A/N: Here's a free tease for this upcoming hockey story, briefly introducing our two protagonists, Neil Shannon and Adrian Magnusson. This scene doesn't occur anywhere in the book. Chapter one will be posted in April, so stay tuned!
Neil Shannon grimaced as he looked out the window of the mid-range hotel. Snow fell in heavy sheets, restricting his view to the eight feet of sidewalk outside. During the 30-minute drive from the airport, the snow had accumulated so quickly he’d worried the bus would careen off the road and into a drift. He wasn't surprised that the team's plane had been grounded until the storm let off, but that didn't prevent him from being annoyed at being trapped in Buffalo another night. No one wanted to be stranded in Buffalo.
From the looks of his teammates, however, he was alone in his aggravation. The two rookies were treating this like a snow day from school. No doubt they would be planning some shenanigans tonight since they would be bunking together as usual. But even the veterans didn't look as put out as Neil felt. Elias Koskinen, their big Finnish captain, was joking about making a rink in the parking lot of the hotel and holding a game.
Neil sighed and brushed wetness off his cheek where snow had melted. Despite playing hockey all his life, he had never grown used to cold weather cities. Living in Colorado was a chore, and he made sure to spend his summers in California or Florida, relaxing. Cruising. He could really use a sun-kissed stud right about—
"What's with the grumpy puss?"
Speaking of studs. He groaned beneath his breath, unsurprised that Adrian Magnusson would be the one to needle him about his bad mood. Adrian had grown up in Karlstad, Sweden, so this storm probably didn’t even register on his radar. Hell, he probably wished he could go shirtless right now, just to prove how immune he was to the cold.
And to torment Neil further, albeit unknowingly.
"I just want to go home," Neil muttered as he turned around to face the taller winger. "Am I allowed to want that or does that indicate that I’m a bad team player?"
Adrian grinned widely and tucked a lock of blond hair behind one ear. "Touchy, touchy. Mother Nature wants us to stick around so why not make the best of it? Not much we can do besides try to put a positive spin on it. It's not like we’re on the tail end of a back-to-back. We don't have another game until Saturday."
"I have a life outside of practice and games," Neil said peevishly, but he felt a like a brat throwing a temper tantrum over something relatively silly.
Adrian Magnusson did that to him. Something about the man made Neil say and do all the dumbest things. It made practice days torture and game days only marginally better. To be trapped with the sexy Swede on his off time, too? Totally unfair.
“So what do you do outside of practice and games?” Adrian asked him, acting as if he genuinely cared about the answer. Neil highly doubted it.
“Anything I want, so long as it doesn’t involve you,” Neil muttered.
Predictably, the winger laughed.
He was incredibly annoying. No one smiled that much without faking it. With his big blue eyes and that stupid, cocky grin that he wore no matter what was going on, Adrian was a human golden retriever. Neil was convinced the man would be grinning as he watched the opposing team hoist the Cup.
But at the imagery, Neil flinched. The last thing he wanted to do around Adrian was think about hockey’s greatest trophy.
Just then, the front door of the lobby burst open and a busload of people tumbled inside, filling the lobby with a tornado-like swirl of snow and freezing wind. Most of them clutched pieces of paper that he realized must be vouchers given to them by the airlines. The team's plane wouldn't have been the only plane grounded today. These people looked like Neil felt: miserable and annoyed at the change of plans.
Grateful for an excuse to move away from Adrian, he pulled his carry-on to the side of the lobby, making way for the harried-looking arrivals to reach the registration desk. Off to the other side, the team’s travel secretary, Jonas, was huddled with the coaches and support staff, sorting through a bundle of paperwork, probably preparing room assignments. Neil prayed he was placed on a different floor from Adrian. However, he figured with his luck, his linemate would be right next door, talking loudly on the phone or worse, having sex with a woman he’d picked up in the lobby bar.
Jonas called out, “Shannon.”
Neil raised his hand so the secretary could find him within the group. Jonas made his way over to him and presented him with a small envelope which contained his room key.
"A suite? JoJo, you shouldn’t have,” Neil said.
Jonas chuckled. “Not quite, Neiler, but at least you're not next to the elevator. Or the ice machine." He winked at Neil. "I gave that room to Maggy."
Neil chuckled, figuring that that was going to be the meager highlight of his night. As he rolled his carry-on toward the elevator, he heard a woman exclaim from the registration desk.
"You can't be serious! See that storm outside? Where are we supposed to go? We can't keep going from hotel to hotel. The airline sent us here."
Neil paused and looked back.
"She's right," spoke up a man. They were both from the group that had come off the bus. "You're telling us that there's no way you can put us up? Even if we shared rooms?"
“Even with that, there simply aren’t enough beds,” the desk clerk told them apologetically. “I’m sorry, but this is a relatively small hotel and because of the weather, several groups were already diverted here from the airport. We’re completely full.”
"We can't go out in the snow!" someone else yelled angrily. "At least let us sleep in the lobby."
“I’m sorry, but fire regulations prohibit that. I’ll try calling the nearby hotels and see if any have vacancies...”
Neil frowned. Talk about bad luck.
“Hey,” Adrian spoke up, his deep voice cutting through the strident emotions, “us guys can share, no problem. That’ll free up some rooms for you.”
Good luck with that, Neil thought skeptically. No way you’re going to convince the vets to share.
Adrian turned a slow circle, picking out his teammates. “Nicky bunks with Smitty, Tommy with Gregsy. Jonny, you’re with Milo.” He took control as though he were the captain, and worse, none of their teammates argued with his presumption, not even Elias, their actual captain. “Shannon is with me—"
Neil flinched as though he’d been punched.
In no time Adrian paired up everyone in a group of nearly sixty and not a single person complained.
“That should give you around twenty-five or so more rooms, right?” he asked the desk clerk.
The clerk gaped at him. “Yes, sir. That’s very generous of you, sir.”
The bus people cheered. Twenty-five more rooms would cover everyone. The group shifted over to shake Adrian’s hand and pose for pictures with some of the players. Neil stood alone beside the elevators, fuming and wondering why of all the players, Adrian had picked him to share with.
“Alright, out with it, Shannon. I can tell you’re about to explode.”
Neil unzipped his carry-on and pulled out his toiletries bag. “No idea what you’re talking about,” he said as he carried it into the bathroom.
It was a nice bathroom because this was a decent hotel, but it would have been an even nicer bathroom if he didn’t have to share it with his least favorite teammate. Grim-faced, he pulled out his toothbrush and toothpaste and propped them in a glass beside the sink. He glanced up at the mirror and watched through the open door behind him as Adrian bounced like a kid on his queen-sized bed. I would have had a king, Neil thought. But it wasn’t even the smaller bed that ticked him off.
“It’s not healthy to hold it in,” Adrian said as he continued bouncing while looking over at Neil’s bed and his open carry-on lying on it. “Unresolved anger between linemates can disrupt the entire team’s chemistry.”
“I’m a professional,” Neil reminded him. He almost added, and I don’t hold grudges, but that would have been a lie.
In the mirror, he watched Adrian stop bouncing and sigh, his broad shoulders rising and falling. The dress shirt he wore was stretched to its limits by his large biceps and chest. If Adrian flexed, would his muscles tear the garment open, sending buttons flying? Neil felt vaguely guilty as his own pants grew slightly tighter. Disgusted with himself, he left the bathroom.
Adrian’s expression immediately brightened, and that annoying, charismatic grin was back on his face. “It’s not like we had a choice, Shannon. You gonna leave those poor people out in the storm?”
“Have you heard me complaining?” Neil hadn’t packed for two nights on the road, so he rifled through his clothes for something that would work. Sleeping nude in the same room as Adrian wasn’t going to be an option if Neil wanted to avoid springing a boner. “Just let it go, Magnusson.”
“You ever think it’s weird how you and I are the only two players who still call each other by our last names?”
Neil dug through to the bottom of his bag but found nothing useful. The boxer briefs he wore under his slacks would have to do.
“You ever thought about it?”
Neil looked up, exasperated. “What are you talking about?”
“Every team that you or I have ever been on, juniors through pros, we’ve always called our teammates by their nicknames. But you and I don’t.”
Neil stared at Adrian. It wasn’t difficult to do. His bright blue eyes were ringed by a darker hue, and with his shoulder-length blond hair, sharp cheekbones, and playful grin, he was a favorite of the fans, especially the female ones. Neil had heard plenty of stories throughout the years about Adrian’s exploits with women. At twenty-five he was still single, which was relatively unusual for a player with his level of success. Then again, Neil was two years older and single, too.
I’ve got a good reason for it, though. He just likes to play the field.
“I didn’t call every teammate by a nickname,” Neil muttered as he began unbuttoning his dress shirt. “I had other names for them.”
Adrian threw back his head and laughed. Neil marveled at how the man acted like he’d just heard the best joke of his life. How did someone live that way, as though every second was worth that much passion? Neil could barely summon enough energy to smile some days. Especially lately.
Adrian eventually settled down, though his strong jaw seemed poised to break out with another guffaw. “Is that why you’re not calling me Maggy? You’re secretly calling me something naughty?”
The grin was there, of course, but there was a glint in Adrian’s blue eyes that was new. Challenging. Neil felt his gaze captured and held by it, making it impossible for him to look away.
“I’ve called you a lot of things,” he said flatly.
Adrian’s grin wavered and softened into a smile of resignation. “I bet you have. And I deserve it. I’m sorry for ruining things for you.”
Neil resisted the impulse to rub his own right arm. “Forget it. You don’t have that much influence over my career.”
“Unfortunately, I think I do. I nearly ended it.”
“You’re full of it,” Neil snapped. “Willerson knocked me out. It was Willerson who broke my arm.”
“But you were looking at me,” Adrian persisted mildly. “I distracted you.”
You always distract me, Neil thought, and in that moment he hated Adrian for being handsome and playful and maybe, probably, a better hockey player than him. Mostly, he hated Adrian for being straight.
“You’re right,” Neil said as he finally tore his gaze away to concentrate on the final buttons on his shirt. “You ruined my career. Happy now?”
“Not until I make it up to you.”
“Screw you,” Neil shot back. “If you’ve got a guilty conscience that’s your problem. I’m not your project. I don’t need you as a friend on or off the ice. As long as we’re playing well then everything’s peachy.”
“You don’t sound angry at all,” Adrian observed, beginning to smile.
I can’t stand you, Neil thought at him.
“This season’s going to be interesting,” Adrian mused as he leaned back against the headboard, hands laced over his belly. He looked Neil over before switching his attention to the TV. Smiling contentedly, he reached for the remote. “I predict we’re going to be best friends, Shannon. This love-hate thing we’ve got going on is going to translate into some exciting things. Trust me.”
“Who said anything about love?” Neil scoffed.
Adrian just grinned and clicked over to a sports channel. “You’re gonna give me a big, fat kiss as we lift the Stanley Cup together.”
Neil’s blood went cold at the accidental cruelty. “I wouldn’t hold my breath for that, Magnusson.”
“I hold my breath for a lot of things. I tell myself that nothing is impossible. Nothing is out of reach.” Adrian smiled, as if at an errant thought. “I hold my breath for some things that would shock you.”
Skepticism tugged at Neil. What did Adrian Magnusson want that could be considered shocking? And what could he be lacking? The man had it all.
“How about you, Shannon? You ever want anything you shouldn’t?”
Neil panned his gaze over Adrian stretched out on the bed. The winger was an impressive man. His thighs alone were like tree trunks. Neil had seen him naked plenty of times in the locker rooms, but seeing him on a bed was different. It was a scene from a movie that he played in his mind only at night, when he was horny, or lonely.
“I keep my expectations grounded,” he replied, but the answer felt tired, and so did he.
“That’s why you’re not scoring,” Adrian told him with a side glance. “One of these days, you’ve gotta find the balls to go for it.”
Neil’s gut clenched. If only you knew, Magnusson.
“Speaking of balls,” Neil muttered, “don’t even think of bringing a woman up here tonight. Find a way to keep it in your pants for eight hours, if that’s possible.”
Adrian’s laughter drove him out of the room. Loitering by the vending machine—hiding, though he refused to admit it—Neil rubbed his hands over his face. This would be his final year in the league. He hadn’t told anyone yet and it would likely cause a scandal when the news broke, but he was adamant about it. If his performance didn’t improve, he wasn’t going to let himself be traded from team to team, his return getting smaller and more humiliating each time. He’d retire and disappear, maybe find a partner and settle down.
And he would never, ever watch another pro hockey game again. Not while Adrian Magnusson was in the league, smiling that stupid, perfect smile of his.