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In The Penalty Box Novel CHAPTER ONE — Willow
Ten months of physical therapy and grueling pain was about to pay off. Clutching my arms to my chest, I spun through the air.
I had to land this jump.
My skate made contact with the ice. Yes!I felt fine. Finally, I—
Pain exploded up from my heel: a cruel reminder of the injury that crushed my Olympic dreams and threatened to decimate my future as a champion figure skater. My jaw clenched as I balled up my fists.
I flailed like a newbie, then turned my left skate at an angle and came to a stop in the middle of the rink.
A vise cinched around my chest, and a wave of nausea stormed through my stomach. I’d failed. Again. My shoulders slumped.
The muscle in my ankle seized, and it felt like a steel baseball bat had
rammed my calf. I bent over and clutched the area as hot tears burst from my eyes and seared a path down my cold cheeks. I’d been fanatical about my physical therapy exercises. Spent hours in the pool keeping up my cardio. But it’d been almost a year now, and my progress had been so unbelievably slow. Rupturing an Achilles tendon was one of the worst injuries a figure skater could endure.
And the hardest to recover from.
Coach’s words echoed in my mind. “Everything’sgoingtobejustfine.
Everything she had said on the ride to the hospital was a lie.
The sound of laughter yanked me back to the moment, and I shifted to see what was going on behind me. Three hockey players lined up outside the rink, near the door. When they glanced my way, they shook their heads. Hockey players always hated getting rink time after figure skaters. I’d been chewed out more times than I could count for roughing up their smooth ice with my toe picks.
I wasn’t surprised they were chomping at the bit to get on the ice. This rink was really nice, and that was coming from someone who’d spent the last nine years in Colorado, skating at a first-class training center that had top-notch ice.
The large clock mounted on the wall showed I still had three minutes until the Zamboni came out, so I pushed off, gaining some speed.
Hearing the scrape of my blades on the ice and feeling the breeze against my skin as I picked up speed kicked me into the zone. Everything else faded as I drank in the burn in my quads, my heart racing.
If I could just land one more jump today, I’d be happy. A fluttery feeling spread from my chest to my fingertips.
Holding out my hands, I pushed off with my back skate and snapped the opposite knee around the front. My heart hammered as the near-perfect rotation threw me into a spin that felt as natural as breathing.
I was weightless. I was free. This was what I lived for. And I was going to land this jump.
My skate hit the ice. My leg buckled, and in the next breath, my butt slammed into the frozen surface. The momentum sent me sliding, but the boards stopped me with a breath-stealing crack.
“Damn it!” I slouched to the side and slammed my fist on the ice.
Heat rushed up my face as some of the hockey players snickered. I pounded the ice one more time, then scrambled to my feet, fighting back the tears. From the stands, Jessa smiled and gave me a small wave.
She was the best friend in the world to be sitting here, watching me like this. My biggest cheerleader, she wanted to see me landing these jumps nearly as much as I wanted to land them. As I needed to land them. I had to get back to competition strength ASAP, or any chances of making it onto the Olympic team would be gone, gone, gone.
My breath hitched in my chest as I slowly stood. Jessa was the only person I’d stayed in touch with here in Woodhaven after my family had moved out to Colorado. My parents came back two years ago when Gramps got sick, but I’d only returned a couple of weeks ago.
At the sound of the Zamboni roaring to life, I made my way toward the exit. Glancing down for a moment as I brushed the ice from my sore butt, my shoulder rammed into something hard.
“Son of a puck,” a guy shouted. “Watch out!”
I spun but couldn’t jab my skate into the ice to stop me. And for the third time in mere minutes, my tailbone slammed against the unrelenting surface.
A hot jolt of pain shot up my spine, so I sat there a second to collect myself.
The guy I’d collided with loomed over me. He pushed his helmet back, and floppy, dark brown hair spilled out around his sun-kissed face. Swirls of amber flashed through his brown eyes, and his lips curled into a smile.
Just like that, my heart started banging in my chest and heat pooled at the apples of my cheeks.
His hair framed his face as he knelt down to face me. He was tall, had broad shoulders, and appeared to be extremely muscular under his form-fitting long sleeve shirt. His shoulder pads were spread out on the ice next to him, despite the fact that he was wearing black hockey trousers and elbow guards. He had beautiful skin, but for a tiny scar on his chin.
Mouth going dry, I let out a fake cough and cursed myself for not bringing a water bottle down to the ice with me.
I planned to say something witty, but my words were failing me. “Did you just say ‘son of a puck’?”
The guy rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s a hockey thing.” All of a
sudden, a teasing glint lit his eye. “Guess a figure skater wouldn’t understand.”
“Right.” I stretched out the long vowel, smirking right back at him.
Despite sitting on the cold ice, heat coursed through my body.
Who did this hockey player think he was, anyway?
His hand was extended. My apologies. I thought you noticed me. He left as I waved. This day is not my day.
“Come on, let me help you up, Toe Pick,” he insisted. “You hit the ice pretty hard out there.”
Tingles shot through my body as our fingers met.
Damn, this guy is cute!
He hoisted me up, but I missed stabbing my toe pick into the ice to stabilize myself, and I fell forward, my knee making direct contact with his crotch.
“Shit!” I let out a gasp as my stomach cramped, and I hit the ice knees first.
“Omph!” He grunted, then fell backward onto the ice, landing right beside me.
“Oh my gosh!” Talk about first introductions gone terribly wrong.
Wide brown eyes zeroed in on me. This guy had the longest black eyelashes I’d ever seen; any girl would pay good money for a set of those.
“I’m so sorry!” I pushed off the ice and got back onto my blades, heat fusing my cheeks.
“My bad.” He rolled over and hopped onto his skates. “Is your— I mean. Are you okay?”
He grinned, his face turning a shade of red. “Hockey players wear protection. So I’m good.”
“Oh,” I said, then with a giggle, “guess a figureskaterwouldn’t
He chuckled and leaned on his stick as he looked at me. “You’re not half bad, you know. On your skates, I mean. Well, at least when I’m not within three feet of you.”
“Should have seen me before,” I muttered. He arched an eyebrow.
“Long story,” I said as I pushed away on unsteady legs. What the hell was wrong with me today? “Anyway, I don’t want to intrude on your ice time, hockey player.”
“Maybe I’ll see you out here again?” His voice sounded hopeful, and his smile made my knees go weak.
“Probably will,” I said with what I hoped was a flirty smile, temporarily forgetting about my throbbing Achilles.
“See ya, Toe Pick,” he called out.
“See ya, Puck Head,” I yelled, not turning back as I made my way to the exit.
I turned around and snuck a quick glance at the hockey player who’d helped me to my feet. He was fully geared up now and warming up with a few laps around the rink. Nottooshabbyofaskater,either…
I stepped over the threshold from the ice to the flooring and plopped onto the cold metal bench.
Defeat crushed my lungs and made it difficult to take a deep breath.
Everything felt heavy on me. My legs, arms and heart.
The hockey players made their way toward the team bench as the Zamboni entered the rink and began zooming around the ice, clearing away the work I’d put in out there for the last hour.
Work that felt pointless for how much my Achilles hurt. Seemed like I’d never get over this injury.
My fingers met my temples. I made small circles for several seconds before I packed up my stuff and limped to the bleachers where Jessa was sitting. She’d asked if I’d stay and watch the hockey scrimmage with her,
since her best guy friend Preach was playing. It was the last thing I wanted to do—I’d much rather take a shower and bust out my physical therapy exercises—but she’d hung here watching me for more than an hour, so it was only fair.
Plus, there wassome nice eye candy out there to admire.
“Great practice, Will,” my best friend said as she clomped down the steps, carrying a cup of hot chocolate.
“Thanks for hanging out,” I said. “You look adorable, by the way.” Her
long, blond hair spilled from beneath a silver and maroon stocking cap. It really made her gray eyes stand out against her pale skin.
“Thanks. How’s your ankle?” Jessa slid in beside me. “Eh, not great.”
Understatement of the year.
“I thought you did awesome. I don’t know how you do all that spinning without getting dizzy.” Jessa took a sip of her drink.
I chuckled. “On another topic, did you see that puck head plow into
me?” I slipped a sweatshirt over my head and a pair of jogging pants over my leggings to chase away the chill of the rink. Didn’t help that I’d spent most of my time on my ass out there. “I totally kneed him in the crotch. I wanted to die.”
“That’s Brodie ‘Wind’Windom.” Jessa grinned.
“Windom. As in…the name on the sign in front of the rink?” I leaned forward and covered my face with my hands, then peeked through my fingers at Jessa. “Oh great, I totally just ice-accosted a Windom?”
She laughed, her eyes lighting up. “Yeah, you did.” She chuckled some more. “Brodie’s family is loaded. They remodeled the old rink, spent three million dollars or something.”
I kept my eyes on this “Wind” guy as he skated across the fresh ice. “It’s a really nice rink.”
“Yeah, the boys’ hockey team at Woodhaven has won State like ten times in the past twenty-five years. Brodie’s dad played pro for a while, so I
guess it made sense to give the guys a nice rink.”
“Wow.” No wonder he looked so confident on the ice.
“His family owns the new apartments off High Street. They have a bunch of properties in Minnesota, too.”
“Must be nice.” My chest tightened. I couldn’t help but find myself
feeling jealous. My family had never had an excess of money. “Why can’t I remember him from elementary school?”
“They moved here after you left,” said Jessa, staring out over the ice.
“You would have loved playing street hockey with him down on Heron Lane, though. He was always out there with at least twenty other kids.”
My lips curved into a smile as nostalgia warmed my chest. “Those were the good old days…” I’d spend my entire summer break in rollerblades. Racing toward the net, stick in hand, ready to score on whatever kid was brave enough to fill the goalie position.
“Remember when you took down—” “Heads up!” someone yelled.
Adrenaline surged through my chest, nearly stealing my breath as I whipped my focus to the ice. I never did understand why people yelled that, since something was obviously coming at them. Shouldn’t they say duck?
It happened as if in slow motion, but not.
The puck pinged off the upper part of the crossbar; the goalie had totally missed the shot. It cracked against the polycarbonate barrier but hit the corner rail and blasted out of the rink.
My heart hammered so wildly, I thought it might burst out of my chest. “Watch out!” someone else screamed.
I stood in horror as the puck sailed over the wall and hurled through the
air directly at Jessa and me.
I snatched my bag from beside me and dove forward. With an upward thrust, I swung the bag in front of Jessa. Even through her scream, I heard the puck smack into it. The momentum had me staggering back into a sitting position beside her.
“Oh my gosh!” Jessa yelled. The puck flopped onto my best friend’s lap, and she screeched again.
A loud exhale escaped my lips, and goose bumps prickled the back of
“Holy crap,” someone said behind us, but I was too rattled to look at who it was. “Did you see that?”
A few gasps sounded from around me.
“Shit!” someone from the rink said as Brodie and a couple other players sprinted toward us.
I turned my attention back to my best friend. “You okay?” My hands
were shaking from the adrenaline coursing through my body.
Jessa looked at me, her face white as the ice. “I—I think so?”
Her jaw tensed, and her eyes widened. I wasn’t entirely sure she’d blinked yet.
I picked up the solid black disc from her lap and tossed it into the air. It flipped twice before it landed in my palm.
I turned my attention back toward the ice and arched an eyebrow at Brodie. “Lose something?”
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