My latest novel drops in February, 2021. Breaking Out is the story of Adrienne Pierce and KJ Stennes, two women who really rub each other the wrong way when Adrienne joins the local women’s rec hockey team in Sussburg, PA. Each are dealing with recent major life events that have taken a toll on the emotionally and forced themselves to confront who they are. They deal with these changes through ice hockey and growing feelings for each other. But are they right for each other, and how do they know when they don’t even know themselves anymore?
Breaking Out is a low-angst wlw contemporary hockey romance.
Read below for the first chapter of Breaking Out, from Bella Books February 11, 2021.
Shit! KJ Stennes forced a wide smile onto her face, then bent over her skate and yanked hard at the laces. “That’s great!” she growled at the floor. Crap! This is the last thing we need!
The rest of the women in the cramped room echoed her words, though with more sincerity than KJ was feeling.
“So when do you stop playing?” KJ transferred her attention to the laces on her other skate. “Don’t people play until like five, six months?”
Jamie laughed. “I’m not surprised that’s the first thing you’d ask. This is my last game. My doctor said it’s probably okay to play until twelve weeks or so, but with my family history…” She shrugged.
“At least we have today.” KJ pulled her socks down over the tops of her skates and scooted forward off the bench. She rummaged around in her hockey bag, looking for her shin guards. They came out covered in black flakes that she absentmindedly brushed off. It was time to get a new bag. She’d get around to that one day; after all, the waterproof lining had only been flaking off since last season.
Jamie draped an arm around her shoulder when she sat back down. “Look, I know you’re probably freaking out right now, but it’ll be okay.”
“I’m not freaking out. I’m happy for you, I really am!” And she was. The whole team knew Jamie and Joe had been trying to get pregnant for a few years, but without any luck. KJ knew how badly her best friend wanted a child. “This is everything you’ve wanted.”
If only they’d waited another year. This would have been their year to win the league championship. The first few Bolts practices had been…well, electric. Their group had been together for seven years now, each season bringing them closer. Sure, there had been some of the turnover that was to be expected on any team, especially a rec team comprised of women who were college-age through grandmothers, but the last two had been remarkably stable. They all knew how everyone played. There was no need to think about where Jean might be. KJ knew once she’d corralled the puck behind the net that Jean would be busting her ass up the boards. If she couldn’t hit her with the breakout pass, Connie or Rebecca would be curling up the center, ready to go.
The Bolts only had four women on defense. There were three forward lines each with three women, but they hadn’t felt the need to run three lines on D. Jamie had been her defensive partner the whole time, and now KJ was being asked to give her up with only one game to go.
KJ’s shoulders slumped. “We only have four D. What are we going to do about that?”
“I’ve got it covered,” Jamie said. “She’s great. Played defense in high school. You won’t have to deal with an out-of-place center, I promise.”
“You sure?” KJ glanced around the crowded room. The cinderblock walls had seen better days. Light blue paint had flaked in places to reveal bright green below it and maroon below that. The Sussburg Ice Arena was her second home; there were times she felt like it had saved her life. Windsor County boasted exactly one ice rink, and she was fortunate it was in her hometown. There weren’t many in this part of Central Pennsylvania. At least she didn’t have to make the drive down to Harrisburg to get her hockey fix. It was what kept her centered, and it was now in danger of falling apart around her, just when she thought things might be getting a bit better.
Her teammates had gone back to strapping on their pads or were chatting quietly enough that they couldn’t be heard over the music playing on Rebecca’s iPhone. Jamie’s announcement seemed to have cast a bit of a pall over their normally raucous pre-game preparations.
KJ loved the women on her team dearly, even the ones who drove her up the wall. Any of them would do their best if moved back on defense, but it wouldn’t be the same. The centers were the most logical choice. There would be no disruption to the wing pairs, and on paper at least, centers played defense and offense. Unfortunately all the Bolts’ centers were far more offensive-minded than defensive-minded. Part of that was her and Jamie’s fault. They were so solid on D that the centers rarely had to drop back to help out for long.
“I’m sure,” Jamie said. “Trust me. I wouldn’t line you up with someone who couldn’t play. Now will you stop looking like we’re at a funeral?”
“Okay, you got me. I’m happy for you, but I wish you could have waited until after playoffs.”
Jamie squeezed her shoulder. “There’s more to life than playoffs.”
“I know.” KJ kept her voice soft. There was no reason for the others to hear her being crappy about Jamie’s big news.
“No, you don’t.” Jamie gentled her tone to match KJ’s. “But you will.” She shook KJ playfully. “Now get your gear on so we can stomp all over those Yetis.”
KJ stretched her lips into an approximation of a grin. “They won’t know what hit them.”
The other team had come to play. KJ plunked her butt on the bench and gulped down a cool stream of water from the waiting bottle. It soothed her throat, made raw from hauling ass up and down the rink.
“Those Yetis are running our asses off,” Jamie yelled around her mouth guard.
“Are they?” KJ made a show of stretching nonchalantly. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Jamie swatted her with the back of her glove. “Sure you did. How many times did you have to bail me out? Two?”
“Three, but I’m not counting.”
“You’re pinching in a little on the blue line,” KJ said. “Don’t go after that puck unless you know you can get it.”
“I always think I can.”
“No thinking.” KJ rapped her glove-covered knuckle on the top of Jamie’s helmet. “If you have to think, it’s too late.”
Even through her face shield, Jamie’s eye roll was as plain as day. “Sure thing, Yoda. Not all of us came out of the womb with skates on.”
“I don’t think my mom would have liked that.” Though it might be one explanation for why she’d left KJ behind after divorcing her dad. KJ shook her head. Now was not the time to focus on her childhood drama.
“Probably not.” Jamie took one last swig from her own water bottle. “Krissy and Cam are coming.”
KJ popped up and waited by the boards as the other defensive pair came skating to the bench as hard as they could. The second period was the worst for substituting in players, especially for the defense. They were so far from their bench. The shift hadn’t been long, but everyone learned the hard way that in the second period, you switched out when you had the opportunity. A four-minute shift was murder on the legs, not to mention the lungs.
At the far end, women’s voices raised in excitement. The Yetis had the puck and knew the Bolts’ defense was changing.
“Come on, Krissy!” KJ hollered. The broad swing of her arm did nothing to get the changing defensewoman to the bench, but she felt like she was helping.
Krissy’s head went down, and her arms swung as she pushed herself forward as fast as she could go. The other team’s center had the puck and was streaking out of her zone, already nearly to the center line. KJ waited another half second for Krissy to get close enough so she could jump the boards without incurring a penalty for too many players on the ice.
As soon as Krissy was within ten feet, KJ planted one hand on top of the boards and vaulted onto the ice. She was moving before she landed. The center had a couple of strides on her. KJ bit her lower lip and grinned as she pushed off, her blades biting deep. The sound that accompanied that first push sent a chill down her spine. There was nothing better than a footrace.
“One on!” came the call from further down the ice as one of the center’s teammates alerted her to KJ’s presence.
The warning wouldn’t be enough.
She shot forward, all thoughts evaporating from her mind but one: take away the other player’s easy path to the net.
She was low, her skate blades digging into the ice with a forceful crunch at each step. The center had to hear her, but she didn’t look back. That was too bad; it would have slowed her down a fraction, possibly enough for KJ to bust past her. She dragged a breath deep into her lungs and lunged forward, drawing abreast of the center at the top of the faceoff circle. Now the woman risked a glance her way. That was all KJ needed. She flicked her wrist almost negligently, sending her stick over to collide with the other woman’s. She leaned forward, giving the Yeti nowhere to go but the trajectory KJ had picked, one that curved away from the net and her goalie.
Vaughn had squared up, presenting a wall of pads and light blue athletic material to their opponent. Their hand was raised, the glove ready should the Yeti try to get a shot off. She still might attempt it, but not while she was struggling to regain control of the puck. The Yeti jabbed KJ in the side, but her elbow glanced harmlessly off KJ’s chest pad.
Taking advantage of the woman’s distraction from stickhandling, KJ slid her other hand down the shaft of her stick, then lifted up the Yeti’s stick. The puck squirted out and away from them. KJ swiveled her hips and dug her skate blades into the ice, stopping on a dime as the Yeti kept skating forward for a moment before she realized the puck was gone. By the time she was turned around and heading for the puck again, KJ had swooped in and nabbed it, sending it toward the far boards where Michelle waited. It landed against her teammate’s stick with a satisfying “thwap,” and just like that, the flow of the game reversed.
She coasted past the net while she kept her eye on the action at the other end of the ice. Jamie was in the neutral zone on her way to the blue line.
“Nice work,” Vaughn said. They reached their stick to tap KJ’s shin guards.
“No extra charge,” KJ yelled back. The mouth guard probably swallowed half of the words, but Vaughn nodded anyway.
The Yeti center who had tried to make good on her breakaway was heading to the bench. She was definitely going to need to freshen her legs up after that little bit of excitement. KJ firmed her grip on her stick. Hopefully, she’d have another crack at her.
Her own legs had a bit of a pleasant burn to them in the thigh. She didn’t need a break just yet; she’d only been on the ice about fifteen seconds. She skated up to the other team’s zone to take her position opposite Jamie.
She kept a sharp eye on the action as the puck was passed around among the Bolts forwards, from center to wing and back to center. The Yeti defense was starting to drag, their reactions becoming less crisp. KJ bided her time up at the line. The play wasn’t coming her way quite yet. Across the way, Jamie was displaying similar patience but was also tormenting the Yeti left wing who was trying to cover her. Jamie kept sidling in front of her and the Yeti would respond by trying to move forward. KJ grinned. Jamie loved to screw with the other teams’ forwards. Maybe that was why they made such a good pair.
The puck popped out from behind the net and up the boards. The forward on KJ couldn’t take it any longer. She darted down to try to corral the loose puck, but Connie beat her to it.
“Open!” KJ thundered from the top of the faceoff circle. She raised her stick, telegraphing the slapshot she was about to take from the perfect pass Connie sent her way. A defender threw her body between KJ and the net. The goalie went down to her knees to stop the shot she knew was coming.
KJ angled her body and sent the puck along to Jamie, who was no longer covered as the opposing forward dashed to get to the center of the ice.
“Yes!” she yelled as Jamie caught her pass, then swiveled to the net and let fly.
It was a perfect shot, skimming barely inside the right post above the goalie’s hastily stuck out mitt.
The ref whistled, pointing at the back of the net, indicating the goal was good. KJ didn’t need the confirmation. Elation bubbled in her chest as she skated across the ice to grab Jamie up in a celebratory hug.
“Nice shot!” she crowed, squeezing her partner tightly around the rib cage.
“Nicer pass!” Jamie said. “It’s good to go out on a bang.”
KJ squeezed her again, then ducked out as the rest of her teammates skated up to pound her partner on the shoulders and helmet.
Jamie was leaving. She’d managed to forget that for a few shifts