Out August 8
Fear and sadness mark Bryan’s life, can Gatlin show him that you have to trust before you can love?
Gatlin Pearce is creeping up on thirty-eight and is still single. It’s not that he wants to be alone, it’s just that he’s too damn old to be in clubs filled with glittery gay boys who can’t even tell him who the Rolling Stones are.
Better to just spend his evenings at Hard Score Ink – his tattoo and artwork shop – creating masterpieces on human flesh, listening to the Railers' games, and nursing a cold beer.
His solitary life is about to end when Bryan Delaney, the new Railers backup goalie, shows up at his shop looking for new artwork for his helmet. There’s some sort of sad story in those beautiful eyes of Bryan’s, and Gatlin finds himself more than a little infatuated with the tender new goalie
Bryan Delaney leaves home at fifteen to live with a billet family. He just wishes that he could have escaped his alcoholic father and strictly devout mother earlier. Drafted to the Arizona Raptors he finds a new family, and his first love affair even if that relationship is marked by violence.
Being traded to the Railers is a shock to the system but the team isn’t like any other he’s ever played on and they truly seem to care about him. It’s only when he meets artist Gatlin, with their shared love of music and hockey, that he realizes how hard it is to escape the past.
Keep your eye on Ten, he’s trouble.
That was all the text said, and I re-read it a few times as if more words would suddenly appear.
I don’t know why I looked for affection in any text that Aarni sent me because, in my kind-of-boyfriend’s own words, he wasn’t the demonstrative type. And he would always point out that someone could get hold of my phone. Then they would know that Aarni Lankinen, the villain of the Arizona Raptors, wasn’t everything he made himself out to be, that he wasn’t the playboy who fucked every woman within his reach. That he had a boyfriend on the side, and that it was me.
The phone rang, and I answered as soon as I saw his name. Aarni wasn't the most patient guy on earth, and he liked it when I was fast to respond.
“Did you get my text?” Aarni asked without preamble.
“Don’t let me down now.”
I got the feeling, as he laughed, that he expected me to do that very thing. I still wasn’t sure what would count as letting him down. But given the kind of person I was—clumsy, quiet and only really focused when I was dressed for hockey—I kind of expected to fuck up.
The Arizona Raptors had chosen me in the 2014 draft, not long after my eighteenth birthday. I was the second highest ranking goaltender drafted that year, something to be proud of, I guess. But I’d not managed to stay up at NHL level, spending the rest of the time in the Raptors’ development team in Tucson. Until last year, when I’d actually been a starting goalie after both main goalies had been injured.
I hadn’t been stellar, and Arizona put me on waivers, leaving me vulnerable to being picked up by who the hell ever. My confidence had been rocked. I was a solid goalie for the development team, but the minute I got up to the primary team, NHL level, I choked. Why the hell did the Railers even want someone who hadn’t lived up to their early promise? I assumed I’d attend this training camp, and that would be it. They’d push me down to the Railers’ development team, and there I would stay.
Which wasn’t a bad thing, except they’d taken me from Arizona and from Aarni and it was the first time I’d been really on my own.
“Hello? Are you even listening to me?” Aarni snapped.
“Of course, I won’t let you down,” I lied.
I’m a good goalie, I stop pucks, I can be strong and focused and stay in my own head to track the plays in front of me.
Still, Aarni knew about me what I knew about myself; I’d choke at NHL level just as I had for the majority of my time with the Raptors.
I’m not ready. I should go back down to the minors.
“Also, don’t get comfortable there. They’re not going to keep you for long.”
“And don’t forget what assholes the Railers are. Don’t trust them, particularly wonder-boy Rowe. Arrogant fucker.”
I didn’t see Ten as arrogant at all, but then I was basing my assessment on TV interviews, including the one he’d given with Jared when they’d announced their relationship. I’d been proud of Ten and Jared for doing that, and part of me, the dark, hidden, ruined part, was green with envy that they were able to be open with the world.
I’d said that to Aarni, but he’d reacted badly and hadn’t talked to me for three days. His disappointment was a knife in my gut, and I hated every second of it. That was not happening again. He was right. Ten was a Stanley Cup Champion, a superstar, and if there had been NHL players at the Olympics, then he would undoubtedly have been on Team USA. No team would ask him to leave just because he had a boyfriend. It didn’t seem to be hurting the Railers, and they had a growing reputation as being LGBT-friendly.
“Jesus Christ, Bryan, are you even on this phone call?”
I pulled myself back from the edge. Aarni had said something about Ten being arrogant.
“I won’t forget,” I spoke with confidence so he’d realize I was listening.
“And remember I’m not there to watch your back.” He sighed deeply. “I worry there’s no one to look after you when you attract trouble. Especially from defenders like Max van Hellren. Asshole should have been thrown out of that game against us for what he did to me. Fucker lost us the chance at a championship. So fucking pleased he ended up collapsing. He deserved it.”
My chest tightened. Max wasn’t part of the Railers anymore. He’d retired after the cup win, but Aarni was right. There would be other guys there to step up in his place. Aarni had been furious, with a side order of mean, over what Max had done to him, checking him into the boards. But he’d finally calmed down, said he’d show Max what was what the next time the two teams met. He’d been so disappointed when Max had retired.
But Aarni was a good guy. He was the one who’d gotten involved when the bullying on the Raptors had gotten to be too much for me to handle. When the guys in the toxic locker room got on my case. I’d only played a few games at that level with the Raptors and had fucked every single one of them up. They’d hated it, but Aarni had been there for me.
He seemed to know the point when the rest of the team pushed it too far, always stepping in just before I was going to run from the room. He’d helped me so much, but he was back in Arizona, so far away.
“I’ll be okay,” I murmured, fear gripping me again about the kind of things I needed to face with this new team.
“I doubt that.” He sighed. “But you weren’t enough of all that for the Raptors to keep you, so you have no choice, and there’s nothing we can do about it, can we?”
He must have heard the desperation in my voice. I hadn’t wanted the Raptors to give up on me, but that was hockey. One day I had woken up in Arizona as the backup to the backup, fucking things up, and the next day, the team had put me on waivers, and I was suddenly in snowy Pennsylvania.
“Good boy,” was all he said, but it was enough.
He hung up, but those two words gave me a shot of steel to my spine, and I settled my breathing before opening the car door. Security had let me right through to the player parking lot, and my Toyota sat right next to a sexy red Porsche. My salary had taken a hike, up to three million for the two-year contract I had here, so I probably needed a new car.
Even if the Railers saw through me and sent me packing, I’d still have enough money to buy a car.
“Hey,” someone called from behind me, and I immediately assumed that I was standing somewhere I shouldn’t have been. The man was in a guard’s uniform, tall, built and smiling at me benignly.
“I’m sorry. They told me to park there.”
“Of course. Bryan Delaney, right?” he asked and extended his hand for me to shake, which I did immediately after wiping the sweaty palm on my jeans.
“Yeah, Bryan,” I said when I realized I hadn’t answered his question.
“Welcome.” He thumbed at himself. “Name’s Pete. They said I needed to keep an eye out for the new guy.”
He dropped my hand, and I forced a smile onto my face, even though my stomach was churning. “Thank you.”
“This way.” He chatted on about the weather, life, hockey and something about his sister who lived in Arizona. By the time he dropped me outside an office, I knew enough about Pete to write a book. Thing is, his chatter stilled my nerves, and I wasn't going into this room blind. I knew the name on the door, Alain Gagnon, former goalie for Vancouver, and one of the best goalie coaches in the business. I’d skyped with him once in his capacity as Goalie Coach for the Railers after they’d claimed me off waivers. He’d seen me coming to the Railers as a positive thing, a great thing. All I’d seen is my failure at NHL level hockey with the Raptors, and I remembered going back to Aarni and needing to be held.
Of course, Aarni had said he didn’t need to hug me, but he’d reassured me that, however I played, he would always have my back. I’d needed the comfort. His words of advice stayed with me even now.
I just want you to realize what you are and what your place on the team will be. Ten acts friendly, but he won't care about you like I do. Stan? He’s had some lucky saves, and as for that fucker Van Hellren? You saw what he did to me in our last matchup. I wish you weren’t so naïve, Bryan. It’s unlikely you’ll get many starts, so don’t be disappointed when you get sent down to the minors.
I won’t be disappointed. I’d promised Aarni, and I’d made a vow to myself not to get too excited and involved.
Pete knocked on the door, then turned and left but not before winking at me, which meant I was flustered when I stepped into the office, even more so when I was faced with a vast Russian grinning at me and pumping my hand.
“Pleased to meet,” Stanislav Lyamin boomed and clapped me on the shoulder. Stan was a big goalie, broad, strong, tall. I was as tall, yes, but I wasn’t solid as he was. He was a hero of mine, someone I revered, and he was here shaking my hand as if I was worthy of his time.
I shook Alain’s hand as well. Alain gestured for me to sit, with Stan taking the chair next to me. Stan couldn’t seem to sit still, wriggling in his chair, and he appeared to want to say something.
Alain shook his head and pointedly stared at him. “Go ahead, Stan.”
Stan immediately turned in his seat, and I did the same until we were face-to-face. I had to be wary of this man. He was such a force on the Railers, and even though his English wasn’t the best, he could be just as hurtful as the Raptors’ goalie.
“Jets, February fifteen, you save big.” He made shapes in the air with his hands, and I realized he was asking me about a specific thing. Something he’d done maybe? I’d played at NHL level, a grand total of thirty-six times in four years, and I remembered each game I’d played for the Arizona Raptors with clarity. Huffing, Stan pulled out his phone, scrolled a bit and then thrust it at me, shaking it so I would take it. I held the phone carefully and checked the screen and saw I was looking at myself.
Wait, was he talking about my save against the Jets? He couldn’t be. I had to be the only one who remembered that game.
I'd pulled off the best save of my entire career, an odd-man rush heading right for me, a screen that was impossible to see past, but I’d heard what I needed to hear, the skates on the ice, the crack of the puck on sticks, and I’d instinctively known where to move. Luck had played a big part in that save, but somehow Stan knew about it and wanted to talk to me about it.
“I remember,” I said as he waited expectantly.
“Much big,” he announced and then sat back in his chair, arms over his chest, a wide grin on his face. “Much big,” he repeated. “Is good times. No?”
“Good times,” I said because he seemed to need a reply.
Alain laughed with him. “Well, now that the fanboying is over, let's get to work. Bryan, I want you to get out with Stan at practice today, get you used to the new ice. Coach Madsen has a defenseman briefing, and you’ll attend that first.” He shuffled papers in front of him and cleared his throat. “We have some work to do.”
Of course, they had work to do with me. The Raptors didn’t think I deserved starts, so I guess I was lucky another team wanted to take a chance on me.
“Yes,” I responded.
“You are what this team needs.” Alain leaned forward, staring at me so intently that it was my turn to squirm in the chair. “I want to be honest with you…”
Here it comes.
“I wanted you a year ago but obviously couldn’t get you. I was shocked you were put on waivers, and we need a solid backup for Stan here. I’m excited to see what you can do.”
Wait. Did I say that out loud?
Alain didn’t seem to hear the surprise in my voice though, or at least he didn’t react.
“I want to get started today, so you’re ready for our first back-to-back, and I want you in goal. You ready for the chance?”
“I’m honored to be part of the Railers,” I said instead.
Stan opened the door for me and followed me out, and we walked straight into a gaggle of hockey players, milling about outside the goalie coach’s office. I recognized everyone, and it was Connor Hurleigh, the captain at least for this year, who stepped forward. Everyone assumed Ten would be captain one day, but right now it was Connor who led this team.
“Welcome to the Railers.”
I shook his hand and forced a smile. “Glad to be here.”
One by one the group welcomed me, and I kept my responses simple. No point in giving anyone a chance to see anything in me that could be exploited.
Keep yourself to yourself, Aarni had warned me.
Some of the players’ expressions held confusion at my quiet responses, but they didn’t say anything. Maybe they were used to Stan, who was all noise and brightness.
Well, they wouldn’t be getting that with me.
“Do you talk to your pipes?” Adler Lockhart asked. He was one of the best chirpers in the entire league, always with a witty response or a throwaway line that cut a player to the quick. Somehow, he was never caught and punished for instigating. If there was a fight on the ice, then you knew damn well Adler had something to do with it. I had to be careful with him.
“No,” I said, and shook his hand over Connor.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed, and then he brightened. “Must just be the weird Russians then.” He ducked when Stan shoved at his head, and I stepped back and away. This could get ugly. It didn’t get a chance to, though, as someone skidded around the corner and came to a halt next to Connor. I was -face-to-face with Tennant Rowe, skating phenom, and the object of most of Aarni’s derision. What could I say to the man who was the face of the team and one of the brightest players in a long time?
“Ten,” he said, out of breath, thrusting out his hand.
I was tongue-tied. Ten was pretty. If that was a word you could use about a guy. All angles, with a broad smile and bright eyes. He shook my hand and waited for my response.
“Hey,” I said. That was enough to be polite and not enough to put me on anyone’s radar.
I was shuffled down the corridor, to a door bearing Jared Madsen’s name, and that was it. With Stan close to me, my first day as a Railers team member at hockey camp was beginning.
I wasn’t nervous at practice. Not really. All I had to do was be out here, on a team fresh from winning the Stanley freaking Cup, and slot in neatly as the backup goalie.
I could fuck it all up, I probably will, and they’d trade me away. Not today though.
The practice was intense but also different to the few I'd attended with the Raptors. This team was focused, but there was also a lightness in the banter I overheard. I didn't join in, only took my time in net, my Raptors helmet at odds with its scarlet and gold against the blue of the Railers practice jersey I wore over my gear. Alain pulled me away to work on my blocker side, always the weaker, and tapped my helmet.
“See if we can get you something different. You wear an Itech?”
“Yeah, a stock mask.”
“You going to get a new design now?”
My helmet was generic and in the wrong colors. There was nothing more detailed in design on there, apart from the color that marked it as mine. There were no names or pictures or inspirational themes. Just references to the Tucson area, the standard saguaro amid the desert. Enough to get away with, and not enough to mean anything to anyone.
I’d once considered putting Aarni’s name on it somewhere, but he’d laughed when I’d said that. The quickest way for people to know about us, and hell, why would you even do it in the first place?
“I guess so,” I said. I’d probably use the dusky blue of the Railers and maybe some generic views of Harrisburg. That way, when I was sent to the minors, it would still fit in.
“I’ll tell Stan.” He skated over to Stan, who was effectively batting away pucks from a determined-looking Dieter Lehman. He said something to the big guy, and even as Stan was talking, he was still blocking those damn shots. I’d never be as good as that. A familiar melancholy consumed me, and I shook my head to clear it. I was my own worst enemy according to Aarni, and he was generally right.
I will be as good. I can be as good.
Showered and dressed in my jeans and hoodie again, sneakers tied and jacket on my arm, I waited for Stan as instructed. He was taking me to see the artist who did his helmet, which was a study in strength, from the girders of iron to the steam of a massive old train. There was a starkness of imagery, softened only by the image of a tiny, fluffy rabbit and the name Noah under it in cursive. There was also a mountain scene and ice, it could have been any mountains, but they must’ve meant something to Stan. Various Pokémon were scattered across his face protector, so tiny I could hardly make them out individually, but against each one was a name. I recognized the words Ten and Adler, so this must’ve been a team representation or something.
“Is ready?” Stan boomed at me from behind, and I turned from checking out the helmet and followed him out of the door, straight to a van. Not a Maserati or a Porsche, but a mom’s van, with a kid’s car seat and brightly colored toys scattered everywhere. He unlocked it, and I climbed in, but he was called back by a player, Erik Gunnerson, a smiling man with impossibly curly blond hair. They talked, heads close together, and then after laughing, in a smooth move Stan leaned Erik back for a deep kiss, and I watched.
I couldn’t have turned my gaze from them if I’d tried. Right there in player parking, Stan was kissing Erik. In front of the whole damn team and me. When they parted, Erik reached up and cradled Stan’s face, gazing at him with such love and devotion. Stan said something, leaning down to get close to Erik, and then they parted with a final kiss. I pretended I wasn’t watching, but I couldn’t help but notice his huge grin.
Does Stan ever stop smiling?
“We go,” Stan said, backing out of the space.
Erik climbed into the low Porsche next to my car, with Ten taking the driver’s seat. When a skater earned what Ten did and had to keep up appearances, a Porsche is what they drove.
Aarni’s voice filled my thoughts. “One day people will realize Ten isn’t all that and that he’s all for show.”
I tugged my jacket around me as Stan turned up his stereo and Elvis blasted from the speakers. He was singing along, loudly and ever so slightly off-key. I wish I could say his innate happiness was inspiring, but I just felt it was sensory overload. By the time we pulled up outside the artist’s place, I had a headache, and everything inside me felt twisted, awkward and wrong. When I saw it was a tattoo parlor, my heart sunk. Whoever worked behind those frosted doors would be young and fashion conscious and confident, all artistic and shit, and there would be me, the slightly awkward Canadian kid who wasn’t going to be on the Railers that long.
And there was Aarni’s voice in my head again.
Grow some fucking balls.