First Chapter: Hard Hitter

 

Chapter One

Sunday, March 6th

Standings: 4th place in the Metropolitan Division

19 Regular Season Games Remaining

Patrick O’Doul knelt on his yoga mat, eyes closed.

“Let your breath find its natural rhythm,” came a soothing voice at the front of the room. “Become aware of its temperature, and of the sensation of your breath as you exhale.”

He exhaled slowly, obeying Ariana, the team’s massage therapist and yoga instructor.

O’Doul didn’t give a crap about yoga. He didn’t know where his chakras were, and he didn’t remember any of the names of the poses. But on game day he never objected to this mandatory hour of Simon Says with the beauty at the front of the room.

She had them holding child’s pose for a couple of minutes. Since he stunk at yoga, he needed to listen closely to her instructions. The concentration yoga required was the best part—if the pretty lady in the pink sports bra was trying to twist your body into a New Age pretzel, there was no time to worry about the opponent you had to face down in five hours.

“As you hold the pose, reconnect your breathing with your body. Notice how the breath moves through the ribcage in this pose,” she suggested. “Use each exhale to settle a little more firmly into the stretch. We’re opening up the hips . . .”

Ariana circled among her students, making a posture correction here and there. She stopped at O’Doul’s side, then got down on all fours. “Hi,” she whispered.

When he turned his head, he met a pair of brown eyes, sparkling with mischief. “Hi?” She rarely began conversations during class.

“If this is too hard on your hip flexors, go back into tabletop.”

“I’m good,” he grunted. Christ. The whole world was focused on his weakness. Chronic muscle soreness shouldn’t be such a big deal. Playing through pain was a rite of hockey.

“Do you have children?” she whispered.

“Fuck no,” he whispered back. “And I never will.”

Her smile didn’t falter. “This pose is easier for them, because their limbs are shorter relative to their torso length. So take it easy. Let gravity do the work, okay? And do me a favor?”

“What?” He’d never had a conversation with anyone when they were both folded in two on the floor.

“Don’t blow off your next massage appointment. You’re making me look bad.”

Aw, man. Ambushed in child’s pose. “I’m sorry,” he said immediately. The trainers wanted him to have some massage therapy for his hip. “Didn’t mean to mess up your schedule.”

She shook her head. “It’s okay. You’ll show up this time, right?”

“Sure,” he promised, because it was hard to think up a decent excuse when you were sweating over your yoga mat.

Ari gave him one more killer smile and got up, moving on to correct another player’s posture.

He watched her go, then felt guilty about missing his appointments and also for checking out her perfect ass.

Twenty minutes later, after yoga, he was ambushed a second time. But not by Ari.

“How’s the hip?” Nate Kattenberger asked, his towel draped around his neck. The reason the Bruisers did yoga in the first place was because the team’s young owner was a big fan of vinyasa. He sure didn’t have any trouble holding Ari’s poses, and always took a spot in the very front row.

“I’m good. Feeling stronger,” O’Doul lied.

“Glad to hear it. I think we can beat Boston tonight,” the billionaire said, wiping sweat off his forehead with a towel. He was wearing spandex shorts and a T-shirt reading, Move Your Asana. “Two game points tonight could really set us up for the weekend.”

As if O’Doul didn’t already know that. “We’ll make it happen,” he vowed.

“I think you will,” Nate agreed.

O’Doul hoped so. They needed a third place finish in the Metropolitan division to be guaranteed a play-offs spot. If they ended up in fourth place, they might squeak into the last spot. It was possible. But, as O’Doul’s team-issued phone told him every time he pulled it out of his pocket, their play-offs spot was not a lock. Kattenberger’s sophisticated model projected their chances at 81 percent.

There was no room for error. And tonight’s game meant a lot because Boston was one of the other Eastern teams in contention for those last couple of slots.

They were so close. So fucking close he could taste it.

“Get some rest before the game,” Nate suggested, squeezing his forearm.

O’Doul fought the instinct to shake off the big boss’s casual touch. “Will do,” he agreed, knowing it was a lie. He’d go back to the hotel and lie down for a while. But sleep would elude him the same way it did on every game day. “See you tonight,” he said.

Nate gave him one more nod and walked away.

Eight hours later, the fans roared as Boston made another attempt on goal.

O’Doul watched from the bench, feeling grim.

The most grueling part of his job wasn’t the hockey game, or the constant travel. And it wasn’t the fighting, or the stitches and bruises.

It was the dread.

Sitting on the bench between shifts, it sunk low in his belly. It was heavy, like lead. And each time he vaulted over the wall it rose up in his throat like bile.

If any team’s enforcer ever told you he never felt dread, that man was lying. No human could put his body in the path of a six-three scrapper’s fist three or four times a week without anticipating the pain.

Tonight’s fight had been pre-arranged in the worst possible way, too. The other team’s enforcer—a dick by the name of Trekowski—had called him out last night on social media. On fucking Twitter.

Maybe O’Doul won’t wimp out on fighting me tomorrow night. #AGuyCanHope #BabySayYes.

Of all the dick moves O’Doul had witnessed, this one took the trophy. He hadn’t responded, because he didn’t even have Twitter. He didn’t tweet. Or twat. Whatever.

The team’s publicist—Georgia—had responded on his behalf. He’d approved a pithy little quote for the Bruisers’ Facebook page:

Someone punched me on the interwebs?

he’d supposedly replied.

Funny, I didn’t feel a thing.

He had to admit it was a clever response. A hockey fight was supposed to have purpose. Usually, a fight was payback for a cheap shot that endangered one of his guys. Other times, the brawl was meant to fuel an ongoing rivalry, rallying the team and changing the energy of a game.

Fights weren’t supposed to start because some bonehead wanted to flex his shiny personality on social media. And they sure as hell weren’t supposed to be fueled by a lie. O’Doul had never ducked a fight in his life. But he’d missed the last game against Boston on account of a procedure on a tendon in his wrist.

Thankfully, and with the help of the best medical attention money could buy, his wrist had healed up fast. But lately he had a new problem—pain in his hip flexor muscles. It was a low-grade thing. Something to watch. But it made him feel a lot less invincible than he was used to. At thirty-two years old he was suddenly more conscious of the toll the game took on his body. And the fighting he did for his team made everything riskier.

So much could go wrong in those violent sixty or ninety seconds.

Still, the hours leading up to the fight hurt worse than a cross to the jaw. As tonight’s game wore on, the dread got heavier. He’d already spent the first two periods trying to make plays while simultaneously taking it easy on his hip. While trying not to appear to take it easy on his hip. And keeping the warlike mask on his goddamn face.

Frankly, it was exhausting.

Earlier this season he’d had an unusually frank heart-to-heart with another team’s enforcer—and old timer known as the Hammer. He was the nicest guy in the world—the kind who wanted to buy you a drink after you’d finished beating the crap out of each other.

Maybe it was the scotch, but that night he’d confessed to how much mental energy the fights demanded of him.

“Doulie,” The Hammer said, using his nickname. “Try some chemical courage. I can share it with you now that we’re not gonna match up again this season.” He’d pulled out a pill bottle and shaken eight of the tablets into O’Doul’s palm. “Take one of those before a game.”

“What is it?”

“Uppers.” Hammer closed O’Doul’s hand over the pills. “You’ll love ’em. Only one a game, though, okay? And you won’t get hooked.”

O’Doul wasn’t proud of it, but he’d hidden those tablets in a bottle of plain aspirin. Parsing them out over the next three weeks, he’d taken one pill before each game. The results were even better than Hammer promised. The drug made him feel energetic and invincible.

But then they were gone. So he’d taken the risky step of buying a dozen more from a guy in a nightclub in lower Manhattan. For a few short weeks they provided exactly the lift he needed. When his stash was depleted again, he missed the fearlessness they’d granted him. But buying that shit was both embarrassing and tricky. So this month he’d gone without.

Consequently, tonight’s game lasted eighty years. The score was still 1–1 in the third period. For what felt like the hundredth time that night, Patrick’s coach tapped him on the back. Fifteen seconds later he leapt up for the line change. Again. And just as quickly, the other team’s enforcer turned his back. His Twitter taunter wouldn’t ask for the fight. The fans wanted it. The teams wanted it. But this dick was making everyone wait.

Fuck. Mind games were the worst. They distracted him from the business of blocking shots and scoring goals. And that, of course, was the point.

Now O’Doul accelerated backwards at top speed, face to face with Adam Hartley, Boston’s youngest left wing, blocking the kid’s path and being a general nuisance. The kid wasn’t going to get a shot off if he had a say in it.

Meanwhile, his man Castro got the puck back on a breakaway and gave it a good try. But Boston’s goalie got a lucky save and thwarted Brooklyn’s attempt to break the 1–1 tie.

The shift ended without a score, and without incident, goddamn it. Trekowski stayed as far away as it was possible to do on a 200 foot sheet of ice. Bastard. Not all of the league enforcers were good guys like Hammer. This one was a real piece of work—the kind who’d insult his own mother on Twitter if it made him look tougher.

At thirty-two, Patrick felt too old for this shit. And he was keenly well aware of how obnoxious it sounded to claim to be too old for anything at thirty-two.

He sat back down on the bench, sweating, and reached for a water bottle only because it allowed him to surreptitiously stretch his hip for the hundredth time.

“You want me to draw him out?” Leo Trevi asked from beside him on the bench. “Don’t know what Trekowski is doing over there. Posting your picture on Instagram, maybe.”

When Patrick looked up, he caught an unmistakable look of concern behind the rookie’s face shield. Fucking great. The whole stadium could probably tell he was on edge. Though Leo—or College Boy, as O’Doul liked to call him—was awfully smart. “Naw,” he said, swilling water. “I’ll get ‘im soon enough.”

The game dragged on, with Patrick’s hip aching as the clock ticked down. When he was younger, pain was just pain. It was something to live through until you could have a nice whiskey and a couple of painkillers. Even now it wouldn’t bother him so much if it weren’t such a harbinger of doom. The Bruisers needed to make the play-offs. They had a new coach and some new blood and a decent record. The owner wanted it. Badly.

Competition—the good kind—had always fueled him. So he leaned into it now, taking the ice once again. They only needed one more goal tonight, and it would happen. He could feel it.

But first, a fight.

Trekowski gave him an opening, finally. It happened when the fool slid into Brooklyn’s goalie a little too carelessly. It wasn’t the worst offense Patrick had ever seen, but the crowd made a noise, and he went for it. Instead of campaigning the ref for a penalty, he got in Trekowski’s face. “That’s enough bullshit, big man. I’m done with you.”

The enemy gave him a toothless grin. “You want to go right now?”

Do I have a choice? That was his last conscious thought. Fight mode was always a blur. His gloves fell on their own accord as he circled Trekowski, sizing him up, looking for the first attack. His opponent’s arms were about as long as Sasquatch’s. O’Doul was only six feet tall, two hundred pounds. He wasn’t huge, and he wasn’t heavy.

His only advantage was bone-deep grit.

To win against Trekowski, he’d have to yank him in hard and keep him close. So he faked a grab and the guy ducked. Patrick lunged forward on his good side and grabbed the guy’s sweater with his right hand, throwing a punch with his left.

That was exactly the opposite of his usual move, and the surprise actually worked. Patrick landed two punches before he took one himself, right below the ear. It hurt like a bitch. But surprise was still working for him, so he presented that side of his head again, as if asking for another, then swapped his hands as fast as lightning. His next three punches landed in quick succession on the guy’s ribcage. Not the most sensitive spot, but you had to go to war with the grip you had. And it kept his strained muscles away from this jerk’s flailing limbs.

The crowd might have been chanting, Fight! Fight! Or maybe that was just the pounding of his own heart. Patrick’s vision tunneled down to only the set of Trekowski’s mouth—it was tight, meaning these punches were felt.

Patrick was taking blows to his shoulder, but they barely registered. It was his good side, for one. And the angle wasn’t too intense. But time was slipping by. He needed to end this before the goon changed tactics. It was risky as hell, but Patrick tried a one-footed stance to knee the guy in the thigh and unbalance him. Then he gritted his teeth and landed one good punch a little higher up, right in his chest.

Trekowski went down, and Patrick narrowly avoided landing right on top of him. He tore himself out of the guy’s grasp and righted himself just as the ref rushed in to pull him back. They always ended things when someone went down.

The crowd’s roar—silenced before by adrenaline—now echoed in his ears. They screamed his name and waved foam fingers. Or jeered, depending on attitude, level of drunkenness, and team affiliation.

A few minutes from now a video of the fight would be up on a website where fans would vote on it. He’d earn an 85 percent or 90 percent win rating for this one. Crazy job he had. When the night went well, he felt relief first and then pain later. When a fight went badly, he got stitches and curses from fans.

He was a side show, like one of those circus freaks who used to bite the heads off chickens in front of a jeering crowd.

It worked, though. The energy in the arena shifted in Brooklyn’s favor. Two minutes later his man Beringer scored a goal, bringing them into the lead.

Boston wasn’t able to answer it in the remaining six minutes of play, and the Bruisers would go back to the hotel with two game points. So nobody could say his contribution didn’t matter.

And nobody did.

In the visitors’ locker room, he took the longest, hottest shower of his career. Adrenaline was an amazing chemical. It always kept the pain at bay until after the buzzer sounded. But the comedown was a bitch. He ached everywhere. The soreness radiated outward from his hip. It climbed down his quadriceps and into his groin. It wrapped around to his lower back, gripping him like a vice.

Every athlete played through pain. It’s just that the trajectory worried him.

He was toweling off when Henry, the head trainer, stopped behind his bench. The man crossed his freckled arms and gave Patrick an appraising look.

“What? You checking me out? The female fans always say I have a nice ass.”

Henry rolled his eyes. “It’s top notch, which is why I want to see it out on the ice for the rest of the season. So I need you to cooperate with your training staff.”

Patrick fished a pair of clean underwear out of his bag. “I always cooperate in the gym.”

“I set up a massage appointment for you and you blew it off. Twice.”

“Stretching works just as well,” Patrick argued, pulling on his shirt. “Massage is too time-consuming.”

“You know what’s also time-consuming? An injury. By the third period you were skating like an old lady trying to protect her handbag. I’m setting up massage appointments for five out of the next seven days. And I’m checking up on your attendance.” Without waiting for a response, Henry marched off.

Five appointments? Hell.

Patrick finished getting dressed. The screen of his Katt Phone lit up with a picture of a bus, meaning that one was now outside. And he was going to be on it. A good night’s sleep would do wonders for his muscle strain.

But when the bus pulled up in front of their hotel, Leo Trevi didn’t let him escape upstairs like he wanted to. “Come on,” he said. “I want you to meet Adam Hartley. Can’t believe I played an NHL game against my college buddy. Unreal.”

Patrick knew he could beg off after one whiskey, so he let himself be led to a table in the corner of the bar where a couple of his teammates already sat. He eased himself into the chair like an old man, hoping the painkillers he’d taken would kick in soon. “Evening, Georgia,” he said to the publicist, who was also Leo’s fiancée. “Thanks for leaving me out of the press conference.”

Georgia Worthington grinned at him. “Why, Doulie! If someone else said that, I’d think he was being facetious.”

“Fuck, no.” Everyone laughed. “Who skates off the ice, drenched, and says, I’d love it if someone shoved a camera in my face right now?”

“Nobody loves the camera itself,” Castro argued. “You love being worthy of it.”

“Dude, you’d break the camera,” somebody said. Castro wadded up his cocktail napkin and threw it down the table.

Their drinks arrived, and Patrick had just taken his first sip when a voice rang out. “Somebody order some cookies?” A smiling guy approached the table with a giant bakery box in his hands. O’Doul recognized him as the rookie whose shots he’d blocked all night.

“Hartley!” Leo jumped up and hug-tackled the guy. “What’s in the box?”

“Cookies. Duh. After I lose a hockey game to my buddy, I like to eat cookies.” He slapped Trevi on the back. “Buy me a beer, punk.”

Trevi introduced his college friend to everyone, starting with his fiancée.

“Damn,” Hartley said. “Trevi’s getting hitched? Who would have thunk it?” He gave Georgia a potent smile. “Can I just tell you how relieved we all are? He dated the most awful girls in college.”

She laughed, and Trevi groaned. “This again?”

When it was Patrick’s turn to shake hands, he reached across the table without standing up. If the guy thought he was rude, it wouldn’t be the first time someone did. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

Trevi sat back down, one arm around Georgia, the other around his college friend. Hartley opened the box and passed cookies around the table, and then the boys began to reminisce. They had several years of memories to chew through, apparently. Pranks and dormitory shenanigans. “And then you hid that thing under Orsen’s bed! Gawd. The stench . . .”

Patrick listened with half an ear. He didn’t have ye olde college tales, like these kids. And the idea of living in a dormitory gave him the willies. It sounded too much like the group homes where he’d grown up in Minnesota. Too many people. Too loud.

The minute he got his first paycheck from the minor leagues when he was nineteen, he’d started apartment hunting. He was still in the Midwest then, where housing was just cheap enough that he’d found something. It was a room over someone’s garage, but it had a private entrance and it was all his. He liked his silence. On the team, he had a reputation for being fair, and a sturdy team captain. But he wasn’t cuddly, that was for damn sure.

Across the table from him, Georgia sat up a little straighter and began to wave at someone across the room. A moment later, O’Doul caught a whiff of lavender. He didn’t even need to turn to know who’d come to stand beside him. Ari Bettini, the team’s massage therapist and yoga instructor, greeted Georgia. She did this by putting a hand on Patrick’s shoulder and leaning over to kiss Georgia’s cheek.

Against his better judgment, O’Doul took a deep breath of Ari’s essence. There was something about her that really turned his crank. From her dark, unflappable eyes to the irreverent gemstone in her nose, he liked the whole package. The soft, coal-dark waves of her hair brushed his ear as she righted herself again.

Patrick took a sip of his drink, studying the ice cubes as if those suckers were interesting. Ari left her hand on the shoulder of his suit jacket, the warmth of her palm bleeding through a few layers of fabric to reach his skin. That was the only thing about her he didn’t really appreciate. Ari was a toucher. A massage therapist would have to be, right? But he preferred it when his friends kept their hands to themselves. Even the gorgeous ones.

Turning her attention to him, she squeezed his shoulder muscle. “How are you doing?”

“I’m good, thanks. Can I order you a drink?”

She shook her head. “Thanks, but I’d better turn in.”

“What?” Georgia yelped. “You’re going to leave me here at this testosterone fest by myself? There’s a pinot grigio by the glass. Just have one.”

Ari gave Georgia an indulgent smile and then pulled out the only available chair—the one next to Patrick’s. “I’ve been drinking a lot more often now that you’ve decided to become a party girl.”

“Blame me. I don’t care.” Georgia waved to get the waitress’s attention. “Besides, these guys are in on a plot to get you drunk so you go easier on us at yoga tomorrow morning.”

“You guys do yoga?” Hartley asked, his face breaking into a grin. “That’s something I’d like to see.”

Ari put an elbow on the table and rested her elegant face in her hand. “Don’t knock it ’til you try it. Maybe you’ll win the next one.”

“I really teed that one up for you, didn’t I?” Trevi’s friend asked, his smile widening.

“You did,” Ari agreed. “And I do appreciate it.”

“So what else is different about the Bruisers?” Hartley asked. “What’s Nate Kattenberger like?”

It was a common enough question. The young billionaire was interesting to a lot of people.

“The dude really likes his hockey,” Trevi said. “And we all have the same cool phone. They keep tabs on us with it, but it knows everything. And here’s something funny.” Trevi pulled his phone out of his pocket. “There’s a gold star on the screen after we win a game. See? We got a gold star tonight. Haven’t gotten those since second grade.”

Hartley laughed. “What do they put up there when you lose? A middle finger?”

“Nope.” Trevi shook his head. “It’s just a void where the star should be. And it’s weird, but I kind of hate knowing it’s missing.”

“Then the mind games are working,” Georgia said. “The man is a genius.”

When Ari’s glass of wine arrived, Patrick watched her lift the stem of the glass between elegant fingers. Everything on Ari was long and sleek. She turned her head suddenly to catch his ogling eyes. Busted. But her glance was more appraising then irritated. “Mr. O’Doul, how is your pain level this evening?”

Hell. “I’m fine. I’ve been stretching really well.” In fact, the foam rollers he carried around in his suitcase had to be replaced every couple of months because he used them so often they tended to collapse from overuse.

She gave him a patient smile. As if she was just humoring him. “Henry spoke to me on his way out the door tonight. He told me to be sure to get you on the table five times in the next seven days. But I can’t do that if you don’t set up some appointments.”

“Right,” he said. “Send Rebecca some appointment times. She’ll put ’em on my calendar and I’ll be there.” The last thing he needed was the training staff butting in, criticizing him for blowing off massage treatments. There were three weeks left before the play-offs started. He had to hang in there and play as hard as he could.

“Did you take anything for the pain tonight?” she asked, her cabernet lips pursed thoughtfully. Ari’s expression had a wisdom to it that O’Doul was always trying to categorize. She was beautiful, but not in a careless way.

“I took some ibuprofen. I’ll use some ice before I sleep.” She was still studying him in that penetrating way she had, and he didn’t like it. “How’s your ankle healing?”

Her gaze slipped. “Oh, really well. Almost like new.” She sipped her wine.

“How’d you break it, anyway? I never caught that.”

She grimaced into her wine. “By being stupid. Tripped on a set of steps in my apartment.”

“Ouch.” There was something about her delivery that raised the hair on the back of his neck, though. He’d spent his whole life trying to read people, and he was pretty good at it. “Did you fall all the way down a flight of stairs?”

“Nope. And I installed a night-light in the hallway, so it won’t happen again.” She cleared her throat. “Georgia, how are the wedding plans coming along?”

“Okay, I guess? Ask Rebecca. She’s the one who’s keeping track. She wants me to pick out flowers this week, except she gets mad when I just point to the first thing we see.”

“Flowers?” Leo asked, giving her a squeeze. “How could those be a big decision?”

“Right?” Georgia laughed. “Don’t worry your pretty head over it. You just focus on hockey and stay in your happy place.”

“Did I mention how much I love this woman?” Leo grinned like he’d won the lottery. “She doesn’t care that I don’t care about flowers! Am I winning at life, or what?” He high-fived Hartley.

“You are, honey,” Georgia said. “Carry on with your important discussion about hiding each other’s jock straps or whatever. Ari and I have got this.”

Ari laughed, and O’Doul liked the sound so much that he didn’t even mind that she’d changed the subject on him.

Across the table, Trevi asked his pal Hartley, “How’s Callihan? When is she going to move to Boston and marry you?”

Hartley chuckled. “What are you, a marriage evangelist, now?”

“Born again,” Trevi agreed.

“I’ve played on three teams in three years,” Hartley said. “I can’t wait to shack up with Callihan, but we’re waiting until it looks like I might be able to stay put somewhere for more than a season. She’s got a great job in Chicago, too. Another year there will only make it easier for her to find a job in Boston or wherever.”

“Uh-huh. Sounds like stalling.”

His friend pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Let’s sober-dial her.”

“What is that?” Georgia asked.

“We can’t drunk-dial her because we’re not drunk,” Hartley explained. “Obvs.”

“Obvs,” Trevi repeated. Then, while his friend tried to raise his girlfriend on FaceTime, Trevi hugged the guy hard and gave him a noogie. “I miss the hell out of you!”

If anybody did that to O’Doul he’d probably chuck them across the room.

“Hello?” a voice came from the phone’s little speakers. “Omigod! Look who it is! Trevi—I want to meet your girlfriend!”

The three of them put their smiling faces together in front of the phone, like a goddamn pack of puppies. He took a gulp of his Scotch, feeling like the Grinch. His hip gave a throb, and he set the mostly empty glass on the table. “I think it’s time to turn in,” he said to Ari.

“You take care of yourself,” she said, her dark eyes sparkling. “Good work tonight.”

The compliment made a warm spot right in his chest. Or maybe it was the whiskey. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Sleep well.”

She gave him a soft smile, and he carried the memory of it all the way upstairs.

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