Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sneak Peek: On the Fly, Unedited Chapter 2

I had a great response again when I shared the first unedited chapter of On the Fly. To tide you over while I'm waiting to get it back from my editor, here's the second chapter!

If you haven't read the first chapter yet, you can find that here.

On the Fly will release at the end of February, on or around the 26th, so you've only got about two more weeks to wait before you can read the whole thing.


The team had almost finished practice by the time I’d gone to see Drywall Tierney, the team’s head equipment manager. He helped me to sort out what gear I needed to take with me and what would be provided in Seattle. They were winding things down on the ice, so I hung around for a bit. I needed to talk to Jamie Babcock.
Babs was an almost-twenty-year-old hockey phenom and, at least for this season, my roommate. Last season, he’d lived with Zee so he could adjust to life as a pro hockey player and to being away from his mom and dad. When I got called up to finish last season in Portland, I’d lived with them, too. This year, Babs and I both thought it would be better to give Zee and Dana some space, some privacy. We got a condo together near downtown, a nice place not too far from either the arena or the practice facility.
I liked Babs. He didn’t need me to babysit him or anything, but he had still jumped at the idea of us living together. I was pretty sure it was that he wouldn’t have to figure out how to cook for himself, more than anything, that convinced him it was a good idea.
Babs wasn’t that great in the kitchen. Actually, he was a holy terror in the kitchen. I’d banned him from ever touching the stove within a week of us moving into the new place. Not much later, I’d added the oven, the toaster, and the coffee maker to the list of off-limit appliances. It was best for all involved if Babs didn’t attempt to make anything more complicated than a peanut butter sandwich.
When the boys came off the ice, I told him the news about me heading to Seattle for a week.
He was busy changing out of his gear. “Damn, Soupy,” he said once I finished talking. “That sucks. I mean, it’ll be good to get back on the ice, but…”
He didn’t have to finish that thought.
“Anyway, you’ll have to find a way to feed yourself for a week,” I said, making a joke instead of focusing on the fact that, once more, I was on my way down to the minors. It was easier to laugh off my frustration than to face my fears.
Zee hung his pads neatly in his stall, proving himself to be just about the perfect human once again. His perfection would probably annoy me more if he wasn’t my best friend, but I’d spent more than half my life witnessing it. “You can come hang out with me and Dana some,” he said. “She misses you, and then you won’t have to starve.”
Babs blushed, which only made him more adorable than he already was. Adorable wasn’t a word I’d usually use about another guy, but this kid slayed me.
“Yeah, all right,” he said.
I was glad they were going to look after him. He may not need a babysitter, but he could definitely make good use of a personal chef.
Before things got even more awkward, I figured it was better for me to just head out. “Yeah. Anyway, I have to be there in the morning. Better go pack so I can get on the road.” It was about a two-and-a-half-hour drive so there was no point in flying.
I headed toward the garage, but halfway there I saw that redhead, Rachel Shaw, coming down the stairs. She had her head down and was talking to herself, having this whole long, drawn-out conversation back and forth. Well, conversation probably wasn’t quite the right word. It was more like an argument. Out loud. Every step of the way down the stairs.
I’d never seen anything more adorable, and that included Babs and his fucking blushes and dimples. I moved into position at the foot of the stairs and waited for her.
Once she was close enough for me to hear what she was saying, I realized she had the most fascinating southern accent I’d ever heard. I must not have heard her say enough when I’d run into her earlier, or I surely would have noticed it. “…But it isn’t for me,” she muttered. “It’s for Maddie and Tuck. I can accept it for them. I have to.”
She almost walked straight into me, which would have made us even. Plus, it would have given me a great excuse to touch her again, to put my arms out and help steady her. Right before she would have barreled into me she realized I was there, nearly jumping back in shock.
“Who’s winning?” I asked, giving her a smile that had always made girls melt in the past.
“Winning what?”
Yeah, so Rachel Shaw didn’t melt. Instead, she narrowed those green eyes on me, and she had to crane her neck back to see my face. She couldn’t be taller than five feet or so. Definitely not my usual type. Besides, she was eyeing me like I was the most suspicious man on the planet. This chick wanted nothing to do with me.
I couldn’t help myself, though. I wanted to talk to her, to keep hearing that southern accent. “The argument. Are you going to take it—whatever it is—or not?”
She pulled the strap of her purse over her head to rest on the opposite shoulder. I let my eyes follow the line it made, angling down her chest, between her boobs. I shouldn’t have done that. But I’m just a man like any other, and as such there are few things in the world that will draw my eye like a good pair of boobs. Rachel Shaw definitely had a pair worth looking at to go along with her cute ass.
Hell, I had to stop thinking like that.
She didn’t answer my question. She glared at me, which she absolutely should have done since I was staring shamelessly at her rack. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said, pushing past me and heading toward the parking garage. “I have somewhere to be.”
Since I was already on my way out to the garage, I figured I’d walk with her. She was much faster than me, faster than she should’ve been, considering how short her legs were and how long mine were. I’m six foot four, but I couldn’t walk at anything resembling a leisurely pace if I wanted to keep up with her.
Which I did—I wanted to keep up with her, keep talking to her, keep hearing that drawl.
I didn’t really understand it. Not at all. I mean, she was adorable with her freckles and all, but there ought to be a lot more involved in gaining my interest than appearances, shouldn’t there? “Where do you have to be?” I asked despite myself.
She slowed down enough to give me an exasperated look, but she didn’t stop. “I have to pick my kids up at school.”
Kids? Shit. I took a quick look down at her hand, but there was no wedding ring. But kids just meant complications—time spent with them, dealing with exes—and I had enough complications of my own. Not that it should matter to me. I wasn’t interested. I mean, not really. She wasn’t my type. Other than her breasts. They were nice and perky still, even though she had kids. Not too big, but more than enough to play with.
I had to remind myself that I had no business thinking about playing with her boobs. This business with getting sent to Seattle was obviously fucking with my head. That didn’t stop me from saying, “School doesn’t get out for a few hours. Can I buy you lunch?” Okay, so maybe I was interested.
She didn’t slow down. “No.”
“Coffee, then? That won’t take too long. There’s a place right down—”
“Not gonna happen.” This time, she stopped suddenly and spun around to face me. “I don’t even know who you are. I’d appreciate it if you’d back off.” Then she started her sprint-walking again.
We’d made it into the garage, and the heels of her flats were clacking along on the concrete. She pulled her keys out of her pocket, holding the long car key in front of her like a weapon.
Every time she shot me down, my interest only grew. How the hell did that work? I wasn’t used to being rejected, not by women. Just by hockey teams lately. “Brenden Campbell,” I said, holding out my hand, but she ignored it and kept going. “What is it? You have a boyfriend or something? A husband?”
Yeah, there was no ring, but it had to be something like that. Surely. Didn’t it? Girls didn’t just brush me off, not usually. I’d never been a player or anything like that, but I’d never had a problem getting a girl to go out with me before.
She stopped in front of a gray Ford Taurus that might have seen better days at one point but it was too beat-up-looking at present for me to be sure. The backseat was littered with toys and a couple of kids’ booster seats. She put the key in the lock and turned it, then opened the door and got in.
I put my hand on the door, stopping her from shutting it. “Just let me take you out. One date.” One date would be more than enough for me to work my charm on her, for her to come around.
I had no clue what the look she was giving me meant.
“I don’t date,” she said emphatically. Then she jerked the door out of my hand and closed it, started the engine, backed out of her spot, and drove off. I stood there watching her Texas license plate fade away into the distance.
She didn’t date?
I could have handled something along the lines of I don’t date athletes, or maybe I don’t date cocky bastards who don’t know how to take a hint. I could have figured out a way to work around those excuses, to break down her defenses and get her to see reason. But ‘I don’t date?’ No dating—period? That one statement, complex in its simplicity, had me standing in the parking garage scratching my head for a few minutes after she left.
I finally started making my way up to my car on the next level, but then I remembered I hadn’t gotten my hotel information from Martha. I would rather get that now than come back to the practice facility before heading out of town, so I made my way back into the building.
When I got to the second floor and arrived at her desk, Martha didn’t even look up from her computer. Again. She just reached over to a letter tray, picked up an envelope, and handed it to me. “Your hotel reservation and other pertinent information is inside, Campbell. Any questions, just call me.”
“Thanks, Martha.” I started to walk off, but then my curiosity got the better of me. I came back to her desk. “Actually, I do have one question for you. Who’s Rachel Shaw?”
For the first time in my experience playing for the Storm, Martha stopped what she was doing and really looked at me. “She’s my replacement. I’m finally going to retire and travel with my husband. She starts training next Monday.”
“Yeah.” I nodded, trying not to seem too interested. “Thanks, Martha.”
       Next Monday. I’d be back in Portland by then.


I was still shaking with excitement by the time I picked Maddie and Tuck up from school that afternoon. They were easy to spot in the crowd of kids coming out of the building and swarming toward me. Both my kids had my same bright-red hair, and they both hated it just as much as I had when I was their age. Redheads get picked on all the time, and being called “carrot top” is nowhere near the worst of it. At least it hadn’t been back when I was in school. I doubted things had changed much over the years.
As soon as I saw them, I raised my hand as high as I could and waved until they saw me.
Tuck ran straight at me and leaped into my arms with a ginormous hug. He dropped his backpack at my feet and let me lift him up into the air. “Guess what?” he said, grinning so big that the two holes where his front teeth should have been were gaping at me, one on top and one on bottom. “Two and two is four!”
“You’re right,” I agreed. I kissed the freckles on his cheeks and mussed his hair as I set him back on the ground. “Did Mrs. Christenson teach you that?”
He wasn’t yet six, and Mrs. Christenson was his second kindergarten teacher. I worried that uprooting the kids in the middle of the school year would hurt their education, but I worried more about what would have happened if we had stayed.
“Nah. I learnded it myself.” He was still learning how verbs worked, how to conjugate them properly. I loved how he would say things like learnded and burnded and fakeded. All too soon, he was going to know the proper way to say these things. He was growing up too fast. They both were. I sometimes wished I could freeze certain moments in time and keep my kids just as they were right then.
That wasn’t possible, though. They were going to grow up and experience whatever life had to throw at them. No matter how much I wanted to protect them from the ugliness life might bring, I couldn’t. Not completely.
I laughed and picked up his backpack, putting the straps over his shoulders. Then I smiled at Maddie.
She was hanging back like she did so often lately. Maddie didn’t smile much anymore. She used to be completely uninhibited like Tuck, giggling and saying silly things and making me smile. A few years ago, that all changed.
At first, I thought she was just getting older and it was normal. We all become a bit more inhibited, a bit more guarded, as we age. But not like Maddie.
I finally found out what was behind the change about six months ago. I had come home from work one night and relieved Jason so he could go home. Jason was my ex-husband, Maddie and Tuck’s dad. We shared custody, and he would stay at my apartment with the kids while I worked every night. By the time I’d get home, they’d be asleep in bed, and he’d leave. We’d been doing it that way for years, ever since the divorce, when I started working so I could provide for them.
But one night, when I opened the door to Tuck’s room to check on him, he wasn’t asleep. That shocked me, because Tuck was the soundest sleeper I’d ever known. He was crying these big, huge, gut-wrenching sobs. At first I’d thought maybe he’d had a nightmare. But it had been nothing as simple as that. Jason had spanked him because Tuck had come to investigate the cries coming from Maddie’s room. He’d gone to see what was wrong, and he’d found his father in the act of molesting my little girl.
Through the legal investigation and subsequent counseling for me and both kids, I learned it had been going on for at least three years.
Three years. Under my own roof.
The man who had given me my daughter had also taken her away from me.
She was still here, but she wasn’t the same. Maddie would never be the same again.
At least now I knew he could never hurt her again. Even if he someday got out of prison, the courts wouldn’t allow him to come near her. Now I just had to figure out how to protect her from everyone and everything else in the world.
“Did you have a good day at school?” I asked, holding out my hand to her. She didn’t take it, but she walked along beside me.
Maddie looked a heck of a lot older than her eight years—not in her physical appearance, but something in her eyes. She had my eyes, green with gold flecks all around them, but hers looked like those of an old soul. She talked like one sometimes, too, not like a eight-year-old child.
“It was fine.”
It was fine was her way of telling me to back off. Her counselor had suggested it back in Texas—a simple phrase she could use when she needed space.
That only made me more curious about what had happened, if anything, but it would have to wait for another time for us to talk about it. It might be nothing and she just didn’t want to talk. Or she might not want to talk in front of Tuck. She was really protective of him, always trying to make sure he was sheltered from things he was too young for. Similar to how I was with her.
“Okay,” I said as we got to my car. “Listen, I have some news. We’re going out for ice cream to celebrate.”
“Yes!” Tuck said as he practically jumped into his booster seat. There were few things in life that could excite him more than ice cream. He fastened his seat belt and picked up a Hot Wheels car off the seat beside him, immediately making it race along his leg while he made vrrrroom sounds. He could entertain himself like that for hours.
I waited for Maddie to get in so I could close the door and go around to the driver’s seat. She looked up at me with wary eyes and dropped her voice so Tuck couldn’t hear. “Can we afford it? We shouldn’t go if we can’t afford it.”
God, I hated how she was worried about things like money. She should be worried about whether she should wear blue or purple barrettes in her hair with her favorite outfit, not about how tight my finances were. I dropped down to my knees so I could look her in the eye. “We can. I’ll explain when we get there, okay?”
“You’re sure?”
I nodded.
I gave her a little peck on her forehead, and she got in. She buckled her belt, and I closed the door. By the time I got around to the driver’s side, a tear had trickled down my cheek.
Damn it. I brushed it away with the back of my hand while I got in and started the car. I checked the rearview mirror. Tuck was still racing his cars, and Maddie had pulled a book out of her backpack to read.
I took a breath and pulled out into traffic. This was going to get better. Maddie would get better. Otherwise, why did I bring my kids halfway across the country?

We’re going to live there?” Tuck asked. His hazel eyes were as big as his face as he stared out the window of the ice cream shop.
The condo building Jim Sutter had recommended was right across the street from where I’d brought the kids. There was a park with a play area within walking distance, Powell’s Books was only a short drive away, and there was an after-school care program near the condo that I could get the kids into. I’d already gone by this afternoon before they’d gotten out of school and signed a lease, putting down a deposit with the money Mr. Sutter had insisted I take.
A signing bonus, he’d called it. I’d said only players get signing bonuses, but he just shook his head at me.
“Not in this case.”
I’d never in my life seen so much money at one time.
“We’ll go look at it after you finish your ice cream,” I said to Tuck.
The mint chocolate chip ice cream was dripping out of his cone and spreading all over the table. Nothing I could throw at the mess would stop it. I’d given up the fight to stop the ice cream’s progress after tossing a big stack of napkins on it. I’d have to get a rag from the workers once he was done. He had gotten more of that sticky stuff on his face than he had in his mouth. All I could do was grin at him.
Maddie had asked for a small bowl of vanilla, no cone, nothing on it. I figured she was still worried about money and was trying to get the cheapest thing on the menu.
“They’ll let Pumpkin live with us?” she asked between bites.
Pumpkin was the huge, fluffy, orange tabby cat I’d had since I was twelve years old. I was twenty-five now, which made him fourteen. He was starting to get on in years, and the move had been harder on him than it was on the rest of us.
It didn’t surprise me that Maddie was concerned about him. The day she was born, he’d become her cat more than mine. I’d caught him in her crib on countless occasions when she was a baby, curled up right by her side. If we’d tried to close her door so he couldn’t get in, he’d clawed at the carpet and whined and cried until we let him in out of fear that he’d wake her up. He’d always looked out for her, so now she was looking out for him.
I smiled. “Absolutely. It’s got hardwood floors. No carpet for him to tear up.”
Tuck gave me his best dubious look, raising his left eyebrow so high it was comical. “Are you really gonna work for a hockey team, Mommy?”
“Really, really.” I finished off my hot fudge sundae and wiped my face with one of the few napkins I’d held back from trying to clean up after him. “Mr. Sutter said we can even go to some of the games.”
One of my new job perks was four tickets to every home game. I’d told Mr. Sutter I wanted to donate all the ones on school nights to some charitable cause or another because that was too late to have the kids out. But it would be nice to be able to treat them to something like a hockey game on the weekends.
“Awe-some!” he squealed, emphasizing each syllable. Then the last of his mint chocolate chip plopped off his cone and splatted on the table. He started giggling uncontrollably.
His laughter was infectious. As good as I felt with how today had gone, I was laughing in no time. Even Maddie laughed for a second before quietly going back to her bowl of vanilla. I went to the counter for a bucket and rag to clean up Tuck’s mess.
I was still in awe over it all. I mean, the salary for this job was going to be more than I had ever come close to making before. It had full benefits—health and life insurance, 401(k), vacation and sick time—plus all sorts of perks like the game tickets. I couldn’t figure out why Mr. Sutter was giving the job to me. Yeah, he’d said he had a thing for the underdog and that his mom was a single mom, too. But still. It wasn’t quite clicking. Especially not since he’d handed me that check today.
“Get yourself a place to live,” he’d said. “Buy some furniture. Get an appropriate wardrobe, because we have a dress code. Do something fun with your kids and something to spoil yourself, and we’ll see you next week.”
Who did things like that? No one I’d ever met.
It’d been hard to have faith in humanity ever since I’d gotten pregnant when I was sixteen, and instead of loving me through it like I thought the Bible taught people to do, my parents had kicked me out and told me never to come back. Dad was a minister. He’d said he couldn’t allow sin like mine to stay in his house, that it was like inviting Satan to stay.
It had gotten even harder to believe in people after what Jason had done to Maddie.
But now, this man I’d only known for the length of a thirty-minute interview was trying to turn my life upside down in the best way possible. I didn’t know how to process it.
When I got back to the table, Maddie had finished her ice cream and Tuck was licking the table.
“You,” I said to him, trying hard to have a stern mom voice instead of falling into another fit of laughter at his antics. “Into the bathroom, right this second. Go clean yourself up. I don’t want any sticky stuff in my car, you hear?”
He was still giggling like a loon while he pranced off to wash. I set to work wiping down the table, and Maddie took all our trash to throw it away. When Tuck came back, his hair and shirt were drenched but at least he was clean.
“You’d better zip your coat up tight before we go outside,” I told him. None of us were used to the colder weather here yet. In Texas, we were more likely to have temperatures in the seventies than in the thirties in December.
“Yes, Mommy.” He got his arms in and was struggling with the zipper, but Maddie helped him close it.
I pulled my own coat on and slipped my purse strap over my head so it hung across my body. “All right. Ready to go see the new place?”
“Are we staying there tonight?” Maddie asked. She sounded nervous.
I hated that there’d been so much change for her, but change was necessary. “Not tonight. We’re just looking tonight.” That’d give her time to adjust to the idea and me time to get some furniture in there, some beds to sleep on.
A minute later, I’d parked the car and was leading the kids to the elevator. Our unit was on the twelfth floor. We got off, and I led them down the hall to our door. I’d just put the key in the lock when the door to the unit directly across the hall from ours opened.
Out of habit, I turned to smile at my new neighbor, my Texan nature shining through.
Then I froze.
Brenden Campbell—the too tall, too big, and entirely too good-looking hockey player who’d hounded me for a date earlier—was standing in the hallway between our doors. He had a wheeled suitcase in his hand and a question in his eye.
“Hi, Rachel,” he said.
“Mommy?” Maddie moved closer to me and reached up to put her hand in mine.
She never wanted to hold my hand anymore.
I finished unlocking the door and opened it. “How about y’all go check it out? I’ll be in in a minute, okay?”
They went in, and I closed the door after them. I could hear Tuck’s little feet clomping along as he raced from room to room. I turned around to find Brenden staring at me. Hard.
“So you live here?” I finally asked.
“Yeah, me and Babs—one of the other guys on the team. And you’re moving in?”
I nodded.
His eyes practically sparkled when he smiled at me, and my belly flipped with awareness. “Martha told me you were going to be Jim’s new assistant. And now we’re living across from each other? Well, that’ll make things nice and convenient.”
Convenient? Hardly. Awkward would be a heck of a lot more like it.
He rocked on his feet. “Yeah. Well, I’ve got to go. I’m heading to Seattle for the week. If you need anything, Babs is a good kid. He’ll help you.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” I said. I had no intention of asking this Babs person for help, or Brenden Campbell, or anyone else. It had been hard enough to accept the help Jim Sutter had insisted on giving me.
Brenden started heading toward the elevator, but then he stopped and turned around. He was smiling again, that same smile he’d given me a moment ago that made me tingle in a way I hadn’t experienced in years. “Just don’t let Babs cook,” he said. “Unless you want your kids to die of food poisoning or the place to go up in flames.”
I was pretty sure he was flirting with me. How sad was that, that a man might be flirting with me but I didn’t know for sure? I laughed briefly, but then he got onto the elevator and was gone.
A nervous zing raced through me. I tried to convince myself that it was because of the job, the new condo, all the changes taking place. Not because of Brenden Campbell.
       But that was a lie, and I damn well knew it.

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