“P repare for turbulence,” the pilot announced as a little foot pressed against the center of her back. The kid in the seat behind kicked her chair for the umpteenth time. Her best friend told her this trip would be fun and a good change of scenery, but it wasn’t off to a good start. Sylvie adjusted her headphones. She tried to block out the world and everything wrong within it.
Her back had been pounded for the past three hours, and the man beside her hogged the armrest, but visiting Martin would be worth the discomfort. He’d cheer her up. If anyone could get her out of her slump, it would be him. Soon the heaviness in her heart would ease, at least she hoped. Something had to give; she couldn’t go on the way she was.
A cheerful flight attendant tapped her shoulder. “Miss, please remove your headphones, fasten your seatbelt, and move your tray table upright. We’ll be landing soon.”
The luggage rattled overhead. Sylvie did as directed. She cringed as the little boy kicked her again. “Enough!” She turned and looked over the seat at the little hell raiser. “Please stop kicking my chair.” He stuck out his tongue and kicked the seat again. His mother chastised him, but it was clear the toddler had no intention of listening. The boy’s dirty blond curls reminded her of her ex. Her chest tightened, and she had to look away. She’d expected the reminders to stay in Montreal.
The broken pieces of her heart hadn’t mended in the months they’d been apart. Sylvie closed her eyes and focused on her breathing as the landing gear clicked into place. Soon she’d be in Winnipeg with a drink in her hand and a smile on her face. She was done pining over a man who'd left her. Renny was her past. The time had come to start living again.
Once the wheels rolled on the tarmac, she let out a breath of relief. The plane taxied to the gate and the little monster kicked until the seatbelt sign turned off. She seriously reconsidered whether she ever wanted to have kids as she climbed out of her seat and grabbed her bag. One bag contained everything she needed for the next few weeks. Everything she cared about fit into one carry-on sized luggage; another sad truth in her life.
The freezing weather slapped her face as she stepped off the plane, but the heat from the terminal blasted it back like a warm hug. She adjusted her ponytail and tucked some loose brown strays behind her ears. As she descended the escalator she immediately spotted her friend. It was impossible to miss him.
Martin Thomas had a harem surrounding him. He stood proud, signing autographs. The fame suited her longtime friend. Her eyes welled with tears at seeing him so happy. His smile wasn’t forced and his green eyes sparkled like a lit Christmas tree. His black hair was shorter on the sides with a thick mop on top. He slicked it back, showcasing a flawless clean-shaven face and lashes so long they were visible from space. He’d never looked better and her heart felt lighter already.
Sylvie smoothed the wrinkles on her sweater dress and took her first step towards healing. This trip was exactly what she needed to put the past to rest. “Hey superstar goalie. Do you think you could sign my chest? I didn’t bring any paper.”
“I’m…” His eyes landed on her and he beamed even brighter. “You!” He slithered past a few fans and closed the distance between them. “It’s so good to see a familiar face.” Martin picked her up and twirled her around.
The hug stole her breath, but put a genuine smile on her face. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight. It had been way too long since she’d had any kind of physical human contact. Hiding in her apartment for months had left her isolated and lonelier than she'd realized. She let the connection envelop her.
His old familiar scent washed over her. He smelled like a warm summer breeze while hiking in the woods; fresh and rugged. She liked it and breathed him in. Her feet dangled off the ground as he spun her around and around. “If you don’t put me down soon, I will barf all over your jacket and white jersey. Like that time at the fair when we were fifteen.”
He laughed and set her down. “Four tours on the Round-up and you were fine. It’s the corn dog that did you in.”
She couldn’t believe he remembered what she ate. All she recalled was spinning and getting sick all over his back as they got off the ride. Renny had handed her a tissue and immediately took her home. He’d left her at home and gone back to the fair. Sylvie looked down at her feet. She should have known he’d leave her behind again.
“Stop.” Martin’s fingers titled her chin towards him. “You’re not allowed to think about him while you’re here. Not when we’re together. Leave all that history back home. If I could do it, then so can you.”
She stared into his mossy green eyes that dared her to try. Martin was the only person who understood what she’d gone through. He’d broken up with the love of his life not that long ago. His heart was as broken as hers. But here he was smiling and living. More than that, he was thriving. “I’m sorry. I promise to leave the past behind and focus on having fun. That’s why I’m here.”
The mischievous smile he gave her sent a shiver through her. “I want to take you home and get you settled in. I’m happy you came.”
“Sylvie Lamont.” He lifted her for another hug as though she was as light as air. That wasn’t the case, but it felt good to be in his arms. “I still can’t believe you’re here. Even under protest, you are the first person to come visit me.”
Once he set her down, his smile broadened, flashing his perfectly straight white teeth. Several were false, but no one could tell unless they’d been at the game where he'd lost them. Years ago, they’d been messing around with friends in a friendly game of hockey. He’d doubted her ability to sneak the puck past him. Sylvie’s wrist shot sent the puck straight into his face, causing blood and several teeth to fly across the ice. The puck had bounced off and sailed into the net. No one ever challenged her hockey abilities again. After that he always wore his helmet and face mask.
His eyes traveled the length of her, making her fidget and adjust the belt around her waist. “Still the most beautiful woman in the northern hemisphere.” Martin could charm the pants off a nun. He’d always been a giant flirt, and she took nothing he said seriously. They were both good at playing games and hiding their emotions.
“Only the northern hemisphere? My looks must be slipping like your accent.” He’d been gone for only two years and already he sounded more English. “Don’t you speak French anymore?”
“Oui, mais pas souvant; only when I call home, talk with you or someone else from back home. Everyone speaks English here, and it’s rude to not include the guys who don’t know any French. We’re both bi-lingual so what’s the big deal?” He took her bag from her hand and their fingers touched, sending a frisson across her arm.
The reaction was new, and Sylvie didn’t know what to make of it. “You sound different and you look different too. It’s like I’m seeing you for the first time. What’s with the muscles or is your jacket extra puffy?” She highly doubted the coat broadened his shoulders and puffed his chest out. He’d bulked up since she’d last seen him almost a year ago; before she went into hibernation.
“By-product of the training program I’m on. It’s not that big of a change, and the ladies seem to like it.” He waggled his dark brows and Sylvie smacked his huge bicep.
“Does that mean you’re dating someone? You’ve mentioned nothing in our recent chats. I know your primary focus is work, but it’s about time you met a girl. Don’t give me that look. I’m not so depressed I can’t handle hearing about another person’s happiness. A few months ago, I would have hung up and cried, but I’m over that now. You don’t have to hide shit from me. I want you to find love,” she said, and her chest constricted at the mention of that dirty four-letter word. If she never said it again that suited her fine.
Martin had been single since he lost his spot on the Canadian’s bench. He blamed his ex for distracting him and when he got traded, she didn’t follow him. His bitterness was evident each time Sylvie mentioned her name, something she no longer did.
“I’m single and have no intention of changing that status. Unless the perfect woman comes along, then… I’m finally getting ice time and I don’t have time for a relationship.”
She’d heard the same song and dance from him for way too long. Sylvie used to pester him about sharing his heart with someone special, and that there was more to life than hockey. Each conversation ended with him hanging up on her. At some point he’d have to let someone in, but she wasn’t one to preach; not anymore. They were quite the pair of lost souls.
“For the first time in history, we’re both on the same page.” It was also the first time they were both single. Sylvie wasn’t sure why that little fact seemed far from insignificant all of a sudden.
“Yeah,” he said, wrapping his arm over her shoulder and guiding her towards the exit. The intimate gesture warmed her, and she snuggled into his embrace. They didn’t make it far before more fans stopped him for autographs.
Hockey fans loved meeting the players and talking smack about the opposing teams. Sylvie listened and smiled as Martin entertained them and signed whatever they handed him. She took photos when asked and enjoyed being a part of the fanfare. They stared at him like he was a star and the man that would bring home the cup. The admiration was obvious, and it forced her to see him differently. She’d never thought of him as anything but her bratty friend. Only he was so much more. As she watched him interact, she was so proud of the man he’d become. Since he was a boy all that mattered was hockey and playing in the NHL. He was living his dream.
Once the last fan got their autograph, they headed for the exit. “The fans adore you. It’s so cool you have fans, besides me and your family. How are things at work? Is the team treating you well?”
“It’s great. The guys are awesome.” The slight hesitation before he answered gave him away. Martin wasn’t telling the whole truth.
She tilted her head and regarded him, halting their progress to leave. “Really?” She raised an eyebrow as she’d seen his mother do countless times when he lied. “Tell me the truth.” There was something he held back.
He sighed and his smile faltered. “It’s nothing, truly. I’ve had several meetings with Mr. Northcote, the owner, my managers and agent to discuss my position. But things aren’t totally ironed out yet. I’m not concentrating on the paperwork right now. As long as I’m on the ice, I’m happy. As long as we win the cup I’ll be happy.”
“What’s to iron out? You’re their goalie. End of story,” she said, though she knew there was more to it.
“Nothing’s ever simple in hockey. If Rick’s injury heals, then he’s back as the starter. He’s arguing with the doctors but the prognosis is for him to be out for the rest of the season. The big guys aren’t happy about that. Lindsey’s a top-notch player and I’ve heard trade rumors. Mostly grumbling, but there are options out there to pick up other goalies before the trade deadline. I’m trying not to let the gossip affect my game, but when it’s about me, it’s kind of hard not to let it.”
“They wouldn’t trade you. You’re playing great. They’d be stupid to let you go and I don’t think Northcote’s an idiot.”
“Damn, I missed you,” he said, hugging her close before kissing the top of her head. “It will be nice to have a cheerleader in my house. Have you decided how long you’re staying?”
The ticket he sent her was open. “Around three weeks, unless I get sick of you sooner.” She pushed against his chest. It was solid and firm like a brick wall and he didn’t budge. “I had to let go of the apartment, so I have nothing to rush back to.”
“Oh Sylvie, if you’re having money problems why didn’t you say?”
“It’s not the money. I’m supporting myself, but that place was too big for one person. I should’ve moved out as soon as Renny left, but… stupid girl, I kept thinking he’d change his mind. Doesn’t matter now, the place is gone, he’s gone and everything I need is here.” She tapped her bag and mustered a half smile.
“I’m here for you, and you’re not stupid. He’s the idiot. But his loss is my gain. Welcome to Winnipeg, Sylvie. You’ll have a great time here. Trust me.” His green eyes twinkled, and he arched his brow before putting on his shades. No matter what the next few weeks had in store, it would be fun. “Are you ready?” He asked, stealing her bag from her hands again.
“Yes. Let the adventure begin.”