I can't wait for you to meet the Redtails men! They've got huge personality and even bigger heart.
First up is Shane's story. He's the Redtails No. 1 goalie but he's going through a slump at the worst time. And then he meets Bliss. And discovers an even bigger challenge.
I love the game, which makes my hockey-mad husband very happy. It doesn't hurt that the guys are huge, hot, quirky and amazing athletes. The hubby and I have season tickets to our local ECHL team, the Reading Royals. We also manage to get in 12 games a year at the AHL Hershey Bears and have started on our quest to visit as many hockey arenas around the continent as we can manage.
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Want to know more? Here's the first chapter for you. Hope you enjoy!
THE BRICK WALL
Stalking into the empty locker room of the Reading Civic Arena, Shane Conrad tossed his helmet, swearing even more when it smashed into the wall. Something cracked, either the wall or his goalie helmet, and he didn’t much care either way.
One more nick in the cinderblock meant shit. One more ding in his helmet… Well, his game was fucked at the moment and he probably wouldn’t need the goddamn helmet much longer anyway.
Not the way he was playing.
The rest of the team was still on the ice for practice, though they’d be making their way back here in a few minutes. Tonight, they’d play their last game before the three-day Christmas holiday.
And it looked like Shane would be riding the bench.
Christ, he felt like he was back in high school—the fat, awkward kid at the school dance, sitting alone on the bleachers while his friends danced with the hot chicks. The ones who only gave him the time of day because he had a wicked sense of humor and he’d led his high school hockey team to three straight victories.
Throwing himself onto the bench, he ripped open the laces on his skates then threw them on the ground for good measure.
Fucking hell, this sucked.
Get your damn head out of your ass.
Good advice. Wished he knew how to do it.
Frustration burning through him like lit gasoline, he started stripping off the rest of his gear, careful not to rip his practice jersey and shorts. Didn’t give a shit about the rest. He hung his pads in his locker out of habit before he grabbed a towel and stalked naked to the showers.
He stood there for at least five minutes, let the scalding hot water pour over his head and back, trying to get the frustration and the anger to roll away with it.
So far, not working.
And didn’t that just make him want to suck down a gallon of Jack Daniels?
He stiffened as his teammate Cary Lenville’s voice penetrated the fog in his head. He considered ignoring him but no one ignored Cary.
The assistant captain of the Reading Redtails Hockey Club, Cary was the glue that held the team together. At thirty-six, he was the oldest player and, even if he wasn’t the most skilled player, he was the one everyone went to when they had problems. Cary always had an answer, didn’t matter what the question was. And even if it wasn’t the completely right answer, it was better than anything you’d come up with on your own.
But Shane knew Cary couldn’t help with this problem. Not when Shane was pretty damn sure it was all in his messed-up head.
Shutting off the water, he grabbed his towel. “What’s up?”
He didn’t meet Cary’s gaze and he tried to keep the edge out of his tone but couldn’t manage it. Not when frustrated embarrassment threatened to choke him.
Goddammit, he was supposed to be the team’s number one goalie. They’d nicknamed him the Brick Wall, for fuck’s sake. So why the fuck wasn’t he playing like it?
The guys were depending on him to help them get to the Calder Cup championships this year. They’d been playing well enough to consider it a real possibility. But Shane had to pull his head out of his ass…like, now.
“Coach said you’re not going home for the break.”
He turned to give Cary a look before heading back to his locker. Luckily, no one else was off the ice yet so he had time to pull himself together.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
He didn’t add that he couldn’t bear to go home to Minnesota, where his mom would fuss over him like he was still in high school and his pop would lecture him like he was still his coach.
He loved his parents, but if he had to deal with them for an extended period of time, it would totally fuck with his head.
And that just made him feel worse.
Could he be any more screwed up? If he continued like this, Coach would trade his ass to Alaska or send him down to the ECHL.
“Then what’re you doing tomorrow night?” Cary asked.
Shane snorted with disgust and shook his head. “Besides drinking myself into a coma? Not one goddamn thing. Why?”
“Come to my place. Lori and I are having some people over.”
Shane automatically shook his head. “Nah, man. I don’t think I’d be good company. Thanks anyway.”
Cary went silent but he didn’t move. And that was never a good thing. The six-foot-two, two-hundred-plus defenseman not only was built like a brick shithouse but was pretty much as immoveable as one.
As the silence stretched on, Shane sighed and turned, forcing himself to look directly into Cary’s eyes.
Cary had crossed his arms over his chest, emphasizing just how broad the fucker really was. “You’re strung tighter than a drum and you need to decompress or you’re gonna explode. And that won’t be good for you or the team. Won’t be anybody there you know and we won’t talk hockey all night, unless Lori goes on a bender. Besides, I could use the backup.” He grimaced. “Lori’s always collecting strays. I swear I won’t know half the people there. And her cousins are crazy.”
Hearing Cary talk about the love of his life coaxed a smirk out of Shane. The guy was married to an abso-fucking-lutely gorgeous woman who seemed to think Cary hung the moon and stars. Cary apparently thought the same of her.
It’d be sickening if they weren’t so perfect for each other.
But… Christ. Cary wanted him to spend a few hours making small talk with a bunch of people he didn’t know? He opened his mouth to say no again but Cary just stared at him.
Shit. Shane’s resolve crumbled.
With a sigh, he began to pull on his clothes. “How crazy?”
Cary’s shit-eating grin made Shane want to smile back, but he squashed the impulse. Didn’t want to give the guy the impression he’d won. Even if he had.
“Let’s just say they have some holiday traditions that’d put the Addams family to shame.”
Shane tried not to sigh but couldn’t help it. “As long as there’s alcohol, I guess you can count me in.”
Cary nodded, his grin disappearing. “You find it helps?”
Shane didn’t bother to misunderstand him and shook his head. “Not really. And no, I don’t have a problem. At least, not with alcohol.”
Cary took him at his word. Another thing that made every single one of the guys worship him like he was the goddamn King of Hockey.
“Good to hear it. And yeah, I know you’ve been having a few bad weeks. It happens. The break’ll be good for you. Get your head on straight. If you want, we can run some drills tomorrow, just the two of us.”
And this was why Cary was rumored to be the front runner for the next Redtails coach. The gossip mill outside the locker room had been working overtime lately. Their current coach, according to the gossip, had a lock on an NHL job. Everyone expected Cary to step into the vacated position.
The players loved him. The front office loved him. The fans thought he walked on water.
Shane found himself nodding. “Yeah. That’d be… That’d be helpful.” He hoped.
Cary grinned then punched him on the shoulder and practically knocked Shane off the bench.
“Good. And come to the party. You’ll have a good time.”
* * * * *
“So I told him, he needed to pick one pattern or the other. Honestly, how hard is it? I mean, it’s not like I’m the only one getting married. It’s his wedding, too. Shouldn’t he at least be a little interested in the china we’re going to be using for the rest of our lives?”
Bliss Vescovi sat on a loveseat in a corner of Lori Lenville’s comfortable great room, sipping champagne and nodding sympathetically at the two women sitting across from her on the couch.
She’d only just met them but they seemed nice. And when they’d discovered Bliss worked at the With This Ring Bridal Boutique… Well, you would’ve thought they’d found a long-lost soulmate at Lori’s pre-holiday party.
At any other time, Bliss would’ve been thrilled to talk weddings. She actually enjoyed them, even when she had to handle the occasional bridezilla, momzilla, bitchy sister-in-law-to-be, drunken sorority-sister bridesmaid, and snotty three-year-old flower girl. She knew how to deal with them all.
Her boss, Aunt Rosie, called her a godsend. Bliss actually thought her aunt was the godsend for giving her a career when she’d had no idea what the hell she was going to do with a degree in business.
And even after her own wedding had fallen apart two years ago, she still got teary when she helped a bride-to-be find that perfect dress for her walk down the aisle to the man she’d decided to spend her life with, even if Bliss had no time or inclination for a life partner.
But a one-night stand? Absolutely. Bring it on. And, oh please, could he be good in the sack? Hell, she wouldn’t even wish for great. Just good enough with his hands to get her off at least once.
She’d had no such luck lately. And it didn’t look like tonight would be any better. Not one of the guys here tonight made her want to go to the trouble of giving up a few hours of sleep.
Jeez, what’s wrong with you? You’re only twenty-six, not eighty.
But between working with her aunt, whose business was steadily growing, and the fact that her friends were either married or hooked up with Mr. Right Now… Well, she didn’t get out much.
And when she did, she had to wonder if there were any decent guys left in the world. Most were dicks with attitude problems or nerdy man-children who lived in their parents’ basements, played video games until three in the morning and spent their weekends drinking with their buddies who were lucky or mature enough to have an apartment.
And… Oh my god. Was she really this much of a bitch? No wonder she couldn’t find anyone to screw. Honestly, she wouldn’t want her either.
“Lori’s been amazing,” one of the women gushed, drawing Bliss back into the conversation. “She helped us smooth over the problem with the zoning and made sure we had all the right permits. She’d been our guardian angel…”
Bliss nodded, in complete agreement with her new friends on this.
She’d met Lori at a local Chamber of Commerce mixer. Aunt Rosie hadn’t been able to attend but she’d begged Bliss to go in her place. She couldn’t even remember why her aunt had sent her. She only knew she hadn’t wanted to go. But then she’d met Lori and they’d bonded over a few drinks and a mutual admiration of hockey.
Lori’s husband played for the local professional hockey team, and though Bliss had only been to a few games, she’d gained an appreciation of the sport from her dad. It’d been the one thing the two of them enjoyed watching together. If it hadn’t been for hockey, she and her great, hulking bear of a father might never have held a conversation that didn’t begin and end with “How was school?”
Her dad loved her and he tried, but she’d always been a girly girl and that had been her mom’s domain.
“So I told him if he didn’t at least attempt to get along with my cousin, we might as well call off the wedding. I mean, my family is so important to me and…”
Yep, she totally got that. Family was important. She’d seen more than one wedding disintegrate into factions more fierce than anything in the Hunger Games during the planning stages.
And anyone who said words would never hurt you had never dealt with a bridezilla whose mother-in-law dared to have an opinion on what color napkin should be used on the cake table.
Bliss swallowed a sigh.
What the hell are you doing here anyway?
She should be mingling, flirting, having a good time. It wasn’t like there weren’t any good-looking guys here. A few of them had even made eye contact, and two had tried to start conversations.
Until five minutes later and she realized they only wanted to talk about what they did and how much that should impress her. Sure, they had decent jobs and wore decent clothes and were attractive but—
What’s wrong with you?
“And who tells your mother her dress makes her look fat? You know what I mean? I just wanted to punch…”
Bliss knew exactly how the bride-to-be felt. She wanted to punch someone, too.
Except Bliss didn’t do physical violence. She was no tough cookie. More like a cupcake with fluffy frosting. And who didn’t love cupcakes, right?
Sighing again, she took another sip of her drink and tried to wipe the pissy look off her face.
She knew she was no great beauty but she certainly didn’t look like an ogre. Sure, her nose was a little too big and her body a little too curvy. But she still managed to attract guys who liked big tits and a decent ass. She knew that because most guys she talked to couldn’t stop checking out either one long enough to hold a rational conversation.
Then again, she hadn’t exactly allowed any guys close enough to get to know her better. A vicious cycle, one she didn’t know how to break.
So, here she sat. Smiling and nodding through a conversation with two women she barely knew.
This had been a mistake. She should just take her pitiful self home and—
The front door opened, catching her attention simply because it was directly in her line of sight.
But then he walked through.
And she actually felt her mouth drop open. Like, literally, her jaw dropped. Then her lips parted and she sucked in a sharp breath that she immediately tried to cover with a slight cough.
She assured her new friends, who interrupted their conversation about guest lists to make sure she wasn’t choking, that she was fine and managed to come up with a question to get them back on their conversational track.
So she could go back to checking out the newcomer.
The really big newcomer.
And she didn’t mean fat. She meant built. Big as in broad. Wide. He looked like a—
Like Lori’s husband, Cary, who greeted the newcomer with a big smile and a firm handshake as he pulled him farther into the house.
Cary led the new guy right into the great room, where she sat against the far wall, and walked him straight to the bar.
Bliss tried not to stare. Really, she did. But how could she not when this guy ticked off every box on her Yummy Meter, including a few she hadn’t know she had?
Like his dark, wavy hair. Everyone in her huge Italian family had dark hair so every boyfriend she’d ever had had been blond, pretty, and clean-cut, like he’d just walked off a magazine shoot.
Like her ex-fiancé, the prick.
Nope, not thinking about him.
This guy looked like he hadn’t cut his hair in months or seen a razor in days, if the dark stubble on his strong, square jaw was anything to go by. He looked scruffy but not like he was trying to be trendy.
Now, the bright blue eyes… Yeah, she absolutely had a thing for those. And his were a perfect ocean blue she could see from across the room. Combined with that nose that looked as if it’d been broken a few times…
Damn. Her mouth watered.
And when her gaze slipped south… Hell, she was pretty sure her thighs just clenched.
The guy had to be at least a few inches over six feet, which means he’d tower over her. And his clothes couldn’t hide the fact that he had muscles in places all men should have muscles. Like in their thighs. And their abs. And their arms—
When he took off his coat to let Cary hang it in the closet, she had to swallow because… Oh my god. The man’s arms bulged beneath his blue dress shirt.
With black dress pants and that blue shirt, he looked good enough to eat.
Wouldn’t you love to get your mouth on him?
Yes, please. Anywhere he had skin.
And when he turned to walk with Cary to the makeshift bar on the other side of the room, she thought she might have actually squeaked at the wonder of his ass.
“Bliss, are you okay?”
Blinking, she turned her attention back to the two women, now staring at her with identical expressions of knowing amusement.
Damn. Had she been that obvious?
She forced a smile. “Yes, I’m fine. Sorry, I, uh…”
“Got a glimpse of Shane Conrad.” The bride-to-be, whose name was Crista, smiled with commiseration. “He certainly is nice-looking. Kind of shy, though. Lori’s tried to set him up with a few girls before but nothing’s stuck. He’s apparently a really nice guy but doesn’t talk much. Or he doesn’t like girls.” Crista shrugged. “No one’s been able to figure out which yet. Would you like to meet him? I’m sure Lori would be thrilled to introduce you. He’s kind of become her pet project.”
Is that why Lori had invited Bliss tonight? To introduce her to Shane? Not that that would be a bad thing but…
“I think I need a drink. Anyone need another?”
Both Crista and her friend shook their heads, their grins widening.
Bliss didn’t care. For the first time in months, she wanted to jump a guy’s bones. She’d be damned if she didn’t follow up on it.
And maybe later, she’d get to strip off his pants and shirt and rub against his naked body like a cat in heat.
Just as long as she didn’t stick her foot in her mouth first.