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On The Ice

by Amy Aislin

Copyright 2019 by Amy Aislin

Smashwords edition published by Amy Aislin

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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Beta read by LesCourt Author Services

First draft content editing by Meroda UK Editing

Edited by Brenda Chin

Proofread by Between the Lines Editing

Cover and formatting by Lee Hyatt

DEDICATION

For Reya, the light of my life.

May you grow up in a world free of prejudice and injustice.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

On the Ice would not have been the novel it is today without the help of several key people:

Shayan, who willingly read every one of my hockey scenes to make sure I got things right, and who answered numerous texts about hockey lingo. Thank you! This book would’ve been a hot mess without you. (Any errors or inconsistencies that remain are entirely my own.) Cherry Adair, who runs a yearly Finish the Damn Book Challenge, without which I never would’ve published my first novel in April 2017. Thank you for your boundless support! Foster, J.V., and John-Michael, who beta read my original draft and have been so supportive of this story ever since. You guys are awesome! Many thanks to Gene, who willingly gave this a read when I said, “Hey, I could use another perspective.” You’re the best! Thank you Leslie of LesCourt Author Services, and Clare of Meroda UK Editing, for a beta read/content edit of my first, unpolished draft. And to Lee Hyatt for tirelessly sticking with me when I couldn’t decide what the heck I wanted as cover art. Your patience is endless! Brenda Chin, who took the time to read the manuscript of a virtually unknown author. Your intuitiveness and feedback were invaluable in making On the Ice as strong as it could be. Huge thanks to Kiki at Between the Lines Editing for proofreading and making sure everything was perfect before On the Ice went out to the public. I wouldn’t have spotted those continuity issues without you!

To each and every one of you, you have my sincere and endless thanks!

AUTHOR’S NOTE I: TIMELINE

Mitch and Alex were first introduced as side characters in my novella, The Play of His Life, which takes place during Christmas 2017. In The Play of His Life, Mitch and Alex have already been married for six years. They were never intended to be more than side characters in that novella, but they wouldn’t leave me alone and begged to have their story told. In order to do that, I had to go back in time and start at the beginning, to 2008 when they first met. Thus, On the Ice takes place in 2008/2009.

Chapter One

OCTOBER 2008

The two hundred-person capacity lecture hall was filled, with standing room only. Had Mitch Greyson known how popular this evening’s kinesiology lecture-slash-panel discussion would be, he would’ve shown up early instead of arriving at the last possible second.

There was one last empty seat in the back row sandwiched between a blonde munching on a granola bar and a slim dude who smelled like pot even from all the way over here. Fuck. No wonder no one was sitting there. Well, beggars couldn’t be choosers and all that jazz.

A shouted “Yo, Grey!” followed by an ear-splitting whistle had Mitch scanning the audience. About midway down, Chuck Yano, his teammate and closest friend on the college’s hockey team, waved at him and gestured to the empty seat beside him.

Mitch pointed at his own chest. For me? he mouthed.

Yano gave him the finger.

Taking that as a yes, Mitch wove his way around people propping up the walls and sitting in the stairs. More than one person gave him the stink-eye when he settled into what looked like the second to last seat. He dropped his cafeteria smoothie—dinner of champions—in the cup holder attached to his chair’s armrest.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” he said to Yano. He nodded a hello to their friend Marco Terlizzese sitting in the row behind them.

“Changed my mind,” Yano said. “What are you doing?”

“Huh?”

Yano flicked a finger against the notebook Mitch had taken out of his backpack. “What’s this? You taking notes? This is an optional lecture series. We’re not being tested on it.”

Mitch dug into his backpack and found a pen at the bottom. “It’s just in case someone says something useful. Possible career paths, helpful resources, post-grad degree or certificate programs that might be beneficial. Things like that.”

Yano squinted at him. “This from the guy who’s determined to get drafted into the NHL.”

“Well, yeah.” Mitch shrugged. “But just because I want to be a pro hockey player, that doesn’t mean I will be. I’m good, but somebody better than me could come along. Or I might get injured and have to quit.”

“Seems smart to me,” Marco said from behind them.

Yano shook his head at them. “Seems like you’re over-thinking things to me.”

“Doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” Mitch said.

He inhaled half his smoothie, and took in the panelists seated behind a large table at the bottom of the lecture hall. The table was draped with a pine green tablecloth depicting the school’s coat of arms, and each panelist had a microphone in front of them, as if this was a press conference. Who knew Glen Hill College had anything so fancy?

Glen Hill College—or GH as the locals called it—was a small school in the college town of Glen Hill, Vermont, so named for the hill behind the school called, you guessed it, Glen Hill. Or maybe the hill was named after the town, Mitch wasn’t sure. Either way Glen Hill (the actual hill) wasn’t even really a hill. It was more of a hump, or a knoll.

“Do you think Glen Hill is a knoll?” he asked Yano.

Yano looked up from his phone. “The fuck is a knoll?”

“It’s definitely not a hill,” said Marco.

Mitch held his fist over his head. Marco fist-bumped it.

“The fuck is a knoll?” Yano asked again.

“Like a small hill,” Mitch said.

Yano stared at him as if nothing Mitch had said made sense, his dark eyes all small and confused. He brought up the browser on his phone and started typing.

“It starts with a ‘k’,” Marco said, peering over Yano’s shoulder.

Mitch snickered.

“Grey, dude, check this out.” Marco handed him a brochure. Kinesiology Lecture Series, it read, with a breakdown of the guest panelists speaking at each of the monthly talks. Marco pointed at one name in particular, Dr. Harry Hoare.

Mitch’s surprised burst of laughter had heads turning their way.

“Brutal,” Yano said. “I’d change my name as soon as I was legal.”

“I don’t know. There’s a lot you can do with it.” Mitch lowered his voice to a husky drawl. “Hey there. I’m Harry, Harry Hoare. Do you want to Hoare your way into my pants and lick my Harry balls?”

Yano and Marco cracked up. Even the guy sitting next to him tried to stifle a laugh. The girl in front of them, however, shot him a disgusted frown over her shoulder. Mitch waggled his fingers in her direction in a silent hello. She rolled her eyes and turned back around.

Well shit, what did she expect out of immature, horny sophomores?

“Dude,” Yano said through gasps of laughter. “You got no game.”

“Please,” Mitch scoffed. He had game. His game just didn’t involve women. Not that he’d ever tell his teammates that.

Only one empty seat remained at the table at the front of the room. He read the name tags in front of each panelist, double-checking them against the brochure he’d yet to surrender back to Marco.

Dr. Harry Hoare—don’t laugh, don’t laugh—expert in treating athletes with diabetes was a surprisingly good-looking guy in his early thirties. Then there was a specialist in drug prevention among athletes, a sports nutritionist, a massage therapist, and the ever-elusive fifth panel member, the guy Mitch was here to see: Chris Blair, director of sports science and rehabilitation for Tampa Bay’s NHL hockey team. But where the fuck was he? The lecture should’ve started five minutes ago. The crowd was getting restless and Mitch was sure the panelists who’d arrived on time were about to lose some of their audience.

As if he’d conjured the missing Chris Blair, the door at the bottom of the lecture hall opened and in walked someone who was decidedly not Chris Blair. According to the picture in the brochure, Blair was a fifty-something gentleman with salt and pepper hair and a goatee. Good-looking in an older-dude way, if Mitch was the type to go after a guy three decades older than him. But the guy who walked in was—

Holy jumping hockey sticks! The tall, jacked guy who’d just come in was none other than Alex Dean, a Tampa Bay defenseman who’d recently been put on the injured reserve list due to a broken arm. He was huge and muscled, his almost-black hair in disarray, khakis and checkered shirt wrinkled, as if he’d gotten dressed in the dark or in a hurry.

Mitch might’ve drooled. Just a little.

“Is that who I think it is?” Marco whispered in his ear.

The crowd half-hushed as recognition of the newcomer set in, and dozens of hockey fans surreptitiously dug out their phones. Or not so surreptitiously, in the case of Yano, who stood to get a better angle.

Marco kicked his seat. “Dude, have some decorum.”

Yano made a face at him and sat.

“It means—”

“I know what decorum fucking means, douchebag.”

Mitch ignored them both. He only had eyes for Dean. The man wasn’t handsome in the traditional sense. Rugged features, big eyes, thick eyebrows arrowing across his face, a nose that had been broken a time or two or six. Added to his pink lips, stubbled jaw, and the sheer commanding presence he entered the room with, it made for a highly attractive combination.

In the looks department, Alex Dean was leaps and bounds beyond anyone Mitch had ever met, and that included the guys on Mitch’s hockey team, the GH Mountaineers, many of whom were certainly nothing to sneeze at. Take Yano and Marco. Yano, with his tawny-gold skin tone, sharp cheekbones, high forehead, and hooded, wide set eyes could’ve modeled for a men’s fashion magazine. And big, burly Marco, who babied his shoulder length hair to a glossy shine and somehow fit his man bun under his goalie mask, had a dark, sexy smolder that mesmerized women. Had Marco been gay—and more importantly, had they not been friends or on the same team—Mitch would’ve tapped that. As it was, they were friends, on the same team and Marco wasn’t gay. So the point was moot.

Mitch didn’t sleep with friends. Anonymous hookups were just fine, thanks. No muss, no fuss, and above all—no emotions.

Dean had a brief conversation with John Halley, director of the kinesiology department at GH, then took the vacant seat at the end of the panelists’ table. Halley stood behind the podium and raised his hands to quiet the rest of the crowd.

“Good evening, everyone,” he said. “Thank you for coming and apologies for the late start.”

“My fault,” Dean said into the microphone in front of him, his deep voice resonating through the lecture hall. The half-grin on his lips practically oozed charm and confidence.

The crowd tittered. No lie, they fucking giggled, as if even the non-hockey fans knew they had a celebrity in their midst.

Halley introduced the lecture series, then the individual panelists. “And finally, we have Mr. Alex Dean, NHL defenseman with Tampa Bay.”

The crowd applauded loudly. Mitch felt for the other panelists, who’d gotten only mild claps, but, well, they weren’t celebrities.

“Unfortunately,” Halley continued, “Chris Blair, Tampa’s director of sports science and rehabilitation, was unable to make his flight due to unforeseen circumstances. However, as Mr. Dean was already in the area, he kindly agreed to take Mr. Blair’s place at the last minute.”

What the hell was Dean doing all the way in Vermont? It was a long way from Tampa.

“As some of you may know,” Halley continued, “Mr. Dean is a GH alumnus and he’ll be speaking this evening about his experience from the perspective of a patient.”

More applauding from the crowd. Dean shifted in his seat, embarrassed.

“Without further ado, I pass the microphone over to this evening’s highly qualified panelists.”

Finally, each person spoke about his or her field of expertise. Mitch jotted down relevant notes every now and then, but his gaze kept moving down the line of experts to focus on Alex Dean.

Dean had once been the Golden Boy of the GH Mountaineers. During his four-year tenure at GH, he’d helped raise the Mountaineers’ standing from a so-so NCAA Division I team, to a standout one that even went to the Frozen Four in Dean’s senior year. They lost, but it was the first and only time in GH’s forty-nine-year history that any of its sports teams had made it to the championship games.

Dean was a legend among the Mountaineers. Hell, Dean was one of the reasons why Mitch had chosen GH. Not because Dean was his hockey hero—though he wasn’t ashamed to admit that Dean was his hockey crush—but because if GH’s hockey coaches could take a small-town kid like Dean and turn him into a first round draft pick by his senior year, what could they do with Mitch, who’d taken figure skating and gymnastics as well as hockey while growing up, in order to improve his skating and flexibility? Mitch could be first round draft material too, and GH could help get him there.

Mitch had a plan for the next ten years. He may not have all the minute details figured out—like which team he’d be drafted by or what post-grad courses he’d need for his post-hockey career—but the steps were clearly laid out in his head.

Step One: Get good grades to keep his partial scholarship.

Step Two: Play good hockey.

Step Three: Help the Mountaineers make it to the Frozen Four. (As a sophomore, he still had three years to make this happen.)

Step Four: Lay the groundwork for a post-hockey career in sports science and rehabilitation.

Step Five: Get drafted.

Mitch was fully aware that the latter steps were all contingent on Step One. If he lost his scholarship, he wouldn’t be able to afford GH and he’d have to drop out, which would have a ripple effect on his dreams (AKA Steps Two through Five), knocking them over like dominoes.

Step Four, however, was why he was attending this evening’s optional lecture-slash-panel-discussion: Chris Blair. But Chris Blair wasn’t here to discuss sports science and rehabilitation, which was a bitter letdown. It wasn’t that Mitch didn’t like looking and listening to Dean, but he wasn’t the reason he’d come tonight. He didn’t care about injury rehabilitation from the perspective of a patient. He wanted to know what courses he should take, what post-grad certificates he should consider, who he should talk to, or even shadow, in order to get to the same kind of position Chris Blair currently held. Because that was what Mitch wanted once his career in hockey was over. Mitch had a list of questions for Chris Blair as long as his arm and he didn’t think Dean—who’d majored in creative writing, if Mitch remembered correctly—would be able to answer them. Hockey, like most sports, was a young person’s game. However, when Mitch graduated with a Bachelor of Science with a speciality in kinesiology, he’d be set to work with athletes, keeping him in the sport long after he’d retired from active play.

Hockey had been part of his life ever since he could skate, and it would continue to be a part of it until he died. He fucking loved this sport, everything about it. The skill, grace, strength, and athleticism that was part of every game... The friendship and camaraderie with teammates... The power of a slap shot hitting the back of the net... The violence of a check that sends someone flying into the boards... The exhilaration that tickled his belly before every game, right before he stepped onto the ice... The scramble of players in front of a net, desperately trying to score or prevent the other team from doing so... Hell, he even loved playoff beards.

This was his sport. And if he didn’t get drafted, he wanted something that would give him a foot in the door and allow him to work behind the scenes.

Dean opened his speech by echoing Halley’s apology on behalf of the missing Chris Blair before launching into a short but impassioned talk about how an athlete is always connected to many people who can help them recover from an injury.

As soon as Dean sat back down and Halley opened up the evening to a question-and-answer period, Mitch’s hand shot up. Next to him, Yano groaned.

Mitch saw—he saw—Halley’s eyes land on him before he called on somebody else. Huffing, Mitch lowered his hand.

“My question is for Mr. Dean,” a girl near the front said. “Will you be staying in Vermont while you recuperate from your broken arm?”

Mitch rolled his eyes.

“Um…” said Dean.

“Let’s keep the questions pertinent to the lecture, please,” Halley said, an edge to his voice. “Is there anybody with a relevant question?”

Again, Mitch’s hand shot up. Again, Halley called on someone else. On and on it went until finally, finally, Halley pointed at him three minutes before the lecture was to end.

“Go ahead, Mr. Greyson, since you’ve been so patient,” Halley said. Mitch was sure that by patient, Halley actually meant annoyingly persistent, but whatever.

“Don’t get yourself thrown out this time,” Yano muttered to him under his breath.

Mitch ignored him. “I have a question for Alex Dean. Mr. Dean, given that you’ve been with the NHL for the past two-plus years, and knowing what you know now about the organization, is it what you expected? And if you had to do it over again, would you make the same decisions?”

“Mr. Greyson, if you can’t keep your question relevant to the lecture, I—”

“But it is relevant,” Mitch argued.

“How so?”

“Well, in another life, had Mr. Dean decided not to join the NHL after graduating from GH, he likely wouldn’t have a broken arm right now. But he did, and he does, which is how he ended up here today, talking to us about injury recovery from the perspective of an injured athlete.” Mitch shrugged. “So it’s relevant in a non-linear way.”

Halley didn’t seem to understand. His mouth kept opening and closing, probably searching for words.

From his seat at the table, Dean smiled at Mitch. Mitch enjoyed the flare of attraction that rose when Dean’s eyes met his. The chances of Dean being gay were needle-in-a-haystack small. Hell, the media had linked him to a woman a few months ago. But that didn’t mean Mitch couldn’t try.

“The answer to your first question,” Dean said into his mic, “is yes, but also no. The answer to your second question is a definite yes.”

Before Mitch could ask him to elaborate, Halley said, “That’s all the time we have this evening, folks. Thank you for coming and please join me in thanking tonight’s guest speakers.”

Mitch was already halfway down the auditorium stairs, making a beeline for Dean, by the time the applause died down.

***

Pushing himself off the chair to stretch his legs, and ignoring the phone that had started buzzing in his pocket ten minutes ago, Alex Dean wasn’t surprised to find a tenacious Greyson standing on the other side of the table. What did surprise him was the tangle of nerves that knotted his belly when he got a better look at how attractive the other man was.

Greyson was lean and wiry and several inches shorter than Alex’s own six-feet-four, putting the top of his head level with Alex’s chin. His eyes were the color of chocolate, which matched his evening scruff and his messy, curly hair. Curls fell over his ears and his forehead. Alex wasn’t sure if he wanted to run his fingers through them or pull on a lock to see if it would spring back into its curly place. A backpack slumped off one shoulder, he had a notebook tucked under one arm, a smoothie in his hand, and an impish spark in his eyes.

The man was hot. He knew it too, if the way his smirk widened while Alex took his time checking him out was any indication. Attraction, however, meant nothing to Alex without emotions, so a person’s physical appearance didn’t usually elicit a response reminiscent of a teenage girl with a crush.

Nonetheless, he shook Greyson’s proffered hand. Greyson was twenty years old at most, and his flannel shirt didn’t suit him at all. He looked like a kid playing farmer in his older brother’s clothes.

“Mitch Greyson,” Greyson said, setting his notebook and smoothie on the table. His backpack thunked onto the floor at his feet. “Nice to meet you. Can I ask a follow-up question? Or five?”

Five?

Without waiting for Alex to answer, Mitch continued. “Can you elaborate on how the NHL is and isn’t what you expected?” He opened his notebook to a page with a list of questions that was way more than five. “I also had some questions for Chris Blair that you might be able to answer? What kind of hands-on experience do I need for a career in sport rehabilitation? Also, should I be getting involved in any kind of formal or informal research? Are there any courses that you know of that would help me get better prepared for a career in sport rehabilitation? If you were looking for an athletic therapist, what qualifications would you—?”

“Whoa, whoa,” Alex said, chuckling, holding his hands up to ward off more questions. “Hold it, hotshot. You’re asking the wrong person. Isn’t there anyone here you could interview, like Halley?”

“I’ve already talked to them all,” Mitch replied. “But they’re all academics now, or they work in fields I’m not interested in. I wanted to talk to someone specifically about sports science and rehabilitation.”

“You must’ve been disappointed when I showed up instead of Chris.”

“Do you think he’d talk to me?” Mitch asked, eager as a puppy. “We could set up a phone call. Or I could email him my questions. Do you have his card?”

Alex tilted his head sideways and tried to read the questions in Mitch’s notebook. There had to be at least two dozen, and he got the feeling Mitch was the kind of person who would have follow-up questions to his follow-up questions.

“Let me talk to Chris,” Alex offered. “See if I can’t set something up between you.” It wasn’t an offer Alex would usually make, but he felt bad that Mitch hadn’t gotten to hear Chris speak when it was clearly something the kid had prepared for.

Mitch’s whole face—which was expressive to begin with—lit up. “Yeah? Let me give you my info.” He jotted his name, email, and phone number on a blank page of his notebook, ripped the page out, and slid it across the table to Alex.

“And, you know,” Mitch said, tapping the paper right above his phone number. “If you want to use this for something else too, I’d be okay with that.” Then he winked.

Wait. Was Alex being hit on?

He was mentally backtracking through their conversation when something must’ve caught Halley’s attention. He made his way over to them with clipped strides, his mouth in a tight line.

“Mr. Greyson,” he said. “You are not the only one wishing to speak with Mr. Dean.”

Mitch glanced around and his eyes went big at the line of students behind him waiting to talk to Alex. Alex bit back a sigh. His line was longer than the other panelists’. He sent a mental apology to his friends waiting for him at the pizza place in town, even as the phone in his pocket buzzed again.

“Should you wish for an autograph from Mr. Dean,” Halley continued, “the request needs to be made on your own time.”

“Autograph?” Mitch repeated. “Why would I want his autograph?”

Alex choked back a laugh. It was refreshing to talk to someone who didn’t give a shit about his pseudo-celebrity status.

“We were discussing career paths, actually,” Alex said, coming to Mitch’s defense. It was becoming clear that Halley had it in for Mitch for some reason.

“Is that so?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mitch stood silently, his arms crossed, an annoyed gaze on Halley.

“Don’t take up too much of Mr. Dean’s time please, Mr. Greyson.” Halley gestured at the cluster of students behind Mitch. “There are others waiting to speak with him.”

As Halley walked away, Mitch eyed the line over his shoulder before turning back to Alex.

“Bet they’re all wanting an autograph,” he muttered.

In line were three women—one of whom was holding a tiny mirror up to her face and applying lip gloss—a man wearing a blue and white Tampa Bay jersey, and another who was unashamedly filming Alex’s conversation with Mitch.

“You never answered my question,” Mitch said to him.

“Which one?”

“Why the NHL is and isn’t what you expected.” Mitch tucked his pen into the notebook and slid both into his backpack.

“You follow hockey?” Alex leaned a hip against the table.

“Of course.”

Alex tried to think of a response that wouldn’t sound wishy-washy, but also wouldn’t give anything too personal away. He didn’t know this guy from Adam. What if he was with the school newspaper and was angling for a sound-bite?

Except as he was wracking his brain for an appropriate answer, it hit Alex all at once that Mitch Greyson was blatantly checking him out. Okay, not so blatantly that someone not looking directly at his face and body language could tell, but blatantly enough that Alex—who never got hit on by men—finally clued in. He was, in fact, being hit on.

It completely threw him and whatever Mitch’s question had been? Yeah, it was gone. Not that Mitch seemed to care anymore whether or not Alex answered.

Was Alex giving off some kind of gay vibe or something? He’d promised himself a long time ago that if he ever made it to the NHL, he wouldn’t divulge his sexual preferences for anyone. He didn’t want to make a Thing out of it, wasn’t going to give the media something other than his skills to talk about. Not that he was worried—at twenty-four years old, he could count on one finger the number of times he’d been sexually attracted to someone. At this point, he was pretty sure the whole dating-romance-marriage-babies thing wasn’t in the cards for him. Not only did it take him forever to figure out if he was attracted to someone, but the way dating was going nowadays, nobody wanted to be friends first and wait for romantic feelings to develop, if they developed at all. There just wasn’t an app for that. Instead, people were too busy jumping into bed with random strangers and having casual friends-with-benefits hookups.

No, thank you.

Hell, he didn’t even like kissing. He’d kissed all of two people in his life and it hadn’t done anything for him either time. It was wet and gross and unpleasant. The way things were going in his nonexistent love life, he’d be a virgin for the rest of his life. Others might bemoan their virgin status at twenty-four years old, but frankly, Alex didn’t care. What was the big deal about sex anyway?

In today’s sexually-charged culture, Alex often felt like an alien.

That didn’t, however, prevent him from acknowledging the attractiveness of another person. Like Mitch, for example. Alex’s extremely limited sexual experience was the reason the butterflies had come out when faced with such an outwardly beautiful person.

Mitch’s gaze swept him up and down, a half smirk on his face, his thumbs tucked into the waistband of his jeans and drawing attention to his crotch. The man really was attractive in an I-know-I’m-the-shit kind of way. It was the kind of personality type Alex usually avoided. It was disingenuous and he didn’t have time for fake people in his life. Alex’s bullshit meter clanged and any butterflies that’d appeared at Mitch’s good looks disappeared in the face of Mitch’s in-your-face personality.

Mitch’s gaze landed on Alex’s mouth for one, two, three seconds. Then he took his time cataloguing Alex’s face. When Mitch’s eyes met his again, the man’s smile turned lewd.

It was possible Mitch was the type of person who hit on anything that moved.

Eyes hooded, he leaned in across the table and whispered, “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

Well, it was blatantly obvious what that meant.

With one last parting glance at Alex’s mouth, Mitch turned and left.

***

Forty-five minutes later, Alex finally walked into the pizza joint in tiny downtown Glen Hill, Vermont. He was still faintly horrified that Mitch had hit on him while in full view of the other speakers and lingering students, but as he started to realize that no one had been paying them any attention, except for the guy who’d been filming them from far enough away not to get any sound, horror gave way to mild amusement.

It was also a nice ego boost, even though he wasn’t interested.

Mama Jean’s was two-thirds packed at almost ten o’clock. College kids having a bite before they hit the bar down the street, most likely. Alex took a moment to fondly remember his own college days.

His friends were sitting in a booth against the front window. JP and Jay were both Jonathans with unpronounceable last names, so on their first day of practice with the GH Mountaineers in their freshman year, Coach Bedley had given them nicknames. Yet people still got them confused even though they looked nothing alike.

Six-foot tall JP had light brown skin, dark eyes, and dark hair cut short that matched the perpetual scruff on his face. He had the whitest teeth Alex had ever seen and the friendliest smile. Jay, on the other hand, often joked that he was the palest guy in America. He was only about five-foot-six and he’d let any muscle from their college hockey days run to fat now that he wasn’t playing anymore.

Alex slipped into the booth next to Jay and grinned at his friends. He might’ve spent the past two-plus years since graduation playing for Tampa, and he’d made great friends on the team, but JP and Jay were family.

“We ordered for you,” JP said by way of greeting, taking a pull from his beer bottle. “Your usual. Told Mama Jean to hold the order until you arrived, since we didn’t know how long you’d be.”

“God, I miss Mama Jean’s pizza.” Alex missed Vermont food in general. He snagged a half-eaten slice from the mostly empty tray in the middle of the table.

“Is it weird being here while your team is still going on as if nothing happened?” Jay asked.

“Yes. Thanks for pointing it out, jackass.”

“It’s what I’m here for, man.”

“How’d your lecture talk thing go?” JP asked, taking a bite of pizza crust.

Alex shrugged. “It was a lecture talk thing.”

It was too bad that Chris had missed his flight. The kinesiology students would’ve gotten more out of his talk than Alex’s boring last-minute speech. It was just Alex’s bad luck that he’d been visiting his grandpa in Montpelier when Chris had called. Alex hadn’t had the heart to say no to the man.

“How’s your grandpa doing?” JP asked, as if he’d known where Alex’s thoughts had gone.

Heaving out a long sigh, Alex rubbed a hand over his face.

“That good, huh?”

“Sorry, man.” Jay patted his arm.

“He’s not getting any better,” Alex said. Suddenly not so hungry, he set the rest of his slice back onto the tray. JP nabbed it.

“People don’t usually get better from Alzheimer’s, do they?” Jay asked.

From what Alex could tell, based on an extremely thorough and in-depth internet search combined with interviews with as many neurologists as he could find who would give him the time of day, sometimes Alzheimer’s patients did get better, or at least stabilize, for periods of time.

But not Grandpa Forest.

It killed Alex to see the man he remembered as being upbeat, fun, outgoing, and wicked smart reduced to a shell of who he used to be. And it was compounded by the fact that Grandpa Forest kept mistaking Alex for his own son—better known as Alex’s good-for-nothing dad.

All Alex wanted was five damn minutes where his grandpa would look at him with familiarity, smile his bright, toothy grin, and say, “Alex, my boy!” the way he used to, then envelope him in his trademark bear hug.

Five minutes for Grandpa Forest—Alex’s biggest supporter—to see him play in the NHL.

“Let us know next time you head to Montpelier for a visit,” JP said. “We’ll come with you.”

“That’s… No—”

“Yes,” JP interrupted him. “You’ve always been there for us. When my mom died, when Jay’s grandma had a heart attack. You’re going to let us be there for you, whether you like it or not.”

Jay pointed at JP with his beer. “What he said.”

“Fine,” Alex grumbled, though he had no intention of taking them up on their offer. Still, his heart warmed at the support from his friends, even as he found himself annoyed that they wouldn’t let him sulk in peace.

“How long have we got you for?” JP asked as a server deposited Alex’s pizza onto the table. “A few more days?”

Alex took a bite, grunted around the food in his mouth, and swallowed before answering. “I’ll be here until end of November probably. Just need to get back to Tampa for a charity gig at the end of this month, and I might spend a couple weekends with my mom in Toronto. Other than that, I’m here.”

“You don’t need to be near your doctors for…” JP waved at Alex’s arm.

“There’s nothing they can do until the cast comes off. There might be some rehab after that, but we won’t know until my arm’s healed.”

“What will you do with yourself while you’re here?”

“Oh, shit!” Alex slammed a hand onto the table, startling his two friends. “I didn’t tell you guys. Do you remember Kate Harvey?”

“Nope,” Jay muttered.

JP straightened and his eyes went big. “From our creative writing classes?”

“Wait, the one who wouldn’t give you the time of day?” Jay asked JP.

“That’s her,” Alex confirmed. “She works for a publisher in New York and approached me about writing a book about hockey.”

“Shut the fuck up. Dude!” Jay raised his glass in a toast. “That’s awesome.”

“What’s the book about?” JP asked.

“That’s the thing.” Alex wiped his hand on a napkin. “I don’t think the idea she pitched is going to work. She wants it to be autobiographical, chronicling my career. But truthfully, my story’s not that interesting. I’ve been trying to find another angle.”

“What about a highlights book?” Jay suggested.

“It’s been done to death. I was hoping to dive into the sport, get into the nitty gritty. I just have to figure out what direction to take it. Anyway.” He finished off his slice. “Tell me what’s going on here.”

They spent two hours talking about nothing and everything. Eventually, the crowd at Mama Jean’s thinned, then it got busy again as semi-drunk college kids came over from the bar for food before heading back to the dorms for the night.

It wasn’t until they were getting ready to leave that Alex discovered a giant purple drawing on his cast.

He glared at Jay. “Dude, seriously? Did you not hear me say that I still have a charity event to attend?”

“You can educate them while you’re at it,” Jay said, smirking.

“Pretty sure the only thing he’d be educating them on,” JP said, peering closely at Alex’s cast, “is that you’re anatomically deluded.”

There, drawn with a purple Sharpie on Alex’s cast, was a giant cock and balls.


Chapter Two

The next morning dawned gray and miserable, which pretty well summed up how Mitch felt. Sleep continued to tug at him, but he firmly told his body that it had gotten all the sleep it was going to get for now. He couldn’t even bring himself to be glad that it was Friday, not with the full day ahead of him, and the full weekend, and the upcoming full week. He wasn’t likely to get a full night’s sleep until next summer.

It might only be 6:37 in the morning, but his roommate and best friend, Cody, was already mid-yoga routine in the living room attached to the kitchen in the townhouse they shared off-campus when Mitch dragged his feet downstairs. The lamplight reflected off the sun catcher in the window, casting multicolored hues against the walls.

Cody was just about the most beautiful person Mitch had ever seen. It had nothing to do with his tall and lithe frame, flawless fair skin, wispy dark blond hair, amber eyes, or perfect Cupid’s bow lips, and everything to do with the fact that Cody had had his back since they met in first grade on their elementary school playground in the Hamptons. Mitch trusted him more than just about anybody on the planet, except for his dad. Once upon a time, he’d also trusted his brother the same way, but five years ago Dan had cut Mitch out of his life for reasons Mitch still didn’t understand. Cody had stuck by him while Mitch cried on his shoulder and hypothesized about what he possibly could’ve done wrong that was so bad it had made his older brother hate him. Mitch and Cody had been joined at the hip since they were six years old, so Cody had felt just as betrayed by Dan’s one-eighty as Mitch had.

Mitch knew Cody better than anyone, just like Cody knew every part of Mitch, even the parts Mitch wished no one knew. Like all the crap that had gone down with his mother.

“Hey,” his best friend said, distracting Mitch from his thoughts. Cody’s lean runner’s body made a reverse V on his yoga mat, his feet and hands planted on the ground, butt in the air.

“Hey, Codes. You got in late last night.”

“Yeah.” Cody straightened out into plank. “You were asleep on your bed with your laptop next to you and an open textbook on your chest, light still on.”

Mitch grunted. He plugged the blender in and found strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries in the fridge. They went into the blender. He peeled a banana and added it to the rest of the fruit.

“How was last night’s lecture?” Cody asked. He’d moved onto his back. His head and shoulders were on the mat and he was folded in half with his feet behind his head. “Did you get kicked out again?”

Fuck, really? Why couldn’t everyone forget about that? Once. It’d happened one time during last year’s lecture series. One of the panelists spoke about the importance of tailoring exercise regimes to suit client needs, and Halley hadn’t appreciated Mitch’s question, even though Mitch still insisted that “Is sex considered an exercise?” was a valid question. Wasn’t his fault Halley didn’t have a sense of humor.

“No, I didn’t get kicked out, thank you very much. I kept my questions strictly PG.”

Cody snorted.

“Dude, you won’t believe who was there.” Mitch paused for dramatic effect. “Alex Dean!”

“Should I know who that is?”

Mitch rolled his eyes. He added orange juice to the blender, then got ice cubes out of the freezer.

“Alex Dean,” he repeated, dumping the ice into the blender. “Defenseman for Tampa Bay.”

“Defenseman? What’s that, football?”

“Hockey, you moron,” he said before Cody’s snickers reached his ears. Cody was messing with him, the jerk, his body twitching with laughter.

Mitch threw a stray raspberry at him. It bounced off Cody’s hip and landed on his mat soundlessly. Cody popped it into his mouth.

Ew.

“What was he like?” Cody asked.

“Really fucking hot,” Mitch said, hunting for the peanut butter. It wasn’t in its usual spot in the cupboard above the toaster.

Cody groaned. “Tell me you didn’t hit on him.”

“Only a little.” If broadcasting his interest by checking Alex out and winking at him could be considered only a little.

“Is he even gay?” Cody brought his legs down, sat up, and bent forward into a lunge.

“Is anybody gay in pro sports?” Mitch countered. The short answer was no. Or, more accurately, yes but not many. Not yet. People who came out in pro sports lost sponsors, lost playing time, lost fans. Mitch wasn’t going to let his queerness affect his future career, which was why the only people who knew he was gay were Dan, their dad, and Cody. If he had to keep his sexuality a secret until he retired, so be it.

“But what if you find somebody you want to spend the rest of your life with?” Cody had once asked.

Mitch had laughed and laughed. After Dan had turned his back on him, and his mother had cut him off financially when he’d declared his disinterest in the family business and his intent to pursue hockey as a career, Mitch wasn’t letting anyone get near his heart ever again.

Besides, Mitch was so closed off with everyone but his dad and Cody that simply the idea of someone getting far enough past his defenses to discover who he really was, was laughable.

His search for the peanut butter brought him to the empty container in the recycling bin. Fuck, he was supposed to buy some yesterday and forgot.

“Did he hit on you back?” Cody asked.

“No.” Mitch found a container of yogurt in the fridge and added half to the blender. It’d do for now as a peanut butter replacement. Then he added some protein powder. “He did check me out, but it was more curious than sexual.”

Yeah, Alex hadn’t seemed to know what to do with Mitch’s shameless come-on. Mitch had seen it on Alex’s face, when the man had realized he was being hit on. Alex’s eyes narrowed and he got a little furrow between his eyebrows. The confusion had been adorable.

“Probably because he’s not gay, dummy.”

Unfortunately, that was most likely true.

Cody’s laptop, which sat open on the island, beeped with an incoming message. Mitch opened the email, which turned out to be a Google Alert set for “Greta Westlake.”

“Why are you keeping tabs on my mom?”

“I want to make sure she’s not talking shit about you to anyone she shouldn’t be,” Cody said, falling into forward splits.

Aww. That was his Codes. Always having his back.

“Please.” Mitch clicked on the link. “She doesn’t give me a second thought, unless we lose a game.”

The link took him to a job posting for an executive assistant to the CEO of Westlake Waterless Printing, Greta Westlake. Which meant that his mother had lost yet another EA. That made, what?—three?—in the past year, if the information he got from his dad was correct. It wasn’t at all surprising that nobody wanted to work for his mother. She was a difficult, unforgiving, ruthless woman who took no excuses and expected two hundred and fifty percent. She’d once fired an account manager who’d asked for a day off to grieve her recently deceased dog. And she’d fired a guy in accounting because he’d had the gall to ask for a week’s vacation that coincided with the company’s busy fall season. She got away with it because she had an excellent team of lawyers at her back.

And she wondered why Mitch didn’t want to work for the family business. Yes, please. Sign me up for that bullshit.

Not in this lifetime.

Mitch poured maple syrup into the blender, secured the lid, and turned the machine on. The obnoxious whirring broke the quiet morning and made Mitch wince. While his smoothie blended, he stuck a couple slices of bread into the toaster. By the time he was finished pouring the smoothie into two to-go cups, the toast was done. He spread Cheese Whiz on each slice, slid one onto a plate, and set it and a smoothie on the living room table for Cody.

“Thanks,” Cody said, on his back with his legs tucked into his chest.

“Welcome.”

As per their usual morning routine, Mitch rinsed the blender so the dregs of their smoothie wouldn’t crust and left it in the sink for Cody to wash.

With eleven minutes left to make the four-minute drive to the rink for practice, Mitch finished off his own toast and Cheese Whiz in three bites, then collected his equipment bag from the dining room they never used. He found the keys to the car they shared on a side table, secured the spill-proof lid on his to-go cup, and slipped into his hoodie and running shoes.

“See you after practice?” Cody asked.

“Yup.”

He was out the door thirty seconds later.

***

Alex had no idea what he was doing at the GH hockey rink at seven thirty in the morning, sitting anonymously in dark jeans and a black hoodie in the stands, hidden in the shadows. Reliving his college hockey days? Regretting the broken arm that prevented him from playing for the next six to eight weeks?

Occupying his mind until his visit with Grandpa Forest this afternoon?

It wasn’t uncommon for players on the injured reserve list to continue to travel with their team and even participate in practice sessions. Alex’s broken arm, however, made it impossible for him to hold a hockey stick, which meant his attendance at practice would be limited to cardio conditioning and strength training, exercises he could do on his own anyway. And, as much as he would’ve liked to travel with his team, Alex had been given a temporary leave of absence because of Grandpa Forest’s deteriorating condition.

A whistle blew, dragging Alex’s eyes from where he’d been staring into space and onto the ice, where his old coaches were putting their players through a power play drill. Alex couldn’t see player names on the back of jerseys from where he sat, but he’d been sitting here since practice started at seven and he was starting to recognize skating patterns and body language.

The Mountaineers had won their first two games of the season. The third was an away game tomorrow against Colgate that Alex suspected they’d win.

Were any of the players on the team guys he’d played with when he’d been at GH? Probably. Maybe? It was possible some of the seniors had been freshmen when he’d been a senior himself. He was attempting to do the math when a shadow fell over him.

“Thought that was you,” Coach Bedley said. He took the seat next to Alex. Alex secured his sleeve over his cast, hiding the giant purple cock and balls. Fucking Jay.

Bedley was a big guy, rough around the edges, but he was a stellar coach. Alex never would’ve been drafted without him. Bedley had spent almost twenty years coaching in the AHL before making the move to college hockey. He claimed it was less pressure but Alex couldn’t see how that could be true.

“Hey, Coach.” Alex offered his right hand, remembered it was broken, then offered his left.

Bedley snorted and they shook left hands.

“How’s it going, Dean?”

Alex wiggled the fingers sticking out of his cast. “It’s going.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. You’ll be out for a while, it seems. I’m surprised you’re here instead of with your team. Sticking around long?”

“A few weeks.”

“Miss us that much?”

Alex didn’t deny it. Playing for the NHL was a dream come true. But playing for the GH Mountaineers had been…well, for lack of a better, non-cheesy phrase, the time of his life.

Bedley nodded at the ice. “Let me know if you want to get on the ice with my guys while you’re here. If you’re not going to practice in Tampa, might as well practice here. Give my guys some real competition.”

“You don’t think Colgate is real competition?”

Bedley scoffed. “Please.”

Alex considered Bedley’s offer for a second. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“If you want to get back in the game in full-form once that cast comes off, you need to spend time on the ice. Shoulda stayed in Tampa, practiced with your team.”

Alex didn’t take offense. Bedley was all about the game, first and last.

“I have some stuff to take care of here,” Alex said.

Bedley grunted. He nodded at the players again and said, “Tell me what you see.”

“What do you mean?”

“You notice everything, Dean. That’s why I always said you should be a goalie. I saw you arrive when practice started, which means you’ve been here a while. So tell me what you see.”

To Alex’s utter surprise, Bedley took a small notepad and pencil out of the pocket of his GH-branded windbreaker.

“What?” Alex huffed a laugh of disbelief. “Are you serious?”

Bedley waited for him, pencil poised above his notepad.

“Okay.” Alex leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. “That guy—” He pointed at a tall dude who punched the Plexiglass. “—gets angry too easily. It costs him the puck. Your backup goalie doesn’t interact with the other players enough on the ice. Shorty over there, number twelve? Nerves get the better of him.” A freshman, if Alex had to guess.

“Do you have anything nice to say?” Coach asked, the scratch scratch of his pencil flying over paper.

“I’m getting to that.”

A whistle blew. One of the assistant coaches said something Alex couldn’t hear, and the players set their hockey sticks aside and started cool-down laps.

“Your D-men play together as if they’ve been doing so since they could skate,” Alex said. “Your forwards are really fucking fast. And that guy, the left-winger, number nineteen.” Alex pointed to a player who was chatting with the guy next to him, hands gesturing as he spoke. “He’s agile. Got great footwork and speed. Incredibly flexible. He’s smart, looks for openings. He’s got a lot of talent.”

“He’s also a math genius.”

Alex looked at Bedley.

“Seriously. I swear he does math during games, like he’s calculating the perfect angle at which to shoot the puck at the boards so that it ricochets into the net.”

“You’re kidding.”

“He does it in a split second,” Bedley added. “I wouldn’t have noticed it if I didn’t know the kid like I do. It means he’s overthinking things on the ice, and I don’t know yet if that’s a hindrance or a gift.”

“Only time will tell,” Alex said.

“You were right when you said he was smart. He’s also the most dedicated player—and student—I’ve seen in a long time. He’s doing a kinesiology degree, so most of his classes have labs once a week on top of lectures. He has a key to this place and comes in to skate and shoot the puck on mornings we don’t have practice.” Bedley crossed his arms over his chest. “And I get the feeling he doesn’t get a lot of support at home. The kid kills himself working two jobs on top of classes, practice, and games, never mind the amount of homework that comes with a science degree.”

Two jobs? Holy shit. Alex had never known a Division I player who’d had time for one job during the school year, let alone two.

“But Jesus, he’s also the biggest shit I’ve ever worked with.”

A laugh burst out of Alex. “Really? Ever? In your twenty-plus years of coaching, that guy’s the biggest shit you’ve ever coached?”

“He’s arrogant, and loud. Thinks he’s God’s gift to the world. And don’t ever put him in front of a reporter. The stuff that flies out of his mouth…”

Alex made a mental note to peruse the online archives of the student newspaper later. He was about to ask Bedley for the player’s name when yet another whistle blew, and the players trudged off the ice.

“Come on.” Bedley stood. “Coaches Hannon and Spinney will want to see you.”

Alex followed Bedley to the offices where he spent a few minutes catching up with his old coaches. By the time he said his goodbyes and stepped back into the hallway with Bedley, twenty minutes had passed..

Two men carrying equipment bags exited the locker room, one a tall Asian guy and the other… The other was lean and wiry and had curly brown hair.

“Here’s the little shit,” Bedley said under his breath, nodding at the guy on the left. At Mitch.

Wait. Mitch Greyson, the shit with the in-your-face attitude Alex had met yesterday, was a math genius and super talented hockey player? Something wasn’t adding up. Mitch’s personality on-ice—he had great stick-handling skills, uncanny vision as to where his teammates would be and didn’t hog the puck, even though there had been a couple of instances during practice when he should’ve—didn’t mesh with his personality off-ice. Although, there were hints that Mitch was equally as smart both on and off the ice. Alex had seen them last night when Mitch had come to the lecture prepared with questions. Mitch was clearly serious about two things—school and hockey.

Who the hell was this guy?

Alex wasn’t in the mood to be hit on again and he briefly considered slinking away. Mitch spotted him before Alex could decide and he lost his chance to escape unseen.

Mitch’s mouth kicked up into a half smile.

“Greyson, Yano,” Bedley said. “Meet Alex Dean, defenseman for Tampa. He was a Mountaineer before your time.”

“We’ve met,” Mitch said, smirking, mischief alight in his eyes. “Come to see me play?”

Alex raised an eyebrow. Yano rolled his eyes.

Bedley sighed and stepped aside. “Get out of here, Greyson.”

“Yes, sir, Coach.” Mitch stepped forward into the space recently made by Bedley. He kept his eyes on Alex and that infuriating smirk on his lips never faltered.

If Alex had to guess, he’d say the brush of Mitch’s bicep against his as Mitch slid past him wasn’t an accident.

“There’s a party tonight at Mama Jean’s,” Mitch said, full of smug defiance. “You should come.”

Well, Alex knew where he wasn’t going to be tonight.

But seriously, the kid was going to a party the evening before he had to get on a bus for a five-hour drive to Hamilton, New York, where his team would play a mid-afternoon game against Colgate? For real, who was this guy?

Yano rolled his eyes again. “Ignore him.” He pushed Mitch to get him walking. “It was nice to meet you, Dean. See you in the morning, Coach.”

Mitch and Yano headed down the hallway and as Alex and Bedley watched, Mitch threw Alex a wicked grin over his shoulder.

Bedley sighed again. “See what I mean?”

***

Mitch hated parties. So much, in fact, that he’d rather work at a bee farm surrounded by hundreds of bees plotting his death, one bee sting at a time.

A headache pulsed at his temples. He hid in a bathroom stall at Mama Jean’s and massaged his temples with the thumb and middle finger of one hand. The other hand held a beer he didn’t want, bought for him by someone older. Mama Jean’s was packed for tonight’s party, whoever it was for.

He had to be on a bus tomorrow morning at seven. Mitch checked his watch: nine-fifteen. He had a biomechanics lab on Tuesday and a musculoskeletal tutorial on Wednesday he needed to do the readings for. His weekly written assignment for his human growth, motor development, and physical activity class was due Thursday, not to mention all the reading he still needed to do for his electives. Tomorrow was a write-off unless he could get some reading done on the bus ride to and from Hamilton. On Sunday, he had a full shift at his part-time job at the long-term care facility in Montpelier, then a two-hour session tutoring a couple of freshmen in college Algebra 101. It was brainless work for Mitch that provided him with some much-needed cash. His partial scholarship helped, but it covered only about sixty percent of his expenses. He still needed to pay his bills, and for gas, food, rent, and a portion of next semester’s tuition and textbooks. He had some cash left over from his full-time job at a café in Montpelier last summer, but if an emergency came up—like the car broke down or he needed to replace lost or broken hockey equipment—he was fucked.

It would probably be another sleepless weekend as he did his damnedest to get everything done. If Mitch wasn’t completely in love with his school and his program and his hockey team, he’d throw his arms up in defeat and call it a day. But he did love his school and his program and his hockey team and he’d earned them all on his own. Fuck if he was going to quit and prove his mother right.

So not happening.


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