Authors: Lisa B. Kamps
The Baltimore Banners Book 5
Lisa B. Kamps
Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth Belbot Kamps
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the express written permission of the author.
The Baltimore Banners© is a fictional professional ice hockey team, created for the sole use of the author and covered under protection of copyright.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation to anyone bearing the same name or names, living or dead. This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any individual, place, business, or event is purely coincidental.
Artwork by Jay Aheer of Simply Defined Art
Table of Contents
My Philly partners-in-crime…miss you guys!
Emeralds and Gold: A Treasury of Irish Short Stories
Silhouette Special Edition
(The Baltimore Banners, Book 1)
(The Baltimore Banners, Book 2)
(The Baltimore Banners, Book 3)
(The Baltimore Banners, Book 4)
A Baltimore Banners Intermission Novella
(SEDUCED BY THE GAME Cancer Charity Collection)
Available January 15, 2016
Delay of Game
(The Baltimore Banners, Book 6)
Available February 2016
"Did you see me make that goal?"
"I sure did!" Emily Poole held up the camera and tried to smile at her niece, doing her best to ignore the tingling at the base of her spine. "I even got some nice shots so we can show your mom."
"Cool. Do you think you can put them on the website too? That way I can show Jimmy that girls can too play hockey."
"Absolutely." Emily followed Taylor to one of the benches around the rink and helped her niece with the long process of taking off the heavy gear. She was only seven, but already proving herself to be a handful. Taylor had no inhibitions when it came to proving herself and absolutely no hesitation in putting boys in her class in their place. Emily didn't envy her sister when Taylor reached her pre-teen years and beyond.
She pulled Taylor's jersey over her head, wrinkling her nose at the smell, a combination of sweat and putrid water that seemed to permeate everything around her. There was no other way to describe it, and no other smell even came close to it. Her shoulder pads followed, tossed to the ground near the large gear bag.
Emily handed a sweatshirt to her niece, then started the frustrating task of unlacing her skates. Taylor kept chatting, her clear voice almost musical in its innocence as she recounted every play that had happened in the last two hours. Emily only vaguely listened, stifling a yawn as she fought with the laces. One down, one to go.
The tingling at the base of her spine grew a little stronger, like someone was holding an electric charger against her skin. Emily didn't turn around to see what was causing it. She didn't want to see.
Please, don't let him see me. Don't let him recognize me.
Please, God, don't let him come over here.
She repeated the words, the phrases a mindless chant as she fought the knot in the laces. Taylor wiggled on the bench, her excitement growing as her clear voice drifted around them, partially lost in the noises echoing around the busy rink. Emily dug at the damp knot with her short nail, biting back a curse when the nail tore. She jerked her hand away and brought it to her mouth, sucking at the tip of her index finger to ease the pain.
"That was a nice shot, squirt."
Emily stiffened at the voice, hoping she was hearing things, that her sleep-deprived imagination was torturing her with her worst nightmare. She squeezed her eyes closed, felt her stomach twist and knot. The bitter coffee and stale donut that had been her breakfast threatened to come back up and she swallowed, hard.
No, to her breakfast making a reappearance.
No, to the man standing next to her, so close she could feel the warmth of his body through her thick sweatshirt.
No. A thousand times no to the memories, bitter and sad, that brought tears to her eyes.
"Oh my God. Wow. You're JP Larocque! No way. This is so cool!"
Emily stumbled, felt a strong hand grip her elbow to steady her. Heat exploded on her skin at the touch and she pulled away, something like a whimper escaping her lips.
She opened her eyes, afraid that Taylor had noticed. But her niece was blissfully unaware, her soft brown eyes wide in her face as she tried to jump from the bench. Her attention was completely focused on the man in front of her.
The man standing so close to Emily that if she turned her head, his chin would bump her forehead.
Emily refused to turn her head. Refused to move. She couldn't move, she was frozen in place.
A warm chuckle briefly interrupted Taylor's excited rambling. Emily closed her eyes once more and clenched her jaw. This couldn't be happening. This was her worst nightmare come to life and she could only hope that she'd jerk awake, that she'd be safe in her own bed when she opened her eyes.
"Here, let me give you a hand with that."
Emily wasn't having a nightmare. He was actually here. Standing next to her.
Taylor's foot slipped from her hand as her niece slid a few inches along the bench. A bright smile lit her face, revealing the gap where her front tooth had been a few days earlier. Completely ignoring her aunt, Taylor lifted her leg and placed her skated foot in JP's large hands.
Emily watched as he knelt in front of her niece, one small foot held so carefully in his large hand. Long fingers reached for the knot, the blunt tips of his square nails carefully working the damp laces. Taylor kept talking, her words lost to Emily, her small body bouncing with excitement as she tilted her head closer to the hockey player. A thick strand of Taylor's brown hair had come loose from her ponytail and brushed across the back of JP's hand. He jerked back, the movement so quick Emily would have missed it if she hadn't been looking.
Pain of loss sliced through her, sharp and cold. She blinked, pushing back the memories, pushing away the regret. Words formed on her tongue, threatening to spill out, and she bit them off. There was nothing she could say, nothing she should say.
Everything around her seemed to slow, the chaotic echo of noise turning to a muted buzz in her ears as she watched her niece. As she watched the hockey player bent so close in front of Taylor, gently unknotting the laces of her skate.
This shouldn't be happening. God, this
Jean-Pierre Larocque. She had thought to never see him again, but here he was. Larger than she remembered, bigger somehow. His head was bent forward but she could see the small smile on his face, just as clearly as she could see it in memory. A crooked smile, one filled with a mischief that reflected in his warm eyes.
Emily couldn't see his eyes now, not with his face turned in profile. But she could still see the edge of his smile and that was enough to shake her and put a crack in the protective wall she had built five years ago.
She needed to leave. She needed to gather Taylor's things and drag herself and her niece out of there while she could. But it was too late, she knew that as surely as she knew her name.
Activity exploded around her in real-time, like the last few seconds of slow-motion had never happened. Emily swallowed and realized she was staring down at the two dark heads, bent so close together. Her eyes burned and she told herself it was because she had been staring so hard. That had to be it, there was no other reason her eyes would be burning.
Yeah. And life always had a happy ending.
"I think that should do it, eh?" JP's warm voice reached her through the thinning haze surrounding her. He gently pulled the skate from Taylor's foot then stood up, pausing to ruffle her niece's long hair. Emily looked away, unable to bear the sight, and caught the eye of Taylor's coach waving in her direction.
"Taylor, I think Coach Dan wants you."
Her niece paused in the act of ripping the tape from her socks and looked up at JP with her toothless grin. "Are you going to stay here, Mr. Larocque?"
"Sure, I have a few minutes."
"Cool. I'll be back." Taylor waved then hurried over to her coach, her ponytail swinging behind her with each enthusiastic step.
Emily watched her niece, willing the man next to her to leave. There was no reason for him to be here, no reason for him to stay. A long minute went by, a minute of awareness and discomfort, time for her to realize JP wasn't making an effort to leave, that he was standing just as still as she was.
Emily closed her eyes and took a deep breath then slowly turned. She didn't want to do this, didn't want to acknowledge him, didn't even want to see him.
But there he was, standing too close to her. His brown hair was a little darker than she remembered but still thick, still a little too shaggy and in need of a trim, scraping past the collar of his worn gray sweatshirt. His face seemed a little harsher, the angles and planes a little sharper, a little edgier, accenting the fullness of his soft lips. A bump marred the straight line of his nose, a break that had healed without being set. A faint scar, barely an inch long, cut across the side of his left cheek, just below his cheekbone. Stubble shadowed his jaw and chin, giving him a devilish, dangerous look.
Gone was the young man she remembered. In his place stood the man in front of her. Older, his lean body more filled out, broader. But no doubt still hard, probably harder than she remembered.
How old was he now? Her memory completed the calculations in a split-second. Twenty-nine. No, she corrected. Almost thirty. It was October now, his birthday was coming up, in January.
She didn't want to question why she remembered that, not when she shouldn't remember anything about him. Not when she swore to herself that she'd forget.
She flinched at the sound of her name wrapped in the warmth of his slight accent, something almost like regret accenting the syllables. Damn him. Damn his ability to make her forget, to make her want. But not now, not this time.
She brushed by him and reached for Taylor's gear bag, yanking out her niece's sweatpants and placing them on the bench. She shoved the skates and shoulder pads into the bag then reached for the jersey. A strong hand closed over hers, warm and calloused.
"Emily." JP threaded his fingers through hers and tugged, just enough so she turned and faced him. She pulled her hand from his and folded her arms in front of her, refusing to look at him. "You look—"
"Don't say it." She unfolded her arms and held up one hand to stop him, her gaze quickly sliding to his. It was the wrong thing to do because every thought fled her mind when she looked into his eyes.
His gaze held hers, mesmerizing and intense. His eyes were brown, a color that should have been so common as to be unremarkable. But they weren't. They were an unusual brown, the color of strong tea mixed with whiskey, with tiny flecks of gold in the iris, as inviting as a hot toddy on a cold winter day.
Her breath hitched in her chest and a small whimper escaped her. Damn JP and damn his eyes. Damn him for being here, for giving life to feelings and memories she thought long ago buried. Emily swallowed and forced herself to look away. She grabbed Taylor's jersey off the bench, holding it in front of her like some imaginary shield.
"The girl. Is she—" JP swallowed and looked over his shoulder, then back at Emily. Shadows filled his eyes, quickly replaced by a harsh glint that acted like a slap to her face. She clenched her fists in the jersey and took a hasty step toward the man who suddenly seemed to tower above her.
"Taylor is my niece. She's seven years old." Each word was clipped, her cold voice in direct opposition with the hot anger running through her. JP stepped back and ran a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead. He looked over his shoulder once more. Regret lined his face when he turned back to her.
Emily loosened the grip on the jersey, then started folding it with short, jerky movements. She had nothing to say to his apology, no response or quip that came to mind. She squeezed her eyes closed for a brief second, then suddenly balled the material in her hand and shoved it into the gear bag.
"Hey Aunt Em, look! I got the game puck!" Taylor bounced over to them, her excitement cutting through the tension as she waved the hard slab of vulcanized rubber between them. Emily forced a smile to her face and leaned down to inspect the puck with the reverence due the child's excitement.
"Very nice. We'll have to show your mom when she gets home."
Taylor nodded and carefully sat the puck on the bench as she proceeded to unwrap the tape from her socks and remove her pads and shorts. Emily shoved the gear into the bag as Taylor pulled the sweatpants on over her gym shorts then grabbed the puck. She held it carefully in both hands, her excitement still obvious. Then she suddenly turned to JP. "Hey Mr. Larocque, would you sign it for me?"
Emily waited for JP to correct the pronunciation of his name, her eyes darting to his for a quick second. Something flashed in the depths of his eyes but he looked away before Emily could decipher the meaning. He leaned down, giving Taylor a crooked smile as she handed him the puck.
"I would be honored,
." Taylor giggled, then dug through the outer pocket of the gear bag. She pulled out several Sharpies, then handed the silver one to JP, who took it with a formal flourish.
His head bent over the puck as he carefully scrawled his name. He blew on the ink, then handed puck and pen back to Taylor. "Thanks Mr. Larocque."
"Since we're friends now, you should call me Jean-Pierre. Or JP."
Taylor frowned, her small mouth struggling with the pronunciation and coming up with something that sounded more like "John Peer". JP laughed and reached out to ruffle her hair.
"Your aunt can teach you how to say it correctly. Until then, maybe we should stick to JP, eh?" JP glanced over at her then looked back down at Taylor, obviously choosing to ignore the cold warning on Emily's face. "Have you ever been to one of our practices, Taylor?"
Emily gritted her teeth, shaking her head at JP, who studiously ignored her.
"You mean The Banners? No, not yet. But that would be completely cool."
"Then you should come one day, and I can give you some pointers."
"Wow. Really?" Taylor turned to look up at her, excitement dancing in her eyes. "Can we, Aunt Em?"