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Playoff King (Puck Battle Book 7) by Kristen Echo (1)

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J ill stared at the text message from her ex as they announced her flight for the third time. She didn’t move.

“Don’t have too much fun without me.”

Her grip tightened on the phone, wishing it was his neck in her hands. She shook her head. The part that irked her the most was her lack of shock at being stood up. She should have known when Terry had asked her to meet him at the airport and not his house that he’d bail. He had an excuse for everything, and she was tired of accepting them. Her heart was numb.

A young couple in their early twenties held hands and took the empty seats beside her. Their smiles conveyed a happiness she hadn’t felt in years. She stood but didn’t step towards the attendants. The boarding area had emptied as the travelers showed their ID and entered the tunnel. Her heels tapped silently against the carpet. She debated leaving the airport, but her home would be empty. Spending the night in that big house by herself held zero appeal.

No matter what she did, she’d be alone. Her shoulders shrunk inward as she exhaled the breath she’d been holding. Her feet carried her towards the desk. She re-read the message and accepted he wasn’t coming. Jill deleted his text without responding. The home screen displayed a picture of her three kids smiling at her. They were her world. Everything she did was for them. Even this trip had been at their insistence.

“Enjoy your time in Winnipeg,” the female attendant said as she checked her boarding pass.

Jill couldn’t recall the last time she’d traveled alone. “Thanks,” she responded on autopilot. This impromptu trip had been his stupid idea. His hockey team had pulled off a miracle third round 4-0 victory. He had a few rare nights off during the NHL playoffs and suggested they get away for a night. The only reason she’d agreed was because he’d asked her to accompany him in front of the kids. His number one weapon against her.

“Asshole,” she muttered under her breath as she found her seat in executive class. The seat next to her remained vacant as they locked the aircraft and taxied down the runway. She crossed her legs, tugging down the hem of her skirt to cover the exposed garter belt. The sexy lingerie would be wasted just like her night.

Once in the air, she took advantage of the complimentary Wi-Fi and donated their tickets to the evening’s hockey game to a local charity. There was no way she’d sit in those stands alone. Screw him and the game. She no longer cared about either.

“I’m done,” she whispered to the empty seat. As the words trickled out, she tasted the lie on her lips. Those two words had been said more often in the past few years than the special three reserved for your significant other.

Maybe this time was different. Jill slammed her head back against the seat. Another lie she’d told herself countless times. Nothing ever changed. Terry wouldn’t change, but she had to. This sham of a marriage wasn’t fair for her or the kids. She dug into her bag and pulled out a book. Her escape from reality. Pages filled with love, romance and passionate sex. Everything lacking in her bedroom.

Losing herself in the erotic romance world for the next few hours helped pass the time. Only the chemistry between the characters, brought her solitude to the forefront of her mind. Jill craved affection and she wouldn’t be getting it from her soon to be ex-husband. They hadn’t been intimate in a very long time. The divorce papers had been sitting on her desk unsigned for months. Her marriage was over even if she found it impossible to let go.

When the plane landed, she shoved the novel back in her bag and tried to shake the loneliness that squeezed her airways, nearly choking her. Those books were a blessing and a curse, reminding her of everything she’d lost. Relationships deserved to be hot, all-consuming yet tender. She pressed her legs together as she waited for the baggage carousel to deliver her luggage. The wait seemed to last forever.

She reached into her purse and found her phone. One swipe later and it was ringing. Her daughter preferred it when she texted, but she needed to hear her voice.

“Hi, Mom. Are you at home?” Rianne asked, catching her by surprise.

“I just landed in Winnipeg. Why would I be at home?”

“Dad texted, saying he couldn’t go on the trip. I figured you wouldn’t go without him. I mean, what’s the point of a romantic getaway alone?” Her teenage daughter wasn’t oblivious to her marital problems, but she wanted her family back under one roof. At sixteen, her powers of manipulation were strong.

“Watching the hockey game together isn’t a romantic night out,” she answered, trying to hide the irritation in her tone.

“Whatever. Now you’re there and he’s here. More distance,” Rianne huffed into the phone.

Jill squared her shoulders. “Sweetheart, it’s complicated. Hockey and your—”

“Don’t bother explaining. You both have a million excuses. I should have known you’d find a way to mess it all up and keep our family apart. Look, I’m busy. Grandma asked for a hand bathing the boys, so I gotta run. Enjoy the game.”

The line went dead before they said goodbye. None of her kids were happy about her separation from Terry, but Rianne took it the hardest. It’d affected her school marks and lately her choice in clothing. The all black wardrobe, dark makeup and nail polish conveyed the rage inside her. Jill was thankful her daughter hadn’t acted out in other ways yet.

The carousel hadn’t moved, and she felt antsy. With her phone still in her hand, she called her best friend. That woman never failed to make her smile. She really needed that after being ditched and berated.

“You’re not supposed to be calling me,” Leonora barked into the phone. “You’re supposed to be having a good time with Terry and creating new memories.”

“Hard to do that alone. Something came up and he couldn’t make it,” she explained.

A moment of silence followed. This news hadn’t been a surprise for either woman. Jill stared at the bright neon lights overhead. The high ceilings and exposed rafters reminded her of a loft she’d lived in with Terry when they’d first married.

“I came to Winnipeg anyway. I mean, how often have I had a night away from the kids. Like never. It will be great,” she said, trying to infuse as much cheeriness into her tone as possible.

“Oh, Jill. I’m sorry.” Her friend saw through her bravado.

Jill was glad not to have to keep up the pretense. “Me too,” she admitted. Not that she expected one night would solve their problems, but they hadn’t had time to chat in a long time. Them sharing a space for more than an hour would have been a huge step. Something the kids wanted desperately.

“Consider this a blessing. The universe’s way of telling you it’s over, and you need to move on.” It was easy for her to say because her marriage was solid. Leonora and her husband hardly ever fought, and they had sex more than your average college kid. The honeymoon stage never ended with them, even after kids.

She scoffed at the suggestion. “The universe and the kids need to get on the same page. I can’t say no to them.”

“What do you want? You’ve been keeping Terry at arm’s length for months. You say you’ve forgiven him, but are you ready to invite him back into your bed?” Leonora gave her a moment to respond, but she couldn’t. “My job isn’t to argue but to encourage any decision you make. However, as your smartest and most attractive friend on the planet, I’d suggest moving on.”

More silence.

In truth, she didn’t want him back, but letting go of the past proved difficult. She’d forgiven Terry for the sake of the kids and because she didn’t want to be angry anymore, but she couldn’t move past the hurt. She wasn’t sure how to let someone who’d broken her trust, her heart and her dreams back into her good graces. His desire for a second chance and the happy memories of falling in love, getting married and making babies weren’t enough.

“You don’t have to answer because I know you. Stubborn arse. So, here’s what you’re going to do. Make the most of your free night. Get dolled up, let loose and take a chance.”

“I’m not much of a gambler,” she responded. A night with room service and a bottle of wine would be perfect.

Her friend laughed as the conveyer belt chugged to life, spitting out bags. “Not that kind of chance. I’m talking about letting your hair down and meeting a man. One night with someone else will tell you once and for all if you belong with Terry Manor, or if it’s time to let that fairy-tale go.”

“You’re insane and I’m not sure why I called you.” A bright pink suitcase barreled towards her. “But thanks for helping kill a few minutes. My stuff’s here. I’ll call you soon.” She cupped her phone between her shoulder and ear as she lifted her bag and placed it on the ground.

“I’m serious. You don’t have to sleep with the guy, just talk. Mingle. Flirt even. Just don’t let him know you’re the enemy.” Leonora said, making Jill laugh out loud.

“Why would I be the enemy?”

“Winnipeg is a hockey city after all.”

Jill shook her head and said good night to her friend. She should have known she’d suggest meeting someone new. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. However, this was the first time she didn’t outright dismiss it. Progress.

Once in the cab, she called Rianne again. No answer. She gazed at the twinkling stars and waited for the beep. “Thank you for helping your brother. You’re a great big sister.” Jill paused, not sure how to defuse the situation without making it worse. “I love you, and I’ll call tomorrow before my flight. Please give the boys an extra hug and a kiss from me. Goodnight.”

Rianne idolized her dad. All the kids believed Terry walked on water, and Jill never once spoke negatively about him. As much as she hated him some days, he’d always be their dad. No matter how low her opinion of him fell, he was great with their kids. If only he acted the same with everyone, maybe they’d stand a chance. She shook the insane concept away. Leonora was right. She had to forget about Terry and focus on herself.

As the familiar hotel came into view, she slumped into the seat. His team always stayed there. So much for getting him out of her mind.

The check-in process took longer since the reservation was in Terry’s name. She told the clerk more than once she’d forfeit the suite and take a regular room, but he wasn’t listening. A radio hidden somewhere under the desk had the volume turned way up. He was distracted by the start of the hockey game. Winnipeg took the lead within the first minute of play. A moment later, she got a high five and the access card to her suite.

All hotels seemed the same. Impersonal and stuffy. This was the one they’d always stayed at when traveling with the team. It had recently been updated with a fresh coat of light grey paint and matching carpets. Two queen beds dominated the space. Jill rolled her bag to the side and flopped down on the bright, white comforter. A mix of exhaustion and boredom set in as she stared at the tray ceiling. Instead of reading, ordering room service and hiding from the world, she listened to Leonora’s advice.

Opposite the bed, hung a floor-length mirror, and she caught her reflection. At thirty-five, she had a few wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, but the years had been kind. Jill shrugged her jacket, stood and cupped her breasts. They weren’t perky, but they still filled her hands nicely. Her fingers moved over her stomach and she lifted her blouse over her head. Unzipped her skirt and let it fall.

Three children had changed her body. Faded stretch marks decorated her skin. Her breasts and hips had filled out. She loved this body. Full of curves and character. Terry’s infidelity had damaged her confidence, but she refused to own his mistakes. She had to get him out of her head. As she analyzed her imperfections, she smiled.

“You look good girl,” she said out loud and twirled around, laughing at herself. She untied her bun and let her dark brown hair cover her chest. “Time to let loose.”

She unpacked her bag and splattered her products across the bathroom vanity. Taking her time, she primped and curled her hair until it flowed down her back. She changed into a purple wrap dress. It hugged her breasts, showing a decent amount of cleavage. The fabric swayed above the knee, making her feel sexy. She’d packed it to torment Terry. Wanting to show him everything he was missing.

A late dinner at the hotel restaurant went better than expected. They sat her next to the fireplace, and she relaxed with her book. Without her boys interrupting every other minute, she enjoyed a hot meal and a glass of wine. The game ended mid meal. Based on the loud cheers, the home team won. The waiter’s smile was extra-large for the rest of the night. Every person who walked by seemed happy. It was contagious.

After her meal, she walked into the lobby as a group of well-dressed businessmen stepped off the elevator. Several had silver sprinkled through their hair and looked to be in their late thirties or early forties. They smiled as they passed. Her eyes tracked them across the posh lobby as they headed into the adjacent pub.

Acting on instinct, she followed them. Her heels clicking against the tile. She opened the heavy, wooden door and glanced around the dark room. The only light came from two crystal chandeliers, which added a regal touch to the space, but provided little light. There were half a dozen customers at most. A waitress greeted the men as they settled at a booth. Jill suddenly felt silly for following them. She had no plan and the thought of going over to talk with them caused her stomach to flip. The bar stools were empty, and she headed towards them.

She plopped her butt on the wooden stool, put her elbows on the bar and buried her face in her hands. Her friend had made it seem like meeting a man required zero effort. As easy as going over and saying hello. Not that she would ever be that bold. But then what? Jill had no idea how people moved from pleasantries into the bedroom within a first encounter. She’d been married for too many years and couldn’t recall life before Terry.

Knots bloomed at the idea of approaching a man. She wasn’t opposed to meeting someone new. However, attractive single men in their thirties weren’t lurking around her children’s school or trolling the grocery stores. Hockey players or anyone associated with the NHL were off limits. She never wanted to go down that road again.

“What can I get you?” The bartender set his hands next to her elbows.

“A glass of your house Shiraz is fine,” she answered without look up.

“We only sell Shiraz by the bottle. I could make you one of my specialty drinks. They’re always a hit,” he offered.

“I’ll take a bottle.” She didn’t trust herself to drink anything hard, but with the direction her night had taken, a large amount of wine wouldn’t hurt. “Thank you,” she added.

“No problem.”

Her previous conversation continued to echo through her mind. Flirt. Mingle. Let loose. So much easier said than done. The first glass disappeared, which helped ease her frazzled nerves but gave little courage to leave her seat. She glanced over her shoulder at the table of men and stood. All she had to do was say hello. Jill left her glass on the bar and took one step towards the booth. Then her heels carried her out of the pub and into the darkness of the night.

She needed air. A cool breeze slapped against her skin, chilling her within seconds. The official start of summer was only a few weeks away, yet the strong wind made it seem cooler. She rubbed her arms, but didn’t head back in. As Father’s Day approached, she should have been mending her family not trolling for men.

A few deep breaths later, her stomach settled. She peered into the darkened street and saw something small sitting in the middle of the road. The light overhead had burnt out and the hotel pub was set back from the road, making it difficult to decipher the form. She stepped closer to the street. From a distance, headlights illuminated the white fur on the small dog.

“Come on, boy,” she cooed at the animal to coax it off the road.

It wouldn’t budge. She stepped forward as the vehicle loomed closer. The roar of the engine increased in volume. Any second that dog would get hit if it didn’t move. Jill was too far away to grab it. Her gaze landed on the car which showed no signs of slowing down.

“Get off the road,” she yelled, running towards the street. Her heart leapt into her throat as the gap between the dog and the speeding hunk of metal narrowed. “Stop!”

Seconds before the car zoomed by, a man scooped the dog and rolled onto the ground a few feet in front of her. The car didn’t stop, and neither did she. The man groaned when he stilled on the concrete by her feet. This person risked their life to save an animal. She’d never witnessed anything so brave and stupid in her life.

The man grumbled and held out the puppy for her to take. He wore track pants and the hood of his jacket covered his head, preventing her from seeing his face. Their hands brushed as Jill took the shaken mutt. She tucked it against her chest.

“Wow. That was… something else. I’ve never seen anything so selfless. Thank you for saving him.” She scratched the soft fur on the dog’s head and watched the man rise. Her breath hitched, and she swallowed hard as he towered over her. The man had a solid build; at least double her width. Intimidating. “This little bundle owes you his life. I wonder where he or she came from.”

He dusted himself off. As his hood fell back, her jaw dropped past her knees. He was stunning. His hair was cropped short, drawing her eyes to his strong brow and ruggedly sexy beard. He had dark and hypnotic eyes. His gaze was sharp and intense, capturing her breath and holding it hostage. He looked young enough to be her kid, but hot damn he was attractive. Her inner Mrs. Robinson switch flicked on.

The silence wasn’t uncomfortable, but she fidgeted under his scrutiny all the same. He didn’t speak a word as he looked at her. First at her lips, then her throat. Her heart rate sped as the seconds ticked by. His gaze swept down her body at such a slow and sensual pace. She shivered, and it had nothing to do with the slight chill in the air. She felt ready to combust by the time their eyes connected.

“OMG. Thanks for not letting Harry get crushed,” a girl said, jogging up to her on the sidewalk.

Jill had been so mesmerized by the handsome stranger she hadn’t heard the couple approach over the distant traffic and the loud thunder in her chest. The teenager collected the puppy and fussed at the animal

“That tuck and roll maneuver was epic,” the boy announced, tossing an arm over the girl’s shoulder. The pair was decked out in Puck Battle hockey gear.

The stranger shrugged his shoulders, dropped his chin to his chest and rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t respond. It seemed as if he didn’t want the praise. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He shoved his hands in his pockets like he was ready to bolt and stepped back from the group further into the shadows.

“You should have a collar on him,” Jill admonished the kids.

The boy pulled one from his pocket. “He wriggled loose when we weren’t looking. Anyway, thanks for finding him before something bad happened.” The two turned and raced across the empty street with their pet.

A few moments passed and neither of them spoke. Her pulse raced as his eyes flirted with her exposed skin. “Hi, I’m Jill,” she said, breaking the silence.

She’d done it. She’d made the first move. Now what?

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