A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “It’s Your Love,” Tim McGraw & Faith Hill
(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.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
Once we step into the bright meeting space with gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean out every window, an older man who looks familiar greets us, but I can’t place him at first glance.
“Good morning, gentlemen. Help yourself to a drink and take a seat. We’re almost ready to begin.”
He has a slight accent, and I wonder if he could be from Boston or New York. My eyes shift to the beverage selections and choose a bottle of water, then turn toward the circle of chairs in the center of the room. With over half of them filled with my teammates, I wonder if there are exactly twenty-eight, reflecting the number of players on the trip. It would be a subtle way of keeping an attendance record for this meeting and passing that information onto Coach.
Taking the open seat next to Vladdy, I smile. “Hey, morning. Are you ready for tennis later?”
“Hey, Spider. Yeah, I reserved the court and equipment for us. Stefan has agreed to be your partner. So, we’re set,” he shares.
“Cool. Do you know this guy?” I nod toward the man who is checking his watch, twist off the lid of my bottle, then take a small sip.
“I feel like I do, but I’m not sure from where. I wonder if I’ve met him?”
Returning the cap to my bottle, I set my water next to my feet and watch as the man leading the meeting writes the word “FEAR” in large letters on the whiteboard at the front of the room. After more of our teammates arrive, filling most of the seats, the man refills his coffee, then joins the circle, sitting in the chair next to James.
He glances around the circle. “Let’s get started. I’m excited to spend time with all of you this morning. It’s been a few years, or maybe I should say decades, since I stepped on the ice, but many of you may recognize me as one of those old hockey guys from the eighties. If not, then you’re probably familiar with my story. I’m a gold medal Olympian and served as goaltender for the U.S. team . . .”
“Jim Craig. You’re Jim Craig,” I supply when it suddenly clicks and I realize who he is, hoping I don’t embarrass myself in true fangirl style. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve watched the original game footage from those winter Olympics or the movie, Miracle, detailing the team’s struggles in their quest to win the gold.
“That’s right. I’ve aged a little, but the goaltenders always make the connection first.” He chuckles. “Edward Cullen, right?”
“Yes, sir. It’s a pleasure and an honor to meet you.”
When I glance at Ben, his smile matches mine, and we sit a little taller, ready for whatever wisdom Jim is about to impart.
“Likewise.” Jim nods, looking around at our group. “I understand that everyone has plans for today, but before you get to those, I’m here to lead a discussion toward building cohesion with your teammates. When my career on the ice ended, I founded a company years ago that helps teams in every industry to achieve greater success. It doesn’t matter what you do. A total team effort with everyone pulling their weight will always be the key toward reaching your shared goals. Your coach mentioned that he asked each of you to look closely at your own game and where you can improve, but that means work off the ice too.
“Strength isn’t always about being bulky and building muscle. It’s about inner strength. A strong mindset. On the ice, you have to make decisions instantly, but all of it means nothing if you’re not dedicated—dedicated to winning. Ask yourself, do you have a practice speed versus a game speed? Because you’re never going to become a heavyweight by putting in a lightweight effort. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence doesn’t happen by accident, but by habit. Those habits bring your game to a new level. A new ease. A new flow. You’ll find a greater sense of calm every time you step on the ice. A lot of people talk about the calm before the storm, but I’m talking about being calm in the middle of the storm. Don’t panic. Prepare. Invest. Sacrifice. There are no shortcuts to achieving success.”
Jim takes a sip from his coffee, then thumbs toward the whiteboard behind him. “Part of what makes relationships stronger is when we face our fears and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others through shared experiences. This isn’t about shame, but trust. This is about the bond you are creating with each other. You are united as a team with a singular focus, but everyone approaches that goal from a different place. While you may feel like you know each other, this is your opportunity to take the steps toward a new level of understanding and friendship. And that starts with each of you. To begin our discussion this morning, I want to dig into your fears and what drives you. What do you fear on the ice and off? I urge each of you to listen closely to your teammates. I believe you’ll be surprised at the insight you’re about to gain.” He pauses, then looks to his left. “As captain, James, will you get us started?”
James looks around the group, and when his eyes land on mine, I give him a nod of support.
“Yeah. Sure,” James says, shifts in his chair, then pauses a moment to think. “Obviously, on the ice, I fear injuries, being unable to play, not being the best captain, and letting down my teammates. I can always do more—hit harder, finish checks, better passes, and go after those rebounds. Off the ice . . . man, I wish my father cared more about my accomplishments. He is old school hockey—no offense since he’s probably close to your age.”
“None taken. Please continue,” Jim prompts.
James nods. “When my brother was drafted, my parents moved to Tampa Bay. Dallas was never on their radar when my time came. I shouldn’t need their validation, but it’s tough to know they watch nearly every game of his in-person. Like Dad, my brother’s name is engraved on the Cup. It’s not simply sibling rivalry, and I hate the comparisons, but they’re inevitable. He’s an assistant captain, but I’m captain. We play different positions, and in our family, it’s always about my brother, because he’s a defenseman, as Dad was. I’ll forever be in my brother’s shadow. It doesn’t matter what level of success I achieve. I guess that’s not really a fear, but it is something that bothers me, maybe drives me, and affects my game probably more than it should.”
Hoping he can hear the sincerity in my words, I hold James’s gaze when it lands on me at what he’s shared. “I’ve been on a lot of teams, and I think you’re an outstanding captain. You’re always full of encouragement on the bench, during a play, or after a goal. Anyone’s goal. Don’t sell yourself short. Even if your dad doesn’t voice it regularly, I’m sure he is proud of you. I know I am. I’m proud to call you my captain.”
He gives me a small smile. “Thanks, Spider.”
“I agree,” Marcus says, sitting between us. “I understand the weight you carry for this team, having been in your position myself, and I have to admit, it’s no easy task. You’re one of the best.”
“Thanks, Volts,” James says with a slight nod.
“I’ll go next,” I volunteer. “I agree with Cap’s fear on ice about injuries and play, but my off-ice issue is the opposite. I wish my father cared less about my career and more about me in general. He’s always been invested and pushing my next move. For some reason, he believes I can’t make a decision on my own. Maybe he’s longing for those days early in my career when I was a young player and welcomed his input, but I’m at a point where I’m drawing a boundary between us, and he doesn’t like it. Rather than realize his overstepping is the reason, he’s blaming others in my life. No one will ever live up to his expectations, including me. After our last discussion about this very issue, we’re not talking. I need him to back off. Instead of caving to his silent treatment, I’m not giving in this time. Like Cap said, it affects me more than it should, and I am fearful of jeopardizing our relationship in any way. But I know I’ll be okay regardless of whatever decisions I make about my career, now and in the future.”
“That’s probably because of Doc,” James offers.
“I believe it is too.” I nod, knowing that having her at my side has made a huge impact. “She’s really made the difference for me.”
Marcus agrees, “Yes, I can see that. I have a little different perspective at this point in my career and my fear is about letting dreams go. On the ice, I worry about when it will all end and what I will do. Who I am if I don’t have hockey. What if I never win the Cup? My entire life has been centered around the sport and my routines in that quest. The end of my playing career is a big question mark, but I’m going to keep playing until I can’t. Off-ice . . .” He hesitates. “Not many know, but Deedee and I have been trying for a second child for more years than I can count. It’s exhausting and frustrating, but nothing is worth the risk of losing her. So, we’ll stop trying for a while. We get our hopes up only to have those dashed when we least expect it. At this point, either we need a miracle or maybe to realize we already got one blessing by having Alec.”
“You could always adopt,” I suggest. “My father adopted Rose and I when we were eight after marrying our mom.”
“I didn’t know you were adopted,” Vladdy says.
“It was one of the best things to happen to us.” I turn toward Marcus. “Alec is eleven. He could have a brother or sister close to his age, then it wouldn’t really be letting go of a dream.”
“You’re right. We could.” A small smile tugs at Marcus’s lips. “Maybe it’s time to have that discussion with Deedee again.”
Vladdy clears his throat and shifts in his seat before focusing back on Jim. “No disrespect, but your story isn’t celebrated in my country. It was only a miracle for you.”
Jim grins. “I would imagine not, but I believe you can relate to a message of rising to an impossible challenge and defying the overwhelming odds against us.”
“True. I can, but odds are not overwhelming when commitment and discipline are present. Every Russian player worked harder after that loss. It is a painful moment in our history when it is revisited over and over. In our opinion, the loss should have never happened. We are not robots, as many think, but study chess for strategy and ballet for fluidity to bring our game to a new level on the ice. As children, our hockey training and routines are treated with military precision. And now, I play for an American team. Proudly.”
Vladdy smirks, but his expression grows serious. “To your initial question—on the ice, I fear nothing. If I’m hurt, I will either get better or play through my injury. It’s a privilege to play hockey in this league. Off the ice . . . there are threats everywhere I cannot control. I failed my marriage, and now, I’m divorced. I still love my wife, but I know I need to let her go. In Russia, she is a famous model. We looked perfect on the surface, but she has no love for me. So now, I can only be a good dad.”
“Hey, you’re a great dad.” I pat him on his shoulder in reassurance. “I love it when Maks is at our practices and you bring him out onto the ice. He’s going to be one of the greats someday. Just like his dad.”
Vladdy smiles his thanks before continuing. “My issues are bigger than family conflicts. Our son is an American. He has an American passport. With so many of you being Americans, you have no idea how valuable that is—what a privilege it is to be born in this country. When he turns eighteen, he could sponsor me for a green card, then I can take the next steps toward becoming an American citizen. Just saying this would get me arrested in Russia, and the odds are high that I would never play hockey again. That is real fear. Over the years, my love for my country has . . . changed. I have done everything necessary to continue playing, but I want to become an American for one reason: freedom.”
He’s quiet as a tear rolls down his cheek, and uncharacteristically, his voice breaks with emotion when he continues. “My parents remain in Russia. They say not to worry, but I do. They are being used to manipulate me. I cannot control the Kremlin, but the Kremlin controls me. FSB agents are used under the guise of security, but they are really spies. If I don’t do or say as expected by my government, I worry every day that my parents will be sent to a work camp. They are called military sites, but they’re . . . horrific. Where my family is concerned, my compliance off the ice isn’t a choice. Its foundation is built on fear. I hate it. I want much more for Maks. And my parents.”
The realities of the spectrum of what we’re each facing before ever stepping on the ice is coming into focus, and I have nothing but admiration for Vladdy. My problems are small by comparison, and there is little doubt I would react similarly when presented with the same choices, which really aren’t choices at all.
I reach out and pat his shoulder. “Hey, I’m sorry.”
“It feels good to talk about it, but there is very little I can change or control. I must be patient and comply, even when my heart aches, telling me not to do so.”
We’re all quiet until Demir speaks from the other side of our circle.
“I am from Finland. I enjoyed your movie, but I did not like the part where you beat my country to win the gold medal,” Demir teases with a smirk, lightening the mood.
Jim chuckles, probably not anticipating he would be answering today for his victories over those other countries from years ago. “Understood. I would expect nothing less.”
“Because of the tournament format, we left without a medal that year. That is motivating.” Demir looks at us, then nods. “My fear on the ice is that I have peaked. I am no longer awarded with honors like when I first came to this league to play. I am not the top defenseman. I was not named an All-Star like last year. I have always been the best. I am falling short of expectations from my coaches and myself.”
Demir reminds me so much of James on the ice, even though they play different positions. Their passion for our sport is unrivaled, but they’re both too hard on themselves sometimes and can’t shake our losses easily, feeling personally responsible for days later.
Marcus shakes his head. “Everyone experiences slumps at this level of play. Don’t think of it as you have peaked, perhaps that you’re at a plateau. You’re still young and your body is changing. You’re putting on more muscle as you develop into a seasoned player. Consistency is critical. As you add strength, it takes time for speed to catch up.”
Demir nods. “That is a good thought, Volts. I have been thinking that maybe no video games on the nights before hockey games. I need to be more regimented in rest and recovery.”
“Those are both important and should be taken seriously.” I smile, knowing Demir loves playing video games, but mostly winning at all hours of the night, which has left him not at the top of his game on occasion.
Demir continues. “Off the ice, I am worried Jess will not like my family or they will not like her once they meet. She’s full of opinions and not afraid to voice them. Jess is beautiful and charming, but she talks all the time. My family isn’t like that, and it could be too much.”
“You love her, and they will too,” Marcus reassures. “If it isn’t a love fest at your first meeting, don’t worry—give them time to get to know her. Everyone here likes Jess. Despite the physical mismatch of your size and her small stature, she has the protectiveness of a mama bear when it comes to you. Your family will like that you have someone looking out for your best interests. I believe the most compatible significant others for us, given our profession, are those who aren’t willing to back down from a fight—any fight. Our highs are high and our lows are low, but somehow we find the people who we are meant to be with, balancing us out.”
My thoughts easily shift to my own experience, and the last conversation I shared with Marcus in Los Angeles. Even though I know he’s describing Jess or maybe thinking of Deedee, he could be talking about Bella. There’s no keeping the smile from my face when I consider some of my favorite characteristics of her. Bella is passionate and full of gumption.
Interrupting my thoughts, Stefan is the next to speak and directs his initial comment to Jim. “I’m not going to say anything about your team defeating the West German team in those Winter Olympics.”
“Okay.” Jim smiles, looking around the circle. “It’s all geography anyway. You are all some of the best players in the game today—in the top league in the world. You prove that every time you step onto the ice and how you conduct yourself off the ice too.”
“For the record, I love the movie and the outcome,” I add, because I can’t resist fangirling over him a little. “Especially the part where as a goaltender you were named MVP. That’s my favorite.”
“Same.” Ben echoes my feelings with a chuckle and shares a version of the popular quote from those games. “I still believe in miracles. Anything is possible.”
“I hope so too,” Stefan agrees, and hesitates, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “I’m not a regular on this roster, and I feel like an outsider, because my presence means you’re missing one of these guys.” He tilts his head toward Ben, then jerks his chin toward me. “But that’s not the only time I don’t feel accepted here. I have work to do before becoming a starter for any team and that starts with sharing the truth.” Stefan blows out a deep unsteady breath. “My fear is simple: acceptance on and off the ice. A lot of guys are uneasy around me in the locker room, and no disrespect to any of your partners, but I would never date a hockey player.”
As the gravity of what he’s saying settles among our teammates, it’s Demir, sitting next to Stefan, who lightens the mood, putting him at ease.
“It’s the smell, right?” Demir deadpans, sniffs his shirt, and prompts laughter from everyone in the circle. “I thought this shirt was good. Spider, you smell me and tell me the truth.”
I smile because he’s going to be a great captain one day. I’m excited for that day, knowing it’s probably closer than he realizes.
“Fin, I’m not smelling you. Stay in your seat and listen,” I tell him, but I am a little stunned, because I had no idea that’s what Stefan would be sharing with us.
“No. Not the smell.” Stefan chuckles with his arms crossed over his chest. “I just can’t put anyone in an already difficult situation. The slurs are tough. There is no peace for me except when I’m behind the mask and in the zone. During those times, opponents forget who I am until someone tosses around a handful of hateful words. I’m in game mode, but it doesn’t mean I don’t hear them. They hurt. Opposing players will always try to get under my skin in any way they can because I’m a goaltender. I know that. It’s not new. Unfortunately, that’s my reality, but the jabs they take are too easy.” He sighs heavily.
“Hockey For Everyone should mean exactly that. Those are . . . nice words, but this league has a lot of work to do in bringing acceptance and awareness, and they’re not the only ones. It starts with the players, staff, and coaches already in the game no longer remaining silent or tolerating the mistreatment of their teammates. It shouldn’t matter the color of anyone’s skin or sexual orientation, but it does—still today. They need to condemn past mistakes and remove the people involved from any position with the league. It’s a toxic environment, and a reflection of our world. Living and working in such a conservative state is . . . a challenge. My love for the game is greater, which is why I’m here. I put all that aside, but it’s not without considerable effort.”
Ben removes his phone from his pocket, tapping the screen.
“When is our diversity night?” I wonder, thinking how we could make it possible for Stefan to be the starter for that game.
Once I look over at Ben, he nods, knowing where I’m going with this. “I’m way ahead of you. February nineteenth against Arizona. I’ll talk with Coach.”
“Sly, whether or not your debut happens before that game, I’ll do my best to make sure you’re starting that night,” I promise.
“I agree.” Ben grins. “I’m pretty sure my knee could be day-to-day. It’s funny how it can act up when you least expect it—better to rest it than not.”
“Isn’t there a pride parade in Dallas?” James asks.
“Maybe in June?” I wonder, then realize Bella’s friends would probably be aware of those details. “I don’t know if anyone from the team has ever been a part of it in the past, but we could ride on a float or something. Show our support.”
“I think I remember something about team staff who participated in the past,” James recalls. “But, Sly, if that’s something you’re comfortable doing, we can be there with you. Our support isn’t just about rainbow-colored tape on our sticks or special jerseys for one night out of our schedule on the ice, but off too. Every day.”
“Let us know,” Marcus echoes his support. “We’ll be there.”
Everyone’s heads bob with agreement.
“Thanks,” Sly acknowledges. “I appreciate that.”
Stefan has a bright future ahead of him. Maybe with Dallas, maybe not. Either way, he’s right. We need to step up our support and make it clear where we stand. Silence isn’t the answer, and our team should be doing more in our local community, because hockey is for everyone, and we all need to work toward lowering the barriers, preventing others from playing.
As my eyes travel around our group, I realize we’re breaking ground with each other that we never would have known by only interacting on the ice. We needed this opportunity to scratch below the surface of what it means to be a hockey player today. We all originate from different places in the world and have overcome countless obstacles to be here. Some more than others. And, unfortunately, those struggles continue. But more than anything, my newfound respect and admiration for this team—my teammates—is growing while we’re all bound together by the love for our sport that keeps us coming back for more.
Everyone is quiet as we soak in this moment. When my gaze meets Jim’s, he gives me a reassuring smile, probably realizing where my thoughts have drifted since this exercise is doing exactly as promised. Only he isn’t the one with solutions; they’re coming from this team and our support for one another. We’re breaking down the challenges facing each of us no matter how big or small, creating a safe place to air those, and putting everyone on equal ground or in our case, ice.
Our friendships are growing and deepening with every new reveal. I’m also learning more about myself, and the fact that I would do anything for these guys on or off the ice.
Jim nods his unspoken approval at the progress we’re making. “Okay, who’s next?”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
Bouncing the tennis ball and getting ready to serve, Vladdy concentrates, then calls out the score, “Love-fifteen.”
With the mention of love, Bella squeals, prompting chuckles from Stefan and me because we both know what’s coming. With one hand on Vladdy’s sombrero she’s wearing, Bella moves diagonally toward me since we’re both at the net, despite her partner’s protests to stop her.
“Doc! Stay in your spot!” Vladdy yells. “No more kissing. You can kiss when we win.”
Team Sombrero is losing.
We agreed to play the best two out of three sets. They lost the first set six-one, and we’re on the verge of winning the second set, leading five-two. While I’m an average player, Stefan is better than Vladdy, which I don’t believe Vladdy realized until we started playing our first game.
“But you said love. Again,” Bella protests. Standing at the net, she turns toward me and gives that look I can’t resist. “Edward . . .”
“All right.” Grinning, I take a couple of strides forward, cup the back of her neck, and peck her lips lightly. “Are you having fun?”
Her eyes brighten and smile widens. “Yes! This is almost my favorite part of tennis—the love breaks.”
“Just so you know, these aren’t an official thing—they’re a Doc thing.”
“They should be, but watching you play shirtless is even better. I don’t get that in your hockey games. You’re all covered up. How am I supposed to appreciate your muscles and tattoos?”
“That’s for our protection.”
“Boxers don’t wear shirts or all that padding, and your teammates fight all the time. I’m just saying, this is a gold bar idea I’m tossing out. Tickets will sell out every night. I need to send an email to your league manager.”
“He’s the commissioner, and I doubt he’s going to be a fan of your idea.”
Bella shrugs, not deterred in the least. “You never know. It could revolutionize your hockey, and you’ll have me to thank.”
“Okay. We’ll talk about it later.” I kiss her lips once more. “Go stand in the box and hold your racquet out, so you don’t get hit.”
“Are we almost done?”
I reply, “Yes,” at the same time Vladdy says, “No,” from behind her where he’s waiting at the service line.
“I’m sweating and need another margarita.” She looks around. “Do you think they’ll bring one out here for me?”
“You can have more of my water if you need it,” I offer, waving toward our bottles on a bench at the side of the court. “We’ll eat once we’re done playing.”
Her excitement at the possibility spikes again. “Guacamole? That was so delicious yesterday.”
I chuckle. “Of course.”
Bella squeals with delight at my confirmation, returns to standing in her spot, and cheers on her teammate. “Come on. Let’s go, Vladdy! The food and margaritas are waiting.”
Despite the fact she is the reason for every delay in our match and her inexperience, Bella makes her fair share of great shots, mostly out of reflex, but it isn’t enough. Much to Vladdy’s disappointment, Team Sombrero loses the last set six-two. After a round of high-fives, Vladdy and Stefan decide to stay and play another match, but Bella is ready to depart.
With her flip-flops in hand, she tightens the drawstring of Vladdy’s sombrero under her chin, securing it to her head. After accepting my offer of a piggyback ride for our return trip, she wraps her arms around my shoulders, and I tuck my arms under her legs. To the sound of her constant shrieks of excitement, there’s a never-ending smile on my face as we make the short hike back to the restaurant and bar near the infinity pool along the beach. Our fun-filled jaunt comes to an abrupt halt and her giggles fade when I turn the corner, entering the expansive courtyard near the main lobby.
I’m not sure who gasps first, but the sight we’ve stumbled upon is breathtaking. My eyes roam the transformed area filled with rows and rows of nestled chairs waiting for invited guests. They flank each side of a long aisle dotted with lanterns, leading to a wedding altar overflowing with flowers. Over the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears, I barely hear the nearby ocean waves crashing along the beach gently. The backdrop is nothing short of spectacular, which is filled with the vibrant blues from the water that will soon meet the orange and purples of the setting sun.
My racing thoughts slow, returning to Bella when she wiggles in my hold, wanting to be released. Sliding from my back and pushing off the sombrero, she quietly takes a few steps forward; her eyes not missing an inch of the intended space. Bella reaches out, touching one of the chairs. Her fingertips lightly skim the curve of the wooden back. For a moment, our pursuit of margaritas and mouthwatering Mexican food is forgotten. I can’t pull my eyes away from her sun-kissed, wind-blown appearance, curious what she’s thinking.
I wonder if she’s picturing it too—our friends and family filling every seat. Me in a suit—eagerly waiting at the end of the aisle for her arrival. I can see her in a beautiful white dress with Charlie at her side. When our eyes meet, in that moment, our radiant smiles mirror one another. Together, we reflect a deeper joy and level of commitment, because on that day—our wedding day—our journey together continues, only as husband and wife.
And I can’t wait for the privilege of calling her my wife.
She doesn’t turn immediately at the sound of her name, and I wonder if she’s heard me. Before I can repeat myself, she twists, looking up at me with wide eyes full of questions.
“Is it this easy?” Bella asks.
I’m not sure if she means choosing the perfect wedding venue or deciding on the details of the day, but I know with enough money, we can create anything she’s ever dreamed of for herself. Or maybe she’s referring to our relationship and how easily we are moving forward. It may not happen in the order she’s imagined, but I want to make my intentions crystal clear where she’s concerned.
“Yes, it is.” I reach out, take her hand in mine, and lace our fingers together. After bringing her hand to my lips, I place a delicate kiss on the back, then meet her steady gaze. “Do you want to practice? I can wait at the other end.”
Bella turns her head toward the area, waiting to be filled with guests, but most notably a bride and groom, then returns her focus to me, giving a slight smile. “No. This isn’t ours—”
“But it could be.” I wiggle my eyebrows.
Her smile grows at the thought. “I don’t need to practice. I’ll have no problem finding my way down any aisle, if you’re the one there waiting for me.”
My heart accelerates at her words, and I do my best to contain my building excitement with a nod. “Whenever you’re ready. Let me know.”
Bella lifts onto her toes intent to kiss me, and I wrap an arm around her, drawing her closer, then meeting her lips halfway for a kiss she ends too quickly.
Pulling away slightly, she grins. “I promise, you will be the first to know.”
“Okay, let’s go feed you, then I believe there’s a hammock waiting with our names on it.”
“Can I get another ride?”
As if I would ever refuse any request from her, I turn around, crouch lower, and look back over my shoulder. “Hop on.”