Home > Baden (Pittsburgh Titans #1)

Baden (Pittsburgh Titans #1)
Author: Sawyer Bennett





Two memorial services back-to-back.

Yesterday, I eulogized my best friend, Wes, as his parents sat in the front row of their family’s church in Montreal. It’s the same church my family and I attended when I was growing up.

It’s where I first met Wes. We were friends from the start, long before either of us knew we’d love hockey or even be good at it. Only three months apart in age, he was the man I went to for advice on everything.

I was the man he came to for the same.

And now he’s gone, and I’m shattered.

I’m sitting in the Titans’ hockey arena for a collective memorial for all the people lost in the plane crash. The organization wanted something for the public, as the massive outpouring of shock and grief was crippling to many of the fans. Season ticket holders got seats, and the remainder were opened up for a lottery.

The arena—also used for the city’s professional basketball team—was free of ice today. Upon the court flooring, rows of chairs seated family members and friends of the victims. I was afforded one of those chairs and was representing the Hollyfield family. Wes’s parents didn’t have it in them to come to this service, having just buried him yesterday.

I wish I hadn’t come.

Every person who has had a turn at the podium is like a knife driving deeper into the wound. No one can stand up there and put a positive spin on things the way you might at the memorial service for a single individual.

In that instance, it would be perfectly acceptable to say, “He’s in a better place,” or “Time will ease the pain.”

But fuck… when you have dozens of people obliterated from the face of the earth, it makes every new, sad speech about it feel like torture.

Forty-two people died when that plane crashed, and it wasn’t instantaneous for some of them. It was a horrific crash upon touchdown where the plane cartwheeled before breaking apart and catching fire.

If a plane drops out of the sky, you can guarantee death happens in a millisecond and is painless as the aircraft hits with the force of a bomb.

This plane did not fall from the sky. Some of those passengers suffered before dying.

But they all died.

Two pilots, three flight attendants, five coaches, twenty-two players, six player support staff, a general manager, a co-owner, a hockey operations analyst, and the director of team services.

Before the service concludes, I decide to make an early departure. I have no desire to stand around and talk to people. Many players from the league are here, a moratorium on all games in effect until the day after tomorrow as a league-wide mourning period.

I’m done with memorial services and grief.

I just want to get back to my life in Phoenix.

I had positioned myself in the back row in case I wanted to leave early. In safe places where I’m familiar with the terrain, I can walk without my forearm crutches. But I have them now, not only to navigate around the arena and masses of people, but because my legs have been weak with grief and shock since the crash.

I quietly move away from the seated mourners to an exit that will lead me to an elevator, which will whisk me to the main level where I’ll call an Uber. My flight back isn’t for another six hours but sitting in the airport’s club lounge is far preferable to this. I made my appearance. I grieved with everyone else.

And now I’m done.

“Mr. Oulett,” someone says before I reach the exit.

I stop, glance over my shoulder, and see a man in a dark suit striding toward me. I turn to face him.

“Mr. Oulett,” he says again when he reaches me, keeping his voice low. “I see you’re getting ready to leave, but Ms. Norcross was wondering if you would have time to talk to her. I know she was going to approach you as soon as the service concluded.”

My eyes about bug out of my head. There’s only one Ms. Norcross he can be talking about, and that’s Brienne Norcross, the co-owner of the Pittsburgh Titans. She was not on that plane, but her brother Adam—the other co-owner—was.

I have no clue how she’d even know who I was, much less why she’d want to talk to me. It’s well known across the league that while she owned fifty percent of the Titans hockey team, it was her brother who handled everything. She was more of an heiress owner than a hands-on type, although I imagine right now, she’s got no choice but to take over.

On the flip side, what in the fuck is left to manage? The entire team is dead.

“I’m not sticking around for the end,” I say to the man, presumably one of Ms. Norcross’s assistants.

“I understand, sir,” he says with a slight bow. “I can escort you to the owner’s box and you can wait there. I believe the service should be done in about fifteen minutes.”

I really want to leave, but it would be rude to do so when I’ve been specifically requested for a talk with the now-singular owner of a dead team. So I nod and follow the man as he leads me to the owner’s box.

Brienne Norcross is a beautiful woman, but I don’t know much about her other than she inherited ownership with her brother, Adam, when their father passed away two years ago. I don’t know her age, but I’d guess early thirties. She’s dressed appropriately in black, her pale-blond hair pulled back into a tight knot at the nape that accentuates every curve and angle of her face. Her eyes are a deep blue, but they’re rimmed red from tears, and dark circles indicate she hasn’t been sleeping.

Can’t blame her.

“Mr. Oulett,” she says as she strides into the owner’s box, the assistant who brought me up here on her heels. He hangs by the door. “I’m Brienne Norcross.”

She holds out her hand, and I take it, having ditched my crutches in favor of leaning an elbow on a tall table. “Ms. Norcross, I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances.”

“Please call me Brienne,” she says, and then politely asks, “May I call you Baden?”

“Sure,” I reply.

Our hands release, and she steps to the other side of the table, leaning her forearms on it and clasping her hands so she can face me.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I say, needing to get those condolences out. I have no clue what her relationship was with her brother, but by the tears swimming in her eyes, I’m assuming they were close.

She nods, faintly smiling. “Thank you. It’s still sinking in. I understand you were quite close to Wes Hollyfield.”

I’m shocked she knows such a personal tidbit about me, and it must show on my face.

“Forgive me,” she says softly. “I talked to Dominik Carlson about you yesterday, and he told me about your friendship with Wes. That’s how I knew you’d be here.”

Now I’m really fucking confused, and given the toll the last week has taken, I’m not in a good mood about it. “You talked to Dominik about me? Why?”

“I’ll need to rebuild the team, of course. And—”

I snort, hard and loud. It’s rude, and I’m unapologetic. “In case you haven’t noticed, my legs don’t work quite right. I get you need a new team, but I’m sure not your best choice for a goalie.”

Brienne’s cheeks flush pink, and she apologizes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good at what it takes to run a professional hockey team. Yes, I understand fully about your medical situation, but I’m not looking for a new goalie.”

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