Faceoff

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Prologue

~~Darcy~~ I hated being called into my producer’s office. It brought back not-so-fond memories of sitting in my social worker’s office. The woman was harried and overworked, but she did the best she could as I was moved from foster home to foster home through no fault of my own. “Sit down, Darcy.” Sondra Greenburg eyed me over the rims of her reading glasses. She frowned, which meant nothing. She was perpetually pissed about something. Nothing on the set of the reality show met her high standards, including me. I sat down and primly clasped my hands in my lap, waiting for the bad news, and it was always bad news. “You’re aware the ratings for Designs on You tanked last year after an incredible first year. Everyone loves the underdog, but after a while, even being the underdog becomes boring without a little spice to create interest.” My heart sank to the tips of my in-need-of-a-pedicure toes. This show was my livelihood, my bread and butter, the only thing I appeared to be good at after a round of failed career and personal choices. “But”—I searched my muddled brain for the right words—“I’m doing everything I can.” “That first year we rode on the coattails of your popularity on Looking for Love. Everyone was rooting for you. Last year, those coattails didn’t exist.” I’d been working at an LA design firm as an intern when I’d been invited to be on Looking for Love, one of those shows where a single guy meets a dozen single women, dates them in exotic locations, and in a ridiculously short amount of time, proposes to one. The first time around, I’d been the runner-up, while the bachelor picked the mean girl, much to the audience’s dismay. I’d been invited back, fallen for the guy, and was certain he felt the same way. Once again, I was left with a broken heart and no guy. By then, I’d amassed a cult following. Sondra, the assistant producer, proposed the idea for my new show. “I don’t know what to do.” I was in over my head. I’d never planned on being a reality star. My first love was interior design. This show was to allow me to do both, but nothing ever works out like it should. At least not in my life. “Lucky for you, I do.” Sondra sat back in her chair, removed her glasses, and folded them. She studied me for several seconds. “The show has grown stale and boring. Viewers want drama, not all sweetness and nice.” “But I’m not a drama-prone person.” “That’s not your thing. Nor do I want it to be. I need to create more drama around you. I’ve failed to do that. I relied on the conflict coming from competition with other designers for jobs and didn’t focus enough on the personal aspect of the show.” Her eyes glinted with determination, and I held my breath, fearing what might come next. “We’re a design show,” I reminded her. I’d resisted her efforts to make this show more about me and less about design. “There are tons of home improvement shows that focus on improvement over personal dynamics. We’re shifting focus. Viewers don’t care about your designs. They care about you.” That stung, but I kept a stiff upper lip and never let her see how much her words hurt. Most of the designs weren’t even mine. They were done by various designers in the area and presented as mine with their permission, one fact about the show that I hated. Sondra had never trusted me enough to allow me to do the designs after what she considered my first few failed attempts. Talk about a blow to the ego. “I want the show to focus on my designs. I was going to talk with you about that. I want to do all the designing from now on.” Sondra shook her head as if confronting a clueless child. “That’s not where we need to focus. I’ve spoken with the network. They’re not renewing for another season unless something changes.” “Oh, no.” I held my hands up to my mouth to stop the sob from escaping my throat. This could not happen. I didn’t have a backup plan, nowhere to go, nothing to do. Sondra’s smile turned calculating as she sized me up. The woman was ruthless and ambitious. I was no match for her. “There is a chance.” “What kind of chance?” I sat forward, my despair creeping toward tentative hope. “I had a brilliant idea, and the network agreed to renew for another six episodes as long as you’re willing.” “What is it?” I asked warily. “You need a hot, bad-boy boyfriend to amp up the drama.” “I don’t have a hot, bad-boy boyfriend.” “Ah, but you will. My dad’s a sports agent, and we have a plan. The majority of his clients are hot bad boys. You’ll have a boyfriend, and if things go as planned, we’ll do a fake engagement. Leave the details to us.” “Engagement?” I was horrified. “Don’t look so shocked. It’s all fake. Just for this season.” “I don’t know if I can fake something like that. What about being in love?” “Seriously, after all you’ve been through, you have to ask me that? Honey, my advice to you is don’t fall for this one.” “I’m not good at keeping my emotions out of these situations.” Case in point, both dating shows where I fell for the guy, and he didn’t fall for me. I doubted my fragile heart would be able to handle one more such rejection. “You have two choices, find a new source of income or accept my terms to keep the show on the air. Which will it be?” “I’ll do it.” I uttered the words that sealed my fate for the next several months.

Chapter 1–Bail Money

~~Gage~~ My days with the Seattle Sockeyes were numbered, even though those numbers were within my personal sphere of control. But so far, I didn’t have the discipline needed to exert control over my bad behavior. Even worse, my floundering career was the least of my problems. Hockey was usually my number-one priority, but not lately and definitely not today. My phone had been blowing up with texts and messages from various relatives for the past few days, each one more demanding and desperate for another handout from yours truly. My kitchen counter was littered with bills, and the landlord was ready to evict my ass. My money woes hadn’t stopped me from celebrating New Year’s Eve with an epic night of partying, leaving my head pounding and my stomach queasy. As I pulled my ancient Honda into the deserted parking lot across from my agent’s office, my phone rang. I looked at the display and sighed. My mother. Again. If I didn’t answer, the grief and guilt trips would be unbearable. Best to get it over with and take my licks like a man. “Hi, Mom,” I answered with forced cheerfulness, as if my world weren’t imploding exponentially as every minute passed. “Gage, I’ve been worried sick about you. I didn’t know if you’d gotten in a car wreck or were lying drunk and bleeding in a ditch somewhere.” “Thanks, Mom, for the vote of confidence.” “Like you’ve given me any reason to think otherwise?” Leave it to my mom to stab the knife in deeply and swiftly. I didn’t respond, because she was right. “I have a meeting. Can we make this quick?” “My house is being foreclosed on. I thought you were going to take care of it? Where am I supposed to live? You know I can’t work. I’m disabled, and I’m too old to stand on my feet all day.” “You’re not even fifty,” I pointed out. “It’s not the age, it’s the miles. Paying for hockey all these years wasn’t easy. I had to work three jobs, and your dad never helped.” “I know, Mom. I know. I appreciate all you’ve done for me. I’ll take care of the house. I promise.” “Where will your nana go if she gets booted from the retirement home? What about your sister’s business and your cousin’s bail money and—” “Gotta go, Mom. Later.” I hung up the phone before she had a chance to continue her favorite form of entertainment, guilting me into doing stuff I shouldn’t do and could no longer afford. I was late for the meeting as usual, so I scrambled to the front door of the building. It was unlocked, and I hurried down the familiar corridor and into an office at the end of the hall. Al Greenburg, my high-energy, no-bullshit agent, motioned for me to take a seat. My nerdy finance guy, George Glenn, barely acknowledged me. I rubbed my temples, but nothing soothed the jackhammer hard at work inside my skull. With a resigned sigh, I squinted at the two of them, wondering what torture they had in mind for me this time. I blinked my scratchy eyes, but my vision was still blurred from no sleep for the past twenty-four hours. Or was that forty-eight hours? Who the fuck in their right mind worked on New Year’s Day, especially calling a nine a.m. meeting? “What’s so important this couldn’t wait until tomorrow morning?” I groused, cranky as hell and unable to summon my trademark life-of-the-party persona. “Hear Al out.” George didn’t appear to be in much better shape than me. On the other hand, Al, known for his boundless energy, cackled like the evil bastard he was, thoroughly enjoying our displeasure. “It’s not like you’re clueless regarding your financial situation. The money well has dried up. Your shenanigans make it impossible to secure any lucrative endorsements, and you burn through your salary like there’s no tomorrow.” I looked away sheepishly, embarrassed to be in this situation considering the amount of money I made. My mom was about to lose her big house. My grandma wouldn’t be able to stay in her swanky retirement home. My brother’s restaurant wasn’t able to make payroll. The manufacturer of my sister’s candle line refused to produce any more product until she paid her bill, or I did. A few months ago, my expensive sports car had been repossessed. All this was just the tip of my financial iceberg. I looked to George for support, but I wasn’t getting any from him. “You’re in dire straits, boy. Not to mention, your relatives aren’t happy with this turn of events. They’ve been calling me every ten minutes.” As if on cue, George’s phone vibrated, and he held it up so we could read the display. My sister was calling him. “I’m sorry, I’m working on a plan to get everything straightened out.” I’d been saying this for months, and they knew it. I wasn’t good at facing problems head on; I was more of an ostrich. “No, you’re not,” said George, decidedly irritated and justifiably so. “I’ve been hounding you for months, and you’ve done nothing. You can’t have more money going out than you’re taking in. Eventually, your house of cards collapses regardless of what you make.” “Do we really have to discuss this today? Would one more day make that much of a difference?” I rubbed my temples again. My head was pounding. Al pushed a cup of black coffee across the table to me. I gratefully took a long gulp of the crap Al called coffee. I suspected it came out of a gallon tin can and was made of tar and rancid water. “According to your mooching family, we do.” Al didn’t mince words. I opened my mouth to defend my blood but snapped it shut. He knew me, and he knew them. He’d been my agent since I was a promising first-round draft pick. In fact, he’d been a bit of a father figure to me as I didn’t have a real father in my life. George grunted and rose to his feet. Al kept a stocked bar in a cabinet by the window, and he helped himself to some whiskey, which he liberally poured into his coffee. I wanted to do the same. Hair of the dog and all that, but the annoyance on Al’s face effectively held me back. George slouched in his seat and wrapped both hands around his mug, looking like I felt. We’d both rather be home in bed nursing our hangovers. “I have the perfect solution to your money problems, and it’ll feed that attention-craving ego of yours at the same time.” Al grinned with immense satisfaction, like he’d solved world hunger or found the cure for cancer. “What?” Skepticism crept into my voice. Al’s solutions often involved shit I didn’t want to do. Like the time he signed me up to attend dance lessons at the senior hall or the commercial for jock itch. I was still living that one down with the guys. “Your new significant other is a home improvement reality star.” “Huh?” I sat up straighter and glowered grouchily at Al. I wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “I don’t have a significant other.” I had lots of insignificant others in the form of one-night stands and some do-overs. But I didn’t do significant anything unless it was hockey related. Al swiped his knuckles across his chest and cast a smug smile in my direction. “You do now. You can thank me anytime.” “Not until you tell me what’s going on.” “Designs on You. Are you familiar with it?” “The reality show with Darcy? Darcy Engstrom?” I knew of Darcy and the show. Unlike most home improvement series, this one was mostly drama with the home improvement aspect as an afterthought. “Yes. You’ll be making cameo appearances as her new boyfriend and soon-to-be fiancé.” I choked on my coffee and almost spit out a mouthful. I fixated on one word. “Fiancé?” “Yeah, fiancé. It’s perfect. Serves a purpose for both of you. Once the show has run its course, you break up. No big deal.” “You want me to get engaged in order to do a reality show?” “Yeah. You have a problem with that? I never got the impression you’re the romantic type or that marriage was anything sacred to you, not that we’re asking you to go through with the marriage.” His eyes lit up and I braced myself. “Though, actually getting married would add an extra—” “No.” I held up my hands to end that thought. I might hold marriage in disdain, but even I wouldn’t go so far as to marry a woman. I happened to be a fan of her show and her, but she wasn’t exactly what I had in mind as a long-term girlfriend. He was right, though. Marriage didn’t mean a damn thing to me, not after what my dad did to my mom, but still…an engagement seemed extreme. On the other hand, I was an attention slut, and being on a reality show held appeal to me, especially if the money was there. “Playing the part of a boyfriend is one thing, but fiancé? Are you fucking nuts?” “Not at all. You play her boyfriend for a month or so, get a lot of press. Girl next door everybody loves with the bad boy everybody envies. It’s a match made in reality-show heaven.” “The ratings will be through the roof,” George added. “And think of this,” Al continued. “The money won’t get you out of debt, but it’ll hold off your creditors for a while, and the increased visibility will boost your celebrity profile and lead to more sponsorship opportunities.” I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. That rational part of me I usually kept under lock and key was shaking its head, while my attention-slut side counted the benefits. I craved the fame of being a celebrity. While I’d done some photo shoots and bit parts here and there, this was the first big offer to come my way. Yet the entire thing was outrageous and unbelievable and just the thing I’d love to do because I was that kind of guy. Still, I had to know… “Why would Darcy agree to this? What’s in it for her?” “The same thing as you’d get out of it.” I narrowed my gaze, not buying that answer for a second. “And that is?” Al sighed and held out his hands, palms up. “Okay, the truth, but it doesn’t go past this room. I’m close to the producer. The second-season rankings didn’t meet expectations. They’ll cancel the show if she doesn’t date and get engaged to a hot bad boy.” “And I’m the hot bad boy?” “Yeah, you are. You’re perfect for this role.” “No, I’m not. I was photographed last night with three women hanging all over me. And a few days before that and before that and before that. No one is going to believe I’m suddenly her boyfriend.” “That’s the best part. No one needs to believe it. This is all about drama and generating interest. No one will buy it, and that’ll create all kinds of speculation. It’s perfect. In a month or so, you’ll shock everyone and propose.” “And Darcy’s agreed to this?” “She doesn’t have a choice if she wants to save the show.” I scowled. The entire thing was a recipe for disaster, but I loved the idea of furthering my acting career beyond a few underwear and men’s cologne commercials. “How much are they paying?” Al looked to George, who reluctantly pulled his attention away from his drink. “Not a lot, but once we pay your overdue bills, it’ll leave a little for incidentals. You’ll have to cut off the gravy train to your family, but all in all, you’ll be in good shape in a few months or so. That’s the length of the commitment they’re requiring. Your part will be limited to a few minutes every episode. We want to show you in the most positive light to build up interest in your brand. I want sponsors banging on your door, begging you to represent their products.” There was one major problem. “But Darcy… She’s sweet and kind and boring. I watched her both seasons on Looking for Love, and she was the object of all kinds of drama and grief caused by the other contestants.” “That wasn’t because of her.” “Still, she was a doormat. Didn’t defend herself. Like too nice.” “Oh, you mean like you are with your family?” Al stuck in the knife and twisted it. “Fuck you.” I scowled at Al, and he grinned. “And I’ve met her—once—and there was nothing. No sparks. Nothing.” I was lying. I’d been attracted to the understated sexiness of her girl-next-door vibe, but for once, I hadn’t followed through with the attraction. Some things were best left alone. Darcy had risen to fame as second choice on one of those bullshit “find-your-true-love” shows where a single guy picks from a group of females until there’s only one left. They’re supposed to ride off into the sunset together. Darcy made it down to the last two women twice. She was the girl next door everyone loved while they secretly rooted for the mean girl. After that, she’d been cast in Designs on You, a show I happened to obsess over. “Since when is a living, breathing female not your type? “This one isn’t.” I crossed my arms over my chest and put my feet up on his glass-topped coffee table with a belligerent glare. “Better chance to hone your acting skills. People love Darcy. You need a little of that love to extend to you. Especially with your team.” I didn’t doubt that. My stock had nose-dived after I’d been thrown in jail and suspended from the team after a bar fight. I’d been worried about what’d happen at the end of this season and beyond. Portland’s new expansion team loomed on the horizon. If I had a strong showing this year, I might be a hot commodity. I’d planned on staying a Sockeye as long as they’d have me, but the addition of Staples had me questioning my future with the team. Darcy might give the appearance of stability my life sorely lacked. Boring stability. Sounded like great fun. Not. I sighed. “I’ve been partying every night of my pro career. Who’s going to believe I’ve suddenly fallen in love?” “Like I said, no one needs to believe it at first. We’ll call it love at first sight. You guys met months ago and couldn’t forget each other. You’ll hone your acting skills by convincing them you’re in love. Besides, the first episode won’t air for months. By then you’ll be the model doting fiancé.” “Are you kidding me? I don’t dote nor am I a model anything.” “You want good ratings, don’t you? And the money that goes with it?” He had me there. “What about the team? They aren’t going to like this.” “What’s not to like? Their party boy’s wings have been clipped. Real or not, they’ll go along with it to keep you under wraps.” “Wonderful,” I grouched. “They won’t want cameras following me around in the locker room or disrupting practices.” “I’ll take care of the team. We’ll have strict requirements about what they film and how much, and we’ll make sure it doesn’t interfere with your ice time.” I had no doubt he’d take care of any issues the team might have. Al was a used-car salesman the likes of which I’d never seen before. “I need time to think about this. I can’t make this kind of decision without mulling over the pros and cons.” “Look at you. Going deep for once.” Al snorted and George hid his face in his hands. I rolled my eyes, not allowing them to see how insulting their remark was. I’d done this to myself. I’d played the part of the shallow, ever-happy playboy too well, and now I was stuck with it. “Take all the time you need, but my daughter needs an answer by tomorrow morning.” Al glanced impatiently at his phone, tapped out a few messages, and finally gave me his full attention once again. “Your daughter? No one said anything about a daughter.” “Sondra Greenburg is the producer of the show, and my beloved daughter.” “She makes Al look like a nice guy,” George provided helpfully, ignoring Al’s glare. “Wonderful,” I muttered. I rose to my feet. I had to get away from these two and go somewhere I’d be able to think clearly. “Later. It’s been fun, guys.” Their laughter followed me out the door. *** After I left, my buddy Cave texted me to join him for a drink or two or three. I was surprised he was out of bed. It wasn’t even noon yet. I turned him down, much to his surprise and mine. Usually, I was all-in when it came to partying until I passed out, but not today. My problems had caught up with me. I was no longer able to run from my crap or drink it into oblivion. The day of reckoning had come. I loved being the guy my family and friends depended on. Paying back all those who’d helped me over the years before I’d gone pro had been an enormous ego boost. I might’ve enabled those closest to me a little too much. Now my personal gravy train had dried up, and I had no one to blame but myself and my avoidance of using the word no. I drove aimlessly for a few hours and took a long walk on the beach. Walking on a Washington beach in the dead of winter wasn’t for the faint of heart. The biting cold stung my cheeks and seeped into my bones. Eventually, I hustled back to the relative warmth of my car, not sure what to do next. I found myself turning into the parking garage of the SHAC, a.k.a. Sockeyes Hockey Athletic Center. It was New Year’s Day. I doubted anyone would be inside. I glanced around and only saw a few cars in the lot, none of which I recognized. A couple hardworking interns bent on proving themselves would be the only fools working today—except for me. I slipped into the darkened building. Only the nighttime security lights illuminated the long hallway to the locker room. This was a good sign. Most people turned on the lights when they entered, and I breathed a sigh of relief I had the place myself. I flipped on one bank of lights in the locker room as I sat on a bench in front of my locker and pulled on my skates. A few seconds later, I glided along the fresh ice, listening to the comforting swish of my blades while letting the cool air fill my lungs and free my soul. The worries were still there but not as intense. “Gage, fancy meeting you here.” I slammed on the brakes, every muscle in my body tensed. Clenching my fists, I spun to confront the one person on this earth I detested. I got along with everyone and didn’t have enemies, with the exception of this asshole. “What the fuck are you doing here?” “I got traded to your team. Surely you knew that.” “Yeah, I knew.” I put my hands on my hips and glared at Andrew Staples. His mouth kicked upward in a belligerent smile. “I meant what are you doing in this rink right now?” “Just flew into Seattle last night and wanted to get a skate in before I started playing with the team tomorrow night.” I scowled, wondering how the fuck I’d survive this season with my nemesis on the team. “Just stay out of my way,” I growled. “That’s being a good teammate and helping out a hapless rookie.” “You might be a rookie, but you sure as hell aren’t hapless. More like opportunist.” “From you, I’ll take that as a compliment.” I headed toward the opening in the boards to get the hell away from this asshole. He followed me. I spun around, and the dick almost ran into me. “The ice is yours.” I gestured widely to take in the large space. “It’s not big enough for the two of us.” “You can’t avoid me, Gage. I’m on your team now. We’re going to have to deal with each other.” I shrugged. “Just because you’re on my team doesn’t mean we’re best buddies.” He threw back his head and laughed his ass off. Offended, because everything he said and did offended me, I stalked off the ice and down the hallway. Much to my disgust, he was one step behind me. I slammed open the locker room door and sat down to take off my skates. My movements were jerky in my anger. Staples pulled out his wallet and pulled out a wad of cash. “By the way, I hear you’re flat broke.” He waved the money in front of my face. “If you’re extra nice to me, I might float you a loan.” God, I wanted to wipe that smug smile off his obnoxious face. “I’m doing just fine.” “That’s not what your sister Sutton says.” I was going to have words with my sister. She didn’t have the right to tell this guy anything about me. “She’s wrong. I have something in the works. I don’t need your money.” “Like what?” “You’ll see.” He frowned, and I had him there. He wasn’t expecting my answer, but the guy recovered quickly. “You know, you shouldn’t let me get under your skin like you do. A guy not as nice as me would take advantage of your animosity and use it to his advantage.” I looked up at him, hovering over me, and my scowl deepened. “Are you threatening to sabotage my game?” “I’d never do that.” His smirk indicated otherwise. “Watch your back, Gage. You never know what people are thinking or who’s out there willing to settle old scores.” “Fuck you.” He winked at me and grinned broadly, being his usual douche self. I threw my skates into my stall, not bothering to place them neatly, yanked on my shoes, and stood. In his skates, he stood a few inches taller than me, and I hated he had a temporary height advantage. “You might want to follow your own advice.” “No need to. The only guy I have to worry about doesn’t have the guts to do anything.” If I punched the jerk, it’d get back to the team, and I didn’t need any more trouble with management or coaching. A stunt like that would probably be the last straw, as far as the team was concerned. I grabbed my duffle and keys and stalked from the locker room. His taunting laughter followed me out the door. I’d dealt with so many personal problems the past several hours, I’d forgotten the Sockeyes had traded for this asshole. I’d backed myself into a corner. I had to accept the offer regarding the reality show. My partying days were temporarily over. It appeared I had a girlfriend and eventual fiancée.