Have you discovered the awesomeness that is Lynda Aicher yet? No? Well then here’s your chance. Her novels are full of smoking hot heroes, sassy heroines (at least I think so) and pages so steamy I sometimes wonder if my kindle is going to go up in flames. In her latest book Back in Play Aicher takes us to the hockey rink and delivers enough steam to melt the ice.
For Minnesota Glaciers captain Scott Walters, skating on a bum knee—and self-medicating to keep skating on it—is all part of the game. That the painkillers he’s eating prevent him from having meaningful relationships is just one more sacrifice in a lifetime of them. He’s worked too hard to let his image be ruined by injury or dependency, so he hides the pain and fakes the rest—a girlfriend would only complicate matters.
High school teacher Rachel Fielding never needed a man in her life, but she also never intended to grow old alone. When she meets Scott while visiting her brother, she’s intrigued to find herself wanting him in her bed. For hours at a time, as often as possible. Scott is a giver, and just the memory of his attentions is enough to drive her crazy. Anything long-term is out of the question, though—the pills she finds in Scott’s house indicate he’s struggling with a lot more than growing older in a young man’s game.
When what starts out as a what-the-hell weeklong fling turns into Scott and Rachel exploring each other outside the bedroom, Rachel hesitates. But Scott asks for her support to break his addiction, and hearing him admit his secrets has her ignoring her own rules—until he breaks her heart. With the Glaciers refusing to renew his contract and his future with Rachel uncertain, Scott has some big decisions to make and a lot to prove—especially to himself.
Music rolled through the room on a beat that had a majority of the drunk hockey players swarming the small dance floor, hips gyrating, arms swinging, hapless of who they were hitting. An overabundance of love flowed through the group. Hugs and sloppy cheek kisses were given freely with more than a few “I love you, man” included.
Scott Walters propped his feet on an empty chair and took a sip of his pop, smirk hidden behind the glass. Most of the inebriated fools had discarded their suit jackets and ties, and a few even had some legitimate moves beside the basic bump and sway. It wasn’t often the team had a chance to let loose like this, not with the grind of an eighty-plus game season.
But the season was over, the national championship out of their reach for another year. The four-to-two series loss just over a week ago had been a devastating disappointment. One that still sucked hard for all of them. A lot of the guys would be heading out soon for wherever they called home. Most would’ve already been gone if it wasn’t for this wedding. This was a last hurrah, a fuck-it-sucks-we-lost and congratulations all in one.
He’d miss this. These guys.
Shit. He looked away. Tightness clamped down on his throat in another surprise attack. It’d happened way too often that day. A day he was supposed to be celebrating. But his duties as best man were officially over and his acting skills were flagging along with his will.
Holden Hauke, right winger and rising team star, had done the impossible and married the stunning PR rep Vanessa Delcour earlier that afternoon. By some feat of patience and determination, the man had managed to break through her renowned Ice Queen shell and in doing so had found a woman who loved him completely like he did her.
Scott caught a glimpse of the happy couple moving together in the middle of the dance floor and forced a swallow through the constriction that remained. With her glossy black hair falling in straight locks against her fitted white dress, and Holden in his black tux, the two were a classic vision of wedding perfection—if that actually existed.
He shrugged off his cynicism, lifted his glass in a lonely toast to the couple and finished off his Coke. The ice cubes clinked in the glass when he shook it in search of the last bit of liquid. Going to the bar for a refill would provide too much of a temptation to get something stronger.
“Hey, Wally,” Henrik Grenick boomed a second before his hand slammed down on Scott’s shoulder. “Why aren’t you out there?” He motioned toward the dance floor, his drink spilling over the edge of the glass.
Scott jerked away just in time to save his tux pants from a dousing of what he guessed was rum and Coke, based on the scent coming from the still-swinging glass. He glanced up at the man looming over him, another pang kicking him in the gut. The lumbering defenseman was gruff, a bit obtuse on some things and one of the most loyal friends he had.
“Probably the same reason you’re not,” Scott said, looking back to the group that was now swaying in disjointed unison, arm in arm in a large circle hug around the wedding couple. Somewhere over the years of almost nightly beatings, daily workouts, muscle strains, pulls, bruises and concussions, hockey had sucked that life out of him. Or maybe it was just the natural progression of age. He blamed both for his lack of energy and inability to let loose anymore.
Mixed in with the Glaciers’ players were friends and family of the wedding couple, ones he mostly knew at least by face if not by name. Family—that was what his teammates were to him. He spent more time with them than his own blood relations. Than anyone else. It’d been that way since he’d gone pro at nineteen and moved to Florida to play for his first professional team.
Damn. He squeezed his eyes closed until the stinging behind his eyelids subsided. What was wrong with him tonight?
Grenick swung a chair around and plopped down heavily into it, his grunt mixed with a sigh that Scott understood. “Those kids have more energy than me,” Grenick said, confirming Scott’s assumption.
“Give them time.” At thirty-four, Scott was practically a dinosaur in the sport. “That was us once.” He pointed at the group that was now doing jumping chest bumps in a disguised challenge over standing vertical height leaps.
“Shit. Now you’re making me feel old.”
“Naw, it’s hockey that did that.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Grenick lifted his glass and Scott clinked his to it. Grenick arched a brow at the empty state of Scott’s glass then threw back a long drink from his.
That drink looked good. Too good. Scott turned away before his mouth started to water, absently rubbing the inside of his knee around the edge of the brace that encased it. The pain that constantly radiated from it seemed to intensify with the discussion of the game. He should be used to it after so many years. Yeah, right. That was kind of like saying someone should be used to losing his arm after a couple of years.
A low curse came from Grenick, and Scott jerked his head up, frowning. “What?”
The scowl wiped from the other man’s forehead a second before he slammed the last of his drink. A stiff smile pulled on his lips. “I’ve been found.”
Scott spotted a leggy brunette heading their way, her determined stride unhindered by the platform heels and thigh-hugging miniskirt. Her chin was lifted in that perpetual tilt that managed to make him feel like he was being looked down upon, even if he was physically taller.
“What’d you do?” Scott asked.
Grenick shrugged. “Who knows?” He stood, adjusted his jacket and cracked his neck. “Best to head it off though.” He strode away to sweep his current girlfriend into a quick spin and dip that only deepened her scowl when she straightened.
She jabbed a finger at Henrik’s chest then whipped around and stalked toward the exit, Henrik’s hand firmly in hers as she dragged him away. Henrik trudged along without complaint. He managed a shout and wave at Hauke before he left, but there was no pause in his stride.
And that was why Scott avoided girlfriends. They always came with expectations and no instructions.
Fuck. He shook off the bad memories before they took hold. Weddings had a way of dragging up the past, along with the “what ifs” and “thank fucks” that’d taken years to appreciate.
He slipped the mint case out of his pocket, plucked up two pain pills and swallowed them dry. They should kick in soon, which may give him the relief and boost he needed to drag his ass onto the dance floor. If only they could provide the motivation too.
A raucous roar went up as Vanessa was lifted onto the shoulders of two of the younger guys. Her hands were fisted in the hair of both men and a devious smile lit her face as she stared at Hauke, who stood in front of them. Beneath her, the hard grit of the men’s teeth said exactly how gentle she was being. Or not.
Scott’s laugh burst from him in a sharp jolt that managed to alleviate some of his sullenness. Vanessa and Holden were a match that worked in ways Scott understood but didn’t. The woman made his balls shrink in fear at her sharp tongue and even sharper claws, but Hauke actually reveled in that very thing.
Hauke reached for her, and she leaned forward to fall into her husband’s arms, her smile warming to the one she reserved for him alone. In that moment Scott could clearly see the ballbuster in her, along with the trust and bond that held the two together.
Envy snuck in so quickly he didn’t have time to prepare for the hit. The hard jab nailed him in the chest somewhere near his heart and sucked the air from his lungs. Son of a bitch. Where’d that come from? He rubbed his ribs, the ache easing with each deep breath.
The last thing he needed was more pain. He had no idea why Hauke would seek it out with Vanessa via the BDSM community when he got a dose of it every time he stepped onto the ice.
To each their own though. There was too much judgment in the world over things that were nobody’s business except the participants.
He munched on an ice cube and let his gaze wander over the rest of the guests. A large collection of attendees were from the Glaciers’ organization, either players or staff. The annual fundraiser carnival the Glaciers supported at the end of August for a local youth center had allowed him to become acquainted with a lot of the other people in attendance.
Would the carnival be another thing he missed out on? He couldn’t think about that. It wouldn’t help his frame of mind or change the situation.
Instead he focused on the faces he didn’t recognize. There were more than a few, but only one he kept returning to. Her black hair was styled in a wispy array around her narrow face, the ends curled up and tipped in a striking shade of dark blue that made him smile. It was fun. Free. A subtle statement and defiance all in one.
Her dress was a sleeveless number that clasped in a halter around her neck to display toned shoulders and arms. Reminiscent of the twenties flapper style, it draped over her chest in layers of fringe that teased instead of clung to her form, ending in a shifting dance around her thighs. Long legs drew his eyes down to strappy silver heels that were sleek without being obnoxiously tall.
But it was her smile that entrapped him. It was wide and freely given. With lips colored a deep red and dark eyes outlined with long lashes and deft makeup, her features were a mix between classic beauty and edgy rebellion.
He’d first caught sight of her at the ceremony, where she’d sat beside the big ex-military guy with a buzz cut named Rock and his partner, Carter. His quick double take had stunned him, the reaction a rarity for him.
Over the course of the night he’d managed to notice too many things about her. Like how she touched with ease. A gentle brush on the arm, hand, shoulder of whomever she talked to. It was effortless and probably unnoticed by her. Or her warm charm that had everyone smiling back at her. And her movements that were graceful without being fluttery. Was she a professional dancer? He could easily picture it.
Why he noticed these things was a mystery. Or not.
He pressed his fingers to his eyes and cut off the vision of her being swirled around the dance floor by an elegant Carter. The man had a face that had never met the end of a hockey stick, fist or elbow. Unlike Scott’s own face.
Not that it really mattered. It wasn’t like he was going to make a move on her. He’d stopped picking up women not long after he’d reinjured his knee for the fourth time. That was two years back. The cocktail of medications he’d been living on since then allowed him to skate but did shit for his sex life. Given a choice between playing and fucking, he’d picked the obvious one.
“You okay, Scott?”
Scott dropped his hands, a smile secured to his face when he met the worried frown of the Glaciers’ owner, Vincent Segar.
“Just fine, thanks.” He made to stand, but the man waved him off and took the seat Grenick had vacated. Nerves raced through Scott to twist in his stomach. He sat up, feet dropping to the ground. “It’s a nice event.” He nodded toward the general area of the party in an attempt to take the focus off himself.
“It is.” Segar agreed with a nod. He crossed his arms over his chest, shoulders back, spine straight. No slouching for him. Or removing his tie and jacket. The thick gray hair that’d only receded slightly and the lines that etched out the edges of his eyes lent to the aura of power he effortlessly commanded. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“What’s not to enjoy?” It was an evasive answer, and Scott rushed to change the focus again. “I saw you dancing with Vanessa earlier.”
A small smile removed the sternness from the man’s express. “It’s good to see her happy.” He shifted his attention then, his penetrating gaze digging into Scott. “I’d like to see that for everyone in my organization.”
Scott swallowed and numbly agreed. Segar was a hard-driving businessman who could wring the best deal out of anything he wanted. However he managed his business with an honest care that extended to everyone who worked for him. Players were commodities in the pro-sports business, but Segar was an owner who still treated them like men.
“It’s been a while since I could say that about you.”
There was no evading the narrow-eyed assessment from the man, so Scott didn’t try. Maybe he was too tired to dodge the truth. And maybe he wanted to admit the truth just once. For one weak moment.
Then it passed.
The pills were kicking in to snake the worry from his system. Tension slipped from his muscles in a gentle wave so familiar he could tick off the minutes until the pain disappeared and the mellow haze of contentment settled in. Was that happiness? It was the closest he’d come to the emotion in a long time—except when he was on the ice.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Scott finally answered. A lazy smile he’d perfected back in high school backed up his words.
The lines between Segar’s brows deepened with his frown. “Maybe not, but I do.” His lips thinned. “Meet me Monday. Just the two of us. We need to talk.”
Scott’s heart did a rapid skip and lunge that sucked the air from his chest. The season was over, his contract expired and with eleven days until free agency opened on July first, the Glaciers had yet to make him an extension offer.
His agent had at least three backup deals in the works with other teams, which meant his career wasn’t over—unless he wanted it to be.
“Sure,” Scott said. It would’ve been easy to decline and blame it on his agent, who’d be pissed if he found out about the meeting. There were too many negotiation strategies in play, and the chance of messing something up was high. It was his life though. His career and, despite the intuition that said he might regret taking the meeting, a stronger one said he shouldn’t miss it.
Segar nodded. “Good.” He rose. “Ten at Harriet Park? The west lot.” It was a large park along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, close to the Glaciers’ offices. It had a nice path that linked with the river one. Chances were it’d be quiet on a weekday morning and free of sports fans.
Segar waited for an agreement then walked away. Scott assumed the meeting was about his contract, but it could be something else. And what else was there? Shit. He scrubbed his face and eyed the bar with longing. A chaser would obliterate the worries the pain pills missed.
He shoved to a stand, flexed his right knee a few times to work the stiffness out and made his way across the room, away from the bar. Mixing drugs was stupid and dangerous, especially given his mood, and he refused to go there. He’d seen too many men in pro sports take that crazy, dangerous path on the road to addiction.
And he wasn’t an addict.
Dylan Rylie cut off his escape near the exit. “You taking off?” He brushed his hair back, his grin lighter since his girlfriend’s return almost a month ago, and his hip injury was pretty much healed. Scott envied the man. Rylie had so much to look forward to, both in life and the sport, yet he didn’t begrudge him any of it.
He’d been there once, his future laid open, waiting to be defined. Being back at that same point ten years later wasn’t nearly as exciting.
“Nah.” He motioned out the door. “Just getting some air.” And hunting down a vending machine. There had to be one somewhere in the hotel.
“Cool.” Rylie leaned in. “Rumors are flying, you know?” He glanced around, but no one was close enough to hear them. “Over your contract. Or lack of one. So…” He frowned. “Are you leaving?”
The question held a note of concern that managed to mediate the invasive edge. That and the honest worry in Rylie’s eyes had saliva forming. A shot of liquor would obliterate his troubles.
The immediate instinct to brush Rylie off was curbed by that razor-sharp want that had him running from the bar. Over the last three months he’d found himself confiding things to Rylie that he’d kept from everyone else. Why? He had no clue. Company inmisery when Rylie was injured and missing Samantha? Maybe. A desire to keep the younger man from making the mistakes he had? Possibly. The need to unburden a bit of his own pain on someone instead of a bottle? Probably.
He motioned Rylie into the hallway. Contract details weren’t something most guys shared when they were in process. It was one of the few things that wasn’t public knowledge.
Final deals were opened and examined in a way no other business allowed. For some reason, people thought they had a right to know how much players earned when they’d be offended if they were asked to publicly reveal their income. However, salary caps had made it pretty much mandatory without thought to how the open knowledge affected the players.
Grudges, expectations, jealousy and resentment were just a few of the emotions that burdened every player at some point in his career. Even if they wouldn’t admit it.
He stopped a ways from the door, shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned on the wall, head sagging back like a weight he was too tired to hold up. The lights were annoying, so he closed his eyes and absorbed the darkness.
Rylie settled in beside him but didn’t push with more questions. The expectation hung between them though. Scott hadn’t brought the man out here to simply bask in the relative quiet.
“You ever wish you’d done something different with your life?” he asked, not really sure where he was going with the question.
“Nope.” Rylie’s reply was quick. No hesitation. “You?”
Did he? “Sometimes.” The admittance was low. It felt wrong to begrudge what so many strived for and never obtained. “Not often,” he backtracked. “Shit. Forget it.” He shoved away from the wall, nudging Rylie in the arm. “Nothing’s finalized yet.”
Rylie didn’t fall for Scott’s smile though. His eyes narrowed. “Is retirement still on the table?”
Questions like that had Scott regretting opening up to the man awhile back. This was why he kept his mouth shut and his burdens hidden. Was he really ready to leave hockey behind when it was all he’d ever known? Could his body withstand another year or two of the sport? It had to if he wanted his name on the national championship trophy.
His shrug was his answer. Hell, he had just over a week to decide what the fuck he was going to do with the rest of his life. A decision he’d been delaying the entire season.
“You know we’d support whatever you decide.”
“Even if I play for another team?”
“Of course. That’s part of the game.” Rylie straightened. “You have to look out for yourself because no one else is. Do what’s right for you. Your friends will be there.”
And here was the young guy tutoring the old man. His advice was exactly like what Scott had given to more than one player over the years. Guess it was easier to say than do.
“Thanks,” he said. It was always good to hear what he hoped was true. “Now go find that gorgeous woman you got back before she picks up another guy.”
Rylie’s laugher was deep and real. Something Scott experienced so rarely now his envy raced back to grip his chest with shocking force. Apparently, the drugs hadn’t sunk in deep enough to dull that emotion. How did all his friends find the love that’d always avoided him? Or had he avoided it?
“She would just to spite me if she thought I was out here with a bunny.” Rylie shook his head, smile still in place. “But she trusts me, and I’m not about to do something stupid to fuck that up.”
“Yeah?” Scott raised his brows. “What about next season? On the road? After this shiny newness wears off and you’re lonely and tired? Will you be saying the same thing then?” He was being an ass, digging for trouble before it existed. Yet many relationships were destroyed on the road.
Rylie’s smile faded as he went still. Silence stretched between them, an open opportunity for Scott to apologize. Back off and let the subject go. It wasn’t the time or place for the downer topic. Yet he kept his mouth shut, eyes held on Rylie’s.
“I can’t speak on something that hasn’t happened,” Rylie finally said, somber notes holding his voice low. “But I know what I’ll lose if I cheat on Samantha, and that’s more valuable to me than any meaningless fuck.
Truth. It rang through in his conviction and still posture. He stood there, almost daring Scott to contradict him.
And there was the reason why he hadn’t given up completely on the whole girlfriend idea. The right one inspired a loyalty and love that made all of the other bullshit in life manageable.
“Good for you.” Scott meant it. He wasn’t so jaded as to wish his sorry state of loneliness on anyone else. “Remember that when things get hard.”
“I will.” No doubts or hedging. Rylie believed what he said. Maybe the man really had outgrown his party years.
“I need to find the restroom,” Scott said, moving away. Thankfully, guys didn’t pee in groups.
Rylie slugged him in the arm. “Find me later. And don’t forget rink time starts on Monday.”
One week. That was the extent of their break from hockey since they’d gone so deep into the playoffs. “I’ll be there.” Scott’s promise could be broken later if things changed. It wasn’t like the cost of the private ice time the four guys split mattered to him.
And what did matter to him? That was the answer he couldn’t pin down.