There were no breakfasts booked in for the following week, and Natasha was glad to have some time to relax. It was quite stressful planning for that level of effort before nine am, she was the main worker in the cafe, so she had to roster in Lara, or Maria, the two part time students who worked for her. Despite no visits from the Hornets, she did have an email from Oscar Wicker asking her for menu options and whether she'd consider other contracts. She didn't know what the ubiquitous 'other' meant, but she wasn't ready to turn down work, so she replied positively, and he invited her to a meeting at the ice rink at the end of the week.
The rink that called itself home of the Hornets, was a couple of miles away from the university district, in an industrial suburb, it was no wonder they preferred to hang out in her part of the city. It wasn't imposing, like the stadiums of the NHL, even small towns in some parts of the US had bigger rinks, but this was still an emerging sport in Britain, trying to fight against the popularity of football. Which was huge.
She parked near the entrance, then gathered her things together.
A small reception desk sat beside the entrance to the rink, and a young man smiled as she stopped in front him,
"I'm here for a meeting...."
Before she could say any more, he grinned, "with Coop and Oscar, Miss Ingram?" When she nodded, he added, "they're waiting for you in the lounge upstairs."
Her eyes must have shown her disbelief that this rather rough around the edges building could actually house a lounge, because he laughed, "the business suite upstairs is a little out of place with the rest of the rink. The lift behind you, take the second floor."
She followed his instructions, glad that she didn't have to enter the rink itself, the smell, the chill of the ice....all too familiar, and all too traumatic. She had to get over the past, of her previous disdain for all things hockey, having your teenage heart broken by a player, in every sense of the world, didn't mean you could stop moving on. Living and breathing. Even as she gave herself that warning, she knew that it was so much more than that, words were ineffective in this situation.
Then the lift doors opened, dragging her back to the here and now.
Oscar and Coop were sat opposite each other on sofas, either side of a small table, laden with a cafetière and a few mugs. Spotting her, they both grinned. For a moment she wondered if they were twins, they seemed so in tune.
"Thanks for coming." Coop was first to his feet, shaking her hand. "Sorry to summons you here like this, but we've got some contract things going on, new players....can't leave the office." He rolled his eyes as Oscar joined him.
"Yep, it's been shit. But I am responsible for managing the day to day issues with the team, and they've all loved the breakfasts with you, we like what you do...."
"And the catering here is dreadful!" Coop cut in.
Oscar nodded, offering a seat, then pouring her a coffee. "He's not wrong. Look. We are trying to get some balance, team building, but also influencing the nutrition of our guys, you fit the bill."
She beamed at that, "do you work with a sport's nutritionist?"
Coop laughed, "we'd like to. But the budget here....we need to spend on players, not support staff, not that we don't need that support. It's a balance, we don't have much funding. So it's left to me and my brother-in-law here, to both wrestle our way through this.
"Saying that, we are working with the university here, we are hoping to get some involvement. Until then, we are hoping that you can accommodate us, we just want to make this on a more permanent basis, with a contract of sorts."
"Is that necessary?"
Oscar nodded, "if you need to recruit staff, increase orders, you need some assurances that we're going to follow though on our promises."
He then sat beside her and talked her through a contract, minimum of six breakfasts a month, with a view to an occasional lunch or dinner. She was more than happy with the money discussed, and the terms offered.
As they were signing on the dotted line, happy with their agreement, the lift opened once more and a cacophony of noise emerged like a cloud from it.
Simultaneous shouts of "Daddy", accompanied a whirlwind of children as they ran across the room, closely followed by the pregnant woman, Natasha recognised as being Oscar's wife, and another woman, with a baby strapped to her hip.
"Shit!" Coop murmured, as he gave Natasha an apologetic glance before he was swamped by a girl and a much younger boy, "hey guys. How was school?"
They both grimaced, at the same time, Oscar was swamped by the same shy little girl she remembered from the cafe, who hugged him tightly as an older boy came up and high-fived him.
"Hey Nate, you good?"
The boy nodded, "suppose so, Mum says I can't have my iPad."
He chuckled, "that's cos your nose is always stuck in it, now take Scarlett and your cousins into my office, there are some treats in my desk. You know the drawer?"
Nodding he took Scarlett's hand, then called out, "Riley, Elena, come on. Dad's got chocolate in is desk."
That made all four children scurry away, leaving the two mothers to apologise.
"We're sorry, they are SO excited today." The woman who she had worked out was Coop's wife, turned to her. "We're going out to dinner. It's a treat for them all. I'm just really sorry that they've disturbed your meeting."
Natasha shook her head, "we were just finishing up. Honestly, we're done."
Oscar rolled his eyes as he pulled his wife into his arms, kissing her nose, "we're not able to manage our two children, how the hell will we deal with three?"
Laughing, she turned to Natasha, "you're the amazing cake lady."
"Not sure I'd describe myself that way."
"You? That carrot cake....you have to tell me how you did it."
She turned to the other woman, "Coop told me you bake."
"Freya Cooper," she held out a hand, "this is Lizzie...."
They all made acquaintance, then Lizzie apologised again, "lovely to meet you properly, loved your cakes, and the cafe....but we really must go and retrieve those kids, before they wreck the place."
When it was just the three of them again, Natasha smiled at the two men, "and there was me thinking that the two of you were wearing the trousers."
Oscar chuckled, "it's the kids, definitely the kids."
Over the next few weeks, Natasha couldn't deny that she followed the fortunes of the Hornets from a far. She always called Lara in on the days that the team visited, she wasn't about to embarrass herself again with any of the men, or rather the one man who had penetrated her usually strong defence. They weren't doing bad, and according to the local paper, they didn't make national ones, they were performing against the odds. It pleased her to think she might be apart of that.
She was getting to know their schedule, most games were weekends, Mondays they had off, then Tuesday or Wednesday was gym day, and they came for breakfast, on a Friday there was some sort of later training session. She knew that, because Freya and Lizzie and their brood of children arrived one Friday, waiting for their men.
"Hey," Natasha recognised the women, but couldn't remember their names. After a brief reintroduction, they took a table.
"Your cakes are a perfect after school treat," Lizzie commented as the four older children made for the counter with wide eyes.
Natasha turned back to them, "I have special cupcakes out back. Just iced. Want to see them?"
When the kids nodded, she smiled at the mothers, then took the children behind the counter.
Each picked a cake, all rainbow iced with various adornments, the girls typically had unicorn ears and a horn, the boys a football. Though she laughed when Riley called it soccer.
The mothers looked a little more relaxed and thanked her profusely when they emerged, and she took a coffee herself and sat with them until the two men arrived to collect them. Just at closing up time.
And it became a Friday ritual.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
Bo closed his eyes as he tried to control him breathing, suicide drills on the ice were a killer, but to hear mention of 'Ladies Night' had him worried. Blake leaned on the barrier in front of him as wiped out as he was, but smiling.
"It's an annual thing, we have a game where tickets for women come with a party afterwards."
His most hated Vaughn came up to join them, patting Blake on the back and smiling slyly down at Bo who was sat on the home team bench.
"Not just nibbles and bubbly, it's Fuck-A-Fan Night. Make sure you pack condoms."
Bo had had his fair share of casual sex, but it was always consensual and he promised no more than he gave, but to hear such a derogatory comment fuelled his anger once more. He had three sisters, if anyone spoke about them like that he'd kill them.
Before he could speak, Blake turned, grabbing him by the throat, "you fuck. My wife could be there, it's about fun and fans, not fucking. You speak like that again, I will literally ram your dick down your throat."
"Back off Myers," Coop skated over skidding to a halt beside them, pulling Blake off Vaughn.
"Huh. You've got a daughter Coop. You do NOT want to hear what he just said."
Bo glared at the man he was quickly coming to hate, and he had the gall to not even look embarrassed.
"What are you all getting your panties in a twist about? It's a night where women come to flock around us and we pick who we take home."
Coop rolled his eyes, "Vaughn, you are a real gent." His words were measured, but his face gave away his dislike. Bo could only note that, and know that the issues they'd had in the first month weren't due to him being a cantankerous bastard, but the defenceman being a prick.
Coop made Vaughn train when everyone else was finished, and Bo liked the fact he was being punished for his behaviour. It was a stark message from Coop. The one thing that Bo wasn't scared of, was hard work. But the way Vaughn was bleating on the ice, it seemed it wasn't a universal trait in his team.
As they left the rink, he turned to Blake, fast becoming his friend, and asked, "so what is the deal with this night?"
"We play a game, then we look good. It's probably a sexist thing, but it's about trying to get a better community presence."
Bo's eyes widened, "so we're paraded around as some sort of prize?"
Blake blushed, "is it any different to the sponsors? We're a commodity....this team won't exist without the players, so it's our job to make watching the Hornets as interesting and appealing as possible."
Bo hated that he was feeling all prudish about the upcoming night, but he hated being a trophy or a prize, his dating history to date was all about women wanting his money, his fame, and some joked his stamina. This night was pushing him to back towards that, he dreaded to think how it would play out. He wasn't in the mood for that sort of attention.
After their next gym session, Coop kept them all behind in the Pilates studio and the GM and Oscar turned up.
The general manager was also the owner of the team, a lawyer who worked in the city and wanted to bring hockey to his home. He was enthusiastic, but often misdirected in his intentions. Other players had been quick to tell Bo of all that had gone wrong in the past. This night, was his idea...
"This is our chance to appeal to the non sport watching part of the community."
Blake offered, "isn't that a bit sexist, we have plenty of female fans."
The owner nodded, "but we could have more, you guys are the appeal for these women."
Vaughn snickered, and he was right, this was a shower of shit. Suddenly Bo realised that things COULD get worse.
"Ladies Night?" Natasha looked at the invitation and groaned. "Really?"
Freya nodded, "it'll be good fun. I usually go with Lizzie...." she gestured at her sister-in-law. "THAT'S not happening this year!"
Lizzie sipped at her decaf and rolled her eyes, rubbing her hands over her large abdomen, "really? You're blaming your niece or nephew?"
Freya laughed, "wraps we around her finger, every time." She turned back to Natasha, "say you'll come, it's fun."
Socialising with the team? Since her flirt disaster with one of them she'd avoided them at the breakfasts, she couldn't do this, it wasn't what she needed. But Freya seemed to have an award in pleading, and she and Lizzie weren't going anywhere until she agreed.
Before the men had come to collect them, as was usual on a Friday, she had the invitation pinned to her fridge. The selling point, other than the doe-eyes from Freya, was the fact it was a gift and she didn't have to pay the forty pounds that it cost.
When the two families left, she was filled with dread. What the hell was she doing?