Center Ice ONLY
a Corrigan Falls Raiders novel by Cate Cameron
The hometown hockey hero won’t know what hit him…
Karen Webber is in small-town hell. After her mother’s death, she moved to Corrigan Falls to live with strangers—her dad and his perfect, shiny new family—and there doesn’t seem to be room for a city girl with a chip on her shoulder. The only person who makes her feel like a real human being is Tyler MacDonald.
But Karen isn’t interested in starting something with a player. And that’s all she keeps hearing about Tyler.
Corrigan Falls is a hockey town, and Tyler’s the star player. But the viselike pressure from his father and his agent are sending him dangerously close to the edge. All people see is hockey—except Karen. Now they’ve managed to find something in each other that they both desperately need. And for the first time, Tyler is playing for keeps…
Title: Center Ice
Series: Corrigan Falls Raiders, #1
Author: Cate Cameron
Genre: Young Adult
Length: 258 pages
Release Date: May 2015
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
An Excerpt from:
by Cate Cameron
Copyright © 2015 by Cate Cameron. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
– Karen –
The squirrel attacked on the sixth day. Five days of peaceful, almost solitary running, and then…carnage.
Well, that might be a little strong. But those little guys have sharp claws, and I was wearing shorts. Also, I had no idea what to do. I’d been running along just fine, concentrating on my breathing as I started up the steep hill, and then there was a blur of movement, a painful scratching on my leg, and I looked down to see a pair of beady little rodent eyes staring right back at me from halfway up my thigh.
I may have made a noise, maybe something like a panicked giraffe. And then I possibly did a strange little dance, trying to stomp hard enough to shake the squirrel loose. The movement just made him hang on even tighter, digging his claws farther into my exposed skin. “Get off,” I yelled at him. “I’m not a tree!”
“Stand still.” The voice was confident and male, and my inner feminist wanted to stomp a little harder just to show that I wasn’t taking his orders. But standing still kind of made sense, so I froze, then peeked back over my shoulder. I recognized the guy, of course. He’d been the only other person I’d ever seen in the park this early in the morning, circling around the same route I used. About my age and a pretty good runner. Very fit. I tried not to notice how he was even better looking up close and hoped that in addition to being gorgeous he was also good with rodents.
“He just jumped on me, for no reason,” I said. I guess I didn’t want this guy to think I’d been provoking the squirrels? “Don’t hurt him,” I added. I was remembering some of the teenage boys I knew, assholes who’d probably take an incident like this as an excuse to prove their manhood with violence and gore.
The guy ignored me. He scooped a stick up from the side of the path, about three feet long and almost as thick as my wrist.
“No, don’t hit him!” I wondered if I’d be able to outrun the guy with a squirrel firmly attached to my thigh.
He continued to ignore me. He came in close and brought the stick right up to the squirrel, like athletes do when they’re lining up for a hard swing. But instead of pulling the stick back, he edged it down a little, slow and steady. “She’s not a tree,” the guy said, and there was maybe the hint of a laugh in his voice, as if he knew he was echoing my ridiculous words. “Come on, little guy. Back to the forest.” The stick kept moving, and the squirrel put one forefoot on it and then the other. He was still staring at me, and I started to wonder whether he was trying to communicate. My babies are trapped! I need your help! Or maybe something less immediate: developers want to destroy my habitat; you must STOP them. But probably he was just a crazy little rodent. When the stick got as far as his hind legs, there was a moment when it really seemed like he might be about to make a leap further up, fighting his way onto my shorts—spandex, thankfully, so I didn’t have to worry about him burrowing beneath the fabric—but instead he flicked his tail, spun around, and leaped off me. He scrambled up the nearest trunk and started this weird chirping, staring down at us in outrage.
“He’s cussing you out,” the guy said.
“Not me! He liked me. He’s swearing at you.”
“Yeah, probably,” the guy admitted. He sounded like he was used to people swearing at him, which made no damned sense, because he was gorgeous and a hero. He crouched down and looked at my thigh. “No blood, but you’ve got some scratches. Looks like they’re swelling up a bit. Are you allergic?”
“To squirrels?” I squinted at him to see if he was serious. “How would I know that? I mean, I’ve never had a reaction to squirrel scratches in the past, but…”
“Guess you’re about to find out.” He straightened up. His shoulders were really wide, and I wondered if I’d underestimated his age. His face seemed young, but most guys my age are still pretty skinny. He wasn’t fat, for sure, but there was more muscle on him than I was used to seeing. And possibly I’d picked the wrong time to notice that, because he was looking at me as if he thought maybe I was going into shock or something. “You okay?”
“Yes,” I said automatically. I took a careful step forward along the path. “Doesn’t hurt.”
“You should rinse it off.” He frowned. “Maybe. I mean, I’m not a doctor. I have no idea what you should do. But if you want to rinse it off, I can take you to the creek.”
“There’s a creek?” Five days in this park with no squirrel attacks and no knowledge of a creek. Apparently day six was all about exposure to new things.
“Yeah. There’s a path to it just up here.”
“I don’t want to interrupt your run…”
“I can walk you back to the fountain, if you’d rather.”
I hate myself at times like these. It’s not weak to take a little help, and it doesn’t mean I’m pathetic and needy if I let someone do something for me. But sometimes it’s like I’m psychologically unable to accept assistance. “No, I’m fine. I’ll go rinse it off in the fountain, but I don’t need help.” At least I was self-aware enough to realize how stupid that comment was. “I mean, I appreciate your help. Before, with the stick…that was excellent. And I’m really glad you didn’t hurt him. But I’m okay now.”
His stare was almost as intense as the squirrel’s, but with him I got the feeling he was trying to receive information, not send it. “Okay,” he finally said.
He watched me as I started walking, and I gave him a little wave and said, “Thanks again,” then turned resolutely and started jogging. The scratches didn’t hurt, but they were pretty itchy. I wondered how many people are walking around this world with an undiscovered allergy to squirrel scratches. I kept jogging until I was sure I was out of the guy’s sight, and then I slowed to a walk.
Attacked by a squirrel.
It was like picking a scab, and I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I let myself imagine how I’d tell the story to my mom. She’d already have heard about the cute boy, of course, and she’d probably have been bugging me to talk to him. “You’re so shy, Karenina,” she’d have said. For the record, my name is Karen, not Karenina, and my mom was the one who named me, so you’d think she of all people would have respected her own choice, but apparently not. Mom was a dancer, and I was named after a famous Canadian ballerina, which is fine, but apparently my mother had realized too late that the ballerina was elegant and graceful despite her name, not because of it. But Mom had never seen me as anything but beautiful, and she’d apparently decided to give me a more glamorous nickname to match. “Talk to him, Karenina. What’s the worst that could happen?”
That’s what she would have already been saying, and then when I told her about the squirrel, she’d have laughed and been excited, and scolded me a little for turning down the help. “If a handsome gentleman offers you assistance, why not take it?”
Once, in real life, I’d responded to a similar statement by pointing out what had happened to her when she’d let herself be taken in by a handsome gentleman, when she was only a couple years older than I was then. She’d frowned, then leaned forward and kissed my temple, hard. “I got you,” she’d said fiercely. “I have no regrets.”
By the time I got to the fountain, I was crying, thinking of the conversation I’d never get to have. I splashed some water on my face, first, and tried to get myself under control. Then I hoisted my leg up and rinsed off the scratches. They were nasty-looking, bright pink ridges with a thin white line down the middle of them. I poked at them because it felt better to have pain on the outside of my body, then splashed some more water on my face and headed out of the park. I was tempted to run again and wear off more of my negative energy, but I thought I’d better go find an antihistamine in case this squirrel allergy turned into a real problem.
When I got back to the house, Will was awake and in the kitchen. “Do you want breakfast?” he asked. He was eating a bowl of cold cereal, which I could easily find for myself, so it was sort of a weird question. I wondered what he’d have said if I’d asked for bacon and eggs or waffles or something. But he was my father, at least in an accidental-sperm-donor sense, and I guess he was trying to take care of me.
“I’ll have something later. Do you have Benadryl?”
“Allergies?” He sounded concerned, but I had no patience for that bullshit.
“Nothing serious. I always get them this time of year. Not that you’d know about that.” I smiled sweetly and shifted around a little so he wouldn’t be able to see the lines on my leg. “So, is there Benadryl somewhere, or should I add that to Natalie’s list?” Natalie was Will’s wife, mother of his other children, and it seemed to work best if we kept communication with each other in written form.
“I’ll check the master bathroom,” Will said, setting his bowl down on the counter. “The kids don’t have allergies, so it wouldn’t be in theirs.”
“Of course no allergies,” I agreed. That would be a flaw, and imperfections were not allowed in this household. I was tempted to find a way to expose them to angry squirrels just to test the theory, but it seemed like a pretty complicated plan would be required.
I followed Will out to the bottom of the staircase and waited for him there. I’d never been upstairs in this house.
I mean, I’d only lived there for about a week, so it wasn’t a huge deal. My bedroom and a small bathroom were in the basement, food and the doors to outside were on the main floor…that was all I needed. And absolutely all I wanted. These people were strangers, and there was no need for me to see their bedrooms. Not unless I was putting squirrels between their sheets.
Will came back downstairs with empty hands. “I couldn’t find anything,” he said. “Is it bad? Do you want me to drive you to the drug store?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m fine,” I said pathetically. I actually was; washing the scratches in the fountain had been a really good idea, because they were way less puffy and itchy than they had been.
“I’m sure Natalie can pick something up for you later today, if you just tell her what you need.”
Another sad nod. “Okay.” I turned and took a few steps toward the basement stairs, but I stopped when he said my name.
“Are you okay?” he asked, moving closer. “I don’t just mean the allergies. Overall, I mean. Natalie and I were thinking that you might want to talk to somebody.” He must have seen the expression on my face, because he stopped walking. “I mean, we’re both here for you, of course. But if you wanted to see somebody else…a professional…we could set that up for you. If you wanted.”
“Because of what? Because I’m some sort of deviant or something?” I couldn’t believe these people. “Seriously? Why don’t you all go to ‘a professional’? You could talk about your compulsive need for perfection. Or what it’s like to have a kid you never bothered to meet suddenly show up on your doorstep.”
“Maybe I should.” It was seven o’clock in the morning, but he already looked tired. “I could go with you, if you wanted. Maybe Natalie, too, or even the kids. We’re in a strange situation here, Karen, and there’s nothing wrong with getting some help with it.”
And there it was again. Getting help. But if I hadn’t taken it from the hot runner, I was not going to take it from some dried up old therapist. “If you guys need help, go for it. But I’m fine.” I whirled and stomped down the stairs to the basement, keeping my head carefully turned so he couldn’t see my face. Realizing that a messed-up situation was messed up did not mean that there was something wrong with me. The rest of them could cruise around with smiles painted on their faces if they wanted to, but I wasn’t going to lie that way. My mother was dead, I was living in small-town hell with a father I’d never even met until the day before the funeral, and his whole family hated me. A therapist wasn’t going to help with any of that. Nothing was going to help with any of that.
I pulled my phone out and punched the familiar codes in, then held it to my ear. The voice was familiar, light and easy. “Hi, Karenina. I’m going to be a bit late tonight. If you go to bed before I get home, sleep tight! I’ll see you in the morning.”
A simple message. My mother’s last words to me. And they’d been a lie. Not deliberately, of course, but she hadn’t seen me in the morning. She’d never seen me again.
My phone asked me if I wanted to delete or save, and I hit save, then replayed the message. I tried to pretend it was real. I closed my eyes, lay back in the bed, and imagined I was back at home, in our funky little apartment in the city. I was sleepy, so I’d go to bed early, and when I woke up the next morning, I’d see my mom.
I played the message again, and again.
And then I opened my eyes. My imagination couldn’t change reality. I couldn’t go to the past. I was stuck in the present. And I wasn’t sure how the hell I was going to get through the future.
– Tyler –
“Move it, MacDonald! You need to be faster than that!”
I forced my legs to keep moving, driving forward over the smooth white ice. I was keeping up with my line mates, but the coach was right; I needed to be faster.
I put on enough speed to finish the drill a few strides ahead of the rest of my line and then I bent over, my stick braced on my knees as I gasped for breath. I didn’t look up when I felt a body run into the boards beside me, and I knew it was Winslow as soon as I heard his ragged breathing.
“Out of the way,” Coach bellowed at us, and we managed to push ourselves off to the side of the rink just as five other heavily padded players charged past the goal line and slammed their gloved fists down on the ice. I straightened up and forced myself to watch number 52, the center, racing back to the other end of the ice. I’d need a stopwatch to be sure, but I didn’t think he was quite as fast as I was. He might end up being my replacement, but hopefully he wasn’t going to push me out of my spot quite yet.
“He’s not a playmaker,” Winslow said from beside me. He knew me well enough to know who I’d been watching. “He doesn’t have your instincts.”
That would be really comforting, if it were true. Speed and strength could be developed, and Christiansen, the rookie center, was almost two years younger than I was; if he was nearly as fast and strong as me now, he’d almost certainly be faster and stronger by the time he was my age. But an instinct for the game was something that players either had or didn’t; it could be developed, maybe, but not created. But I wasn’t sure Winslow was right about Christiansen’s instincts. “Let’s get him drunk tonight, and see how fast he is when he’s skating with a hangover.”
Winslow grinned at me. He was my best friend, and he knew that I wasn’t quite that much of an asshole. “You’ll be fine, Mac,” he said and glided a few feet away.
I’d be fine. Yeah, if I could just do as I was told, turn myself into a hockey machine, focus on the game, not let myself get distracted by that girl in the park, the way her hair moved as she ran, the way she’d been a bit of a smart ass about the allergies thing, the way—
Then the coaches were yelling again, and we got back to work. I didn’t have time to think about anything but drills and skills for the next couple hours, and that was fine by me. It was weird to be feeling like I was over-the hill when I wasn’t even eighteen yet, but if I started thinking about all the young guys coming up behind me, it tended to freak me out.
I was showered and just pulling my clothes on after practice when Coach Nichols waved me into his office. I followed reluctantly; there was no way of avoiding the conversation, but that didn’t mean I was looking forward to it.
I was the fourth person in a room that had originally been a storage closet, and there were only three chairs: one behind the coach’s desk, and two on my side, where my father and my agent sat impatiently. They’d been in the stands for the practice and had obviously been comparing notes.
My agent, Brett Gaviston, didn’t waste time on formalities. “I need to see more out of you, Tyler. If I’m going to get you where you want to be, I need you to put at least a little effort in. I can’t just carry you to the NHL.”
I wanted to point out that I’d been the one sprinting around the ice for the last two and a half hours while he sat in the stands and let himself be courted by the dads of other players, but I kept my mouth shut. I’d long ago learned that there was no point.
“You need to be dominant,” my father said. “Even in practice. You should have been carrying that team around on your back. This is the Ontario Hockey League, Tyler. It’s the biggest supplier of NHL talent in the world! Every kid in that locker room wants to get to the show, and every kid out there is working for it. Are you?” He gave me a disgusted glare. “This ain’t the bush leagues, son.”
The bush leagues were the only place he’d ever played himself, but somehow he was an expert on all things hockey.
But, again, there was no point in me opening my mouth.
“You need to understand that I put my reputation on the line with every player I represent,” Mr. Gaviston said. “If I recommend you to a team, if I sell you to a team and you go down there and you’re lazy and uncommitted to the game, I look bad. I don’t want to look bad, Tyler.”
“You were supposed to be keeping in shape over the summer.” My dad squinted at me as if trying to see the muscle definition beneath my clothes. “That was the deal when I let you stay down here. You did the clinics, so that was something, but what were you doing the rest of the time? If you’d been at home, you know you’d have been working your ass off. Travis was working his ass off, and he’s only thirteen. I expect you to be a leader, to blaze a trail for him, not stink up the family name with your total lack of hustle!”
“I wasn’t concerned with Tyler’s performance,” Coach Nichols said quietly. The other two glared at him impatiently, like he didn’t know what he was talking about, but neither one of them had the balls to contradict him openly. He was one of the most respected coaches in the league, a thirty-year veteran who consistently produced winning teams and high draft picks. My dad and agent cut on him behind his back, but they didn’t say much to his face. Coach shrugged nonchalantly. “He’s doing extra dryland training on his own, on top of the regular team workouts. He’s come out well on all our pre-season testing: cardio, strength, even flexibility. Practice is practice, and I saw a good effort today; when the games come, Tyler will be ready.”
It caught me by surprise, I guess, because I suddenly had a weird tightness in my throat. The coach knew I was working; he knew I was doing the best I could. It was a great feeling, but one that was almost completely destroyed when my dad turned his frown on me. “You should stop doing the extra training,” he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Work harder when you’re with the team, when people can actually see you. Just because there’s no scouts in the stands right now doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to hear about what’s going on. And we need them to hear good things.”
“They’ll hear good things from me,” Coach said firmly, and that shut my dad up because a coach’s recommendation was incredibly valuable. “Tyler’s training program is team-approved, and I don’t want changes made to it without running it by our staff.” He stood up, and even in that tiny, dingy office, his authority was clear. He might have been wearing a ratty pair of training pants and a ten-year-old team jacket, but he made Mr. Gaviston in his fancy suit look like a little kid playing dress-up. “Thanks for your time, gentlemen. Tyler, you’ll make sure the rookies understand that watching game film is not optional, right?” There might have been a twinkle in his eye when he added, “And have a good run tomorrow.”
The rookies were mostly gone by the time I made it back to the dressing room, but I wasn’t too worried about it.
Toby Cooper, the alternate captain who shared the leadership duties with me, had already made it crystal clear that they’d damn well better do everything the coaches said if they wanted to have a prayer of sticking around, and I’d backed him up. We were still pre-season and hadn’t made the final cuts yet, so the rookies were being really well-behaved. I might have to sit on a few of them later in the year, but for now, they were good. I was pretty sure the coach had made the comment just as a way to remind my dad and Mr. Gaviston that I was a team leader, whether they thought so or not.
“You want to do something?” Winslow had stuck around and waited for me, but I could tell he knew the answer to his question before I said it.
“Nah. I’m just gonna…” I waved my hand vaguely toward the doors of the arena. Winslow knew what I meant. We’d never had a long conversation about it, but he knew how much meetings with my dad always bugged me. I needed some time to decompress afterward.
“I think we’re playing Xbox at Sully’s, if you want to come by later.” Tim Sullivan was over eighteen and was allowed to have an apartment instead of billeting with a local family, so we mostly hung out there. My billet family, the Cavalis, were nice enough, but there wasn’t a lot of privacy. Not that we needed privacy to play Xbox, but doing anything at the Cavali house was sometimes a bit like being an animal on display at a zoo.
“Thanks. I’ll call if I run out of things to do.”
“And we should go out tonight, right? Not too many curfew-free nights left, man, and so many lovely ladies looking
for a little attention.” He grinned. “I know, you’ve always managed to fit them into your schedule even during the season, but it’s a lot more convenient when you don’t have to worry about getting into your own bed by ten o’clock, right?”
And that was another thing I didn’t really feel like dealing with. “I’ll call you, okay?”
Winslow let me go, and I headed out to the parking lot, the heat of the day hitting me like a body check after the cool of the rink. I saw my dad waving at me from the front of the arena, but I kept my head turned away. I didn’t need a second dose, not right then.
My pickup was big and old and ugly, and it burned both gas and oil like it was trying to heat the world all by itself, but it was mine. I shut the door behind me and laid my head back against the seat for a second. I would have liked to have stayed like that for a while longer, but I could imagine my dad’s progress across the sun-baked parking lot, and I peeled out through the back exit before he could get too close. I’d turned off the ringer on my cell phone so I was free, at least for a while. Now, if I just had something to do with that freedom.