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Welcome to the blog of Catherine Gayle, USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and Regency Romance.

Sneak Peek: Neutral Zone

November 06, 2017

 

                      Chapter One

                                        Luke

“Cheer up, buttercup,” Dani said, pulling out a chair at our parents’ dining room table and sitting across from me with a smirk. She was my younger sister—almost twenty-one to my almost twenty-four—and she had always had a knack for getting on my last fucking nerve.

Today was proving to be no different.

It was just like during all those long summer vacations in the back of our parents’ car, driving across the country to see whatever national park or monument they’d decided we needed to see.

And, just like in those days, I was sorely tempted to yank on Dani’s hair or pinch her arm until she cried. But she was apparently pregnant, and I doubted her husband, Cody Williams, would appreciate me doing anything of the sort.

Too bad pregnancy hadn’t made my little sister any more tolerable, although a guy could hope that maybe motherhood would do the trick. Lord knew nothing else had.

Instead of making her cry, I glowered at my food. “Why the hell should I cheer up? I still don’t have a contract.” I stabbed at the sliced berries on my plate, but one of the fuckers slipped away from my fork and shot across the table like a projectile. Would’ve served Dani right if it’d hit her, but I had no such luck.

Not in any area of my life, apparently.

The berry landed on the table in front of her. She picked it up and popped it in her mouth. “Yeah, but Dad said there’ll be all sorts of pro scouts hanging around during training camp. Someone’ll notice you. They have to. Everyone knows who you are, so they just need to see what you can do.”

Fat chance of that happening. “They already had plenty of opportunities to see what I can do. They saw. They didn’t care. They moved on.” But I still hadn’t managed to move on yet. Hell, I might never manage it, because playing hockey was the only thing I’d ever envisioned myself doing with my life.

I’d played four years of college hockey at the University of Minnesota, and no pro team in North America had taken a chance on signing me to a contract after graduation—not even any of the minor-minor-league teams, the ones that paid a hundred bucks a week and shipped their teams around on broken-down busses, the ones where fans got into beer-tossing fights in the stands because that sort of thing was more entertaining than the action on the ice.

Then I’d gone off to play for a season in Germany. It’d gone well enough, I’d thought. But not a single damned NHL scout had done so much as talk to the coaches about me. They’d been around my games. They’d noticed some of my teammates. But none of them had given a shit about me.

I’d tried to catch the attention of some of the bigger European leagues, like the Swedish Elite League and the KHL in Russia. No dice. They didn’t care.

If none of them were interested, then there was little wonder why no NHL team wanted anything to do with me.

And I knew exactly why all of these teams weren’t interested, too. It had nothing to do with me not being good enough and everything to do with me not being straight enough. I’d officially come out of the closet in my senior year of college, and all of a sudden, scouts had stopped coming to watch me play.

Poof. Gone, just like magic. No one had any interest in the gay kid.

Sure, everyone said my sexual orientation had nothing to do with it, but it was the only explanation that made sense to me. Maybe I wasn’t as skilled as my father had been, but I had the same fucking work ethic and I wasn’t a damned liability on the ice. I knew how to be a good teammate, and no one tried harder than me. No one wanted it more than me. Playing pro hockey was the only thing I’d ever dreamed of, for as long as I could remember.

There were plenty of guys playing in the NHL who weren’t as skilled as I was and even more who didn’t put in the kind of effort I did on a daily basis. So why had they been given a shot, but not me?

I reached across the table and grabbed another of Mom’s biscuits, loading it up with butter and some jalapeño jelly, choosing to stuff that in my face rather than speak to Dani. Then I scooped another healthy pile of scrambled eggs onto my plate, stacked a few sausages next to the eggs, grabbed a banana, and refilled my coffee cup before heading outside with my breakfast. I’d much prefer to gorge myself in peace and quiet rather than having to listen to Dani try to cheer me up.

The screen door swung shut behind me. I set all my food down on the table beneath the umbrella and pulled one of the chairs closer, sitting with my back to my parents’ house.

No sooner did I have myself situated than the screen door opened and slammed shut again.

“Seriously, Dani, I’m not in the—”

“Can’t say I blame you,” her husband said, which surprised me just enough that I turned around to see with my own eyes that it was Cody Williams and not my sister. We all called him Harry because he looked so damned much like the British prince—well, everyone except Dani called him that, at least. Harry took a seat next to me and gave me a commiserating look, passing a beer into my hands and opening another for himself.

“Isn’t it a bit early in the day for a beer?”

“Not if you have to deal with Dani.”

I snort-laughed. “Truth.”

“Pregnancy hormones are making her more obnoxious than normal. Or at least I’m choosing to blame it on the hormones.”

“I don’t know how you live with her.”

“Some days, I don’t either. But other days…” He shrugged. “We’re good together. Good for each other.”

“Well, I’m just glad she’s in your hair and not mine.”

“She’s got a point, though,” Harry said.

I glowered at him over my coffee mug, then eyed the beer and opted for that, instead. “I’m not willing to concede anything when it comes to Dani.”

“Yeah. Siblings.” He grinned and leaned back in his chair, teetering on the back legs the way all the guys and I used to do in elementary school. “Good thing we don’t have to live with them anymore as adults, even though we can’t quite live without them, either.”

“Your sisters are a hell of a lot easier to deal with than mine.” I’d met them briefly last year, when I’d been home from Germany for his and Dani’s wedding. His sisters were normal. Dani…well, Dani was about as bullheaded and obstinate as they come.

“Every family has a unique dynamic,” he said.

I snorted. “Yeah. Unique. That’s what we’ll call her.”

“Seriously, though. Come skate with us. Quite a few of the boys are back in town already. We’re all getting ready for the new season. Lots of scouts will be around. You never know what’ll happen.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

But he was wrong. I knew exactly what would happen.

Nothing.

Not a damned thing would come from me skating with those guys.

Maybe it’d help me get into game shape, but what good would that do me if I wouldn’t be getting into any games?

So even though I’d agreed to go, I wasn’t sure I would.

He raised a brow. “You don’t sound like you’re going to follow through with it. Do I need to get a few of the boys over here to drag you up to the ice?”

In lieu of answering, I downed about half my beer.

“Mm hmm,” he said, scowling. But then he took another swig of his beer and leaned forward. “And you’re coming with us tonight, too.”

“Tonight?”

“For karaoke. We’re all going to Voicebox.”

Karaoke? Oh, hell no. That seemed like my worst nightmare come to life. Or maybe my second-worst nightmare, since I was already living the absolute worst. “Sounds like something Dani dreamed up,” I muttered.

“Yep. And she’s making me go, so I’m making you go. Well, technically, I’m inviting you. But if you don’t get off your ass and come along of your own free will, I’ll get Jonny to take care of it for us. You’re coming.”

Jonny was better known as Cam Johnson—the Storm’s resident enforcer. The guy could easily bench-press me if he wanted to—and I wasn’t exactly small.

Lovely.

“I guess I’m coming to karaoke tonight, then.”

“I guess you are.”

“Just don’t expect me to get on stage and sing,” I said.

“I think your sister’s going to make us all do it.”

“Dani?” Seemed like something my younger sister would do. She’d always been a bit of a brat. Actually, that was putting it mildly.

“No, Katie.”

Katie was the singer in the family.

And Harry sounded miserable about the thought, unless I was sorely mistaken.

“Dani’s teaming up with her, though,” he said. “Combined, they’re a force to be reckoned with.”

“Don’t I know it,” I grumbled. “I’ve had to live with the pair of them a hell of a lot longer than you have.”

“Yeah. So in other words, you know you’re getting up there and singing, whether you like it or not.”

Fuck. Looked like I was going to karaoke night.

                                                               Cole

 

“I kissed a boy, and I liked it,” Koz sang into the mic, drunk off his ass while the rest of us looked on in some combination of amusement, disgust, and horror. I was caught between amusement and horror, but disgust was starting to creep into the equation. He kept making all sorts of crude gestures as he sang, grabbing his balls and flicking his tongue toward anyone who dared to look.

Several of the guys’ wives and girlfriends rolled their eyes and went back to a table far away from the karaoke stage, where a few of the other Portland Storm WAGs had already gathered.

“Ignore him,” Keith Burns said next to me, his voice just loud enough to carry over the din of the karaoke club. He took another swig of his beer and tugged his wife, Brie, closer to his side.

“Always do,” I replied. Ignoring Koz was something of a full-time job for me. Hell, for a lot of the guys on the team, actually. If he weren’t such an effective pest on the ice, we might not be so willing to put up with his antics off it. But there was something to be said for the way he could get under the skin of just about anyone on the opposing team at any time he wanted.

“He’s just being a fucking ass,” Burnzie said.

“When is he not an ass?” I demanded.

He shrugged. “Good point.”

“The only point that matters,” Brie put in.

Burnzie and Brie had come back to Portland early for the new hockey season because Brie was due to pop with their next baby at any moment, and they didn’t want to be in the middle of packing and moving when that happened.

I was back early because I was working out with the team’s trainers and taking more dance classes at Brie’s studio, all in the name of improving my core stability so I could be more effective on the ice. It’d been working out well so far, but I knew I still had a good deal of room for growth.

A lot of the other guys with families had already returned because their kids were starting school and whatnot.

None of us could figure out why Koz was here already, though.

He should be in Cancun or Greece or somewhere else, having a good time and being a jackass, as usual—but doing it far away from the rest of us. Somewhere we didn’t have to put up with it yet.

Somewhere he’d be out of my reach.

He was too damned close right now. It wouldn’t take very many steps for me to grab him off the stage and strangle him—a thought that made me a bit too happy.

Being a jackass was about the only thing he was good at other than playing hockey. Lucky for him he could make a living from hockey.

“When is Babs going to do something about that guy?” I asked, trying to sound casual even though all of us knew it was anything but a passing question. Babs, otherwise known as Jamie Babcock—the Storm’s captain—was the only guy on the team who could keep Koz in line. For the rest of us, it was all we could do to keep from ripping the guy’s head off about fifteen times a day—or double that amount on a bad day.

“Do you honestly think anyone can rein him in?” Burnzie asked. Then he flagged down a waiter and signaled for another round.

Brie gave me a commiserating look. “They just got back from Babcock Central, oohing and aahing over Cadence’s sonogram. He’s probably not in the mood to do anything about Koz right now.”

Cadence was married to Levi “501” Babcock, younger brother to the aforementioned team captain, and another of our teammates.

The waiter dropped off our drinks.

I reached for my wallet, but Burnzie shook his head. “It’s on me. Anyone who has to suffer through that fool’s shenanigans deserves a free beer,” he said, indicating Koz up on stage. He shoved a credit card into the waiter’s hand.

“Or three,” Brie added. She put a hand on the small of her back and shifted, a look of complete discomfort on her face.

Normally I liked to pay my way, but tonight I was just frustrated and pissed off enough to let Burnzie buy me a couple of rounds. “So Cadence is pregnant, huh?” I asked, trying to carry on the conversation and forget about Koz. Not easy, since the douchebag was still flailing all over the stage to a mixture of hilarity and shock from the audience.

“Yeah, but I don’t think I’d say too much in front of Babs and Katie,” Burnzie said.

Our captain and his wife had been trying—unsuccessfully—to have a baby for a while now. At least for a few years. Anyone paying attention could see how it was wearing on them and straining their relationship.

I nodded my understanding and thought about drinking my beer.

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that right now,” Brie said quietly, but her gaze had shifted to somewhere behind me.

I casually looked in the same direction and found Luke Weber—Katie’s younger brother and the son of one of our coaches—heading our way.

But Luke wasn’t merely part of the extended Storm family. He was also a hockey player.

And he was gay.

Like me.

Luke had officially come out of the closet not long before I did. His revelation had taken the hockey world by storm, blazing the trail for me to follow. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d have had the balls to do it until after I’d retired if he hadn’t come out first.

I sure as hell never intended to. It was supposed to be my little secret—well, mine and a few select friends and family—until having my sexual orientation out in the open wasn’t likely to have an effect on my career any longer.

Life has a way of screwing up even the best-laid plans, though. I didn’t regret coming out. Not really. My teammates had been great about it, and while there were a few jackasses around the league, for the most part it wasn’t an issue. No one cared.

But Luke had opened that door, and then I’d followed him through it, and there was no going back.

Not for either of us.

Luke plopped down in the empty seat next to me, looking miserable. Adorably miserable. Not that I had any business thinking of him as adorable, but his pout made me think things I had no business thinking.

I shoved my beer in his direction since I hadn’t started drinking it yet. The guy looked like he could use it more than I could. And it gave me something to do other than think about kissing the pout off his face. Now was not the time. Hell, there would never be a right time for that. And this definitely wasn’t the place. But a beer? Yeah, I could give him a beer.

He raised a brow.

“Rough day?” I asked.

He scowled.  “How much longer do you think I have to stay so my sisters will get off my case?”

“Depends why they’re on your case,” Brie said.

“Doesn’t matter. They’re my sisters. It’s their favorite pastime—giving me a hard time.”

“Haven’t seen you up on stage yet,” Burnzie pointed out. “I think they’ll throw a fit if you try to weasel your way out of it.”

“I don’t care. I’m not making a fool of myself just to appease them,” Luke shot back. “The talent gene skipped over me.”

Bullshit, I thought to myself. Luke had plenty of talent. The guy was a damned good hockey player. He was just undersized, and this was a tough business to make it in. Very few smaller hockey players got a shot because there was always someone bigger and faster.

“Might make your life easier,” I pointed out. I wished I had sisters like his, who’d be on my case about things. A family who cared. The guy had it all—he just didn’t realize it.

“Just be glad you’re not related to them,” Luke said.

I couldn’t help but let out a small laugh, despite the sharp, sudden-onset pang of longing I felt. I’d give my left nut to have sisters and parents like his. But I managed to pull myself together before I said anything about it. This wasn’t about me; it was about him. “You don’t have to go along with them, either,” I said.

“I do if I want to have peace.”

Burnzie snorted. “Peace is overrated.”

Koz was finishing up his song, which meant Katie and Dani were bound to be on the hunt for someone to force onto the stage next. I quickly scanned the dark room, trying to spot them. Sure enough, they had their heads together and were looking our way—but a sea of bodies would prevent them from getting to us too quickly.

“Wanna make a run for it before they grab you?” I asked.

His face lit up for a moment, but then he came crashing back down again. “I’ve had too much to drink. I can’t drive.”

“Good thing I’m sober,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah?” He glanced back over to where his sisters had their heads together, and then quickly downed the rest of the beer. “Let’s go.”

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