JUST FRIENDS

Exclusive advance preview. The following is an unedited peek at the upcoming novel in the Tampa Suns Hockey Romance series. The story features Kimberly Martin, sister of Suns’ forward Dave Martin, who moves to Tampa to attend grad school. All-American shortstop for the Coastal Florida University baseball team, Chatham John Spencer (Spence), saves Kim from a faceplant at the Tampa Suns hockey game on her first night in her new city. Although the encounter produces sparks, neither has the time nor desire for anything besides friendship.

This preview may or may not appear in the final manuscript.

Prologue—June

In the time it takes a 102-mph fastball to reach the plate, the dream shattered. The vision, the motivation, the year-long preparation, the countless hours of training, the team-building exercises, wins and losses during conference play, wins during the tournament…

Everything came down to the final out in the final inning of the national college baseball championship game, broadcast nationwide:

“The winning runner at third, two outs.
CFU’s last chance, All-American CJ Spencer, at the plate.
Three-two count on the batter,
The windup and the pitch…”

The ball thumps into the catcher’s mitt, and collective groans of pain rise from one side of the stadium, while ecstatic cheers erupt on the other.

“For the CFU Storm Surge, the Cinderella season screeches to an abrupt halt.
As that famous poem says: there’s no joy in Mudville; Captain CJ Spencer has struck out.”

Hours later, Chatham John Spencer remained on the bus long after his teammates had exited for their last night in the hotel. Coach Ramirez had planned a team dinner, no matter the game's outcome, to recognize the historical season that Coastal Florida University recorded, along with the unprecedented appearance in the Holy Grail of college baseball. Winning the national championship—the team’s established motivational goal—gained steam as the season progressed until the players believed in its probability, then the inevitability of playing for the dream. A vision left hanging by a frayed string.

Was it worth it? Declining the draft yet again… dropping classes that meant I wouldnt graduate this year.
I’ll need at least another year to earn those credits. Would I make the same decision now? After blowing our chance today?

He didn’t move as someone took the seat beside him. Without looking, he knew Todd Anderson would give him a pep talk.

“Coach send you?”

“Nope. Got an hour. Enough time to finish beating yourself up.”

Spencer met his eyes before scrubbing his hand across his face. “Will you enter the draft?”

“Are you?” Todd countered.

Spencer shook his head. “I don’t like unfinished business… also I need to get my degree—I promised I would.”

“If you stay, I’m staying. I hate unfinished business as much as you. Getting red-shirted stunk, but now that additional year of eligibility looks pretty freaking good. Besides, I won’t go in the first, second, or…”

“You’ll go high whenever you enter.” Spencer’s lips quirked in a semi-smile. “What’s another year, right? I need to graduate.”

“You think my parents are any less demanding?”

“Think we’ll keep our scholarships an extra year?”

“Who’s going to step into your shoes, County?”

Spencer snorted a laugh when Todd used his high school nickname. “The next great shortstop recruit, Anderson. No one’s irreplaceable.”

Todd stood and slapped Spencer’s shoulder. “Harder than you think. C’mon, Captain, there are a bunch of teammates who could use a dose of leadership and a toast to what we accomplished this year.”

***

Coach Ramirez approached the two friends when they entered the hotel lobby.

“Spence,” he said, using the nickname adopted by the team (and most of the students), “the team had an incredibly amazing season. Don’t focus on would of, could of, should of. At dinner tonight, your teammates need to hear from you. Acknowledge the letdown, but emphasize and celebrate the successes. We’ll be stronger next year, and every man on this team needs to commit tonight to do what it takes to get us another chance to play for the title next year.”

Spence allowed a half smile. “That’s a given, Coach.” He paused. “I know what I want… need to say. I won’t let you down.”

Ramirez clapped a hand on Spence’s shoulder. “I know you won’t. Just as I know that you’re not going to shoulder the blame.” He raised his eyebrows in question.

Spence laughed. “Yeah, I get what you’re saying. I detest the taste of defeat, of unmet goals. But, it will make us more determined to prove this wasn’t a fluke season.”

“Counting on both of you to lead the way.”

When Ramirez left to meet with reporters, Todd nudged Spence and tilted his head toward their teammate Eric Marsden. No surprise—a group of coeds surrounded him, vying for his attention.

“Shall we rescue him?” Spence asked.

“Don’t think he needs rescuing. He needs to share his fan club, don’t you think?” Todd smiled as one of the students glanced at him, then waved them over. “How long until the dinner?”

Spence consulted his watch. “Less than an hour. Not enough time…”

“…to set up plans for the after-dinner party? We’ve got it covered, County. Let’s introduce ourselves.”

***

December

Kimberly Martin checked her watch for the tenth time, a knot of frustration forming in her stomach. She’d passed up a chance to ride with some of her friends to the off-campus celebratory dinner with her friends from the intramural league. Despite knowing Finn Hendricks’ penchant for tardiness, she had still expected him to show up. Her attempts to contact him via phone or text had been futile. Nothing had changed. Predictable.

Now, if she wanted to join the group for the dinner she’d helped to organize, she’d have to call a cab. She had looked forward to not only celebrating her degree in communications but also helping the transition to the new leadership for the popular multi-sport program. Because she graduated after the Fall Semester, Kim’s group was small by university norms, making this celebration extra special.

Kimberly's thoughts drifted back to the joy and pride she had felt the night prior to graduation. Her parents had catered an intimate dinner for family and close friends in the area. Finn had accompanied her, no doubt to spend time with her parents, but when it concerned something she wanted him to attend, he went MIA.

I should have listened to my brain, not my heart. I expected Finn to pull his disappearing act tonight—so why did I convince myself that today was different? He knew how much I looked forward to the celebration with my friends. “Work” prevented him from attending the graduation ceremony. Would he blame “work” for ghosting me tonight? The anger bubbled in her chest, not directed at Finn, but at herself for tolerating this repeated behavior during their eighteen-month relationship. He would undoubtedly come up with some lame excuse for why he was late, a "sincere apology" leading the way. Or he'd try to claim that she had given him the wrong day or time. Kim grabbed her phone to check her calendar and confirmed her note from three weeks prior when Finn had supposedly accepted her invitation—and had confirmed it again with him just yesterday. He couldn't avoid the fact that she had given him the correct date.

Screw him. Kim ordered a cab, texted her friends that she would arrive soon, and then waited in the lobby. Kim scrolled through her phone, looking once again at her post-grad plans.

She’d applied to three universities: Vancouver, Toronto, and Tampa. Vancouver and Toronto accepted her for the Fall Semester, nine months in the future. Tampa offered her mid-year enrollment, and the program she chose—Communications—had a January start date available.

She had thought she’d take time off, work, and relax before beginning the next phase in her education. Finn had mentioned taking some long weekends to travel to cities on her bucket list, but suddenly the vision of numerous cancelations and excuses cast a pall over those plans.

He won’t change. I’ve tolerated his broken promises too long to expect him to follow through on any plan. Most likely, the next nine months will bring more of the same—disappointments, arguments, and accusations that I’d given him the wrong details.

She detested confrontations and arguing with Finn left Kim frustrated and questioning herself. The make-up sex no longer offset the exasperation and hurt feelings caused by Finn’s continual gaslighting. Why stay in the relationship, anyway?

Good question. I don’t even like Finn much these days. No butterflies when I see him, no sparks when we kiss… how long have I—we?—just gone through the motions? Too distracted by senior activities and complacent with the convenience of having a boyfriend?

Kim stared at the screen for Coastal Florida University. Living in Tampa, with its year-round summer, enticed her. As did moving close to her older brother, Dave, and his wife, Lauren. That leaves Vancouver or Toronto lacking.

Suddenly the thought of relocating thousands of miles away caused a weight she hadn’t realized she carried to crumple and fall. I can end things with Finn and free ourselves from this relationship of convenience and frustrations.

How had she allowed a relationship that began with such sparks and promise to evolve into… ambivalence? Habit? Nothingness? No longer. I’m breaking things off with him tonight… if I can even reach him. Tampa, here I come.

***

Popping the SIM card from the phone, Kimberly Martin tossed her cell phone into the sink filled with water and watched it drop to the bottom. Erased and factory reset, she knew it contained no data, but “drowning” the phone gave her immense satisfaction. She slipped the SIM card into her wallet and resumed packing. She’d throw the phone in the trash when she changed planes in Seattle.

Overkill. Kim realized that, but the ruined phone symbolized the fresh start awaiting her in Tampa. Small price to pay to reclaim my self-esteem.

She had no reason to second-guess her decision. She told only a few friends she planned to leave Vancouver, and Kimberly would call others once she settled in at Gulf Coast University in Tampa. Her parents gave their blessings for her to study for her Master's Degree in Florida, pleased that she wanted to spend time with her brother Dave and his wife, Lauren.

They knew that she and Finn had ended their relationship right after graduation. Kim had not shared the reasons prompting the breakup, preferring to keep the details private. Her parents liked Finn, and she didn’t want to poison their minds regarding him.

Why bother? Truthfully, Finn doesn’t care about anything not directly related to himself. But, I don’t want to advertise my stupidity in letting Finn walk all over me… the lack of self-respect. Plus, he had the nerve to claim my “poor communication skills” as the reason for his actions. Delusional. Angry—at me because he couldn’t honor a commitment… not once, but too many times to count. I just want to get out of Vancouver and away from him.

***

Kim heard the knock and her mother’s voice as she opened the door.

“Do you need help, honey?” Caroline Martin’s smile belied the hint of sadness in her eyes. “We need to leave soon.”

“Just about finished. I’m glad you thought about shipping most of my stuff ahead of time.” Kim hugged her mom, then patted the bed beside her. “I’m just hoping everything will fit in my dorm room.”

“You know Dave and Lauren have plenty of room. I’m sure they’re disappointed you decided not to live with him.”

“It’s a long commute, and I’d need a car. Besides, I’ll meet more people living on campus and attending campus activities,” Kim said. “You know I’ll spend plenty of time with them—weekends especially—and I’ll see them when Dave has home games. Lauren promised she’ll take me to the beach—in January, can you imagine?”

“Think of me when you’re sitting in the sun. Did you talk with Finn?”

Kim sighed as she shook her head. “We said everything needed when we broke up.”

“A mutual decision?”

“Mom, you know we didn’t have a serious, committed relationship. We stayed together out of convenience… at least on my part. I’m looking forward to a fresh start.” She met her mother’s eyes. “Please don’t give him my new address.”

“Well, I’ll miss that boy,” Caroline said.

Kim’s laugh was soft as she tucked a light jacket into her carry-on bag, then met her mother’s eyes. “I’m sure he’ll come to Sunday dinner anytime you want. But, Mom, please don’t give him my contact information when I change my cell plan to a US carrier.”

“Of course, I won’t if that’s what you want.”

“Thank you. We need—I need—a clean break. Not a long-distance relationship.” Kim zipped her carry-on bag. “I think that’s everything. Give me five minutes, Mom, and I’ll be ready.”

“I’ll let your father know.” Caroline enveloped her daughter in a warm hug. “I’ll miss you every day, but I am so proud of you, Kimberly. You’ll leave your mark on the world.”

Hopefully, a positive mark—not like the screwups in my personal life.

Kim watched her mother leave the bedroom, then looked around with a sigh. Her private space for the past twenty-two years. My haven. Will Tampa become my next safe place? Not just when I’m with Dave and Lauren, but also on campus and maybe the entire city.

@2023, Robyn M. Ryan, All Rights Reserved.

@2023, Robyn M. Ryan, All Rights Reserved

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© 2023 Robyn M. Ryan, All Rights Reserved

Robyn M. Ryan • P.O. Box 466834 • Lawrenceville, GA 30042

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