Lucky Bounce: Game On, Part 2 by Jennifer Lazaris
"Everything okay, Wilkes?"
Eli pressed the "P" button for the parking garage after they entered one of the Palisades Hotel & Casino elevators. He'd never seen Holly so lost in thought. Though after what had just happened, he wasn't surprised. Until last night, it had been seven long years since they'd slept together.
"What? Oh. Yeah, I guess." Her gaze flicked in his direction. "I'm fine."
She'd walked back into his life last year, and their encounters had been adversarial at best, mixed with underlying, simmering sexual tension. Her anger at him was justified, however. He'd destroyed their budding relationship in college by sleeping with her, then blowing her off.
It had been his worst mistake.
Holly stared at the lighted number above the door as they moved between floors, her teeth digging into her plump lower lip.
Fuck, he loved those lips.
The doors slid open to the garage, and they walked in silence toward his black luxury sedan. When he opened the passenger door for her, she glanced up at him, one perfectly sculpted, dark eyebrow raised.
"What's with the look? Professional hockey players can be gentlemanly," he teased.
"Uh-huh." She rolled her eyes and climbed into the car.
Pulling out his keys, he walked around the front of the sedan. This awkwardness between them needed to be addressed. Hell, he'd been inside of her barely an hour ago.
Though after running off at the mouth about his feelings for her, he'd probably freaked her out. It had been a rookie move, but as he'd told her earlier, he wasn't taking any of it back. He'd wanted her to know where he stood.
Eli climbed behind the wheel and shifted in the leather seat, turning toward her. "Holly, look at me."
A wary look lit her pretty hazel eyes. "What?"
"I meant what I said back in that room. Everything I said." He ran a hand down over his beard. "Nothing's changed just because our night together is over. I'm done with other women, Wilkes. Done with that whole puck bunny, Vegas nightlife scene. I can walk away from anyone else, but I can't walk away from you."
"I know what you're going to say," he said, cutting her off. "You don't trust me. But I will earn your trust."
Holly leaned her head back against the plush headrest and blew a lock of purple and black hair away from her face. "I know you meant it." She sighed and glanced over at him. "I can't handle all of this right now, okay? You're the one who made the arrangement with my boss for me to write this feature about you. And I meant what I said—I need us to remain professional over the next thirty days. That means you concentrate on the playoffs and winning the Cup with the Kingsnakes, and I will write your feature."
"And I agreed to it," he countered. "But after that..."
"We aren't discussing anything regarding the future yet. We went from enemies to..." Holly waved her hand around. "Whatever this is, in the span of a few hours. Until I'm done with this feature, this discussion and everything it entails is shelved."
He brushed the pad of his thumb along the textured steering wheel, wishing he could do the same to her cheek. But that wouldn't be welcomed by her, especially now.
"You were never my enemy, Holly. Never."
She swallowed. "Well, we definitely weren't friends."
The corner of her mouth quirked up, and the tightness in his chest eased slightly.
"We're definitely not enemies."
He flashed her a grin as he started the car. "So, rocking your world helped my cause?"
Holly snorted with laughter and gave him a genuine smile, followed by a coy look. "Didn't hurt."
This time, it was his turn to laugh. "Good to hear."
His cellphone rang, interrupting the moment, and the system changed the call to hands-free mode. He frowned when he saw the number on the screen. It was Jessie, his mother's nighttime nurse.
"Sorry," he told Holly, backing out of the parking spot. "I have to take this."
Eli pressed the button on the screen to answer the call. "Hey, Jessie," he said, navigating his way through the garage. "What's going on?"
"Hello, Mr. Donnelley. I hope I'm not disturbing you." Her voice sounded strained, which was never a good sign.
"No. I'm in the car, though.” He made a right as he exited the building. "I was planning on coming over to see Mom tonight."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. It might be better if you didn't come over. She's having a pretty bad night. I'm worried a visit might make her more agitated. Sometimes after you leave, her agitation gets worse."
A rush of anxiety zinged through him, making his chest tight and his hands clammy. Unfortunately, as of late, his mother's Alzheimer's had started progressing rapidly after years of being lucky, the right medications, and a few clinical trials. It scared the hell out of him, and he was more stressed than ever.
"What's going on with her, Jessie?"
"She's very focused on her ex-husband. She's worried because she doesn't know where he is. I'm also struggling to get her to take her medication. It's been a challenging night."
Eli stifled a groan. His stepfather, Ethan Donnelley, hadn't lived with his mother for seven years. He'd bailed on them when she'd first been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, like the coward he’d always been.
He pulled up to a red light. "Are you sure I shouldn't come over? Maybe Mom would feel better if she saw me."
"It's up to you, but I'd really like to get her settled in for the night if possible."
"No, I get it. I just want to do what's best for her."
"I know you do. And we must sit down and have a conversation about what is best for your mother regarding her care. Sooner rather than later. I know we've talked about this recently, but—"
"Yeah, I know." He sucked in a breath. "Can we revisit this after the playoffs? I've got a lot on my plate with hockey."
"Yes, of course," Jessie replied, raising her voice as his mother screamed for his stepfather in the background. "That's reasonable."
A slight headache began to thump at his temples. "Let me know if you need anything. I'm going to try to visit tomorrow."
"Sounds good. Thanks, Mr. Donnelley. Take care and have a good night."
The call disconnected, and he let out a heavy sigh. Things with his mother bordered on unmanageable now, growing more difficult by the day as her disease progressed.
He had a feeling that difficult was going to be the order of the day from here on out.
Holly glanced over at him, a sympathetic look on her face. "Sounds like things are pretty rough with your mom."
"Yeah. It's been like that the last little while, actually. She's getting worse."
"I'm so sorry," she murmured. "I can't imagine how hard that must be for you."
"I'm trying not to focus on it too much. I need to concentrate on getting through the playoffs. If I start thinking about it, I can't stop. I just take it day by day."
"You should talk to someone about this, Eli."
He forced a smile, his fingers tightening on the steering wheel. "I am. I'm talking to you."
"I meant your friends. Your teammates. A professional."
"Not my style." He hit a button on the screen. "Mind some music?" He wasn't in the mood to discuss his mother or her illness any longer.
"No. We're almost at my place anyway."
They rode along without talking as they listened to the alternative rock station. Ten minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex and killed the engine.
"So, when do you want to start this?" he asked.
She picked up her purse and duffle bag from the floor. "I hope that you're referring to the interview process for this feature."
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Considering you don't want to talk about the other thing, yes."
"Okay. I guess I should get your phone number," she said, sounding reluctant. "And you should have mine. You do realize that when you suggested phone sex last night during our game of Truth or Dare, you didn’t have my number?”
"An oversight on my part. Anyway, relax, Wilkes. I won't send you any dick pics. I won't even text you for any late-night booty calls. Though I won't object if you text me for one."
"I'll do my best to resist," she said dryly.
He flashed her a smile. "There's the Holly Wilkes sarcasm that I've come to depend on. I'd hate for it to have gone missing just because we spent the last twelve hours burning up the sheets."
Holly's cheeks turned pink, and she squeezed her eyes closed. "Eli, come on."
"No need to be embarrassed."
"I'm not. What I am is annoyed. Give me your cell phone, so I can put in my number." She handed him her phone. "You do the same."
After they exchanged numbers, he handed it back to her. "Thirty days of being professional while you work on this feature, Holly. Then shit gets real with us. I'm not going to let you duck and dodge me about this."
"No, thirty days and then we decide how to start moving forward as friends," she corrected. "Because we can't start from here, Eli. Even if the sex was amazing, okay? But I'll admit that I liked spending time with you. I had fun."
"Yeah." He tenderly brushed a lock of hair away from her face. "Me, too. It was like we picked up where we left off, all those years ago. Hanging out, eating pizza, and watching movies. It was a good time."
"Touch me like that. Professional, remember? If I have to remind you every five minutes, this isn't going to work. You promised. So no touching my hair or stroking my face. Hands to yourself, Donnelley."
He smiled. "I didn't realize I was on the clock yet. I'll be good, but don't expect me to not tease you. I need to have some fun."
"Lord help me," she muttered, rolling her eyes skyward. "It's going to be a long thirty days."
Eli snorted. "You're telling me. A month with no sex? Sounds great."
"I'm not holding you to that." She stuffed her phone into her purse. "I know what you said, but I won't keep you from seeing other women."
He stared at her, stunned. "No. Fuck that."
"Holly, listen to me carefully. I told you that I'm done with all of that. No other women. No more clubs. I honor my word, and I don't want anyone but you, understand? When I said you own my soul, I meant every fucking word." He paused. "What about you?"
Holly blinked. "Me?"
"Yeah, you. Are you going to see other guys?"
Fuck, even the thought of it made his stomach turn. He didn't want to be standing out on this ledge, alone.
"No," she said after a long pause. "I'm not going to see anyone."
"Good." His voice sounded gruff and possessive to his own ears, but he didn't care.
"I should go," she told him. "I'll text you soon about our first interview for the feature, okay?"
"Thanks for the ride." She opened the car door. "I appreciate it."
Eli gave her a sly grin. "Which ride, babe?"
Holly groaned and climbed from the car, then pointed a finger at him. "From here on out you're on the clock, Donnelley."
He laughed as she chucked the door closed. Christ, he was crazy about her. That sassy mouth got to him every single time.
But she was right about one thing: the next thirty days were going to be long as hell. He had a feeling he'd be getting well-acquainted with his right hand.
* * *
On the drive back to his penthouse, his cell phone rang with another call.
Dread stole through him when "Mom" flashed on the car’s media screen. His mother rarely called him unless she was worked up and restless.
Jessie was right; it must be a rough night over there.
"Hey, Mom, what's going on?" He tried to keep the tone of his voice even so it wouldn't betray his overwhelming anxiety.
"Eli? Elijah, honey, is that you?" His mother's soft, tearful voice echoed in his ear.
"Yeah, it's me. Is everything okay?" Fat drops of rain ticked against the windshield, and he turned the wipers on.
"Your father's not here. And he's always home by dinnertime."
"Mom, Jessie is there with you, right?"
"She's in the kitchen making me tea," his mother whispered. "I didn't want her to find out that I was on the phone. She wants me to rest, but I can't until I know where your father is."
Eli stifled a sigh. He didn't want to lie to her, but hurting her with the truth wasn't right, either. She didn't retain information. Why make her relive the pain of the past? It would be cruel.
"Don't worry. Dad's away on a business trip. You know how busy he is with work."
"But why hasn't he called me?"
He swallowed. "He has a lot of late-night meetings, and he probably doesn't have time. But he's okay, so you can rest now."
"Oh, good. What about you, Eli? Are you coming over to see me tomorrow? I'll bake you some chocolate chip cookies. They're your favorite."
"Sure. I'll come over after practice. Irena will be there in the morning, and she can help you bake the cookies."
"Goddammit, Elijah," his mother snapped. "I know Irena comes in the morning! You don't have to tell me. I'm not stupid."
His stomach twisted into knots as he listened to his mother rant. "Hey," he said softly. "Would I call the best mom in the world stupid? Never. I didn't mean to upset you."
His mother sniffed. "Sorry, honey. I'm just very tired. I'll see you tomorrow. We can have cookies, and you can tell me all about your day at school. I'll even help you with your homework."
Eli winced. He was twenty-six years old, but just like the situation with his stepfather, correcting her wasn't worth it. Why stress her out for no reason?
"Okay. Get some rest and listen to Jessie. She's there if you need anything. I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart. Goodnight."
He ended the call and flipped the wipers to full speed as the torrential rain beat down on the windshield. A flash of lightning streaked across the night sky, and he white-knuckled the steering wheel.
Every conversation with her was like this now, and it wasn't going to get better. No matter how prepared he thought he was to talk with her, the aftermath always left him soul-sick and heartbroken.
He turned up the music as he made his way through the storm, crossing his fingers that the wailing guitars would distract him from all of the things going on with his mother.
Hopefully, he wouldn't get another call tonight about the same thing, but he never knew what would happen from one minute to the next.
She was fine for now, and that would have to be enough.