I’m getting to know Pittsburgh well, particularly the North Side where the arena is located. The city is comprised of several contiguous neighborhoods in which many of the Titan players live. I promised our goalie coach, Baden, that I’d help him move his friend Jenna into an apartment this afternoon, and my navigation system tells me it’s less than a mile from the arena. I finished up a workout with Stone, then spent a bit of time reviewing game film on my own before heading out.
Coming out of retirement, and as the oldest Titan on the team at age thirty-five, I always have to go above and beyond to maintain my position on the first line. That means not only stellar play on the ice and keeping my body in optimal physical condition, but also getting to know my opponents. I’d been out of the league for almost a year, having retired from the Seattle Storm where I spent the last seven years of my career.
I thought I was done with hockey, but apparently, hockey wasn’t done with me.
When Callum Derringer called with an offer to join the Titans after a devastating plane crash wiped out their roster, I reached deep inside to determine whether I still had what it takes to be competitive.
I knew it wouldn’t be a problem physically. I’m still in great shape—some would say the best of my life—but it remained to be seen whether I had the heart for it. I decided to retire last year because, frankly, I wasn’t getting the same thrill from competition that once drove me. I didn’t feel like I was leaving anything on the ice when I walked away.
The prospect of skating with a team that was being built from nothing appealed to me, not only the challenge but the opportunity to be a part of history within this league. To help shape and form what would hopefully be a new dynasty spoke to my conscience more than anything. The ability to mentor young players moving up from the minors who would be out of their element. Helping a city still reeling from the loss of its beloved hockey team.
Simply put… I wanted to do some good with my life, and this seemed like the way to make that happen. I had nothing tying me down to prevent me from accepting. The money offered—while very nice—wasn’t important. Between my previous salary and endorsement deals, which I wisely invested, I wouldn’t have to worry about finances for the rest of my life.
In the end, it was an easy yes, and I don’t regret a thing.
I hang a right onto North Avenue from Allegheny and see a large moving truck parked before the loft apartments where I’m supposed to meet Baden and Sophie.
When I approach, I see Sophie standing near the rear of the truck, the roll-up door lifted and the back filled with furniture and boxes. This section of North Avenue is a two-way street with parallel parking on both sides, and all the spots are taken. I stop and lower my window. Sophie grins as she sees me.
“You standing guard?” I ask her as I nod toward the truck.
“Protecting us from a parking ticket,” she replies with a grin as she moves my way and bends to see me. “There’s a fire hydrant on the other side, so I’m prepared to roll out if a cop comes. Baden just took the bed rails up—there’s parking in the back alley.”
“Got it,” I reply with a thumbs-up.
After I park and lock my car, I round the block and Sophie points me toward the door. “Second floor. Unit two.”
Trotting up the stairs, I grimace at the compact U-shape of the stairwell. It’s going to be a bitch bringing up that couch I saw in the truck. I find unit two’s door ajar and push it open, noting a small living room with good lighting and a balcony where I can just make out the very tips of the downtown buildings. The flooring is new—light gray stain—and the kitchen is white on white, making the small area appear bright and open. There’s no hallway to speak of, just another room with a closed door, and from inside, I hear the whir of a power drill.
In the kitchen, a woman with long blond hair hanging down to her mid-back stands on a step stool. Balancing a bit precariously, she stacks plates in a cabinet from an open box on the counter. She’s wearing a pair of black workout leggings, a long-sleeve shirt, and running shoes.
Still standing at the threshold, I rap my knuckles on the door to get the woman’s attention. “Hello.”
She glances at me over her left shoulder, and I smile. “I sure hope you’re Jenna, or this is a very awkward situation where I walked into the wrong apartment.”
She smiles back, a short stack of salad plates in her hand. “I am indeed Jenna. You must be Gage. Come on in.”
“Guilty as charged,” I reply as I step inside and return the door to the same position I found it.
Jenna turns back to the cabinet as I move toward the kitchen for a handshake. She places the plates on the shelf and backs off the step stool.
With the sun behind me and facing her, I’m startled by her eyes. A brown so light that in the brightness, they’re almost honey gold. In the span of seconds, I also can’t help but notice that she has scarring on the right side of her face near her jaw. It doesn’t take up much real estate, but it’s pink and mottled and hard not to notice. It disappears down into the front of what I see now is a turtleneck shirt fitted to her body.
My eyes drift back up to hers to take in more of that amazing color, but she’s not looking directly at me anymore, her gaze averted to the side. I also notice that she’s moved one hand across her belly, the other hovering near the collar of the turtleneck as she fidgets with it, attempting to pull it up higher over her scarring.
Did I make her self-conscious when I noticed the welted skin? It’s not something I did intentionally, but I’m sure it doesn’t make it less bothersome to her. Despite the fact that her shirt hugs her gorgeous, curvy body, I’m guessing it was chosen to cover her scars.
The positioning of her arms and hands is defensive, and the fact she won’t look at me is indicative that I’ve caused her to retreat.
I’m not one to hide from an awkward situation, though, and I force conversation so she’ll have to look at me. “How was your trip here from Arizona? You came with your sister, right?”
She drags her eyes back to mine and pastes on a lackluster smile. Nodding toward the door I’d seen off the living area, she says, “Yes. Emory is in the bedroom with Baden trying to put the bed frame together if you want to go in.”
I opt to stay and converse. “And the trip?” I ask, a reminder she didn’t answer my first question. “That’s a hell of a drive.”
“We broke it up into three days,” she replies quietly, letting her hands drop and angling for the step stool. She climbs back on, reaches into the box, and pulls out another stack of plates without elaborating further.
It’s dismissive, and I don’t want to make her uncomfortable. “I’ll just go see what Baden wants me to do. We’ll get you set up in no time.”
“Thank you,” she murmurs, placing more plates in the cabinet with her back to me. “I really appreciate it.”
My tone is easy. “Not a problem at all.”
And it’s not. I’m glad to help out because she’s Baden’s friend, and any friend of Baden is a friend of mine.
In the bedroom, I find said buddy using the drill to drive a screw between the metal frame and the headboard. He lifts his head and grins. “You made it.”
“I made it,” I agree and turn to the woman who must be Jenna’s sister. I stick out a hand to the raven-haired beauty with blue eyes—the exact opposite of her sister’s golden coloring, from her hair to her skin to her eyes. “You must be Emory. Nice to meet you.”
Emory stands from where she was squatting beside Baden, and we shake. “So great to meet you too. We appreciate your help.”
We don’t bother with small talk. Baden and I get to work unloading the truck, using our considerable strength to work our way through the contents. There wasn’t a lot of furniture. Just a bedroom set with a bed, dresser, and two nightstands, and a couch, which was indeed a bitch to get up those stairs. The rest were boxes of clothes and kitchenware—much of it newly bought in Arizona and loaded onto the truck to save her from needing to shop here. Baden explained the bedroom set and couch were from Emory’s house, and Jenna bought additional living room furniture online that will be delivered in a few weeks.
Until then, the only other furnishings are a folding card table with two metal chairs. Spartan living for sure, but I’m sure she’ll have a nice home set up soon.
Baden and I head down for the last round of boxes from the truck while the Holland sisters work to unpack the mountain of ones we’ve already unloaded.
Before we grab the last stack, I stop him with a hand on his shoulder. “Need to ask you something.”
Baden turns to face me. “What’s up?”
“I’m pretty sure I offended Jenna when I got here,” I say, bothered that I’ve been here almost two hours, and she won’t look at or engage with me at all. I explain what happened when I arrived. “I swear, man… I didn’t give any outward reaction to the scars. My eyes just sort of flicked there and then right back again, but she totally withdrew after that.”
“Yeah… I noticed she was acting shy around you.”
“She won’t even meet my eyes,” I grumble in frustration. “You know I’d never intentionally do something to hurt—”
Baden stops me with a soft punch to my shoulder. “Don’t even go there, dude. Jenna’s an amazing woman, and I adore her, but I also know the type of man you are. I know you’d never do anything to make someone feel bad about themselves.”
“I need to fix it,” I reply, determined to set things straight.
“You didn’t break anything,” Baden points out, and I appreciate his efforts to make me feel better. “She’s had a lot of trauma in her life, and it’s made her sensitive.”
I’ve been called a sensitive guy before, a moniker I don’t mind, and the squeeze of heart muscles proves it. “I have a feeling you’re talking about more than her scarring.”
“She was in a bad fire. She’s got a lot more scars than what little you can see—emotional and physical. She’s had a hard time putting herself out there because a lot of people abandoned her during her recovery. So it’s more than just what you see on the outside.”
I hold up my hand, indicating he should stop. I don’t want him sharing confidences that aren’t his to tell. I also don’t need to hear more to know, without a doubt, I must let her know I didn’t intend any harm when I looked at her scars.
“Arrange for me to have a few minutes alone with her,” I say as I help him pull the last two boxes off the truck.
He nods and picks up the stack by himself. “Stay here. I’ll send her down.”
I lean against the side of the truck, hands tucked into my pockets, and within no more than thirty seconds, Jenna is coming out the door with the truck keys in hand. She manages to look at me as I push off the truck but holds out the keys, as if she wants to dump them and run in the opposite direction. “Baden said you needed the keys so you could move the truck away from the hydrant.”
I take them from her, not willing to let her know this was a setup so I could get some time alone.
Jenna starts to head back inside, but I call out, “Wait.”
She stops but turns only partway and to the left to look back at me. It’s habitual—I can tell—clearly intended to keep the unmarred portion of her face in my view.
I don’t know this woman at all, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again after today, but I know I’m not going to take the easy way out. I’m not going to let her either.
I step onto the sidewalk and move around her, so she’s forced to face me. I’m pleased to see she doesn’t hesitate to tip her head back to meet my eyes, and I think that’s her courage shining through.
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable when I first walked in,” I say.
She flushes, but holds my gaze. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You do,” I admonish kindly. “You’ve been withdrawn since we met, and I can pinpoint the exact moment. It’s when I caught sight of the scars on your jaw.” Pointedly, I look at them again, and she reaches to her turtleneck to pull it up.
Without thinking, I catch her hand and hold it in mine.
Pulling it down, I say, “Don’t hide.”
She blinks at me in surprise, but I can feel her relax. I let her hand fall from my grip.
“Sorry. Habit, I guess,” she mutters.
“I can understand that,” I reply with a smile. “But honest to God, Jenna, that’s not what first caught my attention. It was your eyes and the way the light hit them that shocked me more than your scars. So yeah… my gaze might have dropped to your jaw as I was taking you in, but if you think back… they went right back up to your eyes. They are captivating.”
She tilts her head, eyebrows drawn slightly inward with obvious skepticism.
“If I made you uncomfortable about the scars, it was unintentional. I’d like to tell you they’re hardly noticeable, but that would be a lie.” Jenna flinches, but I’m not done. “What I will tell you as truth is that while they are noticeable, they are not what first captured my attention or held it. Your eyes completely outshine the scars.”
Like a wide-eyed owl, she blinks at me as if she’s never been paid a compliment. And I could absolutely go on because she’s a stunning woman. Her face is gorgeous, with high cheekbones, full lips, and golden hair that flows for miles in silky layers. Her skin is sun-kissed, like she grew up with the sun always shining down on her.
But it’s mostly her eyes that are hard to look away from.
Finally, her expression softens, and she shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let it bother me.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” I assure her.
“Actually, I do,” she says with a deep sigh. “I’m working hard to put myself out there and give humanity a chance to be real with me. I should’ve given you the benefit of the doubt. I can see you’re a nice guy.”
“I’m a totally nice guy,” I say, spreading my arms out. “And now you can say you made your first friend in Pittsburgh.”
Jenna sticks her hand out and smiles. “It’s very nice to meet you, Gage.”
I again take her hand, soft and delicate. “Nice to meet you, too, Jenna. And if you ever catch me staring at you, be assured it’s totally your eyes that have my attention.”
I had not meant for that to come out as a flirtation, but damn if it doesn’t sound that way to my own ears. Clearly to Jenna’s as well—she blushes but manages a joke. “Maybe I’ll wear mirrored aviators around you. Wouldn’t want you bumping into walls or anything.”
I tip my head back and laugh. Squeezing her hand before I release it, I jingle the keys. “I’ll move the truck, and then I’ll be up to help with the rest of the unpacking.”
“You don’t have to,” she says as I brush past her to round the truck. “I’m sure you have better things to do.”
“Nothing better to do than help out a pretty friend,” I assure her, and I can’t help but like the fact that I make her blush again.
“Are you even listening to me?” Emory says.
“Of course I am,” I reply, although I have no clue what she just said. At least not prior to her pointing out that I wasn’t listening to her.
I’ve been thinking about Gage again.
He left a few hours ago, along with Baden and Sophie, after helping me get mostly unpacked. The only thing that’s left is for Emory and me to set up my bedroom, which includes unpacking my clothing and making the bed. We ordered subs to be delivered for dinner, which we’ll eat as soon as we finish this. Then we’re going to crack open the wine Baden and Sophie brought as a housewarming gift.
Emory is flying back to Phoenix first thing in the morning. She’s the VP of digital marketing and analytics for the Arizona Vengeance professional hockey team. Now that I’m working for a professional hockey team as well, our parents have been bragging to everyone who will listen and we find it hilarious.
“I was saying,” Emory drawls with exaggeration, “that the only thing making me feel okay about leaving you tomorrow is that apparently you now have some built-in friends who will look after you.”
“Uh-huh,” I murmur as I open a box with lingerie in it. All pretty silk and lace that I used to enjoy wearing but will now push to the back of a drawer. These days, I wear comfortable cotton panties and bras. Sexy lingerie is for showing off your body, and I don’t do that anymore.
I should actually throw it away. I’ll never wear it again.
Instead, nostalgia takes over and I decide to keep the items for nothing more than a reminder of something I once had that I thought was real but turned out to be the biggest lie in my life.
“What’s wrong with you?” Emory asks in exasperation, reaching out to touch my shoulder and forcing me to look at her.
I shake my shoulder to dislodge her hand. “Nothing’s wrong with me.” Emory can be overprotective at times and is supersensitive when I’m quiet.
But sometimes, I like to be quiet with my thoughts.
I get it, though. She’s worried that my quiet thoughts are bad thoughts right now. She spent months and months with me battling an insidious darkness that had taken over. Emory will be forever worried I will return there, and I don’t know how to reassure her, because I don’t know that I won’t go back.
But the truth of the matter is, my thoughts are about Gage, and those are most definitely not dark or in any way brooding.
Today was a learning experience.
I failed to give the man the benefit of the doubt, which is something I promised myself I would do with people. It’s part of the new Jenna 2.0, a woman who’s going to stop looking at the bad in the others around her and in her life in general.
After Gage confronted me about my reaction when he saw my scars, an immense weight lifted off my shoulders. He was absolutely right—when his eyes flicked to my jaw and neck, I immediately shut down and failed to see anything else. I assumed he was horrified and disgusted and would never be able to see anything else about me.
But damn if that man didn’t hit me head-on about it. Nobody, other than my sister and parents, has ever spoken so bluntly to me about my scarring. And it came across so genuine, I had no choice but to believe him.
If I’m really honest, though, that’s not what’s occupying my mind. I can’t stop ruminating about the fact he seems intrigued with my eyes. I never thought they were very special before, but he says he sees something there. And it’s been a long damn time since someone has seen something beautiful in me.
Emory sighs and reaches back into a box to pull out a stack of workout gear. I didn’t do the best job packing, so she starts refolding my clothes.
“Are you excited about starting work tomorrow?” she asks, being a good sister and changing the subject.
I love her for it as she’s learning to loosen her concern over me and stop trying to fix all my problems. She’ll never know how much I appreciate that. Especially since she’s been so worried about me moving to Pittsburgh.
She was afraid I wouldn’t flourish without her by my side. Moreover, she was afraid that without her being there pushing me, I would withdraw more into myself.
I fully intend to prove her wrong.
“I’m actually really excited,” I admit as I open a wardrobe box full of hanging outfits. Some were donated by Emory, since I have little in the way of professional attire, given I’ve been out of the workforce the last few years. “I’m also nervous as hell. I don’t know if I’m qualified for this job.”
Emory snorts. “I seriously doubt Brienne Norcross would’ve hired you if you weren’t qualified.”
“That’s probably true,” I say with a chuckle.
I think back to our Zoom interview, and I’m amazed by how easy Brienne was to talk to.
“Please call me Brienne and not Ms. Norcross,” she insisted at the start. “I’m not big on formalities.”
I’ve had employers say that same thing before and not mean it, but somehow, I believed her.
The interview lasted an hour and twenty minutes, but felt like it only lasted about five. It was so easy to talk to her, even though she was asking tough questions. Poking and prodding into my past work history to pull out and explore my strengths and weaknesses. She clearly wasn’t going to hire me just because Baden had called in a favor. She vetted me hard.
I had some reticence when she explained the job more fully. She was interviewing me to become their media liaison, someone who would serve as go-between for the organization and the media in all its various forms. It could be social media, print press, or even network news.
It was then that I had to tell her some personal truths.
“I don’t have to be in front of cameras, do I?” I asked hesitantly.
Brienne Norcross is supermodel beautiful, with nearly flawless skin, but her forehead crinkled deeply into a frown. “Why? You don’t seem like a shy woman.”
I was wearing a turtleneck… even though it was February in Phoenix and a little too warm, I wore them whenever I could. If I didn’t have a turtleneck, I wore a scarf.
I tugged at the collar nervously. “It’s just… I’m a little self-conscious of my scars.”
Baden had given her some basic background about me, including about my injuries, which accounted for much of my time out of the workforce. But that had not come up in the interview until that point, and I doubted they would have come up had I not mentioned it.
“I can understand your worry.” Brienne’s tone was neutral. “But it’s not my intention to put you in front of cameras. I have an actual press secretary, but I do most of the on-screen media myself.”
I sighed with relief, even knowing I was still going to have to put myself out there. While I might not have to be in front of cameras, working as the liaison meant I would be dealing with people.
But I couldn’t hide behind the computer the way I had been for the prior year while living with Emory and working as an editor.
This was all part of the Jenna 2.0 restructuring plan.
Putting myself out there.
Learning how to be a part of society again, because honestly… it’s lonely when I’m hiding.
“I think you’re going to do fabulous, and I’m so proud of you,” Emory says as she folds another T-shirt and places it in a pile on the bed.
“You’ve always had faith in me, and that’s given me courage,” I reply easily.
Emory has been by my side through my injuries and recovery, and she pushed me to move to Phoenix to get out of my comfort zone. If it weren’t for her, I’d still be hiding at our parents’ house where I landed after I got out of the rehab hospital.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
The fire changed everything in my life. I had an amazing career and the perfect relationship with a man I adored and his daughter, Chelsea, who held the biggest piece of my heart. We were a family, living together, as he split custody of Chelsea with his ex-wife. We’d discussed marriage, and I knew a proposal was forthcoming.
But then the fire happened, and I was lucky to escape with my life. My recovery was brutal. Weeks in a medically induced coma, dozens of painful skin graft surgeries, intense rehabilitation, more surgeries, and the mental strain of dealing with my disfigurement. The world sees the scarring on my jaw and neck, but they don’t see the worst—the scarring on my shoulders and the entirety of my back, butt, and portions of my legs. Puckered pink flesh webbed with pale white veins that I loathe to look at in the mirror.
But what I refuse to see, I must feel. While bathing, I have to run my fingers over the lumpy skin that they couldn’t fix, no matter how great the plastic surgeons were.
That’s the part of me nobody will ever see. And not because I’m inherently ashamed of myself—my parents taught me to be confident and that looks are only skin-deep.
No, it was my boyfriend, Paul, who destroyed my self-worth because he could barely look at me after. He couldn’t touch me.
And ultimately, he left.
All because of the way I looked.
It was an ugly lesson to learn… that our value to other people is tied to our physical appearance.
While it hurt that Paul couldn’t see past my disfigurement, it hurt worse that he removed Chelsea from my life.
I understand now that he was a coward. He tried to come up with a dozen different reasons that all rang hollow. However, in the end, he admitted that my burns were too much for him. It was something I’d ultimately forgive, but I couldn’t ever look past him keeping Chelsea from me. For two years, I had been in her life, and then after I was recovered enough to leave the hospital, he wouldn’t let me see her.
And again, my mind wanders back to Gage. I know it’s because he’s the first man since the fire who has paid me a compliment. It stings to know how much my vanity responds to that.
I actually think he was flirting with me.
Or he could’ve been trying to make me feel better by flirting, so maybe it wasn’t genuine.
No, I think it was genuine.
He seems genuine.
“Okay,” Emory says with irritation. I turn to look at her, eyebrows raised. “What is going on with you? You’re quiet and introspective. Which, okay, is totally Jenna-like. But you’re doing it with this weird smile on your face, and it’s freaking me out.”
I laugh because I imagine I am freaking her out by being quiet and smiling at the same time. It’s not something she’s seen for a very long time.
Emory is the one person I can always be truthful with, no matter if I’m a teensy bit embarrassed to admit, “I was thinking about Gage.”
“Oh, really?” she drawls, dumping the T-shirt in her hand back in the box. She sits on the edge of the bed to stare at me expectantly. “Tell me more.”
I shake my head with another laugh. “It’s not like that. At least, I don’t think it is. But I had a moment with him… a real moment. It was weird and refreshing, and I can’t stop ruminating over it.”
Emory leans forward, captivated. I move to sit beside her, and we angle in toward one another, our knees touching. “When he first walked into the apartment, his eyes went where everyone’s eyes go.”
Emory nods with a knowing expression. “And you withdrew and shut down. Blah, blah, blah. Heard and seen this story too many times to count.”
Clearly, my sister has had a few frustrations with me over the months as I work to regain my confidence. I ignore her snark, though. “But… he talked to me outside afterward, and he was so honest about it all. He admitted to looking at my scarring, but he said that wasn’t the first thing that caught his attention.”
Emory leans forward. “What was it?”
“My eyes.” I let out a tiny huff of breath. “He said he was more captivated by my eyes.”
Emory’s mouth drops open slightly. “He said that?”
I nod effusively, happiness within as I share this with my sister. “It doesn’t mean anything… but yes, a genuine compliment. And he was brutally forthright that he saw my scarring. He acknowledged it. Most people turn away embarrassed and want to brush it under the rug. But he saw it as part of me, and it didn’t bother him. It wasn’t the most important thing he saw. My eyes were.”
Emory regards me thoughtfully for a few beats before grinning. “He’s really a nice guy, I’ll admit. Baden speaks so highly of him. And… he’s incredibly gorgeous.”
I shrug as if I hadn’t noticed.
But I totally noticed.
He’s tall, well-built, and speaking of eyes… his are amazing too. He wears his dark hair well-trimmed and swept to the side, but he has the lightest hazel eyes that seem to be almost otherworldly. When he was standing outside apologizing, I couldn’t help but observe them myself. When he complimented me on my own peepers, I wanted to blurt out that his were beautiful, too, but then I would’ve died on the spot from mortification.
“He said he’s my first official new friend here in Pittsburgh,” I continue, trying to shift some of the focus away from the truth that I was completely taken by a man paying me a compliment. It doesn’t mean anything more than he’s just a very nice guy.
“I believe that,” Emory says with a smile and reaches over to hug me. “And you deserve all the friends. All the happiness.”
When she pulls back, she rests her hands on my shoulders and peers at me. “But you know, if this doesn’t work out for you, you can always come home to me in Phoenix. There is always a place for you at my side.”
“I know,” I reply softly, moving my hands over the top of hers. “And I love you for it. Just as I love you for letting me have this chance to fly.”
I love Sunday morning practices. Especially when they come before a home game the following day. It means the practice will be light and fun as we mostly self-police out on the ice while Coach Keller hands oversight to the assistant coaches. It lets the younger guys cut up a bit without Keller’s mood swings coming into play. He’s the quintessential walk-on-eggshells type—you never know how he’s going to react. Sundays are his day to prep for the upcoming games, and so he stays in his office.
Keller is an odd duck, for sure. He can be your best buddy or your worst nightmare, depending on how he’s feeling. The only problem is you never know what he’s feeling, and his reactions are always unpredictable.
It’s sad to say, but when Keller isn’t around, we actually develop a stronger camaraderie. When the players don’t have the pressure of the head coach potentially exploding, it allows everyone to open up to one another rather than only looking out for our own best interests.
After practice, I’ll get in a short workout, and then I’m going home to veg out for the rest of the day. This is not something I often do because I like to be on the go, but sometimes I just need a down day, no responsibilities, where I can fall into pure laziness.
Before hitting the locker room, I pause at Baden’s office. He’s at his desk, bent over his iPad. This is a rarity—he hates it in here. Even though, as our goalie coach, he has plenty of paperwork, you’ll often find him doing it in the locker room or sitting out on the bench on the ice with his iPad open on his lap. I even saw him one day sitting in the stands behind the goalie net watching game film.
I rap my knuckles on the door and poke my head in, not wanting to intrude if he’s deep in the middle of something. But I want to say hello—Baden has quickly become a good friend.
Players don’t normally develop deep personal relationships with the coaching staff. There’s often a line that can’t or shouldn’t be breached. But I think it’s different with Baden since he was so recently a player. A player many of us knew personally, respected, and then watched as he struggled back from debilitating injuries. On top of that, I’m a veteran just out of retirement. Something about being older and coming back into the league from the outside lets me push the norms a bit. That’s most likely because I really don’t intend to stay past this year, so I don’t care if people don’t like me having a friendship with Baden.
I came to Pittsburgh for the challenge. I wanted to help this team accomplish something. I wanted to help them build a new dynasty, and then I wanted to be able to walk away and look back and say with pride, I was a part of that.
Maybe I’ll stay one more year, maybe I won’t. I’m leaning toward won’t. While I’m enjoying my time on the ice in this beautiful city, I don’t know if I want to keep up the level of intensity required to be a professional hockey player. It’s another reason I retired. I’d simply reached all my goals and felt complete. I was ready for something new.
Baden lifts his head and smiles. “What’s up?”
I don’t walk all the way into the office but lean my shoulder against the doorjamb. “Not much on my end. Looking forward to a good practice and then a lazy day afterward.”
Baden snorts. “I would love nothing more than a lazy afternoon with Sophie. But as it stands, we’re going house hunting.”
I lift my eyebrows. “Where are you looking?”
Baden’s expression becomes tortured. “Everywhere. No particular area in mind, but Sophie wants to restore an old Victorian. And apparently, such homes are scattered all over the greater Pittsburgh area. I think we’re looking at six today.”
Chuckling, I push off the jamb and shake my head in empathy. “The things we do for love.”
“You know it,” Baden quips with a decisive nod.
I grin back at him. “Actually, I don’t know, but I’ve heard rumors.”
Baden settles back in his chair. “You’ve never been serious with anyone?”
I shrug. “The right one’s never come along, I guess.”
“I’m guessing you have very high standards.”
“Damn straight, I do,” I reply, pointing a finger at him for punctuation, and he laughs. I start for the door. “I’m going to change. See you on the ice.”
“Later,” Baden replies and drops his head back down to his iPad.
But I turn back toward him, the question coming out before I can stop it. “So… how’s Jenna been?”
Baden’s eyes lift, surprise evident. “Good. Sophie’s seen her a few times since we moved her in. Enjoying her job so far.”
“That’s good,” I say, feeling a little bereft there aren’t more details. “She settled in well?”
Baden smirks knowingly. “Why are you asking?”
“Because she’s new to the area, and I’m a nice fucking guy,” I grumble at the knowing look on his face. “Why else would I ask?”
Baden again leans back in his chair, folds his arms over his chest, and grins. “I don’t know. It seems odd your question comes right on the heels of you saying you have high standards for women and the right one hasn’t come along yet.”
“Whatever,” I grouse as I turn for the door, but it’s done in good nature because that’s me—a good-natured guy.
Baden laughs as I walk out, calling after me. “I’ll tell her you asked about her.”
“You do that,” I call back over my shoulder.
Tell her I asked.
That I’m interested in her.
Because I am. I’ve thought about her way too much over the last week.
Baden’s laugh follows me down the hall.
Maybe I should’ve asked him for her phone number. I could call… just say that I was checking in. We agreed resoundingly that I was her first new friend in Pittsburgh, and what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t check in on her?
A small inner voice cautions me that Jenna could be a complication, because if I’m honest, and I usually am, I’m attracted to her far more than I’ve been to a woman in a long time.
I’m fascinated by her.
Part of it is her pain and the resilience I see that was born from it. I admire her.
And again… attraction.
She’s hot, and yes, being honest, I’ve thought a little too much about that curvy body under those workout clothes, that gloriously long, golden hair, and those eyes… catlike and fierce.
I walk into the locker room and am immediately greeted by the guys already there. It’s a far cry from the quiet, standoffish group of minor league and veteran players brought together under trying circumstances. I make my rounds with fist bumps and small words to each of the guys, Jenna driven from my mind as my team takes precedence.
Boone Rivers sits on the bench—his cubby is next to mine—dressed in his gear from the waist down as he tapes his stick.
“How’s it going?” I ask as I hang my duffel in the open-faced locker.
“Good, man,” he replies, eyes staying on his task. “Just ready to get out on the ice.”
I like this guy a lot. He’s a solid second-line center who brings a lot of experience to the team. He’s bounced between the minors and the big league over the years and has become known as a confident clutch player. That was never more evident than when he had to step in to fill Coen’s shoes after his two-game suspension last week for the arrest in New York.
Stupid asshole got charged with drunk and disorderly and was completely unashamed of his behavior. Grapevine news said that Keller wanted to install some harsher penalties, but our general manager, Callum Derringer, lobbied for some grace, given the horrific circumstances of the plane crash that killed the entire team, minus “The Lucky Three” who had not traveled for that game.
Coen was one of the three, but he sure doesn’t act like he’s lucky. In fact, it’s clear he’s overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt because he’s basically become a dick to everyone around him, including the fans. His popularity over the last few weeks has dropped significantly, and one way that’s wholly apparent is via jersey sales. He was a top seller for the franchise before the plane crash, not only because he’s a stellar player but because he was fun, gregarious, and cocky in a charming way. Everyone loved him. Now, he’s not even in the top ten.
More telling was his first home game back last night. Not only were the cheers for him muted when he was announced, but there were even some boos.
Not many, but they could be heard over the cheers, which weren’t as effusive as those for the other players.
It was shocking, especially from a home crowd that has nearly been blowing the roof off in support of this pasted-together team. If Coen was offended by it, I couldn’t tell. He wore the same expression he’s had from day one of the new team forming that basically says, “Eat a bag of dicks,” projected toward the entire world.
Coen needs to be careful, because while he was out, Boone stepped up big-time. He played two outstanding games and garnered an assist. He’s ready to take that first-line position, but Keller and Derringer aren’t about to give that slot to him permanently based on a few good games. They’re going to let Coen—the more gifted player—have time to work through his issues.
“I had a crazy dream last night,” Boone says as he continues to wind tape on his stick blade.
“Oh yeah?” I sit on the bench to unlace my running shoes.
“I dreamed that the standings came out, and there’d been some computer glitch for weeks, and we were really number one in our conference.”
I snort, because that sounds like a good dream.
“But then, the entire roster was glitching, and I never got called up from the minors to the team. None of us had.”
Sounds like a nightmare.
“Want to know who was really called up?” he asks, one corner of his mouth lifts as he continues taping. “All the ice girls in the league. Every fucking one of them were supposed to make up the new team, and their only credentials were that they could skate and had nice tits.”
I laugh at the weird turn his dream took. While Pittsburgh has never been a team to have ice girls—their football team doesn’t have cheerleaders either—many teams have them, and the crowds, especially the men, seem to enjoy watching sexy women launch T-shirts into the stands and clean up the ice when needed.
Boone shakes his head in amusement, rips the tape from the roll, and smooths the edge. “It was nice waking up to realize I still had a job and hadn’t been replaced by ice girls.”
Chuckling, I kick off my shoes and toss them into the cubby. “While we may not be at the top of our conference anymore, we are still in the playoff race.”
“Amen to that, brother,” he says.
I continue to pull on my practice gear, flipping through the stats in my head that will either launch us into the playoffs or send us home at the end of the regular season. The Titans were at the top of their conference before the plane went down. The league graciously instituted a points freeze until we were able to get a team back on the ice, which meant we stayed at the top once the new team was ready.
But in the last month and a half we’ve been playing, we’ve won precious few games, and some of the other teams are surging. We’re currently sitting in fifth, and we need to be in the top eight to make the playoffs, with only twelve games left to play.
It’s going to take every single one of us playing our hearts out, and a few other teams to either slow down or stumble, for us to make the playoffs.
No one in this league with an ounce of reason thinks we could ever win the Cup this year. It’s just not physically possible with the team we’ve patched together. It would be an amazing feat, though, to land a playoff spot. So amazing, that it would actually go down in the history books, and though it looks like our chances are slim every single player on this team has that prize in sight.
Except maybe Coen. I’m not sure he gives a fuck about anything, to be honest.
Speaking of the man, I look over to his cubby and see that it’s empty. He tends to slide in at the last moment, always dangerously close to being late. This earns him the wrath of Keller, but Coen doesn’t care about that either. He doesn’t take shit from the coach or anybody else.
He’s a walking time bomb, ready to detonate.
Perhaps because I’d been thinking about him, or perhaps because there are five minutes until we’re due out on the ice, Coen strolls into the locker room, his gear bag slung over his shoulder. He looks like hell—his hair is a mess, clothes are wrinkled, and he’s got a bruise in the center of his forehead.
As he walks by me, I ask, “You good?”
His head twists my way, and although his eyes might be bloodshot, they’re clear of any intoxicated fog. His speech is smooth and articulate when he says, “I’m totally good. Why?”
I give it to him straight. “You look like shit.”
Coen shrugs and walks toward his cubby but not before stopping in front of Hendrix Bateman, who is fully dressed and scrolling on his phone.
Coen pulls keys from his pocket and jangles them under Hendrix’s nose. He looks up in surprise and catches the keys as Coen drops them. “Thanks for the test drive.”
“What did you think?” Hendrix smiles.
Coen moves to his cubby, drops his bag to the bench. “Drove like a dream. Right up until I ran into the back of another car.”
“What the fuck?” Hendrix snarls as he steps closer to Coen. “You wrecked my fucking car?”
This seems to get everybody’s attention, and the locker room goes still. Everyone knows Hendrix was trying to unload one of his cars—a Porsche he rarely drove.
Coen tilts his head and looks Hendrix in the eye, not an ounce of remorse or apology. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. Insurance will cover it, and I’ll pay the deductible.”
“Did you hurt anybody?” Hendrix growls, taking another step and getting in Coen’s face. Coen straightens up, angles toward him, and pushes out his chest.
“How the fuck would I know if I hurt anyone?”
“You are an unbelievable prick,” Hendrix yells, giving Coen a push to his shoulder.
Immediately, everyone jumps in and pulls the guys apart before they can throw fists.
And then Coen does something I’ll never forget. He shakes off the guys who are holding him and growls, “I’m cool. Let me go.” They step back cautiously. Coen then spreads his arms and does a slow three-sixty, taking note of everybody watching him. He knows he has the attention of the room, and his next words are meant to make clear exactly how he feels. He laughs… a bit maniacal, in my opinion. “Why’s everybody so dour looking? It’s a lovely fucking day. I’m alive. Alive, breathing, and not a puddle of bone and blood and gore splattered on the tarmac.”
I wince as I scan the room for Stone. Luckily, he’s not present to hear the grim reminder of his brother’s death.
I know if he heard that, he’d probably kill Coen.
Expression going dark and flat, Coen brings his gaze back to Hendrix. “I’ll cover the cost of everything, even if I fucking hurt the people who I hit. It’s not something you have to worry about. And why would you be pissed, anyway? I’ll pay you the value of the car, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“That’s not the point,” Hendrix snaps.
“You’re right,” Coen says as he bends over his duffel and calmly sets out his practice gear. “There’s no point to anything really, is there?”
Those words are enough to drive everyone away from him. No one wants to engage in a philosophical discussion with a short-fused, angry man who’s clearly looking for a fight.
Hendrix’s eyes slide to me in question. I’m the one the guys most often look to for advice. I merely give a small shake of my head to indicate now is not the time to get into it further.
Hendrix gives his back to Coen, muttering, “Fucking dick.”
The rest of the team moves away, heading out of the locker room.
I step in closer to Coen and sit on the bench. “Why are you doing this?” I ask quietly.
His eyes refuse to meet mine as he undresses. “Why do you care?” he retorts.
“Because I believe in this team, and I want it to succeed. You’re weighing it down. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Tell me how to help.”
Coen’s neck twists, his eyes pinning on me, and I expect a sneer. Instead, his expression is clouded with pain. “No one can help.”
I consider such a definitive statement before standing up. I lower my voice. “Not true. Many can help. But you have to want it, and I’m not seeing that you want it.”
The pain recedes and anger flares. His lips peel back in an ugly snarl. “You’re right. I don’t want help. I don’t want anything except for you to mind your own fucking business.”
I back away, holding my hands up in surrender. “You got it, brother.”
“Not your brother,” he mutters low, but I don’t address it.
I leave him alone, not because that’s what he wants but because I truly have no clue how to get through to him.