A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Beautiful Crazy,” Luke Combs
(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) /\ \
Thursday night, I’m happy to be back in uniform and watching from the visiting team bench in Anaheim. But it’s bittersweet I’m not starting because Honda Center is one of those arenas that was special to me early in my career. After I was traded here from Minnesota, I earned my spot as their starting goaltender.
My conversation with Jake last night makes me nostalgic in some ways for the guy I was when I was playing here. I have been back numerous times with other teams over the years, but the timing of everything makes me wonder if I can do it again. With another new team. Which means another move. When one of our equipment managers points out a few Cullen jerseys nearby, I remember how much I love the fans here.
Hockey fans are the best. They’re loyal to their favorite teams and players, passionate about the sport at every level, dedicated in their support whether we win or lose, and above all, respectful. I love seeing their compassion for the charities we support and the kids attending our games. There’s nothing like when a puck goes into the crowd and you watch someone catch it, then turn around, giving it to a kid nearby. The expression on the kid’s face says it all, creating another lifelong fan of our sport.
Despite starting for the second night in a row, Ben is loose and a little more talkative than normal. He’s even cracking a few jokes at Stefan’s expense, which is unlike him, but especially before a game too. I think he could be relieved to have me back on the bench. Stefan is upstairs for the evening, sitting with Royce tonight and a few other players who have day-to-day injuries because of our game last night with Los Angeles.
With the drop of the puck, we stay in control for the entire sixty minutes and play our brand of hockey. Our power play is relentless, passing the puck quickly and taking advantage of their slow response, which opens up more shooting lanes. We score goals in the first two periods on power plays—the second of those is a sweet one by Vladdy on a quick thinking pass from Ben to Tyler.
After a missed shot on goal, Tyler controls the rebound and passes to Vladdy from behind the net who scores. It’s unusual for a goaltender, but Ben is credited with an assist on that goal, which gets a grin when I tease him about it during a television time out. Our final goal in the third is an empty netter. When time expires, Ben gets his second shutout of the season with our three-zero win after making twenty-seven saves.
I’m one of the first off the bench to congratulate him.
The fact that one of Anaheim’s players is named as a star of the game with two of our younger players is a joke when we dominated this game in every position, especially in goal. After Ben’s performance, we all know he deserves a star, but unfortunately, he’s overlooked this evening, which is complete bullshit.
It’s our sixth win in a row, and a check of the standings shows only a slight difference in points from where we sit in second to the team in the ninth position. There’s no wiggle room. We need to keep playing our brand of hockey night after night.
And tonight we’re on the move, flying to San Jose after the game. While we have the day off tomorrow, I’m eager to be back on the ice and in goal for our game Saturday night. So, I plan to stick to my regular off-ice routines, even though almost everyone else is making plans to golf or check out touristy things in the Bay Area.
Once I return to my seat after meeting with Ben, Stefan, and our goaltending coach, I tune out the conversations around me and focus on my phone between bites of dinner. When I see I have numerous texts and photos waiting from Bella, there’s no keeping the smile from my face.
I see you! Yay!
We’re watching your game!
She includes a Heart Eyes emoji, but I’m surprised by the first photo she sends, which is a group selfie with everyone dressed in an assortment of our green hockey jerseys in front of a television. After zooming in on the photo, I realize the group includes Bella, Deedee, Rose, Angela, Al, Garrett, and a handful of other faces I don’t know. I thought Al and Garrett were going to Bella’s tonight, and it was just going to be the three of them, but their plans obviously changed at some point. I don’t recognize where they are either.
There are also two faces I do know well in their crowd—Scout and Shadow are sitting next to Bella. My heart soars with happiness that they’re with her. Bella didn’t say anything about taking care of them while I was away, nor did I ask, but I suspect she made other arrangements with Vera.
Going . . .
I smile at her text and the next photo of everyone’s glasses raised full of wine. There’s another photo she includes with overflowing platters of appetizers on a kitchen island. My eyes are drawn to a plate of colorful cookies that were undoubtedly created by Al. He shared that he’s a hobby baker or cookie artist, I think he said, when he was at our dinner party last week. I zoom in on the photo and notice some of the cookies are green and white stars, while others look like our hockey jerseys with my number thirty-five on them. Sweet.
Going . . .
The next photo is sent not long after the last one of everyone’s empty glasses raised together, while someone out of view is pouring refills.
Over an hour later, the kitchen island is covered with empty food platters and open bottles of wine.
We drank ALL the wine!
Walking to your sister’s for more.
They must be at Al and Garrett’s home, if they’re going to my sister’s home, which is in the same neighborhood and a short walk away.
I’m a little worried why she wouldn’t be okay, until I see the next photo she sends of her bloodied knee.
I tripped. My knee is bungled.
Rose is fixing it.
Minor scratches on my hands.
I’m hockey tough. 😉
And we’re restocked with wine! Yay!
The next photo she sends is a selfie with her, Scout, and Shadow.
Back with our fur babies!
Bella has never referred to Scout or Shadow as ours, but the thought makes me undeniably happy. It’s been a couple of hours since her last texts and photos arrived. But those little three dots are moving at the bottom of our text conversation, indicating she’s sending something again.
New/old hockey lewks! (NSFW)
Tell me which ones are keepers.
I’m a little concerned by her NSFW label, because nothing about what Bella shares with me is ever not suitable for a work environment. The photo that arrives is a rosy cheeked Bella with half-lidded eyes wearing the first hockey jersey I gave her. It’s a look I love on her, especially the part where my last name and number are on the back. She is in a bed I don’t recognize with her hair sprawled across a pillow and missing any shorts or pants when I notice her bare thighs at the bottom of the photo.
While I’m always partial to her in a G-string, the boy shorts in our team colors are a close second. Her ass cheeks peek out just enough to tease me, causing my fingers to twitch with a need to squeeze and explore beyond the edges of the fabric. And she’s wearing those now. I wish she would roll over and snap me a photo of that view.
That one is definitely a keeper.
We’re on our way to San Jose.
Where are you?
Hiiiiiiii! I’m at A and G’s.
We rode with DD here.
She left. Everyone is gone.
It’s late. Or early here. I’m tired.
Full of delicious food and divine wine.
Congratulations on your win!
Are Scout and Shadow with you?
I should have checked with you.
Is that okay?
I felt bad they were alone.
Since I’m not working, I told Vera I would
keep them at my place while you’re gone.
I asked Scout if he wanted me to be his mom.
And he licked my hand.
Shadow meowed when I asked her.
So, we’re official. 😉
Their “conversation” brings another smile to my lips.
All you had to do was ask?
Yep. They’re asleep on the bed next to me.
I’ve been slipping them treats for MONTHS
to keep my favorite dad status!
You have nothing to worry about.
They love you like I do!
And I have a little present for you from Al and Gare.
I can’t imagine what kind of present they would have for me, but when the next photo arrives, she’s no longer wearing her hockey jersey—only a thin white tank with spaghetti straps. It clings to her in all the right ways, but one of those straps has slipped from her shoulder. Her dark hair is still everywhere, and my eyes are drawn to her chest where her hardened nipples are straining against the fabric, making my mouth water. I zoom in closer, and beneath the fabric, it looks like she’s wearing some sort of star-shaped nipple jewelry.
Fuck me. Yeah. That’s my kind of present. They nailed it like I wish I could nail her right now.
If I was there right now . . .
Fuck yes. Definitely a keeper.
This could be my new favorite.
Want a photo without my tank?
Is she kidding? Of course I do. Bella is obviously still buzzed if she’s making this sort of suggestion. It doesn’t look like she’s wearing a bra, but I’ll never turn one down or discourage her.
I include a drooling emoji with my text. Maybe I need to set up another countdown until I’m back home early on Wednesday after our game in Colorado. It’s about five days away. Before I can open my countdown app, her photo arrives, and I nearly choke on the bite of pasta I’m attempting to swallow. The photo is beyond everything I anticipated.
Definitely NSFW. Nothing—nothing is concealed with one arm bent gently and extended above her head while her sleepy eyes look directly into the camera. The touch of a mischievous smile graces her perfect pink lips. It’s the kind of look that begs me to come get her, which she knows drives me wild.
The dainty chain holding the pendant with my number sits more like a choker at her delicate neck. An area I know is ticklish and I wish I were there to trail kisses along its gentle arch. Licking my lips at the thought, my eyes travel lower over every soft and enticing curve of her chest.
Did the photo go through?
It says delivered.
The arrival of her texts snaps me out of the trance-inducing photo I’ll be revisiting for the rest of this trip and in the future. I blow out a steady breath and glance briefly at everyone sitting around me, making sure no one is paying any attention to me or my phone, before typing out my response.
Yes. I got it.
They aren’t real.
Oh, they’re real Doc.
I know that for a fact. 😉
I mean the stars are the non-pierced type.
I wish they were in my mouth.
I need a hot shower.
A hot shower?
Don’t you mean a cold one?
A hot shower is a regular shower,
but with you in it. 😉
So, it’s a keeper?
As if that’s even a question. I send back the emoji with stars for the eyes.
DEFINITELY! My new favorite.
And I plan on keeping YOU.
Thank Al and Garrett for me until I can.
I’ve never tried these before.
And they’re making me unbelievably horny.
I mean . . . fuck!
Doc, I’m on an airplane.
At this rate, my dick is going to bust through
the zipper of my dress pants and take control,
diverting our flight from San Jose to Dallas.
She sends me the LOL emoji.
Don’t laugh at my dick.
He’s fucking serious.
And I’m in complete agreement!
I’m glad you like them.
I LOVE them. And you. X
Thank you for the pic.
I’m Team NSFW!
I’ll need to explore those stars closely when I return.
I think I have a new hobby—astronomy. 😉
They’re here waiting for you.
And me. I’m here waiting too.
I love you! xx
How did I get so fucking lucky?
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
I’m walking back to my room after my morning workout when Vladdy jogs to catch up with me.
“Hey, man. What’s up?”
“What are you doing today?” he asks.
“Nothing special. I just finished working out. I need to shower and eat again. You?”
“I finished my workout earlier, but I need to visit my aunt and uncle,” Vladdy shares. “How about making the trip with me to San Francisco?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Come on. Don’t spend the day here. It will be fun. Just us. I promise. My aunt will feed us.”
“I’m starting tomorrow night. I need to be careful what I eat,” I warn.
“She is making us a meal fit for champions,” Vladdy explains, trying to convince me to tag along. “You train your eyes through conditioning like Russian goaltenders. You need to eat like them too—more plants, less animals. Eat the rainbow—vegetables will give you more energy. Keep fish and eggs. Eliminate everything else. My aunt knows. I promise, you will be fine. You’ll see.”
“No vodka.” I smile, knowing him.
“It is only grain and water,” he teases.
I shake my head, because I’ve heard that from him before.
Vladdy grins. “No vodka. We save it for special occasions, like holidays.”
“I heard you were drinking vodka with Leah.” I raise a challenging eyebrow.
“Time with Leah is always a special occasion.” He pauses for a moment, undoubtedly lost in thoughts about her.
I know the feeling when Bella is on my mind constantly.
“But you should be drinking tea, like me, Spider. I drink it during every intermission.”
“That’s what you’re drinking?” I ask.
“Yeah. It’s full of antioxidants to help your body bounce back. You are in great shape, but you could be better—recover easier.” He shrugs.
I’m intrigued at the idea of tweaking my nutrition routine and always looking for something that could give me a greater competitive edge with an easier recovery. We all are.
“Okay. I’ll think about the tea.” I smile. “I need to shower, then I’ll meet you in fifteen minutes at the elevators.”
Once I depart my hotel room, ready for our day trip, Vladdy is already at the elevators waiting for me. When we arrive in the lobby, the concierge hands him a set of keys to a black Maserati sitting just beyond the hotel windows.
“Holy shit.” I whistle once we’re outside. “Damn, Vladdy. This is one sexy car.”
He smirks, sliding behind the wheel. “Get in. It’s too cold for the top down?”
I shake my head, opening the passenger door. “Not for me. I like the cold.”
“Me too. Then it stays down.” Vladdy grins. “We arrive in style.”
My fingers dance lightly across the dash. “GranCabrio?”
“Does Coach know you’re driving this?” I ask.
If Royce were to find out, we could be in trouble, but I’m inclined not to care. Coach drives a Corvette Stingray everywhere he goes. But we aren’t Coach, and I suspect Vladdy is interested in pushing this car to its limits. I’ll admit I’m a little curious at what it can do too.
Vladdy shrugs. “You want to drive back?”
“Sure. Why not?”
We’re in no hurry, driving from San Jose to San Francisco, but Vladdy does push it over one-fifty whenever traffic thins in areas. Once we’re in the city, Vladdy obviously knows where he’s going and pulls into a private parking lot. The guys manning the lot seem to know him and share a conversation I can’t understand. After leaving the car with them, he leads me to an unexpected location.
I look up at the name above the windows: Sokolov Diamonds. “Your family owns a jewelry store?”
“Yeah. They own the whole building. Their home is upstairs.” Vladdy points to the smaller windows above the storefront, then looks over at me. “Spider, you may be smarter than me, but I see everything.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I wonder.
“You need an engagement ring, right?” He grins.
A smile threatens to tug at the corners of my lips. “Maybe.”
“And I need to visit. Two birds. One stone. My aunt will design one. She is an artist. You tell her about Doc, and she will create a one-of-a-kind ring.”
While I’m surprised he knows what he does, the more I think about it, the more I like that idea. Bella is one-of-a-kind, and she should have a ring like no other.
“Come on.” He opens the door, and we walk inside.
A pleasant chime announces our arrival while my eyes flit around the large space with lights carefully positioned, drawing my eyes to the glass cases full of sparkling treasures. There are a handful of customers being helped, but it’s only moments before we’re noticed.
“Vova!” An older woman shouts from across the store, getting everyone’s attention, and makes her way toward us. Grabbing Vladdy’s face, she kisses both his cheeks. “Look at you!” She steps back for a moment. “You are too skinny.”
Her eyes shift to me, moving over me from head to toe, and I stand a little taller, hoping I pass her careful inspection. “Both of you.”
I chuckle, because she’s never seen me before this visit.
“We are all muscle, Tetya,” Vladdy says. “You know that.”
“Right. Muscle,” she teases, pokes his side as if she will find any softness there, then nods to me. “Who is this?”
Vladdy grins proudly. “This is my friend and teammate, Spider.”
“Spider?” She raises her eyebrows.
I hold out my hand, hoping I don’t offend her, but unsure if I’m kissing cheeks worthy, like her nephew. “My name is Edward Cullen.”
She slides her hand in mine, shaking it gently. “I think I like Spider better.”
“Spider, this is my aunt Ilsa.” Vladdy turns toward a man walking toward us. “And my uncle Boris. How are you Dyadya?”
“Missing our Vova.” Boris kisses both of Vladdy’s cheeks before hugging him, then accepts my hand, shaking it firmly. “Welcome. You’re the goaltender?”
“Yes, I am. One of them.”
Boris nods at my explanation, before Ilsa reaches up cupping my jaw. Her eyes meet mine for a moment, then a smile lights up her face.
“Your eyes are kind and full of patience. So handsome, like Vova. Hmmm. You came to the right place. But I have to wonder, is she caught in your web, or are you caught in hers?”
Chuckling at her question, I realize she’s talking about Bella and wonder how much Vladdy has shared with them. “Maybe a little of both.”
“And now, you need a ring.” Ilsa nods.
My eyes shift from her to a grinning Vladdy and back before confirming, “Yes, I do.”
“Okay. Let’s go feed you.” She winks at Vladdy, then returns her focus on me. “You will eat too. And tell me about your girlfriend. I need all the details, especially how you met. I would give you the Tetya guarantee, but I doubt you need it.”
“What’s that?” I wonder.
“An acceptance of your proposal. No one can turn down my designs.” She tilts her head in question. “What does she do?”
“She’s a dentist. So, it can’t be anything too big since she uses her hands all the time.”
Ilsa’s smile widens. “Okay. Follow me.”
Waving at Boris before we depart, we exit the store and walk toward a nearby nondescript exterior door. Once unlocked, we follow her upstairs to their home. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but every inch of the space is packed with treasures that undoubtedly have a story waiting to be told. Green plants thrive near every window while floral chairs outline the space with interesting knick-knacks on every surface.
In stark contrast to the gray walls and minimalistic design of their store, color is everywhere in their home. The main living area is a deep blue with oil paintings showcased in ornate gold frames on the walls. There’s no keeping the smile from my face as I notice many of the portraits are dogs wearing formal suits.
“I painted those of my precious loves—never take anything too seriously,” Ilsa says with a hearty chuckle when she notices my interest, then waves us toward the dining room. “Come. Sit. I will bring Vova’s favorite zavarka and bowls of kasha.”
Once she’s out of view, I lower my voice and grin. “She’s kind of pushy. Why do I like it?”
We share a laugh, taking our seats at the table.
“Everyone loves her,” he states proudly.
Like they do Vladdy. He’s one of the most popular guys on our team. Even though he isn’t a captain, he consistently delivers for us night after night on both ends of the ice. He’s one of the best two-way players in the league, which means, like James, he excels on both offense and defense.
While we hear the sounds of dishes clanging in the kitchen, Vladdy explains what Ilsa is preparing.
“Tea is offered in every Russian home to guests regardless of the time of day. Zavarka is a tea concentrate. In Russia, it is prepared with a samovar, which is a large metal container with a spigot that contains boiling water. There is a small compartment that contains the tea and boiling water is added to it. Everyone is served the concentrate, then each person adds water from the spigot to dilute their tea how they prefer. We have a samovar that has been in our family for generations, but Tetya prepares a modern version with an electric tea kettle and porcelain cups.”
“Kasha is buckwheat porridge—high in protein, and we’ll top with berries. It is much better for you than oatmeal.” Vladdy nods.
He’s right. Nothing escapes his notice—even my morning meals.
I lower my voice. “How do I say thank you?”
He smiles. “Spasibo.”
“Spasibo, Vladdy,” I repeat, knowing it won’t be the only time I use it today.
While I’m already enjoying unwinding with him and his family’s generous welcome, more than anything, I’m grateful for today’s gentle reminder of what an honor it is to count him as a friend.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
It’s a homecoming for Marcus and his first game back in San Jose since joining our team this season in Dallas. A video tribute showcasing his years as captain here is shown overhead during the pre-game, which is followed by a standing ovation from the fans. They still love him. We all want to win for him, but despite our valiant effort and my twenty-four saves after sixty minutes, it isn’t enough. Our two-one loss also ends our winning streak, which hits me a little harder than it should.
There was nothing I could do about the redirect of a puck that went off the skate of a San Jose player slipping between my pads. I thought I had it, but that wasn’t the case. Coach is still adamant that there was a kicking motion, which would have disallowed the goal, but after closer review, it was ruled that wasn’t the case. The second one that got away was a rebound I thought I had covered with my glove, but somehow popped out, and they put it in the back of the net.
After our post-game workouts, we board our plane, once again, flying to Colorado for the last game of this road trip. I sit with Ben, Stefan, and our goaltending coach for a brief meeting, going over tonight’s goals and saves. He shares that Ben will be back in net for that game on Tuesday, and once our meeting concludes, I return to my seat for dinner.
At the arrival of my standard chicken and pasta, I’m curious what Vladdy is eating. My dinner is lacking the variety of colorful vegetables I ate with his family during our visit yesterday. I had a lot of energy going into our game with zero stomach discomfort. Even after my post-game workout, I physically feel great, like I could have played longer had we gone into overtime. I think it’s time to make some modifications to my meals going forward, and I create a reminder on my phone to talk with Maggie about adjusting my options based on Vladdy’s recommendations.
Once we finish eating, James turns out his light in favor of sleep, and I finally have a moment to respond to Bella’s texts from earlier. I know it’s late, but I hope she’s still awake.
How is my favorite goaltender doing?
I’m disappointed at the outcome.
I wanted to win this one for Marcus.
I only wait for a few moments before she responds.
I’m sorry for the loss.
It was a close game.
I’m grateful she doesn’t mention the end of our winning streak.
Thanks. I did everything I could.
You always do.
Tell me something good.
I love you.
That’s not just good, Doc.
That’s the best.
Then I overshot a little. 😉
I love you too.
Tell me something else.
You’re going to be home in THREE days.
That’s great too.
I’m counting them down.
We’re going to Mexico in a week.
I can’t wait.
I think some time away will be great.
Our first vacation together.
I can help you pack.
Bikinis only for you.
We only need one suitcase.
I’m sure there will be dress codes.
Not in our room. 😉
We can’t stay in our room the whole time.
Sounds like my kind of challenge.
What am I going to do with you?
But I have other ideas if you need them.
Oh, I’m keeping you.
And I can’t wait for you to be home
so we can discuss those “other ideas.”
Me either. I miss you.
It’s late. You need sleep.
Yes. You do.
I plan on wearing you out once I’m home.
I love you. X
Sweet dreams, Doc.
You’ll be in all of mine.
I love you too. xx