Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Did it Help?

"Did it help?"

The question, as vague as it may have seemed on the surface, was anything but vague in reality. I was at Erin Knightley's house, the first time the two of us had gotten together since I'd completed writing BREAKAWAY, and I knew exactly what she was asking me.

You see, Erin knew that I had written a romance novel about a woman who'd been raped and, in the aftermath of her rape, had suffered from panic attacks. Not only did Erin know the subject matter of my book, but she knew some of my past--enough to know where the idea for writing a character like that would have come from. She'd been the first person I'd told about my panic attacks, after something (completely innocent!) she'd said to me one day in passing had triggered one. I'd experienced panic attacks before that day, but I hadn't recognized them for what they were, and I hadn't pieced together what triggered them. That day I figured it out, and not long afterward I told Erin about it.

It could only help to talk about it, even if it was difficult.

Readers have asked me since I first posted the unedited chapters of BREAKAWAY on my blog how I would have come up with the idea of a character who has panic attacks after being raped, how I could understand and write so clearly and coherently about what a panic attack feels like. I know because I've been there. I thought of it because I've experienced it.

Maybe a week before that day at Erin's house, I had been working at Starbucks one afternoon with Sabrina Jeffries. I'd recently posted the first chapter of BREAKAWAY on my blog. At one point, Sabrina had turned to me and asked if I'd based the character on myself. She had that look writer's have, when we recognize bits of our author-friends in the characters they write. And, like with Erin, she knew some of my past. Enough of it that it probably wasn't hard to piece together at least as much as she did.

Even though my characters are not me--and Dana Campbell, the heroine of BREAKAWAY is most definitely not me in so many ways--there are always bits and pieces of me, of my life, my personality, of the people I've known and loved. Those pieces find their way into the make-up of the characters because it is what I know. This one part of Dana just happens to be very much a part of me, too.

I was raped.

It was date rape. I'd said no. He'd stopped at first. But then he'd started again, and he'd kept going, and I was young and scared and insecure, and I didn't know what to do. It didn't take too many repetitions of this pattern before I stopped saying no.

He taught me that no didn't mean anything, at least not when it was coming from me. He taught me that I had to do what others wanted of me, whether it was what I wanted or not.

He was wrong, but I didn't know it at the time. I still have to fight to remember how very wrong he was.

It had happened a few times, and each time I hated myself a little more...until I hated myself so much that I couldn't function. I stopped answering my phone. I stopped answering my door. I stopped going to work. I curled up inside myself and wished I could undo everything.

When that didn't work, I tried to go back to my life as usual. I tried to pretend nothing was wrong, that nothing had happened. That didn't work either.

Then I ran away. I packed up, sold almost everything I owned, and moved from Texas to Alaska. I loved Alaska, but I still hated myself.

No matter what I did, I couldn't get away from myself, from all the shame and self-loathing and worthlessness I felt on the inside.

Over the next year, I gained about a hundred pounds. Looking back on it, I realize that was a subconscious move on my part. I was trying to make myself unattractive, so that no man would ever want to do something like that to me again.

Then I only hated myself more.

Eventually, I got into some counseling. It took several years, but I finally understood that I had been raped, not that I had simply made stupid decisions. I gradually grew in confidence. I stopped hating myself and even began to love myself a little. That last part--loving myself--is still hard, but I work on it every day. I started to figure out what I wanted out of life, and I started working toward it.

But I still couldn't bring myself to have a relationship with a man--at least not a romantic relationship.

It's not that I don't want one. I do. On an emotional level, I know that I'm ready for one. I've been ready for one for quite a while. At this point in time, I can't because of my panic attacks.

Over the years, friends have tried to set me up on casual dates. Not anything serious--more as friends. Each time that's happened, I've had a panic attack. At one point recently, I'd thought I was ready. I made a profile on a matchmaking website. As soon as a man contacted me through it, I had a panic attack. In my living room. While I was completely alone, other than my two cats.

So I knew exactly what Erin was asking me that day when she asked, "Did it help?"

I couldn't really answer her, though. All I could do was cry and stutter and mumble my way through an attempt at an answer which didn't even make sense to me.

The truth is--I don't know.

I am both a very analytical and highly emotional person. I spend a great deal of time trying to understand myself, trying to think through how and why I react in certain ways, trying to reorganize my thought patterns and my often overly emotional responses to things so that I can grow as a person. It's a slow, cumbersome process. It only takes a moment to destroy something. It takes years to rebuild.

I'm still rebuilding.

In writing about Dana Campbell, a character who went through a similar experience which resulted in the same sort of physical responses, I was able to confront it at least somewhat. I was able to at the very least conceive a means of getting through the panic. Would it work in a real life setting? Would it work for me? Without trying, I can only make wild, stab-in-the-dark guesses.

Which means that I have to try. I have to somehow screw up enough courage, to be brave enough to try something that I want but am terrified of.

So...did it help?

You tell me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unleashing Breakaway on the World

Breakaway, the first novel in my Portland Storm series, is officially here!

She’s reaching for a breakaway pass.

Dana Campbell has spent the past seven years in self-imposed isolation for a crime she didn’t commit. The danger is well in the past, but her panic attacks make it impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship with a man. Even her counselor has given up on her. She has to find someone she trusts to help her fight through the panic, or her seven-year ordeal will become a lifetime sentence. There’s only one man she feels safe enough to ask.

He got caught with his head down.

As the captain of the NHL’s once elite but now fading Portland Storm, Eric Zellinger knows a thing or two about keeping his focus on the job. Questions are flying about his ability to lead the team back to the playoffs. If they don’t make it, he might be shipped out of town. It’s the worst time possible for his best friend’s kid sister to divide his focus. How can he give her what she needs without jeopardizing both the Storm’s playoff hopes and his future with the team?

It’s her only chance, but it’s his last shot.

Where can you find Breakaway? It's available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, All Romance eBooks, and Smashwords. (It's still processing at Kobo, the iBookstore, and other ebook retailers.) You can also find it in print through Amazon.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Breakaway - Unedited Chapter 3

This is the third chapter of my upcoming hockey romance, Breakaway--still unedited, but a little something to whet your appetite. It's releasing later this month. If you missed the first two chapters, here are Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

“Drink your wine.” Eric had gone back to the kitchen, taking the half-full bottle with him. “Not enough to get drunk. Just enough to take the edge off. It’ll help.”
As soon as he said that, he downed the last of his glass.
He was right. I needed to calm down some after all of this. I was exhausted from all of my travel, from the emotional drain of talking to him about this—but I was also wired. It was a strange and decidedly uncomfortable combination.
I sipped on my wine, let it flow through my body until I was a little warm and tingly, but in a good way.
“What…uh? Damn.” He dragged his hand through his hair, mussing it up until it looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. “What do you want to do tonight?”
That question was way too open-ended. This couldn’t be all about me. He had his own life to live, too. I licked my lips, savoring the sweet taste of wine there. “What would you and Kim do when you had a night off like this?”
As soon as I said her name, I regretted it. Kim had been his girlfriend for years, so long I was sure they were going to get married any time. They looked great together, just the sort of girl a professional athlete should be with. He’d even talked to me about rings one summer. But that was before he’d come home from a road trip and found her in bed with a then-current teammate who’d been left behind to rehab a broken foot.
It’d been two years since their breakup, but still. I doubted he wanted to think about her right now. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been anyone since. He might still be hurting from it. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“We’d probably sit and watch TV together for a while.” Eric didn’t look upset to me. He should have. It would have been easier for some reason if he was upset. “She’d lean against me and I’d wrap my arms around her, hold her close. Then we’d go to bed, and either make love or just go to sleep. That’s what most of our nights in were like. Easy. Relaxed.”
That sounded exactly like the Eric I knew. He was never a flashy type, never wanted to go out and party or anything. He typically got more than enough excitement from his job; he needed comfort at home.
I swallowed hard, trying not to let my panic set in about the implications of all he’d said. “We could maybe watch TV together.”
I didn’t say anything about having his arms around me or going to bed… I couldn’t think about things like that. Not now.
“Okay.” Just like that, he went into the living room and turned on the TV.
When I joined him, he’d left me plenty of space to sit beside him on the white leather couch or, if I wanted, I could sit in one of the two recliners. But that wasn’t what I was here for—separating myself. I needed to push myself, to push my boundaries so I could break through them and come out on the other side, hopefully still in one piece.
I sat on the couch—not quite pushing myself up against the far arm of it, but close. Eric was well on the other end. Not close enough to touch me. Safe.
I didn’t know what show he turned on. I wasn’t able to focus on that just now. Just trying to remember to breathe, to keep my pulse down at a normal level—those kinds of things took up all of my focus and there was nothing left to worry about a silly TV show.
After a while, I started watching Eric instead of what was on the screen. It was easier to focus on him, anyway.
He had his right leg tucked up underneath his left, the white athletic sock sticking out beside his left knee, just like he’d always done when we were kids. I guess he’d taken his shoes off while I was upstairs. I hadn’t noticed until now.
Every time my mom would catch him sitting like that, she’d admonish him. Not about damaging the furniture or anything like that. She didn’t really care about that, or at least she knew she was fighting a losing battle with growing kids in the house. It was more about the strain he was putting on his knees and hips. “They aren’t designed to turn like that,” she’d say. “You could hurt your chances of playing professionally.”
She was right. He knew she was right. Every time he’d straighten his legs out after sitting that way, he’d wince at the pain in his knee, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from doing it. Especially when he and Brenden would play video games. He told me once that if he sat any other way, he always lost. Eric didn’t like to lose at anything. Ever.
And he still sat like that.
After a minute, he turned to me and cocked a grin. “You’re making me nervous, staring at me like that.”
I looked down at my lap almost immediately, watching my hands twist together. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to make him nervous. I never wanted to make anyone nervous. Not when I knew how it felt.
“Do you not watch this show? The Vampire Diaries? The married guys all say their wives are addicted. I just…I assumed. I shouldn’t assume. I thought you’d want to watch.”
“You can put on whatever. I don’t care.” I didn’t. With all my heightened emotion right now, I didn’t think I’d be able to watch anything and really pay attention. It would just be background noise. Something to help me get through one minute and then the next.
“You’re sure? You don’t mind if I put on NHL Tonight? I want to see what’s going on around the league. Keep up with things.”
I shook my head. Putting on something about hockey might be best, anyway. Hockey was common ground, for us. It was familiar. It was safe.
“Okay.” Eric reached for the remote and flipped the channel. “You can take your shoes off, you know. Get comfortable.”
I could, but I doubted I’d ever be able to really be comfortable, shoes or no. At least not so soon. Not being in his house. I’d planned to be in a hotel. Somewhere separate. Somewhere I could escape to when things got too intense. Still, I did it for his sake, getting up and placing my flats neatly by the front door before coming back to the couch.
He’d shifted a little, moved down a couple of inches closer to where I had been sitting. I didn’t think he’d done it intentionally, but the fact remained he was closer to my space.
I sat down anyway and, with no shoes, tucked both my feet up beside me—between the two of us. He still wasn’t close enough that we were touching, I was relieved to discover…but I could feel the warmth from his body rolling over my toes.
He winked at me, then returned his attention to the TV.
“With tonight’s win, Colorado moves up into a tie with Portland for that eighth spot in the West,” the announcer said, catching my attention with the mention of Eric’s team. “Portland doesn’t play again until Saturday, and by then they could have fallen out of their current playoff seeding entirely, potentially dropping as low as number twelve in the conference. It’s going to be a bumpy ride getting into the playoffs in the Western Conference, as usual. There are only six weeks left in the season, and twelve teams are still reasonably in the race.”
Then they cut to the arena cam in Denver to interview Gabriel Landeskog about the win. He said all the usual boring and predictable things hockey players are taught from a young age to say in interviews. “Big team win; great effort from the goalie; we left him out to dry a few times but we held on when it counted and managed to pick up a big two points in overtime.” All that sort of thing. Focus on the team. Talk about what you need to do better. Don’t throw a teammate under the bus even when they deserve it—that stuff stays in the room. Don’t give any sound bites that can come back to bite you in the ass. Be as boring in front of the media as the rest of the hockey players in the world.
Hockey players weren’t boring if you knew them, though. I’d never been bored being around my teammates over the years, or Brenden and Eric’s.
I stole another glimpse over at Eric but made a point not to stare this time. His jaw was set, tight. If he was facing me, I had no doubt he’d have a big crease between his brows.
He put a lot of pressure on himself to be sure the team did well. He always had. I was sure that was a big part of the reason they made him the team captain when he was so young.
With the Portland Storm missing the playoffs the last three years, and barely holding onto a spot now, this was really bad timing for me to be asking him to help me. Damn it. He needed to focus, needed to pay attention to his job, to doing whatever it took to get his team to succeed. Not to me.
“We have another final score for you just coming in,” the announcer said. “Let’s go to Nashville for the highlights.”
I watched the replay of Nashville scoring five unanswered goals against St. Louis, trouncing them pretty soundly, and felt Eric’s tension growing with each goal. It was rolling off of him, tightening his shoulders.
“So there you have it. Nashville pulls within a point of Portland and Colorado with this win, and they have two games in hand.”
Eric ground his teeth together.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He jerked his head around to look at me. “What are you sorry for?”
“This is…it’s just really bad timing. I should have realized you had more important—”
“Stop that. Stop saying you’re sorry, and don’t try to tell me a stupid game is more important than you.”
It wasn’t just a stupid game, though. It was his livelihood. Yeah, it was just a game, but it had made so many things possible for him. It was part of him, and he was part of it. I couldn’t think of what Eric would be like if he didn’t have hockey in his life. They’d always gone hand-in-hand for me.
I shivered, more from the intensity of his stare than from cold. He got up without a word and brought back a warm chenille throw, handing it to me instead of trying to cover me with it.
“Thank you.”
He nodded. “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you it’s not a tough time right now. It is. We have to get back to the playoffs this year, and frankly the possibility of that happening is looking pretty shaky. But that’s my job. My worry. That’s for me to worry about, not you. I don’t want you to worry about anything but yourself.”
“Yeah. Okay.” I unfolded the blanket and draped it over myself, carefully tucking it around my knees and feet. My toes were a little cold, actually. But Eric was full of it if he thought I would be able to not worry about anything but myself. He knew me. He knew I worried about anything and everything, especially if it wasn’t something I could control. That was part of my charm, or so Brenden had always told me. Sure, he was probably teasing me when he said that. That’s what brothers do. But still.
“Dana.” My name sounded tortured when he said it.
I met his eyes, but I couldn’t read him this time.
Then he put his hand between us, close to me, reaching for mine.
Instinct told me to jerk my hand away, to push myself back closer to the arm of the couch, to get up and move to the recliner or run upstairs and lock myself in my room or better yet run out the front door and not look back.
I didn’t.
I let him take my hand and hold it in his, resting them on the couch between us. His hand was big and warm and strong, his palm rough with a few calluses caused by hockey gloves and weight machines and God only knew what else.
My pulse was racing, hard and fast and terrifying, and I couldn’t take a full breath, and I was hot, suddenly, so very hot. With my left hand, I ripped the throw blanket off me and tossed it to the floor.
Eric moved to let go of my hand, but I grabbed onto him and wouldn’t let go.
“Not yet. Let me see if it’ll pass.” I could hear the desperation in my own voice, and the fear. Always the fear.
But he stopped pulling away.
I closed my eyes, focused on taking a breath in through my nose, out through my mouth, in, out, in, out, counting them in my head and trying to ignore how hard my body was shaking.
It was no good. I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t get enough air, and my head was pounding, pounding, screaming with the pain of not getting enough oxygen until I knew, without a doubt, I’d end up with a migraine from it if I couldn’t get it under control and fast.
“Dana, I can’t. I can’t watch you go through this. I can’t be the cause of it.”
Eric tried to pull his hand away again, but I couldn’t let him. I couldn’t give in so fast, so easily. I dug in with my fingers so hard it hurt. I doubted it hurt him, but it was enough to get his attention. He could still pull away if he wanted to, though. He was stronger than me by a longshot.
“Just hold me. Please.” Every word was torture because of the breath required. “Hold my hand.”
He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t let go.
I tried counting my breaths again, in and out, reminding myself that it was Eric holding my hand. Eric Zellinger. Brenden’s best friend. I’d asked him to do this. I trusted him. I was safe with him.
Gradually, the shaking slowed down. The sweating stopped, but then I was wet and cold, shivering. I reached down to the floor and pulled the blanket back up onto me.
Eric didn’t let go of my hand through all of that.
Once my breaths weren’t quite so shallow anymore, the pounding in my head lessened and slowly went away.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I had to make a joke of it, make light of it, or I’d fall to pieces.
Eric didn’t respond, though.
I looked up at him, desperate to hear him laugh it off, too. He wasn’t laughing. I’d never seen him look so tortured, so pained, so—broken was the only word that seemed to fit.
“That was hell.”

An hour later, I didn’t know if it was Dana still shaking, or if it was me.
But I was still holding her hand.
She’d hardly moved a muscle in all that time, not to pull away from me, but not to move closer either. I wanted to twine my fingers with hers, to smooth the pad of my thumb over the back of her hand, calming, soothing, but I didn’t know if she could handle that. How much was too much, too soon? Where was the line? Would she even let me back away from the line in time, or would she insist on trying to push through her attacks until she actually did stop breathing? I just didn’t know.
But I didn’t let go, and neither did she.
Dana yawned. She had to be beyond exhausted. Jet lag, a day of travel, not to mention the panic attack. Those all took a lot out of her individually. Combined, though?
I was about to suggest she call it a night and go up to bed when the front door opened and Babs came in, laughing. He wasn’t alone. Razor was with him—Ray Chambers, one of the other rookies on the team this year.
Dana jumped, and I could tell she wanted to pull her hand away, she wanted to run, but she didn’t.
I should have told Babs about Dana when he texted earlier. I should have let him know it wasn’t a good night to bring anyone else in for a late-night snack or a drink or a video game, or anything. It was going to be hard enough for her to meet him tonight. This was asking too much.
The inside of her wrist was pressed against my arm. I could feel her pulse pounding, racing, nearly bursting through her veins. Damn it.
Babs went into the kitchen for a couple of waters from the fridge. “Sorry, man, she wasn’t looking at you.”
“Nah, bro. She wanted me, eh.” Razor was oblivious to the two of us as he came into the living room and plopped down on the first recliner. “Not you. You’re cute, like Bieber or a puppy or something. They want to pet you, but that’s about it. But me? Girls dig me. Tell him, Zee.”
Babs came back and tossed the bottled water at Razor, trying to hit him in the head with it. It almost worked, but Razor tossed up his hands at the last second and caught it.
Then he looked over at me, and saw Dana. “Oh. Sorry, Zee. I didn’t… Damn, Babs, why didn’t you say he had a girl here?”
Babs just gave him a how-the-hell-was-I-supposed-to-know look, then brushed his hands through his hair, trying to straighten himself up like if his mom was around or something.
Dana, however, was strung so tight I knew she was going to blow at any moment…not in anger, but in panic.
I tightened my grip on her hand, trying to reassure her. “Guys, this is my girlfriend Dana. Dana, that’s Babs on the left and Razor on the right. And Razor was just on his way out.”
“I—” Razor thought twice about arguing that point. Smart move. “Yeah, right. See ya in the morning, boys. See ya around, Dana.”
Babs followed him to the door and locked it behind him. He had a huge, sheepish grin on his face when he came back. “Sorry, Zee. I didn’t…” He shrugged. “You’ve been keeping quite a secret from the boys, there.”
Dana was squirming, and the temperature of her hand shot up fast. In no time, it was covered in sweat. She tossed the blanket off her lap again and looked at me with wild eyes.
“A pretty secret, though.”
Babs should have kept his damn mouth shut.
Dana jerked her hand out of mine and bolted up the stairs. I only counted to three from the moment she left until I heard her bedroom door slam closed.
“Did I say something wrong? Chicks are crazy. Maybe I should have left Razor to it, if this is what they’re like.”
Getting mad at Babs wouldn’t help anything, but I needed somewhere to vent. Not on him, though. He didn’t know better.
“Dana isn’t crazy.” I picked up the throw blanket and tossed it back onto the sofa. “She’s going to live here. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.” Then I went up the stairs behind her.
“Yeah… I’m sorry, Zee. ‘Night.”
In the morning, on our way into practice, I’d tell him more than I intended to tell the other guys. If he and Dana were going to live in the same house, there were things he’d have to understand. But I trusted Babs. Like I’d told Dana, he was a good kid. He’d never do anything to intentionally hurt anyone. But, he was a kid.
When I got to her door, I knocked.
No answer.
I could hear her struggling for her breath just on the other side of the door, down near the floor. I dropped to my knees, pressed my ear up against it.
“It’s just me. Are you… Do you need anything?”
“I’m s-s-sorry.”
“Please stop apologizing, kid.”
Times like this, I just wanted to pull her into my arms and hold her until it passed. I’d done that before. When she was twelve, Soupy got hurt bad in a game we were playing. Got knocked out cold. They took him to the hospital in an ambulance, and her parents went with him and left her with me and my folks. She was terrified. We both were. She cried and cried, and all I could do was hold her tight for hours, until we heard. Until we knew he would be okay.
But I couldn’t do that now. Even if she would let me in, even if she hadn’t locked the door to protect herself, I couldn’t. Not yet. Maybe, if she was right, if this plan worked how she hoped it would…maybe someday.
But for now, all I could do was sit on the floor by her door and hate myself for not being able to protect her from her demons.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, sitting by her door. When Soupy and I went home for Christmas our senior year, the first time we’d seen her after… She couldn’t bring herself to come out of her bedroom that whole break.
Her parents tried to just go on about their lives, hoping that she’d snap out of it.
Soupy couldn’t take it. He went to the gym for hours at a time, coming home with bruised and bloodied knuckles because he spent too long beating up punching bags.
But me? I sat by her door a lot, listening, waiting, hoping maybe she would tell me what I could do, ask me for help. Anything.
She didn’t.
She was better by summer, at least if you consider how she was now better. She wouldn’t let us hug her anymore, and she couldn’t look me in the eye. There were no more kisses on the cheek or arm wrestling contests, none of the things we used to do. But she would come out of her room again.
That was progress. That was all we could really ask for, I suppose—progress.
My knees hurt, so I dropped lower until I was actually sitting on the floor instead of kneeling. I leaned my back against the wall and dropped my head back, listening to be sure she started breathing normally again.
I had to wait a long time.
It scared me, the breathing thing. Especially since she had locked the door. I had a key, but it would just take more time if we had to get in there. I racked my mind, trying to remember exactly where I’d put the key. Just in case.
It was probably in the drawer of my nightstand. But I wasn’t sure. I was debating with myself over whether I should go make sure that’s where it was or whether I should stay put, making sure she was breathing, when I heard it.
“Eric?” Just a tiny voice.
“Yeah? I’m still here.” I’d be here as long as it took.
“I need water to take my meds.”
She sounded more normal. Calmer. She wasn’t crying anymore, at least.
“Okay. I’ll be right back with it.”
I took the stairs two at a time. Babs had gone off to his room, whether to play video games or watch porn or sleep, I didn’t know. I didn’t care.
I grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge and took them back up, setting them on the floor just outside the door.
“They’re right here when you open the door. And there’s a flashlight and pepper spray in the nightstand.”
“I know.” She sounded a little stronger. Less shaky. “I found them earlier. Thank you.”
“Do you…do you need anything else?” I wanted her to say yes. I wanted her to need something that would force her to open the door and let me see her, let me see with my own eyes that she was better again, or at least on her way to being better.
“No, I…”
Please need me.
“I’ll be fine.” She sounded firm on that, damn it. “I’ll see you in the morning, Eric. I’ll be better tomorrow.”
“All right. But wake me, whatever time it is if you need anything.”
“Good night, Eric.”
Now was not the time to push. “Good night, Dana.”
I went back down the hall to my room and closed the door, and I waited. A minute later, I heard her lock turn and the door open, then just as quickly she closed it again and locked it.
Instead of going to bed, though, I threw every pillow I had across the room, ripped the sheets back off the bed, pounded the mattress.
It didn’t help.
And now I had to make my bed.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Breakaway - Unedited Chapter 2

Eric didn’t say anything the whole way back to his house.
Normally, I didn’t mind silence. I had a lot of it. It was comfortable to me lately. I lived alone and I didn’t get out much, other than going to work.
Even at work I did most of the talking, not my clients. I was a personal trainer at Love Handles, a gym for women. It was safe for me there—no men. No one to ask me out for drinks after work. No one to smile at me in a way I could misinterpret. No one to trigger a panic attack.
Silence was usually my friend.
This time? Not so much.
This silence allowed my mind to wander too much. Even just thinking about a man touching me could sometimes trigger a panic attack, and the trip from the Pearl District to Alameda Ridge where he lived was a good fifteen minutes. That was way too long to think about the fact that I’d just asked Eric to touch me, and so much more. Hell, I hadn’t even been able to really get the words out. Stuff? That’s what I’d said. I couldn’t even properly ask him for what I wanted—what I needed. I couldn’t say the word sex to him. Not that I was ready for that—not yet. But I hoped I would be before I had to go back home to Providence, back to my job and my isolation and my life as I knew it.
He was bound to think I wasn’t emotionally ready for this, that I wasn’t mature enough. He still called me kid more often than not. That was how he thought of me, how he’d always thought of me. As a kid. A little girl. Not nearly ready to handle the emotional implications of even the smallest forms of physical intimacy or, God forbid, sex.
But that was just it. Emotionally, I wanted that connection. I wanted to be able to have a relationship, to have a boyfriend and go on dates and maybe someday get married. I’d been through enough counseling that I knew I was ready for that. I just didn’t know if I could get to where my body could handle it.
Panic attacks are crazy beasts.
They don’t care what you think you’re ready for. They don’t care what you want. They just take control, and then you suffer.
I’d had enough. I was sick and tired of letting some wacko chemical response in my body determine where I worked or what friends I had or if I could ever allow myself to fall in love—or, maybe more precisely, to allow someone to love me.
This would only work if Eric would help me, though, and he didn’t seem all that happy about me asking him, if his silence the whole way to his house was any indication.
By the time he pulled into his garage, I’d been trying to focus on my breathing for a good ten minutes so I wouldn’t succumb to another panic attack. He turned off the ignition and got out. I’d barely undone my seatbelt before he had opened my door for me.
Instead of going inside, he opened the back of his SUV and reached in for my suitcases.
“You don’t need to bring my bags in. I’ve got a reservation at—”
“Cancel it. I’ll pay if they want to charge a cancellation fee.” He moved past me and inside, one bag in each hand.
I had to follow him if I wanted to argue further—which I did. I wanted his help, but I needed it to go at my pace. Staying in his house? Not ready for that. Nowhere close to ready for that. “I don’t want you to go—”
“I’m not going out of my way for you, so knock it off. You’re Soupy’s sister. You’re not staying in a hotel when you come to visit me, not when I have five guest bedrooms that almost never get used.”
I barely registered the rooms we were going through, the furniture, the things on the walls. It felt like it was all closing in around me, squeezing me through a too-narrow space. He started up a flight of stairs, and I followed because I didn’t know what else to do. He had my stuff, my bags.
At the end of a long hall, he opened a door, set my luggage against the wall, and flipped the light switch. I stayed just outside the room in the hall.
“You’ve got your own bathroom in here, and a closet. That door will take you out into the backyard if you need—if you need more air. There’s stairs on the outside that’ll take you down, and you’ve got a lock on that door and this one. I’m all the way down the hall, and Babs is set up in his own apartment, pretty much. He won’t have any reason to come down here. You’ll just see him in the living room and kitchen mainly.”
“Him?” That was the one word my mind latched onto in everything Eric had said.
“Yeah, Babs—Jamie Babcock. He’s a nineteen-year-old rookie. Made the team out of camp and didn’t have anywhere to live. I offered to let him stay here this season, get his feet under him some.”
I swallowed hard, but it didn’t help. The thought of someone else living here with Eric, another man, hadn’t crossed my mind when I’d decided to do this.
“He’s a good kid, Dana. You’d like him, if you’d let yourself. He’s got some sick mitts, too. A lot like yours, actually.” Eric moved out into the hallway. Without thinking, I squeezed into a corner to allow him as much room as possible, then mentally berated myself as soon as I realized what I’d done. He lifted a hand as though he intended to touch my cheek, but then let it drop back to his side. “Take some time to get yourself together. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready to talk.”
I watched him walk back the same way we’d come and then head down the stairs. Once I couldn’t see him anymore, I went into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of habit, I checked to be sure the lock worked properly. It did.
Then I moved across the room to the door leading outside. It was locked, so I opened it and went out onto the landing. The stairwell looked newer than the outside of the house, sturdy and well-constructed. As soon as I was inside again, I closed and locked the door, then examined the windows. All locked.
Everything seemed safe. Safe enough, at least.
My breathing still hadn’t leveled out, so I cracked open a window to let some cold air in, took off my coat, and lay down on the bed for a few minutes. By the time the air was making me chilly, I could feel that my pulse had returned to a more normal pace and I felt like more oxygen was making its way into my lungs.
I sat up on the edge of the bed and actually looked around the room for the first time, taking in everything that wasn’t strictly a safety concern. It was done in a peaches and cream color scheme, soft and easy on the eyes. Soothing.
It didn’t escape my notice that they were my colors. When I was six or seven years old, I told my parents I wanted a peaches and cream bedroom, and they’d indulged me. Even now, the bedroom in my apartment looked much the same as this bedroom.
The woods were all white-washed, smooth and with a homey, beachy feel. I drew my hand over the top of the nightstand beside me, then opened the drawer. It held two items: a flashlight and pepper spray—two things he knew I’d need to feel secure.
It didn’t make sense. Eric didn’t know I was coming, so how…?
The more important question might be: why?
Leaving the flashlight and pepper spray in the nightstand, I closed the drawer and then crossed over to close the window, looking down at the stairwell one more time as I locked it. It definitely wasn’t part of the initial design. This was an older house, part of a historical district. He’d clearly had a lot of restoration and remodeling done to it. Houses like this one didn’t have outside stairs. They had step leading up to porches and internal stairwells.
Eric had put the stairs in. He must have.
The scents of garlic and lemon met me when I opened the door to my room, and my stomach growled in response. I followed the hallway to the stairs and down. It opened up to a huge open area, living spaces coming together with the dining room and kitchen. This all looked so much more like what I would expect of his house than my room did, with sleek, modern lines, blacks and whites and grays with splashes of bright red tossed in here and there.
Eric was standing in front of the stove with pots and pans going over three different flames. He smiled when he saw me. “I thought you’d be hungry since we didn’t stay to eat at Amani’s.”
“I am.” I hadn’t realized it until the garlic hit me.
He drained a pot of pasta, then tossed it into a sauce. “Lemon, garlic, and olive oil. No red sauce. I know it gives you heartburn.”
“I didn’t know you could cook.” In all the time I’d known him, Eric had relied on his mother or mine to cook for him. Either that, or he’d gone out to eat. It was always someone else cooking, though, never him.
“Living alone for as long as I have, you learn to do a lot of things for yourself. And being a professional athlete this long—it’s hard to eat right if you can’t cook. Gotta fuel the body.” He flipped the two steaks he had on the grill pan. “Medium well?”
He nodded toward a bowl on the bar near him. “Can you toss the spinach?”
I nodded and took a seat on the barstool. Caramelized onions, dried cranberries, and a balsamic vinaigrette were in the bowl as well, and a bit of gorgonzola cheese. It was practically a gourmet meal he’d made for me. Nothing like what I’d expect from a bachelor.
I picked up the salad tongs and started to toss it.
“Babs texted.” Picking up the empty pot from the pasta, Eric moved to the sink to wash it. “He’s going to the Trailblazers game with a couple of the boys. Won’t be back until late. That’ll give us plenty of time to talk without being interrupted.”
I nodded so he’d know I heard him, but I was still pretending to focus on the salad. I’d probably over-tossed it, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t, any more than I could have stopped myself from picking at my nail earlier until it bled. “That bedroom?”
He set the pot down on the counter and turned off the faucet. “I thought if you ever came to visit—with Soupy or your parents—you’d need somewhere you could feel safe. I never thought you’d come by yourself, though.”
“I didn’t think I would either. The stairs? You had those put in?”
“You always need an escape route.” He said it in a very matter-of-fact manner, like anyone would have thought of it, would have done something like that.
I did always need an escape route. I knew that, and I knew Mom and Dad and Brenden all knew. But I didn’t think Eric knew, or maybe it was more that I didn’t think he would have cared enough to do something like that for me in his home. I might never have come to visit him. I hadn’t once made the journey to Portland in the seven years he had been playing for the Storm.
But he’d created a safe haven for me in his house anyway.
My stomach was full of flutters, unfamiliar and as uncomfortable as they were exciting. I carried the salad bowl to the table to hide my face from him.
He’d already put out two place settings. I felt him come up behind me and fought the urge to slip to the side. He didn’t touch me, though. He set the pasta bowl down beside the salad and then pulled out a chair for me.
“Sit. I’ll bring the steaks over and we can talk while we eat.”
He pushed the chair in behind me, only touching the chair and not me. Then he pointed to my left. “Straight path to the front door. Nothing between you and escape.”
I couldn’t speak around the thickness of my tongue. A nod would have to suffice.
He came back a minute later and put a steak on my plate and the other on his own before sitting down across from me. Tentatively, I reached for the salad and put some into my bowl.
“So,” Eric said, reaching for the pasta, “here’s what I’m thinking. You’ll stay here tonight, and tomorrow morning before practice I’ll take you back to the airport. Put you on a plane to either Seattle, so you can visit Soupy before you go home, or straight back to Providence. Your choice.”
That wasn’t really a choice, though. Not a viable one. I had no intention of going back to Providence for six weeks, and my brother may love me, but this was something he couldn’t help me with even if he wanted to.
I stabbed into my steak, putting all my fears into the effort of cutting through the meat. “Eric, please just consider—”
“You’re not ready, kid.”
Kid. There it was again.
“You think you are. I know it. And you’re frustrated.” He opened a bottle of red wine and poured some for both of us. “I get it, Dana.”
“No, you don’t get it.” I pushed back in my chair, ready to dart out that door, before I recognized my response for what it was. I couldn’t keep running. Running didn’t solve anything. I had to stay. I had to talk to him. “When a woman flirts with you, you don’t feel like there’s a giant ball of fire eating you alive from the inside out. When a woman touches your hand or your arm, you don’t stop breathing, your lungs don’t swell up and close off until your face is purple and someone calls 911. You don’t have blurred vision, you don’t break out in an uncontrollable sweat, your pulse doesn’t race and your chest doesn’t hurt so much you think you’re having a heart attack. Don’t tell me you get it.”
“Fair enough.” Eric sipped from his glass. “But let me tell you what I’ve seen since I got here today. You couldn’t look me in the eye when you were asking me to touch you—and stuff, as you so eloquently put it. You couldn’t say the damn word. Sex. You couldn’t tell me what you wanted. You jumped when I accidentally touched you when I was helping you put your coat on. You couldn’t handle that waitress thinking you were my girlfriend. You tensed up when I forgot and put my hand on your back for just a second. You’re not ready for this, however much you may think you are, and however much you want it.”
Everything he’d observed was right, but he’d fallen short on his interpretation.
“Don’t you see, though?” I kept stabbing my steak, cutting and cutting, breaking it down into pieces so small a toothless baby could eat it. “That’s not going to go away on its own, no matter how much counseling I go through and no matter how much time passes.”
“More time could help.”
“It’s not. It won’t. If time could make this better, or counseling, or prescriptions…anything, I’d be past it already. I’ve tried it all except—”
“Except what? Except asking me to touch you, to force you to experience all of those things even when I see what it does to you? What, do you think I should just hold you down while you freak out right in front of me, because of me, because of what I’m doing to you? You might as well ask me to rape you.” He blanched and pushed his plate away. “That’s not going to happen, I can tell you that.”
“You’re not being fair.”
“Oh, I’m not? Tell me what it would be if not that. Tell me how you think this will play out. I’m all ears.”
“I asked you because I thought—I thought you could be patient with me. Take things at my pace.”
The look from earlier was back. His eyes were so intense, so filled with anger there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that if I was a man, he’d hit me. If we were on the ice, at least.
“Even better. A nice, prolonged form of torture. That’ll sit really well on my conscience for the next fifty years while you lock yourself away from the world in your apartment.”
He took his plate, still full since he hadn’t eaten a bite, stalked back into the kitchen and tossed it all down the garbage disposal. Even from a distance, I could see the line between his brows, could nearly hear his jaw grinding in frustration.
“The cow was dead before it hit your plate,” he said a minute later.
I looked down, and through my tears saw that I’d broken my steak into mush. I set the knife down and tried to eat it, because I was hungry. It’s not very easy to eat when you’re crying though.
I had been so sure Eric would help me.
Always, the whole time I’d known him, he’d told me if I ever needed him, for any reason at all, he’d do anything he could to help me. Not once had I ever taken him up on that, not really. I mean, I’d had him forge my dad’s signature on my report card once in middle school, but that’s not the same. That was me being a stupid kid and thinking I could sneak a bad grade past my parents without them noticing. That wasn’t a real need.
He stayed in the kitchen, washing all the pots and pans, wiping down the counters, cleaning the range top. I ate until I couldn’t make myself take another bite for fear it might come back up. Conflict always made my stomach nervous, and this whole day had been filled with conflict.
“You didn’t eat much.” He met my eyes for a second before taking my plate away. “You used to eat better. Not like a bird.”
“I usually do. Eat better.”
He nodded, then washed my plate, running the garbage disposal again. After he turned the water off and left the dishes to dry in the rack, he dried his hands on a towel and came to sit across from me again. He pushed the towel across to me. “Dry your eyes. I always hate it when you cry.”
I dabbed the towel on my cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
“Soupy’ll kill me.”
My breath caught a little. If Eric was thinking about Brenden’s reaction, then he was considering it.
“The hockey world is small. You know that.” Eric poured himself more wine, then looked at my still-full glass before returning the bottle to the table. “He’ll find out you’re here in no time. And he’ll kill me. It’ll be even quicker this year than it would have before—now that he signed with the Storm to be the captain in Seattle.” The Portland Storm’s minor league affiliate in the American Hockey League was based in Seattle. Brenden had been happy for the opportunity, even though it still wasn’t an NHL team like he wanted to be playing for. “First time someone gets called up or sent down, they’ll be all over telling him. Hell, some of the boys who’ve played up there earlier this year might tell him even before that happens. They might feel like they owe it to him.”
“I could explain it to him.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said through a laugh. “Right. You’ll explain it to him as well as you explained it to me, huh? When I thought you wanted me to pay some crackpot therapist to have sex with you? Good plan. I’m sure that’ll go over really well.”
“Brenden trusts you. And he knows I trust you. You won’t push me too hard, but you won’t go easy on me either.”
“This is about a lot more than just trust.”
I knew that all too well.

“Physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are tied pretty closely together,” I said to her. I still couldn’t believe I was thinking about going along with this, but if I was, I had to be sure she had thought about every aspect of it. “More so for women than for men, and I’m not saying that to be an ass. What happens if you start having feelings for me? This is all going to be new for you. How are you going to handle it?”
And then there was the problem of what if I started having feelings for her. But that was minor, in comparison. I could deal with my own heartbreak if it came to that. I’d gotten by before after having my heart shattered. By her, even.
But for me to be the cause of Dana’s hurt? I didn’t know what I’d do with that.
“I’m not asking you for a lifetime commitment or anything, Eric. I know I might get hurt, but I have to do this. Please?”
It was her eyes that would kill me, not her brother. Soupy wouldn’t like it, but I could eventually make him understand. At least I could make him understand as well as I did, which wasn’t necessarily saying a lot. But fuck, her eyes! Even when she was a little girl, she had this ability to rip my heart out and squeeze it, just with those brown eyes. They’d get so big, too big for her face, and they’d fill with these huge crocodile tears. I’d never seen such big tears, building and building until I was sure they had to spill over any time, but they just kept building. And then when they finally did fall, it made me feel like the biggest asshole of all time, because I couldn’t keep her from getting hurt.
She didn’t have those tears building now, but her eyes were wide enough and so full of fear and hurt and vulnerability, I knew the tears were coming.
I couldn’t handle that again. Not so soon. She’d just stopped crying a minute ago.
“How long do you intend to stay?”
We were over halfway through the regular season, and the Storm hadn’t made it to the playoffs for three years in a row. We were right in the thick of things, but there were no guarantees. We had to finish out the season better than we’d started, at the very least. I couldn’t really afford to lose my focus right now.
But Dana never asked me for anything, not even when she desperately needed help. And she was determined. I knew how determined she could be. It was what made her one of the best women’s hockey players in the world, back in the day. It was what had kept her isolated for seven years. She was going to use that same determination now to get someone to do what she’d asked me to do.
The thought of anyone else touching her wasn’t something I could contemplate. I might not be sure I had the stomach for what she wanted me to do, but if someone was going to touch her, it would damn well be me.
“I took a leave of absence from work. FMLA. I’ve got six weeks. I even found someone to sublet my apartment.”
Six weeks. That would pretty much coincide with all that was left of the regular season. Of course it would.
“You know that my life requires me to be around the guys a lot. Babs lives here. Sometimes the boys will come over and hang out. Practice, work outs, pre-game meals, games, road trips, charity events… It’s not just me you’ll be with. They won’t touch you, but they’ll be around.”
For the first time all day, Dana met my eyes—really, truly looked at me, not just in the general vicinity of me, or somewhere past me, but at me.
“I know. But you’ll be with me.”
I heard what she said. But I also heard what she didn’t say. I’m safe when I’m with you.
Was she? Did she really believe that, or was she just trying to convince herself of it?
“It’ll probably be best if they think you’re my girlfriend. No need for PDA in front of them, but I don’t want anyone thinking you’re on the market. Just in case.”
Norty, in particular, needed to know to keep his mitts to himself. The guy got around, and Dana was just his type—blonde, tall, fit, and curvy.
“Okay.” Dana agreed to that too easily. That should have been a harder condition for her to accept, because of what it implied. Especially considering how she’d reacted to the waitress’s comment earlier.
I dragged a hand over my face, feeling the scrape of stubble on my palm. I’d have to shave tomorrow or it’d start looking like I was growing a playoff beard. I’m not superstitious, but it didn’t seem like a good plan to taunt the hockey gods with something like that.
“Are you sure about this? I mean, really, truly sure?”
She looked so damn hopeful it made me want to punch something. How could she feel hopeful when she was asking me to torture her?
“So you’ll do it? You’ll help me?”
“You’ll have to let me tell you how beautiful you are, things like that.”
Just like that, she recoiled. “I’m not—”
“You are. Beautiful. You always have been, and you always will be, and you need to hear it.”
She was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever known, and it was mainly because she didn’t want to be. Dana didn’t wear makeup. She didn’t dye her hair. She didn’t get fake nails or Botox or think about a boob job or liposuction. The thing she wanted most was to avoid men’s notice, but her efforts had the opposite effect. At least on me. She was all Dana, all natural, no additives or preservatives.
And she was beautiful.
“You have to let me tell you that as much as I want and without brushing it off. And you have to start to believe it.”
She took a breath. “That’s going to be hard.”
Compared to everything else she wanted, letting me tell her she’s beautiful was the least of her worries. For either of us. I couldn’t decide if it was going to be harder on me or on her. Physically, I knew it would be worse for her. But there was a hell of a lot more going on here than just the physical.
“It’s all going to be hard.”
Dana nodded. “Okay. Will you do it?”
I couldn’t let her find someone else to do what should be my job. Hell, even if she didn’t have the panic attacks, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand by while knowing someone else was touching her. I didn’t know what that meant, or at least I didn’t want to admit it to myself. “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I already regretted it, and I hadn’t done anything yet.
Dana smiled, a real smile, one of the first I’d seen on her face in far too long. “I wish…I wish I was brave enough to kiss you on the cheek.”
She used to do that all the time, back when she was a little girl. She would kiss her dad on the cheek, and Soupy…and after I’d been around a while, she started to kiss me on the cheek. She’d do it after I’d had a good game sometimes, or to thank me for some silly thing or another. Every now and then, she’d do it for no discernible reason at all.
No one else had ever done that to me. It was so chaste. So innocent. Sweet.
       She couldn’t wish for it nearly as much as I did.