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Free Agent (Portland Storm Book 18) by Catherine Gayle (1)



LET IT BE known that my assholish tendencies have never been in doubt, and I have always been aware that I am a fucking douchecanoe. Absolutely, without a doubt, I know I’ve got issues. I even realize the shit that comes out of my mouth is bad.

Problem is, most of the time, I recognize the issues with what I’m saying after the fact—once it’s too late, and the words are already out there and I can’t take them back. That’s especially troublesome when I don’t even mean the shit I say, which happens more often than some people might believe.

I just don’t have a filter—don’t take the time to think about the ramifications of what I’m doing and saying until it’s too late. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, I’m able to recognize there’s a problem even as the idiocy is falling from my trap.

The warning bells never seem to go off in advance, though. Or at least not when it matters—not with enough time for me to put a cork in it and keep my lips zipped. But if I catch my mistake before I’ve turned the situation into a mammoth problem, I can usually do damage control.

Every now and then, I’m able to sense the douchebaggery before I let it fly, and I can stop it in its tracks. I doubt anyone believes that ever happens, though, because of how often I do and say stupid shit that I immediately regret.

Maybe my grandma believes it, but she knows the reason behind it all. And besides, she’s my grandma—the only person in my life who’s ever given a shit about me.

Everyone else, though? It’s extremely doubtful that they believe I’m not the jackwad I come across as being. Even the guys I consider to be my friends probably believe the worst of me nine times out of ten.

Still, whether people believe it or not, I try to keep as much of my worst behavior contained as possible. Maybe I fail more often than I succeed, but I am at least trying. And I’m getting better. I’m succeeding more often than I’m failing in these kinds of endeavors.

Or at least I think I am.

Most of the time…

But then there were days like today, which made me question everything I thought I believed about myself. Maybe everyone else was right and I was wrong. Maybe I was just an ass, underneath it all.

It was sure starting to look that way.

This was the shit racing through my head on my way between having a game-day meal with my Portland Storm teammates at Amani’s Family-Style Italian Restaurant and facing my impending doom in the general manager’s office.

Because—as already mentioned—I’m an asshole, and I have a problem keeping my lips zipped. Or in this case, my problem had been with knowing when not to put one of the dumb-ass thoughts racing through my head out there for the whole world to see on social media.

My idiotic tweet had been deleted less than three minutes after I’d posted it, but in those two-plus minutes of its existence, it’d been re-tweeted and screen-capped and spread all over the world. By now, less than two hours later, no fewer than three of the biggest hockey blogs following the NHL had posted about my thoughtless stupidity, and it was sure to be news on every major sports news site before the day was out.

Hence the reason I was sitting just outside the team’s general manager’s office, waiting to have my ass handed to me on a platter.

Rachel Campbell, the GM’s assistant and wife of my teammate, Brenden “Soupy” Campbell, kept giving me I-can’t-believe-you-were-such-an-idiot looks over the top of her computer screen in between answering phone calls and doing Lord only knew what on her computer. She was a master at those looks. Probably gave them to her four kids all the time, not to mention to her husband. Soupy might not be as much of an ass as I was, but surely he had more than his fair share of idiotic moments.

At the moment, he was sitting beside me, along with a couple of our other teammates, Cam Johnson, and our team captain, Jamie Babcock. Ostensibly, all three of them were here to keep me from bolting or something. Well, Jonny had practically hauled me here on his own, so he didn’t exactly need the help of the other two. But still, I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d done the crime, and now I had to do the time. Maybe I was an asshole and a fucking idiot, but at least I always owned up to it. I wasn’t too chickenshit to face the music.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Jonny asked me quietly. He was staring down at his hands, cracking his knuckles. Not in a menacing way, though. It was more that he had to crack them to keep them from freezing up on him or something. Jonny was getting up there to still be playing pro hockey.

Not that I’d ever say something like that to his face, if I could manage to keep it all inside. I didn’t have a death wish.

Instead, I said, “I was thinking someone asked me a fucking question on Twitter, so I answered it.” Simple enough, right? Truth was, I hadn’t been thinking. Which they probably all knew already, anyway. If I would have taken just a moment or two longer to think things through, I would’ve realized it wasn’t a question I should answer.

Jonny snorted, and Babs shook his head. Soupy just scowled at me like I was the biggest idiot he’d ever had the displeasure of meeting. Too bad for him—hell, for all of my teammates, really—they were stuck with me, at least for the foreseeable future. Unless this meeting was all about how fast the team was planning to ship me off to Timbuktu or Abu Dhabi so I could spend the rest of my playing days all by my lonesome.

But then Rachel’s phone rang again, saving me from the need to come up with some better response than what I’d given them. She pressed a button and said, “Yeah, Jim?” into her headset. Then a moment later: “I’ll send him straight in.” After pressing the same button again, she gave me a pitying look and said, “Jim’s ready for you.”

“Should we go?” Soupy asked his wife.

She shook her head. “He wants all of y’all, actually.” These days, most of Rachel’s Texan accent remained hidden—but a y’all or an over yonder came out every now and then, reminding us all of where she’d come from.

I tried not to scowl as my teammates ushered me into the general manager’s office. Surliness wouldn’t help my cause.

Mr. Sutter sat behind his desk, and the entire coaching staff was positioned throughout the room. The assistant GM was here, as well as a few people from the communications department and almost half a dozen other people whose jobs I didn’t even remember—only that they worked for the team in some capacity or another. Paying attention to details, at least when they didn’t pertain to me? Yeah, not my forte.

“Have a seat,” Mr. Sutter said, folding his bifocals and setting them on the desk in front of him.

I plopped down in the chair he’d indicated, but when I glanced up, he’d spun his computer monitor around so everyone in the room could see it. A screen-cap of my idiotic tweet filled the screen, blown up to larger-than-life size so everyone in the room could witness just exactly how much of a moron I’d been.

Must be a retard to think it’s okay to hit chicks.

My laughing, fuck-you-all-very-much face was sitting right next to the words, complete with me flipping off the photographer. Probably another strike against me, but they’d never tried to police the photo I used on my social media profiles before.

Didn’t matter that I’d just been responding (like the moron I was) to some fan who’d asked what I thought about some douchecanoe in the league who’d been suspended for beating up his girlfriend. Didn’t matter that I’d been condemning behavior that every fucking person in this world with any goddamned sense ought to condemn.

The only thing that mattered was that I’d used the very same word that I’d always loathed anytime someone had used it against me. Retard.

If the evidence wasn’t staring me in the face, I might not believe I’d done it. Somewhere in my mind, I might have been able to convince myself it was a hoax. Staring at that word on Mr. Sutter’s screen made me feel physically ill. I wanted to puke, but giving in to that sort of weakness would only prove I was a chickenshit. So I swallowed down the bile and forced myself to look at that fucking tweet without showing everyone in the room how it made me feel.

“We have a bit of a situation,” Mr. Sutter said, his words coming out calm and smooth, somehow, even though I knew he had to be almost as pissed at me as I was at myself.

“That’s putting it mildly,” Mattias Bergstrom bit off. Bergy was our head coach. I’d never seen the guy look so pissed off before, and that was saying something, because pissed off was his usual state of affairs when it came to dealing with me.

“I didn’t mean—”

“I don’t care what you did or didn’t mean,” he growled, cutting me off. “You know what I care about? I care that Sophie’s going to hear about this, and I’m going to have to deal with convincing her that one of my players doesn’t think she’s a fucking retard.”

That stung worse than anything else to this point. Sophie, his stepdaughter, was one of the sweetest kids I’d ever met. And she had Down syndrome.

I fucking adored that little girl, and I would never intentionally say something that would hurt her.

But I had.

Goddamn fucking pisswanker, why could I not rein myself in before I did stupid fucking shit like this? I needed a keeper. I needed someone to commandeer my phone and computer. Someone needed to take over every aspect of my life to keep me in check, but fuck if I’d ever let that happen. I was too much of a control freak, always needing to be in charge of every aspect of my life so something wouldn’t send me into a tizzy.

Grandma was going to rake me over the coals as soon as she heard about this. I could hear her voice now, even though she was thousands of miles away. You’re better than this, Blake. You’re only hurting yourself.

But this time, I wasn’t only hurting myself. What I’d said had the potential to hurt all sorts of people…including a lot of people I cared about. Like Sophie.

I sank lower in my chair, wishing it would swallow me up. No such luck. The weight of a dozen stares wasn’t enough to push me under.

“It goes a lot further than our own families, though,” Jim said, sobering me to an even greater degree. “This is going to be a PR nightmare.”

“You going to trade me?” I asked around a thick tongue that felt too large and too dry to belong in my mouth. That was what my previous team had done, and I hadn’t even fucked up this badly when I was with them. It was just a bunch of my usual shit, not anything so blatantly callous and unthinking.

“Trade you?” Mr. Sutter’s eyebrows went up almost comically high into his hairline, and then he gave me a kind smile that I definitely didn’t deserve. “Why would I trade you?”

“And who’d want you in return?” Soupy added.

“Plenty of teams would—including us,” Mr. Sutter said. “We still love what you bring to the table on the ice, Blake.”

I shrugged. “But then I could be someone else’s problem.”

He stifled a soft laugh and shook his head. “We knew what we were getting when we brought you here, son—both on and off the ice. We did our research. We were prepared then, and we’re even more prepared now that we know you as a person and not just as an athlete. But we do have to act fast, see if we can turn the tide of public opinion, maybe find a way to spin this in a more positive light.”

Unbidden, my gaze traveled over to Bergy. He looked like he was having extreme difficulty biting his tongue.

Maybe Mr. Sutter wouldn’t hold this against me for too long, but Bergy? I’d be living in his doghouse for the rest of my days playing in Portland. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d ever forget my unfortunate choice of words or let me forget them, either.

“So how do we do that?” David Weber, one of the assistant coaches, asked.

“First,” Mr. Sutter said, scanning the room to include everyone, “we have the PR team draft up an apology for your poor choice of language, and you’ll issue it as a public statement. It’ll go out on all of the team’s social media channels, be posted on our website, and you’ll post it to your own social media accounts, as well.”

Fair enough. I could easily handle that. Grandma would insist on it, actually, whether the team did or not. She’d raised me to be better than this. I nodded my agreement, keeping my eyes on Mr. Sutter. He seemed to be the only person in the room who was on my side in all of this.

Shouldn’t surprise me. He’d always acted like a father figure around me, since he’d first brought me to Portland.

“Second,” he said, and this time he looked straight at me, “you agree to let the team’s public relations department oversee your use of social media for the next six months. You don’t post a tweet or anything on Instagram or Facebook without first running it by them and having them approve it. Not even a reply to someone else, whether public or private. Everything goes through them first.”

That would suck, but even I could see the need for the team’s oversight. Maybe they could help rein me in and keep my assholishness in check. Hell, maybe with six months of social media supervision, I’d learn how to self-moderate or something. It was at least worth a shot.

“Fine,” I said. Because seriously, so far, I felt like I was getting off easy.

“And finally,” he said, “you’re going to volunteer every week at a local school. Riley and Mackenzie Jezek were doing it last season, but with Mackenzie’s pregnancy, she needs someone to take over for her. That’s going to be you.”

“That’s a really bad fucking idea,” I said before I could think better of it. Me, being around kids? Maybe Mr. Sutter didn’t realize that my issue was that I didn’t have a fucking filter. How the hell would that go over in a school setting?

He kept going, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Not only will you read to the kids once a week in the library, but you’re going to volunteer in a class of special education students. You’re going to work one-on-one with them. You’re going to help them see how great they can be—and in return, you’re going to learn how great they are.”

I groaned out loud—couldn’t stop myself. This would never work out well. Once their parents had seen what I’d said…

And if the kids knew what I’d said… Fuck, I’d dug myself a massive hole to climb out of this time.

I didn’t want them to think I’d meant it. I wasn’t a bad guy. Maybe it didn’t always seem that way, but deep down, I wasn’t.

Was I?

Actually, if those words had come out of me, maybe I was the piece of shit the whole world probably thought I was.

“Maybe they’ll surprise you, Blake,” Mr. Sutter said, eyeing me with that fatherly look he sometimes took with a few of the guys. “Maybe those kids will help you learn a lot about yourself. More than you can help them learn.”

Fat chance. I already knew everything there was to know about myself.

But no matter what I believed about myself, how could I prove to them—or their parents, or even to myself, the team, the city, hell, the whole league—otherwise? How could I convince anyone I was more than I appeared at first glance? I’d been living with myself for twenty-five fucking years, and I’d never been less certain of my own character than I was in this precise moment in time.

I’d brought this nightmare on myself, though. So I nodded, biting down on all the stupid shit racing through my head. Too much had already escaped my brain and made it out into the world.

I had to make things right.

MONICA PATTON, THE school’s secretary and the one woman who kept all of us teachers sane throughout the school year, held up a finger for me as I was on my way out of the front office, signaling that she needed me to stop. I shifted my stack of files to my left arm and scanned the various notices hanging on the walls of the office while I waited for her to finish her phone call.

They were all for the kids, though, not for the teachers: reminders about permission forms for field trips, notices about loading money onto their lunch cards, overdue fees for library books, and the like. Anything important for the faculty and staff came to our email inboxes if it wasn’t delivered to our mail boxes in the office.

Speaking of which… I quickly scanned the stack in my arms. Most of it seemed to be various memos, but one large manila envelope was filled with test prep for statewide standardized testing. I tugged a sticky tab off the pad of them I kept in my pocket and flagged that envelope because I didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle. I tended to be a bit absentminded when it came to these things in the early months of a new school year because there were so many things going on at once, and this wasn’t something I wanted to risk forgetting about.

“Absolutely, Mrs. Thompson,” Monica said to the parent on the other end of the line. “No, we don’t want Susan to come back to school until you’re one hundred percent sure she’s not contagious any longer. The last thing we need is an outbreak of flu spreading among the students and staff. But she will need a doctor’s note to be able to return.” She paused for a moment, listening. And then, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Thompson. It’s district policy. We can’t allow her back into her classes until we have that doctor’s note on file. You’ll just have to find a way to get her to a doctor.”

Monica rolled her eyes at me, but not even the slightest hint of her exasperation could be heard in her tone. That was one of the main reasons she was perfectly suited to her job. Plus, she absolutely adored the kids, even if she wouldn’t take any guff from any of them—or their parents. I couldn’t bear the thought of being without her next year, but the woman had more than earned her retirement.

A couple more similar exchanges later, Monica finally ended the call with a sigh. “They never seem to get it. Seem to think that because they have some high-powered corporate job somewhere, they don’t have to follow the rules, and their kids shouldn’t have to follow them, either.”

“Sorry,” I said, trying to hide my snicker. I was just glad not to be the only one who had to deal with any number of parents like that, though.

“Don’t know what they’re thinking. Not how I’d want to raise my kid. You wouldn’t, either.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” I agreed, even though there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’d ever have kids. But that was neither here nor there.

She waved a hand through the air and shook her head as if trying to clear her mind of the phone call. “That’s not what I needed you to stop for. It’s because there’s been a change in plans. I know you’d asked for Mr. and Mrs. Jezek to come back this term, preferably for your class specifically, if not for the library. And if you couldn’t have her, you wanted Mr. Jezek, anyway.”

I absolutely adored those two. My friend, Dani Williams, had hooked me up with Riley and Mackenzie. They’d come to read to our kids during library time last year, and I was hoping for more of the same this year—specifically only for my class, though. Yes, they could come and read to all of the kids in the library, too, if they wanted, but I had something special in mind. But with Mackenzie being well along in her pregnancy, I’d had a feeling something would change.

“But?” I replied, because I could definitely sense a but coming on. “Are they sending someone else from the team?” I was distracted, still flipping through my paperwork, because that seemed far more pressing than having a different hockey player coming to read to my kids. Honestly, I wasn’t overly fussed about who came. The truth was that my kids would be beyond excited no matter who showed up—didn’t matter if they were a pro athlete or married to one, or if they were a police officer or firefighter, or even a grocery store clerk.

What mattered was that someone not connected to the school bothered to take time out of their day to spend some time with my kids. It helped them to feel special, and not in a special education sort of way, not in a short bus sort of way, but in a truly special sort of way.

And that was more important than I could ever put into words.

I got choked up after any visitor left my classroom, because my kids got so excited about the attention they’d received. I didn’t even care that it typically took half a day to get them to calm down enough that they could learn again after something like that.

These visits mattered.

And it always helped my students to believe they were just as good, just as smart, just as capable, just as deserving as the rest of the kids in the school.

So I didn’t care who was coming, just so long as someone was coming.

“They sent me,” an entirely too familiar masculine voice said from behind me.

A frisson of disgust raced up my spine, and I spun around to see the one man I’d hoped never to clap eyes on again walking into the school’s front office, looking as sexy and cocky and rude as ever.

At my glare, a bit of the cockiness fled from his dark, chocolatey-brown eyes, but not enough of it for my taste. “They can send you straight back,” I bit off. “I don’t want you anywhere near my classroom. Or my kids.”

Or me. Especially because of how my traitorous body reacted every time I saw him. My head said stay away from this jerk. But my libido? She started singing and dancing like a Broadway star every time I saw a picture of him flash by on the TV or internet.

It was a sickness. One I had hoped to be cured of well before now.

No such luck, apparently, despite the fact that he’d once again proven himself to be a cocky bastard of epic proportions.

I’d seen the huge kerfuffle from a couple of days ago over what he’d posted on Twitter. And besides, I would never, no matter how hard I tried, be able to forget what he’d said to me all those months ago. His hurtful words might as well have been imprinted in my brain. I saw them every time I opened my eyes. I heard them in my sleep. They invaded my every thought.

No one, never once in my life, had managed to cut me so deeply with only a single offhand remark.

I wanted nothing to do with this man. Not ever again.

I spun around to face Monica so I wouldn’t have to look at him, because he made my skin crawl. “Ask the team to send someone else. Anyone else,” I implored her. “I’m not picky. I’ll take one of their wives or girlfriends. Someone from the front office. Anyone.” I’d even take the building janitor or the guy who drove the Zamboni at their practice rink.

Just not this jerk.

“No can do,” she replied, looking genuinely apologetic. “If you’re going to have anyone from the team helping out this year, they’ve made it clear that it’s going to be Mr. Kozlow.”

“Then we won’t have anyone from the team, because I am not allowing this man to step foot inside my classroom.” I didn’t know if any of my students had seen or heard about what he’d said, but it didn’t matter. I knew. That was more than enough for all of us.

“You have to,” he said then, and he actually sounded a little frantic.

I swung around on him so fast that it sent my thick hair flying. “I don’t have to do anything. Not when it comes to you.”

But all of the cockiness had fled from his expression, replaced with something that resembled panic bordering on desperation. “Please. Give me a chance.”

“And why, exactly, should I give you anything?” I knew there must be daggers shooting from my eyes. My mama and my grandma had perfected that look, and I’d inherited all the same facial expressions. It was our calling card. I used it whenever necessary, but that was typically only when my class had gotten entirely out of hand or when a parent was being unreasonable.

But this jerk didn’t quail under my glare, which might just earn him a smidgeon of respect from me. Not much, mind—he wouldn’t ever be able to climb out of the hole he’d dug himself when it came to me.

Instead, he turned on a pleading, puppy-dog sort of look mixed with a hint of panic, and he said, “Because if anyone knows what those kids must think after someone says the kinds of things I said, it’s me. I was in their shoes growing up.”

Certain he was going to say something repulsive like he’d been disadvantaged because his parents could only afford to put him in either hockey or private school but not both, I shoved past him and headed for the door.

“I’ve got ADHD,” he said just as I wrapped my hand around the knob. It was enough to make me stop, for some reason. He took a step closer. “Unmedicated. I couldn’t stand how the meds made me feel, so Grandma and I figured out ways for me to cope without them. For a while, they thought I might have some Asperger’s, too, but then they said I didn’t and I’m just antisocial, so who the hell knows?”

“What kinds of things do you do to cope?” I found myself asking, even though I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see him as human. I didn’t want to think about him being like my students. I wanted to just think of him as a rude, selfish jerk who didn’t care how he might hurt other people with his thoughtlessness.

“She put me into hockey, for one thing. Helped me burn off my excess energy so I could focus when I needed to. I do puzzles—word puzzles, Sudoku, anything that makes me think about slowing things down and putting them in the right order. Just started doing yoga before practices and games so I can calm my thoughts. Shit like that.”

Stuff like that,” Monica cut in, and he shot a look in her direction. “You have to remember you’re in a school, and these kids are impressionable. If you say it, they’ll repeat it, and then we really will have a mess on our hands with the parents.”

“Right,” he said with a determined nod. “Stuff like that.”

Every bone in my body was screaming that I didn’t care about his story, that he could be making it up just so that I’d give in, that his own learning and behavioral disabilities weren’t enough to make up for the awful things he’d said and done…but there was one other tiny little niggling thought at the back of my mind.

If he was serious, and if he’d really been dealing with ADHD and possibly some Asperger’s for his entire life—and he’d become a successful professional athlete in spite of it all—how could I deprive my kids of the opportunity to get to know him and see for themselves what they might be able to do with their own lives? Would I be depriving them of exactly the role model they needed in order to believe in themselves and reach their potential?

I had to take myself and my own hang-ups out of the equation. I had to do what was best for my kids. And maybe, just maybe, this was it.

“All right,” I said slowly, turning the full weight of my glare on him. “But we play this by my rules. And if you break any of my rules, this is done. You don’t get a second chance. You don’t get the opportunity to screw up in front of them multiple times. Got it?”

Relief flooded his features and almost made me feel something for him.

Almost. But not quite.

Because I still knew the pain he was capable of inflicting. I’d have to be fully on guard when he was around my students at all times, because I would not let him hurt them the way he’d hurt me.

“Got it,” he said. “Tell me your rules.”

Oh, I’d tell him my rules, all right. But first, I needed to come up with them.