COACH NICK BEDFORD watched the eight men—his athletes, sweaty and pushed to the edge, their sides heaving like thoroughbreds—do their best to beat each other on the boathouse ergometers. The ergs, specialized rowing machines that duplicated the rowing stroke almost exactly, were his rowers’ best friends and worst enemies, building their conditioning and strength but also devouring everything they had to give and demanding more. He often shared their workouts, but not today. Today he walked around each athlete’s erg, looking for flaws in his technique. The crew’s coxswain helped him, but he was still the coach. It was his job to get them in shape.

They were a small crew, and California Pacific College was a small school. A former college rower himself, Nick was a graduate student working on his master’s degree in exercise physiology at a not-too-distant state university, and around the boathouse, he did it all. He was the resident expert on bodies in motion, guiding each athlete through workouts on land and water, each designed to make the boat go faster. He was the dietician, trying to keep a group whose natural prey was pizza and beer on the nutritional straight and narrow to build muscle and fuel recovery. He was their sport psychologist, helping them through losses and guiding the young men through the shoals of school, rowing, and life. He spent his free time immersed in exercise science literature, reading, reading, reading, anything to give his men that extra edge.

He even rigged the boats, adjusting the hardware and making minor repairs.

Eight varsity athletes, eight seats in the varsity boat. Nick was lucky they were so competitive, even with each other. Posting their erg scores meant someone would be pulling harder next time. He also had a standing offer to the junior varsity rowers: any JV athlete who beat a varsity rower on the ergs could challenge him for a seat in the boat. He’d only had to make good once. Each of his eight rowers put the “I” in team, each determined to beat the others. For a small program, it was ideal. For eye candy, it was unbeatable.

“What’d you think, Coach?” his coxswain asked, coming to stand next to him.

Nick was lucky. Stuart Cochrane had coxed in high school, and the junior pre-med major was as skilled as they came. “There’s room to improve,” Nick said, never taking his eyes off his athletes. “Look at Sundstrom. He’s hunching his shoulders. On the ergs, it’ll hurt, but on the water, it’ll strain his muscles and make it hard for him to stay in synch.”

“He’s never going to catch Morgan without fixing his technique, either. I’m on it,” Stuart said. He walked over and knelt down next to the large rower, watching intently for a few strokes before correcting him. Stuart returned, his coxswain’s strut even more pronounced.

Nick had to smile. The best coxswains were small and light so they didn’t slow the boat with weight that wasn’t pulling an oar, and they had Napoleon complexes. Stuart fitted the bill, short and cocky and determined to win. “That worked.”

“Of course it did,” Stuart smirked. “Keep your eye on Estrada. Have you noticed how he speeds up just a bit during the last 2k? That’s part of how he keeps beating Brad.”

“I like a nice, friendly rivalry,” Nick said, grinning. “It keeps the erg times fast.”

“I’m not sure how friendly it is. Brad was the fastest until Morgan joined the team and hasn’t taken kindly to being beaten,” Stuart added quietly, his voice just loud enough to reach Nick’s ears over the sounds of the ergs. “And some of the other guys are beating him too.”

“Then Brad needs to up his game,” Nick said. He didn’t want to know about rivalries like that. He’d seen crews torn apart by such distractions. So long as his rowers left their differences on the dock when they rowed, he didn’t care. As he’d told Stuart, a rivalry on the ergs would move the boat faster.

Nick returned his focus to the ergs. He’d kept an eye on Morgan Estrada, all right. It was hard not to. Collegiate rowers were in fantastic shape, but there was something about Morgan that drew his eye. He was tall, taller than Nick (who, at six feet, wasn’t short), but then, rowing selected for tall men and turned them into muscular ones. Sweat dripped from one wavy brown lock, running down his cheek, but Morgan ignored it.

Nick noticed it, however. It defined Morgan’s cheek, flushed red with effort, but normally very fair. There was more conquistador than conquered in Morgan Estrada’s background. All Nick’s men were good looking in one way or another, but there was something about Morgan that pulled him in, something that threatened to swallow him.

Eye candy was a perk of his job, but Nick tried not to stare too much. They were his boys; he was their coach. There was a trust there, and he took that trust very seriously.

Still, watching Morgan strain, sweaty and grunting and red, made Nick think of crossing that line.

OVER on the erg, Morgan concentrated intently. He liked the ergs. They demanded strength and concentration to move his body in sequence: drive with the legs, pivot from the hips to swing his torso back, pull the arms into his chest to bounce the handle off his sternum, and then arms back out, torso forward as the legs slowly brought him back to the start. His kinesthetic sense told him where his body was, leaving his mind free to think of anything or nothing but the strain of his muscles and the desperate need for air. He held his chin high, breathing deeply, oxygen to fuel the burn in his legs. He felt his skin prickle, like someone was watching.

Morgan glanced around. On the ergs, looking around wasn’t a big deal. In the racing shells, where even a subtle shift destabilized the boat, it could cost them crucial fractions of a second.

He didn’t see anything. Then Morgan looked in the mirrors that lined the wall ahead of them. They let rowers check their form, but Morgan wasn’t the only one looking. Coach Bedford stared at him, his light brown eyes intense. Now hyper-aware, Morgan made sure his technique was the best it could be, sitting up straight from his lower back, chin high, self-conscious and nervous. When Coach Bedford saw him looking, he jerked his eyes away. Morgan couldn’t overanalyze it right then, but there was something about his coach’s eyes that made him sweat in a way that had nothing to do with heart rate or aerobic capacity.

Morgan gritted his teeth. He was coming to the last five hundred meters of the piece. He couldn’t afford to get distracted, not with the others dogging his heels, not when one of them might be closer to the end.

But Morgan’s eyes kept straying to Coach Bedford, now studiously looking elsewhere. Almost as tall as he was, the coach had floated Morgan’s boat from the moment he’d first seen him. There

had been something about Coach Bedford’s passion for the sport that had drawn Morgan in when he had given a recruiting pitch to the incoming freshmen, and in that moment, the former high-school oarsman Morgan knew that despite wanting a break, he’d row, if only to see to Nick Bedford’s brown eyes and muscular build up close all the time. The day he’d made the varsity team as a sophomore by challenging a varsity rower for his seat had been a dream come true.

A screaming grunt from the next erg jerked Morgan’s attention back to the workout. One down. He pulled hard, pouring everything he had into the last few seconds as his vision tunneled. Then Morgan near-collapsed as he slumped on the seat, done and spent.

“Get some water, walk it off when you can,” Coach Bedford told him, one hand on his shoulder. The touch tingled, but it could’ve just been oxygen deprivation.

NICK and Stuart wrote down the numbers on the monitors from each erg’s display. With this test, a set distance, the goal was to finish as fast as possible, and to gauge each athlete’s progress, they checked each athlete’s speed at five-hundred-meter intervals. “Once you catch your breath, get some water and go for a short run to work the lactic acid out of your muscles. Be back in fifteen minutes.”

“Keep it slow, this is a recovery run!” Stuart yelled.

Eight drained men hauled themselves up and filed slowly out of the boathouse.

“Recover by exhausting ourselves again,” Brad Sundstrom muttered.

“That’s Coach Bedford. The last workout is history, it’s the next one that’s important,” Morgan said.

Brad gave him a sour look. “Yeah, but we can’t do the next one until we recover from this one.”

“Then it’s part of the same piece, isn’t it?” Morgan said, taking off at a slow jog.

A quarter-hour later, they came back to the boathouse and headed right for the water cooler.

“Stretch it out, guys,” Nick ordered, watching them. Watching him.

Stuart motioned, and the rowers sat down on the ground. “So how’d that feel, guys?” Nick asked.

“Like shit, Coach,” Brad snorted.

“It was six minutes in hell,” Morgan said. He leaned over one leg, lengthening the Achilles tendon. The reach stretched the muscles of his back tight under his T-shirt.

Nick smiled slightly. He’d been there himself. His eyes traced the strong lats under Morgan’s shirt. He was just checking for form and to see that he’d developed no asymmetries, or at least that’s what he told himself. “Obviously I haven’t cooked the numbers to compensate for weight or age, but based on this, some of the JV rowers are nipping at your heels. If you want to keep your seats in the boat, you need to apply yourselves.” Nick looked at Brad meaningfully.

“Ergs don’t float,” Brad said as his teammates looked everywhere but at him.

“Granted. We all know speed on the erg doesn’t translate to speed on the water, but if you want to go fast on the water, you’ve got to pull hard on the ergs. It’s not all of it, but it’s part of it,” Nick said. “The Pacific Coast Rowing Championships are in ten weeks. We had a good fall season, but you’re going to have to work hard between now and then if you don’t want powerhouses like the University of Washington and Cal Berkeley to hand you your asses. This was just the first test. There’ll be tests just about every week from now until then.”

Nick’s announcement was met with loud groans. “For the JV too,” Stuart said, glaring at the rowers, because he had a stake in this too. Coxswains competed amongst themselves, and it was a matter of pride to cox a winning crew. To coxswains, rowers were meat that moved boats, and Stuart wanted his boat to move the fastest.

“Yeah, it’s going to suck, but you guys are strong. You’ll get stronger. It’s going to take work. There’s a reason I keep telling you guys to take a lighter course load in the spring,” Nick reminded them. He met each athlete’s eyes for moment. “Since today was the first day of spring break, I’ll let you take the morning off, but you know what comes next. Double days. We’ll be on the water in the morning, in the boathouse or the gym in the afternoons. Dig up those diet handouts from wherever you’re composting them and follow them. Take naps after lunch. Do some yoga. No more booze or anything else for the duration, not until after the PCRCs. I know college students party, but you’re here in this boathouse because you want to be, so dig in and commit. Before this is done, you’ll go so far into the pain cave you’ll forget what daylight looks like. In return, I’ll give you nothing less than the best I have to give.”

Nick saw some heads nodding. They’d done this before. They knew, just like they knew he shared as much of the burden as he could. “C’mon, circle up,” Nick said.

They hauled themselves to their feet, some weary, some stretching their spines. Nick put one hand in the middle, and the athletes—his athletes, as dedicated to him as he to them—put their hands on top. “Remember the Five Cs. They make the CalPac Crew great. Coach, coxswain, crew, communication, commitment.”

It was corny, but by the time Nick was on the second C, they all said it with him. They knew he meant it. It was the basis of the close relationship between coach and athletes. They were a small band, united by shared misery in pursuit of a common goal. He loved them for it. He hoped they returned his devotion.

“See you tomorrow morning. I want you ready to put your hands on the boat at six a.m., so be here early to warm up and get the equipment ready,” Nick said, the old familiar spiel.

The rowers left the erg room, heading for the showers. Morgan held back.

Nick looked up. “Good piece. Did you need something?”

Morgan hesitated. “See you in the morning, Coach,” he said before jogging to catch up with his ride.

THE week passed for all of them in a blur of morning rows and afternoon strength training. After the last row of double days on a Saturday morning, the men of the CalPac Crew were ready to cut loose. Nick knew it. He expected it. He was used to conversations that cut off the moment he was noticed. His rowers were barely over twenty, so it went with the territory.

But there was something off-key about it this time that he didn’t recognize and didn’t like. Something that made his coach’s Spidey sense tingle. Usually, the varsity crew alone managed to produce a cacophony like a flock of chickens, squawking and pecking and cackling about the minutiae of collegiate life. Bringing the JV rowers into the mix jacked the noise level so much it often drove Nick into the coaches’ office with the door closed.

Before practice that Saturday morning, he hadn’t thought much about their tight-lipped unanimity. It was early; they were tired. The only sounds in the boathouse were the whirl of the ergs as athletes warmed up and the quiet conversations between coaches and coxswains about the upcoming row.

After practice, however, the rowers had been tight-lipped and smug. Sure, Brad and Stuart always looked smug, but this time it had been all of them. When Nick could hear himself think with both squads present and accounted for, something was definitely up. A little judicious eavesdropping gave him an idea of what was astir.

So Nick had bided his time throughout the day and made some calls to a few of his fellow coaches with CPC’s other athletics programs. They confirmed his suspicions, but since their sports weren’t approaching end-of-season finales, they were more philosophical about it. He couldn’t afford to be.

After dinner, Nick headed for the scene of the future crime, a house in the student ghetto just off campus. He borrowed his best friend Drew St. Charles’s almost-new BMW, since his rowers might recognize his battered Honda. Given the dizzying cost of CalPac’s tuition, the 3 Series BMW wouldn’t even stick out. It was the perfect blind from which to lie in wait for his flock.

From behind the cover of a newspaper, Nick counted as his rowers went into the party. Since it was hosted by some players on the men’s lacrosse team, he didn’t recognize most of the people heading inside. But that just made it easier to count off his athletes as they entered.

Morgan and Stuart walked by, the last two. Nick sank further in the seat. For all that Morgan had been on the varsity squad the previous year, Nick had only started noticing him as more than just an athlete a few months before, and now suddenly he couldn’t keep his eyes off the junior. Morgan. He sighed. What was it about that kid that got under his skin? For starters, he realized ruefully, Morgan was no kid. From what he’d seen in practice, he was all man. Tall and muscular and just hairy enough to turn Nick’s crank. Dark hair that curled across sculpted pecs and swirled around dark nipples just begging to be played with before plunging down the ridges and contours of Morgan’s abs and on down to what Nick could only imagine. Not that he’d looked. Because that would be wrong.

Nick knew he’d have to do something about that, maybe join Drew on one of his trips to Aspects, the more civilized of the local gay watering holes. It been way too long since he’d gotten laid, and terminal sperm poisoning was clearly setting in. It was prime time on a Saturday night and he was slumped down in the front seat of a borrowed sports car to stalk his rowers, mentally macking on a guy who hadn’t even graduated from college yet. He should’ve been out with a boyfriend, or better yet, cuddled up at home with one, reading together or watching a movie before keeping each other up all night.

Instead, Nick was spying on his crew, waiting to spring a trap. Suddenly he just felt pathetic and far older than twenty-eight.

He looked at the dashboard clock. Nine thirty p.m. Time enough for them to get into trouble.

MORGAN surveyed the scene when he and Stuart entered. The party was at a typical college-student rental. Sagging, disreputable couches that had clearly seen better, beer-free days had been plunked down in the middle of the living room across from a large television. Scuffed IKEA tables and lopsided bookcases loitered against walls that no one had painted with anything but primer. It was borderline nasty when he thought about it, but they weren’t there to pick up design tips. They were there to par-tay.

Stuart knew some people on the lacrosse team, which was how the men’s crew had landed an invitation. Truth be told, parties were about body count, not faces, and another team meant more beer.

Morgan might not have gone without Stuart there. Having a gay wingman rocked; being a gay wingman was a sacred obligation. He didn’t spot any non-rowers he knew right away, but Stuart hailed some guys across the room, and he tagged along.

There were beer bongs and the real deal, as well as the inevitable game of beer pong and a table with bottles of hard liquor. Morgan grabbed a beer, making sure it was unopened. He didn’t plan on drinking much, not like some of the guys on the team or many others at the party. Stomach pumps weren’t on the short list of things that went down his throat. That was pretty much limited to food and beverages, plus the occasional cock. Lately, he’d been thinking about Coach Bedford’s. A lot. But it was getting out of hand. Certainly not in hand, at least not his.

Maybe he’d find someone to distract him. There were bound to be a few hot guys. Out athletes were relatively rare even at liberal California Pacific. He himself wasn’t officially out to his team, but he’d never hidden it and just assumed they all knew. Based on the glances thrown his way at that party, however, there were plenty of closeted jocks. He knew the signs; he’d played the game. He was just tired of it and ready for something more.

Morgan wanted a boyfriend. He’d been out to his family since he was sixteen. He’d done the casual dating and even more casual fucking. It had been fun, but it wasn’t for him, not over the long term. He didn’t want the little house with the white picket fence, at least not yet, but he wanted someone special, someone he could give himself to, someone who’d do the same for him. Someone who wanted the same things

he did. He wanted Mr. Right.

But Morgan also knew that Mr. Right Now would do. He wasn’t dressed to attract attention, but he drew it anyway. His loose shirt was tight enough to hint at the cobbled abs that roaming hands would find underneath, the jeans cut low and his briefs lower, with just a hint of skin and treasure trail between shirt and pants.

Morgan made conversation, but his attention was on the men around him. Stuart caught his eye and winked. He was doing the same thing. Morgan smiled to himself. Having a gay teammate who was also a friend and roommate was even better than having a gay wingman.

Nearby, in a knot of guys he didn’t know but who had the built look of athletes, someone met his eyes. He was shorter than Morgan, but broader, more muscular, his dark eyes beckoning, promising. Morgan had seen him around. He was a lacrosse player, but not one of the ones he knew. So much the better.

Morgan didn’t move yet. Timing was everything. He kept talking to Stuart and his friends, glancing back every so often to make sure the other man still smoldered.

The lacrosse player moved from his position, and they began their slow, steady dance around the room. Morgan shifted his position again, always keeping the other guy in sight. There was a rhythm to these furtive seductions, and it was important to make sure they followed the same beat.

Morgan made eye contact again, mouthing pleasantries that didn’t matter to people who weren’t important at this point in time. He casually rubbed his chest, his hand straying to his pecs. He gave one nip a brief flick. The other man’s eyes flared.

Then it was his turn to move, to draw the other man to him. Another cluster of people, another conversation he wasn’t hooked into, another can of beer he hardly touched.

Morgan rubbed his crotch to tell the guy it was now or never. That was another reason to find a boyfriend, he thought. It’d be nice to have sex without having to make sure the guy was drunk enough to be willing but not too drunk to perform. Timing was everything.

“I’ll see you guys later. There’s someone I gotta talk to,” Morgan said.

He wandered purposefully towards the back of the house. He couldn’t just make a beeline for it. That would be too obvious. He had an itch to scratch, not an urge to cause talk.

One stop along the way was enough, a stop with a final burning look over his shoulder. Then he was in the shadows of a long hallway, separated from the rest of the house by a ninety-degree turn.

Morgan didn’t wait long. A minute more, and the object of that night’s affections was on him. He craned his neck as the man moved in hungrily and a hand pawed its way under his shirt.

“Gonna gimme that boy pussy?” he said, slurring slightly.

“You sure know how to charm a boy,” Morgan said. He pushed the other man back into the wall and made for his neck. He’d learned the hard way not to kiss guys like this on the lips. Six-pack gays, men just drunk enough to admit they kinda sorta liked guys, got angry when you kissed them on the lips because it made them gay. Or something. So Morgan sucked and nipped behind one ear while he tugged the other guy’s shirt open. His thumbs circled the hardening nipples; then he flicked them, gauging the reaction. A sharp hiss, and he flicked them again. The other man’s breath grew ragged as Morgan licked a trail down his neck.

Morgan had him gasping in short order. Morgan knew what he wanted that night and how to get it, and they were standing right there in the hall. They could be discovered at any moment, but the man made no move for a bedroom. That was fine with Morgan. It was part of the sizzle.

Even as his short-term lover grappled with the button fly on Morgan’s jeans, Morgan freed a hand for the other man’s shorts. They were loose, so he plunged his hand down, fingers probing for underwear, then over the elastic and into the boxers.

His own pants were undone and his cock freed. He was rock hard, and it felt so good. For just a moment, he reveled, sensation blotting out thought.

Then he grabbed the guy’s cock, enjoying the heft of the shaft. His fingers danced over the soft skin, teasing and caressing.

“Ohhh, baby,” the other man whimpered.

Morgan tightened his grip. The cock in his hands further stiffened, fueling Morgan’s own fire. Another’s rod in his hands aroused him like nothing else. The pulsing, vital measure of another man filled him with power. In that way, in that moment, that other man was entirely his.

Even as his own shirt was lifted up and one nipple sucked into the other’s mouth, Morgan ran his thumb across the head of the man’s cock, savoring the feeling of the head under his fingers. The current ran between his hand, the mouth on his nipple, and the hand on his own shaft. He breathed deeply, eyes rolling up, as the fire rose around him. He burned, and it felt so good.

The cock in Morgan’s hand dripped precum, and he smoothed it around, slicking the head and shaft. Spitting into his hand, he started jacking. It felt like a steel piston in his palm. He caressed the head, then slammed his hand down the shaft, loving the rush. The other man writhed in his grip, but Morgan was relentless.

Light coiled around Morgan’s spine. It wouldn’t be long, not for him, not for the man moaning on the other end of the cock in his hand. He let it build, soaring on the feeling racing out from his groin.

Morgan held out as long as he could and then let go. “Unnh!” Three seismic spurts and an aftershock or two and he was done.

His partner for the moment followed quickly. “Ooohaaah!”

The other man sagged against the wall for a moment. “Duuude. That was so hot. Do you ever go to the third-floor library bathroom? We should totally do that again sometime.”

Morgan, carefully wiping the guy’s load into one pocket, shook his head. He didn’t say anything. The emptiness, as insidious as fog, had already whispered around him, cutting him off from even the ersatz connection he’d felt moments before.

It was the flip side of the rush Morgan felt moments before when the other man had been his because of the cock in Morgan’s hand. Jacking him off, Morgan had felt, for a moment, connected to the other man, but that connection ended when they came. They shared nothing; they had nothing; they were nothing together. It was why Morgan had more or less stopped tricking. It hurt too much when it ended, and it always ended too soon.

Feeling more alone than he had in a long time, Morgan walked out, not even bothering to find the bathroom. He grabbed a beer, wishing for something stronger. Then he looked up.

Standing there as cold and remote as a statue was Coach Bedford. He met Morgan’s eyes, and Morgan swore he saw into his soul. There was no way his coach knew he’d just jacked off a stranger in the back of the house, but it felt that way to Morgan.

His coach walked into the room, drawing looks, but most people ignored him. They didn’t know him, so it didn’t matter. But to his athletes, to Morgan, it felt like everything had stopped. The music, the fun, the party all withered and died at the touch his coach’s icy demeanor.

Coach Bedford stalked up to Stuart. “Everyone will be at the boathouse tomorrow at six a.m., or there will be hell to pay.”