A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Two of a Kind (Workin’ on a Full House),” Garth Brooks
(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.
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After an afternoon of brainstorming with Al and returning the engagement ring to Carmen’s, I’m careful not to tip Bella off to my whereabouts when asked. Easing my car forward every few feet, we wait in line, arriving at the Park Place Lexus dealership in Plano for our team’s annual casino night fundraiser. Waiting patiently and basking in this moment together, I could sit here with her forever, listening to every detail about her day at work.
With no reason other than I’m filled with joy that she’s here with me tonight, I lift our entwined hands to my lips and kiss the back of her hand, which pauses her story momentarily, prompting another smile and a soft, “Edward.” I can never get enough of those or my name on her lips. When it’s finally our turn, I pull next to the entrance and hurry from my side around the car to open her door. Offering her my hand, I help Bella from the Spider, leaving the car with the valet attendant.
It’s a beautiful evening with clear blue skies and a perfect golden orange sunset, but there’s nothing more beautiful than the woman at my side. She’s wearing a gorgeous black dress I’ve never seen before tonight. It hugs her curves in all the right places, but it’s the silver sparkly straps that cross her back, which are eye-catching because they could be . . . I’m going to say it—a spider in a web. Or at the very least, a spider. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part. I haven’t asked, but everything about this dress seems intentional.
From her teasing cleavage, to the way the black fabric sits just below her waist in the back. This dress is designed to drive me crazy, and it’s working. I can’t keep my hands off her. My fingers are well aware there’s a tempting side slit that leads—
“Did you get your hair cut today?” She reaches up to run her fingers through my softly tousled hair. “It looks a little shorter.”
Fuck. She doesn’t miss a thing.
This is what I’m talking about.
“Just a trim.” I downplay, place her hand in the crook of my bent elbow, and guide us toward the crowded entrance.
“I wanted to look good tonight. For you.” I wink.
“You look good every night. For me.” She wiggles her eyebrows, then her tongue peeks out licking her lips while her eyes travel over my black suit and tie.
I lean closer to steal another kiss with that compliment. “And you look breathtaking. Why can’t I spend the evening alone with you?”
Her hand delicately cups my jaw. “Because, as you explained, that’s not how this works. Your team’s most loyal fans have paid dearly to spend time with you and your teammates. I’m simply here as a donor tonight.”
“And my date,” I add, then steal another kiss.
She concedes with a blinding smile. “And your date.”
A voice breaks our blissful little bubble. “Edward, can we get a few shots?”
We step forward onto the victory green carpet where Bella and I pose for the official event photographer, together and separately. After glancing approvingly at the back of his camera, he nods, thanks us, and waves us toward the doors. We step into the crowded event space with Deedee and Marcus being the first to spot us.
Raising her arms in the air, Deedee does a little happy dance, taking short hurried steps in our direction. Or specifically, toward my date. “Bella!”
“Deedee!” Bella embraces her in a hug, then steps back to look at her dress. “You look gorgeous.”
Marcus jerks his chin toward me and shoves his hands in the pockets of his dress pants. “Hey, Spider. How are you doing?”
“Eh.” I shrug, not excited about sharing my date this evening. “You?”
He looks around at the jovial crowd. “Here to please.”
I nod. “Same.”
Bella looks down at Deedee’s feet. “I love your shoes.”
“Your dress is ah-mazing. The back! Oh. My. Goodness. It’s magnificent!” Deedee loops her arm with Bella’s, whispers something in her ear that prompts their laughter, then starts to lead her away from us. “Let’s go mingle. The guys need to work. We get to play.”
“I’m in.” Bella giggles.
“I’ll catch up with you later,” I promise.
Bella grins. “Okay, smile and have fun.”
“I’ll try,” I agree, but I didn’t realize how quickly I would be on my own.
Marcus notices my disappointment, then offers his reassurances as we watch them disappear in the crowd. “She will be fine.”
“Oh, I know.” I shoot him a look before stating my real issue. “It’s me who won’t.”
He chuckles. “Come on. They’re going to introduce us soon. Let’s go line up with everyone else.”
We join our teammates mingling at the back of an impromptu stage with a black curtain concealing us from view. While we’re waiting for a few stragglers to find their way back here, Alice strides into the area with an entourage of assistants. She has an air of no nonsense I don’t remember ever experiencing around her, reminding me of Bella when she’s dressed for work. I’m not the only one who notices Alice’s commanding presence as everyone quiets while she is briefed on last minute details. After a check of the time, she is given the final nod to take the stage, welcoming everyone to the event.
The public address announcer for our home games is next and begins player introductions. Ben is the first to step through the curtain while Vladdy receives one of the loudest rounds of applause, with Tyler coming in a close second. I give a short wave to the crowd when it’s my turn, but my attention is drawn to the bar where I can see into the shadows of the spotlight that Deedee and Bella are leading the whoops and hollers. They do the same for Marcus, then everyone hears several high-pitched screams above the crowd noise for Demir, which is undoubtedly Jess, causing him to turn a deep shade of red. Introductions continue until James, who receives the biggest welcome from the crowd, is the last to join us.
With the conclusion of introductions, we exit the stage, some taking their assignments behind gaming tables while others, like me, drift through the crowd. I walk toward the direction of the bar with James following closely behind me. We barely take a few steps before we’re stopped with requests for selfies and autographs from fans while Alice returns to the podium.
Everyone listens as she explains how the foundation benefits our community through youth scholarships, our annual playground build, grants to our non-profit partners, and school-based programs. Alice shares her hopes that we’ll set a new fundraising record for this evening. She encourages everyone to have fun and bid generously on the silent auctions. Those include extravagant vacation getaways, one-of-a-kind hockey memorabilia, and a special trip where one lucky fan will travel with the team for an away game road trip. I secretly wish Bella would win that one, but that’s probably not realistic.
There are also items to appeal to every budget, with the area containing each player’s “favorite things baskets” getting a lot of attention from fans—maybe simply out of curiosity to their contents. Interns were busy putting those together before we departed for Mexico. I know mine is filled with dog and cat treats, including team gear and collars from our fan store to outfit a beloved pet. Obviously, I’m guilty of spoiling Scout and Shadow constantly and wanted them to be a part of my basket. I also requested bottles of wine and chocolates to represent Bella, and I signed a couple of hats and limited edition pucks too.
Ben and I both donated signed game worn helmets and jerseys for the silent auction. I’m not going to attempt to contain my competitive nature, but I hope mine garner the higher bids. So, I need to work the crowd to encourage everyone’s interest in bidding. With each guest assigned a number, bidding is anonymous by the use of a silent auction smartphone app, which is a new development for this year’s event.
Once James and I make it to the bar, Bella and Deedee are nowhere to be found. I look on as James slips behind the counter where he is instructed on how to make a couple of special event cocktails for the night when I see a familiar face in the crowd. Noticing her before she sees me, I lean closer not to scare her, but hopefully, she can hear me over the boisterous crowd and blaring music.
“Hello, Dr. Sutherland.”
She turns at my voice. “Edward! Oh my goodness. Finally someone I know. And please, call me Victoria.”
“All right. Victoria it is. Doc said you would be here tonight. I’m glad you could make it.”
“Thanks. Where is Bella? I haven’t been able to find her.”
“I’m not sure. She was here at the bar a little while ago. Can I get you a drink?” I ask. James’s eyes light up when he sees us turn toward the bar. I chuckle, then add, “Not from him.”
Victoria giggles. “Why not?”
“I love him, but trust me on this.”
“Spider?” James holds out his arms with his palms turned up in question. “What the fuck?”
I suspect he recognizes Victoria from the photos he’s seen on my phone.
“Sorry, Cap. Not on my watch.”
“Come find me when you’re ready for another,” he tells Victoria. “I make the best cucumber martini you’ll ever taste.”
“Keep your cucumber to yourself,” I warn before he winks at her, prompting more giggles.
Guiding her toward the other end of the bar and our goaltending coach, I know I’m not going to be the one to introduce them. Maybe it will earn me a few points with Bella after the Leah fiasco.
“Let’s try the other bartender,” I suggest.
After pouring two neon green drinks between glasses, Coach adds a speared cucumber slice with a cherry to finish the drinks and smiles with our approach. “You’re all set,” he says to the two women who disappear into the crowd with their drinks. “Spider, what can I get you?”
“Coach, this is Doc’s business partner, Victoria. So, we need to take good care of her tonight.” I should add—and keep her away from James, but I don’t.
“Will do. What can I get you, Victoria?”
She shrugs, then scrunches her face slightly. “I don’t like anything where I can taste the alcohol.”
Coach nods. “How about a Starlite? It’s one of our signature cocktails for this evening and one of the two drinks I know how to make.” He grins, prompting her laughter, then explains, “It’s similar to a Midori sour, which tastes like a melon Jolly Rancher. Not too sweet and a little tart.”
“Okay. I’ll try that,” Victoria agrees.
I turn around at the shout of my name. “Hey, Jess.” She gives me a brief hug, and I’m not surprised who’s with her. “Lauren. Angela. Have you seen Doc?”
Lauren smiles. “Yeah, she was over at the ‘favorite things baskets,’ looking through them with Deedee.”
Jess grins. “We’re here for drinks!”
Of course, they are.
While Jess and Lauren shuffle into spots next to Victoria near Coach, it doesn’t escape my notice that Angela drifts toward the other end of the bar.
Why can’t she stay with her friends?
I glance around wondering where Ben is with no sign of him anywhere. He must be working at one of the tables.
“Spider, can we get a selfie?” a pair of hopeful fans ask.
I glance at Victoria who overhears the request and reassures, waving off any concern I have about leaving her alone. And within James’s reach.
“Go. You don’t need to babysit me. I can take care of myself. I’ll check out the auction. Maybe bid on something and look for Bella.”
“If you’re sure.”
She grins. “I’m positive. Do your thing.”
“You know Bella?” Jess asks Victoria, whose eyes shift back to mine.
I nod, letting Victoria know she’ll be fine with them, especially since Jess knows she’s tied to Bella.
“I do. We’re business partners,” Victoria shares.
“We love Bella. She’s the best,” Jess says before I tune out their conversation, returning my focus to the waiting fans.
“Okay, who’s first?”
After numerous photos and my continuous sales pitch for my auction items, I finally make it to the area where the player’s baskets are, realizing Bella is no longer there. Unfortunately, I catch sight of Chelsea who is being followed by a guy with a camera. I suspect she’s doing a behind-the-scenes show for tonight’s event, and I turn in the opposite direction, running into Ben.
“Hey, have you seen Doc?”
He thumbs over his shoulder. “Yeah, she’s with Deedee playing blackjack at Vladdy’s table.”
“Okay, thanks. Uh . . . everything okay with Angela?” I wonder.
“Yeah.” He shrugs. “Why do you ask?”
“We’re good. I’ll catch up with you later. I’ve got some bidding to do.”
At my nod, Ben walks toward the display of items available for auction, then looks back at me before turning toward the direction of the bar. Once I turn around and scan the area, looking for Bella without any success, I recognize the owner of the Lexus dealership with Junior and Senior who are all holding glasses of whiskey. The men laugh at something Senior says while watching the woman sitting at a nearby desk, rolling cigars for guests. Senior’s eyes light up when he notices my approach through a cloud of smoke wafting away from his lips.
“Cullen. How are you my boy?” He wraps an arm around my shoulders.
I’m not a boy, but I let that one slide. This man signs my checks, and I’m not about to fuck that up. I can play the game. “I’m good, sir.”
After patting me on my back, he pulls his arm away and asks, “Treating the fans right?”
There it is again. I hate that not-so-subtle belittling jab at the difference in our ages. As if his years give him any superiority to me. I mean, he’s loaded. I get that, but it reminds me of something my dad does, which drives me crazy.
“Edward.” Royce nods his acknowledgement, but he probably battles the same attitude from his father too.
Much better. First names. A smidgen of respect between us when I’m not on his shit list for any minor infraction of his rules.
“Care for a cigar?” Senior asks, waving toward the table.
The dark-haired woman looks up and her eyes pass over me appreciatively from head to toe.
“No, sir.” I hope to squash any interest on her part or about cigars in general. She seems as if she could be someone who would pique James’s interest. Not mine. “While the process is . . . fascinating, it’s not my thing.”
“Hmmm.” Senior releases another cloud of smoke, watching me closely. “Did you bring the beautiful Dr. Swan to Alice’s little soirée this evening?”
I’m surprised at his familiarity with Bella, and I wonder how well he knows her. Or thinks he knows her. I recall she said they met briefly after the family skate at the Winter Classic. I thought her time was spent mostly with Alice and reaching out to her connections for Renée, but maybe they leaned on some of his too. Clearly, it was enough time to leave a favorable impression with Senior, if he’s asking about her. Maybe too favorable.
“I did.” I glance toward the large crowded area holding the gaming tables. “The last I heard, she is playing blackjack.”
His face lights up. “How fortuitous—my favorite game. With that news, gentlemen, I must leave you for now. I think there’s a table calling my name.” He smirks in a way that leaves little doubt of his interest in Bella, which leaves me with a slightly uneasy feeling in my stomach. “I should touch base with my new dentist. I believe we have an appointment soon.”
I’m not feeling good about that tidbit either—knowing Senior will be in an exam room with her.
With a closed door.
Or he’s just enjoying fucking with me.
And I doubt I’m doing a good job at concealing my jealousy, which is only confirmed by his laughter as he departs.
The urge to follow him is strong, but before I can, a husband and wife, who want to talk hockey, specifically goaltending for their aspiring son, intercept me. I nod and hum in all the right places, and when our conversation winds to a close, I give them a few names of local coaches to reach out to for additional training. We take a moment to capture several photos before I offer my encouragement to bid on my items up for auction.
By the time I locate Vladdy’s blackjack table, he’s surrounded by a group of female giggling gamblers, hanging on his every word, with one spot open.
He waves toward the empty stool. “You want the last seat?”
“No, thanks. Uh, was Doc here?”
“She win big.” He grins. “Everyone win at my table.”
“Okay. Do you know where she went?”
“Restroom with Deedee.”
“Okay, got it. Thanks, man.”
At his nod, Vladdy’s focus turns to the fans vying for his attention who are asking him to say various phrases in Russian, which he happily obliges.
Attempting to edge past the large crowd gathering at the craps table, it’s no surprise when I see Senior rolling up his sleeves and preparing to take over as the new shooter. I am a little concerned once I notice Victoria standing next to him holding a familiar glass that Senior was clutching not long ago. He nods and smiles encouragingly as she takes a sip. At his request, she blows gently on the pair of dice, resting in his open hand.
This can’t be good.
Senior is an older version of James, only with unlimited resources.
And he’s deemed Victoria as his latest Lady Luck.
I’m not sure if I should do something, since earlier she reassured me she was capable of taking care of herself, but my own need to find Bella overrides everything else at this point. I catch a glimpse of Deedee at the roulette table and abandon my trip toward the restrooms, making a beeline for her.
Once I squeeze through the crowd, I realize Bella isn’t at her side, but Marcus is working the table.
“Everyone, place your bets,” he says, smiling at my arrival. “Spider, are you in?”
“I’m going to pass this round.”
Deedee adds to a stack of chips on black. “Hey, Edward.”
“Hey, Deedee. I thought Doc was with you?”
“Oh, we won big with Vladdy. She wanted to take a moment to check on her bids, and I left her with Alice a little while ago in the auction area.”
“Got it. Having fun?”
“Yeah! A blast. Bella and I are having such a good time. I really like her, Edward. I’m so glad she moved into our neighborhood.”
“You and me both. Uh . . . I’m going to go—”
“Find her.” Deedee nods encouragingly. “You do that. I’ve got more winning to do, if only my dear hubby would cooperate.”
We watch the little white ball bounce around the wheel until it finally lands in a slot.
“Red sixteen,” Marcus announces.
“Damn it. You keep this up and I’ll need to go rub Vladdy for good luck,” she teases.
“Dee, I told you to bet my number.” He clears all the chips from the table with the exception of the winners and adds chips to their stacks.
“Fine, but what is the likelihood that it will hit twice in a row?” She shakes her head. “Not likely.”
“Don’t count out thirty-five either,” I recommend with a grin.
Her eyes light up. “Good call. I keep betting black. It’s bound to hit, right?” I watch as she divides a few chips between black and thirty-five.
I chuckle. “Good luck, Deedee.”
At the daunting task of making my way to the other side of the building where I’m hoping to find Bella, I’m stopped repeatedly by fans. I sign a variety of items and pose for selfies with everyone. When I notice Demir and Jonsu being interviewed by Chelsea, I detour my path in the opposite direction, which takes a little longer than I hoped. Once I finally locate Bella, she is walking through the area with the original artwork of hockey players and paused in front of a black and white painting of me.
Touching the small of her back and those tempting sparkling straps, I bend until my lips are near her ear. “You know that piece would look perfect in your new office.”
Her smile widens and she turns her head toward mine. “It has a certain . . . intensity to it. The look on your face. It’s a whole—don’t fuck with me vibe. I think that’s what keeps bringing me back to it. I can relate.”
“Maybe up your bid, just to be safe,” I encourage with a wink.
“What makes you think I bid on this item?” Bella taunts while her eyes spark with mischief.
She’s fucking with me. I know her better than that. She bid.
At least, I think she did.
“Well, obviously it’s lot number thirty-five. Your favorite number. It’s a one-of-a-kind creation of your favorite goaltender. Who wouldn’t want to gaze at their favorite hockey player—all day, every day? Plus, you have an empty wall just begging for its arrival. That sounds like a win to me.”
“Winning. This is about winning, isn’t it?” Her eyes narrow, as if she’s figured out my motivations. “You’re trying to beat everyone else with fundraising. Do you get some sort of bonus?”
“No, just bragging rights, but hey, it’s all for a great cause. How do you feel about a signed game-worn goaltender helmet? It’s custom with minimal sweaty smells, which add to its authenticity. Did you notice the spider on the back? Or maybe you would prefer a signed jersey? I can personalize it, if you would like.”
“You bid on something, right?” I double-check.
“I did. Several items.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Her noncommittal shrug is more than I can take.
“Maybe? Come on, Doc. Throw me a bone.”
She giggles. “Okay, I did. Happy?”
“I’m here as a fan too.”
“We’re not allowed to bid on our items, but I placed a bid on that framed autographed Miracle jersey and the separate accompanying photo of the end of the gold medal game, signed by the players,” I reveal. “Although, I think Ben is trying to outbid me. He was lingering near both, and when he noticed me watching him, he moved on. After checking the bids on those items, I suspect we’re in a bidding war.”
“What? I want those. Jim signed both, and after the trip to Mexico, we’re tight. I have his phone number now,” I brag, but she doesn’t seem impressed.
Her fading smile is replaced by a disappointed expression, which leaves me to wonder if I’m in a bidding war with her and she’s secretly trying to win them for me.
Maybe I need to stop bidding.
“Doc? Are you bidding on those?”
“Um . . .” She swallows hard, breaking eye contact.
I’m probably in a bidding war with both her and Ben, but she should save her money for things I can’t bid on, like the painting of me.
Shaking my head, I make a mental note to up my own bids and put them out of her reach, then change the subject. “I heard you won big at Vladdy’s table.”
The mention puts a smile back on her face and she chuckles. “He’s the only dealer I’ve ever known to cheat the house to make everyone at his table winners. Plus, he taught us a bunch of Russian curse words and phrases.”
“Knowing Vladdy, that sounds about right.” I grin because I’m not surprised in the least. He always curses at the refs in Russian because they don’t have a clue what he’s saying. Occasionally, it gets him in trouble, but not often.
“He had me laughing so hard that I’ve already forgotten most of them.”
Lowering my voice, I ask, “Did you notice Senior at the craps table with Victoria. Should we . . . do something?”
“Roy is harmless. He’s an old-school flirt.”
Bella waves off my concern, but I’m not so sure I agree with her assessment. And how do I tell the owner of our team to back off from Bella’s business partner?
She shrugs, then continues. “Any interest on either side is probably flattering for both of them. Are you ready to check out the buffet? I’m starving and I passed people carrying appetizer plates. So, it must be ready. I think they’re serving a slider with my name on it. Plus, someone had chocolate cake.”
“Hungry, huh? I can’t imagine where you would put it in that dress,” I tease.
“I’ve got room to spare. Not to mention my dessert stomach is empty. Obviously, I’m going to pass on the whiskey tasting tonight, but we could visit the diamond bar, if you’re interested.” She raises a challenging eyebrow, as if she’s so smart to figure me out.
Fuck. Maybe she is.
I’m not going anywhere near that diamond bar.
I’ll be unable to resist, scrap all proposal ideas, and be on one knee before the end of the night.
“Let’s find you something to eat,” I suggest, guiding her in that direction and prompting more of her laughter.
Al was right—keeping everything under wraps is going to be more challenging than I thought.