Book Four of the New York Blades series
Can a jock and a nerd find true love together?
Everyone from Didsbury High remembers Katie Fisher as the dumpy brainiac from the poor side of town.
Everyone from Didsbury High remembers Paul van Dorn as the school hockey star and heartthrob.
But now they're facing off -- and matching up in more ways than one. Katie's lost the pounds, added some self-confidence, and become a drop-dead gorgeous sociology professor.
And since a series of concussions put an end to Paul's pro hockey career, his star has dimmed. Now he hits the ice as a coach. But he's still got the hometown crowd behind him as the owner of a bar called The Penalty Box.
Paul is reliving his glory days. Katie wishes she could put those years behind her. And the battle of wills that ensues just might knock love right out of the game.
According to Katie Fisher, there were two types of people in the world: those who attended high school reunions, and those who did not. She herself definitely fell into the latter category, which is why she almost passed Diet Coke through her nose when her mother casually informed her she'd taken the liberty of RSVP'ing the invitation to Katie's tenth high school reunion, saying she would attend.
"You did WHAT?" Katie gasped, inhaling an ice cube.
"I thought it would be fun," her mother replied gaily, transferring chicken casserole from the oven to the counter. She glanced over her shoulder at Katie with concern. "Are you all right, dear?"
"Fine," Katie rasped. "Nothing like a good choke to end the day with."
"Oh, you." Her mother, a small, cheerful, doughy woman, clucked her tongue. She'd never quite gotten Katie's sense of humor.
Having narrowly avoided death by ice cube, Katie filled with dread at the thought of revisiting Didsbury High's Class of '96. She wasn't a curmudgeon, or anti social, or uppity. Nor had she contracted an unsavory social disease the way Lulu Davenport had, farted in the middle of chemistry class like Magnus Pane, or ruined the school's annual production of "The Nutcracker Suite" by crashing into a cardboard Christmas tree onstage like Bridget Devlin. Katie's sin had been unpopularity. High school had been painful.
She'd grown up poor, the result of her father having died young, forcing her mother to support the family on a factory worker's wages. It shouldn't have made a difference (Tiny Didsbury, CT prided itself on being a mixed community with rich and poor alike), but it did. In the status driven world of high school, to be rich was to be "in", to be poor "out". Katie was a girl in clean but unfashionable clothing who came from the wrong part of town. A girl who didn't have a home pc or a cellphone, who used public transportation because her mother didn't have a car she could toodle around in on the weekends. Not that she had anyone to toodle around with.
Katie was also brainy. Super-scary-knows-the- answer-to-every question-the teacher-asks-brainy. To be a teenage brainiac was completely uncool, especially for a girl. It scared people. Especially guys. Especially jocks.
Katie had also been fat, which in high school was the equivalent of being an untouchable. She was the girl whose pants size exceeded her age. Boys walked behind her in the hall making oinking noises. Girls slammed her into lockers or invited her to phantom social events.
Nerdy, poor and dumpy. Three strikes and you're out. The story of Katie Fisher's adolescent life.
Just thinking about it got her annoyed at her mother all over again.
"I can't believe you did that to me." She cringed as her mother deftly sprinkled Day-Glo orange Velveeta on top of the casserole and slid it back into the oven. "No way am I going."
Her mother clucked her tongue again. "Did what to you? You'll have fun. You'll get to see all your old friends."
"And who would that be? Ronald McDonald?"
"I don't know why you're so hard on yourself, Katie. You're a beautiful girl. You're a successful professor of sociology."
"Now," Katie corrected. "I wasn't then."
"All the more reason to attend the reunion."
So that was why her mother wanted her to go. She wanted her former loser of a daughter to go forth and gloat.
Maybe her mom was on to something here. Maybe it would fun to walk into the reunion in her now svelte body and ramp up the va-va-voom, just to watch their jaws drop. Or to casually mention in conversation that she was now teaching at prestigious Fallowfield College in Vermont? Katie Fisher, the class of '96's biggest loser, back in town in a big way. Vengeance is mine, saeth Katie. But that wasn't who she was. Nor was it why she was back in Didsbury.
She was on a year long paid sabbatical, working on a book about sports and male identity. She could have stayed in Fallowfield to write the book; most of her research and interviews were done. But there was her nephew.
"Where's Tuck?" she asked her mother, who was now humming to herself as she set the table for dinner.
Her mother frowned. "Upstairs on that computer you bought him."
"Mom, he needs the computer for school. Believe me."
"His eyes are going to go bad, playing all those crazy games. He sits up there for hours." Her mother shot her a look of mild disapproval. "It's not good, Katie."
Katie knew that look. Tuck was behaving the way Katie once had, hiding away in his room. Though Tuck was only nine, Katie knew he viewed his bedroom as his refuge, the one place where he could escape and not have to face that his mother preferred crack to him, and that no one knew who his father was, his mother included. Katie knew firsthand how painful being fatherless could be. She'd filled the void by turning to food, while her sister Mina had embraced booze and bad behavior instead. Katie wanted to make sure Tuck didn't follow in his mother's footsteps.
She almost said something to her mother about Mina screwing up Tuck but held her tongue, knowing it would only upset her. Plus, she had to give credit where it was due. Mina was trying to get her act together, having entered a residential rehab facility six weeks before. And Mina did have the presence of mind to ask their mother to take in Tuck while she was away. Tuck loved his grandmother, and she loved him. But that didn't mean she had the energy or the means to care for a moody little boy who had seen and heard things he shouldn't have. Katie decided to spend her sabbatical year in Didsbury to help her mother take care of Tuck. She wanted Tuck to know there was another adult in his life, apart from his grandmother, upon whom he could always count.
Taking the last plate from her mother, Katie set it down on the table. "I'll talk to Tuck if you want. Tell him to get out more, maybe join the Knights of Columbus or start playing golf."
Her mother shot her another look, albeit an affectionate one. "Thank you, Miss Wiseacre. He loves you, you know. Thinks you're the bees knees."
"I think the same of him. And please don't use expressions like 'Bees knees'. It makes you sound like you're ancient, which you're not."
"Tell that to my joints." She gave Katie's arm a quick squeeze before hustling back to the stove to check on the broccoli. "So, you're going, then?"
"To talk to Tuck? I just said I was."
"No, to the reunion."
"Promise me you'll at least think about it, Katie."
"Why is this so important to you?"
"It's not. I just think it'll be good for you, that's all."
"Mom, I hated high school. You know that. I would rather watch C-Span than ever deal with any of those people again."
"But you're different now, and I bet they are, too. Or some of them. Go."
"'I'll think about it. But I'm not promising anything."
"You'll go," her mother trilled confidently.
Katie just rolled her eyes.
"I hate when she's right," Katie muttered to herself as she slumped behind the steering wheel of her Neon at the far end of the parking lot, the better to spy on former classmates entering Tivoli Gardens. The Tiv was a faux Bavarian catering house that served overcooked wienerschnitzel and soggy tortes. Management made the male waitstaff dress in lederhosen and occasionally yodel, while Tiv waitresses sported the "lusty serving wench clutching a beer stein" look. It was also the only space in town large enough to accommodate an event like a reunion.
Katie had pretty much made up her mind not to go. But then she started thinking about what her mother had said. She was different. She had changed a lot in ten years. Didn't it stand to reason that some of her former classmates had changed, too? The more she thought about it, the more curious she became. Who was different and who was the same? Who was divorced, married, successful, single, gay, unemployed, a parent, incommunicado, dead? Who'd stayed in town and who'd left?
Besides, she was a sociologist. It was her job to analyze the collective behavior of organized groups of human beings. Going to the reunion would be like doing research.
That wasn't why she was going, though.
To be honest, she was there because she had something to prove. She wanted to see everyone's eyes bug out when they realized who she was. She knew it was petty to turn up with a not-so- hidden agenda that screamed "Ha! You all thought I was a big fat loser, and look at me now!" but she couldn't help it. She was human and wanted if not revenge, then satisfaction. She wanted to see the "Wow, that's Katie Fisher!" in their eyes.
So here she was, dressed to the teeth and wearing more makeup than a drag Queen at Mardi Gras. At least, that's how it felt. Normally, Katie dressed casual but conservative: tweed blazers, turtlenecks, chinos, and practical shoes for running across campus in. Rarely did she wear her long, blonde hair up, or even loose; she usually pulled it back in a ponytail. But not tonight. Tonight it was up, soft golden tendrils falling around her oval face. She'd poured herself into the tightest little black dress she could find, showing off every firm curve of the body she killed herself to maintain. When Tuck had said, "Wow, Aunt Katie, you look hot!", she'd blushed furiously because it was true: She did look hot.
Eyeing the dashboard, Katie checked the time. Eight thirty. A few people were still arriving, but most had to be inside by now. She could picture them standing in small clusters laughing, the ice in their drinks tinkling as their lips moved non stop: Remember this, remember that? Panic seized her. Maybe she shouldn't have come. She popped an Altoid in her mouth and took a deep breath. The cruelties of the past can't hurt me now. Stick and stones can break my bones, but names can lead to years of therapy. No! Think positive! You can do this. You're just as good as any of them. You're attractive and successful. If it's too awkward or painful, you can always leave. Remember: you're here as a sociologist observing group behavior.
Head held high, Katie slid out of the car and headed for Tivoli Gardens.
The minute Katie spotted the pert hostess in the peasant skirt and green velvet bodice standing outside the banquet room, she wanted to bolt. But Katie wasn't a quitter: she made herself put one foot in front of the other until she and Heidi were face-to-face.
"Guten Tag!" the woman said brightly. "Here for the reunion?"
"And you are—?"
Katie cleared her throat. "Katie Fisher."
The woman skimmed her list of attendees. "Ja, here you are." She handed Katie a name tag. "Would you like to fill out the 'All About Me!' form?"
"Just to tell people a little about yourself and what you're up to now. At the end of the night, awards are given out. You know: 'Least Changed' 'Most Children', things like that."
Katie discreetly backed away from the woman. "No thank you."
Heidi pointed to the door behind her. "The reunion is being held right here in the Rhineland Banquet Room." She flashed Katie a retina burning smile. "Have a great time!"
"I'll try," Katie mumbled, affixing her nametag to her dress. She toyed with the idea of not wearing it just to be rebellious, but that seemed kind of dumb. Besides, how rebellious could you be in a place named the Rhineland Banquet Room?
The pounding undercurrent of a bass guitar coming from within made the ground beneath her feet shake as her hand lingered on the door. Do I really want to do this?
Steeling herself, Katie pushed the door open and slipped inside. Her eardrums were immediately assaulted by a DJ blasting Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart", a song that had been hot the year she graduated. The evening would be filled with all the songs of 1996, good and bad. A banner hung from the far end of the banquet room proclaiming, "Welcome Back Didsbury High School Class of '96! I Believe I Can Fly!", the latter line a reference to the R. Kelly song that had been her graduating class's "anthem." Katie had always thought the Beatles "Free As a Bird", also a hit that year, would have been more apropos. At least, that was how she'd felt on graduation day.
She had to hand it to the reunion committee: The tables ringing the room looked great. Each had burning crimson tapers and a centerpiece of red roses and white carnations-their school colors. She could have done without the tacky napkins and glasses with "I Believe I Can Fly!" printed on them, though. A small dance floor had been set up in front of the DJ. Cocktail hour was in full swing. Just as she'd imagined, her former classmates stood in small groups, talking and laughing. Her stomach wobbled as she realized she would have to join one of these groups if she wanted to talk to anyone. She needed a drink.
She walked carefully to the bar, teetering in her too high heels. It was stupid to have bought them, considering she'd probably never wear them again. But she to admit: they did make her feel sexy. Maybe there was life beyond EasySpirit.
"A sea breeze, please," she told the bartender, who winked in response and began mixing her drink. Katie watched him work, finding it easier to face the bar than turn around. A tap on her shoulder made her turn. Behind her stood a large, smiling woman wearing so much perfume Katie's eyes started to burn.
"Hi, I'm Denise Coogan! And you are—" she squinted at Katie's bosom—"Katie Fisher! Ohmigodyoulookfantasticgoodforyou!"
"Thank you." Katie wracked her brains. Denise Coogan. Denise Coogan. She was drawing a blank. She smiled apologetically at the heavily made up woman. "I'm so sorry, but I don't remember you. I remember your brother, though. Dennis?"
The woman chortled. "Honey, I am Dennis! Or I was. Now I'm Denise. Grab that sissy drink of yours and I'll tell you all about it."
For the next ten minutes, Katie listened to Denise/Dennis outline the horrors of being a woman trapped in a man's body. "I can empathize," said Katie. "For years I was Jennifer Aniston trapped in the body of Marlon Brando." Denise howled her appreciation.
Hovering on the periphery, Katie contemplated leaving. Then she noticed Alexis van Pelt motioning to Katie to join her. Katie hesitated; though Alexis was one of the few people ever to be nice to her in high school, she was standing among a small group of former cheerleaders. The mere sight of these women filled Katie with apprehension; still, she made herself approach the group. The increasingly baffled expression on Alexis's face as Katie came closer told Katie that Alexis thought she was someone else. She gasped when she read Katie's name tag.
"Oh my God! Is that really you, Katie?"
"It's really me."
The other women in the group — Tanya Donnelly, Marsha Debenham, and Hannah Beck, all of whom had worked hard to make Katie miserable in high school — also looked shocked. Marsha, once suspected of having an eating disorder, had put on some weight, and Hannah had obviously spent the last ten years out in the sun: there were the beginnings of crow's feet around her small green eyes. Tanya still looked like a brunette stork.
"You really do look great, Katie," said Marsha in a voice quivering with admiration.
Katie blushed, suddenly feeling shy. It felt odd, receiving praise from these women. But it also felt good. Maybe her mother was right: perhaps she wasn't the only one who had changed.
"How did you do it?" Martha wanted to know.
"Had my jaw wired shut."
The women chuckled appreciatively.
Tanya Donnelly, who had once lobbed garbage at Katie in the cafeteria, touched her arm. "We were just talking about what stuck up bitches we were in high school."
Katie felt the nervous flutter return to the pit of her stomach. "Oh?"
"I'm really sorry about the way I treated you," Hanna Beck murmured, looking uncomfortable. "I have a baby daughter, and the thought of anyone being as awful to her in school as we were to you..." she shuddered.
Heat flashed up Katie's face. "Thank you. It means a lot to hear that."
"Let's face it: Being a teenager sucks!" Alexis declared, gulping her drink.
"I'll raise my glass to that!" Marsha echoed.
Katie was in a daze as she listened to the friendly cross chatter of female voices. The last thing she'd expected from these women was an apology or being treated warmly. Yet here they all were, gabbing away about their lives, asking about hers and seeming genuinely interested in what she had to say. Maybe the past was just where it belonged: in the past.
Then Liz Flaherty showed up.
Of all the rich, perfectly dressed rah rah girls who gave Katie a hard time in high school, Liz topped the list. Once, over a long period of weeks, she pretended to be Katie's friend, eventually inviting her to a party at the house of Jesse Steadwell, one of the most popular guys in school. Katie was so excited she could barely contain herself. Invited to a party! Finally! But when her mom dropped her off and she rang the Steadwell's doorbell, no one was home. It was only when she was walking back down the driveway that Liz and her friends popped out of the bushes, laughing at her and calling her a loser. By the time Katie arrived at school the following Monday, the story had made the rounds. Complete strangers were coming up to her jeering, "How was Jesse's party?"
"Hi, everyone!" Liz squealed. She looked almost the same as she did in high school: thin, tan, with long, caramel colored hair and big brown eyes. Her makeup was impeccable. She wore a killer red sheath dress. She continued her girlish squealing as she hugged each woman in turn. But when she came to Katie, she froze.
"It can't be." Her face contorted in disbelief.
Katie made herself smile warmly. "How have you been, Liz?"
"Fine." Her laugh was mirthless. "Well, I guess miracles really can happen."
"No miracle," said Katie. "Just years of hard work."
The atmosphere, so congenial mere seconds before, began crackling with tension. Liz looked Katie up and down with a coolly appraising eye.
"I'm surprised to see you here, Katie."
"Well—" Liz glanced at the other women for confirmation—"because you were such a fat loser in high school."
The other women glanced away.
Katie met the challenge head on. "People change. Or, at least, some people do."
"You're exactly the same as you were in high school."
Liz smiled as she took a sip of champagne. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Katie was just telling us about the book she's writing," Hannah Beck said tentatively.
Liz sucked in her cheeks, bored. "That's nice. Katie, remember that time Paul van Dorn pasted a sign on your back that said 'Built like a Mac Truck' without your knowing it?" She laughed as if it were the funniest thing in the world.
Katie said nothing. Paul van Dorn...there was a name she hadn't heard in awhile. Paul had been the boy every girl in school had a crush on, Katie included. He'd been Liz's boyfriend, of course. They were the golden couple: Captain of the hockey team and head cheerleader. When he was apart from his friends and Liz, Paul had always been nice to Katie. But the minute he hooked up with his crew, he teased her mercilessly like everyone else.
To Katie's chagrin, Liz Flaherty continued goosestepping down memory lane. "Remember in gym class, when Mr. Nelson made us do the five hundred yard dash, and Katie collapsed huffing and puffing because she was so fat and out of shape?" No one answered as all eyes dropped to the ground. "Oh, come on, I know you guys remember!"
"Can it, Liz," Alexis growled under her breath.
"What?" Liz batted her eyes. "All I'm doing is reminiscing! That's why we're all here, right? To remember?" Another sip of champagne slid down her throat. "I was thinking about the prom on the way over here. As you all know, I went with Paul van Dorn." Her gaze glittered with malice. "But I can't seem to recall who you went with, Katie."
Katie smiled brightly. "Actually, I had two dates to the prom: Ben and Jerry. Can you excuse me a moment?"
She said her goodbyes to the other women and quickly extricated herself from the group, quivering so hard inside she thought she might break. She'd always used humor and self deprecation to deflect criticism and pain. It sprang from a determination never to let her tormentors see they'd gotten to her. That she'd just been forced to use two of the old weapons in her arsenal made her sad.
It had been a mistake to come. No, that wasn't true. The mistake had been thinking Liz Flaherty could ever be anything but a bitch. Katie had meant what she said, though Liz had failed to see the irony: Liz was the same person she'd been in high school. Clearly the woman was insecure as hell. Katie knew she could have called her on it, but it seemed pointless.
Draining the remains of her glass, Katie returned it to the bartender, hustling as fast as she could toward the banquet room door and the promise of blessed release. Her heart was hammering in her chest, while her mind was a kaleidoscope of painful memories she'd been foolish to think she could avoid. She was walking so fast in her heels that when she hit a wet spot, she went flying. Were it not for the lightning fast reflexes of a man who reached out to grab her, she would have wound up spread eagle on the floor with her front teeth bashed in. Mortified, Katie slowly looked up into her savior's face to thank him.
It was Paul van Dorn.
"It will make you think even while you laugh and cry.. a crowd pleaser. You won't want to miss the PENALTY BOX."
Romance Reviews Today
"Scores a goal with this reader....Deirdre Martin proves once again that she can touch the heart and the funny bone with her latest contemporary romance."
"Martin scores another goal with another witty, emotionally true-to-life, and charming hockey romance."
"Fun, fast rinkside contemporary romance...What begins as an undercover affair blossoms into a life-changing relationship as Paul and Kate discover that living in the present beats living in the past. Martin scores with this witty blend of romance and family dynamics."
"Ms. Martin always delivers heat and romance, with a very strong conflict to keep the reader engaged. THE PENALTY BOX should be added to your 'must read list.' "
-Contemporary Romance Reviews
"An engrossing read...left me cheering at the end!"