Shutdown Player

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Chapter 1—Pregame Warmup

Praying had never done Stephanie Clarke any good, but she did it anyway. A girl in her position had to believe in something. She chose to believe in God, even though she wasn’t sure he listened to her prayers anymore.

Or did he?

She needed to concentrate on the positive things in her life instead of dwelling on the negative. After all, he’d sent her friend Vi to rescue her from an abusive boyfriend after said boyfriend wanted her to sell her body. Now she had a second chance at life and maybe someday love. She had a nice place to live. Yes, she had a lot to be thankful for.

One of those things was her job. She loved this new job, and she’d have never gotten it if it hadn’t been for Vi’s connections with the Sockeyes hockey team. Izzy, the team captain’s wife, had offered her a place to stay and a job with her party-crashing business. Steph was being paid to “crash” parties and make sure everyone was having a good time. Sometimes she’d spend time talking to an older person sitting alone in a corner. Other times, she’d convince a reluctant partygoer to dance. Steph had fun—good, pure fun. Izzy’s sisters and other employees attended, so she was never the sole party crasher and always had backup. Her new role forced her to step outside her comfort zone, because she leaned toward the shy spectrum on the social scale, but all in all, the new job was good for her.

Tonight was a charity gala sponsored by the Sockeyes. Steph wasn’t known to any of the players other than Cooper, the captain, and Vi’s fiancé Matt, so she’d been tagged to work this party. For the past thirty minutes, she’d been sitting with Agnes, an ancient society matron, listening to her woes regarding finding an appropriate dog groomer for her beloved poodle.

Agnes reached out a bony hand and squeezed Steph’s shoulder. Her blue eyes held a twinkle that belied their age. She lifted the scotch to her painted lips, took an unladylike swig, then belched. Several heads turned in her direction. She winked at Steph. “At my age, you don’t care what others think.”

Steph laughed, honestly enjoying this woman’s company. But she’d always been more comfortable with older people than those her own age. Growing up, she’d often helped her pastor father take care packages to the shut-ins or visit nursing homes. She could sit for hours and listen to their tales and felt profound sadness that their own families didn’t take the time to hear their stories.

“What about you, dearie? What is such a sweet, beautiful young woman like you doing here without a date?”

Steph blushed and ducked her head. She hated compliments. Vi told her to accept them graciously and get over feeling as if she didn’t deserve them. But she didn’t. Steph was a bad person. Or, at the least, a weak-willed one, and she couldn’t shake the inadequacy born of years of emotional programming.

“I just got out of a bad relationship. I’m taking a break.”

“Ah, you came here for the scenery, just like this lecherous old woman.” Agnes giggled and patted Steph’s hand as her keen gaze swept around the room and settled on a group of hockey players sitting several tables away.

Steph laughed. “Are you a hockey fan?”

Agnes made a show of fanning her face. “Who wouldn’t be? I especially love the hard hits against the boards and the fights.”

“I don’t like the violence.”

Agnes snorted. “That’s the allure of the sport.”

“If you say so.”

“I might also own a piece of the team.” She winked, and Steph wasn’t sure if Agnes was pulling her leg. She decided to keep her mouth shut. Judging by the size of the jewelry the woman was wearing, she could afford to own the entire team.

Agnes stared at her so hard that Steph squirmed and fidgeted with her water glass. The older woman reached out to give her a squeeze on the arm, and Steph flinched. She couldn’t help it. Old habits died hard. She lifted her head and met Agnes’s dissecting gaze.

“You’ve just gotten out of a bad relationship. A very bad one. An abusive one.” Her words weren’t a question.

Steph felt the color drain from her face, and a shiver ran down her spine. She nodded slowly. “How did— How could you know?” Did she have abused woman written all over her or something?

“I know things. It’s a gift at times and a curse at others.” Agnes shrugged, as if her abilities were nothing unusual. “You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

“I hope so.”

“You’re doing a good job tonight.”

“You know what my job is?” This woman should be creeping her out, but for some reason, Steph trusted her, and she trusted very few people.

“Absolutely. I’ve hired Izzy’s company for a few parties myself.”

“Am I that transparent?”

“Oh, hell no. I’m that good.” Agnes snickered and took another long gulp of her scotch. She reached into her small clutch purse and pulled out a business card. “I like you. I could use a personal assistant to run errands, take care of correspondence, help with my business, things like that. Would you be interested?”

“What’s your business?” Steph couldn’t imagine this society matron doing much beyond bridge games, tea at the country club, and attending the opera—if Seattle had an opera. Steph wouldn’t have a clue.

“I’m a matchmaker.” Agnes paused, as if waiting for this bit of news to sink in.

“A matchmaker?”

“Yes, but only for a select few. It’s a hobby of mine because I have a talent for weeding out the gold-diggers and finding good, sincere people who’ll make honest matches for my lonely millionaires and billionaires. Seattle is overrun with nice-guy nerds unsuccessfully looking for a life partner.” She pointed at a couple dancing close and staring into each other’s eyes as if no one else existed. “They’re one of my matches from ten years ago.”

“Wow. They look like they’re still in love.”

“Of course, they are. I do forever matches, just like me and my Walter. God rest his soul.” The profound sorrow in Agnes’s eyes at the mention of her dearly departed tugged at Steph’s heart, yet Agnes recovered quickly. “You’ll do fine. I’ve been looking for someone like you.”

“But you know nothing about me.”

“I know enough. I know you’re honest and a hard worker. I know you’re not looking for a man, which is a huge plus. My last two assistants were on the hunt and stalked my millionaires. Not good for business, as you can imagine.”

“I can.”

“Are you interested?”

Steph tamped down her excitement. “Yes. I am.” She smiled broadly. God had dropped an opportunity into her lap she couldn’t pass up, since they were few and far between.

“I can be difficult.”

“I’m good with difficult people.”

“I expect one hundred percent nondisclosure.”

“Not a problem. I’ll keep my lips sealed.”

“I won’t tolerate any hanky-panky with my clients unless I bless such behavior.” Agnes winked as if sharing some private joke with Steph, only Steph wasn’t in on the joke.

“Never happen.”

Agnes pressed the card into Steph’s hand. “Call me on Monday.”

“I will.”

“Now, you’d best get back to your job. I’ve seen Izzy glance over here a few times.” Agnes surveyed the room. Her eyes zeroed in on someone, and Steph followed her gaze. “Now there’s one for you. Mosey over to that handsome boy and cheer him up.”

Steph swallowed. She knew who that handsome boy was. Jared “Hot Rod” Roderick. Insanely gorgeous and talented on the ice. The man in question was way out of her league. Beyond drop-dead gorgeous, with the strong, silent, brooding thing going for him. Steph had had all she wanted of brooding men. Usually their attitude hid more than brooding. She should know.

“He looks like he wants to be left alone.”

Agnes cocked a brow. “Honey, if you left him alone, you wouldn’t be doing your job, would you? Now go make him smile.”

Before Steph could react, Cooper approached and bowed low, holding out his hand to Agnes. “Miss Agnes, would you do me the honor?”

Agnes morphed from a cranky, mysterious old woman to a giggly teenager. “Why, I’d love to.”

Cooper grinned. He nodded at Steph and took Agnes’s hand. The couple glided to the dance floor. Steph stood, walked to the bar for a glass of ice water, and steeled herself. She could do this. She’d done it a dozen times to date. Not a big deal. Just talk to the guy. Try to make him smile.

But when she turned around, he was gone.

 

* * * *

 

Marriage had changed Jared.

And not in a good way.

Up until a year or so ago, he’d lived a fucking charmed life. Then it all fell to shit.

He’d spent the entire off-season cleaning up the mess, trying to recover and move on. Candy had done a number on him, one he wouldn’t forget anytime soon.

Finally, he had hockey back to take his mind off his problems. The first puck of the regular season had dropped on a rainy, windy October day in Seattle, and it was game on. Nothing mattered but hockey. This was the Sockeyes’ year. After a disappointing finish last year, they’d refocused and come out fighting. Especially Jared. He wanted a shot at the Cup.

Through the first few weeks of October, the Sockeyes were at top of the West standings in points and in games won, at seven and three. They’d lost to the Islanders last night and would play the Rangers on Thursday night after having tonight off in New York City.

The long and grueling hockey season was just beginning, but so far, so good. Jared wished he could say the same about his personal life.

Jared glanced up as his teammate, Drew “Deli” Delacorte, pulled a chair next to him in the hotel bar where the team had commandeered a large table.

Jared poured himself a beer from a pitcher on the table and slumped in his seat. He nursed his first, his second, and wondered if getting drunk would make him feel better. But then he’d have to deal with a lecture by team captain Cooper Black, and he avoided such lectures at all costs. Coop might be a controlling asshole, but he genuinely cared about the team, which scored points in Jared’s book.

In another life, before his disastrous marriage, he would’ve been scanning the sparsely populated bar for eligible females and plotting his next move, much like teammates Ziggy and Rush. They’d pushed some tables against the wall to clear space for a makeshift dance floor and had cajoled a couple of flight attendants to join them. Rush, who danced like a refugee from the seventies, was doing some God-awful imitation of dirty dancing to the disco music blaring on a jukebox. Ziggy, not to be outdone, started the Electric Slide. Jared rolled his eyes, not sure if he was jealous or embarrassed. A few years ago, he’d have been in the thick of things. Now he was sidelined with no interest in getting back into the game.

The music ended, and the flight attendants, seeing an opening to escape, waved goodbye and hurried out the door.

Frowning, Ziggy and Rush shuffled back to the table.

“Struck out, didn’t ya?” Cedric Pedersen, a.k.a. Smooth, grinned at his teammates. “Didn’t I teach you boys anything?” Smooth had once been the biggest manwhore on the team until he’d become a dedicated one-woman man. Now he was disgustingly in love and talking dirty on the phone to Bella every chance he got.

Ziggy and Rush ignored Smooth and claimed a few empty seats across from Jared.

“Hey, you’re single now, Hot Rod,” Ziggy—whose real name was Gage Ziegler—said, stating the obvious. The entire team knew the sordid details of Jared’s divorce, much to his dismay.

“Well, duh.” Jared rolled his eyes. Had he been that much of a moron when he’d been a rookie? Yeah, probably worse.

Coop narrowed his eyes and glowered from the other end of the table. The team captain could sniff trouble from an ice rink away.

Ziggy lowered his voice. “Wanna party with Rush and I?”

Jared considered his options. He hadn’t partied with the guys since his wedding, not like he once did. Jared and Alexander “Rush” Markov had gotten in their share of trouble. The guys would probably go to a club, dance, and pick out a female—or multiple females—to sneak into their hotel room.

Jared wished he could muster up the interest in a night of debauchery, but he couldn’t. Besides, such nights were expensive, and he was on a tight budget. His bank account had sunk to a new low this month, and he honestly couldn’t afford an expensive night out. He was broke and not proud of it. In fact, he was embarrassed as hell. A guy who made the money he did shouldn’t be looking at a three-digit bank balance.

He shook his head. “Sorry, I have other plans.”

“Plans? What kind of plans?” Ziggy studied Jared skeptically.

“Vhat plans top barely dressed females looking to fuck hockey players?” Rush scratched his head, his dark brows drawn together in confusion.

“He promised to play pool with us.” Matt stood behind Jared. “He kicked my ass last time. I’m looking to even the score.”

Jared kept his face expressionless. “Yeah, he wants another beating. LuLu’s a glutton for punishment.”

Ziggy narrowed his eyes and looked from one to the other. Finally, he shrugged and waved at Rush, now standing impatiently near the doorway of the hotel bar. “I’m outta here. Don’t wait up for us.”

“I’m not bailing you poor bastards out of jail,” Smooth shouted after them.

And they were gone, ignoring the chastising glare Coop cast at their backs. Good thing the guy wasn’t carrying a knife. He’d have nailed them right between the shoulder blades.

“Hey, thanks for rescuing me,” Jared said. “I’m not much for partying anymore.”

“Not a problem,” Matt said. “But I’ll hold you to that game of pool. There’s a sports bar across the street.”

Matt tossed a hundred on the table and they walked across the street flanked by several of the married guys, including Coop, Ice, Smooth, and Brick—reformed partiers, all of them. Oh, how things had changed in the past couple years.

Matt racked the balls while Smooth grabbed a high table nearby, and Brick ordered a couple pitchers of beer. Jared broke and didn’t manage to get one ball into a pocket. He leaned against the table and watched Matt systematically pick off the striped balls. The bastard was going to run the table.

The guys were chuckling and giving him shit about his pool prowess—or lack thereof.

Jared laughed. He didn’t care. He was having a decent time and not spending his last penny at a nightclub with music throbbing so loud that a guy could get a concussion just from being in the same room as the speakers.

Matt did run the table and kick his ass. Smooth stepped up and challenged Matt to the next game. Jared slid into the seat Smooth had vacated between Ice and Coop. Ice wandered away to talk on the phone, most likely to Avery.

Coop took a long pull on his beer and set it on the table. “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” Jared said.

“Right.”

Jared managed a grin, reading more into his captain’s seemingly casual remark. “Don’t worry. I’m being cautious.”

“Good.” Coop rubbed his chin thoughtfully and nodded. “You need to listen to your heart and your head. Not fall into the wrong kind of relationship just because you’re lonely.”

Jared bit back a retort. Coop was right. He was lonely, painfully so. He’d outgrown partying and casual sex. He wanted something more. He’d had a taste of monogamy, and as sour as it’d been at the end, he missed those few good months when everything had been the picture of domestic bliss.

“I know what I want, and I won’t settle for less.”

“Sometimes what you think you want and what you need aren’t the same.”

“I did the need thing and got screwed over.” More than his buddies would ever know, from his emaciated bank account to his decimated ego. “I like being part of a couple, but I’m gun-shy.”

“Understandable.” Coop’s expression was unreadable, as usual, but something about this conversation seemed off, even though Jared couldn’t put his finger on it. The team captain rarely gave personal advice unless a guy’s behavior affected his performance on the ice. For the most part, Jared’s play remained solid, even through the worst of the divorce.

“It’s hard to find women with good intentions. I want what you have with Izzy. It’s so damn hard to find a good woman. I don’t know where to start.”

Coop nodded and almost smiled. “Have you considered a private matchmaking service where they make sure their clients’ matches are thoroughly checked out first?”

“No.” Jared snorted, finding the idea ridiculous.

“Hey, don’t be so quick to dismiss it. I’ve heard they can be pretty successful. In fact…” Coop leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Garrett Calhoun found his fiancée through there.”

“Brenda?” Jared was flabbergasted. He’d met the GM’s fiancée multiple times and admired her knowledge of hockey and her direct, honest attitude.

“Yeah, but you didn’t hear it from me. Mina recommended the service to him. It’s run by Ethan’s great-aunts.”

“Seriously?” Mina was team owner Ethan’s assistant, and older than dirt, with the demeanor of a drill sergeant. Most of the team was afraid of her, and the great-aunts owned a small piece of the team. All the guys knew them. They were odd but entertaining.

“Go figure. Think about it. Might be a good way to meet the right woman without falling prey to the wrong one again.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Jared couldn’t afford an expensive matchmaker, yet the idea did intrigue him. He’d been striking out on his own.

After watching a few episodes of a matchmaker reality show, he’d wondered how that worked. Matchmakers for celebrities and professionals probably didn’t come cheap, and the cost could be a deal breaker.

Coop pulled out his wallet and handed a slightly crumpled card to Jared. “Just so happens I have a gift certificate for their services.”

Shit. Was the guy a mind reader? “They have gift certificates for something like that?”

“Guess so.” Coop shrugged. “They specifically mentioned you when they gave it to me.”

“They did?”

Coop grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I guess Agnes saw you at the gala last week and was concerned about you.”

Jared would’ve crawled into a hole if one had been readily available. How many other people in his life were scheming to rectify his sad state of affairs? Thank God his mother didn’t know too many details about his personal and financial life, or there’d be no peace for him.

Jared turned the business card over in his hand. Scrawled in a shaky script were the words: Good for one forever match.

The proverbial gift horse had just been plunked in his lap. Who was he to question his good luck? He had nothing to lose, and everything to gain.