Force Play

Book Cover: Force Play
Pages: 200
Pages: 200
ISBN: 978-1-63476-689-0
Pages: 200

Professional baseball player Harmon "Hawk" Kiel was a rookie sensation with dazzling talent and an arrogant attitude to match. But he's hit his sophomore slump, and his natural talent seems to have deserted him, along with the confidence of his team and the media's approval. During the All Star Break he hits rock bottom, gets careless, and sensational pictures of him at gay clubs go viral. All at once he's outed, and out of a job. When he’s dealt to the Loggerheads, a worse-than-terrible expansion team in Charleston, South Carolina, he can't imagine he'll get a warm reception—nor does he particularly want one. But it's the only chance at redemption he has. There he meets Caleb Jackson, a former player who's part of the Loggerheads organization, someone who tries to be the friend Harmon so desperately needs. But Caleb has a secret too, one more gut-wrenching than anything Harmon can imagine. Together they try to put the past behind them, rediscover their love of the game—and maybe even find the love of their lives.

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artists:

Chapter One

IT WAS the mother of all hangovers. The grandmother. Harmon was aware of precious few things and willed each to disappear: the acidic dryness of his eyes, the intense pounding in his head, and the burning knot at his core, making him feel like he was going to vomit.

He whined and tried to figure out what was going on, where he was, and what had disturbed his misery.

Harmon discovered if he pressed his forehead down and in, the roaring in his ears muffled to dull instead of clanging. He breathed in as deeply as he dared, then held it, and heard pounding that wasn’t coming from his head or heaving guts.

“Go away,” he slurred, lying face-planted in what he’d determined was carpet.


But the knocking persisted, here and there punctuated by the doorbell, until Harmon forced himself onto his palms, then staggered to his feet. He sealed the back of his hand over his mouth and lurched into a wall. Then he decided to stay there as dizziness assailed him and the rancid sourness in his stomach climbed his throat.

“Kiel? Kiel! I know you’re in there! Open the damn door!”

Harmon winced. The angry voice sounded like his agent, but he had no clue why Trent would be here. It was the All-Star Break, and Harmon was most definitely on break. He hadn’t been voted to the team and he told himself he didn’t care. He was in a nosedive midway through the season. But he was also bound to a contract with a high-profile, high-priced team, so it wasn’t like Trent would come calling to talk to him about potential trade options.

Propped up by the wall, he slid his way to the door. He’d figured out by now he was at home—his luxury high-rise apartment secured by a mint contract in the Bigs a year ago. That was when he was still a top-ranked prospect who played a mean third base and hit for power. Last season he’d stormed into the majors and made a name for himself.

He had an explosive, showy rookie year playing. He was explosive and showy too, and so long as his performance on the field matched his antics, the fans ate up every bit of his show. These days the home crowd booed his plate appearances and yapped about him in sports blog comment sections.

This was his sophomore season, and he scuffled, watching his batting average drop and drop while his playing time on the field followed. Media outlets started calling him a fluke, a cancer in the clubhouse, and his teammates resented him for being a huge paycheck with nothing to back it. He felt acute shame and inexplicable powerlessness because he couldn’t pinpoint or fix his decline. Instead he hid his anxieties with arrogance.

Harmon was lean and strong, a physical powerhouse thanks to endless hours running drills and lifting weights. Sensitive and eager to please, he was also quick-witted and could be easily likeable. The sensitivity had been drummed out of him as he was molded into a prototypical baseball superstar, the eagerness to please manipulated into results. For years he cranked through drills and training—from T-ball to Little League to the only freshman on high school varsity. He picked a college most likely to be scouted from, and as soon as he had a contract offer, moved onto the majors. Now he was an enigma of known talent and skills he couldn’t deliver on and a guarded personality no one enjoyed.

He jammed his shoulder against the doorframe and unlocked the condo’s door. Trent burst in past him and slammed it shut again.

“Just what on God’s pretty green earth were you thinking, Harmon?” Trent’s skin was an awful puce color under his spray-on tan, his high temper and nerves showing in every agitated movement. He raked a glance up and down Harmon—blood-shot eyes, two days’ worth of stubble, unsteadily leaning against the wall—then huffed and stalked across the room.

Trent threw the curtains open and midday light flooded in. Harmon shielded his eyes, grumbled as he detoured through his gleaming, never-used kitchen for an energy drink, and then dropped onto his couch. It was uncomfortable and incredibly stylish. Trent stood there fuming.

Harmon shook his head and drank half the can in one long, sloppy swallow. He had no idea why Trent was here, never mind what would have his agent so pissed off. His subpar play shouldn’t even matter to Trent. Payday would come, regardless of his recent backslide into painful mediocrity.

“You could have at least answered your damn phone.”

“Don’t know where it is,” Harmon offered and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He peered at his shirt and remembered putting it on for dinner. He thought that was most probably last night. He had no memory of the meal and what happened after—how he’d gotten back and why he’d been passed out, dead to the world in his living room. There was no explanation in mind for why his agent, of all people, should be here looking ready to throttle him.

Trent squeezed the bridge of his nose, then rooted around a messy side table, found the remote, and turned on the TV. It blared, and Trent flipped to one of the all-sports networks. When the advertisements ended, one of the anchors hosting a roundtable talk show nodded.

“Stay tuned for our picks to win the Home Run Derby and a pitching breakdown from both sides of the league, but first, more on our top story of the day. This has taken not only the baseball world by storm, but has sent ripples of surprise and speculation throughout professional sports and beyond.

“All season we’ve been wondering: what is wrong with rookie phenom Harmon ‘Hawk’ Kiel? New revelations about the controversial star infielder might finally give us some insight. It would appear that not only is Kiel out for the All-Star Break, he decided to be out in a big way! After bumping and grinding at a local hotspot, he turned up at ManCover, an upscale gay bar infamous in the city. That’s when this happened and these pictures, uploaded to a fellow reveler’s Twitter account, went viral.”

Images flashed on the television, and Harmon’s entire existence narrowed down to a fine, tenuous point. He stopped hearing the pounding in his head, the television, and Trent’s continued tirade. His hands went numb, and his whole body became weightless and cold.

The pictures were blurry, and he was unkempt, but it was unmistakably him. His dark hair, usually slicked and styled, was an unruly mop. The stare of his usually sharp and quick brown eyes was unfocused. His cheeks, usually high with color from mischief or exertion, were blotchy and sweaty. Interested onlookers with cell phones made the most of his drunken inhibitions, his who-even-cares attitude, and the undeniable draw of his celebrity. His shirt hung unbuttoned, and his pants were clinging low on his hips. In one picture he grinned and pointed with a lazy hand at the back of some guy’s head buried in his exposed lap; in another he was kissing a man he didn’t recognize while getting a good handful of ass.

There were more pictures, accompanied by captions from the citizen photographers, but those went past without Harmon seeing. None were X-rated, but it was undeniably more than a rowdy good time being had. Harmon blinked and suffocated wordlessly. He could hear his strangled breath, the way it echoed in his chest, and the hitch that stuttered as his pulse sped while his insides churned. He swallowed several times and began to turn inside out.

Harmon let his drink fall and ran to his nearest bathroom, puked, and didn’t stop.

NOT TWO hours later, Trent pushed Harmon through showering, getting changed to look presentable in a suit, and then into a car. He was revived by coffee, hydrated with enough water to float a yacht, and chewed an endless line of antacids. They were headed to an emergency meeting—he, Trent, and his team’s brass—and Trent had ordered him to keep his head down and his mouth shut.

Harmon followed directions, but he hadn’t gathered his wits yet. He’d ignored the slew of text messages, e-mail alerts, and notifications of being contacted and spammed, followed and unfollowed. All he did was send one text message to his father and then a second, before leaving a terse voice mail. There hadn’t been any response.

The press was waiting when they arrived, with a few fans and curious rubberneckers lining the street that wrapped around the stadium. Paparazzi tapped on the hired car’s windows and shouted all of Harmon’s known nicknames, their cameras clacking against the glass as bright flashbulbs penetrated the dark tinting.

“Keep going, all the way to the back,” Trent instructed.

The driver kept them moving until they eased into the parking garage. Security met them behind the car to prevent the paparazzi from following.

No one said hello or made jokes with Harmon like they usually did—not the valet guys or the general staff he’d gotten to know in his time here. Instead his and Trent’s procession was grim, and for once Harmon wasn’t sure his baseball talents and smart mouth could get him out of a bind.

Larry Gert, the club’s general manager, greeted them in the reception area, its décor elegant and so overpriced it looked subdued. With the All-Star Break on, no one was manning the concierge’s desk, and the array of offices and cubicles beyond the glass walls separating them was dark.

“Gentleman,” Gert said, not looking Harmon in the eye. He ushered them into a large, plush conference room and motioned them toward empty chairs backed against a bank of windows. “Can I have anything brought in for you? Coffee, sandwiches?”

Trent lowered himself into a seat while Harmon took his time circling the table. It was mahogany inlaid with teak; he remembered sitting between his father and Trent as he put his signature on the formal contracts while the team’s entire upper management grinned on the other side.

He wanted to make this last. To eke out the final impressions of being here, being a big-league player, and maybe make them all uncomfortable for longer than his being summarily released would take. He understood the implications of his being here, even if the enormity of the situation hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

“No thanks, Larry. Appreciate it.” Trent represented other players in this organization, and he had brokered more than a few blockbuster deals throughout the league. He snapped his briefcase open on the tabletop and shuffled things importantly. Then he pressed his hands down on a stack of papers. “Right. Let’s get to it.”

Harmon ran his fingertips along the chair backs—butter-soft leather in a gentleman’s club color of chamois with generous tufting—and gazed out the windows. Trent was doubtless about to broker him into obscurity, and despite the ironclad contract they’d hammered out two years ago, he knew he had no recourse to fight that. Clouds drifted past, dreamy and cream white, casting shadows on the streets and buildings below. When Larry coughed, Harmon turned to sink into a chair apart from the others.

It wasn’t standard procedure for all three points of interest in a contract to be present, ready to strike an immediate agreement, but then, this whole situation wasn’t exactly standard. If nothing else, Harmon figured he was here to take his lashes before being dismissed from the meeting, tail between his legs.

“I feel it’s best if we simply cut to the chase. We’re able to offer Harmon the chance to keep playing. Despite present circumstances it’d be a shame to see everything end like this.” Larry emphasized the word “circumstances.” It sounded like it left a rancid aftertaste in his mouth. “As you know, the break allows for unexpected trades and decisions to be made, and we’ve had just such an opportunity present itself for your client.”

Harmon huffed. “Unload me as fast as you possibly can, you mean.”

Trent patted the table between them, and when their gazes clashed, he tilted his head in warning. He subtly waved his fingers, indicating the intercom resting at the end of the table, no doubt the team owner and who knew who else listening in on the meeting.

“Take it on my good advice that it truly is an opportunity, Mr. Kiel,” Larry said. “You are lucky we didn’t terminate you outright for breach of team conduct and, therefore, contract.”

Harmon frowned and crossed his arms, but he let out a breath and acquiesced with a nod. He half listened, numb and anxious, as Larry and Trent talked terms and threw around figures, and then after a while tuned it out completely.


He startled toward Trent, who had leaned close to his ear.

“Frisk wants a few words. I think—I think it’d be good for you to hear him out. Then we can put the finishing touches on the details. Okay?” Trent didn’t wait for an answer, standing to squeeze Harmon’s shoulder with false confidence.

The conference room door opened to Flint Frisk, a baseball legend who managed this venerable team to several postseason finishes. Harmon had been fine with playing for Flint, for all that they’d never much warmed to each other.

Frisk and Larry had a brief, muted discussion, and then Trent and Larry took their leave. Harmon understood why Frisk was sent in to do this. Frisk would be able to talk bluntly about things. Could be more kindly than Gert, with a bit of history and relationship built, without being on his side. Someone with authority, but not higher up on the food chain than Harmon warranted attention from.

After a long silence, Frisk eased into a chair opposite Harmon’s. He was clean-cut, expensively dressed, and the suit hid his expanding waistline far better than a baseball uniform. He had a pinkie ring on his right hand, and, in place of a wedding ring, the World Series ring he won as a playing member of this same organization several decades ago.

It’s what led to the managerial position, despite Frisk not being up to the task in Harmon’s estimation. Deep pockets and snapping up every player with a load of talent kept them a winning club, then wringing out each to the last ounce, not Frisk’s baseball know-how and coaching presence. Frisk wasn’t a great manager so much as he was a legacy.

“Well. How about that.” Frisk studied his manicured nails, then rapped them on the table. “I hope you take the trade offered. It’s more than just business without having to be personal, you know that, Kiel. There’s still a lot of potential down in you, something it’d be a shame to see cut short.”

“So long as my many growing pains aren’t here,” Harmon countered. He tilted his forehead into his hand and thought about all the conditions that had been placed on how he lived his life, not only contractual, and most of them self-imposed.

“If that’s how you want to frame it.” Frisk leaned forward onto his elbows. “I’ll level with you, might make it easier to swallow the deal instead of outright walking away from the game. You can, you know. A release is on the table, with a few million in your pocket to see you on your way.”

The idea tickled over Harmon. It held certain appeal. Taking the money to run would make a sweeping and effective punctuation for the big “fuck you” he’d just thrown at the whole game. He wondered if he could walk away without a backward glance, and was all but certain the entire sport wouldn’t be sorry to see him go. Getting back his own also reared its head, and he flirted with the idea of leaving and slapping the team with a discrimination lawsuit. But he was aware it would be futile, would use up whatever money he was left standing with, and worse, he’d be dragged through the mud as much as them during the suit.

“I prefer shiny toasters or a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax as consolation prizes. And offshore accounts for hush money,” Harmon said without heat or humor.

“We’re looking for what’s in everyone’s best interests here,” Frisk said, ignoring Harmon’s comment. He was well known for being a master in the art of neutral, correct phrasing. “This isn’t a simple matter of the media firestorm you up and erupted with your shenanigans. The owners, Gert, even me, we’ve all been suffering your antics and attitude, and you haven’t provided the goods to back them or make them worth putting up with anymore. Truth is, Gert got the go-ahead to put out feelers to gage interest in you a month ago, see if he could make a deal before the break ended. Your big gay night being splashed here to Sunday is simply a good excuse to unload you without you having wiggle room to argue it.”

Harmon blanched. He didn’t have a witty retort. There was none, because he knew that at least was the truth. A deserved truth, even.

“I figure you have enough sense to take the trade. Get out from under the microscope here of fan and media scrutiny. See what you can make of the rest of your career while you’re at it.” Frisk nodded at his own words but poised a finger in warning. “Other teams were interested—a month ago, before this. Thought of you as a rebuild job but worth taking a chance on.”

“‘Before this,’ how ominous. If that’s the case, why am I in here talking a trade?” Harmon asked.

“Because there’s a last man standing, on the horn right now following how this goes. Your good luck, providence, their desperation, who knows? But they’re still in it.” Flint shrugged. “You could do worse than the Loggerheads.”

Harmon made a short, disbelieving noise. He absolutely couldn’t do worse. The Loggerheads were a young expansion team that had spent its short life in the cellar. Most people forgot the team was even part of the majors.

“Charleston. Great,” Harmon deadpanned. “I’m sure they’ll roll out the warm welcome and Southern hospitality for someone like me.”

Harmon could envision it. There would be no warmth or welcome in their reception. The team already had a third baseman, one good enough for other teams to be keeping tabs on through his contract with the Loggerheads. Harmon couldn’t see where he fit into any of that.

Frisk leaned back in his chair and waved his hands. Not his problem. “Orin’s doing yeoman’s work trying to make something of that team. He’s above board. Never could beat me a’course, but above board.”

That was the first Frisk smiled. He and Orin Walker had been rivals on the field in their playing days. Frisk, the guy with pop in his bat and swagger in his step. Orin, the reliable guy who was a testament to the important role of dependable workmanship in baseball. At the ends of their careers, it was Walker who had the more impressive aggregated stats, but Flint was the one with the peppery flash and personality to have everyone remembering him as “a great.”

Frisk’s grin and smugness over Walker made Harmon want to agree to the Loggerheads’ terms, sight unseen, from spite.

“Give it serious consideration, Kiel.”

Harmon swiveled his chair and watched the clouds again. He reached into his pocket and thumbed his phone. Still nothing from his father. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or enraged. He fluttered with fear thinking about making this decision without his father’s say-so; he’d been allowed nothing of his own during his lifetime struggle into baseball’s top tier. A mutinous voice urged him to do it and not regret it.

“Why don’t you send Trent back in?”

He didn’t look at Frisk. Didn’t want to see triumph or patronizing encouragement or pity. Didn’t want to lose his temper and this final chance. Even if it seemed he was signing a death warrant to his career—maybe even his life—he might as well go down fighting.

HARMON ENDED his day as he’d begun it. The one upgrade was that this face-plant was on the bed, not the carpet. He was exhausted and hadn’t even begun to process everything that had been set into motion.

Trent had navigated him through a quick set of agreements and dismissal from his contract, then promised him all paperwork within the week. There was sketchy information about when he was expected to start with the Loggerheads. He’d agreed to foot the bill for getting to Charleston, and by “agreed” it was because they’d offered no choice. Then he’d been shoved into a different car and sent home.

At the moment, Trent was all he had left, but not from loyalty or friendship. Trent was canny enough to sniff out all the opportunities this kind of publicity could bring.

There’d been more calls, more prying and nosing around from the media. Harmon supposed he should nut up and have a press conference, but he wanted to wait until the deal with the Loggerheads was ironclad. Maybe their PR would handle the damage control and spin, and leave him as much out of the spotlight as could be managed at this point. His big-bucks contract had been salvaged; the Loggerheads had agreed to cover the smaller percentage as their share, more or less being paid by the Phillies to take him off their hands while he’d still get what was owed to him.

The Phillies released a brief statement, and that was that. No one was surprised with the trade, although there were a few disappointed voices among the fray who took up Harmon’s cause simply because he was going to be an LGBT hero or some similar crap.

Harmon had long been settled knowing he’d remain closeted. He was groomed from the get-go to be a baseball player, a star, and star baseball players weren’t gay. He made his choice about who he’d grow up to be in life. That was his entire identity.

One onerous day was all it took for him to be stripped of that identity, no longer able to claim either of those. He was outed and tainted by the suspicion that his rookie year had been a fluke. His deepest weakness had been exposed. Every vestige of what he’d worked so long and hard to cultivate and protect at the expense of everything else was gone.

It felt like everything was gone.

He curled into himself tightly and tugged a blanket over his shoulders. Shock gave way to misery, a misery that settled around him with numbing dread. Harmon closed his eyes but couldn’t sleep, his mind at once racing and unable to hold a single thought.

There was still no word from his father.