From superstar to superdad
Becoming a single dad was never hockey star Sam Catalano's game plan. Now he's turning his world upside down to give his two-year-old son, Casey, the best life he can. And buying his own childhood camp seems like the perfect way to do it. At least until he comes face-to-face with his new assistant director, and old camp flame, Libby Kovak.
Sam can't afford to be distracted by Libby or the constant reminders of the passion they shared. His only priority is protecting Casey and making the transition as smooth as possible. But Sam's starting to believe that the most valuable thing he can give his son, and himself, is a life with Libby in it.
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His new home.
Sam Catalano stood at the top of the hill outside the office of Camp Overlook, sparing a moment to drink in the sight that had lived in his memory for so long. Soaring pines and brilliant green maples. Red-roofed cabins circling larger brown activity buildings. The St. Lawrence River beckoned from the edge of the woods, sparkling into the horizon, a glittering blue line separating this little piece of Ontario from the States.
Unlike Sam's worldat least the way it had spun out of his control over the past few monthsvery little had changed at the camp in the dozen years since he last walked away. It was constant. Comforting. The last place where his life had been simple and secure. The perfect place to bring his son and start their new life.
He pulled his phone from his pocket and hit the speed dial for home, needing to hear Casey's voice again before he headed into a meeting he did not want to have. But before the call could go through he heard another soundthat of laughter bubbling out of the camp office. Slightly low, vaguely husky and achingly familiar, it brought every hair on his body to full attention.
He'd thought he was ready to see her again. He'd done more mental prep for this meeting than he had when he played the final game in the Stanley Cup. Two minutes ago, he would have said, yeah, it would be awkward, but he wasn't about to let a little lovers' history come between him and his future.
That was before he heard her laugh. All of a sudden he was eighteen again, back here at camp, smack-dab in the middle of his first real relationship and so crazy with want that he'd actually talked himself into believing in things like forever and happily-ever-after.
He'd made Libby believe in them, too. And then he'd walked away from her.
The sound of his sister's voice pulled him back to the moment, the phone, the call. Damn. Libby was messing with his mind already, and he hadn't even seen her yet.
Snap out of it, Catalano. Live the goal.
"Hey, Brynn, it's me. Just wanted to check on you and Casey before I head into the meeting. Everything okay?"
"Fine and dandy. Casey stacked four blocks by himself this morning, the damned dog made it outside every time he needed to go, and I was propositioned by both Hugh Jack-man and George Clooney. Decisions, decisions."
"Someday my life will be as exciting as yours. Is Casey busy?"
"Right here. Um, you got a call from a social worker this morning. The one who has to do the home study." The home study.
At the reminder of what his life had becomesocial workers and lawyers and court dates, all to ensure he maintained custody of his own sonhis feet curled inside his shoes, digging into the soles in an instinctive fightor-flight response. His gut contracted tight as a fist and he had to forcibly remind himself to breathe out before the black spots started dancing in front of his eyes.
"Thanks. Text me her number and I'll give her a call." He kept the words light so as not to worry Brynn. She did a good enough job of that on her own. "Let me talk to Casey."
He heard Brynn telling Casey that Daddy wanted to talk to himthen the snuffling sound of the phone being passed overthen a rasping kind of noise that probably meant the phone was being dragged over clothingthen the wet breathing that made him grin every time.
"Da Da Da Da Da!"
And just like that, everything in him lit up and relaxed. His boy was safe and happy and his, still his. For the moment, at least, all was right in his world.
"Hey, squirt. Are you being a good boy for Auntie Brynn?"
"Yeah, I heard you were playing with your blocks. Did you knock them down and go boom?"
"Way to go, bud. I have a rock for you." Sam scooped a gray-speckled stone from the side of the path, rubbing his thumb over the black band snaking across the surface. "From your new home."
The plaintive tone to the word made Sam's gut tighten. "Yeah, Casey. Daddy will be home tonight in time to put you to bed. I have to go now but I'll see you then, okay? Love you."
He ended the call, grinning at the picture he'd set as his phone's wallpaper, of Casey with his face painted like a pirate. His son. The child he never thought would be his, the reason he had turned his life inside out and upside down. The only goal that mattered anymore.
The reason he was about to face down the woman whose heart he had broken twelve years ago.
Standing at the long table that stretched across the back wall of the Camp Overlook office, Libby Kovak snapped the rings together on the last staff handbook binder and closed the cover with a contented sigh.
"Another check mark on your to-do list, Libby?" Myra MacLean, the camp owner, smiled as she peeked over the top of her low-riding glasses. Libby gave a quick nod and pushed the binder to join the others, lined up neatly in the middle of her center of operations.
"Other than the inevitable additions and shuffling, these are good to go."
"And you will handle those changes with your usual gracious efficiency, I am sure."
Libby pushed her hair behind her ear and laughed. "If you think I'm being gracious during the last-minute scrambles, then I should be picking up my award for Best Actress anytime now."
Myra chuckled softly before falling silent to look out the window. Libby's pulse did a hop-skip. Myra had been gazing out the window a lot the past few weeks. She'd also been laughing a lot less than usual, which was to be expected given her sister's recent diagnosis. It broke Libby's heart to see Myra hurting. She'd lost count of the times when she had walked back into the office after completing a chore on the grounds and found Myra on the phone, deep in conversations that were obviously ripping her apart, given the slowness of her responses and the way she jumped on Libby's entry.
"What is it they say about change?" Myra mused without turning from the window. "That it's the only constant in life?"
"Something like that."
Myra's nod seemed forced. "They always leave out the part about it not being easy."
Ah, damn. Things must be getting worse with Myra's sister. Having lost her own grandmother, her only family, just last year, Libby was all too familiar with the kind of pain and choices Myra must be facing.
"No," she agreed softly. "It's not easy. But somehow, we all make it through."
Myra turned back to her with a grateful smile. She gave the window another quick glance, then walked across the creaking floor to flip through the binder with something far closer to her usual spark. She scanned the pages, running her finger down the charts, tapping at the cartoons Libby had added to the material and smiling.
"I will never forget the day you showed up here and asked for a job," she said out of the blue. "There have been so many times since then when I realized that hiring you was probably the best thing I ever did for this camp."
Libby forced a smile she didn't really feel. Her own memories of that day were a lot less pleasant, not because of anything Myra had done, but because of the life twist that had forced her to go job hunting at a time when she had fully expected to be starting classes at university. The fact that she'd been nursing the rawest heartache of her life only strengthened her resolve to forget that day.
Ah, well. That was ancient history, and while, as Myra had said, it hadn't always been easy, Libby had indeed made it through. And she had landed in a pretty decent place, if she did say so herself.
She was no longer that terrified eighteen-year-old who had come begging for a job at the camp that had been the only constant in a life spent eluding landlords and bill collectors. She'd had a hell of a wake-up call, but once she had accepted the fact that the only person she could count on for protection was herself, things had turned around. Now she had her job. She had her degree, all the sweeter to her because it had taken so long. She had the town house where she and Gran had finally been able to settle, where they had planted a garden and painted the walls and where Gran had been able to let go of life secure in the knowledge that her Lillibet would be okay.
And through it all, she'd had the camp. No matter how crazy the rest of her life became, she had spent the past twelve years showing up to work at a place where the trees and the river and the rocks had been a constant reminder that if she just stood strong, even if she was scared, even if she was lonely, she would endure.
"Speaking of change," Myra began, and something in her tone made Libby look up sharply. Her heart began to thud in a yes-no, yes-no tattoo.
Because along with learning that she had only herself to rely on, Libby had learned long ago that it did no good to ignore facts out of sentiment. Her heart ached for Myra, and she would give anything to spare the woman the sorrow she was experiencing, but Libby had eyes and ears. She had seen and heard enough over the past few weeks to realize that Myra would probably be leaving the camp to care for her sister. Not right away. Hopefully not until the end of the summer, or even later than that. But Libby's gut told her that Myra was getting ready to go.
And whenever she thought of thatwhen she got past the way her breath seemed to seize whenever she tried to imagine the camp without Myrashe remembered the day a year ago, not long before Gran died, when Myra put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed and told her that when the time came, the camp would be hers.
Myra glanced out the window once more, then gave a little gasp and squinted at the clock on the wall. "Goodness. It's eleven already."
Libby checked her watch. "Almost. Do you have a hot date then? There's nothing in the appointment book."
"Oh, dear." Myra's fingers fluttered to her lips and she checked the window once more. "He's early."
Libby had spent her childhood learning to read the signs that said problems were on the way, then honed that skill over years of working with kids whose main purpose at camp was pulling the most outrageous prank of the season. She could smell trouble while it was still jumping from one neuron to another, and the scent was growing stronger by the minute.
"Who is early?" Libby's palms grew clammy at the whiteness of Myra's cheeks. "Is something wrong?"
At that moment, footsteps sounded on the porch stairs. Myra turned from the window and sighed.
"Libby, dear, I'm afraid I owe you an apology."
Sam pocketed the phone and Casey's stone before mounting the steps to the office two at a time. He didn't know what kind of reception he was going to get when he walked across the kid-worn planks of the porch and stepped through the door, but whatever happened, he would undoubtedly deserve it.
With a quick check that his collar hadn't crept up on him, and a deep breath of the mild June air, he gave a sharp rap and opened the door.
He found himself in the middle of a knotty pine office plucked straight from his memory, right down to the unforgettable mustiness of ancient wood tickling his nose. If not for the computers perched on the pair of battered metal desks, he would have sworn the past twelve years had bypassed this room.
Two women occupied the space. Myra MacLean stood near the window with her hands clasped, a nervous smile lifting the wrinkles from her face. She always made him think of the great blue herons that nested along the banks of the river, with her long skinny legs and an even longer, skinnier neck. Three or four decades of eating Cosmo the cook's famously decadent chocolate whipped cream cake hadn't put an extra inch on Myra.
But it was the other woman who made him brace himself, the one standing in front of a table loaded with binders, shooting looks of incredulity from him to Myra.
Her hair was a darker red than when he had first dared twist her curls around his fingers. Disbelief widened her hazel eyes and parted the lips he still tasted in occasional dreams. Sam had figured out long ago that Libby's lips were what God had in mind when He decided that people should have a mouth. The kind of lips that made a promise.
"Hello, Sam." Myra's grin faded and her cheeks flushed as she glanced toward the other woman. "I'm sure you remember Libby Kovak."
Like he could ever forget her.
Libby snapped that gorgeous mouth shut, slapping on a mask of politeness that was far too indifferent to fool anyone.
"Sam. Well." She hesitated, then moved slowly from behind the table and extended a work-worn hand. "Imagine seeing you again."
To tell the truth, he had imagined it. Many times.
He took her hand more by reflex than thought. Her palm slid into his, melded to him, and even while the rational section of his brain reminded him to grip, shake, release, another, more primitive part of him urged him to grip, tug, pull closer. This grown-up version of Libby was even more magnetic than the girl he'd left behind. Sure, he'd caught glimpses of the woman she'd become in the pictures on the camp's website, but in those shots she was usually buried in a sweatshirt, hugging a kid, or hiding behind a clipboard. In person she seemed softer. More feminine, though maybe that was because she was wearing some floaty kind of skirt that swayed with her every movement.
In their years together, first as campers, then counselors, Sam had seen Libby in tight jeans, short shorts and a bathing suit that made his mouth go dry. On one memorable night he'd seen her clad in nothing but starlight. So how could he still be amazed at the way the simple swirl of a skirt turned her legs into an invitation?
"Libby." His voice stuck somewhere between his throat and his mouth, so he coughed and tried once more. "Hello, Libby. It's been a long time."
"Hasn't it, though?" She pulled her hand away from his.
Damn. He thought he'd let go about three or four heart-thuds ago.
"What brings you to our neck of the woods?" She shot an unreadable look at Myra as he lowered himself onto a battered orange plaid sofa. "Just passing through?"
Her I hope was unspoken but most definitely not unheard.