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Prologue

Bagging the Blueliner

Cal

‌I’D FINALLY MADE IT. After ten years of playing youth hockey, two years of juniors, four in college, and another two in the minors, the team that had drafted me at eighteen was ready for me to play. In a few short weeks, I would take the ice as an official member of the Connecticut Comets. Living and breathing hockey my entire life had paid off.

Expectations were unrealistically high for a kid growing up in western Canada. Skates were strapped on your feet as soon as you could walk, and the frozen ponds became your playground. It was a rarity to know someone who didn’t play hockey—it was a part of our Canadian DNA. It also meant the competition was fierce. Everyone was chasing the dream of one day signing a contract to play professional hockey.

I was about to embark on the dream of every Canadian kid, completely scared out of my mind.

The Comets took a chance on drafting me as an undersized eighteen-year- old because my offensive-minded defensive play was part of an ever- evolving game. But we all knew I would get my head taken off by the grown-ass men currently playing. Electing to play college hockey in the States, I used those four years to put on muscle mass to fill out my now massive frame.

A seven-inch growth spurt sure hadn’t hurt either.

Now, they were ready for me, but what if I didn’t live up to their expectations? I was signed on a two-way contract, so they could send me

back down to the minors if my play wasn’t strong enough to keep up. At the end of this season, my three-year entry-level contract would expire, so if I didn’t prove myself useful, there was a very real chance the Comets would choose not to re-sign me.

The idea of free agency—or worse, a trade—would be my motivation to make sure I made the most of this chance. I, Cal Berg, stood here when so many others had tried and failed.

Training camp would begin on Monday, but the pre-season barbeque was a Comets tradition. It provided a chance for the entire organization and their families to mingle and relax before the grind of the season.

That’s where I found myself today.

An annual event, the massive outdoor venue featured food, drinks, and music. Huge white canopy tents were spread across the massive lawns of a country club for shaded seating, and children’s laughter filled the air.

Ordering a whiskey neat from one of the standing bars set up around the perimeter of the party, I stood beside a high-top table, surveying the scene before me.

Most of the team, I knew by reputation only, but there were a few guys I’d played with on the Comets’ affiliate minor team in Providence. Spotting a group of those guys, I began walking in their direction when a flurry of motion caught the corner of my eye.

Pausing, I turned to find a brunette barreling toward me from the other side of the lawn. She looked like a woman on a mission, a scowl gracing her perfect rosebud lips.

Intrigued, I watched her approach. Her shoulder-length caramel-brown hair was flying around her face due to her fast pace, blue eyes glinting with determination. Whomever she was coming for was in for a world of hurt—I could see that even from this distance. Raking my gaze down her body, I took in her view of sun-kissed shoulders, and a grey sundress that barely contained her bouncing breasts as she moved swiftly. The skirt swirled around her legs, showcasing that while trim, she was athletically toned. Maybe a couple of years younger than me—skirting the line between girl and woman—she was beautiful, even visibly agitated.

Nothing could have prepared me for the moment when her baby blues locked on mine, and she skidded to a stop two feet in front of me. Confused, I glanced from side to side to find who she was charging toward.

No one was around, so I turned back to where she stood, hands now on her hips.

She couldn’t be mad at me, could she? I didn’t even know who this girl was.

“Berg, right?” Her voice dripped with venom as she used my last name.

My brows drew down, but I reached a hand out. “Yeah, but my friends call me Cal. Nice to meet you.”

Eyeing my hand as if it offended her, she wrinkled her nose. “I’m not your friend.”

Dropping my hand to my side, I had no clue what I’d done to upset this girl. “Okay . . . I’m sorry.”

She crossed her arms. “You should be.”

Who the hell was this girl?

Racking my brain, I thought back to the women I’d bedded in the past few years, trying to recall if maybe she was one of them and was pissed I hadn’t called. I got around—being a hockey player came with certain perks

—but there was no way I could have forgotten this girl. If I had slept with her, I know I would have called, which was something I rarely did.

My focus was on my career, and relationships were a distraction. Most girls only got one night with me.

Her eyes narrowed while I searched them for any clues as to what I’d done to piss her off. I was the new guy and didn’t need a scene at my first team event.

Trying again, I asked, “Is there a problem?”

“Yeah, there is a problem. You’re a fucking liability on the ice.”

What the hell?

Stunned, I asked, “Excuse me?”

“You heard me, Berg. You’re a blueliner. Your job is defense. Thinking you can go end to end is the kind of crap you see from nine-year-olds in house hockey. It has no place in the professional game. Hanging your forwards out to dry when you try to take all the glory won’t fly here. Hockey is a team game.”

Hold up a minute. She was pissed about how I played the game?

Now, I was offended. I knew this game inside and out, and my style of play was what got me here. Who was she to tell me it was wrong?

Draining my drink, I noted how flushed her cheeks were in her anger. She was pissing me off, but I still thought she was hot. I wouldn’t say no if she

wanted to bring that anger to the bedroom.

Shaking off that thought, I decided it was time to defend myself and my game. “I put up thirty goals last season from defense, and you’re telling me I’m playing the game wrong?”

“Typical,” she muttered.

“What was that?” I was provoking her, I knew that.

There was something intriguing about her. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but she seemed to know more about the game than most women I’d met. She hadn’t been afraid to speak her mind thus far, and I wanted to hear what she had to say.

“You’re a hotshot who thinks the only stat that matters is how many goals are next to his name on the scoresheet.”

“Can’t win the game without scoring goals,” I countered.

She didn’t back down. “That’s not what you’re paid to do. Your job is making sure no one gets close enough to our goaltender to put the puck in the back of our net. Your plus-minus is shit. You’re so focused on scoring goals from defense that when you don’t, it comes the other way on an odd- man rush, and we end up in a hole. Get your shit straight or you won’t be here long.”

With that, she turned on her heel and headed toward one of the many open-sided tents.

I was left speechless. Most women only cared that I played the sport. Very few of them understood how the game worked, and they sure as hell didn’t have an intimate knowledge of my stats.

Plus-minus was related to the number of goals scored for or against your team when you were on the ice. You got a plus one every time you were out there for one of your team’s goals and a minus one for every goal against your team. A positive rating meant you were helping to create offensive chances for your team while minimizing scoring chances against them. A negative rating meant you were out there for a lot of fuck-ups and not enough scoring to even it out.

I wanted to be angry at her tirade, but she was right. My plus-minus was shit. I was out there for a lot of goals for my team but also a lot against them.

“I see you’ve met Hannah.” A voice came from my right.

Looking over, I saw that the very young face of the Comets franchise had joined me.

Jaxon Slate had made waves coming into his draft year, with everyone expecting him to turn the team around with his talent. Barely twenty, he was now going into his third season, whereas I was getting my first opportunity at twenty-four.

When the Comets drafted him, I’d been excited about the prospect of someday getting to play with him. He was a skilled player who saw the ice in a unique way.

Hoping that the second time was the charm, I reached my hand out. “Jaxon, right?”

Clasping my hand firmly with his and shaking, he nodded. “Nice to meet you. Hopefully, Hannah hasn’t scared you into running back to Providence.”

My gaze returned to the tent where the brunette had fled after her verbal assault. “I won’t lie to you, man. I’m really confused. She came out of nowhere and gave her unsolicited opinion on how my gameplay will cost the team.”

Jaxon chuckled. “Yeah, she’s really invested in the team.”

“Who is she? For a hot second, I thought she was a pissed-off puck bunny I’d forgotten about.”

He made a choking sound. “You better pray that’s not true.” “Shit. Is she underage?”

“No, it’s not that. She’s Coach’s youngest daughter. You haven’t gotten the first-day speech yet, but the Moreau girls are off-limits to all Comets players.”

That was how she knew the game so well, including my stats. Hannah was feisty, sexy, and clearly knew her way around a hockey rink, but everyone knew you didn’t risk your livelihood over a girl. It was an unspoken rule—you didn’t mess with your coach’s daughter. Knowing Coach Moreau himself made that crystal clear meant even more.

Translation: sleep with my daughter, and it’s game over. Literally.

It sucked, but I knew my place. I was here to play hockey, as she had so kindly pointed out.

That didn’t stop me from staring at her as she pulled a raven-haired toddler girl into her arms and began chatting with a blonde young woman holding a blond baby boy.

“Who is that she’s with?” I asked Jaxon, figuring he’d been around a few years and knew everyone by now.

Jaxon’s voice was wistful as he replied, “Natalie.”

Tearing my eyes away from Hannah—already mourning that she was off- limits—I assessed my young teammate. Jaxon stared longingly at the tent the two girls occupied with the children.

I knew that look. My boy had it bad for Natalie.

“She your girl?” It seemed unlikely, considering it appeared that at least one of those kids was hers. Upon further inspection, she looked far too young to have multiple kids. Maybe she was one of the players’ nannies.

Jaxon stiffened beside me. “No. She’s married.”

Oh boy. “To one of the players?” It wasn’t uncommon for older players to have very young wives and bang out a bunch of kids close together.

He let out a heavy sigh. “No, not to a player.”

Glancing at the ladies, they seemed very close. I wondered how she was connected to the Comets. “Another of Coach’s daughters? He’s got three, right?”

“Not exactly, but close. She’s one of Hannah’s best friends.” There it was.

I felt for Jaxon. If he were a cartoon character, hearts would be shooting out of his eyes, but someone else had gotten to Natalie first. Then there was Hannah, who’d stunned me into silence—which wasn’t easy—but I could never pursue her.

We were a couple of schmucks with crushes on girls who would never be ours.

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