One more pitch. That’s all Alexander Payne had to make. Bases were loaded. Two outs. Full count. Everything rode on his next pitch.
No, it wasn’t the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the World Series at Fenway. It was a simulated live inning the day before his Double-A team’s last game of the season. And his last chance to prove to his coach—and to the powers that be—that the Tommy John surgery and Alex’s struggle through two slow, grinding years of physical therapy and pitching rehab weren’t a complete waste of the team’s money and faith.
Alex stepped back up to the mound. The stadium seats at Fink Field lay empty except for the few men who held his career in their calloused hands. He dug his toe into the red dirt in front of the rubber and waited for the sign from his catcher.
Fuck. That couldn’t be right. Alex removed his cap and wiped the sweat off his brow. He shook his catcher off. Sixty feet and six inches away, Ethan Locke slapped his hand into his catcher’s glove and laid down the signs again.
No fucking way. Alex shook Ethan off again.
Locke called time and jogged out to the mound. Alex met him part way. “You trying to get me released?” Alex hissed between clenched teeth.
None of the infielders came in. They knew this moment was between him and Locke.
“That kid’s already fouled off five pitches. I don’t care how fast your fastball is, you throw that pitch within a mile of the strike zone, and that kid’s taking you yard. Trust me on this, the curve is his Achilles’ heel.”
The stack of men on the bases behind Alex proved that a pitcher, even one who could graze a hundred miles per hour, couldn’t live by fastball alone.
“Fuck control. Don’t get all up in your head. Throw that pitch like you did in your bullpen sessions this week, and the big boys will be dying to re-sign you. Hell, throw it in the dirt if you have to. I’ll block it. Trust me. I’ve got your back, man.”
“Yeah.” Alex nodded, trying to psych himself up. “You’re right. The boy’s gonna whiff.”
“Damn straight.” Locke slapped Alex on the ass with the backside of his glove. “He’s going to swing right over it. Just don’t leave the ball hanging.”
As Locke trotted back to home plate, the cool autumn breeze blew off the San Gabriel Mountains evaporating some of the sweat sticking Alex’s jersey to his chest. Locke squatted behind home plate, and Alex carefully placed his foot against the rubber again.
He started from the stretch, looking toward the runner at first base. With the bases loaded, the runner wasn’t going anywhere, but Alex took that moment to shift his attention to Coach King in the dugout behind first base. Alex noted the worry on King’s face, on the way he chewed at his thumbnail.
King stood at the rail, clapping his hands. “Let’s go, kid. Show them what you’ve got.”
Alex refocused on Locke’s glove, low and inside. Locke nodded, and in Alex’s head, Lock said, “You’ve got this.”
Fuck yeah, he did.
Alex took a deep breath, adjusted his grip on the ball, reared back, and let the ball fly.
# # #
Every muscle in Elijah Maddox’s body screamed for release. The long pose he’d held for almost twenty minutes made his arms ache, his legs quake, and his brain call him seven kinds of fool. But it had been the last pose of the day, so he’d pushed himself.
But that static pose, with his arm out, his leg back as if shooting a bow and arrow had been a nude model’s rookie mistake. One he wouldn’t ever make again. He breathed through his nose and out through his mouth as the lactic acid built to excruciating levels. The plain institutional clock at the back of Winston College’s art studio ticked, the second hand sweeping by the numbers in painstakingly, soul-suckingly, slow motion.
Sweat formed on his brow, and the frigid air from the overhead vent cooled it but did nothing to alleviate his pain.
His eyes drifted down to the art student in front of him. This class he posed for was a sophomore level art class, though the girl—woman really—looked old enough to be in grad school. Sweet, though. The kind of woman he would have wanted waiting for him back home when he’d left for boot camp straight out of high school.
But he’d learned a lot about himself in the eight or nine years since. Some things, it seemed, he continued to learn.
Feeling his eyes on her, her gaze shifted from his crotch and lifted up, up, up to meet his gaze on the dais. Her cheeks flamed, and her hand went to her mouth to cover her giggle as class time ran out. She was beautiful. With big, blue eyes, and long blond hair, and the rocking body all the women in California seemed bound and determined to possess. Despite standing on a stage in front of thirty art students, she should have made him hard.
What the fuck was wrong with him?
She gathered her things, her cheeks aflame, her gaze conspicuously averted as he shrugged into his robe. But instead of scooting out the door as he’d suspected she would, she waited for the room to clear. She approached him as he retrieved his clothes from behind the screen near the back of the room.
“Hey,” she said, her voice somehow both timid and brave at the same time. “I don’t have another class for an hour. You maybe want to catch a coffee with me at the student center?”
At the back of the room, the professor, Demetri Stavros, stood and came around the front of his desk. He leaned against the front, his arms crossed, not even attempting to hide his interest in their conversation.
The part of Elijah that should have wanted to say yes to the woman, hesitated. The other part of him, that part of him that he’d suppressed even after Uncle Sam repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the bi part of him, hitched a thumb towards the door and inanely said, “I’ve got a thing.”
Which totally sounded like he had nothing.
Which he was true.
The way Stavros stared at him from across the room, it made Elijah glad the robe hid that zing of arousal that skittered down his spine and sat heavy in his balls.
“Yeah, sure, I—” She hitched her thumb toward the door the same way he had. “I’ll see you next week, then.”
He watched her leave. Telling himself to speak up, to stop her, but then she was around the corner, the door closing behind her, and it was too late.
“Pretty woman,” Stavros said from beside him. Elijah startled. Did the man not make sounds when he moved? Elijah’s training officer would have loved it if Elijah had been able to move with that kind of stealth, but when you were as big as Elijah was, stealth wasn’t really in the cards.
Then again, if you were looking for a bull-in-a-china-shop kind of guy, Elijah was your man.
“If you say so, Mr. Stavros.” Elijah reached for his underwear, not bothering to change behind the screen.
If the military taught him one thing, it was that there was little room in his life for false modesty. Besides, you didn’t do work as a live model if you cared if someone saw you naked.
“Demetri. Call me Demetri.”
“Demetri it is then.”
Demetri waited until Elijah had pulled his jeans on and discarded the robe before pulling a business card out of his back pocket. Elijah pulled his ITMFA T-shirt over his head and reached for the card. “What’s this?”
Demetri held on to the other end. “My personal contact information. I have my own art studio at my house. You need extra money... call me. I pay triple the college’s hourly rate. I’m always looking for new, interesting subjects to model for me.” Then he released the card. “Among other things.”
The professor’s voice had dropped, rippling goosebumps along Elijah’s skin.
Among other things.
“I’m not sure how to respond to that.”
“No, is an acceptable answer. It won’t affect your work here. You have my word on that.”
Elijah stared at the card, it had Demetri’s name and phone number. Nothing else. Was Demetri looking for a model or a bit on the side? Or both? Elijah wasn’t sure if he should be unsettled or tempted. “And the ‘among other things’?”
Demetri tugged at the half-inch gauge in his right ear. He had tattoos creeping up past the collar of his dark-blue, button-up shirt and peeking out beneath the sleeves he’d rolled partway up his forearms.
He looked like the Mediterranean version of a typical California skater kid who’d aged out of the sport. Not that Demetri had allowed himself to go to pot. For a guy Elijah pegged at being in his mid-forties, he kept himself in decent, lean-muscled, skater-dude shape.
Demetri shrugged, a loose-limbed, no-skin-off-my-back kind of motion. “You...” The professor looked Elijah up and down, his gaze snagging on the tight bulge in Elijah’s jeans on the way up. “…intrigue me. I’d like a chance to get to know you better.”
The extra modeling work would be a boon to his cash flow issue, or should Elijah say, his lack of cash flow issue, but it was the personal interest beneath the job offer that Elijah would have to think about. One of the things he’d learned about his bi side, was that while he’d found himself attracted to men, he didn’t want a romantic relationship with one.
And Demetri had long-term, till-death-do-us-part kind of guy written all over his face. As much as Elijah needed the money, he didn’t need the personal entanglement. He had classes to get through, an engineering degree to finish, and a whole new, post military life to start.
Elijah pocketed the card. “Thanks, I’ll keep the offer in mind.”
After stuffing the robe into his backpack, Elijah headed for the door. Demetri’s voice reached him as he grabbed the doorknob. “You’re not going to call, are you?”
Elijah turned and decided to be direct. “I’ve only ever been with women.”
Demetri noticed what he didn’t say. “That’s not the same thing as saying you’re straight.”
“I think it’s better this way.”
“Even though you need the money.”
“Maybe especially because I need the money.”
Demetri stared at him. Not in an aggressive, put out kind of way, but in that quiet, thoughtful, professor kind of way. “Fuck,” Demetri muttered and pulled a different business card out of his wallet.
The silver embossed letters on a glossy black background said Black Stallion Studios, the name underneath read Niko Stavros followed by a phone number.
“That’s my cousin. He can help you with your cash situation,” Demetri said. “Tell him I sent you.”