Callum (Pittsburgh Titans, Book #12)

Chapter 1

Callum

Kicking my feet up on the desk, I lean back in my chair and tuck my hands behind my head. The Pittsburgh skyline is displayed before me, still glorious despite the gray skies and misting summer rain.

The Dallas Mustangs won the Cup last night in a hard-fought, seven-game battle against the Florida Spartans. All the Titans got together to watch it at Brienne’s house. It wasn’t exactly a somber affair, but it wasn’t a rousing party either. Just a slightly bittersweet team gathering to say a final goodbye to the season before everyone disperses for much-needed vacations and time off.

That doesn’t apply to me, though. Being the general manager is a full-time job with very little downtime.

“Danny,” I say, angling my head toward the phone on my desk so that the speakerphone picks me up clearly. “I don’t have room under the cap. If I had it, you know I’d be interested.”

I listen patiently as Danny Sorbino goes over the stats for the player he represents. He’s a good agent, savvy and keyed in on the specific talents any given team might be seeking. I could cut him off because I’m truly not interested. If I’m going to dent the padding on the money I have to spend on good players, it’s going to be for someone whose plus-minus isn’t so erratic in the second half of the season.

When he’s finished, I give him validation. “You present a compelling case. As always, you know your men inside out.” Then I let him down. “But I’m going to pass.”

Danny’s a professional and I’ve known him a long time. Not but fifteen years ago, we were working at the same sports agency. I went on to do some scouting, but he never left the world of representation. “I appreciate you taking the time to listen, Callum.”

“You bet. Next time you’re in Pittsburgh, let’s grab drinks.”

“Yeah, sure,” he says, and then catches me completely off guard when he says, “The Vipers are showing interest in Highsmith.”

Danny represents one of our best players, Coen Highsmith, and his contract ended after our playoff run was squashed. We haven’t entered into renewal talks yet, but in the next few weeks, I’ll be gearing up for this. Much of that salary cap I had just harped on is reserved for players like Coen.

“I’m not worried the Vipers can offer more than we can,” I say smoothly.

“Maybe not, but it’s not going to be just about money to him… more’s the pity.” That’s a true sentiment coming from someone who operates on commission.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“His wife’s being courted to be the artist in residence at a gallery in Manhattan.”

That gets my attention and I swing my feet off my desk. It’s the off-season and while business never stops for the Titans, it’s a Saturday and hardly anyone is here. I wore a pair of shorts and a polo shirt today, the casual flip-flops I’d slipped on slapping on the hardwood flooring of my luxurious corner office.

“Highsmith wants a trade to New York?” I ask as I grab my phone from my desk, disconnect the speaker through which I’d been talking and bring it to my ear.

“He’s asked me to put feelers out,” Danny says.

Fuck. I scrub my hand through my hair, which is in desperate need of a trim. Since the playoffs ended, I’ve been in semi-vacation mode, even though I’m still working my ass off for this team.

If Coen is the one pushing a move, the price to keep him just got immensely steeper. Add on that he’s doing this for Tillie and I’m already figuring out that no amount of money will prevent him from giving his wife what she wants. Coen Highsmith was the reigning douchebag of this team a little over a year ago, but he’s a changed man through and through with Tillie by his side. He’d give up hockey for her if she asked, but she won’t.

Hell… maybe she won’t be interested in this artist gig. She’s a Pennsylvania girl. She has deep ties to this area by birth and still has a business back in Coudersport.

A beeping interrupts and I pull the phone back to check who’s calling. I frown to see Joshua’s name. Without a second thought, I send it to voicemail because he’s the last person on this planet I want to talk to.

Besides, I need to do something more important. I need to talk to Coen, but first I think I’ll call our head coach, Cannon West. Coen is a key player on our first line. If we lose him, we’re going to have to change a lot of things and I need to know if we’re truly pigeonholed here. West will be able to answer that.

“Listen… I’ve got some things to take care of,” I say casually, as if this most recent news hasn’t rattled me. “If the Vipers make a play, give me a heads-up, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Danny promises, but it’s not a big ask. If I get into a bidding war with the Vipers, he’s just going to sit back and watch his commission increase.

I disconnect the call, tapping my phone against the armrest of my chair as I think. It rings, startling me, and I glance down to see Joshua’s name again.

Annoyed, I tap the decline button but damn if the fucker doesn’t call back. I’m about to decline it again when a chill slithers up my spine.

My stepbrother and I detest each other. We don’t speak at all and the only reason he’d be calling me is if he had bad news.

My stomach rolls end over end as I think about Juniper, but no… he wouldn’t call me about her. He’d be the type that if something happened to her, he’d never let me know. He’d wait for me to hear it through the grapevine.

But something must be wrong because there’s no other reason he’d reach out.

I connect the call. “What’s wrong?” I ask, assured that bad news is coming.

“It’s your mother,” he says flatly, my hand tightening on the phone. “She’s in the hospital with a brain bleed. They’re doing surgery now.”

“What the hell happened?” I demand.

“No clue.” His voice is without emotion. He never loved my mother. “Dad found her on the patio, unconscious.”

I’m bursting out of my chair and while holding the phone between my shoulder and ear, I start packing up my laptop. “Text me the hospital information as well as the name of the surgeon.”

“You can’t talk to him,” Joshua says, his tone that of a bratty fourteen-year-old despite the fact the man is thirty-eight. “He’s operating on her as we speak.”

“I’ll get one of his partners on the phone,” I snap as I nab my car keys.

“Oh, big important man can command surgeons at a whim,” Joshua drawls.

“Fuck right, I can,” I snarl and disconnect. I whip off a quick text to him. Send me the hospital and surgeon info.

Even though Joshua hates me, and the feeling is mutual, he won’t dare ignore my request. He knows I’ll beat the shit out of him without breaking a sweat and with my immediate boss (who has become a dear friend) being one of the richest women in the world, I could fuck with him in other ways if I so chose.

I’d wouldn’t, preferring to use my fists instead, but he doesn’t know that.

But it is Brienne Norcross I need to call right now. She should be the first to know that I need to head home to Nevada and don’t know how long I’ll be gone. I can do my job remotely but I know she won’t want me to focus on that with my mom in the hospital. Then I’ll call Cannon West and fill him in on Coen. He’ll have to take point to figure out what’s going on there because I’m about to step into a world of complications that will blur my focus.

***

Returning home to Incline Village would cause me angst no matter if my mom was in the hospital or not. It’s not the place but the people who keep my visits infrequent and short.

Despite the maelstrom of emotions, I’m unwittingly awed by the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains that roll down to the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe. The town sits on the north side of the lake, just over the border from California. The beauty robs me of my breath and I experience a pang of loss that this was taken away from me.

As I drive toward the hospital in the rental car I picked up at the airport, the towering pines shimmer in the late-afternoon sunlight and throw dappled shadows on the roadway. The village itself exudes affluence.

Tucked discreetly away between trees and perched in elevated spots are custom-built homes, many with expansive views of the lake, that range from five to seventy-plus million dollars. These luxury retreats span the styles of modern architectural masterpieces of glass and metal to rustic lodges. I spent the last half of my pre-adult life in a twenty-thousand-square-foot monstrosity made of rough-hewn logs and stone, compliments of my stepfather’s wealth, but that place was never a true home.

The hospital in Incline Village is small but staffed with an excellent surgical team, including a very competent neurosurgeon who performed a craniotomy this morning on my mom. Thanks to Brienne’s private jet, I made it here in good time and Mom is out of recovery and in her own room.. It does indeed pay to be affiliated with the Titans and have the Norcross power behind me. Through her contacts, Brienne also facilitated frequent communication between me and the hospital. I’ve talked to the surgeon once and the floor nurse three times since leaving Pittsburgh.

I’m not familiar with the hospital as it was built after I left for college twenty-two years ago. A nice lady at the front lobby directs me to the third floor and after I exit the elevator, I look at the directional plaques on the wall. Room 3228 is to the right, so I head that way.

I come upon a nurses’ station and stop to check in. A pleasant-faced older woman looks up from her computer. “Can I help you?”

“I’m Lila Willard’s son, Callum Derringer. I was told she was in room 3228.”

The woman’s eyes round with surprise, but I can tell she was expecting me. “Of course. Dr. Figler said you’d be in and wanted me to page him when you arrived. He or one of his partners wants to talk to you.” She points down an intersecting hall. “Your mother’s room is down that way on the left. She’s probably still sleeping off the anesthesia but she’s doing well. Vitals are all strong.”

“Thank you,” I say, giving the nurse a grateful smile as I walk away.

The door of my mom’s room is cracked and I push it open gently so I don’t make any noise. If she’s sleeping, I don’t want to wake her.

It’s dim inside, the slatted blinds closed against the low-hanging sun. I step in, my eyes taking in my mom’s thin body and the large bandage over the right side of her head. Her eyes are closed and—

I jolt as I realize someone’s sitting in a chair on the other side of the bed. She’s leaning forward, her forehead resting on her arms crossed on the edge of the bed rail.

Her head lifts and I freeze in place as I take in Juniper Ryan.

There are no other words to describe the woman other than she’s stunning. Her raven-black hair is wound on top of her head in a loose, messy bun. Those hazel eyes look more olive green in the dim light but I know if she was catching a face full of sun, they’d be the color of forest moss with dark gold flecks around the edges. Juniper has Native American ancestry and you can see it in the high cheekbones and aquiline nose, as well as her light olive complexion.

“Hey,” she says, her voice barely a whisper. She sounds tired and I wonder how long she’s been sitting there.

“Hey,” I reply, taking a few steps toward the edge of the bed. I avoid looking at Juniper because I hate that my heart is racing just from this one glimpse. Instead, I take in the bruise on the side of my mom’s face. “Does anyone know what happened?”

Juniper shakes her head.

Of course, I asked the surgeon the same question and he only repeated what he’d been told… she’d been found unconscious on the patio. He assumed she’d fallen and hit her face.

Plausible, for sure.

Could just as easily be that her husband, Preston, hit her. Granted, he’s getting up there in age, but he’s a big man and even in his late seventies, he’d be able to hurt my mom without much effort.

It’s all just supposition though. I never witnessed him striking her in all the years I lived under his roof.

I noticed lots of bruises. Heard them screaming at each other. Saw the way he brought her flowers and jewelry on the days she wore heavier makeup to cover the blue and purple marks.

But never actually saw him raise the hand.

I spent my fair share of years pleading with her to tell me the truth about what was going on. I begged her to leave his sorry ass so we could start a new life somewhere else. All she ever did was deny that he’d hurt her and reiterated that we’d never have it better than what we did with him.

She was so very wrong about that. Anywhere was better than that house.

“She’s been resting peacefully,” Juniper says as she stands from the chair.

“Where’s Preston?” I ask. I mean… shouldn’t my stepfather be here? I don’t bother asking about Joshua. I didn’t expect him to keep vigil.

Even in the dim light, I see Juniper flush. Plus I recognize the quick dart of her eyes away and then back again, a sure sign the question makes her uncomfortable.

Tough shit.

I stare at her, waiting for an answer.

“He’s at work,” she finally says. “But I was here the entire time she was in surgery and I stayed until you could arrive.”

It boils my blood that Juniper is forced into this role. My mother’s fucking husband should be by her side.

It’s beyond ironic that had circumstances been different, Juniper could have been sitting here in this room watching over my mom in her role as my wife.

But that was a lifetime ago.

I manage a small smile. “Thanks, Juni. I appreciate it.”

There’s a small knock on the door and we both turn that way. A doctor wearing green surgical scrubs enters and I’m guessing that’s Dr. Figler.

“I’m going to head on home,” Juniper says, skirting around the end of the bed.

She doesn’t pass by me but instead moves in for a hug. I’m startled at first because we haven’t touched in years, but I return it without hesitation. I have no hard feelings for Juniper.

I bend down so her arms go around my neck and I tighten my own around her back. She squeezes me hard and whispers, “You need anything, you reach out to me, okay?”

Christ, she smells good. I nod, even though I don’t have her phone number. I hug her back before quickly releasing her. She smiles at the doctor and slips out of the room.

Dr. Figler extends his hand and introduces himself. Ultimately, he doesn’t tell me anything new, but I think the prestige of me being a general manager from a professional hockey team fuels his special treatment. I don’t need it but if he wants to take extra special care of my mother, that’s fine by me. We chat for a few minutes as he goes through the technical points of the surgery and her expected recovery.

“She’s probably going to be sleeping pretty heavily throughout the night,” Dr. Figler says. “I’d suggest you come back in the morning.”

I rub at the back of my neck, strung tight with tension that wasn’t there before I walked into this room. I know deep in my gut it’s not caused by my mom’s precarious medical condition but rather from running into Juniper.

My first and only love.

My biggest heartbreak.

My brother’s wife.


Chapter 2

Juniper

Peering in through the glass window, I look at the meatloaf browning in the oven. It’s not the Crock-Pot roast with potatoes and carrots that had been on the weekly menu and I’m sure I’ll pay for that with caustic remarks about how bad dinner tastes later. Joshua and Preston won’t care that my ability to get the roast in the pot was impeded by poor Lila suffering a brain bleed.

Neither one of them will take kindly that I stayed up at the hospital all day when I should’ve been here making sure their proper dinner was on the table, but that’s my lot to bear. I don’t regret my decision because if a human being is going to undergo life-saving brain surgery, they should at least have one person to pray for them and be there when they open their eyes. At least, I’d hope someone would do that for me, but being realistic… Preston and Joshua wouldn’t have been there for me either.

When Lila awoke following the surgery, her relief upon seeing me was evident. She never would’ve expected Preston to sit and wait all day. Joshua’s a non-entity since he barely speaks to the woman who helped raise him. She’s beneath the air in his lungs that would be expended so it was no surprise to find only me there.

She uttered only one word, a question. “Callum?”

“On his way,” I assured her. Or so I overheard Joshua complaining to his father. It’s the only reason I knew Callum was coming in from Pittsburgh because Joshua would never dare discuss such a thing with me.

I do a quick check of the diced potatoes I have boiling to make a mash and I’ll whip up some gravy when I take the meatloaf out to rest. I’ve got candied carrots going in a pan, and that’s about as close to the original planned meal as I can get.

Most normal people would be pleased by my efforts, but Joshua and Preston aren’t normal. That father-and-son duo are the worst humanity has to offer and I’m imprisoned in this life under their thumbs.

The security panel in the kitchen chimes and I see Joshua driving his Audi through the iron gates. He’ll follow a two-hundred-yard-long winding driveway to our home.

Actually, his home.

More precisely, his home that he shares with his father and I’m residing here by virtue of our marriage.

This twenty-thousand-square-foot log home perched off Lakeshore Boulevard is where my husband grew up. When we got married, I simply moved in with him. The thing is so big, it has wings with stunning views of Lake Tahoe. Joshua and I live on one end of the home and his father and Lila live on the other. It’s definitely not how I envisioned married life, but if I look back on how I came to be here, I was groomed so slowly and sweetly, I practically locked myself in this cage and handed Joshua the key.

I take a few moments with my hands resting on the counter and practice my box breathing. My counselor highly recommends it for anxiety-fraught situations and sadly, my husband coming home from work—particularly today—is a stressful event.

I’m done with my fourth complete cycle when the mudroom door opens from the five-car garage. I move to the refrigerator and pull out a beer, twisting off the cap to have it ready as soon as he walks in the door. I have no illusions that this will mollify him but he’s going to drink a beer anyway, so I might as well have it ready.

Joshua steps into the spacious kitchen with its gleaming wood floors, raw, rough-cut log walls and copper-accented appliances. He’s my age—thirty-eight—and a very handsome man. His light brown hair is casually swept back from his clean-shaven face that shows not a bit of stubble this late in the day. He’s got a strong jaw, a perfect smile and crystal-blue eyes. He’s lean and angular, one of those men who can eat ten thousand calories a day and not gain an ounce, although he does nothing to work for that. It’s why he makes me so meticulously plan out every single meal in the evening and why he’ll be upset I’ve deviated from it. He knows he can eat all his favorites and nothing will stick to his gut.

Tonight’s pot roast was supposed to be a celebratory dinner. Joshua and his father opened a new hardware store on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe and it’s their favorite meal. Plain old pot roast, potatoes and carrots and they’re dining like kings.

Except I didn’t get the meal in the Crock-Pot, so it’s meatloaf instead.

They won’t care that I tried to get as close to that meal as possible with the same vegetables as well as protein, albeit cooked in a different way. This will be seen as a slight against them and ruin their celebration.

I’ll have to choose my words carefully tonight to avoid a major blowup by two men who love being angry, entitled sons of bitches.

Joshua’s eyes sweep over me critically as I hold the beer out to him. He takes it without a thank-you, bringing it to his mouth for a long pull. It’s not his first drink of the day nor will it be his last.

“What are you cooking?” he asks, eyes darting to the countertop where I’d normally have the Crock-Pot.

“Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and candied carrots.”

“That wasn’t what was on the menu,” he says. How can such a simple statement sound so dark and menacing?

“You know I didn’t have time to get it going before I left for the hospital.” My tone is calm, whisper light so he doesn’t take too much offense to my back talk.

Joshua sneers as he steps toward me. “Waste of your fucking time being at the hospital. Nothing you could have done for Lila, anyway.” He then leans in toward me, sniffs my neck. “Did you let him touch you?”

“Who?” I exclaim, taking a step back, but I know who he’s talking about.

“You did,” he says with a firm nod, advancing on me. “I can smell him on you.”

My mind whirls. I hugged Callum. Couldn’t help myself.

Was he wearing cologne? I can’t remember but it wouldn’t have stopped me from the gesture. He looked exhausted and his mother just came out of a serious surgery. There was nothing wrong with an embrace of friendship and comfort.

Except for the fact my husband hates Callum and can get blind with rage when talking about him. I tread carefully but decide for the truth because I did nothing wrong. “I gave him a hug—”

The slap catches me off guard, a left-handed pop to my cheek. It stings but doesn’t rock me the way a right-handed hit would have. Luckily, he holds his beer in his dominant hand.

Joshua then walks into me, backing me into the counter beside the stove. My heart pounds with fear because while this behavior is nothing new, I have no clue how far he’ll escalate.

Setting the bottle down, my husband cages me in with his hands. His glare is glacial, his words coated in poison. “You fucking slut. I bet you loved snuggling up to Callum, didn’t you?”

“No—”

Joshua grips the front of my throat and squeezes. It’s not enough to cut off my air but he’ll probably choke me before it’s all said and done. What’s more terrifying is that he forces my head to the left, trying to push me closer to the boiling pot of potatoes. My body locks and my hand slams onto the counter, pushing against him. If my hair weren’t on top of my head, it would have fallen into the flame under the burner. My skin starts to prickle from the heat.

“Joshua… stop it,” I scream.

“Bet Callum wouldn’t think you’re so pretty with that face scarred, now would he?”

I bring my knee up hard, hoping to catch him square in the balls, but he twists out of my reach. It’s enough that his grip loosens on my neck and I’m able to push away from the hot burner.

But he spins me around, pushing my stomach against the counter, pinning me there with his body. I feel his erection against my backside and bile rises in my throat. Nothing turns this man on more than hurting me.

“Stop it,” I growl as I try to twist away. He uses an open palm to clap me upside the head, hard enough it rattles my teeth. His hand then frantically works at the button on my jeans. “I said no,” I scream, throwing my head back so hard, I catch his chin.

“Fuck,” he roars, stumbling back from me.

I don’t wait around, knowing that my only chance is to escape to a room with a lock on the door. I take off running but Joshua’s on me, his hand grabbing my bun and nearly jerking me backward off my feet. I cry out from the pain as he slings me around, slamming me into the side of a corner cabinet where I catch it full force on my temple.

I see stars but slap at him, trying to push him back. His hand is once again at my throat, this time squeezing so hard my immediate air supply disappears. My fingers claw at his arms, gouging skin with my nails to loosen his grip.

The mudroom door opens and through the ringing in my ears, I hear Joshua’s dad, Preston. “What’s going on?”

Stupid fucking question.

Joshua doesn’t spring back, embarrassed to be caught abusing me. He doesn’t even loosen his grip.

Instead, he calmly says, “Teaching this one a lesson.”

“You know I don’t like for you to do that in the open,” Preston admonishes. “That’s private between a man and a woman.”

I’m so oxygen deprived, my vision starts to dim. My ears feel like they’re stuffed with cotton, but I hear Preston say, “Let her go, son. I’m hungry and she needs to finish our dinner.”

“Fucking meatloaf,” Joshua says in disgust as he releases me. I bend over, coughing and gasping.

“Yeah?” Preston drawls. “Thought we were having pot roast to celebrate the new store?”

I swallow, wincing against the pain of my muscles contracting in my throat. Straightening, I step around Joshua, never taking my eyes off him should he again strike at me. I move to the potatoes to turn off the burner. They should be done.

Joshua sneers as he throws a thumb at me. “Dumb bitch stayed at the hospital all day. Ruined our dinner plans.”

I dart a glance at my father-in-law. He’s big and burly, not like his son’s thin frame. His eyes meet mine. “How’s Lila doing?”

You’d know if you went to visit, you piece of shit. But I can’t say that because I’m far too dependent on these two men.

“She was resting comfortably when I left,” I say, my words coming out in a harsh rasp.

Preston’s blank stare stays pinned on me before he nods to the oven. “Don’t let dinner burn. Call us when it’s ready.” He then turns his gaze on Joshua. “Let’s talk in my office.”

My husband doesn’t reply to his dad, merely moves over to the counter to grab his beer. He doesn’t even grace me with a glance of concern, mainly because he doesn’t care about me at all.

It’s not until both men are gone from the room and their voices dwindle behind the closed door of Preston’s office on the other side of the great room that a gush of air empties from my lungs. I have to put both hands on the counter to brace myself as my legs turn to jelly.

Tears well in my eyes and I don’t hold them back. A therapist I once saw told me not to repress my emotions but rather to acknowledge the pain within them. She told me that was the best way for me to garner the strength I needed to leave Joshua.

But she was so very wrong. No matter how much I hate him, I can never leave. At least not as long as my father lives.


Chapter 3

Callum

I hold the straw to my mom’s lips so she can take a few sips of the ice water. She attempted some chicken broth for her breakfast a bit ago, but her appetite is almost nonexistent. The nurse assured me that’s typical coming out of surgery and some people don’t tolerate anesthesia that well.

Her surgery was almost twenty-four hours ago and I can’t help but worry that her lack of appetite is a bad omen. What’s worse, I’m not just worried it’s a physical thing, but probably emotional as well.

When I arrived this morning, she was sleeping. When she woke up, her first words to me were, “Is Preston here?”

I had to be calm and reassuring. “No, not yet.”

Truth is, I had no idea if that asshole would show up. The nurse told me that the only visitor my mother had other than me was Juniper. I’m burning with rage that Preston can’t be bothered to check on his wife, especially given my suspicion that he might be responsible for her injury.

“Want to try something else to eat?” I ask her. “Maybe some scrambled eggs?”

My mom wrinkles her nose and gives a very slight shake of her head, which immediately causes her to wince in pain. “Maybe later.”

“You need food for energy,” I remind gently.

“I know,” she admits with a wan smile. No attempts to try, no assurances she’ll eat later. Just she knows she needs food and doesn’t want it.

“Mom,” I say, reaching out to take her hand. It feels cold and lifeless against my palm. “What happened?”

“What do you mean?” she whispers, her eyes darting away.

There’s no time to beat around the bush. “Did Preston hit you? Push you down?”

“No,” she replies, her gaze coming back to me because she hears the promise of retribution in my voice. “I must have tripped on the steps and fallen.”

I think she’s lying, but I didn’t expect her to fess up after all these years of protecting him.

I cover our clasped hands with my other one and lean forward in my chair. “Mom… you don’t have to tell me anything. But if you want to leave Preston when you’re better, I’ll get you out of there. You can come live with me in Pittsburgh, or I’ll buy you a place here. But you do not have to stay with him.”

I’ve made that offer before and she’s never accepted.

But hell, she’s never had brain surgery before either.

My mom clears her throat and her eyes become a little steely. “I love you, Callum, and I appreciate your concern. But please understand this… no matter what you think, I love Preston. I’ve had a good life with him and while we’ve had our fights like any couple might—”

“—fights between a husband and wife don’t involve fists,” I interject.

She ignores me. “Even though we have fights, they are few and far between. I like my life and I’m content. I won’t leave him.”

“Even if he almost killed you?” I ask, astounded, because although she hasn’t said it outright, her little admission about fights being few and far between tells me all I need to know.

“That’s you who thinks that, not me,” she chides, and I briefly have a complete lack of respect for my mom. She did her best for me when she and my dad divorced. I know that. Just as I know she had room to do so much better because while her standing might have improved when she married Preston, mine did not.

But right now, her unwillingness to care about herself enough to want better disarms me.

“I’m tired,” she says, tugging her hand from mine. “Do you think you could call Preston and find out when he’s going to come visit? It might be that he doesn’t want to come up here because you’re visiting. So maybe give him some space to come see me?”

The same sense of despondency I would have for my mom when I was younger hits me hard in the center of my chest. This is her life and she’s not willing to change it.

My parents separated and divorced when I was twelve. It took my mom less than three months to marry Preston Willard, a local mogul who made his fortune off a third-generation line of hardware stores throughout Nevada, California, Washington and Oregon. For three years, I split time fifty-fifty between my mom’s new home and the childhood home I grew up in with my dad, Richard.

Those three years were tough—dealing with divorced parents—but at least I got to spend half of it with my dad. We had a close bond and he was pure respite from the very unsettling life I had in the Willard ancestral home with a domineering stepfather I didn’t like and an entitled stepbrother, Joshua, two years my junior.

My dad died when I was fifteen and I became a permanent resident in Preston’s home, but being Lila’s son afforded me no advantages. I was never treated equally as a son. When I turned sixteen, I had to earn a car by working in the local Willard Hardware while Joshua was given a Porsche when he became old enough to drive. Of note, the kid never worked a day in his life until after he graduated college and went to work in the corporate offices with his father.

I rise from the chair and lean over the rail to kiss my mom’s cheek. “Okay… I’ll leave for a bit. I’ll also call Preston to let him know it’s all clear to visit. Maybe I’ll swing by the house. Is the security code the same?”

“Still the same,” she murmurs with a faint smile. “Thanks, sweetheart. Maybe you and Joshua can get together for lunch.”

I restrain myself from snorting. My mom is fully aware that Joshua and I hate each other. She knows we have no relationship and never will. But in her mind, if I put forth the effort with him, it will make Preston happy, which will make her happy. I love Lila Willard beyond measure but there are some hard limits I’ll never budge on.

I don’t say any of that out loud, though. “Get some rest. I’ll come back up later.”

As I walk out of the hospital, I call Cannon West. His greeting is direct and to the point. “How’s your mom?”

“As well as can be expected. The doctor said she might be released the day after tomorrow. I’ll stick around to get her settled back home, though.”

“We’ve got things covered here,” he says easily. “You do your thing. We’re all praying and sending out good vibes.”

“I appreciate it.” But then I turn to business. “What’s the deal with Coen?”

“It’s true. Tillie has been offered an artist’s residency in New York. Coen said she’s considering it and he reluctantly admitted that he’s not sure he wants to be separated from her for a year. He wants her to have her chance in the art world.”

“So he wants a trade?” No hiding the glum tone that matches my feelings.

“He’s asked Danny to explore. We can make some other trades to loosen up room under our cap, offer Coen more. Try to make it worth his while financially to stay with us.”

I shake my head as I navigate through town, headed toward Willard Hardware’s corporate offices. “Money won’t sway Coen. He’ll take a damn pay cut to go wherever Tillie’s going.”

“Yeah… I know,” Cannon agrees with a sigh. “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Tillie decides.”

“Still work to be done. I’ll start deep-diving prospects.” The Free Agency Frenzy starts in two weeks and if Coen leaves, how we fill that hole will be crucial.

As the general manager, I’m responsible for setting and executing the long-term vision for the team. This might involve multi-year plans, determining the balance between developing young players and pursuing immediate success or making infrastructure decisions like improvements to training facilities.

In the most immediate circumstance, if we lose Coen, we may choose not to replace him with someone of equal talent. We could take the easement on the cap burden and build the team for a future run a few years down the road with young talent. It’s a lot to consider and I’ve got work to do.

I go over a few more things with Cannon and disconnect just as I’m pulling into the Willard Hardware parking lot. Not only is this the original store that Preston’s great-great-grandfather opened, but the second floor houses all the operations as well as the throne upon which Preston sits.

I enter the store and head toward the back where an elevator leads to the second floor. When I step out into the lobby, a receptionist smiles up at me in greeting. “Can I help you?”

“Tell Preston his stepson is here to see him,” I reply.

The woman frowns in confusion, clearly not knowing of my existence. I nod my head toward the door to his office, which I can see from where I’m standing. She picks up the phone on her desk and buzzes him.

“Um… Mr. Willard… there’s someone here claiming to be your stepson.” After a slight pause, she says, “Yes, sir.”

She replaces the receiver. “He says you can go in.”

I give her a curt nod and head toward his office, not bothering to knock when I reach it. I merely open the door and step in without closing it behind me.

Preston Willard was a handsome man once upon a time but his ruddy face is lined with broken veins from too much alcohol, and his stomach is padded with too much good eating. Still, he’s powerful in business and exudes utter confidence as he stands to greet me.

“Callum.”

I forgo any pleasantries. “You need to go visit your wife.”

He inclines his head. “I plan on going at lunch. How is she?”

“She just had fucking brain surgery,” I snarl, my hands closing into fists. “How do you think she’s doing?”

“She’s a lucky woman I found her so quickly,” Preston replies. The glint in his eyes tells me he enjoys messing with me.

I take two strides to the edge of his desk and put my hands down on it. Leaning toward him, I lower my voice. “If I ever find out that she was hurt by your hand or that no-good son of yours, I’ll end you both.”

Preston tips his head back and laughs. “Empty threats. There’s no proof that Lila did anything but fall on the back steps and hit her head.”

“Your lack of empathy seems pretty damning,” I grit out.

“I care for your mother well, boy. She’s led a good life since we married. Maybe you should be a touch more grateful.”

I’m done with this fucker. I push back from his desk, pointing a finger at him. “If I get the barest hint you hurt her in any way, now or in the past, you’re going to regret it, old man.”

“Is that a threat?” he demands.

“A fucking promise.”

I spin and stride out of his office, slamming the door behind me. The receptionist jumps, emitting a tiny squeak of fright.

I know Preston said there wasn’t any proof, but he underestimates my ingenuity. I force a smile on my face as I ask the receptionist. “Is Joshua in?”

“No, sir,” she stammers. “He flew to Vegas this morning to check on our stores there.”

“Perfect,” I murmur.

That means no one should be at the house, assuming Juniper is at work, and there’s a good chance one of the outdoor security cameras picked up the whole incident. I’ve got a million things I should be doing to plan new acquisitions for the Titans in light of Coen’s situation.

But first… I need to know what happened to my mom.

Calum (Pittsburgh Titans, Book #12) is a standalone contemporary hockey romance within The Pittsburgh Titans series. See the full details and get your copy HERE.