Home > Hard Checked (Ice Kings #4)

Hard Checked (Ice Kings #4)
Author: Stacey Lynn

Chapter One





My fingers tap on my phone’s blank screen, debating.

Is there any point in sending my wife another text?

My noise-canceling headphones aren’t on, but I’ve been wearing them since before we stepped on our team’s plane to bring us home from Nashville.

We just won the first game of the year. Professionally, I’m having one of the best seasons of my career as a defenseman for the Carolina Ice Kings. Our team is having the best season we’ve ever had. We’re in first place by four games. We’re gelling perfectly both on the ice and off. Our lines are perfection.

Our goalie, Byron Maddox, has allowed fewer goals than any other goalie in the league.

We are on fire. On top. Psyched to finish out the season strong for a good run at the Cup.


Nothing could be going worse.

Madison hasn’t answered a text or phone call from me since she left before Christmas. Spending the holidays by myself and then with the team on the road is not how I wanted to ring in a new year, but it was better than the alternative—home alone.

Even before she left to see her family in Minnesota, things between us were bad. In the weeks prior, she spent most of the days alternating between crying or in a zombie-like trance since we were dealt the latest blow to our medical struggles.

Low sperm count. Low motility.

In addition to the medical issues Madison has had the last couple of years while we’ve struggled with infertility, now I’m equally at fault. When we sat across from the doctor, barely acknowledging one another as he gave us that information, my wife’s hope deflated as fast as a popped balloon.

I’ve promised her since we were fifteen years old I would always give her everything she’s ever wanted. And this? The one thing she’s wanted above all else… at this, I’ve failed her.

I’m no longer certain we can come back from it. And the way she looked at me when I broached the conversation about other ways we could create our own family?

That didn’t go so well.

“We can do foster care.”

“Please. You’re hardly home. Not exactly stable. And what happens if we get an emergency call for children when you’re on the road? I can’t do it all by myself.”

“I’ve never suggested you would be.” Sighing, I scrub a hand through my hair. It’s long, but I never cut it during the season, so it flops at my shoulders and over my ears. “Adoption. We never ruled that out.”

Tears swell in her eyes and she bites her lip. There was a time when Madison’s bright, fiery red hair and pale blue eyes were the only thing I needed to see to get my day started on the right foot. There’s still fire in her hair, but the pale blue eyes have lost their luster over the years. It kills me to see her constant sadness.

“Madison. We have options and the means to pursue them. Please, just think about it some more?”

“Okay, Seb. I’ll think about it.”

Her smile is faint and disappears quickly, but I lean in and kiss her. “Love you, Mads. Always.”

“You too.”

She steps back and I grab the handle of the suitcase. The car service has been waiting in the driveway to take me to the airport. I leave without another word and it takes me until I reach the airport to realize that it’s the first time she hasn’t said ‘I love you. Be safe. Hurry home’ to me like she’s done before every trip since college.

Fear edged in when I realized she didn’t tell me she loved me. I considered going back, missing my flight to the game to check on her. Instead, I brushed it off. Now, that fear is alive and thriving—that fear that if she left, she might not return.

“Damn it,” I mutter and pull up the string of texts I’ve sent to her.

Hey honey. Landed safely. Love you.

Call me. Back at hotel after skate. Miss you.

Mads? Where are you?

Tell your family I said Merry Christmas. Hope you’re having fun.

Tried calling. Heading to bed. Love you.

Happy New Years, honey. Love you. Always. We’ll figure this out.

Good morning, honey. Sleep well? Heading to rink soon. Call me.

My knee bounces and my muscles are taut. My jaw aches from all the teeth gritting I’ve done to bite back a growl of frustration.

Why in the hell is she not answering a single text? What is going on in her mind? I need her home, so we can figure this out.

“Hey. You all right?”

I turn to my teammate and fellow lineman and defenseman, Sawyer. He’s happy as a clam, recently getting married on Christmas Eve to his long-time girlfriend, now wife, Debbie. The fact they have a baby on the way hasn’t made him my favorite person lately.

When Madison found out? She cried for a week.

I know what the guys think.

Madison’s a bitch. She’s rude. She hardly ever smiles and she always looks annoyed when she’s around their families.

But she wasn’t always like this. It’s the stress. Seeing everyone we love get everything we want while month after month, we end up disappointed?

It’s hard not to become bitter.

“I’m good.” I turn back to my phone and the blank screen. I need to get home. Get Madison to talk to me.

“Looks like you want to punch through the airplane’s window,” Sawyer says, grimacing. “And I’m going to have to suggest you not.”

He shivers, giving me shit. Normally I like his playful attitude, but tonight, I’m not in the mood.

Across the table from us are Jason and Jude Taylor. Not only are they brothers and two of not only the best wingers in the professional hockey league, they’re the best men I’ve ever met.

Jude has his headphones on, head back, sleeping.

Jason has his headphones on, eyes on me with brows slightly arched. Great. How long has he been watching me? He’s the only person who has any idea what we’ve been going through, and even then, he knows very little. Definitely not the most recent bad news.

“I’m fine, Sawyer.”

I grab my phone and pull up my music streaming app, trying to ignore both of them.

“Really? ‘Cause you had a couple more penalties than normal today and you’ve been playing crazy aggressive, so if something’s going on…”

“Barthol deserved it.” Drake Barthol is Nashville’s most powerful center. He’s also a damn good guy and a clean player. Which means I’m full of shit and Sawyer knows it. Someone had to be the focus of my frustration. Might as well have been him.

“No. He didn’t.”

I can barely hear Sawyer through my headphones, but I can’t miss the tone in his voice. I turn to him, see his rarely used serious attitude, and sigh.

It’s not his fault he can knock up his woman and I can’t.

Or that Madison hasn’t talked to me in over a week.

“Just a bad game. I’ll get my head in it by the next one.”

“I’m not worried about your game. If something’s going on…”

“Nothing is going on,” I hiss out through gritted teeth. The last thing I’m doing is spilling my guts thousands of feet in the air.

“All right.” He lifts his hands and shoves off out of his chair, back to where he’s been hanging with Byron Maddox and Duke Fletcher, other teammates.

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