Skating on Thin Ice

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Chapter 1–The Penalty Box

Ethan Parker came into this world with a silver spoon in his mouth. He would’ve preferred a hockey stick in his hands, but sometimes those were the breaks.

He’d never skate in the pros or hoist the Stanley Cup in victory, but that didn’t squelch his enthusiasm for everything hockey. Two to three times a week, he played for an adult league in a rink minutes south of Seattle, while he dreamed of one day bringing professional hockey to the Emerald City.

And maybe, just maybe, he’d realize that dream in the near future.

Months ago the Sleezer brothers—yes, seriously, that was their name—contacted the Puget Sound Hockey Alliance through Ethan’s attorney, Cyrus North, with an offer Ethan couldn’t refuse, so he did what any billionaire with a hockey obsession would do—he wrote them a big check and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Increasingly impatient, he slid a blank check for relocation fees under the table to the league and waited some more. Nothing happened. Not a damn thing. So much for money talking. His considerable bankroll wasn’t even whispering to the hockey powers that be.

It’d been months since he’d heard a peep. While a day didn’t go by that he didn’t wonder what the hell was or wasn’t happening, tonight wasn’t about his frustrations with professional hockey. Tonight was about playing the game he loved with a bunch of guys equally as rabid. And tonight reminded him of all the reasons why he couldn’t give up until Seattle had a big-league hockey franchise.

Hockey fans like these deserved a team. This city deserved a team. And the effing Vancouver Canucks deserved an effing rival. Oh, yeah, he could picture it now. Ethan grinned at the thought of trading trash-talk with some of his Canadian business associates.

Regardless, he forced himself back to the here and now. His amateur team, the Mercer Mets, had just lost the adult league trophy in a hard-fought hockey game.

With a heavy sigh, Ethan skated over to shake hands with the opposing team like the good sport he really wasn’t. After which he headed toward the locker room, sad to see the season end.

“Ethan.” Cyrus, his attorney, stopped him short as he stepped off the ice.

“Did you come to watch me skate like crap and blow the game for the guys, Cy?” Ethan managed a grin despite how pissed he was at himself. Sure it was just a game in an adult league, but he hated losing. Hell, it could’ve been a pickup game of basketball in the parking lot and he’d treat it like the NBA finals.

Cy was grinning, and Ethan went on instant alert. He doubted that grin was because Cyrus enjoyed Ethan’s pain—which the bastard usually did.

“What is it?” Ethan asked.

“They’re ready, E.” Cyrus kept grinning, and Ethan could not for the life of him understand what they were ready for.

“Ready?” Ethan halted and squinted at his friend, not making sense of the words.

“All our hard work is about to pay off.” Cy looked about to pee his pants from excitement.

Ethan went still inside as Cy’s words sank into his thick skull. His heart stopped beating. His lungs stopped heaving. Nothing moved. Not an eyelash.

Cy waited patiently, still grinning.

“What did you say?” Ethan pushed dark hair off his forehead and wiped his face with a towel a teammate tossed his way.

Cy glanced around, grabbed Ethan by the arm, and led him to a more private area at the end of a long hallway. “The Sleezers want to sell. The league is on board. Everything’s in place but with the stipulation that as long as the Giants are in the playoffs the sale can’t be finalized.” Cyrus hopped from one foot to the other as if he were walking over hot coals. His hips swayed, and he danced like nobody was watching, even when everyone was. He wouldn’t win Dancing with the Stars, but Ethan gave him points for enthusiasm.

“Playoffs?” Ethan said.

“Yeah, the Giants made the playoffs tonight by a thread.”

Ethan sat down hard on one of the plastic chairs lining the hallway, looking up at Cyrus. “As late as last week, the Sleezers swore they’d go down with their sinking ship.”

“That was before they lost a harassment lawsuit to a few former employees. Now a couple hundred million in their pockets is looking damn good.” Cyrus checked his watch. “I have the private jet idling on the tarmac at Boeing Field to get us there before the flakes change their minds. Again.”

“Something doesn’t seem right about this. Like maybe this is all too good to be true?”

“Yeah, we’ve been burned a million times before.” Cyrus nodded as Ethan shot to his feet and started to pace in the hallway, his mind going a million miles a minute as he ran through everything they’d need to do in the next twenty-four hours to tie up the purchase before the Sleezers had a chance to get cold feet or sell to someone else.

“Did you call Reynolds?” Ethan asked.

Brad Reynolds had been Ethan’s best friend since junior high football. The Reynolds family represented old Seattle money. Even if their fortune might be somewhat diminished of late, they still commanded instant respect and brandished major political clout. That political clout was proving to be more valuable than cash when it came to getting permits approved for a new ice arena. Brad, the middle Reynolds brother, had jumped on board immediately as the family representative, while his two brothers, his parents, and a sister came along for the ride as somewhat silent partners. None of them knew a damn thing about hockey, but they loved sports and were more than willing to learn.

“Yeah, Brad’s on his way. He’ll meet us at Boeing Field.”

Ethan checked his watch. Six thirty on a Saturday. It was going to be a long, stressful night. “Crap. Let me shower, and I’ll be out in fifteen.”

Ethan made it out in nine minutes. Several hours later, Ethan and Brad, as majority shareholders and main representatives of the Puget Sound Hockey Alliance, met with the Sleezers and the league commissioner.

And found out that the situation was too good to be true.

* * * *

Since college, Ethan had concentrated on building his family’s already-massive fortune, but making money had lost its luster. The thrill had gone. With his family’s blessing, he’d turned to a different pursuit. Ethan’s who’s who of Seattle businessmen, including the Reynolds family, made up his merry band of marauders bent on stealing a struggling hockey franchise from another city and resurrecting it in Seattle.

Ethan worked tirelessly in the background, never showing his face, never tipping his hand. He was the man behind the mirror—the Emerald City’s hockey wizard.

After meeting with the Sleezers and the hockey commissioner, Brad, Ethan, and Cyrus went to an all-night diner to discuss their options.

Ethan leaned forward in the booth with his hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. Brad sat opposite him, also deep in thought. Most people took Brad at face value, considering him a shallow playboy. Ethan knew better. Behind Brad’s easy smile and smooth talking lurked a guy with as much determination as Ethan to see this thing through and create a winning tradition of hockey in Seattle. Ethan expected nothing less of his partner in crime.

“What the fuck do we do now?” Ethan asked.

“We wait. This is not an endeavor for the impatient,” Cyrus said, walking back to the booth after excusing himself to make a phone call.

Ethan didn’t feel patient. In fact, he was ready to start throwing things, but he didn’t.

“I can’t believe those bastards screwed us over again.” Brad finally turned his head away from his study of a beach volleyball game playing on the one TV in the diner.

“Yeah. No shit. The Sleezers have an eight-figure deposit with no guarantees they’ll sell. What a clusterfuck. And the claim they have other offers willing to keep the team in town? Do either of you buy that story?” Ethan looked at his friends and colleagues.

Cyrus shook his head. “They’re testing the waters, and they’ll sell out to the highest bidder, but the commissioner wants that team moved to Seattle as badly as we do. Regardless, he has to play nice with current ownership.”

“The Sleezers are sucking every last penny out of that team. Why else did they insist they won’t finalize a sale until their playoff run is over?”

“They’re hoping if they go deep into the playoffs, the price will increase.” Brad was fully engaged now.

Ethan hated negativity, but here he was wallowing in it. He mentally slapped himself until his wheels started turning again. He turned to Cyrus. “Did you call our investors and let them know we might need to pony up some more money?”

“Sure did, while you were still trying to reason with the Sleezers to take the bird in the hand.”

Ethan let out an exasperated sigh and rubbed his tired eyes. “This is a disaster. So much to do and now we’re stuck in limbo. We need to evaluate the staff and the players from the inside, not the outside, decide who stays and who goes to Seattle. All in a few short months before next season. Then there’s the draft.”

Cyrus rubbed his chin, and his eyes lit up in a manner that always made Ethan nervous. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“What about it?” Ethan watched his friend warily. He had the same gleam in his eyes as he did when he was about to kick ass in golf. This couldn’t be good.

“This is a prime opportunity for you to study every aspect of the team and staff during the season and from the inside,” Cyrus said, obviously holding something back.

“It’s no secret the team is in financial straits and destined to be sold, so I just walk in as a potential buyer and ask to see their records?” Ethan wasn’t certain what Cyrus had up his sleeve, but he doubted it was as easy as that.

“No one is going to open up to a potential buyer from Seattle. You’re going undercover. You’re not recognizable because you avoid the limelight. You’ll use a different last name, and you’ll get an insider’s view of the team from top to bottom. From the first line to the fourth line, from the GM to the administrative assistant, you’ll evaluate who makes the move to Seattle and who needs to be sent down the road.”

“If we’re taking a page out of that TV show where the boss goes undercover, shouldn’t E wear an ugly wig and a mustache, too?” Brad snorted with laughter, finding this way too amusing.

Ethan sighed. Sometimes he swore these two didn’t have a serious bone in their bodies. “I’m not going undercover.”

“What’s E’s story?” Brad ignored him.

“He’s a consultant representing potential buyers and hired to determine the team’s worth and investment potential. Like an appraiser. People will be more likely to give him the honest scoop if they believe he can’t fire them.”

“Yeah, and they’ll be pissed as hell when they find out I’ve duped them. I’m not doing it.” Ethan shook his head to punctuate his words.

“Oh, but you are. Your investors insist on it, as do the Sleezers and the league.”

“My investors? You two clowns?”

“And all the other people who’ve promised fifty percent of the money to buy this team.” Cyrus grinned again, knowing he had the trap set.

“Are you serious? When did you have time to talk to them?”

“While you two idiots were still arguing with the Sleezers, and I stepped out. It’s a done deal. You’re going undercover.”

Ethan needed those investors. While he had tons of money of his own, the financing for a new arena and 50 percent of a team had put a considerable dent in his bottom line.

“The league and the Sleezers need to approve it,” Ethan pointed out.

“They already did. I talked to them a few minutes ago, but there’s one caveat.”

Ethan groaned.

“You cannot reveal who you are until after this team plays their last game. First of all, the Sleezers don’t want to alienate their fans and lose any ticket sales as a result of a rumored move to Seattle.”

“Greedy bastards,” Ethan commented.

“As far as the commissioner is concerned, his favoritism toward a Seattle sale and giving you access to the team will garner enough criticism from the league’s ownership and fans. The commissioner hopes to bury this little detail in the drama caused by the move to Seattle.”

“That man is devious. I like him.” Brad grinned.

“I really don’t want to do this.”

“I really don’t think you have a choice,” Cyrus said.

“This’ll be bad when it comes out.” Ethan sighed, resigned to his fate and still not crazy about the entire thing, while part of him wanted to roll up his sleeves and get to work figuring stuff out.

“This isn’t a popularity contest. This is about winning.” Cyrus reminded him.

And that, to Ethan, was truly the bottom line.

* * * *

Lauren Schneider rolled over in bed and frowned at the cell lying on the nightstand, its face illuminated by an incoming call. Who the hell called a person at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday unless it was an emergency?

Usually she was already awake at this hour, ready to attack the day, but the Gainesville Giants hockey team had advanced to the playoffs for the first time in years with their win over Ottawa last night. Of course, it helped that the league had increased the number of playoff teams recently, which opened up wild card slots not available in the past. After the win, she’d attended the team party to celebrate. Lauren usually didn’t participate in such parties, but she made an exception last night, and in the process imbibed a little too much.

Only one troubling fact had marred an otherwise perfect evening. The game hadn’t sold out. In fact, it came well short of it. The guys deserved better, but the Sleezer brothers were too busy spending the team proceeds to be bothered with promoting the team. Plus, who wanted to sit in a hockey arena when it was eighty degrees outside? Not that she bought that excuse. Other warm-weather teams didn’t have a problem drawing a crowd, but the Sleezers had produced such a lousy product for long enough that fans had deserted the team in droves. Disappointed, they’d gravitated to other sports teams in the area, except for a handful of diehards the team fondly called the Faithful Fifty, even though their numbers were greater than fifty. It just didn’t look like that on most days.

Lauren glanced at the phone and frowned. It was her boss, Terry Allen, the director of player personnel. A call from him this early in the morning probably meant one thing—one of the guys had gotten in trouble and needed to be bailed out of jail or worse. She’d work her spin magic with the marketing staff while Terry took care of the player.

As assistant director of player personnel for an organization in financial trouble, Lauren’s role had morphed into something of a girl Friday as the Sleezers continued to cut staff to make payroll and maintain their extravagant lifestyle. It hadn’t always been like this, but after the patriarch of the family died six years ago, things had gone downhill faster than a runaway train.

“This better be good, Allen.” She worked hard to maintain her kick-ass female rep, and she didn’t let it down, even with the man who signed her paychecks.

“Get to HQ. And you needed to be here about fifteen minutes ago.”

“What’s going on?”

“Get your ass down here.” He hung up the phone. In itself that wasn’t unusual. Terry wasn’t known for his touchy-feely conversations, so it probably meant nothing.

Lauren showered, dressed, and was in her car speeding to the arena, where the team had its headquarters, in record time. Because her life was all about the team, she lived five minutes away, fifteen minutes if she walked, but she didn’t have time for walking today.

Scenarios raced through Lauren’s mind. The Sleezers declared bankruptcy—finally? Or team captain Cooper Black was in jail? Cedric got caught in a compromising position with a woman or several? Nah, that wouldn’t be news. Maybe all those sales rumors finally came to fruition? The league had tired of bailing out the Sleezers? Or—or what?

Lauren hurried into the building, relatively empty except for janitorial staff cleaning up from the party last night.

She nodded to the gray-haired guy sitting behind the security desk. “Hey, Herm, how goes it?”

“Big stuff going down here last night, missy. Lots of important men in and out, including the commissioner.”

“The commissioner was here?” Oh God, this was big. Way big. Scary big. “Any idea why?”

Herm frowned and pulled his lips in a tight line, which said all she was getting out of him would be name and rank, and forget about the serial number. “You’d best go upstairs and find out for yourself.”

She headed for the stairs, glancing over her shoulder at Herm. He tried to smile but failed. Herm always found something to smile about, no matter what. Not so today.

The place was quiet as she walked down the long hallway of empty offices, but she heard laughter coming from the conference room—even what she swore was the popping of a champagne cork. Lauren stuck her head around the partially open door. Terry motioned her inside. She hesitated when she saw the general manager and coach in the office along with several other staff members, all with grins on their faces, which is what one would expect from a team advancing to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. So what was the problem?

“Who’s in jail?” Lauren quipped.

“No one.” Ike McGrady, the GM, shook his head and almost managed a smile. Ike was like an uncle to her. He’d played in the league with her father. While he’d been an incredible forward, his management skills left a lot to be desired, but Lauren never spoke up against him, despite the grumblings among the staff. Ike moved at a snail’s pace when it came to decisions. His inability to jump on a deal quickly had lost them a good many players over the years.

“Did the Sleezers lose their minds and give all of us big raises?” Lauren asked.

“Nope, not even close,” Ike grouched, but Ike liked to grouch. He could win the Mega Millions and be pissed about it.

“Then did I miss a memo or something?”

Terry nodded. “Pretty much. We all did.”

“I don’t understand.” Lauren tucked a stray strand of blonde hair behind one ear.

“Now that we’re all here, let’s get started.” Everyone looked to Ike in his rumpled shirt, tie askew. His rubbed his bloodshot eyes but still managed a tired, yet happy, smile. “The Sleezers have decided to sell, and there are potential buyers.”

Obviously this was news to everyone except Terry, Ike, and Coach Ferrar.

“Seriously? Who?” They lived through these rumors every couple months; never before had it justified an early Sunday meeting. The Sleezer brothers, not-so-fondly known around the team headquarters as the Sleazes, had gone back and forth about selling the team while they bled it dry in order to finance their yacht, mansions, parties, and women. Upstanding citizens, the Sleazes. It was no secret the league wanted them banned from hockey’s exclusive club of owners.

“We don’t know, other than one group has deep pockets. Very deep.”

“This team deserves deep pockets and decent owners who’ll build on what we’ve done.” Lauren could tell by Ike’s lack of a frown that he agreed. Losing the Sleezers was a damn good thing.

“Why are we meeting at o-dark-thirty? Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?” Kaley, the head coach’s executive assistant and Lauren’s best friend, blinked her eyes and yawned. Last Lauren had seen of her, she’d been dancing on a table with one of the rookies, wearing an ice bucket on her head and doing tequila shots.

“It can’t wait. The league is putting on the pressure.” Ike appeared to be nursing a hangover himself.

“What kind of pressure?” Lauren honestly didn’t understand why they were here early Sunday morning after the team had won their biggest game in years.

“Money talks and the league listens.” Ike rubbed his eyes, looking worse than Lauren felt. “The prospective buyers are sending a couple representatives to vet the team, and the league wants us to play nice and be on our best behavior.”

“Who are these guys?” Terry asked the question that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

“No one knows.” Ike grimaced. He obviously hated not knowing what he was getting into and with whom.

“Someone does,” Lauren pointed out the obvious. “Or they wouldn’t have ordered us to kiss their asses.”

“They’ll be here on Monday and underfoot at every game from this point forward.”

“As in tomorrow?” Lauren was still in shock, trying to process what these changes meant to the team, the staff, and her. “This is a good thing, right?”

“Getting rid of the Sleezers can only be a good thing,” Terry answered.

A smattering of applause erupted around the room. No one would dispute that fact.

“They aren’t planning on moving the team, are they?” Lauren asked.

Ike smiled, but Lauren caught the concern that flashed in his eyes. “Ah, Lauren, ever the skeptic. To my knowledge, there are no plans to move the team.”

Lauren couldn’t help being skeptical. Her life consisted of a long line of promises made and never kept, starting with her beloved father who put hockey over family until her mother divorced him and embraced being a bitter, vindictive woman. Then Lauren repeated her mother’s mistake by marrying a hockey player herself, and that sure as hell hadn’t ended well.

“We’ll meet with these guys first thing Monday morning. In the meantime, we’ll prepare to answer any questions they ask us. The Sleezers must go, and it’s up to us to make sure these guys don’t leave Florida without a recommendation to their bosses to buy the team. I expect every one of you to play nice with them and give them the information they request, of course, while putting the organization in the most positive light possible.”

Lauren nodded. Getting rid of the Sleezers seemed almost too good to be true.

Which was exactly why it made her nervous.