Ex-Beefcake by Zoe Lee

Chapter 5

Sam

According to the whole wide world, Halston Stern was a god, the inspiration for the phrases hotter than the sun and an Adonis. He was six feet and one and three-quarters inches of Scottish-American beefcake. His hair was the warmest dark brown, his eyes were the brightest hazel, his nose was the straightest, his muscles were the most sculpted and bulging, his hands were the biggest, and his body hair was the manliest. He smelled like the goddamn earthiest, most virile woods and his chin had the subtlest dimple. There was a red delicious apple-colored tint to his perfect stubble in sunlight and fire light. His laugh boomed and his voice rumbled and his hugs were the safest, coziest place to be.

Women loved him, wanted to feed him and have his babies and make him look at them with adoration. Men wanted to be him, and plenty of them also loved him, wanted to feed him and adopt puppies and make him look at them with no exasperation.

There was no denying he was a masterpiece of the human form, form and function both beautiful and powerful. His brain was pretty quick too, or all the muscles and speed in the world would still fail him on the rink or while doing a complicated stunt.

But to me, Halston was one of my best friends. I wasn’t attracted to jocks or muscley men, so there was never the lingering what if that could poison a friendship between a straight and a queer man. We’d kept our friendship strong despite being long-distance.

Except the man who had just stepped onto the patio in Aspen was not my Halston.

This Halston was… an ex-beefcake.

“What is your face doing right now?” Eliott asked, since he’d been keeping me company until Halston arrived. When I kept staring, he twisted in his chair to see. “Well, well, well,” he murmured, appreciation coloring his tone, “isn’t he a sight for sore eyes?”

“That’s not—he’s not—” I stuttered.

“Stop being weird and hug the man when he gets over here,” Eliott ordered in a low voice before he made himself scarce.

Halston finally saw me, grinning as he bumped his chin up and began to walk with calm purpose towards me. My mouth did a weird thing as I lost the ability to control it and pretend to be normal. I clearly hadn’t managed it, because his smile broke.

Before I could get my shit together, he was there, right in front of me.

“Hi, Sammy,” he said in a tone that urged me to look at him.

My arms raised up, not naturally but like Madonna in Evita, but the furrow between his eyebrows melted away as he got right between them and wrapped his arms around me. His hugs had always been like being squeezed between a rock and a hard place. This hug was softer, his muscles layered with a dad bod amount of fat, with his longer hair and beard scruff tickling my forehead. It felt the same in my head though.

With one last squeeze, he stepped back with a little laugh.

Jerking, I waved at the table Eliott had been sitting at and I’d been leaning next to, too restless waiting for Halston to get here to be able to hold still in a chair. “Sit, sit.”

“I’ve been in cars and the plane for hours,” he said, curling one shoulder forward and one back and then switching. “Can we walk around? These grounds are beautiful.”

“Yeah, that sounds smarter,” I said, blinking a few times. “Let’s go drop your stuff in the room and then we can go…”

My sentence faded off at the end there as something I hadn’t even thought about before lit up in my brain: we were sharing a room with one king bed. When I’d checked in, the front desk clerk said there was a mixup and they’d given us a room with one king bed instead of two queens. Since they didn’t have any others available, I hadn’t had to think to say it was no problem. But now something odd wriggled through me at the idea.

Shaking it off, I focused on Halston and snagged the handle of his rolling suitcase. “Come on. Tell me about the drive up from Denver. Were you freaked out? I spent the drive in the backseat trying not to throw up. On boats you look at the horizon, but there isn’t one in the mountains. It was dicey there for a while, but Asher rolled down the windows.”

“Remember when we went to Six Flags?”

Just hearing the name of the amusement park an hour north of our old apartment made me queasy. “Stop right there,” I told him as we hit the lobby elevators. I pulled the tiny cardboard thing that held our room keys out of my pocket to check the room number written on it, then pushed the button for the right floor. “You swore never to bring that up.”

Chuckling, he followed me into the elevator. “Bring what up?”

When we got to the room a minute later, I handed him one of the key cards and let us in. An apology crowded behind my teeth about the one bed, but Halston just ran his observant gaze around the room. He dropped to his haunches to unzip his suitcase, the suggestion of his ass crack appearing, and pulled out a garment bag to hang in the closet.

“Ready to walk?” I asked, hearing the forced edge of my enthusiasm.

Halston paused and then came to stand in front of me. “Are you okay?”

I raked my hand through my hair and laughed. “I have to admit, I’m totally thrown off by your new… look.” We were as eye to eye as we ever got with him a few inches taller than me, but I saw the flinch around his eyes and immediately, my hand shot out to grab his arm. “Whether it’s for a role or just how you look these days, it’s all good. You’re obviously healthy and I don’t think you could have a crappy diet if you were being dangled over a pool of barracudas waiting to eat you. I know it’s dumb, but before every time we see each other, I’m still expecting you to look exactly the same as you did the night we met.”

That made the tension around his eyes turn into crinkles as he smiled, shaking his head and pointing out as if I didn’t know, “Sammy, that was like twelve years ago.”

“Doesn’t feel like twelve years,” I mumbled with a pout, then waved that off. “Ready?”

“Please.”

We went back through the hotel and out another back door. There was probably an acre of more formal gardens in a stretched-out rainbow shape flanking the hotel. I didn’t know too much about flowers, but I recognized the rose bushes with red and pink blooms. Beyond that, there was a band of grass with some trees and picnic areas, and then what looked like a golf course, although it was too late to be in use today. Mountains encircled the view, dense, dark green trees and then the bare peaks.

“It’s beautiful,” Halston said, his shoulder brushing mine as we both looked at it all.

“Yeah, but I’m short of breath and we’ve been walking on pretty flat ground for fifteen minutes,” I said. “It feels like high school when we’d have to run the mile and get timed. Not that that happened to you, because I know you played like every sport in school.”

Halston’s eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses, but I felt his gaze on the side of my face like laser beams. “Will you tell me about what’s going on this week? I’m sure there are a bunch of things you’ll need to go to, or things I’m not invited to, and that’s fine. I’m looking forward to having a half-day here and there where I can just chill out, actually.”

“There’s an activity or a meal every day, but it’s not non-stop,” I explained. “I checked out the exercise room for you, so I know you won’t be bored because you can pump iron—”

I clenched my jaw and tried not to grimace.

“It’s for a role,” he said in a quiet voice, “and you don’t have to tiptoe.”

“I never tiptoe,” I denied, walking again toward the trees bordering the grounds, not in perfectly manicured straight lines but in soft clumps of trees. I felt embarrassed that I was having such a strong reaction to what was basically a bit of weight gain. So I took a deep breath and said, “Tell me about this role. It’s different from the ones you’ve done before?”

His voice was rich and deep with excitement as he talked about the movie and his role, his hands soaring and sketching it out, and it helped unwind my guts from their knots. Over time, it had gotten harder for us to have the luxury of enough time to ramble, both of us conscious that we only had twenty minutes or something before we had a hard stop.

“It’s the first time I’ve filmed in Louisiana too, near Baton Rouge,” he went on. “I know we’re all in a sort of bubble and people there must be at least kind of used to Hollywood descending on them. But it’s got such a different speed and vibe. And food.”

I had to snort at that and shake my head. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable there.”

Pursing his lips, he nodded slowly.

“But you find positive ways to connect with everyone,” I added, not only because it was true, but also because I didn’t want to go into serious territory about a straight man, who was also a famous action star, versus a gay guy like me in a small southern town.

Covering up my strange awkwardness, I rambled back, “I can do it at work. It’s part of my job to know the basics about their education and job history, but also evaluate what special skills they have, like being amazing at giving presentations. I think it’s important to get to know them more than that, so I can help them achieve their goals and be confident and happy. Make enough money, understand their benefits, feel safe bringing me complaints. Outside of work, I feel like I can chit chat for ten minutes, max, before I’m out of steam. I run into this wall where I know what I could talk about forever, but what are the odds that strangers or acquaintances have the same passions or hobbies?”

“That’s how I feel about dating,” he said after he’d considered this. I loved that our conversations weren’t one to one, like, he hadn’t answered me directly but it was still completely in response to what I’d said. “Sometimes I feel like people… want to laugh when I say that I’m looking for love and want a committed partnership with passion and respect.”

Instead of sounding sad or upset, he sounded bewildered, like he honestly couldn’t understand why that was weird or why it might be hard to believe he was being honest.

I hadn’t been great about showing interest in his relationships. I’d always blamed it on our opposite schedules when we were roommates for about a year or the distance after he moved to LA. It was hard to be excited hearing about a girlfriend I’d never met or gotten to know. Yet I still knew their names and the statistics like how long they’d dated, if they’d lived together, and why they’d ended things with him. He’d declined a second or third date, but he’d never broken up with anyone. He wasn’t a people pleaser—he was too secure in who he was to have that drive—but I thought because he was interested in everyone, he might not be the best judge of who was a good match, versus just interesting and good.

“Hollywood is more cynical than me,” I finally threw out, not knowing what else to say.

“You’re not cynical,” he straight-up scoffed, tossing his hands up in the air. “You just… you just have this very tidy set of requirements and they’re very tight, and you haven’t met someone who meets them yet. But you will, Sammy, I just know it. You’ll find him.”

“Oh, tight is definitely a requirement,” I joked, because I couldn’t handle his too sincere certainty that I would find a happily ever after when I’d found nothing but frogs—or been someone else’s frog, since I knew I wasn’t most men’s idea of an ideal partner either.

If he saw through my deflection, he had the grace not to call me out on it.

“This sunset feels like it’s so close, I could jump up and touch it,” he said.

“Crap!” I exclaimed, digging out my phone to check the time. “I made a reservation at seven-thirty for dinner with Eliott and Gavin at one of the hotel’s spots. The others are going on a stargazing night hike later, but I knew you wouldn’t want to do all that tonight.”

Putting his hand on my lower back, he guided me in a half-circle back toward the hotel and said, “We’re only going to be five minutes late, and I’m sure they won’t mind.”