Just a Number by Rhiannon Matlock

For Paul Player. I hope you enjoy it.

A sharp spray pelted the boards as she skidded to a stop, swung open the heavy door, and stepped off the ice…..

It had been a short practice. It should have been much longer, but the idiot had cut it short. Her new coach was long on speech and short on action. She wasn’t sure exactly why she’d gone with him. Actually that was untrue. There was a very, very good reason why. It was just wasn’t something she liked to dwell on. His skin was pale, his teeth crooked in only the way the English can have and yet pull off with their cocky British accents to distract you. She wondered if anyone ever noticed how much they got away with on that tiny island simply because they said ridiculous words like “bonnet” and “boot” in an almost musical way. The sound should bring a smile to her face, but unfortunately, it had only been acting as a stark reminder of what it wasn’t.

A sigh escaped her before she realized it, and she forced her attention back to the present. She needed to think about anything else.

The locker room was musty and the showers almost certainly carried some sort of fungus between the black cracks. There wasn’t much money put into a two bit arena in the middle of Minnesota. Especially in the summer when everyone wanted to be as far from ice as possible.

Throwing a towel down on the bench, she plopped her skinny butt on the rough fabric and sucked in a long breath before leaning down to the laces. The booth creaked as she pulled on the thick, worn leather and then, with a grit of her teeth, finally let her foot loose.

Sitting up, her eyes inadvertently closed as her toes sighed in happiness while her ankles whined as they swelled. In truth, it was much like her career at this point. She still loved to skate, but it was becoming painful to continue on.

“You should soak that before it gets too big.”

The voice was gruff and shocking in its unexpectedness. Joy jumped a little and then forced herself to sit perfectly still. Maybe she was dreaming that voice. Lord knew she had done so so many times before.

“Joy,” he said, his voice soft and questioning.

Her heart speed up even as her mind shut down. No, this was not happening to her. Not now. Not again.

“I-”

Her eyes flipped open, and she found him instantly. He stopped talking as they took each other in.

He hadn’t changed she noted with frustration. Brown hair cut short with only the barest hint of gray along the sides. A slight fan of wrinkles sprouting from the sides of his eyes and warm blue eyes that looked like windows to the sky. God, she hated that her pulse kicked up a notch just staring at him.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice as cold as the ice she’d just left.

His hands rubbed against his jeans. A sure sign that he was nervous. She didn’t care. That was her mantra now. Don’t care about anything or anyone. It was simple and easy to remember.

“If you have nothing to say, the door is right behind you,” she said, leaning down again to take off the other skate which she realized was housing a throbbing foot.

Just another thing to add to the long list of things she could blame him for. She mumbled her exasperation at him under her breath.

“Don’t grumble,” he chastised. “It’s unladylike.”

It was like a punch to the gut as she sat up straight as an arrow and fixed him with a hateful stare.

“You are not my father. You never were so fuck off.”

He wiped his hands again and his brows were furrowed fiercely on his face

“Jesus Christ, Ethan, just spit it out already. I’m not getting any younger here.”

“No you’re not,” he said with a loud sigh and raked his hands through his hair, “and that’s part of the problem right there.”

She bit back the words that wanted to leap out of her mouth, knowing they would only provoke an old argument. She nearly sneered at the last thought and returned to her boot. Let him stew in whatever was his problem, she thought as she attacked her laces with vigor.

“Well that’s not really a problem, is it?” he continued and started to pace. “Aging actually works for you.”

“That should be on a Hallmark card somewhere,” she mumbled but he didn’t seem to notice or mind that time.

“I mean, it’s not that I want you to be old. Not that you are old. You’re still only 21 for fuck’s sake!”

That got her attention. Pulling off the boot, she tossed it aside and sat back to look at him again. He was practically wearing a hole in the concrete.

“Ethan,” she called out, her tone still short.

He stopped abruptly and looked at her, almost as if just realizing she was there. His cheeks flushed a little and heavens above it looked attractive on a man who was approaching middle age. Who was she kidding? Everything about him was attractive to her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked again, enunciating slowly and hoping he got the point that she was not happy about the fact.

Maybe then he would go away and stop torturing her. If only she could be so lucky.

He looked at her hard then. Not around her, not through her, not gazing only at the surface of her but really at her.

“I love you,” he blurted out.

Her mouth dropped a little, and by the modestly shocked expression on his face, she was certain he didn’t mean it. He shook his head and moved towards her.

“I mean it,” he added, quickly surmising her conclusion.

She stepped back. The cold floor reminding her harshly just where she was and with that, why she was there.

“No, you don’t.”

“I don’t think you can tell me what I feel,” he said, his lips slightly quirked upwards.

She slapped him.

“Fuck you,” she replied.

His cheek flared red even with his tanned skin trying desperately to hide it. His jaw flexed, but he kept staring at her.

“Sorry to borrow the line,” he said softly, “but it fit.”

“No, it doesn’t. You told me it doesn’t matter. That what I’m feeling doesn’t matter so, to borrow your words: it’s time you leave.”

“Joy,” he said, dragging her name out slowly as his eyes crinkled even before his mouth followed suit.

She always said he smiled with his eyes.

“I love you,” he repeated.

“I’m too young,” she shot back.

“True. I really don’t get why you love me at all.”

“I don’t. When you’re 60, I’ll only be 39.”

His smile widened, “You’ve been thinking about it haven’t you?”

“You’re a bastard.”

He nodded, “I am and I’m entirely too old to still be getting this so wrong.”

Her eyes narrowed, “Are you going to finally answer my question and tell me why you’re here?”

“Ditch your new coach,” he said, flipping his head toward the arena. “Take me back.”

“You want a job?”

“Among other things. You really are a handful.”

“And you really aren’t in any position to be so cheeky.”

“But I can get there. Can’t I?”

All playfulness was dropped out of his tone as he looked at her again with nothing but serious eyes. He lifted a hand and cautiously reached for her face, brushing his fingers lightly against her cheek.

“I really want to get there,” he murmured, “in case I wasn’t being obvious enough.”

She sucked in a short breath, her blood pumping so hard that it was nearly drowning out her hearing. She didn’t need that faculty to see the love pouring from him however. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes and she melted against him. His arms instantly wrapped her up and held her tight. She really shouldn’t be that easy but this was what she wanted all along and he just felt so good.

“Is that a yes?” he asked.

“I thought I was being obvious by throwing myself at you. Again,” she added the last part almost ruefully.

His body relaxed as he chuckled lightly and dropped a kiss against the top of her head.

“Then you better lace up again kid because your practice isn’t over.”

She smiled and for the first time in nearly a year, she felt content. It’s funny how sometimes you don’t realize you’re missing it until it’s right there in front of your face.  “You’re a slave driver,” she commented dryly.

“Who loves you.”

“You can repeat that as many times as you want, by the way.”

“Good because I plan on doing it for a long, long time to come.”

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