June 16, 2018

The Goon (uncorrected first 25 pages)

Chapter One

As I stand in front of the judge, waiting for her to sentence me, perspiration covers my body. I’ll be the first to admit I sometimes act impulsively and do stupid things. I’m well known for it. But I’ve never done anything criminal. Not until two months ago. Now, I have to face the music. 
I was in love with a guy who I thought loved me back. I was sure of it, even when I decided to pay him a surprise visit last September. He was feeling sick and planned on spending the night alone in bed. I thought I’d bring him some chicken soup from the store because, well, I can’t boil water. I made a mistake. I used the spare key when he didn’t answer because stupid me thought he might be asleep. Nope. He was stuffing another girl’s vagina with his cock like it was a Thanksgiving turkey. 
Something inside of me snapped that night.
I suppose I could have pleaded temporary insanity in court. The judge might have believed me—she may have even sympathized with me. But I didn’t do that. I would have, had there not been a curve ball to my crime. Instead of smashing my exes boyfriend with a baseball bat I beat up an identical car in the parking lot of his condo building. How the hell could I have known there were two blue Mustangs there with the same yellow racing stripe down the hood? 
“One-year probation, eighty hours of community service, and compensation to Mr. Green for damages to his personal property,” the judge says before smashing her gavel on her big, judgey desk. Mr. Green is the owner of the other Mustang—the one I smashed up. I’ve already covered his repairs. My lawyer, Mr. Nolan, suggested that soon after I got arrested. He said it would make me look remorseful and help with my sentencing, so I followed his advice. But that’s not the only reason why I did it. Truth is, I felt bad. An innocent man ended up with an un-drivable car. I was in the wrong, and I had every intention of pleading guilty even if he hadn’t caught me mid-swing before I smashed his windshield.
“What’s next?” I ask my lawyer as we leave the courthouse. It’s late October in Spruce Valley and, though the sun is shining, there is a chill in the air that forces a shiver through my body. I zip up my jacket and descend the courthouse front steps, matching my long-legged lawyer’s speedy pace. 
He adjusts his tie. “Someone from community service will check in with you about a placement, and a probation officer will also be in touch. Follow their instructions, keep your nose clean, and you’ll be fine.”
It’s a hard thing to reconcile that I’m going to have a criminal record and a probation officer. I’ve always been a little reckless, but I’ve never been in trouble with the law before. And I wouldn’t be now if I’d smashed the right car—Brad never would have called the cops on me. I would have paid for his damages, too, if he forced me, and been done with it—and him. 
Prick.
“Try to keep that temper of yours intact, Emily,” he says with a smirk.
I’m glad I amuse him.  “I don’t have a temper.”
He halts and turns toward me. I look up at him just as he tips his head forward to look at me from underneath his thick but sculpted brows. “Well, a video from the Summerset Condo Association would suggest otherwise. And so would Mr. Green.”
TouchéExpensiveLawyer. Touché
“Good luck, Emily,” he says as he holds out his hand. I take it and we shake, his grip soft but mine not so much. “Call me if you have any issues.” He gets into his sportscar that screams mid-life crisis, slides on his designer aviators, and waves at me as he revs the engine. 
I hope this is the last time I ever see him. Not because I don’t like him. He’s fine for an overpaid lawyer—thanks, Mom and Dad. But I’ve decided to be good. The threat of jail is enough to make any girl want to walk the straight and narrow. I might be tough on the outside, but I’m not strong enough to survive jail. I’ve seen Orange is the New Blackand I’m not interested in becoming someone’s bitch. 

It’s almost a week before I hear from either my probation officer or the community service team. The former comes first. My probation officer’s name is Matt Erikson. Over the phone, his voice comes off like a drill sergeant. He wants to see me every week, on the same day and at the same time, no exceptions. He’s going to be a peach, I can tell. When I finally talk to my community service team member, I hold my breath while she tells me about my assignment because I know it could be bad—real bad. I expect to spend my sentence in an orange jumpsuit picking up trash along the highway or digging ditches. 
I don’t get either of those things. “You want me to assist a police officer with teaching kids how to play hockey?” I parrot to make sure I hear her correctly. 
“Yes. Is that a problem?” Her stern voice indicates that it better not be. 
“No. Not at all.” It sounds fine. Not tough at all. It would be a cake walk if I could skate or if I had any experience with kids. I don’t have either. 
“You start January third, and you’ll report to Constable Brad Corkum.”
My chest tightens at the mention of that awful name. It’s not his fault he shares the same first name as my douchebag ex-boyfriend, but it’ll be hard to be around him and not think of my ex. “That’s a long time away.” I was hoping to get it over with instead of having it loom over my head for months.
“You’ll have six months from that date to complete your hours. Check in with me the week before so we can confirm details.”  
“Thank you,” I say. “I’ll see you then.” I end the phone call and hold the phone against my chest, muttering a curse. Teach hockey?
My lawyer told me I need to satisfy a bunch of criteria to get my community service signed off as complete. This includes doing a satisfactory job. How the hell am I going to do a good job teaching kids to play hockey when I can’t even skate? This just means I need to spend more of my time prepping for it. Eighty hours of service, my Aunt Fanny. How about the eighty hours I’ll spend making sure I can skate well enough? Good thing I don’t start until the new year. 
The only person I can think of who can help me learn to skate is my best friend Charlie’s boyfriend, Ozzie. He plays for the local major junior team and is hoping to make the Canadian Hockey League. He’s good enough to make it, too. He’s a busy guy, though, so I know it’s a long shot. And I hate to ask for his help because the free time he has, he gives to Charlie. I don’t want either of them to see each other less because I screwed up. But I figure he might know someone who can help me if he can’t.

“They want you to what?” Ozzie says. He stands by the recliner of the apartment he shares with Charlie while she and I sit on the couch. I’ve just relayed to her everything about my community service and my probation. Compared to community service, probation will be a cake walk. A phone call once a week, no drinking, no breaking the law. No problem.
“I’m going to be helping kids learn to play hockey,” I say. 
Ozzie holds his stomach while he laughs. 
“It’s not funny,” Charlie says, laughing. 
“I mean…come on? I took you guys skating out at Miller Pond last Christmas, and you spent more time on your ass than on your skates.”
“You’re not helping,” Charlie says. 
He holds out his hands in surrender. “I apologize. Look, I wish I could help, but I’m slammed.”
I figured this might be case. Deflated, I heave a sigh and collapse against the back of the sofa behind me.
“But I have a friend who might be willing to help. He loves a good cause.”
“Mandatory community service is a good cause?” I ask. Who knew?
He shrugs. “Sure. You’re helping kids, right? And he already helps teach kids at Tillerman rink, anyway.”
“I could pay him if it helps.”
“You could offer, but Michael’s got his own money, so I doubt he’d take it. Especially if he’s doing it as a favor for me.”
“Michael!” Charlie bounces on the couch, and I eye her, curious. “Yes! I love Michael. He’s so nice. His girlfriend’s kind of a witch, though, and I’m sure she’ll have something to say about it if he agrees, but hopefully he’ll ignore her.”
Who is this Michael character and why did Charlie seem so excited when Ozzie tossed out his name? I know she has friends of her own, but it makes me feel left out. We haven’t spent as much time together lately as we used to. “Who’s Michael?”
“You know,” Charlie says, nudging me with her shoulder. 
I wait for her to explain. All I have right now is a first name.
“You know!” she repeats. Like I can see into her mind. 
Ozzie covers his mouth to block a smile. She does this all the time, and it’s both frustrating and cute. She tries to explain something without giving me a single detail and expects me to know what she’s talking about. “He plays for the Muskrats.” That’s our university hockey team. “He’s the guy that…you know…he’s big and has blue eyes…and short hair.”
“Oh! Right! I know exactly who he is.” I don’t.
Ozzie helps her out. “Goon.”
“Goon?” I repeat. Although Goon is familiar to me, I don’t know him all that well. We run in similar circles, but I’ve maybe said two words to him since I started school here last year. What I do know of him doesn’t convince me he’s the right guy for the job. He’s a brute who spends more time in the penalty box than on the ice. I need someone with patience. Charlie and Ozzie think he’s going to be my savior? I open my mouth to protest but snap it shut. He can skate, and I guess that’s the most important thing here.
“I’ll give him a call,” Ozzie says.
“You’re the man.” I hold out my fist and wait for him to bump it. 
He chuckles as he approaches, and after a fist bump that knocks my knuckles a little too hard, he bends down and kisses his girlfriend while I shake the sting from my hand.
 “I gotta shower and get to the gym. Behave, ladies.”
“Sure, babe. Love you,” Charlie says beaming up at him.
He runs the back of his hand down her cheek before walking away. It’s sweet and almost a little too intimate to watch so I look away. I ache for the time when I thought I had someone who felt the same way about me as Ozzie does about Charlie. Almost two months later, and I both hate and pine for my ex. The wound he gouged into my heart hasn’t healed, and I’m not sure it ever will. Perhaps if I saw it coming? Perhaps if he wasn’t good to me? Neither of those things happened. I was blindsided, and I think that’s why I reacted so badly. The pain was too much, and it hit me all at once. We’d even talked about moving in together and getting married. What a fool I’d been to think he might have been the one.
People often say you know when you’re being cheated on. That even if you don’t know, somewhere deep down you have an inkling. My mother sure knew my dad was unfaithful. I knew. She just didn’t care. They only broke up because my dad admitted it and left her for wife number two. He’s on number four now, but he should be divorced from that one by the end of the year. 
I’ve always judged Mom for turning a blind eye. Now that I’ve been through it, my perception has changed. There was a short time after Brad cheated on me, and when the world seemed to be against me, that I thought about taking him back. Charlie had Oz, and I had no one. I was empty and alone, and being around Brad and his friends and their girlfriends gave me a sense of belonging. But I changed my mind and, well, news got around about what I’d done to that car. Brad was less excited to get back together after that. Everyone on campus took to calling me the “crazy bitch.” Good thing—about Brad, not about the whole crazy bitch thing. I would have hated myself for getting back together with him. Perhaps more than I do already. 
It doesn’t mean I don’t miss him, though, and I hate him for that, too. I still think about what could have been. There are times when I pick up the phone and my fingers hover over the numbers in his phone number because I miss his telephone voice or the way he used to say, “Love you, beautiful” every night I called to say good night. Yes, I loved him. I really did. 
And he ruined me. 
But I let him. 
I’ve always run toward love with open arms, falling hard and fast for guys who never deserved it. But no more. I think for a little while I’m going to try to be alone, and I pity any guy who thinks he can change my mind.

I’m lying on my bed in my dorm room, staring at the wall while listening to music play on my laptop, when Ozzie calls the next day. 
“Good news. Michael’s willing to help.” 
I spring to a sitting position. “That’s fantastic. I owe you for this big time.”
“Yeah, you do,” he says. I think he’s joking, but maybe not. I still don’t know him as well as I’d like. “Nine p.m. Thursday night at Tillerman Rink.”
“Nine?”
“He knows a guy that’ll give him free ice time but only after regular hours.” He pauses a moment. “And beggars can’t be choosers.”
He thinks I’m ungrateful, which isn’t the case at all. He can’t know how much I appreciate this. I can’t have anything go wrong with my community service placement. The possibility of going to jail is too much for me. It keeps me awake at night. While I doubt they’ll mark me incomplete if I can’t skate, it’ll sure as hell prevent me from doing a good job. I only questioned the time because I wanted to make sure I got it right.
“Nine’s fine, Ozzie. I could have done three in the morning if that’s all he could manage.”
“I’ll let him know. Good luck.”
I’ll need it. 
When Thursday rolls around, I find myself a little apprehensive about meeting Michael. Charlie likes him so that’s enough of an endorsement for me to assume it’ll be fine. But I’m going to be spending one-on-one time with him, and I have a strong personality. This usually means I either really get along with people or I really don’t. I hope to God it’s not the latter. 
I crinkle my nose as I stare up at the old metal building that looks like it was built before World War I. It’s out of the way, just beyond Spruce Valley, and I had to take a cab to get here. I could have walked, but it would have taken me close to an hour, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, it’s frigging cold. The wind whips about, biting through the fabric of my jacket. My long blond hair lashes my face. I pull it back and tie it with an elastic band I keep around my wrist.
There are two large fairly new rinks in town, one at the university and one for the local major junior team, and Tillerman Rink is neither of those. Tillerman is more for locals interested in a leisurely skate on Saturdays and Sundays with their friends and family. I’m not sure how much it gets used when Spruce Valley Rink, the one used by the Spruce Valley Huskies, opens their doors to local skating, too. 
This place looks like it should be condemned. The metal roof is stained with rust and bits of black that I guess might be tar. The few windows in the front are covered in black metal wire to keep out thieves. Not that we have a problem with that sort of thing in these parts.
Then again, what do I know?
It’s quarter to nine. There are still cars in the parking lot and some parents and kids are leaving with massive bags slung over the parents’ shoulders. Above me, the moon streams down to shine in the puddles a foot ahead. Though it rained most of the afternoon, it’s finally let up. I’m wearing rain boots and a parka, though, just in case. I don’t mind the rain. At least it’s not snow. When I reach the doors, a man coming out holds it open for me. I smile in place of a “thank you.”
The place is near empty inside. After a handful of people leave, it quiets down. I stand in the main entrance staring forward at the bare ice surrounded by white board walls and Plexiglas. Michael is nowhere in sight. I sure hope he didn’t forget about me. Or worse, change his mind. 
A loud engine purrs to life, and an older man in sweats and a fleece jacket opens the doors at the other end of the rink before climbing into a Zamboni and rolling it out onto the ice. 
“Where is he?” I whisper. I hear a quiet, muffled conversation coming from somewhere down the hallway to the left.  It curves to the right, so I can’t see who the voices belong to but as they get closer, I hear them better and think I recognize the male’s voice as Michael’s. Thank God. Getting stood up would be the cherry on top of an already bad week. 
Goon approaches, walking alongside a woman who looks to be in her forties. Her long blond hair is curled to perfection and a bottle shade of golden. She wears a red jacket with a waist tie, slim pants, and stilettos. She laughs after Michael says something and reaches over to squeeze his bicep. I roll my eyes. A kid with chubby cheeks jogs up to fall in step behind them. She doesn’t even notice the kid is talking to her. “Mom. Mom? Mom!” 
“I’m talking to Michael. Don’t interrupt.”
Sigh. The woman beams at Michael, enraptured by everything he says. He’s got game, on and off the ice, I’ll give him that.
“He just needs more ice time, and he’ll pick it up. Right, buddy?” Michael says.
The kid shrugs. “More time? Mom, I have weak ankles. They hurt so bad.” 
I also have weak ankles.
His mother rolls her eyes. “Mark, you need to be more active. You spend way too much time staring at a computer screen.”
“I like staring at my computer screen!”
Michael finally notices me and gives me a small wave, accompanied by a dimpled smile. Thank God, he knows who I am. That would have been awkward. The lady glances my way and looks none too impressed to find another blonde. 
They stop near the front doors, a few feet away from me. 
“We’ll see you Wednesday?” she asks. 
“Of course.” Goon ruffles the kid’s hair, but he ducks away, scooting to the other side of his mother. “Later, Mark. Don’t give up yet. Hockey is the best sport on the planet.”
“On my Xbox,” he says under his breath.
My lips twitch as I feel the impulse to smile. 
“Thank Michael for his time,” his mom says, forcing a smile. She smacks Mark’s shoulder when he doesn’t do it quick enough.
The boy grumbles. 
“See you later,” Michael says.
The Zamboni sputters and catches my attention again. A cloud of smoke comes out the back and floats upward to surround the driver. He bats the gray stuff away, but continues to forge ahead, polishing the ice to a sheen that reflects the light hanging from the tall ceiling. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to drive one of those. I’ll add it to my bucket list if I remember it later.
The lady and her son leave, but not before she gives me the stink eye. My inner bitch smiles back at her—sweetly. The best way to combat mean girls is with sweetness. It infuriates them when they can’t get a rise out of you. It really is the best revenge.
“Have a good night,” I say to dig the knife in a little deeper. 
The woman grabs the sleeve of her son’s jacket and drags him along though the door, after which, Michael pulls out a key and locks it. “Don’t worry. You can still get out, but they can’t get back in.” He grins at me. 
“She sure likes you,” I say. “Did she give you her number?”
He laughs at me as he tucks the key in the pocket of his fleece. “Many times,” he says, sighing. He looks through the glass portion of the doors to watch them as they walk to her expensive SUV that’s likely worth more than this building. 
Player.
 “Doesn’t mean I called her, though.”
Or maybe not. 
When I think about the times I’ve seen him around campus, he’s never around women, even though Charlie said he has a girlfriend. Just his friends. Often girls follow him and his buddies, but they’re never hanging off him. Though I’m sure it’s not from lack of them trying. He’s the definition of handsome with his sparkly blue eyes, square jaw, perfect teeth and dirty blond hair with a hint of a wave. I’ll bet if it were long it would fall in ringlets. There’s something about that I find cute, even on a guy built like him. Broad shoulders with a puffed-up chest, a thick torso that narrows to his waist, a butt that pops, and thick thighs that could easily crush a girl if he wrapped them around her too tightly.
“I bet you get numbers from ladies like her all the time.”
“You have no idea. Even when I was sixteen.”
“Really? Did they know you were sixteen?”
His grins speaks volumes. 
“Wow.”
“Anyway, we’re not here to talk about my love life, right?”
“Definitely not.”
He puts two hands over his heart. “Wow. That hurt a little.”
He might not be a player, but he’s definitely a flirt. I wonder what his girlfriend would say about that? “As if your confidence would suffer from anything I have to say.”
“Ouch.”
He actually looks offended. 
I sound like a bitch, and I don’t mean to be. He’s here to help me, an almost complete stranger, but sometimes words fall out of my mouth before I have a chance to think better of them, and I’m still hating men right now.  “I’m sorry. I just meant I’m taking a break from guys right now.”
“Well, consider yourself safe. I have a girlfriend.”
“Like that means anything.” Shit. There I go again. “I didn’t mean that.” I did, actually. But I didn’t mean to say it out loud.
“I…uh…heard about what happened,” he says.
“And you still want to help the ‘crazy bitch’?” I hold my hands out and shake them as if that makes me look insane. “You must be a saint.” 
He meets my eyes, and there’s a softness to them that causes me to feel a touch vulnerable. I don’t like how it feels, as though he pities me. I tuck the few strands that have fallen free from my ponytail behind my ears and look to my feet. After clearing the dryness from my throat, I say, “Why did you say yes to helping me, anyway? I don’t think we’ve ever said more than a couple of words to each other.” I scuff my boots on the rubber mat.
“Ozzie asked me. If a friend asks for a favor, you do what you can.”
I peek up at him. I can respect and understand that because it’s exactly how I feel about Charlie. I’d run a mile over broken glass in a hurricane to help her. “That’s really nice of you.”
“What can I say? I’m a nice guy.” 
We’ll see
An awkward silence follows, and I purse my lips wondering what to say. I wish I knew him better; it would make this easier. But then, I don’t exactly want to get to know him better either. I’m just here to learn how to skate.
Down to business, I guess. “Should we get started?”
“Sure.” When he frowns, there are exactly four faint and perfectly straight lines that appear on the forehead of his otherwise flawless face. “You didn’t bring skates.”
“Oh…I don’t have skates.” When I say it out loud, I sound like a moron. “I thought I could, like, rent them from here or something.”
“Yeah, they don’t do that here. Maybe at some of the bigger rinks, but not here.” He scratches his head and laughs at me. After turning on his heel, he waves over his shoulder for me to follow. “Come on. Let’s see what we can find in lost and found.” I jog to catch up to him and settle easily at his side. Though he’s taller, he keeps his pace slow so I don’t have to run alongside him. I sure do work up a sweat, though.
“I’d lend you my old ones but”—he looks down at my size fives—“I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t fit you.”
He opens a door on the right about twenty feet down the hallway. Inside is an office with a couple of desks and some filing cabinets. Stray sporting equipment sits in boxes to the left of the door, some sticking out from the top. My eyes train to the box of Girl Scout cookies, the mint ones, on the desk closest to me. When his back is turned, I shove some down my throat because mint Girl Scout cookies are a weakness of mine—and everyone else on the planet who considers themselves sane.
My crunches are a little too loud. He turns and arches a brow at me. When I smile, I’m sure there are pieces of the black cookie crumbs in my teeth. He laughs and shakes his head. 
“Those cookies have been there for at least six months.”
I swallow them down. “They’re still delicious.”
He shakes his head at me, his eyes alight with humor. “Still delicious,” he mutters under his breath. 
In a closet on the right side of the room, and to the right of a fern growing in the corner, he grabs a box big enough for me to fit in. He lifts it easily and sets it on the floor near one of the desks. He pulls a chair over to sit down, and I grab another, pulling it over so I can sit beside him.
“It’s like a treasure chest,” I say, looking over the lip. 
“Sure.” I like the way his eyes sparkle when he smiles. 
He opens all four sides, and I reach in and pull out a fuzzy pink toque with a leather beaver tail down the back. I try it on for size. He grins at me while plucking out random items to get down deeper. I snatch a long scarf with sparkles and wrap that around my neck, too. 
“Oh, here we go.” He pulls out a pair of figure skates, the same kind I had as a kid, though these are scuffed and well worn. My old skates used to cut into my heels so bad. I know how the kid Mark felt when he was complaining about it earlier. Skates suck. They’re hard and rigid. There’s no give to them at all.
He pulls down the tongue and frowns at the sizing. “Six. Is that too big?”
“I’m a size five.”
“Oh, perfect. You want them a little bigger. What socks do ya got on?”
I kick off my boot, lift my leg, and yank up the hem of my bootcut jeans. I prefer them skinny, but I figured these would give me a little more range of motion for skating. I don’t remember what socks I’ve put on until I see them. Matching socks are like unicorns, especially when you hate laundry, so they don’t match. 
He leans in for a closer look. Not to see they’re a cotton-polyester blend, but I think to make sense of what’s on them. I look away to avoid judgment. One of my socks is blue with Big Bird on them—they were a gift. The other sock has hound dogs with writing along the side.
“Ruff stuff?” he says.
I shrug. “They were clean.”
“Uh huh.”
“Don’t judge me.”
He holds up his hands. “I wouldn’t dare.”
I lower my leg and quickly get back to the task at hand. “Any hockey skates in there?” They look like they might be more comfortable than figure skates.
“Nope. I’m not sure you’d want hockey skates, anyway. At least these have a toe pick.” He presses one of his thumbs against the jagged edge of the skate’s blade. “You might appreciate that.”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” I say as I take the skates. “I’m not a complete novice.” Yes, I am.
He pulls a face, and I know he doesn’t believe me. Oh, well, it’s probably better anyway. He’ll know the truth once I get on the ice. “How much experience do you actually have?”
“I’ve had lessons before,” I say with my head up, still refusing to admit how awful I am. “For almost a full year.”
“Oh, yeah? When?”
“I was younger.”
“How much younger?”
Okay, so he’s not letting it go, and he’s enjoying making me squirm. “I was five, okay?”
He covers his smile with his hand. 
“I’m a fast learner.”
“Can I ask why you volunteered to help kids learn to skate when you can’t skate yourself?”
I assumed Ozzie would have told him. It would have been easier if he did because then I wouldn’t have to see his reaction when he finds out. I chew on my lip and consider making something up. It would be so nice for him to think I’m just a good girl helping kids. I like when people think good things about me. Who doesn’t? But it’s not the truth. I might be a criminal, but I’m no liar. And he knows I smashed a car, so will this really change whatever opinion he has of me? It isn’t likely high to start with.
“I didn’t volunteer,” I say. “I was volun-told.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s community service. I have to do this because of…” I lower my voice, “Because of the car I damaged.”
He’s silent for a beat, but I can see his mind spinning. “Can I ask you a question?”
I might regret this. “Sure.”
“Did you really beat up the wrong car?” A grin tugs at his lips. 
I look away, embarrassed for what I did and more embarrassed for getting it so wrong. “Yes.”
“That’s kind of funny.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m one big punchline.”
“You’re also kind of a badass.”
I snap my head in his direction and meet his eyes.  Did he just call me a badass? Since that night, people have gossiped about me and talked about me just loud enough for me to hear. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am crazy. Smashing up a car isn’t normal. I know that. But Brad betrayed me, and I couldn’t deal. Michael’s the first person since it happened who doesn’t seem to care about what I did. My parents gave me their disappointed looks and their silent treatments, Charlie cried and told me she didn’t want me to go to jail, and everyone else pegged me as the crazy lady. This guy? He’s just amused. Maybe even respects me for it. I didn’t expect that.
“Ready?” Michael asks. He grips the arms of his chair and pushes himself up. He’s like a giant looming over me as I sit. 
“Ready as I’ll ever be. Skating’s easy, right? I can pick it back up. I wasn’t terrible as a kid.”
He rubs the short stubble of hair on his chin. It covers a good scar underneath, near his throat. I would never have noticed it, but from this angle, it’s obvious. It almost blends in with the crease between his head and his neck. It’s just a pale white horizontal line, a few shades lighter than his tan complexion. 
Normally, I don’t have much of a filter. I say things that come to my mind as soon as I think them. As much as I want to ask about his scar, it feels a touch personal, and since he’s being so nice, I force myself to keep silent. I give him a nod, and he leads me out. 
Show time. 
We get to the player’s bench through a back door and not by going over the ice. Good thing. My rubber boots don’t have any grips, and I’d be on my ass quicker than I could dial 911. His skates are already on the banged-up wooden seat that looks like people walk on it rather than sit. The blades on Michael’s skates are still wet and shiny from skating with the kids.
“Do you teach here regularly?” I ask as I take a seat. 
“Just one night a week.”
“Out of the goodness of your heart or for the money?” Did that come out right?
“For money. I volunteer, too, but these classes are for money. I have a scholarship, but that’s for tuition. I still got bills, and I have to make up the difference somehow. This seemed like a good fit for me, and the kids seem to like it.”
“Except Mark?”
He laughs. “Except Mark,” he says in agreement.
“I’m pretty sure his mother drags him here so she can stare at your ass.” Oh, great. He probably thinks I’ve been looking at his ass now. Because how else would I know it was stare-worthy?
“If you say so.”
I try to shove my foot in my skate since it seems loose enough, but it’s not quite big enough. I put my foot on the ground to try and jam it in again, all while Michael looks at me from under a single arched brow. 
“You’re killing me here.”
“I got this.” I stomp on the rubber mat. Over and over. It doesn’t help.
“Stop. Just stop.” He puts a hand on my knee to gently urge me to stop forcing it. I stare at his hand and slide a little farther away from him.
He clears his throat. “Sorry. I didn’t mean for that to be creepy.” He picks up one of his skates. “You have to loosen your laces or you’re going to wreck your heels and the back of your skates.” He demonstrates and then stares at me, waiting for me to do the same. With an eye roll and a grin, I follow his instructions. He’d seem condescending if he wasn’t so charming. 
“Now pull the tongue forward and slide your foot in. Then you’re going to start at the bottom and hook your fingers to tighten. I like to leave the top eyelet undone. It gives me a bit more room for my ankles. But it’s a personal choice.”
Because he suggested it, I do the same. I need all the help I can get, and he likely knows what he’s talking about. 
He frowns as he runs a finger along the blades of my skates. “You can probably keep these. I think they’ve been here a while, so I don’t think anyone’s coming back for them, but you’ll want to get them sharpened. If you had another pair, I’d make you take these ones off, but since we’re limited, we work with what we got.”
“They look fine,” I say glancing at them. “But I’ll sharpen them. Or get a new pair.”
“How do they feel?” he asks once I’m laced up. “Not too tight?”
“Nope. Feels good. Though they’re really stiff around the ankles.”
“It’ll take some time to work them in.”
“Sounds painful.”
“Maybe.” With his big hands, he grips the edge of the bench and pushes himself up. “All right, it’s time to dance.”
“Shit, I hope not.”
He lets out a silent laugh that has his shoulders jumping and his eyes almost disappear because his lids narrow so much. He reminds me of Charlie. Her laugh was one of the first things that drew me to her, even when a lot of the other kids at school labelled her a loser and a waste of space because she hadn’t grown into her looks yet. Popularity and superficial friends have never mattered to me. I wanted something sincere, something real, especially since my relationship with my parents has never been satisfying. Charlie gave that to me—she does still. It’s odd to see the same easiness and genuine nature in this tall, muscular package. And also in a guy. 
Brad liked to laugh, but usually it was at me because he said I did silly things. Or unexpected things. He never laughed at my jokes. He even went so far as to tell me notto tell jokes—always with a smile, though, so it didn’t feel mean. Still, I wished he’d enjoyed me as much as I enjoy myself. 
Michael unlatches the door to the rink and opens it wide. He doesn’t wait for me to go first. But chivalry is dead. Or maybe not. He turns quickly, and with his legs spread shoulder width apart, he offers his hands. I just stare at them. Taking them means nothing. Just a teacher offering help, but I can’t take them. I let go of a breath and run my hands over the end of my ponytail.  
“It’ll be fine. If you fall, you get back up again.”
It’ll be fine? He thinks I’m afraid of the ice? No. It’s him. The intimacy of holding a man’s hand. And the reminder of the guy’s hand I used to hold and how spectacularly he hurt me. 
“I got this.”
“All right. Show me what you got.”
I take one step out onto the ice and hold the half wall by the player’s bench. Then I take another step. Like Mark, my ankles are weak and they wobble. I steel myself and stand up tall, but then my feet start to slide in opposite directions until I’m halfway to the splits. 
“Whoa!” He holds onto my upper arms and helps pull me back up until my legs are perpendicular to the ice. “Let’s try this again.” Again, he holds out his hands. 
Shit. Fine. I hold them lightly, but he grips mine tight. They’re so warm, a wonderful contrast to the chill in my body and in this rink. Slowly, he skates backward, kind of weaving along, pulling me behind him. His eyes lock onto mine, and they don’t let go. It makes me nervous and my stomach starts to flutter. 
I close my eyes, wanting to break free from his gaze. But also because I’m afraid I’m going down. He’ll probably catch me again, but it’ll hurt. I don’t have a lot of cushion on my ass, regardless of what some people may think.
“It’s easier if you open your eyes.”
“Said the hockey player to the novice.”
He chuckles. “Come on. It’s not so scary. How are you supposed to do your service if you can’t skate with your eyes open?”
He has a point. 
“This doesn’t have to be painful,” he says with a smile. “Gliding on the ice…it can feel like flying.”
It’s hard for me to believe that skating can feel that way. For me, it feels like a chore, an obstacle I have to climb over to complete my community service. 
“Come on now,” he says. “Open them.”
Easy for him to say. He likely was skating before he learned to walk. I peek through my lashes and then open wide. 
“Ready?” Michael says. He releases my hands and pulls his own away slowly. 
I take a breath and slide forward with one wobbly foot and then the other. I thought this might come back to me, but I was never great to begin with. Another step and then another, but I soon start to lose my balance. My arms wave like a helicopter, circling through the air as I fall backward. Michael isn’t quite quick enough to catch me this time, and I end up on my ass before falling onto my back. I lie on the ice with my arms and legs spread out like a snow angel. “This might be harder than I thought,” I say with a sigh.
Grinning, he looks down at me. The rink’s lights above surround his head like a halo. He really is pretty. Maybe I hit my head. “I think I’m hopeless.”
“No one’s hopeless,” he says sincerely. “Not unless they give up.”
“You should write motivational books.”
“How do you know I haven’t already?”
“Yeah? What’s your pseudonym?”
“Magic Michael.”
I fight to stop my lips from curling, but I can’t. I let out a chuckle that leaves me vibrating on the cool ice. With a sincere smile, he holds out his hands. I stare at them again, at the safety they offer. Depending on someone is damn hard, especially when I know how hard the fall can be. 
“You won’t let go this time?” I say. 
He shakes his head, and his expression is sincere. “Not until you’re ready.”
“Promise?”
He crouches down so we’re eye level. There’s an air of authority about him, some sort of quality that makes you want to follow his lead. “This won’t work if you don’t trust me.”
Trust? Such a seemingly innocuous five-letter word. 
I blow some of the strands that have fallen over my eyes out of my face and sit up, the wet ice melting under my butt. He has no idea what he’s asking. Or how impossible it is for me to say yes and mean it. A handsome jock with a cheeky smile and a rocking body? I’ve been here before. And that didn’t work out so well. But what choice do I have if I want to keep my ass out of jail?

Make sure to preorder a copy! This book will release on June 29th.

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