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"I'm not signing the waiver." Hockey defenseman Axel Rankin placed the sheet of paper on the desk of the Philadelphia Phantoms' head coach, Nico Cesare, hoping like hell his refusal wouldn't be a big deal. He couldn't be a part of the TV documentary series that would follow his team over the next month. "There are enough guys on the team to film. Besides, I'm the defensive goon, not some big headliner."
The native Finn kept the real reason to himself. Axel couldn't afford to have his personal life broadcast to the world, the details of his day-to-day in the U.S. available to old enemies back in Finland. He'd worked too hard to put that past behind him. Having a camera crew follow Phantoms players around day and night would only resurrect old problems.
"Bowing out is not an option." The coach, a former goalie and one hell of a leader, passed the waiver back to Axel, not even looking up from a competing club's roster filled with margin notes. "The league needs the publicity and the Phantoms need the exposure. The dictate from corporate is that everyone participates."
Win as a team, lose as a team. Axel had been hearing the same mandate since arriving in Philly on a trade six weeks ago. Cesare's refusal to back off that policy had helped his hockey club earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which would start next week, but that die-hard commitment would make it tough for Axel to cut loose from the group now.
Shit. He ground his teeth, sweat dripping down his forehead from the morning practice session where he'd gone hard from whistle to whistle.
"I've got personal reasons, Coach." He hated to go there. Waving the "it's personal" flag felt like a cop-out.
Cesare finally looked up, his dark eyes meeting Axel's in the austere office decorated with pictures of his two kids and hot, blonde lawyer wife. Other than that, the space was like a computer geek's ode to hockey, full of stats and charts, roster breakdowns of twenty different varieties.
"Then you'll fit right in with the rest of us, Rankin." He tossed his ballpoint onto the desk and threaded his hands together as he rested the palms on his head. "I've got two players who didn't want to sign because they're afraid their wives will get wind of their extracurricular activities on the road from watching the show. I have three guys who don't want their kids referenced in any way, including me. I've got a superstitious player who thinks the cameras will mess up his game rituals. The documentary is shit. I get that. But we're all doing it and we're all signing."
Axel heard the unspoken ultimatum. Sign now or you're not a team player. Or worsebenched.
He hadn't risen up out of a Helsinki ghetto to play on a championship-quality team only to be sidelined now. He'd have to find a way to protect his Stateside foster family from his past ifwhenit came calling. Swallowing hard, he picked up the pen his coach had cast aside.
Carefully, he inked his Anglicized name on the appearance waiver, knowing damn well that Axel Rankin wasn't far enough from Akseli Rankinen to fool anyone back home. He was sure his old motorcycle gang kept tabs on him. Waiting for the right moment to call in a favor or blackmail the hell out of him. He figured the only reason they'd waited this long was to ensure his net worth went up along with his newfound success.
"Good man," Nico Cesare assured him, snagging the signed agreement before Axel changed his mind. "You did well in practice this morning. I've got you on the starting line tomorrow night."
Hard-won praise from a notoriously tough critic. Too bad Axel's gut was too full of lead to enjoy the props.
"I won't let you down," he promised, always willing to sacrifice his body to the game. Hockey had helped haul his ass out of the crap life he'd had back home, so he gave it one hundred percent in return.
He just hoped the filmmaking didn't steal his focus, because now he'd have a whole lot more to think about than lofting the Stanley Cup over his head. Stalking toward the exit, Axel planned to head home and make a few inquiries right away. But as he pulled open the heavy glass-and-steel door, his coach called to him.
Turning, he paused with one foot out in the hall.
"The film crew arrived this afternoon." The coach's level gaze gave away nothing. "The director wants to start meeting the team members as soon as possible. You could give it the old stick in the eye and just get it over with. She's set up camp in the conference room."
"She?" Axel tried to weigh what that meant. "We're being followed night and day by a chick?"
He wasn't some backwoods misogynist or anything, but then again, he wasn't a fan of females in the locker room. And hey, to be fair, he wouldn't have taken up journalism and expected free access to the ladies' showers if he was following a women's sport. If he had, maybe he would have been in a whole different career field.
"Her name is Jennifer Hunter. And she looked female to me." The coach grinned, the expression increasing the twist of his nose in a face that could only have belonged to a hockey player. "The good news is, I got the impression she really doesn't want to be here any more than we want a New York filmmaker in our business. So who knows, maybe she'll turn in a lame, half-baked assignment and we'll all get off easy."
It was the first bit of good news Axel had received since hearing about the monthlong documentary special.
"I could do some reconnaissance and see what I can find out. In fact, maybe I could go meet her right now." He'd do it before he hit the showers. The smell of unwashed hockey equipment alone could send grown men to their knees. What woman would be able to stand the stench inside an enclosed space like the conference room?
"You're going to make a hell of a first impression, Rankin." Thankfully, the coach didn't seem too upset about that.
Which reaffirmed the messagewin as a team, lose as a team.
Sometimes, the role of a hockey defenseman was to throw down the gloves and pick the fight to protect his teammates. Axel's responsibility wasn't all that different now. He'd find out a little more about Jennifer Hunter and see why she didn't want to be here. Then he'd make sure she remembered those reasons daily until she packed her camera and left.
That was plan B, and he liked it as a backup. But right now, he'd go with his A game. Charming the socks off the film director by introducing her to the fragrant reality of life in the locker room .