By: Catherine Gayle

But this was my opportunity to do something about it. Jim had come to me when Hunter’s backup from last season, Sean “Bobby” Roberts, had suffered a torn ligament in the last game of the preseason. He’d told me it could be my comeback. God only knew why he still believed in me, especially when no one else did. I wasn’t sure I believed in myself much, these days, but I was trying to earn back what trust I could.

Hunter wasn’t going to just step aside and give me the net, though. Not a chance in hell that would happen. This season was going to be all I could handle and then some. But I was determined. I was clean. I was focused. I was as ready as I could be. And Jessica’s question, her curiosity about my sobriety, was to be expected, I supposed. She was far from the last person I would have to convince.

She reached over and put one hand on top of mine, patting it like she would a child’s. “Good to hear, Nicky. I’m proud of you.”

Proud of me. Her response seemed rote, the sort she would give any of the dozens of addicts who came in and out of her office every day. It was the type of reaction that made me believe I might never prove to her that I could keep it up, that she might never think my issues were in the past.

But then again, there was no cure for addiction. Once an addict, always an addict. There would always be the lure, always the desire to reach for a bottle and let its contents ease the ache while creating new and more potent pains in its place.

Maybe she was right to doubt me.

IN MY EXPERIENCE, there are few things in life more agonizing than loving an addict. Pills, alcohol, hard drugs—it doesn’t really matter what the specific addiction is because it always wins in the end.

If there was anyone in the world who understood that, it was me. My dad had been an alcoholic since before I was born. My brother got into drugs in middle school. I lost a best friend and a husband to their addictions—my best friend died as a direct result of hers, and my husband had become a different person when he started using, wanting nothing to do with me anymore because I encouraged him to get help. And so what had I chosen as my profession? I worked for a charity that put me in close contact with countless addicts daily.

I might not be an addict myself, but I intimately knew the beast better known as Addiction on an entirely too personal level.

Because of the pain involved in loving addicts, I’d tried to put some distance between me and the men and women I worked with through Light the Lamp. It wasn’t always easy, particularly when it came to men like Nicklas Ericsson. He was a player for the Storm, and since Liam had started the foundation, the players had all been involved in various fundraisers over the years. Nicky hadn’t taken part in as many last year as before because he’d been in Seattle instead of Portland, but he’d still made an effort to show up to help when he could. But it went further than that with Nicky. He didn’t just try to raise money and awareness for Light the Lamp—he was dealing with his own addictions and was involved in nearly everything we did, attempting to turn his own life around through the programs we offered.

Since he was around all the time, I was able to see the man he was when he was clean and sober, and damn it all if I didn’t really like that man. He had a big heart. He was genuine, he was incredibly funny in a self-deprecating way, and he never let his fame go to his head. For that matter, he didn’t let it get him down when that very fame turned on him and allowed the world to see things he might rather keep hidden. It was easy to forget that he was an addict.

Too easy.

Being friends with him would be one of the simplest things I could ever do, but it was something I couldn’t allow. Not for my own sanity, at least. Right now, I had to consciously bring his disease back to mind again and again, or else I was liable to let my walls down. I had to keep this professional, to maintain the boundaries I’d built to protect myself. I could be friendly toward him without being his friend, couldn’t I? So I’d asked how long he’d been clean and I’d told him I was proud of him, establishing a typical addict-counselor relationship. I wasn’t exactly a counselor, and I definitely wasn’t his, but it seemed easier to take that tack.

I just didn’t have it in me to care—to really, truly care—for another addict beyond the scope of my job. One more might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Nicky shifted on the bench next to me, an almost unnoticeable movement. I doubted I would have recognized it if it wasn’t so still and silent in the rock garden. When I turned, it was to find him staring at me in a way that left me unnerved. His eyes were on me intently, making me feel as though he could see straight inside my head and hear every thought. I couldn’t tell what was going on inside his head, only that there was a lot of it, whatever it was.

“Have a good time signing?” I asked, trying to shake the odd sensation.

“Huh,” he said, giving an ironic nod of his head with his brow raised. But then he only said, “It was fine.”

Fine. It hadn’t really been, and I knew it. Torturous might be more apt, and if I’d taken even half a second to think before speaking, I would have asked him any number of things that would have less obvious answers. I’d dropped in a couple of times during the signing, and every other table had had long lines of fans waiting to get a jersey or a shirt or a hat or an arm signed. Even the rookies and the guys new to the Storm this year had been kept fairly busy. But not Nicky. There had only been a few bodies in front of him at any point in time. But at least he’d made good use of that by having a real conversation with the few who came to see him.