Recovering addict Nicklas Ericsson, star goaltender for the Portland Storm, is ready for a comeback—both on the ice and in his personal life. But when his sister begs for his help with an earth-shattering request he can’t refuse, Nicky worries the stress will send him over the edge into a relapse.
As the vice-president of a non-profit organization, Jessica Lynch has worked with her fair share of addicts. She’s always managed to keep her distance and prevent them from pulling at her heartstrings—but Nicky Ericsson proves to be the one exception. Something about the goalie draws her to him.
With an instant and mutual attraction, Nicky and Jessica explore the boundaries of their relationship. While Nicky struggles with his recovery, Jessica fears he won’t be able to handle all that’s been thrown his way. Will his addiction get the best of him, or can Nicky pull off the Comeback of a lifetime?
It was impossible to do almost anything at this time of year without thinking about my father. I never thought of him the way he’d been right at the end. That hadn’t really been him. It had just been the shell of the man he once was, nothing more than a body barely holding on. Instead, I remembered him as he’d been when I was a boy learning to play goal. Big. Strong. Unbreakable. Seemingly immortal. Much like the Japanese cherry blossom trees scattered all around me in this garden right now.
Actually, the cherry blossoms were really fitting, come to think of it. For centuries, they’ve been a symbol of life and death, of transience and mortality. Watching the multi-colored leaves fall to the ground and thinking of how fleeting life could be was a morbid way to spend my day, though, and it would only lead me into dangerous territory better left in the past. I forced my eyes away from the brilliant orange of the cherry blossom leaves and shuffled along the trail, moving on. That was all I could do, after all. Move on. Maybe find a new path. It had been more than long enough since he died for me to do that, after all, and a lot had happened in the interim.
When I was a boy, my father had spent countless hours tirelessly shooting pucks at me and correcting my stance, my push-off, and other bits and pieces of my technique. There was no one I’d trusted more to teach me back then, and not just because I’d thought him to be indestructible. Dad had played goal for a few years in the National Hockey League and for many more than that in the Swedish Elite League. He’d been a backup goaltender for Sweden in the Olympics a couple of times, too. He knew a lot about proper goaltending skills and what it took to make it as a professional goaltender—definitely more than the coaches of the teams I’d played for in those days—and so I’d soaked up as much as I could. I had wanted to be just like him…only better.
He hadn’t wanted that for me, though. He’d wanted me to make my own path. Instead of playing like he did or any of the other goalies I’d idolized as a kid, he’d encouraged me to play like myself, whatever that meant. To create my own style. To become my own man.
I was still working on that last part, but I had definitely followed his advice in terms of goaltending style. Most coaches didn’t quite know what to do with me.
The NHL’s new season was set to start in less than a week. My team—the Portland Storm—had already finished all our pre-season exhibition games. We were due to head out of town for a few days for a team-bonding event that leadership had planned, but today was dedicated to the fans.
The entire team was at the Portland Japanese Gardens for our annual Ice Breaker event, a day when the fans could come out and meet the players and coaches, get some autographs, and generally have a good time. The Storm Foundation and the Light the Lamp Foundation had representatives here, too, jointly hosting a private event for the team’s season ticket holders and hoping to raise a little money for their causes while they were at it.
In all my years with the Storm—closing in on a decade now—I’d never come to the Japanese Gardens before. I tended to spend my time off with the boys, and this wasn’t exactly at the top of most of their lists in terms of places to go for a good time. The more I saw of the gardens, though, the more I wanted to come back another time. Alone. Sometime when I could just sit and breathe and take it all in without being surrounded by dozens of acquaintances and strangers, or even friends.
The world felt peaceful here. Fall was in full bloom, and all the leaves were changing colors—oranges, reds, yellows, and greens creating a vivid landscape where it seemed impossible to feel anything but serenity. That was something I needed more of in my life. I needed a place I could meditate, clear my thoughts, and focus on the positive. I needed somewhere I could be alone with myself and not give in to the urge to take a pill, have a drink, or bury all my negativity in oblivion. Sometimes I felt as though everything was falling down and crushing me, but here, I felt light and free.
I’d just finished my turn signing autographs for the fans—actually, I’d just finished sitting at a table, watching the long lines in front of the rest of the guys, and wishing a few more people would come over and ask for my autograph—and now had some free time before the season ticket holder fundraiser. Several of the boys had gone off together to explore, and others had broken off with groups of fans to talk. I needed some time to myself, though, and few of them really wanted to spend time with me anyway. They would, but that didn’t mean they wanted to. Anyway, that made it easier to wander off alone.
That was something I’d been learning about myself over the last few years, since my addiction started and my father died—I needed time to be alone and just think. So I headed out in the opposite direction from the rest of the guys, trying to find somewhere away from the crush. Somewhere quiet and hopefully secluded.
I had been walking along the path for a couple of minutes when I saw the perfect spot below. Most of the gardens here had a theme, I’d noticed. This one wasn’t filled with plant life, though. It was a big, rectangular area, with white-gray rocks covering the surface and a few larger, moss-covered boulders placed strategically throughout. A stone wall surrounded it, with a few benches along one side. Someone had traced lines through the rocks, it seemed, making patterns within the uniformity.
There wasn’t a doubt in my mind; this was where I needed to be.
I bounded down the stairs built into the landscape, moving away from the hubbub of voices filling the rest of the gardens and into the privacy of this rock garden. The bench was slightly damp from the morning rain, but I didn’t mind it. I took a seat and stared, studying everything about the view before me.
Trees lined the other side of the stone wall. There was another cherry blossom, its leaves as orange as the others had been, but it was solitary. Like me. A single tree wasn’t enough to overwhelm me with the same morbid thoughts as earlier. It was just enough to help ease me into meditation.
Before long, I’d forgotten why I was here and how many other people were in the gardens today. No one had come down to pull me from my pensive tranquility, so I had been able to shut everything out and just be.
God, grant me the serenity… Somehow, I fell into reciting the Serenity Prayer silently in my mind. I’d never been a religious person. I believed there was something bigger than me out there, but I didn’t know who or what that “something” was, and I wasn’t inclined to figure it out. Still, saying the prayer had refocused my mind enough to get me through some rough times, particularly in the months after Dad’s death.
I’d learned to use the prayer during one of my numerous visits to rehab. I repeated it now as a reminder that I was not in control of everything, and that it was all right to let go. In fact, recent years had taught me that most of the time it was better that I wasn’t the one in control. Things seemed to fall apart when I was in charge.
A cool breeze blew over me, not enough to make me cold despite the fact that a shiver raced up my spine. I closed my eyes, breathing in the fresh, slightly damp scent on the air, and started the Serenity Prayer again.
“Oh! I’m so sorry.”
The interruption startled me, and I jumped. It was a female voice. I popped my eyes open and swiveled my head toward the sound coming from slightly behind me.
Jessica Lynch stood just at the base of the stone steps, alternating between staring at me and turning her gaze up to where she’d just come from. She tucked a strand of her brown hair behind her ear and shoved her hands in the pockets of her jacket. “I didn’t realize anyone was down here until I heard your voice,” she said. “I don’t meant to interrupt—”
“You’re not interrupting anything,” I assured her. I might not want to be surrounded by bodies on every side, but having a single companion wouldn’t be the end of the world. Besides, I had always liked Jessica in the years that I’d known her.
She was the Portland director of the Light the Lamp Foundation, a charity started by Liam Kallen before he’d become one of my teammates a few years ago. It was an organization that I’d spent a lot of time working with in recent years, primarily because I had a keen interest in their mission. Due to my involvement, I had seen Jessica fairly regularly over the years.
Kally was retired now, but he still spent half the year with his wife, Noelle, here in Portland working in the Storm’s front office. The rest of the year, they lived in Sweden. He did some scouting for the team in Europe while he was there. Kally put a lot of his energy into Light the Lamp, though. When a drunk driver had killed his first wife, he’d decided it was best to channel his grief so something good could come out of the bad. Light the Lamp’s mission was to help addicts make something positive from their lives.
That was something I strove to do every day in my own life. Some days were harder than others, but I couldn’t worry about tomorrow until I’d dealt with today. I was trying to put that into my goaltending, too, taking on a more Zen approach to the game than I had before.
I smiled and scooted over on the bench, patting my hand beside me in invitation. “Really,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
She hesitated for a moment, but then she came over and sat next to me. “Trying to eke out a bit of quiet?”
“Something like that.”
She nodded, not looking at me. Her gaze was focused on the rocks, much as mine had been before she’d arrived. “I could use a little quiet, too,” she said. “The season ticket holder event later is bound to be insane.” A small smile curled her lips, and she pressed her palms flat on the bench on either side of her, curving her fingers down around the edge of it.
“I thought you lived for those moments, getting them to fork over money for your cause,” I teased.
“Hardly. It’s just a necessary part of the business.”
The business being helping people like me. I knew that, and I shouldn’t have made light of it. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t joke about what you do.”
“You don’t need to apologize, Nicky.”
But I did need to. Maybe not for her sake, but for my own. I went back to staring at the lines drawn in the rocks, focusing on the patterns and details. It was a combination of straight lines and perfect circles, hard edges and rounded curves. Juxtaposition in everything. Yin and yang, or something like that.
Jessica fell silent, too. That was one of many things I appreciated about her. It couldn’t be easy, working with addicts as much as she did. Being an addict myself, I understood all too well how fucked up we could be, how easily we could hurt the people in our lives, especially the ones who were trying to help us, whether we intended to or not. But somehow she didn’t seem to let it get to her. She understood the needs we had—for contemplation, for self-awareness, for so many things that the general population often took for granted.
“Did you have a good summer?” she asked after a few minutes.
There wasn’t really any need for her to ask. I’d stayed here, in Portland, instead of going home to Sweden. My support group was here, and the rehab facility that had finally helped me to get clean and stay clean was here, too. I’d stuck around and had been right by her side for a few of the community service events the foundation had hosted. She knew exactly what my summer had been like.
Asking questions she knew the answers to meant one thing: no matter how much time we might have spent around each other, she saw me as one of the addicts she helped every day and nothing more. This was all business.
“Pretty good,” I said evenly, taking her cue. “And yours?”
“Busy. Really busy.” She shifted her feet beneath her. “You’re still clean? No issues heading into the new season?”
“One year, four months, and seventeen days.” And counting. I’d spent all last season playing for the Storm’s minor-league affiliate, the Seattle Storm, because of how badly I’d screwed things up in the playoffs the previous season, for myself and for my teammates. I had been so dependent on sleeping pills and pain pills and alcohol it was a wonder that I’d made it out of bed to go in the net, but I had played like shit and let everyone down. I hadn’t been able to focus on the puck or the play around me. I kept letting in goals that I would have been able to stop when I was twelve.
I had been an absolute wreck. When our season had come to an end, the coach and the general manager had pulled me aside.
I can’t put you in the net next year, Nicky, the head coach, Mattias Bergstrom, had told me. I can’t trust you to be what the team needs you to be. Too many times, you’ve promised you had your shit together, and too many times you’ve failed to keep it together.
Then it had been Jim Sutter’s turn. He was the GM. You’ve got two choices. You can go back to rehab this summer and then play next season in the AHL to prove that you’re willing to make the changes you need to make in your life, or we will have to begin the proceedings to void your contract on the basis that you aren’t fulfilling your obligations. It’s your call.
I’d already been to rehab three times at that point, typically going to a center in Stockholm so I would be close to my family in case my father’s health deteriorated rapidly. Not once in any of those rehab stints had I talked about Dad. Not once had I admitted I was an addict, not to the counselors or to the people involved with the Storm. I’d skirted around all of it, avoiding telling anyone that my father had ALS and never saying anything more than, It’s tough, when one of the guys on the team asked me how things were going. So after we’d fallen out of the playoffs, I’d told Jim that I’d think it over. Then I’d headed back to Sweden and watched my father die in one of the most horrifying ways imaginable.
It had taken losing my spot on the team and then losing my father in the span of less than a month to convince me I had to change, to show me that maybe I was less in control of things than I told myself I was.
After my sister, Emma, and I had buried my father, I had returned to Portland and asked Jim for help. He’d gotten me set up with the Players’ Association and their substance abuse program, and I’d gone into rehab to set about the tedious and seemingly impossible task of putting my life back on the right course.
I hadn’t been back to Sweden since. Hadn’t seen my sister and her kids in all that time. I emailed Emma and talked on the phone with the munchkins as often as we could manage, but they all understood I had to turn things around. They knew I had to make myself into the man I should have been all along. Especially now that we didn’t have Dad to fill that role.
And now was my opportunity to win my job back. It wasn’t going to be easy. I had no delusions about that. Jim told me he believed in me, that he was sure I was ready. The coaches and my teammates were another story, though. And then there were the fans. Not to mention the media and their never-ending questions: What was going on? Why were you demoted to Seattle? Aren’t you washed-up? Maybe you should think about retirement, huh?
After I got through all the questions and expectations, I was still going to have a fight on my hands to try to win my starting spot back from Hunter Fielding. Of course, I shouldn’t even be able to fight. Not now. I was supposed to spend this season in Seattle again because the people who could make these decisions still didn’t believe that I had my shit together.
I’d lost the coaches’ trust. I’d lost my teammates’ trust. I’d lost the fans’ trust.
But this was my opportunity to do something about it. Jim had come to me when Hunter’s backup from last season, Sean “Bobby” Roberts, had suffered a torn ligament in the last game of the preseason. He’d told me it could be my comeback. God only knew why he still believed in me, especially when no one else did. I wasn’t sure I believed in myself much, these days, but I was trying to earn back what trust I could.
Hunter wasn’t going to just step aside and give me the net, though. Not a chance in hell that would happen. This season was going to be all I could handle and then some. But I was determined. I was clean. I was focused. I was as ready as I could be. And Jessica’s question, her curiosity about my sobriety, was to be expected, I supposed. She was far from the last person I would have to convince.
She reached over and put one hand on top of mine, patting it like she would a child’s. “Good to hear, Nicky. I’m proud of you.”
Proud of me. Her response seemed rote, the sort she would give any of the dozens of addicts who came in and out of her office every day. It was the type of reaction that made me believe I might never prove to her that I could keep it up, that she might never think my issues were in the past.
But then again, there was no cure for addiction. Once an addict, always an addict. There would always be the lure, always the desire to reach for a bottle and let its contents ease the ache while creating new and more potent pains in its place.
Maybe she was right to doubt me.
In my experience, there are few things in life more agonizing than loving an addict. Pills, alcohol, hard drugs—it doesn’t really matter what the specific addiction is because it always wins in the end.
If there was anyone in the world who understood that, it was me. My dad had been an alcoholic since before I was born. My brother got into drugs in middle school. I lost a best friend and a husband to their addictions—my best friend died as a direct result of hers, and my husband had become a different person when he started using, wanting nothing to do with me anymore because I encouraged him to get help. And so what had I chosen as my profession? I worked for a charity that put me in close contact with countless addicts daily.
I might not be an addict myself, but I intimately knew the beast better known as Addiction on an entirely too personal level.
Because of the pain involved in loving addicts, I’d tried to put some distance between me and the men and women I worked with through Light the Lamp. It wasn’t always easy, particularly when it came to men like Nicklas Ericsson. He was a player for the Storm, and since Liam had started the foundation, the players had all been involved in various fundraisers over the years. Nicky hadn’t taken part in as many last year as before because he’d been in Seattle instead of Portland, but he’d still made an effort to show up to help when he could. But it went further than that with Nicky. He didn’t just try to raise money and awareness for Light the Lamp—he was dealing with his own addictions and was involved in nearly everything we did, attempting to turn his own life around through the programs we offered.
Since he was around all the time, I was able to see the man he was when he was clean and sober, and damn it all if I didn’t really like that man. He had a big heart. He was genuine, he was incredibly funny in a self-deprecating way, and he never let his fame go to his head. For that matter, he didn’t let it get him down when that very fame turned on him and allowed the world to see things he might rather keep hidden. It was easy to forget that he was an addict.
Being friends with him would be one of the simplest things I could ever do, but it was something I couldn’t allow. Not for my own sanity, at least. Right now, I had to consciously bring his disease back to mind again and again, or else I was liable to let my walls down. I had to keep this professional, to maintain the boundaries I’d built to protect myself. I could be friendly toward him without being his friend, couldn’t I? So I’d asked how long he’d been clean and I’d told him I was proud of him, establishing a typical addict-counselor relationship. I wasn’t exactly a counselor, and I definitely wasn’t his, but it seemed easier to take that tack.
I just didn’t have it in me to care—to really, truly care—for another addict beyond the scope of my job. One more might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Nicky shifted on the bench next to me, an almost unnoticeable movement. I doubted I would have recognized it if it wasn’t so still and silent in the rock garden. When I turned, it was to find him staring at me in a way that left me unnerved. His eyes were on me intently, making me feel as though he could see straight inside my head and hear every thought. I couldn’t tell what was going on inside his head, only that there was a lot of it, whatever it was.
“Have a good time signing?” I asked, trying to shake the odd sensation.
“Huh,” he said, giving an ironic nod of his head with his brow raised. But then he only said, “It was fine.”
Fine. It hadn’t really been, and I knew it. Torturous might be more apt, and if I’d taken even half a second to think before speaking, I would have asked him any number of things that would have less obvious answers. I’d dropped in a couple of times during the signing, and every other table had had long lines of fans waiting to get a jersey or a shirt or a hat or an arm signed. Even the rookies and the guys new to the Storm this year had been kept fairly busy. But not Nicky. There had only been a few bodies in front of him at any point in time. But at least he’d made good use of that by having a real conversation with the few who came to see him.
I decided to shut my trap at that point from here on out. Lately, he always seemed to seek out the quiet, anyway, so I doubted he would mind much.
But then he shifted again, and his right pinky finger brushed against my left pinky finger.
He jerked his hand away. “Sorry,” he said, shrugging and giving me a sheepish expression.
“Something on your mind?” I asked.
“I’ve been thinking.”
From what I’d noticed, he was always thinking. Nicky was maybe the most cerebral man I’d ever met. Even when he was just staring off into nothing, it was easy to see the wheels turning behind his eyes. No matter how still his body might be, I never doubted there was a tennis match going on in his brain.
“Thinking?” I prodded after a moment, since he’d just left it hanging there.
“Thinking about what I can do,” he said, clearing up absolutely nothing.
“I think you’ve proven there are a lot of things you can do,” I noted.
“No, I…” He laughed, dropping his head in a way that made it seem self-effacing. Then he brought his gaze back up to mine, those brown eyes that seemed to always be laughing, even in the most difficult times, boring into me again. “I meant what I can do for Light the Lamp.”
Nicky Ericsson already did more for Light the Lamp than any of the volunteers. I couldn’t imagine what else he thought he needed to do.
“You already do a lot.”
“I know, I just— Maybe I don’t mean what I can do for Light the Lamp. Maybe I mean what I can dothrough Light the Lamp. To make a difference.”
“I’m listening.” I was always open to new ideas, and having worked for charitable organizations my entire career, I knew better than to turn anything down out of hand. There was always a greater need than supply, no matter the cause or the efforts put into effecting change.
“I may not have the celebrity status I had a few years ago, but I still have some. Especially around Portland. I thought maybe I could…” His voice trailed off.
I looked over to find him staring out at the rocks again, only now his smile was gone.
“Maybe you could what?”
“Nothing. It’s stupid.”
“I doubt that.” Everything I knew about him screamed just the opposite. “Maybe you could what?” I prodded again.
“Maybe I could talk to people,” he finally said after hemming and hawing around it for several moments. “You know, tell them about my experiences. Use what little status I have for something good.”
I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting him to say, but it definitely wasn’t this. “That would mean you’d have to admit to the world that you’re an addict, Nicky.” I’d lowered my voice, even though no one was anywhere near us to overhear.
There was so much shame involved in addiction, so much secrecy. The NHL, the Storm—they’d never come out and said what was going on with him over the last several years. They couldn’t. Players were granted privacy when it came to issues like this. Healthcare workers couldn’t talk about it. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other programs like them kept their membership rolls private. Even at Light the Lamp, we insisted on confidentiality.
People—fans and media—might suspect that Nicky had an addiction, and there was certainly a lot of speculation running rampant about him, but no one could come out and say that he did.
No one but him.
What he was suggesting was enormous.
“I know that,” he said, shifting on the bench again. “I know what it would mean.”
“People would look at you differently.”
“You’re not telling me anything earth-shattering here, you know.” He was laughing again. I definitely preferred it when he laughed. That was the Nicky I knew, not this anxious, antsy man beside me. But the truth was he was probably all of the above and so much more. I thought I knew pretty him well, but based on what he’d just suggested, I knew there was a heck of a lot more to him that I didn’t have the first clue about.
I wasn’t sure what to do with him at the moment. He wasn’t making it easy to keep him in any boxes, that was for sure.
“Why?” I finally asked. I wasn’t opposed to the idea of Nicky becoming a public speaker, of sorts—at least not at first blush. But if he wanted it for the wrong reasons then allowing him to go ahead with it might cause more harm than good, at least for him. He hadn’t been clean all that long in the grand scheme of things. If he was looking for more fame, for adulation for the wrong reasons, it could come back to bite him in the butt. Not that Nicky seemed like the sort to do that, but experience had taught me to be wary of anyone with a history of addiction.
I might not want to be close enough to let him in as a good friend, but I didn’t want him to cause himself a setback.
Nicky took his time answering, staring at the bright burst of orange leaves coming from the cherry blossom across from us. But then his shoulders lifted in an infinitesimal shrug and he turned his head to me, looking directly in my eyes in that fervent way he had. “I just think there’s a reason for everything. I’ve been given a lot of gifts in terms of athletic ability and my career, and I’ve struggled with addiction. I think there’s a reason for all of that, and I think I should use everything I’ve been given.”
There wasn’t even the slightest hint of irony in his words. No sense that he was hoping to further himself or make a spectacle of himself.
I took a breath, the crisp fall air flirting with my senses. “Have you run any of this by Jim Sutter yet?”
“Not yet. I thought I’d talk to you about it first.”
Jim wouldn’t try to dissuade him, anyway. He’d encourage it. The same as I should. There wasn’t any good reason for me to be hesitant about this, beyond the possibility that it would test the strength of my protective walls. He wasn’t just asking me if I thought he should become a motivational speaker. Nicky was asking to do it through my foundation, to be even more intricately involved in the work I did than he already was. But this wasn’t an opportunity I could pass up. It had the potential to do a world of good.
“Talk to Jim,” I said, digging my fingernails into the underside of the bench so hard it was painful—a reminder to myself that I had to keep my distance. “Once you get the go-ahead, let me know and we’ll figure something out.”
He nodded, and he moved slightly toward me. There was a glimmer in his eye that made me think he was going to try to pull me into a hug. I thrust out my hand to shake. That glimmer fled as fast as it had come, and he shook my hand as I stood.
“I should—” I started. I should calm the heck down is what I should do. I felt breathless and panicky, and there was no good reason for it. None at all. I dusted my hands over my slacks, brushing away any bits of the outdoors that might have found a home there. “I should head back and get ready for the…the event.”
Ever polite, Nicky didn’t say anything about how flustered I suddenly was. He just nodded and smiled, and made me wish that the glimmer would come back into his eyes. Because that glimmer meant life. It meant hope. It meant there was something worth fighting for to keep him clean. The ones who had that bit of life in their eyes were the ones I didn’t worry about so much. They were the ones who had a chance.
His smile wasn’t enough to bring that brightness back, though. It didn’t reach his eyes. “You should go, then. I’ll see you after a while.”
I nodded and turned to leave. Halfway up the stone steps, I looked back over my shoulder to find him looking at the rocks exactly as he had been when I’d first come upon him. Or maybe not exactly the same way. Because I’d just taken one of the bricks from my protective wall and placed it on his. I hadn’t even handed it to him to let him do as he would with it. I’d just placed it there, helping him close himself off when I should be doing the opposite.