Brooke Parker never expected to find herself in the tiny town of Juniper Falls, Minnesota. Of course, she also never expected to lose her dad. Or for her mom to lose herself. Brooke feels like she’s losing it…until she finds Juniper Falls hockey. Juniper Falls girls’ hockey, that is.
Jake Hammond, current prince of Juniper Falls, captain of the hockey team, and player with the best chance of scoring it big, is on top of the world. Until one hazing ritual gone wrong lands him injured, sitting on the sidelines, and—shocking even to him—finding himself enjoying his “punishment” as assistant coach for the girls’ team.
As Jake and Brooke grow closer, he finds the quiet new girl is hiding a persona full of life, ideas, and experiences bigger and broader than anything he’s ever known. But to Jake, hockey’s never just been a game. It’s his whole life. And leveraging the game for a shot at their future might be more than he can give.
Each book in the Juniper Falls series is STANDALONE:
* Off the Ice
* Breaking the Ice
* On Thin Ice
About the Author
JULIE CROSS lives in central Illinois with her husband and three children. She never wrote fiction before May of 2009, but since then, hasn't gone a day without writing. She is the author of The Tempest Trilogy.
Read an Excerpt
It's not that I can't speak. Or that I don't want to or don't have anything to say. I do. But I've recently become addicted to listening. And it's extremely difficult to talk and listen at the same time.
But try explaining that to a small-town high school guidance counselor and see where it gets you.
It got me regular — and mandatory — Friday appointments in Mr. Smuttley's office (yes, that's his real name, though I keep hearing other students call him a bunch of variations of it, most of them pretty nasty), where I continue to not talk about my feelings.
"How is your mother doing?" Smuttley asks.
I shrug. Not to be evasive, but because I have no idea. She doesn't talk to me. All the pills the psychiatrist prescribes have turned her into a zombie version of my mother ... Except, this isn't completely true. A few days ago, she must have woken up from her drug-induced haze and decided to go to the store ... in her pajamas. Then she got there, couldn't remember what she came for, and broke down crying. The shop owner called my grandmother, who promptly came to pick her up. And now everyone in town either gives me this look of pity or they avoid eye contact altogether. Or, in Smuttley's case, they try to get me to talk about the incident in a productive, helpful manner.
"How about we try something new today." Smuttley stands and walks around his desk, heading for the door to his office. I'm still seated in my designated student chair when he swings the door open, gesturing that I should follow him out.
I stare at the name placard on the door: Joseph Smuttley.
If he just dropped one of the Ts, he'd have way less nicknames from the student body.
"Come on, Brooklynn," he says, trying to look enthusiastic about his plan. "It's my duty as guidance counselor to make sure you've been shown all the best places around the high school. Which includes the coffee shop next door."
Brooke, not Brooklynn.
Only my grandmother calls me Brooklynn.
Sighing, I stand up and follow him out of his office and eventually outside. The October air in Minnesota is crisp, and even without us talking, the leaves crunching under our feet kill the awkward silence.
I zip up my pink hoodie and stuff my hands deep into the front pockets. We walk a whole block away from the high school before Smuttley says anything more. "Your grandmother said you've always been very active in — was it soccer? I can't remember ..."
I could answer him. It would probably be his greatest monthly accomplishment if I did. God knows I must be his most cooperative student — not that I have much competition. But I give it ten more seconds, and he finally admits to already knowing the answer. "Wait ... dance, right?"
Right. Dance. The thing that doesn't exist in Juniper Falls, Minnesota, not beyond the tiny recreational studio on Main Street that prides themselves on their toddler tap classes. I nod, and he seems satisfied with that response.
Smuttley opens the door to the Spark Plug, which is an insanely awesome name for a coffee shop, in my opinion. It's also a place I visit daily.
"Betty's hot chocolate is out of this world," Smuttley says.
I nod and flash him a smile, which he returns, though it fades quickly when Betty, the owner, spots me and says, "The usual, right?"
Betty might have memorized my order, but an hour from now, she'll be replaced by her granddaughter Melanie, who usually asks me to repeat my order more than once. Melanie may not be as committed to this shop as Betty obviously is, but she's still super sweet. Also very committed to great dental hygiene. She spends hours behind the counter with her Bluetooth on, confusing customers by holding a conversation with the dentist's office at the same time that she takes orders.
Smuttley requests a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, and then when he sees my black coffee, he says, "Sure you don't want to try the hot cocoa?"
I'm one of those strange individuals who doesn't like anything sweet. Not desserts or candy, not pastries or muffins or soda. Not even chocolate. My mom always says it's because she fed me only pureed vegetables as a baby. No sugar for the first three years of my life.
"Coffee is fine," I say so quietly I'm not sure if the words came out of my mouth. "Thanks."
Smuttley's eyebrows lift, but he keeps his excitement in check. "I thought we could take our drinks and walk over to the ice rink. Have you been inside?"
"I hear the team is getting ready for tryouts," Betty says. "I can't wait for game season. We'll have lines out the door."
I live across the street from the ice rink. I haven't been inside yet, though I've been meaning to check it out for a couple of weeks. I shake my head and follow my guidance counselor to the building next door. In Texas, for years, I took skating lessons once a week. Every Saturday morning, my dad drove me to downtown Austin, helped me lace up a pair of brown rental skates, and stood by the wall while I learned to skate forward, backward, turn on one foot, all the beginner stuff. When dance took over my life, I had to ditch the recreational lessons. Maybe if I take up skating again, my grandmother will get off my back about coming home right after school every day. Or maybe they need a Zamboni driver? Or someone to clean the bathrooms? Anything to avoid extra hours in that old farmhouse that is definitely not my home.
Except, it kind of is.
Back in Austin, I had been planning to try out for cheerleading at the beginning of freshman year. I wasn't a shoo-in for varsity or anything, especially considering the number of girls in Texas who were bred for the sport from walking age, but thanks to years of dance, I had a killer toe touch and some decent acrobatic tricks that would have gotten me at least a spot on JV.
That's what I should have done. But I didn't try out for cheerleading. And I stopped taking dance. Basically, I spent most of freshman year doing everything I shouldn't. All while my dad was on trial and my mom fell apart. It's impossible not to associate those things with the same cause ... me and my bad choices.
This year needs to be different.
This year will be different. I promised my dad this right after two police officers handcuffed him in the middle of the courtroom, right before they took him away.
Smuttley opens the door to the ice rink. The smell hits me immediately — sweaty socks and frozen toilet water. Somehow, it's not a completely unpleasant odor.
"Are you a hockey fan?" he asks.
Am I a hockey fan? I could be, I guess, if I have the opportunity to see some games. Hockey is an Olympic sport, right? I've always loved watching the Olympics.
I shrug and turn my attention to the ice rink.
Smuttley goes on and on about the importance of making friends at a new school and exploring new options and new territories, not being afraid of change. Like how he got completely impulsive and decided today's hour-long appointment would take place outside his office. Bad Boy Smuttley. That's what I'm gonna start calling him in my head — it's way better than the nicknames the other kids use. Maybe he's not riding around town on a Harley, but dealing with angsty, cruel, and disrespectful teenagers daily definitely earns him a risk-taker badge, in my opinion.
I listen carefully to his usual motivational speech while keeping my eyes on the ice rink, hoping for some shiny tights and sparkly dresses to look at — I've always loved watching figure skating and even tried my hand at sewing a skating dress years ago. But instead of twirling figure skaters, a group of hockey players in mismatched practice jerseys are out on the ice. There doesn't seem to be any teacher or coach. Nor are any of them doing much besides horsing around.
"They haven't started the season yet," Smuttley explains, though we'd already established this over at the Spark Plug with Betty. "Preseason pickup games on Friday nights are an Otter hockey tradition.
"The games are a way for the seniors to show the freshmen who's in charge and put them in their place." Smuttley's gaze follows a skater with hammond on the back of his jersey. He's moving so fast that when one of the smaller players gets in his path, instead of stopping, Hammond shoves the kid down with one hand until he's bent over, staring at his skates. And then leaps right over the kid's back. The landing is so light and graceful, I'm certain if this Hammond guy spent a little time in a ballet studio, he could pull off a mean grand jeté. The kid who just got shoved stands upright again and removes his helmet. His cheeks and neck are bright red.
Smuttley continues to give me a lecture covering thirty years of Otter hockey history while I watch this impromptu game come together. Smuttley's details and explanations are as interesting as any tourist attraction, and I'm starting to wonder why we haven't talked about hockey in any of our previous sessions. A town rich in history, with deep hockey roots, is way more interesting than a small town in the middle of nowhere. Maybe I've been looking at this place from the wrong angle. This is why shutting up and listening can show you a new perspective. But I guess guidance counselors are trained to reach for words like "depressed," "withdrawn," "removed." I don't feel removed. Right now I feel alive and alert. More so than ever.
Hammond, who is wearing number 42 below his name, does a lot of pointing, tugging on jerseys, and somehow everyone seems to understand which team they're on and what the objective is outside of getting the puck into the goal (because even I understand that's the main objective).
"... So you can see how important it is to create your own history, to have memories you can carry with you for years," Smuttley says.
Smuttley is obviously a lifelong townie. I wasn't positive of that until now. I wonder if he played on the team or if he just wished he'd played? Last year, when my life was falling apart, I'd wished that I had joined cheerleading. I'd wanted that mask to hide behind. I'd wanted something to look forward to. Now I want that again, but for different reasons. To keep a promise to my dad and hopefully drag my mom out of her zombie state. If she was proud of me ... If she had something to look forward to herself, maybe it would help her get back to her old self?
"Outside of dance," Smuttley continues, "what are you passionate about, Brooklynn?"
And that's a very good question.
Maybe I'm passionate about passion. About caring. Whatever the opposite of numbing yourself with antipsychotics and sleeping all day is.
Smuttley doesn't press me further for an answer. He's smart like that. He knows the honest answer won't be the first thing to tumble out of my mouth. It will take time and thought.
I watch number 42 fly around the ice. The puck slides between his skates, then it's cradled in the curve of his stick, and then almost too fast for my untrained eyes to follow, the puck soars into the net. The guys on his team cheer, but he doesn't. He heads back to the center and waits for another player to drop the puck in front of him.
When he takes off again, I close my eyes and listen. Without even seeing, I can recognize the sharper, more purposeful sound of number 42's skates cutting through the ice. Clear, precise movements compared to the jagged choppy vocals of the others nearby. I open my eyes again and see Hammond making circles around a small area of the ice while he stays back, allowing other players to handle the puck. He glides forward, then backward, crossing one foot over the other, then changing sides, making sharp, abrupt turns but never pausing his movement. I imagine a true hockey fan would be watching the puck during a game, but I can't look away from number 42.
It's the closest thing to dancing I've seen in months.CHAPTER 2
One of the midget freshmen rips off his helmet and bends over, clutching his side. He glances at me and pants, "Water break?"
I roll my eyes but twist my body, stopping in front of him and spraying his legs with shaved ice. His eyes widen, giving me a clear view of his face. I know this kid.
Luke Pratt's little brother. Luke graduated three years ago. When I was a freshman, he used to wait for me to pull my helmet off at the end of practice, then he'd pound me in the head with his stick ... I wouldn't take that off if I were you, Hammond.
Little Pratt is still standing there staring at me like I'm the fucking president of pickup hockey. "What are you waiting for?" I say, waving a hand toward the drinking fountain.
The game comes to a halt, and I catch another freshman rushing over to the nearest garbage can to regurgitate his cafeteria tater tots.
"What just happened?" Red asks, crashing into the boards beside me. He's not the best at stopping, even though he's been playing his whole life. "Did that fucking rookie stop our game?"
I don't answer him. I reach over the wall into the penalty box and grab a roll of tape. "My stick's screwed up."
Paul Redmond has been my best friend since peewee hockey. Now that we're seniors and he's six-three and well over two hundred pounds, the freshmen already nicknamed him Big Red, and lately it's his head that's been growing bigger.
"Think Langston will make varsity?" Red asks.
"Don't know. Don't care. Coach picks the team, not me." I busy myself wrapping tape around my stick. I know Langston will make varsity. He's a sophomore this year and he's fucking Langston Juniper. As in Juniper Falls.
Red lowers his voice. Senior or not, he's not stupid enough to mess with the Juniper family. "That kid is a lost cause. Look at him ..."
I lift my eyes just enough to see Langston Juniper IV take a shot at an empty goal from three feet away and hit the crossbar, sending the puck over the wall and toward Mr. Smuttley, the guidance counselor.
"Heads up, Mr. S!" I shout. He shifts himself and the girl beside him to the right just in time to avoid a puck to his forehead.
"Thanks for the warning, Jake." He flashes us a grin and waves like he's some fan waiting for an autograph. Sometimes I wish teachers would treat us like inferiors the way they do the rest of the students — special treatment makes me feel in debt. But then again, Smuttley is a guidance counselor, so he'd probably cause mental instability or something if he went around yelling at kids.
Red nudges my shoulder. "What's the new girl doing with Smuttley?"
It's kind of pathetic that we can use the phrase "new girl" and everyone will know exactly who we're talking about. "I don't know, guiding her? Does anyone know what Smuttley actually does all day?"
"That's a question someone should be exploring." Red nods toward the new girl again, not making any effort to be discreet. "What's the deal with her, anyway? I heard she's mute."
"She's not mute." I don't know anything about her except that she isn't mute. Three hours ago she stood in front of me in the hot lunch line, and when Larry held up an ice-cream scooper full of soggy wilted broccoli, she said, "No thanks." It wasn't loud or anything, but I think that strips her of any mute label.
"Whatever. She's weird, has a crazy-ass family from what I hear," Red says, still staring. "But she's cute."
I give her a quick glance. She's not cute. Cute is when girls stare at you and the second you look back, they look away. New Girl has been staring at me for at least twenty minutes, and every time I catch her, she doesn't even attempt to look elsewhere. Cute is flat and one-dimensional. This girl obviously isn't either of those things.
Little Pratt and the barfing freshman finally return. I shove Red toward center ice. "Are we playing or talking about girls and guidance counselors?"
"Hey, I can multitask."
The game resumes with Juniper and me facing off. Tanley, another senior, is goaltending today. He poises himself in front of the net when he sees me cross the blue line, allowing the flood of players into his territory. Tanley's good. And he knows most of my shots. But I'm on fire today and pull off an easy fake. The puck slips right around Tanley and sinks into the net.
Red pounds me on the back, attempting to celebrate, but I shake him off and head back to center ice. We've only got fifteen more minutes of ice time, and I'm not wasting it cheering for myself.
Juniper Falls, Minnesota, might be a small town, but we've produced eighteen NHL players, five NCAA All-Americans, and three Olympians, including a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. Hockey is in almost everyone's blood, and NHL games are only on TV for people like us; the Olympics are only once every four years. Juniper Falls High School hockey is a town event. No, it's the town event. Which is why, outside of the team and our coach, we're all treated like royalty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "On Thin Ice"
Copyright © 2019 Julie Cross.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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