Cover & Excerpt
Safe Harbor Book Two
Vladimir Gusev exists in a living hell. A year ago in the Olympics he was forced to use a homophobic slur during a game, and guilt is eating him from the inside out. Not only is Vladimir not a homophobe, but in the aftermath of the Olympics, he was finally able to admit his true nature to himself. Yet he's been taught homosexuality is a sin, so he tries to push away his feelings, but to no avail.
Joe Bufford is an out gay man and an ex-Delta Force member who was medically discharged after an injury to his hand leaves him no longer able to perform his duties. His job as a mechanic at the airport is hardly a long-term career choice, but Joe has no idea where he can utilize the skills he learned in the Army.
Vladimir and Joe meet, and Joe instantly recognizes Vladimir as a terrified closet case. Before he knows it, Joe is offering to help Vladimir figure out what he is and what he wants. As time goes on, Joe begins to hope more and more that the answers to those questions lie with him.
Genre: Erotic Contemporary Romance
Content/Theme(s): M/M, Sports, Hockey, ex-Delta Force
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Publisher: Loose Id
Purchase links: Loose Id Amazon ARe B&N
What. The. Fuck.
Joe Bufford stared at the man standing just inside the door of his favorite gay sports bar. To be fair, it was the only gay sports bar in Pittsburgh. The guy stopped after his first step inside. He was breathtakingly beautiful. But that wasn’t what held Joe’s attention at the moment. Joe was on guard as soon as he took in the man’s fists clenched at his sides and feet braced shoulder-width apart. He knew this man.
If he’s here looking for a fight, we can give it to him.
Sal, the bartender, also must’ve noticed him, if the suddenly fierce expression that appeared was anything to go by. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Joe continued to stare as the man licked his lips.
“If you’re here looking for someone to bash, you’re in the wrong place,” Sal said, flexing his Popeye-like biceps.
Joe couldn’t hold in the snort. It may be stereotypical, but Sal was right. Not very many of the queens, twinks, and other more feminine classifications for gay men came in here. The man looked over at him, and Joe frowned. His eyes showed pure terror. Joe had seen it enough on deployment to understand what abject fear looked like.
The man turned and abruptly left, and Joe was off his bar stool and following him before his brain could even process the movement, which was something, given his high-level military training. Like Sal, he knew the man. Vladimir Gusev. Everyone knew who he was--everyone who was a fan of hockey, anyway. He’d used a gay slur against an American player in the Olympics a year ago, and when he’d returned to the Pittsburgh Phantoms, the NHL team he played for, he’d heard plenty about it from the crowd, both for and against him. Now Joe wanted to know what he was doing in a gay bar, especially since there was no way he’d misinterpreted the haunted, petrified look he’d caught a glimpse of in the man’s eyes earlier.
“Hey, hold up.” A recently retired--that was the nice name for what had been done--Delta Force guy and a professional athlete were pretty well matched in terms of fitness, but the Russian had a few years on Joe’s twenty-eight. If Joe remembered correctly, Vladimir was twenty-four or twenty-five. Even though Joe called out to him, the guy didn’t pause. “Seriously, man, I’m not gonna hurt you. I just want to talk. I’ll keep my hands where you can see them the whole time. I promise. Just stop.”
Vladimir slowed before spinning to face Joe. “What do you want?”
His lips were curled into a snarl. A man without Joe’s background probably would’ve backed off, but Joe wasn’t intimidated.
He was surprised at how well the man spoke English, but he recalled Vladimir had come over to the US for training when he was a teenager. At this point, he’d probably been living here for ten years or so--Joe remembered reading about how Vladimir had just finished up his entry-level contract and been re-signed to a long-term deal, even though he’d only been twenty-three at the time. That was before the Olympics nearly a year ago, so Vladimir must be twenty-four or so by now.
Joe came to a stop and, as he’d promised, put his hands out in front of him. He spoke in the same calm, clear voice he’d used to calm down women and children in Afghanistan. “I’d like to know why you went into Reggie’s.”
Alert for any sign of violence from the guy, Joe watched as myriad emotions flitted across his face. They were still several feet away from each other, but Joe could plainly detect the most dominant one--near panic. Vladimir’s mouth was opening and closing like a fish’s, and Joe took a leap of faith based on a gut instinct, hoping he wasn’t about to get jumped. Of course, if he was, Vladimir better hope he got the first punch in, because that’d be all he got. You could push a man out of Delta Force, but you couldn’t push Delta Force out of the man.
Vladimir stared at him but said nothing. Between the open lapels of his jacket, Joe saw the man’s Adam’s apple move up and down a couple of times. Despite the downright freezing day in late January in Pittsburgh, a bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face. Yeah, this guy was hiding something.
Joe tried again. “It’s okay to be gay. I’m gay, everyone in Reggie’s is gay, pretty much everyone in this entire district is gay,” he said, motioning around them, and for a brief second, Vladimir’s eyes shifted to their surroundings before returning to him. “It’s really okay.” Joe knew it wasn’t uncommon for gays to use homophobic slurs to take the focus off themselves. He couldn’t imagine it was easy to be a gay man in professional sports, especially if they were anything like the military. “It’s really okay,” he repeated, and Vladimir’s battle stance relaxed a little.
“It is not okay.” The words were laced with venom.
Joe tilted his head, trying his best to look nonthreatening to keep the guy talking. “Why?”
“Because I am Russian and a hockey player.”
The guy hadn’t exactly outed himself with his last few statements, but he’d come pretty damn close. “We’ll deal with all that in a minute. Can you tell me why you called that player a fag in the Olympics? I mean, if you’re gay, why would you?”
Vladimir’s head dropped, and he stared at the ground, toeing it with his sneaker. It took several minutes, but Joe waited him out. Vlad lowered his arms to his sides, met his gaze, and seemed to make a decision.
“They made me,” Vlad said with the same fierce, almost defiant tone.
He crossed his arms across his broad chest, and Joe had to fight to keep his brain on task and not let the little head dictate where his thoughts went. Man, the guy was just his type.
“My coach and the team manager.” Vladimir shrugged and looked away.
Joe was stunned. “Why would they want you to?”
He looked at Joe like he had three heads. “To disrupt the game. We were losing.”
“But you were about to go on a power play.”
“Yes, three goals down. They wanted to get the Americans off their game.”
Joe nodded. In a sick, twisted way, it made perfect sense. He’d certainly seen far less ethical methods used to get to the enemy. “Why did you agree to it?”
Again Vladimir threw a confused glare at Joe. “Because no one knows about me, so I could not say I wouldn’t do it because I was gay. No one knows, and I don’t want anyone to. Also, because if I hadn’t, they would’ve hurt my family.”
This was a lot of information to take in. “Hurt your family how?” He held up his hand. “Don’t answer. Let’s take this conversation off the street. Would you follow me to another sports bar? A ‘straight’”--Joe used finger quotes--“bar? We can talk better there and have some privacy. You won’t look out of place.”
Vladimir’s eyebrows drew down. “Why would you want to go to a straight bar if you are gay?”
Joe suppressed a sigh. He hoped Vladimir wasn’t a hetero-hater. Those guys annoyed the hell out of him. In his opinion, they were no better than homophobes. “I have nothing against straight people. Some of my best friends are straight. I just prefer sometimes to go to a place like Reggie’s where I can truly be me. Put my arm around my date, rest my hand on his knee. And I like to do those things where it’s not gonna get me bashed. Though not all straight people are homophobes.” Damn, he was babbling. “Anyway, I’m parked just down there. Do you know where the Strike Zone is?”
“Good. Meet me there, and we’ll talk.” When one thick eyebrow went up, Joe mirrored him and said, “Just talk. Like I said, it’s a straight bar.” Vladimir gave him an assessing look, and Joe held his gaze.
“I will meet you there.”
Joe nodded and began to walk to his Jeep, keeping his guard up. The survival instinct that had served him so well overseas was still active. When he reached his car, he glanced around. Vladimir was climbing into a Navigator ahead of him. Figured.
Joe unlocked the door to his beat-up Cherokee. He hadn’t bothered to keep a car while he’d been deployed, and now that he was back and retired, he wanted to buy something nicer than this Jeep, but his job at the airport pulling parts for the mechanics made saving for one a slow go. He’d been thinking about going to college, since he could do so on Uncle Sam’s dime, but he didn’t have the first clue what kind of career would fulfill him. For now the job at the airport used the skills he’d learned in the military. He’d been his unit’s fix-it man. It hadn’t been an official role, but whenever anything mechanical had broken down, they’d brought it to him.
He started the car and drove the few miles to the Strike Zone, calling Sal on the way to tell him everything was okay and he’d settle his bar tab the next time he was in, declining to give more details. Joe wasn’t in the business of outing anyone.
When Joe arrived at the bar, Vladimir was standing next to his car, shifting from foot to foot. Apparently the right one was made out of lead, since he’d obviously beaten Joe by enough time to turn off his car, get out, and stand there to wait for Joe’s ass. Joe exited his own car and approached him. “You’re safe here. These guys know me. I’ve been coming here for five or six years now, whenever I’m in town.”
He turned and led the way into the bar. Vladimir followed behind him, and Joe began to wonder if this was going to be a night of one-sided conversation. He led Vladimir to a booth off to the side. They ordered beers, and Joe sat back. Vladimir fidgeted, and Joe decided he’d better start talking again and hope for the best.
“So have you told anybody?”
Vladimir’s head whipped up, and Joe winced. Obviously the guy had lightning-quick reflexes, but the motion still had to hurt.
“What do you mean?”
“About you being...”
“There’s no one in your life you can tell? Not your parents, brothers, sisters? Friends? A teammate?”
“My family would not approve. My friends are also my teammates, since I don’t go back to Russia often. Even with the whole thing at the Olympics and all that has happened since, not everyone in the NHL welcomes homosexuals with open arms. It is hard to know which teammates would not be bothered by it and which would.”
Joe understood. The military was exactly the same way. He nodded. “You speak excellent English.”
Vladimir’s brows shot up. “They, um, they put promising players in English classes very young in Russia, so we can communicate when we come over here to play.”
“Ah.” The server dropped off their beers, and they waved away menus. “So you’ve never, ever told anyone?”
“No, never.” Vladimir shook his head, his mouth curled into a sneer. “I didn’t even accept myself until after I got kicked off the Olympic team. I would not believe it of myself.”
Joe remained silent, hoping Vladimir would keep talking. He did, though he was now playing with the condensation on the side of his beer glass and not meeting Joe’s gaze.
“I kept trying with girls, but I couldn’t even get or keep an erection, and even when I...” Vladimir stopped talking and bit his lip. “When I...you know...”
Vladimir cleared his throat. “Yes. Even then I couldn’t. I didn’t know what I really wanted. Or didn’t admit it to myself.”
“Haven’t you ever been attracted to one of your teammates? I mean, you’re around fit, naked men all the time.”
The same horrified expression from earlier made an appearance. “No.”
“I don’t know. I’m just not.”
Joe nodded. He was familiar with the feeling. “Up until a short time ago, you were probably so deep in the closet, you didn’t even consider it.”
“I don’t know,” he repeated. “I do not want to think about that.”
“Have you ever been attracted to a man? Any man?” Vladimir pressed his lips together. “Vladimir, you need to talk to someone about it, and you might as well start with me. At least you know I won’t judge you.”
Finally Vladimir asked, “How do I know I can trust you?”
Joe shrugged. “You don’t, really, except I give you my word. I don’t take stuff like this casually. I know how hard it can be to live in the world as a gay man.”
Vladimir nodded and blew out a breath. “I guess I have been attracted. Sort of.”
“What does that mean?” Joe asked.
Vladimir answered him with an impatient huff, charming the hell out of Joe. He fought a smile.
“I have sort of been attracted to men.” Vlad shifted, his face turning red.
Joe’s head was spinning. “How can you be sort of attracted?”
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