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Take a Shot by Jerry Cole (1)

Chapter One

Daniel had been playing in the NHL for six years when he was selected to represent the USA in the Winter Olympics. It was an honor and he was excited and proud to have been chosen, but there was a huge part of him that felt sick with tension and dread.

Stuck in his Manhattan penthouse apartment, trying to avoid family and friends, he was sacked out on the couch, cradling a cushion to his chest and watching re-runs of an old comedy-drama on TV. He wasn’t really following it, though he’d never seen it before, but it was something to take his mind off his own impending non-comedic drama that was sure to erupt sometime soon.

He hadn’t told his family yet, but he wasn’t stupid enough to believe they didn’t know; his mother would have shared the news by now, even though he was desperate for her to give him time to work through his decision and accept the invitation first. His mother had no such consideration for what he might be feeling; she was adamant that he would be going and would get his face and name out there to give his career the boost it was desperately in need of.

Not that he was terrible at hockey; he was good. However, he had been recently traded to the Manhattan Hunters, his hometown team. While they were desperate to utilize both the hometown hero angle and his recent points hike, Manhattan wasn’t the best team in the league and they had yet to have a serious chance at the Stanley Cup. Anything he could do to boost his image would, in turn, give the team a little added coverage that they sorely needed.

Being taken in the draft by a team in British Columbia, Canada, had seemed like a breath of fresh air, getting him away from his mother. Or as far as he could get while she was still his manager and agent and everything else, all wrapped up into one. Most of their conversations had taken place electronically and though Dan knew that she needed to be in contact with him to set up all his deals and trades, he had always done his best to avoid her as much as possible when they weren’t talking hockey.

Now, six years later, he was being traded to Manhattan, a team his mother had been desperate for him to end up at thanks to the family legacy—Dan made a face—and her hope to have all her children playing or training in New York. It was a foolish dream considering one of her children was training out of Michigan and had no plans to return, and another had fled to Europe in his haste to outrun her. While Dan wasn’t quite as desperate as his brother, he was the only one who still had her as his manager and agent. He was the eldest and it was his job to protect his siblings from her overbearing nature.

Until he grew a backbone and got rid of her, she was going to have a handle on how his career progressed. While his siblings were always trying to get him to break away and be his own person, Dan still cared about what she thought and what she wanted from him. He was becoming increasingly despondent with her choices, however, and had been increasing the distance between them as much as possible. One day soon, maybe even he would tire of having her lead his life from thousands of miles away.

Now he was sitting in his living room trying to pretend she wasn’t about to get her next great wish—that they get another chance to have a gold medal in the family. They had a silver and two bronzes thanks to Ian, but Maryse Matthews wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than gold.

“Stop moping,” Dan told himself, swinging his legs back to the floor. He threw the cushion to the other end of the couch and ran his hands through his hair. His phone was resting on the coffee table and the screen was refreshingly blank. Dan knew as soon as he turned it on that there would be a hundred messages he didn’t want to read, so he abandoned it for the gym in the building, deciding to focus on training over depressing himself with more trash television.

By the time he practically dragged himself back up to his apartment, he was startled to see a familiar figure sitting with her back to his door, legs stretched out in front of her and messing about on her phone.

“What are you doing here, Kayla?”

“You’re not answering your phone,” Kayla said, giving him an unimpressed look. “How else am I supposed to get your attention?”

Dan rolled his eyes. Standing over her, grinning as she shrieked and complained about him sweating all over her, he opened the door and gestured for her to go in first.

“You could have waited for me to answer my messages.” Dan made a face at his reflection in the mirror. Kayla had a point about the sweat. He grinned as she was accosted by Bear, Dan’s fox-red Labrador.

“Please,” Kayla said, dropping down to tickle under Bear’s chin. “Mom told us all about your great news. You wouldn’t have answered till tomorrow, or she arrived here, whichever happened first.”

Dan shuddered at the thought of his mother showing up unannounced. “Don’t, I’ll have nightmares.”

Kayla, the traitor, laughed. “Go shower.”

While he did so, Dan tried to figure out why Kayla was currently in his kitchen. As far as he knew, she was supposed to be in Detroit training for her own Olympics shot. He hadn’t realized she was in New York, let alone knew where he’d moved to. Not that he didn’t love his sister; of all his siblings, he was closest to Kayla, and she would be the last person to run and tell their mom what he was thinking, but he had been hoping for a night in without company.

“So,” he said fifteen minutes later, walking into the kitchen in sweatpants, rubbing at his hair with a towel. Bear trotted over to sniff his legs and knees, and then wandered off to the living room, probably to chew on some of the couch cushions. “What are you doing here?”

Kayla gave him the once over. “Just because you have a hot bod now, doesn’t mean you have to show it around.”

“Shut up,” Dan said immediately, throwing his towel at her. She yelped, smacking the towel to the floor. “You didn’t answer the question.”

Kayla shrugged, staring down at her phone. “I know you don’t want to go to the Olympics.”

“Not really,” Dan admitted. He sat on the stool opposite her, scowling down at the marble top of the island. “It’s her dream, not mine.”

“So, tell her.” Kayla raised her eyebrows pointedly; an expression Dan had seen too many times.

Dan was unimpressed. “If I could tell her that, I’d be able to tell her everything and I’d have a different agent, wouldn’t I?”

Kayla wisely said nothing, though Dan could see that she was desperate to. They both knew she was right, that he wasn’t going to say anything, and he’d be going to the Olympics. That didn’t mean he had to be happy about it. On the contrary, in fact, because Dan was quite possibly the least patriotic person in his family. If he had joint nationality anywhere, he would have chosen to play for them just to spite his mother. When he said as much to Kayla, she laughed gently.

“What?”

“I actually believe you would,” Kayla said, leaning over to squeeze his arm. “Not that I think you should.”

Dan snorted. “You think I should play for Team USA? And listen to our mother?”

“No,” Kayla said, dragging out the vowel. “I think you should play hockey, a game that you love, for a medal that will actually mean something to you when you wear it.”

Both Ian and Kayla had Olympic medals to their names, and while Max was still too young to be playing in the Olympics, he had Worlds medals that he treasured. Dan was the odd one out, but he’d always played safe hockey, hockey that he knew would land him the points but wouldn’t have him standing out in any way.

He didn’t want to be the face of hockey, didn’t want to be lauded as one of the best—like Ian—simply because he wanted to enjoy his hockey. He couldn’t enjoy hockey if he were constantly having to police his behavior because the League was watching him.

“It would be nice,” Dan said. It would. Adding it to the few trophies he’d collected in his six-year NHL career. A gold medal—or a medal of any color—would be an added benefit at this point.

Kayla grinned. “Just fly out before mom can get her claws into you and you’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t as much of a joke as she made it out to be. There wasn’t any reason for him to meet with her or have her dictate her decisions until the time to fly out to Calgary. He would answer a message or two—he wasn’t brave enough to ignore her completely—but until he was due on a flight, he’d concentrate on Manhattan hockey and stay out of her way.

That plan carried him through for a few days until his mother knocked on his door the day after a loss. Dan was already pissed off about the loss, against a team that didn’t have the depth they did, and thus shouldn’t have been able to beat them quite as easily as they had, and the prospect of facing his mom did nothing to improve his mood.

Dan dropped his head against his door and groaned out loud. Hopefully, she would hear it. Slowly, Dan undid the deadbolt on the door and pulled it open. “Mom—”

Maryse breezed into the room, her heels clicking on the tile floor. She dropped her handbag on the counter and Dan winced, hoping it didn’t scratch it up. She looked unimpressed, especially with Bear, who always knew better than to approach Maryse. He stayed in the doorway. “Is there a reason you haven’t called me since the announcement?”

“Yes,” Dan said, drawing the word out. “I was focusing on playing hockey and making sure I’m at the top of my game for February.”

His mother made a humming noise and regarded him slowly as if Dan were somehow going to be a “weakling” in his sweatpants and hoodie. “You could have been a little more focused defensively last night, but the rest of the team was just as sloppy.”

Dan bit back on a retort, knowing better than to interrupt her thoughts about his—and apparently his team’s—style of play. It wasn’t as if she’d never played hockey herself, but apparently she wanted to live vicariously through Dan and Ian as they could play in the NHL and she couldn’t. “We’ll do better next time.”

His mother nodded, and said, “I know you’ll do your best. Just like you will at the Olympics.” Though under other circumstances he might have been pleased with her faith in him, right now it was just adding to his irritation.

Taking a seat at the counter, Dan wistfully said goodbye to any plans of a morning wallowing on the couch and ran his fingers through his hair, avoiding his mother’s face as much as possible. He saw a potential headache in his future, and while there were only a few games left in the season to play until the end of the Olympics, it was probably going to be a constant companion until he could get out from under her grasp.

“I’ve already been traded home,” Dan said. “What else could you possibly want from me?”

Maybe it was talking with Kayla, or perhaps it was just that he lost last night and having his mother here really wasn’t helping, but Dan’s tongue was looser than he usually let it get when he was in the same room as his mom.

Raising her eyebrows, her unimpressed expression only deepened. “I see Kayla has been around.”

Dan rubbed at his eyes tiredly. “Mom, Kayla has nothing to do with this. I’m playing for the Hunters. I’m where you’ve wanted to be my entire career and now I’m in the Olympics. Whatever else you have planned for my so far less-than-stellar career, please tell me so that I can prepare myself.”

Maryse wasn’t known for holding back with vitriol for her daughter, especially with Kayla so desperate to defy her mother at every turn, though Dan knew that it was the opposite. Kayla often talked of Maryse as if she was the enemy, but she craved a simple “I’m proud of you,” something that Maryse had never seen fit to give her. Dan hated her just a little for that alone, but more so for the control she still tried to exert over his siblings when they had made it clear they didn’t want her interference.

“Daniel, I am doing my best for you.”

“Bullshit,” Dan said, gritting his teeth. “I didn’t want a trade. I was happy in Vancouver. You didn’t listen when I told you that, and you didn’t listen when I told you it didn’t matter if I went to the Olympics or not. Apparently, what I want doesn’t matter, so let me know what your next career goal for me is, and I’ll see if I can offer it up.”

There was a tense silence in the kitchen, but Dan refused to let it get to him. For the first time since finding out he’d made the U.S team, Dan was excited to be going—if only that it gave him many places to hide away from his mom.

“You’re always impossible after a visit from your sister,” his mother said dismissively. “I’ll speak to you again when you’re in your right mind.”

Dan didn’t bother to say goodbye, adamant that he wouldn’t be talking to her again until after the Olympics, but he let her walk out with her pride intact. Whatever she had to tell herself. Panic started to set in a couple of minutes later and he grabbed his phone, scowling when he saw how hard his hands were shaking.

Dan: I think I just told Mom to go fuck herself. HELP.

Kayla: !!!!!!

Kayla: So proud

Ian: B R O

Max: Finally

Kayla: We can’t all run off to Europe, Maxie.

Max: *sticks out tongue* At least I did something

Dan: H E L P

Kayla: You’ll be fine. Just don’t apologize to her.

Ian: If you apologize, she’ll have you right where she wants you.

Max: She still won’t hate him. she loves him the best.

Dan: Shut the fuck up! That’s not funny.

Max: It was a joke, bro.

Kayla: Chill out Dan, it’s not that bad.

Max: Dan?

Ian: Oi, Dan, don’t be that way.

Dan threw his phone on the counter and groaned, resting his head on his forearm. Fuck. Letting his mother have so much control early on was clearly a mistake. While he knew Max was only joking about favorites, Dan felt guilt settle in the pit of his stomach anyway. He had only been trying to protect them but was that how they really felt?

God, what if this whole time, he’d been driving a wedge between him and his mother and had not even known it? None of them had ever said something and it wasn’t like Ian or Kayla to keep quiet about something that bothered them. Max might not, but Dan doubted he would have hidden something like being jealous of Dan’s receiving their mother’s attention. Still, the guilt wouldn’t shift, and he swallowed down the urge to scream.

Bear trotted over and rested his head on Dan’s knee, whining. Dan rubbed his head, sighing. Maybe he would wallow after all, and then get some training in before the game the next day. Throwing himself into hockey had always made him feel slightly better about himself and his life, so the least he could do was improve his game enough not to lose again.

The sooner he got to Calgary the better; at least he could rediscover his Zen while playing for his country.

Maybe.