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Boyfriend Bargain

By:Ilsa Madden-Mills

Prologue

Zack


When I showed up for tonight’s game, I didn’t know it would try to kill me.

I picture the headlines now: D-1 hockey player dies during biggest rivalry event of the year.

Whatever. I push those thoughts down and skate onto the rink, ignoring my out-of-control heartbeat. The thing is, I can’t die. Sure, I scored two goals in the first two periods even after some heavy body checks, but that’s not enough if I want to break the tie.

I need a hat trick.

I need to be the hero.

But the more I think about the fact that my chest is thumping faster than it should, the worse it gets.

Slow down, I tell my heart. Please.

It doesn’t, and I inhale slowly through my nose then out through my mouth. Deep breaths usually chill me out when performance anxiety hits, but the arena spins, and I resist the urge to skate back to the bench and put my head between my legs.

Shake it off, Z.

It’s just nerves in front of the home crowd. Use it as energy.

But this…this feels different. Like a train about to derail.

My jaw tightens as I clench my fists, physically willing myself to push one skate in front of the other.

Dressed in our black and gold, the team and I move to the center of the rink and up to the faceoff. Briefly, my thoughts go to the people in the stands. Watching. Depending on me to be the hockey star.

He has it all, people say. Number one pick in the NHL. Hobey Baker Award winner.

“Z? You good?” It’s Eric, my winger and best friend. Without even looking, I know the redheaded behemoth is assessing me—probably with a scowl on his bearded face.

He’ll think I’ve lost my mind.

He’ll think I can’t keep my shit together when it really counts.

I’m supposed to be strong.

I’m the captain.

I am this team.

“Z?” His voice is more insistent. “You ready for this?”

My chest squeezes and my arms tingle. Am I dying?

Don’t look at him. Dude sees everything.

I give him a nod.

Reece, my younger brother and another version of myself—so much so that it’s eerie—skates up on the other side. He slaps me on the back with his gloved hand and points his stick toward the Minnesota-Duluth players. “Ready to kick some bulldog ass?”

“Yeah.” One of the opposing defensemen catches my eye and makes a lewd gesture with his hands. It’s just a regular season game, but the rivalry between our universities goes back forty years. They also kicked our asses last year during the Frozen Four. Cold determination builds, battling with my racing heart as I grit my teeth. If you want to end up a champion, you have to climb the biggest mountains one step at a time, and right now this team is Mt. Everest.

I have to score.

A clammy feeling washes over me.

Shit.

Get. Yourself. Together.

Somewhere off in the distance, a lone female fan yells, “Go, Z!” and chills race down my spine. It’s not her, but something about the voice is familiar enough that it sends me back in time to a place when I thought the world was golden.

She’s dead, and I know it, yet…

Panic claws at my body as the cold air around me grows hot and thick. My throat tightens and it’s all I can do to not rip off my helmet. My brain wants to climb out of my head and push the tension away. My stick wobbles as I juggle it, trying to keep it from clattering on the ice.

Wake up, Z. Your heart is going to pop out of your chest.

Coach Swearingen yells something, and I swivel my head to look at him, watching his lips move in slow motion. The lights of the arena blind me, and it feels like a monumental effort, but I somehow manage to put my hand up to shield the glare.

I’m swaying and I think I taste ashes in my mouth. God, this helmet is choking me. My limbs are chunks of lead, and I stop, panting as I hunch over on the ice until I manage to stand again. I’m vaguely aware of the stares of the officials, the calls from my teammates, the wave of silence slowly drifting over the arena.

Reece and Eric call my name.

Someone touches my arm—I think it’s an official—but I brush their hand off.

“Z! Z! Z!”

It’s that girl in the stands again.

I can’t do this in front of everyone.

Zack Morgan is not weak.

I’m a goddamn superstar.

Even though I don’t deserve it.

That’s when I bolt, pulling away.

By the time I make it past the other players on the bench—I can’t look at them for fear of them seeing what a total fucking disaster I am—I already have my helmet and gloves off. Chest heaving and gulping in air that isn’t there, I dash down the carpeted, darkened hallway, my heart a runaway train.

Just go.

But I don’t know where.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I just know I need to make this insanity stop.

You brought this on yourself, a voice says in my head. You should have worked out harder. You should have run that extra mile. You should have done that new age meditating shit. You should have scored three goals instead of two in the first period and then this pressure wouldn’t be here.

This isn’t normal.

I exhale rapidly, trying to breathe properly, but God help me, I can’t…

Dashing for the locker room, my legs pump to get me there. I fling open the door and dart inside, my body shaking as I jerk off my jersey, followed by my pads.

Standing in just my pants, my eyes are wild as I sweep the place, taking in the giant lion painted on the wall with the Never Give Up slogan underneath. Dashing to my wooden locker, I reach in and yank out the small silver medallion that’s hanging from a hook.

I don’t wear it during games, but maybe I should. Maybe I should, just as a reminder.

“Nothing gold can stay,” I manage to whisper aloud, the words the title and last line of a poem by Robert Frost. Cradling the necklace in my palm, my thumb rubs the silver circle, feeling the etching of the letters.

From a distance, I hear pounding footsteps—medics and trainers, always ready.

My chest beats and beats and beats, gaining speed, gaining momentum, and darkness creeps into my vision as I slip the chain around my neck.

My knees buckle and I collapse on the floor.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I whisper to the girl I killed.





1





Sugar





Two weeks later





Listen, I don’t normally hide behind a dusty old support column in the basement of the Kappa house, but when I do, I’m a true ninja. In fact, I’ve been holding up this piece of wood for a full ten minutes, sipping on disgusting spiked punch as I periodically stick my head out and survey the dimly lit room. It’s my first frat party—pretty sad for a senior—and I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of drunk, gyrating co-eds.

Surprisingly, not one person has noticed my furtive glances from my hidey-hole except for the leering frat guy in the corner. Worst of all, he’s wearing a too-tight black shirt over his beer gut that reads Blink If You Want Me, and unfortunately, sometimes I accidentally do look in his direction and we make eye contact. Obviously I blink. I mean, it’s not like I can just not blink.

He sends me a rather dainty finger wave and motions for me to come over. For the hundredth time.

“Jesus,” I say under my breath. Never in a million years my eyes glare.

Besides, it’s the hockey player I’m here for—the one who hasn’t arrived at this party to celebrate the big win over Western Michigan this weekend.

Cursing under my breath, I check my watch for the second time, as if something might have changed in the last few minutes. Do these party people ever sleep or study? How do they deal with hangovers the next day? Ten PM already on a Sunday night and I should be back in my room, curled up on my bed devouring Ding Dongs and Doritos while I go over notes for tomorrow’s classes.

My shoulders press into the column as a swarm of giggling girls in high heels stagger past me. One of them bangs her elbow into my side but barely gives me a second glance. Rubbing the sore spot, I call out in my sweetest Southern accent, which comes out when I’m pissed. “Don’t worry about me, y’all. I’m fiiiiine!”

They never even turn around. Ugh. I sigh. All I want to do is leave this party, put on my sweats and camisole, and veg out, maybe turn on some HBO after my studying is over. It takes a lot of work to attend one of the most prestigious—and most expensive—colleges in the Midwest. Welcome to Hawthorne University.

I blow at a piece of white-blonde hair that’s come out of my headband. Maybe he isn’t going to show.

Then it happens.

An electric current crackles in the air and the partygoers stop talking, looking around expectantly, almost as if they know something big is coming.

It’s him. Has to be.

No one else has this kind of stupid effect on people.

Standing on my tiptoes, I watch as Zack Morgan, AKA Z, AKA the Heartbreaker, AKA Douchebag (that one’s my own contribution to the list) strides through the ground-level basement door, dipping his head so he doesn’t bang it on the frame.

Heartbreaker. Pfft. In other words, he’s a womanizer.

That’s a moot point, though. I’m not here to discuss societal stereotypes of future pro athletes. I’m here to bargain.

Two other players—one blond and one a redhead—flank him on each side like chess pieces protecting their king. I squint. I think those guys are his…wingers?

The DJ turns down the music to announce the hockey team has arrived, and a buzz goes through the crowd as partiers clap and cheer.

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