A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “One of Them Girls,” Lee Brice
(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) /\ \
After we finish dinner, the crowded ballroom thins slightly when many of our families with younger kids depart for the rest of the evening. Vladdy stops by our table to escort Leah out to the dance floor for her first dance. We watch as she returns his puck that he pockets reluctantly. I’m eager to get out there with Bella and waste no time asking her to dance, which she happily accepts.
“I’m surprised you know how to two-step. You know—a hockey player from Michigan. It doesn’t quite add up,” she says with a grin.
“I learned while Rose was at college in Austin. When I had a chance, I would visit with a buddy or two and we would go out with her friends. A lot of my teammates took dance lessons, leading up to tonight. They didn’t want to embarrass themselves,” I share, jerking my chin toward where Vladdy and Leah are moving easily around the dance floor with beaming smiles. “Hopefully, Vladdy is shaking off his nerves. Leah looks like she’s having fun.”
“I agree.” Bella nods. “It looks like his lessons are paying off and her first dance may turn into more.”
“Possibly.” We move effortlessly around the dance floor. “Did you learn two-step when you moved here?”
“Yes. It was a big part of when we would go out to blow off some steam during my years in dental school. It was fun and a great distraction.” She spins away from me then returns. “We did mostly line dancing, but I was eager to learn how to two-step since it’s one of the most common dances. I was always jealous of the couples who would command the dance floor no matter how big or small.”
“Well, I’ve never had a better partner.” I steal a kiss when I’m close enough to reach her lips. “And I’m not talking about only dancing.”
Bella grins. “With that incredible compliment, I guess this is a good time to warn you that I invited some of your teammates and their girlfriends over to your home tomorrow night for dinner. I thought we could do something easy and let you cook on your new griddle before Leah leaves on Saturday.” Her smile fades slightly. “Do I need to cancel since you’re starting Friday’s game? Will having everyone there be a problem?”
I’m surprised, but our steps don’t falter as I consider her plans. I love the idea of us hosting a dinner together, and I would be thrilled if it became a regular occurrence.
“No. Not at all. It’s a great idea. I’ll text Maggie to make sure we have everything we need and we’ll send everyone home early, if they become too unruly.” I twirl her away from me for a moment. “We’re all in the same boat, needing sleep before game day. So, it should work out.”
She smiles. “You know, I had quite the reveal when I woke up and went to shower this morning.”
“Did you?” I chuckle.
“Yes, I did.”
“Anything worth noting?” I wonder, eager to hear her reactions to the possible additions.
“Maybe. I liked the star, but the French was . . .” Her eyes find me and she admits, “My favorite. I had Al take a photo. So, I wouldn’t lose them.”
I lean closer to her ear. “I know how you can keep it permanently.”
“I know you do, but I don’t think I’m ready for that—yet. What’s the ‘me’? Or is it M-E?” she asks. “I can’t figure that one out or recall what prompted it.”
I nod. “To be clear, you requested I mark all my favorite spots of yours in any way I wished.”
“Yeah, oh. Believe it or not, I held back or every inch of you would be covered.” I wink.
“Edward,” she warns, but her smile says something entirely different.
“Did you find them all? I’m partial to the heart I drew on your ass cheek, but the hickey on your inner thigh is probably my favorite.” I lean close enough to give her another kiss.
“Damn, I missed both of those.”
I hesitate to explain its meaning further. “I’m not sure you’re ready or sober enough to know about the letters on your chest. It’s simple, but at the same time not.”
“Try me. I promise, I’ll remember this, Edward.” She looks up at me with that spark in her eyes I can’t resist.
“It’s not simply me on you, but I like that idea any chance we get.” I grin, spinning her again.
Her smile widens to match mine when she returns. “I do too.”
I look for the closest exit and take her hand. “Let’s step into the hallway for the rest of this conversation.”
“I don’t want you to miss a word.”
With her hand in mine, I guide us out of the ballroom, muffling the music playing when the door closes behind us, and I search for somewhere more private. After leading us to an empty area past the restrooms, I lean against the wall and encourage her to stand between my legs. Releasing a deep breath, I watch as my finger touches her necklace lightly, then trails to the place on her chest where I put the letters.
“Tell me,” Bella encourages, resting her hands on my arms while her eyes search mine.
I settle my hands at her waist, but I can’t resist slipping them around to her back and my thumb strokes the silky skin there.
“M-E refers to you being . . . ‘My Everything’ which is powered by your heart underneath those two letters. It’s full of strong emotions, like compassion, selflessness, conviction, and especially love.”
“Edward . . .” She gasps, looking at me speechless.
When she doesn’t respond further, I continue, “Of course, I’m wildly attracted to who you are on the outside, but who you are on the inside . . . is even better. Your love for me—the way you love me is . . . everything. I’ve never had anything like this before. I know it’s special, and that’s because of you. You’re the difference—so secure and confident in everything you do, especially when it comes to us. You never react how I think you will. I learn every day how different you are, which makes this connection between us—next level, and it makes me feel . . . invincible. Like I could do anything because I have you in my corner, supporting me in ways I’ve never experienced in the past. You’re everything—probably someone better than I deserve.”
“Now, that’s not true.” Her hands slide higher until her fingers rub soothingly through the hair at the back of my neck.
I release a frustrated sigh. “I don’t think I’m explaining it right.”
“I think you’re doing just fine,” she reassures. “Keep going.”
I nod slightly, bolstered with more confidence to continue. “You said something last night.”
“Oh, no. Tequila confessions are never good,” she teases.
“It’s not bad.” I lean close to kiss her lips, stalling a little. It’s actually one of the best things anyone has ever told me, and I’m hoping she still believes it today.
Bella smiles when I pull away. “Well, thank goodness for that.”
“I’ll take your honesty and vulnerability any day. I love when you’re open and unfiltered. It isn’t a side you share freely. But for whatever reason, we seem to have these conversations when we’re naked.” I grin.
She smirks. “Okay, I’m not getting naked here, but go on.”
“Last night, you said . . . that I am the love of your life and every relationship in your past pales by comparison. I hope that’s how you still feel today . . . because I feel the exact same way. I didn’t play today, but knowing you were there in the stands somewhere rights my whole world in ways you can’t imagine. You’re here, supporting me, which isn’t something I’ve always had, whether I was the starting or backup goaltender.
“There’s no consistency in what I do, like you have with your job. Everything can change in a heartbeat. I can’t predict when I will or won’t play. It’s a day-to-day, game-to-game decision. The physical, emotional, and mental demands of always needing to be ready, take an incredible amount of stamina in order not to fret that sort of instability or uncertainty.
“With you . . . for the first time, I feel more confident now than I ever have been throughout my entire career both on and off the ice. It could be my years of experience and that I’m one of the older players, but I don’t think that’s the entire picture. I’m trained to go with the flow and always eager to do whatever is necessary in every game or practice. But now, for me, everything is different. With you at my side and your support, it doesn’t matter whether I stay on the bench, play my heart out, or what the final score is of any game, I can’t lose. I know I’m already winning before I ever step a foot on the ice.”
Bella blinks and her eyes search my face, obviously trying to process what I’m not conveying.
“So, you’re saying . . .”
“Ugh.” I groan. My frustration flares and I run a hand through my hair, until suddenly, the realization of what I’m feeling and failing to say becomes crystal clear. I look into her eyes. “Doc, I love you more than hockey—more than the possibility of winning the Cup—which I don’t know a single time in my life when that wasn’t my driving force. And if I ever have to make the choice, I will choose you.”
Bella smiles and her eyes are glassy, blinking away a few tears. “You know I would never ask or expect that of you.”
“I’m telling you that you wouldn’t need to ask. You’re more important than anything. Everything I’ve always wanted. Everything I’ve never had. You’re my everything.”
“Oh, Edward, don’t ever doubt that I’m proud to be here with you whether you play or not. I know how hard you work and the level of commitment for you always to be ready to play. It’s a dedication and love for what you do that most people don’t see, but I do. And just so there’s no misunderstanding, I feel the same way today,” she reassures, cups my jaw, and leaves a gentle kiss on my lips. “I was right. You are the love of my life—the greatest love I’ve ever known. I don’t know much about sports, but I think that makes you my goat.”
Fuck, I love her.
“And you’re mine,” I share easily, filled with relief that I’m finally able to communicate the depth of my feelings for her and how important she is to me.
She grins. “And before you ask, no tattoos of goats.”
“But you have to admit, it’s—”
“No. No goats.”
“Okay.” I chuckle, pulling her against me. “No goat tattoos for either of us.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
After an impromptu make out session with Bella in the hallway, I’m on cloud nine and standing at the bar waiting for our drinks when a woman with an all-too-familiar voice fills the spot next to me.
“Well, look who’s thirsty. Feet hurt in those boots yet?” she asks. “I’ve never been a fan, and you’ve definitely dressed better.”
I shake my head at her teasing jabs and glance in her direction. “It’s a cowboy theme.”
“Obviously.” She smiles, sipping the drink in her hand that is undoubtedly a whiskey sour. Her favorite. “Westerns aren’t my genre or style, but you know that. I’ve never been good at compliance either. I’m not really a team player.”
Oh, I know.
I lean an elbow against the bar, turning toward her. “I’m surprised you’re still here, especially since this isn’t your scene.”
“Ugh. At father’s request, I put in my obligatory visit to check on Irina—that’s an hour I’ll never get back. I thought I was going to wring her neck before we left the restaurant. Thankfully, I have checked that box for another year.”
“How did you get in here?” I wonder. “This is a private event.”
“Aww . . . there it is—curious, aren’t you? You know I have my ways, and well, your mother and father were surprisingly helpful. Timing is everything, and who you know never hurts. I always did love Esme, and Carlisle is as cantankerous as ever. No change there, but he seemed to soften at the sight of Jacob, making him useful for something.
“But that got me thinking. Maybe Daddy Dearest has been forced to revamp his agenda? Is he finally not getting everything he wants from his hockey superstar? Especially if he is willing to help out the oversight of Jacob’s missing invitation to an event like this.” She raises her brow and takes a sip of her drink.
“You would think he would be ecstatic at your upgrading from a porn star to a dentist. That’s quite a change. But let me guess, is there really anything that makes Carlisle happy other than living vicariously through you on the ice? He’s probably giving you shit about her too. You can claim I’m wrong, but we both know that isn’t true.”
“He never said you were a—” I attempt to correct her version of heated conversations from what feels like a lifetime ago when she cuts me off.
“Oh, yes, he did, Edward . . . and I’ll never forgive him or forget it. If it wasn’t that, then he focused on my age. After all, ‘What could you possibly see in someone ten years your senior?’ Ugh, he never changes. So, predictable. But I told you earlier, I didn’t come here for you, seeing you is just a bonus. You were always easy on the eyes, especially in bed.” She watches me closely, not getting the reaction she is obviously hoping for, then shifts her focus to the dance floor. “Of course, Jacob has his own ulterior motives. I find it amusing he thinks so highly of himself. He’s a wannabe and always will be an outsider. One day, you’ll have the good sense to fire him and that will be something to celebrate. Now, where’s your dance partner? I can’t believe you allowed her a moment away from your side.”
“Perfect.” She turns back toward the bar. “Then, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Tanya. Don’t,” I warn, not wanting her to start anything.
Her face lights up and she grins, obviously enjoying herself. “Since when do I take orders from you? I believe you know better than that.”
“Edward, her reputation precedes her. I will always want the best for you, and if she’s it, then you have nothing to worry about, right? I’m just going to say hello. I shouldn’t be able to scare her off, but if I do, it’s better you know now than later.” Tanya throws back the rest of her drink and nods toward the dance floor. “If you’re looking for something to do, I suggest focusing on the ugly situation Jacob is creating with her friend and your teammates before he makes you look bad.”
I follow her line of sight to where James and Leah are on the dance floor together, but now they’re stopped with a tense exchange happening between Leah and Jake.
“I’ll be back to pick him up on my way out. This shouldn’t take long,” Tanya promises, then disappears.
The confrontation on the edge of the dance floor also gets Vladdy’s attention, and he reaches them before I do.
“Let’s go, Leah. You’ve had your fun.” Jake grabs her arm.
Leah yanks it from his grasp. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Now or ever.”
James moves to stand between them, towering over Jake menacingly. “You heard her. Time for you to leave.”
“I’m so sick of this same conversation on repeat.” Leah points at Jake. “You don’t want me, but no one else can either? Well, I have news for you, Jacob. I’ll fuck whomever I please. You do. Get over it. I have.”
“Jake, this isn’t the time or place. Let’s step outside,” I suggest, trying to guide him away from her and deescalate the situation.
He shrugs me off. “I’m not going anywhere without Leah, and I’ll do what I want, when I wan—”
Before Jake can finish another entitled word, Vladdy’s fist whirls around and hits him squarely across the face, causing Jacob to crumple to the floor.
“Vladdy!” Leah shrieks in surprise and moves around James to check on Jake.
“What? He wasn’t listening. I gave him a tap to shut him up,” Vladdy states, smiling unapologetically. “It’s like what you call a love tap.”
When I see blood, I reach for a cloth napkin from a nearby table and hand it to her. “Here.”
“That wasn’t a tap. Look at him. He dropped like a pile of bricks.” James grins. “And a love tap is something you do with your car, not your fist.”
A sweaty Demir joins the group. “Good news. I beat the bull.”
Vladdy shakes his head. “My babushka hits harder than that. It was a tap.”
“What? Nobody congratulates me?” Demir nudges my arm and nods toward Jake. “You need my help?”
“So, that’s where you learned to fight?” James asks, as if this is the time to compare notes.
“Congratulations and yeah. We should get him off the floor.”
“I’m going to get some ice from the bar.” Leah huffs.
Demir moves to the other side of a dazed Jake and together we put him into a nearby chair.
Vladdy points at James. “She could teach you a thing or two.” He kicks Jake’s shoe, getting his attention while Jake is clutching his jaw and bleeding from his nose. “That shit hurts, doesn’t it? You should never disrespect a woman.”
James chuckles. “That was a sucker punch, not a tap.”
“Jake should know better than to start something in a room full of hockey players,” I add.
Vladdy agrees with a nod. “He’s a fool.”
James points at Jake. “He didn’t start it, Vladdy threw the first punch.”
“He had it coming.” Vladdy grins. “It was a clean two-hit fight. Me hitting him. Him hitting the floor. He asked for it. I finished it.”
Unfortunately, we attract some unwanted attention when Coach stops by. “Everything okay over here?”
“Great,” James offers first.
Vladdy smiles. “We’re good.”
James is quick to explain the best-abbreviated version of the situation, knowing Coach will need more than that to keep him out of it. “Our friend fell and has a bloody nose. Thank goodness we were here to help, right . . .”
“Jake,” I supply, nudging him.
Jake grunts, holding the napkin to his nose while he stares down Vladdy.
“Everything is fine, Coach. Really,” I reassure, hoping it is.
His eyes shift over our group, taking in our collective nothing-to-see-here looks, then nods. “I’m calling it a night. You should all think about doing the same. Soon.”
“You got it, Coach,” James agrees.
“We’ll be right behind you,” I promise, even though Bella and I plan to keep dancing once she returns.
He grins, obviously not buying what we’re selling. “No you won’t. Good night and stay out of trouble, especially whatever this is. I’m positive I don’t want to know.”
“Night, Coach,” we share simultaneously.
“See you tomorrow. Noon. Sharp. Good night, guys,” he says with a departing wave.
Leah returns with another napkin full of ice and shoves it at Jake. “Here. Take this.”
Once Coach is out of earshot, James asks Vladdy, “With your goal and assist today, does this count as a Gordie Howe hat trick?”
“We are not on the ice,” Demir adds.
“A technicality,” James points out.
“He has to fight back, right?” Vladdy asks.
James shakes his head. “Another technicality.”
Vladdy crosses his arms over his chest and shifts his focus back to Jake. “You want to fight? You fight me. Not her. Stand up. Or have you had enough?”
Jake moves, as if he’s going to stand, and I put my hand on his shoulder, preventing him from doing so.
“You don’t want to do that, Jake. Trust me,” I warn, knowing he is in over his head with these guys. The best thing I can do is keep him out of trouble until Tanya gets back. “As your friend, it’s time for you to go. Fin, help me walk Jake out.”
“Sure,” Demir agrees easily, always happy to help.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
Fifteen minutes later, Tanya returns as promised, and I watch her closely, wondering what has been said between her and Bella. She only winks, not giving me a single clue, obviously enjoying keeping me in the dark. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. Did she manage to get the upper hand or did Bella hold her own?
Earlier she was unloading about anything and everything. Now, she clams up? Tanya wasn’t always like that, playing these games, but time or maybe life has made her more . . . unapologetic about speaking her mind. Unfortunately, that includes my relationships whenever she learns there’s someone new. Or new to her. Since the end of our relationship, at the beginning of my professional career, she’s always exercised her skewed version of protectiveness of me. After all this time, Tanya still wants something casual, but I can’t do that with her. I’ve never been that guy.
Ready to depart, she eyes the blood on Jake’s face, and I notice more on his shirt out here in the light. I thought we cleaned him up enough to make it past her ever-critical eye. Tanya shakes her head, bids me goodbye, and gives Jake a look that shuts down his protests until he trails behind her unhappily, leaving without Leah.
I’m eager to return inside and locate Bella. My eyes pass over the dance floor where I notice Leah is still dancing with James. Vladdy grins when I walk past where he’s sitting at a table with some of the guys. When I find Bella, she is standing at the bar and my feet won’t carry me to her quickly enough.
“Come here often?” I ask, sliding into the open spot next to her and putting a smile on her face immediately.
“No. It’s my first time at this particular bar.” She watches as the bartender fills two empty glasses.
“Mine too.” I grin, watching her profile, then lower my voice. “Everything okay?”
Bella turns to look at me finally, and her eyes twinkle mischievously. “Absolutely.” She reaches for a flute of champagne, then holds it out for me. “Can I buy you a drink?”
We both know they’re free with tonight’s open bar, but I play along, more than willing to accept her offer. “Champagne? You must be celebrating something special.”
“Oh, I am.” Her smile widens. “Tonight, I’m going home with the most incredible man I’ve ever met.”
With those words, I’m filled with extraordinary relief. Tanya hasn’t derailed a single thing or cast any doubts, because Bella isn’t coming to me with concerns. She’s buzzing with excitement, and whatever was discussed, Bella held her own. This is good. Real good.
“What should we drink to?” I ask.
“Well, it’s been a big night for me—full of revelations. So, how about the most important one . . . to finding the love of my life.”
Her words are everything, putting a permanent smile on my face for the rest of the night. As she did on one of our first dates, I raise my hand and shout, “Check, please,” to no one in particular, prompting our laughter.
I love her so fucking much, and I never want to lose this easy feeling between us.
“Sounds like a lucky guy. I don’t have a choice—I have to drink to that.” I clink my glass with hers and lean close. “Happy New Year, Doc.”
“Happy New Year, Edward.” She grins and closes the distance between us to share a lingering kiss full of hope, promise, and especially, love.
I have a hunch that with her, this could be the best one yet.