Natalie West and Toby Cooper were best friends growing up, on and off the ice. But when Toby's hockey career took off, their friendship was left behind. Now Natalie has a crazy plan to land her crush-Toby's biggest rival-and she needs Toby's help to pull it off.
When Nat asks Toby to be her fake boyfriend, he can't say no. Not when it means getting his best friend back. But Natalie is all grown up now, and spending time with her-even when it's just playing hockey together-stirs up a lot of feelings, old and new. Suddenly pretending to be interested in her isn't hard at all...if only she wanted him and not his enemy.
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By Cate Cameron, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Cate Cameron
All rights reserved.
Scott Dakins was back in town.
I heard about it from three different people before I even made it to my first-period class, and it wasn't like I was hyperconnected, socially. None of the people who told me had any reason to believe I was especially interested in Scott-related developments. But Corrigan Falls is a small town, so any news is big news, especially when someone like Scott Dakins is involved.
I managed to keep my cool pretty well, especially the second and third times I heard about it, and by the time I took my seat in geography, I was completely under control. At least I thought I was, until I looked over at the doorway and found Scott Dakins himself standing in it.
Yeah, okay, maybe my mom and I have watched An Officer and a Gentleman a few too many times, and it wasn't like Scott was wearing a white uniform or anything, but I still had a quick mental flash of him striding into the room and sweeping me up in his arms, then carrying me away ...
Didn't happen. He didn't even glance in my direction, just nodded coolly to a couple other students and then strolled over to the teacher's desk. "I'm back," he said, like it was no big deal, and maybe for him it wasn't. He bounced back and forth between his mom in Corrigan Falls and his dad in Toronto pretty much whenever he felt like it, it seemed. Scott handed a sheet of paper to Mr. Akins, who gave it only a quick look before nodding his head toward the far wall.
"Third desk from the front is free," he said.
That was it. I felt like there should have been a fanfare of trumpets or something, but Scott just made his way toward his desk, most of the way across the room from my staring eyes, stopping for a few fist bumps and smiles of greeting, and sat down.
Class started. Mr. Akins seemed to be talking about the modified system of Communism in China, but he might as well have been actually speaking Chinese, for all I understood. Normally I was a pretty good student, but with Scott Dakins in the room? My focus was blown.
"No, Nat. You're not going to start on that again. Are you?" Dawn made a face from the seat beside me as soon as Mr. Akins stopped talking and gave us work to do. She was one of the few people who knew about my Scott Dakins obsession.
"It's not really a question of starting," I said. "More just continuing."
"He's been gone for almost a year."
"That should have been enough time for you to wake up." She shook her head. "He's kind of an asshole, you know."
Dawn used to date Toby Cooper, who was Scott Dakins's cousin and my former best friend. Yeah, it's a little complicated, but the point was, Dawn had spent enough time with Scott to know him fairly well. But so had I, back when Toby and I hung out all the time. From preschool to just a couple years ago, I'd practically lived at the Cooper house, and Scott had been a frequent visitor. "He's a good guy."
"He came on to me every time he could get me alone. Like, full-on, even after I told him to back off."
Well, that wasn't something I really wanted to think about too much, but still, I could work around it. "He and Toby have that weird competitive thing going. You know they've always been like that, for whatever stupid boy reason. I mean, Scott shouldn't have dragged you into it, but he was just trying to beat Toby at something."
"Because there's no reason anyone would want to come on to me for myself," Dawn said drily. "I only have value through my relationship with Cooper."
"No, I didn't mean it that way!" But as usual, I'd totally put my foot in my mouth. And I felt extra bad about it because I knew Dawn was still getting over the breakup. Not that she was missing Toby, exactly, just, like she said, she felt like she didn't really have a place in the world other than as Cooper's girlfriend. Some people, knowing something like that, would be more careful about what they said. Me? I blundered right in and hurt her feelings. Typical. Luckily, she knew me well enough to know I hadn't been trying to be mean.
"You seriously want to crush on someone who would come on to a girl just to compete with her boyfriend?" she asked me.
It was a pretty good question, and I knew what the right answer was. Still, I couldn't quite give it. "It's not a question of wanting to crush on him," I said. "I can't help it. It's pheromones or something. I don't know."
Mr. Akins came by then and we had to pretend we were looking at patterns of industrial development, so I managed to escape the rest of the conversation. Still, it wasn't like I could get away from thinking about it. Thinking about Scott. His glowing smile, easy charm, quick jokes, lean body, nice clothes, hot car ... everything. He was the perfect guy.
But I was far from the perfect girl, and he'd never really noticed me before. There was no reason to believe things would be different this time around. But this was my final year of high school, and once I was out of Corrigan Falls I didn't plan on returning. Small towns are like that — they're places you leave, not places you stay. So this was my last chance with Scott. I might not have been perfect, but I was a scrapper. I made things happen. And this? It was worth scrapping for, absolutely. "I'm tired of sitting around waiting for him to notice me," I told Dawn. "I'm going to take my shot."
She gave me a long look then shook her head in amused dismay. "This should be interesting," she said. "Do you have a plan?"
"Yeah," I said slowly, watching as Scott smiled at the girl next to him and leaned over to copy her notes. "I think maybe I do."CHAPTER 2
It's not like I hadn't known my cousin Scott was coming back to town; it had been a pretty sudden decision, but the whole family had been buzzing about it ever since they found out. Santa had just visited a month or so earlier, but the way they were going on it was like he was coming back, and bringing the Easter Bunny and Elvis with him.
Me? A little less thrilled.
"That's one of my favorite things about playing way up here," Chris Winslow said with a friendly slap to my shoulder. He was sitting next to me in the locker room, tying his shoes after our afternoon practice. "No family issues. At least not with my family."
I was one of the few Ontario Hockey League players who'd been drafted by his hometown team. Most of the other guys had moved away from home when they were sixteen and lived with a billet family until they were old enough to live on their own, but not me. I was still in the house I'd grown up in, with my mom, my dad, and my younger sister, Wendy. And my grandparents, aunts, and uncles almost all lived within a half-hour radius, so I had no shortage of family. Most of the time I was happy about that, but right then? I could have used some distance, for sure.
"Is he really that bad?" Tyler MacDonald asked. He was the team captain and took his responsibilities pretty seriously; if I said Scott really was a problem, Tyler would probably try to stage an intervention or something.
But I was alternate captain, and I could take care of my own issues. "It's fine. He's just annoying, but it's not a tragedy."
Christiansen, one of the rookies, came in from the hallway then and said, "Coop, Natalie West's out there waiting for you, and she's getting impatient. She has to be at work in ten minutes but she wants to talk to you first."
"Natalie?" Winslow looked at me. "You guys used to be really tight, right? Did Dawn get custody of her in the breakup?"
"I don't know," I said, stuffing the last of my gear into my bag and heading for the door. I didn't know what had happened with Nat, really, but I was positive it was more complicated than anything to do with me and Dawn. I didn't want to think about it right then, though. I staggered through the doorway — there really isn't a graceful way to get a full hockey bag through a narrow door — and saw Nat push away from the wall she'd been leaning on.
"Toby. I have a plan, and I need your help." Her eyes were bright with excitement, and it hit me just how much I missed hanging out with her. She and I had been friends since we'd played on our first hockey team together, her on left wing, me on right. When Dawn and I started dating, I guess my time with Nat eased off a little, but we were still tight, close enough that Dawn had been a bit insecure about it. And then I started playing for the Raiders, and ... I don't know. I barely noticed it as it was happening, but it's like Nat just sort of faded out of my life. Now she was back, and whatever it was she wanted, I was pretty sure I'd be happy to give it to her. But that didn't mean I had to be a pushover about it.
"Oh, hi, Toby," I said, my voice sweeter and higher than hers had ever been. "It's really good to see you." Then in my normal voice I said, "That's what you meant, right? You wanted to say hi and get caught up and visit a bit? That's why you came by?"
She shook her head, her long brown ponytail flopping from side to side, her face set in a familiar look of determination. "No. That's not it at all. I have a plan, and —"
That was when a too-familiar voice came to me from the far end of the corridor. "Toby! Hey, man, nice practice!"
I turned around. He was my cousin, so, tempting as it was, I couldn't just ignore him. "Hey, Scott. Welcome back." I tried to sound as if I meant it, but it wasn't like I was going to fool him. He knew how I felt about him, just like I knew how he felt about me. No real point in pretending otherwise, but I generally tried, at least until he did something to piss me off. It usually took about thirty seconds.
"Congratulations on the World Juniors thing!" he said, and now he was close enough to give me a congratulatory shoulder punch. "You're a big shot, huh? We saw the interviews and everything. Very smooth. We should go down to the city sometime and get you a better haircut and maybe some new clothes. Right? Could the team give you a clothing allowance or something?"
Nice. Triple whammy. I'd looked shitty on TV, I couldn't possibly look better without his help, and I didn't have as much money as he did so I'd have to look for alternate funding. All said in such a friendly way that I'd be the asshole if I got mad about it. Classic Scott. "I appreciate the offer," I said without any attempt to sound sincere, and that was when I realized how close Nat was standing to me. She was tall for a girl but still a couple inches shorter than me, and she'd wedged her shoulder practically into my armpit. "Uh, you remember West?" I said to Scott.
He gave her one of his smiles. "Of course, yeah. How've you been? You're looking good."
And then, I swear to God, I felt her arm wrap around my waist. "I am good," she said, and there was something weird about her voice. It was ... I don't know, softer than usual? Can a voice be light? She hadn't taken it as far as I had when I was making fun of her, but something was different, for sure. She sounded ... girlier.
Scott had clearly noticed how close she was standing, his eyes flickering from her face to mine, trying to work out the situation. Trying to figure out how to use it to his advantage. "I heard about you and Dawn," he said to me. "I'm sorry. I thought you guys were going to be one of those epic couples. Start going out in high school and then grow old together."
"Nope," I said, and that was all. I'd known Scott long enough to realize that anything I told him could and absolutely would be used against me. So I wasn't exactly sorry to have Nat there as a way to distract Scott from whatever he was up to. I just wished I could figure out what she was up to.
Things didn't get much clearer when she dug her fingers into my ribs to get my attention then half turned without really backing away. Nat was a friend and I'd known her forever, but that didn't make me totally immune to the sensation of her soft chest rubbing along my side. "I have to go," she told me, and her voice was still sweeter than I was used to. "But I'll call you, okay? When I get off work?"
"Okay," I said cautiously. I didn't know what the hell was going on, but a phone call seemed like a pretty good way to figure it out.
"Great," she said, and then she smiled in a way I'd never seen her smile before, stretched up onto her tiptoes, and kissed me. On the lips. Just a peck, and I was definitely too shocked to kiss back or do anything more than stand there like a deactivated robot, but ... well, that was not our standard way of saying good-bye. Not by a long shot.
She'd stepped away a little and turned so her back was to Scott, and she was staring at me, clearly trying to send some sort of telepathic message. It wasn't getting through. "Call me," I said, and she nodded, then turned and sort of skipped down the hallway toward the exit.
"What's her name again?" Scott asked, nothing but polite interest in his voice. "West? That's her last name, right?"
"Uh, yeah. She's Nat. Natalie."
"And you and her are ...?"
Excellent damn question. I shrugged it off. "I'm Toby, she's Nat." I thought about heading back to the locker room; technically it was only supposed to be players and staff in there after a practice, so it could be a refuge. But that rule got broken pretty often, and Scott probably would have assumed he'd be an exception anyway. He probably couldn't imagine any place in the world that wouldn't be happy to have him.
Luckily, some of the guys came out then. Chris Winslow was in the lead, carrying his gear in front of him like it was a bag of doughnuts instead of fifty bulky pounds.
Chris gave me a little nod, then said, "Scotty! Hey, welcome back! Where you been? You gonna stick around this time? Last year of high school, gotta make it a big one, right?" It all seemed casual, but I was pretty sure Chris was deliberately drawing Scott away, giving me a break.
I've never really understood how he does it, but Chris has this way of bringing everyone's attention toward him. Not in an obnoxious way, usually, but he's just so big and friendly and relaxed about everything. It's like if a bunch of people were standing around and a panda bear wandered in. The bear could just be doing its own thing, eating bamboo or doing a somersault or whatever, and people would still be staring at it.
I guess Scott was kind of the same way, really. But while Chris seemed innocent and almost oblivious about the effect he had on people, Scott was all too aware of his own power, and he used it. For evil.
So I was totally happy to let the two of them go be charming together. Chris could look after himself, and I had more important things to think about. Like what the hell was going on with West. And had she really just kissed me?CHAPTER 3
There were three indoor ice rinks in Corrigan Falls: the fancy one at the big arena, where the Raiders practiced and played, and two others at the community center, for everyone else. The Raiders' arena had seats for almost four thousand fans, and they sold out nearly all of their games. The community center had a few rows of wood-and-concrete bleachers, generally with a couple dozen parents sitting on them, poking at their phones and catching up on gossip while the kids played.
That was where I worked as a referee. I'd been thrilled when I got the job, but it was definitely still small-time. Toby and I had started playing hockey the same year for the same team, and for quite a while we'd taken turns being the season's top scorer. Then puberty hit, and he got bigger and stronger and faster practically overnight. Suddenly we were playing on different teams, and he was on his way to the pros. I wasn't. So, reffing was a good job, sure, but it wasn't like being a Raider.
I made it to the center more or less on time and headed for the locker room. I had to wear almost as much equipment to ref for a bunch of eight-year-olds as I did to actually play against adult women. But I was getting paid for being on the ice, so that was something.
And I managed to keep my mind on the two games I worked, mostly because I knew the parents who didn't seem to be paying attention would get pretty damn involved if they decided they didn't like my calls.
Excerpted from Winging It by Cate Cameron, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2016 Cate Cameron. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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