Chapter One: The Rival

Alex

 

“Morning, Braun. How’s the shoulder?” a friendly security guard named Harris asks when I scan my credentials at the door.

I was called into the office today on what’s supposed to be my day off, so I’m a little grumpy. But none of that is Harris’s fault. I autographed a jersey last season for his little girl. Nice family. So I shouldn’t take out my annoyance on him this morning.

“Getting better every day. Doctor says with a little rest and stretching this summer, it’ll be good as new.”

“Good deal. Have a great day, Mr. Braun.” He smiles and nods as I pass, making my way into the hockey arena where I’m still a new-ish member of the team.

“You too, Harris.”

On the elevator ride up to the offices, past the suites and conference rooms, my stomach succeeds in tying itself into an intricate knot. The reason for this impromptu meeting wasn’t entirely clear. My agent called this morning saying the Boston Titans’ owner had requested a meeting, that I needed to get dressed and drag myself over to the offices.

I have a few ideas what this meeting could be about, and none of them ease my discomfort with the idea of meeting one-on-one with Eden Wynn herself. Because Eden isn’t just the team owner, she’s also my ex-girlfriend.

Yup, in a weird-as-hell turn of events, my ex is also my boss. Interpret that any way you like.

When I step off the elevator, I’m met with an almost eerie silence. There’s not a soul around. Maybe that’s the way Eden wants it. No witnesses.

Of course, I want to know exactly what I’m walking into, but Eden’s pretty assistant, Aspen Ford, isn’t here today to announce visitors. Her neat desk sits empty with only a lonely stack of papers. Probably because it’s a Sunday, and who the hell in their right mind is here working on a day they’re not supposed to be? Eden, that’s who.

On one hand, I’m glad Aspen isn’t here to distract me. But on the other, I’m oddly disappointed not to see the perky assistant treat me to a shy smile or bite the pad of her thumb while she concentrates on her laptop. Or do a dozen other distracting little things that a normal person probably wouldn’t even notice.

I let out a long breath and pause for a second.

The frosted glass door to Eden’s office is open, but I knock all the same. I’m as edgy as a naughty student who’s been summoned to the principal’s office.

Eden looks up from her laptop. “Morning. Come on in.”

“Morning,” I grumble, entering the office. I stop in front of the desk, and she motions for me to take the seat across from her.

Unease settles over me as I sink into the dark leather club chair. Eden is as poised as ever, her clever eyes not missing my discomfort.

The truth is, I don’t like facing off with Eden like this, and no, it’s not because I still have feelings for her. It’s because seeing her reminds me of what a young, stupid kid I was when we were together. Of all the mistakes I made.

After we broke up, it took me a minute to find my groove. And by that, I mean I had a mid-season breakdown and disappeared for six days. Turns out, watching your ex become your boss and fall in love with her new security guard can mess with a guy’s head.

But I like to think I’ve made my way back from the brink. I’m back to playing good hockey again. Not great, but that’s what next season is for. I’m primed and ready for a big comeback. First, I just need to deal with whatever it is that this is.

Eden studies me for a moment, and I wait for her to speak. I know she won’t bring up our past; she’s nothing if not a consummate professional. And I’m a fucking vault. No way am I navigating that minefield, especially not today.

“So . . .” I lean back, crossing my arms over my chest. “What’s on your mind today, boss?”

She flinches at my cavalier tone before quickly coaxing her expression into a more indifferent one. Her spine straightens and she leans forward, placing her elbows on the desk in front of her. “I want to talk with you about this upcoming season.”

I nod. “Figured as much.”

The off-season has just begun. I need to get through the next seventy-two hours, and then I’ll be heading north to the quiet solitude of Canada for some rest and relaxation at my buddy Saint’s fishing cabin.

I’ve been there before and have fond memories of the place. One of those being the Fourth of July weekend last year when Saint hosted several of the guys for a bachelor weekend. We lit fireworks from the end of the dock. The rookie, Tate, shot a bottle rocket out of his ass crack. I smile inside as I recall the memory.

So, if enduring an excruciating meeting with my ex-slash-boss first is on the agenda, so be it.

“As you know, this game is changing, Alex. The fans are educated and discerning. Gone are the days of the good ol’ boys league filled with beer-swigging fans intolerant of anyone or anything that doesn’t look and think just like they do.”

I nod once, getting it. She’s totally right. Things have definitely changed in this business.

The woman seated before me is in large part one of the reasons for that change. Her coming in as a young female owner shook things up, and not in a good way at first. But now my teammate Lundquist has come out as gay and the racial profile of our team has gotten more colorful, both of which are very positive changes. But the fans are ultimately the ones we have to keep happy.

“Get to the point, Eden.”

She bristles at my tone. “My point is, there will be certain expectations of our team this year.”

I heave out a sigh. “And you’re saying . . . you need me to evolve.” There’s a question mark in my words.

At least, I hope that’s all she’s implying. Because the alternative is that there’s no room on the team for a player who spent much of last season nursing hangovers and chasing after puck bunnies. And for the record, I’m not proud of that.

“I need to be able to count on you this year,” Eden says, her expression as resolute as her tone.

Uncrossing my arms, I lean forward. “Hockey is my life, Eden. My passion. I’m not going to fuck up this season for us.”

She licks her lips, weighing my words. There is no us. But Eden’s smart enough to know I don’t mean us-us. I mean the team-us.

“I know,” she says, “but if there’s any part of you that wants to be traded . . .”

My eyebrows draw together. “I don’t. You think my meltdown was because of—”

“Me. Yes.”

“It wasn’t,” I say insistently.

“Okay.” Her voice is softer now.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I’m not sure what to believe, Alex.”

We exchange sad, uneasy expressions while tension fills the air around us.

When Eden and I first met, I was a bit of a player. I was excelling at college hockey, and between juggling that and a full load of college coursework, I had no plans to be anyone’s boyfriend.

But the woman seated before me quickly changed that. One look into her bright, inquisitive eyes made me wonder what it would be like to share more than just one night with her. My curiosity at that turned into a five-year relationship, and then later, a very public breakup.

Back in college, she was a good girl and her attention had been dizzying. I had a lot of female attention, but Eden’s felt different. She was brilliant and driven, and her father is the former governor of Massachusetts, for fuck’s sake. Her family is like royalty, and yet she only had eyes for me.

That’s obviously changed.

“We gonna talk about that rock on your finger?” I tip my chin toward the large diamond that’s impossible to miss.

Eden invited me to her upcoming engagement party—well, she invited the whole team, so her engagement wasn’t exactly a surprise. But it’s still a shock seeing her left finger with a ring on it when once upon a time, I assumed I’d be the one to put it there.

“Did you get our invitation?” she asks, her gaze meeting mine.

I nod. “Yes.”

It came in the mail last week, printed on fancy heavyweight cardstock. Seeing her name alongside Holt Rossi’s—the brooding outcast from our college days—sent a weird tingle down my spine. Them getting together last season was certainly unexpected.

I wasn’t sure I was going to their party. Especially considering the last time I was in the same room with Holt, things came to blows between us. It might be smarter to steer clear of any extracurriculars involving the happy couple. Then again, maybe facing it head-on is just the way to prove I’ve moved past our breakup.

The party is yet another topic it seems neither of us is willing to navigate right now as Eden shifts the subject back to hockey.

She folds her hands on the desk in front of her and meets my eyes. “The best thing for you would be to lay low this summer. No drunken bar brawls. No parties. And for God’s sake, don’t get arrested.”

The last time I had a brawl, I was one hundred percent sober. She knows this because the person I was fighting was her fiancé.

Which I guess serves her point.

I understand what she’s telling me loud and clear. I can’t afford another scandal. It’s then that I realize how close to cutting me she’s probably been. My stomach twists at the thought. If I don’t have hockey, what have I got?

“No parties. No brawls,” I say, and I mean it.

“Good. Well, anyway,” she says, shifting in the chair like I’ve made her the slightest bit uncomfortable at bringing up her engagement, and then my subsequent fistfight with the dude. “Thanks for coming in today. I just wanted to meet with you face-to-face and make sure you’re certain about this. About being here. I know this must be difficult for you—”

I hold up one hand, stopping her. “It was weird at first, but I’m fine, Eden. I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”

She nods. “I know. Glad we’re on the same page.”

I rise to my feet. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Enjoy your summer. Just do me one favor.” She grins. “Stay out of the tabloid headlines, would you?”

“Don’t worry. I plan on it.”


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