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Playing for Keeps (MF)

The Blake Boys

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: SENSUAL
Word Count: 62,708
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In the game of love, you have to play for keeps.

Life was going perfectly for hockey player Derek Popovich, and then he went and jinxed it all. His team just won the championship. He's living with Charisma, the woman of his dreams. And to make things even sweeter, they're having a baby! Only Charisma refuses to marry him. No matter how many times he asks, she's certain being his wife will curse their happiness and ruin everything for them both. As the clock winds down to the baby's birth, he has to figure out a way to change her mind and give her the happily ever after she deserves.

Charisma Reed has never felt so loved, happy, and secure—and now she's found out she's pregnant! Only her mom can't stand the man she loves. And even though she's excited about being a mom, she's terrified of what it will mean for her and Derek. She loves him, but she's afraid he only wants to marry her because of the baby. Her family thinks she's nuts for turning him down, but she doesn't want the next step in their relationship to be based off obligation. Charisma has to figure out what's keeping her from the life she's always wanted, even as Derek ramps up his plans to get her to say yes. But while he's on the road, a photo of Derek and a scheming hockey bunny makes the salacious news cycle and fuels Charisma's doubts that they were really meant to be…

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Derek Popovich took a whiff of the flower arrangement of lilies, lilacs, and orchids and smiled. The aromatic scent and vibrant colors reminded him of Charisma. This would be just one of the things he’d bought for their special night. He climbed into his sports car’s low bucket seats and carefully set the elaborate flower arrangement beside him. The crystal flower vase almost tipped over, the flower arrangement was so big. He had to wrap the seat belt around the vase, careful not to crush the explosion of bright flowers. Everything had to be perfect tonight.

Finally, he was all set to go and he pulled out into traffic, headed for the new luxury apartment he shared with Charisma. He was ahead of schedule. It had taken some doing, but he’d accomplished everything he’d had to do in New York at lightning speed so he could get back to Philadelphia a day early and get his romantic plan underway. And he had very big plans.

His cell phone rang. It was his brother Alex. No way was he letting this go to voice mail, but he’d accidentally left his Bluetooth setup in his travel bag. So he pulled into a coffee shop to take the call as he used the drive-thru. “Hey, Alex. Just got back to Philly. What’s on your mind?”

“Can’t a big bro call his little bro to find out how he’s doing?” Alex demanded, but Derek could hear the warmth of the teasing in his voice.

Derek chuckled. “Yeah, I guess my greeting did sound a little abrupt. Just a big day.” And the biggest part was coming up fast. He was feeling the same level of tension about it that he’d felt before the championship game. “I’m doing good, Alex. Real good.”

That was no lie. Life had been damn good the past several months. The Pirates had won the Stanley Cup again. They’d played and fought hard on the ice all season but it had been worth it. The team was stronger than it had ever been. Sure, there was some turnover on the team. They had a new right center, and another seasoned player had to retire after an injury, but it all came together and they got the job done.

Alex’s voice snapped him back from his straying thoughts. “Glad to hear things are going well. You’ve probably been celebrating the big win pretty hard.”

“Actually, you’d be surprised. I’ve been keeping it strictly low key.”

It was thrilling to win another championship, and they’d been celebrating for weeks. Well, the team had anyway. He’d bowed out of the non-stop party train after the parade and throwing a big bash at the Slap Shot. They’d tried to convince him to go on the team vacation and bring Charisma along but that was a definite no-no. There were always some risqué antics to be had when half-naked, boozed-up people hung out together. And it was no surprise when he’d gotten a text a few days ago that a few of the guys had gotten into fights. They teased him about being the old man of the group, but he could live with that. He’d matured a lot the past couple of years and he valued his relationship. He didn’t want to do anything to lose Charisma’s trust. Especially not at this crucial moment.

Not when he was going to ask her to marry him tonight.

“Probably wise to keep things low-key,” Alex said. “Especially when you have other things on your mind. I’m still in awe of the photos you sent me when you were at the jewelers. Please tell me you went with the princess setting?”

“Yes, I did.” Derek switched the phone to his other ear so he could pay the cashier and get his coffee. Then he found a place to park so he could concentrate on talking to his big brother. He was relieved that Alex liked the ring he’d picked out. Now only if Charisma loved it just as much…

“Are you nauseous yet?” Alex asked. “I don’t want you ruining the most important night of your life when you propose.” He laughed. “Remember when you played Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet in the school play? You had to carry a barf bag on stage with you.”

“Serves them right for giving a hockey player a part in the school play in lieu of detention. And I was let go after my first performance, to add insult to injury.”

“Mrs. Shabotzky was trying to smooth out those rough edges you had. How was she supposed to know your best dramatic performance would happen back stage? You’d made out with half the female cast during rehearsals.”

He snorted. “I got more detention after that, but this time it was the respectable kind.”

Alex’s tone grew more serious. “How are you feeling really?”

“I feel good. I should have done this a long time ago, like before we moved in together.”

“You and Charisma haven’t had a typical courtship. Isn’t that what you like about her?”

“I did say that.” He smiled as he took another sip of the hot coffee and watched the traffic racing past him on the street.

“I think you two are right on schedule. I remember the night I proposed to Rachel. I was so nervous I could barely get the keys in the car ignition to drive over to her place.”

“I hope my world-renowned heart surgeon brother doesn’t tell that anecdote at cocktail parties.”

“No, that’s a story I keep private,” Alex said stoically.

Derek grimaced. That tone in his brother’s voice always tugged at his heart. Rachel had been gone for a few years now, and he was still mourning her as if it were yesterday that she’d passed away.

“Who knows? Maybe you’ll have another touching story to tell one—”

“I’m not looking for another story. I had the perfect fairytale and it ended much sooner than I expected.” Alex cleared his throat. “But I appreciate your concern.”

“I worry about you.” He wanted to say so much, but they were both in a minefield here. More than anything, he didn’t want to cause his brother any pain.

“No need. I am happy and I’m never alone. Your niece and nephew keep me busy with their endless activities when I’m not working.”

“What do you do for fun? You know with other adults?”

“I have a rousing rivalry on this word game app I use with user SpankMe69.”

“You maniac. The streets of Portland are not safe when you’re out and about.”

“Shut up. It keeps me busy, and technically I am engaged with other people. But right now we’re talking about you. Do you have everything in place?”

“I’m getting there. I have one more thing to do and then I’ll be ready tonight. Have any advice?”

“Yes, take deep breaths and speak from the heart. And you might want to scale back on the cologne. You used to overdo the cologne in high school when you had a hot date.”

“You know,” Derek said, grinning. “I don’t have these trips down memory lane with Theo.”

“Theo doesn’t remember anything that didn’t happen to Theo. He takes pride in his self-obsession.”

“Speaking of, did you hear about his latest hobby, motocross?”

“He sent me videos. I can’t watch them.”

Derek laughed. Watching Theo doing motocross had nearly given him a heart attack too. He glanced at his watch. Time seemed to be evaporating quickly. He didn’t want to end the call, but he only had a small window to get everything done.

“Hate to say it, but I have to go,” he said. “If Charisma keeps her normal schedule, I only have a few hours to put the finishing touches on everything.”

“OK. Good luck. You have an amazing woman. I hope you two look back on this night with fond memories.”

“I’m aiming for something I can retell at cocktail parties. Well, the G-rated version.” He grinned.

“Let me know how it goes. But my cell is the best way to reach me. The kids and I are heading to California for a long weekend.”

Derek was antsy to get going, but he suddenly found himself strangely reluctant to end the call with his brother. “OK. Anything interesting going on?”

“I’m visiting a friend who wants to talk to me about a career opportunity. He insists on seeing me in person, and the kids are due for a vacation. I thought maybe we’d hit Disneyland while we’re there.”

“Have a good time. Give Noah and Chloe my love.”

“Will do. They really love Charisma. They’re going to be happy about the news.”

“Thanks, Alex.”

“You’re welcome, little bro.”

Derek disconnected the call with a smile. His brother’s words about Charisma lifted his heart, but now he had to get back on track. He swung by the Slap Shot, the bar he owned, to pick up some Dom Perignon.

The Slap Shot was doing well and had a turned a nice profit every year after the remodel. He partly credited the upswing in business to the now legendary bar brawl his friend Seth had with Lamont, his ex-teammate and Charisma’s ex-boyfriend. The notoriety had given the place an edge, and the bar was always packed. But despite the new attention, the Zen of his bar remained that of a low-key hangout for his athlete friends who needed a quiet place to unwind without media frenzy. He’d been pondering opening another one, but right now it was just a fantasy. He liked the unique feel of his home away from home and didn’t know if it were possible to duplicate it.

He finally pulled into the private parking garage for his luxury apartment. He carefully unbuckled his flowers, fluffing up the ones that had pressed against the seat a little, and grabbed the rest of his stuff. He made his way toward the entrance, carefully juggling all the things in his arms.

While the bar was doing great and his hockey career was at an all-time high, those were just small potatoes compared to his personal life. He and Charisma had recently taken a big step in their relationship. It had been three months since they’d moved into the Manchester Park West, a new luxury apartment building that Jared had been commissioned to design. The ultra-exclusive five-level architectural masterpiece consisted of two units per floor with spacious floor plans and a fabulous view of the city. And the apartment was close to their work and the hockey stadium. But the clincher to buying the place was the look in Charisma’s eyes when she saw it. She’d fallen in love with one of the units on the top floor, which had a huge rooftop garden and terrace for grilling and outdoor parties. They both agreed it was perfect with one exception. He loved his space and privacy, so he bought the other unit on the floor too.

Charisma loved the location. She was a consummate city girl, loving the hustle and bustle of chic urban life surrounding their new place. She frequented the cozy, high fashion boutiques and loved dining in the extravagant eateries. That is, when they weren’t eating at the Slap Shot.

It was luxury at its decadent best, but he didn’t care. He’d happily given up his bachelor pad so they could begin a new life on equal footing. They could have lived in a cardboard box for all he cared, as long as he got to live with her. He loved waking up to her beautiful face every morning and cuddling up at the end of a long day. It seemed like only yesterday they’d started dating. It had taken some time to convince her they were meant to be, but he had to admit it had been fun chasing her. She was beautiful, smart, sexy, and determined to make her own way through life.

He was proud of her too. She’d been working on being a better person after a series of bad decisions and bad boys, but she’d finally seen that they were good for each other. She challenged, supported, and loved him in a way that helped him be a better man. Charisma gave him a sense of fulfillment and comfort that he never imagined was possible. Although she was a complicated woman, loving her was easy.

He smiled and shook his head, chuckling a little. It had taken some time and a lot of cajoling to get her to take the leap of faith and say yes to moving in together. When they’d met, she’d been living with her grandmother, trying to get her life together after breaking up with Lamont. He could tell it was so important to her to be independent that she’d wrestled with entwining their lives for fear she’d lose a part of herself. He’d assured her that living together would only enhance their relationship. She was determined to rebuild her life and she did just that. She put her nose to the grindstone and had become a force in the interior design world and had recently become a partner in Jared’s firm. He was proud of her for chasing her dreams. She was good at her job.

Yes, things couldn’t be better. But there was one thing that would make everything perfect. After finding the perfect, flawless ten carat princess cut ring with a platinum setting at an exclusive jeweler in the Big Apple, he was going to ask her to marry him tonight. He’d even swung by the greasy spoon hotdog hut where they had their first date and picked up a dozen dogs.

He waved to the doorman as he walked through the lobby of their apartment building and got on the elevator. It was another challenge to get out his keys from his jeans and scan his key fob, but he managed to pull it off without dropping the Dom, the flowers, or the bag of hotdogs. He set the flower arrangement down on the table, put the hotdogs in the oven on a warming setting, and put the champagne on ice.

Now all he had to do was make this the most perfect night ever. Oh, and get Charisma to marry him.

He hurried toward the bedroom to get dressed. There was just one more thing he had to do before he popped the question.