This Piece of My Heart
Robyn M. Ryan
(Clearing the Ice, #1)
Publication date: May 2nd 2016
Genres: Contemporary, New Adult, Romance, Sports
For twenty years, Caryn Stevens dutifully followed the educational path dictated by her parents. That path had one goal—prepare her to one day assume her father’s position as CEO of the multi-billion dollar international company he founded. That and marry a man who would enhance her career and perhaps join her in leading The Stevens Company. Not too much to expect from your daughter, right?
Caryn has other ideas. Instead of returning home to Ottawa for another summer working at The Company, she’s designed a plan to stay in Toronto, take a couple of courses, and enjoy her Summer of Fun. She knew there was more to college than rigorous classes that held little interest and study groups to ensure she excelled in all her subjects. She had two years until she finished her undergrad, and then continue on to that coveted MBA at a prestigious business school.
Just this once, Caryn will set aside The Plan and enjoy life as a regular student. To actually get her head out of the books and maybe, just maybe find someone to make the summer—dare she say it?—exciting.
You see, there’s this hunk of a guy she’s noticed on campus the first few weeks of summer. Always running—maybe in training?—but, Caryn’s seen enough to get her heart pounding. Tall, well-built, with shaggy light-brown hair. Gym shorts that emphasize taut leg muscles. Sometimes wearing a t-shirt with cut-off sleeves. Bronzed muscular biceps—truly drool-worthy. Absolutely hot—and gorgeous in a totally guy type of way. Only problem, he had no clue she existed.
Andrew Chadwick has enjoyed life in the fast lane in the five years since he’d entered the ranks of professional hockey. Preparing for his fourth season with his hometown Leafs, Andrew intends to enjoy his summer down time—hang out with friends and family, keep in shape, and erase all memories from that disastrous two-year joke of a relationship that imploded in May.
Not that he has any plans to revisit his first few years in the pros. He’d eagerly sampled the attentions of a never-ending line of women who wanted nothing more than to spend one night with a professional athlete. Believe it or not, one-night-stands with absolutely gorgeous women whose names he never bothered to remember became tedious. And that steady relationship he tried for two years? Finding your so-called girlfriend in your own bed with some other guy certainly opened his eyes.
Maybe it’s time to cut the fun and games and concentrate on things that are important—Win the Stanley Cup, give his brother any support he needs as he starts his Internship Rotations, help his Mom and Dad around their house. Act like a grown-up at twenty-four?
He’s not particularly looking, but if he were to meet someone interesting…well, he’ll just see where things go.
Neither Caryn nor Andrew expected their two very different worlds to collide on a beautiful June day…
Only ten more minutes…Then, she’d make a quick stop at the small market nearby before heading home. Maybe she’d see that guy running again? A smile crossed her face as she visualized his tall muscular frame, shaggy light brown hair, taut muscles of his legs—gym shorts had to be a gift from God—and completely oblivious to her. Those earbuds must provide some hypnotic beat. After two years, how could she not have crossed his path on campus before? No way she wouldn’t have noticed. Maybe he’d just transferred over from one of the other Toronto area campuses?
On autopilot, she closed her text book as the class ended, shoving it and her iPad into her backpack. Freedom beckoned.
“Ms. Stevens, a moment please.” Professor Miller’s voice stopped her.
She stood aside, allowing the other students to pass, then approached his desk.
“I wanted to discuss last week’s test. You seem to be struggling with the material.”
“It’s that obvious?” Caryn flashed a smile, her stomach churning inwardly.
Miller nodded, handing her the test paper. “Before you get too far behind, let’s see if we can get you a peer tutor. Or, if you prefer, you can schedule some time with me before class.”
Caryn looked at the page, the score sucking the sunshine from her mind. “I didn’t think I was this clueless. I’ve never had much luck with statistics.”
Miller perched on the edge of his desk. “Required course for your major?”
“A friend suggested I take it in the summer—it was supposed to be easier.”
Miller laughed. “Many students think that. But, the unfortunate truth is that you need to master the same material in a shorter time period.” He paused, studying her face. “If you want to wait to take it this fall, you can withdraw with no penalty to your GPA.”
Caryn thought for a moment. Dropping that course was tempting. More free time. Summer free time. But adding it to an already full fall schedule quickly crushed the temptation. “I don’t think that will work—my schedule’s already laid out for the next two years. Last thing I need is to take this course along with a full schedule. I’ll get through this. Thank you for the offer.”
He handed another sheet of paper to her. “These students are on campus this summer. I’ve taught them, so they’re familiar with this class.”
Caryn folded and tucked both into her pocket. “Thanks, I know what I’ll work on the rest of the day.”
Her appetite gone, Caryn considered heading straight home, but knew she’d regret it later. She stopped by the grocery to pick up a boxed lunch salad, some fruit and vegetables, then impulsively added a selection of energy bars on display near check out.
“You want all this in one bag?” The clerk knew her preference, but looked dubiously at the amount of groceries.
“I did go overboard, didn’t I? I think I can handle two. Of course, I forgot my cloth bag again.” She paid, then stepped to the side to pick up her backpack before accepting the grocery bags.
“You okay with these?”
Caryn laughed at the skepticism in his voice. “It’s not far—I’ll be fine. Thanks. See you tomorrow.”
Half-way across campus, she began to doubt her confidence. She shrugged the backpack toward the other shoulder and shifted the grocery bags. Her father’s ring tone blared in her pocket. “Shit,” Caryn whispered, as she briefly considered not answering. Her dad was the ultimate task manager. He never called just to say a friendly hello. But then, the man hadn’t built a self-made fortune with chitchat.
Instead, she jammed both bags into one arm while she dug the phone from her pocket. “Dad, what’s up?”
“Have a few minutes between meetings—how are your classes going?”
“Off to a good start. Summer semester is definitely worth it.” She cringed at the lie, glad they weren’t on Skype.
“How is your statistical analysis course?”
“You getting a tutor?”
“Why would you think I need a tutor, Dad?”
“I remember your last encounter with statistics.”
Ouch—of course he’d remember. “I guess that between my tutor and you, it sunk in. This time it’s much easier.” Caryn said a silent prayer her voice disguised the second lie.
“You know you need the strong GPA…”
“…I know—to get into grad school,” she finished with a light laugh. “I know the drill.”
She heard him sigh. “Not any grad school. We’re talking NYU, Stanford…”
“I know, Dad. Have I ever let you down?”
“This is your first summer semester. There are lots of distractions.”
Caryn’s laugh was curt. “It’s hard to find time for distractions, Dad. Don’t worry. I’m on my way home now to conquer my statistics assignment. I’m completely focused.” She balanced the phone on her shoulder as she shifted the grocery bags. “I’ve got to go now. I’m overloaded with books and groceries. Give Mom a hug for me.”
“Remember, we’re visiting the plant in Taiwan next week. If you need anything…”
“I’ll get in touch with Lisa. I’m good, Dad. Have a safe trip.”
A frown creased her forehead as she rearranged her load. Thank God they’re going out of the country. Somehow I’ll pull this off. She turned, her eyes on the ground and as she took a step, she collided with someone, something—or maybe she’d walked into a tree. The impact knocked the grocery bags from her arms and sent her sprawling to the ground. Momentarily stunned, Caryn struggled to sit up as her backpack wrestled heavily with her balance. Her vision blurred, she vaguely felt someone lifting the bag from her shoulder and helping her to a sitting position.
“Are you all right?” A voice eventually pierced her dulled senses and she looked up, immediately drawn into a swirling brilliant blue whirlpool that she could not escape. “You okay?” the deep voice repeated.
She closed her eyes to clear her mind, and when she reopened them realized she had been staring into a man’s eyes. The runner’s eyes. “Oh, it’s you,” she said without thinking.
She shook her head. “I don’t know…I thought I’d run into a tree or something.” She moved to stand, but he touched her shoulder to keep her seated.
“Give it a minute and catch your breath. I’m sorry—I didn’t even see you.” He dropped to the grass beside her.
“I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about a test. Then, all of a sudden I thought I’d run into a brick wall.”
“No, just someone not paying attention where he was running.”
She glanced toward him, seeing the iPod strapped to his arm. “You must have a great playlist.”
“Unfortunately, sometimes I just get into a zone. I’ll stick to the path next time.”
“Don’t change on my account. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“In your own zone?”
She laughed. “Unfortunately, no. Walking while talking on the phone. Obviously can’t do both at once.” She snuck a look at him. This close, he looked even better than she’d remembered. His legs—and probably the rest of him—really did have rock-hard muscles. His hair—not as long as she’d thought—dampened with perspiration and his face reddened from exertion only added to his athletic good looks. And she sure hadn’t known about those blue eyes…or the way they’d make her stomach flip-flop. Definitely all man, definitely different from any students she knew.
He looked at the salad, vegetables, fruit, and energy bars strewn across the lawn. “Lunch?”
“Lunch, dinner. Probably breakfast tomorrow.”
He reached for two of the energy bars and handed one to her. “Looks like these came through unscathed.” He locked his eyes on hers. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so.” Caryn quickly focused on opening the bar she held. “Why?”
“You said, ‘Oh, it’s you,’ like you knew me.”
“I didn’t know what I was saying. I thought you were a tree.” She glanced at him and his skeptical smile told her he wasn’t buying her explanation. “Well, you felt like one. I’ve seen you running a few times. Your schedule must be the same as mine.”
He leaned back on his elbow as he took a bite of his bar. “And I haven’t seen you, why?”
“Guess you’ve been in that zone.” She teased him with a smile. “Or maybe I’m invisible.”
“Hardly.” She could feel his eyes on her, taking in her jeans and probably disheveled state. Self-consciously, she smoothed her hair and straightened her shirt. “If I were in my right mind, there’s no way I’d miss you.” He smiled and she felt a warm flush creep up her cheeks. “You sure you’re okay?”
She nodded, shaking the hair away from her face, her hand brushing against her forehead. He saw the reddened skin and without thinking reached to gently touch her forehead, frowning as he felt the swelling in the area. “Must have gotten you with an elbow.”
“Or your iPod.” She nodded toward his arm. “Or maybe you are as hard as a brick wall.”
He laughed softly. “Headache?”
“Maybe we should get it checked out.”
“I’m fine.” She started to push herself to her feet, and he quickly grasped her arm to help. He watched as she took a deep breath, his hand supporting her as she gingerly took a few steps. “See? Nothing broken.”
“I’d feel better if we’d get a doctor to look at your head.”
“It’ll take forever. You know how it gets at the student health services.” She rolled her eyes at the thought. “I have better things to do with my afternoon.”
“You could have a concussion.”
She shook her head, as she reached to pick up a paper grocery bag. “I’m fine. No blurred vision, no flashing lights, just a little headache,” she said. “And that’s probably because all I’ve had to eat today is this bar.” He took the bag from her and began collecting the remaining bars and fruit. “There’s not much else worth saving.” She nodded toward the remnants of her salad scattered around them. He followed her gaze and laughed softly, then looked at the bag he held and shrugged.
“How about if I just replace it?”
She started to reply, but felt herself hypnotized once again by those blue eyes. She shook her head as she quickly looked away. “There’s no need. I didn’t have that much.”
He handed the energy bars to her. “So you don’t starve. I’ll clean up the mess I made.” He scooped the salad remnants and produce into the bags, then placed everything into a nearby trash container.
She tucked the bars into her backpack, but he quickly stepped to her side and picked it up, slipping it on his shoulder. “What do you have in there, bricks?”
“My marketing and statistics texts. I can carry it.”
“No, I insist,” he replied. “Least I can do.”
“Don’t let me interrupt your run any more than I have already.”
“I was about done for the day. Next time I’ll stick to the park. I can get my car and give you a lift home.”
“It’s just a couple blocks.” She pointed toward the row of townhouses at the edge of the campus. “You don’t need to go out of your way.”
He pushed the damp hair off his forehead, then nodded toward the street. “I don’t live too far from here, either. Just up the street from you.”
She looked up at him as he fell in step beside her. “By the way, I’m Caryn.”
“Andrew. In school this summer?”
“Just taking a couple courses I couldn’t fit into my schedule during the last year. How about you?”
“Down time for me.”
“Lucky. So you’re just keeping in shape?”
She preceded him up the sidewalk leading to her townhouse, reaching in her pocket for her keys. “Thanks for carrying my bag.”
She opened the front door and he set the bag just inside. “Can I get you a bottle of water or something to drink?” Her voice sounded as awkward as she felt.
“Thanks, I’m fine.” He leaned against the door frame, suddenly unwilling to let the moment pass. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that bottle of water.”
He waited at the door while she retrieved it from the kitchen and handed it to him. “Thanks for helping me.”
Andrew slowly pushed away from the door. “I’ll look out for you next time I cut across campus.”
Caryn watched as he turned and walked away from her door, opening her mouth to ask him to stay, but stopping as he looked back over his shoulder at her. He gave her a small wave and a wink before he headed in the direction he’d indicated he lived. Flustered, she watched as he made his way through the pedestrians milling on the crowded sidewalk, then slowly turned and entered her home, shutting the door behind her.
She got a bottle of water from the refrigerator, before she stepped inside the downstairs bathroom to examine the bruise forming on her temple. She lightly fingered the skin, and shaking the hair away from her face, she splashed cool water against her forehead. She pressed the cold bottle of water against the bruise as she remembered the way his fingers had made her skin tingle when he’d touched her forehead. She’d met the guy who’d intrigued her, had actually sat next to him on the lawn. She knew his name. He’d walked her home! Did that mean something more than just him being nice? Andrew could definitely provide a nice “diversion” as her dad would label it. That’s a risk worth taking. Besides, maybe Andrew’s already passed this course? He could make statistics more than tolerable.
She wished again that she had asked him to come in, hating the thought that she might not see him again. “Stupid,” she said to her image in the mirror. She tossed the towel over the bar beside the sink and went to the living room. If she hadn’t been tongue-tied like some sixteen-year-old, maybe he’d be sitting across the table from her right now. She pulled the test paper and the list of tutors from her pocket, placing them on the coffee table. Her elbow ached as she retrieved her bag from beside the door and dragged it to the couch, pulling out the heavy statistics text and dropping it on the papers. Not what she’d had in mind for the afternoon.
She looked at the list of tutors and made an appointment with the first student who answered the phone. There went another hour of her days. At least getting up extra early ensured she’d finish at the same time—maybe even pass Andrew again on her way home. She rubbed the aching joint. Seeing the grass stains on her skin and on her jeans, she decided that a hot bath would be more beneficial than studying statistics just then.
From early childhood, Robyn M. Ryan knew she wanted to write. This goal grew throughout elementary and high school, first composing novels featuring favorite TV and music personalities, then venturing into sports writing. Attending UGA’s journalism school launched her career in public relations, which included an internship with the Atlanta Flames NHL hockey team. At that time romance novels did not feature pro athletes, so Robyn wrote the books she and her friends wanted to read. Many years later, this manuscript received a serious critique and edit. This Piece of My Heart, a hockey romance, is the first book in Robyn’s series Clearing the Ice.