Being the captain of a pro hockey team comes with certain responsibilities. When I worked my ass off to become captain, I had no idea those responsibilities would include removing a monkey from a hot tub during a team trip to Thailand, searching for clothes for one of our forwards after he got locked out of a room by a puck bunny, and tonight, hunting down underwear for our newest defenseman.
And now I’ve just completed another task, locating antacid tablets for our goalie’s pregnant wife. There’s never a dull moment.
“How’s it hanging?” Jordie, one of the rookies, asks when I re-enter the private dining room after handing over the antacids to Becca.
“Can’t complain,” I murmur, already scanning the room to locate my next project—the drunk left winger who’s been a total pain in the ass tonight. Shit, to be honest, Jason Kress has been a pain in the ass since the moment he got traded here last year.
I spot him across the room, standing at the cash bar with a scowl on his face. His way-too-good-looking girlfriend stands nearby, talking to a couple of the other WAGs—wives and girlfriends—but I force my gaze away from her and focus back on Kress.
We’re all here at the start-of-the-season banquet that our coaching team throws each year as a big preseason celebration before we head into the busy hockey season. All the wives and girlfriends are invited as a thanks for letting us steal their men for the next six months during the insane travel schedule hockey teams enjoy. I always come solo, though.
Most of the guys know to limit alcohol consumption at these events to one or two drinks. Apparently, Kress didn’t get that memo. Fucker.
He’s been an asshole all night. It’s nothing I’d punch the guy in the face for, but he was short with his girlfriend and made some mocking remarks to her earlier. She looked miserable, and my stomach tightened in response. He’s also drinking too much, and being loud and abrasive. It’s enough that I noticed and felt bad for Ana, his girlfriend who moved from Las Vegas with him after he was traded to our team last year.
“Get me another beer,” he says, loudly enough that I can hear him from my spot beside Jordie. “Ana, get me another fucking beer.”
“Be right back,” I say without taking my eyes off my target. Cursing under my breath, I approach the five-foot-eleven Kress, towering over him by several inches. “Haven’t you had enough?”
“What are you, my sponsor?” He scoffs, rolling his eyes in my direction.
“I’m serious. Cool it,” I say firmly. “Remember who you’re representing. This isn’t about getting shit-faced on free booze.”
I’ve survived a dozen seasons as an ice hockey center, which means I’ve lived through ruthless training camps, injuries, and brutal playoff games. I’m known for my stamina and self-control, and performing under pressure. So for this to be my breaking point is, quite frankly, a little disappointing. I really didn’t intend to lose my shit tonight. And at Jason Kress, no less.
Maybe I’m just getting too old for this shit.
Either way, I force a deep breath into my lungs, trying to calm the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
“Jason,” his girlfriend says in a soft voice. Ana appears out of nowhere and touches his arm.
He shrugs aggressively out of her grasp. “Fuck this shit.”
“Hey, time out,” I say, stepping between them. “Kress, calm the fuck down.”
He glares at us both. “You guys take a time out from being assholes.”
“Kress . . .” Just as I open my mouth to reason with him, he storms away.
I expect him to sulk in the corner, or maybe sit down at the table where a couple of the other younger guys are enjoying a beer. Instead, he continues right on past everyone and out the doors, into the night air.
Ana looks visibly shaken beside me. I should say something, maybe offer some comfort, but small talk and emotions aren’t exactly my forte.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Fine,” she says, but I’m not sure she’s telling the truth. Her full lips are turned down into a frown, and her hands are shaking.
I release a slow exhale and nod. I’m definitely getting too old for this shit. Since when did I become the dad of the team?
Ana mirrors my slow breath, but hers is more a shuddering exhale.
The fiancée of one of my best players puts her arm around Ana and guides her away. Good thing too, because I have absolutely no clue what’s the right thing to say when someone’s upset, which Ana obviously is.
“You guys good?” I ask when our goalie, Owen, and his pregnant wife, Becca, pass by.
They both nod, and Owen’s hand moves protectively to her barely there belly.
After catching up with a couple of my teammates and talking with our coach, I spot Ana heading toward the side exit, a door I know leads to the hallway toward the kitchen. I know because I just came from there after hunting for the antacid.
“Here, have this.” I hand my glass to Jordie. It’s a warm, half-finished beer that I’ve been working on all night.
“Oh, you’re so generous.” He rolls his eyes.
“That’s me, baby. Charitable.” I smirk.
“Okay,” I mutter as I walk away.
Following Ana, I push open the door to the hall, but then stop short when I find her. She’s slumped down against the wall, butt on the floor, knees up, arms folded around them, and her cheeks wet. When she spots me, she quickly wipes away her tears with the back of her hands.
Ana sits up a little straighter, and I clear my throat.
“Hey,” I say, looking down at her small frame leaning against the wall. “You doing okay?”
Ana looks up, meeting my eyes. “I never should have come here,” she murmurs, inhaling deeply.
Here to this party, or here to Seattle with her dickhead of a boyfriend? I’m not sure. Hell, maybe it’s both.
I pull the handkerchief from my jacket pocket and offer it to her. “Please,” I say when she hesitates. I never knew why suit jackets included those pocket squares, but maybe it’s for this.
Finally, Ana accepts my offer, which is a relief because I have no idea what I’m doing. She dabs at her cheeks and eyes with the white cloth, and I think she’s being demure until she brings it to her nose and blows—loudly. I smile, liking the fact she seems comfortable around me while I’m feeling anxious as fuck. Seriously, I don’t do this shit.
“It’s all good.” I wasn’t even sure she knew my name, but I guess it makes sense that she does since I’m the team captain.
She’s pretty, with those full lips and inquisitive brown eyes, and her cheeks have a rosy, youthful glow. Wisps of golden hair have escaped her low ponytail, framing her face, and her chest shudders with a huge, halting inhale.
God, she’s so small. And she’s shivering, I realize. Her slim shoulders are bare in the black spaghetti-strap dress she’s wearing.
“Here,” I say, shrugging out of my suit jacket, and bend down to wrap it around her slight frame.
“Thanks.” Ana smiles up at me weakly.
Shifting my weight, I shove one hand in my pocket. Say something, dude. “Are you going to be all right?”
Okay, so it’s not the most brilliant phrase I’ve ever uttered, but at least she’s nodding.
“Yeah,” she says, still looking up at me. “Jason gets in these moods sometimes, but he’s mostly harmless.” She stops herself and gives her head a little shake. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” None of this is her fault. “Do you need a ride home?” I run one hand along the back of my neck, unsure of what I even want her answer to be.
She meets my eyes, seeming to weigh whatever it is she sees there. Seeming to determine if she can trust me.
Jesus. How did I get roped into this?
If I’d just minded my own damn business, none of this would have happened. It’s really my beer’s fault. If my beer hadn’t been warm, I wouldn’t have needed to refill it, and if I wouldn’t have needed to refill it, I wouldn’t have seen her rush off crying.
Crying females are my one weakness. Maybe it’s because that’s the only memory I have of my birth mother, before I was adopted by my parents. I remember sitting in her lap while her shoulders shook and tears fell in heavy drops from her eyes. To this day, I can’t stand to see a woman cry.
“I can just get a ride, or call a car, or something. I promise, I’m not helpless.” She wipes her nose one more time with my handkerchief, tucks it into her purse, and then rises to her feet. Once she’s standing, she doesn’t even clear my chin.
“I never said you were,” I find myself saying, my gaze locked on hers. “But the offer still stands, and I’d prefer to know you got home safely.”
Pulling in a big breath, Ana nods. “A ride would be great, actually.”
We head back inside the private dining room and say good-bye to those still lingering around tables.
“Ana, call me tomorrow,” more than one of the girls say to her with a worried expression.
I’m wondering if they know something I don’t. It sets off a feeling in my gut I don’t particularly like. Clenching my hand into a fist, I take another deep breath.
Outside, I hand my ticket to the valet. Ana and I wait quietly side by side on the curb. I’m not one for small talk, but she doesn’t seem bothered by this. Most woman chatter too much for my liking, but Ana is quiet too.
When my black sedan is pulled to the curb and the valet hops out, crossing around the front to open Ana’s door, I’m momentarily dumbstruck. It’s been years since I’ve been on anything even remotely resembling a date. And while this is most certainly not one either, it’s the closest thing I’ve had in a long fucking time. I have a moment of uncertainty where I wonder if I’m supposed to be the one to open her door.
But it’s too late. The valet beats me there, and then she’s slipping inside the car.
I climb in too and watch as Ana fastens her seat belt. When I shift into drive, it occurs to me that I have no fucking idea where she and Kress live.
I clear my throat. “Where am I headed?”
Ana lets out a breathless sound. “Oh, right. Belltown. We live at Bell Street and Seventh. Little brick apartment building on the corner.”
“Okay,” I say, turning onto Bell.
“Thanks for doing this, Grant. I’m sorry again for any trouble I might have caused you.”
“It’s no trouble,” I say, hoping she can’t tell that’s a lie. It is a little bit of trouble.
The last thing I want to do is get involved in a lover’s quarrel when it involves one of the guys on my team. Especially considering that player is already a handful, without him being pissed off at me for getting in the middle of something I shouldn’t have.
I take the turn onto Seventh and keep my eyes on the road ahead, and definitely not on the way Ana’s dress slides up on her shapely thighs in the seat next to me.
“We’re just about there,” she says from beside me, waving one slender hand. “And then you can go back to whatever it is you had planned.”
I can see her smiling from the corner of my eye. Smiling, like she knows something I don’t. Smiling, like I had something planned for tonight besides sweatpants and sports highlights on the TV.
I pull to a stop at the corner, put the car into park, and turn to face her. She smiles at me. A warm, tender smile that I feel all the way down low in my stomach.
“Thank you again.”
I frown and clear my throat, and her pretty smile falls. “Let me see your phone.”
With an uncertain look, she reaches into her small clutch and produces a sleek smartphone.
I take it from her and program in my number. “This is my cell. Call me if you need anything, okay? No matter the time.”
She hesitates for a second before accepting the phone back. “Okay.” She slips out of my jacket and unbuckles the seat belt.
When I watch her climb from the car and walk away, I let out a huge breath and scrub my hands through my hair.
Okay. It’s time to get home, get this suit off, and forget all about the gorgeous Ana.
And the fact that she’s the first woman I’ve given my number to in years.