Authors: Mandy Baxter
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Thanks to my agent, Natanya Wheeler and everyone at NYLA and to my amazing editor, Monique Patterson. A huge thanks also goes to Alexandra Sehulster, the talented cover designers, copy editors, and marketing staff at St. Martin's Press! As always, any mistakes are my own. I can only imagine what I'd miss without the amazing support of SMP staff to keep me looking neat and tidy!
“No. No freaking way.” Travis Christensen gave an emphatic shake of his head. He stared at the Dallas Stars's team manager, Bob Spencer, as though he'd grown a second head in the course of their conversation. The man had obviously lost his mind. An image consultant? They may as well have asked him to go visit a shrink or some shit. Travis's job was to stop the pucks that flew toward his face at 100mph. What the pressâor anyone elseâthought of him was none of his business. “I'm not doing it.”
Bob's lips thinned as he returned Travis's stare. “You're going and that's that. I'm tired of cleaning up your messes, Travis.”
With a huff of breath, Travis slouched back in his seat and threw one arm over the back of the chair. “Then don't. I couldn't give a single shit what the press thinks about me, Bob.” The press
to fixate on his social life. Totally not his fault. Or his problem. “It doesn't affect my game. Or did you not notice my shut-out the other night?”
“Maybe you should care,” Bob remarked sourly. He tossed a folded copy of the sports section from
The Dallas Morning News
onto his desk toward Travis. “Because the press sure as shit didn't notice your shut-out.”
Travis leaned forward and glanced at the headline: “Travis Christensen's Wild Nights: The Dallas Stars's Goalie Skates through the Playoffs with the Help of Booze, Women, and the Local Club Scene.”
He hiked a shoulder and sat back in his seat. “Sensationalism sells papers. It's not a big deal.”
“It'll be a big deal when all of it catches up to you.”
It might seem that way to Bob, but Travis wasn't about to slow down. “My game's tight.”
“You were hung over at yesterday's practice,” Bob replied. “And it's not the first time. I don't care if you stop every puck in every game for the rest of the season; that shit's disrespectful to each and every man on the ice and it's going to stop.”
Okay, so maybe being hung over at practice wasn't the best idea. And yeah, he'd had a few late nights lately, but didn't he deserve to celebrate his accomplishments? “No one on the team has complained.”
“Not to your face,” Bob said with a derisive snort. “They're tired of the media circus. The press isn't asking them questions about the playoffs or their own games anymore. No one's answered a single question that isn't about who you're sleeping with or where you went last night or who you paid for a date and who you didn't.”
“I didn't tell them to answer any of those nosy questions,” Travis said. “Did you?” Honestly, it was no one's business whatâor whoâhe did. His teammates didn't have to feed the media monster. They could do what he did: tell them all to fuck off.
“So the entire team is supposed to just walk on by?” Bob asked. “Sit at the post-game press conferences with their mouths shut? You know that's not possible.”
Travis shrugged. He didn't see why not.
“It's only a matter of time before you do something that's going to wind your ass up on the bench, Travis,” Bob said. “Hell, you're halfway there now. And this team can't afford that.
can't afford it. Scott Thomlinson wants the focus back on the Stars. Not you. And that's not going to happen until you're squeaky clean.”
Of course the team's owner wanted the focus on the franchise and nothing else
. Travis stifled a yawn. He was too damned young to walk the straight and narrow. He'd save that shit for when he was old and retired, with a beer gut and a receding hairline. Until then, he planned on living every single damned minute of his life to its fullest.
“I'll lay low until after the playoffs,” Travis suggested. He could behave himself for a month or so. How hard could it be? “The media will forget all about me in a couple of weeks.”
“That's not good enough, Travis,” Bob said with a sad shake of his head. “I'm not going to be happy with slapping a Band-Aid on it and neither is the coaching staff. It's time to make a change. You're doing this, whether you want to or not.”
Travis shifted in his seat. Bob's attempt to give him a time-out wasn't going to help his game in the slightest. In fact, it might fuck up his flow. “This is a total load of bullshit. And a waste of my time.”
Bob sat back in his chair and let out a long-suffering sigh. “Either way, you're meeting with the consultant tomorrow. We're paying a hefty chunk of change for her services.”
Travis smirked. “How is you paying a woman to manage me any different than me paying a woman toâ”
finish that sentence,” Bob warned with a scowl. “I swear to God Almighty, Travis, if you give her so much as an ounce of troubleâ¦”
Travis snorted. “I'll meet with her, but I'm not promising that there'll be a second meeting.” He'd make sure of it.
“I want you on better than your best behavior,” Bob stressed. “I guess I have to spell it out for you. If you screw this up, your season is over. Period.”
Travis shot up straight in his chair. “The fuck, Bob? I don't deserve that!”
“Meet with the consultant,” Bob said. “Don't make me take our best chance at the Stanley Cup off the ice.”
Travis shoved himself up from his chair and headed for the door. “This is blackmail, Bob. Plain and simple.”
“Look at it however you'd like,” he said smugly. “Just show up at your appointment in the morning.”
If Bob or the coaching staff, or even the team's owner thought a sit-down with some stick-up-their-butt image consultant was going to fix anything, the next few weeks of the season were going to be
long for all of them.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Reily Martin stared down at the laundry list of Travis Christensen's faults, all laid out on her pristine yellow legal pad written in crisp, black ink. He was the total package and then some: pro athlete, Texas oil royalty, rich beyond reason, and good-looking, not to mention charming. Panties all across Dallas dropped simultaneously at the mention of his name. The media had painted him as an irreverent bad boy, that was for sure, but she wasn't worried. She'd been known to transform Dallas socialite party girls into Disney freakin' Princesses. Turning the wild, party-boy goalie into an upstanding role model was a challengeâand a paycheckâthat was too good to walk away from.
Reily had built her career on being able to polish the most tarnished of reputations to a high sheen. She wasn't just an image consultant, she was a spin-doctor extraordinaire. People came to her as a last resort, and they paid her to salvage careers before they sank too low to be recovered. From what Bob Spencer had told her, Travis was on the cusp of losing his. According to her intel, Travis was a serial dater who wasn't above seeing call girls when it suited his fancy. He frequented all of Dallas's hottest clubs, hung out with celebrities, and stayed out until all hours of the morning, sometimes showing up to practice hung over or on no sleep. Life was one big party for Travis Christensen.
Too bad for him, all of that was about to come to an end.
Reily never could understand that sort of out-of-control behavior. She lived her life by a schedule as well as a code of conduct that she never violated. Never had more than a glass of wine or a single cocktail. Didn't stay out past her bedtime and kept her associations to people whose reputations were as pristine as hers.
To someâlike Travis Christensen, no doubtâher life probably seemed tragic. Then again, wasn't it Reily they came to for help when their own wild lives spun quickly out of control? None of them mocked her regimented lifestyle then, did they?
A smirk curved her lips as she ticked off one item after the next on her damage control list. Scott Thomlinson, the Dallas Stars owner, wanted the Stanley Cup this year and according to Bob, they needed Travis in the net to get it done. None of them was willing to take the risk that their goalie would run off the rails before it happened. And if Reily managed to turn Travis around, she'd get a hefty bonus for her efforts.
Cozumel, here I come!
She'd been saving up for the trip before her previous firm had gone under last year. Instead of taking her dream vacation, she'd sunk every dime into starting her own PR and consulting firm. So far, she'd been able to keep her head above water, but that was about it. It took close to five years for any new business to gain a solid footing. Snagging the Stars's business was definitely a step in the right direction.
In the end, Reily supposed she had party boys like Travis to thank for keeping her afloat. If they weren't so hell-bent on ruining their lives, there would be no messes for her to clean up.
Her office phone rang and Reily let out a low sigh. It totally sucked that she had to wear all of the hats around here. But until she started pulling in more money, she'd have to be a one-woman show.
She picked up the receiver and answered, “This is Reily Martin.”
“Reily, this is Bob Spencer. Just wanted to let you know that Travis is set to meet with you in the morning.”
From the sound of Bob's beleaguered tone, it had been a hard sell. Not surprising. Most of Reily's clients had to be dragged in, kicking and screaming. “Don't worry,” she said with a laugh. “I'll get him on the right track.”
“I don't know,” he replied with a gust of breath. “Travis is a tough nut to crack. Always has been. I gave him a stern warning not to push your buttons, but I've never known him to back down from a challenge.”
Reily had dealt with her fair share of stubborn personalities. No one embraced change well. And those who were forced to change took it even harder. “He can try to push my buttons,” she replied. “But I'm pretty unflappable.”