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Hockey star Jackson Maddox and gymnast Pepper Wilson have been best friends since childhood…
When Jackson needs a date to a prestigious party, he calls upon his petite and dazzling BFF to be his arm candy for the night. Nothing could be better than walking into a room with Pepper on his arm. Jackson won’t ever admit how he really feels about her, because they’re…
With her gymnastics career over, Pepper welcomes a chance to let her freak flag fly—especially with Jackson by her side. Pepper can’t confess she’s loved him since childhood. He’s her best friend, and there’s no reason to jeopardize what they’ve got. But they’re still…
But when a seemingly harmless game of Truth or Dare gets a little too close and entirely too personal, can Jackson dream up a dare that could give them both what they really want?
The hot-as-sin Miami air wrapped itself around me as I got off the team plane. Hard to believe it was this hot despite the late hour of the night. We were only two weeks before the end of the hockey season, and this was my third year playing for the Miami Ice. It didn’t matter how many years I’d been here, though. I still hadn’t gotten used to the fact that the temperatures in Miami were close to scorching at all times of day and night. We were coming back from a Canadian road trip. Up there, it was still cold enough that I’d needed more than just a light jacket, so the transition to Miami’s heat was even more of a shock to my system than it could have been.
For now, though, I didn’t need to think about hockey anymore, at least for the next day. I could just enjoy the gorgeous weather and the fact that Pepper Wilson was waiting for me at baggage claim. Pepper had been my best friend since our days sitting in the back of my mom’s SUV or her mom’s minivan, driving from our hometown of Livingston, Tennessee, to Nashville and back, while they’d carted us around for our various sports activities. We were twenty-four now. I couldn’t imagine having her be anything other than my best friend even when we were sixty-four. That was just the kind of bond we had.
“The fuck are you in such a hurry, Mad Dog?” Barnes demanded as I brushed past him. He said it with a laugh and a wink. “You think you’re getting laid tonight or something? On second thought, go. Maybe you’ll be easier to put up with if you get some.”
My name was Jackson Maddox, but the boys all called me Mad Dog, for two reasons. One, as a play on my last name. The second reason had to do with the way I tended to lose my shit on the ice. To say I had a temper during games would be putting it mildly. I’d smashed more than a few sticks against the goal posts when things hadn’t gone my way—usually when it was something I blamed myself for, whether I was truly to blame or not. And if some guy on the other team got under my skin… Well, let’s just say he didn’t usually come at me again after that first time. At six foot six and two hundred fifty pounds, I was a big guy even for someone playing in the big leagues, and I had more than just a hint of a mean streak.
Only on the ice, though. Off the ice, I was a teddy bear. That was why Pepper and I were such good friends. She could put me in my place when I fucked up, and I could bear-hug her until she laughed and forgave me. It worked well for us.
Barnes was my defensive partner and the team captain. Not only that, he knew better than any of the other guys that I didn’t think I’d be getting laid tonight. There wasn’t going to be any sex. That wasn’t how Pepper and I were together, even if she was a sexy little pixie with eyes that made me think with my dick instead of my brain. She wasn’t in Miami for a booty call; she’d come to get on her feet again, and I intended to give her a leg up in any way I could—and maybe even in a way she wasn’t prepared for.
“Watch it, or I’ll go all Mad Dog on your ass,” I shot back at him.
He just laughed and shooed me on my way.
It was easy to spot Pepper at baggage claim, despite the fact that she was all of five foot nothing, even in heels. Her hair was a shocking white-blond that was always perfectly mussed up, like she’d just gotten out of bed, which made me think about getting her in bed, which was yet again me thinking with my dick. Bad idea. Especially if I wanted to maintain the friendship we’d had for years.
We were good friends. The best. But we were just friends. That’s all we’d ever been before, and there wasn’t any good reason to change that now.
Her hair wasn’t the only reason she was easy to pick out of the crowd, either. The truth was, there weren’t many people around to speak of. The airport was practically deserted, other than a few people who appeared to be camping out for the night, based on the way they were stretched out on benches.
Pepper’s whole face lit up as soon as she saw me. “Hey, stranger,” she said, racing over to me and wrapping her arms around my waist. They barely reached all the way around me, which made me realize how long it’d been since we’d seen each other. For the last couple of summers, I hadn’t been home to Livingston. During that time, she’d been busy trying to become the captain of USA Women’s Gymnastics so she could compete in the Summer Games, and I’d been working with a trainer in Minnesota and bulking up, putting on more muscle to fill out my frame.
She still felt insanely good right up against me, though. So good I was tempted to put my arms around her and pick her up, but I didn’t want to risk hurting her. I hadn’t seen her much since her accident, and I didn’t know her limitations, what she could handle and what she couldn’t. Better to be safe than sorry. I settled for wrapping her up and dragging her closer. Another bad idea. My dick had an awful lot to say about it, too. I pressed my eyes closed and tried to will my thoughts back into line before she realized I had a hard-on.
A whiff of her perfume tickled my nostrils. Didn’t do a damn thing to get my brain back on the right track. The opposite, actually.
I forced myself to peel away from her before I did anything stupid. “Been too long,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve been at home. You know where to find me. Not my fault you didn’t come home the past couple of years.”
“I was training with Barnes and his PT,” I complained, quick to offer my excuses. “The guy won’t travel to you. You have to go to him.”
“Looks like it’s paid off, too.” Pepper winked up at me, grinning. God, she had a sexy smile. “I can’t hold it against you, anyway. Not with the way you’ve been playing this season.”
“And now you’ll get to see it up close and personal.”
“Well, I need to find a job and all, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to go to your games. Besides, playoff tickets are expensive.”
“I get tickets for every game. Including the playoffs. It’s not going to cost you anything.”
“Won’t Elle be using those, though?” Pepper asked.
“You don’t have to find a job right away,” I said, evading her question. I’d have to answer it eventually, but I’d rather get around to it in my own way. “Give it a week or two, at least. Hang out with me and the guys. Come to my games. Make some contacts. You know that’ll make it easier to find a job. Besides, there’s this thing tomorrow. I kind of promised I’d go, but I need a date, and you’re here, so…” I tried to sneak that part in without her flipping out, but she put a hand on my chest, the other on her hip, and gave me the same sassy look her mother always had given us when we’d tried to pull the wool over her eyes as kids.
“Hold on just one second. You don’t need me to be your date for anything. What about Elle?”
That was exactly the reaction I’d been expecting. Made me wish I’d found a way to tell her before now, but the last thing I’d wanted to do while Pepper was in the hospital recuperating was call her and cry over my fucked up love life. I shrugged. “Elle and I… We’re not a thing anymore.”
“Not a thing? What happened?”
I dragged a hand through my hair and wished I’d taken the time to get it cut the last time we’d been at home. It was way too long, and this wasn’t the way I wanted to go to this shindig at the Thunder headquarters, but I didn’t have time to do anything about it now unless I was going to leave Pepper to her own devices for a while tomorrow. I gave her a sheepish look. “It’s a long story.”
“Good thing I don’t have anywhere else I need to be, then, isn’t it?”
“But will you be my date for this party? I told Alex Dare I’d be there. He insisted, actually. It’s a big party the Miami Thunder are throwing. Lots of bigwigs.” Not to mention a bunch of people who could help someone make the transition from playing sports to whatever came afterward.
Retirement came early for most athletes. Too early. I wasn’t at that point, even though I’d had a scare last season, but Pepper was already there. Not that she’d been a professional gymnast, but still. She was at that point in her career already where she couldn’t keep doing what she’d always done, where she had to figure out what she was going to do with the rest of her life. I wanted to ease that transition in any way I could, and if anyone could help me do that, it was Alex Dare. I wanted her to be with me at this party because of what it could potentially do for her, more than anything else.
She scrunched her eyebrows together and gave me a funny look. “The Thunder? Isn’t that football?” she asked.
“You don’t even watch football. Heck, you don’t even like football. Why are you going to their party?”
“You’ve got too many questions. As always.”
“And you’ve got too few answers. As always.” But she softened her rebuke with a wink.
I laughed. Some things never changed, and thank goodness for that. I couldn’t handle it if Pepper and I lost what we had. “Come on,” I said, reaching for the handle of her suitcase. “I can tell you all about it in the car on the way back to my place.” Or at least I could get started telling her. Some of it would need more explanation than we’d have time for during the fifteen-minute drive.
Like why Elle and I weren’t a thing anymore. We hadn’t been for months, yet I hadn’t said a word about it to my best friend in the whole world.
Right about now, I felt like a shitty friend.
~ * ~ * ~
I felt hungover hung when Pepper started puttering around in my kitchen at a little after noon. We hadn’t had a thing to drink after getting back to my house; we’d just kept talking until the sun came up. When I walked into the kitchen, it appeared she was in the process of fixing a full breakfast like her mama had taught her, but all I wanted was coffee. I headed straight for the Keurig and reached for the first cup I could find, bleary-eyed and with my head throbbing.
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t tell me Elle was cheating on you,” Pepper said, cracking some eggs into a stainless steel mixing bowl. I didn’t even know where she’d found it. Did I own a bowl like that?
It was possible that Bridget had dropped it off yesterday when she’d come in to stock my fridge and look after my cats, Arya and Tyrion. Bridget was my cleaning lady, and she’d taken over cat duty and making sure I didn’t starve after I’d kicked Elle out. Bridget usually just fixed me up with fresh salads and already-cooked proteins that I could toss on top of the greens, but I’d told her that Pepper would be coming to stay for a while and suggested maybe she could bring a few things that someone who knew their way around a kitchen could use to make a real meal.
Arya—a vocal Siamese cat with a hell of an independent streak—jumped onto the counter and meowed indignantly, so I picked her up and scratched her behind the ears for a minute before setting her on the floor. Not that it did any good. She jumped right back up and walked over to give the sniff test to everything Pepper had out.
Pepper shooed her away, too, but Arya wasn’t going anywhere until she was good and ready to. I popped a K-Cup in the machine and pressed the button to brew the largest size, thinking to myself that the twenty seconds it took to make coffee this way was far too long when I was this exhausted. Pepper glanced over at me with a familiar, annoyed expression. Probably because I was taking too long to answer her.
“I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want it to be a big deal,” I said, exasperated. “You had enough to worry about without adding me to your list.”
Pepper scowled. “I got injured, Jackson. That’s all. Things like that happen all the time. You know it as well as anyone. It’s not like I couldn’t handle talking to you about what was going on in your life.”
Hers hadn’t been just any old injury, though. She’d been working on a new skill on the uneven bars, tweaking the release move that had been named after her to increase the difficulty, when she’d fallen and broken her back. The break had been so severe that they’d told her she’d never be able to compete again. Her gymnastics career was over. Hell, the doctors weren’t even sure she’d ever be able to walk again, at first. Everything she’d been working toward her whole life was gone in the blink of an eye.
I sighed. “I just thought you had more important things to deal with than the sob story of my love life.”
She went back to chopping up a melon. “She’s really with one of your teammates?”
I felt the familiar sensation of Tyrion rubbing himself against my ankles as he wound his way around my feet. I wiggled my toes to let him know I knew he was there, making sure I didn’t try to pick him up. He’d honor humans with his presence, but only on his own terms. I figured it was something to do with him thinking he was king of the castle. He was a tiny orange Persian. He looked like he weighed three times what he did because of all the fur, but it was just a façade.
Pepper looked down and grinned at him before once again shoving Arya away from the food. “So we can hate her, right? She’s a cheating, lying bitch, and we hate her.”
With Pepper, it was always we. Everything was shared. If I hated someone, she hated them, too. If some asshole ever hurt her, you could bet I’d hurt him just as much as he’d hurt her. That was how we did things.
“I don’t hate her,” I said cautiously. Not completely. Elle had ripped my heart to shreds, but I’d loved her once. We’d been planning to get married back in Livingston this coming summer, over the offseason. I couldn’t go from one extreme to the other in an instant. I hadn’t even managed it in six months.
“We should really hate her,” Pepper said, her frown so cute I wanted to kiss it off her face. Another dangerous thought.
Still, I laughed, because damn if it didn’t make her even cuter than ever.
“All right. Fine. We don’t hate Elle. But do we officially hate LeBlanc now?”
“He’s still our number one goalie. I kind of have to deal with him.”
“But I can hate him from over here.” She winked. “I can work up a good hate for him, strong enough to cover for the both of us and to make up for us not hating Elle, too.”
“If you think it’ll do any good.”
“You don’t think they’ll trade him?” Pepper asked, sounding way too hopeful.
“Not a chance. He’s the main reason we got to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.” The guy had won nearly every award offered by the league last season, too, after having a record-setting year. The rest of the team had been good, but LeBlanc had been great. I sipped from my coffee, thankful it had finally finished brewing. It instantly helped ease my headache.
“You, then?” There was more than merely a hint of concern drawing Pepper’s brows together over her nose.
“We already had a couple of meetings with the two of us, the coaching staff, and the general manager. Basically, they told us there wasn’t a chance in hell they were trading either one of us over some personal crap, so we were just going to have to work it out between the two of us and learn to deal with each other again. We can hate each other off the ice all we want, but when we’re out there playing a hockey game, we’ve got to be on the same page. We’re pulling for the same thing. Period.”
Damn didn’t even begin to cover it, but there wasn’t much I could do. As my agent had put it, our hands were tied. No one was telling me I had to like the son of a bitch, but I did have to play on the same team as him.
“We already passed the trade deadline, anyway,” I pointed out, hoping to ease her worry a bit more. “So nothing else could happen until the summer.”
“That’s good,” she murmured. Still worried. I could hear it in her voice even if she was trying to hide it from me. I couldn’t blame her, either. She’d just left everything she’d ever known in Livingston to come and live in Miami with me, but if I were to suddenly have to up and move to some other city…where would that leave her? It was a legitimate question. I didn’t want her to have that kind of worry. Hell, I didn’t want her to have any worries.
“I’m just glad you’re coming to the party with me tonight,” I said, hoping she’d let me change the subject that easily. I didn’t want to think about Elle and LeBlanc anymore. I didn’t want another reminder that this would be my first summer without Elle in five years. I just wanted to move on, and with Pepper here, there wasn’t any better way of doing that.
“I still don’t understand why Alex Dare wants you to be at that party,” Pepper said. She whisked the eggs in the bowl with a fork before pouring them into a baking dish over a bunch of potatoes and veggies, popping it into the oven, and going back to putting together a fruit salad.
The problem Pepper was having with the party wasn’t the fact that I’d been invited; it was that I wanted her to go with me. She’d never liked being surrounded by a bunch of people she didn’t know. It would be bad enough if they were my teammates. At least she was somewhat familiar with those guys, even if she didn’t know them. But I was probably the only person she would know tonight, and that was going to leave her feeling insanely uncomfortable. I’d have to do everything in my power to help her relax while we were there, especially if I wanted to be sure she met the right people and made the right contacts. This was about her future. It was a first step, sure, but if she didn’t take this one, the rest wouldn’t follow very soon.
“We spent a lot of time together last season after my concussion. Bonded over it.”
I’d been out of the lineup for almost six months with mine. He’d suffered one that had ended his pro football career a few years ago. These days, he worked with the Thunder, helping guys navigate the transition from being professional athletes into whatever the next stage of their lives might be. For a while, I’d wondered if I’d be hitting him up to help me make that transition a hell of a lot sooner than I was ready for, but even though I was playing again, he’d left that door open.
“He helped me out a lot back then,” I added.
My concussion had occurred at around the same time Pepper was going through her recovery. For a while, I’d thought we were both facing the end of our careers.
Alex had talked me through a lot of it. Pointed me in the right direction as far as local doctors who specialized in head trauma. If the guy wanted me at a Miami Thunder party, you could bet I’d be there.
With Pepper on my arm, so I could help her figure out what to do next.
“So we’re definitely going,” she said, sounding deflated.
“Please tell me there’ll be alcohol.”
“Open bar,” I replied, grinning. Because now I knew she would come without continuing to give me a hard time. “We’ll take a cab, too. It’ll be great.”