First Chapter: HIM
Him by Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy
The coffee shop line is a little long, but I know I’ll make it to the rink on time. Some weeks just click.
Over the weekend, my hockey team clinched the first two rounds of the NCAA playoffs, and now we’re headed to the Frozen Four. I somehow got a B-minus on a history paper I wrote in an exhaustion-induced coma. And my spidey sense tells me the guy in front of me won’t order a complicated drink. I can tell from his clothes he’s a simple man.
Things are going my way right now. I’m in the zone. My skates are sharp, and the ice is smooth.
The line advances so Dull Guy can order. “Small breakfast blend. Black.”
It’s my turn a minute later, but when I open my mouth to order, the young barista lets out a fangirl shriek. “Omigod, Ryan Wesley! Congratulations!”
I don’t know her. But the jacket I’m wearing makes me a rock star, at least for this week. “Thanks, doll. Could I please get a double espresso?”
“Right away!” She barks out my drink order to her colleague, adding, “Make it snappy! We’ve got a championship to win here!” And wouldn’t you know? She refuses my five-dollar bill.
I shove it in the tip jar, then haul my ass outside and head for the rink.
I’m in a stupendous fucking mood as I stroll into the screening room at the team’s top-notch facility on the Northern Mass campus. I love hockey. Fucking love it. I’m heading for the pros in a few short months and I can’t frickin’ wait.
“Ladies,” I greet my teammates as I flop into my usual seat. The rows are set up in a semi-circle facing the massive screen at the head of the room. The chairs are padded leather. Yup, Division I luxury at its finest.
I shift my gaze to Landon, one of our freshman D-men. “You’re looking kinda green, man.” I smirk. “Does your tum-tum still hurt?”
Landon flips me the finger, but it’s a half-hearted gesture. He looks sick as hell, and I’m not surprised. Last I saw him, he was sucking on a bottle of whiskey like he was trying to make it come.
“Dude, you should have seen him when we were walking home,” a junior named Donovan pipes up. “Stripped down to his tighty whities and trying to dry-hump that statue in front of the south library.”
Everyone around us breaks out in laughter, including me—because either I’m wrong, or the statue in question happens to be a bronze horse. I call him Seabiscuit, but I think it’s just a memorial for some filthy-rich alumnus who made the Olympics equestrian team a hundred years ago.
“You tried to ride Seabiscuit?” I grin at the freshman.
Red splotches rise in his cheeks. “No,” he says sullenly.
“Yes,” Donovan corrects.
The cackling continues, but I’m now distracted by the smirk being aimed in my direction, courtesy of Shawn Cassel.
I guess you could call Cassel my best friend. Of all my teammates, I’m closest to him, and yeah, we chill outside hockey, but “best friend” isn’t exactly a term I throw around often. I’ve got friends. I’ve got a shit ton of friends, actually. Can I honestly say any of them really know me? Probably not. But Cassel comes damn close.
I roll my eyes at him. “What?”
He shrugs. “Landon isn’t the only one who had a good time last night.” He’s lowered his voice, but it doesn’t really matter. Our teammates are too busy riding Landon about last night’s horse shenanigans.
His mouth twitches. “Meaning I saw you disappear with that meathead. You guys were still AWOL when Em finally dragged me home at two.”
I raise one eyebrow. “I’m not seeing the problem.”
“Isn’t one. Just didn’t realize you were corrupting the straight ones now.”
Cassel’s the only guy on the team I ever discuss my sex life with. As the only gay hockey player I know, I walk a fine line. I mean, if someone brings it up, I’m not gonna clam up and scurry into the closet, but I don’t volunteer the information, either.
Honestly, my sexual orientation is probably the worst-kept secret on this team. The guys know. The coaches know. They just don’t care.
Cassel cares, but in a different way. He doesn’t give a shit that I like to fuck dudes. Nope, what he cares about is me. He’s told me on more than one occasion that he thinks I’m wasting my life moving from one anonymous encounter to another.
“Who says he was straight?” I say mockingly.
My buddy looks intrigued. “Seriously?”
I arch a brow again, which makes him laugh.
Truth is, I doubt the frat brother I hooked up with last night is gay. Bi-curious, more like it, and I won’t lie—that was the appeal. It’s easier to mess around with the ones who are gonna pretend you don’t exist in the morning. One night of no-strings fun, a BJ, a fuck, whatever their liquid courage allows them to try, and then they disappear. Act like they didn’t spend the hours leading up to it eyeing my tats and picturing my mouth around their dicks. Like they didn’t run their greedy hands all over my body and beg me to touch them.
Hook-ups with gay guys are potentially more complicated. They might want more. Like commitment. Promises I’m unable to make.
“Wait,” I demand when I register what he’d said before. “What do you mean Em dragged you home?”
Cassel’s jaw tightens. “Exactly what it sounds like. She showed up at the frat house and dragged me out.” His features relax, but only slightly. “She was just worried about me, though. My cell died so I wasn’t answering any of her texts.”
I say nothing. I’ve given up on trying to get Cassel to see the light about that chick.
“I would’ve gotten trashed if she hadn’t shown up. So…uh, yeah, I guess it was cool of her to come get me before I got too wasted.”
I bite my tongue. Nope, not getting involved in the man’s relationship. Just because Emily happens to be the clingiest, bitchiest, craziest chick I’ve ever met doesn’t give me the right to interfere.
“Besides, I know how she feels about me partying. I shouldn’t have gone in the first place—”
“You’re not fucking married,” I blurt out.
Shit. So much for keeping my mouth shut.
Cassel’s expression goes stricken.
I hastily backpedal. “Sorry. Ah…forget I said that.”
His cheeks hollow, jaw working as if he’s grinding his molars to dust. “No. I mean, shit. You’re right. We’re not married.” He mumbles something I can’t make out.
“I said…not yet, anyway.”
“Not yet?” I echo in horror. “For fuck’s sake, man, please, please tell me you aren’t engaged to that girl.”
“No,” he says quickly. Then he lowers his voice again. “But she keeps saying how she wants me to propose.”
Propose? The thought makes my skin crawl. Goddamn it, I’m gonna be the best man at their wedding, I just know it.
Is it possible to make a wedding toast without acknowledging the bride?
Luckily, Coach O’Connor marches into the room before this insane conversation with Cassel can make my mind spin any harder.
The room falls silent at his entrance. Coach is…commanding. Nah. Make that terrifying. Six-five, perpetual scowl, and a head he shaves not because he’s balding, but because he just likes looking like a scary motherfucker.
He starts off the meeting by reminding us—one by one—what each of us did wrong in practice yesterday. Which is completely unnecessary, because yesterday’s criticism still burns in my gut. I screwed up one of the faceoff drills, dropped passes I had no business dropping, missed on goal when I had an easy shot. It was just one of those crappy practices where nothing goes right, and I’ve already vowed to get my shit together when we hit the ice tomorrow.
The post-season is down to just two fateful games, which means I need to stay sharp. I need to be focused. Northern Mass hasn’t won a Frozen Four championship in fifteen years, and as the leading scorer, I’m determined to seal this victory before I graduate.
“All right, let’s get to it,” Coach announces after he’s finished telling us how much we suck. “We’re starting with this Rainier-Seattle game from last week.”
As a frozen image of a college arena fills the huge screen, one of our left wings wrinkles his forehead. “Why are we starting with Rainier? We’re playing North Dakota in the first round.”
“We’ll focus on North Dakota next time. Rainier is the one that worries me.”
Coach touches the laptop on the desk and the image on the big screen unfreezes, the sound of the crowd echoing in the viewing room.
“If we meet these guys in the final, we’re in for a world of hurt,” Coach says grimly. “I want you to watch this goalie. The kid’s sharp as a hawk. We need to find his weakness and exploit it.”
My gaze focuses on the game in progress, resting on the black-and-orange uniformed goaltender manning the crease. He’s sharp, all right. Steady eyes assessing the field of play, his glove snapping shut as he stops the first goal slapped in his direction. He’s fast. Alert.
“Watch the way he controls this rebound,” Coach orders as the opposing team takes another shot at goal. “Fluid. Controlled.”
The longer I watch, the more uneasy I get. I can’t explain it. I have no clue why the hairs on the back of my neck are tingling. But something about the goalie makes my instincts hum.
“He angles his body perfectly.” Coach sounds thoughtful, impressed almost.
I’m impressed, too. I haven’t followed any of the west coast teams this season. I was too busy concentrating on the ones in our conference, studying the game tapes to find a way to beat them. But now that post-season is underway, it’s time to assess the teams we might face in the championship if we make it to the final round.
I keep watching. Keep studying. Damn it, I like the way he plays.
No, I know the way he plays.
Recognition dawns on me at the same moment Coach says, “Kid’s name is—”
“—Jamie Canning. He’s a senior.”
Holy fucking shit.
My body is no longer humming, but trembling. I’ve known for a while that Canning goes to Rainier, but when I checked up on him last season I found out he’d been relegated to backup goalie, replaced by some hotshot sophomore who was rumored to be unstoppable.
When did Canning get the starting job back? I ain’t gonna lie—I used to keep tabs on the guy. But I stopped once it started to feel like borderline stalking. I mean, there’s no way he was keeping tabs on me, not after I torpedoed our friendship like an asshole.
The memory of my selfish actions is like a fist to the gut. Fuck. I’d been a terrible friend to him. A terrible person. It was so much easier to deal with the shame when Canning was thousands of miles away, but now…
Dread crawls up my throat. I’m going to see him in Boston during the tournament. I’ll probably even face off against him.
It’s been nearly four years since I’ve seen or spoken to the guy. What the hell will I even say to him? How do you apologize to someone for cutting them out of your life without so much as an explanation?
“His game is flawless,” Coach is saying.
No, not flawless. He retreats too quickly—that was always a problem for him, scrambling back to the net when a shooter approached the blue line, giving them a better angle to shoot from. And he was always too pad-reliant, creating easy rebound opportunities for the offense.
I have to bite my lip to keep from offering the information. It feels…wrong, I guess. Telling my teammates about Canning’s weaknesses. I should, though. I really should, because this is the Frozen fucking Four at stake here.
Then again, it’s been years since I was on the ice with Canning. He could have tightened up his game since then. He might not even have those particular weaknesses anymore.
I, on the other hand, do. I have the same damn weakness I’ve always had. It’s still there as I stare up at the big screen. As I watch Jamie Canning stop another dizzying slap shot. As I admire the grace and deadly precision with which he moves.
My weakness is him.