Break Away (The Baltimore Banners Book 5)

By: Lisa B. Kamps

The Baltimore Banners Book 5

Chapter One

"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.

Please, no.

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.