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Poke Check (Harrisburg Railers #4)

Harrisburg Railers #4

Copyright © 2018 RJ Scott

Copyright © 2018 V.L. Locey

Smashwords Edition

Cover design by Meredith Russell

Edited by Rebecca Hill

Published by Love Lane Books Limited

ISBN 978-1-78564-113-8


All Rights Reserved

This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. This book cannot be copied in any format, sold, or otherwise transferred from your computer to another through upload to a file-sharing peer-to-peer program, for free or for a fee. Such action is illegal and in violation of Copyright Law.


All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.


All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.



Dedication

To my family who accepts me and all my foibles and quirks. Even the plastic banana in my holster. ~ V.L. Locey


To the Pens who have plenty of time to win some games. And always for my family ~ RJ Scott


* * * * *


With grateful thanks to Meredith Russell for her beautiful cover. Rebecca Hill for her editing and for making us look good. Rachel Maybury for sorting us out. And to our army of proofers for their hard work.



Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Epilogue


Chapter 1

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. 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.”


Chapter 2

Stan

There are many people I would have rather seen standing on the ice of my practice arena than Erik. For example my beloved sister, Galina, my sainted mother, Arina, my cat, Lucy, or my new gay American heartthrob, Zachary Quinto.

Zachary would be wearing only a smile even though it’s cold on the ice.

But no, none of them were standing in front of me wearing a Railers sweater and curls. Those damn golden curls. They’d always tempted me beyond sense. As had his mouth. And the way he would tilt his head when he was trying to understand me out of bed. In bed? There was no language barrier. Our bodies had always been tuned to each other like radio waves to a satellite dish.

Even now, I felt the low hum of his presence in my veins. I had feared this moment would come. From the first time I’d heard his name mentioned as being a new member of the Rush, our AHL feeder team, I’d known he would eventually stand in front of me, tipping his head, with his curls, his eyes and his mouth.

Connor was looking at me as if he expected something from me. Ah yes, words. He wanted me to say something. How did “go fuck a donkey” translate into English?

“We are known to each other.”

I skated to my net, mask perched on my head, and tried to focus. The humming in my blood was unsettling. Closing my eyes, I let the blue ice under my skates talk to me. Opening myself up to the sounds of hockey, the stress of seeing Erik again lessened. I whispered to the pipes as I tapped them. Asked them in Russian if they were going to be my friends during this practice.

“Uh, hey, I know this is a strict breach of protocol and all…but is there a problem between you and Gunner?”

I glanced to the left. Tennant stood there, geared up, his stick casually resting across his shoulders. So Erik now had his American hockey nickname. Why didn’t I have a new American hockey nickname? Pah. I was being petty. It tasted bad on my tongue.

“Gunner is okay person from time back in space.” Was that right? English was hard to speak. It made no sense. How could there be three ways to spell one word? Russian was simple. Strong. Pure. A language of passion and spirit. American was whiney and tied my brain into knots. No, that was not true. American was a wonderful language. It was me who was whiney and unhappy. “Time back. In the back of time. Is bad time to talk. Go away.”

I waved my stick at him.

“Okay, yeah, sorry. Didn’t mean to mess up your mojo, big man.”

My best friend skated away, looking like a whipped dog. When he returned to the others, he shrugged, then they talked. About me. I knew it was about me. I was being stupid and making my friends confused. Truly, they couldn’t be more confused than I was. On one hand, I hated Erik for using me, but I had used him too, a bit. More than a bit. But last summer in Helsinki had been meant to only be for sex, slaking the need. We had been the only two men who liked men among forty or so others. And he had been so handsome and smiled so prettily when I would wink at him secretly. Ugh. My pipes were not talking to me. They were angry that I was ignoring them.

“I am done with him in my head now. Only you.” I ran my gloved hand over the icy steel.

When I turned to face center ice a moment later, every Railer was staring at me. But the only gaze that burned into my soul was Erik’s.

“I am make good now with pipes. We may play.” I reached up and flipped my mask down.

“So let it be written…” Adler Lockhart said, and many laughed. I didn’t know what that meant. There was so much said around me that I didn’t understand. I felt like the foreigner that I was all the time. Sometimes I wanted to just go home to my mother, but that wouldn’t be safe. Russia was not a good place for a gay man. Mama knew that and never asked for me to come back home to visit. She and my baby sister were the only ones who knew. And Erik, of course. Keeping the secret had kept me safe, perhaps even alive, until I could leave Mother Russia.

“Stan, are you feeling okay?”

My gaze flew to Alain Gagnon, our goalie coach, who had skated up on my left unseen. So bad. That was so bad. My concentration was gone today. I blamed Erik and his curls.

“Yes, fine. Fit as fiddle.” I grinned and tapped my chest with my blocker. “Someone shoot puck at me!”

They all stared at me like idiots. I looked at Alain. He was not a handsome man, but he knew goaltending. He wore two diamond-studded Cup rings. How many did I wear? None. That was because I let things like Erik’s bouncy blond ringlets make my pipes stop talking.

“You do know that if you need to talk to me about anything, I’m right down the hall from the dressing room.”

“Yes, I know. I am good. Strong in head.”

He nodded. I nodded.

“Shoot pucks at me!” I bellowed.

The squads hurried to comply. Angry Russians seemed to intimidate them for some reason. Blocking shots would be good for me. Alain skated off after giving me a funny look.

The first shot came from Tennant. It hit me dead center of my black practice jersey, right in the train on my chest. I drew in a long breath through my nose, exhaled, and let the puck drop to the ice. It got kicked away. Another shot came at me from the left, another soft one. Warm-up shots. Each man took several at me, even Erik. His snap shot had improved since we’d been on the ice together last. A flash of my glove up, and I had the blistering shot neatly caught.

And then it started again, over and over, the shots growing faster, harder, more accurately aimed. Sweat ran down my neck, into my eyes, down my back. It was good sweat, though, cleansing sweat. The sweat of hard work. That was a sweat any poor Russian boy was familiar with.

Now that I was in my head, the pipes felt warmer to me. Happy to have me near. They caught two slap shots and sang out in joy. Such good pipes. They were truly a goalie’s best friend.

Coach Benning gave us a talk after scrimmage had ended. I was seated alone, my back to the other men, hoping I could undress and shower without seeing Erik again. It was a bad situation there in the dressing room.

“Tomorrow night we’re hosting Boston. I want you all to have your skates sharp and your heads on straight. We’re in a three-way tie for first in our division. Every game counts. Every point is important. The battle for bragging rights for Pennsylvania is on the line.”

Everyone mumbled in agreement. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg were all log-jammed at the top of the Eastern Division. With about a third of the season behind us, now was the time to make sure we did not slip.

“Tomorrow’s skate is optional. I want you all rested and mentally sharp. Boston will not lie down for us. They’re big, tough, and hungry. They want to stay on top in the Atlantic Division as badly as we want to stay on top in the Eastern. So go home, sleep, eat, meditate, do whatever it is that gets your head into the space where we need it to be.”

Coach Benning walked out then. The dressing room got loud. Men laughed and talked. Someone turned on some music. Dieter yelled at Adler about hairbands. Dirty socks flew overhead. I paid it all little mind. I needed to get showered, leave, and go home to Lucy. Maybe watch TV and plan more for my party for New Year’s. My sister was coming. She had never seen my home in Harrisburg. She was so excited to finally see America. My mother also had been invited, but her fear of flying kept her grounded in Leskovo, the dying little farming town I had grown up in. I invited her weekly, it seemed, and she always refused.

If only I could go back and sit beside her on the plane, hold her hand, but she would not let me. She feared my secret being discovered just as deeply as she did getting onto a plane.

“Hey, we’re all going to get together at our place for some Pokémon training. You want to come?” Tennant sat down beside me. He had just left the showers and had a towel around his lean waist. Water ran from his hair down his nose.

“No, thank you. I have food-planning for party.”

My friend slapped my sweaty shoulder. “Okay, cool. I hope you have those cheese pancake things like you had last year. Those were freaking incredible!”

Syrniki. Yes. I have those coming with catering.”

“You rock.” Tennant bumped the side of my fist with his, then leaped to his bare feet and ambled off to talk with Arvy and Dieter.

My gaze moved over the room and landed on Erik. Undressing, his back to us, showing me and the world his ass. It was still as tight and high as I recalled. Try as I might, I couldn’t look away from his backside. Skate dangling from my hand by its laces, the tidal wave of memories from our summer together crashed over me, pulling me out to sea in a salty, frothy wash of remembered passion.

Erik spread out over the bed in my tiny room in the training center, one hand gripping the headboard tightly and the other over his mouth to mute his cries of pleasure. I was between his spread legs, his beautiful prick in my mouth, working his tight ass with three fingers. His body was slick with sweat, as the air conditioning in my room was weak. Sitting in Harrisburg, I could still smell him. That tangy aroma of man, sweat, sex, and cucumber-melon soap filled my nose even now. I could hear the headboard creaking as he pulled strongly on it each time my fingers stroked his prostate. And if I closed my eyes, I could taste him. Musky and male on my tongue as he came, coating my throat. He thrashed madly, pumping deeply, making me gag and groan. I took myself in hand then, with the zest of him thick on my tongue, and stroked myself hard and fast until my palm was slick with my release.

I dreamily tasted my lips and found them dry and lacking the erotic flavor of Erik Gunnarsson that I’d become so addicted to last summer. Now I felt battered and bruised, as if that wave of hot lust had beaten me against the rocky shore of reality. When I opened my eyes, Erik’s gaze met mine. I shifted uncomfortably, my hard cock unhappy over the cramped conditions of the two cups pressing against it.

His eyes were such a stunning shade of green, and the undercurrent of emotion and want began to tug on me yet again. Just a taste, maybe…for old time’s sake, as they say. One hot, hard purging of any lingering tenderness. In the skate-sharpening room maybe. Up against the wall… Ugh! This situation was…was…

Pizdets,” I muttered, my gaze flying from Erik to the water cooler.

“What is fucked up?” Toly asked while walking behind me to the showers.

“What is not?” I grunted, and threw my skate into my cubicle. I spoke to no one else as I stripped and showered. My friends tried talking to me while I was dressing, but I remained inside myself, eager to put distance between Erik and my upset.

“Stan, where are you going?” Toly shouted at my back as I stalked from the dressing room, winter coat on my back, large lapels up to shield my ears from the wind and cold. “Stanislav, you rode in with me!”

I bulled through the door, ignoring Peter, the nice security man who stood guard by the players’ entrance. Peter called out something to me as the door slammed shut but I didn’t answer. Now I felt bad. This wasn’t me. I was always nice to people because mostly I liked them all.

I stepped out into the weather, turned from the players’ cars, and headed to the street out of the back entrance. Fans didn’t know I did this otherwise they might have been waiting and one day they’d figure it out, but that day wasn’t this one.

Then I stood huddled up with several other people, waiting for a bus. No fan would assume the goalie for the Railers would be taking a bus and that was working for me right now.

No one huddled here talked to anyone. Usually people smiled or nodded at me because I stood out a bit. Today, they looked up at me then glanced away. My angry face must be scaring them. I didn’t see anyone pull out a phone and take photos though; people here seemed to respect my privacy.

Large, flat flakes blew around the bus shelter, adding fluffy inches to the already heavy amount of snow on the ground.

The cold didn’t bother me too much. When the bus pulled up, I admit to being glad to see it, though. The warm air flowed out of the open door. I allowed an old woman to enter before me, then I climbed into the city bus, taking a seat by a window.

It would take several buses and a few changeovers to reach home, but that was good. It would give me time to clear my head. A man behind me coughed wetly. Hopefully I’d not catch the flu that was going around. Burrowing into my coat, I pulled out my phone and found a music app that Tennant had shown me how to work. Since I read little to no English, everything in America was a struggle for me. Driving, for instance. I was not yet licensed in Pennsylvania but was studying the drivers’ manual hard. The state issued them in Russian, and the test was given in several languages, Russian being one of them. Anatoly had helped me find all this information on a Russian website the state had set up. That was kind of the people who ran Pennsylvania. I know many people say that we should not get benefits if we do not speak English, but truly, it is a hard language, and we who come here are trying hard.

In the spring I would be ready, I felt, to take the drivers’ test. That would make me even more American. That was my goal. To become an American citizen and bring my mother and sister over to live with me. There was little in Russia for a man like me. But here in America, there were roads lined with yellow bricks. No. Was that right? Gold bricks, maybe.

I pulled out my phone and looked up yellow bricks. They were not in America but in Oz. I liked that movie. I liked so much about America, the hard language aside. The food was good, the movies filled with action and sex, and the music was uniquely American.

The bus rolled along, stopping to let people on and off. I found my earbuds and slid them in, content to bounce along until I had to catch another bus for the final ride out to Hershey. My playlists were long and had funny names. Tennant had told me to give them funny names as he did our groups chats on the computer. Those I also had trouble reading, but the pictures and gifs were funny.

This one that was playing now was my favorite. I had named it “King of Las Vegas and World”, because Elvis was that. I loved him so much. Hearing him sing made me happy, and happy was what I needed now. Happy would always win out over unhappy. So I listened to Elvis singing, working on trying to memorize the lyrics because Elvis spoke good English. It was very hip and cool English too. His movies were hip and cool, just like him.

It took me over an hour to get from the arena to my neighborhood. The ride with Anatoly usually took half that, but I had needed the time alone. Walking along the well-groomed streets, I was peaceful inside now. My house was waiting for me, tucked back among some big trees. The siding was gray and the shutters black. It was a big house. Five bedrooms and three bathrooms. Plenty of room for my sister and mother to settle in. I might have gone wild when I chose it, since I was a bachelor, but maybe…someday…I’d have a husband and enough children to fill all those bedrooms. That was also my dream. American citizen, Stanley Cup champion, beloved husband and father, and my mother and sister there to enjoy all my success and spoil the children.

As I stepped inside my massive house, there was no husband or child to greet me. I stamped the snow from my shoes, tossed my keys and phone to the table in the foyer, and called out for my cat.

“Lucy, I am home,” I shouted, and my sweet kitty ran down the stairs, meowing loudly. I picked up the longhaired brown cat and draped her over my shoulder. She purred and began pulling threads out of my suit jacket as she kneaded. “Silly cat. Let’s eat and watch ‘Viva Las Vegas’ again.”

Elvis and Ann-Margaret. Yes. They would be far less confusing than thinking about Erik and how his hard body fit so perfectly next to mine.


Chapter 3

Erik

When a coach tells you that a skate is optional that doesn’t apply equally to every member of the team. Arvy was there working on his accuracy, and then there was me, and Toly, and the last man in our line, Martin “Charlie” Brown. We would be working together tonight against Boston, and today was all about getting a feel for each other. We’d practiced yesterday, but this was more concerning skating in a simple cohesive line and passing the puck.

I’d never played with Toly before, and to be honest I was still overwhelmed that I got to play on the same line as him at all.

Charlie, on the other hand, had attended a lot of the same intense training and conditioning schools as I had in summer breaks, including the fateful one where Stan and I had happened.

Please don’t Charlie talk about last summer.

We skated in soft, flowing movements, getting our line in sync. Toly was slower, but his accuracy was spot on, Charlie was like a damn greyhound, and me? I managed to find a rhythm that was halfway between. I had to study my line, learn Charlie and Toly, the look of them, the way they reversed direction, how fast they were, how quickly they could pass, the moves they made, and had game tape keyed up that I could check out later.

“I want to see you a step ahead, Charlie,” Coach Benning said as we huddled around him. “Toly, you’re backing this up.” He tapped the board that held an assortment of Xs and Os. “Use your speed, Charlie, get into position—and Gunner, I need you here, so that you can cover their D getting to Charlie and get that puck over the center line.”

I listened to every word, even said my bit when asked if I had questions, and then Charlie and Toly called it a day, which left me alone on the ice. There’d been no sign of Stan today, and why would there be? He was a starting goalie who was likely at home doing some of those incredibly impressive stretches that had made my mouth water every time I’d seen them.

If you haven’t made love with a stretchy-bendy goalie, then you haven’t lived.

A second person joined me in lazy circles. Arvid “Arvy” Ulfsson was not only a fellow Swede, but he’d lived only a few towns over from Ornskoldsvik, which is where I grew up. Everyone in and around O-vik plays hockey, like hockey town Sweden. He knew the beautiful summers and the dark, cold winters on icy lakes as well as I did.

Det var länge sedan vi sågs sist,” he said as we fell into a smooth set of figure eights, crossing in the center of the rink. Long time no see.

We were around the same age, but he’d been drafted and actually played NHL hockey straight from his second year. The six-foot defenseman was one of these eternally happy guys, the one on the bench who kept spirits high even if you were losing so badly you just wanted to go and hide in the locker room. I liked him, and hell, he spoke Swedish. Of course, we both spoke excellent English—in Swedish schools it’s a pre-requisite, along with a love of hockey, it seems. But sometimes you just want to talk in your own language and know that it’s just the two of you who understand.

“How are you?” I asked, the familiar vowels and syllables of Swedish relaxing me. I needed that after spending the first part of the session waiting for Charlie to ask me about that summer and to have to field questions like, “Didn’t you and Stan get super close?”

“Doing good.” Arvy switched so he was skating backward, shadowing me, feinting left then right, turning back, icing to a stop and then skating at speed away from me. This was his role—defending, following their forwards whatever they did. I gave nothing away, but tried a few moves and managed to shake him off once. By the time we were finished, we were laughing, leaning on the wood, shooting the breeze about home and family and people we knew.

Of course he would know about Freja, and the fact that we’d married, and that we’d had a baby. The Swedish skaters had a network of gossip, and I knew it must have come up.

“Sorry to hear about you and Freja,” he said, lifting his water bottle and squirting a healthy mouthful. “Must be hard.”

“It’s okay,” I reassured him, “it was a mutual thing.”

Arvy nodded. “And you have a baby, I heard? A little one.”

“Noah. He’s nearly nine months now. He’s living with me.” I gave him the look I gave everyone, daring him to ask why he wasn’t with his mom. Arvy didn’t even go there; clearly my expression of warning was enough.

Noah and I were fine on our own, happier than if I’d stayed with Freja just because it was expected. We had our nanny, Amy, and the three of us rattling around in my empty apartment were exactly right and as it should be.

“I can’t believe you’re a dad,” Arvy said with a grin. “Changing diapers, burping the little one, getting up in the night…”

“This is why I have a nanny.”

I let him think I did nothing, but in all honesty, sitting up with Noah in the early hours of the morning, holding him, finding my Zen space with him curled on my chest, was my idea of heaven. He had the same curls as me—Freja called it his curse, but she was always looking for things that made Noah more mine and less hers, so I ignored what she said. Noah also had my green eyes, although his had tiny amber flecks. I had photos on my phone, but I wasn’t ready to let anyone in to see those yet.

Not even a man I’d known back home.

We parted with smiles and a promise to get together soon, and that was it—my morning there was done.

Most players take naps in the afternoon. I took a nap if Noah let me, which today he did. Curled up next to me, his arms flung out, he slept the sleep of the innocent. Getting to sleep myself was a slow process, so I honestly had no idea if the nap had done any good at all. Still, when I woke I felt ready to get back to the rink.

After I’d laid on the sofa and cuddled Noah a bit longer while Amy went shopping.

“So I met Stan again,” I began to explain to Noah, who blew tiny bubbles from his mouth as he drank his milk. I’d talked about Stan before to Noah—how we’d met, how I’d fallen so hard, but how I’d made a decision that was best for all of us. “He’s so big, and if he was holding you…”

A sudden image of Stan holding Noah struck me front and center. Stan was a gentle giant when he wasn’t either icily in control or angry in goal, and Noah would look up at him and smile and…

I had to stop that.

“So anyway, the game Daddy plays, hockey, he plays it too.”

I rocked Noah to sleep after playing with him a little; he was beginning to cruise the furniture in a stumbling fashion, and it fascinated me. Everything about Noah fascinated me, from the golden curls on his head to his big green eyes, and the way he seemed to smile with his entire body. I picked up my cell and took a few selfie kind of shots of Noah and emailed them to myself. One day I needed to actually print some of these photos and put them up on the wall. Not the walls of this place, but my real place when I finally moved to it.

I regretted not taking the Railers up on the offer of a temporary place, but they talked as if it was this rookie bachelor hub, and hell, I had a baby, and a nanny.

In those moments when I was really honest with myself, though, I knew it was my stubborn need to prove I could do this baby-daddy thing on my own that meant I was now in this old building that smelled faintly of cat pee and boiled cabbage.

Never let it be said that I have any sense at all.

“I’m going to send a picture to your momma,” I whispered to a sleeping Noah, and opened an app, adding the photo and sending it to her. I didn’t expect a reply; I never did. But I knew she was overseas; one thing she did do was share her calendar with me in case of emergency.

Although what that meant, I didn’t know. I guessed if Noah needed a blood transfusion or bone marrow, because hell, that was the only way his mom would go anywhere near him. Flicking through Google hits on her name, I found a disturbing trend of her putting herself in more danger with each assignment. Afghanistan was the latest hit—three months, front line, right in the camera, ducking explosions, and looking gorgeous at the same time.

The woman I’d slept with, twice, before I met Stan, was stunning. Long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a beautiful smile that her son had inherited. We’d met at a local hero’s awards show, both giving away prizes to young adults who had faced danger and won. She didn’t look quite so picture perfect in the latest photo, hair scraped back under a helmet, her fatigues blending in with the pile of stones behind her, but she looked alive and vital. She loved being a journalist, wanted nothing more than to stand at the very front of what was terrifying or dangerous, and make the world sit up and take notice.

I’d been drawn to that danger, fucking her in the bathroom at the awards, then again against a wall in her room.

Twice, and on one of those two times Noah had been conceived.

But Noah and me? We didn’t have Freja anymore. No one had her; she belonged to a different world than us.

“She’ll always love you,” I half-lied. I actually wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about Noah, only that I’d paid her to let me have him, something he would never know about.

Call it stupidity, call it the result of having shitty parents, call it my own stubborn nature, but we’d created life, and that was important to me.

A small part of me actually blamed Stan. I slept with Freja before that fateful summer camp. I didn’t know Freja was pregnant until after that time with Stan.

Stan had shown me how easy it was to love someone, how a connection could be made, and suddenly my somewhat shallow life had begun to mean more. So when Freja contacted me and explained what had happened, that was when I’d made the decision.

Have the baby, please.

She’d already been twelve weeks, hadn’t even realized, had thought it was stomach flu, or something she’d picked up in her time in Honduras.

She’d told me didn’t want the baby, that she was addicted to being scared, that she needed the passion of journalism, or crossing time zones and explaining disaster and pain for public consumption.

Who was I to argue? I wanted…needed hockey. It was my life.

Or it had been my life.

What she didn’t realize was that the deep-seated fears and the overwhelming love that you have for a child are enough adrenaline to get any parent through the day.

My cell vibrated, and it was her.

He looks well. How are you?

I thought carefully about my reply. Her question wasn’t about how Noah was, but to me there was no longer just-Erik, we were now Erik/Noah, and so my reply was a little broader.

We’re doing fine. Saw you’d been in A.

A break, and I imagined her in a tent in the middle of nowhere, which was where she spent most of her life.

A was bad. Home in New Year.

I only had one thing to say that. No, scratch that, two.

Stay safe. Come visit if you like.

And clearly, she had two things to say to me.

Staying safe. I don’t think I will visit.

I didn’t hate her for it. I wondered if one day Noah would. If I had to make a choice between Noah and hockey, between Noah and the icy dreams of winning a championship, I would choose Noah every time.

Every. Single. Time.

When it came time for me to leave, Amy took him from me, wished me luck at the game, and mentioned that furniture would be good. She said that every day. I should just give her my credit card, but to be honest, until money funneled to me from the Railers, I was seriously fucked. I mumbled something in return—a vague grunt that could be taken to mean anything—and she shook her head and went into the kitchen.

She was used to me now.

Every penny I had, bar some that I’d kept back to live on, had gone. I had a six hundred-thousand-dollar contract and nothing to show for it apart from a rented roof over my head, enough money to pay for Amy, and my shitty car. At least I had Noah with me; that was what mattered.

The rest of my money? Well, let’s say it had taken that much to get lawyers to draw up papers, to divorce Freja and invest money in her career. I’d had paperwork signed and notarized, she’d waived her rights, Noah was mine, and in less than three months we would have a final divorce. Money consumed my thoughts, though and I wondered if I should approach management for some kind of loan.

I was so lost in thoughts of balancing check books and wondering where was the best place to get furniture that I didn’t see him.

Or feel him in that crazy sixth-sense way I’d had in Helsinki.

Not until I crashed straight into the one man I didn’t want to talk to, or see again.

Stan caught me, and I stumbled before he hauled me close to keep me upright.

“Stupid,” Stan said, making it sound less a word and more a curse. Then he pushed me away, not roughly, but definitely firmly.

Then we stood face to face, or at least my eyeline to his chin, and we didn’t move.

“I have so much I want to say,” I began. Why was I doing this? He wasn’t interested in what I wanted to say. Not about the regrets, or the fact that I never should have left.

The last thing we’d said, or rather that I’d said for us both, was that the summer was done and our lives would move on.

“Not listen, stupid,” Stan said, and crossed his arms over his wide chest. He stared down at me with an unforgiving frown and tension radiating from every pore of him. The way he spoke, the stilted cute words, was enough to have me thinking back to that summer, in one rush of heat and sex and need.

“I want to say something. Anything. Sorry, maybe?”

He looked at me suspiciously. “Sorry?” he asked after a small pause.

“For making decisions for both of us, for the summer, for everything.”

“Hmmm,” he said, then uncrossed his arms. I saw he had a tattoo—something yellow, but I couldn’t make it out. He’d never had a tattoo before, and I knew, because I’d kissed, licked, and bitten my way over every inch of him.

“Hmmm?” I prompted, because he seemed to be formulating a response somewhere along the line. Probably he had the words in Russian, and was now parsing them into coherent English.

“One day to meet wife and baby,” he said. Then he subsided, like that simple sentence had stolen all his energy. Jeez, it had been easier when he’d used television commercials to form his sentences.

Wait? My wife? My baby? Is he talking about Noah? He knows about Noah? Of course he does; anyone with an Instagram account knows about my marriage.

How must it have looked? The photos out there of me marrying a pregnant Freja must have had him thinking only one thing, that I’d cheated on her with him, when that wasn’t true. So maybe that was what I needed to explain, about how she’d been a one night-stand, and that we’d conceived Noah, and that to a man like me marriage had been the only option.

I blinked. I know I did. I know I was looking at him, and my mouth was probably open. Was he saying now that he wanted to meet Noah? Or that he didn’t? How did I explain that I didn’t have a wife anymore, that she’d left me just as I’d left him? How did I explain that she was a wife in name only, that she was Noah’s mom but nothing more?

“Baby and wife,” he repeated.

“For you?” I asked, really confused.

“Team.” He waved a hand. “Bring here baby, for luck.”

Oh. He meant the team. Not him. Not Stan.

I guessed that was what I should have expected. Sadness curled inside me, and I knew I should explain, say something. Anything.

“I want to tell you the truth—”

“Nyet. Ya vse znayu. Know it.”

“But you can’t know, I’m nearly divorced and—”

“Nyet.”

“When I was with you, it was only you. I promise that, Stan.”

He stared at me, then he reached for my head and carded one hand through my hair, tugging gently as his fingers caught in the curls.

“Like gold,” he murmured, and I swayed toward him, half erect at the sound of the deep, rumbling voice. Then he yanked his hand free, cursed loudly, and stalked past me in the corridor.

The sadness and disquiet settled in for the evening, even right up to the coach’s speech at the beginning of the game.

“Ten, keep your eye on your brother, I want to know if you see anything, okay?”

I knew Ten’s brother was the captain of the Boston team. It always helped to have some insider knowledge, but equally they would be saying the same for Ten, keeping an eye on our star player.

“On it, Coach,” Ten agreed, and fist-bumped Arvy.

Stan sat very quiet in his corner, and I recollected that he’d done that in Helsinki. He would often sit quietly, eyes closed, humming softly. The memories flooded me again, and there was that familiar sadness laced with regret.

Maybe I should bring Noah in one day. Maybe if Stan saw us together, saw the unconditional love I was capable of giving… Then maybe Stan might like me again, and then I could explain how I’d packed to go back to him the night my life changed forever.

That was all I wanted.

The game was hard; you can’t go up against an elite team like Boston and not feel it in every aching muscle. We were only just beginning the third period, one goal down, and Ten skated as if he was on fire. He was everywhere and nowhere, and the Boston defense was losing sight of him more often than not. Eight shots on goal from him so far, and one of them had to go in. Surely.

Stan was a wall for us. He’d only let in two goals, one of them questionable as to whether there had been goaltender interference. Arvy certainly let the Boston D know he was unhappy with a nice left hook. We killed that power play, but only because Stan stood on his damn head to block the puck.

Five minutes left in the game, and one of the Boston Ds was given a penalty for hooking, abruptly we were on a power play. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, with magic that left the bench in silence, Ten was there, and this time the puck went right past their goalie and the score was tied.

Everyone shouted for Ten, and when he skated past the bench, touching gloves, he wore a wide grin.

But I wasn’t looking at Ten. I was looking way past him, at the way Stan leaned on his pipes, at the grin I could make out from here.

I might have decided that things had ended, but clearly my brain hadn’t informed my libido, or more importantly, my heart.


Chapter 4

Stan

Ya lyublyu tebya.” Words of affection and adoration. I love you. And I did. And they loved me. Tonight, my pipes had been loving friends, catching three Boston shots. I rubbed the cold metal pipe with my catcher as the Railers fans chanted and stamped their feet. “Lyubite menya nemnogo dol’she,” I added, asking them to love me just a bit longer. I turned from my net and glanced at the clock. Only two minutes left. Something pulled at me, making me look at the Railers bench. At Erik.

Anger bubbled up inside my chest. Pain, too. So much pain, fresh, as if he’d just walked out on me yesterday. The ache in my chest felt like bad heartburn, or when one has drunk too much vodka and vomits it back up. That was what I felt looking at my ex-lover, that burning fire racing up my throat. Why had I been so stupid as to fall for him so quickly? Why did I give my heart so easily? Lust had driven me to lure him to my bed. And he had been eager to come. So eager. And so willing. He had held me as if he cared. Whispered tender things. My Swedish was bad, his Russian worse, but the emotions and feelings had spoken for us. But I’d thought he might stay with me, somehow, when camp ended. Although in all honesty it seemed stupid now to have had such romantic dreams. A gay Russian man did not flaunt his homosexuality by moving in with a pretty, blond Swedish man back home. It just wasn’t done, especially out in the country where I had been raised. Yes, there were young people in the cities who were accepting, but not enough. Not nearly enough… Deep down, I think, I knew this, but still I dreamed. Of him, of a life with him, children, love. Here in America this dream could be real. Men could marry here in this wonderful country. They could adopt children, even! Even now the fantasy wanted to settle on my shoulders, but I shook it off like an unwanted embrace. I hated him. Yes. And that was how it would remain. How it must remain if I were to keep my heart.


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