard penalty, and justifiably so. Spearing a guy with a helmet had been against the rules for years. The current concussion awareness environment had made the sport marginally safer, but still. Brent would’ve been a lot happier had that asshole been ejected from the game.

He drew a shallow breath, and prepared to slowly twist his trunk. Taking his gear off would hurt like a bitch.

The door opened just before the first wave of the players headed into the showers. They stopped as coach Lucas filled the doorway.

His presence permeated the locker room, even though he was a diminutive fellow in comparison to his players. "I had expected something a little more dynamic against Pittsburgh today,” he ranted without a preamble. "You are the Vultures! You’re supposed to be better than this! Why didn’t you play your plan? Why didn't you stick together like we practiced?"

The players shifted in place, either standing by their lockers or sitting on their benches in various states of undress, hoping the coach would get it out of his system soon.

Brent figured he was safe. He got roughed up, after all, and that hadn’t been his fault. And he did catch the other pass and ran in their only touch-down. The fact that the kicker had failed to make the ball sail through the uprights for that extra point wasn’t his department. Still, he tried to shrink back, occupying as little space as possible.

Sure enough, the coach turned toward him. "And you, Dixon, you think you're so special!" He threw his hands up in the air, the hands that had once caught the winning ball for Villanova, the same hands that guided this team through their annual playbook strategy. "You think just because you gave us those six points excuses the fact that you kept running the wrong pattern in the first half? You’re a wide receiver. Wide.” He glared. “Stick to the fucking sidelines! You have no business being in the middle, even though Stevens looked like he was throwing that way. Can’t you tell a pump fake from a real throw?"

The special-teams coach, Sid Clairmont, cleared his throat. "I think we have some lateral footwork issues, too. That doesn't go just for Brent, here. Everyone, and I mean all of you, seems to have trouble taking the angle when under pressure.”

Lateral movement had always been Clairmont’s hobby horse. Everybody knew it, just as everybody knew that Lucas knew it. Somebody sucked in a breath, which collectively expressed the suspense the team felt when Lucas got Clairmont’s agenda pushed in his face again.

Brent wished he could have gotten some popcorn and kicked back. Now what?

The two coaches locked their gazes like fighting big horn sheep. This time, however, coach Lucas finally nodded. “Yeah. Whatever gets them out of this godawful funk. More lateral footwork drills, for sure. Especially for short stuff over here.” He jutted his chin toward Brent. “Seriously, I know you can’t grow any taller, but you got to be able to zig and zag and avoid some of those hits, man! You ain’t big enough to absorb that kind of damage for long. However did you survive in Miami?”

Brent cleared his throat. “We got coverage in Miami.” Now it was his turn to exchange glares with the coach, but this time, it wasn’t the coach who looked away first.

Knowing he’d made his point, Brent dropped his eyes to better examine his hands.

His wide, long-fingered, nimble hands that knew how to catch a long pass so well – as long as some asshole didn’t barrel into him.

God, he was so ready to hate coach Lucas. They had known each other for just a few weeks, but their chemistry just failed to improve despite their mutual effort. There was a lot to be said for being professional. Calm, cool, collected, and always trying. That’s what kept Brent on this team.

When the coaches finally left, it took a good minute before the players reanimated, and began to grumble.

The quarterback, Jared Brown, looked around the locker room and cleared his throat.

Brent glanced his way. Jared was the one guy who always knew what was going to happen next. He'd been with the team for five years, ever since the Vultures were officially formed. Jared frowned, shook his head, and growled. "I don't like the fact that the special-teams coach’s wife is a ballerina. Clairmont has been pushing for this for a while, and it’s not gonna cause nothing but trouble."

The senior nose tackle piped up. "Yup, Marina Vaughn. She comes to the games when she can."

"I hear she's really involved,” said Sampson, one of the halfbacks. He was a lot bigger than Brent, and his voice rumbled a lot deeper. This was one of those times when Brent felt self-conscious about the fact that even a medium guy on the team pretty much dwarfed him. Except Brent was on the team for his speed and accuracy, not because of his size. A good wide receiver could get away with being a bit on the small side, as long as he was fast.

"What do you think will happen, Jared?" That was the other wide receiver, Troy, a much taller “manly-man,” who absolutely hated having to put on the stupid pink shoelaces and pink gloves they all had to wear during the annual breast cancer awareness month. He liked women and their lovely bosoms all right, he was just extra vocal about not having to dress like a Barbie because of it.

"I don't know," Jared said. "Nobody talked to me about anything, but if anybody does, I'll let you know."


CHAPTER 2


Alfred Karanov stumbled through the front door of his two-bedroom, cookie-cutter condo and dropped his duffel bag on top of the shoe bench. The temperature outside was still balmy enough not to bother with a second layer, especially not after a rehearsal. The modern piece, which the ballet ensemble was rehearsing, was going to be the death of him. It intrigued him, beguiled him, and frustrated him like nothing else Alfred had ever danced before, and the challenge of new movement and new, strangely syncopated music wasn’t helped by the fact that he was required to hold impossible poses for an unreasonable length of time.

Jump higher, Alfred. Spin faster, Alfred. Don’t let your breathing show when you hold still, Alfred.

The final scene culminated in his character's death, and not even that was a restful pose. At least he got to lie down on the polished dance surface of the stage, still and motionless, while the others were still exerting themselves over his prone corpse.

The image made him smile.

Alfred kicked off his long sleeve shirt, struggled out of his leg-warmer pants and short dancer’s tights, and unsnapped the dance belt which doubled for underwear and provided his tender bits with much-needed support.

As he walked across the bare, shiny wood of his empty living room, he glanced at the wall of mirrors that took the space where most people hung their oversized, flat-screen televisions, and smiled.

He was a man.

Lithe, perhaps, and not very tall, but he was well-muscled and strong, and his cut jaw and strong brow spelled the sort of masculinity which had saved him from having to wear toe shoes.

His little, wiry foot muscles had been working overtime, and his feet ached proportionately to their exertion. However, Alfred knew with a sick certainty that his female colleagues were faring a lot worse when they peeled their dainty, blood-stained pointe shoes off their feet. He had seen enough blisters, raw flesh, and misshapen toenails to last him a lifetime, and he had never turned down a soul in need, male or female, who was in tears of pain and in want of a foot-rub after a long day.

His condo might’ve been a spartan two-bedroom unit with a dance floor in the living room – which he had custom-installed three years ago – but aside from the huge king-size bed, the most luxurious place was a custom-built shower.

As he stepped in, he eyed it with grateful appreciation. This shower was one of the little luxuries that had allowed him to function after crazy rehearsals and tough performances. It greeted him when he came home from long trips abroad, where his performance was honored with a standing ovation, but his hotel room had just a little closet with a trickle of water to refresh him afterward.

If Alfred was a homebody, then his shower was surely to blame. It was one of those fancy, modern to-do’s with a walk-in shower space and a shiny glass wall. He loved everything about it. The tiles, narrow and rectangular, gave the interior space a dark, cavernous feel, where the multifaceted textures reminded him of caves glinting with precious stones. They were a bitch to clean, sure, but Maria never complained, so... okay. He stayed his guilt, and relished the combination of an overhead rain shower with massaging, swiveling side-jets. The handheld extension granted something of an advantage, too, as did the teak bench at the far end, out of the direct stream of tepid water.

Once he was done luxuriating, he dried off and pulled out the little, portable, massaging foot-bath which seemed to be a necessary fixture of every dancer’s tool-box.

A cool, water jet massage, a reheated frozen dinner, and a glass of wine.

And maybe some television.


HALF AN HOUR later, Alfred was comfortably seated on the black leather sofa in his second bedroom, which he had turned into a den. He was wearing his sleep shirt and his sleep shorts, not actually pajamas per se, but garments so old and worn into such comfortable softness, he couldn’t imagine throwing them out. The freshly microwaved chicken and vegetable dinner sat on the coasting cart in front of him, along with a salad and a large glass of Chardonnay. He would’ve loved to go out for a pizza, but with the show coming up, he needed that lean, sculpted look everybody expected to see on stage. Yet again... he glanced at his strong feet, tilted his soles into the mini-jet, and groaned with pleasure. Thank God their skin was unbroken. Not only that, but he got to eat both the chicken and vegetables. The women ate even less.

Once again, he felt lucky to be a guy.

With a grin on his lined face, Alfred clicked the television on, and fished around until he found a recording of his guilty pleasure, one that none of his fellow dancers knew about, or would be able to comprehend.

He turned on the football game.

But not just any football game – this was the Frederickstown Vultures, and he couldn't wait to see how his amazing crush would do this time around.

The fact that Alfred didn't have enough time in his life for a boyfriend didn't mean he couldn't admire a guy from afar. It had to be a safe guy, though, one he’d never meet in real life. Someone too removed from his theater career, and too lofty to ever pay attention to the likes of him.

Who could be safer than a macho football player?

Alfred had been mildly pleased when Frederickstown had acquired its own football team. He had never liked the Washington Redskins, mostly due to their name and his own one-sixteenth Native American heritage. Likewise, he despised the Baltimore Ravens. Even though he had nothing personal against the current players, the way the team had left Cleveland years ago in the middle of the night, and left a small, civilized town full of fans in a state of grief and outrage, well... he had always been a small-town guy, and that kind of behavior didn’t sit well with him.

Falling in love with the Vultures had been easy, and when it came to his home team, there was never a question as to who drew his eyes and his interest.

He knew the man about as well as he knew himself. His websites, his social media, his games... and that wasn’t stalking, no siree, because wasn’t Brent Dickson a public person? All that information was out there for the fans to peruse, so peruse he did.

They were almost the same age, twenty-five and twenty-six years old. They were both athletes, and they both had to watch what they ate and how much they worked out. They even lived in the same town.

Other than that, the infatuation was purely one-sided. Alfred was mortally certain Brent Dixon wasn't even aware of his existence. Brent Dixon was, after all, a great NFL hope for a newly-formed team, located in an unlikely small town.

As he ate the insipid chicken and sipped the unapologetically oaky chardonnay, Alfred watched Brent Dixon struggle to pull their offense together.

He was dismayed when they fumbled, he despaired when their quarterback, Jared Brown, got sacked. He was relieved, nay, overjoyed! to watch Brent Dixon catch the quarterback’s pass and run it into the field zone.

“Touchdown!” He shouted and pumped his fist for a touch-down which had already come and gone two days ago. Alfred was glad he had avoided the news. Spoilers were no fun whatsoever.

Two more of those, and they had a chance. Of course, it would also help if the special teams got their ass in gear and sent the ball through the uprights. Which, in this case, they had failed to do.

An hour and a half later, Alfred was yelling at himself for staying up and watching a losing game to the bitter end.

He should've gone to sleep. He should've been visualizing the choreography for War Paint as he drifted off to its difficult, changeable rhythm and haunting melody. But here he was, his eyes pinned to number 69, Brent Dixon, his favorite wide receiver.

When the game was over and lost, the reporter had unkind words to say about Brent's physique. Maybe had he been a little taller, or a little heavier, he might have done better against the Steelers.

Fuck the expert.

As he was drifting off to sleep. Alfred envisioned Brent Dixon, so strong and perfect with his barely-six-foot body of graceful, lanky muscle. He regretted not being able to wrap his arms around that torso – oh no, wait, no hugs with that injury. He bemoaned the fact that his second pillow didn’t smell anything like Brent Dixon probably smelled, and he mourned for the absence of the stray hair that looked so touchable on television.

Long hair, longer than shoulder length, shiny and rich chestnut brown, strands Alfred would’ve twirled around his fingers.

He sighed, knowing his pining was useless. He was, after all, Maestro Karanov, a ballet professional, an artist. A short, slight man compared to those burly football players – and he wore eyeliner when the mood struck. The likes of number 69 wouldn’t give him a second look, except in derision – he banished the thought. No, not in derision. Maybe in curious non-interest, and then he’d move on.

Fortunately, he didn't even run a chance of ever meeting Brent Dixon in person. If that happened, he was sure he would die on the spot.


CHAPTER 3


Someone behind Brent groaned, which almost made him smile. It somehow didn’t surprise him that events unfurled according to the worst-case scenario. The special-teams coach’s wife, Marina Vaughn, was a prima ballerina with the First Frederickstown Ballet Company, and she took her positions as a ballet ambassador and as a football wife seriously. Not only did she love the team and fan-girled over the football players, she also believed in the value of cross-training. That's why she was standing in the weight room right now, dressed in her fashionable skinny jeans, running shoes, and a Vultures T-shirt. Her husband, Sid Clairmont, stood behind her. The rest of the coaching and support staff flanked them like an honor guard.

"You don't actually need to go full-out in order to benefit from cross-training with the ballet," she said. “We want you to come and watch a ballet performance. That's just to get familiar with what our dancers do. After that, we'll see how many of you are suitable for this cross-training exercise. Although, I hope all of you will give it a fair try.”

The predictable moaning and groaning broke out in full, much of it from Troy. Brent schooled his face into a calm, professional mask to stifle his thrill of excitement. Cross-training with a group of dancers wasn't such a bad idea. He had heard of other teams doing that – some of the Steelers had, for instance – but he also felt that it would best benefit only those players who were truly invested in the process.

He happened to like dance a lot, and ballet especially. When they played out of town, he always tried to sneak out and catch a show as the team schedule allowed. Watching the dancers do amazing things with their bodies, to orchestral music which varied from long-loved Tchaikovsky to an experimental montage of noise punctuated by the revving of a chainsaw, was his guilty pleasure and a passion he had not shared with anyone.

Marina’s bright voice helped him focus on the present. As he looked around, he realized that not all of his teammates would benefit. If the guys weren’t into it and if they didn't buy into the concept, it would be their loss as well as a waste of time.

Nobody was brave enough to say that.

Nobody wanted to be traded or set loose.

"I have some gifts for you,” Marina said. "Don't worry, this won't be as bad as it sounds. I realize you probably never considered the ballet as your idea of a good time, but bear with me. Other sports have already adopted a lot from dance workouts.” She looked around, turning her head on her long, graceful neck. “Think core work, guys. Pilates, remember? Everyone does that now, and that came from dance. By the same token, if you want to improve your footwork, you've got to be working with your feet. We can give you some new tools, show you ways to improve your balance and agility. If you find the ballet isn't to your liking, we have contacts who teach other styles. Jazz, modern, ballroom dancing… Those of you with wives or girlfriends can definitely bring your significant other if you want."

Brent looked around, and was pleasantly surprised to see that several of the guys lit up at the idea. Being away from their loved ones due to heavy training and a demanding travel schedule was hard on all of them. Attending a dance class with their wife or girlfriend? That must’ve counted for some pretty decent quality time together, plus extra brownie points with the ladies who were into it.

Some people were lucky to have a loved one. Not Brent, though. He was unattached, and he intended to stay that way.

Being gay in the NFL was hard enough. Bringing a boyfriend to a team activity would single him out like nobody’s business. Why, even Marina had said wives or girlfriends. So much for the poor husbands or boyfriends, who got left home alone.

He snorted, then covered his lapse with a cough.

Even though Brent had been strategizing on the best possible way to come out to his team, sleeping around with men – like other players did with women – wasn’t to his taste. He had gone through his wild hook-up period in college, and he had left one failed effort at an NFL relationship behind him back in Florida. The hook-up scene got boring, though, and the danger of a scandal hung over him like a sword on a thin thread. He saw no good reason to feed into gay stereotypes, but most of all, he wanted to be known for being a great wide receiver, not for being that kind of a receiver.

The position he played suited him, but its name was an open invitation to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. For a gay player, being a wide receiver was as bad as being a tight end.

As though people close to him knew he was on the brink of coming out, they kept throwing potential female dates at him. He had more offers than he knew what to do with. Well-meaning people of both sexes seemed to think he was a catch, as well as being able to catch. Just nobody figured him for a catcher in the gay sense of the word, and Brent didn’t think he’d like the attention he’d get if the word got out.

He was afraid the same people would start throwing men at him. Even though the concept sounded like fun at first, Brent was afraid to dive into the dating pool and get stuck with a guy who was in it just for the fame, or for money, or even for that delicious hint of scandal that got old after a week or so.

He didn’t want to be a spokesman for “his people,” whatever that meant, and he didn’t want to be followed like some kind of a celebrity. He just wanted to play ball.

Brent kept his thoughts to himself as he waited for Marina to finish her little pep talk and distribute her pale pink gift baggies full of ballet swag. The eleven minutes it took her to leave felt like an eternity.


“THIS IS ALL just a fucking distraction," Sampson growled from the other side of the room. "I have serious training to do. I can see what they're saying, but if we want to improve our footwork, we should be doing footwork drills!"

This started a whole big discussion about what sort of footwork drills they ought to be doing. Brent took it as his excuse to leave. He was done with his day’s work and didn't need to stick around for useless arguments. So they would do a little bit of dance. So what? They would all survive. Hopefully, it would actually help.

The drive to his gated community took the usual twenty minutes. He had bought a nice, two-bedroom condo on the second floor of one of those condo complexes where identical units were stuck together like swallows’ nests and where the garage was under the unit, right next to the front door. He absolutely loved living in a place with its own gym, a pool, and a golf course on the premises, and he adored the privacy. Golf did nothing for him, but the golf course was pretty, and the adjoining park was criss-crossed with good running trails.

He loved his morning runs. Running with the rest of the team sort of sucked, because he was the fastest, and he hated having to leave his guys behind. Running on his own was also blessedly quiet.

When he wasn’t doing sprints, Brent sank his mind into the rhythmic groove of his breath and his footfalls, and just ran, and ran, and ran. Up and down the trail, through the woods, jumping over brooks and over logs, tiptoeing over larger creeks where he balanced his way across on stepping stones. That kind of running, the cross-country marathon training he hoped he would get to do once he retired from football, was his jam, his zen zone, and his true recreation.

Currently, the persistent September rain didn't make the idea of trail running very appealing. He waved to the guard at the gates, then slowly drove through the complex.

His unit’s garage door slid up silently, and he parked inside with a feeling of relish. Having a garage, let alone one with a smart door, was a luxury he had only imagined in his younger years. He rolled out of his car, knowing that, once again, he slipped into his castle unobserved.

Kind of like Bruce Wayne, had Bruce Wayne sported long hair and a bit of scruff on his face.

Brent ran up the stairs, kicked off his shoes in the living room, dumped his gear bag on the brown carpet floor, and headed straight for the refrigerator. His Bruce Wayne fantasy didn’t extend to having an Alfred pick up after him. That would’ve been a decadent waste of money, precious dollars which could be better spent elsewhere.

A beer would go down well. Few moments of rummaging through the freezer had him decide on one of several of his custom-made, frozen dinners, which had been crafted to his individual athletic specifications by the team nutritionist.

Unlike Bruce Wayne, he subsisted on frozen dinners and take-out. Quality, organic frozen dinners. Having them handy was more convenient and certainly less expensive than if he cooked for himself. He had run the numbers during his first year with Miami, and was pleased at the amount of extra money he saved by using a personal chef service. Every dollar he could toss at his sister’s college tuition helped.

While the dinner rotated inside his microwave, Brent fixed himself a bagged salad, dressed it, and set the table for one. Only then did he grab the beer bottle reverently and popped the cap. The hiss of the vacuum seal was music to his ears, and the citrusy, hoppy scent of the brew tickled his nostrils. He poured his beer into a glass like his sister used to nag him to do, settled down by the round table of his dining nook, and took his first sip.

Ah, delicious! After today’s tough practice, he sure could use the treat.

When he was done with dinner, Brent upended the pink plastic goodie bag on the other side of the table to examine its contents, much like a TV detective would spill the contents of a stomach of a shark to see whether the victim was inside.

He found information brochures on the benefits of cross-training, which he dropped aside, because Marina Vaughn was just preaching to the choir. The class schedule, which listed open floor classes, looked interesting. Let’s see... private lessons, ballet, Pilates, and-

Wait. Here it was, a ballroom dancing class for couples.

If he had a boyfriend, he would've gone to that.

He sighed. He was tempted to dial up one of those dating apps and see who was in the area. He might find somebody discreet who could keep a secret. The risk was too great, though. If coming out ruined his football career, he wouldn’t be the only one to suffer.

A stack of coupons to a professional dance store almost hid the best treat in the bag: two tickets to a performance of War Paint.

He had seen War Paint advertised as a revolutionary, modern ballet piece, but had not yet seen it. When he looked it up online, his gaze ground to a stop so sudden, he thought his dick would get whiplash.

The male lead dancer was gorgeous.

OhmyfuckingGod.

Who was he? Brent leaned closer to the screen to examine the exotic maestro Alfred Karanov a little closer. His legs – his legs – for crying out loud, porn was so overrated. Brent knew he could find his pleasure by just gazing at Karanov’s long, sinuous muscles, the way he arched his back, the way he turned his head in a warrior-like challenge.

His make-up was heavy, for the show of course, but he looked good in it. Not too many men looked good in make-up, but there was something magical in the way the layers of tribal color and heavy eyeliner lent a fierce, determined air to Alfred Karanov’s gaze.

Alfred. Brent smiled, wondering what the man was like in real life. Now he could find out. He’d definitely go to the show, and he would bring his plus-one.

He considered his options. Normally, he wouldn’t have a romantic interest to bring along, because he was an NFL player in a deep, deep closet. However, his companion didn’t have to be a person of romantic interest. Brent’s mom was several states away and his younger brother, Tyler, was servicing planes on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific. Brent could call his sister Laura – except Laura would be either interning at the hospital, or elbows-deep in her books. Her daughter, his niece Nicole, would love the chance to be part of an outing such as this.

Nicole was twelve, and dance crazy. She was also good company, and she would give him a good excuse to duck out early and not have to join the team for some stupid team-building activity afterwards.

Besides, Laura would appreciate having an evening to herself. Being a single mom was hard, and finishing nursing school didn’t make it a lot easier.


CHAPTER 4


Alfred shut the door softly and tiptoed upstairs, following a pattern from several years ago, when he still had shared a house with roommates who had very little sympathy for his starving-artist theater hours.

The rehearsal had run late again, which did not surprise him in the slightest. Getting in this close to one o’clock meant he wouldn’t wake up before eight in the morning. If he accounted for shower and stretch out, that gave him a solid seven hours of sleep. He'd have preferred half an hour more, but life was seldom ideal.

Once he got out of his regretfully quick shower, he padded into the den and picked up the file folder they all received today. He was almost – almost – tempted to shove it into a folder of mail on his desk and pretend it would magically disappear. As much as he appreciated football, Alfred had absolutely no desire to babysit some overgrown football thug through a remedial training regimen, which their prima ballerina had devised just to make nice to her husband.

He would’ve “lost” the folder – except these were the Vultures.

The fact that a town as small as Frederickstown, Maryland, had its own NFL team was laughable. The local legend had it the Vultures got their start as a practical joke. Some rich dot-com boomer devised a plan to poke fun at his friends, who were rabid Baltimore Ravens fans. Not everyone could afford to set up a competing team, and not everyone had the right connections within the NFL to pull it off. As pranks went, this was pretty stellar, especially since not many people had expected for the Vultures to actually stay in the area. The franchise came as a shock to the Ravens fans, who permeated the surrounding area and who didn’t think the controversial NFL expansion would actually happen in their lifetime.

He couldn't say this to anyone he danced with, of course, just as he would never admit to his fellow dancers that he had made it a practice to record all of the Vultures’ games. He had always had a thing for the underdog, maybe because he had once been an underdog himself. Even now, as an established artist who was highly respected in the dance community, he wasn’t exactly a household name. He could, he supposed, take it to New York or to San Francisco to boost his profile, but the slower pace of a small Maryland town suited him. The living expenses weren't as crazy as in a huge metropolis, either, and after the claustrophobic congestion he had experienced in the big cities, Alfred found he enjoyed what he called “a healthy work – life balance.”

He never got stage fright. It shocked him, therefore, to feel the unfamiliar and panicked butterflies in his stomach at the thought of working with the same Vultures he secretly watched and admired.

Brent Dixon, his secret crush, would be there. Both thrilled and terrified, Alfred decided the prospect deserved an extra-large glass of wine. He pulled out the left-over grilled salmon, fixed himself a salad, and settled down to watch the recorded game. To his utter delight, Brent Dixon scored, even though his were the only points earned by the team.

Suppose he got to work with Brent? Would Brent enjoy this cross-training experiment? A long-haired, hot guy with his all-American good looks, broad shoulders, and a tight ass, Brent Dixon would look positively edible in ballet tights.

The room grew slightly warmer at the image of his favorite NFL celebrity all bare-chested, with his legs wrapped in white compression tights. The dance belt would shape his package just-so, leaving just enough to Alfred’s torrid imagination.

Would he do it? And would he give dance his best try? Alfred already loved the way Brent always approached the ball with cool confidence. He admired the graceful, precarious balance he always attained as he launched himself into the air. Brent Dixon on the field was sheer poetry in motion. Had he been a ballet dancer, Alfred would want to partner him. Share space with him.

And now he could – because if he didn’t chicken out, he could put his name down next to Brent Dixon’s on the football remedial cross-training volunteer sheet.


A DOOR SLAMMED in the unit next to Alfred's. He stirred against his pillow, then reached for the phone on his night stand, and checked the time.

Quarter to seven.

Alfred’s alarm was set for eight. He groaned. People had real-life jobs, he supposed. Having a neighbor on the other side of the wall was a small price to pay in exchange for a home where he didn’t have to worry about home maintenance. Or that had been the idea when he had bought this place.

No lawn mowing, no snow shoveling, and a handy maintenance plan that came along with the pool, the front gate security, and all that. All those trade-offs became questionable luxuries right now, when he knew he’d run out of steam at rehearsal this afternoon.

Fuck.

Alfred dragged himself out of bed and considered his options for the day. He started out with a shower and a shave, did his brief morning workout, and slipped into a pair of chinos and a short-sleeve polo shirt. The day promised to be lovely, and since he was up already, he might as well make use of the golf course down the block.

Just when he took his bag of golf clubs off its hook on the garage wall and slipped outside while the door was still sliding up, he heard the neighbor’s door slam again.

Huh. He wasn’t at work, then.

Why would someone leave and return? Maybe he forgot something – but there was no car, so... no. An irrational desire to wait it out and stalk the guy washed over Alfred like a wave of mischief. He didn’t even know what his new neighbor looked like. He didn’t know his name, or what he did for a living.

Then he remembered that he had just an hour extra, and marched off in the direction of the sprawling green links beyond the trees. He determined to do something other than just rehearse, sleep, and perform, dammit! The fact that he didn’t have any space in his life for a lover didn’t mean it was okay to live like a hermit, and interact only with theater people.


BRENT LOOKED OUT while kicking off his running shoes when the quiet hum of his neighbor’s garage door told him somebody was going to work. A regular wage-slave, probably. He didn’t know his neighbors yet. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day, and many people weren’t around at all. Take this man – or was it a woman?

He jogged to his living room window, buoyed by curiosity. Who was it? What did he – or she – drive?

He peered into the adjacent driveway, then down the street.

There was no car.

Could he have missed it?

He chuckled when a person – a man – walked out and crossed the street. He wore casual clothes and carried a small golf bag over his right shoulder. His neighbor was a man, then, and he played golf in the morning. He still might’ve been a cubicle wage-slave, except on his day off.

Brent took in the line of the golfer’s body with appreciation. Whatever he did for a living, the guy was certainly in great shape. Wouldn’t it be fun if his neighbor turned out to live alone and be gay and unattached? Suppose they got along. Suppose he was discreet and didn’t mind if Brent kept a low profile. His mind flew toward a “neighbors with benefits” situation.

A situation which would never happen anyway. His neighbor was most likely straight, possibly married. But the fantasy had been nice, if only for a moment.

Brent sighed, turned away, and resolved to focus on the positive aspects of his situation. Here he was, standing in the middle of a living room as large as the whole downstairs floor of his parent’s house. The carpet was plush underfoot. He glanced at the beige sofa and the burgundy reading chair, he took in the awesome Ikea entertainment center he had assembled with his own hands.

He had all this, a luxury spread with more space than he could possibly ever use. Even with all his expenses, which added up, living this close to Washington, DC, Brent had still been able to take on his parent’s mortgage and help with his sister’s school. And let’s not forget his niece, Nicole, who would be ready for college in a wink of time.

Hopefully, he’d still be playing then. If not, though, there was always his savings account, and the tight leash of his financial advisor.

Brent was in this world to make it a little better, and he could manage just fine all by himself.

“I am alone, not lonely.” He said it aloud, infusing it with as much conviction as he could muster. The words bounced from wall to wall, unimpeded by another human being.

He said it again, louder this time.

He didn’t need a boyfriend.




CHAPTER 5


The tall, cavernous lobby of the Vultures’ training center echoed with emptiness, and the mood was subdued as the football players lounged either on leather sofas or on high stools which surrounded cafe tables. The plus-ones were all women, of which young Nicole was the youngest.

And the cutest – not that Brent was biased. He was merely acknowledging a fact.

“So we’re going on a bus, Uncle Brent?” Nicole asked as she took in the scene of big guys and much smaller women, all in formal dress.

“Yeah. Two buses, since there are so many of us.” A nervous tightness gripped his chest. He was going to the ballet, and for the first time ever, he wasn’t going alone. At least he wasn’t the only guy in a tuxedo.

Brent focused on his breath, letting it ease in and out, quieting his excitement while trying to focus on Nicole. She was growing so fast. Dressed up like this, and wearing all that make-up, she almost could have passed for a much older teen. Only the way she swung her legs off the stool restlessly gave away her childish innocence.

Under ordinary circumstances, Brent would have sneaked out on his own. Now, though, going to the ballet was not only approved of, it had even been ordered by the powers-that-be. The September air was still warm enough for the air conditioning to be on, which was why Nicole was wearing her mother’s cashmere-blend shawl over her bare shoulders.

“What’s that a painting of?” she asked quietly, nodding to one of the modern art pieces displayed on a wall on the other side of the room. The art’s function was to make the football team look like civilized people. Brent got that. The sophisticated entryway was a statement, as well as a venue for small team events. It spoke of money, and it hinted that even a team as new as the Vultures had enough money to buy art and enough sophistication to appreciate it.

As Brent held a quiet conversation with Nicole, cluing her to the politics of it all, he got to chuckle at her wry observations. Of course she would compare this to the best sneakers or hippest video game rat race of her middle school.

It didn't take but half an hour for the players and their companions to assemble. Dressed nice, they were “ready to look like cultural people.” Or, at least that's what Troy called it.

"I can't believe we have to put on our monkey suits,” Troy kept complaining, as though the regulator between his brain and his mouth had taken a vacation. Brent gave him a quick once over, and suppressed a snicker. His teammate’s cheap gray suit and shiny red tie made him look like a used car salesman.

Brent and Nicole exchanged a look. Nicole rolled her eyes, and Brent sort of wished he could’ve joined her. He didn’t mind dressing up like a civilized human being who cared about something other than catching a football and delivering it safely to the end zone. Feeling just a little sly, he’d taken special pleasure in pulling out his tuxedo. He wasn't the only one, but he certainly wasn't the majority, and his trim good looks drew raised eyebrows along with various lewd and rude comments from his teammates.

"Here comes Prince Charming!"

"Look, did Brent actually brush his lovely long hair?" Somebody cackled, another guy snickered, but the guys were keeping the usual lewdness down to a minimum, presumably in consideration to the young Nicole.

"Dude, I think he's wearing product," somebody said, and it was Jared who dared to reach for Brent's shoulder-length, chestnut brown, wavy hair to see if he had actually put any “unmanly” stuff in it.

"Quit being jealous," Brent said as he ducked and weaved, batting hands aside. “It’s not my fault you guys don't know how to dress!"


THE FOOTBALL TEAM had the best seats in the house, Brent noticed. That was good, because Nicole was going to love this. She was perched on the end of her plush seat as the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra opened with a powerful crescendo.

Brent glanced to his right, amused to see that the power of the music blew Nicole into the back of her seat. Gratitude suffused him – for the tickets, for the luxury of playing a game he loved for a living, and for being able to make experiences such as this one available for his family.

He hadn’t been to a play until college, and he hadn’t seen a ballet live until he sneaked out for the first time when Miami was playing out of town. He had gone to see the Nutcracker instead of drinking with the guys, and had no regrets whatsoever.

This time, Brent didn’t have to hide. He had his team around him, Nicole sat next to him with an enraptured expression, and since life was all kinds of awesome, he decided to just kick back, relax, and enjoy the experience. This was, after all, his first visit to the Frederickstown ballet. To his delight, the small-town experience wasn’t all that different from his usual big-city haunts. Living near a big city had its advantages, because Philadelphia or Washington, or Baltimore all gave him a sense of privacy as well as world-class entertainment.

Although sneaking away to see a show in San Francisco had been fun, too.

He grinned, pressed his back into the plush, red seat, and settled into a comfortable daze. The orchestral music had changed from a big opening into a lovely and mysterious nether world of fantasy and imagination. As the last notes died off, Brent reflected that he truly loved that quiet space right before the curtain rose.

It was full of potential, of the unknown. Just like with a football game, he never knew what the performance would bring.

The house lights were out, and the heavy velvet curtain slowly rose, flanked by antique carvings which still shone with an occasional flash of gold leaf. A lit stage appeared, as still as the pregnant silence which had built up to an almost unbearable level. When Brent thought he couldn't stand it anymore, and was tempted to stop holding his breath, it exploded.

The crash of cymbals and the wailing of violins rent the air in a warlike cacophony that spelled out struggle for survival. This wasn't an insipid love story, nor was it a ballad of humor and deception. No, this music sang a song of striving and hunger and pain such as Brent’s ancestors used to know every day. It spoke of a fight he had tried to recreate every time he pulled on his helmet, and every time he stepped on the field.

This was warrior music.

The stage brightened with a spotlight as a dancer, lithe and strong and vigorous, ran to its middle, then stopped.

Brent saw his bare chest heave as his layers of a primitive, colorful costume still swayed. He couldn’t make up the dancer’s face despite his third-row seat, not with the heavy make-up and amazing head-dress of deer antlers and a thin, airy veil of feathers.

It didn’t look Native American, nor African.

He’d figure it out later.

The tension of the moment once again robbed Brent of breath and air grew thin – then, finally, the dancer spun in a series of intricate jumps and pirouettes. His performance was a tour de force that exemplified the spirit of a warrior. Music and physical form described concepts usually defined through the means of a sword, or a football, or a well-aimed arrow.

The dancer spoke through his limbs, he whispered with every undulation of his graceful arms, he shouted with every leap of his strong legs. Once he stopped and turned toward the audience, Brent couldn't help himself but gasp. The man was covered with subtly applied, yet not at all delicate war paint.


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