Minor league coach.
Coach of the Pittsburgh Titans.
It’s been a hell of a journey, but I’m where I’m supposed to be, no matter what happened to get me here.
It’s the third game of the regular season. We won our first one, which was in Boston, but lost to Minnesota at home the day before yesterday.
Not how I wanted to start my new coaching career with the Titans, but I’m a transformative leader, using motivation and inspiration to effectuate innovation. A lot of old-style coaching leans toward expecting impossible standards of perfection and then aiming ridicule for mistakes and errors. My understanding is, this team’s former coach, Matt Keller, was quite the asshole.
I am the opposite.
I tend to take the position that failure is an intrinsic part of growth and improvement. Allowing failure helps players bounce back quicker rather than leading them to berate themselves for not reaching an impossible standard of perfection.
It might sound like my coaching style is too soft, but no one can argue with my record. That’s why Brienne Norcross, the owner of the Titans, and Callum Derringer, the general manager, hired me.
The loss to Minnesota hurt, but we’ve moved on. My assistant coaches have been working hard running five-on-fives to improve play and one-on-ones with the clips provided by the video coaches to address individual needs.
I’m a delegator, as many good head coaches are. It means letting go of control, which isn’t easy for some. But when I moved from player to coach, I learned very quickly that the head coach position has little to do with actually drilling down into specifics and more to do with keeping all the cogs of the monstrous wheel moving.
It’s why I’ve been at the arena preparing for our game against the Edmonton Grizzlies since six thirty this morning. I met with my assistant coaches, who, in turn, went to handle meetings with the equipment and medical staff. I moved on to a meeting with the media relations staff to discuss relevant information about tonight’s game. After that, it was back with the assistant coaches for updates on injured players. From there, I had pre-scout meetings and then reviewed video clips and analyzed the special teams’ objectives.
The assistant coaches ran the mid-morning skate, although I watched. Light drills for skill work and special teams practice, especially the power play.
After that, the other coaches cut loose for a few hours, but I stayed at the arena, going over five-on-five video reviews and taking another dive into the pre-scout reports to see if anything else came to mind. I made notes and suggestions for the assistant coaches, who in turn parceled out that information to the various lines, special teams, and the players individually.
Two hours before the puck was set to drop, we had our final round of meetings with a more focused emphasis on power plays and penalty kills. The assistant coaches addressed the team with a review of our entire game plan, focusing on our identity as a group and how we need to play as a team. I listened in, but that’s one of the big things I delegate. It’s essential for everyone to know it’s not my show but that the coaching staff is a cohesive unit.
And now, it’s game time. We’ve had our pregame warm-up, and in these last few minutes before we go out for the puck drop, it’s my job to wrap it all up with some inspiration and hype.
“We’ve got an even matchup tonight.” We’re in the locker room, the men gathered around with my assistant coaches—Maurice Dupont, Sam Thatcher, and Gage Heyward—standing behind me. “You stack our lines, our special teams, and our skills up against our opponent, Vegas would say the odds are evenly matched. But that doesn’t mean we accept that.”
Most of the men stare at me intently. A few nod.
“We never accept anyone telling us what we can or can’t do. What we will or won’t win.”
“Fucking right,” someone says from the back.
“We never accept defeat until that last buzzer sounds, and never forget when you’re on that ice that you have something the other team doesn’t.”
“You as our coach,” someone calls out, and everyone laughs.
I chuckle, shaking my head. “Well, there’s that, but I’m talking about that gnawing hunger that I know every one of you has deep in your belly. The insatiable, gut-twisting ache to prove to the world that this team is a force to be reckoned with. That we don’t need to be pitied for our circumstances because there’s nothing pitiable about this team.
“In fact, I’m feeling a little sorry for our opponents this year because they’ll never have what we have. They couldn’t even begin to imagine the fire burning inside us to be the greatest we can be. So when you step out on that ice, you do it with the knowledge that we might stack up evenly on paper, but in reality, they’re no match for the Titans.”
Approval roars from the players as they clap their hands. I turn to leave with the other coaches so we can make our way onto the bench. It’s on the players to take the information and advice and apply it.
It’s up to them to go out there and grab that win.
The atmosphere in the locker room after the win is almost carnival-like. I stay in the revelry until it dies down as the players get showered, changed, and head out for celebrations. Only then do I go to the media room to do the press conference to field questions, most of which are legit. There’s a dumbass one, though.
“Coach… given this is a newly built team after the crash eight months ago, do you think today’s win was a fluke?”
I’m irritated but keep a genial smile on my face. “I don’t know, Tim. Was our loss against Minnesota a fluke?”
I let him stammer for only a few seconds before calling on another reporter.
With the players gone—the last few headed over to Mario’s for some celebratory drinks—I settle in at my desk to record my game observations.
I watch a lot during the game, write down notes, and don’t give much individual direction to players. That’s a job my assistant coaches handle, and they do it well, as they know the mechanics of the game as thoroughly as I do. They know the pre-scouts. I’ll suggest a line change, but it’s the assistants who call it out, and if they feel something is better served, they’ll do that as well, with impunity. It’s important they know I trust their judgment as much as the players’. Sometimes being hands-off is the best way to build confidence.
I tap away on my laptop, adding notes. We left the upper slot weak during some clutch moments, but luckily, our goalie, Drake McGinn, was on fire tonight.
My biggest dilemma—and this has been an issue since preseason—is that our second line defenseman, Camden Poe, seems to be struggling. I watched video of him last season, and it’s not a new problem. He seemed a little off in everything, about a quarter of a step behind on a breakaway or a second too late getting his stick on a puck. It’s hard to define, but when you watch him game after game, you can see that he might not belong on our second line.
Camden is one of the three players who wasn’t on the Titans’ plane when it went down last February. While he seems to have coped well with the trauma and survivor’s guilt, it might be weighing him down more than we think. It’s something I need to discuss with him.
There’s a knock on my door and I lift my head to see Gage Heyward standing there. He’s our newest assistant coach, replacing Bill Perry, who moved on at the end of last season. Gage moved from the first-line center to coach after serving as a major unifier for the newly rebuilt team. But it was never his intent to stay long and when the coaching position opened up, he was the most obvious choice.
“What’s up?” I ask, motioning him in.
He doesn’t enter, merely leans against the doorjamb. He arrived to the game in a suit, but he’s changed into jeans and a sweater. “Maurice, Sam, and I are going to head out for a beer. Come join us?”
I know I should go. The Titans are a family, and part of that is strengthening bonds off the ice. But fuck… I’m tired. I’ve been going nonstop for over sixteen hours, and I need sleep, not beer.
“I’m going to take a rain check, man. I’m ready for bed.”
Gage smirks. “I’d call you an old man, but we’re essentially the same age and I’m tired as shit too.”
“Maybe we exert more mental energy as coaches than the players do on the ice and it’s just more exhausting.”
“I like that analysis.” Gage pushes off the jamb. “Which is why I’m only going to have one beer before heading home.”
“Well, I guess I could do one beer,” I drawl, closing my laptop and rising from my chair.
“Grab your cane and let’s head over to Mario’s. We’ll stand in solidarity to have just one drink.”
I snort as I grab my overcoat since it’s dipping into the forties most nights. I wish I’d had the forethought to bring casual clothes, but I’ll make do by loosening the knot on my tie.
Mario’s is packed. My understanding is it’s always been a popular hangout spot following hockey games due to its proximity to the arena, but after the team was rebuilt, the fans were rabid in their support of the new players. That spilled into after-game celebrations, so it’s crowded by the time we get there.
Luckily, the bar owners let the players reserve tables, so they’re guaranteed a place.
The coaches, not so much.
Not that we don’t warrant it, but mainly because we don’t really hang out with the players. It keeps somewhat of a professional line between us, so our authority is never blurred.
Also, I doubt the players want us watching over them, so they can get crazy if they want.
Maurice pushes through the crowd, and we follow him toward the end of the bar. He’s able to wiggle his way in and order us a round, and then we find a spot near the wall where we can huddle and talk.
I’d like to say it’s casual, fun talk, but we end up discussing the game. The things that worked to get us the win, and the things that need improving. We talk about the two-game road trip we leave for tomorrow.
As I finish the last swallow of my beer and decline Maurice’s offer of another, I ask them, “What did you think of Camden tonight?”
“He’s the weak spot on the second line,” Sam says, and the others nod.
“It’s like he’s a beat off,” I say. “Is it his knee?”
“I’ve had no indication from the medical staff reports.” Gage has been the primary liaison with medical and players. “By all accounts, it was fully rehabbed last season, and he’s not had any complaints. He gets it iced, but he doesn’t even use a brace.”
His knee is the reason Camden wasn’t on the plane when it went down. He had a slight meniscus tear, not even that bad. It could’ve been fixed with rest and therapy, along with the hope it wouldn’t tear further, but he chose a quicker and more stable fix with surgery.
“Want me to talk to him?” Gage asks. “See if he can identify the issue?”
“I’ll talk to him. It might be he’s just having a hard time clicking with this line, and maybe we move him.”
Gage nods in agreement.
“And with that, I’m heading home. I’m about to fall asleep standing here.”
The guys laugh, but Gage follows me out while Maurice and Sam stay to have another. We walk back to the coaches’ parking at the arena and say our goodbyes. We’ll next see each other tomorrow midmorning for our flight to Texas, where we’ll face the Dallas Mustangs and the Houston Jam.
I drive across the river to my downtown condo. Upon moving here, I decided against a house, just as I had when I lived in Sweden and Greenville. I keep very few possessions, and I don’t want to have to care for a yard or be expected to socialize with neighbors. I’m not antisocial—far from it, actually—but coaching is more demanding than my career as a player, and I don’t have room for much else outside work. I definitely don’t need a lot of space, so a small two-bedroom condo suits me just fine.
Granted, it’s in a swank as hell building with private parking and security. I bought all new furniture to fill it, given the pay increase I received after moving from the minors to the professional league. But past that, I live modestly.
I take a quick shower when I get home, but despite being physically exhausted, I’m not quite sleepy. Flopping down on the couch, I aim the remote at the TV and surf Netflix. My chest squeezes as I scroll past the movie Armageddon. I don’t even think about watching it as it stirs feelings I don’t like.
It was the one movie Melissa and I watched most often. I loved the action and suspense, and she loved the romance. I was touched when Harry died at the end, but Melissa would sob into my shoulder.
My eyes shift to the slew of picture frames I have on one of the built-in bookcases. I’m close to my family, and I have a lot of photographs of us together.
I have some of me and Melissa still displayed. She might have died almost nine years ago, but I don’t ever want to forget her. It sometimes hurts to look at her—always with a bright, sunny smile on her face. But it should hurt because she was my wife. We’d been together since our junior year in high school.
I was holding her when she died.
So yeah, it should still ache, but it’s not debilitating anymore. More often than not, like right now, I can smile when I look at one of those pictures. Showing her youth and vitality, the very best of Melissa before the cancer. Those memories are a source of comfort.
The pain never fully goes away, but it has significantly lessened over the years. I’ve learned to live with it.
And I’ve moved on.
I like city living. Not that I often take advantage of the great restaurants or cool bars all within a few blocks of me, but I love the convenience of those things being within walking distance should I choose to go.
When I moved here a month and a half ago, I immediately found a coffee shop around the corner from my condo. I’m a bit of a coffee addict and somewhat snobbish, so The Grind became my go-to place for my shots of caffeine.
I hit it religiously every morning when I’m in town, and it fortuitously opens at six a.m. for the super early risers.
When I enter at six thirty, my eyes immediately land on Ava. She sits at her regular corner table with an iPad propped up on a Bluetooth keyboard and a stack of papers beside it. She chews on the corner of her pen—something she does when she’s concentrating—and makes entries on the keyboard after perusing a sheet of paper.
There’s only one person in front of me in line, and the young barista accepts his money for a cappuccino. He moves off to the side to wait for it.
The girl behind the counter beams at me. “Hi, Cannon. The usual?”
Yeah, I come in here a lot. “Please. And add a shot of espresso.”
“Late night?” she surmises with an empathetic look.
“Nothing your coffee won’t cure.” She laughs, I laugh, and I tap my credit card on the reader.
I move down to the pickup counter. The customer before me has his head bent over his phone. He glances up, looks back down at his phone, and then his eyes snap back up in slight recognition. But I can tell he’s not sure if he really knows who I am.
Yes, as the Titans’ new head coach, I had a lot of press coverage when I joined the team, but our faces aren’t as recognizable as the players’, unless you’re a diehard hockey fan. I am wearing Titans’ gear. My normal work outfit on non-game days is a pair of khakis and a polo with the team logo. If it’s chilly, like today, I wear a jacket or coat, also embroidered with the team logo.
The amount of team gear I get is outrageous, but it wouldn’t necessarily point me out as a member of the organization. At least one out of every five people I pass wears some sort of Pittsburgh team gear, whether it be baseball, football, or hockey. Pittsburgh is sports crazy.
I offer a smile, but before he can say anything, they’re calling his name. He grabs his coffee and walks out the door, giving me a nod as he passes. I bet later he’ll tell someone, “Dude… I think I was in line next to Cannon West, but I couldn’t be sure. He had a hat on, but he was wearing a Titans’ jacket. Maybe it was him.”
Truthfully, I prefer the anonymity of being a coach versus the stardom of being a player. It makes doing simple things like grabbing coffee a lot easier.
A young guy slides my coffee across the counter. “Here you go, Cannon.”
Now the people who work here… I don’t know if they know who I am. They’ve never once asked over the weeks I’ve been coming in—they just know me by my first name, which is written on my cup in black Sharpie. They don’t act weird, and they haven’t asked for autographs. I don’t see them whispering to each other when they think I’m not looking, and there are no subversive glances. It’s another reason I like this place. I can just be myself here.
As is my usual habit, I move to the table next to Ava’s. I take her in as her head stays bent over her work. Her dark hair is pulled back into a high ponytail, and she wears the same navy visor cap as the other baristas with the business logo on the front. Her uniform includes a navy polo shirt with the store logo over the left breast and a pair of khaki pants and tennis shoes. Her name tag is pinned over her other breast, and under it, printed in smaller letters, reads Assistant Manager.
“You’re not doing anything good for my ego by ignoring me,” I say as I settle into my chair.
She doesn’t lift her head, but I can see a smile curving. “You don’t have an ego.”
“True, but you could at least say, Hello, Cannon, how is your morning going?”
Ava looks up, and as I was on the first day we met right here at these tables, I’m momentarily knocked silly by how beautiful she is. It’s her eyes, first and foremost, a bright green that I’ve never seen on any other person in my life. My own hazel eyes have striations of green in them, but the tone is more matte than the jewel-like nature that makes up the entirety of her irises.
Her smile reveals straight white teeth as she mimics me. “Hello, Cannon. How is your morning going?”
“Much better now that you’ve acknowledged me and soothed my ego,” I quip.
Ava rolls her eyes and returns to her work. But she doesn’t ignore me. “Again, you don’t have an ego, and you know damn well that you’re charming.”
“Now we’re talking,” I tease, propping my elbow on the table, my chin on my palm so I can stare at her. “What else?”
Ava starts typing, eyes pinned to the screen, but she chuckles. “Let’s see… you’re funny—although in kind of an annoying way—personable, and at times, you seem fairly intelligent.”
I snort, leaning back to sip my coffee and settle in to watch her. Because I know that will annoy her too.
Ava and I met the first day I walked into this shop at six thirty on a Tuesday morning. She was sitting at the very table she’s at now, although I didn’t notice her at first. I was actually in the middle of a phone call with Callum Derringer. I sat at the table I’m at now and promptly knocked my coffee over. I cursed, jumped up to avoid it running off the table onto me, and then Ava was there cleaning it up.
Before I’d wrapped up my call to Callum, she’d wiped down the table and brought me a fresh coffee.
“On the house,” she’d said, and sat back down at the corner table where she’d been working on an iPad.
Clearly, she was an employee, not only recognizable by the uniform but by the fact she replaced my coffee free of charge. But she was more than just a barista because she was doing paperwork.
I introduced myself, we exchanged first names only, and that was the extent of our first conversation.
Over the past several weeks, we’ve progressed to flirting, or sometimes she’ll insult me in a backhanded way, always with a devilish grin. Our conversations have never gone deep. Just some quick, light banter every day I come in and she’s working. Sometimes, I’ll flirt, but admittedly, I’m not great at it. That skill is so rusty, it squeaks in despair. Ava flirts back in a teasing manner, and it appeals to me.
Our interactions are never long, merely the time it takes me to drink my coffee. She’s got a sharp wit, which I appreciate, but she’s also smoking hot, and I wonder why she’s working here. I’ve interacted with her enough to know she’s too smart to be working in a coffee shop.
Ava glances up at me and smirks as I stare back at her. “I’ve stroked your ego today. How about you stroke mine?”
“That’s a whole lot of stroking, and I’m not sure I know you that well,” I toss back. She tips her head and laughs, and it’s smoky and sexy as fuck.
She rolls her eyes. “I gave you a free coffee about six weeks ago. You know me well enough.”
“Fine.” I wave my hand outward to her work area. “You type very prettily.”
Ava grimaces and shakes her head, an amused expression on her face as she turns back to her iPad. “Your flirting skills suck.”
“Wait… we’re flirting?” I drawl in mock surprise.
“You most definitely are not flirting. No girl I know wants to be told she types prettily.”
I grin and take another sip of my coffee. “How about you let me buy you a drink sometime, and I’ll try to work on my skills before then?”
Ava’s head snaps up and whips my way, twin emeralds sparkling with surprise. “What?”
I’m a bit surprised myself—I didn’t walk in here with any intention of asking her out. It’s not that I haven’t asked women out before, but I don’t go on many dates these days. I’m always so damn busy that it never seems more important than my work.
But Ava has definitely captured my attention. “You heard me. Let me take you out for a drink.”
“Um.” She looks back to her computer, brow furrowed. Eyes back to me, filled with confusion, she asks, “You want to go out with me?”
Now I’m the one who’s frowning. “Why is that so hard to believe?”
“Well… because you’re…” She waves at me, seeming to struggle to find the words. “You’re… you know…”
I shake my head slowly. “I really don’t know.”
“You’re…” She looks over to the counter where three people stand in line for coffee, then back to me. She lowers her voice. “You’re the Titans’ coach. I work in a coffee shop.”
A slow smile forms on my face. “I was wondering if you’d recognized me. You never acted like you did.”
Her cheeks turn pink. “I didn’t recognize you. One of the baristas did and told me that first week. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.”
“For which I’m glad,” I assure her.
“But you are a big deal,” she points out and turns back to her work, as if to dismiss this conversation.
I can’t help but smirk. “And you’re prejudiced against people who are a big deal?”
Her eyes slide my way, and she glares. “Of course I’m not prejudiced.”
“Then say yes to a drink. It’s not complicated.” But then something occurs to me. “Unless you’ve got a boyfriend.”
Ava scoffs. “I don’t have a boyfriend. But I’m sure you can do better.”
“Who are you to judge what I can and can’t do?”
She ignores me and keeps typing, but I won’t be deterred. “What’s your last name?”
That startles her, and she cuts me a side eye before answering, “Cavanaugh.”
I pull out my phone, navigate to Contacts, and start a new one. “Ava Cavanaugh. And your phone number?”
Those eyes lift to meet mine, her head tipped slightly. “Really?”
“Yes, really. We’re going out for a drink.”
She just stares at me.
I stare right back, refusing to blink. “Phone number. Now.”
She releases a frustrated breath and snatches my phone from my hand. “Fine.”
I watch as she types in a number before handing it back to me. I stare at it dubiously. “You didn’t just give me a fake number, did you? Because I know where you work, so it will be difficult for you to ghost me.”
Ava laughs and shakes her head. She makes a shooing motion. “Go away. You’re bothering me.”
I love that she’s not starstruck. I love that she tells me to go away. “I’ll call you later to nail down the date.”
She doesn’t acknowledge that, and I know she’s doing it to annoy me. I’m not about to let her have the last laugh, though.
I step up to her table, move in very close, causing her head to tip back to look at me in question. “Just wanted to see those beautiful eyes one more time before I left.”
Said eyes flare wide at the compliment, and her cheeks glow pink again.
I wink at her and bend a little closer. “Now that’s how you flirt. Call you later.”
Turning, I walk out of the shop feeling pretty damn good about that encounter.
What in the hell are you doing, Ava?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself over and over again since Cannon invited me out for drinks the day before yesterday.
The freaking head coach of the Pittsburgh Titans.
As I stare in the bathroom mirror, my face flushed from having one too many dirty martinis, I ask myself the question one more time. I still don’t have an answer.
I was confounded that Cannon wanted to go out with me. I’d taken our silly flirting and short conversations over the past weeks as nothing more than him being outgoing and gregarious and me being a good representative of my company.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. I’ve been a little entranced by the man, not only because he’s famous, gorgeous, and rich, but because he’s sort of goofy in his attempts at flirting.
Other than his rather forward comment that he finds my eyes beautiful, not once did I think he was interested in me. Our bantering has been nothing more than some fun in our hectic mornings.
But here I am, having accepted his invitation, now supremely buzzed—even mildly drunk—and having one of the best times I can remember.
We were only going to meet for a drink. We both have to be at work early tomorrow morning, so I insisted we meet at this bar. My job as the assistant manager at The Grind is to handle opening the store, and the Titans have a home game tomorrow that he has to be in bright and early to get ready for. I know Cannon lives near The Grind, and my place is a ways out (and not in the nicest neighborhood), so I wanted to make it convenient for him.
Plus, I didn’t want him to see my crappy apartment.
I suggested a bar right around the corner from the coffee shop. It was a bit of a pain in the ass for me as I had about a four-hour window between when I got off work at three p.m. and when we decided to meet at seven. I have a forty-five-minute commute each way, but I didn’t mind.
It was only supposed to be for a drink. But one drink turned into two, along with appetizers, because we were having such a good time.
Two drinks turned into three because jokes abounded, and with alcohol, the flirting actually got better on both sides. I haven’t laughed this hard in ages, but our deeper discussions have held me captive.
Just a few minutes ago, Cannon looked at his watch and grimaced. “It’s almost ten. Still an early night for most people, but not for us early risers.”
“Speak for yourself,” I snickered. “I graduated from college a mere four years ago, so I’m still at the age I can do all-nighters and be fresh the next day.”
It was a backhanded slap at his age, which I learned tonight is thirty-six. I had a good time teasing him about our age difference, which really… nine years isn’t much at all. In fact, my ex was a few years older than Cannon.
Challenge flashed in his eyes. “I’m up for another drink if you are.”
And now here I am.
My head is swimming, but in a pleasant way. In the way that has a goofy smile plastered on my face because I’m out with an amazing man and I have no clue how this came to be.
I check my makeup and decide on lip balm instead of a new layer of lipstick. It’s just going to come off on the martini glass, anyway.
“One more drink, and then you’re taking an Uber home,” I firmly tell myself in the mirror.
The Ava who looks back at me with a smirk tells me that I’m not in control of how the evening will end. Mr. Martini is running the show.
When I exit the bathroom and head back to our high-top table, I see a young couple standing there talking to Cannon. He’s signing a drink napkin, and he hands it to the man with a smile.
God, he’s got a gorgeous smile. It’s dangerous, to be honest, with his five o’clock shadow, just one dimple on the left, and full lips. His dark hair and hazel eyes are set upon a face close to perfection. Like he could be a supermodel if the coaching job didn’t work out. I giggle at the thought.
The couple walks off as I approach, and Cannon stands to pull my chair out for me. He’s been a gentleman all night, holding open doors, pulling out chairs, standing when I leave and approach the table.
“You got recognized,” I say with a grin as I take my seat and he returns to his. We’d been talking earlier about the difference between being a public figure as a player versus a coach, and he doesn’t seem to be approached as often.
“It happens,” he says, his eyes cutting down to the fresh martini.
I pick it up, and Cannon taps his tumbler of bourbon gently against it. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” he says, smiling at me over the rim before taking a sip.
He’s still smiling as we set our glasses down and he shakes his head.
“What?” I ask.
“I just don’t get it.”
“Why you’re single. I mean… you’re gorgeous and sexy, which would have men crawling out of the woodwork, but you’re also kind, funny as hell, and keenly intelligent. You’re the type of woman men walk through fire for. What are you hiding?”
I flush with pleasure over the compliment, which has to battle with the tiny twist in my gut over the fact that not all men would walk through fire for me.
“You really are hiding something,” Cannon says as he studies me intently and he must be reading the emotions on my face.
“Not hiding anything,” I assure him as I swirl the toothpick speared through three olives. “Just a prior relationship that would disprove your theory.”
I wince because I didn’t mean that to sound pathetic, so I immediately play it off with a laugh. “That is to say, my last boyfriend was a dick, so he didn’t know what was good for him.”
“Recent breakup?” Cannon asks.
“No. Over six months ago.”
“And you haven’t dated anyone since?”
“Haven’t met anyone since. I basically work and sleep and don’t have much time or opportunity for anything else.”
Cannon chuckles. “You sound too much like me.”
“Well, here’s to us stepping out of our comfort zones.” I hold up my drink. Once again, he taps his glass to mine and drinks. “This has been an awesome evening, even though I’m going to be exhausted and slightly hungover tomorrow.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Cannon rests his forearms on the table and leans in a little closer. His eyes bore into mine. “So, why was the ex a dick?”
My face heats up, not because I find the question intrusive. I’ve had way too many drinks to be a closed book, but the underlying reason is embarrassing.
My expression must give that away because Cannon takes my hand and squeezes. “You don’t have to tell me. Forget I asked.”
But the liquor has loosened my tongue, so no sense in lying. “Well, for starters, he told me I was a lousy lay.”
Cannon’s eyes almost bug out of his head. “He fucking said that to you?”
I snort-laugh, not because what Derek said to me is funny, but because I can’t believe I actually said that out loud. I believed Derek when he said it, and it’s truly the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me. “Oh my God… forget I told you. That is definitely the alcohol talking.”
“What kind of asshole says that to someone?” Cannon mutters.
I wrinkle my nose and give a slow shrug. “The type who gets busted cheating?”
Cannon’s eyes flash furiously, and maybe that’s the alcohol too. “He cheated on you? And then blamed you?”
I give a nonchalant wave of my hand and tell my one and only lie this evening. “I didn’t pay it any mind. He was just covering his ass and truly, it wasn’t as bad as him getting me fired.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Cannon says, and to my surprise, stands from his stool and takes out his wallet. I watch as he retrieves two hundred-dollar bills and drops them on the table, which more than covers the drinks and appetizers, plus a hefty tip. When that’s done, he offers his hand to me, palm up. I take it, and he urges me up from my chair. “Let’s take a walk.”
It’s chilly outside and my wool coat is toasty, but that’s not what’s keeping me warm. Cannon tucked my hand into his elbow as we walked down the block, which is a good thing because I won’t be walking any straight lines tonight.
I’m not falling down drunk, but I am completely tipsy, so I don’t mind leaning against his large frame.
“Okay… lay the whole story on me,” he says.
I glance up at him, and he turns his head to look down at me. He towers over me by several inches. “This conversation turned very serious,” I muse.
Cannon shrugs. “I’m a diverse guy.”
That makes me laugh and puts me at ease, although I know the martinis are adding to it. “I was an HR generalist for a large life insurance company back in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.”
“Oh God,” Cannon moans with exaggeration. “Please don’t tell me you’re a Cold Fury fan.”
Giggling, I squeeze his arm with my other hand. “While my family loves the Cold Fury, I’m not that into hockey to be honest.”
Cannon claps his hand over his heart. “You’re killing me.”
“But,” I drawl with a laugh, “I’ll be sure to start watching from now on.”
“That makes me happy. So you’re an HR generalist, which is what exactly?”
“My job was mainly to administer pay, benefits, and leave, as well as enforce policies and practices.”
“And my ex, Derek, was a vice president in marketing.”
“Were you allowed to date within the company? Or was this an illicit affair?”
I snort over the insinuation. “Sorry to burst any scandalous bubbles, but we were allowed. He wasn’t working in a direct line of supervision over me.”
“And yet he had you fired,” Cannon points out.
“Yeah, must have been in the fine print,” I joke with a mirthless laugh. “At any rate, not long after we started dating, Derek got transferred to the company headquarters here in Pittsburgh. Got me a job transfer as well, and I moved in with him.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About nine months. My parents were against it. They felt that I was making myself too dependent on Derek and moving too fast. They’re kind of overprotective. Actually, they can be quite overbearing, but it’s from a place of love. The rest of the story isn’t all that complex. I found out he’s a cliché—cheating with his secretary—I confronted him about it, he said mean things, and it was over.”
“And he got you fired,” Cannon says, disgust in his voice.
“And,” I say with exaggerated drama, “kicked me out of his house. Within a twenty-four-hour period, I found out my boyfriend was cheating on me because he thought I was horrible in bed, got me fired, and rendered me homeless.”
“Jesus fuck,” Cannon growls, and then my head is spinning, not from the alcohol but because he stops right in the middle of the sidewalk and kisses me.
His chilled hands frame my face, but I’m burning hot from the intensity that crackles between us. It’s not a consoling kiss, brought on by sympathy and a need to redirect me.
The kiss is instantly carnal, and the way his tongue swirls with mine there’s no doubt that this has everything to do with sexual attraction.
No sooner has the kiss started than Cannon pulls back. His eyes bore into mine. “Do I need to apologize for that?”
He’s rendered me mute, but I shake my head, still caught between his hands.
It’s apparently all he needs because his mouth crashes onto mine again.
Cannon’s tongue dominates as his hands dive into my hair. I groan from the onslaught, my hands gripping his lightweight sweater beneath his open coat. I’m overcome with lust because of his dominance, his skillful tongue, and the surety in what he’s doing.
I’m fueled by alcohol, so I respond to the kiss, dropping one hand to the waistband of his jeans. I dip only my fingertips inside and use the leverage to haul myself flush against him.
Cannon issues a harsh curse into my mouth when our bodies make contact, spins us around, and backs me into the brick wall of a pharmacy. He walks his body right into mine so I can feel every hard—and I mean hard—angle of his body.
Tearing his mouth from mine, Cannon stares down at me, his breath coming out in harsh bursts. “Not sure I’d be kissing you like this without the alcohol. I’m usually a lot more reserved on first dates.”
“I probably wouldn’t have let you kiss me like this without the alcohol,” I admit, moving my hips against his. “But I know I’m not drunk enough to regret it tomorrow.”
Cannon groans against the friction I’m creating. “Not going to lie… the fact your ex said you were bad in bed pissed me off, and I want to prove him wrong. Just by that kiss, I know he’s fucking wrong. So I’m going to give you fair warning and one chance.”
His words make me shiver, and I’m light-headed from the combination of vodka and desire. “One chance for what?”
Cannon’s hands go back to my face and he leans in, running his lips feather-soft over mine. “One chance to tell me to back off because we’ve had too much to drink. Otherwise, we’re going to walk around the block to my place.”
He lifts his head, and the weight of his stare should crush me but all it does is make me feel empowered.
Okay, that might be the alcohol too.
Regardless, I find myself whispering, “Let’s prove him wrong.”