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Dreams: A sweet hockey romance (New Beginnings Book 3) by Michelle MacQueen (1)

Chapter One

How long does it take to be okay again after a loss? Two years? Five? Does it ever get better?

It had been one long year, 365 days, since Taylor Scott lost the only boy she’d ever loved. She remembered all the things people said to her since it happened. Things like “You’re young, it’ll be okay,” or “It’ll just take time.” But now some of that time had passed, and she didn’t feel any better. She didn’t really feel anything at all.

“You okay, sweetie?” her dad asked, giving her a knowing look as he parked the car on the side of the road.

To most of the people in Portland, he was Coach Scott, the man who led the Portland Winterhawks hockey team to the Memorial cup title the year before.

Taylor made a noncommittal sound in the back of her throat, but her dad knew better than to press the issue.

She stepped out onto the curb as her mom detached her three-year-old sister, Evie, from the car-seat. Robin Scott was the ultimate coach’s wife. In junior hockey, the players were just teenagers. Most of them were far from home, living with host families. Robin made sure each one of them had everything they needed, including a mother hen. They all loved her. Danny had loved her.

Taylor hadn’t cried at the church a year ago. Her eyes remained dry as they lowered him into the ground. It hadn’t quite felt real yet. That changed as she faced the reality of living without him. She spent the last year in the kind of haze that’s created when you can’t really believe what your life has become. No one ever thinks they’re going to lose the love of their life- at least, not at eighteen.

Today, on the anniversary of Danny’s death, was the memorial service. It was supposed to be happy, a celebration of his life. She didn’t want to cry in front of other people, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile either.

They all expected her to break down at any moment. Her parents watched everything she did, just waiting for the sorrow to overwhelm her. Her friends walked on eggshells around her. After it happened, Danny’s teammates, dealing with their own grief, had rallied around her. Over time, she pushed them away. She pushed everyone away and put her future on hold.

College had been deferred, friends had been forgotten. She didn’t know how she could live her life when she didn’t care about any of it anymore.

Cars lined the long driveway and the street leading up to it. Taylor had made this walk so many times before. The big house in front of her belonged to her best friend Sarah’s family. Sarah was the one friend who held on to Taylor tighter the more she tried to push everyone away.

But it wasn’t just Sarah that’d lived within those walls. For two years before his death, Sarah’s family hosted Danny Brown. He was sixteen when he first arrived. Sarah had raved to Taylor about the cute boy that moved in. When she finally met him, he was goofy and a little out there, but he had a smile that immediately put her at ease. He was cute in an awkward sort of way. It wasn’t long before they were spending every free moment together. Danny loved her with everything he had. He never did anything half-way. It made her feel special, like she could do anything as long as he was there. For two years there was so much joy in their lives.

A month before it happened, Danny was drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. She knew he probably wouldn’t make the team for at least another year or two, but she planned to go with him when he did. She could go to college anywhere. They had dreams - to be together.

But then they were ripped away the moment she saw him collapse on the ice during training.

“Taylor!” Sarah’s voice cut through Taylor’s thoughts as the door before them was flung open.

“Hey Sarah, dear.” Taylor’s mom shifted Evie in her arms so she could give Sarah a one armed hug.

They were welcomed into the throng of people who were there for Danny. He was loved. Whether it be teammates he had over the years or his extensive extended family. Everyone was here.

Sarah looped her arm through Taylor’s and steered her away from her parents to the back of the house.

“Are you okay?” Sarah leaned in to whisper.

“No,” Taylor responded shortly. Sarah was the one person she’d ever admit that to. Over the past year she practically made a sport of convincing people she was fine. No one believed her, but they stopped asking.

It might have been the way she walked through her life like a zombie, not really registering anything. Her parents made her get a job when she decided not to go to college in the fall, mainly to force her to get out of the house.

She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed or had fun. It was an emotionless existence, but it was easier than the alternative, better than forgetting and moving on.

A couple of the guys from the team saw her and took their turns giving her hugs.

“You look beautiful, Tay,” Garret, the captain of the team, whispered into her ear as he squeezed her in a bear hug. “Danny would’ve loved this.” He gestured to the yellow dress she was wearing.

It was a well-known fact that Danny’s favorite color was yellow. He just loved it. And his teammates gave him endless beef about it.

If it was up to Taylor, she wouldn’t be wearing it. Her mom had insisted that she needed to wear something bright for a memorial service and Danny’s color was perfect. It was Taylor’s favorite dress, even though she hadn’t worn it in over a year and knew she’d never wear it again after today.

“Thanks,” she said dully as Garret released her.

“We’re going to miss you around here.”

“Yeah,” Sarah piped in with fake offense in her voice. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”

Taylor shrugged. Truth be told, she was glad to be leaving Portland. She only wished Ohio wasn’t her destination. Her dad had been retired from the NHL for fifteen years now and was finally going back, as a coach this time. After winning the Memorial Cup, he was offered an assistant coach position with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He loved his team in Portland, but the NHL was the dream.

Taylor was going with them, but her parents decided it was time for her to restart her life. They were making her start at Ohio State in September. Even worse, they were forcing her to live in the dorms. They thought it would be good for her to meet some new people. They didn’t want to know what she thought about that.

Taylor left them chatting and let her feet take her through the house, towards the stairs that led into the basement. The room was a converted living space for hockey players the family hosted.

Taking the steps slowly, she stood in the open door. Her eyes did a sweep of the familiar surroundings, but it wasn’t the same. The photo of the two of them that Danny had blown up and framed no longer hung on the wall beside the bed. The comforter was black now instead of a light blue.

The scent of cinnamon air fresheners that he loved so much no longer hung in the air.

Someone cleared their throat behind her, and she turned to find a boy watching her. He looked to be a few years younger than herself.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“What?”

“This is my room.” He pointed behind her. “I just moved in.”

“Oh, sorry.” She moved to walk by him, avoiding his eyes.

“You’re the old coach’s daughter, right?”

The old coach. That stopped her, and she turned. Her father was no longer the coach to these guys. If this boy just moved in, he would only play for the new one.

Yeah, she thought. Things are changing.

“I’m sorry about that guy,” the boy stammered as she continued to stare at him.

That guy. People always felt obligated to say things like that, even when they didn’t know the person. This boy would play for Danny’s team and never know him. The guys that did know him were starting to move on from junior hockey.

The boy shifted nervously as Taylor stayed quiet.

Finally, she brushed by him without a word. At the top of the stairs, she turned left and rushed by people. A few called her name, but she didn’t stop until she reached the back door. The sounds from inside were instantly muffled as she slid the glass door shut behind her.

Night had fallen, but the summer air was still warm on her skin. The only light came from the full moon overhead, but it was enough.

She slid her feet from her sandals and left them by the door before padding across the concrete to the edge of the pool.

Over the years, she spent a lot of time in that pool. When she and Sarah were on the swim team in high school, they’d spend hours out here practicing. It was large, big enough for three or four people to take laps. Danny would come home from training and cannonball in, disrupting their practice. Sarah would get annoyed, but Taylor could never be mad at Danny for long.

She lowered herself to the ground, the concrete scraping against the back of her legs as she hung her feet into the water. It was a peaceful night - in contrast to the crowd inside. Taylor had grown to appreciate the quiet, preferring to be alone most of the time than with people who felt obligated to fill the space that silence created.

She slid more of her legs into the water until her butt was on the very edge. In that moment, she knew what she wanted to do to make herself forget.

Her mom would kill her. She had spent quite a bit of time making sure that Taylor’s long brown locks were curled just right. It would probably ruin her dress, but she never planned on wearing it again anyway.

The water was so smooth against her skin. It invited her in. An invitation she accepted as she slid off the edge. There was a second of suspension before her head dipped below the dark water and the world disappeared.

The pool wasn’t deep so her feet hit immediately, the water just skimming the top of her head. She blew out, and the bubbles floated by her face before racing up towards the surface. Nothing existed while she was in the water. It had been a long time since she swam, and she suddenly couldn’t understand why. It was the one place she didn’t have to think. The only noise was the blood rushing in her ears. She could almost believe that everything would be right again when she emerged. Almost.

Before long, her lungs started screaming out for a breath. She lifted her feet from the bottom and let herself float up, gasping for air as her head broke through the water. She flipped her sopping hair out of her face and dipped her head back to let the water smooth it. Her dress floated up in a circle around her as she kicked her legs to propel her across the pool slowly.

It wasn’t until she glanced back towards the house that she realized she wasn’t alone. At first, she thought she was imagining things. Danny?

No. As she peered closer she noticed this person had a bulk to his frame that Danny always failed to achieve.

The man stood silhouetted in the dark, arms crossed and foot resting back against the house, watching her.

“Who is that?” she asked, suddenly angry at the intrusion on her solitude.

“What are you doing in there?” He didn’t bother answering her question as he took a few steps towards the pool.

“Swimming,” she said. “You can go back inside now.”

He didn’t listen to her. Instead, he kicked off his shoes and rolled up the bottoms of his slacks.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

As he moved closer, she started to make out his features. He was tall, with broad shoulders. All man, except that his face still held the roundness of youth. A mop of blond hair sat on top of his head, falling into his eyes.

He hiked his pants up further and sat down with his feet over the edge.

“You looked like you could use some company,” he finally said.

“What if I want to be alone?”

“What you want isn’t always what you need.” He gave her a sad smile. “I’m Josh, by the way.”

* * *

“Yo, Walker!”

Josh heard his name as soon as he entered the house and turned to find his old teammate, Garret, looming nearby. Josh was a tall guy, but Garret was massive. He was only seventeen when Josh left junior hockey for the big leagues and had filled out considerably.

“Hey, man,” Josh wheezed as he was wrapped in a bear-hug. The last time he’d seen Garret was a year ago at the funeral, and his friend hadn’t been doing so well. He was close with the kid who died.

“How are you, buddy?” Garret finally released him. “I saw you at the service. I’m glad you came.”

Josh shrugged, but was saved from the traditional “sorries” that he was sure Danny’s friends and family had heard constantly for the past year. He felt an arm tugging on his and looked down to find a short girl with ear-length black hair and red-rimmed eyes looking up at him. She sniffled, and Josh pulled her into a hug as Garret gave them space.

“Sarah Jones,” Josh cooed, smoothing her hair. “This is a memorial service. We’re supposed to be celebrating him.”

“I know.” A harsh laugh escaped her quivering lips. “I just can’t seem to stop crying. I’ve had to hold it together for everyone else, but I can’t stop missing him. It was easier when I was away at school, but now that I’m home and there’s someone new living in his room…”

“I get it.”

“I’m so glad you came.” She clung to him, burying her face in his shirt.

“I promised you I would.”

Josh hadn’t really known Danny. He’d met him once when he was visiting Sarah and her family. But he was there a year ago at the funeral, and he came back for this because he wanted to be there for them. Sarah was like a little sister to him. For the two years he played hockey in Portland, they housed him, or as they called it, ‘billeting’. But they were more than his hosts. They were family. Sarah was more of a sibling than his own brother, Ethan.

Sarah sniffled once more and then wiped her face. “Come on. Mom and Dad will want to see you.”

They found her parents talking to a smartly dressed couple in the kitchen. “Josh, honey,” Mrs. Jones said, holding her arms out for a hug.

He obliged before shaking Mr. Jones’s hand.

“These are the Scotts,” Mr. Jones made the introductions. “Douglas and Robin.”

The name sounded familiar, but he didn’t get a chance to think on it before a little girl came barreling by him. Robin Scott stuck out her arm and caught the back of the girl’s shirt. She squirmed and giggled.

“And this,” Robin said, “is Evie.”

“It’s nice to meet all of you,” Josh said politely.

“Coach Scott here has done wonders for the team.” Mr. Jones put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We’re sad to see him go.”

It all clicked into place in Josh’s mind. “You’re Coach Scott?” he asked. When the man nodded, he stuck out his hand. “Let me be the first to welcome you to Columbus.”

His grip was strong, but he released Josh after a moment. “Josh…”

“Walker,” Josh clarified.

“Oh, yes. I’ve seen you play. I’ve been watching tapes of the team.” He stared at him like he was sizing him up. “You’re a smart player. Not always positionally sound, but that will come with age. It’s the smarts that are important. You’re either born with a hockey sense or not, and you were. You just weren’t born with the natural ability to always do what your brain is telling you.”

Josh rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly nervous under the critical eye of his new assistant coach.

“You don’t have the best of hands. But you’re fast, deceptively so. And you work hard. It shows in your game. I respect that. How has training gone this summer?”

“I train with a few guys in New York. It’s been good. I’m heading to Columbus in a couple of days.”

“I’ll see you in training camp then.”

Josh felt like he was being dismissed, so he said his goodbyes and made his exit with Sarah close on his heels.

“That was intense,” Josh said, finally able to breathe again.

“That’s just Coach,” Sarah laughed. “He can be a hard-ass, but he’s a fantastic coach and a pretty good dude. He’s probably a little off his game today. Their family hasn’t completely moved past Danny’s death.”

“Danny was a favorite, huh?”

“Well, Coach got here about the same time Danny did. It was the season you made Columbus. He was the kind of guy everyone liked, and he fell completely in love with the coach’s daughter. I had to listen to him go on and on about her. Finally, I convinced her to give him a chance. They were still together when he died. It destroyed her. She’s my best friend, but it’s like I lost her too.”

Josh put an arm around his old friend’s shoulders and squeezed her to his side. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” she sighed. “Getting out of Portland is probably the best thing for her, even though I’ll miss her.” Sarah turned to look at him, the light back in her eyes. “Maybe you could be friends with her! You’re perfect.”

“Sarah, I can’t just get a stranger through their grief. I don’t have superpowers or something.”

“Of course you do, Joshy. You are the best listener I’ve ever known. She needs someone to be there for her while I’m stuck here in this stupid city.”

“I don’t even know her. Maybe she won’t even like me.”

“Everyone likes you.” She levelled him with a stare. “I’m not asking you to work miracles. Just watch out for her. She’s so broken right now. You have no idea how bad the last year has been for her.”

Josh sighed at the desperation in her voice. He never could say no to Sarah.

“Fine, I’ll at least introduce myself.”

“Good, I saw her go out back a few minutes ago.”

“You want me to do this now?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Why do I feel like you’re pimping out my friend services?”

“Because I am.” She pushed him towards the back of the house. “Now go.”

“Yes, mother.”

Josh said hi to a few more people as he headed towards the back. There were a lot of people there who were trying to put on their smiles in spirit of Danny’s memory, but it only made for a strange mood. It was a relief for Josh when he pushed open the back door, letting the fresh air bathe his face.

The moon provided the only light, causing him to almost trip over a pair of sandals in the dark. The pool stood in the center of the yard, surrounded by a concrete skirt. The water rippled out from where someone had recently submerged themselves. Josh considered walking closer to check on whoever it was and then thought better of it. Instead, he leaned back against the house.

Sarah wanted him to be friends with this girl, but he wasn’t promising anything. This was going to be an important season for him, the last of his entry-level contract. If this girl was as troubled as Sarah said, he didn’t need the distraction. But, who was he kidding? Josh knew he was too damn nice for his own good. If he could do something to help her, he knew he would.

The water surged seconds before a head broke the surface, sucking in air.

She didn’t notice her audience as she kicked slowly around the pool. Finally, she stopped and looked up towards the house, her eyes finding him.

“Who is that?” her low voice called out.

“What are you doing in there?” he asked, knowing how stupid it sounded as soon as he said it.

“Swimming,” she answered, a slight tremor in her voice. “You can go back inside now.”

He almost did. She obviously didn’t want him there, and he wasn’t so sure he wanted to be there either. It would have been so easy to let her be someone else’s project. That’s what he wanted. But, that wasn’t who he was.

He walked towards the pool and she became clearer. Her long hair hung in ringlets, sticking to her face. Black lines streaked down her face, but her eyes weren’t swollen. Just the water then. No crying, he thought. Interesting.

* * *

They didn’t talk much, and Taylor was glad for that. She let everything go and just floated on top of the water. Danny was still on her mind - he always was, but she wasn’t ready to talk about him.

For months, her parents had been trying to get her talk about her feelings. They’d even sent her to a therapist. She spent an hour sitting across from a lady with a clipboard, but refused to speak.

Danny’s family wanted her to say something at the memorial service, but again she declined.

When Josh first sat down, she assumed he’d been sent by her parents to get her to say something about it, anything at all. Send the cute, unknown boy out to help her. It’d be a good tactic if she could feel anything at all. She knew she should feel guilty for everything she’d put her family through in the last year, but she couldn’t muster up even a shred of remorse.

Now this boy sat nearby, watching her but not asking her to say anything. He didn’t demand she deal with her grief like everyone else in her life did. She didn’t know him, yet she found it so comfortable to be around him. Maybe it was because he didn’t know how broken she really was.

“I’m Taylor,” she finally said.

“Hi, Taylor.” There it was again - that smile. It wasn’t full of sadness or fake celebration like everyone else in that house. It wasn’t a happy smile, either. That would have been out of place on a day like today. It just was. There were no expectations in his expression. He was just… nice.

“Do you like Portland?”

His question reeked of small talk. A year ago Taylor would have laughed at that. Now she was grateful for the lack of substance in the conversation.

“It’s okay,” she finally said. “But we’re moving to Columbus, Ohio.”

Josh smiled again. “You don’t sound too excited about that.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go cow-tipping. And don’t forget the tractor shows.” She groaned, and Josh just laughed.

“It’s not so bad,” he said. “I’ve been to Columbus, and it’s actually a pretty cool city. No cow-tipping, I promise.”

“Well, at least the weather will be better.”

“I wouldn’t count on that.”

“Sounds like you know a lot about the place.”

Josh shrugged.

They continued their small talk and Taylor appreciated it. She had forgotten what it felt like to talk to someone who didn’t ask her how she was every five minutes.

The temperature seemed to be dropping as a breeze blew across the top of the water and her teeth clattered together.

“You must be freezing,” Josh said, jumping to his feet. “Hold on, I’ll go get you a towel.”

He disappeared into the house for a few minutes before returning. Taylor climbed out of the pool and let Josh wrap the towel around her shaking body. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms for warmth, but she stepped away from him as she grew uncomfortable with the closeness.

Her sopping dress clung to her legs, making walking a challenge.

“Taylor,” her mom called, appearing at the door. “We’re heading out.” Her eyes landed on her wet daughter and she sighed. “I’m so very glad I spent all that time on your hair today.” She then smiled indulgently and shook her head. “Come on, sweetheart.”

Taylor glanced back at Josh one more time before following her mom into the house.