Where I live October means a couple of things, the leaves are changing, we eat, sleep and drink football, and our weather is bipolar and schizophrenic. There’s also this other really cool thing that happens. Hockey season has started. To celebrate the start of hockey we’re sharing an excerpt from a hockey romance. Over on Facebook there’s a page, International Hockey Romance Month.
Lorelai Kelly was mere inches from her Olympic goal, but a broken ankle landing a triple axel in the spotlight forced her to delay the gold medal hunt another four years. Now she’s starring in the Sin City on Ice show to make ends meet and focused on a comeback that keeps eluding her grasp.
Dylan gained national attention in his early teens and went on to become the NHL’s youngest captain and leading scorer in his second season. He breathed new life into a sport that had been dying in the States, but it’s lonely at the top. Now the captain of the Vegas Sinners team is feeling the pressure and looking for something more.
America’s ice princess might be the only one who can help his current slump—and Dylan’s way of expressing thanks could undermine everything Lori has worked for. Can two people who spend their lives on the ice thaw just enough to let each other in?
Lori’s apartment was a short drive from the arena, and traffic was light. She went in through the underground entrance reserved for athletes and staff with the electronic passkey around her neck and stared at the double doors at the end of the hall. The fastest way to the ice was through the Sinners locker room. Were they there this morning? She tried to keep a mental calendar of their schedule for this exact reason but couldn’t remember. Better safe than sorry. She turned down the corridor to her right and followed it around to the next rink entrance. About ten yards before the opening, she heard shouts. And skates. And sticks. Damn.
She sighed through her teeth and trudged ahead but stuck to the shadows. She couldn’t very well demand the ice. The players owned it as much as she did, though she would never admit that to one of them. Especially not the arrogant ass from yesterday. Emerging, she stayed close to the stadium seats and folded her arms.
Thoughts of biding her time at the coffee shop across the street evaporated, and the hinge in her jaw loosened. True, these guys were weighted down with bulky pads and oversized jerseys, but they glided. She’d thought hockey would be stilted, stop and start. Violent. Crude like the snippets of games she’d caught on TV while flipping channels. But this, she’d never expected.
In this scrimmage, the players flowed around each other like water, their movements fluid. Mesmerizing. One player zipped by the glass closest to her, and the number on his back made her heart hiccup. Cole. Dylan Cole. Her fingernails dug into her palms. Ass.
But she forgot his criticisms from the other day as she watched him take control of the puck and wind his way toward the other end. Opposing players tried their best to get in his path, but he dodged them with unbelievable balance and poise. At one point, two players were coming at him from opposite sides, looking to make a Dylan sandwich, and he jumped through the middle at the last possible second, landing on one skate and one knee. Then, he proceeded to dive forward, extending his stick as far as his arm would allow and used the last of his momentum to crack the puck around the goalie and into the net. Even though they had to be used to playing with him, his teammates looked at each other, bug-eyed and open-mouthed.
“Show off,” she muttered. But holy crap.
She felt a pair of eyes on her. Looking over at the players’ bench, she locked stares with the coach. The woman smiled, amused, and motioned her over.
For a minute, she stood frozen. The coach gestured again, so Lori put one boot in front of the other and climbed across the rows of seats until she reached a folding chair next to the Plexiglas of the players’ box. “Sorry. I’m early for my practice. I didn’t know—“
“It’s all right.” The woman’s voice trilled high and lilting, completely unexpected. “I’m Nealy Windham. I’ve seen your picture around the arena. Don’t keep up with figure skating, but I admire your dedication.” She lifted her voice. “Some of the girls on my team could learn from you.” A few players waved her off. The rest didn’t appear to hear. Nealy shook her head and turned back.” Pre-season starts tomorrow, and I wanted to sneak in an extra practice. Besides, you’re admiring my players; that means I’m doing a good job.”
“Oh, I wasn’t…” Lori thought about the pride-saving denial and weighed it against the easy truth that would make the coach happy. This was the nicest any non-family member had been to her in years. No friends in figure skating. Only competition. “Okay, I was admiring. They’re impressive. I didn’t know hockey players could be so…”
“Graceful? Not many people know that about this sport. Cole in particular, eh?”
“Ah…” She pressed her lips together in the middle of another denial. The coach wasn’t necessarily insinuating that she’d been pining after Dylan. The whole world considered Dylan Cole to be the next Wayne Gretzky. If she disagreed, wouldn’t that be protesting too much? “He is good. But don’t tell him I said that.” The amendment came out in a rush, making the coach laugh.
The petite woman winked at her then returned to studying the action on ice. “Said what?”
Lori let out a puff of breath and relaxed in the folding chair. As the team recuperated from the show-stopping goal, they began to notice her presence. At first it was one, then two. Then the pointing and nudging started, and soon they were all looking at her. Like a zoo exhibit. The coach cleared her throat and raised her tinny voice. “Let’s get back to it. I want to see Collier on a line with Kas and Cole. Reese, you swap out with Simmy and let him take some shots.”
Without question or hesitation, the players complied with the seemingly encoded commands, and she was invisible once again. With one exception. Dylan watched her with a sly smile as he skated backward toward the playoff circle. She wished he’d trip or bump into someone and knock the smug expression off his face, but no luck. Mr. Charmed Life was error proof on skates. Must be nice.
She stayed for the rest of the practice, and aside from an occasional glance from Dylan no one paid attention to her. Most likely, they were too afraid of their coach. The rules were a little fuzzy, but the purpose was clear, and it was exciting. She almost jumped out of her seat when someone checked a player into the glass right in front of her. It shook and bowed but straightened out, and neither man seemed worse for the wear. In fact, they were laughing as they fought for the puck.
A whistle screech just about stopped her heart. It did stop every man on the ice. Simultaneously. It was kind of creepy.
“All right ladies, hit the showers. Rest up for tomorrow’s game. Pre-season does not mean it’s all right to slack off. It may not count in the standings, but it sure as hell counts with me.”
The guys filed off, down the tunnel to the locker room, and Nealy shot her a smile before heading up to the main concourse. Dylan hung back, taking a few more shots on net, but if it was for her benefit she couldn’t tell because he didn’t take his eyes off the ice. When he finally unsnapped his helmet and skated for the door, he looked up and his face went blank like he’d forgotten she was there. Flattering. “Oh. Hey. You stuck around.”
“Well, you are on my ice.”
“Yours, huh?” He smiled, and the dimples almost killed her.
“For the next hour, yes.”
“And then the circus comes to town.”
His eyebrows went up. “As in Circus Circus?”
She held back a sigh and stood, slinging her skates over her shoulder. “As in Sin City on Ice.”
“You don’t like it? Aren’t you sort of the star?”
“I’m grateful for the job and the skating time, but I’d rather be hardcore training for the next Olympics than stuck in a show that’s more about fire and feathers than technique and skill. Not to mention the dangerous lifts with a man I barely know. I tried pairs skating as a kid, but it didn’t stick. I’m having trouble trusting myself these days let alone a random guy who’s even handsier off the ice.”
“He giving you trouble?” Dylan’s soft voice went serious, and he planted the blade of his stick on the floor, his big shoulders squared, his face looking like he was ready to do something about it.
Despite her best efforts to stay annoyed at him, warm tingles spread through her at his protective reaction. “I can handle it.”
“I uh, thought most guys who got into that were…”
His already practice-flushed face turned a shade darker, and she grinned.
“A lot of them are, but not all. I swear some skate just for the slanted ratio of women to men.”
“Well, if he goes over the line, let me know.”
Damn those tingles. The image of Dylan with his baby face and super hero body knocking out some of Bradley’s DayGlo white teeth made her laugh. “Sure.”
“I guess I should…” he gestured toward the locker room.
“Yeah.” Say something else. But nothing came to mind. This was the longest conversation she’d had with anyone in a long time. At least anyone who wasn’t family or someone who smiled at her face only to snark at her back.
“See you around?” He’d made it a question even though it was certain they’d bump into each other again at some point. Did he want to be sure?
Play it cool. “See you around.” In my daydreams. Naked.