Chapter 3: Face-Off [Slapshot!]




 Mason woke with a massive headache, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, arid and thick as desert dunes. Blood throbbed through his temples, shaking his eyeballs in their very sockets until they ached. He opened his eyes slowly, allowing the ceiling to come into focus, then shut his eyes again.


It had been a good night, evidently.

He sat up fractionally, wincing when a couple of empty shot glasses teetered out of bed and clattered onto the floor. The sound seemed to echo inside his pounding head, thudding off the inside of his skull. He blinked, then rolled over, placing his hand on the rumpled sheets, grimacing at stickiness—booze or something else? Who knew?


A mess of clothing, liquor bottles, and assorted other trinkets littered the floor of his bedroom, attesting to a great night. He could hear Duncs snoring from the living room. Trev was half-hanging over the edge of the bed, his face planted firmly in a pillow. He didn’t know what had happened to Cam or Hendy.


He padded to the washroom, pausing in the doorway to gaze at Cam, who had fallen asleep over the can. Well, that was one mystery solved. With a sigh, he turned away and headed out of the bedroom, down the hall to the other washroom. He just hoped Hendy wasn’t in there.
Thankfully, Bathroom Numero Dos was empty, and Mason took a much-needed leak, while contemplating the white powder scattered across the counter. Apparently they’d done coke last night. Good thing it was off-season, he thought idly.


Not that the IHA routinely drug-tested its players or anything.


He meandered out to the kitchen, passing by Duncs, who was still snoring up a storm. He found Hendy sitting at the kitchen table, munching on a bowl of Trix. Mason rubbed his eyes. “When did I get Trix?” he asked.


“I think we went grocery shopping last night,” Hendy replied around a mouthful of cereal.
Mason frowned at him. “While we were drunk?”


“And high.”


Mason sighed and slumped into a chair. He glanced at a pizza box on the table. “Also happened while we were high,” Hendy said with a nod.
“How come you remember so much of this and I don’t?”


“Uh, let’s see, probably ‘cause you did, like, ten lines of coke and had a bottle of tequila to yourself. I’m surprised you’re up before those three. Hell, I’m surprised you’re up at all.”


Mason glanced at the remainder of the pizza, then grimaced and closed the lid. “I’m not,” he muttered, glancing about his kitchen. He got to his feet and beelined for the fridge. Water. He needed water.


“You had a really busy night,” Hendy said, dropping his spoon in the empty bowl. Mason winced, then drained his glass.
“Oh yeah?”


“Yeah, you picked up these chicks, and y’know, you and Trev … shit man. You two went at it with those bitches, then you were at each other, which was kinda weird, but the girls were into it, and—”


Mason dropped his glass. “I fucked Trev?”


Hendy blanched. “No, man, just like … made out with him. Maybe you two humped a bit.”


Mason stared at him for a moment. “And … I was okay with that? He was okay with it?”


“You two were both off your faces, Mayday, don’t worry about it. I bet Trev won’t even remember.”


“Remember what?” Trev asked, yawning and clearing sleep from his eyes.


“Having Mayday’s tongue shoved down your throat.”




Trev turned bright pink.


“Shit, you do remember,” Hendy said.


“It was good,” Trev squeaked, then turned an even deeper shade of red.


They were all silent for a moment.


“Well, that’s awkward,” Hendy said. Mason coughed.


“S-sorry,” Trev stuttered.


“Ehhh,” Mason said.


“You were both drunk. And high,” Hendy reiterated. “Very high.”


It was an excuse and they all knew it, but it was better than probing how much Trev actually remembered, how much he’d actually enjoyed Mason making out with him. Mason, for his part, had no recollection of this whatsoever. The night was blank.


Hendy coughed. “And, uh, yeah, then you were fighting with someone over the phone, kept calling them, but I guess they weren’t putting out for ya, huh?”


Mason blinked, then filled a new glass and sipped water. “No idea,” he said, then pulled out his phone and checked his log.




He’d called Luke. Like, a bunch of times. He glanced through his message log and grimaced at some of the texts he’d sent.


He really didn’t know what he’d said to Luke though. Other than that he’d apparently booked a flight to DC from LAX on Tuesday and would be in Luke’s general vicinity around six o’clock Eastern time. And he’d told Luke that.


How was he supposed to broach the subject? How was he supposed to ask about a conversation he didn’t remember having?


His phone flashed, as though to answer that question.


‘don’t want u here,’ Luke had written.


Mason stared at the screen for a moment, then tapped out a reply.


“Who’s that?” Hendy asked.


“The booty call?” Duncs was suddenly in the doorway, darkening it and frowning at them.


“Jesus,” Hendy spat, “you look like hell.”


“Thanks,” Duncs replied as he meandered into the kitchen, “feel like it too.” He helped himself to a glass of water.


‘wut r u not getting about this?’ Luke wrote back and Mason frowned. He plonked down into a chair, contemplating what he should write next.


‘also, how r u up, aren’t u hungover?’


Now that he knew how to answer. ‘nope,’ he wrote back.


Trev leaned over and pecked him on the cheek. Hendy and Duncs exchanged glances.


‘still drunk,’ Mason wrote to Luke, because he was pretty sure he was. If he wasn’t, he probably would have decked Trev for that.


“C’mon now,” Duncs said, “no gay stuff.”


“Hey,” Hendy said sharply.


“What? You want them to be doing that kind of shit?”


“What does it matter to you?”


Mason waved a hand, dismissing their concerns. “Not into it,” he said, well aware that he was lying through his teeth. “Sorry, Trev, dudes just aren’t my thing.”


“Whoa,” Duncs said.


“Wasn’t it you who was spotted at the gay bar, like, last week?” Hendy glanced at Duncs, both of them frowning.


“Just because I go to the gay bar doesn’t mean I’m gay,” Mason said with a shrug. “Could mean I just don’t want to get hit on by girls.”


“So, what, you can get hit on by guys?”


“I have never known you to not want attention, whether it was from girls or guys.”


Luke hadn’t texted him back yet. Mason tucked his phone in his pocket. “Seriously,” he said, “what’s wrong with being gay?”


“Nothing, really,” Hendy said.


“Just … kinda weird,” Duncs said, then glanced at Trev. “And even weirder if it’s two of our teammates with each other.”


Mason shrugged again. “No need to worry about that,” he murmured.


“Are you saying you don’t think any of us are attractive?”


“Okay, that’s not a fair question—”


“Clearly, he thinks Trev is okay—”


“Yeah, while he’s drunk—”


“Okay, that’s entirely enough speculation about my sexual preferences, thanks.” He was looking at the confirmation email for his flight. “I, uh, have to make a phone call.”


“Is this a secret girlfriend or something?”


‘More like secret boyfriend,’ Mason thought dryly, but headed into the bedroom and shut the door.


The phone rang six times before finally going to voicemail. With a sigh, he waited for the beep. “Uh, hey, Macks, this is me … um, so I guess I was super drunk last night, and apparently booked a flight to DC? Give me a call when you have a chance …”


He hung up feeling somewhat defeated. He stared at the screen for a moment, then pocketed the phone.


“You’re going to DC?”


He started, then stared at Cam, who had just now come crawling out of the ensuite.


“Uh,” he replied.


Cam sat back against the wall, rubbing at his forehead. “What the hell for?” he asked, his brow crinkling. Mason didn’t know if it was in pain or confusion.
“Um,” he repeated, biting his lip.


“What’s in DC?”


“The … president?”


“Fuck off,” Cam spat. “I mean, why would you go to DC?”


Mason deliberated between “none of your business” and “that’s for me to know” for a moment, before finally saying, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”


Cam considered him for a moment and then, because Cam was an ass, he yelled, “Guys! Jarhead’s got a girlfriend!”


“Shut up, I do not,” Mason snapped, whipping a pillow at Cam.


“Ow! Guys, he’s beating me up!”


“Serves ya right, probably,” Duncs called from the kitchen. “Oy, Mayday, do you have any food in this place?”


“No, I survive on booze and sex. There’s pizza. You can fight Hendy for the Trix.”


“This is exactly why we went grocery shopping,” Hendy said.


“If we went grocery shopping, how is there still no food?”


Mason sighed, staring at his phone, wishing the person he wanted to—no, needed to—talk to would answer him back. He would much rather have listened to Luke bawl him out than his teammates nattering on about how Mason managed to keep his physique, how he managed to play such good hockey when he clearly had such a steady diet of drugs and alcohol and not much more.


He supposed he ought to pack. The ticket to DC was one-way, which could mean he would end up there for a while. He hadn’t decided where he was going next. He supposed it all depended on how Luke received him.


He opened up his confirmation email again. He stared at it for a moment, then said, “Well, shit.”


“What?” Cam asked.


“I need one of you assholes to give me a ride to the airport,” Mason replied. Evidently, he hadn’t bothered changing the date when he’d booked his flight last night. The itinerary definitely said Thursday, which was today.


“What?” Cam asked. “Why?”


“I have a flight to catch in …” He glanced at the clock. “An hour.”


“Jesus,” Cam spat. “Do you seriously think you’ll make that?”


“It’s just domestic,” Mason said, “I’ll get through security quick, nobody cares.”


“Not looking like a crackhead, no.”


“They’ll think you’re a drug mule.”


“Especially coming out of LA.”


Mason rolled his eyes. “Guys,” he said, “I’m white, I’ll be fine.”


“Breakfast with a side of racism, super. Love the stuff you’re serving up over here, Jarhead.”


“Shut up, Hendy. Which one of you assholes is driving me to the airport?”


“What do we look like, your personal Uber?”


“Pretty sure you look like my bitch, Duncs.”


“Mayday, you have terrible taste in women.”


“Shut it, Hendy.”


Cam was rubbing his temples. “Will you jackasses shut up? One of you take fuckboy here to catch his flight to his cross-country booty-call, I’m going back to bed.”


Mason watched his teammate crawl back into bed. He waited for a moment, then said, “You know, Cam. This is my house.”




“If I leave, you have to get out.”


“Uggh, but it’s so early. Why did you pick an early flight, why are you such an asshole.”


“Up,” Mason said, dumping the other man off the mattress.


“Jerk,” Cam grumbled.


Mason dragged his suitcase out of the closet, started tossing clothes in. He hadn’t had time to do wash yet—he had no idea if the laundry was dirty or clean. He’d have to wash his clothes when he got to Luke’s.


He finished tossing articles of clothing into the suitcase, stuffed them in and closed the case. “All right, which one of you jerkoffs is taking me to the airport.”


He was met with resounding silence. Not even Trev answered him.


He sighed. “I mean, you all have to leave anyway, so one of you …”


“Maybe you’d like to put on pants first?”


Mason glanced down, frowned at his bare legs and socked feet. He wiggled his toes. “Yeah,” he said, “maybe.”


“And brush your hair, you seriously look like a sketchy homeless person. They’re so gonna pull you into secondary screening.”


“Ha, they’ll think he’s gonna go kill the president or something.”


Cam sat up straight. “Oh my god, guys, what if Mayday is like a super-spy or something and he just got orders to go kill the president and that’s why he has to fly to DC like right now.”




Duncs frowned. “Cam, don’t be a tool.”


“Yeah, I’m pretty sure the Canadians don’t even know what spies are.”


“Never mind having a super-spy.”


“What are you talking about? Of course all of our hockey players are secretly spies working to infiltrate America.” Mason rolled his eyes hard. “Can we go now? My flight leaves in forty-five, I need to get to the airport.”


He glanced into the kitchen again, then frowned. “Oh for—none of you have pants.”


He pulled out his phone again. “That’s it, I’m calling an Uber.”


“Our plan has worked perfectly.”


“Jackass,” Mason hissed at Hendy, who just grinned toothily back at him.


Mason flipped him the bird, then grinned back. “And you now have five minutes to get some pants and get out of my house.”


“I’m house-sitting.”


“Hendy, get out of my house.”


“You’ll need someone to look after your houseplants.”


“I don’t have any houseplants, now get out.”


“Worth a shot,” Hendy murmured as he strolled by, seeking out his discarded pants.


Five minutes later, they had all tumbled out into the busy morning street, all of them with oversized sunglasses perched firmly on their faces, protecting them from the accusing glare of the sun. A large, black SUV rolled up to the curb.


“And this is my ride,” Mason said, yanking open the door. He dropped his head forward, his sunglasses sliding down his nose. “Dusty?”




“Ha!” Cam crowed. “That’s our ride! I knew Dusty would show up sooner than your stupid Uber.”


“Goddammit,” Mason muttered, stepping back as his teammates scrambled into the vehicle.


“You need a ride somewhere?” Dusty asked.


“The airport,” Mason replied. “I got a flight …”


Dusty sighed. “Get in—”


“No! Don’t be nice, Dusty, don’t be nice to Mayday—”


“Aren’t you supposed to be like big and tough and stuff?”


“Shut up, you guys. I’ve got nothing else to do, I can swing by LAX.”


They were all silent for a dumbfounded moment, the stark reality that their season was over setting in. Cam looked down at the floor; Trev licked his lips. Hendy coughed.


“When do you need to be there?” Dusty asked.


“Oh, like ten minutes ago,” Mason replied airily, shrugging.


Dusty’s face fell, and he sighed heavily. “You’re a piece of work, Mayday,” he said flatly.


“See?! This is why you shouldn’t be nice to him!”


“Get in,” Dusty said, putting the vehicle back in gear.


Mason grinned, then chucked his suitcase in the back.


“Oy, watch it!”


“Oh come on, Cam, not like I’d be hitting anything important.”


“Au contraire, Cam still has his brain intact. Unlike some other people in this vehicle.”


“Yeah, Hendy, you’ve got a few screws knocked loose.”


“Why do I hang out with you people?” Dusty wondered aloud, steering them back into the flow of traffic.


“I am gonna be so late,” Mason murmured.


“Your own fault,” Duncs chided.


“Thanks, that’s very helpful.”


“No problem.”


“How far is the airport?”


“Not nearly close enough.”


It took fifteen minutes to get out to the airport, and then, Mason was booking it through the terminal. He was so late. If it wasn’t for his stupid pass, there was no way he was getting through security before the plane took off.


He checked in, dumped his luggage on the conveyor belt, and headed for security. He passed the requisite metal detector and wand-waving with flying colors, and then he was on his way to the gate, the clock ticking down.


He practically ran across the moving sidewalks, nearly bowling over an elderly lady in the process.


He skidded to a stop at the gate, just as his name was being called over the loudspeaker. The ground crew frowned at him.


“This is the final boarding call,” the PA announced as he presented his ticket and his passport.


“You are just in time,” the woman said, handing him back his papers.


“Clutch performance,” he retorted, which earned him a raised eyebrow. He shrugged and strolled by her, down the tunnel to the aircraft.


“Welcome,” the flight attendant said with a forced smile. She was clearly pissed he was late.


He winked at her and headed down the aisle, looking for his seat. He glanced at the label and then at his ticket, then dropped into the seat, sprawling.


First class was really the only way to travel. He glanced across the way at the passenger beside him, who was currently engrossed in the crappy in-flight magazine all airlines felt obligated to provide.


She was a very pretty young woman, with pale skin and long, dark hair. She was wearing a lot of make-up and a lot of jewelry—several necklaces were wrapped around her neck, a pendant dipping down into her cleavage.


Mason stared. She had huge knockers.


Very slowly, she rolled her gaze toward him. Her eyes were the color of chocolate, barely perceptible as she glowered at him. “Do you have a problem?” she asked, her voice lilting over a familiar accent.


Russian. She was Russian. He’d know that accent anywhere now.


“Oh, I might,” he said. “Care to give me a hand with it?”


She curled her lip in a sneer. “Pig,” she spat, then turned back to the glossy, dog-eared pages of the magazine.


“Hey now,” he said, “I think I’m more of a dog, and you’re a bit of a bitch, so—”


“Are you still talking?” she asked coolly, not even glancing up. She turned the page.


“Well, how are we supposed to get to know each other if we don’t talk?”


“I think you have some ideas,” she said, “but I will tell you this—I do not want to know you.”


“Can I try to change your mind? I’ve got a few hours, now don’t I?”


“I have boyfriend,” she replied tartly.


“And what a lucky guy he is. Think he’d mind sharing? Y’know, spread the love a little bit.”


She closed the magazine again. “You,” she said, “need to be quiet now. Or I will make you quiet.”


“You’re quite welcome to try.”


“Sir? Please fasten your seat belt, we’re taking off shortly.”


“Uh? Oh, uh, sure.”


The stewardess gave him that same, pained grin, and then continued on into the economy class. Mason buckled up, then leaned over to the Russian beauty and said, “Once we get in the air, you’re welcome to join me in the Mile High club.”


She gave him an apathetic look. “I do not believe you are member,” she said. “You do not say the secret code word.”


He grinned. “Oooh, naughty.”


“You will just have to imagine how naughty,” she replied, and then turned back to the magazine yet again. This time, she slipped a pair of earbuds into her ears.


Mason sighed and settled back in his seat. It was going to be a long few hours until he got in to DC. He settled in to sleep, dropping his sunglasses over his eyes again. At least he could rest up and maybe recover from his impending hangover before he saw Luke.


“Here,” Brenden said, handing Luke a couple of tiny blue pills.


“Thanks,” he murmured, eyeing the drugs warily.


“They’re suppressants,” Brenden said, his voice laced with earnestness.


Hadn’t he heard that somewhere before? He plucked the pills up and popped them in his mouth, swallowing reflexively before they started to melt on his tongue. He eyed Brenden again, deciding his teammate had no real reason to lie to him. In fact, it was in Brenden’s best interests to help Luke get this under control.


Besides, Brenden was one of the most honest people Luke knew. It was something of a rarity in this world, but Brenden was honest—sometimes brutally so.


Luke curled up on the bed again, letting his eyes slip shut. The best thing he could do would be sleep it off.


“Here,” Brenden said. The glass of water clinked on the side table.


Luke didn’t even open his eyes; he knew he couldn’t make eye contact with Brenden. He could smell him so clearly, knew the tall blond was hovering over him, pushing a pill against his lips—neither of them would be able to take it.


“What is it?” he asked after he swallowed—probably the wrong order to do things in, but hey.
“Painkiller,” Brenden said. “Should help you sleep.”


Luke scoffed, then turned back onto his side.


He must have slept, at last, because the light had changed when he opened his eyes again. Brenden was gone; the room was empty. He stared at the window for a moment or two, watching the sun dance across the wall. It was windy outside, apparently; clouds scudded by, obscuring the light, which grew and faded in intensity.


He turned over and looked at the clock, then grimaced. It was four in the afternoon—just three hours from puck drop. He’d slept through morning skate and almost through dinner too.


He sat up, just as the door clattered open and Ty poked his head in. “Oh,” he said, “hey. You’re awake.”


“Yeah,” Luke murmured, rubbing the back of his neck.


“Mike sent me up here to see if you were up yet. Food’s on—Coach is right pissed, you missed morning skate, and—”


Luke padded to the bathroom, ignoring Ty’s rambling. Of course Q was pissed. Of course. He splashed water over his face and looked at himself in the mirror.
He was still flushed. His hair was matted and stuck to his forehead, curling at the ends. He still felt feverish, felt an ache in his low belly. He gritted his teeth.


He could get through this. It was just one game, just a few hours. Once he was on the ice, he’d be able to put this aside, ignore it.


“Hurry up,” Ty said. “Those assholes will eat all the food.”


“Hmm,” Luke replied, hiking his shirt over his head as he walked back into the bedroom. He pitched it aside and pulled on a clean one. He caught Ty’s eye as he settled the shirt.


The rookie turned pink and looked away, stared down at his feet. “S-sorry,” he said.


“About what?” Luke asked nonchalantly, hoping he didn’t seem too annoyed. He didn’t even know Ty’s status, what he was. It didn’t really matter; he could evidently smell Luke—or was at least affected by his pheromones.




“Whatever. Let’s go.”


The dining room was already crowded, and most of the guys were too busy scarfing down their food to notice when Luke walked into the room. The scent of food likely masked his own broadcast, something he was grateful for.


He was less grateful that the only available seat was next to Jake—who smirked, as though that had been his design, not just chance. Part of Luke quailed; he couldn’t do this. He wanted to run away and hide until he smelled normally, until he didn’t feel so knock-kneed and weak.


Instead, he sat down next to Jake. He was older, he was in control, and he was going to ignore this. He wasn’t going to let Jake intimidate him, alpha or not.


Jake kept glancing at him, but said nothing. They ate in silence, Luke glaring steadfastly at the wall across the room.


“You are in serious shit,” Mike said, plonking down into a now-vacant seat across from Luke. “Q is pissed.”


“I figured,” Luke murmured around a mouthful.


“You sure you’re ready?” Mike’s brow creased in concern.


“Does it matter?” Luke asked hotly. They were already down a player with no chance to call anyone else up to take his place. The team needed him to take that top spot. So long as he could still lace up his skates, he wasn’t going to back down from that. This was the biggest game of their season, maybe of their whole lives.


Mike considered him for a moment.


“Brenden said you were not feeling well,” Nicky said as he approached.


“I feel fine,” Luke announced, drawing a leer from Jake and a quizzical look from the other two.


“Then why did you not skate this morning?”


“It was optional,” he replied with a shrug.


“You know better than that,” Nicky chided, his eyes widening with scorn. He could scarcely believe Luke would offer that as an excuse; they both knew that “optional” practices weren’t really optional in Coach’s books and certainly not when they were facing a do-or-die situation like this.


“I felt a little off earlier, sure, but I feel fine now,” he lied. “So I skipped skate, big deal.”


Nicky looked like he wanted to make it a big deal, so Luke picked up his empty plate and headed back to the buffet, pretending to be interested in getting seconds. He had no actual intent of getting more food; he was still running a low-grade fever, and it was suppressing every other bodily function. He’d only had dinner because he knew he’d pass out on the ice later if he didn’t.


He set the plate down, waiting for an opportune moment to disappear from the bustling room. The less he was around people right now, the better for all of them.


As predicted, Q was furious. He glared at Luke as he boarded the bus, then again when they arrived at the arena and disembarked. He seemed like he was scarcely suppressing a growl, which put a little haste in Luke’s step as he made his way to the locker room. He had to hand it to Coach; he held it together until they were all in the locker room, the door banging shut behind him.


That ended his silence, however. “Mackinnon!” he roared the second they were behind closed doors, away from the eyes and ears of the media. “What the hell do you think you’re playing at?! Late to practice yesterday, then skipping skate this morning?”


“He wasn’t well,” Brenden said, earning himself a glower.


“Shut up, Sutherland. Mackinnon.”


“Yes, Coach?”


“Care to explain yourself?”


Luke considered his options carefully, then said, “I have no excuse.”


“Damn right you don’t! Unprofessional! This isn’t some game, this isn’t a joke—this is the big leagues, boy! You better step it up out there! That goes for all of you—I wanna see some serious hustle! Show me you belong in this league, show me you deserve to play in the IHA next year. Play like you want it.”


He didn’t say “playoffs,” but they all knew it was implied. They were playing for their futures.


They started to get into their gear. The room was somber, Coach’s words echoing through them, reverberating right down to their very blood, forcing all of them inward. They were silent, examining their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, their fears—but not too closely. If they got too introspective, they drew themselves back, knowing they had to be in the here and now. They couldn’t play in their heads. They had to show up tonight.


Luke checked his phone one last time before he put his skates on. There was nothing new from Mason.


Sebby had his iPod out. Jake was wiring them up as Sebby and Brenden leaned over the device, selecting a playlist. A moment later, the strains of “Eye of the Tiger” filled the room. Luke exhaled and met Danny’s gaze.


The brown-eyed defenseman nodded to him. Luke managed a shaky smile, then ducked his head and laced his skates tight.


Jersey. Bucket. Gloves. Stick. And then they were heading down the tunnel, a buzzer telling them it was time for warm-ups.


The ice in the Spectrum was always slushy, and Luke frowned as he strode onto it, feeling it beneath his blades. The Spectrum had to be one of his least-favorite arenas in the league—and the Philly Falcons were one of his least-favorite teams.


The Falcons’ reputation preceded them. Jack Harding, the team’s GM, had built a squad of goons over the last few years, and McTavish coached them in a very physical style. They were known for scrapping—even with guys who weren’t normally fighters. Those of them who weren’t bruisers were pests, always running at the mouth, riling guys up. They’d hack and slash and hit, and more often than not, they got away with even the most blatant of infractions.


Luke wished they’d had to play someone else, a team that wasn’t quite that physical, like the Rockets or something, but there was no use wishing.
“Hey, Mackinnon.”


There was only one person that annoying chirp could belong to. Luke gritted his teeth. He shifted his gaze to his left, glowering at Scottie Tucker, who gave him a big, toothy grin.


“Hey,” he replied cautiously, then pushed into his blades a little harder, propelling himself away from the pest.


Scottie kept pace with him, unfortunately. Luke wondered why the little puke had decided to zero in on him—but he already knew. He hated the very idea; his innards knotted up with the thought, but there was little doubt in his mind that Scottie could smell him. Even if the pest hadn’t clued in yet …


Scottie leaned in, shoving his face into Luke’s. “Oh c’mon, there’s no need to be cold,” he said, offering up that shit-eating grin again.


Luke frowned at him.


“C’mon, Macks, word gets around, right? There’s a lot of talk about you.”


“Is there now,” Luke murmured, glancing toward the clock, then his teammates. He wondered if any of them realized he was fraternizing with the enemy.
“Yeah, lotta people sayin’ they’ve had some pretty warm relations with you. You’re certainly not unwelcoming.”


“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”


Scottie grinned wickedly. “They’re sayin’ that you just spread out the welcome mat, hm? Invite everyone in and—”


“What the fuck,” Luke snapped, whirling on the younger man, but Scottie just turned and skated away, that idiotic grin still on his face. Luke gritted his teeth, then turned his attention to their warm-up drills.


Even if Scottie did know, the little shit was just trying to get a rise out of him.


The buzzer sounded, and they filtered off the ice, back to the dressing room. Luke shut his eyes. Only sixty minutes more of dealing with Scottie Tucker and his asshole teammates.


But what a sixty minutes it was. They returned to the ice a few moments later, the Falcons already having been introduced to the roaring home crowd. The starting lines gathered near center ice; the goalies skated to their nets. The rest of the teams stood by their benches, all of them with their helmets off, some with their heads bowed and others looking skyward as the national anthem filled the arena. Blue, red, and white lights swirled across the ice, occasionally coalescing to form an American flag.


Brenden was mouthing the words. Sebby had his hand over his chest and he was staring steadfastly at the ceiling. Luke caught Nicky’s eye—the Swede had no love for the American anthem either.


The lights came back up and the crowd roared, a deafening din as the players made their way to center ice for the face-off.


Luke held his stick across his quads, leaning over the twig as the referee gestured for them to get into position. He looked at his opponent—Sam Carson, a twenty-two year old whose age belied him. He stared back at Luke, undaunted.


They dropped their gazes and set their sticks on the ice. The ref held the puck aloft, and they watched, waited.


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