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First Day of Icehawks Training Camp


I’d been dreading this moment ever since the Portland Icehawks chose me in the expansion draft. There was no more avoiding it. The moment of reckoning had come.

I walked into the spacious Icehawks locker room and searched for my name and number on one of the stalls. I found it halfway around the room and headed that way, nodding to a few guys I was familiar with. For the most part, the majority of the men seated in this room were strangers to me, other than a cursory knowledge of their careers and stats.

I slumped onto the bench seat in front of my locker, attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible while taking a measure of my surroundings. Rather than the loud, raucous locker rooms I’d been in over the years, this one was strangely quiet. Guys talked in hushed tones and weren’t gathering in groups to catch up after a long summer.

Surreptitiously, I surveyed my surroundings. The entire facility was brand new and first class. Our practice jerseys were spiffy and bore the Icehawks logo in the center in either white or black. A white one hung in my locker.

I glanced at the guy next to me and did a double take. At twenty-eight, Briggs Pierce was a legend in this league and one of my personal heroes. He’d run into trouble the last couple years, which had him moving from team to team. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care to ask.

“Hey, I’m Grady, and you’re Briggs. I’m really honored to meet you. You’re a legend.” I was gushing like a fangirl and hated myself for it, but this guy was one of the best defensemen around. I held out my hand to shake with him.

He turned his icy gaze toward me. His expression tightened to one of hostility combined with disdain. He glanced at my outstretched hand and back to my face. After grunting something unintelligible, he turned away, effectively dismissing me. I quickly withdrew my hand and felt the heat of embarrassment rising from my neck.

Not knowing what to do next, I shifted my attention to the guy on the other side of me. He met my stare with a wide, welcoming grin.

“I’m Jarrett.” He thrust out his hand, and I gladly shook it.

“Grady,” I said.

Jarrett beamed and leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially. “Don’t take Briggs personally. He doesn’t want to be here, and he’s making his displeasure known.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” I muttered sarcastically, drawing a snort of laughter from Jarrett. “Have you played with him before?”

“Nah, I only know him by his rep. He’s an ass.”

“A talented ass,” I added, deciding not to further tread onto that minefield. Briggs’s rep had been severely tarnished these last few years.

“Now that guy”—Jarrett indicated one of the veterans seated across from us—“he’s Dash Bates.” He spoke in a tone of pure reverence. He didn’t have to tell me who Dash was. Every guy here knew of him. He’d been in the league for a long time and had had some stellar years, along with awards too numerous to mention.

Jarrett continued, eager to share his dirt on our new teammates. “And that’s Drakos Lenkov. He had a disappointing year last season, which is the only reason he was exposed in the draft. Braden Slater played his entire life with his twin and now he’s here. Goalie Roman Daniels, young but has lots of promise. Loves to party and drink vodka. Kirby Darkhorse, another outstanding defensemen. Don’t let him fool you into thinking he’s always serious. He has a wicked sense of humor and can play pranks on unsuspecting rookies with the best of them.”

“How do you know all this shit?”

“I’m nosy.”

I nodded and let him talk. He had a wealth of knowledge, though I didn’t know him well enough to determine if his perceptions of our teammates were spot on or bullshit.

Before he had a chance to give me the rundown on more players, the locker room door opened, and the coaching staff filed in.

I jerked my gaze from the middle of the room, where the coaches now gathered in a line, before I made eye contact with him. He had to know I was on this team. Fuck, he might’ve even played some part in my being selected. If he had, most likely he planned on extracting some form of penance from me.

I so didn’t want to be on this team. His team.

But my only other option was to quit hockey, and I’d be damned if I’d let that bastard take away the one thing in my life that still brought joy and light to the darkness in which I dwelled.

Instead, I grabbed my stick and concentrated on taping it carefully and with exacting precision. The head coach, Duke “Jeffs” Jefferson, began to speak, and I chanced a glance upward. I hadn’t seen him this close up in years, only a few times when he’d been coaching a minor league affiliate my team happened to be playing. We’d ignored each other then, and we ignored each other now.

I half expected him to call me out for taping my stick while His Majesty was imparting wisdom to his subjects, but he didn’t, proving he didn’t want this confrontation to be public any more than I did.

In truth, I didn’t want any kind of confrontation with him. He was my coach, and I was his player. Plain and simple. Nothing more, nothing less. Those days had long passed. The damage done was irreparable. For both our sakes, I prayed he treated me like any other player and didn’t single me out for a talk. This was his first head coaching gig in the majors, and he wouldn’t want to mess up by causing undue conflict with one of his players, even a rookie.

Or at least, I hoped that was the truth.

Even better, maybe I’d get my ass traded and be out of here soon. Being sent back to the minors would be better than seeing and hearing that man every day. While I was still considered a rookie, I’d been called up and played in several games during the last month of the previous season. I’d fought and scratched my way onto that team and had been a shoo-in to win a spot this year until they’d left me unprotected and allowed Portland to steal me away.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was still bitter toward my old team. A part of me understood this was business and nothing personal, but it still hurt to not be valuable enough to be protected. Yet my old team had left more experienced and proven players exposed, and it made no sense why the Icehawks had chosen me except for revenge.

The coach did his rah-rah stuff, and I fought to keep my stomach from turning. All this positivity, team building, and attitude crap coming out of his mouth was hypocritical. I did everything I could to keep my mouth shut. He even handed out scraps of paper for us to write our goals on, which drew a derisive snort from Briggs next to me.

Briggs had made dissenting remarks throughout the coach’s speech, and I’d given a few indications I agreed, which only encouraged him.

I had an ally in my surly teammate, even if he was a dick. We had one thing in common that’d bind us together this season—we both despised our head coach.

We saw through his bullshit positivity to the real guy underneath, but I had one thing Briggs didn’t have—my tumultuous history with this man I was now forced to call Coach.

The man who’d once been my mentor, my biggest fan, my supporter, and never would be again.

Unknown to anyone in this room, that man was unfortunately my father.

Chapter 1–Mr. Gorgeous

Two Months Later


I never thought I’d be one of those starving artists. Yet here I was, worse than starving. More like destitute, one step away from being homeless, and barely scraping by. Not having a place to call my own wasn’t how I’d envisioned my life, nor was dropping out of college. But then nothing had gone according to my carefully laid-out life plan.

I’d come to Portland two years ago to find my missing mother and never returned home to Seattle. Portland’s weirdness fit my own corresponding quirkiness, and I liked it here. Even if I didn’t, I couldn’t leave the place where my mom was last seen without knowing what happened to her.

After getting off the bus, I took a shortcut through an alley and hurried past the back door of a dive bar. This place gave me the creeps, but most of the guys standing outside for a smoke were too busy drowning in their own sorrows to pay attention to me. A few made rude remarks, but thankfully none of them expended the effort to do more than that. I scurried past them, around the corner, and onto the uneven sidewalk toward the Rainbow Unicorn Studio, where I lived with the director of the Uni, as many of us fondly called it.

Desmond Hall owned or leased the decrepit building that housed the studio and lived in the apartment above. I’d met him shortly after I came to Portland two years ago. When I ran out of money, he offered his pullout couch for a minimal fee, and I’d lived here ever since. Living on a couch in this part of town wasn’t my ideal choice, but I made the best of things, all part of the sacrifices I’d made in the effort to find the person who meant more to me than anyone else in my life.

Desmond was safe. Not just because he was gay but because he was a genuinely caring and kind individual, one of those rare people in my world. I adored him.

Usually, I was attentive to my surroundings and projected a fake confidence I didn’t feel. Today I had my head down, my mind occupied elsewhere by the news I’d gotten earlier in the day. I hadn’t been street savvy when I’d moved to this area two years ago, but I was now, or I usually was.

A hand reached out and grabbed me, jerking me around so hard my backpack fell to the ground. I stared up into the eyes of a large, hulking man, missing most of his teeth and with the breath of a gorilla. I’d never seen him around here before, as I knew the majority of the street people.

“Where you going so fast, darlin’?”

Definitely a transplant with that Southern accent. I drew back instinctively, causing him to smirk in satisfaction.

“None of your fucking business.” Gathering my courage, I glared at him and rose to my full height of five foot three. He snorted, not the least bit impressed with my show of bravado.

“My brother and I are new to town. We have a place at the Briar Hotel. You should party with us tonight.”

The Briar was a run-down hotel a few blocks south, home to drug addicts, sex workers, and unfortunates struggling to make it in a tough world.

I quickly assessed this guy and suspected he worked somewhere nearby, perhaps one of the warehouses. He didn’t have the look of an addict, more like an alcoholic.

“No thank you.” I attempted to pull away, but he dug those dirty fingernails into my arm. I flinched from the pain.

“That wasn’t a question, honey. More like an order.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Now that’s not very hospitable to newcomers. Show us a good time, and there’ll be something in it for you.”

“Fuck off.”

He sneered, unmoved by my tough-girl act. “Let’s go.” The man turned and began to drag me down the street. I kicked him in the shin, but to his credit he didn’t loosen his hold.

“You little bitch, you’ll pay for that.”

I opened my mouth to give him some choice words, but my protest was interrupted.

“Leave. Her. Alone.” The speaker punctuated each word with menacing precision.

The jerk and I both turned to stare at the newcomer with the darkly threatening voice. I stared up at the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen in my entire life. He wore clean jeans, a T-shirt, and an expensive leather jacket. He didn’t belong in this neighborhood and stuck out the way I would’ve at a five-thousand-dollar-a-plate charity gala.

“Let her go,” he growled and took a step toward my would-be abuser. They were almost the same height, but Mr. Gorgeous was muscular and fit, whereas the jerk was soft and weak.

He assessed his adversary for a long moment before he did as ordered and released me. Backing away, he held up his hands in surrender. “Not a problem. Just a misunderstanding. I’m outa here.”

He turned and disappeared into the darkness of the nearest alley. My savior watched him until he was gone and then swung his attention back to me. “You okay?”

I nodded, unable to speak in the presence of such exquisite male beauty. I met his gaze, and my heart did cartwheels in response. Every part of my body reacted to him despite my life having been in peril. I dragged my eyes from his and gathered my wits about me.

Slowly I began to realize the dangerous situation I’d been in only seconds ago.

“I’m fine,” I said finally in a voice quavering with a delayed fear reaction. I’d come so close to being… I didn’t want to think about what might’ve happened, briefly wondering if my mom had met the fate I’d escaped.

“Can I walk you anywhere? You shouldn’t be alone in this neighborhood at night.” His blue eyes were filled with concern, and I immediately knew he was one of the good guys. I wanted to fall into the safety of his arms. Such a reaction to this stranger was plain weird, and I attempted to shake it off.

“Tell me about it,” I scoffed, choosing to be flippant rather than break down in tears or something equally embarrassing.

He studied me for a long moment, and I fidgeted under his intense scrutiny. I knew what he saw. Not the carefree college girl I once was, but someone who was at a low point in her life and scrabbling to get her head above water. Or did he see that? Maybe he only saw the physical, my tattered clothes, worn backpack, the holes in my coat, my lack of makeup. To him, I probably appeared to be a drug addict or sex worker.

“Thank you for your help.” I made a move to extract myself from his overpowering presence.

He blinked a few times as if unable to figure me out. Or more likely, he’d never encountered someone quite like me. I got that a lot. He stepped in front of me in a move incredibly quick for one so large. “I mean it. I’ll walk you to somewhere you’ll be safe.”

Puzzled by his almost desperate tone, I studied his expression closely. Though he hid it well, I saw a mixture of fear and sadness lurking there. What did a guy like him have to be afraid of?

“I’m going to the Rainbow Unicorn Studio, just a few blocks up the street.”

His eyes opened wider as if he was surprised. “So am I.”

“You are?” I sounded incredulous to my own ears. What would a guy like him be doing at the Uni?

“Yeah, I’m volunteering to help with some cleanup or something. The team has some affiliation with the place through the owner’s granddaughter or something.”

Now that made sense. Team. He played on Portland’s hockey team. He was a rich athlete soothing his guilty conscience by doing an hour of volunteer work with the homeless and downtrodden just to show what a good person he was. I glanced around, surprised he hadn’t brought cameras to record his good deed. I knew the type. They showed up, took some pictures with a couple of homeless people, and never came back.

“Are you helping with the cleanup, too?” he asked.

I blinked at him, surprised he mistook me for a volunteer and not a homeless person. After all, I had a backpack almost as big as I was.

He watched me closely while I battled between being honest and being snarky.

“I’m going there to paint.”

“Oh. Lead the way.” He didn’t have anything else to say after that. Instead, he walked with me to the building that housed Rainbow Unicorn. I stopped in front of what appeared to be an abandoned building, but I knew better. He didn’t and stared down quizzically at me.

“This is it.”

His brow furrowed in confusion. “This is the studio?”

“Well, it’s in the back. You have to go through a warehouse area to get to it.” The studio was in an old car parts warehouse. The front of the building had once been the sales area, while the back was divided into a few rooms and mostly had been used to store old car parts. Several of us had cleaned out one of the rooms to make a studio.

He looked skeptical but stepped forward. The main door was usually kept locked, and I was surprised it opened when he pushed on it. I followed him as he cautiously entered the dimly lit building, glancing from side to side as he progressed deeper into the gloom.

“This way.” I pointed toward the light seeping through a closed door. The door swung open and hit the wall next to it with a loud bang.

Desmond, in all his gaudy splendor, rushed from the back room. He gave me a huge hug. “Aspen, darling, where have you been, girl?”

“I had some personal business to take care of.”

Desmond’s eyes bored into mine, but he didn’t press any further. One of the things I liked most about him was that he knew when to push and when to back off. He turned to my companion and eyed him up and down. Judging by his expression, he liked what he saw. “And who is this man?”

“I’m Grady.” The guy stepped forward and held out his hand, not the least bit put off by Desmond’s perusal. He was probably used to attention, being a pro hockey player, and took it in stride.

“One of the Icehawks?”

“At your service.” Grady flashed a smile with gleaming white teeth. I briefly wondered how many of his teeth were original and how many were implanted. I knew little to nothing about hockey other than they liked to fight and usually had missing teeth.

“You’re the first one here. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“I’d love one.”

“Follow me.” He briefly turned his attention back to me. “Aspen, check out the new paints we got today. If you could unpack them?”

I nodded but didn’t move. Instead, I watched Grady and Desmond walk off together. My eyes fell to Grady’s ass, clad in a pair of faded jeans. I don’t believe I’d ever seen a finer ass anywhere on a man.

“I can’t blame you for staring. I’d give him anything he wanted for free.”

I jumped at the sound of Heidi’s voice and cringed inwardly at being caught gawking. Heidi was the first friend I’d made in this town when I’d come here a few years ago to look for my mother. She’d recently left her abusive pimp boyfriend and gone solo, advertising online to pick up customers. I worried about her, but she insisted she made too much money to quit. Heidi was a few months away from completing a cosmetology program while looking for her own Richard Gere to save her from this life. I didn’t have the guts to tell her such things only happened in the movies, and she was adamant that she had things under control. She was the oddest combo of streetwise and innocent.

Heidi laughed at my reaction to being caught ogling one of our volunteers.

“Ready to paint?” I said, moving toward the back of the building and my sanctuary from all that was bad in my life.

“I’m ready.”

We left the dark and dreary room for the brightly lit studio. Inside, drawing tables and easels occupied most of the floor space. The walls were painted in brilliant colors, and artwork from various students decorated the walls. I loved being here. I lived for the moment I was able to enter this room. Desmond worked two jobs and only opened the studio when he was present or one of his trustworthy volunteers was available. Sadly, he’d tried to make things more accessible, but the shadier and more destructive element residing in this area made doing so impossible. In exchange for my rent, I helped with the studio when I wasn’t working one of my two jobs.

With one more glance over my shoulder at Grady, I entered the room and shut the door behind me. I turned toward the box of paints Desmond had mentioned, unpacked them, and put them on the proper shelves. Desmond was a neat freak and insisted everything be put in its place.

Standing before my easel, I continued to work on my watercolor I secretly called Home. I’d never lived in anything like the cozy farmhouse with the rail fence, but I’d had a long-standing dream of residing in such a pastoral setting. My own style was somewhat more modern and slightly abstract compared to Thomas Kinkade, but I did draw some inspiration from his work. Often my subjects were darker and more ominous, but lately I had the driving desire to lighten things up by doing a series depicting my idea of home. I’d started with a backyard garden oasis in the first watercolor. Now I was putting finishing touches on the cottage itself. The next painting in the series would be a close-up of roses growing in the garden to the side of the house.

I glanced over at Heidi, who was working on one of her signature charcoal portraits of street people. I found it interesting she chose to work in the gray world of charcoals, but I minded my own business.

Art was art. It was individual, personal, and with its own style and message.

And there was always a message, subtle or not. Perhaps someone who created art merely for commercial purposes didn’t feel this way, but I certainly did.

After my day today, I wasn’t in the mood to paint happy scenes with bright colors. I stared long and hard at my painting, debating on what to do next, if anything.

“What did you find out?” Heidi asked, eyeing me with sympathy.

I turned toward her and blew out a breath. “They won’t know until the DNA tests come back.”

“But the remains could be your mother’s?”

“Possibly. The physical size and age are right, but the body was so badly decomposed they couldn’t tell.”

“Not even by looking at dental records?”

Heidi and I were true crime junkies, me out of necessity and her out of an interest in human psychology.

“The skull had no teeth.”

“Wow.” She absorbed my words for a long moment.

“Yeah,” I said.

We didn’t talk after that, and I was grateful she held her tongue, even though I knew she had one hundred questions she was dying to ask. Heidi was one of the few people in Portland who knew about the extent of my mission to find my missing mother.

“Hey, gang, how’s it going?”

We both turned to welcome our other partner in crime, Leila. She lived with a gay couple in one of the decrepit apartments in the building across the street. Since it was only a one bedroom, she, too, slept on the couch. Leila worked nights as a bartender at the Portland Puck and days at a diner within walking distance. In the past couple weeks, I’d started filling in at the Puck on weekends or whenever they needed me.

Heidi, Leila, and I were doing the best we could with the hand we’d been dealt. The Rainbow Unicorn gave us something positive in our lives, as it did so many others.

Leila nudged me. “Who’s that hot guy with Desmond?”

“He came in with Aspen,” Heidi supplied happily.

“Ohhhhh. Don’t hold out. Tell us the entire story.” Leila’s attention focused on me, as did Heidi’s.

“There’s nothing to tell. Not really. I was walking toward the studio when some old drunk accosted me, and Grady stepped in.”

“Grady? You’re on a first-name basis?” Leila elbowed Heidi, who giggled like a schoolgirl.

“He introduced himself. Then we found out we were going to the same place. He’s doing some volunteer work here.” Bitterness crept into my tone.

“I’d be going after that fine ass.” Heidi’s eyes tracked Grady as he followed Desmond through the studio and into a back room.

“I’m not. Not my type.”

“Are you crazy? Anyone with money is my type.” Heidi joked, but she was half-serious. She’d been looking for a sugar daddy for a while now.

“How do you know he has money?” Leila asked.

“You can tell. Look at that jacket. Even his casual clothes indicate he’s loaded.”

“He’s a professional hockey player,” I said.

Leila nodded. “Oh, of course, doesn’t Everly’s family own the team?”

“They do.”

I adored Everly. She hung out down here as if she were one of us, even though she had been raised in extreme wealth. She ran the coffee shop at the hockey practice facility, from what I recalled, and had probably coerced some of the players to assist Desmond in cleaning out these rooms to make more studio space.

“She brought a guy in here a week or two ago who was on the hockey team. I think they were pretty tight.”

“She did?”

“Yeah, I can’t remember his name, but he was hot, too. Older than Grady, but still freaking hot.” Heidi had a one-track mind, and I feared her obsession with hot, rich men would get her in trouble someday. She was living in a fantasy world, looking for her billionaire. Only real life wasn’t like that. She should know better than anyone.

I didn’t get much done on this particular night because I was too busy keeping an eye out for Grady, who came and went, carrying boxes to the dumpster behind the building, stacking items that were sellable in a corner, and putting others in a recycle pile. He wasn’t the only Icehawk present, but he was the only one who distracted me from my work through no fault of his own. That in itself was wild, considering I could concentrate in the middle of a chaotic street fair enough to paint people’s portraits.

His simple act of kindness, when most people chose not to get involved, especially in this part of town, warmed my heart.

Maybe I was so used to being invisible to everyone but the few I called my friends that having a hot, rich guy like him notice me caused me to overreact.

And I was overreacting.

Even though I caught him looking in my direction a few times.

Desmond sidled up to me as most of the other artists put away their tools and paints for the night. “Stick around and help me clean up?”


Within the half hour, the place had cleared out. I snagged brushes off some of the tables and took them to the scarred and stained sink in the back to wash them out. Everyone was responsible for cleaning anything they used, but we always had a few who didn’t give a shit. Usually, they were people who’d wandered in from the street and had no interest in creating art, only hanging out in a warm, safe place as long as possible. I couldn’t blame them for that, nor did Desmond.

“Hey, you need any help?”

I jumped inwardly at the sound of a male voice close to my ear. “I, uh, no, I’m fine.”

Grady stood just a few feet from me, watching me with those eyes of his. Something about him unsettled me, pulled me out of my comfort zone, and made me want things I knew I couldn’t have.

“Okay.” He hesitated as if he wanted to say more. I concentrated on scrubbing the brushes, unsure what more to say. We had nothing in common and came from two different worlds, as far as I could tell.

I heard him sigh and the sound of his footsteps as we walked away. By the time I had the guts to glance upward, he was gone. “Out of sight but not out of mind” had never been so true.

I didn’t recall ever feeling so attracted to someone the first time I’d laid eyes on them, but he was my exception. Most likely, I’d never see him again.

I finished my cleaning up, climbed the stairs to Desmond’s apartment, and settled on the couch. Wrapping up in a cozy blanket, I closed my eyes and fantasized about a certain hockey player with blue eyes and a lock of hair that fell over his forehead.