Fear and sadness mark Bryan’s life, can Gatlin show him that you have to trust before you can love?
Gatlin Pearce is creeping up on thirty-eight and is still single. It’s not that he wants to be alone, it’s just that he’s too damn old to be in clubs filled with glittery gay boys who can’t even tell him who the Rolling Stones are.
Better to just spend his evenings at Hard Score Ink – his tattoo and artwork shop – creating masterpieces on human flesh, listening to the Railers games, and nursing a cold beer.
His solitary life is about to end when Bryan Delaney, the new Railers backup goalie, shows up at his shop looking for new artwork for his helmet. There’s some sort of sad story in those beautiful eyes of Bryan’s, and Gatlin finds himself more than a little infatuated with the tender new goalie.
Bryan Delaney leaves home at fifteen to live with a billet family. He just wishes that he could have escaped his alcoholic father and strictly devout mother earlier. Drafted to the Arizona Raptors he finds a new family, and his first love affair even if that relationship is marked with violence.
Being traded to the Railers is a shock to the system but the team isn’t like any other he’s ever played on and they truly seem to care about him. It’s only when he meets artist Gatlin, with their shared love of music and hockey, that he realizes how hard it is to escape the past.
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.
“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.”
“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?”
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.
RJ’s goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.
RJ is the author of the over one hundred novels and discovered romance in books at a very young age. She realized that if there wasn’t romance on the page, she could create it in her head, and is a lifelong writer.
She lives and works out of her home in the beautiful English countryside, spends her spare time reading, watching films, and enjoying time with her family.
The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit and has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.
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V.L. Locey loves worn jeans, yoga, belly laughs, Dr. Who, Torchwood, walking, reading and writing lusty tales, Greek mythology, the New York Rangers, comic books, and coffee. (Not necessarily in that order.) She shares her life with her husband, her daughter, one dog, two cats, two Jersey steers and a flock of assorted domestic fowl.
When not writing lusty tales, she can be found enjoying her day with her menagerie in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania with a cup of fresh java in hand.