Chapter no 3 – Hannah

Bagging the Blueliner

THE COMETS’ PRE-SEASON BARBEQUE was one of my favorite events of the season. Nothing could beat the actual marathon of hockey laid before us, but there was something to be said about the calm before the storm. This giant event signaled the beginning of a new season where anything was possible. The canvas was blank, waiting to be painted.

And I was in the thick of it all.

After making the rounds, I settled underneath a giant canopy with my girls. Their men had wandered off to get them plates of food, and only Natalie’s youngest, Charlie, hung around, playing at our feet in the grass.

“Tell us about the new job, Hannah,” Amy asked from my right. “I miss everything when I’m away.”

Amy and her husband, Liam, spent half the year in Europe. Recently, their roles had changed, and they were busier than ever but fought to maintain the peace that spending time away provided them.

Once upon a time, we’d thought Natalie would become Queen of Belleston—a tiny European country located in the Alps—but her ex turned out to be a psycho, literally. Even though she divorced his sorry ass, it was always assumed that her oldest son, Jameson, would take the throne after his father. Then Leo went and got himself declared mentally insane by his family, and Natalie worked out a deal to give her kids the normal life they’d

always deserved. That meant the role of heir fell to Liam, and now Amy was set to one day become Queen.

It was strange how life worked out sometimes. The twists and turns made it all the more interesting.

“Did I mention I have my own office at the rink?” I gushed. Natalie smiled. “Look at our Hannah. All grown up.” Blushing, I waved her off. “Stop.”

Reaching out a hand, she grasped mine. “Seriously. I’m proud of you. It took a while, but I think you finally found your place.”

“Speaking of places,” Lucy interjected. “I heard you moved into your own apartment.”

Bouncing on my feet, a smile split my face. “We need to have a girls’ night ASAP! We can start at my place this time. It’s perfect, right downtown, close to all the action and the arena. I can walk to work!”

“Look at you, living the dream,” Amy replied.

Sighing, the wind taken out of my sails, I grumbled, “Yeah, the single girl dream, maybe. It’s not exactly my dream.”

The girls were fully aware of my quest to break Dad’s one major rule.

Lucy asked, “So, with your new job, you have even more access to the players?”

“Lucy, don’t encourage her,” Natalie warned.

Smirking, knowing this plan always made Natalie uncomfortable, I replied to Lucy, “Oh yeah. I am responsible for booking their rooms and handing out keys. I’ll know where each and every one of them is every night we are away.”

She might play innocent, but I could tell Lucy was naughtier than she let on. I mean, she designed a lingerie line in secret. Biting her lip, she remarked, “That’s dangerous, but exciting. Easy access.”

Natalie gave me a pointed look. “Hannah, you can’t be going into players’ rooms. It’s too much to keep straight. What if you end up at a married player’s door? I know you are searching for something, but it’s not worth getting caught up in a scandal if you make a mistake.”

I groaned. “I’m not searching for something, Nat. I’m searching for

everything. I see how incredible your life with Jaxon is, and I envy you.”

Rolling her eyes, she countered, “Yeah, getting knocked up by the team captain mere months after getting divorced wasn’t exactly the fairy tale you imagine it to be. It was hard. I’m not saying that if you built a relationship

you couldn’t reach the same end result, but you’re not going to find that here. Ace has been the Comets’ head coach for seventeen years, and not once has a player risked going against him to pursue you or your sisters. It’s not going to happen. It’s time to move on.”

“But I don’t want to move on,” I whined. “I know deep down in my bones that this is the life I am meant for.”

“Hannah, you’re thirty-one. How much more time do you intend to waste chasing the impossible?”

“You’re right. I am thirty-one. I’m too old to be slumming with guys who barely have enough cash for drinks at the club. I deserve to be with a guy who is going to bend me over balconies all over the world. Preferably, beginning with every major city housing a professional hockey team.”

Amy’s smile gave away her amusement as she cautioned, “That could be hazardous in Minneapolis or Salt Lake City in the winter. I would hate to see you lose your nipples to frostbite.”

I pointed a finger in her direction. “See! This is what I need. Tips, not discouragement. Thank you, Amy.”

Natalie threw her hands in the air. “I give up. I’m clearly outnumbered. I want it on the record that I think this is a bad idea.”

Nodding to her, I pretended to write on my hand. “Noted. Nat not on board.”

Opening her mouth to say something more, Natalie was interrupted before she could voice further objection by the three men—Jaxon, Liam, and Preston—returning with plates of food for their ladies. They were all so sickeningly sweet, but I couldn’t stop staring. These men took care of their wives—or soon-to-be wives, in Preston’s case—and I watched my friends blossom as a result.

Natalie had gone from a scared, broken, meek little thing with anorexia— barely able to care for herself and her children—to this vibrant, self- sufficient, outgoing woman. Maybe not sexually outgoing, but there was still time to work on that.

Amy had sworn off men for life after some jackass frat boy in college took her virginity to fulfill a bet. I’d enjoyed my front-row seat when she took it upon herself to seduce her husband. She came into her own, and her perspective on her career and men changed due to Liam’s unending love for her.

Lucy was the most independent of all the ladies. She ran her own fashion empire, for crying out loud. Preston was her lifelong enemy, and we spent many a night scheming ways to drive him away—their marriage had been arranged, not something they’d chosen. There were certainly gaps in their story, too much happening behind closed doors, but I knew that something traumatic had happened to her, and Preston became her rock. Lucy was forced to lean on him, and he never wavered, caring for her with such selflessness like I’d never seen.

What new version of me was there, waiting to be unleashed by my perfect match?

A full plate was placed before me on a high-top table. “Thought you might be hungry. You haven’t stopped for more than five minutes all day.”

Turning, I found Jaxon pulling back his arm. If you were looking for sweet, kind, and dependable, Jaxon Slate was your man. He was the total package, almost too good to be true. Natalie was lucky to have him.

Winking in response, I grabbed the fork laid across the plate. “You’re a saint, Jaxon.”

Smirking, he replied, “Just hoping I can gain some favor with the woman handing out room keys. I like high floors. Balcony preferred.”

My mouth dropped open, and I slid a shocked look to Natalie. She reached out and lightly smacked him on the arm. “Lord, have mercy. You have got to stop eavesdropping on our girls-only conversations.”

Shrugging, he was unfazed, addressing his wife. “I learned new things today about what women want. Any time you want to join me on the road and have me bend you over a balcony, I’ll be ready for duty.”

Natalie narrowed her eyes at me. “Look what you did.”

Liam grumbled, “Thanks, Hannah. Did not need that visual of my little sister.”

Annoying Liam was one of my all-time favorite pastimes. He’d lightened up a little being married to Amy, but he was still too stiff most days. Cocking a hip, I replied, “Then my work here is done. You’re welcome, big guy.”

We fell into companionable silence as we ate our lunch. I cherished the days we were all together. They were becoming fewer and farther between. Everyone was moving on with their lives while I was stuck in limbo, waiting for mine to begin.

“Incoming,” Amy called out softly from the table beside me.

Glancing up, I saw the one Comets player who was the biggest pain in my ass headed our way. “What the hell does he want?”

Men tended to come in three sizes—small, medium, or large. And I wasn’t talking about dick size.

Callum Berg could only be described as extra-large, a giant beast of a man.

His massive two-hundred-and-forty-pound, six-foot-five frame had the power to draw notice in any room he walked into. You’d think a man that large wouldn’t be particularly agile on skates, but nothing could be further from the truth. Cal was not only fast as hell with his giant strides cutting across the ice, but he did so with grace, making it look effortless.

His size was only the tip of the iceberg.

The man was massive, but he was so fucking hot I could cry. His swagger was enough to have a lesser woman swooning. His thick, naturally blond hair was cut long enough to cover his ears, flowing as he walked. Tattoos peeked out from where he’d rolled the sleeves of his navy-blue button- down over his thick forearms. The color of his shirt brought out the pigment of his Arctic blue eyes.

There was no denying that man was a descendant of Vikings.

Above all, he was the single most annoying man I’d ever met in my life. The way he played the game went against everything I knew growing up, and I had called him on it when he first joined the team ten years ago.

Was I scared of change? Maybe.

Should he have taken my advice and tightened up his game? Absolutely. I knew my shit.

Was I young and immature? Yes. Was I sorry? No.

Did he need to butt heads with me every time we were together?

Definitely not, but he did anyway.

Our decade-long history of animosity could have been easily avoided if he had just listened to reason and admitted that I had a point. But that wasn’t Cal’s style. He gave off this alpha-male, I-know-everything vibe that would be sexy if he wasn’t such an asshole about it.

I was hoping Amy was wrong and he would change course to engage with one of the many groups gathered in our general direction, but his icy blue gaze was currently fixed on where I stood with my friends.

Correction: our friends.

He was best friends with Jaxon and, by extension, Natalie. Being the overly kind person she was, Nat took great care to ensure everyone was included, so we were always one giant group.

That meant I couldn’t escape him in my personal life, either. He was at the kids’ birthday parties, Thanksgiving—you name it, he was there. There were even girls’ nights at the club when he hovered, often acting as our personal bouncer if Jaxon was home with the kids.

I couldn’t shake this guy, no matter how hard I tried.

A feeling of déjà vu washed over me as Cal stopped directly before me, glaring down at me from his hulking height. It was like the first day we met, but in reverse.

Picking up on the tension pouring off our bodies in such close proximity, an explosion usually imminent, Jaxon called out, “I’m going to take Charlie for ice cream.”

Liam and Preston mumbled something about going with him, leaving us standing practically toe to toe with only my girls as backup.

Popping my hip, I folded both arms over my chest. “What do you want?”

Glaring down at me, Cal got right to the point. “I want you to behave yourself while we are on the road.”

Oh, no. He doesn’t get to stomp over here and tell me what to do. What gives him the right?

His mere presence was enough to piss me off, but his bossy attitude sent me over the edge into irrational anger. “Fuck off.”

Gritting his teeth, he forced out, “Watch your language. This is a family event.”

Narrowing my eyes, I mentally dug my heels in. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Get used to it, Cal, because I sprinkle that shit like confetti. And it’s none of your damn business what I do on the road in my free time.”

“But it’s not your free time. When we are on the road, you’re working. You are now a representative of the Connecticut Comets organization, and you need to act like it. I will not have you embarrassing the reputation of this hockey club.”

“Me?” I sputtered. “Maybe you should look in the mirror because I’ve heard the stories about how you pick up a new bunny every night on the road. A great role model for kids. Not.” Yeah, I was sassy and damn proud of it. “Maybe your next endorsement deal should be for condoms or, better

yet, penicillin. God only knows where that filthy thing has been.” I dropped my gaze to his crotch.

Sometimes it was trial and error, but I finally hit a nerve, smirking as I watched a muscle in his jaw twitch.

Not one to back down, Cal shot back, “You’re going to come at me for being promiscuous?” He scoffed. “I’ve seen you at Spades, Hannah. You’re never with the same guy twice.”

Spades was the nightclub frequented by the Comets players, and I spent more than my fair share of time there. He was right—I got around. But only because most of the guys I picked up were either losers or a lousy lay, and I wasn’t a glutton for punishment.

All I wanted was a decent-looking guy who treated me right and was an animal in bed. Was that so much to ask? My three best friends each found one, so why couldn’t I?

Angry and a little hurt by the slut implication, I spat, “Well, at least I know they’re not only sleeping with me for my money.”

Cal stepped back suddenly as if physically struck, running a hand through his flowing blond hair. I’d hit him where it hurt, but that’s what I did when backed into a corner—I lashed out, going for maximum impact. With anyone else, I might’ve felt a sudden rush of remorse, but not with Cal. He gave as good as he got, and I wasn’t sorry for the low blow.

Regaining his bearings, he charged me, crowding my space, but I didn’t back down. His intimidation tactics might work on the ice or with weaker women, but I wasn’t scared of him. Even if he did tower over my not-so- small five-six frame. Craning my neck to meet his eye, I silently dared him to make a move he would regret.

His voice dropping to a near growl, he said, “I don’t give a damn who your daddy is. You will behave yourself on the road.”

Before I could stop myself, the words flew out of my mouth. “What are you gonna do? Make me?”

With his chest pressed against mine, I could feel the rumble as it worked its way up to his throat. Those blue eyes darkened, and I swallowed uncontrollably before he promised, his voice gravelly, “If I have to.”

I heard a gasp, and it took a full minute to register that the sound had come from my own mouth. Retreating a step, I looked around, wondering if that looked as hot as it felt. Scanning the open-air canopy tent, I found it empty. Traitors.

“Where did my girls go?” I glared at Cal.

Smug, he shoved both hands into the pockets of his khaki shorts. “You scared them off.”

Indignant, my mouth dropped open. “scared them off? They’re my friends. If anything, you scared them off!”

Raking his gaze over my body from head to toe, he left me feeling exposed. How did he do that? Turning on his heel, he began to walk away, calling over his shoulder, “Whatever you need to tell yourself to sleep at night, baby girl.”

Stunned, I watched him walk away. Then, what he said registered, and I saw red.

I was not his baby girl. And I didn’t take orders from him.

He really believed he could make me behave. I’d like to see him try.

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