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I don’t recognize the second voice. I assume the first one is security.

“Sorry, not happening, kid. I can’t let you in there.”

“Come on, Hollis,” urges a third voice. “We’ll track him down later.”

Hollis? As in Mike Hollis?

I jump up from the bench and sprint to the door. “Wait,” I say, flinging it open. “It’s cool. I know them.”

The security guard’s hawk-like gaze sweeps over me. “Nobody else is supposed to be in here.”

“We’ll keep it quick,” I assure him. “Two minutes, tops.”

He steps aside.

A few seconds later, I’m in the locker room with the last two people I expected to see today. Mike Hollis has his arms crossed tight to his broad chest. Colin Fitzgerald is more relaxed, with his arms at his sides. He’s wearing a V-neck sweater with the sleeves rolled up, and there’s ink peeking out from under his collar and his cuffs. Dude’s totally tatted up, I realize.

“How did you know I was here?” I ask the Briar players.

“The goon told us,” Hollis says.

“The goon?”

“Weston,” Fitzgerald supplies, grinning. “My girlfriend Summer texted him.”

“Ah.”

“Are we done with the small talk?” Hollis asks politely.

I fight a laugh. I wonder if they’re going for a good cop, bad cop approach. “Sure, I guess we’re done.” I make a gracious gesture toward him. “Why are you here?”

“Because we wanted to beat some sense into you.”

“Please don’t we this,” Fitzgerald objects. “I just drove you here.”

Hollis glares at his teammate. “You’re saying you don’t give a shit that he broke Jensen’s heart?”

I suck in a breath. I broke her heart? Did she tell them that?

Hollis spins toward me again. “You are such a dumbass, Connelly. You made the biggest mistake of your dumbass life when you broke up with Brenna.”

“I know.”

“First of all, she’s gorgeous. It’s almost disgusting how gorgeous she is. She’s smart and witty and hilarious and—wait, what do you mean, ‘you know’?”

Shrugging, I lower myself onto the bench. They remain standing, and I suddenly feel like I’m a kid being scolded by my two dads.

“I mean I know,” I say unhappily. “It was a huge mistake. One I’m going to rectify the second we beat Michigan.”

“If you knew it was a mistake, then why didn’t you rectify it days ago?” Hollis demands.

“Because I have a game to play.”

Because I’m fucking terrified of facing her.

There’s no way I’m admitting that to these two boneheads, but it’s the truth, the real truth.

I suppose I could take the easy way out and blame Hazel for my actions. She was the one who induced my panic by hammering me with all those questions, asking if I was ready, warning how hard it was going to be, how impossible long-distance relationships are. Every point she’d raised created more and more pressure inside my chest until I couldn’t breathe. The walls started closing in on me, and I felt like I was suffocating.

I know she wasn’t doing it on purpose. Those were all things I should’ve already been thinking about, issues I should’ve been anticipating.

But I wasn’t, because I was still living my Solo Jake life. In that life, I get to be selfish. I get to blow off dates for hockey. I get to concentrate on kicking ass in the NHL. I get to have one priority: myself.

Relationship Jake is required to be there for someone other than himself. Or rather, to be there for someone along with himself. The realization scared the shit out of me. I’ve never had to be there for anybody else. What if I’m bad at it? What if I let Brenna down in some way? I can’t promise to be there for her every second of the day, and the way Hazel was going on about it, it was like I wouldn’t have a single second to myself ever again.

I’m really not blaming Hazel. But the anxiety attack that began at the diner followed me all the way home. When I saw Brenna, the panic spilled over.

I found myself grasping for the first excuse that came to mind, the tried-and-true reason I used to give girls who demanded more of my time: hockey. I told her I needed to be there for my team, because in that moment I was terrified of the responsibility of being there for her.

It only took an hour, maybe two, before my anxiety passed and I was able to clearly process my thoughts. I am capable of being there for Brenna. Haven’t I already done that for more than a month now? I was there for her with the Ed Mulder charade, rescuing her ex-boyfriend, advising her about her issues with Coach Jensen. She was staying at my house, and other than one late practice—which makes a total of three in the past seventeen years—I was perfectly capable of balancing hockey and a girlfriend.

I don’t expect next season to be a breeze. I’ll be traveling a lot, I’ll be exhausted from working my butt off, and I won’t get to see Brenna half as much as I’d like to. But it’s only one year. We can survive that. Then she’ll graduate, and maybe consider moving to Edmonton, if I’m still playing there.

Annnd I’m getting way ahead of myself right now. First I need to convince her to take me back, and then we can worry about her moving to another country for me.

“Are you gonna talk to her after the game?” Hollis asks expectantly. “Or do we need to bring out a shotgun and—”

“Relax, you don’t have to make me talk to her at gunpoint,” I say with a chuckle.

“What?” His expression is puzzled. “I was going to say we’d clock you in the back of the head with the shotgun, knock some sense into you.”

I turn to Fitzgerald, who shrugs and says, “His brain operates on a level us mortals can’t comprehend.”

Hollis looks pleased. “Dude, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

The unexpected visit from the Briar guys is nothing compared to the shock I receive when I leave the locker room to find a vending machine and instead find my parents standing in the corridor. For a moment I think I’m hallucinating, until my mom blurts out my name.

“Jake!” Relief floods her face. “You’re here? Rory, he’s already here.”

“I can see that,” Dad says dryly.

I shake my head in confusion, then glance over at Hazel, who’s next to my mother. She offers a slight smile, as if to say, Look what the cat dragged in, right?

“Yeah. I’m here. I showed up early.”

“Why weren’t you answering your phone?” Mom asks.

“I forgot it at home.” I stare at my parents. “Why are you guys here?”

“We came to support you,” Mom replies.

Dad claps me on the shoulder. “This is a big game for you. And if I’m being honest, your mother and I felt bad about not making more of an effort to attend your games. Now that you’ll be in the pros, your parents will be expected to make an appearance, right?”

“I don’t think anybody cares if some random rookie’s parents are in the box or not, Dad.”

“Random rookie?” he echoes. “No way!”

“You’re going to be a superstar,” Mom reminds me, a big smile on her face. “And we’re so very proud of you.”

My eyes suddenly feel hot. Damn it, I can’t tear up right now. Got a game to concentrate on.

“Thank you,” I say, and, yeah, my voice is a bit hoarse. I clear my throat. “I know you guys don’t care about hockey much, but I appreciate that you came today.”

“We might not be hockey fanatics, but we’re Jake fanatics,” Mom declares.

Hazel snorts. “That was so lame, Mrs. C.”

“We should take our seats,” Dad says. “It’s really filling up in there.”

“Good luck, sweetie,” Mom says.

I find myself enveloped in a warm bear hug, followed by a less dramatic but equally warm side hug from my dad.

“I’ll join you in a minute,” Hazel tells them. “I want to talk to Jake first.”

Once they’re gone, I raise a brow at my friend. “I can’t believe they came. Did you know about this?”

She nods. “Your mom called me to get them tickets. They wanted to surprise you.”

I slide my hands in my pockets and glance at the door behind me. The team will be arriving soon. “I should head back in and do my mental prep.”

“Cool.” Hazel seems to hesitate.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.” But her face is a bit pale, and when she smiles it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Have a good game, Jake.”

40

Jake

Returning to the locker room, I immediately feel centered. Strong. Motivated. Now that I know my parents will be in the stands cheering me on, I’m even more determined to play well.

I’m going to beat Michigan today, and afterwards I’m going to win Brenna back. I don’t care if I have to throw myself at her feet and beg. I’m getting my woman back.

Although the team’s uniforms and gear were brought here ahead of time, I always have my own equipment bag with me. It’s where I keep my spare hockey tape and other random gear, and I usually toss my bracelet in there. I pull the zipper open and rummage around in search of the familiar beads. But my fingers aren’t connecting with anything.

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