All you need, p.16
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       All You Need, p.16
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         Part #3 of Need You series by Lorelei James

  lumbering self out of my office.”

  I ground my teeth together and gritted out a guttural “No.”

  “No? You have no right—”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “Because of this PR b.s.?”

  “No. Because of this.” I framed her face in my hands, tilted her head back and took her mouth in a blistering kiss.

  Annika’s protest lasted three seconds before her hands were twisted in my shirt, holding me in place as she kissed me back with equal parts frustration and hunger.

  My body went from tight with tension to hard with desire.

  Over the sounds of our heavy breathing and the wet connection of our mouths, I heard the office door open.

  Go away. I am not done with her.

  One of Annika’s hands left my shirt. She must’ve waved her assistant off, because the next thing I heard was the door closing again.

  I kissed her with the overwhelming lust she incited in me—a reminder of the passion building between us. Then I slowed to sweeter kisses, until I was able to eke out a few words between the connection and release of our lips. “I’m sorry,” I murmured first in English and then in Swedish. “I’m an asshole.”

  “I knew that.”

  Her rapid exhalations teased my damp lips.

  “God, this mouth of yours.” I started to crank the kiss back up to a combustible level.

  But she pulled back. “Axl.”

  I stared into her eyes. Her heavy-lidded gaze ignited my fantasy of sweeping everything off her desk, shoving her skirt up and lowering myself to my knees to offer an apology she’d never forget. “What?”

  “My neck is starting to hurt, so can we take it down a notch?”

  Immediately my hands fell away and I straightened to standing.

  After I helped her up, Annika tilted her head back and our eyes met. “I need to . . .”

  I smoothed her staticky hair back into place. “You need to what?”

  “I have no idea. I looked at you and my mind went blank.”

  I grinned.

  She slapped her hands on my chest. “Go sit in the conference area and let me regroup.”

  As soon as I gave her space, she picked up the phone receiver on her desk and poked a button. “Hey. No, I’m fine.” Her gaze hooked mine. “Yes, he’s unharmed. For now.”

  You still have some major groveling ahead, so don’t get cocky.

  “I’ll wrap it up tomorrow. Go—if you’re done with everything else. See you in the morning.” She hung up.

  “Your assistant is relieved she doesn’t have to call a cleaning crew in to scrub my blood off the walls?”

  “At least not yet.”

  Annika crossed the room toward me, every step a reminder of her confidence. Sexy and powerful—she was exactly the type of woman I stayed away from. Not because her brains and beauty intimidated me, but she could be as addictive as hockey.

  You have time in your life for one mistress, not two.

  “Let’s get right to it. Why did you keep up the lie?” she said in English. “Yes, I understand technically that you didn’t lie to me, but we have a saying here that a lie of omission is still . . . a lie.”

  “When I came to the U.S., the staff at training camp knew I could speak English. But I’d never spoken it as a first language. That was a stressful time. Roald wasn’t with me and I didn’t know anyone else. I was physically exhausted and afraid I wouldn’t make the cut. It ended up I rarely spoke at all.”

  “So they assumed you were illiterate?”

  “Eventually, yes. Hundreds of guys try out and we all look the same in hockey gear. I wasn’t memorable enough in any way apparently.”

  Annika’s gaze roamed my face and neck. “I disagree, but go on.”

  “I made the AHL farm team. The coach didn’t bother to ask about my English skills. He assumed I understood enough to take his direction on the ice and that’s all that mattered.” I hated talking about this. I had buried the bitterness and the loneliness and concentrated on improving so I could get the fuck out of the minor leagues. “Same situation with the other two farm teams I was part of over the next two years. My listening skills improved my speaking skills. Everywhere I went outside the rink, I only spoke English. That’s where the fluency came from, because I didn’t have that six years ago. When I finally got the call-up to the big league the end of my third season with the AHL—I didn’t see a benefit in informing the new coaching staff.”

  “Why not?”

  “I’d overheard the discussion where they admitted they didn’t want to bring me up, but their injured list forced them to fill the roster and they had no choice. They said a bunch of other things about my skills that needed extra work. They wouldn’t have spoken so freely if they’d known I could understand. It was professionally beneficial.” I paused. “It’s fucked-up. I get that. I’m sorry. It snowballed. I thought I was protecting myself, but I can see how it looks like selfish and self-serving behavior.”

  “It was. So why did you decide to come clean now?”

  “Partially Peter’s PR plan. Non-English-speaking athletes have a harder time getting endorsements.”

  Her face shuttered. “Of course. That makes sense.”

  “But that’s not all, Annika.”

  She looked at me and waited.

  “After spending time with you, I hated misleading you. You went out of your way to help me. Do you know how sweet and thoughtful it was that you read me the entire menu the other night?”

  Annika blushed.

  “I never meant to intentionally hurt you.” My eyes searched hers. “Please believe me.”

  She opened her mouth—probably to argue—but snapped it shut. She closed her eyes and inhaled several deep breaths before she focused on me again. “Total dick move, Axl. Like one of the worst dick moves ever.”

  “I know.”

  Annika lowered her chin, watching her fingers fiddle with the pleats on her skirt. “I’m mad. But I’m just as mad at myself as I am at you.”

  “Why?”

  “When we first met, I said some pretty scathing things to you in English because I didn’t think you could understand. That is a ridiculous excuse for being mean to someone. I hate mean girls,” she said softly. “I’ve prided myself on how hard I’ve worked not to become one, given all the advantages I’ve had growing up, so it’s jarring to realize I was one to you. I justified it because you were a man and because you wouldn’t know the difference.”

  “Annika—”

  “Just let me finish.”

  “No.” I stilled her restless hand and waited until she looked at me. “You are not taking on any guilt for my nondisclosure. I’ve done the same thing. Called someone an idiot or worse in a language I know they can’t understand.”

  “How many languages do you speak?”

  “A few.”

  “Like . . . three or a dozen?”

  “I’m fluent in Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, English and Russian. I can understand French, Spanish, Italian and German, but I don’t speak them well.”

  Those gorgeous blue eyes widened. “How can you know all that?”

  “Scandinavian languages are similar. French and Spanish . . .” I shrugged. “Being around it at an early age makes it easier to pick up. Same with German. I’ve played hockey with Russians since my teens.”

  “Why would you hide that? I’d be bragging about it to everyone.”

  I hesitated a beat before I answered, “Warning. Total selfish, puck-head comment coming.”

  She snickered.

  “I’m here to play hockey. I don’t want to be the team translator. I’ve seen it happen with other players and when there’s a translation error, the fault falls back on the translator. Which is why I had Peter insist on an outside translator for me. My teammate Jorgen Sundstrom and I speak Finnish. My teammate Olsson and I speak Norwegian. It probably sounds the same to everyone else, but it’s not. Kazakov and I were speaking Russian, but that wasn’t some
thing we shared beyond the two of us, because he doesn’t want to end up a translator either.”

  “This is so much more complicated than I believed.”

  “Politics of hockey.”

  “So, would that be called . . . hol-itics?” she said slyly.

  I grinned. “Clever girl. I enjoy American puns. They are not funny in Swedish.”

  “Lose something in translation, do they?”

  “Such a quick mind. I like that about you.” Bringing her hand to my mouth, I kissed her wrist. “Now we have to talk about PR things. Honesty is best, yah?”

  She smirked. “Yah. Is there something else you’ve been lying to me about?”

  “No. After the press conference, things have improved with my teammates. I feel focused.”

  “Focused is good.”

  “And you are a beautiful distraction. The more time we spend together, the easier it’ll be to believe that this is real between us.” I kissed the inside of her wrist again. “Maybe sometimes I want it to be real.”

  “Me too.”

  Her tiny admission that I wasn’t alone in this made it harder to do the right thing. “But we have to remember it isn’t real.”

  Annika seemed relieved. “I agree. But I won’t lie, Axl. Kissing you is wicked hot. I like that you play the part of a loving boyfriend very well. As long as we can keep the ‘only in public’ parameters of affection, we can make this PR ploy work.”

  “So no more asking you to spend the night with me,” I said.

  “You got caught up in the moment. Dude, that was seriously one lip-burning, brain-scrambling kiss.”

  I smiled. “That it was.”

  “No more busting into my office and kissing the hell out of me either. We can flirt and let everyone imagine we are breaking the bedsprings twice a day.” She reached over and tugged my hair. “But, Charming, this is all about hockey. I’m happy you’re focused. I’m relieved you’re being accepted as a team player. With total concentration on your game? Who knows? Maybe you could be the league’s leading scorer for this season.”

  “Leading scorer?” I repeated. “You really don’t know anything about hockey, do you?”

  “Nope. And boy, oh boy, lucky you gets to teach me, huh?”

  I groaned.

  “Think of all the hockey puns my clever mind can come up with off the puck.” When I didn’t clutch my stomach with laughter, she repeated, “Off the cuff? Off the puck? That was puntastic gold.”

  “Debatable.” I stood. “If we leave now we have time to grab food before Bunny’s cocktail party.”

  Her eyes widened. “Shit balls. I forgot about that. I have to go home and change.”

  I let my gaze travel the length of her, from the fitted cut of her dark red suit jacket, past the plaid skirt clinging to her curvy hips and the high-heeled black boots that ended just above her ankles. “You don’t need to change. You always look fantastic.”

  Annika unfolded from the chair. “Leah warned me this was one fancy-ass party. So I cannot show up in this.”

  “There’s no time to drive all the way over to your place and back to the club.”

  “Then you’re going solo.”

  I shook my head. “Not possible after the press conference—Peter wants us to step it up this week, and this party is the highest priority.”

  She hustled over to the desk. “That’s not helping, Axl.”

  “Where’s your favorite boutique? Businesswomen like you—I know this from my mother—have the financial means to request private hours and special services. I’m assuming your preferred shop is close by, since I doubt this is the first fashion emergency you’ve had.”

  She squinted at me. “That’s the first time you’ve mentioned anyone in your family.”

  “We don’t have time to talk about that now. Call with your clothing requirements so they have options for you when we arrive or else I’m taking you to the party wearing that.”

  Fourteen

  ___

  ANNIKA

  Axl barging into my office to deal with the fallout from Friday night hadn’t been a shocker. I’d expected it . . . earlier in the day.

  However, I had been shocked by Axl’s reminder we weren’t dating. I’d geared myself up to give him the same speech after having time to think this weekend. Now that we were of the same mind, I was relieved he had no issue with a few make-out sessions once in a while—because holy amaze balls, could that man kiss. I’d never been kissed like that and I’d done my share of macking around.

  I’d even tried to dissect why Axl’s mouth seemed especially attuned to mine. At first I’d chalked it up to experience—tons and tons of practice. Then I went with the location theory. Sweden was cold. That meant lots of fires. Fireplaces were romantic and the perfect place for smooching practice. Nights under the covers, snuggling for warmth, whispering in the dark air so cold you could see your breath. What better way to cut through that chill than by rubbing your lips together? Or for a whole-body warm-up, creating friction beneath the wool blankets and between the flannel sheets. Or better, lying naked in a bed of fur. How decadent would that feel, arching against a hot, hard, insistent body plastered to the front of yours, that heavy male weight pressing your backside into the soft warmth of fur—

  “Annika? Do you need help?”

  Startled out of my fantasy, I glanced at myself in the dressing room mirror. At least he hadn’t asked if I needed help getting it off.

  But I’d let him help me with that in a hot minute.

  Once my thoughts threw a gutter ball, my mind decided to stay there. I looked over my shoulder. “No. I’m just about done.”

  I’d dismissed the first dress Elena had shown me as too risqué for this particular party. Dress number two was fine, but did I really need another little black cocktail dress?

  Axl had pulled one off the rack and gifted me with a sexy grin when he handed it over. “This one. You look spectacular in red.”

  Being a total girl, and receiving a compliment like that from a guy like Axl, I hadn’t argued. Now as I adjusted the thin straps across the back, I tried to remember when I’d ever worn red around Axl.

  “I’m coming in,” he announced.

  I closed my eyes and groaned. My mother shopped here. Elena would be on the phone first thing talking about Annika’s handsy boyfriend sneaking into the dressing room. I was pretty sure this sort of thing was not “done” here.

  Elena’s dealt in exclusivity. There wasn’t signage above the outer door designating what type of retail shop existed within. I’d been coming here since the store opened. Elena adored my mother—and by default that adoration included me. That didn’t mean I was exempt from gossip.

  The first sign of his presence was his hot breath searing my shoulder. Callused hands gripped my upper arms.

  I opened my eyes to see Axl peering down the front of my dress.

  “Really? Leering at my boobs?”

  “They’re popping out, begging me to look.”

  “Because the top is too small.” I sighed. “Or my boobs are too big.”

  “They’re perfect. But they seem strangled by the straps. Do you need me to massage them?”

  I slapped his hand. “Now I know why you picked this dress.”

 
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