Portland Storm captain Eric “Zee” Zellinger knows how to get the job done, but leading his once elite team to victory is fast becoming a losing battle. He can’t lose focus now—not with his career on the line. But when his best friend’s little sister makes him an offer he can’t refuse, Eric could lose the drive the team relies on from their captain.
Still in a downward spiral after a life-altering event in college, Dana Campbell is desperate to try anything to break away from the horror of that fateful night—even enlisting the help of the only man she trusts completely.
No matter how irresistible she is or how tempting the offer, Eric might not be able to cross that line—especially with the team’s chance at the playoffs on the line. Now, Eric has to take one last shot, but will he choose Dana’s Breakaway chance at happiness or the move that could secure his career?
Amani’s Family-Style Italian Restaurant was nearly empty. Not surprising, considering it was three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of February. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d expect someone to take a date for Valentine’s Day—more the type of place you’d have a family reunion. But today wasn’t Valentine’s Day. That was tomorrow. And we weren’t on a date. Far from it.
The only people in the restaurant other than the two of us and the staff were a retired couple seated near the windows. He had his nose buried in a newspaper, and she was knitting an incredibly ugly orange scarf. They were both ignoring the half full bowl of spaghetti and red sauce on the table between them, not to mention each other.
I looked at the door and made note of all the tables and chairs between it and me, mapping an exit path in my mind.
As soon as the waitress dropped off our drinks and walked away, Eric looked across at me. He cocked up a brow and gave me that always-ready half-smile I knew so well. “So what’s this about, kid? I didn’t think I’d see you any time soon. Not until the summer, at least.” He left unspoken what we were both thinking: not here in Portland instead of in Providence.
He took a long draw from his water glass, and I tried to focus on all the familiarities: the loose-fitting, long-sleeved, navy-blue T-shirt that didn’t quite mask all the muscle underneath; the stubble-lined jaw that proved he hadn’t shaved in a day or so; the dark, almost-black hair that should have been cut over a month ago; the recent scar and corresponding bruise just below his left eye from taking a high stick in a game against Chicago last week; the way his left hand always looked ready to deliver an uppercut to a guy on the other team.
Focusing on those things helped me calm down, to slow my pulse and remember that this was Eric Zellinger, a man who had been my brother’s best friend since they played peewee hockey together back home in Rhode Island. He’d been in my life nearly as long as I could remember.
Eric was safe. I could trust him. He was the only man in my life who I trusted implicitly, at least of the ones who weren’t family. That’s why I chose him.
“Does Soupy know you’re here?” He set his glass down and unrolled the linen napkin from around his silverware, situating everything just so.
That was another bit of familiarity: Soupy. He’d called my brother, Brenden, that for forever, or at least it seemed that way. There’s some unwritten rule in the hockey world that if your last name is Campbell, your teammates will inevitably call you Soupy. Girls weren’t exempt from crazy hockey-nicknaming rules, either. I’d been called that by some of the girls’ teams I played for, back before it all happened.
Even though I was trying to focus on the familiar, the comfortable, the safe, it was hard to the point of being nearly impossible. My tongue felt three times its normal size, and no matter how much I swallowed, I couldn’t seem to stop the saliva from rapidly filling my mouth. I reached for my water glass to buy time and garner courage, but my hand was shaking like a 6.0 earthquake and I knocked over the glass.
Eric was on his feet before I could react. He righted it and used his napkin to dry the mess I’d made.
“Damn it. I’m sorry.” That was all I could get out. I could feel that all-too-familiar heat creeping up my face—not a blush, nothing as simple and understandable as that, but the onset of a panic attack. My breaths came fast and shallow. I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. I had to get out of there. I had to leave. I couldn’t—
Eric’s hand came down over mine. Not forcefully. But firm. Secure.
I tried to focus on him, but my vision was blurred. I couldn’t see well enough to be sure that it was him, but it was him. I knew it.
“Just keep talking for a minute,” I somehow got out.
“Okay. I can do that.” He didn’t let go of my hand as he sat down across from me again. “You should have seen Burnzie in practice this morning. He got in against Ericsson on a breakaway, deked twice, and finished with this crazy spin-o-rama move just outside the crease. Tried to shoot it between his legs and go five-hole. It would have been brilliant if he’d scored. But instead, the puck shot off his skate and he tripped himself up. Crashed into the end boards face-first. Broke his nose in two places. He’s going to be wearing a full cage for a few weeks. Somebody ought to remind him he’s a defenseman, not a winger.”
My breathing was starting to normalize, but I was still crazy hot, so hot I was sweating. But at least it was on its way to passing. “Shouldn’t that be you? You’re the captain.”
“Nah. I’ll leave that for Coach to deal with. Scotty’s still trying to make an impression on the boys. Not all of them have bought into his system yet. We’re over halfway through the season.”
He didn’t ever want anyone to see when he was frustrated, but I could always tell. There was a slight crease between his eyebrows when things weren’t going well, just enough to reveal a well-masked tension. I could see it now.
The waitress came back with a basket of bread. She set it in the center of the table between us and smacked her gum loudly.
“Can we get another napkin and a refill on that water? We had a bit of an accident.” Eric didn’t even look at her when he spoke. His eyes never left me, and neither did his hand.
I wasn’t antsy to pull my hand away, though. That was a surprising realization. It confirmed that I’d made the right choice, so I had to stick with it.
After she left, he said, “Is it better yet?”
I nodded. “Getting there.”
“Better enough that you can tell me why you flew across the country without telling me you were coming? Providence to Portland isn’t exactly a quick weekend getaway, and last-minute flights aren’t cheap.”
“I…” I pulled my hand away from his and fidgeted with my nails. I had to do something while I tried to tell him. To explain. I couldn’t just sit still. “I need to ask you something, but you’ve got to let me get it all out without interrupting me or I won’t be able to do it.”
Clearing her throat beside us, the waitress refilled my water glass and handed Eric a stack of napkins. “Are you ready to order yet?” She gave a pointed look to the pair of untouched menus at the side of our table. She hadn’t been gone long, but then again, she didn’t really have much to do other than help us.
“Come back in fifteen minutes.”
It was no wonder the Portland Storm had made him the team captain in only his second full season in the National Hockey League. Just the tone of his voice was enough to command respect and confidence. Somehow in the five years since his appointment, he’d only grown in his ability to make people sit up and take notice when he spoke.
She rolled her eyes and scowled, but she left.
“Sounds serious,” he said to me. “Spill it.”
This time when I reached for my glass, I was able to pick it up and sip without making a mess even though my hands were still shaking.
I set it back down and took a few soothing breaths.
“I meant spill your secrets, not the water.”
My laugh was automatic. He’d always been able to make me laugh.
“Okay.” I’d practiced my speech in my mind during every leg of my trip here. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, word for word, all laid out in a logical, reasonable order. I just had to get it to come out as I’d planned it. Should be easy enough, right? I couldn’t look at him, though. Not for this. I looked down at my hands, watching almost subconsciously as I picked at the fingernail on my right index finger until I’d gotten it down to the quick, oblivious to the pain I was causing myself.
But I had to do this. I had to. Of course, as soon as I opened my mouth, nothing but a flood of babble came out.
“My counselor said she couldn’t really help me anymore because after all these years, I still can’t handle having a guy look at me a certain way or talk to me or flirt with me without having a freaking panic attack, and you know my anxiety meds only do so much to help, so she sent me to see a sex therapist. Which is all fine and good, except for the fact that the sex therapist says I have to actually practice letting guys flirt with me and hold my hand and…and more…and so she wants me to see a sex surrogate, which I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a sex surrogate or not, but I looked them up, and they’re basically a cross between a prostitute and a counselor, and they cost a fortune which I can’t afford even if my insurance would cover it, which they won’t, and besides, A: oh my God, gross, and two: I wouldn’t even know this sex surrogate guy, whoever he is, so how could I trust him enough to let him touch me, so there’s no way in hell I can do that. So then the sex therapist said I need to find a man who I do trust if I’m ever going to get past all this, someone who can help me with it, and ask him for help. So I am. Asking. You.”
Eric’s silence was only magnified by how empty the restaurant was around us.
I wanted to leave. I wanted to get up, walk out of that restaurant, get a cab, and go straight back to the airport. To pretend I hadn’t done this. I shouldn’t have come. I should have just stayed at home, alone, and gone about my life as it had been for the last seven years. I may be twenty-six and pathetic and lonely, but at least I’m safe.
Tears stung my eyes when I finally got up the courage to look at him. I’d seen that same look on his face dozens of times through the TV, usually right before he pummeled a guy who’d gone in for a bad hit against one of his teammates. It was all anger, green fire, focused intensity. But I’d never seen him look at me that way.
I wanted to puke.
“You think—” his words were so soft I could barely hear him, clipped and icy “—I’m going to pay some quack therapist to fuck you? God damn it, Dana, you’re as good as my kid sister—”
“No! I—” I’d screwed it all up, just like always. I looked down at my hands again and realized my index finger was bleeding where I’d picked away too much of the nail. Methodically, I opened my napkin roll, dipped a corner of it in my water glass, then wrapped it around my finger, using the time that took to try to clear my thoughts again. “I don’t want you to pay for anything, and I absolutely do not want to go to a sex surrogate, to let some man I don’t know touch me and…stuff. But I do want to be able to have a relationship someday—to be able to let a man touch me without having another damn panic attack. So I…”
It took everything in me not to run out of the restaurant right that instant and not look back. The only reason I didn’t is because I knew he could catch me—he was bigger, faster, stronger, always had been—and he’d convince me to tell him all of it.
“I want you to be my sex surrogate.”
Dana had rendered me speechless.
I couldn’t think of a time anything like that had happened in my twenty-nine years.
I’m not an overly loquacious guy, not normally. I tend to lead by example in the locker room, doing things the way they should be done and trusting that the younger guys will watch and take it all in, but I’ve never been shy about speaking my mind when it’s called for.
Well, it sure as hell was called for now, but I couldn’t come up with a single word to say. Nothing.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I reached for my wallet in my back pocket, pulled out a fifty—the smallest bill I had—and slapped it down on the table.
Dana’s head snapped up from the sound. Her eyes were huge—big and brown and so damn vulnerable. I hated seeing her like that, and I had witnessed that exact look way too many times for way too long. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that she needed help, but I knew that I couldn’t be the one to help her.
Not like that.
I put my napkin on the table and pushed my chair back.
“Are we leaving already?”
“We’re not talking about this here. Not in public.” I moved behind her chair and pulled it back so she could stand. I held out her coat so she could put her arms in it. My fingers accidentally brushed against her collarbone when I released her coat. She jumped, but tried to act like she hadn’t, like she was okay.
She wasn’t okay.
Dana Campbell hadn’t been okay for even a single minute since the Boston College women’s hockey team had played the University of Connecticut in her freshman year, when some crazy UConn fans, for lack of a better word, had thought it would be fun to gang-rape her afterward just because she was a better hockey player than any of their girls.
She was probably better than some of their men, too, for that matter. That might have played into why they did it. Who could know? What causes that switch to flip, where suddenly it becomes okay in your mind to do something like that, to hurt someone that way, to completely violate someone you don’t even know? I hoped I would never find out.
The fact of the matter, though, was that she was a damn good hockey player. She’d scored a hat trick in the game, and she had an assist on top of it. It hadn’t even been her best game that season. There was little wonder that she’d been invited to play on the US women’s Olympic team. If there was a women’s professional hockey league, you can bet she would have been drafted into it. She was just that good.
Until that night. Everything changed that night.
They’d injured her body, which was bad enough, but they had destroyed her emotionally. She couldn’t focus on the game anymore—all she could focus on were the catcalls coming down to the ice from the stands. She couldn’t concentrate in her classes anymore—all her attention was zeroed in on how far away from her each man in the room was and how close she was to the exit.
Soupy and I had been finishing our senior year at Yale when it happened—we weren’t with her. We couldn’t protect her. When she was picking her college, we’d tried to get her to come to Yale where we could look after her at least for that one year before we turned pro, but she’d wanted to play for Coach Bassano. So, of course, we’d supported her decision. Coach Bassano was the best coach in all of women’s hockey. We never could have imagined anything like that would happen to Dana.
But it did.
The three men who’d raped her were expelled from school and put on trial. They each served a year in federal prison before being released.
One year. Where was the justice in that?
Dana was still serving her sentence, and she hadn’t done anything wrong.
And she wanted me to be her sex surrogate? How the hell did she think that was going to work? If she jumped just because my fingers accidentally brushed against her collarbone, how did she think we’d be able to do whatever it was she wanted me to do? It was like she was asking me to rape her, because that’s what it would be for her. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t do that to her. Hell, she couldn’t even handle letting Soupy and her dad touch her, hug her, all the things that families do. She wasn’t ready. She might never be ready, and that pretty much killed me.
She pulled her blond hair up over the collar of her coat, letting it fall down her back however it wanted to, and she nodded at me, those brown eyes of hers always cautious. I was putting my own coat on as we walked toward the door, when the waitress stalked over and stopped in front of us, blocking the way. Blocking Dana’s escape route.
“You’re leaving?” Her hands were on her hips, and she hadn’t stopped smacking her gum once since we arrived. “You didn’t order anything.”
“Something came up. I left you a tip anyway.”
I tried to brush past her and bring Dana along with me, but the waitress moved to block the doorway.
“You’re Zee, right? The captain of the Storm? Bobby, in the kitchen, that’s what he said.”
I’d brought Dana here hoping I wouldn’t be recognized. Amani’s was always quiet this time of day, not too many people around. It was hard, in a town like this, to go unnoticed when you were a professional athlete. Everybody knew who you were, knew your business. I didn’t mind too much. I’d gotten used to it. But Dana didn’t have to deal with that part of my life. She probably wasn’t prepared for it. Soupy had spent more time in the minors than in the NHL, so no one really noticed him. Her dad had been in the NHL years ago, but only die-hard hockey fans recognized him unless he was at some hockey event. And back home in Providence, I was just a regular old guy to most people. Only the people involved in the hockey community knew me there. Not like here.
I looked over at her, and she gave me a tiny little nod.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Could you sign something for my kid? He’s sick. Cancer. Leukemia.”
At least that was all the waitress wanted. I nodded. “Yeah, sure. What do you have?” Even if I was in a hurry to get Dana somewhere private where we could really talk about her ludicrous suggestion, I couldn’t walk away without signing something for a sick kid. I fished in my coat pocket for a marker. Years ago, I learned it was best to always have one on hand, just for moments like this.
She went behind the cash register and jerked a Portland Storm window flag down from the wall. It must have been in that same spot for a decade or more—the logo was one that had been retired before I came into the league, and the empty space the flag had been covering was a stark white next to the rest of the dingy wall.
When she handed it over, I quickly scrawled my name on it and put my number—nine—inside the lower curl of my Z. I gave it back to her. “I hope your kid gets better soon.”
“Yeah, thanks, Zee.” She was already scurrying off to put it God only knew where. Then she nodded at where Dana was inching closer to the door by degrees. “Your girlfriend’s ready to go.”
Dana flinched at that. My girlfriend. She couldn’t even handle hearing herself referred to that way. Her plan sounded crazier by the moment. Not that I’d say so to her. I didn’t really think she was crazy—just her plan. But she’d take it to mean I was putting it all on her. Without thinking, I put my hand at the small of her back to guide her out of the restaurant. She immediately tensed even more than she already had, so I pulled it away and cursed under my breath.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
We were barely on the sidewalk outside and heading toward the parking garage when I heard the waitress come back into the main dining room, cackling.
“Sucker! Got another one to bite. I’m putting this on eBay.”
I should have known. She hadn’t seemed all that torn up over her kid.
One look at Dana was all I needed to remind me what torn up looked like.
I shoved my hands in my coat pockets so that I wouldn’t inadvertently touch her again.
“Does that happen much?” She folded her arms across her chest and tucked her hands between her body and arms. “People lying to get you to give them stuff?”
“More often than I’d like. It’s just part of the gig. But most people are good. Most are honest.” I had always believed that. Sure, there were bastards in the world like the UConn students who raped Dana. But there were also people like the Campbell family, the guys I’d played alongside my whole career…. There were more of the good than the bad.
Dana seemed to only see the bad anymore, though, even when she was surrounded by the good. It was like she’d put blinders on.
Not that it was a choice. My mom had panic attacks if she had to fly. It had always been that way, and she couldn’t control it. Dana couldn’t control her triggers, either. No one who has panic attacks can.
She just needed to learn to live with them. Mom lived with hers by going on road trips instead of flying. Dana lived with hers by avoiding men.
Neither was ideal. But sometimes you just have to play with the hand you’ve been dealt.