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Sin Bin (Carolina Comets #4): Chapter 23

SMITH

She took the job.

She took the fucking job.

I knew it was coming all along, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I’ve tried hard to keep my feelings out of things because I knew from the start that at the end of the day, if I’m playing for the Comets, there’s no way what we were doing was going to last. It would be a lot different too if I could actually be mad at her for taking the job. I can’t be. She deserves it so much, and it would be easier if she didn’t.

“Thanks for meeting with me,” I say to Lowell as we park our asses on a picnic table.

“You look like ass,” Lowell says in greeting as I sit down across from him. “And that’s saying something coming from the guy with a newborn at home.”

It’s been a week since I’ve seen Emilia, and a lot has changed in that time. For starters, Hollis and Lowell had their baby, and she’s perfect.

Second, Emilia is no longer spearheading the player profile. I’ve been working with Blake to wrap up all the social media posts and the final segments of the big interview that’s set to air on our channels and local news stations in two weeks. With the playoffs—which we barely squeaked into—just a week away now, we’re down to the wire on time, and I’ve admittedly been putting it off.

I like Blake. He’s a cool dude.

But he’s not Emilia.

I miss her. Her laugh, her smile, that fucking hair I love wrapping around my fist. I miss her sass and the way she confidently enters a room. I miss having her in my apartment and having her scent on my sheets. I miss her eyes and the way she screams my name.

I miss everything about her, and I have no fucking clue if I’ll ever stop.

This wasn’t supposed to mean anything. Just like that first weekend we had together wasn’t supposed to mean anything.

But it did.

It does.

And I have no clue how to cope with that.

“This about her?” Lowell asks as if he can read my thoughts.

I want to ask him who her is.

But that would be insulting.

Lowell isn’t stupid. He sees the way I look at Emilia.

I sigh, then nod. “Yeah.”

He opens his box of donuts and then offers me one. I shake my head. I’ve not had the appetite for much lately, but I really can’t stand the sight of the chocolate cherry donut he’s offering me right now. It reminds me too much of her.

“I figured.” He takes a sip of his coffee. “All right, let’s hear it. Start from the beginning.”

So, I do. I tell him everything from meeting Emilia the summer we lost the Cup to her promotion to breaking all the rules and Christmas and everything that came after that.

He listens, giving nothing away if he’s surprised by any of it. When I’m done, he just sits there, staring at me.

And still staring.

Still. Fucking. Staring.

Finally, I snap. “What?”

He laughs. That motherfucker laughs.

“Dude,” he says, shaking his head, “you are so damn in love with her it’s ridiculous.”

“You fucking think?” I grumble.

I know I’m in love with her. That’s not that difficult to figure out, not with the way she makes me feel.

It’s the being with her part that I can’t seem to nail down.

“You know this is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, right?”

“I’m…aware.”

“She’s Coach Martin’s niece.”

“I know.”

“She works for the Comets.”

I grit my teeth together, annoyed with him stating the obvious for a second time. “I know.”

“She’s the best friend of the woman I just had a child with. Of the woman I love.”

I know. What the fuck is your point?”

He shrugs. “Just letting you know you’re dumb as shit.”

I groan because he’s not wrong. “I know.”

He laughs lightly, even though there’s not really any humor to it.

He knows this isn’t the best situation for me to be in. He knows I’m screwed.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I shrug. “You said it yourself. Who she is in relation to the team. To Coach Martin. To Hollis. It wasn’t…ideal. Plus, you’ve had your own shit going on with the baby.”

He nods. “Yeah, that’s fair, I guess. But I’m always here, you know?”

“Yeah,” I say, looking out at the mostly empty parking lot, watching Scout clean off the tables. She left us to ourselves this morning, almost like she knows we need the space.

I know Lowell is always there for me. But I also understand that this whole mess is something I got myself into—no sense in dragging him into it too.

“Look,” he says after several minutes of silence and one donut. I turn my attention back to him. “I’m going to tell you something you’re not going to like, okay?”

“On a scale of one to punching you, how much am I not going to like it?”

“Probably about a five. No—a six. Maybe seven. We’ll see.”

I motion for him to continue.

“You put your life on hold for hockey, right? The game has been your mistress for as long as you can remember. It’s all your life has been, but now that game you love so much is turning its back on you. It’s getting faster, and the competition is getting younger, fresher. It’s pushing you away and you’re trying to hold on to it for dear life, squeezing everything you can from it. But…” He shrugs. “Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time for you to be done.”

His words hit hard, because they’re everything I’ve been stuffing down, too afraid to face.

“You said if I had a chance at a family and at love, I should lay my heart on the line and take it,” he continues. “Well, maybe you should too. Maybe you should stop holding on to something that doesn’t love you the same way it used to. Take a chance on something new—on someone new.”

I hear what he’s saying. I really do.

But it’s hard, and fucking terrifying if I’m being honest. Giving up hockey would be like giving up breathing—it’s impossible to do. The game is my oxygen, and I need it to live. Even if I did somehow find a way, the fact is, at the end of the day, that doesn’t change the reality that Emilia chose the job and not me.

“She picked the job though,” I say.

He shakes his head. “I thought you were supposed to be older and wiser.”

I narrow my eyes at him.

He’s unfazed. “Just because she didn’t choose you, Smith, doesn’t mean you can’t choose her.”

Choose her.

It seems like such a simple thing but feels so damn big and scary at the same time.

He drains his coffee and then rises from the bench. “Look, I have to get back home to my baby, but I’m going to tell you the same thing you told me: tell her. Tell her you love her. Tell her you wanted her to choose you. Then, choose her.”


“Want to know what’s bullshit?”

I glance up from the book I’m currently reading—I don’t know what it is, something random I picked up yesterday at the store down the block from the hotel—just in time to see Coach Martin flop down into the empty seat next to me.

It’s brave of him considering I’ve been in such a shit mood lately that not even Miller wanted to sit next to me today. I take pride in that defeat.

It’s early morning, and we’re on a bus in Philly heading to the rink for practice. It’s quiet, and nearly everyone is still half asleep. We’re not typically the chitchatting type, but here Coach is, in front of me with a grin, clearly fishing for conversation.

So, I bite.

“What’s that, Coach?”

“Rules.”

I was already on edge from losing the game last night, but that singular word has my heart hammering in my chest so loudly that I’m almost sure he can hear it.

Rules? Like the ones I broke by falling for his niece?

Like the ones I’d happily break again and again if it meant having Emilia back?

Because, yeah, those rules are bullshit.

I close the book, clearing my throat and shifting around until I sit up straighter. “Rules?”

He nods. “Yep. That offside rule screwed us last night, huh? You had that entire team beat. The goalie too. But…rules.”

Oh. That’s what he’s referring to.

“Yeah, kind of brought down the whole team.”

“Don’t get me wrong here. I understand the offsides rule and why it’s necessary. But sometimes a guy on the ice makes a play that’s so damn beautiful and dangles around half a team to score, only for the goal to get called back. Bullshit, right?”

Considering I’ve been on both sides of that rule, I can agree. “Bullshit for sure, Coach.”

“Mhmm.” He nods, glancing around the bus at the other players.

Collin has his phone up to his ear, talking softly to Harper, I’m sure. Lowell is on a video chat with Hollis and the baby, though nobody is talking. He’s just staring at his sleeping daughter. And Rhodes is glaring at Miller, looking about two seconds away from strangling the idiot who is rambling on about something animatedly like he’s not about to get murdered.

Everyone else is either buried in their phone or sleeping.

After several minutes, Coach looks back my way. “Say, how’s the player profile going? I heard Blake is taking over for Emilia since she got promoted.”

Emilia.

I’ve tried hard not to think about her, but I’ve failed at every attempt. I can’t get her out of my mind. Not even when we’re out on the ice, which is probably why I went in offsides last night and caused a nearly ten-minute delay while they reviewed it.

It was painful to sit through, but not nearly as painful as knowing that whatever I had with Emilia is done.

I rub at my chest when the truth of that hits me again.

He doesn’t miss the gesture.

“He did,” I answer. “It’s going well. Almost finished.”

“Good. That’s good. We need you focused for the Playoffs anyway. It was nice having her around, though, wasn’t it? She’s one of the good ones.”

One of the good ones? She’s the fucking best one.

“Yeah,” I agree. “She is.”

“I love seeing her happy, and her work makes her happy.”

It does. It makes her so damn happy, and while I love that for her, I hate it for me. For us.

“You remind me of her sometimes, you know?”

My brows crush together. “I do?”

“Yeah. Or maybe she reminds me of you.” He shrugs. “Either way, you’re similar. Always working hard and giving up so much for your jobs.”

Guilty and guilty. I know we both give our all to this organization.

“Sometimes maybe a little too much,” Coach says quietly.

I don’t know if he’s talking about Emilia or me or both of us. Either way, his words ring true. We’ve both chosen our jobs time and time again. Maybe a little too often like he suggests.

“I’ve done that before too, you know. I chose my job often. Over things I had no business putting up for questioning, like time with Maxine.”

He smiles, but it’s filled with sadness from bringing up his late wife.

I’m familiar with it because it’s the same smile I’ve given since I watched Emilia walk away. Sure, I didn’t lose Emilia like he lost his wife, but she’s still gone, and it still fucking hurts.

“If I could go back, I’d choose differently. I’d choose her.”

He says the last three words quietly, but I hear them the loudest.

Choose her.

His words hit me right in the chest because he’s not the only one who has said them.

“Anyway,” he says, pulling my attention back to him, “just thought I’d check-in and see how you’re doing with…everything.”

When I don’t say anything right away, he laughs lightly.

“You know. The player profile and the game last night.”

Right. That everything.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not talking about the player profile or even offsides rules anymore.

Maybe we never were.

He nods to the book in my hand, a greenish cover with a golden swirl on top of a pair of legs. It’s a weird cover for a weird book.

“You’ll have to let me know your thoughts. If you’re team letter or manuscript.”

“Sure thing, Coach,” I say, though I have no clue what he’s talking about.

I watch as he stands and ambles his way to the back of the bus, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

What the hell was that? Does he know about Emilia and me? Was he just testing me? Or was he just making weird conversation?

I don’t know.

All I know is that he is right about something. Something that keeps hitting me in the face over and over again.

Something I need to do.

I need to choose her.

And I think I know what I need to do for that to be an option.

I don’t let myself think about it as I rise to my feet and make my way to the front of the bus.

“You mind if I sit here?”

Coach Heller looks up from his iPad, tugging his reading glasses to the end of his nose. “Not at all.”

“Thanks,” I mutter, tossing myself into the seat next to him. “Can I ask you something, Coach?”

“You can ask me anything—except a math question.” He grins. “I suck at math.”

“How did you know it was time to hang up your skates?”

His brows rise. “It was just one loss, Smith.”

I don’t grin back at him, and his smile slips from his lips, the reality of what I’m asking him sinking in. It’s entirely too early to be having a serious conversation like this, but I need to have it now before I chicken out.

He sighs. “I don’t know. Sometimes it’s slow and it dawns on you over time. Sometimes it hits you out of nowhere and you’re just ready to be done. It’s just a feeling you get, something in your heart telling you it’s time.”

“How did you know when to listen to it?”

“I’m not sure there’s an answer for that. Some people never listen to it, and they just sort of fade away from the league but never the game.”

I know what he means. There are guys out there who haven’t ever officially retired but aren’t in the NHL anymore. They’re either playing abroad or hoping one day, somehow, a team will call them up again.

I don’t want to be that guy. If I’m going to be done, I want to be done. I don’t want there to be any questions left unanswered.

“Is there…something I should know, Smith?”

I shake my head. “No, Coach. Not yet.”

“All right.” He eyes me warily. “But if there is something on your mind, I’m here for anything.”

“Unless it’s math.”

“Fucking hate math.” He laughs heartily. “Look, kid, I’m not sure if this conversation has been much help, but I just want you to know I understand what you’re going through. You’ll figure it out. When it’s time, you’ll know. Just…give me a heads-up, yeah? I’ll need to adjust the lines.”

I laugh. “Sure thing, Coach.”

“For what it’s worth, I’ve seen you give your all to this game over the years. You’ve sacrificed a lot, and the game has taken too much time from you, controlled your life in a lot of ways because you let it—because it’s easier that way.” He gives me a knowing look. “Maybe it’s about time you take back the reins.”

I can’t help but think of my conversation with Lowell. About how he said I was holding onto the game that doesn’t love me the way I love it.

Maybe they’re on to something.

Maybe it is about time I took back the control, and I think I know just the way.

We pull into the rink, and the guys start piling off the bus. Coach gives me one last long look before following suit.

I pull my phone out of my pocket and tap the most recently added name on my contact list.

“Hello?”

“Blake,” I say. “Do we still have time to film another piece?”

“Uh…yeah?” It comes out a question. “I mean, we really need to get things to editing, but if there’s something you want to add, we can make it happen.”

I’m scared to leave the game. Afraid to move on. I don’t know who I am without hockey, and I don’t even know if I will like that version of me.

But…part of me is ready to meet him.

Part of me is ready for something more.

And just maybe, that something more is Emilia.

“Good. I have an idea…”

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