Harrisburg Railers Series
Two men afraid to feel, have to make choices that could end up breaking down their defenses and leading them back to love.
Every time Max Van Hellren steps on the ice he knows it could be his last time. At thirty he’s past his hockey prime but he’s also hiding a life-threatening injury that private doctors warn could kill him. This is his last season, and there’s a chance he could lift the Stanley Cup after fourteen years in the NHL. He just needs to stay safe and healthy; difficult when he’s known for his heavy hitting and with a propensity for dropping the gloves and putting his body in the way of pucks to keep his team safe.
A one night stand with a sexy man was just what he needed, dangerous and hot, but what if it turned into more? Would he actually have to share the secrets he so desperately tries to hide?
Ben Worthington had it all. A fulfilling job running the CrossRoads Shelter, his loving aunts, and a husband that understood his devotion to animals. Then, the love of his life left him, succumbing so quickly to an unexpected sickness that Ben never had time to say goodbye. The violent loss scarred him.
Unable to move past his fears, he moves from lonely encounter to lonely encounter, slaking a desperate need that is eating away at him, but never making a connection that could lead him back into love. One night with Max makes him want more, but will giving into the temptation open the door to feelings he can’t contain?
Can these two broken men ever find a way to be together?
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“No, see… that’s not exactly the kind of… We’re hoping to open up the search for more volunteers to help out over the summer.” I leaned back in my chair, grimacing a bit when the old gal creaked loudly. The AC blowing into my face was measly but given I’d had it in that window for years and it had been donated, it was doing all I could ask of it. Papers shuffled about on my desk, the semi-cool air rustling over the mounds of paperwork that now fell to me. Gone were the days spent working with the animals at the Crossroads Shelter. Now I spent most of my time in this damn office, talking on the damn phone, trying to wheedle rich people into giving the shelter more of their money. It really kinda sucked.
Leaning back a bit more, I let my eyes drift shut. Lenny, over at the Harrisburg Herald, rambled on and on about the cost of ads and how he didn’t feel he could continue giving us a discount.
“No, we do understand. I need you to understand we need every penny of help we can get. We’re a no-kill shelter. We’re not state supported. Every dime— I know I tell you this all the time. That’s because you complain about taking five percent off the cost of an ad every time I call.”
Lenny prattled on a bit more about overheads.
Yeah, tell me about overheads, Lenny. I know all about them.
The harping turned into a droning noise, like Charlie Brown’s teacher, and my mind began to wander. My gaze touched on the personal stuff practically buried under the piles of papers on my desk. A laptop with the shelter logo of a dog, a cat, and a human standing at a crossroads, bouncing around the screen. The laptop made a funny squeaking sound when I turned it on in the morning, but I ignored that. An empty coffee cup with the same logo on it, several books about miserable things like fundraising objectives and managerial and administrative duties in today’s modern shelters, and a gay romance.
I picked up the book, flipped it open, and continued reading about a con man and a stripper who were working together to outfox some Mafiosi. The plot was a little weak, but the sex was hot, and, oh my stars, the romance was incredible. I missed romance. I missed that emotional connection to another man. I missed meaningful sex too. The few hookups I’d had since losing Liam had been cold and mechanical. I missed Liam so badly I ached. Yet I was too much of a coward to date. If I dated I might meet someone. And that someone might be perfect, as Liam had been. And that someone might marry me. And then that someone might die. No. No way was I capable of surviving that again. Better to have hollow fucks behind some gay club. That only hurt a little when the futility sank in.
Two years he’d been gone. My gaze left the romance novel and traveled to the picture that was almost obscured by stacks of folders. I reached over the debris and shoved the folders aside. Liam smiled at me from within the frame, his goofy face so endearing and special, and so beloved. Both of us had been hamming it up at the fundraiser it had been snapped at.
His blond hair glistened in the summer sun. Blue eyes sparkling. I was hanging off my husband, laughing like a fool, cradling Bucky, our new malamute pup, a shelter rescue of course. We’d had no idea then that within a month Liam would be dead. Multiple myeloma. Stage four bone cancer. He found a lump in his groin and three weeks later he was dead. At thirty-three years old. What the ever-loving fuck!? I mean, how did something like that even happen to a man that strong and vibrant?
“Yeah, no, I get it,” I said after the long pause on the other end of the phone finally registered. I picked up the image of Liam and me in happier times and held it up in front of the AC. He’d always hated to be hot. Slept with a fan on all winter long. There I’d be under four layers of covers in long johns and wool socks, cussing about the icy wind blowing over us, and he’d just stretch those long athletic limbs out and sigh. Tennis players from Sweden were not right in the head.
“Stupid man, sleeping naked all winter,” I mumbled wistfully. “Right, I get it. Just for another month? Thanks, Lenny. You’re the best. Yeah, the standard plea for volunteers and helpers in the kennels. Kitten cuddlers, puppy smoochers—you know. Play up the fuzzy factor. Next week’s paper sounds good. Thanks again.”
I hung up before he could change his mind. Not that he would. I didn’t think. I hoped. We were walking a financial tightrope now as it was. Having to shell out more for advertising to lure people in to work for free would mean one less paid staffer. And that was just not a doable thing. We only had one kennel manager, Diana Pierce, and an adoption counselor, Abby Barnes, on the payroll, and that was about all we could manage.
Our vet, Dr. Vince Owens, was a visiting vet who volunteered his time and never charged us unless it was something major that required surgery. Then the animal went to his office and we had to cough up the cash. Shots and routine stuff, Vince provided for free. And that was a real lifesaver. Paying for routine veterinary care would sink us, and the city really needed a no-kill shelter.
Sure, we had a big shelter over on the other side of the city, but they euthanized. A sad fact to be sure, and something that I hoped to avoid at all costs. If Crossroads closed, every dog and cat there would be shuttled across town. The majority would be put down, as they were older or had health issues. Hell, we were still trying to find homes for the old dogs people had dumped on our stoop last Christmas.
What kind of bastard dumps their old dog to make room for a Christmas puppy?
I was getting morose again. Time to get out of this stuffy box and maybe make the rounds. I pushed to my feet, stretched, and peeked around the desk at Bucky. Clear blue eyes blinked at me, his face resting on his front paws. Since malamute breeders cringe at blue eyes, we suspected that was why Bucky had been left outside a bar when he was about three weeks old. I guessed the breeder—rotten shit that he or she was—had seen those blue eyes and decided to get rid of that unwanted gene in a dumpster. Luckily for Bucky, Liam had found him, led to the trash receptacle by the whimpering, and brought him home to me.
“Morning, Winter Soldier,” I whispered. His left ear twitched. “You know your other dad named you something pretty amazing, right?”
He yawned, stretched, and slowly got to his feet. He knew he was kickass.
“Let’s go see what the other dogs are doing this morning.”
Bucky and I escaped the office for over an hour. Part of my job, aside from paperwork and groveling, was making sure all the animals were being treated humanely and that the facility was as clean as a whistle. Volunteers were saviors and angels in my book. Old women, college students, and those with gentle and loving hearts did some of the nastiest jobs in the shelter. You had to have a good heart to clean kennels and scoop litter boxes for nothing.
I glanced over my shoulder to see Diana jogging toward me. She was the kennel manager, but her title also covered the “Cat House”, a name we had wittily coined for the feline area.
My conversation with an old lab mix came to an end, but Bucky and the silver-muzzled black dog continued visiting.
“You have a call from Layton at the Railers,” Diana said.
Layton Foxx worked on the social media for the Harrisburg Railers and we needed to discuss how the team and the shelter could work together.
“Is he on the line now?” I left the kennel, which had been recently sanitized with pine disinfectant. I was aiming for the main office, which was where the public entered and began adoption proceedings.
“No, he said to call him when you had a minute. You think they’re going to let us go to the arena with more dogs? That last visit netted us eight adoptions!”
Diana was a darling woman. Mid-forties, divorced, daughter in college. Short, kind of plump, curly brown hair cut short, and trustworthy. She was the only person in the shelter who knew the horrid details of Liam’s last month. She’d suffered through his loss with me. And now, bless her, she felt she needed to guide me back into the world of romance.
“Yeah, that was a great idea. They seemed open to that becoming a regular thing, but since they’re now in the playoffs, our visits are going to be limited.”
“Well, he said he wanted to talk to you at your earliest.”
I whistled for Bucky. “Maybe I’ll just ride over to the arena.”
“Office getting a bit claustrophobic?” She gave me a knowing look.
“Just a bit,” I confessed, snapping a leash onto Bucky after he stopped the “WEAREGOINGINTHECAR!” dance. “I’ll be back in an hour. Call if anything massive happens.”
She shoved me out the door. Bucky and I crossed the parking lot, stopping to chat with a family eying Fifi, a female poodle who had been bumped by a car about two months ago. She was an older dog, and her healing had been slow, but now she was back in form and looking for a forever home.
After I directed the man and woman to the office, Bucky led me to my old Jeep Cherokee. We got him buckled in first, then I snapped the seat belt around my chest. I sniffed the air.
“Why does my Jeep smell like dog?” I looked at Bucky. He looked at me. “You need a bath.”
He whined a bit. Bucky hated water but loved the snow. Snow could melt all over him and that was fine, but you fill up the tub and he was hiding behind the couch.
“Okay, so what do you want to listen to? Earth, Wind, & Fire, or Kool and the Gang?”
He picked EW&F. I could tell. Dog loved that band as much as I did.
Traffic was light this time of day. The morning commuters were where they needed to be, and lunch was a couple of hours off. I checked my phone, found nothing from my great-aunts, whispered a thanks to the Big Guy, and turned up The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Cruising to the north side of town, jamming and singing, I pulled into the East River Arena and parked by the same door I had used when I’d been there before. There were no people to be seen, just cars, some pretty damn expensive.
“Bet that Jag over there doesn’t smell like dog,” I mentioned to Bucky. He sneezed. “Oh hell, Shining Star.”
Damn, but I loved this song. I cranked the volume up and started seat-dancing. I would have gotten out and danced, since I was a pretty good dancer, but seat-dancing and singing would have to suffice. I liked singing too. Pastor Bert at my church thought I had a fine voice. Course, he said that to everyone in the choir, but I took it to heart.
I was belting out the lyrics, the windows down, enjoying the living hell out of my hour of office freedom. Someone slapped me on the arm through my open window. It hurt. I mean, like it really hurt. I threw a look to the left, and there stood the huge Russian I’d met a couple of times previously. Stan. The Railers’ goalie. He was grinning widely.
“I make dance too! Like Dick Clark!”
I gaped at the moose shaking his ass all over the parking lot. The man with him, a leaner guy with a head of blond curls, chuckled at him but never once asked him to stop.
“I am making milkshake to bring boys for to my yard,” Stan yelled.
That one got me, and I laughed out loud. Bucky barked loudly, picking up the happy vibes.
“Dude, you are for sure going to have all kinds of boys in your yard,” I told Stan after I’d exited my Jeep and had Bucky’s leash in hand.
“Thank you. I am good with shaking money maker. Is this dog for us?” Stan crouched down to run his fingers over Bucky’s soft head.
“Stan, we really can’t do a dog yet,” the blond said.
“Oh, well no, but soon. We win Cup and then make dog. Big one. Like this, but ugly with long teeth.”
“I’m not sure we can find you an ugly dog with long teeth,” I confessed.
“Yeah, we’re not looking for an ugly dog. Stan,” the blond said, and extended his hand. We shook, then he led Stan off, fingers linked with the big Russian’s. Well, huh. Gay people were just all over the place. I did recall reading about Tennant Rowe coming out but had never heard anything about the goalie. I wasn’t a huge Railers fan. My heart was with the Washington hockey team, since I’d been born and raised in D.C. and only moved here after college to keep an eye on my two elderly great-aunts.
Aunts who were awfully quiet today.
I checked my phone again, saw nothing from the police or the neighbors, and decided to enjoy a peaceful and tranquil day.
“Nice dog.” I paused just this side of the players’ entrance at the deep voice coming from behind me. There was something about that man’s voice…the timbre of the bass or the way he spoke. Not sure what it was, but the last time he’d spoken to me my body had had the same kind of reaction. A spear of latent heat low in my belly followed by a shiv of icy dread.
“Thanks.” I wanted to stare at the door. Or run. I couldn’t do either of those, though, so I turned to face the bearded man. Christ, but he was fierce-looking. Like a Viking, with piercing eyes and an aura that screamed berserker. He was bigger than me. Taller by at least four inches and probably sixty pounds. He was wearing a suit, as Stan and Erik had been, but his looked incredibly fine on his burly frame. Dark blue with a silver tie and a white shirt. His biceps strained the material trying to contain them.
“His name is Bucky.” There now, I had spoken to the man who made my heart leap around inside my chest like a frog on a highway.
“Like Captain America’s sidekick?” He looked down at my worn T-shirt with Cap’s shield on it.
“Exactly like that.”
He took another step, which put him into my little personal space bubble, his gaze and mine locked. I wet my lips and jerked my chin up a bit. I wasn’t going to let some hockey player intimidate me.
“Cute dog. Hot owner.” He gave me a long, slow look, petted Bucky, and stepped around the dull-witted man trying to digest the fact Mr. Fear had said he was hot. “Are you coming in, or are you teaching your dog to open doors mentally?”
“I’m here to see Layton Foxx.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m here to participate in morning skate.”
“I know who you are. Max van Hellren. You played for Washington four years ago.”
He tugged the door open and settled a kind of bored look on me. “Yeah, that was me. You like Washington?”
“Hometown team.” Bucky barked to back me up. Max smiled. All the ferocity that oozed out of him dissipated when he smiled. The man was seriously fine.
“Maybe I can change your mind about which team to cheer for, Mr. Washington Fan.”
“Ben. My name is Ben.”
He nodded just once, his hand still keeping the door open. “Ben. I like that. Suits you. So, are we coming in or are we going to flirt here in front of Pete?”
A security guard peeked around the door and winked at me. I wanted to die. Right there.
“I don’t flirt,” I snapped. I stalked around Max and Pete and went off to find Layton Foxx. Determination hot in my breast kept me from looking back to see if Max was checking out my ass. I hoped he was and I prayed he wasn’t.