If you follow my blog at all, you know I don't post much about myself. Hardly at all, in fact, except for posts about my books. In an attempt to be more active on my blog, I've started High Five Friday. I'm not sure what it will look like yet, or even if I'll be able to post every Friday; but the goal is to post some fun stuff about myself in effort to allow readers to get to know me, and for me to get to know my readers.
Today, I've got a Valentine's Day freebie!
A Valentine's Trade is about 4,000 words, takes place in the Stick Side universe, and features much-loved characters from On the Ice (Stick Side #1): Mitch and Alex. You can ready it below or download it to your e-reader.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy it!
A Valentine's Trade by Amy Aislin
TIMING: This short story takes place right after the epilogue of On the Ice.
Alex Dean didn’t normally hang around the practice facility after morning skate. If, like today, it was a game day he generally took it easy—a late morning nap and some light exercise before heading to the rink early. If it wasn’t a game day, morning skate was generally followed by a full-body workout, maybe breakfast with a few of his teammates, and then the mundane that even high-priced NHL players couldn’t get away from—errands, house cleaning, and laundry.
But not today. Today, the love of his life was joining his team.
In some fluke of fate, the hockey gods had traded Mitch from L.A. to Toronto. In the six-plus years they’d been together, and in the three and a half they’d been married, ending up on the same team hadn’t been a scenario they’d ever contemplated.
At least, in Alex’s case, not out loud. Maybe so he didn’t jinx it, but more likely because he knew the possibility was incredibly slim. They’d been in a long-distance relationship since they’d started dating; being on different teams once Mitch graduated college a few years ago wasn’t out of the norm for them. They spent their summers together, and before the start of every season they compared schedules and figured out who would visit who on their off days and when it made more sense to meet in the middle.
So the fact that Mitch was currently sitting on the other side of the locker room door Alex waited in front of was downright mind-blowing.
“Why don’t you just go in there?”
He spared a glance for his teammate, Taylor Cunningham, before swinging his gaze back to the door as if he could will Mitch to walk out of it. “He should be out in a minute.”
Since Mitch had arrived from the airport with only minutes to spare before morning skate, Coach hadn’t had time to sit him down and give him the same spiel he gave all new team members—including Alex when he’d been traded from Tampa four years ago—so he was doing it now while the locker room remained empty between their morning skate and whatever activity the facility had scheduled next. But it had been twenty minutes already and Alex was desperate to kiss his husband hello, which he couldn’t do until he took Mitch home. More importantly though, he had a feeling Mitch needed to be poured into bed after taking the red-eye from Los Angeles.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you fidget.” Slouching against the wall next to him, Tay looked up from his phone.
Alex quit drumming his heel against the wall and dug into the pocket of his winter jacket. “Here.” He held his car keys out. “Why don’t you take the car? Mitch and I can take a cab back to the house.”
Tay raised a dark blond eyebrow before going back to scrolling through Instagram. “You’re letting me stay in your guest room while my condo gets renovated and you expect me to leave without you? Dude. I’m not in a rush. I’ll wait.”
“I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here.” That minute he’d predicted had long come and gone. “Don’t you have a midterm to study for?”
Tay huffed a small laugh. “Don’t worry about me. It’s barely nine. I’ve got lots of time.” He threw Alex a smirk. “Just go in there before your head explodes.”
Alex wasn’t an impatient person by nature but this was Mitch and he was right there, on the other side of that door, and they hadn’t had a chance to exchange two words yet. Squaring his shoulders, he took Tay’s advice and slipped into the locker room.
The scent of soap lingered but didn’t quite mask the underlying aroma of eau de sweaty athlete. Sitting perpendicular to each other on a couple of benches across from the door, Coach and Mitch glanced up as he entered. The expression that crossed Mitch’s face was happiness and surprise and bewilderment, and it wiped his exhaustion away. His brown curls fell over his forehead and the crinkles at the corner of his eyes brought out their warmth. An arm lifted, as if Mitch was reaching a hand out to him, before he seemed to remember where he was and lowered it.
Alex threw him a wink, making Mitch’s lips curl into a full-on grin.
“Dean.” Coach’s voice made the rest of the world reappear. “What I can do for you?” Alex didn’t have a chance to respond before Coach went on. “I guess I don’t need to introduce you to your new teammate.”
Alex swallowed a quiet chuckle. It was well-known in ice hockey circles that he and Mitch were friendly outside of the rink. His favorite headline from a couple of years ago read Bromance or romance? It had given him and Mitch both a laugh and a scare.
They had no intention of publicly coming out—they valued their privacy too much. But they’d agreed a long time ago that if they were asked, they wouldn’t lie.
Nobody had ever asked.
But sometimes the truth needed to be told anyway, even if only in small doses.
He sat on the bench next to Mitch, close enough for their shoulders to brush. “Actually, our new teammate is what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Mitch gently leaned into him. Alex had to thread his fingers together in order to keep his hands to himself.
Coach looked from Alex, to Mitch, back to Alex. “Did you guys have a falling out? If so, I don’t want to know about it. Work it out. I need a cohesive team.”
“Quite the opposite,” Mitch muttered.
“Do you remember a few years ago?” Alex said. “I told you I was married. To a guy. Who’s also a professional hockey player?” At the time, Coach hadn’t wanted to know who it was, but their being on the same team now changed things.
Coach did a slow pan to Mitch. “No.”
Mitch—because he was still a little shit—grinned.
“All right. Well.” Coach sighed and rubbed his forehead. “It is what it is.” He turned to Mitch. “I guess this is why you don’t need us to put you up in a hotel until you find your own place.”
“Nothing’s going to change,” Alex said. “We’ve been discreet up until now and we’ll continue to be.”
“Not planning on coming out?”
They shook their heads.
“If that changes, I need to know right away.”
Alex leaned his forearms on his knees. “If someone asks we won’t lie.”
“Fair enough.” Coach stood, prompting Alex and Mitch to do the same. “We should talk about what you plan on telling the rest of the team but that can wait for another day. Greyson, we’ll talk more at our meeting later today. Don’t forget we’ve got you scheduled for an interview before tonight’s game.”
“Sounds good, Coach,” Mitch said.
Well, shit. Mitch talking to reporters on a good day was never a good idea. But a Mitch who was exhausted and overwhelmed? Alex was about to recommend a change in tactics when Coach said, “You’ll behave yourself?”
Mitch’s lips twisted. He nodded.
Coach’s eyes narrowed.
Alex leaned into him. Mitch leaned back, caught his eye, and said, “Promise.”
There was so much more in Mitch’s gaze than a simple promise. An acknowledgement that it was different now. That they were together.
He wouldn’t do anything to mess that up, even if it meant curbing his instinct to snap at or talk back to reporters.
Alex squeezed his hand to show he’d understood.
Coach cleared his throat. “Enjoy the rest of your morning, gentlemen.” With that, Alex was alone with Mitch in the locker room.
He made sure the door closed firmly behind Coach before turning back to Mitch. Who was uncharacteristically silent and uncharacteristically still. Everything was finally right in their world and yet Mitch was still too damn far away.
He held an arm out, encouraging Mitch closer. Mitch came, slowly, hands coming up to softly brush his fingertips against Alex’s cheeks, as if he was seeing him for the first time.
“I know.” Alex reeled him in, fitting their bodies together in a way that was so familiar it made his breath catch. “I can’t believe it either.”
He dug his fingers into Mitch’s hoodie, forcing himself to keep them there and not dig underneath cotton to find the warm skin of Mitch’s back. Sticking his nose in Mitch’s hair, he breathed him in, the scent of Mitch as welcome now as it had been when they’d seen each other a couple of weeks ago. Mitch burrowed closer, nose digging into the skin of Alex’s neck. His inhale was shaky, the exhale not much better.
“Hey.” Alex palmed the back of Mitch’s head and kissed his temple, trying to surround him with comfort. “You’re shaking. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Mitch whispered into his neck, arms tightening around Alex like he wanted to crawl inside him. “Everything.”
A knock at the door had them stepping apart. Tay stuck his head in. “There’s some kind of school field trip arriving.”
Alex nodded his thanks. “Come on.” He cupped Mitch’s face, the early morning stubble grating his palms. “Let’s go home.”
As Alex drove them home, Mitch wiped his palms on his thighs, turned, and thrust a hand into the back. “Mitch Greyson. Good to meet you.”
Their temporary roommate pulled a textbook and a granola bar out of the backpack at his feet before shaking his hand. “Taylor Cunningham. Just Tay, really. Welcome to the team.”
Welcome to the team. Fuck, Mitch couldn’t stop shaking and it had nothing to do with the cold.
Bundled into the winter jacket Alex had brought from the house for him, the seat warmer burning up his ass and the backs of his thighs, he was toasty warm. He held one of Alex’s hands in his while he sat facing Alex so that he could more easily talk to Tay.
It sucked blue balls that Tay was currently staying with them. It meant no hanky panky on the living room couch and they’d have to keep their bedroom shenanigans…well, in the bedroom. But also on a low volume.
It wasn’t Alex’s fault though. Neither one of them could’ve predicted this turn of events. Happy Valentine’s Day to them.
“Why’d you invite him to stay at the house anyway?” Mitch asked Alex. They’d met in Denver two weeks ago, where they had an apartment on retainer.
Alex sighed and leaned against the counter while Mitch chopped carrots. “His grandmother went into the hospital before Christmas, right as exams were starting for his classes. I think he’s still struggling to manage family, school, and hockey.” He stirred the ground beef browning in the pan. “He just seemed like he needed a friend.”
“I didn’t think you were such close friends.”
“We’re friendly.” Alex shrugged. “None of the other guys offered to host him and it was obvious—to me anyway—that he was crying out for help.”
What was obvious to Alex was never as obvious to anyone else. Alex had an uncanny ability to see right into a person and hear what they weren’t saying.
Mitch nodded at the granola bar in Tay’s lap. “What are you snacking on?”
“Protein bar,” Tay said, holding it up.
Mitch made a face.
“Not a fan?”
He shook his head. “They all taste like cardboard.”
“Says the guy who thinks celery dipped in Cheez Whiz makes a delicious snack,” Alex said, turning onto their street.
“Ooh.” In the back, plastic crinkled as Tay polished off his bar in two bites and shoved the wrapper in his bag. “That does sound good.”
Alex squeezed Mitch’s hand. “Don’t give him any ideas.” He made the turn onto their street. “It’s disgusting. Do you know what’s in Cheez Whiz? And how can that possibly be filling?”
“You just say that ‘cause you’re a giant,” Mitch said.
Fatigue and hunger hit as Alex pulled into their driveway. Snow up to his ankles covered the front lawn and spindly trees creaked in the wind. But the sight of their home, a red-bricked Richardsonian Romanesque semi-detached house with a peaked roof and snow-covered vines trailing down the side of the house, was like fitting the final puzzle piece into place.
Mitch left his suitcase, laptop bag, and duffel of hockey gear—all he’d had time to pack—next to Alex’s gear bag on the floor in the dining room located to the right of the foyer, tuning in with half an ear to Alex and Tay’s conversation.
“I’ll grab my books from the living room and take them upstairs to study,” Tay was saying.
“Why?” In the kitchen, Alex removed a pan from a cupboard. “You’re already set up down here.”
“Figured I’d give you guys some privacy.”
“I don’t need privacy to make breakfast.”
Tuning them out again, Mitch surveyed his house. Ahead of him, polished wooden stairs led up to the second floor. To his right, Alex’s laptop, a notebook, and several colored pens sat on the dining room table. Beyond the dining room Alex putzed around in the kitchen, and behind that, a sprawling living room held comfortable couches and the biggest television they’d been able to fit through the front door. A wall blocked his view but he heard Tay settle onto the couch and soft thumps of what he suspected were books being moved around on the coffee table.
Pictures adorned the walls—of them, their family, their friends. A prominent one of the two of them on their wedding day always made him grin. A reminder of the impossible coming true—Alex falling in love with him and wanting to keep him.
That photo ensured that only those who knew about them were ever invited over, and that was a very small list. Their families and their closest friends from college, as well as a few guys from Alex’s—their—team and Alex’s former team.
Mitch was exactly where he wanted to be but a part of him was tempted to close himself off to it, to pretend that he was only here for a short visit before heading back to L.A. That way it’d hurt less when he got traded again.
Alex appeared at his elbow, six feet four of tall, dark, and bearded that still revved his engine as if they’d been together only six minutes, not six years. Everything about Alex was solid and dependable and comfort rolled into a package that screamed safety and love. If there was one thing in his life that Mitch had never doubted it was Alex’s love for him.
“Your stillness and silence are making me nervous,” Alex said. “What’s going on?”
Mitch’s quiet chuckle held no humor. “I’m…” Thrilled, confused, amazed, grateful. True, he was all of those things, but most predominant was— “I’m anxious.”
“Why?” Alex took his hand, kissed his fingertips, and folded his fingers into his palm as if sealing the kiss into his skin forever.
The gesture, combined with exhaustion and too many overwhelming feelings, made tears prickle the backs of his eyes. “I don’t want to mess this up,” he blurted on an exhale. “A season and a half with Boston, two with L.A. How long before I get traded again?”
“You say that with conviction but you don’t know that anymore than I do.”
“Maybe.” Alex stepped in closer, arms coming around him. Mitch rested his forehead against his cheek. “But I know how much you want this so I know you’ll make it work. Maybe start by not mouthing off to reporters anymore. You did promise.”
Mitch snorted a laugh. “Did you ever think this would happen?”
“No.” Alex’s hands clenched on his hips. “I expected to retire in a few years and join you wherever you were playing.”
Slumping onto his husband, Mitch released a long, slow breath.
Alex kissed his temple. “Don’t worry so much. Besides, you never know—I could get traded.”
“Don’t say that.” Mitch tightened his arms around him. “I don’t want to live here without you.”
Pulling away fractionally, he scanned Alex’s face—the dark beard, the laugh lines near his green eyes, the thick eyebrows, one of which was bisected with a two-year-old scar. Mitch ran a thumb over it, reliving all over again the hopelessness, fear, and complete sense of impotency while sitting in a hotel room waiting for word on whether glass from his face mask that had broken during a fight had pierced his eye. It hadn’t but it had left a scar as a reminder of one of the worst evenings of Mitch’s life.
Alex kissed his cheek, soft and lingering. Mitch snuggled into it with a smile, knowing he wouldn’t be going weeks anymore without kisses from Alex. The anxiety was still there, the fear that this could all be taken away, but just like they’d been doing for the past six years, they’d deal with whatever life threw at them together.
“Do you want a nap first?” Alex asked after a second kiss, this time to the corner of his mouth. “Or breakfast?”
Mitch tilted his head and nudged Alex’s nose with his own. “Are those my only options?”
They were both smiling when their lips met.
He took it back—this was the final puzzle piece slotting into place.
Alex’s mouth was warm on his. A slow heat built in Mitch’s belly, quiet and lazy. The kind that called for evenings snuggled together watching movies or working around each other as they cooked dinner or lying on the couch talking about nothing, like what necromancers do in their spare time.
Alex pulled back. Not far. Just enough to kiss Mitch’s nose and smile at him. “Nap?”
Mitch kissed him again, fast and hard. “Food. Definitely. And then… Can we just spend the day together, doing nothing? Maybe take a walk? Watch a movie?”
“Sounds perfect. Now come one.” Stepping away, Alex laced their fingers and towed him into the kitchen. “Let me make you breakfast that’s not a smoothie or something covered in fake cheese.”
“The label says it’s real,” Mitch pointed out.
Alex was unconvinced. Instead of arguing his point he put Mitch to work whisking eggs.
Taylor Cunningham was a shameless voyeur and he had no intention of apologizing for it. A shameless and unapologetic voyeur, that was him. In his defense, he had two amazing specimens of male beauty to spy on. And he wouldn’t be spying on them if they weren’t so blatantly making out in the front hallway.
Although, in their defense, Tay was the one who’d silently moved over on the couch so he could see them around the wall that separated the kitchen and part of the living room from the hallway.
So yeah. Unapologetic and shameless. Nobody had ever called him subtle.
Alex Dean and Mitch “Grey” Greyson kissed each other like they’d fall apart if they didn’t. It wasn’t raunchy or fast—it was sensual and slow, hands caressing, lips clinging. So consumed with each other that nothing else mattered, certainly not the additional person in their home. It was the kind of intense desire and passion that Tay wished for for himself.
The sound of wet kissing was loud in the otherwise silent house, and when one of them moaned… Jesus. Tay swallowed roughly and pressed the base of his palm into his burgeoning erection. There was something so, so wrong about getting turned on by your teammates.
It had been fun staying with Dean the last couple of weeks. They’d never hung out much previously and hadn’t known each other that well, so Dean’s offer to stay with him had come as a surprise. Tay had been resigned to living out of a suitcase and a sterile hotel room—as if he was on a long-term road trip with his team, ugh—until the renovations were complete. He almost hadn’t taken Dean up on his offer but the man had insisted.
“Come on. It’ll be like staying at an Airbnb except your host will be there too.”
In the end he’d agreed, largely because he was intrigued by the extra-large D-man who exuded a quiet confidence and competency that reminded Tay of the king of the jungle surveying his domain.
That, and he missed having roommates. Turned out that Dean was the best roommate he’d ever had—patient, unassuming, clean, and respectful of Tay’s space despite that space being in Dean’s own home. What must Dean think of the mess Tay had made of his coffee table? Textbooks piled on top of notebooks on top of journal articles on top of three-ring binders with pens and highlighters tucked between pages. Somewhere under there was his laptop.
Tay winced and made a mental note to clean up as soon as his midterm was over.
He’d known, when he’d temporarily moved in, that Dean was married to a man. It wasn’t a secret on the team, although only a select few—Dean’s closest friends—knew who his husband was. So it had been a shock to see the photos of Dean and Grey in their home.
The pairing didn’t make sense. At least, not until today. Grey was…well… On TV he came across as an elitist and, sometimes, an asshole. Maybe he hated having microphones and cameras shoved in his face; maybe reporters made him nervous; maybe he simply didn’t think before he spoke. There had to be a reason because that TV person wasn’t the real Mitch Greyson. The real one was friendly and funny even as he’d been slightly distracted on the drive from the practice facility. Busy thanking his lucky stars, no doubt. How coincidental was this trade? And just in time for Valentine’s Day too.
Grey was obviously very, very much in love with his husband. Tay hadn’t missed the longing glances Grey had shot Dean in the car, and vice versa when Dean had been able to take his eyes off the road. Just seeing them together for thirty minutes made it clear how perfect they were together.
It reminded Tay of his parents, of the way they were so in tune with each other. He’d trade his hockey career for that kind of love, the kind he’d seen in Dean and Grey in less than an hour.
Probably. Hockey was exhilarating and fun and the biggest challenge he’d ever faced—but it wasn’t the be all and end all. His parents had taught him that.
The good news was that he didn’t have to hide his bisexuality. Dean’s coming out to the team had encouraged Tay to, well…not come out, but he’d stopped hiding who he was. And it hadn’t been a big thing among his teammates and coaches, mainly because homophobia in the NHL had become less rampant in the last few years, ever since Tampa’s Ashton Yager had publicly come out as bisexual—which had led to several other players publicly coming out. Tay was still keeping the knowledge of his queerness contained to his team, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t come out publicly if he found the right guy. Hell, if he found the right guy he’d want to shout his love from the rooftops to anyone who would listen.
He was shuffling back to the other side of the couch to give Dean and Grey privacy when they separated a mere inch. Dean kissed Grey’s nose. His lips moved. Grey answered with a quick, hard kiss, and after a brief conversation, Dean led Grey into the kitchen.
Dean had been making them breakfast when he’d noticed Grey hovering in the foyer. Not uncertainly but as if Grey couldn’t believe his good luck. He went back to it now, with Grey’s help, and the way they moved around each other, trailing fingertips over lower backs, spoke of an easy familiarity Tay envied.
The sounds of soft laughter, a knife chopping vegetables, and cutlery against a ceramic bowl filled the house with warmth and sunshine. Tay put his phone on vibrate but left it on the arm of the couch in case his grandmother needed anything and went back to studying for his midterm, determined to ace it and prove to his older sisters that he wasn’t a kid anymore. If his thoughts kept drifting to a certain single dad who worked with the charitable arm of their organization, well… That was no one’s business but his own.
Copyright 2020 Amy Aislin. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
If you enjoyed this short story, I hope you’ll consider reading Mitch and Alex’s origin story in On the Ice (Stick Side #1), and don’t forget to check out the rest of the Stick Side series.