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Ice Breaker

He’s becoming a Game Breaker on the ice.

With the playoffs right around the corner, Nate “Ghost” Golston is focused on only one thing—getting the Portland Storm to the Finals so he can finally hoist the Cup. But when opposing teams’ fans start getting under his skin, he can’t ignore the ridicule that’s suddenly all over the Internet. With each degrading word slung over the boards, he strains to keep his focus on the ice. Now, everything he’s worked for is in jeopardy.

She’s facing off with the Game Makers.

Stunning sports reporter and aspiring filmmaker Anne Dennison is determined to use her smarts to get ahead in a male-dominated career. Producing a behind-the-scenes web series brings Anne up close and personal with skilled, sexy Nate. Sparks fly, putting her plans in danger. For Anne to succeed, she has to capitalize on Nate’s struggles.

Wanting to be together, they know they must bend for each other before one of them breaks. If they can’t, it’s Game Over.

Anne

“This is fantastic footage, guys. Really excellent work,” I said, somehow focusing on all the screens in front of me at once. The adrenaline coursing through my body seemed to be in overdrive, more so than at any other point in this new adventure so far.

My eyes flipped back and forth as I tried to determine exactly where our focus needed to be. Nate Golston had already scored twice in this game, and he was out on the ice again with the rest of his line, with only a little over a minute left on the game clock. No doubt the Blackhawks would be pulling their goalie soon for an extra attacker, which meant the Portland Storm players on the ice would surely try to feed Golston and help him score a National Hockey League hat trick for the first time in his career.

We were nearing the end of my initial week of filming for Eye of the Storm, a behind-the-scenes web series focused on the Storm, and I hadn’t yet decided on how to focus the premiere episode. As the producer, it was on me to find the story we wanted to tell and bring it to life. Since I was one of the only women in the world of sports broadcasting and journalism to be given this level of responsibility, I had no intention of screwing up my chance.

Golston was a good story. Or he could be, depending on how we framed it. Smaller guy in the NHL. One of the few black players in the league, finding his footing in a sport that boasted very little diversity.

From my days working as part of the television broadcast team, I knew the coaches and management were hot on him. He had a ton of potential, but he’d only recently been starting to fulfill it. Over the last couple of months of the season, he’d found his offensive touch and started using it to develop what should be a very promising career.

We could frame the struggles and fortunes of the team around his story if we did it right. The team had gotten near the pinnacle of the sport a decade or so ago. Then tough times hit, and they missed the playoffs several seasons in a row before a resurgence. Fresh blood. Now they were climbing toward the top again, and it was up to me to chronicle this resurrection as best I could.

They’d been in the Stanley Cup Finals last season. If all went according to plan, they could win it this season. If they did, it would be because of players like Golston finally playing up to their potential.

I might be wrong about this, and I could always find a new angle once I was editing the webisode together, but everything in my gut screamed that Golston needed to be my focus.

“Dave, can you zoom in tight on Golston for me?” I said into my headpiece. “You, too, Ben. Stick with him, no matter what happens.”

“Got it, Anne.”

Within moments, the views on Camera Two and Camera Four had gone from wide shots at different angles, covering much of the ice, to isolations on Golston—one capturing his face head on and the other coming in from the side.

The teams lined up on the face-off dot to the right of the Blackhawks goaltender. I kept my eye primarily on those two cameras, although I flickered my gaze around to each of them every few seconds, as well as down to the ice, just to be sure we weren’t missing anything important.

The linesman squared up to drop the puck, but something else hit the ice first, right at Golston’s feet. One of the other officials skated in, putting a stop to the action before play resumed.

“What is that?” I demanded, straining my eyes to make out what had been tossed from the crowd. “Dave, go in tighter on that, whatever it is.”

With my other views, the ref was getting in the way as he bent to collect the debris. When he came up with it in his hand, I finally recognized it.

“No freaking way,” I said, my stomach clenching.

Someone had tossed a banana peel at Nate Golston’s feet.

“I got it, Anne,” Dave said, reminding me that we had an obligation to capture the story as it unfolded in front of us, whatever that story might be. We had a show to produce, and like it or not, the story was unfolding in front of us.

Fighting down waves of nausea, I snapped back into action. “Right. I want Five to get shots of the crowd, particularly the parts of the crowd close enough to have seen what happened. Dave, stay with the ref and that fucking banana peel until it’s gone. Three, I want reactions from every player on the ice. Four, don’t you dare lose Golston for the rest of this game or I will murder you in your sleep. One, give me the team benches. I want to see the coaches’ reactions, the other players. Even the equipment guys. Got it?”

My camera crew did exactly as I instructed them. The ref took the banana peel over to the timekeeper’s bench and dropped it off there. Within moments, the PA announcer came over the loudspeakers with a reminder that nothing was to be tossed on the ice, and breaking this rule would result in expulsion from the arena and a minor bench penalty assessed to the home team. Then everyone lined up again to resume where things had left off.

Through my disgust, only two things truly registered in my mind.

The first was a shot of a man in the crowd, angrily shouting things in Golston’s direction. Things I couldn’t hear, but I could sure enough read the man’s lips. Things that left me shaken, angry, and hurt. Things that left me scared for the world in which we lived.

The second was the look of utter shock that had come over Golston’s face and refused to budge.

The puck dropped. The game resumed. The Storm players fought hard and kept the Blackhawks from getting a tie, and with eighteen seconds left on the clock, Nate Golston zipped the puck up the ice and into the empty net, scoring his first hat trick.

I should have been elated, because—like it or not—I had a definite focus for the first episode of my web series. Instead, I wanted to find the nearest bathroom and puke up my guts.

This was not what I thought I’d signed up for.

Nate

I didn’t want to wear the stupid purple umbrella hat, so as soon as the boys let me, I took the fucking thing off and tossed it in my stall. That ridiculous hat was tradition for us this season. When we won a game, the guy who’d been awarded it after our last win selected someone else to give it to—typically the player who’d been most instrumental in the win that night. Apparently, tonight, that was me.

But right now I didn’t care that I’d scored a hat trick. I didn’t even care that we’d won the game. This win didn’t have any effect on our positioning heading into the playoffs, so it didn’t factor into the big picture beyond us starting the postseason on a roll.

The only thing I wanted to do right now was get the fuck out of this arena so I could have a few beers and try to forget about what had happened at the end of the game. Only we were on the road and flying back to Portland tonight, so I couldn’t escape so easily. It’d be hours before I got home and could drink enough to numb all the insanity racing through my mind.

I stripped off my jersey and tossed it in the bin in the center of the locker room. I ripped off my pads, hurrying through the process of changing. The bus wouldn’t leave for the airport until all the guys were ready to go, which would be a while since the media would want to come in and interview a few of us and the coach, but maybe I could slip out sooner, catch a cab to the airport. At least there, I wouldn’t have to look at the rest of the boys while so many of them were busy studiously avoiding looking at me at all. Not to mention those cameras that had been following us around for the last week. Two of those cameramen had joined us in the locker room, and if I wasn’t mistaken, one of those two had been zoomed in tight on me since the final horn had sounded.

None of my teammates had said a word to me when we’d come off the ice. No doubt they didn’t know what to say. I didn’t either, so I couldn’t blame them. Never, not once in my life, had I been up against such blatant racism. I’d read about it. I’d seen it on the news. But it had never been directed at me before.

I didn’t know how long ago that banana peel had come over the glass to land at my feet, but I was still vibrating. Not just because of the symbolism, either. The words they’d shouted at me before arena security guards escorted them out hadn’t stopped echoing in my ears.

“Get on the bus and go back to the projects. You have no business on the ice.”

“Fucking monkey, finally learning to perform tricks. At least you’re good for something more than fighting now.”

“Don’t you know niggers are supposed to play basketball, not hockey?”

Yes, the three of them had been drinking, and yes, the rest of the crowd had given them hell over what they’d said and done. But drunk or not, they’d said it. And they’d done it.

Somehow, I’d had it in my head that people only said those things in books and movies. Or maybe only in the South, where racial tensions still seemed to be so heightened. But Chicago wasn’t in the South, and while the cameras had filmed every bit of it for both the TV broadcast and this web series the team had commissioned, this was still my real life, not some piece of fiction.

It had really happened.

To me.

The more time that passed since that moment, the more I felt suffocated by everything surrounding me. My lungs were trapped in a vise that kept squeezing tighter and tighter, forcing the air out of me by degrees.

There was a part of me that wanted to let the vise finish me off. It would hurt less than the realization that there were people out there who hated me that much, but not for anything I’d done. It was because of who I was.

No, not even that. It was because of who my ancestors were, if anything. Because of my DNA. The color of my skin. Because of something I couldn’t change even if I wanted to.

But right now, I wanted to. Something else I’d never experienced before. It was seriously starting to fuck with my head.

“Ghost.” It was the head coach, Mattias Bergstrom, standing right behind me.

That was what the guys all called me—Ghost—a play on my last name, Golston, and maybe a bit of an inside joke, too, since I definitely didn’t look like anything close to Casper. But Ghost was just my nickname with my teammates, something meant in good fun, the same as me being officially listed as five foot ten and a hundred eighty-five pounds, even though that was only close to true when I was in all my gear. Five foot eight and one seventy was a lot closer to reality. Guys had started calling me Ghost so long ago that I didn’t even remember who was responsible for it, back when I was a kid playing hockey in Toronto. I’d never thought anything of it until I was older, and by then the name had stuck. Ghost was simply who I was to everyone I played with or against.

A couple of months ago, Bergy had pointed out a new side of that nickname to me. He’d said I tended to be a ghost on the ice, sneaky and elusive, slipping past guys twice my size before they knew what to do about it. He wanted me to find ways to use that to my advantage instead of thinking of my size as a disadvantage. He’d even had me come to work with him one-on-one several times on days off, me trying to slip past him. The guy may have retired as a player several years back, but he’d been a strong-as-fuck defenseman in his day with a hell of a nasty streak, and he still had all the size and strength he’d been known for. Working with him like that meant taking a beating. But lately, I’d been slipping past him untouched, and now I was finding a way to do it in game situations, too. Like tonight.

I grunted to acknowledge him, swallowing hard. I didn’t trust my voice. Hell, I didn’t trust myself not to throat-punch someone right now for looking at me wrong. I wouldn’t throat-punch Bergy, but I couldn’t make any promises about anyone else who might come along.

I didn’t like this side of me. I hated that it had been so easy to bring it out. Ten seconds’ time, with ignorant asswipes revealing their hatred, and I’d been reduced to a pressure cooker ready to explode at the tiniest provocation.

“Kurt just gave me the word from communications,” Bergy said. “The media specifically wants to talk to you tonight.”

Of course the press wanted to talk to me tonight. They came to me after just about every game, mainly because I tended to give a good sound bite. Add in the fact that I’d scored three goals, had a banana peel thrown at me, and had things shouted at me I’d never heard a human being actually say out loud before, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that every sports reporter in this damn city wouldn’t be closing in around my stall and suffocating the life out of me for as long as they were allowed to stay.

I nodded that I understood.

“I could send you to the trainers’ room,” Bergy said. “Tell them you’re being treated for an injury and aren’t available. Buy you some time so you can figure out what you want to say.”

“I’m not hiding,” I bit off. The temptation to take him up on it was definitely there, but burying my head in the sand and pretending nothing had happened wouldn’t solve anything. It’d only make facing their questions worse once I finally got around to it, because they’d think I’d been running.

I’d never been a fan of avoidance, and I wasn’t about to change my mind about that now, even if I’d been debating hopping in a cab only moments ago. I doubted I’d ever have actually done it. That wasn’t me, even if it’s nice to fantasize about being someone else occasionally.

“It wouldn’t be hiding,” Bergy said. “You did get banged up in the third blocking that shot.”

I took a seat on the bench and tore through the laces on my skates, pulling them free. “I’m fine, so unless you’re planning to force me to go to the trainers’ room—”

“No one’s forcing you to do anything. That’s just it. If you don’t want to talk to the press yet, you don’t have to.”

If I wasn’t so hot already, I knew I’d have no problem seeing the truth in what Bergy was saying. The guy was a hard-ass, but he was as fair as they came. He just wanted to give me options.

I took a breath and willed myself to calm the fuck down. “I’m fine. I appreciate what you’re doing, but I’m fine. Send them in.”

He gave me a tight nod, crossing his arms. Then he gestured toward Kurt Yarbrough, the head of the Storm’s communications department, before returning his attention to me. “Fine. But Kurt’s going to be right by your side the whole time they’re in here. If anyone asks you something you don’t want to answer, or if you’re ready to be done, you just nod at him, and he’ll take care of it.”

I had no intention of fighting Bergy on that one, but I also didn’t plan to send out an SOS in front of all those cameras. I could fight my own battles, something I’d been striving to prove to Bergy, my teammates, and the rest of the damned league all season long. This was just one more battle in the war. One more mountain to climb.

I’d be damned if I’d let anything or anyone get in my way.

Bergy headed off to talk with the other coaches, and Kurt took up position near me but not all the way in my grill. The security guard outside the locker room opened the doors, and a flood of reporters swarmed inside—far more of them than was normal during the regular season. I caught a glimpse of Anne Dennison among them, but she walked over to one of her camera guys and whispered something in his ear as the crowd converged on me, and I lost track of her.

Too bad. She was probably the only one out of the lot of them who’d be completely safe from me losing my temper. Granted, she wasn’t a reporter anymore, now that she’d taken over the production of this web series.

In no time, a few dozen mics and other recording devices were shoved in my direction. I couldn’t see anything beyond the glare of lights shining in my face.

Mike Polanski, the Storm beat writer for the Portland Tribune and the absolute bane of my existence, stood directly in front of me. “Nate, what’s your reaction to the banana peel incident?” he demanded.

“Have we already whittled it down to that?” I groused. “The banana peel incident? Sounds like a case to put Sherlock Holmes on. Someone get Cumberbatch on the line.”

A few of the media guys chuckled, but Polanski wasn’t one of them. “So you’re just going to laugh it off?”

“I’d rather laugh than react in a way that would land me in jail,” I bit off, and everyone sobered. “And I’d rather be talking about the game than the fact that three buffoons in the crowd decided to let the world see just how ignorant they are. Why aren’t you asking me about scoring my first ever hat trick in the NHL? Why aren’t you asking me about the fact that the Storm just soundly beat a team we might be facing again in only a couple of weeks in the playoffs? Why aren’t you asking me if we’re ready to take on the Sharks in a few days and how we think we’ll handle the way they throw their weight around, or if our skill can outperform their skill?”

“Sorry to say it, Ghost, but that isn’t the story. Considering what happened this afternoon with Marcus Jameson and after what happened tonight—”

“Hold up. Who is Marcus Jameson?” I wasn’t following. At all.

“You haven’t heard about that?” Polanski asked. “This afternoon, a man named Marcus Jameson was pulled over by Chicago PD for a routine traffic stop. They shot and killed him. Everyone’s saying it’s racially motivated, and then this…”

“I’m sorry to hear that about Marcus Jameson, but I don’t know what he has to do with the game tonight. As far as I’m concerned, the story you should be asking me about is the game. That’s what I know about. And if you ask the other nineteen guys in this room right now, I think they’d all agree with me that it’s the story that we think is important.”

“So Marcus Jameson’s death isn’t important, Nate?” one of the other reporters asked, and I wanted to kick myself.

“That’s not what I’m saying at all. His death is very important. But I didn’t have anything to do with it, and he didn’t have anything to do with this game. Frankly, this game is the only thing any of us is focused on, so if you want some other story, you’re going to have to get it from another source. Because here’s some truth for you. The guys who were behind the banana peel incident aren’t worth my time.”

At that point, half a dozen of the other reporters tried to jump in with questions at once, but the only thing that registered with me was the sight of Anne pushing her way forward—the only woman in a mob of men, the only flash of color in an ocean of white faces much like I was the only minority among my teammates—with her cameraman at her side.

Kurt held up his hand and tried to regain control of the session, getting them to stop talking over each other. Once they shut up, I nodded at Anne, giving her the floor. I’d rather talk to her any day than the rest of these guys, and not just because she was hot as hell and we’d been flirting outrageously with each other for the last couple of seasons, either.

Her cameraman shoved his boom mic forward and she smiled, putting me at ease.

“How are you going to make sure this doesn’t become a distraction for you and your teammates heading into the playoffs, especially if you do end up playing against the Blackhawks in the second round?” she asked, and I felt a hell of a lot less at ease.

I’d thought Anne, at least, would be willing to focus on what really mattered right now. I’d expected her to realize that the press making this incident out to be a bigger deal than it was would only cause it to blow up and become a distraction. There’d been some part of me that had been counting on Anne to be on my side.

At least now I knew she wasn’t. Flirtation or not, she was still part of the press. Maybe she worked for the team in some small way, but she was still out to get her story, trying to sell her angle on it, whatever that might be.

I ground my jaw, apparently hesitating for so long that Kurt got nervous. He inched closer to my side and nudged my elbow, but I wasn’t going to let anyone rush to my aid and rescue me from a situation I didn’t need rescuing from.

I looked straight in Anne’s eyes, hoping she got a full sense of the betrayal roiling through my gaze, and said, “The only people making it a distraction are all of you. My teammates and I have bigger things to worry about. Like San Jose, since we’ve got Game One to prepare for, and it’s coming up in a few days. If no one has any questions about hockey, I think we’re finished here.”

Without checking to see if Kurt was satisfied with my response or not, I grabbed a towel from my stall and pushed my way through the throng.