A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Playboys,” Midland
(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.
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With her fingers laced in mine, I can’t resist stealing a kiss or two as we depart our villa and follow the path toward our destination for the evening. At this rate, we will be some of the last to arrive. It’s doubtful we’ve missed much, but I’ve been reluctant to return to the resort any earlier than necessary, enjoying the last of my alone time with Bella in our own piece of paradise.
We’re both dressed a little nicer for our final team dinner before everyone departs Mexico in the morning. I’m in business casual, wearing dark gray dress pants and a black button up shirt with the cuffs rolled up, exposing my forearms. And tats. I didn’t miss the way Bella’s lustful eyes lingered over me while she was getting ready.
It will take every bit of willpower on my part to keep us at this dinner the entire time and not leave early. Bella is radiant, dressed in an off-shoulder black dress with brightly colored detailing. She’s wearing her long wavy hair down the way I like it, and it’s nearly impossible to keep my hands or lips to myself.
Unfortunately, after we step through the doorway into the lobby of the bustling restaurant, reality bursts our bubble instantly. The woman leaning against the small reservations counter flirting with the host turns in our direction, recognizing us immediately. I’ve been hoping to avoid her during this trip, and we’ve been lucky until now.
Chelsea’s eyes light up, shifting between us. “Hi, Bella.”
I’m not surprised Chelsea acknowledges my girlfriend first. She’s probably been stalking Bella on social media since Bella changed the privacy of her accounts from private to public during our trip here. It’s a big step for Bella, and I’ve suggested she moderate comments, if necessary, even turning them off completely to make her more comfortable.
I wasn’t privy to the meeting between Bella and Tanya during the Winter Classic after party, but I suspect it was Bella who defused the situation. Tanya can be overbearing with little to no filter, but I’m learning it’s a mistake to underestimate Bella. I’m still shocked their conversation was so successful that they exchanged phone numbers. Even though I’m not particularly comfortable with their access to one another, Bella didn’t think twice asking Tanya for a favor, leaning on her connections when dealing with Sam.
While I wish my past relationships weren’t an issue, there are only so many things I can control and feel I need to share. Bella mentioned she had a conversation that Jess initiated recently about our past, which surprised but didn’t bother me, since there wasn’t much to it. For the sake of moving forward with their friendship, though, Jess wanted to clear the air between them, as she planned to mention it to Demir as well.
At the moment, I have a front row seat for this little interaction, and I’ll admit I am curious how Bella will react.
Bella tilts her head in question. “Do I know you?”
There’s no keeping the smile from my face while Bella’s expression remains neutral.
“Uh . . .” Chelsea glances at me briefly and holds out her hand for Bella to shake. “I’m Edward’s Chelsea.”
As if that is a thing. Well, it sort of was for a while, but I ended it, which seems like such a long time ago. Bella’s eyebrows shoot up, but she doesn’t respond, letting the awkward silence grow until Chelsea drops her hand and feels compelled to explain further.
“I hosted Edward’s Top Shelf Talk,” Chelsea adds.
Bella chuckles softly. “And?”
“You don’t recognize me?” Chelsea’s smile falls a little. This is undoubtedly a blow to her ever-present, larger-than-life ego. “I also host the pregame activities for every home game.”
Bella nonchalantly gives her the tiniest of confirmations. “You look familiar.”
“Then you must have watched Edward’s show, right? What did you think?”
“I did.” Bella’s eyes shift to mine before returning to Chelsea. “Are you sure you want to know?”
“Yes!” Chelsea nods eagerly with her fake smile back in full-force, as if she would ever truly care what Bella thinks.
“I think you need to keep your hands off things that don’t belong to you,” Bella warns with a confident and stern tone to her voice.
Damn. She went straight there. I love this no-nonsense side of Bella. While I believe she means me, Bella could mean her precious chocolate, but knowing her, it’s probably both. She’s an ardent defender of what matters to her most. I’m so fucking proud of her that I stand a little taller before sliding my arm around Bella’s waist. An action that doesn’t go unnoticed by Chelsea.
“Have I somehow upset you?”
“Wasn’t that your intent?” Bella challenges with an arched eyebrow, calling Chelsea out on her bullshit.
Our kids will be so fucked when Bella turns that look on them.
Fuck me. I can’t wait.
Not that I want them to get in trouble.
But damn, it works for me.
Chelsea shrinks a little before stuttering, “I-I . . . uh no.”
It was, but she cowardly refuses to admit it, and Bella isn’t giving an inch. Chelsea fidgets under Bella’s unwavering gaze until she looks behind us, then pales a little before announcing her departure. After a quick glance in that direction, I notice Jess and Demir walking toward the restaurant.
“Okay . . . well, um. . . I guess I should go find, um. . .” Chelsea thumbs behind her.
“Jonsu?” I offer, because standing out here, it appears as if she’s forgotten she’s here with him.
Bella nods once in acknowledgement, and after Chelsea disappears, I lean down with my lips next to her ear.
“Damn. You’re tough. I thought you would let her off the hook.”
Bella turns to me and smirks. “She needs to apologize. When given the opportunity, she chose not to do so. Goldilocks is a smart girl—she knows exactly what she’s doing. Trust me, if she wants a cordial friendship with me, then she will figure it out. If not, then that’s on her. But I don’t have time for any chocolate thief.”
I grin at her nickname for Chelsea. “Goldilocks?”
“Yeah, it fits. A not-so-polite blonde woman who enters your home while I’m away, eats a version of my porridge—frozen peanut butter cups—with my name on them, and thinks she’s going to get away with it. Plus, the obvious flirting on her part during the entire home tour and interview. I can’t let that slide, but I thought I did a great job of holding back. I know my inner grizzly, and it would wreck her.” She chuckles.
“You’re jealous?” I wonder. “When we discussed the show after you watched, you seemed so . . . unaffected.”
Bella shakes her head. “Don’t get me wrong. I trust you, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people who I am and that I’m not to be fucked with. I think Goldilocks got the message, don’t you?”
Before I can reply, Jess yells from behind us, taking short, quick steps in her heels with Demir trailing closely. “Bella!”
I smile. “Hey, Jess. Fin.”
“We would be here faster if I carried her,” Demir suggests. “But she refused.”
“You’ll wrinkle my dress before everyone sees it,” Jess protests.
“Your shoes are fabulous.” Bella steps back to admire them.
“Thank you. You look gorgeous.” Jess holds out her arms, hugs Bella, then pulls away slightly. “Guess what?”
Even though we both know what’s coming, Bella’s eyes light up with excitement when Jess holds out her left hand to show us the gold band on her ring finger.
“We’re engaged!” Jess bounces with excitement, hugging Bella again. “It’s a Finnish tradition that we both have rings. I’ll get a diamond ring on our wedding day. Dem says I can help select it.”
“That sounds fantastic,” Bella agrees. “Congratulations!”
My eyes find Demir’s and his grin widens when he holds up his hand with a matching gold band. “I did it.”
“Congratulations, Fin. I’m proud of you and happy for you both.” I reach out, pulling him into a hug.
Demir nods. “Thanks, Spider.”
We switch places, and I hug Jess briefly while Bella embraces Demir, exchanging our best wishes for them.
“It was so romantic, Bella. We had the most incredible dinner last night out under the stars, then Dem proposed,” Jess shares.
“This is definitely something to celebrate.” Bella nods toward the restaurant behind us. “How about dinner with forty or so of our friends?”
“We’re in, but we’ve been celebrating all day.” Jess giggles, looking up at Demir lovingly.
“Awww, that’s wonderful. Does everyone know?” Bella asks.
“We thought we would announce it to the group tonight,” Jess explains. “You should both be glad that you missed the boat trip. I swear I was ready to push Chelsea overboard—isn’t that who you were talking with when we arrived? That petty bitch doesn’t know when to stop. If she comes for Angela again tonight, I’m going to rip those fake extensions from her head and cram them down her throat.”
Bella chuckles. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Then we better sit by you two. Bella, do you want to stop by the bar and grab a margarita first? What’s that one you love?” Jess wonders, tapping her chin while trying to recall.
Bella’s eyes find mine, and I realize this could be more challenging than I thought since I know she doesn’t want to tip anyone off about why we aren’t drinking.
“Jalapeño,” she supplies.
“That’s right.” Jess nods.
“How about we find our seats first, then Fin and I will take care of your drink orders,” I suggest.
Bella smiles with relief. “That would be great.”
The sun is setting as we approach the long table on the beach surrounded with our teammates and their guests. While everyone is sampling appetizers just arriving at the table and enjoying an array of multi-colored drinks, conversations overflow with teasing chatter and raucous laughter.
“Spider! Doc!” James shouts when he notices our arrival from his spot at the end of the table. The bruising around his eye is starting to fade, but that only holds my attention momententarily as the woman sitting on his lap looks familiar. He points toward two of the empty seats near him. “We saved you the best spots.”
Unable to place the woman, I wave, glance around the table, and squeeze Stefan’s shoulder as I pass him sitting next to Vladdy. “Hey, everyone.”
Deedee hugs Bella and they share a short greeting while Marcus stands, giving me a one-armed hug and I pat his back.
“Hey, glad to have you back. It’s not the same without you both here, but we understand.” Marcus smiles, leans closer to my ear, then lowers his voice. “I didn’t get a chance to thank you for the other night. Thanks for looking out for me.”
“Not a problem. How is your tat healing?” I ask.
Marcus nods. “It’s all good.”
I pull out the chair next to Deedee for Bella. “Here you go, Doc.”
“Thanks.” She grins at me before taking her seat.
I slide into the chair between her and Vladdy. “Hey, brat. You look good.”
With my use of the Russian word for brother, his smile widens.
“Hey, Spider. Cap and I went to the spa this morning. I tried to keep him out of trouble. I’m not sure how successful I was, but I got a haircut too.”
“Well, I like it.”
The mention of the spa and keeping James out of trouble returns my attention to the woman on his lap, and Bella leans over to whisper in my ear.
“Do you recognize her?”
“She seems familiar. You know her?” I wonder.
Bella nods. “It’s Nora—the masseuse I had when we did our couples’ massage.”
Vladdy nudges my elbow, getting my attention, and asks, “You two had a good time?”
“The best. Thanks for helping me find that place. How’s your tat?”
Vladdy shifts closer and lowers his voice. “Any good news with Doc?”
“Test was negative, but she’s moving in with me when we return. So, that’s good, not what I expected, but I’ll take whatever she’s willing to give.”
He smiles. “Give it time.”
“So, what are we eating?” I ask while looking around at the dishes on the table.
Before Vladdy can explain what’s on his plate, one of the servers arrives with a margarita, setting it in front of Bella. I recognize it as that favorite one she’s been drinking regularly during our trip.
Fuck. She’s a magnet for them.
Bella shakes her head. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t order this.”
The server tilts her head toward the bar. “It’s on the house—compliments of our bartender this evening.”
“Oh, shit.” Deedee giggles, then sips from her drink.
Bella turns in her seat, looking toward the bar, and I follow Bella’s gaze in time to notice the bartender grinning in our direction, giving her some sort of nod in recognition.
“Uh . . .” She looks up at me.
“I’ll take care of it.” I reach for the margarita.
Looking between Jess and Demir who are sitting across from us, Jess is distracted showing her ring to Angela and relaying the details of Demir’s proposal. My heart sinks a little at the realization that Angela is nuzzled against Ben’s side with his arm around the back of her chair.
They’re back on.
Bella and I missed their reconciliation.
Had I been here, there’s a good chance that wouldn’t have happened.
I catch James’s gaze, and he shakes his head minutely, as if he can read my thoughts. He wasn’t exactly in any position to intervene, and it’s his own damn fault.
She’s going to fuck with Ben again and that’s the last thing he needs.
I look down at the margarita in my hand, realizing I can only deal with one situation at a time. “Hey, Fin. Let’s grab some drinks from the bar.”
“I’ll be right back, Doc.” I kiss her lips before departing.
We’re almost at the bar when Demir gets my attention. “Spider?”
“I uh . . . I want to say something.”
I suspect I know what’s coming and lead him away from the crowd. “Okay.”
“I know about you and Jess.”
There it is. He’s always so direct.
“No. Let me say something.” Demir pauses and takes a breath before he continues. “I wish she didn’t have her heart broken.”
It wasn’t that deep.
A couple of hook ups.
“Fin, it wasn’t—”
“It was for her,” he shares, holding my gaze.
I never realized she thought it was anything else.
Demir shrugs. “She said you were both young—younger than me, but I think it all worked out the way it was supposed to happen.”
“I’m not mad or upset. I just want you to know we’re good.” Demir nods.
“Okay. That’s good.” I smile. Looking toward the table with our teammates, my eyes land on my biggest concern. “Did you know about Ben and Angela getting back together?”
“Yeah. They . . . uh, worked it out when we were all on the boat together while you and Doc were gone. He picked up her suitcase from our room last night.”
“I thought he didn’t care about her?” I scratch my head. “At least that’s what he told me.”
“I guess he changed his mind.”
I groan. “She better not fuck with him again. We can’t afford that kind of shit.”
“What can we do?” Demir wonders.
I shake my head and start toward the bar again. “Not much.”
“Angela is Jess’s best friend.”
“And Ben is our teammate and friend. We need to look out for him.” I set the full margarita glass on the bar and wave at the bartender, getting his attention.
“It’s probably good that you stay close to Ben. I’ll do my part, but let me know if it starts to go sideways again.”
The bartender jerks his chin toward the glass before tossing a towel over his shoulder. “Something wrong with the drink?”
Now for my current problem—this guy blatantly sending a drink to my girlfriend.
“Yeah, you sent it to the wrong person,” I share in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t believe I did. It’s Dr. Swan’s favorite.” He smirks, dropping her name with a casual familiarity. “I would know. We spent enough time together this week.”
I narrow my gaze at his words. Now, he’s just trying to piss me off.
I lower my voice. “Listen, motherfucker—”
“Easy, Spider,” Demir warns from behind me.
“Right, I know. We’re fine.” I take a moment to release a steady breath. “Listen . . . she won’t be accepting any drinks from you.”
The motherfucker’s grin widens. “Are you sure about that?”
“I’m positive,” I confirm with a steely gaze.
He pulls a toothpick from between his lips, then points it at me. “I didn’t see a ring on her finger.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s available, because the way she’s been moaning my name this week, I can assure you, she’s not.”
“Big talk from a backup goaltender who should have retired years ago.”
Fucker knows exactly who I am.
I lean forward to make sure he doesn’t miss a single threatening word. “Backup or not, I can still beat your ass. Time and place.”
“You think so, big guy?” He laughs, holding out his arms. “You want me to step away from this bar so you can show me what you’ve got?”
“Spider,” Vladdy’s menacing voice cuts our conversation short. “Let this go. He’s not worth it.”
“But Doc is, and he started it.”
“Then I’ll finish it,” Vladdy promises, refusing to let me handle the situation.
The bartender holds his hands over his heart. “Awww, how sweet. You have someone to fight for you. Typical. How many more guys will be showing up here to complete your circle jerk?”
“Mr. Cullen.” I’m surprised by the use of my name from a man in a suit who approaches the bar, getting my attention. “I’m Jorge, the manager. Is there a problem here?”
Vladdy holds up a finger. “I have a problem.”
“What can I do for you, Mr. Sokolov?”
They know all of us.
“We need a bartender dedicated to our table tonight and not this one.” Vladdy nods toward the grinning asshole.
“Understood. Go ahead and clock out, Romeo,” Jorge says, wiping the smile off the bartender’s face. “I’ll see you in my office before you go.”
Romeo—figures, what a douchey name—stares at me for a moment, then tosses the towel over his shoulder onto the bar. I watch as he disappears through a doorway where servers are entering and exiting with plates of food.
As the manager moves to speak with someone else, Vladdy catches my gaze and nods his reassurance.
“At least we’ll be able to drink anything from this bar now, and we weren’t the ones thrown out this time either. That’s growth. Your old Olympic goaltender would be proud of us, but I still want to beat that guy’s ass.”
“Me too.” I chuckle. Glancing at the doorway, I consider the possibility of following him to the parking lot to finish my warning, but I know Bella is waiting and that softens my edge a bit.
Demir leans his forearms against the edge of the bar. “That never goes away, does it?”
I shake my head. “No, it doesn’t.”
“I would have done the same thing if anyone sent a drink over to Nissa—only he wouldn’t be walking away,” Vladdy confides. “He would be on his way to the hospital. That guy got lucky.”
I’m not surprised with the mention of what Vladdy is willing to do for his ex-wife. He still loves her and probably always will despite their divorce.
Demir nods. “Same for me with Jess.”
Vladdy grins. “Probably a good thing I came over when I did, and we’re not on our way to a Mexican jail. We would have had to share a cell with that guy. You can thank me now.”
My smile soon matches his. “Thanks, man. I should have let it go, but that guy was pissing me off with his disrespect. Fucking Romeo. Probably not even his real name.”
Getting our attention, Jorge returns with a woman who takes over the bar. “Antonia will be dedicated to helping your party this evening. Let me know if you need anything else.”
She smiles, removes the margarita in front of me, and dumps it behind the bar. “What can I get you?”
“How about two of those jalapeño margaritas only without any alcohol?”
“Coming right up,” Antonia nods.
Demir grins. “Make it four.”
I’m surprised by Demir’s order until he explains.
“Jess doesn’t need any more alcohol this trip. She drank too much when we were out on the boat, and I’m cutting her off—just don’t tell her.”
“Pour their alcohol in mine and forget the margarita part,” Vladdy suggests, waving toward the glasses.
“Just tequila then?” Antonia asks.
Vladdy smirks. “Do you have any good vodka?”
“You want vodka? In Mexico?” she questions, somewhat amused.
“I’m Russian. What do you expect?” He shrugs.
Antonia is smiling as she leaves to look through their supply of bottles, then returns with an unopened one in hand, holding it up for him to see. “We have Stoli’s Elit. Will that work?”
Vladdy nods his approval. “Large glass.”
“This a special occasion?” I’m even more surprised Vladdy is the one drinking alcohol. “You know we have to skate on Sunday morning.”
“Spider, I could drink the whole bottle between now and Sunday and still be ready to play.” He laughs. “Drink the expensive stuff. Recovery is easier.”
Once we return to the table with fresh drinks, I set Bella’s in front of her and wink. “Try this one and see if it meets your standards.”
It meets mine because it isn’t connected to an asshole without any boundaries.
“What took so long?” Bella asks. Her eyes shift between the three of us suspiciously.
I’m positive she’s curious about what went down with me returning the drink to the bartender, but there’s no point in telling her we had him sent home for the night. Or that Vladdy was able to request a new one to serve our table. That whole situation could have gone wrong in so many ways, and he didn’t let it happen.
“They ran out of tequila,” Vladdy shares before I can come up with anything, but I know there’s no way anyone at this table will believe that.
“In Mexico?” Bella nods toward the glass in his hand. “What are you drinking?”
Jess holds up her drink examining the contents skeptically. “No tequila?”
I need to squash her concern.
“Uh . . . we had to wait for them to open a special, new bottle.” It’s not a big lie. It just doesn’t apply to their drinks. Only Vladdy’s. Bella knows what she’s getting, but Jess doesn’t. And Demir is a horrible liar. So, I sell it a little more to help him out. “You know they say you can never taste the alcohol in a perfectly balanced drink. Try that one. I think you’ll like it. We all ordered the same one.”
Bella’s eyebrows shoot up at that info, while Jess takes a tentative sip.
“Oh, it’s delicious and spicy. Bella, I see why you love this one.”
Bella’s eyes find mine and her grin widens. “Oh, I love this one more than you can imagine.”
And without hesitation, my lips find hers because there isn’t a chance she’s talking about anything other than me this time.