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“This game is the single most important game you play this season. We beat Briar, we go to the national tourney. We beat Briar, we’re one step closer to bringing home a national title.” He rumbles on for another full minute, pumping us up, telling us we need to win, growling that the title belongs to us, that we need to bring it home. “What are we gonna do?” he shouts.

“Bring it home!”

“Can’t hear you.”

“Bring it home!”

Coach nods in approval. Then he throws me a curveball. “Connelly, say a few words.”

My head jerks up in surprise. “Coach?”

“You’re the captain, Jake. Say something to your team. This could be the last game of the season. Hell, your last game at Harvard.”

Fuck, I don’t like that he’s messing with my ritual. But I can’t object, because unlike nearly every other athlete in the world, Coach doesn’t believe in luck or superstition. He believes in skill and hard work. I suppose I admire that philosophy, but…respect the rituals, dammit.

I clear my throat. “Briar’s good,” I start. “They’re really good.”

“Great speech!” Brooks breaks out in hearty applause. “Standing ovation!”

Coby snickers loudly.

“Can it, Bubble Butt. I wasn’t done.” I clear my throat. “Briar’s good, but we’re better.”

My teammates wait for me to go on.

I shrug. “I was done that time.”

Laughter rings out all around me, until Coach claps his hands to silence everyone. “All right. Let’s get out there.”

I’m about to shut my locker when the phone I left on the shelf lights up. I crane my neck to take a peek, and a satisfied smile tugs at my lips. It’s a message from Brenna, wishing me good luck. There’s also one from Hazel, offering the same sentiment, but I’d expect it from Hazel. From Brenna, it’s unprecedented.

“Coach, my dad’s calling,” I lie as I catch Pedersen’s attention. “Probably wants to wish us luck. I’ll just be a minute, okay?”

He gives me a suspicious look before muttering, “One minute.”

As he and my teammates lumber toward the tunnel, I call Brenna. But I don’t get the greeting I expect.

“Why are you calling me?” She sounds outraged. “You should be on the ice warming up.”

I chuckle. “I’d think you’d be happy to hear that I’m not out there.”

“Wait, is everything okay? You’re still playing, aren’t you?” Concern echoes over the line.

“Yes, I’m still playing. But I saw your text and I wanted to make sure you’re not in danger.”

“Why would I be in danger?”

“Because you said good luck. I assumed someone was holding a gun to your head.”

“Oh, don’t be a brat.”

“So you were seriously wishing me good luck?”

“Yup.”

“Did you mean it?”

“Nope.”

“Who’s the brat now?” I hesitate. “Look…whatever happens tonight, I don’t want to stop seeing you.” Then I hold my breath and wait, because I genuinely don’t know what she’ll say.

I know what I want her to say. I want her to say that she hasn’t been able to get me off her mind since we slept together, because I haven’t gotten her off my mind since we slept together. The sex was unreal. So goddamn amazing. And that was our first time. If it’s that good when we don’t even know each other’s turn-ons yet? When we don’t know exactly how to get each other off? Means it’s only going to get better. That blows my mind.

“I want to keep seeing you,” I press when she still hasn’t answered. “Do you want to keep seeing me?”

There’s another delay. Then she sighs. “Yes. I do. Now get out there so we can kick your ass.”

A smile cracks my face in half. “You wish, babe.”

I shut the locker and turn around, flinching when I spot Coach in the doorway.

Shit.

“Babe, eh?” Coach mocks. “You call your father ‘babe’?”

I release a weary breath. “I’m sorry I lied.”

“Connelly.” He grabs my shoulder when I reach him. Even with my padding on, I can feel the steel in his grip. “That girl…whether or not you’re serious about her…you have to remember, she’s Jensen’s daughter. You need to consider the possibility that she’s playing mind games with you.”

Hazel said the same thing. But I think they’re both being paranoid. Brenna doesn’t play games. “I’ll take that into consideration.” I force a smile. “Don’t worry, it won’t affect my performance on the ice. We got this.”

We don’t got this.

From the second the puck drops, the game is a complete clusterfuck. It’s speed and aggression. It’s two teams that aren’t competing for a win, but competing to fucking kill each other. The hits are brutal, and I suspect the refs are letting a lot of calls go because of the high intensity of the game. It’s hockey the way it’s meant to be played. With absolute abandon.

The fans are losing their minds. I’ve never heard the arena this alive. Screams, cheers, and boos crash together in a symphony that fuels the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Despite all that, Briar is outplaying us. They’re fast, particularly Davenport. And Nate Rhodes? I don’t know what he’s been putting in his Wheaties, but holy shit. He gets the first goal of the game, a bullet that Johansson has absolutely no chance of stopping. Even I’m impressed by it, but one look at the fury reddening Coach’s eyes and I know I can’t let that slide.

“You gonna let them do that to you?” Coach roars at us. “You gonna let them do that to you in our house?”

“No sir!”

The adrenaline kick sends me diving over the wall with Brooks and Coby. It’s our power line, and there’s a reason we call it that. Brooks is the Incredible Hulk when he’s on the ice. He delivers body checks that are bone jarring. Coby has a mean elbow and can battle against the boards better than anybody. I win the faceoff, but rather than pass, I deke out Fitzgerald and skate forward. I wait for the others to cross the blue line before sending a pass back to Coby, close to center.

He skates around the net, stops for a second, then flies out. He shoots and misses. Davenport almost gets his stick on the rebound, but I give him a shove and it’s my stick that connects with the puck. I shoot and miss. The puck bounces toward Brooks, who shoots and misses. A deafening roar goes through the stands.

Jesus fucking Christ. Three fucking shots, denied, denied, denied, and since when did Corsen get this fucking good? I’m growling in frustration when Coach calls to change it up, and off the ice we go.

Breathing hard, I sit on the bench next to Brooks. “What the hell is going on here?”

“I don’t know,” he mutters. “Corsen’s not usually that fast with the glove.”

“Just gotta keep hammering him, tire him out.”

Brooks gives a grim nod.

Coach appears behind us, clamping a hand around Weston’s shoulder. “Get us a power play,” he orders.

I tense up, because any time Coach encourages Brooks to draw a penalty, there’s real potential for tempers to fly. Our line returns to the game, and Brooks is immediately out for blood. In the faceoff, he starts taunting Davenport, who’s crouched to the right of Nate Rhodes. Mike Hollis is at Rhodes’s left.

I’m too focused on the puck to register what Brooks says, but whatever it is, it summons a feral growl from Davenport. “Go fuck yourself,” the sophomore spits out.

“Enough,” the ref shouts.

Once again I win the faceoff. I snap the puck to Brooks, who muscles his way into Briar’s zone. He snaps it back to me, but I don’t have a shot. The D-men are protecting Corsen and the net like the fucking Kingsguard in Game of Thrones. I need an opening. I need—

The whistle blows. I didn’t see what happened, but I turn to find Hollis shouting something at Weston.

It’s a high-sticking call, and Hollis is hauled into the penalty box. Brooks and I exchange a look. He did his job. Now it’s time to do mine.

Our line stays out for the penalty kill, but we don’t need much time. Briar is a man down, and although they manage to ice it right off the faceoff, the moment we get the puck back? Stick a fork in them cuz they’re done. I deke out Davenport and release a shot that even Corsen and his new glove skills can’t stop. The lamp lights and relief ripples through me.

The score is tied.

“Good job,” Coach says when I swing over the wall.

I pop out my mouth guard, a piece of equipment that isn’t mandatory, but I value my teeth, thank you very much. My breathing is labored, chest sucking in and out, as I watch my teammates speed by. That was exhausting. My shift lasted more than three minutes, which is unheard of.

“Get your shit together,” I hear Heath growling to Jonah.

I glance down the bench, frowning deeply. “We got a problem?” I call to the younger guys.

“Nah, it’s all good,” Heath says.

I’m not convinced. Jonah’s angry gaze is glued to the action in front of us, but I can’t quite pinpoint where his anger stems from. Maybe he took a dirty hit and is pissed at the player who got away with it.

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