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Ice Breaker

Tired of being the second-best Babcock, Levi “501” Babcock is ready to outshine his older brother. Outranking his brother proves harder than he imagined—until he meets a sinfully sexy gold-medal-winning figure skater. She might be the prize he’s been searching for all along.

Bubbly and spirited Cadence Johnson is determined to escape the shackles of her former partner. Moving to Portland gives her the fresh start she’s craved, but the last thing she can afford is a distraction like Levi Babcock.

When Cadence’s past comes back to threaten her and her life is on the line, Levi might be the safety net she never realized she needed. But will Levi still care about Losing an Edge to his biggest rival, or can he finally step out of his brother’s shadow to become the hero in his own game?

Chapter One

Levi

All around the National Hockey League, there are guys who have reputations for being clutch. They’re the sort of guy who, when his team reaches overtime of Game Seven, everyone in the stands and on the team wants the puck to be on his stick. Those guys score huge goals in even more important games. They lay jaw-dropping hits that change the tone of not just a game but an entire series, maybe even instigating a rivalry with another team that will last for years to come. They fight the right guys at the right times to drag their teams back into the fray. They’re the ones who always seem to play their best when the stage is at its biggest and the stakes are at their highest.

My older brother was one of those guys. Jamie was the golden boy, the one who could do no wrong. He was the captain of the Portland Storm, the team we both played for. He was the guy who, whenever our team needed a spark, found the perfect moment to put the whole team on his back and carry us to the finish line. Hell, he’d just done it last postseason. We wouldn’t have gotten to the Stanley Cup Finals if not for the way he’d dragged us along with him. Jamie got shit done. He made people believe—in him, and in us.

His life was about as close to perfect as humanly possible. This past summer he even married Katie Weber, one of Hollywood’s darlings from a couple of years ago. In almost every area of life, Jamie could do no wrong.

But me? Clutch? Don’t make me laugh.

I was not that guy. Or at least I wasn’t any longer, now that I was a pro hockey player. The scouts had all thought I was clutch. That was why I’d been drafted so high a few years back. Bet they regretted their decision now. My whole life, I’d always felt as if I were a step or two behind Jamie, but once we got to the NHL, the distance had grown. Now the gulf between us stretched for miles.

Instead of being clutch, I was the guy who’d had the puck on my stick when my team was up by a goal with seconds left in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals. We were down three games to one in the series, so we had to win. The Lightning had pulled their goalie for an extra attacker. I had a clear path to the net and no one was close enough to catch me. But instead of shooting it in, I’d lost an edge, tripped over my own two fucking feet, and fallen on my ass. I couldn’t get up again in time to stop Stamkos from sweeping the puck away from me, skating it into the zone, and putting it past my goaltender to send us to overtime.

Where we lost.

Which meant it was over.

The series-clinching goal had even bounced in off the blade of my stick.

We hadn’t simply lost the game. We’d lost everything we’d worked for the entire season. Eighty-two games in the regular season. Twenty-six more in the playoffs. All gone.

Yeah, that was me these days. My brother was a hero, but I was a fucking goat.

None of the guys ever gave me shit over it, especially not Jamie. I doubted he had any clue just how fucking jealous I was of him. Even if he was aware, he didn’t do anything to make my resentment worse beyond being himself.

Those are the breaks, the guys would say to my face. Shit happens. We’ll be better next year. I knew better than to think they truly thought that way or said things like that when I wasn’t around, though. The fans weren’t anywhere near as discreet about their thoughts on my ineptitude. Hell, #damnit501 trended on Twitter nearly every time we played this season, especially in the Portland area. There was no escaping the truth: I was the guy always letting everyone down, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

I’d never been as good as Jamie, despite spending every waking minute of my life trying to live up to his hype, but I’d never sucked so bad before.

There was nothing I wanted more in life these days than to be better than him at something. I didn’t even care what, right now. Underwater basket weaving. Filling up a gas tank and stopping with zeroes in the cents columns. Fastest balloon animal creator. It didn’t matter, exactly.

Part of me wished Jim Sutter, the Storm’s general manager, hadn’t made a trade on draft day in order to claim me, even though that was crazy talk.

The hockey media spent hours reminding me and the rest of the world that my draft class had been a hell of a lot thinner than the year he’d been drafted, too, as if that was the reason I’d been drafted higher than he had. They all thought if we’d been drafted in the same year, I might not have even gone in the first round.

If my older brother and I played for different teams, maybe he wouldn’t constantly be in my head. Maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to prove myself, to find my own niche where I could excel.

But that wasn’t how things had worked out.

The Storm had drafted me, and instead of finally stepping out from under Jamie’s shadow, I now doubted I would ever have an opportunity to be anything other than the second-best Babcock brother.

I had hope—slim hope, but still—that tonight would help me escape from the bullshit running on repeat in my head, at least for a bit. If nothing else, at least there’d be plenty of beer around for me to drown my sorrows in.

All my inadequacies were fresh on my mind as I headed in for Keith Burns’s big New Year’s Eve party, because my bad puck luck had reared its ugly fucking head in tonight’s game, the same as it always did.

I’d tried to clear a puck out of Nicky’s crease, but instead I’d nudged the damned thing into our goal to put the Sharks up, when it had been a tie game. Jamie had come through for us about five minutes later. He’d tied the score and, once again, saved the day.

As if that weren’t enough, he’d scored the game winner in overtime, just for shits and giggles, I supposed.

He and his now-wife, Katie, had arrived at Burnzie’s enormous mansion on the river well before me. Usually for New Year’s Eve, a lot of us got dragged into doing a charity event for the Light the Lamp Foundation. This year, they’d bumped the festivities back due to the founder’s wife, Noelle Kallen, giving birth a few days ago in Sweden and the foundation’s local vice-president and our goaltender’s wife, Jessica Ericsson, being on bedrest and due to pop with Nicky’s first baby within a few weeks. Instead, the big event had been moved to St. Patrick’s Day, and Lord knew what Jessica had in store for us then. Nicky said she was constantly on her phone and her laptop, even in bed.

So much for getting rest.

I parked behind Jamie’s car on the overcrowded street out front. When I reached the sidewalk, it was to find Jonny and Sara already at the door, along with some petite blonde with curves that went on for days. I’d almost missed the blonde because Jonny’s massive frame blocked her from my view, but she shifted and I caught a glimpse of her adorable smile as she looked up at him. Jonny’s shiny bald head reflected Burnzie’s Christmas lights. But I didn’t have a clue who she was. Sara didn’t have any siblings, and Jonny’s sisters all had dark brown hair similar to mine. I did know she was a hot little package.

There weren’t any kids with them tonight. Jonny must have hired a babysitter. At least Connor wouldn’t be jumping up and down on my balls all night.

It had been almost a year since that night at the Winter Games, but he still stomped on my nuts every time he could land his sticky little hands on me, giggling the whole time like it was the highlight of his four-year-old life. I’d be lucky if I could ever have kids of my own after all his rough treatment, not that I was in any big hurry to start a family.

I got the sense that Jonny encouraged his son, but he’d never admit it.

The bit of snow still on the ground from last week’s freak snowstorm crunched under my feet as I made my way across the lawn, and all three of them spun around to look at me. Jonny grunted, Sara grinned, but the blonde didn’t make any outward sign of recognition. She looked insanely familiar to me, though. I could swear I’d seen her before.

It was the eyes. She had wide hazel eyes, seemingly too big for her face.

Then it hit me. They were a hell of a lot like Jonny’s eyes, only bigger. Softer. Filled with a sort of sweetness—a word I’d never in a million years use to describe her older brother—that was as addictive as candy.

She was the fuck-me-sideways-and-hang-me-up-wet kind of hot that always got me in trouble, too—perfectly cute as a button one minute, and the next moment it was as though she’d flipped a switch and morphed into a seductress. Fit, with exactly the right amount of curves in all the right places, all wrapped up in a tiny, perky package.

I wouldn’t ever admit the truth to Jonny, but copies of magazines she’d been in were all over my apartment. Including the one from ESPN: The Body. Yeah, the important bits had been covered in that one, but it didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to fill in the missing details. I’d fantasized about her more than a few times.

But this was no fantasy.

Cadence Johnson had apparently bleached her hair, but she was very much here, standing only a few feet in front of me. After she and her partner had won the gold, her gorgeous grin had been everywhere back home. She was all anyone could talk about for months. They’d offered her reality TV shows and dozens of endorsement deals like the one for ESPN. Canada couldn’t get enough of Cadence.

She smiled at me, and it was like she’d flipped that switch. Bedroom eyes. Holy fuck, were those ever bedroom eyes, and they were locked right on me. I froze. Couldn’t help it. There was something about her that left me staring, absolutely tongue-tied and probably shit-faced.

But what was Canada’s darling doing in Portland? Just visiting Jonny and Sara for the holidays? That didn’t sound right to me. The figure skating world operated on a similar schedule to hockey. At this time of year, I would expect her to be too busy training for competitions to travel, so it seemed more than a bit odd.

“Hey, fuck face,” Koz called out from the street, slamming the door to his Ferrari. Fuck face was Blake Kozlow’s current favorite name for me. I wouldn’t bother to guess what he’d be calling me by next week, since he changed his mind about as often as he changed his boxers. We’d been roommates last season, but over the summer he’d decided to buy a place downtown. He liked to flash and make a splash; I preferred a quieter life. At least I did most of the time.

“Fuck off,” I groused as Koz joined us.

“Watch your language around my sister,” Jonny said.

Koz snorted. “You brought your sister to the wrong place if you don’t want her hearing shit.”

“I’ve heard plenty of it before,” Cadence said. But she blushed as she ducked her head.

“Including at our house,” Sara added with a wink in Cadence’s direction. “From your son, even.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cadence insisted. “I can handle myself tonight.”

Jonny grunted, but then Burnzie opened the door and ushered us all inside out of the cold. He had a naked baby—his eight-month-old son, Garrett—freshly bathed but not yet diapered in his arms. All three of Burnzie’s big dogs barked at us as we passed, and the baby waved his arms in their direction and giggled.

“Everyone’s spread out. Toss your coats in there,” Burnzie said, pointing toward a room that never got used for anything at these parties. The place was enormous, so there was no need to fill every room. “Food and booze in the kitchen. I’ll be a better host once this little guy is in his bed.”

Right on cue, the little guy in question peed all over Burnzie’s shirt and cackled even louder than before. Koz burst out with a snort-laugh, and even Cadence fought to hide her grin behind her hand, since Burnzie was holding the baby out like he was a ticking bomb. He didn’t spare us another thought before taking off up the stairs to finish tucking him in.

We all took off our jackets and added them to the existing pile. Jonny said something quietly to his sister, and she nodded and shooed him away. Then he and Sara made their way to the living room, where several of the older, married players had gathered. Cadence headed toward the kitchen. I couldn’t seem to stop myself from watching her go, focusing on the sway of her hips a lot longer than was good for me.

Koz caught my eye and nudged his head toward the game room downstairs, where I expected most of the younger, single guys on the team to be congregating.

I shook my head. “Later.” No doubt I’d end up down there at some point tonight, but not yet. It wasn’t like they were going anywhere.

He flipped me off on his way down, calling out, “Screw you, fuck face.”

“Not tonight,” I muttered under my breath, but he was already gone.

Before I could think better of it, I headed toward the kitchen.

Cadence was standing in front of the island, filling a red Solo cup with ice cubes from a bowl. She glanced up at me and smiled again. It went all the way up to her eyes. I couldn’t help but think about the tears shining in her eyes right after she’d won gold in the Winter Games, but my moment of reflection didn’t last long—not with the sexy curve of her lips as she stared at me.

No one else was in the kitchen, but talk and laughter filled the air all around us, making it seem as if we were surrounded. I smiled, too. There was no way to stop myself from grinning, with the sweet, sinful, and slightly embarrassed way she was looking at me. Everything about her seemed to be a contradiction, which only made me want to know more.

“Does he always call you fuck face?” she asked, moving to the fridge to add water to her cup. “Or is that something special for New Year’s Eve?”

I shrugged. “He’ll probably have something else to call me by tomorrow or the next day. Likely something more colorful. Koz likes variety.”

“So fuck face is a term of endearment, then.”

She didn’t state it as a question.

“Something like that.” I wasn’t entirely sure Koz held anyone or anything in that kind of esteem.

“I’m Cadence,” she said.

“I know.” God, I felt like a fucking teenager around her. “I’m Levi. Levi Babcock.”

“I know, too. Cam said the guys all call you 501. Like the jeans.” She blushed and crossed over to me, holding out her hand. I took it, but I held on to her palm rather than giving a proper shake, letting the warmth of her skin travel up my arm and wrap around my heart. She tugged her hand away. “I shouldn’t have come. It should’ve only been the team. I told Cam maybe it would be best if I stayed with the kids tonight instead of—”

“It wouldn’t have been best for me,” I interrupted.

She blinked at me in surprise.

She couldn’t be any more surprised than I was. The crazy thing was, I meant it, even though I didn’t understand a lick of all the shit going through my head.

For one thing, I was thinking a hell of a lot more about myself than I was about her—wondering if she’d mind helping me forget all about my woe-is-me attitude of late, among other things. For another, Cadence was Jonny’s sister—not someone I needed to involve myself with by any stretch of the imagination if I valued my life and keeping my balls in their present location. And finally, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get involved with anyone, let alone her. I’d only been on my own for a few months, and I kind of liked it. Yeah, I was lonely sometimes, but I also had more freedom than I’d ever known in my life. Growing up with six brothers, not to mention twenty-some-odd teammates every year who might as well be my brothers, left me with very little time by myself.

But there was something niggling at the back of my mind. Something that felt a lot like guilt, and I didn’t have a clue what I had to feel guilty about, beyond finding Jonny’s sister hot as hell.

Except…

Cadence Johnson wasn’t just Jonny’s sister. She was the belle of the ball as far as Canada was concerned. Hell, most of America and the rest of the world had fallen for her in the Winter Games, too, and they hadn’t let her go. Her smile was infectious, and she seemed as sweet on the inside as she appeared on the outside. At the moment, she was a bigger deal than Katie had been at the height of her popularity, and Katie’s shine kept fading as she spent more and more time in Portland writing songs instead of in Hollywood being a starlet.

And there was a part of me—an ugly, petty part of me, which might be better kept under tight wraps—that thought maybe I could finally be the better Babcock brother, at least in one way, if I managed to snag Cadence Johnson as my girlfriend.

I usually managed to keep that part quiet. I used the less generous side of me as fuel to work harder, to improve myself in whatever ways I could. Right now, he was screaming to be set free.

I crossed over and grabbed a beer from the fridge, my eyes settling on her again when I leaned against the counter and popped the bottle top. For the briefest moment, I thought there was something wary flashing through her eyes, but that something was gone as soon as it had appeared.

She should be wary of me. Lord knew I was.

Because I couldn’t seem to stop myself from acting out of jealousy, even though it was the last thing I should do.

I took a swig of my beer. “I don’t know how long you’ll be in town, but is there any chance you’d let me take you out one night?”

Before she could answer, Jonny came into the kitchen and headed for the fridge, glaring at me. He very well should glare at me, especially if he had any idea at all of what was going through my head. Which he almost definitely did. He was a guy. He had to know how hot Cadence was, even if he didn’t think of her in those terms.

I didn’t think he’d hit me. Not yet, at least. But I wasn’t about to take my eyes off him just in case.

He held out a hand for the bottle opener. I gave it to him, and he opened the two beers he’d retrieved.

“I like you, 501,” he said slowly. “Don’t do anything to make me change my mind.”

There wasn’t anything I could say, so I shook my head.

He grunted again and headed out with the beers. By the time he was gone, his sister was, too.

For a moment, I thought about finding out where she’d gone. Then I thought better of it. Jonny had warned me off, and even though she hadn’t said a word after I’d asked her out, her answer had been clear enough.

Cadence Johnson wasn’t interested in me. Smart girl.

Instead, I headed down the stairs with my beer to join Koz and the other single guys. There were a lot of ways I could spend my night that would be a hell of a lot worse than hanging out with them. They were my brothers, after all, almost as much as Jamie and the rest of my biological brothers.

Koz shot his head up from the pool table when I came around the corner. “You could’ve brought us some fucking beers, too.”

“I could have,” I said, smirking in an effort to forget the huge mistake I’d almost made. “I just thought you were already wasted, after the shit way you skated tonight.”

Then I ducked to avoid the cue chalk he tossed at my head.