The face slammed into the protective glass, blood spurting out as cartilage was demolished, bone shattered.
The crowd around her either roared and howled in approval or hissed and barked in disapproval, depending on which team they supported. But Blayne Thorpe could do neither. Instead, she only gaped at the behemoth hybrid continuing to force that poor, battered feline face into the glass by using nothing more than his hockey stick and overwhelming size.
She had heard he’d gotten bigger since she’d last seen him nearly ten years ago, but she thought they were talking about the man’s career. Not his size.
Career wise, the minor shifter league’s onetime left defenseman from nowhere Maine had gone on to become one of the greatest hockey players the pro shifter league had ever known. Bo “The Marauder” Novikov was one of the first—and at one time, one of the only—hybrids to ever play on a professional team in any league. Of course, his saving grace had been that he wasn’t one of the more feared—and, to be quite honest, more unstable—canine hybrids like Blayne, but a rare by-product of species crossbreeding. Specifically a polar bear-lion. Or, as Blayne always secretly thought of him, a mighty bear-cat. A much cuter name in Blayne’s estimation than polar bear-lion. But bears breeding with felines was such a rare thing—and damn near nonexistent more than twenty-five years ago—that they didn’t have any cute nicknames like coydogs for coyote-dogs or ligers and tigons for lion and tiger mixes.
Yet that didn’t mean Blayne saw Novikov as one of the top representatives of the hybrid nation. How could she? He represented everything she loathed in sports. Where was the sportsmanship? Where was the team spirit? Where was the loyalty?
In ten years the Marauder had become one of the most hated and feared players in any shifter league in the States, Asia, and most of Europe. Although in Russia and Sweden, he was merely considered “tough—for an American.” Adored and loathed by fans in equal amounts, Novikov was equally detested by both his opponents and his own teammates. Bo Novikov had made a name for himself by being what Blayne could only describe as pure asshole on skates. If you were in his way, Novikov would either make you move or plow right through you. If you had his puck—and it was always his puck—he’d find a way to get it away from you, even if it meant permanent damage and learning to walk again for the opposition. From what Blayne had heard, he never had a friendly word for anyone, even the cubs and pups who worshipped at his feet.
None of this surprised Blayne. How could it? She’d met the man when he was a much shorter, nineteen-year-old minor league player.
Tracey, a tigress that Blayne liked about as much as her best friend Gwen detested her, had seen Novikov playing and had begged Blayne to somehow get Gwen to invite her to one of her uncle’s practices. At the time, the O’Neill males ran the Philly Furors minor hockey team. Two of Gwen’s uncles were the managers and six of her cousins were either coaches or players. Although Blayne was invited anywhere that the O’Neills were, Tracey couldn’t risk just showing up whenever she felt like it. Not unless she wanted to get her ass kicked by Gwen and her female cousins. It took some pleading, begging, and whining on Blayne’s part, but eventually Gwen agreed that Tracey could come to one of the practices.
The idea had been that Tracey, wearing their Catholic school uniform—appropriately adjusted for after-school boy hunts—would show up and transfix the hybrid with her tigress beauty. It seemed like a solid plan as far as Blayne was concerned. And Tracey, not being real shy about that sort of thing, had made her move during one of the team’s breaks. Blayne had barely noticed, too busy sitting in the stands and wolfing down a cheesesteak from the bear-owned restaurant across the street. She was halfway done with her sandwich when she felt like she was being watched. She had been, too. She’d looked up to find piercing blue eyes staring at her through the protective glass between the stands and the rink.
He didn’t say anything, either. He just…stared. And he kept staring while glaring. He glared at her like she’d stolen his wallet or cut him with a razor. The bite of cheesesteak in her mouth went down her throat hard, and she tried to figure out if she could make it to the exit before he reached her. He looked like he wanted to eat her alive, and coming from a predator that was not a good thing. Especially a predator who, it was rumored, had descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side and the Cossacks on his father’s.
Putting down the remainder of her sandwich, Blayne had slowly stood. As she did, those blue eyes studied her every move. He watched her pick up her backpack and, in her saddle shoes, slowly make her way down the aisle. He’d skated along with her, oblivious to the fact that the O’Neills had noticed his interest. Blayne had reached the end of the bleachers and took the steps down to the massive hallway that the players entered through. Slowly, not wanting to startle him, she’d eased the straps of her bag over her shoulders. With the bag on, she’d looked over her shoulder one more time, expecting to see Bo Novikov still on the ice. He wasn’t. He was right behind her. Blue eyes fierce as they glowered down at her.
And Blayne, as always, handled it with her usual skill and subtlety.
She screamed like someone was stabbing her to death and took off running. Gwen called her name and ran after her, but Blayne didn’t stop until she’d run out of the building, across the street, and all the way home. She burst into her father’s house, slamming the door behind her, locking it, pushing her father’s favorite chair in front of it and then the side table. She was working on getting the piano over there, when her father had walked in from the backyard. “What are you doing?” he’d asked, and Blayne had been forced to calm down because there was little her father “tolerated” from his daughter. And her “irrational bullshit” was at the top of his “No Tolerance” list.
After taking a breath Blayne had replied, “Nothin’. Why?”
Her father didn’t seem to believe her much, but he let it go. Tracey, however, did not let it go. She blamed Blayne for blowing the tigress’s chance at being the future—and very wealthy—mate of a hockey star.
Tracey never spoke to her again, which Gwen was very happy about, while Novikov lasted another month with the minor league team before landing his first major league deal. She hadn’t seen him since that day and didn’t bother to go to many hockey games, so she hadn’t seen him play. But she’d heard about him. It was impossible to be around sports lovers and not hear about Novikov.