A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Make a Little,” 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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When we emerge from the tunnel for starting lineups, it’s difficult not to see how Texas has put its undeniable stamp on this entire event. Even the weather is cooperating today, which is one of the biggest concerns—the ice. It’s overcast and cool, which isn’t typical for our region. The stadium is packed, and even though I look in the area where I know Bella is sitting, I never see her. The fact that I know she’s here sharing this experience is enough to keep a smile on my face all day. I can’t wait to see her after the game.
As I look around and take it all in, the evidence of state pride is everywhere. Oddly, there is livestock in the infield—horses, cattle, and even pigs. Someone said there will be pig races during the intermission. Music alternates between a variety of styles with country music prevailing most of the time. As both teams take the ice, fireworks seem to explode at every opportunity. During the national anthem, a flyover by four vintage airplanes garners everyone’s attention. After the ceremonial puck drop, we’re all eager to get this one started.
With the start of the game, the rivalry between our teams surfaces quickly. Hits are brutal and we deliver them relentlessly, leaving us in the penalty box during most of the first period. Unfortunately, Nashville scores two goals on power plays, but we continue to grind despite the two to zero score. Coach makes adjustments during the intermission, pointing out where everyone needs to focus, and drives home the fact that this game isn’t twenty minutes. We’re here to play sixty and that’s what he pushes everyone to do.
Both teams feel the momentum shift in the second period when we finally break through and score our first goal on a power play toward the end of the second. From our bench, we’re able to hear the shouted pleas and desperation from Nashville’s coach as their game play falls flat. During the next intermission, everyone in our locker room vibrates with renewed energy, feeding off one another, and we’re eager to get back on the ice.
We start the third period with Elphias scoring on a power play to even the game at two-two. When Nashville finds their way to the penalty box again, Vladdy puts us ahead by scoring on another power play goal. Nashville is stunned by the turnaround as their control of the game continues to slip through their fingertips. While the ice may be level, this game shifts in our favor entirely and we pounce on every opportunity to protect our lead. We add one more to score four goals in approximately eight minutes of ice time.
At the final horn, the game ends with a score of four to two, leaving us victorious. Over the explosive roar of the crowd and the deafening sound of nonstop fireworks, we all rush onto the ice to congratulate Ben, who smiles for the first time in days. At center ice, we meet Nashville to complete another tradition for outdoor games of handshakes between our teams.
Pleased with our third period comeback, Coach has nothing but praise when he leaves the locker room to speak with the media following the game. Once we’re dressed, James, Tyler, and Ben are asked to answer reporters’ questions briefly. The rest of us make our way to the shuttle bus, ready to return to the hotel and celebrate this win with our families. My own excitement knowing Bella is there waiting for our arrival is enough to make me one of the first to board the bus with Vladdy right behind me.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
There are shouting fans everywhere when we return to the hotel. It feels like an arrival worthy of a rock and roll band, but with the help of security, we make our way through the boisterous crowd to the hotel’s ballroom where our families are waiting. While we wait to be introduced in the hallway outside, my mouth waters at the smell of Texas barbeque wafting through the air. My gaze locks with Marcus’s who puts a voice to our similar thoughts.
“Damn, that smells delicious. I wish they would hurry up,” he says from beside me. “I’m starving.”
“Guys! Guys! Up here for a minute.” Coach gets everyone’s attention. “Let’s celebrate this one tonight with each other. Enjoy yourself and spend time with your families, but remember, our work isn’t done. I’ll see you on the ice tomorrow at noon. Don’t be late. But for now, go have fun!”
Beyond the doors, the blasting country music fades, and we can hear the familiar voice of our public address announcer for our home games speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Cowgirls and cowboys. Friends and family. Help me in welcoming your Winter Classic winners—” The sounds of whoops and hollers prompt a pause, putting a smile on everyone’s faces as we glance around at one another. “That’s right! Put your hands together for your Dallas Stars!”
As the doors slide open, James, Tyler, and Ben lead us inside, waving to everyone in the room. With glasses raised and a few flying cowboy hats, the music booms again. Over shouts, whistles, and applause from the already rowdy crowd of familiar faces, I scan for one in particular. While some of my teammates attempt to record our entrance from our unique perspective, phones are pointed at us documenting our arrival. My hat shields my eyes from the spotlights following us and the occasional flashes from photographers that go off every now and then, making it difficult to see.
While this isn’t a hole-in-the-wall kind of space, once my eyes adjust to the dim light, the ballroom has been transformed into the ultimate honky-tonk. It’s wall-to-walI rustic wood and bright neon everywhere. Our hunger undoubtedly draws us to the side of the room featuring the massive buffet. The area also includes round tables, full of friends and family eating and drinking while shouting their congratulations as we walk past.
A live band plays from the stage near the huge dance floor with whiskey barrels posing as high-top tables lining the edges. While my search for her continues, I know I can’t wait to get Bella out there two-stepping. I chuckle at a sign near the longest bar I’ve ever seen on the opposite side of the room that reads in bright neon, “Cowboys—no shirt, no service. Cowgirls—no shirt, free beer.” Despite the free alcohol provided this evening, I have no doubt some will forgo a shirt or two before the night ends.
When I notice a spotlight pass over a mechanical bull, waiting for its next challenger between the stage and bar, Demir shouts, “I’m going to beat that bull.”
“You do that, Fin.” Marcus grins, patting his back, then he spies Deedee and Alec waving to get his attention. “Catch you all later.”
“I only need eight seconds, right?” Demir asks. “That’s nothing. I can do that.”
I lean closer. “Prepare yourself. This one may last longer.”
“I will still beat it,” he vows, leaving us with some of the other guys to go check it out.
Kids rush past shrieking with excitement as my teammates find their families and weave through the tables to greet loved ones and accept their congratulations for today’s win.
“Not likely. The bull will beat Fin.” Vladdy laughs from behind me, then jerks his chin. “Your Doc’s friend? She is the most beautiful woman.”
I’m about to disagree and ask where they are, when my eyes are drawn instinctively to Bella’s beaming smile. With Vladdy staying close to my side, we detour toward where I see Bella and Leah sitting, but my family is on the way. So, I stop at their table for a moment to say hello, knowing they don’t plan to stay past dinner, and thank them for being here today.
After congratulations from Dad and Emmett, I high-five my nephews, then share brief hugs from Mom, Rose, and Katie. I try not to rush with them, but it’s nearly impossible to stay away from her any longer, moving toward the woman I can’t wait to be reunited with once again.
“Howdy, handsome. You look like trouble.” She stands with a twinkle in her eyes, obviously referring to my texts this morning. “But I think that’s exactly what I’m looking for tonight.”
“Lucky me in more ways than I can count.” I grin, trailing my eyes over her gorgeous outfit to her brown boots with embroidered flowers then back to meet her eyes.
Her light brown ruffle skirt is full, but shorter in the front than the back with a leather belt at her waist. The long-sleeved, off-white top is all lace, and my eyes are drawn to her necklace I gave her front and center, which somehow manages to sparkle in this low light. When I slide my hand around her, I’m surprised when it isn’t met with more of the top’s lacy material or even a bra, but more smooth skin than I ever anticipated. I realize it’s completely backless and there will be no way I’ll be able to keep from touching her in some way the entire night when she is such an enticing sight.
“Congratulations.” She brushes her hands along my arms before securing her fingers at the back of my neck.
“Thank you. You look not simply beautiful but gorgeous. I’m the luckiest man here.” I pull her close and plant a lingering kiss on her lips. “Mmm. You taste . . . fruity.”
“That feels like quite the belt buckle you’re wearing.” Her tongue peeks out, licking her lips. “Or are you just happy to see me?”
“You know all about what’s beyond my belt buckle, and I’m always more than happy to see you.”
She giggles when I dip lower, kissing her neck where I know she’s ticklish. “Have you eaten yet?”
“No, we were waiting for you guys to arrive. We’ve been drinking, though.” She wiggles her eyebrows and nods toward their empty glasses on the table. “Palomas.”
“More tequila, huh?” I wink.
“Which reminds me, I have some questions for you.” She grins, tapping on my chest lightly.
“I’ll bet you do.” I chuckle. “We’ll get to those. I missed you today.”
“You should miss me every day,” she says sassily with a twinkle in her eyes.
“You have no idea how much I do.” I smile easily and kiss her lips once more. “Come on, let’s eat because after dinner, we’re going to dance your boots off. Maybe that skirt too.”
“It’s a dress, but I’m sure you’ll figure that out later.” Her smirk is full of the kind of mischief I love.
As my gaze shifts from her to everyone sitting at Bella’s table, I notice a couple who are missing. “Where are your friends?”
“Al and Garrett?”
Bella shrugs. “They decided not to stay since Al needed to work on a last minute project for tomorrow.”
I shouldn’t be surprised who is here hanging out with her. In addition to Leah, Angela and Jess are sitting next to Lauren chatting away. After his trip to check out the bull, Demir returns with James at his side.
“James thinks I can beat the bull too,” Demir states defiantly.
“Of course you can, Fin, but let’s eat first.” James winks at Leah. “Hey, Leah.”
She smirks. “Hello, Just Cap.”
“Spider,” Vladdy whispers, nudges my arm, and nods toward Leah.
“Oh, right. Leah.” I promised Vladdy I would make an official introduction. “This is Vladdy, my teammate. Vladdy, this is Leah, Doc’s friend from Washington.”
I glance to the other side of the table as James’s smile fades slightly, and he mouths, “What the fuck?”
Leah grins and holds out her hand that Vladdy accepts, shaking it briefly. “I didn’t get your name yesterday. Hello, Vladdy. Like the Impaler?”
“Uh . . . like Daddy. I have a boy. Vladdy is short for Vladimir.”
“Not Vlad the Impaler, like Dracula?”
Her teasing is lost on him, and even in this light, it looks like he could be sweating already. I’ve never seen him so nervous.
“No. I . . . uh . . . I have something for you.” He reaches into his pocket and removes the hockey puck labeled with his name I recognize as his game winner. “For you. From the game today. My goal.”
“I can’t possibly accept that,” she says, pushing away his offering gently. “You should keep it for yourself or your son.”
“He won’t care. It is for you. I’ll score more. Please.” When she still won’t accept it, he suggests a compromise. “How about it’s good for one dance? Your first dance. Tonight. I took lessons. Your toes are safe with me. I promise.”
Her eyes shift quickly to James, then back to Vladdy, and she finally accepts his offered puck.
“Okay. You’ll be my first dance. Thank you.”
“Great. I need to go find my son, but I’ll be back later.” He leans close as if he’s going to kiss her cheek, but stops, lowering his voice. “You are the most beautiful woman in the room. Don’t tell Spider.”
I smile. “I heard that Vladdy.”
“See. He disagrees and wants to kick my ass, but I don’t fight him. I fight for him. He’s my tender and I protect him.” Vladdy grins at Leah. “It will be an honor to dance with you.”
Leah nods. “All right. Come find me when you’re ready.”
“I will,” he promises.
With Vladdy’s departure, Lauren looks around, reaching for her cocktail. “I suppose that’s my cue too. I need to find Ty and figure out where we’re sitting. Enjoy your dinner everyone. I’ll see you all out on the dance floor.”
“We’ll be there,” Jess promises, then turns to Angela. “Should we wait for Ben?”
“Meh.” Angela shakes her head. “He will show up when he gets the chance. I’m sure everyone wants to talk to him tonight. Let’s eat.”
Everyone stands and walks toward the buffet with Demir and James following behind Angela, Jess, and Leah. Taking Bella’s hand in mine, I twirl her in place enjoying another view, prompting her laughter.
“You’re simply breathtaking. I can’t get enough.”
After pressing another kiss against her lips, I twine our fingers together, tugging her along behind me. We join the buffet line and Bella smiles up at me as we wait. She wraps her free hand around my bicep.
“That was sweet. Vladdy, I mean,” she clarifies.
“Sweeter than doughnuts?” I wonder.
“A different kind of sweet, but James looks like he has some pebble envy.”
She explains, “Yeah, it has that whole penguin energy where the male finds the smoothest pebble and gives it to a female to impress her. If she accepts it, she will use it to build her nest during mating season. It’s part of a courtship ritual I saw once when I was flipping through the television channels.”
“Oh, shit. James is going to be pissed at me then.” I hand her a dinner plate from the waiting stack, then take one for myself. “And that he didn’t score a goal today. He hates anyone edging him out.”
“I doubt he could ever be upset at you. Mmm. This looks good and smells even better,” she says when her eyes pass over our buffet options.
“You look good.” I leave another kiss on her neck and whisper near her ear. “Want to know a secret?”
Bella nods and looks up at me. “Always.”
“I love you.” I can’t resist. It’s been too long since I told her.
“That’s not a secret.” She grins and lifts on her toes to kiss my lips. “I love you too.”
With our fingers still linked, we shuffle along, nodding for the servers to fill our plates with the various selections of meats and sides.
“It wasn’t that long ago when I had to keep that one to myself.” I grin. “Okay, I’ve got another one.”
I lean close, keeping this news between us. “I’m starting Friday night.”
Her smile brightens. “Really?”
“That’s fantastic. I love watching you on the ice.”
I can’t resist teasing her a little. “Which means you can’t keep me up tomorrow night, like you did last night. But I’ll be the first to admit I had fun—even though you can’t spell coconut for shit.”
Her smile falls slightly. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes.” I wink, knowing Bella spilled more than that little secret last night.