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Ice Breaker

Rising hockey star Jamie Babcock is ready to take the most important shot of his life—and this time, it’s not on the ice. Dating his teammate’s daughter might be riskier than going head to head with one of the Portland Storm’s rivals. But time is running out—it’s now or never.

High school senior Katie Weber knows all too well the woes of adolescence, but throw in a leukemia diagnosis, and her life just got a lot more complicated. With prom looming and a shiny bald head to contend with, Katie might sit at home on the most important night of her potentially very short life. Unless Jamie Babcock, her ultimate crush, finally makes the move she’s been praying for. But that’s not the only miracle she needs.

Now Jamie must show Katie just how important she is and how hard she must fight.

Before it’s too late…

The team started to leave the ice after the morning skate, so this was my best chance, at least to just get it done and over with without Mom crying. I’d had enough of crying for a while—hers, my own, and everyone else’s, too. Dad wouldn’t cry over this—not in front of his teammates, at least—so I should be safe from tears for a bit as long as I could escape Mom’s hovering and get to him.

Dad played pro hockey for the Portland Storm. Game-day skates weren’t open to the general public, but Mom and I didn’t count as part of the public around here. We were family.

Ever since I’d started chemotherapy treatments for my leukemia a few weeks ago, the Storm’s general manager and coaching staff had been allowing me to come and watch the closed practices in addition to the off-day practices.

Mom always came with me. Sometimes it seemed as though she believed she could make me better just by being with me, which was ridiculous. Even these awful drugs might not make me better, so how could she? I wasn’t exactly going to keel over and die while she wasn’t looking, but she didn’t like to let me out of her sight these days, as if she needed the physical reminder to know I was still alive. The only things I needed to remind me that I was alive were the aches and pains I’d been having.

I’d thought radiation was bad right up until the chemo started. Then I discovered that radiation was just the warm-up. Cancer treatments weren’t for the faint of heart.

I figured the bigwigs with the Storm were just allowing me to tag along because I didn’t have a whole lot to do these days. Maybe a little bit because they felt sorry for me, too, but this was one instance where I was more than willing to take advantage of some pity.

Plus, I thought it helped Dad not worry too much, and that could only help him to perform in games the way he needed to. Some days I thought my cancer was harder on my parents than it was on me. Not physically, so much, but emotionally. I didn’t want to die, but I’d just kind of resigned myself to the fact that it might happen. They hadn’t. Not yet, at least. And so they hovered. And worried. And cried.

I wished they would just accept that it might happen. That would be a whole lot easier for all of us.

With my treatments making me so sick, the school district had assigned me a laptop and had given me access to online coursework and a tutor who came to my house once a week for two hours. All I did other than my online classes and tutoring sessions was sleep, puke, try to imagine myself healthy again, and follow the Storm. Everything else had been put on hold—indefinitely.

That last bit, getting to follow the Storm, was the only part of my life keeping me sane, at least now in the early stages of chemo. I’d been going stir-crazy without school and Glee Club and all the other regular teenager things filling my days, and going to their practices and games gave me something to focus on other than how sometimes I wished it would just end, whatever that meant. They gave me something to believe in, and there hadn’t been much of that lately.

My eyes followed my dad as he skated off the ice, gave me a brief wave, and headed down the tunnel with the rest of the guys. It was now or never. I didn’t want to lie to Mom, but if I was going to go through with this, I didn’t have much choice because of her hovering-to-keep-me-alive thing.

Cancer sucks and it kills a lot of people, and there was no question I might die, but it probably wasn’t going to happen today. I was pretty sure I’d feel a lot worse than I did before it was all over. Not that I wanted to feel worse. I just wanted it to end.

I turned toward Mom and tried to look green, which wasn’t all that hard these days. “I think I might be sick.”

“Oh, Katie, today? You don’t usually get sick so many days after a treatment…”

I put my hand up to my mouth, as though I was trying to hold back some puke. “Yeah. Today. I’ll meet you by the parking garage when I’m done.”

I didn’t give her a chance to argue. I took off at a run, bolting up the stairs away from the Moda Center’s ice with my hand over my mouth the entire way. I left my jacket, purse, and the throw blanket she’d brought with us to keep me warm behind with her. That way she’d have to gather it all up before she could follow. That should give me enough time to get to the bowels of the arena instead of making a beeline for the bathroom without her seeing where I was heading.

Sure enough, I got onto the elevator and the doors closed behind me without Mom appearing in the concourse.

I got off at ice level, and I made my way along the concrete walkway toward the Storm’s offices and locker room. When I got to the double doors I was looking for, Daniel “Hammer” Hamm, one of the assistant coaches, was just making his way out and preparing to let the press in. They were standing just outside the doors, three men who’d become increasingly more familiar to me over the last few weeks.

I needed to get in before the press. They would be in there too long. I couldn’t wait for them to finish and leave or else Mom would really freak out. If they beat me inside, I’d have to just go meet Mom and forget all about talking to Dad without having her around.

“Hammer!” I called out, still from some distance away. I was proud that I only sounded a little panicky, not like I was in a full-fledged freak-out.

He looked at me with his eyes squinting into a funny expression. I jogged the rest of the distance even though it left me winded so he wouldn’t have to wait too long for an explanation, and so I wouldn’t have to keep shouting. All three of the media guys spun their heads around to stare at me, too. I wished they would back off.

“Can I get in there for a minute?” I asked. “There’s something I need my dad for. It should only take a few minutes.”

He frowned. “What do you need that can’t wait until he gets home, Katie? We have to let the media in…”

I reached into my pocket and showed him what I’d placed in there before leaving home this morning, keeping it hidden from the reporters who were craning their heads to see while trying to pretend that they weren’t doing exactly that.

Hammer looked down at my hand and swallowed hard a couple of times. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat, like Dad’s did when he was trying not to get emotional. Then he nodded, and I put my hand back in my pocket.

“Let me go back in and make sure all the boys have clothes on so your dad doesn’t have to kill anyone,” he said. “Stay right here.” He looked over to the press, who were waiting for their chance to go in and interview some of the players. “It’s going to be a few more minutes, guys. Sorry.”

A moment later, he opened one of the doors and let me in, closing it firmly behind me so no one else could follow. I made my way straight for my dad’s stall.

He shook his head when he saw me, a slight frown turning down the corners of his lips. His eyes looked tired, with red streaks and bags under them. He’d only started looking like that and showing his age recently. I hated that I was the reason why.

“What’s going on, Katie?” he asked.

I took a deep breath for courage. Then I emptied my pocket again and held the clump of my hair up for him to see. “It’s starting to fall out. I don’t want to wait and have it leave me with bald patches. I just want to shave it off.” My voice kept cracking over the words, which sucked. I didn’t want anyone to know how scared I was.

I’d woken up this morning and had nearly gotten sick when I found this big wad on my pillow. Heck of a way to wake up. Some more had come out when I’d brushed my hair, leaving a bald patch in the back that I’d had to hide with strategic barrette placement. I hadn’t wanted Mom to see it. Or Luke and Dani, my younger brother and sister. They all worried so much, and this would only make the fears more real—bring them closer to coming true. As long as I had hair, we’d been able to pretend that I was just a little sick. This was going to shoot that idea out of the water, though.

It was unnaturally quiet in the locker room. The team had been playing well lately, winning more than losing, so that meant they were usually laughing and joking with each other when they were all together, keeping things loose. So I knew the guys were listening, even if their heads were turned away and they were pretending to keep busy with other things. It didn’t matter if they heard, though. They could handle this—a lot better than Mom could, at any rate. Maybe better than I could.

Dad stared at the hair in my hand for a minute and then kissed my forehead. “Does your mom know you’re down here?”

“No. I told her I felt sick and I’d meet her at the garage.”

“She’s going to kill me.” His jaw was tight, like he was grinding his teeth, and his Adam’s apple bobbed hard a couple of times.

I nodded. “It’ll be better this way.” Maybe not better, but at least easier.

“I know.” He turned to Cam Johnson, one of his teammates, who was a few stalls down. “Jonny? You have your hair clippers here?” Jonny had kept his hair buzzed short, like a military cut, for as long as I’d known him.

“Yeah, gimme a sec.” He reached overhead and took out a shoebox. He brought it over to us. “You want me to do it?”

“No, I’ll do it,” Dad said. His voice kept getting heavier, deeper. He was barely keeping it together. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked him to do this with his teammates all around. Maybe I should have just kept trying to hide it with barrettes until I couldn’t hide it any longer.

“Use one of the guards first until you get most of her hair off,” Jonny said. “Then go back over it without a guard. That’ll help keep it from pulling and hurting her.” He winked and gave me a kind smile before he went back to doing whatever he’d been doing.

“Okay.” Dad sorted through the guards in the box. He selected one and settled it over the cutting mechanism.

“Here, Katie,” a deep voice said from behind me.

I turned to see Eric Zellinger, the team captain, holding a folding chair and a towel. “Sit down,” Zee said. “We’ll put this over your shoulders to catch the hair.”

I nodded, biting down on my lip. A lot more of the guys were getting involved in this than I’d counted on. This was turning into something bigger than I’d expected, and it made me wish I’d thought it through better. All I’d been thinking about was Mom and her hovering.

He set the chair on the floor, and I dropped onto it. Dad put the towel around my shoulders. I removed the barrettes from my hair and stuck them in my pocket, not that I’d need them again anytime soon. I held the ends of the towel together in the front, staring down at my lap so he should have easy access. My hands were shaking, so I pressed my fingers tight to my chest so maybe the guys wouldn’t notice how worked up I was.

The clippers buzzed to life by my ear, but then nothing happened. I lifted my head. At least half the team had stopped what they were doing to watch, some of them shifting uncomfortably. I didn’t mean to make them uncomfortable. I just didn’t know what else to do without upsetting Mom.

“You sure you’re ready?” Dad asked. His voice cracked just like mine had.

I wasn’t even close to ready and I couldn’t make my body stop shuddering, but I said, “Yes. Do it.” I tilted my head back so I could see him, and I gave him a big, fake smile before lowering my head again. I’d always been a good actress, but based on the way his eyes were shining, he hadn’t bought it this time.

My attention shifted to Babs—Jamie Babcock, the youngest guy on the team, and the one I’d had the hugest crush on for forever. Or at least since I’d first met him when he’d started playing for the Storm. He looked as green as I’d tried to be in order to convince Mom I was sick. I didn’t want him to see me bald—he might turn his back on me as fast as all my school friends had—but I couldn’t kick him out. I was the intruder here, not him. Besides, I was going to be bald one way or another soon. Unless I was planning on hiding out in my bedroom for the next several months, chances were he was going to see me like that.

“Okay,” Dad said finally, his usually steady voice shaking as hard as I was. He trailed his fingers through my hair in the back, as though he needed to touch it one more time in case it never came back.

I couldn’t look away from Babs, and he didn’t look away from me. He was sitting on the bench at his stall, his hands fisted at his sides, as the cool plastic guard touched down against my forehead. It glided back along my scalp, and large clumps of my hair rained down onto the towel over my shoulders. I caught a piece of it in my free hand. The long, brown strands still felt vibrant and alive.

Not like me. I hadn’t felt vibrant in so long I almost didn’t remember what it was like, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be alive anymore if it had to hurt this bad.

I let the hair slip through my fingers and fall to my feet.

It didn’t take long for Dad to finish the first pass with the guard, even with being careful around my ears. He powered the clippers off and removed the guard, tossing it back into the shoebox behind him. A moment later, the now-familiar buzzing sound filled the room again.

This time, I could feel the metal against my flesh. It was warm from the motor and a little scratchy, but it was oddly comforting. My scalp had been sensitive for days—a sure sign, according to my oncologist, that the hair loss would start soon. Dad went over some spots multiple times, then he rubbed my bald head to feel if he’d missed anything.

He turned the clippers off again, picked up a few strands of hair from the towel, shoved them in his pocket, and kissed the top of my head.

“You’ve got to tell me,” I said. “Do I have any weird bumpy spots?” I needed some warning about things like that before I looked in a mirror. It was going to be enough of a shock to see myself without any hair. I’d always had a full head of long, thick brown hair, ever since I was really little. Even in my baby pictures I had a lot of hair. Mom said I’d come out that way.

“No weird bumpy spots,” Dad said. He sounded gruff. I knew this wasn’t easy for him. None of it was.

“Okay.” I carefully took the towel off, looking down for the first time to see the mound of brown hair at my feet and surrounding the chair.

Jonny brought over a damp cloth and handed it to Dad. It was warm when he wiped it over my head, neck, and face to pick up any loose hairs.

I got up and kissed Dad on the cheek. “Is there a mirror around? I need to see.”

Zee jerked his head to the side, toward another part of the room. “Over here.”

I went to where he’d indicated and stared in shock at my reflection. It was still me—still my blue eyes, even though they seemed tired and sunken in, still my nose and my dry lips, still my slightly hollowed out cheekbones. But I looked like an alien. If my friends hadn’t already dropped me, they definitely would now. Who would want to hang out with the weird alien girl? The lack of hair only seemed to emphasize the features that made it obvious I was sick. I let my hands run over my head as I turned to see myself from every angle.

No weird bumpy spots. Dad hadn’t lied.

The clippers buzzed to life again, and I raced back into the main part of the locker room. My dad was in the chair. Jonny was shaving Dad’s head.

“Oh, Daddy.” I’d been able to get through losing my own hair without crying, but this time I couldn’t hold my stupid tears back. “Mom really will kill you now.”

He winked and reached for my hand. I held it, watching as his salt-and-pepper hair joined mine on the floor around the chair. Jonny finished shaving Dad’s head a lot quicker than Dad had done mine.

“No weird bumpy spots?” Dad asked me.

I brushed away a tear and shook my head. “No weird bumpy spots.”

He got up and left without saying another word, heading toward the mirror.

Jonny started to put the clippers away, but Babs got up and said, “Not yet. Do mine next.”

“No!” I couldn’t believe I’d just shouted at him, but I couldn’t let Babs do that, even though the thought that he was willing to made my belly flip.

I loved his hair. It was this perfect blondish-brown shade, and he had it cut in a faux hawk lately that made me want to run my fingers through it. I couldn’t do anything like that. Dad would kill Babs if he even looked at me funny, whether he’d done anything or not—not that he ever would. I was just another girl with a crush on him. He had more than enough of those to choose from. There was no reason he should choose me over any of the rest of them.

Babs was only a couple of years older than me—only twenty—but I didn’t think age was really the issue for Dad when it came to the thought of me and a guy. He was stuck on the fact that I was still in high school, and he seemed to think I shouldn’t even date until I was about sixty or seventy, or maybe not even then.

It didn’t seem to matter to him that I’d already turned eighteen and was old enough that I could make my own choices. It happened two and a half weeks ago, actually, on the day that I’d started my first chemo treatment. Happy birthday to me. Here’s some cake you can puke up later.

Babs stood in the middle of the locker room, his hands still balled into fists at his sides, staring at me. “I want to,” he said. “I feel like it’s the only thing I can do.”

There wasn’t anything for him to do. I shook my head, this time feeling like I might actually get sick. “Please, don’t. I can handle losing my hair, but I don’t think I can take it if you shave yours off. Plus, all of Portland would hate me.”

He laughed, but it was an angry sort of laugh. Hurt. Like I’d hurt his feelings, which made no sense at all. He clenched his jaw, and it made his dimples come out. “Okay,” he said finally. “But only because you asked me not to.”

I took a couple of steps until I was standing right in front of him. “Thank you, Babs,” I whispered.

“Jamie,” he said. “Call me Jamie.”

As he spoke, I could smell the sweet-and-spicy cinnamon scent on his breath from the mints he was always popping in his mouth. I was that close.

I stretched up on my toes and kissed him on the cheek, right where his dimple always showed up. “Jamie…thank you.” I don’t know what made me kiss him like that, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

He brought his hand up, and I thought he might touch my cheek or my head. My pulse thundered like a wild stampede, and I couldn’t breathe for wanting him to touch me in some small way, even though it was a crazy thought in the first place.

“You’d better back away from my little girl, dipshit,” Dad said from right behind me.

Jamie dropped his hand to his side so fast you would have thought Dad had shot it.

I took a step back, almost bumping into my dad. “It’s my fault. He didn’t do anything.” I turned to face him, and Jamie backed away to busy himself with something else. “Really, Dad.”

“Your mother’s waiting for you,” he said, but I knew he was pissed. His eyes were more bloodshot than before, like he’d been crying. That was probably why he’d left for a minute—not so much to look at his own bald head.

I nodded. “Yeah. I’m going.”

“Are you two coming to lunch with us today?”

“If I can get her to stop crying once she sees me like this. I’ll text you to let you know.” I raced out of the locker room before either of us started crying again and hurried past the reporters before they realized I didn’t have any hair left.