HUNTER WORE his black eye like a tiara at the ball.
He paraded around O’Malley’s Pub, looping through the thickening crowd to make sure everyone saw it, an absurd grin on his face. The elbow that had caused it had come out of nowhere while he was crouched over in a ruck. Probably intentional, but he didn’t care. It was his first visible in-match injury since joining the squad, and he was going to revel in it.
And it was destined to be spectacular. Purple already swooped under his eye the length of his cheekbone. The skin was tender, and his eye was swelling shut. Tomorrow he’d look like Quasimodo and only be able see out one eye. But he sure as shit wasn’t going to let that stop him tonight.
Team members whooped and hollered as he passed, lifting their glasses to him. A few clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey Pickles,” someone called out. “You use that face to stop a train?” Everyone laughed—and Hunter laughed along with them, his grin spreading wider. It made the side of his face sting, but he didn’t care.
He’d crossed some invisible line. He was no longer just someone on the team—he was a squadmate now. He was one of them.
O’Malley’s was in full swing. Families and friends had filtered in, along with a spattering of spectators, and filled the pub to the point of splitting like an overinflated ball. Far too crowded for his liking, but he was feeling good and had poured enough drink in him to make it tolerable. He’d duck outside for a minute if it got too much. Classic rock pounded out of the speakers, and the crowd yelled over the music. The two squads—the Lions and the Griffons—seized the main room like prisoners that had taken over the cellblock. A few hours ago, they had tried to bludgeon each other on the pitch; now they hung drunkenly on each other as if they’d been comrades for years.
The rugby widows, wives and girlfriends who were forgotten for the time being, stayed to the sidelines in little pods, clear of all the postcarnage bonding. They shook their heads and laughed at the nonsense. Their time would come later.
Hunter worked his way past a cluster from the Griffons, who shouted out bawdy songs from the corners complete with crude choreography. Another group toward the back had their shirtsleeves and pant legs pulled back to compare scars and tattoos. A barback scurried among the chaos, loading empty pints onto a tray, while the frantic bartenders scrambled to fill more.
Billy the Hobbit squirmed his way past Hunter, holding his beer over the heads of the crowd. Like all good scrum halves, he was the smallest on the squad, barely five and a half feet tall. Fast, tough, and built solid. And fucking adorable.
He looked up at Hunter with his bright green eyes as he shouldered his way by. “Zulu dance in about twenty minutes. We’re going to have to clear a path somehow.”
The traditional naked run for first-time scorers was supposed to be done out on the pitch, but city ordinances wouldn’t allow it anymore, so it got moved inside the host bar. In some ways it was worse—people tended to slap asses as they ran by or splash beer on them. “Good luck with that,” Hunter said.
“No shit, right? Nice shiner, by the way, Pickles,” Billy added with a smile as he wedged deeper into the crowd.
Hunter raised his glass. “Thanks, Bilbo.”
He circled back around to his spot at the end of the bar. It was out of the traffic flow and afforded him a little more breathing room. Resting one asscheek on a stool as if unwilling to commit to standing or sitting, he leaned an elbow against the sticky wooden surface. He drained the last of his beer, thumped the glass onto the bar, and lifted his chin to the bartender to get him another.
“That one’s on me,” someone called from behind.
Hunter rotated about on the stool. A tank of a man with a closely cropped beard gently guided nearby people aside to make room for him. He was a forward from the opposing team. A lock. Number four. He sidled up to the bar and leaned in, lifting his own empty glass to the bartender. He dropped a twenty on the counter and set the empty glass on top of it.
“You win the day for the best trophy,” he said. His voice was deep, like a radio broadcaster’s, and it resonated over the beat of the music.
Hunter smirked and touched the puffy skin beneath his eye. “Most would call it an improvement.”
“Doubt that. Starting to hurt yet?”
“Not really,” he said.
“Liar,” the man laughed.
The bartender set the two full pints of amber on the counter between them. Hunter picked his up and held it into the air a moment. “This will help,” he replied. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” the man said with a broad grin. He had perfect teeth and, despite his size, a very boyish look when he smiled. “Least I can do for the man of the match.”
“Not official yet.”
“It will be. You played like a fucking beast today.”
Hunter felt his face redden. Shit, was he fucking blushing? The man was rugged and beautiful, and that rich voice of his was making his palms sweat. And he was standing very close to Hunter. If he didn’t know better, Hunter would have sworn he was flirting.
“You’re Hunter, right?”
“Name’s Darren.” He held out his hand and Hunter took it in his own. Darren’s grip was strong. “You’re a damn good player.”
Not sure how to react, he settled on a noncommittal shrug. “Nah. Just a fat bloke good at getting into people’s way.”
“Fat?” Darren’s eyes dropped a moment to Hunter’s torso, and his brow lifted. “That’s rich. I could learn a lot from you. How long have you been playing?”
Hunter pulled his gaze away from Darren’s brown eyes. “Most of my life. My dad was from Cardiff. Forced a ball in my hand the moment I could stand on my own.”
“Explains a lot. All the best players here either got a young start because their dad played, or they’re transports themselves.”
Hunter smiled. “Tried football for a while. Mostly because I was pissed at the old fucker and wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded me of him. But the slow pace about killed me. My dad wasn’t right about a lot of things, but he was right about rugby. I joined a club after college to get back into it.”
“The Dragons, right?”
Hunter’s stomach flipped. So… he knew about that, did he?
“Yep,” he replied in slightly forced casual tone. “Played with them for more than four years.” Hunter could hear the nervousness in his own voice.
Darren’s expression changed, lost some of its cheerfulness. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Shit, I guess I sounded like a crazy stalker just then. Some of my squad was just talking about you earlier, is all, and….”
Hunter made a low chuckle in his throat, but there was little humor in it. “No doubt.”
“No, it wasn’t like that, really. Maybe a stereotypical comment or two from the assholes, but most were just curious about it. Really.” Darren paused, looking down into his beer. He took a gulp from the pint and used his thumb and forefinger to wipe droplets from his full lips. “So, what was it like? You know, playing on an all-gay team?”
Hunter smiled at him.
“Fun,” he replied with a shrug. “Sometimes really fun,” he added with a lift of his eyes to the ceiling. “Still friends with most of them. But… the skill set, you know? Some had only picked up a rugby ball for the first time when they joined the squad. And there were different levels of commitment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it felt more social than competitive. After a while I guess I just needed more.”
“So, from that to the toughest fuckers in Chicago. Maybe even in the Midwest.” Darren shook his head. “Quite the leap.”
“Don’t even try to act modest.” Darren grinned at him. “I tried out for the Lions last year. Didn’t make it past the first round.”
“I promised to make everyone scones each time we met for practice.”
“You’re ridiculous.” Darren gave Hunter a playful shove on the shoulder.
“You’ve not tried my poppy seed scones. They’ve opened many doors.”
Darren took a drink but kept his eye on Hunter over the top of the glass. “Been watching you with them tonight. Your team. You can tell they accept you.”
“Wasn’t always like that.”
His skill had gotten him on the squad, but for a long time he did little other than wear the uniform. No one was openly hostile to him—namely because Coach Titan made it clear he would have none of it—but for a long time, there was this impassible chasm between him and others. Few circles were tighter than a team of rugby players, and he always knew it would take time to prove himself. But being the only out gay player made it all the more difficult to bridge the gap.
“Well, you’d never know it today,” Darren said. “I envy that. What you have is more rare than I think you realize.” Hunter could hear a vein of regret in his voice.
Hunter happened to look out past Darren’s shoulder. Across the bar, someone leaned against the far wall, watching him. The figure’s stony face was shadowed beneath the hood of a brown woolen coat. No… not a coat. It was more of cape—which was an odd choice to wear out to a bar. But candlelight from a nearby high-top table glinted off eyes that stared at Hunter with a singular intensity. The man was smallish—like a scrum half, however Hunter had never seen him on any squad.
The hard stare sent shivers chasing down Hunter’s shoulders and back.
Darren must have noticed his attention shift. He straightened, pulling his elbow off the bar. “Well, I just wanted to come by and, you know, say hey.”
“No, I’m glad you did,” Hunter said quickly. He reached out and touched Darren’s forearm. Darren stiffened, and his eyes darted around. Hunter, reminded of where they were, slipped his hand back. “Your squad doesn’t know?”
“Some suspect, I think, but no.” His expression turned pensive. Hunter regretted bringing it up. “Maybe it would have been easier if they’d known from the beginning, like you. I don’t know. But at the time I wasn’t ready for that.”
“Sure, I get that.” Hunter looked out across the bar again. The hooded guy had moved, but his gaze was still locked in his direction. Weird. He looked at Hunter like he either wanted to fuck him or kill him.
An obsessed rugby fan? They were out there, he knew. Something about the gladiatorial nature of the game seemed to attract a certain brand of fanaticism. Other guys on the squad had picked up the occasional stalker, but he’d been lucky so far.
Hunter turned his attention back to Darren. “It’s not too late, you know. May be bumpy for a while, but they’ll come around.”
“Not so sure about that.” Darren shrugged. “Besides, it’s none of their business, right?”
“Sure,” Hunter replied, not knowing what else to say.
“Pickles!” Samson, the fly half, was suddenly at his right shoulder. “Quit flirtin’ and help out. We need your bulk and ugly face to start clearing a way for the zulu.” He raked his eyes over Darren briefly before looking back at Hunter, eyes narrowed in scorn. “Seriously, bro,” he said, “this dude’s clearly straight. Give it up.”
Samson disappeared into the crowd again. Darren and Hunter looked at each other and chuckled.
“Looks like I’m going to be busy a while,” Hunter said.
“Why do they call you Pickles?”
“Long story. Interested in coffee sometime? Can I give you my number?” He wasn’t sure about going out with someone so deep in the closet. He lived his own life open and unapologetic. But Darren had a kind, boyish face that Hunter found magnetic, and he sure filled out that T-shirt well….
“Way ahead of ya.” Darren looked sheepish as he slid a folded napkin across the bar counter. “I took the liberty. Give me a call?”
Hunter couldn’t help but smile. He took the napkin, stood from the stool, and slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans. “I will.” He straightened out his T-shirt and picked up his beer. “All right. Duty calls. Thanks again for the beer.”
Darren smiled back at him. A warm, genuine smile. His cheeks were colored just above the line of his beard. Holy shit, he did have the sweetest little smile. If they were anywhere else, Hunter would have leaned over and kissed those full lips of his—and he was just about drunk enough to do it anyway.
“Anytime,” Darren said. “Make sure you take care of the eye later. You should probably ice it.”
“And ruin all this beautiful color? No fucking way!”
Hunter started to push his way back into the crowd, then stopped. What the fuck, he told himself. How often was he going to be man of the match? He made an impish grin back over his shoulder.
“Planning on sticking around?”
Darren’s smile widened. “I’ve got nothing going on.”
“Keep your docket clear,” Hunter said. “This shouldn’t take too long.”
Before he launched into the churning crowd once more, he glanced around for the weird guy in the cape. Nothing. Hunter scanned the sea of heads. He didn’t spot him anywhere.
Thank God. The guy gave him the creeps.