PROLOGUE: ONE YEAR AGO

REUBEN

 

THE EXIT door punched shut at my back, silencing the lead singer’s cringeworthy attempt at a top note light years beyond his reach. There was a God after all, apparently. The din of the juiced-up crowd mercifully faded along with him, and I entertained the possibility of the odd angelic manifestation as well. I stepped into the murky car park, sucked in the cool night air, and tried to clear my mind. Fuck. My. Life.

The door handle rattled, spiking my pulse. Goddammit. Were a few minutes of peace too much to ask? The door remained closed, and I blew out a sigh. I didn’t want company, but I hadn’t exactly been subtle about my escape either. Jess, or Tess, or whatever the fuck her name was, hadn’t been the easiest to shake loose. She’d snaked her hand through my arm the minute I’d arrived at the damn postmatch dinner, blathering on and on, about what, I really couldn’t tell you.

After manhandling me onto the dance floor, she’d shimmied her way up and down my less-than-interested flesh to the raucous encouragement of my teammates, and yeah, fucking awkward. But we had it drummed into us often enough, “don’t piss off the fans, be polite and generous with your time.” Yeah, right. Pretty sure the fine print there didn’t include some random fangirl’s fingers wrapped around my dick. So when she snaked a hand down the front of my dress trousers, I was out of there lickety-fucking-split.

The Chiefs’ bus sat in a dirty puddle of light to the side of the car park, alongside that of the Blues, both franchise logos fading in and out of the grey drizzle. I briefly wondered if I could get away with calling an Uber and heading home, but nah, never gonna happen. Postmatch socialising wasn’t exactly optional, especially for wannabe All Black contenders. Being noticed by the selectors meant being visible on and off the field. The irony that two such selectors were currently inside being schmoozed by other hopefuls while I was standing outside in the car park like a damn idiot wasn’t lost on me. I glanced at the closed door. Fuck.

Team meant everything to the All Blacks, or the ABs as we loved to call them. If you wanted into what was arguably the most successful sports team on the planet, with more than a hundred-year history, and a success rate of over 78 percent, you didn’t just need mad skills, you needed to front with the right attitude.

The ABs paid unique attention to their players’ understanding of what “team” meant. It didn’t matter if you had talent pouring out your arse or could give a racehorse a run for its money down the wing, if you were a prima donna, attention whore, or lone ranger, you wouldn’t last long in the ABs, if they even bothered to call you up. They had an official “no dickhead” policy.

At twenty-three I’d already secured a coveted fullback starting position in the Chiefs’ line-up two years in a row. Hen’s teeth stuff in itself. The contract was more than I’d dared hope for as a scrappy kid growing up on a tired farm in financially strapped, back-of-fucking-nowhere, rural Whakamaru. But it was still less than I’d dreamed.

I’d had a good debut season, and this current one was shaping up even better, with headlines promoting me as “one of the most promising fullbacks in the contemporary game.” But I still hadn’t gotten the call-up. Any other year and I’d have been a shoo-in for at least a tryout, but the current AB line-up already had two phenomenally skilled fullbacks, neither of whom looked to be going anywhere.

My timing sucked big hairy balls, and save spiking those particular players’ cornflakes with a screw-up potion, all I could do was wait and keep my nose clean. That meant no dodging team events and no making waves, particularly the tsunami that would rain down if I explained exactly why I’d run out on said fangirl.

I rolled my shirtsleeves down and wrapped my arms around my chest to ward off the shiver rolling the length of my body. Christ, it was cold. After jogging ten metres or so around the corner, I found some shelter under the caterers’ entrance, slipping alongside a bank of recycling bins. Perfect. Just the spot for New Zealand’s most promising fullback, or at least its most promising, fully closeted, gay fullback. Now you’re talking. Yeah, I was a walking fucking cliché.

Would New Zealand rugby fans ever be ready to open that particular can of worms, regardless of the politically correct drivel spouted in the media? Who the fuck knew? The All Blacks had never had an out gay player, and I wasn’t keen to stick my hand up to be the first for a number of reasons. I patted my empty pockets from habit, gagging for a smoke. Two years, and damn if the craving wasn’t still needle-sharp.

I shook the drizzle from my hair and refolded my arms across my chest to stave off the cold. Ten minutes and Miss Blonde-and-Annoying would surely have moved on, right? Spotlights peppered the car park, highlighting the brief threads of shimmering rain, potentially a metaphor for my whole fucking rugby career: a glimmer in the spotlight before being lost to the gloom. I sighed and for once let myself fall into the funk instead of fighting it.

“You looking for a cigarette?”

What the…? I spun, my breath catching in my chest as I came face-to-face with an extraordinarily beautiful man. Even half hidden in the shadow of the doorway, there was no denying the olive skin and those razor cheekbones and full lips. And, fucking hell, those eyes. Reflecting the dull gleam from the lights, they glittered a beguiling, tawny gold. Goddamn.

The guy’s mouth quirked up in a bemused smile as he raised his hands. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”

I frowned, and the breath I’d been holding released in a huff of embarrassment. I’d started like a damn teenage girl. “What the hell are you doing, hiding back here?”

He raised an eyebrow, and a memory slid into place. I knew him, or at least I’d seen him before. Some rugby dinner, in Hamilton maybe, probably the last time we’d played the Blues. He’d been pointed out to me, and not in a good way, but I remembered not being able to take my damn eyes off him from that moment on. Until he disappeared, that is, before the party had even got started, and that had been that.

“Hardly hiding, sugar.” The corners of his full lips lifted. “And correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe I was here first. Not that I’m unhappy to share the space. Just didn’t realise it had your name on it.” He tipped his head to the pack of cigarettes sitting on the wall alongside the bins. “Help yourself, by the way. Bummed them from a friend. I don’t usually smoke, but sometimes….”

I stared at him in silence, trying desperately not to look like I was checking him out… but I totally was because, fuck, gorgeous. He was the kind of guy who left an impression whether or not you wanted to jump his bones, and for the record, I so fucking did. The man was sizzling. Older than me by a few years, I guessed, and a couple of inches shorter than my six three. He was lean and fit, with silky black hair I had to physically ball my fists to stop from reaching out to stroke, and soft olive skin with well-trimmed stubble. But that wasn’t the only facial adornment.

He wore makeup, tastefully but unapologetically, and he was clearly and assuredly out and proud. Both marked him like an orchid in a thistle patch in the aftermatch rugby scene. Not that he’d seemed bothered the first time I’d seen him… not in the fucking slightest, and tonight was no different. Copper eyeliner edged a pair of smoky lids, the effect serving to highlight the gold flecks in those eyes. Eyes that were studying me with obvious amusement. Busted.

I cleared my throat, letting my gaze slide away. “Sorry. I may have overreacted. Just wasn’t expecting anyone else out, not in this.” I held my hand up to the rain. “And thanks, but I gave up smoking a while back.”

When he didn’t respond, I glanced back to find him still smiling, and my dick twitched. Of course it fucking did. I hadn’t gotten laid in over four months and this guy was pushing buttons I never even knew I had. In my limited sexual experience—read occasional local hookups with guys I knew I could trust, and overseas-holiday blowjobs in dimly lit bathrooms—beautiful, classy, flamboyant guys were hardly on the menu. Men like that had way better places to spend their time, and men to spend it with. So who knew they would turn my dick on like a proverbial fucking faucet?

I needed to stop staring, but my gaze feasted on that sultry body like I was starving, and maybe I was. Makeup, tight-as-fuck black jeans, and draped silver satin shirt aside, there was no denying the guy was 100 percent male. The stubble, the look, the smell, the ballsy attitude—everything about him oozed male sensuality, and I was hooked like a snapper on a line. The most seductive thing? The way he just sat in his own skin, so fuck-what-anyone-else-thinks and irresistibly confident. It was crazy-arse intoxicating, and I knew in that instant it was equally, deadly fucking dangerous… to me.

I saw the moment the gears clanked into place and he knew. That soft mouth with its inviting lip-glossed shimmer curved up in a calculated smirk. Saliva pooled in my mouth, and down south sat a little bit taller. Goddamn.

“See something you like?” he asked, eyes smiling.

Heat flared in my cheeks, humiliation churned my gut, and I no doubt had the equivalent of a neon sign above my head that read “ridiculous gay instacrush.” Way to go, idiot.

I stumbled over a reply, barely managing to pull off a single “Huh?” Yeah, riveting.

He didn’t repeat himself. I’d heard, and he knew it. He just stood there waiting, as if I were some kind of puzzle to solve.

Good luck with that. I needed to get my loser self out of there before I did or said something stupid—more stupid—but my feet were locked to the ground, and I was 90 percent sure I was still blushing.

Finally, as if he’d come to some sort of conclusion about my relative sanity, his shoulders dropped, and he threw out his hand. “Cameron Wano—Cam. Mathew Wano’s big brother.”

By some miracle my hand rose of its own accord and enveloped his smaller one in some semblance of normality. Warm, dry fingers closed around mine in a firm grip, and yeah, I totally did the whole firm-grip-on-something-else mind-trip.

“Reuben Taylor,” I answered. “Chiefs’ fullback.”

He grinned. “I know who you are, Reuben Taylor.”

He did? Why did that make me so goddamn happy? The sound of my name on his lips did strange things to my stomach, and for a second, I couldn’t think of a reply. I swallowed hard. “Yeah.” I tipped my head at the hall. “With a brother in the game, you must get sick of hearing all the shit, right? But I, ah… I recognise you too, actually.”

His brows shot up in genuine surprise and it was all I could do not to reach out and smooth them back into place.

“Really?” he said, his steady gaze knotting my nerves.

I shuffled on my feet. “Well, not your name. I mean… I didn’t know your name… obviously.”

He bit back a smirk. I was rattled, and he knew it. “Obviously,” he said.

Way to insult the guy, idiot. “I mean, I will now… remember your name, that is, after today, but… I’ve seen you before… I think.” Jesus. Could I sound any more like a complete dork? “You’re kind of hard to miss.” And, oh my God, I may have even snorted.

Those gorgeous brows creased in a you-did-not-just-say-that kind of way.

Just bury me now.

I meant in a good way,” I flustered. “You’re hard to miss… in a good way. Shit. That still sounds bad, right?” I trailed off and let the awkward silence swallow any remaining pride I possessed. “You should just hit me now and get it over with.”

He might have chuckled, but I was too busy looking for the ground to swallow me up to care. The crunch of stones underfoot was, I assumed, a signal of his departure, but seconds later fingers caught my chin and gently turned my face to meet that tawny gaze. He was so close, I only needed to lean down a fraction and I could’ve run my tongue up all that glorious skin or nibbled on the sexy stubble that framed his jaw. Ugh. I was making a complete idiot of myself over a guy I knew nothing about.

He tilted his head, still smiling. “Well, well, Reuben Taylor. Aren’t you just the surprise now?”

He cast his eyes over my face, and I licked my lips before I was even aware of it. His gaze zeroed in immediately, eyes darkening. Holy hell. My breath hitched, and a shiver ran the length of my body. It didn’t pass unnoticed. He smirked, reached out, and ran his thumb over my lower lip. I nearly puddled at his feet and offered him my firstborn child.

The man might have been shorter than me, a ton lighter in muscle, and wearing more eye makeup than my best friend Georgie on a night out, but there was no denying who was calling the shots. Those golden eyes had me netted tight as he fisted my shirt and pulled me close, resting his lips against my ear.

“I believe the evening just took a significant turn for the better,” he whispered, then nibbled my lobe.

Holy shit. My knees buckled and everything south went on red alert.

“Whoa there, handsome.” He steadied me with one hand under my elbow, then stepped back to study me. “Am I reading things wrong here?”

Yes. No. Fuck. A sigh broke my lips. “No… well, maybe…. It’s just… I’m not… I don’t… ugh.” Christ, what was I doing? I needed to get the hell away from him. A pair of fucking All Black selectors sat ten metres away on the other side of that door, not to mention two Super Rugby franchise teams, and my goddamn father, and here I was….

I closed my eyes, desperate to ignore a body that seemed happy for any crumb this guy might throw its way. But it couldn’t happen, none of it. Nothing I wished for or dreamed about—or jerked off endlessly to in my freaking empty bed—could happen. There was too much at stake, and not just my rugby. I opened my eyes and found his gaze no longer amused but concerned. He stroked my cheek, and I couldn’t help but lean into it.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said.

No, it really isn’t. I shook my head. “I’m sorry.” The wobble in my voice broke into a full-on stammer. “I j-just can’t… d-do this.” Fuck. I hadn’t done that since I was seventeen, the last time Dad had tried to take to me with his belt. I’d pushed him into the wall and ripped it out of his hands. The beatings had stopped, but there were a hundred other ways to hurt someone.

Cam frowned and, damn, those eyebrows. Who knew that shit was sexy? I swallowed hard. “Look, don’t get me wrong. I want to—I really, really fucking want to—but….”

“You’re not out, right.” Statement. “No surprise there, I would’ve heard something.” A frown creased his forehead.

My cheeks bloomed, and I couldn’t hold his gaze. “Yeah. But you’re, um… just really beautiful… and, I wish….”

“It’s okay. You sure you don’t want that cigarette?”

His voice was warm and thick, and before I knew it, I’d leaned in and pressed my lips flush to his surprised ones. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Panic reared in my head, but it wasn’t enough to stop me.

He startled, then responded with caution. It was brief, and sweet, and chaste, and it completely fucked up my entire world. I never wanted it to end, and when he pulled away, I chased his lips, but he held back, watching me closely. I couldn’t speak. Sweet Jesus, I couldn’t fucking move.

He sighed, those long black lashes fluttering closed for a long minute, and I’d have given anything to know what was going on behind them. But when he opened them again, his gaze was infinitely more guarded.

“I believe you were telling me what you really, really wanted, Reuben,” he said.

I stared, terrified, every muscle in my touch-starved body aching to bridge the distance between us. He was so goddamn pretty, I could scarcely breathe. Christ, I wanted him. And with that single thought foremost in my idiot brain, I crashed my mouth over his and shoved him back against the shadowed wall he’d stepped out from. He hesitated just a second, stiff in my arms, but I cupped his face and held him in place, running my tongue along the crease of his lips, desperate to taste him, wanting inside, wanting more, so much more, wanting everything, but knowing I’d likely get nothing more than this moment.

With a soft moan, Cam’s body relaxed against mine as he opened for me, and my tongue dived in, stroking, sucking, savouring every second. He tasted vaguely of red wine and sweet meringue. It was rich and heady, and I couldn’t get enough.

He flipped our positions and ran his hands up my abdomen and across my chest, grazing my nipples through the cotton of my dress shirt. I whimpered, fucking whimpered, as the sensation ran straight to my dick, which was threatening to pop the zipper of my dress trousers any minute. I was close to coming in my pants from the kiss alone; if he actually fucking touched me, I’d be a goner.

He seemed equally into it, thank God, reaching up to pull my hands from his face and lower them to his arse. Then he pushed his hips into mine and circled in a deliciously slow grind. He was as hard as I was, and that bolstered my courage. I moved my lips to his neck and nipped the skin at the collar of that sexy-as-shit satin shirt, but he growled and pulled away, placing a hand on my chest.

“Don’t. Fucking. Move,” he said, trailing a finger down my chest to my stomach, then lower, keeping his eyes steady on me all the while. And I didn’t move. I did exactly as he said. Anything to keep his hands on me. Hell, I’d have lain naked on the wet ground in the middle of the damn car park if he’d asked.

“You’re so fucking sexy,” he crooned, pupils blown almost black in the half-lit shadow. “Look at you. Coiled tight, built like a fucking tank, and so damn eager. You blow my mind, Reuben Taylor. But I think one taste of you would never be enough, and that is a problem.”

“We don’t have to….”

“No, and we won’t. I don’t do closet cases, but fuck me if I don’t want in you like there’s no tomorrow.”

Huh? The few times I’d done anal, only once had I not been the one doing the fucking. It hadn’t been the best experience, so I was kind of shocked by my body’s immediate and resounding yes. Well, shit.

“Still.” He licked his lips. “Maybe just a taste….” He kicked my legs apart, dropping me to his level, stepped in and owned my mouth in a kiss that threatened to pull my balls through my tonsils. Jesus, who was this guy? For a dude who wore makeup, the man took no prisoners, and I wanted nothing more than to let him do whatever the hell he wanted. And yes, I was hoping that list was long.

His hand snaked between us, cupping me, eliciting a groan the likes of which had never before fallen from my lips. I pushed myself into his hand, desperate for friction.

He grinned against my lips. “Hold on, sweetheart. I’ve got you.” He pressed his lips to my neck and nipped lightly before soothing it with a lick.

I groaned. “Shit, I’m… too close.”

He found my zipper and drew it down nice and slow. “No. You’re gonna wait till I say, right?”

My body fair thrummed in response. “Okay” was all I could manage. The firm heat of his grip had me biting the inside of my cheek, but he’d told me to wait, and I was gonna fucking wait if it killed me, which was looking increasingly likely. But he only got in a couple of slow strokes before light spilled across the car park and we both froze. Fuck.

“Reuben, you out here?” Kevin Falcon, a teammate.

Double fuck. I shoved Cam roughly, pushing him hard into the wall. He grunted. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I hauled up my zipper and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand before scrambling to put as much distance between the two of us as possible.

Cam cursed, and I caught the word “bastard” before he stepped back into the light. I couldn’t meet his eyes, too afraid of the contempt I’d find there. Bastard? Yep, no doubt about it.

My teammate rounded the corner. “Jesus, Reuben, what the hell are you doing out here? It’s fucking freezing. Jess said you’d ditched her. Are you nuts?”

Then it came, that jolt of confused surprise when he saw I wasn’t alone, and again when he registered exactly who I was with. His gaze narrowed, flitting between the two of us. “What the fuck’s going on here?”

My chest tightened in panic and my hands shook in my pockets, but I kept my gaze solid, my expression neutral. “I bummed a cigarette.”

I looked to Cam, who held my gaze. From where Kevin stood, I hoped to hell he couldn’t see the graze on Cam’s cheek from the wall I’d just thrown him into. Jesus, I’m an arsehole. With his eyes locked on mine, we both knew he had the power to throw me under the bus right then and there with a single word, and hell if I didn’t deserve it. He looked pissed enough to be at least considering the option.

Then he sighed, and I felt a glimmer of hope. He grabbed the pack of cigarettes from the wall, still holding my gaze and keeping his back to Kevin. “Yeah,” he said. “You should really give that shit up. Filthy habit.”

The double entendre wasn’t lost on me.

“Have a good one,” he added, keeping his back to the two of us as he walked out into the drizzle of the car park.

I breathed a sigh of relief mingled with gutted disappointment.

Kevin regarded me with suspicion. “What the fuck, Reuben? You know who that is?”

I sighed. “Yeah, Kevin, I know.”

“He’s a fucking fag, man.” He made no attempt to lower his voice, his lip curled in revulsion. “You want people thinking you like dick as well?”

Cam’s head whipped around, and I winced inwardly, but there was nothing I could do.

“I get it, okay?” I answered, louder than I’d meant to, and doing nothing to correct the jerk’s language. Cam flipped us both off with a disgusted look before continuing to a small red BMW. Fuck. My. Life.

“Well?” Kevin pushed.

“Well, what?” I raised my voice. “I bummed a cigarette from the guy. He didn’t suck me off, for Christ’s sake.” If only.

Kevin stared at me for a moment, then relaxed. “Sorry, man. It’s just… you know. Guys like that piss me off. But say anything and the damn rugby bosses fuck with your contract or send you to sensitivity training.”

Footsteps approached. “Reuben?”

Son of a bitch. My father. Could this shitty evening get any worse?

Kevin rolled his eyes. “He’s here, Mr Taylor. Just having a cigarette.”

That Dad was a piece of work wasn’t lost on my teammates. Most felt sorry for me.

My father’s expression was thunderous. “Thought you gave that shit up. You’ll never make an All Black, smoking that crap.”

I rolled my eyes. “It was just one cigarette.”

He slapped me up the back of the head. “Don’t be a smartarse.”

I stepped in closer, forcing him to look up at me. “Don’t. Fucking. Touch. Me.”

He hesitated and took a step back. “Whatever. That girl said you followed Wano’s fag brother outside.” He scanned the car park.

“He gave me a cigarette, end of story. You done? ’Cause I need to get back inside.”

He stared at me hard, but I’d lied to my father for so long, about so much, I never even blinked.

“Yeah, I’m done,” he said. “And damn right you need to get back inside. Those selectors want to see you. I had to put them off while I fucking tracked you down.” He stabbed his finger into my chest. “So get in there and sell your damn arse.”

I grabbed his hand and shoved it away.

“Hey,” Kevin said, glancing nervously between us, “when you’re done licking the selectors’ shoes, a few of us are heading to Max’s to continue the fun. I’ll snag that Jess bird for you on the way out. Could be a good evening.”

“He’ll be there,” my father answered for me.

Kevin glanced my way, and I shrugged. Fucking wonderful. But it was better than another minute with my father. I followed them both inside, doing my best not to let my gaze wander to the corner of the car park where a small BMW sat with the driver’s window open and a thin trail of smoke wove its way skyward.