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Leena Lopez didn’t like surprises. Scratch that. She absolutely abhorred surprises. For one, they exacerbated her mild-bordering-on-becoming-way-worse anxiety, and two, she preferred to be prepared for anything. Difficult to do in the face of—surprise!
The sudden death of her father ten years ago, ironically brought about because her family yelled surprise! at him on his fiftieth birthday, was enough to last her a lifetime. Between her and her sister Inez, they banned all surprise parties: birthdays, anniversaries, and otherwise. They both wanted to live past fifty.
And she’d mostly successfully avoided all variants of surprises, until a month ago—after she’d quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Seattle—when Leena caught her fiancé cheating on her—not in bed, or in the act, or anything like that. But his face and more, started appearing frequently on a local influencer’s social media accounts especially when he was on road trips. Her name was Charleigh King, and Leena’s fiancé was suddenly Charleigh’s Ozzie. On the surface, the actual breakup was mundane and happened over a quiet dinner. Honestly, Leena should have been prepared for it. She was well acquainted with abandonment. Oz wasn’t the first, and she needed to remind herself that he wouldn’t be the last. But she’d never give Oz or Charleigh the satisfaction of knowing the loss she’d suffered over it. Not only had she lost the promise of a future, she’d lost her home, her friends, and her place on the hospital guild. After her emotions ran the gamut of shock, hurt, self-reflection, anger, and finally resolve, Leena secured a position covering a maternity leave at the hospital—with a recommendation attached to her resume written by her friend Avery Sommer—put a deposit on a short-term sublet at a rock-bottom price, packed her bags, and left the quiet, distant suburbs of Bellevue for the bustling scene of downtown Seattle.
To avoid any subsequent surprises and, by extension, opportunities for abandonment, Leena was avoiding men too. Because one inevitably led to the other: surprise visits from nosy family members, surprise engagements, and surprise pregnancies. Surprise new girlfriends, surprise broken engagements, surprise what-the-heck-am-I-supposed-to-do-nows. Not always in that order. But because of a man, she was single and alone in this city. So she was done with them. The way they looked in their snugly fitted T-shirts; the way they smelled like lemon, pine, and cedar; and the way they looked at her. God, she loved the way a man drank in her curves with his eyes. Leena. Snap out of it. Avoidance, not fantasy. Avoid the fantasy.
She shook herself awake from her man-induced fog. As she did, a blue-eyed, dark-haired, stubbled man held the building entrance door open for her and her bike to pass through. Of course, he was her type, so she didn’t return his smile, or his gaze, but felt his eyes on her until she mounted her bicycle and rode out of sight. There was only trouble to be had getting mixed up with a guy who looked like that coming home at a time like this. Five in the morning was a waking-up time, not a going-to-bed time.
Besides, she had more important things to keep her distracted—focused. Today was her first day of work at her new job, and she’d woken up three hours early to test out her bike commute. To the pre-Oz, pre-living-in-Seattle Leena, three hours might have been excessive. But in her post-Oz world, amateur paparazzi lurked around every corner, waiting for glimpses of her to sell to a website or rag mag like Seattle Stars. This was a reconnaissance mission. Could she ride her bike to work and successfully avoid telescopic lenses? How heavy would the traffic be? Were motorists tolerant of cyclists? To what degree? Would someone in a car recognize her? Were there any road closures or obstructions Google Maps wasn’t aware of? Would the wind be at her back? On a scale of one to ten, ten being Lombard Street, San Francisco, steep, how steep was the hill down to the hospital? An inverse correlation existed between the amount of information she possessed and her blood pressure. On good days, Leena was inquisitive and curious. On days like today, not knowing could have been paralyzing. But as long as her information input was high and her BP was low, she was confident in her decision-making abilities. How people lived their lives on the whims of breezes, she’d never know. Even before she met Oz, she was careful and cognizant of her public image, but now she was nearly militant about it. False and vicious rumors gutted her more than she’d ever let anyone see. As much as possible, Leena adopted what her teenage nephews called being a no drama llama. So far, to varying degrees of success.
This morning, the crisp breeze nipped Leena’s cheeks, bit her earlobes, and combed through the thick curls escaping from the bottom of her helmet. The downhill ride toward the hospital was indeed Lombard comparable, making the uphill trek back home to her apartment building a leg burner. A fair exchange.
On her brown vintage Schwinn, she cruised the dark, deserted streets, meandering around the pools of streetlight which spilled over the sidewalk, gutter, and asphalt. When she arrived at the front entrance of the hospital, she clocked her uninterrupted commute at seventeen minutes. Later when she actually left for work, she’d add an additional thirteen minutes for traffic, looking for a place to lock up her bike, and anything else which could possibly go wrong.
She stood on the sidewalk, straddling her bike, taking in the sterile gray exterior of the hospital. Nothing about it screamed specialized, but she knew two things about this hospital. One, somewhere up there was the renovated children’s wing she had fundraised for but would never see to fruition, and two, many of Seattle’s professional athletes preferred this physiotherapy clinic to all others located in downtown Seattle. Their therapists were the best, according to Yelp and Google reviews.
Since the clinic was an extension of the hospital, its physical therapists were supported by nurses with medical training to offset possible hospital liability issues. PTs studied functional movement and injury rehabilitation, but if a client exhibited medical complications a PT wasn’t equipped to handle, a nurse on duty—like her—assumed responsibility as the trained professional to handle the emergency. The parameters of the new job suited her fine. At her last position in Vancouver, Canada, she spent the entire flu season, October to April, administering flu vaccines. A noble, if not repetitious way to spend her days. She was looking for a little bit more responsibility and just a tiny but more excitement. What other people considered boring, she considered heart-racing.
The sun peeked over the horizon. Finally satisfied with the hospital’s location, impressed with the well-lit, single-bike lock-up sheds, and not a camera in sight, Leena stood up on her pedals and began the uphill trek back to her building where she had lived for the last month. Mostly alone, but she was warned by her landlord that his brother—and her roommate—would be arriving home from his job abroad any day now.
When she arrived at the top of the hill, the clouds above her floated on a bed of pinks and oranges with the sun not far behind. She glanced at her watch, and instead of steering her bike into the front entrance of her building, she sailed past it and whizzed by the still-darkened store fronts and unlit office buildings. There were very few moments in Leena’s life when she truly felt carefree. Finding a too reasonably priced room to rent in a shared apartment in downtown Seattle close to her job was the absolute best she could have hoped for on her limited budget. With solid expectations for her commute later that morning, the few spare moments to enjoy the quiet morning, for her, were heaven.
With the first two most important to-dos checked off her new-and-improved-Seattle-Leena list—she could focus her energy on her next two tasks. The first, creating a social network—in short—making friends to aid her in her final objective, which was to swear off men for the next six months. More if she could help it. But she knew it wouldn’t be easy. The stranger with the blue eyes this morning had distracted her already, and he hadn’t even opened his mouth. But she had to do this. For her. The next time she entered a relationship, she wanted to be settled down and in her own space again—safe and secure. Her ex-fiancé’s cheating burned her more than she expected, and his betrayal cut deep into her heart.
Vulnerability was a treacherous bitch.
She didn’t want to be caught off guard ever again.
Leena hated surprises.
Only a quarter of an hour off his estimation, Clark Dorsey drove his vintage Land Rover—jokingly nicknamed Lois by his teammates—across Seattle’s city limit at five thirty, an hour before morning rush hour traffic became unmanageable. Yes, it would have been easier and less of a headache to transport his prized Lois by rail, or flatbed truck, and many years ago he might have. But many years ago, Lois was a cheap, rusted-out temporary solution for a couple of kids with no money. Instead of buying a slick new Audi or BMW when Clark made it big, he painstakingly spent his hockey-free time restoring Lois to the gorgeous and enviable condition she was today. His own way of saying thank you to her for her years of service.
Truthfully, he couldn’t bear to let Lois out of his sight and knew he wouldn’t be able to relax until they were reunited. Clark counted the people he trusted on one hand. Himself, his manager Eamon Murphy, and his lawyer Mercy Mwale, he trusted completely. His brothers Deacon and Danny, he trusted less so, but more than everyone else. Everyone else wanted something from him: a championship, a check, a soundbite, a photo, a marriage proposal, but rarely stopped to ask him what he wanted. He couldn’t remember if he was always so suspicious of people, but he definitely was now and had been for a while.
Instead of rationally believing his teammates sent the trophies home with him as a reward for a job well done, he couldn’t get past the rough, calloused hands clicking Lois’s seat belts around the sharp, blunt trophies or how those sharp corners dug into her soft leather seats. It was a time-honored tradition to pass the Stanley Cup from player to player during the off-season, but he didn’t want the trophies or anything reminding him of hockey. A long time ago, he decided the longevity of his career was tied to Danny’s life. He’d play for as long as Danny was alive. With Danny’s death looming, Clark was ready to close this chapter. Before leaving the arena last night, he tossed his gear—skates, helmet, pads—into the plastic trash bin. His game stick and jersey, he autographed and walked out to the parking lot, handing both to the first kid who called his name.
“Thank you, Mr. Dorsey! I won’t let you down. I’m gonna grow up to play hockey just like you.” The kid was a ringer for Danny, unruly blond hair, crooked smile, and Clark gave him a warm smile back.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as it’s what you want.”
If only Clark could make this kid proud of him for following his own dreams too. He’d put them on hold for far too long. Truly, his wants and needs were simple—to live a low-key, normal life. One hundred percent his and his alone. One where he decided what he was going to do and when. Spend some time with his family, travel, cook food in his own kitchen, kick his feet up on a coffee table, buy a La-Z-Boy. Not a high-end one. But an eighties style recliner—blue or green corduroy with a stubborn creaky wooden arm to fight when he was ready to recline. Like the one that sat in his family’s living room as a kid. No one was ever allowed to sit on it, even after a grueling hockey tournament. The recliner was his father’s throne, where he tuned out the rest of the world, and retreated into himself. With one hand, Clark covered the smile meant only for him. With nothing in his immediate future but time, he was going to buy himself a La-Z-Boy and catch up on all the bingeable television. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones topped his list. Dexter too, but only up to season three. While he had his fill of hibernating and television, he’d wait for his wanderlust to kick in again. Without fail, it always did, and it rarely ever took too long.
There was Danny to think about though.
Clark loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two closures of his shirt. The humidity shot up as he drove, and he cracked the window to breathe.
The dire prognosis Deacon shared over a hushed phone call in his hotel room a few weeks ago prompted Clark’s retirement. Together, the brothers decided to spend whatever time they had left with Danny as a family. Alone, Clark decided once it was all over, he’d sell his place in Seattle, put Lois into storage, and process his grief alone. Deacon had his daughter Savannah to care for, and Clark didn’t think having an extra mopey uncle around would be kittens and rainbows for the pre-teen.
One of the boxes in his trunk was full of nautical maps he’d collected over the years and a very specific itinerary to circumnavigate the globe. The only thing stopping him from buying the vintage boat he’d been quietly enquiring about were his brothers—he didn’t want them to know he planned to leave. They called his off-season compulsion for travel traipsing, whimsical and directionless. But they didn’t understand. He planned his trips precisely. He had a list of destinations with itineraries for each. There was so much out in the world he wanted to see and do. Maybe it was his small-town upbringing, or his inability to go anywhere in North America without being recognized. The appeal of overseas travel was he could say or do whatever he wanted without it ending up on the internet. There was freedom in that.
Clark proceeded with caution as he approached his street. Even with the early hour, he expected to see more than a handful of cars. But thankful for the quick commute, he reached over and unlatched the glove box to retrieve the underground parking door opener. Unfortunately, the opener slid out onto the floor.
“Oh, come on.”
He didn’t want to risk parking Lois on the street and bump against the curb accidentally. In a why not moment, he agreed to paint the wheel wells the same original vintage Grasmere green to match the rest of his truck’s exterior instead of a tougher shiny chrome. A featherlight touch against the raised concrete curb required a brand-new custom coat of paint. Maybe he should have hired a flatbed truck after all.
Honestly, he hadn’t seen a car drive by in at least ten minutes. He shoulder-checked left, and then right as an extra precaution, eased his foot off the accelerator and came to a stop in the middle of the street. He engaged the parking brake, wiggled off his suit jacket, and bent down across the console to retrieve the remote from the floor.
He clipped the opener to the sun visor, wound his arm around the passenger seat, and looked out through the back window. When he turned to face forward, the sun glared off the perpetually wet Seattle pavement, forcing Clark to squint to see out in front of the car. Shifting into first gear, the sole of his sleek Italian loafer slipped off the clutch suddenly, and Lois lurched forward and over something. That something crunched and crumpled under his truck. His limbs ran cold, and he hoped and prayed whatever he ran over wasn’t alive. Not no longer alive, but never alive in the first place.
Despite the hairs standing up on his arms, his hands grew hot. A shot of adrenaline surged through him. He shut the car off, yanked on the driver side door handle, and pushed the door open. On the other side of his window, stood a woman wearing a cycling helmet on her head and a horrified expression on her face. He guessed she didn’t have a bike because her bike was currently under Lois.
Clark shut his parted lips, inhaled, and plastered on his game face: clenched jaw, and furrowed brows. He saw this expression enough times staring back at him on game tape replays—intent on solving the problem as quickly as possible.
“Are you okay?” His voice was deeper than he anticipated, and he cleared his throat, hoping for a normal timbre the next time he spoke.
The woman threw up her hands. “You ran over my bike.”
Her tone was measured and even but didn’t match her body language. For a moment, he thought he heard wrong.
“You ran over my bike,” she said again. Her voice was still calm, but now her arms were folded across her body.
“How did I run over your bike without you on it?” Not that running over her bike with her on it was preferable to the current situation.
She shook her head, and her eyes grew round. “I was walking my bike across the road. Your SUV was parked, and I didn’t see anyone in the driver’s seat.”
Of course not. He was bent over, picking up the damned garage door opener.
“And then the grill of your truck hit my bike. I let go of my handlebars, my bike fell, and then you ran over it.” She bent down to look under Lois, and he mimicked her, squatting low, and resting his hand on the tire. It didn’t matter if he parked on the street now, the entire grill was scratched and the undercarriage—he couldn’t bring himself to think about what was happening under there, but Lois could be restored. Her bike, in theory, still had two wheels and could be called a bike, but beyond that, it couldn’t be used as a bike.
“Are you okay?” he repeated.
She randomly patted at her body. “I’m fine, I think. Thank god I wasn’t on my bike.”
Thank god indeed. Clark peered into his back seat. He considered offering her a ride, but the interior was filled with his clothes, maps, the trophies he didn’t want. Lois lacked both space and seat belts for another passenger. Except for Danny in the early days out of necessity, another passenger had never ridden in his vehicle. It had been a while for Danny too. The trophy in the back cut a tear into Lois’s leather seat.
He blinked once, hard and slow, and then returned his attention to the woman.
“Do you live far from here? I can…” What exactly? He had to do something. He couldn’t just leave her here. “Walk you home?” What would that accomplish?
Her eyes narrowed for a split-second, possibly assessing his offer. “I’ll manage. I live a few buildings over.”
Relieved by her mostly stoic demeanor, Clark reached for his satchel in the passenger seat and dug around for his wallet. “Can I give you cash for your bike? It’s the least I can do.”
“If you’re carrying a few thousand dollars in there, I’ll take it. Minus the time-value of money, of course.”
He paused and rubbed his eyelid in disbelief. “Since when do bicycles cost a few thousand dollars?” Unless she was a competitive cyclist, training for the Tour du France, or a triathlete, but he didn’t think so. He examined her more closely: checked Vans on her feet, cropped tie-dyed yoga pants, lavender and teal bike helmet with a mop of cool brown curls dusting her shoulders. The oversize Red Sox hooded sweatshirt she probably inherited from a brother or ex-boyfriend. No one from around here because no one wore Sox gear in Mariner country. But he got distracted by how the elasticized hem of the sweatshirt hugged her bottom. In an attempt to look elsewhere, he found himself staring too long at her calves and wondering how they would feel in the palms of his hands.
She cleared her throat, and he straightened up. He had no idea what came over him. Maybe it had been too long since he went out with a woman. Maybe he shouldn’t be so quick to judge while wearing his custom-tailored suit. He dressed like he had money, so it might have been a fair assumption on her part that he carried large wads of cash. Maybe this was partly his fault.
“It’s fine if you don’t believe me. I don’t need your money. It’s insured. If you’d be so kind as to provide me with some identification, I can file an insurance claim.”
He found her suggestion dubious and cocked his head to his left in response. Cars and houses were insured, but bicycles? The entire incident smelled suspicious to him now. One thing he learned about being a professional hockey player was to never give out his personal information randomly—especially to a beautiful woman whom he accidentally ran into. In his experience, meet-cutes between star athletes and gorgeous women were rarely accidental.
“I’d rather pay you for a new bike. Do you have a card? Somewhere my manager or lawyer can call you or mail a check?”
“I don’t have a cell phone with me. I ordered a phone from T-Mobile when I broke up with… Anyway, my Canadian billing address confused someone. So now I have a Bell phone sitting at my sister’s house in Vancouver, and until she sends it back, they won’t send me a new phone. I can’t afford…never mind. I’m rambling. I just don’t have a phone right now.”
The stoic facade fell away, and she was no longer cool or collected. Meaning either she finally recognized him, or she already knew who he was, and her ruse was up. Fumbling over her words only made him more apprehensive of her and their accidental encounter. Those were too many sentences than required to indicate she didn’t have a phone. But…then again, he didn’t have one either. He did have an iPad though, and it was time to hand this situation over to Mercy to take care of.
“I have a solution. I’ll take some pictures of the damage and email them to my lawyer.” He eyed her carefully to gauge her reaction to his suggestion. Though he wasn’t sure exactly what to look for. “Do you have an email address?”
She pressed one hand to her stomach, visibly relieved, and then she wagged an index finger at him. “That I do have. An email address I mean. Do you have a pen?”
He did and handed it to her. Instead of asking for a slip of paper, she opened his palm and pressed the nib of the pen into it. A zap of current shot through him. Not electrical or static, but a jolt, waking every nerve ending under his skin. He liked it but also didn’t like it—or want it. The scraping of the pen against his palm made him shiver with unease before it fell away, replaced by intrigue. Why her? Why now? Beneath his shirt, his nipples hardened, and he wasn’t expecting that reaction from his body either. Clark squared his shoulders, stole a peek down the front of his button-down and then looked back at the woman holding his hand. A gust of wind blew by them, and Clark chalked the shiver up to a previous gust he hadn’t noticed.
“I bought Shaq for four grand—”
“I’m sorry, Shaq?” He thought he heard her correctly but wanted to confirm, because he found it slightly amusing he’d run over a Shaq.
“Shaq, my bike.” This time, her tone was deadly serious as she held his gaze. “You can look up the make and model number online. Or,” still holding on to his hand, she pointed with the pen down the hill, “The Bike Shop at the bottom of the hill carries the same model and its parts in stock. They are helpful and knowledgeable there. I bet if you ask them, thirty-five hundred is probably fair.”
She let go of his hand and handed back his pen. The email address she scrawled read email@example.com.
“What?” she asked.
“It’s my personal email. I can’t give you my work one; I don’t know what it is yet. Even if I did, I don’t send or receive personal emails at work. Is that something you do?”
“No. I don’t.” He drew on his bottom lip with his teeth and chewed on it. Who was he to judge email addresses? He still used his first email, harbor_rocker_69. Mostly because it didn’t identify him by name, and only a few people knew it existed. All other correspondences were handled by his manager and lawyer. A professional insulation between himself and the rest of the world. “Let me grab my iPad, and I’ll take the photos.”
Clark jumped into his vehicle and gingerly backed Lois off the four-thousand-dollar bicycle, Shaq, watching Softball Starlet’s face grimace as he did. She picked her bike up off the ground, the broken and beloved Shaq, and breathed deeply as she ambled to the sidewalk. The devastation didn’t seem so bad when Shaq was under his car. By the white-knuckled grip she kept on her bike, the way she looked up at the clouds too long, and how her hair hung over her face, she was clearly trying to bury her distress. Whatever this bike was for her, it was more than just a bike. It was Shaq, and maybe like his precious Lois, had a history too.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I’ll pay for a brand-new one.”
As she held onto the remains of the mangled frame, and the shattered spokes flaring in every direction, Clark sheepishly held up the iPad to take photos. In each one, behind the bike she looked forlorn and dismayed with her trembling chin and glossy stare, and truly, had his Lois been reduced to a similar state of rubble, he would have been livid. He understood what it was like to have a cherished possession. Something that was yours and yours alone. Lois was a rusted-out clunker when he bought her. She cost less than two-thousand dollars and didn’t even have a working engine.
Paying for a bike was the least he could do for the softball starlet.
“Okay, sent. I’ve attached the photos to an email to my lawyer and cc’d you. I’ll make sure she’s on top of it.” Though that was usually what Mercy did for him and not the other way around.
“Are you sure you don’t need company?”
“I’m sure.” She hoisted the remains of her bicycle frame on her shoulder and began to stroll away.
“Hey wait!” Clark, just let her go. “Do you have a name?”
She paused and glanced over her shoulder. “Leena Lopez.”
Leena Lopez. The name was familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. This morning, women were the absolute furthest thing from his mind—or should have been—but he hoped to run into her again soon. He watched her go for a minute—she said she lived around here—but when she glanced back at him again, he quickly turned his head to pretend he was busy doing something else.
End of Excerpt