Since the crash, the atmosphere in the Titans’ arena has been nothing short of electric. Now that the playoffs are in full swing and the Titans have earned a spot, the energy output from the fans is almost painful to bear.
Especially since I’m sitting in the upper tier of the arena and watching my team from afar.
I have no fucking clue why I’m here.
I’ve made my position clear—I don’t give a fuck about hockey anymore.
And yet… here I am.
Watching my team.
Or is it still my team since I’m suspended through no one’s fault but my own? In the split second before I attacked that ref, I knew it was the end for me this season. I can’t even claim heat of the moment, because I knew what I was doing. More importantly, I knew what the consequences would be before I did it.
Regardless, no one has recognized me. It’s been three weeks since I was suspended for that attack. I’ve grown my beard, not in solidarity with my teammates who have their playoff scruff blooming, but because I don’t give enough of a fuck to shave.
Plus, living in Stone’s cabin in the deep woods, I’ve got this whole mountain-man thing going on.
I’m wearing a hat pulled low and my glasses, not because I think they offer a disguise, but because I didn’t order my replacement contacts in time.
The whole look allows me to sit up here among the throng of fans too amped up on playoff energy and beer to pay me too much attention. But if someone does happen to recognize me, so be it.
I’m just a regular fan like them now.
It’s game three of this first round of the playoffs. The first two games were played against the New Jersey Wildcats who had home ice advantage. They soundly whipped the Titans’ asses both games.
I by no means think it’s because I wasn’t there to help. Yes, it’s been tough on everyone losing me as well as our primary goalie, Jesper Keane, but I wasn’t contributing all that much to begin with.
Some would argue I was hurting the team with my shitty attitude.
Outside of that, it’s just been hard for a team of players to come together after the tragedy of the crash. It’s unrealistic to expect us to have much in the way of synchronization and connection on the ice. Playoff teams have had months to gel in all the ways needed to play at the highest caliber, and the Titans just haven’t had that.
This isn’t shocking or unexpected.
The team’s chances of amounting to much this season after the crash were incredibly slim, and it’s an amazing accomplishment to have even made the playoffs.
They won’t be here long, though.
Currently down three to zero with only five minutes left in the third period, this is going to go down as another loss, and they’ll only be one game away from elimination.
I’m not sad for me, but I do pity those guys down on the ice who are playing their hearts out, trying to eke out a win for the fans. They’re giving all they’ve got, but it won’t be enough.
I consider heading out and beating the mass exodus once the buzzer sounds. I’ve got a little over a three-and-a-half-hour drive to get back to Stone’s cabin. I moved in the day he gave me the keys, and this is the first time I’ve left the small town of Coudersport.
Still not quite sure what possessed me to come to Pittsburgh to watch this game, but fuck if I could help myself.
It’s nothing but torture.
Making myself watch what I’ve willingly given up.
And I have given it up, even though I’m here. The day Brienne and Callum notified me of the suspension, I told them I was done for good.
I was numb, sitting in Brienne’s office. The cool-as-a-cucumber heiress to the Norcross fortune, and now sole owner of the Titans after her brother’s death in the crash, regarded me not with ice in her eyes, but with a warmth and understanding I hadn’t earned.
Yeah, she was mad as hell I attacked the ref, which came on the heels of my arrest in New York for assault and drunk and disorderly. But without words, her gaze told me she understood.
I’m glad she did, because I sure as fuck didn’t.
I didn’t understand a goddamn thing in this world anymore.
“Coen.” My name on her lips was both gentle and unyielding at the same time. “You certainly have the right to appeal this suspension.”
“I won’t,” I’d replied. “I’m done.”
Brienne was unnerved and exchanged a look with our general manager, Callum Derringer, before bringing her attention back to me. I braced, waiting for her to pitch the same shit that Gage, Baden, and Stone had been throwing at me.
You’re too good to walk away from this.
This team needs you.
You can come back from this.
I braced and I waited, ready to deny Brienne’s pleas for me not to give up on this career.
But it never came.
Instead, she nodded. “I’m not going to beg you to stay. I’m not going to tell you that you’re throwing away a Hall of Fame-worthy career. I’m not even going to tell you this team will suffer with you gone, because I’ll find someone to replace you.”
I was so stunned by her words and the matter-of-fact way she laid them out, I know my jaw sagged slightly.
“I won’t try to influence you in any way,” she continued, her eyes locked onto mine with an intensity that punched deep. “But I won’t hear another word about you quitting or giving up until training camp starts in September. You want to leave this behind? Fine. But you are doing a disservice to yourself if you do it now. You need some time away from all this. From the horror of the crash, the guilt I know is consuming you, and the pressures of trying to perform on the ice with a team that isn’t the team you want, nor the team you can have, since they’re all dead.”
I glanced at Callum, who was listening intently but had his gaze averted out the window to the Pittsburgh skyline across the river.
And then she made it impossible for me to not do as she was asking.
“I don’t know you at all, Coen.” Her eyes seemed to mist over a bit, and she smiled sadly. “But my brother was a big fan of yours. He thought you were one of the greatest sports heroes this city had ever seen, and I know you had mutual respect for each other.”
That was just fucking low because I owed my start in this career to him. Had he not been on that plane, if he were the one here asking me to stay with this team, I would’ve been hard-pressed to walk away.
“I’m asking you to honor Adam and not leave this team until you’ve had the summer to think things over.”
Ultimately, I promised her that, but mentally, I was sort of crossing my fingers behind my back. I knew in my heart of hearts I couldn’t step foot on the ice because I didn’t deserve that precious spot. If Brienne didn’t want my answer until training camp, I could hold my tongue until then.
The crowd erupts in a roar that I swear to fuck shakes the building and jolts me out of my memories. Thousands upon thousands of Titans’ fans jump to their feet, screaming as we score.
I don’t even fucking comprehend what’s happened at first and have to look up at the scoreboard for the instant replay while the guys on the ice celebrate.
What do you know?
Boone Rivers scored.
The guy who replaced me.
It’s a sweet move, a floaty backhand off a feed from Gage that toppled right over the goalie’s right shoulder.
Good for him.
The guy next to me pushes at my shoulder, and I glance up at him. I’m the only one seated in this throng. The man is packing a huge beer belly and a walrus mustache that isn’t big enough to hide his joyful grin as he holds out his palm for me to high-five.
I smile—not because I feel like it, but because I don’t want to draw attention to myself for not doing what any sane fan should be doing—and I slap my hand to his.
The man turns to look down at the ice from our nosebleed seats and screams, “Titans, Titans, Titans!” along with the rest of the crowd.
I stand and inch past a handful of people to the staircase that leads down.
I’m genuinely happy that Boone scored. I’m glad that my teammates have this experience. Hell, I’m even proud of what has been accomplished.
And yet this has done nothing but reiterate to me that it isn’t my life anymore.
It takes me a good fifteen minutes to exit the arena and make my way to my Mercedes G-Wagon.
Prior to the crash, this puppy was my pride and joy. I love luxury cars, and in addition to this tank, I have a Maserati.
Such stupid things to adore, and I’ll be unloading these frivolities soon.
Won’t be hard, given that nothing brings me joy these days.
Well, except one thing.
It’s tucked back on almost twenty acres of remote woodland, a few miles outside of the borough of Coudersport. The tiny town is the seat of the very unpopulated Potter County. It sits in a valley surrounded by the Allegheny Plateau where Mill Creek joins the Allegheny River and flows all the way to Pittsburgh. The town itself holds no more than a few thousand people, and I’m enjoying the peace and quiet more than any man has a right to.
If there’s one thing I’d like to do with my money, it’s secure this peace.
I start my SUV, but before I exit the lot for my long drive northeast, I shoot off a text to Stone. I don’t give him platitudes over the great game he played but cut straight to the point. Interested in selling me the cabin? I’ll pay top dollar.
Pulling up my iTunes, I select a playlist that’s mostly hard rock and metal. I crank the volume and blast the air conditioning. I haven’t been sleeping for shit, and the drive back to the cabin is going to be brutal. I could stay at my condo across the river, but I can’t stomach it.
This city isn’t my home anymore.
“Are you sure this is a trail?”
I glance over my shoulder at my bestie, Ann Marie, as she swats at a bug before stumbling slightly on a root. Her chestnut-colored ponytail swings wildly as she flails.
I chuckle and return my eyes to the path so I don’t trip. “It’s a trail. If you were expecting gravel or concrete, sorry, city girl.”
Ann Marie laughs, because she’s from the same small dinky town of Coudersport as I am. But she went to college in Pittsburgh and maintains that she prefers the hustle and bustle of life there.
Not sure I really buy it since she moved home a year ago to teach at the combined junior and senior high school, but I don’t give her too much grief about it. I’m glad to have her back.
“And you’re coming out here and doing this every day, huh?” she asks skeptically, as I’m not known for my great love of the outdoors.
“As long as the weather cooperates.”
One of the reasons I bought this property was for the natural beauty of the deep forests, bubbling creeks, and abundant wildlife. The previous owners cut hiking trails over dozens of acres, and I intend to use them.
It’s outside of my comfort zone, but I want to evolve and grow. I’m on my own now, and Tillie Marshall isn’t done becoming who she’s meant to be.
“But… you’re not an outdoorsy girl,” Ann Marie points out. “You’re more of a sit by the window and sketch the landscape kind of gal.”
“I like trying new things.” I turn to sidestep down a small embankment where thick tree roots have formed a sort of staircase.
Besides, I paid for this land when I bought the cabin that sits on it, and I’m not about to let it go to waste. I’ve found myself liking the quiet of nature and it appeals to my artistic side.
“How about bears?” A hint of fear laces Ann Marie’s voice. “I mean… they’re coming out of hibernation and all.”
“They’re more afraid of us than we are of them,” I say bravely. Although I don’t know that to be true, I think I heard someone say it once down at Masha’s. “As long as we make noise so they know we’re coming, they’ll run away from us.”
Besides… don’t they eat berries and stuff?
“How much longer?” she asks, huffing as she shimmies down the embankment.
“Not much.” I point up over a small ridge shaded with towering oaks and willowy birch trees. With the help of Google Lens, I’ve been able to identify and learn about a lot of the native plant life, and I want to incorporate it into my art.
We hike in silence, both of us gasping as we’ve had a few elevation changes. But at the top of the ridge, I stop so Ann Marie can catch up. When she looks down, she sighs. “Oh, wow.”
“Right?” I exclaim as I nod. “Didn’t I tell you it was beautiful?”
“This is worth getting eaten by a bear,” she murmurs appreciatively.
“Or a mountain lion,” I toss out.
Ann Marie’s head whips my way, and I grin at her. “Come on. Let’s eat some lunch.”
I brought my friend to this little jewel of a spot merely to share it with her. A wooded glen with a babbling brook running through, the banks are green with ferns and mountain laurels. As it curves around a sloping hill, it forms a small pool—not big enough for swimming, but certainly adequate to dip your feet in—from an outcropping of rock just above. It’s the perfect place to hang out and catch up after a busy week.
We amble down the path toward the creek, Ann Marie telling me about the latest at school. Teaching history to seventh graders is not for the faint of heart.
When we reach the rock, we plop down and I unload the essentials from my backpack. A small container of chicken salad I made this morning, two apples, and a bottle of moscato that’s still quite chilled since this little piece of wooded heaven is only about a twenty-minute hike from my backyard.
Ann Marie appraises the wine, and I show her the ingenuity of a twist-off cap. I take a drink and pass it to her. “Sorry… wasn’t about to carry wineglasses here.”
“And why bother with Solo cups when you can drink straight from the bottle, right?” She lifts the bubbly to her mouth and sips before handing it back to me.
I pull out napkins and two plastic forks. We eat the chicken salad from the tub and share the wine, and I know this won’t be the last time we do this.
“We could camp out here one night,” Ann Marie muses as she looks around. “We’ll get Hayley and Erica to come too.”
I snort at the image. “Talk about the blind leading the blind. It’s one thing to hike in the woods in broad daylight. It’s another to camp out here when it’s dark. We don’t even know how to make a fire, and if we ever figured it out, we’d probably burn the forest down.”
“Too true.” Ann Marie laughs. She picks up an apple and turns it over in her hand to inspect it before taking a bite. “So, what’s the status of the studio?”
I sigh, putting the bottle to my mouth and taking a strong pull. “I think I’ve finally made it through all the layers of red tape. I’ve got the general contractor coming out next week to go over the plans.”
Ann Marie squeals. “I’m so excited. You’re going to be living out your dream, and no one deserves it more.”
“I hope so.” I smile and intend it to come off as confident, but I’m a little afraid I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
It seemed like a silly pipe dream six months ago when I decided to use my inheritance to purchase this property and open an art studio next to the small two-bedroom cabin. Finding the land was easy, and both my parents had generous life insurance policies. Getting the property zoned for dual residential and commercial use took some time and elbow grease, but I finally managed it.
And now… it’s freaking scary to think that major construction will be starting by the end of the month. I have no choice but to make it or break it, but I know it’s what my mom and dad would have wanted me to do.
Ann Marie reaches for the bottle. “You thinking about them?”
I nod, glancing away to take in the forest. It looks like the woods Robin Hood might have ridden through. Trees spread apart, but with such large canopies, only a hint of dappled sunlight reaches the ground, covered in layers and layers of dead leaves. Pockets of lush green plants and bushes gather in hillside nooks, and squirrels scamper around looking for food. I’ve hiked through here and come across deer before, but I’m not sure who was more afraid, them or me.
It’s truly another world—and it’s why I’m so excited to open the studio because I gather so much inspiration from the tactile experiences. Now that I’m a true nature girl and have added hiking to my repertoire of artistic stimulation, I can’t wait to see where my creations go.
“Ugh, I have to pee,” Ann Marie announces. “What was it… like, twenty minutes to get out of here? What a pain in the ass to have to walk all the way back to use the bathroom.”
I bust out laughing, and Ann Marie tips her head. “What’s so funny?”
“You don’t go back to my house to use the toilet. You use the great outdoors.”
Ann Marie glances around with wild eyes before regarding me. “What? No way. I’m not peeing in public.”
Sweeping my arm in a low arc, I ask, “Who’s going to see you? The squirrels?”
She nibbles on her lip with a dubious expression before shaking her head. “Nope. I’ll just hold it.”
Letting out a faux groan of annoyance, I roll to my hip and push myself up. “I have to pee, and I’m not going to wait.”
“You’re just going to squat and go?” she asks in awe. “And what… air dry? Use a leaf to wipe?”
I wrinkle my nose. “What do you think I am, a barbarian?” I reach into my backpack, pulling out a Ziploc bag. Holding it up, I proclaim, “Tissue and an extra baggie for disposal.”
“Genius,” Ann Marie exclaims, but then her expression hardens. “But no… I’ll pass.”
“Sissy,” I proclaim, feeling like quite the expert naturalist as I hop off the rock and follow the path around a small bend where I saw a gathering of mountain laurel that I can use for privacy. “Be right back.”
“Take your time,” Ann Marie drawls, picking up the wine bottle.
I hurry down the trail to the bushes. I glance around and see nothing but sprawling forest and hear nothing but the sound of birds in the treetops.
Oh, and I hear Ann Marie singing Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” which makes me laugh. She’s a favorite of ours, especially because she’s all about self-love, no matter your size or shape.
I toss the Ziploc on the ground, position myself with my butt angled away from the slant of the hill so I don’t pee on myself, and unzip my shorts.
I’m usually not an overly shy person, but after I squat, it takes a minute for my brain and bladder to connect. When I’m finally able to start, I sigh with relief because it would’ve been embarrassing to have to admit that I needed to go back to my house just for a potty break.
A twig snaps in the distance, and my head whips that way. It almost throws me off-balance, but I steady myself. More branches crack, and it sounds like something much larger than a squirrel, but I can’t see well through the thick laurels I’m squatted behind.
Quickly, I grab the baggie, nab the tissues, and wipe. Still squatting, I tuck them back in the bag so I can throw them away at home. Whatever is moving through the woods is coming closer, and fast.
Like, way fast.
Except now the intruder seems to be coming from behind me, and I’m disoriented. Maybe the forest’s peaks and valleys are bouncing the sound around, but I’m convinced it’s a bear.
A fucking bear out of hibernation and hungry for a curvy, wine-soaked woman.
“Shit,” I mutter as I stand, dragging my panties up first. I grab for my shorts and start to haul them up, too, but the sound is so close, I can’t wait any longer. I start running while trying to jerk my clothes back into place. I come around the thicket of mountain laurels and slam into something so hard, I bounce backward and onto my ass that’s only half covered by my shorts.
I scream in terror, waiting for the bear to pounce, when I take in the fact it’s not a hairy beast after all.
It’s a man.
A decidedly unhairy man, as he’s not wearing a shirt and has a smooth chest drenched in sweat that trickles over ripped abs and down into low-slung running shorts.
My gaze runs back up and skids to a screeching halt as I take in two things at once.
The man is undeniably gorgeous with dark, shaggy hair and even darker eyes, even though he’s sweaty and panting from what I’m thinking was a strenuous run. He does have a short beard, but that doesn’t put him in bear territory.
And… he’s staring at me, lying on the ground with my shorts barely over my white panties.
I frantically pull them up, somehow managing to button them on the first try, and scramble to my feet without closing the zipper.
As I whirl to face him, Ann Marie skids around the bushes, gripping the wine bottle by the neck, poised to attack.
“You get away from her,” she snarls, brandishing her makeshift weapon.
The man doesn’t flinch but pulls music buds from his ears. “Not nice to threaten a man on his own land. You’re trespassing, by the way.”
“We’re not trespassing,” I exclaim, tugging at my zipper. “This is my land. These are my trails.”
“Wrong,” he says blandly.
“No, you’re wrong,” I retort.
“Where do you live?” Ann Marie demands, still holding the wine bottle slightly raised.
“Honeycutt Road.” The man points in the direction he ran from.
“Your property must sit adjacent to mine,” I murmur, trying to understand if I’m indeed a trespasser. But then I decide it’s ridiculous to get worked up about it. “Listen… my name is Tilden Marshall. My friends call me Tillie. It appears we’re neighbors.”
I step forward and hold out my hand, then realize he probably doesn’t want to shake it because I just finished peeing. I drop it and wipe my palm on the back of my shorts.
The man stares at me in annoyance.
“And you are?” I prompt. Ann Marie merely watches, ready to bludgeon him.
“Coen,” he says curtly, slipping the buds back into his ears. “And you’re trespassing. Stay off my land.”
And with that, he takes off running right past us. We both turn and watch him easily navigate the trail, avoiding large roots and uneven areas.
Jesus… I can barely walk these trails without twisting an ankle. That’s some skill.
“Did you see those abs?” Ann Marie whispers.
“Holy eight-pack, Batman,” I whisper back. Not that he can hear us. He’s long gone.
“But hot, right?” she asks for clarification.
We bust out laughing, and she sadly offers the empty wine bottle. “I dumped it to use as a weapon.”
“You bitch,” I exclaim. “And I could use some now. The man caught me peeing, and I couldn’t get my pants up, and then I fell over, and shit, Ann Marie… I’m wearing granny panties.”
My best friend in the world… my closet ally… snickers. “I would have paid money to see that.”
I elbow her hard and roll my eyes. “Come on. Let’s pack up and go to my house. I’ve got another bottle in the fridge.”
Wiping the shower steam from the mirror above the sink, I take in my reflection and run my fingers through my hair. It’s getting long.
I think I’m liking it just fine, which really means I can’t be bothered to go into town and get it cut.
Turning my head left, then right, I rub the beard I’ve been growing for the past two months and realize it’s time to let it go.
And it’s not just because the playoffs are over.
Yes, I might have subconsciously been letting it grow out as I watched the playoffs progress while holed up in my Coudersport cabin. A lot of that was simple laziness, but some of it was habit. I’ve been fortunate to play with the Titans my entire career, and we’ve made the playoffs every single year. I’m used to spring beard, so yeah… habit and laziness is why I still have it.
But now the playoffs are done, and to no one’s surprise, the Arizona Vengeance walked away with the Cup. They fucking earned it too.
It’s been two and a half months since I was suspended from the team and walked away. Almost seven weeks since I went to Pittsburgh to watch the Titans in the playoffs.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
Fumbling around in the cabinet beneath the sink, I pull out my electric razor and attach the beard trimmer. Leaning over the sink, I run it through the coarse hair and let it fall away from my face.
It’s like I’m being reborn, shedding the last vestiges of my hockey self.
I lather up and shave the stubble, expecting to see a new person.
Sadly, it’s the same old disappointing fuck who was there before I stepped into the shower, except now without the beard.
With a sigh, I unhook the towel from around my waist and toss it over the shower’s edge to dry. I brush my teeth, put my contacts in, and move into the bedroom where my clothes have been moved from suitcases to drawers.
Once dressed, I head into the kitchen to make breakfast. I’ve been up for two hours already, having worked out before my shower. Stone has an unfinished basement that I’ve been steadily filling with weights—no way in hell I want to call attention to myself by working out at the local gym.
I scramble up some eggs with toast and eat standing at the counter while looking out the window over the backyard. It’s about an acre of thick green grass, bordered all the way around by forest—another fifteen acres that come with the property. The house sits back from the road, so I’m relatively secluded, and I love that I can’t see a single fucking soul.
When I’m done eating, I clean up the plate and pan and wipe down the counters. One thing that’s changed over the last few months is that I’ve actually become a bit of a neat freak.
Which implies—and is accurate—that I was a slob before. But I was busy as fuck and didn’t really care if my dirty dishes piled up. Being unemployed and not wanting to go anywhere leaves a lot of time to clean.
About the only place I do go is the grocery store, and that’s a necessity since the town doesn’t have conveniences such as grocery delivery. I’ve been going early in the morning in the hopes of avoiding recognition, but it’s happened. There’ve been a few folks who’ve done double takes, and one flat out asked if I was Coen Highsmith.
I was tempted to say no. I looked different with the longer hair and beard, and I’m still wearing my glasses because I don’t bother with my contacts most of the time.
But I didn’t lie, because lies are what have poisoned my entire world, and I can’t be that type of person anymore. I smiled, posed for a selfie, and signed a grocery receipt.
It wasn’t so bad in the end.
Maybe one day, I’ll work up the energy to have a beer at one of the town’s bars. It’s not that I plan on hiding forever. It’s just that right now, I like not being around people. Privacy is my best friend.
I grab my phone to check the time and see that it’s time to hit the road. Keys in hand, I flip through my messages as I walk out the front door.
Grimacing, I see my dad left me a voicemail. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I listen to it.
“Coen… this is the third message I’ve left. I demand you call me back and give me an update. As you well know, the charges against you in New York and the suspension are a complete embarrassment, and I need to know that you’re fixing these things. Your mother and I are humiliated and—”
Same old shit. Two parents who care more about their society standing because their professional athlete son is a disgrace.
If Dad only knew that he hadn’t seen the worst of what I’ve done.
I haven’t been back to Pittsburgh since that playoff game, but I don’t mind today’s trip.
That text I’d sent to Stone asking to buy his cabin set into motion a series of events that led me to the law office of his girlfriend, Harlow Alston. After Stone and I negotiated and agreed upon a price, she handled all the legalities, and today we’re closing the deal.
I’ll walk out of here the owner of that cabin and the surrounding land, and I’ll be ready to settle into my new life.
Stone and I sit in the small conference room waiting for Harlow to finish up a phone call on another case. She worked me into her schedule today as she and Stone are leaving on a vacation tomorrow and I wanted to get this done.
Flipping his phone toward me, he asks, “Are you on this Facebook page?”
I lean forward and peer at the screen: Titan Family Page.
I shake my head, and he turns the phone away, scrolling through pictures.
“You should join,” he says, a smile on his face. “Everyone’s posting all their summer escapades. Fucking Boone and Kirill are pretty much sleeping on a beach in Costa Rica trying to learn how to surf.”
A small pang of longing hits.
Not for the beach or surfing, but for caring about what my teammates are doing this summer.
“I’m not on Facebook,” I mutter.
“You should be. It’s a great way to stay in contact.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
Stone looks from his phone to me.
“This isn’t my team anymore,” I say.
“Have you officially announced your retirement?” he throws back, not batting an eye.
My jaw locks tight. “I promised Brienne I wouldn’t make such a proclamation until training camp started.”
“Then you’re still a fucking Titan,” he replies with a wink, putting his phone on the table. “But seriously, man… how’s it going in Coudersport? There’s not much to do there.”
His question relaxes me, since we’re not talking hockey, and weirdly, a fond smile comes to my face. “I’m digging in, to be honest. I love the quiet. I’ve been running the trails, and I’m in the best cardio shape of my life.”
“Yeah, Harlow went to the cabin a few times with Brooks. He loved walking that property.”
Stone mentioning his brother, Brooks, is a stark reminder that I’m not the only one who suffered after that plane crash. His brother was a Titan—my friend—and went down with the others. Stone took his place on the team, and I’m sure he’s had a lot of heavy shit to overcome. I guess that makes us a lot alike.
“I’ve taken up fly-fishing,” I say, wanting to move away from talking about his brother, as that might inspire him to get me to talk about the crash, and fuck if I’m doing that.
“No shit?” Stone leans back in his chair, drumming his fingers on the armrest.
“Yeah… actually hired a guide who took me out and taught me the basics. There’s a stream on the very back of the property. I’m not very good, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I like spending the time out there trying.”
“Very Zen, dude.”
I snort because I haven’t felt Zen or even close to it in months.
The conference room door opens and Harlow walks in. Stone sure hooked up with a stunner with her red hair and bright green eyes. I’ve met her once or twice in passing, and we’ve talked on the phone a few times because not only is she handling the house closing, but she’s helping me with my criminal charges in New York.
I start to stand—manners and all drilled into me—but Harlow waves me back down. It’s a relief because I didn’t want to have to endure a hug of greeting.
I’m not the warm-and-fuzzy type these days.
“Good to see you,” Harlow says with a warm smile and takes a seat next to me to go over the paperwork.
She dives right in, and that’s fine by me. She goes through each document, gives me a layman’s overview of what it says, and then points where to sign. I half listen, knowing none of this is really important because she’s the attorney and knows what she’s doing.
I let words like title insurance, escrow, and easements go in one ear and right out the other. I think about refurbishing an old koi pond that sits off the back deck and maybe finishing the basement to make a nicer workout area.
When we’re done, Harlow smiles. “Congratulations, Coen. You’re a new homeowner.”
And what do you fucking know? I smile back. This is the best thing that’s happened to me since the crash.
“Congrats, man,” Stone says, lifting his ass out of his chair to reach across the conference room table to offer me his hand.
I take it and we shake. “Thanks for selling to me.”
“It’s all good. Harlow and I weren’t ever going to use it. Brooks loved that place, but it wasn’t for me. I’m glad a friend of Brooks’s will enjoy it.”
“I need to talk to you about a few things,” Harlow says to me, and then shifts her attention to Stone. “Do you mind waiting in my office, honey?”
“Sure thing.” He leans over and kisses her before heading to the door.
“He doesn’t have to go,” I say quickly. I have nothing to hide.
“Attorney-client privilege,” Harlow says with a wink. “He does have to go.”
He really doesn’t, but I don’t argue. We’re going to talk about the criminal charges, and it’s not a secret. Fuck, Stone’s the one that bailed me out of jail that day.
When the door closes, Harlow taps her pen on the table. “My dad called in a favor to the district attorney.”
My eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “He didn’t have to do that.”
Harlow’s dad is a bigwig attorney here in Pittsburgh and apparently has connections to people in high places.
“Be glad he did,” she says with a chuckle. “They’re going to dismiss the charges against you.”
“Oh, wow,” I say with relief. While I wasn’t facing jail time, I was anxious to have the case over. At least my parents would get off my back. “What do I owe him?”
“A signed jersey would make him happy.”
Christ… I’d rather pay him ten thousand dollars than have to be reminded that even one single person still wants to connect me to the team. But I swallow that shit down and force a smile. “Consider it done. And what do I owe you for that?”
Harlow lifts her chin and her eyes bore into mine. “Don’t quit the team.”
“Not a price I can pay,” I reply without hesitation.
She nods in understanding. “I’ll send you a bill.”
I seriously doubt I’ll see one. She’s the type who will consider me family through our mutual connection to Stone.
“I appreciate all your help. And your dad’s, too, if you’ll pass that on. I’ll get you a signed jersey to give to him ASAP.”
“He’ll love it,” she assures me.
We stand from the table and as we walk to the door, she asks, “Are you selling your place here in Pittsburgh?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a Realtor looking at it. I have to repaint the interior first, but then it will go on the market. I’d love for you to handle the legal stuff, if you don’t mind.”
Harlow laughs. “I never mind making money. Consider it done. Hey… want to grab lunch with me and Stone?”
“Nah,” I say, tucking my hands in my pockets. “I’ve got a long drive ahead.”
Tipping her head, she regards me with a mixture of sympathy and frustration. “Okay. I know he’d love to spend some time with you, but—”
“Truly… if I didn’t have the drive—”
“We both know you’d still decline.” She dips her head and levels me with that look my third-grade teacher, Ms. Vail, used to give me when I was trying to talk my way out of something.
“I appreciate the offer,” I say neutrally, moving toward the door. “Tell Stone I said goodbye.”
“Will do. Take care.”
I nod at Harlow and walk out of her office, now the brand-new owner of a cabin in a sleepy town where I intend to stay lost to the world for a good long while.