The ice called to him.
After he’d torn up his knee, Ben had sworn he’d never go near a hockey rink again.
And yet there he stood in the shadows, holding on to his cane with white knuckles while he watched some teenagers scrimmage, wishing he could go out there and join them.
“Come on, guys,” the coach barked. “Erikson’s tearing you to shreds out there.”
He followed the coach’s finger to the player with puck. The kid was tall and thin, probably a junior member of the team judging by his lack of muscle mass. But what he lacked in size, he made up for with speed and skill. He handled the puck as well as any player Ben had faced in the NHL, shifting left and then right, throwing his opponent off guard with a deke and slipping past him into the breakaway. One slap shot later, the puck was in the net.
A groan came up from the team as Erikson raised his hands in the air and skated a small victory lap around the rink.
The coach mumbled something under his breath and stared at his clipboard before scribbling a note on it. “That’s six, guys. You’re embarrassing me.”
It wasn’t until Erikson came closer that Ben knew the reason why.
Erikson was girl.
The helmet had concealed her hair, but there was no mistaking the feminine curve of her lips or the thick fringe of her lashes. A pair of matching dimples cut into her cheeks as she gave one of the guys a playful hip check, and an odd feeling of déjà vu washed over him. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t remember why.
His curiosity propelled him from the shadows and down the stairs toward the coach, his knee no longer protesting each step. He waited until the coach finished calling the next play before he asked, “Local team?”
The coach jumped, then gave him a narrow-eyed once over. “I haven’t seen you before.”
Ben smothered a laugh. After years of being recognized everywhere he went, the anonymity was nice for a change. Amazing what losing a playoff beard and getting a haircut could do. He hadn’t worn his hair this short since before he was drafted. “I’m new in town.”
The coach peered closer, and for a second, Ben feared his secret was out. “I know I’ve seen you before. Ever play hockey?”
Ben grinned. “Yeah, just a bit.”
“I thought so. You’re built like a power forward.”
He wasn’t the first coach who’d said that. At six-four and two hundred and forty pounds, he’d always been one of the biggest players on the team, but he lacked the aggressive nature to play that position. Instead, he’d made a successful career of playing goalie. All-Pro teams, Olympic medals, even trips to the Stanley Cup finals.
Until one bad collision twelve weeks ago had ended all that.
He’d retreated to the resort town of Cascade, British Columbia, to lick his wounds, but after a week stuck in his home, the solitude became unbearable. He came down the mountain and drove through the small town where most of the locals lived, winding up at the only thing he knew.
The ice rink.
He stood quietly by the coach and observed the next play. Erikson was on the defensive now. She bit her blades into the ice, catching up to the player with the puck and passing him. With a quick half turn, she was in front, skating backward, and she snatched the puck away as the player stumbled and skidded into the boards. She took it coast to coast, and the puck soared through the biggest five-hole he’d ever seen on a goalie.
The coach threw his clipboard on the bench. “Aw, come on, Watson! You can’t leave a hole like that, especially with her. You want to make amateur league or not?”
Erikson plowed to a stop and helped the goalie up. “Give him a break, Gus. I caught him off guard.”
“You caught him sleeping in his skates.” He paced back and forth, running his fingers through his sparse hair. “All right, that’s enough. Hit the showers.”
“You’re letting them off lightly,” Ben murmured. “My old coach would have had us skating sprints after practice.”
“Yeah, but my boys just took on Erikson, so they’ve been punished enough.”
Ben watched her joke with the boys and give them a few words of encouragement as they skated toward the bench. But when her gaze zeroed in on him, her smile faded, and her blue eyes turned frigid.
His heart thudded from the palpable tension in the air. He racked his mind, trying to remember where he knew her, but drew a blank. Frustration knotted his gut. The docs had warned him that the number of concussions he’d sustained over the years could affect his memory, and this was proof of it.
She turned away. “I’m going to make sure the back door is locked, Gus.”
She skated to the other side of the rink like she was chasing after a free puck.
Gus narrowed his eyes at Ben again. “You two know each other?”
“She looks familiar, but you know how hockey players’ minds can be.” Ben tapped his skull and nodded in the direction Erikson had gone. “She’s good.”
“No kidding.” Gus lifted a bucket of pucks with a grunt. “If she’d been a boy, she’d be playing in the NHL right now.”
“The next Sid Crosby?”
“Ha! More like the next Gordie Howe, complete with the fisticuffs. The girl’s got a temper on her, and if I were you, I’d steer clear of her. She’s not someone you want to dance with.”
“What makes you think I’d be in trouble?”
“I saw that look she gave you.” Gus stepped out onto the ice with the bucket and headed toward the Zamboni. “I’ve known her since she was yay big, and I’ve seen the crap she’s been through. If you’re here to cause her any trouble, then she’s not the only person you need to worry about. We look out for our own.”
Ben stopped short of the ice, staring at it like it was an old nemesis. He wasn’t about to follow Gus. “I’m not here to do that. I can barely remember if I’ve met her before or not.”
“Well, you’re sure asking a lot of questions.” Gus set the bucket down behind the wall with another grunt and climbed up on the Zamboni. “What are you doing here anyway?”
He sighed and stared at his reflection in the ice, barely recognizing himself. “I’m not quite sure.”
“Yeah, well, you need to get going now. I’ve got to do a few laps with this before locking up, and I don’t want to have to worry about you spending the night here.”
“No worries. Just one question—do you know where I can find her?”
“Can’t take hint, can you?” The Zamboni roared to life, and Gus drove it out onto the ice. “If you’re looking for trouble, then you’ll find her at the Sin Bin downtown. Just make sure you’re wearing a cup before engaging her.”
“Will do, and thanks.” Ben turned around and climbed the stairs one by one, leaning on his cane all the way up. He wouldn’t know any peace until he figured out how he knew her.
Next stop: the Sin Bin.
Hailey gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath, but that didn’t steady her rattled nerves like it normally did.
Who’d have thought coming face-to-face with Ben Kelly after nine years would affect her like this? Worse, she had no idea why he was here. It wasn’t like he’d wanted anything to do with her when she’d actually needed him. And now when she was finally getting her life back together, he’d shown up her in her small town.
“Probably schmoozing up at the ski resort,” she muttered and started her beat-up Ford Bronco. After all, that’s where celebrities like him hung out, not down here in the actual town. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t have a little harem of puck bunnies to tend to him while he recovers.”
She’d seen the collision that had taken him out for the rest of the season. Most of Canada had, since the game had been broadcast nationally. The opposing team’s grinder had charged at him, hooking his skates with his stick, and had knocked Ben to the ice. Despite their history, she’d held her breath as he lay there, not moving, his leg bent at a sickening angle. Once he’d finally come around, he’d skated off the ice with assistance, but that was it for him.
The news the next morning listed all the injuries he’d sustained. Concussion. Torn ACL, PCL, and MCL. Tibial fracture. Then the bets had started rolling in on whether or not the starting goalie for the Vancouver Whales would be returning to the team next season, if at all.
Hopefully Gus had given him a get-lost speech and that would be the end of it. Ski season was almost over, and summers in Cascade were usually quiet without the influx of outsiders. He’d probably leave in a couple of weeks, and that would be the last she ever saw of him.
But a squirm deep inside her stomach reminded her she wanted to see him again, if only to give him a piece of her mind after all the shit he’d put her through.
Don’t let him distract you from your goal. Remember your promise to Zach.
She pulled into the parking lot of her dad’s bar and took another cleansing breath in through her nose. This time, it worked. All her anger, her hatred, her frustration flowed out with the air from her lungs. She’d wasted too much time and too many tears over Ben Kelly, and now was not the time to lose focus.
Erikson’s Sin Bin sat right in the heart of town, on the main drag. Complete with a half dozen plasma screen TVs showing the latest games, it was the favorite watering hole for the locals. The Stanley Cup playoffs were in full swing, so the place would be packed tonight. The Whales were also playing, which meant the crowd would be that much more invested in the game. And if the Whales won, then her tips would be up.
She went in through the kitchen and grabbed her apron from under the bar. “Hey, Pop, you ready for tonight?”
“Got seven cases of Labatt.” Her father leaned over and placed a kiss on her cheek. She was built like him, tall and lean, with the same bright blue eyes and blond hair. “How was practice today?”
Besides the fact the man who’d refused to acknowledge my existence two years ago had showed up?
“I roughed them up a bit,” she said after a moment’s pause. No need to tell him about Ben. Her dad would probably roll up his sleeves and beat the crap out of him if he knew.
“Six to nothing.”
“That’s my girl. You keep playing like that, and the Canadian team’s bound to offer you a place.”
“First I’ve got to convince them to give me a tryout.” At twenty-seven, she was a bit older than the average player, but she was still in fantastic shape and could outplay anyone she knew. “Gus forgot his camera today, but he’ll record the next scrimmage.”
“And don’t forget Monday’s league game, either.” He ruffled her hair, pulling some of it free from her ponytail, before crossing the bar to see to a customer.
“Hailey, darlin’,” her stepmother, Cindy, called from the kitchen in her thick Texas drawl, “do you mind getting the drink order for the man at table twelve? I’m trying to get fourteen’s order out.”
One quick peek into the kitchen revealed the petite woman was carefully trying to balance four platters of wings and potato skins. “Can I help you with those?”
“Nope, I got ‘em. Just get twelve started, and I’ll be by in a few minutes to see if he wants anything to eat.”
The Sin Bin was a true family-run business. Her father had opened it shortly after her older brother was born, and the whole family pitched in to keep it running. Her brother had moved away ten years ago to work in Toronto, but that was just about the time Cindy had showed up in town to take over his shifts. On busy nights like tonight, they were all there. Her dad stayed behind the bar while she and Cindy split the tables.
Twelve was a small corner booth, usually occupied by someone not entirely into the game since it had the worst view of the TVs. A lone man sat there, his back to the rest of the bar while he bent over his iPad. He was big, powerfully built with short black hair, and wore a fine-gauge sweater that hugged his broad shoulders. Definitely not one of the locals.
She approached the table and pulled her pen and notepad from her apron pocket. “Can I get you started on anything to drink?”
He looked up, and her heart kicked into overdrive as soon as she saw his slate-blue eyes.
Her throat tightened, which was a small blessing. It was the only thing that kept her from calling him a dozen four-letter words.
He held up the display card on the end of the table. “You’re truly serving Labatt for a loonie?”
She swallowed, pushing the lump of anger out of her throat and into her stomach, where it burned with more fire than Cindy’s extra-spicy Buffalo wings. Two could play this nonchalant game of I don’t know who the hell you are. “Yep, but only when the Whales are playing.”
A cheer rose from the other side of the bar as the TV showed the the team skating out onto the ice.
“It looks like the game’s about to start,” he said.
She squeezed her pen until it started to bend in the middle. “So do you want one or not?”
He set the card down, his eyes never leaving hers. “Sure, why not?”
“Fine. Cindy will be over in a few minutes to get the rest of your order.” She shoved her pad and pen into her apron and spun around on her heel. He had a lot of nerve showing up here, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing how much he got under her skin.
She grabbed a bottle out of the cooler and popped the lid off, leaving it on the bar. “Here’s twelve’s order.”
“Aren’t you going to take it to him?” her dad asked.
“No.” As far as she was concerned, he could rot in hell.