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Bryan was beyond late. He'd missed Allie's entire practice. He just hoped she was still at the rink. He'd texted her, but she hadn't replied. His sister, who watched Allie when he was gone, wasn't picking up, either.
So not good. People weren't almost an hour late to pick up their thirteen-year-old kids from hockey. At least not people who were good at being parents.
He was going to have to arrange a backup plan for the nights he was coming from out of town. One more arrangement to get this whole precarious mess he and Allie were calling a family under control.
He sure as hell hoped Erin's new life was worth it.
He pulled into the drop-off circle at the front of the rink. It was past nine o'clockno one was going to complain if he left the Lexus there for a few minutes.
He took the stairs three at a time, his bad knee twinging as he landed on the icy top step, but he ignored the old pain. Bryan yanked the doors open, the blast of warmth hitting him hard after the bitter cold air. He was already scanning the lobby, checking the worn, tweed couches for his daughter when Danny Jackson, the rink manager, popped his head out of his office.
"Bryan," Danny said. "I need to talk to you."
Bryan glanced over but kept walking toward the locker rooms. "I'll be back in one sec. I'm late picking up Allie," he called. She wasn't in the lobby but she had to be here somewhere. She wouldn't have asked someone to drop her at the apartment. Not when she knew he was out of town.
"There was a fight, Bry," Danny said. "That's what we need to talk about."
Just that quick there was no air in his lungs. No spit in his mouth. "Is she hurt?"
"No." Danny looked uncomfortable, pulling his wrinkled golf shirt down over his gut as he opened the door wider. "Allie's fine."
"A fight?" He'd already started for the office, even though he hadn't entirely processed what the guy meant. Allie took her hockey seriously, and yeah, she was still playing in the coed league at an age when most girls opted for the single-sex, no-contact league, but a fight? A hockey fight? At practice?
That was when he noticed the mess around the skate shop on the opposite side of the lobby. The display in the front window was knocked to pieces, and the glass from the window glinted on the floor. A rack of jackets was overturned near the entrance door. Allie's stick with the distinctive fluorescent purple tape lay partially under the collapsed sandwich board advertising current sales.
He looked back to Danny who tugged at his shirt again.
The top of Allie's head was slightly visible beyond Danny's shoulder in the office. He tried to push by the smaller man but Danny locked his arm, blocking the doorway, and said in a low voice, "I'm sorry about this."
"Let me see her."
Danny stepped back and Bryan was past him and kneeling next to Allie. He barely registered that there were other people in the room as he put his hands on either side of his daughter's chin and raised her head.
Allie. His girl. For a second he couldn't focus, he was so relieved that she was in one piece. He stroked her jaw with his thumbs, happy to have her there so close, and then he blinked and her features became clear. Her lip was split, a thin line of blood where the skin was cracked. Her small, upturned nose, with the exact same smattering of freckles his ex-wife had always hated on her own nose, was fine. She had a scratch on one cheek but nothing looked too bad except her eyes. She wouldn't look straight at him, had her gaze fixed somewhere over his shoulder. Allie was scared. Not hurt scared, but scared scared in a way he hadn't seen since those first panicked days three months ago when Erin had told them she was going on tour with Lush and Allie would be staying with him full-time.
What the hell had happened to put that look back in her eyes?
"You okay?" he asked, his voice rough.
When she nodded, he let his eyes skim quickly over the rest of her. There was blood on the neck of the Sabres jersey he'd given her for Christmas and the knee was torn out of her jeans, the skin underneath raw and weeping blood, but she looked all right. She was in one piece and he'd made it home, late but not too late, and whatever else happened, he could handle. He would handle. Somehow he'd make this right for Allie because although she deserved the best, all she had right now was him.
He slid one hand around to the back of her neck and then down to rest on her shoulder, reassuring himself asmuch as her as he turned to stand. His knee protested when he straightened it, but he barely noticed. With his immediate worries answered, the other people in the room finally registered. His gaze jerked from the woman in the chair next to Allie to the boy sitting on the far side. The boy who'd hit Allie. The boy who better have a damn good explanation for himself.
"Danny?" he said, his voice tight. "What happened?"
Danny pointed at the chair and Bryan sathe had questions, but he trusted Danny to answer them. Danny was a straight shooter. He'd coached Bryan back in squirt hockey, and had never given him bad advice.
Allie's cut knee was jerking up and down a mile a minute next to his. He rubbed her shoulder, trying to release some of her tension but the knee kept bouncing.
"Clare Sampson, meet Bryan James, Allie's father. The kids already know each other," Danny said. "A little too well."
Bryan didn't recognize Clare Sampson. She was dressed more stylishly than most of the hockey moms he saw around the rink; her navy belted car coat couldn't possibly offer much protection from the metal benches. Her straight, sleek brown hair was tucked behind her ears and her eyes were also brown behind a pair of trendy-looking glasses with dark green frames. Her face was attractive, or would have been if she hadn't been glaring at him as though he was a spot on the front of her white silk shirt. She must have kept her own last name because he didn't know any dads named Sampson.
"Allie and Tim got in a pretty serious fight in the skate shop after practice," Danny said. "I was fitting a pair of skates in the back and they were going at it before we could break them up. I haven't taken stock yet, but I'm guessing there's quite a bit of property damagethe front window's broken for sure. Luckily neither of them is hurt too bad."
Bryan leaned forward so he could see around Clare. The boy was sitting slumped in his chair, an ice pack on one eye, the neck of his shirt stretched and the skin underneath scratched. A bruise was blooming on his chin. His good eye was open but as soon as he saw Bryan looking at him, he closed it. Even allowing for the fact that he was a little beat up, Bryan didn't recognize him.
"What happened?" he whispered fiercely to Allie. "How does that kid even know you?"
His daughter's head dipped lower and her knee started bouncing harder so Bryan knew he'd made a mistake even before Clare's mouth tightened and she snapped, "Tim is on the Twin Falls Cowboys, Mr. James. Same as Allie."
Bryan leaned forward again for a second look at the boy and Allie muttered, "Right wing, fourth line."
"Fourth line?" he said. "I didn't think we had a"
"Dad," Allie said.
At the same instant Tim reopened his good eye and said, "It's only my third week."
"Discussing hockey positions isn't the point," Clare said. "Your daughter started a fight with my son and despite what Mr. Jackson says, Tim is not okay." Bryan was all set to rip into her when she added, "And this is not the first time she's done it."
Not the first time? What did that mean? He looked to Allie, but she was staring at the floor again.
"Mom," Tim protested, his voice cracking.
Clare knew she was crossing a line her son hadn't wanted her to cross, but she was frankly out of patience.
Allie James was a pretty girl, an excellent athlete and as far as she could see, a hot-tempered bully.
Clare straightened in her chair and patted Tim's arm, but her son jerked away from her, the ice bag he'd been holding on his eye flinging drops of water onto her pants and the linoleum floor. He scuffed the water with the toe of one black sneaker. "I asked you not to do this," he said with an embarrassed glance at Allie.
She ignored the guilt she felt as she said, "What happened, Mr. James, is your daughter attacked Tim after school on at least two occasions and then again tonight. I want to know what you're going to do about that because I'm this close" Clare held two fingers up, leaving barely a micron of space between them "to calling the police."
"The police? They're kids."
Despite his dismissive tone, Allie's father sat forward, his attention on her now, not Tim. Good. He should know how serious this was and exactly who he was dealing with.
"Ms. Sampson," the manager said. "Let me give Bryan a quick rundown of what happened tonight. I hope we can work this out without getting the police involved."
Clare nodded. She'd give them a few more minutes but if she didn't like what she saw, she was breaking up the boys club and getting some help down here. She might have just moved to Twin Falls while these guys seemed to be old friends, but that didn't mean she had to let them push her or Tim around.
"After practice, Allie and Tim were in the pro shop. Like I said, I was in the back so I didn't see what happened, but Cody MacAvoy was there, and he says Allie jumped Tim."
Clare was watching Allie's father closely. He winced at the manager's last words.
His blue eyes were shadowed by the dark brown hair falling across his forehead. She'd noticed when he came into the office that he was much taller than the rink manager, and that he held himself with confidence despite a slight limp. Now, slumped in the chair next to his daughter, he looked considerably less formidable. He was shooting worried looks at Allie and nodding as the manager told the story, but she wasn't sure how much he was really taking in. If circumstances were different, she could imagine sympathizing with himthis was a horrible situation and the man looked exhausted.
"It took two of us to uh pull her off him."
Clare started to reach for Tim, to brush the hair off his forehead at least, to reassure herself, but she saw him tense and so she disguised the gesture by tucking her own hair behind her ear.
She and Tim had always been closeit was just the two of them and had been right from the start.
This year, ever since Tim started seventh grade, he'd been pushing her away. His reach for independence was natural, she knew. Healthy, even. But it scared her.
She'd told him she would stay out of the trouble he'd been having with Allie, but he couldn't expect her to ignore this. She'd been right there in the lobby, half watching a repeat of Friends on the TV mounted over the snack-bar window while scrolling through her e-mail in another futile attempt to clear her in-box. Then there'd been yelling and the sound of breaking glass and a horrible cracking sound she figured out later was Tim's head hitting the floor. She'd turned as the kids had come rolling out of the skate shop like some grotesque, many-armed monster. Thank God they'd avoided the broken glass, most of which was off to the side.
She'd never seen a fistfight before and the little she'd witnessed of this one had been brutal and desperate. She'd stood frozen while the rink manager pulled Allie off Tim, and Cody, a boy from their team, helped her son to his feet.
It had taken all of her self-control not to slap Allie's face right there even though she'd never hit another human being in her life. She didn't want to punish Allie for the physical damage she'd caused Tim, but for the anxious, bewildered look on his face as he was helped to his feet. And to be honest, for her own frustration. A thirteen-year-old girl hockey goon was not what they needed now while Tim was trying to get used to a new school and before either of them was comfortable in the new town.
"The kids won't say what started it," the man continued. "In fact, neither of them has said much of anything at all."
Clare put her hands in her lap, squeezing them together hard, letting the discomfort remind herself to be strong here even if it made Tim or Allie or Allie's father unhappy.
"Allie, does Danny have this straight?" Bryan asked.
She lifted her head. "I don't care if she does call the police, I'm not talking about it."
Clare never found out what Bryan had intended to say because Allie put an end to the conversation by pushing her chair back and running out of the office, slamming the door behind her so hard the pictures rattled on the walls.
Bryan was up and ready to go after his daughter when Clare spoke.
"It's late and we really have to get home if we're going to get any sleep tonight." She heard the frustration in her own voice, unable to care enough to conceal it. "We've accomplished nothing. I don't see any choice but to file a police report, because honestly, Allie's not showing any remorse and I can't believe that Tim is going to be safe here or at school."
Tim slumped lower in his chair, but Bryan looked furious. "I don't know who you are, lady, but you don't know Allie. She's a thirteen-year-old girl, not a monster. You don't call the police over a kids' fistfight."
Clare stood up, refusing to raise her voice, but not willing to back down. "Allie has attacked Tim on three separate occasions. Maybe if she realized that there are consequences for her actions she'd think twice before she does it again."
"And you're irresponsible. Your kid is out of control and you don't even know it."