My gram taught me how to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I’ve made her recipe so many times I could recite it by heart. My cookie baking skills will never save me in a harrowing situation, but the instruction my dad gave me in our yard when I was growing up? That ended up being a lifesaver.
“You sure you don’t want me to stay?” Sierra asked me for the fourth time.
I shook my head. “You have a date. Go. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, see you next time.” She waved and headed out.
Everyone else had already left, but since I’d been a little late today, I stayed after the game to help put away the T-shirt cannons, tidy up our small dressing room, and make sure costumes and T-shirts were ready for the next game. Working by myself was kind of nice. There was a relaxed silence without the others gossiping or talking over each other. I liked most of the people I worked with, but game nights were always chaotic.
I smiled, thinking about Ricky the Raven’s dance moves. I liked guys who didn’t mind being silly just to make kids laugh. Between his deep but sweet voice and his goofy on-ice flossing moves earlier, I was curious about the man who’d been inside the costume.
I’d just gotten to the elevator that would take me down to the employee parking lot when I realized I’d forgotten my charger, so I headed back to my locker. I’d locked everything up so I fumbled for my key card, trying to dig it out of my duffel bag while also carrying my keys and purse. I finally got the door open and had just stepped inside when I felt, more than heard, movement behind me.
“Hey, Nova.” The voice was low and eerie, but I’d recognize it anywhere: Dirk.
Crap. Just what I needed.
“Hey, Dirk.” I started to shut the door behind me, but he stopped it with his foot.
“Getting ready to go home.” I tried to move past him, but a shadow appeared on the other side of him, boxing me in.
Great. His gross buddy, Shawn.
They were standing a little too close, and an uneasy feeling spread through me. It was late, somewhat dark in this section of the arena, and most of the support staff had already left.
“You can come home with us,” Shawn said, moving closer to me.
I took a step back but bumped into Dirk, who wrapped an arm around my waist.
“How come you’re always so mean to us?” Dirk us, pulling me against him so tightly it made me gasp. “We’ll make you feel real good.”
“Let go!” I yelled, trying to elbow him. But I was still holding my damn duffel bag and Shawn was pressed up against my front now, sandwiching me between them.
“Everyone’s gone,” Shawn said, his face close enough to mine for me to smell his beer-laced breath. “No one’s going to hear you.”
“There’s people everywhere,” I said, struggling against them, but they were way too strong for me.
“We can party right here,” Dirk said, pulling me into the room. “And no one’s going to bother us.”
“No! Stop! Help!” I screamed.
Shawn laughed as I shoved him. “Nice try, blondie.”
I screamed and kicked, determined to make it hard as possible for them. There was no way in hell I’d let them do whatever it was they were planning to do without a fight.
I was my father’s daughter, and my father had been doing mixed martial arts for years. His voice ran through my head as I remembered the many kickboxing lessons he’d given me in our back yard.
Use your core, Nova. Turn at the hips and put everything you’ve got into that kick.
I took a deep breath, turned, and delivered a roundhouse kick directly into Shawn’s crotch.
He howled like a wounded animal, dropping to the ground.
“Holy…shit.” He gasped and curled into the fetal position.
“We could’ve made this fun,” Dirk growled. “But now you’re gonna pay.”
He slapped me so hard I saw stars. Then he ripped my T-shirt right down the middle and I screamed again, bile rising in my throat as reality came crashing down: if I couldn’t take both of them down, I was in big trouble.
“Fucking prick tease,” Dirk hissed in my ear. “Let’s see how hot you are when I put my cock in that uptight little ass of yours.”
“Someone help!” I tried again.
“Where’s the damn duct tape?” Dirk hissed. “She’s not gonna stop screaming and we don’t have all night.”
“She smashed my balls, dude,” Shawn said in a moan. “I need help.”
Ignoring him, Dirk pulled something from his pocket. I saw the gleam of a blade in the semi-darkness and another shot of fear and horror zipped through me. It was like an adrenaline rush and a blackout at the same time, leaving me almost frozen with fear yet instinctively yearning to run.
“Where’s your fire now?” he teased, his grin evil.
I put my hips and shoulders behind a right uppercut into his jaw. He cried out in pain, reaching out to grab my wrist as I tried to flee.
“Little bitch!” He shook me hard enough to make my eyes cross, but I didn’t care. I pushed against him, still screaming
“My nuts, dude,” Shawn wailed. “You gotta help me.”
He was crying, which gave me a shot of satisfaction.
“We started this, we’re gonna finish it,” Dirk snapped, trying to pin me in place.
The word finish set off a wave of nausea. He pressed the tip of his blade to my cheek and I closed my eyes, picturing my dad.
Please please please, I thought desperately. Don’t let this happen.
“That’s it. Now just stand there like a good girl.” Dirk ran his hands along the swell of my breasts, and I was about to scream again just as the door flew open and a male voice yelled, “What the hell’s going on?”
“Mind your own business, dipshit,” Dirk snapped at him. “Get out of here.”
I bit his hand as hard as I could with what little room I had, but it was enough, and he yelped.
“Help me!” I cried, squirming, and managing to get out of Dirk’s grasp.
“Get away from her!” My rescuer yelled, running directly toward Dirk.
Dirk punched him, sending his glasses flying, but he was swinging back at Dirk for all he was worth, as he yelled to me, “Run!”
I hesitated for a fraction of a second, terrified Dirk would hurt him too, but I could find help. I tore out of the room screaming at the top of my lungs and flew down the hall toward the team’s locker rooms. If anyone was still here, it was the team, coaches, and the press.
“Whoa, easy there. What’s wrong?” I ran right smack into the chest of the Mavericks’ team captain, Ben Whitmer.
“Help us, please… Dirk and Shawn, they attacked me…and then the guy with the glasses came and they’re going to hurt him and—” I was rambling like an idiot but Ben’s eyes narrowed as he looked down at my chest, which I now realized was covered in nothing but my bra.
I turned, running back in the direction from which I’d come, my heart in my throat as I hoped my savior was okay. We rounded the corner and the scene in front of us made me sick. The guy who had saved me was on the ground, his arm up protecting his face as Dirk pounded him with his fists. Ben didn’t hesitate to jump into action, though, grabbing Dirk by the back of his shirt and flinging him about ten feet like he weighed nothing.
“Go get security!” Ben yelled to me.
I whirled around and ran again, screaming for help until I finally attracted enough attention for everyone to understand there was a problem.
And then there were people everywhere. A few more guys from the team got involved, rushing to help Ben, someone finally got a hold of security, and even one of the coaches came by to see what was happening. Wes Kirby, one of the team’s first line forwards, gave me his suit jacket to cover myself. One of the team trainers came out to check on me, but I shook my head, indicating he should go to the guy who saved me.
“Nova, we’d like you to get to a hospital and have you checked out.” Jimmy Valdez, an assistant trainer, stood in front of me, his voice soft and steady.
“I’m fine,” I said quickly. “They didn’t…I mean, it didn’t go that far. You need to check on him…” I motioned to the guy on the ground, the one whose glasses had been smashed.
“We’re taking care of him too. But one of your eyes is really puffy, so you might have a black eye, and the best way to handle this is to go to the hospital. Just as a precaution.”
I wanted to protest, because even though I was still kind of freaked out, everything was okay. They hadn’t raped me. They hadn’t hurt me. I couldn’t understand why I was on the verge of tears, but I figured the adrenaline rush was wearing off and I might break down any second now.
“She wanted it!” Dirk was yelling at the two cops that had arrived. “It was a role play thing—she asked us to do that!”
I blanched, my stomach threatening to revolt, and Jimmy touched my arm. “Go to the hospital, Nova. We’ll handle things on this end.”
“O-okay.” I was shaking, my heart in my throat, my vision starting to blur a little. Just the idea that people might think that I wanted that…I couldn’t go there. The guy in the glasses had seen that I wasn’t having fun, he’d heard my cries for help. And so had Ben Whitmer.
“Everything’s going to be okay.” Ben put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t listen to them—it’s all bullshit and background noise. Go to the hospital and let’s make sure you’re okay. We’ll handle everything here.”
“Thank you,” I whispered to him. “For what you did. Saving me. Us.” I’d never met any of the guys on the team since there was a strict no fraternization rule, but I knew all of their faces and numbers, and I stared up at him gratefully.
“Nothing like that will ever happen on my watch.”
“Can someone get some ice?” Jimmy yelled. “He’s got a cut on his eye and I don’t want it to swell shut.”
People started moving again and someone led me out toward an exit.
“I need my bag, my keys…” I murmured, turning to look back. When had I dropped everything?
“I’ve got it.” Ben gathered up my things and brought them to me, a look of genuine concern on his face. “Go on. You’re going to be fine. And I promise you, those assholes will never set foot in this arena again. Not as long as I’m here.”
I managed a tremulous smile. “Thank you. That means a lot.”
I looked back once more, trying to get a better look at the guy who’d saved me, but he was surrounded by people and I was being led away. And I was shaking again, as if I might never warm up, though I didn’t remember being cold before.
A Mavericks trainer I didn’t know said she’d take me to the hospital. I nodded, grateful. We’d almost made it to her car when it hit me. The voice of the man who had saved me was familiar for some reason. I knew that voice. But why couldn’t I remember the face that matched it?