He’s a fighter in the rink, but he’s about to learn that playing nice can help you score...
As team captain and enforcer, Patrick O'Doul puts the bruise in the Brooklyn Bruisers. But after years of hard hits, O'Doul is feeling the burn, both physically and mentally. He conceals his pain from his coach and trainers, but when his chronic hip injury becomes too obvious to ignore, they send him for sessions with the team’s massage therapist.
After breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Ari Bettini is in need of peace of mind. For now, she’s decided to focus on her work: rehabilitating the Bruisers’ MVP. O'Doul is easy on the eyes, but his reaction to her touch is ice cold. Ari is determined to help O'Doul heal, but as the tension between them turns red hot, they both learn that a little TLC does the body good...
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Sunday, March 6th
Standings: 4th place in the Metropolitan Division
19 Regular Season Games Remaining
Patrick O'Doul knelt on his yoga mat, eyes closed.
"Let your breath find its natural rhythm," came a soothing voice at the front of the room. "Become aware of its temperature, and of the sensation of your breath as you exhale."
He exhaled slowly, obeying Ariana, the team's massage therapist and yoga instructor.
O'Doul didn't give a crap about yoga. He didn't know where his chakras were, and he didn't remember any of the names of the poses. But on game day he never objected to this mandatory hour of Simon Says with the beauty at the front of the room.
She had them holding child's pose for a couple of minutes. Since he stunk at yoga, he needed to listen closely to her instructions. The concentration yoga required was the best part-if the pretty lady in the pink sports bra was trying to twist your body into a New Age pretzel, there was no time to worry about the opponent you had to face down in five hours.
"As you hold the pose, reconnect your breathing with your body. Notice how the breath moves through the ribcage in this pose," she suggested. "Use each exhale to settle a little more firmly into the stretch. We're opening up the hips . . ."
Ariana circled among her students, making a posture correction here and there. She stopped at O'Doul's side, then got down on all fours. "Hi," she whispered.
When he turned his head, he met a pair of brown eyes, sparkling with mischief. "Hi?" She rarely began conversations during class.
"If this is too hard on your hip flexors, go back into tabletop."
"I'm good," he grunted. Christ. The whole world was focused on his weakness. Chronic muscle soreness shouldn't be such a big deal. Playing through pain was a rite of hockey.
"Do you have children?" she whispered.
"Fuck no," he whispered back. "And I never will."
Her smile didn't falter. "This pose is easier for them, because their limbs are shorter relative to their torso length. So take it easy. Let gravity do the work, okay? And do me a favor?"
"What?" He'd never had a conversation with anyone when they were both folded in two on the floor.
"Don't blow off your next massage appointment. You're making me look bad."
Aw, man. Ambushed in child's pose. "I'm sorry," he said immediately. The trainers wanted him to have some massage therapy for his hip. "Didn't mean to mess up your schedule."
She shook her head. "It's okay. You'll show up this time, right?"
"Sure," he promised, because it was hard to think up a decent excuse when you were sweating over your yoga mat.
Ari gave him one more killer smile and got up, moving on to correct another player's posture.
He watched her go, then felt guilty about missing his appointments and also for checking out her perfect ass.
Twenty minutes later, after yoga, he was ambushed a second time. But not by Ari.
"How's the hip?" Nate Kattenberger asked, his towel draped around his neck. The reason the Bruisers did yoga in the first place was because the team's young owner was a big fan of vinyasa. He sure didn't have any trouble holding Ari's poses, and always took a spot in the very front row.
"I'm good. Feeling stronger," O'Doul lied.
"Glad to hear it. I think we can beat Boston tonight," the billionaire said, wiping sweat off his forehead with a towel. He was wearing spandex shorts and a T-shirt reading, Move Your Asana. "Two game points tonight could really set us up for the weekend."
As if O'Doul didn't already know that. "We'll make it happen," he vowed.
"I think you will," Nate agreed.
O'Doul hoped so. They needed a third place finish in the Metropolitan division to be guaranteed a play-offs spot. If they ended up in fourth place, they might squeak into the last spot. It was possible. But, as O'Doul's team-issued phone told him every time he pulled it out of his pocket, their play-offs spot was not a lock. Kattenberger's sophisticated model projected their chances at 81 percent.
There was no room for error. And tonight's game meant a lot because Boston was one of the other Eastern teams in contention for those last couple of slots.
They were so close. So fucking close he could taste it.
"Get some rest before the game," Nate suggested, squeezing his forearm.
O'Doul fought the instinct to shake off the big boss's casual touch. "Will do," he agreed, knowing it was a lie. He'd go back to the hotel and lie down for a while. But sleep would elude him the same way it did on every game day. "See you tonight," he said.
Nate gave him one more nod and walked away.
Eight hours later, the fans roared as Boston made another attempt on goal.
O'Doul watched from the bench, feeling grim.
The most grueling part of his job wasn't the hockey game, or the constant travel. And it wasn't the fighting, or the stitches and bruises.
It was the dread.
Sitting on the bench between shifts, it sunk low in his belly. It was heavy, like lead. And each time he vaulted over the wall it rose up in his throat like bile.
If any team's enforcer ever told you he never felt dread, that man was lying. No human could put his body in the path of a six-three scrapper's fist three or four times a week without anticipating the pain.
Tonight's fight had been pre-arranged in the worst possible way, too. The other team's enforcer-a dick by the name of Trekowski-had called him out last night on social media. On fucking Twitter.
Maybe O'Doul won't wimp out on fighting me tomorrow night. #AGuyCanHope #BabySayYes.
Of all the dick moves O'Doul had witnessed, this one took the trophy. He hadn't responded, because he didn't even have Twitter. He didn't tweet. Or twat. Whatever.
The team's publicist-Georgia-had responded on his behalf. He'd approved a pithy little quote for the Bruisers' Facebook page:
Someone punched me on the interwebs?
he'd supposedly replied.
Funny, I didn't feel a thing.
He had to admit it was a clever response. A hockey fight was supposed to have purpose. Usually, a fight was payback for a cheap shot that endangered one of his guys. Other times, the brawl was meant to fuel an ongoing rivalry, rallying the team and changing the energy of a game.
Fights weren't supposed to start because some bonehead wanted to flex his shiny personality on social media. And they sure as hell weren't supposed to be fueled by a lie. O'Doul had never ducked a fight in his life. But he'd missed the last game against Boston on account of a procedure on a tendon in his wrist.
Thankfully, and with the help of the best medical attention money could buy, his wrist had healed up fast. But lately he had a new problem-pain in his hip flexor muscles. It was a low-grade thing. Something to watch. But it made him feel a lot less invincible than he was used to. At thirty-two years old he was suddenly more conscious of the toll the game took on his body. And the fighting he did for his team made everything riskier.
So much could go wrong in those violent sixty or ninety seconds.
Still, the hours leading up to the fight hurt worse than a cross to the jaw. As tonight's game wore on, the dread got heavier. He'd already spent the first two periods trying to make plays while simultaneously taking it easy on his hip. While trying not to appear to take it easy on his hip. And keeping the warlike mask on his goddamn face.
Frankly, it was exhausting.
Earlier this season he'd had an unusually frank heart-to-heart with another team's enforcer-an old timer known as the Hammer. He was the nicest guy in the world-the kind who wanted to buy you a drink after you'd finished beating the crap out of each other.
Maybe it was the scotch, but that night he'd confessed how much mental energy the fights demanded of him.
"Doulie," The Hammer said, using his nickname. "Try some chemical courage. I can share it with you now that we're not gonna match up again this season." He'd pulled out a pill bottle and shaken eight of the tablets into O'Doul's palm. "Take one of those before a game."
"What is it?"
"Uppers." Hammer closed O'Doul's hand over the pills. "You'll love 'em. Only one a game, though, okay? And you won't get hooked."
O'Doul wasn't proud of it, but he'd hidden those tablets in a bottle of plain aspirin. Parsing them out over the next three weeks, he'd taken one pill before each game. The results were even better than Hammer promised. The drug made him feel energetic and invincible.
But then they were gone. So he'd taken the risky step of buying a dozen more from a guy in a nightclub in lower Manhattan. For a few short weeks they provided exactly the lift he needed. When his stash was depleted again, he missed the fearlessness they'd granted him. But buying that shit was both embarrassing and tricky. So this month he'd gone without.
Consequently, tonight's game lasted eighty years. The score was still 1-1 in the third period. For what felt like the hundredth time that night, Patrick's coach tapped him on the back. Fifteen seconds later he leapt up for the line change. Again. And just as quickly, the other team's enforcer turned his back. His Twitter taunter wouldn't ask for the fight. The fans wanted it. The teams wanted it. But this dick was making everyone wait.
Fuck. Mind games were the worst. They distracted him from the business of blocking shots and scoring goals. And that, of course, was the point.
Now O'Doul accelerated backwards at top speed, face to face with Adam Hartley, Boston's youngest left wing, blocking the kid's path and being a general nuisance. The kid wasn't going to get a shot off if he had a say in it.
Meanwhile, his man Castro got the puck back on a breakaway and gave it a good try. But Boston's goalie got a lucky save and thwarted Brooklyn's attempt to break the 1-1 tie.
The shift ended without a score, and without incident, goddamn it. Trekowski stayed as far away as it was possible to do on a 200 foot sheet of ice. Bastard. Not all of the league enforcers were good guys like Hammer. This one was a real piece of work-the kind who'd insult his own mother on Twitter if it made him look tougher.
At thirty-two, Patrick felt too old for this shit. And he was keenly well aware of how obnoxious it sounded to claim to be too old for anything at thirty-two.
He sat back down on the bench, sweating, and reached for a water bottle only because it allowed him to surreptitiously stretch his hip for the hundredth time.
"You want me to draw him out?" Leo Trevi asked from beside him on the bench. "Don't know what Trekowski is doing over there. Posting your picture on Instagram, maybe."
When Patrick looked up, he caught an unmistakable look of concern behind the rookie's face shield. Fucking great. The whole stadium could probably tell he was on edge. Though Leo-or College Boy, as O'Doul liked to call him-was awfully smart. "Naw," he said, swilling water. "I'll get 'im soon enough."
The game dragged on, with Patrick's hip aching as the clock ticked down. When he was younger, pain was just pain. It was something to live through until you could have a nice whiskey and a couple of painkillers. Even now it wouldn't bother him so much if it weren't such a harbinger of doom. The Bruisers needed to make the play-offs. They had a new coach and some new blood and a decent record. The owner wanted it. Badly.
Competition-the good kind-had always fueled him. So he leaned into it now, taking the ice once again. They only needed one more goal tonight, and it would happen. He could feel it.
But first, a fight.
Trekowski gave him an opening, finally. It happened when the fool slid into Brooklyn's goalie a little too carelessly. It wasn't the worst offense Patrick had ever seen, but the crowd made a noise, and he went for it. Instead of campaigning the ref for a penalty, he got in Trekowski's face. "That's enough bullshit, big man. I'm done with you."
The enemy gave him a toothless grin. "You want to go right now?"
Do I have a choice? That was his last conscious thought. Fight mode was always a blur. His gloves fell on their own accord as he circled Trekowski, sizing him up, looking for the first attack. His opponent's arms were about as long as Sasquatch's. O'Doul was only six feet tall, two hundred pounds. He wasn't huge, and he wasn't heavy.
His only advantage was bone-deep grit.
To win against Trekowski, he'd have to yank him in hard and keep him close. So he faked a grab and the guy ducked. Patrick lunged forward on his good side and grabbed the guy's sweater with his right hand, throwing a punch with his left.
That was exactly the opposite of his usual move, and the surprise actually worked. Patrick landed two punches before he took one himself, right below the ear. It hurt like a bitch. But surprise was still working for him, so he presented that side of his head again, as if asking for another, then swapped his hands as fast as lightning. His next three punches landed in quick succession on the guy's ribcage. Not the most sensitive spot, but you had to go to war with the grip you had. And it kept his strained muscles away from this jerk's flailing limbs.
The crowd might have been chanting, Fight! Fight! Or maybe that was just the pounding of his own heart. Patrick's vision tunneled down to only the set of Trekowski's mouth-it was tight, meaning these punches were felt.
Patrick was taking blows to his shoulder, but they barely registered. It was his good side, for one. And the angle wasn't too intense. But time was slipping by. He needed to end this before the goon changed tactics. It was risky as hell, but Patrick tried a one-footed stance to knee the guy in the thigh and unbalance him. Then he gritted his teeth and landed one good punch a little higher up, right in his chest.
Trekowski went down, and Patrick narrowly avoided landing right on top of him. He tore himself out of the guy's grasp and righted himself just as the ref rushed in to pull him back. They always ended things when someone went down.