“What are we toasting?” I ask Luke as we inch closer to our friends.
“It’s not an occasion. The Russians toast to everything. Gribsy brushed his teeth this morning! Hey!” Luke lifts an invisible glass. “Varenkov blinked. Hey!”
I giggle. “Life is meant to be celebrated.”
“She’s exactly right,” Aleksandr says, handing me a shot of clear liquid, which I assume, without trying to sound stereotypical, is vodka, given the present company. “But the toast is always the same. “Za zdaróvye! Which means—”
“To your health,” I finish.
Luke flinches at my words as if they’re offensive, but Aleksandr’s eyes widen and his lips pull into a smile.
“You speak Russian?” Aleksandr asks, in English, thankfully.
“No, but one of my father’s best friends is Russian, so I’ve heard the toast before.”
No reason to mention that I had broken up with Arkady Stepurin, the son of dad’s aforementioned best friend, a few weeks before making the decision to become a traveling nurse and get the hell out of California. It’s much simpler to reference dad’s connection instead.
Despite coming up through the USA hockey system, and playing in the NCAA after that, Dad has friends in every league and every country. He and former Anaheim defenseman (now assistant coach) Igor Stepurin became close quickly. Igor played with the Ducks his entire career and Dad knew guys on the team. Those connections, along with their mutual interests in outdoor activities like hiking and water sports, created a friendship that’s still going strong.
As their bromance blossomed, Mom and Anna, Igor’s wife, were thrown together whether they liked it or not. But Mom is an opportunist—in the best way possible—and she roped Anna into being the “face” of multiple Healthy Girl advertising campaigns. That business relationship helped seal their friendship. When we moved to our current house, Igor and Anna bought the place next door the day it went on the market. The Stepurin family and ours are intertwined in so many ways.
Which made leaving town an absolute necessity after finding out Arkady had cheated on me when he traveled to play at away games. It’s not like I was head over heels in love—or all that surprised—but no girl ever likes to be used, and having been together two years, ours had been my longest relationship. Betrayal is going to hurt no matter what, but—to add another layer to the almost incestuous relationship—Arkady is also my brother Mason’s best friend.
In hindsight, I never should’ve gotten involved with someone who was so tied to our family. But how could I not? Falling for the literal boy next door is straight out of a romance novel. Though I’ve used the last few years to focus on my career, I’ll be the first to admit I want the love story someday.
But not with a hockey player. I’d sworn them off after Arkady.
Dad and Mason gave me an insider’s eye into the mindset and priorities of a professional athlete. His career—and quest for being the best—comes before everything else. And if a woman wants to be with him, she has to want to be there for the ride. She has to understand that he will be gone most of the time. He will have complete focus on the game, a borderline cockiness, and the selfishness—maybe even loneliness—that comes with that profession.
That’s not the life I want. I want someone who can have a career, but always put our relationship first. A job should be the means to have the kind of life you want, not what you put ahead of everything and everyone. It may be my own selfishness shining through. I have dreams and I don’t want to sacrifice those for someone else. In my ideal relationship, we should be able to grow and pursue our life goals together.
I totally understand why mom didn’t want to be a hockey wife.