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Goal Line (Harrisburg Railers #6)

Copyright © 2018 RJ Scott, Copyright © 2018 V.L. Locey

Cover design by Meredith Russell, Edited by Sue Laybourn

Smashwords Edition

Published by Love Lane Books Limited

ISBN: 978-1-78564-129-9


All Rights Reserved

This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. This book cannot be copied in any format, sold, or otherwise transferred from your computer to another through upload to a file sharing peer-to-peer program, for free or for a fee. Such action is illegal and in violation of Copyright Law.

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

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Chapter 1

Bryan

Keep your eye on Ten, he’s trouble.

That was all the text said, and I re-read it a few times as if more words would suddenly appear.

I don’t know why I looked for affection in any text that Aarni sent me because, in my kind-of-boyfriend’s own words, he wasn’t the demonstrative type. And he would always point out that someone could get hold of my phone. Then they would know that Aarni Lankinen, the villain of the Arizona Raptors, wasn’t everything he made himself out to be, that he wasn’t the playboy who fucked every woman within his reach. That he had a boyfriend on the side, and that it was me.

The phone rang, and I answered as soon as I saw his name. Aarni wasn't the most patient guy on earth, and he liked it when I was fast to respond.

“Did you get my text?” Aarni asked without preamble.

“I did.”

“Don’t let me down now.”

I got the feeling, as he laughed, that he expected me to do that very thing. I still wasn’t sure what would count as letting him down. But given the kind of person I was—clumsy, quiet and only really focused when I was dressed for hockey—I kind of expected to fuck up.

The Arizona Raptors had chosen me in the 2014 draft, not long after my eighteenth birthday. I was the second highest ranking goaltender drafted that year, something to be proud of, I guess. But I’d not managed to stay up at NHL level, spending the rest of the time in the Raptors’ development team in Tucson. Until last year, when I’d actually been a starting goalie after both main goalies had been injured.

I hadn’t been stellar, and Arizona put me on waivers, leaving me vulnerable to being picked up by who the hell ever. My confidence had been rocked. I was a solid goalie for the development team, but the minute I got up to the primary team, NHL level, I choked. Why the hell did the Railers even want someone who hadn’t lived up to their early promise? I assumed I’d attend this training camp, and that would be it. They’d push me down to the Railers’ development team, and there I would stay.

Which wasn’t a bad thing, except they’d taken me from Arizona and from Aarni and it was the first time I’d been really on my own.

“Hello? Are you even listening to me?” Aarni snapped.

“Of course, I won’t let you down,” I lied.

I’m a good goalie, I stop pucks, I can be strong and focused and stay in my own head to track the plays in front of me.

Still, Aarni knew about me what I knew about myself; I’d choke at NHL level just as I had for the majority of my time with the Raptors.

I’m not ready. I should go back down to the minors.

“Also, don’t get comfortable there. They’re not going to keep you for long.”

“I know.”

“And don’t forget what assholes the Railers are. Don’t trust them, particularly wonder-boy Rowe. Arrogant fucker.”

I didn’t see Ten as arrogant at all, but then I was basing my assessment on TV interviews, including the one he’d given with Jared when they’d announced their relationship. I’d been proud of Ten and Jared for doing that, and part of me, the dark, hidden, ruined part, was green with envy that they were able to be open with the world.

I’d said that to Aarni, but he’d reacted badly and hadn’t talked to me for three days. His disappointment was a knife in my gut, and I hated every second of it. That was not happening again. He was right. Ten was a Stanley Cup Champion, a superstar, and if there had been NHL players at the Olympics, then he would undoubtedly have been on Team USA. No team would ask him to leave just because he had a boyfriend. It didn’t seem to be hurting the Railers, and they had a growing reputation as being LGBT-friendly.

“Jesus Christ, Bryan, are you even on this phone call?”

I pulled myself back from the edge. Aarni had said something about Ten being arrogant.

“I won’t forget,” I spoke with confidence so he’d realize I was listening.

“And remember I’m not there to watch your back.” He sighed deeply. “I worry there’s no one to look after you when you attract trouble. Especially from defenders like Max van Hellren. Asshole should have been thrown out of that game against us for what he did to me. Fucker lost us the chance at a championship. So fucking pleased he ended up collapsing. He deserved it.”

My chest tightened. Max wasn’t part of the Railers anymore. He’d retired after the cup win, but Aarni was right. There would be other guys there to step up in his place. Aarni had been furious, with a side order of mean, over what Max had done to him, checking him into the boards. But he’d finally calmed down, said he’d show Max what was what the next time the two teams met. He’d been so disappointed when Max had retired.

But Aarni was a good guy. He was the one who’d gotten involved when the bullying on the Raptors had gotten to be too much for me to handle. When the guys in the toxic locker room got on my case. I’d only played a few games at that level with the Raptors and had fucked every single one of them up. They’d hated it, but Aarni had been there for me.

He seemed to know the point when the rest of the team pushed it too far, always stepping in just before I was going to run from the room. He’d helped me so much, but he was back in Arizona, so far away.

“I’ll be okay,” I murmured, fear gripping me again about the kind of things I needed to face with this new team.

“I doubt that.” He sighed. “But you weren’t enough of all that for the Raptors to keep you, so you have no choice, and there’s nothing we can do about it, can we?”

“No.”

He must have heard the desperation in my voice. I hadn’t wanted the Raptors to give up on me, but that was hockey. One day I had woken up in Arizona as the backup to the backup, fucking things up, and the next day, the team had put me on waivers, and I was suddenly in snowy Pennsylvania.

“Good boy,” was all he said, but it was enough.

He hung up, but those two words gave me a shot of steel to my spine, and I settled my breathing before opening the car door. Security had let me right through to the player parking lot, and my Toyota sat right next to a sexy red Porsche. My salary had taken a hike, up to three million for the two-year contract I had here, so I probably needed a new car.

Even if the Railers saw through me and sent me packing, I’d still have enough money to buy a car.

“Hey,” someone called from behind me, and I immediately assumed that I was standing somewhere I shouldn’t have been. The man was in a guard’s uniform, tall, built and smiling at me benignly.

“I’m sorry. They told me to park there.”

“Of course. Bryan Delaney, right?” he asked and extended his hand for me to shake, which I did immediately after wiping the sweaty palm on my jeans.

“Yeah, Bryan,” I said when I realized I hadn’t answered his question.

“Welcome.” He thumbed at himself. “Name’s Pete. They said I needed to keep an eye out for the new guy.”

He dropped my hand, and I forced a smile onto my face, even though my stomach was churning. “Thank you.”

“This way.” He chatted on about the weather, life, hockey and something about his sister who lived in Arizona. By the time he dropped me outside an office, I knew enough about Pete to write a book. Thing is, his chatter stilled my nerves, and I wasn't going into this room blind. I knew the name on the door, Alain Gagnon, former goalie for Vancouver, and one of the best goalie coaches in the business. I’d skyped with him once in his capacity as Goalie Coach for the Railers after they’d claimed me off waivers. He’d seen me coming to the Railers as a positive thing, a great thing. All I’d seen is my failure at NHL level hockey with the Raptors, and I remembered going back to Aarni and needing to be held.

Of course, Aarni had said he didn’t need to hug me, but he’d reassured me that, however I played, he would always have my back. I’d needed the comfort. His words of advice stayed with me even now.

I just want you to realize what you are and what your place on the team will be. Ten acts friendly, but he won't care about you like I do. Stan? He’s had some lucky saves, and as for that fucker Van Hellren? You saw what he did to me in our last matchup. I wish you weren’t so naïve, Bryan. It’s unlikely you’ll get many starts, so don’t be disappointed when you get sent down to the minors.

I won’t be disappointed. I’d promised Aarni, and I’d made a vow to myself not to get too excited and involved.

Pete knocked on the door, then turned and left but not before winking at me, which meant I was flustered when I stepped into the office, even more so when I was faced with a vast Russian grinning at me and pumping my hand.

“Pleased to meet,” Stanislav Lyamin boomed and clapped me on the shoulder. Stan was a big goalie, broad, strong, tall. I was as tall, yes, but I wasn’t solid as he was. He was a hero of mine, someone I revered, and he was here shaking my hand as if I was worthy of his time.

I shook Alain’s hand as well. Alain gestured for me to sit, with Stan taking the chair next to me. Stan couldn’t seem to sit still, wriggling in his chair, and he appeared to want to say something.

Alain shook his head and pointedly stared at him. “Go ahead, Stan.”

Stan immediately turned in his seat, and I did the same until we were face-to-face. I had to be wary of this man. He was such a force on the Railers, and even though his English wasn’t the best, he could be just as hurtful as the Raptors’ goalie.

“Jets, February fifteen, you save big.” He made shapes in the air with his hands, and I realized he was asking me about a specific thing. Something he’d done maybe? I’d played at NHL level, a grand total of thirty-six times in four years, and I remembered each game I’d played for the Arizona Raptors with clarity. Huffing, Stan pulled out his phone, scrolled a bit and then thrust it at me, shaking it so I would take it. I held the phone carefully and checked the screen and saw I was looking at myself.

Wait, was he talking about my save against the Jets? He couldn’t be. I had to be the only one who remembered that game.

I'd pulled off the best save of my entire career, an odd-man rush heading right for me, a screen that was impossible to see past, but I’d heard what I needed to hear, the skates on the ice, the crack of the puck on sticks, and I’d instinctively known where to move. Luck had played a big part in that save, but somehow Stan knew about it and wanted to talk to me about it.

“I remember,” I said as he waited expectantly.

“Much big,” he announced and then sat back in his chair, arms over his chest, a wide grin on his face. “Much big,” he repeated. “Is good times. No?”

“Good times,” I said because he seemed to need a reply.

Alain laughed with him. “Well, now that the fanboying is over, let's get to work. Bryan, I want you to get out with Stan at practice today, get you used to the new ice. Coach Madsen has a defenseman briefing, and you’ll attend that first.” He shuffled papers in front of him and cleared his throat. “We have some work to do.”

Of course, they had work to do with me. The Raptors didn’t think I deserved starts, so I guess I was lucky another team wanted to take a chance on me.

“Yes,” I responded.

“You are what this team needs.” Alain leaned forward, staring at me so intently that it was my turn to squirm in the chair. “I want to be honest with you…”

Here it comes.

“I wanted you a year ago but obviously couldn’t get you. I was shocked you were put on waivers, and we need a solid backup for Stan here. I’m excited to see what you can do.”

“You are?”

Wait. Did I say that out loud?

Alain didn’t seem to hear the surprise in my voice though, or at least he didn’t react.

“I want to get started today, so you’re ready for our first back-to-back, and I want you in goal. You ready for the chance?”

No.

“I’m honored to be part of the Railers,” I said instead.

Stan opened the door for me and followed me out, and we walked straight into a gaggle of hockey players, milling about outside the goalie coach’s office. I recognized everyone, and it was Connor Hurleigh, the captain at least for this year, who stepped forward. Everyone assumed Ten would be captain one day, but right now it was Connor who led this team.

“Welcome to the Railers.”

I shook his hand and forced a smile. “Glad to be here.”

One by one the group welcomed me, and I kept my responses simple. No point in giving anyone a chance to see anything in me that could be exploited.

Keep yourself to yourself, Aarni had warned me.

Some of the players’ expressions held confusion at my quiet responses, but they didn’t say anything. Maybe they were used to Stan, who was all noise and brightness.

Well, they wouldn’t be getting that with me.

“Do you talk to your pipes?” Adler Lockhart asked. He was one of the best chirpers in the entire league, always with a witty response or a throwaway line that cut a player to the quick. Somehow, he was never caught and punished for instigating. If there was a fight on the ice, then you knew damn well Adler had something to do with it. I had to be careful with him.

“No,” I said, and shook his hand over Connor.

“Oh.” He sounded disappointed, and then he brightened. “Must just be the weird Russians then.” He ducked when Stan shoved at his head, and I stepped back and away. This could get ugly. It didn’t get a chance to, though, as someone skidded around the corner and came to a halt next to Connor. I was face-to-face with Tennant Rowe, skating phenom, and the object of most of Aarni’s derision. What could I say to the man who was the face of the team and one of the brightest players in a long time?

“Ten,” he said, out of breath, thrusting out his hand.

I was tongue-tied. Ten was pretty. If that was a word you could use about a guy. All angles, with a broad smile and bright eyes. He shook my hand and waited for my response.

“Hey,” I said. That was enough to be polite and not enough to put me on anyone’s radar.

I was shuffled down the corridor, to a door bearing Jared Madsen’s name, and that was it. With Stan close to me, my first day as a Railers team member at hockey camp was beginning.

I wasn’t nervous at practice. Not really. All I had to do was be out here, on a team fresh from winning the Stanley freaking Cup, and slot in neatly as the backup goalie.

No pressure.

I could fuck it all up, I probably will, and they’d trade me away. Not today though.


The practice was intense but also different to the few I'd attended with the Raptors. This team was focused, but there was also a lightness in the banter I overheard. I didn't join in, only took my time in net, my Raptors helmet at odds with its scarlet and gold against the blue of the Railers practice jersey I wore over my gear. Alain pulled me away to work on my blocker side, always the weaker, and tapped my helmet.

“See if we can get you something different. You wear an Itech?”

“Yeah, a stock mask.”

“You going to get a new design now?”

My helmet was generic and in the wrong colors. There was nothing more detailed in design on there, apart from the color that marked it as mine. There were no names or pictures or inspirational themes. Just references to the Tucson area, the standard saguaro amid the desert. Enough to get away with, and not enough to mean anything to anyone.

I’d once considered putting Aarni’s name on it somewhere, but he’d laughed when I’d said that. The quickest way for people to know about us, and hell, why would you even do it in the first place?

“I guess so,” I said. I’d probably use the dusky blue of the Railers and maybe some generic views of Harrisburg. That way, when I was sent to the minors, it would still fit in.

“I’ll tell Stan.” He skated over to Stan, who was effectively batting away pucks from a determined-looking Dieter Lehman. He said something to the big guy, and even as Stan was talking, he was still blocking those damn shots. I’d never be as good as that. A familiar melancholy consumed me, and I shook my head to clear it. I was my own worst enemy according to Aarni, and he was generally right.

I will be as good. I can be as good.

Showered and dressed in my jeans and hoodie again, sneakers tied and jacket on my arm, I waited for Stan as instructed. He was taking me to see the artist who did his helmet, which was a study in strength, from the girders of iron to the steam of a massive old train. There was a starkness of imagery, softened only by the image of a tiny, fluffy rabbit and the name Noah under it in cursive. There was also a mountain scene and ice, it could have been any mountains, but they must’ve meant something to Stan. Various Pokémon were scattered across his face protector, so tiny I could hardly make them out individually, but against each one was a name. I recognized the words Ten and Adler, so this must’ve been a team representation or something.

“Is ready?” Stan boomed at me from behind, and I turned from checking out the helmet and followed him out of the door, straight to a van. Not a Maserati or a Porsche, but a mom’s van, with a kid’s car seat and brightly colored toys scattered everywhere. He unlocked it, and I climbed in, but he was called back by a player, Erik Gunnerson, a smiling man with impossibly curly blond hair. They talked, heads close together, and then after laughing, in a smooth move Stan leaned Erik back for a deep kiss, and I watched.

I couldn’t have turned my gaze from them if I’d tried. Right there in player parking, Stan was kissing Erik. In front of the whole damn team and me. When they parted, Erik reached up and cradled Stan’s face, gazing at him with such love and devotion. Stan said something, leaning down to get close to Erik, and then they parted with a final kiss. I pretended I wasn’t watching, but I couldn’t help but notice his huge grin.

Does Stan ever stop smiling?

“We go,” Stan said, backing out of the space.

Erik climbed into the low Porsche next to my car, with Ten taking the driver’s seat. When a skater earned what Ten did and had to keep up appearances, a Porsche is what they drove.

Aarni’s voice filled my thoughts. “One day people will realize Ten isn’t all that and that he’s all for show.”

I tugged my jacket around me as Stan turned up his stereo and Elvis blasted from the speakers. He was singing along, loudly and ever so slightly off-key. I wish I could say his innate happiness was inspiring, but I just felt it was sensory overload. By the time we pulled up outside the artist’s place, I had a headache, and everything inside me felt twisted, awkward and wrong. When I saw it was a tattoo parlor, my heart sunk. Whoever worked behind those frosted doors would be young and fashion conscious and confident, all artistic and shit, and there would be me, the slightly awkward Canadian kid who wasn’t going to be on the Railers that long.

And there was Aarni’s voice in my head again.

Grow some fucking balls.


Chapter 2

Gatlin

“Are you positive about this?”

I had to ask because part of my job as a tattoo artist is to make sure that my customers are happy with their ink, not just now but forty years from now. Getting a lover’s name placed anywhere on your body as a permanent fixture is dicey. When you’re nineteen and want that name inked onto your cock? Yeah, someone needs to sit you down and give you the fatherly talk. I wasn’t a father, but I was an uncle, which was kind of the same, only better.

“I mean, are you really positive about this, Tim?”

The young man nodded vigorously. “I love Dixie.”

“Yeah, I can see that you do, bud, but I loved my old boyfriend, Rex, too. Until the day I came home last year to find him moving out. When I asked him why, he said his feelings for me were waning and that he’d come to care about me as one would for a dog.”

Tim blinked at me, his soft brown eyes growing dull. “That’s harsh.”

“Yep.” I folded my arms over my chest, waiting for Tim's extreme love of Dixie to spur him to say she would never leave him. As his brain struggled with the shot of reality old man Gatlin had just laid on him, ELO played around us, filling my small personal area as well as the rest of the shop. “Here's what we're going to do,” I finally said as Tim sat there looking like a dumbstruck opossum. “I’m going to give you a week to contemplate this idea. If you come back in seven days and are still committed to getting Dixie’s name permanently inked on your dick, I’ll gladly take your cash and do the work. Deal?”

He was crushed. I hated to be the one to bring him down, but chances were, in a year, he and Dixie would be done. Probably, she would feel for him as one does for a dog. Ugh. Fucking Rex. Someday I’d get over that parting shot. Or not.

“Yeah, sure, okay. Dixie was really excited about it though…”

He rose from the adjustable ink chair, which strongly resembled something from a beauty parlor, and walked out, his shoulders slumped and his steps shuffling. I ran my hands over my face and pushed up off the small stool where I sat on while doing ink work.

“Another dream crushed,” Jess said as she slipped into my area, her blue eyes glittering with trouble. I glanced at my niece, frowned and then smiled. She was so much like me it was scary. My older brother, Garrett, often said if he didn’t know I was gay, he would have sworn I’d slept with his wife and Jessamyn was the result.

“He’ll thank me when Dixie crushes more than his desire to see her name on his prick,” I replied, reaching up over my head to stretch my back. Things popped and cracked.

“Not every relationship ends like yours did,” she reminded me as she walked around my workstation straightening the pictures on the mustard yellow walls. Jess was a punk goddess from her bright pink hair to her black combat boots. Tats that I’d done dotted her bare arms. Mostly bright inkwork intermingled with skulls and bottles of poison. Garrett was not at all impressed with the artwork on her skin. Guess it rankled his investment banker way of thinking. Which I did as well, but he’d had years to get used to a gay tattoo artist as his only living sibling.

“True. Only my relationships end like that.” I glanced at the old clock on the wall, artfully arranged among pictures of gay couples from the forties. There were color photographs of tattoos I’d done on customers and a few framed tour posters from famous rock groups of the seventies. Along with a montage of artwork that had been applied to various masks I’d designed for Stan Lyamin, as well as several other professional goalies, all the work coming to me via Stan’s recommendations and referrals. “I’m taking a hiatus from romance until I hit forty.”

“That’s another thirteen months. Your prick will wither up and blow away.” She sat at my desk and began rifling through the bills.

“Hardly.” I sighed, grabbed my personal stuff away from her, and let her open the store mail. She was a whiz at bookkeeping and organization. Which was why I’d hired her as soon as she’d turned eighteen and Garrett couldn’t get over her working here instead of in the bank. “There’s nothing wrong with living the quiet life of a monk.”

“Monks don’t jerk off daily.”

“I don’t either. I should fire you for that kind of insubordination.” I leaned my ass on the folding massage table by the bookcase. Jess waved me off with the phone bill, then put her feet up on my desk, her short green skirt showing all kind of leg and the newest tat she’d had done two months ago, a large butterfly with a skull head and rainbow antenna. Garrett had been quite impressed with that one. If blowing a valve is considered being impressed.

“Hey, are we going to Skipper Joe’s tonight?”

Jess and I both looked at the doorway. Woody, my part-time artist, slid into the room. He was a funny kid, same age as Jess at twenty-two, tall and skinny with bright red hair and a sharp nose, which was why I called him Woody instead of his given name which was Paul. I thought it was funny. Shame I’d had to explain the nickname when I’d first given it to him. Some days I felt so old.

“How did you get Skipper Joe’s from ‘insubordination’?” Jess asked, then handed the phone bill to me. I began searching for my reading glasses.

“Oh, you said ‘insubordination.’ I thought you said in some sub or other station which sounded kinky as hell.” Woody was a recently out gay, streaking his way through the wonderful world of daddies, bears, and leather with a gusto that I sometimes envied. Oh, to be that vigorous after working ten hours. All I wanted was a beer, the Railers game on the radio, and a foot massage after work. God, that was sad. Maybe Jess was onto something, but clubs and random hookups were not for me. Not anymore.

“You need to do something about yourself,” I commented as I patted down my old Levi’s as well as my Aerosmith t-shirt. “Where the fuck are my glasses?”

“On top of your head.” Jess snorted, then shot to her feet when the buzzer signaling the arrival of a customer went off. “So yeah, we could do Skipper Joe’s. I’m feeling a little randy tonight.”

“You two go ahead. I have no interest in spending time in a gay club with sweaty twinks who think Ronnie James Dio is the second baseman for the Yankees.”

Jess giggled and slid around Woody, who stood there looking all kinds of stupid. I sighed, pulled my glasses off my head, and stared right at my employee.

“Ronnie James Dio was a member of Black Sabbath, Elf, Rainbow, Dio.” Woody made a face and shook his head. “Leave my space and do not come back until you can tell me the name of one Dio album.”

I shook the phone bill at him, then slid my glasses on. Woody slunk out like a whipped dog. I peeked at the total for the shop’s phone usage, grimaced, and then glanced up in time to see my work area fill with Russian goalie.

“Hello, Mr. Gatlin gunman,” Stan boomed, throwing his arms wide, then gathering me to his chest for a bear hug that nearly flattened my glasses into my nose. “I am still making fun joke about name.”

Stan pounded my back. I coughed out a weak reply, then wiggled free. I wasn’t a small man by any means. I’m close to six foot tall, so no one ever called me Shorty, but in comparison with Stan, I felt like a resident of the Shire.

“Still a funny joke,” I told the towering man with his arm resting on my shoulder.

“I know. I make many funny jokes. This is good one I make today for Tennant. How do make tissue dance?” I started to reply, but Stan ran me over. “Puts boogie into it!”

I snickered. “That’s a good one.” My gaze caught a flash of blue material lingering in the doorway. There stood a young man in a Railers hoodie, with brown eyes and a mouth that poets would write sonnets about. Tall and wide-shouldered, his gaze touching on mine before dancing away. Christ, the kid was stunning, his long arms and legs adding to the gangly, awkward aura surrounding him. Dark hair cut short accented a strong jaw. Those eyes though…

They were full of sad secrets.

“I have more jokes! Why is so windy inside sports arena? All many fans!” Stan howled at the truly terrible kids’ joke. I smiled, then wiggled away from the exuberant Russian. “Adler buy me book full of funny jokes.”

“Did you bring a friend?” I asked, taking my glasses off, so the kid didn't think I was so old I needed them to read the phone bill. The fact that I did was really neither here nor there.

“Yes! Is new friend and good goalie backup for Railers, Bryan Delaney,” Stan informed me, taking his arm from around my shoulders so I could step to Bryan and shake his hand.

“Right, we picked you up on waivers from the Raptors. Good move for the Railers,” I said as I extended my hand to him. He glanced at me, my hand, the wall, Stan, and then finally slid his palm over mine. His skin was damp with nerves.

“You follow hockey?” Bryan enquired, his voice soft yet deeply masculine. Quite appealing, to be honest.

“Not much else to do here in Harrisburg during the winter.” I pumped his hand a few times, curious about how a hockey player could be so timid. Didn’t they need to be outgoing and assertive to play such a violent and aggressive sport? This man was all kinds of contradictions in one sexy-as-hell wrapper. Not that I was interested in wrappers, of course. I pulled free from Bryan’s grip and put a foot or two between us. “You two here for ink or just to visit?”

“We no make ink now. Maybe later when we train Bryan for Pokémon balls. Now we look for good artwork for making spifftastic mask like mine.”

“Ah, okay,” I made my way to my desk, flipped the phone bill onto my laptop, shoved my glasses into the front pocket of my jeans, then turned to face Bryan, who was still in the doorway wearing a wild expression. “I’d be happy to work with Bryan on some sketches. I’ll just need some basic information about what you want the artwork to reflect, any special logos or names, things like that.”

Bryan shot Stan a wary look, then pressed his lips into a fine line which made me think he didn’t wish to talk about this right now.

“If you’d rather, we can set something up for another time so you can have a think about it. Why don’t you go talk to Jess at the desk, and we’ll schedule an hour or so just to work out what you want?”

“Sure, yeah, okay.” With that, Bryan spun and disappeared.

I glanced from the empty doorway to Stan. “He’s a little shy, isn’t he?”

“Oh yes, is much shy but is normal for new player. I too am shy and meek when I come to Railers.”

“I find it hard to imagine you ever being shy.” I sniggered as the phone rang out at the desk, the loud bell rolling through the shop.

“Pah, I am so much shy. Hide face in locker, only take out when stink of socks and skates turn skin purple and faint from holding breath.”

Now that I could see. I chuckled at the man I’d come to think of as more than just a client. It was hard to not take Stan Lyamin into your heart once you got to know him. Pity the same probably could never be said about Bryan Delaney, he of the beautiful melancholy eyes. Not that I was interested in pretty, woeful eyes.

“So, tell me about the preseason,” I said as we waited for Bryan to return. “How’s it looking for that second cup run?”

“Oh, is looking much good.” Stan flopped into the chair, his long legs splayed in front of him. “We make good moves during summer, like Bryan, and many of us work with Trent too for making faster skate moves. We are much graceful now.”

“Yes, I bet you are.” My gaze left Stan when Bryan reappeared. “Did we find a time that will work for you?”

“I uhm…tomorrow at eight?” He clutched a black-and-mustard yellow appointment card.

“That works. I usually break around eight for dinner. We can go across the street to the bar, have a burger and a beer, and talk mask designs.” Giving him my most reassuring smile didn’t seem to ease the tightness around his mouth, but Bryan did nod in reply. I glanced from one goalie to another. “Stan, you’re more than welcome to join us.”

“Oh no, I am not going out tomorrow. I am home body for my family. Is big night! New episode of Doctor Marcus Welby M.D., show Mama loves.”

I didn’t quite have the heart to tell him that his beloved mama’s show wasn’t new at all. It was probably older than me.

“Okay, well, it'll just be Bryan and me then.” My attention swung from the Russian flipping through sketches for tattoo ideas, to the young man who still had not stepped fully into my little workspace. Was he scared of needles? Not that I had any lying around. My shop was spotless; I made sure of that. All the Pennsylvania rules and regulations were followed to the letter.

“Right. Just us.” Bryan edged out of the room when Stan stood up.

“Is all good news then.” Stan offered me his big hand, which I pumped a few times. I gave Bryan a small nod and got a long look from under thick lashes before he returned the nod, then stepped out of sight. “You make helmet shiny new like four polished carrots for my new goalie teammate?”

Polished carrot? “Do you mean make it shiny like twenty-four carats?”

“Yes! Shiny like golden carrots.”

“I’ll do my best.” I grinned, then lifted a hand in a wave. I stood there for a long moment, contemplating the newest Railer and the untold stories hidden behind those beautiful lashes.

“Hey, your next appointment is here.”

I started a bit when Jess stuck her head around the doorway. “Right. Remind me what this one is.”

“The girl who wants swallows bursting from a dandelion on her wrist.”

“Great. More swallows.”

“Did someone say something about swallowing?” Woody shouted from his little room next to mine.

“Is it time to go home yet?” I asked my niece. It had to be close.

“Nope. You have four more hours with us, lucky man!” Jess beamed, then went out to usher my next customer in. She was enjoying this far too much.

Shame I couldn’t have cut out tonight to have a beer and a burger with Bryan Delaney. Generally, young guys weren’t all that appealing to me, but there was something about him that made me want to get to know him better, touch him, ease the stress lines around his young eyes and stroke a finger over his bottom lip as he—

“I’m so nervous! Oh my God!” My client’s chatter stopped me thinking. “This is my first tattoo. Will it hurt? This is going to be so cool! I love this idea! I saw it on Pinterest and said to Gail. She wants to watch and decide if she wants one that matches. I told Gail that was so my spirit, right? I mean, I always feel this feeling when I see birds fly by. Oh, wow, you have a lot of tattoos. What do they mean? They’re so cool! My brother has barbed wire on his biceps, which I told him was totally out of style now. Do you think the dandelion blows could be watercolor?”

My God, it had to be midnight.


Bryan

We focused on movement drills for an hour, Stan working as hard as I was at finding his focus. He talked a lot as we practiced the movements over and over. Not to me at all, but to the ice and the pucks.

At one point, I swear he called one of the pucks Doug, but I wasn't going to ask if I heard things, right? Because goalies were odd.

I guess I was odd as well, although what classified me as different wasn't quite as apparent as Stan. I didn't talk to my pipes, or pucks, or make chicken noises every time a player shot at the goal and I stopped it. I didn't keep my eyes closed when I was in a game or anything, but I didn't only rely on vision, and that was the crazy in me. I listened, over and above the noise of chirping, and music, and the smack of pucks into the glass behind the net. I could hear the weirdest things.

No one had ever said this to me, so I guess I was unique, but ice sounded different depending on a hundred different factors. Every time I stood in net, I stooped to touch the ice, just the tip of my gloved finger, and to anyone watching it would appear like a simple stretch, but it was way more than that.

It was a connection, an understanding between us that the cold surface would feed information to me the whole time I stood there. The crack of a puck was ignored when the whispery scratch of skate on ice made me relax. This was Ten, heading my way. I didn’t even have to check around Arvid ‘Arvy’ Ulfsson, the six-foot-five Swedish defenseman who was blocking my view, as we worked on game vision. The idea was that Arvy would be an effective screen, and I wouldn’t see Ten enough to get a hold of angle.

But I heard Ten. I didn’t know how it worked, I couldn’t explain it, but I heard him.

He was a brilliant skater and has this quiet way of using the space around him, not all flashy and showy but determined and focused. I’d watched a lot of tapes of Ten over the past few weeks, since finding out I’d be with the Railers.

The thing about Ten was that he wasn’t predictable. He wasn’t the guy who always shot from the left. He was the one who danced and dangled and then did a one-eighty and went backhand. I'd seen him knock a puck from the air, hold off two defensemen, using his foot to corral a bouncing puck and then shoot glove side on a confident goalie and still find that small gap to get the puck into the net.

He was variable, so there was no surefire way to counter his shots.

I had to have patience and wait until the last minute. Listen for the whisper of his skates and take into account the way Arvy moved so I could make an educated guess on Ten’s position.

Arvy was good, though. He didn’t move a muscle.

For me, it was all about reaction, not only drop and stop. If I fell to my knees, blocker to the floor, stick protecting my five-hole, then I was sure to let in a goal that would clear my head.

I had to out wait Ten.

When he made his move, I was there, stopping the puck in my glove and curving it, so I slammed it to the ice, no chance of a rebound goal. I let out a whoop of glee.

They may have been conditioning shots, but I had stopped a goal from Tennant Freaking Rowe.

Shit. I stopped Ten.

Everything stilled in the arena, or was it me? Was everyone looking my way? Warning me not to mess with their star? I glanced past Arvy at that instant to see Ten circling back.

Fuck.

He grinned, stick-tapped my pad, the age-old sign of recognition, and laughed. “Nice,” he said and skated back to the rest of the team.

Arvy turned as well and winked. “Keep it up.”

No one was pissed I’d stopped Ten, or at least they wouldn’t show it on the ice, and for a moment I allowed the elation to fill me before I settled back for the next shot, this time from the captain himself.

Few positions on the ice can compare to the goalie. Goaltenders can be hailed as heroes or scapegoats, depending on the outcome of each game. At that moment, I felt like a hero.

How stupid is that?

Connor got a shot past me, as did a couple of the others, including Ten’s second shot, and his third, and fourth, but I was doing good, and Stan did nothing but grin all through practice as we swapped in and out of the goal.

I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I was sure as hell going to enjoy feeling competent while it lasted.


I needed to find an apartment. The Railers had put me up in a hotel until I found something, but even as I sat and made a list of what I wanted for the team realtor, I was reluctant to ask for anything fancy. I just needed a bedroom, a small kitchen, and a large living room that I could do my stretches in.

And a TV. That would be good. I hadn’t gotten my music system out of storage since I’d left my billet home. It was still there. My Yamaha amplifier, CD player, Mission speakers, and Rega turntable had been lovingly boxed up and put away, even though my billet parents had said the system could stay in my old room. They hadn’t understood why I’d wanted them to have an empty place they could use for another junior hockey player who’d need them as much as I had.

I’d made Daisy Jacobs cry when I’d said that.

Daisy and George Jacobs of Erie, Pennsylvania, are my real parents. Not by blood. Emma and Tom, their children, aren’t my siblings in real terms. But they are the only people I will ever call family, and they’d saved me.

And yeah, it sounds dramatic when I say they’d saved me, but they had. They’d offered me a home that was filled with love and laughter instead of the strict religious control of my own family and the alcoholic father who liked to use me as his punching bag. Hockey had been my way out of that life, and through that, I’d landed in the best place possible. I needed to hear Daisy’s voice.

I thumbed through my contacts and connected to Daisy, who answered on the first ring. I imagined her standing in her office, with its views of the Jacobs’ yard, their huge Newfoundland, Beck, asleep in a loose sprawl at her feet. I could picture it so easily that it hurt.

“Tell me everything,” she demanded by way of introduction. “Is Ten as sexy in real life as he is on TV?”

“I’m not telling you that,” I teased back, and I could imagine her pouting. She had a healthy love for Swedish goalies who played in New York, and, it seemed, Tennant Rowe.

“How are you, sweetheart? How did your first days go? Tom said he texted you last night, but he wasn’t sure if you got it.”

Guilt poked at me. Daisy had this way of saying “you should have texted your kind-of-brother back” without actually saying it.

“I didn’t see it, sorry. They’re running us ragged.” I wasn’t entirely lying. I had seen Tom’s text, but the Railers were intense about this conditioning work, and I was exhausted. Still, I’d also seen the two texts from Aarni and replied to those pretty quickly.

Boyfriends are different.

“I have to learn the process,” I added.

“He understands. I just wanted to let you know we’re all so happy to hear from you.”

She instinctively knew I needed that reassurance because that was the kind of mom she was. At the age of fifteen, I’d been playing in the Ontario Hockey League, and it was hundreds of miles from my real parents. I’d needed an American billet family in Erie, Pennsylvania, someone to live with, someone to look out for me. I’d lucked out with George and Daisy, who, after a while, I trusted enough to tell them all about my birth mother and deadbeat father. Yep, they knew all about my previous family life. If you could use the word family. Or indeed, life.

“I need to find an apartment in Harrisburg.” I deliberately changed the direction of the conversation before she began talking about how she missed me. It had been a few years since I’d left their home. I saw them as much as I could, but I couldn’t bear to discuss how much they all loved me, or in turn, how much I missed them. Not today.

“Don’t the Railers have someone to help?” Daisy asked.

“They do, but I’ll need to give them a list of what I want.”

“Somewhere to sleep, eat, and stretch, am I right?”

This was an easy conversation, and I resolved to text Tom back as soon as I got off the phone with Daisy.

“Mostly that,” I agreed, and then I went quiet.

“Sweetheart, is everything okay?”

I could’ve lied. I could’ve said that everything was fine, but it wasn’t. How was I going to cope without having Aarni close by? Who would run interference for me with everyone else? How was I going to deal when the day came for the Railers to realize I was an easy target?

“No,” I said. I couldn’t lie about the things that mattered, not when it had been Daisy who had taken me to every single one of my appointments with the counselor when I’d first arrived in Erie. She’d held my hand when I’d let her, and hugged me if I was desperate, and she never called me on any of it. Daisy Jacobs was there for me the entire journey to the NHL draft and then to that single awful point when I had to leave them behind and become an adult.

Thank God I found Aarni to look out for me.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked in her softest voice.

I didn’t very often want to talk about things. What was I going to say? This wasn’t the first day at a new school; this was a professional contract with a Stanley Cup winning team. This was real goddamn life, and I wasn’t some kid who needed the closest thing I had to a mom to cuddle me and talk me off the ledge.

“I don’t know,” was about the best I could come up with.

“Oh, honey, did you get another letter?”

Just thinking about the essays I’d received from my birth mother, warning me about hell, and God and fuck knows what else she thought up, made my chest hurt. She wouldn’t let it go.

Can’t let me go.

As far as she was concerned, I was going to burn in hell for my deviancy, and she had to save my soul. They arrived regularly as clockwork, chatty missives about how well my birth dad was doing at work, how the priest asked after me and worried about my soul burning in hell. How Darren had gone to conversion therapy and had now settled with Gina, the daughter of the local car dealership owner.

I closed my eyes as pain washed over me, and thoughts of Darren and what he’d gone through were front and center. He’d called me once, a long time after I’d left that first home, with the cruelty of my mother’s church a burden I couldn’t bear. He’d left a message on my phone, told me not to phone, told me goodbye, added that he’d found a way to be ‘normal’ and hoped I did too.

I tried to call him, but he never answered, and a couple of days later, the number had been disconnected.

“Bryan? Did you get another letter?” Daisy asked again, this time with rushed concern in her tone. She knew what I’d been like when they first started to arrive, had seen how they destroyed me each and every time.

“No. No letter.” I thought on my feet. “I’m just nervous at a new team.”

She let out a small sigh of relief. “Just remember, they’re as nervous of you as you are of them.”

She always said that about every drama in my life. It made me feel better, reminded me of moments with hot chocolate, warm store-bought cookies, and her gentle voice.

Aarni wasn’t impressed with me having that connection to the Jacobs family. He called it odd how close I was to people who weren’t even related to me. He’d never given me a convincing argument as to why I should stop thinking about them or treating them like my parents. So, I kept them to myself. It was the easiest way.

I certainly never told anyone that they’d saved me.

I told people I loved the Jacobs family as much as my own, but I was lying. I loved them more, completely, and the day I’d left their house, I cried. I’m supposed to be this strong hockey goalie, but when I was drafted by the Arizona Raptors, I sobbed in Daisy’s arms and demanded they all move to Arizona with me.

They didn’t, of course, but they were always only a call away, and when I was working hard in the Raptors’ development team, they came to as many games as they could. I played Fortnite with Tom every chance I got, even when I was with my first professional team on tryouts in Arizona and he was at college in Seattle learning to be something very important in criminal justice. Emma used to text me at least five times a day, trying to set me up with her friends, all of whom were “super cute” and “loved” hockey. She had a boyfriend now, and I knew what that was like, so I understood why she didn’t talk to me as much. I missed her texts though.

I glanced at the clock, knowing I had to go to my meeting with the tattoo artist, pushing down the worry and focusing on what Daisy was telling me, about Tom, Emma, George, and Beck.

“We’re so pleased you’re back in Pennsylvania,” she said. “We’re only four hours from you, so expect lots of visits. Will we see you before the season starts?”

“Soon,” I said, and then after an emotional exchange of love you and miss you, and a promise of sending me a gift, I finished the call with about thirty minutes left until my meeting.

Daisy wasn't precisely the baking kind of mom, but she sent me other things on a frequent basis, like gift cards for food, and letters that told me every piece of news she could think of. Last month, she’d sent me a tin of store-bought cookies she’d put in a tin that had belonged to her mom. I hadn’t opened the tin, because the air trapped in there was from the only home I’d known, and I didn’t want to let it escape.

That was how bad I had it. Some days I was consumed with the despair of my family being too far away.

I’d showered at the practice arena, so I pulled on clean jeans, a mostly fresh shirt, and one of the many Railers hoodies I’d been given. I’d agreed to be number thirty-one, the numbers large on my back, and a weird part of me didn’t miss the number thirty I’d had while playing in Arizona. This was a fresh start.

Aarni texted me a photo of his dinner, steak and fries, and a half-finished bottle of wine. It was followed by a selfie, of him with his arms around a blonde woman who had a wine glass in her hand and scarlet lipstick on her lips.

I hated her. I hated him for sending it to me.

No. I don’t. I love him.

Even if he doesn’t love me quite the same.


I’d forgotten where we were supposed to be meeting, and that put me on edge. Was I supposed to go straight into the tattoo place itself or meet the artist in the bar? I knew his name, it was on the card, and it wasn’t a name I’d heard before—Gatlin. That I did know, but I was on edge. There was something about the man from yesterday that unnerved me. Possibly, it was his tattoos. I'd seen sharks, turtles and other Polynesian ink that extended past his wrist onto his left hand. The ink work on his right arm was more colorful. Staring had seemed rude, so I’d only gotten peeks here and there. It could have been the quietly confident way in which he stood and talked to Stan, his light blue eyes focusing on me every so often. Or the way he’d smiled at me and waited for me to speak to him. He’d asked me questions about names I wanted on the helmet, or images, and that had unsettled me as well. Or I could’ve been feeling nervous just because I’d forgotten where we were to meet and now stood on the sidewalk outside his shop looking like an idiot.

I decided the shop was the best bet, but before I could move, he opened the door from inside, a ready smile on his face and his hand extended.

“Hey, Bryan.”

I took his hand and shook it, and then he juggled a sketchpad and pencil case and closed the door behind him.

“Hope you’ve brought your appetite. They make the best burgers here.”

We walked to the bar, no more than thirty steps, and I must admit, from outside, it didn’t look like the best place to eat, but as soon as I set a foot inside, I felt at home. Probably due to the fact they were playing Queen, and the waitress grinned at Gatlin as if seeing him made her day. He pulled her into a quick hug, and we followed her to a table in the corner, right next to an old jukebox. I didn’t immediately sit, taking the time to glance at the playlist. From Queen to The Beatles, by way of Dire Straits and Black Sabbath, there were no bad songs that I could see.

For all the shit I’d grown up with until I was fifteen, I’d had access to a library of vinyl records and an old HMV record player. Music had been my escape.

The jukebox had apparently been set up with a playlist already purchased, as it slipped seamlessly from Queen to Black Sabbath, and I nodded along to the beat for a few seconds before slipping into the chair opposite Gatlin.

“You like Sabbath?” Gatlin asked, shock in his voice. I immediately felt defensive and pushed that down when I realized I was just about to freaking apologize. “How old are you?”

I lifted my chin. “Nearly twenty-three, but I have all the Sabbath albums on vinyl.”

Gatlin sat forward in his chair, “Even their live recordings, like Live Evil?”


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