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The ring of the phone made Elle sit straight up in bed. Blinking, she glanced at the clock. Twenty till two in the morning. Family or work? At this hour neither was good.
Still she prayed for work as she flipped on the light and reached for her cell phone. Usually that only meant a trip downtown to a bail bondsman, not large-scale injuries, which were the only reason family would be calling.
She scanned for caller ID but it was an unknown number. No clue there.
"Hello," she said briskly, cringing when her voice came out sleep-husky instead.
"Ellie," a deep voice drawled, relieving her of worry over family, and swinging all that anxiety over to annoyance at the caller. "I hope I woke you and didn't catch you in the middle of something more interesting."
"Maxwell." Of course. Max "The Beast" Beasley, enforcer for the San Diego Thunder hockey team and her personal nemesis. And a man who had no right to question her nighttime activities. "I suppose this means you're in jail?"
"Me and a few of the guys. We went out for drinks to celebrate Jaden's twenty-first birthday. It got a little out of hand."
"Is anyone hurt?"
"Babe, define hurt. We take a bigger beating on the ice."
"Don't call me babe. Or Ellie. My name is Elle. Or Ms. Austin to you."
"So harsh," he idly rebuked her. "Maybe you need something interesting going at two in the morning to loosen you up a little."
"Careful, Maxwell, or the only thing you'll be cozying up to tonight is your cell mate."
"Ellie, you tease. We both know that won't happen."
She gritted her teeth as the line went dead. He was right of course. This was part of her job, the annoying part. Being Deputy public relations Director meant she got the late-night calls when the players played hard in public and needed bailing out of trouble.
She might wish Max Beasley would be traded to some Siberian league, but if she wanted her boss's job when he retired next year, she needed to keep The Beast happy.
She threw on jeans, a purple sweater and flat-heeled boots. After sweeping her dark red hair into a sleek pony-tail, she put on a dusting of makeup. And then glared into her light brown eyes, disgusted with herself for primping.
There was no one to impress tonight, certainly not a six-foot-two blond with midnight-blue eyes, a dashing dimple in his right cheek and a sexy scar on his chin.
It took fifteen minutes to get from Elle's Lake Murray condo to the jail in downtown San Diego. This time of the morning she could probably do it in half that time, but preferring not to join the players behind bars, she held to the speed limit.
A complete rule breaker, Max would no doubt sneer at her judicious driving habits. Let him. After all, she was the one bailing him out of jail.
She believed in rules, lists and goals. They'd gotten her where she was. When she'd returned from Princess Camp with a new love of creating order out of chaos, she'd put her new skill to work helping her dad with his sports teams.
It came in handy at San Diego State University where, as well as being a student, she worked as assistant to the athletic director. Part of the job included being the public-relations liaison for all the different sports. She was responsible for coordinating efforts and maximizing promotional opportunities.
She made great contacts at State and at twenty-six she was the deputy director of public relations for a national hockey team. Well on her way to having her own PR firm by the time she turned thirty-five.
She parked on the street across from Smart Bail Bonds and Harry Smart stepped out to meet her.
"Ms. Austin." He greeted her with a gap-toothed smile. Shorter than average with a round belly covered by a Hawaiian shirt, he had thinning brown hair and a pleasant disposition. He always insisted on walking her to the jail adjacent to the San Diego County Courthouse. "It's been a while since the boys caused a ruckus. They must be missing their captain. I heard Ian is going to be out for eight weeks."
"That's right, but they started out strong, so we have momentum on our side." Elle forced a smile when she wanted to shake her head. She knew the rules of hockey. Thanks to her brothers she knew the rules to most sports. And it was that knowledge that had earned her a rookie position with the Thunder organization eighteen months ago. And she loved her job, even if she didn't understand the sport, the sheer violence of it.
She did know the more fights on the ice, the more fans in the stands. The games were battles, the players modern-day gladiators: fierce, competitive, combative, and the harder they fought the more the crowd cheered.
And Maxwell "The Beast" Beasley led the pack.
He was a public-relations dream and nightmare. The public loved his bad-boy persona as long as the team was winning, but when the team took a few losses, the public had little patience for player antics.
Elle avoided the lone-wolf player as much as possible.
Through the window of the bond office she saw a few of the wives and girlfriends of the players he'd led astray tonight.
When The Beast chose to party, everyone wanted to party with him.
But it was a subdued, somewhat sheepish crew turned over to her an hour later. Usually they were still full of themselves, boasting over their deeds and conquests of the night. But there was little chatter as they walked the few blocks to the bond office.
"That's a pretty nasty cut, Hank." She eyed the goalie, who sported a crude butterfly bandage over a slash on his cheek. "You should stop at an emergency room on the way home."
"Nah." He cleared his throat. "It's just a scratch."
"Hmm." Though his was the worst, all six of the burly men showed battle scars. Her gaze skipped over Max to land on the youngest of the group. At six-six and two-twenty, Jaden was hardly a child, but his downcast eyes and hunched shoulders gave him the look of a sulky teenager. "Happy birthday, Jaden."
He shrugged. "Thanks."
"Be nice, Grier." Max cut the younger man with a cold glare. "She just bailed your butt out of jail."
"I said thanks," Jaden snarled back. A slight slur revealed that a couple of hours and a visit to the slammer hadn't cleared all the alcohol from his system. He sent Elle a sideways look. "I got your card."
She nodded. Her mother had taught her the power of the greeting card, and Elle plied it zealously. Her goal was to build up a personal connection with the players, because it made it harder for them to turn her down when she needed them for special events. Since she'd joined the team, she'd given every player a card on his birthday. Except Max.
Cringing slightly she justified the inaction by reminding herself she hadn't thought of the cards until after his birthday the first year, and last year the team had been out of town. She'd meant to give him his card; she'd just never got around to it.
And then he hadn't deserved a card.
Still, her mother would call shame on her.
"This night had bad news written all over it from the moment we arrived at the bar and saw junior here had started to party without us." A voice grumbled from the back. "Kid, you need to learn to pace yourself."
"I'm not a kid." Jaden whirled to confront the other man, momentum and unsteadiness putting him right in the defenseman's face. "I'm an adult."
"You're a punk." The defenseman brought his arm up to brush Jaden aside.
Elle cringed as she saw it developing, and sure enough Jaden pushed back and a shoving match broke out.
No time. She had no time to intervene. No time to get out of the way.
Feeling like a child among giants, Elle expected to be crushed even as she tried to scurry backward.
Suddenly a hard arm swept around her waist, and Max swung them in a one-eighty so he took the brunt of the sixfoot-five, two-hundred-seventy-pound wingman smashing into them.
Protected by his bulk she had the impression of massive strength, a hard body, a whiff of spicy aftershave and a huge impact. He didn't even grunt.
But he cursed a red-white-and-blue streak after setting her safely aside and wading into the center of the fray.
"Idiots. You almost took out Elle. Get your heads straight." He gave Jaden a hard-eyed stare. "We've already put on enough of a show tonight. Get your rides and go home."
The men quickly dispersed.
Shaken, Elle straightened her jacket and brushed her hands over her hair, ensuring her sleek ponytail was intact.
Max homed in on her. "You okay?"
She shuddered under his direct regard, but lifted her chin and answered smoothly. "Of course."
His dark gaze ran over her, checking her out for himself. He nodded. "Let's go."
"My car is at the bar." Jaden managed to slur and whine at the same time. Not an easy feat.
"And you can thank your lucky ass for that. If I ever hear of you driving drunk, I'll make sure your butt rides the bench for the whole season."
"No, huh," Jaden blustered. "You don't have that kind of say-so."
"No." Max's smile held an edge of malice. "But you can't play with your leg in a cast."
Jaden paled. "Don't be joking, man. A break can end a career."
"And driving drunk can end a life. I have no problem making that decision for you."
"Gentlemen." Elle stepped forward, intent on taking control of the situation. "It's three-fifteen in the morning. Can you put the equipment away so we can go home? One of us has to work in a few hours."
Max waved his arm in an after-you gesture. "Lead the way. You don't mind giving us a ride, right?"
"I'm going to tell coach." Jaden stomped ahead of them. Then he stopped and swung around, his unsure balance almost tripping him up. "You're my witness Ms. A. You heard him threaten me."
"No," she denied and looked both ways before crossing the street to her car. "I heard him offer you a life lesson." And, oh, how it hurt to defend the man. "If you have two licks of sense, you'll listen to him. And you'll be benched before he can ever get to you if you mention this incident to Coach."
She unlocked her red car and they all climbed in. Reaching for her seat belt, she glanced at Max and saw he had anchored himself in. She nodded when she heard Jaden's belt click and only then did she start the car.
"Drop Jaden first." Max directed her once they reached the five freeway. And then he turned to the man in the backseat. "You better tell her the rest."
Elle got a bad feeling and her gaze flicked to the rear-view mirror. Jaden was one big scowl. He muttered something under his breath.
"I may have" He cleared his throat. "I kind of, ah, could have" Cough. "Thrown the first punch."
"Jaden, Jaden." She sighed as her mind raced. The news was as bad as she feared. She could only hope the damage was minimal to both man and property. "That's an automatic ten-thousand-dollar penalty."
Narrowing her eyes at Max, she reached past him for the digital recorder in the glove box. "This is your fault."
"How do you figure?" His gaze rose from her cleavage to meet her eyes. And he lifted one dark brow. "You took him drinking."
"It wasn't only me. Plus he's his own man now. Didn't you hear him?"
She ground her teeth together. Of course he took no responsibility. She turned her attention to Jaden, demanding he tell her everything he remembered.
He protested that it had happened too fast and he didn't remember anything, but she kept after him until he told the whole story. By then they were at his place. She turned to face him before he got out.
"Tomorrow I want you to go through it again, write it down. And be in my office at ten o'clock."
He groaned but nodded, and then climbed from the car. She watched until he was safely inside.
Luckily the fifteen-minute ride from Jaden's Fashion Valley condo to Max's Mount Helix home concluded in silence. In fact, Elle thought Max had dozed off, but it appeared he had nothing more to say to her than she had to say to him because he immediately opened his eyes and reached for the door latch when she pulled into the driveway next to his vehicle.
She rolled her eyes and sighed, ready for the night to be over. The dash clock read 3:45 a.m., which meant she should make it home by four.
Max climbed from the car while she debated the merits of going back to bed against getting a jump on the Jaden issue.
"Thanks," he bent to say before slamming the door.
Yeah, right. Mr. Glib he wasn't. At least it was an acknowledgment, and considering the weariness in his voice she figured she was lucky to get that. With home in mind she put the car in Reverse and waited for Max to get to his door.
He'd barely cleared her front hood when a car lurched to a stop behind her, effectively blocking the driveway. She frowned at the rearview mirror, not at all surprised he had some young thing on call at this time of the morning.
Annoyed, Elle put the car in Park and stepped out.
"Excuse me," she said to the slim brunette who jumped out of the vehicle. "I'm leaving if you could let me out."
"Forget it," the woman snapped. "I've been waiting for hours." She pulled open the back door and bent into the car.
Elle turned to Max. "Can you tell your girlfriend to move? It's been a long night."
He flicked her an annoyed glance.
"Hey," Max called out as he walked down the drive to join Elle. "Can I help you?"
The woman reappeared, holding something she had lifted from the backseat. "This is the last time I'm doing a favor for Amber. She was supposed to be back yesterday. She gave me your info but said not to contact you. But she's not answering her phone. And neither were you." Carrying a bundled-up trench coat, she stormed up the drive and thrust the coat at Max. "I've been waiting here since one. I was about to give up and take Troy to the cops when you pulled in."
"Amber left him with you? Where's her mom?"
"Vegas. Amber can find someone else next time." She returned to the car and came back with a backpack that she pushed into Elle's arms. "I have an interview in the morning. I'm going to have rings under my eyes the size of duffel bags."
With a huff, the brunette rounded the vehicle, got behind the wheel and drove off.
Elle looked at Max. "What just happened here?"
The coat in Max's arms shifted and the material dropped to reveal a blond head of hair. Not a trench coat, but a small child.
"Meet my son, Troy."