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Authors: Catherine Gayle

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BOOK: Dropping Gloves
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If this had happened last season, it would have been Eric Zellinger coming out for the ceremonial face-off. He’d been the Storm’s captain for over a decade, but there had been an expansion draft over the summer, and both Zee and goaltender Hunter Fielding had been claimed by the league’s new team, the Tulsa Thunderbirds. That had left the Storm with an opening for a new captain.

Just before the start of the season, they’d held a press conference to announce that Jamie was it. I’d been in a meeting with my agent, Derek Hatch, in LA when it was all going down. We’d been discussing various auditions he wanted to send me on, the direction he thought my career should take after the end of
The Cool Kids,
but I hadn’t been able to focus on anything Derek had said. My phone had kept buzzing with updates about Jamie and the Storm until, eventually, Derek had sent me on my way and told me to get my head straightened out so we could make a plan.

Easier said than done.

So now, here Jamie was, looking at me with that same hurt look in his eyes that I’d seen every time I’d come back to Portland in the last four years.

The look I’d put in his eyes.

The look that ripped me apart.

The pain in his gaze might even be more intense than usual right now. Probably because of that damn prom picture Dad had given them for the montage.

Jamie glanced over his shoulder toward center ice, then looked back at me with a wink. “They’re ready, Katie,” he said, indicating the slew of photographers and videographers who had lined up opposite us.

I nodded, swallowing down my feelings, and dropped the puck.

He gathered it up while Brown shook my hand and gave me a friendly, cursory pat on the shoulder. Then Jamie handed the puck back to me and wrapped me up in his arms.

I almost let out a sob. Almost. He’d hugged me countless times before, but this was different. He had all of his hockey gear on, the pads and whatnot, and I could hardly feel
him
underneath it all. We were touching, but it felt distant. Cold. I shivered, wishing I could draw closer to him and feel the warmth of his heart.

He pecked me on the cheek, causing an excited titter to run through the crowd, but it was ice that skittered through my veins. I wasn’t sure if the coldness was from him or from me, or simply because of the mountain range that stood between us these days.

“I’m glad you’re here, Katie,” he said, his voice all rough like gravel crunching under Cam Johnson’s pickup truck. His words were so quiet I could barely hear him over all the arena noise. He sounded completely unlike what I was used to. He gave me a grin, just enough to make his dimples pop out momentarily, and then he skated away.

“Me, too,” I murmured to his retreating form, only I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d meant it. None of this would have felt so detached if he really wanted me here. I was pretty sure—almost positive—he hoped I would be on a plane tomorrow, flying back to LA or maybe to New York like Derek wanted. It had to be easier for Jamie if I wasn’t here. I knew that, for me, it didn’t hurt as much without the constant, daily reminders of what I didn’t have. It was easier when we were apart.

My cheek tingled where he’d kissed me. I locked that up in my mind as tightly as I held the puck he’d handed me, while I walked across that purple carpet and back toward the tunnel. Several of the guys on the team skated over to shake my hand or kiss my cheek as I left, and Dad caught my eye and winked. I didn’t hear anything they said to me, though. My head was too filled with fading memories and a confused outlook on the future.

Derek hadn’t wanted me to come here at all.
You’re bigger than this
, he’d told me as he passed over a stack of scripts and another pile of travel arrangements. He expected me to get on a plane tomorrow, fly to New York, and make my mark on Broadway. To go to all the auditions he’d arranged for me. To follow the path he’d laid out for me, just like I’d done every step of the way for the last four years, despite that I’d hated so many of the things he’d asked of me and that I was still uncertain what I wanted.

Coming here might not have lined up with my agent’s plans for my future, but it had accomplished one thing: I was more confused now than I’d been in a long time, and that could only mean that there was something here worth sticking around for, even if I’d end up heartbroken again.

Katie spun around
and flew past her mom like a flash, racing away from the ice like a winger on a breakaway. I was pretty sure that picture from her prom had hit her as hard as it had hit me, so it didn’t surprise me that she was running off like that. There was a chunk of me that wished I could do the same. I didn’t have that kind of freedom, though. I had a game to play, so I had to get my head screwed back on straight.

Not such a simple thing to do with the knowledge that Katie Weber was still somewhere in the building. She was close enough I could still feel her essence lingering around me and only hoped that she wouldn’t stick around too long on this visit. The longer she stayed, the more of me she would take with her when she eventually left again.

Because she would. Leave. She always left.

I’d told her years ago that she should go and chase her dreams, so I couldn’t really blame her for doing the very thing I’d suggested. But fuck if it didn’t hurt like a son of a bitch every time she showed up and smiled at me like nothing had changed.

She wanted us to be friends. There was a part of me that wanted that, too—being her friend would be better than not having her in my life at all, or so I thought—but it was hard to do when I saw the way she let her boyfriends treat her.

At the moment, she might not be dating one of the shitheads she’d hooked up with in Hollywood, but it didn’t matter. That didn’t mean she was kicking them to the curb and making room for me, for the way I
really
wanted things to be between us. The fact was, Katie wasn’t going to stay in Portland. She was an
It Girl
now, a Hollywood starlet with people clamoring for her attention, and that meant she needed to get back to Hollywood so they could keep fawning over her. Her show had been cancelled, but it was only a matter of time before she got cast in something else, and then she would be gone again. Out of my life. Probably dating some new asswipe. Leaving me to be the brooding bastard I’d become.

Enough years had passed that, as long as she was away from Portland and not on the news too much, I was able to push her from my mind. I hadn’t watched
The Cool Kids
because that was a wound I didn’t want to open, and sometimes TMZ left her alone for a stretch. As long as she didn’t hit the mainstream news too often, I could almost pretend she had only been a dream. It wasn’t too bad, then. Without having her around, I could be the same guy I’d always been instead of the miserable grump I turned into when she was here but I couldn’t have her.

Like now.

I tried not to be that guy, but it was hard to brush things off when it felt like someone was stomping on all the broken pieces of me to be sure they were a puzzle I would never be able to put back together.

“Hey,” my brother Levi said. He was a couple of years younger than my twenty-four—he and Katie were the same age—a defenseman in his second year with the Storm. He tapped his stick on my shins harder than necessary to get my attention. “Earth to Jamie. Game’s about to start. Stop chasing after her in your fucking head.”

I gave him a terse nod and took a quick lap around our end of the ice to refocus. We were only a couple of weeks into the new season, my first as the captain of the team, and things had started off badly for us. There wasn’t any good reason for it, either.

We’d had some turnover in personnel on the ice from last year, but not too much. Zee and Hunter were with the Thunderbirds now. A couple of guys had changed in free agency, and there’d been a trade involving a few of the younger guys who hadn’t fully found their spots on the team. But the core that Jim Sutter, our general manager, was building around was all still intact, the coaches hadn’t changed, the systems were exactly the same… Essentially, there was no good excuse for why we’d taken a slide in play to start the year. Tonight, we needed to get back on track, and as the captain, it was up to me to set the tone for the rest of the team.

It was time. The carpet had been removed from the ice, and all the photographers were gone. The officials were in place, and my linemates, Riley Jezek and Aaron Ludwiczak, were already skating to center ice for the opening face-off. I headed over to join them, pushing aside all thoughts not relevant to the game at hand.

The puck dropped, and the Kings won it cleanly back to Matt Greene, one of their defensemen. I was closest to Greene, so I went straight for him and laid a bruising check on him, dislodging the puck so that either RJ or Luddy could grab it and we could get to work.

The crowd went wild as Greene went down hard. He was a big body. Hitting him like that had been enough to rattle the teeth in my head, so I knew he’d felt it more than he’d been prepared for. Luddy stole the puck and cycled it with RJ. I shook off the impact and skated in to join them. After a hit like that, my head was fully in the game. I couldn’t afford to think about Katie Weber right now.

I had work to do.

 

 

 

“That’s a bad
fucking call,” Mattias “Bergy” Bergstrom, the Storm’s head coach, shouted as the ref who’d blown his whistle skated by our bench. “You fucking know it, too. Brown was diving.”

The ref turned his head and shouted a few choice expletives back in Bergy’s direction, neither backing down nor admitting he might have made a mistake. It
was
a mistake, though. We’d been guilty plenty of times tonight, but in this instance, it wasn’t our fault. Levi just happened to be near Brown when the guy lost an edge and went down. Guilty by proximity.

The basic gist of the ref’s response was that Bergy needed to stop complaining and get his team to play a clean game, or else. There were a lot of implications at play in the
or else
part of that equation. The team could be issued a bench minor and we would have to kill off yet another penalty. Bergy could get fined by the league for abuse of officials. They could probably kick Bergy out of the game if it came down to it. There were lots of ways for this to escalate, and none of them would be good.

“Fucking dive,” Bergy said under his breath, but at least he stopped there. He wasn’t the sort of coach to lose his cool with the officials, not like our former coach, Scotty Thomas, had always been. Scotty had been more than a little hotheaded. Bergy was the type who tended to calmly let everyone know what he thought, setting the example he wanted us to follow.

He usually reserved his yelling for specific moments and specific individuals. Zee had been on the receiving end of it a lot, but Bergy didn’t usually yell at me. He got his point across in other ways, like keeping my ass planted on the bench when I fucked up.

Regardless of all that, right now it didn’t matter if the other guy had dived or fallen or what. The only thing that really mattered was that Levi was on his way to the box for a phantom tripping minor, and we had to kill our seventh penalty of the game—a game that we were trailing by a goal. We were only halfway through the game, but we’d already been penalized more times than we should have been in a full sixty minutes, at least if we wanted to keep Bergy happy. Still, there was a lot of time left on the game clock, which meant there was a lot of time for us to either fuck up some more or get our collective act together.

“Keep your fucking head in it, 501,” Andrew Jensen shouted across the ice to Levi. “We’ve got this.” Jens clearly thought we were going to be able to straighten up and pull ourselves out of the hole we’d been digging. Or maybe that was just the impression he wanted to give off.

At times like this, there was a part of me that wondered if Bergy and Jim had made the right choice in naming me the Storm’s next captain. I never knew what to say to help the boys out. Guys like Jens and Keith Burns were a lot more vocal. They always knew the right thing to say, and Burnzie had even been an assistant captain already for a long time. Shouldn’t he have been the new captain? Or maybe Soupy, who had been the other assistant captain for the last few years. Any one of those guys would have made more sense than me, along with at least a half a dozen other players on the team.

None of them were wearing the
C
on their chests, though. I was, and I didn’t have the first fucking clue how to lead this team.

BOOK: Dropping Gloves
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