A/N Love the Cooper/Wicker love, I told you we'd see more of these. Hope you enjoy. Keep commenting, it keeps my enthusiasm! MZxxx
Bo had been in Britain for two weeks. He'd arrived a week before preseason training and hadn't seen much of the city he was based in, yet. Coming from California he hated the weather. This was apparently summer, he rued, as he pulled on a jacket with a hood and made his way out into the early evening. The coach lived in a huge house a couple of miles away, he had assured him it wasn't difficult to find, and fortunately the car he'd been given had a satnav. If you could call it a car.
It was tiny. He could barely fold himself into the front seat. It as emblazoned with the club details, and so he was under strict instruction that he HAD to drive it everywhere. He had wanted to go buy something sensible, an SUV of some description, but he'd been told that he couldn't drive it.
Scowling, something that seemed perpetually marring his face, he turned the ignition, then ground the gears, he hadn't driven stick for years. Anger and stress weren't helping.
Coop's house was impressive, an old stone structure at the end of a long driveway. Parking next to his own club emblazoned Rangerover, Bo wanted to punch something at the irony, and car envy. Before he reached the door, it opened, and a petite dark haired woman stood there smiling, a toothy toddler on her hip.
"You must be Bo, I'm Freya Cooper..." she smiled as she looked at the little man clung to her hip, "and this is Benji Cooper."
She shook the hand he offered, then chuckled when he shook hands with her son.
"Come in, Mitchell Cooper is in the shower, he was late home. But dinner's almost ready, can I get you a drink? Coffee? Wine? Beer? A soft drink?"
"I'd love a water, if I could," he asked, following her into the house.
The kitchen was a chrome and wood filled room, with appliances and work surfaces to the right, but a comfy looking sofa and dining table for ten, to the left, in front of glass doors that were pulled open, giving a view over the back garden.
Out there two other children played on a wooden climbing frame. Dropping Benji to the floor, she watched him negotiate the doorway to the garden safely, before she turned back to the kitchen, and a water for him.
Handing him a bottle, he thanked her, then offered, "something smells delicious."
"I just hope it tastes OK, I couldn't cook before I met my husband...I'm still not that good," she chuckled as she led him to the sofa, encouraging him to sit. He loved her happy demeanour, she had barely stopped smiling since he'd arrived.
A voice replied to her before he did. "She lies, my wife does nothing by half. And whilst she's late to cooking...she bosses it. Thank fuck, cos I'm shit."
"Mitchell Cooper! Language in front of a guest."
He rolled his eyes, "like that is any shock to him after two weeks in our dressing room," as she waggled her eyebrows he shook his head, "the kids are out of hearing, too."
Bo laughed at the easy banter between the two, then stood when Coop came towards him, hand extended. Shaking it, he said, "thanks, for inviting me. Reckon I'd have killed myself or something if I stayed inside for another night."
He nodded, "been there. Look it's training camp, we have to work hard, train...but once preseason starts, the guys will meet up, there'll be social stuff happening. I know it's hard, being here on your own."
Bo rolled his eyes, "a sad old loner?" Then he shook his head, "no, really. I'm starting college next week. I'll soon be really busy."
That was why he'd left the United States, both to carry on playing when it looked unlikely, but also to complete his MBA at the same time, something that was offered in this British city. Sports Management, with an onus on representative work, he could become an agent, that was what he had hoped for when he signed on the dotted line, he knew sport and he wanted to stay in that world, even if it wasn't as a player.
Coop nodded, "it's a great course, and you're not the first player to complete it here, we realise it's a selling point for guys like yourself taking a huge step down."
He grimaced at that, hating to hear reference to his demise in the sport. Twenty eight and he was on the sporting scrap heap, literally. How the fuck was he going to last out a year?
Natasha was still sat in her seat, shaking, an hour or more after the two men had left the cafe. She'd managed to swallow her fear for the duration of the meeting as she talked avocado toast, porridge, poached eggs and sugar free granola with the men, then they all agreed to a trial run, and left her with a list of dates over the next two weeks that would be the start. She managed to glean the fact that they'd recently changed to use the university gym and athletic facilities, hence them needing somewhere close for their breakfast 'meetings', previously they'd use a substandard facility near their rink, but they were happier with the new arrangement.
And Heaven and Hell fitted perfectly into their plan, apparently, and it meant so much to her, to see her baby, her life's dream improve, become more stable. Her reticence wasn't due to the arrangement, but more the shock of ice hockey invading her life. Once she'd left the States at seventeen, she'd not gone back and she'd avoided all thoughts and mentions of the sport she'd once loved. It was a million miles from her conscious thought, until the two men walked in and turned her life upside down.
She knew she had to be adult about things, if things were different, she wouldn't be able to avoid football because of one bad experience, it was everywhere. If she'd stayed in the States, then hockey would have invaded her life a million times. She groaned at that thought, because it was so much more than a bad experience, and even now she felt physical pain at the thoughts of her youth.
But she had to move on, pull on her big girl knickers and make a success of this cafe. If nothing else Hilda, Nana H's reputation and love depended on it.
"So feeling a little less like an NHL drop out today?"
If the voice from his right had been that joker Vaughn then Bo knew he'd have stood up and punched him, enough was enough. But it was Blake, the team's captain. A real team-man, a true captain – a motivator. It was difficult to dislike him, plus he was a fellow American. That helped, he needed support, he needed friends.
Vaughn was one of those snidey kids that wormed their way into every situation and tried to control it. Everyone knew at least one of them, and he was winning a psychological battle with Bo. He hated that, he was usually so strong.
Sitting on the bench, half changed after his shower, Blake had reminded him of all that he had lost, and he looked at his scarred knee and hated it. It had ruined his life. Looking up to Blake he pointed at the scarred joint and said, "constant reminder."
Blake patted him on the back, "this isn't the worst place to be, yes in Switzerland, Scandinavia, Russia the standard is higher...but it's cool here, the fan base is small but very enthusiastic, and this country rocks. We'll get trips to Scotland, London, Wales...you'll see...and you don't have to learn a new language."
Blake, he knew had never made it to the NHL, not like him. But he'd gone from the AHL to Norway before ending up in Britain. He'd met his wife locally, and was at home there with his wife and kids. He was only four years older than Bo but he was so settled, so clued in, so much more mature than him. He felt like a kid looking up at him.
"Maybe if the sun shone, just for one day."
Blake laughed, "that's the UK, Bo...I won't call you Peep."
Bo growled, but it was said in jest, and he took it that way, and this was the most light-hearted he'd felt in weeks.
"Dropping this far down, like a stone. It must be hell...but remember, that you're still in a position to inspire, to teach, to make something of this. Any hockey is better than no hockey."
Was it really?
Another night in his barren, sterile home alone was enough to drive him insane, but the next morning, they had an early gym training session. Coop had them all doing Pilates and ice dance classes. For him, it was all a little wasted, he'd done similar drills when he was in college and his early NHL days, but it was an attempt to get them all playing as a team, and obviously humiliating them in ridiculous classes was Coop's way. He got the benefit of balance, proprioception, all the positives of these types of classes,
He'd struggled to balance on his left knee, and had heard snickers from behind him several times during the class. Hating that, he was last out of the changing room, and dragged his heels at the thought of the breakfast meet at a local cafe.
Coop was in the gym reception leaning against desk when he emerged, and as the big man lifted his body and started to walk towards him, he groaned.
"Didn't like the Pilates?"
He huffed, then shrugged, "look, Coop. I've been through all this, years ago."
Coop nodded, "it's common practice in lots of leagues these days, I presumed you'd done it earlier on. But not since the accident."
That made the blood bubble in his veins, would he ever be anything more than an injury?
"Holding, you were one of the greatest skaters in the game, I've never seen anyone as natural as you on the ice, except for maybe me."
That made Bo spit out an expletive, and Coop laughed, "whatever you think. I was, and you were. You need to get back that edge, the balance, the confidence, it's not there. Not returned, not yet. So whilst this might seem like an exercise for wooden teammates, like Vaughn and Peters...YOU can get a lot out of it. So, once again I find myself reminding you that you can be an awkward bastard and annoy the shit out of everyone, or you can work your fucking ass off to get back to the top of your game."
"In a shitty third rate league?"
He laughed, "there are fourth and fifth rate leagues. And you still have enough to leave us behind. Now buck up your ideas buddy, we've got a great breakfast planned."
Bo had no idea why Coop invested time and effort with him, when he clearly didn't deserve it.
Natasha looked at the full cafe and grinned, nine am and there were very few seats free. Twenty five hockey players and their coaches took up most of the space, eating poached eggs and spinach omelettes, and guzzling coffee by the gallon. But as events went, it served it's purpose, brought her a healthy income, and actually started to ease her hostility towards hockey.
Coop came up to the counter, disturbing her musing, he wasn't so imposing or threatening now that she'd met him a couple of times, and her heat didn't pound ridiculously in fear.
"Hey, Tash – I couldn't get some more OJ, could I?"
It was a long time since anyone called her Tash, she thought she'd hate it, but she didn't, it was actually kind of cute.
"Of course, you ask, you get!"
He laughed, "that seals it, I'm definitely bringing my wife here, she could learn from you."
That made her laugh as she retrieved a large jug of juice from the fridge, "maybe you need to pay her more?"
Then it was his turn to laugh, mimicking a gun, he fired a bullet of admiration, then grabbed the jug from her, "got a point there."
Despite things going well, she was still holding her breath until they all left, Lana, a student who helped her out at lunchtimes had come in early, and she was clearly enjoying joking and teasing with the huge men curled into the small seats. The room oozed testosterone, and it was no lie that since the group of men had arrived, the place was full of predominantly female students getting an out-of-the-norm cup of coffee on their way into college.
As the last of the men left, Natasha physically relaxed, but Lana was still gushing over the various men who had apparently made her feel very special. Natasha remembered her high school years outside Boston when she'd been as sucked in to the glamour and intrigue of a hot hockey player. And the burn that came after it.
Heading into the kitchen she loaded the dishwasher, glad of a moment to get her head back on track, she didn't look back...ever. And she wasn't about to start doing that now.
"You never told me you were having a couple of dozen hot men over for breakfast!"
Natasha groaned, elbow deep in cake batter, this was not the ideal time for her best friend to arrive. Laughing, she turned to see Steph, back from her holiday, "you missed the action by about an hour."
"Damn," she shook her hand in frustration. "You kept that quiet, Missy."
Natasha dried her hands, then hugged her mate, "you were sunning in it Zante with your new boyfriend, physically not here to tell, and emotionally not available."
She grinned like a Cheshire cat, "that good, hey?"
"Well, sun...sand...let's just say LOTS of all the S's!"
Rolling her eyes, Natasha moved to the coffee machine and filled two mugs, then handed one to her friend.
"The cupcakes will be ready in ten minutes, I'm just taking a literal two minute break, OK?" That was directed at Lara, who was still raving over her morning breakfast.
They sat outside under the small awning.
"So Lara tells me it was a whole hockey team?"
"Yep, thirty men, paying me above the odds for breakfast, that can't be bad."
Steph waggled her eyebrows, "any fitties there? Been way too long since you spread your legs for a man."
"Jeez, Steph. Just cos you're getting some regular action doesn't mean you we all want or need it."
That made her friend laugh, "thirty men...THIRTY...MEN...surely ONE of them is Natasha worthy?"
She sighed inside, everyone thought that she was too picky, that she was too all or none. It was true, she was the working example of once bitten, twice VERY shy. But talking about that, explaining things meant revisiting her distant past. She didn't, wouldn't and knew really she couldn't.
"Less about the men, more about the sun. Tell all!"
Steph wasn't one for pushing her into a corner, so she quite happily changed subject, whipping out her phone and scrolling through her photos.
After fifteen minutes, she had to leave for work.
"Let's go out? On the weekend?"
She nodded, "I could do with some fun."
With a hug, her friend left, to head to her job in a high end boutique across town.