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Chapter Twelve

Russ lay on the bench in the locker room, dressed only in his black Puck Skins, and pulled his knee up to his chest, stretching. He'd arrived at the arena half an hour earlier than he usually did, hoping to ease the coiled tension of the day out of his muscles. Hoping as well to clear out distracting thoughts of Kevin and Emma.

He changed position, wishing he could stretch on the floor like you could in the Canadian ice rink locker rooms, where they washed the floors between each game. No one in their right mind would lie down on the locker room floor of the Aurora Ice Arena: it looked as if it hadn't been washed since the Cretaceous period, and the freestanding, stall-less toilet inexplicably plumbed into the center of the room was a reminder of just how filthy a hockey locker-room floor could get.

Still, this was home. The locker room might be a sty, the ice might be soft and rutted, but this was where his surrogate family lived and he had a perverse affection for it. It was his haven. His sanctuary from the world. The place where he was not Russ Carrick, multimillionaire entrepreneur, but was simply Buffy.

One of his teammates came in and bobbed his chin in greeting. Russ grunted a reply and stood for a different stretch.

Unbidden, memories of his conversation with Kevin earlier in the day came back to mind.

"I think she's starting to like me," Kevin had said.

Russ had feigned disinterest, but his heart had thunked sickly in his chest. "How so?"

"Just a feeling I get, when I call her."

"Didn't you say she was seeing someone?"

Kevin's face had been impassive but strangely alert, as if watching for Russ's reaction. "She doesn't talk about him. It must not mean much to her if she doesn't talk about him."

Russ had shrugged, but the words had festered all day. Reason said that she was too cautious to talk about him to Kevin, even under cover of her mythical "boyfriend," but it gnawed at him that there was nothing she said to Kevin, not even a generic comment on their getting along well or liking some of the same things. It made him wonder whether she talked about him to her friends or pretended that he didn't exist.

Was he just a thrice weekly sex partner who ate the food figure-skating lesson earlier. The bleachers were outside the lobby, rising up in a bank above the boxes where the players would sit.

"How tall is he?"

"Midrange."

"That rules out stumpy over there, and those two lumberjacks. I guess that's something."

"And he's not a goalie. Wait, is that-"

"You see him? Which one?"

"Shoot. I can't tell. I thought I saw him, but"

"C'mon. We've got to go out there." Daphne headed for the glass door to the rink area.

"Daphne, wait! I can't go out there! He'll see me!"

"Pish. He will not."

"Daphne, there's no one else in the freakin' stands! Of course he'll notice!"

Daphne sat back down, a pout on her face. "Fine. We'll wait till the game starts. Then he'U be concentrating on it and won't look up."

Emma visored her hand over her forehead, half-hiding her face. "I knew I shouldn't have agreed to this."

"Look, we'll go up in the stands, we'll spot him, we'll watch the game, and then we'll tear out of here before it ends. Even if he thinks he sees you-which he won't-he won't be sure. You can always deny it if he asks."

"Lie to him? Yeah, great, that's what I want to do."

"Oh, stop making such a big deal out of this. There's no crime in watching him play hockey. Hell probably be flattered. No one else has a hot babe in the stands."

Emma groaned.

A few minutes later, the players collected the extra pucks, and those on the first string took their positions. A puck was dropped between two players and a quick, furious battle of slapping blades knocked it away, with skaters in hot pursuit.

"Now!" Daphne said, bounding up and grabbing Emma by the sleeve, dragging her through the glass door.

Emma stumbled after her, the cold of the rink hitting her face. Only the boards and the Plexiglas panels of the rink were between them and the players now, and as the game shifted direction the herd of skaters turned. With scraping, running glides, their bodies hunched low, sticks wagging on the ice in front of them, they chased straight toward Emma and Daphne. Emma grabbed Daphne and hurried her toward the stands.

They had almost reached the shelter of a wall that hid the steps up to the stands when, glancing back over her shoulder, Emma saw one player look up at her and freeze. And although all she could see clearly were his eyes, she knew it was Russ.

The moment of distraction cost him dearly. Another skater hit him hard, sending him into the boards and glass right in front of Emma. The glass and frames shook, the impact sounding like it must have crushed half the bones in his body. Both skaters fell to the ice.

Emma dashed to the glass, pressing her hands and forehead to it, trying to see down to the players.

"Was that him?" Daphne asked, appearing beside her.

Emma didn't answer, anxiously watching the skaters untangle themselves. One regained his feet, then put a hand out to help Russ up. Emma backed away from the glass as she saw him moving, no harm done.

He turned to her as soon as he was up, a question in his eyes. Another skater tapped him on the helmet with the handle of his stick and asked him a question Emma couldn't hear. A moment later, the skater looked at her and raised his hand.

"Hi, Emma!" he shouted, the sound barely coming through the glass.

Dumbfounded, she waved back.

The skater pointed to the stands.

Emma looked at Russ, who gave the faintest of shrugs and lifted his hand slightly, as if to say, "It's up to you." She couldn't tell if he was happy, angry, or indifferent.

Emma shrugged back, smiled in embarrassment, and headed for the stands with Daphne.

The game resumed, and when the players changed out Emma looked down at the box, picking out Russ. He was gesturing and talking to one of his teammates, and Emma had no idea what he was saying, although she guessed it related to the game rather than to her. Then two of the players farther down the line turned around and sought her out with their eyes.

"Hey, Emma! Come to see Buffy play?"

She smiled nervously and gave a little wave, not knowing how to respond.

"Buffy?" Daphne asked her softly.

Emma shrugged. "I've never heard it before."

Russ turned around and waved to her, and she wondered if it was a show for his friends. He wouldn't want to let on that he hadn't expected her, and might not want her here.

Unless they all knew of her "arrangement" with him?

The thought sent a chill down her back. He wouldn't have told them, would he? Down in the locker room, bragging about their prowess, he wouldn't have said anything about having a "kept woman," would he?

It would explain the amused friendliness of the players.

"Daphne, I think we should go."

"What? You've got to be kidding. This is great! And look, there goes Russ!"

Emma watched as he went out the gate and joined the play on the ice. Perhaps she'd stay for a minute more. She'd only seen snippets of hockey on TV and never been to a live game. They seemed to be wearing a pile of gear, and when they skated full speed she wondered at the strength and endurance it must take. Sticks slapped and the puck glided and she had no clue what was going on; she couldn't even tell where the puck was half the time. Russ was equally as hard to keep track of: the number of his jersey-12-wasn't always visible. Players changed in and out of the box, whis- ties blew for penalties she hadn't seen, and then suddenly the buzzer went off, stopping all play entirely.

"Do you have any clue what's going on?" Emma asked.

"Not a one."

"I think I've seen enough. We should go."

"Aw, come on. Stick it out. He knows you're here; he'll think it's weird if you bail on him now."

"I'm cold."

"So we'll get some hot chocolate out of the vending machines."

"Daphne-"

"What?"

"I-"

"What?"

"I don't know what Russ might have said about me. You know, locker-room talk. Everyone seemed a little too amused to see me."

Daphne frowned. "You think they know that you're fuck buddies?"

"Don't call it that! But yeah, I'm afraid they might know."

"Is Russ that kind of guy? One who would talk about it?"

Emma shrugged. "I don't really know. I don't think he would, but I don't know him beyond our nights together. I mean, people can be completely different in different situations, can't they?"

"Especially with sex as an incentive to be sweet, yeah." Daphne chewed her lip as the game restarted below. "Okay, here's what I think: your best bet is to stay here and meet those guys after they come out of the locker room."

"No! Absolutely not!" Emma's face flushed with heat, her stomach sinking.

"Hear me out. Right now, you're just a story they heard. Assuming they heard anything at all, and aren't just being friendly because they're friendly guys and are glad to have two hot babes like us watching their game."

Emma snorted.

"Hey, we're pretty good compared to the competition."

Emma raised a brow, looking pointedly around the empty stands.

"Exactly," Daphne said. "We're the only estrogen in the place. But, if Russ did tell them some sort of crap about you that he should have kept to himself, well, then that means he's not worth keeping. But it also means that if you meet the guys face-to-face and are charming and sweet, they'll like you and turn on Russ for being such a sleaze to you."

"Guys don't do that to each other."

"Sure they do. Some of them." She wrinkled her nose. "Maybe. But the point is, you can do more to save your reputation by meeting them than by slinking away."

"What do I care what my 'reputation' is with a bunch of men I've never met and will never see again?"

"If you don't care, then you shouldn't mind meeting them."

Emma scowled. "It doesn't work that way."

Daphne shrugged. "Then think of it this way: you don't know who those guys are. Russ is a rich entrepreneur. You don't know how many of those guys down there you really might meet again, as you make a name for yourself in architecture. Seattle 's not that big a city, and there could be captains of industry down on that ice-doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers. Do you really want them to remember you as someone's booty on demand? Or do you want them to remember you as that incredibly nice and smart and funny woman that their asshole friend didn't treat as well as he should have?"

Emma thought for a long minute. Daphne was right. She could do more for herself by staying than by leaving. "Dammit."

A moment later number 12 slapped the puck, sending it sailing straight past the goalie and into the net. Emma leapt up and shouted, "Woo hoo! Way to go, Russ!"

He lifted his head at the sound, his mask turning toward her. He raised his stick in acknowledgment as a teammate slapped his back.

"See? You would have missed that!" Daphne said. "Got some quarters? I'll go get us some cocoa."

Emma watched the game, but her mind was wrapped up in the ordeal ahead. She was going to have to put on an Oscar-worthy performance to get through this evening. She would need divine inspiration if she was going to charm two teams of middle-aged hockey players.



Chapter Ten | The Erotic Secrets Of A French Maid | * * *