Van Turner: A Titan Rising from Retirement
From Vermont’s serene landscapes, Van Turner, the former defenseman for the Carolina Cold Fury, is poised to make a dramatic comeback to the ice. The 31-year-old, who was instrumental in clinching the Cold Fury’s second Cup championship three years ago, is leaving his quiet retirement to join the Pittsburgh Titans. Titans coach, Cannon West, confirmed Turner will bolster the team’s defense on the third line.
Turner’s story is not all ice and glory. In the midst of the Cup finals, it was revealed that he was the offspring of notorious serial killer, Arco VanBuskirk, whose life sentence ended not in parole but lung cancer two years ago. The revelation spurred speculation that Turner’s retirement was a response to this unwelcome attention, but in all his press interviews, he maintained that he was content settling down with his now wife, the former Simone Fournier, starting a family and relishing his hockey achievements. The Fournier connection isn’t lost on hockey fans as Simone’s brothers, Lucas and Max, currently wear the Cold Fury jersey.
While it’s big news that this former powerhouse of an enforcer is back on the ice, it’s somewhat overshadowed by a tell-all biography recently published that delves into the chilling world of VanBuskirk, including his son’s life, through a series of prison journals gifted to a reporter. Turner, who has refused so far to comment on the biography, remains a tantalizing mystery to the hockey world, but it’s clear he’s prepared to reenter the spotlight. The motivation behind his return may be uncertain, but what’s undeniable is his resolve to leave an indelible mark on the ice once more.
I hate this shit. The press is a necessary evil but I never forget it’s inherently evil. I’m required by the Titans to attend this press conference held at the arena. The room hums with anticipation as I follow Coach West and our GM, Callum Derringer, through a side door and up onto a raised dais. The polished surface of the long mahogany table reflects the bright lights that illuminate the room. Three chairs are set behind it and before each chair a microphone.
The room is abuzz with chatter as the crowd engages in speculative conversation, their theories about my comeback. When we’re spotted, I hear the whir of camera shutters and voices are amplified as the press poise on the edge of their seats, ready to capture the first words of this new chapter in my career.
Derringer takes the first chair, Coach West the next and I sit down on the end. Luckily, there’s a swath of heavy canvas fabric pinned to the front of the table with the Titans’ logo centered. It prevents anyone from seeing the nervous bounce of my leg.
Arranged in semicircular rows facing the dais are the cream of the sports press corps, armed with notepads, voice recorders and cameras, their gazes fixed on me. Some reporters are seasoned stalwarts, their faces marked by years spent under the harsh lights of arenas, while others are more wide-eyed and eager, their fingers poised above iPads to take copious notes.
On one side of the room, a sideboard holds coffee and bottled water accompanied by an assortment of pastries. On the other side, a large LED screen displays a live feed of the event for those outside the room.
Callum pulls his microphone closer and clasps his hands on the table before him as he looks out over the forty or so people in attendance. “Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, good afternoon. As you know, I’m Callum Derringer, general manager of the Pittsburgh Titans. We’re here today to welcome an extraordinary athlete back to the sport we all love, Van Turner, a man whose talent and dedication to hockey are well known and respected. We understand this is big news and want to do our best to appease your curiosity. We will only be allotting fifteen minutes, as I’m sure you can all appreciate we have to get Van on to his first practice. Please respect this time frame and make sure your questions are succinct and respectful.” He pauses, surveys the rows of reporters and there’s a hard glint in his eye. “We understand the high level of interest and the numerous questions you all have, but we request that you maintain a level of decorum. This is important sports news and we want to be open, but it is not a tabloid frenzy. Let’s keep our focus on the sport and on the exceptional talent we’re adding to our team.”
A young reporter in the front stands holding a digital recorder. “It’s been three years since Van Turner’s retirement. What prompted the decision to bring him back into the league, especially after such a significant break and was it worth it to send Perry Veleno down to the minors as he’s been putting up some impressive stats?”
Callum doesn’t wait for me or Coach to weigh in, instead leaning toward the microphone. “Van Turner’s legacy with the Carolina Cold Fury speaks for itself. He brings not only a wealth of experience and skill but also a unique resilience and tenacity that is the cornerstone of this new team. He aced all his strength and endurance tests, demonstrating he’s still in peak condition, reinforcing our belief that his addition to the Titans will be invaluable. And I wouldn’t have sent Perry Veleno down to the minors if I didn’t think this was the best move for the Titans in its entirety.”
The reporter lobs a follow-up. “It’s one thing to maintain strength and stamina… it’s another to keep your ice skills sharp.”
Not a question, but an observation that still demands a response. Coach West takes it. “We did significant on-ice testing. We put Van through every skill imaginable and he’s as sharp today as he was three years ago.” This is true… I never left the ice, even when I retired. I played in a rec league and helped coach the Dartmouth team. “However, I think the mere fact that we signed him to a three-year contract should tell you all you need to know. We have confidence he will not only be an immediately impactful player but a long-term cornerstone for our defense.”
Eager to be the next afforded the opportunity to ask a question, several are tossed out at once. Callum points and a female reporter stands. “With Van Turner joining the third line, what specific changes or improvements do you hope to see in the team’s performance?”
Coach West answers. “Van’s defensive abilities are top-notch. His prowess on the ice can solidify our defense, but it’s his strategic understanding of the game that will help enhance our overall performance. Van’s return isn’t just about adding a player to our roster—it’s about bringing in a seasoned professional who knows how to win and can impart that knowledge and mindset to the rest of the team. This is especially helpful since, as you know, we’ve rebuilt with younger players coming up from the minors.”
More questions are hurled and an older reporter I recognize from when I last played stands. He’s old-school, clutching a spiral pad and pen to jot notes. His eyes come straight to me. “Van, can you comment on your father’s recent biography? Has it impacted your decision to return?”
Well, that’s fucking disappointing. Not that I expected the topic would be averted, but I didn’t expect a veteran reporter to care about this shit. The mention of my father causes a twinge in my gut, an old wound that refuses to heal.
What I’d like to do is smash my fist into his face, but instead, I choose my words carefully. “Let’s keep this about hockey. I’m here because I want to play, not to discuss a book I had no hand in writing.”
The next question comes from a middle-aged man in the front row, his glasses reflecting the overhead lights. “How does your wife feel about your comeback, given her own connection to the hockey world?”
My heart clenches at the mention of her. I wrestle with my emotions, remembering why I’m here and what I left behind. “Simone is part of the hockey community, and she understands what this life demands.”
That did not answer the question, but I truly have no clue how she feels about it. I never discussed it with her. I’m surprised by how steady my voice sounds despite the fact it feels like my chest is cracking open. I glance around the room, nearly begging with my expression for someone to ask a hockey question. “Van, do you think the shadows from your past will affect your game or the Titans’ dynamic?”
The pain in my chest recedes, replaced with a burning anger in my gut at the fucking idiotic question. It’s a jab, trying to draw out a reaction. I force a thin smile onto my face, holding my ground. “I’m here to play hockey. I believe my skills on the ice will speak louder than any perceived ‘shadows.’ As for the Titans’ dynamic, I’ll do my part to contribute positively and play the best hockey I can.”
The next few questions are focused on the training regimen I’ve maintained over the last three years and not on my personal life. Even though no one asks about Arco or Simone at this moment, I’m still incredibly uneasy in the spotlight. A bead of sweat rolls down my temple, but I let that be the only visible sign I’m uncomfortable. I maintain my facade, bearing the weight of my decision to step back into the public eye. After all, I’m here to play, and that’s all they need to know.
“Okay… we have time for one more question,” Callum says, his gaze roaming the room. A flurry of activity explodes, a disorienting storm of reporters shouting questions faster than I can process. The lights from the cameras flash relentlessly, the barrage of voices growing louder. My past, my father, my marriage… they’re all on display, picked apart by these vultures.
“Van, are you afraid your father’s legacy will haunt you on the ice?”
“Did Simone push you to rejoin the league?”
“What’s the real reason behind your sudden return to the game?”
“Are you worried about your past distracting your teammates?”
“Did you read your father’s biography?”
“Did you see your father before he died?”
The questions are painful, each one a stabbing needle of inquiry. The room spins as the noise crescendos, my heart pounding in my ears. I drop my hands to my lap so the vultures can’t see me clenching my fists in anger. My skin prickles with the need to do violence because these assholes aren’t here for the hockey.
They’re here for the drama, for the man whose life has been a spectacle of tragedies.
I knew this was going to happen and it was still a better choice than staying with Simone. I’d rather be subjected to this every day than have another moment inside the home I built with my wife because that had become too painful to deal with.
A thunderous voice booms through the chaos. “Enough!” Callum snarls as he pounds his fist on the table, his face flushed with anger. “This is a hockey press conference, not a tabloid interrogation. If you can’t keep your questions related to the game, the team or Van’s professional career, you can leave.”
His words hang heavy in the air, casting a noticeable chill over the reporters. The cacophony is replaced by a sudden, deafening quiet. I release a held breath, grateful for the respite.
Suddenly, the spotlight seems less glaring, the weight on my shoulders a touch lighter. But as the echoes of the questions linger, I know my fight has only just begun. I’m back in the game, back in the limelight, and now more than ever, I need to hold my ground.
“Now,” Callum says, his tone calm but brooking no nonsense. “Is there one last appropriate question that someone would like to ask?”
For a moment, no one moves.
No one says a thing.
Then another female reporter stands from the back row. She looks like she just stepped out of a beauty magazine with perfect facial features and expertly coiffed hair. She must be an on-camera personality. “Van… no doubt you’ve followed the Titans this season. They’re poised to roll into the playoffs at the top of their division. What do you think you bring to the team that could help them clinch a championship?”
Finally… a fucking question that makes sense. For the first time, my smile is genuine. “I bring experience. This team is young and while incredibly well meshed, the playoffs are an entirely different creature than the regular season. I know the stressors that come with the territory and I’m hoping more than anything to be a guide and a resource. Of course, I’m still ready to pound anyone who threatens one of my teammates.”
That gets a laugh from nearly everyone and the tension in me melts a little more. Thankfully, Coach West stands up. “Unfortunately, we do have a practice to get to. Thank you everyone for attending.”
I waste no time following Coach out the door, ignoring questions being yelled in the hopes I’ll answer just one more.
The last one I hear before exiting hits me hard. “Van… Van… what do Lucas and Max Fournier think about your return? What will it be like battling against them?”
It’s going to be a pisser because I’m sure they both want to kick my ass for what I did to Simone. Our last argument before I left home was bitter and I said hateful things to push her away. I know my barbs hit the mark because her French Canadien accent, usually so very light and melodic, had become thick from the emotion. Whereas her brothers, who had left Montreal when they were young, had all but lost their accent, Simone wore hers like a badge of armor. It was always the tell when I knew I’d really pissed her off.
But Max and Lucas are not the ones I’m worried about. It’s the youngest of the Fournier brothers, Malik, who I have to be wary of. He just happens to live here in Pittsburgh, is former Special Forces and currently works for a world-renowned security company where he’s operated as a paid mercenary. He’s probably got a dozen different ways to torture and make me suffer and then could easily hide my body.
I’d deserve it too.
The locker room is filled with the familiar post-practice symphony, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it until just now. The clatter of gear, the murmur of conversation, the occasional echo of laughter.
After my shower, I return to my locker, toweling my hair dry as I maneuver through.
Practice was good. Damn good, actually.
While I kept myself in shape and ran drills all the time with my league and the Dartmouth team, I did harbor a tiny bit of worry that maybe it still wouldn’t have been enough to play at the professional level again. That personal concern has been put to rest and my new teammates have been offering hardy congratulations on my return.
Boone Rivers, our first-line right-winger, has his cubby next to mine. He’s almost fully dressed, tugging down his T-shirt as I step up next to him. On the other side of him is Foster MacInnis, the second-line center already lacing up his shoes, his brows furrowed in concentration.
I drop my towel and reach for my clothes. Nothing strange about being butt-ass naked in front of these strangers. That’s just part of the sport.
“How’d you feel out there?” Boone asks, breaking the silence between us. His voice carries a note of easy camaraderie.
“Good,” I reply, casting him a glance before pulling on my boxers. “I obviously need to get up to speed on the playbook.”
“You’ll get there.”
“It felt great to be back on the ice,” I admit, donning my jeans. About the only thing worth anything I have going for me these days. “But I felt a little rusty to be playing at your level.”
“You didn’t look rusty,” Foster chimes in, glancing up from his laces. “In fact, you looked slick as hell out there. That assist you fed me was off the hook.”
“Thanks,” I respond, a slight smile playing at the corners of my mouth as I treasure the thrill of the game sparking back to life within me. It burns bright against the barren emptiness.
“So, where you staying?” Foster asks as he rises from the bench and slings his duffel over his shoulder.
“Renting a place over in the Historic Mexican War Streets neighborhood. The front office had a list of places for me.”
“Nice area,” Foster says.
“Convenient,” I reply. “It was already furnished.”
“Does that mean you won’t be moving your stuff from Vermont?” Boone asks.
My stomach pitches as that’s getting dangerously close to a subject I don’t want to talk about.
“Not anytime soon,” I say vaguely as I pull my shirt over my head and then sit on the bench to put on my socks.
“Is your wife staying behind because of a job?” Foster asks genially.
The weight of the question hits harder than I expected. I swallow hard, deciding honesty is the best route. “No, she won’t be joining me. We’re… taking some time apart.”
That’s a delicate way of saying I left Simone and have no intention of reconciling with her, but I’m not about to splash my dirty laundry around.
Boone and Foster stare back at me with awkward expressions, but it’s Foster who recovers first. “Ah… shit, man. I’m sorry. I wasn’t being nosy or anything.”
“It’s cool,” I say, waving a hand at him, but if he’s as sensitive to my tone as I am, then he knows it’s anything but.
Foster’s voice drops. “I’ve been through it if you need to talk.”
“Divorced?” I ask because that’s the end goal for me, right?
“Yeah,” he says with a sad shake of his head. “We have a daughter and they both live in California. You have kids?”
All I can do is shake my head, the threat of an emotional explosion nearly buckling my knees. I mean… thank fuck we don’t have kids. Thank fuck Simone never got pregnant. Thank fuck that’s one disaster averted.
“Not that it makes it any easier,” Foster continues as he fishes in his pocket for his keys. “But still… let’s get a beer sometime and commiserate.”
I manage a smile, but the last thing I want to do is talk about Simone with anyone. Foster claps me on the shoulder as he moves past.
My regard cuts to Boone and I hate the sympathy on his face. I brace for him to say something about my wife, but instead, he says, “I’ve been hearing some of the shit in the press about your dad.” My hackles rise, prepared to tell him to shut the fuck up. “Ignore that shit. Not one person on this team cares about that stuff and neither should you. It will be old news by tomorrow.”
I blink in surprise, half expecting the same curiosity about my serial killer father that the reporters have. “Thanks, man.”
“We got your back,” he says simply, turning to his cubby.
And I have no choice but to believe it.
Studying the two open suitcases on my bed, I mentally calculate if I need to bring dressy clothes. On the one hand, there could be some functions that require more than jeans, cargo pants or leggings. On the other hand, even if there are team events, it’s highly unlikely I’ll be invited to them.
Deciding I can buy a fancy dress there if I need it, I do nothing more than toss in a pair of strappy black sandals with an incredibly high pegged heel. Those go with anything.
My phone buzzes in my back pocket causing an electrical surge of hope to zip through me, only to fizzle when I see it’s my brother, Malik, texting.
Not that I don’t love to hear from him, it’s just that I don’t particularly want to hear what he has to say today.
When are you leaving?
I glance at the suitcases, do some mental math and text back. About half an hour.
You’re making a mistake running after him, he replies.
I move over to one of the cozy chairs set by the bedroom window and sink into it. This indeed could be a mistake. I tap my finger along the edge of my phone a few times before responding. You’d run after Anna.
I can envision Malik rolling his eyes and I already know the gist of his answer before it chimes its arrival. Yeah, but she’s not an asshole. Van is. Don’t do it.
Sighing, I type out my reply. Leave it alone. He has his reasons.
None of which are good enough.
Malik might be right about that, but I’m willing to give my husband the benefit of the doubt.
Tossing my phone on the other chair, I lean my head back and rub at my temples. I’ve had a perpetual headache for the last two weeks, brought on by screaming matches, bouts of painful silence, tears wept in private so he’d never see how hurt I was and the never-ending barrage of texts and calls from my brothers threatening to kill Van.
I close my eyes and try to conjure something good. It’s hard to filter through all the darkness that’s enshrouded my life since Arco’s biography came out.
It shouldn’t be difficult. Van and I have had a storybook marriage. For three years, we’ve lived a beautiful life in Vermont and never once did he ever mention regret about not playing professional hockey anymore. It was his sole decision to leave after he won the Cup with the Cold Fury. He followed me north where I finished my last year of undergrad at Dartmouth, followed by a master’s, and Van took classes at Green Mountain College.
We got married.
I became a research biologist and went to work for Dartmouth after I graduated. He joined as a coach for their hockey team. We lived, we laughed, we loved, and oh God, how we loved. Not a day passed without Van looking at me as if I’d hung the moon and the stars that went with it. Every morning I woke up giving thanks to the heavens for bringing this man into my life.
We had it so good and it got better every day… no, every minute.
The best part was just at the beginning of this year; we finally decided to get pregnant. We’d held off a few years so I could finish school and establish my career. While I was adamantly opposed to medical school, which had been my original intention to follow in my dad’s footsteps, I couldn’t forget that I was damn good at math and science. I didn’t want to be a doctor, but I did love the thrill of research. It took me one semester to finish my undergrad and another two years to get my master’s in biology. It was more than enough to make my parents proud.
Life was settled and our next big adventure was a baby.
Christ, we already fucked like rabbits and I didn’t think we had any more room in our lives for sex, but Van proved me wrong. He was always pouncing on me and when he’d come deep inside me, he’d groan, “That’s it, baby. Take it all from me. Let’s see what we can make.”
My thighs press together because that memory leaves an ache not only in the center of my chest. My eyes flutter open. I miss my husband and he’s only been gone a few days. Pain lances my heart as I know he left with no intention of returning. Our last argument made it clear that my husband was broken and didn’t want to be put back together.
When Arco’s biography came out two weeks ago, Van spiraled rapidly. He went from horror at the revelations to anger to melancholy. I tried everything I could to reassure him, but he didn’t want to hear any of it from me. He was standoffish, mean and insulting. I’ve seen that side of Van before, so it didn’t shock me. Hell, that defined his core personality when we first met, but I was driven by the hope that I would break past those walls he erects when he’s scared.
I did it once before and I could do it again. I had faith and hope and I’m relentless when I want something.
Then came the day that changed everything.
“I don’t want kids,” he said in the middle of an argument, and it knocked the breath out of me. Not that we’d been having sex since the book came out. That essentially killed our libidos and Van was sleeping in the guest room.
“You can’t mean that,” I gasped.
“I’ve never been more serious about anything.” His glare locked on me was resolute and I heard the certainty in his voice.
“But… why?” My head was spinning. I couldn’t fathom how all of our joy in creating a new life could be doused so quickly.
When he responded, it chilled my bone marrow. His tone was mocking. “Little Arco. Killer. Rapist. Freak.”
“What?” I whispered, not understanding.
“That’s what they called me,” he sneered. “That’s what little kids do when they want to be mean. That book will ensure our kids hear the same. They’re going to be called names and vilified all because their father happened to be spawned by a sociopath.”
“No.” I shook my head adamantly. “You’re wrong.”
“I’m right and you know it,” he said quietly.
I railed against him, using logic, pleas, tears and flat-out tantrums to get him to see he was wrong. None of it worked and finally, I capitulated and abandoned my hope of having a family with Van. I decided it would be enough for me that I have him.
I found him on the back deck after work one day. He was drinking a beer and staring sullenly at the woods. I moved to him, draped myself over his lap and died a little inside that he wouldn’t embrace me.
I put my palms to his face. “I don’t need children, Van. I only need you.”
I was shocked to see the look of horror on his face and he pushed up out of the chair, nearly dumping me to the ground. I scrambled from his lap and he stormed into the house. I followed, incredibly pissed.
“What the fuck, Van?” I yelled at him.
He rounded on me, pointing an accusing finger. “You’re not doing that to me or yourself.”
I threw my hands out in exasperation. “Doing what?”
“Denying yourself something you want or making me feel guilty about it.”
“I want you!” I yelled at him. “Despite the fact you’re being a fucking idiot, I want you. I’ll give up kids for you. We’ll be fine.”
“You don’t fucking get it, Simone,” he bellowed, stomping over to the kitchen table. He picked up a copy of the hardback biography. I foolishly bought the damn thing so I could read it and let him know it wasn’t that bad. He held it up, shook it and snarled. “This changes everything.”
“It doesn’t,” I yelled back. “Nothing in that book touches you, Van.”
The pain in his face shredded me, but then I was terrified as he roared at me. “It doesn’t just touch me, Simone. It suffocates. It kills. It annihilates.”
Then he whipped the book across the living room, into the kitchen, where it crashed into a shelf of collectible mugs. They exploded, shards of pottery spraying everywhere. It was the only time Van had exhibited a violent tendency in my presence and it scared me. I took a few wary steps back.
He noticed it, too, and pounced on the meaning behind it. “See?” he growled low. “You think you know me, but maybe I’m just like Arco. Maybe I like hurting things.”
It took me about half a nanosecond to understand what he was doing. He was trying to force me to abandon him and I wasn’t going to do it. He tried once before and it didn’t work. “You’re being ridiculous,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “Break all the damn pottery, for all I care. I’m not giving up on you. On us. We don’t have to have kids.”
Van sighed, raking his hand through his hair. He’d let it grow a little longer since leaving the league and I loved it. “You might not be giving up on us, but I am.”
“The hell you are,” I screeched. “You don’t get to quit me. You know I’m a stubborn bitch, Van, and I’m never giving up on you.”
Something changed in him… that very second, I saw it. I’m not sure if it was the sputtering of the flames in his eyes or the way his shoulders sagged slightly, but it scared me. “The past three years have been a farce, Simone. I’m still the same asshole you met on my front porch three years ago. I was blinded to the truth because you dazzled me so much.” Van stepped into me, his expression so serious, my stomach flipped end over end. His gaze roamed my face and when it came back to lock with mine, he shook his head sadly. “You’ve lost your shine and I can see that very clearly now.”
The tears came immediately, blurring Van’s body. There were no words he could’ve said that would’ve hurt me more. It was a slap to a beautiful part of our history together.
After the first time we had sex, he tried to rebuff me and I knew it was because he was scared to develop a connection. He was such a dick and tried to scare me off by showing me just how mean he could be. “Now that you’re wearing my sweat on your skin, you’ve sort of lost your shine. Time to move on.”
That didn’t hurt me then and the memory of it doesn’t hurt me now.
But what tore my soul from my body when he said those words just now was because we had made a joke of it.
Me being shiny to him.
I often asked, “Am I still shiny?” and he’d always tell me I was the shiniest.
He’d often tell me that would never change. It was a promise of forever.
I cried freely, for once not hiding my sadness from my husband. Through the layer of tears, I watched as Van walked away.
Right out the front door and I heard his truck rumble out of the driveway.
He never came back.
Well… at least not when I was home. I went to work the next day, hardly able to concentrate on my projects. I pretty much spent the entire time in my head, figuring out how to make my husband see reason. By the time I left, I had resolved that this was going to be a long-haul battle and I would dig in deep. Van was not getting away from me.
Except when I got home, he shattered all of that. His drawers and closet were empty and there was a note on the kitchen table, short and to the point.
I’m signing a contract with the Pittsburgh Titans. I’m going to find an attorney there that can help process a divorce. I’m sorry.
And that was it. The fucker didn’t even bother to sign his name. I was beyond enraged when I realized he’d been planning this for a while. There’s no way he just picked up the phone yesterday and found a way back into the league. His agent had to have been working on it since the book came out.
That evil asshole Arco VanBuskirk sold his life story to some gold-digging biographer and that book ruined my entire life.
It was a week ago that Van left and I haven’t heard anything from him.
I claw out of the bad memories, pushing myself up from my chair. Malik is probably right. I shouldn’t chase a man who doesn’t want me anymore, and honestly, I’m exhausted to the bone. My husband abandoned me because he couldn’t handle the hard truth of his life. It’s grounds enough for divorce both legally and emotionally.
My phone buzzes, short bursts of static sounds indicating a barrage of incoming texts.
Proving that I’m still a sucker, I lunge for it, thinking it could be Van.
Malik has now added Lucas and Max to the conversation. All three of them are hammering at me.
Malik: If you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to collective reasoning.
Max: Baby sis… you got to let him go.
Lucas: Simone’s never made the best decisions, as evidenced by the fact she got caught up with him in the first place. I say we kill the motherfucker and end it now.
Malik: You know I can make that happen with the snap of my fingers.
Max: Lay off, guys… Simone’s a smart woman. She’ll do the right thing.
I toss my phone and ignore their conversation. They’ve always been overprotective bullies when it comes to me, and if it makes them feel better to flex their brother muscles, so be it.
Sauntering into the bathroom, I transfer my toiletries to my travel case. Nothing my brothers have said has changed my mind.
And it doesn’t matter that Van deserted me and is apparently getting a lawyer to file divorce papers.
I’m never fucking giving up.
Besides… my eyes drift over to the rectangular piece of plastic sitting on the vanity next to my toothbrush holder. It’s been there for two days and it has become my main driving force.
I pick it up, examining the bold plus sign in the window.
“Joke’s on him,” I mutter and toss the positive pregnancy test in my travel bag. So much for Van deciding he doesn’t want children.
As I drive home from the arena, I take stock of my emotions. Truly, I thought I’d feel different following my first game back. I skated on the third line against the Columbus Hawks and had a decent game, considering I’ve been out of professional play for three years. My conditioning held up and fueled by adrenaline, I wasn’t as rusty as I thought I’d be. The win felt fucking good.
It’s just… once I walked out of the locker room and left that all behind, the emptiness returned. Of course, I also felt empty walking into the arena and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out I’m mourning the loss of Simone and the game only took my mind off things temporarily. Granted, I’m the one who cut her loose, but it doesn’t mean it’s not without effect.
I declined invites to join the team over at their postgame hangout place called Mario’s. Despite assurances and support from the owner, team management, coaches and players, I’m too on edge over Arco’s book to open myself up to anyone. I dread the inevitable questions and the risk of reporters chasing me into a bar is too real. I don’t want to fucking deal with it and besides, I’ve never been a big people person, anyway.
At least not before Simone came into my life and now that she’s gone, it took no time at all for me to regress to my surly, walled-off self. Self-preservation and being alone—this is where I feel safest.
I’ve never felt actual hate toward a single person, but I feel it pulsing throughout me every time I think about him. If he weren’t dead already and I could get away with it, I’d murder him in cold blood without a single ding to my conscience. He was pure evil, a sociopath who thrived on not only raping and killing but on torturing his son after it was all said and done.
I visited Arco three years ago—ironically after Simone and I had been intimate for the first time. He had lung cancer and was dying. I was a glutton for punishment, so I went to see him. Not because I loved him and not because I needed to make my peace with all the heinous things he’d done.
I needed to know if I was anything like him. Three days after he was convicted and sent to prison, my mother killed herself. She couldn’t handle the truth and took a handful of pills, knowing I’d be the one to find her body. It was my aunt, Etta Turner, who whisked me away to California, changed my name from Grant VanBuskirk to Van Turner, and helped me start fresh. I grew up away from the spotlight, hidden behind a new name and a new mom.
But I never forgot my dad or the horrific things he did to women. And I knew all the gory details since my mom forced me to sit through his entire trial at the tender age of eight. I never stopped wondering if I was anything like him since his DNA gave me his physical features. We looked a lot alike, and I was terrified my insides matched his.
That visit confirmed we were nothing alike. He was a self-centered, cruel narcissist who tried to torture me emotionally during that very short visit. I left with all my questions answered and wiped my hands clean of him.
Of course, Arco wasn’t done with me. He spilled my true identity to an independent reporter who wrote a hack piece opining that I was probably as crazy as my sire. It nearly destroyed me that my shameful secret was revealed to the world and I almost lost Simone because I reacted badly to it. I tried to push her away and crawl back into my fortress of solitude. Luckily, I quickly realized my mistake and rectified it.
Fortunately, Simone is a forgiving woman who loves me to the depths of her soul.
Sucks that it’s not enough this time, because when that tell-all biography came out, it sealed my future. While I could reason with myself that with Arco dead all the sordid details of what he did and the interest in it would fade away, the fact that the biography hit the New York Times bestseller list ensured it would never go to the grave. I was always going to have to deal with it and if it was just me, fine… I’d deal.
But now it was going to follow Simone and haunt our children. The thought of my kids suffering the same abuse and bullying I did simply by being related to Arco was untenable. That book ensured I would never procreate and put anyone else in harm’s way to suffer Arco’s sins.
I’d probably stay immersed in these wretched loops of painful memories if not jolted by the car parallel parked in front of my house. Normally, I’d drive right by, turn down the next street and loop into the back alley where my garage sits, but the green Vermont license plate catches my attention first, followed by the immediate recognition of Simone’s BMW.
My head swivels to see her sitting on my front stoop, the porch light illuminating her clearly. She doesn’t see me, head bowed over her cell phone. She has three pieces of luggage sitting beside her.
“Fuck,” I growl, slamming on the brakes and leaving rubber on the asphalt.
Her head pops up to lock eyes with me through the passenger window. There’s no mistaking the stiffening of her shoulders or the wariness in her expression. I’m sure she can see I’m pissed, but even as angry as I am she followed me here, I can’t say I’m surprised.
It was probably expected and I refuse to let myself admire her for it. Her tenacity and sheer bullheadedness are two of the reasons I was so attracted to her when we first met.
Shifting into reverse, I whip into the spot right behind her and exit my truck. I round the back end, cross over the sidewalk and come to stand at the base of the stairs.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I snarl, hoping to scare her into submission. “And how the hell did you even find me?”
“Malik,” she says. Of course it would be Malik. He works for a company that can locate anyone in the world. Hell, they located him when he’d been kidnapped in Syria and held prisoner in a hole in the middle of the desert for months.
“You need to go,” I say, pointing back at her car.
“Goddamn it, Simone. You’re not welcome here.”
“I’m married to you and any home you live in is considered marital property, so I’m allowed to be here as much as you are.”
That’s bullshit and she knows it.
“And what are you hoping to accomplish?” I ask, throwing my arms out in confusion. “Other than pissing me off.”
“I like pissing you off,” she says as she rises and dusts off the back of her jeans. “And I’m here to make you see reason. I’m getting you back.”
I scrub my hands over my face, at a loss for what to do or say.
“If you wanted to play professional hockey again, why didn’t you just tell me?” Simone asks softly, and I’m knocked off-kilter by that question. “I would have supported you. I would have uprooted myself in a nanosecond to let you pursue that dream.”
Christ, I know she would and it’s why I love her so much. But I’m not about to tell her that. “I didn’t tell you because coming back into the league was my escape plan. I didn’t want you to follow me.”
Hurt flashes in her beautiful hazel eyes. “That’s cruel.”
“I told you before that I wasn’t a nice man and that I was going to hurt you one day.”
“I remember. And you did hurt me once and I forgave you for it. I’m going to forgive you for this as well. Just out of curiosity, how long had you been planning this escape from me back into the league?”
“The day the book came out,” I admit truthfully. When a reporter called to ask me about it, and I realized what was happening, I called my agent that very same day. I knew right then that I would never drag kids through this and I’d have to cut Simone loose so she could live her dreams.
Simone crosses her arms over her chest. “You should have just left that day, then. It would’ve been a lot easier.”
“I know,” I mutter. “I’m kicking myself.”
“A lot easier on me, you asshole,” she barks, marching down the steps to come toe to toe with me. She has to tip her head back to see my face. “I don’t care if it’s hard on you. In fact, I don’t believe it is hard on you. You don’t seem to give two shits that you’re ending our marriage. You don’t care that you’ve hurt me.”
My hand flies out so fast, she squeaks with fright. I grasp her around the back of her neck and pull her in closer. “Don’t ever say I don’t care about you. It’s because I care I’m doing this.”
That earns me a solid punch to my stomach and it hurts enough I release her. She steps in closer, pokes a finger in my chest. “You’re a moron and a coward. But that’s okay. You used to be that way once and I managed to turn you around. I’ll do it again.”
“Jesus Christ, you’re fucking nuts, Simone,” I yell at her. “Why can’t you just accept this and be done with it?”
“Because I’m not a quitter,” she seethes. “I’m back in your life and I’m going to do whatever I can to get your head out of your ass.”
“F-u-u-u-c-k!” I bellow, clasping my hands on top of my head. I’m so pissed I think it might explode. I take in her resolute stare and cannot even deal with her. I brush past her, jogging up the steps with my keys in hand.
She follows behind me and when we reach the top, I spin and put my hand out to stop her trajectory. It presses into her chest and I hold her at arm’s length. “I don’t want you here.”
“Too bad. I’m your wife and you love me.”
“I don’t want you anymore.”
“Liar,” she retorts.
She’s infuriating and so fucking stubborn that I have to resort to cruelty. “I don’t love you, Simone. Not enough to work this out.”
“Such a liar,” she says as she smacks my hand away and moves to the door. “Get my bags, will you?”
“No way. You are not staying here. Go to Malik’s house.”
Challenge and a devious glint spark in her eye and my pulse skitters with dread. Simone knows how to get her way. “What’s wrong, Van? Afraid of me? Afraid your resolve might not be that strong? That you can’t hold up against me? I toppled you once and it wasn’t that hard.”
Okay, now that just affronts me on a competitive level. It’s true that Simone was like a dog with a bone when she came after me before, but she has no clue the level of sincerity or deep belief I have that I’m doing the right thing.
I don’t take the bait. Instead, I say, “I’m giving you about thirty seconds to clear off my porch or I’m calling the police to say you’re trespassing.”
“You call the police and I’m calling every news agency in Pittsburgh to have them record the police removing me from my own home. I’m sure they’re going to love hearing the entire story of how you’re abandoning me because of some stupid book.”
Rage flashes hot through me from my complete loss of control. I wouldn’t put it past Simone to do just such a thing.
My mind spins. The woman is absolutely too fucking tenacious. When she set her sights on me, she poked at me over and over again, impervious to my insults to get her to back away.
Simone knew no bounds and had no shame. She moved in without an invitation to the house I was sharing with her brother, Lucas, and immediately decided she wanted me. Provocation was her game and she stepped over boundaries whenever she felt like it.
Once she came into my bedroom.
“What the fuck are you doing in here?” I snarled.
She pursed those utterly kissable lips. “Just trying to get to know you. You make it kind of hard, you know.”
“I don’t want to know you. I’m a temporary roommate to your brother. You’re just a houseguest.”
She pouted and I had a million dirty fantasies about that mouth. “Now that just hurts my feelings.”
“Apparently not enough to drive you out of my room, though,” I snapped.
“Come on, Van.” She tried for a begging tone, but I could tell that woman begged for nothing. “Give me a shot. I make a fun friend, and if you’re interested in a benefits package with that friendship, I’m fucking dynamite in the sack.”
I was stunned stupid. “You did not just say that to me.”
She batted her eyelashes. “Why not? It’s the twenty-first century. Believe it or not, women have a firm grip on their sexuality. Some of us even—and don’t get too bent out of shape about this—actually like to have sex.”
I felt like I was in a bad dream, unable to come up with a good comeback, and on top of that, my dick twitched.
“I really, really like to have sex,” she added. “And you look like you’d be fantastic at it. I mean… I’m fantastic. I’m also quite bendy in bed. My flexibility is—”
My dick more than twitched, it started to swell and I bolted from my room. Six foot six of solid muscle and meanness out on the ice and I was running from her.
The more Simone rattled me, the harder she came at me. The harder she came at me, the easier I wore down until she provoked me into action. Forced me to acknowledge the boiling lust for her and I took what she offered.
That changed the entire trajectory of my life. Led me to my greatest love.
And now, my greatest loss.
I cannot go back there again. It was too hard walking away from her last week.
But it’s suddenly clear to me what I need to do. Telling her to leave and spewing lies that I don’t love her will not do the trick. They’ll just make her double down.
No… I need to do something different. Something that will frustrate her to no end and will have her running sooner rather than later.
I’m going to ignore her.
Turning my back, I unlock the door and enter my house. She scrambles in after me, assuredly afraid I’ll try to lock her out.
I don’t. Merely toss my keys on the small table by the door and disable the alarm at the wall panel. I unbutton my suit jacket. I hadn’t bothered with an overcoat because the short walk through the players’ lot in the arena garage didn’t warrant it.
“What are you doing?” she asks hesitantly, but I don’t look back at her.
“Going to bed,” I reply as I move through the living room.
“Aren’t you going to help me with my bags?”
“Nope.” I stop at the edge of the hallway that leads to the first-floor master. I jerk my head to the staircase. “There’s a guest room up there.”
“You want me to sleep in the guest room?”
“I don’t give a fuck what you do, Simone. But there are a few rules if you stay here.”
“What’s that?” she snaps, irritation written all over her beautiful face.
“Don’t come near me. Don’t talk to me.”
She scoffs because I can already tell she’s deviously brainstorming ways around that. “Is that all?”
“You’re a roommate. Nothing more. I expect you to have a care for this house and my personal property inside of it. As such, don’t you dare leave it without locking it tight and entering the alarm code.”
“Fine. Give me a key and the code.”
I shake my head, leveling her with a viciously triumphant smile. “Yeah, that’s not happening.”
“Then how do you expect me to come and go?” she asks.
“Not my problem. Preferably, you would just go, but if you’re going to pursue this stupid idea of brow-beating me into getting back with you, I don’t have to stick around. I plan on being out of this house as much as possible and you’ll just have to stay behind to make sure it’s safe.”
“I won’t be kept prisoner,” she says with confidence.
“You won’t risk someone stealing things that are important to me. You won’t risk someone stealing your stuff. So I’m guessing you’ll stay put.”
She rolls her eyes. “You know this is so childish.”
I lift a shoulder. “Just establishing clear lines. Stay on your side, okay?”
I can see she’s flummoxed and a thrill sweeps through me that I have the upper hand. She chews on her bottom lip, her gaze darting around, trying to figure out how to get back on top. I’ll let her stew on it in private.
Smiling to myself, I head into the master bedroom and lock the door behind me.