Dreams didn't come with expiration dates. At least, they shouldn't. That was something Taylor LeBlanc had always believed because it was something she had always been told.
What a load of crap.
Reality didn't care about dreams. And—at the ripe, old age of twenty-two—Taylor's dreams were dead.
Tagged and bagged.
No matter what kind of spin her dad put on it, she was a wash-up. A has-been. Finished before she started.
She glanced around the room, at the stripped bed and bare walls and stack of boxes that held the last four years of her life. Fun years. Educational years.
Her glory years.
She blew out a sigh and walked over to the single box that sat on the bare nightstand, alone, holding the last remnants of those glory years. Sealing it seemed so…final. Maybe that's why she had saved this one for last—because she knew closing it up and running that strip of heavy clear packing tape over it would be the end.
Not the literal end, of course. Her life would go on. She'd leave here, move into her tiny little apartment, get a job. Start something new. Her whole life was ahead of her, right? That's what everyone told her. How this was all about new beginnings. The start of a new adventure.
Except her dream was dead.
"Wow. Drama much, LeBlanc?" She muttered the words under her breath and grabbed the tape gun. This wasn't like her. She knew that. Just like she knew she'd get over it—
She just hadn't expected it to be quite so disappointing.
Heavy footsteps, loud yet hesitant, echoed behind her against the bare floor. Taylor knew without looking who it was—her step-dad. No, her dad, period. In every way that counted. Sonny had been there for her from the very beginning. Guiding, teaching. Supporting and encouraging. Telling her to follow her dreams, no matter what.
How could he have known it would all end like this?
"You all set there, Pumpkin?"
Taylor kept her back to him, not wanting him to see the annoying way her eyes were getting all watery. She blinked a few times and forced a smile on her face, hoping that would get rid of the disappointment in her voice. "Yeah. Just need to tape this final box."
Maybe she didn't do a very good job of steadying her voice because Sonny was suddenly standing beside her, one of his beefy hands resting on her shoulder. Solid. Warm. Comforting.
He didn't say anything, just stood there, a wall of silent strength—the way he'd always been. Several minutes went by, long and quiet. Then he reached around her and pulled a black velvet box from the jumble of trophies and plaques that had already been packed. He flipped it open then tilted it up so the overhead light caught on the gold medal nestled amid green satin.
Taylor wanted to yank it from his hand and toss it back in the box but she couldn't—no more than she could hide the tears welling in her eyes. Sonny glanced at her, his mouth thinning for a brief second before he pulled her into one of his giant hugs and patted her on the back with a grunt.
"Why the tears, Pumpkin?"
"I don't know."
"You sure about that?"
Taylor shrugged then rested her head on his broad shoulder, taking comfort in his hold. "Maybe."
He patted her on the back again, maybe just a little too hard, then pulled away and lowered his large frame to the edge of the bare mattress. He patted the spot next to him, the gold medal still in his hand. "Have a seat."
Taylor managed to swallow a groan—barely. She knew he meant well but she wasn't in the mood for one of his pep talks. Not right now. Later, maybe. Right now, she just wanted five minutes to herself so she could wallow in her misery.
But she moved over to the bed anyway and plopped down beside him, trying not to feel like she was nine-years-old again and getting ready to receive a lecture on being a good sport. "What?"
"Why the tears?"
"I don't know."
"Bull—" Sonny cleared his throat, a flash of red tingeing the scar that ran down the side of his face. "Baloney. You're my daughter, I can tell when you're ready to cry. Now what's up?"
How could she tell him without sounding like a whiny little brat who wasn't getting her way? Then again, this was her dad. Sonny LeBlanc. Former head coach of the Baltimore Banners. The same head coach who had led his team to three Stanley Cup championships. If anyone would understand, he would.
Taylor shrugged and ran her hands along the faded denim of her torn jeans. She kept her gaze focused on the torn cuticle of her thumb, searching for the words to explain. Sometimes the easiest words were the simplest, so she took a deep breath and let the words leave in a rush.
"I didn't think it would end this way. I thought there'd be more."
"You didn't think college would end this way?"
"Not college. Hockey. I didn't think the end of one would be the end of the other, you know?"
"What makes you think hockey is ending?"
Taylor looked up, not bothering to hide her frown—or her disbelief. "You're joking, right? It's done. Over. I'm a has-been, Dad."
"You most certainly are not. I don't even want to hear you say that."
"Why not? It's the truth."
"No, it is not. Hockey's in your blood, Pumpkin. You'll always play."
Sonny grunted and looked down at the medal in his hand. He snapped the lid closed and tossed it into the box with another grunt then blew out a heavy sigh. "That's not your fault, Pumpkin. You shouldn't beat yourself up over it."
"It's not fair." And yeah, she sounded like a whiny kid who just drew a penalty on the ice. She hated it. But shouldn't she be allowed to be a little whiny? Just for a few minutes? Her dream had died a swift and agonizing death. If there was ever a better time to be whiny, she'd like to know when.
Sonny mumbled something under his breath then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small card. He kept it curled in his large palm, staring down at it like he didn't quite know what to do with it. Then he grunted again and held it out to her.
"I was going to wait until dinner tonight to tell you, but maybe now's a better time."
Taylor glanced down at the scribble on the card without really seeing it. It would take too long to decipher Sonny's writing, anyway. "What's this?"
"There's a league forming. A women's hockey league."
"You mean like a rec league?"
"No, I mean a professional league. Well, mostly. You'd have a contract, get paid. I'm not sure how much." He shifted on the bed then pointed at the card. "It's just four teams to start for now. One of them is back home."
A glimmer of hope took root inside her, pushing away the funk that had been hovering around her for the last week. "You mean a real league?"
"Yes. A real league. Tryouts are in two weeks and the season starts in October."
"For real? Like, a real league?"
A smile hovered around Sonny's mouth and crinkled the flesh around his warm gray eyes. "Yes. For real. You need to call that number if you want to try-out."
Taylor tried to contain her excitement for all of three seconds, then bounded off the bed and threw her arms around Sonny's broad shoulders. "OhmyGod this is great. I'm so happy. Thank you!"
"Don't thank me, Pumpkin. I'm just passing on the information."
"I'll make you proud, Dad. I swear."
Sonny's arms tightened around her and he pulled her in even closer, his voice thick and gruff when he spoke. "I've always been proud of you, Pumpkin. Don't you know that?"