Out in the Offense (Out in College Book 3)

1

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”—Galileo

The late afternoon sun glinted off the bleachers and sent a prism of light across the Astroturf. The ultra-green hue gleamed even brighter than usual at this time of day and contrasted nicely with the longer shadows. It might be eighty degrees in the shade still, but fall was definitely coming. We were a few weeks into the new school semester and three games into our football season. Thankfully, we’d won by respectable margins. A minor miracle, considering a slew of our better players graduated last spring. Starting over with a mostly unseasoned crew wasn’t optimal, but so far, things were looking good.

Which usually meant bad news was on the horizon.

Hey, I wasn’t a downer. If anything, I considered myself a realist. Nothing good lasted forever—including winning streaks. I signaled a play to Gonzalez, one of the faster running backs on our team, then pulled my arm back and launched the football into the air in a high, tight spiral. It sailed in a perfect arc for sixty yards and hit my target right in his hands. Gonzalez secured the ball and ran like the wind toward the end zone.

I laughed when he let out a loud whoop and broke into a ridiculous victory dance. A few of the other guys joined in, but the second our head coach, Flannigan, blew his whistle, everyone hustled off the field. I waved absently to a couple of the assistant coaches chatting on the sideline as I jogged toward the locker room and then groaned when Coach Perez stepped aside and motioned me over.

Mike Perez was our offensive coordinator and an all-around good guy. But the dude could talk, and it had already been a long day. The last thing I wanted to do was go over additional plays. Surely it could wait until morning.

“Yo, Rafferty!”

I veered left to meet him and pulled off my helmet. “What’s up, Coach?”

Perez was a husky man in his late thirties with jet-black hair and a receding hairline he hid with a ubiquitous baseball cap. He was about five inches shorter than my six four with a completely different build. He looked more like a linebacker now than a former quarterback, but twenty years ago, he’d played my position at a private college similar to Chilton. He knew the ins and outs of a Division-Three program at a school better known for academics than athletics. I respected his football acumen, but I liked him as a person too. He was quick to laugh and had a habit of talking about his wife and kids that was kind of endearing. I thought it was cool that as much as he loved the game, his family always came first.

“That arm’s looking good, man. How are you feeling?” he asked, adjusting the rim of his cap.

“Great.” I squinted and gave him a funny look. “Don’t tell me you’re adding a complicated play I need to perfect in two days.”

“Nah.” He nodded at a couple of guys passing by and then inched closer to me in a maneuver that clearly indicated this was a private conversation. “I like what we’ve got down.”

“Oookay…” I wracked my brain, wondering what I’d done wrong while I waited for him to continue. Practice went well today. My arm was strong, my decision-making was on point, my feet were sure and—

“Your academic advisor called today. Mrs. Landau.”

“Oh.” Fuck.

He tilted his head in what could only be described as a “concerned parental” look before continuing in a lower tone. “She said you’re failing statistics. She also mentioned this is the second time you’ve taken the course and because you’re a senior, it’s your last chance to pass if you’re gonna graduate on time. Apparently, she’s contacted you about tutoring but you either haven’t acted on it, or you’ve ignored her messages entirely. Why?”

I let out a frustrated huff and pushed my hand through my hair. “It’s the middle of September. There’s plenty of time to—”

“To do the right thing,” he intercepted. “It’s a two-part course. You can’t afford to fail, man. One of the perks of being a student athlete is having immediate access to first-rate tutoring. You have to sign up, Rafferty.”

I frowned but nodded my acquiescence. “Okay. I will.”

“Good. I need proof it’s done before I put you in the game Saturday.”

“Wait. What?” I pulled at the sleeve of his burgundy polo shirt and tried to ignore my suddenly accelerated heartbeat.

Coach glanced down at his sleeve until I released my hold, then glowered at me. “What’s the problem? I’m covering my ass while you do yourself a favor and get the help you need. It’s a win-win, see?”

“Right,” I replied automatically.

I scratched the back of my neck and grimaced. Fuck. I knew it. Wasn’t I just thinking something would blow up any second? There had to be a way around this. Maybe I knew someone who could help me. One of the guys on the team might know statistics. I did a mental roll call of my teammates while my coach fixed me with a laser-beam, no-bullshit gaze.

“You gotta level with me, man. If you’re not gonna follow through, there will be consequences and frankly, this team can’t afford to have their star quarterback on the bench. This is a small school. If you actually do fail, word will get out and this program will be under fire for not stepping in to help. It’s not just about you. Our reputations are on the line too. What’s the problem here, Christian?”

I did a double take when he used my first name. I wasn’t sure he remembered I had one. I swallowed hard. No doubt this would sound stupid to anyone besides my sister, but I had to tell him something, because sitting out even one game wasn’t going to happen.

I shrugged and pursed my lips. “I know it sounds crazy but…my parents will flip. My dad works for the administration. If I sign up for on-campus tutoring, he’ll find out about it, and I can’t deal with people being disappointed in me for a subject I don’t give a fuck about when what really matters is the game.”

“Wrong. What really matters is getting an education and living a good life. Hey, I love this sport as much as you do. I get it. But unless you plan on coming back for a fifth year, you’re nearing the end of your tenure here. If you want to stay on, I can tell Mrs. Landau you’ll drop the second part if you don’t pass and—”

“I can’t stay another year. I have to graduate,” I said.

“Then get a damn tutor. Geez, I’d think your folks would be proud of you for asking for help when you need it,” he huffed.

“Yeah well, they’re not those kinds of parents. The last thing I need is to have my father micromanaging my schedule any more than he already does, but…” I paused when my brain started cranking out ideas. A few of which didn’t totally suck. “What if I found someone unaffiliated with Chilton to tutor me? Would that work?”

He nodded slowly. “I don’t see why not. Did you have someone in mind?”

“No. But I’ll work on it and get back to you tomorrow. Is that cool?”

“Sure, but—Rory!” Perez snapped his fingers and grinned, clearly pleased with himself.

“Who’s Rory?”

“He’s an after-school camp counselor at the Y. My kids love him. He just graduated last May from Long Beach State. I don’t think he’s found a full-time job yet, but I do know he’s a math whiz. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him,” Coach said with a laugh. “Rory was on the wrestling team in college. He reminds me of one of our linebackers. Until he starts talking about geometry.”

“Why doesn’t he have a job then? It’s a decent economy. Seems weird that he wouldn’t have found anything,” I commented. I hated that I sounded like my dad, but unfortunately I’d inherited his relentless quest to be well-versed in details. No matter how inconsequential they seemed.

“He’s a bit of a wild card, but he’s a good soul and a smart motherfucker too. He told me he made extra cash in college from tutoring. I bet he’d help. I’ll talk to him tonight when I pick up my kids. If he says he has time to take you on and his rate is reasonable, I’ll have him call you. Sound good?”

“Sure. Thank you,” I replied with a tight smile.

Coach clasped my shoulder and then headed off the field.

I stood alone for a moment, willing myself not to be overwhelmed by the instant wave of anxiety. A tutor? Fuck, that sounded awful. Like a total and complete pain in the ass. But I couldn’t afford to fail. I had to play at the top of my game…and graduate on time.

* * *

Most college campuses had the same chill-yet-eager vibe, regardless of their size. And Long Beach State was fucking huge. I glanced at the map I’d pulled up on my phone and then at my surroundings. Students bustled with varying degrees of urgency, crossing the grassy quad area or walking along the tree-lined pathways to their classes. I supposed I could stop someone to ask for directions, but a giant blue pyramid-shaped gymnasium shouldn’t be too hard to find.

I’d agreed to meet Rory Kirkland at his alma mater the following Monday afternoon before practice. Perez set the whole thing up. He’d suggested asking Rory to come to Orange or to meet halfway, but I insisted it was perfectly convenient for me to make the twenty-minute trip after my dreaded statistics class. It wasn’t. Traffic was sluggish on the way there, and it would certainly be worse on the return drive. But a quirky part of me I couldn’t easily explain wasn’t ready to invite a stranger into my space. I’d rather observe the guy in his own environment and get a feel for him without my well-meaning coach inserting himself into the middle of an awkward meeting. It was probably a warped effort to exert control over something that left me feeling powerless. Passive-aggressiveness at its finest.

I took a right at a giant fountain and quickened my pace when I spotted the modern-style building at the end of the path. I hiked my backpack on my right shoulder and glanced around the park-like expanse of grass in front of the gym before taking a seat on the edge of a stone bench. I ignored the gaggle of peppy young girls on the other end and pulled out my cell to let Rory know I’d arrived and where to find me. I also added that I had a red backpack, thinking it would make it easier to spot me in the crowd. He responded immediately with a thumbs-up sign.

Great. I sat up straight and cast my gaze toward the entrance. This was definitely not your average gym. I loved the contemporary design. It was eye-catching but tasteful, I mused as a few volleyball players stepped outside, tossing a ball between them. Three of the men were taller than me with long, lanky physiques, but the fourth was much smaller. If he hadn’t been wearing the same jersey as the others, I wouldn’t have thought he was on their team. He laughed at something one of his friends said before turning around to greet a tattooed hottie who came through the door behind him. I looked down at my phone, then up again just as Mr. Tattoo snaked his arm around the volleyball player, pulled him close, and kissed him. In broad daylight.

I lowered my sunglasses and stared for a moment before glancing around the quad to see if anyone else noticed or gave a shit. I knew it was ridiculous, but old habits died hard. I grew up in an extremely conservative household. No joke—my folks went apeshit crazy when they heard that one of our top players had come out by kissing his boyfriend at a major end-of-season game last year. They’d asked me a million accusatory questions like they thought I was in on it. Honestly, I was as shocked as everyone else. I hadn’t known Evan was bi or seeing someone. But I loved the guy like a brother, and I was happy for him. I smiled at the memory of Evan coming out to our team, then refocused on the tatted hunk.

He was standing on his own now, peering at his watch. Damn, he was sexy. Tall and toned with golden skin and—I winced when my cock swelled against my zipper. Oh, fuck. I yanked my sunglasses off and scrolled unseeing through my phone until I had my breathing under control again. The last thing I needed was to meet my new tutor sporting a hard-on. Where was he anyway? He should have—

“Hey, are you Christian?”

I shaded my eyes as I looked up and—no way.

I licked my lips nervously and stood. “Uh…yeah. You’re Rory?”

“Yeah,” he said in a low, deep voice that sent a tingle of awareness along my spine.

The corner of his mouth lifted in a roguish twist I supposed doubled as a smile. On anyone else, it might have come across as a poor imitation with an insulting lack of sincerity. On Rory, it was kind of badass. He exuded a James Dean cool with panache. I was a couple of inches taller than him. I knew I stood out among the jocks at Chilton, but I felt small next to Rory. And ordinary. I had brown hair, blue eyes, and maybe I was considered attractive, but he was…wow.

He had a thick build, short dark-blond hair, brilliant blue eyes, and a chiseled jaw and cheekbones. He wasn’t classically handsome, but he was striking. His sheer size alone probably turned heads. Those muscles were a thing of beauty. I couldn’t help noticing the way his thick biceps and broad shoulders tested the fabric of the sleeves on his black T-shirt. And that ink…damn. The swirling colorful design had nautical and fiery elements that made me curious about what was underneath his clothes.

Gulp. I clandestinely adjusted my backpack to cover my crotch and extended my right hand in greeting. He glanced from my outstretched hand to my mouth and back again before sliding his palm against mine and fuck…I almost came in my jeans.

Okay, here’s the thing…I knew I was gay. I’d known it for years. At least since I was twelve. But the closet door was closed, and the lock was temporarily secure. I’d become an expert at playing it cool and acting unfazed by guys I found attractive. But Rory wasn’t my type. I didn’t go for muscular guys who looked like they could kick my ass. So why was I suddenly sweating? It had to be because I’d just seen him stick his tongue down his boyfriend’s throat. I hadn’t expected him to be gay…and sexy as fuck. This could be bad. Real bad.

I fumbled for my sunglasses and cleared my throat. “Nice to meet you. Uh…so you’re the statistics guru?”

He raised a single brow and flashed another slow grin. “I prefer the term ‘mad math genius.’ ”

I chuckled. “All right…”

“Did you bring your book?” he asked with a smile.

I tapped the side of my bag and nodded. “Yep. I have about an hour before I have to get back on the road. I figured you could look over the book and make sure you’re interested before we discuss money.”

“Sounds fair.”

“Um…cool. So should we do this here or…” I paused when a figure behind us waved and called out something I couldn’t quite hear over the chattering girls on the opposite side of the bench. “Hey, I think your boyfriend is trying to get your attention.”

Rory glanced over his shoulder and returned the gesture before turning to face me with an unreadable expression. Not quite defensive, but definitely guarded. “What makes you think he’s my boyfriend?”

“I saw you together and um, you know…”

“Ahh. So you were spying on me?”

“No! No, I was just sitting right here and I—”

“Dude, I’m kidding.” Rory snickered. “You can take a picture if you want. It’s cool by me. But for the record, James isn’t my boyfriend.”

“He’s just a guy you kiss,” I said in a flippant attempt to strike the right amount of nonchalance.

“Sometimes,” he replied evasively.

“Right. Where should we go?”

He stared at me for a long moment, then hooked his thumb toward the path I’d come down. “The library is close enough. Let’s head over there. You can tell me about yourself on the way. Perez said you’re a quarterback. Is that right, or was he tryin’ to impress me?”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t be too impressed. Chilton is a D-Three program. We draw the local crowds and play other private colleges but—”

“I know how college sports work, man. Don’t undersell yourself. You must be a decent athlete. Perez was practically drawin’ hearts and fuckin’ flowers when he was talking about you.”

I snorted in amusement. “Fucking flowers? That sounds nasty.”

Rory stopped in his tracks and grinned. This time his eyes lit from within, transforming the cocky lift of his lips into something almost boyish. The contrast of his playful expression with his gorgeous tats did something to me. My stomach flipped and my palms were slick again. Not good.

“Someone’s got a kinky side,” he singsonged.

I pointed at my chest and shook my head. “Me? No, not me,” I lied.

Rory shot a dubious glance my way, then gestured toward an empty bench tucked under a pepper tree. “Let’s just sit here.”

“I thought you wanted to go to the library.”

“Yeah, but this is quiet enough. We aren’t going to have time to get too in-depth anyway. And you look a little unsure about me. I wanna give you a clear path to the parking lot in case you decide I’m a psycho.”

I started to argue even though I knew he was kidding. I caught myself and asked, “Are you?”

He waggled his brows and grinned mischievously. “Absolutely. But I’m the harmless kind.”

“Aren’t we all?” I replied glibly as I followed him to the bench.

It was set back a foot or so from the walkway, giving the space an illusion of privacy. I sat on the end and dropped my backpack in the middle. Any distance was welcome at this point—my nerves were on edge. I pulled my textbook out and set it on the canvas bag between us.

He picked up the book and idly thumbed through the pages. “Where’re you from?”

“Uh…why?” I asked with a frowning.

Rory rolled his eyes. “We’re getting to know each other, remember? If you’re the psycho, I oughtta know about it.”

I snickered. “You’re safe with me. I’m not too crazy.”

“That’s what they all say,” he snarked. “So…keep talkin’.”

“I live in Orange, about ten minutes from school.”

“Roommates?”

“Two. Max and Sky. They both play baseball.”

“Hey, that’s a coincidence. Those are my dogs’ names!”

“Really?”

“No. I don’t have a dog,” he deadpanned. Then he winked and gave me another show-stopping ear-to-ear grin, adding, “But when I do, I’ll name him Max.”

I lowered my sunglasses and hooked them on the collar of my T-shirt. “You’re weird. And I think you’re the one who’s supposed to be doing the talking and wowing me with your big brain.”

“Yeah, but you won’t remember anything if you’re nervous.”

“What makes you think I’m nervous?” I bluffed.

Rory made a funny face and gestured toward my fidgety hands. “You can’t sit still.”

I unzipped my backpack and gave him a lopsided smile. “I can’t help it. Math makes me jumpy. I can conjugate the hell out of a verb, but numbers make no sense to me. It’s even worse when math tries to disguise itself with words. I have a recurring nightmare of sitting alone in a locked classroom with a page full of word problems. It gets darker and darker in the room, and somehow I know I won’t be released until I can figure out the answers.”

“Damn, that sounds scary,” he commented with a low whistle.

“It is! And statistics is nothing more than a series of endless word problems.”

“Not really. It’s about concepts.” He shifted on the bench, bending his knee as he faced me with an almost manic look of excitement. “And life is a series of concepts rationed by levels of probability.”

I fixed him with a blank stare, then blinked madly as my brain tried to compute how someone who looked so fierce could sound like such a geek. Better question—why did that turn me on?

“Like I said, I don’t get it.”

“I guarantee you understand more than you give yourself credit for.” He raised his hand before I could disagree. “Think of it this way. In any given situation, there can be a multitude of outcomes. A, B, C, etcetera. Take me for example. I got out of school four months ago. I have a few options. I could A, get a so-called real job with real benefits or B, tutor math and coach wrestling. There’s always C…I could continue working as an escort and—”

“You’re an escort?”

Rory held my gaze for a second, then threw his head back and laughed like a loon. “No, I just wanted to make sure I had your attention. Look, it’s simple. Statistics is all about finding probability. However, you have to research the subject before you can make an educated guess.”

“So you’re saying I should get to know you to see if you’d make a decent escort?”

“It would help,” he commented with a sly wink. “For the record, I’d suck at it. I have zero patience, and I hate being told what to wear or how to act. I think my tolerance level for all things bullshit is lowering with age.”

“How old are you?” I interrupted.

“Twenty-four. Didn’t we go over that?”

“No. I don’t even know where you’re from. I don’t know anything about you except that you’re an after-school counselor at the Y and that you used to wrestle in college.”

He let out a beleaguered sigh and gave me a sideways once-over. “I’m from Long Beach. I’ve lived in the LBC my whole life. I had grand plans to go out of state for college, but the scholarship I was counting on didn’t include room and board, so I came here. I graduated last May, top of my class, if that matters to you. And now I’m on a job hunt. I do the counselor thing, and I’m a trainer. I’ve thought about expanding my client list ’cause the money is decent, but I could probably do better if I used my degree. I have résumés out and I’ve even gone on a few interviews, but I haven’t found anything yet.”

“You will,” I assured him. “Or maybe you should get your master’s degree first.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’ll think about it.”

I gave a half laugh. “Sorry. I sound like my father. He’s nagging me to go to law school after I graduate.”

“If that’s your passion, go for it. Rack up all those degrees, frame ’em, and hang ’em on a wall. Grad school costs money, though, and baby…I’m broke,” he huffed.

“You could apply for grants and scholarships,” I suggested.

“Sure, but I’d rather work and if possible, not take on any debt.” He regarded me thoughtfully, then inclined his head. “So you’re going to be a lawyer, eh? Law school is—”

“I’m not going to law school,” I intercepted vehemently.

Rory’s gaze sharpened. “What do you want to do?”

The urge to confide in someone besides Max was strong. But I didn’t know Rory, and I was too superstitious to share my plans with a stranger and upset my karmic shot at a new start. I looked away for a moment, then turned back to him with a blank expression.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just know I’m not going to law school.”

His eagle-eyed look flustered me. He didn’t prod, though. He nodded in silent understanding and flattened his hand over the textbook.

“Well, maybe statistics can help.”

“I doubt it, but as long as I pass and graduate on time, I’ll consider it a win.”

He let out a half laugh and pursed his lips. “Fair enough. I can help. We can get down and dirty next time, but like I said, I bet you know more than you think you do. Quarterbacks use statistics all the time.”

“How do you figure?”

“Every time you decide who to throw the ball to in a clutch play, you use experience and data to analyze the field before you act. It’s math.”

“That seems like a stretch.”

Rory shrugged. “It’s not, grasshopper. And I’m the genius here. Not you.”

I barked a quick laugh and cocked my head. I liked him. His sense of humor had a gentle bite he balanced nicely with a dose of self-deprecation. His looks, size, and unexpectedly big brain were intimidating and yet, there was something approachable and honest about Rory that made me think he’d be personally invested in my success if he was my tutor.

“All right, genius. Let’s do this. How much do you charge? How often can you meet? What’s your schedule like?”

“Perez is paying me. Don’t ask me why. Ask him. We can meet once or twice a week. My schedule is all over the map, but I can work around your classes and practices. Any other questions?”

Yes. About a million. They ranged from practical to downright nosy. I should ask about finding a good in-between place to meet and his preferred contact method. And grill him for info about why my coach offered to pay my bill. But I was more curious about the intricate design on his left bicep and the size of his muscular thighs. His nearness excited me. Truthfully, I didn’t care what we talked about. I just didn’t want to leave until I knew a little more about him.

So I opened my mouth, inserted my foot, and blurted, “Are you gay?”

Rory’s automatic frown turned into a slow-moving devilish smile completely void of warmth. He didn’t exactly look pissed, but he didn’t look friendly either.

“Does it matter?” he countered.

“Of course not. I mean…I don’t know why I asked. I guess I was curious about the volleyball player. You don’t look gay.” I winced and waved my hands as though the gesture might erase my stupidity. “I didn’t mean that. I…I’m sorry. It’s not my business.”

“No, it’s not.” Rory leaned back in an ultracasual pose that contrasted sharply with the tension radiating from him. “Are you?”

“Me?” Heat flooded my cheeks and sent internal sirens screeching inside of me. My hands were sweating, my heart raced, and I was sure he could hear my brain rattle against my skull when I shook my head. “I’m too busy for relationships. I’m just focusing on my future. I’m—no.”

He narrowed his eyes and nodded slowly.

“Yeah, I get it. I used to say that too.” He held up his hand to stop my speech when I sputtered indignantly. “Save it. I don’t need the apology. No, it’s not your business who I fuck unless I’m fucking you, but since you asked so…nervously…I’m bi, with a strong preference for dick. If you are too, cool. If not, also okay. But if you’ve got a problem with me, speak up now. I don’t want to waste my time or Perez’s money.”

I swallowed hard and held eye contact for as long as possible before opening my textbook. I pointed at the first thing on the page that looked like hieroglyphics to me. “What do you know about axioms of probability?”

Rory regarded me thoughtfully, then leaned back again and straightened his long legs in front of him. “A lot. There are three axioms…”

His lips were moving but I couldn’t understand a thing he said anymore. The phenomenon was consistent for me. The hint of mathematic lingo sent me into an insta-coma-like state. But I wasn’t in a hurry to get away or drown him out with my own inner soundtrack.

I might not be interested in the subject matter, but my tutor definitely had my attention. I admired Rory’s unpolished and unapologetic style. And I was more than a little fascinated that under his cool dude exterior, he was a garden-variety math geek. Call me crazy, but maybe this tutoring thing wouldn’t be so bad after all.

* * *

The students, faculty, and alumni of Chilton took their football seriously. And as quarterback and team captain, I was the team’s representative and to some degree, a school ambassador. I usually worked out at the facility next to the football field, where the state-of-the-art equipment was always clean. But it was impossible to get a decent sweat on without stopping to chat with random people about how the team was doing and if I thought we’d crush the opposition at next week’s game.

It had taken me a couple of years to grow into my role. But after three seasons as starting quarterback, I’d learned how to keep the sports enthusiasts happy without giving myself away. And I’d done a damn good job of it, if I said so myself. Sometimes that meant avoiding on-campus facilities and working out at the local gym down the street from my apartment. Midafternoons tended to be less crowded there, which made it an ideal place to lift weights and have a mini therapy session. Even if my faux therapist was my ex.

I couldn’t decide if it was a blessing or a curse that the only person on the planet who knew the real me was Max. Actually, that wasn’t true. Max and I were better friends than lovers. He was wildly unpredictable, but I trusted him. And I had to talk to someone about Rory, because a few days after meeting with him, I couldn’t stop thinking about my new tutor. Rory had a snarky sense of humor and unapologetic self-confidence. He seemed to have a million sharp edges, but I could tell he had a softer side too. Add in a hunky physique and it was no wonder he’d unwittingly starred in a couple of my nightly jack-off sessions this week.

I shivered slightly at the fantasy I’d conjured last night. We were in a library behind a huge stack of books. One second Rory was pointing out an important detail on a page and the next, his hands were all over me. He pulled at my shirt, unbuckled my belt, unbuttoned and unzipped my Levis, then roughly turned me to face the shelves with a strict warning to keep quiet. Then he tugged my jeans and briefs down, freed my aching cock, and wrapped his fist around me, stroking me with his right hand while he fingered my hole and whispered nasty sweet nothings in my ear. I came like a geyser, shooting ropes of cum on my chest. When I eased my middle finger from my entrance, I realized this statistics thing might be a problem. How was I going to survive months of lusting after my tutor?

“Just tell him how you feel,” Max advised matter-of-factly.

“Are you nuts?” I snorted derisively. “That would be a disaster.”

I furrowed my brow at Max in the gym mirror, pleased that my physical reaction to him had dwindled over the past year since we broke up. I couldn’t deny Max Maldonado was extraordinarily hot, though. He was six one with short dark hair, olive skin, and green eyes. And his body was a thing of beauty. Everything about him was perfectly proportioned, from his ears and nose to his ass and his gorgeous cock.

Considering our history, it was pretty damn amazing that we’d managed to find our way back to “just friends.” We’d known each other since we were toddlers. Our mothers belonged to the same church group. They studied bible verses while their babies fought over primary-colored blocks in the classroom next door. According to my mom, we were fast friends, but that wasn’t how I remembered it. Max bugged the hell out of me. He was a class clown with the attention span of a gnat. He never meant any harm, but he always seemed to cause trouble. You know the type. The kid who accidentally pulled the fire alarm, set the classroom pet hamsters free, and poured melted M&Ms into the teacher’s purse. I was the opposite…a goody-goody who avoided conflict at all costs. I steered clear of him until sometime around my thirteenth birthday when my traitorous body began to notice him in a completely different way. And crazy enough, he noticed me too.

Max was my first everything. Kiss, hand job, blowjob, anal…you name it, we did it. We danced around attraction and a slow-growing friendship for a few years. Nothing happened between us until we were sixteen. And then, we were inseparable. We were able to explore our shared sexuality by pretending to be best buddies when truthfully we were a couple of horny teenagers who, somewhere along the way, became real friends. And for the short time that our physical intensity and friendship meshed, I thought he was “the one.” He wasn’t, but that was okay. On days like today, when my mind was spinning over Rory, I was grateful I had someone I could talk to who wouldn’t ask a million dumb questions.

“Does he have a nice ass?” Max asked, raising his brows lasciviously.

Never mind. Some things never changed.

“Yes, but that’s not the point,” I huffed, wiping sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. I picked up a set of weights and moved to stand beside him.

“Maybe not, but it’s a perk. Be honest, Christian. If the guy was a twerp, you’d find excuses not to meet him. Then you’d convince yourself that you could study on your own and turn your grade around. And when it got harder to do than you thought, you still wouldn’t ask for help because you’re a stubborn dickwad with too much pride. If you ask me, you need a sexy distraction to help you focus.”

“That makes no sense.” I lowered the weights, pausing to shoot another irritated glance at him.

“Sure, it does. It works for you now. You’re surrounded by hot guys in tight football pants every day. The more stress you’re under to throw the ball to the right receiver, the better you do. You’ve always been like that.”

“Thriving under pressure isn’t the same as looking for trouble.”

Max set his weights on the rack, then crossed his arms and gave me a thorough once-over. “Ooh. What kind of trouble are we talking about? Did he say he wanted to fuck you?”

I spun around so fast, I made myself dizzy. “No! And what the hell is wrong with you? Lower your voice,” I hissed, setting the weights down.

“Lighten up, Chrissy. We’re the only ones here besides the old dude on the leg press. He can’t hear us over his public radio podcast,” Max admonished. “You’re always five steps ahead when you don’t have to be. Don’t marry the guy in your head. You don’t even know if he has a boyfriend.”

“I saw him kiss another guy, but he said he’s single.”

“Guys lie all the time. In this case, it doesn’t matter. If you actually get laid while studying a subject you hate, you wind up in the win column. Am I right?” He held his hand up for a high five.

I ignored his hand and rolled my eyes. “Nothing is going to happen.”

“If it does, let it. You’re free to do whatever and whomever you want. Like me.”

“Wait. What’s up? Did something happen with you and Sky?”

“I don’t know.” He pursed his lips and then twisted to face me. “Something doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there.”

Wow. I’d come a long way. Nine months ago, I would have been torn between being thrilled his relationship was in jeopardy and wondering if there was still a chance for us. Now, I was more concerned about splitting the rent between two people instead of three if Sky moved out. I set aside my financial worries and refocused on my friend.

“Is there someone else?” I asked gently.

“No. It’s not like that. It just feels different. Like we’re together but not in the same place. You know what I mean?”

No, I didn’t. Especially since I’d heard them having rather vocal sex before I left for practice that morning. Squeaky bedsprings, loud groans, and the inevitable “Fuck me harder, Max!”…in other words, the usual.

“I’m not sure.”

“Me either. All I know is, I feel like I can’t breathe lately. He’s always around and, I should love that ’cause I want to be with him but…I guess I need space too.”

“Can you tell him that?”

Max snorted. “Yeah, right. He’ll think I want to break up. That’s not what I want. I just want to be alone sometimes. Or I want to hang out with you without him getting jealous over nothing.”

“He’s exhausting,” I blurted with a sigh.

“True, but he’s hot as hell and the sex is—”

“Yeah, yeah. I hear the sex. Often. We don’t need to discuss it.” I stood and glanced at my watch. I had fifteen minutes before I had to get ready for class. I didn’t want to waste it talking about my replacement.

“Can I say this stuff to you, or is this weird?” he asked, furrowing his brow.

“You can talk to me, Max. It’s not weird at all,” I said sincerely.

Max threw his arm around my shoulder and squeezed me against his side.

“Good. I’m really glad we can be honest with each other ’cause I have something to say to you. Are you listening?”

I wiggled out of his hold and punched his bicep. “No, I’m not.”

“You should, ’cause I’m about to give you some great advice.”

“What is it?”

“Fuck the tutor.”

“Excuse me?” I asked incredulously.

“You heard me. Fuck him. Let him fill your brain with numbers and equations and then ask him to fill your—”

“Do not say another word,” I growled, taking another peek around the deserted gym.

“I’m stating the obvious, dude. You need sex more than anyone I know. If you have a crush on the guy, why not see if he feels the same? The worst he can say is no.”

“Wrong. The worst he can do is tell my coach…you know, the guy who set this up. If Perez heard that I propositioned my tutor for a booty call on the sly, life as I know it would be over,” I grumbled unhappily.

Max scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Be subtle. Don’t straight up say, ‘Dude, let me suck your cock.’ Lead up to it. Seduce him. You remember how to do that, don’t you? If it’s mutual, he won’t out you to your coach or anyone else. At least think about it.”

I opened my mouth to blast him for giving me lame advice, but really, I should have known. Max had developed a Nike-esque mentality about sex over the past year. If any opportunity arose, pun intended…it was a “just do it” moment. Not my style. I knew he and Sky had a semi-open relationship with a host of rules that gave them each a green light to act on temptation. I tried not to ask too many questions. It was strange enough living with my ex and his boyfriend. I didn’t need to know any details. But I sure as fuck wasn’t going to adopt his newfound groovy-love mentality and potentially screw up my future. Not when I was this close to the finish line.

“Thanks, Max…but we’ve officially reached the point where I’m going to do the opposite of whatever you suggest.”

“Okay, then my advice is to pay close attention to the textbook bullshit and not stare at his dick in his tight jeans.”

“With any luck, he’ll wear baggy basketball shorts and it won’t be an issue.”

Max barked a quick laugh and picked up another set of weights. “You love guys in basketball shorts. You even like it when they wear leggings with them.”

“It’s hot.”

“No, it’s not,” he countered.

“Yeah, it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Oh, my God. Why do I hang out with you?” I griped without heat.

He paused midcurl to meet my gaze in the mirror. “ ’Cause you love me, and someone’s got to remind you to have fun once in a while.”

“I don’t love you, and I have plenty of fun on my own.”

“Don’t ruin my day. You totally love me. But your social life needs work. You suck at having fun. Going to postgame parties and fakin’ it with a few cute girls isn’t a good time. Treat yourself with the new tutor. Or…come play with me.”

“What does that mean?” I asked warily.

“Let’s go to LA, hit a few bars where no one knows us, and just…get lost for a while. Come on. We haven’t done that in forever. Just me and you.”

“What about Sky?”

“I’d rather go alone. Just us.”

I held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “Sounds like you’re asking for trouble. But maybe you’re right.”

Max grinned at my reflection in the mirror before offering a fist bump. “Good. Then it’s a bro date. Just like old times.”

“Hmm. I can’t go this weekend. I have an away game. And if things get busy with my classes, I—”

Max groaned aloud and flattened his hand over my mouth. “Don’t be a buzzkill and don’t overthink. It’s going to happen. That’s all that matters. Batman and Robin will be back in action.”

I snorted. “Who’s Batman in this scenario?”

“Me,” he quipped with a roguish smile.

“No. I’m not going unless I’m Batman,” I countered.

“You can be Aquaman.”

“No one wants to be Aquaman, asshole.”

Max shook his head. “I’m Batman. You can be Superman or…”

I chuckled as he ran through every superhero he could think of. Max was right. Maintaining sanity was important, and a little outside diversion in the form of “something to look forward to” might be good for me. If it kept me from worrying about passing statistics with the help of my unexpectedly sexy tutor…even better.