Authors: Selena Illyria
Tags: #Multicultural; Holidays; Contemporary
Copyright © December 2013 by Selena Illyria
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Editor: Jana Armstrong
Cover Artist: Fiona Jayde
Published in the United States of America
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This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For the wickedly awesome writers, Lissa Matthews and Cassandra Carr, who inspired this idea. Thank you! To Jodi Redford, you saucy minx you. To Shell and Tilly for your awesome feedback. Thank you! And last but not least to Jana for your patience. Thank you all!
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.”