Body Check
Deirdre Martin

Excerpt

Chapter One

Not many women could boast bossing around a locker room full of buff, naked jocks as part of their job description, but then again, there weren’t many women with a job like Janna MacNeil’s.

A publicist specializing in re-tooling clients’ images as well as damage control, Janna had been hired by Kidco Corporation to help transform the reputation of the New York Blades, the NHL’s Manhattan based hockey franchise. To put it politely, the guys on the team were renowned for playing hard both on and off the ice. Never had this been more obvious than last season, after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in twenty years. Everyone knows boys will be be boys, but these boys brought the Cup to a number of strip joints around Manhattan, where they enjoyed the rare and singular pleasure of watching ladies with pasties and very little else “perform” with what many considered the Holy Grail of Sports. Worse, rumors abounded that a photo existed of a group of players gathered around the Cup with plastic straws up their noses, heads reverently bowed to snort up a small mountain of cocaine. No wonder Janna’s crusty new boss, Lou “The Bull” Capesi, guzzled Mylanta like it was spring water. The team was a PR nightmare.

Janna was being paid big bucks to change all that.

Edging her way through the tight, boisterous cluster of beat writers hovering in the brightly lit, concrete hallway near the locker room door, Janna steeled herself, knowing what awaited her on the other side: naked, sweaty, male bodies. Lots of them. Big, muscled men laughing and joking with each other, flicking towels at each other’s butts. Men sauntering off to the shower. Men stretching, massaging their battle weary bones. Men dressing, eager to get home. She’d met these men—all but their Captain, Ty Gallagher, who was a day late to training camp—in these very circumstances yesterday. Lou had introduced her around, and not one of them seemed fazed about parading buck naked or half undressed in front of a petite female publicist. Janna, on the other hand, had had to work hard to avoid the irresistible urge to stare, slack jawed and salivating, at these guys’ well sculpted physiques. She made doubly sure she kept her eyes north of the equator, too.

Once inside the locker room, the same scene she’d been initiated into yesterday greeted her. Some of the players lounged on the long wooden benches in front of their lockers, chatting, half dressed. Others stood at a large, rectangular table at the far end of the room, gulping down mammoth sized glasses of Gatorade they’d poured from huge jugs. A few of the guys acknowledged her with nods; some, she thought, deliberately looked away. A boom box blasted music. The Who? Pearl Jam? She couldn’t tell. The atmosphere was exuberant, almost adolescent in its giddiness. Though it was September, still pre-season, the Blades were clearly psyched about making another run for the Stanley Cup in the year ahead. She took a deep breath, trying hard to ignore the pungent odor of male sweat that was inescapable, and made for the bench closest to the center of the room, climbing up on it. Then, with all the power she could muster, she stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled. The room fell silent as all eyes trained on her.

“Listen up guys: now that I have your attention, I need your help.” She looked around the room, carefully making eye contact with each and every player. “As you know, the Blades organization was recently purchased by Kidco Corporation, which prides itself on providing family entertainment.” Boos and amused chuckles filled the room. “Kidco wants the Blades to be winners both on and off the ice, meaning they’d like each of you to give a little something back to the community you play in.” She held the papers in her hand aloft. “This is a schedule of charity events going on all over the city over the course of the next year. I’ve highlighted those that don’t conflict with your playing and travel schedule. I’d like each of you to sign up for at least three.”

“And if we don’t?” a rogue Canadian voice challenged.

“If you don’t then I kick your butt, and believe me, I can do it. I might be small, but I’m wiry.” The players laughed appreciatively, and Janna relaxed somewhat. None of them could tell, but beneath her tailored suit she was a bundle of stomach-churning nerves, something she was a pro at covering after years of practice.

"Speaking of buttkicking, I just want to remind you that no one is to talk to the press without clearance from the PR office, understand? I don't care if some reporter stops you outside Zabar's and ask if that's where you shop for groceries. Everything—everything—has to go through me or Lou. Not only that, but if God forbid you do find yourself saying or doing something stupid, you're to call me immediately. That's why I gave all of you my cell phone number yesterday. I expect you to use it, day or night, if you have a question about something or if an emergency arises. Now, back to the business at hand." She flashed them a quick, determined look. “Signing up for three events now will save you the aggravation of me following you around and nagging you to death for the rest of the season—which I’m paid very handsomely to do.” More laughter. “So whaddaya say?”

She didn’t expect them to come forward in droves, but she was hoping a few might be willing to get the ball rolling. Instead, a stubborn silence filled the room. One second passed. Two, three. Janna’s heart began beating just a little bit faster, her palms moistening. She took a deep breath, steadying herself. You can do this, she repeated in her mind. As the silence dragged on, she wondered if this was how comedians felt when they “died” on stage.

“Come on, guys, don't make this any harder than it needs to be,” she coaxed. “Either you sign up, or I start putting your names down at random. The choice is yours."

She watched as their collective gaze suddenly shifted from studying her to something on her left that was apparently fascinating. She looked: there stood Captain Ty Gallagher, a white towel knotted at his waist, his rock solid body still glistening with damp from the shower. His blonde hair was slicked back, and his deep-set, brown eyes were hard and not welcoming. Feeling Lilliputian, despite still standing on the bench, Janna struggled not to let herself become overwhelmed by the nausea gathering force and momentum inside her. She smiled at him politely.

“Captain Gallagher, I presume.”

“The one and only.” The voice was polite but guarded, giving away nothing. Janna gingerly climbed down from the bench and extended her hand to him. Gallagher took it, briefly, for a very firm shake. Her hand grasped in his looked doll sized; the thought flashed through her mind that with one quick squeeze he could easily ground her bones to powder if he wanted to. Which, thankfully, he didn’t. Yet.

“I’m Janna MacNeil.”

“I know who you are.” He folded his strong arms across his chest and continued staring at her, challenging, expectant.

“I was just telling your teammates that as part of our effort to improve community relations, Kidco Corporation would like it if every player signed up for at least three charity events. Maybe you could lead the way and sign up first.”

“No.”

Janna blinked. “But—”

No.” He strode towards his locker and began dressing. She’d heard from Lou that he was an arrogant, uncooperative bastard. Here was her proof. Determined to play his dismissal down, she turned back to the players.

"Moving right along," she continued smoothly, "is there anyone who would care to sign up?"

“I’ll sign up,” a voice called out from the back.

Relieved, Janna stood on tiptoes and peered over the sea of heads to see who had spoken. It was brawny, curly haired Kevin Gill, one of the team’s assistant captains. Janna had met him yesterday and had been utterly charmed by how...well, how articulate he was. Truth be told, she hadn’t been anticipating too much in the brains department when it came to dealing with these guys. They were hockey players, after all. They made a living chasing a little rubber biscuit around an ice rink. How smart could they be?

Kevin came forward, took Janna’s list from her, and after skimming it, signed his initials next to three events. “Who’s next?” he asked. Janna noticed that he shot Ty Gallagher an annoyed glance, which the captain responded to with an indifferent shrug. When no one moved, Kevin sighed.

“I tried,” he said to Janna, heading off in the direction of the shower. Clearly, the guys on the team took their cues from beloved leader. If the great Ty Gallagher didn’t think signing up for charity events was worth it, neither did they. God help me, Janna thought. It was going to take a lot more work to polish these guys up than she’d anticipated. Especially if she had to work through Captain Gallagher to do it.

“Well,” Janna called out to no one in particular, “if you don’t sign up today, I’ll be here tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, until you do sign. I’m not going anywhere, guys.”

Her threat hanging in the air, she found herself approached by the Russian prodigy, Alexei Lubov, which surprised her. Lou had warned her that many of the foreign players were hesitant about doing PR, because they were unsure about their command of English. They had great trepidation about involving themselves in anything that might embarrass them. Lubov was obviously an exception to the rule.

“Hello,” he said carefully in a heavy accent, his innocent baby face serious. “I am Alexei Lubov. You will call me Lex.”

Lex? Janna thought, biting her lip. Lex Lubov? Who was he, one of Superman’s archenemies?

“Hello, Lex,” Janna said cordially. “Nice to meet you.”

He gestured at her sign up sheet. “I wish to sign.”

“Do you have any idea what kind of events you prefer to be involved with?”

“Girls,” he declared, his baby blue eyes lighting up. “Something with many, many girls.”

Janna laughed. “There are usually women at all of them. Do you want to participate in a golf outing? A black tie dinner?”

“Yes, dinner.” He leaned closer to her, as if he were about to impart a secret. “You will be there, yes?”

“Yes.”

“You would like to go out with me?”

It took Janna a moment to realize that what he had meant to say was, “Would you like to go out with me?” At least, she hoped that’s what he meant. She patted his arm. “Maybe some other time. But for now, I have work to do.”

“Yes, all right,” he said somewhat impatiently, and walked off. He was adorably cute. And God knows Kidco was confident he was destined for stardom. But he seemed a bit... boyish. Definitely not her type. And his name! Lex Lubov! She couldn’t wait to tell her roommate Theresa that one.

Things began to wind down, and the locker room started emptying out, players departing in groups of two and three. Out of the corner of her eye, Janna caught sight of Ty Gallagher, now dressed, swinging his gym bag onto his shoulder. He donned sunglasses and was about to leave when Janna approached him.

“May I speak with you a minute?”

Lowering his sunglasses ever so slightly, Ty peered down at her with an irritated gaze. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well, it’s this.” She took a deep breath, collecting her thoughts. “Since you’re the team’s Captain, I ’ll be honest with you: I’ve been hired to help make over the team’s image. “

“We don’t need a make over.”

“That’s debatable. Kidco Corporation—who now owns the team, as you know—were less than pleased with how you guys behaved when you won the Cup last year.”

Ty suppressed a smirk. “We shared the Cup with the City. What’s wrong with that?”

“You brought it to strip clubs.” Janna saw immediately that she’d hit a nerve—the wrong one. The chiseled features of his handsome face stiffened, and she got the distinct impression that he was struggling to keep his infamous temper in check, a temper that once supposedly drove him to threaten to push a player off a moving bus if the guy didn’t improve his game. She waited, held deep in the prolonged freeze of what was now, unmistakably, a glare.

“Let me explain something to you, Miss MacNeil.” His voice was a low rumble, carefully controlled. “Last year, my guys busted their asses out there on the ice night after night, and for one reason: they wanted to win the Cup. When they did win, it was their right to do whatever the hell they wanted with it, whether it was take it to a strip club or let their dog eat Alpo from it. You understand?”

“How about snorting cocaine from it? “ Janna asked sharply. “Were they free to do that?”

“That story is bull and you know it.”

“I don’t know it, and neither does Kidco. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. What matters is that a rumor like that hurts the team’s image. It’s unacceptable.”

“And so your job is to—what? Turn us into choirboys?”

“Kidco doesn’t expect the players to go home at night and bake cookies, no. But they do expect all of you to give a few hours to do some good old fashioned PR to help offset the party animal image dogging the team.”

“No offense, but none of the guys on this team–especially me—owe Kidco anything.”

Janna chuckled, almost a snort. “Oh, really? Who do you think signs your checks now? Who do you think pays that mega salary that makes it possible for you to squire models around? Kidco owns the Blades, which means they own you, whether you like or not.”

Now it was Ty’s turn to laugh, and it was a contemptuous one. “If it wasn’t for me, all those soft boys in their suits wouldn’t know who the hell the New York Blades were. The only reason they bought the team was because we won the Cup, and the only reason we won the Cup is because I was brought to New York specifically to turn this club back into a winning franchise—which I did. So don’t tell me I owe them. I already did my part for the Suits upstairs.”

Momentarily stunned into silence by his colossal ego, Janna merely blinked in reply. She stared up into his rugged face, which bore small, tell tale marks of how he made his living—a tiny scar beneath the chin, another across the bridge of his nose—and then shook her head incredulously. “You don’t get it, do you? Kidco Corporation has very deep pockets, Captain. Their money could buy the best talent out there come trade time. But there’s no way they’re going to shell out to build a team that embarrasses them off of the ice. My suggestion to you is that if you want to keep winning Stanley Cups, you’d be wise to play it their way.”

The icy glare returned. “Are you threatening me?”

“I’m giving you the lay of the land. Your teammates clearly respect you, to the point of asking ‘How high?’ if you ask them to jump. You do PR and the rest of the guys will follow suit. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”

“Yeah? Well, I do.” He pushed his sunglasses back up so his eyes were once again obscured. “Do me a favor, will you? Tell Kidco to take their ‘involvement in the community’ and shove it. If I feel like doing a good deed, I will. But in the meantime, my humanitarianism isn’t a commodity. You got that?”

“Got it,” Janna replied tersely. Against her will, the nausea she’d been keeping at bay began bubbling in the back of her throat.

“Good. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

“You, too,” Janna returned through gritted teeth as he strode past her. She waited until she couldn’t hear his footsteps echoing anymore through the empty concrete hallway. Then, gathering up her papers, she hustled briskly out of the locker room and slammed through the door of the nearest Ladies Room. Quite unceremoniously and with a force that frightened her, she threw up her breakfast.

*

The sheer obstinance! Driving back to Manhattan, Janna mulled over Ty Gallagher. Here she’d been honest with him—downright confiding—and instead of being grateful, he’d behaved like the rich, pampered primadonna he no doubt was. She had clued him in as to how things worked, and he told her to stuff it! This didn’t exactly surprise her; but she wished she’d handled the situation a bit better. She hadn’t meant to let the discussion devolve into a confrontation, but it had. Now she’d have to work twice as hard to get the team Captain to cooperate. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

Well, at least she had fought the sickening insecurity that had flooded her long enough not to have thrown up at his feet. Or on them. On the outside, she knew, she was the picture of confidence and capability. But on the inside, well…she was a hardcore believer in the old adage, “If you can’t make it, fake it.” In her mind, she’d spent her entire waking life faking all of it—intelligence, poise, ability—and so far, it seemed to work. Sooner or later, though, she feared someone was going to figure out the truth about her and the jig would be up.

She sighed, as her thoughts wandered to times when the inner Janna had overwhelmed the outer, and she’d wound up saying or doing something stupid... she winced remembering the time she asked an older actor if his wife was his granddaughter… But usually, she reminded herself, she was able to keep her inner insecurity at bay. She had learned, too, that insecurity could be harnessed towards a productive end. It provided her with raw, nervous energy— energy she used to work harder and reach further. It also gave her drive—the drive that had gotten her where she was today.

For two years, she’d been a publicist for the top rated ABC soap, The Wild and The Free. When she’d first arrived, she’d been the low flak on the totem pole, writing bios of the fresh faced newcomers who’d been hired on the basis of looks alone and who, when asked who their heroes were, would name an MTV VJ. But eventually, she found she excelled at the art of spin. An actor found with a hooker in his dressing room? Let Janna handle it— she’ll finesse it with the fans and press. One of the newly hired bumpkins say something out of line in an interview? Let Janna handle it— she’ll teach him how to say, “This is off the record” or “No comment.”

She was good at it. So good, in fact, that when the spoiled, rambunctious twenty-something cast of the network’s highly rated nighttime soap, Gotham, started crashing cars and dancing on bars with no panties on, Janna was plucked from the network’s daytime division and put in charge of revamping their image. It wasn’t easy, but she did it, and kept on doing it for five lucrative years, until one day the phone rang and it was Lou Capesi, head of PR for the New York Blades, on the other end.

She knew why he was calling. Like everyone else in New York, she’d heard about the Stanley Cup shenanigans of the previous spring. Lou Capesi needed her, especially now that the team was a property of Kidco, who prided themselves on being unabashedly G-rated. She wasn’t a sports fan at all— was a bit of a snob about it, really—but hockey she could tolerate, having caught some of her little brother Wills’s games. Lou, on the other hand, clearly adored it.

“In the beginning, God created hockey, ya understand?” he garbled through a pastrami sandwich the first time they met. Sitting on the opposite side of the desk from this passionate, hyperactive troll in his plush office, replete with matching black leather couches and walls crammed with pictures of himself with some of the greatest hockey players in the world, Janna was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed. Here was a man renowned for his PR prowess in the world of sports. Yet he talked with his mouth full, cursed like a trooper, and appeared to be unaware that calling a woman “Doll” could land him in court. With his big, fat belly and perpetually stained tie, he didn’t exactly cut a professional figure. Yet there was something about him—maybe it was his New York bluntness, or the unconscious way he seemed to pop a Tums every five minutes— that made him kind of endearing. Janna found herself giving him the benefit of the doubt as he multi-tasked, chewing and talking at the same time.

“Kidco needs these guys to clean up their act. Correction: they demand it. The players aren’t bad guys, but the problem is that a lot ‘em grew up in East Butthole, Canada, you hear what I’m saying? The big excitement of their life was shooting pucks at their little brother’s head and watching re-runs of Three’s Company on the CBC. Now, all of a sudden, they’re in the NHL, they’re making big money. They start going a little nuts with the wine, women, and song stuff. Kidco wants Blades PR to play up the guys who are married with kids. And they want all of ‘em to start going out and doing charity stuff.”

“Obviously the more coverage the players get in the regular press and on TV, the higher the profile of the game, the more tickets we sell, and the richer Kidco becomes,” Janna rejoined knowingly.

Lou’s caterpillar sized eyebrows shot up. “You got a problem with that?”

“Not at all,” Janna assured him. “It’s the nature of the beast, I know that.”

Lou nodded, wiping his mouth with the back of shirt sleeve. “Now. I know you can do this job with your eyes closed, and that’s why I want you. I’ve been told you’re great at what you do, you got contacts up the wazoo, and if you were able to turn those Gotham brats into Rosie O’Donnell material, I got no doubt you can spruce up the public’s perception of the Blades, most of whom really aren’t as wild as the press make them out to be.” He frowned. “Only problem might be Gallagher.”

That was when he’d explained to Janna about the Captain. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy, a great hockey player,” Lou insisted, stifling a burp. “But he’s a huge pain in my ass, a real arrogant SOB. Thinks publicity is a waste of time, a distraction. For him, the only thing that matters is those sixty minutes on the ice, period, end of story. Off the ice, he likes to lead the good life: the best restaurants, the best looking women, you get the picture. He’s a bit of a playboy, and Corporate isn’t happy with it.”

“So you want me to get him to tone it down, is that it?”

“Yeah, because if you can get him to keep a lid on it, the rest of the team will follow suit. They’d follow that bastard into the jaws of hell if he asked. Jesus, if you were able to get that anorexic airhead with the silicone chest who plays Treva on your show to do community service —whazzername—?”

“Malo St. John,” Janna supplied, stifling a laugh.

“—then I know you can get Gallagher to turn it around. Kidco wants people to see there’s more to him than his goddamn obsessive will to win and his never ending desire to sample the flavor of the month. They want all of them to be perceived as caring about Joe Schmoe on the street who pays to see them play. It’s important the public thinks they’re more than a pack of rowdies with too much money and too little regard for decency, for Chrissakes. “

“I’m sure I can do it,” Janna asserted confidently, even though she wasn’t sure at all. “But you need to make it worth my while to leave Gotham.”

Lou offhandedly quoted her a salary and she damn near fell off her chair. She never imagined making money like that in a million years. Still, she played it cool. “And what about stock options? 401k? Wardrobe allowance? Vacation time? Assistants?”

Lou sighed, pushing a glossy maroon folder embossed with the words KIDCO in silver across the front toward her. “This will tell you everything you need to know.”

They shot the breeze for awhile, and by the time Janna left the interview, she knew she’d take the job. Doing PR for the Blades was just the shot in the arm she needed to get her out of her comfortable rut. Not only that, but the money was simply too good to turn down.

“Why do they call him ‘The Bull’?” she asked one of the secretaries on her way out of Capesi’s office.

The woman, age sixty or so with a helmet of shellacked hair dyed so garishly red it would make Lucille Ball spin in her grave, looked up at Janna over the half moon bifocals perched on the end of her nose. “’Cause way back when he was a boxer, he used to fight like one. Now he just slings it.”

Janna had laughed, utterly charmed. A week later, she resigned her job at Gotham.

And now here she was, doing ten miles over the speed limit, on her way back to the city to tell the Bull that on her first day out of the blocks, she’d gotten Gill and Lubov to sign off on some events, but Gallagher was unmoved.

Ty, Ty, Ty, she mused. You have no idea whom you’re up against, do you? He won this round, she’d give him that. But come hell or high water, the next would be hers. It had to be.

*

“You were a little rude to her, don’t you think?”

Ty glanced up from skimming the sports pages of The New York Sentinel to see his teammate and long time friend, Kevin Gill, looking at him questioningly. The two were sitting at “their” table at Maggie’s Grill, waiting for lunch to arrive. Now that the season was about to start, they were getting back into their usual routine: driving upstate to Armonk to practice, grabbing a quick bite afterwards, then driving back to the Big Apple. He should have been in a good mood. Practice had gone well; none of the guys were coasting, saving their real sweat and blood for when the season officially began. They seemed to understand they needed to give it their all, day in and day out, game day or not, if they were serious about winning the Cup in the spring. Plus he had a good feeling about the upcoming year. But then that Janna MacNeil woman had invaded his locker room spouting corporate BS, and his good mood evaporated, replaced by an overwhelming sense of resentment he’d been unable to shake, especially when she’d had the balls to tell him that Kidco owned him.

He took a sip of his beer and returned his friend’s look. “She deserved it.”

“She did not deserve it. She was just trying to do her job.”

“Yeah, and do you know what her job is, Kev? It’s tidying us up so those Suits at Kidco can make money off us. Screw them! They don’t give a rat’s ass about the integrity of the game, or anyone who plays it. We don’t owe them a goddamn thing.”

“I still don’t think it would kill you to sign up for one charity event just to throw the number crunchers a bone. It’d get them off your ass. You keep turning her down, she’s just going to keep hocking you.”

Ty shrugged. “Let her.”

“Jesus Christ. ” Kevin sat back in his chair, amazed. “You are one stubborn bastard, you know that?”

Ty grinned. “That’s why I’ve won three Stanley Cups so far, buddy. Because I don’t give up and I don’t give in.”

“Ain’t that right.”

Ty took another sip of beer. He’d meant what he’d said to Miss MacNeil: if, of his own volition, he felt like giving some time to charity, then he’d do it. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to do it so some MBA with a cell phone and a trophy wife could fill his coffers. He’d spent fifteen years helping to build a winning franchise in St. Louis. He’d more than earned his right to do what he pleased, and right now, what pleased him was being the best at what he did on the ice and having a damn good time off it. Maybe Kevin was right: maybe it would make his life easier if he played it Kidco’s way. But Ty didn’t care. It was his way or no way, no ifs ands or buts. And if Kidco didn’t like it...

He craned his neck around, looking for the waitress. Jesus, service in here was slow today. What was the deal?

Kevin, reading his mind, rolled his eyes. “Just cool your jets, okay? She’ll be here in a minute.”

Ty relaxed. Leave it to Kevin to know just what he was thinking. On the ice, he was right wing to Ty’s center, his capacity for speed, power and toughness almost as legendary as Ty’s own. The sports press jokingly referred to them as “Batman and Robin.” Off the ice, Ty relied on Kevin to tell him the naked, unvarnished truth, he was the one guy he trusted implicitly. If he was being too much of a hard ass, Kevin let him know it. He also let him know when he thought he was going a little overboard enjoying the New York nightlife.

Happily married with two kids, Kevin thought Ty should settle down. “When I retire,” was Ty’s standard response. But at age thirty three, fit and strong as an athlete ten years younger, it looked as if it might be another decade before Captain Gallagher would even consider hanging up his skates. Hell, if he had his choice he’d never retire. One day he would just drop dead on the ice and his teammates would bear him away, regal as a king—then they’d continue playing. Because all that mattered was hockey, pure and simple.

Or maybe not so simple.

Ty had felt a small twinge of desire when he’d loped out of the showers and found the publicist standing on the bench giving her rah rah speech. She was cute—not beautiful, but cute: tiny, pert, with short blonde hair, a button nose, and bright blue eyes that didn’t seem to miss a trick. Energetic, that was it. She seemed energetic. Didn’t matter, though. Janna MacNeil wasn’t his type. Not that he really remembered what his type was anymore. It had been years since he'd been involved in a serious relationship.

The first time—when he was still playing for St. Louis, one Stanley Cup under his belt and the Captaincy right around the corner—he’d fallen so hard it had affected his game. St. Louis didn’t get anywhere near the Playoffs that year, the woman wound up dumping him, and that, Ty thought ruefully, was that. The second time he’d surrendered his heart, about two years ago, the relationship went south when Ty realized she cared more about spending his money than she did about him. He broke things off, and she exacted her revenge by telling some cock-and-bull story to the press about how he ripped his teammates to shreds in private. Those who knew him well knew it was a lie, but it still hurt his credibility. He made a vow right then and there that he wouldn’t get seriously involved again until he retired, and he’d stuck to it.

Not coincidentally, he never missed another round of Playoffs again, and he’d gone on to win two more Cups, proof positive that if wanted to win on the ice he couldn’t afford to be distracted. For him, hockey was a full time commitment, and the only thing that mattered was winning. If that meant foregoing a long-term relationship for the time being, so be it. Instead, he concentrated on having a good time.

One of the perks of being a star athlete, he’d discovered, was that beautiful women threw themselves at him all the time. They threw, and he caught, never promising more than he could give, always making sure both parties came away from the encounter satisfied. Sometimes he yearned for more than casual, no-strings-attached sex, but he rode the feelings out, knowing they would pass. What tripped him up was when he encountered someone like Janna MacNeil, who seemed to have the whole package. In fact, all the way over on the drive to the restaurant, he was plagued by unbidden thoughts of that lithe little body of hers, thoughts that made his blood hum and his mind go on the fritz.

“Ty?”

He blinked. The waitress had come and gone, bringing his grilled salmon and Kevin’s burger. The small, dark paneled dining room of Maggie’s was filled with regulars, their voices rising and falling with the easy cadence of conversation. And he’d been—where? Off in the recesses of his mind, apparently, thinking about... He shook his head, clearing it. “Sorry. I was in the Ozone.”

“No kidding.” Kevin gave a sly smile before popping a fry in his mouth. “Thinking about the publicist?”

Ty flashed his famous scowl, the one meant as a serious warning to the opposing team that he meant business. “Right.”

“She was kind of cute.”

“I guess. I didn’t really notice.”

Kevin chuckled. “Liar.” He took a big, juicy bite of his burger, washing the food down quickly with a shot of Coke. “Hey, listen. Abby wanted to know if you’d like to come over for dinner Friday night.”

“Name the time and I’ll be there.”

“Let me find out from the chef and I’ll get back to you.” Kevin paused, drowning a french fry in a pool of ketchup. “You can bring someone if you want.”

Ty’s gaze was unyielding. “You know I don't date during the season.”

“Yeah, well, I just thought...” Kevin shrugged. “Whatever.”

“You really think I was rude to that publicist?” Ty asked abruptly. He knew what Kevin was driving at.

“Don't you?”

“Yeah,” Ty reluctantly admitted, feeling bad as an image of Janna’s momentarily stunned expression flashed through his mind. He hated to think she’d come away with a poor first impression of him and would probably be loaded for bear the next time their paths crossed. “I guess I’ll talk to her at practice tomorrow,” he murmured.

“And say what?”

“That she caught me at a bad time, blah blah blah. “

“Blah blah blah being that you still refuse to do any PR.”

Ty raised his glass high to Kevin in mock salute. “To my brilliant teammate, who’s finally catching on.”

“Bastard,” Kevin grumbled affectionately. “Stubborn, ball- busting bastard.”

Changing the subject, Ty began talking about Coach “Tubs” Matthias, and who he thought might need a little work on defense. But even as the words flowed effortlessly from his mouth, his mind was elsewhere. He was in the locker room, apologizing to Janna MacNeil, returning that sweet smile of hers that he’d rejected earlier, explaining to her that really, he wasn’t a total jerk. He caught his mind wandering and forced his thoughts back to the conversation at hand, while issuing a warning to himself in his head. He was going to have to watch himself and steer clear of Janna MacNeil, or there was going to be big trouble.

And trouble, especially where his heart was concerned, was the one thing he couldn’t afford.