DELAYED PENALTY

PILOTS HOCKEY #1

Five Chapter Sample

 

 

 

Chapter 1

When you’re twenty years old, there’s nothing music and a drink can’t cure.

At least that was my best friend’s response when I told her I’d been cut from Central State’s women’s soccer team that morning.

The overzealous stylings of two drunk chicks bellowing “It’s Raining Men” wafted through the air, and I’d just received my vodka club from the bartender, so why did it still feel like someone scratched my heart out with a serrated shovel?

Maybe “It’s Raining Men” wasn't the right song?

Or maybe my friend’s remedy lacked one vital piece. Like, five minutes locked in a bathroom stall with the crazy-haired hottie approaching me. His head was buzzed short on the sides, leaving a thick patch of dark locks, gelled into a neat pompadour in front. Sort of like 1920s gangster, except less slicked, more height.

Every muscle in Crazy Hair’s body rippled under his clothing as he walked. He had to be over six feet tall, with a broad chest and massive arms stretching the seams of his long-sleeved black Henley. His skin was smooth and pale, a contrast to the thick dark eyebrows resting above his jump-in-and-drown-in-me blue eyes. From the scar on his left cheek to the smug smirk of his lips, he was exactly my type: dangerous, confident, and totally lickable.

I flipped my long blond hair behind my shoulder and glanced to my left, pretending Crazy Hair’s advance had no effect on me. In reality, I’d checked to make sure that he wouldn’t pass me up on the way to some beautiful bombshell I hadn’t noticed standing in the vicinity.

Like when you see someone wave, so you wave back. Then you realize they weren’t waving at you but the person behind you. So you try to play off your lame wave like you were batting away mosquitoes, which aren’t there because it’s December in Canada. Just trying to avoid an awkward situation like that.

Crazy Hair continued to close in, before stopping just inches away.

I’d opened my mouth to ream him out for stepping too far into my personal space, but the sweet scent of clove cigarettes flooded warmth through me like a sip of hot chocolate on a January morning in the Upper Peninsula.

“You work at post office?” he asked in a thick Slavic accent.

“Um, no.” I took a swig of my drink. Though I was unsure where he was going with that line, he was hot enough for me to stick around.

The left corner of his mouth curved into that sexy little smirk. “Because I see you check out my package.”

Carbonation stung my nose as I snorted and choked trying to hold in my laugh. Without time to turn my head, I sprayed vodka club and saliva across the front of Crazy Hair’s shirt.

Awesome.

“Weak!” I heard from somewhere behind me.

I turned to see who had yelled, still coughing as I noticed a group of guys and girls at the high-top table behind me. Shaggy blond hair bounced against one guy’s forehead as he snickered. The dude next to him held his fist in front of his mouth in a horrible attempt to hide his laughter. A brunette in a tight red sweater didn’t look amused. At all.

Crazy Hair threw the guys not one but both of his middle fingers.

“That girl’s a fucking smoke show. Why’d he use a shitty line like that?” the blond one said.

Smoke show? I bit down hard on my lip to fight back a smile. The last time I’d heard that phrase was in high school from my hockey-playing best friend, who’d informed me that “smoke show” was player lingo for “hot girl.”

Unsure of how to recover any semblance of cool after spitting my drink across Crazy Hair’s muscular chest, I spun around and shuffled back to the table my friends occupied in front of the karaoke stage.

It felt weird to drink in public, though we’d been to Canada on multiple occasions. As lifelong residents of Detroit, Michigan, we thought of Windsor—the Canadian city connected to Detroit by a bridge and a tunnel—as the next town over, rather than a foreign country. Nineteen was the legal drinking age in Windsor, so it made sense for underage Americans like us to cross the border for some legit cocktails.

My butt had barely brushed my seat when I heard my name, and my name alone, called over the speakers. I lifted my eyes to the outdated popcorn ceiling, as if the voice resonated from the heavens beyond, rather than the karaoke host.

“Why is he calling my name?” I asked Kristen.

“I picked you a song,” she responded, taking a swig of her beer.

“You picked us a song, you mean?” Emphasis on the us, because I’d never sung alone in my life—not counting the shower and car, of course.

“Nope. Just you.” Kristen placed both hands on my back and pushed me toward the stage. “You need to sing it out. Keeping shit bottled up never works.”

I had no problem singing it out if I was singing with other people, but not when it was just me. Hadn’t I been embarrassed enough today?

My short-lived “smoke show” happiness vanished, and the embarrassment of making a fool of myself in front of Crazy Hair returned. I tried to reverse, but Kristen’s trampoline-like hands propelled me back toward the stage.

Climbing onto the stage, I snatched the microphone out of the host’s hand. I almost felt bad about taking my anger out on him until I saw the lyrics to “Proud Mary” light up in white against the teleprompter’s blue screen. Fuck.

What the hell? I exhaled and lifted my eyes to Kristen.

“Girl power!” She saluted me with her glass.

Was “Proud Mary” a girl-power song? I thought it was about a boat.

“Do you have ‘Good Feeling’?” I asked the karaoke host. He was around my age, with big brown eyes matching his neat, trimmed beard and his shoulder-length hair.

“Flo Rida?” he asked, as disapproving wrinkles formed on his smooth forehead.

“Oh, no,” I said. “The Violent Femmes.”

A smile spread across his lips, and he nodded. “Give me a second.”

While waiting for my song, I took in the scenery at Mickey O’Callaghan’s Irish Pub. The space itself was cozy; small and narrow with red and beige brick walls and mahogany overkill. The dark wood was everywhere: the long bar, the wainscoting, the narrow beams on the ceiling, even the tables and chairs. Evidently Mickey’s was the place to be for Friday-night karaoke, because bodies occupied every seat, and the bar was two people deep all the way across.

Instead of looking toward the table that Crazy Hair had thrown double birds to, I watched the karaoke host fiddle with his machine. After a minute, the screen glowed with the lyrics to my request.

My face burned when my voice cracked delivering the first note. My eyes stayed glued to the teleprompter, even though I knew the words by heart. After the first few lines, I got my vocals on track, and I heard some clapping, which surprised me. Halfway through the song, I raised my eyes to see people on their feet, people other than the friends I had come with, although my friends were on their feet as well. By the time I finished the song, the crowd was hooting and whistling. Someone yelled for me to sing again, but I just smiled as I refastened the microphone to the stand.

“You were amazing, Aud!” Kristen squeezed me when I got back to the table.

“I didn’t know you could sing like that.” Lacy raised her hand for a high five.

“I didn’t either,” I admitted, skimming my palm against hers, sure I’d zap her with the electricity tingling through my limbs. Being on stage felt like overtime at a soccer match: exhilarating and exciting.

“Hey,” someone said, tapping my shoulder. I spun around to see the karaoke host.

“Greg.” He thrust his hand at me.

“Auden,” I said, taking his outstretched palm. “Thanks for switching songs.”

“Tina Turner didn’t seem like your thing.” Greg might’ve had a cute face hiding under his beard. Still not my type, though. Too monotone. Even the plaid flannel hanging off his lean frame was brown. His style screamed Eddie Vedder, nineties grunge rather than today’s hipster cool.

“Oh, I can rock some Tina. Just wasn’t feeling ‘Proud Mary’ without my backup dancers.” I pointed to Kristen and Lacy.

Greg laughed. “Need a drink?”

“I already have—” I searched the table for my drink, spotting it in Lacy’s boyfriend’s hand. “Actually, I do.”

Ignoring Kristen’s megawatt smile, I followed Greg to the bar. She better not have set him on me to boost my spirits. She knew he wasn’t my type. Douche bags like Crazy Hair and the guys he’d flipped off got my motor running. Douche bags and I were on the same wavelength. Neither of us wanted more than the other could offer.

Greg moved to the side so I could order. “Club soda with three limes, please.”

“And a Steam Whistle.” Greg pointed to a beer I didn’t recognize in the stand-up cooler behind the bar. The bartender nodded and extracted a bottle.

“You’ve got a killer voice,” Greg said.

“Well, there’re no Tina Turner–type vocals in that song.” I blew off his compliment.

“No, but it’s hard to sing that soft and keep your key.” His mouth curved into a wide, kind smile. “You from around here?”

“Detroit,” I said, nodding. “But I go to Central State.”

“Are you kidding?”

I shook my head and picked up the drink the bartender had placed in front of me.

“So do I. That’s crazy.” Greg held up a few bills, waiting until the bartender saw the money before setting it on the bar. “My roommates and I have a band and we’re looking for a singer right now.”

“You’re in a band? That’s awesome,” I said, focused on mashing the limes in my drink. I raised my glass to him. “Thank you, by the way.”

“No problem.” He picked at the label on his beer bottle. “Any interest?”

“In what?” I asked, looking at Greg over the top of my cup.

“Singing for our band.” He didn’t even blink.

“You’re joking, right?” I laughed. Asking me to sing in his band after hearing one karaoke song was hilarious. I’d never taken voice lessons, and as far as I knew, I didn’t have any significant talent.

“Why would I joke?” He didn’t seem to understand my laughter at all.

“I just sang in public for the first time and you’re asking me if I want to be in a band?” Being the center of attention for five minutes in a karaoke bar was one thing; standing on stage in front of people expecting a show was a different beast.

“So that explains your lack of stage presence,” Greg said as he ran his fingers over his beard, looking more English professor than rocker.

“Quite the charmer, aren’t you, G-man?” I took a drink. I knew I didn’t have stage presence. Hell, I didn’t make eye contact.

“Stage presence can be learned,” he said. “You have a great voice and a hot look.”

Once I realized he wasn’t kidding, I was speechless.

Greg continued peeling the label off his beer bottle as he waited for me to speak. “It’s nothing crazy. We just play bars in Bridgeland, well, mostly at Wreckage.” He chuckled.

“Yeah, I don’t think so, but thanks for asking.” I forced a half smile.

“Come on,” he pleaded. “Just try out. If you like it, great.”

“I don’t think I could even learn to be comfortable on stage.”

“I can get you over your stage fright.” Greg’s voice was molasses, thick and smooth; a contrast to his grunge-hipster vibe. The lights flickering above gave his previously plain eyes a sensuous sparkle as he waited for my answer.

Why did I have to be a sucker for sparkles? “Okay, sure.” My head bobbed in reluctant consent. “The worst that could happen is I fail miserably, right?”

“You might surprise me.” Greg winked. He searched the bar before grabbing a pen lying on an abandoned credit card receipt. Then he flipped over a coaster advertising some brewing company’s winter ale and began scribbling. “Here’s my number. Call me next week for an audition.”

“This is crazy.” I took the coaster from him.

“What do you have to lose?” His eyes were solid and intense as he stared at me.

Nothing. I’d long since lost it all. But he didn’t know that.

Without another word, he walked away, leaving me alone at the bar, perplexed by the interaction.

“What did Eddie Vedder’s son have to say?” Kristen asked, nodding toward Greg, who had resumed his place behind the karaoke machine. Of course Kristen would think of a similar description for his look. It was one of the many reasons we’d been calling each other the “other half” since the first day of freshman year when we were assigned the same dorm room.

“He wants to me to try out for his band,” I said, flashing her the coaster. “Which is stupid.”

“No it isn’t.” She snatched my hand and squeezed. “You’re really good.”

I shook my head. Right now I was high from my time on stage and the applause and compliments I’d received, but as soon as I got home and thought about the unexpected conclusion to my soccer career again, the euphoria would abandon me. Just like my team had.

Just like everyone does.

“You’re a popular lady tonight. The Mohawked hottie stared at you the entire time you talked to karaoke guy.”

I followed Kristen’s gaze to the table where Crazy Hair and his friends were sitting. Though the group seemed to be leaving, downing their drinks and grabbing their coats, Crazy Hair stood still, his penetrating eyes on me.

I had a feeling he was the type of guy who would say anything to get me to take him home, and then slink away without a word the next morning. Though drinking had usually been involved when that had happened, I couldn’t even blame the alcohol. I fell for guys like him because I needed the attention. I needed to feel like someone wanted me. I needed to pretend that someone might be able to love me.

The way parents should have loved me.

It was an impossible void to fill.

Crazy Hair slid one of the muscular arms I’d admired earlier around the shoulders of the girl with the tight red sweater. She had big everything. Big hair, big boobs, big smile. Still holding my gaze, he said something against her ear, and she threw her head back in a laugh revealing big white teeth. Moving his hand to her back, he allowed her to go first as they followed the rest of the group toward the door.

Which reminded me of another definition of smoke show: to dominate, crush, or otherwise humiliate the opposition.

Mission accomplished.

Douche.

Chapter 2

“I hope you don’t think you’re going to sit on your butt your whole break,” Grandpa said. He punctuated his sentence with a quick snap of his newspaper. He’d done it to lift a falling corner, but he may as well have cracked an invisible whip.

“Come on, Dedushka,” I said, stopping my arm midair and lifting my tired eyes from the milk dripping off the spoon to his customary stern face. “I just got home yesterday.”

“And you start your job today.” His steel blue eyes caught mine before returning to the paper.

“Funny. I don’t remember interviewing.” I smirked, then shoveled the spoonful of soggy cereal into my mouth.

“Oh, how I’ve missed your smart mouth, Auden,” he said without even looking up.

Though I would be home for less than a month, living with my grandparents again would be rough. After my first taste of freedom living in the dorms freshman year, going back to Hawk-eye Land will be a challenge.

All my life I had wished I’d had a sibling, but the yearning was never so prominent as when I came home from school. It had been fourteen years since my mom died. Fourteen years of being the only person my grandparents had to worry about. While I appreciated the motive behind their undivided attention, I’d always wanted someone who understood my rants about their constant hovering. Someone to talk with and share silly inside jokes. Since my well-being was my grandparents’ first priority, they were always on my case. It would’ve been nice to have a sibling to pick up some of the slack. I never wanted to sound ungrateful for what they’d done for me, but sometimes I needed a break.

“What kind of job is it?” I asked, keeping any smart-mouth comments to myself. Didn’t feel like ticking him off today.

“Translating.” Grandpa folded the newspaper into a rectangle and set it next to his Not only perfect, but Russian, too coffee mug.

My grandfather, Viktor Berezin, was a retired Russian language professor at a state university outside of Detroit. He’d taken on various translating jobs for friends and coworkers his whole life and had set me up with small projects since my junior year of high school. The work hadn’t been difficult; translating documents or contracts from Russian into English or vice versa. It was great money for a teenager, since it paid better than babysitting or a part-time retail job.

“Documents?” I asked.

“For a person. He doesn’t know much English, and he needs a translator to speak with the media for his job. You will help him.”

“He speaks with the media for his job? Is he super-high profile?”

“In some circles, I suppose.” Grandpa shrugged.

“You trust me to be someone’s PR person? I have a pretty smart mouth, you know,” I joked, shoveling more cereal into my mouth.

“I’m counting on it, Audushka.”

“Is he an actor? A model?” I pushed my empty cereal bowl to the side. “Wait! Is he some kind of dignitary?”

“I think I’d handle the dignitary if he were one.” Grandpa took a sip of his coffee. “He’s a hockey player.”

“A hockey player,” I repeated. “For the Red Wings?”

Excitement bubbled in my stomach. I’d been a Detroit Red Wings fan since before I could speak. Being a translator for a Russian player on my favorite team in the history of the universe would complete my life.

“Not that high profile.” Grandpa laughed. “He plays for the Pilots.”

A minor-league player? The bubbles in my stomach fizzled and popped, and my tense, excited shoulders dropped.

“Where am I meeting him?”

“You will meet Zhenya at Robinson Arena at noon.”

Grandpa was talking about his lifelong friend, Evgeny Orlenko. Zhenya is the Russian term of endearment for the name Evgeny. Personally, I thought of Orlenko as an uncle, since he and Grandpa were as close as brothers. Professionally, he was a sports agent who represented a number of Russian hockey players. According to recent documents I’d translated, he’d peppered his clientele list with a few basketball players as well.

“Hey, Gram,” I greeted my grandmother, who had just walked into the tiny kitchen with the electric lighted mirror she swore by.

For someone who didn’t approve of her kids or grandkids being vain, Gram was pretty concerned with her looks. She never wore foundation or mascara, but her cheeks were always powdered and her lips were never without lipstick in public. Her fair skin was wrinkled with soft lines, but it didn’t take away from the beauty of her features. Her blue-gray eyes and high cheekbones were complimented by perpetually dark blond hair, thanks to the magic of hair dye. She would’ve been beautiful even if she’d let her hair go gray. I could only hope I got some of those graceful-aging genes.

“What time did you get home last night?” Gram asked, setting the mirror on the table and flipping it to the ultra-magnifying side before stooping to plug it in.

“Around one-thirty, I guess.”

“I can tell. You’re puffy.” She reached over to pat my cheek before turning to inspect her own face in the mirror.

Thanks, I thought. I didn’t dare say it out loud. My grandparents and I had a better relationship since I’d left for college than we ever had when I was growing up. Didn’t want to mess up a good thing. “Where are you off to?”

“It’s my week to clean the church,” Gram answered as she slicked a rose shade across her lips. Then she patted the skin under her eyes with her fingers and turned the mirror’s light off.

“Do you need any help?”

“Pat and Emma will be there, but thank you for asking.”

My breath of relief was almost audible. I hadn’t been back to church since I’d left my grandparents’ house two years ago. Just thinking about the place made me itchy.

I slid out of my seat, tapped my inseams together with a flourish, and straightened my arms at my sides.

“Are you going to tell me my client’s name or is this a super-secret mission, Sir?” I asked in a military monotone.

My grandpa shook his head, picked up the newspaper, and straightened it out. “Don’t know it. I just told Zhenya you’d be happy to do it.”

“Super secret. Got it. I won’t let you down, Sir.” I saluted him. Still staring straight ahead, I waited to be excused.

Grandpa lowered the paper. “Is there something else?”

“May I be excused? I have to shower and dress for the mission.”

“You are a ridiculous girl, Audushka.” He dismissed me with a shake of his head.

“Auden, you're only home for a month. Please try not to drive your grandfather crazy,” my grandma said.

With a salute to both of them, I ignored her warning. I’d driven my grandpa crazy years ago.

I thought Grandpa would continue to reward my almost-native knowledge of reading, writing, and speaking Russian by giving me tedious translating projects my whole life. I never expected him to allow me to work directly with a client, let alone a client in the public eye. Maybe he had more faith in me than I realized.

I arrived at Robinson Arena fifteen minutes early to prove that I took my first translating assignment with an actual human to heart. There was no doubt Evgeny Orlenko would report my professionalism, or lack thereof, to Grandpa. My mission, other than translating, was to keep my grandpa’s stellar reputation intact.

I spotted Orlenko waiting for me at the top of the stairs, outside the main entrance to the arena.

“Audushka!” He leaned in to kiss my cheeks, as was Russian custom, but he stopped himself and offered me his leather-gloved hand instead. I shook it firmly. “We’ll keep this professional, yes? It’s good to see you again.”

“Good to see you, too, Mr. Orlenko,” I responded as a smile crept across my face.

Orlenko wasted no time getting to business, greeting me with the Russian-inspired diminutive of my name and continuing the conversation in his native language. I threw my grandpa a mental fist-bump for teaching me Russian so well I could’ve been born and raised in Moscow.

“Your destiny awaits,” he said with a wink, holding a heavy blue door open. “Tell me how you got Vitya to give you this assignment. I thought he’d have you translating contracts until you were a little old lady.”

Since only Orlenko called Grandpa by his diminutive, Vitya, I had to think for a minute. My grandma, being of Irish descent, doesn’t use diminutives—or any nicknames. She called Grandpa only by two names: Viktor or Horse’s Ass.

“I have no clue. I thought the same thing, except I always throw in some cats. Little old cat lady translating Pushkin and Tolstoy until her arthritic hand falls off.”

Orlenko’s deep laugh echoed through the empty concourse as we entered the arena. When the heavy door slammed shut, the frigid air hit my exposed skin, sending an involuntary ripple from my fingertips to my toes.

“You will be spending quite a bit of time here, so you may want to dress for warmth,” Orlenko said.

I nodded. Wearing a black skirt suit for a job at an ice arena hadn’t been the smartest decision, but it was the only suit I owned, so I didn’t have another option. Maybe my grandparents would take pity on me and spot me some cash for appropriate work attire.

I followed Orlenko through the arena’s concourse and down a few long hallways into the dank, fluorescent-lit basement.

Stan Martin, Michigan furniture store guru and owner of the Pilots, was in the process of having a brand-new downtown arena built in the city, but it wouldn't open until next fall. Until then, the Pilots called Robinson Arena home. A state-of-the-art arena in its heyday, Robinson had become a massive eyesore over its thirty-five-year existence. And I’d only observed it from the exterior.

The basement gave deteriorating a whole new meaning. The floors, walls, and ceilings showed their age as numerous cracks and chips marred the painted concrete surfaces. The Pilots logo, a black and blue plane, sparkled in comparison, having been stenciled onto the walls within the last two years. The logo guided us down the hall like we were jets lurching forward on a runway waiting for our turn to take off.

Just when I thought I’d get lost in the maze of dull white walls, we turned right into a hallway covered in light wood paneling and historic team photographs hiding the grubby concrete. Massive, red double doors with the Pilots logo welcomed us at the end of the hallway. Above the logo was a sign: Authorized Personnel Only.

Before we entered the locker room, a ripple of pride rushed through me. I felt like a true professional.

And then I watched Orlenko try to pull open the door. It barely budged, so he grabbed the long, thin handle and tugged it with what I’d guess was all two hundred fifty pounds of his weight. If I did that every day, I’d yank my arms out of their sockets.

Undeterred, I took a deep, optimistic breath before following him into the locker room, where the stench of sweaty hockey gear immediately assaulted my senses.

Now I understood why Dedushka gave me this assignment. Well played, Grandpa. Well played.

Instead of focusing on the smell, I took in the surroundings of my new “office.” Tall, open oak lockers spanned three walls of the compact room. The space might not have been that small, but it seemed that way with all the large bodies crammed into it.

Large men’s bodies.

Large men’s bodies in various states of undress.

Fully clothed men—and women—with cameras, microphones, and handheld recording devices filled the room, as well. The media.

Keep your eyes up. I couldn’t be caught staring at the men with towels wrapped inches below muscular abs. Abs that must have taken more than eight minutes a day to chisel out.

Orlenko weaved his way through the swarm of people to the back wall of the locker room. He stopped behind a group of reporters and tapped a short cameraman on the shoulder. I couldn’t see the player who was being swarmed by the media, but judging from the nameplate attached to the locker, it was my client.

Varenkov.

“Excuse me,” Orlenko interrupted the stream of questions being directed at the guy I still couldn’t see. “Aleksandr is done with questions for today. Thank you.”

I rose up on my toes, craning my neck to get a glimpse of my client before the crowd dissipated. No such luck, until the two men in front of me who’d been blocking my vision excused themselves and inched past.

“Couldn’t resist my package?” a voice asked in Russian.

I jerked my head up and locked eyes with Crazy Hair from the karaoke bar.

And he was half naked.

Chapter 3

I’m pretty sure there were only two ways Crazy Hair could have looked better than he had at O’Callaghan’s. The first was as he did right now: sitting on a bench in the locker room wearing nothing but the lower half of his uniform, including his skates, sweat rolling over his sinewy pecs and creating a happy trail all the way into his hockey pants.

The second way—I can only assume—would be if he were completely naked.

“Aleksandr, this is Auden Berezin. She will be your translator.”

“I don’t need a translator.”

I almost laughed, because he’d said he didn’t need a translator in Russian.

“You must talk with the media at some point, Sasha. They’re riding my ass to get better answers from you than ‘was good game.’ ”

Aleksandr Varenkov, hot Russian hockey god, laughed, showing the perfect set of white teeth I’d noticed at the bar.

“You have your teeth in, but you haven’t even showered yet?” Orlenko asked.

Was Orlenko a mind reader? I sure hope not, because I would be fired for thinking about my client naked.

“I wanted to look good for pictures.” Aleksandr winked at me. Then he stood, and drops of sweat raced down the hard planes of his chest.

I’d never been so envious of perspiration in my life.

“Sometimes I talk in the shower. Will she translate for me in there?”

My cheeks began to burn, so I averted my eyes, lowering them to the black Cyrillic script tattooed down his sides, then thought better of that line of sight and studied the soiled beige carpet below my feet.

“Aleks—” Orlenko sighed, rubbing his forehead.

“Zhenya,” Aleksandr began. “You know I’m kidding, yes?” He shoved a towel onto the shelf above his nameplate and walked away without waiting for an answer.

“Yes,” Orlenko hissed. He’d said it under his breath, but I heard him and wondered what my grandpa had gotten me into. “Well, that was Aleksandr Varenkov, your client. He’s a talented player and a good man. But he can be a little—”

“Douchey?” I offered in English. I shouldn’t have said it, considering Grandpa’s professional reputation was in my hands. Then again, Evgeny Orlenko was Grandpa’s friend first, so maybe he wouldn’t be too hard on me. Besides, Grandpa knew what kind of mouth I had, and he’d sent me for the job anyway.

Orlenko laughed, and continued in Russian. “Wild was the word I was looking for, but your adjective may not be that far off.”

“I’ve got it, Mr. Orlenko.”

“Are you sure?” He inspected me through thick black-rimmed glasses that were too small for his puffy face.

“As a college student with an active social life, I’ve learned how to handle arrogant douche bags.” This time I was being paid to handle one.

“I shouldn’t be having this conversation about one of my clients,” Mr. Orlenko said, his lips quirking up, then back into a tight line. At least he was trying to keep a straight face. “You’re like a breath of fresh air, Audushka. I hope you stay that way even with his off-ice antics.”

Off-ice antics? What the hell did that mean and why would I have to deal with them? “Will I have to hang out with him outside of the arena? I thought I was here to translate for media interviews after games and some practices.”

“Aleksandr speaks very little English. He’ll need your assistance in all aspects of his career; interviews, community service. At least, until he gets acclimated. Vitya said you were here for the month, is that correct?”

“Yep. All of winter break.”

“You’ll be putting in a lot of hours.”

“I’m a hard worker. And I need the cash. Got cut from the soccer team, and I have to replace the scholarship money I lost.” I was running my mouth again. Maybe I did need to tone it down.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. The being-cut part.” He cleared his throat. “Here’s my card. I wrote my cell number on the back. If you have any trouble or if Aleksandr makes you uncomfortable in any way, please give me a call.”

“Thanks.” I scanned the card wondering if I should try to memorize his number now, since I wasn’t sure how stable this client sounded.

After Orlenko left the locker room, I realized I hadn’t asked him what I should do next, and he hadn’t given me instructions as to where I should wait while Aleksandr showered. Since I wasn’t part of the media, I was extremely aware of being the intruder standing in a room of half-naked men. A shower shouldn’t take very long, so I dug my e-reader out of my messenger bag and sat down on the stool that Aleksandr had just vacated.

“Ewww.” I jumped up and skimmed my palm against my damp backside. Hadn’t even thought about any runaway sweat that might’ve dripped from Aleksandr’s lean, hard body onto the stool.

Stop. Just stop thinking about the shiny, wet flesh covering his impeccably carved frame.

As I didn’t see a cleaner choice within reach, I pinched the funky-smelling towel Aleksandr had shoved into his locker with my thumb and index finger and removed it with caution. Then I batted at any remaining sweat drops on the seat, though I was sure my skirt had absorbed most of the moisture.

I’d always been under the impression that guys were fast at showering, but Aleksandr took forever. Forty-five minutes had passed according to the clock on my tablet. I couldn’t help but scan the room a few times, catching odd looks from some of the guys. I ignored their questioning eyes and kept my head down.

When Aleksandr finally came out, an hour and a half later, the locker room had cleared significantly.

“Couldn’t find your lipstick?” I asked.

“Excuse me?” Aleksandr readjusted the strap of the messenger bag slung over his shoulder. He looked like something straight out of a high-fashion magazine, in a gray, high-neck military-style peacoat; a crisp, white button-down; and dark blue jeans.

Though I’d asked my original question in Russian, I clarified with my next sentence. “You took so long. I thought you were putting on your face.”

“Funny,” he said without a smile. “I always ride the bike after the game.” He reached over me and shoved something onto the shelf above my head. “What are you doing?”

“Reading.” I held up my e-reader as proof.

“At my stall?”

“Well, neither you nor Mr. Orlenko told me where to go, so I waited for you. Right here, where you both left me.”

This time Aleksandr laughed. “I’m glad Zhenya got me a devoted translator.”

“So, what now? Looks like all the media is gone. Should I come back tomorrow?”

“No. Now, we get to know each other.”

“Do we have to?” I knew all I needed to about the jerk who left me sitting in this smelly locker room for over an hour while he “rode the bike” and showered. Like I was supposed to know he rode the bike after games.

Aleksandr cocked his head, the skin around his eyes wrinkling like he wasn’t sure if he believed I’d said no. He must’ve been used to women falling all over him. Well, I’d met a hundred like him, and though he was the best looking, I’d never give him the satisfaction of letting him know he’d affected me.

“Yes, we have to.” He turned, taking long strides toward the door. I followed, since there was only one way out of the locker room. I could bolt when we got to the arena doors.

Aleksandr didn’t speak as we navigated our way down the concrete hallways. He pushed open the same doors I had come through earlier that day and started descending the stairs. I continued to follow him.

“Do you park out here, too?” I asked. I thought players would have a secret parking lot, or at least gated. Sure, most of them just made a decent wage, but a few of the guys had NHL contracts, and the paycheck that accompanies it.

“I’m walking you to your car,” Aleksandr said without turning to look at me.

“Oh, well, thanks,” I stammered. An arrogant douche bag who walked women to their cars. In the middle of the day. Never had one of those, but I could roll with it.

Since he didn’t know where I’d parked, I hurried to match his long strides, which was a bit difficult in my skirt. Once we arrived at my old black Taurus, he stood by the passenger side with his hand on the dull, silver handle. He shook it up and down a few times as he stared at me.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Waiting for you to unlock the door so I can get in.”

I pressed the button on my key fob twice, and the doors unlocked. “Do you need me to drive you to your car?”

“No. I need you to drive me home.” He set his bag on the floor before sliding in to the passenger seat.

I paused before getting in, counting to ten in my head. The nerve of this guy. Leaving me at his locker. Making me drive him home.

“I wasn’t aware chauffeur was part of the job,” I said, slamming my door shut.

“Your eyebrows are almost one.” Aleksandr pointed to my forehead.

I rubbed the skin above my nose. Couldn’t be. I’d had them waxed last week.

“You were so mad, they were like one line.” He wiggled his index finger in front of my eyes.

“I’m not mad,” I snapped. I knew I didn’t have a unibrow. And why would I care if I did? I didn’t need to impress him. One month and this assignment would be over. “Where to?” I asked as I turned the key in the ignition and the radio came on.

“Coney Island on Seven Mile and Mack.” He sat up straighter, digging into the inside front pocket of his coat and pulling out his cell phone. As he leaned over to turn down the volume on my radio with one hand, he swiped his thumb over the front of his phone.

“You live at the Coney Island on Seven Mile and Mack?”

Aleksandr caught my eyes, shaking his head as if my question had been serious. “I’m hungry.”

I was a bit perturbed that I wasn’t taking him straight home, but if the man had to eat, I was glad he chose Coney Island. It was my favorite place.

As I navigated Mack Avenue toward our destination, Aleksandr made a phone call. While I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, I did hear most of the conversation. He was telling the person on the other end about last night’s game, where he’d had two assists, but “Couldn’t get the fucking rubber between the motherfucking pipes.” When I heard “Not as annoying as the last bunny,” I cranked the volume on the radio. He looked at me with one raised eyebrow.

Sorry, I mouthed but didn't turn the radio down. I wasn’t trying to be rude. Cranking the volume for an Arctic Monkeys song was mandatory.

Once we arrived at Coney Island, my annoyance grew as I circled around the block, unable to find a parking spot on the street in front of the restaurant or in the dedicated lot around back.

“Park there.” Aleksandr reached across me, his arm brushing against my chest as he pointed out the driver’s side window.

Ignoring the unsettling contact, I slammed on the brake and the car screeched to a halt. When I looked out the window, the only parking spot I saw was between two other cars.

“Yeah, right. I can’t parallel park,” I said, glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone was coming up behind me before I pulled back into traffic.

“Stop!” he commanded. I stomped on the brake pedal again, sending us both jerking forward.

“I’ll do it.” Aleksandr threw his door open and walked around to my side. I didn’t move, keeping my hands on the wheel, foot on the brake.

“Are you kidding me? Get back in the car,” I pleaded.

“Move over,” he ordered, scooting into the driver’s seat. I had no choice but to throw the car into park and climb over the console to the passenger side.

Aleksandr reached underneath the seat, fumbling with the lever that slid the seat back. Then he maneuvered my car into a tight space between a Sebring and a Tahoe. Welcome to Detroit: Home of the Big Three. Despite being put off by his tactics, I was impressed with his skills. I hadn’t parallel parked since my driving test.

Aleksandr jumped out of the car and came around to my side to open the door.

“Thanks,” I said as I climbed out.

“Didn’t want to park in the next city. I’m hungry.” Aleksandr slammed the door.

I grabbed his arm, forcing him to look at me. “Is this how it’s gonna be for a month? Pissy with me because I didn’t fall for your stupid-ass pickup line at the bar?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart,” Aleksandr said in perfect but heavily accented English. “I could have a puck bunny every night of the week.”

I released his arm like it was covered in thorns, looking around to see if anyone else heard the stream of perfect English coming out of his mouth. “Excuse me?”

“I said, don’t flatter—”

“You speak English?” My squeaky pitch sounded accusatory rather than questioning.

“I do. And you are the only person who knows that.”

“Why?”

He walked away as if that was the end of the conversation. I hurried after him, pulling open the heavy glass door he hadn’t bothered to hold for me. Guess he lost his manners when he got pissed off.

I scanned the restaurant as I slid into the tattered, green vinyl booth across from Aleksandr. Instead of wallpaper or paint, mirrored tiles covered the wall behind the booths.

Neither Aleksandr nor I picked up a menu. I raised an eyebrow. “No menu?”

“Menu? Who needs a menu here?”

I chuckled because he was right. The art of ordering a Coney Dog is well known to Detroiters—one (or two or five) with everything, says it all. Everything meant chili, mustard, and onions, the makeup of the classic Coney.

When our server stopped at our booth, Aleksandr asked me to order him three with everything. Just one for me. We both got fries.

“I take it you’ve been here before?” I asked, pulling a napkin from the holder on the table.

“It’s my favorite.” Aleksandr slid out of the booth. “Be right back.”

“Okaaay.”

He walked to the back of the restaurant, down the hallway toward the bathrooms and the back door. I scanned the menu until he came back, despite already knowing my order. When he slid back in the booth, the scent of cloves comforted me.

I leaned over the table and inhaled the air around him. I couldn’t hold back my smile. Definitely cloves.

“Did you just sniff me?”

“I like the smell of cloves. Reminds me of my grandma.”

“That’s exactly what every man wants a woman to say after inhaling him.” He winked.

I fumbled with my necklace, then dropped it realizing he might take it as a coy sign that his charm affected me. It did affect me, but I wouldn’t let him know that.

“Tell me about you.”

“What you see is what you get. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Russian translator to the stars.”

“Start with the Russian-translator part. How did that happen?” Aleksandr inquired, looking me straight in the eye.

I stared back, swept out to sea by the tiny matching oceans above his cheekbones.

“Auden?” he asked, waving a hand in front of my face.

“Sorry,” I said, blinking a few times as I came back to shore. Nice work, Auden. Because staring into his gorgeous blue eyes is a convincing way to let him know you aren’t seduced by his looks. “What was the question?”

“You left me.” Aleksandr raised his hand to touch his temple then swept it across the air as if saluting goodbye to my brain. How did he know me so well already?

“I do that sometimes,” I said, spinning my index finger around one of my ears. “Always turning.” Really? I asked myself. Did you really just describe yourself with the universal sign for crazy within the first two minutes?

“How. Did you. Become. A Russian translator?”

I let out a breath, happy he didn’t seem to recognize the sign. I refrained from my first instinct to tell him that he was an ass, which seemed like a good idea since he’d let the crazy thing go.

“My grandpa has been teaching me since I was a kid. He was born just outside of Moscow, so it’s all his parents spoke. He taught Russian Language and Literature classes at Michigan University for, like, forty years,” I explained, as Aleksandr checked out my chest. “Being a translator is a side job, hobby-type thing for him. But it keeps him busy in retirement. I help him translate documents sometimes. This is the first time he’s assigned me to a client. Hey! Eyes up here.” I waved my hand in front of my cleavage and pointed to my face.

“I was looking at your necklace,” he said, raising his eyes to mine and flashing me his sexy smirk.

I put my hand to my neck, fingering the gold chain and charm that belonged to my mother. It’s a delicate owl with two tiny amber stones for eyes. I caught myself drawing his attention back to my chest, so I changed the subject. “Speaking of languages, if you know English, why am I here?”

Aleksandr pushed back against the booth and stretched his arms above his head. “The media wants us to give interviews on the bench. They want us to mike up during the game. Then we curse or chirp, and they blast us in the papers or on TV. What do they expect to hear in the middle of a game?”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “When Frank started standing between the benches, it became my least favorite thing in the history of hockey broadcasting.”

Frank LaRue, a former hockey coach who now worked as a TV analyst, broadcasted from between the two teams’ benches during hockey games. During the games! It annoyed me. Players and coaches were paid to worry about the game. They could answer questions after the game.

“Yes.” Aleksandr chuckled. “How are we supposed to think politically correct when we’re in the heat of battle?”

When Aleksandr’s smile was genuine, his bottom lip dipped ever so slightly on the left side, like a kink in a hose. It didn't dip when he flashed his teasing smirk. The no-holds-barred dip-lip smile was a million times hotter than the sexy smirks. But before I slipped up and told him he had a great smile, I managed to catch myself. Didn’t want to give him the impression I was interested.

“I get it,” I told him in English. Technically, I did. But he needed to suck it up because talking to the media was part of the job.

“Russian,” he corrected. “Always Russian between the two of us.”

I nodded to confirm his request. “So tell me more about hockey. How’d you get so good?”

“How do you know I’m good?” he asked.

“I Googled you while I waited for you to shower,” I admitted. “Seems you’re one of the Pilots’ best players. Spill your secrets.” It was the truth, not just me trying to stroke his ego.

“Years of practice.” He reached over his shoulder and knocked three times on top of our booth’s wooden frame. “I joined the Red Army youth program when I was six. Since then it’s been all hockey all the time. It’s an intense program. Very strict. Very disciplined.”

When our waitress interrupted our conversation by sliding plates in front of us, I was thankful for the break from Aleksandr’s voice. I’d always loved the Russian language, but I’d never been turned on by hearing it. A manual on how to install a garbage disposal would sound hot coming from Aleksandr’s deep, guttural voice.

The glorious aroma of the Coney dogs and fries on the table transitioned my brain from one sensory stupor to another. I’d have to keep up my workouts if I was going to eat more Coney dogs during winter break. Soccer had given me the freedom to eat whatever I wanted.

Our waitress was attractive. Smooth olive skin, pink lips, big brown eyes, and a long, brown ponytail. I lifted my eyes, positive that Aleksandr’s sexy smile would be on full display. It wasn’t.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“Nyet,” he answered, his eyes planted on me.

“No, thanks.” I pulled my plate closer, grabbing the ketchup. “That’s a hard-core schedule,” I said, revisiting our conversation before the waitress’s interruption.

“Very,” he agreed.

“Do you have any family here?”

“No, everybody’s back in Russia. Aunts and uncles, cousins. Some of the older guys here let me hang with their families if I’m feeling homesick.”

“If you ever want to hang out with an old Russian guy, come on over to my house.” I just invited him to my house. Where the hell had that sudden hospitality come from?

“First I smell like your grandmother, now you want to set me up with your grandfather. You flatter me.” Aleksandr put a hand to his heart, then glanced down at his watch and flinched as if he’d just remembered time existed. “Shit, I need to hurry.”

“It’s always time to go when girls start trying to set you up with their grandfathers.” I grinned. Banter was so easy with him. Too bad he was a client. And a jerk.

We finished our lunches in record time, which was fine with me, because once you start eating a Coney, you have to finish fast. Cold chili dogs don’t taste good.

Aleksandr snatched the bill off the table and stood. I slid out of the booth and grabbed my bag, surprised at my reluctance to leave.

When I opened my purse to get money to pay for my meal, Aleksandr clasped his hand over mine. I pulled my hand away so fast, you’d think he’d slapped me. Instead of reacting, he dropped a five on the table then walked to the cash register. He grabbed two red-and-white mints from the bowl on the counter, handing me one and untwisting the wrapper on the other before popping it into his mouth.

We stepped outside, and I pretzeled my arms across my chest, bracing myself from the brisk air whipping around us. I jumped when Aleksandr swept his arm across my back, cradling me to his side as we hurried to my car. It was totally inappropriate, but I appreciated the extra warmth so I kept my mouth closed.

We scrambled into my car to escape the chill. I handed my keys to Aleksandr, because I’d never be able to get out of the parking spot he’d chosen. He paused before he turned the key. The hesitation was so slight that I can’t explain why I noticed. When the engine purred to life, he switched on the heat. Then he sat, not moving for a moment, letting the rush of frigid air blast his face.

At first I thought he might be waiting for the air to warm up. When he was still sitting there a few minutes later, I thought he was contemplating how to get out of the parking space. That thought made me laugh. Out loud.

“What?” he asked.

“Can’t get out of this spot, can you?”

“You think I’m waiting because I can’t move the car?” he asked, amusement sparkling in his eyes.

I shrugged. “Why else would you be waiting?”

Aleksandr leaned in, placed a hand on each of my cheeks, and pulled my mouth toward his.

What the . . .

“Dude, get off!” I pushed him back, avoiding the lip collision. “I’m not one of your bunnies.”

Standing my ground was important, even though his voice alone made me want to lift my skirt and straddle him. But that was not an option. If I’d have touched the Mohawk, I’d have been done for.

“You aren’t a bunny. I don't buy bunnies lunch.” He smirked. “Breakfast maybe.”

I’m not a violent person, but I felt an overwhelming urge to smack that smirk off his face. “That’s the other reason nothing’s going to happen. You’re an ass.”

“I’m joking, Auden.”

“Yeah, right. I’m on to you, Varenkov.”

“I wish,” he mumbled as he checked the mirrors for traffic, flicked on the turn signal, and pulled onto the road.

“Where do you live?” I asked, ignoring the comment. I’d be smart to ignore his comments for the rest of this assignment.

“Landon and I share a condo in the Westin Book Cadillac.”

“Excuse me?” My chest tightened.

“The Westin Book Cadillac.”

“You live downtown—where we just came from—in the building around the corner from the best Coney Island in the city, yet I drove us all the way up here for lunch?”

“I go to Lafayette most of the time, but I knew it would be busy now. This National is the next best place.” He shrugged as if he didn’t notice the smoke coming out of my ears.

Though I was seething, he had a point. A very good point.

I took a deep breath and let it out audibly. I refused to think about the fact that, despite his time crunch, he lengthened the time we spent together on purpose. I needed to keep the flare of anger toward him. Otherwise I might soften, and fall for his atypical hair, Adonis body, and adorable personality. “Fine.”

We drove in silence, which allowed me to calm down about that issue while getting worked up about another as I gazed out the window.

Detroit had been deteriorating since before I was born, it was all I had ever known, and I had never noticed it through a visitor’s eye. As a proud local, heart wrenching were the only words I could think of to describe the ride down Mack Avenue to downtown. Despite driving for miles, the view barely changed. Businesses that had once thrived were razed to piles of rubble. The few churches or liquor stores still standing had large areas of paint chipping off the sides, or they had been sprayed with gang graffiti. The buildings that weren’t completely gone were boarded up, hollowed-out shells of their former glory. Stolen doors and windows allowed an unobstructed view of the inside, where oftentimes remains lay singed from burned-out fires.

Maybe that was a candid description of the city itself: a once-blazing fire that had long ago burned out. I hoped to see the day that the majority of the city was revitalized, not just certain downtown areas. But change has to start somewhere, and I appreciated the people using their own funds to revive my home.

“Are you with the hippie guy from the bar?” Aleksandr asked, breaking the silence and my train of thought.

“Um, no.” I tore my eyes away from the unmanaged weeds growing up from the jagged sidewalks that went on for miles.

“You and your friends sat at that table right up front near him.” His eyes found mine as if gauging my reaction. “Why did you talk to him so long?”

“He wants me to sing in his band.” A laugh escaped as I studied my French-manicured fingernails. “Which is ridiculous.”

“You have a great voice. You should do it.”

I ignored his compliment and unsolicited advice. “I’m not seeing anyone right now. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Just checking out the competition.”

“You have no competition because you aren’t in the running. We have to work together. We can’t be involved. Simple as that.”

It was true, but it wasn’t my only reason for rejecting him.

“Nothing is ever simple, Auden.”

Judging by the I-just-scored gleam in Aleksandr’s eyes, he thought he’d won the argument. Part of me expected to see the familiar flashes of red across his face from the light behind the goal at Robinson Arena that blinks and spins after someone scores in a hockey game.

Aleksandr didn’t realize who he was hitting on, because no matter how attracted we were to each other, I’d never give him a chance. An entirely different flashing red light ran through my mind when I looked at him. The kind that’s accompanied by a deafening buzz alerting people to evacuate in an emergency. And the way my stomach bubbled with excitement every time I was around him was reason enough for my emotions to make an emergency evacuation. Having been abandoned by both parents before age seven, the last person I needed to get involved with was a professional athlete whose job required him to leave.

Sad, but simple.

Chapter 4

I’ve had crushes on guys before. I obsessed over my best friend, Drew Bertucci, throughout high school. Since he was the first boy to pay me any attention, my warped mind assumed he liked me as well. When Drew made it clear that I was more like a sister to him, it crushed me (pun intended).

After my first real-life crush didn’t work out, I resumed my infatuation with fictional characters and unattainable men. It was easier knowing that I had zero chance from day one.

That’s how I was brushing off the tingles coursing under my skin that Aleksandr Varenkov had caused. A little crush. A silly infatuation with an untouchable man.

The only problem was that this wasn’t an untouchable man on a TV screen or over the radio waves. This was a man with whom I had to interact almost every day. A man who’d just flicked the puck into the opposing team’s goal and was being mobbed by his teammates against the glass in front of me. A man who, as he broke free from the group, pounded on the glass, pointed his thick glove at me, and flashed me a radiant, though semi-toothless, smile.

Aleksandr was an untouchable man I wanted to touch so badly.

I was convinced that Evgeny Orlenko could see my shaking hands and hear my racing heart, so I straightened in my seat and watched Aleksandr skate to the bench as I would any other player on the ice. Though I tried to keep an aloof appearance, I knew the flush of color spreading across my pale cheeks gave me away.

Call it paranoia, but every time Orlenko looked my way I squirmed in my seat, feeling scrutinized by his judging eyes. Of course I paid close attention to Aleksandr. As his translator, I had to be ready for the question-and-answer session with the media afterward. Technically, the job required me to translate Aleksandr’s words, and that’s it. But I was going the extra mile, digging into this assignment to get it right. At least that’s how I justified keeping my eyes on him.

Who wouldn’t want to watch Aleksandr Varenkov’s deft body sail across the ice and label it “research”?

“Do you go to all of Aleksandr’s games?” I asked Orlenko, diverting my eyes from Aleksandr’s limber leg stretching to climb over the boards.

“No. I need to talk to him about some community projects after he showers. Then I’m back on the road. I have a client in Vancouver to touch base with.” He patted his chest a few times before pulling his cell phone out of the inside pocket of his navy blue suit jacket.

Come on, Orlenko, don’t talk about him showering, I thought. As a lifelong hockey-player appreciator, my brief encounters with a semi-dressed Aleksandr already had my below-the-belly-button areas buzzing like bees on speed. Thinking about him showering could push me over the edge. Or into his arms.

I glanced at Aleksandr, who was sitting on the bench talking to the guy on his left. His shoulders rose and fell and sweat trickled down his nose. He leaned over and banged his gloved hand against the boards. Just watching him made my breathing increase and my stomach tighten.

I was in way over my head, if watching him sit on a bench and breathe made my heart rate soar.

Out of all the types of Russian men that Grandpa could have assigned me to, why did it have to be a hockey player? Must remember to keep the emphasis on the player part.

Despite my prayers to no one in particular, time flew by so fast that it felt like someone was tapping my personal hourglass. When the scoreboard clock glowed with orange zeros, the Pilots had won 5–2. Aleksandr had scored two more goals in the game, acknowledging me after each. I’d wanted to crawl under the stiff blue stadium seat and blow him kisses at the same time.

After the game, I headed down to the locker room, happy to have Orlenko there for moral support. Aleksandr wouldn’t flirt relentlessly if his agent was there.

When we reached Aleksandr, my knees almost buckled. He’d stripped off his jersey, pads, and the blue shirt he wore underneath all that. He’d also removed his hockey pants, socks and skates, and the pads from the lower half of his body. He sat at his locker in nothing but sweat-soaked, black compression shorts clinging to his thick thighs.

Was he trying to get a rise out of me? Gauging how much sex-charged flirtation I could take? When I stopped in front of him and caught his eyes, however, I saw exhaustion.

It wasn’t about me. He’d just finished a game. I had to stop the obsessive thoughts and do the job I was here to do: Translate for a hot Russian hockey god.

“Zhenya. Auden.” He nodded at each of us before wiping his face with a thin, white towel.

“Great game, Sasha. I need to talk to you about community service before I leave for the airport. I’ll check back in an hour.” Orlenko stopped to shake hands with the guy standing at the locker to Aleksandr’s right, whom I recognized as Landon Taylor, one of the Pilots defensemen, before leaving the locker room.

“You ready for this?” Aleksandr asked, nodding his head toward the reporters flooding the locker room.

“Yep.” I threw my shoulders back and took my place next to him.

When six reporters fired off questions at once, my eyes darted from face to face, unsure of whose question I should translate first. Aleksandr nudged my arm, then pointed to a short, stocky white-haired man with circular wire-framed glasses. I exhaled a breath of relief, thankful that my client was in a helpful, rather than a snarky, mood.

“You had three goals tonight. Did you feel like you had to take control to make something happen out there?”

I translated and waited for Aleksandr to respond.

“Those glasses should have gone to the grave with that guy from the Beatles,” he said in Russian, biceps flexing as he squeezed both ends of the towel hanging around his neck.

With my gaze locked on his arms, I started translating his words without thinking, then suddenly stopped, stunned into silence when I processed what he'd said.

How could he do that to me?

I pressed my lips together, racking my brain for something generic and cliché; aka, PR acceptable.

“Everyone is doing what they can to help the team win. You want to do well because you want the team to do well,” I said, recovering well. Very well.

Aleksandr moved a hand to his mouth and coughed into his fist. The bastard was hiding a laugh.

I wanted to kick him. In the junk.

Instead, I pointed to the next reporter myself, trying to establish some sort of control. I could identify people only by their heads, since I couldn’t see their bodies in the crowd. This guy had a brown comb-over and floppy ears. I focused on the question, preparing myself in case my jackass client didn’t know when to stop his little game.

“You seemed a bit frustrated with Penner’s goal in the second. Looked like you wanted the ref to make a call.”

“You have the nicest ass I have ever seen in my life,” Aleksandr responded to my translated question, his gaze on a body part much lower than my eyes.

I glared at him before responding to the reporter. “It was a nice goal. The ref was right there. If there was a call, he would’ve made it.”

I’d never been so relieved I’d paid attention to a hockey game and was well-versed in the sport.

An older blonde woman with way too many buttons undone on her blouse to be interviewing in a locker room full of men raised her hand, and I pointed to her.

“How did you feel about having Gribov switched to your line?” she asked.

Instead of translating, I said, “Answer the fucking question or I will kick you in the balls. Then you’ll have no way to fuck her or anyone else tonight.”

When I looked up, I caught his Russian line mate, Pavel Gribov, watching me. The scowl and shake of his sweaty head gave me all the validation I needed. But I’m sure he was in on these stupid shenanigans, so I ignored him.

Aleksandr chuckled. “We have a lot of chemistry. We played together in Russia, so it was just about getting that groove back. We get along great and have confidence in each other.”

I translated word for word.

The questions went on for another twenty minutes. Aleksandr didn’t pull another translation trick on me.

After the reporters had moved on to another player, he stood up, pulled the towel from around his neck, and threw it into a bin on his way toward the showers.

“Excuse me!” I called out in Russian. He wasn’t getting away that easily. I wouldn’t start this assignment letting him believe I was a pushover.

Aleksandr turned around and took a step toward me. Despite my anger, it took every ounce of willpower to not be derailed by his godly physique. Instead, I used the fact that I could never have that body to fuel my anger.

“That was ridiculous.” I took a step toward him, narrowing the space between our bodies to a few inches, and rose to my tippy-toes. He had me by almost a foot, but my extra height gave me a feeling of power.

“I was just giving you a hard time. It was a joke.” He rolled his eyes, which incensed me.

“Don’t you realize that I can make you look like a total ass? I could’ve told all those reporters that you felt you had to take control because this team couldn’t win in a beer league without you.”

“That would’ve been shitty.”

“What you just did to me was shitty. And it was sexual harassment. I know that you don’t care because you’re Mr.”—I had no clue how to say douche bag in Russian, so I switched to English—“Douche bag. King of all Douches.” Back to Russian. “You can’t treat me like that.” I jabbed his chest with my index finger. “You might be better off declining interviews until you have enough English skills to get by. I’m not sure I want this job anymore.”

The locker room, which had been buzzing when we’d started our conversation, was silent. Not because everyone had cleared out, either. On the contrary, more players had returned to listen to us go at it. I almost felt bad about calling Aleksandr out in front of his teammates, but we’d been arguing in Russian, so most of them had no idea what we’d been saying.

Aleksandr circled his hand around my wrist and lowered my arm to my side.

“See this?” He dropped my hand to grab a chunk of hair from the top of his head. “My first day here the veteran guys got me with clippers. Shaved off hair on both sides. It was a joke. A prank. Hockey players do that to rookies. I got this haircut to prove I can roll with it. You’re gonna quit over a stupid joke?” He shook his head, letting out a faint chuckle. “Go ahead.”

Aleksandr turned around and stomped to the showers like an oversized toddler.

I swung my messenger bag over my shoulder and stalked toward the locker-room door. Absolutely humiliated.

“Hey.” Landon, one of Aleksandr’s teammates, touched my arm to stop my beeline. “You okay?”

I nodded, but a ridiculous, revealing tear escaped. I let it roll rather than draw any more attention to myself by wiping my cheek.

“Dude can be a jerk at first, but he’s not a bad guy.”

I nodded. “Tell the jerk I’ll see him on Thursday after the game.”

After dinner the next night, I followed Gram upstairs to her bedroom, sprawling across her floral quilt while she flicked on the television.

“Why am I such a loser?” I asked, staring at the white tiles covering the ceiling of her attic room.

“What happened?” she asked, though her eyes didn’t leave the screen. She was used to my emotional melodrama.

“Aleksandr humiliated me on my first day. He played this stupid prank where he said nonsensical things in Russian and made me figure out answers on the fly. I’m not a professional hockey translator. I didn’t know what to say.”

“Did you come up with something?”

“Well, yeah. I didn’t want to be the idiot he was trying to make me out to be. So, of course I confronted him, because that was super shitty.” I paused to see if she had caught my curse.

Gram stopped flipping through the channels. “You’re twenty years old, I know you swear.”

“I blew up and he blew up. I don’t think he’s ever going to speak to me again.”

I kept staring at the ceiling as if it held hidden answers.

“Sounds like you’re making a mountain out of a molehill, Auden. He did something jerky. You told him you didn’t like it. Move on.”

Move on. Move on? Where was the protective I’m-going-to-sic-your-grandfather-on-that-jackass talk I wanted to hear right now?

“Do you think I can tell Mr. Orlenko I’m sick for Thursday’s game? Grandpa can handle it, right?” I asked, completely aware that Grandpa would never do it. I threw in a fake cough and rubbed my throat. “I think I feel a sore throat coming on.”

“Gargle with warm salt water and get into bed.” Gram continued zipping through channels, not even fazed. Evidently raising three kids before getting stuck with me had made her heartless.

“You know, Gram, it’s okay to allow me to skip work one time in my life to avoid extreme embarrassment.” I rolled onto my side and rested my head on the back of my hand.

“You know, Auden,” Gram mocked me, “it’s better to face your problems head-on. Avoiding the situation just causes more anxiety. I’ll bet you’re worrying about nothing.”

Like I had a choice. She was the one who passed on the anxiety trait. She worried about everything.

I didn’t attend the game on Thursday night. Instead, I listened to the radio broadcast in my car until there were only a few minutes left in the third period before I scrambled out of my car to enter the arena. I’d studied generic interview answers so I’d be prepared for anything the reporters asked, in case Aleksandr pulled another stupid translating prank.

Once inside the arena, I made the familiar trek to the dungeon, walking slowly so I arrived at the same time as the media. Making small talk with Aleksandr wasn't high on my list. Maybe my grandma was right. Maybe I should let it go. Maybe I was making too big of a deal. I just couldn’t believe he would embarrass me on my first night translating. I knew he was a cocky jerk, but hadn’t realized he was evil.

Peering through the crowd of bodies in front of the lockers, I noticed Aleksandr and Landon laughing with the beat writer from the Detroit Times. I slid my fingers through my meticulous, straightened hair, then smoothed the front of my black sheath dress. Though the sleek dress hugged the curves of my hips and backside, it was professional. I’d even thrown a hot pink cardigan over it because it was sleeveless. The bold color gave me the burst of confidence I needed before facing whatever Aleksandr had in store for me tonight.

Landon must’ve spotted me first because he swatted Aleksandr’s shoulder and nodded my way. Aleksandr followed Landon’s prompt. Though his smile vanished, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open. He shifted in his seat as I approached.

Excusing myself as I slid past the group of reporters, I set my messenger bag on the floor and stood next to Aleksandr’s locker, suddenly self-conscious of the view I’d just given him after the comment about my rear end he’d made the other night.

Get over it and get home.

The media session went smoothly, with Aleksandr answering every question, and even joking around with the reporters. When we finished, I snatched my bag off the floor and followed the mob of reporters toward the doors.

“So what? You aren’t going to speak to me?” Aleksandr touched my arm just as the locker-room door swung shut in front of me. Damn.

I turned to face him. “No need to talk. All I need to do is translate.”

His eyes found mine and when he spoke, his voice was soft. “I’m sorry, Audushka.”

“It’s Auden.” I refused to let my guard down again. I’d trusted him with a piece of myself and gotten humiliated. I was done.

“Don’t be like that. I said I was sorry. What else do you want?”

“I just want to do my job and go home.”

“You’re ridiculous, Auden.” Aleksandr pounded the locker-room door with his fist, and I flinched. He spun around and trudged to the showers. Had we been in a cartoon, steam would have been pouring from his ears.

“He’s not interested,” an unfamiliar Russian voice said.

Startled, I turned to see Pilots forward Pavel Gribov standing so close that I could smell the grape sports drink on his breath. I backed away. “Excuse me?”

He slithered into my space, towering over me as he leaned close. His face gleamed, slimy with game sweat, and there was a black void where his two front teeth should have been. “He has no interest in you. If you want to tease someone’s cock, I’ve got one right here.” He grabbed his crotch, jiggling the front of his gray boxer briefs at me.

I tightened my hold on my messenger bag, shuddering as I elbowed my way past him. The interaction with him reminded me of an old saying I’d modified.

When the going gets tough, get going.

Chapter 5

“So when’s your audition?” Kristen asked, plopping onto the couch next to me.

Kristen and Lacy came over to hang out at my grandparents’ house, which I appreciated because I still felt like a child around my grandparents, despite my age. My friends created a sense of normalcy and kept my head in a relatively mature place.

“Sorry?” I asked. Page fifty-three of my book should have been ingrained in my memory, considering the amount of time I stared at it. But instead of reading, I was analyzing Aleksandr’s aggravating shenanigans. The more I obsessed about it, the more irritated I became. If the intense, emotional, pissed-off frenzy going on in my head could manifest itself physically, I’d be covered in hives.

“When’s the singing audition with the hipster from Canada? I thought for sure you’d tell us so we could help you pick out something to wear,” Kristen explained as she leaned toward me to tuck her lower leg under her butt.

“And a song,” Lacy added, wandering into the living room with a plate piled with apple slices and graham crackers. Gram must be at work in the kitchen. It was her trademark snack to make for my friends. Throw in some hot chocolate, and I was in second grade again. So much for feeling like an adult.

“Oh, um, yeah. I haven’t called him.” I removed from my book the beer coaster on which Greg had written his number.

“I can’t believe you haven’t called him yet.” Kristen snatched the coaster out of my hand. “I’m doing it.”

“KK, don’t,” I pleaded, reaching for the coaster.

“What can it hurt?” she asked, pulling her cell phone out of her back pocket. “It’s only a tryout.”

I shrugged and looked down at my book. What would it hurt? After being cut from the soccer team, I was one kick in the gut away from shaving my head and going on a deranged Twitter rant. I should start taking drugs, so I would have something to blame it all on.

“If you don’t want me to call, I won’t,” Kristen said. She held up the coaster in one hand and her cell phone in the other.

I took a deep breath and swiveled my head between Kristen and Lacy. They would be disappointed in me if I didn’t do it, and, more important, I’d be disappointed in myself. An unfamiliar, narcissistic gnawing feeling plagued me, telling me I needed to be good at something again. I hated feeling like a disappointment.

I closed my eyes and let out my breath. “All right, go ahead.”

“You sure?” Kristen asked.

“Just do it before I change my mind.” I covered my face with my hands, refusing to watch as Kristen dialed the numbers scrawled on the coaster.

“May I speak to Greg, please?” Kristen asked, sounding confident and professional. “I’m calling on behalf of Auden Berezin. Who am I? Um, I’m her manager?” She covered the mouthpiece to conceal her laugh.

I kicked her shin with my bare foot. Lacy threw an apple slice at her.

“When can she meet you?” Kristen paused and put her finger in her free ear after waving to shut us up. “Tonight is perfect. Yes. Sure. She’ll be there. Thanks, Greg. Nice speaking with you.” Kristen flipped her phone shut. “That’s how it’s done, ladies.”

“Tonight? It’s tonight?” I asked.

“Well, if you would have called sooner, you might have had more time to prepare,” she scolded.

“So you’re her manager?” Lacy asked. “Does that mean you get a cut of what she makes?”

“Whoa.” I held my hands out in front of me. “Let’s see if I get the job before we talk about who gets cuts of what. It might pay in beer for all we know.”

“Almost as good as cash,” Kristen said. Then she clasped her hands together. “What are you gonna wear?”

“What are you going to sing?” Lacy asked.

I fell back onto the couch. “I don’t know. I need to start getting ready now.”

“Your audition isn’t until eight. Eight o’clock at his place,” Kristen told me.

I turned my head to look at her. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, that’s what he said,” Kristen answered, feigning innocence.

“Please throw another apple at her,” I told Lacy. Eight o’clock at Greg’s place. A whole new flood of nerves hit me. “I was hoping it would be more of an afternoon audition in a garage.”

“Singing for a hot man after dark,” Lacy said with a sigh. “Lucky girl.”

“He wasn’t hot,” I said.

“That’s because you love Crazy Hair,” Kristen teased.

“Speaking of him,” I began. “Turns out he’s the client that Viktor got me a job with.”

“No!” Kristen and Lacy said in unison.

“Yeah. So that was awkward.”

“Spill,” Kristen commanded.

“The jackass played a prank on me on my first night translating. Saying a ton of stuff I couldn’t tell reporters. I had to make up answers on the spot. It was super embarrassing.”

“Why would he do that?” Lacy asked.

“He said it’s what hockey players do. Prank the rookies.” Just thinking about it got me all worked up. Again.

“What did he say?” Kristen asked.

“He made fun of a reporter’s glasses and said I had a nice ass.”

“And you’re mad, why?” Kristen asked.

“Come on, KK. It was my first night on the job. He was trying to make me mess up and look like an idiot.”

When Kristen started to open her mouth, I leaned over and put my palm over it.

“Stop. Even if I do find it in my heart to forgive him, I cannot date him. He is my client. In a professional job,” I said.

Kristen licked my hand, and I recoiled, wiping it against my jeans. “You’re disgusting.”

“I just think you’re making too big a deal of it,” she said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t a jerk-off thing to do. I’m just saying it could’ve been way worse.”

“Greg told me I didn’t have stage presence.” Subject change. Kristen scrunched up her face and stuck her tongue out at me. I ignored her. “How do I get that?”

“One word. Sexy. You have to have a sexy outfit and a sexy song,” Lacy began. “And you have to sing it sexy. You have to make him want to get in your pants before the song is through. But don’t let him,” she warned. “He’s sort of like your boss, isn’t he?”

“Okay,” I said, sitting up, rolling my head from shoulder to shoulder like I was about to check into the biggest game of my life. “Ultimate sexiness and no getting in my pants. Got it. Anything else?”

Lacy burst out laughing. “You need to wear those leather pants you have. You do have a great ass.”

Guess Aleksandr had been right.

“I think black, smoky eyes with a red lip, very rock and roll!” Kristen said. “Maybe a nude lip. Red might be a bit much with the eyes.”

“Definitely red. A matte rather than a gloss. We want to make an impact, remember,” Lacy agreed.

I stopped listening, since it was clear I was out of the equation. Let these girls figure out my look. I had to come up with a song and that “stage presence.” Why wasn’t a song popping out at me? Maybe because I didn’t know what an audition song was supposed to be. I didn’t know what songs worked best with my voice. When I sang, it would be whatever I was thinking about or listening to at the time.

My friends and I discussed the outfit possibilities for over an hour before we couldn’t stand it any longer and started experimenting. After trying on what felt like a hundred different clothing ensembles, from jeans and a vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt to a skintight black dress, I decided on one.

As the clock ticked closer to eight p.m., Kristen and Lacy worked feverishly, straightening my hair and applying makeup. They wanted to get done with enough time to spare for a dress rehearsal.

I didn’t recognize myself when I stepped in front of the full-length mirror hanging from my closet door. My hair fell in soft, blond waves down my back, glistening with shine serum. Kristen had done an amazing job on my thick, black-rimmed eye makeup and the deep, red lip gloss that she and Lacy decided on, but I was stunned by the outfit I had chosen.

My breasts were the focal point of my costume, having been maneuvered, taped, and squeezed into a black corset top. I had a sinking feeling that they would pop out if I hit too high a note. A pair of black leather pants that I had purchased for a Halloween costume sat low on my hips, and red patent heels completed the ensemble.

You look like a streetwalker, Gram’s voice said in my head. That had been her comment on the one occasion during high school when I’d worn brown mascara and coated my lips in sheer pink gloss instead of my normal Lunar Lime Lip Smackers.

“I can’t wear this,” I said, and began unbuttoning the pants.

Lacy slapped at my hand. “You look hot. Leave it alone. Here.” She thrust a bottle of vodka at me.

“You brought vodka?” I looked over my shoulder at the door as if my grandparents were standing there waiting to bust us.

“Stop worrying and loosen those hips,” Lacy said as I accepted the bottle.

“Hope this helps me figure out how I’m going to get out of the house in this outfit.” I tilted the bottle at my friends, scrunched my eyes shut, and took a tiny swig. “No chaser?” I handed the bottle back to Lacy.

“Buck up, Auden. Act like a lead singer.” Lacy lifted the vodka to her lips, then passed it to Kristen.

In an effort to calm my nerves, I counted sheep as I scrolled through the music library on my laptop. Kristen and Lacy were my friends; they wouldn’t let me bomb my first audition.

“Thanks for coming,” Greg greeted me. He held the door open until I walked through. I followed him down a flight of stairs.

“This place is amazing.” A complete music studio took up the entire basement. I immediately felt better about auditioning at Greg’s house. It wasn’t as sketchy a situation as I’d imagined.

“Yeah, my dad’s a musician, so he lets us practice here when I’m home from school.” Greg shrugged. “That’s Josh.” Greg pointed to a tall, skinny guy with short, spiky black hair sitting behind a full drum kit.

“I’m Aaron.” A short guy leaning against the far wall raised his hand. I hoped he was starting dreads, because his light brown hair clumped in various spots, like he’d twisted it that way to get dreads started. “ ’Sup, beautiful?”

“It’s Auden,” I corrected. My tone was sharp, because I wanted them to treat me as an equal, not a piece of meat.

“Alrighty then.” Greg slipped a guitar strap over his neck. “What do you need us to play?”

“Do you guys know Social Distortion? ‘Making Believe’?” I asked, looking from Greg to Josh to Aaron. Josh’s blank face and Aaron’s scowl told me they didn’t. Great, I’d pissed them off in the first two minutes.

“How the fuck are we supposed to know that?” Aaron asked. He turned to Greg. “I thought you said she was singing the Violent Femmes.”

“She can sing whatever she wants.” Greg glared at Aaron.

I tried not to let Aaron’s glower throw me off. This was all in good fun, just me stepping out of the tiny box I’d sealed myself in when I’d chosen soccer above all other interests.

“Sorry. I know it’s a random song.” I hoped the comment would help mellow the situation. Instead, it was met with more blank stares and more scowling. So far the audition was going exactly as I’d imagined. Crash and Burn Berezin at my best.

Since I’d never auditioned before, I had a difficult time keeping my pitch while singing a cappella and remembering to have some sort of stage presence. I went with what came to me, and hoped that nodding my head and rapping my hand against my thigh with the beat impressed them.

When I finished, I looked up through the thick, fake eyelashes that Lacy had glued to my lash line. None of the guys spoke. Josh had moved to the edge of his stool and crossed his arms over his chest. Greg and Aaron stood off to the side, observing, I guess. Nerves pulsed through me as the silence persisted.

“That was fucking wicked!” Josh yelled, jumping off his stool. “Where did you say you found her? Karaoke at O’Callahan’s?”

I fastened the microphone back into the stand and let them talk like I wasn’t even in the room.

“Sing another,” Aaron demanded, challenging me without looking up. He was standing as far away as possible.

“Sure,” I said, pausing a moment before breaking into “I’ll Stand by You.” It was one of my favorite songs, plus it was a believable ballad to accompany my rocker-chic gear.

Greg joined in first, strumming along with my lyrics. After a minute Josh jumped in, too. Pulling the microphone from the stand, I approached Aaron, like a cheetah stalking her annoyed prey. I touched his shoulder, but he shrugged me off. When I started serenading him using ridiculous, exaggerated hand and arm movements, his lips curved into a smile.

“You’re mental,” he said. I didn’t even try to deny it.

“All right, we’ve heard enough,” Greg said, flipping a switch that caused the microphone to go out. I walked back to the microphone stand grinning. Humor could break almost anyone down.

“So what did you think?” I asked.

“You’ve got a great voice. You’re obviously hot,” Greg said, before his eyes settled on the floor. “We’re considering you.”

“Are you considering many others?” I asked. Didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“We got nothing,” Josh said. Though it sounded more like “Me mot mutten” because he was flicking a lighter at the cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.

“Dude! You can’t smoke in here,” Greg told him. Josh rolled his eyes but lowered the lighter and got up from his stool.

“I appreciate you guys letting me audition.” I started toward the stairs, but then stopped and turned around before my foot hit the first step. “So, um, when should I expect to hear from you?”

“When you come back on Wednesday for rehearsal,” Greg said.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“After our old singer left, we ran ads in the Central State Post and on the campus radio station. A few people tried out, but no one with pipes like yours. Can’t believe you’ve never sung before,” Greg said, shaking his head.

“Awesome. Thanks. Oh, I have a job, so is it okay if I check my schedule and let you know when I can be back?”

“Are you kidding me?” Aaron asked. “You know this takes time and dedication, right?”

Geez, I thought I’d won that dude over.

“I wasn’t trying to be a jerk,” I explained. “I just got cut from the soccer team and I have to have a job because I lost my scholarship.”

“Damn,” Josh said, grabbing a black hoodie off the chair next to me.

“Yeah, well—” Aaron’s eyes lost some of their fighting flare. “See you later, Auden.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Josh said.

I climbed the steps two at a time, pushed the door open, and held it for Josh, who was on my heels.

“Holy shit. I’m in a band,” I said, unable to contain my excitement.

“Welcome to the jungle.” Josh cupped a hand around his cigarette and flicked his lighter multiple times to unfavorable results. The blustery winds wouldn’t let up, so I stood in front of him to shield the next gust. “You’re a kick-ass girl,” he said, turning his head and blowing the smoke away from me.

“Gotta take care of my boys.” I winked and skipped to my car.

Very rock and roll.

Soccer. A band. It was all the same to me. And it felt damn good to be part of a team again.KEEP READING:

KEEP READING:

DELAYED PENALTY

Pilots Hockey #1

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Award-Winning Author, Sophia Henry, is a proud Detroit native who fell in love with reading, writing, and hockey all before she became a teenager. She did not, however, fall in love with snow. So after graduating with a BS in English from Central Michigan University, she moved to the warmth of North Carolina for the remainder of her winters.

She spends her days writing books featuring hot, hockey-playing heroes. When she’s not writing, she’s chasing her two high-energy sons, watching her beloved Detroit Red Wings, and rocking out at concerts.

 

 

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