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Changing Lines (Harrisburg Railers #1)

Harrisburg Railers #1

Copyright © 2017 RJ Scott

Copyright © 2017 V.L. Locey

Smashwords Edition

Cover design by Meredith Russell

Edited by Rebecca Hill

Published by Love Lane Books Limited

ISBN 978-1-78564-079-7



Can Tennant show Jared that age is just a number, and that love is all that matters?

The Rowe Brothers are famous hockey hotshots, but as the youngest of the trio, Tennant has always had to play against his brothers’ reputations. To get out of their shadows, and against their advice, he accepts a trade to the Harrisburg Railers, where he runs into Jared Madsen. Mads is an old family friend and his brother’s one-time teammate. Mads is Tennant’s new coach. And Mads is the sexiest thing he’s ever laid eyes on.

Jared Madsen’s hockey career was cut short by a fault in his heart, but coaching keeps him close to the game. When Ten is traded to the team, his carefully organized world is thrown into chaos. Nine years younger and his best friend’s brother, he knows Ten is strictly off-limits, but as soon as he sees Ten’s moves, on and off the ice, he knows his heart could get him into trouble again.


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All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.


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Dedication

To my big brother for agreeing to field questions from two exuberant MM authors about his home, the city of Harrisburg, and for being one dang cool older sibling throughout the years. *hugs* ~V.L. Locey


To Vicki, who gave me back the joy of writing after I thought I might lose it. And, for my family, who support my new love of hockey, and my obsession with a certain team, with long suffering sighs and gentle pats on the head. ~RJ Scott


With grateful thanks to Meredith for her beautiful cover, Rebecca for making us look good, Rachel for sorting us out, and our army of proofers for their hard work.


Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Epilogue



Chapter One

Tennant

“Ten, honestly, I think you should talk to your agent again.”

I looked at the three faces staring at me from my laptop monitor. The one talking now was Brady, my oldest brother. Brady plays for Boston. He’s their captain. He has a beautiful blonde wife named Lisa, who’s a legal aide, two-year-old twin girls Gwendolyn and Amelia, and a house that you need Google maps to navigate. Brady is thirty-one and one of the best defensemen in the league. He’s also the pushiest and bossiest person in the history of ever.

“I’m not talking to my agent again, Brady. It’s a done deal, and I’m really sort of okay with it,” I told Mr. Overachiever, and cracked open another peanut shell. The pile of empty hulls sitting beside me on the sofa was impressive.

“If he’s happy, Brady, I think we should back him instead of trying to make him feel worse about it.”

Face number two and the current talker was Jamie, or James as my mother always calls him. Jamie is the middle Rowe brother and plays hockey as well. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, where he’s an alternate captain and plays left wing. Jamie is also married to a Lisa—I call her Brunette-Lisa, and Brady’s wife Blonde-Lisa. Not to their faces, of course, but how else am I going to differentiate? Brunette Lisa’s a stunning dental hygienist who’s expecting their first child in three months. They’ve been married for four years. Jamie’s role in the Rowe-trio dynamic is Mr. Negotiator.

“There’s really not much that can be done at this point anyway. His contract was only for three years, and Harrisburg picked him up.” And that was talker three, my dad, Bruce Rowe. Sire of the famed Rowe brothers from South Carolina. Dad’s a district manager for several Happy Marts in the Myrtle Beach and surrounding areas, and has forgotten more about hockey than the three of us players will ever know. If you look at my dad, you can see all of us in about thirty years. Black hair still thick and wavy, green-blue eyes, and a smile that Mom says still gets him into trouble.

“But really, Dad, he’s taking a step back in his career,” Brady said yet again.

I chewed and listened. That’s my role in the family. Tennant, the baby brother, is preached to by the older Rowe boys, because obviously he has no clue what to do with his life. He is the youngest, after all. Mom always coddles him. Just look at him sitting there in a small apartment in Dallas, lacking a fancy house, with no sexy model with double Ds on his arm, and now being traded to some team that didn’t even manage to make the playoffs last year.

“To go from an established team like Dallas to this new expansion team in Pennsylvania is a slap in the face. His agent should have pitched a fit. I mean, the very least he should have done was get him signed to an Original Six team.”

“Oh, here we go, time to look down your nose at those of us who aren’t playing for Boston or New York or Montreal,” Jamie snapped.

Dad and I exhaled theatrically. I broke another shell open and Dad took a sip of his coffee. This would run on for some time.

“Jamie, don’t start that shit again. I never meant there was anything wrong with playing for an expansion team,” Brady said as if by rote.

“Right, like you haven’t been sitting here for fifteen minutes telling Ten what a shit deal he just got being traded to an expansion team. Was that not you just saying all that in your whiny Boston accent? Get out of the way, Boof.” Jamie removed his ginger cat from the laptop keyboard.

Brady was on that like white on rice. “Okay, for one thing I do not have a Boston accent.” He really did. “But if I did, I’d be proud of it even if it was whiny. Secondly, I’m not saying that some expansion teams haven’t done well for themselves over the years but…”

My mother sat down beside my dad with her own cup of coffee. She gave me a smile. I knew it was for me, because it was her special ‘Tennant is my baby’ smile. Mom was the exact opposite of the Rowe men: fair, blonde, and petite. She still taught music at the high school all three Rowe brothers had attended. It was Mom who’d loved hockey to death but still insisted that her boys learn to play one musical instrument so they had skills outside shooting pucks and knocking people on their asses.

“But nothing. Who won the Stanley Cup last year? Yeah, that’s right, an expansion team. Suck. My. Dick.”

James!

“Sorry, Mom, I didn’t see you there. Boof was in the way.”

“I’m sure Tennant knows what suits his life best,” my mother said.

“I don’t really feel bad about it,” I said yet again, as I pondered easing out of the Skype group call and fading to black. My brothers and father wouldn’t even notice I was gone for at least five minutes.

The conversation about me and my butchered career ran on as my mother and I made silly faces at each other. When Brady had to go give the twins their baths, Jamie remembered he had to scoop out the cat box. Dad kissed Mom on the cheek, and then padded off to watch an old western starring James Coburn.

“Well, now that the know-it-alls have left, why don’t we talk?” Mom pulled the laptop across the kitchen table and leaned in close to the monitor. “How do you honestly feel about this trade, Tennant?”

I swallowed the mouthful of peanut. “It’s really okay.” Her thin eyebrows tangled. “No, seriously, I’m fine with it. I’m thinking this might be my chance to get out of that huge shadow Tate Collins throws over every center on the team.”

“I thought you liked Tate.”

I took a swig of chocolate milk and looked from the laptop on my thighs to the city of Dallas spread out below my condominium. Tate Collins was Dallas hockey. You know that song about the stars at night being big and bright? Well, no star shone brighter than Tate Collins in the heart of Texas. He was the face of hockey, the league’s premier center, and its goal-scoring leader for three years running. No way I would ever be noticed—or have a shot at first line—with Tate on the team. And that was nothing against Tate. Tate was a good guy. Friendly, humble, generous, everything a hockey player should be. But for those who toiled away in his shadow, the darkness got depressing at times. I knew, for a fact, that I could be first line on any other team. For sure, first line on a second-year team like the Railers. That wasn’t ego talking, it was confidence speaking. I knew my skill set, and it wasn’t second line.

“I do, but I’m tired of being in someone’s shadow all the time.”

“That’s the curse of being the youngest, honey.” Mom gave me a sad little smile. “How’s Chris going to feel about you leaving Dallas?”

The half-gallon carton of milk slipped off my lower lip. “Chris?” I coughed and hurried to wipe my chin with the back of my hand. No way. No way could she know about Chris. He and I had been super discreet.

“Yes, Christine, that bouncy redhead you took to the Texas Athlete of the Year Award over the summer?” Mom gave me a look that said she wondered about my brain. “She tweeted about it for weeks.”

“Oh, Christine, right.” Sure, I knew who she meant now. One of several dates who served as beards. Yep, that Chris, not Chris the barista with the beard and man-bun, who I’d been hooking up with on the sly for a couple of weeks. “That kind of died off.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. She was pretty. Anything on the horizon?”

“Nope, not really.”

Dallas shimmered with heat even though it was night. The Texas Athlete of the Year Award. I recalled it well. I’d come in second to Tate for the Brightest Star on Ice award two years in a row.

“That’s probably just as well. You’ll be moving soon. I’m sure there are lots of lovely girls in Harrisburg.”

“I’m sure there are.”

Ugh, this sucked. Lying sucked. Being the only kid on either side of the family who was gay sucked. Having to date women sucked. Having to sneak men into my apartment sucked. I worked up a measly grin for her.

“You’ll meet the right person, Tennant.”

My dad called for her. She rolled her eyes, and I snorted.

“I swear that man can never find his glasses. How much do you want to bet they’re on top of his head?”

I chuckled.

“I’d better sign off and let you rest. You’re going to have a busy few weeks packing and moving. We love you, Tennant.”

“Love you too, Mom.”

I closed the lid of my Dell, dropped my hands over it, and stared at the city I’d be leaving behind. I’d miss Dallas. It was one hell of a great city, with amazing fans. I wasn’t sure I’d miss Chris too much. Chris with the facial hair, I mean. We’d gotten into some heavy frottage, but that was about it. He was cute, but we were missing that spark you hear so much about. Probably, if I’d been staying, we’d have gone further simply because I was tired of masturbating, and that’s a piss-poor reason to sleep with someone.

I guessed being traded up North had just had another check mark put in the ‘This might be an okay thing after all’ column. I had a few concerns, such as finding a place to live, what the guys and coaching staff would be like, and had Frank Sinatra or any other big name ever sung any songs about Harrisburg. You know a town has made it when it has a popular song about it. Places like New York, Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago… they all had songs. Hell, even Allentown had a song. A song meant you were a kickass place to live, right? A quick Google search informed me that one dude named Josh Ritter had indeed sung about the town I was moving to. I guessed we were golden, then.


* * * * *


September. Man... Where the hell had summer gone? Oh yeah, it had been swallowed up by searching for a new condo, packing, visiting the folks, and making sure my address was changed at the post office.

The first thing I’d noticed, as I crossed the Pennsylvania border with the last of my personal belongings in the back of my Jeep Wrangler, had been the lack of palm trees. No, seriously. Like, I’d known logically that there would be no palm trees, but actually not seeing any had been a jolt. There were lots of other trees, but nothing with a palm frond. Which meant winter was a part of life here. That was uncool. A beach baby like me and temps under forty did not play well—not at all. A checkmark under ‘This might not be an okay thing after all’ was mentally made.

Thankfully, my aunt was a realtor and had scored me one hell of a nice midtown condo on Front Street with a view of the Susquehanna River from a rooftop deck. The building was massive, brick, and was filled with “grace and charm”, to quote my aunt. I’d picked up a two-bedroom unit for the same cost as my one-bedroom back in Dallas. Overall, I was happy with the place and had plans to turn the second bedroom into a gym. My furniture had arrived the day after I had, and it looked stupid. The western motif had worked back in Big D. Here in Harrisburg, it looked moronic. I’d sold off the old stuff within a week and was now working on filling the big, empty rooms with furnishings that said I was one successful urbanite. So far, I had a recliner and a bed. Oh, and the TV and my PS4. The essentials were covered, at least.

Entering the kitchen, I flipped on a light, then made breakfast, which consisted of a protein shake and a mushroom and cheese omelet. Mom and Dad had been up over the weekend, and she had filled the freezer and every shelf of the fridge with good food, aka healthy food. The six-pack had gotten a dark look, but she hadn’t told me about how fattening it was or how stupid I acted with two beers under my belt. This time. Like I didn’t know I had zero tolerance for alcohol?

As I ate, I scanned the local news apps on my phone. Every single one had something to say about the Railers. Most centered on the argument that the state could not support three pro hockey teams. Which was maybe right—time would tell. Hockey was growing in popularity, but it had a long way to go to catch up with football, baseball, or basketball here in the States. There were a few articles about me and the hopes the sports beat writers had for the team’s offense now that they had a top six center. Scoring had been an issue last season, as had a weak defense. It would take time to build a good roster; the expansion draft only did so much for the team. The alarm on my phone went off as I was tossing my dirty plate into the dishwasher. My stomach knotted up.

Training camp for the experienced guys like me started today. The rookies on the team had been required to show up yesterday. Today would be all about medicals, fitness testing, and media. The press would be all over me like chocolate on a Ring Ding. Which was kind of cool. It would probably feel good to get some of that spotlight that had always used to shine on Tate. Hell, even growing up I was always hearing, “Oh, you’re Brady/Jamie’s little brother! I hope you’re half the student/player he/they are!” from teachers and coaches. This was my time now, and I was going to bask in the limelight until I was burned.

A quick shower, and I was off to the training facility out in Rutherford, about twenty minutes from my condo. Glass Animals supplied the ride-to-work music. Pulling into the parking lot of the East River Arena, home of the Harrisburg Railers Hockey team and seeing press vans scattered around filled me with nervous excitement. I slipped inside without being noticed, the crush of reporters only getting a peek at me when I jogged down a flight of steps to check out the ice. I closed my eyes, inhaled the smell of hockey into my lungs, and smiled. There was nothing like it. The cold air, the sound of blades on ice, the grunts and shouts, the impact of man against glass and board, and the flash of the goal light. It was as good as sex. The ice looked perfect. Pity we veterans wouldn’t be on it until tomorrow.

“Tennant! Hey, welcome to Harrisburg! What do you think you’ll bring to the team?”

I looked over the shoulder of my brand new Railers hoodie at the lean guy hustling down the concrete stairs. He had wild brown hair and big googly eyes. He held his hand out, shook, then glanced at the cell phone in his hand.

“Bob Riggs,” he said. “I run an online site that deals exclusively with ice hockey in the Harrisburg area. From the pros to peewee.”

“Nice. Feel free to tape.”

I leaned against the glass, folded my arms over my chest, and began answering questions. Within five minutes there were probably twenty people gathered around me at ice level. I did my best to answer every question they threw at me. I told them how excited I was to be there, how I hoped I could contribute to the team and the city in a positive way, and how cool it was that professional hockey was expanding. It was an impromptu kind of meet-and-greet, my favorite kind. I related much better to this kind of setting, as opposed to the strictly regulated media day things the teams always set up. Those always felt so staged and stiff. I was about to reply to a question from a burly dude in a tracksuit who had no hair on his head but had massive amounts of it growing out of his ears, when someone pounded on the glass behind me.

I jumped and spun, my gaze locking with and then getting lost in the most beautiful light blue eyes I had ever seen. Familiar eyes, too, now that the shock began to pass. They belonged to Jared Madsen, or “Mads” as he was known in our house. I hadn’t seen him in years. He looked so different, and yet the same, if that made any sense. He was incredibly hot now. Had he always been that way? I’d been probably ten or maybe twelve when I’d last seen him, so I totally hadn’t been aware of men, or how attracted to them I would be a few years later. Had his hair always been that shade of golden wheat, his eyes that piercing, his shoulders that broad…?

Chapter Two

Mads

Ten stared right at me with a look of recognition and even a hint of a smile. He was gorgeous—there was no getting away from that. From his chiseled cheekbones to his green eyes, he was a step away from pretty. My reaction to him was visceral. He was exactly the kind of man I liked to spend time looking at.

Tennant Rowe. On one hand, star center and a team player with excellent hockey sense, and on the other, gorgeous, sexy, and fodder for a million fan fantasies.

I need to focus on the hockey. I have nine years on him, and he’s a family friend. I decided to repeat that until I’d settled down the appreciation that had filtered into my thoughts. So, I focused on the hockey.

Even at eleven or twelve, whatever he’d been when we’d last met, it had been obvious that Tennant had the Rowe hockey genes—the potential to be better than his brothers, even. Not that Brady or Jamie had ever let him be better. Brotherly love had not extended to letting Ten get goals on them, or hell, even get the extra potato at dinner. Their competitiveness would have stifled a lesser kid, but not Ten—he’d thrived on it.

“What do you know about Tennant Rowe?” Head Coach Mike Benning had asked me before the trade. “You played with Brady, right?”

I’d almost felt like my opinion mattered right then, as if my having prior knowledge of Ten’s brother Brady meant that when I spoke, Coach would actually listen. Not that he didn’t listen, don’t get me wrong—he was a good guy underneath the stern-faced iciness. He was just really focused on the forwards. It was one of the things the team was fucking up, not that I was saying that out loud just yet. I had camp to get through yet, finding a core of D-men I could shape. Then I’d be saying exactly what I thought to Coach Benning, and he could like it or not.

It would be too late to get rid of me then.

So yeah, he was right. I’d played with Brady in Juniors, part of the D-pair with him, and we’d been good. More than good. He’d ended up first pick to Boston, and made it to captain so damn quick it had taken even me by surprise. Then again, he’d always been a pushy bastard who’d gone after what he wanted. Me? My rise hadn’t been so fast, but I’d stood out at the Buffalo Sabres, done my part in getting us to the Stanley Cup finals. Only my career was over, and Brady’s star was still shining. Go figure.

“You can’t judge Tennant by his brother,” I’d said, and I’d meant it. Brady was a defenseman; big and ugly in the corners, with a spark that made him the best. Yeah, he was captain, yeah, he had some two-way skills, but he was no kind of forward like Ten, who had all the best top six attributes, like speed and puck smarts.

Ten was still staring, and I guessed that meant I was staring back. I sketched a small wave, and he copied me, then one of the reporters asked him something and he was distracted away from me. That was okay; wasn’t like we had anything to say except that small acknowledgment of familiarity. I’d checked him out on Google when Coach had asked me, seen the standard NHL photos. One, in particular, had caught my eye. Ten in Dallas colors, stick behind his neck, smiling, his lips in a pout, eyes bright. He’d sure grown up all kinds of sexy, but given the number of photos of him and various female models, he was the wrong kind of sexy for me.

Anyway, let’s face it, Brady would kill me if I went anywhere near his brother. After all, he’d walked in on the threesome thing in Montreal and been faced with me, a busty brunette, and this built-like-a-brick-outhouse guy, both of whom had been… Well, yeah, Brady had sworn he needed eye bleach, since then his opinion of me had placed me firmly in the region of whore.

Pretty accurate for the most part, at least until game five of round three, when I’d had an argument with the boards that had taken me out of a playoff game and then out of professional hockey altogether. Nothing like having your body let you down to stop your whoring ways.

I pulled myself out of thinking about Ten and his brothers when Coach Benning skated up to me.

“And?” he asked under his breath.

“And what?”

“The kid look good to you?”

“Who?”

“Tennant Rowe,” he said with a hint of impatience, like I was stupid.

I could wax lyrical about the lithe body in the obviously brand-new Railers hoodie, or the way his green eyes sparkled in the bright rink lights. Hell, I could even talk about how broad his back had seemed pressed up against the glass before he turned. But that wasn’t what Coach was after; he wanted some instant insight into talent.

I had so much I wanted to say at that point. Something along the lines of the Railers being lucky to have someone with his stats, that the kid was a man now, who had the potential to lead the team into a good year. Maybe even playoffs. I was desperate to say that Coach shouldn’t fuck it up. I didn’t say a word. My shrug was the way I’d started talking to the man who couldn’t tell a good player from a bad one.

Benning muttered something that sounded distinctly like it included the words “asshole” and “fuck.” I was used to that now. We had what the team liked to call an interesting relationship. I called it a fucked-up mess, but I knew it wasn’t all him.

A flurry of cursing and laughter, and the ten rookies I had with me that day were out on the ice. I looked at them objectively as they stretched and skated lazy circles to warm up. We had six spots on the team, four of which were already filled by some of the best D-men I’d seen in a long time. Which left spots for two out of the ten who were there for training. I already had my eye on Travis MacAllister. He’d spent last year on the minor team that fed the Railers, shown promise, been called up a couple of times but not dressed for the game. Mac, as he was known, was so close to making the team proper, and he knew it, cocky son of a bitch. I liked that in a defenseman—confidence in his abilities, that he could push anyone into the boards and walk away smiling.

I put him with this new kid—bright eyed, ruling-the-world kind of confidence radiating from every pore. He was a six-five Swede with a goofy, big-toothed smile, and appeared inoffensive at first look, but Arvid “Arvy” Ulfsson was anything but harmless. He had potential behind that smile and spent a lot of time at the net, scrappy and relentless. His weakness was his desperate need to get in on the attack, and he needed to settle his position with his mark before he got all fancy and tried to take shots at the net.

The rest were a mix of guys who shone and some who didn’t. All of them deserved a place on the minor team, but whether they’d stand up well as part of the Railers was another matter.

I partnered Arvy and Mac in the three-on-two, switched them out, concentrated really hard on the edge work, on the checks they followed through, on the ones they didn’t… or as hard as I could when Ten was sitting and watching.

I wonder what Ten thinks? Is he taking mental notes like me? He’d grown up practicing against his brothers, both NHL stars in their own right. Was he watching this scrimmage and thinking that the defense could be better? Was he judging Arvy and Mac? Is he judging me? Why do I care?

By the end of the practice, I’d mentally crossed five of the guys off the list. Telling them that they weren’t being offered contracts was hard, but they had to learn, right? The NHL was the shining target, the Stanley Cup, the original six, a hundred years of history. Not everyone was guaranteed a seat at the table their first year out. One of them, a hulking bulk of a guy, seemed to want to say something, but I stood my ground, like only the best kind of enforcer could, and he subsided with a rueful grin. I couldn’t blame any of the guys for their disappointment—enforcers were pushy and ultra-confident by trade, and you couldn’t expect them to switch it off as soon as practice ended.

By the end of session one, I had five left, and the uneasy feeling that Ten was staring at my every move. I excused it as being because I was familiar to him, a family friend, someone he used to shoot against as a teenager on the odd occasions I would stay at the Rowe house and we’d play pick up hockey. When I casually skated a loop to bring myself up against the goalie coach, I glanced up at the seats where Ten and the rest had been sitting, but there was only empty space. They’d left, and for a second I was disappointed. I’d kind of hoped to have a chat with him afterward. What about, I didn’t know.

The last thing you did was ask Tennant Rowe how his brothers were, or make a comment about the most recent Brady/Jamie success. Not that he wasn’t proud, I was sure—they were a close family, and one I had envied as an only kid with an absent mother, but still… Ten had spent a long time making his own name.

I knew that, because I’d followed him. Not like a stalker, or with a Google alert set up or anything like that. I mean, I’d listened for the scraps of information out of Dallas, the mentions of Ten often as an addendum to what the great Tate Collins, Savior of the NHL, was doing. I’d seen photos of skinny Ten growing up, holding that Dallas second line with a tenacity that had got him an eighty-nine points average over the three years. I’d seen interviews after games where the reporters had wanted to ask Ten questions about his brothers. He always smiled at those, and answered as best he could, but anyone who knew him could see the frustration in his expression.

“You looking at Arvy and Mac?” Alain Gagnon, goalie coach extraordinaire, a twenty-year veteran from the Canucks, interrupted my thought process. Arvy. Mac. Work.

“Yeah.”

Gagnon huffed. “Mac’s a definite. Arvy doesn’t finish his checks and wants to score goals.”

“Nothing wrong with a two-way defenseman,” I said. I was aiming for sarcastic, but actually it was nice to have validation from someone I respected that things weren’t quite right with Arvy.

“He’s good, has potential there. So, you’ll work with him,” Gagnon said, and skated off.

He did that a lot. The skating off thing. Goalies are just weird, if you ask me—funny, talking to their posts kind of weird. But then, if you’re the type of man who’s happy standing still with a puck heading for you at a hundred miles an hour, you’re a long way past weird. The Railers weren’t looking for a new goalie this year—the two we had were what kept us from falling to the bottom of the tables. In fact, they and a few of our more sparky forwards were the ones who’d left us only eight points away from a playoffs place in the first year since expansion.

“My office,” Coach called, and I skated slowly toward the door.

Part of me didn’t want to leave the ice. This was my home. I felt good on the ice. Everything was soft and smooth and cold, not jagged and ruined like my life outside. And yeah, I’m aware that sounds dramatic, but the ice was, and will always be, my refuge. That first jarring step when skate hits the rubber of the walkway, you feel the entire weight of your body on that tiny blade and everything is wrong for the shortest of seconds. I didn’t know if any other skaters felt that way—I’d never asked them, limited as I was mostly to being fierce and chirping the guys I was shadowing. I could just imagine it—up against an elite center, checking them into the boards and then asking them how they felt about the ice.

Not happening.

The meeting was shorter than normal, thank fuck—Benning had a way of talking until he was blue in the face and the rest of the room was losing the will to stay awake. He was all team dynamics, pressure points, forecheck, backcheck, Xs and Os. I was all “Let’s get lunch, because breakfast was a mess and I didn’t manage more than one bite of a cold Pop-Tart.” Apparently, the meeting was short because he had a very important, official meeting with the new forward, Tennant Rowe, shining star, part of the Rowe dynasty, and so on. He was looking at me the whole time he said that, and I think he was probably trying to say without words that even though I knew Ten, he was in charge. Who knows.

I share an office with Gagnon, but that’s okay, because he’s never in there. Probably off doing goalie-type weird stuff. That meant I got a chance to eat in peace, get a coffee, and scroll through my inbox. The email from Brady was expected. Not that we email a lot—hardly at all since the accident that ended my career with brutal finality. I placed my hand on my chest, a habit I had when I was thinking about my heart. One hit into the boards, one normal concussion protocol, and then I’d collapsed in the medical bay.

The beginning of the end.

Brady had been one of the first people I’d pushed away. The fucker had tried contacting me for the longest time out of all my friends, but finally even he’d given up.

Like I’d wanted friends still playing hockey when my heart condition wouldn’t even allow me to play in a beer league.

Hey, Mads, the email began, and I must admit I liked that it wasn’t formal. I’d been Mads since I’d started hockey at age four. Turned out having the surname Madsen and being described as a mad enforcer meant my nickname was a good one.

The email asked after me, hoped I was okay and liking my new role with the Railers, and said how pissed he was that Boston hadn’t taken me on as a coach. Where he’d got the idea that I’d ever want to coach at Boston, I didn’t know. The two of us together would just have been too much of a reminder of everything that had gone to shit.

Yep. That’s me being dramatic again.

I read the rest. Some news about his twins, and the fact that he was about to be an uncle. For a moment my chest tightened. Ten was way too young to be a dad, and I should know—I’d been only just fifteen when I’d helped create a kid. Why I immediately assumed it was Ten who’d done the deed I don’t know, given that there was Jamie, the middle brother.

And then the email cut to the chase. So you know you’re getting Ten—keep an eye on him for me? The team isn’t what I wanted for him, but he’s set on this.

Then there was the usual “we must keep in touch” crap. But I felt in the space of a sentence, the Railers had been dismissed as worthless. I’d been told that Ten was better than us, and I’d been demoted to the role of caretaker. Somehow all that gelled together to make me feel like shit.

I typed out a response that was flowery with adjectives, cast aspersions on Brady’s parentage, and told him in no uncertain terms to shove his platitudes where the sun didn’t shine.

I then deleted it all and just sent a simple, He’s all grown up—he can look after himself. I hesitated over what to sign it. Mads was the right way to go, but somehow it implied a personal connection that I didn’t feel happy with. But Brady had never called me Jared, so in the end I wrote Mads and pressed send.

The whole thing left me as unsettled as I felt with my skates on rubber, and I shut my email down, deciding later would be a good time to tackle the emails from Ryker’s school, the bank, and the amendments to the myriad schedules that ruled a hockey team.

Coffee in hand and restless, I left my office, bypassing the changing rooms, the kitchen, the weight rooms, and in fact any place where I might meet someone and have to talk. Which was how I ended up in the back corridor by the heap of storage boxes we used when playing away games. Unfortunately, someone else was already there, seated on a box, cross-legged, staring at the wall. Tennant. I stopped and backed away, but he’d heard me, or seen me, or really did have that freaky second sight that some of the pundits talked about.

“Mads,” he said, and leaned forward out of the shadows so I was able to get a good look at him. The dark blue hoodie with the Railers logo front and center suited him. That was all I could think.

“Ten,” I said, on autopilot.

“That guy, twenty-nine. Ulffson or something? He’s not finishing his checks. Wants to get the puck and score. That’s not good.”

I looked at Ten to see if he was teasing, but there was nothing on his face or in his beautiful green eyes that spoke of the declaration being anything other than a statement of fact.

“Noted,” I said.

“You knew that already,” Ten said, and untangled his legs, stretching them out in front of him one at a time.

“I did.”

Great, this was either the deepest conversation I’d ever had with another person, or just plain fucking stupid.

“Brady says hi,” Ten offered, and this time the stretching extended to him lifting his arms above his head, and yep, there it was, that strip of skin, of toned stomach, and yep, I looked. Sue me, Ten had a classic skater’s body, all muscles and planes and strength. A man could look.

And then I raised my gaze, and Ten was smirking. Honest-to-God smirking at me. What did that mean? Was it because he knew he looked good and he was appreciating the fact that someone had looked? Or was it because Brady had told Ten about the threesome incident and he was hoping to push my buttons? Either way, Ten was a bastard who was happy flaunting all his shit, and I couldn’t be interested. I should just come out with it and call him on the smirk, tell him I might be bi but I wouldn’t be fucked around with. But what if the smirk was because of something else, like a family joke that was about me?

So, I didn’t say a thing. I changed the subject and chalked up the reason for the smirk as nothing at all.

“Great. He actually emailed me,” I said, referring back to Brady, because I wasn’t going to smile back or rise to anything Ten was implying with that smirk.

At that statement, Ten’s expression changed. From confident and happy, he became guarded. “Don’t tell me,” he began with a heavy sigh. “Big Brother wanted to warn you that I need to try harder on the breakaway, or that my forecheck isn’t as fast as we need, or hell, maybe I’m not in the right place for the tip in.”

“No,” I answered, because the words Ten spoke were filled with derision, and I didn’t like him saying any of it. “Your brother is proud of you.”

All the tension left Ten, and he visibly slumped. “Yeah, I know he is. I’m proud of him and Jamie.” He looked right at me. “Don’t think for one minute we’re not one big happy family.”

Ouch. Something really hard underscored those words, and I wanted to fix whatever had stolen away happy, teasing Ten and left this shuttered man in front of me.

“He wanted to meet up one day for a beer,” I lied. Because whatever I tell my son about lying not being a good thing, lying is sometimes exactly what needs to happen.

“Oh.” Ten looked surprised. Then he smiled again, this time less confident smirk and more fond. “How’s Ryker?”

“Seventeen, hormonal, a pretty good left wing.” That was how I summed Ryker up in public. But Ryker was much more than my moody seventeen-year-old son who had a wicked slap shot. He was my life, and the reason I got up every day.

When I’d sat in that doctor’s office and listened, hearing words that meant very little to me, I’d interrupted him and asked him the one thing any hockey player would ask. Will I play again?

Only having my son in my life had stopped me from losing myself in pills and alcohol after the doctor had shaken his head and put the final nail in my hockey coffin.

You won’t be able to play professional hockey again.

So, yeah, Ryker was more than how I’d described him there, but I wasn’t ready to share that with anyone, let alone Ten, who I didn’t really know very well anymore.

“I friended him on Facebook,” Ten announced.

I wasn’t even Ryker’s Facebook friend. I needed to talk to him about that, because I should be, right? Isn’t that, like, number one on the list for parental responsibility or something? It was my turn to have him this weekend, and I added Facebook to my mental list of things to talk about.

“Good,” I finally answered. Probably with too much of a gap for it to be socially acceptable. Whatever I did wrong was enough for Ten to clamber off the crate and straighten up. He held out his hand.

“I’m going to like it here,” he said.

I took his hand. A man’s hand now. Not the same grip he’d had as a kid. I shook it firmly, and he had that same smile. Was I supposed to hug him now? Was that what a “bro” would do? He tugged away and slipped past me.

“Later,” he said.

And all I could think was that Ten had surely grown up fine.

Chapter Three

Tennant

I was firing off a text to Brady as soon as I rounded the corner, leaving Mr. Jared “Sultry Blue Eyes” Madsen behind. It was short and to the point.

Stay the fuck out of my life.

I hit send. Then thought of something else to tell Brady.

I mean it. No more emails to Mads. EVER. About anything regarding me.

I glanced up, danced around a dude I assumed was an equipment manager, given the skates dangling over both shoulders, then sent off text three to make sure my older brother really got it. Sometimes he didn’t. Like, all the time he didn’t.

Seriously. No more. I’ll tell Mom.

I paused, staring at the text, then erased the part about Mom. That was my ace in the hole. Didn’t want to play it too soon.

Seriously. No more. It’s my life. Stop trying to run it. U suck.

There. That sounded good. Should I send him the smiling pile of shit emoji just to drive home what I thought he was? Walking and texting. Probably dangerous. Okay, totally dangerous. A soccer ball bounced off my skull. I dropped my phone and yelped.

A voice broke into my pain. “Bouncing big balls,” it announced.

I crouched down to pick up my phone, then stood, my gaze traveling up and up and up to reach the face of the man who’d been kicking the ball off the concrete walls. The tone of the words, heavily accented, conveyed apology.

“It’s cool,” I said immediately. “My mother always says that texting and walking will be the death of me.” I pocketed my cell and held out my hand. “Tennant Rowe.”

The behemoth took my hand and shook. “Stanislav Lyamin. Stan.”

“Right. I watched your tapes.”

The dude was huge. It was like shaking hands with Groot. He topped out at six nine or ten easily, and probably weighed two fifty if not more. His hair was dark and buzzed to his scalp. He had stormy gray eyes and a long, aristocratic nose. The Railers had picked him up from the KHL for a song. Stan had size and grit in spades. He filled the net, but lacked speed and agility. Once they trimmed him down a bit, he’d move faster and seal that net up tight.

“You like soccer, huh?” I asked.

“Silly rabbit.”

I gaped dully at the big man. “Oh-kay, yeah. Well, I was just heading off to dinner, so…”

“Big Mac.”

Stan rubbed his belly and then followed me for a few steps. I stopped walking and looked up at him. He stared down at me. Shit, but the man was intimidating. Glad I didn’t have to go up against him.

“Yeah, right, food, so… I’m leaving to go eat.” I waved at the nearest exit and smiled broadly, inching away from the tender. “Nice to meet you.”

“I am a Pepper.”

“Dude, are you saying you want to hit Mickey D’s or something?” I looked around for someone—anyone—to save me, but it was just me and the Russian in shorts and sneakers.

“They’re great!”

“Stan, you have been watching way too much American TV,” I chuckled.

Twenty minutes later, we were shoving burgers and fries into our faces while drawing all kinds of odd looks. It had to be Stan pulling all the gawks. He kind of stood out, but he was funny. His gray eyes never settled. Like never. They darted around constantly. I wondered if he was just working on tracking exercises while he ate. I’d seen a video of the goalie down in D.C. doing the same thing in preparation for a game. Although, since we weren’t getting ready to play, maybe he was just trying to absorb all this America.

“Lip-smacking good,” he said after polishing off his fourth burger. I’d made do with one and some fries. Empty calories. Not on my healthy eating plan, but man was the grease tasty.

“It sure is. Okay, so here’s the thing. I’m new to this town. Like, I don’t know anyone.” I sat back and took a sip of my milkshake. Man, I’d be running to Chicago tomorrow to work off this meal. “Well, I mean, I know Mads, but he’s like this weird thing, right?”

Stan’s smoky eyes landed on me and stayed glued there. My gaze roamed over the menu above the cashiers’ heads.

“Weird like he’s so much sexier than I remembered.”

I drifted a bit, the prices getting blurry as I pulled up an image of the Railers defensive coach in my mind. Fuck, but he was hot. Those sky-blue eyes and that mouth… He smelled good too. His cologne was brisk, kind of nautical. A kid a couple of booths over screamed, jarring me from the memory of his hand in mine. Mads had a strong grip.

“Shit, uh, yeah, so I know no one here aside from Mads and his grip.” Stan watched me, and I sought some kind of common ground we could talk about that wasn’t hockey. My cell chimed to let me know I had a notification on my Pokémon game. “You ever play games on your phone?” I shook the phone. “Pokémon?”

He chewed and stared. I opened up my current game and waved it under his nose. He shrugged and then his eyes lit up. “Pikachu,” he announced. Seems like Pokémon was a cross-borders kind of thing.

“Okay, well, I think we should start our own academy for Pokémon trainers on the team.” I showed him the screen again.

He nodded while sucking down half a super-sized Coke. I kid you not. One huge pull and half the soda gone. It was incredible.

“It’ll be like this bonding thing, right?”

Stan smiled.

“Cool! So, you’re in then?”

Some lady ran past chasing a ketchup-coated toddler. Stan kept smiling as he opened the first of five tiny apple pies stacked on his tray.

“We should have a team name. I mean besides the Railers, although I guess that would work.”

“Tumbling minions.”

“Yep, for sure. Hey! You know what we could do now?”

Stan took a bite of his pie and shook his buzzed head.

“I want to go find an ink shop and get my favorite Pokémon. Do you have any tattoos?” I pointed at my arm, and then his.

He frowned and then pulled back the sleeve of his jersey, exposing some pretty fucking sweet Cyrillic. I wondered what it said, but guessed I wouldn’t be getting much of an explanation from Stan.

I held up my hand for a high five and got one that nearly dislocated my shoulder. Life in Harrisburg was picking up. I had a new team to bedazzle, a tall buddy who was easy to talk to, and a secret little crush on my older brother’s friend. That night, I also had a brand-new tattoo on the back of my neck and a string of texts from Brady. Each one was him talking down to me, so each reply from me was the smiling pile of shit emoji. Finally, Brady sent me his last text for the night.

Grow the fuck up.

I carried a smirk with me all the way to Rutherford and the practice facility the following morning. Stan met me at the player’s entrance, ducking until he was nearly bent in half to clear the doorframe. We exchanged a meaty knuckle bump.

“How’s the ink?” I asked, pointing to the biceps that carried his new tat of Pikachu. I don’t know why he decided to get that done, but he had been so excited. Even though I explained that this wasn’t something that the team had to have to be considered ‘team’.

“Po-Kee-Mon rocks.” His face split into a grin.

I threw back my head and laughed. “Damn straight,” I replied, and slapped his broad back.

We entered the dressing room, and I took a second to scope it out. The Railers logo stood out on the dark blue rug in the center of the semi-circular room. Everyone was careful not to step on it. Doing so was sacrilegious, and would bring down the nastiest juju on the team.

I eyed the logo critically. The old style steam train was in gray on the dusky-blue background, an echo back to the time when Harrisburg was the center for rail track production. I thought it was pretty badass actually; better than some random animal or bird. The room was packed with players, most just now stripping off their suits and gearing up for our first day as a team.

“Hey, Tennant, I didn’t get to introduce myself yesterday. Media day this year was beyond crazy, then my wife insisted I hit the kids’ parent-teacher conference, since I’ll be scarce from here on out. Connor Hurleigh, captain of the Railers.”

I shook hands with the older man. Connor was mid-thirties and had always been a damn fine center. Was he as good as me? We’d see, since he played on the first line and I wanted that spot bad. He’d come to the team last year in the expansion draft, and because of his years of experience on the ice, the team had chosen him to wear the “C” on his sweater. Rumor was he was a fine captain, if not the most demonstrative in the locker room. A lead by example kind of guy.

“It was crazy for sure,” I said, then released his big hand. He was a normal-looking man. Brown hair and brown eyes. Wicked scar on his chin from a skate blade back when he played for Arizona. “I’m hoping to be able to really contribute to the team.”

“That’s what we like to hear.”

Connor moved off to talk to some of the older players. Stan had wandered off to the corner, where he now stood staring at the cinderblocks. No one would touch or bother him. It was goalie shit. Zoning in or something. Hell, maybe that was how all Russian tendies started the routine of mental prep. What did I know? I threw myself into a meet and greet with the rest of the team, picking out the guys under thirty and inviting them to join the Pokémon fun. By the time I sat down to remove my dress shoes, I had ten guys added to the roster. Stan was still in the corner doing his oddball goalie stuff. Knowing it was time to hit the ice and make this team mine fired me up. I changed quickly and was taping my socks to help secure the shin pads when I paused and looked at the dressing room door.

This is going to sound stupid, but I sensed the coaching staff entering the dressing room way before they arrived. It was like fingerlings of static electricity snaked out ahead of Mads stepping into the room and ran up my arms, prickling the hairs at the tender nape of my neck. His gaze flickered to me. I met his look. He glanced away quickly. I sat there, half-naked, brand new yellow Railers training sweater draped over the bench beside me, staring at his profile while Coach Benning gave us the usual speech about teamwork, dedication, diligence, and so on.

We had a short video presentation, followed by the coaches splitting apart to talk to the men under them. Goalie coaches with goalies, defensive coach with the D-men, and we forwards got to listen to Associate Coach Colin Pike laying out what the organization wanted from us over the upcoming season. Like we needed to be told? Every hockey player has one goal, and that’s to hoist the Cup over his head. Everything we do from the time we first lace up those tiny skates as kids is geared toward reaching that goal. We all dream the same dream. So, sure, I got it that the coaches were all about the pep talks, but I for one didn’t need them. And if anyone on this team didn’t have that goal as his number one priority, his ass needed to be sent off to the ECHL or something. I was done with coming in second.

We were split into four groups for this first session on the ice. Part one of the testing was skating from goal line to goal line at top speed for three minutes straight. No stopping. We wore straps under our sweaters next to our chests to measure heart rate, breathing frequency, body temperature, acceleration and deceleration. This was all done to see where we could improve our performance. I was part of the second group. Coach Madsen and Coach Pike were running the show. The head coach was reading the information as it fed into his laptop over at the timekeeper’s table.

“On my mark,” Mads shouted, his voice echoing off the steel girders of the training rink. I bent down slightly, stick on the ice, and set my sights on the far end of the rink. The sharp trill of a whistle, and the four of us were off. The trick was to power into a good lead before you were tanked, because three minutes on ice is a killer. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but hockey is about quick bursts of speed. Typical TOI, or time on ice, is forty-five to sixty seconds for forwards. Defensemen can go longer, but it varies per player or depending on the situation. That’s why a good team rolls four solid lines one after the other. It gives us time to catch our breath and rehydrate.

I hit the goal line first, spraying ice, and spun. Both coaches on the ice were shouting encouragement to the men skating. Four times back and forth had us all winded, legs and lungs burning. Mads and Pike continued yelling at us, pushing us to keep going. When the whistle to stop finally came, my thighs and calves felt like pudding. I was sucking air like a Hoover, and sweat ran into my eyes and down the crack of my ass, but I had smoked the three others in my group, one being our captain.

“Good job,” Mads said as I passed.

I gave him a nod, since speaking was not happening quite yet. I felt his gaze on me as I hit the boards in front of the home bench and draped the upper half of my body over them.

“That… sucked,” I gasped to the guys waiting to take their turn.

Ten minutes later, the four of us who had the fastest times were back out for another three minutes of hell. Yay. Playing hockey was so much fun. It was close, but I eked past Troy Hanson, the first line left-winger. He was smaller than me, and lighter, but I managed to smoke him by a full two-tenths of a second. Then, after we caught our breath, it was more testing. Forty-meter sprints forward and backward, slalom pylon tests, and another round of endurance laps. When my skates hit rubber, I was spent. There was not one little puff of energy for me to pull up from deep within.

I desperately wanted some chocolate milk. I wobbled down the hall outside the Railers dressing room and rounded a corner to find Mads trying to feed a dollar bill into the coffee machine. He glanced over his shoulder. Our gazes met and held. The machine spat his buck back out, and he cussed as he bent over to pick it up.

“Need a little zip?” I asked as I padded up to the cold drinks machine.

“Something like that.” He turned the bill around and tried again.

“Got a buck I can borrow?”

Mads looked at me as if I’d asked him to loan me a kidney.

I patted the back of my sweaty hockey pants. “No wallet on me.”

“Oh, sure. Here, use this one. Maybe that machine will like it better.”

“Thanks.”

I took the wrinkled bill and tried flattening it on the side of the soda machine. Mads dug into his wallet and pulled out a less tattered bill.


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