Authors: Katherine Stark
Tags: #sex, #criminals, #athlete, #explicit, #crime, #romance, #Sports, #college, #hockey, #new adult, #russian, #FBI, #mafia
a Center Ice novel
For J, who always believes in me
BODY CHECKED is © 2015 Katherine Stark/Eventide Press. All rights reserved.
Cover art design © 2015
Maggie Hall Designs
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
BODY CHECKED (Center Ice, #1) by Katherine Stark
SERGEI DRAKONOV. The newest left wing for the Washington Eagles hockey team is a triple threat: muscle, roughed-up good looks, and a dangerous tabloid reputation. Not the kind of guy who fits into Jael Pereira’s five-year plan. Jael doesn’t have time for a relationship, between her challenging senior-year course load and her stiflingly dull internship at the FBI. But for one steamy night, she gives in to Sergei and his smooth-talking ways.
Sergei wants more than just another one-night stand. But his brother—a high-ranking member of the Russian mob—wants him to help the family business. He can use Sergei as an easy way to launder money, or to smuggle drugs on the Eagles team plane. And if Sergei doesn’t agree, he can kiss his skating career goodbye.
The FBI’s been watching Sergei. When they learn about Jael’s fling with Sergei, they want her to persuade him to inform on his brother. But the more Jael sees the real Sergei, beyond the role he plays on the ice and in front of the cameras, the more she wants him in her life. How can she win his trust, though, when she’s playing a role of her own? And how can she protect him from his mobster brother when she can’t even protect her own heart?
ALSO BY KATHERINE STARK
Man Advantage (Center Ice, #3) coming November 2015
Hat Trick (Center Ice, #4) coming early 2016
TABLE OF CONTENTS
SERGEI DRAKONOV. His name is so juicy in my mouth, it practically dribbles down my chin. Six feet and two inches, two hundred and five pounds of muscles so hard you could chip a nail on them. Scruffy dark brown hair, blue eyes as cold and relentless as the Russian tundra, and of course that missing front tooth that only adds to the mystical powers of his crooked smile.
Saint Sergei. The Russian Dragon, the Coldest Warrior, Tsar of the Ice. Whatever the press wants to call him, he is ours now. The savior of the Washington Eagles, sent over from the motherland to answer our championship prayers.
If he can keep his incredibly firm ass out of trouble, that is. Or worse.
“Oh, my god, Jael. Stop drooling and help me open the champagne.” Monique pulls me away from the front of her parents’ private box and shoves a bottle of Veuve Cliquot in my hands.
I twist at the wire cage without taking my eyes from the jumbo screens hanging over center ice. They’ve been displaying Sergei’s stats and team photo on heavy rotation since we arrived for the 2015-2016 season’s opening night. Now they’re playing highlights from Drakonov’s championship match last year in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s hyper-aggressive professional circuit. I remember all of it. Last spring I completely flipped my sleep schedule just so I could watch the matches online while studying for finals with Monique and Beth. Yeah, so I barely scraped by to keep my scholarship with 90s in Psychological Profiling and in Survey of Soviet Literature. It was totally worth it to get a preview of what our newest left winger can do.
“He’s got no discipline,” Beth says. “Makes all the plays for himself, not the team. I just don’t think he’s going to be the big salvation for the Eagles everyone thinks he is.”
Finally, I wrench the cork free with a
And hand the bottle back to Monique, cold steam pouring out of it. “What’s the matter, Bethy? Afraid he’s going to make Erik Magnussen look bad?”
Her pale face immediately flushes red. “It’s not—I mean, Magnussen is a fine player—”
, all right,” Monique purrs.
Poshli na khui
Go fuck yourself
in Russian. Beth rolls her eyes.
Beth, Monique, and I are the Slavic Sisterhood of our college’s Russian Studies program, all of us double majoring in something besides Russian, because there isn’t much cash in writing detailed literary criticisms of sex in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. For me, it’s Criminal Justice; International Law for Beth, and International Business and Finance for Monique. We’re one month into our senior year, and after enduring four weekends of campus frat parties (too loud), Capitol Hill congressional staffer basement keggers (too sleazy), and networking mixers in Foggy Bottom (too boring), it is finally time for the real partying to begin.
First game of the season. A new left winger. Monique’s parents’ private box. And just the distraction I need from the crushing stress of coursework, my internship, and applying for jobs and graduate programs.
Ugh. And Todd Beckwith, but I fully intend not to dwell on that.
Monique pours out champagne for the three of us. We raise our glasses and clink them together. “
” we toast.
The Eagles Arena goes dark; red and blue spotlights rove across the ice. This is it. My pulse canters as we press against the box’s railing. I let the low bass throb through me, soaking up the excitement and anticipation and hope everyone in the arena feels.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . now presenting . . . your Washington Eagles!”
The arena fills with screams and cheers as the players file onto the ice, skate in circles, and wave. I’m bubbly with champagne and drunk on the energy and high on the escape that hockey always, always provides me. The elegance and intricacy of a skillful play, weaving its way across the ice. The miracle of a perfect score and a flawless save. The unrelenting athleticism.
And, okay, sure. The incredibly hot, incredibly fit guys.
The door to the box opens and Monique’s parents shuffle in. They’re accompanied by whichever venture capitalists they’re wining and dining tonight, as well as their favorite pets: Mrs. Davis’s golden retriever, Satchmo, and their executive assistant, Todd Beckwith, who might as well be a golden retriever. He flashes a dimpled, trust-fund-gold grin at all of us, looking at everyone with the same bland gaze. Like I’m nothing once more. Or maybe I always was. I turn back to the ice and force myself to focus on the game.
The horn blows and the puck drops and for the next twenty minutes, nothing exists but me and the hockey match.
Drakonov makes a strong showing right away, taking a clutch pass from his defender Magnussen and lobbing the puck right over the Pittsburgh Forge goalie’s shoulder. We’re all screaming, but the goal is immediately answered by Forge’s star player Stéphane Carson, tying it up again. Our bruiser drops his gloves and takes a swing at Carson, catching him square on the jaw.
So that’s how it’s gonna be. We stamp our feet and scream and cheer, but now the Forge players are getting aggressive, body checking Drakonov and sending him up against the boards. “Wouldn’t mind being sandwiched there myself,” I say under my breath, to delighted howls from Beth and Monique. When the refs call off the play, Drakonov turns his gaze toward the boxes with a gorgeous gap-toothed grin, as if to say,
It’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than that to rattle me.
“Saint Sergei.” Beth sighs. “Not sure why they chose the ‘saint’ part, though.”
“The irony. The Forge better watch their backs. They don’t want Sergei’s family on their bad side.” Monique drains her glass of champagne.
“Oh, come on. It’s just a rumor about him—tabloid nonsense.”
“You really believe that?” Beth asks.
“Sure. Do you really think, if his family actually had mafia ties, they could get away with printing it?” I snort. “He got his visa over here, after all.”
Monique snorts. “Okay, honey, you keep on fantasizin’.”
The first period ends in a tie, and before I know it, Todd Beckwith sidles up to me, his skin perfectly tanned from the French Riviera or Ibiza or wherever the hell he’s been vacationing with his new girl. “So,” he says, staring into his glass of scotch. “How’s the internship going?”
“It’s really great.” I force a grin so wide it hurts. “I’m getting to work on really important cases.” Like the case of who’s been eating my supervisor’s lunch. And the mystery of the jammed copier.
“I’m so glad. Of course, the real money is in consulting. Put in enough years at FBI to get special agent, bag a few high-profile cases, then talk to Monique’s folks. I’m sure they can get you a consulting gig for triple whatever the FBI will pay you.” He tips the scotch back and finishes it. “Consulting is huge now. I’m thinking of getting into it myself.”
“Thanks for the hot tip,” I say. “I’ll keep it in mind for the next . . . six fucking years.”
Todd raises his free hand in defense. “Come, Jael, you should always know what you’re working toward in the next one, five, and ten years. It’s good sense.”
“I guess I was only part of your one-year plan, then,” I snap back.
Todd presses his lips together. “I’m only trying to help you, Jael.”
The worst part is, I can’t hate him, not outright. He brought a lot of good into my life when we were together. He
encourage me to do more, be more. But he also made me feel like I was never enough. That I never could be.
“Girl, girl, girl.” Monique barrels up to us, clutching her phone, a huge grin on her face. “We’re in for the afterparty.”
“What afterparty?” I ask.
“Red Star. You know, that Russian expat bar over in Dupont Circle? Invite only party to celebrate Sergei’s stateside debut. And I just got us on the guest list!”