Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sneak Peek #2 - IN THE ZONE

All right, so I already teased you with the prologue from IN THE ZONE. How about the first chapter?

P.S. It releases on November 20. If you haven't already pre-ordered it yet, you can do that at Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. It's also up on Goodreads and ready for you to add to your shelf. I'll wait while you do all of that. Got it? Okay, so here's the first chapter.


“Burnzie! Colesy!” the Storm’s head coach, Mattias Bergstrom, called out to me and one of the new defensemen on the team, Cole Paxton, as the rest of the boys started heading off the ice after a hard practice. “Jens and Ny—you too,” he added, indicating two of our other defensemen, Andrew Jensen and Peter Nylund. “I need a minute before you boys hit the showers.”
We were a few months into the season now, and the guys were finally starting to settle in to the new system Bergy had instituted for us when he took over the team. We’d been playing a similar style under Scotty Thomas the last couple of seasons, but the tweaks Bergy had insisted on had taken a few of us a while to adjust to. Old habits die hard, or whatever the saying was. Anyway, even though we were starting to really click with Bergy’s changes now, he still hadn’t settled on the defensive pairings he wanted. The forwards had been going through almost as many changes as we were. I was starting to wonder if Bergy was ever going to settle on a combination he liked. Every few games he tried out new partnerships, seeing who clicked with whom and what arrangement seemed to be the most effective for the team as a whole.
He was always looking at charts and graphs and other data on the computer, too—something Scotty would have never dreamed of doing. Scotty had trusted his eyes and gut feelings and things like a guy’s plus-minus rating. Bergy, though? He was far more interested in some of the newer stats that bloggers kept putting up posts about—Fenwick and Corsi and all sorts of other things that went right over my head. I didn’t have a clue what any of that shit meant, and I wasn’t entirely sure I cared.
Anyway, he’d been using these new stats to help him and his assistant coaches make decisions about which defensemen he ought to pair together and which forwards worked better on a particular line. I had a strong suspicion that some random stat was behind him calling me and the boys over right now—either that or maybe he wanted each of us to write down some new goals or something. He’d instituted that practice back at the beginning of training camp. If you write your goals down, it’ll keep you accountable, he’d said. He’d insisted on each of us making out goal cards for the entire season on the first day of training camp, and every week since then we’d had a team meeting where we would make up new goal cards for the upcoming week. Maybe he thought we needed to update ours right now.
Colesy gave me a look, one that clearly indicated he thought he was in trouble. The guy was a good defenseman—really good, actually. But the coaches kept talking to him about needing to improve his core strength, saying it would help him in his transitions. That was what all his goals had been about lately—adding extra reps in the gym on core-strengthening exercises, demonstrating improvement in game situations, that sort of thing.
He’d had a great practice today, though. He hadn’t had any problems making the switch from offensive to defensive positioning, and the drills we’d run were seriously challenging on that front. I doubted they were going to bring up his core strength again right now. Besides, why would Bergy include me and these other guys in that discussion if it was really just about Cole Paxton?
I shrugged, as though that would help him shrug it off, too. “Don’t worry about it. He’s not going to rip you a new one.” Not today, at least, and not this guy. Bergy tended to reserve that special form of communication for Zee. Sometimes for me and Soupy, too, since we were Zee’s assistant captains this year. He only really slammed into the leadership group—those of us who had special weekly meetings with him and the other coaches where we got to write down other leadership-oriented goals. The rest of the guys tended to get the you-disappointed-me sort of speech more than anything else. That was another way he was different than Scotty. Our former head coach preferred to yell at everyone indiscriminately, and if he wasn’t yelling at you, then you were really in hot water.
We skated to the boards near center ice, where Bergy and his assistant coaches, David Weber and Adam Hancock, were waiting. Until last year, Webs had been one of the boys, but he’d retired in the off-season. Handy was a longtime coach in the league. He’d been the head coach of a few teams over the years—both at the AHL and the NHL level—and he’d been an assistant coach more than just a few times, too. I figured Jim Sutter, the Storm’s general manager, had brought him in to give Bergy and Webs an experienced voice to help them make the adjustments smoothly and successfully. Bergy had only been an assistant coach for a couple of years before getting promoted. It wasn’t all that long ago that I’d played against him.
“So here’s the deal,” Bergy said once the four of us came to a stop. “I’m going to change things up again with you four, starting with Thursday night’s game. I want to see Jens and Ny together, and Burnzie, I want you with Colesy.”
“That’ll give both pairs a bit of snarl and risk-taking, along with a bit of safety,” Handy said. He was the assistant coach that was supposed to be overseeing the defense, but Bergy seemed to have a hard time letting go of that particular responsibility. Bergy had been a defenseman himself, and he’d been in charge of us for the two years he’d been an assistant coach.
I had no doubt that I was supposed to be the snarl of my pair. Jens and I had been partnered together almost all last season and part of this season. We both played a pretty similar style, though—physical, hard-hitting, in-your-face hockey. My snarl might be a little nastier than Jens’s, but it really depended on the day of the week and what side of bed we had each rolled out of, and I liked to shoot the puck more than he did. Jens was more about making a good first pass and letting the forwards deal with the offensive side of things, at least most of the time.
Before Jens had come to the Storm and throughout quite a bit of this year, I’d played alongside Ny. He was your prototypical Swedish defenseman, right down to doing everything like a machine. He skated well, had a decent shot and a lot of skill, and he played a sound positional game. Coaches liked to put him out on a power play unit because his pass was as good as his shot from the point and he had excellent on-ice vision. He could be a power play quarterback.
I hadn’t been paired up with Colesy at all, though, other than a random shift or two. His style was closer to Ny’s, only he was less offensively skilled and more defensively minded than the other three of us. Most people in the hockey world would call him a stay-at-home defenseman, but that wasn’t really accurate. He tended to sit back and let the game come to him, so he rarely got caught out of position.
Now he was going to be my partner—at least for the next game or two. It was anyone’s guess how long we’d stay together. I’d spent time playing alongside every other defenseman on the team in the first two and a half months of the season. Changing things up that often didn’t make it easy to form good communication or chemistry—both of which were imperative.
Which Bergy knew. He’d played defense in the NHL for over two decades. That was what confused me about why he was switching up the pairings and forward lines so often. We’d barely be starting to figure our partners out when he’d throw another wrench in things and we’d have to start all over again.
Bergy cleared his throat. “Everyone good with that?”
It wasn’t like we had much say in the matter.
“Yeah,” I replied for the lot of us. “Whatever you want.”
“Good deal,” Webs said. “So starting with practice tomorrow, that’s how we want you paired up for five-on-five work. Jens and Ny will be the 1-A pairing; Burnzie and Colesy will be 1-B. Burnzie, you’ll be on the first power play unit with four forwards, just like you’ve been doing lately. Jens and Ny will handle the second unit.”
Handy scanned a page on his clipboard and squinted. “And for penalty kill situations, I want to try Burnzie and Colesy as the first pairing. Jens, you’ll work with Luka for that,” he added. Luka was Slava Lukashenko, another veteran defenseman who was apparently being moved down to the third pairing now since Colesy was going to work with me.
“Everyone clear?” Bergy asked.
“Yeah,” we said. “Got it.”
“Get out of here then.” Bergy picked his own clipboard up off the boards and started flipping pages, so we skated off in the other direction. “Colesy! I need one more minute,” he shouted before we got off the ice.
Colesy groaned and turned back the other direction.
Damn. I’d been hoping they’d leave the guy alone. I shot a glance over my shoulder, but it didn’t look like Bergy was pissed off or anything. They wouldn’t yell at him, as I’d said earlier, but I still worried about him.
He was a guy I’d taken under my wing, so to speak, when he’d signed here as a free agent over the summer. Out of all the guys involved in the team leadership, I had always been the one planning parties and making sure the new guys knew they were invited along to shit, making everyone feel welcome…until this year. I’d passed that responsibility on to Soupy. Mainly it was because Bergy seemed to think that Soupy needed to branch out and get to know all the guys on the team as a whole, while he thought the opposite was more true for me: I needed to get to know one or two on a really good individual level.
Colesy had been my primary focus on that score. He was different than most of the guys, so I’d been making an effort to include him, even if I left everyone else to Soupy. He was kind of standoffish in a way. Had been since he’d first shown up in Portland. He was a good player, took care of his shit, never caused any problems, but he tended to keep to himself. I had started making extra effort with him once I noticed he wasn’t always coming along to hang out off-ice with the boys. I sometimes took him out to lunch, one-on-one, to get to know him better. Was he just shy or introverted, or did he feel like he didn’t fit in for whatever reason? I knew all too well the harm that could cause—feeling like you didn’t belong—thanks to my brothers. At least once we’d gotten a little older.
Being on a team, though, there’s no room for a guy to feel left out or as if he doesn’t fit. I wasn’t going to let that happen to Colesy.
That was how I started to figure out that he was gay. It was little things, but I recognized them. I mean, he wasn’t wearing bright pink and getting manicures and talking like a girl or anything like that. He wasn’t obvious about it; by all appearances, he was trying to keep it a secret. What gave him away was more how he would smile at the bartender at Kells when we’d have lunch there sometimes, or how he would force his gaze away from a couple of the guys we would see around town when we were out, as though he didn’t want to get caught staring at a guy he thought was hot.
I never said anything to him about it because he never said anything to me about it. It was his secret—his to reveal or keep hidden. But at the same time, I wanted him to feel comfortable enough around me that he would know he could tell me if he wanted to.
There wasn’t a single out guy in the whole NHL. Not one. There no way Colesy was the only one keeping it hidden, though. There had to be at least 800 guys playing in the league. I didn’t get the feeling that he was ready to be the ambassador, to wear that mantle and hope others got the courage to follow him, but there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to do a fucking thing to make him feel ashamed of who he was.
I’d already done enough of that for one lifetime, and it had cost me more than I’d had to give.
Colesy was only a couple of minutes behind the rest of us getting to the locker room. I took my time undressing and heading for the showers, allowing him a chance to catch up with me.
“Coming to Amani’s?” Soupy asked when I was almost done getting dressed.
Amani’s Family-Style Italian Restaurant was a favorite hang-out for the guys. The menu was full of things that made for great pre-game fuel, and we tended to go there a lot more often than just game days. It wasn’t my favorite, though. And I wanted to take Colesy out and talk to him, see what the coaches had wanted with him, that sort of thing. I shook my head. “Can’t do it today. My favorite waitress is expecting me at Kells.”
“Favorite hookup, you mean?” He had one brow lifted in question.
“Yeah, fine. Whatever.”
“Mmm-hmm. Whatever,” he repeated, rolling his eyes.
The guys all acted like I was taking a different girl home with me every night lately. Probably because I hadn’t been hanging with them as much as they were used to, so they were trying to figure out what was up with me. The truth was, ever since that night after Zee’s and Soupy’s weddings, when I’d been with Allison, I hadn’t really wanted to be with any other woman. I’d been pretty fucked up since then—thinking about finding the one. And some insane part of me kept wondering if Allison had been the one.
Not that I’d ever see her again. Even though we’d stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, talking between intermittent bouts of sex, sharing what bits of ourselves we could without delving too far into the truth of who we were, she’d left the next morning. Somehow she’d slipped out of my hotel room without me waking up. No note. No phone number. Not even her real name. It was as if she’d never existed, if not for the scent left behind all over me, the slight indentation of the pillow she’d used, and the pieces of her soul she’d inadvertently revealed more through body language than through anything specific she’d said.
She had definitely existed. She’d been as real as they come.
I could only hope that the night we’d shared had given her the boost in confidence she’d needed. I supposed I would never know.
Colesy came back into the locker room half dressed, still pulling a clean T-shirt on over his head while he was walking. I caught his eye and angled my head so he’d come over to talk to me.
Soupy started backing away. “I’m going up to kiss my wife before we head out.” He’d married Jim Sutter’s assistant, Rachel, so he was always running upstairs to sneak in a quick make out session whenever we were at the practice facility. And yet he was giving me a hard time about my sex life. He might as well have reverted to being sixteen years old with the way he’d been acting over the past several months.
“Later,” I called over my shoulder. Then I turned to Colesy. “Wanna grab a bite with me away from the rest of the guys?”
He gave me the side eye. “You don’t have to hang out with me all the time, you know. You can keep going with your life as usual.”
“I know. I want to grab some lunch with you, though.”
Plopping down on the seat in front of his stall, he glanced at his watch and then set to work putting on his shoes. “Yeah, I’ve got time for that, I suppose.”
“You suppose? Hot date after lunch?” I said it jokingly, trying to keep things light, but I was actually curious. Not that I expected him to answer me honestly.
“Not exactly.”
“Then what, exactly?”
He scanned the locker room, as though he was checking to see who all was still around and how close-by they were. It was nearly deserted. Other than the two of us, only Viktor Ellstrom and Liam Kallen were still here, and they were holed up in the opposite corner, having a conversation in Swedish. They were oblivious to anything around them.
“Bergy encouraged me to take some dance classes to work on my core,” he said finally. “I’ve been going to ballet lessons and ballroom dance, and I don’t want the boys to know and give me a hard time about it.”
As soon as he mentioned dance, something clicked in me. I got choked up and had to fight the old, familiar gut-wrenching ache back down. I swallowed hard to keep the bile at bay. “Yeah? Dance lessons, huh?”
“They’re helping. Clearly.” He got up and shoved his laundry into his duffel to take home with him. “But you know how the boys can be about these things.”
I definitely knew how guys could be about other guys who danced. And I knew what being bullied about something like that could do to a person. I’d done it, right along with everyone else, caving in to the peer pressure that kids put on one another. I’d done it to my own fucking brother. I’d picked on him, teased him relentlessly, called him gay and queer and faggot and pussy and sissy and a thousand other things I’d never meant and could never take back.
And he’d killed himself.
“Right,” I said slowly, trying to rein all my thoughts back in before I lost my shit in the middle of the locker room. I nodded. “I do know. Why don’t I come with you?” There wasn’t a better way I could think of to deal with all the fucking things running through my head than to confront it head-on.
“Yeah?” Colesy said.
“Yeah. Absolutely.”
       I was going to take some fucking dance lessons. Maybe I’d get lucky. Maybe then I’d be able to put Garrett to rest.


“Your frame has improved,” I said appreciatively to Charlie Winston, one of my students in a class full of retirees. “Markedly,” I added under my breath, in the hope that it might hide the shock in my voice.
Only a week ago, he was barely keeping either hand in its proper position, his arms hadn’t even been an afterthought, and his footwork? He could have hardly been worse at stepping if he’d been trying to do poorly. That had meant that Madge, his wife and dance partner, had been forced to essentially lead herself around the dance floor. I’d rarely seen such improvement in someone his age, particularly in such a short amount of time.
“Been practicing, Miss Hayden!” he called out as he twirled Madge under his arm before taking her back into a proper closed hold.
“Brianna,” I corrected him. It was fine for my school-aged students to call me Miss Hayden, but it felt weird to have a man who was old enough to be my grandfather do that. “Or Brie, if you want.”
“Oh, he wants, all right,” Madge said, rolling her eyes, and all the other ladies in the class tittered right along with her. “Why do you think he’s been practicing so hard all of a sudden? Lord knows he’s not trying to impress me.”
Charlie flashed me a smile so wide he nearly spit out his dentures. He pulled his lips down over them, drawing them back into place, never missing a step.
I could only shake my head. A few years ago, men close to my twenty-six years were the ones hitting on me. These days, it was rare to come from anyone other than a man like Charlie—men who were far too old for me, married, and completely harmless in the long run.
Was it awful that I secretly wished someone less than harmless would hit on me every now and then? I mean, I didn’t want anything horrible to happen, but it would’ve been really nice to have a bad-boy-type flirt with me every now and then.
Someone kind of like that guy, Jacob. He’d done a heck of a lot better than simply flirting with me. We’d had an amazing night, and then I’d left just as I’d planned to do before I had shown up at his hotel.
I didn’t know why he came to mind right now, when I was nearly laughing over the idea of Charlie flirting with me. I shook Jacob clear of my mind, yet again, and closed the distance to Dan and Sharon, one of the other couples in my class.
“Chin up,” I said, gently putting a finger under Sharon’s chin and easing it into the proper position. She’d been staring at her feet again, which she tended to do right before losing her footing. She didn’t trust her feet to do their job even though they weren’t the problem. It was all in her mind. Actually, it was probably Dan, more than anything else, that she had a hard time trusting. She didn’t seem to think he could lead her properly despite the fact that she was the one who tended to stumble.
Once they were situated, I worked my way through the other pairs, correcting the occasional hand placement or counting time for a couple that was rhythmically challenged.
My seniors were one of my favorite groups to teach. They weren’t technically the best dancers—far from it—but they were here because they really wanted to learn. They enjoyed themselves. They weren’t here because someone else was pushing them into it, and they weren’t here because of some intrinsic drive to be the best. They were here to have fun. To enjoy one another. To keep themselves fit as their bodies started to give out on them.
Like mine had.
At least they had the excuse of age. I was twenty-six—way too young for my body to be the problem, and yet it was.
I glanced up at the clock over the entry to the Rose City Ballroom Dance Academy, the school that had brought me across the country to join their staff a couple of months ago. We’d run a little over today, probably because I was enjoying myself with them a bit too much. “Time’s up, folks,” I called out. “Don’t forget to stretch, and I’ll see you next week.”
“You might see Charlie sooner than that if you’re not careful,” Madge said.
I could only shake my head, but there was no hiding my smile. “Don’t forget to keep practicing your box step and under-arm turn. I expect to see improvement when I see you all again.” I grabbed my bottle of water and headed up to the front office to prepare for my next class.
The receptionist, Tanya Dennison, looked up when I came through the door. “Four of your ladies for the next class called to say they were sick and not coming.”
“You mean I might actually have enough men this time?” It was a beginner ballroom dance class for the average adult, and most days I had about twice as many women as men. That wouldn’t be such a big deal in some other forms of dance, but everything in ballroom required a partner. I’d been forced to teach some of the women to lead in recent weeks, which only made it harder for them to follow whenever they did have a male lead since it was all so new to them.
“You might have too many men today,” Tanya said with a grin. “Cole Paxton brought a friend—Keith Burns. Big guy. Fit.” Tanya paused dramatically, waggling her eyebrows at me. “Hot.”
“That’ll be a nice change of pace.” I might even be able to take one of the men as my own partner today and use him to demonstrate for the others.
“Honey, you have no idea how nice. Keith Burns is like sex on a stick. I wanna lick him up.”
I did my best not to get too excited about having another good-looking man in my class. He wouldn’t be looking at me, after all. He’d undoubtedly do the same thing most of the other men in the class always did and trip all over himself trying to get paired up with Alexis or Jenni, two college-aged girls who came dressed to impress each week. “He’s already here?”
“Getting changed with Cole.” She let out a dreamy sigh and leaned back in her seat. Her eyes took on a wistful expression. “You do realize I’m going to be a jealous witch all day now, right? Because you’ll be in there dancing with those amazingly hot guys, and I’m going to be stuck out here answering the phones.”
As if on cue, the phone rang and Tanya had to get back to work. I rolled my eyes at her on my way out the door.
Charlie, Madge, and the other retirees were making their way out of the dance studio when I returned. Charlie stopped to place a kiss on my cheek while his wife planted her hands on her hips and laughed. “He never gives up once he’s got his mind set on something, Brie,” she said. “And I think he’s got his mind set on charming you.”
“But it’s you I go home with,” he said, linking his arm with hers.
“For forty-six years and counting.” Madge was beaming at him as they sauntered out the door, grinning at me over her shoulder as they left.
I headed over to the sound system to change the music for the class of younger students about to come in. A couple of deep, rumbling male voices echoed in the studio a minute later, and I looked up. Cole had come in with his friend. They were facing the far wall, setting their gym bags down where they’d be out of the way. The new guy—Keith—had the same muscular build as Cole, and his tight jeans and form-fitting T-shirt only emphasized it. Big, firm butt, massive thighs, trim waist.
He was probably a hockey player, too, then, or at least a skater of some sort. Cole had told me they were all built that way, that anyone who spent that much time on the ice would have the same big thighs and bum. Speed skaters, figure skaters, all of them. That had started me thinking about Jacob, too, because he’d been built the same way. He’d said he worked out a lot, but I had a feeling it went beyond that.
In one of the early classes Cole had come to, I’d asked him how he’d come to develop such muscle in those specific areas because it caused him problems in keeping his posture correct for ballroom dance. I was constantly having to remind him to tuck his bottom under, telling him it shouldn’t be sticking out, and then he would joke that there wasn’t anywhere else for it to go unless someone was going to cut it off. His posture was definitely improving, though. He had been working hard at it.
I started crossing over to meet my new student, but I nearly stumbled halfway there when he turned around and I saw Jacob staring back at me.
The Jacob.
The one-night stand guy.
The man who had made me feel desirable again—sexy and feminine and beautiful—even if it had only been for one night. The man I wasn’t supposed to ever see again. The man I’d been trying to forget for months because thinking about him only made me long for things I could never have.
I’d convinced myself he was part of a fairy tale, and fairy tales don’t come true. At least they never did for me. My life had consisted of a series of setbacks and disappointments, at least lately, and even though my heart was pounding and my breath felt fluttery, the fact that he was here right now could only mean I was being set up for an even bigger disappointment than ever before.
Guys like him didn’t happen to me.
“I hope it’s all right that I brought someone with me,” Cole said, closing the distance between us. Jacob—no, Keith—came with him, the gold flecks in his amber-brown eyes blazing like fire and practically burning a hole through my flesh. “You always tell us that they’re open classes, though, that anyone can come as long as they pay, so I figured it would be okay. Brie, this is Keith Burns, one of my teammates. Burnzie, this is Brie Hayden. She’s my ballroom instructor.”
I struggled to keep my tongue in my mouth where it belonged because I kept thinking back to that night, to the way his hands had felt on my skin, the rich, salty taste of his skin, the way he’d looked at me—all of me—as though I was worth looking at. In fact, he was looking at me in exactly that same way right now, searing me. If I wasn’t careful, I might melt into the floor from the heat in his eyes.
He held out his hand. “Brie, huh? That’s odd. You look more like an Allison to me.”
That left no doubt, no possible chance, that he was merely a look-alike for my Jacob. He’d never said he was a professional hockey player. He’d only told me he worked out a lot. Granted, that was because I’d asked him for half-truths. I’d told him I was a teacher—which I was—but I wasn’t the kind of teacher I knew he’d been imagining.
Vibrating like a tattoo gun, I reached for his hand. His fingers closed around my wrist. His hand was as big and strong and hot as I remembered everything about him being.
“That is odd. I’ve been Brie my whole life.”
“Maybe you should try Allison on sometime and see how it feels. I think it would suit you.” His grip on my hand was loose, yet I couldn’t move it to save my life. He grinned, a Cheshire cat sort of expression. “I’ve always wondered what it might be like to go by Jacob. Just for kicks. We could try it out together.”
The studio door opened and half the class streamed in, and I jerked my hand away from him as fast as if he had scalded me.
“Excuse me. I have to teach a class,” I mumbled, rushing to put some distance between us so I could shove all my marbles back into my head where they belonged. Somehow, some way, I was going to have to hold it together well enough to teach a class with him in it. I couldn’t fathom how I would manage it, though.
     I greeted the other students coming in, smiling and making small talk and all the things I usually did at the beginning of a session. But the whole time I felt Keith Burns’s gaze branding my body with his mark.

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