THE day I caught that goddamn ball was the worst day of my life.

Jack shifted the stool a few inches to the left to make room for the raucous group of guys who’d decided to squeeze in one more person, and the bar erupted with cheers of delight. A spectacular diving catch by right fielder Donny Carrigan played again on the huge flat panel televisions mounted all around the bar. Every set was tuned in to the game taking place no more than a hundred feet outside the front door. Bernie’s sat in the shadow of one of the most beautiful baseball stadiums in the country—Wrigley Field. No damn cellular companies in the name, just a long-standing tradition of bricks and ivy at the friendly confines Jack had started to appreciate since he’d moved to Chicago. It was almost like being home.

A group of girls, more interested in the male patrons than the score, ordered another pitcher at a table a few feet behind Jack. The squashed group of guys next to him had noticed. Dressed mostly in jerseys, but a couple in Cubs T-shirts, they kept one eye on the girls and the other on the game. Jack snickered at their preening. The bar was teeming with people, from twenty-something girls looking for their next ex-boyfriend to a couple of octogenarians across the bar watching the screen while they nursed the same beer for half the game. He could imagine them comparing the new pitcher to Fergie Jenkins, or maybe lamenting the retirement of Ryne Sandberg. If Jack had learned one thing since moving to Chicago, it was that Cubs fans were fierce and loyal, just like the fans at Fenway.

Sometimes, they were too loyal.

God, he hated watching the games from the noisy chaos of a bar, especially when he was so close he could walk outside and hear the play-by-play, smell the beer and the popcorn, and feel the electricity of the crowd. Jack wanted to be in the stands, watching the action with the sun on his face and the players so close he could almost reach out and touch them. But he wouldn’t. Jack would never set foot inside another baseball stadium again.

Not after finding himself under the immense weight of being Jonathan Young, “the bane of Boston.”

And for what? Reaching out to catch a foul ball as hundreds of thousands of fans have done in dozens of parks around the country? It could have happened yesterday; he still dreamt about it. Nightmares about being beaten to death by some lunatic with a bat, swallowed by the massive surge of humanity around him at Fenway, or eaten by the Monster. The ball still sat in a mount on his bookcase, a constant reminder to keep his hands to himself. If not for Jack, the Sox could have taken the pennant that year. They could have gone to the series for the first time since 1918, but he just had to reach too far out and snag a catch that could have ended the game. Instead, the Indians came back with a walk-off win, ending the tie and taking the playoffs.

After that game, he couldn’t go anywhere. His picture was all over the television, all over the newspapers, and all over the Internet—like he’d been the Boston Strangler. For weeks, Jack couldn’t leave his house without irate fans and photographers getting in his face. He lost his first job then, a job he’d truly enjoyed. It took just a couple more weeks for his boyfriend, Scott, to leave. Scott couldn’t take the pressure of being the boyfriend of Boston’s most notorious pariah, even though he wasn’t a baseball fan. That was what hurt the most. After five years, years Jack thought were wonderful, Scott had walked out and never looked back. Sometimes, in the darkest moments before dawn, Jack still reached for him in the bed they no longer shared.

All for a baseball.

The body next to Jack smacked into him rather forcefully, and he jerked his head around to look. Back in Boston, it would have been a drunk patron spoiling for a fight. Even a year after the game, when the Sox had no hope in hell of going back to the playoffs, they’d still taken the loss out on Jack. He had to change his phone number so often it became pointless to have one. He got an untraceable cell instead so his mom could talk to him without keeping a running list of ever-changing numbers. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be. He’d moved too. Four times. It had gotten to the point where he just had to mention his name to an apartment manager to be let out of a lease because they didn’t want the trouble either. Finally, he gave up the goose, moved out of state, and started going by “Jack” instead of “Jonathan,” at his own brother’s suggestion.

“Hey, man, sorry.” One of the rambunctious guys said, touching Jack’s arm in his sincerity. Jack looked up into the deepest, warmest brown eyes he’d ever seen, and the guy smiled. He smiled back before he remembered why he couldn’t pick up guys, especially guys in sports bars sitting in the shadow of major ball fields. Jack had a problem. The beautiful guy had shown up at a point where he was terribly lonely, and his resolve wasn’t up to the challenge. Three years was a very long time to go without human touch. To Jack’s surprise, the guy turned his body completely, rather than just turning his face like he had with his apology. In most other cities, it might have been dangerous to get interested in a guy at a sports bar, but Wrigleyville butted against Boystown, so the atmosphere bordered on friendly.

“You a Cubs fan or a Sox fan?” The guy asked suspiciously when he noticed Jack wasn’t wearing a T-shirt or jersey like most other guys in the bar. One eyebrow cocked in friendly amusement, though his expression showed nothing but mock sternness. Jack had on a simple black T-shirt and jeans, having just come from the office on casual Friday. Of course, the guy meant the White Sox, the Cubs’ crosstown rivals, not Jack’s beloved Red Sox. As the man waited, a corner of his mouth turned up into a quirky little smile Jack found incredibly hot.

“I’m a baseball fan,” Jack said, without committing one way or the other. If he had to pick one, of course he’d pick the Cubs. They were the loveable losers, just like his Sox. Judging from the guy’s ensemble, his new friend was definitely a Cubs fan. Since the baseball cap was a pink version of their normal Cubby blue and he was practically in Jack’s lap, Jack had to guess the guy was a gay Cubs fan.

“Good enough,” the guy said with a disarming grin. God, I could lose myself in that dimple. Soft brown curls peeked out of the bottom of his cap and came down in the back just before the top of his jersey, which was open in the front to show off a tight, white T-shirt that hugged his body like a clingy twink. Their shoulders pressed together when he leaned in and said, “I’m Ryan.” His sensual mouth formed the words, and they came out like a caress against Jack’s ear, even in the loud chaos of the bar.

“Jack.” Jack took Ryan’s offered hand and shook it.

“So, what do you think, ‘baseball fan’? Cubs got a shot at the playoffs this year?” Ryan shifted slightly on his stool, bringing his leg flush with Jack’s—hot, hard, and masculine under his jeans. Jack cleared his throat subtly, trying to focus on the question. It felt like a test, but Jack had a quick, analytical mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of statistics. Lately, he didn’t have much else to do with his time.

“Maybe. It depends on if Spacey can stay healthy. He’s your workhorse in the bullpen. The infield is seasoned. Jiminez, Corey, and Camden usually set things for Stamos to clean up. If you can keep pace with Milwaukee, you should have a good shot,” Jack said, half looking at Ryan and half watching the condensation roll down his transparent bottle of MGD. Slowed a bit by the label, it continued downward until it reached the worn bar. The next drop landed near the first, and he looked up to see Ryan watching. Ryan’s eyes were dilated, his breath quick and shallow, like Jack had just rubbed his cock through his jeans. God, he must really like baseball. That turned Jack on, even as much as the full lips he could almost feel on his skin. Though Jack wondered how he’d gained Ryan’s attention so quickly. There were lots of ordinary-looking guys in the world—he was nothing special, with close-cropped black hair and green eyes. He did keep in shape but was more naturally skinny than a gym bunny.

They eye-fucked for a while, talking about Abernathy’s ERA and how the Cubs should use him more for a closer than middle relief. The game came to a resounding close with the Cubs’ surprising win, and the bar exploded with sound. Ryan’s hand brushed Jack’s after he drained the last of his beer, and Jack wondered briefly if the rest of his skin would be as hot as his hand was. Apparently, Ryan had the same idea.

“You wanna get out of here?” he asked, swallowing nervously, for no other reason Jack could see than he thought Jack was hot, or Jack’s knowledge of baseball was hot. Chances were Ryan would have heard of the Bane of Boston if he mentioned it. Even though he was a Cubs fan and the Red Sox were in the American League, some things transcended the league barrier. He hadn’t given any indication that he recognized Jack, so maybe if he didn’t let anything slip, he could avoid the conversation. More than anything, he wanted to go home with this twenty-something stranger, let him sink his cock into Jack, and just not think about anything except how good it felt. It took longer for Jack to decide than it should have. Eventually, he put aside his fear of discovery, of being that guy. Though it was barely past four in the afternoon, he nodded. Ryan’s face lit up like a center field scoreboard at dusk.

The postgame started on the television overhead, but while few things in life were more important than baseball, one of them was sex.

“Let me just…,” Ryan said, holding up one finger, and turned to tell his friends that he was leaving. Jack left a sizable tip for the bartender because he was one of the ones Jack liked. The guy gave him a quick nod, and he wondered if maybe he was one of the patrons the bartender liked too. Then Ryan turned around, pushed the stool away from the bar, and Jack forgot all about the bartender.

“All set?” Jack asked with a glance at Ryan’s friends, one of whom was smirking. Then, he looked up, way up, into Ryan’s face. The guy had to be at least an inch or two over six feet, about half a foot taller than Jack.

“I’m all yours….”

They stepped out into the muggy afternoon air and the milling crowd on the sidewalk next to Clark Street. Friday afternoon in any other place would have emptier sidewalks, but not Wrigleyville, not during the season. Guys just like Jack used their summer hours or vacation days to be close to the park, or even to catch a game. He and Ryan stepped back so two guys, also dressed in Cubs gear, could walk past holding hands. Jack loved Chicago, maybe even like he had loved Boston, though he missed his family.

“I live in a walkup over on Melrose. It’s a couple of blocks over,” Ryan offered while he guided Jack to the right toward Addison and then over to Sheffield. By the time they’d navigated through the dense traffic, Ryan was holding Jack’s hand so they wouldn’t be separated. Jack’s heart calmed under Ryan’s touch, though he couldn’t adequately explain to himself how that was possible. For three years he’d been nervous around people; the first year or so he might have suffered from a mild form of agoraphobia, only leaving the house to work. He’d had one of those online services bring him groceries so he wouldn’t get chased through the produce department and threatened with carrot impalement. Jack’s Bostonian life really had ended the night he caught that goddamn ball. It hadn’t really started again until he’d moved to Chicago a few months ago.

The body under Ryan’s tight T-shirt had better make the reward worth the risk. Jack hadn’t picked up a guy in a bar in a very long time. He and Scott had gotten together nearly eight years before, and besides, Jack just wasn’t the type. Shy almost to a fault, even before D-day, he wasn’t much of a club kid. He and Scott had gone out sometimes, but mostly when badgered by friends. Something in Ryan’s eyes, either the promise of gorgeous sex or the way they were tempered with kindness, made Jack want to know him. He had a feeling he was about to get a crash course on Ryan as their bodies slammed together beneath the sheets.

Winding around a bit, they finally ended up on Melrose where Ryan pulled Jack toward a three-story walkup. It was a nice part of town, someplace you wouldn’t mind walking around at night. Jack wondered what his soon-to-be lover did for a living that the guy could afford a place like that. Going home with a complete stranger was exciting, and liberating. Jack could be anyone he wanted to be with Ryan and it wouldn’t matter. He was free of his curse, at least for the night.

Ryan let go of Jack’s hand just long enough to pull out his keys while they walked down the few stairs to reach a garden-level apartment. He unlocked the door and pulled Jack through with a giggle that sounded a bit nervous. Maybe he didn’t bring home strangers often either. That thought warmed Jack, and he relaxed.

The front room was small, probably no bigger than Jack’s own studio apartment downtown, but tastefully decorated with one long leather sofa and a polished oak table in front of it. Behind the couch, lining the far wall, hung a large print of Wrigley Field. It was a beautiful vantage point from behind home plate, almost like the photographer was coming out of a hobbit hole right onto the field. On either side of the mural hung vanity images, the first with the name “Levine” on the back of a Cubs jersey hanging in a locker room, and the second had “Welcome Ryan Levine” on the marquis on the Wrigley Field sign. Jack had seen vanity images like that in catalogs and on the Internet; they seemed like great gifts for a baseball fan but something Jack would never buy for himself. He found himself wondering if they came from a doting parent, or maybe a loving sister. It was weird to stand in the middle of someone’s living room on the edge of sex and not know anything about them. Had he not seen those pictures, he wouldn’t even know Ryan’s last name.

Before he could really let his mind wander too far, soft, warm lips pressed against the side of his neck and strong arms encircled his waist. Jack’s heart ached within his chest, and a longing so powerful struck him, it cut off the breath in his lungs. I missed this. I want this. God, I need this.

“You smell so nice,” Ryan murmured against Jack’s skin. Jack pushed the ball cap off Ryan’s head and threaded fingers in his rich curls. Jack couldn’t see them because Ryan stood behind him, but the silky strands against his palms made him hard. He wanted to feel them on his stomach while Ryan’s head bobbed over his dick. Yes, he wanted that very much. Arching his back slightly, like a cat in heat, Jack rubbed his ass against Ryan’s crotch, delighted to feel a hard bulge pressing against him.

“I’ve been hard since I saw you,” Ryan admitted.

“It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” Jack whispered, and Ryan smiled against his skin. His fingers slid down to Jack’s hip, rubbing it through thick jeans.

“Don’t worry, it’s like riding a bike. Well, except for the dick in your ass.”

A nervous laugh burst from Jack’s lips before he could stop it, and the tension drained out of his shoulders. He turned in Ryan’s arms, and he made sure to run a hand over his lover’s crotch. Ryan’s gasp ended abruptly when their lips met with fierce intensity. The desperate ache grew deeper when Ryan grabbed his ass and rubbed their bodies together.

“God….” Jack moaned and tightened his grip around Ryan’s neck. Random noises registered somewhere in the back of his mind, keys in another door, foot falls from the floor above, but they didn’t distract Jack from the man in his arms, the hard cock stroking against his. Even the memory of making love with Scott didn’t derail his single goal—to be fucked by this beautiful man. Jack would probably never see him again, but it didn’t matter. He’d take what Ryan had to offer and use it to fuel his jack-off fantasies for months when he lay in bed trying to keep the crushing loneliness at bay.

“Bedroom,” Ryan managed to whisper between panting, heated kisses. Jack’s addiction to his kisses grew with each decadent meeting of their mouths. So when Ryan pulled away, Jack was almost shaken, because he was starting to get an idea how fucking amazing it would be when they were naked and sweating on the mattress. Jack missed Ryan’s big hot hands on his ass when Ryan used one to take his and pull him down the short hallway. Even through his lust-filled haze, Jack noticed a small bathroom off the hall and a kitchen at the opposite end. Ryan lived in a perfect den for a single, dedicated baseball fan—just enough space to be comfortable, and within walking distance of the ballpark. He tried hard not to be even a little envious.

The big, unmade bed called to Jack like an oasis to a man surrounded by desert. Ryan pulled the blankets and rumpled sheet to the floor, leaving two soft pillows and no obstacles to their need. Jack hit the bed first, with Ryan’s hard body on top of his, and crab-walked so his head rested on one of the pillows. Ryan never lost contact, kissing his neck, his chest, his shoulder, anything Ryan’s mouth could reach. Quiet moans and sweet exhalations met his ears in an erotic symphony of need.

“So fucking sexy,” Ryan murmured into the hollow of his neck before pulling up the hem of his T-shirt. “We should have stripped before getting into bed.” The amusement and heat in Ryan’s voice made him smile. It had been so long since Jack had fucked, but even longer since it had been just for the sheer fun of it. Scott had always been serious in bed, saying it was about how they felt—but when the going got tough, that didn’t really mean shit. No, this moment was about Ryan—Jack and Ryan and nothing else. He lifted his hips to allow Ryan to pull his jeans and briefs off. Naked and eager to show Ryan he wanted him, Jack stripped him of his clothes with exuberance bordering on violence.

Jack’s new favorite addiction was the taste of Ryan’s warm skin.

No words were necessary when Jack slid down Ryan’s toned body. Ryan wasn’t muscular, but had more of a swimmer’s build he’d hidden under baggy jeans and a big jersey. Jack’s fingers traced Ryan’s abs, just a hint of definition. He liked that. They looked sweet, so he tasted them while hands tried to find purchase in his short hair. Loving the way Ryan’s body tensed while his mouth moved lower, Jack teased around Ryan’s hip bone and between his thighs, everywhere but where Ryan wanted Jack’s mouth. Jack could have listened to Ryan’s whimpers, his soft cries, for hours as he begged without speaking. He spread his legs farther on the wide bed, pushing his hips up in offering. Jack teased just a bit longer, ghosting his fingers over the tender skin of Ryan’s balls.

“God, please,” Ryan whispered, but it sounded like he spoke more to himself than to Jack. When Jack’s mouth closed over Ryan’s cock, taking it almost into his throat in one swift movement, Ryan’s cry was neither quiet nor restrained. Tucking his lips around his teeth, Jack set to work, relishing the thick weight against his tongue. Ryan’s hand covered his where it lay on Ryan’s thigh. Their fingers splayed, entwining. He’d always loved sucking a man’s cock. It turned him on to feel Ryan’s legs tremble in response to his touch, to hear the out-of-control sounds Ryan made, to watch while Ryan writhed beneath him. Nothing gave Jack a rush like that, not even if the Sox went to the series. Okay, well… maybe.

Ryan did all of that, trembling and writhing, but he also begged with insistent fingers against Jack’s scalp, wordlessly asking Jack to take him higher. He hollowed out his cheeks and sucked hard, bobbing his head, stroking Ryan’s cock with taut lips until his sounds merged into one continuous moan. The graceful way Ryan’s body arched into his touch made Jack’s cock throb. Jack wanted to wrap his fingers around it and fuck his hand in time with his mouth on Ryan’s dick. He wanted to swallow Ryan’s load even as he came on Ryan’s pristine white sheet. The idea shocked him. It had taken Jack almost a year of constant fidelity with Scott to make the decision to fuck around without condoms.

An insistent tug on Jack’s shoulder caught his attention, and he let Ryan’s perfect dick fall from his lips.

“C… condoms in the s… side table,” Ryan said, panting around each word. His eyes were wild in the light from the bedside lamp. Sweat beaded on Ryan’s forehead while a swirling tempest of lust and emotion stared back at Jack. Ryan’s whole upper body, flushed with arousal, arched as he fisted the pillow behind his head. His hips rolled uselessly up into empty air where Jack’s mouth had been.

“You okay?”

“Oh my God, that was…. Jesus, it took everything I had not to come, but I wanted to wait,” Ryan babbled, falling back against the pillows with a shaking hand over his eyes. Jack postponed the hunt for a condom and sat on the side of the bed next to him. Jack’s heart pounded when he leaned down to capture Ryan’s lips in a slow, sweet kiss. Ryan’s answering smile made him weak.

Jack blew out a shaky breath and pulled out the side table drawer. A full box of condoms, still sealed in the plastic, sat next to a bottle of lube. Either Ryan was very sexually active and had to replace the condoms often, or he was lonely. Jack found neither of those explanations appealed to him. It didn’t matter either way, but Jack didn’t want him to be lonely. Ryan was a sweet guy; he deserved to be loved.

Ryan’s hands shook when he tried to open the package. God, he was adorable. It took him a minute to get everything open and on, but Jack sat patiently and watched. His smooth skin glowed in the afternoon light streaming in through the window. Jack slid a gentle hand over Ryan’s chest and abs, and he shivered. Jack loved how every touch, every kiss, made the emotions show so openly in his face. He straddled Ryan’s hips, stroking Ryan’s body with his, and moaned as their cocks rubbed together. Wild, out-of-control cries mingled between them when Ryan grabbed Jack’s ass, grinding up into him, desperate for sensation, contact. He caught Ryan’s moans while they kissed, just as breathless as his own.

Their eyes locked when Ryan’s cock pressed against his entrance and a warm hand fell onto his hip.