When the captain carries the weight of the team on his shoulders, finding love seems an impossible goal. That is until he meets sexy rookie firefighter, Jo.
Alexandre ‘Simba’ Simard, captain of the Ice Dragons hockey team, didn’t intend on rescuing a family from a burning car. Doing what anyone else in his place would’ve done doesn’t make him a hero. Now the press is hounding him, the Russians on his team are at war, the Dragons are losing games, and this year is turning out to be the season from hell. Getting his team to the playoffs is his priority; falling in love isn’t even a footnote on his to-do list.
Jo Glievens never meant to fall in love with a hockey player. Somehow, though, Alex finds a way to break down her defenses.
Someone is planting bombs and destroying lives, and the criminal’s actions hit way too close to home when it seems the Dragons hockey team is the target.
“Are you sure you want a closed-door meeting about this, Simba?” Coach looked equally pissed and worried. “No coaches? Not even me?”
Alexandre Simard nodded confidently even though the tightness in his chest warned him that he wasn’t really sure at all. Half of his job seemed to be fronting confidence when inside he felt like everything was going wrong. But he’d run every scenario, and nothing else made sense. He needed to get the entire team in one room, and they had to talk openly and honestly about what the hell was going wrong.
This was the nuclear option, and inevitably news outlets would find out what the Dragons had done. The fact that the team had locked themselves in a room to talk would be page one news on all the blogs and lead to all kinds of questions.
Rumors would begin to spiral out of control—of potential trades to fix the mess they were in, of a team tanking even though the talent was there. They could lose sponsorship deals and key players. But hell, what he wanted to do here with the team couldn’t be worse than the playing-like-crap they’d been managing. Closing the room to everyone but the players, talking this shit out, was a calculated risk, but one he had to take. A 6–1 loss to the Sabres was the nail in the coffin; the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Dragons were exposing their forwards, fucking up their defense, and leaving Drago in the net looking like he couldn’t save for shit.
“I have to do something; this is my responsibility,” Alex said. He realized he sounded on the edge of defeat, and drew his shoulders back. It wasn’t about feeling beaten—it was about getting the team, his team, to pull their heads out of their asses before they were completely screwed. “I have to do something,” he repeated in a firmer, more purposeful manner.
“I’ll be in my office,” Coach said, and patted Alex’s shoulder in reassurance or relief; Alex didn’t know which. Coach’s job was on the line as much as any team member out there; a badly performing hockey team wasn’t just about the players, but the coach, the rink, the owners. Any single part of it could be wrong; the men were Alex’s responsibility.
He stepped inside the locker room and closed the door behind him, turning the lock and seeing all the expectant faces. Forwards, defense, goalies. Not a single man who’d dressed for tonight was missing.
For a second, Alex looked around the room, inhaling the familiar post-match funk of sweat. Drago had removed his pads, but Alex didn’t blame him for wanting to be free of the weight of it all. After tonight’s shitty performance, Drago had to be beyond angry, but the big Swede wasn’t showing it; if anything he looked impassive. Icy, even.
“We owe Drago a huge apology,” Alex began, and waited for a response. The room was quiet. Their captain telling them they were having a closed-door meeting was enough to have everyone looking anxious.
The rookie, Thomas Arkin, in only his third game with the Dragons, was wide-eyed, his gaze flicking from his captain to Drago and back. He’d fallen straight into a team on the edge, and slap-bang into the middle of them falling down the rankings.
“Where do we start?” Alex said, although he wasn’t expecting any answers or comments, and he didn’t get any. “We were a fucking mess out there.”
He realized he was still standing, and he walked to his place in the team, right under his name and the number 25. The team relaxed a little at the action.
“I’ll start,” he began, and scanned the room.
His best friends, Ryan and Loki, nodded. They’d tried, Ryan taking so many hits in front of the net that he’d be black and blue by tomorrow. He was holding an ice pack to his ribs, a hit late in the game that could have been worse had his partner, Max Karlsson, not dropped his gloves and stopped the focused hits dead in their tracks. Ryan and Karly were solid, but that was where Alex knew to begin. Ryan nodded again, knowing that was where everything needed to start.
“Ryan, Karly, you can’t do it all,” Alex began. “You’re our best D-pair, but you’re spending too much time watching everyone’s backs to be effective.”
He glanced at Rafferty, their newest defenseman and the most unpredictable player on the entire team, watching the man’s reaction to that statement. He was new to the team, but he wasn’t stupid. Rafferty knew he was good, but he had to accept that he wasn’t carrying enough of the defense along with Ryan.
“What?” Rafferty asked with hostility.
Alex kept his cool. “Do you have anything you want to add to the defense summary?”
“Nothing at all?”
Rafferty looked mutinous for a moment, then sighed noisily. “I can’t work on my team game when Coach doesn’t even put me on the freaking ice.”
“You’re already pulling nearly thirty minutes a game,” Alex pointed out.
“I’m riding the bench and I see the team make mistakes—” Rafferty began. Then he stopped. “Never mind.”
Alex inclined his head in understanding, and was impressed that Rafferty hadn’t lost it there and then and ranted about how the team was complete shit. Which was how Rafferty had worded it, loudly, after a particularly bad turnover in the neutral zone. Alex wanted to say that Rafferty needed to keep his summary to the locker room, but he didn’t. He wasn’t standing there pulling up everyone’s mistakes; he wanted an honest and open discussion.
“Our power play sucks,” Loki murmured when no one else spoke.
“I agree,” Alex said, taking responsibility for his part in the first special team. “We’re a mess—chaotic, undisciplined—and the power play is all about structure. Our special teams aren’t cohesive, so what can we do about that? How can we fix this?”
No one answered, and he guessed no one wanted to challenge the captain’s perspective. Alex opened his mouth to encourage them to talk, but Rafferty interjected before he could get a word out.
“Not sure it can be fixed,” he said.
A couple of the guys stared at Rafferty in shock. “Fuck you,” Ryan muttered.
“No, fuck you,” Rafferty snapped, “I can’t believe I was traded from a good team with an actual fucking chance to make the playoffs to this one. Seems to me, you should offload me to free cap space and get some kids who actually want to play on this shitty team.”
“Asshole,” Loki said.
There was a lot of muttering at that point, and some very pointed curses; Rafferty wasn’t endearing himself to the team with talk like that.
“Okay Raff, you tell me, what do we change, and how do we do it?” he asked Rafferty directly. “Team building?”
Rafferty shook his head and let out a sharp laugh. “Team building? What? Where we fall backward and hope our team catches us? That’s bullshit. Just fucking cut me loose.”
He sounded resigned, sad almost, and everyone else was looking at him like he was dirt on their shoes.
How the fuck do I handle this?
Inspiration hit him. Rafferty made these off-hand jokes about contracts and how he’d be off as soon as the Dragons needed the money for someone else. Maybe that was the key to solving the Rafferty issue? Was that one of the things he could fix right here and now?
“Jesus, Raff, you’re one of the best D-men in this division,” Alex began, and watched as Rafferty’s expression changed from resignation to surprise. “When they transferred you in, I wasn’t sure about how your personality would fit in. We’re a fast team, not the heavy-hitting kind that uses only your strength. But you have a depth of knowledge we can count on, and you see the ice with a perspective that we need.”
“Agreed,” Loki said.
Alex couldn’t fail to notice the sharp look that Rafferty gave Loki; almost like he didn’t believe what Loki was saying.
“I need everyone to stop talking like our season is done.”
“But it is done,” Rafferty said.
Alex shook his head. “I’ve been talking to Coach about you, Raff—he wants you paired with Arkin, and I agree.”
“The fucking rookie?” Rafferty cast a disbelieving look to his left, where Arkin sat with his mouth open.
“Yeah, you got a problem with that?” Alex asked.
“I’m not a babysitter.”
Rafferty wasn’t quite getting it.
“Look, Arkin is fast. You’re solid, and you see plays before they even happen. You’d work well together. This year could be good with you as one of our D-pairs. It’s momentum we could carry into the playoffs.”
Rafferty seemed surprised by that. “You actually want me here for a playoff run?” he asked, then immediately frowned and refused to look at anyone. He’d just shown his underbelly to a room full of hockey players.
But it was a subdued room, a losing room, and the team needed to pull together. Not one man in here was joking about this shit.
“I’d need some ice time and the D-coach to work with me,” Arkin piped up, then he elbowed Rafferty. “We’ve got this,” he said.
Rafferty scowled, but then he nodded sharply. Alex made a mental note to talk to Coach about schedules and extra practice for those two.
“Well that’s one D-pair fixed,” Cody muttered under his breath.
“What was that, Cody?” Alex asked encouragingly.
Cody looked at him dead on. “You need to tell one of your D-men to stop sitting on my ass.”
Alex looked at Connor James, Cody’s twin. He’d noticed Connor was spending way too much time protecting his brother, and couldn’t get his head around why.
Connor looked miserable; Cody was sitting way over on the other side of the room. That was unusual in itself. The twins usually fucked up the separation of seating lines by always being next to each other. The team had worked around that—it fitted, and they were strong anchors in the room—but lately something had changed.
“Nothing to say,” was the succinct reply from Connor.
“Jesus, Con, you need to back off,” Cody snapped.
“Stop,” Alex said. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you two, but Connor, you’re not yourself. Can any of us help?”
Connor looked mutinous, and Alex’s temper spiked.
“Connor, you’re not a forward, yet all your ice time seems to be up and around Cody. Why?”
Connor said nothing.
Alex sighed heavily. He hadn’t wanted to get personal, but maybe that was what the captain of an NHL team had to do.
“Cody doesn’t need you dogging his steps, Connor.”
Something was going on with the twins—he didn’t know what, but Cody was slow, Connor covering for him whenever they shared the ice. Neither twin responded to the implicit question from their captain. Hell, they didn’t even do that weird twin thing they had going on where they looked like they could solve the mysteries of the universe with one look or word.
“Anything?” Alex said, talking right at Cody.
“My bad,” Connor interrupted. “Won’t happen again.”
“Damn right it won’t, asshole,” Cody snapped, then subsided into silence.
What the hell? The twins were inseparable, in tune; often on the ice at the same time because they had a freaky connection and could blind pass in the power play like there was no one else on the ice. Everyone stared at Cody, but no one said a word.
“Sort out your shit,” Alex instructed. “Talk to me, talk to Coach, talk to the fucking hot dog vendor outside, but talk to someone.”
Connor mumbled something, Cody remained silent.
Gooly raised a hand, which under normal circumstances would have lightened the tension in the room. Nikita “Gooly” Gulin, one of the alternate captains, wasn’t the quietest of men. He was a confident and brash Russian, who centered a very strong second line, and wore the A on his chest with pride. His opinion mattered, even if a lot of the time the people listening couldn’t decipher his awkward mix of gruff Russian vowels.
“Gooly?” Alex prompted.
“Many turnovers,” Gooly began, his accent thick until he coughed. His English was passable. Alex mostly understood what he was saying, other than a few dropped tenses, until he lost his temper, and then the dense Russian vowels were back. “Losing puck on forecheck, no D-assist.” He sat back in his seat.
That got Ryan’s attention immediately. “You saying our problem is just defense?” he snapped. “Let’s talk about those turnovers by your line, Gooly.”
Gooly held up a hand. “Sorry I’m upset you, sometimes my English—”
“Bullshit,” Ryan snapped. “You know exactly what you’re saying.”
“Gooly’s right,” Alex interjected, and shook his head quickly at a mutinous-looking Ryan.
Just give me a few moments to explain, Ryan.
“Gooly is right, our D is hanging Drago out to dry, but we wouldn’t need to worry about Drago in the net if the forwards weren’t turning over on the forecheck in the first place. It’s not one particular reason, we just don’t have cohesion, we’re not keeping the puck, we’re not talking on the ice. Hell, does anyone in here think those six goals by the other team were Drago’s fault in the net? He was fucking standing on his head, and he took thirty-three shots, boys—we only managed sixteen on the other side.”
He paused and waited for someone, anyone, even a rookie, to blame the loss on Drago. Not a single person said a word.
He turned his attention to the forwards. “Do you want Loki out for another four months?” he asked, but he wasn’t expecting a reply, and launched into what he wanted to say without waiting. “Because if he’s out there alone, then you’re exposing him. And Loki, it’s not your job to carry the fucking team, so stop trying.”
Loki opened his mouth to say something, looking affronted and then relieved. Finally he shrugged. “Yeah, okay,” he said. His hand was on his knee, massaging gently. Alex had seen him favoring it during the game, his gait off, his expression tight. If there was any chance of the Dragons getting a place in the playoffs, then they needed Loki, they needed Ryan, Rafferty, the twins, Drago…hell, they needed him and a cohesive fucking team.
“Someone talk to me. Tell me what we need to do to stop playing like individuals and play more like a team.”
No one spoke. Some wouldn’t meet his eyes. You didn’t show weakness in hockey: you got hurt, you played through the pain; if there was blood, then you wiped it off; you were six down, it didn’t matter, because you played like you could score six goals in the last two minutes. To speak up now would be admitting weakness, and he needed to show them it was okay in that room, away from the press, and the coaches, and management.
“I’ll go first.” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t pass enough tonight. I was holding the puck, because I didn’t trust some of you would keep control of it if I passed to you. It was up to me to score, and I didn’t think any of you would be able to if I didn’t.”
Everyone looked at him, some with guilty expressions and others looking insulted. That was what he wanted—talking, anger, resolution.
“I feel the same way,” said Dmitry Semenov, the other Russian on the team and Alex’s linemate “I also attract the D to me too much.”
Alex nodded. The D on the opposing team had been taking their eyes off Alex and pushing it all on Dmitry. And why was that? Apparently they didn’t rate Alex as needing their focus.
“I’m not playing well,” Alex admitted. “Other teams are seeing that, and I’m not perceived as a threat they need to manage. For what it’s worth, I know I’m worrying too much about the team as a whole and not enough about my part in the team at the grass roots.”
Silence. Then Loki nodded. “Me too,” he said.
“And me,” added Ryan.
Alex swallowed. He’d been brought into this team as captain, never known anything but that role. Maybe it was time for someone else to take the lead.
“If you want me to step down as captain, then I’ll understand. There’s no point in leadership that doesn’t work.”
“We should vote,” Drago said immediately, and Alex’s chest tightened. Ultimately the choice of captain was a coach-led decision, but the team had to be behind the choice.
“Everyone who wants Alex to keep the C, raise your hand.”
There wasn’t a single moment of hesitation. Every hand went up, no exceptions.
“It’s done,” Drago said, then waved at Alex to continue like it was nothing important.
“Okay then,” Alex said. He hadn’t realized how relieved he’d feel to know that the team wanted their captain to remain the same. They must have faith in him; he just needed it for himself. “Let’s get everything out. Who wants to start?”
At first, every man looked unsure. Then Arkin stood up, and it seemed like it was going to be the rookie who began this. That was a good thing, right? That a rookie felt confident enough in the room to be able to speak out?
“Even though you said you want me with Rafferty, I’m not sure of my place in the team,” Arkin admitted, then dipped his gaze. “It’s not like college or my time in the Colts, and I get that it shouldn’t be, but here, I don’t know, I feel…wrong.” He sounded frustrated, like he didn’t really know the words to explain his position.
And the floodgates opened.
For four hours, maybe more, they sat in the locker room. At points, some left to shower. By the time the meeting finished, it was three a.m. and Alex felt like there’d been a point to it all, like he’d done the right thing. He was the Captain of the newest NHL team, and the team still wanted him there.
“Ready to go?” Ryan asked with a yawn.
Alex stretched and gave an answering yawn. Ryan and his girlfriend, Kat, lived in the same neighborhood, and he’d brought Ryan in that morning.
God, that seemed so long ago. He’d walked into the place with a heavy heart, already knowing they were going to lose to the Sabres. Didn’t matter that he wanted to be positive, that he was determined to focus—the moment he’d stepped inside, he’d known they lacked cohesion. He didn’t want that feeling again. A captain—hell, any hockey player—shouldn’t have that mindset.
“Sure,” he said, and grabbed his bag. They were the last to leave the locker room—the last in the whole damn building, apart from security, who looked at them curiously as they passed.
“Night,” Alex said, and Ryan echoed the words.
When they were outside, the November cold hit them like a slap in the face, and they hurried to Alex’s car. There wasn’t a lot of space in the trunk of the gleaming scarlet Ferrari; good thing they didn’t have to carry their equipment with them like they’d done in the minors.
“Can we stop at the firehouse? I need to drop car key in to Kat. She came by to pick it up but we were in the locked room thing.”
What was a few more minutes on an already fucked night? Kat was a paramedic attached to the firehouse nearest the rink, and he knew that pulling nights had to be a fucker if she felt anything like he did at the moment. His body was confused by the lack of sleep, he felt wrung out by everything they’d talked about—on top of a brutal loss—but at least the cold air had woken him up and he felt awake enough to drive.
“How do you think that went?” Ryan asked as they left the parking lot, narrowly avoiding a guy walking across the main road like he had all the time in the world, with a crossing not much farther up. Evidently he thought three a.m. equated to clear roads. Apparently he hadn’t accounted for random hockey players driving home.
“Good.” Alex wasn’t lying—the team had needed tonight more than they’d known. The chance to be completely blunt. Between them they’d thrashed out new training to be passed to Coach Barton, reassured the rookies that everything was going to be okay, and talked about common purpose and playing their game. Yeah, some of it sounded cliché, but sometimes it was the clichés that actually meant something.
“We still have a chance. You know that, right?”
Alex nodded. Every team started the season with a chance of getting to the playoffs, but that was a long way off. At this moment in time, he’d be satisfied with pulling together as a team and winning the next game. He turned left, heading toward the firehouse. They were only a couple of minutes out, and he could already imagine himself getting into bed and sleeping through tomorrow.
He and Ryan saw the wreck at the same time. A Toyota wrapped around a stop light, a twisted mess of metal.
“Jesus,” Ryan said as Alex stopped the car and climbed out.
“Call 9-1-1,” Alex snapped.
Ryan already had his cell out, and he called the accident in as Alex sprinted across the road to what was left of the car. It had been protected somewhat by the fallen crossing lights. Alex slid through the narrowest of gaps, catching his jacket on jagged metal, hearing Ryan call something out loud. He didn’t have to hear the word “gas” to know that it was seeping onto the ground beneath his feet. There wasn’t much left of the front of the car, as if an invisible hand had grabbed it and ripped it apart.
“Help!” The voice was male, and Alex heard what sounded like a crying baby. Any thought he had of trying to get away from gas and fire was gone in an instant, and something inside him switched from caution to determination.
He yanked what he could out of the way and assessed the situation in seconds. A young guy, early twenties, steering wheel pressed against his chest…and in the back, wedged into a small space, there was a baby in a car seat, no more than a few months old.
“She wouldn’t sleep,” the young guy said, sobbing and gasping. “We drive…”
“What’s your name?” Alex said as he looked for a way to get them out. The smell of gas was worse inside the wreck, but he could reach the baby. Something in the ruined car shifted. Alex heard a loud curse; Ryan wasn’t far behind him.
“I’m here,” Ryan reassured.
“My name’s Derek,” the dad said. “Get my baby out, please.”
Alex pushed through the pain of metal cutting into his arm and managed to snag fabric, not sure if it was the baby’s clothes or car seat. The crying intensified, and he tugged as hard as he could without hurting the tiny scrap of a child. With a firm grasp, he had the baby in his hand, and he crawled back the way he came, holding firm to his precious package, handing her over to Ryan as he gulped in fresh air. He assumed it was a girl—she was in pink, and she was so tiny. Ryan cradled her just a gently as he had.
“I’m going back in for the dad.”
“Alex no, let the fire crew—”
“There’s no time—”
“This car could blow.” Ryan tried to snag his jacket, but Alex avoided him.
“Take the baby away from here,” Alex shouted as the child squealed in Ryan’s arms.
“Get. Away.” Alex said, and headed back into the twisted mass, hoping to hell that Ryan did what he’d been told, that the baby was safe.
“My baby,” Derek said.
“She’s safe,” Alex replied, “Can you move?”
Derek pushed at the steering wheel, but he didn’t have the strength, and the blood around his head was ominous, as was the overpowering smell of gas.
He looked for a way in, scrambled around so he was on the passenger side, and bracing his back, he pressed with his feet against the steering wheel. It shifted some.
“Okay, Derek,” he said, as calmly as he could, ignoring the flicker of orange to one side.
There is no fire. There is no fire.
“When I push, I need you to try to move.”
“Izzy…” Derek sounded delirious.
“Your baby is fine. Izzy is fine.” Alex assumed Izzy was the baby, but for a second he panicked that someone else was in the car. “Where is your wife, Derek?” he snapped as he braced himself again. “Derek? Your wife? Girlfriend? Partner?”
“Home,” Derek managed.
Thank fuck for that.
“Okay, I’m pushing. Ready? On three. One. Two. Three.”
He pushed with every ounce of muscle strength he had in his legs, and the wheel moved, an inch, another. “C’mon, Derek, get the fuck out,” he shouted over the noise of crunching metal.
Something he said must have gotten through to Derek. He wriggled and managed to get unpinned. With an extra shove, he was out of the car and scrambling through the narrow path that Alex had used, the same route that was closing as the heat grew nearer.
Alex frantically scrambled away, smoke filling his lungs, heat on his face, and he crawled out the way he’d come in, his jacket catching until he couldn’t move, and the fire was too close.
The chassis cracked, a weight falling on his head, and his vision blurred, then something wet fell on him, and he closed his eyes. That could be fuel; this was him dead.
Hands gripped him, strong hands, and he yelled as the metal that held him released its hold.
With that cry, he scrambled free of the wreckage, and someone was dragging him back. He could hear shouting, feel the heat, and the night was dark around him. Pain snagged his arm.
“I got you,” a voice said; a woman’s. “You’re okay.”
“Out?” he asked.
Is the baby okay? Is the dad okay? Was there anyone else in the wreck?
Ryan’s voice was at the edge of things. “Kat is here. You’ll be okay, Simba.”
Then that other voice, the soft but firm voice, and the hands that had gripped him and pulled him free. Was it cliché to stare into someone’s eyes as you passed out? He didn’t know, but the intensity of the darkness he looked into was enough that he forgot the pain for a second.
“They’re both okay. I got you. Help is here.”
Pain vanished. Nothing at all. No burning, no hurt, only the soft comfort of floating and the stark white of a hospital room.
“Team medic is here,” Ryan said, next to him. Ryan’s voice had been reassuringly there the whole time.
Then Loki was there, and Drago ordering people about, Gooly, the twins, and Mac bringing coffee. Hell, was the whole team in his damn room?
“The baby?” he asked, although the words floated away from him and he couldn’t quite hold on to them.
“You need to sleep,” Ryan said. “The baby is fine.”
And so he slept.
Next time he woke, it was to a world of hurt, and he told everyone exactly that. Adding that he was playing hockey whatever happened. Whatever.
Of course, being told the crack in his radius would keep him out for at least four weeks wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but at least everything else was okay. No other broken bones, the cuts and burns not too deep, and he might have avoided concussion even though he’d blacked out.
Four to six weeks my ass—I’ll be back in a few days.
Had he said that out loud? No one answered him, so he guessed he hadn’t.
Then he started coughing, and his chest freaking hurt.
When he woke to daylight at whatever time of the day it was, all he could think about was his car.
“My car?” he asked.
“Dealt with,” said a voice. He thought it sounded like maybe Drago, but couldn’t quite make it out.
His Ferrari was his pride and joy, and he’d only just got the scratches fixed from Ryan sliding down the side of it.
The voice continued, “Ryan took it home.”
All Alex could think was that he was glad it wasn’t Loki, because Loki drove like a demon and had absolutely zero respect for cars.
Had it only been yesterday they’d had that meeting in the locker room? Or was it the day before? He’d lost the concept of time somewhere along the way.
“They’re showing a game,” a nurse explained, or a doctor, or a visitor, he didn’t know who, as they placed a control next to him.
Which game? The Dragons were playing Boston next. Was it the Boston game? Why were the players wearing Dallas-green on one side and Wings-red on the other? It wasn’t their game. And why were the guys flying? Were they actually flying in Dallas now? What the hell? Was that snow? And puppies?
“I’m not taking any more drugs,” he announced to the owner of the soft hands checking bandages.
“Okay,” the voice said.
“I mean it. No more drugs.”
Three days, and he was released from hospital, smuggled past reporters to Ryan and Kat’s place. He sat on the sofa, wondering what the hell the time was, the day was, where he was. And still in pain.
But. At least there were no more drugs.