Authors: Amy Lane
Tags: #gay romance
By Amy Lane
Through a miserable adolescence and a lonely adulthood, Skipper Keith has dreamed of nothing but family. The closest he gets is the rec league soccer team he coaches after work—and his star player and best friend, Richie Scoggins.
One brisk night in late October, a postpractice convo in Richie’s car turns into a sexual encounter neither of them expected—nor want to forget. Soon Skip and Richie are living for the weekends and their winter league soccer games—and the games they enjoy off the field. Through broken noses, holiday decorating, and the killer flu, they learn more about each other than they ever dreamed possible. Every new discovery takes them further beyond the boundaries of the soccer field and into the infinite possibilities of the best relationship of Skipper’s life.
Skipper can’t dream of a better family than Richie—but Richie’s got real family entanglements he can’t shake off. Skipper needs to convince Richie to stay with him beyond winter ball so the relationship they started on the field might become their happy future in real life!
To Mate, especially this time, because Mate is like Skipper. He didn’t imagine himself a leader, but he became one because he loved the game. And to my three kids in soccer, because it’s part of their blood, and my one who took karate instead, because he still knows that feeling of belonging that a sport can give you.
And to Mary, who, when I pointed out that this story was Cinderella from the prince’s point of view and that Winter Ball was almost a pun, almost cried. Because yes. Everybody should have his or her own fairy tale, just for them, and a Happy Ever After.
at it again.
“Offsides? I wasn’t offsides! You assholes wouldn’t know offsides if it walked up and bit you on the—”
“Ass?” Skipper Keith supplied dryly. “C’mon, Richie, you’re gonna get a red card. Can we just play some fuckin’ soccer?”
Scoggins rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath, but he settled down. Skip had always held that sort of power over Richie, and everybody on the team knew it. “Yeah, fine, but that redheaded linebacker shoulders me in the ribs one more time, all bets are off.”
The redhead was nearly six eight. Slow as a drugged and lumbering milk cow, yes, but effective. Nobody wanted to go up against him for the ball, and Skipper had his own bruises that no shin guard could protect against.
“I’ll take him,” Skipper said, because he was bigger than Richie, for one, and because he knew it wasn’t personal for another. Richie Scoggins’s hair was as red as the other team’s defender’s, and his temper—holy shit, was it hot.
They lined up for the ball, and Scoggins took center and made the pass. Skipper suddenly had a clear run up the field, the westering sun in the chill October evening casting an ethereal path to the god of the goal.
Skipper and Scoggins, they were true believers.
Dribble, dribble, pass, dodge, dribble—they’d been playing together since tech school, when Skipper walked into a computer class they’d shared with a flyer for rec league adult soccer. They’d both had jobs. Neither one of them had time to play for the school team, but rec league?
they could do.
Six years later, they worked their separate jobs and did this: practiced and played soccer every Thursday evening, essentially with the same guys they’d played with since tech school.
Knowing the team comforted Skipper.
with them exhilarated him.
“Scoggins!” he called, seeing his way blocked, and Scoggins was right
, ready to take the ball. Skip pulled back to avoid the offside charge and let Scoggins go for it, hauling ass, dodging the big Scottish warrior to his left, wily little Menendez (the traitor who used to play for their team) on his right, and he kicked! Very nice—he lofted the ball up, up, and up….
!” Scoggins screamed, arms above his head. “Goal! Goal! Goal! The Scorpions have won again!” Not technically true—they still had some time left, but just as Skipper opened his mouth to say that…
…the ref blew the whistle to end the game.
Much cheering ensued: hugging, hand-clasping, backslapping, butt-slapping, and sweaty male bodies hopping around to keep warm in the chill. Finally they grabbed their sweatshirts from the sidelines and walked off the slightly swampy middle school field with the irregular grass, and up the rise to their cars.
Where they proceeded to break a couple of rules by digging into the ice chest in the back of Richie Scoggins’s Honda Accord.
The party was equal opportunity—the fall rec league season had ended with this game. There was nothing left but the tournament over the weekend (where the Scorpions would probably get slaughtered, because they were up against a lot of guys who’d played in college instead of tech school and who practiced three times a week instead of just one) and the inevitable question.
“Yo!” Menendez threw out, wiping his face with the back of his hand. In the daytime, he worked up in Folsom at Intel, but down here in Citrus Heights, he used words like
. “Are we doing winter ball this year?”
“I don’t know,” Skipper threw back. “You gonna play with us?”
Menendez grimaced. He’d signed up late this quarter and had gotten put on the Dirty Dogs. That big Scottish warrior had hogged the ball a lot. “I am if we sign up this week!” he said, hauling his fingers through his curls. “Man, tell me we can play ball again. I know all you guys got family, but soccer’s, like, the only thing to get me through the holidays!”
Scoggins tapped Skipper’s back gently, and Skipper nodded. Yeah, Scoggins had family, but Skipper had met them more than once when he’d gone to pick him up for the movies or to go out on a Friday night. Some family was worse than no family.
Which was what Skipper had. His parents had split when he was twelve, his dad was incommunicado, and his mom had died of liver cirrhosis right after he got out of school.
“I feel ya,” he said, then looked around to the other twelve guys he played with. Skipper’s real name was Christopher. The team called him Skipper because that first quarter, their coach had bailed, and Skip had sort of captained that ship.
“What do you say, guys? We only need ten and a goalie, so if some of you got kids and in-laws and shit this Christmas, you can bail.”
Three of them
bail, but that left Cooper, McAlister, Thomas, Galvan, Owens, Jefferson, Jimenez, Singh, Menendez, and Scoggins—so, one for sub.
There was a round of high fives and a toast with everyone’s mostly empty beer, and Skipper made a mental note to start the paperwork the next day.
“I’ll remind you,” Scoggins said as the last of the guys wandered away, leaving them alone. Full night had fallen, and Richie shivered. He was the only one who hadn’t brought a sweatshirt.
Skipper had parked right next to him—their two silver Honda Accords bore the butt prints of pretty much every guy on the team at this point—and he reached into the back of his car and hauled out his black zip-up hoodie, then threw it at Richie because he hated to see Richie cold.
Richie didn’t get a lot of mothering—or fathering for that matter—even though he pretty much ran his parents’ junkyard business. He showed up, did the accounts, got bitched at for not helping on the jobs, and kept the business afloat. Someone needed to take care of Richie. Skipper had seen that even when they were in school. Richie was a good guy—would stay up late to help friends study, always brought the beer or the chips or the water bottles, and didn’t mind being coskipper to a group of guys who just wanted to fucking play.
“That’s fine,” Skipper muttered, yawning. “You remind me. Tomorrow’s gonna be our team building anyway—”
“Where you going?” Richie asked, entranced as always by Skipper’s few corporate perks.
Skipper had tried to tell him that the tech firm he worked for wasn’t particularly glamorous, but for Richie? Anything that didn’t involve working with your parents was absolutely top-of-the-line. In a way, it gave Skip a good perspective—everybody got frustrated at work. It was important to remember that he was doing something he was good at, got promotions and raises regularly, and his boss didn’t have the legal right to call him a dumbshit just because she married his father.
“Bowling,” Skip said, finishing off his beer and rounding up the empties. There was a can collection bin by the school. So far nobody had complained about the neatly bagged beer cans once a week, and Skip was going to keep his fingers crossed. He
this league, but the one beer after the practices or games gave him a social group he just didn’t get at work, so it was a risk he was willing to take.
“Bowling?” Richie sounded tickled. “Seriously? Can I come?”
Skip looked at him: five foot eight of wiry, fierce competitor, and suddenly he sounded like a little girl. “Can you come what? Bowling?”
Richie nodded. “Yeah. I got nothing better to do with my Friday night, and my dad and Kay used to go. I was pretty fucking good, you know?”
It was the first time Richie had ever said anything even remotely pleasant about his parents. “You break up with whatserface?”
“Melanie? Yeah. She’s history.”
Richie was still bouncing on his toes and blowing on his fingers. Skip motioned for him to get in his car. “I’ll sit, we can shoot the shit, ’kay?”
Why not? Skip had the keys to the gate and the coaching paperwork in his car. They could stay there a while before anybody got upset about the two cars parked in front of the middle school.
Richie nodded gratefully and they hurried up and slid in. Skip had to shove the car seat back to accommodate his legs—they’d both bought their cars right out of tech school because of a graduating student discount, but sometimes Skip dreamed of the next-sized car up. Six foot one didn’t feel that tall until you were sitting in the front of a compact car.
Richie’s car was comfortably rumpled. There were a couple of fast-food bags under Skip’s feet, but not too many, and a gym bag and a towel in the back. Skipper had given him a reusable aluminum mug for his coffee in the morning, and that sat in the cup holder, needing to be washed.
Richie turned the key just enough to power the stereo, and then fiddled with his phone until an alternative mix came up. Milky Chance’s “Down by the River” played, and Skip relaxed into it, loving the song and the feeling of autumn that came with it.
“So,” he said after the dance of opening chords washed over him, “Melanie.”
Richie let out a sigh. “She’s not… I mean, she was nice, and we had fun and all, but….” He shrugged. “Not… you know….”
Yeah. Skip knew. Most of Richie’s relationships went like this. He met a girl, they went out on a few dates, saw some movies, ate some dinners, even went to the occasional concert, and then, just when it got to be serious, after the first couple of sleepovers, the relationship ended.
“Man,” Skip said, “it’s not fair to these girls, you know? I mean, you want no strings, find a girl who wants no strings too. There’s no shame in that.”
Richie blew out a breath. “Yeah. Well, it’s not even that I don’t want strings. In fact, I
strings. I got these dreams, you know?”
Skipper looked at him avidly, his bony cheeks and full lips fully visible in silhouette, illuminated by the sodium lamp outside. “No,” he said, fascinated. “Seriously. Tell me about the dreams.”
Because they were guys, right? They talked about soccer and their shitty jobs and Richie’s terrible parents. They went to concerts and out to movies and out for beers after the games, and hung out at each other’s places playing Xbox and planning the ultimate LAN party that they were both fairly sure would never happen because they were too busy with soccer.
But they didn’t talk about their dreams. Did men talk about their dreams together?
Did Skipper have any dreams besides playing next to Richie?
Richie blew out a breath and grabbed a bottle of water from the flat behind Skip’s seat. The movement brought them in contact, and in the darkened car, Skip was suddenly very… aware.
Very aware of Richie’s small, freckled body.
Skip had seen that small freckled body ripped with muscle, sheening with sweat, charging across the soccer field in the sun. Richie’s shoulders were burned from doing that too much, but you could count every rib and every muscle group, because there wasn’t an ounce to spare on Richie.
That body was right next to Skip’s in the car’s small confines, and Skip had a hard time pushing back an uncomfortable… thing. Ruthlessly he stomped on it until it was of manageable size to hide, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still there.
Richie turned and handed Skip the water; then he grabbed another one for himself.
This time Skip was just inches from his neck.
Richie smelled like sweat, and Skip found himself wondering: if he licked that pale strip of skin in the moonlight, would it be salty? Would Richie crack him across the face with an elbow, or would he shudder, sigh, and melt? Skipper thought that if Richie ever put his lips on
neck, Skip would probably shudder, sigh, and melt.