Authors: Katie Kenyhercz
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
Nealy stood and arched her little brows. “Can I help?”
Jacey smiled and shook her head. “Everything’s finally in its place. My dad didn’t decorate much, so there was room for my things.”
Her assistant nodded and skirted her desk to walk beside Jacey toward the elevator.
“It took me three hours just to dig through all the papers and put them in some kind of order. If the figures I found are correct, our budget is very tight. My coach is nowhere to be found, my team captain almost quit, and in raising his salary, I’ve squeezed the cap even tighter. And this is only the first day.”
Nealy followed, huffing a little as she kept up. “What do you mean, ‘quit?’”
“He got an offer from the Chicago Blackhawks. After looking at his stats I knew we couldn’t lose him, but I couldn’t offer any more than my father did. If my research is right, almost
other team could afford to give him more, but he decided to stay with us.” They stepped into the elevator and stood side-by-side as the doors slid closed.
Nealy frowned, but then a grin slowly spread, and from the corner of her eye, Jacey could almost see the light bulb go on. “What?”
Her assistant hesitated with a smug smile. “Just think about it a minute.” Jacey’s confusion must have roused pity because Nealy laughed. “Your father gives him the offer. He turns it down. You give him the same offer, and he takes it.”
“He seemed like he really just wanted to stay in Vegas … ”
“I’m sure he does. Now.”
Jacey blew a loose curl away from her forehead. “That’s a logical fallacy. Just because B happens after A doesn’t mean A caused B.”
Nealy held up her hands in surrender, but that smile was still there. “Whatever you say, hon.”
The elevator doors opened to the parking garage, and Jacey paused beside her silver Eclipse. The underground air was cooler but not by much. “I can’t believe he’s really gone.”
“Jack Vaughn was a good man and a good boss. He loved hockey, and he loved this team. But more than anything, he loved you and your brother. He talked about you every day.”
Jacey felt her heart in her throat, and when she opened her mouth, nothing came out on the first attempt. The second try was a little more successful. “That’s … thank you. That’s nice to know.”
“I know he wasn’t an overly affectionate man, but he wasn’t shy about his pride for you.”
Jacey smiled and wiped at the corner of her eye. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without your help.”
“S’what I’m here for. Anything you need, let me know.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow, Nealy.”
• • •
Jacey let herself into the hotel room she’d called home for the last week and secured the chain lock behind her. She felt along the wall for the light switch and turned it on. Her suitcases sat along the wall, neatly arranged but taking up a lot of space. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be a problem much longer. Turning right to wander into the kitchenette, she opened her fridge to find the carton of skim milk and half of a wrapped, ham and Swiss sandwich. “At least there’s not too much to throw away,” she mumbled as she drank straight from the carton.
A little red light blinked on the phone by her bed, and she frowned. Considering her day so far, it couldn’t be good. Her finger hovered over the button before she gathered the courage to push it.
“Jace, it’s me. Look, I’m sorry about what I said in the lawyer’s office. I just … Come on. We both thought Dad was leaving me the team. I quit my job.”
Jacey rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes. “Madden … ”
“The truth is, I know you can handle the team as a business. But let me help. Please. I know I’ve messed up in the past but … I want us to be close. You’re all I have left, Jace.” Her brother’s voice broke on the machine, and he cleared his throat. “Call me.”
She wandered back to the kitchenette with designs on that half-sandwich.
“Ms. Vaughn, this is Coach Tim Finley. I’m sorry to do this, but I can no longer work for the Sinners.”
The milk carton fell from her hand and landed with a splat on the linoleum. She stared open-mouthed at the phone.
“Your father and I discussed my salary concerns, but we couldn’t come to an agreement. I decided today to accept an offer from a different team. Like I said, I’m sorry. Best of luck with the Sinners.”
Frantic, Jacey dug in her purse and found her cell. She searched until she found Finley’s number and held it to her ear, barely hearing the ringing over the slamming of her heart. Thank God she’d thought to plug her father’s contact list into her phone. As an afterthought, she grabbed a handful of take-out napkins from the counter and bent to sop up the mess.
“Tim? It’s Jacquelyn Vaughn.”
“Ah, Ms. Vaughn. Did you get my message?”
Jacey took a silent breath and paused in her cleaning. “Yes, that’s why I’m calling. Listen, if you could just coach through the next season, it would be an enormous help — ”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that; you’ll have to find someone else.”
Desperation rolled in a wave from head to toe, her chest tightened, and the wet napkins fell from her grip. “But there’s no way that I’ll find another coach at this short notice.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Vaughn, but I’m set on the matter.”
“I understand, but — ”
Jacey leaned back against the cupboards and slumped to the floor. She looked at her phone without seeing it and pushed the
button. After a few minutes of inaction, she set it on the counter then returned to the mess on the floor, cleaning on autopilot. An unexpected tear slid down her cheek followed by another and another. She sniffled then laughed. “I’m crying over spilled milk.” The laughter mingled with soft sobs and hiccups as she finished the job and wiped her face with the back of her hand.
She stood, kicked off her heels, and belly flopped onto the king-size bed. Face planted in the comforter, arms at her sides, and stocking feet dangling over the edge, she fell fast asleep.
• • •
Carter slid into McMullan’s a little before eight. The bar was already busy with tourists and several regulars. A few heads turned, and he waved and smiled as he weaved his way to a booth in the back, where he found his best friend and goalie, Shane Reese.
Reese’s baby face had followed him from pre-teen to post adolescence and guaranteed that he’d get carded well into his thirties. It also gave the goalie a female following that could rival Carter’s own. Reese eyed him over a tall mug of beer as Carter slid in the opposite side. “So … ?”
Carter slouched back and took a pull from the bottle that had been waiting for him. “I’m staying.”
A half smile curled Reese’s mouth before he took a drink. He was one of the few men on the team with all his original teeth. A luxury of being a netminder. “Vaughn Junior bend over and beg?”
Reese arched his brows, and Carter smiled devilishly like a kid with a good secret. He leaned his forearms on the table and savored it for a beat. “‘Vaughn Junior’ wears Chanel Number Five and comes up to my chin in four-inch heels.”
Reese feigned a wince. “I hope to God you’re talking about a woman.”
Carter laughed, nodded, and took another drink.
“And she’s hot?”
A reflexive smile escaped before Carter could stop it, and Reese whistled low. An image flashed of Jacey sitting behind the desk doing mental math, and he straightened, clearing his throat. “I mean she’s smart, too. Business smart, anyway. Has an MBA from Yale. She doesn’t seem to know a lot about hockey, though.”
“So how much more are you getting?”
Carter hesitated, shrugged and took a drink. “One point five.”
“But … ” After a few seconds, the light went on in Reese’s eyes. “Damn. Curtis must have shit bricks. You might need to find a new agent.”
That could be true. Brad hadn’t said a word to him when they left Jacey’s office. “Whatever.”
Reese didn’t seem ready to let it go, but he did and grunted into his mug. Their plate of chili cheese fries arrived. “Peabo really cracked the whip at practice today, man. Worse than Finley. You think Coach’ll show up tomorrow?”
The assistant coach, Mike Peabody, definitely had seemed pleased to take over practice. His particular style had been something like military boot camp meets Medieval torture. “I don’t know. Rumor is he quit.”
“You imagine that? Right before we get a new owner.”
Carter only nodded.
“You gotta feel bad for Vaughn Junior too. First day on the job, her coach quits and the team captain threatens to walk.”
. And I didn’t walk. In fact, I’m taking a pay cut to stay.”
Reese’s smug expression said he knew why, and Carter ignored it, grabbing a few more chili fries.
her.” An accusation.
“You weren’t there, okay? She had this face and these big, sad eyes, and … ”
The goalie smiled.
Carter narrowed his eyes and shook his head. “Shut up, man.”
Reese laughed and finished off the fries. “Whatever. We may have been playing together since our Mites days, but you can’t tell me you turned down an extra three mil just to see
pretty face every day.”
“I’m staying. Get over it. We have bigger problems. If Finley did quit, dealing with a new coach is gonna suck.”
“I hear ya, brother, but all we can do it hope for the best.”
Friday, August 26th
Jacey circled the arena lot for the third time, looking for a space. Naturally, she’d forgotten her pass for the parking garage. She hunched over the wheel and squinted to see through the blurry mess her wipers made in a furious attempt to slosh away the rain. When did it rain in
Just as she was about to give up, a car pulled out of a space ahead, and she swung her Eclipse into its place. She took her keys from the ignition and paused. There was no getting around it. A few more seconds of dryness wouldn’t do her any good.
She looked toward the arena looming at least fifty yards away. Steeling herself with a deep breath, Jacey climbed out, locked the doors, and made a mad dash with her head down through the rows of cars. Five steps away from the curb, a Mercedes sped through the lake-sized puddle in front of her. Jacey shrieked and jumped. Soaked to the bone. She stomped into the lobby and paused on the mat just inside the door. Arena air conditioning hit her full blast, and she sucked a breath through her teeth. The women’s room beckoned to her left, but the sounds of skates scraping over ice and loud, male jeers reminded her she was already late. She looked like a drowned rat, but priorities and all.
The rubber soles of her ballet flats squeaked every time they made contact with the floor, and she winced, hurrying ahead on her tiptoes. Her teeth chattered. She clamped them together, but the little shakes vibrated through the rest of her body. Jacey took the steps leading down into the rink two by two and shivered even more as the cold air from the ice turned her into Jacquelyn Frost. The activity came to an abrupt halt when she emerged in the players’ box. Everyone pivoted to look at her, and she aimed for an apologetic smile.
“Where’s Coach?” called out number 23.
“Yeah, we been waiting for twenty minutes.” From number 12.
Jacey made a mental note to place names to numbers some time in the near future. “That’s why I’m here. Coach Finley called me last night. Because of salary disputes, he won’t be coming back. I’ll hire a new coach as soon as possible. Until then … Carter, where’s the assistant coach?”
Before she’d even gotten the last word out, conversation sprang up on the ice. Shane Reese, the goalie, slapped Carter on the back. “
“Hey! Will someone please tell me where the assistant coach is?” Twenty-four sets of eyes settled on her, and Jacey could feel her cheeks heat up.
There were smirks all around, and Carter took off his helmet. “All right, that’s enough, ladies. Nothing happened. And you know I’d own up to it if it did.” Raucous laughter filled the arena, and Carter glided over to the waist-high wall of the players’ bench. He leaned his stick against it, dropped his helmet, then supported himself with one arm on the boards and hopped over. With the addition of his skates and the absence of her stilettos, he had almost a foot advantage. His grin combined with the sheer size of him gave her that cresting rollercoaster feeling. Her chest tightened, but the rest of her felt weightless — something she hadn’t thought would ever happen again after Alex the cheater.
“What was that about?” She straightened and pushed her shoulders back then, as an afterthought, brushed rain-pasted strands of hair from her cheeks.
Carter set his hands on his hips, and they looked like two giant black paws in the hockey gloves. His light blond spikes were mostly matted down, and a few in the front stuck to his forehead with sweat. “Well first of all, the assistant coach is on a bathroom break. But the reaction because you called me Carter.”
“That’s your name, isn’t it?”
The slash of his mouth curved up, and he shook his head. “To them, I’m Phlynn. Last names or nicknames. Only puck bunnies use first names in hockey.”
“Puck … what?”
“Never mind. You’re not one of them. But if you don’t want the
to think you are, just stick with Phlynn.”
She narrowed her eyes, but as she opened her mouth, he said, “It’s just the way things are. I know you’re new at this.”
Jacey pressed her lips together to keep from defending that last remark. At least five good retorts came to mind, but she held her tongue. It was true, after all. “Fine … ” She turned to go, but his voice stopped her.
you new at this? You come from a hockey family, right?”
“I do. But I had other interests.”
“Oh yeah?” Amusement lit his face, but she was not about to divulge her personal life. “Hey, what happened to you? Not that it’s any of my business, but you just look like you got hit by a tidal wave.”