False Start Chapter One
Sharp and jagged pain speared through my side, making me suck in a hard, deep breath. My teeth dug into my mouthguard as I growled low in my throat. Glancing up at the pack as they skated into position, I met Tilly the Hun’s mean eyes. They crinkled at the corners when they narrowed, not with age, but with spite. The sneer spread over her face, a glimpse of the cold black heart that chugged inside her chest.
Of course the last bout of the season had to be against her team. Why wouldn’t it? We’d go head-to-head, our personal bitter rivalry a living, breathing heartbeat on the track. Each smackdown she delivered trying to gouge the armor of my confidence.
She refused to stop swinging at me.
And no matter how many times she came at me, no matter how hard, I refused to stay down.
Tilly’s calculating smile promised more retribution to be delivered the minute the ref blew the whistle to start the jam.
Retaliation for landing on her turf.
Punishment for being an outsider in her town.
Reckoning for refusing to leave.
Every bout, every blow of the whistle when our skates met the track in the same jam, she played out her need for revenge.
And I showed up front and center for the battle between us that would never be over.
Because in life, and especially in roller derby, when they knock you down, you get back up.
You always get back up.
Pathetic, emotionally bankrupt Tilly had no clue she’d been preparing me for this sport for a decade. She’d been hardening me with brutality to take hit after hit, building my endurance.
Fueling my tenacity, all to her own detriment.
She thought she could scare me away?
As long as derby existed, she’d have to keep facing me. She’d never have this sport on her terms.
Free from me.
With one last glance over her shoulder, our eyes connected, and I grinned.
The gauntlet dropped with the shrill peel of the referee’s whistle cutting through the air. Pushing off my toe stops, I tapped into the adrenaline, the anger burning low in my belly whenever I saw Tilly’s face—heard her poisonous voice—and lunged forward, looking for a way around or through the pack.
Pockets opened but closed a fraction of a second later as bodies collided, muscles flexed, and determination-laced grunts filled the air.
Tuned into the calls from my blockers, I pushed at barriers, waiting for something to give.
Moving to the outside, I kept my eyes on the inside, looking for space to get through. Throwing my shoulder as though I planned to cut around the outside, pushing the boundaries, I lurched forward and the two blockers in front of me crowded right, keeping their bodies tight together, closing the gap, giving me the opportunity to dart around them in the middle.
The shouts melded together. The cheers of the crowd bled into the calls from my teammates. Sweat trickled into my eyes, the warm sting forcing me to blink.
Bite “N” Switch, their biggest blocker, with her head half turned, always watching and readjusting to thwart my every attempt to break through the pack while trying to propel her own jammer through the chaos, stumbled back after a solid hit from my teammate, Anarch-Eve.
Their showdown left Tilly trapped in the middle.
Away from me.
Despite the gap in front of me, another pocket opened on the inside. With Tilly pinned, I had a shot this time. Adrenaline surged through my veins, my instincts screaming for me to go for it.
I could never resist going for the inside.
Something about that boundary line called me every single time.
My shoulder brushed past their pivot, MissAdventure. Just two more strides and I could surge forward. I had it this time. I totally had it. With Eve on Tilly, nothing could stop me.
Our tangled skates threatened to topple me over, but I yanked my foot free while keeping my balance on my left. My edges flexed from the force of my weight. With a swing of my arms to propel my upper body, and a hop…I slipped ahead.
A sickening thud obliterated the cheer of the crowd. The air whooshed from my lungs as the sharp pain exploded in my ribs once again. My wheels ripped away from the floor, gravity and my trajectory turning them into lead weights on my feet.
Time slowed, our rivalry playing out like a scene in an action movie where victory was all but certain.
But whose victory?
She was the bad guy.
But maybe I was a bad guy too.
Maybe we weren’t the lead characters at all. Maybe our names were both lost in the second half of the credits. The font smaller. The roles forgettable. Secondary characters adding to the body count.
Names on the tip of viewers’ tongues, but never quite remembered.
Soaring off the track, I kept my arms tucked in, fighting the urge to catch myself. I caught Tilly’s determined gaze one last time, standing where I had been, gloved hands clutched on her knee pads, her lungs heaving, victory in her glare.
Closing my eyes, I waited for it.
The one thing this sport guaranteed.
I envisioned the next few seconds. The ones that came after the landing. My mind already determined to get back on the track. My brain calculating the next steps to get up.
My side and hip crashed against the concrete, a slice of pain slashing through my pelvis from the unyielding cold surface.
The blow ricocheted through me, rattling me all the way to my bones, sucking the breath from my heaving lungs until my stomach hollowed out with the loss of air.
The whistle cut through the ringing in my ears, saving me from having to pretend I didn’t just get pummeled by a freight train. Saving me from exposing my weakness…that maybe this time, no matter how much I prepared, no matter how much I wanted to win, I might not have been able to bounce right back up and on the track.
Dragging a gulp of air into my lungs, I blinked furiously trying to clear my vision. The blurry crowd finally coming into focus.
His cool, hooded gaze radiated boredom. Detached and so still in the restless crowd, he leaned back in his seat in the front row, his leg casually stretched out, his bent arm hooked over the back of his metal folding chair, leaving his fingers dangling carelessly.
“Hey, you good?” Eve asked, panting over me, cutting off my view and reaching out to help me up.
“Yeah.” I reached out and took her offered hand. My hip buckled when I straightened, the slice of pain ricocheting through me, making my eyes burn. Tightening my muscles, I locked my knees until I had my balance.
On my feet once again, I cocked my head until my neck cracked as Eve skated away. Glancing back at the crowd, my focus homed in on the now-empty metal chair. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the door clicking shut.
Not impressed, dude?
Yeah, me either.
* * *
Cars, pickups, and a few company vans filled the parking lot next to Banked Track, the single hottest bar—well, only bar in Galloway Bay.
Okay, so maybe not the only bar. There were a few watering holes on the outskirts of our coastal Maine town. The kind that looked like abandoned outbuildings during the day with sagging rooflines, missing shingles, cracked windowpanes, and neon signs which probably hadn’t worked since the seventies.
I know I sure as hell never recalled seeing them lit.
The sort of places where warm beer was always on tap for weathered fisherman, relic sea riders ranging somewhere between fifty and corpse, all with the same deep carved wrinkles in their sea-worn faces.
Generations of locals who struggled to survive their love affair with a romanticized profession flocked to the forgettable dives, wanting the quiet anonymity of drinking away their mountain of sorrows and all-too-limited successes with little fanfare and the drone of a muffled television keeping them company.
But for the rest of us, the outcasts, the townies, occasional tourists, and definitely derby girls, Banked Track was the sole nightlife of Galloway Bay. Tinged with the scent of salt air that crashed along our rocky coast, wrapped in the charm of rough brick walls, the atmosphere lulled even the most sullen into a good time.
And the sconces glowing with warm light and muted just enough you could get away with not recognizing a one-night stand you snagged from the scarred bar stools there.
Not that there were many one-night stands. Small-town bed-hopping had a way of making the rounds; next thing you knew, you were in the express lane of the local grocery store, minding your own, just a girl trying to snag a bit of salted caramel liquor to keep her company on a cold, lonely night and bam!
Not so subtle whispers of your escapades from the over-forty gossips who only gave a shit because they weren’t getting any at home.
Not that it happened to me often, but when it did, I shrugged it off. Sleeping with your high school sweetheart for the past two decades, realizing that you may actually die with having only fucked one guy throughout your ho-hum life had to sting.
I couldn’t imagine any sex being good enough that I’d want to be married to it for the rest of my life.
And I’d had some damn good sex.
A blast of heat washed over my frozen cheeks the minute I yanked open the door, driving away the vibration of my chattering teeth reverberating through my battered body the minute I got out of my car.
Okay, in my car. Because the heater sucked. But the car ran and that was good enough. I was never behind the wheel for more than a few minutes anyway. Anything longer than around town, like our bouts in Augusta, Portland, and Rockland, I hitched a ride with a teammate. They appreciated the gas money and I appreciated not sitting broken down on the turnpike.
If I even made it to the turnpike.
“Toast, toast, toast,” my team chanted, raising their shot glasses as I uncoiled my scarf and limped over to join them.
Eve handed me a shot glass and narrowed her eyes at me. “You’re limping.”
“So what else is new.”
“Maybe you should get that hip checked.”
“I’m walking, right?”
“Yeah, and snarling which means you’re hurting.”
“Alcohol and ice. That’s all I need.” I raised my glass and took in the skeptical glances from my core team. The originals: Eve, Marty, Rory, Sean, and Zara. “To stiff dicks, perky tits, bitches getting every last bit of karma they deserve…oh, and that straight piece in Tetris.” I knocked back the shot, slapped the glass on the table, lifted the pile of hair off my neck, and fanned my face for the flush I knew would rush my Irish skin in a matter of seconds.
“Girl, you are fired up tonight,” Marty said on a laugh.
“Enjoy it.” My voice hissed on the burn in my throat. “I won’t be this full of fuckery until I have to face off with Tilly the wench again.”
“Don’t you mean Hun? Tilly the Hun?” Zara said, ever the serious one of the group.
“Oooooookay then,” Zara said, glancing away.
I almost felt bad. Almost.
While I seriously wanted to stab Tilly in the fucking eye, I was madder at myself and the fact that I continued to play right into her juvenile games. Every time I did, I only emboldened her to continue with her shit, committing myself to the miserable cycle of giving Tilly endless satisfaction.
Frankly, I just wanted to stop talking about it.
And that ice. I needed that fucking ice.
Flipping my head down, I wrapped the bandana around my hair and tied it in a knot to hold my sweaty and now-cold hair off my face.
“Did you guys order the next round yet?” This bitch was getting her drink on tonight.
A little Three Dog Night pumped through the speakers low in the background, almost impossible to discern, but the familiar beat crawled in my chest and took hold of my body, wrapping me in a familiar memory like a warm pair of arms. Each note transporting me to another time, another place, to the last time I had a family.
“Oh no. She’s got that look in her eye,” Sean said with a snicker.
Eve glowered at me. “Yeah, we ordered the next round. Now put that face away.”
Slinging my arm around Eve, I bobbed my head, a slow grin spreading over my face.
Eve flicked me a glance and rolled her eyes. “You and your classic rock folky shit.”
Pressing my cheek to hers, I closed my eyes. “You love it and you know it.”
Eve snorted. “I love you, so I put up with it.”
The liquor swept through my veins, carrying away the first few seeds of discontent. The song was a sign and I planned to roll with the message it delivered.
Hips swaying, a smile spreading over my lips, I gave Eve no choice but to sway along with me.
Her hip bumped mine, my muscles seized, and I bit my lip. “Ouch, shit. Ice.”
“I’ll get it,” Eve said, pulling away.
“Hey,” I said, stopping her. “I’ve got it.” Dropping a quick, hard kiss on her lips, I made my way to the bar where I knew the song would be louder.
Patti Perkins, owner of Banked Track and the original derby queen from Galloway Bay, slung her towel over her shoulder and slapped her palms on the polished cherry bar. “Heard you had a rough night.”
I glanced away with a shrug. “Word travels fast. Can I beg you for a bag of ice? Super cold.”
She threw her head back and laughed, her frizzy, frosted hair paying homage to the eighties brushing her shoulders. “Super cold ice, you got it, Maze.”
I rolled my eyes at the way she shortened my name. Something that used to drive me nuts, but sort of caught on and hell if anything I said was going to stop it. I could forgive her for that one…after all she had a special place in my heart, giving me my first job when I knew damn well she wasn’t looking for help.
“You let her get in your head.” The low rumble of his words, cocky and rich, the kind of timbre a woman craved dancing over the skin of her inner thigh.
The beat forgotten, I flicked a glance in the direction of the deep, unfamiliar voice.
Casual fucker from the front row.
He tipped back a longneck bottle, his gaze never leaving mine even when they closed to slits.
“Really? And how the hell would you know that?” I would entertain him. Why not? He’d toss out his observations, this guy I’d never once seen at a single bout; he’d make it embarrassingly clear he didn’t know shit about derby, and I’d go back to my drinks, ice in hand, and the rockin’ fucking tunes in my head keeping me happy.
“She manipulated you to the inside every single time and you never failed to fall for it. The minute you got there, the refs were too busy concentrating on your feet to see her throwing you elbows.” His lip curled with distaste. “Six times.”
Okay, he knew a little bit more than nothing.
“Here you go, Maze. Let me know when you need a refresh,” Patti said with a couple pats to my cheek, something I normally liked, except on the heels of the dude’s assessment of my game play, the endearing gesture only making me feel immature and stupid.
Kind of appropriate all things considered, but a kick in the tits just the same.
“Thanks. His next beer is on me,” I said with a nod toward the judgmental bastard at the end of the bar.
Patti raised an eyebrow and glanced between the two of us.
“For the unsolicited play-by-play.”
Heading back to the corner booth we always settled into after bouts, a coveted spot in the bar that Patti reserved for us so no matter if it was just the six of us or the whole team, we’d have room, I dropped into a chair, my back firmly to the bar.
More importantly, my back to the asshole hell-bent on taking my inventory.
My teeth clenched the minute the ice hit my hip, both from the shocking cold soaking through my thin shorts and the deep-seated throb playing a tempo of its own through my fucking pelvis.
Thank fuck our drinks had been delivered while I was gone. The Banked Track, a mixed drink Patti invented, the kind of concoction strong enough to put hair on your chest, or maybe even stop your heart.
I didn’t care…because it started out with a heavy root beer flavor.
Too bad it ended with a swift punch of paint thinner.
I’d just stay away from open flame. No biggie.
Think I’m kidding? Right there in the drink menu, in parenthesis next to The Banked Track—a stern warning about the consumer’s new flame rating after consumption.
Three gulps in, the root beer flavor so strong it filled my sinuses, I set the glass down and blinked up at my team—well, some of my team.
All eyes on me, silently studying me, I started to squirm in my seat, until my hip screamed in protest. “What?”
“You have no idea who you were talking to, do you?” Rory said, sneaking a glance past me, presumably to the dude.
“Sure, some bar rat who thinks he can mansplain derby to me. Call me fucking shocked.”
Rory shook her head, her ordinarily confident voice dropping to a breathy whisper. “That’s not a bar rat…that’s Priest.”
“He’s a priest? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“No, just Priest,” Rory said with a shake of her head.
“I wouldn’t mind praying at that altar,” Zara said, casting a quick side-glance at the bar.
“He was a roller derby coach here about ten years ago,” Marty went on. “The roller derby coach. He was fucking brilliant…and gorgeous to boot. Like seriously, next level looks here. The women flocked to him.”
Okay, so not mansplaining. But still, I didn’t ask for his opinion and he just couldn’t help but give it.
A few of her teammates salivated with breathy delight from the glances they stole of him across the bar.
Yeah, he was good looking. The way he filled out a sweater and his jeans should have been declared borderline obscene. His wide jaw and seductive mouth didn’t hurt anything either…but ultimately, it was his voice and the way it rumbled through the air in that deep timbre that set off a damn ache tried to seep into her you-can-just-fuck-off-with-your-assessment attitude.
In thirty seconds of conversation, he went from the kind of guy with the power to tickle my lady bits with just a smug glance, to the words coming out of his mouth making me want to roll my skates right over that face of his, to the low rumble finish of his voice destroying my underwear.
“I can’t believe he came back after what happened,” Sean whispered. “I hope you’re ready, because Galloway Bay is about to explode.”
“Well, maybe not all of Galloway Bay, but the squeakiest wheels in our town are definitely not team Priest.” Rory said, lifting her glass to her lips. “But then that’s what happens when you stack your team with underage talent only to have one of Galloway Bay’s most promising teens end up in a wheelchair on your watch. I don’t have to wonder why so many people in this town would love to go all Game of Thrones up in this bitch and mount his head on a pike.”