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Ice Breaker

Being sidelined for far too long due to injuries, Portland Storm player Brenden “Soupy” Campbell is ready to take his career to the next level and make his new position on the team stick. After he meets the general manager’s cute new assistant, Brenden knows he’s right where he’s supposed to be.

Determined to change things up On the Fly and establish a future for herself and her children, Rachel Shaw jumps at the opportunity to work for the Storm. She’s not going to let anything—or anyone—get in her way, especially not a sexy and overly cocky hockey star.

But when Brenden pulls out all the stops and turns on the charm, Rachel refuses to make the same mistake twice. Now, it’s up to Brenden to cement his spot—both on the team and in Rachel’s heart.

BRENDEN

My thighs had a good burn going, matched only by the burn in my lungs. I fought to take in enough oxygen to get through the laps Hammer and I were skating, trying to ignore the slight twinge in my left foot from my latest broken bone.

That hairline fracture was only one of countless injuries to keep me off the ice and out of hockey games in recent years. Ever since I’d turned pro, it seemed like injuries stalked me like a cat, waiting for another opportunity to pounce and take me out. The bone had healed now, but this was the first time I’d used my foot for anything physical, the first time I’d been able to push myself. That was the only reason it still felt a little sore, or at least that was what I told myself.

Everything on my body felt a little sore, though, and had for years.

“Two more laps around the ice, Soupy—as fast as you can go,” Hammer said. Daniel “Hammer” Hamm was one of the assistant coaches of the Portland Storm, the team I played for in the National Hockey League. Today, he’d been tasked with putting me through my paces, helping to test me to see if I was ready to return to game action. “Come on. Faster.”

Fuck. He didn’t even sound winded, and I could barely breathe.

I’d been out of commission for over five weeks. I’d gotten hurt about a month into the season on a night when we had been playing the Bruins in Boston. For some crazy reason, I’d thought it would be a good idea to block a Zdeno Chara slap shot with my foot. Admittedly, I’d never faced one of his shots before, so I didn’t know just how hard they really were. I might have been putting too much effort into proving I could hack it in the NHL, that I belonged with the big club and not in the minors. Whatever the reason behind it, blocking that shot had blown up in my face.

I probably should’ve been wearing one of those foot guards designed to give extra protection, but I hadn’t been. I’d never liked the feel of them over my skates. It was like they restricted my movement, like they slowed my skating.

Smooth skating and speed had never been areas of strength for me, a point which my dad, himself a former NHL player, was always ready to remind me of. But I couldn’t afford to lose any more speed, so I’d rebelled against the thought of wearing the guards—much like I’d rebelled against wearing a shield on my helmet because it limited my vision. I didn’t need anything else hampering my ability to succeed in this league, even if it meant maybe getting a few more stitches on my face.

Good thing I’d never been vain about my appearance.

My wrist shot and my readiness to go into the dirty areas of the ice were just about the only two things I had going for me to keep me in the NHL. Well, both of those things and a willingness to give up my body for my team. Those skills got me here, and they were what might keep me here—at least once the team’s head doctor cleared me first for contact and then to play.

I sucked in as much air as I could, churning my legs to keep up with Hammer. He had been one fast son of a bitch back in his playing days, before he started coaching. He had always skated with an effortlessness that made no sense at all given his size. Even though he’d retired as a player over a decade ago, he hadn’t lost a step in the speed department.

It was taking everything I had not to get left in his dust.

We turned around the goal and made a final push for center ice. Once I passed it and stopped, I bent over and rested my hands on my knees, heaving as much air in and out of my lungs as I could. I nearly puked, but I forced the bile down.

The rest of the team was just starting to trickle out to the ice for today’s practice. I looked up and saw Eric Zellinger, my best friend and the team captain, watching me from near the bench.

Zee wasn’t just my best friend. Not anymore. He’d started dating my sister, Dana, last season. That had created a gigantic clusterfuck in our relationship, mine and Zee’s, and things still weren’t great between us. Better, definitely, but not like before. It was mainly my fault, and I knew it. It was hard, though, thinking about anyone touching my sister after all she’d been through, knowing how for years after she’d been raped, she’d experienced massive panic attacks when any man touched her—even Dad and me.

Zee gave me a nod, but that was all. He had work to do, and I still wasn’t allowed to be part of it due to my status on the injured reserve list.

Hammer slapped me on the shoulder while I was still fighting to breathe. “Nice work, Soupy. After you get cleaned up and see the doctor, Jim wants a word in his office.”

I wasn’t surprised Jim Sutter, the Storm’s general manager, wanted to see me. All signs pointed to me being cleared for contact for tomorrow. If all went well, then I could be back in the lineup for Friday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Yeah, will do, Hammer.”

He skated away from me, over to the far end of the ice to join the boys for the day’s practice. I made my way to the showers and then to see Dr. Mitchell, the team’s head physician.

Doc took a new set of scans to make sure everything was as it should be. He looked them over, then poked and prodded my foot, looking at it from every angle. “No pain after skating today?”

Pain was all relative, and I couldn’t think of a time in recent memory that I could say I had no pain. Anyone who’d suffered as many injuries in his career as I had would be in a similar position. “It’s a little tender,” I said. “Nothing I can’t fight through, and nothing that won’t be better after more use.”

“How close to ready are you?” Doc put another film up in front of the light, narrowing his eyes at it. “Seventy percent? Eighty?”

“One hundred percent ready to go.” I couldn’t stand sitting around any longer than I had to. The thought of spending even another week watching from the press box with my foot in a walking boot made me feel physically ill. “A little tenderness won’t make me any slower than I already am.”

“Hmm.”

What the fuck did hmm mean? Doc wouldn’t even look at me. He just kept studying my films, flipping through my medical chart.

“So am I cleared?” I asked, not even attempting to hide my frustration. It wasn’t his fault, but I wasthis close to going insane from being forced to watch from the sidelines. “Can I get back in a game?”

He didn’t answer me. Instead, he scribbled some notes on a notepad that looked like a prescription pad, ripped it off, and put it in an envelope. “You’re heading up to see Jim, right? Give him this.”

Then he handed me the envelope and left, taking my charts and films with him.

Asswipe. He could have just answered my question. How hard would that have been? It would have taken two seconds.

But he hadn’t.

I made my way up to the next level of the building where all the offices for the team executives were located.

At the end of the main hall, in front of a large corner office, Martha Alvarez tucked her silver-gray hair behind her ear and pushed her bifocals up her nose, never even glancing over her computer monitor at me. She was Jim’s assistant, and probably the most efficient person I’d ever met. Nothing ever slipped past her; nothing got lost in the shuffle. If you needed anything, Martha could either handle it or direct you to someone who could.

“Go on in, Campbell,” she said. “Jim’s expecting you.” She pushed a plate of homemade cookies closer to the edge of her desk so I’d see them. Not that I would have missed them. I’d learned early in my time with the Storm that Martha always had cookies at her desk, and I had made a habit of taking full advantage of that fact. It reminded me of my mom.

Martha was one of the few people in the world who didn’t call me Soupy. My family called me Brenden, and Martha called me Campbell. Jim would flip between all of them indiscriminately. He’d played with my dad for a few years, and Dad had always been Soupy to his teammates, too. The use of nicknames is universal in the hockey world, and there is no nickname more readily at a guy’s tongue than Soupy for someone with the last name Campbell.

“Thanks, Martha,” I said. She didn’t acknowledge me, too absorbed in whatever she was doing. I grabbed two cookies and knocked on the open door. “You wanted to see me?” I said when Jim Sutter spun his executive chair around.

He nodded and pointed to the chair across from him. “How’d it feel skating? I told Hammer to really push you, see what you could handle.”

“Felt good.” As good as an intense skate could feel after spending more than a month off my feet, at least. I shoved the envelope across the desk to him. “Doc asked me to give you this.”

“No pain? No tenderness?” Jim pulled Doc’s note out and scanned it, looking through the lower part of his glasses. “Doc says you were pretty winded still when you got to him and that you had some tenderness when he prodded your foot.”

“I’ll be back in game shape in no time. One or two games, that’s all it’ll take.” It was easier to get the kind of conditioning you needed to play hockey by actually playing hockey, more so than skating laps or spending hours on an exercise bike.

“Hmm.”

I was beginning to hate hmm.

“Did he clear me for contact?” I asked when Jim still didn’t elaborate. “I’m ready, Jim. I can contribute. Waiting a few more days or another week won’t change that.”

He set the note down on his desk and took off his glasses. “Doc cleared you. You’re good to join back in full practices with contact starting tomorrow.”

It was about time.

He folded in the earpieces of his glasses and set them on the desk. “But…”

But was worse than hmm. By a fucking mile. I was already grinding my jaw—couldn’t stop myself—and I didn’t have a clue what was coming.

“I need you to get back up to game speed before you jump into a game,” he said. “The boys have been on a pretty good roll lately, really working together and picking up points at a nice clip. I don’t want to mess with that chemistry by bringing someone in who isn’t up to par.”

He was sending me back down to the AHL—to the Seattle Storm, the minor league affiliate of the Portland Storm. He didn’t even have to say the words. I could read it all over his face. I’d had enough conversations with enough GMs in my career to know. “This is bullshit, Jim. One game. That’s all it’ll take.”

He had a placating look in his eye that made me want to punch him. “I can’t afford to have you chasing the game for even one night, Brenden. I don’t need the boys trying to pick up your slack. This won’t be a permanent reassignment—”

“No, just until you trade my ass somewhere else,” I bit off. “Or are you hoping someone will pick me up on waivers?”

“Would you calm down for just a minute? I’m not trading you. I have no plans to trade you. You’re not going on waivers.”

Not going on waivers? That one tripped me up. I sat back in my chair and tried to calm down. I usually had a better grip on my temper, but sitting around with nothing to do for weeks had been eating at me from the inside. “Sorry,” I mumbled.

“I want to send you to Seattle on a conditioning assignment. The Collective Bargaining Agreement says you have to consent to the assignment, though, so we need to talk about it.”
“I don’t want to go to Seattle. I want to play here.”

“I know you do. We want you to, as well.” Jim leaned forward, his elbows propping him up on his desk. “Here’s the deal. Scotty and I watched you with Hammer out there today. We don’t think you’re ready to get back in a game, not with how the boys have been playing without you. If you go to Seattle, you’ll play tomorrow. If you stay here, you’ll keep working with Hammer and watching from the press box until Scotty thinks you’ve earned your way back into the lineup—or until one of the guys gets hurt or stops performing as well as he needs to. That might be a few games. It might be a few weeks. We need you to be as good as we know you can be from the minute you step out on the ice. Anything less isn’t enough.”

It might not be as bad as I’d initially assumed, but I still didn’t want to do it. “But you need my okay?” I was trying to determine which would be worse—getting sent back to the minors for a few games or sitting in the press box for a few more.

“It would only be for a week. Seattle has three games on the schedule, all at home. No travel. You’d get top-line minutes, and then you’d be back with us.”

“You swear you’re not going to put me on waivers as soon as this conditioning assignment is up?”

“I didn’t sign you over the summer for you to get paid that kind of money and play in Seattle,” Jim said. “I signed you to play here.”

I knew he was telling it to me straight, but my natural instinct was to be distrustful of GMs. Too many of them had given up on me. Too many had told me one thing and done another. It didn’t matter that he was one of Dad’s old buddies. I had a really hard time trusting Jim Sutter on this, even though he personally had done nothing to earn my distrust.

“Yeah,” I said. “Right.”

“They’ll be expecting you in time for tomorrow morning’s practice. I’ll have Martha arrange a hotel for you, and we’ll see you back here in a week.”

I started to argue again, even though I didn’t know what my argument would be when I’d opened my mouth, but Martha knocked and opened the door, stopping me before anything came out.

“Rachel Shaw’s here, Jim.”

“Tell her I’ll be right with her,” he said. Then he turned back to me. “So you’ll do this conditioning assignment, right? You’re not going to fight me on it? I believe this is what’s best both for you and for the Storm.”

I scowled. If I went to Seattle, at least I would be put in some games. Not the games I wanted to be in, but it was something. He’d made no bones about what would happen if I stayed in Portland. Damn it. “Yeah, I’ll go.”

He got up and shook my hand, and I made my way out.

I was fuming so much that I almost ran headfirst into the most hauntingly beautiful, petite redhead I’d ever laid eyes on. She took three quick steps backward, and I put out my hand to help steady her. Her green eyes went wide, and her lips parted into an O. It was like Tinkerbell had sprinkled fairy dust all over her nose and cheeks and left freckles behind.

She was totally not my type, or at least not my usual type. I tend to go for leggy brunettes, girls who were completely put together in every conceivable way. This woman couldn’t look more out of place. Her clothes were probably from a thrift shop and didn’t fit her well, her hair was running riot out of her ponytail holder, her coat wasn’t nearly heavy enough for the local weather, and the fabric of her purse was dingy and covered in what looked to be cat hair.

Despite all of that, I couldn’t stop staring at her.

Holy shit.

“I’m sorry,” I said when I pulled myself back together again. “I should have been paying attention to where I was going.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine.”

She didn’t look fine, though. She looked terrified. I really hoped I wasn’t the reason for her fear, but I figured I was. She gave a brief shake of her head and separated herself from me. In a single movement, she tucked a wild curl behind her ear and settled her purse strap more fully over her shoulder. Then she made a wide circle around me, going with Martha into Jim’s office, peeking over her shoulder at me as she disappeared inside.

So this was Rachel Shaw, then. Whoever Rachel Shaw was.

“Yeah. All right,” I said to her back. I spent too long watching her before heading back down to the locker room. I figured I should go ahead and sort out what gear I needed to take with me. I couldn’t get her out of my head, though. She definitely had a nice ass, this Rachel Shaw. Very nice. Curvy, over her short legs.

And that was pretty much the last thing in the world I needed to be thinking about, the curvy ass of some random, little redhead with fairy-dust freckles.

Not when I had to prove to myself and everyone else I should be playing in the NHL.

 

 

RACHEL

It really shouldn’t have been so hard to concentrate on this interview. Not when I’d become such an old pro at them in recent days. But I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the man who’d run straight into me a few minutes ago. He’d been huge. I mean, I knew professional athletes were bigger than your everyday sort of man in general, and no one would ever call my five foot two tall, but holy cow.

Talk about an imposing presence. And if I was going to work for an NHL team, I was going to be around guys his size all the time. At least Maddie wouldn’t be around them, though. It wouldn’t be so bad for me, and I needed a job.

I might have been able to stop myself from thinking about him if he hadn’t been so good-looking. Not just everyday good-looking, but like a movie star—a bit like Pierce Brosnan, back in his younger days. I thought all hockey players were supposed to be missing half their teeth and have bent, broken noses and stitches and bruises everywhere. He’d had a long scar on one cheek that had faded to a pinkish hue, but that was pretty much the only flaw I could find on his chiseled cheekbones, perfectly straight nose, and piercing brown eyes.

And that was more than just a little disarming.

“I’m a little curious,” Mr. Sutter said, peering at me over the top of his glasses and jolting me back to the task at hand, “why the employment agency would send you to interview for an administrative position when your prior work experience is all in manufacturing.”

I knew that look he was giving me. The doubt. I’d been to a dozen interviews in the last week, and every single one of them had dismissed even the tiniest little inkling of a thought of hiring me, straight out of hand, for no reason other than I’d never done any administrative work before.

Well, not all of them. The woman at the doctor’s office on Friday hadn’t let that part bother her. Her problem had been the fact that I didn’t have a college education, that I only had a GED instead of a high school diploma.

I just needed someone—anyone—to look past my lack of experience and education, to give me a chance. I could do anything I put my mind to, and I’d prove it, but I could only prove it if someone gave me the opportunity.

I fought back my frustrations and took a breath to clear my head. “I’m looking for a change,” I said as calmly as I could manage. “I don’t have anyone to help me with my kids, so I need something with comparable hours to when they’ll be in school. When I worked in manufacturing, it was always second shift. I was at work when they were at home.”

And that was when all hell had broken loose.

I couldn’t go much longer without work. I had to have something, and I needed it now. There were only so many more nights I could afford the hotel room and to buy meals for my kids, Madison and Tucker. It wouldn’t be long before we’d go completely through the dregs of my cashed-out 401(k), and then what would I do? Sell the car? It wouldn’t be very easy to get to a job without a car. Besides, I doubted it would bring in much, as old as it was.

Mrs. Alvarez leaned closer to me and narrowed her eyes. She intimidated me more than Mr. Sutter did. It was her eyes. It was like she could see through you, see all the bits of yourself that you’d rather keep private.

I shifted in my seat and crossed my legs in the opposite direction.

“But you did have someone to help when you were in Texas?” she asked.

“I did. I don’t anymore.”

He would damn sure never step foot near my kids again. Thinking about Jason now would only make my blood boil, though. Either that or make me cry. One of the two, neither of which would help me get this job.

“Hmm,” Mr. Sutter said.

That was usually what interviewers said right before they thanked me for my time and ushered me out the door. I had no intention of letting that happen again today. I couldn’t stop myself. I was getting to be a bit desperate, or maybe a lot desperate, and desperation made me do stupid things.

“Look,” I said before I thought better of it, definitely more emphatically than I’d said anything since stepping foot in this building. “I’m a hard worker, as hard a worker as you will ever come across. I may not know how to do everything you need me to do yet, but I’ve never faced a challenge I couldn’t meet, and I learn fast. I was an honor student in high school until I got pregnant. I worked in manufacturing because that was the only job I could get without a high school diploma other than working a drive-through window, and manufacturing paid better and gave me benefits that a job in fast food couldn’t.” I finally took a breath and looked to see what sort of reaction my speech had garnered.

Instead of glaring at me like he wanted to kick me out of his office for practically begging for a job, Jim Sutter looked…I don’t know, interested. That shocked me. It shocked me a lot, actually.

“Do you know how to type?” he asked, leaning back in his chair with his hands forming a steeple in front of him. “How to use word processors and spreadsheets, that sort of thing?”

I nodded. “I learned in middle school.”

Mrs. Alvarez stared at me and then scanned the résumé I’d given them. She brought her eyes back up to meet mine. “You don’t have a phone number on here and the address is a hotel. What are you running away from?”

“I…” Okay, so maybe I only thought I was shocked before. I wasn’t prepared to answer questions like this. It seemed too personal. But I needed a job, and this was starting to feel like it might be my only real chance to get one. “Someone hurt my kid. He can’t hurt her anymore. He’s in prison. I wanted to give her a fresh start, a chance to reset and make her life what she wants it to be.” I wanted that for all of us, not just Maddie…but especially for her.

“That’s why you left Texas,” Mrs. Alvarez said while Mr. Sutter just sat back and let her take over the interview. “But why did you come to Portland? Of all the places you could have gone, why here? You said you don’t have anyone to help with the kids, so what brought you?”

My reason sounded stupid, even to me. I let out a half-laugh, but I told them anyway. “When I was a kid, my parents brought us here on a family vacation once. We saw all the sights, did the whole tourist thing. But on our last day, they brought us to Powell’s City of Books, and I thought it was the best thing ever, books upon books upon books. I could get lost in there and never want to be found. I thought maybe something like that would be good for my daughter, a place where she could live in someone else’s world for a while.” A fictional world was a heck of a lot better than her reality, lately.

With that pathetic explanation, I was pretty sure they’d be ending the interview any minute. Who picks up and moves their family halfway across the country because of a freaking bookstore? No one sane.

I probably wasn’t sane anymore. Good grief, how did this interview get so twisted around? Why had I let it? I probably should just end it myself, thank them and then get up and walk out, see what other employers the agency could send me to.

“Have you taken her to Powell’s yet?” Mr. Sutter asked before I could do that.

I nodded. “Over the weekend.”

“And did it help?”

Maddie, Tuck, and I had spent the whole afternoon there on Saturday, visiting each of the many floors, following the map to find where all our favorite types of books would be. When they called it a “city of books,” they weren’t kidding. It was just as magical a place as I remembered it being. Sure enough, Maddie and Tuck had both found a stack of books to explore, and we had holed up in a corner and read for hours.

I’d felt bad that we were spending so much time there and reading so many books, treating it like it was a library and not a store. So when we left, I’d given in and bought each of them a book. That just meant I’d be eating ramen noodles for my lunches instead of something more filling, at least for a while. It was worth it to be able to buy books for my kids, though. Maddie had already finished her book and had started reading it again, and today was only Monday.

“Yeah,” I finally said. “It’s helping.”

He nodded, but then he stared at me for so long that it made me squirm.

Mrs. Alvarez straightened the stack of papers in front of her and then said to him, “She’s the one.”

The one what?

“She is,” Mr. Sutter said without explaining. He got up from behind his desk and came around it, then sat down in an empty chair between me and Mrs. Alvarez. He took off his glasses and stared at me. “If you’re going to be my new assistant and learn how to replace Martha, I can’t have you living in a hotel with your kids. Why are you?”

If it hadn’t already been too personal, now it really was, but I felt oddly comfortable talking to him. To both of them. “I can’t sign a lease until I have a job, a source of income. Until I have enough money for a deposit and rent.”

“We’re more of a family than a company here,” he said, “the Portland Storm organization. It’s not just a team. We take care of our own.”

I didn’t have the first clue what he meant by that.