“I love my baby, I love my baby, I love my baby,” Hollis chants over and over.
I try not to laugh as she tries not to gag at whatever it is baby Freddie—named after Freddie Mercury since she and Lowell are both in love with Queen—just did in her diaper. How something so little can make something so stinky, I have no idea.
Hollis forces a smile as she looks down at the awful-smelling newborn. “She’s the greatest thing ever, and I love her so much.” Freddie lets out a little yawn, and Hollis’ smile isn’t so forced anymore. “You’re lucky you’re cute, missy.”
There’s a tug at my chest watching Hollis with her daughter, and it makes me miss Smith all over again. Walking away from him was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but no matter how much I miss him—and I really fucking miss him—it was the right thing.
The board approved Tori’s motion to promote me, and I’m the new Carolina Comets media relations director.
I still can’t believe it. I can hardly think about what it took to get here, but it was just too big to say no to. It’s what I’ve been busting my ass for over the last three years, right? I couldn’t give up on it now, and certainly not because of some guy.
But…he’s not just some guy, is he? He’s more than that, and I’m afraid he always will be.
We haven’t spoken since that night outside his apartment. Tori cut off all contact, having Blake step in for the profile and other staff members take over some of my old duties while she finished prepping me for the promotion.
I won’t lie—at first, I regretted saying yes. Not just because my heart was threatening to burst out of my chest every time I stepped into the arena and had to see his face, but because the workload was massive. Tori wasn’t kidding when she said I’d better be ready to sacrifice. Guess I got a lot more than I bargained for on several fronts there.
I rub at the ache that seems to permanently be in my chest.
Hollis doesn’t miss it.
“Have you heard from him?” she asks, picking up Freddie and cuddling her to her chest once she’s finished changing her diaper.
I shake my head. “No. Not since they pulled a Toronto and lost in the first round.”
Her face scrunches up. “What does this have to do with Canada?”
I wave her off, sometimes forgetting she doesn’t know hockey very well. “Nothing.”
She shrugs. “Have you reached out to him at all?”
“No. I…I can’t.”
A frown tugs at her lips. “I get that.” She narrows her eyes. “Don’t think I’m not still mad at you, by the way.”
I repress my sigh. “I know, and I’m still sorry.”
“I just wish you would have confided in me.” She adjusts Freddie, slipping her into a baby sling that’s strapped to her chest. Freddie snuggles into her mom, a little grin on her lips.
“I wanted to. So badly, I really did. But with Lowell and you and everything else…” I lift my shoulders. “Well, I was kind of in a tough spot.”
After the board approved the promotion, I told Hollis everything, the whole long, sordid tale.
Understandably, she was upset I kept it from her for so long, but she did say she suspected for a while that something might have happened between us.
“I know.” She nods. “I understand.” She tosses Freddie’s diaper into the trash can and then pulls the bag out so my office doesn’t start smelling. “Walk this down to the dumpster with me?”
With the Comets done for the season, there are not a lot of people bustling around the office. It’s always weird having the place be so empty, but it doesn’t stop me from still coming in.
Truthfully, I do it because if I don’t, I’ll have entirely too much time on my hands to think about things I shouldn’t be. Today was going to be an off day, but Hollis asked if I could get her access to the arena because she wanted to take some photos with Freddie.
I jumped at the chance to spend time with them.
“Have you heard the rumors?” Hollis asks once we’re in the elevator.
“You’re going to have to be more specific. This is hockey—there are a lot of rumors in hockey.”
“About him…about Smith.”
I wince when she says his name like it physically hurts, and if the spot aching in my chest again is any indication, it does.
“They’re talking retirement.”
I snort out a laugh as the elevator descends. “Right. Sure.”
Smith retire? Not yet. He sure as hell wasn’t playing in the playoffs like he was planning to be done. He laid some heavy hits and got four assists and one goal before the team was eliminated. He was playing like he was ten years younger.
Besides, I’m the media relations director—I’d know if a player was retiring.
“Hmm” is all Hollis says.
We make our way from the elevators and through the building, all the way around the concourse to the trash shoot, and dump it in.
“Did you want to set up any photos against the ice backdrop? Everything is still up and painted. We were doing some promo stuff in there yesterday, but it’s getting torn out tomorrow.”
She taps her fingers against her chin. “Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I could—”
There’s a loud click that echoes throughout literally the entire building, then the sound of static fills the silence.
I look around the hall to see where it’s coming from, and every single TV as far as I can see is on. Epic music begins to play, and the Comets logo flashes across the screen.
I give Hollis a what the fuck is going on look, and she just shrugs.
“No clue,” she mutters.
The picture on the screen looks familiar, and it takes me a moment to recognize the makeshift set we use to do player interviews. There are soft footfalls, then a player walks into view, and I don’t even have to see a clear picture to know who it is.
The camera focuses as he takes a seat on the empty stool, and my chest aches at the sight of him.
“State your name and position,” I hear my own voice say, and I know right away what’s playing.
“My name is Owen Smith. My position is…” His eyes drift just to the right and away from the camera.
God, I couldn’t see it then, but I do now. The look he gives me is…
“Holy shit,” Hollis mutters. “No wonder you banged him.”
“Centerman,” screen Smith says.
Then the commercial for this interview begins to play.
Even though I was there nearly every step of the way, I watch with rapt attention as clips and sound bites from the months-long profile we did with Smith fill the screen. There’s video of him skating and setting his teammates up for a record number of assists, footage of him at Scout’s Sweets and volunteering during our charity days. There are even a few clips of him cooking the crew breakfast at his apartment right after Christmas.
Despite his uncertainty being on camera, he looks incredible in every clip, and more than once I catch his eyes drifting away from the cameraman and to me.
“Here,” Hollis murmurs, holding out a napkin for me.
I take it and dab at my eyes; I didn’t even realize I was crying.
I’m crying for so many reasons. Because I’m so damn proud of him. Because I wish things were different.
Because I miss him.
Because I think I might love him.
The screen fades to black, and I look at Hollis again, feeling a little ridiculous for crying but not seeing any judgment in her eyes.
“You okay?” she asks.
I nod. “I’ll be fine. That was the commercial for his profile airing tomorrow. I don’t know why it was playing now, but I was not expecting that.”
“Yeah, that was weird. I—”
“Okay, seriously, Miller. Just stand there and be the cameraman.” Smith’s voice echoes around the empty hallways again.
My eyes jump back to the TVs, watching as someone—I assume Miller—skates backward, training a camera on a scowling Smith.
“I swear I’m going to punch you.”
“Nope. You can’t. You hurt me, and I’ll sue for assault. I can do that now.”
“This was a really bad idea,” I hear Blake say somewhere off camera.
“Nah. It’s going to look sick,” Miller assures him, though he’s dead-ass wrong.
If he means dizzying and awful, then yes, it will look “sick” for sure.
His hand appears in front of the camera.
“Three! Two! One! ACTION!” he shouts, his fingers miming the numbers.
When Smith just stands there, glaring, Miller sighs, dropping the camera to his side, and I hear Blake squeak, probably worried about the costly equipment I know he doesn’t have permission to be using.
“Look, dude,” Miller says, skating closer to Smith. “Don’t just stand there looking like a dinosaur from Jurassic Park all rawr and shit. Talk! Tell that woman you love her or all of this will be for nothing, and that’ll be annoying because I had chel plans today.”
“What’s shell?” Hollis whispers as if they can hear us.
“Chel,” I correct. “Hockey slang for the NHL video game. Say it fast and it sounds like chel.”
She screws her nose up. “Uh, but he plays in the NHL—why not just do the real thing?”
“Who knows.” I shrug. “Boys are weird.”
Miller and Smith continue to argue, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that neither of them is aware the camera is on.
“Yeah, buddy!” I hear someone shout, and it sounds a lot like Rhodes. “We have shit to do today! Let’s get a move on.”
“Pitter-fucking-patter,” another voice—definitely belonging to Collin—adds.
“Hollis can only distract her for so long,” Lowell chimes in. “And I want to snuggle my baby.”
“See? Shit to do. Just be like, ‘Hey, hot tits,’” Miller says, imitating a deep voice.
Smith’s growl is very audible. “Miller…”
“Fine. ‘Hey, hot ass, I retired from the NHL for you, and I love you and shit. Want to get out of here and bone?’ And that’s it. That’s all you have to say.”
I don’t think. I just run.
I run right out into the rink.
When I reach the top of the stairs, I pause, and there he is, standing center ice, scowling at Miller, who is trying to shove the camera back in his face.
He looks up, and his whole face transforms. Gone is the scowl, replaced by pure love and adoration.
And it’s all for me.
“You retired?” I shout.
He nods. “This morning! The press release goes out tomorrow, but I thought—”
“Hey, can you come down here? I don’t think the camera is picking up the audio very well,” Miller yells, pointing it at me.
And I start running all over again. Down the stairs, dodging through seats, not stopping until I’m sliding onto the ice, looking like a newborn calf slipping around.
Smith is there to catch me before I can fall.
“Thank fuck,” he mutters, wrapping me in his arms and crushing his mouth to mine.
Just like that, everything is right in my world again. I sag against him, relishing the way his body feels against mine, the way we fit so perfectly together. It makes me want to cry.
“Oh, thank fuck!” Rhodes calls. “I’m out of here.”
I faintly hear the other guys mutter something similar.
“Please don’t fire me!” Blake says from somewhere, his voice getting smaller and smaller as he likely follows everyone else down the tunnel. “I need this job, and Nate can’t strip, remember?”
He laughs nervously, and then we’re alone.
Only then does Smith pull his mouth from mine. He looks down at me, his tawny-brown eyes that I love so much bouncing between my green ones, a smile tugging at his lips.
“Hi,” he says quietly.
“Hi. You really retired?”
“I really did.”
“Because I choose you.”
My breathing stutters at his words. “You choose me?”
He nods. “I’ve had my chance to chase my dream of playing the greatest game in the world. Now, it’s your turn to chase yours.”
He shakes his head, cutting me off. “No. No buts, not even hockey ones—not about this. I’ve thought about it a lot, and this is what I want. You’re what I want.”
I sigh, and he laughs just before pressing his lips to my mouth again.
He runs his nose along mine when he pulls away. “I love you, you know?”
“Like really, really love you. I have for a while, I think. Hell, maybe I even fell that first weekend.”
“I think that’s a real possibility. I’m very loveable, and I give great head.”
He chuckles. “That so?”
“Yes.” I give him a quick peck on the lips. “You’re not with the Comets anymore… Which means we wouldn’t be breaking any rules…”
“I’m not playing for the Comets anymore,” he clarifies, “but I do plan to keep working with the team unofficially.”
My heart sinks. “What…what does that mean for us?”
“Not a damn thing. We’re good.”
He nods. “Yes. I read that handbook forward and back. I’m not part of the organization, so we can do whatever we want.”
I let out a relieved sigh. “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Yeah? Did you miss the part where I said I love you?”
“Possibly. You’re going to have to repeat it a few more times.”
“So damn much, Emilia. I didn’t realize I was missing something so important in my life until you. I didn’t realize that I could feel this way about anything other than hockey until you. I didn’t realize that I wanted more out of life than hockey until you. But I do. I want it all. A future.”
I sigh. “I haven’t been the same since our first weekend together. I’ve been trying to deny it and pretend and bury myself in work, but I should have known it was useless. I had no chance at fighting it. Not really. Not when you make me feel the way you do. I love you, and I want that future too. Everything. All of it.”
“Yeah?” he asks.
I nod. “Yeah.”
Our mouths crash together again, and we don’t let up, not until I’m shivering in Smith’s arms, the cold of the ice seeping into my bones.
“Come on. Let’s get you out of here,” he says, leading me toward the exit.
“What exactly were the guys here for?”
Smith shrugs. “No clue. That was all Miller.”
“To take your sorry ass to the bar if she decided she didn’t want your saggy old man balls!” Miller calls out, and we turn to find him sitting on the bench, still recording.
“Miller…” Smith growls, turning toward him.
“Oh shit!” The kid takes off running as fast as he can on skates, dashing down the tunnel for safety.
Smith shakes his head, helping me off the ice. “He’s a fucking menace.”
“But you love him.”
He pulls me right back into his arms, and I sink into him.
This is where I belong.
“I love you,” he whispers against my lips.
“And I love you more…Owen.”