They both need to make amends…
But they might be making more than that.
Tulsa Thunderbirds goaltender Hunter Fielding has a lot of kissing up to do following a few brash and uncalled-for statements. Now he needs to prove to the watchful eyes that he’s changed for the better. But cozying up to Little-Miss-Perfect-Gone-Bad isn’t his idea of making amends.
Agreeing to marry a hockey star to clear her “bad girl” reputation is the worst idea Oklahoma’s former sweetheart, Tallulah Belle Roth, has ever heard. With cameras constantly in their faces, Hunter and Tallie need to prove their sickeningly-sweet, do-good lives are the real deal—just to Bury the Hatchet once and for all.
But when the cameras are off, desire burns hot. Can fake and just for show turn into something real and forever?
The August sun in Tulsa was intense enough to melt my bones, hotter even than the water I’d recently found myself in after making a few drunken, pissed-off, and ill-advised comments in Vegas last month. I’d been there for the NHL Awards, hoping to celebrate one of my buddies from the goalie guild winning the Vezina Trophy.
I didn’t quite make it to that part of the awards presentation because my agent, John Stine, had slipped over to whisper some unwelcome news in my ear. An expansion draft had taken place earlier in the day so the league’s new team, the Tulsa Thunderbirds, could stock up on players for their debut season. I’d known that was going on, of course. Everyone did. I also knew my team had left me unprotected, meaning it was almost guaranteed that I’d get claimed by the new team since I was far and away the best goaltender left in limbo. Sure enough, I was the first player the Thunderbirds selected.
So instead of battling it out for the starting gig against Nicky Ericsson, another goalie with the Portland Storm, I was heading to Oklahoma to play for a team that would unquestionably be appallingly bad for many years to come. The Storm were a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup these days. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly excited about this latest development in my career.
After getting the news and being assured there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it, I’d spent the rest of the night in the hotel bar, drowning my sorrows in an unending series of tequila shots. It was just my luck that half the contingent of hockey media present was hanging out just outside the bar. They stopped me when John finally hauled my sorry ass out of there, blinding my bleary eyes with their lights and shoving their damn microphones in my face.
Hunter, what do you think about the news that you’ll be playing for the Thunderbirds next season? they’d asked. It’s a real coup that they were able to claim a star goaltender like you in the expansion draft.
John should have jerked my ass away from them right then and there and said something along the lines of Mr. Fielding isn’t taking any questions right now. But he’d been distracted by a phone call from one of his other clients who’d been plucked up in the expansion draft, and I’d shoved my foot so far down my own throat that I should have choked on it and died.
Who the fuck wants to play in a goddamned backasswards place like Tulsa, and for a fucking upstart, no less? I’d replied, ignoring the fact that it might be aired on live TV and the censors would have to bleep me out, oblivious to the harm I was causing myself with a few simple words. Truth or not, sometimes it was better to bite your tongue.
At that point, John disconnected his call and shoved the mics away from me. Too late. The damage had already been done. The words had left my mouth and been caught on film. I couldn’t take them back. I was just going to have to face the consequences.
That was a little over a month ago, and now I had to pay the piper for my inebriated lack of common sense. That was why I was here now. I’d come to Tulsa to meet with the Thunderbirds brass. They wanted to figure out a plan for getting the fans—as if there were any fans to be found here—on my side. Or so they said. I was just waiting to hear what my penance would be for my perceived crimes, and the team’s executives and coaches were apparently my judge and jury.
The second I stepped outside the airport into the blistering heat—fully expecting farmers to rush me with pitchforks—I wished I could walk right back in again, get on a plane, and fly the hell out of here. But I couldn’t. There was no getting out of this unless I intended to walk away from what was left of my career. I was only twenty-nine years old. Way too young to hang up my skates and pads and call it a day. Hell, twenty-nine was when goaltenders tended to hit their prime. I had many years of hockey left in me, and I didn’t have the first clue what I’d do with myself if it was taken away so soon.
I just wished I wasn’t going to have to spend them in this hellhole.
John pulled up to the curb in a rental car and waved me over. He put the car in park and climbed out, as dressed down as ever: shorts, a T-shirt, a Thunderbirds ball cap, and sunglasses. I squinted and wished I had a pair of shades handy, myself. Just one of many adjustments I would have to make if I was going to live here. I got the sense that there was a hell of an education about life in the south in store. He grinned, tossed me a pair of sunglasses that matched his, and popped open the trunk.
“It’s hotter than the underside of Hades,” I grumbled.
He grabbed one of my bags and tossed it in. “You’ll get used to it. You’ll probably like it someday, actually. Especially in October and November when it’s still nice enough to go out without having to shovel a few feet of snow to get your car out. Spring will arrive here nice and early, too. Short winters; long summers. There are a lot of good things in Tulsa.”
I didn’t want to get used to it and John damn well knew it. He wasn’t just my agent. He was a lifelong friend, a guy a few years older than me. I’d grown up with his younger brother, Darren, and played hockey with both of them when we were kids. Darren and I had both been drafted while John was in college. Darren had never panned out with the NHL. He’d played a few years in Europe before deciding to go home and start his family. While the two of us had been playing hockey, John had decided to go on to law school. He’d been ready to start his career as a sports agent by the time the Storm wanted to sign me to my first pro contract.
There was no chance I would end up liking it here, and he knew it, so trying to sell me on the city was a waste of his breath. I knew I should have made him fight harder to get the no-movement clause when we’d signed the seven-year extension with Portland before the beginning of last season. Granted, I doubted even that would have kept me with the Storm instead of landing with the team that would be rock bottom in the league.
I glared at him to shut him up on all the supposed good things about life in Tulsa.
He tossed in my other bag, shut the trunk, and went around to get in the driver’s seat, not bothering to respond. I climbed in and slammed the door, a good dose of surliness taking over. At least he had the sense to have the AC going full blast.
Good thing he let the matter drop. Instead of selling me on the positives, he started shooting the breeze, catching me up on all the goings-on at home since I’d hardly been back to Prince George over the summer. I sat back and listened to him prattle, occasionally tossing in a question to keep the conversation flowing. The more I could get him to talk about that kind of thing, the less I would have to think about my predicament. But when the car came to a stop, we weren’t at a hotel. We were in a parking garage in a big complex that screamed of being the Thunderbirds’ main office.
“Already?” I grumbled. “You’re not going to at least let me settle in first?” I’d hoped to have the opportunity to shower and change into something more comfortable in this heat before dealing with the clusterfuck I’d created.
John shut off the engine. “The Jernigans want to get things moving in the right direction as soon as possible. They said to bring you over the second you landed.”
I ground my jaw. The Jernigans were the team’s owners. Tom Jernigan was a minister at some huge church here in Tulsa, one of those massive congregations that aired on television and they had to hold four or five services over the course of the weekend because there wasn’t enough room in the building to fit everyone in a single sitting. He and his wife, Sharon, were all over the place with Bible study books and videos. I was sure they didn’t know the first fucking thing about hockey. At least they’d had the forethought to hire a few guys who, combined, boasted several decades of experience running NHL teams.
Still sulking, I ambled out and followed John inside. He led me through a series of halls, all decked out with various items bearing the Thunderbirds logo and colors—a Native American warbird with hockey sticks done in turquoise and terra cotta—before stopping at a board room.
A few familiar faces were waiting in there: Alan Krause, the team president who had been around the league longer than I’d been alive; Gary Asher, the general manager who had overseen the Blues for their one and only Cup a few years back; Tim Harvey, a former NHL defenseman who had been an assistant coach for two other NHL teams and would do the same here; Chuck Warren, who’d been a goalie in the league for a while—a backup goalie, no less, and who had never come close to my level of play—who was supposed to be my fucking goalie coach. There were a bunch of other guys in Thunderbirds golf shirts and the like, too. Maybe they were the other coaches, or else some of the PR people.
Off in the corner of the room near the windows, a slim, gray-haired man in a full three-piece suit stood next to a blond woman in the sort of conservative women’s suit that only politicians and clergymen’s wives tended to wear. Her shockingly blond hair looked like a helmet. She probably used a whole can of hairspray to keep it like that. No doubt these two were the team owners, the Jernigans.
It was the group huddled together near them that caught my attention, though: a knockout gorgeous brunette who looked like she should be on the cover of a fashion magazine, an older woman who could only be her mother, and a couple of older men. All three of her companions were currently eyeing me. One of the men seemed curious. The other, along with the mother, were both glaring at me like I was the devil incarnate. But the young woman? I couldn’t figure out what she was thinking because she wouldn’t look at me.
On top of that, I had no clue about the purpose of their presence. It was supposed to be a meeting about me being an ass and learning what I would have to do to appease the team’s brass after letting my idiocy show. What the hell did these people have to do with that?
Alan and Gary came over to shake my hand. They took me through the room, introducing me around to most of the new faces before we headed over to the big board table. I grabbed a bottle of water from a cart along the wall before taking my seat. Alan sat at the head of the table, folding his hands in front of him. He looked as intense as I’d always known him to be. Maybe more at present than usual. His stress had to be at an all-time high right now, trying to get ready for the Thunderbirds’ debut season, and my issues had only added to it. “All right,” he said once everyone settled into place and talk died off. “Let’s get down to business.”
Alan picked up a coffee cup and drank from it. “There’s no point in beating around the bush. We have twelve thousand new season ticket holders and a whole host of other potential Thunderbirds fans here in Tulsa who are up in arms over some comments made by our new star goaltender. They didn’t take kindly to being called backasswards, and they aren’t keen about one of their players not being fully on board with being a key part of this team. So now we need to figure out how to win them over.”
“You mean we need to figure out how I can win them over,” I said.
Alan nodded, a scowl marring his features.
Mollifying people wasn’t my strong suit and it never had been. I picked up my water, focusing more on it than I did on the conversation going on around me. Gary and the coaches all tossed out suggestions like getting me involved in some sort of community service project with some schools in the area or trying to get a grassroots youth hockey program started so that the locals could love and grow the sport here—with me at the forefront of it, of course.
These were exactly the sorts of things I’d been expecting, but they didn’t seem to be what Alan was looking for. He didn’t even like the idea of me starting up a charity here, or at the very least, he seemed to think there needed to be something more to go along with it. He kept brushing their suggestions off, telling them it wasn’t enough. What I’d done was going to take a lot more than a bit of community involvement to rectify, if Alan’s reactions were a good indication.
As for me? I kept my head down and my mouth shut while the rest of them batted ideas around, since John had already made it abundantly clear that I was going to have to play along with whatever they suggested, no matter how much I might not like it. I didn’t get a say since I’d already flapped my jaw too much. But then John kicked my ankle under the table. I shot my head up to find Mrs. Jernigan looking expectantly at me, a too-perfect smile plastered on her face.
“Gentlemen,” she said. “I’ve got the perfect solution. In fact, that’s why we invited the Roths to join us today, as they’ve got a part to play.”
The foursome in the corner met my gaze when I passed a skeptical glance in their direction. Well, three of the four did. The brunette ducked her head and stared at the floor after giving me the briefest glimpse of her honey-colored eyes and button nose. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a long, slender neck that looked perfect for nibbling on. That was absolutely the wrong thing for me to be thinking about, though—nibbling on her neck. Or other parts of her, like her pert breasts.
“The perfect solution?” I repeated slowly, one hundred percent positive that whatever whack-job idea this lady had, it would be the complete opposite of what I thought appropriate.
Mrs. Jernigan didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm in my tone. Either that or she was an expert at ignoring things she didn’t want to acknowledge. “You see, the Roths have been members of our church since Tallulah Belle was just a sweet little baby. We always want to help members of our congregation out where we can, and Tallulah’s found herself in a bit of a pickle, too, sort of like you have. There was a dust-up last month while she was in Cancun with her sorority sisters, and now that she’s been stripped of her crown—”
“Her crown?” I interrupted. Who the hell wore a crown? And more importantly, why?
This was quickly devolving into a nightmare.
One of the men in the corner rolled his eyes. He, like Mrs. Roth, had been eyeing me since I’d arrived as if I were a child pornographer or something. “I told you this wasn’t a good idea, Sharon,” he said emphatically. He spoke slowly with a slight lisp, drawing out his words so that they seemed to have grown by a few syllables each. Even in this heat, he had on a blue turtleneck, not to mention a tweed jacket over it, and he waved his hands with every word he uttered. “The Neanderthal doesn’t even know who our Tallulah is,” the arm-waving dude bemoaned.
“Don’t call him that, Lance,” the brunette pleaded. For the first time since they’d been introduced into the conversation, she truly met my gaze, her expression a visual apology. Her face was also quite possibly the most flawless one I’d ever seen. She looked as though she’d stepped out of the pages of a magazine, without a single blemish in sight. Lightly tanned skin. High cheekbones. Impeccably arched, full eyebrows. And that was just her face. Her body? Made me think all kinds of things that I had no business thinking about a woman whose name I didn’t even know. She looked too good to be real, but damn if she wasn’t hot.
He ignored her, gesticulating so much he nearly whacked her in the face, which made me want to pick him up by the scruff of his neck and teach him a thing or two about how Neanderthals expected a man to treat a lady. I stayed put, though, and Lance was oblivious to anything but his own agenda. “He won’t work out. He doesn’t understand the pressure she’s under. The hooligan couldn’t even bother to get his hair cut before making an appearance. He’s exactly the opposite of the sort of man we need her to marry.”
My head snapped back upon hearing the word marry, and I pushed my chair away from the table. “Back the fuck up for a second,” I said. The movement unsettled my water, and the bottle fell over, rolled to the table’s edge, and dropped to the floor, narrowly missing my toes. “Who the hell said anything about getting married? I’m willing to do whatever you need me to do to make up for my perceived crimes—community outreach, volunteering, whatever—but how the fuck is getting married—”
“Which is precisely the point,” Mr. Jernigan cut in, his voice rising over mine. He arched an eyebrow in my direction, either daring me to interrupt or putting me back in my place, one of the two. “You’ll do whatever we need you to do—John assured us you would—and we need you to marry Tallulah. She’s gotten into a scrape. She needs a way out of it. You’re it, son. On top of that, she’s the best way to get the people here in Tulsa on your side.”
“How is marrying her supposed to help me make things up to all the people I pissed off?” I demanded.
“Would you please watch your language?” Mrs. Jernigan demanded, and I just about fell out of my chair. Of all the things to get worked up over, she was getting her panties in a twist over me uttering the words pissed off? How on earth was she going to handle being around a whole team of hockey players? It might be better if she was one of those hands-off team owners like we’d had in Portland, but so far it didn’t look like that would be the case.
She put her hands on her hips, prim, proper, and as incensed as I’d ever seen a woman. “Really, there’s no reason for all that foul stuff. Your mama should have taught you better than that.”
“Let’s leave his mama out of it, Sharon,” her husband said, never removing his gaze from me. No doubt he sensed that I was about to lose my shit, and he wanted to defuse the situation before I did something else I would regret. I might not like his wife, but so far he was okay. Well, except for the fact that he thought I needed to marry some random chick I’d never met before.
He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Here’s the deal, son.”
I gritted my teeth. “I’m not your son.”
He ignored me. “Tallulah won Miss Teen Oklahoma USA several years back, and then she won Miss Teen USA. She’s the reigning Miss Oklahoma USA, or she was until they stripped her of her crown last month because of a slight indiscretion. She was expecting to contend for Miss USA, and most likely Miss Universe after that. She’s been competing in and winning pageants for years, including some very high-profile ones. The fact is that Oklahomans love her. We adore her. But now her image has been tarnished, and she needs a husband so she can repair her image in the public eye. She fell down a few pegs when…well, never mind that. The point is that they want Tallulah to appear to be the role model they always assumed she was, and to do that, she needs to give the impression that she’s growing up, settling down, and doing the things they’ve expected of her all along.”
“Which is exactly why you can’t just shove her in with him,” the hand-waving man interrupted, pointing a finger in my direction so hard it seemed he might be attempting to jab me in the eye. “He’ll ruin her worse than she already is.”
Mr. Jernigan closed his eyes, shook his head, and sighed. “He’s not going to ruin her. They’ll rescue each other.”
I wasn’t in the mood to play knight in shining armor to anyone, even if she had legs for days and killer curves like this Tallulah chick did, and I’d be damned if I needed anyone to rescue me. I’d dug my own hole; I could damned well figure out a way to climb out of it myself. “I’m not marrying anyone,” I said, loud and clear enough to be heard over everyone else.
“You are.” This time it was John speaking.
I spun my head to glare at him. “You knew this was going on and you didn’t say a word about it?”
“Had to be sure you were going to show up,” he said, shrugging. Like this was no big deal. Like he wasn’t trying to tell me that my life as I had it planned was all being tossed out, and I was going to have to bend to someone else’s rules. Like I should have expected it since I’d been dumb enough to make an ass of myself, and this was my due penance. “We already discussed this. You’ve got to play by their rules, at least for a while. Things are different down here. You’re going to be living and playing in the Bible belt, and there are different expectations. Besides, it’s not forever,” he added sheepishly.
“You expect me to believe that a preacher”—I pointed in the general direction of the Jernigans—“is going to suggest a marriage that will end up in divorce in order to cover up some silly scandal.”
“Well, really, honey pie,” Mrs. Jernigan said. “It’ll be more like an annulment. It’s just for a year.”
“A year?” I scoffed. I didn’t know American marriage law very well, but this didn’t sound like the sort of thing a judge would consider appropriate annulment material. “And I’m not your honey pie. Either way, doesn’t matter since I’m not doing it.”
“Yes,” John said, more emphatically than before, “you are.”
I shot him a go-to-hell look. “No one can make me get fake married for a year. Not even you, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you can. Besides, that would mean I’d have to be celibate the whole damn time.” If the entire fucking state loved this Tallulah chick, the second I was seen with some other girl, hoping to scratch an itch, I’d be the bastard who cheated on Oklahoma’s sweetheart.
“Language!” Mrs. J shouted at me. The woman reminded me more and more of Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games movies, only minus the pink hair.
“Sorry if the mention of sex offends you,” I spouted off, and I didn’t even feel bad about the offended gasp she let out. The longer I was in this room, the shorter my fuse grew. I’d be lucky if I got out of here without them threatening to find a way to void my contract.
Hell, maybe I should really let loose. Maybe then they would try to void it, and then I could sign with some other team. Anything would be better than being stuck here and getting forced into some sham of a marriage.
“You wouldn’t…” Tallulah had spoken up again, drawing my attention, but she clammed up the second her mother and Lance shot looks in her direction.
“I wouldn’t what?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lance interjected. He reached across and put a hand over Tallulah’s, as though to prevent her from saying another word. The guy seriously needed a good throat-punching, and I was itching to be the one to have that honor. Not to rescue her. More to fuck with him because the half hour or so I’d spent in his company was more than anyone should have to bear in a lifetime. The guy was a serious ass. He met my glare. “No Neatherthals allowed near Tallulah Belle. Not now. Not ever.”
She tugged her hand free, and my esteem for her went up a few notches. She scowled at him before turning to me. “You wouldn’t necessarily have to be celibate the whole time,” she said, staring straight at me. “I mean, I’m not sure I’d want to stay—”
“Tallulah Belle Roth!” her mother interrupted before turning her hateful glare on me. “There will be no hanky-panky, not with Tallulah or anyone else. Just enough hand-holding and light kisses for the cameras, but when you’re not putting on a show for the media, you’ll be keeping your hands to yourself and your little thing tucked away in your pants.”
“It ain’t little, sweetheart,” I said before I could think better of it.
“Well, I never.” She shut up after that, though, crossing her arms and turning her back to me.
Tallulah didn’t keep quiet. “Mama, you can’t speak to him like that. And it’s none of your business—”
“My daughter isn’t my business?”
“—what happens behind closed doors,” she continued, ignoring her mother’s interruption. “The fact is, we will be married. And soon.”
Soon? I was about to speak up again, but the other man—the one who, so far, had kept his mouth shut and merely looked on, mildly amused by the proceedings—leaned forward and locked his gaze on me. “Saturday, actually,” he said, answering my unasked question. “And I’ve already got the prenup lined out. I’ll just need you and my Tallie to drop by my office later this afternoon to go over it so we can get it finalized.”
I pressed my fingers to my eyes, wishing I could push hard enough that my whole head would explode like the dude on Game of Thrones. My head hurt enough that it might explode from the internal pressure without any outside forces.
“Not him,” Lance tossed in. “We’ll find someone else.”
“By Saturday?” Mrs. Jernigan asked. “Everything’s already in place for this weekend, and we’ve already wasted too much time. They’re hounding Tallulah everywhere she goes.”
“Find someone else,” I ground out.
“There is no one else,” the father insisted at the same time as John said, “Whether you want to do this or not, you’re going to have to.”
“Why?” I roared. “Why this? What the hell is this supposed to do that couldn’t be accomplished some way that doesn’t involve fucking getting married?”
Tallulah stood up, planting both hands on her hips and drawing my eye exactly there. “Now you look here,” she said, suddenly turning sassy in a way that turned me on despite my better judgment—further proof that hormones had nothing to do with the part of the brain that processed thought. “I’m not any happier about this than you are, and clearly my mama and Lance don’t think you’re up to snuff, but they’re right about this one part. Whether you want to hear it or not, they’re right. The two of us getting married—at least long enough for all of this to blow over—is the best solution for both of our problems. So we’re going to do it. We’re getting married on Saturday, so you’d better just accept the fact that it’s happening. And you should probably call your mama. They don’t like finding these things out after the fact.”
Well, holy hell. Even Tallulah wanted to go along with it. Apparently, Tulsa wasn’t just hell; it was also the Twilight Zone, only the people I was surrounded by didn’t realize it.