And even though I would have done anything for Kessler in the past, throwing my career goals aside for him doesn’t seem right. Not now, when there are no guarantees of our feelings for each other and a future together.
He gives me a steady look. “Do you want me to step aside?”
I shake my head. “I don’t want it to be that way.”
“And I don’t want to either, because I want to be here and I will fight to be here. Maybe I got the job because I was playing for the Kings for a year, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think I deserve it, and it doesn’t mean I don’t think I’m good at it.” He pauses. “But Nova, I want to stay here. For you.”
I swallow. “For me?”
“Yes. But I don’t even have you. And I’m not sure if I’ll ever get you, I mean really get you, unless you take my job and let all of this go. Do you know what I mean? Do you see the problem?”
I see the problem. I’ve always seen the problem. “Catch-22,” I say.
He exhales and runs his hand down his face before looking back at me. “So what do we do?”
“Nothing, I guess,” I say with a tired sigh, already distancing myself from it. “Just keep doing this. Go for a swim.”
“Yeah, swim!” Hunter says, stomping excitedly on his sandcastle.
“What about the food?” Kessler says.
“We’ll come back to it later,” I tell him. “Come on.”
It takes a lot of extra sunscreen on Hunter and some struggling with the inflatable wings before we’re ready to go. I’m grateful for the change in subject, but Kessler is back to being cagey about the water. Maybe our talk hit him deeper than I thought. As much as it would be touching for him to step aside for me, it’s not what I want from him either.
I think…I think I just want him.
The thought alone already has me feeling like I’m drowning.
I go into the water, holding Hunter’s hand, Kessler holding his other.
Of course, I’m not a mom, I don’t have a ton of experience with kids, I have no idea how to teach a kid to swim. I kind of thought Kessler would for some reason.
But he looks just as confused.
“I think you should lift him up and walk in the water with him,” I tell Kessler, as the waves lap at Hunter’s feet. “Just get him used to being in it. But don’t let go yet, even though he has the wings.”
He frowns, then looks out at the waves, which are especially calm for a December day. “I think you should.”
“You’re a woman.”
“So?” I lower my voice. “I’m not his mom.”
“I know that but I just think it’s a woman thing to do.”
I peer at him. “You’re not glistening anymore. You’re sweating. What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me now.”
“Kessler,” I warn him. I glance down at Hunter who is looking up at us impatiently, wondering what the hell is going on.
He sighs. “Fine.” He scoops Hunter up in his arms and then gingerly walks into the waves. I’m right beside him. As we go, Kessler keeps staring down at his feet in the water.
“Are you afraid of sharks?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. “No. Well, I mean, who isn’t?”
“I don’t get it, you’re acting afraid of the water. You’ve been in this water before. With me. Remember?”
He looks at me quickly. “I remember. That was different. I always kept my feet on the bottom. And you were very distracting.”
“What was I distracting you of? Oh my god. Kessler.” I whisper, “Do you know how to swim?”
His pained expression says it all.
“Oh my god,” I cry out softly. “How is this possible? Everyone knows how to swim.”
“Not everyone,” he snaps. “Hunter doesn’t.”
“I’m going to learn,” Hunter says knowingly. “I’m only three.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“And have you revoke my man card?”
“Oh come on, no one can revoke your man card. I just don’t get how that’s possible. You’re a hockey player. You grew up skating on frozen lakes and rivers in the Yukon. What happened if you fell in?”
“Uh, then you die.”
“I don’t want to die,” Hunter says.
“You’re not going to die, buddy,” Kessler says.
I hold out my arms for Hunter. “Here, come here Hunter. Let’s practice this.”
Kessler hesitantly hands him over to me and I hold Hunter in the water, raising him up when the waves roll through. “You know you’re going to have to learn too, Kess. You can’t live here and not know how. It’s not just dangerous for you, you need to know for Hunter’s sake, just in case.”
Kessler sighs and starts walking backward toward shore a few steps, until the water is at his waist. “Fine. But you’re teaching me.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Why do you think? If I go to anyone else, I will have my man card revoked.”
“Stop talking about your man card like it’s a thing. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“Well I couldn’t tell that from your reaction. Anyway, sometimes people recognize me. I don’t think an article in the NHL Daily News about has-been defenseman Kessler Rocha taking swimming lessons in a kiddie pool with toddlers would do me any favors.”
“There’s not really a NHL Daily News, is there?”
“There is and I’m pretty sure Mike Epson is their main contributor.”
“Okay fine. I’ll teach you. I’ll teach both of you. Would you like that Hunter?”
“Yeah! Can daddy have water wings too?”
I laugh. “I would love to make that happen.”
Of course when it comes to Kessler, I think the only thing that would fit around his arms would be two inner tubes. The idea of getting two matching flamingo floaties crosses my mind.
“Stop laughing,” he says. “I can tell you’re picturing things in your head. Silly things.”
I stick my tongue out at him.
Hunter starts singing, “Simply, having, a wonderful Christmas time.”
But you know what? For once the song makes sense.
You want to know the most annoying sound in the world?
It’s the sound of a New Year’s Eve party favor horn.
There’s currently one sticking in through the crack in my office door and going off.
I stare at the door, waiting for it to open wider.
Kessler pokes his head in, smiling with that horn dangling from his mouth like it’s a cigar.
“Happy New Year’s,” he says.
“It’s not New Year’s yet,” I tell him.
“I know,” he says, coming inside. “But it will be soon and I’m not about to let you work late on New Year’s Eve. Boss’s orders. That’s me.”
I narrow my eyes at him. Got to say, still hate that term, boss. “I have to work on this research.”
“No, you don’t,” he says, leaning over the desk. God, even though the suit can be so stifling here, he looks damn good in one, especially like this when he’s not wearing a tie and the first few buttons of his dress shirt are undone and you can see a hint of chest hair and skin.
He gives me a crooked, cocky grin.
He knows I like what I see.
“The office is closed tomorrow,” he goes on. “Everyone needs a break. Research about bikes, or what Pantone colors are in for next year or how to beat Instagram’s algorithms or whatever it is you’re trying to busy yourself with, can wait.”
“I’m not busying myself.”
“You are. I know you.”
“Didn’t we just have a discussion about how the both of us work too hard?”
“Yeah, we did, and it hasn’t changed a thing. You’re not doing this because you have no New Year’s plans, are you?”
I shrug. Kate invited me to some massive party on a hotel rooftop, but I know she’s only going because some of her other friends are going and some guy she wants to bone will be there. It’s the kind of place that will be too loud and chaotic and I’ll be alone and while normally I might try to go and score with someone, things are different now.
Things are different now because of the man leaning on my desk, his gorgeous eyes raking over my features, taking me in like a sunset and he doesn’t have a camera.
“Well, you do have plans,” he says, straightening up. For a moment there I thought he was going to kiss me and damn if I’m not disappointed.
I clear my throat and tidy the stack of papers on my desk. “What plans are those?”
“Plans with me,” he says. “Come on, let’s go get you all dressed up.” He motions for me to get up.
I don’t move. “Dressed up? I don’t think so.”
His lips twist into a smirk and then he’s leaving my office.
“Where are you going?” I ask. Funny how I wanted to be left alone, but now that he was here for a minute, I’m bereft without him. Why is it so hard for me to admit that I want to be with him, be around him? Why can’t I just be real?
Add that to your new year’s resolution, I tell myself, just as Kessler comes back in my office with two garment bags.
“What are those?” I ask, slowly getting to my feet.
He holds up one and shakes it. “This one is a tuxedo for yours truly because I feel like being a Hawaiian James Bond tonight.” He shakes the other one. “This is for you. From me. I never did give you your Christmas present.”
That’s true. On Christmas, after the delicious turkey that Loan cooked, I gave him the box of macadamia nut chocolates and he gave me a piece of paper that said I.O.U. I thought it was funny and forgot about it, but apparently he didn’t.