No one told Ava that Brice Douglas was going to be here. In fact, when her mother had called, she didn’t mention the sexy-as-sin hockey player and Ava’s ex-college crush.
Brice leaned against the wall in the far corner as if he were a kid who’d been naughty, but he was a grown man who didn’t look the least bit sorry for whatever it was he had done. His auburn hair was mussed as if he’d just rolled out of bed, a bit of reddish-brown scruff decorated his cheeks, his lips were red, and his green eyes were dark and inviting her to step into that forbidden part of the forest she couldn’t resist. Despite all the years she hadn’t interacted with him, it was like Christmas vacation all over again. Him trying to wheedle an extra helping of pudding despite his stomach flu and her trying to resist him before she broke down and gave him her share.
Her skin prickled as his stare roamed over her face and neck, then across her chest, only to come back up to her face again. She shifted in her seat and looked away. Concentrate, she ordered herself, but she could feel the weight of his gaze on her. It was a heated caress that penetrated her thick, fluffy parka and sweater, and glided along her skin like warmed oil.
Ava ignored the way her nipples tightened and her labia thickened and her body temperature increased. Brice Douglas wasn’t going to lure her in. She wasn’t a college sophomore under his spell. At least that’s what she told herself. No one knew about her crush on him, and they wouldn’t. Whatever the reason he was here and she’d been called would require that the past stay dead.
When she’d seen her parents’ number on the caller ID, she’d thought they were just checking in on her again. Her mother didn’t think she should be alone after breaking off her engagement with the two-timing lothario wannabe, Perry. Instead Ava had gotten a summons that’d scared the shit out of her.
“Your father needs you up in Witch Fields immediately. Your ticket is waiting at the airport. You have to dress warmly. It just snowed. A car will pick you up from the airport. I’ll see you as soon as I can. Love you, sweetie.”
Josie Jackson had hung up before Ava could respond or react. Ava’s heart raced, and nightmare scenarios swirled around her head. All of them included her father in the hospital. Her mother may not have said it, but Ava couldn’t keep the idea out of her head. Without coffee or a shower, she’d packed up her things, changed into jeans and a sweater and her new parka, and headed to the airport.
Nerves frazzled, exhaustion tugging at her eyelids, she was in early-morning mode where understanding was limited. Her body wanted to hug Brice and feel all that hard, lean, hockey-honed muscle against her. She gave herself a mental shake and looked around her father’s office to get her bearings.
The walls were surprisingly white with very few pictures or paintings on them. Windows in the back looked out onto forest. Other than his desk and the overstuffed chair she sat in, there were no pieces of furniture. She knew her father had taken over the Witch Fields Prowlers only last year. He’d gone from head coach to part owner when the team took a financial hit. As far as she knew, he had a full staff, so what hockey thing needed an outsider’s help?
Her bulging suitcase filled with winter clothes sat near the door ready for her to grab and make a run for it should she need to. So far her father and Alexi and Brice hadn’t said anything except to ask her how her flight was or if she needed anything. Yeah, she needed an extra-large mocha frappé with whipped cream and chocolate shavings and an explanation. Ava tried not to stare at her father’s coffee mug and drool. He liked his java black, no sugar or cream. Why anyone would do that to coffee was beyond her. The sweet elixir of life needed enhancers, extras, chocolate.
Once she got her coffee, things would make sense. At least she hoped they would. For now all she could do was eye her father, James Jerrod Jackson, and Alexi Kuraine, team captain of the Witch Fields Prowlers, and try not to look at Brice, who was part of the team’s defense. Maybe Dad wanted to introduce her to the team? And maybe he’d called her up to the freezing north to tell her she’d won the HGTV Dream House sweepstakes that she hadn’t even entered. “Dad—” she started.
“I’m so sorry, honey, to bring you up here on such short notice, but I really need your help, and you’re the only I can count on.”
Okay. Things must really be in the shit if he was turning to her. “What about Davis? Where is he?” She knew her brother worked as head of the Prowlers’ PR department.
“Putting out fires,” her father replied.
Her father and Alexi looked guilty. What for, she had no clue. She’d never met Alexi, so she wasn’t sure what he’d done. She glanced over at Brice; he didn’t look guilty in the least—annoyed but not ashamed either. Nor had he answered her question about why Davis wasn’t here or where he was.
“I need you to do me a huge favor. You need to play companion to Brice over here.” Her father gestured toward Brice in a nonchalant manner, but Ava didn’t miss the annoyance on Brice’s face. “He’s going through a difficult time right now and needs someone to make sure he stays out of trouble.”
Brice scowled and moved toward the desk but stopped and went back to the wall, only closer to Ava this time, his gaze not on her father or Alexi but on her. Ava tried to ignore the flames on her face. Brice’s features hardened, and his eyes glittered with something akin to daring, as if he was demanding she say something. She couldn’t. She didn’t understand why the team’s management needed her of all people to watch over Brice. It made no sense.
She shifted in her seat and then looked up at Alexi, who stood on her father’s right. Doubt filled his eyes. Annoyance at being called away from packing up her life competed with curiosity and anger.
“Brice has been partying far too much as of late, and it’s showing in his performance on the ice,” her father explained.
Alexi nodded; his lips thinned to a line.
“We’re too short staffed as is to handle it,” her father pressed on. Frustration furrowed his brow. He moved around in his chair, and Alexi said nothing, just focused on her father.
Brice was wasting his talent. How could he do that when last time she’d spoken to him, hockey had been his life? She refocused on her father; he looked uncomfortable and sad. Her father loved this team. Anger filled her like scalding liquid. What was the team doing about this? Why weren’t they stepping up?
She studied Alexi once more.
Alexi gave her a smile that brought a blush to her cheeks. Something about that small gesture made her think he may not be so innocent or calm as she’d first thought.
She ignored it. “Why can’t the team do anything about this?” She directed the question at Alexi.
Alexi straightened. “Because our attention is so divided between personal issues, injuries, and other shit. Brice’s actions were left for last. You’re our only remaining hope.”
She gritted her teeth. Brice cleared his throat. She looked over to find him glaring at Alexi before going back to staring at her. Great. If she was lost before, she was even more so now. She looked to her father for guidance. That was safer; at least she thought it was.
Her father glanced to his right at Brice and then back at her. “Also of late he’s had a bit of a woman issue. His head’s not in the game. He’s been distracted. He’s normally got a good head on his shoulders, but when women are involved…” His voice trailed off.
Ava sputtered. A woman issue? She was a woman.
What the fuck are they thinking to bring me into this?
“This is such bullshit,” Brice muttered.
Ava looked over at Brice to find a muscle working in his jaw, but he said nothing else. Ava couldn’t help but wonder how bad it was that he wouldn’t defend himself. Or that they needed to call someone in for this. Nothing made sense. Maybe I should ask for some coffee.
Ava opened her mouth, but she was interrupted.
“This latest incident has gotten him so screwed up he’s not doing his job. Missing passes, hogging the puck, ignoring direction from the coach.” Her dad shook his head. “I wish I was back coaching, but they need me more in the front office. Alexi, Coach Nelsen, and myself have talked about benching him, but when he’s on, he can kick the shit out of the competition. When he lets women get to him, he goes to clubs and bars, gets into trouble, starts fights with other guys, fights with the paparazzi. It’s a clusterfuck.” Alexi looked over at Brice, and sadness painted his features. Ava wished she’d followed hockey after college, but her life had been so busy, and Perry had hated the sport. There was only so much whining she could take before she’d stopped watching altogether.
Brice ran a hand over his face but continued to remain silent. Hurt, pain, and humiliation flashed across his features. Her heart contracted at the emotion he displayed. How could this be the same person who hadn’t let anything interfere with his love of hockey? Besides eating and feeling like crap because of the stomach flu, he had gone on and on about the finer points of hockey that Christmas break. Because of his enthusiasm, she’d gotten interested in the sport once again.
Oh, Brice. What happened to you?
Some of her unhappiness lifted. So Brice has been misbehaving and has an issue with unacceptable women, and they brought her in help Brice get his head on straight? “You have so much talent, Brice. I want you focused, and I want your head out of your ass. You, Ava, are no-nonsense. You can keep him on the straight and narrow.” Her father paused and turned away. “I’ve got to deal with management issues. The rest of the team has their own problems that they need to focus on. We don’t want to bench him, not with all the injuries we have. Our current lineup can get the job done. We need him at his best.”
Brice looked at her. Their gazes snagged. Helplessness and hope mingled in the dark green depths. The golden flecks winked at her like tiny lights. Frustration hardened his features. He opened his mouth to speak and then snapped it shut.
Ava pulled her gaze away from his and refocused on Alexi and her father. “You can say it, Dad. With my broken engagement and being between careers, I have time on my hands. Will I get paid for this? I’ll need somewhere to stay.” She didn’t mention her aunt selling her café or Perry’s cheating ass.
She decided to make the best of the situation. A little distance from her ex-fiancé would do her good, and if she got paid for it, even better. Plus, she wanted to understand this change in Brice. The arousal he inspired would have to go on the back burner. He needed her to focus on him and stop whatever reason he had for screwing up his talent.
James blew out a breath, relief on his face. “Of course, and you’ll be staying with Brice.”
Ava blinked. “Excuse me? You said he had women problems, and you want me to stay with him?” How can they be so stupid?
She studied them for a moment. Oh yeah, they’re men.
Ava turned her attention to Brice. The intensity burning in his eyes sucked the air from her lungs. Her pussy fluttered; her inner thighs tingled.
Brice looked away and swallowed. She watched, entranced. It took all her energy to remember the fact that they weren’t alone in the room. But she could still feel his gaze on her. He may have been a few feet away, but she felt his presence right next to her.
Memories of spending time together—seeing him on the quad, waving at him and Davis, watching hockey with him, rooting for the same team as him, getting him soup and making sure he was sleeping okay—flooded back into her mind. She could feel the warmth of his smile on her skin, the gratefulness in his eyes when she took care of him, his whispered words of thanks, the laughter that lit up his eyes and seemed to come from somewhere deep within. Among the memories was her sadness when he became disappointed that his family hadn’t called to check on him. She wanted everyone but Brice to go away so she could ask him what had happened. Why was he acting out? She could feel the tears stinging her eyes but refused to let them fall. With a mental shake she listened to her father’s words.
“I trust you, Ava. You can keep your hands to yourself, and you certainly won’t encourage him. But I need you in his apartment to make sure he doesn’t sneak someone in,” James offered. “There have been women who have made scenes at his apartment building. I don’t want to go through that again. We need positive press.”
Ava thought it over; no hotel bills, free room and board, the ability to be close to family and clear her head of her ex. There was one snag. “How long will I have to stay?” she asked. Ava needed to know so she could plan and figure things out, like how to remain neutral and help Brice get centered on hockey. Sex could wait; she’d been deprived of it this long. What was a few more weeks? And if she needed a little something, then she could let her fingers do the walking.
Alexi answered. “Well, it depends. We have a real shot at the play-offs. So it could be several weeks. If the situation gets too strained, we can always move you into an apartment across the hall. Just as long as you keep an eye on him.” He raised an eyebrow and looked over at her father.
James nodded, a smile on his face. “Yes, we could do all that and more. Besides, I love having you here with me. Your mother will be so happy to have you in the same town.” His smile widened to an all-out grin. Guilt dampened the lust that threatened to grow within her.
Ava smiled, but she fought to keep herself from giving in. “I want a contract put together so it’s all legal and crap.” She held up a hand to prevent their protests. “Just to say I’m working for you and all that and what my salary is. You know, the basics. Once I sign on, I move in. But I want to talk to Brice first. If he’s going to have me making his entire life miserable, then he’s got to know why I’m doing this and what my rules are.” There. Someone in the room without Stanley Cup fever had to be reasonable.
Brice snorted, and she ignored him.
James slid a paper across the tabletop, which she accepted and read over before turning her attention back to her father and Alexi. She didn’t dare look at Brice. Who knew what his face would reveal? She had dealt with contracts before when helping her aunt. She studied the agreement carefully. There were no clauses about sex or parties. Just an outline of what they wanted from her: keep Brice sober, get him to practice on time, and make sure he’s healthy. Any other issues that needed to be addressed were under her discretion.
“We didn’t have time to get into the weeds, so it’s just the basics. Do you approve?” her father asked.
She signed her name, initialed where she needed to, and dated it. “Yes.” She slid the document back to her father.
James glanced at Alexi, and they both nodded. “Fine. I’ll have this notarized and give you a copy tonight. You can stay with your mother and I before you move in. Is that all right? Practice is about to start, so you’ll have time to get the lay of the land in the area Brice lives and talk later. I’ll have the car at your disposal.”
“Totally fine.” She nibbled her bottom lip and tried to ignore the trepidation she felt. Ava loved her parents, but it had been a long time since she’d lived under the same roof with them. The love between James and Josie was both strong and embarrassing as hell. They may be in their fifties, but that didn’t exactly stop them from having sex or making sexual innuendos.
James gave her a mischievous grin. “We’ll behave, promise. And this will give you a chance to get reacquainted with him again. You and he went to the same college, and I know you two knew each other back then.”
Ava had hoped her parents wouldn’t have that information, but apparently the world hated her. “Nope, never met him,” she lied. “Besides I didn’t hang out at the frat house all that much. It wasn’t exactly hygienic.” She wrinkled her nose, remembering the smell of stale beer and pizza and something that had been living in their refrigerator for God knows how long. How anyone got laid in the frat house was beyond her.
“You didn’t have a problem with it during Christmas,” Brice finally spoke up.
“Ava, no need to be shy. I know you knew him, but we don’t have time to rehash the past. We have a practice get to,” her father stated.
“My memory of that time is fuzzy.” Ava didn’t want to think about that time, not with him in the room. The pain of his rejection and wondering if it was because of her weight hung in the back of her mind, threatening to come to the forefront if she let it.
James frowned. “Oh, well. At least you two have hockey in common. That’s a start.” He beamed at her despite a question in his eyes.
Ava couldn’t resist smiling back, even though guilt pinched at her. “Yeah, even if I haven’t watched a game in years. Perry hated the sport, thought it was too violent. Guess I’ll have to get a Hockey for Dummies
Alexi made a growling noise in his throat. “Some people just don’t know what the fuck we’re all about. Shame. We could’ve used someone like you cheering us on.” His eyes filled with mirth and a spark of trouble.
Heat flushed her cheeks. Brice pulled her from her thoughts by clearing his throat. “Time to go, captain,” Brice stated as he motioned for Alexi to precede him out of the office. Neither man made a move to leave.
“Alexi, that’s my daughter,” James warned.
She glanced away. It had been ages since a man had gazed at or even flirted with her. She couldn’t count the glimpses Brice threw her way—he was off limits, even if he was a delectable distraction. She shook her head.
She remembered the young man he’d been back in college, so in love with hockey; now it had come to this. “He was just being cute, Dad, no worries. Besides I don’t date hockey players.” Ava knew she was lying. Hockey players could be on the list, but she’d never thought they’d be interested in her.
“Just snobby, cheating, lawyer assholes,” James muttered.
“Dad!” Ava couldn’t help but grin. Her mood lifted a bit.
“You know I’m right. Anyway, this will take your mind off missing that bullet. I’ll call the car around. You get settled in and maybe get a new jacket?” He winced and looked away. “It’s a bit bright, honey, and well, it’s a bit big on you. You’re a healthy girl, but that’s just… You look like a snowball with arms and legs.”
Ava rolled her eyes. “It’s freeze-your-tits-off cold outside. I lived in Florida most of my adult life. ’Scuse me for wanting to stay warm.”
Alexi’s face turned red; then he started to guffaw loudly. Her father followed suit. Even Brice chuckled. Ava ignored all that and got up to leave. Any talking to Brice would have to wait. Practice came first. “You guys go to practice, and I’ll talk to you later, Brice.” She grabbed the handle of her luggage and wheeled it out of the office. She bypassed the rink and headed straight for the car waiting in the parking lot. Once she was inside the warm interior, she ordered the driver to take her to her parents’ home. After she got settled, she’d check out Brice’s apartment building and get a good look. She was also going to look for a place to live once this whole thing with Brice was over. Maybe she could kill two birds with one stone.