“Jett,” a voice rings out and I stop in my tracks, leaning back to look inside the room from where my name was called. Sitting in a bed, propped on pillows, is a boy in his early teens. His bed is neatly made and he’s on top of the powder blue linens with a Nintendo Switch in his hand.
Taking a step backward, I turn his way and enter his room without invitation. He clearly recognized me, and I’m never going to not talk to a young fan.
Particularly one in a rehab hospital, missing his left leg from the knee down.
The boy grins big, eyes shining with incredulity that I’m in his room. “Whoa… you’re really Jett Olsson.”
“Last I looked at my driver’s license,” I quip and hold my fist out for him to bump.
“Think I could get an autograph?” he queries, his voice turning slightly timid now that he’s indeed confirmed I’m Jett Olsson, second-line right-winger for the Arizona Vengeance.
Current defending Cup champions.
“I’ll do you one better,” I assure him. “Let me go visit my friend, then I’ll come back and hang with you for a bit. Maybe you can give me a crack at that Nintendo Switch.
“Really?” he asks, brown eyes flaring in surprise.
“Awesome,” he exclaims and pumps his fist.
After I leave his room, I expertly navigate the halls of the Edward W. Freely Rehabilitation Hospital. It was originally built in the mid-fifties, but it went through an overhaul about five years ago. Now it’s completely state of the art with gleaming hardwood floors, colorful artwork gracing the walls, and large, spacious rooms filled with home-styled furniture to make the long-term residents feel more comfortable.
It’s where my buddy and teammate, Baden Oulett, has been recovering following his last spinal surgery three weeks ago. Since then, he’s miraculously regained not only feeling, but movement in his legs.
It’s not the type of movement that lets him get out of bed and run out of here, but it’s a start. It’s the reason he needs to start working his ass off to regain function.
It’s also the reason he needed to pull out of the deep depression he’d sunk into after his injuries. His price for saving a woman from a mugging was a lacerated spleen, a brain hemorrhage, and a long scar down the side of his face. Those weren’t the worst though.
The worst was a spinal contusion, the result of a vicious crowbar blow, paralyzing Baden from the waist down.
Things were grim until his latest surgery, but now sunshine seems to be illuminating this rehab hospital.
He’s probably sick of it, but all of his teammates visit regularly. His parents are in Montreal and we’re his family here, so not a day goes by without someone checking in on him.
I veer away from the hall that leads to Baden’s room and head toward one of the rehab gyms. These gyms have specialized equipment, designed to assist those suffering from paralysis. I know I’m visiting during his daily physical therapy session, but I’m dying to see him in action.
I pass more rooms with open doors and some of the longer-term residents wave or call out greetings as I’m not a stranger to these halls.
I find Baden at a set of parallel bars and my heart quickens to see him actually standing up. He’s in an overhead harness, a therapist before him, and another behind. Sturdy braces on his legs, his arm muscles bulging as his hands grip the bars. I’m amazed that he’s holding himself up completely on his own.
Baden is standing on his own.
He doesn’t see me, and I don’t say a word, not wanting to break his concentration. His face is etched in pain, jaw locked so tight that the red scar that runs from temple to jaw on the left side of his face actually goes pale.
“Okay… first step,” the therapist to his front says. “Connect that brain to your leg.”
Baden’s forehead furrows, he grunts with effort and with a heave manages to sort of swing his right leg forward maybe three inches.
Three small inches and I feel like he just won an Olympic medal, and I should know… I’ve got one.
Gleaming silver from playing for my home country of Sweden in the last winter Olympics.
I want to cheer for Baden, but I hold myself in check, watching as he uses every bit of strength and determination to force his legs to move. Sweat breaks out on his forehead, trickling down his temple. His arm muscles quiver as they hold his six-foot-three frame upright. Since his injury, while his legs may have been dead, his upper body was not, and he’s religiously thrown every bit of strength training to that part of his body. As such, he’s not relying on the harness or trusting the nominal strength in his legs, but rather letting his arms be his main support.
With incredible focus, he manages to take perhaps five or six small steps, moving forward no more than a total of a few feet before he starts to sag. With efficiency, the therapist at his rear brings a wheelchair and they gently lower him while disengaging the harness straps.
I start a slow clap of appreciation as I walk toward Baden. His neck twists and he grins when he sees me.
“Someone’s ready to get back on the ice,” I say as I meet up with his wheelchair on the other side of the parallel bars.
Some might think that insensitive, since chances are Baden will never step foot on the ice again, but I’ve come to know him well over the last year and a half.
Even better since his injury and all the visits I’ve made to him in the hospital, and now the rehab center.
Baden is at a place where we can add levity, tinged with hopefulness, to the conversation. While he was doing chest presses in the hospital gym the other day, he told me with a sly grin that he was thinking of giving up being a goalie to become a right-winger like me. Preposterous, even when he was in optimal health, and we had a good laugh.
Wiping the sweat off his head, he replies, “Slap some skates on me. I’m ready.”
Baden gives a nod to his therapists, a silent thank you for their work, and turns the wheelchair toward me. He’s become adept at moving around in it, and has taken to cutting wheelies in the hallway, sometimes catching me in the shin with the footrest.
To which he just laughs and laughs.
Yeah… there’s been a huge change in Baden’s spirits since the feeling returned to his legs. I’m not sure if he cares about playing again—which is the longest of long shots—but is overjoyed at the potential to walk.
We chat about last night’s game against the Houston Jam, a seven to two route that almost made me feel bad for the other team.
I only had an assist, but it was a damn good one that set up Kane for an unbelievable deke, followed by a backhanded shot for a goal. As a goalie, Baden agrees it was practically unstoppable.
“How was the birthday party?” Baden asks good-naturedly as he turns into his room.
“Good,” I reply, thinking back to the low-key affair the night before last with Kane, Jim, and Bain at the Sneaky Saguaro. Dinner and beers to celebrate me turning twenty-six.
Bain and I flirted with the waitresses in skimpy outfits, but for the most part… it was about hanging with my linemates. Normally Baden would have been there, but he passed, not wanting to go out in public in his wheelchair, which I understood.
Riggs, one of our defensemen, couldn’t come because his sister had a school project he had to help with. At least, that was his excuse. I’m not quite sure what’s true. We still know next to nothing about the man and why he’s guardian to his seventeen-year-old sister.
My eyes go to the large plant in his window, with vines dripping over the edge and trailing on the floor. “I see your hero plant is doing well.”
Baden snorts. He complains about that damn thing and having to take care of it every time I come, but he must enjoy doing it because the thing is thriving. It was given to him by the woman whose life he saved. I’d think it would be a bad reminder of his injuries, but I guess he chooses to look at the gratitude it represents. Regardless, he doesn’t say much about the incident at all, and the men who attacked the two of them have never been found. I suspect it’s hard to get closure with that hanging over your head.
Baden doesn’t bother transferring out of his wheelchair onto his bed or one of the two deep-cushioned chairs set by the window. He merely turns his wheelchair toward the chair I take and latches the brake, slouching down comfortably.
“Give me the thirty-second update on everyone,” he demands.
There’s no need to talk specifics on stats. Baden has been following our games diligently because he’s still a member of this team.
No… Baden is talking personal.
“Hmmm,” I say, lifting my eyes briefly to the ceiling to ponder. “Jim and Ella have fully reconciled.”
“Excellent,” Baden says with a nod, motioning with his hand to continue.
I fill him in on the others. Blue and Erik are due to have their baby next month and Erik is having mini panic attacks when we travel for away games. We laugh over the fact that Kane is actively participating in planning his wedding to Mollie and seems to enjoy looking at flowers and venues, something the guys all give him shit for.
“Looks like Dominik and Willow are going to adopt Dillon,” I tell Baden.
“Holy shit,” he exclaims. “That’s awesome. Is the little dude still killing it in peewee hockey?”
I nod with a laugh. “Yeah… I bet he’s headed straight for a position on our team.”
Dominik Carlson, the owner of our team, and his new wife, Willow, have been fostering the young boy for several months. I always thought their end goal was adoption, but I don’t think they really wanted to say that out loud, lest they jinx themselves.
“How in the hell have you really been doing?” I ask him, although I’m pretty up to date. While I visit as much as I can, I talk to Baden every day via text—which is most often—and also by phone.
Baden grins slyly and shakes his head. “Uh-uh. You know all there is to know about my narrow existence. I’m working out and rehabbing. That’s it. I’d rather know how you’re doing and if you’ve officially struck out with the hot new social media chick in the front office.”
I sigh loudly, because he’s talking about Emory Holland, who has become the bane of my existence. She’s utterly unmoved by my charms.
Our first meeting didn’t go so well. She was hired as the Vice President of Digital Marketing and Analytics by the Vengeance. I have no fucking clue what that even means, but one program she’s instituted is a fan outreach program via Instagram. She met individually with all the players to assess their social media footprint and give advice on how to tailor it to draw in more fans.
During our first meeting, she was all business.
I was trying to get a date.
I crashed and burned hard, her letdown line being “I don’t date co-workers,” but I could tell she just wasn’t interested in me. Admittedly, that stung.
“I’ve got a new plan,” I reply to Baden with a grin. “I’m actually meeting with her this afternoon.”
“And what’s the plan?” he asks.
“I’m going to show her I’ve got the best social media game around. She’s going to be so impressed by the fact I’ve done exactly what she’s asked for, and I’ve done it with exuberance, that she’ll have no choice but to agree to a date out of gratitude.”
Baden snorts. “Be prepared to get shot down again if that’s your game.”
“She’s a tough nut to crack,” I admit thoughtfully.
“I found her delightful,” Baden says, and I blink at him in surprise. He laughs at my reaction. “Yeah… she came here to meet with me. Asked if I’d consider starting an IG account to track my rehab and recovery.”
I frown. That seems a bit intrusive.
Baden reads my expression and assures me, “It’s all good. She was very non-pressure and only wanted me to think about it. But I think it could help inspire others who are facing the same types of injuries. I want them to see there is hope.”
It hits me in the feels—yes, us hockey players have them—that Baden wants to help others out of this tragedy. He’s just that type of dude.
Since he’s being open, I take the risk and ask, “What exactly are your chances of playing again?”
Baden manages a smile, but it’s one of almost pity for being scared to ask the question. “There’s a very slim chance. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
“Which you can do,” I assert.
“Which I can absolutely do,” he affirms, but then his expression sobers. “But I’m not setting it as my goal right now. I just want to be able to walk functionally for now, then I can set my next goal.”
That’s smart. Setting yourself up for unrealistic milestones can only lead to massive failure and crush further dreams.
We talk more about the season and how it’s progressing. As the defending Cup champions, the pressure to outperform ourselves is immense. As it stands, we’re second in our division, which is nothing to sneeze at, but we need to make a push to take over that first spot.
We gossip about the other players. So many this past year settling down.
Not on my horizon, of course, but I’m happy for my teammates who are satisfied with the monogamous lifestyle.
I glance down at my watch. “Dude… got to get going.”
I stand from my chair as Baden unlatches his brakes to wheel alongside me to the door. “I thought you weren’t meeting with Miss Holland until this afternoon?”
“I’m not,” I say with a laugh, sticking my hand out for him to grasp and I bend to pull him in semi-close and clap him on his shoulder—classic bro hug. As we release, I tell him, “But I’ve got a Switch date with some kid in the children’s unit.”
While I’ve never wanted kids myself, because that’s a fuck lot of responsibility that just doesn’t seem appealing to me, I never, ever miss a chance to hang out with someone else’s kid.
Because I know, I can always hand them back over and walk away without looking back.
I type the last few lines of a post I’m doing on the team’s Instagram account, accompanied by a photo of our owner, Dominik Carlson, with his wife, Willow, and their foster son, Dillon. It’s a candid shot I took in the owner’s box during the game last night.
While I didn’t have an invitation to sit in the box for the game, I had a lanyard identifying my position with the organization—Vice President of Digital Marketing and Analytics—and it’s been made known that I have free access to go pretty much anywhere to shoot pictures for our social media accounts.
And I take advantage of it.
Granted, I’m not barreling my way into the locker room while the guys are getting dressed—which my sister thinks is a crying shame—but when Dominik hired me to help make his hockey team “America’s Team” through social media outreach, I demanded he give me a lot of personalized access.
He had no qualms granting it.
I lean back in my chair, studying the photo before I publish the post. It was taken from behind the Carlson family, with Dillon standing between Dominik and Willow in the first row of the box. The game was too exciting to sit down, and the part that touched me the most was both Willow and Dominik touching the boy, seemingly unaware the other was doing the same.
Willow’s hand was pressed against Dillon’s back. Dominik’s hand was curled around the side of the boy’s neck, and Dillon was leaning slightly into him. The tender family moment hits me in all the feels.
I press the button to post it, and I know it’s going to hit our followers in the feels too.
All three hundred and forty-three thousand of them.
Grimacing, I roll that number over in my head. It’s too small. The Carolina Cold Fury has over a million followers.
Granted… our team is only a year old, but we’re defending Cup champions. I’ve got to get that number up.
I switch my attention over to my second screen and type a note into my social media organizer to schedule a few signed jersey giveaways next week. It’s been slow growing since I started a few weeks ago, but I’m relentless. I’m pretty sure that’s why Dominik hired me.
My phone rings and I lean to the side to open the deep desk drawer where my purse is stashed. I know the lure of my own personal social media and chatting up my family members via text so I keep my phone tucked away during my workday.
Out of sight, out of mind type of thing.
But that’s Jenna’s ring tone and I always have time to answer her call.
“What’s up, buttercup?” I answer cheerfully. While my mind was just spinning with analytics and progress still to be made, I release it easily for my sister.
“Not much,” she says, then gives out a slight groan. I can envision what she’s doing… in her desk chair, reaching her hands up overhead and arching backward to ease the tension in her back. She can sit there working for hours without a break, but it takes a toll on her physically sometimes.
I’ve been trying to get her to join me at the gym for some yoga or pilates, but she’s become too much of a homebody. And since she’s self-employed as a freelance editor, she’s tied to the house we share more than ever before.
“I was thinking of making some braised short ribs for dinner,” she says after letting out a breath of release against her stretch. “Some garlic rosemary potatoes.”
“Delish,” I reply. The one thing I can’t help but appreciate is that as Jenna has become more tied to the house, our meals have gotten infinitely better.
“Can you stop at the wine store and grab a good red?” she asks.
That gives me pause.
Jenna and I both enjoy a good wine with dinner, or without for that matter. But it’s usually on a weekend or a special occasion.
It’s a Tuesday in mid-November. Nothing special at all today.
“Did you get it?” I ask hesitantly, my body starting to bristle with excitement.
There’s a long pause, and then she shrieks. “I got it!”
I shriek too, and then remember that my office is in the executive suite for the Arizona Vengeance and I’m far too professional for that, so I rein it in.
My voice goes down to a frenzied whisper. “Oh my God. I’m utterly thrilled for you, Jenna.”
Because my sister just got hired by the Phoenix Tribune as a copy editor, ending her up and down existence of trying to find work as a freelancer. She’s been needing stability, and this will give it to her.
“Best of all,” she chirps into the phone. “I get to work remotely.”
My heart sinks. I had hoped this was going to be a way for her to be forced out of the house more, but apparently not.
I don’t mention that though. Instead, I keep my enthusiasm high. “I’ll stop and get us the very best bottle of red to go with the braised short ribs.”
“You’re the best, sis,” she replies.
“No, you are,” I reply back.
And we’re both right. The two of us have leaned on each other tremendously the last few years.
We are one another’s rock.
We chat for a few more minutes and I get details on her new job, but the front desk receptionist sends an IM through our organization’s personal messaging system letting me know my two o’clock appointment has arrived.
I grimace internally.
Jett Olsson, the relentless, although admittedly gorgeous hockey player, who has gone to ridiculous measures to get me to go out with him. Many women would be charmed, but I don’t have time for it, so it’s more of an irritation than anything.
“Gotta go, Jenna,” I say to my sister as I respond to the message, asking the receptionist to send him back. I promise Jenna I’ll be home promptly at 6:30 PM and we disconnect.
Standing from my desk, I take in a deep, fortifying breath and let it out slowly. Smoothing down my skirt, I tug at the silky bow tied at my throat. My outfit is on point today, like it is most days. I’m driven by fashion trends, even breaking them on occasion, and today I’m wearing a black, high-waisted skirt that hugs my body and comes down just below my knees. And when I say high-waisted, I mean it comes up high enough to almost cover my rib cage. I paired it with an emerald green, long-sleeved silk blouse with a bow at the throat, and black boots. It’s an interesting look with the form-fitting skirt starting just below my breasts and the billowy blouse above it that sort of froths out a bit.
I wore my hair down today, the raven locks parted down the middle and hanging in long, spiky layers I’d straightened to perfection. My hairstyles are as diverse as my clothing choices. Just yesterday I went with old-fashioned pin curls.
The one thing that always stays consistent are my black-framed glasses, which I wear routinely at work. I have contacts which I don’t mind wearing, but I’ve found that people tend to take my work in analytics a bit more seriously if I look studious.
There’s a short knock on my door and Jett Olsson is walking in. I push back the initial shock that has come the other two times we’ve met, mainly the healthy appreciation over how gorgeous he is.
Unlike many hockey players, he wears his dark blond hair cropped close to his scalp and has perpetual, but a perfect amount of, facial hair on his face. His eyes are dark blue—the color of pure denim—and his Swedish accent is faint, but not unsexy.
Yup… I push that all aside and move around my desk, professionally holding out my hand for him to shake. “Thank you for coming in, Mr. Olsson.”
Rather than align his palm to mine for a business-like shake, he scoops mine up, turning my knuckles upward. I know his intent before he can attempt to lift my hand to his mouth to graze his lips over. It’s how he greeted me the first time we met and it caught me off guard, embarrassing me.
Jerking my hand from his, I chastise, “You know… men stopped kissing women’s knuckles in the late eighteen-hundreds.”
I have no clue if that’s true as history was not my major in college.
Sweeping my hand toward one of the guest chairs opposite my desk—indicating he should sit for our meeting to start—I move back around to my chair.
“Not true,” he says, and it stops me in my tracks. I look over my shoulder at him. “I often greet a woman that way and last I heard, it’s the twenty-first century.”
I roll my eyes, turning toward my chair. “Kiss a lot of women, do you, Mr. Olsson?”
“It’s Jett,” he corrects me and adds, “Why? Are you jealous?”
“Hardly.” I hope my droll tone clearly implies that I don’t find him amusing.
I settle into my chair, my spine straight, and clasp my hands on the desk as I stare at Jett. His blue eyes stare right back at me, a slight smirk on his face.
I decide to wipe it off quickly. “I appreciate you coming in to discuss your IG account, Mr. Olsson. So far, it’s the worst one I’ve seen out of all your teammates.”
It’s frustrating that his smirk doesn’t slide a millimeter, but his eyes flash with surprise. “I thought you’d be impressed with what I did.”
“Impressed?” I ask incredulously. “You didn’t do a single thing I asked you to do.”
I think back to the meeting we had to discuss the team’s new policy on player interaction on social media. I went over the rules and guidelines with him the same as I did for every other player.
“I did exactly what you said,” he repeats, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He flips through a few screens and then turns it for me to see. It’s a post I recognize. “You said to take bright pictures, close up if possible, to catch the browser’s eye.”
I grit my teeth, because yes, I said that.
And yes, the picture of a bouquet of pink tulips is perfectly eye-catching. I can’t see what he wrote from this distance, but I’ve already read it. It said something like, These are my favorite flowers to give.
“That’s not real,” I scold him. “It’s totally staged and made up.”
“Not true. I’d very much like to give tulips to someone.”
I grit my teeth again, and close my eyes for a moment, calling on myself to remain calm. He is absolutely infuriating.
When I open my eyes, I notch up my British accent, which has become Americanized over the almost fifteen years I’ve lived in the States. “Mr. Olsson… during our last meeting, you relentlessly asked me personal questions, attempting to get me to agree to a date with you. As you’ll remember, I firmly shot you down. And one of those questions you managed to get me to answer was that tulips are my favorite flower.”
He was so sly about it too. Posing the question as if he was merely asking for clarification on how to take good photos.
“So, for example,” he’d queried. “If you were to take a photo of your favorite flowers to post, how and where would you position them?”
I fell for it hook, line and sinker. “I’d tie up a bouquet of tulips with a ribbon that matched their petals and lay them on some worn wooden boards rather than a vase.”
And just like that, he learned my favorite flower.
His very first IG post was a picture of tulips with a message meant for me, not his fans.
It didn’t stop there. He continued to finagle personal information out of me under the guise of wanting to learn the mechanics of engaging social media, and I fed him a ton of information.
His account turned into a not-so-subtle attempt to charm me into a date.
I take in another breath as Jett lowers his phone, resting it against his thigh.
Encased in a pair of amazingly well-fit jeans.
Shaking my head, I clear my throat and lift my chin to show my authority over him. “Mr. Olsson—”
“Mr. Olsson,” I repeat. “Your IG account should reflect who you are as a person. It has to be genuine and it has to be true to yourself.”
“I am being true to myself,” he says, and I understand his message. He’s being relentless in his pursuit and that is who he is. He doesn’t take “no” for an answer very easily.
“I am never going to go on a date with you,” I say firmly, deciding to just cut to the chase. “So if you will just accept that and start tailoring your account to reflect—”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he interrupts me with a roguish grin, and I’m so caught off guard by the dimple I can see poking out through the scruff on his face, I don’t shut him down.
He takes my momentary silence as permission to proceed. “Let me take you out to dinner. You spend some more time helping me understand how to be genuine in my posts, where I promise to follow your instructions, and I will never ask you out on a date again.”
My eyes narrow. “You’re saying if we go out for a meal—really a business dinner—you’ll legitimately let me teach you how to use your social media and you’ll follow my instructions, then you won’t ever ask me out again?”
Jett nods with a resounding expression of determination. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“You promise you’ll leave me alone,” I press.
“On a personal basis, yes. On a professional basis, I imagine we still have to work together.”
I settle back in my chair a minute, letting my brain search for some sort of loophole.
Some means by which he’s tricking me.
I also remind myself I won’t let myself get charmed by him at this dinner, and that I am going to stick to my absolute policy of not only not dating co-workers, but not dating anyone for that matter.
I’m not interested at this point in my life.
It’s still a little too personal, so I make a counteroffer. “I’ll agree to dinner with you, solely in a business capacity to help you learn more about how to do your social media in an authentic way. But I’m paying for dinner.”
“Deal,” he says quickly.
Did I miss a loophole?
“Tonight?” he queries hopefully. The Vengeance doesn’t have a game.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry, but I already have plans.”
Jett isn’t dissuaded. “Saturday night.”
I don’t have any reason to say no. My Saturday nights are relatively boring, and I’d just as soon get this over with.
“Fine,” I clip out. “But business only.”
“Business only,” he agrees.
Coach Perron doesn’t believe in whistles while coaching. He has a booming voice he prefers to use if necessary, but mostly he just observes us while we do practice drills. The assistant coaches are more involved during practices and they carry out Perron’s coaching philosophies to perfection. If a comment is needed, Coach won’t hesitate to make it, but his most important words are usually reserved for strategy discussions while watching game film and pre-game pep talks.
But when he deems practice over—meaning we have sufficiently met his expectations for the day, he’ll call out, “That’s enough for today.”
As he did just now. We file off the ice, a few hanging back to get some extra practice in or just goof off with some extra drills.
I’m gassed, however, as I got in a workout before practice, and I want to get home to relax a bit before my “date” tonight with Emory.
In the locker room, I shower and change into fresh clothes at my cubby, while intermittently chatting with various teammates. The locker room is a place where many of us take the time to get caught up on the day-to-day lives of our teammates, and it’s been affectionately dubbed The Euchre Club by our captain, Bishop Scott. He told us his parents belonged to a neighborhood social club where their purpose was to play the card game of euchre, but really it was a way to get together with friends to have some drinks, chat, and sometimes even gossip.
Outside of the drinks, our locker room often resembles just such a social event.
“Mollie is being such a hippie,” Kane says as he stretches out on one of the benches, hands clasped behind his head, eyes on the ceiling.
I cut a glance to Bain, who smirks back at me. We both recognize Kane’s tone. He’s getting ready to wax poetic about his fiancée and wedding planning.
While deep down, I’d never begrudge my friend if planning a wedding was bringing him joy, as a man, I simply can’t do so without giving him a little bit of shit in return.
Kane’s eyes move from the ceiling to me. “Do you know what she wants now?”
I withhold a laugh, because although Kane’s words alone sound as if he might be complaining, his tone says that he finds whatever Mollie is doing utterly fucking adorable.
I take the bait. “What’s that?”
Kane curls up from his supine position, planting his feet on either side of the bench, and crosses his arms. He shakes his head, all bemused like. “Here I am… incredibly wealthy and can pretty much afford anything she wants as she marries the love of her life—that being me, of course—and she wants roadside wildflowers.”
I glance at Bain, who shrugs, and then back to Kane. “What does that even mean… roadside wildflowers?”
Kane gives an airy wave of his hand. “You know… like daisies and shit.”
“She wants to cut wildflowers,” Bain drawls slowly for affirmation. “Like daisies and shit… for the wedding?”
“For her bouquet,” he clarifies. “I mean… I thought roses or something more expensive—not that I know what that would be, as I don’t know flowers—but I sure as hell know I can afford more than wildflowers off the side of the road.”
Once again, Bain and I exchange bewildered looks.
“Or,” a deep voice drawls from behind us and we turn to see Aaron standing there. Our first-line defenseman only just recently found himself falling hard for a woman, so maybe he’s got a more qualified opinion. “I expect daisies and other such wildflowers are hard to come by in the desert of Arizona. Flowers such as that might have to be imported, which means, they’ll probably cost you an arm and a leg. I’m expecting Mollie’s not quite the free-spirited hippie you think she is, and merely a woman of particular taste who will end up spending a pretty penny on your wedding.”
Everyone can see this reasoning makes sense and moreover, that Kane really likes the thought of importing expensive roadside wildflowers for his bride-to-be.
But before he can prattle on about it—because a man can only take so much wedding talk, especially when he’s firmly opposed to settling down—I bring The Euchre Club to the next level.
“I’ve got a date with Emory Holland tonight,” I say smugly.
“You’re full of shit” another voice pipes in and a head pops around the corner of the row of cubbies, followed by his body. It belongs to Dax Monahan, first-line left-winger, and he’s wearing nothing but a shower towel around his waist.
His eyes are wide with surprise and he is one of the handful of teammates who have been giving me hell for pursuing Emory. They all saw me crash and burn the day she was introduced to the team. They also know she rebuffed my attempts to wrangle a date during our social media meeting.
“I’m picking her up for dinner at seven tonight,” I reply casually.
The men are silent for a moment, exchanging glances.
Finally, Kane says, “That sounds like a date.”
“Admittedly, it does,” Dax grumbles.
“Sounds like dinner to me,” Bain points out. “There could be any number of reasons for having dinner. It could be business related.”
I try to wipe the smirk off my face as I work on stowing the sweaty workout clothes I’d worn to the arena this morning in my duffel.
“To be clear,” Dax says slowly, leaning against the end of the cubbies and crossing his arms over his chest. “You asked her out on an actual date, and she accepted.”
“Not quite,” I admit. “I got her to agree to dinner to discuss social media with the stipulation that if she agreed to just one dinner, I’d never bother her again.”
“That’s not a date,” Bain says confidently.
“It is to me.” I turn and face him. “Besides… she’s attracted to me.”
Kane snorts. “What does that have to do with anything?”
My head twists his way. “It means that she’s not completely immune to my charms. It means I have something going for me.”
“Physical attraction means nothing in the grand scheme of things,” Tacker says as he comes up behind Kane. He’s already showered and dressed. Lifting an arm up and resting his wrist on top of a cubby, he crosses one leg over the other. “Not saying attraction isn’t important, but the physical part isn’t going to get her past her reservations of going out with you in the first place.”
I’m dubious. I’m pretty sure attraction is the key ingredient in two people hitting it off, and it’s certainly the main reason she caught my attention. Admittedly, her continued refusal to give me the time of day outside of business has me doubly intrigued.
“It’s true,” Bain says with a solemn nod of his head. “How many of us have gone out with someone that was super-hot in all the right ways, and they ended up being annoying, clingy, bitchy, or just plain nasty to be around?”
“Truth,” Kane replies as he and Bain fist bump in solidarity.
I’ll agree with that. I’ve had my share of sneaking out of a girl’s bed to avoid engaging with an awful personality. Bain is right… you can want to fuck someone but not really want to talk to them.
That’s not the case with Emory. I’m totally attracted to her and I can tell she’s attracted to me in return, but I don’t want a one-night stand. I mean… if that’s all she’ll give, I’ll take it, but there’s something about her that goes past the physical.
I need to find out what it is.
Nabbing my duffle, I hitch it over my shoulder. “My brothers,” I say sticking out my fist and moving it left to right for each guy to bump. “Your advice is ever appreciated.”
“Glad we can help,” Dax says.
Tacker nods and adds on. “We’re also going to take bets on whether or not you strike out once you leave.”
I snort, knowing he’s not joking. I’m sure the odds are against me too.
Doesn’t matter. At the moment, I have a date with Emory Holland, and I’m going to do my damndest to score a second one before the night is over.
I head out of the locker room, through the outer ring of the basement level of the arena, and to the stairs that take me up one flight to the player parking lot.
Half of the guys have already cleared out and I enjoy the light breeze that hits me as I step into a perfect November day that’s hovering right at seventy degrees. I head toward my vehicle—a Lamborghini Urus—because I’ve got a thing for nice cars. When I made it to the NHL from the Swedish Hockey League, the amount of money paid to me was overwhelming.
And so very tempting to just spend it all on expensive clothes and fine cars.
Let’s just say I had a few years where I blew through almost every dime I had earned, and my early twenties are a bit of a blur. But since coming to the Vengeance, I’ve settled. I’ve had some amazing role models to pattern myself after, most of all our owner, Dominik. He takes a very active interest in his players and part of joining his team in the expansion draft meant having a very serious conversation about an extended future with the team.
I remember that meeting vividly because I was nervous as hell. But Dominik put me right at ease and even took on a bit of a paternalistic role which included asking me if I was investing my money for retirement.
I was like, “Retirement? I’m going to play hockey forever.”
God, I was such a dumhuvud when I think back to my foolish thinking. Dominik pointed out to me the average span of an NHL career is only five years and I about had a heart attack. I’d been with the Toronto Blazers for four years before coming to the Vengeance and if I was an average statistic, I didn’t have much opportunity left to secure my future with my earnings. Noting my panic, Dominik reminded me I could have many more years left, but that I shouldn’t take them for granted. I left Dominik’s office with a recommendation for a good financial planner, and I’ve since changed my spending habits.
Except for the nice cars. The Urus is badass. Sleek, sexy, and functional as well, and it’s a purchase I refuse to have regrets over. Past that and a nice condo downtown, I sock away most of my money for retirement.
As I make my way to my Urus, I hear something clatter to the ground on the other side of an SUV one spot over, followed by a string of curses. I recognize the vehicle and voice.
My linemate, Riggs Nadeau.
I drop my duffle near the front bumper of my car—as I’d backed carefully into my spot—and walk around the back of his vehicle.
He’s squatting near the front tire, which is clearly flat, with a tire iron in hand. I watch as he puts it back onto the lug nut near the bottom and note his knuckles are bloody. I’m guessing his hand slipped and had a nice collision with the concrete, thus the clatter and curse.
“Need help?” I ask him.
Riggs is as surly as they come, but he’s also unflappable. He doesn’t even jerk in surprise from my words or appearance. Casting me a short glance, he shakes his head. “Nah… I’m good.”
I lean against the back passenger door. “Bloody knuckles to the contrary.”
Riggs snorts but works the lug nut loose with ease before moving to the next one. “I’ll just tell anyone who asks I got them in a fight.”
That would not be a hard sell on anyone asking about such an injury. Riggs is a brawler and while he might not seem to connect personally to us as teammates, he takes great offense if one of us are attacked on the ice.
That’s been Riggs from the start.
He takes his job with the Vengeance seriously, at least he has since his not-so-great start when he was late for the first day of practice. Word around The Euchre Club was that he had some type of issue with his younger sister he’s caring for, but no one knows for sure. He’s tight as a clam when it comes to his personal life.
It doesn’t stop me from poking though. “What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
“Not much,” he mutters, his concentration mostly on the flat tire. “Hang around the house, I guess.”
“With Janelle?” I hazard a guess.
“Yup,” he replies and offers nothing else.
“She’s like… seventeen or something, right?”
Riggs glances up at me, and I actually feel bad that I’ve not once asked specifically about her before. I guess his brusque refusal to join The Euchre Club, or any invitation to be social with us, has been a put-off not only to me, but to many others as well.
His expression turns into a frown. “Why are you asking?”
“Because I’m trying to establish a friendship with you,” I retort with a smirk. “You don’t make it easy though.”
Riggs shrugs as if he doesn’t care if he makes it easy or not. He starts working on another lug nut and I almost turn away, but he says, “She just turned seventeen a few months ago. She’s feeling a bit out of place here in Phoenix.”
I’m actually stunned at that tidbit of unsolicited personal information. I’m afraid to ask more, because I know deep down, that’s all he’ll give. Instead, I remind him, “You should get with Jim and introduce Janelle to his daughter.”
“Yeah,” Riggs replies somewhat vaguely. “I’ve got to do that. But it’s hard to find the time with games, practice, and her never ending schedule of things she already has planned, none of which involve me.”
“Typical teenager,” I mutter.
Riggs laughs, eyes still on his work. “You got siblings?”
“Nah. But seventeen was less than a decade ago for me. I remember the heartburn I gave my parents.”
“Yeah, I remember that too,” he says flatly and there’s something in his tone that tells me his parents weren’t quite as forgiving as mine were over my antics.
He doesn’t look back up at me, but the expression on his face has turned cool and his focus on the last lug nut is intense. I recognize that look… it’s a disconnect when things get too personal. I’ve seen it many times with Riggs and I have found the key to keeping communication open with him is to back off at the right time.
I make a show of looking at my watch. “Listen… I gotta go. You sure you don’t need help?”
“Thanks, but I’m good,” he replies.
“See ya, man.” I move around the back of his SUV, bend over to grab my duffle from the pavement, and unlock the doors to my Lamborghini. It’s time to go home and mentally prepare myself for my upcoming date with Emory.
It’s going to take every ounce of charm I have to score that second date.