Saturday, March 24, 2018

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Harrisburg Railers by RJ Scott & VL Locey Part 1


Changing Lines #1
Summary:
Can Tennant show Jared that age is just a number, and that love is all that matters?

The Rowe Brothers are famous hockey hotshots, but as the youngest of the trio, Tennant has always had to play against his brothers’ reputations. To get out of their shadows, and against their advice, he accepts a trade to the Harrisburg Railers, where he runs into Jared Madsen. Mads is an old family friend and his brother’s one-time teammate. Mads is Tennant’s new coach. And Mads is the sexiest thing he’s ever laid eyes on.

Jared Madsen’s hockey career was cut short by a fault in his heart, but coaching keeps him close to the game. When Ten is traded to the team, his carefully organized world is thrown into chaos. Nine years his junior and his best friend’s brother, he knows Ten is strictly off-limits, but as soon as he sees Ten’s moves, on and off the ice, he knows that his heart could get him into trouble again.







First Season #2
Summary:
Layton wants success, Adler wants family, how can love make both these things possible?

Layton Foxx works hard for what he has. The condo, the career, the chance to make his mark, is all down to the sacrifices he has made. With tragedy in his past, he doesn’t want or need love. Then he meets Adler Lockhart, the extroverted, sexy winger for the Harrisburg Railers and abruptly he can’t avoid love even if he wanted to.

Adler Lockhart has had everything handed to him his whole life. Cars, villas, cash, college tuition at the finest Ivy League schools. The only things he doesn’t have are parents who care or the love of a good man. Then Layton walks into his privileged life and shows him what real love can be like.











Deep Edge #3
Summary:
One man’s passion, another man’s lies. Can love fix even the darkest of hearts?

Trent Hanson is a figure skating phenom adored by millions around the world. His whole life has been dedicated to the sport he loves even when the sport - and his own family - have turned against him. From the playground to the Olympics to his parent’s living room, Trent has fought against bullies and homophobes to be the out and proud gay man he is. But the constant fighting has left Trent tired, lonely, and skittish. All those fears will have to be shelved though when he’s hired to spend the summer working with the Harrisburg Railers ice hockey team. Who would have guessed that the man fate has decided to pair him off with is Dieter Lehmann, all-around sex god and a man who seems to have everything to prove and doesn’t care who he hurts to get what he wants.

Dieter has spent too many years languishing in the minors and a secret addiction to prescription painkillers means his career is in a downward spiral. His ex is blackmailing him and he’s close to walking away from it all. But when he’s called up in the run for the Stanley Cup to cover injuries he has a taste of what it’s like playing in the NHL and he realizes that a place on the Railers roster is what he wants more than anything. More than listening to his heart, and even more than caring for the infuriating figure skater who gets under his skin. When he crosses the line to get what he wants, he knows he has lost his way. He has to change, but is it too late for both his career and any chance he might have at love?

Poke Check #4
Summary:
One scorching summer in each other’s arms could never be enough.

Stanislav “Stan” Lyamin is happy playing for the Railers. The towering goalie is well-loved, respected, and making a home for himself even though that home only contains him, his cat, and his growing Pokemon trading card collection. Stan prefers it that way.

He’d given his heart to a man in a secret affair, and that man walked away, leaving Stan shattered. Now Erik is back in his life, and he has the same tumultuous effect he had on Stan’s heart as before. This time it’s not just a kissable mouth and sweet blond curls that Erik has brought to Harrisburg, there’s a soon-to-be ex-wife and a precious baby.

Despite the vow Stan made to hate Erik forever, he’s now finding it harder and harder to turn away.

Erik Gunnarsson’s dream had always been to play in the NHL, he just never imagined he’d land a contract with the Railers. Who would have thought that fate would put him on the same team as Stanislav Lyamin; the man whose heart he’d callously broken?

Secrets and lies had defined their summer relationship, and the choice that Erik made to end it all haunts him still. In the middle of a messy divorce and with a baby in tow, Erik finds himself back in Stan’s life. Now all he has to do is be the best dad he can be, prove to the team that he deserves the chance to stay on the roster and try his hardest to get Stan to forgive him.

Is it possible to persuade a man who hates you to give love a second chance?

Changing Lines #1
Original Review July 2017:
I have to start off by saying that I am NOT a hockey fan.  I don't dislike it but if all the hockey arenas in the world were to disappear tomorrow, I would not miss the sport. Just felt the need to make note of that fact before beginning, lol.

Tennant "Ten" Rowe is the youngest member in a hockey dynasty who finds himself on the expansion team, Harrisburg Railers.  He is satisfied with his new team but his brothers feel its beneath his talent.  Jared Madsen, one of the Railers' coaches due to his playing career being cut short, finds himself attracted to his best bud's little brother.  Will the fear of coach/player, age factor, or family interference be enough to keep these two apart or will they defy the odds and find happiness together?

I am an only child as is my dad and my mom only has one brother so I have no direct experience with siblings as most of my friends are either the only child or one sibling as well, so I really can only guess that the sibling relationship between the Rowe brothers is typical.  Whether its typical or not, their fighting and loving is believable, entertaining, and just plain fun.  I don't like to touch on the plot too much as most of my followers will know but I will say that when Ten finally stood up to his older brothers, I laughed so hard and frankly I don't think I could have had a bigger smile on my face than I did at that moment.

As I said at the beginning, I am not a hockey fan so on one hand I had some reservations going in fearing that I would be subconsciously effected by my lack of interest in the sport but on the other hand I am a HUGE RJ Scott fan and although I've never read VL Locey, I have heard many good things of her writing.  So I turned on my Kindle with an open mind and jumped in.  I'm so glad I did because Changing Lines is wonderful!

Hockey fan or not, Changing is a lovely fun read that will leave you smiling from beginning to end.  That's not to say there is no drama, because there is but the balance is perfect.  I look forward to reading more tales of the Harrisburg Railers.  It goes without saying how much I love RJ Scott's writing and always have my eyes open for her work but now I look forward to checking out VL Locey's backlist and future work as well.

First Season #2
Original Review October 2017:
Layton Foxx has worked hard for his career and getting a call from the Railers to manage the coming out of the first professional hockey player is a make or break move for him and despite knowing absolutely nothing about the sport he jumps in anyway.  Adler Lockhart may have the money of his family even if he doesn't exactly have their love, he's grown up using humor as his goto coping method even if it often sees him in a "speak now think later" situation.  When these two meet, the attraction is on fire but will their opposing ways of handling scenarios smother the flames?

I'll start by repeating myself from book one: "I am NOT a hockey fan. I don't dislike it but if all the hockey arenas in the world were to disappear tomorrow, I would not miss the sport."  But as with book one, you don't need to be a hockey fan to appreciate the story or the characters of First Season or the entire Harrisburg Railers series.  The sport is obvious a big part of the story but it isn't the whole story and frankly, RJ Scott and VL Locey do a pretty darn good job of setting the scene so the reader understands the ins and outs of professional hockey.  But as I said, love, friendship, and family is at the heart of First Season and I can't imagine it being accomplished any better than what these lovely ladies bring us.

Layton and Adler's attraction is palpable from their first meeting but its also obvious they approach life from opposite ends of the spectrum, Layton has to think things through with a plan in place to keep control and Adler is from the "speak now think later" mentality which is his way of taking control of the room.  They both have reasons behind why they are the way they are which I won't touch on here but those reasons make this journey all the more heartwrenching and heartwarming once they each open up to the other.

Personally I found First Season to be a bit more angsty than Changing Lanes but still absolutely lovely.  When I read a series where each book is focused on a different couple, I rarely enjoy each installment as much as the first which is not to say they are not as good its just I fall so deeply for the first couple that the others just don't usually measure up.  As I started Season, I was sure that was going to be the case here because I just loved Ten and Jared from Changing so much but the deeper in I got I found myself falling even harder for Layton and Adler.  Truth is, no matter which couple you love more(and that goes for future installments) Harrisburg Railers by RJ Scott and VL Locey is superb storytelling that grabs your interest, sports fan or not doesn't matter because these ladies know how to spin a yarn into a beautiful afghan of love that will keep you warm all winter long.

Deep Edge #3
Original Review December 2017:
Olympic skater Trent Hanson lost nearly everything due to his stepfather's gambling debts so when a chance to keep his rink and his mother's home comes along he takes it, even if its a reality show involving hockey players.  Dieter Lehmann, the newest Railer is fighting an addiction of his own, painkillers so he can play but when the team is signed to do a reality show with a figure skater to learn some basics to improve their game, he's less than thrilled.  When Trent and Dieter meet on the ice, will they let the attraction that lingers grow or will their individual demons be too much to overcome?

I'm going to start out by once again saying that I am not a hockey fan.  I don't hate the sport but if all the hockey rinks were to disappear tomorrow I wouldn't miss them.  Truth is that my feelings on hockey and my love of this series speaks volumes as to the authors' ability to spin a yarn and give the readers a journey they can't put down.  Followers to blog/reviews know that I am a huge RJ Scott fan well after reading this series I am quickly becoming a VL Locey fan as well.  Their love of the sport is obvious within the pages of Harrisburg Railers series but their love of a good story with intriguing characters is even more apparent.

Dieter and Trent's attraction is pretty instant but its their ongoing connection throughout that really ignites the passion and had me hating to put my kindle down for such mundane chores such as eating and sleeping.  I love how they realize that they both need to face their individual demons before they can truly move forward.  Truth is, there is so many aspects of this story(and series) that made me smile, laugh, cry, frankly pretty much every emotion out there.  I know I use the words a lot in my reviews but it doesn't make them any less true, Deep Edge will warm your heart from page one till the end.

They may not be characters you would meet every day but Scott and Locey present Dieter and Trent in a way that if you ran into them in the grocery store or the gas station you wouldn't look twice.  In my opinion, creating characters that are definitely original and yet have that "every day" element to them takes talent and that is what you will find within the pages of Deep Edge and the Harrisburg Railers: talent and plenty of heart.

Poke Check #4
Original Review February 2018:
Stanislav Lyamin is loving his time as the Railers' goalie. He has his team, his cat, and his Pokeman cards and that is enough.  Having given his heart to another and then having it ripped out was enough for him, he's content.  Erik Gunnarsson is trying to make a life for him and his infant son, so when he's signed to play for the Railers not only does it give him the chance to fullfil his dream of playing for the NHL but also the chance at stability for his little boy.  Knowing the team's goalie is the man he left brokenhearted is a double edged sword.  Can Stan and Erik work together to bring victory to the team and will they be able to heal their hearts or is too late?

Followers of my reviews probably recall from the first three entries in the Harrisburg Railers series that I am not a hockey fan.  Again, I don't hate the sport(I actually watched quite a bit of it during the Olympics this monthπŸ˜‰) but if all the hockey arenas were to disappear from the world tomorrow I wouldn't miss it.  I'm not trying to insult hockey fans or be disparaging of the sport I just think its worth mentioning because I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this series so not being a hockey fan I think it says it better than anything how amazing the authors are in telling these stories.

As for Poke Check, well when I heard that Stan was getting his own story I was beyond stoked.  Stan is the man!  Yes, I went thereπŸ˜‰  When it comes to Erik, well I wanted to hate him for breaking Stan's heart but he is just so lovable.  Personally, I don't think there is anything sexier than a man who is taking care of a child, especially when Erik is so loving towards little Noah, so determined to give him a good life and has sacrificed so much to do so.  The pairs' reconnecting is just the right pace to make Poke Check a close second in the series for me.  I don't think any pairing will top Tennant and Jared from Changing Lines but Stan and Erik give them a darn good race.  One more thing about Stan: I've read many an accents in books and I hardly ever "hear" the accents in my head but with Stan, it was like he was sitting right next to me and reading me the book.  Every word, every nuance, every mistaken pronunciation or phrase, that's how I read it in my head so I just want to say kudos to whichever author was in charge of bringing Stan to life.

One more thing: if you are like me and not a hockey fan, don't worry because Scott & Locey add just the right amount of detail to the action of the game so non-fans can follow along and yet not feel like parts of it are from Hockey for Dummies.  Poke Check is a wondrous blend of romance, drama, lust, family, friendship, and love.  If asked should the series be read in order? I am going to say yes.  Each entry is technically a standalone as each is a different pairing but I just find the friendships grow with each one so I definitely recommend in order but it doesn't have to be, you won't be lost if read out of sequence.

RATING: 


Changing Lines #1
I heard the fight before I saw it, but skated over on instinct, sliding to a halt and attempting to work out what the hell was going on. A quick head-count had five guys beating on each other, and right in the middle, Ten.

Coach skated alongside. “What the fuck?” he shouted, and blew his whistle.

Three of the fighters backed off, but Ten and…shit, that was Addison, his line mate. They were still going at it, Ten sliding back, losing his footing and falling on his ass, dragging Addison with him in a tumble and tangle of arms and legs. The crack of a breaking stick had me wincing, and I waded through the shocked observers to the two on the floor. Ten was on the bottom to start with, but by the time I reached him, he was straddling Addison and shouting in his face.

I couldn’t make out the words, not clearly, but I winced at what I did hear. Fag. And that was from Ten. Disgust and disappointment welled inside me. Ten knew me, knew I’d had a boyfriend. He wasn’t a kid who crossed lines like that. I gripped his jersey, and with a tug so hard he flailed, I dragged him upward. Temper made me see red, and I yanked him across the ice. He couldn’t get purchase, off balance, and almost crashed to the rubber when we stepped off the ice.

“Jesus, Mads,” he said, and righted himself with a hand on the boards.

“With me,” I snapped.

The forwards coach skated over, but I waved him away. I was dealing with this, and even though he frowned, my counterpart let it go.

“Five minutes,” was all he said. “Then he’s mine.”

I stamped my way to the changing rooms and through to the skate-sharpening area, which was sound-proofed. I had words to say, and I wasn’t leaving them unsaid. Ten came in after me, and I shoved him aside so I could shut the door.

“What the fuck?” I asked with restrained aggression.

“He fucking started it!” Ten said, touching the lump on his forehead. “Asshole.”

That defense meant nothing to me, and it was my turn to snap. I backed him up against the door.

“If I ever hear you using that word again, I will personally knock you the fuck out.”

I was shouting right at him, eye to eye, and I saw the moment when the temper in his eyes became something else. Confusion.

“I didn’t… I wouldn’t…”

“I heard you, Ten. You called him a fag—”

“No,” he interrupted me, and he sounded so hurt—defensive, almost. “He called me that, said I was showing him up, that I needed to slow the hell down, and then he called me a faggot, and I lost it, okay?”

Now it was my turn to be confused. “I heard you say…”

“That if he ever used the word fag again, I would bury him.”

“Why?”

“Why what?” Ten looked at me like I’d grown a second head, like I had something on my face. He was trying to find something there, and all I could show him was confusion.

“Did you do that for me?” I asked, and abruptly all my strength left me and I slumped against the wall for support.

“Jared—”

“Don’t do that, okay? I’m at peace with who I am, but I don’t need you to fight for me, you get that? You keep yourself safe and you don’t rise to what anyone says.”

“That’s bullshit,” Ten snapped. “That word is offensive and I don’t want it used in that way, demeaning, laughing. I won’t have it.”

“Why? Ten, there are ways of dealing with this. Official ways.”

“He kept saying it, and he knew…”

“Knew what? About me? The world and his wife know I’m bi; I don’t need protecting.” My confusion was growing, and Ten looked like someone had kicked him in the balls and left him to cry in a heap on the floor.

“He saw me, he must have…”

“Ten?”

“Okay, so it’s no big deal, right,” Ten began. “I took a guy back to my room when I first got here, and he saw.”

“What are you saying?”

Ten looked at me. “You’re not stupid,” he said. “I’m gay, Jared. I’m in the fucking closet, and I’m gay. Okay?”

First Season #2
Chapter One
Layton
This was turning out to be the worst day of my life. Worse even than the time the football team decided to shove me in a locker, and then wedge the door shut.

Everything started out okay. The Railers appointment was my third job since leaving college and choosing to specialize in crisis management. Call me a spin doctor or a marketing guy, it doesn’t matter; I was there with my bright, shiny degree in business in my back pocket, to solve a problem using social media, training, and careful planning.

“We want to hire you, but are you gay?” The caller asked when he contacted me.
He couldn’t really ask me that, but at that point, with bills to pay, I worded it a lot better than just blurting out a “What the hell?”

“I’m not sure how that’s relevant,” I said.

The man on the other end of the phone, who hadn’t even identified himself, just that he worked for a hockey team, sighed noisily. “Fucked if I know,” he said. “I just need someone to help us through this.”

So I asked him what he meant, and at the point when he completely lost his shit over whether to use the word homosexual in a press release, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“I can handle this,” I reassured him. “You need me.”

I didn’t care how I got it, I just knew that I was the best person for the job.

He told me he was the GM for the Railers hockey team, and even though my heart sank and my chest tightened, I had to do this. A hockey team, a player coming out of the closet—this was a high-value client.

I did my research after the call; I didn’t watch hockey, but I knew of it, and it was basically a bunch of jocks on skates. Right? They needed to be told when to talk and when not to talk, and what was appropriate and when. I could do that. Add in the fact that I would be managing the first official coming-out in the hockey world, and this could make or break my career. I could become a crisis management expert in the field of sports.

The irony of that didn’t escape me, given my past.

I had breakfast, wore my newest suit, a crisp white shirt and a brand new blue tie to match the team colors. I’d shaved off my non-ironic loggers’ beard, and my man bun was gone. I felt a little naked, but I wanted to be taken seriously, and what used to be hot in styling now seemed to be the butt of jokes. I didn’t want to be the butt of anyone’s jokes.

Honestly, I’d thought of everything.

Except.

Walking into the East River Arena, home of the Harrisburg Railers hockey team, freaked me out. It was the smell, I think, and the cavernous expanse of seats. I could imagine the shouting, the jeering, the excitement, and all of that became a ball of fear inside me.

Jocks. I can handle them. They’re adults now, and I’m not the same nerdy kid I used to be.

Still, it didn’t stop me losing my breakfast in the first bathroom I could find off the tunnel from the parking garage. So much for eating to give me energy. I was a wrung-out mess, clinging to porcelain and wishing I could get a handle on my nerves. I’d had two clients before this, big companies with interesting problems, where my lectures on sensitivity awareness had been well received. I could handle rough feedback, crappy tweets, Facebook discussions about inappropriate shit, but they were corporate clients, not hockey players.

It was me and them.

Alone.

Talking one-on-one with hockey players and the support network around them about how it was okay for one of their players to be sleeping with their coach. Also that gay was good, love was love, and oh yeah, could they stop tweeting shit about anything to do with gender, politics, and sexual orientation, to name three things on my list.

These guys were jocks. Well-paid jocks, with a whole army of fans who hung on their every word. The captain had over eighty thousand Twitter followers, mostly because he seemed to be the poster boy for sex on skates. Lots of tweets with videos of him half naked. Not to mention Ten’s Instagram, which was new, but which already had an explosion of followers, probably for the same reason—he was hot, and a skater. I noticed links to a lot of websites that featured the hottest men in hockey. Without knowing it, Ten and the team captain were probably gay icons. Go figure.

And it was for Ten and his boyfriend that I was here. Ten was the hotshot on the Railers team, one of those players who were making a mark on the NHL. Or so the press releases said. All I saw was a gay man coming out in a hostile sports environment and that was what I was dealing with.

Ten, hockey player, and his partner, Jared, coach, were in a committed relationship and I had to make people see that this was normal. Okay. A good thing.

I can do this. I am strong. I will not be sick again.

I relaxed each tight muscle and swallowed around the dryness in my throat. Today was going to go well. Why would anything go wrong? I’d prepared what I needed, researched enough about the team to know the personnel, if not the game of hockey itself; there was only so much I could do in the week since I’d been called to do this job. I even had an office, apparently.

So I’d been sick; lots of people got sick before significant events. I could handle being sick.

Which was exactly when things went even more wrong. I turned the tap on to wash my hands, and the damn thing was fierce and splashed my pants. I jumped back in shock and horror, and smacked myself on the door to a stall, the brunt of my weight taken by my left hip.

“Fuck,” I cursed, and turned off the water. There was no hand dryer, just paper towels, and I dabbed my pants, painfully conscious that my first meeting with team management was in ten minutes.

I dabbed at the wetness, then realized some of the water had splashed my briefcase as well. That was the moment I wondered if the morning could get any worse.

Which was when the door opened and I swung, startled, to face the newcomer, my briefcase swinging as well and catching the man in the thigh.

“Jesus,” I snapped, angry with myself, then let out a small, “I’m sorry.”

Tall and Growly stared at me in shock, muscles tensed, and rubbed his thigh. “What the fuck?” was all he said.

He was wearing a Railers T-shirt, but I didn’t recall him from my research, so if he was a player then he couldn’t be one of the big names I needed to know about to start with. Maybe he was a trainer?

“Sorry,” I repeated.

He stared at me, then looked me up and down with a very careful, disdainful look. Or at least I thought it was disdainful; he looked for a moment like he was checking me out, but that wasn’t possible given that we were in a hockey arena. He was gorgeous—blue eyes, his red hair styled but soft, his jawline square, and his body broad.

Then the disdain, or whatever it was, turned into a sly wink, and he gestured at my crotch.

“Hey buddy, you might want to make time for a potty break sooner if you have such a teeny bladder. Just saying.”

I blinked at him, not knowing what to say. I mean, did I stand there and explain about the tap, or the water, or falling back against the stall door, or even that I’d just lost my breakfast?

I couldn’t say any of it. I picked up my jacket from the small table by the door and shoved past him and out into the hall. A few seconds later I was at the door marked “Staff,” and pressed the button to get in.

“Railers Hockey,” a voice came through the speaker by the door.

“Layton Foxx,” I said, and caught sight of the bathroom guy walking my way. The door buzzed, I pushed it open, shut it quickly behind me, and hoped to hell that would give me breathing space.

A short woman stood waiting with a welcoming smile on her face and holding out a hand. I shook it, realizing at the last moment that mine was damp.

“Jane Monroe, PA to Felix Cote, team owner.”

She didn’t react to the damp on my hand, but when I pulled it away I was flustered.

“Sorry, I had a thing,” I began, then cleared my throat, which was raw from vomiting, “with the bathroom faucet,” and I waved at my crotch.

Her lips twitched into a smile. “This way, Mr. Foxx, management is expecting you.”

Fuck my life.

The day didn’t get much better. The management team had been a nervous, twitchy, bunch, and worried about the big picture. I hadn’t entirely got the sense that they had an issue with the gay hockey player thing, but their bottom line was revenue.

The brief had expanded from supporting Ten and Jared to ensuring that revenue wasn’t harmed.

Great, nothing like moving the goalposts on my first day and setting unrealistic expectations.

At least Felix Cote had been supportive; I often found changes in any group had to be supported by the person at the top. He’d made some veiled comments about how things had been “in his day,” but I could work with that.

Tennant Rowe and Jared Madsen were going to make my career or destroy it in one go, that much was obvious. Now, looking at them sitting opposite me, at the way they unconsciously leaned toward each other, worried me. As a gay man who’d been out to his family and friends since he was sixteen, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have to hide who you are, but that was the playing field in professional sports, no pun intended.

These two—one a coach on the team, the other a professional hockey player in his prime—had fallen in love. Not only that, but they’d decided it was time to come out, and the Railers had hired me to manage the fallout.

Because there would be fallout, that much was certain.

“It’s going to come at you from all directions,” I said.

Tennant frowned at me. His emotions were written plainly on his face. He was angry, defensive, scared, happy, positive and negative, all in one horrible mess. The only thing I could pin down was that he was absolutely in love with Jared and completely convinced of what he wanted to do.

“Go on,” Jared said, and he laced his fingers with Ten’s. They could in here—we were alone, the three of us, with the door closed and no cameras. But this was the first thing they needed to handle.

“You need to be careful with public displays of affection.”

I saw two very different reactions. Jared looked resigned and nodded, but Ten bristled with the start of genuine indignation. I knew what he was going to say, and I headed him off at the pass.

“It shouldn’t matter,” I began, choosing my words carefully, “But this isn’t going to be easy. There will be the religious fans deciding you’re going against God, right down to the parents who don’t want their kids exposed to non-heteronormative behavior. The spectrum of reaction will be varied. You’ll get some who advocate for you, the team, the management, and fans who don’t give a shit what you do in your private time as long as Ten is scoring goals.”

“We know that,” Jared said.

“We don’t have to like it,” Ten said, and his tone was worrying. He sounded miserable, and he was fully leaning against Jared.

I shuffled the papers on the desk, lining them up to give myself time to think. I’d managed personal clients before, polished them as a product, managed their every moment until they learned how to act in public and how to make the best of who they were. Only, those had been people who needed to clean up their act. I’d helped the telecom company with their painful downsizing, and a college with an equality issue. I was the best at what I did, and I worked hard to make things right for people. But this? The two of them didn’t have to come out publicly; they could go on being the secret that wasn’t a secret, at least until Ten’s playing days were done. He might be only twenty-two, but a professional career doing what these players did was often over by their early thirties. Sometimes sooner, I thought when I recalled that a heart problem had sidelined Jared from his professional career. Ten would only have to wait another decade or so to retire. Was that something he’d be willing to do? I had to ask the question, and hoped I didn’t lose the confidence of either man.

“You could stop this now,” I said bluntly.

Jared was the first to speak. “I know, but we won’t stop.”

Ten bit his lip. “We want this.”

I nodded and looked down at my notes, but I didn’t need them. I’d had my own share of prejudice in life; plenty of life experience to tap from.

“The press will love you and hate you equally. If the Railers lose, it will be reported widely in different ways. The quality press may well suggest that Ten was distracted, with the implication being that Jared here is the distraction. The gossip sites could suggest that maybe you’re having too much gay sex with your gay coach. On the other hand, if you win, it could be suggested that you freaked out the other team, that maybe they didn’t want to be near you. Then there are the really shitty things they can say. They could bring up skating accidents, blood, HIV—it might not stop with criticism about your sexual orientation, but could become something bigger.”

“And on a positive note?” Jared asked dryly.

“Sorry.” I sat back in my chair. “I needed to explain that to you up front.”

“We already know all that,” Ten said tiredly.

“And I’m here as your supporter in this. We’re in open dialogue with various equality-in-sports groups—”

“Locker rooms should be safe and sports venues should be free from homophobia. Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation and/or gender identity.” Ten mumbled the whole mission statement of one of the biggest groups advocating for equality.

“That’s what we’re aiming for.”

“Okay, so where do we start?” Ten said, and gripped Jared’s hand tight.

“I’m not big into hockey,” I began.

Jared looked shocked. Ten’s mouth fell open.

“But that doesn’t stop me understanding the social and economic issues we’re facing with this.”

“You don’t like hockey?” Ten said incredulously, like that wasn’t a possible thing in his world.

“It isn’t important to know the game to be aware of the culture.”

“That’s crap.” That was from Jared, who shook his head. “I’ll sit you down and explain a few things, and you need to sit in on games. If you don’t get hockey, then…” He paused and searched for the right words. “You don’t get hockey.”

“It’s on my list,” I reassured him.

“Seriously? No hockey at all?” Ten asked again.

I decided to change the subject. “First off, I need to find out a bit more about both of you. Ten, I understand you have two brothers who also play hockey?”

The meeting was long, but by the time we’d got to the end of it I had a picture of the sort of thing I was up against. We had a lot of positives going for us. Management was looking to spin the whole coming-out story to their benefit. Being the first NHL team with an out player would either be an incredible marketing option, or cut ticket revenue. They were demanding the first and ignoring the chance of the second. The team was next on my list; I’d be interviewing them singly for short sessions behind closed doors, to ascertain any issues I’d have to deal with. Those started soon, and first up was the captain, Connor Hurley.

“Connor,” I said as he stepped in. I shook his hand. “I’m Layton Foxx.”

“Nice to meet you, Layton.”

Connor was a quiet guy, all serious eyes and focus, and he listened to everything I had to say and asked reasonable, well-thought-out questions. He was one hundred percent behind Ten and Jared, and he was a good guy to have on our side.

“It helps that Ten’s brothers have a significant presence on other teams,” he said, and I made a note of that. I’d been thinking the same thing. Ten was close with his brothers, and they had his back.

“Do you have any concerns with the team?”

He and I had signed a confidentiality form at the start of the session, as I’d do with the entire team as I saw them one by one. He knew he could speak freely, but in any case he was intense when it came to the team, and he didn’t hesitate to sketch me the bigger picture of who each player was and what I should look out for, good and bad. From defenseman, Arvy who had a gay cousin, to a new guy on the team, Adler, who seemed ambivalent about the entire situation. I made so many notes, I knew I’d have to go through them and summarize in places.

I liked the Railers captain, and when we shook hands I thanked him for his time. He took his role as seriously as I took mine, and there was mutual respect there.

After meeting with a few of the other players, I was done for day one. I shuffled all my notes again, lining them up and putting them into my briefcase along with the iPad that was my connection to the outside world. Then I reported in to Emma, the marketing manager for the team and the person alongside whom I’d be working.

She was demonstrably grateful that all that mess hadn’t been handed to her, so that meant I’d earned one hell of a lot of brownie points.

There was a small group of guys in the parking area. One I recognized—Stan the Russian, as Captain Hurley called him—was a huge bear of a man, and he was staring as I walked toward them. The direction wasn’t deliberate; they were huddled by my car.

“Guys,” I said calmly, even though the sight of these big men waiting by my car was enough to have me feeling anxious as memories of old times poked at me. Not to mention that Stan had his thick arms crossed over his chest and looked like he wanted to go to war with me. I recognized two of the others with him—Coach Benning looking grim, Arvy grinning at me—and the other man was the guy from the bathroom.

That was Adler, the one the captain, in my interview with him that morning, had chosen to highlight as “not exactly vocally critical nor entirely supportive.”

I was scarlet and I knew it, and Adler smirked at me. Asshole.

He wasn’t the first person to smirk at me, and he wouldn’t be the last. Adler Lockhart was a good-looking man, but then a lot of the players on this damn team were hot and right on to burning. Take Arvy with his goofy smile and his long wavy hair, or Coach Madsen with his intense blue stare and air of authority.

“Little bit talk,” Stan said, his voice loud and booming in the cavernous underground parking.

I glanced from Stan to the others. I wasn’t sure Adler wanted to talk. He was still smirking, but at the same time he looked like he was trying to edge away. The only thing stopping him was that he was pinned between Stan, Arvy, and my car.

I glanced at my watch, like I had to assess if I had the time to stop and talk. Of course I had time. Lots of time. All that was waiting for me at my place was takeout and a night of reading my notes. Oh, and catching up on the hundred or so Facebook messages from my family.

“I can give you five minutes,” I said, to qualify the importance of my time and reinforce my status. It was vital that I didn’t join in with discussions outside the official meetings; I had to stay outside the hockey circle, so that I could maintain a perspective on how things were playing out. Informal meetings didn’t get things done.

Stan pulled aside his shirt and showed me a tattoo. I had to peer closely, because I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, or even why it was being shown to me. It looked like a cartoon character; a PokΓ©mon or something.

“Hulk,” Stan said, and looked at me expectantly like I was supposed to understand a word. I don’t speak any Russian, though, so I looked at Coach for help.

“What he’s saying,” Coach Benning said, “is that he likes Ten, a lot, and that Ten and he had tattoos the same day, and that if you end up hanging Ten out to dry, then he will have something to say about it and go all Hulk on your ass.” The coach’s tone was easy, but there was a thread of steel in there.

“You got all that from one word?” I asked, and looked up at Stan, who was still scowling.

Coach only smiled. “He’s a man of few words. English ones, anyway.”

Stan clapped a hand on my shoulder, and jeez, he was one strong man. For a split second, fear skittered through me, but I pushed the fear back down where it belonged. No one here was going to hurt me.

I edged out of Stan’s reach and offered up my most reassuring smile. Stan looked at me, and then he smiled as well.

Seemed like we had an agreement going.

“Are we done talking about cock now?” Adler said loudly, breaking the accepting vibe in the small group. He underscored the words by grabbing suggestively at his groin. “Unless we’re whipping them out.”

“Jesus Christ, Ads,” Arvy snapped, and elbowed him.

Adler grinned. “All I’m saying is some of us have actual sex to go home to and don’t spend all day jawing about it.”

Then he shoved his way past Arvy, who shoved him back before letting him go.

“Asshole,” Arvy muttered, but it wasn’t said with heat. I exchanged glances with him, and he gave that single-shoulder shrug of “What can you do?”

I mentally added Adler to my list of concerns.

The drive home was one of my better commutes, the traffic not too heavy and an audio book a quiet background for my thoughts. I liked music, but sometimes just the drone of words was enough to allow me to center and collect everything together.

I’d been lulled into a false sense of security today, or at least that was what I decided. Everyone had been so accommodating, thoughtful, and encouraged by my words… and then there was Adler. I knew the team was facing a rocky few months, maybe longer, but random comments about cock were not what I was looking for.

I looked up his bio as soon as I walked through the door; he was the one I needed to watch. Apart from his name, there were all kinds of complicated stats, which I made a good guess at and looked the rest up online.

Adler Kincaid Lockhart
Born Nov.4, 1993, Brampton, Maine
6’4 219 lbs.
Left Wing—shoots Left
Last Season—GP 57 – G 31– A 23 – P 54– Plus/Minus 5 – PIM 51 – PPG 19 – GWG 4 – OTG 3- S% 18.2

Seemed pretty straightforward.

I’d met guys like him before. Either he’d been checking me out that morning and he was in the closet, or he was a homophobic asshole and didn’t give a shit who knew it. He’d used the word cock today, and been highly suggestive, so I made some notes about appropriate language, against his name in particular and the rest of the team in general.

Chinese ordered, I sat at the table and decided I’d put off checking family messages long enough. No doubt it would be the typical inane run of news about Zach and Adam and their plumbing business, or David complaining about the economy affecting construction and his electrician business, or maybe it would be Louise talking about daycare and how she wished sometimes that working in daycare didn’t involve children.

Then again, it could be my mom, worrying about me being the only one not living in the old hometown. My moving away from Alton Heights, Michigan, and attending NYU had been both something to be proud of and something to worry her. Add on the fact that I’d never gone home after college, instead buying a place in Harrisburg, and I was apparently the reason she had gray hair.

Privately, I wasn’t the only one of her five children who knew she dyed her hair every four weeks, regular as clockwork, to keep it flawlessly blonde. She was a homemaker—you name it and she did it in the name of looking out for the family. Bake sales, community events, dinner on the table every night at six, she did it all.

I answered Zach’s message about Mom’s seventieth birthday event. “Yes, I’ll be there, tell me when.” I replied to David and Louise in a similar way, because it seemed three out of four of my siblings were convinced I wouldn’t turn up to Janet Foxx’s party.

I loved my mom. After my dad died ten or so years ago she’d been there for me as much as she could, and there was no way I’d miss the event.

Adam’s message was just one long joke about a rabbi in a bar and didn’t really make sense. I typed LOL anyway, and hoped that it was funny and not some serious story about an actual rabbi he’d met in a bar.

So when the Chinese arrived and I’d tipped it onto a plate, I had one more person to talk to, and I thumbed through my contacts for Mom, steeling myself to answer all the usual questions.

“Finally my baby calls,” she said by way of a hello. “I nearly sent Zach to find out if you were still alive. You never call, you never visit…”

Wow, she hadn’t waited long to lay the guilt over me. “Mom, you know I’d come back if I could.”

“You still working with that actor?”

“No, with a hockey team now, as a social media awareness and crisis management support officer.”

“A what now?”

“A social—”

“Oh,” she interrupted. “You should talk to David about hockey. You remember Calvin, his friend from junior high? Well his cousin’s friend’s brother… or was it his brother’s cousin? Wait, that wouldn’t make sense, would it? Anyhow, this young boy has moved lock stock and barrel up north, playing for some team.”

North to my mom meant Canada, and no, I didn’t recall a Calvin, or know what the hell she was talking about. I’m the youngest of five children, with a big gap between me and the next sibling up, Louise, my only sister. Mom and Dad had me late—she was forty-four and pregnant with her fifth, and now, as I neared twenty-six, my strong-as-an-ox mom was reaching her seventieth. All those years she’d given me and my siblings meant I could stand to listen to her rambling on about a kid I didn’t know.

“So you got a boyfriend yet?”

That blindsided me, the question coming out of nowhere, and entirely separate from the subject of Calvin’s kind-of-cousin who played hockey.

“No, Mom,” I said.

“You just dating casually?” she asked.

I cut her off before she began to ask me about my sex life, and believe me, she loved asking about that. “Yes, a hockey player,” I lied.

“Good. I want to see you enjoying life.”

“I do, Mom.”

“So are you coming for my surprise party next month?”

“Mom, jeez,” I spluttered. “You’re not supposed to know about that.”

“Oh, so there is one, then.”

Shit. I’d just been played by my mother.

“No,” I said, but it really was too late. “Mom, I have to go; my takeout has arrived.”

“Okay, Layton. You take care, now, and call me more often.”

“I will, Mom.”

Guilt at lying to her poked at me insistently, but I tried to ignore it. I shoveled in a fork of noodles and opened my iPad with my other hand, typing a quick message to Louise, who I knew was the chief organizer of Mom’s birthday, admitting what had happened. There wasn’t an immediate reply; I hadn’t expected one.

Between my four siblings, there were four spouses and at last count, ten children, Louise leading the pack with five children all by the age of thirty-one, the youngest only a couple of months old now.

I was seriously the odd one out in that family.

The only one to go to college and get a degree, the only one with a career that pulled in good money, the only one who moved away.

I went to bed with a hundred questions in my head, all focused around the Railers and my plans for the team. First off I needed to talk to each player, and I moved Adler Lockhart up the list.

I got the feeling that the gorgeous man with the come-to-bed eyes and the seriously un-PC attitude was the one to watch.

Deep Edge #3
Chapter One
Trent
I studied the image of me at the Sochi games. I looked so happy with that silver medal around my neck, standing just a few inches lower than Connor O’Day, my teammate who’d grabbed the gold. Even though Connor – the bitch – had won the gold, I’d still been happy. I recalled that feeling. Happy was nice.“Trent?”

Two silvers in the past two Olympics. The upcoming one had been supposed to be mine. I’d been skating stronger than I ever had. Everyone had predicted that I’d finally get past Connor to win the gold. Happy would have been everywhere. I’d have been drowning in fucking happy. I would have been wearing happy and that gold around my neck like a cashmere coat from Neiman Marcus.

“Trent?”

Gayle’s touch pulled me from Envy Land. I spun from the newly hung imagery of Trent Hanson on the soft white walls of my new agent’s office. She smiled sadly at me. Gods. Everyone looked at me like that now. I hated it. And I hated not being happy anymore.

“Sorry, I was just admiring that costume. Isn’t that dark blue and silver to die for?” I moved around the short, dark-haired woman who was now in charge of my career. Or what was left of it.

“It is. It still amazes me that you design all your skating costumes. You’re such a talented young man. Why don’t we sit, and we’ll get to the reason I called you in?”

Ah, agents. They were so lovely – when they weren’t embezzling all your money and spending it on whores, vodka gimlets, and a particularly bad run over a week in Atlantic City. Note to the young and innocent – never let your stepfather manage your money, especially when he’s open about how much he dislikes your gay little ass. That way you won’t end up broke, shamed, and trying to figure out how to keep your mother and grandmother from being booted out of their house while your rink teeters on the edge of financial ruin. Where the fuck had all my happy gone? I wanted it back, dammit!

I moved past the windows that looked down on Philadelphia, my hometown. I’d been born and raised in the City of Brotherly Love. I adored this city, and it loved me in return. Or had. Now I was just the mincing and well-dressed queer who didn’t even have two pennies to rub together. How quickly love and adoration turned to titters and cold shoulders. Drawing my coat around me, I sat down in a plush beige chair and crossed one leg over the other, making sure my coat draped properly over my thighs. I hate wrinkles. And beige. Why were straights so afraid of a little color?

Gayle sat down behind her desk, smiled at me yet again, and folded her hands in front of her. I raised a freshly plucked eyebrow. She was still trying to get a handle on me. Tobey & Troy was the largest athletic representation firm in Philly. They handled most of the Eagles, Sixers and Flyers, as well as several tennis players. And now they had me. Trent Lawrence Hanson. Famed gay figure skater and next in line to be a Dickens character in real life. Please, sir, I want some more. Ugh. As if I’d eat gruel. What if I had to? The thought was too much to bear.

“I think that now that the legal issues with your father—”

“Stepfather,” I quickly reminded her.

“Yes, sorry, stepfather. Well, now that he’s been convicted and is serving time, I think this is the moment to start working on marketing you in a positive light.” She smiled again, nervously, and leveled light blue eyes at me. “Where are you in terms of returning to competitive skating?”

I glanced out the window at Ben Franklin standing atop City Hall. I began running my hands over the thin cotton flaps lying over my thighs.

“I have no money, my professional reputation is shot, and both my rink and my mother’s house are two months away from foreclosure. Do you honestly think I could find the mental clarity and focus to skate again?” As soon as I heard how bitchy I sounded, I placed a hand over my mouth. “I’m so sorry,” I mumbled into my fingers.

“It’s quite understandable,” she replied. She was far too nice to be saddled with a miserable cow-bag like me. I wanted to cry, but didn’t. I’d do that later when I visited Mom and my Lola. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Water would be lovely,” I coughed into my fingers. She rang her receptionist. “I’m better now. See.” I lowered my hand and smiled brilliantly at her.

Gayle nodded, but melancholy lingered in her gaze. A tiny blonde hurried in with a bottle of water and handed it to me. I was about to ask if she could possibly find a cold one, but I bit my tongue. Bitchy Trent had already escaped once today.

“Thank you.”

She nodded and scurried out, closing the door behind her slim backside. Her shoes were terrible. Who wears black flats with a peach dress in late June? Honestly, women, learn how to dress. I took tiny sips of the tepid water. Gayle waited. I capped the bottle and balanced it in my left hand so my coat didn’t get watermarked. I was a beggar now. I had to keep my wardrobe in good shape. Tears threatened again.

Gayle broke into the building weep-fest. “I understand that you’re not mentally ready to return to figure skating. To that end, we need to find you something to do that will bring in good money so you can get your assets back in sound fiscal shape.”

“You mean pull my rink and my mother’s house out of the snapping jaws of foreclosure?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have been quite that dramatic…”

“Few are.” I sighed as I returned to working out the crinkles in my duster.

“Right, well, I’ve been approached by GLBTQtv about a reality show with you as the star.”

My chin dropped to my chest. “Get. Out.”

“I’m very serious,” Gayle said, her smile spreading into a grin. “They’re waving a nice fat contract at us.”

“I’ll do it! Wait. Are there lots of zeros mentioned in the contract?” I was so excited I grabbed my duster and wadded it up in my right hand.

“There are several zeros,” she whispered as her grin grew even wider.

“I’ll do it!” My gods, I was such a whore. Wave a ten in front of me and down to my knees I went. But zeros meant money. Money that would keep my family safely housed and my rink operational. Rainbow Skate was my rink. I’d bought it and refurbished it. It was where I practiced. And it was where little gay and straight children who wanted a safe place to skate and express themselves and their art could come. No hateful slurs or brutes were allowed at Rainbow Skate. That was my rule. I hated bullies. I’d dealt with them from the time I was eight and discovered how fabulous I was on skates and how amazing my sewing skills were. By the time I was fourteen and came out officially, not one person was shocked. My stepfather was disgusted, but then again, he was a thieving twat.

“Wonderful! I’ve read over the contract and it’s pretty straightforward.” I bounced in my seat as Gayle talked. “They’re asking for six to eight weeks with exclusive access to you and the Railers as you work with them.”

The bouncing slowed. “I’m sorry…” I tapped my right ear. “Did you say Railers? What are Railers?”

“They’re the hockey team that’s expressed a pointed interest in working with you on this show.”

I couldn’t control the laugh that burst out of me. I roared so long and so heartily that I was close to hyperventilating when the laughter began to die down. Gayle sat behind her desk, staring at me as if I’d gone around the bend.

“Phew. Oh, my gods and garters,” I panted several minutes later. Dabbing gently under my eyes, I saw a blur of black on my fingertip. “And I thought this was waterproof eyeliner. Do you have tissues?”

She got up , grabbed a box from the edge of her desk, and handed it to me.

“Thank you.” I wiped my finger on a Kleenex, then gingerly pulled a tiny corner under my right and then left eye. “I hate this cheap stuff. I’m going to throw it out when I get home. Why did I even buy anything other than waterproof?”

“Is there a problem with you working with hockey players?” Gayle asked after she sat back down.

I tittered. “How much time do you have?” I asked.

She gawked at me.

“I do not do jocks.”

“But you’re a jock.”

“Uh, no, no, I am not. I’m an artist. I don’t go skating around hitting people in the face with sticks. No, sorry, this sweet thing,” I motioned to myself, “does not do hockey players, footballers, baseballers, basketballers, or those men who run around with nets to catch balls in. Lacrosse! I don’t do them either. I will do tennis players or an occasional fellow skater, but they can’t be on my team. Cat fights amongst team members are so ugly. I rather like Russian skaters. It’s the accent. I once did a Russian skater. He was delicious. I called it my Boris Godunov phase.”

I giggled at the witty, but Gayle simply continued to gape. I was so happy now – why was she being a prude?

“What?” I asked when she didn’t speak.

“Trent, this contract is contingent on you working with the Railers.”

“No, sorry. I don’t do hockey players. Didn’t we just cover that? They’re rude bullies who have never passed up an opportunity to shove me into lockers, dunk my head into toilets, or taunt me in front of everyone at the rink. Nope. Tell them I don’t do hockey players.”

“Trent, the contract is very specific. The Railers recently had a player come out.”

I passed the water bottle from my left to my right hand. “Good for him. I wish him all the success in the world. This impacts me how?”

“He and his coach…”

“Ew. His coach? Oh, yuck. Have you seen coaches? Ugh. They’re usually old Russian men with nose hair and breath that always reeks of potato soup and pickles.”

“Trent, what the man looks like isn’t important…”

“Maybe not to you.”

“They’re hoping to have this gay player and his teammates spend a few weeks with you at Rainbow Skate. It will show the world that gay athletes are caring, competitive, normal people.”

“If the nematodes out there in TV land don’t know that we’re normal people, then fuck them in the ass with a splintery wooden spoon. Again, I state that I do not do hockey players.”

“Then the show goes to Connor, since he’s recently come out as questioning.”

I shot to my boots. “There is no way in hell I get beat out by that simpleton again. How dare he try to out-gay me?! Gods above, I hate that little shithead. Fine. Fine! Tell the TV people I’ll work with the Cro-Magnons on skates, but the first time I hear one homophobic remark or one of them corners me in the bathroom, I am out of there!”

I slammed the water bottle on her desk and stalked to the door, my duster snapping around my leather ankle boots.

“Before you go, you need to read and sign the contract,” Gayle called, stopping my perfect diva exit, cold.

I glowered at the door, turned, and walked with purpose back to my seat. I snapped the contract from her and flopped down. Oh my. There were so many zeros. I needed zeros so, so badly. Why was nothing easy? Hockey players. I shuddered, read, and signed.

“I feel so cheap and dirty,” I mumbled ten minutes later when I was standing on Broad Street. I tied my coat around my waist. Some fool walked past and asked if I knew what fucking month it was. “Yes, I know it’s June. The outfit needed a coat. Don’t judge me.”

I hailed a cab. I don’t drive cars unless I must. I do have a scooter, but it had looked like rain when I left.

“2020 South 16th Street,” I told the driver after I was in and seated. He flipped the meter on and off we went to my mother’s house.

I was torn now. On one hand, I was the happiest I had been since my stepfather had run off with all my money. On the other hand, working with big, dumb hockey players was going to be dreadful, even if one of them was gay. I spent the ride staring out at the city and the narrow streets.

Newbold – or Point Breeze – was where I’d been raised. There was a nice Asian community there, with plenty of people from Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines, which was where my Lola was from. Mom and my grandmother had been trying to keep their heads above water since the debacle with my stepfather. The taxes were overdue on her little brick rowhouse. I’d paid them for years, but now…now I didn’t have the cash to pay my own rent. Then there was the mortgage on Rainbow Skate.

“My life sucks,” I groaned when we pulled up in front of my mother’s place. There was no way the cab could get to the curb. Cars were parked bumper to bumper.

“Welcome to life, kid.”

“I’m twenty-three,” I told Mr. Cabbie. He shrugged. Someone behind us blew their horn. The driver gave them the finger. I paid, and tipped the best I could. I felt the dark look for the measly buck tip as I hurried out of the yellow cab and up the cement steps to blessed relief from the nasty old world.

Lola was in the kitchen when I blew in. She gave me one look and opened her arms. I ran to the short, round, silver-haired woman and pulled her close. She stroked my back and murmured to me in Pilipino. The room smelled of soy sauce. Maybe she was making chicken adobo. I really needed some of her cooking, but I needed her hugs more.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked during the embrace.

“At the shop,” Lola whispered.

I grimaced, then gently stepped away. “I thought she had today off,” I sighed, peeling my coat off and draping it just so over the back of the battered chair. I sat down and quickly had a platter of dark chicken thigh meat cooked in soy, garlic and vinegar served over rice in front of me. “She works too hard.”

“Not more or less than any day since he run off with money.”

I blew out a breath and forked up some rice. Mom needed rehab. But, again, rehab cost money.

“I got an offer to be on a TV show. They want me to star in it with hockey players,” I told my grandmother.

She stopped waddling around long enough to point to the bright orange shirt she was wearing. “You make TV with Flyers?!” She pointed at the logo on her boobs.

“No, not the Flyers.”

“Pah, then bad hockey team.”

“They’re from Harrisburg.”

“Almost as bad as Pittsburgh!”

Lola loved her Flyers. As did everyone in the city except me. I didn’t do hockey players. Ever. Except now it looked like I was. Curse my stepfather to hell and back.

“They’re going to pay me a lot of money to do the show, Lola. We need the money. I can pay off the house and the rink. I can help Mom financially so she’s not giving mani-pedis for dismal pay and tips seven days a week.”

She sat down across from me at the table that was as old and worn as she was. Hell, as the whole house was.

“You are good, sweet boy. Eat more.” She patted my hand.

Try maintaining a skating weight with two Pilipino women in your life. It’s almost impossible. But, since I’d probably never skate again, why not have more rice? Who cared? It wasn’t like one of the Railers would be looking at the delightful curvature of my ass. Shit, it had been ages since anyone had looked, commented on, or even patted the delightful curvature of my ass.

“May I have more rice?”

Poke Check #4
Chapter One
Erik
In Sweden we have a saying, “Det blir som det blir”.

Loosely translated, it comes out something like “whatever will be, will be”, and despite some missteps along the way, I do believe that everything happens for a reason.

Like me, being here in Pennsylvania, when yesterday I’d been sitting in the yard in a San Diego winter with just a jersey and a thin jacket. Today there was snow. Lots of snow. And it was past cold and on to bitter when the wind caught you the right way.

“You might want to get a better coat,” Emma said helpfully. She was my liaison to get me settled; she’d had me sign lots of forms, allocated keys and a key card, and reeled off a list of rules that apparently all the Railers players adhered to. “Like a thicker coat, maybe.”

You think? I was shivering. The cold had seeped into my bones, and even though she’d explained as she did the tour that the East River Arena, only a few years old, had heating problems that were being fixed, I hoped to hell it wasn’t this cold all the time.

And yes, I know I’m from Sweden, and a hockey player; I know I should be okay with the cold, but this Harrisburg winter was enough to freeze my balls off.

“A coat is on my list,” I said, and gave her my best smile. She grinned back and tilted her head a little, just like my ex had done the night I’d met her, slept with her, and created a new life.

I love women, I love men, and if I’d been on the market then Emma, or indeed that Pete guy who ran security and who’d patted me down when I arrived, would have been on my radar. But I was so not on the market, and there was no way I was getting it on with anyone for a very long time.

My son was my primary goal, that was the truth, and behind him came hockey and winning the Stanley Cup. The pinnacle of hockey excellence, it was that single shining, beautiful, object that every professional hockey player wanted to win.

Not that I really expected the Railers to get it this year; they were an expansion team, new to the NHL, kind of raw, with a lot of potential.

They had a good group of guys in their farm team—young men who were being molded ready to move up to the Railers themselves. I was one of those in that feeder team. Not that I was young; twenty-seven is way past ‘young’ when you have eighteen-year-olds coming in and showing you how it’s done. I’d expected to finish my time with the Carlisle Rush, or another AHL team that would take the chance on me, but no, things had moved so fast, injuries had happened, and here I was, up with the big boys.

And him.

As my agent said, the Railers were an exciting team, a new team, a team that wanted me playing the big games, and boy was I ready for that. I’d been drafted at eighteen, and since then, nine long years, I’d played AHL hockey. Not that that was essentially a bad thing, but still, I wanted to play for the cup. I wanted that ring, and the depth the team was creating was going to enable them to make that run. Hopefully with me hanging on for dear life and not fucking up too much.

“You’re one of those skaters who grow into their skills, their bodies.” That was what my agent pointed out whenever I lost the conviction that I could do any of this. “The boy has become a man,” he had added, because he did that kind of thing where he sounded like Yoda but with the ability to get his words in the right order.

Emma stopped walking, and I nearly crashed into her. So much for my much-vaunted balance and awareness.

“This is one of our defensive coaches,” she said, and waved a hand at a tall blond dude who stepped out of a doorway marked “Coaches”, who you’d have to be a complete idiot not to recognize. “Jared Madsen,” she added, just in case maybe I was one of those skaters who didn’t know the world of people he played in.

“Welcome to the Railers,” Jared said, and extended his hand. A defenseman turned coach, he was also in the middle of some serious issues about who he was dating. I mean, I knew that anyway, but Emma had spent a good thirty minutes challenging my conceptions on life as if she wanted to shake free a certain level of support for the Ten/Jared thing that was going on. She really didn’t need to do that.

A simple, “Love is love,” from me, and she nodded approvingly.

I shook Jared’s hand and attempted a smile, which I hoped encompassed how I felt about him dating a dude, and how it was cool, and I accepted and supported it. Likely, though, given the cold that was rattling my bones, it came out more of a grimace, because his eyebrows raised in question.

“It’s all a bit much at first, new team and all,” Jared said, and released his hold on my hand. He was giving me an out; offering me the chance to explain the half smile.

Best foot forward and all.

“Happy for you and Ten, Coach,” I said, then blustered ahead to qualify the statement. “I like Tennant, he’s a good kid.” Shit. Had calling him “kid” drawn attention to the age difference between Coach Madsen and Tennant? Not that it was that bad, but… “I mean a good forward, good for the team.”

At that, Coach smiled. “Thank you.” He had a clipboard in his hand and a gaggle of kids standing behind him, all peering around him and staring up at me.

“Who’s he?” someone faux-whispered, a young boy, no more than nine. This was clearly some kind of Railers outreach visit, or a school thing, or something like that. I put on my game face.

“Hi guys,” I said, and stepped to one side so they could all see me. “Erik Gunnarsson, right wing.”

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then all hell broke loose—questions, comments, congratulations…a couple of the kids had even heard of me. Coach Madsen had to kind of corral them into a cohesive group, and you could tell he took the word “coach” to heart, because one word, and like a throng of ducklings they followed him away.

“Down here,” Emma said, and continued to talk as we walked down the long corridor toward the elevators. “The Railers do a lot of outreach in the community, with schools. We have a newly formed sled team, work with several local charities, and have fundraising nights that you’ll be expected to attend.”

“Cool,” I said, for want of something else to say. We’d had charity events in the San Diego Admirals, only they hadn’t been quite as fancy as what I imagined an NHL team set up, like casino nights and puppy adoptions. Being a player wasn’t just about the playing; the charity side, the outreach, they were all vital parts of my life. Back in Sweden as a kid, in my first team, I’d been in charge of fundraising. My gran had always said I could raise money just by using my dimples and curls.

Gran was obviously biased, but she’d been right that I had raised a lot of money.

And believe me, I have always known how to use my dimples and curls.

Emma called the elevator, and we waited in the cold corridor, me pulling down the sleeves of my worn Admirals jersey and her sinking deeper into her furry-hooded coat.

“We have a press release for tomorrow,” she said. “Our social media consultant will want to schedule a meeting with you and suggested we drop by after the tour. That will be Layton Foxx, and I’ll introduce you to him after you’ve got your bearings post-skate.”

“Sure.” I filed away the name. I’d seen the press conference for the guys on the team who were doing the horizontal, but the man who’d orchestrated how it all happened wasn’t someone I knew.

The elevator arrived, and I gestured for Emma to go in first. She smiled at me, although to be fair I could see very little of her face under the fur of her hood. I smiled back and moved to the opposite side of the car. Hands off. No touching. Stay professional. Don’t act available.

All wise words from my gran, my agent, and my best friend Lars.  They were the ones helping me pick up the pieces of my life—of being a husband, a father, and of a summer that had changed my life.

“This way,” Emma said, and I followed her out into another corridor. I was seriously going to get lost. Everything was different on this floor. The walls were devoid of posters about the team and instead adorned with printouts of inspirational hockey quotes. The intensity of them grew as we moved closer to the dressing area. Seemed like someone on this team believed in the power of positive thought. Just as we were being told in stark black capitals that the Railers were winners, we reached double doors, and she stopped again. This time the Gunnarsson grace and control of my body played its part well, and I managed to stop in time.

“Your key card will get you into the changing room, and then into the locker room, so you need to have that on you at all times. Otherwise you’ll find yourself locked in the corridor with no way in.”

“Key card. Got it.”

“Try it now.”

I tugged at the card on the lanyard and waved it, as instructed, over the panel.

Ninety-five percent of me desperately hoped it didn’t work. The same percentage that really wanted to have been picked up by an NHL team that wasn’t the Railers. Any team. Even a shitty one that regularly beat my beloved New York Rangers.

Just my luck, it worked, and suddenly I was out of my comfort zone. In there was a team waiting for a new right wing; someone who could shore up their fourth line after they’d lost veteran Marc Gauthier to a long-term lower-body injury.

In there were skaters I knew well: Tennant Rowe, Adler Lockhart, Jens Hedlund, Dieter Lehmann, Lee Addison, fellow Swede Arvid Ulfsson, and the captain Connor Hurleigh, to name but a few. Hell, Anatoly ‘Toly’ Sokolov was in there, and he was a personal hero of mine, not to mention my potential fellow winger on the fourth line.

“Are you okay?” Emma asked. “I know it can be overwhelming.”

“I’m not overwhelmed. I’m excited,” I reassured her.

I’m desperate to get on the ice for the Railers all while avoiding a big Russian.

“I’m just cold,” I added, because she was probably reacting to my pale face or my shivering and taking it as nerves.

I wasn’t nervous about the hockey or the players; that was my job, and I could do my job.

There was only one thing that was causing the butterflies in my chest and the nausea that threatened.

Terror at coming face to face with Stanislav Lyamin. Stan, the man I’d loved and then thrown away last year. One conditioning camp, one long summer, and one affair I would never forget. I’d fallen in love, with the big goalie who spoke no English except for what he’d picked up in popular culture. We’d fallen for each other without much in the way of talking. Who does that kind of thing?

And Stan? He was the starting goalie for the Harrisburg Railers, and he was in that room.

“Det blir som det blir,” I murmured. “Whatever will be, will be.”

Stan will ignore me, or hit me, or look at me with those tragically beautiful gray eyes.

“Sorry?”

“Superstition,” I said quickly. People expected hockey players to do some weird things for good luck, and she nodded that she understood. The locker room door was also locked, accessed with the card, and after waving the card at the reader, we were in.

Noise died. What had been a cacophony of shouts, laughter and talking when I pushed the door open stopped dead. There was me thinking I could walk in to maybe a small group of the team, a subset of the entire team, maybe meet them a few at a time. But no, I wasn’t going to be so lucky.

Everyone was in there, and one by one they acknowledged me with a handshake if they were close enough, or a welcoming nod if not.

Captain Connor Hurleigh crossed to me, shook my hand. “Welcome to the Railers,” he said.

I have mad respect for Connor. Coming in as the captain of an expansion team is a challenge, and one that he’d managed, getting the new team to the playoffs last year. I had so much to say to him, so many questions, but all I could do was look for the one person who I couldn’t immediately see in the room. Stan.

“Sorry about the lack of heating back here,” Connor continued. “They said it would be fixed by three for the game tonight. You ready for this?”

I was half listening. Stan was seriously nowhere to be seen. And really, you couldn’t miss the six-four giant mountain of a man, particularly in his goalie gear. His size had been one of the things that had attracted me. I’m not small, but I top out at six feet and carry thirty pounds less than he does. When we’d met in Sweden, all I’d been able to think had been that he was gorgeous, and sexy, and I wanted him.

So I’d worked harder on chasing Stan than I had on my conditioning.

I’d had Stan in my bed, and my heart, for the whole camp. I’d fallen in love, and then I’d been a coward. Or a hero? Who knew what I’d been; all that remained was that I’d thrown him away.

“Okay, then, let’s get you suited up,” Connor said, and his words pulled me back. Had I been standing there like an idiot? He didn’t seem pissed at me, so maybe I hadn’t fucked up on my first morning there. “Your stuff is in the stall. We put you with Toly.”

Anatoly “Toly” Sokolov, fellow winger and future friend, I hoped, had a welcoming smile on his face, and talked to me the entire time I stripped and changed, pulling on the practice jersey of my new team. Practice jerseys were black and white, but the logo of a train was on all of them. Mine was black, the same as Toly’s, and he fist-bumped me when I finished lacing my skates, thoughtfully available ready for me in my stall.

Stan was probably out on the ice. I could picture him now, graceful despite his size and his equipment. He’d be in net, maybe working on his stretches, or his blocker side, which he always complained was weaker than glove side. He’d be concentrating hard, and he wouldn’t even notice I was there.

What was I to the big Russian anyway? A holiday fling? He’d walked away from me just as hard as I’d walked away from him. He understood we couldn’t be together. He had a life that fit his NHL dreams.

I’d married Freja because it had been the right thing to do; we had a baby together. Even post break-up, my family thought I was managing wonderfully with my color-coded schedules and my nanny, but who was I kidding? My life wasn’t together. My life was actually all kinds of messed up, and the fear of facing Stan for the first time since last summer wasn’t helping at all.

I had a soon-to-be-official ex-wife, a new baby that I was the primary carer for, a nanny who saved my life on a daily basis, extensive debt, an empty rented apartment that needed filling, and a shark of a lawyer on speed-dial.

Today, here in this place, I had a Russian I needed to face.

I hit the ice, the smooth glide of skates on the cold stuff enough to snap me out of my misery as I pushed into lazy circles.  Still no sign of Stan, and the backup goalie was out, leaning on his net and shooting the breeze with one of the coaches.

There was some joking, stretches, horsing around, and I began to take note of the rink, and the seating, and the huge jumbotron above my head.

Then the air shifted, or there was a noise, or I felt something. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I knew he was there. I was still attuned to him, like he’d never left my heart or head at all. I just knew.

Connor patted my arm. “And this is Stan, our starting goalie.”

RJ Scott
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 Scott is the bestselling author of over one hundred romance books. She writes emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn’t with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.

VL Locey
V.L. Locey loves worn jeans, yoga, belly laughs, 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, two dogs, two cats, a flock of assorted domestic fowl, and three Jersey steers.

When not writing spicy romances, she enjoys spending her day with her menagerie in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania with a cup of fresh java in hand. She can also be found online on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and GoodReads.


RJ Scott
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Changing Lines #1
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First Season #2
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Deep Edge #3
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Poke Check #4
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