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Play the Man: excerpt

Jenna twirled the new ring around her finger. It still felt funny to her, to have that diamond on her left hand. Everyone knew it would happen; they all told her to expect it. Eventually. And they were right. It may have taken Ryan eight years, but he finally popped the question and promised forever.
Ryan, her new fiancé, didn’t see what the big deal was. Once they were living together in Chicago, it was like they had gotten married. After he asked her to move in with him, they fell into a routine that so closely resembled wedded bliss that Ryan didn’t think it necessary to make it official at City Hall.
Besides, that was how he had demonstrated his commitment to her in the first place: asking her to move in with him was a major step for him. Jenna knew that, and that was why she had packed up and followed him from New Hampshire to Illinois. After all, Ryan didn’t originally ask her to come to Chicago with him. He had told her that he didn’t bother to ask because he knew she’d say no, since she was still attending Dartmouth University. But she would have dropped out if he had told her that he really wanted her to come, that he needed her to be there with him.
It was difficult to stay on campus after he left, because everything there reminded her of him: the quad where she had studied in the warm weather and watched while he neglected his own class work and played street hockey instead; the cafeteria where he’d sneak cookies into her purse so he’d have food later, even though she told him to stop because she hated the crumbs left behind in her bag; and the gym where he was always working out and sweating, where she’d make a point to stop by and watch him do leg presses with no shirt on. Sure, after he left New Hampshire to pursue his dream, he was always just a phone call away. But their schedules were so crazy and hectic that the only solution to their problem was to live together. After she graduated, he finally asked her to move to Chicago for him. To move in with him. The timing couldn’t have been better.
That’s when Jenna started to expect the proposal. When two more years passed, she was impatient. After the third year went by, she was annoyed. After the fourth, she wasn’t sure if she should bother waiting anymore. She still loved Ryan, but how long should she expect to wait? If he already felt like they were married, why was he so against actually doing it?
It finally happened over the summer, on Canada Day. He had rented a cabin for the occasion and had then invited his family to come up with them—on what would have been an otherwise romantic getaway. His mother, realizing that Ryan was missing out on a great opportunity to be with his girlfriend, had packed a basket for him with sparkling white wine, chocolates, cheese, and fruit. Ryan’s mother knew that her son had a good heart but he lacked the forethought needed to properly woo a woman, and she also knew that Jenna needed to see Ryan make an effort in their courtship. So, with his mother’s encouragement, Ryan grabbed a blanket and took Jenna out on a nighttime picnic for the fireworks display.

They sprawled out on their backs and watched the explosions in the sky. About halfway through the show, Ryan rolled over onto his stomach and asked, “Pretty good this year, huh?”
“Yeah, it is,” she agreed, running her fingers through his brown, too-long hair. “I love fireworks.”
“I know you do. So I got you a little something. A little sparkle of your own, like the sparkles in the sky.” He then reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a velvet box, and popped it open to reveal a ring with the biggest diamond she’d ever seen before. All the facets of the diamond reflected the different colors of the fireworks. It was breathtaking.
At first, Jenna didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure what the gesture even meant, because sometimes Ryan was clueless; after all, there had been plenty of times where she had suspected a proposal and had only been disappointed when there wasn’t one. Maybe it wasn’t an engagement ring.
Finally, he spoke. He was straightforward, simple, and to the point. “I love you. Marry me?”
 She didn’t need a fancy proclamation of love or a lengthy promise of devoted commitment. Jenna knew she wasn’t going to get one of those from Ryan anyway, because that wasn’t his style. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. He had proposed, and she said yes.

Was a band of gold—and the subsequent paper certificate—supposed to make her feel more loved? Maybe it’s a little cliché, but it did make her feel better. Like he wanted to be a part of her life as much as she was a part of his.
And, not to mention, it was a huge weight lifted off her that they were now engaged. Her parents loved Ryan because he was a good guy: he was funny and charming, and together they made a very handsome couple; but they hated how he wouldn’t make the big commitment to their daughter, and they didn’t appreciate that she was willing to wait this long to get one. Her mother and father had a hard time explaining to their socialite friends that their daughter still hadn’t married the man she had been dating since her freshman year of college. Jenna was relieved that now her parents could back off and stop nagging her so much about giving Ryan an ultimatum, hoping that would spur him into action.
The bartender brought her drink over, and Jenna sipped her Fuzzy Navel as she slid a ten-dollar bill across to him. He looked confused. Yes, the guys had opened a tab and all her drinks were paid for by said tab, but she knew the guys were horrible tippers. They weren’t stingy, by any means, but they just didn’t quite understand that the concept of twenty percent didn’t compute when they left the place trashed in their wake. In instances such as those, they should leave a little more for the wait staff’s trouble.
She turned around and placed her back against the ledge of the bar, leaning against it with her drink in her left hand. The dim light shone and made her finger sparkle, not unlike the way she was feeling at that moment. Shiny and new. It’s amazing what a little commitment can do to make a girl feel loved and special. Girl. No, Jenna certainly wasn’t a girl anymore. Not at twenty-seven. She wasn’t old, but her biological clock was starting to tick a little more loudly.
Of course the ring was beautiful. It was a cushion-cut, two-and-a-half carat pink diamond set in white gold, in a diamond-encrusted micro-pave mounting. Girls killed over rings like this, but it wasn’t her style. She was a simple girl, and a traditional solitaire would have suited her much better than this. Instead, this ring said more about her fiancé than Jenna. He was outgoing and boisterous and, yes, a little gaudy. He loved her, and this was how he showed it: big shows of affection that would flatter most other girls.
They were opposites, and opposites attract. Ryan was easy-going and fun, and Jenna was organized and punctual. The shortcoming of one was the strong point of the other. They were perfectly complementary, even though that fact was the reason they bickered so often. She hated that he was always late and never took things as seriously as she did, and he got frustrated when she nagged about hanging up wet towels and staying out late at night.
Those things were easy to overlook, though, because they were in love. Because they were in love, even though they fought sometimes. Besides, everyone knows that the make-up sex makes fighting worthwhile. And now, everyone else got to see that he really was serious about her—all because of that huge pink stone.
Jenna hung back and watched as Ryan laughed with his group of friends. This was supposed to be an informal engagement party. Sure, they’d already done the big thing back in New Hampshire, with all of his family coming down from Toronto to meet all of her family; that party was to placate her and her family, particularly her mother. This get-together was for him. Not like he needed the excuse to have drinks with his friends, but things were going to start picking up and getting hectic now that it was September. But she didn’t exactly fit in with those friends of his. They were all nice guys, in their own ways, but they were his type of people—not hers.

Nick walked up to the bar and signaled at the bartender to let him know that his table wanted another round of beers. He wasn’t drinking, but he needed the small break from the intensity of the guys so he offered to get the drinks. They were good guys, but they could be overwhelming. He didn’t usually go out with the team, but this was more than a trip to the bar for a couple drinks. This was supposed to be a celebration; the team captain just got engaged.
“Congratulations again, Jenna,” he said, standing next to the lone girl at the bar. This wasn’t the first time he had struck up conversations with her at the bars; Jenna stuck out like a sore thumb, just like he did. They were practically the same person sometimes in how they didn’t fit in and how they both interacted with the guys. They rolled their eyes during their crazy antics, laughed only when it was appropriate, and were quick to chastise them when they went too far. Because of this, they had become fast friends, even if they only saw each other in situations such as this one.
Nick was tall and lean, and deceptively strong. His biceps bulged out of the short sleeves of his polo, and his jeans hung low on his hips. Even though he had the physique of man, he had a baby-face that looked much younger than his twenty-one years. Because of that, he had some trouble getting his teammates to take him seriously, and he overcompensated by always being stern, somber, and intense. However, whenever he was on the ice, everyone took him seriously, because he was a threat with the puck. Nick was developing into one of the team’s stars, and he had been made an alternate captain during his second season with the Blackhawks.
“Thanks, Nicky,” she replied with a smile. She knew he hated to be called that, and Nick knew that Jenna knew that, too, but for some reason, unbeknownst to all—including Nick himself—he let her call him that. She held out her left hand as if seeing it for the first time. “I thought that this day would come eventually, but it still feels weird.”
“Of course it feels weird,” he said, cracking a joke. His voice was a deep baritone. “That rock is huge! I’m surprised you can even lift your hand.”
Jenna laughed. “I know, right? But you know how he is. Bigger is always better.”
Nick shook his head and took her hand in his, holding it up in the light to get a better look at the ring. Then he examined it and let out a low whistle. “Wow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice. But I think the ring should reflect the woman. And I don’t think this matches your personality.”
She nodded and lifted up the corner of her mouth. “You’re right in that it’s not my style. It’s his. So it’s like having a piece of him with me, on me, all the time.”
He laughed. Nick didn’t laugh often or hard, and when he did, it was always a quiet chuckle. “And we both know how much he likes the idea of being on you all the time.”
She cracked a full smile at that line, at his subtler humor. Jenna wondered how Nick could possibly fit in with those guys, but just like Jenna was the complement to her fiancé, Nick was the complement to that particular group of guys. He kept them in line; well, as best as he could. At least he tried. As Jenna and Nick were talking at the bar, the guys were seeing who could chug their beers the fastest. So far, Ryan was winning.
“What about you, Nicky? Did you meet any girls this summer?”
“Ugh, now you sound like my mother,” he said, shaking his head and scratching by his ear. “One goal at a time.”
“Cup first?” she asked, giving him a smirk. Jenna understood him and his determination, and never poked fun at him for it. At least not much. She admired that attitude in him.
“Yeah. Cup first,” he agreed.
“Maybe this’ll be the year, huh?”
“Don’t jinx it,” he chuckled, knocking on the wooden bar. “But that’s something I would actually drink to.”
“Let me drink to it,” Jenna said, lifting her Fuzzy Navel in the air to toast his future accomplishments. “Don’t ruin your training and conditioning by guzzling a couple of beers. The guys need you sober and clear-headed.”
They both looked over to that table as Ryan slammed his empty glass down and threw his arms in the air in celebration. Jenna and Nick knew that they all needed a little bit of Nick’s determination and motivation if they wanted to win the Stanley Cup this year. The team had the talent, for sure, but they needed a little more focus, drive, and tenacity to achieve that ultimate dream.

Team captain Ryan Linsenbigler watched as his teammate, the rising star Nicholas Martin, kept his fiancée company at the bar. He had noticed that Jenna had disappeared about fifteen minutes ago, after she said she was going to powder her nose, and he knew that Nick had gone to the bar to get their next round of beers. But he should have known that those two would end up together. They always did. He didn’t mind at all; in fact, he liked it. Jenna was a great girl, she really was, but she was a drag when she came out with the boys. He loved her anyway, of course, but Ryan always had more fun when he went out without her. And Nick, well, he never let loose and had a good time out in the bars. He was uptight, just like Jenna. He liked knowing that she had someone to be uptight with while he was having fun. That way, he didn’t feel so bad when they got separated.
He caught her eye, and she smiled at him and gave him a little wave from across the room. It wasn’t a move that was made to make him feel bad for not being beside her; she was just acknowledging him. Jenna wasn’t like that anyway. She wasn’t clingy and demanding.
Jenna was like the quintessential all-American girl next door, and that appealed to him—even as a Canadian. She was beautiful in a very unassuming way. Classy. Sophisticated. Her dirty blonde hair fell in loose waves around her face, and she hardly ever wore heavy make-up. When she walked down the street, construction workers didn’t catcall or whistle after her. She wasn’t sexy, but rather she was a classic beauty. She was dressed in skinny jeans and ballet flats, topped in a loose-fitting blouse: the complete opposite of showy. The ring on her finger was the flashiest thing about her, and that was all his own doing. What was the point of making money if he didn’t get to spend it and show it off?
And that’s why they worked so well together. They balanced each other out. The guys didn’t understand it, but he did. And so did his mother, which was half the reason he’d finally proposed. They acted like they were already married, so why change the circumstances? He was only twenty-seven. He didn’t see the need to get hitched just yet, but his mother warned him that, if he didn’t show Jenna that he was serious, then Jenna would leave and find someone else who would. He told his mother that she was wrong, that Jenna was so much a part of him that she would never leave him or do anything to hurt him, but his mother insisted that there were other men prepared to swoop in for a catch as good as Jenna and that he needed to snatch her up before it was too late.
“God, Biggie, will you stop looking at her? You have your whole life ahead of you to make gaga eyes at her. It’s the last weekend before training camp starts. Let’s enjoy it.”
Ryan turned and faced his fellow teammate, road-trip roommate, and best friend, Alex “Freeze” Frazier. They always bantered back and forth like that, but they had an unspoken understanding that they were never supposed to take each other seriously. That was how Alex had partly earned his nickname: he could sometimes say things that seemed rude and hurtful and come off as being cold-hearted—but he never meant them. Ryan smirked and replied, “Shut up, Freeze, you’re just jealous.”
“Jealous? Of what? The fact that you only have one pussy for the rest of your life?” Alex shook his head and laughed. “I don’t envy you. I feel sorry for you.”
“Hey. That’s my future wife you’re talking about,” Ryan said. He knew Alex didn’t mean it like that. He didn’t mean it in a negative way like Jenna was bad for him. Alex just didn’t see the point in settling down when half of the female population in Chicago would be willing to spread their legs for him.
“Which means it’s not too late to back out. You can still save yourself!” Alex laughed. When that didn’t get a rise out of Ryan, Alex pushed away from the table and approached the two at the bar. “Jenna. You don’t really want to marry Biggie, do you?”
“Of course I do,” she teased, watching as Ryan followed suit and joined them. Ryan and Alex were inseparable; so much so that Jenna nicknamed them as if they were a celebrity couple: Ralex. While she knew that Alex was a joker, she wasn’t quite as quick to dismiss the things he said as playful nonsense. “I’ve put too much work into him to let another girl reap all the benefits.”
“Oh, thanks a lot, Jenna,” Ryan laughed. “I love you, too.”
“Oh, come on. You know I’m kidding,” she said toward her fiancé, reaching out and touching his forearm reassuringly. Then she narrowed her eyes at Alex and pointed a finger at him. “Don’t you dare go planting seeds of doubt in his mind, Frazier, or I’ll make you pay for that.”
“That’s not what I meant, Jenna,” Alex laughed. “I mean, you don’t want to marry him? Marry me instead.” Producing a small foil package from his pocket, he ripped it open and dropped to one knee. He held up the red Ring Pop and gave her his best smile—the same smile that lured many women into his bedroom.
“It’s very sweet of you to ask, but no thanks,” Jenna giggled, marveling at the fact that he had secretly held onto a fake candy ring all night. She figured that he had planned to fake propose at some point during the night, making a mockery of their commitment. Really, she had expected much worse of him, which was why she was so amused. As one of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors, Alex was unable to understand the weight of their decision to marry.
“Come on. It’s cherry! What woman could resist?” Alex stood and slipped the candy accessory on her right-hand ring finger. “Maybe you just need some time to think about it. I mean, I’m sure I’m much better in the sack than Biggie. When are you ever going to take me up on my offer?” he continued to tease.
Jenna laughed to be polite and pushed him away playfully. Alex always joked like this, and Ryan never said a word against it. Everyone knew that Alex was kidding; besides, everyone also knew the rule that teammates never messed around with other teammates’ girls. That was a quick way to get traded or sent down to the American League.
“I’m sorry, Frazier. But I’ll never love you.”
“I’m not asking you to love me, Jenna. I’m asking you to—”
“Okay, okay, enough,” Nick said, shaking his head. The bartender approached with their beers, and Nick did his best to censor the guys around outsiders. The Blackhawks had a reputation to uphold as pillars of the community. They did a lot of work around the city, a lot of work with kids, and they needed to be on their best behavior, always. And Nick could sense that Jenna was becoming irritated by Alex’s relentless sex jokes. Not everyone thought that particular sense of humor was funny.
Alex shrugged and grabbed a bunch of the glasses and headed back to the table. He called over his shoulder, “Are you coming, Biggie?”
Ryan grabbed his Jenna’s hand and nudged her in the direction of the group. She looked at Nick and rolled her eyes, but she followed Ryan to the table, accidentally leaving her Fuzzy Navel on the bar. Ryan took his seat as Nick set a full glass down in front of him, and then he snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her into his lap. Jenna thought it was too intimate of a position for present company, but he wouldn’t let her get up. He kept his arm around Jenna and used his free hand to drink his beer.
While Ryan started to talk to Alex about the summer he spent at home in Minnesota, Nick addressed Jenna. “So, did you guys pick a date yet?”
Jenna averted her eyes and pursed her lips. Nick could instantly tell by her body language that his question was a mistake and that she was now uneasy. “I’m sorry, Jenna—”
“No, it’s okay, Nicky.” She quickly cut him off because she didn’t want him to feel bad. Everyone had been asking her that very question, and she was embarrassed that she didn’t have an answer for them. But she didn’t want anyone to know their private business; she wasn’t a secretive person, but she was very private and liked to keep her cards close to her chest. “So far, our engagement has been a whirlwind. And it’s a busy time of year right now, with coming back to Chicago for the season and stuff. We talked about it, but we haven’t set anything in stone yet.”
He smiled, trying to be reassuring and kind. “Well, I guess when you’ve been together as long as you guys have, there’s no need to rush to the altar.”
That didn’t make her feel any better; really, it had the opposite affect. Jenna didn’t see the point in waiting any longer to get married since they had already been together for so long. While it bothered her a little to put it off, she tried to nonchalantly play it off like it didn’t matter. She knew logically that, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter when they got married. Just as she had been willing to wait eight years for an engagement ring, she was willing to wait for the wedding band—because it wasn’t about getting married. It was getting married to Ryan. But nevertheless, getting it over with sooner rather than later would have made their lives simpler because there would be less hassle.
Ryan felt Jenna’s body tense in his lap, and he knew something was up. He listened in to what she was saying. “Yeah, I mean, it took him eight years to propose, so it could be a while before I can get him down the aisle.”
Nick chuckled, but Ryan groaned. He had heard that joke too many times, and he didn’t think it was funny. Why couldn't everyone be happy that he had just asked her to marry him? “Do you have to keep saying that?”
Jenna reached for her fiancé’s glass. “Nick just asked if we had set a date yet.”
“Marty, you’re such a woman,” Ryan said to his teammate as he watched Jenna drink some of his beer.
Alex commented, “Jenna, are you sure you should be drinking that?”
She gave him a confused look. “Yeah. Why not?”
He leaned across the table and said in a mock whisper loud enough for the entire room to hear. “Because of the baby.”
“Baby?” It took a moment before his implication sank in. She scowled. “I’m not pregnant.”
“Really? Because I thought that’s why Biggie here proposed, ’cause he knocked you up. You know, shotgun wedding.”
Jenna was truly offended; she didn’t want anyone to think that Ryan had asked her to marry him for any reason other than the fact that he loved her. And—on top of that—in her family, a child conceived out of wedlock would be a scandal. Her grandparents didn’t know that she was living with her boyfriend, and even her parents didn’t condone it. In their minds, the sooner she was married, the better. They were putting a lot of pressure on her to seal the deal already. “Shut up, Frazier. That’s a horrible thing to lie about.”
“It's okay, Jenna. He’s just joking,” Ryan soothed, patting her on the leg.
“Yeah, lighten up. I’m just joking.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to joke about. If word got out and people really thought—”
Ryan cut her off. “No one thinks that.” He spoke up and announced, “Jenna’s not pregnant. Okay?” When the guys at the table—or at least the ones paying any attention to the conversation—nodded, he looked at his fiancée with satisfaction. “There, does that make you feel better?”
“Not really,” she muttered, taking another long swig of Ryan’s beer. The glass was almost empty at this point, and since she felt responsible, she unwrapped herself from his hold and stood. Besides, she needed yet another break from the guys. “I’m gonna get you another beer.”
He grinned, delighted by the way she was offering to take care of him. Even after eight years together, she had never stopped putting in the effort needed to maintain their relationship. She didn’t come home after a long day and immediately put on ugly, frumpy sweatpants. She cooked all his meals—or at least made enough leftovers so he’d have a hot pre-game meal if she wouldn’t be around. Jenna was a caring, loving, thoughtful woman, and he was happy to know he’d be spending the rest of his life with her. Not that he’d ever had a doubt that he would.
“Oh, hey Jenna, get me one, too!” Alex called out as she started to walk away toward the bar.
“Hell no, Frazier. Get off your lazy ass and get it yourself.”
Nick snickered under his breath. Those two had never really gotten along and probably never would; it was only funny because of how close Ryan and Alex were. There was some backstory about how Alex had hit on her without knowing that she was Ryan’s girlfriend and she had rebuffed him and bruised his ego, but that had happened long before Nick had been drafted so he didn’t know the whole situation.
Alex huffed, “You need to talk to your woman, Biggie, about giving me some respect.”
Ryan laughed loudly. “Uh, no. I’m not getting in the middle of you two.”
Nick played with the straw in his water. “Really, Freeze, you should be nicer to her. She’s the captain’s wife.”
“Soon-to-be wife,” Alex corrected. “Nothing’s final ’til there’s a ring on his finger, and I know she’ll come knocking on my door before that happens so she can know the love of a real man.”
Ryan shook his head, not bothering with a rebuttal. Instead, he told Nick, “Don’t worry, man. Jenna’s a big girl, she can take care of herself.”
Nick didn’t say what was on his mind: that as her boyfriend, fiancé, and eventually husband, Ryan should have been taking care of her and protecting her. At least, that’s what he would do if he had a girlfriend and someone on the team was giving her a hard time. He also thought that Ryan could have been setting a better example as captain.
Jenna approached the table with Ryan’s beer. She tried her best to suppress the yawn that was building up, but she couldn’t fight it. “You tired, babe?” Ryan asked.
She shook her head as her eyes watered from trying to hold it back. “No, I’m fine.”
“What do you say we get out of here?” Ryan asked, standing up and intercepting her. He had been looking for an excuse to leave anyway. His nose brushed against her ear as he added quietly, “God, I need to be inside of you.”
Jenna bit her lip for two reasons. First, she needed to suppress the moan that now threatened to escape. Ryan never held back when it came to what he wanted sexually, and Jenna loved to oblige him. Second, she needed to hold back from telling him that he shouldn’t have said that so loud. As much as she liked when Ryan talked like this, he shouldn’t do so when in earshot of the bartender and the entire team. It was just improper and inappropriate.
All she did instead was nod as her teeth dug into her bottom lip, still preventing herself from speaking. Ryan smiled widely as he grabbed her hand and looked for the establishment’s bright red EXIT sign. “Here, Freeze, you can have this,” he laughed, pushing his beer across the table.
Jenna tried to ignore the knowing looks generated by the table full of Ryan’s teammates. As she was led toward the door, she gave a meek smile to the only other guy at the table to whom she wanted to say goodbye. “See ya later, Nicky,” she said, looking back one last time as she dutifully followed her fiancé out the door.


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