Fourth-line winger Cam Johnson fights like hell for his team—even if he has to break the rules. A vigilante on the ice, Cam takes on all the battles, whether they’re his fight or not. The Portland Storm is his team—his family—and he’ll take down anyone who threatens them. When one of his on-ice battles lands him in the penalty box, the coach’s fiery daughter calls him for a Delay of Game. Now Cam has to finish what he started.
Terrified that her father’s job as coach of the Storm will be the death of him, Sara Thomas wants nothing to do with the sexy hotheaded player who caused her dad to end up in the hospital. And Cam will do anything to rectify the damage he caused—even if it means taking the fall for something he didn’t do. After all, he’s the team enforcer. What he offers up just might save him, his coach, and Sara, too.
No matter how many of those stupid sticks I peed on, they all said the same thing in the end.
Which meant two things. One, I was royally fucked. (Oh, the irony.) And two, Daddy was going to absolutely murder me.
Granted, he would only kill me if he found out. Since I’d only learned just now that I was pregnant, I definitely didn’t have a game plan yet. I didn’t know what I would do, so I supposed that meant there was a third thing it meant, too—that I was scared out of my freaking skull and didn’t know what to focus on first. But whatever I decided on, I had at least a little bit of time. Daddy wasn’t the most observant person in the world, at least when it came to anything that wasn’t hockey related. I didn’t have to make any sort of rash decision that I might later regret, beyond the one I’d already made and couldn’t take back.
Anyway, with this, I could take the time to figure out what was best. If there was such a thing. I wasn’t convinced there was.
There wasn’t time right now to worry about it, though. My father was Scotty Thomas, a legendary coach in the National Hockey League who was currently finishing up his second season coaching the Portland Storm. Legendary because he’d started coaching when he was only twenty-six, after being forced to retire as a player early, after a slew of injuries. He’d coached his first NHL team to the Stanley Cup Finals. They’d lost in seven games, but in the twenty-eight years since then, he’d won the Cup four times as a head coach. That put him in some pretty rare company, and the Storm organization hoped he could lead them to the same end. It might not happen this year, but they were closer than they had been in a while…and a lot of that was because of him.
Today was the final game of the regular season, and since I was Daddy’s personal assistant—he’d officially hired me when I’d turned eighteen so he could justify paying me a salary—I had to get him out the door in time so we wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on our way to the Moda Center. Personal assistant was really just a glorified title meaning I made sure I got him where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there, but the pay was pretty damn good for an insanely easy job that I had already been doing for years, anyway.
With trembling hands, I shoved the pee sticks and their boxes and plastic wrappings and instruction booklets into a brown paper bag and crushed it all, then buried it in the trash can in my bathroom. For good measure, I took that trash bag out, put a fresh one in, and took the evidence down to the main trash can in the kitchen. No reason to leave that stuff lying around where our housekeeper might find it and tell Daddy. I doubted Rose would do something like that, but you just never know about people. Better to take precautionary measures than have to sort out the consequences later.
Oh. Haha. Yeah, that was kind of what was going on. Except I had taken precautionary measures. I’d been on the pill since I was sixteen, and I never did the deed without a condom. But there was that one night a little over a month ago, with Brad, when the condom broke. And the pill isn’t fail-safe.
It had been a bad date. It hadn’t even been good sex. Definitely not worth ending up a freaking out, shaking, preggers mess over.
I still don’t know why I’d slept with him. I mean, he was hot, sure. And he wasn’t a hockey player, so that was a huge bonus in his favor, at least with me. I’d spent my entire life around hockey players, almost constantly. I didn’t want to have a relationship with one of them beyond working for my father. I didn’t even want to have a one-night stand with any of them. So when a guy who didn’t play hockey asked me out, I tended to jump on it whether I was really attracted and interested or not.
That was what had happened with Brad. He’d hit on me at the gym. But this guy, the hot-but-boring non-hockey-playing biomechanical engineer who couldn’t find my clitoris with a detailed map, step-by-step instructions, and a compass? There was no chance in hell I was ever going to go out with him again after that night. I’d known it from the moment he’d pulled the car up in front of the Red Robin at Cascade Station.
Who takes someone to a cheesy chain restaurant like that for a first date? They weren’t even cheesetastic. They were the bad kind of cheesy, like those plain-Jane slices of processed crap they called American cheese.
But it had been so long since I’d had sex—real sex with a hot guy who took care of himself and his body, not a late-night date with my vibrator—that I’d gone along with him when he’d suggested we take things back to his place.
And the condom had broken.
And now I was pregnant.
Crap. I didn’t even have his phone number anymore. I’d deleted it from my cell almost the moment I’d gotten home. Not that I had a clue what I’d say to him even if I did have his number. Hey, Brad. Long time no talk. So, I know I brushed you off and all that, but guess what? You’re my baby daddy! Congratulations!
I tried to shake all that out of my head. Now wasn’t the time to freak. I had work to do.
“Daddy?” I called up the stairs.
He was probably holed up in his office watching film of the Canucks, despite the fact that his cardiologist had told him he had to reduce his stress and get some rest when he could. This would have been a perfect time for the whole rest-and-relaxation thing—an afternoon off before a game. All of his players were resting right now, taking their pre-game naps. But not Daddy.
I headed down the hall and knocked on the open door, trying not to let myself get upset about it. That wouldn’t do either of us any good.
He looked up. “Time already?”
“Yeah. You’d better get your suit on so we aren’t late.”
Daddy paused the video he was watching and got up from his desk, grabbing the cup of coffee sitting beside him.
“Have you checked your blood pressure today?” I asked. I didn’t like to nag, but someone had to or he’d never do some of the things he needed to do. If it wasn’t directly related to coaching hockey, he was generally oblivious. I’d taken over looking after him when my mother abandoned us to run off with one of the players on Daddy’s team years ago. I’d only been ten, but I had done a better job of looking after him in all the intervening years than she’d ever done. By now, thirteen years later, it was second nature to me.
“I’ll do it once we get to the arena,” he promised.
“Your doctor says you need to check it two or three times a day, Daddy. And you’re supposed to reduce your stress and get more rest. And drink more water and less coffee.” I took the mug away from him and headed back to the kitchen so I could dump its contents down the drain.
He followed along behind me, grumbling half-heartedly the whole way. “The playoffs start in three days. How do you suppose I’m going to be able to do any of those things right now?”
I arched a brow at him from the other side of the kitchen island. “Drink less coffee and replace it with water. Then you’ll sleep more. That’ll kill a few birds.”
“And I’ll have more stress because I won’t be as prepared as I need to be for the first round because I was too busy sleeping.”
I sighed. “I don’t want to argue with you about this right now, Daddy.”
“I know, Sara.” He sounded defeated. He came around and kissed my forehead. “I’m trying to do better.”
If I’d been anyone else, he would have been yelling at me right now. I knew that. It was just one more thing I was trying to help him stop doing, because it was all going to add up and kill him. He might drive me crazy sometimes, but I wasn’t ready to lose him. He was my only family. He’d given me the only job I’d ever had. And now I was pregnant and single and scared shitless.
I couldn’t lose him now.
I nodded and washed his coffee cup, then grabbed a towel from the bar under the sink to dry it. “I know you are. Go get dressed.”
While he did that, I put together a snack for him—peanut butter on a toasted multigrain bagel, a banana, and low-fat yogurt with a serving of chia seeds stirred in.
When he took it from me, he scowled at the little black seeds in his yogurt. “What are you trying to kill me with now?”
“Doc suggested them for your cholesterol. They’re chia seeds. Full of omegas and fiber and protein—all the good stuff you’re supposed to be eating every day.”
Doc wasn’t my father’s heart doctor. He was Dr. Larry Mitchell, the head doctor of the Portland Storm. Doc’s focus was mainly on keeping the players in peak physical condition, and his background was more in sports injuries than the heart, but I figured all doctors had to know a thing or two about heart health after all those years in medical school. He was the only person involved with the team I’d talked to about it. Daddy still wasn’t happy that I’d gone to Doc at all, but I needed to know everything I could about how to help keep my father alive, and it couldn’t hurt to have someone else aware of the situation—someone who would be around him when I wasn’t.
Daddy lifted a brow.
“You can’t taste them, so don’t give me a hard time about this. I already tried them to see.” I grinned so he would know I was teasing him. “Just eat it, and let’s get out of here.”
“You spend too much time worrying about me. Who worries about you?”
“You do,” I answered, quickly brushing off yet another not-so-subtle hint that he wanted me to be dating someone. Ever since the issues with his heart had cropped up, he’d been trying to convince me to get involved with some guy or another. It felt like he was trying to be sure I wouldn’t be alone once he was gone. My focus was on making sure he wasn’t gone anytime soon, though. “And I get paid to worry about you, in case you forgot,” I added.
“Can’t forget that since I sign the checks.” He finally did what I asked without any more complaints, and then we made our way to the arena. When we arrived, I went with him to his office for a minute. His assistant coaches, Mattias Bergstrom and Daniel Hamm, were already there doing whatever it was Daddy expected them to do before games.
I kissed my dad on the cheek and said, “Remember to check your blood pressure,” and then I left him to do his thing. I don’t think he or anyone else would ever say boo to me if I stayed down in the coaches’ offices or headed into the locker room for a bit to say hi to the guys, but it was habit for me to go straight up to the owner’s box and hang out with the players’ wives and girlfriends during the games. I’d been doing that since I was a baby, so I didn’t see any reason to change my routine now.
On my way out the door, though, I bumped into Cam Johnson, one of my father’s players. He reached out and caught my arms, gently steadying me. “Sorry, Sara. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Jonny was a big guy, a fighter. He was six foot four and towered over my five foot seven frame, but his height wasn’t the truly intimidating thing about him. The guy was 240 pounds or more of solid muscle. The suit he was wearing only emphasized his broad shoulders and beefy arms, and the buzz cut he always had made it easier to see the muscle even coming down his neck. Who the hell had a muscled neck? How did he even build muscle there?
The really pathetic thing was, I was crazy attracted to him. Had been for a while. I didn’t want to be because he was a hockey player, of all things, and I didn’t want to be with a hockey player. And he was one of Daddy’s players. And that meant he was completely and totally off limits. But every time I was around him, I got these little tingles of awareness.
I hated those tingles. I wanted to throw them into the pit of Mount Doom like they were the One Ring. Mainly because I only felt them when I was around Jonny, never when I was around anyone else. I’d hoped I might feel them with that guy Brad. Same hair. Close to the same height. Fit, but nowhere close to as built as Jonny—but who was?—but it was no good. No tingles. Bad sex.
And now a baby on the way.
The tingles were going into overdrive right now, since Jonny was so close to me. He had his hands on my upper arms and I could smell his amazing cologne, and I didn’t want to move a muscle other than to maybe lean in a little closer so I could sniff his collar, which would be totally weird and not even remotely all right.
Jonny gave me a concerned look. “Are you okay? Did I hurt you?”
Oh yeah. He’d asked me a question. I totally spaced on that, thinking about neck muscles and those damn tingles. “No, I’m fine. Sorry. I was off in another world somewhere.”
“Okay.” He dropped his grip on my arms, and I wanted to sob. Then he took a step back from me and grinned—at least it was as close to a grin as this guy ever showed. “You look nice tonight. Did you do something different? A new top or something?”
“I…” What? In all the encounters I’d ever had with Cam Johnson, that might be the most he’d ever spoken to me, and he wanted to know if I’d worn a new shirt tonight? Where the hell had that come from? The only thing different about me was that I had learned I was an incubator for a tiny human. “No, nothing’s different,” I hedged. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone about that, and definitely not this guy.
He just nodded and backed away some more, letting his gaze travel all the way down my body and cause a shit-ton more tingles. “Well, you look nice. Maybe it’s your shoes. Those are really nice shoes. I’ve got to go talk to your dad now. See ya later.”
I nodded and spun on my Manolo Blahniks, desperate to get away from him so I could make the tingles stop. Come to think of it, I’d only worn these shoes a few times. Weird that he’d notice something like that. I shook it off and hurried up to the owner’s box as I’d intended to do when I’d first left Daddy’s office.
Dana Campbell—team captain Eric Zellinger’s fiancée and his best friend Brenden Campbell’s kid sister—was the only other person up there when I arrived, which was utterly perfect.
Dana was one of the best friends I’d made since Daddy had come to Portland to coach, and she was the primary reason I’d spent as much time around Jonny lately as I had. He had taught her some self-defense techniques. They still worked out together sometimes, and she liked having him around, so she always invited him along if we were doing something that wasn’t just the girls. Anyway, talking to her would help me get my mind off all the Jonny-tingles and baby daddy crap going through my head.
I plopped down in the seat right next to hers. “Let’s talk wedding details. I need something to make me smile.”
“How about this?” Dana tucked a curl of her long, blond hair behind her ear and leaned closer to me. “Brenden and Rachel agreed to do a double wedding. We’re going to have it in Providence this summer so Eric’s mom doesn’t have to fly.”
Yep, a double wedding was just what the doctor ordered. I pulled both my legs up so I was sitting cross-legged on my seat and settled in to dish.
Ultimately, the result of tonight’s game wouldn’t matter.
This was game eighty-two of the NHL’s eighty-two game season. My team, the Storm, was playing the Vancouver Canucks. No matter which team won this game, and no matter what happened in any of the other thirteen games going on around the league on this final day of the regular season, we already knew our fate and the Canucks already knew theirs.
The Storm would finish in third place in the Pacific Division. We were going to the playoffs, our first postseason appearance in five long years. I’d been here for four of them after spending a few years playing for the Baby Storm—what I’d always called the Seattle Storm, Portland’s minor league affiliate. I knew better than most how long overdue a trip to the dance was around here.
Also regardless of tonight’s outcome, the Canucks would finish in second place in the division. They had gotten into the postseason more often than not in recent years, but they had never won it all.
Those positions meant we would face each other in the first round.
So in a few days’ time, the two teams playing each other tonight would play again—and it would be all-out war for about a week or two. Best of seven. Winner moves on in the toughest tournament in all professional sports to compete for the Stanley Cup. Loser gets to call it a summer early and go home to work on the perfect golf swing.
The only things that mattered now were setting expectations and establishing a tone. We may not have gotten into the playoffs in the last five years, but we had no intention of going down easy, and they planned to make us pay for every inch of ice we wanted to take. For both teams, tonight was all about sending a message about what was to come in the first round.
The matchup would be interesting from a sports network perspective—the perennial playoff contender who had never won the big prize against the team made up of young players hungry to prove themselves and a few aging vets hoping for another shot at the Cup before they retired. It should make for an intriguing series from those storylines alone, but there was a lot more at play than just that.
The season series between our two teams had grown more and more contentious with every game. We didn’t like them; they didn’t like us. That went back pretty much twenty years or so, well before any of the players on the ice were in the league yet. Sometimes it seemed like we’d loathed each other since even before the Storm came into existence. It was a mutual, decades-old hate fest, and things had gotten progressively nastier each time we’d faced them over the course of the current season. The fact that we would have to play an entire seven-game series against them in just a few days had only served to intensify that hatred, if that were even possible.
It was still a scoreless game in the third period, and it had been filled with more than just a few hard—not to mention dirty—hits. On both sides. There was no pretending our play hadn’t skirted the line of legality just as much as theirs had. Anyone who tried to argue otherwise was full of shit.
But what was happening right before my eyes went beyond merely hitting.
I didn’t see what started it—something in the corner behind our net, where several guys from both teams had converged, it seemed—but I heard a bunch of angry shouting, and a scrum broke out in the blink of an eye. Each of our five guys paired off with a Canuck. Everyone in the building got on their feet—both benches, all the fans. No one could sit with that kind of tension on the verge of seriously boiling over. Our goaltender, Nicklas Ericsson, skated away from his crease and off to the corner so he couldn’t get dragged into the fray.
That made me breathe a little easier. Nicky had already missed quite a bit of action this season with a concussion. And really, the last guy you ever want fighting in hockey is your goaltender. The more distance he put between himself and all the shit going down on the ice, the better. That was the way I looked at it, at least.
Every guy on our bench was yelling and tapping his stick on the boards. The coaches paced behind us, screaming at the refs to get the melee under control and cheering our boys on just like the rest of us were.
But then the shit hit the fan.
One of the guys in visitors’ white took Andrew Jensen down hard. Jens was our number one defenseman and my road roommate this year. He wasn’t a fighter, but he had answered the call out there just like any of our boys would do in a pinch. Now he was flat out on the ice and not moving a muscle.
All the guys on the bench went berserk when we saw Jens on his back like that. The linesmen were trying to deal with a couple of the fights that were heading out toward center ice. One of the refs was down on the ice with Jens, and the other was trying to help Eddie Masters, our head trainer, get to Jens since it looked like he was in some serious trouble. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the stretcher come out for him, and that was something you never wanted to see. It almost always meant extremely bad news.
With all that going on, though, no one was doing a goddamned thing about the asswipe in white who’d just taken out our best fucking defenseman.
“Stay on the fucking bench,” Scotty Thomas yelled from close behind me. “No one leaves this bench or you’ll never see another fucking minute of ice time as long as I’m the coach here.”
The assistant coaches were shouting similar shit at us. They just wanted to be sure we all followed the rules. Back in the day, the NHL had experienced issues with bench-clearing brawls, so harsher punishments were instituted now for anyone who left the team’s bench in a situation like this. Automatic suspensions and fines for the player. Fines and possible suspensions for the coaches. Even heftier fines for the teams.
We all knew the rules.
I knew the fucking rules.
But I also knew it was my job to protect my teammates. I could score a goal here and there. I was a serviceable fourth-liner and penalty killer and I could move up the lineup when they needed me to, but I wasn’t going to kid myself. One of the main reasons the Storm kept me on the payroll year after year was because I didn’t let fuckers like that take out the star players on my team. Sometimes doing what was right was more important than following the fucking rules. I knew it. The coaches knew it. The league knew it. Everyone in the whole damn building fucking knew it.
Center Antoine Gagnon was holding his own with a guy who had a reputation as a fighter, much like I did. Good on the kid. Gags was a second-year guy, really young, who was still trying to establish himself as a regular. I’d never thought of him as a fighter before, though.
Keith Burns, our other defenseman on the ice for this shift, had his guy pinned against the glass, and they were both trying to catch their breath after a heavy bout. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went another round before the linesmen got to them to break things up. I hoped for Burnzie’s sake they didn’t. We needed him able to play, especially if Jens was going to be out for a chunk of time.
David Weber was in a big tilt with his guy—another heavyweight fighter for the Canucks—but Webs was a wily veteran who’d been in more fights in his career than just about anyone else on the team other than me. I didn’t need to worry about him.
Henrik Markusson had never even been in more than a shoving match before, though, at least not to my knowledge. Hank wasn’t holding up well. The guy he’d paired off with was pummeling him with one right hook on top of another. I could only hope Hank wouldn’t get hurt like Jens had. We couldn’t afford to lose either one of them right now with the playoffs being right around the corner. Someday soon I needed to take Hank aside and give him a few fighting pointers just in case he got stuck in a situation like this again. When a line-brawl starts, you don’t always get to pick which players are out on the ice for it.
But fighting tips would have to wait. This was happening in the here and now. I made notes in my mind, taking down numbers of the guys in white who would need to be dealt with when I finally got the chance—and I would get my fucking chance, since we were going to have a whole playoff series against each other starting in a few days.
But then I saw it: a streak of white, out of the corner of my eye, heading straight in Nicky’s direction. The same fucker who’d laid Jens out was going for my goddamn goaltender.
Nicky didn’t have to fight him, at least not according to the rules in place. He could refuse. But if this asswipe started throwing blows, what the hell was Nicky supposed to do? He would have to protect himself, and then he’d be fighting, and that was not something I could let happen.
“Stay the fuck where you are. No one leaves this fucking bench.”
I heard Scotty’s shout, and I knew he meant for me—for all of us, really—to stay put and be good little soldiers.
“That means you, Jonny,” Bergy bellowed from right by my ear. “Keep your ass on the bench. Don’t you fucking put a skate over the boards.”
Yeah, that one was definitely directed straight at me and no one else. Bergy knew me well since he’d still been playing when I came into the league. I actually fought him once, so he knew exactly what I was. Hockey player. Fighter. Some people called me a goon. I wasn’t a goon, but I couldn’t sit back and let certain things happen.
Things like this fucker making a beeline for my goaltender.
I felt Bergy’s hands on the back of my jersey, trying to physically restrain me and keep me on the bench.
I didn’t give a shit.
All that mattered at that moment in time was that it was my job to protect my teammates.
So that’s exactly what I did.