TITLE: Injured Reserve
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
Amazon * Audio
Stefan Baronoski is on top of the world. He’s got an amazing husband. He’s killing it on the ice. He’s providing for his parents after they sacrificed so much to help him chase his dream. What else could he possibly want?
His husband, as it turns out, could think of a few things.
Antonio Pisano has always supported Stefan’s career, but he’s lonely and miserable. What good is the hockey spouse life or the stacked bank account when his husband is always either on the ice or on the road? What is there to love about starting over in a new place every time Stefan is traded? Their open marriage kept Antonio’s bed from getting cold for a while, but the only man he craves is the one who’s never there.
Maybe it’s time to let go.
Then an injury benches Stefan. With the two of them home together for weeks—possibly months—this just might be the chance they need to remember why they fell in love in the first place. Or a chance for Antonio to get his hopes up only to have his heart broken all over again when Stefan returns to the ice.
It’s now or never. If Stefan doesn’t figure out how much he has to lose, Antonio won’t be the one left in the cold this time.
Injured Reserve is a standalone contemporary gay romance novel with a guaranteed happy ending.
Have fun tonight, Stefan’s text read. Tell me about it tomorrow. ;)
With a sigh, I put the phone down beside my untouched drink and stared disinterestedly at the flat screen above the bar. Some suited commentators were rambling on about football. I didn’t care about football, but at least it wasn’t hockey.
My phone buzzed again. This time it wasn’t my husband—it was my Tinder date.
Running late. Probably 8:30.
It was 7:45 now. Great.
No problem. Take your time. I’m at the bar.
Then I put the phone down again and took a deep swallow from my drink. I really didn’t want to be here. Not waiting for this guy. Not sitting in this bar feeling like trash. Not in goddamned Pittsburgh.
But where else would I be? What else did I have going on? Stefan was on day five of a road trip with the team and wouldn’t be back for another week or so. Then he’d be in town for…what? Three days? Four? At least one of which was a game, another involved some event or another for one of the brands he endorsed, and there would be a practice or three in there as well.
His life was hockey. Mine was a mix of waiting for him to come home and wishing he’d go back out on the road. Pining for him. Resenting his presence. Pining for him some more. Resenting him again.
I sighed, pressing my elbow into the bar and rubbing my forehead. Why was I even here? Not just waiting for this hookup I wasn’t in the mood for, but…here? I’d given up everything—my job, my social life, living close to my family—to spend the last eight years going wherever hockey took Stefan. San Jose. Tampa. Calgary. Most recently to Pittsburgh when Stefan had been sent to the Wildcats at the trade deadline last season. I’d always gone where hockey had taken him, and for what? So I could spend more time telling my husband about sex I had with hookups than I spent having sex with him?
My throat tightened. No, I really didn’t want to be here. Literally the only thing stopping me from canceling on my date was that I didn’t want to sleep alone tonight. I hated sleeping alone, but that came with the territory of being married to a hockey player, and if we hadn’t had an open marriage, I probably would’ve left a long time ago.
Which probably meant I should’ve left a long time ago.
Playing with the edge of a condensation-soaked napkin, I wondered if leaving would’ve been so bad. We’d never been particularly monogamous, not even before Stefan was signed and hockey took over our lives. Maybe if we had been, I’d have figured out how unhappy I was sooner, and I’d have bailed instead of using sex with other men to avoid facing reality.
Exhaling, I picked up my drink. Did it matter? What might’ve been hadn’t been, and I’d stuck around for twelve years, and now I was sitting here waiting for a guy I didn’t want to sleep with. And yeah, if Stefan called tomorrow, I’d tell him all about it, and he’d get off on it, and it would be hot for a few minutes. If he called. Either way, I’d be sleeping alone in our giant bed. Again.
The fact was, I loved my husband to hell and back, but I did not love our marriage these days. Sooner or later, something was going to give, and more and more, I was resigning myself to the inevitable.
Some movement pulled my attention away from my drink, and I looked up to see the bartender changing the channel.
And fuck me, but he went right to the Wildcats game, which had just started. I suppressed a groan. I wanted to ask him to change it to anything else, but a quick glance around the room said I’d be outvoted in a hurry. There were several people watching, some wearing Wildcats jerseys.
One even had #43 on his sleeve. Stefan’s number. Another had a T-shirt with his nickname, Baron, across the front. Stefan had only been with the team since last season’s trade deadline, but the fans loved him.
So did I. But…
I pulled my gaze away and took another drink. I didn’t want to think about this right now, and I didn’t want to be here. Goddammit. Did my date have to pick this place?
I checked the time. He was running late, so I could get away with suggesting somewhere else, right? I could say this bar was too loud and crowded or something. There had to be a decent lounge or restaurant nearby. Hell, I’d be down with a McDonald’s parking lot as long as there wasn’t a hockey game playing.
But I didn’t move, and because I was a damn masochist, I let my gaze drift over the rim of my drink to the game.
They were a couple of minutes into the first period, and the action was as fast and furious as ever. Black and gold jerseys blurred across the screen, players chasing after the puck and fighting it away from their opponents in red and white.
Naturally, my eyes went straight to Stefan whenever he was in the frame, and my heart fluttered even as my throat constricted. Despite everything, I’d always loved watching him play. I’d come to as many games as I could while we were in college, even though I hadn’t really understood the intricacies of the sport back then. I’d just known how much I loved watching Stefan.
Back then, he’d been young and feisty. I still remembered vividly the first time I’d seen him get into a fight. When he’d thrown off his gloves, torn off his helmet, and gotten in the other player’s face, he’d just… Good God, he’d been so hot. Hair sweaty and disheveled. Brown eyes flashing with fury. Oh yeah, even now that memory made my pulse race.
These days, he had less of a baby face. His hair was shorter, and he had a prominent scar across his right cheek that hadn’t been there when we’d met, but he was still every inch the man I’d drooled over and fallen for back then. He also wasn’t quite such a hothead. Oh, he still fought, and he was still fierce on the ice, but his temper had a longer fuse, and he was more likely to channel his fury into scoring against the other team than he was to land himself in the penalty box.
The camera zoomed in on him as he skated toward one of the faceoff dots in Minneapolis’s defensive zone. Their goalie must’ve made a save. Or maybe they’d iced the puck. Or the puck had gone out of play. Whatever. I was too busy enjoying the long look at Stefan as he brushed away some sweat, messing up his short, sandy blond hair in the process, before he put his helmet back on and joined his line for the face-off.
The camera panned away, and I had to grit my teeth against a sudden rush of emotion as I drained my drink. I hadn’t even swallowed it before I was flagging down the bartender for a refill. Two drinks was my absolute max when I was meeting someone for a hookup, and I needed that second one right now.
Maybe I should’ve ordered something top shelf.
That thought immediately made me feel guilty. For all Stefan was paid by the league, money still made him sweat like it had when we were broke college kids. Early in his career, I’d thought it was cute and even a little endearing, seeing him grimace over prices on a restaurant menu while our bank account was in the six figures. These days…
These days it just made me tired.
I let my gaze drift to the screen again as the players battled in a corner for the puck. Stefan wasn’t in the thick of it, so his shift must’ve been over. Probably just as well. It hurt to watch him right now. As hot as it was to watch Stefan play, it hurt because I swore the camera saw more of him than I did. He was barely home, which was par for the course in his line of work, but when he was home, he was exhausted and distracted. Always focused on the next game. On practice. On working out. We still slept together, but sometimes he just didn’t have it in him. I tried not to think about how much sex I had with other men compared to how little I had with my husband. That thought was way too depressing, and it made tonight even less appealing.
I don’t want them. I want you.
The bartender arrived with my drink, and after I’d thanked him, I took a deep swallow as I avoided the screen. Maybe I could at least find a table in the restaurant or something instead of sitting in the bar. Then I wouldn’t be able to see the game. I wouldn’t be able to see Stefan.
Except I want to see him.
Goddammit. I did. I so did. I wanted to sit here all night and watch Stefan play because this was as close to him as I could get right now. Letting my gaze drift to the screen again, I swallowed the lump in my throat and chased it with some more not-top-shelf bourbon for good measure.
Stefan was back on the ice now, and he had the puck. My pulse raced as he broke away and sped toward the goal, and I mentally cheered him on as the people around me shouted “Go! Go!” Then, “Shoot! Come on, Baron! Shoot!”
My heart swelled with pride even as it ached, and I silently joined in.
Come on, baby. Shoot it. Shoot it!
He shot. The camera followed the puck toward the goal, and the puck just squeaked past the goaltender’s leg to land in the back of the net. The glass behind the net lit up red, and everyone around me in the bar cheered. I grinned into my drink.
Nice one, Stefan. Way to—
The camera suddenly jerked back to where several players were gathered around someone who’d gone down. One was waving frantically to flag down the officials.
My heart jumped into my throat. The bar was suddenly dead silent.
The bartender grabbed the remote and turned up the volume, which caught the commentator saying, “…looks like Baranoski is down. I’m not sure exactly what happened here, Jim, but he’s down, and he is not getting back up.”