"So how did it go?"
It had been difficult getting up for work that morning, her alarm at five thirty wasn't welcome. But the day's baking was done, and Natasha was having a quick cup of coffee in the few quiet moments before her Saturday trade started in earnest.
Steph's inquisitive phone call was well timed.
"It was OK, we didn't fight, and he dropped me home. Chivalrous and all that."
Steph squealed and Natasha could hear her clapping her hands, "are you seeing him again?"
That was the thing that bugged her, they'd had a great night, she knew that he wasn't here permanently, but it still hurt that he didn't ask for her number, didn't suggest another night. Nothing.
Dinner, chatting...then nothing, she didn't want more. There was no option of a relationship on her agenda, but he could have asked her out again. But he hadn't. She was too proud to suggest it herself, and too scared.
"He's just passing through, Steph. He's not planning to be here for long. So what's the point?"
She could imagine her friend's expression as she exploded with frustration, "the point? The POINT? The point is that you get back into the dating game, get at it, have fun...if he isn't hanging around for long, then you really have nothing to lose. Let down your hair and have some fun."
"I'm not going to date him, he's complicated, and there's no future if I wanted it. So why would I risk getting involved?"
It was true, they hadn't discussed his future in any great length, but there was an obvious disdain in his voice as he talked about the life he had here, and all that he'd left behind. She knew nothing about him, despite their night, no idea what had brought him to play for the Hornets, why he was in this town. She'd hoped to have the time to find out, but it didn't look like that was possible. The more she thought about it, the more she realised that he was an even more closed book than herself.
Her best friend, ever the romantic, was reluctant to let the story lie, but soon realised that Natasha wasn't lying, there was little to discuss.
Instead she eventually hung up and left Natasha to a busy weekend at the cafe.
Coop's office was little more than a broom cupboard next to the home team dugout. He had a larger office up in the wondrously called 'business suite' of the arena, but insisted that he chose the closet size room to be close to the ice and the changing room, the 'action' as he called it. Everything in the club, the league...it was all a million miles away from the NHL, the facilities, the quality, the money...everything. Coop seemed to thrive on all that was killing Bo slowly.
Coop had called him into his office on Saturday afternoon, an hour before they were due to arrive for the evening game.
"You wanted me, boss?" He asked peeking around into the office.
His coach, his mentor, was sat at the desk, piles of papers tossed across his desk, the only neat thing in the room a small shelf that housed a few small trophies and a picture of his wife and kids. Despite the chaos, he was one of the most awesome men he'd ever met. Fun, yet dedicated, skilful and fast on the ice, a great reader of people off it, a family man, and a mentor to him, and all the other family-less players who had little direction off the ice.
He longed to be more like him, to be more in control of his life, to have people look up to him, to be wise...but he wasn't. And he hated that weakness.
"Holding!" He looked up with a grin, "take a seat."
Bo did as he was bid, "is anything wrong boss?"
Coop shrugged, "not with me."
He bristled, "but there is with me?"
Shrugging again, he leaned forwards onto his elbows, "I'm still getting the vibe that you're not settling here. And I want to help you, if I can." When Bo made to protest, he shook his head, "this isn't me expecting you to open up, to 'talk'. I'm just saying a happy player, makes for a successful team, and that's my biggest concern here."
Bo laughed out loud, "you're not happy with my performance?"
"Are you happy?"
He thought back to the last few games, he was scoring well, he was getting faster and sharper on the ice. He couldn't say that he was disappointed, but he was a shadow of the man he had been in the NHL. Happy wasn't a word on his agenda. But he couldn't tell Coop that.
"I'm better than I thought I'd be."
As soon as he said the words, he wanted to take them back, but instead he had to watch Coop's eyes widen in surprise, "so you sold me a lemon?"
It was his turn to shrug this time, "not really. I'm not as good as I want to be, but I'm better than I thought I would be. That's all."
Coop nodded, "I know what it's like. To play at that level. I walked away, you were forced away. But I get where you are."
He laughed incredulously, "you CHOSE to leave? Hardly in the same place as me."
"EXACTLY the same place. I was cocky, arrogant, I thought it was everything to me, I burned every bridge in my quest to be the best, and when it all fell apart I had nothing left. It may not be the same circumstances, but I know how you feel."
Bo wasn't sure about that, but he could see an earnest edge to Coop that he'd never noticed before. Suddenly he wanted to know exactly what had happened to him, why he'd walked away from his life. But he knew this wasn't about his coach, it was about himself.
"How did you get past it?"
Coop sighed, "for me it wasn't missing hockey, I switched off from life." Giving a sigh, he tossed his head back for a moment, "you seen my wife? She made me live again, and through her I got back my love of hockey."
"So I can borrow her? Get my joie de vivre back?"
Coop laughed out loud, "sorry, I can't let her out, but, just know that in my darkest moment, she found me. Something will change, and if there's anyway that I can help you get back into things, whether that be accepting where you are, or, I don't know, inviting you over to bitch over NHL games on my gigantic TV. I don't know. Just know you're not alone."
Bo digested that as he sat opposite his coach, and it was a long time before he nodded, "thanks Coop. I know I'm not the easiest to deal with. I want to be better, and I'm going to train harder."
It was a blasé response, completely disregarding all that the older man had said to him, and on cue, Coop's face dropped and he knew that he'd disappointed him. But he wasn't about to admit that his words resonated, that he understood what he was saying, instead it was easy to keep being a prick and reject that well meant olive branch.
Coop was worldly, and his face recovered in a millisecond, "I'm walking across to Starbucks, the coffee here is fucking dreadful, wanna join me for a stroll?"
He couldn't deny that the thought of a decent coffee made his toes curl, so instead of flipping him off, he nodded.
It was a short walk to the coffee shop, and they walked in silence for a little while.
He glanced at Coop, "what are you? A woman after gossip?"
Coop laughed, "been married too long. Just like the woman, she's a hard worker, got a great business...I like her a lot. Thought we shared that thought."
Bo once again swallowed that, "it's more a question that I didn't want that fucker Vaughn getting close."
"Cos you like her."
Statement, not question.
Rolling his eyes, he opened the door for Coop and followed him into the building, the aroma of coffee wafting into his head, overwhelming his senses. "Whatever you say, matchmaker."
That made Coop laughed, "so it doesn't mean anything that I gave her tickets for tomorrow's game. She couldn't come tonight."
His head snapped up at that, and he hated the knowing look in the other man's eyes. But in reality he wasn't sure whether her coming to the match the following day, or that fact that she was busy that coming evening, bothered him more.
That night, he scored what in hockey was termed a Gordie Howe hat-trick, a goal, an assist and then a fight in the third period that saw him evicted from the game. But some butt-licker from Vermont wanted to push him, knew who he'd been and wanted to remind him that he was washed up as they came nose to nose for a face off. First time, he laughed, second he rolled his eyes, third time, he punched him in that nose, causing blood to splatter everywhere.
He got off relatively unscathed, though he had a rather healthy black eye from the melee that ensued. He'd have gone back in and smashed the bastard into the boards again, but the prick was ushered off to have his nose fixed by the team medics.
He couldn't wait for the rematch with the same team in a few weeks, the whole atmosphere was likely to raise and there could be more punches thrown. Satisfying.
That was until the team returned to the dressing room where he was sat, dressed, morose as the adrenaline left him in waves.
"The fuck, Pen?" Blake offered, slamming open the door. "Pick your battles, that guy is shit, you're paying a pen for fuck all, and the refs have called Coop over as the other coach is pushing for a suspension, they're all speaking to Player Safety as we speak."
Bo groaned, that was all he needed, more time out. If an action was deemed bad, unsporting in his case, then there was a committee who'd judge his actions, and likely suspend him from more games, and fine him. All he needed was more aggravation and hassle from the management. He wanted to leave run out the building as fast as he could, but his knee would hate that, but not as much as his coach would.
An hour later, after Coop's disappointed face, at his actions and the reaction he appeared to have had to the words he'd laid on Bo's ears just a couple of hours earlier; and the compulsory meet and greet with fans, he escaped. In his little car, hating every minute of the day.
He hated the sad look on his coach's face, the realisation that he didn't care, then there were the fans who snapped at him for almost jeopardising a narrow win, and the others, mainly women, who seemed more enamoured after his dissent, a bad boy, a hockey enforcer always got the gals. He remembered that much, though he had never been a fighter before. This was all new, and he hated the ludicrous, shallowness of it all, drove him mad, slowly but surely.
For the first time in a long time, he was glad to get out and into his tiny car. No matter the size, it represented freedom at that very moment, and he floored the gas as he zoomed out of the car park.
When she was distracted, Natasha shut up shop, returning to the back room, and baked. It was her therapy, and had got her through far more trauma than the man who disappeared without any warning the previous evening. She didn't want him, she convinced herself, as she pulled cupcakes from their tray, but she hated that he'd brushed her off with out a second glance. The bastard.
One cake took her anger as she punched it with the heel of her hand...then ate it quickly.
Another thing that was out of character. Snacking on the goods, it was almost an occupational hazard.
She washed up, leaving the cakes on racks to cool. She's store then at the cry last moment. The radio in the corner flicked to the news, and reports on all the day's sports, half a dozen local football scores, and then mention of the Hornets. Did they report on the hockey normally? Or did she just only notice now, that she had a vague interest in them?
Then she heard him name mentioned, a goal...a fight...
Grimacing, she dried her hands, then started to close up the shop properly, pull down shutters and triple bolt the door, she could escape to her home via the back of the kitchen.
As she switched off the counter lights and headed to the blinds, she couldn't help but see the car, small, familiar, and if it wasn't immediately recognisable by the emblazoned sides, then the man slumped over the steering wheel, looking like hell, was.
He must be telepathic, because as her heart lurched at the sad sight, Bo lifted his head, those eyes, despite being hidden in shadows found her, she could feel his gaze. She could have just pulled down the blinds, locked him out, and her away, safe. But she raised a hand, beckoned him over. Heart in mouth as she judged his response to that.
Then the door opened, he uncurled, a feat of engineering in itself, then looked at her from those still hooded eyes, he'd had a hard day, it was obvious from every inch of his body, and she wanted to help. She hated that she did, but he painted such a sorrowful picture.
Moving to the door, she was unlocking as his shadow cast across the glass.
"Tough day?" She hid behind the door for a moment, not inviting him in.
"I thought you'd be asleep." He bit his lips and then his eyes lifted to meet hers. "Been hell."
There was a moment when she thought she might not let him in, but it was literally a fleeting moment, instead, she stepped back, let him inside.
"Couldn't sleep, so I'm doing what I do best."
He inhaled, like a Bisto kid, "baking cakes?"
She grinned, "always."
Bo followed her closely, into the cafe, and she almost laughed at his enthusiasm, "so you have a sweet tooth?"
Nodding, he slid onto a bar stool as she retrieved a slice of lemon drizzle cake, and placed it on a plate. For a moment she contemplated serving it to him there, in the cafe, but she was almost in darkness, she was locking up to go up to her apartment upstairs, could she take him with her?
Glancing at him, she took in his earnest smile, hopeful expression, and sighed, "I'm heading upstairs, that's where I live. You can come, if you promise to not be a behave."
That made him laugh and he held his hands up in surrender as he stood, following her once again, out of a door, which she tripled locked, and up the steps.
Bo was suddenly intrigued to see the inside of her home, he'd never cared in the past, but as he followed her, he knew he was getting a true insight into the woman that was Natasha...shit. He didn't even know her surname.
"What's your last name?" He asked as she once again triple unlocked the door in front of them.
She eyed him suspiciously over her shoulder for a moment, before rolling her eyes, he wasn't sure what any of that meant, but he was rewarded with the name, "Ingram."
He rolled that name around in his head, as the room they'd entered came into view. He didn't know what he expected, but it clearly wasn't this. A light, bright and modern room, small glass dining table, leather and steel sofa, and an archway that led to a small chrome dominated kitchen.
"Thought it would be a bit less fashionable?"
He shrugged, "not sure, but this building, the whole area is a bit dated."
"My grandmother lived here, and it was very old-fashioned. When she passed away I had a lot of this done..." She looked up at him and smiled, "and now I seem to spend more time downstairs in the cafe."
"You regret it?"
Again she shrugged, "I'm not sure. But she doesn't feel close to me any more." She shook herself, then turned to him, "let me get you a drink. I have coffee, tea, chocolate hot I mean, and of course, beer, wine...and great brandy."
That made him smile, "I haven't had brandy in a long time. I have the car though..."
"And a huge slab of cake to absorb it? Not that I'm forcing that decision."
Grinning, Bo waggled his eyebrows, "if the brandy is THAT good, then I'm going to call a cab anyway!"