Off the Ice (Hat Trick, #1)

Off the Ice by Avon Gale and Piper Vaughn
 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-661-3
eBook release: 
Oct 30, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-662-0
Print release: 
Oct 30, 2017
Word count: 
70,900
Page count: 
275
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is #1 of the Hat Trick series.

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Tristan Holt is nothing if not pragmatic. Despite a flourishing career as a defenseman for the Atlanta Venom, Tristan knows he can’t play hockey forever. One day he’ll retire—if an injury doesn’t force him to hang up his skates first. His backup plan? Finishing his business degree. But he doesn’t count on a very inappropriate attraction to his standoffish sociology professor, Sebastian Cruz.

Sebastian is on the bottom rung of the Sociology Department at Georgia State. He has his sights set on tenure, and he can’t afford to be distracted, especially not by a sexy student with a body straight out of Sebastian’s dreams. No matter how much Tristan tempts him, that’s one line Sebastian won’t cross. At least not until summer classes end. After that, everything is fair game.

But Sebastian lives loud and proud, and Tristan is terrified of being the first out player in the NHL. Neither of them can afford to risk their hearts when they can’t imagine a happily ever after. The problem is, unlike hockey, when it comes to love, there are no rules.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Tristan slumped further into his seat, struggling to rearrange his limbs in a way that didn’t make him feel like a bundle of hockey equipment shoved into an undersized duffel bag. Between the small chair, the tablet arm, and the narrow aisle—apparently none of which had been designed with people of Tristan’s size in mind—it took a lot more work than he’d anticipated to find a comfortable position. Luckily, the lecture hall was still nearly empty, and the few students who’d trickled inside completely ignored his fidgety attempts to situate himself as they went about preparing for class.

No one spared him more than half a glance, and no one appeared to recognize him either. Atlanta wasn’t much of a hockey town, no matter how much the NHL tried to make it one, and Tristan wasn’t an all-star, besides. He’d never graced the front of a Wheaties box, and he hadn’t once been stopped in the street by a fan in the years he’d been playing defense for the Venom. It seemed even less likely in the off-season, though up to now, he hadn’t been around to test the theory.

For the first time since his signing, Tristan wouldn’t be spending the summer at his family’s farm in Wisconsin. Instead he’d be taking a couple of classes toward completing his unfinished business degree at Georgia State. But after spending three seasons immersed in the world of professional ice hockey, it felt strange to be back in school, like starting over again.

Tristan tried to shake the awkward-new-kid feeling and adjusted the bill of his Milwaukee Brewers cap, pulling it lower over his eyes. If there was one small comfort, it was that sitting at a desk with a book bag at his feet felt familiar to him in the same way all arenas did after a lifetime of playing hockey. The lingering funk of sweaty athletes that no amount of disinfectant ever quite vanquished, the gleam of freshly resurfaced ice, the narrow benches, and green-and-orange water bottles—those things remained unchanged. Just as, regardless of the state or the university, one classroom was much the same as any other.

More students shuffled into the room. To Tristan’s surprise, one of them—a stylishly dressed hipster wearing a cobalt button-down, skinny-fit khakis, thick-framed glasses, and a bright-red cardigan straight out of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—bypassed several rows of empty seats and paused at the desk next to Tristan’s.

“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, jerking his chin at the desk. “I hate being so spread out in these big lecture halls. I’d rather not have to yell across the aisle to talk to someone.” He laughed lightly. “Besides, I like to have a note buddy in case I miss a class. So, do you mind?”

Tristan shook his head. “Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Hipster Boy set down his messenger bag and settled primly into his seat. With his pomaded side-part and—hopefully ironic—handlebar mustache, he reminded Tristan of the black-and-white picture of his great-grandfather that sat above the mantel in his parents’ den. And to think, like most of the other students in the classroom, this guy was probably a few years Tristan’s junior.

Hipster Boy turned to Tristan, extending a hand. “I’m Steven. And you are?”

Tristan engulfed fine-boned fingers in his much bigger paw and tried not to squeeze too hard. “Tris.”

“A pleasure,” Steven said before flipping open his messenger bag. He withdrew what looked like a Moleskine leather notebook and uncapped an honest-to-God fountain-tipped pen.

Was this guy for real? If he pulled out a little pot of ink, Tristan was going to lose his shit and start laughing.

Steven didn’t. Thankfully. But as he sat there, spine straight as a ruler, not a hair out of place or wrinkle to be seen, Tristan felt like a scrub in comparison.

Tristan usually didn’t give much thought to fashion. His postworkout outfit consisted of a threadbare Grateful Dead T-shirt and a pair of old gray sweatpants that had seen better days. He wasn’t exactly red-carpet ready. Tristan had chosen the items for comfort, not style, as always when he wasn’t attending an event for which his contract required him to look presentable.

But Steven . . . Tristan would bet he never stepped foot out of the house looking anything less than pristine. Sitting next to him made Tristan feel weirdly self-conscious. He ignored the feeling and people-watched from beneath the brim of his hat until, at precisely ten o’clock, a tall, dark-haired man swept into the lecture hall, slamming the door shut behind him. The girl a couple of rows in front of Tristan startled and dropped her pen.

“Welcome to Sociology 3201: Wealth, Power, and Inequality,” the man said as he set a messenger bag much like Steven’s on the desk at the front of the room. “If you’re not registered for this class, this would be the time to leave.”

No one moved.

“If you bothered to read your syllabus, you’ll know my name is Sebastian Cruz. If you’ve taken any of my classes or spoken to my former students, you’ll also know I expect assignments to be turned in on time and I don’t tolerate excuses. I’m not here to be your friend or mentor. This isn’t Dead Poets Society, so don’t expect me to be your buddy. I’m here to teach, and you’re here to learn. As long as you keep that in mind, we’ll get along fine.”

He glanced around the room, his dark eyes narrowed in his sharp-featured face. He got to Tristan and stopped. “Classroom rule number one: no hats. You’re not at a baseball game. Show some respect.”

Tristan pulled the cap off as heat gathered in his face. He tossed it atop his book bag and combed his fingers through his hair. No doubt it looked a mess after being damp and crushed under his hat for the past hour. “Sorry, sir.”

Professor Cruz ignored him and kept talking. Or rather, ranting. Tristan groaned inwardly. Great. Another hard-ass who ran his classroom like some kind of drill sergeant. Tristan hated the type, but whatever. He’d survived coaches who would make Sebastian Cruz resemble a cuddly little lamb. Tristan couldn’t be intimidated easily, even if, yeah, it embarrassed him to be scolded like a high schooler in front of his peers.

Eh, you win some, you lose some in the professor roulette. If there was one thing hockey had taught Tristan, it was self-discipline. He enjoyed sociology and thought the classes would be beneficial to him as a potential businessman. Tristan could cope with Mr. Don’t-Expect-Me-to-Be-Your-Buddy for seven weeks.

“So power and inequality,” Professor Cruz was saying, “let’s talk about how that relates to blue-blooded Manhattanites and me, growing up as a Puerto Rican welfare kid in the Bronx.”

Well, he didn’t waste any time, did he?

Tristan flipped open his MacBook and started taking notes as Professor Cruz lectured. Warm and fuzzy the guy was not, but he certainly didn’t lack in passion for the subject matter. Soon, Tristan was fascinated. Professor Cruz absolutely came alive as he spoke. True, he suffered from a bad case of Resting Asshole Face, and Tristan wouldn’t go so far as to call him handsome, not exactly. Still, there was something compelling. Professor Cruz—tall and whipcord lean with warm golden-brown skin and wavy raven-black hair—definitely qualified as eye candy.

“In the New York social stratosphere, some of these people are akin to royalty,” Professor Cruz said. “Anyone ever watched Gossip Girl? I’d love to tell you that show was unrealistic in its portrayal of rich, entitled teenagers, but it wasn’t far from what I experienced growing up alongside some of them. Of course, the difference between us was, my mother was the hired help and, as such, we existed in entirely different realities.

“See, when you’re a child of such absolute privilege, you grow up with an entirely skewed worldview. These people have no concept of what it’s like to subsist on food stamps or to struggle from paycheck to paycheck. They’re on the far right of the social spectrum, the very top of a modern-day caste system, and we, the blue-collar workers, are the laboring class. The privilege of wealth is going to be a major theme over the next several weeks. Get used to hearing that word, folks: privilege. You’re going to be sick of it by the time I’m done. And that brings us to your first assignment . . .”

Tristan fought back a smile as Steven muttered something unpleasant under his breath. Should’ve read the syllabus, bud.

Tristan had. He’d already started the homework due before they met again on Thursday. Sure, he would’ve rather been playing hockey still, but in a way, Tristan was almost relieved the Venom’s season had ended in the first round of the playoffs. He didn’t think Professor I-Don’t-Tolerate-Excuses would give him a free pass on an assignment—even for a Stanley Cup Final.

* * * * * * *

The problem with wealth is that it makes some people have money and some people poor.

Sebastian read the opening line of the assignment he was grading out loud and groaned. “No shit, Sherlock,” he muttered, his voice echoing in the quiet of his apartment. He’d tried grading with some music in the background, but it seemed somehow sacrilegious to mix Pink Floyd and his students’ idiocy. As if it were somehow tainting what was good and pure with drivel.

The assignment wasn’t terribly taxing, especially for students enrolled in an upper-level sociology course, but so far he wasn’t impressed. He hadn’t wanted to teach the summer course, even if the material was near and dear to his heart and definitely something for which he had an academic passion. Summer courses were intensive and time consuming, and the only thing that made it all worth it was that he generally loved the subject matter. Even when it resulted in grading papers with sentences like The problem with wealth is that it makes some people have money and some people poor.

Rubbing his temples, he kept reading through the end of the paper, which had arrived via the course’s PAWS site. He made a few notes about consulting the reading—and by that, I mean, actually do it—and gave it a cursory mark in the C-minus category, which was the norm so far for all the papers he’d read. The worst had been a paper in which the student had opined over the unfairness of not having access to a trust fund before a certain age, since his parents had worked hard for their millions and wasn’t the point of having money to share it with their children?

That paper had nearly driven him to drink, but he’d written Perhaps you might benefit from further reading on the concept of poverty and assigned a barely passing grade. He had a feeling he knew exactly whose paper that was, too—the blond hottie in the gray sweatpants. The boy with the full mouth and the gorgeous body, who’d immediately irritated Sebastian by slouching and wearing a hat. Sebastian remembered with a certain amount of pleasure how the kid’s fair skin had turned noticeably red after Sebastian had corrected him. He looked exactly like the kind of person who’d write a whiny paper about not having access to a trust fund to blow on . . . whatever rich kids spent money on. Sebastian had no idea. Chuck Bass with the Nice Ass did, Sebastian was sure of it.

The final paper he graded was much better, talking about the idea of class and wealth and what it meant to have a sudden and rather jarring transition from one to the other. The paper was well written and referenced the reading, which was enough to earn it a solid B right there. There were a few clunky transitions and some of the student’s thoughts were a bit muddled, but overall it was a fairly erudite examination of the sudden gain or loss of privilege that came with the movement from one social class to another. Sebastian gave the paper a B-plus, made a few suggestions for how the student could improve the presentation of his ideas and, because it really had been the best one in the whole bunch, added You clearly did the reading and thought about the assignment from an interesting angle—well done.

From Sebastian, that was high praise indeed—especially on a first assignment. It at least gave him hope that there would be the potential for some interesting and productive dialogue, which had seemed a dim prospect while grading the other students’ assignments. Chuck Bass might be hot, but Sebastian had a feeling he’d spend most of the class asleep—if he even bothered to show up.

When Sebastian was finished grading, he finally checked his texts and found a few from his friend R.J. Marcus, a professor in the Math Department at Georgia State. He’d been the one to encourage Sebastian to take on the summer class, with the argument that if Sebastian wanted to be tenured before he turned thirty-five—which, of course he did—it would go a long way in improving his chances if he showed he was a team player.

Sebastian didn’t point out that team players were a myth in academia, because R.J. was one of the good ones and was fast becoming a close friend. After exchanging a few texts, he changed clothes and went to meet R.J. at a nearby bar for a drink. After those papers, he needed about seven.

“That bad?” R.J. asked, when Sebastian slid into the booth next to him and proceeded to down half his Scotch in one swig.

Sebastian fixed him with a sharp look, the one that most of his students had a hard time meeting for too long. “One of my students wrote a very sad treatise on the inequality of trust fund distributions based on age. He referred to it as, quote, ageablism. That’s really the word he used.”

R.J. snorted and leaned back in the booth. He shook his head. “Wow. Hey, look, it’s only for seven weeks.” R.J.’s smile flashed against his dark-brown skin. “My first year, I had to teach a math class in which one of my students answered all the proofs with long, involved puns.”

“At least those are funny,” Sebastian groused, fingers tracing the rim of his glass.

“They were bad puns,” said R.J. “And I don’t know. Ageablism is pretty funny. I mean, you’d laugh if you did that kind of thing.”

Sebastian, well aware of his reputation, smiled slightly. “There’s one good thing about the class, though I’m afraid he won’t be around that long.” Sebastian told R.J. about Chuck Bass, he of the gray sweatpants. “I’m almost sure that punk was my trust fund brat, but goddamn.”

“Well, there you go.” R.J. toasted him with his beer. “Does he have one of those awful trust fund names like, uh . . .” R.J. squinted up at the ceiling. “Whatever those are?”

Sebastian snorted. “I’ve been calling him ‘Chuck Bass’ in my head. The kid from Gossip Girl?” R.J.’s look suggested he didn’t know what the hell Sebastian was talking about. Sebastian shrugged. “Like I bother to learn their names, R.J. Come on. They’ll be gone by the time I do, and I won’t see any of them again anyway.”

R.J.’s eyebrows rose, but all he said was, “Hot Guy is a better nickname than, uh . . . Ageablism Guy. Right?”

“Well, I’m probably a lot older than he is,” Sebastian pointed out, letting the Scotch and the music—and R.J.’s cheerful, upbeat company—mellow him out. Also, it was the weekend and he had a few days off before he had to address his class and explain how to capture and wrangle that mythical, elusive beast known as a thesis sentence into submission. “And I’m sure I won’t be seeing much of him when he gets his paper back. But, until then, I’ll enjoy how he fills out that pair of sweatpants.” He grinned evilly.

It wasn’t a laugh, but it was close enough.

 

Chapter Two

Tristan swung his club and watched as the ball veered wildly off course and landed a few lanes away. He winced and sent the guy down the row an apologetic wave. Damn. Why did he bother going to the driving range? He sucked at golf. It just seemed like something he should do because so many of his teammates played during the summer, but he never actually seemed to get any better.

“Were your eyes closed during that shot, Holtzy?” A beefy hand shoved his shoulder, and he turned to face Morley, his defense partner on the Venom. Trevor Morley was handsome, if somewhat rough around the edges, with spiky golden-brown hair, blue eyes, and a brick wall physique. He exceeded Tristan’s six foot four by a few inches and outweighed him by probably twenty pounds of solid muscle. During games, Morley played with a mean-as-hell scowl. He had a reputation in the league as someone not to be fucked with, but off the ice, his teddy-bear personality shone through, and he delighted in being the biggest prankster on the team. They’d become close friends in the years since Tristan had joined the Venom as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

Tristan leaned on his club. “Maybe we should call it a day and go to lunch.”

“Not until I finish this bucket. Practice, bro, practice. You’ll never improve your swing otherwise.”

Tristan grumbled good-naturedly and grabbed another ball.

“When Ryu gets back from training, we’ll have to get him out here too. You both need to up your games. It’s no fun slaughtering you two every time. You know I thrive on competition.”

Tristan laughed. It was true. Ryu, his best friend and the Venom’s backup goalie, also sucked at golf. Unlike Tristan, who took it in stride, it pissed Ryu off not to be good at something. Ryu was currently in Sweden participating in a camp run by Kris Karlsson, a legendary goalie from the nineties. Until he returned in a couple of weeks, their improbable trio was down to a duo.

“Are you coming out tonight?” Morley asked as he adjusted his stance, eyes focused on the field. “You should’ve seen these chicks we met last weekend. They’re supposed to be at the Empty Bottle again tonight.” Morley swung with such perfect form he could’ve been posing for the cover of Golf Digest. The ball flew straight and landed near the farthest yardage marker. “They were strippers, man,” he added, grinning. “I’m sure one of them would be more than happy to take a ride on your pole.”

Tristan sighed. “Seriously? We’ve talked about this. Dial back the sexism—we’ve both got sisters.”

“Yeah, yeah. Allow me to rephrase. We met some lovely ladies, dancers, who I feel would be honored to meet a studly gentleman hockey player such as yourself.” Morley rolled his eyes. “So? Are you in?”

Instead of answering immediately, Tristan pounded a ball out onto the field while he tried to come up with an excuse to bail.

It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy partying with his teammates. They were fun guys. Family, really, after three seasons. But with Tristan being one of the few singles on the Venom’s roster, they expected him to be constantly chasing skirt. Little did they realize he had no interest in women. Not sexually, anyway. He’d known he was gay since he turned thirteen—and he’d known it was something he’d have to hide if he wanted a future in hockey for just as long. Things were slowly getting better, but as Michael Sam’s short-lived NFL career could attest, there were reasons for the lack of openly gay athletes in professional sports.

Tristan wasn’t the only gay man playing hockey. Hell, he’d been fucked by enough players to know, and the teammate he’d dated in college had also gone on to the NHL. They still hooked up whenever their current teams crossed paths. However, the existence of other queer players didn’t mean Tristan could admit the reason he had no interest in partying with the guys was because they weren’t going to the right clubs. Tristan might not mind a bit of harmless flirting, but he hated pretending. He’d rather stay home alone than be forced to put on an act.

Someday he might be ready to be honest with his friends. Someday. Not now.

Of course, hiding such an intrinsic part of himself wasn’t exactly ideal. Whenever Tristan hooked up with someone, he dealt with paranoia about being outed for days afterward. The loneliness, the sense of being disconnected, untethered from everyone and everything sometimes left him with an unbearable ache in the pit of his stomach. But nothing in life was perfect. Tristan was living his dream and getting paid well—very well—to play the sport he loved. How many people could say the same?

“I don’t think I can make it,” Tristan finally replied. “I have a paper due on Tuesday, and I still have to do some research.” It wasn’t a lie. He was only taking a couple of courses to ease himself back into student life, but Professor Cruz—dark-haired, scowly Professor Cruz, whose wiry body made Tristan think things he shouldn’t—had already assigned two papers in the week and a half since the summer session started.

Morley’s eyebrows spoke volumes, being nearly at the level of his hairline. “‘Research’? Bro, I don’t even understand why you’re taking those classes. This is our only time to relax without Clancy riding our asses. Why do you need a business degree anyway? You’re making bank with your new contract extension.”

Tristan lifted a shoulder. The contract extension was actually the reason he’d decided to go back to school. It meant he’d be in Atlanta for the next three years, barring an unexpected trade. Plenty of time to finish his degree. “I was about to start my junior year when I got drafted. I’m halfway done. I don’t want those credit hours to go to waste, you know? I want a plan for after hockey.”

“But, dude, you’re what, twenty-four?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Even better. You won’t be retiring for ages. If you play your cards right, you can live off your earnings for the rest of your life. You won’t need to get some boring ass nine-to-five.”

Tristan set a fresh ball on the tee. “Yeah, maybe. But there aren’t any guarantees. You know that. I could get hurt the next time I step on the ice, and bam! No more contracts. No endorsement deals. No day with The Cup. It’d be over.”

Morley blanched. “Bite your fucking tongue, bro. You shouldn’t even be thinking about that, let alone saying it out loud.”

“I can’t not think about it,” Tristan said mildly. He whacked the ball and watched it soar nearly straight upward before plopping onto the grass a few yards in front of him. He sighed, turning back to his friend. “It’s the realist in me. Besides, my parents have been on me to go back for years. I don’t fantasize about some white-collar job in international relations, but it feels smart to do this now. That way, if I’m ever forced to quit hockey, I’ll be qualified to do something other than play-by-play announcing for some dinky local TV network. And that’d be if I got lucky.”

Morley gave an exaggerated shudder and quickly crossed himself. “You should find some wood to knock on.” His expression was dead serious. “You’re freaking me out with all this talk of injuries and quitting.”

Tristan laughed and knocked on his head. “There. Satisfied?” Tristan was as superstitious as the next hockey player, but Morley had him beat. He even prayed before every game “in case Jesus is listening,” though Tristan knew for a fact Morley only stepped foot in a church once a year for Christmas mass.

“Close enough.” Morley peered down into his bucket. “Five left. Let’s finish this up and grab some lunch.”

“Yep.” Tristan lined up another shot and gave Morley a questioning glance. “Last one finished buys?”

Morley nodded without looking up. “You’re on.”

Tristan grinned. No need to tell Morley he was on his final ball.

* * * * * * *

Sebastian stood in front of his class, eyes sweeping over the students who had bothered to show up. It was a couple of weeks into the summer term, and as expected, the class size had shrunk considerably since the first day.

What wasn’t expected, however, was the presence of Chuck Bass, who hadn’t missed a single class. Not only that, but he hadn’t worn a ball cap since the first day—although he was still showing up in those sweatpants, which Sebastian was doing his level best to ignore.

Today he was wearing a Pink Floyd shirt. Sebastian wondered if blondie was even old enough to know who they were, and resisted the urge to go full-out classic-rock hipster and ask him. He had a class to teach.

“Today we’re going to talk about perception,” Sebastian said, leaning back against his desk. “The way we perceive others has to do with a variety of factors, and the assumptions we make because of them. Humans have a tendency to place people into a hierarchy, and we design that hierarchy in several ways.”

He wondered if he was losing them, but Gray Sweatpants was typing away at his computer—a newer model MacBook, Sebastian noticed—so either he was taking notes or blatantly ignoring Sebastian in favor of updating his Facebook. Sebastian noticed the painfully trendy young man with the notebook, the one who always sat next to Gray Sweatpants and probably took notes in calligraphy given that fancy pen, was absent today.

“One way in which we organize individuals into a hierarchy is based on the things we’ve been talking about in this class so far this semester—perceptions of wealth, class, that sort of thing. But we also make designations in this power hierarchy based on other factors, and I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about those. Race and gender, for example . . . and sexuality.”

Sebastian waited a moment to see if mentioning that got anyone’s attention, but besides Gray Sweatpants glancing briefly upward, the rest of the class were staring at their computer screens. One young woman was on her phone and one guy was slouched in his seat against the wall, half-asleep.

And these were the students who’d bothered to show up.

“You put me in a position of power in this classroom because I’m the professor,” Sebastian continued. “But there are other, more subtle factors that you might not even be aware of—the position of where I’m standing in the room, for example. It’s very similar to what happens in your mind when you go and watch a rock concert.” Sebastian waved a hand. “Or whatever music you kids are into, nowadays.”

That got a slight smile from Gray Sweatpants. Interesting.

“Musicians are literally raised to a position above you on a stage, so your mind fills in the hierarchy clues and places these people above you. You do it with me because I’m standing while you’re sitting, I’m speaking while you’re quiet, and I’m awake while you’re sleeping.” He stared hard at the dozing kid in the back, who didn’t realize Sebastian was addressing him at all. Several of the others did, though, and it wasn’t only Gray Sweatpants who smiled this time.

“Now, what about me changes your perception of my place in the power hierarchy?” Sebastian’s mouth quirked. “Before you awkwardly avoid my eyes and figure out how to answer this, I’ll do it for you. I’m Puerto Rican. Does that make any of you question if I’m really in charge of this classroom?”

There were a few gazes exchanged among the engaged students in the room, and a few mumbles and awkward smiles.

“And how about if I tell you that I’m gay?”

That got their attention, most noticeably Gray Sweatpants, who looked up sharply from his computer. Sebastian met his big, wide blue eyes and stared at him, waiting to see if Mr. Trust Fund had anything to say about that.

“Now, I’m telling you this for a few reasons. One, my primary interest and area of study—which you’d know if you bothered doing any research about your professor—is LGBT issues in Latinx urban communities, and how traditional ideas of gender and class are challenged by openly queer individuals.

“Two, I want to spend some time discussing perceptions and how we, as individuals, challenge those perceptions in our day-to-day life . . . as well as the images we present to others. I want you, in your next assignment, to talk about a role you play in a community that you have a particularly strong tie to—familial, cultural, I don’t particularly care which—and where you think you fit in the so-called ‘power hierarchy.’ Then, tell me something about you that might challenge that perception and why.”

He paused. “This is a very personal assignment, so I hope you will take the time to really think about what I’ve said and deconstruct your own place in one of the social spaces you inhabit.”

Gray Sweatpants was still watching him, and Sebastian found himself meeting the kid’s big blue eyes for the second or third time. Maybe it was because none of the other students were bothering to interact with him in any way, or maybe it was just the kid was hot and those wide eyes and that full mouth were giving Sebastian ideas he shouldn’t have in class.

Or maybe there was something else. Maybe Gray Sweatpants was looking so intently at him because he—

Stop it, what are you doing? You’re in class. Save your pervy fantasies for later.

Sebastian glanced at his watch and realized it was time to end class. “That’s all for today. I’ll expect your papers turned in to me via the class site by the end of the week.”

He watched as they all stood up and assembled their things, heading toward the exit singly or in small groups. He thought he heard one of the girls murmur, “. . . really gay?” on her way out of the door, and he had to stop himself from snorting.

Gray Sweatpants was the last one out the door, and the girl probably would have had her answer if she’d noticed how Sebastian unabashedly eyed the guy’s ass in those pants on his way out. But she was already gone, and the only other person left was the kid asleep in the back . . . and he was snoring, so Sebastian doubted he noticed anything much at all.

 

Chapter Three

Over the next couple of days, Tristan gave serious consideration to the topic Professor Cruz had assigned. What “social space” did he inhabit? Hockey, of course. The dressing rooms, the arenas, the charter planes and busses. Tristan spent most of his time with other athletes. Where did he fit into the hockey power hierarchy? What role did he play—aside from the obvious answer of “defenseman”? Did he ever do anything to challenge that role?

Tristan typed a first draft, which was more of a stream-of-consciousness-style brain dump than anything. It ended up a seven-page ramble that had no real purpose or sense of direction, but luckily, there were a few diamonds amid all that rough. Those ideas Tristan cut and polished into a more cohesive second draft. One he thought Professor Cruz would appreciate.

Sexy, dark-eyed, gay Professor Cruz, who put his sexuality out there like it was nothing. Who lifted his chin and practically dared anyone in the class to say something negative.

What would it be like to be able to do that in front of a group of strangers? To be totally candid and honest about who he was? Tristan wouldn’t know. He couldn’t quite imagine saying the words to his family or his teammates, let alone a lecture hall full of people whose respect he wanted to keep.

Professor Cruz had certainly earned Tristan’s respect with his frankness. And his bravery. Even if the guy was out flying rainbow flags every weekend, it couldn’t be easy to share that aspect of his personal life, potentially opening himself to criticism or bigotry. Tristan admired the courage that took as he sat there ruminating on his place in the world of hockey and the homophobia that still pervaded the sport, particularly in the junior levels.

No one had stood up in front of the league and proudly declared their queerness to the masses. But that wasn’t something Tristan planned to address in this paper. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

He refocused on the task at hand—deconstructing his place within the hockey community, and what about him, aside from his sexuality, challenged the perceptions of outsiders. The answer came in a flash that left Tristan feeling foolish in the aftermath. Obviously, the fact that he was back in school pursuing a degree made him different from many of his teammates. He still considered it worthwhile to complete his education, though he had a salary many people would envy and friends like Morley who questioned why he would bother.

His topic decided, Tristan tackled the paper with renewed energy. He was in the middle of reworking his closing paragraph when a ping from his MacBook alerted him to a new message.

Tristan’s Gmail inbox was open, and a little green box flashed in the corner—a chat invite from Steven. They’d been emailing consistently since the first day of class. He’d already begged Tristan to send him notes a couple of times, but he’d never initiated a chat before.

Curious, Tristan accepted the invite to see the message.

Steven: Hey, how’s the paper going? Did you figure out your subject yet?

Tristan: Yeah. Almost done, actually.

Steven: Oh man, seriously? I’ve got nothing so far

Tristan considered for a moment. Are you part of any clubs? Play any sports? Or are you involved in a church or anything?

Steven: No I’m not really into any of that. IDK. I’m stumped

There was a pause. Then Steven sent another message: Would you mind letting me read your paper? Just so I can see what you did. I can proofread for you!

Tristan hesitated. But, really, what harm could there be? Besides, he could do with a second set of eyes.

Tristan: Yeah, sure. Will send in a bit.

Steven: Thanks, man, you’re a lifesaver! Hey gotta go but I’ll read it later and get back to you

Steven signed off before Tristan could reply.

Another hour passed before he felt ready to let someone else see his work, but eventually, Tristan completed his revisions and sent the paper off to Steven. Not too shabby, if he said so himself. It might even earn him an elusive A from Professor Cruz.

After a quick shower and a protein shake, Tristan checked his phone to find a stream of texts from Morley.

Morley: Bro remember that movie I wanted to see? Its @ the cheap theater now

Morley: Shootouts car chases hot chicks EXPLOSIONS!! Fuck yeah lets go!!!

Morley: Dont ignore me ill show up @ ur house and drag u out the door in a headlock

Morley: Cmon bro im bored af

Tristan snorted. What the hell. He could use a couple of hours of mindless entertainment. What better way to decompress than with over-the-top special effects and excessive amounts of gunfire?

Tristan could think of one thing, but it had been a while since he’d gotten laid and he wasn’t in the mood to deal with Grindr or trying to go out to pick someone up. For now, his hand and Vin Diesel fantasies would have to do.

Tristan: Sorry, was working. Yeah, let’s go. Come pick me up.

Morley replied almost immediately—with a row of five thumbs-up emojis, an eggplant, a peach, and three bombs.

Translation: I’m on my way.

Tristan laughed and shook his head.

* * * * * * *

The papers came in by the end of the week, and to be fair, most of the students appeared to have at least tried to apply to their papers what Sebastian had been talking about. One student talked candidly about being raised Mormon and estranged from the church, one talked about their family, and a few others talked about activities they belonged to—an acapella group, a dance team, and a LARP group (though Sebastian wasn’t exactly sure what that meant).

Most interesting so far was, oddly enough, about a student who was apparently heavily involved in playing lacrosse—a sport that Sebastian knew absolutely nothing about and had no idea if GSU even had a team. But he wasn’t that big into sports, so it was entirely likely that the college had a team and that this student, Steven Wheeling, was a lacrosse player and had chosen to write his paper on his experiences. It was a good paper, and while Sebastian couldn’t relate entirely to the athletic aspect, he did know what it was like to challenge misconceptions people had based on one aspect of his identity. He left a few notes and resisted adding any sort of personal message—it would be inappropriate.

Sebastian recorded the student’s grade in the PAWS system, clicked back to his desktop and opened the next Word document. For a moment, he thought he’d clicked the same document and reopened the lacrosse paper, because the opening paragraph was exactly the same.

Well. It was the same, but instead of the word lacrosse it said hockey. Frowning, Sebastian glanced quickly at the pages and realized he was reading an almost word-for-word version of the earlier paper. The only difference was the sport, and Sebastian might not know much about college athletics or the lacrosse team, but he knew for sure GSU did not have an ice hockey team. He copied a few paragraphs and ran it through a plagiarism checker that the school gave professors access to, but nothing came up.

This wasn’t a paper in a fraternity file that had been used over and over again. This was one person’s paper that had been stolen. Sebastian thought about Gray Sweatpants and the trendy kid with his notebook, and how he’d heard them exchanging emails the first week of class. If he had to pick which one of them was a student athlete lacrosse player and which one was a frat boy who thought their gay professor would buy the idea of a hockey team at a Southern school . . .

Seething, Sebastian stared hard at the screen and drummed his fingers on his desk. He couldn’t say why he was so disappointed, because honestly, he shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d been warned about the possibility of plagiarism, of course, and had figured that it would crop up sooner or later in one of his classes. He considered contacting the dean and reporting it, and he’d have to do that eventually. But first, he was going to confront the plagiarist—Tristan Holt, according to the document—and give him an appropriate lecture. It might not do any good, because people like that never learned. Likely it would go in one ear and out the other, but Sebastian was going to make sure it at least burned on its way through the kid’s empty skull.

Tristan Holt and his sweatpants were one piece of eye candy Sebastian wouldn’t be enjoying the rest of the semester, because Sebastian was going to make sure he never set foot in his classroom again.