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"The town of Elmside is tonight mourning the passing of one of their beloved and most popular figures, Pastor Douglas Boult."
The newscaster's words made the laughter die in Jenny Martin's throat. Her mind froze, abandoning the celebrity gossip she'd been sharing with her friend Maggie. Her coffee cup dropped from her nerveless fingers as she spun to look across the Ice Cats' family room toward the large flat-screen television. She barely noticed the hot, wet patch on her black jeans; her attention was focused on the photograph of the smiling, white-haired man that now filled the screen.
The smiling face of evil.
Bile churned her stomach as the newscaster read tributes from local dignitaries.
" Pillar of the community champion of youth programs a spiritual leader "
"Are you all right?" Maggie laid her hand on Jenny's arm. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
A specter from her past, more like. "I'm fine."
Her murmured words lacked conviction, but she couldn't explain. Not here. Not now. Maybe not ever.
"Use these, Jenny." Maggie's daughter, Emily, thrust a paper napkin at her.
When Jenny looked uncomprehendingly at the little girl, Emily pointed at the damp patch, then began rubbing at the stain herself. After a moment, Jenny took over, making a few halfhearted swipes, before tossing the crumpled napkin in the trash. "Thanks, Em." Putting words together was an effort. "Great job."
"All right. What's going on?" Concern darkened Maggie's eyes.
"I'm okay." Jenny wanted to plead with her friend not to press, but couldn't form the words. Then her cell phone started to play "Dancing Queen."
Her sister. Saved by the bell. Sort of. "I have to take this. I'll be outside."
As Jenny crossed the room she felt Maggie's worried gaze on her back. Once outside in the lower concourse, the backstage of the Ice Cats Arena, Jenny answered her phone.
"Have you seen the news?" Lizzie asked without greeting.
Jenny nodded, then realized she needed to speak.
"Do you need me to come home?"
"No." The word erupted from her; desperate, urgent. She forced herself to sound calm. "You have classes." She swallowed hard. "I'm fine."
She had to be.
"Are you sure? I'm only a few hours away. College isn't like schoolI won't get detention for missing a few seminars."
"Really, Lizzie, I'll be okay."
"But people will want to speak to you about him. Even though we haven't been part of Uncle Douglas's life for over a decade, someone will make the connection and want a quote or something."
Her sister was right. Everyone in their parish knew that Douglas Boult had become Jenny and Lizzie's guardian following their parents' deaths in an accident. It wouldn't take much digging for the media to unearth the records.
"If that happens I won't say anything more than 'no comment' and I don't want you to, either."
"Not even to set the record straight? It makes me sick. They're talking about him like he was a saint. They need to know what kind of monster he was."
"Please, Lizzie." Jenny couldn't bear the thought of people knowing what he'd done to her. Her shame was enough of a burden. "He can't harm me anymore. Let the past be buried with him."
"But he doesn't deserve to be put up on a pedestal. The man was a sexual predator."
"I know what he was." Better than anyone. Her voice was soft, but firm.
She had never shared the full extent of her uncle's abuse. Not even with her sister, who knew what Jenny had suffered to protect her. In fact, Jenny had only ever trusted two other people enough to tell them part of the story and one of thoseher boyfriend at the timehad been a huge mistake.
Pain sliced through her; the memory of his betrayal, as fresh and sharp as if it had happened last night, rather than thirteen years ago.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to " Her sister's words trailed off.
"I know. It's okay." Jenny cleared her throat, trying to ease the tightness. "I just don't think it's worth opening that can of worms. No one will want to believe what Douglas did and, without proof, it'll be our word against that of a supposedly good mana man of the clothwho's no longer here to defend himself."
"You're right." Lizzie sighed. "They'll retaliate and it'll get nasty."
"I'm not ashamed of what I do in my spare time, Lizzie." Being the de facto queen of the puck bunnies wasn't everyone's idea of a "hobby."
"I'm not ashamed of you, either. But some people wouldn't understand. They'd put two and two together and get twenty-two. They'd turn what we said about Uncle Douglas against you. It's bad enough that he'll never be punished for what he did. It's not fair that the truth could ruin your life, too."
"We both know life isn't fair." Jenny made her voice bright. "Anyway, did your professor like your paper on movie remakes?"
Lizzie accepted the change in subject with only a slight hesitation. "He hated it. The man's a dinosaur."
The sound of male voices made Jenny turn. Players were heading down the corridor toward the family room. Unlike the boisterous joviality there would have been after a win, they were subdued. Not much to celebrate after a sixth straight loss. As they passed Jenny, they each nodded or lifted a hand in greeting.
"I have to go, sis. The guys are coming out of the locker room."
"I forgot you're at the game. Say hi to Jake and the others."
As Jenny hung up, Jake "Bad Boy" Badoletti and Truman "Tru" Jelinek stopped beside her. Their expressions were grim; the strain of the loss etched across their faces.
She passed on her sister's message and hugged Bad Boy, deliberately focusing her attention on him, not his best friend. "Tough night, guys. The ice was tilted against you."
"Yeah." Jake hitched a shoulder wearily. "It's been that way since the All-Star break."
"It's bound to change sometime." Her encouragement sounded hollow.
"The odds of us making the cut for the play-offs are pretty slim. We'd have to win ten of our last sixteen games and hope Buffalo and Washington slip up to have a chance of making a wild-card place." He scrubbed a hand over his jaw. "Guess I'll be improving my golf handicap come April 7."
"At least you'll get to spend more time with your personal fan club."
Jake's ice-blue eyes lit up. "Speaking of which, time to see my ladies. Catch you later at the restaurant?"
Jenny shook her head. She needed to be alone. "Sorry, got things to do."
Jake squeezed her shoulder, then strode toward the family room.
Her smile faded as Tru remained standing beside her.
She damned the way her pulse hitched. When would her traitorous body learn that she was no longer interested in the good-looking defenseman? Hadn't been for thirteen years. Other women might drool over the way his broad shoulders filled out his black, long-sleeved shirt and how his faded jeans fit his muscular thighs, but she'd learned the hard way not to trust his pretty packaging. She could resist those high, Slavic cheekbones and that rugged jaw, too. Her mom had always said "handsome is, as handsome does."
That made Tru as ugly as sin.
"I saw the news about him," Tru said quietly. "Are you okay?"
For a moment, the protective concern in his green eyes touched her. Warmed her. As it had the day they'd met in first grade. He'd had her back when she'd squared off against the class bully over her lunch money. He'd always had her back. Until the night he hadn't.
The warmth vanished, leaving frost in its place.
"If you need anything."
She cut him off. "You've done more than enough."
"I'm sorry." Red tinged his cheeks and rose up his neck. "More than you'll ever know."
"So you've said." But an apology couldn't fix the damage he'd done.
Ordinarily, she'd have left it at that. Perhaps it was the news about her uncle. Perhaps it was the shock of the past reaching into the present to smack her in the face. Either way, a door she usually kept locked burst open. "It was too damn little, too damn late, the first time. And it sure as hell doesn't change anything now."
He closed his eyes briefly, as if absorbing the thrust of her bitter words. "I was sixteen. I thought I was doing the right thing. Besides, you didn't tell me who was responsible. How could I have known.?"
"You swore you wouldn't tell anyone," she interrupted.
"I thought I could trust a priest." He thrust a hand through his still-damp, dark hair. "I was trying to protect you."
"We both know how that turned out."
Tru's girlfriend stuck her head out of the family room and cast an annoyed gaze in their direction. "Is everything okay out here?"
"Just peachy." Jenny's smile was brittle.
Tru stiffened, then shifted away from Jenny. "I'll be there in a minute, Melanie."
Jenny blamed the way her stomach lurched on the evening's news, not the exchange of lovey-dovey looks between Tru and his girlfriend. Nor the fact that he'd once looked at her that way.
"We're done here." Jenny turned on her heel and stalked off.
The sharp click-click of her heels on the stone floor echoed through the near-silent subterranean concourse. Her heart pounded so hard and so fast, she thought she'd be sick, but she didn't break stride until she slid behind the wheel of her red sports car.
As she turned the key in the ignition, the radio blared with a variation on the newscast she'd seen earlier. Though she smacked the off button, the words reverberated in her head.
Douglas Boult was dead.
He couldn't hurt her ever again.
Her hands shook on the steering wheel. Her throat tightened and her eyes burned with unshed tears. It was over. Finally.
She was free.
Dating was a pain in the ass, especially on a game night. Truman Jelinek should have known better. "We can eat out another time, Mel, when I'm not so tired."
He hefted his sports bag into the back of his Range Rover and slammed the tailgate shut, wincing as pain shot through his right shoulder. Crap. That check into the boards in the third period had done some damage. That's all he needed; another freaking injury. "I just want to go home, ice my bruises and sleep."
He opened the passenger door for Melanie, tensing when she didn't get in.
"But you've been away for a week and you promised me a night out when you got back. I got dressed up." She pouted, then fluffed her long, red hair and swept her hand provocatively down her green, silky top and white jeans. "We can skip the nightclub, but why can't we have dinner someplace nice?"
He started to shake his head.
Before he could speak, she slapped her hands on her hips. "You can rest tomorrow. You don't have another game for a few days."
Though they'd been dating for almost a year, Melanie still didn't understand how much playing took out of him. It wasn't so bad during a homestretch, but after a West Coast swingwith four games in six nightsthen tonight's grueling sixty minutes against Boston, he was a wreck. Perhaps his age was catching up with him. He'd just turned thirty, but tonight, he felt twice that. "We could go out for dinner tomorrow."
Melanie frowned as she climbed into his SUV. "You know I teach Pilates on Wednesdays. It'll have to be Thursday."
"That's the night before we play Pittsburgh."
"It's not like that one game will make a difference." She rolled her green eyes. "You won't make the postseason anyway."
Tru bit back a retort. He closed Mel's door, then stalked around to his side. He didn't need a reminder of how badly the Cats were doing. It had been two years since they'd won the Stanley Cup. Last year, they were bounced from the play-offs in the first round. This year, they wouldn't even make the cut. Veteran players, like him, were being blamed for the team's lackluster performance. After the crappy, injury-plagued season he'd had, he couldn't argue.
"Hey, Tru, you coming to eat?" Jean-Baptiste Larocque called out as he walked past.
"I've got other plans." Tru nodded toward Melanie, who was applying lip gloss. "I'll catch you tomorrow." J.B. grinned. "Have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't."
"With your track record, that gives me a pretty free rein."
"Be careful. For an old guy like you, that might be dangerous."
"This 'old guy' can still grind your candy-ass to dust, kid."
"You keep believing that." Larocque laughed, before sliding into his Porsche.
Melanie pursed her lips as Tru fastened his seat belt. "You never let me go to dinner with the team."
Tru swallowed a sigh at the familiar complaint. He couldn't explain why he didn't want Melanie at the postgame meals. It just didn't feel right. Perhaps because taking a girlfriend felt like too much of a statement about their relationship. He and Mel weren't at that stage yet. Would they ever be?
Would any woman ever be?
He pushed the questions aside. He didn't want to think about something that deep tonight. Bad enough that the past had raised its ugly head with that newscast about Douglas Boult's death.
And the torturous encounter with Jenny afterward.
He'd thought he'd dealt with the fact that Jenny would never forgive him. After trying over and over to make up for his mistake, he'd realized a few years back that he was hitting his head against a brick wall and decided to cut his losses. Since then, he'd done his best to stay out of Jenny's way.
When, like tonight, they did meet, his body reacted for the first few moments as if nothing bad had happened between them. As if she was imprinted onto his DNA.
Melanie continued her complaint. "Jenny always goes. Why can't I?"
"You know why Jenny goes."
"It's not fair. I should have more rights than a puck bunny," she huffed. "Jake takes Maggie to the team dinners."
Tru swore silently, wishing he hadn't mentioned the M-word. Melanie had been pressing hard lately to move their relationship to the next stage, but he wasn't ready. He didn't need another emotional fight about commitment tonight. With weariness clouding his brain, whatever he said wouldn't be right.
Time to steer their discussion along an easier path.
He flicked the turn signal. "How about we go to the little Italian place you love? I'll take you into the city for dinner on Saturday." He named a couple of hot restaurants in the Meatpacking District. "Your choice."
Melanie perked up. "Okay."
The tension eased. For the rest of the drive, she chattered about what she'd been doing all week. At La Trattoria Paulina, the effusive personal service and a complimentary glass of champagne put her in a better mood.
Tru was beginning to think he might escape the evening unscathed, when Melanie dropped her bombshell.
"I think we should move in together this summer." She flashed a dazzling smile.
The chicken parmigiana turned to rubber in his mouth. Tru gulped down ice water, but still felt as if he had half a puck stuck in his throat.