Asher Westmore hated surprises almost as much as he hated parties. Which everyone who’d just jumped out of their hiding places, yelling “Congratulations,” should know. He turned to face his best friend.
Wide-eyed and innocent was not a look that Emma Callaway could pull off.
“This is why you were so adamant about coming here?” Asher asked, removing his baseball hat and shaking the snow from it as he ran a hand through his short brown hair.
I should have known, he thought, pushing his hair back and replacing the hat. Emma hated the Grumpy Stump—the local watering hole in Glenwood Falls—almost as much as he did. She certainly wouldn’t have turned down his suggestion for the evening to come here unless something was up.
“Your mom is impossible to say no to,” she said through gritted teeth. “Just fake a freaking smile and let’s get through this as quickly and painlessly as possible.” Her own fake smile was already in place.
It was too late for painlessly. The bright multicolored holiday lights covering every surface in the bar made him squint as he glanced around at the familiar faces. It seemed everyone in town had braved the first snowstorm of the year to come celebrate with him, which sent quickly flying headfirst into a snowbank as well. Everyone would want at least a few minutes of his time, as he was rarely back in his hometown. “This is premature,” he hissed, but he did let his mouth twitch in the best version of a smile he could muster, as everyone continued to stare and applaud.
“You’re two games away and the Devils are honoring you in New Jersey. People wanted to be a part of this,” Emma said, as his brothers and their significant others approached.
“Hey, man,” his oldest brother, Ben, said, hugging him first.
Winded by the rib-crushing hold, Asher said, “You could have warned me.”
“Where would the fun be in that?” Ben asked, moving away and handing him his half-finished beer. “Started without you.” He slid an arm around his fiancée, Olivia, who held back, offering him a small wave in greeting.
Her, he liked. Or at least, the fact that she valued personal space as much as he did.
“Yeah, what took you two so long?” Abigail, his other brother Jackson’s fiancée, asked, moving in to hug him next.
He squirmed uncomfortably. He wasn’t a hugger. Which they all knew damn well.
When she released him, she shot what he guessed were supposed to be knowing looks between him and Emma.
She didn’t know shit.
Despite what everyone thought they knew, he and Emma were not a couple. They were far too smart to ruin a perfect thing by messing around with feelings and commitments.
“The roads were terrible,” Emma lied.
He hid a grin behind his hand. He’d been terrible. Refusing to leave her condo, trying everything in his power to charm her clothes off.
Okay, so maybe Abby knew a little something. Or at least she wasn’t completely in the wrong about why they were late.
“The roads…right,” she said with a wink. “You know, a triple wedding next year would be so much fun.”
His mouth went dry, and he looked at Jackson to call off the attack. Just because his brothers had found women they wanted to spend their lives with didn’t mean he was desperate to settle down anytime soon.
In two games, less than a week from now, he was going to be honored for his one thousandth game on NHL ice. While most players were slowing down at this point, at thirty, Asher was pushing back the clock. Hockey was everything that mattered to him, everything he’d known since he could stand in a hockey net, bubble-wrapped for his protection, and dive to block his brothers’ unmerciful slap shots. Growing up the youngest brother of two NHL-crazed siblings, and even a sister who could play when forced, he’d learned two things: he never wanted to be a goalie, and if it meant playing in the NHL someday, he’d take every ill-timed body shot his brothers could send flying his way.
And he’d made it to NHL, just like his oldest brother, Ben. And just like Ben, he’d made it to a thousand career games.
“Come on, we have a table in the back,” his sister, Becky, said, waving the group along. “Mom’s waiting there so we don’t lose it.” She rolled her eyes at him. “I can’t believe all of these people are here to see you,” she said.
He held out his arms. “What can I say? They know greatness when they see it.”
“So you’re saying they’re here to see Ben?” The smart-assery in the Westmore family was strong.
He shoved her gently toward the back of the bar. “Shouldn’t you be pregnant or something?”
She swung around to face him. “Newsflash—your new niece is almost a year old. Visit more, maybe,” she said with her normal teasing tone, but there was a flicker of hope that he actually would reflected in her eyes.
A small wave of guilt washed over him, but only a small one. It wasn’t his fault he’d been drafted to the Devils and not the Colorado home team like his brother.
The wooden bar floor was sticky beneath his hiking boots as they made their way to the reserved table. Asher hoped it could be blamed for his apparent limp as he shook hands along the way with people he hadn’t seen in years. Unfortunately, the intense pain in his knee wasn’t as easy to hide as his disdain over this premature celebration.
“Are you going to let me look at your knee before you head back?” Emma whispered.
Just once he wished something would escape his friend’s sharp eye. “Nothing to look at. I feel great,” he said, shoving her gently ahead of him through the thick crowd of well-wishers. “Besides, there’s only one ache I’d like you to help me with,” he whispered, the smell of her peppermint-scented body lotion making him want to lick her like a candy cane. And he would have, if hundreds of eyes weren’t watching his every move. He avoided any and every kind of media attention that didn’t have something to do with hockey.
His personal life was private…even from his family. He preferred it that way. And just because he was in his small hometown, surrounded by familiar faces, didn’t mean there wasn’t someone in the crowd who wouldn’t love a shot of him that they could sell to the tabloids.
Pre-Olivia Ben had provided the gossip rags with enough content. Asher kept his head down and his nose clean.
But it was a challenge not to reach out and squeeze Emma’s perfectly round ass, hugged tight by a pair of dark skinny jeans, when she turned to glare at him over her shoulder. “I’m a good therapist. I can help,” she said.
That was the problem. She was a good therapist. One who would tell him to stay off of the damaged ACL in his right leg.
At least not until he’d reached his milestone…two games way. “I’m fine. Besides, you have enough to worry about,” he said with a smirk.
Even her furrowed brow and narrowed eyes were sexy as hell. “Such as?”
“Such as trying not to look guilty as shit around my mom.”
* * *
Right. An evening with Beverly Westmore, the woman driving Emma’s widowed father to the brink of insanity since he’d moved into the house next door. Not that Emma was letting her father off the hook. He was as much to blame for their petty bickering as Beverly. She just wished the two could get along.
Normally, their harmless feuding over property lines and what color to paint the fence separating their backyards wouldn’t bother her. But being as crazy, unrequitedly in love with Beverly’s son as she was, the conflict between the families was a concern.
She tucked a strand of short blond hair behind her ear. She had always worn it shoulder-length, but just that day had chopped off the locks to a chin-length bob that framed her face, and she was still getting used to the new style.
She wondered what Asher thought of it. In the few hours since he’d been in town, he’d yet to mention it. She sighed. What did she expect? Her best friend wasn’t exactly the most observant. At least not when it came to anything above her waist. If she changed the look of her ass, he’d definitely notice, she thought wryly, feeling his eyes on it as she walked in front of him.
He better cut that out before his mother saw him.
Beverly gave her the briefest of smiles as they reached the table, then immediately her attention was all on Ash.
“I saved you a seat next to me,” she yelled above the holiday music blaring from the speaker directly above them. She moved in one spot, along the long line of empty chairs near the wall. One and only one.
Emma took a seat across from them. She couldn’t blame the woman for wanting her son’s undivided attention. Traveling ten months a year with the Devils, Asher was rarely in Glenwood Falls. Even the off season seemed to end prematurely, with preseason training camp and living in New Jersey, so the Westmore siblings were rarely in one place at the same time. She knew it was tough on Beverly to hardly ever see the baby of the family.
Not seeing Asher was hard on Emma, too, but she knew the life of a pro athlete. Her days as a pro-snowboarder had meant a lot of traveling and dedication to that sport as well. She understood Asher’s commitment to the one thing in his life he was truly passionate about.
She just wished he’d open his eyes and heart to the idea of a different kind of commitment.
Her cheeks felt warmer at the thought and she prayed the twinkling red and green Christmas lights draped from the ceiling above the table could be blamed for the glow.
Jackson took a seat next to her. “Thanks for getting him here,” he said, shrugging out of his leather jacket and draping it on the back of his chair.
“It wasn’t easy.” Nor was it the way she really wanted to spend the evening. She’d been excited when his schedule had brought him to Denver, thinking that maybe this visit might be different, that it might be the opportunity she was waiting for to open up to him about the feelings she had.
Feelings she hoped he shared.
Over the last several months, their conversations had grown a little deeper whenever they Skyped. His contract with the Devils was up at the end of that season and he wasn’t certain of a renewal. He was worried for the first time in his career, and she’d done her best to reassure him that he was still one of the team’s VIP players and they’d be stupid not to re-sign him. Talks had eventually turned to his future plans after hockey, and the truth about how she felt about him was constantly just a deep breath away.
She wanted to be what was next after hockey. In fact she wasn’t sure she could wait until his pro athlete days were over, and he’d been giving her signs lately that she might not have to. Of course, he’d never confessed feelings…but she knew she meant a lot to him. And she was ready to find out just how much.
Unfortunately, she’d need to grow a set before actually taking the plunge. So far, gripping fear made her nauseated the moment she saw an opportunity in the conversation—a long pause, a soft glance from him—and she always choked.
That seemed to be the tagline of her life in recent years.
One that needed to change.
Once an Olympic gold medalist, she knew what it meant to go after her dreams, to work hard and put in the extra effort when everyone else called it quits—and getting Asher to realize his feelings for her would be no different. He required patience, determination, and persistence. He needed someone in his life who understood what it took to be great and supported him.
That was her.
Looking across the table at him laughing at something his mother had said, relaxed for the first time since they’d walked in, her chest ached with a longing that seemed to get stronger every day. The deep-set dimples when he smiled transformed his usual serious, strong-looking face, making her heart race. His light blue eyes, square jaw covered with stubble, perfectly straight nose, and dentist-enhanced smile rivaled those of a GQ model.
He glanced her way and winked, the simple gesture sending her pulse racing. Resisting the urge to crawl under the table and wedge herself between mother and son took all Emma’s strength. He was only there for one evening, then gone again the next night on a red-eye flight and there was so much to say…so much to find out.
She bit her lip as she stared at the mouth she was craving. Her gaze drifted lower to his sculpted chest and arms, barely contained by the fabric of his black T-shirt, and her palms were sweating. His chiseled features and linebacker build made him one of the hottest players in the NHL. Women flocked to him like bees to honey and she wasn’t immune to his good looks and charm. Maybe she should have blown off this party and let him take her clothes off the way he’d been determined to do. Talking to Ash about anything was always easier when he was naked.
“Whatever you’re thinking—do not do it.” Ben’s voice next to her made her jump.
“What?” she asked, as he took a seat on the other side of her and handed her a gin and tonic—her usual.
Being sandwiched between the two older Westmore brothers was a place most women would kill to be, but as much as she liked Ben and Jackson, they couldn’t compare to Asher.
“I see that look on your face. In fact, I’ve seen it for a while now.” Ben touched her shoulder as he turned in the chair and leaned closer, so no one could hear. “Look, Em…I’m not going to pretend to know what you and Asher have, but I do know exactly where his head is right now. It’s on that thousandth game this week.”
She took a sip of her drink and nodded. “I know that.” Probably better than any of them. The siblings were close but she knew Asher didn’t confide in anyone the way he did her.
“Good. Keep it in mind, because we both know that Asher is a ‘thinks with his head’ kind of guy. He’s not about to let feelings—his own or anyone else’s—get in his way of this goal he’s set for himself.” He kissed her forehead as he stood, his gaze landing on his fiancée out on the dance floor with Abby and Becky.
She swallowed hard, hearing Ben loud and clear. And just like that, whatever courage she’d thought she’d summoned vanished.