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Ice Breaker

Everyone deserves a second chance.

As general manager of the Portland Storm, Jim Sutter knows this all too well. And he’s in the perfect position to grant second chances like he’s Santa Claus—even if he never gives himself one. When his friends take matters into their own hands, Jim might just get the holiday surprise of a lifetime.

Elaine Sutter is finally ready to forgive her ex-husband for his past transgressions and find a future with him again. So when she discovers his online dating profile, she sets up a secret meeting with the only man she’s really ever loved. Her only goal this holiday season is to stuff Jim’s stocking with a Santa-sized dose of forgiveness and a sleigh full of love. After all, a bit of mistletoe could wipe out all of Jim’s previous misconduct and pave the way for a little fun under that holiday sprig.

Originally published in the anthology 12 CHRISTMAS ROMANCES TO MELT YOUR HEART.

JIM

Everyone deserves a second chance. Maybe even a third chance. That was the primary tenet by which I’d been living my life for decades. As the general manager of the Portland Storm, one of the most successful teams in the National Hockey League during my tenure, giving people new opportunities to turn their lives around had been a hallmark of my term. Not only with my players but with the people who worked under me, like my assistant, Rachel Campbell.

The reasons for my need to give a helping hand instead of turning my back on people went deep. I’d been the oldest child of a single mom, and I’d seen how many people had left her—and therefore us—out to dry. But I’d also seen firsthand what a difference it had made in all of our lives when someone offered a helping hand and gave me my first pair of hockey skates.

Then there was my hockey career, which should have been over almost before it began. A very long time ago when I was just starting out in the National Hockey League, one of the GMs I’d played under had given me a second opportunity to prove myself as well as my dedication to the team and my future, and he’d done so at a time when I’d least deserved it. That simple act had changed not only my career for the better but my life.

Something told me he might not understand the impact he’d had on me, but I’d never forgotten the ways his decision had altered my trajectory for the better.

Those reasons, and many others, were why I made such a point of offering second chances where I could and it made sense to do so. Sometimes, those decisions turned around and bit me in the butt. More often, they worked out for the best for everyone concerned. And since things usually came out better for everyone involved, I had no intention of changing my ways.

If I could offer someone the possibility of turning things around, I would do it.

I had to. It was the only way I could live with myself.

That was why, with the Christmas break and the holiday roster freeze breathing down my neck and my team in a serious bind on defense, I was contemplating yet another second-chance scenario.

More than contemplating, actually. I’d already made up my mind, and I’d talked it over in detail with my coaching staff. Everyone was on board. This was the move we needed to make, and I wasn’t about to let it pass me by. If I didn’t snap this guy up now, some other GM would before I could blink. The second half of the season usually separated the wheat from the chaff, and every team in the play-off hunt would be looking for reliable, experienced bodies to fill holes on the blue line. They’d snatch Hammer out of my grasp, and then we would be back to the drawing board.

Chris Hammond sat across from me in my office. The guy everyone called Hammer was a thirty-six-year-old defenseman who’d been there, done that. Once upon a time, he’d won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh. He’d been through countless play-off battles over the years, coming out of them bruised and bloodied but usually on top, as long as his team had him situated in the right spot.

The guy had never been top tier. He’d never been in consideration for the big NHL awards. That said, he was solid and dependable, and I needed him.

But he’d had a rough go of it over the last little while. He’d been a victim of the system, more or less.

Three years ago, Hammer had a monster of a season, putting up more points in one year than he had in the previous four combined. It had turned out to be perfect timing for him, since he’d been eligible to become a free agent immediately following that. He’d signed a huge contract with Winnipeg. They’d brought him in, essentially hoping he could fill the role of their top defenseman—never mind the fact that he hadn’t been the top D on his previous team during that best year of his career, or any of the others before that—and the deal hadn’t panned out for the team.

After a couple of years during which his play had regressed to his usual level of production, the Jets had bought out the rest of his contract. And, since he was an older defenseman who was seen by some as being too slow to be relevant in the modern, fast-paced, high-octane NHL, not a single team had signed him as a free agent.

I hadn’t signed him because, at the time, I hadn’t had a spot open for him to fill. Now I did. He’d been keeping himself in playing shape by helping coach his son’s pee-wee team over the last few months, just in case someone called in need of his services.

I was glad to learn I’d been the first to make that call.

“Here’s where we stand,” I said, taking off my bifocals and setting them on the desk between us. I leaned back in my chair and laced my fingers in front of me. “Cole Paxton had an emergency appendectomy yesterday and is out for at least a couple of weeks, probably longer. Andrew Jensen took a puck to the head two weeks ago, and the doctors can’t give me any indication as to when he’ll be cleared. My guess is it could be a while. He might not be back before the play-offs, if then. He hasn’t shown any sign of improvement yet. Keith Burns is playing through a hairline fracture in his foot, and it could deteriorate to the point that he can’t play through the pain at any moment. Whether that happens or not, he’s not nearly as effective right now as normal, and he can’t play as many minutes as he usually does for us. Dominic Medved has had recurring groin issues all season, and I don’t think the doctors are convinced he’s in the clear. That means we’re completely without two of our top three defensemen, the third is only able to give us about fifty percent of what he could if he was healthy, I’ve got an aging role player who may or may not come up lame at any moment, and my healthy D are young, inexperienced, and being asked to fill roles they aren’t ready for. That’s where you come in.”

“You just tell me what you want me to do, Jim. I’ll do it. I’m ready.” If his words weren’t enough to convince me, the eagerness in his tone would have done the trick. A motivated player could make a world of difference in our current situation.

These days, we were in the hunt for the Stanley Cup every year. In fact, last season, the boys had taken it all the way to Game Five of the finals before crumbling to the pressure put on them by the Lightning. The three seven-game series that had come before the finals might have had something to do with our eventual collapse. The Lightning had gone into that last series well rested, having swept two of their three series and only needing five games in the third of them.

All those extra games my guys had played in the summer had meant they didn’t get as much recovery time before this season started as they needed. I knew that had a lot to do with the current injury issues we were facing, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. You had to play all those extra games if you wanted to win the Cup, and if you weren’t fighting tooth and nail to win the Cup, you had no business being in this league.

My guys wanted to win.

Chris Hammond had won before, he wanted to win again, and he could help us do exactly that.

“The coaches and I have talked about it a lot,” I said. “We aren’t going to ask you to do anything but what you do best—defend well and provide a voice of experience. Right now, we want you to come in and help keep the younger guys calm on the ice, so they don’t make stupid decisions with the puck. You’ve got years in this league under your belt. You’ve played in all the toughest situations and on the biggest stages. I know they say you’ve lost a step, but I just want you to come in and be a steadying presence on the blue line, a reassuring voice on the bench.”

A ghost of a smile crossed his face. “I can do that. You just give me a chance to prove it.”

I nodded, giving him another once-over to be sure my instincts still told me what they’d been telling me about him all along. Then I leaned forward and put my elbows on the desk, making a steeple with my hands. “All right. Let’s get your agent on speakerphone and work out the details of your contract, then.”

Twenty minutes later, the Storm had a new veteran defenseman, and I could breathe a bit more freely. Amid the jingling of bells from the wreath hanging from my office door, I walked him out to my assistant’s desk so she could have him sign on all the appropriate lines of his new contract, but when we got there, I stopped short.

Rachel wasn’t alone at her desk like I had expected to find her. She was surrounded by some of my players’ and coaches’ wives, and they all looked up at me with guilty expressions and backed away from Rachel’s desk as soon as they saw me.

Well, not all. David Weber was one of our assistant coaches. His wife, Laura, gave me an appraising look as she slowly stepped back. She’d given me that look several times before, usually when she was trying to get people involved with the team to allow themselves to be auctioned off for charity or to walk a runway to raise money for some cause or another. I’d come to expect her frankness and the way she volunteered people to do what she wanted without asking them first. It was definitely something I could respect and appreciate.

“What project are you signing me up for this time?” I asked, letting out a lighthearted chuckle. I knew better than to think I’d be thrilled about whatever she had planned for me, but I also knew I would go along with it. Everyone did, eventually. Laura had a magnetic personality and an authoritative manner that brooked no argument.

She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at me, then gave the other women a victorious smile. “You’ll see,” was all she said. Then she turned to Rachel. “So we’re all set?”

“All set,” Rachel said, and the rest of them scurried off down the hall toward the stairs, leaving me with Rachel and Hammer.

“Do I want to know?” I asked my assistant.

Her freckled cheeks turned pink, which wasn’t uncommon. It was a curse of being a redhead, I’d come to learn in the years she’d been working for me. In lieu of answering my question, she reached for the stack of papers that I’d just sent to her printer and motioned for my new defenseman to take the seat across from her.

“You’re not going to tell me?”

“Consider it our Christmas gift to you,” she replied.

That could either be a good thing or a very bad thing, and based on the wink in her tone, I was leaning toward the bad end of the spectrum.

 

ELAINE

Some people might call it a midlife crisis. I wasn’t one of them.

Yes, I was starting all over again at the age of fifty. Yes, it scared me to death and made me think maybe I’d lost my mind. The truth was that I hadn’t lost my mind, though. I’d just finally come to a point in which I was determined to be exactly who I was and nothing else, to treat myself right, and let the chips fall where they may. Everyone in my life might not agree with or approve of my choices, but I wasn’t going to let insecurities or the opinions of others rule my life anymore. If I was being completely honest with myself, I just plain didn’t have time for that.

Granted, it had taken a kick in the pants from my twenty-four-year-old son, Dillon, to convince me.

“You deserve to find a good man, Mom,” he’d said to me at Thanksgiving as he’d squeezed his girlfriend’s hand. “And he’s out there. I know he is; you just have to open yourself up to finding him.”

“I am open to finding him.”

He’d given me the look over the top of our turkey—the same look that reminded me so much of his father and caused my heart to squeeze every time the recognition hit me square in the chest.

“Okay,” he’d said, “so maybe you’re open to finding him, but you’re not so open to letting him into your life. For years, you used me as an excuse for shutting yourself off from having a man around, but I’m all grown up now. You don’t have to keep protecting me. It’s time for you to look after yourself. I don’t like that you’re all alone.”

“He’s right, Elaine,” Kelsey said, nodding and giving me a sympathetic smile. She was his girlfriend. In fact, I was beginning to think she might be the one.

Point taken. As hard as it might be for me to admit it, my little boy was right. And he wasn’t a little boy anymore but a man, the same age as his father had been when we’d first met.

After Jim had admitted to an extramarital affair, I’d taken Dillon and left. Jim had sworn it had only happened once. That it would never happen again. But the fact was, he’d cheated. He had been an adult, and he’d made a choice, and that choice had devastated me.

Not once in all those years had I seriously entertained the thought of letting another man get close enough to hurt me or my son so deeply. I’d also never been able to forget the man I’d loved and given my heart to only to have it flung in my face.

But it had been twenty years. Two full decades. Dillon was a man now. He was a good man, too. He had a career he loved, a steady girlfriend who—I hoped—would soon be my daughter-in-law, and he was thriving, despite not having his father in his life since he was only four years old.

So, to fulfill my promise to Dillon and Kelsey that I’d try to find the good man who they swore was out there waiting for me, I’d set up a profile on Match.com the day after Thanksgiving. That was how the two of them had met, after all, and their relationship was flourishing. She was absolutely perfect for my son, and I loved her to bits for it.

In the intervening weeks, there had been dozens of men who’d contacted me through the web service. Most of them were as skeevy as I could imagine and then some. A few had seemed decent enough that I’d agreed to go out for coffee, but once I’d met them I’d realized they were miles away from being the sort of man I’d want to spend more than an hour with, let alone the rest of my life. None of them had the same ready smile that Jim had always had, or the huge, giving heart, or the desire to help others the way he always had. No matter what, it all kept coming back to Jim.

I was on the verge of giving up, in all honesty. Maybe online dating worked for some people, but I seemed to only find creepers.

But then last week, Kelsey had convinced me to expand my net. She’d encouraged me to search through profiles of men who might be long distance instead of localized to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, and see whom Match might pair me up with.

I hadn’t had time to take a look since I’d made the change until now. There wasn’t any point in denying that my nerves were through the roof when I logged in to my account.

The first few Match suggestions I came across were as squicky as the men I’d encountered in the early weeks of my endeavor. I checked the boxes to delete them and moved on down the list. There was one man in his early sixties who lived near Chicago and sounded promising. He’d been married for over thirty years and was a widower looking to connect with someone. Three kids, two grandchildren, and, best of all, no dick pic in his profile. I moved him to my maybe list and scrolled down to see who else there was before making a decision as to whether I should contact the widowed grandpa.

And then my heart stopped. Completely quit beating. My chest tightened around it, sending tears to my eyes before, slowly, my pulse kicked back into gear. Because there, smiling back at me through my computer monitor the way he always had in person, was Jim.

He was older, sure. His hair was all gray now, and he wore glasses, but it was definitely the man who still owned my heart. Everything always seemed to point me back in his direction.

I knew what he looked like these days, even without the photo reminder. After all the years he’d spent playing in the NHL, he’d gone on to become a team executive. It had been easy to follow his career since he’d spent so much of it in the limelight. I wouldn’t deny it—I still stalked him online sometimes, keeping up with the teams he’d worked for and watching interviews so I could hear his voice. No matter how many wrinkles he might have, and no matter how gray his hair had turned, his voice was still the same.

He’d hurt me deeply—there was no point arguing that fact—but I still craved the sound of his voice. Sometimes, twenty years later, I woke up in the middle of the night and felt for him in the bed next to me, my heart breaking all over again when my hand came up empty.

Because that’s how I had felt without him all these years.

Empty.

In the twenty years since I’d left, the hurt had lessened and forgiveness had blossomed in my heart, even though Dillon still held the sort of grudge that only a boy who’d been deprived of his father could hold. Even though I’d forgiven Jim, though, I wasn’t prepared for the kind of gut-wrenching, heart-squeezing response I was currently experiencing over finding his profile on a silly dating site.

I knew I shouldn’t do it, that putting myself through this was only asking for trouble, but I couldn’t stop myself. I clicked on his profile and read every single word.

It turned out it wasn’t Jim who’d created the profile, even. Some of his players’ wives had covertly put it together. They’d written: For years, we’ve watched as Jim has given dozens of people—players and otherwise—a second chance, but we’ve never seen him do it for himself. We know he was married once. We don’t know what happened to bring that marriage to an end, but at this point it doesn’t matter. He’s the kindest man any of us know, and he deserves to have someone in his life who will love him the way he loves every single person he’s come into contact with. And because of that, we want to help him out. Maybe give him a little shove in the right direction. If you think you might be that woman—if you want to be treated like a queen by a kind, considerate, caring, loving, giving man—then send us a message. We would love to talk to you.

My phone rang, and I glanced down to see Dillon’s name and photo flashing at me. I swiped my thumb over the screen to answer. “Hello?”

“Mom?” He waited a beat. Then, “Why are you crying?” he demanded.

Was I crying?

I reached up to my cheek with my other hand and came away with salty tears on my fingertips. How was it that my son could tell that from only hearing a single word from my mouth, and I didn’t even realize it was happening? And how long had I been sitting here with tears falling down my cheeks? I glanced down to find dark, wet spots on my shirt. Big ones. I must have been at it for a while. It might have even started the instant I’d seen Jim’s picture pop up on my monitor.

“Mom?” Dillon repeated.

“I’m fine.” Fine probably wasn’t the right word, but I wasn’t sure what would be better.

“You don’t sound fine.”

“Well, maybe I’m not right this minute. But I will be.”

“What’s going on?”

I rested the phone between my cheek and my shoulder so I could use both hands to type a response to the women who wanted to set up my ex-husband. “I think I’m about to reconcile with your father.”

Silence met me on the other end of the line.