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Will "Mad Dog" Madigan stood on the carpet leading to the ice in the hockey arena.
He wasn't supposed to be here-not today, anyway. But he'd gotten up early this morning, needing a run after his long flight yesterday. He'd needed to clear his head, and when he'd ended up at one of the two arenas that would serve as home for several of the ice events here at the international games, he couldn't help himself. He had to see if he could get inside. Fortunately, the team's coach had been arriving and spotted him, and he had access, so he let Will inside.
But only for a few minutes, coach had said.
A few minutes was all he needed.
The arena was huge, and there'd be attendees from all over the world watching the games. On the ice, there'd be hockey, as well as figure skating, curling and speed skating. He took in the sheer size of the arena, then dragged in a deep breath of chilled air. There was something about the smell of a rink, that crisp scent of icy air that clung to his lungs and gave him life. It replenished him, gave him a sense of purpose and affirmed he was right where he was supposed to be.
Like now, looking over the ice rink for what would soon be the international games in Vancouver. He felt damned fortunate to be here and he couldn't wait for the games to start. He was itching to put on his skates and get out there, test the ice and get some speed going under his skates. Then all he'd need was his stick and a puck to chase after.
He loved playing hockey. It fulfilled him in ways he would have never thought possible when he had been a kid fighting it out with his friends at the local rink back in Chicago. Back then it had been all fun and games, shoving and laughing and playing all day.
Even then, it had been in his blood. Now, it was his job playing forward for the St. Louis Ice hockey team.
And to be selected to play for these games, not just once, but twice? It was a damn dream come true. He planned to soak in every minute of this experience, so he could remember it forever.
Four years ago he'd been twenty-three, an excited young guy who'd partied his ass off the entire time. If he'd been honest with himself, he couldn't remember much about the experience. On the ice, of course, he'd put everything into his game play. Off the ice had been a constant party. This time he wanted to soak in the experience, really live it. This time would be different.
He could already imagine playing in the upcoming games, even against some of his own teammates, who'd be playing for their home countries. They'd talked about it before the games began. On their pro team, they fought for the Ice. Here, they'd play for their country and they'd respect each other for that.
When it was over, they'd all be teammates again.
"That's it, Mad Dog," Coach Stein said as he came up to him. "Time to clear out."
Will nodded. "Thanks for getting me in."
"We'll see you back here tomorrow after the rest of your teammates arrive."
"You got it."
"Try to stay out of trouble until then."
Will laughed. "You know I will."
Coach Stein gave him a head tilt and a disbelieving look. "Do I?"
Will gave him a grin. Okay, so he had a rep. Even Coach Stein, who was the coach of the New York team, knew his reputation. He went out the way he came in, through the front doors that were locked and guarded by a security guy, who nodded and let him out.
He stretched, started off with a walk, then eased into a run as he made his way back to the village he'd call his home for the next three weeks. His roommate hadn't arrived yet, so he had no idea who he'd be bunking with. Hopefully someone fun.
They weren't allowed to bunk with teammates. He was certain it was the committee's way of getting them to branch out and make friends with people from other disciplines, and often other countries. Last time he'd bunked with a bobsledder from Latvia.
They'd partied their asses off the entire time. He'd had a blast. He was looking forward to reconnecting with several of the friends he'd made during the games four years ago.
When he got back to his apartment in the village, he stripped and climbed into the shower. A hot shower was one of his favorite things. Maybe even top-ten favorite things, especially after a grueling hockey game.
Thanks to his run he was hungry, so he got dressed and headed out to the other building where the dining hall was located.
It was fully stocked-and huge. It was like a hangout here, and the size of a couple of football fields.
You could get anything you wanted, with food from almost every country participating. Last time he was here he'd made sure to eat something from every country. It seemed only respectful to sample the various cuisines.
And, hey, he liked to eat.
He planned to do it again.
Many athletes had already arrived, though the dining hall wouldn't be fully packed until the end of the week. Several of his teammates were flying in today, so he'd catch up with them later. For now, and since he wasn't shy, he sat with some of the snowboarders, figure skaters and downhill skiers.
The great thing about the games was that everyone was friendly. You could take a seat and strike up a conversation with anyone.
"How was your flight?" a guy named Hans asked him.
Hans smiled. "Same. Slept in a bit this morning. Looking forward to getting my skis on those mountains, though."
Will dug his fork into the egg-white omelet and nodded. "I got a glimpse at the hockey arena earlier, but they wouldn't let me skate on it yet."
Telisa, one of the figure skaters, looked shocked. "They let you in already?"
"My coach was there so he snuck me in. But I couldn't get on the ice."
"Oh. You're lucky." Robbie was Telisa's husband and the other half of their pairs team. "We're nearly drooling over the figure skating arena. We can't wait to get in there."
"They said they'd open it up to us this afternoon," said Rory, one of the individual figure skaters. "We have to practice and stay limber."
"Huh," Will said. "Maybe I'll mention that to my coach. Can't get stiff."
"Unless it's your dick," Zeb, one of the skiers, said. "You want that to be stiff at all times."
Will laughed, then noticed he'd gotten a suggestive look from one of the women across the table. He thought her name might be Monie or Monica or something. No idea. The names had flown fast and furious when he'd sat down.
He wasn't interested in sex. Okay, that was a lie. He was always interested in sex. But there was plenty of time for that, and for the next few weeks there'd be a hell of a lot of it going around.
The only thing on his mind right now was getting on the ice. After that he could think about sex.
Amber Sloane set her bags down at the front counter, taking in the multitudes of athletes surrounding her.
She was here. In Vancouver. Her third-and final-international games.
This was her last shot at gold. At twenty-four, she'd be considered old for a figure skater. Her biggest competition was here. She spied Tia Chang in line about four people ahead of her, her posture near perfect even standing in line, her dark hair shining like a fall of midnight down her back as she absent-mindedly checked her phone. It was like she had no cares at all.
Seventeen. God, that had been a lifetime ago for Amber. At seventeen she'd been a nervous wreck at the Worlds. But she'd come in first.
It was only the international games where she'd failed to grab the gold. She'd won both bronze and silver, but the gold eluded her.
This was her last chance. Her mother told her it was her time to shine.
Amber thought her chance escaped her four years ago, when Elena Bulosova of Russia had just inched her out for that gold medal.
Amber's long program had been better. The judges had to have been blind not to see it.
But this was her year. She'd revamped her entire program and worked her ass off the past four years. And now, she was ready to put it all out there and win.
Or she'd be done. Because there'd be no more games for her after this year.
She heard the shout of her name and turned, then smiled when she saw her friend, Lisa Peterson.
Lisa threw her arms around Amber.
"I've missed you," Lisa said.
"I've missed you, too, Lisa. How excited are you to have the games in your home city?"
"Excited beyond belief." Lisa pulled back, then looked around and whispered, "So, guess what?"
"I pulled some strings, and don't ask me how I pulled those strings, but you and I are going to be roommates again."
Amber raised a brow. "Seriously?"
"Yes." Lisa grinned.
Amber couldn't be more excited to have Lisa as her roommate again. Lisa was outgoing and talkative and incredibly sweet. "That is fabulous. I'm so excited. Though you aren't going to boot me out of the room at two in the morning again because you've brought some hot guy in to bone, are you?"
Lisa crossed her fingers over her heart. "I promise I won't do that. We'll boot as-yet-unselected-hottie's roommate out."
Amber laughed. "Perfect."
They waited in line together and discussed their careers.
"Kicking it," Lisa said. "And if you'd come to Vancouver like I keep asking you, I'd teach you how to snowboard."
Amber felt very guilty about that. For the past four years, Lisa had invited her several times to many events, and to her home for a visit.
"I know. I'm sorry. After winning the silver four years ago, I've done nothing but work on a new routine."
They made their way to the front desk and checked in, got their credentials and packets, then grabbed their luggage.
"There's more to life than just your work as a figure skater, Amber," Lisa said, taking out the map that would lead them to their building. "You have to find time for fun. For a life."
"I know. After this year, I'm going to travel and have nothing but fun."
"That's what you said four years ago."
They walked outside and Amber pulled her sunglasses off her head and slid them over her eyes.
"This year is different. I'm confident about my routine, and I know this is my last time at the games, win or lose, so I intend to enjoy it."
Lisa stopped and turned to her. "Which means you plan to have some fun?"
Amber offered up a tenuous smile. Did she even know how to have fun? "Sure."
"Excellent. We'll start tonight after we unpack."
She felt a giant lump of trepidation. What was she thinking telling Lisa she was out for a good time? Her mother's voice rang in her head.
The work is everything, Amber. Focus, keep your head down and skate. No distractions.
No distractions. Fun was a distraction. That had been drilled into her head from the time she was six years old and had first strapped on a pair of ice skates. Since then it had been all work.
And the reward would come when she won the gold. She knew that.
But still, her mother wasn't allowed in the village, and what she didn't know, she didn't know.
They opened the door to their apartment. It was spacious and lovely, with cream-colored décor, a living room, kitchen and two queen beds in the large bedroom.
"This is awesome," Lisa said. "And the living room has a fold-out sofa. You can even stay here if I have a guy over."
Amber laughed. "Good to know."
"Seriously. And who knows? You might even be busy with some stud of your own and I'll be bunking on the couch."
Highly unlikely, but she wasn't going to spoil Lisa's grand plans.
"Come on, let's unpack and go check out who's here."
"Okay." She carried her luggage into the bedroom and set it down.
This time would be different. She was determined. And she was so happy Lisa was her roommate again. If anyone knew how to have a good time, it was Lisa.
Amber had worked her ass off the past four years. She intended to show that on the ice. She was disciplined and ready.
But when she wasn't performing, she intended to party. Or, at least, learn how to party.
She had to start somewhere. She was twenty-four years old and it was time to start living.