Tough-as-nails Portland Storm head coach Mattias Bergstrom is hard on his players, molding them into heroes on the ice. He’d never let them see his warm, soft side—something he saves only for his younger sister, who has special needs. But when a hockey event brings a sexy, single mother and her four rambunctious daughters into his life, that icy exterior quickly melts away for her youngest, who reminds him of his dear sister.
Paige Calhoun has her hands full with four teenage daughters who are beyond boy crazy. Throw crushes on hockey players into the mix, and they’re almost too much to handle. But when Paige meets the Storm’s all-business but irresistible coach, she finds herself as smitten as her girls, and Mattias couldn’t be happier. With a Home Ice advantage, Mattias lets his icy exterior melt away to prove to Paige how hot they can be together.
“Oh my God.” My eldest daughter, Zoe, stopped dead in her tracks, her face completely pale as though she’d just seen a ghost.
Her sudden halt caused a pileup of my girls, all screeching to a standstill right beside her. The huge crowd surrounding us in the concourse at the Moda Center—all here for the Portland Storm’s StormSkillz Competition, the same as we were—nearly ran our little group over in their quest to get food and drinks and get to their seats for the day of family fun.
Clueless as to what led my girls to cause a traffic jam, I took a cursory look around, but all I could see was the ocean of purple and silver jerseys jockeying for position. Nothing stood out as being anything that should cause that kind of reaction in my sixteen-year-old daughter. “What?” I asked, since I didn’t have the first inkling what was going on.
Zoe looked like she might have stopped breathing.
Her younger sisters had figured it out, though. Evie, my fifteen-year-old, clutched her older sister’s hand and let out a squeal, her face turning twenty-seven shades of pink and red with excitement. “It’s Levi Babcock! Right there.”
Well, that explained it. My girls were seriously boy crazy—all four of them—and Levi Babcock was their obsession du jour. Zoe was even wearing a Storm jersey that had “Future Mrs.” as the name and 501 as the number. Apparently, everyone called him 501 because of his name and the jeans, or something like that. I had a hard time keeping up with all the preoccupations kids talked about these days. There was just too much on my plate.
I spun around, and that was when I found him—tall, broad, dark-haired, wearing a designer suit. A few other men in suits were around him, which made them stand out among the jersey-clad fans filling up the building. They were probably all players, or at least involved with the team in some way. Why else would they be in suits? My girls didn’t have eyes for any of them but Levi, though. In recent years, I had come to learn that female teens had a certain type of hormone that produced single-minded determination in a way that I didn’t quite recall experiencing. Surely I couldn’t have been too different from my girls, though. Maybe I’d just blocked it all from memory due to embarrassment.
The young Storm defenseman should probably run away, and fast, because I didn’t know if I would be able to control all four of my hormone-riddled daughters, and if they got their hands on him… I shook my head. I’d probably be doing good to keep any one of them in check, but all four? The end result could be disastrous for the young man.
Zoe’s jaw was hanging open, her eyes popping out of her head in a way that was downright comical; Evie was practically hyperventilating, her skin flushed; Izzy, my thirteen-year-old, had started bouncing in circles and was talking in a nonstop stream of high-pitched babble that sounded like oh-Mom-can-we-go-meet-him-and-get-his-autograph-and-kidnap-him-right-now-please-I-promise-I’ll-take-good-care-of-him-he-can-be-my-first-brother-husband-then-we-just-have-to-kidnap-Kaner-and-Seguin-and-Torey-Krug-too.
And then there was my youngest, eleven-year-old Sophie. As with everything in life, Sophie was a special case. She stopped alongside her sisters long enough for it to seep in that her crush was standing not twenty feet away from us, and then she was off like a shot.
“Shit,” I muttered beneath my breath, taking off after her and calling out, “Sophie, stop right this second! Help me with your sister,” I added over my shoulder to the other three, in the hope that they could pull themselves together enough to do what needed to be done.
I needed all hands on deck, because when Sophie had her mind set on something, it was next to impossible to veer her off her intended course. A mean stubborn streak went along with the territory with my youngest, as was common in kids who had Down syndrome. Not that she was mean; she was just obstinate about getting what she wanted. She was actually one of the sweetest, kindest, most loving and loveable kids I’d ever known, but at the moment, she wanted to give all of her love—whether it was welcome or not—to an unsuspecting Levi Babcock.
“Levi!” she shouted as she raced toward him, ducking between people traveling in every direction around her. She only had eyes for her prey, though, oblivious to everything else going on.
Levi swiveled his head around, trying to determine where the voice had come from, and caught sight of her just in time. He broke into an easy grin, but I doubted he understood that he was her intended target and was about to get pummeled with affection. Sophie launched herself at him, and he barely got his arms out and ready to catch her in time, his grin disappearing in exchange for wide-eyed surprise. Being smaller, stronger, and far more determined than I was, my little girl had made it through the crowd in a flash.
I pushed my way through the throng, desperate both to get to my daughter and to apologize for her overzealous behavior. A lot of people in this world just didn’t understand, and some weren’t very forgiving. I had no way of knowing which category Levi might fall into. Zoe, Evie, and Izzy were right on my tail, which was good, since I might need backup.
We arrived just in time to hear Sophie ask him, “Levi, will you marry me?”
A genuine smile lit up his features and brought out a dimple in his left cheek as he held my daughter high up in his arms. Hers were wrapped so tight around his neck that she had to be making breathing difficult, but he didn’t seem to mind. No wonder my girls were all head over heels in puppy love with this guy. I probably would be, too, if I were their age.
He winked at Sophie, and then he nodded over at me. “I’m not so sure your mom is ready to give you up just yet,” he said, deftly brushing off her proposal without doing so in a way that would hurt her feelings. “How about we see how things stand in a decade or so? You might meet someone you like better than me by then, you know. I might get old and fat and lose my hair.”
“I’ll never love anyone better than you.” Sophie put her head down on his shoulder, her expression as blissful as I’d ever seen it.
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to pry her death grip free, but she was on him like duct tape with no intention of letting go. “Sophie, honey, we have to let Levi go get ready to skate.”
“Actually, no, you don’t,” one of the other men in suits said. He had a deep, accented voice that rumbled through me, and I shot my gaze up to his, fully ready to give him a piece of my mind about telling my kid something that directly went against what I’d just told her. It was hard enough to get her to listen as it was, sometimes, and the last thing I needed was someone giving her the wrong impression.
Then I started suffering from a case of the same hormonal chaos that had taken over my daughters. I had no idea who this man was—huge, muscled, with a strong jaw and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair that was perfectly styled, not to mention blue-gray eyes that had no business being anywhere but the bedroom—but simply looking at him stole my ability to form a more coherent thought than unh at the same time as it made my knees suddenly go weak.
This was trouble. I had too much on my hands already to deal with jumping back in time to my own teen years.
Then he smiled at me, and I feared I might thoroughly disgrace myself in front of my girls and let rapid-onset jelly-legs syndrome take over my life. I hadn’t gone gaga over a man in years, but apparently I wasn’t immune to it.
“Mom, I told you I was gonna marry Levi,” Sophie said, her smile bright enough to light up Times Square at New Year’s.
That was all it took to remind me I was the grown-up here, and I had a job to do. Sophie still had a death grip on Levi’s suit jacket, but he wasn’t acting anxious to be rid of his ardent and very much too young so-called fiancée.
I steeled my spine for the task at hand—figuring out a way to extricate her without either ripping his jacket or instigating a temper tantrum—and reached for her again. “Maybe someday,” I said, trying to pry her stubby fingers free. “But it’s going to have to wait. He’s got to do work today.”
“That’s what I was saying,” the drop-dead gorgeous older man said.
He gently eased Sophie’s grip open and lifted her out of Levi’s arms, setting her down on the ground. More than that, she let him do that. Sophie didn’t let anyone get away with something like that so easily. There was something about this man that made her trust him, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. My hormones were leaning toward the good thing part, but trusting them to make decisions for me wasn’t something I could—or should—do.
“What were you saying?” I asked, mentally telling my hormones to get in line, or else. Ha. Like they’d ever paid attention to my threats.
“There’s nothing he has to do today except cater to you and your girls,” the older man said, grinning at Sophie.
That smile? The way he was looking at my baby girl? That was a panty-melting move for me, only I wasn’t positive he meant it to be one.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. My head’s in the clouds and I’m not quite following.”
“I’m not either,” Levi said. “What am I supposedly doing today?”
My girls all tittered nervously, blushing up a storm, just because he’d opened his mouth. He could speak gibberish, and their response would be the same. Still, he was as lost as I was about this whole thing. At least I wasn’t the only one confused.
That amazing smile turned to me. Cue panty explosion.
“Sorry. I’m Mattias Bergstrom, the Storm’s head coach.” He held out a hand, but I was too nervous to shake it.
“Paige Calhoun,” I spluttered. “And my daughters, Zoe, Evie, Izzy, and Sophie.”
Then he kept going, dropping his hand back to his side as though I hadn’t just been exceedingly rude. “In our last game, 501 got tripped up and hit his head on the goal post. He had some concussion symptoms that night, so we’ve got to hold him out of all activity for at least a week. That means he can’t take part in any of today’s events…which means he gets to be your personal companion for the day. All day long, he’s going to take care of you five ladies. He’ll take you up to the press box to show you around. He’ll sit with you through the different events and explain whatever you want him to explain. After it’s over, he’ll bring you back down to the locker room and introduce you to the boys so you can get autographs. He’s going to make today special for you and your girls.”
“He is?” I spluttered at the same time as Levi said, “I am?”
I shook my head. “There’s got to be some sort of mistake here, some confusion.” I reached for Sophie’s hand, determined to corral my girls and head toward our seats without any further boy issues. “We’ve just got regular tickets for the event. Nothing special. We should go.” I tugged on Sophie’s hand, but she didn’t budge.
“Mom,” she said in the long, drawn-out way that was unique to her when she was annoyed with me. “We’re spending the day with Levi.”
“There’s no mistake,” the coach said. “The other coaches and I will help him out where we can, but I want to make this happen.” He looked off to the side at a gray-haired man with glasses, another one of the suits who’d been listening with a good deal of interest and a slight smile. “We can make this happen, can’t we, Jim?”
“I don’t see why not,” the older man said. “Rach—”
“Not to worry. I’m already on it,” a petite redheaded woman said, stepping into our circle. Even with only those few words, I could hear her thick Southern accent. She definitely wasn’t originally from around here. She fished through a messenger bag for a moment and came up with a handful of passes on neck straps. She counted off five and handed them over to me. “Be sure you’re wearing these at all times. Just keep them around your necks. They’ll get you access to wherever Bergy wants 501 to take you.” She smiled at me, then at each of my girls. “I think y’all are going to have a great day.”
With fierce determination, Sophie released my hand, took her badge, settled it around her neck, and reached for Levi’s hand. The whole time, she was grinning from ear to ear.
I supposed that settled that. With a sigh of resignation, I handed the other girls their badges and put one around my own neck. “I guess we’re getting the royal treatment today, girls.”
Not that I didn’t want to give them the world. I did, and they knew I would do everything I could for them. I didn’t make a ton of money as a massage therapist, though, and I worked hard for every penny I earned. Their father paid child support, but that money only went so far. The only reason we were here at all today was because he had won tickets in a raffle at work, but he had to be out of town this weekend. He couldn’t bring the girls. That left it to me to corral them and herd them in the direction of our destination without veering off our course too far, as usual, and so here we were.
Coach Bergstrom winked at Sophie, and my knees almost gave out on me. There was apparently something about a man looking after my little girl like this that did me in.
“Let me have a word with 501, ladies, and then I’ll leave you in his hands.”
I jerked my head to the side for Levi Babcock to follow me a few steps away from Paige Calhoun and her daughters. He came, but not without a stowaway attached to him at the hip. Sophie, the little girl who reminded me so much of my sister, wouldn’t release his hand, leaving my young defenseman with a comically bewildered and anxious expression. Not that I could blame him for his nerves.
Much like most hockey players, Levi was better known by his nickname, 501, than by his given name. He was a lot like his older brother, Jamie, a guy everyone called Babs. They both had the sort of youthful good looks that brought out screaming teenaged girls in droves, like they were in a boy band or something. Babs was engaged to be married now, so he could always use his fiancée as an excuse to get away from his more overzealous admirers, but 501 didn’t have the same luxury. He was fair game, as far as they were concerned.
That meant he had to be careful. I understood that even if I’d never experienced anything like it myself. Some of those girls might try to trap him, and then he’d have a world of problems to sort out, both personal and potentially legal. Not something he needed to add to his plate right now. Our general manager, Jim Sutter, and I had already given him plenty to work on as soon as he was medically cleared to return to the ice. He didn’t need to add any off-ice issues to his agenda right now.
This girl was not one he needed to be wary of, though, and I didn’t need to know her personally in order to be certain of that fact.
I smiled at Sophie. She gripped 501’s hand harder and hugged her cheek to his arm, oblivious to the look of panic in his eyes or the fact that, for as much as she was holding on to him, he was doing his best not to touch her in any way. The look on her face was one of pure bliss. I doubted she would stop smiling for a week, which made it difficult to suppress my own smile.
“Are you excited to spend the day with him?” I asked.
“Mom didn’t say we would get to meet Levi,” she said. “Best surprise ever, Mr. Coach.”
“Sounds like it to me. But you can call me Bergy.” I dug out my wallet and removed a few bills, then passed them over to my young defenseman. “I’ve got a few things I have to see to before I can help you out. Take them up to the press box. Show them around, introduce them to whoever they want to meet up there, buy them some snacks and drinks. Just be yourself.” Then I thought to add, “But watch your language. I’ll be up to join you before everything gets started.”
The kid looked like a lost puppy, to the point I was tempted to pet him. Something told me Sophie might take care of that for me if the idea came to her. I knew better than to be the one to plant the idea in her head.
“You’ll be fine,” I promised him. “They’re just girls. Besides, they’ve got their mother with them.”
Based on what I’d seen so far, I had no doubt Paige Calhoun was the sort of mother who would prevent her daughters from doing anything that would put 501 in harm’s way. Even now, she was watching Sophie like a hawk, not that there was anything to worry about. She should be more worried about me and 501 doing something to Sophie, since she didn’t know us at all, but her focus was squarely on making sure her daughter didn’t do anything she shouldn’t.
I understood it better than most. Growing up with a younger sister born with Down syndrome gave me a good grasp on the single-minded determination those kids could have, not to mention the fact that they often missed social cues that other kids would pick up. But I also knew they tended to have hearts of gold.
The thing was, underneath it all, they were just like the rest of us. They were just people, and that meant Sophie was just a girl like any other her age in so many ways. She had hormones and would experience crushes and love and heartache the same as everyone else. And right now? She had the opportunity to spend the whole day with her crush. I’d be damned if I didn’t do whatever it took to make it a memorable day for her and her entire family. If I could have done something similar for Linnea when she was this age, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
“You’re sure, Bergy?” 501 said, looking at me like I was a madman. And maybe he was right about that. “I mean… This is… I don’t—”
“Positive,” Sophie responded, despite the fact that he hadn’t asked her anything at all. She tightened her grip on him. “You’re my date.”
I arched a brow and nodded. “I think Sophie’s got the right of it.” I clapped a hand on 501’s shoulder in encouragement and nudged him in the direction of Sophie’s mother and sisters. “All right,” I said once we were next to them again, unable to stop myself from looking in Paige’s direction. Paige’s allure was far different from Sophie’s but no less magnetic. I needed to watch myself around her. For all I knew, she was married. Even if she wasn’t, that meant she was a single mother. Either way, she had a hell of a lot more in her life that needed her focus than me finding her attractive. I smiled for her. Couldn’t stop myself, actually. “Looks like you’re all set. I’ll be up to help out in a bit, but in the meantime, you’re in good hands.”
The oldest of the daughters looked like she was about to pass out, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from 501. One of the others was having the opposite reaction to being near him, nearly bursting out of her skin with the sort of exuberance and overabundance of energy that could only come from teenage hormones.
But even though her girls certainly drew my eye momentarily, it was Paige who held my attention. She had the most amazing long hair that fell straight down her back, almost pure black in color and as thick and luxurious as I’d ever seen. She was petite and fit, and she seemed to know that she was gorgeous exactly as she was, not bothering with more than a light dusting of makeup.
Her uneasiness over the current situation appeared to be getting the best of her, as she shifted from foot to foot and reached up to resituate the strap of her purse over her shoulder. That action drew my eye to her hand. More specifically, to her ring finger. Which was bare. I wasn’t sure why I’d bothered to notice that, but I had. And she saw the recognition hit my face, too, if her sudden blinking was any indication.
But then she shook her head, as if that would be enough to brush whatever was bothering her aside. Her expression was as apologetic as I’d ever seen, which was saying something. My own mother had spent years apologizing for Linnea, even though there’d been no damned good reason to apologize, before she’d finally broken the habit. Something told me Paige hadn’t managed that feat yet. She opened her mouth, but I cut her off before she could tell me she was sorry. That was the last thing she needed to say, and I definitely didn’t need to hear it.
“My sister has Down syndrome,” I said.
I wasn’t sure why I told her that other than it was the first thing that came to mind and the only thing that came to my lips in time to stop her apology. And it worked. She snapped her mouth closed, and everything about her appearance changed in an instant. Her hazel eyes softened, and she dropped her hand to her side instead of attempting to force Sophie to release 501’s arm.
“Does she?” Paige asked.
Sophie lit up. “You have a sister, Bergy? Where is she? I want to meet her.”
I chuckled. “She’s in Sweden. I don’t think you’ll be able to meet her today.”
“Okay. Maybe tomorrow.”
“I don’t know about that,” Paige said. “You have to go back to school on Monday.”
“Can Levi come to school with me? I want to show him to my friends.”
With that, 501 tensed up.
“I bet we can get some pictures to show your friends,” I said, and he started breathing again. I glanced at my watch. “But for you, I think you should go have some fun with him.”
“Okay,” Sophie said. She took off walking in the wrong direction, dragging 501 alongside her. The rest of the Calhouns followed in their wake.
Somehow, 501 must have convinced Sophie that he knew a better way of getting to their ultimate destination, because they turned around and shuffled past me heading in the appropriate direction.
“Give me twenty minutes,” I called out as they passed me by.
501 nodded, wide-eyed, but it was Paige’s expression that once again drew my eye. She seemed completely and utterly perplexed as her head swiveled so she could take me in.
And now, whether it was a good idea or not, I really wanted to get to know her.