Authors: Katie Kenyhercz
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
Carter glided by, sandwiched between twin six-year-old boys, who each claimed one of his hands. The game was that he’d skate a step ahead then slingshot one in front to their giggling glee. She smiled. It almost seemed hard to believe his ladies’ man reputation, watching him now. Until about twenty women ranging in age from fifteen to fifty crowded the ice, waiting their turn to swoon over the captain.
Jacey kept reminding herself this was all for the good of the team. It was irrational to be jealous. And yet it took some effort to keep from lacing up a pair of skates and cutting in.
By four in the afternoon, the crowd thinned, and the meet-and-greet came to a close. Most of the guys finished signing autographs then headed out, themselves. Carter had the longest line of fans, and he remained, signing every last puck and T-shirt. She hung back and waited until the last of the fans filtered out. As he stood, he looked at her then looked some more like it was the first time he’d really seen her that day, which wasn’t all too flattering since she’d done her share of sneaking glances at him.
“You look … different.”
She wasn’t sure how to take that, feeling suddenly self-conscious in her T-shirt and jeans. “Oh … ”
“I like it.”
“Oh.” The smile crept back onto her face. For a quiet moment, tension lay thick in the air, and Jacey forced herself to look away from him.
• • •
Carter studied Jacey from the corner of his vision while he dug in his pocket for his keys. He caught glimpses of her throughout the day, but she was busy talking with potential fans. Up close, he was fascinated. In her business suits and heels she always came across as professional and sexy as hell, but in jeans, a Sinners’ T-shirt and sneakers, she looked innocent and feminine and so much … smaller. He noticed the C on the upper left corner of her shirt and knew his name was on the back. He’d met several women that day wearing the same thing, but on Jacey … He smiled to himself.
“Nothing. Good turnout today.”
“Oh … yeah. Not as many as I’d hoped, but I think we can count on them to all be at the game on Monday.”
“Mmm. You know, a couple women asked me if I was dating you.”
She froze as if someone pushed her pause button, and he laughed. “You probably shouldn’t call me Carter anymore.” Could that be disappointment on her face? Just in case, he added, “In public.”
A smile flickered at the corners of her mouth then disappeared. “You’re not the only one denying rumors. The press asked me about it too. In public is the only way I’ll be seeing you from now on.”
“That’s too bad.” He leaned closer, just a little, crowding her space. He didn’t really know why, just that he couldn’t help himself. She seemed startled, but she didn’t move away.
“Can you ice skate?”
“What?” She blinked, and he knew the change of topic caught her off guard. That was good because if she thought too much, she probably wouldn’t agree to his idea.
“I’ve seen you on land, but it’s a little different. Though I figure, daughter of a hockey team owner, you must have been on the ice once or twice.”
Jacey stared at him. “Uh … yeah … I guess.”
“‘Cause I was thinking … the rink’s empty, and there’s not a public session for another hour. I’d like to see what you’ve got.”
He grinned. “Try to keep up. I’m challenging you to a race.”
She smiled and shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t have skates.”
“No problem. The rink rents them out. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”
“In case you haven’t been paying attention, we should be trying to kill the talk going around about us, not fan the fire. There’s no way we could rationalize chasing each other around an empty rink.”
“We won’t have to; like you said, it’s empty.”
“Actually, I was more wondering how I’d rationalize it to myself.”
“Come on, what’s the harm? It’s just a little race. It’s not like we’re going to get naked on the ice. Unless — ”
“No! Fine. Race.”
He couldn’t hold back a grin, even when she punched him in the arm.
• • •
Jacey took her time lacing up the rental skates as she sat on the bench, waiting for Carter. This was not a good idea. She must have some subconscious yearning to self destruct. But the way he looked at her … got so close she could barely breathe. It didn’t matter that she knew he did it on purpose. The effect was the same. And now she found herself on the precipice of doing something really stupid.
She paused in tying the bow at the top of her skate and grabbed the end of a lace to undo it when Carter appeared in front of her, hooked a hand around her elbow, and hoisted her to her feet. She wavered off balance, and his arm slid around her waist to keep her from falling back onto the bench. It had a yo-yo effect, and she fell forward against his hard chest. He smiled down at her, and all thoughts of putting a stop to things disappeared. They were replaced with thoughts of throwing him down and having her way with him right there. She blushed, shocked at herself, but he didn’t seem to notice. He stepped onto the ice and skated toward the goal crease. Most men only thought about one thing. For Carter, it was hockey. It humbled her if nothing else.
With a sigh, she glided over to where he waited. For good measure, she stuck out her arms and feigned a wobble.
Can you ice skate?
That was something of an understatement. Her father had gotten her a pair of ice skates as soon as she could walk. Carter didn’t need to know that.
“You gonna make it?”
“I think so.” She came to a stop against the goal post and turned around to mimic his stance.
“Tell you what, I’ll give you a head start.”
She just smiled.
“Down and back, okay? Ready, set, go!”
She took off like a shot, arms pumping, knees high, just digging into the ice with the sides of her blades. Behind her, shocked laughter echoed. Then it was replaced by the sound of his own skates. At the other goal, she skidded sideways in an awkward hockey stop and tried to regain momentum, heading back for the other end, but Carter had the experience, and he turned in two seconds. He passed her and pivoted to skate backward, adding insult to injury. She squinted at him and surged forward. Amusement played openly across his sharp features until he stopped and she didn’t.
Jacey hadn’t really considered the consequences of hurling herself at him. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And before she could reverse it, she collided against him with a solid thump. They spun in a circle, their legs tangled, and Carter fell backward. She had no choice but to follow. One minute she was standing, and the next she was looking out over the ice, her cheek against his chest.
The rink was silent save for a low, electrical hum.
Carter broke the quiet. “Ow.”
Jacey burst out laughing and tried to climb off of him. And she would have … really … except that the slippery, snowy ice foiled her attempts. Her hands slid out from under her every time she tried to move.
“Are you okay?” Her worry might have been drowned out by the smile she couldn’t hide.
“I thought we were going to stop meeting like this.” He winced and shifted, and time stopped. Suddenly, Jacey became all too aware of every part of his body touching every part of hers. The change registered in his eyes as well. She could feel his heart pounding beneath hers. She didn’t move. Slowly, he lifted a hand from her waist and dug rough fingers into her hair, pushing it back from her face. He leaned in, eyes hooded, and she could feel his warm breath against her lips. And the door to the rink banged open just before the Zamboni emerged.
Jacey scrambled off of him and held onto the goal post to stand up. She let out a shuddering breath and watched Carter climb to his feet with less grace than usual. Most likely the driver hadn’t seen. She hoped. “Time to go … ”
“Yeah, I guess they’re getting ready for the next open session.”
“I’ll, uh … see you Monday?”
“Yeah, at the game.”
“At the game.” She retreated to the bench to put her shoes back on, and Carter waved as he went into the lobby. When she was sure he was gone, she held her face in her hands and groaned. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Monday, October 10th
Jacey paced around her office, fingernails digging into her palms. Her heartbeat tapped out
Flight of the Bumblebee
. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, thinking that she might throw up. “Come on. Get a grip.” The preseason had been a train wreck. They lost every game. Normally she’d consider low attendance a bad thing, but it felt like a blessing. Now, on the night of the season opener, the pressure to win and garner the respect of potential fans — not to mention get the commissioner off her back — felt like an elephant sitting on her shoulders.
She paused in front of a row of plaques. They all sported pictures of the Rockers in celebration, holding up a trophy, and beneath were the words Stanley Cup Champions followed by various years. In Jack Vaughn’s 18 seasons as owner of the Cleveland Rockers, he’d seen five Stanley Cups. It didn’t take a hockey expert to know how good that record was.
And now the pressure rested on her shoulders to continue the tradition. In their three-year existence, the Sinners hadn’t even made a playoff run. Time to change that. Her head felt light, the floor started rocking, and she fell into the high-backed chair behind her desk, leaning her head down between her knees. She focused on the pointed toes of her pink, suede pumps peeking out from black pants with a subtle pink pinstripe. “Can’t puke on Prada. Can’t puke on Prada.”
“Ja — Ms. Vaughn?”
Her head snapped up. She immediately regretted the motion, squeezing her eyes closed against the hammering migraine.
“Are you okay?”
She blinked in the soft light of the office and took him in. From the waist down Carter wore black insulated shorts with green and black striped hockey socks covering padding that went down to the tops of his skates. Skates? She leaned up to look over her desk then sat back and released a slow breath. Skate guards. At least he was polite enough to not ruin her carpet. From the waist up, he wore only a white T-shirt snugly fitted to his lean torso. The blond spikes were in top form tonight, but he’d have helmet hair like the rest of the team in ten minutes. She swallowed hard, willing some color back into her face and summoned up a smile. “I’m fine, I just … dropped a pen.”
His deviously arched brows rose in amusement and something else. A smile flickered at the edges of his mouth, but all he did was nod.
She licked her dry lips and sat up straighter, trying to appear at ease. “Can I do something for you?” Carter stared at her lips. She flashed back to their almost-kiss on Saturday and felt heat creep up her neck. And everywhere else. His frozen state reminded her of a vending machine that needed a good shaking so the candy bar would drop. “Carter?”
“Yeah. Neal — I mean Coach — told me not to come up, but it’s kind of tradition for the owner to come down and wish the team luck before the game. Some of the guys were getting a little nervous.”
“Oh.” Even she could hear the sadness creep into her voice, but she couldn’t help it.
Carter sucked in a breath and shifted side to side. “But listen, I’m sure they’ll understand if you’ve got a lot of things going on tonight, it being your first regulation game and all.”
“No. I want to. I’d like to be more involved with the team on a personal level.”
“It’s just that, you didn’t for the preseason games and … ”
“You think you lost because I didn’t wish you luck?” It was a tone she might reserve for something like:
You think you were abducted by aliens?
“I know how it sounds. And there were a lot of factors. It’s just … ”
“You think I contributed.”
“Me personally? No. But some of the guys are pretty superstitious. The way I see it is, maybe it won’t help, but what can it hurt?”
Jacey’s bewildered doubt morphed into barely-checked amusement. “Sure. Why not?”
“Look — ”
“No, I get it. Who am I to question tradition? Besides, I have to be at ice level anyway to give the opening speech.” She stood up and strode past him, leading the way to the elevator and humming
under her breath. He made a frustrated, guttural sound behind her. She grinned.
They were both silent in the elevator, and while they stood two feet apart, she could feel him as though he were pressed against her. She breathed in his cologne — something woodsy, clean, intoxicating. He kept looking at her when he probably thought she couldn’t tell. It took every ounce of strength she had not to grab him by the T-shirt and finish what they started. When she couldn’t stand it a second longer, the doors slid open, and she almost burst through. Her heels clicked loudly on the concrete of the basement floor as she made her way to the locker room. Carter’s plastic-protected blades clacked behind her. She ground her teeth, willing the throbbing pain in her head to go away.
The door slightly muted loud male voices and shouts of laughter, but when she opened it and stepped inside, the room went quiet. The guys who had been taping their sticks and pads paused, and twenty-one sets of eyes went straight to her. Suddenly, her mouth felt full of cotton.
Carter stood behind her, and the guys’ attention turned to him. With some of the tension relieved, she cleared her throat. “My father wished you luck before each game, and I’d like to continue that tradition. I know it’s been different. I appreciate how you’ve cooperated with Coach Windham.” Jacey stood taller and tried not to think about the heat radiating from the man behind her. It felt like standing with her back to the sun. “And I think you’ve found out just how qualified she is.” Playful groans rose around the room. Nealy smirked. Jacey smiled. “The preseason is behind us, and I know you can take the Kings tonight.”
Shane Reese smacked his stick blade against the wall. “Oh yeah!” The rest of the guys reciprocated, including Carter, who lumbered out from behind her and slapped a few teammates on the shoulder as he moved to put on the rest of his gear. Jacey seemed to fade into the background as the guys finished getting ready and clomped single file down the tunnel to the rink. Before following, she offered up a silent plea to fate.