Chapter 1: A Strange Sense of Duty [A Year Without Summer]
“So,” Mason drawled. The dark-haired omega waited, curious and questioning. “Do we … do you want to try it?”
He paused and licked his lips. “I mean, being bonded. Since …”
“We could,” Luke offered, hesitation clear in his voice. He shrank away from Mason, physically recoiling.
“Just for the off-season,” Mason clarified, “like, a trial run. Nothing more. No promises.”
“No promises,” Luke echoed.
They stared at each other as they lay there in the cottony darkness of that late June morning, the sun barely peeking through Luke’s blackout drapes.
Mason swallowed nervously. Luke waited a moment, then said, “So. How do we …”
That was a good question, Mason thought. Almost too good, because he had no answer for the omega.
After all, it wasn’t like he’d been bonded for any length of time. Wasn’t like he’d even considered being bonded for any length of time.
His stomach knotted. Nausea washed over him as he realized that this time, he really was in over his head.
He wished he remembered more. He wished he’d listened to Mr. Anderson’s endless droning a little harder. Because it might have helped right then and there. Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t feel like Luke knew more than him.
“Well,” he huffed, tossing his head to avoid the omega’s questioning gaze, “of course it means we act like we’re bonded. Y’know. Do stuff bonded people do.”
Luke sighed. “You have no idea what to do, do you?”
“Of course I do!” Mason snapped, then clamped his mouth shut. Sometimes, he wished he didn’t have such a big mouth, such a knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes, he wished that he was a different person, one who could admit when he didn’t know things, when someone else was better than him.
Luke quirked an eyebrow. Mason ground his teeth together, rage building in his veins. “I know what I’m doing, Luke,” he snarled.
“Okay,” the omega said, but he didn’t sound convinced. “You know what you’re doing. I’ll follow you on this.”
Mason folded his arms over his chest. “Thank you,” he snorted, hoping that Luke couldn’t see how much he deflated at the thought. This was one of the times he needed Luke to be stubborn, obstinate like he knew the omega could be. Instead Luke was being submissive, willing, when he normally wouldn’t go down without a fight.
He probably knew, Mason surmised. He knew that Mason had no idea what he was doing, and Luke just wanted him to squirm, the sadistic bastard.
“All right,” he said, because he never would learn just when to shut his mouth and keep it shut, “next week. We’re going to the cottage. And we’re gonna stay there all summer.”
Skepticism was written all over Luke’s face. “All summer,” he repeated.
“All summer,” Mason said, nodding his head.
“Never mind our work commitments, visiting family, friends we haven’t seen in a year, invites to do stuff for charity or …”
“No, nothing. Not unless it’s for hockey or a really good deal, like a record contract for—”
“Mayday, you’re not gonna get a record contract. We’ve been over this—just because a video got however many likes …”
Mason glowered at him. “Starting July first, we’re gonna be at the cottage for eight solid weeks, Luke. Except for emergencies, we don’t leave. Work can come to us.”
Luke regarded Mason warily, as though calculating his risk. “And that goes for you too?” the older man inquired and Mason almost winced.
“Yes,” he said, “me too.” He knew he had quite the reputation as some kind of gigolo or man-whore, but Luke didn’t need to bring it up.
“Well,” Luke drawled, “I have to go help with locker clean out.”
Mason nodded, his heart hammering away at his ribs. He still felt sick, almost dizzy. He tried to calm his breathing.
Luke rolled out of bed, his back to Mason. “We can talk about this later.” He tugged on a shirt.
Again, Mason nodded.
As soon as Luke left, Mason grabbed his laptop and booked it to the nearest coffee shop, which was about four blocks from Luke’s house in a quiet neighborhood. They served shit coffee, but Mason didn’t care. He needed some wifi, which he ended up leeching off the next-door apartment building, because the café was about as modern as its patrons, most of whom looked like they’d lived through World War I. They did not care about wifi, unlike Mason, who needed to download books and PDFs and studies and whatever else about being bonded, because he had no idea what he was getting himself into. And that scared him.
A few of the shop’s gray-haired patrons eyed him with suspicion, especially a dour old man sitting at the counter, who dipped his teabag into his cup in a way that spoke volumes about how many years he’d been practicing that precise motion. A few of the women watched him, leaning in and whispering to each other.
Mason ignored them in favor of scouring Amazon for some sort of how-to book about bonds. He knew nothing, he realized flightily. He’d never been bonded, except for that one time when he was sixteen and stupid and immature, and he’d only been acting on instinct. Luke had been in heat, and Mason had never encountered an omega in heat before. He’d never even heard about omegas in heat, because he was an alpha and at that age, nobody told alphas about omegas. It was a mystery—yes, they existed, yes alphas dominated them, but that was about all sex ed covered, and nobody wanted to talk about the ins and outs of alpha-omega bonding or sex or anything. They didn’t want to encourage anything, after all.
Mason chewed his nails as he scrolled through the search results. He felt like a twit—twenty-four years old, going on twenty-five, and here he was downloading a bunch of books about bonding, of all things. He should have known this shit. He was the alpha, after all.
He took only slight comfort in the fact there was at least twenty pages of results, including several For Dummies titles. He wasn’t the only clueless person in the world.
He downloaded about six books on the subject, which was overkill considering that he’d probably get about half-way through the first chapter of one, decide he knew what he was doing, and never read the rest of them. Of the two of them, Luke was the reader. Mason had more important things to do than read books.
He could always ask Luke to read, he thought. Although that was like admitting that he didn’t know what he was doing.
He clicked open the first book, skimmed the introduction.
He glanced at the length of the damn thing, then grimaced. It was gonna be a long day—someone had felt the need to write over ten thousand lines on the subject of bonding. That meant Mason needed to read a little more than he wanted to in order to feel like he had any sort of handle on what, exactly, bonding entailed.
He sipped at his coffee, grimaced at the taste, glanced at his watch. If he was lucky, he had a couple of solid hours before Luke returned from locker clean-out. He slumped into his seat, listening to a fly buzz nearby. He had some serious reading to do.
Luke pitched an empty roll of stick tape into the garbage bin, watching as it swooshed into the breezy black bag. Almost everyone else was gone; most of the guys had cleaned out their lockers in a hurry, rushed their exit interviews. Mike, he knew, had a tee-time, and Leo was off to some charity thing. Matt and Danny had mentioned something about lunch plans with someone, and Sy was catching a flight to Toronto.
Luke, on the other hand, was in no real rush to get home. Home meant Mason, and Mason meant serious discussions right now, and Luke wasn’t entirely sure he liked that.
On the one hand, it was exciting. Mason wasn’t the kind of guy to be tied down; as far as he knew, Mason had never bit anyone else, never even tried to bond with anyone. And sure, he’d bit Luke by mistake—they’d only been teenagers, both of them drunk and high on pheromones, Luke in heat for the very first time and neither of them sure how to handle that—but he’d never done it to anyone else.
Yes, he’d wanted to severe the bond almost immediately. Luke had to admit it had been the right choice. Luke had been barely eighteen, headed off to college in the fall. Mason was sixteen, going on seventeen, and he still had a year of high school ahead of him, another year of hockey before he could be drafted. A bond was not something either of them had needed or wanted at that point, and it was something they couldn’t have handled then.
Luke didn’t know if they could handle it even now.
He was the one who hadn’t fully severed it. Even though he’d agreed when Mason had told him to break it, panic setting in during the aftermath of heat, he couldn’t bring himself to break it. Not fully, at least. He’d let it wither, pruned it back and shoved it down, but he had never, ever broken it. And he hadn’t bothered telling Mason about it, because, really, why would he? Mason had wanted to break it, didn’t seem to feel it, so what he didn’t know didn’t hurt him, in Luke’s estimation.
Except that apparently he had felt it—vaguely enough that he couldn’t identify what it was, but he had felt closer to Luke than if they hadn’t been bonded, a strange sense of needing to protect Luke, needing to care for him.
Because Luke had been his mate all this time.
Which, understandably, had pissed Mason off when he found out. He’d been livid—why wouldn’t he be? A guy like that didn’t want to be tied down, and then to find out he’d been bonded to someone for almost a decade …
It was a tough pill to swallow. Luke wouldn’t have wanted anyone to do that to him, he knew. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel guilty about it—he did—but more that he could live with the guilt, the shame of not being able to break the bond more than he could live with the pain of breaking it bond. He’d broken a bond once, and it had been the most agonizing experience of his life. He never wanted to go through it again.
So Mason’s proposition scared him. What happened if, at the end of the summer, they decided they weren’t compatible? What if Mason decided he wanted to be free, what if he made Luke break the bond? He could this time; he’d have Luke in close enough quarters that he’d be able to force the omega to snap it off.
Maybe now it was old enough, brittle enough that severing it wouldn’t hurt so much. It was a weak bond, after all, having been all but severed on Mason’s end and neglected for the most part on Luke’s. Bonds were things that thrived under constant care and attention; leaving them alone led to them withering and dying.
Luke was scared it might hurt even weak as it was. He couldn’t fathom what would happen if they spent eight weeks working on the damn thing, then decided to throw it away. The very thought made him ill.
Even more nerve-wracking was the idea that they might not want to break it. What happened then? What happened if, at the end of this eight-week trial period, they decided they wanted to be bonded?
It was strange to think about and it made Luke’s pulse trip a little faster, his breath come a little shorter, so he threw another empty roll of hockey tape into the trash, then whirled about and all but crashed into Sean Flanagan, who was standing there with his arms crossed.
“Oy!” Luke cried, rubbing at his nose, struggling to settle his adrenaline; he hadn’t known the older man was standing there. “How long have you been there?”
Sean shrugged. “Long enough,” he replied, “I was wondering if you were ever going to turn around.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Luke checked his hand—no blood. But damn his nose hurt now. Sean’s shoulders were not soft, not by a long shot.
“I didn’t want to see you jump six feet in the air,” the older man said with a shake of his head.
“Too late,” Luke muttered, scowling. “You scared me anyway.”
Sean’s lips quirked upward with a smirk. “I noticed,” he drawled.
Luke glowered a little more, then grabbed some stuff out of his locker—a sweater or two—and shoved it into a bag. “What are you even doing down here?” he asked. “I thought we weren’t making any management announcements ‘til after July first.”
“Oh,” Flanny said airily, “we’re not. I had to sign some papers.”
“Today? Really? Seems a little suspect—team’s last day, locker clean-out, exit interviews … and Sean Flanagan, who officially has nothing to do with the team or management, is skulking around the locker room?”
“The media cleared out like an hour ago, Macks. Almost everyone’s gone—just people in the offices now, really.”
Luke grunted, then zipped up the bag. He really needed to stop leaving his clothes in his locker. Some stuff had been there for months—and worn months before, if smell was anything to go by.
Sean leaned back against one of the other stalls, crossing his arms again. His worn, gray tee stretched taut across his chest; his biceps tensed, stood out in stark relief, emphasizing how fit he still was, even years after retirement. “But seriously, it’s all but official now—just waiting for the announcement. So, I’m gonna go look at some places this afternoon, and I was wondering …”
Luke pursed his lips. Sometimes, he thought, Sean had a lot of balls to say some of the shit he did.
“Do you wanna come?” The alpha lifted his brows suggestively, his steely eyes boring into Luke’s.
Luke pitched the last of his clothes on top of the bag. He straightened up. “Look,” he said, then glanced away. “You disappeared for three years on me, and now you show up like everything’s fine, and you’re blathering on about relationships and bonds and god knows what else.”
Sean was silent.
“And now you’re asking me to go house shopping with you? Like, really? I dunno what you’re thinking, I’m not in a relationship with you, not sure I wanna be, and even if we were, it is way too early to move in together and—”
“I just want your opinion on the neighborhood,” Sean interjected. “You live here—I don’t.”
It was a lie and they both knew it; Sean was definitely angling to get Luke to pick a place he liked, that he would be comfortable in. Sean didn’t need advice about neighborhoods—he could figure that out for himself, and it wasn’t like he was in any danger of buying in a slum or purchasing a drug den or anything like that.
“It’s called a real estate agent,” Luke huffed as he slung his bag over his shoulder, “look one up.”
“No. Stop. Don’t—just don’t, Sean. I’m not in the mood, I don’t need your shit right now too.” He turned away, slamming into the door. “Jeez, what is with you alphas today? Do you have spring fever or something?”
Sean trailed him into the hall. “Alphas?” he inquired, dragging on the “s.” His eyebrows had lifted into his hairline—which was farther back these days than it would have been three years ago. “As in, multiple alphas? More than one?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
Sean looked like he’d just bit into a lemon with the way his mouth soured and his eyes narrowed. “Mason?” he asked, the word sharp like a sword.
Luke shrugged. “Who else?”
“What did he ask you to do? Luke, seriously, just ignore him—you know he’s no good for you. How long have you been screwing around with him? And he just keeps playing games. He’s not the type to settle down—you know he’s never going to promise to be faithful to you. So just—”
“Shut up, would you? You’re not my alpha, you’re not my coach, you’re not my dad. You have no jurisdiction over me, Sean, so don’t act like you can tell me what to do. I’ll do what I want, whether you like it or not. I’m not the one who took off for three years. If you can fuck off like that, I’ve got all the right to decide what I do—you let me choose for the last three years, so why would I stop now?”
“You’re nothing to me, so don’t even pretend.”
Sean exhaled through his nose, long and exasperated. Then he snapped, “I thought we were at least friends.”
Luke stifled laughter. “So help me if I have friends like you.”
Sean gawked at him, a slight smile lifting to his lips. He shook his head. “I can’t believe you,” he said.
“Feeling’s mutual,” Luke scoffed, then stormed off down the hall.
“Fine!” Sean hollered after him. “Don’t blame me if you hate the place!”
Luke flipped him the bird, then slammed into the door and barreled out into the midday sunshine.
Summer had suddenly exploded into the city like a fourth of July celebration. A light breeze was blowing, playing with the boughs of the trees, now full and leafy. Birds were singing; bees droned about lazily. Luke’s footsteps crunched over gravel, the remainder of the winter that hadn’t been fully swept away from the cracked, bleached asphalt of the parking lot.
He slung his stuff into the back of the Cayenne, slid into the driver’s seat, wincing at the burning leather against the backs of his bare legs. Heat shimmered off the dashboard, visible on the air. He knew he shouldn’t have gone with the black interior.
Mason nearly startled out of his skin when his phone buzzed. He paused in his reading—Chapter One, Deciding to Bond—and glanced down at the screen. He grimaced; it was Luke.
He looked at his watch. He didn’t know how he hadn’t managed to get farther in the book; it had been quite a while. Granted, he’d never been a strong reader, and he’d spent some time dicking around on Instagram and Snapchat, and …
Well, okay, so he’d just started reading like maybe half-an-hour ago. Still. He’d been hoping to be farther than page five.
It dawned on him why his grades had never been that good.
He packed up his laptop and dropped some change on the coffee-stained table, then darted out of the café, amazed he’d put up with the scent of must and burnt coffee for nearly two hours. He hadn’t noticed it inside, but he was keenly aware of it as soon as he stepped into the heat of the day.
He booked it back to Luke’s, but didn’t beat the omega home. Luke had just finished dumping a couple of things in the sink and he sauntered into the hall, eyebrow raised high. “You went out?” he asked.
“Yeaaah,” Mason said, scratching at the back of his neck. “Um, just to grab a coffee, and like …”
“I have coffee here,” Luke said. He was clearly unimpressed.
“I needed wifi.”
“Also have that.”
Mason rolled his eyes. “Do I need an excuse to leave the house? Seriously, you’re the omega here.”
Luke frowned. “I thought you said you wanted to talk,” he huffed, tossing a beat-up pair of running shoes into the closet. They wouldn’t see the light of day until they headed back to the arena in the fall.
Mason scratched at the back of his neck again. “Uh, well.” He shouldn’t have spent so much time on Instagram.
Luke tapped his foot.
“Just like … logistics,” Mason said. It was pathetic, but it was the best he had. He needed to read at least another five pages, he figured.
It was Luke’s turn to roll his eyes. He headed into the kitchen, Mason right behind him. “You’re the one who suggested this,” Luke said at last, opening up the dishwasher, pulling out clean dishes, drowning himself out with the clatter.
“What, you don’t think it’s a good idea?” It was easier to go on the defensive, to make Luke do the talking. Mason slid onto one of the wooden stools at the breakfast bar, leaning over the granite counter, watching the omega.
“Well,” Luke said, leaning down to get more Tupperware out of the machine.
Mason frowned. “You think it’s a bad idea,” he surmised.
“I didn’t say that.”
“No,” Mason agreed, “but you thought it. You implied it. Seriously, Luke, how long have I known you? You think this is a terrible idea.”
Dishes clattered onto the counter. “Mayday …”
“Just break the bond then,” Mason ordered, waving his hand as though it were the easiest thing in the world.
Luke scowled. “I didn’t say it was a terrible idea. I just … what happens after?”
Mason let his hand drift back to the counter. He blinked a couple of times.
He hadn’t thought about after. He never did. It wasn’t his thing, wasn’t his style. He was not a planner. He worked on gut reaction, instinct. He did whatever felt right in the moment.
“Oh,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Luke said with a slight nod.
“I, uh, hadn’t really thought about that.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Luke spat. “You never do—so what? We’re gonna work on strengthening an almost-dead bond for eight weeks, and then what? Just let it die? Break it?”
Mason contemplated the dappled pattern on the countertop instead of looking at Luke. He didn’t have an answer.
Luke continued putting the dishes away. They rattled and banged, and the cupboards slammed.
Luke shut the dishwasher, pitched the tea towel down on the counter. “Well?”
Mason shook his head slowly. “I don’t know,” he said.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Luke offered, hesitation clear in his voice. “I just need to know what happens when these eight weeks are up. Because I can’t break another bond. The last one almost killed me.”
Mason pressed his lips together. He couldn’t look Luke in the eye. He knew Luke had to break a bond before. He peered at the silvery scars on Luke’s neck—two stacked on top of each other, one the result of a drunken night as teenagers, the other a horrific reminder of a terrible night.
“I just thought … since you hadn’t broken the bond entirely …”
He lifted his gaze from that first mark—his own; he’d bit Luke, the scarring bore some semblance of his dental formation, and Luke would wear it forever.
He looked Luke dead in the eye and said, “Maybe, since you didn’t break the bond, we should try it. Being bonded. I mean, we’ve been bonded for eight years now, right? So, maybe …”
He shifted his gaze to the wall, unable to watch Luke react to that suggestion.
“I guess,” Luke said, “the biggest question is whether you want to be bound, Jarhead. You’re the one who wanted to break the bond in the first place. You broke your end. And I don’t think you’ve been in a big hurry to settle down.”
Mason wished that he’d managed to get through more than five pages of that stupid book. Maybe it could have told him if he was ready to be bonded or not. Because he sure as hell didn’t know if he was ready or not.
On the one hand, no, he wasn’t ready. He was turning twenty-five in a couple of months; he was still young enough to play and he wanted to keep playing. He’d been playing for a while now, and he was still having fun. Someone new in his bed every night, a girl, a guy, multiple people. He didn’t know if he wanted to spend the rest of his life with one person. That seemed boring, terrifying. There was no adventure, no novelty. The idea of being with the same person forever made him ill. What about other people? What about all the things he was missing out on, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that beckoned to him?
At the same point in time, he wondered what it would be like to be bonded. He wondered if it would be any different than what they were doing now, really—they were friends, they bickered about stupid stuff, and they fucked. Would being bonded change any of that? It wasn’t like Mason had grown bored with Luke; he came back time and time again. By now, he should have been bored; after all, they’d been fucking for years, and friends for longer.
He didn’t know what drew him back. But he wasn’t tired. He missed Luke sometimes, wanted him bad. He always delighted in coming to DC mid-season. He anticipated seeing Luke in the early fall, after just a few weeks of separation. He dreamt of the summer, when they could be together. Even if it was only a week or two, it was more than Mason could ask for.
He didn’t think being bonded would change that much. It was more the loss of freedom, the fact he was going to have stop playing and settle down that scared him. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that.
“I don’t know what I want,” he spat at last, surprised at the acid in his own tone, bubbling up from some deep pit that was festering in him. “I want you. But I want to keep playing.”
“Want your cake and eat it too,” Luke muttered. “Look, you’re gonna have to figure out what you want before I agree to this. I’m not spending eight weeks working on a bond we’re just going to break.”
They glared at each other.
Mason’s phone rang, startling both of them as it echoed through the condo. “I gotta take this,” he said, grabbing the device and heading out of the room, onto the balcony.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Barry replied, “look, kid, where are you?”
“I’m in DC,” Mason said, glancing around. It was breezy up here; the wind rushed by him, creating static in the phone’s speaker, crackling and popping.
“DC … ?” Barry sounded confused and, to be fair, Mason would have been too. As far as his agent knew, Mason had no reason to be in DC. “Y’know what, I don’t care. How soon can you get back to LA?”
“Uhhhh.” Mason peeked through the kitchen window, but Luke was gone. “I dunno. I’m kinda in the middle of something, so—”
“I got you a spot.”
Mason’s breath wafted through his bangs, fluttering them with exasperation. Like he hadn’t heard that before. “What is it this time?” he asked. “Another local car dealership?”
“Fuck no,” Barry spat. “I got you a spot—ESPN’s booking shoots for the body issue, and I’ve been talking to them all damn week about it, finally got you in.”
“Oh shit, really?” Mason almost dropped his phone over the edge of the balcony. He grimaced, stared down at the street, watched a car drive by. Dizzy, he retreated, scooting toward the safety of the wall. “You got me a spot in the Body Issue?”
“Not for long if you don’t get your sorry ass to LA, stat. It’s a last minute thing—gotta replace someone—”
He peered inside again. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll be on the next flight.”
“Atta boy,” Barry said, “we’ll see you when you get here, I’ll fill you in on the details then.”
Mason listened to the dial tone screech before pulling the phone away from his ear. He grinned.
His grin faded as soon as he stepped back inside, coming face to face with Luke. “My agent,” he said.
Luke nodded, but said nothing.
Mason dragged his feet across the carpet. “I, uhhh, have to fly back out to LA asap, so …”
“Go,” Luke snarled. “It’s not like we were having a serious, life-altering conversation or anything.”
“Seriously,” Mason huffed, “maybe it’s for the best. It gives me some time to think. It gives us time to think, before we do anything.”
“I guess,” Luke murmured. He was playing with his phone now. He was pissed, but whatever. He could be pissed if he wanted to be.
“I’m gonna go pack,” Mason said. Luke grunted in reply; he didn’t even look up from his screen.
Sometimes, Mason wondered why he even bothered.
Like what you see? Read the rest of A Year Without Summer.