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Chapter no 1 – RORY

The Fake Out (Vancouver Storm, #2)

BLOOD POUNDS in my ears as I skate toward the net during my first game with the Vancouver Storm. We’re tied in overtime, and there’s a crescendo of noise from the crowd as I rear back and slapshot the puck at the net.

It pings off the crossbar, and the Vancouver fans let out a collective groan of disappointment.

Stars score goals. My dad, Canadian hockey legend Rick Miller, has said it so many times over the years, and it’s what I chant to myself as I snag the puck out of the mess of players and skate backward until I’m open.

The whistle blows, the game stops, and I look over to the pretty girl who’s been catching my attention all night.

Hazel Hartley, one of the team physiotherapists—stunning and sharp- tongued, with long, dark lashes, a plush mouth the perfect shade of pink, and the most striking blue-gray eyes I’ve ever seen—sitting behind the net with her sister, Pippa, looking like she’d rather be anywhere else.

Hazel Hartley, my high school tutor who had a boyfriend, who can’t stand me and doesn’t date hockey players anymore. Despite Pippa wearing a Storm jersey with the name of her fiancé, goaltender Jamie Streicher, on the back, and despite Hartley working for the team, I haven’t seen her in a jersey since high school. Tonight, my gaze catches on her chestnut hair pulled up in a ponytail, her pale purple puffer jacket. I bet she’s wearing the black leggings that always make her ass look incredible.

I wink at her; she rolls her eyes. I grin; she pretends to yawn.

Something electric and addictive floods my veins at our back-and-forth.

It’s always been like this with us, ever since high school.

The players line up for a face-off and I pull my attention back to the game. Around the arena, the fans are getting anxious, desperate for a win. The whistle blows and I’m off, hustling the puck toward the goalie again.

“Let’s go, Miller,” Coach Ward calls from the bench.

Determination fires through me. Tate Ward wanted the top scorer in the league, so I need to show him what he paid for. I’ve idolized him since he was a player.

Playing for him this season will fix whatever’s gone wrong in my head.

It has to.

Hayden Owens, a Vancouver defenseman, is open. He has a clear shot on net, but stars score goals, and I’m not here to pass the puck.

I snap the puck toward the goalie; it hits the back of the net, and the arena explodes with noise at my game-winning goal. The goal horn bellows, the arena lights flash, and the rest of the Vancouver team surrounds me. Over at the bench, guys are cheering. Even quiet and serious Coach Ward is clapping. I wait for the consuming, proud feeling in my chest that this moment should bring.

Nothing. Fans rattle the glass and the team surrounds me, but I experience blank, silent emptiness.

Shit.

I used to care. Scoring goals used to make me feel on top of the world, like nothing could touch me. Now, I feel flat, like I’m checking a box. Playing professional hockey, being the best in the league, used to be my dream, but these days, it feels like a job.

Coming to Vancouver to play for Ward, to play with goaltender Jamie Streicher, my best friend—these things were supposed to change that.

“Look alive, Miller.” Owens grabs me by the shoulders and tries to put me in a headlock. “You just won the game.”

I laugh and shove him off, shove away all the weird thoughts as we skate past the net to the bench. When we pass Hazel, I give her the cocky, smug grin I know pisses her off.

Fans watch as I tap my stick against the glass and she lifts her gaze to meet mine, arching an eyebrow as if to say, what, asshole?

Do you want an autograph? I mouth, making the signing motion in the

air.

I watch her lips curve into a cool smile. You wish, she mouths back at me as she stands.

My chest expands with a tight, excited feeling. No one talks to me like Hartley does. I’ve always liked that about her.

And these days, sparring with her? It’s the only time I actually feel something.

Beside her, Pippa grins at me, waving. “Nice goal, Rory,” she calls over the glass.

Owens pounds on the glass, waving at her, and she laughs, eyes lighting up as Streicher, her fiancé, skates up to greet her with a quiet smile.

Something tugs around my heart as I watch Pippa blow a kiss to him. Behind her, Hartley’s already halfway up the stairs that lead out of the arena, ponytail bouncing with each step.

She is wearing the leggings, and her ass does look incredible.

“I think Hartley likes me,” I say to the guys over the arena music, keeping my eyes on her retreating form.

Owens laughs, and even surly Streicher snorts.

“Not a fucking chance, bud,” Owens crows, slapping me on the back as we skate off the ice.

My competitive, determined instincts roar to life, honed by years of hockey and training. I thrive on a challenge, and I hate losing.

Hartley not giving me the time of day sticks in my mind like a thorn. I like her, but I don’t know how to make something happen with her. I think, deep down, she likes me, too.

Hockey is everything, my dad always says. Hockey comes first.

Getting hung up on a girl is a dangerous game, but I can’t seem to forget about Hazel Hartley.

“Miller,” Coach Ward calls as I head down the corridor to the dressing room. “Stop by my office after postgame press.”

I nod and make my way to the showers, head still filled with thoughts of Hazel.

 

After my sit-down with Ward, I return to the dressing room, thoughts whirring. Streicher’s in there still, gathering up his stuff.

“Good game tonight,” he says with a nod.

I bite the inside of my cheek as the weird thoughts about feeling empty and the wins not being as sweet anymore threaten to spill out. Streicher and I have played hockey together since we were five years old, and I trust him more than anyone, but after what Ward said upstairs, I know I need to keep it to myself.

“Are you meeting Pippa?” I ask instead as we haul our bags up and head out.

She usually waits for him in the team’s private box upstairs with the other partners and family. Maybe her sister’s with her.

“She went straight home. She didn’t want to be out late tonight because of the engagement party.”

“Right.” It’s tomorrow night at a restaurant in Gastown, near their apartment.

We head down the concourse, nodding good night to the arena staff. “What did Ward want?”

Anxiety spikes in my gut. “He offered me captain.”

Streicher’s eyes meet mine, flaring with the same surprise I felt. “Really?”

“Ward knows talent when he sees it.” I give him my cockiest, most winning smile, but my chest is still tight with uncertainty.

Clean up your act this season. Earn your spot, Miller, Ward said. Be the captain this team needs.

Last year when I played for Calgary, and before we patched things up, I started a fight on the ice with Streicher. During another game, I got pissed off at the fans and flipped them the middle finger, earning myself a penalty and a spot on the sports highlights for the rest of the week. Tonight, when the goal horn blared and the rest of the team was congratulating me, I didn’t care.

None of these things are in line with a good captain. I’m not the leader type. I’m the asshole. The superstar. The guy everyone loves to hate.

“You going to do it?” he asks.

“I have to.” My throat feels thick. “I’m on a one-year contract.”

When he started with the team last season, Ward traded for a handful of free agents, signing them for short terms, citing to the press that he wasn’t just acquiring players, he was creating a team. At the end of the season, about half of those guys were traded.

“If I want to stay in Vancouver,” I add, “I need to keep Ward happy.” I rake my hand through my hair. “And Ward’s the only guy I want to play for.”

A decade ago, Tate Ward was one of the most promising players in the history of professional hockey—until he blew out his knee and ended his career. His posters were all over my bedroom wall. Besides me, he’s the only other guy to have beaten my dad’s stats.

“Ward’s different,” I tell Jamie.

Every coach I’ve played for, including my dad when he took over the peewee team Streicher and I played for, used aggression and intimidation to motivate players. Ward doesn’t yell. He barely fucking talked during this week’s practices. He explained the plays and watched. Once in a while, he’d bring a player over to the side and give them quiet notes.

I’ve always been a sucker for fatherly approval, and I want to make Ward proud.

Jamie makes an acknowledging noise in his throat as we reach the elevators to the parking garage.

“And, uh, now that you and I are good again,” I hit the elevator call button, “I like playing on the same team.”

We don’t talk about what happened—the seven-year stretch where Streicher and I didn’t talk because I was stupid enough to listen to my dear old dad’s advice. Don’t be friends with guys on the opposing team, he said when we were drafted.

Rick Miller’s never been an expert on any type of relationship, but it took me a while to figure that out.

We listen to the sounds of the elevator changing floors, and Streicher nods. “I’m happy you’re here, too, man. So is Pippa.”

The corner of his mouth twitches, the grumpy fucker’s version of a full- blown smile, and something eases inside me.

Maybe this captain thing is the kick in the ass I need. Maybe this is what finally fixes whatever’s broken in my head. A new challenge.

“I thought you just took the trade so you could bug Hartley all year,” he adds.

I crook a playful grin at him, thinking about the way she yawned tonight. What a fucking brat. “Maybe a little.”

I think about playing for another team and not having someone to tease, and I get that flat, uninspired feeling I had after I scored the goal tonight.

“I can see it. You being captain.” He hits the button on the elevator panel again, impatient.

I know I’m not the right guy, but it lit that flare of competition and challenge in my blood again. I have to try.

Our phones both chirp.

“That’ll be the announcement,” I tell him as he pulls his phone out.

“Yep.” He scrolls, reading the email. “Rory Miller, new captain of the Vancouver Storm.”

The elevator finally arrives and we step in, Streicher still reading as I hit the button to bring us to the parking garage.

“There’s a new trade,” he mutters.

“Who is it?” Between the juniors and our years in the league, we’ve played with or against almost everyone.

“Connor McKinnon.”

I freeze, gaze snapping to Streicher’s as a bad feeling moves through my gut. “That’s—”

“Yep.” He glares at his phone, rereading. “Hazel’s ex.” My shoulders tense. I fucking hate that prick.

Yes, I’m a cocky, antagonistic asshole who needs to be the center of attention. But McKinnon? McKinnon is fucking scum. He went to our high school. For two years, I watched Hazel make goddamned heart eyes at him while he barely cared. He talked down to her. Dismissed her. On and off the ice, he’s aggressive and entitled.

Pippa said they broke up sometime toward the end of Hazel’s first year at university. I don’t know what happened, but Hazel doesn’t date hockey players anymore.

Protective instincts rage through me. I don’t want him anywhere near

her.

“Who’s his physio?” I ask, clearing my throat and trying to keep my

voice casual.

Streicher sighs, and I’m already shaking my head. “Hazel,” he says.

Fuck. I need to do something about this.

Tomorrow, at Streicher and Pippa’s engagement party, I’ll talk to her.

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