Home > Charming as Puck(5)

Charming as Puck(5)
Author: Pippa Grant

My eyes water while I force a giant smile. The song ends, and my parents smother me in a hug. My brother and sister pile on the birthday greetings through the tablet, along with not-so-subtle reminders that I should treat myself to a phone of my own with a battery that will last longer than three hours. Everyone’s talking at once. Birthday balloons float overhead, including several shaped like 30’s, and a giant Happy Birthday sign is hanging over the glass that looks down on the rink where the Thruster Girls are doing their pre-game show.

“Isn’t this amazing?” my mom gushes. She and dad have had season passes in a private box for years, but they’ve never been in the Thrusters’ corporate suite. I’ve only been here once before, and only because Felicity needed to grab something. “What a wonderful birthday present. Did you have fun on your day off? I’m so glad you took some time for yourself today.”

“It was good,” I lie, and because Aunt Hilda is elbowing in, Mom doesn’t question my lackluster answer.

“There’s the birthday girl! I’m so proud of you, finally calling Muffy for help.”

The entire box falls silent, because even the Thrusters’ girlfriends and wives that I don’t know very well know who Muffy is, and they probably also know that I’ve been nursing a ridiculous crush on Nick for ages.

My friends know.

My family knows, and they’re all gaping at me, even my siblings on the video screen.

My coworkers know.

Muffy bumps Aunt Hilda out of the way. “I want another hug.” She squeezes me tightly and adds in a whisper, “Ignore her. Are you sure this is what you want?”

“New decade, new crush,” I whisper back.

“Look at her glowing,” Aunt Hilda says. “That’s what deciding to go after love will do for a woman.”

Alina scoots closer and squeezes my hand while Muffy leaves me to muffle her mother. “Muffy?” she whispers. “Kami. Even MisterGoodEnough.com’s dating service would be seventeen steps over Muff Matchers.”

She has a very valid point. “I’m trying them all, okay?” I whisper in a voice soft enough that no one else can overhear.

Also, I’m totally not trying them all. Even if she does have a valid point. I tried to make a profile for myself on Date to Mate and almost hyperventilated.

Asking Muffy to match me is basically like asking to not be matched at all.

And then I can slowly get used to the idea of dating.

For real.

“Are you trying just the ones for random hook-ups, or the ones for finding your soulmate?” Alina asks.

Before I can answer, Felicity’s phone blows up with a series of texts.

I freeze, and I probably look guilty as hell, because I have a feeling I know what that’s all about.

And that’s another reason I shouldn’t get mad.

Really mad.

I do some crazy stupid things when I get mad.

Everyone turns to stare while Felicity’s phone keeps dinging.

“Maybe you should check that,” Maren says.

“Or not,” I mutter to myself.

Is it possible to sink through the floor?

Because I’m coming down off the angry high, and now it’s possible I’m having regrets about all of my temper tantrum this morning after I got my phone plugged in at home.

My friends share another look, and Felicity whips out her phone.

Which is still dinging.

My birthday guests crowd around her screen.

I slink toward the bar and take a cautious glance at my own phone, which is—no surprise—already registering in the red on the battery line.

Maybe I shouldn’t get a new phone. Maybe I should totally disconnect and let the world happen.

The bartender has this gorgeous, curly black hair and sweet brown eyes and a dimpled grin that gets bigger as he watches me approach. “Fancy a drink, love?” he asks me in a British accent, and I want to kick myself, because why can’t I be swooning over that?

I tell myself that my problem isn’t that Nick’s the only attractive person in the world.

My problem is that guilt is preventing the swoonage over the bartender.

I’m a truly terrible person.

“Something strong,” I tell the bartender. “Really strong.”

My friends will probably all never talk to me again. Especially Felicity. Because she has this look like she’s starting to put things together.

At least I’ll forever have alcohol.

And pizza without mushrooms.

Everyone rushes to the window overlooking the ice.

“Oh my god,” Alina whispers reverently.

Maren tips her head back and laughs.

And laughs.

And laughs some more.

“Holy shit, I knew having Zeus on the team would bring more antics, but this—this—I have to go.”

Felicity spins, looking for me, and I drop my head to avoid her gaze and pretend I’m digging in my purse for money. It apparently works, because she’s suddenly giving me a quick shoulder hug. “Put that away. The drinks are free in here. I’m having a birthday do-over with you tomorrow. Or the next day. You tell me when you’re free, and I’m there. But this—I have to go get Thrusty. And a camera team. This is gold.”

I don’t ask, because I know.

It really is gold. And since Felicity—and her bratwurst-on-a-rocket puppet, Thrusty—are basically the Thrusters mascot, she needs to get down to the ice and use what she can for the Thrusters’ next promotional video.

I should feel proud, but I don’t.

“What the devil’s going on over there?” the bartender asks me.

I give him a bland I have no idea look and venture closer to the windows. Maren grabs me and pulls me up front. “Look! Kami! The Thrusters got you a birthday present!”

An entire flock of penguins has taken over the ice at Mink Arena an hour before game time.

They’re waddling all over between the nets. Someone’s tossed pucks out, and a few penguins are using them like soccer balls. Security swarms the ice. The thin but growing pre-game crowd is all gathered at the edge of the rink, pointing and taking pictures.

“Fifty bucks says that was Zeus Berger,” one of the girlfriends says.

“Probably Philadelphia sent a present!” My dad chortles.

“My money’s on Nick Murphy,” one of the wives says. “He’s the worst prankster.”

They’re all wrong.

Those penguins?

That was all me. Me and a zookeeper friend downtown.

Because yelling at hockey players?

Not effective.

Pissing off their coach and general management over their use of animals in pranks on the ice an hour before a game?

That cow will be the last farm animal I pull out of any of the guys’ homes this season.

Five

Nick

Apparently today can get worse.

The game’s delayed because we have to wait for a penguin specialist to get the penguins off the ice, then for the Zamboni to do its magic and clean up penguin shit. During the delay, Coach feeds us our asses, then puts me on notice that I’m headed back to charm school—or worse—if he gets one more whiff of any pranks involving animals on or off the ice.

I know what worse means.

I picked a fight with a reporter who touched Felicity wrong after a game last season. I’m the reason the whole team had to go to charm school for remedial lessons in not being Neanderthals.

Clean it up or you’re done, Coach told me then.

He didn’t mean I’d be traded.

He meant I’d be hanging up my skates. Benched for the rest of the season, and then done.

My agent insisted any other team in the league would want me, but I don’t want another team.

I was born in Copper Valley.

My dad retired from hockey and always said he wished he’d played one more season, so he could’ve played here.

My mom covered the Thrusters in the paper for years after that.

Felicity works in the front office, and she’s so freaking smart, she’ll be running the entire organization in another five years.

It took me six years into my career to get traded here. I want to play for the Thrusters until the day my body doesn’t work anymore.

Some guys don’t care. Like the Bergers. Give them a hockey stick, they’ll play for any team that wants them.

Me?

This is it. When I retire, I want to go out on my home turf. Hopefully not for another five or ten years—which would be a long fucking career for a goaltender—but here.

So when Coach sat me down for my come to Jesus moment last season, I took him at face value. I quit pucking around with the bunnies. I pulled back on the pranks.

Mostly.

I let Berger take care of the shitheads who bugged Felicity even though every fiber of my being demanded I protect my little sister the same way I always have since the first moment some shithead dared to call her weird in my presence.

I started hanging with Kami.

Who still hasn’t texted me back when we leave the dressing room—again—to take the ice for the game twenty minutes behind schedule.

Zeus Berger holds out a gloved fist, and because he’s my teammate, and because, yeah, a cow in the bed is actually a pretty fucking fantastic prank, which calls for an equally epic payback, I bump him.

“I got your back, Murphy.” He smirks. “And your front. Ain’t nobody getting past the Zeusinator tonight.”

Like he knows I’m nervous.

His ego doesn’t bother me, because he backs it up. The guy doesn’t rely on just his size. He works hard to be one of the best D-men in the league.

Lavoie leads the rest of the guys past me, all of them rubbing my helmet for luck, like we do every game when we take the ice. “Head in the game,” he tells me.

“Nowhere else exists,” I reply.

It’s the same routine we go through every night. Same order. Same script.

Except tonight, I catch sight of Felicity at the end of the tunnel, watching me with a frown.

I know she got called down to cover the penguins with her Thrusters mascot puppet—she’s a ventriloquist, and she’s so fucking hilarious it makes up for the freakiness that comes with her being able to talk without moving her lips—but I didn’t know she was still down here. Heard she had plans in the team’s suite.

   
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