A/N: I’m posting a day early since we’re leaving on a short vacation tomorrow. Enjoy! As always, my thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Brother,” Brett Eldredge
(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) /\ \
Stepping into our locker room Friday night after I finish my pregame workout, I can feel the vibe is off without any music playing like normal. The space should be buzzing with an energy of anticipation before our matchup with St. Louis, but that isn’t the case. As I move toward my stall to finish getting dressed, one voice dominates the stillness of the room.
Marcus looks up from where he’s sitting, lacing up his skates, while a man wearing a suit with a scarf tied at his neck speaks.
Maybe he’s a special guest or a fan.
“I didn’t know you were still playing. There’s hope for all of us if they continue to offer you a lifeline each season. What are you—fourth line now?”
Definitely not a fan.
“My how the mighty Captain has fallen. It’s a tragedy really. But l commend you for leaving San Jose. It takes a lot to step away from a franchise they built on your back. Leave them before they leave you; am I right? The joys of free agency. How’s your beautiful wife and my kid?”
With those last words, Marcus’s level-headed indifference morphs to an expression brimming with anger, but he refuses to engage this guy with a reply.
The man chuckles, still facing away from me. “Easy, my friend. It’s a joke. Doesn’t anyone have fun in this league anymore?”
My eyes shift to the pissed off expressions of both Tyler and Vladdy before I notice Ben, sitting frozen in place on the bench at his stall opposite of mine.
“Let Deedee know I’m available for dinner whenever she wants to invite me over.” The guy shifts his attention to tonight’s starting goaltender. “Benny! My man! It’s been too long.”
While the guy seems familiar, I can’t place him, but I notice a hockey bag near his feet and a travel cup in hand. After removing a pair of rose-colored glasses, he slips them into his jacket pocket and opens his arms, waiting for a hug. I watch Ben pale instantly.
This isn’t good.
“What? No love? We’re teammates again. How cool is that?” He thumbs over his shoulder. “They’re getting my uniform ready, but I suppose there will be time for us to take a trip down memory lane after the game. Too bad we can’t be next to each other—just like old times.”
His mention of being teammates gets my attention. Once the guy turns, I’m able to see more of his face. While he’s changed some over the years, I realize who he is—Caius Volante. He’s a well-known instigator and fighter, who tends to find trouble both on and off the ice. So much so that he lives up to his nickname: Trouble.
Even though it’s difficult to accept, he’s also a Stanley Cup Champion, winning with the Kings when they won their second Cup. It’s funny that he’s giving Marcus any shit about the fourth line when he’s made his career there. Every line is important since games are won and lost by creating head-to-head mismatches.
Caius is old-school hockey and has floated between different teams in the Eastern Conference for the past several years, which is why we haven’t faced him often since we’re in the Western Conference. If I remember correctly, he was with Pittsburgh at the end of last season. He’s the kind of player coaches in this league love—dream about, always ready to do the dirty work away from the puck. And he’s somehow landed a place on our roster before the trade deadline on Monday.
I have no idea about his history with Ben, but the deadly look on Tyler’s face indicates he could be aware of it or has his own issues with Caius. If that’s the case, he isn’t alone. Painful memories I have of Caius infiltrate my thoughts. He turns around to address the entire room with his arms open again.
“Daddy’s home, boys. I’m here to make all your Stanley Cup dreams come true. Don’t everyone rush to welcome me at once.” Caius chuckles when no one makes a move. “Oh, well, you will all be thanking me soon enough. Right, Cap?”
I’m surprised at James’s agreeing nod when the two of them have fought in the past. There aren’t many high-profile players Caius hasn’t fought. It’s a strategy to get them off the ice for two minutes or more, giving a team the opportunity to capitalize on the situation he creates. Maybe Caius is here to take some of that pressure off James.
Junior must have gotten him for a steal because no one in the league would touch him once he entered the player assistance program six months ago. Without any confirmation as to the reason Caius entered the program, it isn’t difficult to guess, knowing his past and how he loves to indulge in everything he shouldn’t. If he can remain clean and sober for the next three months, then there’s a chance he could be beneficial to us due to the nature of his game.
More than anything, Caius is a menace, who thrives on intimidation without actually needing to fight anyone most of the time, but he’s always there to back it up when necessary. It’s a mind fuck for a lot of teams, knowing he’s lurking somewhere on the ice and not afraid to hit anyone—including goaltenders. While he isn’t known as a goal scorer, it doesn’t mean Caius doesn’t put a few in the back of the net every now and then. One thing is for certain—he can always be found in the middle of every fight.
I doubt anyone here has forgotten previous altercations on the ice.
I know I haven’t.
“Crow . . . buddy.” Caius waves him forward. “Bring it in.”
I’m not buying whatever “reformed” Caius he’s pedaling, and it looks as if no one else in this room is either. The player assistance program doesn’t specialize in miracles, and he would need a personality transplant since he’s a bonafide asshole.
Tyler shakes his head with his arms crossed over his chest. “I’m good.”
“Aww, don’t be that way. Maybe it’s time to change your tampon.”
“Trouble,” James warns.
“Cap, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Crow knows that. Just a little friendly banter between us. We’ve known each other for years.”
James’s gaze finds mine, and I give him a what-the-fuck look, while Caius turns his attention to Vladdy.
Narrowing my eyes, I lunge toward Caius, but James intercepts me, “Spider.”
Vladdy’s gaze shifts to mine briefly and Caius’s face lights up.
“Oh, you made a friend and a good one, if Spider is willing to come after me for you. That’s so cute. Stupid, but cute. I’m learning team dynamics quickly at this rate.”
“I don’t need anyone to fight for me,” Vladdy states defiantly.
But Vladdy knows I would in a heartbeat.
“At ease, comrade. We’re on the same side now. You’re gonna love me.”
Vladdy shakes his head minutely. “I don’t think so.”
“And Spider! Isn’t it crazy how life works?” Caius smirks. “You aren’t still holding that ankle injury against me, are you?”
At the mention, my body floods with pure animosity, something I thought I was over, rearing its ugly head once again.
I was traded and assigned temporarily to Boston’s AHL affiliate in Providence nine years ago prior to the deadline. Unfortunately, I was injured during a game late in their season. Caius was on the ice, playing for our opponent that night—Manchester—an L.A. Kings affiliate, at the time. He plowed into me on purpose, resulting in the injury.
After reviewing replays of the collision, the entire situation could have been avoided, but he’s a dirty player. My injury prevented me from joining Boston during their Stanley Cup run when their starting goaltender was unable to play and they needed a backup. Their team that year went on to win without me, which was the closest I’ve ever been to winning the Cup.
I can’t believe we’re being forced to move forward with him.
And yes, I’m still holding that against him.
“Trouble!” Coach interrupts and rubs his hands together, probably realizing Caius is delaying us. “Stop running your mouth and get ready. You should be dressed by now.”
Caius puts his hand over his chest. “Anything for you, Boss. Just catching up with the boys.” He winks at me, then lowers his voice. “We can talk later.”
Not if I can help it.
Caius is distracted with the arrival of his new uniform and grabs his hockey bag to settle into his spot next to Demir. While Caius talks with our equipment manager, Tyler resumes our regular music, which is a welcome distraction for the grenade that just landed in the middle of our locker room.
The next fifteen minutes overflow with quiet tension while everyone makes finishing touches before Ben leads us out of the room, ready to take the ice. James and I are the last ones to leave, and I seize the moment alone with him.
“What the actual fuck?” I whisper.
“Right? Coach thought it would be a good idea for me to pick him up at the airport and take some time alone to bury the hatchet.”
“I think it’s in my back. Or maybe Ben’s. Fuck. This isn’t good.”
James releases a heavy sigh. “Caius is just a bump in the road. There have been bigger assholes with their names engraved on the Cup. We have to use what he brings to the game to our advantage.”
“That’s a huge ask,” I confide. “And he isn’t making it any easier on himself by insulting everyone.”
“You’re telling me. If he calls himself ‘Daddy’ or us ‘boys’ again, I’ll end up as a healthy scratch for beating the ass of my own teammate. I’m not even sure if that’s in Junior’s rulebook or not, but I’m positive he would somehow find a way to make an example out of me of what not to do.”
“Caius better leave Vladdy alone,” I warn. “I’m not going to listen to him spew that bullshit.”
“Vladdy can take care of himself. You know that. He will be fine. Remember, it’s not our job to question Junior’s decisions, and Caius is one of them. We were too. We’re here to play hockey. Let’s play.”
There’s an unsettling feeling that looms over our team during warmups, and we’re lacking any spark even after the puck drops, especially Ben. From where I sit on the bench, I watch helplessly as he makes rookie mistakes that result in repeated close calls. It isn’t long before those catch up with him when he moves too far out of the net, then fails to get back. Leaving a wide open net, St. Louis buries the rebound, putting them on the scoreboard first.
I watch Ben attempt to shake that one off and reset. Despite opportunities on the other end of the ice during back-to-back penalties for St. Louis, their goaltender makes great saves on shots from James and Tyler. Without any second chances, we fail to score on the power plays, as St. Louis continues to battle around the net. At even strength, Ben gives up a juicy rebound, and they capitalize on it with another goal, putting them up two-zero at the end of the first.
Ben doesn’t spend the intermission in the locker room with us. I’m not sure where he is, but no one seems concerned while we listen to Coach point out everything we’re doing wrong. Once we’re due back on the ice, Ben waits at the end of the hallway, ready to lead us onto the ice for the second period. As we gather in the hallway, he keeps his head down and speaks to no one.
While Tyler wins faceoffs, our frustrations build when we turn over the puck in the neutral zone. We watch each time as St. Louis races down the ice for another one-on-one with Ben until the puck finally slips past him, giving them a three-zero lead. Our bench is stunned when forty seconds later Demir loses the puck behind our net, while stalling for line changes. Ben bobbles the save and St. Louis sneaks the puck in the goal, making the score four-zero.
Glancing at our numbers displayed overhead, Ben’s stats are dismal with four goals on thirteen shots while we have no goals on six shots. I’m not sure there’s any coming back from this, but with over half of the game left to play, anything is possible.
“Spider!” My eyes meet Coach’s and he nods toward the ice. “Get out there.”
I’m in. He’s making a switch. This is what I do—always ready at a moment’s notice.
“Ben!” Coach waves him toward the bench.
A shot of adrenaline surges through me while everyone waits for us to change positions. I hand off my glove to one of our equipment managers, then reach for my helmet. After sliding it in place, I grab my water bottle before he hands over my glove, blocker, and stick. Someone opens the rink door and I step out onto the ice, ready to go. Ben doesn’t say a word as I pass him, keeping his eyes on the ice as he skates off.
He will have a lot to unpack later, but for now, it’s on me to keep this hole from getting any deeper.
Blowing out a heavy breath, I add my water bottle to the holder on the back of the net, then slip on my remaining gear. We aren’t allowed any warm-up time, but I do a few of my regular pregame moves to stretch out my legs a little, gliding back and forth across the crease. I stretch out my neck, moving my head from shoulder to shoulder, then tap both posts with my stick, letting them know I’m taking over. After returning to ready position, I nod toward the ref, who waits to drop the puck at center ice.
Once play resumes, St. Louis continues its relentless attack, and it takes everything I have to keep the puck out of the net. When Caius is on the ice, he finds old enemies easily with additional pushing and shoving after every whistle. I skate off to the side, waiting for my net to clear each time. Marcus and Vladdy have a couple of opportunities while we’re on power plays, but we come up empty-handed as time runs out on the period.
Even though Ben isn’t in the game, he still avoids our locker room during the intermission. It isn’t difficult to conclude his absence has everything to do with Caius’s presence. He’s a tough pill to swallow, and I have no idea how to make him joining our roster any easier, but it’s something we’ll need to work through off the ice. For now, we still have twenty minutes left to play.
When Coach indicates it’s time to return, I lead us out onto the ice for the third period, fixing my crease before doing a few additional stretching moves. Everything feels good, and I settle in blocking shots and making saves until St. Louis’s captain fires a slap shot from the blue line. With bodies in front of me, it sails over my right shoulder into the back of the net, extending their lead five-zero. This isn’t how we were hoping to match up against them tonight. It’s humbling, as our offense fails to deliver by putting any goals in the back of the net.
With about nine minutes left in the period, tempers finally boil over and Caius goes at it with one of St. Louis’s players. Once they’re separated and the refs agree on penalties, Caius gets a two-minute penalty for interference while the St. Louis player gets two for slashing. Through a nonstop verbal assault, Caius disagrees with the call and is given a ten-minute misconduct penalty, removing him from the rest of the game.
I have to admit, I think we all breathe a sigh of relief on both sides of the puck at his exit. Marcus serves Caius’s interference penalty while we play four-on-four for the next two minutes. As the penalty minutes expire, Marcus jumps out the door, gliding into an area of open ice near the net. Vladdy whips the puck across the ice to Marcus, who elevates the puck in the back of the net, giving us our first goal of the game. Fortunately, I don’t allow any other goals in the final minutes, and at the end of regulation, we’re all ready to put this loss behind us.
While five-one isn’t something to be proud of, my nine saves on ten shots is a good night for me coming off the bench to such a large deficit. Not great, but good. Once I make it to our locker room, there’s no sign of Caius, and Ben is out of his gear quickly, departing to complete his post-game workout. While I remove my gear, Coach and James remain in our room out of obligation, answering questions from reporters about the addition of Caius to our roster and our loss.
After I complete my workout, a subdued Ben and I meet with our goaltending coach to dissect all twenty-three shots on goal. I don’t think either of us is surprised when Coach stops by our meeting and announces that I’ll be starting Sunday’s game against Chicago. But Ben visibly shrinks when Coach also shares that Stefan, not Ben, will back me up. Ben will be a healthy scratch.
I’m not sure how to help him at this point with everything going on, but we’re in this together. We need to find a way to get him back on top of his game. When he’s in a good headspace, I know how great Ben can be, and having him back as our starter will be key to us making the playoffs.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
With Mom’s car missing Saturday afternoon when I get home from practice, I wonder for a moment where she could be, but I’m excited for a little alone time with Bella. After parking my truck, I close the garage, then the chime of our security system announces my arrival as I enter our home. The delicious aroma of baking cookies hits my nose, and I kick off my shoes ready to locate my fiancée.
Once I enter the kitchen, the only evidence is a neatly stacked arrangement of cookies under the glass dome, sitting on the island. I lift off the dome and grab one, then notice Scout sleeping with Shadow in a sunspot on the floor of the great room. Neither is bothered to get up with my arrival, and I pop the whole chocolate chip cookie in my mouth. It’s still soft, and I suspect either Mom or Bella must have baked these this morning. If it was Bella, then she probably made them for breakfast.
While I’m due to eat, it can wait a little longer as I pass through the rooms on the main level, searching for Bella without success. Taking the stairs two at a time to check the upper level, I notice the door to the bedroom where Mom is staying is open, but the room is empty. I check the next open door to find Bella lying on the floor in the center of the empty room, which will be Pumpkin’s nursery.
“Hey, there you are.”
She’s staring at the ceiling, but her eyes shift to me as I lower myself to the floor next to her.
“Here I am,” Bella confirms with a heavy sigh.
Normally, she wears my clothes on weeknights and weekends. So I’m surprised to find her wearing a white tank top with thin straps and blue jean cut-off shorts while her feet are bare. I give her a kiss, then notice her tattoo in this top immediately, which puts a smile on my face.
While Bella has explained that these tops have some sort of bra built into it, there’s no concealing the expanding soft curves of her chest, revealed along the neckline. The effect of my current view can only be surpassed by the lure of her hardened nipples under the fabric.
Maybe they won’t be hidden for long.
She grins, probably already knowing what I’m thinking.
“Your mom went to Rose’s to spend some time with the kids and have dinner with them this evening. She said that she will be back later.”
“How long have you been up here?”
“For a while.”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s all sinking in after my appointment. I’m really pregnant. It’s surreal. I mean how can something so small send my body into such utter chaos? It’s mind-blowing. I’m hot and exhausted. Even worse—” She pulls away the hem of her tank to reveal the unfastened top button of her shorts. “I can’t get these closed and I could a month ago. What’s happening to me? I’m like a poorly made sausage, busting out at all the seams. I’m going to need new clothes soon.”
I lean over, placing a kiss on her slightly protruding belly. “Hello, Pumpkin. It’s Daddy. What are you doing to Mommy?”
When my eyes find Bella’s, her grin widens at something I’ve started doing—talking to the baby. The app says that Pumpkin has ears now, and I want to use every opportunity for him or her to learn my voice, as early as possible.
“We’ll buy whatever new clothes you need,” I reassure. “The house smells great. Did you bake cookies?”
Her smile fades. “Yeah, but they made me sick, which is like some twisted Greek tragedy. They’re supposed to heal me, like they always do. No deal this time.”
Bella nods. “I need to stop eating my favorites or they won’t be my favorites any longer at this rate. And Al called between clients at the salon this morning.”
“He said they’re going to start work in here on Monday. I guess he settled on a design. I’m sure it will be wonderful. Al also said that I’m not allowed on this level until everything is finished—no spoiling the surprise. So, there’s that. I guess I just wanted to come up here and I don’t know . . . take it all in before everything changes.” She wipes away a stray tear.
“Hey. These are good changes.”
“Is it wrong to have sex in here?” I ask, hoping to lighten her mood.
Bella chuckles. “Probably. Feeling lucky?”
“I like my chances. I didn’t have it in me to wake you before I needed to leave this morning.”
I don’t mention she was snoring loudly, which is new, because that won’t end well for me, when she’s been adamant that she doesn’t snore.
“How was practice?” she asks.
Rolling onto my side, I guide her to mirror my position and slip my arm under her neck before hooking her bare leg over my hip.
Once she’s settled comfortably against me, I shrug. “The addition of Caius is going to be an adjustment for everyone, except him. He’s like a mosquito in a dark tent.”
“From what you shared, he sounds like quite the character.” Bella grins. “Are you still starting tomorrow night?”
“That’s an understatement, and yeah, I am.”
“I think I’ll text Deedee and find out if she wants to go to the game together.”
“She probably will,” I agree, then make a suggestion. “To help you cool off, we could get in the pool and swim around a little. It would be good—”
Her eyes narrow. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re trying to be sneaky with exercise, but I’ve got news for you. According to your sister, I’m bodybuilding, as in building another body. So, don’t think that doesn’t count as exercise.”
“Or maybe I just want to see you in a bikini or less.” I smirk, sliding my hand past her hip to squeeze her ass. When she doesn’t take the bait, I offer a different suggestion. “Do you want to do something tonight? We could go out.”
“On a date?”
“Yeah. Or we could stay in, if you aren’t feeling up to it, and watch—”
“Sure. I was going to say—”
“Hockey? Or we could combine the two and watch Miracle? Or Slap Shot? I haven’t seen that one yet.”
“Doc, I don’t think my dick can get any harder with the suggestions coming out of your mouth.”
Her eyes lighten with mischief. “What about coming in my mouth?”
“Thank goodness I showered after practice.” I smile, then kiss her. “You know, we’re alone, if you’re serious about a little exercise. Scout and Shadow didn’t even follow me upstairs.”
“Maybe I am, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”
“I’m always thinking what you’re thinking.”
“Scout lost interest when the warm sunspot on the carpet disappeared in here. He left and Shadow followed. They’re probably downstairs.”
“They are.” I rub my fingers along the back of her thigh lightly. “I also wanted to talk with you about something else.”
“After helping James this week, I was thinking we should do our own thing.”
Bella shakes her head. “I’m not following.”
“I think we should start our own charitable foundation,” I clarify.
“Really?” Her eyebrows lift with surprise. “And support which charities?”
“I’m not sure yet. Maybe combine our interests somehow and put my mom in charge of it. She could plan events, which would raise money for scholarships or community projects, whatever we want. Since we’re planning on staying in Dallas, I think it’s time we focus on doing more by helping those around us—invest in our community.”
Bella chuckles. “And here I thought you were going to suggest that we ask her to be Pumpkin’s nanny.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“No. We’re going to need someone. Why not her? I think she needs . . . something tangible to hold on to right now—a purpose.”
“I was thinking the same thing, but I didn’t know if that would be something you would be okay with her doing.”
Bella sighs. “Unfortunately, it isn’t something I can ask my mom to do. Esme seems like the next logical person to consider.”
“Would we pay her?”
This way I wouldn’t have to end Mom’s stipend and I would have valid reasons for adding to it.
“Absolutely. We would pay anyone in that role,” Bella agrees.
“I think she could do both—be Pumpkin’s nanny and run our foundation.”
“We would need to ask her if either is something she can see herself doing, but yes, it seems as if it could be a great fit for her. The foundation will be small at first, doing a few events during the year—maybe once a year or if we’re finding success, once a quarter. As it grows, she can always find volunteers to help. I think Al and Garrett would love to be involved too.” Bella’s eyes find mine. “Speaking of paying someone . . . I need to ask a small, very temporary favor.”
“That’s an interesting transition, but I like how this is sounding. Favor granted. What do I get?” I grin.
“You haven’t even heard what it is yet.”
“I don’t need to know.”
“It’s about Sam,” she reveals.
“Okay, keep going,” I encourage.
“Jason finalized an agreement with Sam’s lawyer yesterday for the damages I caused when I resigned, but I don’t have the necessary cash flow at the moment to pay the entire negotiated amount . . . on my own. I paid Jasper for the improvements we made to the office, but I also put down a deposit to secure his company for our expansion into the offices next to ours. It was how I was able to secure a spot on their calendar. We used a preliminary bid for my loan that has been approved, but we’re still finalizing the plans since I keep tweaking them.”
“I thought we talked about this. It’s our money now,” I remind her. “Call Adam and make the arrangements.”
“I know, but you said I need to be careful about blurring lines, and it’s still a lot. While I’m not happy with the final number, Jason believes I’ll get it back and more when we move forward with a gender discrimination suit against Sam. It will just take time, but we need to strike before he’s embroiled in the divorce with Emily. Jason said she has a lawyer now.”
I nod my agreement. “Call Adam. Tell him what you need.”
“I haven’t even told you how much I have to pay yet.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I shrug. “It’s another step in removing Sam from your life, which you know I support one-hundred percent.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
“There is no paying anyone back when it’s our money to begin with.” I smirk with the opportunity this presents to come clean with her. “If it will make you feel any better, I need to ask you for a favor.”
Bella tilts her head in question. “Okay?”
“Don’t be mad.”
“Why would I be mad? Is that the favor?”
“Just say whatever it is.”
I roll her onto her back, settle in between her legs, and hover above her body, being careful not to squash her. After dipping lower to kiss her neck, I place another on her lips before revealing the truth.
“I bought the Bentley for you.”
Her brow furrows with confusion. “We’re not trying it out?”
“We are, and they’ll fix anything we want to change about it if it’s possible, but . . . we own it. It’s ours,” I whisper the last two words, then shift my hips slightly, pressing against her gently.
Bella’s eyes close briefly at the feeling. “Edward . . .”
Supporting my body with one arm, I watch her face as I touch her necklace before tracing a path to her tattoo.
“I should have said that from the start, which is why I need your forgiveness now.”
Trailing my finger to the strap on her bare shoulder, I hook it underneath before guiding it lower to reveal her breast.
“It was intended as a surprise, but I started second-guessing the whole purchase until I drove it, then I knew it would be the perfect vehicle for you.”
I leave a kiss near her tattoo as my hand cups her breast, giving it a squeeze before my thumb passes over her nipple, prompting her gasp.
“You’re not mad, right?”
Bella’s half-lidded eyes open at my question. There’s a touch of a smile on her sweet lips as she pulls my T-shirt from my body, tossing it to the side. Her hand moves lower between us, sliding past the waistband of my shorts.
With a raised eyebrow, she curls her hand around me, stroking me in the limited space. “I’m definitely not feeling mad at the moment, which I believe is your strategy.”
“Fuck, I love it when you touch me.”
Once she removes her hand, Bella pushes my shorts lower, freeing my ready cock. I dip my head and guide her breast toward my waiting lips. My tongue toys with her nipple before I suck it into my mouth to the sound of her contented moans.
After I pull away, I ask, “You forgive me?”
Wrapping her legs around me, I nestle my cock between her legs, then shift my weight, using my other hand to expose the rest of her chest.
“You’re so fucking beautiful.”
I can’t resist her other breast, teasing the nipple while her whole body relaxes at my touch.
“Yes. You know I’m a sucker for your negotiation tactics.”
I grin, kissing her lips. “I’m counting on it.”
Her hands move to the waistband of her shorts. “But we have a problem. You need to help me out of these. I can’t get the zipper to move. It’s jammed or caught on the material. I don’t know which one. Help.”
Readjusting my position, I move to my knees and sit up to get a better view of what’s happening. “Do you know why I’m the perfect man for this job?”
“Because I’m yours.”
Bella grins. “You’re damn right you are.”
There’s no keeping the smile off my face, listening to the sound of her giggles between claims I’m tickling her. It takes multiple attempts to free her, but once I do, I spend the rest of the afternoon worshiping every beautiful curve of her body, especially the new ones.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
After completing the first portion of my pregame routine Sunday evening, I return to our locker room to begin getting dressed for our game with Chicago. It isn’t any less tense than it was Friday night, but it doesn’t seem due to Caius when he’s happily whistling while taping his stick. Glancing around the room, it doesn’t escape my notice when everyone avoids making eye contact. With a shake of my head, I get back to my prep; I don’t have time for whatever is going on, but then my eyes land on Vladdy’s empty stall.
He was here earlier, but now, even his nameplate is missing.
I step closer, blinking a few times, as if I’m seeing things. “What the fuck?”
Turning around, James’s knowing gaze meets my questioning one. He eliminates any chance of confusion and shares the last words I expect to fall from his mouth.
My throat tightens and I turn—my disbelieving eyes searching Vladdy’s empty stall once again. While my brain comprehends the truth of what those two words mean, my heart refuses to accept it.
Vladdy is being traded.
Reaching out, I touch the empty nameplate and blink away the tears threatening to form.
Why would he do this?
“Vladdy just left,” James shares quietly.
I nod once, then start walking toward the doorway of our locker room. After exiting, my steady walk turns into a light jog through the busy hallways filled with people making final pregame preparations. Moving toward our parking garage, I slip past the security guards at the door, then scan the area, hoping I’m not too late.
When I see him, he’s approaching the rows of parked vehicles with a hockey bag slung over his shoulder.
“Vladdy!” I yell.
He stops, then turns toward me, smiling sadly, as I catch up.
“Yeah,” he confirms.
I run a hand through my hair now that I’m faced with the reality as Vladdy stares at the ground.
“This fucking sucks.” Shaking my head, I ask, “You were just going to leave without saying anything?”
Vladdy nods, releasing a steady breath. “Junior wouldn’t let me back in the locker room. He had somebody pack my stuff while he told me.”
This breaks my fucking heart.
How much more can it take?
“What did he get?”
“First round pick for this year’s draft.”
Well, Vladdy is definitely worth that. With the loss of him from our roster, it probably means a younger player from Austin will take his spot. We have several ready, but that doesn’t make Vladdy’s departure any easier.
“I have to pick up Maks and catch our flight. They want me on the ice in the morning.”
“Where?” I wonder.
It’s probably a great fit for him, knowing there are other talented Russians on their team. He’ll find friends easily, but Vladdy always does.
“Nissa is moving too. I texted her. She’s packing and excited about living in Florida.”
“What about the rich guy?”
I smile. “I told you that wouldn’t last.”
“We’ll see. I play on Tuesday night—Toronto.”
I nod, saddened that we’ll be in Carolina for our game, which no longer includes him. We’re both struggling to find the words.
“I don’t have a choice.”
“I know. This doesn’t change a thing,” I say, hoping to reassure us both, but the words provide little comfort, at least for me. Our time is running out, and I need to finish getting ready, but I wanted to see him before he left, at least. I open my arms for a hug. “I’ll miss you, brat.”
While I use the Russian word, he uses the English version during our embrace.
“I’ll miss you too, brother.” Vladdy sniffs back the tears, then whispers, “Ya tebya lyublyu.”
After patting him on the back, I pull away, then smile. “I love you too.”
“Take care of my tennis partner.” He grins. “And little Pumpkin.”
“You know I will. Tell Maks . . . I’ll miss him.”
“One more thing.” Vladdy drops his hockey bag, reaches up to remove his gold cross necklace, then hands it to me. “Give to Sly. He can take over and pray while you’re in net.”
I snort. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Vladdy grins. “Some nights, every bit helps.”
After closing my hand around his necklace, we share a last one-armed hug.
“This one will be for you,” I promise.
Vladdy nods, then picks up his bag as I turn and approach the security guards.
“I.D.?” one says, holding out a hand.
“What? I.D.? I’m Edward Cullen. Don’t you recognize me? I’m the starting goaltender tonight.”
“And I’m Royce King, Sr.” The man shakes his head, then demands again. “I.D., please.”
“Obviously, you aren’t, and I don’t have—”
The sound of Vladdy’s bellowing laughter causes me to turn around, finding him grinning from ear-to-ear while walking backward.
“Wait, I got it.” The other security guard points to black and white printouts taped on the wall above their desk.
They are of Ben and me, side-by-side headshots while wearing our goalie masks. This isn’t the first time we’ve had trouble with security not recognizing us, but now it’s a running joke. I don’t miss that someone doodled on them. Ben’s mouth looks like a jack o’lantern’s, while mine is attached to a spider’s body with a web in the background.
“I think he’s the one with all his teeth.”
They’re barely able to contain their laughter.
“Maybe we should call upstairs and double-check.”
“Real funny. You all suck.”
“James is right. It’s always funny.” When their laughter subsides, one of the guards jerks his chin toward the open door. “Go ahead, Edward.”
“Good luck, Spider!” Vladdy yells, then waves.
Without him in our line up, we’re going to need it, especially me.