Authors: Katie Kenyhercz
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
“Jace, it could have been worse.”
“I wish I could tell you we could sue for libel, but … she really didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”
Jacey dropped her hands, her eyes feeling like they could pop from their sockets. “What about the headline?”
“Okay, the headline was bad. But there was a question mark at the end. I don’t think we’d have a solid case with just the headline.”
“I have to do something.” Righteous indignation started to burn off, and she felt herself on the edge of tears.
“Listen, how about tomorrow I set up another press conference, and you can set the record straight about the interview and clear up the rumors? You’re right; you do have to address this. At least if you do it on TV, people can come to their own conclusions.”
Jacey nodded numbly, closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples.
“Um … there’s one more thing.”
Her heart fell. Maybe if she didn’t ask, he wouldn’t say it.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on sports social media. There’s some pretty harsh blowback from this. Female fans are saying ‘First cheerleaders, now owners dating players. Hockey’s a joke.’”
“Probably you don’t want to hear what the men are saying. It’s got a similar vibe. Let’s leave it at that.”
Guilt sat heavy on her chest. “Okay, stop. I get it. I’m taking down the league.”
“Jace — ”
“I just need to be alone for a while, Mad.”
Her brother looked torn, but he left. She studied a picture of her father on the corner of her desk. They stood together on the ice. She was ten, and he was showing her how to hold a hockey stick. Her eyes clouded over at the memory, and warm tears slid down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to let you down. I know you thought I could do this but … ” She hiccupped, and a hard knock on the door made her jump.
Jacey wiped at her eyes. She was reaching for a tissue when Carter Phlynn let himself in, looking none too amused.
• • •
Carter breathed through his nose and made an effort to unclench his fists as he walked into her office. He hadn’t known what to expect on the way up, but what he found surprised him. She was crying.
The woman had a way of deflating him and making him forget about himself. He saw the paper on her desk. Good. At least he wouldn’t have to explain his visit.
She cleared her throat and crumpled the tissue in her hand. His chest tightened, and his resolve crumbled a little more. In fact, he thought about turning tail and walking right back out the door. But her voice stopped him. And to her credit, it was even and firm.
“I guess you’ve read the paper. I’m sorry. What’s in there … it’s not what I said. It didn’t come out the way that sounded … ” She gestured toward the paper on her desk and rubbed her temples.
Carter smiled slightly at the jumble of words as she tried to explain. “I just came from one hell of a practice.”
“Well, it’s as much your fault as it is mine.
the one who wanted to race. I told you — ”
“You told me
. It was your graceful stop that had us horizontal.”
“God … ” She held her face in her hands. As angry as he was about the article, he still felt the need to relieve some of her guilt.
What the hell?
He settled his large frame into the chair opposite her and unclenched his fists.
“There was one unforgivable thing about that article.”
Jacey looked up and pierced him with those light eyes like blue granite. Her hair was pulled back in a neat, French braid, but the tail of it rested over her shoulder, the curly ends tickling her jaw. He fought the urge to brush it back and swallowed. “That remark about my reputation. It’s not true. At least, not anymore. And I’d hate for you to think it was.”
Her brows knit in clear curiosity, but at least the guilt and sadness left her face. “That’s … none of my business.” Her voice sounded unsure, as if maybe she wanted it to be her business. He did. And the thought made his skin itch.
“I just wanted you to know.”
Her cheeks flushed, and she glanced away with no retort. A beat of quiet passed, and his heart sped up. “So I guess we should just … keep our distance and let the rumors die.”
Jacey blinked at him. Could that be regret? Whatever it was, a second later, a curtain came down and hid all emotion. “I think that’s best.” She didn’t sound like she meant it. But she was still right.
He sighed and stood before stupid impulse could strike again. “I keep telling myself that.”
Wednesday, October 12th
Jacey sat in the stall with her head between her knees taking shallow breaths through her nose. She couldn’t go out there. Hollow clomps and the appearance of square-toed Kenneth Coles outside of her stall said that Nealy had found her hiding place.
“Jace? I know you’re in there. Come on. They’re waiting for you.”
“Don’t put me in, Coach. I’m not ready to play.”
“You shoulda thought of that before you went toe-to-toe with the captain. There are affiliates from five different TV stations out there — two of them national — now up and out.”
Jacey stood from the closed toilet seat, smoothing down her skirt and running a hand over the fishtail braid that hung between her shoulders. With a steadying breath, she unlocked the door and stepped out of the stall.
“Good. Be professional. I’ll back you up. I know this was just a mistake.”
Jacey allowed herself to be shooed from the bathroom. Had Nealy not been right on her heels, she might have skirted the front doors and holed up in her office. A blast of hot air hit her as she stepped outside. Like she needed extra incentive to sweat. Cameras focused on her from three different angles, photographers blinded her with flashes even in full sun, and reporters shouted out, “Ms. Vaughn, is it true you’re personally involved with Carter Phlynn?”
“Ms. Vaughn, does Phlynn’s spotty record with women bother you?”
“Ms. Vaughn, is it true Phlynn proposed?”
The questions made her dizzy, but she leaned over to speak directly into the microphone on the podium. “I called this press conference today to clear the air about the allegations pertaining to Carter Phlynn and me. We are not involved on a personal level. I own the team; he plays for it. That’s it.”
As soon as she stopped talking, the reporters thrust themselves as far as the security boundaries would allow, vying for attention. Pushing back her anxiety, she nodded to a woman in an ivory suit with long, dark hair. “Ms. Vaughn, can you explain the picture in the paper this morning of you and Carter Phlynn on the ice?”
Fear slammed into her even though she’d known the question was coming. Keeping her features passive, she took a breath and used the rush of chatter that followed to think of an answer. When the crowd hushed for her response, she opened her mouth and felt absolutely no control over what came out. “I had been skating by myself after the meet and greet. It was empty until the next session and … I couldn’t resist visiting some childhood memories. Phlynn stayed late to sign autographs. He saw me fall and came out to help. Unfortunately, it was like trying to save a drowning person, and I accidentally pulled him down with me. I know you all were hoping for a more scandalous answer, but the truth is I’m just a klutz. And … I’m sorry about that too.” She lifted her shoulders in an
gesture, and the reporters buzzed to life once again. Jacey held her breath and called on another of the waving hands.
“Ms. Vaughn, it was reported that you’re on a first name basis with Phlynn. What are the grounds for that, and do you call all of your players by their first names?”
Her cheeks warmed. She couldn’t help it and hoped to hell that it didn’t show on camera. “Phlynn was the first team member I met, and I do like to refer to everyone by his first name. Although, I guess I learned the hard way that there are no first names in hockey.” More laughter, and Jacey relaxed a bit. The waving hands resumed and she nodded to a man in a bright red shirt and khaki sports coat.
“Ms. Vaughn, your father was an important man in the Rockers’ and Sinners’ history. If he were here now, what do you think he’d say?”
That question gave her pause, and she fought the wave of sadness that rolled in her chest. When she found her voice, it was soft and thoughtful. “I think he’d say, ‘It was the end of the third period, and my girl was dealt a rough hand, but she evened the score. I know she’ll get ‘em in overtime.’ And I hope I do.”
A younger reporter, possibly a college intern, shouted from the back, “Is that a metaphor for winning the Stanley Cup?”
She just smiled and nodded politely to the media circus. “Thank you for coming, but I’ve got work to do.”
A chorus of “Just one more question” rang out, but Jacey turned on her heel and strode back into the building, resisting the urge to dance while she could still possibly be caught on camera. The blast of air conditioning also improved her mood. She let out a long breath, heard quick clomping beside her, and glanced over to see Nealy, smiling for once.
“You did it, kid. I almost believed it myself. And I really think they did believe it, the stupid, pea-brained vultures.”
Jacey smirked and shook her head, walking toward the bank of elevators. “You should believe it; it was true.”
“Mmmhmm.” They stepped into the elevator. Feeling a rush of relief and pride over how she’d handled the situation, she smiled to herself as she watched the buttons light up. Nealy lightly socked her shoulder as the elevator opened, and they went into their respective offices. When Jacey closed the door behind her, she thudded her head back against it and closed her eyes.
• • •
Three minutes after five, Jacey hummed to herself as she stood organizing her briefcase. She heard her door click and turned to see a grinning Phlynn. Leaving it open a crack, he took two long strides and kissed her briefly but thoroughly. It happened so fast she only got flashes of sensation: the abrasive scruff on his chin, the surprising softness of his lips, the warmth in his hands that circled her whole waist. The shock of it prevented any action for the first five seconds, but when the stars faded from her swimming vision, she pushed against his biceps and stared at him, agape. Her gaze cut to the open door, and she maneuvered around him to close it before she pinned him with an accusing stare. “Are you freaking crazy?” she whispered.
Amusement sparked in his eyes and curled his lips as he ignored her. “You were brilliant. We were watching in the weight room. I even almost believed it. All of the guys did. Maybe now they’ll finally stop busting my balls.”
She held back an out-of-place giggle, although she couldn’t refrain from smiling in spite of herself. “That’s great. But you have to leave. Now. Or you’ll undo all the good I did.”
His gaze turned thoughtful, and he took two slow steps toward her. She swallowed and straightened her back against the door. “Hey, now … You just stay there.”
Carter grinned and took another step. “She tells me to leave, then she blocks the door. And they say men send mixed signals.”
Heat flooded her face, but before she could slide out of his way, he closed the distance to hold her in place and lowered his head so his nose brushed hers. Their lips were centimeters apart. Jacey’s heart slammed, and her ability to think short-circuited as she felt his warm breath tickle her skin. He smelled of earth and spice like a deep, dark forest. And he was the big, bad wolf. So close. If she just tilted her head up …
Carter leaned in, but just before their lips touched, he pulled back slightly and whispered. “G’night, boss.” Smiling, he reached around her to open the door and let himself out.
Shaking, Jacey released a slow, deep breath and held her forehead in her hand. “I’m so toast.”
Thursday, October 13th
The beeping alarm tore Jacey from an engaging dream involving an empty locker room, a certain captain fresh from the showers, and a wet towel that just wouldn’t stay tied. She thrashed around in her sheets then opened her eyes to glare at the ridiculous cherubs carved into the ceiling-high, brushed-gold posts of her bed. Every morning they had a stare-down, and she’d yet to beat the opulent little jerks.
She danced on tiptoe over the ice-cold marble tile, smacking the alarm on her way to the bathroom. Keeping the thing on her nightstand would only ensure she’d never actually make it out of bed thanks to the double-edged sword of the snooze button. She shoved a mass of unruly curls out of her face, rubbed her eyes, and turned on the shower. Water jets from six angles lit up in different colors and shot like lasers. It looked like the Bellagio fountain show. While she waited for it to get warm, she stared at herself in the mirror and almost jumped at the dark, zombie circles under her eyes.
With a sigh, she shed her T-shirt and boxer shorts then stepped into the hot spray and waited for a minute until she felt human again. She washed her hair, having to turn in circles to get all the shampoo out, soaped up, and rinsed off before tying on a towel. She wiped a hand across the fogged mirror and brushed her teeth, squinting in the Broadway vanity lights.
Seriously, Dad? Seriously?
She slipped into the next pre-selected outfit lined up in her closet, a plum skirt suit with a cream colored camisole, then hopped precariously into matching, sling-back pumps.
He likes me in heels.
The thought froze her — absolute suspended animation. Where did that come from? Since when did she start dressing according to Carter?
Not good. So not good.
She dug around in her closet and traded the shoes for flats then finished getting ready. Some neutral lipstick, and Jacey jogged down the sweeping staircase, car keys in hand jangling to the beat of her step.
Madden darted out of the kitchen, head down. “Gotta stop for gas. See you at the arena.” The closing bang of the big, double doors echoed in the cavernous foyer. Resisting the urge to scream and stomp her feet, she took a breath and locked up. If he thought she wouldn’t figure out whatever he was up to, he was so wrong.