Authors: Brenda Rothert
[My gloves hadn’t even hit the ice before I started swinging. Of all the fucking guys to have to start a fight with, it had to be Theo St. James. He was a monster of a man who made me see stars the last time we traded punches on the ice.
The one thing I had on him was speed, and I used it to my advantage. The muscles in my hands burned from the strain of gripping a fistful of his sweater with one hand while I swung with the other. I got in the first hit, and the second.
I dodged back as his massive fist flew toward my face, but he still made contact. The pain radiated from my eye socket outward. Fucking hell, it hurt.
“You dumb shit,” Theo muttered. “You wanted it, now you’ve got it.”
His next blow landed on my head when I moved my face away. I pulled on his sweater and delivered several into his stomach.
This wasn’t a fight I could afford to lose. I’d started it, chirping at Theo though it wasn’t even my style. But I’d had no choice. This was it. Our season was on the line, and I was fighting with everything I had to keep it alive.
My teammates were dragging ass, and I was the closest thing we had to an enforcer. It was my job to shake things up and return the momentum to our side.
And if my face got fucked up in the process … well, it wouldn’t be the first time. It always healed anyway.
I tasted blood by the time the ref pulled us apart, but I’d held my own. I shook my head, trying to regain clarity. Theo was a beast. Strictly an enforcer. Our team didn’t have one of those anymore. I was expected to be equal parts forward and enforcer.
We were down 4-2, and now my line needed to make a resurgence. I switched my mind back into game mode, suppressing the fire in my veins from the fight.
The rest of the game flew by in a blur. I passed and held my breath as my teammate Rance shot the puck, which slid past the side of the net, missing it by just a couple inches. The intensity of the home crowd grew stronger as the clock ticked down to its final seconds. Their team was about to win it all.
I never gave up. Not until the clock was out. Nothing pissed me off like flat play from teammates who’d given up. But when the crowd exploded, my breath left me in a rush. It was over.
Our team trainer, Dell, approached me with a white cloth in her hand. I let her swipe it across my brow to clean the blood off before heading for the locker room.
The locker room was full, but silent. Several of us were battling injuries, and we were all worn down. Making the playoffs had boosted us into dragging our asses out there though, injured or not. I’d wanted this win, with these guys by my side. Our captain, Ryke, had led us here and I was crushed we’d let him down.
My niece and nephew were watching on TV, and they were probably heartbroken. Those two were my biggest fans.
The longer I sat on the wooden bench, the deeper reality set in. The season was over. This was my fifth one in the NHL, and I’d never made it this far. One of my teammates was retiring, and this was his last game. Hell of a note. I was only 27—I’d have more chances.
I got up and undressed, letting my pads fall to the ground. Time for an ice bath. I took at least one a day anymore. My muscle strains and bruises were bearable at the start of a game, but I was broken down by the end.
My mind shifted from hockey to my family. I was driving home to Henley, Indiana as soon as we landed in Chicago tomorrow. It was going to be a low-key offseason with my mom, sister, niece and nephew.
As I sank into the ice-filled tub, I shuddered. Whether it was from the chill of the ice or the thought of running into my ex-girlfriend again, I wasn’t sure.
The tree-lined streets of my hometown brought on a wave of nostalgia. It was my first time coming home for more than a day or two since my dad died ten months ago. Staying at Mom’s house would only reinforce his absence, but she was looking forward to having me around.
Normally I’d be spending this summer reconnecting with old friends, but this one was different. My girlfriend of almost two years, Amy, had cheated on me with my best friend from high school, Brett, six months ago. Brett and I hadn’t spoken since.
I’d had a hard time believing it, but it was my sister Olivia who eventually convinced me it was true. When Amy finally admitted it, she begged me to forgive her. But fuck that. I’d been faithful, even with temptation at every turn on the road.
It’d hurt like hell at the time, but now I was over it. Hopefully she’d moved on, too. I’d blocked her number a week after our breakup when she wouldn’t stop blowing up my phone with texts.
I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home, a brick ranch with flowers lining the sidewalks. My mom stepped onto the front porch as I got out of the car.
“Orion!” She jogged over and wrapped her arms around me. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
“Me too, Ma. You look good.”
She stepped back and waved a hand. “I’ve just been going to yoga at the Y in the mornings.” She reached for my bruised face, her brow furrowed.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Surprised it’s not worse. Theo’s a beast.”
“Well, I thought he was excessively rough,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry about the game.”
I sighed, walking around to my trunk to grab my bags. “Yeah, thanks.”
“Are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich.”
“A sandwich would be good.”
I was walking behind her to the front door when I looked up and saw leaves hanging over the edge of the gutter on the front of the house.
“Looks like your gutters need cleaning,” I said. “Did you get that done last fall?”
She shook her head silently. My dad had taken a lot of pride in the house and yard, and that had been one of the jobs he broke out the ladder for a couple times a year.
“I’ll do it,” I said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “I’ll be around so much this summer you’ll be sick of me.”
“Not possible,” she said, smiling. “Thanks for coming. I know you probably have more exciting options than staying in your old basement bedroom this summer.”
“I’m glad to be home, Ma. It’s all good.”
“Well, Olivia and the kids are looking forward to seeing you.”
I hadn’t seen my sister in way too long. I set my bags down and headed into the kitchen for a drink. “How’s she doing? Any word from Joe?”
Mom scoffed and shook her head. “Nothing. He’d better not show his miserable face at this house. What kind of a man leaves his wife and children? And just a couple months after she’d lost her father?”
“Joe’s a piece of shit. I always thought so.”
Mom leaned against the kitchen counter, sighing. Had her hair been that gray last time I saw her?
“Drew and Chloe are having a hard time with it. It’s so hard to find the right words to explain things without making him sound like a bad guy.”
I arched my brows and gave her a look. “He
a bad guy.”
“I know, but you don’t say that to the kids. He’s their father.”
“Yeah. I’m planning to spend time with them this summer. Hopefully that’ll help.”
“Of course it will.” She opened the fridge and took out some lunchmeat and cheese. “They’re coming over tonight, actually. I take care of them when Liv has a night class.”
“Can’t wait to see ‘em.”
“Hmm.” She pulled out a small carton of milk, shaking it. “I didn’t know I was this low.”
“I don’t need milk.”
“For the kids. Can you run to the Supersaver and pick up a gallon?”
“My purse is on the counter,” she said absently.
I grinned at her. “Thanks, but I don’t need your money.”
“Oh.” She laughed and shook her head. “That’s right. Sometimes I forget my son is rich and famous.”
“I don’t know about that. The money’s good, but I’m not a superstar or anything.”
She pointed a butter knife in my direction as I headed for the door. “You absolutely are. The Dugout was full of people wearing your jersey and watching the game last night.”
I groaned. Great. Nothing like letting an entire town down.
“Be right back,” I said before heading out to my car.
It was a quick drive to the Henley Supersaver, the most popular grocery store in our small town. I got a couple looks on the way in, but no one stopped me to talk about the game.
I scanned the cartons and jugs lined up behind the glass doors. Skim, one percent, two percent, whole, chocolate. I furrowed my brow and stared. What did kids drink? I had no idea. I grabbed a gallon of two percent and a carton of chocolate and headed for the checkout.
I got in the shortest line, where an older woman with a helmet of gray curls was griping at the cashier.
“Those pork chops are buy one, get one free, and you charged me for both of them,” she said sharply.
“I’m sorry, but that special ended yesterday,” the cashier said, reaching for the ad near her register.
“It ends today,” the woman said, aggravated. “The ad said
Monday, and since this is Monday, I expect it to be honored. Where’s your manager?”
“I can get her if you’d like, but today is Tuesday, ma’am,” the cashier said. I glanced up and met her eyes sympathetically. She looked away quickly, but I kept my gaze fixed on her. She was so familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
Henley was one of those towns where everyone knew everyone. I’d come up with her name in a few seconds.
The older woman tore her receipt from the cashier’s hand and stomped away. I smiled and arched my brows as the cashier reached for the milk.
“Do kids drink two percent?” I asked. “This is for my niece and nephew.”
“Some do.” She scanned the milk and turned to put it in a sack. I glanced at her name tag. Samara. Such an unusual name, so why could I still not place her?
“Yeah, I got the chocolate as a backup,” I said. “I figure all kids like it.”
“Seven dollars and sixty-eight cents,” she said, disinterested. I met her eyes again, and it hit me.
“Sam,” I said, grinning. “Holy shit, we went to school together. And wow, you look great.”
Her cheeks reddened. “Yeah … um, thanks.”
“You look so different. Good different.”
Her chestnut brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, allowing me a nice view of her high cheekbones and hazel eyes. She was a far cry from the teenager I remembered with black hair and thick layers of black eyeliner. Her hair had hung over her face so much I didn’t think I’d ever actually seen all of it until right now.
“It’s seven sixty-eight,” she said with an expectant look. I looked over my shoulder to see if I was holding up her line, but there was no one there.
“I’m Orion Caldwell. We had a class together.”
“I know who you are.”
There was a moment of silence and I cleared my throat. “So how’ve you been?”
She obviously didn’t like me, which confused the hell out of me. I’d never been an asshole in high school. I pulled out my wallet and got out my debit card, scanning it.
“Yeah, so I’m good,” I muttered. “I didn’t get into a bar fight or anything—” I gestured at my black eye, “—I play hockey.”
She handed over my receipt and pushed the bags of milk at me. My cue to leave.
“Okay, so it was good seeing you,” I said. “Have a good day.”
“Thanks for shopping at the Supersaver,” she said, with all the inflection of a robot.
My confusion grew as I walked to the parking lot. What was with the chip on her shoulder? I’d gotten along with everyone in high school, and when I ran into people back home, we always caught up.
But Samara and I hadn’t spoken in high school. We’d run in different crowds. Her small group of friends had been edgy. They dressed all in black and looked pissed off all the time.
I set the grocery sacks on the passenger seat of my car and headed home, shaking off her indifference. A grin spread across my face as I thought about seeing Drew and Chloe. It wasn’t possible to be in a shitty mood around them.
It was the first frosting golf ball I’d ever seen, and damned if it wasn’t a good one. I leaned my head back a few inches, admiring the design I’d piped onto the sheet cake. The blue frosting tee and blades of green frosting grass were nice touches.
“Lemme see,” said Liz, the manager of the Supersaver bakery. She smacked her bubble gum next to my ear as she leaned forward. “Love that. Perfect golf tournament dessert.”
She squeezed my shoulder and I froze, reminding myself not to jerk away. I’d been working in the bakery for nearly a year now, but she’d only recently started with the reassuring squeezes that were actually anything but reassuring to me. She didn’t know that though.
“Thanks for helping me finish up these orders,” she said, turning back to the cookie she was piping frosting onto. “Guess that new bakery downtown isn’t taking any of our business, huh? We’ve got more orders than we can keep up with.”
I started on the wording for my cake, tuning Liz out. Listening to someone talk while writing words on a cake was a good way to write the wrong thing. And Liz, well … she started talking from the second we started work at 6 AM.