For the past five days, my head hasn’t been in it. And maybe five days doesn’t sound like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but it is when you only have five more to prepare for arguably the most important game of the season. Not the second most important, because that’s operating on the assumption that the Frozen Four is a given, and it isn’t. We need to beat Briar in order to move forward; therefore, this is the most important game, and the only thing that should matter at the moment.
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I haven’t been as focused as I should be.”
“What’s going on? School? Do we need to set you up with a tutor?”
“No, I’m good with all that. A couple final papers left to write, but I’m not having any trouble. They’re not due till May, anyway.”
“So what is it? Shit at home?”
“No.” I readjust myself in my chair. Uncharacteristic embarrassment heats the back of my neck. “I feel like a moron saying this, but it’s a girl.”
Coach rumbles in displeasure. “You want my advice?”
A laugh pops out. Well. That’s not helpful. “That’s one solution,” I say carefully, because Coach Pedersen doesn’t appreciate being challenged.
“Trust me, kid, it’s the only solution. Women are goddamn headaches. Even the nice ones,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s like they all take a master class in manipulation, learning how to play with your emotions. They either turn us into slaves, or fools.”
His volatile reaction catches me off-guard. I hear a lot of bitterness in his tone, and I wonder who broke his heart. As far as I know, Pedersen’s never been married. He doesn’t have kids, and if he has a girlfriend then he never talks about her. A few of the guys have posited the theory that he might be gay, but I don’t think he is. There was a team event at a Boston hotel last year, and I saw Coach leave the party with a hot redhead in a skintight dress. That doesn’t mean he isn’t gay, but, hell, who knows?
From the sound of it, though, he has absolutely no interest in relationships.
“At the end of the day, these women want something from you, kid. They always want something. They take and take and take, and they don’t give anything back. Nobody gives a shit about anybody else, so you might as well look out for yourself, right?”
That’s what I usually do. It’s what I’ve done my whole life. I’m not sure why the approach isn’t working for me lately. My stomach’s been twisted up in knots ever since Brenna ended things.
“You know what I like most about you, Jake?”
“What’s that?” I ask warily.
I find myself bristling. He’s presenting it as a compliment, and it’s not even a new revelation for me—I know I’m selfish. Yet for some reason, being called selfish by my coach raises my hackles.
“You don’t let anything come in the way of your goals,” he continues. “Your own needs come first, and that’s how it should be. That’s the reason you’re destined to be a superstar.” Coach shakes his head again. “This girl that’s causing you all this grief? Forget about her. Focus on winning, focus on this sweet new job you’ll have come August. One misstep on the ice can end a career. Loss of focus leads to dangerous outcomes, and not only the risk of injury. A bad game reflects poorly on you, and you’d better believe that your new bosses are watching every single game and studying your film afterward.”
“So get your head in the game. Forget this girl. There’ll be others. When you’re up in Edmonton I guarantee you’ll find a lot of cute bunnies to keep you warm.” He leans forward and claps a hand over my shoulder. “We good?”
I nod slowly. “We’re good. Don’t worry. I’ll get my head on straight.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
And yet the first thing I do when I step out the main doors of the Bright-Landry Hockey Center is contact Brenna again.
Coach’s speech got to me, but not in the way I’m sure he’d hoped. I don’t want to be the man who gets hurt by one woman and goes on to despise the entire sex. I don’t want to be bitter and angry.
I can’t force Brenna to go out with me again, but at least I can let her know that she’s still on my mind.
ME: Hey, Hottie. Me again. Feel free to keep avoiding me, but just know that I’m here if you change your mind.
It’s Tuesday morning and a skinny blonde is giving me the stink eye.
My friend Audrey is supposed to be meeting me at the Coffee Hut, but she’s five minutes late. Maybe the skinny blonde at the counter is pissed that I’m taking up a two-person table for myself? But that’s bullshit. She’s alone, too. Why should she get the two-person table? This is America. First-come first-served, girlfriend.
Still, I send an SOS to Audrey, because the coffee shop is packed, and I can’t nurse the same cup of coffee for much longer without the barista coming by to tell me they need the table.
ME: Where are you? Peeps are trying to steal our table.
* * *
AUDREY: Still waiting to talk to the prof.
Ugh, really? She’s still at the lecture hall? The journalism building is a ten-minute walk from the Coffee Hut. Her next message confirms my fears.
AUDREY: I’ll be at least 15. Do you mind waiting or should we meet this afternoon?
* * *
ME: I won’t have time this afternoon :( Class starts at 1, ends around 5. We can do dinner maybe?
* * *
AUDREY: Can’t :(
Grrr. Despite sharing a major, Audrey and I haven’t hung out in a while. We don’t interact much during classes, since most of the time we’re assigned a story on the spot and then ordered to go forth and write it. I’ve barely seen my friend Elisa this month, either. I guess it’s that time of year. Final papers and exams, the hockey season at its peak, and before we know it, it’ll be May and the semester will be over.
ME: OK, I’ll wait. I miss your face.
* * *
AUDREY: Aw love you, boo. See you soon.
I lift my head to see the stink-eye girl from the counter. She’s two feet away now, and her expression hasn’t gotten any brighter. It matches the overcast sky beyond the window.
“Who’s asking?” I ask warily.
“I’m Hazel. Hazel Simonson.”
I give her a blank look. “Okay. Do we know each other?”
A groove digs into her forehead, but I’m not quite sure what that signifies. “Jake never mentioned me?”
My hand tightens around my coffee cup. “You know Jake?”
“Yes. Very well, actually.”
I attempt to keep my expression neutral. Swear to God, if this girl tries telling me that he’s her boyfriend…
No. I’d call bullshit if she did. I don’t think Jake is a dishonest person. He said he doesn’t do girlfriends, and I don’t believe he’s got a side piece stashed somewhere.
“Can I join you?” Hazel says coolly.
“I’m actually meeting somebody—”
She sits down, anyway. “I’ll keep you company until they get here.” Hazel clasps her hands on the tabletop. “There’s a couple things we need to discuss.”
I lean back in the chair, keeping my body language relaxed. Hers is confrontational, and I always meet aggression with indifference. It’s a tactic that tends to ruffle the aggressor’s feathers. “Look. Hazel. No offense, but I don’t know you. You’re claiming to know Jake, but he hasn’t once brought up your name to me.”
Her light-brown eyes flash briefly.
“So forgive me if I don’t trust the strange girl who sits down without invitation and glares at me like I strangled her cat.” I cross my legs, loosely resting a hand on my right knee.
“I do know Jake,” Hazel says curtly. “We grew up in Gloucester together. Went to school together. I know his parents… Lily and Rory?” she prompts.
I can’t challenge her on that. Jake never mentioned his parents’ first names to me.
“We all had breakfast together on Saturday. At their place.” A trace of smugness creeps into her expression. “Jake and I took the train up.”
An unwelcome feeling pulls at my stomach.
“I know him better than anyone,” she finishes. And it’s no longer a trace—she’s smug as fuck.
“Is that so?” I drawl.
“Yes. I know he has a good head on his shoulders, and I also know he’s way smarter than he looks. He doesn’t usually get played like this.”
The lioness act is starting to grate. “He’s getting played?”
“Don’t play dumb.” She laces her fingers together in a tight grip. “I know exactly who you are. I cyber-stalked you after he told me you were dating.”
I manage to swallow my surprise before it reaches my eyes. Jake told this chick that we were dating?
Hazel smirks. “Like I said, Jake and I are old friends. We don’t keep secrets from each other.”
That sensation in my gut intensifies. It starts churning in a hot eddy of…I think it might be jealousy. But there’s a hefty dose of anger in there, too, because who the hell is this girl?