I’ll be frank—I was disappointed in “Rejoice: A Burden”. It wasn’t well-written enough to be good, and it wasn’t weird enough to be interesting. So I thought I’d look for another novella. There are actually a surprising number of Christmas-themed hockey romance novellas. I ruled several out for being what appeared to be fan-service style stories that don’t do much by themselves except check in on previously-established characters from long-running series.
|Nickolai seems to be having some trouble with his laces|
|I kind of want the hat|
Noel is also a huge hockey fan, although she came to love the game as an adult.
But, merciful heavens, she loved the chaos, the fast pace, the noise, and – if she were going to be honest—the fights. Noel knew these were odd things for a quiet, mild-mannered woman to love, especially one who spent her days patiently fitting pieces of fabric together with perfect precision and the tiniest of stitches to paint a picture meant to last several lifetimes (6-7).
Meh. I’m a knitter, crocheter, spinner, and academic and I think most people would refer to me as mild mannered as well, and I love hockey, so I fail to see why Noel-the-quilter can’t.
The novella opens when Nickolai Glaznov, who plays center for the Nashville Sound, comes into Noel’s shop with his girlfriend, Tewanda, because it’s her birthday and she wants a quilt, having seen the aforementioned magazine article.
Tewanda is a caricature. I mean, romance novel characters, especially secondary ones, often are, but wow is Tewanda.
Dressed in gold shorts, a black tank with a wide, jeweled, gold belt, and really high platform sandals, she was tall and very beautiful with skin the color of milk chocolate, and cheekbones that looked like they could cut glass…. Tewanda’s plethora of gold bracelets jangled when she placed her hand on a jutted-out hip (8).
She’s not just a caricature in looks but actions, too. She’s demanding and when she finds out how long it takes to get a custom-made quilt settles for an already-made one—choosing based entirely on the highest price.
While Tewanda is choosing, Nickolai spots a quilt called Lazy Morning—designed to look like an unmade bed. Nickolai thinks it’s charming and enjoys all the details. Tewanda scoffs at it, thinking he only likes it because it’s cheaper than other quilts in the store.
“You won’t believe how cheap he is. Do you know who he is?” She didn’t wait for Noel to answer. “Nickolai-freaking-Glazov. The Nashville Sound signed him to a twelve-year, ninety-two million dollar contract. That’s not even counting what he gets paid for trotting out Gatorade, underwear, vodka, and Campbell’s Soup. He played in the Olympics! … And he bought a used Jeep! That’s how cheap he is!” Tewanda railed on (12, emphasis original).
Wow. Who does that? So everyone’s tense and Nickolai explains he’s not cheap, he just likes value. And quilts are art, so he’s happy to spend the money on the expensive one, which he helps Noel take down off the wall. After Noel boxes up the quilt, Nickolai and Tewanda walk out of her life and she never expects to see the Nashville forward again (other than on television.)
BUT! Six months later! It’s Christmas Eve and Noel stops by the house of the aforementioned Jackson Beauford, because it’s also now the home of her best friend Emory, his fiancée, and Noel has finished a quilt that’s to be a present for Jackson (from Emory.) Noel is on her way to Louisville for the holiday, her car full of stuff. She’s even wearing a silly Santa Claus sweater with which to amuse her niece.
Naturally, because this is a romance novella, the highway gets closed due to snow and she is convinced to spend the evening with the Beaufords, who have a guest—I’m sure you’re shocked to discover said guest is Nickolai. He and Tewanda have broken up, and he is delighted to see Noel again. He’s been thinking about her, not because she’s beautiful (although of course she is) but because her shop seemed so homey and cozy. And, you see, Nickolai has no family, raised in a Russian orphanage until his talent for hockey was discovered. (And holy crap, I recommend you do not google “Russian orphanage” if you feel like staying in a good mood.)
Dinner with the Beauford family is, of course, charming, and Noel and Nickolai end up seated next to each other. They bond over their mutual love of Goo-Goo Clusters, which Nickolai gets at Cracker Barrel, where he eats pretty much every day.
Noel spends the night at the Beaufords’ as well, because even the surface roads become conveniently impassable, but wakes up at 2am hungry because once she realized she was stuck at a family get-together with a family that wasn’t hers (she felt she was intruding), she lost her appetite. (Also, because her mother and sister were calling her every 10 minutes in their desperate attempts to guilt her into traveling despite the closed highway and demands that she try to explain how to cook, decorate, clean, and create everything she normally does for them but from a long distance.) So she goes looking for cookies at 2am, and finds Nickolai watching the Yule log, since Emory decided the family NEEDED a Yule log, and you can’t put out a Yule log without having bad luck, but they couldn’t let it burn by itself since the Beauford brothers’ parents and baby sister died in a fire, so fire is a Bad Thing in their family. (In other words, it’s all something of a contrivance to get Noel and Nickolai alone together.)
There’s tons of adorable flirting and cookie-eating. They bond over not wanting to be intruding on the family Christmas, and Nickolai offers to drive Noel back to her home.
“You want to go? I feel the same. I can drive on much worse than this. I am Russian. I lived in Canada. And I have a Jeep.” (33 emphasis original).
Nickolai always talks like this, in kind of stereotypical not-perfect English (or rather, generally grammatically correct, as above, but stilted). But it doesn’t get irritating—it’s just adorable. (Or adorkable, as I’ve come to think of this novella). There’s more flirting and discussion of their histories (Nickolai’s in an orphanage vs. Noel’s with her southern belle grandmother, mother, and sister). And then there is kissing.
He tasted like gingerbread, cider, and power (35).
Yeah… Well, could be worse, I suppose.
After much kissing, Nickolai convinces Noel to sleep beside him (as he watches the Yule log) and whispers endearments to her in Russian.
…Noel was difficult to wake. She had kept snuggling back into him and closing her eyes again. Somehow, that had made him feel more powerful than he ever had with a hockey stick in his hand (38).
At dawn he takes her back to her shop/apartment, and it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that they’ll be having sex. This bit is from Nickolai’s perspective, so upon returning to the quilt shop, he thinks of Tewanda, since that had been the only time he’d been there before.
Tewanda didn’t seem to want to believe he had meant it when he broke up with her, even after he changed his cell phone number. Though she had stopped coming to Sound games, she often turned up where he was—the practice arena, Cracker Barrel, the grocery store, even his condo, though he refused to allow her inside. His agent kept urging him to get a restraining order, but he didn’t need the government to keep a woman away from him. She was an annoyance, not a danger (38).
Well hello there, Heavy Foreshadowing! How are you? Having a merry Christmas?
(Also, the Cracker Barrel reference is not a typo or a one-off. It’s Nickolai’s favorite restaurant, to which he goes every day before practice and sometimes again afterward. Also, his favorite waitress there has been teaching him Southern-isms.)
Nickolai is delighted to discover that Noel actually likes hockey, but less pleased to learn that while she has a jersey it does not have his number on it.
“You like the sweater number of goaltender Emile Giroux more than twelve?”
“No. It was the only one in the Beauford Arts Council silent auction. If you had donated one, I would have bid on it” (39 emphasis original).
Nickolai promises her a jersey) and tickets to games. And Noel goes along with all this, flirting, agreeing to future plans, but all the while she assumes this is a one-off, that she’ll never see Nickolai again after this day. She calls it her snow globe, a moment out of time.
Nickolai likes Noel’s apartment, calling it cozy and describing her bedroom as happy and soft, “a room that holds its arms out to lovers” (43). He asks about what she does where, such as sewing in a chair in her bedroom.
“Yes. Tiny project.” Unlike his “project”—the one that still seemed to be growing against her (42).
Hello, Enormous Penis Trope, and how are you holidays?
They undress each other, and Nickolai is delighted that under her frumpy clothes (which he also continuously praises, actually), Noel wears sexy underthings.
For some reason, when Noel makes breakfast for Nickolai, she’s intense about making it decorative.
…she’d salvaged a few things from the shop to make a pretty table. After all, it was Christmas, Nickolai was a guest, and she had promised him breakfast. She’d spread the table with the length of red and green plaid she’d cut from a bolt downstairs. Then she’d thrown some cedar, pinecones, and berry-studded holly into a copper bowl and mixed in the antique glass ornaments she’d pulled off the tree. There had been no time to hem the makeshift tablecloth, but she’d clipped the edges with pinking shears. With her plain white dishes and hunter green linen napkins on the plates, it was good enough. At the last minute she placed candy canes—also stolen from the shop tree—on top of the napkins (48).
I… just… wow. If I had an unexpected Christmas guest, we’d be having bagels straight from the toaster and he’d have to work the coffee maker himself since I don’t drink it. Napkins would be folded paper towels. The coffee/tea mugs would be mismatched. This attention to decorating is in-character for Noel—after all, she’s the one who puts everything together for her family—but it still seems weirdly out of place here. (And later, Nickolai does comment on candy canes at breakfast.)
There’s more kissing at breakfast, and suddenly Noel’s “naughty bits sat up and begged for attention” (50). There’s a whole italicized conversation with them. And later, they show up several more times. (I mean, I assume Noel keeps her naughty bits with her at all times, but the anthropomorphizing of them is only occasional.)
Noel assumes that Nickolai will want to leave as soon as the roads are passable so he can get back to Nashville, but he wants to spend the day—and night—with her, which she and her naughty bits are more than happy with. They spend the day making love, talking about their pasts, and dozing off/sewing in front of the 24-hour run of A Christmas Story.
Unfortunately, Noel’s little snow globe of contentment, which she knows will be fleeting, shatters when the doorbell rings.
And there stood Tewanda wearing boots with four-inch heels and a calf-length, white fur coat. It looked like mink, maybe fake but probably not. …. Then she slinked over to where Nickolai stood. “Merry Christmas, baby.”
And she opened her coat to reveal that she was wearing nothing but a big red satin bow and emerald green underwear that made Noel’s look like Pollyanna’s pinafore (61-62).
Nickolai responds in angry Russian, to which Tewanda chides him with “English, dearest. I’ve told you a hundred times” (62). Apparently she’d gone to his condo, having made a copy of his key when he asked for it back at their break up (certain that he “didn’t really mean it”) and waited in his bed, but was upset that the “big, bad storm kept” Nickolai from home. (Apparently Tewanda figured out where Nickolai was by reading Gabriel Beauford’s tweets. Twitter is dangerous.)
Conveniently, Tewanda also wrecked her car on the way to Noel’s house, so she declares that either Nickolai take her home or she hangs out with them until someone comes to get her. Noel politely invites her in, but Nickolai declares that Tewanda should not get Noel’s hospitality and says he’ll take her to Nashville.
Noel assumes she’ll never see him again, but of course she can’t help but hope. She’s miserable all the next day while she’s working, until Nickolai does show up at closing time, sporting a black eye.
“Is nothing—an accident in practice. I collided with my teammate’s stick. It makes me look tough and desirable, no?” (67).
This book is so adorable. On the other hand, Nickolai should wear a visor (he says he doesn’t like the weight and it cuts down on visibility. But you know what else cuts down on visibility? Losing and eye. Wear a visor, Nickolai.)
He comes bearing gifts—a beach towel with the Nashville Sound logo since he was a little jealous that she’d had a towel from Gabriel (the NFL player), a whole bunch of other Sound-logo-emblazoned goodies, and his old jersey. Awwww.
He pointed to a tear and a dark brown stain. “I’m not allowed to wear this anymore because of the rip and the blood that left a stain.”
“Blood?” she said with some alarm.
“Sure. I got a bloody nose from a high-sticking Vancouver Canuck. I didn’t hit him back. He went to the penalty box, and I scored on the power play. The stain is how you know this sweater is authentic. Some women—they might buy a sweater to fool people into thinking they have a Sound boyfriend. But it doesn’t fool smart people. I have never given away a sweater before,” he said proudly.
They then go to Cracker Barrel for dinner. I hope Cracker Barrel gave these authors some money for all the advertising!! And Nickolai adorably asks if Noel will give him hospitality for the night as well.
The novella then skips ahead by three months. Nickolai is off to a weekend of away games, and Noel is headed to Louisville to visit family (including fitting an Easter dress for her niece before she can hem it and doing other odds and ends for her helpless kinfolk.)
Noel has gone to every home game since Christmas and the two of them even have a ritual where an hour and seven minutes before every puck drop, she texts Nickolai “Good luck, my darling!!!” because the first time she’d done that he’d scored the winning goal. Since then, Nickolai has scored at least once in every game. Damn, that is impressive streak, and it includes two hat tricks.
As Nickolai is leaving the quilt shop, they look at the Lazy Morning quilt again.
He looked from the quilt to her sweet smiling face. “Maybe…” Should he say it? Did he dare? “Maybe one day, we will sleep under it. Together. In our own home, no?” (76).
So clearly things are moving right along (and Noel’s response of “Maybe” is not as tepid as it might seem.) He tells her then for the first time that he loves her and she responds in kind. It’s very sweet. And since there are 60 pages left, you know it also signals some kind of Big Bad coming soon.
Back in Louisville, Noel is berated for not coming around enough and for insisting on watching a hockey game while home. Apparently, Noel has not told her family anything about Nickolai. Unfortunately for Noel, the whole family joins her as she watches the game in her brother-in-law’s den, not to watch the game but to talk over it and general be annoying.
Apparently the Sound is playing so well that even though it’s only mid-March, if they win this game they will clinch a spot in the playoffs, regardless of what happens in all future regular season games. Nickolai gets a hat trick, his third of the season, and the Sound wins. The post-game show includes an interview with Nickolai since he’d scored 3 out of the 4 goals the Sound had.
“One more question for you, Nickolai, and then I’ll let you go. You’ve been performing well all season, but since the beginning of the year, you’ve been a man on fire. How do you account for that?”
He laughed and let his face settle into a smile. “I’m a happy man.” Then he looked away from the reporter and straight into the camera. “Hello to my Noel. She’s with her family in Kentucky, watching on TV. I share this moment with you, zvedzda moya. Vot moe serce. Ono polno lubvi” (83).
The reporters manage a translation (since Nickolai won’t), and it’s “I share this moment with you, my star. Here is my heart. It is full of love” (84). Adorable, no? But this of course creates a bit of a crisis back in Louisville as Noel’s family demands to know all and informs her that she’s not worldly enough for a professional athlete and that she’s going to get hurt by him (according to her sister) or that he’s not good enough for them and he’s a stray (her mother and grandmother). Fortunately, her brother-in-law helps smooth everything over, since he understands hockey and that it’s not like Noel is about to move to Russia (as her mother fears) but nor will he move to Louisville to play in a minor league team in Lexington. (Note: There hasn’t been a minor league team in Lexington since 2001, but there used to be and it was called the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Because of course it was. They were the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate.) Unfortunately, once everyone realizes just how successful Nickolai is, they jump on the side of Noel’s sister, saying that there must be something more going on.
“And he’s dating you, Noel?” Deborah said. “There must be more to it” (88, emphasis original).
Deborah is Noel’s mother. And apparently a bitch. Because what the hell?
Unfortunately, this plays into Noel’s actual insecurities about herself and the relationship. Worse, the TV is still on, and she spies Tewanda at this away game, behind the reporter, wearing a Sound jersey, with Nickolai’s number on it. This leads to some Facebook stalking of Tewanda, where Noel discovers a ton of recent photos of things the team has done and a bunch of couples photos of Tewanda and Nickolai. A photo from just the day before of Nickolai playing street hockey with some kids even has the caption “I caught this one of my guy being sweet. But then he always is!” (89).
Maybe I’m a cynic (well, yes.) Maybe I know too many hockey-obsessed people who think they have more going on with players than they do (also, yes, actually.) But to me this whole bit of the book is broadcast just a little too much. Why in the world would Noel jump to the conclusions that she does—that Tewanda and Nickolai are still together and having a laugh over Nickolai also being with Noel? Noel has been with the wives and girlfriends at the home games. And how can she not know that you can go to any team shop and get a jersey—an authentic one, even—and get any player’s name put on it? Yes, in the next chapter the whole Facebook stalking thing gets elaborated on and we learn that Tewanda posts daily about her relationship with Nickolai, including photos and away games and such. But rather than assume that Nickolai, the man she’s in love with, is juggling two women and lying to her, why wouldn’t Noel assume that Tewanda is unstable (as Nickolai has said and as Noel has witnessed) and is making it all up? Surely there are no photos of her and Nickolai in a demonstrably current situation on the Facebook page.
Noel packs to leave Louisville ahead of schedule and ignores the phone call she receives from Nickolai. When she gets back to her shop, she’s pondering multiple questions, including why she hadn’t seen this coming since “men like Nickolai did not fall for mousy little quilters” (92) and why she’d not seen the signs, since Tewanda’s Christmas visit clearly indicated that she was very certain of Nickolai. (Well, yes. But not correctly certain.)
She does point out that she and Nickolai had never done anything connected with the team, including going to the restaurant where the team tended to hang out postgame. And they’d never stayed at his condo, only ever at Noel’s place. These two points are actually good points, rational ones, and I wish they’d been brought up much sooner into the Facebook stalking.
Regardless, Noel decides it’s time for a confrontation and heads for Nickolai’s condo (apparently he’ll be back from his away game in New Jersey already?) bringing with her everything he’d left at her place (which is quite a few things. Which is another indication, in my opinion, that this is a real relationship).
Nickolai is delighted by the surprise of Noel on his doorstep but is confused by her coldness. He (adorably!!) saved his hat trick puck for her but she doesn’t take it. When she finally gets around to explaining herself, it’s in that very romance-novel passive-aggressive way of “you know what you did” which I can understand when you’re super angry and super sure of yourself, but she really has no proof and is really only just confusing Nickolai. Fortunately, he gets a little angry, enough to say that he prefers that she explain herself.
Nickolai explains away everything, pointing out that Tewanda is a stalker and that she could buy a jersey. But Noel stubbornly refuses to believe any of it.
“I have done nothing to deserve your distrust, so I guess I can do nothing to deserve your trust” (100).
He tells her that he loves her and then lets her leave. Nickolai is so my hero and right now I kind of want to scream at Noel. I totally understand her insecurity, don’t get me wrong. But he literally has done nothing to deserve her anger, not even something that was harmless but seemed wrong. It’s entirely Tewanda’s doing.
It turns out that Nickolai has not been playing well since the breakup, to the point of being threatened with being sent to a sports psychologist. Team unity is also a problem, thanks to Nickolai, and now the press is wondering if the team deserves a place in the playoffs, even though they’d already earned it.
Noel sends her ritual text message for the first time since the breakup, but when questioned, says she’s only sending it for his sake, that she doesn’t mean that he’s her darling. This causes Nickolai to throw the phone across the locker room and swear (I assume, since it’s in Russian). The team applauds him.
Although it’s a home game against the Kings, Noel is watching on TV. Nickolai is playing in anger, fiercely but still badly, and ends up beneath a pileup. (This seems odd, because it’s not football, but okay.) Nickolai is left face down on the ice, and there’s blood, and they brought a stretcher to get him. The text assures us that this means something is Very Bad, and indeed, that is true. You never ever want to see a stretcher because ordinarily a hockey player will do everything he can to get off the ice under his own power.
Realizing she might lose him in a very permanent way, Noel heads for the hospital, stopping only in the shop to grab the quilt Lazy Morning and a handful of scrap fabric. At the hospital, she claims to be Nickolai’s wife, only to be disbelieved and to find out that Tewanda had beaten here there (although security got rid of her). Noel’s refused admittance until Gabe Beauford finds her, because he just happened to have been at the arena during the game and come to the hospital with Nickolai. It’s one of those awfully convenient moments that romance novels tend to have too many of, but it’s one of very few missteps in this book, so I’ll allow it. Besides, it was set up that Gabe was a friend of Nickolai’s way back in the beginning, so it’s not as bad as it could have been.
Gabe gets Noel past the nurses by telling them she’s Nickolai’s girlfriend and that he’d been asking for her (before he was knocked out with drugs.) Once they’re at Nickolai’s bedside, Noel points out that she and Nickolai have broken up, and Gabe admits he wasn’t actually asking for her, either. But since she showed up in concern, and since Nickolai, when he thought he was dying, had told Gabe to tell Noel that he loves her, Gabe is pretty sure that when Nickolai wakes up they’ll be back together.
Noel covers Nickolai with the Lazy Morning quilt, and while he sleeps, she adds to the quilt—a hockey puck and a pin cushion, symbols of the two of them, even though there wasn’t much logic to putting those two items onto a bed, since ouch.
Nickolai wakes up while Noel is on the phone with her mother, saying that even if Nickolai can no longer play hockey and choose to drive a garbage truck, or if he gets traded to anywhere, including Russia (and she points out that no, he can’t actually be traded to Russia), she won’t leave Nickolai as long as he wants her. Since he overhears all this, he’s overjoyed, and once he can get her attention (and some water), he asks if she means it. She says yes and apologizes for her behavior. He accepts and apologizes for not telling her that Tewanda had been stalking him.
Nickolai asks if the quilt is a present for him and she says it’s a trade—the quilt for the hat trick puck. But he threw away the hat trick puck, but promises to get her another. And he asks her to lie with him under the quilt, after admiring her additions (although she declines but the team wants to see him before he drifts out again.) He makes her promise she’ll come back and of course she does.
While the epilogue is indeed a party set in a wedding grove, it’s not a wedding and thus it’s merely an epilogue party and not an epilogue wedding. The Nashville Sound has won the Stanley Cup and for Nickolai’s day with it, he’s having a party at the Beauford Bend Planation (the same place where Nickolai and Noel unexpectedly spent Christmas Eve). Apparently, during the playoffs Nickolai got seven more hat tricks (and thus pucks to give to Noel.) Holy crap. There are players, good players, who never get a hat trick in their entire NHL careers. Wayne Gretzky, you know, the one they call The Great One?, had 50 hat trick or better games in his entire career, the record for any player. He also had the most hat trick or better games in a single season. How many was that? 10. I don’t know if that also counts post-season. But this makes 10 hat tricks for Nickolai this year, which basically makes Nickolai a Russian Wayne Gretzky… (There are only 2 other players in the NHL’s history who have 9 hat trick seasons. We are halfway through the 2014-2015 season and there have been fewer than 25 hat tricks scored so far in the entire NHL. Only two of the players on that list have more than one of those hat tricks. I’m just trying to illustrate how incredibly unlikely it is, and thus what an outstanding player Nickolai must be.)
Before the party starts, Nickolai and Noel are with the cup in the wedding grove, alone (except for the Keeper of the Cup), and he tells her to look inside it. There’s a bag from Cracker Barrel, so Noel assumes its Goo-Goo Clusters and she’s touched that Nickolai had thought of her even amidst the chaos of preparing for the party. But he tells her to look inside and of course she finds a small box from Cartier. She’s not surprised that Nickolai is proposing, since they’d pretty much been planning marriage since they’d gotten back together, but because he’d bought her such an expensive, over the top ring (platinum, blue diamond, high quality, etc.) She loves it but tells him she doesn’t need a ring, any ring, let alone such an expensive one but he says it’s high quality, like her, and it nourishes his spirit to give her such a gift. Noel is worried that this will overshadow his day with the Cup, but he says he’d bought the ring a few weeks previous in the hopes that he could give it to her on a day with the Cup because that makes the day perfect.
And the novella ends with the grove filling with people who are happy to spend the day celebrating Nickolai, and he observes that it feels like home.
All together now—awwwwwwww.
I highly recommend this book. Yes, it’s a bit sappy. Yes, Noel acts incredibly irritatingly when she thinks Nickolai is cheating on her. Yes, some of it’s over the top (like Noel’s family.) But overall, it’s charming and sweet but with enough of a sense of humor to keep it from being treacly. It was a perfect holiday treat.