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Trigger Warning: Contains graphic scenes depicting domestic and sexual abuse.

He’s in a drought. No rain. No goals. No women.

She has what it takes to quench his thirst.

Ethan Higgins, a defenseman for the Tulsa Thunderbirds, is in a rut. He hasn’t scored a goal in ages, and he hasn’t had a woman in his bed for even longer. The only thing in his favor is that he gets to spend time with his son when the T-Birds play at home on the weekends. Determined to be nothing like his abusive father, Ethan sets out to show his son how a real man behaves, and Natalie Turner gives him the perfect opportunity to do so.

Natalie has nowhere to turn when her boyfriend gets physical with her, this time in public—at least not until Ethan steps in to offer her a safe place to stay. Wary of trusting anyone, especially another hockey player, and even more so one as rough and tough as Ethan, Natalie attempts to resist the lure she feels toward the protective man. When Ethan’s son does a Rain Dance, the skies open up. But will soaking their hardened and cracked hearts be enough to end the drought?

Ethan

“You can’t step on the lines, Dad,” Carter said, rolling his eyes and putting a shit-ton of derision into the handful of words, as only a seven-year-old boy could do.

He wore a Thunderbirds sweater bearing my name and number. The sleeves were about three inches too long for him, but the length didn’t matter since he’d rolled them up to above the elbow to combat the sweltering heat.

At the rate my son was shooting up, he’d outgrow this sweater and need the next size up before the season was over, anyway. He’d definitely taken after me in the size department. I hoped he wouldn’t pass the six-foot mark before he was ten, but I had no intention of holding my breath.

I’d been almost six feet tall by the time I reached double digits in age. Too bad it’d taken until my late teens before the rest of my body had caught up.

Summer was lingering in Tulsa despite the fact that we were almost to mid-September already.

The entire state of Oklahoma was in the midst of a massive drought, even though fall typically brought a few thunderstorms. Not as many as we could expect in the spring, but hopefully enough to relieve the parched, dry earth.

I kept waiting for them to arrive, but so far…nothing.  Not so much as a drop. The grass on my lawn was looking as brown and dry as straw lining a barn stall.

The lack of moisture only made everything about the heat seem hotter than ever.

“What happens if I step on the lines again?” I asked absentmindedly. I wasn’t exactly thinking about following the rules of my son’s game, especially since he tended to change them on a whim.

My thoughts were centered on the changes to our defensive system Tim Harvey, one of our assistant coaches, wanted us to institute for this upcoming season. Tonight had been the first time we’d employed it in a game situation, and it hadn’t gone well.

At least we were still only in the preseason, though.

These games didn’t count for anything that mattered. We just played them so we could learn the coaches’ new systems and get our skating legs back under us after the long summer, and so the coaches and scouts could see how some of our prospects and the guys down at the AHL level were progressing in their development.

Carter let out an annoyed sigh. Apparently I wasn’t very smart, at least in his esteemed opinion, since I couldn’t keep up with his rules.

“The fire-breathing dragon comes up out of the ground and blasts you into next year,” he said, his matter-of-fact tone further emphasizing my obvious idiocy. Clearly, based on his tone, I knew nothing about fire-breathing dragons, let alone the workings of a seven-year-old boy’s mind.

Never mind the fact that I’d once been one, myself. A little boy, not a dragon. I’d only wished I were a dragon, because then I could have breathed fire all over my son-of-a-bitch father and saved both my mother and myself a hell of a lot of pain—both literally and figuratively.

Too bad dragons didn’t exist in the real world, but only in the overactive imaginations of little boys. Either way, I intended to make damn sure that Carter never needed a dragon or anyone else to rescue him. He’d never find himself in a dangerous situation that he wasn’t fully prepared to face. Not if I had anything to say about it.

“Maybe I want to step on the lines and bring out the dragon,” I replied, intentionally egging him on.

“Only if you want to die.”

“I don’t know. I bet I could train a dragon and fly on it.”

“Real dragons aren’t like cartoon dragons, Dad.” This time, the eye roll was only evident in Carter’s tone, because he was too focused on the lines painted on the pavement to bother with craning his neck up far enough to look at me.

“I thought Toothless was real,” I said in faux horror.

My son didn’t worry about answering. He was too busy jumping over the white-and-yellow parking lines outside the BOK Center, because he was scared of dragons but not of me.

Which, frankly, was how it should be, whether dragons were real or not. No kid should be scared of their father.

That was the one thing I’d promised myself when I’d married his mother and again when Carter was born—no matter what, my wife and child would never live in fear.

I wouldn’t turn out to be like my father.

I was not a monster.

Maybe things hadn’t worked out between Kinsey and me, but it wasn’t because of violence. We just hadn’t been suited to one another. Lots of marriages failed, for any number of reasons. Kinsey and I were still friends, though, and we worked together to make sure Carter would always know he was loved.

My kid would never fear me. That couldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen. There were plenty of other things in this world that could scare him. I hoped he would grow up without fear, even if I knew that wasn’t realistic. No one was completely without fear. But at least I could ensure it wasn’t me who scared him.

A car came around the corner, going too fast, and I instinctively reached out one of my long arms and tugged my son back against me. Turned out it wasn’t necessary. The driver must have seen us and swerved out of the way at the last second.

“Daaa-aaad,” Carter complained. “You made me step on the line.”

“Sorry for keeping you alive, kid. I’ll let you get run over next time, hmm? That sound better?” Because it very well might have happened.

“Just don’t make me step on the lines.”

I chuckled. “Got it.”

I supposed Kinsey and I were doing a pretty okay job with Carter if he was more scared of releasing a fire-breathing dragon from the cracks in the pavement than he was of me. Although, maybe we should try a bit harder to instill a fear of crazy drivers in him. He needed to be aware.

Since I didn’t have a wife anymore, Carter typically sat with one of the other guys’ wives or girlfriends when he was in town for my games. This time, he’d sat with Ravyn Nash, Drew’s wife, a woman he constantly told me was “cool” because she was a tattoo artist. She’d drawn a tattoo of our dog, Snoopy, on his arm using markers during intermission tonight to keep him entertained. I had a feeling he wouldn’t let me wash it off him for a week, but if we went swimming enough, the chlorine in the pools would probably take care of it before too much time had passed.

We turned the corner of the building to get to the lot where the players all parked. About half of my teammates had left ahead of me, and several others were still in the building, getting treatment for various injuries or meeting with one of the coaches to go over their performance in the game tonight and find out if they were sticking with the big club or being sent back to their developmental team.

The arena was virtually deserted at this point, other than a handful of workers who would be cleaning up until the wee hours of the morning following the mess the fans had left.  That, more than anything, had to be why I was shocked to hear shouting up ahead.

“Stupid bitch! What’d you do with the fucking keys?”

And then there was the unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh, followed by a sob that ripped my heart out because it could have come from my mother.

My insides clenched into an all-too-familiar knot.

I knew the voice.

Couldn’t place it.

Couldn’t think clearly.

But I wasn’t a little boy anymore.

I was a grown-ass man.

And I’d made sure I was big enough and strong enough to fight back when my father decided to hit either me or my mother.

In the back of my mind, I knew this wasn’t my parents, but honestly, it didn’t matter who it was.

This couldn’t happen. Not in front of me. Not if I could do something to stop it.

I couldn’t let it happen.

I damned sure wasn’t going to walk away when my kid was watching.

I hauled Carter into my arms because I could move faster carrying him than I could with him walking, and then I took off running.

“The lines!” he complained, still not catching on.

I ignored him. Someone was getting hurt.

When I came around the corner, I skidded to a stop, in shock.

Hayes “Haymaker” Lennon, our hotshot top-line left wing, was hauling his girlfriend, Natalie Turner, off the ground by her long, blond hair.

Mascara-soaked tears left track marks on her cheeks, one of them bearing an unmistakable red welt, the result of a blow, which would soon turn black and blue.

Briefly, her eyes met mine, then skittered away as if she wished she hadn’t seen me at all. She didn’t make a sound. Not so much as a peep, so eerily, unnervingly similar to the way I’d endured so many beatings before I’d decided to fight back.

When Lennon reared back his fist to strike again, she winced and squeezed her eyes closed, Carter squeaked in terror, and I lost my shit.