Sharp and jagged pain spears through my side, making me suck in a hard, deep breath. My teeth dig into my mouthguard as I growl low in my throat. Glancing up at the pack as they skate into position, I meet Tilly the Hun’s mean eyes. They crinkle at the corners when they narrow, not with age, but with spite. The sneer spread over her face, a glimpse of the cold black heart chugging inside her chest.
Of course the last bout of the season had to be against her team. Why wouldn’t it? We go head-to-head, our personal bitter rivalry a living, breathing heartbeat on the track. Each smackdown she delivers trying to gouge the armor of my confidence.
She refuses to stop swinging at me.
And no matter how many times she comes at me, no matter how hard, I refuse to stay down.
Tilly’s calculating smile promises more retribution the minute the ref blows 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 when our skates meet the track in the same jam, she plays out her need for revenge.
And I show up front and center for the battle between us that will 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 has no clue she’s been preparing me for this sport for a decade. She’s been hardening me with brutality, delivering hit after hit, building my endurance.
Fueling my tenacity, all to her own detriment.
She thinks she can scare me away?
Fuck no.
As long as derby exists, she’ll have to keep facing me. She’ll never have this sport on her terms.
Free from me.
With one last glance over her shoulder, our eyes connect, and I grin.
The gauntlet drops with the shrill peel of the referee’s whistle cutting through the air. Pushing off my toe stops, I tap into the adrenaline, the anger burning low in my belly whenever I see Tilly’s face—hear her poisonous voice—and lunge forward, looking for a way around or through the pack.
Pockets open, but close a fraction of a second later as bodies collide, muscles flex, and determination-laced grunts fill the air.
Tuned into the calls from my blockers, I push at barriers, waiting for something to give.
Moving to the outside, I keep my eyes on the inside, looking for space to get through. Throwing my shoulder as though I plan to cut around the outside, pushing the boundaries, I lurch forward and the two blockers in front of me crowd right, keeping their bodies tight together, closing the gap, giving me the opportunity to dart around them in the middle.
The shouts meld together. The cheers of the crowd bleed into the calls from my teammates. Sweat trickles 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, stumbles back after a solid hit from my teammate, Anarch-Eve.
Their showdown leaves Tilly trapped in the middle.
Away from me.
Despite the gap in front of me, another pocket opens on the inside. With Tilly pinned, I have a shot this time. Adrenaline surges through my veins, my instincts screaming for me to go for it.
I can never resist going for the inside.
Something about that boundary line calls to me every single time.
My shoulder brushes past their pivot, MissAdventure. Just two more strides and I can surge forward. I have it this time. I totally have it. With Eve on Tilly, nothing can stop me.
Our tangled skates threaten to topple me over, but I yank my foot free while keeping my balance on my left. My edges flex from the force of my weight. With a swing of my arms to propel my upper body, and a hop…I slip ahead.
Fuck yes!
A sickening thud obliterates the cheer of the crowd. The air whooshes from my lungs as sharp pain explodes in my ribs once again. My wheels rip away from the floor, gravity and my trajectory turning them into lead weights on my feet.
Time slows, our rivalry playing out like a scene in an action movie where victory was all but certain.
But whose victory?
She’s the bad guy.
But maybe I’m a bad guy too.
Maybe we aren’t the lead characters at all. Maybe our names are 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 keep my arms tucked in, fighting the urge to brace myself against the fall. I catch Tilly’s determined gaze one last time, standing where I’d been, gloved hands clutching her knee pads, her lungs heaving, victory in her glare.
Closing my eyes, I wait for it.
The one thing this sport guarantees.
I envision the next few seconds. The ones 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 crash against the concrete. A slice of pain slashes through my pelvis from the unyielding cold surface.
The blow ricochets through me, rattling me all the way to my bones, sucking the breath from my heaving lungs until my stomach hollows out with the loss of air.
The whistle cuts 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 prepare, no matter how much I want 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 blink furiously trying to clear my vision. The blurry crowd finally comes into focus.
And him.
His cool, hooded gaze radiated boredom. Detached and so still in the restless crowd, he leans 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 pants over me, cutting off my view, with a hand out to help me up.
“Yeah.” I clasp her fingers. My hip buckles when I straightened. The slice of pain reverberates through me, making my eyes burn. Tightening my muscles, I lock my knees until I have my balance.
On my feet once again, I cock my head until my neck cracks as Eve skates away. Glancing back at the crowd, my focus homes in on the now-empty metal chair. From the corner of my eye, I catch sight of the door clicking shut.
Not impressed, dude?
Yeah, me either.
* * *
Cars, pickups, and a few company vans fill 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 look 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 is always on tap for weathered fisherman, relic sea riders ranging somewhere between fifty and corpse, all with the same deep wrinkles carved into their sea-worn faces.
Generations of locals who struggle to survive their love affair with a romanticized profession flock 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 is the sole nightlife of Galloway Bay. Tinged with the scent of salt air that crashes along our rocky coast and wrapped in the charm of rough brick walls, the atmosphere lulls even the most sullen into a good time.
And the saving grace—sconces glowing with warm light and muted just enough you can 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 know, you’re 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 give a shit because they aren’t getting any at home.
Not that it happens to me often, but when it does, I shrug 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 has to sting.
I can’t imagine any sex being good enough that I’d want to be married to it for the rest of my life.
And I’ve had some damn good sex.
A blast of heat washes over my frozen cheeks the minute I yank open the door, driving away the vibration of my chattering teeth echoing through my battered body since I got out of my car
Okay, in my car. Because the heater sucks. But the car runs and that’s good enough. I’m 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 hitch a ride with a teammate. They appreciate the gas money and I appreciate not sitting broken down on the turnpike.
If I even make it to the turnpike.
“Toast, toast, toast,” my team chants, raising their shot glasses as I uncoil my scarf and limp over to join them.
Eve hands me a shot glass and narrows her eyes. “You’re limping.”
“So what else is new.”
“Maybe you should get that hip checked.”
My eyes snap so hard to her, pain fills my skull. “I’m walking, right?”
“Yeah, and snarling which means you’re hurting.”
“Alcohol and ice. That’s all I need.” I raise my glass and take 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 knock back the shot, slapp the glass on the table, lift the pile of hair off my neck, and fan my face for the flush I know will rush over my Irish skin in a matter of seconds.
Marty laughs. “Girl, you are fired up tonight.”
“Enjoy it.” My voice hisses 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 says, ever the serious one of the group.
Zara rolls her lips inward, her dark eyes big and round as she swings her gaze away. “Oooooookay then.”
I almost feel bad. Almost.
While I seriously want to stab Tilly in the fucking eye, I’m madder at myself and the fact that I continue to play right into her juvenile games. Every time I do, I only embolden her to continue her bullshit, committing myself to the miserable cycle of giving Tilly endless satisfaction.
Frankly, I just want to stop talking about it.
And that ice. I need that fucking ice.
Flipping my head down, I wrap the bandana around my hair and tie 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 is getting her drink on tonight.
A little Three Dog Night pumps through the speakers low in the background, almost impossible to discern, but the familiar beat crawls in my chest and takes hold of my body, wrapping me in a familiar memory. Each note transports me to another time, another place, to the last time I had a family.
Sean snickers. “Oh no. She’s got that look in her eye.”
Eve glowers at me. “Yeah, we ordered the next round. Now put that face away.”
Slinging my arm around Eve, I bob my head, a slow grin spreading over my face.
Eve flicks me a glance and rolls her eyes. “You and your classic rock folky shit.”
Pressing my cheek to hers, I close my eyes. “You love it and you know it.”
Eve snorts. “I love you, so I put up with it.”
The liquor sweeps through my veins, carrying away the first few seeds of discontent. The song is a sign and I plan to roll with the message it delivers with every note.
Hips swaying, a smile spreading over my lips, I give Eve no choice but to sway along with me.
Her hip bumps mine, my muscles seizes, and I bite my lip. “Ouch, shit. Ice.”
Eve pulls away. “I’ll get it.”
I reach out and stop her. “Hey, I’ve got it.” Dropping a quick, hard kiss on her lips, I make my way to the bar where I know the song will be louder.
Patti Perkins, owner of Banked Track and the original derby queen from Galloway Bay, slings her towel over her shoulder and slaps her palms on the polished cherry bar. “Heard you had a rough night.”
I glance away with a shrug. “Word travels fast. Can I beg you for a bag of ice? Super cold.”
She throws her head back and laughs, her frizzy, frosted hair paying homage to the eighties brushing her shoulders. “Super cold ice, you got it, Maze.”
I roll my eyes at the way she shortens my name. Something that used to drive me nuts, but sort of caught on and hell if anything I say is going to stop it. I can forgive her for that one…after all she has a special place in my heart, giving me my first job when I know damn well she wasn’t looking for help.
“You let her get in your head.” The low rumble of his words, cocky and rich, drowns out the beat of the song.
It’s the kind of timbre a woman craves dancing over the skin of her inner thighs… and over her clit right before he dives in to bathe her with his hot tongue. I flick a glance in the direction of the deep, unfamiliar voice.
Casual fucker from the front row.
He tips 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’ll entertain him. Why not? He’ll toss out his observations, this guy I’d never once seen at a single bout; he’ll make it embarrassingly clear he doesn’t know shit about derby, and I’ll 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 curl with distaste. “Six times.”
Okay, so he knows a little bit more than nothing.
“Here you go, Maze. Let me know when you need a refresh.” Patti pats to my cheek, something I normally like, except on the heels of the dude’s assessment of my game play. At the moment, the endearing gesture only makes me feel immature and stupid.
Kind of appropriate all things considered, but a kick in the tits just the same.
I smile at Patti and nod toward the judgmental bastard at the end of the bar. “Thanks. His next beer is on me.”
Patti raises an eyebrow and glances between the two of us.
“For the unsolicited play-by-play.”
Heading back to the corner booth we always settle into after bouts, a coveted spot in the bar that Patti reserves for us so no matter if it is just the six of us or the whole team, so we’d have room, I drop into a chair, my back firmly to the bar.
More importantly, my back to the asshole hell-bent on taking my inventory.
My teeth clench the minute the ice hits 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 arrived while I was gone. The Banked Track looms before me. A mixed drink Patti invented. The kind of concoction strong enough to put hair on your chest, or maybe even stop your heart.
I don’t care…because it starts with a heavy root beer flavor.
Too bad it ends with a swift punch of paint thinner.
I’ll 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 fills my sinuses, I set the glass down and blink up at my team—well, some of my team.
All eyes on me, silently studying me, I start to squirm in my seat, until my hip screams in protest. “What?”
Rory sneaks a glance past me. “You have no idea who you were talking to, do you?”
“Sure, some bar rat who thinks he can mansplain derby to me. Color me fucking shocked.”
Rory shakes her head, her ordinarily confident voice dropping to a breathy whisper. “That’s not a bar rat…that’s Priest.”
I shrink back and glance over at him in his faded Levi’s and surly disposition. “He’s a priest? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“No, just Priest,” Rory whispers with a shake of her head.
Zara casts a quick side-glance at the bar, a pretty bold move for our conservative teammate. “I wouldn’t mind praying at that altar.”
Marty leans in and we all lean in with her. “He was a roller derby coach here about ten years ago. 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.
My teammates salivate with breathy delight from the glances they steal of him across the bar.
Yeah, he’s good looking. The way he fills out a sweater and his jeans should be declared borderline obscene. His wide jaw and seductive mouth don’t hurt anything either…but ultimately, it was his voice and the way it rumbles through the air in that deep timbre that tried to seep into my 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.”