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However, I also don’t want to give Connelly the satisfaction of siding with him. I’m petty like that.

“I don’t take orders from you,” I repeat, tucking a five-dollar bill under my half-empty cup. That should cover my coffee, Stacy’s tip, and any emotional distress she may have suffered tonight. “I’ll do whatever I want with McCarthy. Maybe I’ll give him a call right now.”

Jake narrows his eyes. “Are you always this difficult?”

“Yes.” Smiling, I slide out of the booth and slip into my leather jacket. “Safe drive back to Boston, Connelly. I’ve been told that the roads get really wet when it’s raining.”

He chuckles softly.

I zip up my jacket, then lean forward and bring my mouth inches from his ear. “Oh, and Jakey?” I swear I hear his breath hitch. “I’ll be sure to save you a seat behind the Briar bench at the Frozen Four.”

2

Jake

It’s nine thirty-ish when I get home. The two-bedroom condo I share with my teammate Brooks Weston is nothing I could ever afford on my own, even with the sweet rookie contract I signed with the Oilers. We’re on the top floor of the four-story building, and our place is ridiculous—I’m talking chef’s kitchen, bay windows, skylights, a massive rear deck, even a private one-car garage for Brooks’s Mercedes.

Oh, and it’s rent-free.

Brooks and I met a couple of weeks before the start of freshman year. It was at a team event, a “get to know your teammates before the semester starts” dinner. We hit it off immediately, and by the time dessert was served, he was asking me to move in with him. Turned out he had a second bedroom in his Cambridgeport condo—for free, he insisted.

He’d already received special permission to live off campus, a perk of being the filthy rich son of an alum whose donations would be sorely missed if the school didn’t keep him happy. Brooks’s father pulled a few more strings, and I was given a pass from the dorms, too. Money really does pave the way.

As for the rent issue, at first I’d balked, because nothing in life is free. But the more I got to know Brooks Weston, the more apparent it became that for him? Everything comes free. The guy hasn’t worked a day in his life. His trust fund is huge, and he gets whatever he wants handed to him on a silver platter. His parents, or one of their minions, secured this condo for him, and they insist on paying the rent. So for the past three and a half years, I’ve been given a glimpse into what it’s like to be a rich boy from Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no mooch—I tried to give him money. Brooks won’t have it and neither will his parents. Mrs. Weston was aghast when I raised the subject during one of their visits. “You boys need to focus on school,” she’d clucked, “not worry about how to pay the bills!”

I’d choked back laughter, because I’ve been paying bills for as long as I can remember. I was fifteen when I got my first job, and the moment I held that first paycheck in my hand, I was expected to contribute to our household. I was buying groceries, paying for my cell phone, gas, our cable bill.

My family isn’t poor. Dad builds bridges and Mom’s a hairdresser, and I’d say we are solidly between lower and middle class. We were never rolling in the dough, so experiencing Brooks’s lifestyle firsthand is jarring. I’ve already secretly vowed that once I’m settled in Edmonton and hitting all the incentives in my NHL contract, the first thing I’m going to do is write a check to the Weston family for the three years and counting of unpaid rent.

My phone buzzes as I kick off my Timberlands. I fish it out of my pocket and find a text from my friend Hazel, who I had dinner with earlier in one of Briar’s fancy dining halls.

HAZEL: You make it back ok?? It’s raining like crazy out there.

* * *

ME: Just walked thru the door. Thanks again for the grub.

* * *

HAZEL: Anytime. See u Saturday at the game!

* * *

ME: Sounds good.

Hazel sends a couple of kissy-face emojis. Other guys might read more into that, but not me. Hazel and I are completely platonic. We’ve known each other since grade school.

“Yo!” Weston shouts from the living room. “We’re all in here waiting for your ass.”

I shrug out of my wet jacket. Brooks’s mother sent a decorator over when we first moved in and made sure to purchase everything that guys don’t think about, like coat racks and shoe racks and dish racks—apparently men don’t give much consideration to racks, outside the tit variety.

I hang up my gear in our separate entryway and then duck through the doorway that leads to the main room. The condo has an open-concept layout, so my teammates are scattered in both the living room and dining area, and a few have taken up residence on the stools at our kitchen counters.

I glance around. Not every guy on the roster has shown up. I’ll let it slide, considering I called this meeting last minute. On the drive home from Hastings, I was stewing over Brenna’s taunt about the Frozen Four and worrying about how she’s distracting McCarthy. Which led to a mental investigation of all the other distractions that might be hindering the team. Since I’m all about action, I sent a mass text: Team meeting, my place, now.

The majority of our starters—nearly twenty of us—fill up the space, which means my nostrils are greeted with the combined scent of various body washes, colognes, and the BO of the assholes who decided not to shower before they came.

“Hey,” I greet the guys. “Thanks for coming.”

That gets some nods, several “no probs,” and general grunts of acknowledgement.

One person who doesn’t acknowledge me is Josh McCarthy. He’s leaning against the wall near the brown leather sectional, his gaze glued to his phone. His body language conveys a hint of frustration, shoulders stiffening ever so slightly.

Brenna Jensen’s probably still tugging him around by the cock. I battle my own sense of frustration at the notion. This kid shouldn’t even be wasting his time. McCarthy is a sophomore and he’s decent looking, but no way does he belong in Brenna’s league. The girl is a smoke show. Hands down, she’s one of the hottest women I’ve ever laid eyes on. And she’s got a mouth on her. The kind that needs to be silenced every now and then, maybe with another mouth pressed up to it…or a dick sliding between her red lips.

Oh fuck. I push the thought aside. Yes, Brenna is gorgeous, but she’s also a distraction. Case in point: McCarthy hasn’t even lifted his head since I entered the room.

I clear my throat. Loudly. He and the other handful that were still on their phones swivel their heads toward me. “I’m gonna make this fast,” I tell the room.

“You better,” Brooks drawls from the couch. He’s wearing black sweatpants and nothing else. “I left a chick in my bed for this.”

I roll my eyes. Of course Brooks was banging somebody. He’s always banging somebody. Not that I’m one to talk. I’ve had my share of girls over at our place. I feel sorry for our downstairs neighbors, having to deal with the parade of footsteps marching up and down the stairs. Luckily for them, we don’t throw many parties. Hosting a party sucks balls—who wants their house to get trashed? That’s what the frat houses are for.

“Aren’t you special,” Dmitry, our best defenseman, cracks to Weston. “I left my bed too for this meeting. Bed, period. Because I’m goddamn exhausted.”

“We all are,” a junior left-winger named Heath pipes up.

“Yeah, D, welcome to the tired club,” mocks Coby, one of our seniors.

I cross the room toward the kitchen, where I grab a bottle of water. Yeah, I hear them. This last month has been intense. Every Division I conference is balls deep in their tournaments, which means a solid month of the most competitive hockey you’ll ever see. We’re all vying for auto-bids into the national tournament, and, if that fails, hoping for a good enough record to be selected to the finals. Entire seasons are on the line here.

“Yes,” I agree, uncapping my bottle. “We’re tired. I can barely keep my eyes open in class. My entire body is one big bruise. I live and breathe these playoffs. I obsess over strategy every night before bed.” I take a slow sip. “But this is what we signed up for, and we’re so close to reaping the reward. This matchup against Princeton will be the toughest one we’ve faced all season.”

“I’m not worried about Princeton,” Coby says, smirking arrogantly. “We already beat them once this year.”

“Very early in the season,” I point out. “They’ve picked up steam since then. They swept the quarterfinals against Union.”

“So?” Coby shrugs. “We swept our series, too.”

He’s right. Last weekend we played some of the best hockey we’ve ever played. But we’re in the semifinals now. Shit just got real.

“This isn’t best two out of three anymore,” I remind the guys. “This is single elimination. If we lose, we’re out.”

“After our season?” Dmitry says. “We’ll get selected to the national tourney even if we don’t make it to the conference finals.”

“You’d bet our entire season on that?” I challenge. “Wouldn’t you rather have that guaranteed bid?”

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