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Grinder: An MM Contemporary Romance by Marie James (1)

Chapter 1


“And Hall?” I ask Athletic Dean, David Jackson. I don’t bother to pull my eyes from the clipboard because we’ve been discussing the hockey players I’ll be coaching for the last thirty minutes.

“Best damn goalie this club has ever seen,” my new boss says proudly.

Nodding, I give him a weak smile. Chicago Prep Hockey Academy has only been open for six years, so his use of the best, doesn’t necessarily mean much.

“Our backup goalie is almost as competent, which is amazing considering Hall graduates this year.”

“How many players did you lose to graduation last year?”

“Six total.” I wince. Fuck, that’s a lot. “Four on our starting lineup.”

“You lost nearly a third of your team and two-thirds of your starting lineup?”

Read the fine print.

It’s something my dad always told me to do. With this new job, I did. My attorney combed over the contract before I signed on to coach, but the devil is in the details, right? While I was worried about compatibility with schedules and the benefits package, I didn’t bother to ask the right questions.

“I was under the impression Chicago Prep’s varsity team is a shoo-in for a third championship this year.”

The hockey club at Chicago Prep, half an hour southwest of Chicago, may be considered newer, but they’ve been on fire. By making it to the playoffs four years in a row and clenching the national title the last two, Chicago Prep is a force to be reckoned with. Was?

“We have a great team,” Dean Jackson assures me.

“How many incoming freshmen?” Another question I should’ve asked before signing my name to the dotted line.

I’d vowed to give Jackson a winning team this year, stupidly promising a third national title before I knew what I was facing.

“Ten,” he mutters.

Only now do I pull my eyes from the clipboard and stare at him.

The room fills with silence as I calculate how easy it would be to get out of my contract.

“Total right?”

“That’s just varsity,” he mutters.

I stuff down the agitation that this man thinks he’s picking my players and glare at him so we can face the real matter at hand.

“Half of my fucking team are incoming freshmen?” I’m seething. I took this job to lead an amazing team to a championship, not spend my days babysitting.

“Varsity team,” Jackson corrects on a sigh. “Half of the students for both teams are incoming freshmen. Please keep in mind this isn’t a public school setting where kids just get a wild hair to join a hockey team. Even the freshmen on your team have been skating since before they could walk. You also have your pick from the junior varsity team.”

“Who else is left to start from last year besides Hall?” I ask when my brain reminds me that Chicago Prep is my only option right now.

“Damon Grant. Left-handed winger.”

I nod, checking the clipboard and looking at Grant’s stats.

“Who do we have on the right?”

“Damon Grant. He’s an off-wing forward.”

“So who’s on the left?” I ask again.

“That’s up to you, but we need to talk about Grant.”

Doing my best not to roll my eyes at the tone of his voice, I set the clipboard aside and steeple my hands against my mouth. David Jackson may be the Athletic Dean, but he showed me into my new office and took the visitor seat in front of my new desk. I respected him immediately for not asserting his power and planting his ass in my seat.

“Let me guess. He’s egotistical, a hardass, and is bordering on narcissistic personality disorder.”

David smiles at me. “How did you know?”

“He’s a wing,” I mutter. “We’re all assholes.”

“True,” David says with a quick smile. I know he was a center many moons ago.

“No worries,” I assure him. “I’ll get him in line.”

“He’s the reason the last coach didn’t renew his contract,” he warns. “The entire team looks to him in an almost cult following.”

“I’ll keep him in mind,” I tell him with a handshake as he stands. Hockey players with attitudes just happen to be my specialty. I managed just fine with an entire team full of pricks while playing for the Chicago Ice Crocs the last couple of years. No one fucks with me, and Damon Grant won’t be the exception.

No sooner is the Dean out of the office with the door closing softly behind him does my phone ring.

“What, Finn?” I answer, knowing if I send it to voicemail he’ll harass me until I answer. You’d think a professional hockey player would have better things to do with his time than fuck with his younger brother. Let’s not even get started on his personal infraction against me.

“Just checking on you.” He sounds annoyed to be calling.

“Did Mom put you up to this?”

A long silence greets me, and I listen hard for noises in the background to tell who he’s with or what he’s doing. There’s nothing, not one sound to clue me in on where he’s at.

“No,” he scoffs eventually. “Is it terrible that I want to check on my kid brother?”

I don’t answer him because I know better. Until recently, Finn Kingston couldn’t be bothered to pull his head out of his own ass to check on anyone in the family, but since I’m a major fuck up these days, he’s been extra attentive.

“Fine. Yes, Mom told me to call. Seems you were rude to her last night when she called to tell you good luck,” he explains.

“I wasn’t rude,” I correct. “I was eight miles into a ten-mile run. I was out of breath.”

“If you spent your time working out the last four months rather than drinking and sitting on your ass, you wouldn’t have been out of breath.”

Same song, different verse.

“I’m not getting into this with you again,” I mutter.

He’s full of sage advice on how I should’ve dealt with the abrupt end of my hockey career, but he’d probably be suicidal if his club kicked him to the curb.

“I just called to warn you.” Here we go. “Stay away from the high school girls. Nothing but jailbait, every single one of them.”

Frustrated fingers pinch the bridge of my nose. “It’s an all-male academy,” I remind him. “There are no high school girls.”

He scoffs again, and the sound is grating enough that I nearly throw my phone against the cinderblock wall.

“Keep your nose clean, kiddo.” He hangs up before I can even respond.

Kiddo,” I hiss as my phone hits the desk with a smack.

There are so many indignities in those five words, it makes my head spin.

Keep your nose clean could reference several things. He’s either referring to the social use of coke that I was penalized for my first year in the league or the true reason I got the final boot. The official story is my inability to recover from a shoulder separation, but the truth, that we somehow managed to keep out of the press, isn’t as open and shut.

Kiddo is more of a direct hit. He’s only two years older than me, but you’d think with the way he acts that he raised me himself. Just like any older brother, he’s always done better, gone farther, and garnered more attention than I’d ever hope for. The Golden Child, for lack of better words.

He was recruited by the National Hockey League his freshman year in college, whereas the American Hockey League settled for me in the final draft round my sophomore year.

Always a runner-up.

Always second pick.

Finn Kingston has never had a problem with proving to me just how second rate I am. I’m doubting my decision to stay in Illinois. After going back through the stats and a little online research about the Chicago Prep Tornadoes, I’m slightly more confident in the team I’ve been hired to coach.

Tomorrow is a new day and the very first practice with me, Jonah Kingston, as a high school hockey coach.

Oh, how the not so mighty have fallen.