“I’m not what I used to be.”
She eyed him, holding his gaze as she ran her hand up and down her cup. She seemed to be grasping for words, but there was nothing to say. He glanced nervously around the room, feeling completely stupid. Why had he even talked to her? He should have just let her walk away when she ordered her coffee. Of course she’d looked him up online; she’d probably read that he was worthless now, that his own team wouldn’t play him unless they were desperate. That some twenty-two-year-old had taken his spot.
None of that mattered, though, because he was leaving and it was for the best. As he had been telling himself from the beginning, he couldn’t start anything with her. He just couldn’t. Standing up, he looked down at her welcoming, sweet face.
“I have to go.”
“What?” she asked as she stood up too, confused. “Why?”
“ ’Cause I do. I gotta catch a flight and stuff, so … yeah, bye.”
Jordan turned then and rushed out of Starbucks, not stopping even when he thought he heard her call his name. He got in his truck, started it, and drove out of the parking lot. Even though his heart was pounding, telling him he was a complete idiot, he knew it was for the best. When he reached the exit, he glanced in his rearview mirror before heading out onto the road—and saw her standing outside, with her hands on her hips. He wanted to roll down the window, apologize, anything, because he didn’t want to leave, but he knew that he had to.
He promised himself he would never see her again.
“How’s the knee, Jordan?”
Jordan looked across the table at the IceCats GM, Sean Rogers. Jordan’s heart was pounding in his chest while sweat dripped down the middle of his back. It was cold in the room, but Jordan’s nerves were out of control. He hadn’t realized how much he wanted to be on the IceCats until he stepped foot into their arena. Walking past all the posters and photos of the team winning the cup and at charity events reminded Jordan a lot of the Assassins. But the IceCats needed a goalie, while the Assassins only needed a backup.
Forcing a smile, he looked straight into Sean’s eyes and said, “It’s good. I’m ready to play.”
Sean nodded. “You were a force to be reckoned with before the injury.”
Jordan heard the were loud and clear. That needed to change.
“I still could be if I was given the chance. When I played eleven games straight for Tate Odder while he was out, I let in only seven of two hundred and fifty shots on goal. I am ready to play full time—I’m tired of warming the bench.”
Sean trained his eyes down at Jordan’s file. Then he looked up, smiled.
“I agree, but has Bacter given you a reason why you are warming and not playing? You and Odder are very similar players.”
“I don’t know. All I know is that I want to play and I’m not getting the time I need on the ice playing for the Assassins.”
Sean paused for a moment, looking back down at the table.
“You have been with that team since you started in the NHL. Are you sure you want to leave?”
Was he sure? It would hurt to leave the Assassins. He loved the team, but he loved playing more, and just as he was about to say that, he thought of Aynslee. Disturbing. Was it his subconscious letting him know that he was walking away not only from the team but from her too?
Shaking his head, he said, “As much as I’ll miss them, I have to go to a team that will play me, and I think that team is the IceCats. I have dreamed of playing for this team my entire life, and I am ready to show you that I can be the star goalie you need to bring the cup home once again.”
As much as he believed he would kick ass, Jordan was worried that he wouldn’t be happy when he left Tennessee. It was an insane thought, because his family was here and being a part of the IceCats was his lifelong dream, but he would be leaving his team, his friends, and Aynslee. Aynslee. As much as he tried, he could not get her out of his mind.
“Sounds good, Jordan. I feel good about this. I’ll talk to your dad, talk to the owner of the Assassins, and we should know something in the next couple of months. I think you are going to look great in our IceCats jersey.”
Sean stood then, holding out his hand. Jordan stood too and took Sean’s hand, shaking it earnestly—while in his mind a certain redhead smiled at him. Things were moving for him and that was great, so why wasn’t he as happy as he thought he would be?
“Sean said he thought I was going to look great in an IceCats jersey. I’m pretty sure that means something,” Jordan said as he passed the green beans to his dad the next evening at dinner.
“Hopefully something good,” Bill replied with a nod.
“I’d love to have you home, honey; it would be wonderful,” Jackie, his mom, added before reaching over and squeezing his hand.
“As much as I like being home, Mom, I gotta go where they’re going to play me.” Sometimes his mom didn’t realize that his job was to play hockey. She still saw the little boy, all dressed up in his goalie gear, loving the game more than anything.
“I know, I just hope it works out,” Jackie gushed as she smiled over at Jordan’s father. “Make it happen, Bill.”
Everyone laughed at her comment as they ate dinner and chatted about their favorite topic: hockey. Jordan had learned from his father that Buffalo was keeping their options open and would be in contact before the end of the season. Jordan knew what that meant. They didn’t want him. He tried not to let it bother him and focused instead on what his mother was telling him about her quilting. It was hard to listen, though, when he saw his career going down the drain. If the IceCats didn’t want him, he was f**ked. He would end up going somewhere he didn’t want to go or, worse, he’d have to continue playing as someone’s backup. When Jackie looked up at him expectantly, Jordan smiled and said, “That’s great, Mom. I’m proud of you.”