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Chapter 1—Exiled

Alexander “Rush” Markov had a secret. Not a huge one. Not a career-ending one. Not even a reputation-ruining one, but one he’d never live down in the locker room. His teammates would give him no end of shit about it if they found out.

But they weren’t finding out. Not over his dead Russian body. Not now. Not ever. He had a reputation to uphold, one he’d carefully cultivated from the first day he’d played professional hockey, and this secret would compromise the very reputation he hid behind.

Alex, the team partier and womanizer, was an in-the-closet bookworm. Alex didn’t just read books, he devoured them. He loved getting lost in the pages and would read any kind of book from classics to horror to romance. He’d even learned to speak better English by reading.

Alex read constantly but discreetly. His buddies assumed he was tied to his phone because of social networking or texting when he was actually reading digital books. Every road trip, he’d disappear for an hour or more to a library or quiet place and read, while the guys thought he was nursing a hangover. Usually he was, but he actually had his head in a book while nursing that hangover.

He’d had a perpetual hangover for the last two weeks after the Seattle Sockeyes had won their first Stanley Cup. To maintain his rep as partier and man slut, Alex hadn’t slowed down once, and for the first time in forever, he hadn’t been reading.

Now he was paying for his wild ways. Maybe he wasn’t as young as he once was. At twenty-six, he should have a lot of debauchery left in him, but the last couple nights hadn’t been nearly as fun. In fact, the constant drinking and screwing had become a chore, not a pleasure. He frowned, wondering if it’d ever been a pleasure or more a distraction from the ever-present loss scarring his soul and walling off his heart.


He wasn’t that deep.

He pushed himself upright in bed and reached for his dog-eared copy of A Tale of Two Cities. He glanced at the clock. Noon. He stared at the page, but the letters swam before him, making no sense. His eyes would not focus. With a deep sigh, he tossed the book on the nightstand. Even his go-to relaxer wasn’t doing it for him, which rarely if ever happened. His cat, Milo, curled up on the opposite pillow, opened one eye, glared at him, and squeezed it shut. Milo wasn’t an early riser any more than Alex.

His head pounded. Bam. Bam. Bam. He covered his face with his hands, then his head with the pillow, but nothing stopped the pounding. Louder and louder.


The incessant noise rang through his house and would not stop.

God, make it stop.

He threw the pillow across the room and sat up, listening.

The pounding wasn’t in his head but at his front door.

He threw himself onto his stomach and groaned. Shoving a pillow over his ears, he prayed they’d leave.

They didn’t.

He’d strangle the bastards. Anyone who knew him understood he didn’t get out of bed before two or three in the afternoon if it wasn’t hockey season—and sometimes when it was.

Grumpy and ready for a fight, Alex sprang out of bed, steadying himself with a hand on the wall when a wave of dizziness struck him.

“Shit. Damn. Fuck. Poshyel k chyertu,” he muttered as he half stalked, half staggered to the front door of his luxury condo, which currently resembled a war zone. Housekeeping was not his forte. He kicked a shoe out of his way, gaining a small measure of satisfaction when it rolled across the floor and into an overturned garbage can.

The pounding continued. The reason for this intrusion better be damn good.

He yanked the door open so hard it slammed against the opposite wall.

Team captain Cooper Black, alternate captain Cedric Pedersen, and premier defenseman Isaac Wolfe stood in his doorway. They looked alert and well-rested. The bastards.

This couldn’t be good. They weren’t guys Alex hung out with. They were all married, therefore boring. This wasn’t a social call.

“You look like crap.” Coop pushed past him and the other two followed, leaving Alex no choice but to slog after his unwelcome guests into the living room.

“Dudes, why you visit?” Alex asked in his somewhat broken English. He could actually speak English quite well, but not having a command of the language was part of his persona. The babes loved it, and his teammates were amused by it. Alex fancied himself an entertainer. He was the life of the party, the guy who cheered everyone up. He’d honed carefree to an art form. A shrink would claim he was hiding a deep inner pain, and he’d flip them off and tell them he wasn’t hiding shit. He’d buried his pain in a huge hole and never looked back.

His gift for making jokes in the face of an impending storm was failing him though. Probably because of his pounding headache, blurry vision, and fuzzy brain. He’d gain his stride after a few cups of java. Right now, he’d have to face these dudes at half speed.

His three teammates exchanged glances, and he tamped down his irritation. They knew something he didn’t, and he hated being left out of the loop.

Coop swept his gaze around the messy room. Finally, he threw a pile of clothes on the floor and sat in a recliner. Ced and Ice swept the mess off the couch and also took their seats. They weren’t going anywhere soon.

Alex sighed. “You want coffee?”

They all nodded, and Alex trudged to the kitchen to make coffee and buy some time. There was a hard rock band having a concert in his head, and his stomach wasn’t in much better shape.

Annoyed his teammates had shown up on his doorstep unannounced, he poured four cups of strong black coffee, just the way he liked it, and carried them into the living room on a cookie sheet. He didn’t offer any cream and sugar. They could damn well drink it black.

He slumped down on an ottoman, head in hands and elbows propped on his knees. All he wanted to do was go back to bed and sleep off this mega hangover. Smooth made a face as he took his first sip of coffee, and Alex bit back a smile. They weren’t talking, and he knew that game. They were trying to psych him out. Not this guy. He knew all their tricks. He’d wait for them to make the first move.

Finally, Coop cleared his throat and placed his mug on top of a stack of papers and pizza boxes littering the coffee table. It balanced precariously on the pile but didn’t slide off. “As you know, I retired after winning the Cup. You have a shot to be the first-line center. You might even get an alternate captaincy. Depends on whether the guys think you’re serious enough about hockey.”

“I do not need to be alternate captain. I have more fun without.” Being a captain brought with it a ton of responsibilities he’d rather not have, or so he tried to tell himself. He could visualize an A on his uniform, and he hated to admit how much he liked the idea.

“You’d like to be first string, wouldn’t you?” Ice spoke up. Those frozen blue eyes cut into Alex until he turned his head away. He’d yet to meet a man who could win a stare down with Ice.

“Yeah,” Alex admitted. If there was one thing he loved more than partying and women, it was hockey. He couldn’t live without hockey. Hockey was his everything, his one and only true love. Hockey was all he had left.

“You’ve been with this team since we were moved from Florida. It’s time you assumed a leadership role,” Coop said.

“Ah, dudes, that would clip my foot-loops and fancy-freed wings.” Alex shuddered at the idea. With leadership came responsibility, and the only thing he wanted to be responsible for was putting that puck in the net. Still, that A on the uniform… Tempting. The chicks would dig it.

“Footloose and fancy-free,” Ice corrected. Alex didn’t care. They got the point.

“You’re going to have to grow up and cut back on the partying, be a good role model for the young ones.” Cedric, who’d partied with the best of them until he fell like an idiot for Bella, had no room to talk, but Alex doubted pointing that out would win him any points or get these guys out of his hair any sooner.

Young ones? Since when had he become old? He’d always been one of the young guns. Hell, he was only twenty-six, almost twenty-seven, not ready to assume the role of an older veteran.

“The team is concerned,” Cedric said.

“There’ve been rumors,” Coop added, and Alex’s blood ran cold in his veins.

“What kind of rumors?” Alex asked, worried he might have overdone his partying after winning the Cup.

“The team is wondering whether or not you’re ready to take on a veteran role, and there’s been talk of possible deals to send you elsewhere if the team deems you not worth the trouble.”

“Me?” Alex was blown away. He’d never considered playing anywhere else. He’d been with this team from the beginning. He didn’t want to leave Seattle. Or his buddies. Or this city. He loved this city. It felt more like home than anywhere else he’d lived, including Russia.

“Yeah, you,” Coop shot back, his eyes narrowed with an unspoken challenge.

“What do I need to do? I want to stay.” He dropped his carefree persona. These guys weren’t messing around, and he’d get nowhere by pretending not to care.

“You have to cut back on the drinking and womanizing. Do you need rehab?” Ice asked, getting right to the point.

“I not need rehab. I can stop anytime—except women. I perform public service to women. It’s my civic duty.”

Cedric rolled his eyes. “That’s what they all say. Hell, that’s what I used to say.”

“Prove you don’t need the alcohol,” Coop challenged him.

One of Alex’s fatal flaws was his inability to refuse a challenge. “I can prove.”

Coop’s sly smile told Alex he’d walked right into a trap. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

“You see, management and the coaches are concerned about your dedication. They’re looking to you to be a leader, realize your potential, set a good example for the rookies. With the loss of Coop and Drew, you’re the next man up.” Cedric wasn’t all that far removed from his party-boy days, and his smugness irritated Alex.

“I step up. I can do.”

“They want you to lie low this summer. No partying, no womanizing, no media attention. Just work on your fitness—”

“There is nothing wrong with my fitness.”

“You could improve it. We all can.” Ice looked him up and down, scowling as if he’d found him lounging around with a beer belly surrounded by junk food and chocolate. Alex glanced around the room and cringed at the plethora of candy wrappers, grease-stained fast-food sacks, and ever-present pizza boxes. He absently rubbed his flat stomach, checking for any signs of flab. When he glanced up, Ice smirked.

Alex glowered at them. They were insulting his dedication to the game, and he didn’t like that one fucking bit. “I can do whatever. I am strong.”

“We know you are,” Coop said. “Ethan has offered use of his waterfront house on Madrona Island for the summer.”

“Is this tropical island?” Alex suppressed a smile as he pictured women in bikinis everywhere and tropical drinks galore.

“No, it’s in Washington. By Canada.”

“North? By Canada? Is cold?”

Coop shrugged. “It’s mild weather. You’ll enjoy it. Very rural, quiet, and relaxing.”

This situation was sounding worse by the minute.

“You’ll know at least one person there. Blake Daniels lives on the island with his veterinarian wife,” Ice said.

Blake had been a teammate of theirs until he’d retired to some godforsaken remote island with the love of his life. Shit, and now they were sending him to that very island with Blake, who was most likely his chaperone or spy or whatever. He’d no doubt be reporting back to the team on Alex’s progress.

“Tyler Harris lives there part-time, too,” Ice offered helpfully.

“I know Tyler,” Alex said. Tyler Harris was the retired Super-Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Steelheads. He was now coaching quarterbacks for the same team. Alex had met him a few times and found them to be cut from the same cloth. Though Tyler had long had his wings clipped by his sexy, sassy wife, Alex recognized a kindred spirit when he met one.

“We’ll visit, of course.” Cedric grinned.

“Is that promise or threat?” Alex sighed.


“I will go, and I will prove I can be whatever you need me to be.”

“Don’t prove it to us. Prove it to management.”

“I will,” Alex said with absolute conviction. He’d survived a lot worse in his twenty-six years. He could survive a tame summer on an island away from all temptations. He’d immerse himself in books and get through the days that way. Besides, the break might be a good thing. He’d been going like a race car ever since he’d gone to the juniors, never letting up, driven by relentless pain to play hard on and off the ice.

Alex was more than a good-time party boy. He could meet any challenge they put before him just as he had all his life.

He’d show them.

~ ~ ~ ~

If Alex could get out of this particular chore, he would, but there wasn’t a shot in hell.

Steeling himself for the worst, he exited the elevator and walked the few short steps to the desk of the team owner’s assistant, Mina. She was formidable, and the entire team was afraid of her, even Coop and Ice. No one knew how old she was, but Jasper swore she was older than God himself.

Mina regarded him over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. Her frown was disapproving, and her eyes were hard. Alex managed a slight smile, knowing none of his usual flirting tactics would work on her.

“I came to get key, please.”

“Ethan wishes to speak with you first.” She held up a finger to silence him, murmured a few words into her headset, and gestured for him to enter the door to the team owner’s inner sanctum. He’d only been in there on a few formal occasions, such as signing his last contract.

Well, shit. The big man himself wanted to talk to Alex. This couldn’t be good. So much for a grab and dash. He was screwed and due for another lecture, as if his teammates hadn’t been bad enough.

Alex entered the hallowed ground with his head down and waited for the big boss to say something.

“Have a seat.” Ethan stood from behind his desk and walked to a small table in front of floor-to-ceiling windows with the most awesome view of Seattle. As usual, Ethan was casually dressed in jeans and Sockeyes T-shirt. The young billionaire didn’t care much for putting on airs, which Alex appreciated. If Ethan had his way, he probably wouldn’t make the team wear suits to and from games, but he didn’t.

Alex took his seat, and Ethan sat across from him.

“I understand Coop and the boys spoke with you?”

Alex nodded. He folded his hands on the table and held a respectful silence.

“You’ve been on this team since its first year in Seattle, as a rookie. You’re a valuable member and an asset.”

So far, so good. Alex nodded and said nothing, as there was nothing to say.

“We’re counting on you to step up into a leadership role next season. There will be holes left by Drew and Coop. I’m expecting you to help fill those holes. Partying until you drop is not the example I want set for the younger players.” There it went again. Younger players. Since when had he become an older player? Damn.

“Yes, sir.”

“I have no beef with your on-the-ice play; it’s your off-the-ice behavior that needs adjustment. At first, we let it go, chalked it up to typical young-guy antics. You’re not a rookie anymore, but your partying hasn’t shown any signs of diminishing. If anything, it’s gotten worse.”

“We just won Cup. That requires partying.” Alex defended himself, despite the hard, disapproving line of Ethan’s jaw.

“Winning it all does lend itself to celebration, but you’ve been celebrating nonstop for over two weeks. The rumor mill is rife with your escapades. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. Do you have a substance-abuse problem? Do you need help? The team is prepared to assist you in any way necessary.”

“No, I can stop anytime. I am having fun.”

Ethan’s frown was full of skepticism. “Prove it.”

“I have agreed to go to island. I come here for the key.”

“Good. Keep in mind, my family has resided on that island for over a century. We’re good neighbors. We do not have wild parties. We do not come on to every woman who walks down the street. We do not have drunken orgies. We savor the serenity of the island. We respect the natural beauty. We live among the locals as one of them.”

“I understand.” Alex bristled, slightly unsalted at Ethan’s low opinion of him, all the while knowing he’d given the man no reason to think any differently.

Ethan stood, keys in hand, and pointed at Alex’s face, as if he were scolding a recalcitrant child. “You will go to this island, and you will be a sterling example for this team. If you aren’t, I’ll hear about it.”

“I promise I will be stellar.” Alex rose to his feet.

“Good.” Ethan handed over the key. “Enjoy yourself.”

Enjoy himself? Alex wasn’t sure any kind of fun was possible given the constraints placed on him, but he’d do his best. He’d survived much worse than temporary exile to an island.