Kyle “Henny” Henderson had been yelled at by a lot of women in his life, but there was only one he’d ever really listened to. Only one who’d ever gotten him to say those three little words.
Yeah, I promise.
That was nearly four weeks ago, and he’d stuck by it. Twelve games later, and he hadn’t started a single fight on the ice. No major penalties, no injuries, no media shitstorms. February had been a banner fucking month for the Buffalo Tempest right winger—even his agent had complimented his good behavior.
Yeah, well. Looked like that happy little streak was coming to an abrupt end tonight.
His best friend Bex would have his ass for it later, but Henny didn’t have a choice. No matter what he’d promised her, he would not—could not—let a world class fuckstick like Greg Fellino take cheap shots at his team.
Not without a little payback.
Ignoring the guilt churning in his gut, Henny spit out a mouthful of blood and skated into the fray, popping his mouth guard back into place. He was pretty sure his teeth had survived Fellino’s hit, but that wasn’t earning the bastard any points in Henny’s eyes. Dude was bad news any way you cut it. In five years, he’d already cycled through three different NHL teams, honing the fine art of dirty play. Henny couldn’t believe the guy hadn’t been booted out of the league.
But, he figured, long as Fellino kept putting points on the board, his team would protect him.
Just like the Tempest protects you.
Henny shook off the thought. He wasn’t the one going after innocent players. He was just defending his men. And his teeth.
“You good?” Walker Dunn, starting center for the Tempest, smacked a gloved fist against Henny’s shoulder as he skated past.
Henny gave a quick nod, then pivoted on his blades to catch a short pass from his left winger, Roscoe LeGrand. Fellino was on him again like a dog in heat, but Henny saw it coming this time, deking left before tapping the puck back to Roscoe. Fellino tried to drive him against the boards—another late hit the refs totally ignored—but Henny spun away and slid out behind him, passing up a perfectly fine opportunity to charge the sonofabitch.
It was pretty damn magnanimous of him, and he hoped Bex’d seen it. She couldn’t make every game—worked a lot of nights managing her mom’s pub—but she was here tonight, right behind the glass, shaking her “BRING IT, #19!” sign. Ever since she’d moved back to Buffalo this summer, she’d been making a new sign for every game, all bright colors and glitter. Henny had them all tacked up in his workout room at home.
Girl sure knew how to light a fire under his ass. Always had.
The puck was back in Henny’s control again, and after snaking around Miami’s grinder, he saw a damn near perfect shot. He pulled back, then smacked that bad boy right between the goalie’s skates, bringing the Tempest to a three-two lead.
His eyes immediately cut to Bex. She was on her feet with the rest of the crowd, pumping that sign in the air, wild auburn curls bouncing. Her crazy smile untied a few of the knots in his gut. The last three years in California had done quite a number on her, but if she was smiling like that, she was getting better. More every day. And if she was getting better, then maybe—eventually—she’d be okay.
The crowd was jacked tonight, cheering for Henny from one side of the arena to the other. Roscoe slid over and smacked him on the helmet, but over in the box, head coach Gallagher and the rest of the stiffs looked unimpressed.
Again his insides churned, but he shut it down. Fuck ‘em. He’d take those silent scowls over another lecture any day of the week.
After the goal, Henny lined up with Dunn and Roscoe for the next face-off, pumped as hell. They were halfway through the third, ten minutes left on the clock. If luck was on his side tonight, they’d score another goal or two, lock in the win, and he’d be done in time to grab a beer and burger with Bex.
Just had to find the right moment to nail Fellino’s ass to the wall, and all would be right with the world.
“Let’s zip this up, boys,” Dunn said, waiting for the puck drop. Soon as it hit the ice, he was on it, dodging Miami’s center as he rocketed across the ice. He passed the puck to Roscoe, who shot to Henny, back to Dunn…
And Dunn fell on his ass.
Fucking Fellino. Bastard had tripped him up with his stick.
Dunn was back on his feet in an instant, but he’d lost the puck to Fellino’s winger.
Henny waited for the refs to call the penalty, but when it came to Fellino, apparently the officials were asleep at the wheel.
He chased the action down toward the Tempest goal, where Dimitri Kuznetsov—a.k.a. Kooz—was doing a bang-up job keeping those pricks out of the net. Kooz was tough as shit, but Fellino was relentless, attacking the puck like a rabid animal until he finally knocked it in.
Tied with eight minutes left to play, the teams lined up for the face-off. Fellino managed to beat Dunn this time, sweeping the puck down the ice for another shot at Kooz.
Roscoe and Henny forced him into the corner, where the three men duked it out. After their brief scuffle, Roscoe slid out from the tangle of bodies, puck cradled in his stick.
The look in Fellino’s eyes was pure rage. He shoved off the boards, charging back toward Roscoe on the hunt for blood. Roscoe tried to pass to Walker, but Fellino got right in there again, swiped the puck from Roscoe’s control.
Not tonight, asshole.
Henny was close on Fellino’s heels, shadowing him as they barreled down the ice. Soon as they got close to the boards again, Henny saw his opportunity. Grabbing his stick with both hands, he crashed into Fellino and checked his ass.
Damn, that felt good.
The ref’s whistle pierced the noise of the crowd and stopped the play.
You have got to be kidding me.
“Buffalo penalty, nineteen, Kyle Henderson,” the ref announced. “Two minutes for cross-checking.”
“Wake the fuck up!” Henny shouted, but there was no point in arguing. These refs had shoved their collective heads up Miami’s ass at the start. And no, Henny’s hit on Fellino wasn’t exactly above board.
Worth it, though.
Brooding in the box, Henny chanced a look to his left, scanning the seats for his best friend. He couldn’t see Bex up close from this vantage point, but he felt it right down to his bones—the heavy weight of her disappointment. The worry and sadness in her eyes. He hated that look. Hated being the reason for it.
He shook his head, staring out across the ice to watch the Miami power play. He couldn’t even look in Coach Gallagher’s direction. He’d get an earful soon enough.
Henny blew out a frustrated breath. Yeah, the boys would always have his back, just like he had theirs. But things hadn’t been so hot with the coach and management this season. He’d been warned more times than he could count; every screw-up felt like a nail in the proverbial coffin.
Fuck ‘em. If the suits wanted to drop him, he’d make it easy for them. Retire early. Escape to a tropical island, find some hot little chick in a black bikini to rub suntan lotion on his back.
And so what if he loved Buffalo? Loved his friends and the life he’d built here? If the team didn’t want him anymore, he’d bounce, long before they had the chance to do it for him.
You didn’t leave Henny. He left you. It was a rule to live by, one he’d adopted as a teenager after his parents gave up on his delinquent ass and sent him packing. He had Bex to thank for keeping him off the streets—she’d convinced her mother Laurie to take him in their junior year of high school, and after a brief but rough adjustment period, he finally straightened out. Laurie had even helped him get a hockey scholarship for college, and the rest was pretty much history.
He hated the idea of leaving them, especially now that Bex was back in town. But he wasn’t about to stick around where he wasn’t wanted. Where he was only bringing everyone down.
What the fuck is wrong with you? Get your head out of your ass.
Henny blinked hard, swigged some water. Out on the ice the guys were holding their own despite his absence. Forty-five seconds left on his penalty. Forty. Thirty-five.
Miami was down near the net again, Kooz and the Tempest defense battling the onslaught. The boys managed to clear the puck away from the net, redirecting everyone back into Miami territory. Kooz took advantage of the break in the action, reaching for the water bottle he’d stashed on top of the net.
Seconds later, the Miami offense was back in the zone with the puck. Out of the tangle of sticks and skates and jerseys, one player shot forward. No puck, no plan, just another dirty-ass move in the works. Henny saw it play out in his mind a half-second before it happened on the ice.
Fellino slammed straight into Kooz.
The hit was hard and high, blew Kooz’s helmet clean off. The goalie was down, scrambling like a crab to get back in front of the net, just in time to block Miami’s shot.
And once again, Fellino was in the clear. Not an official in sight.
Both Tempest defensemen chased the bastard, but that wasn’t enough. Not for Henny.
Ten seconds left on his penalty. The guys on the ice were no more than a smudge of color. He couldn’t find the puck, couldn’t hear the roar of the fans, couldn’t feel anything but the pounding of his heart, the rush of blood and adrenaline coursing through his system.
Six seconds. Five. Four.
Everything narrowed down to this. A single purpose. A mission with only one possible outcome.
Henny stepped out of the box.
Then, he fucking charged.
He was dimly aware of Roscoe and Walker circling behind him, picking up on his energy, on his intentions, but he pushed harder, faster, speeding away from them.
Never mind the penalties. The fines. The suspensions. He shot across the ice like a missile locked on his target.
Ten feet. Five. Three. BOOM.
He didn’t even feel the impact, just heard the brutal clash of equipment, the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd, everyone already out of their seats and gunning for a fight.
Henny was nothing if not a crowd-pleaser.
With Fellino pinned to the boards and momentarily stunned by the hit, Henny tore off his gloves and grabbed a fistful of Fellino’s jersey, taking a swing with his free hand. Fist connected with jaw, the force of it splitting the skin over his knuckles. Again. Again. His hand went numb, but still he didn’t stop. Not until he felt the bony fingers hooking into his shoulders, yanking him backward.
The official shouted something in his ear, but Henny wasn't done. Far from it. With a surge of new energy he charged back in and took another swing. Another hit, blood trickling down his hand, the crowd roaring, another official zooming toward the fight, his own guys fighting off the other team. He lost his helmet, felt the icy air on his sweat-soaked head only seconds before he saw Fellino’s eyes narrow.
Henny tried to pivot, but it was too late. Fellino’s gloved fist connected with Henny’s jaw, snapping his head back into the glass. His vision swam, then darkened. He slumped down on the ice.
He vaguely heard the penalty calls—a major and a game misconduct. He’d be ejected, sent back to the locker room alone, leaving his team to clean up the mess.
Fellino was slumped on the ice next to him, groaning and bleeding.
Henny managed a pained grin. He’d gotten his man, laid that bastard out on the ice in front of both teams, all the coaches, all the managers, the whole damn stadium, and everyone watching at home. And the best part? Fellino was ejected, too. Fucking finally.
He should’ve felt vindicated.
But there in the black pit of his stomach, the only thing Henny could find was shame. It burned its way up into his throat, into his mouth.
Blood and ash—that was all he tasted.
“Let’s go, one-nine.” One of the linesmen hauled him up. “On your feet.”
As they escorted him off the ice, Henny chanced a final glance at Bex, bracing himself for her anger but desperate to see her beautiful face anyway. To know that no matter what, she had his back.
But there behind the glass, all he found was an empty seat.
Bex was gone.