Read an Excerpt from Shutout

Posted Jan 11 2020, 12:26 pm

Chapter 1—New Beginnings


He may not have been the love of my life, but I loved him.

And now he was gone.

Mark was buried in a hole, and I was left to raise six-year-old twins on my own.

That fatal night over three months ago seemed like yesterday. The knock on the door, the policeman standing on my porch at one a.m., the panic rising inside me at the grim look on his face. Mark had been late getting home from work. Nothing unusual there. My husband had been a workaholic. He’d apparently fallen asleep at the wheel and perished in a fiery crash. He’d only been a mile from home.

Ours had been a comfortable relationship, not a white-hot passion, not even in the beginning. He’d been a good provider, a great father, and a decent man. He’d treated me well. I had no complaints.

For three months, I’d struggled with my new reality. Now it was September. My six-year-old twins were in first grade, and I was a twenty-four-year-old single mother without a career. I needed to fight past my grief and devise a plan for my future and my children’s. It was time.

I’d struggled my entire life with a niggling doubt I’d never be good enough. I’d depended on Mark and his family to take care of me, while I’d done nothing to take care of myself or have personal security if the worst should happen. And the worst had happened.

I was the daughter of an alcoholic father who couldn’t hold down a job and a mother who went through men as quickly as she changed outfits. I’d been told my entire childhood that I was worthless and screwed up everything I touched. The summer after I’d graduated high school and gotten a full-ride academic scholarship, I’d found out I was pregnant and proven them right again.

For the next six-plus years, I’d concentrated on being the best wife and mother possible, and I’d pulled it off. Without Mark to depend on, those insecurities came flooding back.

Mark had a small life insurance policy, which covered our living expenses for about a year. The clock was ticking, and I’d wasted three months already. I needed a career plan, and I needed it yesterday.

Not knowing what else to do, I drove to my in-law’s house. They’d become the parents I’d never had. Howard Mills had recently retired with intentions to move to a warmer Arizona. The only things holding them back were the kids and me.

Fran opened the door before I knocked and wrapped me in her arms for a warm hug. I hugged her back and squeezed my eyes shut to stem the tears which were so close to the surface every time I saw Mark’s parents.

Fran stood back and ushered me into her inviting house. Soon I was seated on the patio in the afternoon sun with a glass of wine in my hand.

“Where’s Howard?” I asked.

“Golfing. Where else?” Fran smiled kindly at me. These people had been my rock since Mark had died. They’d been there for me at every turn, and guilt rose inside me with the knowledge they were postponing their retirement plans because I was an emotional mess wandering with direction.

“Of course.” I took a sip, savoring the simple pleasure of a good bottle of wine.

We chatted about nothing for several minutes. I updated her on the kids, and she told me about their search for an Arizona house. Throughout our conversation, the underlying current of sadness floated below the surface. Fran, who’d always been proud of her appearance, had aged at least ten years since Mark had died, as had Howard. My heart bled for them, just as it bled for my children. We were all struggling to deal with our grief in the best way possible.

“How are the kids doing?” She’d seen them a few days ago, so she was well aware, but always hopeful, she lived for the day I’d say they were doing well.

“Not much has changed. Heath is non-communicative and sullen, except when he’s playing hockey. Hailey is the opposite, acting out and demanding attention.”

“I’m so sorry they’re going through this. If I could take on their pain, I would.”

“I know. We all would. Only time will heal the wounds for all of us.” If I had a dollar for each time, I’d said those very words in the past three months, I’d be a wealthy woman.

“Mark’s life may have ended, but ours continue on,” she said.

“Fran,” I said, saying the one thing that’d been on my mind for the past month. “I don’t want to hold you guys back. Don’t stay here on my account.”

“You’re family, the only family we have left. We’re here for you because we want to be. Your happiness and the twins are our number one priority.”

I so wanted to be worthy of their devotion, but I also had to stand on my own two feet and find my own way in this world. “I appreciate your concern. You know I do. I can’t let the two of you continue to sacrifice for me. I’m a big girl. Mark’s life insurance will cover expenses for a while until I get things on track.”

“I wish Mark had left more or that there was something we could do.”

“You gave birth to and raised an outstanding man, who cared for us, made sure we didn’t lack for anything, and kept us safe. You’ve done more than most parents.”

Fran’s stricken expression caught me off guard. I searched my statement for something which might be upsetting to her and came up with nothing but confusion.

“Fran? What’s wrong? What did I say?”

Fran stared at the hands clenched tightly in her lap. When she met my gaze, her expression was guilt-ridden. “I never gave birth to Mark.”

“What?” Her voice had been so low I’d barely heard what she said and had obviously misinterpreted her words.

“There’s something you should know, something we never told Mark, and I live with that mistake every day.”

I frowned, and my stomach clenched as my imaginative brain ran through the possibilities. “What is it?”

“Don’t look so stricken. It’s not bad, just something you should know. Mark should’ve known, too, be we never found a way to stop perpetuating the lie.”

“What lie?”

“We aren’t his birth parents.”

“You aren’t?” My mouth fell open, and I gaped at her in absolute surprise. “But he looks so much like you and Howard.”

“That made our secret so much easier to keep. We adopted him as a newborn. His real mother never saw his face, never got to hold him. We understand she was very young, and the father wasn’t in the picture.”

“I had no idea.”

“Nor did Mark.” Fran’s face was lined with guilt. “We denied Mark the right to know his family. I don’t what that to happen to the twins. They have a right to a relationship with people who share their genetics.”

“No matter what, you’ll always be their grandparents, genetics be damned.”

Fran’s eyes were unusually misty, and she dabbed at them with a napkin. “As a nurse, I’m fully aware genetics play an important part in a person’s health.”

I nodded, not sure what she was getting at exactly. Being a worrier, I immediately jumped to the worst conclusion. Had Mark had some kind of hereditary health issue I wasn’t aware of?

“Don’t panic, Caro.” Fran reached out and patted my hand, guessing accurately what I’d been thinking. “There’s one half of the twins’ relatives we know nothing about. I’d been meaning to have this conversation with Mark, but I’d put it off until too late, now I can only fix it for his children. I think you need to have them DNA tested. I’ve looked into it, and via DNA testing on a popular genealogy site, you’ll be able to find out close matches for relatives, background, and possible genetic health concerns.”

“I don’t know,” I hedged, not sure why I was balking at this idea.

“Heath and Hailey most likely have another set of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… They deserve to know them, especially considering we have such a small family unit. Why not expand that unit?”

“What if they’re not interested in knowing them?”

“Then that will be that. No harm done. Wouldn’t you rather know than not know? What if Mark has parents out there who wonder about him? Howard and I always thought there’d be time to tell Mark he was adopted. We waited for the right moment, and we waited too long. I don’t want to make such a mistake with his children. They deserve to know, and we need to know.”

Fran needed to know. I understood her guilt and her dilemma. Out there somewhere was a family we knew nothing about with their own life stories. I recalled filling out a form for my health insurance which asked several questions about the health of my relatives and known health issues in my family. My twins would be at a disadvantage as they’d only have one-half of the picture. The more I thought about it, the more curious I was about these mystery people who shared a portion of my children’s DNA. Genetics played a larger role in our lives than many of us cared to admit.

“Okay, what could it hurt? How do we do this?”

“I took the liberty of sending for a kit. It’s on the desk.” She smiled gratefully at me, and the guilt lines on her face softened. “Mark would want this.”

I nodded agreement. I didn’t know what Mark would want, but he wasn’t here to tell us.



Chapter 2—The Puck Brothers



We were the young guys.

The guys with our entire NHL careers ahead of us.

We were cocky. We had the world by the tail, and nothing and no one could stop us. Our mutual love of partying and women had brought us together, along with our complete and total disinterest in long-term relationships. It was safe to say that every one of us had been burned before and learned our lessons. I knew I had. I might’ve been a one-woman man before, but now I played the field, didn’t stay with one woman more than a week, and didn’t get attached.

We were also wasted drunk and worried as hell about who would make the final cuts tomorrow, but none of us expressed our doubts. After all, we were invincible.

The regular season started the first week of October. We’d battled for a spot through the last two weeks of preseason games in September. Now it was showtime.

Axel raised his glass and grinned at us. Half of his beer sloshed over the side and soaked our nachos. We didn’t care. We raised our glasses for our tenth toast of the night.

“To the—” Axel paused, deep in thought, mostly because his inebriated brain was soggy with alcohol. “The Puck Brothers! Long may we puck and fuck and have lots of luck.”

“Here! Here!” we said in unison.

“The Puck Brothers. I like that.” Ziggy burped and bumped fists with Axel. “And as the first official meeting of the Puck Brothers”—Ziggy held up his right hand, and the rest of us followed his lead—“we’ll hit our pucks in the net, keep our dicks well-exercised, and live life to the fullest.”

“Here! Here!” I slurred.

Steele, who rarely said much, raised a hand like he was in fucking grade school. All heads turned to him, because raising his hand was just plain weird, even to our alcohol-muddled brains.

“What?” Axel, our self-appointed leader, asked over the rim of his beer glass.

“We might not all make the team.”

Axel frowned and narrowed his eyes. “We’re making the team. All of us. We’re inseparable.” His gaze swiveled to two women walking by in tight dresses so short a guy could see the bottoms of their delectable asses.

Steele blinked a few times, as if confused, and shook his head. “If you say so.”

“I say so.” Axel’s eyes stayed glued to the blonde’s ass.

“Skate and party till we drop. We’ll play the field and enjoy every minute of it. We are the Puck Brothers,” Kaden shouted and raised his glass. Answering shouts of agreement and clinking glasses solidified our Puck Brotherhood.

“Let’s sweeten the pot. First one to bite it, we’re gonna take it out of their ass.”

More drunken shouts of agreement, even though most of us had zero idea what we were agreeing to.

Steele raised his hand again. “Bite what–monogamy?”

He all stared at each other and roared with laughter. Was this guy for real?

“Yup,” Ziggy said.

“How will we determine if someone has bitten it? And who chooses the penalty?”

More eye-rolling and groans and snickering.

“Don’t know. We’ll decide when we need to.”

“But—” Steele still took issue with our lack of clear rules.

Kaden emptied the last of the pitcher into his glass and took a long swallow before answering, “Whatever. We don’t need rules. We’re having fun here.”

“Here! Here!” Axel raised his glass, and we did another toast. Steele didn’t ask anymore dumb-assed questions, so I guess he was mollified.

We toasted one more time. I guzzled the last of my beer and looked to the future. Life was fucking good.

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