Bo pounded the punchbag furiously, combinations of jabs and hooks, his breath ragged gasps as his lungs screamed for oxygen. But he couldn't stop, he was still angry, nine hours later.
She had disappeared. In the blink of an eye.
One minute she was there, the next she was gone. He'd almost laughed, when he returned with their drinks, and he couldn't find her, he'd presumed she was joking, or at most gone to the bathroom. But after a few minutes, he realised that she wasn't coming back. That was after he'd strolled, hoping to appear nonchalant, to the bathroom.
When he knew that she was gone, he rushed out to the hall, then down the stairs to the reception. There was a car disappearing in the distance, and he thought it may have a cab light on the top, he couldn't be sure. Climbing back upstairs, he stalked the room, making sure he hadn't missed her, his body trembling with anger....or was it anxiety? He'd promised Coop he'd see her home, he was a man of his word, that was the minimum. He was a lot of things, but he was true to that.
Blake was stood in the corner drinking, his wife, Eva was dancing with a couple of others, and he was watching her intently. When Bo stopped in front of him, Blake clapped him on the back.
"You OK, Pen?"
If he wasn't so angry, he'd have taken the comment in good faith, instead, he snarled a response, storming past his Captain. But he should've known, the insightful fucker wouldn't let it go. Reaching out Blake placed a hand on his shoulder. "Cool it, Holding. You hear?"
"I hear fucking EVERYTHING!"
Shaking his head, Blake dragged him out a nearby doorway, then pinned him against the wall, "whatever is eating your ass, now is neither the time or the place to sort it out. You hear THAT?"
He scowled, dipping is eyes, to avoid the searching eyes of his friend and teammate.
"This is the big night, everyone is watching, on best behaviour. Who or whatever you want to punch, argue tear a strip off, just leave it...to tomorrow." He grinned then, annoyingly so. "Go back and carry on charming Tash—I can't believe she likes your sullen teenager act, she seems so grown up."
That made his head snap up, like a trigger on a gun he'd been pulled, "what? Don't even suggest...."
He didn't know what he was trying to say in response, and he was more angry than ever before. Hearing her name on Blake's lips, suddenly he wanted to know how the fuck this man knew her, but he was struggling to form words. He wasn't jealous, he'd never been jealous, but he was angry, livid.
"Shit, Bo. You are one angst mother-fucker. What is eating your ass?"
He ran a hand through his hair, "I was supposed to see her home, but she disappeared." And I am so angry about letting that happen.
"She's a big girl, she'll be fine." He stared at him, long and hard, "you like her? I mean she's a nice girl. I like her, wouldn't have put her on your radar though."
He rolled his eyes, "I promised Coop. That's all."
Bo hated the way that Blake was studying him, "well you know where she is, go check her out." When he looked confused, Blake had laughed like a drain, "you don't? Really? Boy you have your head so far up your ass that you cannot see what's in front of you. You eat breakfast with her, at least once a week. You must be the only one in this room who doesn't know who she is."
Turning from the punchbag, he jumped onto a treadmill and pumped the speed and incline to as much as he could handle, and ran, and ran.
She'd slept like a log, when her alarm went off at six am, Natasha was amazed at the fact she hadn't stirred. Because she'd gone to bed feeling a little guilty at the way she'd run out on Bo. Pulling on her skinny jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt, she cleaned her teeth, then jogged down the back stairs to the kitchen, her cafe. A place where it all felt normal.
With a coffee in her favourite mug, she started making batter in her industrial size mixer, lemon drizzle cake, cherry almond and a decadent chocolate number. That was her plan before early opening at seven thirty.
The university crowd came a little later, but there was a steady stream of workers that called for takeaway coffee in the morning. Friday seemed to be the busiest day too.
Once the cakes were in the oven, the frosting ready to lather on them, she started on breakfast prep. It was the busiest ninety minutes of the day for her. But she thrived on it.
The cakes were just cool enough to finish and display, the fresh bread baked, and the coffee machine gleaming when she rounded the counter into the cafe. There were lowered blinds at the glass shop front, and before opening them, she unlocked the door, turning the sign to OPEN, before turning to raise the blinds, and let in some sunshine.
As she did, the door dinged, telling her that someone was had been waiting for her to open, and was already in the shop. With a smile she glanced back to the door, to greet the customer, then froze. Stood there, glaring at her, was Bo, and he wasn't happy.
Taking a deep breath, she sidestepped to the counter, relieved at the distance it brought, then plastered on a smile.
He walked towards her, eyes wide, "hi? That's it?"
She gulped, he was such an incredible force, powerful and so big in the confines of her small cafe.
"I'm not a child. I wanted to leave, so I did."
He leaned forward, she could see his dark curls were damp, he was wearing a Hornets t-shirt and jeans, and as he moved into her comfort zone, the aroma that drifted towards her was almost hypnotic in it's deliciousness, he was a formidable man, a full, highly-charged package.
"I told you I'd bring you home, I told my BOSS I'd get you home."
She blushed as she squared up to him, "well you're not MY boss, and if it bothers you that much, I'll tell Coop you saw me to the front door."
That made him squirm a little, but as he opened his mouth, no doubt to expel another diatribe in her direction, the door tingled behind them.
Fortunately he had no intention of airing their laundry in public, so he stayed where he was leaning against the far end of the counter as she served the couple who rushed in requesting coffee.
As she waited for theirs to complete, she filled a mug with filter coffee and handed it in his direction. Despite the anger that still pounded off him in waves, he took the drink, then half turned watching her every move. She had no idea why she humoured him, then she glanced to snatch a glimpse of him taking a sip, and almost swooned at the bulge that caused in his shapely biceps.
She had never been so hormonal, so flaky.
Three more people came in, before the shop fell back into silence, other than the radio churning out the local breakfast show.
"You calmed down a bit now?" She asked, suddenly brave enough to move along the counter to the brooding mass of muscle, be that very attractive muscle, and goad him.
Grunting, he drained his mug, "I was worried, OK? You literally disappeared."
She smiled, "OK. Thank you for your concern, but I have lived in this city for a long time and never needed a guardian angel. So don't expect me to suddenly think I need one."
He shook his head, then placed his empty mug on the counter, "you just don't get it, do you?"
At that moment, three young males entered, presumably students, and took her attention for ten minutes. When they left he was still there.
Taking the coffee pot, she refilled his mug, and then gave him a smile, "get what?"
He shrugged, suddenly looking a little deflated, "I'm not sure I know any more. I just know that you scared me, when you left."
The calmer and more subdued version of the man was far more amenable, he actually garnered a smile, "thank you for looking out for me, I should have told you I was leaving. That wasn't great of me."
Nodding he watched as she returned the coffee pot to the machine, "you manage this place?"
She shook her head, "I own it, which is why I am ALWAYS here. Or it feels like that!"
She grimaced, she loved the place, she had never spoken badly of the place, where had those words come from?
"Wow, you're young for that."
"Ha, Thirty one is not young."
He cocked his head to one side, studying her for a long moment, "you look a lot younger than that."
Blushing she distracted herself by cleaning the counter with a cloth.
"Did that upset you?"
She shook her head, she had never been good at taking compliments, and this beautiful man was intimidating her, without even trying.
"So if you work too hard...." he was trying to change the subject, he could obviously feel her awkwardness, "...then maybe you could join me for some food tonight? I'm new here, don't know where's good to go. Make up for coming in here so angry."
A date? He was asking her on a date?
She almost staggered as nausea washed over her, "I don't think...."
He sighed, "as a friend? Nothing more. You are the first person I've enjoyed having a conversation since I stepped off the plane."
"I'm sure that's not the truth." After all he was surrounded by teammates and fans all the time.
He scoffed, "have you seen my teammates? Wouldn't want to spend more time with them than I have to, and you saw the people last night...."
She rolled her eyes, "it must be so awful having gorgeous women throwing themselves at you." She chewed her thumbnail for a moment, "and maybe, if you spent more time talking to them, instead of worrying about where I was, then you'd have a queue of women wanting to go out with you."
He ran a hand through his hair, "I don't want any of them, I want to go out to dinner with you. No strings, just a meal."
Before she realised it, she was nodding, agreeing and she had no idea why.
"I'll collect you, at seven."
She shook her head, scribbling down a central address, "meet me there, we can choose where to go once we're there."
He cocked his head again, in that inquisitive way, contemplative, and then shook it, "I'm definitely picking you up. Where do you live?"
She bit her lips, staring at him, a battle of wills, "Pick me up here."
Bo walked out of the cafe, turned a corner, then collapsed against the wall. What the fuck was he doing? He didn't take women out, not any more, and he didn't force women to do that either. He was acting like a huge douche and he wasn't sure why. Since landing in the country a month earlier, he'd been nothing but screwed up, and kept screwing up. It was a disaster. He was a mess.
But when he thought about meeting Natasha later, he smiled, she made him smile. That confused him, but he hoped that at least that night would go well. Maybe his life could start to turn around when he got his head out of his ass, just like Blake had advised him. This was the hand he'd been dealt, he had to grin and bear it.
Just before the real lunch rush, Steph called in for a debrief, but she was far too busy as Andy, another of her casual workers called in sick. She was hoping that Lara would answer her phone and be able to help out at short notice. It was typical that on a night when she needed to leave on time to get ready for her date. Luckily she only lived upstairs.
"Hey Steph!" Her friend watched her from across the counter as she juggled two lunch orders, "You any good with a coffee machine?"
"A small one, yes. That chrome monstrosity....not a clue."
She grinned at her friend, "it's beautiful. You want a coffee?"
"As long as it comes with G.O.S.S.I.P." She spoke each initial in a childish sing-song voice, then glanced around, "but you're short staffed."
Scooting past her friend to take two plates of open rye sandwiches to a couple sat in the window, she offered, "Andy's ill."
Steph smiled when she returned, "so you're alone. A quick martini after work? REALLY want to know what happened last night."
Natasha knew she was blushing even before it happened, and Steph's eyes widened. "Tell me more Miss Ingram!"
Clattering the coffee machine as she refilled the espresso filter, then started it working, she ignored her friend for a moment, so Steph tapped the counter, causing her to turn, cheeks hot .
"I'm going out to dinner, tonight."
She didn't date, hadn't in SO long, that she knew Steph would over react, "shit-a-brick. Really? Tell. Me. More."
"You're full of 'youth speak' today, old girl."
Steph laughed, "nice try, but you are not changing this topic. You hear that?"
"One of the players, he was asked to take me home last night by the coach whose wife invited me, I left before he had the chance. He was a bit angry, not sure why, so I'm somehow showing him some good places to eat tonight."
Shaking her head, she once again cut across the room, this time with a coffee for an elderly lady who was a regular customer.
"Not a date," she once again squeezed behind the counter. "A meal, showing a newcomer to town, around own. That's all."
Grimacing she tried to ignore the question, but after five distinctive and deliberate coughs, she turned back to her friend. "An American, Bo Harding."
Steph squealed, pulling out her phone, tapping at it furiously, then gave a long low whistle.
"You are fucking kidding me?"
She turned the phone and Natasha glanced across at the screen, it was Bo alright, a black and white high quality image of him, shirtless with only a pair of very low slung boxer shorts, head craned up, looking to the ceiling.
"That is F.I.T."
She flicked to another pic of him in full hockey gear, and a few other random pics, increasing her pitch whistle as she did.
"Are you going to keep speaking in initials?" Natasha tried desperately to deflect.
"Do not change the subject, you are off on a date with this totty tonight?"
Natasha rolled her eyes, "it's not a date."
"And I'm not a female. I am coming here for opening tomorrow, you are most definitely filling me on everything. I might even call you later....where are you going?"
"It is NOT a date, and you are NOT turning up. It's dinner, once. That is all."
Steph grinned, "eight am, I'll be here, on the dot."
Natasha laughed as she made for the door, she loved her best friend, though she clearly was the biggest gossip in the north.