“What the hell are you talking about?” Ranger Deacon, the captain of the Denver Wolfpack, voiced the question probably every man in the room had on their mind.
“Piper Darrow is taking Gunderson’s place. She’ll be the number one goalie for the rest of the year.”
“Holy shit,” one of the guys in the corner muttered.
“We must be pretty damn awful to have to invite women to play with us,” Adam Lancaster, seated behind Ranger, hollered out.
“Who came up with that fucking awful idea?” another asked.
A chorus followed, voices filled with exasperation.
Tommy Smith, the head coach, held up his hands. “It’s a done deal. No use in getting all pissed off when we have to fill that crucial position. Besides, she’s one hell of a goaltender.”
“Let Rayovic play,” Des Croft, one of the second line players, tossed out.
Smith pinned the guy with a firm stare. “I am letting Rayovic play. But he can’t be expected to play every minute of every game for the next thirty games.” His voice rose and turned hard as steel. “You know as well as I do one goalie can’t do it all.”
Ranger glanced across the room, noting the confusion and frustration painted on the guys’ faces. They’d had a tough year thus far. The loss of their goalie had nearly proved to be the final nail in the coffin containing the men’s morale. He knew many of them had voiced concerns, even whispering about finding a new home for the next season. As much as he hated to break up a team who’d previously gotten along so well, Ranger understood their sentiment. He couldn’t claim to be happy right now either.
But a woman?
He pulled up what he knew about Piper Darrow. Certainly, the last name rang clear as a bell. Her Canadian father had been one of the game’s best scorers in the almost twenty years that he’d played. Big, fierce, he had a talent for attacking the goal, combined with stamina, durability and a hell of a backhand shot. The name alone invoked reverence and legendary awe. At least to Ranger.
He’d seen Piper play a couple of times. Quick of hand. Fearless. She defended her goal like a momma grizzly defended her cubs.
Still, she wasn’t big or bulky. The nature of the women’s game protected her smaller frame from hard collisions commonly found with men. She’d have to be one tough woman to hold up physically for the rest of the season. As a goalie, she had a shot. As a forward, like her father, she’d be likely be out before the week was done from teeth-jarring checks meant to crush her against the boards.
Uncertainly flared. Again.
“She just won the women’s league championship and was named MVP,” Tommy added.
“Whoopee.” Anthony Hillman twirled his finger in the air.
“Big fucking deal,” Riley Dickenson snarled.
Ranger swung around to glare at Dickenson for that comment. “I don’t care what sport or what gender plays that sport, being the best there is demands respect.”
“The decision is final. So if anyone still has an issue, there’s the door.” Tommy bit out every word and pointed toward the exit. He would have made a drill sergeant proud.
Sometimes being captain sucks.
Ranger stood up and moved to the front of the meeting room. “It boils down to this. We have to have a goalie. As hard as Rayovic tries, he can’t do it all.” Ranger nodded toward the young rookie, who dipped his head in acknowledgement.
Time to think outside the box and get this motley crew on board. “Think of it this way, you all know who her father is, right?”
A chorus of “yeah” followed.
“Well, who do you think she faced all those years in practice?”
A few laughed. Others began to smile.
“If nothing else, it should prove to be an interesting rest of the season.” Tommy grinned encouragingly.
The men agreed. Ranger eyed each one, saw the various reactions, and knew Piper faced a formidable challenge before even meeting their first opponent. She had to earn these men’s trust and belief. Hard enough for any new player. Let alone for one who started with predisposed attitudes against them. He had no doubt most men would consider her gender a handicap.
“Get geared up. Practice starts in fifteen.” Tommy waved them toward the door. “No cheap shots. The first man who lays a hand on our new goalie will answer to me.”
The stern tone told Ranger all he needed to know. The head coach already saw Piper as a daughter figure. To cross him would earn his wrath.
Good. That just might keep Piper standing after today’s practice.
Heaven knew she needed all the help she could get.
A few minutes later, Ranger ambled up to the ice, his eyes drawn to the woman with the long blonde hair streaming behind her as she zipped from end to end, chasing a puck with decent skill. She ducked, dodged and finally flipped the puck on edge, pulled back her stick, and let loose. The wobbly shot hit the upper right corner of the net.
“She’s the goalie?” Rocky, the left winger on Ranger’s line, asked.
“Looks like more of a forward to me,” Sven, his linemate and the right winger, pointed out.
Ranger watched the gliding motions, the power contained in a small body. As he stared at her, she stopped on a dime, lifted her chin and turned to face the lot of them. He caught a glimpse of narrowed deep blue eyes, a short sigh and a furrowing of her forehead. Defensive mechanisms if ever he’d seen any. She stood up straight, then rested her hands on the stick before looking back at the guys. Her body language spoke of irritation from having her playtime interrupted along with bracing herself for the impact of dealing with twenty men, all new to the idea of playing with a woman. On the ice. Ranger had no doubt the guys had spent many hours playing with a woman in bed. Including himself.
She checked them all out, sizing them up. As a group or individually, he didn’t know. The second her focus landed on him, his breath caught as an electric zing carried through his body. Intelligence showed in her features, along with classic beauty tempered by fitness and strength.
Interest piqued, he skated out on the ice toward her. “You must be Piper.”
“Yep.” She tilted her head and raked him from top to bottom and back again. Cautious appreciation flared in her eyes. “You must be Ranger.” She pointed at the big C on his jersey.
“That’s me.” He noted the others closing around them.
“She’s not dressed for practice,” Hillman, another forward pointed out.
Piper cut him a glare. “First of all, I was told practice started at three. It’s only two-fifteen now. Plenty of time to put the pads on. Secondly, since I don’t have a Wolfpack jersey, the best you’re gonna get is my Bobcats one until someone provides me with a uniform.” She shifted her gaze to Tommy.
“The order’s in already.” He offered up a small smile. “Since that’s taken care of, do you think you can get into gear so we can get to work?”
Piper grinned at him and saluted. “Yes, sir.” She kicked the puck at her feet into motion. In a flash, she flew to the other net, spun and fired.
“Damn.” Ranger couldn’t take his eyes off her. Beauty. Talent. All with a fiery attitude. Impressed, he found himself staring at his new teammate with avid interest and more than a hint of desire.
“Shit, she’s good,” Adam remarked.
“Don’t start handing out line places yet, Adam.” Anthony rubbed his forehead. “Scoring is easy when there’s no one in your way.”
Ranger had played hockey most of his life, starting on the frozen ponds of Minnesota as a small child. He’d seen a girl occasionally play with the boys during pickup games, but never one in organized play. He didn’t doubt Piper had plenty of skills. What he did question was whether she could be the answer they needed and hold up under the pressure of the big leagues.
Time will tell.
* * * *
Piper watched one of the forwards approach, pass the puck off to another guy, then swing his stick as it sailed back to him on the ice. Instinctively, she did the splits, preventing it from sliding under her and across the goal line. Her glove came down fast, covering the puck before anyone could smack at it on a rebound try.
The whistle blew. None too soon, as the two huge men crowded her space just in front of the net.
Tommy skated over. “Nice save.”
“Thanks.” Piper regained her feet and tossed the puck back out and into play. She’d spent the past hour fending off pucks sailing her direction. None of them had gotten by. A pretty snazzy showing, if she said so herself. Of course, she’d carry a few marks tomorrow morning for her efforts. She’d thought some of the women had powerful line drives. The men had them beat easily. One puck to her chest had stolen her breath and nearly put her down for a good couple of minutes. Sheer pride and determination had forced her back to her feet as if nothing had happened. Good thing she had years of practice with that particular move. Her father had taught her toughness above all else.
Gunther Darrow, her father, could be considered a hockey legend. He’d taken her to the rink with him one day while her mother was away. Piper had been six at the time. He’d strapped hockey skates to her feet as well as those of her brother, Darius, and let them loose. Piper had never once looked back. The ice offered her more than a chance at playtime and exercise. It gave her an outlet.
“Change lines.” Tommy waited a beat before tossing the puck toward the middle of the ice.
Piper resumed her butterfly position, her focus completely on the small piece of black rubber zipping across the ice. As the other team brought it over the blue line, a tall, solidly built man took up position three inches from her crease, the blue area directly in front of the net. She craned her neck, shifted back and forth, and struggled to keep her eye on the puck with such a big man right in her way. Tempted to give him a shove, she maintained her composure instead, knowing she’d face this situation over and over again in the near future. Screens weren’t limited to the men’s game. Women had also developed the practice. Although none were built like the moose presently blocking her view. She’d seen enough of that from peewee games all through college. With no women’s leagues at that time except for the professional level, she’d had no choice but to play with the boys. Hadn’t bothered her. She had still kicked their butts at every given opportunity.
“Hey, Moose. You might have one fine ass, but I really don’t need a bird’s-eye view, all the same. So move it.”
Ranger turned around and flashed a quirky grin.
She poked him with her stick while keeping a close eye on the puck. A player took it down the middle, then cut across near the face-off circle. He pulled back, then lined up for a shot.
The slash of a hockey stick caught her across the shoulder, the force spinning her around. She maintained her balance, found the puck in her peripheral vision, and grabbed it with her glove at the last second.
After a moment to suck in air, she dropped it in front of her and stared back at the men gaping in her direction.
Aha. There it is. The look of amazement and shock she’d been waiting to see since the rest of the team had stepped on the ice that afternoon.
Hiding a smile, she used her stick to nudge the puck back toward the tall man with black hair and green eyes. Ranger. Ranger Deacon. The team’s captain and one of the best power forwards in the league. Built like a true position guy, Ranger towered over her and could easily outweigh her twice. Just now in his prime, he’d played with the team for a couple of years after doing his time in the minors. Skill, talent and plain old hard work had carried him to the pros and landed him a spot on the team. Attitude, people skills and leadership had netted him the captain position as well.
Rumor had it he didn’t take crap off anyone. Normally laid-back, he was slow to rile, but once there, he made sure his opponent never trod down the same path again. Big and strong, the guy could generate speed as well as send another player flying when checked.
Piper liked that in a man.
Too bad most of the guys carried a chip on their shoulder and attitudes that belonged in the caveman days. Just another reason she didn’t date hockey players. Hell, lately she hadn’t dated anyone, athlete or not. She’d lost interest after finding too many toads and none that turned into a prince with a mere kiss.
The couple of men that she had dated hadn’t ended up working out, either. Mostly, they’d had sex on their minds. Typical for guys that age, she figured, especially athletes who lacked shyness and had primed bodies to show off. The difference between men and women. Intimacy ranked low on her totem pole behind companionship, friendship and romance. A traumatic childhood had made trust difficult, pushing that level of closeness way down the line. Only time, familiarity and love could motivate her to sleep with a man. Her beaus, on the other hand, had made it known that getting hot and heavy in the sack hovered around the top of their list of goals. At an impasse, they had each gone their separate ways. Since she refused to be a trophy put on display, she’d turned her interests to other, more meaningful activities. Until a man wanted her for her, she wouldn’t bother to give them more than a fleeting look.
When and if that happened, she’d reconsider her take on men. In the meantime, she focused on making a place in the world for herself and trying to do a bit of good along the way.
“Penalty shots, then we’ll call it a day,” Tommy hollered from the nearest blue line. He moved to the edge of the rink and watched them all with a critical eye.
Piper perked up. Time to shine.
She banged her stick on the side bars and resumed her stance. The past couple of days she’d spent hours watching video on these guys, in preparation for this very moment. She’d learned their preferences, their tendencies. All that studying would pay off. It always did.
Skater after skater approached her with speed, snaking their way toward her before taking their shot. She rejected each one in turn. Until Rocky flew past her, caught her going low, and shot a nice top-shelf laser that streaked by her before she could do more than blink.
He waved his stick in celebration.
She flipped up her goalie mask and smiled at the team’s leading scorer. Since creating masks took time and precision, she’d kept her old one. While the bobcat painted on the side might not match up well with a wolf for a mascot, she didn’t really care. As long as it fit well and worked, she would hang onto it. “Good shot. Guess that’s why you’re the sniper on the team.”
“Yeah. You could say that.” He grinned at her before tipping his head. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
She accepted the compliment with a quick grin.
“Nice job.” Rayovic skated to a stop in front of her. “You’ve sure got the fast glove.”
“Thanks. You’ve got some guts standing there with the whole team crashing the net.”
Rayovic smiled proudly. “That happened a lot on the ice when I was a kid.” His Czech accent came through well, though his words weren’t hard to understand, testament to his time and practice speaking English.
“You’ve got a bright future.” She sobered. “I’m sorry it had to happen like this. I feel like you’ve been given the stick.”
Surprisingly, Rayovic offered up a sly grin. “It is okay. I’m not one of those men who have a problem with women playing the game. You play great and the team needs someone like you.”
“Thank you.” Piper smiled softly. “How do you say thank you in Czech?”
“Děkuju.” She stumbled over the word the first time, earning a chuckle from the other goalie. “Děkuju.” Her second try earned her a nod of approval.
“With your size you have to focus more. If the other team realizes this weakness, they’ll take advantage big time.”
Piper’s grin faded with the heavily accented words. “Stanza. I was wondering when you’d appear.” The old Swede had written the record books on goaltending back in his day. He’d turned coach a couple of decades ago and passed his nuggets of advice to his players. More like beat it into their heads. Stanza believed in a hardline approach and in-your-face challenges rather than praise and uplifting inspiration.
He snorted and skated closer. “You want to play men’s game, you have to think like a man.”
Piper rolled her eyes. “That might be a problem. I’m not one to ogle boobs and think with a dick that I don’t happen to have. Guess that leaves out scratching the balls as well.”
Rayovic laughed openly.
Stanza stared at her for a long moment before his lips twitched. “You’re going to be difficult.”
“Who? Me? Difficult?” She shrugged. “I’m not the one trying to turn me into a man.”
Stanza’s lips curled up into a reluctant grin. “Point taken. Now, we still have some work to do.”
Piper caught a glimpse of the rest of the team leaving the ice for the day. She had a momentary longing before shaking it off. The ice had become her home away from home years before. With a non-existent social life and the decided lack of hobbies, she had nothing waiting for her at the house anyway.
“When you see the shooter coming…” Stanza rattled on.
She tuned into him completely, needing to get her head on straight before the first game, when she faced opposition in the form of a rival team. Filled with men. Who probably didn’t want a woman invading their territory.
The story of my life.