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"Hey, Dylan, grab the fire hose," Max Varo joked as the homemade chocolate cake laden with thirty-five burning candles made its way into the Shawnigan family rec room. The cake wobbled slightly in June Shawnigan's hands as she broke into a soprano rendition of "Happy Birthday to You." The fifty or so people singing along were assorted friends and family of Adam Shawnigan, June's baby, thirty-five today.
She suspected his surprise party hadn't been a surprise for more than a nanosecond-he was a detective, after all-but he was putting on a good face for the celebration.
It was a rugged, handsome face, too, if she did say so herself. She wasn't the only one who noticed. As she looked around, June could see the expressions on some of the younger women's faces. Adam was, as more than one young woman had informed her, a major hottie. So why was her thirty-five-year-old major-hottie son still single?
When he'd finished blowing out the candles, and she'd passed slices of cake and forks, she called for quiet and motioned to her husband, Dennis, to dim the lights and push Play.
"No. For the love of God, no," moaned Adam as the bigscreen TV came to life. Oh, she'd surprised him now, she thought with satisfaction as the home movie she'd taken on her first camcorder thirty years ago filled the screen.
Three little boys sat at the picnic table in June's backyard, all chubby faces and mustard-stained mouths, chomping through hot dogs and potato chips. She must have guessed they'd stay still for at least another minute or two, so she'd grabbed her new camcorder, pushed Record. Of course, at five years old, the three were used to being followed around by eager parents with cameras and barely batted an eye.
She said, "Adam, how old are you today?"
"I'm five," he said, looking at the camera as though a not-very-bright woman were behind it.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" she asked.
"I'm going to be a police officer," he said, dipping his hot dog into a pool of ketchup and stuffing it into his mouth. Even then he'd had big blue eyes that were so like his father's. Then, his mouth full, he mumbled, "Like my dad."
"Aw," said a chorus of voices in the living room.
"How about you, Dylan?" she asked the freckle-faced kid next to her son, as if his answer weren't perched on his head.
He put his hand on the red plastic firefighter's helmet he'd barely taken off in a year and said, "A fireman." Dylan was the tallest of the three boys and the most daring. It had come as no surprise to June when he'd been cited for bravery four years ago for rushing into a burning building as it collapsed to save a young woman's life.
"Amazing," a voice from the crowd piped up. "Who gets their career right at five?"
"What about you, Max?" she asked the smallest of the three boys. Max Varo at five was very much like Max Varo at thirty-five. He had dark South American good looks and a neatly buttoned shirt that showed no signs of dropped food-unlike the shirts of the other two. He ate tidily and always remembered to say please and thank you. "I am going to be an astronaut."
"Or a billionaire," Dylan called out. There was general laughter in the crowded rec room but she couldn't help looking at Max now. He grinned at the crack, but June wondered how many people realized how bitterly he'd resented the childhood ear infection that had done enough damage to his hearing that becoming an astronaut-or even a commercial pilot-was never going to be possible.
But on-screen it was 1983 and everything was still possible. Because the boys were adorable-and she was of a matchmaking disposition-June then asked, "And who are you going to marry, Adam?"
Laughter and someone shouting, "Yeah, Adam, who are you going to marry?" almost drowned out the little boy's voice. On-screen he grinned at her and said, "Princess Diana."
"She's already married, stupid," Dylan informed him. Then, unasked, he said, "I'm going to marry Xena, warrior princess."
"How about you, Max?"
The serious little boy said, "I'm not getting married until I'm grown up."
She stopped the show there and as the party grew more raucous, she went over to her husband, who wrapped his arms around her. "A dead princess, a comic-book character and a boy who's waiting to grow up. No wonder they're all still single."
"Give them time, sweetie," Dennis said, kissing the top of her head.
"They're thirty-five-how much time do they need? I want to take movies of my grandchildren out on that picnic table before I'm too old and weak to hold a camera."
As though in answer, the three men, still best friends, all tough, loyal, gorgeous and as dear to her as though they were all her children, started one of their complicated bets, the rules of which were known only to themselves. But she wasn't so clueless she didn't see where this was going.
"Oh, no. Dennis, are they making a bet to see who can stay single the longest?"
Her heart began to sink as her husband solemnly nodded, and the three men clinked beer bottles. "To the last bachelor standing."
"I can't do it," the man at the podium said into the microphone. As his admission of failure bounced through the air, he pushed the mic away with a grunt of frustration and stomped down two steps to throw himself into the seat beside Serena Long. Fortunately, she was the only person in the audience.
She'd decided to have her first session with Marcus Lemming in the auditorium of his gaming empire's brand-new headquarters here in Hunter, Washington.
"Okay," she said calmly. "You can't do it. You can't give a speech to your potential shareholders. What does that mean?"
Marcus wiped clammy sweat off his forehead with a trembling hand. Instead of answering her, the twenty-six-year-old CEO said, "I'm worth 100 million dollars. I'm a computer frickin' genius. And when I stand up there, I feel like I'll throw up."
"I know. That's why you hired me." She loved being a performance coach and she was damn good at it. "I want you to breathe into your fear."
He stared at her.
"Go on, breathe. Feel the energy, the raw power of that fear. Now, we're going to take that energy and turn it into positive excitement. You have a great site, a winning formula. No one can sell it like you can."
"Yeah. Online. I could write a killer email. Why can't the suits be happy with that?"
She laughed even though she suspected he was only half joking. Fear of public speaking was higher than fear of death on the stress scale to certain people. And she loved them for it. They were making her rich. "I guarantee that if you do the exercises and the work I assign you, in a month you will give that speech. I'm not saying you'll love every minute of it, but you'll speak in public and you will do fine."
"You guarantee it?"
"You're that good?"
She grinned at him. "Yep."
"I can't even give a speech to one person. How am I going to talk to hundreds, with a media feed broadcasting out to millions?"
"We start small. Okay. Maybe you're not ready for the mic and the auditorium yet. I'll get you some water. And then you'll sit here right beside me and read your speech."
"My speechwriter said it's lame to read a speech."
"Like I said, we start small."
By the time she left Marcus, he'd been able to read his speech to her without vomiting, crying or fainting. It was a start.
Serena was one of the best at what she did, coaching better performance out of employees, helping superstars fight their demons or overcome their handicaps, whether they struggled with public speaking, learning how to manage people or goal setting. She was part business tycoon, part psychologist and, as a client once suggested, part witch. She wasn't sure about the last part, but she did have instincts that surprised even her sometimes when she worked what appeared to be magic.
When Max Varo's name showed up on her call display as she was clicking open the door locks of her car, she answered her cell phone at once.
"Max," she said, letting the pleasure she felt out in her tone. "How are you?"
"Never better." He wasn't one to waste time, not his or hers, so he got right to the point. "I need a favor."
They'd met in Boston, when both took their MBAs, she with her human resources background, he with astrophysics and a few other degrees under his belt. She considered Max her first success in performance coaching. She hadn't even realized that was what she wanted to do until she helped him turn his life around and realized she could do the same thing for others.
They'd been friends ever since and he'd sent her some of her best clients. If he needed a favor, they both knew he was going to get it.
"You know I play amateur hockey?"
"Well, our center forward is choking under pressure. He's a great player all year but when we get to the championships, he just freezes up."
"Performance anxiety," she diagnosed.
"I know. But we can't replace him. He's the best we've got, plus one of my closest friends. I need you to work with him, get him over this choking thing."
"I'm not a sports coach."
"Serena, you could get Bill Gates into the NBA if he wanted it."
"Okay. You have a point. But it's not really my field."
"Look at it this way. You won't get paid, so nobody's going to judge you."
She was as busy as she'd ever been, had recently turned down paying work in her chosen field, business, and now she was contemplating working pro bono for a sports guy? If it were anyone but Max
"I don't know the first thing about hockey," she warned.
"You don't need to know about hockey. His problem isn't related to stick-handling skills. He's choking under pressure. Nobody helps a man struggling to find success like you."
"He'd better be super motivated."
"Adam Shawnigan is dying to work with you," he assured her. "I can't wait to tell him the good news after our game tonight."
Adam loved hockey. After a day of precinct coffee, discovering evidence he'd worked months to gather in a murder trial had been deemed inadmissible and getting yelled at by a woman who insisted her taxpayer dollars gave her the right to report her dog as a missing person, it felt good to step out onto the ice.
Out here the sound of a skate blade carving cold, clean tracks helped clear the crap out of his mind. With a stick in his hands and a puck to focus on, he had control over his destiny, even if only for a couple of hours.
Max and Dylan played alongside him, as they had since their parents had signed them up for hockey when they were in first grade. They'd all kept up the game and now played in the same emergency-services league. Most of the players were cops and firefighters, with a few ambulance guys thrown in. Max barely qualified since he was a reserve firefighter, but he paid for the uniforms, so the Hunter Hurricanes weren't inclined to complain.
Normally they practiced once a week at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. and played a weekly game, but with play-offs looming, they'd upped their practice schedule and it showed. Well into the third period against the Bend Bandits, they were ahead 3-2. Adam was center forward. With Dylan and Max as wing-men, he felt they were a dream trio. They'd come close to bagging the Badges on Ice championship not once but twice. This time, he told himself. This year that cup was theirs. All he had to do was focus.
Max, the right wing, had the puck and stayed back while Adam and Dylan crossed paths and headed for the offensive zone in a classic forward crisscross they'd practiced hundreds of times. Max then shot a crisp pass to Dylan. They were gaining speed. Adam felt his adrenaline pump. Focus and timing were everything. Max maneuvered himself into the high slot. Dylan, under attack, passed to Adam, who flicked the puck to Max. But the goalie was right on him. Instead of taking the shot, Max tipped the puck to Dylan, who then sent the thing flying past the stumbling goalie and scored.
Magic. They were magic on ice. This year that championship was theirs, and nothing was getting in the way.
After the backslaps and congratulations, the shaking hands when the game was over, the teams headed for the change room. Max said, "Adam, hold up a second." Dylan hung back, too.
He listened in growing irritation as Max told him about the great "favor" he'd arranged.
"There is no damn way I am letting some bossy do-gooder inside my head," Adam snapped, sending puffs of white breath into the freezing air inside the rink.
"She's a performance coach. The woman's amazing."
"I don't need a performance coach. How many goals did I score this season?" He turned to glare at his two best friends.
"How about in play-offs last year?" Dylan asked.
The familiar churn began in his gut as it did whenever he thought about play-offs. "I had a stomach bug or something last year. That's why I was off my game."
"And the year before?"
His scowl deepened. "Maybe a case messed up my concentration. I forget."
"Dude, my grandma could have made the shot you missed last year. The net was open and you missed it! You choked," Dylan said. "It happens. But we want to win the championship this year. We all want it real bad."
"So do I!" What did they think? He was the team captain, center. Of course he wanted to win. All he needed to do was focus more. Somehow he'd lost his edge in the last two championship games. He wouldn't let it happen again.
"Then at least meet with Serena Long," Max said. "She's eager to work with you."
He scowled. Glared at both of them. "She'd better be hot."