All you need, p.5
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       All You Need, p.5
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         Part #3 of Need You series by Lorelei James

  “Guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”

  I was looking forward to that more than I’d admit—especially to her.

  “Turn down the smolder. I had a question to ask you and now . . . poof”—she took her hand off my chest and made an exploding motion—“it’s gone like dandelion tufts in the wind.”

  I felt that way sometimes, twisting, drifting, trying to follow her train of thought.

  “My mom stopped in to chat with me today.”

  “Did you give her hell for this relationship idea she and Peter concocted and expected you to agree to without consulting you?”

  Annika seemed startled by that. “Why on earth would you care? The change benefits you.”

  “I loathe manipulative behavior. I can’t believe you’d let anyone get away with that.”

  She briefly glanced away. “You don’t know my mother. Anyway, I’d been thinking about this since last night and I’ve come to the conclusion that Peter is wrong.”

  “About?”

  “About us spending time together.”

  I scowled at her.

  She placed her hand on my sternum and I felt the ripple of her touch down the front side of my body. “I mean about where we spend time together. This relationship is to repair your reputation and put the focus back on your hockey game. So our couplehood needs to unfold in public, not privately.”

  “That actually makes more sense.”

  Her eyes locked onto mine. “That video makes us look like a real couple having a huge fight.”

  I hadn’t found the balls to watch it yet. “You watched it?”

  “Yeah. Anger is a better angle for us to work from. It’s obvious you screwed up and I’m pissed as hell about it. So from here on out? You need to grovel. Hard-core grovel.”

  I leaned in closer. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Princess? Me, constantly gazing at you adoringly. Shall I hold your hand while you dab your tears? Or should I be on my knees? Because once I get there . . .” I wouldn’t be using my mouth to grovel.

  She said, “Piss off,” without any real malice.

  “I can play the ‘I’m crazy about her and happy she’s giving me a second chance’ boyfriend, Annika, but I will not be led around on a leash as if I was a bad dog, understood?”

  “Fine. What are your other relationship dos and don’ts?”

  “No excessive PDA.”

  “Dude, even if we were sleeping together, public mauling isn’t my scene.”

  “Mine either.”

  “Since when?”

  “Since always. The list of incidents you read at the practice rink? All hearsay, no proof. The blondes were a fluke. Believe me or don’t, but I’m a private guy.”

  Her suspicion about that confession didn’t surprise me. I hated that I deserved it.

  “So, what do we tell Peter about this rogue decision to do what we want with our relationship?”

  “I don’t know. Nothing? Unless he asks. And thank you, for kicking him out last night so you and I could talk without an audience. My dossier of bad behavior—”

  She snapped her fingers in my face. “Hey, wait. Now I remember my question. I found a copy of your birth certificate in Peter’s file. Why doesn’t your team PR list your real name?”

  “What real name?”

  “Klaus Axl Hammerquist.”

  I frowned at her.

  “Aha!” She poked me in the chest. “I knew it. You’re embarrassed that your real name is Klaus.”

  “Is that why you called me Santa at Flurry last weekend?”

  “Yep.” Annika smirked. “Clever, huh?”

  I smirked back. “I’m happy I’m not Santa—the poor guy only comes once a year. And he limits himself to just good girls.”

  “Of course you have a crude comeback.”

  “You’d be disappointed if I didn’t. Besides, you’re wrong about my name. My name is Axl Hammerquist. I don’t have a middle name.”

  “You’re lying.”

  “Look it up. You probably saw my grandfather’s name, Klaus Axl, on the genealogy paperwork Peter asked for, because I don’t have an official birth certificate.”

  Now she seemed really annoyed. Which made no sense.

  This is Annika, remember? She can go from smiling to fist-forming mad as fast as her sexy little car goes from zero to sixty.

  “One thing I didn’t find in the paperwork was the date of the first exhibition game.”

  “Two weeks. You’ll need to be there.”

  “If your game conflicts with Jensen’s football game? Sorry, dude. My little brother’s game wins.”

  She wanted to return to combat mode? I could do that. “The same little brother who signed with my agent? Remind me . . . what was the one main condition for Peter taking him on as a client?” I paused. “You owed him a favor that I’m collecting on. So that means you will be in the ice arena, wearing a green jersey with my name on the back, and not decked out in purple in your family’s skybox.”

  “What. Ever. Glad we cleared that up.” She sidestepped me. “See ya.”

  “Wait. Did you forget we’re having dinner tonight?”

  “We were having dinner. But there’s no reason for it now, remember? Unless you have a list of the restaurants where the press hangs out?”

  “No. You’re the Minneapolis native. You should already know that. Besides, PR is your department.”

  “PR was my department. My PR skills have become secondary in this situation. Peter has already pulled the ‘you don’t need the pesky details about our plans—just do what we say’ attitude. Now I’m just a pawn.”

  “So prove you’re a woman.” I blocked her in and crowded her against the car door. “Give me that mouth.”

  She parted her lips and shifted closer. “How about a little slap and tickle instead?”

  I caught her wrist before her hand connected.

  “How did you—”

  “Unparalleled reflexes.” I brought her palm to my mouth. “And, Attila, you did warn me.” Then I slid my mouth down and kissed the base of her hand.

  “I didn’t think you’d catch that,” she retorted. Then she tried to jerk her arm free. “Let go. And get your lips off me. I don’t know where all they’ve been.”

  That stung. “Low blow.”

  She studied me for a moment before she murmured, “Sorry. That wasn’t nice.”

  I placed a soft kiss on the inside of her wrist before I released her. “Go on. Rev that engine and spin those tires. You wouldn’t have driven it if you hadn’t intended to show off.”

  “The only person I drive this car for is me. And you’ll have to step up your flattery if you ever want me to take you for a ride.”

  Five

  ___

  ANNIKA

  I dreamed of Axl.

  A week had passed since our bizarre exchange outside the Xcel Center. I still hadn’t dissected how we’d become coconspirators or why I liked it.

  My dreams of him hadn’t been explicit in a sexual sense. But they’d been chock-full of sensuality. Of Axl’s hair tickling my neck as he whispered in my ear. Of his iron grip on my wrist as he brushed soft kisses across my collarbones. I’d woken up more puzzled than aroused.

  Normally I’d talk to Dallas about it, since she had a foot firmly in the woo-woo world and she nailed dream interpretations. But I’d been avoiding her. With her perception skills, she’d see through the situation with Axl and read me the riot act for capitulating to my mother’s demands as usual.

  Another fun aspect to this situation was a reminder that it’d been two and a half years since I put my dating life on hold. I’d gotten so tired of the “meat market” aspect of the clubs I flung myself off the crazy merry-go-round of societal expectations. I could admit I loved to flirt, but it rarely went beyond the sexy banter stage for me lately. For official charity functions I had a couple of platonic pals who liked the limelight—win-win for both of us. But Axl had me all mixed up in ways I hadn’t experienced. Hot o
ne minute, cold the next. Oozing sexy appeal and then throwing out back-off, brooding vibes.

  I’d managed to shove all that aside and focus on next week’s big presentation to a boutique hotel chain about them carrying our newest seven-grain cereal in their restaurants, when Deanna interrupted me.

  “There’s a man out here who swears he just needs five minutes to touch base with you. Peter Skaarn?”

  “That’s fine. Send him in.” I closed my laptop and crossed over to the lounge area as Peter sauntered in.

  He gave my office—which was damn nice by anyone’s standards—a cursory look and said, “I’ll be brief.”

  No pleasantries at all? That was weird. “What’s up?”

  “Apparently I didn’t make myself clear about what constitutes a relationship. That means you spend time together. Is it true you and Axl haven’t seen each other in a week?”

  “We decided it’d be better to launch our public couplehood at the opening of the hockey season.”

  “We decided,” Peter repeated, and shook his head. “That had already been decided and you both agreed to it. Now over a week has passed after major social media buzz and he’s had no press at all. Zero.”

  “Back up. The ‘major social media buzz’ about what went down in the club? Not the good kind of buzz, Peter. We established that.” When he opened his mouth to argue, I held up my hand. “Please do not spout the tired line that there’s no such thing as bad press. There is bad press or else Axl wouldn’t be in this situation, would he?”

  Peter studied me without response.

  Luckily that was an intimidation trick I’d learned to deal with years ago. I stared right back at him.

  The Jeopardy! theme song played in my head.

  Finally he sighed. “Please tell me that you and Axl have been meeting privately.”

  “I stopped by to see him after hockey practice. His teammates saw us together. But besides that, I haven’t seen or spoken to him. And yes, our opinions on how we spend our limited free time do matter. We feel getting to know each other privately defeats the purpose. Our public relationship is what’s important, right?”

  His gaze turned shrewd.

  Why did I feel as if I’d just left the safety of the shark cage to swim in chum-filled waters?

  “I do agree on that point. So as of tonight, we’re ramping up your visibility. I’m hosting a cocktail cruise on a Mississippi riverboat. Several potential sponsors will be in attendance. This will be one of my more eclectic groups, not strictly my clients. But the primary objective is that you and Axl will be photographed by as many press and social media outlets as possible.”

  Hooray. “Axl knows about this?”

  “Yes. He’s already received his personal visit from me today. He’s also been informed that since the two of you are dating, you will act like a couple. That means you arrive together. That means you will stay by each other’s side during the party—the entire party—unless one of you ventures to the restroom. Am I making myself clear?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Excellent. Axl will pick you up at five. Dress is semiformal.”

  “Thanks for the heads-up.”

  “Along those lines . . . Jensen will be in attendance.” He glanced at his watch. “My time is up. I’ll let you get back to work. See you tonight.”

  Thirty seconds after he left, Deanna popped in. “Who was that and what did he want?”

  “He’s Axl’s agent. There’s an event tonight that Axl is refusing to attend. Peter asked me to convince Axl to go. Now I have to leave early to get ready.”

  “The lifestyles of the rich and famous are such a drag.”

  “Oh, piss off. And could you please bring me some coffee? I’ll have to kick it into warp speed to finish this presentation today.”

  Deanna paused. “I’ll bring the coffee. But don’t forget you have a final interview in an hour for the graphic artist opening.”

  “Why do I have to do the final interview? Can’t someone else do it?”

  “Since Victoria is on maternity leave, you’re the big boss. It’s why you get paid the big bucks, so stop whining and suck it up. I’ll be right back with your warp core fuel.”

  I laughed. Gotta love an assistant who could shut me down and rev me up at the same time.

  An hour later, hopped up on caffeine, I was prepared to meet the prospective employee. So it surprised me when Lennox walked in, looking worried.

  “Did our applicant flake out?”

  “Not exactly. And normally we wouldn’t have this conversation in front of a prospective employee, but . . .”

  Another woman entered my office. A woman I recognized.

  “This is the ‘not exactly’ scenario I need to explain. I interviewed Lucille. She’s easily the most qualified person. I had no idea that she—”

  “Is Jaxson’s baby mama and Mimi’s mother?” I snapped at Lennox. Then to Lucy I said, “I am not surprised you pulled something like this—”

  “Let me finish, Annika,” Lennox snapped back.

  Lennox rarely got surly with me. And she’d stepped in front of Lucy as if she was protecting her. “Fine. I’ll hear you out.”

  “Lucille has every qualification we require in a graphic designer. She had glowing references from her bosses and her coworkers. Her portfolio is top-notch. So in my opinion, we should not automatically discount her employment because of some family issue that doesn’t even affect you directly and, from what I’ve gleaned, happened several years ago.”

  I glanced over Lennox’s shoulder at Lucy, who was watching me. “Your point is?”

  “The Lunds are big on the importance of family. The reason Lucille applied here is the day-care program that Edie enrolled Mimi in over the summer. Mimi loved it—as you know. So I ask you. When was the last time you even had a conversation with Lucille?”

  My mind blanked. Had I ever really talked to her? Or was everything I knew about her what I’d heard secondhand or thirdhand? That was when I caught Lucy’s gaze. I didn’t see smugness or resentment. That allowed me to admit, “To be honest, I don’t remember. Probably at least back when Mimi was a baby.”

  A look of relief crossed Lennox’s face. “Then I’m asking you to please talk to her. Interview her honestly. Give her a chance, Annika. I know what it’s like when people have preconceived ideas about you and dismiss you out of hand. I know you’re not like that.”

  Lennox excelled at making me see things from a different perspective, and I valued her insight . . . even if she had used a heavy hand this time. “On your way out, will you tell Deanna to hold my calls?”

  “Sure thing.” Lennox squeezed Lucy’s shoulder as she passed by.

  After the door closed I met Lucy’s eyes again. “First question. Do you go by Lucy or Lucille?”

  “Lucy is fine.”

  “Let’s sit at the conference table so I can look through your portfolio.” Before I took my seat, I said, “Would you like something to drink? Water? Diet Pepsi?”

  “A Diet Pepsi would be great if it’s not too much trouble.”

  I grabbed two cans from the minifridge and sat across from her. “Okay, Lucy. Hit me with your professional stats.”

 
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