I’M IN DEEP AVOIDANCE
Rhyse has already made it to Austin, and his team is in damage control when I speak to him. Neither me nor Leo are in the mood to party anymore, so we head back to his house. Ash eyes me warily as we say goodbye to him and Talia. Leo might believe me that nothing happened with Rhyse, but it’s obvious that Ash isn’t so sure.
The time it takes to get back to his place, the Internet has exploded. There are several more articles, and each headline is worse than the last. Wildcat Head Coach’s Daughter in Love Triangle and my least favorite Who is Scarlett Miller, The Woman Dating a Wildcat and Pregnant with Formula 1 Driver’s Baby?
Being photographed outside of a baby store was not the most ideal location. My phone starts ringing incessantly, and then Leo’s. I knew it was bad when I saw it, but with every call, it gets bigger and bigger.
My mom tells me everything will be fine, and it’ll blow over. When I ask how Dad is, she gives me some bullshit answer that tells me he’s pissed.
“I’m so sorry,” I say as I lean into Leo. He hasn’t answered any of his calls. We’re sitting on the couch at his place. The TV is on, but neither of us is paying any attention to it. “I wasn’t thinking when I agreed to see him.”
“You couldn’t have known it’d go like this.”
His words are exactly what I want to hear, but he’s distant.
“I should have. This is how it always went with him.”
“What do you mean?” Leo stares down at me with a puzzled expression.
“You already know the reason that Rhyse and I broke up, but the reason we started hiding it in the first place is because of this.” I wave a hand toward my open laptop. “It’s a long story, but the short of it is that Rhyse’s father was a F1 driver too. Rhyse is like racing royalty. He can do no wrong, and there is no woman good enough for him. When we first started dating, we weren’t hiding it, and the backlash was awful. His fans came after me like I was stealing their most prized possession.”
“Yeah. It was crazy. We thought it would blow over, but his team wasn’t willing to risk it. They suggested we keep our relationship a secret until the end of the season. They banished all evidence that we’d ever been anything, and after a few weeks, no one questioned it. He had a reputation as the single, bad boy, fun-loving guy, and they just fed into it and made it seem like I was a nobody he once hooked up with.”
“Being a couple wasn’t good for his image, and I could see that the constant need to defend me was wearing on him. So, I agreed at first. One season became two.” I shrug. “I got tired of being hidden. If we went to an event, I had to arrive separately, and we couldn’t appear like we were a couple. Sometimes he even had dates to keep up the charade.”
“I want to kill him,” Leo grumbles. His hand rests behind me and rubs small circles absently on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry they’re dragging you into this mess.”
“I’m used to ignoring that crap. As long as I play good hockey, no one will care tomorrow. But this…” He motions between us. “This means something to me. I will battle for you, if you’ll let me.”
“I hate that you feel like you need to.”
A yawn escapes me, and my body goes limp against his. It’s been a long day.
“We should get some sleep,” he says.
“I should go home.”
“Tonight? It’s after one.”
“Yeah. I just want to crawl into my bed, turn off my phone, and avoid the world.”
“You can do that here.” He stands and pulls me to my feet. When I reach for my phone, he steals it. “We’re avoiding the world together.”
He takes me to bed and holds me tightly against him. It isn’t long before his breathing evens out into a slow rhythm. His grip remains tight, and I lie there staring up at the ceiling, feeling embarrassed and angry and a million other emotions. It’s easy to say, ignore it or it’ll blow over, but I’m a real person, and the things some people say are awful.
My accounts are already private, thanks to learning this lesson with Rhyse, but that won’t stop people from sending me nasty messages any way they can. They know nothing about me, Rhyse, or Leo, but they think they do.
Sleep is fitful, but I doze off at some point and wake to an empty bed. My eyes burn, and my head is fuzzy. I walk toward Leo’s voice downstairs. His hair sticks up, and he’s running one hand through it as he paces the length of the kitchen.
He smiles when he sees me and pours me a cup of coffee.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
He leans down to kiss me and then speaks into the phone, “She just got up. I’ll talk to her and let you know. Thanks, Blythe.”
“Damage control?” I so hate this for him.
“She called to see if there was anything she could do to help.”
I nod toward my phone on the counter. “How bad is it this morning?”
“A few more sites have run articles, but someone must be squashing them because they disappear as quickly as I find them.”
“I’m sure Rhyse’s team is monitoring any that mention him.”
He makes a disapproving sound deep in his throat.
“I’m not their concern.” And I don’t blame them. At least not anymore.
“Well, you’re mine. What can I do?” He runs his hands along my shoulders and down to my elbows and back.
“Nothing. Go play awesome hockey and call me later tonight.”
“Done and done. Why don’t you come with us?”
“Yeah, or meet us in Phoenix or Seattle,” he says, listing the other cities they’re traveling to this week.
“Umm, I can’t just run away from my life here. I need to get serious about finding a job. Also, I promised Jade I’d go on another wedding adventure with her.” I run a hand along the smooth muscles of his chest. “I’ll be fine. Promise.”
“Okay, but if you change your mind, I’ll kick Ash out of our hotel room for you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think he’s my biggest fan right now.” I sip the coffee.
“Nah, he knows how the media can twist things.” He brushes my messy bedhead hair away from my face. “Blythe said she can help us craft a statement if we want.”
“What kind of statement?”
“Something that says we’re together. Officially.” He shrugs. “It might make the crap news die down faster.”
“That’s what she thinks is best for you?”
He glances at the ceiling. “Sort of.”
“It’s best for me. Not for you,” I guess.
He lifts one shoulder and lets it fall. I think of my dad and the team and shake my head.
“No. I don’t want to drag you any further into this mess. The less you’re mentioned, the better.” I lean up and place a kiss on his lips. “But thank you.”
After Leo leaves for the team plane, I head home. The smell of apple pie greets me, and I smile when I see said pie and the note Mom left for me. When life hands you lemons, trade them for apples and make pie.
I eat a slice for breakfast and then shower and go to Jade’s apartment. I don’t feel like being alone with my thoughts or my phone.
Her boyfriend, Sam, answers the door with a smirk. “You’re famous.”
“Not cool.” Jade glares and shoves at his shoulder. She takes my hand and leads me to the couch as Sam disappears into their bedroom.
Jade wraps her arms around me and squeezes. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” I hold up my phone, which is still off. “I’m in deep avoidance.”
“Me too. Let’s stay there together all day.”
Now that I’m taking a second to look at my best friend, it’s clear something is wrong. Her hair is up in a messy bun, and she has on a baggy sweatshirt. Jade is beautiful no matter what she does to her appearance, but she gets ready every morning—full makeup, hair, outfit—like other people brush their teeth.
“What’s going on?”
She frowns. “My editor hated my article on Vivian.”
“I thought Vivian was the wedding planner?”
“She is. My editor loooved Vivian, but hated my angle. I have to come up with another one, then write it and turn it in by tonight.”
“She’s not wrong. All of my ideas are tired and have been done a million times before. I have no clue how I’m going to come up with something fresh. What do I know about getting married?”
“And here I am dumping on you when you have a real job to do.” I sit forward. “I can grab you coffee and food while you work.” I need a task or a thousand to keep my mind occupied today.
She smiles. “Coffee and donuts?”
My stomach growls. It’s obviously on board with deep avoidance and more sugar.
“Come on. I can work there. Sam’s friends usually end up here by mid-afternoon anyway.”
She grabs her stuff, and we head out.
“How’s living together going anyway?” It’s been two months since he moved in, and honestly, I didn’t think they’d last this long.
“I don’t have to go to a frat house to see my boyfriend anymore, which is a plus.”
“Yeah, definite upgrade.”
She huffs a laugh. “It’s been an adjustment for sure. I think it’ll bring us closer together, though.” She sighs.
I think she’s in deep avoidance about more than her article.