Six years earlier
Reid Holden swallowed nervously, wiped damp palms on his dark suit pants and glanced around the crowded arena. It was packed with hockey fans, young and old, who had come out to watch the NHL Draft. An electric buzz of excitement hung in the air as everyone waited to see which young NHL hopeful would be chosen next.
It was the biggest day of Reid’s life.
Everything he’d done from the moment he laced up his first pair of Bauers had been leading up to this important day. All the years of hard work and practice, the triumphant wins and agonizing losses. The blood, sweat and tears that had been shed. The black eyes, bruised ribs and broken bones that had required trips to the emergency room.
All of it came down to this day. This defining moment.
What happened here in this arena could determine the course of the rest of his life.
Sobered by the thought, he restlessly bounced his right leg, his stomach churning with nerves and anticipation.
As he cast another glance over the crowd, his gaze landed on a blond pretty boy sitting at the other end of the row. He recognized the kid as Viggo Sandström, a top draft prospect from Sweden who played center. Reid had seen some of his game footage, and he’d been thoroughly impressed. Sandström was a scoring machine with sick puck-handling skills and a killer slap shot. Reid definitely wouldn’t mind having him as a teammate.
The Swede was surrounded by several family members. He was so nervous, he looked like he was going to throw up. Reid felt an immediate sense of kinship.
When their eyes met, he gave a small head nod.
The Swede nodded back.
Reid felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see his mother smiling at him. “Nervous?”
His grin was sheepish. “Just a little.”
She laughed and gave his hand a warm, reassuring squeeze.
His father, seated on his other side, put an arm around his shoulders. “Here we go, son.”
Reid returned his attention to the stage to watch as the team president of the Denver Rebels strode to the podium and cleared his throat.
An expectant energy buzzed through the arena.
“With the second overall pick in the NHL Draft, the Denver Rebels are proud to select Reid Holden from Boston College.”
A roar of cheers erupted around Reid.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
With a dazed grin on his face, he got slowly to his feet.
He was stunned, although he realized he probably shouldn’t be. Coming into the draft, he already knew that many teams were interested in him. He’d been a standout player in college and had won the Hobey Baker Award, which was hockey’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. All the experts and talking heads had confidently predicted that he would go early in the first round.
But nothing could have prepared him for the sheer enormity of this moment. There were no words to describe it.
Everyone was trying to hug him at once. His mother and two sisters were clapping and squealing with excitement. His younger brother pounded him boisterously on the back.
Grinning ecstatically, Reid hugged his mother hard, kissed her cheek and thanked her for all the sacrifices she’d made for him.
Then his father grabbed him in a big bear hug. As he pulled away, he cupped Reid’s cheek in his large palm and smiled. His blue eyes were bright with unshed tears, and his deep voice was husky with emotion. “Congratulations, son. I’m so damn proud of you.”
Reid beamed. “Thanks, Dad.”
His father grinned. “Go on and get that sweater.”
Reid made his way down to the stage to a thunderous round of applause and cheers. The sound of people chanting his last name sent goose bumps down his spine. It was totally surreal.
As he neared the stage, he removed his suit jacket as instructed and handed it off to an attendant. Then he headed up to the podium, where several members of Denver Rebels management were waiting to congratulate him. He went down the line of suits, shaking hands and receiving hearty welcomes to the team. Cameras were flashing all around them, lighting up the arena.
The team president presented him with his jersey, which had his last name sewn across the back.
Number six. That was his new number. Six.
His chest swelled with excitement. Holy shit. This was really happening!
He slipped on the jersey and shoved a Rebels baseball cap onto his head. The applause grew louder, cameras flashing and popping off in every direction. Grinning from ear to ear, he posed for a bunch of group photos with team management.
As he stared out into the cheering crowd, his throat tightened at the sight of his family on their feet, their faces shining with pride and joy. All of them were crying, even his wisecracking brother.
But it was the tears streaming down his father’s face that really got Reid choked up.
You did it, son, Roark mouthed proudly.
We did it, Reid mouthed back.
His father smiled and patted his heart.
Reid grinned, bursting with satisfaction and excitement.
He was officially an NHL player. It was a dream come true, the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.
He felt on top of the world.
Nothing else could give him the same high, the incredible thrill rush he got from playing hockey.
Hockey was his first love.
And it always would be.