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End of the Suffering


My year of suffering was about to come to an end.

I wiped my sweaty face with a towel and leaned forward on the bench as the last few seconds ticked off the clock. The final horn sounded, an old horn off a Columbia River tugboat that’s used to signal the end of a period or a goal. The crowd rose to their feet and erupted in cheers. They’d been with us all season through good and mostly bad times. Portland was so grateful to have a hockey team, they didn’t care that we finished with the worst record in the entire league.

In our defense, things had started to click this past month, and we’d won as many as we lost. Too bad we couldn’t say that for the entire season. We might’ve sucked, but next year was looking up.

I skated onto the ice to give Roman, our goalie, a traditional postgame goalie hug. After which, I joined my teammates circling the ice and held up my stick in a salute to the Icehawks faithful. Next season, I vowed we’d make this town proud, but this season, thankfully, was over.

We clomped down the rubberized floor to the locker room. The end of the season was always bittersweet, unless you won the Cup, not that I had personal knowledge of what such a moment would feel like.

Within twenty-four hours, my teammates would disperse to all parts of the world after we had our exit interviews, which were nothing more than interviews with the press at the end of the season.

Some guys would be back next year, and some wouldn’t. I was under contract for the next few years and fully expected to return next season.

I wasn’t leaving town for the summer other than a beach vacation and a brief flight home. I’d just purchased a run-down farm on ten acres outside of Sherwood, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. I had a lot to do before the place was where I wanted it to be, but the price had been too good to pass up considering the prime land the farm sat on.

The team had unfinished business. We didn’t reach our goal of making the playoffs in our first season. I was already looking ahead. I wanted to be a part of making hockey great in Portland.

After our interviews, I’d fly out for that long-awaited vacation in the Caribbean with some of my single teammates. We’d drink a lot and lament about not being in the playoffs. If we got shit-faced enough, we might even watch some hockey, but right now, the pain is too recent.

I sat down in front of my stall and suffered through obligatory speeches by the coach, the GM, and the majority owner. I wanted nothing more than to get out of this arena and drown my sorrows with my teammates. As soon as they finished, I showered and dressed before heading toward our team hangout, the Portland Puck.

As usual, a back room had been reserved for us. The shots were flowing while pizza was consumed. I sat back and observed, watching my teammates as they dealt with our losing season, each in their own way. I’d allow myself one night to lament about what could have been before burying this past season and looking to the future.

First, I had to get through this night.

What Doesn’t Kill You…


I’m a human trafficking survivor.

It wasn’t my crutch. It’s part of who I am, part of my character development, as in what didn’t kill me made me stronger.

My life had been less than idyllic.

As a kid I’d fantasized that I had a normal, loving family with a brother, sister, and a mom and dad who were devoted to each other. Not that I knew anyone with a family like that, or even what a normal family was made up of. My experiences were limited to television and movies. Few of my small circle of ever-changing friends had it any better.

I’d been in and out of foster care most of my childhood when I wasn’t living on the streets. My mother had been a prostitute, did drugs, and drank too much. My dad was in prison for life. I had various half sibs, but we were spread to the wind, and I didn’t have any contact with them.

During one of the times I was in my mom’s custody, she prostituted me out to clients in exchange for drugs. I was fourteen. I ran away and lived on the street, making my own money without my mother stealing it from me. I’d worked my way up to being an escort for wealthy, mostly married, men.

I was nothing if not a survivor. These past few months had been a challenge even for me, but there were rays of sun breaking through the clouds. I had a new group of real friends. I’d left my old life behind. I couldn’t go anywhere but up, starting with my new career.

After sweeping up around my station, I surveyed my tiny queendom with pride. I’d done this. I’d risen above my upbringing and my circumstances. I found a way out. I’d been one of the lucky ones.

My eight-by-eight hair salon station comprised a chair, a counter with cupboards below, and a large mirror above. It might not be much to most people, but to me, it was the culmination of a dream and my version of success.

I’d worked tirelessly to get through cosmetology school, pass my tests, and earn my certification. It hadn’t been easy, especially anything that required studying. I wasn’t the best reader. Yet, despite my limitations, I’d done it.

I’d been in business less than a month.

The small, privately owned salon catered to blue-haired little old ladies, middle-aged women stuck in the eighties with big hair, and the random person who walked in off the street. Being the newbie, I didn’t have an established clientele and accepted most of the walk-ins. I also worked the longest hours. I’d arrive at seven a.m. and often not leave until after six p.m. Prissy, the owner, adored me because of my willingness to work day or night.

I glanced up as the bell tinkled over the door. It’d been a slow day, and everyone else had gone home. I’d hung around in the hope I’d get some walk-ins.

My breath caught in my throat when I caught sight of the gorgeous hunk of man-flesh gracing my salon. Usually good-looking guys, or any guys for that matter, didn’t affect me. I was jaded like that. In my experience, the best-looking men were usually the biggest assholes.

But this guy wasn’t like that.

He ticked all my boxes and sent my heart fluttering in ways that were foreign to me—if only he didn’t engage in a violent sport for a living.

The object of my crush stopped in the doorway and glanced around. A huge smile spread across that too-handsome-for-words face and stole the breath from my lungs.

“Heidi, I was hoping you’d be here.”

“Hi, Trent,” I croaked. I swallowed and sought to control my thumping heart and rapid pulse. This was ridiculous. I had more experience with men in my twenty-four years than most women had in a lifetime, and none of it was good.

Trent strode toward me, full of purpose and confidence. I backed up a step, immediately on guard. My experiences with men weren’t positive. I was alone in this salon, and I hadn’t yet met a man      I could trust. My brain flashed back to visions of this man slamming opposing players up against the boards or hitting another player with his big body and sending him flying. In my perfect imaginary world, he was a banker or a real estate broker, or some other benign profession. Anything but a hockey player. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t being reasonable. I had friends who were dating hockey players, and they left the violence of their sport on the ice.

“What can I do for you?” I regained my composure, stood up straighter, and attempted to project the image of someone stronger and braver than I was. I turned all business, because I’d promised myself that building my business was all that mattered.

“A haircut and a beard trim.”

I swept my arms wide. “Have a seat.”

He walked across the room with that athletic grace I so admired and sat down in my styling chair. Trent was tall, and I was tiny, so I didn’t have to raise the chair far for his head to be at the correct height. I shook out a clean cape and draped it around his shoulders.

“What are you looking for? Just a trim? Would you like any changes?”

Clear blue eyes met mine, and I looked away immediately. His eyes sparkled with an obvious joy for life. I envied him. Guys like him never seemed to have problems, and everything just came their way. Not that he didn’t work hard. I knew enough about professional hockey to know it was hard work to get to the pros and even harder to stay there.

He gave a brief explanation of what he wanted, and I listened intently. If I did a good job and snagged him as a client, I might be able to pick up more of his teammates and their SOs. The exposure would be good for growing my business.

Only the thought of all those big, muscular men coming for haircuts scared the crap out of me. I knew from Aspen and Michella that there were good guys out there, but I hadn’t personally known any other than Grady and Briggs, and Briggs scared me somewhat.

Trent was different, but he still made me nervous. He came across as polite and respectful, but I’d been around seemingly good guys who morphed into monsters once I was under their control.

After gaining an understanding of what he wanted, I escorted him to the sinks on the opposite wall. He leaned back in the chair and grinned at me. I studiously ignored meeting his gaze. My hands shook slightly as I shampooed his hair. He was my first male client, and his closeness made me twitchy. Not all of my nerves were caused by uncertainty and fear. There was something else: our innate attraction to each other. Despite being drawn to him, I wouldn’t allow myself to pursue a relationship with this man or any other. I had a career to build and didn’t need a man to muddy the waters, distract me from my goals, or control my every move.

Massaging the soap into his scalp was harder than I’d expected. Being this close to Trent unnerved me. His nearness to the walls of my carefully guarded personal space sent invisible shudders through my body. I’d chosen this career knowing I’d be required to get physically close to men and women. I’d deal with my discomfort.

When I finished his shampoo, I directed him back to the chair while I cleaned up the area around the sink.

I squared my shoulders and called forth my courage. Taking a deep, calming breath, I walked purposefully toward him, as coldly professional as possible. The man scared me and excited me. I didn’t know which emotion was stronger. Puzzling, too, was how he made me feel. After what’d happened at the end of last year, I didn’t think a man would ever be able to arouse me, but I felt something when Trent was around.

Around the holidays, I’d been held hostage for a month by a wealthy client, managing to escape when he became careless and overconfident that I didn’t have the guts to leave. He’d been wrong. Realizing I’d been lucky to escape with my life, I’d hung up my stilettos and never worked another minute in the profession. The experience left a lasting scar on my heart and destroyed my trust in men. This particular man had been charming and kind when I’d first met him. Only later had he turned into a monster.

And now Trent sat before me, reminding me of how Rufe had been in the beginning. Every survival instinct I’d honed over years on the streets warned me not to trust Trent, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t cut his hair. I needed all the customers I could get.

I took great care in styling his hair and trimming his beard, under pressure to do the best job possible. Trent sat patiently and made several attempts to draw me into conversation.

“I’m leaving for three weeks to the Caribbean Islands with some buddies. It’s beautiful there. I’ve never seen water so blue, and the sandy beaches were incredible.”

“That’s nice.”

“Have you ever been there?”


“Where would you like to go if money was no object?” He smiled at me in the mirror.

“I don’t know.” I really didn’t. I’d never given much thought other than surviving from day to day. Exotic vacations weren’t something I fantasized about.

“There must be someplace you’ve been dying to go,” he pushed.

“Not really.”

He hesitated and then dropped the subject. I wasn’t a great conversationalist, but I needed to up my game. Hairstylists talked to their clients and built a rapport. I did okay with females, but men, not so much. I had to try harder, even though doing so forced me outside my comfort zone.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

I didn’t know much about hockey, but after spending time with Michella and Aspen, I’d picked up a few tidbits. I’d met many of the players, and I’d become an uneducated hockey fan, watching the team play on TV and sometimes in person. In fact, after their season ended a few nights ago, there was now an empty hole I’d need to fill. Yes, the sport was violent, but it was also exciting and fast-paced with never-ending action.

“The team played better this past month,” I parroted what Michella had told me. “Are you looking forward to next year?”

“We’re going to be far better.” Trent launched into an enthusiastic rundown of what his expectations were for season two. His eyes lit up when he talked about hockey, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I wondered what it felt like to have a passion that made a person so happy. I listened with interest, not because I was a huge hockey fan, but because witnessing his joy did my heart good.

I’d lived in the darkness for most of my life, and I was fascinated by those who basked in the light. I liked Trent, but I didn’t believe a word Aspen and Michella said about him having a thing for me. Most likely he felt sorry for me or was a rescuer of damsels in distress. I was no longer that person. I didn’t need rescuing, and I didn’t need a man in my life, especially not a high-profile one whose presence would cast a spotlight on a not-so-distant past I’d rather keep buried.

As Trent talked, I relaxed somewhat, even though part of me remained wary. He seemed like a genuinely nice man, but appearances were often deceiving. He was well aware of my previous career path and probably thought I’d be more than happy to accommodate his sexual needs and kinks. After all, I’d done some research on the man. He had a rep as a player, and not just on the ice.

Running out of safe topics, I lapsed into silence, after which Trent resigned himself to my one- or two-word answers. To fill the void, he talked about himself, the Icehawks, and his family. I listened, nodding and smiling when appropriate, and filing away every word he said to be resurrected when I was lonely and feeling bad about myself.

I had a big crush on Trent, which I considered safe as long as I kept him in my fantasy world. I knew better than anyone he was out of my league. Aspen and Michella would chew my ass for thinking so little of myself, but I was a realist. Trent was nice to me because he was a nice guy, and I had connections to some of his teammates’ wives and girlfriends, a.k.a. WAGs. I didn’t want a real relationship, now or maybe ever, but a crush was harmless, like having a crush on a rock singer or a movie star. It’d never come to anything, but that didn’t stop me from engaging in some minor cyberstalking to learn everything about him and drool over new pics.

Watching Trent from a distance was safe entertainment. In my head, I could make him my ultimate boyfriend, change his career to a less violent one, and never put my heart and soul in jeopardy. I’d learned over the years that what a person displayed to the public wasn’t who they were in private.

I wanted Trent to remain the man I’d fantasized about, and I didn’t want reality intruding.

That was some messed-up shit, but a girl did what she had to do, and Trent needed to reside in my made-up world, not my real one.

It was safer that way.