A/N: Thank yous to NKubie, AnakinSmom, princeselisa, and EdwardsFirstKiss for pre-reading and Midnight Cougar for beta-ing. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Miranda Lambert (feat. Maren Morris, Elle King, Ashley McBryde, Tenille Townes, Caylee Hammack)
(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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I faintly hear Edward ask something while standing next to the desk in the living area and holding the room phone to his ear in only his boxer briefs.
The material clings in all the right places.
The seductive curve of his perfectly toned ass.
The lickable washboard abs with a “V” that points to the mouthwatering bulge in the fron—
“Um . . .” My eyes meet his as I’m caught in my not-so-innocent perusal. “Oh. You were talking to me? What was the question again?”
He chuckles. “Red or white?”
“Either.” I shrug with a contented sigh. Even fully spent, I’m barely able to focus on anything other than my enticing view from where I’m curled up on the couch, engulfed in his hoodie. “Pick whatever you think is best. You always know what I love.”
His crooked grin is back, and he wiggles his eyebrows, as if he can read my mind, then returns to finish ordering room service. There’s no denying my love for not only wine but also him. Now that those words are out there with real depth behind them, I feel like I’m venturing into uncharted relationship territory. It’s a little scary, and at the same time, thrilling.
I have no idea what to expect and zero doubt that this is new ground for him. It’s intimidating, but I’m okay with following his lead. I need to remember that for whatever reason, the relationships of his past didn’t last. Maybe the timing was off, he wasn’t ready, his schedule was too much, or love simply wasn’t enough. But I’m finding it impossible not to love every single thing about Edward.
The rich, calm sound of his voice wraps around me like a long-lost friend. Fuck, I missed him. Even without a single drop of wine, I’m brimming with this crazy and intoxicating love-drunk feeling whenever he’s near or even when he’s on the other side of the room. He’s addictive, and now that he’s here, I can’t get enough.
“I chose a Malbec,” Edward shares after ending the call. Joining me on the couch, he pulls my legs across his lap. “It isn’t as dry as a Merlot and slightly sweeter. This one is local and I hope you like it. If not, we’ll order a different bottle.”
“Edward, there are no bad wines when you’re making the selections.” I moan softly when his fingers start working their magic on my feet.
He smiles. “Don’t get too comfortable. They’re sending up your cheese plate with our bottle of wine shortly, then it will be about thirty to forty minutes for the rest of our food.”
But Edward did talk me into more than only wine and chocolate.
At this point, I think he could talk me into anything.
“You promised you would help me eat that cheese plate,” I remind him as another moan slips my lips.
“Oh, I will. I didn’t have a lot of time to eat between connections.”
I release a happy sigh. “I still can’t believe you’re here. Were your parents upset that you left?”
“No. Mom and Rose understood, but it was a conversation with Dad that made leaving an easy decision.”
“Really?” I’m skeptical Carlisle would encourage Edward to abandon any family holiday. For hockey—yes. For me—no.
He shrugs. “In a roundabout way.”
“That’s what I thought,” I mumble, but Edward doesn’t miss it.
“Hey, Dad doesn’t have a problem with you, if that’s what you’re thinking. I believe his issues are all me,” he reassures, but I have my doubts. “Together, we’ve always been focused on hockey and making the best choices for my career. He’s upset I haven’t been including him in those decisions lately.”
I consider what could have ruffled Carlisle’s feathers other than his son’s decision to stay in Dallas to be near family and can only come up with one other recent possibility. But maybe there have been other offers I don’t know about. I haven’t heard Edward mention Jacob in a while. So, I have no idea.
“Is it because you passed on the Vegas deal?”
I wasn’t part of that decision directly, but Carlisle probably doesn’t know that. He could blame me, if he thought it was a good move. Edward kept me in the loop and I listened to his concerns, but it was ultimately his decision to stay with his team in Dallas.
Unless . . . I was and didn’t realize how much of an influence I was at the time.
Could I have been part of the deciding factor? Especially so early in our relationship?
“Let’s just say Dad isn’t as confident about our chances this year as I am, which puts us at odds with each other. Even though we’re not playing great hockey right now, things can change for the better, and I believe they will. Despite Dad’s opinions, the reality is that we have a winning record at twenty-one and seventeen. He keeps hounding me about the trade deadline and other possible teams with better positions in the standings, but that’s only a distraction I don’t need. I’m not going anywhere, and it’s not good to let those numbers dominate your thoughts. Teams can experience slumps and the standings can change rapidly.”
If Edward is this confident with his decision, I’m concerned how long Carlisle will continue down this antagonizing and fruitless path. I can’t believe he doesn’t see this as putting a wedge between them, and I don’t want to be the reason for that wedge. There have been a lot of moves in Edward’s career, but now, I wonder if Carlisle was the driving force behind those. And maybe for the first time, Edward is pushing back.
And maybe that is because of me.
“When is the trade deadline?” I ask.
“In two months.”
“Then what happens after that?”
“Active rosters are set for the rest of the season, which will end the first week in April. We’re almost to the halfway point of our schedule, but we’ve got a lot of hockey left to play with plenty of road trips in the future.”
“Do you share a room when you’re on the road? Because if this is how you travel, I could be your personal stowaway,” I tease.
“While I love that idea, and no, I don’t have a roommate when we travel, unfortunately, team rules dictate no overnight guests are allowed. Guys with entry-level contracts do. There’s also an exception for goaltenders in that group for nights when they’re starting. They get their own rooms in that case. For our road trips, we stay in standard rooms. I upgraded to this suite, because I thought there would be a good chance you would join me while I’m here.”
“Pretty sure of yourself, huh?”
“I liked my chances.” He grins.
“Okay, I have another question, but it’s more hockey related.”
“Go ahead. I’ll answer anything,” he says, resting his hands on my legs and running his thumb back and forth lightly.
“I know you’re the backup for Ben, but is there a backup for you?” I ask.
“Yeah. You haven’t met him, but Stefan would back up either of us, if the other is unable to play. He’s the starting goaltender for our developmental affiliate in Cedar Park, near Austin. Stefan is German and played a couple of pre-season games for us this year, but at twenty-two, he hasn’t made his professional debut yet.”
“I see. So, after April, the playoffs start?”
“Yeah, but not all teams make them.”
“How long do those last?”
“If a team is still playing in June, then they’re doing nearly everything right.”
There’s a knock on the door, and he smiles, sliding out from under my feet.
“What?” He pauses his departure.
I wave toward his nearly naked tatted body. “You’re going to answer the door in only your underwear?”
“Yeah, why not? All of your favorite parts are covered.” He winks.
“You know that’s not true when every part of you is my favorite,” I point out. It does little good to deter him as he laughs, disappearing from my view and answering the door.
“Good evening, Mr—uh . . . whoa. Mr. Cullen. Nice tatts.”
I chuckle because no one is ever prepared for that breathtaking view—male or female, especially me, and I’m lucky to enjoy it regularly.
“I-I have your food and wine. It will take me a few minutes to set your table and open the wine, if you wish.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got it.”
“Then I’ll leave you with a bottle opener and I only need your signature.” There’s a slight pause in their conversation before the man’s departing words. “Thank you, sir. I’ll be back with the rest of your food when it’s ready. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Great. I will. Thanks.”
When Edward returns pushing a small cart, he stops next to his suitcase to remove something bright pink from an outer pocket, then walks closer and hands it to me. “From one of your biggest fans, but not the biggest.” He smirks, bends lower, and kisses my lips. “That’s me in case there was any doubt.”
How lucky am I?
And good heavens, I’ve missed his kisses too.
Each one is a little reminder of what’s always simmering just below the surface between us.
He has no idea how much I needed his visit, and hearing those reassuring words are the icing on the cake. While Edward places our food and empty wine glasses on the coffee table, I release a contented sigh, reading the title of Katie’s handmade creation.
“Awww, this is adorable. Did you read it?”
Edward nods and focuses on opening the bottle. “We read it together. She wanted to give the book to you before you left, but it wasn’t finished. So, I offered to bring it with me. Katie and Charlotte also made get well cards for your mother. Those are still in my suitcase.”
“Oh my goodness—that’s—I’m so touched by their thoughtfulness. They’re such sweethearts.”
After opening the cover, I pause, reading the dedication page. I’m surprised to find Katie’s sweet words, dedicating the book to me. As my throat tightens, I cover my mouth with my hand, willing away the tears, but I suspect this darling book could make me cry. I’ve been so on edge lately; it doesn’t take much to tip me over completely.
“Here you go,” he says, distracting me with a glass of wine and settling next to me on the couch again.
Edward raises his glass to mine. “To spending our first Christmas together. And many more.”
My heart surges with an undeniable happiness at his toast, because even though we’re not back home in Dallas, this is already one of the best by simply having him here.
“To our first Christmas,” I repeat softly, clinking our glasses together and taking a sip. “Mmmm.”
He mirrors my actions, savoring his first taste and nodding his head before checking with me. “Is it a winner?”
“Yes. It’s great, but I believe I was also promised chocolate.”
“We’ll get there, Doc. You have my word.”
Edward kisses my lips briefly, sets his glass on the table, then removes the plastic from the cheese plate that also includes grapes, olives, and a variety of crackers. Before I can continue reading, he combines a piece of cheese with a cracker and holds it to my mouth.
I wiggle my eyebrows. “You’re going to feed me too?”
“The first one is a freebie, but I should warn you—it could be the only bite you get. I’m famished. I haven’t had enough calories today. This will be gone long before the rest of our food arrives.”
“Thanks.” I chuckle, accepting his offer and opening my mouth as he nudges it gently between my lips.
Returning to Katie’s book, I turn the pages and grin at the variety of smiles she’s captured through her words and drawings. Edward watches me between bites and sips until he stops me near the end on the family smiles page, nodding toward the picture.
“You’re included in that one.”
“Me?” My eyes scan the page, wondering where I could be.
“Yeah.” He points to the third row of faces. “Katie said that’s you between Austin and me. You’re in the family picture.”
There I am. Or something close to my likeness with long dark hair and maybe one of the biggest smiles in comparison to the other faces. After another quick sip, I attempt to sniff away the tears threatening to escape at her heartfelt inclusion. I must not do a very good job keeping it together, because Edward’s face fills with concern.
“No. Not at all. Overwhelmed. I should warn you it seems to be the norm for me lately. I’ve been an emotional mess during this trip.” Shaking my head, I wipe away the tear that rolls down my cheek and release a deep breath. “I’m honored Katie thinks of me as family.”
I was just talking to Al about family, and this drawing makes it clear they’re not my only family in Dallas.
“Well, keep in mind that she didn’t put you next to Rose.” Edward winks and pecks my lips before returning to eating.
I watch him for a moment, reaching out to place my hand on his back and rubbing it gently.
“Mmmm.” He smiles at my touch. “That feels good.”
I love him so much.
And I can say it freely now.
“I love you.” I lean closer and leave a kiss on his bare shoulder.
“Doc, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all day. I love you too.” He cups the back of my head, kisses my forehead, then my lips lightly before releasing me. “Ready for your present?”
I close Katie’s book, deciding to return to it later, and play along, knowing how much he enjoys giving me things. “Yes. Bring on the chocolate.”
“Great.” Edward stands, walks to the dining table, and returns with two brightly wrapped packages. “Okay, this is a three-part present.” He sets two boxes on the coffee table in front of me.
“It better be three-parts of chocolate,” I warn lightheartedly, setting my wine glass to the side.
“Open the larger one first,” he suggests, and continues snacking while watching me.
After I unwrap and open the box, inside I find a brightly colored ceramic Mexican donkey that looks similar to a classic piñata. I remove it from the packaging and place it on the coffee table. “Hmmm, it’s a cookie jar?”
He chuckles. “You don’t put cookies inside a piñata, Doc. Open it.”
I lift the lid to find it filled with a variety of Lindt truffles. “Oh my goodness! I love these! And there are so many. This is fantastic.” I grab one not caring which flavor, unwrap it happily, then pop it into my mouth. The chocolate melts smoothly on my tongue and I can’t resist grabbing another. “Mmmm. So good. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He presses his lips to mine before I can get another heavenly truffle into my mouth. “Now, open the other one.”
“Hmmm.” I unwrap the smaller box while finishing my mouthful and can’t contain my laughter when I find a fiesta-striped bikini inside. “These two gifts seem to contradict one another. You’re feeding me a steady supply of chocolate, yet you expect me to fit into this undoubtedly revealing bikini. I think it’s smaller than the last one. And I’m sensing a Mexican theme.”
“I will always love you in a bikini and I’m positive it’s your size—which is perfect. Feel free to try it on and prove my point. But if you want more of a workout, I’m good to go. We can move back to bed any time. Or . . . stay in here.” Edward winks.
“Of course you are.” I laugh, reaching for my wine and finishing it in one gulp. “Maybe I’ll model it for you later. I need to refuel, a little rest, and another glass or two of courage wouldn’t hurt.”
He grins and nods toward my gifts. “Next month, the team will be off for a week due to the All-Star Break.”
“Okay, and they’re having it in Mexico?” I attempt to piece together the connection.
“No. It will be in St. Louis, but we don’t know yet if anyone from the team will be selected to attend. They should make those announcements soon. Regardless, we’re planning on a team building trip to Mexico.” He grabs the bottle and refills our glasses.
“Team building?” I snort, reaching for mine. “That sounds a lot like a vacation.”
“Well, don’t mention that to Royce Jr., because James convinced him to let us use the team plane and cover the expense of our hotel rooms too.”
“Damn, I need James to negotiate on my behalf. He clearly knows what he’s doing.” I smile over the rim of my glass, taking another appreciative sip while Edward explains.
“We’re lucky that as our captain, he has a great relationship with both Royce Jr. and Sr., which makes a difference in getting approval for something like this.” Edward hesitates slightly. “And for the trip . . . everyone is allowed to bring a guest. It will be mostly wives and girlfriends, but some of the single guys are bringing their buddies with them.”
“Oh.” He wants me to go with him, but I can already imagine Paul’s protests and Sam’s reluctance to approve of my missing another week of work so close to this trip.
“I know it’s probably impossible with you taking off these past two weeks to be here in Seattle, but I want to invite you as my guest. At next week’s game and after party, the talk will be all about the trip, since everyone is excited for the break. I would love to have you with me. But if you can’t attend, we’ll take a trip together to Mexico once the playoffs are over and you’re available. Don’t get me wrong. I want you there, Doc, but I’ll understand, if you can’t be. No pressure.”
I would love to say yes and force Sam to deal with my departure again. After all, he and Paul golf more than work. What’s Sam going to do, fire me? It isn’t as if there is a contract to terminate. Why should I be saddled with the continuous responsibility of growing and maintaining a practice that isn’t my own? My thoughts return to my recent conversation with Al and he’s right. I am the backbone of that practice, not Sam, which strengthens my position there and my options going forward.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if maybe the years of me always being the one to cover for everyone’s absences are over. Since Edward travels all the time, he could invite me on more than only this trip. I want to be able to accept those invitations, and I’m realizing that I’m going to need more flexibility, whether or not Sam approves.
Since being here, it feels like I’m starting mentally to separate myself from his practice, because I have to be realistic about my future. I can’t ever forget that he resoundingly rejected my partner and ownership offers. While it felt like a punch in the gut at the time, maybe it isn’t a bad thing, but an inevitable change that’s pushing me toward something better.
“Doc?” Edward’s voice pulls me from my wandering thoughts.
“Sorry. I was just thinking. I’m not going to say no, but I’m not confident it’s a yes at this point. Of course, I would love to go, and thank you for inviting me. How soon do you need my answer?” I wonder, setting my glass back on the table.
“By the time you finish your chocolate,” he says seriously, but as I pause reaching for another piece, he starts laughing. “I’m kidding. Since it’s our plane we’re using, we have time and space for everyone. So there’s no rush.”
“I’m tempted to tell Sam it’s a golfing trip. It seems to be the only thing he would approve of without hesitation.” I chuckle, opening another truffle and easing it into my mouth.
“Doc, we can call it whatever you need. Some of the guys always bring their clubs wherever we go. I’ll promise to give you a lesson while we’re there, if that helps. Then tell me, where’s the lie?”
“I like that. You’re clever. Maybe you could have a second career in law.”
Edward laughs loudly. “Not likely. I’m just not as strict about following rules, as you are.”
“Mm-hmm.” He’s right. I do, but maybe it’s time for me to push some limits or rewrite the rules of business as usual at Uley Family Dental. “So when is the trip exactly? What are the dates?”
“If I recall correctly, we have a game on Saturday the eighteenth in Minnesota. We’ll fly back after the game, which will be early in the morning, and leave for Mexico later in the day—Sunday afternoon.”
After popping the last few bites of our cheese plate into his mouth, he finishes his wine, leans back against the couch, and pulls me into his arms. I nuzzle my head into one of my favorite spots under his jaw.
“And when would we return?”
“On Saturday the twenty-fifth. Coach scheduled a practice the next morning. Of course, he did that on purpose, and it will probably be difficult for everyone after a week of . . . team building. We have a game at home against Tampa Bay on Monday. So, we’ll need to be ready to jump back into our schedule.”
“There’s that phrase again.” I can’t resist teasing him. “I’m only guessing, but why do I suspect debauchery is probably a better description than team building for this trip? Are your coaches going?”
“No. And you have no idea how close you are to the truth. It’s important for us to bond off the ice. I’ve been a part of a lot of teams and taking a trip like this brings everyone closer. We’re able to relax and just have fun together. I think it’s what we’re missing right now on the ice, because we’re not gelling the way we could. The talent is there, but it takes more than that to win games at this level—not only consistency, but also chemistry. We don’t have the competitive advantage of playing together for years, as a strong team like Tampa Bay does.”
“Oh!” I twist from my spot, looking up at him. “That reminds me, since we’re talking about trips, I wanted to share that my friend, Leah, will be coming back with me to Dallas on Sunday. She’s taking me up on my previous offer and going to stay for a week. I know we sort of made plans that I would stay at your place—”
“Not sort of and you know my home has plenty of space. She’s welcome to any of the bedrooms upstairs, but you’ll be on the main level—in my bed. That’s a done deal, Doc.”
“I will, huh?”
“I believe your exact words were, ‘Where do I sign up?’ Do I need to find our texts? I’m holding you to those. Now, if you want to play a little naked air hockey . . .” He wiggles his eyebrows. “I’m always game for a round of that too.”
“In that case, thank goodness your office has a door.” I tilt my chin higher, pressing a kiss against his waiting lips. “I didn’t want Leah’s visit to be an issue, but I’m hoping she can attend all of the activities surrounding your game and after party too.”
“Not a problem.”
“And maybe we can get a jersey for her to wear to the game?” I ask hopefully.
“Consider it done.”
“Is it okay for us to use the hot tub and pool, if you’re not there?”
“Absolutely. I hope you do.”
“Great. Thank you. You’re an easy sell.”
“Only when it involves you.”
“Edward.” I snuggle impossibly closer against his side, leaning my head on his shoulder and watching him for a moment. “I’m so glad you’re here. It’s the best present you could have given me. You have no idea how mentally and emotionally difficult this trip has been. It’s been so draining.”
Worry settles into his expression and he stretches out his legs, resting them on the edge of the coffee table. “What’s been going on?”
“I don’t know where to start. I mean, I’ve been on my own for years. I’ve taken plenty of trips back here and to visit my mother in Florida, but this trip just feels so . . . different. Every day I found myself wishing you were here, not only in Seattle, but also while I was in Forks. Whether it was simply to hold my hand in the waiting room, brush away my tears, and tell me everything is going to be okay, or just fall asleep in your arms at night. I haven’t slept well since we’ve been apart—not a single night.”
“Doc, everything is going to be okay.” He laces our fingers together, brings my hand to his lips, and leaves a gentle kiss on the back. “Hopefully, tonight will be different and you’ll sleep better.”
I nod. “I hope so too. How long can you stay?”
“I leave Thursday evening and have to be on the ice Friday morning. But . . . this suite is yours for as long as you’re here. I know you said your mother would possibly be going home on Friday. So, just let the front desk know, if those plans change and you need it for longer. We can grab your stuff in the morning and check out of your other room. You don’t need two.”
“Now, you’re all about saving money?”
He smiles, tapping his temple. “Not just a pretty face, remember?”
I snort, kissing his smiling lips. “Oh, I remember. But I love that face too.”
“We should shower together and save water.” His grin widens at that suggestion.
“I doubt there would be any water conservation happening. I think you just want to shower together.”
“Maybe,” he says with a smirk, but it fades slowly. “I’m sorry I can’t stay longer. We’ll both be back home soon. I’ll arrive early Monday morning after we land from Sunday’s game in Arizona, then we’ll be able to spend time together next week.”
“It’s always going to be like this, isn’t it? As long as you’re playing, it will be a constant juggle of dates and places every week. And missing each other. I guess, this trip made me realize what an adjustment that’s going to be when we’re pulled in different directions, especially you. You aren’t always going to be available.”
“I’m sorry for making you feel—”
“No. Don’t apologize for who you are or your job. I get it. And I love every part of you.”
“Doc . . . even after I retire, especially if I pursue something like coaching or broadcasting, hockey will always be a part of my life. Hockey isn’t just a sport for me. It’s a family. It’s who I am.” His thumb brushes soothingly back and forth over my knuckles. “And you’re now a part of that too.”
I share a small smile with a whispered, “I’m in.”
“Oh, you’re in, Doc.” He grins with a nod. “I’ll always try my best to return your calls or texts as soon as possible. Sometimes I’ll even manage to show up unexpectedly, like today. With every road trip, don’t ever underestimate how eager I am to come home to you or have you there with me.”
My heart flutters at his words.
“I know attending every game won’t be possible, even the ones in Dallas. You have your own career and it’s just as significant as mine. I don’t want you to lose that, because it’s who you are and one of the things I love most about you. It will also be important for you to have the support of other hockey wives and girlfriends. They hangout regularly and will understand what you’re going through. You’ll be able to lean on someone, like Marcus’s wife, Deedee, and my sister or my mother will be there for you in a heartbeat. You only need to ask.”
“Rose is great, but I don’t really know your mom.” I shrug slightly.
“Yet. They’ve been through everything with me—all the ups and downs. Don’t be surprised when Mom calls to check on you first. She knows you’re busy, but she mentioned inviting you to coffee or lunch. Maybe it can be a regular thing.”
“I think I would like that.”
“Good. I think she would too.” He pauses, playing with my fingers for a moment. “I want you to know as I was flying here today . . . I knew that every flight, every mile I traveled, would be worth it—no matter how long we would have together while I’m here. Even if it would mean I would need to share you with your family or friends. I’m okay with that. Every hour is important, because it’s time I’m able to spend with you.
“I want to make you happy. You’re already figuring everything out, but life won’t be without sacrifice for either of us. Training. Practice. Games. Road Trips. Off-ice demands. The commitment can be a lot for someone who hasn’t experienced hockey life. I want you to know I understand how . . . difficult it can be. I just hope you always feel like I’m worth it too.”
“Oh, Edward.” I reach up and cup his jaw. Reassurance is a two-way street, and I hope my next words are the ones he obviously needs to hear. “You’re right. This is all new to me, but I’ve got news for you. I’m not going anywhere either. Yes, I’ve been overwhelmed during this trip and I know that’s temporary. Your texts and calls have been exactly what I needed while we were apart. You’re what I need. I’ll take your suggestions and reach out to those around us. I love you, and you should know, I don’t say those words lightly. I’ll do everything I can to support you. I may not know what that is at the time, but without a doubt in my mind, you will always be worth it.”
His gaze fills with a look of adoration and his voice softens. “Doc, I love you so fucking much. Meeting you is one of the best things to happen to me. I only wish it happened sooner.”
“I think . . . we weren’t ready, but now, maybe we are.”
“No maybes for me.” Edward grins and presses a gentle kiss against my lips. “You have no idea how ready I am.”
I have a few ideas what that could mean and suspect I will soon find out. For now, I’m going to enjoy every minute we’re together before life outside this little cozy bubble demands our attention and his inevitable departure.