Medley (A Changing Lanes novel)
This title is part of the Changing Lanes universe.
Sebastian Stewart was never Mr. Dependable; he was more the good-time guy who only wanted to swim, party, and ink tattoos. Until he cost his team the Olympic gold four years ago. Bas is determined to do right this time around—by his medley relay team and his rookie mentee.
Jacob Burrows is in over his head. The Olympic experience—from the hazing, to the endless practices, to the unrelenting media—makes the shy nineteen-year-old’s head spin. He’s trying to be everything to everyone while trying not to fall for his gorgeous tattooed teammate who just gets him—gets his need to fix things, his dorky pirate quips, and his bisexuality.
When Jacob falters under the stress, threatening his individual races and the medley relay gold, he needs Bas’s help to escape from drowning. Bas, however, fearing a repeat of his mistakes four years ago, pushes Jacob away, sure he’ll only let Jacob down. But the only path to salvaging gold is for Jacob to finally ask for what he needs—the heart of the man he loves—and for Bas to become the dependable one.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Lawyer, priest, shrink.
Ask someone to name their confessor and those were the usual suspects.
Bas would argue tattoo artist for the last spot in the top five. Humming needle in hand, he’d heard more than a few confessions over the years.
From the second a client stepped into his shop, they told a story. The design they picked. How much liquid courage it took. The tale of joy or woe that spilled from their lips after the first shock of the needle. Their reaction when it was done—relief, pain, regret, pleasure.
He’d heard almost every story.
In love, in lust, in rebellion, in hate, in freedom, in chains.
But he still couldn’t figure out the story that’d nagged him most the past ten days. He swiveled on the stool in the rented studio, droplets of dark ink splattering his worn jeans. “You gonna give me something to go on, Pup?”
Straddling the fancy tattoo-massage chair, Jacob laid a cheek in the cradle and glanced to his side. Mint green eyes, tequila-hazy, peered out from under long burnished lashes. “This was your idea, not mine.”
Maybe there was the start of a story. Why did his nineteen-year-old teammate have a fake ID, and why was he so friendly with Mr. Cuervo? Was it the same story as countless other college undergraduates?
Bas didn’t think so.
Jacob’s eyes slipped shut again, lips turning up in a faint smile. “You said you needed to get out of there and work.” He shrugged his bare left shoulder, the one closest to Bas. The breaststroker’s upper back was wide, like most swimmers’, his delts and lats hard and lean beneath suntanned skin. Not yet fully developed, given his age, but stronger than most. “So do what you need,” Jacob said. “Work it out.”
There was the start of the story.
In the week and a half of intensive training since qualifying for the US Olympic Team and being selected for the medley relay squad, Jacob Burrows had been what everyone else needed him to be. The sense of humor Bas’s too-tense best friend and team captain, Alex, needed. The single swimmer willing to suffer poster boy and team pariah, Dane. A blank canvas for Bas to work on after a crazy Media Day when the simmering tension between Alex and Dane had boiled over, and Dane had leapt off his ivory pedestal.
Whatever anyone else needed.
But who was Jacob? A steadily improving swimmer at the University of Texas, the rising junior had gotten his first big win at Trials, shattering the two-hundred-meter breaststroke US record. One hell of an entrance onto the elite competitive swimming scene, and one hell of a fire to be thrown into. Now he was the youngest rookie, “the pup,” on a USA Swimming team riddled with drama, even more so than the drama Bas had caused four years ago. And they weren’t even in Madrid yet. Jacob deftly juggled the team dynamics, but surely the pressure was mounting on him too. What did he need? And why did Jacob put everyone else’s needs before his own? Pure altruism or something more? Or less?
And right here, right now, was Bas taking advantage of those selfless tendencies? He should stop. Tell the shop-cat out front that the pup had changed his mind. Happened all the time at Bas’s tattoo shop back in LA. He was sure it’d be nothing new here in San Antonio either. Or maybe Jacob did need this. Maybe needle to skin would loosen his tongue enough to tell Bas his story.
What Jacob needed.
Alex had asked Bas to watch over the rook while they kept their secret weapon hidden from the media and other teams. To do that, Bas needed to know what he was dealing with—when and where the cracks might appear—so he could help Jacob. It was no less than Jacob’s selflessness deserved, and the least Bas could do, after being so selfish on his last Olympic tour. If tonight was his chance to help Jacob and his team, then he’d make the most of the offered opportunity, the way he knew best. Through his art.
Closing his eyes, Bas bounced his fist on his knee as he visualized the design. Something Jacob wouldn’t regret when the tequila wore off. Something he’d later look at with pride and others would look at in awe. Something for the Texas Longhorn who was training for his first Olympics in his home state. The artwork came together in Bas’s mind: long curved lines woven to create horns; sharp lines angled in an inverse triangle to form a snout; touches of burnt orange at the ends of each nostril and where its eyes should be. Given creative license, he had no problem inking this freehand.
At the first touch of the needle on the outside of his shoulder, Jacob gasped. Eyes scrunched closed, crooked front teeth digging into his full lower lip, Jacob clawed at the padded bar beneath the face cradle.
“Breathe through it.” Bas laid his right hand on Jacob’s lower back, giving his subject’s senses a different focal point. Jacob’s breathing hitched, then began to steady, the visibly pounding pulse in his neck slowing as well. Bas gave him another few seconds, another few measured breaths, inhaling and exhaling with him, before he began drilling again.
“Why do you do that?” Bas asked.
“Do what?” Jacob said, voice cracking adorably.
“Put everyone else first.”
Jacob moved to shrug, and Bas raised the needle in the nick of time. “Don’t do that,” he chided, drumming warning taps on Jacob’s spine. “Unless you want a mess here.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Jacob said, half-smiling, half-grimacing. He resettled his temple in the cradle, face angled toward Bas. “Why’d you start tattooing?”
“Don’t do that either.”
“What? I want to be sure the guy inking me knows what he’s doing.”
Bas gestured at his own arms and shoulders, covered with colorful artwork. He’d ditched his shirt earlier, the shop’s AC no match for the triple-digit heat.
“You didn’t do all those tats yourself,” Jacob said.
“No, but I designed them all.”
Jacob’s lingering gaze across his chest and arms left a different sort of heat in its wake, warmth that rippled down Bas’s neck and back as he bent his head and continued to work. He’d caught enough of Jacob’s appreciative looks to suspect the pup was bisexual like him, if not gay like Alex. But Bas hadn’t acted on those looks—no drama. Teammates—other athletes, for that matter—were strictly off-limits. Regardless of how charming their green eyes, crooked teeth, and pirate quips might be.
“What’s the most personal?” Jacob asked. “They all look like team tats or abstract designs, except the initials on your chest. Who’s JE?”
Speaking of drama, or rather not speaking of it . . . “It’s not usually the artist who tells his story.”
“But isn’t that what art is?”
“This art’s about you.” Bas drummed his fingers over Jacob’s spine again, and Jacob hummed contentedly, eyes drifting closed on another lazy smile.
“What are you drawing about me?” Jacob asked after a few minutes.
“You’ll have to wait and see. Now, answer my question.”
“I’ve forgotten it.”
Bas chuckled. “Bullshit.”
“I put myself first once. It didn’t end well.”
Bas’s laughter died and his insides knotted, hearing Jacob’s words and seeing how fast his toothy smile had fled. Another page of his story: not a happy one. But before Bas could read further, before he could ask who’d burned this too-gentle soul, and how Bas could avenge him, Jacob closed the book.
“I’m only nineteen,” he said, voice bright again, albeit falsely so. “I learn more watching and looking out for others.”
Bas flattened his hand on the pup’s warm, muscled back. “But who’s looking out for you, Jacob?”
* * * * * * *
Bas had called him by his name, together with a gentle hand on his back and a soft question that had sounded more like a promise.
“But who’s looking out for you, Jacob?”
As good as a carrot dangled in front of a starving rabbit. A carrot that came with a two-letter caveat—JE—whoever the hell that was. Jacob was still starving, regardless.
From the first touch of the needle, he’d been hard.
No, that was a lie.
He’d been hard since Bas had stripped off his shirt and sat on the stool next to him in just his jeans, but Jacob was trying to ignore all that.
The blond dreadlocks piled atop of his teammate’s head. The striking blue eyes and laser-cut cheekbones. The tattoos decorating his fly-swimmer’s massive upper body. The powerful thighs Jacob had dreamed about straddling him every night since meeting Sebastian Stewart at Trials.
Failing to ignore, clearly.
Thankfully, before he embarrassed himself by coming in his pants or babbling a too-telling answer to Bas’s question, his teammate’s phone rang. Queen’s thumping “Under Pressure” was enough to snap the tension.
Bas switched off the tattoo machine. “That’s Alex. Let me take this.”
“Yeah, go,” Jacob said, chuckling at the too-perfect song choice.
Bas stood and stepped into the far corner, phone to his ear, while Jacob adjusted himself in the chair, breathing a sigh of relief on multiple fronts. They’d both been worried after this afternoon’s press conference—Bas for his best friend, Jacob for Alex and Dane, and also for himself. Coach had warned them that Media Day would be intense, but Jacob had had no idea it would be that bonkers. The endless clicking of cameras, reporters doggedly shouting questions, sponsors eyeing their next paychecks, and all that was before Dane had dropped an innocuous comment that’d exploded like a cluster bomb. So much attention, at domestic training. What would greet them in Vienna at their international training site, or in Madrid once they finally reached the Olympics?
After the presser, questions and dread had swirled in Jacob’s head, keeping pace with Bas’s circuits around their shared hotel room. Not even the bottle of tequila they’d nursed together had calmed them down. So when Jacob had asked what Bas needed, and Bas had answered, “To get out and work,” Jacob had happily obliged, for both their sakes. They’d ended up here—in a stuffy tattoo parlor down the street from Jacob’s old high school.
Bas glanced across the room at him, grinning as he rolled his eyes, probably at something Alex said. When he strode back over after another minute, his relief was palpable, his big body relaxed. “All good. He’s got Big Red.” Bas straddled the stool and picked up the tattoo machine again, flipping it on. “Told them to stay out for a bit.”
“Probably a good idea.” Jacob squirmed in the chair, resituating himself and girding his loins against the bite of the needle and the nearness of Bas. Not wanting to destroy the calm with more of his sad story, Jacob asked about swimming instead—the team, their competition, what to expect at the Olympics—and Bas let him have that dodge. Returning the favor, Jacob didn’t press when Bas skirted questions about his particular experience four years ago. The loss of the medley relay gold hung heavy over the team; a weight that grew heavier each day the closer they got to Madrid.
Tonight, though, the weight in Jacob’s balls was a bigger problem. The youngest on the team, surrounded by professionals, and swimming medley relay with Bas, Alex, and Dane, who were all in their midtwenties and members of high-profile clubs, Jacob had tried, over the past two weeks and today, to act more mature. His hormones, however, didn’t give a flying fuck about his intentions.
The next hour was pure torture, with Jacob’s lower lip bearing the brunt of it. The worst came at the end, when Bas held up his phone with the camera inverted and showed Jacob the tattoo he’d inked onto Jacob’s outer left shoulder.
An intricately styled Longhorn. Perfect for him. And as gorgeous as the artist.
Jacob blinked back the moisture in his eyes and bit his tongue against saying more than “It’s awesome.”
Bas arched a blond brow as he dabbed on salve. “Just ‘awesome’?”
Jacob smiled through the strain, hoping like hell it didn’t look too lopsided, confused as his body was right then. “Fucking awesome.”
Bas smiled wide, and Jacob barely contained his moan. As soon as Bas stood, Jacob tumbled out of the chair, miraculously managing not to land on his face, and darted into the changing room.
His shoulder was on fire, but the blazing sting there was nothing compared to the scorching heat that had burned through him the entire time he’d sat in that chair. Heat that needed a release. Glancing over his shoulder, through the narrow slit in the dressing room curtains, Jacob spotted Bas way up front, chatting with the shop girl. Far enough away and suitably distracted. Jacob decided to risk it. He had to, unless he was going to walk out of here with a boner the size of Texas. He didn’t want to risk that; he was embarrassed enough already.
He moved away from the curtain’s gap and closer to the wall, unzipping his jeans as he thought about the shop girl. Her dark curls and warm brown eyes, her full lips painted cherry red, her matching push-up bra teasing the collar of her low-cut tank, tits spilling out over the lacy cups. Reaching a hand inside his boxers, he stroked his aching dick and bit back a groan, imagining the girl’s lips around his cock and the view of her overflowing breasts from above. Lost in the fantasy, he fell back against the wall, landing on his tender tattoo, and blinding pain erased the vision. Gritting his teeth to keep from shouting out, he spun to face the wall, left hand braced next to the mirror, right hand back down his pants.
He closed his eyes and brought the girl to mind again. Her bright red lips, her tits in matching lace, the colorful tattoo sleeves decorating her arms. But then her willowy arms grew bigger, more muscular, and they were covered in coarse blond hair and familiar colorful designs. Her cherry red lips faded to pale pink, surrounded by rough dark blond stubble, and her brown eyes morphed to piercing blue. Jacob’s cock swelled in his hand, leaking moisture and slicking his fumbling grip. He yanked it out of his jeans and boxers and jerked faster. Head bowed, he imagined another cock sliding against his own, held tightly in his grasp. Or in the grasp of—
“Hey, Pup, how long’s it take to put your shirt back on?”
The dressing room curtain swung open, and Jacob, dick in hand, stared at the blue eyes of his fantasy in the mirror. “Fuck!” He quickly cast his gaze aside, struggling to stuff his interested, uncooperative dick back in his boxers. “Sorry, sorry.”
“You’re not the first, Pup.” Jacob’s eyes shot back to the mirror. Bas was smiling, wicked and teasing. “You’re not even in the double digits.”
Double digits of what? To jerk off after getting a tattoo? Or to jerk off to him? Or in front of him?
Fuck, that thought would not go away.
“It’s not an uncommon reaction after getting a tattoo,” Bas clarified. “The rush, the endorphins, the response some people have to pain.”
Jacob had personally never associated the two—pleasure and pain. Then again, he’d never had them delivered together before, much less by someone so attractive.
“Do what you need,” Bas said, taking a step back and moving to draw the curtain closed again.
Do what you need.
Which was what? The answer was out, spoken, the moment Jacob thought it. “Stay.”
Bas froze, hand fisting the thick velvet curtain. “Jacob.”
Grip tightening at his name in Bas’s rough, rumbling voice, Jacob closed his eyes, craving the fantasy for real. He shouldn’t ask. It was too much, more than Bas had offered. He asked too much and people left. But maybe he could ask for less than the entire fantasy, just enough of what he needed. “You don’t have to do anything. I just don’t . . .” God, how did he ask this and not sound like a loser?
The curtain rattled closed, and Jacob’s heart sank, sure Bas had left. But it rocketed into his throat when, a second later, Bas, in his deep voice, asked, “What do you need, Jacob?”
“I don’t want to be alone.”
Bas’s hand fell gently on his back, a shot of warmth right where it’d concentrated earlier as he’d sat in the chair. “I’m here,” Bas said.
Heat purled, arrowing in a direct line from Bas’s hand to Jacob’s dick. Jacob wrangled himself free of his boxers and resumed pumping, harder and faster, so close to the edge as the fantasy revived behind his eyelids.
Bas’s powerful thighs driving against his. His big wide chest blanketing Jacob’s back. Cheek to cheek, blond dreadlocks falling loose around their faces. Bas’s cock in his ass, where no one else had been before, and his calloused hand around Jacob’s dick, fingers entwined, jerking him off together.
“Let go,” Bas commanded softly.
Jacob came, a whimpered “Sebastian” tumbling from his lips.
That was how many times Jacob had started and discarded whatever he was writing at the desk, only to try again after a lap around their room and some piecemeal packing. It’d been two hours since they’d left Alex and Dane’s room, and while Bas had finished one sketch and started another, the pup had little to show for all his nervous energy. Not that Bas hadn’t been as bad last week after the gonzo press conference, waiting for Alex’s call.
Propped against the headboard, Bas tracked a tenth ball of crumpled paper as it whizzed past, missing the trash can by a mile. The pup’s aim was as bad as his hair, even if they both made Bas smile. It’d been a week since Media Day, the night before which Bas had fixed Jacob’s half-shaven head, buzzing the entire thing. Now, fuzzy blond hair was growing back, unevenly, making Jacob look like a Chia Pet in progress.
Bas tossed his graphics tablet aside and swung his legs off the bed. “All right, Pup, let’s go.”
Jacob froze mid-lap. “Go where?”
Bas grabbed the electric clippers off the table between their beds. “Bathroom,” he said. “We need to fix your hair before we leave.”
“But we’re flying out of Houston. No press there.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Bas nudged him toward the bathroom. “And regardless, I’m not letting you go out in public like that.”
Jacob glared over his shoulder, almost running into a wall. “You let me go out in public last night, to the food trucks with Dane and Alex.”
“After I told you to put on that raggedy-ass UT baseball cap.”
“Some mate you are.” Plopping down on the toilet, Jacob shrugged out of his T-shirt part way, one long arm getting caught in the collar. “Arrrgh!”
Laughing, Bas helped him the rest of the way out of the shirt, coaching himself not to linger on his teammate’s tan skin and lean muscles. This was like any other day on deck or in the locker room; it wasn’t like that night a week ago in the cozy tattoo parlor. He shouldn’t have indulged himself then, but Jacob wrecked with lust—pupils blown wide, skin flushed, erect cock in hand, and the dimples at the base of his spine calling Bas’s name—had been beyond beautiful, like a work of art Bas couldn’t turn away from. And when Jacob had begged him to stay, it’d tugged like a magnet at Bas’s insides. The same way the pup’s pirate quips, goofy hair, and refusal to admit what had him tied in nervous knots drew Bas to him tonight.
After plugging in the clippers, Bas flipped them on, and their low, steady buzz filled the room. He skated the clippers over Jacob’s scalp, hand trailing to brush away loose hairs and lift any stragglers. Jacob shivered on the first pass, tension tightening his spine and shoulders, but as Bas continued the repetitive motions, Jacob’s spine and shoulders curled forward, his entire body swaying with each pass of the blades.
When he was good and relaxed, all the nervous energy wrung out of him, Bas began to dig, carefully. “You wanna tell me what’s got you worked up?”
“Worked up?” Jacob mumbled, half in a daze.
“You lapped the room nine times and made a mess of your luggage in the process. All two bags of it.”
Jacob’s swaying stopped, as did his responses.
Bas tried another avenue. “What were you writing?”
“Notes,” he answered, defiant green eyes flickering up at Bas.
Bas pressed anyway. “You were fine when we were in Alex and Dane’s room.”
“Too busy stuffing my face with BBQ.” After a moment, he added quietly, as if to speak the words would risk them coming true, “What if the Committee doesn’t reinstate him?”
Earlier that day, Alex and Dane had returned to San Antonio with evidence that Alex had been framed by another teammate for doping. A lawyer’s kid, Bas thought the exculpatory evidence looked pretty damn convincing—Coach Hartl had agreed—but ultimately the US Olympic Committee would make the call. Hopefully they’d make it before the team was scheduled to fly out of tomorrow. Bas wanted his best friend and captain on that flight with them, but he had to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. And Jacob should be too.
“If he’s not reinstated,” Bas said, the words leaving a bad taste in his mouth, “then someone else will swim in his place.” The aftertaste was worse.
“But Ryan was Alex’s backup,” Jacob countered.
Ryan, their individual medley champ and Alex’s backstroke and medley relay backup, had been the one who’d framed Alex, angling for his spot in both events.
“Coach will sub in other swimmers, like he did in practice today.”
“And the medley relay?” Jacob’s voice pitched higher, his shoulders tight again. “We sucked without him in practice today.”
“We’ve got a week until Madrid,” Bas said, reassuring himself as much as Jacob. “We’ll make it work.”
“What if we can’t? What if the subs aren’t the problem?”
Confused, Bas turned off the clippers and set them aside. “What other problem is there?”
For as soft as Jacob’s voice actually was, it rang as loud as the starting horn at a meet to Bas, slamming into him and kicking his instincts into action. At a meet, he’d launch off the block into the pool. Here, in this tiny hotel bathroom, he dropped to his knees in front of Jacob. “Is that what’s got you nervous?”
Chin tucked, Jacob angled his face away, gnawing at his lower lip. “I haven’t been doing this as long as you guys.”
“Doesn’t mean you’re not the best.” Cautiously, as he’d seen Jacob do before, Bas laid his hands on Jacob’s knees and waited for Jacob to give him his eyes again. “You have a new national record to show for it.”
Jacob lifted a hand, a single finger raised. “From one race.” He lowered the digit and flitted the raised hand between them. “The races before that . . .”
“What about them?”
He dropped his hand onto his thigh, just out of Bas’s reach. “I couldn’t pull out the win. I choked.”
Bas slid his hand forward, covering Jacob’s. “Or you didn’t know how to win yet. You’ve won now. You just have to keep winning.”
“I don’t know how.”
His small, anxious voice tugged again at Bas’s insides. So did the question Jacob wouldn’t ask; Bas heard it all the same. “We’ll show you how.”
Jacob’s answering smile was wobbly and tired. Bas could continue to push this, or he could let it go and try taking Jacob’s mind off his worries. Perhaps he needed that more than a confidence boost tonight.
Bas stood, unplugged the clippers, and wrapped the cord around the handle. “I heard about this supposedly awesome pirate show on TV.”
Head falling back, Jacob looked up at him with unconcealed relief. And delight. “Black Sails?”
“That’s the one.” Bas smiled as he stepped back, making room for Jacob to stand. “Was thinking I might check out an episode or two. Decide if I wanted to download more for the flight tomorrow.”
“Aye, matey, nothing supposed about it. You’re definitely going to walk that plank.” Smile surer now, Jacob ran a hand over his freshly shorn head and turned toward the shower. “Cue it up while I rinse off.”
Wandering back into their room, Bas ignored the running water and images that teased his subconscious. He’d done right by his team and Jacob tonight. If he could just keep doing right the next two weeks, the medley relay gold would be in their grasp.
* * * * * * *
Doing right got harder the next morning, in more ways than one.
Jacob had fallen asleep next to Bas, in Bas’s bed, halfway through the second episode of Black Sails. Bas had thought it best to let him sleep rather than risk a return of his earlier nerves. During the night, they’d drifted toward each other, an increasing force of habit, the need to be near each other almost instinctual. Bas knew he should put a stop to it. Christ, even Alex had noticed.
But still Bas indulged.
Like he had in the tattoo parlor a week ago. That night, he’d rationalized his actions as returning the favor, giving Jacob what he needed after the pup had done the same for him. He’d made a similar rationalization last night; he hadn’t wanted to wake Jacob.
This morning, though, there was no rationalizing the hour Bas lay awake in bed, holding Jacob tucked against his side, half sprawled across his chest, Jacob’s cock digging into his thigh. No rationalizing the near-overwhelming urge to roll over and cover Jacob’s inviting mouth and warm body with his own. That was nothing but pure desire, pure want, for the impressive young man Bas was getting to know and like better every day.
But acting on his impulses wouldn’t be good for anyone. Not for the team and most of all not for Jacob. History—his own and that of the other men in his family—dictated it wouldn’t end well for the pup. Bas had promised Alex he wouldn’t fuck things up this time—that he’d look out for the rook—and with Alex’s spot on the team in jeopardy, it was even more imperative that Bas keep his promises.
Which was why, when Jacob started to wake and every part of him stiffened—Bas would bet with surprise and embarrassment—Bas closed his eyes and deepened his breathing, feigning sleep. What followed was a serious test of restraint, fighting his desire . . . and laughter.
“Shit!” Jacob cursed low as he scooted out from under Bas’s arm and toward the side of the bed. The sheet went sliding with him, then with a muffled “oof” and a thump, the sheet disappeared altogether. Bas peeked through his eyelashes, making sure Jacob wasn’t hurt. It was last night’s T-shirt incident all over again. Tangled on the floor, Jacob was fighting with the sheet like his life depended on it; how someone with so little control over his limbs was also a world-class swimmer remained a mystery. Bas had to bite his tongue and claw the mattress to keep from shaking with laughter. A string of quiet, sailor-worthy curses later, Jacob finally freed himself, and Bas snapped his eyes closed, still pretending to sleep as Jacob tossed the sheet back over him.
Peeking again after a moment, Bas watched him scurry across the three feet to his bed, tripping over his shoes and tumbling onto the mattress. Jacob smothered a groan in his pillow, and Bas had to roll the other way, toward the wall, to smother a laughing groan of his own.
He was halfway back to sleep when someone knocked on their door. Rolling over, he caught Jacob’s confused eyes before they darted away.
“I’ll get it,” Bas said, climbing out of bed. Down the short hallway, he opened the door to a hassled-looking Coach Hartl.
He held out an airplane ticket envelope, printed with the same logo as the one in Bas’s messenger bag. “You want to do the honors?”
Bas flipped it open and read the passenger’s name. “Fuck yeah!” he answered, pumping his fist in the air.
“Figured you might.” Coach clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m gonna grab a couple hours of sleep before we leave. You fools be on the bus at one.”
“Yes, sir.” Bas closed the door and fell back against it, smiling wide. “Hey, Pup!” he shouted into the room.
Pink-cheeked, eyes downcast, Jacob appeared around the corner. “What’s going on?”
“Throw on some sweats! We’ve got good news to deliver.” He held the ticket aloft. “Captain’s back.”
Jacob’s big green eyes shot up, finally meeting his. “Alex is cleared?”
“Things are looking golden, Pup.”
He allowed himself one more indulgence, soaking in the toothy smile that split Jacob’s face.
Jacob threw his jacket and tie over a kitchen chair and tugged at the collar of his dress shirt, loosening the top button for some relief from the stifling heat. He dug the pad of hotel-branded paper out of his pocket, and tossed it to his cousin. “I’ve written everything down on there.”
He’d finally finished writing out the notes this morning, after they’d given Alex the all-clear news. “I also typed and emailed them to you,” he added, acknowledging his own chicken scratch.
Josh rolled his eyes, the same light green shade as Jacob’s. “Yeah, cuz, I got ’em.” He tossed the notepad on the kitchen counter, then reached out and knuckled Jacob’s head. “What the fuck happened to your hair?”
“Now you’re complaining? You nagged me all last semester to”—Jacob curled his fingers in air quotes and lowered his voice to match his cousin’s deeper register—“cut that fucking mop off.”
Josh grinned. “Maybe now you’ll get laid.”
“Or better yet, I can pretend to be you,” Jacob replied, wiping the grin off his cousin’s face. “I’ll definitely get laid, then.”
People already mistook them for brothers. Born on the same day, their fathers brothers, they’d been treated as twins their entire lives, right down to the similar names. Jacob’s shaggy hair and Josh’s bigger build and deeper voice had been the few things that’d distinguished them. Those and Josh’s utter coolness versus Jacob’s utter . . . uncoolness. Now, though, with Jacob’s hair buzzed and the extra muscle mass he’d put on in Olympic training, they really did look like twins. On the surface at least.
“I like this idea. Mooching off your cred for a while.” Jacob loosened another button on his dress shirt, going for cool, on both counts. When that didn’t work, on either count, he embraced his inner dork and opened the freezer door, sticking his head inside.
“Fuck this shit,” Josh grumbled. “You’re going to trash my cred.”
Jacob gestured at his buzz cut again. “You asked for it.”
“I meant going around sticking your head in freezers, goofball. As for the hair, why’d you do it?”
Jacob pulled his head out of the cold, finally a bit more comfortable. “Easier to deal with. Training, travel, and all that.” More like he’d been hazed—one side of his dirty blond curls shaved off the first night of Olympic training in Colorado Springs. He’d played team sports long enough to have expected it, especially since he was the youngest member on the team, but the morning after had been brutal, the altitude in Colorado Springs compounding his margarita-fueled misery. To hear tell it, more hazing awaited him in Madrid.
Bas had shaved the other half of his head before Media Day, then touched it up again last night, distracting Jacob from what had really been racking his nerves, at least initially. The topic he was trying to have a serious conversion about with his cousin, head in fridge notwithstanding.
He tapped a finger on the notepad. “His doctor’s numbers and the clinic’s emergency number are all on here and in the email. Plus his list of meds. A couple will need to be refilled before I get back. Make sure he gets them. And I wrote some tips and tricks for calming him, in case he has a flashback.”
“Tell him to breathe, remind him it’s a flashback, ground him in the present using his senses.” Josh clasped the side of Jacob’s neck, his hold sure, his bright eyes alert and sympathetic. Under all that swagger, Josh was one of the most dependable, most devoted people Jacob knew. “Chill, cuz. This ain’t my first rodeo watching out for your dad while you’re at a meet. And Uncle D hasn’t had a flashback in two years. Not since we been at UT.”
“Austin’s an hour and a half away. I could get here, if I needed to.”
“And you haven’t needed to.” He pointed out the kitchen window at the house across the street. “Mom and Dad live right there. I’m home for the summer, right there. I’m the one getting a degree in psychology and working at the VA hospital. We got this.”
Head bowed, Jacob scuffed the floor with his dress shoe, staring at the black streak it left on the fading linoleum. “I’ve never been gone this long.”
“Or this far.” Josh squeezed his neck, forcing his gaze back up. “I think this is more about you than Uncle Davis.” They might not have been brothers, technically, but Josh was his best friend and knew him better than anyone. “How have things been, you know, other than the hair?”
Shaking off Josh’s hold, Jacob rested back against the tile counter, fingers curled over the rounded lip. “It’s been wild, and it’s barely started.”
“Yeah, I saw your two teammates on SportsCenter. At the airport . . .”
“Some scene, huh?”
When Dane and Alex had returned yesterday, reporters had been waiting for them at the airport. Dane, the consummate showman, had given them one hell of a spectacle. He’d pledged to clear Alex’s name and to stand by the man he loved. Big news for the supposedly straight poster boy son of high-profile conservative parents. Jacob hadn’t been all that surprised; the tension between Dane and Alex had been simmering from day one of training.
“It’s settled now,” he told Josh. “Alex is back on the team, and Dane’s, well, Dane.” Jacob had sensed there was more beneath Dane’s camera-ready smile and had made the effort to remain friendly when others had shunned him. He was glad not to have misjudged the Tar Heel.
“So the guys are being good to you?” Josh asked. “Even with all that shit going on?”
Jacob nodded. “They’ve taken me under their wing.”
Alex regularly checking in with him. Dane helping him last week when the pressure had all seemed too heavy and the imposter syndrome too real, swimming as he was with giants. Bas shielding him on Media Day, staying with him after. Heat hit his cheeks, remembering that night in the tattoo parlor. They grew even warmer, no doubt redder, with Josh’s next question.
“Any of ’em hot?”
“They’re my teammates,” Jacob said. “That’s it.”
Yes, he’d jerked off in front of Bas, but after that night a week ago, things had returned to normal. If he ignored how Bas’s gaze lingered more often, how he and Bas gravitated toward each other, how he’d fallen asleep next to Bas last night, only to wake with his morning wood pressed against Bas’s hard thigh. He’d stumbled over to his own bed before Bas awoke, and thank God it’d been to the excitement of Alex’s reinstatement, because Jacob could barely look his mentor in the eyes after his fumbling scurry of shame.
Still failing to ignore, clearly.