Risking the Shot: a “You Had Me at HEA” first look at Chapter One
Taylor Cunningham had never met a challenge he couldn’t kick the shit out of. It was how he’d made it to the NHL, by knocking down one roadblock after another. He lacked coordination in pee-wee hockey? He stayed another hour after practice to complete extra drills. His cross-ice passes weren’t crisp? Dad iced over their driveway and practiced with him before school. Backward crossovers tripped him up? Mom worked extra shifts at the fire station to be able to afford private skating lessons.
As a pseudo party decorator, however, he might’ve met his match.
“I don’t understand why I can’t get this to do what I want.” Tay stood in a mess of crepe paper streamers in blue and white and finally admitted to himself that just because he was great at hockey—he wasn’t on Toronto’s first line for nothing—didn’t mean he’d be able to grasp something as simple as twisting streamers into something pretty to be strung along the ceiling. Crafty he was not. The pile of ripped chunks at his feet was only growing bigger.
His linemate and best friend, Stanton, growled from where he held the roll ten feet away. “I literally don’t need you to do anything but stand there. Stop twisting your end.”
“But it got all wonky on your side.”
“I can fix it.” Behind his thick glasses, Stanton’s eyes were narrowed. “Just hold your end steady.” He walked backward slowly, carefully turning the roll of crepe paper as he went.
They stood in the middle of the dance floor of the party room the organization had rented in downtown Toronto’s Drake Hotel for tonight’s event celebrating the conclusion of the Foundation’s three-year campaign. As the organization’s charitable arm, the Foundation had surpassed their fundraising goal by thirty percent, giving tens of thousands of kids access to sports. Everyone associated with the Foundation, including its fifteen employees, Tay, and his teammates—all of whom had volunteered for the Foundation in some capacity or another—team management, the Board of Directors, and several key major donors—plus everyone’s families—would be in attendance tonight. There’d also be families who’d been directly affected by the Foundation’s programs, which was extra cool.
Around him, servers placed stark white covers over chairs and set the tables with cutlery, delicately folded napkins, and water glasses. A DJ was setting up in the corner opposite the bar. The hotel’s IT experts were testing the television that would play the Foundation’s thank-you video. And the rest of his teammates placed team swag at each seat, sprinkled blue-and-white confetti on each table, grabbed three or four chairs at a time from the adjoining storage storm to place around tables for the servers to cover, and hauled gift baskets full of donated items from their cars parked nearby for tonight’s silent auction. All proceeds benefiting the Foundation, of course.
Tay stared at his confetti-scattering teammates with envy. Someone had to be willing to trade jobs.
“Tay, pay attention.”
Shooting Stanton an apologetic smile, he focused once more on the stupid streamer, on keeping it steady. “Sorry.” In his peripheral, the party room door opened, admitting a teammate toting signed jerseys and hockey sticks for the auction.
“There,” Stanton said a minute later from thirty feet away, the rough length of the streamer. He gave a chin nod to the ladder behind Tay. “Up you go.”
“Good thing Coach isn’t here. He’d kill us if he saw us going up a twenty-one-foot ladder.” Ignorance for the win.
Lacroix, a D-man and one the oldest veterans on the team at somewhere in his mid-thirties, stopped on the other side of the ladder. “Here.” He set down his bag of confetti. Tay considered stealing it. “I’ll hold it steady for you, kid.”
Kid. Tay stiffened without meaning to, the word squeezing his chest and shooting outward to cast a cloud over his day, his sisters’ voices coming back from his childhood to haunt him.
“Mom, the kid got his pants dirty and my party starts in ten minutes.”
“Pedal faster, kid, or you won’t keep up.”
“It’s not all about you, kid.”
He’d been trying to keep up with his older sisters since he could walk, but at ten and twelve years older, they didn’t make it easy. He was constantly the little brother getting in the way or stepping on someone’s toes—literally—or getting dirty when he shouldn’t be or intruding on private moments. Twenty-three years old, two years since he’d been called up to the NHL from Toronto’s farm team, and two years into a Bachelor of Science in paramedicine, and bridging the gap was harder than ever, despite his success.
Just that his sisters—a lawyer and a doctor—were poised and sophisticated and smart, and he . . . was not. He didn’t always think before speaking, he liked loud bars with too many people, had always struggled with school, preferred his art classes over academics, would rather doodle on his iPad than study, and ate cold pizza for breakfast when he could get away with it.
His sisters loved him, he knew that, but they still treated him like he was ten years old. Tay respected the hell out of them for everything they’d accomplished; he just wished they saw everything he’d accomplished too. He’d made it to the NHL. Plus, his team was currently third in their division and it was looking good that they’d make the playoffs. Not to mention juggling a university degree with hockey was fucking hard.
Shaking off the urge to tell Lacroix not to call him kid—that was inviting him to tease him with the nickname for the rest of his life—he nodded his thanks and climbed up the ladder one-handed, careful with the streamer. Barely a quarter of the way up, he somehow twisted it wrong and got it all gummed up.
Why was decorating so hard? One would think that he didn’t have a creative bone in his body when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hell, he’d been working on a comic book trilogy since high school. Not that anyone knew of it except for his immediate family, but that wasn’t the point. He was good at art.
Party decorating, he was coming to realize, was not art. Or, at least, not a form of art he’d ever excel in.
“Is Stanton scowling at me?” he called down to Lacroix.
“There’s a definite tick in his jaw,” Lacroix said.
Oops. It did give Tay a mental image of Rhys—one of the original characters he’d created for his comic. Rhys, too, was the clenched jaw type.
At first, the comic had been a one-page assignment for tenth-grade art class. But he’d loved his characters so much that it had evolved into a trilogy, the third installment of which he was now on. Once, he’d thought that he’d share it online just for fun, but then he’d chickened out. How did authors and artists and creative people put themselves out there without freaking out?
At the top of the ladder, he plucked packing tape he’d precut off the top rung and secured his end of the streamer to the ceiling above the chandelier. “That good?” he called down to Stanton.
Able to use both hands now, Tay climbed down much faster than he’d climbed up. At the bottom, he turned to Lacroix. “Thanks, man. Can you help me get this thing over by the wall? Stanton needs to put up his end.”
Together, they got the freakishly tall ladder closed and maneuvered it between tables, waitstaff, and teammates to the far wall, where they opened it back up again.
“Yeah, there’s good,” Stanton said. “Thanks, Lacroix.”
Lacroix grunted. “Don’t kill yourselves.” He went back to his confetti. Tay almost tackled him for it, but Lacroix was bigger than him and it would hurt.
Stanton rolled his eyes and started up the ladder while Tay held it steady. Across the room, one of the waitstaff propped the door open. Alex Dean, Tay’s teammate and temporary roommate, wheeled in two dollies stacked with boxes of yet more items for auction.
Temporary because Tay was staying in Dean’s guest room while workers finished the renovation of the sixteenth-floor hallway of his condo building—his floor. He dared anyone to try to get in a much-needed pregame nap, or get any schoolwork done in their minimal spare time, to the sound of hammering and sawing and shouting. Tay had lasted two days and would’ve ended up living out of a suitcase in a staid hotel room for weeks if Dean hadn’t offered his guest room.
Tay lived out of hotels enough as it was while he was on the road with his team.
Or worse, he would’ve ended up on the couch at Gran’s or on a tiny blow-up mattress in the spare room at his parents’ that they used as an office. He loved them to death, but he’d been on his own long enough to never want to live with parental figures ever again.
He hadn’t known Dean that well before he’d gone to stay with him three weeks ago—a mere week before Dean’s husband, Mitch “Grey” Greyson, had been traded to their team from LA. Tay was a forward; Dean was defense. They naturally ran in different circles.
Living with them was nice, though. Dean—gently prodding him to stay on top of his schoolwork and checking in once in a while to make sure he was doing okay. Grey—acting like the younger, brattier sibling Tay had never had, even though, technically, Grey was two or three years older than him.
Oh, and the way Dean and his husband shared tender touches or little kisses or bumped hips as they cooked dinner while Tay studied at the dining room table? Honestly, they were cuter than a couple had any right to be.
When Grey had first arrived from LA, Tay had caught them sharing the most passionate of kisses in their front hallway that had been all about comfort and security. It had been hotter than any porn he’d ever watched—gay or straight. Dean and Grey were out to the team, but not publicly, so they kept their smooches and flirting confined to their home.
Tay too—the out-to-the-team thing, not the smooches thing. He didn’t currently have anyone to smooch with. But he’d stopped hiding his bisexuality from his teammates over a year ago. Coming out publicly? That was a whole other matter entirely, one he’d been seriously considering for a few months but hadn’t yet acted on. There were sponsorships and team dynamics to consider, as well as backlash from fans and season ticket holders, and so many expectations to handle. Now wasn’t the right time anyway. It was the third week of February, which meant he had to concentrate on playing the best hockey he could and focus on passing his midterms.
Stanton was the only one who was out publicly. Still, that made five players who were out to the team—their goalie was the fifth member of what Tay had secretly been calling the Queer Brigade—and how many NHL teams could say that?
“Are your parents coming to family skate tomorrow?” Stanton asked as he climbed.
“Nah.” Tay braced one foot on the bottom rung. “They’re both working.” A nurse and a firefighter, his parents’ schedules were unpredictable and irregular.
“Nope,” Tay said, popping the p. And that was fine. Great, even. He could skate with the kids, take pictures with babies, and sign jerseys without worrying about whether his sisters were enjoying themselves. “What about your family?”
“They’re not able to fly out here.” Above, Stanton taped the streamer to the wall, pausing to admire their handiwork. “My brother was going to come and stay with Xappa since I don’t have an extra bed, but he had a team thing come up.”
Right. Stanton’s older brother was best friends with their teammate, Xappa, who, Stanton had once bemoaned, had been tasked by said brother to keep an eye on Stanton while they played together on the same team. Considering the most trouble Stanton ever got into was being late to a live show at the theater, it was slightly misguided.
Must be nice, though, to have siblings who worried about you.
A server came through the doors carrying a stack of white linen.
“You won’t see him until tonight, you know,” Stanton said when he reached the bottom of the ladder. He hopped down from the second rung.
“Your hunky, single dad. You think I haven’t seen you eyeing the door this whole time?”
Also in attendance at tonight’s event . . . ? A large chunk of the reason Tay was looking forward to it: the aforementioned hunky, single dad, Dakota Cotton, one of the Foundation’s fundraisers Tay was nursing a two-year crush on. Dakota was all long limbs and angular features and seductive confidence. Tay had met him several times when he’d visited the Foundation’s offices to meet with the programs and volunteer coordinator about his volunteer gigs, and each time he’d gotten a spark of recognition that made no sense and perfect sense all at once. Like locking eyes with someone from across a crowded bar and knowing you’d hit it off before you’d even introduced yourselves.
“The fundraisers aren’t coming to help decorate.” Stanton picked at a small piece of tape stuck to his palm. “This is their party. Coach asked the team to decorate as a thank you to them, remember?”
“I don’t,” Tay admitted. “If I had, maybe I would’ve been able to concentrate on the stupid streamers instead of watching the door.”
“Speaking of.” Towing Tay back to the dance floor, Stanton pulled several more crepe paper rolls out of a plastic bag and held them up for Tay to see.
Tay’s shoulders slumped. “Ugh.” He grabbed his nearest teammate, clamping a hand around their upper arm and hauling them close. “Xappa!”
“Ow, what?” Xappa righted the box tucked under the other arm.
Stanton’s brother’s BFF. Maybe not the best person to ask, but Tay was desperate. “Switch jobs with me.”
“What? No.” Xappa tried to yank his arm away, bicep bulging beneath Tay’s hand.
Tay held firm. “I’ll owe you one.”
Small eyes narrowing, Xappa looked to Stanton, to the box, back to Stanton. In the box was the branded swag for each seat: a rolled-up T-shirt, a hat, a beer koozie, and a pen, all somehow wrapped together using sparkly white ribbon.
“You buy my drinks tonight,” Xappa said.
Stealing the box from him, Tay headed for the nearest swag-free table, leaving behind a best friend who just rolled his eyes at him before handing Xappa one end of the streamer.
Copyright 2020 Amy Aislin. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.