Their Protector: An MC Outlaw Halloween Romance, page 116
She moved her hand up my leg and leaned in toward me. Her lips were the same color as her nail polish, and her neckline was so low it left very little to the imagination. A camera flash went off, and I jerked away.
“Dammit,” I said. “Get that thing the fuck away from me. Are you even allowed to have that in here?”
Tanya shrugged. “I did ask. I explained it’s for a blog about the place.”
“I’m sure you didn’t ask if you could harass customers.”
She shrugged again. “I didn’t word it like that. I was just taking in the essence of the place.”
Right. Or the essence of me fucking up my image again. Before I could say anything, Brian returned.
“Ready?” he asked me.
“Ladies, have a good evening,” I told them.
Chanel blinked up at us, all innocence. Tanya got up.
“If that photo ends up on the internet,” I said.
“Relax, Hanson,” Brian said. He was drunk. His words were a little sloppy around the edges, and he pressed his hand against my chest. “I’ve called Carl to come get us.”
He exaggerated a wink. Tanya was already headed for the door. But Chanel didn’t want to give up. She clung to Brian’s arm, swinging her hips from side to side.
I didn’t need this shit in my life. I didn’t know exactly what had been caught on that camera, but I doubted it was good. This was just going to keep happening as long as I let women come close to me. But how could I avoid it? Was I supposed to stay locked at home? I didn’t even start this shit anymore and it kept finding me.
I waved at a waiter and ordered more alcohol. Whiskey. Tequila. Why not? I might as well get shitfaced, considering what had just happened. It wasn’t like they could find anything worse to put on the internet about me.
All I cared about was that I was going to be allowed to play again. I didn’t care what happened if it didn’t stop me from playing my game. Since the accident, where I’d admitted to being the one to drive drunk, everything had gone south for me. A bad reputation, the suspension, all of it. Whatever.
It wasn’t like I had to care. There was no one in my life I had to answer to.
Chapter 27 – Lacey
I hadn’t seen Hanson in a week but it was time for the charity engagement I’d told him we should go to. I’d spoken to him over the phone, sure, but he’d been busy training, and I’d been busy trying not to hate him for the latest scandal that was in the news about him. That was all there was with this guy, wasn’t there? One woman after the next.
I should have figured. And it shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did. The guy’s image was my problem, but that should have been the end of it. Instead, I tried to avoid him when I could because I didn’t like who he was. I didn’t like who I wasn’t to him.
I didn’t even know what I was thinking.
I drove to his place and waited outside after I let him know I’d arrived. When he appeared, he looked good. He wore blue jeans that were faded in all the right places, a white collared shirt, and a dark blue blazer that looked put together and casual, all at the same time. His hair was stylishly messy, and his smile was the kind that melted me from the core.
I didn’t want to respond to him that way. How many other women had?
“You look good,” I said. “Just the right amount of casual and flair.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I was following the advice of a great PR Manager I know.”
I rolled my eyes. Cliché much?
He didn’t mention my outfit, I noticed. I hadn’t dressed to impress him, of course. I wore dark skinny jeans and boots, with a blouse and a coat. It was Friday. A dress suit was too much.
“Get in,” I said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
I got into the driver’s seat and waited for Hanson to walk around the car. When he closed the door behind him, I was aware of his scent. He smelled fresh and manly, like he’d just been in the shower. No cologne or strong aftershave. Just soap.
There was something so attractive about that. I shook off the thought. A lot of other women had thought the same.
“Obviously, this whole thing is to thank you for your generous donation,” I said. “So, you’ll have to be gracious about it. You’re going to spend time with the kids. Engage with them, talk to them, get to know them a bit, but don’t get personal. Some of them are terminal, and the point is not to remind them of why they’re there.”
“I get it,” Hanson said. “A few smiles, a few signatures.”
“Right. I’ve arranged a photographer. We need to get some good photos of you out there, try to trump the bad publicity that’s constantly doing the rounds.”
Hanson glanced at me when I said it. I wanted to ask about him the busty blond in the photo with him, but I bit my tongue. It didn’t matter.
“I think I’ve got this,” Hanson said. “It will be easier than that donation speech you dumped on me.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t know if you were going to play along, then. I was scared if I told you beforehand, you would bail on me.”
“That might have been accurate, then,” Hanson agreed. “But I get what you’re doing now. I don’t like running around like the local do-gooder. It’s not my style, but I’ll do it if it means I can play.”
I nodded. That was what it was about, after all.
I pulled into the parking lot at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and we walked to reception where I met Donny, the camera guy, and Mason, a reporter. I had chosen a team that were all male. I didn’t need Hanson to have any distractions.
We walked through to Jackson’s Pediatric Center and announced ourselves.
An older woman with a white coat met us. Her voice was deep from years of too many cigarettes, and she had smile wrinkles fanning out from her eyes when she greeted us.
“Thank you for coming,” she said to Hanson, after she introduced herself as Doctor Cortez. “We are so lucky to have you visit us. The children are excited.”
I let Hanson walk first, followed by Donny and his camera. Mason stayed next to me, jotting down notes as we went along.
“We take care of kids that need extra medical attention while we let them do what kids do. We have a playground and activity rooms for the kids, so they won’t be bored while they’re in our care. We also make a point of teaching the child’s caregivers what they need to know to take care of their children at home.”
I looked at Hanson. He wasn’t just pretending to care. He was interested in what Dr. Cortez had to say. We were taken to a few private rooms and shown the facilities. The rooms were all painted with bright colors and cartoon characters to liven up the space.
“All of this will be upgraded now, thanks to your donation,” Cortez said. She smiled at Hanson, who nodded, smiling too.
“Shall we meet the children?” she asked.
We followed her to a large room with eight beds. The kids were ecstatic to see Hanson, even the girls. I stood to the side with Mason and watched him engage with them. He did everything I’d asked of him and more. I didn’t get the feeling that Hanson was just going through the motions to get back on the team. He really cared for children. He got on well with them, and he made sure not to mention anything that would come across wrong.
“This is going to make a great story,” Mason said. He was still scribbling in a little notebook. Donny snapped away. Everyone ignored the camera, just the way it was supposed to be. “Thanks for calling me.”
“Of course,” I said.
When it was time to wrap it up, Dr. Cortez walked away and returned shortly with a canvas with hand prints and a little plaque with Hanson’s name on it.
“The children made it for you, to say thank you,” she said.
Hanson accepted it and posed with Cortez and the children for one more photo before it was finally time to leave.
When we were in the car, Hanson blew out his breath like he’d been holding it for the longest time.
“That was intense,” he said
I nodded. It had been so much more emotional than I’d expected.
“It was a good idea to do it,” I said. “Mason will write up a great story, and Donny got some fantastic photos. He’s one of the best there is.”
“Thank you,” Hanson said, turning his head to me. “For all of this.”
I shook my head. “Don’t thank me. I’m getting paid to do this.”
Hanson nodded and looked straight ahead as I backed out of my parking space.
“Let’s go out to dinner,” Hanson said. “To celebrate.”
I shook my head. “Hanson.”
“No, I mean as a business thing. To discuss our next move. That kind of thing. You’re allowed to do that, right?”
I hesitated a moment before I nodded. Business dinner was fine, and we did have to talk about what was coming up next for Hanson.
“Okay,” I said. “Where am I going?”
Hanson directed me toward the water’s edge where we walked into Il Gabbiano, a classy Italian restaurant. We didn’t need a reservation. Hanson Bell got a table no matter where we went, and we were taken to a table that looked out over the water to the high-rise buildings across Biscayne Bay to Brickell Key.
“This is nice,” I said, looking around. The restaurant was an upscale place but it had a homey feel to it, and I didn’t feel underdressed.
“I love this place,” Hanson said. A waiter came to us and he ordered a bottle of wine. The waiter disappeared, and Hanson looked across the small table at me.
“So, I really enjoyed today,” Hanson said. “I didn’t think it would be as fulfilling as it was.”
I nodded. “I’m glad you feel that way about it.”
“How do you feel about it?” Hanson asked.
“Well.” He shrugged. “You’re not really saying much about the whole day. After the night I made the donation, you were so happy, and now you don’t seem as involved.”
I shrugged with one shoulder, not making eye contact with him. I didn’t really know what to say to him.
“Everything is going according to plan, about which I’m happy, obviously. You should be, too. It’s looking good for you.”
“And for us?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. “There isn’t an us, Hanson.”
“I don’t mean it like that,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know. You seem closed off. Distant. It’s not exactly how you’ve been before.”
“Well, maybe that has to do with the fact that no matter what happens between us, you’re always in the tabloids the next day with some new woman on your arm. I don’t get emotionally involved or anything, but I do take offense when I’m so easily forgotten.”
Hanson blinked at me.
“It’s quite a slap in my face as your PR Manager, too, considering that I’m the one that has to keep cleaning up your messes.”
Hanson sighed. “So, you’re upset about the photos that have appeared.”
I nodded. “How did you expect me not to be? It just keeps happening over and over again. And the photos? God, you would think that at some point, you’ll realize that you’re sinking your own ship. You’ll realize that if you don’t change something, it’s all going to keep going in the same direction.”
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
He was getting angry. So was I. We made a great pair, sitting at a restaurant, arguing. We looked like a couple. But that just wasn’t meant to be.
“I don’t know, stay out of trouble, maybe? I didn’t think you were so addicted to sex that you couldn’t stop doing it for the sake of your own image. I’m not even asking you to stop, just to keep it behind closed doors. You can’t even do that, though. You just love the attention, don’t you?”
“That’s not fair,” he said.
He was breathing harder, like he’d been running.
Anger burned in my chest. “No, you know what’s not fair? You pretend like everything is alright when the fact is, it’s not?”
He shook his head. “I’m not pretending. Everything is fine. If you had an issue, you could have talked to me about it when it happened. I thought it was clear that I didn’t want her. The photos that weren’t even supposed to be printed showed as much.”
“But they were, Hanson. Don’t you get that? No matter what you do, there’s always photos, there’s always someone watching.”
I realized I was clutching onto my handbag like it was a lifeline. I forced myself to put it down on the floor.
My mind registered that he was trying to tell me he hadn’t done anything with the girls. But my heart didn’t want to believe it. It was just too much of a coincidence and kept happening. I tried to stay focused on what I wanted to tell him as his PR manager, not his girlfriend.
I’m not his girlfriend , I reminded myself. And I never wanted to be and never would want to be, either.
I was straight up lying to myself now and I knew it. But whatever it took to get me through this conversation, I would grasp at.
“It wasn’t my choice,” he said.
I shook my head. “This was your choice. You could drop out of the limelight if life between the sheets suits you better than a life where everyone is in your business. But you have to choose and then stick to it, because I can’t keep picking up after you.”
Hanson pushed his hands into his hair. “It’s not fair,” he said.
I knew that much. Life wasn’t fair, no matter where you stood. Either you weren’t noticed at all, or you were noticed too much. You were either part of a family you ended up hating, or you weren’t part of a family at all. We all got dealt a hand of cards. The only way we could get through life was to play it the best we could.
“I don’t really feel like eating, anymore,” Hanson said when the wine arrived. He glanced at the menu.
“Me either,” I said. I’d lost my appetite.
“What’s up next?” he asked.
“We’re meeting with the city’s committee for helping the homeless on Wednesday,” I said.
Hanson nodded. He leaned back in his chair. It felt like we’d reached a stalemate. I hated it. I didn’t want to care about him. Caring about people just ended up hurting. But for some reason, I still did.
Chapter 28 – Hanson
I stood in the tunnel that led out to the field. My team members were all there, standing with me. They weren’t as hostile as they’d been before. We weren’t exactly friends. Except for Brian, I didn’t feel like I was part of the team, but I was getting out onto the field and that was all that mattered.
God, I’d missed playing. Being suspended for six games had been pure torture. But it was over now.
We ran onto the field, and the roar of the crowd was deafening. The green grass was spongy beneath my feet, and the lights were blinding in a way they could only be on a football field. I was surrounded by four shadows that ran as I did.
And Lacey was watching. At the back of my mind, I knew she was watching. I shouldn’t care, but I did. She hadn’t seen me like this. I hadn’t been playing when we’d met. This was a different side of me. Sometimes, I thought it was the only side that was real.
“Are you good to go?” Brian asked, jogging next to me.
“You know it,” I said.
We split up and took our spots on the field. I was the Free Safety. My job was to tackle and to tackle hard. As the last line of defense, I had to make sure the ball didn’t get through. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had gotten past me.
The game started, and the rest of the world fell away. My focus was on the game. We didn’t play a strong game, and it was up to me to make sure the ball didn’t get through. The team didn’t work as a unit, not the way we used to when I was still playing. I doubted it was because of me, but we still had a lot of work to do.
The quarterback headed toward me. He was mine. As the free safety, he was my target and he wasn’t going to make it to his destination. I m
A lineman broke through the defensive line and headed toward the end zone. I marked another player besides the quarterback. I headed for him and tackled him to the ground. The ball popped free from his grip and bounced to the sidelines.
The crowd erupted. The game carried on for a while longer, but in the end, we won. And not by the skin of our teeth, either. We’d beaten the other team by three touchdowns.
The team rallied around me.
“You’re a hell of a defense player,” Brian shouted over the noise of the crowd and the team all around us. “I’ve forgotten how good it is to have you on the field.”
I clapped him on the shoulder.
“We’re celebrating tonight,” I shouted before we were dragged along to the locker room.
We went to the White Room. I was comfortable there, and the VIP booths were exactly what we needed. Of course, we didn’t stick just to the booths. There were more than enough people on the main dance floor to ensure a great party, and the music was amazing.
I danced with a bunch of teammates between the other club goers, when I saw her coming down the steps that led down from the main entrance. Lacey wore a blue dress that was so tight it looked painted on and a lot shorter than anything I’d seen her in before.
The dress was the same color as her eyes, and the contrast with her black hair and the black shoes she wore was spectacular. Her eyes scanned the crowd.
Look at me , I willed, and just as I thought it, her eyes found mine. She didn’t smile the way I hoped she would, but it didn’t matter. She pushed her way through the crowd toward me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, pulling her close to me to talk into her ear.
Her body and her dress were even more breathtaking up close. Her eyes were made up with smoky eyeshadow, the way women did it these days, and she pulled it off beautifully. Instead of red lips, she wore a nude lipstick. It made me want to kiss her.