Dante knew he wouldn’t pick up right where he’d left off—he’d been out for a while with a concussion at the end of last season, so he expected to be a little rusty. Of course, Flash and Gabe had played with each other for years and seemed to read each other’s minds with every stride or minute movement of a stick. It was awesome to watch and hair-raising to be a part of.
Which only made it chafe that much more when Dante couldn’t match them.
Oh, he kept up fine speed-wise. He didn’t have any trouble getting where he thought he should be, and not even hulking defenseman Kitty Kipriyanov could knock him off the puck. He got the puck on Flash’s tape often enough.
But Gabe was never where Dante expected him to be, and vice versa. It was like they saw totally different angles of attack. They dropped as many passes as connected.
By the time they broke for lunch, Dante was reevaluating stage two of the Plan. It wouldn’t be enough to simply get the coach to put him on first line with Flash and Gabe if they played like this. Their possession numbers would swan dive right into the toilet, and everyone would blame the new guy.
And Dante wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t his fault. His ego would not allow him to be responsible for that kind of catastrophe. So first, he had to fix… whatever was keeping him from connecting with Gabe on ice.
No pressure or anything. Just the fact that he had zero chemistry with the team’s top scorer. Like, that shouldn’t even be possible.
Maybe Dante just hadn’t given it enough time. But he didn’t have much more time to give. There was no guarantee St. Louis would put him on the same practice unit again tomorrow. And sure, maybe he’d get lucky and hit it off with another center… but maybe not.
Lunch was catered, because afterward they had the annual sexual harassment/financial literacy/mental health seminar. Dante snagged the seat next to Gabe and started loading his plate with carbs and protein. “So listen.” Was that some kind of white wine sauce on the chicken? It smelled incredible. He added a breast to his plate and then offered the tongs to Gabe, still holding the platter. “I wanted to ask a favor.”
Gabe side-eyed him carefully as though he were expecting Dante to dump the chicken in his lap. Obviously Gabe didn’t know him very well yet; Dante would never waste food.
“I’m listening.” He took a chicken breast, and Dante passed the platter down.
Fantastic. What was in that bowl of orange stuff? Roasted sweet potatoes? Interesting. He served himself a scoop and then glanced at Gabe again.
Gabe’s suspicion had evidently been transferred to a dish of steaming creamed spinach. Yikes. Dante didn’t blame him; he was passing on that too.
“We can’t read each other on the ice.”
He went for the pasta instead, then wordlessly offered it to Dante, who nodded his thanks. “Yeah, I noticed. I was there for practice.” When Baller said nothing, Gabe prompted, “So…?”
Finally Dante had to accept that at the moment, his plate simply could not accommodate anything else. He picked up his knife and fork and sliced off a piece of chicken. “So I think I’m still the best fit for the spot on your line”—he wasn’t going to pretend he didn’t think he was hot shit; that fake humility BS wasn’t for him—”but obviously we have to fix that. So will you stay late with me so we can work on it?”
Gabe blinked. “Who’s to say I don’t have plans?”
“You and the girl whose calls you’ve been dodging, you mean?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He rolled his eyes.
“C’mon,” Dante wheedled. “I’ll buy you dinner after. Steak, even! And maybe we won’t suck this year.”
That earned him a flat look. Oops. Maybe that was a little insensitive. Gabe stared at him.
“I’ll throw in dessert,” he offered, desperate. “Beer. Wine. Look, I will fucking cook you a three-course meal if that’s what it takes. Just say yes.”
“Seriously. I will break out the risotto and—oh son of a bitch.” Baller deflated and his shoulders slumped. “You were going to say yes the whole time, weren’t you?”
Gabe glanced at him slyly out of the corners of his eyes. He was smirking.
“I think you’re the best skater for the job.” He shrugged while Dante fought not to bristle at the faint praise. “And it worked last year. I don’t know why it’s not working now. So yeah, I’m down for extra practice. But I’ll definitely need dinner after… what are we calling this?” He jerked his head toward the conference room doors, where a large sign reminded them of the afternoon’s agenda.
Dante quirked his lips. “Social-responsibility community theater?”
Gabe buried a snort in his dinner roll.
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