Wildcat: Chapter 9

SCARLETT

HOCKEY PLAYERS ARE AWESOME

SCARLETT

Oh, it’s weird all right. My legs carry me down the hall away from him, but my heart pitter-patters in my chest. Holy crap. Leo in a bar as a regular guy, hot. Leo in his hockey uniform, ugh, I hate myself a little for admitting this, but so, sooo hot. What is it about a guy in a uniform?

I glance back as I turn into the tunnel. He hasn’t moved from the outside of my dad’s office, and his eyes are pinned on me. He lifts a hand, cocky smirk on his face. Damn him.

No hockey players. No jocks. No men. No dating.

I say each phrase under my breath like a pledge as I march back to the ice. Dad is in the hot seat now. He smiles stiffly as Lindsey moves in front of him. Good call on the jacket, Mom. He looks sharp against the green backdrop.

My gaze moves past him to the hockey players hanging out, waiting their turn. More have arrived, and they’re a swarm of green muscle. I find Leo in the back of the group talking to another player. While he’s preoccupied, I take the opportunity to appreciate how good he looks.

He’s had a haircut since our night together, but the light brown strands still have a mind of their own. He holds his stick in front of him, both hands resting on it casually.

He tips his head back and smiles at something his buddy says, and when he does, he catches me staring. I know I should look away, but I drink him in for a few good seconds first. It feels much safer with my dad acting as a barrier between us. A reminder that this can’t happen.

Why did he have to be a Wildcat?

“All right,” Dad’s voice startles me as he appears in front of me. I glance back at Leo to find an amused smile on his face at my being caught off guard.

“Mom did good,” I say.

He mumbles his agreement, even as he continues to mess with the knot of his tie.

I lift the schedule. “Is this what you were looking for?”

“Ah, yes. Thank you. I knew you’d find it.”

“Your desk is disgusting. I hope Anna is coming back soon.”

“Yeah. Me too.” He looks over it before calling to Lindsey.

The players begin taking the ice, and someone lines them up. I see all of this out of my peripheral, but I keep my focus on Dad as he and Lindsey chat about today’s schedule. It’s time to get out of here.

“Dad, I’m going to go,” I say and jab my thumb behind me.

He looks up. “Already?”

“Umm… yeah?”

The watch on his wrist catches the light as he checks the time. “Oh, crap. I have a meeting in five.”

I laugh. Dad isn’t usually this disorganized, or maybe he’s just always had an Anna working her magic in the background.

“Is this everything you need?” he asks Lindsey.

“Yeah. We’re all set unless you can figure out how to get my two assistants back.” She rolls her neck. “Whose idea was it to do photos and social media on the same day?”

“Sorry.” He finally undoes his tie completely. That didn’t last long.

“We’ll figure it out. We always do. Thanks, Coach.” Lindsey moves into action, bossing people around for the team photo.

Dad pulls off the tie and undoes the top button of his shirt. “I have a meeting, but if you want to hang out and wait for me, I’ll buy lunch.”

My stomach growls. It’s in direct opposition with my need to get the heck out of here and away from Leo Lohan.

“How long?”

“Thirty minutes. Forty-five tops.” He smiles and starts off like it’s a done deal. “Stay and watch. They haven’t even gotten to the really impressive stuff yet.”

On cue, it goes dark in the arena, and neon green lights come to life on the backdrop.

My mouth makes an O, but I’m not sure any sound comes out.

Dad chuckles. “Enjoy.”

By the time I find my voice, he’s long gone. I move to a seat in the first row and watch Lindsey work. After they’ve taken a bunch with the team together, they move to individual photos.

Jack Wyld is up first, and she moves around him as he stands naturally in front of the backdrop. Then she switches cameras, and another guy steps in with a camcorder. Jack skates to the side and grabs a stick and puck and then moves around the ice.

I can tell he’s done this before. Lindsey too. Their movements are choreographed like a dance, slow and controlled, and Jack seems to know exactly when to look up, flashing a practiced smile that I’m sure the fans love.

I’m enthralled watching when Leo takes the seat beside me. His shoulder brushes mine and I suck in a breath.

“You’re still here.”

“I’m having lunch with my dad.” I move my arm away from his and point to where Jack shoots the puck into the net and then skates toward the camera, coming up short and spraying ice. “They do this with every player?”

“Yeah. It takes damn near all day to get through everyone. When we’re done here, they send us through another room where they have someone from the social media team ask us questions- like ice breakers that they use as footage during games.”

Now I understand what Lindsey meant about doubling up with social media. I get why they’d want to do it all in one day while the guys are dressed and available, but she has a long day in front of her. They all do.

“Still working at the bar?” Leo asks like we’re just old friends catching up.

“What are you doing over here? Shouldn’t you be in makeup or something?”

He grins. “You think I need makeup?”

I look him over as if I’m considering it. He has nice skin. It isn’t shiny and is blemish-free. He has a straight nose and a sharp jaw. His hazel eyes are bright and framed with thick, dark lashes. No, he definitely doesn’t need makeup.

I mumble as much under my breath. Apparently louder than I mean to because he chuckles softly.

“I’m up next.” He bumps my shoulder. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Not likely.”

He shakes his head. “I’m going to win you over, Scarlett.”

Not in this lifetime.

I take a deep breath when he’s gone. He sets my every nerve ending on edge. Blocking him out, I walk down to the ice. Lindsey rolls her neck again as she sets the camera down and takes a long drink of water. She smiles as I approach.

“This is incredible. Did you put all of this together?”

She nods. “More or less. I come up with a few different ideas, and someone above my pay grade decides which one they like best.”

“I’m a photographer. Or, I’m interested in it. I don’t do it professionally or anything. I dabbled a little in sports photography for my ex. He is a race car driver.”

“No shit? If I’d known that, I would have already strapped a camera to your hand. Do you prefer a Canon or Nikon?”

“I’m very much a newbie. I don’t think I’m ready to shoot anything like this, but I could help with lighting or setup or… whatever you need.”

“Really?”

“I can’t seem to force myself away from the action and I’m waiting on my dad for lunch, so…” I shrug.

“Okay, yeah. If you take over for Joe, that’ll free him up to swap off with me. I’ll take any and all the help I can get.”

She introduces me to Joe, who’s running the schedule, making sure the next player is ready to go and that everything is set.

“Got it?” he asks me as Lindsey hands him a camera.

“I think so.”

“Good enough for me.” He smiles. “Send the next guy out.”

Leo’s already close enough that he walks onto the ice without my calling him.

“Where do you want me, boss?”

“You’re enjoying this too much,” I tell him.

“Hell yeah, I am. Did you really block my number?”

“It isn’t like you were going to use it.” I roll my eyes.

“I would have,” he says. “Honest.”

I don’t believe him and the scowl I give him must tell him as much.

“I should have done it sooner, I know. We were busy with camp, that’s true, but I had plenty of opportunities to shoot you a text.”

“Exactly.”

“The thing is, I knew as soon as I contacted you, I’d want to see you, and I couldn’t. I was waiting until I had more time where we could really hang out, get to know one another.”

My pulse races as he speaks and I swallow thickly. “They are ready for you.” I take a step away from him, but he closes it.

“How do you follow-up a night like that with a text, you know?” he mutters more to himself than me. “Anyway, I’m sorry.”

He skates into position and the lights drop. Breathing is easier when he’s a good distance away and not saying all the right things. He looks good against the neon green, too. He looks good. Period.

I check the schedule to see who’s next. “Ash Kelly?”

“Here,” someone calls.

Ash Kelly moves to the front of the pack. He’s about the same height and build as Leo but with longer hair that’s slicked back and touches his ears.

“You’re next after Leo.”

“Thanks.” He continues to stand next to me as Leo stares seriously at the camera.

“Would it kill him to smile?”

Ash huffs a laugh. “Yeah. After the shit we gave him for last year’s photo, he isn’t taking any chances.”

Well, I can’t blame him there. He’s nearly unrecognizable in last year’s roster photo.

“I’m Scarlett,” I say.

“Oh, I know who you are.”

My face heats and a memory from my and Leo’s night together flashes in my head. “Right. The neighbor.”

“That’s right.” His smile is pleased. “He wouldn’t shut up about you last week at camp.”

Kill me now. I don’t respond. Seriously, what do I say to that? He could brag to his buddies, but not pick up the phone?

“If I hadn’t seen you with my own eyes, I would have thought he dreamt the whole thing up. Never seen him so spun up about a chick.”

“I don’t date athletes.”

“Why not?” Ash gives me a horrified look. “Hockey players are awesome. Or at least we are. Especially Leo. Best guy I know.”

His face reads sincere and I don’t doubt he means it. I divert my attention back to Leo. He’s skating around, shooting pucks now. He catches my eye and butterflies swarm in my stomach. Wait, no, I’m pretty sure that’s just hunger pains. It has to be. Yep, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. No hockey players. Definitely no Wildcats.

I’m still helping out when Dad comes back down to grab me for lunch.

“Go,” Lindsey says. “We’re going to break for lunch soon, too. Thanks for your help. Next time, maybe you’ll pick up a camera.”

Dad takes me to the cafeteria on-site. We get our food and sit at a small table off to the side.

“How was it?” he asks.

“It was really cool. Lindsey’s great. How long has she been here?”

“Not sure. She was here when I got here. How can you tell she’s good without even seeing the final images?”

“She has a way with the players. She knew exactly how to get each one to relax. They were having fun.”

He nods and smiles. “She does do that. I hadn’t really put it into words like that, but you’re right.”

He asks me about my photography as we eat. I can ramble all day long about it, so I do most of the talking. He smiles and nods along as I tell him about all the things I’ve shot recently.

When we’re done, I walk with him back to his office. The cyclone that’s still his desk makes me laugh. “When does Anna come back?”

“I don’t know.” He runs a hand over his hair. “Her mom is sick.”

“Can you get a temp or someone to cover until she returns?”

“I could, but Anna knows how I like things. By the time I train someone new, she’ll be back. You know how crazy the beginning of the season is. I don’t really have the bandwidth.”

“What if I helped?” I stop. “Wait, assistants don’t have to interact with the players, right?”

“Not often.” He smiles. “I’d love to have you here every day with me, but are you sure? What about your classes?”

“About that…” Big gulp. “When I was in London, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to do and what makes me happy. I don’t think that is getting a college degree. At least not right now.” Before that furrowed brow of his can formulate a question or disappointed remark, I add, “So I dropped all my classes and I’m going to try to make a go of it with my photography. I know it isn’t what you or Mom wanted for me, but it feels right.”

He makes a noise deep in his throat.

I charge on. “I’m already so far behind from taking a year off and I don’t need the degree. There are lots of workshops and classes I can take, and I’ve been working on finding something with more hours than the bar so working here with you is sort of perfect.”

One of the things I love about Dad is that he can just be. He doesn’t need to fill the quiet. That might have something to do with being married to my mother who talks incessantly. Opposites attract, I guess. But right now, as he nods slowly, seconds feel like an eternity. That thing I said I love about my dad being comfortable in silence becomes his worst trait. Mom would have already said something. I don’t know what, but something. I’d know what’s going through her head immediately instead of being in my current hell.

“Okay.”

Wait, what? “Okay? Really?”

“You don’t need to convince me that photography is the right path for you.”

“I don’t?” A small, nervous laugh escapes.

“No, sweetheart. You’re an adult and your decisions are your own. I don’t know how it happened. I blinked and you grew up.”

All the air and nerves I’ve been carrying since I returned leave my body on a giant exhale.

“Thank you.”

“Your mother, on the other hand,” he says as he sits behind his desk.

“Any chance we can just keep her in the dark?”

He doesn’t respond, so I guess that’s a no.

One parent down. Dad took it so well, but I am not expecting that from my mother.

“You really want to work here around a bunch of rowdy athletes?” he asks. The look he gives me, full of pity and understanding, makes me positive I need to, if only to prove that I can. Maybe I need to prove it to myself, too. I can work here, around athletes and Leo, and be fine. Rhyse broke my heart, but he didn’t break me.

“I think it would be good for me. Less time to sit around and sulk. And maybe I can pick Lindsey’s brain a little when I’m not busy.” I want to know everything about how she got to where she is.

“Okay. If you’re sure.” Another coach steps in the doorway, and Dad greets him. “This is my daughter, Scarlett. She’s going to be helping out while Anna is gone.”

He steps forward and extends a hand. “Nice to meet you, Scarlett.”

“You too.”

He looks to Dad. “Are you ready to do the film analysis?”

“Yeah, let me get Scarlett settled and I’ll come down to your office in two.”

He taps the jamb of the door and nods. “Great. Welcome, Scarlett.”

Dad glances around the office and works his jaw side to side. “I’m not sure where to have you start. Anna’s office is next door, but I’ve moved everything I need in here.”

“How about with that?” I point to his desk.

“Good idea. There’s a filing system, but I don’t really understand it. If you’re not sure, leave it and we’ll go through it when I get back. Need anything?”

“Rubber gloves?” I push up my sleeves.

He laughs and starts toward the door, stopping before he reaches it. “This is going to be nice having you here.”


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