A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do, but especially to Midnight Cougar this week. With our busy holiday schedules, I wasn’t sure if this chapter would be ready. Fortunately, she found time to add her finishing touches, and it’s ready to share with you. Enjoy! xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “House Party,” Sam Hunt
(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) /\ \
The house is buzzing when I return from practice . . . and I love it. Scout isn’t at the back door to greet me, but I can hear everyone laughing in the kitchen. I find him patiently supervising our dinner party preparations by Bella, Leah, and Maggie while Shadow sits next to him. Music plays over the house speakers, and they all appear to be working on various food prep at Maggie’s direction. Bella is the first to notice me watching the scene that fills me with undeniable happiness.
She grins. “Hey! Welcome home!”
I love hearing those words from her.
“Hello, beautiful.” I walk around to where she’s chopping vegetables at the island, wrap my arm around her, and lean down to kiss her lips. “Mmm. You taste like chocolate and peanut butter.”
Bella giggles and wiggles her eyebrows. “And wine.”
“What are these for?” I nod toward the chopped pieces she’s creating and reach for a carrot, popping it into my mouth.
“The fried rice,” Maggie shares.
“Hi, Maggie. How are you?”
“Hello, Edward. I’m great.”
“Thank you for helping us today.”
“No problem. I’m happy to be here.” She nods toward Bella and Leah. “These two are fun to cook with and add a lot of spice to your kitchen. Normally, it’s only me replenishing your favorites and essentials. You never do something like this. Food for a poker game—once or twice. A dinner party for fifteen people—never.”
“Well, maybe it’s something that will continue in the future.” I glance at a radiant Bella and elicit more of her giggles when I leave a kiss on her neck. “Hopefully, it’s not too much.”
“Not at all. You can call me anytime. Regardless, their help and company are greatly appreciated.”
“Maggie, you’re too kind,” Bella says with a beaming smile. “This whole meal wouldn’t be nearly as amazing without you. I don’t think I ever cooked for this many people at once.”
Leah shakes her head. “Me either. I’m generally a Chef Mike kind of gal.”
“Who?” I wonder since this is the first I’ve heard of her interest in a chef.
Bella snorts. “She means her microwave.”
While cleaning a large bowl of shrimp, Maggie chuckles at Bella’s explanation, then continues. “I picked up everything you’ll need. We’ll get all the prep complete, then you’ll be ready to cook. I’ve already cleaned and seasoned your new griddle. We should probably go over a few things about temperature zones and cooking on it before I leave.”
“Sounds great. Thank you.” I smile. “Hey, Leah.”
“Why, hello, Edward.” She smirks.
I reach for another carrot. “Vladdy said to tell you hello.”
“Aww. He’s sweet.” Leah waits for me to continue, and when I don’t, she asks with a raise of her eyebrows. “Nothing from James?”
I smile and shrug. “Vladdy paid me fifty bucks after James left to say hello from him first.”
“Oh, Lord. I take that back. Maybe not so sweet.” Leah laughs.
“So, hello from James too,” I add. Leaning down, I scratch Scout’s head when he finally walks over and leaves a lick on my leg.
“Are you hungry?” Bella asks.
“Yes. I’m always hungry. The guys should be here soon. Even though I know you are wine-focused, James and Vladdy are picking up additional alcohol. James wants a particular Japanese beer he loves, and Vladdy vowed we need sake. I think they’re riding here together.”
Leah’s grin widens at their mention while she removes steamed rice from a rice cooker I didn’t know I had, but it probably belongs to Maggie.
Bella looks up at me. “Great. Al and Garrett texted a while ago. I gave them the gate code. I hope that’s okay.”
“It is. I gave it to the guys too.”
“Oh, good. They are on the way with our sushi order Maggie called in earlier. She ordered three assorted platters since you would all be coming from practice. Do you think it will be enough?”
“I feel like I could eat an entire platter myself.” I wink.
“That’s like . . . fifty pieces.” She marvels.
“You asked. I burned a lot of calories this afternoon.” I lower my voice, but not enough to where not everyone would hear. “And last night.”
“Edward.” She gives me a saucy warning look.
“What? I told you we would dance those boots off, and I know, we did.” But that’s not all we did.
She’s well aware I’m not only talking about dancing. Once we returned home and wished Leah goodnight, we retreated into my bedroom and it took very little time for me to figure out how to remove her dress too.
After kissing her lips once more, I walk to the refrigerator, opening it to contemplate my snack choices until the sushi arrives. I finally reach for a turkey wrap when the doorbell rings. Scout barks and disappears around the corner while Bella offers to answer it.
“That’s probably Al, Garrett, and the sushi.” She waves her hand toward me. “You could eat that instead.”
“Shouldn’t I wait for everyone to get here?” I wonder.
“Then I’ll have sushi now.” I grin, put back the turkey wrap, and follow her to the front door. “Is it from—?”
“Yes. Maggie ordered from your favorite place.”
I can barely focus on what she’s saying now that I’m able to see her entire outfit. My eyes linger over her long, bare legs and white cut-off shorts.
This should be a party of two.
What was I thinking, agreeing to share her this evening?
“I didn’t know you had one, but she called the owner who personally prepared the order when he found out it was for you.”
My gaze travels higher to the off-shoulder blouse that looks as if the material is from a navy blue bandana with a tie at her waist and her necklace is on display again. It makes me ridiculously happy. Bella pauses her explanation, forcing my eyes to lock with hers, and her smile grows at my blatant perusal.
“I’m listening,” I defend half-heartedly, searching my memory for what she was saying. “Ordering sushi. My favorite place.”
She shakes her head slightly. “Apparently, there’s a Spider Roll you love that has been included as well.”
Maybe we can sneak away from everyone for a little while.
“Damn, you’re making my mouth water, and that has nothing to do with sushi.” I lean close and steal a kiss before I open the door to welcome her friends and mine for our first of what I suspect will be many parties in the future. I pause, basking in this couple-ish feeling. “This is cool. Us. Here. Together. Should we take a photo? I feel like this moment for us is . . . special.”
Scout barks, wags his tail, and releases an impatient whine, wanting to find out who is on the other side, while Bella laughs and pokes my side.
“Oh!” I retreat from her playful jab.
“You and your photos.” She smirks. “Just open the damn door.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
“How much are you planning to drink?” I step out of the way and hold open the front door for James. He’s carrying two cases of beer, but I notice there’s a gray wrapped present on the top of the stack with a large black bow and can’t resist teasing him a little. “And you didn’t need to get me anything.”
“You know I didn’t.” He chuckles. “Fingers crossed Leah likes this gift.”
“Not as confident as you were with the doughnuts, huh?” I taunt, then offer my reassurance, knowing things haven’t been as smooth with her as he would like. “It will be fine. You’ve had Doc’s help with this one.”
James releases a deep breath. “I suppose we’ll find out soon. Wish me luck. I need all I can get.”
“You don’t need it, but good luck.” I don’t fault him for his efforts, but there may be a point soon when he should give up and move on if Leah isn’t interested. I wave him toward the back of the house. “Let’s put the beer in the cooler out by the pool. Did you bring ice?”
He nods, kicking off his flip-flops. “Yeah, Vladdy is behind me. He’s bringing it.”
I look back outside as Vladdy rounds the corner of the house wearing one of our green hockey jerseys and walking along the pathway with a large bag of ice over his shoulder and another under his arm.
“What? Is it laundry day?” I tease.
Vladdy turns around to show me the back, and I’m surprised to see it says “Cullen” with my number.
“It’s one of the few things my ex-wife left when she emptied our closet. No scissors to this one either.” He smiles and joins my hearty laughter. “Here, take the ice. I need to go back for the sake.”
As we make the transfer, I ask, “Did you find the one you were talking about at practice?”
“Yes. More than one bottle too. You’ll like this. I promise no hangover.” Vladdy grins. “It is only rice and water.”
“Right.” I chuckle, following behind James. “That’s what they always say.”
“Vladdy is full of—” James stops suddenly and smiles. “Hey, Leah.”
Leah is at the kitchen island with Al, Garrett, and Bella. They’re eating sushi, sipping wine, and nibbling on cookies Al created that are decorated like pieces of sushi. Bella hasn’t stopped raving about them, causing Al to beam at her nonstop compliments when she pops the remaining portion of another in her mouth.
“Hello, Just Cap,” Leah teases with a wink.
Maggie left not long ago with all the food prep complete, but not before sharing her final instructions on how to cook everything. When I began feeling overwhelmed and was about to start taking notes on my phone, Al stepped in to offer his assistance, if I needed it. He and Garrett seem like great friends to Bella, and I look forward to getting to know them today.
James hesitates, advancing toward the pool, and slides the cases of beer onto the island. “I got you something.”
“Okay.” Leah chuckles and raises a challenging eyebrow. “Another gift, huh?”
“I think you’ll like this one.” James looks nervously at Bella, who nods her reassurance when he hands Leah the gift on top.
I set the bags of ice at my feet, and we all watch as she unwraps the present, revealing a box of Old Gringo boots.
Her eyes light up when she lifts the lid off the box and holds up one for us to see. “Oh, my goodness. These are—”
They’re black with silver studs covering them in an intricate design.
“Bad ass?” James asks hopefully.
Leah grins. “Yes. I love them!” She unzips the back, ready to try them on.
James sags visibly with relief, holds out his hand, and offers to help. “Here. Allow me.”
Leah sits on a stool, and James kneels in front of her.
“I didn’t know if you had a chance to shop while you’ve been here, and you shouldn’t leave Dallas without at least one pair of boots.” He slides the boot onto her foot, zips the back, then holds out his hand for the other. Once he secures the other in place, he asks, “How do they feel?”
She stands from the stool and walks around a little. “Oh my goodness. They’re a perfect fit.”
His confident grin is back firmly in place. “Well, Cinderella, now you can kick my ass in style.”
Leah chuckles. “I like the sound of that.”
“I thought you would.”
“Does that make you my prince charming or something?” she taunts.
“Only if you say so.”
There’s no surprise when she doesn’t, but Leah reaches out and pulls him into a hug unexpectedly.
“Thank you. They’re amazing.”
James smiles and squeezes her a little tighter. “You’re welcome.”
I nod when his eyes meet mine and lift the bags of ice. “Come on, Prince. Let’s get these in the cooler.”
“Yeah.” He releases Leah reluctantly and grabs the cases of beer. “Let’s do that.”
With compliments flowing from Bella and Al, about Leah’s new boots, I follow James outside, lower my voice, and offer my encouragement. “That went well.”
“Yeah. You got a genuine hug in front of all of us. I think, for her, that’s progress. Baby steps, Cap. Sometimes that’s what it takes. If you want to build something with the potential to last in the long term, you can’t expect everything all at once. I’m sure she’ll be back to visit Doc again at some point in the future. They’re close friends, and the week isn’t over. Remember, you’re not running a sprint here. It’s more like a marathon.”
“You’re right. Baby steps. You think there could be someone else back home? Or maybe she’s into Vladdy?”
“I have no idea about her life back in Washington, but we both know Vladdy. He’s always about everyone having a good time, and he likes fucking with you. Don’t read too much into any interest from him.”
James nods, considering my words while we fill the cooler with beer and ice. Once it’s full, he glances at the table with two of the sushi platters.
“Damn, those look delicious.”
“They are. I tapped into the one in the kitchen. Doc told me I had to pace myself when they arrived. So, I haven’t had that many pieces yet.”
“I’m starving.” He lifts the lid from one, sets it off to the side, and takes a seat. He reaches for two pairs of wooden chopsticks and holds out a set for me. “Are you going to join me?”
“You don’t have to ask me twice.” I can’t resist, passing him a small boat-shaped wooden plate from the stack, grabbing another for myself, and taking a seat next to him.
He turns it over. “Are these disposable? They’re funky.”
“Yeah, bamboo, pine, or something. Maggie brought them. Sustainable and all that shit,” I explain.
“The party is here,” Demir says dryly from behind me with Marcus.
“Hey, Fin—Volts! I didn’t hear the doorbell or Scout.” I grin and nod toward the seats next to us. “Have a seat. Did Doc let you inside?”
“Nah, we walked in with Vladdy,” Marcus shares.
While Marcus sits next to James, Demir slides into the spot next to me. “This looks good.”
I smile and reach for another piece with my chopsticks. “Enjoy. It’s hitting the spot.”
“How are you feeling Mr. One Thousand?” James asks with a teasing smile, referring to tomorrow night’s pregame celebration.
Marcus will be honored for playing his one-thousandth game before the Christmas break. It was against Florida, and unfortunately, it was a train wreck of a game that we lost four to seven. Eleven goals in any game is the thing that nightmares are made of for goaltenders. Since we were on the road for that one, we’re having a celebration at tomorrow night’s home game to reflect on his career and celebrate this milestone.
He separates a pair of chopsticks. “I’m feeling great . . . physically. It’s been a long road. Hockey is all I’ve ever known. It’s been my life, and where I’ve felt most comfortable. Always. I was always on the ice. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing hockey.”
When he looks around at us, everyone nods, able to relate without question.
“We know that we don’t get here, or stay here, without incredible support. My parents have been everything and will be there tomorrow night, and of course, Deedee as well. I wouldn’t be where I am without her. Alec is going to dress in full hockey gear and stand with me during starting introductions.”
James nods, finishing a mouthful and patting Marcus on the shoulder when he gets choked up with emotions and struggles to continue. “That’s great, man. We all hope to have a career like yours. It’s always an honor to step onto the ice with you.”
“Thanks.” He releases a deep breath and shakes his head slightly. “After our win yesterday, I’m working through the letdown of such a big game. That crowd, man. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad Coach talked about that this afternoon. I need to get my head on straight. I’m a little overwhelmed right now, but thrilled and grateful I can share this honor with my family.”
Marcus is two years older than I am, and we’ve had multiple conversations about finding our way to the end of our careers. It isn’t an easy decision to figure out when that could be, and we both hope they won’t end due to injury. It isn’t the way either of us want to go out, but sometimes it isn’t an option. He’s a potential Hall of Famer, having been selected to two Olympic teams and multi-year All-Star selections. But the Cup eludes him too. And I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous he has a son who is choosing to follow in his footsteps.
“Time for sa-kayyyy!” Vladdy yells from inside to the sound of raucous laughter and shouting. He unknowingly lightens the mood out here too, putting smiles on all our faces.
“Should they be mixing wine with sake?” Marcus wonders with a smirk, looking past my shoulder.
“It should be fine, but someone needs to hide Vladdy’s phone so he won’t drunk-text his ex-wife later.” James stands and walks over to the cooler. “Anyone want a beer?”
“Yeah,” we agree.
“Hey, guys!” Tyler appears in the doorway with Ben, and they step outside.
“Hey! You’re both in time for a beer. Have a seat.” I wave toward the table.
Tyler grins. “Cool. Set us up, Cap, but we should admit, we’ve been here for a little while. Doc showed us your office, and we had to play a quick game of air hockey.”
I chuckle. “Who won?”
Tyler snorts and nods toward Ben. “Who do you think?”
“What was the score?” James asks.
“Seven to—” Ben starts.
But Tyler cuts him off. “Hey, we agreed that we’re not going to talk about it. I was just getting warmed up.”
“Sounds like you should play Doc,” I suggest.
Tyler shakes his head and points at me. “I smell a hustle. No way. You’ve probably been coaching her.”
Ben’s smile widens. “It’s a nice table.”
Tyler takes the seat next to Demir. “Lauren said we should come out here and say hello, but I’m going to need a rematch later. Is this sushi for us?”
“It is. Dig in.”
“Oh, man this is great,” Ben says from beside Marcus, reaching for a plate.
“What is this?” Demir asks, holding up a piece from the end of a Spider roll between his chopsticks. “Legs?”
“They call it a Spider roll,” I explain.
Demir’s eyes widen. “Those are spider legs? Like tarantulas?”
I chuckle. “No. It’s soft-shelled crab.”
“Oh.” He nods, fitting the piece cautiously into his mouth.
“Is there any soy sauce?” Tyler asks, looking around the table.
“Yeah.” I pass him the bottle sitting near James.
We’re all enjoying the down time together between bites when everyone looks up, smiling at someone behind me. I feel two hands slide over my shoulders and down my chest, prompting my own grin.
“Did I hear someone say they were in need of soy sauce?” Bella asks near my ear while hugging me from behind.
I settle my hands over her arms, holding her in place. “Crow.”
“Not you?” She grins.
“You know I always need soy sauce.” I tilt my head and pucker my lips until she kisses them.
“Mmm, fishy,” she teases with a smile.
“How is everything inside?”
“Fabulous. The wine is flowing. Don’t worry. I promise we’ll drink every bottle we open.” She shifts her eyes to the sushi platters on the table. “Our sushi is gone thanks to Vladdy. He is hilarious—pouring sake, giving out nicknames, and trying to rope someone into swimming with him—”
Scout barks excitedly, getting our attention.
“Spider! Your dog loves me!” Vladdy shouts. He walks outside in only his swim shorts and looks down at Scout who has his favorite tennis ball in his mouth ready to play fetch. “Does he like sushi?”
“He thinks he likes anything I’m eating. I have to show him the front and back of my hands like a poker dealer in Vegas when whatever I’m eating is gone.” I laugh and everyone joins in.
Marcus leans back in his chair. “What’s the saying? You can trust your dog with your house, but not your sandwich.”
“Sounds about right.” I chuckle.
“I don’t blame him. I like to eat too, Scout.” Vladdy scratches him behind his ears. “Does he like to play fetch in the pool?”
“Yeah.” I grin. “You’ll probably wear out before he will.”
“Never. My son would love him. We’re going in.” He pats Scout’s head. “Ready, buddy?”
Scout drops the ratty, well-loved tennis ball at his feet. Vladdy picks it up and makes a throw that prompts Scout to take off, leaping into the pool. We watch as he paddles to the ball while Vladdy backs up, takes off running, and does a flip into the pool.
James chuckles. “Who will get the ball first?”
“My money is on Scout.” Marcus laughs. “Edward you may need to—”
“I know. I can put him up for the night. I’ll make sure he’s fine for tomorrow.”
James’s smile falters slightly, and despite my reassurance, I quickly figure out he doesn’t like the idea of Vladdy being here alone with Leah.
He stands. “Vladdy! Where’s your sake?”
“In the kitchen.”
“I’ll be right back,” James promises.
Marcus gives me a knowing look, and I can’t help but laugh.
“I know. He will be staying too. Or I can send them both over to your house.”
Marcus barks out a laugh. “Nope. You’ve got these two. Leave me out of it this time.”
Bella squeezes her arms still wrapped around me. “Are you ready to start cooking? I can send Al out to help you. He will love that.”
“Sure. I will too.” I kiss her lips once more. “Send him out.”