In all my years of advocation in boardrooms, or getting pleasured in bed, I’ve never implored anyone for anything. I might have said please when it was warranted for politeness or because it turned on my lover, but I’ve never needed something so bad and so far out of reach that I had to beg for it.
I know how to distinguish between wants and needs, and I ignore wants because I’m strong.
If it’s a need, I know how to bargain my way to success because I’m smart.
But right now, I’m desperate, and negotiations aren’t working.
Setting aside the acquisition proposal because I can’t concentrate, I glance up for an appreciative look at the verdant grasses and summer trees punctuated by the corn and soybean crops of southeastern Minnesota.
It took us roughly an hour to get here from the Minneapolis airport, but I barely noticed, as I had work to do.
“About five more minutes,” the driver says as we get closer to the small town of Red Wing.
“Thank you,” I reply, letting my gaze wander over the scenery.
The Town Car my assistant scheduled isn’t a luxury but a necessity. It’s true, I don’t have a driver’s license, but I use a driver purely because there’s never enough time in the day to do all I have to do, and thus I work whenever I can. There’s not a time when I don’t have something major pressing on me. Outside of the four to five hours of sleep I get a night, I’m pretty much nose to the grindstone. I never had enough hours in the day to meet all my obligations before the Titans’ plane crashed, and now the added responsibility of team ownership has stretched me thinner than ever. Thank God for our general manager, Callum Derringer, who’s patiently guided me through the pains of learning how to be a good owner for this hockey team.
I really should use these remaining five minutes to get through the rest of the contract to purchase a small-town bank chain based out of Altoona. As the CEO of Norcross Holdings, the board will look to me for guidance on this matter. Is this is a good deal or should we leave it alone? It’s only one of dozens of major decisions I have to facilitate for my family’s empire.
Although family isn’t quite the right word.
It’s been my empire since my father died two years ago and my brother died in the crash a little over five months ago. I’m the designated Norcross heir left to lead our dynasty. It’s a multibillion-dollar legacy stemming from investments dating back to the early 1800s in coal, steel, oil, and real estate. Modern times led my family to establish Norcross Bank, which is now a national institution, and of course, we own the Pittsburgh Titans.
There are aunts and uncles and cousins galore, but none are qualified to sit in the CEO chair. My father groomed me to run Norcross Holdings, as my brother Adam really only cared about cultivating the Titans’ hockey team. Family members sit on the board and hold positions throughout the multitude of companies that fall under the main umbrella, but I’m the one who manages it all.
A pang of longing hits for Adam, followed by the cold hollowing-out in my chest that I’ve truthfully recognized as loneliness. While I am never alone—surrounded by business peers, acquaintances, some I’d call casual friends—I’m lonelier than anyone could imagine.
Adam and I were close and losing him sliced deep. He was the rock-solid, steady shoulder I could always rest a weary head on. He was kind, loving, generous to a fault, and the kind of man who was going to make some woman incredibly happy one day. He wanted nothing more than to find the future Mrs. Adam Norcross and have lots of kids.
It makes me sad he never found that before he died.
While Adam was a hard worker and put his heart and soul into the Titans, he was always able to disconnect at day’s end. It’s why I know he would have made an amazing father and devoted husband, because kids and a wife would have been his priority.
It’s virtually impossible for me to settle, and I have way too many responsibilities to take on anything else. I’m away from home by five a.m. every morning to hit the gym, and I’m in the office by seven. From there, it’s nonstop work, which often blows right through lunch and ends up in a business dinner of some sort. When I get home, it’s more work while I lie in bed with my laptop propped on a pillow, and if I’m lucky, I can squeak in fifteen minutes of pleasure reading. Usually, I fall asleep with my glasses perched on my nose and my digital reader sliding to the floor.
I repeat this seven days a week, and I haven’t had a vacation in years. While I’ll indulge in the occasional massage to alleviate knots in my shoulders and neck from stress and long workdays, the only other respite I have is Clay Bessel. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon who is as busy and driven as I am. We are friends with benefits. Sometimes that means he’ll be my date to a charity gala, and sometimes it means he’ll fuck my brains out if our schedules align.
I’d like to say we’re good together, but we’re not really together. Just two people who serve a particular purpose and happen to like each other’s company when we can fit it in.
My phone dings, nabbing my attention from a large dairy farm we pass. It’s Callum. Just got off the phone with Coen Highsmith. He’s coming back. He’d like to talk to you, though.
I exhale harshly, relief slumping my shoulders. Coen is an original member of the Titans and wasn’t on the plane when it went down—he was sidelined with the flu and therefore didn’t travel with the team.
One of the Lucky Three.
While I was successful in putting together a team to get right back on the ice, Coen wasn’t part of that success. He was mired in darkness—my guess is survivor’s guilt—and repetitively sabotaged his career with horrible mistakes.
It cost him the season after he was suspended for attacking a ref, and when I last saw him in April, he’d told me he was quitting hockey. It’s been heavy on my mind how we could get him turned around. Whatever did it, I’m eternally grateful.
I shoot Callum a quick reply. Best news I’ve heard in a while. Fingers crossed I’ll have more by day’s end. I’ll call him later.
Callum gives me a thumbs-up emoji, and I drop my phone on the leather seat.
The car slows and the driver hangs a left into the entrance of a neighborhood called Shadow Creek Estates.
Estate might be a bit of a stretch for the homes in here—they can’t be more than two to three thousand square feet and don’t appear to be more than a few years old, if the young trees dotting the yards and bordering the sidewalks are any indication. It’s a beautiful community, though. The landscaping is neatly manicured with pretty flower beds and ornate light posts on every corner.
I wonder if coming here was a mistake. This could end up being a colossal waste of my time, but I’m not one who easily gives up.
This is an absolute last-ditch effort.
The driver hangs another left and proceeds down a street with a dead-end sign. He follows it until the roadway stops and a cornfield starts. On the right is a lovely craftsman home in dark gray with white trim and rough-cut wooden beams along the veranda porch. Both doors on the double-car garage are closed, but a large motorcycle sits in the driveway.
“No need to get out,” I tell the driver. “If you can just wait here for me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replies as I open the door.
Stepping out, I smooth down the jacket of the pantsuit I’d chosen to travel in today. It’s ice-blue with a mandarin collar and slim pants of the same shade that come just above my ankle. My cream-colored Stuart Weitzmans are four inches, and some would consider them hazardous to work in all day. But I can run in these things, plus I like that the heel gives my five-seven height a boost. It provides a benefit when working in a male-dominated environment to be seen as strong, and sometimes that’s merely the illusion of being tall.
The motorcycle is a Harley, or so says the logo on the gas tank. I’m wondering if he has a visitor and if I’m intruding.
Not that it would stop me. I’m on a mission that’s incredibly important to the future of the Titans’ hockey team.
I start up the sidewalk, my heels clicking on the sun-warmed concrete. I make it no more than three steps before the front door opens and Drake McGinn walks out.
Physically imposing at a whopping six six, no man has a right to look so dangerous and sinfully sexy at the same time. I’m usually into clean-cut, freshly-shaven men. Clay has perfectly styled hair, ageless skin due to his religious use of vanity products, and the lean body of a runner. His hands are perfectly manicured and dexterous since he operates on brains and spinal cords for a living.
Drake McGinn looks like he just stepped off the stage of a dive bar after playing heavy metal all night. He’s covered in tattoos, and his beard, while neatly trimmed, is thick and not just a few days away from a razor. His blond hair is carelessly pulled back into a ponytail a few inches in length. Left unbound, my guess is it would fall just to his shoulders. Strands have loosened from the binding, framing a face that’s near perfect with a strong jawline, sensuous lips, and blue eyes that look like glacial ice as the sun hits them.
And those shoulders. They’re a broad, solid mass to his large frame, but in the net, he’s as light as a feather on his skates and as limber as a prima ballerina. His size makes it incredibly difficult to sneak a puck past him, and his agility and speed mean that any tiny hole he might leave uncovered can be shut off with ease.
He’s an exceptional athlete, or so I’ve discovered as I learn more and more about this sport.
It’s confounding to me that while I prefer my men in expensive suits, or just naked, I have to admit his well-worn jeans, fitted gray T-shirt, and heavy biker boots complete a package that would have most women falling at his feet.
I’m not most women, however.
His gaze lands on me, and his mouth parts in surprise before flattening in disdain. He barely spares me a glance before heading straight to his motorcycle, although he mutters as he passes by, “What are you doing here?”
“I’d like to talk,” I reply as I follow him.
“If it’s about the repetitive offers you keep throwing my way, the answer is still no.”
Yes, Callum has been working with Drake’s agent to get him back to the table, but he’s proved to be a very frustrating man. He simply doesn’t want to play for us, and that makes negotiations incredibly difficult.
“I’d still like to be heard,” I say as I watch him open a saddlebag on the side of the bike. He does nothing more than riffle through it before buckling it closed again.
“Don’t have time,” he says, lifting the helmet from where it hangs by its strap on the handlebar. “Have to be somewhere.”
“Where?” I ask, moving closer to him. “Maybe I could meet you after. Take you to dinner?”
Drake swings a long leg over the bike and sits. His jeans pull tight across his thighs, and I force myself to look upward. He dons his helmet and adjusts the chin strap. “I’m going down the road to have a beer.”
I bite my tongue because that’s not somewhere important. Not when the owner of a hockey team has flown in to meet with you.
Reaching out, I put my hand on his arm, and damn… those muscles under warm, tattooed skin are way too appealing. “Give me five minutes.”
Straightening the bike, he flips the kickstand back, and I notice once again how his hot-as-hell straddle over the beast of a machine tightens his jeans across his pelvis. I can’t help but look.
When my eyes slide up, he’s staring at me intently, and I’m powerless to look away.
His eyes narrow slightly, but there’s an underlying current of something hellish within those cold depths. “You’re checking me out.”
My hand falls away from his arm, and I step back. “I’m not.”
“You are.” He leans forward, props an elbow on the handlebar, and checks out my body with agonizing slowness. “You’re not very subtle about it either. You know, if you want to try to work out a deal with me, maybe we could go inside and negotiate further.”
The offer is crude, and God help me, causes my skin to flush. But I’m here on business. “Sorry, but I’ll pass. I have a boy toy at home if I need to scratch an itch.”
Drake’s head falls back and he laughs. His teeth are perfect, gleaming white. “A boy toy to scratch an itch? Jesus, lady, that’s pathetic.”
“What?” I exclaim, because it’s not that he insulted Clay, but he’s insulted my way of being.
An empowered woman who has sex when and how she wants it.
Also… he just called me lady, which is beyond disrespectful.
“I’m not a boy, and I’m not a toy,” he says with a smirk. “I’m the big leagues, and I don’t scratch itches. I create them, then soothe them, then create them all over again. I’m the type of man who would make you beg.”
I blink at him, stunned he’s talking to me so brashly, but I’m savvy enough to know he’s doing it on purpose to get a rise out of me.
His mouth curls into a wry grin. “Kind of like the way you’re here now to beg me to be your goalie.”
I’m absolutely speechless, and his smile peels back into a delighted sneer that he’s rendered me so.
Drake starts the engine and it bellows, filling the air with such a guttural burst of noise, I scramble backward.
Without another glance at me, he backs the bike out of the driveway. It emits a deafening roar as he pulls away.
I’m only befuddled for a moment when my business acumen kicks in. He’s not the first difficult man I’ve dealt with when trying to make a deal, and he won’t be the last.
He doesn’t intimidate me in the slightest, and now that I know what I’m dealing with, I will change tactics.
Like I said, I can run in these heels, and I do so now, flinging myself into the back seat of the Town Car. “Follow that motorcycle.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the driver says, and we take off.
Drake doesn’t speed but seems to like a leisurely pace through the countryside. As such, it’s not long before we catch up to him, and I see him in the distance, pulling off the road.
When we pull up, I take in the low-slung, cinder block building with peeling white paint. A dilapidated, crooked sign reads Duke’s Bar, and it’s exactly the kind of place I’d expect Drake to hang out. He’s already inside, helmet propped on his seat, another dozen bikes lined up in the parking lot.
“Do you want me to stop?” My driver is dubious, and I am too.
It’s with head held high that I step inside the bar, and it takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. There are no windows, and the walls are covered with dark paneling. The only illumination is from neon beer signs and lights over three pool tables.
There’s no place on this earth I could be more out of my element. Duke’s is a dump with a sticky floor and the stale, musty smell of sweat and beer.
Every head turns my way, and a glance around the bar tells me I might not be all that safe here. Grizzled-looking men with leather vests eye me like I’m a piece of candy.
A foreign, exotic candy, but sweet all the same.
Scantily dressed women with heavy makeup look like they want to kill me as I present a temptation they can’t offer with my fine clothes and confident bearing.
No matter… I’m Brienne Norcross, and I’ve stared down scarier foes in the boardroom.
I spy Drake at the end of the bar just as a young woman with a tight tank and flirty smile slides a beer in front of him. She’s pretty, braless, as evidenced by her nipples poking against the thin fabric, and I’m betting the type who doesn’t have one boy toy, but multiple.
Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that—more power to her—but I need Drake’s attention right now.
I march up to the bar and take the stool next to his. He doesn’t need to crane his neck to see me as he’s watching me through the mirrored wall behind the bar.
The bartender looks toward me, eyebrow cocked in suspicion, as if I had inadvertently wandered in off the street. “Can I help you with something?”
“Yes,” I say with an engaging smile. “I’ll pay for his beer, and I’ll have a glass of wine. What do you have?”
The woman snorts, and Drake chuckles.
“What’s the joke?”
“We don’t have wine,” she replies. “We have beer on tap and beer in a bottle. We’re not fancy here.”
My face flushes and I nod toward the taps. “Whatever he’s having.”
I let it remain silent between us until the woman returns with my beer and I give her a fifty. “Keep the change.”
She ogles the green in her hand before breathing, “Thank you.”
When she moves away, I angle toward Drake. “Is this how you spend your days? Drinking?”
“I’m having one beer.” His tone is unbothered. “That’s all I’ll drink when I’m driving, particularly on the bike.”
“Where are your kids?”
“They spend Saturdays with their grammie.”
“Your mom?” I ask, surprised he’s offering conversation.
“She’s the only one they got,” he replies irritably.
I pick up the mug and sip. The beer is awful, but I swallow. “You have other family in the area?”
Drake turns to me. “Just tell me why you’re here and the terms of your offer, so I can tell you no and you can leave me in peace.”
I hear it in his tone and see it in the iciness of his expression slicing through me. His patience is gone.
“I owe you an apology. A really big apology.”
During our first meeting in Pittsburgh when we invited him to talk, I said something heinously offensive, and it’s not something I’m proud of. He was there for us to gauge mutual interest, and I asked him about his kids, as I knew he was a single dad, specifically how he planned to take care of them since he would be traveling so much. It was about as sexist a remark as one could make, highly inappropriate to ask in a work setting, and I was a complete dumbass.
While Drake had already come in itching for a fight because of the way he’d been treated by the league in the past, it enraged him, and he’d basically told me to go fuck myself.
“It was an awful question,” I continue. “Completely inappropriate, and had you asked me the same question, I would’ve slapped you. I can only ask that you give me a little grace, as I was quite discombobulated following the crash and didn’t know what I was doing half the time. It was wrong, and I promise you, that’s not who I am.”
Drake doesn’t say anything but faces forward and studies his beer.
“I think you came into that meeting angry because of the way the league abandoned you. Betrayed you, really. And I think because I’m the owner, and I did something admittedly stupid, it was very easy to walk away from it all. So again, I apologize. I wanted to be a better representation of what this league could be for you. You were judged unfairly, and harshly—”
“What could you possibly know about it?” he snaps, turning my way.
“I know the gist of what happened.”
And what happened was a travesty. His wife—well, ex-wife now—accused him of gambling on his own team, and he was eventually blackballed from the league. This all happened while he was recuperating from knee surgery, and by the time he recovered and was ready to return, the Buffalo Wolves didn’t want him anymore. Nothing had ever been proven, but everyone chose to believe the worst. Even after an investigation exonerated him, no one wanted to be tainted by the scandal.
Our goalie coach, Baden Oulett, vouches for Drake. He’s a personal friend and apparently these stories were fabricated by Drake’s ex-wife as he was battling for sole custody of their kids. Sole custody was a necessity because his wife was addicted to drugs.
Ultimately, the courts decided that Drake was not only a fit parent but the best parent and awarded him sole custody. The kids’ mother was granted very limited visitation rights. That pretty much confirmed her allegations were false, but no one in the league has shown interest in him since.
I’m interested, though.
We made him a good offer, but he’s rightfully jaded. No one gave him the benefit of the doubt when the accusations landed, and the media was ruthless in their pursuit to shape it into a sordid story of drug abuse and gambling.
No one was interested in a single dad being set up by a vindictive woman.
By the time it died down, Drake had left the league in bitter disappointment due to the way he was treated, and he never looked back.
Until the Titans came calling, and I said some stupid things that caused him to flip us the proverbial middle finger and retreat back to his life in the Minnesota burbs where he’s raising his three boys.
“Please reconsider our offer.” I push my beer aside, leaning an elbow on the bar to face him. He gives me the courtesy of his attention. “I know you’re angry at what’s happened to you, but what better way to get back at them? To show everyone you’re still at the top of your game, and better yet, you have a team that believes in you one million percent. Join the Titans and make everyone who ever doubted you choke on it.”
“You don’t believe the allegations against me?” His expression is dubious.
“I’ve never, ever been one to believe rumors. I believe in things I can see and what I have proof of. Besides that, Baden vouched for you, and I trust him implicitly.”
He regards me before turning back to his beer. He picks it up, takes a long pull.
“We need you, Drake. Our team could be great, but we need a solid goalie.”
His laugh is mirthless. “You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for a solid goalie. There are a lot more secure choices out there.”
“That’s disappointing,” I say quietly, and he glares at me. “You’re a cocky son of a bitch. I’d expect a man like you to know your value as a player, and you know damn well anyone who gets you isn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
“The offers haven’t exactly been rolling in,” he grumbles.
“One offer has,” I retort. “And it’s a damn good one. We’re offering you money commensurate with a top-tier netminder. So leave the pity party behind. You’re being handed a chance that few get. It’s on the table for another forty-eight hours. Then it’s gone forever.”
I don’t say another word.
Elegantly turning on the stool, I hop my four-inch heels down to the gummy floor and walk out of the bar without a backward glance.
There are 2,668 billionaires in the world. The United States has 735, followed by China with 607.
Out of the top fifty, only four are female.
Brienne Norcross is on that list, coming in at number thirteen with a net worth of 47.3 billion dollars.
I googled it for no other reason than to see how out of touch with reality she might be after her surprise visit to my house last month. There’s nothing intimidating about the fact that she’s so rich she could buy her own country if she wanted to.
By all accounts, she’s a driven businesswoman who commands the respect of some of the nation’s—if not the world’s—most powerful men.
That’s right… men.
She’s a woman in a male-dominated business sphere, and she’s got balls of steel. She proved it by walking into that biker bar seven weeks ago and pushing her apology on me.
It’s an understatement to say I didn’t like it, but by the time she walked out the door after giving me forty-eight hours to decide, I at least respected her business savvy.
From an attraction standpoint, the woman had my attention from the moment I walked into the conference room at the Titans’ arena for our first meeting not long after the plane disaster.
My first thought was that she was a cold ice princess until she and I started trading insults and I saw a fire inside her. She’s a woman who would make you want to get burned.
Not ashamed that I’ve had more than one dirty fantasy about her since she sat down on that bar stool and basically handed me my ass. It usually involves me mussing up that sleek hair she wears knotted at her nape while she goes down on me.
Crude as it may be, I know that woman would give great head. Her proclamation that she had a boy toy in Pittsburgh wasn’t as laughable as I made it out to be. It means she loves sex, and as a progressive, confident woman, I bet she’s fucking brilliant at it. She’d be the type who would give it all she’s got and wouldn’t be afraid to demand the same in return.
Not that any of that matters.
I’m at her home now, getting ready to take my place with the Titans, so those dirty little thoughts need to be tucked away. Training camp starts tomorrow, but tonight Brienne is throwing a welcome-back party at her house.
Except it’s not really a house but a mansion. A muted red-brick monstrosity with a gabled roof, a turret, and lots of paned floor-to-ceiling windows ablaze with lights from every room. As I approach the front door, I hear music and laughter.
A lot of hope is circling around this season, and since I’ve committed to this team, I’m going to let myself be hopeful too.
It took me the full forty-eight hours to decide whether to accept Brienne’s offer, not because I was being stubborn and trying to piss her off, but because I truly had to think about the pros and cons. I’m raising three boys on my own. Sure, they have my mom to dote on them whenever she wants, and my sister will babysit in a pinch, but I pretty much care for them twenty-four seven. Having played in the league for nine years before my departure, I managed to invest millions, and now I never need to work a day in my life going forward. Because of that, I’ve had all the time for my boys because they weren’t getting any attention from their drug-addict mother.
Stepping back onto the ice would mean I needed to figure out whether I could do it in a way that kept my boys secure and feeling loved. They are my everything, and my actions are taken only with the total consideration of how my choices will affect them.
Ultimately, it was my sister, Kiera, who convinced me to go for it, and only because she proclaimed she would move to Pittsburgh with me to help out with the boys, as she has the ability to work remotely. She’s a devoted aunt to Jake, Colby, and Tanner, and with her willingness to help, I’d run out of excuses.
Inside the party, I search for Baden. While I know other guys from having been in the league for so long, Baden and I actually played together on the Wolves before he went to Arizona. I was the primary goalie and he was the backup, and we were tight. While I hated to see him go in the expansion draft, he blossomed in Arizona and became one of the best goalies in the league.
Until his injury, that is.
Now he’s a coach here in Pittsburgh, and we’ve come full circle. Except we’re not teammates anymore. He’s technically my boss, and I’m cool with that.
A bar sits in a spacious area to the right as soon as I walk in. It’s filled with antique furniture and what I’m sure are priceless works of art. I grab a beer and meander through the crowd.
Some might think it would be awkward to be back in an industry that totally betrayed me, but it wasn’t the players who did that. It was the owners of the team I played for—the Wolves—and after they released me, it was the owners and general managers who wouldn’t even look at me.
The players never turned on me, and those who were my friends stayed true. Those who were merely acquaintances listened to those who knew me, and their support came my way. It was probably the only thing that kept me sane during this last year—messages of support from players I barely knew on other teams.
I stop and have small conversations. Some of the guys who came up from the minors approach to introduce themselves. I’ve got a gift for remembering faces and names, so tomorrow when I step out on the ice, I’ll have a good head start on identifying my new teammates.
Someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn to see Baden wearing a big fucking grin. We clasp hands but can’t go so far as to clap each other on the back in a classic bro hug as we’re both clutching beers.
“Dude… you don’t know how fucking stoked we are that you’re here,” he says.
This isn’t a surprise to him. He’s the first person I called after my agent accepted the Titans’ offer. Baden has kept in touch and even helped me find a place here in Pittsburgh over the last few weeks.
“You settled in?” he asks.
“Mostly. I came by myself on the bike and met the movers day before yesterday. Kiera’s coming with the boys in a few weeks. She’s got to get some things settled at work.”
“So glad she’s going to be here to help out.”
“You and me both.”
Baden tips his head toward a hall. “Come downstairs. I’m in the game room with the gang.”
“The gang?” Last thing I want to do is hang out with the coaches or the administration. That’s what Baden is now, and while it’s different with him since we used to play together, I’m staying far away from anyone in management. It’s a line I don’t cross because I’ve been brutally betrayed by those who aren’t teammates.
I may have accepted Brienne’s apology for her ill-conceived comments about my ability to care for my kids, but I don’t trust her or anyone in management.
Baden, obviously, is the exception.
“The gang,” he repeats. “Gage and Stone, their girls, and mine, of course. I really want you to meet Sophie. You just missed Coen and his girlfriend, Tillie, but you’ll meet him tomorrow at training camp.”
“I’ve met him before. Cool dude. Assuming he got his head out of his ass?”
Baden barks with laughter. “Yeah, he did. Mainly because of Tillie. She’s a good influence. It’s new with them though, so I think that’s why they didn’t hang around too long.” He winks, but I don’t need the prompt. I get exactly what he’s saying.
I hear a woman’s voice off to the side, and my body tightens. I’d recognize Brienne Norcross’s slightly husky tone and penchant for directness anywhere.
Glancing right, I see her talking to a couple I don’t recognize. They’re older—maybe early sixties—and I’m guessing one of them is in upper-level management. Or hell, maybe they’re involved in one of the other companies within her conglomerate.
“Give me a minute,” I say to Baden. “I want to say hello to Brienne.”
“Sure thing,” he says, but I’m already turning from him.
The ice princess is looking especially gorgeous tonight. Her silvery-blond hair is loose and falls only to her shoulders. I’ve wondered how much there was, given the two times I’ve seen her, it’s been sleekly knotted in the back.
It shines like silk and softens the angles of her face.
She looks younger.
She’s wearing black pants with legs so wide I mistake them for a long skirt at first. The hem hangs low, and I get just a peek of a stiletto heel. If they’re as high as the damn shoes she was wearing when she visited me in Red Wing, she’s in danger of breaking an ankle.
Admittedly, those shoes were sexy as fuck.
Her sleeveless, cream-colored blouse dips just enough for me to see a hint of cleavage. Brienne’s skin isn’t pale, but it’s not quite tanned either. It’s creamy perfection and looks like it was made to be touched. Her only adornments are small hoop earrings and a thin gold necklace with some type of charm I can’t quite make out.
The whole ensemble is classy with a touch of sexiness I hadn’t expected. But maybe it’s just me who’s turned on by this ball-busting woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve been really turned on by someone.
I walk her way, and as I approach, the other couple fortuitously moves along. Her gaze catches me just before she starts to turn away, and a smile graces her lush mouth. Her lipstick is a deep red, but the rest of her makeup is understated, giving her a very Gwen Stefani vibe.
“Drake,” she says warmly as her hand extends outward. “I’m so glad you made it to the party. I wasn’t sure when you’d be arriving in Pittsburgh.”
Her skin is as soft as I’d expected, but her grip is strong. I can’t fucking stand people with weak handshakes, men or women.
“Got here a few days ago,” I say as our hands break apart. “Nice party.”
She glances around. “Well, it’s not like I cooked all the food. The caterers are the true heroes here, and my assistant did most of the planning.”
Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Still, I compliment her. “It’s nice you brought everyone together for some fun before training camp.”
She smiles and clasps her hands before her. “So, are you all moved into a home?”
“Yeah… Baden helped me find something over in North Shore, not far from the arena.”
“Avoiding a long commute?” she inquires. “A lot of the players live outside of Pittsburgh.”
“I want to be close to my kids when I’m in town,” I explain, and something shutters on her face. I expect it’s because she asked an inappropriate question about my children in our first meeting.
Brienne clears her throat and braves on. “You have three, right?”
I nod, a swell of elation and love hitting me just thinking about them. “Jake is about to turn seven, and Colby and Tanner are five.”
“Twins?” she asks in surprise.
“Double the trouble is what they say, but they’re good kids. My sister is bringing them in a few weeks, and she’s going to stay to help out.”
“That’s wonderful,” she exclaims and then looks to be struggling. “So, are they… do they… like, are they of an age they can read? I could send over books. Or maybe some toys. Building blocks, maybe?”
“You don’t know much about kids, do you?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “A distinct lack of experience of any kind.”
For some reason, this doesn’t surprise me. Brienne doesn’t give off maternal vibes.
No matter. Not looking for a mom for my kids.
Not looking for anything, really. Unless she wants to hook up, then I’m down for that.
And even as I think that, it occurs to me I give zero fucks that she’s my boss. She’s the one person who could slice me from this team with a twitch of her pen. She sits on the Titans’ throne, and that’s a line no player should ever think about crossing.
And yet… zero fucks.
It doesn’t even make me pause as I give her a bold once-over. She tips her head curiously.
“Where’s your boy toy?” I ask.
Her mouth parts in a surprised gasp that I’d be so impertinent, but the shock is no more than a flicker. Something flashes in her eyes.
Challenge, I think.
Brienne’s lips curve in a smile that’s both coy and sexy. “Tied to my bed.”
I can’t help but laugh because that was way too good of a comeback. I’m impressed with the speed at which she handles things and turned on at the thought of a woman confident enough in her desires to potentially have a man tied to her bed at this very moment.
Not that I’d ever let her tie me down. I have to be in the driver’s seat. It’s what happens when you’ve been badly burned before. You never give up control.
You trust no one, and that includes in the bedroom.
“I have to say,” she drawls as she lets her gaze run over me, “you clean up well.”
I’m wearing a pair of dress slacks and a button-down shirt, and while I might prefer my jeans and T-shirts, I know how to dress for the occasion. My closet has as many fine articles of clothing as it does biker wear.
I glance down at myself and then back up to lock eyes with her. “Admit it… you like the jeans better. And you sure as hell like the tattoos.”
Her eyes drop to the open collar of my shirt where my tats crawl up to my collarbone. When her eyes rise to meet mine, I can see she definitely likes what she sees.
But professionalism takes over. “Are you flirting with me, Drake? Because it would be considered improper.”
I shake my head and lean toward her. Dropping my tone, I give her the honest truth. “I don’t flirt. I fuck, and that’s it.”
Brienne gasps, not in horror or shock, but more like a tiny exhale of lust as her cobalt eyes darken.
I take advantage of the shock. “Boy toys flirt. That’s not me.”
“And why do I need to know the difference?” she asks. I’m pleased her voice is huskier than usual.
My lips curve in a wicked grin. “In case you want proof of what I’m saying.”
I watch in fascination as her eyes go from sizzling in contemplation to icing back over to the multibillionaire owner of an empire. “Not interested.” Her tone is bland… dispassionate as she glances over her guests.
“Oh, you’re interested,” I say knowingly, and her eyes fly back to me.
I’m most certainly flirting now.
Not with Brienne but with danger, because I’m quite sure I’m violating about a dozen sexual harassment rules.
And still… zero fucks given.
Any good psychologist would tell you I’m smacking back at the establishment that betrayed me. I’m lashing out and testing my limits. I might even be punishing the league, and she’s merely a representative of it.
You could probably say I’ve got residual issues, and I guess I’m taking them out on Brienne.
Not that I’m trying to hurt her because this woman, with her balls of brass and spine of steel, wouldn’t be hurt or offended by my assholery. She’s too strong for that.
To my surprise, Brienne’s teeth sink into her lower lip, as if she’s considering something about me. I half expect her to slap me or at the very least, lay into me for my audacity.
Instead, she seems pensive.
Almost wistful, and it causes a tightening in my groin that baffles the fuck out of me.
But she does nothing more than tip her head with a polite smile. “It was good seeing you, Drake. I expect great things from you out on the ice.”
She turns on those sexy-as-fuck heels and walks away without a second glance.
I take a moment, study the curves of her ass, and tell myself I’m not just messing with fire, I’m messing with dynamite.
And yeah, I think to myself, I have less than zero fucks to give about the danger that presents.
The team meeting room is called The Bowl because it’s shaped like one. Its center is circular, covered in dark, polished wood, and sits at basement level. It’s the same level as the locker room, coaches’ offices, therapy rooms, and the players’ lounge. It’s also the same level as the ice.
From the center of the room, rows of seating rise upward and outward. Five rings of seating split by three staircases. Surrounding the highest row is a walkway and railing, and on the walls are eighty-inch TVs spaced roughly ten feet apart around the entire circumference for us to watch game film.
I enter from the basement level, lifting my chin Baden’s way. He’s sitting in the front row with our new head coach, Cannon West, as well as our newest assistant coach, Gage Heyward. Gage transitioned from player to coaching staff this season, and I think it’s a ballsy move. Frankly, he played so well last season, I’d have tried to keep him on the ice for one more year, but I learned at the party last night he was just done with it.
If anyone knows what it’s like to just feel “done” with something, it’s me, so I respect his path. In addition to Gage, the team has two associate coaches, Sam Thatcher and Maurice Dupont. I met both last night, and they seem cool, but you never know until you get out there. I do know that Cannon West will be good for this group. He’s pretty young to be given a head coaching position for a professional team, but he’s apparently got a talent for connecting with people that can’t be ignored. At least that’s what Gage said last night.
Glancing around, I spot Coen Highsmith and Stone Dumelin sitting together. I met Stone last night, but Coen had already left by the time I’d arrived. We’ve met a few times over the years at games and such. I did watch with interest as he publicly fell apart this past season, and I’m equally interested to see if he’s gotten his shit together. He’s a skilled player and will be essential to this team’s success.
Sitting with Coen and Stone are three more players I met last night. All were down in the minors prior to the crash, so I don’t know them at all, but I do remember names.
Boone Rivers is a talented center who moved up to take Coen’s position last season after Coen’s suspension. Boone played incredibly well, so we’ll wait and see if those two will battle it out for that spot on the first line. The other two are the first-line defensemen, Kirill Zucker and Nolan Carrier.
Again, their spots are always subject to change based on how they perform in training camp. Some new players will be added this week since trades were made over the summer.
I know I’ve got a good shot at the primary goalie slot. I’ve got the most experience and the best record. Jesper Keane shows great promise, but a groin injury last season is slow to heal. Patrik Stenlund is too inconsistent to hold the primary slot, and I doubt at the end of training camp he’ll even have secondary. I saw Kace Elliott was invited as a goalie prospect, and he’s damn good, but not as good as me. I’ll still need to earn any spot I get.
I trot up to the third row and plop down next to Stone. The seats are big and wide to accommodate our frames and covered in buttery-soft leather. Each seat has a flip table that can be positioned across the lap, but we’re not here to take notes. This is merely a welcome meeting before the physiological testing starts. That will consist of on- and off-ice drills to test our strength and endurance.
I’m not worried about it as I’ve worked out more since leaving the league than I did when I was in it.
“You meet everyone?” Stone asks, indicating the players sitting in the immediate vicinity.
“Yeah,” I say, glancing down the line and giving the group a chin lift. I specifically lean forward and reach across Stone to extend my hand to Coen. “Good to see you back.”
Coen smiles as we shake. “Good to be back.”
The room falls silent, and I look down to see that Brienne and Callum have walked in. I expect they’re here to give traditional welcome remarks, but I’m still skeptical and distrusting of management. Granted, Brienne looks all kinds of hot today in a formfitting navy-blue dress with matching pumps. That hair is once again pulled back from her face, her lipstick cherry red.
There might have been a fantasy or two of ways in which I could mess up the coloring on her mouth, but I’m sure I’m not the first guy to think that about her—only the guy who might act on an opportunity because I don’t care if I offend anyone. No one gave two fucks about me when I was ostracized for something I didn’t do.
Brienne bypasses the podium off to the side and steps to the middle of the floor with Callum at her side. She turns slowly to look at everyone and holds out her arms. “Welcome, gentlemen. It’s our first day of training camp, and I can feel the energy in this room. I know you’re all excited to get started, so I’ll keep my comments brief.
“First, let me just commend the returning players once again for an amazing effort last year. Rebuilding this team and carrying on Adam’s work has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also been the most rewarding, so thank you for that.”
Unexpectedly, the room erupts into thunderous applause. I look around in surprise and join in. I wasn’t part of last year, but it’s apparent these men have tremendous respect for Brienne. She had no experience and did far better than anyone expected.
Hell, she got me here, didn’t she?
Brienne blushes, and it’s a nice look on her. She waves her hands and laughs. “Okay, no more of that. I appreciate it, but time’s ticking. The only other thing I wanted to say is that we have a fresh slate, and nothing is holding us back. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve brought Cannon West on as head coach, and with such a diverse and talented roster here at camp, I don’t see that we have any barriers to prevent us from excelling in this league. In other words… the sky’s the limit, gentlemen. Let’s all aim high, okay?”
Even though she asked us not to, another round of applause breaks out and several of the men yell and whistle their enthusiasm. Brienne grins as she does one more slow turn before exiting the room. My eyes are pinned on her as she leaves, and I muse long after she’s gone about what type of woman it takes to keep all this running.
I know there’s nothing she won’t do, as she proved by coming to Red Wing to talk to me in person. While it doesn’t make me trust her as far as her ownership and leadership go, I do respect her.
Callum Derringer speaks next, introducing Cannon West. It’s a story no one in this room really needs to hear, but it’s fascinating all the same.
He’s officially the youngest coach in the league at only thirty-six. He originally played with the Toronto Blazers and was a top-scoring left-winger. You always wonder about the things that are more important than hockey, and to Cannon, it was his wife. She had late-stage breast cancer, and he left the game to spend time with her, care for her, and watch her die. When she was gone, he didn’t return to playing but rather started coaching, first in Sweden, then in the minor leagues back in the States. He was pulled up from the Titans’ own farm team, the Greenville Mudcats, and while everyone agrees it’s a risk to give him such a pivotal role on this team, I haven’t heard a single person speak against it.
I met him last night at the party, and he’s one of those people you can’t help but fucking like. I’m excited to see what he can do to help this team coalesce into winners.
When Callum calls him up, he’s greeted by a rowdy cheer, and that probably has to do with not just our excitement that he’s here but because almost everyone is giddy that the former coach, Matt Keller, is gone.
Or so we discussed last night. I was filled in on the apparent glory of Gage putting him in his place when he made a disparaging remark about Jenna, and by putting him in his place, I mean he almost strangled the guy.
Another mark in the column for Brienne, I suppose. She fired Keller on the spot for the remark, and yeah, that’s surprising. Most management, at least in my experience, sides with the coaches over the players.
It makes Brienne a continued conundrum, but one I’m not going to put too much thought into figuring out. She’s hot in a way that should be illegal, but she’s also a distraction I don’t need, not to mention she sits across an employer-employee line I can’t cross.
Well, I could, but I shouldn’t.
Coach West pumps his hands downward in the universal sign that says shut the hell up, and the room silences. One voice in the back mutters, “Remember the shit show of our first team meeting with Keller?”
No clue what that means, but I’m guessing he was an ass from day one.
Stone leans over to me, his voice low so it doesn’t carry. “The asshat tried to make us all stand up and share our touchy feelings. Called on me and asked me how I felt about being here.”
I wince. “Jesus… what a douche.”
Stone’s brother died on that plane, and I can’t imagine a dumber question anyone could ask.
“Got that right,” he replies and draws back into his chair to listen as our new coach speaks.
“When my wife died,” Cannon says, and it’s a jolt to all of us those would be his first words, “I thought my life was over.”
He pauses, lets his words hang heavy in the air. No one so much as twitches a muscle.
“She was only twenty-seven, and the cancer took her fast.”
A knot forms in my gut. I lost a wife, too, but it was to drug addiction and it wasn’t fast at all. Cannon West loved his wife through cancer, and I loved mine as long as I could through addiction. I worked harder at helping her get free of her demons than I’d ever worked at anything in my life.
When she admitted to me in therapy that she simply loved the high more than anything else, I was done. I could forgive her for not loving me more than the drugs, but I couldn’t forgive her for not loving our kids enough.
In the end, Cannon and I both lost our wives. He loved his when she died, and I hated mine in the end.
And I didn’t even hate her for the lies she told about me, which ruined my career. I hated her because of what she did to my boys.
“My world was flipped upside down, and I couldn’t see a clear path. I lost hockey—at least the part where I’d step foot on the ice again. It’s not that I couldn’t physically do it, it’s just that I didn’t want to anymore.”
The knot turns into a lead ball that drops low in my abdomen. Fuck if this doesn’t hit close to home—that’s exactly how I felt when the league abandoned me. When they chose to believe my vindictive, cheating, strung-out wife that I was betting on my own games, it destroyed my passion for play. The thought of strapping on my skates made me sick to my stomach.
Still does sometimes, but here I am. It’s my chance to give it a go and see if my career can be resurrected, if my character can be redeemed.
West continues about how he pulled himself out of his depression by turning to coaching. “Caring for my wife while she was in hospice taught me that I’m good at giving of myself. And that’s what coaching is… giving. That’s why I’m here, to give all of you every bit of wisdom—even though some say I don’t have enough at the tender age of thirty-six—to give you my energy, my strategies, my comfort when you’re down, and most importantly, to give you your best chance at success.”
I jerk when Stone starts a slow clap next to me. It echoes throughout the room for only three beats before others join in. He stands, eyes locked on West in admiration. I follow suit along with the other players.
It appears that this opening meeting is far better than the one they had with Keller in February.
My legs are wobbly following our on- and off-ice tests. After the team meeting ended, we all headed to the locker room where our cubbies were like welcome beacons. They’re set in an arcing half circle rather than rows, resting on thick gray carpeting with the Titans’ logo in the center. I’d toured the facilities when I first came in February (before the infamous meeting with Brienne that pissed me off so much I turned down their offer), and I’m as impressed now as I was then. Norcross Holdings owns the arena, and they spared no expense.
We traded our street clothes for workout gear, followed by the first in a series of tests, including timed sprints, push-ups to a metronome until failure, pull-ups until failure, and bike sprints. Our results were recorded, and we were ranked against other team members, although those results aren’t made available to us.
Next, we geared up for the ice and completed another series of tests. I’m a goalie and as such, my speed and stamina are judged differently, but I still had to do the drills, including goal line to far blue line timed sprints, sprints to failure, and finally a sixteen-lap endurance test for time. I kept watch on the digital clock they set up, and I was right up there with the best of them.
I got into distance running this past year off the ice, and while it’s not necessarily apples to apples—running to skating—my endurance is the best it’s ever been.
Dressed back in jeans and a T-shirt, I head toward player parking where my bike waits for me. It’s a gorgeous seventy-five degrees here in the third week of September, and I intend to take a ride northeast of the city. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, developed during my hiatus from the game, but my obligations with the boys never seem to allow travel too far away. I plan on spending the rest of the afternoon riding wherever the road takes me.
Bypassing the elevator that services all levels of the arena, I beeline for the fire escape stairwell as the player parking lot is up just two floors and even my Jell-O legs can handle that.
“McGinn,” a voice calls out, and I look back to see Maurice Dupont, one of the associate coaches. “You’re wanted in Ms. Norcross’s office.”
“Now?” I ask in irritation, and it’s not lost on me that he addresses her formally as Ms. Norcross. Many of the people here do, but not all.
“I assume so,” he says with a pointed look. “She’s the boss, after all.”
“Goddamn it,” I mutter as I turn away from the stairwell door and move to the elevators. She’s on the top level, and no way I’m climbing that far.
Stepping out into the executive offices, I’m greeted by a receptionist. I don’t even have to give my name before she says, “Ms. Norcross is expecting you, Mr. McGinn. Her office is through those doors, left at the end of the hallway, and go all the way down. It’s the corner office.”
“Thanks,” I say and follow her directions. I find Brienne’s office easy enough, and the only reason I know it’s hers is that I can see her through the open door. She’s sitting behind a large, masculine desk with the Pittsburgh skyline behind her, framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows. To the right is a stunning view of the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers where they form the Ohio.
Brienne’s on the phone, but her eyes lock with mine and she waves me in. The plaque outside her door still bears her brother’s name, and I wonder if she’s left that in homage or if she’s been too busy to have it changed.
As I take a seat in a burgundy leather club chair, I take in the ornate, traditional furniture and dark colors of the artwork. I’m guessing all this was Adam’s, as it doesn’t seem to suit her taste.
Then again, her house—or rather, mansion—was filled with similar furnishings and décor. But that didn’t jibe for me either. I peg her as a progressive, modern woman who would appreciate sleek lines and airy spaces. She doesn’t seem to favor frills either. While I have no doubt her clothing is designer, she doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry, and once again, her makeup is simple and tasteful outside of that red lipstick, which I think might be her trademark.
I settle back into the chair, prop a booted ankle on my knee, and listen to her conversation. It has something to do with the Federal Reserve Board, and I’m lost in the first few seconds of my eavesdropping. I might not understand what she’s saying, but I do understand a woman who’s brilliant and knows her shit. I’d read that she has an MBA, but I have a feeling most of her smarts stem from firsthand experience. She was raised to run this empire when her father would no longer be able to do so.
She wraps up the call in less than five minutes and apologizes. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.” Standing from her chair, Brienne rounds the desk and sits in the club chair next to the one I’m in. She crosses one long leg over the other, looking as comfortable in those skyscraper heels as she would in house slippers. I can’t help but notice the bottom of her dress has a slight slit in the side, and her legs are smooth and bare.
They’d look good over my shoulders, no doubt.
I don’t even think to chastise myself for my lecherous thoughts, because ever since my ex went psycho, the only interest I have in women is of a physical nature.
And Brienne is a woman I can’t help but be interested in.
“How was the first day of camp?” she asks with a faint smile.
“It was fine,” I reply with a frown. “But that’s not why you called me here, so why don’t you cut to the chase? I’ve got plans.”
“Right.” She nods, and the smile vanishes. “There’s an article in the Times about you.”
Immediately, rage builds. It’s not that I expected my return to hockey to be ignored, but the fact that Brienne feels the need to warn me about it means the press isn’t flattering. “And what does it say?”
“It’s more about me than you,” she replies without any rancor. She clearly doesn’t give a fuck what people think about her, judging by the careless wave of her hand. “Questioning my business acumen in bringing you on. But this won’t be the first article, and eventually reporters will be asking you about it. So I’d like to get ahead of this, set up an interview with you and a trusted journalist who—”
“No,” I growl.
She blinks. “Excuse me?”
“Not doing it.” I stand from my chair, fists involuntarily clenching as I’ve been down this road before. Brienne rises, and I’m not sure what she sees on my face, but I’m guessing it matches the darkness within me. She walks over to the door to close it, and I’m so angry I can’t even appreciate the curves of her ass.
Turning around, she takes a few steps back toward me. “We can nip this in the bud if we—”
I stride to her, three long steps, and we’re toe to toe. She backs up, not in what I’d call fear, based on her expression, but definite wariness until she backs against the door she just closed.
Despite her more than average height and the ridiculously tall heels, she still has to tip her head back to look at me. She swallows hard and tries again. “Drake… we have to confront it. Otherwise, it will get worse.”
“For who?” I growl, pressing my palms to the door and effectively caging her in. “I’m guessing you think worse for you, but that’s your problem, not mine. I’ve been through this shit already, and I’m not getting sucked back into the public perception circus. Crystal told lies about me in an attempt to get custody of our kids. It was blatantly untrue, and no one should have believed it. I refuse to address those allegations again. They were put to rest long ago.”
I expect her to argue—I’d never expect her to give up something she felt was important to her or the team—but something flickers in her eyes. A sudden awareness of how close we’re standing, and I’m stunned when her eyes wander down to the base of my throat where she can see the start of my tattoos. Etched along each collarbone are two dates. On the right, Jake’s birthday, and on the left, Colby and Tanner’s.
Her chest rises as I dip my head to study her studying me.
Fuck if her hand doesn’t rise and come within an inch of my collar, her fingers curled to pull it down to see more. My breath freezes, and my body locks tight. I don’t know what I’ll do if she touches me, but it might be that I bend her over her desk and—
Brienne’s hand drops, and she ducks under my arm, sliding out of my trap and smoothing her dress. My head swivels slowly to look at her, palms still pressed to the door.
We stare at each other in what seems like an intense battle of wills, and I know there are a few things that could happen. I could kiss her. She could fire me. It could be she’d get down on her knees for me if I asked, or maybe she’d let me bury my face between her legs. Every single option is acceptable.
“I’ll issue a press release,” she finally says and retreats to her desk. “I’ll handle it.”
It feels like a snap of energy releases when she puts distance between us, and I sigh as I straighten. That wasn’t an option I’d considered, her absolute retreat from me.
I turn slightly, see that she’s picked up her phone and is flipping through something. She glances up, no smile and no warmth. “That will be all. Thank you.”
Fuck if it doesn’t rankle me, the dismissal.
I want to see challenge in her eyes, but I’m not getting it today. I give her a curt nod and walk out of her office.