All Mitchell Quincey wants on his break from the Portland Storm this holiday season is to spend as much time as he can with his baby girl. If he can get his ex-wife to agree to joint custody, then it’ll be a holiday worth celebrating. But when he shows up on Mia’s doorstep, for the first time ever, Mitch is thrown off his game. He’s still 100% in love with her.
Mitch’s unannounced arrival has Mia all out of sorts. To argue over the phone is one thing, but looking at the one man she’ll always love is harder than she thought. With her family surrounding them, Mia tries to keep Mitch at bay, but he’s always been able to leave her flustered—and hot.
Suddenly, Mitch changes gears and has only one goal in sight: win back Mia’s heart for good. With assists from her family and a bit of mistletoe magic, Mitch just might end up with a Holiday Hat Trick.
I had three days, three tasks to complete, and zero time to waste.
There were only three days because I was a member of the National Hockey League’s Portland Storm, and we were on our league-mandated days off for Christmas. I’d left Portland for my hometown of Brandon, Manitoba, as soon as the team had finished our final game before the break. I barely made it through security and to my gate in time for the flight, but I would have lost half a day had I waited until tomorrow. As it was, I was due to catch the last possible plane out on the afternoon of the twenty-sixth so as not to miss morning skate on the twenty-seventh. So really, I supposed it wasn’t even three full days when you got right down to it. That was why I couldn’t mess around.
Particularly when you considered the three tasks I’d set for myself.
First, I planned to clear out the last of my things from the small house in our hometown that I’d shared with Mia for the past seven years until our divorce over the summer. We’d moved around a lot during hockey season over the years, but we’d always kept this little house near our families for when the off-season rolled around. I’d need a little help to get my training equipment out, but Jason Redwine and Zach Farmer—two guys who’d been my friends for as long as I could remember—had promised the use of their trucks, along with whatever physical strength was necessary. We would take care of it all together, much as we’d done almost everything over the years, at least until I made it to the NHL. These days I wasn’t always around to help them out when they needed it, but if I could help, I did.
Second, I wanted to spend every spare moment with my little girl, Marley Lynn. I didn’t know what Mia’s plans for the holidays might be, but she’d have to adjust them. Mia might have custody, but Marley was my daughter, too. A daughter I hadn’t seen in months, not since she was just beginning to crawl. Marley was over a year old and she was walking. I had missed so much already, and I’d be damned if I’d let my ex keep my daughter from me while I was in town and could spend time with her. I’d lost so much time already that I’d never be able to get back. I didn’t even know if she’d remember me—I mean, I Skyped with her sometimes, but that wasn’t the same as being live and in the flesh, and during the season we didn’t get enough time off to travel home very often—but I couldn’t worry about that or I’d just tear myself up worse.
And third, I had a meeting scheduled with my lawyer so we could file a formal petition with the courts for joint custody. Mia had been granted full custody at first, because she was breast feeding and my life was far from stable—I had played for eight different NHL teams in the last five years—but things were changing now.
Marley was eating solid foods, and it looked like I might have finally found a home with the Storm. I had contacted a reputable nanny service and knew that I could take care of Marley if she came to stay with me for short visits. I wanted to be able to have longer visits with my little girl—at least something more than the nonexistent ones I was currently receiving.
I was supposed to get a couple of hours a few days a week, but since I wasn’t even in the same country as Mia and my daughter, those visits weren’t happening other than during the offseason, so really only three or four months out of the year. At the very least, I wanted the courts to order Mia to bring my daughter to me on occasion. I’d pay for it, but going for months on end without even seeing my baby, without hearing her infectious giggle was killing me. It was bad enough that I hadn’t heard Mia laugh, hadn’t seen her smile, in so long I almost couldn’t remember how her eyes lit up. If we kept going like this, the same would be true for Marley. I’d be damned if I was going to let that happen.
All of this was running through my head for the thousandth time as I headed for the regional airport’s baggage claim. I didn’t have a checked bag to collect since I would only be here a few days, but it was where my buddies would be waiting for me.
I saw Zach first when I rounded the corner. Actually, it was only Zach. No Jason. It was well after midnight by the time my flight got in, and the late hour was visible in the lines around Zach’s eyes. He had followed in his father’s footsteps and gone into construction after his dreams of pursuing a hockey career had been dashed, although he’d taken it much farther than his dad ever had. Zach built custom homes. In fact, he’d built the very home that Mia was currently living in. He’d probably worked a full day, ten hours or maybe even more, before coming to pick me up. That didn’t stop him from reaching for my hand and slapping the other on my back as he pulled me close in a hug.
“Mitchell Fucking Quincey. You look like ass,” he said, laughing.
“I look better than you.” I sniffed. “I smell better than you, too. You couldn’t take a shower before coming to get me?” He didn’t smell bad, actually, but that was just the way things had always been between us. If we weren’t insulting each other, then there were bound to be real problems.
“Thought I’d bring a little of the job with me, make you feel at home.” He took the handle of my carry-on bag and headed toward the parking lot.
“What’s up with Jason?”
“Fatherhood changes a man,” he said with a beleaguered sigh. “Now I have double confirmation of that fact.”
“Changing diapers, then.”
Jason and his wife had just had their first child, a boy named Simon, about two months ago. I still hadn’t seen the little guy other than in pictures and videos.
I took my gloves and toque from my coat pockets as I walked alongside him, settling them in place before we hit the bracing cold outside. As usual in Manitoba, we were definitely going to have a white Christmas. The snow had blown into drifts almost as high as my waist. I double checked to be sure my coat was buttoned all the way to the top. Being home in the winter made me appreciate the mild Portland weather even more than I usually did.
“Something like that. Shana promised you could have him tomorrow, though.” Zach put my bag in the back of his truck and we both climbed in. “You haven’t changed your mind about anything, have you?” he asked as he pulled out onto the road.
Changed my mind? I wasn’t the one who’d wanted to end things. Even if I had, the divorce had been final for months now. What was there for me to change my mind about? I gave my friend a fuck-off look when he glanced over at me.
“All right, Q,” he said, forcing a laugh back into his tone. “I just thought maybe if you left a few things over there…”
“It’d give me an excuse to drop by? Having my gym equipment cluttering up her house isn’t going to change anything. All it’ll do is have her badgering me about getting it out of her way. She doesn’t want me.”
And that stung like a motherfucker, because there wasn’t a goddamn thing I wanted more than Mia and Marley. I wanted my family back.
She’d claimed that it was all the moves, that they had created too much stress for her, having to go from team to team and city to city. Just as soon as she felt settled and comfortable, as soon as she had a few friends she could talk to, I’d get traded. Or I wouldn’t be re-signed to my team and I’d hit the free agency market, and we’d be on the move again. There was definitely some truth to that. It had been hard on both of us, maybe harder on her because she didn’t have the built-in new friendships that my teammates provided, and because she was the one having to deal with the logistics of moving our house and changing our address.
I was fairly certain that there was more involved than what she’d told me, though. She’d always made friends easily, and she adapted to change better than anyone I’d ever known. I should know. We’d been together since we were in high school. Everyone had always said we were meant to be together, that they couldn’t imagine one of us without the other. In the beginning of our marriage, I knew exactly what they meant. But then things had started to change. Mia stopped being the smiling, laughing, easy-going, sexy, flirty girl I’d fallen in love with. That girl was still in there somewhere. She had to be. I just didn’t know how deeply she was buried or how to bring her back to the surface.
“You know who does still want you?” Zach said, bringing me back from my ruminations. I shrugged, lifting a brow in question, which only made him chuckle. “Vanessa Hough. Next time I see Q, I’m going to sweep him off his feet. He won’t know what hit him,” he mimicked in a high-pitched squeal.
“Naughty ‘Nessa?” Whether I was still in love with Mia or not, there wasn’t a frozen chance in hell I would fall for Vanessa Hough and her numerous charms. She was one of those women who would screw anything with two legs and a dick if she thought that dick might be her ticket out of Brandon.
“The one and only.”
“That she would, my friend. That she would.” Zach pulled up in front of his constantly-a-work-in-progress house and killed the engine. He spent so much time making everyone else’s dream houses that he never had enough time to dedicate to his own place. “She’s pretty good, actually. Might not be the worst thing you could do. Screw Vanessa’s brains out. Move on from Mia.”
I’d been trying to move on from Mia for months, though, and I doubted taking Vanessa Hough to bed would do anything to make it any easier.
I couldn’t help but note that Zach spoke like he had experience of a particular kind with Vanessa. “You’ve slept with her?”
He shrugged, climbing out of his truck. “Once. Almost a decade ago, when I was home for the summer.”
It would have been while he was playing major junior hockey, then—after he’d been drafted. Eventually, he’d suffered a concussion that had ended any hope he might have had to play in the NHL. Maybe it was after he’d known that chance was gone.
“She help you move on from anything?” I asked dryly. I followed him up the steps to his house, carrying my bag. It was too late to drop by my parents’ house. Too late to go to Mia’s and demand time with my daughter. I was going to crash here for the night and get started on my list of tasks in the morning.
“Nah,” he said. “But at least for a little while, I didn’t care.”
I’d like to not care. Somehow, though, I doubted that ending up in Naughty ‘Nessa’s bed would be cathartic.
“Marley, no!” I said in my best mommy voice. I seemed to say that more than just about anything these days. Once my daughter had started walking, she was suddenly able to get into absolutely everything. Sometimes it felt like she got into it all at the same time. I didn’t know how it was possible.
I’d turned my back for about 2.09 seconds so I could clean up after breakfast. That was all it took for her to grab the cat’s tail, causing Inigo to let out an ear-splitting yowl and race up the Christmas tree. The tree had come crashing down, of course, because that was just how today was going to go.
I raced back into the living room to find that—thankfully—the tree hadn’t landed on my daughter, and Inigo seemed to have escaped her clutches and found somewhere to hide. We had named him Inigo Montoya, after the character from The Princess Bride, because he had markings on both cheeks that looked like scars. Also, the tree didn’t appear to have started a fire or set off a flood, so we should be all right in the long and short term.
Marley looked up at me and giggled, pushing up from the floor into a standing position. She tottered over to me and lifted her arms, and I hauled her free from the disaster zone, brushing my hair out of my eyes.
“How am I supposed to get showered and dressed and make both of us pretty for Gram and Papa if I can’t leave you alone for three seconds?” I asked.
She answered me with a sticky kiss. It tasted like applesauce. I thought I’d cleaned her up before I let her loose, but now that I took a closer look I could see the remnants of her breakfast still clinging to her chin and cheeks.
“I should probably just take you into the shower with me, huh?”
Before she could answer that in any way, the doorbell rang. Who on earth would be here at this hour of the day? And on Christmas Eve, no less. I looked down at myself, scowling at the grungy pj’s covered in applesauce and Lord only knew what else Marley had gotten into. It wasn’t worth trying to sort myself out, though. Everyone in this town knew everyone else, so they all knew I was a divorced mom with a baby. If they wanted me to look presentable, then they needed to send a babysitter and a construction crew.
I planted Marley on my hip and crossed to the front door, not bothering to look through the peephole before throwing it open.
I should have looked.
I really, really should have looked.
Because if I had, I would have known that it was Mitch, and I would have double-checked that the deadbolt was secured and pretended I wasn’t at home. But I hadn’t done that. And now here he was.
On my doorstep.
Looking good enough to eat.
Staring at me the way he always had, like I was good enough to eat, even though I was in grungy, applesauce-covered pj’s with my hair an absolute wreck and a destroyed Christmas tree all over the floor and had no idea how I was supposed to react to him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded. I should have at least said something polite first. Hi. How’s it going? I miss you—God, how I miss you—so I need you to leave.
The corners of his lips twitched, a tic he’d had since we were teenagers, and he shoved his gloved hands into his coat pockets. “Christmas break. I came to move all that gym equipment you’ve been bugging me about.”
“At 8:30 in the morning? You should have called,” I said, helplessly looking at the disorder surrounding me.
Mitch’s eyes followed mine and landed on the overturned tree and the decorations that had been flung halfway across the room. Then he looked at me again, letting his eyes rove over my grungy attire and frizzy hair and the mess of a baby in my arms, and I felt like the biggest failure as a mother. I wanted to explain it all away. I wanted to be sure he knew Marley and I didn’t live like this, that it had all happened right before he’d rung the bell. But really, only the disaster of the tree had been a last-minute thing. Everything else just was.
He cut me off by reaching for our daughter, who giggled and kissed his cheek, and then giggled some more because he hadn’t shaved in a few days and had a decent accumulation of scratchy stubble. His eyes lit up at the sound, and he pushed inside so that I had to back out of the way or he’d barrel over me. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder, and only then did I realize that Jason and Zach, his two best friends, were behind him. “There’s a lot more to do in here than I knew.”
Mitch made his way into the living room as if he owned the place, which technically, he did. He sat Marley down on the couch and put her favorite—and disgustingly filthy—teddy bear in her arms while the other guys came in, winking at me as they moved into the living room. Without any of them saying a word, they took off their winter gear and set to work sorting out the Christmas tree and decorations and the mess I’d been trying to clean up from breakfast, leaving me standing there and staring.
“Why don’t you go get a shower?” Mitch said to me after a minute.
I let out a frustrated huff. “I can do this,” I said feebly, but it made me sound ungrateful for their help, which stung because I actually appreciated their help.
“I know you can.” He grabbed Marley around the waist and lifted her high up over his head until she squealed out loud. She had climbed down from the sofa and had been tottering at a run toward the tree they’d just righted, and he’d stopped her before she had a chance to cause more damage as though it had been the easiest thing in the world for him to do. That only made me feel like a bigger failure as a mother. He caught my eye as he passed Marley off to Jason. “Go on. We’ve got this under control. Take a few minutes for yourself. We should have this all sorted out by then. We can talk when you’re done.”
A few minutes of my own were exactly what the doctor ordered, but it irked that he knew it. Did I look that much of a disaster?
I nodded, skirting around the mess and heading toward the master bedroom. “If you need—”
“We won’t need anything,” Mitch said. “We’ll be just fine.” I gave him a dubious look, and he added, “I may not get to spend much time with Marley, but I promise I can watch her for fifteen minutes with two other adults to help without allowing her to die.”
“That’s not fair, Mitch. I don’t think that,” I argued.
He met my gaze, his unwavering and thoroughly inscrutable. “I know you don’t. I’m sorry.” Then he shrugged, and his features softened, and it was impossible to be mad at him when he looked at me that way. “Will you please let me take care of something for you, just this once?”
It was never just this once, though. Mitch had always taken care of things for me, for almost as long as I could remember. He walked into the room, and everything that had seemed overwhelming and earth-shattering and unmanageable suddenly slowed down and settled into order. He made it possible for me to breathe.
In fact, until he’d walked through the door a few minutes ago, I hadn’t realized that I’d stopped breathing. How long had I gone without filling my lungs? I couldn’t even remember, which probably said a lot.
I must have stood there staring for too long because he closed the distance between us. Before I could prepare myself, he lifted one hand to my cheek. It was all I could do not to press into him, to beg for more of his touch, but I somehow refrained.
With the tip of his thumb, he brushed against my skin. “Sticky,” he said quietly.
“Applesauce,” I replied, mentally berating myself for the flutters of awareness and need racing through my veins.
He kept his eyes locked on mine as he put the tip of his thumb into his mouth and licked it clean. “So it is. Go get a shower, Mia.”
I raced down the hall, not because I was in a hurry to clean up, but because I didn’t trust myself not to push up onto my tiptoes and kiss him, and that would be the worst thing I could possibly do.