Suddenly, I’m in the spotlight. People want to take my picture and ask me about what I did. It really wasn’t much, though—any decent person would have stepped in to help. I won’t lie, though, there is one person I’d love to get the attention of. Could a geek like me ever get the girl?
“You’re a good man. Thank you for stepping in to help my little girl.”
Duke Paulsen had quite a grip. As he pumped my hand in a handshake, I squeezed him back as hard as I could, because…well, I assumed I was supposed to.
“Heh—stronger than he looks!” Duke quipped to Rosa, who laughed.
He clapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m taking you out for a few beers sometime, Seth. I’ll let Nova get your number so we can set something up.”
At the mention of me giving Nova my number, I had to remind myself that pissing in the Ricky the Raven suit was a very bad idea. I clenched and tried to look nonchalant.
“Seth,” Nova said in the sweet tone I remembered so well from the first home game. “I know we kind of met on the ice that night, but this feels like the first time, so…hi. I’m Nova.”
I pushed my glasses up onto the bridge of my nose and shook her outstretched hand, and this time it didn’t feel like a bone-crunching contest. Her hand was soft and warm in mine.
“Hi,” I said back, a little dazed from having her attention focused entirely on me. “You couldn’t have been named more perfectly.”
She furrowed her brow and smiled, looking confused. I realized I’d blurted out something I’d now have to explain, and my face warmed in embarrassment.
“It’s, uh…a nova is a star that shines more brightly than the others. I’m an astrophysics major, so stars are kinda my jam.”
Duke boomed out a laugh and put an arm around me. “You’re damn right, boy. My Nova is always the brightest star in the room. I like you, by the way.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I wish her mother and I had known that before. I chose her name because I once had a ’68 Chevy Nova that was the best car I ever owned. SS. V-8. She was green. Damn, I loved her.”
“Dad,” Nova said softly, her eyes wide.
“Okay, okay.” He put his hands up in mock surrender. “I’ll just be over here trying to tear my eyes off the most beautiful hockey team owner there ever was so I can see what’s going on in this game.”
Nova shook her head slightly and gave me a look, which made me smile. We shared a look. That was something. At least, to me it was.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her.
It had been a week since she was attacked, and not a day had gone by that I hadn’t thought of her. I replayed that night in my head often, wishing I could have gotten there sooner and spared her being hit and having her clothes ripped. Men who hurt women and children were the lowest form of humans.
“I’m good. My bruises are almost gone now,” she said. “How about you? You looked pretty bad that night. I mean, injury-wise.”
My bruises had morphed from dark purple to a yellowish shade, but I wasn’t sore anymore. None of that mattered, though. I couldn’t really think of anything that mattered besides talking to Nova right now.
I grinned. “I’m fine. I’ve just been worried about you.”
“Me? You were hurt much worse than I was.”
She tucked a strand of long blond hair behind her ear as I shrugged.
“I was worried that because of what happened, you wouldn’t want to work here anymore,” I said. “I wouldn’t want those guys to ruin that for you.”
Her eyes softened. Nova’s gaze had an almost magnetic pull on me. I’d never had such a beautiful woman focus all her attention on me this way, and it was distracting.
“No, I’m tougher than that,” she said with a smile.
“Your eyes are the same color as Neptune,” I blurted.
Cringe. Great compliment, Seth.
“Oh,” Nova said, smiling. “Thanks. That’s a lot more unique than saying they look like the sky.”
“Methane in Neptune’s upper atmosphere absorbs red light from the sun but reflects the blue light from the sun back into space. That’s why Neptune appears blue. It’s my favorite planet. Not that … not that you asked.”
I needed to stop talking. I was too awkward to even be around women.
Nova’s smile was radiant as she said, “I feel like I need to have a favorite planet, too. Not Earth, of course. And not Uranus—too cliché.”
“No one wants to explore Uranus—stop asking,” I quipped, pushing my glasses up again. “Um, I mean…that’s a science joke.”
She laughed—a hearty, real laugh that sounded better than any music I’d ever heard. It made me feel about ten feet tall.
“Are you able to see in the costume now?” she asked me, her tone warm. “Or do I need to change into my dancing costume so I can help again?”
“I got a new head,” I said, showing her the updated, more streamlined version of Ricky the Raven’s headpiece. “I can wear my glasses in this one.”
“Good. And your glasses, they’re okay? I thought they got broken.”
“Oh, they did. These are my backup glasses. Yeah, they don’t look the best, but when you’re as blind as me, you have to have them. In my other glasses, I look exactly like Chris Evans. I mean, people mistake me for him all the time when I’m wearing them, it’s weird.”
That got me another laugh.
“Hey, guys!” Carol, the PR manager who interviewed and hired me for the Ricky the Raven job, came into the room waving both hands and smiling. “Can we impose on the four of you for a quick photo? We’re getting inquiries from media asking if we can provide photos of Seth and Nova, and one with Mrs. Romano and Mr. Paulsen in it would be just perfect!”
Carol arranged the four of us—Mrs. Romano and Nova side by side with me on Nova’s other side and Duke on Mrs. Romano’s other side. When she asked us to stand close together and Nova put an arm around my waist, a shiver shot from the tip of my spine down to the base.
It was a good thing I was supposed to smile, because being this close to Nova, I couldn’t have stopped smiling if I wanted to.
“Okay!” Carol clapped her hands when the photos were done. “Seth, if you’re all done here, I have lots of people wanting to meet our hero mascot tonight!”
Mrs. Romano turned to me and offered her hand. “Seth, I didn’t get to talk to you much tonight, I’d love to meet up for lunch sometime. I’m so grateful to have you in the Mavericks family.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Romano.”
“Rosa,” she said firmly.
“Rosa,” I repeated.
I looked at Nova one more time before moving to put my Ricky the Raven costume head back on. She was definitely the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
“Hey, Seth,” she said, putting a hand on my arm.
Damn the costume. I wanted her hand on my actual arm, not the feathery Ricky the Raven one.
“What are you doing tonight?”
My lips parted and I swallowed hard. Had I just heard her right?
“I, uh…I’m going out with some of the guys from the team tonight. The players. Ben asked me if I wanted to and I said sure.”
“Oh.” There was a flicker of disappointment on her face.
“So…yeah,” I said, suddenly aware of how sweaty my pits were. “Normally I wouldn’t be doing anything tonight, except maybe playing video games.”
I gringe—a hybrid between a smile and a cringe that definitely makes me look as awkward as I am. Why can’t I be smooth and cool, like Ben and Wes?
Rosa cleared her throat loudly, and when I looked over at her, her eyes were round and she was frowning at me. Was she trying to tell me someth—Oh. Of course.
“Hey, would you want to come out with us?” I asked Nova. “We’re getting some food and drinks at a place not far from the arena. I could give you a ride if you need one.”
Nova smiles brightly, but within a couple of seconds, her expression is disappointed.
“I would love to, but I actually can’t. I’m not allowed to fraternize with players. I signed a thing when I started here, and–”
“Forget that,” Rosa said, waving a hand. “Go out with the group tonight, Nova, and enjoy yourself.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Romano,” Nova said.
“I know she’ll be in good hands,” Duke said, nodding at me. “I mean, not your actual hands. Keep your damn hands off my daughter, you got it?”
“Dad,” Nova said, shaking her head.
She turned back to me and gave me an apologetic smile, saying, “Sorry” in a tone only I could hear.
“So, we can meet up after the game?” I asked. “Outside the locker room where we’ll both take our showers?”
“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Duke said, lowering his brows. “You’d better not be showering with men, Nova Grace.”
Nova’s mouth was a thin, white line of annoyance. Rosa put a hand on Duke’s arm and defused the situation, saying, “The facilities are separate, I assure you. But the doors are next to each other. I think that’s what Seth means.”
Duke nodded, looking satisfied. “Any man who thinks he can mess with my little girl is going to get thrown through a window and…pardon my language, Rosa, but he’ll also have his nut sac removed with a pair of pliers.”
Duke seemed nice, but also a little scary. I waved and got out of there as fast as I could.