"You look amazeballs."
Natasha looked up from her position at the back of the kitchen, where she was craning to apply mascara in a small badly placed mirror, to see Steph leaning against the wall. She'd worked so late, that she was getting ready for this ladies night in the back of the cafe. It was the only way.
"I don't feel like it." She stood upright, "amazeballs, really?"
Steph laughed, "had Jacob sleeping over last night. It's a teenage thang apparently."
"Well, nothing about today is 'amazeballs'."
She laughed again, "really? You are about to spend the evening with about thirty hot men!"
Oh, she knew that, and she was terrified. The last time she'd socialised with big burly hockey players, she'd been an innocent teenager, and it hadn't ended well. This was different, she had to keep reminding herself.
"Not making me feel any better, and remember, I'll be the other side of the room with the hoards of screeching women. This will be nothing more than an ego boost for these bloody men."
Steph lifted an eyebrow, and she grimaced, "this isn't my thing, Steph. You know that, I don't want to go."
"You are more beautiful than any of the women there, you deserve a fun night." She walked up to Natasha and tugged at the clip in her hair. "You need to figuratively and literally let your hair down. All work and no play is making you a very dull girl." Fluffing her friend's hair theatrically, she let it fall in dark red curls around her shoulders. "You have lush hair, you NEVER wear it down."
"I work with food, I can't have my hair down."
Steph scoffed, "and you rarely go out."
She poked out her tongue, then sighed, "do I really look ok?"
There were no mirrors in the downstairs part of the building, other than the small mirrored tile she'd been craned over above the sink. She turned fully to her friend and grimaced. She was wearing skinny jeans, she wasn't skinny, but she felt comfortable in them, and her heeled boots, her loose top fell off one shoulder. She wanted to look casual, the last thing she wanted was to look like she was trying, that she wanted to catch eyes. Natasha planned to go, be social, then leave, as soon as possible.
"I told you, you look edible, those men are going to have their socks knocked off."
Natasha rolled her eyes, "will you give me a lift over there? The rink is kind of on you way home."
Bo's anxiety levels were through the roof, pre game is was adrenaline that fuelled him, but as he laced his skates, the very last thing that luck and superstition dictated he did; he feared heading out to the ice. Vaughn and a few of his cronies were all back slapping and excited, and that was almost worse, that they were embracing this, relishing it.
Jax Perez, nicknamed Porno, after a porn actress who shared his surname and some swore was his sister, bumped his shoulder, "come on Pen." Penalty was now his locker room nickname courtesy of their captain. "It's not that bad."
He turned to him, "it's like a bad dream, never felt like a prostitute in all my professional years."
"But you did before?" He asked with a chuckle, "there's no pressure, just run with it. I don't think it's as bad as a charity auction we had when I was back in the AHL in Cleveland. This psycho 'won' me for an hour of yard cleaning...you should have seen what she was wearing when I turned up. NO amount of charity made that worthwhile."
"That supposed to make me feel better?"
He shrugged, "have to say, that we are an asset, the team use us to entice sponsors, to gain coverage, to get fans, for adverts...why do you think I do more publicity than that prick Vaughn? It ain't for my point scoring..." He gave a flash of his photographic pearly white grin, and added, "it's cos of these teeth and apparently these eyes too. It's a game, and it comes with roles. We may not like 'em all, but that's the way."
It made sense, "so I just have to suck it up."
"Come on, warm up."
He hit the ice and skated a lap as fast as possible, then dropped to stretch his leg. Since injuring his knee he had to give it a little more tlc. From his position low on the ice, it gave him a chance to look around the rink. It was a small arena, holding about two thousand people at most. No comparison to the homes of NHL teams he'd played in. But it did have a great atmosphere, in the first few home games the fans had created a cacophony of sound.
There were the usual group of merchandise clad fans behind the home goal, the two hospitality boxes were filled with the match sponsors. Then he glanced to the left of the dugouts, the section given to the 'guests' of the night.
There weren't many sat there, it seemed that they were frequenting the bar before the game was played, as he stretched further to the ice, he spotted a group of very glamorous women, trying to descend the steps to the seats in ridiculous heels.
As he drew back to his feet to join in the drills, he spotted a woman on her own, reading a book. Skating close he recognised the cover, A Clockwork Orange. Slightly cliché you might think, but he had to take his hat off to anyone reading what was one of his favourite books. Even more kudos that she wasn't giggling or drooling at Blake or Jax as the other women were. She stood out, and it wasn't for her gorgeous auburn hair that fell in waves covering her face, or the pale smooth skin her off shoulder top revealed. It was purely a literature thing.
A shout of "yours, Pen," came from across the ice, pulling him back into the game, turning to receive a pass, then hit it as hard as he could towards goal...beating the keeper.
The game started, and he forgot about the surroundings, anything but his team, and the opposition on the ice. Until Pete Naylor, one of the youngest team members, scored past the goal tender. As he celebrated with his line, Bo looked up and saw the same woman stood, cheering, both arms aloft. The look on her face pure adulation.
She wasn't the only one celebrating, and when Naylor came to the bench for the customary skate past, Bo's eyes and concentration returned to the game.
The section next to then bench was filled with tonight's 'guests' all screeching and wailing with little understanding of the game. Which annoyed him. And was part of the reason that the auburn haired woman stood out, she was passionate, calling out the referee, shouting instructions and jumping to her feet enthusiastically. She knew, and understood the game. Like a Belisha beacon in this chaos.
It made him smile, and that was a rarity. Maybe, just maybe he'd get through this night, and home, to his bed as soon as possible.
Natasha kept pulling herself back, she found herself on her feet too many times, cheering, or more often screeching at the referee over some indignation. She was a million miles from the ,moment she entered the rink. It was all so familiar, the smell of wintergreen, sweat and the chill of the ice. It was so similar to the training rinks that she'd frequented as a teenager back in the US. There was a feel to it, that made the hairs on her neck stand on end. But she'd taken a deep breath, then found her seat, and hidden away until the game started. Then she was surrounded by giggling, glamorous women, she felt hugely underdressed and underprepared. Then fortunately, Freya had joined her, just after the first period started, and they'd dropped into an easy conversation.
The other woman constantly chuckled at Natasha, "I thought this was your first game, yet you know more than I could ever about the game."
Natasha grimaced, "I watched a lot, growing up."
That only seemed to intrigue her further, so she turned to her, "my parents live just outside Boston. I lived my teen years there, watched a lot of hockey."
More intrigue. Damn.
"What do they do there, your parents?"
A natural break in play meant she could turn to the other woman, "my parents teach in university out there."
"Really? That's crazy, I worked in MIT for about ten years."
Natasha felt her jaw fall, mouth opening in shock, "my father teaches in Cambridge, but my mother is at MIT too."
"I was in the EcoFuel project part of the chemistry faculty. What about her?"
"Military Technology – one of those 'I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you departments."
Freya laughed, "I know all about that. You didn't want to live out there? I love it there, miss it a lot."
No. She had no intention of going back and had hardly seen her parents for that reason. "Um, not really. I like it here."
With that there was a roar on the ice, and both turned to see Coop celebrating a goal with his teammates.
"Oooh," Freya gasped. "He doesn't score very often. He'll be unbearable later."
That made Natasha waggle her eyebrows at her, "TMI."
Chuckling, Freya nudged her, "so what do you think of Bo?"
She'd heard some of the women chanting what she now realised was the name Bo, and turned to Freya, "who's that?"
"Middle of the ice," she pointed to the centre who had the number 31 on his back. "Bo Holding. He's ex-NHL, took a step down to come here. A fish out of water, but he's very cute."
"Hence the women screeching," she replied.
Watching the man in question move gracefully across the ice, she was marvelling at his elegance when he half turned and if she'd been standing would have keeled over. It was the man she'd flirted with, or rather attempted to. She thought he'd looked quite fit in the cafe, here, in his kit, all testosterone and skill...he was devastating.
Freya glanced at her, nudging again, "cute, hey? Surely you've met him at the breakfast things?"
Natasha blushed, she could feel the heat flood her cheeks, "once. He was a little aloof."
Understatement, but there was no point trying to deny things.
Freya grinned, "I'll have to introduce you later."
She was definitely getting out of there as soon as she could.
The bar was the same room she'd met Coop and Oscar in previously, and it was filled with people, mainly women, drinking and chattering rather loudly.
Freya dragged Natasha across the room to the bar, everyone there knew her, and she smiled at the barman, "serve this woman as a priority if I'm not with her, OK?"
The middle aged man nodded, "anything for you, Mrs C."
With a glass of bubbly each, they turned to survey the room, Freya spent a few moments pointing out the important or notable people. Three bottle blonde women who attended every function and never went home alone, sponsors wives, the bordering on stalker of the captain Blake, who was a lovely man she'd met a couple of times, and then his wife and her sister. There were also two women in their fifties, spinsters who were the club's biggest fans, and their eighty year old mother. It was quite the mix.
Freya seemed to know a story about everyone and they were engrossed in a story with the wives of the shirt sponsor when a hush literally came over the room. Natasha looked up to see the whole team walk into the bar, or rather swagger.
She recognised a few players from her occasional contact with the club, and they all took in the room smiling enigmatically.
The men split into small groups almost as though planned, and spread through the bar, as Blake headed to the bar to get a drink for them all. He was like a father-figure. That made her smile. Then Coop filled the air around them as he grabbed Freya.
"Did ya see? Did ya see me?"
Freya giggled like a little girl, then nodded, "you were ace, MC." With a roar of satisfaction, he pulled her into her arms and smothered her with an obscene kiss.
When they pulled apart, he looked at Natasha and she grinned, "she was gossiping, missed it."
He laughed, "I know...I looked up and she wasn't even looking at he ice."
Freya rolled her eyes, "gonna get us gals a drink?"
Completely under her thumb, he saluted then headed to the bar. All the time grinning a mesmerising grin.
"Isn't he a love?" Freya was equally as euphoric, it would be nauseating if they weren't so cute.
"I'll agree to anything if he gets me another drink."
Bo was the last into the room, and was grateful to see Blake wafting a bottle of beer in his direction.
"Smile, Pen. It's a room full of women who want to know more about hockey. You look like you're on Death Row."
It felt like that, Bo fought the desire to roll his eyes, because he was sure the muscles working his eyes were more exhausted than his quads after the game. Instead, he took the bottle and drained half of it.
"My idea of hell."
Blake nodded, "I've got a stalker here, and my wife, same time. It could be a lot nicer..."
"Stalker?" Bo shuddered.
"Yep. She regularly sleeps in her car, outside the house. She makes sure she gets close at every opportunity."
His eyes were wide, "and you don't worry?"
"Eva, my wife...she worries. But I've met her a few times, she's never overstepped the mark, she's just a devoted fan. I'm careful, but hey...this is part of our role. It's all about fans, without them...we'd be nothing."
Slapping him on the back, Blake crossed the room to his wife, and Bo perused the room from the relative sanctity of the doorway.
There were lots of people, most of his team mates swamped by women, and then he spotted across the room the hair, dark red, vibrant, tucked behind one ear, and a sweep of bare shoulder, just as he remembered from earlier. He could see her side profile, delicate nose, smooth complexion, flushed cheeks. She was definitely traffic stopping. But he wasn't here for that, he had a job to do, no strings.
And then his glimpse of her through the pedestrian traffic was obscured by a blonde head, bent to pay her a lot of attention...Vaughn.