Chapter 1

Eleanor “Elli” Fisher didn’t understand why she was so forgetful. She was convinced that if her ass wasn’t attached to her, she would forget it at home too. But really? How in the world did she forget all the bulbs for her light stands?!

Elli stood in the entrance of the Luther Arena, waiting for Harper Allen, her assistant, to bring the bulbs back from her studio on the western side of Nashville. This was one of the most important days of her career and she forgot the bulbs.

God, she was an idiot.

How did she manage this? She ran her hand through her unruly brown curly hair, sighing. As if forgetting the bulbs wasn’t enough, she was also having a really crappy hair day. This was her first year with the Nashville Assassins. She couldn’t blow it. Being chosen to be the photographer for a hockey team was huge, but when it was for the team that just won the Stanley Cup and had the prospect of winning again? Hello, it was HUGE.

When she saw Harper running into the arena with the bulbs in hand, she let out the breath she had been holding. Damn, that was fast.

“For Christ’s sake! It’s a mad house out there!” Harper complained in her thick Southern accent. Her hair was in spikes this week. The spikes were also purple, which made it even more interesting. Hadn’t she discussed with Harper how they needed to keep a professional image? Yes, purple was a team color.

But still!

“I know, come on. Let’s go put the bulbs in.” She didn’t have time to have it out with Harper right now; she had to get to the ice. They all but ran towards the entrance to the ice. Once there, she was greeted by the Assassins’ PR rep.

“Ms. Fisher, how do you do? Are you ready?”

Melody Yates was intense. That was the only way Elli could describe her. She was from New Jersey, and had been converted into a Southerner. And that made no damn sense to Elli, but whatever, this was her boss. So she flashed a huge grin and turned on her Southern charm.

“Yes, ma’am. Let my assistant put these bulbs in, and we can get started.”

“Good, the boys will be out soon. Then we’ll go downstairs for the other shots we need.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Harper ran ahead of them and started setting everything up. Elli took in a deep breath. She had been photographing weddings almost her whole adult life, and now she was moving to sports. She had always wanted to do sports photography, partly because she had such a love of hockey, but she never could get the opportunity. But thanks to a job opening, and being related to the owner of the Assassins, here she was.

This was her chance.

A big one.

Harper handed Elli her camera with a big smile. Harper knew how important this day was, and also how nervous Elli was.

“Go on over there and let me test shoot, Harp.” Harper started towards the goal and turned with a stick in her hand, making a stern face. It brought a smile to Elli’s face. Harper was a dork, but God, Elli loved her. After fixing the aperture on her camera, Elli called Harper over as the guys started skating onto the ice.

“Good golly, Miss Molly! Look at them! Good Lord! They are gorgeous!” Harper whispered as all the guys came out and sat on the bench. Elli took her time looking the guys over. They were gorgeous, alright. But she already knew that, since she never missed a home game. Sometimes she thought it was the uniforms: bright purple and black, with a masked man on the front of the jerseys, that brought out their good looks. But nope, even with the helmets off, these men were just plain gorgeous.

Getting back in the zone, she called for the coaches first. Trying to bottle her nerves, she got started. After shooting the coaches, it was on to the team. Each player came out in front of the goal, taking their pose. Elli zoomed in, taking a head shot before taking one with them holding a stick. After taking that picture, they lined up for an action shot, which consisted of them skating towards her while shooting a puck. During all of this, Harper offered up commentary.

“For the love of God, El, that dude is hot!” Elli rolled her eyes, taking the shots she needed.

“Hush, Harp.”

“No, really. Like, please, can I hit on one of them? Just one?”

“No.”

“You’re no fun.”

Elli laughed it off. She was starting to get into her groove, just as the alternate captains and the captain came off the bench.

“Oh, to hell with what you say. Number two is mine, after this!” Elli gave her a pointed look as Jakob Titov, the Assassins’ leading scoring forward, skated in front of the goal. Jakob was extremely good looking, with hard lines to his face, bright green eyes, and dark brown hair. He was a looker, but not Elli’s type.

He reminded her too much of her ex-boyfriend.

“Hush, Harper!” Elli said as she took the shots she needed. What she didn’t need was Jakob making eyes at her assistant, which he did. And of course, Harper returned them. She didn’t know why it bothered her so much that Harper always flirted with the clients. It didn’t matter how old they were or what they looked like, or even if they were the groom. She always found something in them that she liked. It was probably the fact that they all had a penis.

Elli loved Harper, but she was a little promiscuous and she didn’t care who knew. Guys had no worth to her unless they were naked and inside her, as she always said. Elli always wondered what made Harper that way; it made no sense. There had never been a guy that had done Harper wrong in the twenty two years they had been friends. Her parents were good people, so Elli really didn’t understand where it came from. And, of course, guys liked Harper. She was wild, beautiful, skinny, and amazing.

Everything Elli wasn’t.

Jakob lined up, giving her his action shot. After she got it, he skated towards her and Harper instead of his teammates.

What the hell was he doing?

“Nice hair, beautiful,” he flirted in his thick Russian accent. Harper just smiled widely, as Elli flushed deep red. Elli didn’t know why she was embarrassed, but she was. She didn’t want attention on Harper right now, not with the importance of this job.

“Nice stick,” Harper said, looking down at where he was holding his stick. Jakob gave her a devilish smile and skated towards the bench.

“You are impossible, Harper Allen,” Elli said, flustered.

After getting it together, Alex Welch came next. Alex was easy to shoot. He had good lines, and bright blue eyes, so the pictures were bound to be fabulous. Next was the captain, Shea Adler.

Elli blushed as she got to the close-up of Shea. She had always thought the defenseman was gorgeous. With his almost black hair that fell in the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen, and a crooked nose that had been broken two years ago during a game with the Red Wings, she had to admit that she had a little bit of a crush on him. When he smiled, her heart melted. Yeah, his teeth were probably false, but damn, he had a pretty mouth.

“Why’s he blinking so much?” Harper asked. Elli was too busy looking at his mouth to notice.

“Harp, shut up,” she whispered, but then she noticed that the captain was blinking a little too much.

“Is he hitting on you?”

“Oh, my God!”

Elli’s whole face flushed deep red as she looked down at the picture viewer of her camera. In all the pictures, the captain’s eyes were shut. Elli looked up, and Shea was rubbing his eyes.

“Mr. Adler,” she said as she started walking towards him. He looked over at her.

“I’m sorry, but I need you to stop blinking. Your eyes are closed in every picture I have taken.”

“I’m sorry.”

Oh God, his voice was butter, thick with a Boston accent. Elli swore she came at the sound of it.

“I got new contacts and they are bugging the hell out of me.”

“Someone get Adler another pair!” somebody yelled as he pinched the little lenses out of his eyes, throwing them down on the ice.

“We can do this without them, right?”

Elli just nodded. Gosh, he was gorgeous! He tried to make eye contact with her, and it was obvious that it was hard for him to see.

“I won’t be able to see your beautiful face for a little bit, but I’ll have a new pair soon. Then I can stare some more.”

Elli stood there blinking.

Was he flirting with her?

Did he just call her beautiful?

She turned without a word and went back to work. When it came time for Shea Adler to skate off, he ran into the goal, then the wall, before making it to the bench. Everyone was in a fit of laughter except for Elli. She was still in shock.

Because Shea Adler had called her beautiful.

After the shoot downstairs, which consisted of the guys in sexy suits holding their hockey sticks, Harper and Elli started cleaning up and tearing down the equipment. Elli didn’t hire big crews; she didn’t like them. All she needed was Harper and two other assistants, and she was good. The day had been great. All the shots were fantastic. Once she edited them, they would be golden. The guys were amazing and sweet, not really as cocky as the sports reporters make them sound. They were good guys.

Elli was packing up her camera when she saw Jakob Titov coming towards her. He gave her a grin before going over to where Harper was standing. She watched as he flirted with Harper, who was playing hard to get; something she had perfected. Jakob pulled his phone out as she did the same. They were exchanging numbers. He asked her something and Harper just giggled and then leaned forward, giving him a kiss on his cheek.

Jakob put his hand on his heart before stepping backwards, a dazed look on his face, causing Harper to laugh. He shot her a wave as he left with his bag over his shoulder. Harper smiled and looked over at Elli. “He’ll call when he gets in the car,” she said, as she walked towards Elli with the rods from the light stands.

“How do you know? He said that?”

“Nope, but I know his type. Needy.”

The sad thing was that Harper was probably right.

Elli looked down at her camera, taking care to put it away. As she zipped the zipper to her purple and black bag, (Yes, team colors) she cursed herself for being shy and stupid with guys. When Shea said she was beautiful, she should have said something clever. That’s what Harper would do. But nope, she just stood there blinking and looking downright stupid.

Elli knew the problem. It was the face that she had no confidence at all. She didn’t think she was good enough for male attention. She wouldn’t say she was plus-sized, but she was thick. She wasn’t a size two anymore. Nope. Good ole ten now. The sad thing was that she hadn’t even had any kids yet. She had a thyroid problem, but that was seven years ago and she still wasn’t able to get the weight off. It didn’t matter if she had great fashion sense, guys just didn’t hit on her the way they had when she was a size two. It was depressing, because Elli was lonely.

Elli would never admit it to anyone, but she wanted that “happily ever after”.

She always put on the front that she liked being alone and didn’t need a man, but it was such a lie. Elli wished she could be like her older sister Victoria. She loved being single, loved sleeping with different men, but Elli just couldn’t do it. It was so private and with the way she felt about her body, no one was getting her undressed until she knew she loved him and he loved her.

After packing everything on the carts, they started pushing them down the hall towards the car. After three trips, they had everything packed, and were walking toward their cars when Harper’s phone rang. Elli didn’t even stay back to listen. She kept walking with a wave as Harper cooed into her phone.

Once in her F-150, (hey, trucks aren’t just for boys), she drove off towards the west end of Nashville to get onto the interstate. She’d planned to ask Harper if she could stay the night with her since she was stupid tired and didn’t want to drive for forty five minutes, but it looked like Harper was going to be busy. So she decided to go home. Elli hit the interstate, preparing herself for the drive. It was probably good that she was going home. She had forgotten to call Ally, her neighbor, to let her dog out.

When Elli had purchased the old country home outside of Nashville five years ago, it had seemed like a great idea. The studio had been open for two years. It was thriving and she wanted a home, not some apartment or condo. So she bought it without even looking at anything else. It was the house for her. After five years, it wasn’t the old country home she had bought anymore. It was a masterpiece. Everything had been redone, the décor classic and beautiful.

Whenever Elli’s dad came to visit, he would always say that it was like he was standing in sunshine because it was so bright. She smiled just thinking of her home. She was so proud of both her studio and home. They showed the world that she was doing something with her life. They proved that she didn’t need her family’s money, that she was successful after losing her stint on Broadway, and that she could live without Justin, her ex.

She pulled into her round driveway, grabbing all of her bags. Even before getting to the door, she heard her pug running down the hall, and then the barking started.

“I know, Adler. I’m home, darling, hold on.” Elli opened the door and her 40 pound pug attacked her. Well, he tried to, at least. She laughed as she threw her keys in the basket by the door. She bent down to her puppy, who was struggling to breathe.

“Oh my goodness, Adler, honey. Breathe, darling.” Elli pet him until he calmed down, kissed the top of his head, and then locked the door as her house phone rang. She didn’t answer it. She knew it was her mother, and Elli was not in the mood to talk to her. The machine picked up and her mother’s voice rang over the machine, telling her to call her. She pushed delete before going to the kitchen for some dinner. She decided on a frozen dinner, since she didn’t feel like cooking. She went to get her laptop while her food cooked in the microwave.

Elli walked through her bright yellow living room. She loved the décor in here. The gleaming walls accented the black wrap-around couches that had matching throw pillows. The couches brought the room together. Her extremely large TV, a gift from her father because she loved watching the away games in HD, hung above her mantel that held pictures of her nieces and nephews. She smiled as she passed them to get her laptop. She loved her nieces and nephews, and couldn’t wait to take them to the park next weekend for their monthly visit.

After getting her laptop and returning to the bar, she loaded the pictures from her camera as she got a fork and napkin. She sat down at the bar, food and laptop in front of her. She had taken over 3,000 shots of the Assassins. A good amount, but that meant she had lots of work ahead of her. She inhaled her frozen pasta meal. She realized she was hungrier than she thought as she looked over the pictures. They were good shots, really good. Only a few were crappy. But with Photoshop, she could fix them with no problem.

As she went from picture to picture, Elli kept going back to Shea Adler’s pictures. Gosh, he was so stinking gorgeous. He had the most amazing eyes she’d ever seen. They were such a dazzling shade of blue, so bright, and so happy. He probably had a beautiful girlfriend at home, with a dog and a nine bedroom house with all the fixings. He just looked like he was happy. When she came to the pictures of him in the suit, he took her breath away. The suit was black, with a purple vest underneath. The hockey stick that he held was so slick looking. But you really didn’t look at the stick or the suit, you looked at his eyes.

Good golly, they were mesmerizing.

Not that Elli would admit this to anyone, but while she worked that night, she kept flipping back to the pictures of Shea, looking at his beautiful eyes, his hard body. She wished that she was the girlfriend at his house waiting for him to get home so they could sit on the couch, cuddling as they watched highlights from the games that night, while Adler lay beside them along with Shea’s dog.

Elli smiled at the thought, and then rolled her eyes.

As if that would ever happen.

“Not only did I run into the goal, but the wall too!”

Shea Adler sat with the side of his face in his hand. His glasses were crooked but he didn’t care. He was beyond embarrassed about what had happened at the Assassins’ photo shoot earlier that day.

“I can’t stand it when I get new contacts. They eff my eyes all to hell. God, it was so embarrassing, Grace. So embarrassing.”

His twin sister laughed on the other end of the phone as Shea rolled his eyes, dropping his hand from his face to get up for a drink of water.

“I don’t know why you’re so embarrassed, Shea. It was only the guys.”

“And the staff!”

“Okay, and the staff. So what?”

“And the photo people!”

“So? You’re never embarrassed about anything. What aren’t you telling me?”

Shea didn’t say anything. He wasn’t telling Grace about the beautiful brunette with the biggest and brightest green eyes he had ever seen. The kind of eyes that took his breath away when he looked into them; something that had never happened to him before.

“Who is she?” Grace asked with a knowing voice, “Hopefully not some dumb blonde bimbo that will suck you dry.”

“Hey, no one has sucked me dry!” Shea said defensively.

“They tried.”

“Now you know that’s not true. I won’t even let them close enough to suck me dry.”

“Whatever. You bought the last chick, Marie, a diamond necklace!”

“Because I cheated on her with her sister and she threatened to kill herself because she loved me so much!”

“Oh, yeah. Well anyway, who is she?”

“How do you know it’s a woman?”

“Because, like I said, you don’t get embarrassed. So shut up and tell me.”

“I don’t know who she is. She was the photographer today.”

“Okay, and?”

“And she was beautiful.”

“Did you ask her out?”

“No, she is kind of different,” he said sheepishly.

“What the hell, Shea? You are not making sense. Who am I talking to?” she said teasingly, “This isn’t my brother, big scary Captain Adler, because my brother’s motto is ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’”

Shea let out a booming laugh, which caused her to laugh.

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She was shy, cute.”

“Hmm, sounds like a winner in my book,” Grace cooed.

“Maybe.”

“So, anyway, the party for this weekend is almost done, planning-wise.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’m excited. The guys are gonna have a ball.”

“That’s why I hired the best party planner in Nashville.”

Grace giggled and went on with the details, as Shea stood in his stainless steel kitchen. Grace had decorated the whole condo for him when they came to Nashville four years ago. He had just gotten traded to the Assassins from the Flyers and couldn’t be happier to be moved to a team that was going to pay a hell of a lot more than the Flyers ever did. Plus, Grace had hated Philadelphia. Probably as much as Shea did. Luckily, they both loved Nashville. Grace would never go anywhere without Shea, and he wouldn’t go anywhere without her.

The joy of being twins!

Grace had helped pick out the condo, and even lived with him for a while to finish decorating, before looking for her own. Then she met James Justice. After only being together for a couple of months, she got pregnant. Now Grace lived ten minutes from Shea in a beautiful 1.2 million dollar house, blissfully married, with two of the greatest kids in the world, Ryan and Amelia, while running the biggest party planning business in Nashville. Shea couldn’t be happier for her, but he always got nervous at the thought that one day he might be leaving her, if he got traded again.

“Does that sound okay?” Grace asked, bringing him back to the conversation.

“Of course. Do you have a photographer?” Shea found himself asking. Grace starting laughing.

“No, you never said you wanted one.”

“Well, maybe it would be a good idea. With all the new players and their families, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. Do you have a certain photographer in mind, Shea?”

“Oh hush, and get her.”

“Who is she!?”

“I don’t know, but find her and get her. Offer her a price she can’t refuse.”

“You have no idea what her name is?”

“I think I heard Elli, but I’m not sure. Call Melody, she would know.”

“Fine. I’ve got three days to find this chick. Jeez, Shea.”

“I love you, Gracey,” he cooed. She laughed.

“I love you, too. Bye.”

“Bye.”

He hung up his phone, tucking it into his pocket with a grin on his face. He went to his fridge, smiling at his niece and nephew’s pictures before opening it to get a beer. He popped the top as he walked to the dimly lit living room. He sat down on his leather couch and turned on the TV to catch some of the highlights before turning in for the night. He had an early practice in the morning. Plus, he was volunteering with the team tomorrow over at Vanderbilt’s Children’s hospital.

As Shea drank his beer, he found himself grinning. If Grace came through, he would be seeing the beautiful photographer by this weekend.

And this time, he would conquer.

© 2011 Toni Aleo. All rights reserved.