THE plane landed, taxiing to the terminal as Steven peered out the window at the concrete, grass, and terminal buildings that looked so familiar and yet so different. He’d never thought he’d be returning to the Harrisburg area to live, not after all these years, but fate must have had a sense of humor and the old bitch was certainly laughing now. Pulling up to the gate, the whine of the small plane’s engines seemed to lower and then die away, replaced by the sound of air rushing through the ventilation systems. Steven stood up and pulled down his carry-on, waiting for the doors to open so he could exit. Taking his turn, he descended the stairs and walked across the tarmac and into the terminal. At least this was new and different, not like the old airport where he’d gotten on a plane after he’d graduated from high school and never looked back. And he’d been grateful, until now, fifteen years later, that he’d never been back, either.
Walking through the terminal toward the baggage claim, Steven stopped in the men’s room. Passing by the mirrors at the sinks, he half expected to see the kid he’d been when he’d gotten on that first flight to take him away for his first semester of college, but “Blobby Bobby” was gone, never to return. He’d even stopped going by his first name altogether. Years ago, after he lost all that weight, he’d started using his middle name in an effort to truly change his life. Washing his hands, he looked at himself in the mirror again, wondering just why coming back here was so hard for him. He hadn’t seen nor talked to his folks since he’d left for college. His father, the minister, preferred it that way, and after all this time, it didn’t really matter. Taking a deep breath, Steven smiled, almost laughing. He was being completely silly. No one would recognize him, and he was making a big deal over nothing. A lot had changed in fifteen years, and it wasn’t as though anyone would remember him.
Finishing in the bathroom, Steven strode out of the gate area and onto the escalators, riding down to baggage claim, where he picked up his suitcases. He walked to the Hertz counter to get the keys to his reserved rental car, and soon he was outside in the warm spring afternoon. Loading his bags in the trunk, Steven got in the car and started driving toward town, arriving at his hotel an hour later.
Checking in and unpacking didn’t take long, and Steven found himself at loose ends on a Saturday afternoon. Picking up the phone book, he thumbed through the yellow pages, looking for a health club nearby. That was a great way to spend a few hours and maybe work away the blah feelings he kept having. Seeing that there was one nearby, Steven opened his suitcases and repacked his carry-on for the gym before heading out.
Walking through the doors felt comfortable. Even though he’d never been there before, the place sounded and felt like a gym, with the clang of weights and the sounds of music, talking, and the hum of treadmills.
“Can I help you?” the big-eyed blonde girl behind the desk asked cheerfully, her smile growing as he saw her look him over. Girls always seemed to, which was fine with him—not that he was interested, but it was always a nice compliment.
“I’m moving to the area and wanted to check out the club,” Steven answered, looking around the building. This had to be one of the newest and cleanest health clubs he’d seen; everything from the floors to the desk seemed to shine.
“Let me get you with one of our salesmen. He can give you a tour and set you up with a guest pass.” Picking up the phone, she made a call, and a large, well-built man walked to the desk.
“Are you Steven?” The man asked, offering his hand. Steven knew there was something familiar about him. “I’m Lane Parkinson. Come on over to the desk, and I can get you set up.”
Steven nearly dropped his bag in surprise, but managed to hold on to it, smiling since Lane didn’t recognize him. Not that Lane had ever paid much attention to him other than to pick on him all through high school. If he remembered correctly, it was Lane who’d originally coined the nickname “Blobby Bobby,” along with a number of others that Steven didn’t want to remember. Still smiling, he followed Lane to a desk and sat in one of the chairs. “I’m just interested in trying out the club for now,” Steven explained.
Lane gave him a basic rundown on the prices of memberships and the specials they were running before taking him on a tour of the club. “Stop by my desk before you leave, and I’ll set you up with a two-week pass,” Lane told him before walking out of the locker room and leaving Steven to change. Checking the lockers, Steven found an empty one and began to change as people moved around him.
“Fruitbag,” a voice zinged over the wall, and Steven looked around, wondering where that was coming from. “Are you and Gene going to dinner, or are you gonna be a prick all your life?”
Steven relaxed when he realized the comment wasn’t directed at him.
“I’ll ask him, but you really know how to issue a sweet invitation, Lonnie,” the man changing next to him answered, and things got quiet until a naked man walked around the lockers and up to the man next to him. “I’ll be nice to you and let you suck my love hammer.” Steven could barely believe what he was hearing and jumped when he heard a smack and saw this Lonnie guy flinch, rubbing his butt. “Hey, what was that for?”
“You’re being an ass,” the man next to him said with a grin. “Besides, you liked it, you pervert,” he added with a smile as the naked guy walked back around the lockers, and Steven continued to change, wondering what kind of place this was.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” the guy next to him explained. “He’s a complete pig who didn’t get the gene that censors speech. I’m Dan, by the way, and the loudmouth is Lonnie. He’s harmless except for his mouth.” Steven slipped off his shirt before pulling on a T-shirt and changing into his workout shorts. “Are you new to the club?” Dan asked as he finished dressing.
“Yeah. I just got into town for a new job and thought I’d check out the place.”
Lonnie poked his head around the corner. “Work out with us, then,” he offered. Steven wasn’t too sure about that, but Dan seemed nice, and Steven agreed before giving it too much thought. Working out was better with a partner, so he figured it couldn’t hurt.
“If you’re sure—” Steven started to say, but Lonnie interrupted.
“Of course.” His head disappeared, and Steven heard shuffling from behind the wall of lockers. “You ready?” Lonnie’s voice drifted over. Steven tied his shoes and grabbed his workout gloves before closing his locker, following Dan out of the locker room.
Lonnie had already scoped out one of the bench presses and had loaded a single plate on each end of the bar. Seeing them approach, he held out his hand to Steven. “I’m Lonnie.”
“Steven,” he said, shaking the offered hand.
“So, are you a butt pirate like Dan here?” Lonnie asked with a huge grin that lasted until Dan swatted at him. “What? I was just asking,” Lonnie said with a laugh as he lay down on the bench before lifting the bar and pounding out a quick set. Dan looked a little uncomfortable, and Steven said nothing as Dan did his set. Then he took his turn, easily doing fifteen reps. “So are you?”
“What?” Steven retorted, rolling his eyes. “Are you afraid for your virtue?”
Dan hooted as he added a quarter to each end of the bar. “Lonnie doesn’t have any virtue left to lose,” Dan chided, and then it was his turn to jump back from a good-natured swipe. Amazingly, Steven felt himself relaxing. When it was his turn, he pounded out a set of ten before he and Dan stripped off the twenty-five-pound weights and added a second set of plates.
“How are you doing?” Steven saw Lane standing off to the side. “I see you’ve met Lonnie and Dan.” Steven nodded, and another man joined them. Steven couldn’t help staring a little. This guy was huge and sexy as hell. When he walked to Dan, slipping an arm around his waist, Steven felt a twinge of disappointment.
“Steven, this is my partner, Gene,” Dan said, introducing him before turning to Gene. “This is Steven. He’s trying out the club.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Gene told him, shaking his hand.
“So, what do you think of the club?” Lane asked from behind him.
“It’s very nice,” Steven answered, watching as Lonnie did his set and inwardly smiling at Lane as he saw Lane’s eyes dart down his body. When it was his turn, Steven did his set, pushing out a set of ten, with Gene stepping behind to give him a spot, helping him slightly on the last rep as the others talked. Getting up, he saw Lane looking at him, arms folded across his chest, pushing the muscle forward, biceps straining his shirt. The man was handsome—hell, the man was freakin’ hot. Normally, when he was being looked at like that, Steven would have said something, but he held back, reminding himself who this guy was, but he still couldn’t stop himself from looking.
Adding more weight to the bar, they took turns once again. “Stop by my desk when you’re done,” Lane told him with a smile just before his turn came, and Steven watched him walk away.
“It’s your turn,” Dan told him, and Steven noticed that Gene had left the group to continue his workout. Performing his set, Dan spotted him, and after six reps, he clinked the weight back into the rack. Sitting up, Steven took a few deep breaths, his chest pulsing with blood from the exercise.
“It looks like someone is interested in you,” Dan told him, keeping his voice low. “If you’re not interested, that’s cool, but I thought I saw you looking at him too.”
Steven looked at Dan for a second, trying to size the guy up. “He’s attractive,” Steven told him cautiously, “but I knew him in high school. He obviously doesn’t know who I am.”
“Why wouldn’t he? You gave him your name when you met with him. You’d think he’d remember.”
Steven shook his head, wondering just how much to tell Dan, but it really didn’t matter. “Steven’s my middle name. As a teenager, I was really overweight, and the kids used to call me Blobby Bobby. Lane,” Steven said as he looked toward the front desk area, “was the chief instigator.”
“Well, it looks to me as though that kid is long gone,” Dan told him. “None of us is who we were then.” Dan looked to where Lane sat talking on the phone. “But I do know that Lane has a reputation as a bit of a player. I’m just saying, not judging,” he clarified quickly.
“Lane’s a good guy,” Lonnie interjected. “For a fruitbag—no offense,” Lonnie added with a grin. “You two ready to move on, or you gonna stand around exchanging recipes? You know, if you were real friends, you could jerk me off.” Dan just shook his head at Lonnie as he ducked when Steven took a swipe at him.
“Now you’ve got the hang of it. Just don’t hit him in the head. He’s got enough brain damage as it is,” Dan told him with a huge grin.
“If you ladies are ready,” Lonnie chided, completely unfazed, before moving to the incline bench. When they finished their workout, the three of them headed toward the locker room. Steven couldn’t remember the last time he’d had so much fun during a workout. “You guys saunaing?” Lonnie asked without stopping for an answer as they all went to their lockers. Changing into a bathing suit, Steven made his way to the sauna. As he opened the door, the heat surrounded him, and Steven took a seat on the bench. Dan and Lonnie followed right behind, and almost as soon as he sat down, Lonnie started talking, telling stories about his ex-wife and God knew what else. “So, Stevie, ya pole smoker, you gonna join us tomorrow?” Lonnie asked without stopping to wait for an answer. “We meet at Panera at ten and then come to the gym.”
He had no plans other than spending most of the day alone. “Sure, I guess.”
“Don’t be late or I’ll bang you in the ass.”
Steven turned to Dan. “Is he always like this?”
“God, yes. Lonnie’s a complete pig and living proof that there is such a thing as Jewish pork.” Dan bumped his shoulder against Lonnie’s in a familiar, friendly way as the door opened and Gene walked in wearing a Speedo.
“Nice panties. I’ve seen larger bathing suits on a Smurf,” Lonnie commented with a smirk.
“Lon, your mother called a few minutes ago, she wants her ass back,” Gene retorted without missing a beat, settling on the bench next to Dan. Damn, they were a good-looking couple. Dan was definitely older than Gene, but Steven could tell they were happy just by the way they both seemed to brighten when they were together.
“So, Stevie, you’re looking really buff—you juicing?” Lonnie quipped.
Steven looked down at his chest and stomach, suppressing a pleased smile before shaking his head. “No, never used the stuff. Have you?” Lonnie didn’t answer since he was already talking to someone else about God knows what. The sauna door opened, and Steven looked up to see Lane stride in. The man looked good, strong arms, big chest, and wide shoulders with an intricate flowing tattoo covering one of them. Lane sat down next to him, the large man smiling at him, and Steven could almost feel Lane’s eyes raking over him. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about the attention. It was nice and all, but Steven had no intention of getting played, and he really wasn’t interested in an easy, good time. He’d done that plenty when he was younger, and while fun, it often left him feeling empty. Some guys loved as much sex as they could get with as many guys as possible, but that wasn’t him, at least not anymore.
Lonnie kept talking and Steven got up, stepping toward the door. “There’s a whirlpool out by the pool, isn’t there?”
“I’ll show you,” Lane said, practically jumping off the bench. Steven looked to Dan and saw him smile as Steven left the sauna, following Lane out toward the whirlpool.
“Are you done for the day?” Steven asked Lane as he toed off his shower shoes before stepping into the hot swirling water.
“Yeah. I finished a little while ago,” Lane told him as he sank into the water, settling a few jets over from him. “I didn’t want to leave until I gave you your pass,” Lane said, but Steven knew it was more than that. Relaxing against the side of the whirlpool, he let his head lean back and his eyes close. After a hard workout, there was nothing better than relaxing in the whirlpool. “I was wondering,” Lane began, and Steven opened his eyes, looking at Lane, “would you like to get some dinner or something some time?”
“Are you asking me out on a date?” Steven asked, and Lane nodded, suddenly looking rather shy and vulnerable. “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
“No, should I?” Lane sat up straighter in the water, staring at him intently. “Where did you go to school?”
“Cumberland Valley,” Steven answered before adding, “we were in the same class.”
“No way!” Lane said, grinning. “I’d remember if we were.”
“You might, but I doubt for the reasons you’re thinking. Steven’s my middle name. My first name is Robert, but in high school everyone called me Bobby.” Steven watched Lane’s face as he went through everyone he could think of, and he saw instantly when Lane remembered. The big guy’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open.
“You can’t be. You look so different. You’re Bobby Phillips?”
Steven nodded. “Although you never called me by my last name.” Steven stood up in the water, getting ready to leave, while at the same time giving Lane a good look at the man he’d become rather than the teenager he once was.
“God, I was such an ass in high school,” Lane said softly. Steven stopped, turning quickly to face his high school tormenter. “I knew I liked guys, but couldn’t face it, so I made everyone’s life pure hell, including my own. But I think I treated you worse than anyone. Like I said, I was a complete ass, and all I can say is that I’m sorry.” Lane’s face remained serious, and then he smirked this sideways grin. “Would it make you feel better if I let you give me a swirly or stuff me in a locker?”
Steven shook his head before breaking into his own smile. “You’re a nut, and I don’t think you could fit in a locker anywhere on the planet.” Lane stood up, and Steven got a good look at his muscled chest, water sliding down his smooth skin, whirlpool bubbles clinging to his chiseled stomach.
“So what brings you back to town?”
“Believe it or not, my job transferred me here, of all places.” Steven smiled as best he could. “Who would have thought that after living in Chicago and San Francisco for the last ten years that I would be transferred back to the area where I grew up?”
“Did you request the transfer?” Lane asked, sitting on the side with his legs dangling in the water.
“Not particularly, no.” In truth Steven had absolutely not requested the transfer at all. He’d been happy in Chicago, and he liked the bigger city. He would never have asked to come back to central Pennsylvania, not in a million years. There was nothing wrong with the area, per se, it was just that when he’d left, Steven had had no intention of ever coming back. There were way too many painful memories here, and they had nothing to do with high school, although those weren’t the most pleasant either. “It just worked out that way,” Steven added with a shrug before lowering himself back into the water.
“What is it you do?”
“Information technology work. I’ve spent the last five years or so managing large-scale software installations. My company has a huge project they’re undertaking in this area, and they needed me here.” Steven let his gaze wander over Lane’s body as Lane leaned back, stretching a little, and Steven took in the sight of tan skin and rippling muscles. Sighing softly, he pulled his eyes away, instead looking across the pool and out of the windows to the bright spring sunshine that shone on the flowers outside the window. He didn’t do that anymore; he couldn’t. Sighing, he did his best to try to push away the stab of desire that shot through him. Regardless of their history, Lane was an attractive man. Steven would have to be blind not to see it. “I never thought I’d be back here,” Steven said quietly, “and I certainly never thought I’d be talking to Lane Parkinson again.”
“We’re not the same people we were then. Neither of us is,” Lane said. “You’re not Blobby Bobby, and I’m certainly not Lane the Pain, either, or the myriad of things the kids called me.” Steven snapped his head around. He’d forgotten the names he and his friends had used to describe their tormenter. “You didn’t think I heard it?”
“I’d just forgotten, I guess.”
“So,” Lane said as he got up, walking toward the whirlpool steps, “what about that dinner? Are you interested?” Lane stopped, one leg on a step as he turned around, deep brown eyes shining with an unspoken invitation.
“Let me think about it, okay? I’m just getting into town.”
“At least it’s not a no. I can accept that.” Lane climbed the rest of the way out of the water, his bathing suit clinging invitingly around his hips and a butt that could crack walnuts. Powerful leg muscles corded as Lane lifted himself the rest of the way out of the water. “Stop by the desk so I can give you the pass.” Steven nodded, swallowing slightly, watching as Lane walked toward the locker room.
Steven sat in the water for a minute or so before getting out as well. Walking into the locker room, Steven heard the showers, and for a second his mind conjured up an image of what Lane would look like without the bathing suit. Resisting the urge to see if he could get a peek, he walked past and into the bathroom area, standing in front of the sinks. No one else was around, and Steven washed his hands for something to do before lifting his eyes to look in the mirror. For a brief second, he could almost see himself as he’d been all those years ago. Closing his eyes, Steven took a deep breath. Opening his eyes again, he let his gaze fall on the man he was today. Tall and strong, with tan skin, a flat stomach, strong arms, and chest. He hadn’t thought about the person he’d been back then in years, and he wondered why everything was coming back now.
A swatting slap on his rear end brought him out of his thoughts. “A bunch of us are going to dinner. We’re meeting at Sapporo East on Carlisle Pike at six thirty. Join us.” Lonnie leaned over the sink and began spreading shaving cream on his chest.
“Thanks,” Steven answered. He figured he could find the restaurant. “Do you do that often?” Steven asked as Lonnie began running a razor over his skin.
“About once a week,” Lonnie answered, the razor moving quickly over his skin. “If I don’t, I start to look like yeti.”
“More like Jewbacca,” Dan chided as he stuck his head in, “and no, I’m not shaving your back for you.” Dan’s attention shifted to him. “Steven, I’d make myself scarce before he tries to talk you into it.”
“I’ll see you at dinner,” Steven said as he hastily walked back toward the showers.
“Six thirty, ya fruitcake,” Lonnie called, his voice carrying through the area, and Steven heard a number of chuckles. Obviously, Lonnie’s mannerisms and behavior were familiar territory for just about everyone at the club.
Finding an empty shower, Steven started the water, letting it warm before getting in the stall and pulling the curtain closed. Steven stripped off his suit and hung it over the bar before reaching around for the soap dispenser. Soaping himself up, he let his hands roam for a few minutes. He wasn’t about to jerk off here, although he wanted to—his mind kept conjuring up images of Lane with his bathing suit plastered to his skin. Steven finished his shower and turned off the water before opening the curtain. He reached for his towel and began drying himself. Hearing another curtain open, he lifted his head just enough to see Lane standing in the shower across from him. Damn, he’d always thought his imagination was pretty good, but it paled in comparison to the real thing. Forcing himself to keep his mind on his task, Steven wrapped the towel around his waist and hurried to the locker room, where he finished drying himself and began getting dressed. Thankfully, Lane seemed to be in another bay, and Steven finished getting dressed undisturbed.
Leaving the locker room, he wandered to the front, where he saw Lane fishing around in a desk. “I have your pass,” Lane said, and he handed it to Steven. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yup. I should be here in the morning.”
“Cool. See you then,” Lane told him with a wink before closing the drawer. Steven turned to leave the club, striding through the doors and out to his rental car. As he got in, he saw Lane walking across the parking lot.
Steven knew he was probably being ridiculous. Lane had only asked him to dinner, and he knew dinner wouldn’t lead to anything he didn’t want it to. Maybe that was the issue? He really wanted it to lead to something; he just couldn’t bring himself to let anything like that happen. He couldn’t. He had to face that that part of his life was over. Closing the car door, he watched Lane get into his car. Starting the engine, Steven pulled out of his parking space, driving out of the lot and onto the street going back to his hotel.
Everything about being back in the town where he’d grown up seemed to bother him. He hadn’t thought about high school or Blobby Bobby in years, and here he felt like that fat kid again. He knew there was no reason for it, and he knew he had to get over it. He wasn’t that person anymore, and it was time to put it out of his mind. He’d already met new people who seemed like a lot of fun.
Pulling into the hotel, he grabbed his bag out of the trunk before striding inside and up to his room. Steven still had a few hours before dinner, and he spent most of it lying on the bed mindlessly watching television. Turning it off, he picked up his phone, nearly dialing his parents’ telephone number. The temptation was quite strong, and that surprised him. He hadn’t had any desire to talk to them in almost ten years. For a while, he’d tried calling during the holidays, but they never answered and his messages went unreturned. Eventually, he stopped calling and went on with his life. This was just a place like any other, and after all these years, a lot had changed, and it was time for him to finally move beyond this.
As he set his phone on the nightstand, it began to ring, and he saw it was one of his friends from Chicago. Happy for the relief from his maudlin thoughts, Steven answered the phone, glad to push his ridiculous thoughts aside. He was an adult and he had his own life. His parents had thrown him out of their life a long time ago, and there was no going back. “Marky…,” Steven chirped brightly as he answered the call.