“Welcome to the team, my man,” Garrett says as they all shuffle down a seat to let me take the one on the end.
“Thanks. Good to be here,” I tell him.
“Are you all moved in?” Alex asks as he leans forward on the other side of Garrett to look at me.
“All moved in, just not unpacked. Figured that will get done sometime next summer.”
“Say the word, dude,” Zack says from the other side of Alex. “I bet Sutton, Olivia, Kate, and Gray could get you unpacked in about two hours flat. You provide pizza and beer for us all, we’ll get it done.”
“Yeah,” I drawl out with a grin. “Not about to have my boss unpack my underwear boxes.”
“It’s all good,” Garrett says. “Gray is just a normal chick when she steps out of the GM’s office.”
And speak of the devil, Gray Brannon walks in alongside her father, the team’s CEO, Brian Brannon, followed by Coach Pretore and the rest of the coaching staff. Ryker Evans brings up the rear, his eyes pinned to wife’s ass. The voices in the room immediately go silent as all eyes swing their way, and then apparently planned without my knowledge, all of the players stand up and start clapping. The claps increase in staccato and volume. Cheers start ringing out, and then a low chant, “Gray, Gray, Gray, Gray.”
I stand up and do the same, not wanting to be a douche, and totally willing to give kudos where they’re due. Gray Brannon turned this team into champions, and she did it against overwhelming opposition from players, coaches, executives, and fans across the country.
Gray actually blushes, slides a grin to her dad, and then holds up her hands to quiet the team. When the sounds dissipate and the guys all start sitting back down, she says, “Okay, you big jerks, trying to make me girlie cry or something?”
Everyone chuckles, and then her eyes harden. It’s time for business.
“We’re going to win the Stanley Cup again this year,” she says with not a hint of egotism in her voice. “Any questions?”
Dead silence until someone behind me says, “Fucking right we are.”
“Exactly,” she says, leveling a beaming smile at the person, and Christ…she is one gorgeous chick. No wonder Ryker fell for her. “Now, that’s all I have. I’ll turn it over to Coach Pretore.”
Gray and Brian Brannon both step back and lean against the wall. Coach Pretore steps up to the podium and rests his forearms on it. “We had a great team last year. We got a better team this year. But we must be humble and realize that it still takes hard work, perseverance, and unification as a team. I’m going to work you harder than you’ve ever worked before, and you’re going to beg me to give you more. You, in turn, are going to reach deep into your gut for every game, and you’re going to bleed victory for this organization. Am I right?”
A chorus of guys echo out agreement, and the air vibrates with male testosterone eager to get out on the ice. Coach Pretore scans his men with proud eyes and nods his approval.
“All right, we got some new members to the team. Let’s take a moment so I can introduce them.”
Pretore reads from a list in front of him, alphabetical. Only three names before me and I’m the last.
“Hawke Therrien,” he says, and his eyes scan the rows until he sees me. With a lift of his chin, I stand from my seat and tuck my hands in my pocket while he reads my credentials. “You all know Hawke. Played the last seven years with the Titans. Originally from Toronto. Joined the Cape Breton Oilers when he was sixteen. Drafted by the Titans, third round. Small stint in the minors and has been on their first line the last five years. Won the James Norris Trophy twice.”
His eyes swing up to mine and he barks out, “Did I miss anything?”
I can’t help myself. “Yeah…my favorite beer is Molson and I can solve a Rubik’s Cube in like twenty-seven minutes flat. I’m a fucking phenom.”
The entire room erupts in laughter and Coach snickers before nodding his head at me to sit back down. I drop into my seat, grateful to be out of the limelight, and Garrett punches me on the shoulder. “So glad you’re here, dude.”
“Me too,” I tell him sincerely. I feel really good about this year.
“We have a new addition to our training staff,” Coach Pretore says, and my gaze slides back down to him. My blood practically freezes in my veins when he adds, “Everyone welcome Vale Campbell to our team.”
From the very first row, a person I didn’t even notice when I entered the room stands up. She turns and it’s like a punch to my gut as her eyes come straight to mine. Just like the last time I looked into them, there’s nothing there. Not really a hint of recognition, anger, indifference. They just stare at me a brief moment and then move away as she makes a cursory swipe of the room before sitting back down.
“Vale is our new assistant athletic trainer. She’s crossing sports, coming to us from Columbus, Ohio, where she spent the last two years as the Buckeyes’ assistant AT. Her roots are in hockey, though, as her dad was the head trainer of the Cape Breton Oilers for many years—”
Pretore stops and it suddenly dawns on him. His eyes snap up to mine and he says, “In fact, Therrien, you two might know each other?”
I quickly peek at Vale, who’s slumping down in her seat.
Totally fucking awkward.
“Yeah,” I say, then give a little cough. “I know Vale.”
“Excellent,” Pretore says, not picking up on the tension I’m feeling, and then looking back down at the paper before him. “Vale has excellent credentials…she’s a board-certified AT and also has her certification as a strength and conditioning specialist, so men…get ready to get your asses kicked. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Penn State and got her master’s in exercise and sports medicine there as well. Originally from Sydney…”