Sometimes you have to stop skating if you want love to catch you...

I’m a player on and off the ice, with the reputation to back up my game.

I’ve never met a woman I couldn't get between the sheets, because I’m the best D-man on campus with the biggest stick.
I have two rules: don’t fall in love and play to win.

Until I meet her.

Cassie Rivers, my best friend’s sister—off-limits—and out of my league.

But from the moment I see her, I have to make her mine.

You know what they say about forbidden fruit. One taste is never enough.

I rap my knuckles loudly against the cool metal one final time and adjust the strap of the guitar case hanging on my shoulder. When he doesn't answer, I assume he's not home, or with one of those annoying puck bunnies always hanging around. I never bothered to tell him I might be stopping by. Seeing as how I know his schedule by heart, I assumed he would be home. We've spent the better part of three weeks together under the guise of tutoring, but mostly we hang out and watch Sons of Anarchy. Sometimes we talk about things that are bothering us. Half the time I'm complaining about my brother, while his only gripe seems to be centered around the lack of unity on the team. He's not the only one feeling it. I've also heard Scotty mention it, and Davis was going on and on about it over lunch yesterday.

As far as I'm concerned, my brother couldn't have chosen three nicer guys to live with. They always welcome me with a warm greeting, and they're quick to include me when I'm caught sitting alone in the dining hall. In fact, Davis and I have taken to eating lunch together every Wednesday since we first ran into one another on our way to the dining hall.

Three minutes have lapsed since I last knocked and I finally accept the fact he's not home. Just as I'm stepping off the porch, I hear a thumping noise behind me as the door swings open to reveal Brantley. Allow me to rephrase that. A very wet Brantley, with a towel tied low on his hips, tattoos on full display.

Sweet Mother Mary. My B is freaking gorgeous.

"Hey, Cass," he smiles, bringing up a hand to drag it through his unruly hair. For half a second, I'm rendered speechless. It's only been six weeks since I last saw this much of his skin, but staring at him now my eyes zero in on his chest and the happy trail leading to a part of him I'm dying to know more intimately, and I'd swear to you it's been years.

"Hi." My voice comes out raspy, and I have to clear it before continuing. "Thought if you had time, I'd give you your first lesson." I pat the side of my guitar case and offer him a sheepish smile. It's probably dirty of me to drop an impromptu lesson on him this way, but I figured if I asked when a good time would be, he would've tried to blow me off. I get the impression he's afraid of failing in front of me. I also get the impression Brantley Cage rarely fails at anything. If ever. That's what gives me confidence to keep applying pressure. I have no doubt I can teach him; in fact, I'm looking forward to it.

"Gee, Cass, I don't know." He rubs a hand over his freshly shaven jaw, and I have this sudden urge to bury my nose in there and inhale deeply. I love the smell of a man after he shaves.

"Oh, come on, give me an hour. If you hate it that much, we never have to try it again." I flash him my best, dimpled smile and can tell instantly I've won him over.

"How can I say no to this face?" He gives my cheek a slight tug and steps back to let me pass. "Get in here." I step over the threshold and sneak a sniff as I pass. For an instant, my breath hitches in my throat and I have to remind myself to keep walking. "Let's go to my room. That way if one of the guys comes in, they won't see me making an ass of myself." He chuckles and steps in front of me to take the stairs two at a time.

I watch his every move with great interest, wondering how his towel manages to remain in place, and secretly will it to fall gracefully to the floor. He has a great ass. I only know this from staring at it so often. But it's one part of his body I haven't had the pleasure of viewing without clothes on. Until now. When he reaches his room, he drops the towel and steps into the first pair of jeans he finds lying on the floor. My jaw drops, and I'm unable to tear my eyes away. Even though we've established rules, he has no qualms about baring himself to me. In a way, it's totally unfair, and I find myself wondering how he'd react if the tables were turned. He casts a glance over his shoulder and grins when he finds me staring.

"Where do you want me?" Oh god, now my mind is in the gutter. That's not the question he should be asking after I've just seen him from behind. Damn, he has a fine ass. Of course, he does. He's probably the closest thing to perfection I'm ever going to encounter, and the fact he doesn't act like he knows it makes him even better.

"Umm, how about we both sit on the floor, that way I can help you position your fingers." I clear my throat once more and pull Willow from her case.

I have three guitars, each given to me by a different family member. My father gave Willow to me when I was fifteen. It was quite an expensive gift for someone so young, but when he handed it to me that Christmas morning, he told me he had no doubt we'd make beautiful music together. We wrote my first song together, and ever since, I've called her my good luck charm. She's made out of cocobolo wood and has an intricate design to her that still takes my breath away. Besides being beautiful to look at, she has a sound quality none of the other guitars in my collection possess.

We sit cross-legged, facing one another. "B, meet Willow. She's my favorite guitar. Go on and take her, she won't bite." He looks slightly apprehensive as he reaches out to take her in his capable hands. I'm so close to this piece of wood, I almost swear I can hear her moan with pleasure as his fingers wraps around her neck.

"She's beautiful," he says quietly, never taking his eyes off mine. For a moment, I'm not sure if he's talking about Willow or me. "What's the proper way to hold her?" Rising up to my knees, I wiggle my way behind him and reach my arms around his middle.

"First of all, you have to make sure your posture is good. Sit straight up and place this hand here." I guide his left hand up the neck of the guitar. "Keep your thumb behind the neck, bend your first three fingers and gently rest them over the chords. Your thumb is going to remain loose while your fingers will move back and forth between the chords you're playing."

"Here," he lifts the guitar and places it in my hands. "Show me first by doing it yourself. I want to watch the pro in action."

"I'm not sure about the pro reference, but I'll show you the way I do it. Pay close attention." I take her in my hands and the act is so natural I don't even have to think about what I'm doing.

"Play something for me." He leans back on his hands and watches me in expectation.

"Hmmm, any requests?" I ask playfully, as my fingers move over the chords to warm up. "Never mind, I know what I'm playing." I begin strumming the opening chords to one of my favorite songs by the band, Paradox. They're a rock band out of L.A. I've been following since their first release. This song was written for the lead singer's wife. She sang it with him at an award show a year ago and I fell in love with it. It has more of a country feel, which might be why it spoke to me, but it probably had a lot more to do with the lyrics than anything else.

"Don't just play it, you also have to sing it for me."

When I strum the first C chord, my mouth opens and the words come out without giving it another thought. Before I know it, I'm lost in the music.

There's a picture of you, still hanging on the wall
I sit home every evening, just hoping you might call.
My world came closing in on me, the day you said goodbye
I thought I would get over you, but all I do is cry.

Come back to me I'm begging you darlin'
Come back to me so I can hold you one more time.
Don't leave me hanging, I can't face the world without you
Come back to me, I'll love you right this time.

Ev'ry day you're not here, reminds me of all I've lost
Do whatever it takes to win you back, not caring 'bout the cost.
Give anything to have you here, and hold you all night long
Fight like hell to stop the tears, but I'm just not that strong.

Come back to me, I'm begging you darlin'
Come back to me, I'll believe in you this time.
The bed's too big without you, don't leave me alone tonight
Come back to me, I'll make everything alright
Come back to me, I'll make everything alright.

I finish the song and open my eyes to find him staring at me with his mouth hanging open in wonder. I'm used to this sort of reaction. Most people look at me and have no idea I pack such a powerful voice in my tiny body. Dad always told me I'd knock 'em dead one day. Looks like I came close just now.

"I'm... I have no words." His head shakes back and forth as he claps for me. I blush out of embarrassment, but only because it's him. Normally, I'm not this shy when receiving compliments. Somehow the compliment seems bigger when coming from him. "That was amazing. I know this is probably going to sound cheap and cliché, but you have the voice of an angel." He scoots closer, and I know it's only to make it easier for me to teach him, but a small shiver courses through me when his shoulder brushes against mine. "You don't expect me to learn that one, do you?"

"No." I smile a crooked smile and tuck my hair behind my ear. His eyes track the movement, and when our eyes meet, I know something has shifted between us. "Let me show you a few chords."

He holds the guitar like I showed him and fumbles with the whole combination of strumming while moving his fingers. After a few tries, he seems to catch on. And when he strums a C chord and D major successfully, I give a small round of applause.

He carefully moves the guitar aside and leans toward me, resting his weight on his right forearm. "What was that song? I've never heard it before."

"It's called "Come Back to Me" by Paradox, who happens to be my favorite band on the planet. I've actually met the lead singer, Sebastian Miles, one time at the airport in Chicago. He was super sweet, signing everything the crowd threw his way, and outside of the fact of him being drop-dead gorgeous, you would have never known he wasn't like the rest of the world. He seemed so down to earth."

"That's cool," he moves his fingers over the carpet, inching closer to mine with every pass. "So, this guy, what's he looks like? What is it about him that gets you hot?" he asks in a teasing voice. When I don't respond immediately, he jumps on my silence. "Oh, come on, Cassie. I know he does it for you. I can tell by the way your eyes glaze over. And there's so much energy coursing through you right now you're practically humming beside me. What is it about this particular guy that gets to you?"

"Why are you asking me this?" I whisper.

"I don't know," he shrugs, and for a moment I think he's going to let it go. "Maybe it's because right now, you look the same way I remember that first morning I found you in my bed. Right after we kissed."

"Oh," I let out a shaky breath as I ponder my answer. "He has dark hair and tattoos, with eyes that pull you in." I lick my lips nervously, aware of the similarities between the man I'm describing and the one sitting less than six inches from me. "Then he wears these sexy as hell lip rings, and his voice melts me into a puddle of goo. I don't know, guess I'm just a sucker for dark-haired men."

Our eyes meet once more, and this time I know I'm not imagining things. He leans closer and slowly moistens his upper lip with his tongue.

Wait, is he going to kiss me?

I don't breathe, terrified any movement may scare him off. I want so badly for him to kiss me. I've dreamed of his lips on mine since first tasting them. I'm not sure what this will mean for our friendship or the rules we've set in place. All I think about are Roni's words.

The fact he felt the need to establish them at all tells me he's into you.

Maybe she'd been right after all.

He's so close. I can feel his breath on my cheek as he leans in at a painstakingly slow pace. I'm shaking inside. The throbbing between my legs tells me I'm so turned on by the thought of his tongue mingling with mine, I could probably have an orgasm without him touching me.

"Cass," he murmurs softly, inching closer.

Please kiss me.

"B," I whisper, parting my lips in invitation.

"Cage!" Davis bellows before barging through the closed door as we scramble apart. "I just walked in on Masterson getting a blow—" He stops abruptly when he sees me sitting on the floor. "Hey, Cassie." He rubs the back of his neck uncomfortably and looks between us. "What's going on in here?" He waggles his brow suggestively and I wonder what we'd have done if he'd walked in just a few seconds later.

"Nothing," Brantley snaps.

It hadn't felt like nothing to me.

"I was just giving Brantley a guitar lesson." I stand and lift Willow off the floor. "I better be going. Your hour's up anyway." I quickly collect my things and head for the door. Davis is still in the room, so I can't say what's on my mind. I can't tell him I wanted him to kiss me more than anything in the world. Or that I've fantasized about him every day since we met. Instead, I look back and offer a parting wave he doesn't bother returning. I'm not sure if he regrets what almost happened, or if he's actually pissed it didn't. Either way, he doesn't take his eyes off Davis long enough to acknowledge my exit.

(Book 3)

A long time ago he broke her heart. Now, he’s out to prove he deserves a second chance.

I’ve spent my entire life protecting something.

The net.
My teammates.
My sister.

I’ve played hockey my entire life. Had many girlfriends. Slept with more women than I care to mention. Been in love twice.

While one woman tried to control me by changing me into someone I no longer recognized, the other loved me not for who I could be, but for who I already was.  She was my high school sweetheart but, like a fool, I walked away and let someone else take my place.

Now she’s back and even more beautiful than I remembered. Once upon a time, she trusted me with her heart and I broke it. This time, I’ll do whatever it takes to win her back.

I was the first boy she ever kissed. After all these years, I want to be the only man she kisses for the rest of her life.

“So, just how far is it to Traverse City?” she asks cheerfully.
I tap my thumbs against the steering wheel before turning on the radio. “Roughly five hours, give or take. Might as well make yourself comfortable.”
Taking my advice, she kicks off her sandals and rests the balls of her feet on the dash. Thank God she decided to leave those rubber boots back at the apartment. I know it might sound crazy, but Skylar in a pair of tight leggings and boots with little yellow ducks… Instant hard-on. If she’d have worn them I swear I’d have the worst case of blue balls ever recorded. I’d jokingly thanked her when she’d changed out of them and my dick and balls had offered up their own silent vow of gratitude. Still, I can’t help wondering why the hell she packed rubber boots in the first place. Who the hell does that?
“I’m curious about something,” I say slowly. She looks over from the side of her eye and I take that as my cue to continue. “What are the boots for?”
“Oh,” she laughs, “so we’re back to that. Huh?” I don’t know. Sam told me it rains a lot up here and I never get the chance to wear them back home and they really are too cute to keep stashed by the front door.”
You can leave them by my front door and get no complaints from me.
“Sam? Who’s that? Boyfriend?”
“Noooo,” she rolls her eyes and laughs. “Roommate. Sam is short for Samantha.”
With her shoes off, I sneak a glance in her direction and my eyes are immediately drawn to the light blue polish on toenails. It matches the color on her fingers. Ashley used to go have her nails done every two weeks only when she went she always came back with some gaudy dark color. The color Skylar chose is light and very simple. Very Skylar. But in all our time together I can’t ever recall seeing her with painted nails. This looks fresh, like she’s recently had them done.
“So, are mani pedi’s your thing now? Or did you do all that because you knew you were coming to see me?” It’s shitty of me to call her out, especially when our trip’s just gotten started, but Christ, this may be worse than the damn boot scenario. No matter how hard I try I can’t stop staring at her damn nails. They’re so… Cute. Is that even a way to describe someone’s appendages? No? Fuck it. They’re pretty fucking cute so that’s what I’m going with. Stupid blue polish with the little baby clouds…
If my question irritates her in any way she doesn’t show it. Instead she wiggles her toes and shoots me a killer smile. Fuck. Those dainty blue toes and that tiny gap between her front teeth have my dick straining against the seam of my cargo shorts.
“For your information I have a standing appointment with my manicurist every other Thursday,” she sticks out her tongue at me and a dirty comeback is right on the tip of my tongue but I decide to let it go. This time.
“Standing appointment…” I shake my head, feigning disappointment.
She changes position. Heels pulled tight against her ass. Cheek resting on one knee. Pondering her response.
“I haven’t changed. If that’s what you’re over there thinking. Sure, I may treat myself to salon appointments, fine chocolates, or sheets with high thread count. But I’m still the same girl from Leland High. The same girl who’s locker you used to wait by. The same girl you used to…” Her voice drifts and she gives her head a little shake. “Never mind.”
“Hey, I’m sorry.” I reach across the console and find her hand. “I was only trying to bother you.” A ghost of a smile touches her lips and I start to relax again. I trace the pad of my thumb over her fingers, pausing when I reach the tip of her index finger. “I like this color. It almost matches your eyes.”
Slowly, she withdraws her hand from my grasp and sits cross-legged in her seat. I fear I may have crossed a line. Touching her that way. It’s just so hard not to touch her. I don’t care how long it’s been; once you’ve shared a special bond with someone that connection is always a part of you.
“I’m not going to lie to you, Scott. Being with you this way is very reminiscent of days gone by and because of that I think we need to be careful this weekend. I could very easily allow myself to be caught up in your spell and I’m not sure I can survive the aftermath a second time.” She averts her eyes to stare out the window. “The first time was hard enough.”
Guilt slams into me and sits right in the center of my chest. I knew I’d hurt her, I just never realized how badly I’d broken her heart. Looking at her now, I’d give anything to be able to go back and change the course of fate. But as it is I can’t. The only thing I can do is to try and take the broken pieces and mend them back together. In order to do that, she needs to know the truth about what happened all those years ago.
“Why’d you leave Chicago? Why wouldn’t you answer any of my texts? Christ, Skylar, back then you wouldn’t even look at me. I know you probably won’t believe me, but I hated myself for what I did to you. What I did to us. I never intended for things to happen the way they did. It’s just, my stupid friends… They badgered me every day. They were relentless. There were so many times when I just wanted to lie and tell them that we’d slept together but I couldn’t do that to you.” My right hand loosely holds onto the steering wheel while the other pinches the bridge of my nose as the memories come flooding back. “That day you came to my house had been a really bad day and just like always you came in and held me and everything in my world was right again. Then when you whispered those things in my ear… I was so happy because I’d wanted you so badly. Fuck. Do you have any idea how crazy you made me? How happy you made me?” Our eyes connect and I see the tears pooling in her eyes. “Please don’t cry, baby.” The term of endearment slips out as if I’ve never stopped using it.
“You slept with her. You said we needed a break and then you went and slept with her,” she says through her sniffles.
My face wrinkles in confusion. “What are you talking about? What girl did I sleep with?”
She makes a disgusted sound and rolls her eyes as if I should know. “Rachel Westin.” The name drips off her tongue like battery acid.
Now it’s my turn to scoff. “Wait? You’re serious? Come on, Sky, you know me. Do you really believe I would do that to you? I just needed some time to think. Not go and fuck other girls.”
Fat tears spill down her cheeks.
One. Two. Three.
Three down the left. Three down the right. I know because instead of watching the road, like I should be, I count them. I count them and know that even though I never slept with Rachel Westin I’m responsible for making Skylar cry.
For her tears.
For her leaving Chicago.
For not standing up and being the man she needed me to be.
For breaking my own goddamn heart.
“I never slept with Rachel. In fact, after you left I didn’t sleep with any other girls. Not until college. It just… It just wouldn’t have felt right. Ya know?” I blow out a heavy sigh and sneak another look at her.
She’s so beautiful. God, I’m such a fucking idiot.
“Six months,” she states softly. Our eyes connect briefly before she turns to focus on something out the window. “That’s how long I waited. Day after day I held out hope that maybe you’d change your mind. Realize you’d made a mistake. But six months passed and that call never came.  I made the decision to finally let you go. It took a little time but I started living again. You broke me pretty badly, but I have great friends and they took care of me. Helped me heal. I started dating again and finished my degree. Landed an amazing job. My life was pretty great until…” Her words taper off and I’m screaming inside, wanting to hear the rest of her story. But I don’t want to look at her for fear she may stop taking.
“Six months ago I was online doing research for my job and I came across a photo of you. A magazine cover of some sort. I saw that photo and a little piece of me started to wonder what if. What if you’d called me? What if I’d never left Chicago? What if I’d never stopped you that night?”
I drum my thumbs along the edge of the steering wheel. Bile burning the back of my throat because so many times I’ve asked myself those same questions.
I proceed with caution. “That’s an awful lot of questions.”
She clears her throat before responding. “I know.”
“Questions I’m not sure I have the answers to. Not right now, anyway.”
Her hand immediately goes to my arm and gives it a firm squeeze. In typical Skylar Dennison fashion, her instinct is to protect me. “Scott, it’s okay. I’m not telling you this because I want to get back with you or because I expect something from you. I guess your honesty just made me think it was time for me to come clean. I think out of everything that happened I missed our friendship the most. As you may recall, I didn’t have a lot of close friends. But I had you, and truth be told I probably relied on you a little too much. I figure if we’re going to spend the next two weeks together we may as well try and put the past behind us and focus on being ourselves while we’re here.”
My grip on the wheel tightens as a low guttural sound vibrates in the back of my throat. “Little hard to put the past behind me when it’s sitting less than two feet away.”
 “If you didn’t want me here then why’d you knock on my door?” She cocks her head and challenges me with an arched brow.
“I don’t know,” I shrug and shift my gaze to hers. “Guess maybe it’s because I like who I am when I’m around you.”
“I like it too,” she whispers.

Rhonda James is an Amazon best-selling author who loves a good HEA, believes nice guys don’t always finish last, and strives to create a book boyfriend for every reader. Married to her very own Superman, they live in Michigan with a houseful of pets. When not writing, her guilty pleasures include kissing her favorite guy, diving into a good book, and making something yummy in the kitchen.

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