Home Ice

By: Catherine Gayle

Based on the hit of expensive cologne that wafted over to me and tickled my nostrils, I had no doubt that someone was actually the coach. He smelled good enough to eat, a realization that made my belly flutter like it hadn’t done in years. Not since well before Dan and I divorced, actually. The spark had gone out years before we’d given up on the marriage, fading in the strain of countless specialist visits and oodles of therapist appointments that had been necessary for Sophie’s development.

They say there aren’t many marriages that are strong enough to withstand the strain of raising a special needs child. I now had the firsthand knowledge to be able to say that they, whoever they might be, were absolutely one hundred percent right.

But now I had butterflies in my belly for the first time in well over a decade, and it was because of this man sitting to my left, close enough to me that his body heat melded with my own.

The truth was there simply hadn’t been time for attraction or lust or a fling. There hadn’t even been time for me. All my energy had been put into making sure my daughters had everything they needed, and when I got as close to meeting those needs as I possibly could, I collapsed in a heap and attempted to get what sleep was possible. No matter what, I always felt inadequate and stretched too thin. I worried that I wasn’t giving Zoe, Evie, and Izzy the support they needed because I was so fixated on Sophie. I knew that no matter how much of my focus I gave Sophie, it wasn’t enough. There just wasn’t time for any sort of romantic relationship, and if I couldn’t make the time to sleep, then I definitely didn’t have time for sex. I hadn’t even thought about it in years because the simple act of thinking about sex required energy I couldn’t muster.

But all of a sudden, being in Mattias Bergstrom’s presence had parts of my body coming alive that had long since been dormant, and I couldn’t say I minded. At the very least, it served as a good reminder that I was very much still a woman, not just a mother. It was good to know I hadn’t completely lost that side of myself.

“I didn’t mean to be pushy,” he said quietly. The girls and his players were all busy talking and laughing and watching the spectacle below us, so I doubted they would have heard him anyway. “I just thought of my sister when I saw Sophie, and I wanted to give her an experience she wouldn’t otherwise be able to have. It was instinct.”

“I wasn’t positive you recognized you might be stepping on my toes,” I said. The fact that he realized he was overstepping, considering we’d only just met, was a point in his favor. Those only seemed to be adding up. I needed to keep an eye on my response to this man before I got myself into trouble. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate—”

“You don’t need to explain.”

I glanced over at him and locked on to his blue-gray eyes, which seemed to see straight into my soul, but that was enough to convince me to take him at his word. I seemed to put so much effort into explaining things, because most of the world didn’t really understand what Down syndrome was, that it was second nature. It was nice to be around someone who simply understood. I smiled. I couldn’t help it.

“I promise I won’t offer your girls anything else without talking to you first,” Mattias said. The way he looked at me when he said it left me breathless, almost trembling. He might as well have told me I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, because that was what his eyes were saying to me. Those words had a decidedly more profound effect on me than anything he could have said about my appearance might have, anyway.

“Thank you for that.” Belatedly, I realized I was staring down at my hands in my lap, my sudden shyness similar to Zoe’s when she’d seen her crush across the concourse, and I forced myself to meet his gaze again. Good grief. I was thirty-nine years old. I should be able to look in a man’s eyes without falling apart like my teenaged daughter at my age, and I’d be damned if I wouldn’t manage it.

He smiled. Heaven help me, he had the most amazing smile. It was bold and confident but nowhere close to being cocky.

“I thought hockey players were supposed to be missing half their teeth,” I joked. But then I remembered that he was the coach, not one of the players, and I wished I could take it back. Not that you could tell he wasn’t a player based on his size.

He was every inch as big and strong as the three younger men seated in front of us. Maybe even bigger. There was no hiding the muscle filling out his frame, not even under the impeccable suit he wore, and their builds were closer to those of teenaged boys. It took years to build up the kind of muscle mass Mattias had. I knew muscles as well as I knew the back of my hand. I worked with them every day. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell so many things about a person just using my sense of touch.

But Mattias winked. “Now that I’m not playing anymore, I got permanent bridges put in.” Then he flashed that smile at me again, not that I could tell the difference between the real teeth or the fake ones.

Yeah. That was a panty-melting smile if ever there was one. Poof! My panties might as well be gone. Which meant my brain had already all but disappeared.

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