He had it all.
And lost it in an instant.
The night Dmitri Nazarenko won hockey’s Holy Grail, he lost more than he ever bargained for. With a world of guilt weighing him down, Dima can never forgive himself for his tragic misjudgment. Turning his body into a shrine of past mistakes, he hides behind tattoos that memorialize his failures and a beard that masks his pain.
But London Hawke sees right through him. The fiery woman refuses to pity a man like him. No stranger to incurable injuries, London lets nothing stand in the way of living her life. Seeing an able-bodied man haunted by the ghosts of his past is a surefire way to trigger her annoyance, and that’s exactly what she finds in Dima.
When they face off, it becomes a battle of wills. Their constant bickering turns to an unavoidable dance between the sheets. But she won’t accept sharing a bed with the past for long. Will Dima learn to fight his demons, or will London leave him to dance with his ghosts alone?
“The lake would freeze solid in the winter. Lake Baikal,” I said to Harper, gently rocking her in the chair next to her crib.
In between her whimpers, she made a soft cooing sound, as if to let me know that she’d understood. Not possible, of course, but the thought comforted me.
I always told the baby my stories in Russian, because there was no reason to bore Hunter or Tallie—her parents—with tales of growing up in Siberia. Besides, Harper couldn’t understand anything anyone said, whether they spoke in Russian, English, or Swahili.
I’d quickly learned it didn’t matter what I said. It only mattered that I spoke.
She had colic, and for some reason, tugging out the hairs of my beard and hearing the sound of my voice were the only things that soothed her these days. Tallie swore the deep rumble of my speaking voice did the trick. The vibrations or something. It could be. I didn’t know one way or another, but it meant I got lots of late-night calls from Hunter, begging me to come and rock the baby so everyone could get some sleep.
I didn’t mind it. Usually, I either lay awake in my own bed, like I had been tonight, or else I was looking for an excuse to leave the bed of whichever woman I’d gone home with that night. Rocking Harper was much better than either of those activities.
I couldn’t explain it, but holding her and talking to her soothed me, too. Not that Hunter or any of our other teammates needed to know. They’d only give me shit. But here, with this little girl, I could tell her everything and not worry what she might think.
“Once the temperatures dropped, the lake became a perfect sheet of ice, crystal clear. I could see all the way to the center of the Earth when I looked down through that ice, and that was where my father taught me to skate. He bundled me up in as many coats as he could fit one over another. He made me wear eight pairs of socks. Not just because of the cold but also because my skates were so big my feet swam in them. Then we would go to the lake. He made me skate the distance of two hockey rinks, back and forth, back and forth, until I thought my feet would fall off and I couldn’t feel my nose any longer. It was very cold there, in Siberia. Much colder than it ever gets here, kukolka. Colder than you’ll ever experience, most likely.”
We were in Tulsa, Oklahoma—about as far away from Siberia as we could get. I played hockey for the Tulsa Thunderbirds, the newest team in the National Hockey League, thanks to a recent expansion draft. Hockey didn’t help me forget, though. It only brought the memories back, as vivid and painful as ever. With Harper, I could forget. Or I could unburden myself. Or I could talk until I was blue in the face, even though it didn’t ease the pain.
When I’d first arrived and started talking tonight, she’d been screaming her head off, with enormous tears drenching her chubby red cheeks. Now her cries were down to nothing more than a whimper here and there. She tightened her fist in my facial hair and tried to pull herself up higher in my arms. I helped her along, both to save myself some pain and to give her what she wanted. I always gave her what she wanted. Not even four months old yet, and she already had me wrapped around her tiny finger. I supposed it was safe to let the baby get so close, not that I had any intention of letting anyone else. Not ever.
She settled again once I’d shifted her position, relaxing her grip but not releasing the hairs.
“You just like to hold on to my beard, don’t you?” I said softly. “We should tell your papa to grow a beard for you. Teach him to speak Russian. After that, maybe I can sleep in my own house every night.” Not that it would help me sleep.
“What is it you say to her?” Hunter asked quietly from the hallway beside Harper’s nursery.
I hadn’t heard him come up. I must have been too busy focusing on his little girl. I glanced over to see him leaning against the doorframe and watching us—me in the rocker, Harper with her grip on me, even with her head sagging into my chest.
“Nothing interesting,” I said in English. I hated how stupid I sounded when I spoke English. Even after almost a decade playing hockey in North America, I sounded like I’d just gotten off the boat. “Tell her about skating on lake in Siberia. Wearing lots of socks. She wants me to talk.” I glanced down to be sure the new voice hadn’t disturbed her.
Her eyes were starting to close. That was a good sign.
“Looks like she’s finally out. We could try putting her back in her crib. See if she’ll stay asleep.”
“Not yet.” I wasn’t ready to move her…to lose the comfort of her grip on me.
She’d barely closed her eyes, so she was still in the very early stages of sleep when she would wake easily. And besides, I didn’t want to stop talking to her yet. It was nice to be able to talk to someone, to tell her anything, and know that she wouldn’t hold what I said against me. I never felt that way in the real world. But here, I could bare my soul to this baby, and she still loved me anyway.
She might not love me, but at least she didn’t hate me. I didn’t scare her. She didn’t think I was the monster I knew myself to be. For some reason, this tiny creature felt safe enough in my arms to fall asleep in them. It seemed an awful lot like love.
It was the most unfamiliar sensation, almost unrecognizable but thoroughly addictive. A gift I would never deserve.
I couldn’t get enough.
“You’re sure?” Hunter asked. He sounded both grateful and uncertain. The guy might as well be dead on his feet. He and Tallie had both been up a lot in the last few weeks due to Harper’s colic. He needed sleep. And since he was the Thunderbirds’ starting goaltender, I needed him to be well rested. We sucked enough without our best player falling asleep on the job.
“Go to bed. I’ll stay until she’s sound asleep.”
“But your sledge game is tomorrow.”
I’d been planning a charity game to raise money for disabled athletes who played hockey on sleds instead of skates—here, in the U.S., they called it sled hockey, but the rest of the world called it sledge hockey. The plan was for some of my teammates and other big names I could convince to help out to get on those same sleds. Then everyone would be mixed up with the local team of sledge hockey players, and we’d all put on an exhibition to raise money for the sledge team. Those players would kick my ass whether I’d had rest or not.
I gave him a nod. “I’m fine. The game will be fine. You need sleep. You play like shit this week.”
He hesitated, dragging a hand through his hair and looking down the hall toward his bedroom. Then he faced me again. “Wake me when you’re ready to leave so I can lock up behind you.”
“Leave keys on counter,” I said. “I’ll lock the door when I go.”
He suppressed a laugh, but he walked away and his keys clanged against the kitchen counter. “’Night, Dima,” he said quietly on his way down the hall.
“Your papa is a stubborn man,” I said to Harper, once again speaking in Russian. I felt a grin coming on. “It’s not bad to be stubborn. You should try to be exactly like him. Stubborn. Determined. Get what you want.”
In her sleep, she fisted her hand in my beard and pulled, letting out a contented sigh. This little one already knew a lot about being stubborn, and it was helping her get her way. That was why I was here now, and why I spent more nights here than at my own house lately. She refused to sleep unless I was here, doing exactly as she demanded with her tiny hands and enormous voice.
“Smart baby,” I said. “You find ways to get what you want. You keep doing that. Don’t ever stop. Because I can’t have what I want. Sergei can’t have what he wants, and it’s all my fault. But you? You can have the world.”
She squirmed closer to me, and I tugged the blanket higher so it would keep her warm.
I stayed for another hour or more, long past the point when she was out cold. I told her about skating on the lake in the snow. I told her about playing hockey with my best friend, Sergei, after my papa died. I told her about winning the Stanley Cup in LA with Sergei at my side. I told her about the night I ended Sergei’s career and nearly ended both our lives. I told her how sorry I was, because she would listen to my apologies even though he wouldn’t. He’d heard more than enough of that, he’d told me dozens of times over the years. These days, if I tried to apologize again, he would walk away.
When my throat was scratchy from talking so long, I carefully moved her to the crib and tucked her blankets all around her. “Sleep well, kukolka,” I said, kissing her on the top of the head. “Don’t worry about me.”
I locked the door and went back to my house to spend the rest of the night alone with my demons.