A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Hooked,” Dylan Scott
(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 Demir finishes the last of our sushi, he decides to join Vladdy and Scout in the pool and leaves his shirt on the chair next to me. I give Bella one more departing kiss before she clears the empty platters from the table and rejoins the wine crew inside. James returns with the sake and a stack of little cups. Demir and Vladdy forgo cups as James pours straight into their mouths while they remain in the pool.
I’m surprised when Marcus accepts one, and we all look on as he tosses the ball repeatedly for races between Scout, Vladdy, and Demir. Shooting their sake rather than sipping it, Ben and Tyler leave for my office with Tyler intent on a rematch. Scout climbs from the pool, shakes off, and abandons his game of fetch, going back inside the house while Vladdy and Demir continue.
There’s no keeping the smile from my face when Al steps outside with a tray full of condiments and makes another trip to return with the food for us to cook.
“Edward, your home is fabulous. And thank you for including us this evening.”
“I’m glad you and Garrett could be here.” I grin, recalling my surprise when they buzzed the gate to give Leah and Bella a ride to the game. I was stunned when I answered the door to find Al wearing full face paint. “And yesterday.”
There’s something reassuring for me knowing Bella has friends here looking out for her if I’m ever on a road trip, as I will be next week.
“I don’t have to tell you—it was quite the crime scene I witnessed. I think you’ve stolen her heart,” he teases.
I chuckle, setting my empty sake cup to the side. “How about a beer?”
“That would be great.” He smiles encouragingly.
After removing fresh beers from the cooler for us, I hand one to him and we stand next to the grill, waiting for it to heat. Wanting to get to know him and understand his connection to Bella better, I start with an easy subject. “Doc tells me you’re a hairstylist?”
“I am, and have my own salon. You should come by. I can give you the friends and family discount,” Al offers.
“Do I need some work?” I wonder with a smirk.
His eyes shift to my hair and he backtracks immediately. “No. Not at all. Your hair always looks amazing. I love that sexy, tousled, effortless style. Obviously, Bella does too. Stick with what works, but if you ever need a touch up my chair is open.”
“Thanks.” I glance at his wedding ring with a tiny sense of jealousy. “How long have you been married?”
“Four years,” he shares proudly. “Absolutely no regrets. I can’t say that every day is a honeymoon. We have our struggles, like any married couple. It’s work, but I can’t imagine my life without Gare.”
With the grill hot, I dump the chopped vegetables onto the surface, then add a bit of oil before the huge container of prepped shrimp. We share a chuckle when Shadow appears from out of thin air at our feet, but I’m ready to dive in and peel back the layers of his relationship with Bella.
“You and Doc are close,” I state—not a question. I use the spatula to create an even layer of food across the entire cooking surface.
Al can’t keep the grin from his face at her mention. “I love her.”
“That makes two of us.” I smile at our common ground.
“Gare does too, but just between us, you’re right—we are close. I’m the one she calls first.” Another twinge of jealousy spears me because I want to be her first call. “And I’m also the one who is aware of the attention she’s attracting online.”
I nod, taking a sip from my beer. “That’s my fault for putting her out there, but I’m so damn proud to be together. I just can’t contain it. I’ve tried.”
“That’s you trying?” Al taunts, knowing I’m full of shit.
“Okay, I’ll give you that. I know I have no willpower when it comes to her. Doc is the best thing to happen to me—not that she’s a thing, like a trophy or something. I don’t mean any disrespect. She’s supportive in all the ways I need. If anyone isn’t happy for me or us, then they never were my fans in the first place. Don’t work too hard trying to convince those who are looking to stir the pot.”
He nods. “I will always be protective of her and defend her relationship with you. But I will never allow people to go unchecked. She isn’t your typical WAG, and pardon me for saying so, but she doesn’t need you for the reasons most women become interested in professional athletes. Bella doesn’t aspire to fame or any type of career that would benefit from that sort of recognition. If anything, that’s working against you.”
Okay, he isn’t holding anything back, and as I’ve expected, his loyalties to her are strong. I focus on the grill, moving everything around while he explains.
“She doesn’t need your money either. I suspect that over the entirety of her career, she will earn more than you will. If I had to guess, maybe double in the right practice.”
He watches my reaction to the possibility that Bella has the potential to earn more than me, but I know that won’t be a problem. Charlie already brought up his concerns about that inequity whenever I stop playing hockey. I’m all for her success, so I nod, keeping my expression neutral when he continues.
“If anything, you’re the arm candy in this relationship.”
“I can live with that.” I chuckle and glance at him briefly. “Maybe I do need a hair trim in that case.”
His smile fades slightly. “Unfortunately, her career has stalled, and she’s only recently admitted changes are necessary. Sam is taking advantage of her and . . . and I hope you aren’t following him down that same path.”
My eyes shift to his, surprised he would think that’s what I’m doing. “Al—”
“You said she’s meeting your needs, but I have to ask, are you meeting hers? Do you even understand what those are? I’m well aware the chemistry between you two is off the charts, but I’m not talking about that. Have you taken the time to ask? Not just about her career, but what she wants in . . .” He waves his hand around at my home and the pool area before settling on a more general term. “Life.”
I think for a moment, realizing my error or errors compounding.
Most of our discussions are about what I want and need.
All of our discussions.
I am messing this up.
“I’m sure you’ll uncover those,” Al reassures, giving me the out he shouldn’t.
“I will,” I promise.
With a nod, he sips from his beer. “As I’ve told her, there’s no rush, and every relationship unfolds as it should. But between us, if you want to keep a woman like Bella, then it can’t always be about you or fitting her into your life. Bella needs her own champion. Someone in her corner who wants to see her succeed. And not just lip service.”
I’m realizing the food sizzling in front of us isn’t the only thing being grilled with his next words, hitting their intended mark perfectly.
“Her hockey acumen increases every day—for you.” He pauses, letting that tidbit hang between us. “Do you even know how many teeth you have?”
When I obviously have no clue, my tongue moves around the inside my mouth rapidly. I count, then lose track, starting over. Al chuckles, realizing what I’m doing and lowers his voice.
“Or when was the last time she had her heart broken?”
I have no idea about that either and abandon my counting. “The lawyer?”
Maybe there was more to their relationship than I thought.
“These are questions you need to ask.” He holds up a hand, not confirming or denying my thoughts about the lawyer. “I’m well aware that she isn’t as vulnerable as she could be with you. But it’s important for you to learn about her past and her wishes for the future.”
“I’m learning more every day,” I defend. “Doc opened up about life with her mother in Phoenix. I’ve spent time with her parents, and we did a campus tour while I was in Seattle. She shared stories of her time during her college years there.”
“That’s good. And she wouldn’t have shared those things if she didn’t feel comfortable with you, but is she really letting you in? What you need to uncover isn’t in Seattle, Forks, or even Phoenix. It’s not about a particular location, but her. She should be your focus. And she’s right here in your home. Don’t hesitate digging deeper. Bella never will open up if she doesn’t feel like she can count on you when it matters most, and that will put you both back at square one. I don’t believe either of you want that.”
“I don’t,” I reply adamantly. “I say and show her how I feel daily.”
Al pauses, taking another long sip from his beer before continuing. “There’s a huge difference between asking what she wants versus telling her what you want and waiting until her answer matches yours.”
Is that what I’m doing?
“Bella needs and deserves to be seen, appreciated, and loved. Remember that. Or you’re no different from Sam.” Al points toward the door leading inside where we can hear another round of rowdy laughter. “I love seeing her with you today and how you interact with each other, which is different from when I was there the night you met. She’s much more affectionate than I thought she would be in front of everyone. But maybe that’s the wine.”
We share a chuckle, knowing there’s a part of that which is probably true.
“She’s—for lack of a better term—hooked on you.”
At his mention of that late October evening, my thoughts easily drift back to our first meeting.
When the woman I recognize as my sister’s boss enters the backyard of Rose’s home,
my eyes draw to her instantly. At Rose’s encouragement, she walks toward the
picnic tables where we’re sitting. I try not to stare, focusing on carving the spider web
on my pumpkin while listening to every word of their conversation over Irina’s nonstop
chatter until finally I’m introduced.
“This is my twin brother, Edward.”
I’m excited to meet the dentist with dark, wavy long hair, and now, I can see
captivating blue eyes. She’s shorter than Rose is and has curves in all the right places.
The photo Rose showed me on their office website is only from the shoulders up and
didn’t do her justice.
“So, you’re Rose’s boss and the infamous Dr. Bella?”
I’ve never had a type, but if I did, it would be her. Bella is not only beautiful, but
also intelligent—probably too smart to date a guy like me. She’s so out of my league.
“That’s right.” Bella chuckles. And I know immediately her laughter
is a sound I can’t wait to prompt again.
I wipe my hand and hold it out for her to shake. “Nice to meet you. I believe I know your biggest fan.”
And I’m already not far behind.
Her smile matches mine, knowing exactly whom I’m talking about.
Bella’s eyes never left mine for long that night while my sister introduced everyone else around the table.
One look at her in person and I was hooked.
“I feel the same way about her.” There’s no keeping the grin from my face, and I admit, “I have been since my sister introduced us.”
Al chuckles. “I knew it!”
More laughter from inside the house draws my attention again, reminding me of what I’m missing, and I can’t take anymore. My need to be near her is overwhelming, and stealing a few moments alone is the perfect solution.
“Hey, would you keep an eye on everything? I need to get . . .” I stare at the tray filled with a dish of garlic butter, seasonings, and bottles of condiments to the side of the grill. My eyes land finally on the brand new bottle of soy sauce, then shift to the one left on the table. “Uh. . . some . . . soy sauce.”
His eyes glance at the tray, then he grins. “Sure. No problem—”
“Spider!” Vladdy shouts from the pool. “Toss us some shrimp.”
“Don’t worry, Edward. I’ve got this. Most people would never guess, but I was on my high school baseball team,” Al reassures.
He’s right. I’m surprised Al was on any competitive sports team. I always thought he was more of the drama kid type.
He smirks, then concedes. “Okay, maybe not on the team, per se, but I did have a uniform, which looked fabulous on me, and I was the equipment manager. Even then, I was drawn to bats . . . and balls. Who knew?” Al winks. “I had a crush on one of the pitchers and filled in naturally as a catcher when anyone needed warming up. I’m no pitcher, but it’s only a few tosses. I can handle it. They don’t call me Mr. Razzle Dazzle for nothing.”
I chuckle. “I thought that was because you’re from Chicago or maybe you performed in the musical at some point.”
“Oh, please. I retired from community musical theater after that Wicked incident. I could have created an absolutely iconic Elphaba, but they refused to gender bend the role. If I showed you my performances from high school, you would agree that my Billy Flynn would bring even Richard Gere to his knees. But enough about me. Let’s do this.”
He waves for me to hand over the spatula, and I watch as he flicks a shrimp to where Vladdy and Demir are at the edge of the pool. Vladdy catches it with only his mouth, holding his arms out to light applause from Marcus and James.
“See?” Al flicks a second one toward them.
Vladdy shoves Demir out of the way, making a big splash, but misses the catch and the shrimp disappears below the water surface.
“Al another!” Vladdy requests with an eager grin.
Al lowers his voice. “Okay, you may need to call your pool guy tomorrow. I’ll keep them going and start moving the shrimp to the cooler zones.”
I look back at the grill. “The vegetables for the rice are probably done—”
“I’ll push those to the side and finish the rice next. We’ll have it ready in no time, and I’ll add the steaks and chicken. Go—check on our girl.” He winks.
Relieved, I make a beeline for the doors as I hear cheers of another successful catch behind me. This time for Demir. My interruption of the wine crew surprises no one by the looks on their faces.
“Doc? I hate to bother you, but can you help me find the soy sauce?”
Her smile widens, knowing I don’t need help finding an item already waiting outside in multiple locations. The smirk she gives me says everything.
“Sure.” She downs the last of the wine in her glass, leaving it on the coffee table in the great room where they are gathered, and stands.
“Sorry,” I offer, looking around the group. Although, I’m not sorry. Not one bit. “She’ll be right back,” I promise, but I doubt anyone believes me when I hear a few chuckles. I know I don’t.
My eyes drift from her bare shoulders to every swing of her ass in those cutoff shorts as I follow her, and my heart accelerates when she bypasses the kitchen.
Having a code word was fucking brilliant.
And that’s all her.
She’s so fucking smart.
And knows me.
I’m not sure how far she’s willing to go and hope she’s leading me to the bedroom, but Bella stops when we’re out of plain sight in the empty entry, spins around, and hurls herself into my arms.
“Oof,” I gasp, readjusting her higher.
Within seconds, her lips are on mine, devouring my mouth hungrily. She pulls my backward ball cap from my head and I hear it drop to the floor over the smack talk and pinging sounds of the air hockey table coming from my office. Her fingers weave into my hair, and I’m at her mercy when she tugs on the strands, tilting my head to her will. With every push and pull, our moans fill the space.
Clutching her bare thighs, I turn us and press her against the nearby wall. While I groan at the undeniable feeling and shift my hips against her reflexively, she smiles against my lips. There’s zero doubt she can feel me hardening against her. When she pulls her mouth from mine, I trail kisses lower along her neck to her tempting cleavage over the sound of her ragged breathing.
This I know how to do.
I love turning her on.
“I love you.” I mumble against her fragrant skin, breathe her in deeply, and work my way back to her lips. “Mmm. You smell and taste so fucking good.”
“That’s the wine.” She giggles.
That sound is everything. “No. It’s you. You make me so fucking happy.”
Al is right. I don’t know everything I should, but I know we’re on the right track, and I’m going to do everything I can to keep us there.
“I can feel your happiness.” She snorts, presses another kiss against my lips, then rests her forehead against mine while we catch our breath.
“Doc—” I pull away slightly, my eyes searching hers.
When I don’t continue immediately, she runs her fingers through my hair. “What? Tell me. I want to know.”
I nod, leaning into her soothing touch, trying to find the right words. “Tonight, my house is full of our friends . . . and laughter. It finally feels like—” I almost say my home, but correct myself, because I want it to be her home too. “Home, and that’s because of you. Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
She’s been the difference ever since we met—from her suggestion that led to me adopting Scout and Shadow, to unpacking my office. This week staying here together has exceeded my expectations, and now, this evening, it’s the future I want. I’ll accept whatever version she needs or wants as long as it includes her.
“You’re welcome,” Bella whispers.
With another swivel of my hips, she moans and I grin.
“I think it’s time to kick everyone out,” I suggest with a wiggle of my eyebrows.
She smiles, pecks my lips, then points out the obvious. “We haven’t had dinner yet.”
“Then it’s time to toss all the shrimp,” I tease with a wink. “We’ll put the chicken back in the refrigerator, serve the steak rare, and encourage everyone to eat quickly.”
Her laughter returns, joining mine. “We will do no such thing.”
When I can’t resist nibbling on that ticklish spot on her neck, she shrieks with delight.
“Shhhh,” I warn playfully, kissing her cheek. “You’re going to draw attention to us, and I’ll have to share you again.”
“You know that’s inevitable.”
“Maybe we can sneak past my office and hide out in the bedroom for—”
“Not a chance.”
“That either. Maybe later.”
“Okay. Later,” she agrees with another kiss to my lips.