I wrapped a towel around my lean hips and stepped out of the shower. A quick glance at my phone on the bathroom counter told me I had an hour to get to practice. Considering the Seattle traffic, that meant I had thirty minutes to get my ass in the car.
The tile was cool on my feet, at odds with the steam still circulating in the bathroom. I wiped my hand over the mirror, glanced at my reflection, and quickly brushed my teeth. I debated running a razor over my face, but fuck it; it’s not like anyone cared if I had a day or two of stubble. Being a professional hockey player had its advantages.
I opened the door to my bedroom and bit back a groan.
Jesus fucking Christ, she’s still here.
“There you are,” Katerina purred from the warmth of my bed, currently checking her cell phone. “I was beginning to think you were never coming out of the shower,” she teased, tucking a strand of long ebony hair behind her ear.
“You know me. I love my long showers,” I threw back with an easy smile. Not that she really did. I wasn’t in the habit of letting women spend the night, but this wasn’t the first time I’d taken Katerina to bed. We weren’t dating or anything, but we hooked up a few times here and there when our busy schedules lined up and we were simultaneously bored.
I’d never spent the night with her at my apartment, though. As much as it made me an asshole, I wasn’t really sure I liked it. I was a fan of personal space, of quiet and order, and above all, privacy. Katerina sought out the limelight as often as possible. Being one of Seattle’s foremost socialites, and a runway model, I guess the media exposure was part of her job too.
But it wasn’t mine. Sure, I’d loved to have a good time, and never minded ending up on celebrity gossip sites or tabloids, as long as the vultures—otherwise known as the paparazzi— only saw the face I wanted them to see. Only saw the people in my life I was willing to expose to that kind of scrutiny.
My number one rule? Hannah, my five-year-old niece, was off limits. She was the reason I almost never brought women back to my apartment. The other reason? Some chicks got a taste of the NHL lifestyle and became stage five cleaners. I didn’t have time for that shit.
“I’d love to stay and play,” I hinted as I pulled a pair of boxers out of my dresser and shoved my legs through them. “But I have practice today and need to get to the rink.”
Please take the hint. I didn’t want to be the asshole who threw a woman out of his apartment, but I knew Katerina well enough to know that if I left her here alone, she’d snoop. Plus, I didn’t want her getting any ideas that we’d ever be anything serious. We were a mutually beneficial good time, but that was it.
“No problem,” she said with a slippery, fake smile. “I know you’re working your butt off for the playoffs. Besides, I have a shoot this afternoon for Cosmo.” She climbed out of my bed and began to dress in last night’s low-cut cocktail dress. My suit from the charity event still littered my bedroom floor. I really needed to do something about getting a maid, or maybe just grow the fuck up and learn how to pick up after myself.
I had my jeans on and my vintage PacMan tee shirt half-way down my chest when my doorbell sounded.
“Be right back,” I told Katerina.
She nodded, preoccupied with lacing up her stilettos.
The doorbell dinged again as I made my way down the hall and through the living room.
“Chill out,” I muttered, tugging my shirt down the rest of the way.
I swung open the door and found my favorite pair of green eyes staring up at me.
“Hi, Uncle Connor.” Hannah’s voice was barely a whisper, completely at odds with her louder-than-life personality.
I blinked back my confusion and immediately found a grin for my niece. “Hey, Hannah-Banana!” Her hair was still damp from the Seattle rain as I ruffled the brown locks. Then my gaze met my sister’s. “I didn’t know you were coming over today. I have practice.” I kept my tone light because of Hannah, but Jessica knew exactly what I meant.
She swallowed, her eyes slightly wide.
Wait. Shit. Was she… Jessica’s pupils weren’t crazy, so she wasn’t high. Hell, she’d been clean for a year or so.
“I just...need a favor,” she finished in a rush, her grip twisting on the pale purple handle of Hannah’s backpack. “Won’t take long, I promise.”
My jaw clenched, but I stepped back, holding the door wide open for them both. Of course I was going to do whatever she asked. I always did, at least when it came to Hannah.
“Okay,” I said, my eyes darting to the hallway that led to my bedroom. “Why don’t you take Hannah into her room, and I’ll be there in just a second. There’s something I need to take care of first.”
Jessica followed my glance and then nodded. “Come on, Banana. You can show me the new bed Uncle Connor got you!”
The girls filed past me and turned right down the hallway. Jessica shut the door behind them, and I gave a sigh of relief. One issue down.
As I walked back into my bedroom, I found Katerina gawking at her phone.
“Seriously? Did you see what the Chronicle’s new social columnist said?”
“Uh, that would be a no, since I don’t read that stuff. Listen, I hate to be an ass, but my niece just got here—”
She glared at me. “Let me just read it to you. ‘Seattle Shark’s power forward, Connor Bridgerton was seen leaving the party with none other than socialite Katerina Kelly, who stunned fellow gala-goers in a black Dior gown from last season.”
My forehead puckered as I grabbed my socks and shoes. “I don’t see an issue with that, Kat. You looked hot. Now, seriously, I never let my niece see—”
“You don’t see a problem with that?”
If Hannah hadn’t known I had someone here, she sure did now. Katerina’s voice was up there with ambulance sirens or a broken smoke detector for all its subtlety.
“No, I honestly don’t.” I sat heavily on the side of my bed and started to lace up.
“How about the fact that I’m not a socialite? I’m a model. A model, Connor!” She stamped her heel on my hardwood, and I flinched. That was going to leave a mark.
“And?” I tied one shoe, then the other.
“And? There’s a huge difference. I’ve worked hard for my career!”
“Right, but aren’t you still the daughter of Richard and Lydia Kelly? You’ve been a socialite for years, Kat. It’s going to take more than six months of modeling to flip the script. I’m sure it wasn’t a direct insult.”
“Oh no,” she mocked. “The insult was mentioning that it was a Dior from last season!”
“Is it?” I still couldn’t see what the hell she was so worked up about, but a few orgasms weren’t worth the fucking headache she was bringing on.
“That’s not the point! That girl has it out for me because I was with you, and she’s a Shark!” Kat thrust her phone in my face, and my eyes caught the byline.
“Ivy doesn’t have it out for you, Kat. At least not that I know of.” Me, on the other hand? Ivy enjoyed annoying the living shit out of me, mostly because she knew I didn’t like her—well, I didn’t like her choices. Like sleeping with my teammate and nearly having him thrown off, not that Crosby hadn’t deserved it.
He was such a dick.
“Are you seriously defending her?” Kat seethed. “Can’t you put a leash on her or something? She’s your coach’s daughter, and she’s dragging you through the mud! I thought you hated the paparazzi!”
I stood and grabbed my car keys off the dresser. “Look, Kat, I like you. We have fun. But let’s get a couple things straight. I’m not defending Ivy because she doesn’t need it. She’s not paparazzi, she’s a columnist with the Seattle Chronicle, and there’s a big difference. Next, no I can’t leash her. She’s not a dog. She’s not dragging me through the mud. She’s reporting the facts. I left with you, and you were wearing a dress she somehow recognized wasn’t from this year or something, what’s the big deal?”
I barely dodged the vase that crashed against the wall a foot to the left of me.
“You’re an asshole!”
This right here was why I didn’t date.
“Never denied it. Now get the hell out. I don’t tolerate this kind of shit around my niece. Not now, not ever.” My words were clipped, my tone stern without raising my voice. I opened my bedroom door and held it as she walked through.
A sigh of relief escaped as I saw that Hannah’s door was still shut. She might have heard the commotion, but at least this wouldn’t be something she saw.
“Don’t think I’m ever coming over again,” Kat seethed at the front door.
“Man, I don’t know how I’ll live, but I guess I’ll manage,” I shot back with a forced smile and shut the door behind her. That was one phone number that was getting deleted.
I shut my bedroom door as I made my way back to Hannah’s room, knowing I’d have to clean up the glass from the vase later. I knocked twice and opened Hannah’s door, not waiting for a response. I had to leave in the next few minutes if I was going to make it to practice on time.
“Okay, so what’s up, Hannah-Banana—hey, where did your mom go?” I looked around the bedroom, but there was no sign of Jessica.
Hannah stared at me, her eyes as wide as hockey pucks, her hands still in her lap. I dropped to my knees before her and looked up at her tiny, elf-like features.
“Honey, what’s going on? Did you want to come to practice with me today? Because you know you can. You’re always welcome.”
She didn’t speak.
Something wasn’t right.
I stroked the side of her face and stood, then checked her bathroom to see if Jessica was taking a moment. No such luck.
“Hannah, where is your mommy?” I repeated.
“She left,” Hannah whispered.
“Okay.” I sighed. It wasn’t the first time Jessica had asked me for a last minute favor and taken off, and my guess was that it wouldn’t be the last. Besides, if it was a shift she needed to work or something, I was more than happy to help out. Anything to keep her on the right path. “Then I guess we should get ready to head out, don’t you think?”
“She left you a note,” Hannah said softly.
“A note?” That was definitely not normal when it came to Jessica.
Hannah turned, unzipped the back pocket of her backpack and then handed me an envelope.
A chill ran down my spine. “I threw some of those yogurts you like in the freezer if you want one,” I offered Hannah.
“Yes, please,” she responded like I’d offered her kidney pie, but hopped off the bed, heading for the kitchen.
Now I knew something was wrong. Hannah was always polite but usually went nuts for frozen GoGurts.
I ripped the envelope open and unfolded the lined notebook paper covered in my sister’s familiar handwriting.
By now you realize that I’m gone. This time I’m not coming back. I’m leaving with Joe. He’s got a job offer, and he wants me to come with him. Hannah is better off with you. We both know it. We’ve always known it. And I have a chance, a real chance here for a future with Joe. But Joe doesn’t want kids, and I can’t let him get away. I just can’t. This is my chance to be happy, and I have to take it. Please understand. Please take care of Hannah. She’s always been more yours than mine, anyway. Don’t hate me.
For the first time in my twenty-eight years, I was speechless. Completely. Totally. Speechless.
Was she for real?
Had Jessica really just walked out on Hannah?
There was no way. No. Fucking. Way.
There had been times, back when she was using, that she’d disappear for days. Hannah had basically lived with me back then, and I’d inevitably dug Jessica out of whatever drug den she’d holed up in and hauled her ass to rehab.
But it had been a year.
A fucking year.
I dropped the letter on Hannah’s pink bedspread and grabbed her backpack, unzipping it in one motion. Pulling out the contents, I sorted the small gathering of her belongings into piles.
There were three pairs of jeans, two sets of pajamas and six or seven shirts with assorted underwear. The same as she would bring if she were spending a few days with me.
But it was the manilla envelope in the back of the bag that brought everything into focus.
Jessica had packed Hannah’s birth certificate, her social security card, shot records, some miscellaneous health records, and one poorly written statement signed by Jessica, stating that she wanted me to take over her parental rights. It wasn’t notarized, or even remotely legal.
Jess had really walked out on Hannah, and I had no legal right to keep her. My chest constricted, the pressure stealing my breath. Jesus, did Hannah know? Did she just think she was here for a few days? How the hell was I going to tell her? This was something that would leave scars, the deep and ugly kind.
“Uncle Connor, are you ready to go?” Hannah asked from the doorway.
I quickly shoved Jessica’s letter in with the other paperwork and closed the envelope. “Sure am. Are you going to be warm enough in that at the rink?”
She looked down at her sparkly pink shirt and worn jeans. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Okay then, let me just put this away, and we’ll get going,” I told her, plastering a carefree smile on my face. What did she know about what just happened to her? Did she realize her mom had no plans on coming back? Did she know that for the first time in her life, I wasn’t equipped to take care of her?
God, I hoped not.
I tucked the manila envelope into the desk in my bedroom and grabbed my iPad and an extra Sharks hoodie as we walked out the door. I tugged the sweater over Hannah’s head as the elevator descended into the garage. It dwarfed her tiny figure, but it would keep her warm until I could get to the store tonight.
After buckling Hannah into her car seat—the one I kept permanently installed in my SUV—we headed to the rink.
“Do you know when my mom is coming back?” Hannah asked.
My eyes briefly locked with hers in the rearview mirror as we waited at a red light. “I don’t know,” I told her honestly. I would never lie to Hannah. Even if the truth hurt, she deserved to hear it. “But I promise you I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe, so let’s try not to worry about that yet, okay?”
She nodded. “She’ll come back. She always does.”
Instead of answering her, I turned on the radio. There was no need to crush her hopes right now, especially when her future was so uncertain.
I pulled my SUV into the player lot and parked in my usual spot. Hannah climbed out as I slung my gear bag over my shoulder. Then I scooped her up with my empty arm, and she laid her little cheek on the top of my shoulder.
The small gathering of paparazzi didn’t take much notice of us as we walked past. They were used to seeing me with Hannah, and I’d made it perfectly clear she was off-limits. The same couldn’t be said for the player coming in behind us, Hudson Porter.
The guy had been the Sharks last trade before the deadline passed. He was a hell of a defenseman but came with a hell of a rep, too. Porter was massive, with jet black hair and glacial eyes made him almost look inhuman. The fact that he couldn’t stop getting into fights on and off the ice made him both a PR nightmare and a fan favorite. Either way, the paparazzi couldn’t get enough of him. They followed him relentlessly just waiting for him to fuck up again. Speaking of fucking up, did he really just growl at that photographer?
“Porter,” I called out, holding the door open to the rink.
He gave me a swift head nod and met us at the doorway. The heavy steel door closed behind us, and just like that, I was home. The sounds and smells of the ice rink were more welcoming to me than any Thanksgiving turkey. Not that we’d ever had Thanksgiving turkey. My family didn’t even put the fun in dysfunctional. We were just plain old, every day fucked up.
“Don’t let them get to you,” I told Porter, shifting Hannah’s slight weight in my arms.
“Easy for you to say,” he snapped back. “I sure as he—” his gaze swung to Hannah and he cleared his throat. “Heck don’t see them going after you.”
“That’s because I don’t give them a reason to.”
“Who might you be?” Porter asked Hannah, his voice low.
She looked up from my shoulder and stared him right in the eye, not even glancing at the scar that bisected his eyebrow and trailed to his cheekbone. “I’m Hannah Bridgerton. This is my Uncle Connor. He’s a Shark.”
The corners of Porter’s mouth quirked up slightly to something I almost called a smile. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hannah. My name is Hudson, and I’m a Shark just like your uncle. But I bet you already knew that.”
Hannah’s nose scrunched up and she shook her head slowly. “I didn’t know that, but now I do. I don’t really like hockey, honestly.” She shrugged, emphasizing her point.
“But I’ve seen you at a couple of our games,” Porter said as we continued our walk toward the locker room.
“I just like my Uncle Connor. Oh! And Ivy. I like her most of all.”
Ivy-fucking-Harris. Of course, my niece would be obsessed with the one woman I couldn’t stand to be around.
I could’ve sworn I heard Porter chuckle, but the guy hadn’t so much as cracked a grin since joining the Sharks.
“Maybe she can braid my hair again. She does really good braids.”
That pretty much made Ivy a God in Hannah’s eyes, or at least a fashion icon. Either way, Ivy wasn’t someone I wanted Hannah looking up to. If she needed to find a good female role model, we had plenty of those in the ranks of the Sharks’ spouses.
“Don’t get your hopes up, Hannah. My guess is that Ivy isn’t here today,” I told her as we split off from Porter and headed toward Pepper’s office. My best friend’s wife was one of the only people I trusted with Hannah. I hated asking her the favor of watching Hannah during this practice, but I was out of options, and since she was the Shark’s statistician, I knew she’d be around.
I knocked briefly on Pepper’s door and entered when she gave the okay. Inside the spacious office, Pepper sat at her computer, absentmindedly twirling a strand of her teal highlighted hair, while her husband, Eric, looked on adoringly from her couch.
But it was the woman perched on the corner of Pepper’s desk who held my immediate attention. Ivy and Pepper may have been identical twins, but they couldn’t look more different to me. It wasn’t just that Pepper kept her hair highlighted with bright colors, where Ivy wore hers long and blonde. The subtle differences were in the shape of their faces, or Ivy’s slightly fuller lower lip that always made me think of taking a delicious bite of the plump flesh. But mostly, it was in the way they carried themselves. Pepper was always focused, never concerned with the world around her unless it involved hockey or Eric.
Ivy, however, wasn’t just a social butterfly. She was magnetic, drawing people to her without even trying. Her personality was effervescent, her joy contagious, and her rage destructive. If the girls were a deck of cards, Pepper was the queen of hearts. Ivy was the wildcard. You never knew what you were going to get, but you always knew it wouldn’t be what you had expected. Case in point: the woman had screwed one of my teammates and then exposed her sister to their father when Pepper had fallen in love with Eric, nearly getting my best friend fired from the Sharks. For what? Petty jealousy that Pepper and Eric had something lasting while Crosby had chosen to stay on the Sharks over staying with Ivy?
Crosby was a fucking idiot to walk away from those legs, those eyes, that bottom lip, but that was beside the point.
“Ivy!” Hannah exclaimed, and dove from my arms. I barely caught her before she hit the floor, and the minute her toes brushed the carpet, she was already flying toward Ivy.
“Hannah-banana!” Ivy answered, opening her arms to accept an enthusiastic hug from my niece. “What are you doing here today?”
“My mama dropped me off with Uncle Connor. I was a surprise, not a plan.”
Ivy’s eyes flew to mine in silent question, and I nodded. For all the things that annoyed me about Ivy, she certainly wasn’t a stranger to my sister dropping off Hannah with no notice. Her gaze softened, and my will hardened. It’s easy to admit that I’d had a hard-on for Ivy since the moment I saw her, but I’d stopped letting my dick rule my brain right around the time I turned seventeen. When it came to Ivy, I kept my walls up and my hormones in check.
“Did she?” Ivy asked Hannah softly, dropping to her eye-level. “Does that mean I get to hang out with you during practice today?”
I hated how Hannah’s face lit up. Couldn’t she be attached to Pepper? Or to Chloe? Anyone but Ivy. And yet, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, both needing help with Hannah, and fighting my relief that my niece was smiling.
“Can I, Uncle Connor?” Hannah asked, looking up at me with those great big green eyes. I used to think that someday those eyes would bring a man to his knees. I just never realized I would be that man.
“Can she, Connor?” Ivy asked, mimicking Hannah’s pleading tone.
“Please?” Hannah begged. “I’ll be really good, I promise.”
I rolled my eyes and adjusted my bag on my shoulder. “It’s not you I’m worried about Hannah-banana.” I shot a meaningful look at Ivy, whose jaw dropped in mock indignation.
“I’ll be really good, Uncle Connor, I promise,” Ivy repeated Hannah’s plea, her two fingers up in a V. “Scouts honor.”
“Were you even a Girl Scout?”
“That’s a no,” Pepper answered for her sister, pushing away from her computer.
“Oh, come on, Connor. You know we’ll stay out of trouble.”
Was Hannah even in the right state of mind for me to leave? Was I making the wrong decision to go to practice?
“Hannah, why don’t you grab my iPad from your bag and play for a second. I need to chat with the grown-ups outside.” To my relief, Hannah nodded, and was quickly distracted by the electronics.
The adults followed me into the hallway.
“What’s up man?” Eric asked. The giant goalie had been my best friend since we joined the Sharks a couple of years ago and he was more than acquainted with Jessica’s ways.
“Jessica walked out,” I said softly, just in case Hannah could hear through the door.
“What do you mean, walked out?” Pepper asked, taking Eric’s hand.
“I mean showed up with a backpack, a couple of outfits, some paperwork, and a note saying she wasn’t coming back—that Hannah was better off with me.”
Both of the girls gasped.
“Honestly, she is better off with you,” Eric stated the obvious. “But that’s beside the point. What are you going to do?”
“What choice do I have?” I raked my hands over my hair. “I’m going to do what I always do, which is take care of Hannah.”
“Does she know?” Ivy asked gently.
I shook my head. “She knows something is different but doesn’t fully grasp the situation. She is only five. Hell, I’m twenty-eight and I don’t grasp the damned situation.”
“What can we do for you? How can we help?” Ivy asked.
I drew my gaze up from the floor to meet her eyes. “I don’t even know. I have no clue what I’m doing, or if I’ll even be legally allowed to keep her. I just don’t know.”
Ivy wrapped her arms around her waist like she needed to be held together. “Whatever you need, I’m here. No one should have to lose their mother.”
A pang of sympathy hit my heart, remembering that Ivy and Pepper had lost their mother to cancer.
“We are all here,” Eric agreed. “We’ll talk to coach, and we’ll figure out what accommodations you’ll need.”
“For right now, let’s start with practice. She is safe with me, I promise,” Ivy swore. “I know we don’t get along, but in this, for Hannah, I’m here.”
My throat threatened to close, clogged with emotion and gratitude.
“And no matter what you decide, or what path you choose, we’re here to support you and Hannah,” Pepper promised.
“Thank you. I really, truly mean that. Thank you,” I aimed that last portion at Ivy, who nodded. “I guess we should probably get out on the ice, huh?”
“Yeah it’s time to head to the locker room,” Eric confirmed.
The walk down the concrete hallway toward the Sharks’ locker room was short, my mind still racing by the time we reached the swinging doors.
“So, what are you thinking when it comes to Hannah? You could always call your mom.” Eric suggested.
I snorted. “Yeah, not everyone grew up in a Leave it to Beaver household like you did, Gentry. You have to remember that my mom is the reason Jessica got into drugs in the first place. Like hell am I calling her for any help.” I wouldn’t call that woman if she was the last human on earth, and I sure as hell wasn’t inviting her anywhere near Hannah.
“Okay, point taken. So what’s the first step?”
A shot of pure focus and determination struck me, hit my gut like tequila, burning me in the best way. I survived growing up with my mom. I kept Jessica as clean as long as I could. I made the NHL with little to no family support.
I could do this, too.
I could raise Hannah.
“Step one,” I answered. “We’re going to practice. We just made the playoffs. I’m going to need that raise Coach promised when my contract is up for renegotiation.”
“And the second step?” Gentry prodded, keeping me from the locker room until my head was on straight.
It didn’t get any straighter than this.
“Get the number of Gage’s lawyer and do whatever the fuck it takes to keep my niece out of foster care.”