A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
(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) /\ \
Staring up at the clear blue sky, I reach up, rubbing the tense muscles of my neck, and wait for him to answer.
“Hey,” he replies.
“What’s going on?”
“On my way to Frisco and trying to focus on the right things,” James shares.
“Were you able to talk with your lawyer?” I ask curiously after he confided in me about the Angela drama going on with him and Ben.
“Yeah. He said we have a few options—DNA testing can be done as early as seven weeks, but delivers a more accurate paternity result at ten weeks. I told him what you said about Doc and the others doubting that she’s even pregnant. So, I’ll believe in a positive test once I have the result in hand. Her words aren’t good enough for me. Hell, at this point, I would bet Ben and I aren’t the only possibilities. Best case scenario: I get both of us out of this situation by pushing for the testing.”
I shake my head. “What a mess.”
“Right? If she is pregnant and it is my kid, what are my rights? Has she been endangering its development with alcohol, drugs, or unprotected sex? And what can I do about it going forward? Can I fight for full custody at the birth or before? It’s a fucking can of worms. I hate it and not how I ever thought I would become a dad,” he huffs.
“Yeah.” James chuckles sadly. “How do I get myself in these situations?”
“You and I both know how this happened.”
“And it’s biting me in the ass at every turn. Enough of that bullshit, tell me what’s going on with you.”
“I’m at my parents’ house.” Glancing around at the other homes in the neighborhood, my gaze returns to theirs.
“Oh, man. How did that go?”
I groan my response.
“That good, huh?”
“You know what a dick my dad can be, but that’s not why I’m calling. Even though I need more sleep, some time on the ice could be the answer right now. I’ve got energy to burn. So, do you still need help this afternoon?”
Just going through my normal routine prior to practice would help right now, and this gives me an excuse to lace up my skates today.
James laughs. “With these kids, the more the better. We would love to have you.”
“Who will be there?” I wonder.
“Marcus. Vladdy is bringing Maks. Some of our coaches will be there. I arranged for our mascot and the Ice Girls to be available off-ice for photos, but, um, Chelsea will be there too. She is covering the event for when it airs during the broadcast of one of our next games.”
“It’s fine. Chelsea isn’t a problem. Doc neutered that situation in Mexico,” I add.
“I’m not surprised, knowing Doc, but Chelsea and Johnny broke up,” James explains further.
James always has my back, and I appreciate his loyalty, but this isn’t about me; I want to help him out too.
“Doesn’t matter. Count me in. I want to help.”
“Are you okay with being mic’d up?” James asks.
“Sure. I’m game.”
“Great. No profanity. I’ll be the first to admit I’ll have a problem, but you need to start thinking about that now.”
“I’ll do my best.” I chuckle, knowing that could be a big ask. “We’re going back to my house, then I want to stop by Doc’s office. After that, I’ll be on my way.”
“Okay. See you later this afternoon. Thanks, man. The kids will love you. And keep your chin up. It will get better with your parents,” James promises.
“I hope so, because right now, this fucking sucks.”
“Language.” He laughs. “We’re screwed, aren’t we?”
“Oh, man.” There’s no keeping the smile off my face because I didn’t realize I had said anything, and this could be more challenging than I imagine. “See you later, Cap.”
After ending the call, I pocket my phone and wait, wondering what’s taking Mom and Rose so long. When they finally emerge from the house, Mom wipes away fresh tears and Rose rolls two suitcases toward me with a pissed off expression. Instantly, I regret not staying inside for whatever was said.
Taking the luggage from Rose, I move to load them in the back, while she opens the passenger door for Mom. But Mom bypasses the open door, walking straight toward me with renewed determination.
She points at me. “You hit your father?”
I knew there would be no avoiding this conversation once she found out.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Do you know who told me? Him. And Bella confirmed it. Did I hear it from you? No, I didn’t. When were you planning on telling me?”
“I raised you better than that. You should at least apologize.”
“This has absolutely nothing to do with how I was raised. I’m not sorry. I’m not apologizing to him for anything. He shouldn’t have said what he said. And continues to say. You heard him inside. How can you even consider defending him? He should be apologizing to Bella. To Rose. To you. He won’t. I’m done. There’s nothing else left to say at this point.”
“We can’t just turn our backs on him.”
“I think we’ve all done more than enough and it’s getting us nowhere. Doing the same thing over and over again isn’t giving different results—is it? No. I wonder why?”
Mom’s shoulders sag with resignation, and she turns to get in the vehicle without another word.
Once Rose shuts Mom’s door, I lower my voice and ask, “What happened inside after I left?”
“They wanted a moment alone. I should have known better. So, I went upstairs and packed her bags as quickly as possible. When I came back downstairs, Dad was telling Mom that he never wanted to be married to her—that he never loved her.” Rose’s eyes fill with tears that she blinks away rapidly. “Those are both lies.”
“Fuck. What a shitty thing to say. He’s on a roll today.”
“Despite anything Dad may say, Mom hasn’t given up on him. I doubt she ever will. She’s loyal and forgives easily, especially if she hasn’t turned her back on him by now. What more can he put her through? You and I know Dad has always taken her for granted and will continue to do so. He is being hurtful and lashing out at her.” Rose’s tone is full of the same exasperation I’m feeling.
“It’s unacceptable. Why can’t he keep his fucking mouth shut?” I ask.
Rose shakes her head in dismay. “About the house, I get what you’re doing with them, and I understand that it affects us too. I need to talk with Em, but I’m positive we’ll buy our house from you.”
I nod. “We can work out the details later.”
“I’ll always be grateful for how you helped us out. Don’t think for a second that we don’t appreciate or remember when you were there for us at a time we could barely scrape together two nickels,” she recalls.
“It wasn’t that bad. You both needed time to get on your feet,” I defend, because I was in a position to help them and happy to do so. “I’m keeping the accounts for the kids. That’s between them and me. Bella knows, but her concern is Dad’s lack of accountability, which is a valid one. Today is a step toward that.”
“No. I get it, and I think you’re both right. He needs accountability, but at what cost?” Rose asks. “Dad is gambling away whatever he can get his hands on. He’s no different from any other addict. We’ve been dancing around it for years. It’s time to take action and not just share meaningless platitudes.”
I shrug. “Cutting off the sources is a start. That’s on me for stepping in when I probably shouldn’t have.”
“You did what you thought was best. He needs further help. Mom said there is a residential center nearby that could be the answer,” Rose shares.
“Dad would never voluntarily agree to that, but at some point, he may not have a choice,” I conclude.
“That’s what worries me.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
Stepping into Lone Star Dental, I pass the empty waiting area, approach the desk, and smile with recognition. “Hey, it’s . . . Anne, right?”
Her face lights up and she confirms my guess. “That’s right. I’m sitting in for your sister today.”
I nod. “Is Doc available?”
“I believe she’s finishing with a patient—um, her lawyer. They’re in her office,” Anne reveals.
I’m stunned for a moment since I didn’t realize her lawyer is also her patient. It sounds as if it could be a conflict of interest to me since they dated. And I suspect she treated him in that fucking closed-door VIP patient room, which grinds my gears a little. Or a lot.
At Anne’s nod, I slip around the corner and walk toward Bella’s office, hearing laughter from inside. I knock on the ajar door and push it open to find her sitting at her desk while he’s in one of the chairs across from her—his beaming smile reflecting hers.
Bella’s eyes widen with my arrival. “Well, this is my lucky day. What an unexpected surprise!”
I grin and kiss her a little longer than I normally would when she’s at work, but I don’t mind in front of anyone she dated previously. Once we part, Bella taps her lips lightly and begins to introduce us.
“This is —”
I turn toward him. “Edward Cullen.”
“The hockey player,” he says.
“That’s me,” I confirm, holding out my hand.
Then he backtracks. “I’m sorry—you’re a goalkeeper, right?”
That’s soccer, but I doubt this guy isn’t into sports. Seems Mr. Lawyer is a bit of a smartass.
While shaking his hand, I squeeze a little more firmly than I probably should, then give him an out. “Close enough.”
He smiles, then winks at Bella, which I don’t like. I shouldn’t have given him the out.
“Jason Scott—Bella’s attorney. I understand congratulations are in order.”
I shift my gaze to Bella, who wiggles the fingers of her left hand with her ring, then back at him.
And she’s also pregnant—with my child—I want to reveal. But technically, we aren’t sharing that news yet, even though it’s something I would love to share with him. It makes me a little happier knowing she hasn’t shared that news. So, he’s not as close with her as he probably hopes.
“Congratulations on your engagement,” Jason says with cool indifference.
I bet that was tough.
“Thanks.” I smile, reach for Bella’s hand, then place a kiss on the back of it. “I’m a lucky man, as you can probably imagine.”
Eat your fucking heart out.
“Indeed you are,” he says so quietly that I barely hear it.
With Bella’s hand still in mine, I brush my thumb over her knuckles, then ask him, “What brings you here? News with Doc’s former employer?”
Because I’m more than happy to remind him he should only be here for business.
“Jason had an overdue appointment,” Bella explains. “But he did have a little good news today. Thankfully, after his tenacious prompting, I’ve been removed from Sam’s website, and I’ll tell you more about what’s next later.”
After a beat of awkward silence, Jason stands, and I notice his shorter, scrawny stature.
“I should be on my way, Dr. Swan.”
I narrow my eyes at the way he warmly addresses her by title when moments ago he referred to himself as Bella’s attorney.
“It was lovely to catch up with you in-person this time. We don’t get the opportunity to do that enough.”
Bella chuckles. “I agree.”
“I’ll call you with any updates before my next appointment,” Jason says. His eyes shift to me briefly, then back to her. “Maybe a rain check on that lunch?”
He was planning on lunch together? Well, I’m happy to rain on his parade in that case, unless that invite includes me, which obviously, it doesn’t.
“Yes, another time. You can schedule your appointment at the front desk or have Deidre give us a call once you’re back at the office, and remember, you promised—regular flossing.”
“I promise.” His voice softens at her reminder. “I’ll do better.”
“I’ll hold you to it.” She grins.
The way he smiles at her, I can tell he likes that idea. I don’t. There will be no holding except by me.
“It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Edward. Keep up the good work for . . . your team,” Jason adds.
He has no idea my team’s name.
Normally, I would invite him to a game, but I don’t like the idea of Bella watching one with him, which would be how I suspect that would shake out. So, I keep the offer to myself.
“And you’ll come to our engagement party?” Bella asks hopefully.
I attempt to conceal my disappointment at the invite because I can’t shake this guy. While it’s my understanding that he broke up with her, I suspect he’s not over her yet with what I’ve witnessed in this short interaction, and it could be good for him to see us together.
“I wouldn’t miss it. Once you decide on a date, let Deidre know and she’ll add it to my calendar.” He presses his lips together, as if he’s unsure what else to say and nods. “Well. Until then.”
“Have a good day, Jason. Take care.”
“You do the same.”
Bella looks up at me, wiggling her eyebrows. “I will.”
Damn right she will. Because of me.
With Jason’s departure, I release her hand, step toward the door, close it, then return to my fiancée. Pulling her from her office chair, I take the spot and guide her to my lap.
“I thought he would never leave.” I grin, prompting her giggles. “I mean, get the hint and scram.”
Running my hand along her back to her neck, I guide her head closer and kiss her lips. When she pulls away, her eyes dance with delight.
With a huff, I downplay my agitation at his presence here. “As if I would be jealous of a guy like that.”
I am. I refuse to say it out loud, but I fucking am. And I don’t like the idea they dated in any capacity.
“Right. Well, for his safety, I should share that we never made it past first base,” Bella reveals, watching me closely. “I don’t know much about baseball, but I know that.”
I’m reluctant to admit it, but I’m relieved with that tidbit. “Good to know, because I’m running out of ways to mark you as mine,” I tease. “And how old is that guy? Fifty?”
“Probably close to it. Our age difference was a problem for him,” Bella states.
“But not for you,” I conclude.
She shrugs. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
“I think he’s still hung up on you and regrets letting you go,” I suggest, wanting to hear her take on my hunch.
“That’s his problem, not mine. He’s my lawyer. And a damn good one. That’s it. I have no regrets about dating him because my path led me to you.”
“Fuck. You’re good.” She’s an expert on pushing away my insecurities. After a kiss, I ask, “Who is Deidre?”
“His personal assistant. I think she’s hoping to retire soon,” Bella explains.
“Am I a better patient?” I prompt, knowing what her answer should be.
More giggles. “Edward, you’re better at everything.”
My whole body relaxes at her words. While I brushed off last night’s overtime loss, ending my winning streak, it doesn’t mean it didn’t leave a mark. The uneasiness I’m feeling hasn’t subsided either, not since my latest interaction with Dad or the unexpected appearance of big brain Jason.
“Like what? I need specifics since we both know physically I have him beat—not to mention I’m better looking.” I grin. “It’s not even close.”
“And humble,” she teases.
“You’re great at making me happy.” She wraps an arm around my shoulders, settling into my arms. “Loving me.”
“What else?” I want to hear more.
“Anticipating my needs. Communicating.”
I nod. “I think that one is you.”
“Gift giving. Plus, don’t forget kissing.”
My smile widens. “I love kissing you—among other things.” I wink, recalling our morning fun.
Bella tilts her head in question. “How did your trip to your parents’ house go?”
My smile falls at the change of subject. “Not the greatest, but I said what I wanted to say.”
I’m quiet for a beat too long because when my eyes find hers again I’m sure she can see my internal distress.
“What’s wrong?” she prompts.
“I let my dad get to me sometimes.” I pause, hoping to find the right words for her to understand. “I stop pucks for a living. It doesn’t come close to what you do.”
Or the lawyer.
Bella shakes her head minutely. “Where is this coming from? What did he say to make you doubt yourself?”
“He doesn’t have to say a word. His voice is wired into my subconscious,” I admit. “It’s not necessarily self-doubt, because I’m used to digging myself out of a mental hole when I find myself in one, but it’s reminding me of not being good enough. He sees my role as a backup goaltender as the product of my own failures for not following his advice.”
“Oh, Edward.” She brushes her fingers through my hair soothingly. “Do you love your job?”
“Does your job bring you happiness?”
“Then you’re way ahead of most people. As long as those two things are met, then that’s all that matters. Please stop underestimating yourself,” Bella requests, but that’s easier said than done. “You understand far more science than you give yourself credit for.”
My eyes find hers. “What do you mean?”
“You’re an expert at nutritional science and well-versed with anatomy, including how your body will respond to the demands you require of it. I am in awe of your hand-eye coordination, plus how you push your muscles by maintaining your strength and flexibility. Part of cultivating your peak condition requires rest and recovery—a lot of people miss that,” Bella points out.
“You keep your eyes sharp with the ability to track pucks with exacting precision, and you have reflexes that seem superhuman at times. While it’s probably muscle memory, your grasp of physics feels as if it could be innate when you’re constantly being tested through actions and reactions. I played you in air hockey, which was quite a humbling experience.”
Fuck, I love her.
“You have,” I agree, then smile when she continues.
“Complex subjects, like psychology, probability, or even game theory, are something you take for granted that don’t come easy to an average person. Don’t get me started on your mental fortitude once you step on the ice. You’re this unshakable warrior, and I always admire your positivity with an amazing ability to bounce back in the face of adversity.” She smiles with a gentle nod.
“Mathematicians spend their careers studying the best ways to maximize gains and minimize losses, while those are decisions you make in a split second. You study players and their habits, strategizing where they are likely to place pucks with an incredible recall. Your memory of all that information is mesmerizing. And you do it all night after night.”
“You’re impressed by my stamina?” I ask with a lift of my eyebrows.
“I’m impressed with everything about you.” Bella’s eyes soften before she kisses me. “You’re the total package.”
“I want to be worthy of you,” I whisper.
“You are. I’m so proud of you and everything you’ve accomplished,” she reassures. “I wouldn’t care if you were the Zamboni driver for a local hockey rink. I would love you just as much.”
“A local rink? I could buy one. I hadn’t considered doing that once I retire. It would be fun. I would be an owner.” I smile at the idea.
“After all the years of dedication, I believe whatever you choose to do, once you’re ready, should be something you consider fun. It’s not about the money.”
“It never was. For me, at least,” I admit. “It’s always been about playing the game. And winning.”
“When was your favorite age playing?” Bella asks.
“I don’t know.” I shrug, attempting to recall that stress-free feeling. “Probably when I was playing with Rose. We were young. It was fun. Carefree. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
Bella nods. “Then maybe working with kids would be the answer for you when you’re ready for that next step.”
“It’s interesting you mention that because I’m on my way to Frisco next,” I disclose, then explain further. “James is doing an event for his foundation with a bunch of kids and I volunteered to help. But I wanted to see you first. So, here I am.”
Her smile returns. “Here you are. Are Rose and your mom at the house?”
“Yeah. Rose is going to stay until you return home, then I should be home in time for dinner. When is your lunch hour?”
“I’m on it now. I believe there should be a salad with a sandwich waiting for me at the front desk. And fingers crossed, the best fudgy brownie you’ve ever tasted. They were out last week when we ordered.” Bella chuckles, then offers, “If you want, we can share.”
“You can keep the brownie to yourself.” I grin because she already made plans for lunch that didn’t include the lawyer. And now, she’s having it with me. “On one condition—once we finish, we make out until your next appointment.”
“Deal,” she says with a kiss to my lips, then slides from my lap. “I’ll go grab my lunch.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
Stepping out on the ice, the last lingering of stress that’s been living in my gut for the past twelve hours evaporates almost instantly. I’ll sleep great tonight; but first, a little goaltending fun is exactly what I need.
James’s Lil’ Stars program provides free hockey equipment for kids around the Dallas area. One hundred lucky kids were selected for this special event and they’re . . . everywhere in what can only be described as organized chaos. Mini-hockey players skate to the best of their abilities. Some spend more time falling onto the ice than upright.
With different challenging stations around the rink, I notice the largest area where a spirited game of tag is happening. Other areas are set up with a skating obstacle course, puck handling drills, and a diving Superman competition to find out who can slide the farthest on their belly.
I wasn’t sure how much gear to wear. So, I went with everything except for my goalie helmet and traded it for a team gear baseball cap instead, making me a little more recognizable. A few pint-sized goaltenders catch my eye, taking turns in goal. I skate toward them, noticing others flocking around James who is hanging out nearby, encouraging those shooting pucks at the goal.
“Almost!” He smiles as I approach. “Hey, glad you made it. Are you ready to take over for this shootout drill? I’m positive you’ve seen it before.”
I chuckle. “Maybe once or twice.”
“Anyone know who this guy is?” James asks those around him.
“Your friend?” One kid suggests before falling on the ice.
“And teammate,” James adds, helping him back upright.
A smaller girl with blonde hair, who reminds me of Katie, looks up. “You’re big. What’s your name?”
She giggles. “Your mom named you Spider? She must not like you.”
“No. My teammates did,” I clarify. “My mom named me Edward.”
She giggles harder. “I like Spider better.” Then she skates away to another station beside us.
A boy takes her place and tells me, “I’m scared of spiders. And bees.”
“I’m a good spider,” I reassure, but he doesn’t seem as confident as he should with that new information.
“Can you do a cartwheel?” Another girl with bright pink laces in her skates asks.
“Yeah. Not on the ice, but in full goalie gear. Can you?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “My mom says mine needs work.”
“I’ll do one for you when we’re finished today,” I promise.
A small skater runs into my leg, bouncing off me. I help him to stand, then he’s on his way. Another boy in goalie gear finishes his time in net, moves closer, and gets my attention.
“Spider! I get to go to a game on March third.”
He continues. “I saw you on TV.”
I grin. “How did I do?”
“Good. You won. Can I try on your glove?”
“Yeah.” I hand it to him.
He drops his smaller glove, blocker, and goalie stick on the ice, then tries on mine. Looking up at me from behind the cage of his helmet, he marvels. “I can’t squeeze it shut.”
“One day you will.” I bend down onto a knee, accepting my glove in return.
He’s quiet for a moment, and together, we watch the new goaltender in net. She’s not letting anything get past her.
“What’s the big deal with girls anyway?” He releases a heavy sigh in disgust.
I chuckle. “They’re great.”
His eyes widen with disbelief, as if I’m a traitor sharing those words, then asks, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, I have a fiancée. Do you know what that means?”
He nods. “You’re getting married.”
“That’s right, but she used to be my girlfriend.” I add, “She’s a dentist.”
“Sucks to be you.” He scrunches up his face. “I hate going to the dentist. It smells weird there. Is she always looking in your mouth to see if you flossed?”
I smile. “No. And I love going to the dentist. Maybe you haven’t been to a good one.”
I turn my head at the shout and welcome the skater barreling toward me into a hug.
“Hey, Maks. How’s my favorite Sokolov?” I ask, releasing him.
“Did you get a new stick?”
“Yeah. I needed a new one. I’m growing,” Maks shares.
“Nice tape job,” I compliment, noticing its alternating green, white, and black design.
“Dad did it for me. Green is my favorite color.”
That probably has everything to do with his love for his dad and our team colors.
“It looks good,” I praise.
“Can I shoot on you with my new stick?”
“Sure. We’ll wait for our turn. Hold up.” I raise my hand up to the shooter to wait. “Nice job, Tendy. Next.” Then return to Maks. “Do I need my mask?”
“Probably.” Vladdy chuckles, handing me my helmet from where I left it in our equipment area while I was getting mic’d up before standing behind him. “Spider, how you doing?”
“I’ll be okay. Nothing wrong with a little ice therapy, right?”
Vladdy’s grin widens. “Same. Everything easier here.”
“Says the guy who isn’t about to face Maksim Sokolov, the latest up and coming, four-year-old sharpshooter. What am I thinking?” I tease, then nudge Maks. “Does Junior have you under contract yet?”
“I’m almost five.” He giggles. “And I’m going to play for USA Hockey one day.”
I share a look with Vladdy who nods. Despite his parents’ Russian citizenship, Maks is an American, born in this country. Without knowing all the details in their situation, Maks probably qualifies for dual-citizenship, but I smile that he’s interested in playing for the same team as I did before I was drafted.
“That will be a great day. I hope I’m there to see it.”
“You can come with us. Right, Dad?”
“Sure.” Vladdy smiles.
I stand, knowing it’s almost our turn. “We’re up next. Go wait in the shooters’ line, Maks.”
Vladdy lowers his voice. “Maks and I have appointments tomorrow after practice.”
“At Doc’s place,” he adds.
I grin, noticing his worried expression. “You’re scared of going to the dentist?”
“Not me. Maks is.”
“Okay. I am. And I was thinking about asking out . . . Doc’s partner, Victoria.”
“Oh, shi-oot.” I catch myself in time with so many little ears nearby, but know that could only mean one thing. “Nissa’s dating someone new?”
“Yeah. I hate him. She posted photos. I want to punch his stupid face,” Vladdy mumbles.
Maks looks over at us and points me toward the empty goal that it’s our turn.
“Uncle Spider! We’re next,” he says eagerly.
I lower my voice. “Maybe keep that to yourself.”
Vladdy shakes his head. “That’s why I tell you.”
“You know it won’t last,” I reassure him.
I tap on his chest. “So are you—in more ways than just money. And leave Victoria alone. I promise that you’re asking for trouble there.”
“Not even one date?”
“Do you like playing hockey?”
“For this team?”
“Then trust me. You don’t want to go there,” I state.
Skating toward the net, I set my helmet on top and look at the pucks inside with exaggerated disgust. “Who put these pucks in my net?” I sigh loudly, over a bunch of giggles. “No.” I tell each puck, using my stick to clean out the area, pushing the pucks out to where the shooter’s line grows rapidly at center ice with my taking over in net.
Vladdy gathers the pucks while my fellow mini-goaltenders grin widely and join in at my encouragement. Together, we’re a chorus of rejection, with little voices sending each puck on its way with new contempt. It warms my heart.
“No! Goodbye. No pucks allowed. No. Get out of here. And stay out!”
We share a round of high-fives and I thank them for their help before trading my baseball hat for my mask. With a clean net behind me, I crouch lower into my ready stance and wait for Maks who is first.
My objective—something I would never allow with my teammates—is to let every single puck get past me in dramatic fashion while keeping everyone safe, including me. Thank goodness I took the extra time, stretching out before stepping onto the ice.
“All right, Sokolov. Bring it!” I yell. “Let me see what you’ve got.”
Maks skates close and shoots through a wide-open five-hole. There’s no keeping the grin from my face at his celly. He skates a wide arc, letting one knee graze the ice, then swings his little glove-covered fist in an upward motion in celebration of his goal. I shovel his puck out of the net playfully before continuing with the next shooter.
Most players at this age can’t elevate the puck, but a few can. Lagging my movements from post-to-post, I give them as much of a wide open net as possible between chirps. Their smiles and laughter fuel me with each shot. Despite a never-ending line, Vladdy and I try to move through as many kids as possible, knowing I face Maks at least four times. He can’t get enough, and I just love him.
James blows his whistle, waving everyone toward center ice. “Everyone bring it in!”
I push up my mask, then grab my baseball cap from on top of the net.
“Spider, I’m going to miss you,” one of my mini-tenders says.
“Awww, thanks, buddy. I’ll miss you too. You can come back and see me anytime,” I offer.
“Will you sign my helmet?” he asks hopefully.
It gets the attention of others nearby and they chime in with, “Me too?”
“Let me grab a marker.” As I look over the gathering mix of black and white helmets, I wonder if silver would be best, but plan to use whatever we have available. “Vladdy, do we have any markers?”
“Here you go.” He hands me a black one. “I’ll go find silver for black helmets.”
I nod. “Thank you.”
“Hockey is the best! I had fun.” One of the boys I recall from earlier shares.
I grin. “I feel the same way.”
“Thank you berry much, Spider,” another wobbling skater says.
“You’re welcome, buddy.”
James skates around the group and encourages, “Everyone take a knee and move closer—we need to all fit in the photo.”
After a round of photos, I return to signing helmets and Vladdy hands me a silver marker to use. Once I have everyone taken care of, the girl from earlier with the pink-laced skates moves toward me.
“Will you still do a cartwheel?” she asks adorably with wide eyes.
My heart fills with pure joy at that moment. It’s easy to picture a future with my own daughter, especially a smaller version of Bella or even Rose, asking for something similar. I can’t wait for that day.
I nod. “Absolutely. Let’s skate over near the tunnel that leads to the hallway where there’s room to do one.”
As we approach the rink door, the little girl waves at a woman in the stands. “Mom! Mom! It’s Spider! He’s gonna do a cartwheel for me.”
Her mom grins, then shouts, “Can I get a picture?”
“Sure.” We pause, and I kneel on one knee while she takes photos.
“Great. Thank you so much. You’re her favorite player,” the mom reveals.
“Then why aren’t you a goaltender?” I tease.
The little girl giggles. “I tried. It was too hard to move. I’m better at scoring goals.”
“You sound like my sister when she was your age.”
“Is she old, like you?”
I chuckle. “Yes. We’re twins. She taught me how to do a cartwheel.”
“Does she still play hockey?”
“Only for fun. Her son does. He likes to score goals, like you.” I stash my baseball cap inside my mask, then run my hands through my hair before setting it off to the side with my glove and blocker. Shifting my goalie stick to the tapped blade, I ready the black marker and ask, “What’s your name?”
“Do you have a nickname yet?”
She nods. “Elisa.”
I add that too, then sign my name, number, and draw a little spider for her.
After turning it upright, I hand her my goalie stick. “This is for you.”
Her eyes widen. “To keep?”
“To keep,” I confirm, and recap the marker, tossing it inside my mask.
“Mom!” She lets out a squeal of excitement, holds up the stick for her mom to see, and does a happy dance.
Elisa’s mom is stunned, but I catch a glimpse of Chelsea and several Ice Girls watching us from near her.
“Okay. Stay here,” I warn, look around, and notice a few phone cameras pointing at us. “Don’t anyone move. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
After backing up, I face forward, raising my arms. Immediately, my mind shifts to a time when Rose and I were playing in our backyard at our home in Michigan. We were both barefoot in the cool green grass with the sound of a lawn mower somewhere in the distance and the enticing smell of our neighbor’s barbecuing next door. It was summertime at its best. But it’s her young voice that echoes in my head now.
“Remember, it’s hand-hand, foot-foot. Keep your arms straight,” Rose encouraged. “It’s all about confidence. You can do it.“
I spent that summer doing more handstands than ever since she believed it would make doing a cartwheel easier. Rose would do them effortlessly and deemed herself an expert, who could teach anyone, even me. In her opinion, I needed to get comfortable with being upside down. A cartwheel to six-year-old me was a challenge, but not to me now with the amount of yoga I do. My former self would have probably looked at me in awe, as Elisa is now—all because of a cartwheel. And I haven’t even started it yet.
My eyes find Elisa’s and I double-check. “Ready?”
“Yes!” she says eagerly.
With a smile on my face, I chuckle, then lunge forward, completing the fluid motion quickly. Once I’m upright again, I notice more people staring, adding a little, “Tah-dah!” with my finish, and smile.
“How was that one?” I ask.
Elisa’s beaming smile returns. “Amazing. I need to practice.”
“It will get easier with time—believe you can do it and you will.” I nod and wink.
“Elisa,” her mom says, pointing to her wrist.
Her smile fades slightly, realizing our time is coming to an end. “Can I have a hug before I have to go?”
During our hug, someone behind us says, “He’s probably ruined her expectations for all future significant others now.”
Another voice adds, “I think my ovaries are combusting.”
After a round of laughter, a voice I recognize—Chelsea’s—emerges above the others. “Take it from someone who knows, no one will ever come close.”