Chapter 1

There’s a Hitch in my Skate-Along

Hockey Romantic Guy

Late January

Drop the damn puck already!

Gage Nelson gripped his stick across his thighs. Poised and taut, he deliberately placed the blade of his stick on the ice, mirroring his opponent’s stance, keeping his eyes glued to the puck in the linesman’s hand. Drop it, drop it, drop it! He waited. Normally, he had patience in spades, but right now it was as hard to find as meat in a frozen pot pie.

Tonight his team, the Denver Blizzard, faced Boston. For the most part, he respected all the NHL teams—but not Boston. He hated Boston. He also hated that they were owning his team on home ice, thanks to his poor play. Fortunately, it didn’t show on the scoreboard. Yet.

Not one usually distracted by anything beyond the rink glass, he had to remind himself, for the fifty-sixth time, to forget about the blond with the long curly hair sitting in the stands. Was it her? He hadn’t been able to get a close look all night, though he’d sure tried his damnedest.

Forget about her and focus, doofus.

The other center in the faceoff circle growled out a taunt—another part of the game Gage usually had infinite patience for—and though he didn’t catch everything the guy said, it was enough to make him flinch and draw his blade back too early.

“Premature again, meat sack,” his opponent chuckled under his breath. “Just what your last girlfriend said. Or was it your boyfriend?”

The linesman tossed Gage out of the faceoff, and he glided backward, making room for his right winger, T.J. Shanstrom, to take his place. Shanny side-eyed him. Gage easily read what was written on his teammate’s face despite the bright arena lights bouncing off his visor. He had to be thinking something along the lines of, What the fuck, Nelson? Three times in one period.

Yeah, contrary to what Gage’s family yapped at him, he was not perfect. Hopefully, his mom was watching and would finally understand he could be off his game. Way off.

Darting his eyes toward the stands, he went into another crouch, waiting for the puck drop. Before he dragged his eyes back to the play, he glimpsed the blond in question laughing at something the guy beside her said. He’d absently scanned the stands when he’d taken the ice for warm-ups, and that’s when he’d caught sight of her and his game went off the rails. He hadn’t been able to keep his mind—or his eyes—off of her. And now something unidentifiable jolted through his bloodstream.

Watch the puck. Keep it simple. It’s all about the game. Nothing else.

Watch. Puck. Get. Puck. Skate.

Put. Puck. In. Net.

T.J. drew the puck back, winning the faceoff, but Gage missed corralling it. The other team picked it up before he could get his stick on it, and their line flew toward the Blizzard net. A three-on-two breakaway. Damn it!

He dug in, turning on the turbos. Normally, he could overtake anyone on skates, but he was a step behind. His D-men backed up. A smooth give-and-go between the opposing forwards. The puck landed on the winger’s tape. Gage dove from behind. Swept his stick in front of him. Caught the guy in the skates. The player went down hard. Crashed into the Blizzard net. Took Wyatt, the Blizzard goalie, down with him.

A whistle blew.

Wyatt sprawled on his back on the ice, looking like he was frozen mid-snow angel. The net had come off its moorings when the Boston player ended up in the back of it. As said Boston player untangled himself from the netting, he spewed a spate of choice words at Gage, who was picking himself up off the ice.

Gage didn’t need to look to know the orange armband was in the air—the one around the ref’s arm—and a penalty was being called. On him.

Shit!

He stood up fully, relieved when Wyatt got to his feet, seemingly unhurt. The goalie adjusted his cage and gave Nelson a quick “it’s okay” head jerk.

The ref pointed at Gage and signaled the infraction. “Number six, two minutes for tripping!”

The Blizzard team captain, Dave Grimson—“Grims”—whacked Gage on his calf. “Could’ve been worse, Admiral. At least he didn’t get a penalty shot. Take your two minutes and get your head right. Me and the boys will kill this off.”

Admiral. Somehow Gage had been labeled with the moniker in San Jose, and like many incongruous nicknames, it had transferred over to Denver when he’d been traded two years ago.

He skated to the sin bin with a headshake. The penalty box wasn’t a spot he normally visited. The door closed behind him as he stepped inside and sat on the bench. He sucked in a breath, watching his team, now a man short, trying to keep Boston off the scoreboard. Fiddling with his helmet, rearranging his gear, he tried to look as nonchalant as possible while fans yelled and banged on the glass surrounding him. Lots of words of encouragement peppered with the occasional “You suck!” rang around him. In other words, standard fare.

Penalties were part of the game; normally, they didn’t bother him. You go to box, you feel shame. But the blond was only three rows back, getting an unobstructed view of him serving his sentence. It occurred to him that if she could get a good look at him, he could get a good look at her. He stood up and faced her way, pretending to adjust his elbow pads. That’s when he realized it wasn’t Lily. Just someone with hair like hers. The pang of disappointment threw him off balance, his synapse relays as wobbly as one of his mini-mite players learning to skate.

He sat down hard and pigeonholed his bothersome thoughts to ponder some other day. It was time to focus on the penalty kill finishing up on the ice. His eyes traveled to the game clock—thirty-seven seconds left in his minor penalty.

Go, boys!

They did, but with only ten seconds to go, Boston scored a power-play goal. Gage came out of the box, and the same jerk center skated toward him. “Thanks for the gift, Nelson.” He gave Gage a little shove with his stick as he went by.

Gage was no hothead, but he’d reached his limit. The evening’s frustrations, his inability to keep thoughts of Lily caged, fused together and boiled over.

That’s it!

He took a few strides and shoved the asshole back. The guy rounded on him and laughed. Before Gage could react, someone crosschecked him from behind and flattened him on the ice. He popped up, wheeled, and faced Boston’s heavyweight—Cal Beaumont. Their quasi-enforcer, a giant of a grinder with feet made of stone and fists to match. The guy also had three inches on Gage and about thirty pounds.

“C’mon, you little pussy,” Beaumont taunted as he threw down his gloves.

Gage shook his own gloves, but before he could rid himself of them, T.J. skated in front of him, blocking his access to Beaumont.

“Out of the way, T.J. You’re third man in.”

T.J.’s gloves were off in a nanosecond, his fists cocked. “Not this time.”

The audience went into a frenzy, screaming for blood as T.J. and Beaumont, two massive men, sized each other up. Another Boston player grabbed Gage around the chest and hauled him backward. Each player on the ice had hold of an opponent as though pairing off for a dance. But all eyes were fastened on the main attraction: the showdown between two evenly matched titans. That is, they were evenly matched in size and fighting experience, but T.J.’s playing ability was light years beyond Beaumont’s.

Beaumont threw the first punch and missed, but T.J.’s answering blow connected. Fists flew between the two like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. The fight was over in seconds, leaving both men winded but upright. The home crowd went wild, raining down cheers and shrill whistles.

A short while later, Gage and T.J. both sat in the box, matched by two Boston players on the opposite side.

The crowd roared, and Gage snapped his attention to the jumbotron, where T.J. and he were on full display as they sat in the box. The camera moved to the two Boston players serving penalties, and the crowd booed. Back and forth it went.

“Take a bow, Admiral. You’re tonight’s entertainment,” T.J. chuckled as he inspected his chin strap.

“You shouldn’t have jumped in,” Gage groused. “Not on my account.”

“You were on your way to getting your ass kicked. I couldn’t let that happen, now could I? No one messes with my center.” T.J. part-laughed, part-growled. “Besides, who else is gonna set me up for all those sweet goals I’ve been racking up lately?”

Embarrassed he hadn’t fought his own fight—he’d never been a fighter, but still, he should’ve taken his own licks—Gage hid his unease with a well-timed grunt.

T.J. grabbed a water bottle and squirted water in his mouth. “What started it?”

“They were doing a lot of chirping out there.” Lame answer, but it was all Gage had at that moment.

“Well, next time pick on someone your own size.”

“I’ll keep that in mind next time one of their players pisses me off,” Gage said dryly.

T.J. turned and gave him an appraising look. “Guys don’t normally get under your skin. What’s really eating you tonight anyway?”

Gage lied. “Nothing.”

“Yeah, right,” T.J. said with a chuckle.

Gage had known T.J. long enough to know he wouldn’t push. They’d become buddies when they’d been traded from the Bay Area together. Gage had been in shock, and T.J. had helped him navigate Denver and the choppy waters where Gage had landed after the surprise trade.

Though Grims was the captain and wore the C on his sweater, T.J. wore an A as assistant captain because he’d become the heart and soul of the team. Gage wore the other A, and while he was beyond honored, he was still scratching his head over why they’d given it to him in the first place. “Because you’re the perfect guy for it,” he’d been told. Yeah, right. Perfect he wasn’t. As for wearing the A, he suffered from impostor-itis, like he hadn’t earned the right yet. Sure, he was a decent playmaker, but he didn’t have Grims’s swagger or T.J.’s bruising presence.

Further proof that they overestimated him lay in the result of tonight’s game. It ended with a Boston win, which translated to a checkmark in the Blizzard’s loss column—a loss Gage draped around his shoulders like the damp towel from his post-game shower.

Exiting the players’ area, he fell in beside T.J. Natalie, a pretty, willowy brunette, greeted them with a wide grin. T.J. slid his arm around her waist and pecked her lips. Beside her, their two dogs—Ford and Deke—wagged and whimpered at the sight of T.J.

“Nice fight,” she said to T.J. “I’m glad to see your lips didn’t get hurt.” She gave Gage a sly look. “Hey, you.”

He bent and ruffled each dog’s neck. “Hi, Natalie.”

“Just ignore him,” T.J. said. “He’s beating himself up for the loss tonight.”

Natalie scrunched her eyebrows. “And he’s doing this why?”

T.J. shrugged. “Who knows? It was a team loss, but he seems to think he did it alone. Pretty impressed with his ability to affect the outcome, I’d say.”

“Walking right here, guys,” Gage huffed.

Though talking to Natalie, T.J. wagged his head at him. “See what I mean?”

“And he’s usually so cheerful,” she said. “I’m not used to Grumpy Gage. I prefer Happy Gage.” She sent Gage a wink, and he flashed her back a grin.

Seeing T.J. with his wife always brought a smile to Gage’s face. After all, he’d helped get them together. Who knows how long it would’ve taken them to find their way to each other if he hadn’t taken charge that one disastrous night a few springs ago?

“Join us for dinner?” Natalie ventured.

“No, thanks.” He was on the verge of saying, “I’m just gonna head home,” but she said it for him. Yeah, he was that predictable.

Holding up his phone, he added for good measure, “I’ve got some family stuff to take care of.”

Natalie’s expression shifted to one of concern. “More trouble at home?”

“Always.”

As she and T.J. peeled away, heading for their car, she called over her shoulder, “Let us know if you change your mind.”

With a wave, he said, “Absolutely.” They both knew he had no intention of taking her up on it.

He climbed into his Porsche Panamera 4S and watched them for a few beats. With a headshake and a smile, he drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. Should he call his mother now and get it over with? Listen to her complain about his sister, his grandma, or whatever drama had her riled up this time? Or wait until he’d recharged his reserves?

Putting aside the looming conversation, he let his normally equable mind travel to the other female force agitating it: the woman who’d sneaked out of his bed in the middle of the night six long months ago, and who’d been haunting his thoughts ever since.

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