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breakaway

PILOTS HOCKEY #5

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Prologue

Luke

One Year Earlier

Charlotte Aviators vs. New Jersey Devils

 

It only takes a second to change the game.

And we have less than 120 of them left in this one.

Out of habit, I scan the crowd behind the boards as I skate around the face-off circle. This kid in a “DANIELS” jersey catches my eye. It’s Jordan—who’s probably a teenager by now—sitting next to his dad, Cody. I’ve talked to them at various season-ticket-holder events. They’ve been at every Aviators home game for ten years, and Jordan’s sported my jersey for the last three.

Fueled by an extra zap of pride, I skate around the face-off circle before stopping at the hash marks. Aleksandr Varenkov, the wing on my left side, yells two words. I nod, acknowledging that I understand.

A quick glance tells me my opponent is a lefty. A longer look confirms that I’m matched up against Dan Clausson, the Devils’ leading scorer, which is why the play calls for me to tie him up and try to kick the puck back to Grandy on defense.

We’re up 5–4 with less than two minutes left in the game. As a right-handed shooter, I have no real advantage against him, so I know why coach called the play. My job is to lock him up and secure possession so Grandy can clear the zone.

Sweat rolls off my nose and my knees shake as I bend over the face-off circle. I widen my stance and crouch low to the ice. The linesman holds the puck between us, and Clausson slides into the circle.

“Back up!” the linesman snaps at him.

Clausson gets back into position, crouching like I am, waiting for the puck to drop. My gaze doesn’t waiver from him. Normally, I’d be watching the puck, but that isn’t the play. All I need to see is the linesman’s hand out of the corner of my eye to know when to move.

When his wrist flicks to release the puck, I slam Clausson’s stick with mine and hold it as I spin into him. Then I sail the puck back to Grandy with my skate. Exactly as planned.

Clausson hacks me across the back of the legs as I skate away, but it doesn’t matter. I’d won the face off and we have possession.

I trust Grandy, one of our veteran guys, to sail the puck to safety, but instead he circles the back of the net and starts up the ice. Varenkov and I switch to offense quickly, crossing at center ice to get in position, but Grandy gets checked hard, loses possession and falls flat on his ass. The puck slides into the corner to the right of our goal.

“Shit,” I hiss, noticing Varenkov is tied up, so I hustle over, breathing hard and pushing every muscle possible to get to that puck first.

I’ve been playing hockey since I was three years old. In theory, I know I should have some awareness of the situation, like a quick glance up while digging to get the puck out of the corner. But I’ve got my head down, engrossed in clearing the zone.

Which means I don’t see him coming until it’s too late.

“Fuck!” The sound of crunching bones is louder than the thump of being slammed against the boards. I feel a snap when my head hits the ridge at the bottom of the glass. My legs buckle and I fall onto my side.

Someone has already come in and swept the puck away, but I want to get back into the play. I roll onto my knees, place one skate on the ice and heave myself onto both blades. When I bend down to grab my stick, my right arm won’t work. It hangs at my side despite my brain telling it to move.

What the fuck?

I lean over and snatch the twig with my left hand, then hustle to the bench.

Smithy, better known as Geoff Smith, Aviators athletic trainer, claps my shoulder. “What’s up, Capper?”

Some people think my nickname comes from the fact that I’ve been the captain on every team I’ve ever played for—most recently the Detroit Pilots before being called up to Charlotte. Nope.

The first time I got moved up to the Aviators, one of the guys mentioned that I look like a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Somehow “Capper” came out of that. I don’t think I look like the actor at all, but the name could be worse. I know I’ve given guys some shitty nicknames in my time.

Holding my left glove between my knees, I tug my hand out. Then I tap my right arm in various places, trying to stimulate some life into it. “My fucking arm’s all numb. I can’t even hold my stick.”

Smithy glances at the scoreboard. “I’ll get Dr. M. Come on back.”

I pause, reluctant to leave the bench with less than a minute left, even though my arm is tingling like it’s asleep.

“All right, Capper?” Coach Kingston yells to me.

I nod. Instead of following Smithy to the locker room to meet with Dr. Moore, one of our team physicians, I stay planted on the bench and say, “I can wait a minute, Smithy. It’s no big deal.”

No reason to say anything right now. My arm would come back to life in a few minutes. Nothing to worry about.

Ann Arbor, MI

Three weeks have gone by since the game against the Devils, when my right arm went numb and tingly, and I still haven’t been able to fully use it. Which is why I’m in Ann Arbor waiting to meet with Dr. Aziz Patel, who is the third orthopedic surgeon I’ve met with about the injury.

Dr. Moore told me to meet with the first guy, who works with Carolina Medical Network, which is affiliated with the Aviators. Because of the of nature my injury, he immediately referred me to Dr. Cammarelli, the chief of spine service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Cammarelli also serves as spine consultant for the NHL, which is the main reason both the team orthopedic surgeon and my agent urged me to see him.

When his grim prognosis pissed me off, I set an appointment with Dr. Patel at the University of Michigan, who is the surgeon the NHL Players Association always recommends. I’m hitting all the big dogs, hoping one of them will give me good news.

No such luck. Yet.

“Did you hear me, Luke?” Dr. Patel asks.

“It’s not that bad,” I say for what feels like the hundredth time since my injury. I rub the back of my neck out of habit, though it feels good on the swollen muscles underneath.

“A prolapsed cervical disc compressed onto your spinal cord. It’s a very serious injury. You’re going to need surgery.”

I smile and shake my head. A sore neck and some random numbness requires rest, not surgery. This isn’t my first injury—or my first interaction with a doctor who needs the money to pay for a secret apartment for his mistress.

“I get that.” I lean back, trying to get comfortable in the stiff, green leather chair across from the surgeon. “But it can wait until after the season ends, right?”

“I would advise you to have the surgery as soon as possible.”

Rolling my eyes and tapping my fingers against my knee, I zone out, thinking about everything I need to do when I get back to Charlotte this afternoon. We leave for a West Coast road trip tomorrow morning and I didn’t pack for it before I left for this appointment. I haven’t even run by the dry cleaner to pick up my favorite suit yet. Hope it’s open when I get back.

“Luke,” he says in a firm tone that makes me snap to attention. “I’m not trying to be the bad guy here. This is serious.”

“Worst-case scenario.” Absently, I rub my right bicep with my left hand, an attempt to stimulate life where it’s numb. It doesn’t work, yet I still try.

“Excuse me?”

“Give me the worst-case scenario, doc. Let’s say I keep playing and don’t get surgery right now. What’s the worst that can happen?” I stretch my legs out and cross them at my ankles. I’ve been skating since I was two, playing hockey since I was four, and training at a high level since before I hit adolescence. I can handle any rehab a physical therapist throws at me. Hard work doesn’t worry me, it motivates me.

“You want the worst-case scenario, Luke?” he asks. “You’ll wake up in a pile of your own shit because you have no feeling below the neck. How does that sound?”

“You’re just trying to scare me,” I say, though the words come out much softer than I intend. Or maybe they don’t seem loud because all I can hear is the sound of my heart thumping hard and fast.

It should scare me, since this is the second doctor to tell me that.

Dr. Cammarelli had said the same thing in a slightly different way—then asked me to leave his office after I chucked an empty water bottle across the room.

“You should be scared. The injury you have makes you very vulnerable, even in your everyday life. If you sleep on it wrong you could wake up paralyzed. Playing hockey is just plain stupid.”

The hair on my arms bristle at the attack on my intelligence. I pause to let his words sink in. The injury is worse than I’d ever admit. I’m used to playing through pain, but I’d never had a stiff neck that makes my right arm so numb I can’t fully grip my stick. This is completely out of my wheelhouse.

“Fine. I’ll have the surgery.” Even before I stepped into Dr. Patel’s office, I’d already resigned myself to the fact that surgery is the first step. “What kind of time frame am I looking at after? A month? Two?” I ask. “Will I be back for the playoffs?”

Dr. Patel’s lips slide from a frustrated scowl to a grim line. “You’ll most likely have to retire, Luke.”

“Fuck that!” The words fly out of my mouth without filter as I jump to my feet. “Doc, I’m only twenty-six.”

Dr. Cammarelli hadn’t mentioned retirement during my appointment. He talked about rehab and keeping a close eye on how the disc healed and how I felt during that time. Dr. Patel’s fearmonger approach is absolutely ridiculous. Retirement is out of the question.

No one in the Aviators organization has mentioned retirement. They’ve encouraged my rehab and helped me find the best doctors to meet with.

Dr. Patel stands, as well. “Surgery will alleviate the pain and bring back feeling in your limbs.” He glances at my arm as if he knows I haven’t told anyone the entire truth. “But it isn’t a cure. If you reinjure the disc, you could be paralyzed instantly. I’m sorry, Luke. I know it’s not what you want to hear.”

“Fuck this. Just clear me to play.” Sweat beads on my forehead and I make a scribbling motion with my hand. “Give me something to sign that says I understand everything you said, and I’ll take full responsibility for the consequences.”

“I can’t clear you to play with your injury,” he says firmly. “I won’t clear you.”

I lean forward and meet his gaze. “Well if you don’t, then I’ll find another doctor who will,” I threaten. My right arm tingles as my hands tighten into fists. “I’m not gonna sit out for a fucking stiff neck.”

“I know you’ve seen other doctors already, Luke.” Dr. Patel takes a deep breath and walks around his desk, stopping next to me. “And I know how hard this is to hear. As tough as our bodies are, they can also be very fragile. I encourage you to do what’s best for it now, so you can live a healthy, active life. Let’s start with surgery and see how it goes, okay?”

He pats my shoulder softly and moves toward the door. I don’t turn around, too angry to face him, although I’m not mad at him. I’m mad that a routine hit into the boards caused some fucking fluke injury that’s threatening to end my career.

“I’m going to have Lucy bring in some information. Take a look, talk to whoever you need to on the team. But I suggest getting it scheduled as soon as possible.”

When the door closes behind him, I collapse onto the ugly green chair and drop my face into my hands. Comprehension of what he’s actually saying crushes me. According to Dr. Patel, I may have already played my last hockey game. I can’t accept that. I can’t understand that. There’s no possible way a stupid stiff neck could be that bad. He’s got to be fucking kidding.

What am I going to do? I don’t know anything but hockey. I don’t want to know anything else. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a fucking Stanley Cup yet.

Focus, Luke. Focus.

Think positive and come up with a solution. I’ll have the surgery, do any kind of physical therapy I need to get healthy and strong again, and get my ass back on the ice. There have to be stories of athletes who have come back from this type of injury.

For some reason, my thoughts flash back to juniors in the WHL, when I delivered a wicked check on a kid who was skating up the middle of the ice with his head down. It was clean, but, man, did I rock him. Probably saw constellations for the rest of the night. He had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher, which is never good to see. I followed up with our coach that night to make sure he was okay. Thankfully, their coach said the guy was fine.

Not sure what makes me think of that particular scenario. And I can’t think of the kid’s name for the life of me, or even what team he played for—maybe Spokane?

The office door opens behind me. “Hi, Luke. Dr. Patel sent me in here to go over this paperwork with you.”

“Yeah.” I take a deep breath, flushing out the fear as I exhale. “Let’s do it.”

Taking hold of the clipboard Lucy hands me, I start scribbling my information on the papers. I should probably weigh the pros and cons of choosing Dr. Patel over Dr. Cammarelli. They’re both consultants for the NHL, so I really can’t go wrong. For me, there’s really no question, since Dr. Patel is in Ann Arbor, which is about an hour from Detroit. That’s really what seals the deal. After playing in the Pilots organization for years, I feel better being close to people I know. Plus, there’s a girl here I used to hook up with who would drop everything to be my “nurse” over the next few weeks.

Retirement—the worst-case scenario—swirls around in my head, but I quickly shut those thoughts down. This isn’t the first challenge I’ve ever faced in my life.

It won’t be the last, either.

 

Chapter 1

 

Luke

Six Months Post Surgery

Charlotte, NC

 

“You wanted to see me?” I ask Mike Kingston, Aviators head coach, from the doorway of his office. His head is down and he’s scratching notes on a yellow legal pad feverishly.

He lifts his eyes. “Sit down, Luke.”

His office smells like dirty socks and coffee, but I shuffle in and drop into the chair across from the desk.

“How’re you feeling?” Mike puts his pen down and pushes his notepad to the side, giving me his full attention.

“Great, actually. I’m ahead of where my physical therapist expected me to be and I have another appointment with Dr. Patel next week. Last time he said everything is healing well, so I’m pretty confident that I’m close to being back.” I slide the comment in casually, trying not to let desperation seep into my voice. The last six months off the ice—isolated from the team—have me going crazy.

“But he didn’t clear you yet?” Mike asks.

“Well, no, but . . .”

“Dr. Cammarelli?”

I shake my head and look out the window behind him. “No, I . . .”

“Keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll take it day by day and see what Patel says at your next checkup,” he says. His firm tone tells me the case closed. “I’m glad to hear the update, but that’s not why I called you in today.”

“Oh.” I know the Aviators team doctors have been in touch with all of the surgeons I’ve seen about my injury. When Mike asked me to come in for a meeting, I admit I thought Dr. Patel might have relayed some information to the team that he hadn’t told me. Hope for good news fueled the speed with which I got to the Aviators offices. I thought maybe he’d approved my plea to skate with the team. I’m itching to get out there and see how it goes—maybe throw on a noncontact jersey or something.

“The loss of Brandon has hit all of us pretty hard. How are you doing with it, Luke?”

Mike’s question isn’t out of left field, but it hurts like a puck to the nose nonetheless.

My lip quivers involuntarily at the mention of Brandon Dellinger, former Aviators captain, who took his own life a few months ago. Soon after a concussion sidelined him from the game, he found out Jack, his only child, had lung cancer. For months, everyone in the organization watched him pour his soul into doing everything in his power to help Jack recover.

Brandon was one of my mentors on the team. He and his wife, Ally, even let me stay in one of their guest rooms when I was going back and forth between Charlotte and Detroit frequently. During that time, I watched Jack grow up, thinking of him as a mix between a little brother and a nephew. When he got sick, I sat with Brandon and Ally during chemo and radiation treatments, or sometimes I just sat with Jack when they needed a break.

Brandon, already stressed from being forced to leave the game and trying to handle Jack’s illness, snapped when the doctors told them that Jack’s tumor was not shrinking from treatment. In fact, it had gotten worse. And to make a horrible situation even worse—it was inoperable, meaning there was no way to remove it safely. No matter what treatment route they chose, Jack would never recover.

Ally found Brandon dead in their garage the next day.

Swallowing back a lump, I finally squeak out an answer. “Better. But it’s still hard to believe he’s gone.”

 “I know. I spoke with Ally a few days ago. She seems to be doing okay. She’s keeping a calm head, if nothing else.”

I nod. “She’s had a lot of family in town helping.”

Mike better get to the point soon, because I can’t handle this conversation much longer. What Brandon did still pisses me off. It saddens me and depresses me. Then pisses me off again. Why didn’t he say something?

“I know it’s been hard for you since your surgery. We don’t want you to feel like you’re on an island. We feel your absence around here, Luke. There’s something missing, an attitude, an ethic, a vibe—I can’t place it exactly. You know the energy you bring to the team—especially the young guys.” He looks up at me. “What do you think about moving into the Director of Player Development role?”

 “Until I can play again?” I ask. I haven’t even been cleared to skate with the team yet, but not one doctor has said my career is over. At my last appointment, Dr. Patel made a point to tell me he was impressed with how well I was healing and how strong I’d already gotten with intense physical therapy and workouts. I took that as a positive sign for the future.

“Luke, you are one of the smartest guys I’ve ever coached—ever. I know being on staff instead of in the locker room seems like a demotion. I know you still have the strength and drive and desire to play, but you don’t have the clearance. And from what Smithy is getting from your doctors, the outlook doesn’t look good.”

My jaw clenches and my shoulders tighten, but I work hard to keep my cool. Though I appreciate the obvious ego stroke regarding the attitude I bring to the team, I’m still not ready to accept that I won’t play again. Not until I get the final word from a doctor—or doctors.

“This role is about mentoring our prospects, which we all agree that you’ll be great at. It’s right in your wheelhouse. You are an asset to this organization, Luke. We don’t want you to feel like Brandon. Depressed, forgotten, like you don’t have a place.”

I don’t point out that Brandon had more problems than just the isolation that goes with the loss of his career. He had a kid with terminal cancer. Though my family life isn’t the greatest, I don’t have that stress.

“I don’t feel that way at all. I know I have a place. I’ll be back on the ice with the boys soon.”

“We have to be realistic though, Luke. You get hit or even whip your head around to see the puck, and boom!” He slams both hands on his desk. “You’re a vegetable. That’s the reality of what could happen.”

“Come on, Mike,” I plead. “That’s a worst-case scenario. You know the surgeon has to say that to cover his ass.”

The fact that he threw in the vegetable line straight from the doctor’s playbook makes me think this proposed “desk job” might be long-term.

He looks me straight in the eyes. “You’re still Luke Daniels, Aviators rising star. The injury doesn’t change that. It just puts your career with the team on a different path. The guys love you, the staff loves you, hell, even the ladies still love you.”

I roll my eyes. Not many girls will choose screwing someone on the Aviators staff over an actual player. That’s the hot puck bunny’s less-attractive-friend territory.

Fuck if I’m going there.

“I’m worried about you.” Coach’s voice holds a hint of concern. After three years of playing for him, Mike Kingston knows exactly how to read my mood swings. It’s his superpower. He gets to know every single guy on a personal level. I swear that’s what makes him so damn good. He knows exactly what buttons to push to open the door to an even bigger issue.

“I feel great, Mike. The surgery repaired the disc. It’s healing well. I’m working my ass off in the gym. If I could reinjure my neck turning my head the wrong way, shouldn’t I be padded in fucking bubble wrap? If anything takes me down, I want it to be hockey, not looking both ways before crossing a damn street.”

“Do you really want to go down either way?”

When I don’t answer, Mike continues, “Take the player-development position. Start working with the young guys and we’ll see what your doctors say. Deal?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “I’ll take it.”

“Good. Go home and pack. I need you in Peterborough tomorrow.”

“Really?” I ask. Not that I’m upset about jumping right into my new job. I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

“Yeah. I’ll have Eddie call you with the details.” Mike gets up and follows me to the door. He claps a hand on my shoulder, in a way that feels paternal. Maybe I’m just a sucker for any fatherly connection since my dad died. “I know it’s hard when you’re disconnected, but you need to remember that you are a very valuable member of this organization, Luke. And if you need anything, or anyone to talk to, let me know.”

“Thanks, Mike.” I glance at my watch, a silver TAG Heuer that my agent bought me when I scored my first hat trick in the NHL. It was a natural hat trick—three goals in one period. “You plan on being here late?”

“Not if I can help it, but I’ve got a call with Peter. I don’t even know what time it is for him in Finland.” Mike glances back at his desk, then at me, as if I have the answer.

“Fuck if I know. I failed International Time Zones 101,” I quip. “All right, I’m headed out. You want me to bring you back some poutine fries?”

Teasing Mike about poutine, French fries covered in light brown gravy and cheese curds, never gets old. Last time we were in Toronto he ate three huge helpings and got sick. The next day, he still wouldn’t stop bitching about his stomachache, questioning the cleanliness of the roadside chip wagon near the arena we ate at rather than how much of it he took back.

“Asshole,” he grunts, then places his hands on the waist of his running pants. “Sarah says I need to stop eating shit.”

“You’re only saying ‘no’ because it isn’t as good reheated.” I wink at him before heading down the hallway to the exit.

Despite being slightly disappointed about what my new role might mean, I focus on how lucky I am to be part of the Aviators organization. Brandon’s suicide rocked all of us. I appreciate that Mike took my mental state into consideration, and how isolated being injured makes me feel. It’s a classy move to actively look for a way to get me involved with the team even if I’m not in the locker room or joining them on road trips.

I’m not saying I’m letting go of my playing career just yet, but I know enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth. A position with the organization gives me a purpose. It allows me to be back in the community. I’ll kick ass at this Director of Player Development shit for a few months and bust my balls to get back on the ice where I belong.

 

Chapter 2

 

Bree

My first assignment as a traveling nurse brought me to Charlotte, North Carolina, a place I’d never been before. I’ve been so consumed by learning the intricacies of the hospital I haven’t had much time to explore the city. Which sucks, because I’m used to spending my free time outdoors. Ocean, beach, mountains—California has it all.

When Mindy, one of the CNAs I work with at Charlotte Children’s Hospital, asked me if I wanted to go to the world’s largest pub crawl, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But she also mentioned that we would be meeting up with some of her friends, and since I’d only been in North Carolina for a week, meeting people was on the top of my list of things to do.

“Hey, Bree!” Mindy greets me when I open the door for her.

“Hey!”

She thrusts a kelly-green T-shirt at me as she slides by.

“This is interesting,” I say as I hold it up for inspection.

She’s wearing an identical shirt, though she’s made some interesting modifications to hers. The crew neck has been cut into a low, jagged vee and the sides are laced together with shoestring, allowing skin to show from under her armpits to the top of her low-slung jeans. I don’t even want to think about the time and effort she put into making it that slutty.

Evidently, everyone at the event wears the same T-shirt. Though the artwork—a pair of Chuck Taylor–style high-tops hanging on a power line by the laces, with the details for the pub crawl on the sole—is cool, the shirt itself is tiny. If I had known how small they ran, I would have opted for a medium. How am I supposed to drink if I have to worry about sucking in my gut all day? I can’t complain, though, because I really do appreciate Mindy inviting me out with her friends.

"Yeah, the design is kinda cute this year," Mindy agrees. “And, I mean, even if you hate it, you only have to wear it once, right?”

“True.” I head toward my bedroom. "I’m gonna throw this on. Be right back.”

“No worries,” she says. “Can I grab a beer?”

I stop and turn around, watching as she opens my fridge and peers in. “I thought we were going to a pub crawl?” I ask.

Pregaming for a day of drinking that starts at noon seems pretty aggressive. Maybe I should’ve thought twice before agreeing to hang out with Mindy and her friends. I didn’t know anything about her outside of work. She may be way more wild than I have patience for anymore. I grew up around a ton of spoiled trust-fund kids who’d been drinking and doing drugs since middle school. The lifestyle got old quickly for me.

“It’s cheaper here,” she answers.

And just like that, I feel like a judgey jackass. An entire day of drinking is bound to be expensive. Might as well get started here and save a few bucks.

“In the fridge,” I say as I leave her in the kitchen, then add, “Grab me one, too, please.”

I rush into my bedroom and replace my previous green T-shirt with the official pub-crawl top. Before I leave, I stop to fluff my hair and glance in the full-length mirror hanging behind my door. It takes a few double palm-pushes against the inside of the shirt near the middle, but I finally stretch it enough to give me a little extra room in the tummy area. I slide my palms over the wrinkles and I'm ready to go.

When I come back into my living room, Mindy is at the sliding glass door checking out the amazing view from my balcony. From there, you can see into BB&T Ballpark, where the Knights, Charlotte’s minor league baseball team, play their home games.

“You’ve got a view of the entire field,” she says, craning her neck to the left.

“I know. It would be awesome if I liked baseball.”

“You don’t need to like baseball to think the players are hot,” she says, handing me a beer. She swallows hard after taking a sip, which tells me she may not be a fan of the particular craft brew I picked up from the grocery store a few blocks from my house.

I laugh. “I never thought of it that way.”
“Do you like any sports?”

“I like hockey. And sometimes soccer. Who doesn’t love David Beckham?”

I’m not the world’s biggest soccer fan. I can’t tell you the names of many guys or what clubs they play for. But David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are definitely on my radar. And all over my Instagram feed.

“You like hockey?” Mindy asks, leaning her backside against the balcony. “Have you been to an Aviators game?”

“I haven’t had a chance to get there yet. Do you go to them?” It’s midway through March, which means hockey season is drawing to a close. Since I don’t follow the local team, I don’t know if they’re in the playoffs or not. Maybe I should catch a game before the regular season ends.

“I’ve been to a few. A girl I work with at the radio station is dating one of the players, so I’ve gone with her a few times. That’s who we’re meeting up with at the crawl today.”

My heart speeds up. While I won’t go as far as to say hockey players are my weakness, I will admit to being extremely attracted to them. In fact, with the exception of one person, I've only ever dated guys who play hockey. It’s not like I seek them out. It’s just who I’ve always been around.

As a former collegiate hockey player himself, most of my dad’s friends are now retired players. And Mason, my brother, who’s only two years younger than I am, played up until a few years ago. I’ve literally been around hockey players from the time I was born. Being around so many good-looking, athletic guys made my dating life pretty easy—despite how pissed Mason would get every time I went out with one of his friends or teammates.

“Ready?” I ask. Before we leave, I grab my new Kate Spade purse from the kitchen table and maneuver the strap over my head and across my chest so the bag sits at my hip.

Once we’re on the street outside my apartment complex, I dig for more information on today’s festivities. “Tell me more about this crawl.”

“It’s a day of eating, drinking, and walking around the city with twenty thousand of your best friends.”

“Twenty thousand?” I repeat, unsure if Mindy’s exaggerating or not. That’s a shit-ton of people.

“Yes. Well, that’s the organizers’ count. But they go by number of T-shirts sold, so who knows if that many people are actually out on the street.”

“Is it run by a promotion company or radio station or something?” I look both ways before crossing the street to walk through Romare Bearden park. If cutting through the park is an option, I always do it. I love a patch of nature in the middle of city.

Out of the options offered by the temporary agency, I chose an apartment in Charlotte’s city center. For all I knew about Charlotte, it could have been a few buildings surrounded by horse and cow farms, so I thought being right in the heart of the city, within walking distance to restaurants and grocery shopping, would be my best bet. CCH is only a five-minute drive, which is much better than the hour-long commute to get from my parents’ house in Carona del Mar to the children’s hospital I worked at just outside of Anaheim. Based on mileage, it should only take about twenty minutes to get from house to hospital, but traffic is absolutely brutal.

“No,” Mindy says. “It’s just two random dudes who moved to Charlotte after college. I talked to one of the guys last year for a while. It started with eighty of their friends and it’s grown from there.”

“Holy shit.”

“Right?”

“It’d be interesting to figure out how it runs, don’t you think? Get to see what goes on behind the scenes. With those numbers, it must be crazy.”

Though I chose a career in human services, I’ve always had an appreciation for people who built their businesses from the ground up, since that’s how my parents created their wealth. Growing up around the hard work and excessive hours they put into their businesses instilled a work ethic in me that I didn’t see in my peers.

Not all of them, of course, but I went to school with a ton of kids who were living off the fortune their great-grandparents made. I’m not knocking it, but while many of those kids were getting kicked out of school and being sent to rehab or schools for emotionally troubled youth, I was watching my parents create their empire, which made me appreciate hard work at an early age.

When I chose nursing as a profession, I didn’t want to be “just a nurse.” I wanted to be a pediatric oncology nurse—the best pediatric oncology nurse in the country. Not that there’s a solid measurement for that. It was more about working my ass off to get to the top—instead of living off Mom and Dad.

“Maybe we can get on the employee list for next year,” Mindy winks.

Reality mutes my initial pang of excitement. My assignment in Charlotte ends long before next year’s pub crawl. I may be enjoying a St. Patty’s Day celebration in a whole new city—or back home in California. But I don’t say that out loud, choosing to stay in the present, even though I secretly enjoy the idea of not knowing where I’ll be next. It gives me a sense of freedom I haven’t felt in years.

Being the daughter of driven entrepreneurs has its perks, but it also comes with the pressure and expectations of people who “want the best for me” even if our definitions of what’s best are completely different. Marrying one of the party-boy, trust-fund kids in my parents’ social circle is not my idea of an ideal match. I’d seen more things snorted before I started high school than I’d seen my entire time in college.

That was never my life. I always wanted to be outside hiking and surfing, rather than on the beach drinking and sunbathing.

“At the risk of sounding super lame, I don’t know if I’ll be able to hang very long if I’m drinking all day,” I say, jumping onto the bricks of a raised flower bed. Years of gymnastics as a kid kicks in and I begin stepping heel to toe across the bricks as if I’m walking a beam.

“There’s a strategy, my dear,” Mindy says, letting go of my hand, so I can focus on my balance. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have a drink, maybe a few waters in between, walk around until you’re hungry, then duck into a place to grab some food.”

“I’m glad I have an experienced guide for my first world’s largest pub crawl.”

“It takes practice. Last year I got so sloppy drunk I was peeing in an alley before five.”

I laugh and shake my head before dismounting, completing a half spin before landing on my feet.

“But don’t worry, Bree. I’ve matured since then.”

“God, I hope so. I take care of enough people at work. I don’t need to do it on my days off, too,” I say to tease her, but I’m only half-joking. After years of administering to the sickest of sick children, holding a drunk girl’s hair back doesn’t bring out my sympathetic side.

At the end of the park, we cross over Church Street and enter a small bar called Valhalla on the corner. I’ve been here once before, because it’s so close to my apartment. I’m not normally a junk food person, but I did try the Loaded Loki Fries last week when I stopped in after my first day of work. I hadn’t eaten anything during a full day of training and meeting patients, and I needed a guilty carb fest.

Who knew waffle fries topped with Jarlsberg cheese, sweet corn, pineapple, and jalapeños could be the most amazing flavors ever put together? The dish normally comes with ham and bacon as well, but I nixed those and it was still amazing. The extra time at the gym in my apartment building the next day was well worth it.

As soon as we walk in, my eyes are drawn to a lively group of people wearing the official pub crawl T-shirts standing around a high-top table. A gorgeous girl with a dark, shampoo-commercial-perfect mane notices us immediately and calls out, “Hey Mindy! Come on over.”

Mindy grabs my hand and leads me to the table. She gives the girl a hug before introducing me by saying, “This is my friend, Bree.”

I look around at the group during a chorus of “Hi, Bree!” and finally look at the guy I’m standing next to.

Holy shit! It’s Jon Snow in the flesh.

I’m taken aback by his smooth, youthful face and the amazing wavy, brown hair that hangs just past his ears, which makes him look like Kit Harington when he’s playing his Game of Thrones character, Jon Snow. Except I’m pretty sure he’s one of the hockey players Mindy mentioned we’d be meeting, not a member the Night’s Watch.

Once introductions are over, I’ve learned everyone’s names and how they match up. Auden and Aleksandr are married, and Kristen and Pavel “might as well be married,” according to Mindy. The sexy Jon Snow look-alike’s name is Luke, but I don’t know who he matches up with, since there isn’t another girl at the table. Maybe she’s in the bathroom. Or maybe he and Mindy are a couple?

But then she would be standing next to him and he would’ve been the one to call out to her, right? I realize I’m overanalyzing things, but that’s not unusual for me, as assessing and analyzing is an important part of my job.

“We just finished our drinks and were waiting for you to head to the next bar. Is that cool?” Kristen asks.

Mindy and I both nod and follow the group outside. The sun beats down on my face, warming my skin, and I can practically feel the freckles popping across my nose and cheeks. The comfort reminds me of home.

I follow Auden across Brevard Court, the cute little strip of restaurants and shops, to a bar called the French Quarter. With such a promising name, I’m expecting that unmistakable and funky New Orleans vibe, like I just stepped in from Bourbon Street.

No such luck.

“Well, this is a bit disappointing,” I say out loud once we’re inside.

“Why?” Luke asks.

His voice startles me, though I knew he’d been lagging a few steps behind the group, holding his phone to the sky. I wasn’t sure if he was taking photos of something or trying to get a better signal. Either way, I shouldn’t be so aware of his actions after just meeting him. I don’t want him to think I’m a creep.

“Have you ever been to New Orleans?” I ask.

Luke nods. “Multiple times.”

I watch as our friends try to wiggle through the crowd to get to the bar, and quickly decide hanging back with Luke is the better choice. “Then you know what I mean.”

“Oh!” He looks around the restaurant, as if noticing the disappointing decor for the first time, or maybe just seeing it from a newbie’s perspective. His head bobs up and down. “Yeah, it’s definitely not authentic.”

Panels of frosted glass adorned with the French Quarter lion logo and classic Greek drama comedy and tragedy masks hang above the gorgeous oak bar. The frosted glass is encircled with stained-glass flowers in bright purples, golds, and greens. It doesn’t look New Orleans-ish at all, but at least the colors are correct.

“I mean . . .” I point to the wall across from the bar, where there’s a sketch of buildings on Bourbon Street with a random strand of purple beads hanging from one corner of the frame.

“Hey! They have masks,” Luke quips.

He’s right. On the wall next to the sketch are a few random Mardi Gras–themed masks, complete with brightly colored feathers. Other than those types of things scattered about, it’s pretty nondescript.

“It reminds me more of Greece,” I say, though there’s no conviction in my voice. “Or maybe a Greek interpretation of the French Quarter.”

Separating the bar area from the restaurant seating is a half wall painted in the colors of the Greek flag: cyan blue with white panel molding.

“Have you ever been to Greece?” Luke asks, mimicking my New Orleans comment to him.

“I have,” I say quietly. I hope my assessment of the restaurant didn’t sound snooty, because that’s not how I intended for it to come out. Maybe I should temper my expectations of Charlotte. I already know it’s no L.A. or New York.

“Really?” Luke pulls back slightly as if surprised. “That’s a bucket-list trip for me.”

I don’t like to brag about the vacations I’ve taken with my family, but I’m not going to lie about places I’ve been either.

Before I have a chance to say more about it, he nods to the bar, where our friends have found a spot to stand. “Kristen’s been there, too. She’s Greek. Probably why she always drags us here.”

Speaking of Kristen, we both turn when we hear her voice ring through the crowd. “Luke! Bree! Get over here and toast with us!”

“What are we toasting?” I ask Luke as we inch closer to our friends.

“It’s not an occasion. The Russians toast to everything. Gribsy brushed his teeth this morning! Hey!” Luke lifts an invisible glass. “Varenkov blinked. Hey!”

I giggle. “Life is meant to be celebrated.”

“She’s exactly right,” Aleksandr says, handing me a shot of clear liquid, which I assume, without trying to sound stereotypical, is vodka, given the present company. “But the toast is always the same. “Za zdaróvye! Which means—”

“To your health,” I finish.

Luke flinches at my words as if they’re offensive, but Aleksandr’s eyes widen and his lips pull into a smile.

“You speak Russian?” Aleksandr asks, in English, thankfully.

“No, but one of my father’s best friends is Russian, so I’ve heard the toast before.”

No reason to mention that I had broken up with Arkady Stepurin, the son of dad’s aforementioned best friend, a few weeks before making the decision to become a traveling nurse and get the hell out of California. It’s much simpler to reference dad’s connection instead.

Despite coming up through the USA hockey system, and playing in the NCAA after that, Dad has friends in every league and every country. He and former Anaheim defenseman (now assistant coach) Igor Stepurin became close quickly. Igor played with the Ducks his entire career and Dad knew guys on the team. Those connections, along with their mutual interests in outdoor activities like hiking and water sports, created a friendship that’s still going strong.

As their bromance blossomed, Mom and Anna, Igor’s wife, were thrown together whether they liked it or not. But Mom is an opportunist—in the best way possible—and she roped Anna into being the “face” of multiple Healthy Girl advertising campaigns. That business relationship helped seal their friendship. When we moved to our current house, Igor and Anna bought the place next door the day it went on the market. The Stepurin family and ours are intertwined in so many ways.

Which made leaving town an absolute necessity after finding out Arkady had cheated on me when he traveled to play at away games. It’s not like I was head over heels in love—or all that surprised—but no girl ever likes to be used, and having been together two years, ours had been my longest relationship. Betrayal is going to hurt no matter what, but—to add another layer to the almost incestuous relationship—Arkady is also my brother Mason’s best friend.

In hindsight, I never should’ve gotten involved with someone who was so tied to our family. But how could I not? Falling for the literal boy next door is straight out of a romance novel. Though I’ve used the last few years to focus on my career, I’ll be the first to admit I want the love story someday.

But not with a hockey player. I’d sworn them off after Arkady.

Dad and Mason gave me an insider’s eye into the mindset and priorities of a professional athlete. His career—and quest for being the best—comes before everything else. And if a woman wants to be with him, she has to want to be there for the ride. She has to understand that he will be gone most of the time. He will have complete focus on the game, a borderline cockiness, and the selfishness—maybe even loneliness—that comes with that profession.

That’s not the life I want. I want someone who can have a career, but always put our relationship first. A job should be the means to have the kind of life you want, not what you put ahead of everything and everyone. It may be my own selfishness shining through. I have dreams and I don’t want to sacrifice those for someone else. In my ideal relationship, we should be able to grow and pursue our life goals together.

I totally understand why mom didn’t want to be a hockey wife.

Luke takes a half step closer to me, to accept the shot Pavel hands him, which gives me an excuse to check him out again. Both of his lean, muscular arms are covered in tattoos. Full sleeves, I’m sure, though I can only see the parts not concealed by his T-shirt. Bits of ink creep out of his collar, and it’s so fucking hot I want to lick every ink-covered inch of him. I’m curious to see what else he has under there—maybe piercings?

A shiver ripples through me at the thought of the places Luke might have piercings. With all the crazy things that run through my head, sometimes I think I should’ve been a writer instead of a nurse.

Once everyone has a shot in hand, we raise our glasses and Pasha says, “Za zdaróvye!

To which everyone replies with the same thing, except Luke, who says, “Hey!”

“No Russian for you?” I ask him as I lean over and slide my empty shot glass onto the bar. When I straighten, I make sure to brush my arm across Luke’s stomach. He then scans my body with a sexy smile. His gaze stops at my chest before coming back up to my eyes and I almost wish I’d taken a pair of scissors to my T-shirt and modified it like Mindy had. I’m not lacking in the boob department.

“I never say it right, so I stopped. I think they appreciate that I quit butchering their native tongue.”

Lust swirls in my belly. After being the object of his wicked appraisal, I’d let Luke Daniels butcher me with his tongue. Whatever the hell that means.

After the French Quarter, we hit two more bars, both of which are located in the same courtyard. After drinks at both places I’m feeling a bit of a buzz. When we stumble out of Hooligan’s, a small soccer bar, Mindy insists we head to the Epicentre, which is a large complex of restaurants and things to do, like a movie theater and a bowling alley. I’m interested to see what it’s about, since I haven’t gotten to that part of the city yet.

At first I thought a crawl with twenty thousand people would be overwhelming, but hanging with a small group and doing our own thing is a great way to experience it. I like that it allows me to get a glimpse of multiple places in a short time. It helps me decide where I want to go back to and where I can skip.

The guys lead the way, cutting through Latta Arcade, the indoor shopping area reminiscent of arcades in England, to get to Tryon, the main street running through downtown Charlotte —or uptown Charlotte —which is what locals call the downtown area.

As we walk, my head swivels from side to side taking in the vibe of the city. The streets are a sea of matching green pub-crawl T-shirts, ebbing and flowing with each traffic light. People in Charlotte city center who aren’t wearing the shirt are few and far between—as if they missed the memo. I never would have guessed this sleepy little city was a hot spot for St. Patrick’s Day.

“Let’s do karaoke at Howl at the Moon,” Kristen proposes.

“No!” Auden says, quickly vetoing her friend’s suggestion.

“When do you ever not want to sing?” Aleksandr asks her.

“I never said I didn’t want to sing,” Auden explains. “But Howl is gonna be crazy today and we’ll never get called. We’d have to go to Lucky Lou’s to even have a chance.”

Kristen leans toward Mindy and me and explains, “Auden was in a band.”

“So was I,” Aleksandr says.

“That doesn’t even count. It was only for one song,” Auden responds, lifting one finger in the air.

“It was an important song.” He kisses her forehead and Auden snuggles under his arm.

Their interaction is sweet, but I’m completely confused by their entire exchange.

Suddenly, I hear a deep scratchy voice in my ear. “They’re talking about life before any of us knew them,” Luke explains.

Every time Luke speaks, a shiver ripples down my spine. His voice is pure sex. And there’s no question the alcohol I’ve consumed is loosening up my morals, because I can’t think of anything except screwing this dude I just met, which is totally crazy.

“I knew them then,” Kristen corrects him. “It was back when we were in college.”

“All of you went to college together?” I ask. It doesn’t seem likely, but who knows.

“Auden and I did. We met Aleks at a bar during a winter break,” Kristen tells me.

I nod in understanding at the connection. “And you met Pasha through Aleks.”

Kristen bursts out laughing, which replaces my short-lived sense of understanding with more confusion. “How I met Pasha is a story for another time. We’ll get dinner soon and I’ll tell you the entire thing.”

“Jesus,” Pasha hisses. “Can we get back to finding a place to go?”

“Good idea,” I agree, since I’m completely lost as to why he’s so pissy about Kristen telling me the story of how they met. Maybe he doesn’t like it when she talks about their relationship. Some people are super private about personal details. Or maybe it’s because we’re standing in an extremely busy part of Charlotte during a pub crawl with twenty thousand people. That could be part of the reason, too.

“So is the other karaoke place on the crawl?” I ask. I’ve never heard of it, but I’ve only been in town a few days. Today’s event is perfect, because it’s my first real walk around the city.

“Lucky Lou’s?” Kristen asks. “No, it’s on Park Road close to all the Montford bars.”

Being in a group of people who know each other and the city definitely has its upside, but it also has the I-have-no-clue-what’s-going-on side, too. The confusion must show on my face, because Luke answers my question before I even ask.

“Montford is an area of Charlotte with a group of bars and restaurants. Not as many as Uptown, but it’s another spot you can walk around and hit some cool places,” Luke says. Every time he explains something I feel like he’s my personal guide to Charlotte.

Actually, having him as my personal tour guide sounds like the best idea ever. The cloudier my head gets, the more the first place I want him to take me is the view from his bed.

“Cool,” I say with a nod. Every time Luke speaks, I’m surprised. His face is smooth shaven, which makes him look young, but the deep timbre of his voice suggests maturity. The slightly crinkled skin at his temples and purple circles underneath his eyes hint at the experience behind that deep, hardened voice. It seems like he’s always on alert—and tired of it. I want to know why he’s like that.

After I fuck him.

“Let’s skip the Epicentre,” Pavel suggests. “It’ll be a shit show over there.”

Mindy, who has had her head down while texting furiously throughout the conversation, looks up. “I’m meeting someone at Mortimer’s.”

“Nolan?” Kristen asks. I have no clue who Nolan is since I barely know Mindy and she hasn’t mentioned a Nolan in the few days we’ve worked together.

“Yes.” Mindy’s cheeks flush when she answers. Then her eyes immediately drop back to her phone.

Kristen puts her hand on my forearm and says, “That’s her hookup. He’s a drummer in a local metal band and a tattoo artist. I think he works at Common Market, too.”

“Oh, wow,” I say, impressed. I’ve always had a penchant for hardworking rock stars. “Get it, girl.”

“Do you want to head over there with me?” Mindy asks.

I hesitate before answering. I know she’s asking because she doesn’t want to ditch me after inviting me to the pub crawl with her, but I don’t really want to be the third wheel. At the same time, I just met the group we’re with and feel a little weird staying, since I don’t know them.

“Why don’t you hang out with us?” Kristen suggests quickly.

“I don’t want to impose,” I say, even though I totally do.

“We’re supposed to make random friends today. It’s a pub crawl rule.” Kristen says and winks at me.

“You’re welcome to come with me,” Mindy says, though I can tell she appreciates Kristen’s offer.

Less than a week ago, I packed two suitcases and moved to Charlotte for this assignment without ever having set foot in this city before. The whole reason was to meet new people and enjoy new places.

Plus, if the two couples in this group get cozy, I’d get to spend more time with Luke. Score.

“Go on,” I tell Mindy with a wave. “Have fun with Nolan.”

“Are you sure?”

I nod.

“Thank you so much, girl!” She leans in, hugs me and whispers, “Kristen is awesome. She won’t ditch you.”

I almost laugh, but bite my lip. I don’t blame her at all, actually. I could use a hookup. I glance at Luke quickly and wonder what his story is. Mindy’s departure might give me an opening to find out.

“Come on, Bree,” Kristen hooks her arm through mine and pulls me toward the street.

“We’ll show you a good time,” Auden adds, hooking her arm through my other one and leading me toward the road.

From the Epicentre we head towards “the alley,” as Kristen calls it. When we enter from Sixth Street, I’m expecting a typical alley—a dark, narrow walkway between buildings, maybe a few dumpsters, but that’s not what I find.

It’s as wide as a street. One side is the wall of a parking deck and the other is the back entrance to three different bars. Crawlers spill out the doors, crowding the entire alley.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, it looks more like what I’d expect on a Friday or Saturday night. We have a drink in each place before moving on. I remembered Mindy’s advice, making sure to have water between some of the drinks, but I’m pounding back more than I have since college, and by the time we leave the alley, I’m feeling loopy.

“Where to next?” I ask. My mind is clouded and walking straight is becoming a chore. I never should have tried to keep up with the group.

Luke must sense my lack of coordination, because he wraps an arm around me, guiding me forward. His T-shirt smells like a mix of laundry detergent and a warm, woodsy scent that makes me want to kiss him. I lean forward, brushing my lips across the sleeve of his T-shirt.

“The Roxbury,” Kristen answers, grabbing my hand and pulling me forward, away from Luke. “Time to dance off some of these drinks.”

I glance back to make sure he’s behind us. He is, talking with the guys. Maybe he senses me looking at him because he lifts his head. His eyebrows raise in a silent question, as if he’s asking me if I’m okay. I can’t believe something so small makes my heart flutter, but it does.

“Having fun now, Capper?” Pavel says, hitting Luke’s stomach with the back of his hand. Luke immediately responds by pushing his shoulder, which sends Pavel off balance. Quickly, I turn around to pay attention as we weave through bodies.

The Roxbury is a few blocks from the alley bars. It’s actually close to my apartment building, and although I’m having a great time, there’s a part of me that wants to slip away and take a nap. Of course I won’t do that. Not only would it be really rude, but I also don’t want to give the impression that I can’t hang.

Besides, a snap (the term I coined for sex then a nap) has a much better ring to it. Maybe I can corner Luke in this next bar and see if he’d be up for that? All these thoughts remind me of why I never really took to the party lifestyle. Once I have an idea in my head, I can’t let go. Alcohol and hormones are a concoction that lead straight to trouble.

There’s a line to get into the Roxbury, but Kristen leads us straight to the front. She walks right up to the bouncer, a tall, ripped African American man in a tight, black T-shirt and dark-blue jeans, sitting on a barstool.

“Hey, Kevin,” she greets him.

He stands up. “KK! Where you been?”

Kevin wraps his arms around her and hugs her, lifting her off the ground. When he sets her down he notices the rest of her entourage. “I see you got your girls with you, but where’s your boy?”

Kristen nods behind us. “He’s back there with Luke and Aleks. Can you let them in when they catch up, please?”

“Anything for you, mama.” Kevin winks at her and ushers the three of us through the door.

“Do you come here a lot?” I ask.

Kristen laughs. “Yes, but I’ve known Kevin for about a year. He barely works here anymore. Must’ve taken the shift for the crawl. It’s a big money-making day for the service industry.”

“I can imagine,” I say, more to myself than anyone else.

The bar we enter is a dream come true for kids raised in the eighties and nineties who were too young to get into clubs. Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” blasts through the air and suddenly I’m transported back to the kitchen of our old house, where mom and I used to dance around to whatever was on the radio.

A line of pendulum lights with hot-pink globes hang above the main bar, leading to an oversize replica of Rubik’s Cube suspended by a long rod, while black light fluorescent tubes are scattered across the rest of the ceiling. Vintage album jackets and concert posters cover the walls. Behind the bar, multiple sixty-inch flat-screens play the video of the song that’s blasting from the speakers.

Kristen swings her hips to the beat as she walks toward a doorway, away from the long bar across the room from us. I follow her around a corner to a dark, narrow staircase.

“We’re going to another dance floor, not kidnapping you,” Auden says from behind me.

“I wasn’t worried.” I tell her, excited to be having such a great time with new friends. I hope this will be the first of many outings—with Luke, too.

“It’s too crowded and bright upstairs. The basement is appropriately dingy for dancing,” Kristen calls over her shoulder. The music gets louder as we get closer to the bottom. It’s a different song than what’s playing on the main floor.

The stairs lead us to a dimly lit seating area with low ceilings. I’m immediately drawn to the hand chairs—which must’ve been taken straight from an eighties-movie prop sale. They glow, neon pink and green under the black-light bulbs above. The palm of the hand is the seat, while the fingers curl upward to make the back. I need to get a selfie in one of those chairs before we leave. Hell, I may ask someone here if I can buy one of those chairs. It’d look amazing next to Dad’s vintage Pac-Man arcade table in his game room.

“We should take her to Olde Mecklenburg,” Kristen suggests once we’ve all cleared the last step.

“Olde Mecklenburg? Is that another city?” I yell over the Journey song. Which is hard to do. Steve Perry can belt it.

“No,” Kristen answers. “It’s a local brewery. German beer-hall style. Everyone sits around long picnic tables eating German food and drinking beer. They have a huge outdoor area. It’s a fun place. Super casual.”

A local brewery with a German beer-hall vibe is completely my style. I whip out my phone and type a quick note to myself. Usually, I carry a notebook with me, but I switched to a small purse for today. I can’t explain why, but I love the act of writing things down on paper rather than using technology. My phone is all I have with me, though, and I don’t want to forget the places I’ve been to or heard about today.

“Sounds great.” I pause. “But I work tomorrow.”

“And I’m pretty sure the guys play the Flyers tomorrow,” Auden says.

“You would know, hockey girl,” Kristen teases her.

We shimmy our way from the seating area onto the packed dance floor. “Don’t Stop Believin’” blares, and even though I don’t really like the song, it’s a welcome change from the same ten top-forty songs we’ve heard at all the other bars we’ve stopped into today. I can only stomach so many pop hits.

When I spot a wicked Beastie Boys concert poster from 1986 hanging on the wall behind Kristen, I reach for my phone again. I have to tell my friends back home about this place, but I’ve already forgotten the name. Above the bar, a sign advertising specialty drinks with names like “Purple Rain” and “Long Island Mr. T” makes me smile, but doesn’t tell me where I am.

“What is this place called again,” I yell to whoever can hear me.

Auden leans close to my ear and yells, “The Roxbury.”

The small crowd on the dance floor screams in unison when the opening notes of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” fills the air. Kristen and Auden each wrap an arm around my waist, and we sway together as we sing, making me feel like I’ve been one of their friends forever. We belt out the chorus at the top of our lungs with so much flair Jon Bon Jovi might ask us to be backup singers.

After bouncing and swaying to a few more eighties hair-band hits, my head is somewhat clearer than it was before we got to this bar. I can’t say dancing helps metabolize the alcohol faster from a scientific standpoint, but it always seems like it does. I’m not about to hop in a car and drive, but I definitely feel less buzzed.

 “Come dance!” Auden yells, beckoning someone toward us. I follow her gaze to the hand chairs where Luke, Aleksandr, and Pavel look exceptionally comfortable.

Aleksandr smiles at his wife, but shakes his head no.

Now is my chance. To get close to Luke and sit in a hand.

I tap both Auden and Kristen on their shoulders and motion to where the guys are sitting, letting them know I’m going over there, too. “I’m going to take a break.”

Without giving him warning, I climb into Luke’s lap and lean back against his chest. It’s a bold move, but I’m fairly confident he won’t shut me down, since we’ve been communicating in flirty smiles and touches all day.

“Well, hello,” he greets me.

“Hey,” I respond, unable to contain a silly grin.

The Roxbury is definitely the most fun bar I’ve been to in Charlotte so far. It’s not an every-night kind of place, but it’s certainly my pick for the best music and dancing. Every once in a while, I need to let loose and shake it out.

Being snuggled up to Luke is an odd juxtaposition. It gives me a sense of peace, yet fires me up at the same time. I can’t concentrate on the blaring music or anything else when I’m this close to him. The only thing I can think of is straddling him in this crazy, neon-pink hand chair, grabbing his long, thick hair, and covering his lips with mine. Instead, I lean my head back, so it’s resting on his shoulder.

“Are you drunk?” he asks, squinting at me as though he can read the level of intoxication on my face.

“No.”

Luke’s fingers dance along my waist, attempting to tickle me into another answer. But all I can think about is how much I want his fingers to dip lower.

“Fine,” I admit. “I may be a bit tipsy.”

“A bit,” Luke says and laughs. His chest shakes under me.

Before I forget, I dig into my purse and retrieve my phone. “Smile,” I tell him, holding it at arm’s length to take a selfie. I shake my hair out and place my cheek close to his.

The photo is completely on point. Luke and I look like we’ve known each other for years, rather than hours. And you can see a bit of the amazing chair. If I don’t go home with Luke tonight, it won’t be for lack of trying, since I’ve literally thrown myself into his lap. Hopefully, my hardcore flirting doesn’t jinx me into waking up with nothing more than a massive hangover. It’s silly, because I’ve never really pursued a guy before. My relationships have always happened organically over time. Then again, time is not something I have a lot of in Charlotte.

“Text that to me, would you?” Luke asks.

“Sure.” I press the screen. “What’s your number?”

Luke recites his digits and I send him the picture.

Luke’s lips touch my ear and a shiver rushes through me even before he speaks. “You know you’re fucking beautiful, right?”

A smile tugs at my lips as he slips one hand under my shirt and curves the other around my upper thigh. Internally, I curse myself for wearing jeans. If I were in a skirt, he could be hitting a really sweet spot right now. The thought of Luke fingering me in a public place turns me on.

Now that I’ve confirmed there’s a mutual attraction, I turn my head and catch his eyes. “If you think I’m beautiful now, you should see me naked in your bed.”

“When?” he asks, seemingly unfazed by my bold comment. But I’m sitting on his lap, so it’s easy to tell it effects him.

“Tonight.”

“What the fuck are we doing here, then?” Luke tightens his arms around my waist, hugging me to his chest. He nuzzles his face into my neck and kisses me softly. My eyelids flutter, enjoying his warm lips against my skin. His slides his hand from my thigh and slips it under my shirt. Both thumbs skim the bare skin just below my bra.

“Well, well! Look at you two getting cozy,” Kristen teases us. When I look up, she’s already holding her phone up capturing the moment with a flash.

“I can’t wait to get you to my condo so I can push your face down into my pillow, lift your hips and fuck you from behind,” Luke whispers in my ear. “Would you like that?”

“Totally,” I say, embracing the eighties vibe of the club as my heartbeat races in anticipation.

“I need to eat,” Pavel announces.

“Must feed the Russian bear,” Kristen says in a robotic accent that sounds more French than Slavic.

“Bears,” Aleksandr echoes. “I’m starving, too.”

I expect Luke to pat me or prod me to get up and follow his friends up the stairs, but he doesn’t. He squeezes me closer and kisses my temple.

“I am not hungry for food right now. Wanna skip dinner and head straight to my place?” he asks.

A tingle courses through my body and suddenly his touch is more intense than before. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m fucking Luke Daniels tonight. But I really like hanging out with everyone else, too, so I don’t want to walk away from my new friends.

“Ditching would be rude.”

“Tease,” he says with a sly smile.

“Anticipation, baby.” I jump to my feet, then offer Luke my hand to help him up. I know he doesn't need it; I just like touching him. My stomach flutters every time we make contact. I can’t even explain how excited he gets me.

We trudge single file back up the dark staircase. Thankfully, it brings us out near an exit, so we filter straight out onto the sidewalk.

“Basil?” Kristen asks as we walk toward the corner of Fifth and Church streets. “Is everyone cool with that?”

“Do you like Thai food?” Luke asks.

“Love it,” I answer honestly, though I’d go along with whatever place the group picked.

Pavel holds the door to Basil open, ushering Kristen in first before the rest of us follow.

“It smells amazing in here,” I say. The heavy scent of garlic permeates the air, so thick I can almost taste it. The promising possibility that there’s good Thai food in Charlotte makes me excited to check out the menu.

Kristen cups her hand over her mouth and says, “I used to like the smell.” Her skin has a green undertone. She’s standing still, fingers covering a slight grimace and I think she’s going to be sick.

I place my hand on her arm. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I . . .” Suddenly she lurches forward and runs toward the back of the restaurant, where I assume the bathrooms are. Auden follows on her heels.

I’m about to go back with her to see if I can help when Aleksandr punches Pavel’s shoulder and says, “Nice work.”

“She said she was craving this place. Do I tell her no, and get yelled at?” Pavel asks, throwing his hands up.

The word craving strikes me as odd. I glance at Luke who has a confused expression on his face. We both look at Pavel.

“She’s pregnant,” he confirms without being asked.

“What?” Luke exclaims. His eyes light up, transforming his confusion into happiness. “Really?”

Pavel nods and breaks into a huge smile.

“Congratulations, man!” Luke leans over, grabs Pavel’s hand and pulls him in for one of those bro shoulder-bump things, the way guys hug these days.

“Congratulations,” I tell him, though I’m thinking of all we’ve had to drink today and how Kristen kept up, doing shots and all. It’s a bit unsettling.

“Thanks,” Pavel says. “We are happy. Really happy.”

“Is everything okay?” Luke asks. His voice has taken on a more serious tone.

“So far, so good. She’s really early, like ten weeks or something. But her doctors are watching her closely.”

“I have cystic fibrosis,” Kristen explains. Her voice startles me and I turn around. “Everything’s good, just extra precautions.”

“Do you want to go somewhere else, KK?” Auden asks.

“I think we should head home. I thought the smell thing was getting better, but it looks like I still have an aversion to garlic.”

“At least you didn’t puke,” Auden offers.

“How were you doing shots?” I blurt out. There’s zero tact in my delivery, but I can’t help myself. My judgement may have just cost me my new friends, but I’m completely okay with that.

“My shots were water. Why do you think I made Pasha do all the ordering?” Kristen winks. Then she adds, “But thanks for calling me out. I appreciate a person who does that.”

A noticeable breath of relief escapes me. “Here.” I dig a piece of candy from my purse and hand it to Kristen.

“What’s this for?” she asks inspecting it.

“It’s lemon flavored. It should help the nausea,” I tell her.

“Thanks.” Kristen unwraps the candy and pops it into her mouth.

“Congratulations,” I tell her. “Let me know if I can help or answer any questions.”

“Umm, okay,” she says slowly.

“I’m a pediatric nurse,” I explain quickly. I got so comfortable with the group that I completely forgot they don’t know anything about me. “I’m not some creepy lady that offers people candy and says I can answer questions about pregnancy.”

Kristen laughs. “I wasn’t sure where you were coming from with the questions thing, but I didn’t think you were creepy.”

“I did.” Pavel raises his hand.

“Of course you did.” Kristen rolls her eyes and pushes him toward the door. “Let’s go. I can’t smell this place any longer.”

Once we’re back outside, Kristen takes a deep breath and sighs. “Sorry to do this, guys, but we’re going to bail. I’ve lost my appetite and I’m super tired.” She pulls Auden into her arms first, then proceeds to do the same to everyone.

“It was great meeting you both,” I say when Kristen stops in front of me.

“You, too.” She wraps her arms around me. “I’m sure we’ll see you again.”

When Kristen and Pavel are out of earshot, Luke asks. “You guys still want dinner?”

“I need food ASAP,” Aleksandr says. “We’re heading for the street meat.”

“Amen,” Auden agrees.

“You hungry?” Luke asks me.

“Not for food,” I whisper. I’m actually starving, but eating can wait. I already have a mini beer gut. I don’t need to add a food baby before getting naked with Luke.

He takes my hand in his and turns back to his friends, “This is where we leave you guys. I’m gonna walk Bree home.”

Auden and Aleksandr share a quick glance and smile because they know what’s up.

After the four of us exchange goodbye hugs, and Auden and Aleksandr walk off, Luke shakes his hand from my grasp and places it on my ass, guiding me the opposite way.

Luke stops in front of the entrance to the Avenue condos, which is less than half a block from Basil. “You’re coming up, right?”

“Hell, yes.”

I’m practically bouncing on my toes while he places a gray key fob in front of a pad mounted on the wall of the building. The lock clicks and he opens one of the glass doors, holding it for me as I slide through.

“Hey, Truman!” Luke taps his knuckles on the concierge desk as we walk by, which causes a kid in a dark-blue suit sitting behind it to look up. He smiles immediately.

“Hey, Luke! How was the crawl?”

“Amazing,” he responds, but doesn’t stop to exchange any more pleasantries. Instead, he laces his fingers through mine and pulls me toward more glass doors that lead to a bright foyer with elevators.

“Do all of the buildings around here look the same?” I ask, scanning the tranquil stone waterfall wall we pass. The Avenue has the same stark, modern decor as my apartment building. It’s definitely a clean style, but there isn’t much character, which is what I expected from a charming southern city like Charlotte.

“The ones that were built around the same time do. Or maybe it’s the same builder? I’m not sure.” Luke chuckles.

News headlines scroll on a TV screen built into the wall next to the elevator. No awkward conversations with neighbors waiting in this place. You can watch CNN instead of interact.

Once inside, Luke scans his key fob again and presses the button for the thirty-first floor.

“Wow. It’s maximum security in here.”

“There are a lot of safety features,” Luke agrees. “It’s a far cry from the place I rented when I played in Detroit. My apartment got broken into three times in one season.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope,” he says. “It got so bad I had to move all my stuff into my coach’s garage and sleep on Varenkov’s couch until I found a new place.”

“That’s crazy.”

I can’t say I’ve ever lived in a neighborhood like that, but I did work in a few hospitals that were located in rough parts of town.

The elevator doors open and we’re greeted by another built-in TV, this time on the wall across from the doors. I’ve only been in this building a few minutes and I’m already suffering from technology overload.

“It’s my own fault,” Luke continues, leading me down the hallway to our left. “I should have moved in with one of my teammates, but I was stubborn.” He stops at a door with 3110 on a white plaque next to it. “I’d never lived by myself before, so I was more excited about being able to afford a place then I was about figuring out what area would be safest. I wasn’t bothered by the neighborhood so much as I’d forgotten how quickly the wrong kind of people would figure out how much I traveled.”

“I’ve always lived in pretty safe neighborhoods,” I say as Luke unlocks the door with a regular old key. “With gates and stuff.”

I make it a point to add the “and stuff” so it sounds like the gate might be a feature of the neighborhood, rather than something specific to our massive sprawling house in suburban Los Angeles with entry gates at the bottom of our driveway. It probably still sounds pretentious.

Yeah, I grew up in that kind of place. Like I said, being the child of people who started a health-food empire has its advantages—and disadvantages.

“Gates and stuff?” he asks, extending his arm and allowing me to scoot past him into his place. “Welcome.”

The condo is sleek and modern with light-gray walls, concrete ceilings, and stainless-steel appliances. Straight across from the entrance are amazing windows that span the entire back wall. I have the same type in my apartment and I love them. Seeing Charlotte lit up at night reminds me that I’m in a real city, even if it is so much smaller than what I’m used to.

“This is gorgeous.” I take another step in, sliding a hand along the gorgeous black granite of the raised countertop to my left that acts as a divider between the walkway into the condo and the kitchen area. My first thought is that he’s completely OCD because every surface is clean. No stacks of mail on the counter or dirty laundry strewn about. No fingerprints on the fridge. Maybe he has a maid service.

“Thanks.” Luke stands a little taller and the skin wrinkles around his eyes. That’s when I realize there’s no cleaning lady. He takes great pride in his home. “I bought it from Gribov about a year ago. He and Kristen wanted a house. I wanted a condo. It worked out perfectly.”

He hangs his keys on a hook above a light switch in the kitchen. “Make yourself at home. You want a water?” he asks, opening the fridge and pulling out a bottle.

“Please.”

A cherry-red couch sticks out in the midst of the neutral grays. I spread my arms and let myself fall backwards onto it. Closing my eyes, I rub my cheek against a pillow and sink into the plush, suede-like cushions, letting them envelop me. It feels great to be off my feet after walking, dancing, and drinking all day. But when my head spins, I realize just how drunk I am. “This is the most comfortable piece of furniture I have ever touched.”

“Everyone loves Big Red. I’m gonna write a book about it someday. Seduced by a Couch.”

Opening my eyes to look at him while I answer isn't even an option. Big Red got me, hook, line, and sinker, within two seconds. “Count me in for a chapter,” I murmur.

“Oh, don’t worry, sweetheart. We’re writing that one tonight,” Luke says with complete confidence. His deep, sexy voice makes me open my eyes, though my lids feel heavy. Big Red is comfy, but getting on top of Luke sounds more appealing.

He stops to pry his shoes off with his toes before lowering himself onto the couch and curling up beside me. I didn’t think there was any way this couch could be any more comfortable, but I’m wrong. When Luke slides one arm under me and the other around my waist, I feel safe and warm.

He puts his hand on my hip, rests his forehead on mine and kisses me softly. All I can think of is how can I get closer to Luke. My hand moves to the back of his head and I curl my fingers in his long locks. His nose brushes mine when he tilts his head to kiss me again. This time I don’t let it end quickly. I hold his face to mine with my grip on his hair. His chest rises and falls faster than before, and I know he’s getting as ramped up as I am.

He moves his hand from my waist to the space between us and reaches for the button on my jeans. We’re mashed up against each other and he can’t get his hand where it needs to be.

My back is pressed against the couch, and I don’t have anywhere to go, so Luke tilts his hips, creating a small gap between our bodies. It’s just enough for him to pop open the button and crank my zipper down one-handed. I’m pretty impressed with his skills, especially after all the drinks we’ve had today.

“We shouldn’t do this,” he whispers, stopping his pursuit. “You seem really drunk.”

“What?” I ask. “I’m fine.”

“Bree, you can barely keep your eyes open.”

“Please,” I plead against his ear. I grab his hand and push it into my jeans, sending his fingers closer to finding out how much I want him to continue. I bite my lower lip and hold it with my teeth. My heart throbs and my breath gets heavier as Luke slides his fingers lower into my jeans.

“Luke,” I moan when he finally reaches the sweet, wet spot between my legs.

“Fuck, Bree.” The words come out in a hiss of air. He pulls his hand out, but I arch toward him. “You’re drunk. I’m drunk.”

“I’m not that drunk,” I say. It’s a half-truth. I’m inebriated enough to let loose, but not so much that I don’t know what I’m doing. I know that I’m about to have Luke Daniels inside me.

 

Chapter 3

 

Luke

I want to fuck this girl so badly I can almost taste her on my tongue already. But her eyes keep rolling into the back of her head, and I know she’s way too drunk for me to keep going.

Even if she says yes, I need to stop. I’m smart enough to know that you don’t have sex with a drunk girl. No matter what. I take a deep breath and try to escape to a place of Zen, hoping my dick will follow suit and calm the fuck down.

That’s when Bree reaches between our bodies and tugs at my jeans, popping the button open. She thrusts her hand into the front of my pants and takes hold of my cock. I guess I made it pretty easy for her, since I’m always commando.

“Bree.” Her name catches in my throat because her grip feels so fucking good. I try to back up, but she doesn’t relent, sliding her hand over my dick. I swallow hard and move my hand to her hip. I need to regain control of the situation before we do something she regrets in the morning, but I can’t remember the last time I wanted to stop a situation like this. Probably never.

“We’re gonna have to hold off on this part.” Our faces are so close our breath mingles. The smell of beer and vanilla wafts from her. Reminding me again that we’ve both had too much to drink.

“Really?” Her question comes out as a pant. She thinks she’s being tricky when she takes hold of my hand on her hip and slides it back between her fucking legs. I can’t help it when my dick swells in her grasp. Her lips twist into a sexy smile of satisfaction and I want to toss being a good guy out the window and throw her legs over my shoulders.

“This”—I remove my hand again and hold it up—“is staying right here.” I place it back on her hip and give it a squeeze. Her chest heaves with a melodramatic sigh, pushing the tight T-shirt covering her tits toward my face. “Don’t be a drama queen,” I tease her.

“I want you inside me, Luke. I’m not just saying that because I’m drunk. I wanted to fuck you the second I saw you at Valhalla.” Bree squeezes my cock.

“Jesus,” I hiss, squeezing my eyes shut. Her grip feels amazing, though I’ve pressed my pelvis against her so that she doesn’t have room to jerk me off. “I want to be with you, too, Bree. So fucking badly. You don’t know how much it hurts, like, physically hurts, right now.”

“I bet I do,” she mumbles.

I smile and move my hand to her head, sliding it through her hair. “But we’ve both had too much to drink. If we try to do this now, you’re never gonna be able to come and it’ll give me a complex even though I know it’s because of the alcohol, not my magic stick.”

“Did you really just call your penis a magic stick?” She asks through a laugh.

I put my finger on her lips. “You are smart and fun and fucking gorgeous. But I’m not the guy that fucks drunk girls. The last thing I want is for you to wake up with regrets.”

She could write a fucking contract in lipstick on my bathroom mirror right now and I still wouldn’t fuck her. Not just because I’m not that kind of guy, but also because the last thing I need is a lawsuit. I’m not saying she’s a bad person, but I don’t know this girl. There are a ton of slimy dudes out there, but there are also some girls that just want to get something from a professional athlete. I honestly don’t get that vibe from Bree, but I have to be smart—for both of us.

She leans in and presses a hand against my chest, the one that doesn’t have a warm firm grip on my dick. “I’m not that drunk,” she sings softly. Her voice is a raspy whisper, and sexy as fuck.

“That’s what every drunk person says before they make a bad decision.”

“If you think my hand feels good, just imagine what my warm, wet mouth feels like.”

Her face hovers over mine, so close that our lips touch when she speaks. She licks my bottom lip before taking it in her mouth. When she tries to move her hand, I press against her harder, restricting her.

“I don’t think sucking your cock would be a bad decision, do you?” she asks.

Fucking hell! Her dirty mouth is such a turn-on I want to ball up my self-control and chuck that shit off the balcony. Bree takes her hand off my dick and grabs my hip to keep me from falling off the couch.

“You’re fucking killing me.” I say, readjusting myself and snuggling into her. Bree laughs and relaxes in my arms. “We can fuck in the morning, when you’ll remember it.” I trace the curve of her body from the side of her rib cage and over her hip.

“So you’re saying it’ll be memorable?” Her voice is soft, drifting into a sexy, sleepy whisper.

“Fireworks and dancing pandas, baby,” I tease, though I have no clue where the dancing pandas came from. I must’ve had more to drink than I realize. “Let’s move this to my bed.”

 Instead of answering, she burrows into my chest. I inhale the soothing botanical scent of her hair and feel like I’m in at a high-end spa. Within minutes, Bree’s breathing slows to an even, gentle rhythm and I know she’s passed out.

Though I love the feel of her warm body flush against me, I can’t sleep on Big Red all night. We’d be on the floor with one roll. I gently maneuver Bree off me so I can slide off the couch. Then I lift her up and carry her to my bed.

I’m too tired to think about changing her into makeshift pajamas from my wardrobe. I don’t do anything except shimmy her jeans to the floor. But I feel like a creep leaving her pant-less. What if she wakes up wondering what the fuck she’s doing here and why her clothes are off?

I cross the room and open the top drawer of my dresser, grabbing a pair of green plaid boxers I’ve never worn. Taking great care not to wake her, I slide them up her legs and let them rest loosely on her hips. The sexy sight of Bree’s sleek, tan legs and lacy, pink panties makes my dick swell. I can honestly say that this is the first time I’ve ever gotten excited putting clothes on a woman.

I hightail it to the bathroom to grab a quick, cold shower and relieve my suffering cock. Once I’m finished, I set out an extra toothbrush I found stashed in my drawer. It’s brand-new in the package. I keep it that way in case Bree’s a germophobe or something.

What the fuck do I care if she’s a germophobe? It’s only one night. Odd. I’ve never thought of this shit before with other girls. Then again, it’s been a while since I’ve had anyone over. Been in a bit of a funk since my surgery, as if the loss of my career affected not only my head, but also my libido. But Bree had my dick thicker than Thor’s hammer since the second I saw her at Valhalla.

I crawl into bed and curl against Bree’s side, spooning into her curves. The numbers on the clock glow behind her head, informing me that it’s 10:07 p.m., which is the latest I’ve ever lasted on the night of this pub crawl. It’s one of those crazy, all-day events that starts early and usually ends early. Good thing the boys have a game tomorrow or we’d probably still be tipping back shots of vodka. Those Russians toast to every motherfucking thing.

Her hair falls across my pillow in soft waves, as if she lets it air-dry after washing it. It’s a welcome change from the crunch or grease of women’s hair products. Before I close my eyes, I study Bree’s face, scanning every inch of her smooth, bare skin before settling my gaze on her pink lips, which are slightly parted. For a slight second I imagine her mouth around my dick, as she’d suggested earlier.

I shake my head and smooth a hand through my hair. Should’ve taken her up on that offer before she passed out.

Settling in next to Bree fills me with an odd sense of peace. It’s been too long since I’ve curled up with a woman in my own bed. I don’t invite many girls to my condo. It’s my sanctuary, the only place I can completely relax and forget the problems of life.

I listen to every breath she takes, pretending the stress in my own life washes away every time she exhales. When I finally drift off, it’s with a sense of calm I haven’t felt in years.

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BREAKAWAY

Pilots Hockey #5

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Also by Sophia Henry:  

 
 
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Award-Winning Author, Sophia Henry, is a proud Detroit native who fell in love with reading, writing, and hockey all before she became a teenager. She did not, however, fall in love with snow. So after graduating with a BS in English from Central Michigan University, she moved to the warmth of North Carolina for the remainder of her winters.

She spends her days writing books featuring hot, hockey-playing heroes. When she’s not writing, she’s chasing her two high-energy sons, watching her beloved Detroit Red Wings, and rocking out at concerts.

 

 

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