First Chapter: Rookie Move

Friday, January 29th

31 Days Before the NHL Trade Deadline

Brooklyn, New York

Top Team Headline: Will the Brooklyn Bruisers Name a Coach At Last? Press Conference Called for 10 AM —New York Post

Cobblestone streets did not pair well with high heels. So Georgia Worthington took her time walking to work through Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood.

Luckily, the office was just another block away. Her job didn’t often call for heels and a suit, but today she needed to look authoritative. That wasn’t easy when you were five-feet-three-inches tall, and every athlete and coach in the Brooklyn Bruisers organization towered over you. Today she’d need those extra inches. The press conference she’d planned would prove to the organization that they didn’t need to hire another senior publicist to replace her boss, who had left two months ago.

Every day that went by with Georgia at the helm of the hockey team’s PR effort was a victory. She only needed a little more time to prove she could handle the job alone.

Just like she needed a little more practice time in these shoes. Georgia was practically invincible in a pair of tennis shoes. She could serve a ball down the court at a hundred miles per hour. She could dive toward the net for a short shot, return the ball, and then pivot in any direction. But walking down Water Street in her only pair of three-inch Pradas? That was a challenge.

It was a sunny February morning, and a stiff breeze blew off the East River, though Brooklyn was especially beautiful at this hour, when the slanting sunshine gave the brick facades a rosy hue and sparkled off each antique windowpane. She turned (carefully) onto Gold Street, quickening her pace toward the office. The doormen of the buildings she passed were in the midst of their morning routine—sweeping the sidewalks, hosing off any filth that may have landed there in the night. That was more or less what she’d done herself for the past few years—leaning hard into the morning sunshine, banishing the darkness into the well-scrubbed corners of her mind.

In two hours she would host a press conference where the team’s owner would announce that the newest NHL franchise had finally anointed a new head coach. She’d set the whole thing up by herself, and it needed to go off flawlessly.

They all had a lot riding on this announcement. As the youngest team in the conference, the team needed the visibility. It had been not quite two years since Georgia’s boss had bought the Long Island franchise and rebranded it as a Brooklyn team. It was a risky maneuver, one that many sports pundits had already decided would fail.

As if the stakes weren’t high enough for Georgia already, the new coach just happened to be her father. After twenty years coaching college teams and then a stint as assistant defensive coach for the Rangers, he’d just agreed to take the riskiest NHL job in the nation.

Having your dad show up and outrank you at the office wasn’t exactly a dream come true. But Georgia had always been close to her father, and she knew this was a big step for him. She was just going to have to make the best of it.

And anyway, he was a tough coach, and she wanted her boys to win, right? No, she needed them to win. There was a chorus of voices ready to write the team off as a failure. They said the tristate area had too many hockey teams. They said the Internet billionaire who’d bought the team didn’t know what he was doing. It was Georgia’s job to help combat all those unwanted opinions with a polished public image.

Their critics were wrong, anyway. In the first place, there could never be too many hockey teams. And she’d seen signs that the young owner knew exactly what he was doing.

She climbed the steps to the team’s headquarters and tugged on the brass handle. Georgia wasn’t ashamed to admit that she loved the office building with the glee that other people reserved for obsessing over a new lover. She liked the weight of the big wooden door in her hand, and the golden sheen of the wooden floors inside. Like many of the buildings in this neighborhood, their headquarters had been a factory at the turn of the century. The team’s owner—Internet billionaire Nate Kattenberger—had bought it as a wreck and had every inch of it lovingly restored. Every time she stepped into this entryway, with its exposed brick walls and its old soda lamps overhead, she felt lucky.

Just inside the entry hall hung a wall-mounted screen showing clips of the boys winning in Toronto. Back when she’d just started as the publicity and marketing assistant, Georgia had edited that film herself. It gave her a private thrill to know that the first thing every visitor to headquarters saw was her handiwork.

Working for the Bruisers was her first job out of college. She’d landed it when Nate Kattenberger had just begun his tenure as owner. He’d fired nearly everyone from the old franchise and started fresh. That was a bad deal for the lifers, of course, but pretty lucky for a twenty-two year old new graduate. In the early days she’d done everything from fetching coffee to answering phones to arranging photo shoots.

Nate still referred to her as Employee Number Three. You had to know Nate to understand that the nickname was a high form of praise. At Internet companies, being an early employee was a status symbol.

Georgia didn’t care if she was Employee Number Three or number 333. But she really wanted to hang onto the top post in publicity.

When the senior publicist quit eight weeks ago to move to California with his boyfriend, Georgia was given his job on an interim basis. But so far the general manager (Employee Number Two) had been too busy trading players before the deadline to shop around for a more seasoned PR replacement.

At twenty-four years old, she was (at least temporarily) the senior publicist of an NHL franchise.

Pinch me, she thought as her heels clicked importantly on the shellacked floors. From the lobby, a girl could follow the left-hand passageway toward the athletic facility and the brand-new practice rink that Kattenberger had built. But Georgia went the other way, toward the office wing on the right. The double doors in her path were made from wavy old bottle glass, and she loved the way they gave the hallway beyond an underwater sheen until she pushed open the door.

The first sound she heard on the other side of the door was her father’s voice. And he was yelling.

Uh-oh.

Later, when she reran the events of the day in her mind, she’d remember this as the moment when the wheels came off. And it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet.

“Why am I even here?” her father hollered. “You said I’d have veto power over your trades. But I’m in the building ten fucking minutes when I find out that you took a player I don’t want.”

“Actually,” another voice began. Georgia knew that voice, too. It belonged to Nate, the thirty-two-year-old owner of the team. The self-made billionaire had built a browser search engine in his dorm room eleven years ago which was now active on eight hundred million mobile devices.

Nate started a great many of his sentences with the word “actually.”

“Actually,” he said again, “we grabbed this player one day before you stepped into the building. Totally our prerogative. Read your contract.”

“I shouldn’t have to read my fucking contract!” her dad hollered. “I put my whole career on the line to lead a team that everyone thinks will fail. You said, Trust me, Karl. I need you, Karl. And then you pull this crap?”

“Legally . . .”

“‘Legally’ is for pussies. That’s some underhanded shit you just pulled, and a real man admits that.”

Oh Jesus no. She began skating in her heels toward Mr. Kattenberger’s office, hoping to end this conversation. Calling the owner’s manhood into question was not a good strategy. The boss was a little touchy about that.

Okay, a lot touchy.

When she rounded the corner into the outer office, her heart dove. She counted two or three bodies as she passed by them in a blur. If any of them were reporters, they’d just overheard every ugly word of the argument in Nate Kattenberger’s office. If any of them recorded this dustup, her week had just gotten twice as long.

She ripped open the door to Nate’s office and slid inside. “Gentlemen,” she said quietly. As she feared, the two men were staring each other down, shoulders squared as if for battle. They were an interestingly mismatched pair—Nate with his steely eyes and his five thousand dollar suit on a lean frame, versus her square-jawed jock of a dad with his military haircut and I-eat-men-like-you-for-breakfast snarl.

“Princess!” her father barked. “I didn’t know you worked for a weasel.”

“Coach,” she warned. She’d decided ahead of time that she would call him Coach at work. Because calling her own father by his first name was just weird. And calling someone “dad” at the office was not good for a girl’s image. “Listen to me,” she begged. “We are expecting thirty or forty reporters in this building today. And there are people out there listening to you two chew each other up. That’s not what we want in the sports section tomorrow. So you can have this argument using your inside voices.”

“He just . . .” Nate began.

Georgia held up a hand. “Your publicist says to tone it down right now, or I’m sending both of you to the penalty box.”

They stared each other down while she held her breath. Her father folded his meaty arms in front of his chest. “We’re not finished with this conversation,” he hissed. “If that kid’s contract is unsigned, I’m tearing it up.”

“Too late!” Nate said cheerily as her father’s lip curled. “They sent us a scan of the signed file last night. Georgia, please add our newest player to your press release. We’ll have two additions to the Bruisers to announce today.” He reached across his desk and handed her a file folder.

“Yes, captain.” The boss had a thing for Star Trek, too.

Her father gave her a look. But what else could she say? Georgia and the big boss had a great relationship, and that was because she’d figured out early on that Nate had no idea how to be a team player. When you make your first billion while other college kids are playing beer pong, it’s the social skills that suffer.

And she’d warned her father that Nate was egotistical. You have to handle Nate. And shouting at him always failed. So she gave her father a look right back. We talked about this, she telegraphed.

He’s such an asshole, his sneer replied.

And it was probably true. But when she looked at Nate she saw a kid who’d been shoved into lockers during high school. And now he wanted the last laugh, taking every opportunity to throw his (nerdy) weight around. He’d bought a hockey team, and he was going to make the jocks do his bidding, at least until the day he realized that vindication wasn’t everything in life.

“Now,” she said quietly. “Let’s go over the announcement.” She set her leather briefcase on the corner of Nate’s egotistically sized desk and pulled a folder from the outside pocket. From inside, she pulled a page for each of them. “Nate will introduce you, Coach. I have him leading with your win record at the college level, because it’s pretty spectacular.” She winked at her father and saw him relax by a degree or two. “Then we’ll hit your NHL years, for depth . . .” From her coat pocket, her phone began dancing a jig. There was too much going on this morning to ignore it. “Sorry, one sec.”

She pulled out the phone and took a peek at its massive screen. Everyone who worked for Kattenberger was issued a big-screened, turbofast, ubersecure phone that Nate had designed himself. The call she’d received wasn’t business, though. It was from her old friend DJ. It wasn’t until after she rejected the call that she realized his timing was a little odd. DJ never called her at work. It made her worry that today’s big announcement had already leaked to the media.

God, she hoped it hadn’t.

“Georgia,” her father grumbled, breaking her train of thought, “was this the shirt you meant for me to wear with this tie?” Her father tugged at his half Windsor knot. The tie was purple, of course—the team color. Georgia had messengered it to her childhood home out on Long Island yesterday. The fact that she still bought her father’s clothes for him was not something she wanted to put in a press release. But Georgia’s mother had passed away when she was six years old, and her father did not like to shop.

“You look dashing,” she smiled at him, hoping he’d lighten up. “Now, can you two play nicely together until after the press conference? It’s either that, or you need to double my salary, because I’ll have to work twenty-four hours a day to undo the damage.”

Coach Worthington sighed. “I won’t shout anymore. But we can’t keep this player.”

Bullshit,” Nate hissed. “The kid is good. And I got him cheap.”

“Quiet!” she whispered. “I’m begging you both. Now I need to head into my office for half an hour, before we’re overrun with reporters. Stay out of trouble until the press conference, okay? I’ll fetch you right before I speak to the players.”

Her father set his jaw into a grim expression of acceptance. Georgia was fairly certain he wouldn’t start yelling again when she left the room. He was passionate, but he was smart, too. “Okay, honey.” He put a meaty palm on her shoulder.

Unfortunately, she picked up her heavy briefcase at just the same time, and the weight of his hand destabilized her. “Whoa,” she said as she teetered on the stilts that passed for her shoes.

Her father reacted fast, catching her by the elbow before she could fall down. “Christ, Princess! Are you okay? Should you be wearing those things? I thought you swore off heels after that incident at your eighth grade graduation . . .”

Nate snickered behind his desk, and Georgia felt her face flush.

She stood up straight again. “Coach, a favor? Don’t call me Princess at work.”

Her father tucked the strap of her briefcase over her shoulder, the way you would for someone who was about five years old. “Sorry, Miss Worthington,” he grinned. Then he pecked her on the cheek.

Yeah, they were going to have to work on his style of office interaction. But at least he wasn’t yelling anymore.

She made her way back to the outer office of the C-suite. Sure enough, a couple of the people sitting on Nate’s exquisite leather sofas tried hard to look bored as she passed through.

Not a good sign.

Georgia hiked her bag a little higher on her shoulder as she turned into the hallway. She gave a wave through the open doorway to the bullpen area, where most of the assistants and interns sat. “Morning,” she called to Roger, the publicity assistant.

“Morning!” he waved. “I’m going for donuts in a few minutes. You want jam-filled or chocolate?”

Georgia dug into her pocket for some money, noticing that Roger had not asked if she wanted a donut. That was just assumed. Georgia’s metabolism was well known around these parts. “Jam,” she said, darting in to put a five on his desk. “Thanks. You’re the best.”

He gave her a salute as she stepped back into the hallway to open her office door. Her keys eluded her, though. She had to dig all the way into the bottom of her bag to find them. When she finally fit her office key into the lock and turned, it was heartening to hear the squeak of old wood giving way. At least for today, this office was still all hers. She stepped inside, but then dropped the keys to the floor, where they made a small metallic crashing sound. She bent over to pick them up, and had to smile because the ground was further away than usual. So this is what it’s like to be tall.

If she’d been just a little less clumsy, she might have missed the conversation at the other end of the hallway.

“Come right this way,” she heard her coworker and roommate Becca say, the clomp of her Dr. Martens echoing through the grand old passageway. “The general manager is still sitting in traffic, but Nate is excited to meet you.” Becca was Nate’s assistant, and Georgia lingered half a second to wave her down and ask if she wanted a donut, too. But Becca didn’t happen to look in Georgia’s direction as she led a tall man down the corridor. Something about his gait snagged Georgia’s subconscious. So she took a second look.

And that’s when her heart took off like a manic bunny rabbit. Because she knew that man. She knew the chiseled shape of his masculine jaw, and the length of his coal-black eyelashes.

Oh my God.

Omigod, omigod, omigod.

“How was your flight?” Becca asked him, oblivious to the fact that Georgia was spying.

“Not too bad. I got in late last night.”

The sound of his voice fluttered right inside Georgia’s chest. It was the same smoky sweet timbre that used to whisper into her ear while they made love. She hadn’t let herself remember that sound in a long time.

Now it was giving her goosebumps. The good kind.

“Welcome to Brooklyn,” Becca said while Georgia trembled. “Are you familiar with the area?”

“Grew up about thirty miles from here,” he answered while chills broke out across her back.

Holding her breath, Georgia eased her office door further closed, until only a couple of inches remained. She could not be caught like this—freaked-out and speechless, hiding behind a door.

The movement caught Becca’s eye, though. Georgia saw her turn her head in her direction and then pick her out in the crack where the door was still open. Becca raised one eyebrow—the one with the barbell piercing in it.

All Georgia could do was close her eyes and pray that Becca wouldn’t call out a greeting.

There was a pause before Georgia heard Becca say, “Right this way, please.”

Quietly, Georgia stepped into her office and shut the door. After flipping on the light, she let her briefcase and pocketbook slide right to the floor. Only the folder that Nate had given her was still in her shaking hands. She flipped it open, her eyes searching for the new player’s name on the page.

But she didn’t even need the paperwork to confirm what her racing heart had already figured out. The newest player for the Brooklyn Bruisers was none other than Leonardo “Leo” Trevi, a six-foot-two, left-handed forward. Also known as her high school boyfriend, the boy she’d loved with all her heart until the day that she’d dumped him. And now he was here?

“Thanks, universe,” she whispered into the stillness of her office.

After tossing the folder on her desk, she gathered up her bags and shook off her coat. She sat down in her office chair, her back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard out the window behind her. Usually she stopped for a moment just to appreciate the view, but now her phone was buzzing again. It was DJ calling once more, and now she understood why—her old friend DJ just happened to be Leo Trevi’s little brother.

The phone stopped ringing before she could answer it, but a text appeared next. Call me? I need to tell you something, so you won’t be shocked later.

Georgia’s answering text was only two words: too late.

The phone rang in her hand again, and she answered it this time. “Hi,” she said. “How are you?”

“Pretty damn good,” he said. “I’m on winter break in Aspen with Lianne.”

Nice. I sort of remember what vacations are like. Though the details are fuzzy.”

He chuckled in her ear. DJ and his older brother sounded nothing alike, which was one reason she found it easy to stay close to him. Their friendship was totally separate from the past she had with his brother. “Gigi, are you okay?” he asked.

“Um, sure?” she said, convincing nobody.

“I mean . . .” He was quiet for a moment. “You never talk about him. Like, never. And whenever I mention him in passing, you always change the subject.”

That was entirely true. “Why can’t you be like other men, who don’t notice things?”

“Sorry, girl,” he snickered. “Have you seen him yet?”

“No,” she said quickly. Because she was sure DJ was asking whether she’d spoken to Leo, and not whether she’d spied on him through a two-inch crack in the door. “All right, then. Since I never ask, give me the 411 on your brother.”

“Well, the big news is that he’s the newest rookie forward for the Brooklyn Bruisers.”

“You’re hysterical.” Some warning would have been nice. But trades happened swiftly and secretly. That was the nature of the beast.

“He just got the call just yesterday, Gi. I heard late last night when I finally turned on my phone and found a voice mail from my mom.”

“Huh,” she said. Her boss had been a busy man yesterday. Why had he bothered acquiring a new player the day before her father showed up? Even if he’d made it too loudly, her dad did have a point.

“Leo’s been busting his ass on that AHL team for a season and a half. He’d been hoping to get called up to Detroit, but a trade gets the job done just the same.”

“What else?” Georgia asked, wincing at the vagueness of her own question. The things she really wanted to know were the things she did not have a right to ask. Did Leo ever talk about her? Did he have a girlfriend? Or worse—was he engaged to be married?

God. That idea made her shudder. If there was a fiancée in his life, she needed to know now so she could work on her game face.

“I dunno what he’s been up to this season. I haven’t seen him since Christmas. But I guess I’ll be coming to a Bruisers game pretty soon. If they’re really going to play him in the big house.”

“Come anytime,” she said. “Can’t wait to see you.”

“Let me guess—that’s not what you would have said to Leo.”

Busted. “Well . . .” she cleared her throat. “It’s hard.”

He went quiet again. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be. It’s been more than five years, you know? He’ll probably be really happy to see you.”

She doubted that very much. The last time they’d spoken was the day she dumped him. “We’ll get through somehow,” she said, praying it was true.

“Hang in there,” DJ said. “Call me, okay? Lianne and I aren’t skiing today. We’re too sore from yesterday.”

“How will you fill the time, then? Just the two of you in a hotel room . . .” She giggled into the phone.

“No comment,” he said, laughing. “Bye.”

“Bye!” She hung up the phone with a smile, but it faded quickly. Talking to DJ was easy. Talking to his brother would not be.

And she had a press conference to throw. Pushing Leo’s file folder away from her on the desk, she tried to get to work.

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