All you need, p.13
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       All You Need, p.13
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         Part #3 of Need You series by Lorelei James

  didn’t want to expose my ignorance.

  I had attended Jaxson’s hockey games, but the truth was . . . I hadn’t paid much attention to the actual games. We always sat up above the crowd of true fans. I ate nachos. Drank beer. Messed around on my phone. Talked to my family members. Cheered at the appropriate times. I’d admit to bloodthirst—interested only when guys beat the crap out of each other. But taking time to learn the actual mechanics of the game?

  Nope. I didn’t have a freakin’ clue.

  It wasn’t as if I didn’t care about sports at all. I loved football. I could talk about football all damn day. I hadn’t achieved expert level like my brothers and my dad, but I could keep up. I caught penalties on the field before the ref called them. I knew the positions of the defensive and the offensive players. I’d even memorized some crucial stats. I knew team rosters; I recognized names from the past twenty years and some from before I’d been born. Football made sense to me.

  Hockey . . . not so much.

  So I’d secretly bought four different books on hockey after Axl accused me of ignorance, figuring one of them would provide me with the information that would allow me to converse somewhat intelligently about the game that ruled my fake boyfriend’s life.

  Wrong.

  What I’d taken away from my hockey homework? I’d never, ever figure out what icing was.

  A breakaway isn’t always a good thing—a two-man breakaway is preferable, so I didn’t even understand why a breakaway was a “thing.”

  Left wing, right wing and the center were forwards who were considered offensive players . . . except when they weren’t.

  The two guys in the back were the defensemen, or the D-men, as Axl called them. That, I found out, was the position Axl played. And like their name implied, they were defensive players . . . until they played offense.

  The only clear position was the goalie. I kind of equated him with the kicker in football because how many times had the kicker been the one who’d blown the game? Same thing with the goalie who let that puck slide through.

  A shoot-out involved no guns whatsoever. Glad the book cleared that up for me. But it wasn’t like there weren’t winter sports that didn’t feature a demanding physical activity and a firearm—uh, hello? Biathlon.

  Hockey puns were still way better than football puns.

  Any form of puck was my new favorite word.

  Through the first two periods I paid attention to when Axl jumped the barrier and went in and out of the game.

  And given the opportunity to watch the man in action? I couldn’t look at anyone else. If the puck changed directions, he skated backward and he didn’t even have to watch where he was going!

  So cool.

  I wished I’d listened during my cousin Nolan and my uncle Monte’s detailed discussions about hockey strategies so I had some frame of reference.

  At the start of the third period the score was tied 1-to-1. Then Flitte took off down the center of the ice basically by himself—a breakaway?—and slapped a shot in. I stood up and cheered.

  Before I sat back down, a woman with teased blond hair and a pair of breasts resembling overfilled water balloons stopped in front of me. She scratched her cheek with a blood-colored talon as she took my measure.

  Evidently I posed no threat, because she smiled and offered her hand. “I’m Bunny Ducheneaux. Head of the Wild WAGs.”

  I shook her hand. She had a firm grip, which bordered on pain on account of the rings she wore on every finger and even her thumb. “Annika.”

  “Peter said you were in this section. Of course I recognized you right away, since you and ‘The Hammer’ are in the papers everywhere I look.”

  Was that jealousy?

  “I’m supposed to give you a personal invite to our cocktail party on Monday night. My husband, Ron, and I host. Coach and his wife will be there, so you can almost say it’s . . . mandatory.”

  “Will Axl get the information as far as time and place and attire before Monday? Or is that something I should be writing down?”

  “You don’t trust him?” she cooed cattily.

  “With party details? Hardly. He is a man. When do they pay attention to anything?”

  She laughed. “You are so right. The party will be held at the Minnesota Club. Sixish to eight. Semiformal or whatever.”

  “Thank you. I’m familiar with the Minnesota Club. We hold corporate events there all the time.”

  Bunny had already tuned me out and peered over my shoulder. “Leah.”

  “Bunny. You’re looking tan.”

  “Two glorious weeks in the Virgin Islands is the best way to keep that golden glow.”

  “I imagine it is. I’m jealous. I’ve never been there.”

  “You must have Linc take you off-season. And if he doesn’t? That’s what girlfriends are for.”

  Leah laughed. “Looking forward to catching up with you at the party Monday night. It’s been too long.”

  “Yes, it has.” Bunny flitted off.

  After I sat down, Leah leaned in. “Here’s a warning. Semiformal in Bunny’s world means no ball gowns. But don’t make the mistake of showing up in anything less than what others would consider formal.”

  “Thank you for the clarification, Leah.”

  “No problem.”

  So my focus was totally gone for the rest of the game as I mentally tried on and discarded a dozen different outfits.

  The buzzer sounded, yanking me out of my virtual closet. The Wild had won 2-to-1.

  Relf sidestepped me with a mumbled good-bye.

  Leah smiled and said, “See you Monday night.”

  “You’re not going to the press conference?”

  “No. It’s tedious. But you should go.”

  “Do any of the . . . WAGs go?”

  She smirked. “Once. Have fun.”

  I wasn’t sure why Axl insisted I attend.

  Live and learn.

  Eleven

  ___

  AXL

  We lined up and did the skate across—“Better luck next time, suckers”—with the opposing team. But at that point, unless the teams were notoriously fierce rivals, all most players could think of was ditching the equipment and hitting the showers.

  The coaches—and Jakob, my translator—were waiting as we skated off the ice.

  “Flitte, McClellan, Igorsky, Dykstrand, Sundstrom, Vanderhal, Masters, Irving, Ducheneaux, Hammerquist. You’re in the second flight. Press conference in twenty. You know the drill. Line up outside. You’ll be called up in that order. Keep it brief. Now ain’t the time to practice your comedy routine. Exit the room as soon as you’re done.”

  Jakob translated and followed me into the locker room but waited in the media area.

  There wasn’t much chatter. The first flight of players for the press conference hit the showers. When it was my turn, I ducked under the lukewarm spray and stayed there for several long breaths, asking myself if I had the balls to go through with this.

  But it was time. Better to deal with the backlash shit storm now than a few months in.

  One towel tied around my hips, I grabbed another as I passed by the rack. Jakob briefly stepped into my line of sight and tapped his watch.

  My belly roiled as I slipped on the suit I’d worn last night. My hair was still wet—nothing I could do about that. With one minute to spare, Jakob and I walked down the hallway. I took a deep breath. “I need you to follow my lead tonight.”

  He stopped and faced me. “You speak English.”

  “Yes.”

  “Why hide it?”

  “I’ve had my reasons. Pay attention to the questions, okay? If I look at you, that means I want you to translate what was said. I’ll do that at least a couple of times.”

  He crossed his arms over his chest. “So it doesn’t look like you became fluent overnight, because that is freakin’ impossible.”

  “Exactly. It also means that you won’t be out of a job this season.”

&nb
sp; Peter turned the corner. I’d never seen him smile so big. He thrust out his hand. “You crushed it, Axl. I knew you had it in you.”

  “Thanks. I felt good.”

  Peter looked at Jakob, then back at me. “It’s smart that you’re dealing with this on a night you’re golden with club management. I promised to pass on Pam in PR’s suggested high points to you. You’re happy to be working with the coaching staff. Grateful for the opportunity to skate with such amazing teammates who’ve made you feel welcome. Thanks to all the fans who came out tonight to support the team in the preseason.”

  Nothing new there.

  “Questions?”

  I shook my head and reached for the water bottle that one of the junior coaches held out to me.

  “You’re last, so they’ll ask about Annika. Keep it brief. Keep it positive. And keep it vague so you keep them interested.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Good luck.”

  I’ll need it.

  Peter stepped behind the configuration of lighting equipment and took a seat on the outside of the middle row. Annika sat next to him. I’d never been the guy who’d gotten off seeing chicks wearing my team jersey, but I’d wanted to roar with possession when I saw her with my name spread across her back.

  The reporters’ questions were basic, and the rotation of players into the hot seat at the table up front went fairly fast. Coach sat in the middle, with Kazakov on his right side.

  After Ducheneaux exited his seat, Kaz nodded at me.

  I walked up the middle aisle, my hand tightening on the plastic water bottle, and fought the panicked feeling I hadn’t had in a long time that I couldn’t do this.

  Flashbulbs popped and clicked as I sat beside Coach. He didn’t smile. He just inclined his head, and a chair appeared for Jakob at the end of the table. Kazakov stared straight ahead too.

  My palms were damp and sticky with sweat. My mouth was as dry as sawdust.

  Coach introduced his support staff and thanked the media for coming before he handed the microphone over to our team captain. Immediately Kazakov spoke of new blood revitalizing the team and of the organization’s confidence that I would thrive here. Then he said, “Let’s open it up to questions.”

  The reporter said, “What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed playing for this team?”

  Coach nodded to Jakob. But Jakob passed me the microphone.

  I smiled at the journalist. “I’ve been working on English skills, so practice patience with me.”

  Laughter rippled through the room.

  “Everything is different since coming to Minnesota. The biggest change is I’m playing with this team, not for this team.”

  That caused a ripple of reaction throughout the media. A novice English language speaker wouldn’t have picked up on the subtle distinction between “for” and “with”—so I’d just blown it.

  Fuck it.

  “There’s no comparison to the level of training, coaching skills and support the staff provides to all team members. The focus on strength and agility isn’t about benefiting one particular player, but how it benefits the entire team. I’m thrilled I’ve been given a chance to meet the coaching staff’s expectations for this season, because the players here have set the bar very high.”

  Every hand in the room shot up. Coach started pointing at people.

  Did early stats matter as a precursor to how my season would play out?

  Any lingering effects from my broken collarbone from almost two years ago?

  Had the coaches for this team taught me to temper my aggression to avoid excessive third-period penalties like last year?

  Who taught me the tricks to self-translate from Swedish to English more quickly? Did it work for written translation?

  Then came the question I’d been waiting for.

  “You’ve been romantically linked with Annika Lund. How does this relationship affect your game?”

  “Positively, if tonight is any indication. No time in the sin bin at all.”

  More laughter.

  “Has she had any impact on your decision to speak on your own in public without a translator?”

  “No. This is all on me.”

  “Are there any more questions about hockey?” Coach said testily.

  A reporter in front raised her hand. “Talk a little about the next exhibition game. What will you do differently?”

  As Coach answered the question, I looked around the room. Two assistant coaches stood in back. When our eyes met, they glared at me. Same with Pam from PR. A couple of journalists were openly studying me like I was a specimen they wanted to rip open and examine. Peter had a small wrinkle in his brow.

  Next to him, Annika had slumped into her chair, her arms folded across her chest, her head down so far her hair obscured her face. Was she hiding from everyone in the room, or just from me?

  I stared at her and silently willed her to look at me.

  When she did . . . my stomach bottomed out. I didn’t see fury. Or hurt. Or emotion of any kind. Her beautiful face was a blank mask. She held my gaze for longer than I expected. In fact, I was the first one to look away.

  Then the press conference ended and I saw her trying to sneak out. I caught Peter’s attention and mouthed, Stop Annika from leaving, before I was swarmed.

  My translator came to my rescue. “Okay, guys. ‘The Hammer’ has had enough. Save some questions for next time.”

  I raced out the door I’d seen Annika and Peter use. It opened into a hallway and at the end was an exit sign.

  The door crashed into the side of the building. She stopped pacing and turned her fiery glare on me. For a second, I feared the fury rolling off her could torch my clothes, melt my bones and turn me to ash.

  Peter pushed himself off the car he’d been resting against. “I mentioned this to her, but I don’t know if she heard me, so I’ll say it to you. A big fight in the parking lot is not the kind of press you need. She has a right to be angry, but she’d better rein it in fast.” He walked away with a long backward glance at us.

  I kept a slow—but steady—pace as I crossed the parking lot toward her.

  At five meters, she held up her hand. “That’s close enough.”

  “I want to talk, not have to yell.”

  “Too bad. Because all I want to do is yell at you. And if you get any closer, I will start channeling Jet Li and rain fists of fury down on your stupid head and throw in some Kung Fu Panda moves too, so don’t push me, Ax-hole.”

  “Sorry.”

  “No. You’re. Not.”

  Just stand here and take it. You deserve it.

  “You know what my first thought was when you opened your mouth in that press conference and near perfect English spilled out? That Jensen had been right. I should’ve known you were lying.”

  “When did I lie to you?”

  “Excuse me?”

  I inched forward. “When did I ever tell you that I didn’t speak English?” I paused. “I didn’t.”

 
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