First Chapter: Overnight Sensation
I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Gentlemen.” I lift my beer bottle high, signaling the start of a speech. “It was the best of scrimmages, it was the worst of scrimmages…”
The moment I utter my version of Dickens’s most famous opening line, there are groans as well as laughter.
“Oh, brother,” my teammate Bayer complains. “Here we go with another speech.”
“It was the afternoon of victory, it was the afternoon of too few shots on goal. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of ‘holy shit, I should run more sprints before training camp!’”
O’Doul, our team captain, snorts as my other teammates shake their heads. They’re used to my antics.
“It was the season of lamplighters,” I continue. “It was the season of exhaustion, it was the autumn of hope, after the summer of despair. We have eighty-two games before us, we have nothing to stop us, we are all going direct to Heaven, except whichever of you asswipes tripped me during the second period…”
There’s more laughter around the long table, so I pause for a swig of beer.
“Does he always quote Dickens after a scrimmage?” asks Heidi, the girl I’ve been eyeing all night. If I’m honest, this little show I’m putting on is for her benefit. Although I’m not sure if I should be trying to attract her or trying to drive her away.
“He usually quotes Shakespeare,” answers Silas, my new roommate. “But I guess it’s more of a Dickens kind of night.”
“In short,” I wind up for a strong finish. “The scrimmage was the same gongshow as last year. And all the noisiest authorities predict—for good or for evil—that every goddamn day of the new season will be a familiar struggle!”
A cheer rises up because I stuck the landing. I lean back against the paneled wall of the tavern and chug the rest of my ale, spilling a few drops of it on my team T-shirt.
“Classy,” Silas snorts. He’s one of our goalies.
“Yeah?” I slam the bottle down on a table that’s already littered with our empties. “Where’s your speech, then? I’m listening.”
“I meant the mess you’re making.” He swats at my shirt with a cocktail napkin, and I grab him quickly into a headlock.
“Fuck,” the goalie says from my armpit. “Let go.”
“You’re just lucky I showered,” I say, not letting go.
Silas laughs, but it’s a fake-out. The second I relax, he wrenches out of my grip and tries to knee me in the balls. I’m saved by my lightning-fast reflexes. I swivel my package out of harm’s way.
“Children, cut it out,” Bayer says with a sigh. “If you knock over the bottles, Pete won’t serve us until we clean ’em up.”
Grinning, Silas and I take our hands off each other. We have some excess adrenaline to burn off. Anyone would.
I’d forgotten how the beginning of a season feels. Training camp has me stirred up inside and raring to go. Dickens had it right. It’s the best of times, and also the worst of times. Sixty guys fighting for twenty-three slots on the opening-day roster. Any player who says he’s relaxed tonight is a goddamn liar.
We’ve just finished the big scramble where all the new prospects skate with the veterans. It’s like Hunger Games on Ice—a flock of youngsters trying to show us up and take away our roster spots. And it’s our job to smack ’em back down to the minors where they belong.
I know all about it. It took me three tries to make the Bruisers’ roster. Last year was my first full season in the big show. I had a killer year with gaudy stats.
Until it all went wrong at the very end. Regrets? I have a few. The stupidest thing I’ve ever done—and there’s some competition for that award—is to imagine that once I made it to the big leagues, things would feel easier.
They don’t. Not ever.
There are a few perks, though. The plush charter jet is a lot more comfortable than riding the bus in the minors. And these days someone else carries my pads into the stadium and hangs ’em up at my locker.
But not one thing in my life is relaxing. Every game is a brutal test of my staying power. Should I fail, there are a hundred other guys lined up to take my place. And after the inglorious way my last season ended, some days I think one of them will.
That was a Dickens kind of day, indeed. They all are.
But tonight we celebrate. I’ve earned this beer. Next week the roster will be posted, and I’m going to be on it. I’m healthy, I’m fast, and I was exactly the kind of playmaker in today’s scrimmage that the team needs.
“I think we should switch to shots,” I say, upping the ante. “Silas, you can choose—tequila or vodka.”
My roommate groans. “You know we have to get up early, right?”
“I’m aware. Rookie!” I snap my fingers. “What’s your name again?”
“Drake,” says the kid.
“Right.” I stripped the puck from young Drake in our scrimmage today at least twice. But he fought back like a beast, and I give him a fifty-fifty chance at making it onto our roster. Now I hand him my credit card. “Ask Pete for a bottle of good tequila and some shot glasses.”
“And limes!” Silas calls out as Drake walks away.
“Okay,” the kid says gamely, turning his big shoulders toward the bar.
“Okay?” I gasp. “How about yessir!”
There are chuckles, but I’m only half kidding. I just spent the summer reading books in a hammock and trying to forget that it was my missed shot on goal that sent us into overtime in game seven of the championship. If I’d rotated my stick two more degrees before I shot, we would have hoisted the cup over our heads at the end of the period. There would have been a parade through Brooklyn and all the other bullshit that comes with being top dog.
But the puck hit the pipe and bounced off. And I will never stop seeing that black shape flip against the white ice, or hearing the condemning sound of buzzer announcing the end of the third period.
Less than a half hour later we lost the championship in overtime.
If I’d made that goal, I would have been the leader of that goddamn parade. I would have hoisted the cup first. The video clip of that goal would have played on repeat whenever the Bruisers were mentioned on TV. Forever, probably.
Pass the tequila.
The rookie comes back with a tray and a message. “Pete says he doesn’t need this—” The kid flips my credit card onto the table. “—because he’s got the number memorized. And he said to tell you to take it easy.”
“Right,” I snort. “Because that sounds like me for sure.”
“Oh, Castro’s always easy,” Bayer says. “Just ask the ladies.”
“You shut up,” I scoff, plucking the shot glasses off the tray and lining them up. I count heads around the table. “You in? Who’s in?”
That’s when my gaze collides with Heidi’s. My gaze does that entirely too often.
“Tequila?” I ask her, my tone borderline rude, and I don’t even know why.
She smacks the bar with her hand. “Yessir.”
And my mind leaps right into the gutter. I’d like to get her to say that again later. When we’re alone.
“Jesus, don’t call him sir,” Silas begs. “The power will go right to his head.”
Or other places. Fuck me. I pour out shots of tequila. “Ladies first,” I say, passing a shot glass to Heidi.
When I’ve doled one out to all takers, O’Doul lifts his shot. “To old friends and new challenges,” he says.
To fewer last-minute disappointments, I privately add as I lift my glass.
The sound of six or eight shot glasses meeting for a toast is the backdrop of my life. It’s a good sound. We all toss the tequila back, and I watch Heidi drink hers with wide eyes that turn red as she swallows.
“I think you need this,” I say, nudging the bowl of lime wedges in her direction.
“Thanks,” she gasps, reaching for a wedge and plunging it between her pink lips.
My body stirs. Tonight, then. I’ll take her home with me. Finally.
Heidi and I have been circling each other on and off since last spring, when she turned up to help the team out during a personnel crisis. One day at the practice facility I heard a peal of uproarious laughter. And when I turned the corner, there she was—all bouncing curls and curves and a big smile. She’s five-foot-nothing but full of personality.
And since that very first moment, I’ve been yearning to fill her with something else. She’s open to this idea as well. I see it every time our gazes collide. And they do that a lot.
It hasn’t happened, though, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, I only hook up with randoms. Hockey is my life, and there’s no room for emotional entanglements.
Also? She’s the office intern. The aftermath could be awkward. She doesn’t strike me as needy or crazy. But it’s not like I can put a lot of distance between us afterwards. Worst-case scenario is that I avoid the office wing of the team’s headquarters for a semester, or however long her internship lasts.
I’ve done stupider things, though. And tonight I don’t think I am going to be able to resist her. Every time those big blue eyes land on me, I’m a little closer to giving in.
That’s how distracting she is. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. My teammates have given her a nickname that suits her personality: Hot Pepper. That’s because she’s attractive, but also lively.
If I’m honest, she reminds me a little of the girl I fell in love with at sixteen. I have very few regrets in this life. A lost love, and a lost goal. Tonight I’ve got both of them on my mind, damn it. But I’m going to let Heidi distract me from both things.
“Shhh!” Silas says suddenly.
We all fall silent without knowing why. There’s a look on Silas’s face, as if angels are speaking to him from a higher plane.
“Um, what are we listening for?” the rookie asks.
“New song,” Silas says. “It was just released yesterday.”
A groan rises up from the table. Silas is a devoted fan of the singer Delilah Spark. He plays her stuff from sunup to sundown and seems not to mind all the ribbing we give him about it.
“You just shushhed me so you could hear this singer again?” Bayer asks. “Don’t we get enough of her leaking from your headphones on the jet?”
“Try living with him,” I point out. “It’s only been a month, and I already know every lyric to every song. I don’t even have a choice.”
“Have you tried those noise-canceling headphones?” Drake asks. “You could give those a whirl.”
Silas doesn’t even acknowledge us. He slips past me and heads for the bar, where the video for the new song is playing on one of the TVs.
With a snicker, Bayer moves off to harass him, and O’Doul follows.
Our little group thins out, leaving me basically alone with Heidi. I should probably make an excuse to talk to my teammates. I should walk away. I don’t, though, because I feel about Heidi the way I feel about the last cookie in the cookie jar—I should resist, but I don’t really want to.
“Not a big fan of tequila?” I ask her. That’s my opening line. It isn’t too smooth, but she’s already watching me with those big baby-blues.
“I’m not accustomed to shots,” she says. “My mama would be appalled.”
“Why? You’re no worse for wear.”
“It’s not ladylike to drink fast, eat too much, or wear white shoes after Labor Day.”
“God.” I laugh. “Why?”
“It’s just impolite.”
Heidi has a hint of a southern accent, and the word comes out as impolaht. The delicate way it rolls off her tongue does something to my groin. Something very impolite. I’m determined to have her in my bed tonight.
“How was your summer?” I ask, because I’m a gentleman. Or at least I can fake it.
“Pretty dull, if you want to know the truth.” Her perfect lips tense for a moment before relaxing again. “I spent six weeks trying not to argue with my father. I was hoping he wouldn’t lose his mind when I told him I wasn’t going back to Bryn Mawr.”
“But he did anyway?” I guess.
“Absolutely. Total conniption.”
“Oh, man.” I know all about parental disappointment. “He yelled?”
“He yelled, and he threatened. My mistake was thinking that we could have a sensible conversation about it. There’s no arguing with that man when he gets his hard head set on something he wants. And he does not want me in Brooklyn.”
Ouch. “Your father doesn’t want you working for the team?”
“No sir, he does not.”
Sir. I want her to call me that when she’s naked. But we’ll get to that a little later. “Maybe your father doesn’t like hockey players.”
A strange reaction flickers across her face and then disappears immediately. “I think it’s me he doesn’t like. I spent the first twenty years of my life trying to be Daddy’s good little girl. But it’s impossible to please that man, and I am done trying.”
I would have never guessed that Heidi and I had so much in common. “That’s funny because my parents aren’t so wild about having me in Brooklyn, either.”
“My goodness, why? You’re killing it for the team.”
Her expression is full of wonder. God bless the girls who have a thing for hockey players. “My family is a bunch of nerds. They think I’m wasting my life playing a brutal sport when I should be getting a doctorate.”
“Oh,” Heidi says softly. “That sounds familiar.”
It’s actually a little more complicated than that. They think my whole lifestyle is self-destructive. And isn’t that ridiculous? Me with the eight-percent-body-fat ratio and low-resting heart rate.
“The booze and the women,” my dad says when he’s lecturing me. “They’re eating away at you.” He says this with a straight face and the paunch of a guy who sits at a desk much of the day.
“But it comes down to this,” Heidi declares, patting my hand to get my attention. “Who gets to say who’s wasting his life? Why do parents think they have that right?”
“Exactly.” I use my thumb to trap her hand against mine. Then I lean forward and look into her blue eyes. There’s no mistaking my interest.
“Right?” she squeaks as twin spots of pink appear on her cheekbones. But she doesn’t pull her hand away.
“Lucky for me,” I say. “My sister is an academic. So at least someone is following the family plan.”
Heidi blinks. Her gaze drops to our joined hands before returning to mine. “I have a sister, too,” she confesses. “But she does what she wants and they love her anyway. And they treat me like a convict just because I won’t finish my liberal arts degree.”
“Is your father an academic like mine?” I ask. Wouldn’t that be a funny coincidence?
“Um, no,” she says slowly. “But my mother went to Bryn Mawr. Now she is a full-time stay-at-home wife, and the world’s most eager country-club member.” She rolls her gorgeous eyes. “That hacks me off even more. ‘Stay in school, Heidi Jo. So you can graduate and never use that degree!’ They’d be thrilled if I’d settle down with a nice lawyer and start popping out the grandkids.”
“I have so many questions.” I chuckle. “Heidi Jo?”
“That’s what my family calls me. But I call myself Heidi so I don’t sound so…”
“Gone with the Wind?” I guess.
“And your parents really want you to get married? Why?”
She shrugs. “That’s the extent of my mother’s imagination, I think. Also, she’d have a wedding to plan. Marrying me off to a lawyer in a ballroom somewhere is her dream come true.”
“But you’re not down with that plan?” I stroke my thumb across her hand, and Heidi shivers almost imperceptibly.
Her gaze returns to our joined hands. “Weddings are a snore. Lawyers are, too. The ones I’ve met, anyway.”
“Your taste runs more to hockey players, I assume?”
Now her cheeks are on fire. “When the mood strikes,” she says primly, removing her hand from mine. “More tequila, maybe?”
When the mood strikes. Jesus. She’s going to make me work for it. And I’m a hundred percent down with that.
This girl is teasing me in the best possible way. She pushes her shot glass closer to me, then raises that kissable face to look at me. And there’s a challenge in her eyes that I plan to answer with a whole lot more than a couple of drinks.
For now, though, I pick up the bottle and pour.