T.J. Shanstrom skated to a stop and glanced at the jumbotron suspended above the ice like a blocky space ship. Seven-to-one. A barn burner. With his team on the wrong end of it. His eyes flicked to the red lamp pulsing like a damn beacon behind the goalie net, then lit on his opponents celebrating with a group hug. He smashed his stick against the goal, ringing it on the metal pipe.
He hated being schooled. Especially by his team’s biggest rival—the team that had traded him years earlier.
“Kevin May,” groused T.J.’s linemate, Gage Nelson, as they skated toward their bench. “That’s his fourth goal tonight. He’s not even that good.”
Though he kept his mouth shut, T.J. fumed. That the veteran right wing from his old team was having the game of his career burned in T.J.’s stomach like a week-old chalupa. His own team had played like a car driving with one flat tire: uneven, bumping along, sluggish. Off by at least one step, they’d been beaten in all the little battles that make up a game.
T.J. wanted this win tonight—badly—but his team’s luck dimmed with each tick of the game clock. Since they’d traded him to the San Jose Earthquake, he’d wanted to show his old team what they’d given up. Not that he minded playing for San Jose. It had its perks—great weather and pretty women—and the Earthquake had a shot at winning the Stanley Cup this year. But this was a matter of pride. He wanted to rub it in their faces, but he’d barely registered a shot, much less a point. Revenge was a sweet mistress, and a chance to gloat would have put a smile on his face the rest of that night.
He clambered over the boards and plopped down, sliding along the bench to make room for his teammates. Chest heaving, he shook off a glove and grabbed a water bottle. As he streamed water into his mouth, he watched May glide toward the center line. The asshole jerked his chin at him and pointed at the jumbotron, where the goal was being replayed.
“Hey, Shanny!” May taunted. “Scoreboard!”
T.J. pictured himself wiping that damn grin off Kevin Fucking May’s face.
Scoring wasn’t T.J.’s main talent. Maybe it was time he rocked somebody’s world and got his team pumped up. Took this game back. They still had ten minutes. It wasn’t impossible.
May positioned himself for the puck drop against the Earthquake’s star center, Marcus Frisk, and lost the draw. T.J. growled out a “yes.”
An Earthquake player corralled the puck. A sweet pass to Frisk. He blazed toward the opponent’s net. Teammates and foes closed in fast.
T.J. shot up from his seat. “Go, Frisky!”
Frisk pulled up. One of his wingers streaked toward the front of the net. “Send it!” T.J. yelled, echoed by his teammates. Frisk let fly a perfect pass that landed on his winger’s blade. The winger one-timed the puck, ringing it off the post. It slid into the corner boards. A collective groan rose from the Earthquake bench.
“It’s okay, boys,” T.J. hollered. “We got this.” His eyes swung from the corner, where several players battled for the puck, to Frisk, who was poised high in the slot.
The puck slid out, and Frisk gathered it, pivoting. May skated at him like a heat-seeking missile. Frisk didn’t see him in time. May’s feet left the ice, and he slammed Frisk hard. Frisk’s head snapped back. He dropped to the ice.
And didn’t move.
Stunned silence swept the Earthquake bench. With a swell of rage, T.J.’s yell pierced the air. “May, you fucking douchebag!”
He barely registered an iron grip on his shoulder preventing him from flying over the boards and onto the ice to pound May into oblivion. Given the chance, T.J. would go, and his teammates knew it. It was what he was paid to do. Instead, he sat down hard as trainers ran onto the ice.
“Shanny, Frisky’s not moving,” Nelson hissed beside him.
They haven’t even taken his helmet off.
Medical staff bent over him, and finally Frisk’s legs showed signs of life. T.J.’s shoulders eased, lowering several inches. He hadn’t realized how tight they’d been.
With help, Frisk swayed to his knees, two Earthquake players flanking him, skating him off the ice. T.J. and his teammates stood and banged their sticks against the boards in a show of support.
A whistle blew. May headed to the penalty box while the ref announced the call and signaled it by rotating his clenched fists. “Two minutes for charging.”
“What the hell, Stripes?” T.J. flung an arm. “Two minutes? That’s it? He injures our guy and—”
“Not now, Shanstrom,” Coach Rogers growled from behind him. “We’re on the power play.” To the whole team, he said, “Now let’s get some goals!”
Fuck that call! May is a criminal!
Not only was Frisk their best player, he was a friend, a brother, a guy T.J. had battled beside. T.J. ground down on his mouthguard, his jaw muscles bunching, his temper simmering.
The Earthquake power play mattered little because his team didn’t score, registering one measly shot on goal. T.J. had been as ineffective as his teammates.
He was preparing to take the ice again when an assistant coach placed a beefy mitt on his shoulder pad and leaned in close. “Take May out.”
T.J. flicked his eyes to Coach, whose focus was riveted to the ice. “Coach says it’s okay?”
“Coach is down, but you didn’t hear me say that.”
T.J.’s insides fluttered with excitement. This would be sweet. Take care of your own. Though the league had gotten softer in recent years, there was still that guy who sent a message for his whole team. For the Earthquake, that guy was T.J. He’d been called a goon, dirty, unsportsmanlike. That’s not how he saw it. Sure, he’d been suspended a few times, but he played the way the coaching staff expected him to, and he played his role well.
The team captain, Joe “Money” Monahan—the only other guy who’d heard the assistant’s order—gave T.J.’s shoulder a shake. “Wreck that fucking hoser, Shanny. Teach him a lesson.”
T.J. bobbed his head. “He won’t know what train hit him.”
Time for a line change, and T.J. rocketed over the boards and took the ice, his eyes on May. The arrogant bastard didn’t seem to notice, skating to his bench like he didn’t have a care or a conscience. Not this shift, cocksucker, but I’ll get you.
His shifts seemed to start or end slightly off of May’s as the game went on, as though some chess master was moving pieces around a board. But T.J. schooled his patience. Waited to get May in his sights. Finally, his diligence paid off when Coach threw him out against May’s line. May and his boys were gassed, but they were pinned in their own zone on a penalty kill and couldn’t get off the ice. T.J.’s legs were fresh, and he used them to chase May, chirping at him all the way. May shot him a smug look but wouldn’t engage—which only served to bubble T.J.’s blood at a more rapid roll.
T.J.’s chance came in a breathtaking instant. As May was heading off, he slashed the back of an Earthquake player’s leg. That player was Nelson, and Nelson pivoted and cross-checked May in the chest. They exchanged a few shoulder shoves, then May grabbed a fistful of Nelson’s jersey, and the two men began a fighting dance. Nelson was a playmaker, not a brawler like May. And May knew it. Was about to take full advantage of it.
A coil of blinding anger, fueled by frustration, whipped loose inside T.J. He skated at May, his vision bright white, his focus lasering in on the back of May’s helmet.
“May!” he yelled. May turned his head, and T.J.’s gloved fist crashed down. May’s eyes rolled back in his head. He released Nelson and went down, his body thudding like a sack of grain. T.J.’s momentum carried him over, and he landed on May. T.J. rose, fist cocked and loaded. The world stopped spinning, suspended. May’s half-lidded eyes were glazed. Blood leaked from his nose and mouth. The frozen second erupted when bodies piled on, and T.J. threw out an elbow to shield May’s head, but it didn’t reach him in time. May’s helmeted head, now turned sideways, was driven into the ice as more players pummeled each other on top of him.
Shouting, elbows, fists, blood, whistles.
Bodies were hauled back as refs and teammates pried players apart. Under the mass, beside T.J., lay May. Unmoving. Bloody. His slitted eyes glassy and vacant.
Heaving breaths, T.J. scrambled away when trainers swarmed May. Boos rained down on him from the crowd. Players and coaches yelled at him from the opposing bench, their words a swirl of noise punctuated by the few he made out clearly. Goon. Cheap shot. Fucking coward. He heard threats to separate his balls from his body and stuff them in any number of places.
“Doing my job,” he yelled back. “No different from any of you fuckers!”
Like a bodyguard on ice, a ref skated him back to his own bench. “Third man in, Shanstrom. You’re done.”
T.J. should have headed to the locker room, but he leaned against the boards instead, breathing hard, his eyes fixed on May’s skates. Just doing what my coach told me. Doing my job, goddamn it.
“Move, you fucker! Move!” he gritted out under his breath.
A trainer yelled, and a gate opened. White-shirted EMTs rolled a stretcher onto the ice and collapsed it beside May.
The ref grasped T.J.’s arm and steered him toward a corridor behind the bench. “Off, Shanstrom. Now.”
Angry fans leaned over the rails, jeering, taunting. A full cup of cold, sticky liquid came crashing down on his helmet, and a wad of ice hit him full force in the face.
He ducked and hurried toward the locker room. The other team’s staff made way, simultaneously glowering and gawking at him, while an inner chant looped through his brain. “May’s okay. May’s okay. May’s okay.”
It was drowned out by the fury of the crowd echoing in his ears—the crowd calling for blood. His.
Laptop and a stack of files balanced in the crook of one arm, Natalie Foster inserted the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Securing it behind her, she flipped on a table lamp, sighed, and released a long, cleansing breath.
Her 1950s Denver bungalow only had two bedrooms and a bath, but it was the perfect size for her, and she loved it. It welcomed her, wrapped its arms around her, and pulled her in. If a house could embody Mom, this one did. The modest living room, with a butter-yellow couch and two Caribbean-blue armchairs, opened to a cozy but bright kitchen, where she’d perfected many a baking recipe.
Six months ago, she’d doubted her decision to upend her life and start again, but as she looked around, the sight of her quaint home warmed her. Hands down, she’d made the right choice.
The wood floor squeaked as she trod to the spare bedroom she’d converted into her office. She gratefully deposited her load atop a tidy vintage desk. A moment later, she plugged in the computer and sorted the files alphabetically, her gaze lingering on one. A frustrated sigh escaped her. She was losing this client, and already she felt the pinch in her bank account. It wasn’t that she’d done a bad job. Quite the contrary. She’d done such a good job straightening their books and unearthing opportunities for them to save money that they’d gone and hired a full-timer to do what she did. They’d offered Natalie the position—a nice ego boost—but frankly, the work wasn’t that challenging, and she loathed being restricted to an office, once again at the mercy of self-important bosses.
Nope, bank account balances aside, she preferred struggling and independence. Besides, she still had a tidy sum in savings—even after repaying Mom for her college tuition—and adding several clients or selling one of her magazine articles would stave off dipping into her reserves. Or accepting Kevin’s generosity. She’d rather eat Ramen for a year than take money from her boyfriend—no matter that he could more than afford it, or that he’d offered her a loan.
“Enough,” she admonished herself aloud. “You’re fine.”
Running her finger along the desk’s clean edge recalled what a great flea market find she’d scored, helping her cast off her worries.
Ten feet, and she was in her bedroom, where she toed off sneaks and traded jeans and a sweatshirt covered in dog fur for a clean pair of yoga pants, a soft sweater, and socks. Though she still faced a mound of work, she gave herself permission to watch the end of the San Diego Storm game. Tonight they played their old rival, the San Jose Earthquake, and it was bound to be heated. What fireworks had she already missed?
Her father’s voice often chose these moments to echo in her mind. It’s okay to take a break once in a while, Nat-Nat, as long as you remember to always do your best work. Oh, and always under-promise and over-deliver. She smiled and silently answered. Yes, Dad.
Humming, she glided across the living room floor with the ballet scene from Red Sparrow playing in her head. Not her favorite movie—too bleak—except for the dancing. Why did ballet movies have to be so tragic?
“And now it’s time for a different sort of dance,” she said aloud. Really, she had to stop talking to herself. With a silent vow to do just that, she picked up the remote, and the TV screen flickered to life. She found the hockey channel and cranked up the volume.
They must have been between periods or on a TV time-out because commercials bled one into another in the background as she poured herself a measure of red wine. She glanced at her only touch of whimsy in the house, a puppy wall clock that ticked out time with its tail. Damn. Had she missed all three periods?
The ads stopped, and a name drifted from the TV, tickling her insides. Kevin must have done something special tonight. Dating a hockey player—any professional athlete—was different for her, and hearing his name or seeing his face on TV always rendered her a bit off-kilter, as though electrified butterflies tethered to concrete blocks were trying to fly in her stomach. Sort of fluttery while leaden at the same time.
She sipped her wine. Her phone buzzed, and she grabbed it off the counter. Her brother. Again.
“Drew! I am not bailing your ass out this time. It’s your turn to bring the salad to Mom’s. End of discussion. So put those man muscles to work and get tossing!”
“Nat. You home yet?”
Huh. No snarky comeback?
“Just got in. A dog-sitting client had me stick around to keep his furry fiend from pulling his cushions apart. I have got to find a new client so I can fire this one. How that feather duster of a dog can—”
“Did you catch any of the game?”
“Not yet. Just turned it on.”
“Nat, sit, if you’re not already.” Drew’s tone was clipped and grim, like the time he’d herded her into the basement when a twister had threatened Grandma’s house. Prickles raced up and down her spine. Her big brother teased her mercilessly, but when it came to protecting her, he was front and center. It was one of the things she loved best about him, though she’d never admit it. Not to him.
Phone pressed to her ear, she pivoted slowly toward the TV. The sight of a stretcher being wheeled off the ice confused her. A prone figure, skates on, his helmeted head taped to a neck board. “Oh my God, Drew. Who got hurt?”
As though the TV was sentient, the camera zeroed in on the player while an announcer’s grave voice said, “We’ve learned they’re taking him straight to the hospital.” She narrowed her eyes but couldn’t make out the face. “We just hope Kevin May will be all right.”
What the …? Her stomach plummeted to her knees.
“Drew?” she squeaked.
Her brother exhaled. “Kevin got sucker-punched.” The broadcast cut to an Earthquake player—T.J. something or other—as he stood in front of his home bench. It was hard to make out his features for the helmet, visor, and mountain-man beard. “That’s T.J. Shanstrom,” Drew growled, “the dickhead who put Kevin in the hospital.”
As realization took hold, Natalie sank into her couch, eyes glued to the screen, heart pounding as though it would burst from her chest. She set the wineglass on the coffee table with a wobble and clapped her hand over her mouth, stifling a wail that rushed up from her gut.
Oh no! No, no, no!