A COLD, FLUTTERY SENSATION WHISPERS THROUGH MY CHEST. IT travels south, becoming a queasy churning that makes my gut clench.
I’m stunned speechless. Not that I’m a huge talker to begin with, but in other circumstances I’d at least be able to muster a fuck you or get lost.
But I’ve got nothing.
“My sources tell me you’re refusing to speak against him at the hearing,” the reporter pushes when I don’t respond. “Are you in support of your father being released?”
He’s not the only reporter circling. Several others lurk in the hotel lobby, sharks who’ve smelled my blood. A man holding a notebook and a woman with a cameraman in tow hurry over.
“Luke Ryder?” the woman says eagerly. “Do you have any comment regarding—”
Garrett notes my expression, and his own promptly hardens to stone. He barks, “No comment,” and then lays a hand on my arm to usher me away.
In the elevator, he gives me a grave look. “What floor?”
“Nine,” I say weakly.
A few minutes later, Garrett and I walk into my room. Word of the sharks downstairs has already spread through the Briar grapevine, because several of my friends are already in the room. They alternate between eyeing me uneasily and trying not to gawk at Garrett Graham.
“Dude, there’s a bunch of reporters downstairs asking questions,” Shane says grimly.
“Yeah, just saw them.”
I take a breath and go to the mini fridge. I grab a bottle of water, but I don’t uncap it. I just press it to my forehead. I’m feeling hot. Tight with discomfort.
“What the fuck is going on?” I mutter to the guys.
Beckett speaks up from the small love seat across the room. “Your old buddy Michael Klein gave an interview last night. Clips of it went viral.”
My jaw clenches. “What did he say?”
Shane meets my eyes. “Wasn’t great.”
“What did he say?” I repeat.
My friends give me the rundown. A sports blog ran video profiles on some of the Arizona players, including Klein. When asked about his previous relationship with me, he basically painted me as a goon with a temper who went after him for no reason in the locker. Oh, but don’t worry, Mr. Martyr went on to say, “It’s all water under the bridge,” and “He’s moved past it.”
But that’s not the part that went viral. When asked whether my actions after the World Juniors shocked him, Klein said he wasn’t surprised at all, seeing as how violence runs in my family.
“Fucking hell,” Garrett mutters in disapproval.
The reporter then took that statement and eagerly ran with it. Did some digging, found out about my past, and wrote a follow-up article. A source in the Maricopa Attorney’s Office apparently told them I was refusing to attend the hearing, and now it’s being posited that I’m not speaking against my father because I want him to be released.
What I want is to throw up.
Other bodies drift in, including Coach Jensen and Coach Maran, and soon there’s a full-scale meeting in process. My entire body feels itchy, like there’re ants creeping along my skin. Shane and Beckett know about my dad, about Owen, but nobody else does, and now I’m forced to stand there and discuss the darkest thing that’s ever happened to me.
I don’t offer details, not to the level I did with Gigi. I give my teammates only the gist of it. Dad had gun. Gun go bang. Mom dead.
They’re all stricken. Even Trager looks upset.
“It’s fine,” I tell them, so uncomfortable I want to crawl into a hole.
I wish Gigi were here, but she’s not coming until tomorrow. I’m sure if I called her, she’d hop in the car and break every speed limit to get here. But tonight was supposed to be about my team. Dinner, game tape, our last official night of a roller-coaster season full of ups and downs.
“Why is this Klein asshole giving interviews about shit that’s none of his business?” The outraged demand comes from Rand Hawley.
“For real,” Trager actually agrees with Rand. “I’m starting to think this dude deserved to have his jaw wired shit.”
I shrug. “He did. Said a lot of nastier shit in the locker room after the game.”
“What did he say?” Colson glances at me from his perch against the wall next to Garrett. They exchanged a hug when Case came in. I didn’t love seeing that.
“Nothing that bears repeating.” A sigh lodges in my throat as I look around the room. “You guys have played with me all year. You know I don’t have a temper. It takes a lot to trigger me.”
“So this fucking asshole was running his mouth back then, and now he’s doing it again,” Trager says. “You know what they’re trying to do, right? They’re trying to distract us with this superfluous bullshit so that our heads aren’t in the game.”
Angry murmurs go through the room. Me, I’m more impressed by the fact that Trager knows the word superfluous.
“Well, fuck that,” Rand pipes up, nodding at Trager. “It’s not going to work.”
“No,” Colson agrees. “It won’t.”
Coach Jensen finally speaks, his hard gaze landing on me. “We can skip the press conference tomorrow morning if you want. I have no issue telling the officials we’re not interested.”
There’s always a pregame press conference between the two teams, usually comprising of the captains and assistants. Michael Klein happens to be the latter.
“It’s fine,” I tell Coach. “I’ll do it.”
His dark eyes focus on my face. “Your head will be where it needs to be tomorrow?”
“Always,” I promise.
The coaches head for the door, along with Garrett, who claps me on the arm before leaving. Everyone else starts to disperse too. I walk various guys to the door and accept various words of encouragement that I don’t want to hear. I just want to be left the hell alone. I even wish Shane weren’t here right now, and he’s my roommate.
Colson lingers, then gestures for me to step into the hall. I flip the lock to keep the door open and follow him out.
“You okay?” he says brusquely.
I offer a faint smile. “You really care if I am?”
“I do. Also…” Case lets out a breath. “I never thought I’d say this in my life, but… I sort of miss you.”
He laughs. “Right? Who in their right mind would miss your prolonged silences and asshole remarks?”
I run a hand through my hair, and Case’s gaze fixes on my left hand. Just like that, his laughter dies.
“Christ, Ryder. You married my ex-girlfriend,” he says flatly.
“No, I married my wife.”
He’s quiet for a long moment, pale blue eyes focusing on his feet. Then he sighs again.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to, like, hang out with you guys. Just the three of us.”
“I wouldn’t put anyone through that uncomfortable torture.”
He snickers. “But I’ll get over it,” he says, shrugging. “You’re not a bad guy, Luke. I know you didn’t do this on purpose.”
“I didn’t.” I sigh too. “Can’t help who you fall for.”
“No. You can’t.” He sticks out his hand. “We’re good if you want.”
I shake his hand, but he surprises me by yanking me in for a side hug. I return it, giving him a determined look when we pull apart.
“I won’t let this Klein bullshit screw with my head,” I promise.
“Never thought you would.” There’s a steely look in his own eyes. “Those assholes are going down tomorrow. Don’t worry, we’ll make them regret pulling this stunt.”
The next morning, I awake to a missed call from Julio Vega. I’m instantly sick to my stomach, because I highly doubt the Dallas GM is calling to wish me luck in the finals today. Just happens to coincide with the fact that my sordid family history suddenly became hot news.
My hand is shaking as I step onto the balcony holding my phone. Shane is still asleep. I woke up ahead of the alarm, as if my subconscious sensed I missed a call from the man who holds my future in his hands.
There’s a chill in the air, and I wish I threw my hoodie on first. I stand there in a T-shirt and track pants, cold fingers scrolling to return his call.
“Luke, I’m glad I caught you. Sorry for the early hour.”
“No problem. I was up.”
“Some media storm you found yourself in,” Vega says, cutting right to the chase. “Way to draw focus away from what really matters, huh? It’s the Frozen Four. That’s what they should be writing about.”
My stomach twists into knots. “I’m sorry, sir. I had nothing to do with—”
“Oh, you misunderstand. I’m not laying the blame at your door. It’s those vultures. And judging by the source of the initial article, it seems your opponent was trying to unnerve you.”
“Well, I wanted to touch base and let you know you have the full support of myself and the franchise on this matter.”
I’m so shocked I almost drop the phone off the ninth-floor balcony. “I do?”
“Of course. Not only will you be part of the family soon, but it’s just common decency. You lost a parent at a very young age. That shouldn’t be made into a spectacle or a piece of gossip.”
I swallow. “Oh. Well, thank you, sir. I appreciate that.”
“I lost my mother at a young age too. Not under such appalling circumstances, but painful nonetheless. If you need anything—you want me to speak to the prosecutor in Phoenix, arrange for you to attend the hearing without it being a media circus—just let me know. We’ll do everything on our end to help.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And good luck today. We’ll be rooting for you down here in Dallas.”
After I end up the call, I’m embarrassed to realize I’m blinking back tears. But, Christ, the relief that gusts through me is almost an emotional release. I fumble with my phone to text Gigi, filling her in on the call with Vega. She’s awake too and texts back immediately.
I’m so glad, baby.
She’s still typing.
Maybe now you can stop waiting for the other shoe to drop all the time? Dallas wants you. They’re waiting for you. Stop doubting yourself.
I’ll try not to.
Good. Now go get something to eat and try not to overdo it during morning skate. Save it for the game.
I will. Love you.
Love you too.
I do my best to keep my mind relaxed, my body loose. After a very light game-day skate, I make my way to the hotel conference room for the press event.
Dread rises as I near the door. Fuck. I don’t want to do this. But I’m not going to run from it. I’m not a coward.
The moment I slide through the door, Coach Jensen pulls me aside and says, “Anything you don’t want to answer, just say, ‘No comment,’ understood?”
“Don’t feel bad about it or explain why you’re not commenting. ‘No comment.’ Period, end of sentence.”
Two long tables are set up at the head of the spacious room with a podium between them. I settle in a chair between Colson and Demaine. Coach sits at the far end of the table, a slim binder in front of him. Talking points courtesy of Briar’s PR gurus, I assume.
At the Arizona table is their head coach, team captain, and two assistant captains, one of whom is Michael Klein. I don’t even spare the curly-haired guy a look. I sense him watching me, but he doesn’t deserve acknowledgment.
To my relief, the first question, posed by a college sports blog, is about Briar’s season and how we turned it around to reach this point. Colson fields that one. He’s good with the crowd. Easygoing and articulate. The next question is directed at the Arizona captain. I’m starting to think I’ll get out of this unscathed when a female journalist addresses me.
“Some very shocking details were revealed about your family yesterday. Do you believe this will affect your mental state today?”
Jensen looks ready to intervene, but I lean toward the microphone to answer. “You say ‘shocking’ and ‘were revealed’ as if my background was a secret, something I was trying to keep hidden. It wasn’t. Anyone with a computer or phone could have known about my family history prior to yesterday. The fact that a bunch of people are talking about it now makes no difference to me. My head is always in the game.”
Shockingly, she drops it and nobody else asks about my parents.
One annoying reporter, however, does decide to bring up the other elephant in the room.
“Michael, the last time you and Luke were on the ice together, you were teammates in the World Juniors. That particular encounter ended poorly, is that fair to say?”
“Poorly?” he echoes derisively. “I ended up in the hospital.”
“It’s evident there’s still plenty of residual tension here,” the intrepid reporter hedges, looking between us. “Have you two spoken since Worlds, and have or are you willing to bury the hatchet?”
Klein just laughs into the mic.
The sound is grating and raises my hackles. Asshole.
I’m not the only one irritated by him. From the corner of my eye, I see Case lean into his microphone.
“I have a question,” Colson says. With a raised eyebrow, he looks toward the Arizona table. “For you, Klein.”
My former teammate narrows his eyes. His coach tries to intercede, but Colson speaks before he can.
“What’d you say to Ryder in the locker room to get your jaw broken? Because I’ve played with this guy all season, and he’s got the patience of a saint and the composure of a brick wall.”
There’s a beat of silence. Klein notices the room watching him intently and realizes he needs to provide some sort of answer.
Finally, he speaks through gritted teeth. “I don’t recall what was said that day.”
A curious woman in the front row addresses me. “Do you recall what was said, Luke?”
I flick my gaze toward Klein. Normally I would keep my mouth shut. Avoid the petty temptation. But his mocking laughter still rings in my ears. And this stain on my record that’s followed me for years has finally become too much to bear.
Being with Gigi has taught me that sometimes you simply need to let things out, so I shrug, moving close to the mic again.
“He said my mom deserved to die and that my father should’ve shot me in the head too.”
My response brings a whole lot of silence.
A few of the journalists look startled; others appear disgusted. In his seat, Klein’s face is bright red. His hand fumbles for the base of the mic, but his coach shakes his head in warning as if to say, Not a fucking word. Because nothing good will come out of Michael Klein trying to defend those statements.
I remember it vividly, though. Still hear it knocking around in my head sometimes.
Michael and I were always butting heads. Our personalities just never meshed from the get-go, mostly because Klein has a hair-trigger temper and an insecurity-fueled need to be the big banana. He wanted to be recognized as the best player on the team and was furious that I was better than him. We won the World Juniors because of the goal I scored. That ate him up inside.
I don’t even remember what started the argument in the locker room. Just normal trash talk at first. I ignored him, which only pissed him off further. He grabbed my arm when I wouldn’t pay him any attention. I shoved him off me. Told him he was a loud, whiny prick. Then he spit out that line about my mother and I snapped.
I don’t regret it. Even now, having to endure a bunch of strangers asking me about it in a press conference, I don’t regret wiring that asshole’s jaw shut.
And I’m going to enjoy every second of beating him tonight.
FIRED UP WITH JOSH TURNER
EXCERPT FROM OWEN MCKAY INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
ORIGINAL AIR DATE: 4/22
© THE SPORTS BROADCAST CORPORATION
OWEN MCKAY: YOU KNOW, JOSH, I SORT OF RESENT THAT QUESTION. Briar University just won the National Championship. Shouldn’t that be what we’re focusing on right now? What we’re celebrating? Why don’t you ask me how it feels knowing my little brother scored the winning goal in the Frozen Four? Because I’ll tell you—it felt damn good.
JOSH TURNER: I get where you’re coming from, and I certainly don’t begrudge their achievement. It’s a great feat. I’m simply reading questions from the live chat, Owen. The audience is asking this, not me.
MCKAY: Understood, but neither me nor my brother owe your audience, or anyone else for that matter, a comment regarding our father. We were both young when he went to prison. We haven’t had contact with him since, and we don’t ever plan to. We also have no interest in rehashing our past with the world. And yes, I feel comfortable speaking for my brother right now.
TURNER: I see… Hmm… Hank Horace from Tennessee wants to know if you can comment on the current state of the justice system in America, specifically the parole process—
MCKAY: No. Next question.
TURNER: All right… Oh, here’s a fun one. What is your go-to beauty routine, Sandy Elfman from California is asking. Are there any men’s products you would recommend?