HARRISBURG RAILERS SERIES
Layton Foxx has worked hard for what he’s achieved. The condo, the career, the chance to make his mark…it’s all down to the sacrifices he’s made. With tragedy in his past, he doesn’t want or need love. Then he meets Adler Lockhart, the extroverted, sexy winger for the Harrisburg Railers, and abruptly he can’t avoid love even if he wanted to.
Adler Lockhart has had everything handed to him his whole life. Cars, villas, cash, college tuition at the finest Ivy League schools. The only thing he doesn’t have is parents who care, or the love of a good man. Then Layton walks into his privileged life and shows him what real love can be like.
Layton wants success, Adler wants a family…how can love make both these things possible?
“First Season is an excellent follow up to Changing Lines and solidifies this series as a must read for anyone who enjoys hockey or a sweet romance between strong men.” Joyfully Jay
“…First Season is of the same high quality writing, character and plot development that has become the norm for RJ Scott and V.L. Locey.” Jim’s Reading Room
“…When you mix that all together in the story First Season, it all comes together in a romance that hooked me in from the very start, made me love its characters from the main couple to the secondary cast and kept me invested as well as connected in everyone’s story.” Scattered Thoughts & Rogue Words
“On the surface, this is probably one of the most unlikely pairings that I’ve encountered in a while but at the end of it all, it’s also one of the sweetest.” My Fiction Nook
This was turning out to be the worst day of my life. Worse even than the time the football team decided to shove me in a locker, and then wedge the door shut.
Everything started out okay. The Railers appointment was my third job since leaving college and choosing to specialize in crisis management. Call me a spin doctor or a marketing guy, it doesn’t matter; I was there with my bright, shiny degree in business in my back pocket, to solve a problem using social media, training, and careful planning.
“We want to hire you, but are you gay?” The caller asked when he contacted me.
He couldn’t really ask me that, but at that point, with bills to pay, I worded it a lot better than just blurting out a “What the hell?”
“I’m not sure how that’s relevant,” I said.
The man on the other end of the phone, who hadn’t even identified himself, just that he worked for a hockey team, sighed noisily. “Fucked if I know,” he said. “I just need someone to help us through this.”
So I asked him what he meant, and at the point when he completely lost his shit over whether to use the word homosexual in a press release, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I can handle this,” I reassured him. “You need me.”
I didn’t care how I got it, I just knew that I was the best person for the job.
He told me he was the GM for the Railers hockey team, and even though my heart sank and my chest tightened, I had to do this. A hockey team, a player coming out of the closet—this was a high-value client.
I did my research after the call; I didn’t watch hockey, but I knew of it, and it was basically a bunch of jocks on skates. Right? They needed to be told when to talk and when not to talk, and what was appropriate and when. I could do that. Add in the fact that I would be managing the first official coming-out in the hockey world, and this could make or break my career. I could become a crisis management expert in the field of sports.
The irony of that didn’t escape me, given my past.
I had breakfast, wore my newest suit, a crisp white shirt and a brand new blue tie to match the team colors. I’d shaved off my non-ironic loggers’ beard, and my man bun was gone. I felt a little naked, but I wanted to be taken seriously, and what used to be hot in styling now seemed to be the butt of jokes. I didn’t want to be the butt of anyone’s jokes.
Honestly, I’d thought of everything.
Walking into the East River Arena, home of the Harrisburg Railers hockey team, freaked me out. It was the smell, I think, and the cavernous expanse of seats. I could imagine the shouting, the jeering, the excitement, and all of that became a ball of fear inside me.
Jocks. I can handle them. They’re adults now, and I’m not the same nerdy kid I used to be.
Still, it didn’t stop me losing my breakfast in the first bathroom I could find off the tunnel from the parking garage. So much for eating to give me energy. I was a wrung-out mess, clinging to porcelain and wishing I could get a handle on my nerves. I’d had two clients before this, big companies with interesting problems, where my lectures on sensitivity awareness had been well received. I could handle rough feedback, crappy tweets, Facebook discussions about inappropriate shit, but they were corporate clients, not hockey players.
It was me and them.
Talking one-on-one with hockey players and the support network around them about how it was okay for one of their players to be sleeping with their coach. Also that gay was good, love was love, and oh yeah, could they stop tweeting shit about anything to do with gender, politics, and sexual orientation, to name three things on my list.
These guys were jocks. Well-paid jocks, with a whole army of fans who hung on their every word. The captain had over eighty thousand Twitter followers, mostly because he seemed to be the poster boy for sex on skates. Lots of tweets with videos of him half naked. Not to mention Ten’s Instagram, which was new, but which already had an explosion of followers, probably for the same reason—he was hot, and a skater. I noticed links to a lot of websites that featured the hottest men in hockey. Without knowing it, Ten and the team captain were probably gay icons. Go figure.
And it was for Ten and his boyfriend that I was here. Ten was the hotshot on the Railers team, one of those players who were making a mark on the NHL. Or so the press releases said. All I saw was a gay man coming out in a hostile sports environment and that was what I was dealing with.
Ten, hockey player, and his partner, Jared, coach, were in a committed relationship and I had to make people see that this was normal. Okay. A good thing.
I can do this. I am strong. I will not be sick again.
I relaxed each tight muscle and swallowed around the dryness in my throat. Today was going to go well. Why would anything go wrong? I’d prepared what I needed, researched enough about the team to know the personnel, if not the game of hockey itself; there was only so much I could do in the week since I’d been called to do this job. I even had an office, apparently.
So I’d been sick; lots of people got sick before significant events. I could handle being sick.
Which was exactly when things went even more wrong. I turned the tap on to wash my hands, and the damn thing was fierce and splashed my pants. I jumped back in shock and horror, and smacked myself on the door to a stall, the brunt of my weight taken by my left hip.
“Fuck,” I cursed, and turned off the water. There was no hand dryer, just paper towels, and I dabbed my pants, painfully conscious that my first meeting with team management was in ten minutes.
I dabbed at the wetness, then realized some of the water had splashed my briefcase as well. That was the moment I wondered if the morning could get any worse.
Which was when the door opened and I swung, startled, to face the newcomer, my briefcase swinging as well and catching the man in the thigh.
“Jesus,” I snapped, angry with myself, then let out a small, “I’m sorry.”
Tall and Growly stared at me in shock, muscles tensed, and rubbed his thigh. “What the fuck?” was all he said.
He was wearing a Railers T-shirt, but I didn’t recall him from my research, so if he was a player then he couldn’t be one of the big names I needed to know about to start with. Maybe he was a trainer?
“Sorry,” I repeated.
He stared at me, then looked me up and down with a very careful, disdainful look. Or at least I thought it was disdainful; he looked for a moment like he was checking me out, but that wasn’t possible given that we were in a hockey arena. He was gorgeous—blue eyes, his red hair styled but soft, his jawline square, and his body broad.
Then the disdain, or whatever it was, turned into a sly wink, and he gestured at my crotch.
“Hey buddy, you might want to make time for a potty break sooner if you have such a teeny bladder. Just saying.”
I blinked at him, not knowing what to say. I mean, did I stand there and explain about the tap, or the water, or falling back against the stall door, or even that I’d just lost my breakfast?
I couldn’t say any of it. I picked up my jacket from the small table by the door and shoved past him and out into the hall. A few seconds later I was at the door marked “Staff,” and pressed the button to get in.
“Railers Hockey,” a voice came through the speaker by the door.
“Layton Foxx,” I said, and caught sight of the bathroom guy walking my way. The door buzzed, I pushed it open, shut it quickly behind me, and hoped to hell that would give me breathing space.
A short woman stood waiting with a welcoming smile on her face and holding out a hand. I shook it, realizing at the last moment that mine was damp.
“Jane Monroe, PA to Felix Cote, team owner.”
She didn’t react to the damp on my hand, but when I pulled it away I was flustered.
“Sorry, I had a thing,” I began, then cleared my throat, which was raw from vomiting, “with the bathroom faucet,” and I waved at my crotch.
Her lips twitched into a smile. “This way, Mr. Foxx, management is expecting you.”
Fuck my life.
The day didn’t get much better. The management team had been a nervous, twitchy, bunch, and worried about the big picture. I hadn’t entirely got the sense that they had an issue with the gay hockey player thing, but their bottom line was revenue.
The brief had expanded from supporting Ten and Jared to ensuring that revenue wasn’t harmed.
Great, nothing like moving the goalposts on my first day and setting unrealistic expectations.
At least Felix Cote had been supportive; I often found changes in any group had to be supported by the person at the top. He’d made some veiled comments about how things had been “in his day,” but I could work with that.
Tennant Rowe and Jared Madsen were going to make my career or destroy it in one go, that much was obvious. Now, looking at them sitting opposite me, at the way they unconsciously leaned toward each other, worried me. As a gay man who’d been out to his family and friends since he was sixteen, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have to hide who you are, but that was the playing field in professional sports, no pun intended.
These two—one a coach on the team, the other a professional hockey player in his prime—had fallen in love. Not only that, but they’d decided it was time to come out, and the Railers had hired me to manage the fallout.
Because there would be fallout, that much was certain.
“It’s going to come at you from all directions,” I said.
Tennant frowned at me. His emotions were written plainly on his face. He was angry, defensive, scared, happy, positive and negative, all in one horrible mess. The only thing I could pin down was that he was absolutely in love with Jared and completely convinced of what he wanted to do.
“Go on,” Jared said, and he laced his fingers with Ten’s. They could in here—we were alone, the three of us, with the door closed and no cameras. But this was the first thing they needed to handle.
“You need to be careful with public displays of affection.”
I saw two very different reactions. Jared looked resigned and nodded, but Ten bristled with the start of genuine indignation. I knew what he was going to say, and I headed him off at the pass.
“It shouldn’t matter,” I began, choosing my words carefully, “But this isn’t going to be easy. There will be the religious fans deciding you’re going against God, right down to the parents who don’t want their kids exposed to non-heteronormative behavior. The spectrum of reaction will be varied. You’ll get some who advocate for you, the team, the management, and fans who don’t give a shit what you do in your private time as long as Ten is scoring goals.”
“We know that,” Jared said.
“We don’t have to like it,” Ten said, and his tone was worrying. He sounded miserable, and he was fully leaning against Jared.
I shuffled the papers on the desk, lining them up to give myself time to think. I’d managed personal clients before, polished them as a product, managed their every moment until they learned how to act in public and how to make the best of who they were. Only, those had been people who needed to clean up their act. I’d helped the telecom company with their painful downsizing, and a college with an equality issue. I was the best at what I did, and I worked hard to make things right for people. But this? The two of them didn’t have to come out publicly; they could go on being the secret that wasn’t a secret, at least until Ten’s playing days were done. He might be only twenty-two, but a professional career doing what these players did was often over by their early thirties. Sometimes sooner, I thought when I recalled that a heart problem had sidelined Jared from his professional career. Ten would only have to wait another decade or so to retire. Was that something he’d be willing to do? I had to ask the question, and hoped I didn’t lose the confidence of either man.
“You could stop this now,” I said bluntly.
Jared was the first to speak. “I know, but we won’t stop.”
Ten bit his lip. “We want this.”
I nodded and looked down at my notes, but I didn’t need them. I’d had my own share of prejudice in life; plenty of life experience to tap from.
“The press will love you and hate you equally. If the Railers lose, it will be reported widely in different ways. The quality press may well suggest that Ten was distracted, with the implication being that Jared here is the distraction. The gossip sites could suggest that maybe you’re having too much gay sex with your gay coach. On the other hand, if you win, it could be suggested that you freaked out the other team, that maybe they didn’t want to be near you. Then there are the really shitty things they can say. They could bring up skating accidents, blood, HIV—it might not stop with criticism about your sexual orientation, but could become something bigger.”
“And on a positive note?” Jared asked dryly.
“Sorry.” I sat back in my chair. “I needed to explain that to you up front.”
“We already know all that,” Ten said tiredly.
“And I’m here as your supporter in this. We’re in open dialogue with various equality-in-sports groups—”
“Locker rooms should be safe and sports venues should be free from homophobia. Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation and/or gender identity.” Ten mumbled the whole mission statement of one of the biggest groups advocating for equality.
“That’s what we’re aiming for.”
“Okay, so where do we start?” Ten said, and gripped Jared’s hand tight.
“I’m not big into hockey,” I began.
Jared looked shocked. Ten’s mouth fell open.
“But that doesn’t stop me understanding the social and economic issues we’re facing with this.”
“You don’t like hockey?” Ten said incredulously, like that wasn’t a possible thing in his world.
“It isn’t important to know the game to be aware of the culture.”
“That’s crap.” That was from Jared, who shook his head. “I’ll sit you down and explain a few things, and you need to sit in on games. If you don’t get hockey, then…” He paused and searched for the right words. “You don’t get hockey.”
“It’s on my list,” I reassured him.
“Seriously? No hockey at all?” Ten asked again.
I decided to change the subject. “First off, I need to find out a bit more about both of you. Ten, I understand you have two brothers who also play hockey?”
The meeting was long, but by the time we’d got to the end of it I had a picture of the sort of thing I was up against. We had a lot of positives going for us. Management was looking to spin the whole coming-out story to their benefit. Being the first NHL team with an out player would either be an incredible marketing option, or cut ticket revenue. They were demanding the first and ignoring the chance of the second. The team was next on my list; I’d be interviewing them singly for short sessions behind closed doors, to ascertain any issues I’d have to deal with. Those started soon, and first up was the captain, Connor Hurley.
“Connor,” I said as he stepped in. I shook his hand. “I’m Layton Foxx.”
“Nice to meet you, Layton.”
Connor was a quiet guy, all serious eyes and focus, and he listened to everything I had to say and asked reasonable, well-thought-out questions. He was one hundred percent behind Ten and Jared, and he was a good guy to have on our side.
“It helps that Ten’s brothers have a significant presence on other teams,” he said, and I made a note of that. I’d been thinking the same thing. Ten was close with his brothers, and they had his back.
“Do you have any concerns with the team?”
He and I had signed a confidentiality form at the start of the session, as I’d do with the entire team as I saw them one by one. He knew he could speak freely, but in any case he was intense when it came to the team, and he didn’t hesitate to sketch me the bigger picture of who each player was and what I should look out for, good and bad. From defenseman, Arvy who had a gay cousin, to a new guy on the team, Adler, who seemed ambivalent about the entire situation. I made so many notes, I knew I’d have to go through them and summarize in places.
I liked the Railers captain, and when we shook hands I thanked him for his time. He took his role as seriously as I took mine, and there was mutual respect there.
After meeting with a few of the other players, I was done for day one. I shuffled all my notes again, lining them up and putting them into my briefcase along with the iPad that was my connection to the outside world. Then I reported in to Emma, the marketing manager for the team and the person alongside whom I’d be working.
She was demonstrably grateful that all that mess hadn’t been handed to her, so that meant I’d earned one hell of a lot of brownie points.
There was a small group of guys in the parking area. One I recognized—Stan the Russian, as Captain Hurley called him—was a huge bear of a man, and he was staring as I walked toward them. The direction wasn’t deliberate; they were huddled by my car.
“Guys,” I said calmly, even though the sight of these big men waiting by my car was enough to have me feeling anxious as memories of old times poked at me. Not to mention that Stan had his thick arms crossed over his chest and looked like he wanted to go to war with me. I recognized two of the others with him—Coach Benning looking grim, Arvy grinning at me—and the other man was the guy from the bathroom.
That was Adler, the one the captain, in my interview with him that morning, had chosen to highlight as “not exactly vocally critical nor entirely supportive.”
I was scarlet and I knew it, and Adler smirked at me. Asshole.
He wasn’t the first person to smirk at me, and he wouldn’t be the last. Adler Lockhart was a good-looking man, but then a lot of the players on this damn team were hot and right on to burning. Take Arvy with his goofy smile and his long wavy hair, or Coach Madsen with his intense blue stare and air of authority.
“Little bit talk,” Stan said, his voice loud and booming in the cavernous underground parking.
I glanced from Stan to the others. I wasn’t sure Adler wanted to talk. He was still smirking, but at the same time he looked like he was trying to edge away. The only thing stopping him was that he was pinned between Stan, Arvy, and my car.
I glanced at my watch, like I had to assess if I had the time to stop and talk. Of course I had time. Lots of time. All that was waiting for me at my place was takeout and a night of reading my notes. Oh, and catching up on the hundred or so Facebook messages from my family.
“I can give you five minutes,” I said, to qualify the importance of my time and reinforce my status. It was vital that I didn’t join in with discussions outside the official meetings; I had to stay outside the hockey circle, so that I could maintain a perspective on how things were playing out. Informal meetings didn’t get things done.
Stan pulled aside his shirt and showed me a tattoo. I had to peer closely, because I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, or even why it was being shown to me. It looked like a cartoon character; a Pokémon or something.
“Hulk,” Stan said, and looked at me expectantly like I was supposed to understand a word. I don’t speak any Russian, though, so I looked at Coach for help.
“What he’s saying,” Coach Benning said, “is that he likes Ten, a lot, and that Ten and he had tattoos the same day, and that if you end up hanging Ten out to dry, then he will have something to say about it and go all Hulk on your ass.” The coach’s tone was easy, but there was a thread of steel in there.
“You got all that from one word?” I asked, and looked up at Stan, who was still scowling.
Coach only smiled. “He’s a man of few words. English ones, anyway.”
Stan clapped a hand on my shoulder, and jeez, he was one strong man. For a split second, fear skittered through me, but I pushed the fear back down where it belonged. No one here was going to hurt me.
I edged out of Stan’s reach and offered up my most reassuring smile. Stan looked at me, and then he smiled as well.
Seemed like we had an agreement going.
“Are we done talking about cock now?” Adler said loudly, breaking the accepting vibe in the small group. He underscored the words by grabbing suggestively at his groin. “Unless we’re whipping them out.”
“Jesus Christ, Ads,” Arvy snapped, and elbowed him.
Adler grinned. “All I’m saying is some of us have actual sex to go home to and don’t spend all day jawing about it.”
Then he shoved his way past Arvy, who shoved him back before letting him go.
“Asshole,” Arvy muttered, but it wasn’t said with heat. I exchanged glances with him, and he gave that single-shoulder shrug of “What can you do?”
I mentally added Adler to my list of concerns.
The drive home was one of my better commutes, the traffic not too heavy and an audio book a quiet background for my thoughts. I liked music, but sometimes just the drone of words was enough to allow me to center and collect everything together.
I’d been lulled into a false sense of security today, or at least that was what I decided. Everyone had been so accommodating, thoughtful, and encouraged by my words… and then there was Adler. I knew the team was facing a rocky few months, maybe longer, but random comments about cock were not what I was looking for.
I looked up his bio as soon as I walked through the door; he was the one I needed to watch. Apart from his name, there were all kinds of complicated stats, which I made a good guess at and looked the rest up online.
Adler Kincaid Lockhart
Born Nov.4, 1993, Brampton, Maine
6’4 219 lbs.
Left Wing—shoots Left
Last Season—GP 57 – G 31– A 23 – P 54– Plus/Minus 5 – PIM 51 – PPG 19 – GWG 4 – OTG 3- S% 18.2
Seemed pretty straightforward.
I’d met guys like him before. Either he’d been checking me out that morning and he was in the closet, or he was a homophobic asshole and didn’t give a shit who knew it. He’d used the word cock today, and been highly suggestive, so I made some notes about appropriate language, against his name in particular and the rest of the team in general.
Chinese ordered, I sat at the table and decided I’d put off checking family messages long enough. No doubt it would be the typical inane run of news about Zach and Adam and their plumbing business, or David complaining about the economy affecting construction and his electrician business, or maybe it would be Louise talking about daycare and how she wished sometimes that working in daycare didn’t involve children.
Then again, it could be my mom, worrying about me being the only one not living in the old hometown. My moving away from Alton Heights, Michigan, and attending NYU had been both something to be proud of and something to worry her. Add on the fact that I’d never gone home after college, instead buying a place in Harrisburg, and I was apparently the reason she had gray hair.
Privately, I wasn’t the only one of her five children who knew she dyed her hair every four weeks, regular as clockwork, to keep it flawlessly blonde. She was a homemaker—you name it and she did it in the name of looking out for the family. Bake sales, community events, dinner on the table every night at six, she did it all.
I answered Zach’s message about Mom’s seventieth birthday event. “Yes, I’ll be there, tell me when.” I replied to David and Louise in a similar way, because it seemed three out of four of my siblings were convinced I wouldn’t turn up to Janet Foxx’s party.
I loved my mom. After my dad died ten or so years ago she’d been there for me as much as she could, and there was no way I’d miss the event.
Adam’s message was just one long joke about a rabbi in a bar and didn’t really make sense. I typed LOL anyway, and hoped that it was funny and not some serious story about an actual rabbi he’d met in a bar.
So when the Chinese arrived and I’d tipped it onto a plate, I had one more person to talk to, and I thumbed through my contacts for Mom, steeling myself to answer all the usual questions.
“Finally my baby calls,” she said by way of a hello. “I nearly sent Zach to find out if you were still alive. You never call, you never visit…”
Wow, she hadn’t waited long to lay the guilt over me. “Mom, you know I’d come back if I could.”
“You still working with that actor?”
“No, with a hockey team now, as a social media awareness and crisis management support officer.”
“A what now?”
“Oh,” she interrupted. “You should talk to David about hockey. You remember Calvin, his friend from junior high? Well his cousin’s friend’s brother… or was it his brother’s cousin? Wait, that wouldn’t make sense, would it? Anyhow, this young boy has moved lock stock and barrel up north, playing for some team.”
North to my mom meant Canada, and no, I didn’t recall a Calvin, or know what the hell she was talking about. I’m the youngest of five children, with a big gap between me and the next sibling up, Louise, my only sister. Mom and Dad had me late—she was forty-four and pregnant with her fifth, and now, as I neared twenty-six, my strong-as-an-ox mom was reaching her seventieth. All those years she’d given me and my siblings meant I could stand to listen to her rambling on about a kid I didn’t know.
“So you got a boyfriend yet?”
That blindsided me, the question coming out of nowhere, and entirely separate from the subject of Calvin’s kind-of-cousin who played hockey.
“No, Mom,” I said.
“You just dating casually?” she asked.
I cut her off before she began to ask me about my sex life, and believe me, she loved asking about that. “Yes, a hockey player,” I lied.
“Good. I want to see you enjoying life.”
“I do, Mom.”
“So are you coming for my surprise party next month?”
“Mom, jeez,” I spluttered. “You’re not supposed to know about that.”
“Oh, so there is one, then.”
Shit. I’d just been played by my mother.
“No,” I said, but it really was too late. “Mom, I have to go; my takeout has arrived.”
“Okay, Layton. You take care, now, and call me more often.”
“I will, Mom.”
Guilt at lying to her poked at me insistently, but I tried to ignore it. I shoveled in a fork of noodles and opened my iPad with my other hand, typing a quick message to Louise, who I knew was the chief organizer of Mom’s birthday, admitting what had happened. There wasn’t an immediate reply; I hadn’t expected one.
Between my four siblings, there were four spouses and at last count, ten children, Louise leading the pack with five children all by the age of thirty-one, the youngest only a couple of months old now.
I was seriously the odd one out in that family.
The only one to go to college and get a degree, the only one with a career that pulled in good money, the only one who moved away.
I went to bed with a hundred questions in my head, all focused around the Railers and my plans for the team. First off I needed to talk to each player, and I moved Adler Lockhart up the list.
I got the feeling that the gorgeous man with the come-to-bed eyes and the seriously un-PC attitude was the one to watch.