Hard Hitter(5)

By: Sarina Bowen


But when the bus pulled up in front of their hotel, Leo Trevi didn’t let him escape upstairs like he wanted to. “Come on,” he said. “I want you to meet Adam Hartley. Can’t believe I played an NHL game against my college buddy. Unreal.”

Patrick knew he could beg off after one whiskey, so he let himself be led to a table in the corner of the bar where a couple of his teammates already sat. He eased himself into the chair like an old man, hoping the painkillers he’d taken would kick in soon. “Evening, Georgia,” he said to the publicist, who was also Leo’s fiancée. “Thanks for leaving me out of the press conference.”

Georgia Worthington grinned at him. “Why, Doulie! If someone else said that, I’d think he was being facetious.”

“Fuck, no.” Everyone laughed. “Who skates off the ice, drenched, and says, I’d love it if someone shoved a camera in my face right now?”

“Nobody loves the camera itself,” Castro argued. “You love being worthy of it.”

“Dude, you’d break the camera,” somebody said. Castro wadded up his cocktail napkin and threw it down the table.

Their drinks arrived, and Patrick had just taken his first sip when a voice rang out. “Somebody order some cookies?” A smiling guy approached the table with a giant bakery box in his hands. O’Doul recognized him as the rookie whose shots he’d blocked all night.

“Hartley!” Leo jumped up and hug-tackled the guy. “What’s in the box?”

“Cookies. Duh. After I lose a hockey game to my buddy, I like to eat cookies.” He slapped Trevi on the back. “Buy me a beer, punk.”

Trevi introduced his college friend to everyone, starting with his fiancée.

“Damn,” Hartley said. “Trevi’s getting hitched? Who would have thunk it?” He gave Georgia a potent smile. “Can I just tell you how relieved we all are? He dated the most awful girls in college.”

She laughed, and Trevi groaned. “This again?”

When it was Patrick’s turn to shake hands, he reached across the table without standing up. If the guy thought he was rude, it wouldn’t be the first time someone did. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

Trevi sat back down, one arm around Georgia, the other around his college friend. Hartley opened the box and passed cookies around the table, and then the boys began to reminisce. They had several years of memories to chew through, apparently. Pranks and dormitory shenanigans. “And then you hid that thing under Orsen’s bed! Gawd. The stench . . .”

Patrick listened with half an ear. He didn’t have ye olde college tales, like these kids. And the idea of living in a dormitory gave him the willies. It sounded too much like the group homes where he’d grown up in Minnesota. Too many people. Too loud.

The minute he got his first paycheck from the minor leagues when he was nineteen, he’d started apartment hunting. He was still in the Midwest then, where housing was just cheap enough that he’d found something. It was a room over someone’s garage, but it had a private entrance and it was all his. He liked his silence. On the team, he had a reputation for being fair, and a sturdy team captain. But he wasn’t cuddly, that was for damn sure.

Across the table from him, Georgia sat up a little straighter and began to wave at someone across the room. A moment later, O’Doul caught a whiff of lavender. He didn’t even need to turn to know who’d come to stand beside him. Ari Bettini, the team’s massage therapist and yoga instructor, greeted Georgia. She did this by putting a hand on Patrick’s shoulder and leaning over to kiss Georgia’s cheek.

Against his better judgment, O’Doul took a deep breath of Ari’s essence. There was something about her that really turned his crank. From her dark, unflappable eyes to the irreverent gemstone in her nose, he liked the whole package. The soft, coal-dark waves of her hair brushed his ear as she righted herself again.

Patrick took a sip of his drink, studying the ice cubes as if those suckers were interesting. Ari left her hand on the shoulder of his suit jacket, the warmth of her palm bleeding through a few layers of fabric to reach his skin. That was the only thing about her he didn’t really appreciate. Ari was a toucher. A massage therapist would have to be, right? But he preferred it when his friends kept their hands to themselves. Even the gorgeous ones.