Where do you go once you’ve hit rock bottom?
With his world already in shambles, Andrew Nash’s life plummets even further after a freak accident on the ice exposes his deepest secret. Still unsure if he should ever return to the game he’s devoted his life to, the future Thunderbirds captain knows he isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. Meeting a talented and sexy artist changes everything for Drew.
But Ravyn Penn’s past is darker than his, and her wounds cut deeper. Drew’s looking forward, but Ravyn is stuck dwelling over a life that leaves her guilt-ridden and full of regret.
Drew’s a fighter, and he knows they need to claw their way out of the past—together—even when the future promises no guarantees. But can Ravyn let go and blindly trust him—taking a rite of passage through the darkness—to find the life they both deserve?
“I shouldn’t even be here,” I said. I tugged at the collar of my dress shirt and tie, wishing they did a better job of hiding my scars. That was a vain hope, though. The gash in my neck stretched from behind my ear almost all the way to my Adam’s apple. Unless I wanted to wear a full scarf or something else completely out of place in this drought and heat, there was no hiding it. This ugly thing was out there for the whole world to see, whether I liked it or not.
And I most definitely did not like it. Especially because it still hurt like a son of a bitch, depending on how I moved. The wound had closed and the stitches were gone, but I didn’t know if my neck would ever feel the same again. I could personally guarantee that taking a hockey skate to the throat was not in anybody’s best interests, just in case anyone out there was wondering. Not only that, but I felt like it branded me, my own personal scarlet reminder of the things I should have done differently in life before it was too late.
Dmitri Nazarenko rolled his eyes, one of the few features on his face not hidden behind his beard. He’d shaved it off at one point during the season, but now he was letting it grow back. At least so far, he seemed to be keeping it trimmed and tidy, unlike before, when he’d looked more like a lumberjack than a hockey player. “Why you shouldn’t be here? You’re my teammate. We want you here.” He shrugged.
“London hardly knows me. Why would she want me at her wedding?”
“Because I want you,” Dima said.
He was deliberately being obtuse. And my head was such a fucking mess I didn’t even take the obvious opportunity to crack a joke about Dima wanting me.
I was one of only two guys from among our Tulsa Thunderbirds teammates who had shown up here today. Ray “Razor” Chambers and his Russian wife, Viktoriya, had stuck around for the summer—Razor had said something about his wife’s citizenship status being the reason they weren’t heading to Canada, not that I’d paid much attention—so they had shown up. Razor always called her Tori. Anyway, she and Dima had a weird brother-sister sort of relationship going, so their presence at the festivities wasn’t too surprising.
The rest of the team had gone back to their off-season homes to spend the summer, and since Dima and London wanted to keep it small, they hadn’t invited everyone to come back for the ceremony. Because most of the guys probably would have come if he’d invited them.
London’s family was all present, and a few of her coworkers had come to support her on her big day. Dima had flown in his best friend, Sergei Mironov, and Sergei’s mother from Siberia. Otherwise, there were only a smattering of their friends and acquaintances.
Under normal circumstances, I would be gone, too, spending the summer with my family in Victoria and not in this hot, dry misery. But this off-season was anything but normal, and the drought that blanketed all of Oklahoma was far from the only reason. My mother would tell me I was acting like a Grumpy Gus. She’d probably be right.
There was no getting around it. I’d already been in a bad enough mood well before my injury in the final game of the regular season due to my own marriage falling apart. But now it wasn’t just my marriage that was gone; it was my entire life. Or at least my life as I had always known it.
The officiant signaled to Dima that he was ready to begin, so instead of arguing with Dima any more than I had been, I got out of the way and took a seat near the back.
There weren’t too many people here, but at least if I stayed away from the rest of them, I couldn’t cast too heavy a pall over the proceedings. I felt like that was all I did these days. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to be around me, because I sure as hell didn’t.
Anyway, if I stayed near the back, I could maybe sneak out early without anyone noticing. It was as good a plan as any, now that I’d gone and shown up.
Stupid of me. I should’ve just stayed home. That had been my original plan, until Razor had sent me a where the fuck are you and why can’t you act like a decent fucking human being for once text about thirty minutes ago, and I’d thrown on the first suit I could find in my closet and rushed out the door into the sweltering Tulsa heat.
And it was only May. The locals made sure to tell me how much hotter July and August would be at every opportunity they got. Just what I wanted to hear. Maybe by then, at least, we would get some rain. I hoped so, although I was starting to doubt it. We hadn’t had any measurable accumulation since a freak snowstorm around Christmas, and that didn’t look like it would be changing anytime soon. The heat was the real kicker, though. Sweat made my scar itch, which didn’t make a lick of sense to me. Must be all in my head.
Everyone around me settled into their seats and the music started. London came down the aisle holding her wedding gown out of the way while her father pushed her wheelchair. I tried to smile and be happy, but it didn’t work out very well. All I wanted to do was get the fuck out of there and find my way to a bar. Or better yet, the bottle of Jameson waiting for me at home. A half dozen shots might not give me the answers I wanted, but at least I wouldn’t hurt so much.
For a while.
The pain always came back, sharper and stronger than ever—and this time, I didn’t mean physical pain.
Before I knew it, Dima and London were making their way back down the aisle together—this time as husband and wife—and I’d missed my chance to make a silent escape. Dima caught my eye and jerked his head toward the other room, where the reception was to be held.
I hoped they would have alcohol, but knowing Dima, that seemed more than unlikely. I’d almost never seen the guy with so much as a beer in his hand.
Fuck, but this was turning into a miserable day.
The other wedding guests filed past me, some laughing, others crying, but they all looked genuinely happy to be present for such an occasion. Razor and Tori were two of the last ones to head in that direction. Razor stopped and gave me a significant look.
I shook my head. “No one’ll miss me if I don’t go in there.” Just like no one would miss me if I never played hockey again. Not that I intended to say that out loud.
Saying the words would only hasten the likelihood of that coming to pass, and then what would I have left to live for? No marriage. No hockey. No reason to be in this fucking hellhole any longer.
“You need to get the fuck over yourself,” he shot back. “Come on. If I have to go, you do, too.”
I glowered, but I followed him in, finding a quiet table well away from the happy wedding-goers where I could sulk in peace. The photographer started directing people around to get her shots—not something I needed to be part of, at any rate—so I took out my cell phone and started playing a game to zone out. That should be a strong enough sign to leave me the hell alone if anyone got any bright ideas about coming over to chat me up.
Or so I thought. It worked well enough at first, but I lost track of time playing Bejeweled Blitz repeatedly, and suddenly London had wheeled up and parked her chair next to me.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
I shot my eyes over to her, half glaring, half trying to tamp down on the anger building within me. Because it wasn’t her fault I was pissed off at the world. I knew that, but she was the one sitting there in the line of fire. I had to rein it in before I did something stupid. “Just playing a game,” I bit off, staring down at the screen again.
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
Actually, I didn’t know any such fucking thing. “Then what the hell do you mean?”
“I mean what are you doing with your life? Because you’ve been running off and hiding from the world ever since—”
“I’m not hiding,” I interrupted.
“Bullshit you’re not. Dima and I have asked you to come over for dinner at least a dozen times since the end of the season, and you haven’t come once. I know for a fact that Hunter and Tallie asked you to do some things with them before they left on vacation, and you didn’t go. Razor said he and Tori even went to your place and pounded on your door, but you pretended you weren’t home, even though your car was in the driveway.”
“So I don’t want to talk to anyone. So what?”
“So everyone’s worried about you.”
“Why the hell is anyone worried about me? I’m still the same asshole I’ve always been. I’m fine. You know who you should be worried about? Zee, all right? He’s the one who might be all fucked up because of this.”
Eric “Zee” Zellinger was the team captain of the Thunderbirds. And he’d been the guy to put his bare hands over my gushing wound to stop the bleeding—without knowing that I was HIV-positive until it was too late.
If he ended up contracting HIV, too… I’d never be able to live with myself.
“He’s not the one who nearly died out on the ice,” London pointed out. She was entirely too calm and making too damned much sense for my peace of mind. I wanted to tell her to leave me the fuck alone, but that probably wouldn’t go over too well. Especially since it was her wedding day. Why the hell she wanted to pester me instead of enjoying herself on a day like this was beyond my comprehension, but no one asked for my advice or opinion about how she should spend her time.
I tossed my phone on the table and shoved back in my chair, crossing my arms in front of me. Yes, I realized I was acting like a temper-tantrum-throwing toddler. No, I didn’t care.
“What does it matter to you?” I shot off.
“In case you’ve forgotten, I had a bad accident in a hockey game, too.” She raised a brow and pointed at her chair. “That’s how I ended up like this. So I might know a thing or two about what you’re going through.”
No one knew what I was going through. Not really. Yeah, there had been other people who’d had life-threatening injuries through playing hockey. And there were lots of other people living with HIV, like I was, through no fault of their own. Hell, millions of people had gone through divorce, too. But put them all together? I was in this boat all alone. I glowered at her in response.
“What are you doing Tuesday?” she asked, ignoring my insolence.
I shrugged. The real answer was nothing, and I wanted to keep it that way, but I didn’t feel like cooperating with her on any score right now.
“Good,” she said, like I’d answered her after all. She picked up one of the napkins from the center of the table and took a pen out of the handbag on her lap, then scribbled something on it. “That’s the address for my community center. Be there at nine.”
“Why the hell would I want to do that? And shouldn’t you and Dima be gone on a honeymoon right about then?”
“You’ll do it because I’ll hunt you down and annoy the crap out of you otherwise. And we’re doing our honeymoon next month. I didn’t have a passport, so we had to get that straightened out before we can go to Russia.”
I rolled my eyes. “If you think you’re going to get me happy about life again by making me chaperone some kids’ athletic event or something—”
“It’s not to have you help out,” London said, backing her chair away from the table. “Right now, you don’t have any business helping anyone else. It’s so we can help you.” Then she turned and was gone before I could tell her there wasn’t any help for me, and I didn’t want anyone’s fucking help even if there was, so she could go shove it.
Dima took a seat next to me before I could storm out of the building. “She’s mouthy,” he said. “And pushy. Thinks she knows everything.”
“Why the hell did you marry her, then?”
He grinned and winked. “I like her mouthy. Like her pushing my buttons.”
“Tell her to leave mine alone, thanks,” I ground out. “I didn’t sign on for this.” You couldn’t pick your in-laws in life, and you also couldn’t pick the people your friends married. Which was too bad. Some guys made questionable choices for themselves. I should know. I’d done it.
Dima looked down at the napkin and her scrawled writing. “That’s her community center. You should go. They can help.”
“I don’t want any fucking help.”
“Too fucking bad.”
“And why’s that?” I demanded, my exasperation threatening to spill over and push me into causing a scene. I needed to get the hell out of here. Sooner, rather than later.
“Because you don’t get help, Tallie will join London. They might bring Viktoriya in, too.” He shook his head. “Three pushy women. Too much for any man to take.” Then he shuddered visibly.
“You could help by keeping yours out of it,” I pointed out.
Dima just laughed and got up. “Do what London tells you. Much easier than fighting with her. Besides, I always end up fucking her after we fight, and no chance in hell I’m letting you fuck my wife.” Then he stalked off like a great big, lumbering, bearded bear.
Son of a bitch. All I wanted to do was waste away in peace, but the lot of them were bound and determined to force me out of my funk.
One time. I’d go to London’s community center one time, prove to myself that there was no help for me, and then put it behind me.
But that was all I could promise—to myself or anyone else.