Thank you again to everyone who has sent me such kind and supportive emails and messages over the past few months. I’ve been hard at work on many things but here I am, posting another ‘Ice’ story. I warned you: I can never leave this series behind. So here’s the latest and have fun reading and, as always, guessing who the star is.
Oh, and a Happy Belated Birthday to Meg from Nikki.
Even though she knew she should be focused on packing and organizing, Meg couldn’t help herself. She turned the TV to the NHL channel and let out a contented sigh when she saw that a replay of a New Jersey Devils game was on. After settling on the couch with a mug of tea, she turned the volume up.
‘And we’re back for the second period.’ The first announcer had a dry tone and sounded almost bored with the game.
Meg ignored him as she often ignored the announcers. It took her a minute but she soon caught on to what game they were showing and she winced at the memory.
The Devils had made the playoffs last spring only to be upset by the Flyers in the first round. This was game two and if Meg recalled correctly, it was the Devils’ one win of the series.
The score flashed across the top of the screen and Meg smiled as the announcers started to recap the first period stats. New Jersey was trailing by one but Zane Pritchard had rallied the team and crowd with a short-handed goal a couple minutes into the first period.
The puck dropped for the start of the second period and Meg held her breath without realizing it. She didn’t let it out for a minute, not until the phone rang and startled her.
‘So I’m sitting here in a suit, sweating my balls off and wondering what the hell I was thinking.’
Meg laughed at her friend’s familiar voice.
‘And you’re laughing at my pain. Thanks, Meg. Glad you care.’
‘Oh come on, Zane. You’re at an autograph signing, not a charity ball.’ Meg kept her eyes on the TV screen as the red jerseys flew across the ice. ‘Why didn’t you wear something light? It’s still August, for goodness’ sake.’
‘You could have suggested that earlier,’ Zane grumbled.
‘You didn’t ask me earlier. And anyway, you can’t still be sitting out there or you wouldn’t have called me.’
‘That’s true. They allowed me to go cool off inside the building.’
‘So go to the bathroom and douse yourself with cold water.’
‘And go back out with a wet shirt?’
‘Are there girls in the audience?’
There was a pause before Zane replied, enough to make Meg start laughing, no matter how it made her feel like she’d been sucker-punched. Never mind that she’d never liked to talk to Zane about women.
‘Who am I kidding? There are always girls in the crowd when you’re out in public, Z.’
He snorted and Meg could picture him rolling his eyes. ‘What are you up to, Meg?’
‘I’m not telling you.’ Meg let out a short laugh. ‘You’ll just make fun of me.’
‘It can’t be any worse than signing autographs at Busbee’s Auto World.’
‘No. I can’t tell you.’
‘Meg, come on. How long have we been friends?’
‘Ah…since you were in diapers?’
‘Both of us, thank you very much, and how much have we learned about each other in all those years?’
‘Oh, God help me, way too much, Z.’ Meg laughed as memories of their fun childhood and wild adolescence washed over her.
Over the line, Zane’s deep chuckle stirred her insides. ‘Yeah, like that time I caught you in the basement making out with Joey Hardwicke?’
‘Damn you! You swore you’d never mention that again!’
Zane laughed. ‘I lied!’
‘You’re a snake, Zane. I can’t believe you’d bring that up.’
He just kept laughing. Meg scowled and wracked her brain for something equally as embarrassing to mention.
‘Oh! That’s not as bad as the time you needed me to cover for you when Eloise thought you were at hockey camp.’
Zane’s mock gasp made Meg giggle.
‘Then you couldn’t leave my basement for two weeks because she wanted to hang out with my sister all the time.’
‘Stop it, Meg.’
She laughed even harder at his annoyed tone. He grumbled on the other end of the line until she relented and promised – again – that she’d never bring it up. He did the same.
‘So really, what are you doing?’
Meg sighed. ‘I’m watching reruns.’
‘Oh yeah? What’s so embarrassing-‘
Meg cringed when he stopped short.
‘Wait a second. Don’t tell me you’re-‘
‘Yes! All right, yes. I’m watching hockey reruns.’
Zane howled with laughter.
‘I don’t think it’s that funny.’ Meg eyed the TV and smiled. ‘I’m only on game two of the Devils playoffs series.’
Zane’s laughter died. ‘You’re joking.’
She snorted. ‘It’s what’s on. I can’t help it.’
‘I really don’t think you need to watch that again.’
‘If it makes you feel any better, it’s the game you won.’
‘Considering that it didn’t help in the long run, it doesn’t make me feel better at all, Meg.’
Meg winced again, this time from the wounded tone in his voice. ‘Zane, I’m sorry. You need to get over it though. What is this? Late August? And you’re still stewing over the loss from April?’
‘Your point is?’
Meg blew out an annoyed breath and adjusted her seat on the couch. ‘My point is that you need to forget all the boneheaded mistakes you made in the spring and focus on what you’re going to do right this fall.’
‘Did you just call me a bonehead?’
Meg giggled. She knew he was just playing along and humoring her but she didn’t mind his diversion. ‘If the shoe fits…’
‘Well! This has been fun, Meg. Thanks for the pep talk.’
Meg burst out laughing. ‘God, Zane. You’re too easy.’
He snorted. ‘Don’t let word get out.’
‘I’m sure all those Jersey girls know by now.’
This time Zane laughed. ‘As if I even have time for women. Did I tell you about the benefit I’m going to tomorrow night? Then there’s another signing on Friday all day at the Prudential Center. And of course there’s development camp and practices starting next week. Nowhere in there do I even have time to sleep in, let alone dote on some needy chick.’
Meg burst out laughing. ‘You’re such a modern man. Not every woman is a ‘needy chick,’ you know.’
‘You’re the only person of the female persuasion who isn’t demanding.’
‘Again, with the modern outlook. Who are you kidding, Zane? ‘Female persuasion?’ No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.’
‘I told you. Don’t have time, don’t need one, don’t want one.’
‘And you’re one to talk, Meg. When was the last time you talked to a guy above the age of sixteen?’
‘I don’t need a man.’
‘You’re just saying that because Trent was such a jackass.’
Meg giggled. ‘He’s not the only reason I’m saying that.’
‘I still can’t believe you put up with him for as long as you did.’
‘I put up with him for about as long as you put up with Candy.’
‘God, don’t remind me.’
‘Hey, you started it.’
Zane chuckled. ‘Fine, fine. Truce, all right?’
‘So what else is new?’
‘Not much. Just contemplating packing some of my kitchen stuff.’ Meg bit her bottom lip and waited to see if he could figure it out.
‘Packing? Are you finally leaving that one-room shithole behind?’
‘Hey! I’ll remind you that this ‘shithole’ was once good enough for you to crash in.’
‘Well, that was before.’
‘Yeah, yeah, before you were a big, multi-million dollar earning bonehead.’
‘I thought we’d let the bonehead thing go?’
‘Well, you dissed the apartment. You should be more careful.’
Zane laughed. ‘You’d think I’d have learned after all these years.’
‘You’d think so.’
‘Come on, Meg. A
re you moving to a new place?’
‘Yup. Last week of August.’
‘Awesome. Is it closer to work?’
‘OK, are we going to keep playing twenty questions or are you going to tell me where your new spot is?’
‘Let me grab the address.’ Meg stifled another giggle as she pretended to look. She didn’t need to consult her notebook to know her new address. Ever since she’d accepted the position, she’d been beyond excited and had memorized her new address as soon as she’d secured the place. ‘Here we go…apartment 302, Newark City View Lofts.’
‘Newark? I don’t remember that area in Minneapolis.’
Meg rolled her eyes. ‘That’s because it’s not in Minneapolis.’
There was a brief pause and then she heard Zane’s sharp inhalation. ‘No fucking way.’
‘You kiss your mother with that mouth?’
‘You’re moving to Jersey? You’d better not be messing with me, Meg.’
‘No messing, Zane. Starting next month, I’ll be teaching at West Forest High School.’
‘No fucking way.’
Meg laughed. ‘You’ve got to stop cussing, Zane.’
‘I can’t believe it! How long have you been planning this?’
‘I didn’t plan to move to Newark specifically. You know I’ve been looking for a new post and when this one came up, I applied. I just found out last week for sure. Apparently one of the teachers went on maternity leave at the end of last year.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I wanted everything to be finalized first. I didn’t want to jinx it.’
Zane laughed. ‘Jeez, Meg. You’re not supposed to be the superstitious one. That’s me!’
‘Just because you’re an NHL player doesn’t give you sole ownership of superstitions. And anyway, it worked, didn’t it? I move in three weeks!’
‘I can’t believe this!’ Zane gave a wild whoop and Meg laughed. She could hear shouts in the background. ‘Shut the hell up, Dave! My best friend is coming to town and she’ll kick your ass!’
Meg laughed even harder.
‘Meg, this is fantastic. Tell me you’re not joking around here.’
‘I’m not joking, Zane. I’m moving to Newark.’
‘I can’t believe it.’
‘Neither can I, sometimes.’
‘This is great. Right? This is great for you, isn’t it?’
‘It is. It’s an amazing opportunity and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally excited about being close to you again.’
Zane laughed. ‘I always knew you had a thing for me.’
Meg scoffed and flipped her hair over her shoulder, even though he couldn’t see the dismissive gesture. ‘Don’t flatter yourself, bonehead.’
They talked on the phone for another few minutes before hanging up. After the conversation, Meg turned off the TV, knowing she couldn’t avoid packing anymore. She hadn’t been lying when she’d told Zane about packing her kitchen stuff. She didn’t have a lot but now that she was moving out of state, it seemed like she had far too much.
With a sigh, she poured herself a fresh tea and started to load one of the boxes.
‘Is she hot?’
Zane narrowed his eyes at his teammate before switching knees and stretching his other leg.
‘What?’ Mike Forsythe gave Zane an innocent shrug and grinned.
‘How would you like it if I asked if your sister is hot?’
Mike shrugged again and then lifted his stick over his head to stretch. ‘I’d probably tell you to shove it.’
‘I’m not asking about your sister, Zane. Your best bud, Meg, is she hot?’
‘She might as well be my sister, Mike. So…shove it.’
Mike laughed just as Adam Griffiths skated over.
‘What’s going on?’
Mike turned to Adam and pointed a gloved hand at Zane. ‘I’m trying to find out if his friend, Meg, is a hottie and he won’t tell me anything.’
‘Oh?’ Adam turned a wide grin on Zane who scowled in return. ‘Why not? Is she a total dog?’
‘Shut it, Adam.’
‘Ha!’ Mike laughed and slapped his thigh with one hand. ‘She is! She’s a barkin’, hairy, ass-faced dog, isn’t she?’
‘She’s gorgeous and you’d be lucky if she even said hello to you, jackass,’ Zane couldn’t stop himself from snapping at his teammate.
‘So she’s a hottie!’ Now it was Adam’s turn to laugh. ‘No wonder you don’t want to tell him anything. You want her all to yourself!’
Zane gritted his teeth and reminded himself that his teammates were only trying to get a reaction out of him. It wasn’t like this was the first time his male friends had grilled him about his best friend.
What’s the big deal? Zane shook his head. It’s not like we’re the only people who have friends of the opposite sex.
Zane had mentioned Meg to his teammates before and none of them had given more than passing interest, probably because she didn’t live in the area. Now that he’d explained about her new job and move, they were giving him the gears. Most of the time he’d be able to shrug it off but right now, he wasn’t in the mood for Mike and Adam’s bullshit.
Ever since Meg had told him about moving to New Jersey, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her being so close. They’d be able to hang out like they used to and laugh over the same jokes that no one else in the world understood. The tight feeling in his chest got tighter when he thought about taking her out and introducing her to all his friends and teammates. It was a feeling somewhere between excitement and apprehension and the fact that he couldn’t quite figure it out was what made him snap at Adam and Mike.
‘Can we practice, please?’ Zane skated away without waiting for a response.
Mike and Adam hollered at him for a minute before the coaches hit the ice and rounded everyone up.
Zane focused along with the rest of the team. They were in the midst of their training camp and the preseason would be starting in a few weeks. There were more than a dozen new faces, young guys called up from the minors for a shot at a spot on the regular roster and rookies drafted back at the end of June. There were also several more experienced guys, acquired during the off-season through trades.
Zane hadn’t spent much time getting to know anyone but that wasn’t a conscious decision. He was just distracted these days and it had nothing – and everything – to do with the fact that Meg was going to be in Jersey in less than two weeks.
Two weeks later, Meg felt like she was about to cry. She stood on the sidewalk out front of the apartment building and wanted to bury her face in her hands and sob like a child.
‘So you’re telling me that there never was an available apartment?’
The building manager shook his head and gave her a sympathetic smile. ‘You’re the fifth person in two weeks that I’ve spoken to.’
‘Why couldn’t anyone contact me sooner?’
The manager shrugged. ‘We didn’t know it was happening until the first guy showed up here two weeks ago. I’ve contacted the authorities and they’re working on tracking the scam artist down but for now, we don’t know how many people he’s taken in. Even if we did, we have no way of getting a hold of anyone.’
Meg drew in a deep breath, barely holding herself together. ‘So you’re telling me that I’ve paid my security deposit and first month’s rent to someone who has no connection with this building.’
The manager nodded, still giving her that insipid smile.
‘And you also have no available apartments to rent, which in the end, doesn’t matter, because I wouldn’t have the money to pay you anyway.’
‘I’m sorry, miss. I can recommend a good hotel nearby for you until you get things sorted.’
Meg stared at him. ‘A hotel? I can’t afford a hotel! I could barely afford the move and the down payment on this hole!’
The smile on the manager’s face disappeared and he crossed his arms over his chest. ‘I understand that you’re upset, but there’s no need to get angry with me.’
‘There’s no one el
se for me to be angry with right now.’ Meg knew she was being irrational but she was broke and homeless. She was in no mood to be kind.
‘Well, maybe next time you should check into who you’re paying before you shell out that kind of money.’ With a glare, the manager turned and walked into the building.
Meg stared after him and fought down the urge to stamp her feet and scream at the top of her lungs. She was about to turn around and kick her car’s tires just to relieve some of her frustration when she saw another vehicle pull up to the curb.
Zane popped out from the driver’s side. ‘Hey! I heard someone here needed help moving today!’
Meg took one look at him and burst into tears. His jaw dropped in shock but he didn’t hesitate to run around and pull her into his arms.
‘Hey, hey, what’s wrong? What happened?’
Meg shook her head as she clung to him, soaking the collar of his jacket. He squeezed her tighter and rubbed her back as he held her, letting her cry.
After a few minutes, she stopped sobbing and pulled back. Zane smiled and palmed her cheeks, gently wiping away the moisture.
‘Hello, best friend.’
She gave him a weak smile and drew in a deep breath before she started to explain what had happened. He looked as flabbergasted as she felt when she finished.
‘Tell me about it.’ Meg sniffled and rubbed her nose. ‘Now I have nowhere to live and no money to even get a place.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Meg.’
She snorted and pulled out of his arms. ‘Easy for you to say, Zane. You didn’t have to scrimp and save for a month to afford this move.’
‘I said, don’t worry about it.’ Zane leaned back and looked into her face. She was a few inches shorter than him and he didn’t have to bend far to meet her eyes. ‘You’ll come live with me.’
Meg laughed. ‘What? I can’t live with you.’
‘Please, Zane. We couldn’t even take a weekend holiday together without biting each other’s heads off.’
‘That’s because you snore and hog the covers.’
‘Yeah? Well, you leave your shit all over the place and never wash the dishes.’
Zane scoffed and gave her a firm squeeze. ‘Come on, Meg. You don’t have a lot of options, you said so yourself.’
Meg stared at him, drinking in the sight of his boyish grin and the glint in his chocolate brown eyes. They hadn’t seen each other in a month and she felt like a jerk for breaking down on him first thing.
‘I’m sorry, Zane.’
‘For what? This isn’t your fault.’
‘I’m sorry for ruining this. I was so excited to see you.’
‘Well, here I am! And if you accept my offer to room with me, you’ll get to see even more of me.’ He grinned and gave his eyebrows a suggestive wiggle.
She laughed and socked him in the shoulder. It felt so good to be with him again and maybe she could accept his offer, just until she could get back on her feet. Hey, she was an adult. She could put aside her jumbled feelings for a few weeks and he’d never know otherwise.
‘All right, fine. I’ll live with you.’ She pointed a finger at his nose to stall his hoot of joy. ‘But only until I save enough to find another place to live.’
He gave her a solemn nod and then swept her into a hug. They were both laughing and smiling when he set her back on her feet.
‘Meg, you’ll never want to leave once you see my place.’
Meg snorted. ‘We’ll just see about that.’
‘This place is fantastic, Zane!’
Zane grinned, feeling inordinately pleased that she was so impressed with his house. It wouldn’t have mattered to her if he lived in a one-bedroom bachelor pad but her opinion was one of very few that mattered to him.
‘Yeah, it’s a good place to lay my head.’
Meg rolled her eyes and shoved him. Zane had to resist the urge to pull her into his arms. He was so happy to have her in New Jersey and now she was going to be staying under the same roof. Christmas was still a few months away but he felt like he didn’t have anything else to ask for.
Except for maybe this feeling he’d been carrying around to be reflected in her eyes. He watched her looking around with interest and felt his heart give a wicked thud against his ribs and had to clench his hands into fists to keep from reaching for her.
In all his life he’d never denied himself anything.
‘So where’s the couch you’re going to make me sleep on?’
Zane laughed and waved a hand. ‘The bedrooms are up here.’
He led the way to the second floor and pointed out his room, the office and the guest room.
‘Holy shit! I even get my own bathroom?’
Zane grinned. ‘Damn straight. I don’t want any of your girlie crap getting in my way.’