Hockey star Liam Kallen lost his scoring touch when his wife died. Still broken up over her loss, Liam’s darkness overpowers him, but his new team—the Portland Storm—needs him. A chance meeting brings him face to face with Noelle Payne, the most positive and upbeat woman he’s ever met, and his darkness begins to fade.
There’s never been a challenge that Noelle can’t conquer. Brightside optimist to a fault, Noelle refuses to succumb to the luxurious life Liam can give her, as she longs to find deeper meaning and purpose in her life. Now it’s up to Liam to open up and show her that she’s the light he’s needed all along—giving her the greatest purpose of all. He might have saved her, but can Noelle be the light that saves him?
I was about to cross over the Hawthorne Bridge when I saw hazard lights blinking on a car up ahead, the bright yellow flash jarring against the darkness of the night. The car had pulled into the cross section between the highway and the exit before it had stopped, which was the worst place to break down short of blocking a lane of traffic. This spot wasn’t really a shoulder, and it was directly over the bridge.
People used those spots to make ill-advised passes sometimes, almost causing wrecks in the process. Earlier tonight, while I was out exploring the city, I’d witnessed someone making a last-second exit by cutting across the exact spot where this car was stopped.
I tried not to worry too much because I didn’t know this person. At first I succeeded because it looked like whoever had been in the car was gone. I assumed the driver must have turned on the hazards, popped open the hood to see what the problem was, and then left the car like that. Maybe someone had stopped to give them a ride.
But as I got closer in my rental car, my heart stopped.
A woman came around from in front of the old Buick and opened the back door on the driver’s side. She kneeled down to the pavement, the free-flowing, flowery skirt of her dress and her unbound blonde hair flying from the wind of speeding traffic. Her bare feet and the open car door were actually in the lane closest to her while she searched for God only knew what.
Images of Livia flashed through my mind—my beautiful, sweet wife Liv, who had never wanted to leave our native Sweden but eventually did it for me. Thinking about her always brought a sharp ache to my chest. Then came the even more painful images of the wreckage, the ones they’d flashed across the news in the immediate aftermath and that the hockey media kept showing every time they talked about my inability to score since the accident.
I swallowed hard and blinked rapidly. Crying and driving would never be a good combination. Besides, it had been over a year and a half. I should be able to think about her without losing it now, shouldn’t I? I had to get it together.
Before I had grasped what I was doing, I’d slowed my car and pulled off onto the shoulder just as I passed the woman and her vehicle. As soon as I came to a stop, I put my rental in park, turned on the hazard lights, and got out, racing back to her with the headlights of the oncoming traffic nearly blinding me.
By the time I was close enough for her to hear my voice, she’d stood up again and closed the car door. She was returning to the front of the old Buick with a flashlight in one hand and what looked like a gallon jug of water in the other.
“Miss?” I shouted into the wind and noise.
Her head shot up, and she smiled at me. “I’m fine!” she called out. “My engine just got too hot. I’m going to add some water and let the radiator cool off for a few minutes.”
I didn’t stop jogging until I reached her. “Why don’t you come somewhere safe with me while you wait for it to cool?” I asked, cringing at the sense of desperation in my voice. You’d think that by the age of thirty-four I would have better control of myself. I bit down on the inside of my cheek, hoping that would help me to calm down. She would think I was a madman if I didn’t relax, and then there would be no way I could convince her to come with me. “You can’t stay here,” I said once I thought I had reined myself in again. “I can drive you away from the highway and we can call for someone to help with your car.”
She blinked at me a couple of times, and I was struck by the blue of her eyes. They were so bright and clear as to be startling. Her smile, though—that wasn’t just startling; it was striking.
This woman isn’t Liv, I reminded myself, and her appearance ought to help me to remember that. This woman, for as beautiful as she was, looked nothing like Liv. I didn’t have the first clue who she was. There was no black ice on the roads; it had been a gorgeous spring day today, and there wasn’t a cloud blocking the moon or stars in the sky, even though a cool breeze was blowing. I had no way of knowing how many drivers out on the roads tonight had been drinking, but the fact remained that this was an entirely different situation.
It had to be. I was here, and I hadn’t been with Liv. I would never be with Liv again.
The woman gave me a wary look. Which she ought to do. What the fuck was I thinking? A young woman alone on the highway at night, and some strange guy races up to her and insists on taking her somewhere “safe”? For all she knew, I was a rapist or a murderer. God only knew what else might’ve been going through her mind.
“I’m really fine,” she said evasively but without any fear tinting her words. It was all very matter-of-fact. She smiled again, a bright enough smile to make my heart jolt back to life. “It happens sometimes, but I know how to deal with it. Once I add some water, it’ll be cool enough in another ten or fifteen minutes, and then I can go. Thank you for offering to help, though.”
She edged past me, her long skirt swirling around her ankles as she made her way to the front of the car. Without hesitation, she unscrewed the jug’s cap and started emptying the water into her engine. A hiss sounded as soon as the water made contact, and I could make out white steam trailing up into the chilly night air.
Ten or fifteen minutes? There were far too many possibilities of awful things that could happen to her in that much time, and my mind raced through each of them indiscriminately.
“Add the water and come with me then,” I urged. “I’ll bring you back in fifteen minutes. I swear I’m not a serial killer or anything. I just want you to be safe.”
She finished pouring the water into the hole and put the lid back on the jug, and then she turned to me. She smiled again, like she had when I’d first called out to her. It was all lightness and peace coming away from her, the complete opposite of me lately. Her blue eyes sparkled like the stars in the sky over us.
“I don’t think you’re a serial killer. You’re too perfect to be a serial killer. Aren’t they all supposed to be kind of strange?” She laughed, a tinkling sound that made me think of the wind chimes Liv had kept outside our house near Gothenburg.
We used to leave the windows open when I was home in the summers so the cool air could wash over us, and those chimes would play their music all night long while I held her. So many of those nights, I had lain awake watching her, praying for a way to convince her to come with me during the National Hockey League’s season. It had taken me years to get her to come. She’d wanted to stay in Gothenburg with her family and her work and her wind chimes. I should have let her stay. If I had, she would still be there when I went home each summer.
“I’m not,” I finally said. God, that sounded stupid.
But she smiled again before slipping past me to put the jug back in her car. She didn’t look at me as though I was behaving like an idiot. When she returned to the front of the Buick, she leaned back and rested her hip against the front bumper.
It seemed like she might never stop smiling, at least in these few short moments I’d been in her presence. Happiness and light billowed off her in waves, making me more determined than I already had been to be sure nothing happened to her. The good things in life—the really sweet and joyful and delightful—needed to be protected. They seemed to be in short supply, at least around me.
“So now you just have to wait?” I said.
I spun around, looking in all directions for somewhere safe I could take her. Not too far up ahead, just off the service road, there was an office building with a well-lit parking lot. A shopping center or a gas station would be better, with lots of people milling around, but right now I’d take anything. That lot was the best bet out of anything within sight.
I pointed to it. “Look, I’ll just take you right over there. We can sit there for a little while and then I’ll bring you back to your car and wait to see if you can get it running. If you can’t, I’ll call for a tow truck, take you home—whatever. I just can’t let you stay here.”
I had been on a road trip with my team when Liv had died. I hadn’t been there to do anything about it. I hadn’t been able to help her. But this woman… I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I went home and turned on the news to find out something had happened to her, not when I’d been right here and could have gotten her to safety.
She looked back over her shoulder at her car, her gaze lingering for a long time while she nibbled on her lower lip as if she couldn’t decide what to do. What was that about? The car wasn’t going anywhere. The engine block was still smoking and steaming, and the hood was still raised. It didn’t make any sense to me.
But then she turned to face me again, biting down hard on her lip. “All right,” she said hesitantly. “I suppose it’ll be okay if we leave it for a few minutes. We’re just going over to that lot?” she asked, pointing.
Thank God she was finally starting to come to her senses on this. I didn’t want to have to haul her away kicking and screaming. Then someone would think I was trying to hurt her. “Yes. We won’t be far. I’ll bring you straight back here in a little while.”
After a moment, she nodded, but it didn’t seem all that decisive. “All right. Let me just get…get my purse…” She moved to the passenger side door and rummaged around in the front seat for a moment. It took a little longer than I’d expected for her to simply grab her purse, but eventually she came out with a light jacket draped over her arm, a small bag with the strap slung across her body, and a pair of shoes.
When she got back to me, I turned around and headed toward my rental car. Her legs were shorter than mine, and she wasn’t in anywhere near as much of a hurry to get out of there as I was, so I reached it well before she did. I opened the passenger-side door and waited for her to get in. The skirt of her dress kept trying to fly away in the wind, and it took her a minute to get it under control and pull it all inside the vehicle. As soon as she did, I closed her door and raced around to the driver’s side. I pulled my seat belt on and checked all my mirrors to see when it was safe to pull out. Once the traffic cleared enough, I put the car into drive and accelerated.
“I’m Noelle, by the way,” she said once we were moving. “Noelle Payne.”
“Liam Kallen,” I replied, checking my rearview mirror again. We’d barely merged before we were essentially on top of the exit.
“It’s really nice of you to stop and help me. Not many people around here would do that. But then you’re not from around here.”
I shot a glance over at her as I flipped on my turn signal. “Most people don’t pick up on my accent anymore.” As with most students in Sweden, I’d studied English since early in my schooling. Living in New York for so many years had virtually eliminated my accent, or so I’d thought. Maybe people were just being nice to me, not mentioning it anymore.
Noelle shrugged. “It’s not heavy, but I hear it. Where are you from?”
She nodded with that now-familiar smile curling her lips, and I steered us to the access road. Two more turns in quick succession had us pulling into the parking lot. Seven or eight other cars were parked there, but the huge lot was almost empty. It was a Saturday night, and I was somewhat surprised that there were even that many cars here at all on the weekend, especially at night.
I pulled into a spot and put the car in park. I’d made sure we were facing the split on the highway where we’d left her Buick. We sat there in silence for a minute—long enough that it was starting to feel really awkward.
“Were you on your way to a date?” I asked to break the tension. She raised a brow in question, so I gestured toward her dress. “Or maybe coming home from one?” I added.
Noelle shook her head. “I had a job interview in Salem late this afternoon.”
“Do you think you got the job?” I asked. I couldn’t help but be insanely aware that she wasn’t looking at me at all; her focus was directed at her car. Maybe she had something in it that she didn’t want stolen? With it sitting where it was, though, I couldn’t imagine anyone but a police officer coming along. Not until sometime in the wee hours of the morning, at least, when there was no traffic on the roads to speak of, and by then we should have it moved—whether I called for someone to tow it or she was able to drive it away.
Her eyes flicked over to me for a moment, but then she returned to her vigil. “Nope. I don’t have the right experience, they said.” She fidgeted with her bag, shifting it on her lap and fingering it in a way that made me think she was reassuring herself that it was in her possession. “Why’d you move here from Sweden?” she asked a moment later.
“I’m a hockey player. I play in the National Hockey League.” And that was why my wife was dead. Liv had given up her whole life to be with me, and now I’d lost everything important in mine. Everything except hockey, and I might lose that before too much longer if I couldn’t get myself together.
Noelle smiled at me again, just long enough to make me think about how her smile and her laugh and her voice all matched so perfectly. They worked together to become something musical in a thoroughly distracting way. It seemed as though she had to be from somewhere else, not from this earth. I’d never met anyone like her.
She faced forward again, staring out at the highway and her car. “My brothers are big fans of the Portland Storm,” she said.
“That’s the team I play for now.” I’d spent almost twelve full seasons playing for the New York Islanders, right up until a couple of weeks ago. They’d finally given up on me. I’d only scored three goals in the year and a half since Liv had died. Who knew how long I’d be in Portland? If I couldn’t figure out how to score again, it wouldn’t be for very long, no matter how much time was left on my contract.
“That’s nice,” she said in that tinkling, dreamy kind of way she had, but it didn’t seem as if she was blowing me off or putting an end to the conversation. She just really thought it was nice, I guess. She glanced down at the clock on my dashboard. “Maybe we should start heading—”
She cut herself off so suddenly and her eyes got so wide that I shot my head up to see what had upset her. A little sports car had zipped in front of a pickup truck to get off at the exit where Noelle’s car was broken down. The truck driver lost control, and we could only watch—almost in slow motion—as he crashed into her car.
It burst into flames on contact.
Thank fuck I’d gotten her away from there.
They always talk about how your life flashes before your eyes right before you die, how you see all the important moments zipping by one at a time.
That was close, and yet not close at all, to what I was experiencing. This was watching my entire life, or what was left of it, go up in flames. I didn’t think I was going to die—we were far enough away from the wreck, so we weren’t going to be hurt by the smoke or fire—but everything inside me felt like it was melting from the heat of the blaze and dripping right out through the tips of my toes.
It was one of the most surreal things I’d ever experienced in my life, and it took me right back to the day I’d gotten the call that my parents had died. I’d been a freshman in college, and the call came from a neighbor who’d been watching my two teenaged brothers while my parents came to visit me for the weekend. They never made it to the dorm. For that matter, they never got out of Oregon.
Both then and now, nothing felt real. I pinched my forearm to bring myself back to the present.
“Oh, thank God,” Liam said next to me.
He said it like a fervent prayer, but I wasn’t so sure I was capable of being thankful. Not right now. Not when I knew all the things that were burning inside my car and that I would never see them again. Not when I was trying to catalog the memories those things were attached to since I would no longer have the physical reminders.
He leaned back in his seat, visibly shaking as he turned to look at me, his eyes scanning my face as though he was seeing a ghost, as though he was seeing someone from his past and not me. He’d only known me for a grand total of fifteen minutes. There couldn’t be any big, emotional attachment to me worthy of the way he was looking at me. It was unnerving. “Thank God I got you away from there,” he said softly.
I was still alive, of course. There was that. And life wasn’t any small matter. I nodded because I couldn’t seem to find my voice, and I clutched my purse even closer to me, feeling its meager contents brushing against my fingertips through the threadbare fabric. This was all I had left. My almost-empty pocketbook, the wallet-sized photo album that they’d found in Dad’s pockets, the keys to my now burnt-to-a-crisp car, and Mom’s wedding ring. Other than the clothes on my back and the jacket I had almost left in the passenger seat of my car, this was it. Well, this and my brothers, but they were both far away from here and oblivious to all that I’d lost in the last few months. All that we’d lost.
“I… Wow,” Liam said. He dragged a hand down over his face, his palm scraping against his five-o’clock shadow. “I never expected… Are you okay?”
I was fine. As fine as anyone could be after watching something like that. I smiled, determined to look for the positive, and I gave him a confident nod. Getting caught up in negativity never helped anyone.
“You’re not all right,” he said when I remained silent. “You’re smiling, but you can’t be all right. Not after—” He reached awkwardly over the center console as though he wanted to hold my hand but then pulled his arm back to rest in his lap. “Sorry. I just don’t know what to do…how to help.”
Flashing lights filled the highway surrounding my flaming car—police cars, a fire truck, an ambulance—and that somehow helped to calm me down, to slow my pulse and think about things rationally. I didn’t know what to do, either, but I would figure it out. I always did, and this couldn’t be any different—even if it felt different.
“It’s okay,” I told him. I laughed this time, because I didn’t believe in letting myself get too down. Yeah, my car and just about everything I owned were gone, but I was alive, and I might not have been if not for this man’s thoughtfulness. “Thank you for stopping to help me.”
“How can you possibly be laughing at a time like this?” He let out a little chuckle of his own and shook his head. “You’re so unlike anyone I’ve ever met before.”
“I’m laughing because I’m alive, and that’s thanks to you. I would have been sitting in my car and waiting for it to cool off if you hadn’t convinced me to leave. I would be dead. Or at least dying.” Death by barbeque didn’t sound too appealing.
“Thank God you didn’t think I was a serial killer.” Liam shifted in his seat so he could face me more fully. The yellow lights shining over the parking lot illuminated him in an odd glow, making him look older than I’d thought he was when I’d first seen him jogging toward me on the highway—maybe in his mid-thirties. He had neat, shortly cropped dark hair and eyes I could only guess were brown. There was something incredibly appealing about him, with the strong set of his jaw and the fullness of his lips. Something that made my chest flutter. This wasn’t the time for silly flutters, though.
It was his eyes, more than anything, that drew my notice. They were old—much older than the rest of him—like they’d seen too much to stay youthful.
That made sense based on what I’d felt when he was trying to convince me to leave my car. There had been something more urgent in his request, and I’d known it wasn’t about me. Just like I knew he was seeing someone else when he looked at me now. I couldn’t put my finger on what made me sure, but that wasn’t all that uncommon. I’d always had these hunches about people, a sixth sense or whatever you want to call it, where I could feel a lot more from people than most others could. More than what they wanted anyone to know a lot of the time.
I was fairly sure that was how Liam would feel about it. I didn’t think he wanted anyone to know he had this big hole inside him, but it was big enough to almost overwhelm me, a giant, empty ball of ache, gnawing at him from his center. It was definitely big enough to make me forget about my own problems for a little while. I’d had a big hurt inside me a few years ago, too, when Mom and Dad had died. I’d been nineteen then and had suddenly become a mom to my brothers. I was twenty-four now.
I knew that kind of pain. I hated when anyone else had to feel like that. It made me want to find a way to suck all that hurt out of them and pull it inside myself, because I knew I could find a way to get rid of it.
He smiled at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He still looked anxious, with his eyebrows pinched together and his jaw set in a tight line. “Let me take you for coffee. I need something to help me calm down after that. God knows you probably do, too.”
“Shouldn’t we talk to the police?”
“Oh.” His eyes flickered back to the highway and all the emergency vehicles. They’d managed to contain the fire. Only a small stream of black smoke was still billowing up above all the headlights and emergency lights filling the road. Then he met my gaze again. “They have enough going on over there without us. They can call if they need to talk to you. Let’s get coffee.”
They couldn’t call, though, because I didn’t have a phone, and the address the car was registered under wasn’t mine anymore. They wouldn’t be able to find me very easily. I didn’t even know where I would go now. Not until I could get a job. I’d looked into some homeless shelters when the bank foreclosed, but there was no guarantee that any of them would have a bed. That was why I’d been sleeping in my car.
“All right,” I conceded. I didn’t know how to tell Liam all of that without making him feel sorry for me. That wasn’t what he needed right now. Besides, I could spare a few dollars for a coffee with him since I wouldn’t need to pay for gas or car insurance anymore.
Liam started the engine and carefully pulled out of the parking lot. He drove a few blocks before turning into the parking lot at a nearby Starbucks.
After he shut off the ignition, he turned to me with a questioning look. “I didn’t think—Do you need to call someone? Hell, was your phone in the car? Should I take you home so your family doesn’t worry?”
“No, I—” I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that my home had burned up right in front of our eyes, so I just shook my head. “There’s no one I need to call. It’ll be fine for a little while. Let’s go have coffee.”
I nodded, sliding my shoes onto my feet, even though that was the furthest thing from the truth. But my brothers, Ethan and Chris, didn’t even know I’d lost the house yet. I’d sort it all out before they finished their semester at college. I’d have somewhere for them to come home to. Then I could explain things. Granted, I didn’t know how I would get a job and a place to live in such a short amount of time when I hadn’t managed it in the last several months, but that wasn’t the important part. I’d figure it out.
Liam gave me another nod, and then he got out of the car. I’d barely unbuckled and opened my door before he’d come all the way around and was standing there to help me out. I wasn’t sure what to do with that, but when he held out his hand for me, this time I took it.
His hand was big and warm, and it enveloped mine completely. It was comforting, like my favorite blanket, the one Mom crocheted for me years ago. I’d been sleeping with it on top of me lately. Not anymore. It was gone now, too.
Instead of taking me to the counter so we could order, he found a quiet table with two chairs in a corner near the windows and urged me to sit.
“What can I bring you?”
“Oh.” I sat down and pulled my purse onto my lap, keeping it close. “Hot chocolate?” I said, digging through my bag to pull out my wallet. It had been forever since I’d splurged on something as decadent as that.
His lips quirked up into a grin. “Hot chocolate. You’ve got it.” Then he turned and walked away before I could even get my wallet free.
A minute later Liam came back and passed a cup across the table to me. “I got you extra whipped cream. I figured you could use it after a night like tonight.”
He had that right. I wrapped my hand around the hot cup and took a slow sip. “Thank you,” I said, pushing the few dollars I’d dug out across the table toward him.
He shook his head and slid the bills back toward me. “My treat. It’s the least I can do…” He took the lid off his own cup of black coffee and took a sip as well.
“Thank you again,” I said, marveling that anyone could drink coffee without adding cream and sugar to it. It was far too bitter for me that way. “You drink it black? That’ll put hair on your chest.” I shocked myself that I’d said it. I hadn’t been thinking about anything but what Dad had always told me and my brothers any time we wanted to drink coffee.
“I’ve already got hair on my chest,” Liam teased, and he winked at me. “I’m not too worried about it.” Then he took another swallow, letting out a hiss at the heat after he got it down.
I was blushing before I could stop it. Mainly because as soon as he’d said it, my eyes had gone to his chest and my mind had started thinking about how broad and muscled it was. I didn’t have any business gawking and thinking about him like that. He was a very kind man who’d saved my life and bought me cocoa, not someone whose bones were available for jumping. I didn’t even know where to begin with the whole bone-jumping thing. In order to hide my embarrassment, I took a bigger drink from my cocoa than I should have, and in the process I nearly burned the roof of my mouth.
“Careful,” he said, but again he sounded like he was teasing me. “It’s hot.”
I let my mouth cool off for a second. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t… I didn’t—” I didn’t have the first clue how to say what I was thinking.
He gave me a questioning look and then shook his head. “Please don’t apologize for flirting with me. It’s been too long, and it feels too damn good.”
Flirting with him? Was I? If I was, it hadn’t been intentional. God, I was so clueless sometimes. My face felt ten times hotter than my mouth had from the hot chocolate, and I couldn’t look at him. Did that mean he was flirting with me, too?
“Why has it been too long?” I asked when I finally found my voice again. He was a professional athlete, after all. Surely there were women who would flirt with him just because of that. And when you added how gorgeous he was into the equation…
He took a long moment to answer, watching me so intensely the whole time I thought I might melt beneath his stare. “Because my wife died,” he finally said. “Most women don’t really flirt with widowers.”
“Then most women are stupid.” I couldn’t believe I said that.