tagRomanceA Pair of Ice Skates

A Pair of Ice Skates

byMugsyB©

It was never an easy time. This year was no different. A few weeks ago, it was as if all the shopping malls had contracted a decorating disease at the same time. Christmas wreaths, garlands, and ornaments dangled from every orifice of the buildings. Shopping malls, restaurants, indeed the very streets were covered with the trappings of the season.

Grace always tried to make the best of it. She enjoyed her work and took joy in the children's smiles. She was comforted by the fact that she helped create happy memories for these kids, proper childhood memories like she'd never had. Every time she stepped foot in the Children's Hospital, she let go of her past and devoted her time, patience and love to the kids.

Grace walked from the bus stop towards the hospital, bundled against the cold. She paused at a crosswalk and spotted a family across the way. They were laughing - she could hear them all the way across the road - and the mother broke away to take a picture of the other four. Grace watched the father argue with her, trying to exchange places so he could take the picture instead and Grace hurried across the street.

"I can take the picture for you." She smiled at the family to show she meant no harm and held her hand out for the camera.

"Thank you." The mother handed her the camera and joined her family.

Grace looked down at the camera as she aimed and managed to snap the shot before the tears blurred her vision altogether.

"Here you go." Grace handed the camera back to the mother.

"Thank you so much!" The mother looked at the screen and grinned before showing it to the others with her. "Merry Christmas!"

Grace laughed and she wanted to reply that she rarely had a merry Christmas. That didn't matter. She appreciated the sentiment even if the good wishes hurt more.

"Same to you." Grace turned and continued on her way.

The hospital was very warm when she walked in and she unwrapped her scarf with a sigh.

"Grace!"

She turned to see Arlene, the head nurse from her ward, rushing up to her. "Good morning, Arlene."

"You've got to come now." Arlene grabbed her arm and hauled her up the single flight of stairs to their ward.

Grace went without a fight. Arlene wasn't one for morning pleasantries and small talk. "What's happening now?"

"Kayla threw up and she hasn't stopped sobbing since it happened. She keeps screaming for her mother and you're the only one who can calm her down when she gets like this."

Grace could hear the impatience in her voice and shook her head. Arlene was a fantastic nurse and a very devoted supervisor. When it came to dealing with the kids, she tended to lose patience faster.

Pulling her winter wear off, Grace nodded and listened to the rest of the story from Arlene. Then she twisted her hair into a knot and hurried off to see to the nine-year old Kayla. She'd been admitted to the hospital a few times over the past few weeks and didn't sleep well without her family close by. Grace could relate, which she guessed is what brought them together.

That and the fact that Grace was the only LPN who would sit through entire hockey games with Kayla, who was a rabid fan.

Grace heard the sobs even before she got to the end of the hall. "Kayla, darling, what's the matter?"

Kayla looked up and lifted her arms, a fresh wail leaving her lips. The nurse who had been with her got up and left with a relieved smile for Grace. Grace hurried forward and swept the little girl into her embrace.

"Ssh, Kayla. It's all right. You know you haven't done anything wrong." Grace stroked the girl's springy black curls and rocked her back and forth while she spoke to her. After a few minutes, Kayla's sobs dimmed and she sniffled a few times before her body relaxed.

Grace pulled back to look into the girl's face and smiled when she saw that she'd drifted off. Hardly surprising.

Turning, Grace laid the girl into her bed and tucked her in. Then she straightened and checked her watch before turning the light off and leaving.

Back at the nurse's station, Arlene gave her a rundown of the day's activities. Along with doctor's rounds and regular checks, there was to be a special surprise for the kids today. Grace smiled when she read the schedule. Kayla's ordeal from the early morning would be forgotten at the first sight of her beloved hockey heros.

"You might have to stay a little late today, Gracie."

Grace nodded. She had to stay a little later just about every day. She was never in a hurry to leave the hospital, no matter how bad a day got. All she had at home was an empty apartment and a crappy cable connection.

Arlene flipped through a file and nodded. "Yeah. The players are supposed to be here at one but you know how these things go."

"Of course." Grace leaned on the counter and smiled at her harried boss. "You know the players just want to make sure they see every kid who wants to see and talk to them."

"I know. But couldn't they do it over two days then?"

Grace laughed and shook her head. "They have jobs too, Arlene."

The older woman rolled her eyes. "They play a game. I think they could work around it."

Grace didn't quite agree with that but she let it go. It was obvious the boss was having a tough morning already. So she left Arlene alone and went about her duties. She didn't even notice the time passing and had just gone in search of lunch when she heard the commotion at the nurse's station.

They're here.

Forgoing lunch, Grace hurried off to join everyone. She loved this part of her job, seeing the kids light up with pure joy when they got visits from famous people. She stopped short of the nurse's station when she heard a familiar cry from one of the rooms.

"Uh-oh." She did an about-face and hurried off to Kayla's room. "Kayla, sweetie, what's wrong?"

Kayla was sitting up in her bed and hiccuped as Grace approached. "I had a bad dream."

Grace sat down next to her and pulled her close for a hug. "Oh dear. That's no good." The girl's temperature was high, Grace could tell the second she'd touched her. "Do you want to tell me what it was about?"

Kayla shook her head, giving little hiccuping sniffles as she sagged against Grace. Grace held her, rocked her and murmured reassurances until she'd calmed down again. The noise from the rest of the ward reached them and Kayla looked up at her.

"What's going on?"

Grace bit her lips and hesitated before answering. She knew she'd have to call the doctor to check on Kayla since she was spiking a fever and that meant the little girl would have to stay in bed. That meant no visiting with the hockey players.

"I think it's someone's birthday," Grace lied. "How about you lie down and I'll get you some juice. Then the doctor will be in to check on you."

Kayla was too tired and weak to argue. She lay back and watched Grace with big eyes as she was tucked in. Grace laid a cool hand on the girl's forehead and smiled as Kayla drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes.

"I'll be right back."

Grace hurried from the room and didn't even see the man until she'd almost bowled them both over.

"Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry!"

The man caught her by the arms and helped her straighten. She looked up into a pair of dark blue eyes and gave a start when she recognized him.

"I'm the one who should be apologizing." He grinned and Grace felt her stomach flutter. "You're obviously in the middle of something important."

Grace nodded. "You're Jamie Forsythe."

"Guilty." He winked. "And you're Grace."

She blinked and looked down at her name tag. "Yeah. Sorry, I've got to make a call."

"Of course you do." He stepped aside. "Don't let me keep you."

Grace nodded and hurried around him. She noticed the crowd filling the hall; kids, hockey players and staff. Laughter and shouting rang through the ward and Grace darted back to pull Kayla's door shut. Except Jamie Forsythe was already walking through it and she still needed to call the doctor.

She hurried to the nurse's station and paged Kayla's doctor before hurrying back to Kayla's room. It wasn't that she didn't trust the hockey player, but Kayla was running a fever and was extra sensitive because of it.

Grace paused just inside the room when she got there. Kayla was sitting up in bed, her bright blue eyes wide with disbelief and awe as Jamie told her a story. He sat beside her on the bed and waved his hands in the air as he demonstrated whatever he was talking about.

Grace wasn't a hockey fan. She watched with the kids, since they were the true hockey fans - especially Kayla - and so by default she'd learned all the names of the players on the local team. Jamie Forsythe was tall, muscular and had a crooked nose, like just about every player in the NHL. Grace let her eyes sweep over him as he sat chatting with Kayla and smiled at his appearance. He had messy dark brown hair that was in desperate need of a trim. He had a day's worth of whisker growth on his face, as if he'd been out all night and hadn't had time to shave.

Then Kayla noticed her and gave her a wide grin. "Grace! Did you see who's here? It's Jamie Forsythe. He came just to see me!"

Grace felt her heart squeeze at the little girl's words. She moved closer and smiled at Jamie as he got off the bed to stand beside her.

"I didn't mean to get in the way." He gave her a sheepish smile. "I just didn't want to miss the chance to talk to Kayla."

"Of course. She's one of our most important patients, after all." Grace glanced at Kayla who covered her mouth with a hand and giggled. "Kayla, the doctor will be here soon to check on you."

Some of the little girl's mirth died but she gave a brave nod. "Can I keep talking to Jamie Forsythe until then?"

Grace glanced at Jamie with an eyebrow raised. "Only if Mr. Forsythe has time to stay."

He nodded before she'd even finished speaking. "I have all day. I made sure of it before I came to see you, Kayla."

Grace smiled at the man perched on Kayla's bed again. They resumed their conversation and Grace wondered if she should excuse herself. She was about to walk out when Jamie turned to her, a hand outstretched.

"Don't go." He gestured at Kayla. "We want you to stay, right?"

Kayla nodded. "Yeah, Grace. You're my favorite nurse."

Grace laughed. She'd heard that before from Kayla but it always worked. "All right. I'll stay."

She moved a chair close to the bedside and listened as Jamie continued to tell Kayla his story.

"Now where was I?" He tapped his chin with a finger as he considered.

"You and your brother were fighting over who got to pick first." Kayla was all but bouncing in her bed.

Grace couldn't believe the transformation in the child. She'd been so weary and despondent until the arrival of her favorite hockey player. Grace didn't care what anyone said about these guys. The fact that they took any time out of their busy schedules to spend an afternoon at the hospital made them all right in her book.

"Right! Avery thought he got to pick first because he was the oldest but I said I got to pick because he'd picked first last time." Jamie nodded and smiled at the memory. "So there we were, all our friends standing around freezing our as- uh, freezing our butts off, waiting for us to pick teams." He paused and leaned close to Kayla. "You know how cold it gets in my hometown in the winter?"

Kayla's eyes were wide as she nodded, as if he'd asked her a life-changing question. "Really, really, really cold!"

"Right. It was cold that day too and Avery was starting to push me around because he was bigger and thought I'd give up. But I kept pushing him back." Jamie scoffed. "He thought he was so tough but I'd been playing hockey for a year already at that point and I knew some moves too."

Kayla gasped. "Did you beat your big brother up?"

"No. We kept shoving each other until we fell into the snow banks. All our friends starting yelling at us but we didn't listen. I picked up a big pile of snow and shoved it in Avery's face." Jamie broke off and laughed at the memory. "You should have seen his face, Kayla! He looked like Frosty."

Kayla squealed with laughter at the imagery and the face that Jamie made. Grace covered her smile with a hand and kept watching the two new friends as the story continued.

"He tried to shove snow in my face too but I was too fast."

"You are really fast! I've watched how fast you skate!" Kayla leaned forward, eager to share her knowledge.

"That's awesome!" Jamie tapped her chin with one finger and she grinned in delight. "I knew you were my biggest fan. So Avery was getting really mad that I was shoving more and more snow in his face. He kept sputtering and whining and I laughed because it was the first time I'd ever had the upper hand."

"What happened then?"

Grace wasn't ashamed to admit that she wanted to hear what happened next too. She'd always envied people with large families, anyone who had a sister or brother and cousins.

"I heard all our friends skating and playing hockey so I let Avery go." Jamie chuckled and shook his head. "All our buddies had decided they were tired of watching us fight so they'd formed their own teams and started playing without us."

Grace couldn't stop the laugh that escaped and flushed when Jamie flashed her a grin.

"What did you guys do?" Kayla asked.

"Well, Avery went home because he was so mad and embarrassed." Jamie shrugged but Grace could see the curve of his lips as he smiled. "I asked if I could join one of the teams and we played until it was too dark to see the puck. Then I went home and my mom had hot chocolate made. I sat in the kitchen with Avery and our sisters, Cara and Shana, and we all had some."

Grace smiled and stifled a sigh at the simple memory. Hot chocolate with mom and siblings. She'd been nineteen before she'd even tasted hot chocolate for the first time and she'd burned her tongue.

"I love hot chocolate." Kayla gave a dramatic sigh and flopped back on her pillow. "My mom never lets me have any."

A moment later the doctor walked in and Jamie moved out of the way with Grace as the doctor spoke to Kayla.

"I guess we didn't really get the chance to introduce ourselves properly."

Grace looked up at Jamie and smiled when she saw his hand held out towards her. "No. I suppose we didn't."

"I'm Jamie Forsythe."

"Grace Brown."

"Nice to meet you, Grace Brown."

Jamie's hand was larger than her own and rough to the touch. She felt him squeeze her hand and felt nothing but warmth radiating from his fingers.

"Do you visit your biggest fan often?" Grace nodded her head at Kayla and tried to extract her hand from Jamie's. He gave her another squeeze before releasing her and Grace felt lightheaded.

"Sadly, no." Jamie turned a fond smile on the little girl in the bed. She made a face at them as the doctor leaned over to check her heart rate. "But I may have to make more of a point of visiting."

"I think she'd love that."

Jamie stiffened and his smile faded. "Uh, how long is she...I mean, will she be here...a long time?"

Grace smiled and shook her head. "No. She's on the mend. She's been admitted a few times but this should be her last stay."

Some of the tension left Jamie's body and he nodded, satisfied. "Good. I hate seeing all these kids in here, so close to Christmas."

Grace nodded in agreement. It was a familiar sentiment shared by many visitors at this time of year. She felt Jamie shift closer and glanced up at him.

"So are you a hockey fan?"

"Sometimes."

His eyebrows rose and he smirked. "Sometimes? That hurts!"

Grace laughed and shook her head. "I watch with the kids. The rest of the time, I could take or leave it."

Jamie clutched a hand to his chest and gave her a mock-wounded look. "Wow. I guess I'm just going to have to convince you what you're missing out on."

Grace turned her face up to poke fun again but there was a look in his eyes that stopped the words in her mouth. The blue of his irises had darkened and he was leaning over her. She realized then just how much taller than her he was. She wasn't short, at five-foot-eight, but he was over six feet tall.

"What are your plans for the holidays?" Jamie smiled at Grace and she felt a disconcerting mix of attraction and sadness. Something in her expression must have shown because Jamie's smile dimmed and he lifted a hand to rub his chin. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to pry..."

"No, it's fine." Grace looked away. It was a perfectly reasonable question, given the circumstances. "I, uh, I work over the holidays, usually to cover for someone else." Someone else who'll want to spend the holidays with their family. She left the rest unspoken.

"Really? Wow. That's nice of you to do that."

When Grace looked up to see if he was mocking her, she saw a look of genuine admiration in his eyes.

"Really, I mean it. Not many people would give up Christmas or New Year's with their families to work. Even if you do love your job."

Grace winced at his words and looked away. She couldn't take this casual conversation anymore. "I should get back to my rounds."

The doctor had left the room already and Kayla was patiently flipping through a book while the two adults chatted. Grace started to walk away but Jamie stopped her with a hand on her wrist.

"I'm sorry. Did I say something wrong?"

Grace shook her head and sidestepped out of his reach. "No. I'm fine. Go ahead and tell Kayla the rest of your story." She gave him a weak smile and then disappeared out the door.

She stopped just out in the hallway and drew in a deep breath. You have to stop being so sensitive, she told herself. You can't fall apart every time someone asks a simple question.

It was a familiar mantra, one she went through time and again every holiday season. In fifteen years, it had never changed. Nothing could make the loss of her family any easier and nothing she did changed the way she felt.

With a sigh, she turned down the hall and went about her job. Her job, the only thing that could bring her out of her funk, even if it was temporary.

As she pulled out a file at the nurse's station, a mental image of sparkling blue eyes startled her and she stared off into space for a moment. Then Arlene got her attention and she was back to work.

****

It was a long shift after that. The hockey team remained in the hospital for several hours before they were done visiting. Grace worked around them, smiling and laughing along with the kids. She spotted Jamie a few times and avoided making eye contact. Later, when the players were gathering to leave, she heard a few of them asking where Forsythe had disappeared to.

She looked around, wondering the same thing. A thought occurred to her but she didn't know if he'd make that much of an effort for one sick kid. Still, she walked down the hallway and poked her head in the open door of Kayla's room. Their voices were low but animated and Grace felt her heart twinge.

"Are you two still talking about outdoor hockey games?" Grace moved into the room to stand at the foot of the bed.

Kayla and Jamie looked up with identical guilty expressions. Jamie had sprawled out on the bed next to Kayla and the little girl had a book open on her lap.

"Kayla was reading me her favorite story." Jamie winked at the little girl who dissolved into giggles.

Grace rolled her eyes but couldn't keep from smiling at the sight of a grown man sharing a secret joke with a nine-year old. "Well, I'm not sure if you want to get left behind. Your teammates are looking for you. Apparently everyone's ready to go."

Kayla's face fell but she set the book aside and turned to give Jamie a hug. "Thanks for spending the afternoon with me."

"Anytime, kiddo." He straightened and tickled her neck before stepping back. He faced Grace and gave her a sheepish grin. "I didn't mean to monopolize her time."

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