Brooklyn, April 2016
The first time Lauren Williams ever drank a shot of whiskey in front of her boss was the night the Brooklyn Bruisers clinched a play-offs berth for the first time since Nate Kattenberger bought the team.
It was ten o’clock, and the game against Pittsburgh had just rolled into its first overtime period. The dozen or so people in Nate’s private box were tense, leaning forward in their plush seats, waiting to learn what fate had in store for the franchise. The pundits had said it couldn’t be done—that a young team with a new coach couldn’t coalesce to advance into the postseason.
Freaking pundits. A lifetime of hockey upsets had taught Lauren not to trust them. Still, when team captain Patrick O’Doul buried a slap shot in the corner of the net, securing their victory, her breath caught in her throat. No, gasped her poor, bruised heart.
“YES!” shrieked the fans.
That’s when Lauren walked straight over to the bar at the side of the team owner’s private box and poured herself two fingers of scotch, neat. Lifting it, Lauren drained her shot.
Not that anyone noticed her sudden affinity for whiskey. The rest of the VIPs in the room rushed over to congratulate her boss. It was a big moment for the young billionaire who owned the team. A great moment. And somewhere deep inside in her creaky soul Lauren was happy for him.
But this was a disaster for her.
Lauren forced herself to walk over and look down at the rink where the players were celebrating their victory. They’d convened into a knot of purple jerseys, rubbing helmets and slapping asses in the way of victorious athletes everywhere.
There had been a time when this team had been Lauren’s whole life.
Until the sudden, awful moment when it wasn’t anymore.
Somewhere in that clot of players down below was the one who’d turned her entire world upside down. Not only had he broken her heart, but he’d made it impossible for her to feel comfortable in the organization to which she’d devoted more than a decade of her life. For the past two years, she’d avoided this team, this rink, and everything to do with hockey.
She’d avoided the entire borough of Brooklyn, except when her boss’s business brought the two of them over the bridge for a meeting. And the moment she was free to go, Lauren always hightailed it back to Manhattan where she belonged.
But not this month.
A week ago, Nate had asked her to manage the hockey team’s office for the balance of the season. The young woman who usually did that job had suffered a concussion, and he needed someone capable to step in. Since Lauren used to do precisely that job for the team before the franchise moved to Brooklyn, she was the obvious choice. Unfortunately. And if the Bruisers hadn’t made it to the play-offs, she would have been finished with them by next week.
The Scotch in Lauren’s belly fired her courage, and she glanced down at the ice again. The play-offs were composed of four seven-game series, each taking more than two weeks. The Stanley Cup wouldn’t be decided for two months.
There was no telling how far the team would go. So Lauren would have to spend at least a couple more weeks traveling with the very people she’d worked so hard to avoid. And there was no way out of it, unless she wanted to quit her job. And that wasn’t happening.
The next sound she heard was the pop of a cork. “Did it!” cried Rebecca Rowley, the woman who was supposed to be running the Bruisers’ Brooklyn office. She held a magnum of Cristal in two hands, which she now levered toward the first of a row of champagne flutes.
Lauren’s eyes narrowed at this display of joy. Miss Perky was supposedly recovering from a rather serious head injury she’d sustained by walking out onto the ice rink in her street shoes. What had seemed like a minor fall had resulted in terrible symptoms for the poor fool. She’d been absent from work for a week already, and was therefore the cause of Lauren’s sudden craving for Scotch whiskey.
But now Becca passed around glasses as if nothing in the world were wrong with her. She poured another glass as her friend Georgia—one of the team publicists—skated into the room with a grin on her face. “Press conference in 10 minutes guys. Oh! Champagne.”
“Have some.” Becca handed Georgia a glass, then moved on to their boss, who gave her a hundred watt smile. “I’m so happy for you,” Becca crowed, stretching her arms around the billionaire and giving him a big friendly squeeze.
Nate looked a little stunned by the full-frontal embrace. As usual, he did a poor job of concealing his reaction to Rebecca. His arms did what they probably always wanted to do, and closed around her back. His eyes fell shut, too.
Lauren had to look away. The yearning just rose off Nate like a mist. Hell—hugging Rebecca might be as exciting to Nate as the hockey victory itself.
Rebecca pulled back a moment later, as oblivious to him as she always was. She grabbed another glass of champagne off the table and held it out to Lauren. “Champagne? I know you aren’t really a drinker but . . .”
Lauren took the glass from Miss Perky and took a gulp immediately. “Thanks.”
“You’re . . . welcome,” Becca said, her eyes full of surprise. Then she scooped up two more glasses and moved off to serve someone else, her hips swaying to the victory music that was playing in the stadium—“No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys.
Lauren checked her boss’s face, and found his gaze tracking Becca across the walnut-paneled room. Lauren had been witness to this little romantic farce for the past two years. It was like living in a sitcom that she could never shut off.
And yet, if Nate’s pining for Becca were the most irritating thing about Lauren’s situation at work, she wouldn’t be drinking tonight.
Her problem wasn’t with the work she’d be doing these next few weeks. Before Nate Kattenberger bought and rebranded the Long Island team, she’d spent ten years working in the Syosset offices. It had been Lauren that managed the team’s office during its last three play-offs runs. Heck, Lauren was the veteran and Becca was the rookie.
But then, two years ago, the young Internet whiz made a lot of changes to the organization. Lauren expected to be fired along with the rest of the casualties. In fact, her father—the team’s general manager—was the first person Nate axed after the purchase went through.
Lauren wasn’t fired, though. On the contrary, when Nate moved the team to Brooklyn, he stunned her by moving her even further—whisking her into the corporate headquarters of his Internet company in Manhattan.
She’d been ecstatic about this promotion, since working for Nate’s Fortune 500 company was exactly the sort of corporate leap she’d always hoped to make. Not only that, but the move away from the hockey team solved a lot of problems for Lauren all in one fell swoop, including the one huge problem that had suddenly knocked her on her ass.
And that problem was down on the ice right now, draped in sweaty goalie pads, lining up to skate past the other team for the traditional handshake. For the millionth time this week, Lauren closed her eyes and prayed to be spirited back to Nate’s office tower where there weren’t any hockey players, and there weren’t any reminders of the man who’d crushed her spirit.
But as long as Becca was unable to work, Lauren was stuck in Brooklyn. And now that the Bruisers had won their freaking play-offs slot, it meant a hailstorm of planning and administrative overtime. Four rounds, potentially. Two months. And travel.
“Lauren.” Nate’s voice cut through her reverie. “Please call Becca a car. She needs to get home and get some rest.”
“Omigod, I’m fine.” Rebecca rolled her eyes. “I can just walk, or grab a cab. And all I do is rest.”
But Nate gave Lauren a look over Becca’s head. And that look said, get her a car.
“No big deal,” Lauren sighed, taking a healthy slug of her champagne. “I have drivers waiting outside already.” She’d dealt with transportation during the third period of the game, while everyone else was screaming encouragements toward the ice. “You should take”—she pulled her Katt Phone out of her bag—“number 117. It’s parked at the curb outside the rink door.”
Nate gave her a thankful nod. Then he went over to the coat rack in the corner and fetched Becca’s leopard-print jacket. He eased it onto her shoulders until Becca set down her empty soda glass and shoved her arms into the jacket, an irritated look on her face. “Pushy,” she muttered under her breath.
Lovesick, Lauren countered in her head. Did it make her a horrible person that she wanted to knock their heads together right now?
“Let’s go, Nate!” Georgia said, clapping her hands. “You can’t be late for your own press conference.” She grabbed his suit jacket off a chair and herded him toward the door.
The fact that their fearless leader was actually wearing a suit spoke of tonight’s significance. Nate was a jeans-hoodie-and-800-dollar-sneakers kind of guy, even on game night.
Lauren followed her boss, the publicist, and Rebecca into the private elevator, wondering why she couldn’t at least be happy for Nate. He’d wanted this so badly. But all Lauren felt was dread for the next few weeks. And a healthy dose of anger, too.
Bitter much? Why yes, I still am.
This was an unpleasant realization. Most of the time, Lauren was able to stay away from both hockey and Brooklyn. In Manhattan, she was able to focus on her excellent job, her tidy little Murray Hill neighborhood apartment and the college degree she was just finishing up. She was too damn busy to feel bitter. But as the elevator slid lower toward the locker rooms, so did her stomach.
The doors parted momentarily on the main level for Becca’s exit. “Good night!” Miss Perky called, stepping off the elevator.
“Night, babe!” Georgia called after her. “Rest up! We need you back!”
Do we ever.
Becca gave them a cheeky salute and then walked away, while Nate watched, a worried look on his face. When the doors closed again, he finally gave his attention to Georgia. “Okay, what’s the scoop? I’m not used to giving victory speeches.”
“Just don’t sound smug,” Georgia begged. “Try for grateful.”
He smirked. “As in, Brooklyn should be grateful to me for bringing the team here?” She rolled her eyes and he laughed. “Joking! Okay, how about this—I’m proud of my team’s success at landing a play-offs spot.”
“I’m humbled by my team’s inspiring efforts,” Georgia suggested.
“Sure. I can be humble.”
“No, you can’t,” Lauren interjected. “But you can fake it when necessary.”
Nate grinned. “You don’t do humble either.”
“That’s why you have me working in the office and not in front of the camera,” Lauren pointed out. “I’m going to start booking hotel rooms in D.C. in the morning. It’s not jinxing us if I do it now, right?” Nate had refused to even consider travel plans before they were officially headed to the first round of the play-offs.
“Bombs away,” he said. “But we need the whole organization in one hotel,” he cautioned. “Coach will burst a vessel if the guys aren’t all together. Team unity and all that. If you have any trouble call the league and ask for help.”
“Got it,” Lauren said. She’d done this all before, and not that many years ago. Although it felt like another lifetime.
The doors parted once again, and Georgia put a hand on the boss’s arm. “Slap on that humble face, Nate. Here we go.”
An entire corridor full of reporters swung their lenses in Nate’s direction. They began to shout questions as he made his way past their cameras. “Press conference starts in five!” Georgia called. “This way, please!”
Nate led the way into their press room, which would be packed tonight. At the other end of the hall she spotted Coach Worthington and defenseman Patrick O’Doul. The team’s captain was already showered and wearing his suit. The new publicist—Tommy—must have bribed the guy to get him camera-ready so fast. And he was smiling.
O’Doul was not a smiler. The whole world was turned on its ear tonight.
She followed her boss into the press conference where she spent the next half hour trying to appear joyful while avoiding eye contact with any of the players. Just another day at the office.
It was after eleven o’clock before the room emptied again after speeches and Q & A. Lauren had reported to work fifteen hours ago already. That was life in professional sports. Now she faced a car ride home to midtown. At least there would be no traffic on the FDR.
She’d given away all the hired cars already, so Lauren found herself on the Flatbush Avenue sidewalk, tapping her Katt Phone to summon an Uber driver. The app gave her a four minute wait. She used the time to compose a monstrous to-do list for tomorrow. Not only did she need to plan for the play-offs, but she needed to check in on the Manhattan office, making sure that the place wasn’t going to seed in her absence.
And at some point during this fiasco she’d have to do a final revision of the senior thesis she was about to turn in. She’d only taken one last course this semester. That was all she needed to graduate, and her work was almost complete, thank God. If the Brooklyn Bruisers wrecked her odds for receiving her diploma this June, she would not be responsible for her actions.
Nate wouldn’t let that happen, Lauren’s conscience whispered. Her boss had made every possible accommodation these past two years as Lauren struggled to get her degree. Nate, for all his quirks, liked to see his people succeed. She was still mad at him, though, for asking this of her. The man knew exactly why she avoided the team, and he’d put her in this position anyway.
“Hi,” said a voice beside her.
Startled, Lauren whirled to find the very reason for her misery standing there on the sidewalk, his rugged face regarding her curiously.
Her stomach flipped over and then dove straight down to her knees. Mike Beacon in a suit had always been her undoing. His tie was loosened already, showing her a glimpse of the contrast between the olive skin at his throat and the crisp white dress shirt he wore. A five o’clock shadow dusted the planes of his strong jaw, gathering in the sexy cleft of his chin.
She used to put her thumb right there beneath his full lower lip as she tugged his face closer for a kiss.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Fine, thanks!” she insisted, snapping out of it. She tore her gaze off of the only man she’d ever loved and looked up Flatbush for the RAV4 Uber had promised her. Every muscle in her body was tense as she waited for the goalie to just walk away.
Which he did not do.
She turned and pinned him with what the assistants in the Manhattan office termed the Lauren Glare. The laserlike effect of her stare made interns put away their phones and get back to work. It seared incompetent messengers into delivering packages in a timely fashion. It was a “powerful and terrifying weapon,” according to her coworkers.
Beacon just smiled.
What an asshole.
“Why are you still here?” she asked.
“Because you’re standing on a dark sidewalk at midnight?”
Seriously? This from a man so obviously unconcerned with her well-being? If he gave a damn, he wouldn’t have walked out on her two years ago without an explanation. He wouldn’t have tossed her heart on the street, stomped on it, and then vanished from her life. Forty-eight hours before she realized he was gone, they’d been circling real-estate listings in the newspaper together, discussing whether they needed a three-bedroom apartment, or whether two would be plenty. While naked. In bed.
Lauren didn’t remind him now, though, because she’d said it all before. For weeks she’d sobbed into his voice mail because he didn’t pick up the phone. She’d begged for an explanation, wondering what she’d done wrong.
There was really no point in going there again. “Just don’t, okay?” she demanded instead.
“Don’t what?” his husky voice asked.
Oh, for Christ’s sake. She turned to face him, her blood pressure doubling. “Don’t be nice. Don’t talk to me. Don’t look at me. Just stay between the pipes and guard the damn net. And leave me the hell alone.”
He swallowed, and she saw a flicker of a shadow cross his face, but it was gone before she could name the emotion. Note to self—never square off against a champion goalie. They were the masters of playing it cool when they needed to. Lauren found herself staring again, trying not to remember how easy it had been to get him to toss off the mask and really live. “Nobody gets me like you do,” he used to whisper into her ear.
It had been a lie, though. Obviously.
A quick tap on a car horn broke the weird spell that had come over her. She turned to see a RAV4 against the curb, a man’s face peering up at her that matched the profile picture of the Uber driver she’d summoned.
Thank you, baby Jesus.
Without another word Lauren got into the back seat and shut the door. She couldn’t resist a parting glance up at Beacon, though.
He stood there, hands jammed in his pockets, watching her car pull away.