Chapter no 32 – Cal

Bagging the Blueliner

SWEAT ROLLED DOWN MY back, soaking my T-shirt until it became plastered to my torso. Lost in my own world, I moved bales of hay from the inside of the barn to the outside, readying them to be loaded onto a trailer later in the day. We had more than we needed on the ranch, and the extra was sold to other ranches and farms throughout the province.

My now skin-tight shirt restricted my movements, so I reached behind my back, tearing it over my head. I wasn’t wearing sunscreen, but a burn was the least of my worries. I hurt everywhere anyway, so what was a little more pain?

As soon as the obligatory celebrations were done with, I’d beaten it out of Hartford on the first flight headed for Calgary. My parents’ ranch was only forty minutes from my mountain cabin, so I spent most days there helping out since my return home.

My career was over. I went out on top, seemingly on my own terms.

I had nothing but time. Too much time. Time spent thinking about Hannah and the life we could’ve had up here after my playing days were done.

Would she have wanted to remain in Hartford close to family? Or would she have wanted to spend the cold Canadian winters isolated in the mountains for months on end? Maybe we would have brokered a deal for a

hybrid of the two—Hartford in the winter and Canadian Rockies in the summer.

The world would never know.

Like a lovesick fool, my time doing backbreaking labor on the ranch was spent wearing earbuds and playing Hannah’s demo track on a loop.

How could I move on if I couldn’t let her go? I didn’t want to let her go.

A gentle hand on my shoulder while Hannah’s voice sang full blast in my ears startled me, causing me to drop the hay bale in my hands.

Heart racing, I spun around to find Zoe jumping back. Pulling out an earbud, I placed a hand on my chest. “Jesus, Zoe. What the hell do you think you’re doing, sneaking up on me like that?”

Initially startled by my reaction, she quickly recovered, folding her arms over her chest. “Oh, good. I was worried your bad mood had left us. False alarm.”

Rolling my eyes, I turned my back to her, grabbing the bale of hay I’d dropped and hauling it outside the barn doors. Placing it with the others ready for pickup, I found Zoe hot on my heels.

“What do you want?” I sighed. “I’m trying to work here.”

Gesturing to the stack of rectangularly packaged hay, she asked, “Is this what retirement looks like? Screwing up everything on the ranch?”

I didn’t have the patience for her games. Didn’t she know I was busy wallowing?

“What are you talking about? I’m helping on the ranch. In case you haven’t noticed.”

Zoe got that twinkle in her blue eyes that told me she was about to tell me to sit the fuck down. “Helping. Right. So that’s why you’re preparing a shipment of hay that’s being picked up tomorrow. My mistake.”

Tomorrow. Fuck. These bales couldn’t sit outside all night; the morning dew would ruin them. Accepting defeat, I grabbed the one I’d just set down and carried it back inside.

As I dropped it on the barn floor, I felt the loss of an earbud. Glancing to the ground to see where it fell, I caught Zoe out of the corner of my eye, holding it up. “What have we got here? Never knew you to be such a connoisseur of music.”

Holding a hand out, my voice was deadly. “Give it back.”

Tilting her head, she eyed the tiny white device. “Hmm. Don’t think I will. Seems important.” Popping it into one ear, she held a hand over the other, listening. A look of surprise crossed her face, and she stared at me. “Who is this?”

“Not important,” I grunted, heading outside to grab more hay. “This isn’t . . . This can’t be the girl. Can it?”

“Drop it, Zoe. I’m serious.”

“She’s got a beautiful voice. Tell me, little brother, did you fall in love with her before or after you heard her sing? This is a siren’s call if I’ve ever heard one.” All traces of teasing were gone from her voice; she spoke almost reverently about Hannah’s talented vocals.

“Who said anything about being in love?” I countered, giving up on trying to get the earbud back, instead repeating the process of walking away from her.

“Oh, I don’t know. The sad puppy dog eyes on a man who’s just won the greatest championship known to sports? The grumpy mood you’ve been in since you got home? How about listening to her voice like it’s the only lifeline to her you’ve got left? Any of those work for you?”

Pausing, I threw my arms out. “What do you want me to say? Yes, I fell in love with her, but I was given very explicit instructions to end it. So, here I am. Miserable and working myself half to death on the family ranch, trying to shut off my brain so I don’t have to think about her anymore.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes. “I never knew you to be the type to go down without a fight.”

“He didn’t give me much of a choice,” I grumbled.

“Don’t give me any of that bullshit. There’s always a choice. You think I don’t know a thing or two about falling for someone you shouldn’t? Setting my sights on someone working for my daddy when I was underage wasn’t exactly a picnic. But I took the hard road, and I’m glad I fought for what I wanted. You only get one life, Cal. What is it that you want to do with yours?”

“Look. If I come clean, it ruins the relationship she has with her father. How could she be with me with that dark cloud hanging over our heads? I won’t be the man who does that to her.”

“So, you’re content to be the man who breaks her heart? The man who pushed her away? Is that how you want her to remember you?” God, she really wasn’t going to let this go.

“Even if I came clean, she’d kill me for letting her dad walk all over me.

Either way, I lose.”

Shaking her head, Zoe muttered, “You really are an idiot sometimes.” Turning on her heel, she headed back to the main house, throwing over her shoulder, “Try not to give yourself a heart attack working out here. You’re not getting any younger.”

With her back turned, I stuck my tongue out at my big sister. Nothing was as simple as she made it sound.

I’d made my bed, and now I had to lie in it.



Every player and coach on the winning team got a singular day of their choosing to spend with the trophy. Most guys took it around their hometown, sharing it with people of the community that had raised them before having a private party for their closest friends and family.

Choosing a day went by seniority on the team. Jaxon’s was in a few weeks, and Benji had had his last week.

Benji had asked me to come out to the youth clinic he put on back in Michigan during his chosen day, but I’d declined, knowing I would only be a party pooper. He didn’t have any family, so he shared it with local kids, giving out scholarships for a year’s paid ice bill and equipment to a few deserving players. It was a great way for him to give back, considering someone had taken a chance on him in the same way, covering his ice costs so he could reach his potential.

Jaxon had taken Beau and helped out, but not long after, Benji texted that he wouldn’t be house hopping this summer—he said something had come up. It had struck me as odd. Benji loved a good party, and free booze was right up his alley. I was too lost in my grief to dig deeper and let it go without so much as a response.

Today was my day with the trophy I had spent my entire life chasing.

About half my teammates and some of my college buddies were flying up to celebrate at the party my parents had insisted on throwing at the ranch. I would have happily hosted at my cabin to keep disruption to my family— mainly my nephews, with how out of hand these things tended to get—to a minimum, but my mom wouldn’t hear of it. She also invited half the damn

town. I couldn’t say no when she said she wanted to show the whole community how proud she was of her son.

She wouldn’t be so proud if she knew how I’d treated Hannah, but so far, Zoe had kept her mouth shut.

My morning was spent with first a stop at the children’s hospital in Calgary and then an appearance at the local rink where I’d learned to skate and play.

Growing up, I’d idolized the professional players, and even though I was quietly suffering on the inside, seeing the faces of young hopefuls light up when they got up close and personal with the trophy every player coveted put a smile on my face.

Who knew? Maybe one of these kids would be inspired by my journey and push themselves to have their name carved alongside mine. My career might be over, but perhaps I could still impact the game. With some spare time on my hands, I could even volunteer to coach my nephews.

After my busy morning, I found myself back at the ranch. My mom might have insisted on hosting, but there was no way in hell I was letting my parents pay for a damn thing. A crew was setting up tents behind the main house; chairs and tables were stacked against the barn, waiting to be placed beneath the white canopy set up to create shade. Kegs were being offloaded, and the catering would arrive in a few hours.

There was a special platform to hold the trophy on display for my guests, and its handler was setting it up, wearing his white gloves and polishing the silver.

The highlight of my day was watching my nephews eat breakfast cereal out of the bowl at the top. They were already begging to have ice cream out of it later. Who was I to say no?

Everything was running smoothly, so I drove home to my cabin to change. Waiting for me when I arrived were Jaxon, Natalie, and their kids. Benji might have bailed, but my best friend was always there for me.

Even when I broke Hannah’s heart, the couple didn’t choose sides when they easily could have. Hannah was Natalie’s best friend—their friendship predated any relationship I developed with Jaxon. That they made the trip out to Western Canada to celebrate my day meant the world to me. I cherished our friendship more than they could ever know.

Jaxon was fooling around with the kids on the deck, so Natalie pulled me in for a hug. Her arms could barely reach around my neck as she was more

than a foot shorter than me.

Pulling back, she surveyed my face. “How are you hanging in there?”

I knew what she was asking, but I brushed it off. “Great. So many people are coming into town. Should be a great night.”

Natalie was a mom—she knew if I didn’t want to talk, she’d have to hit a different angle to get the information she wanted. I could already see the gears turning in her head.

“A lot of changes for you in the last month,” she remarked. “Yep.” I rocked back on my heels.

Looking through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall showcasing the massive deck and dazzling view of the mountains surrounding us, she mused, “It’s beautiful here.”

“You should see it in the winter, with the trees covered in snow. It’s breathtaking, albeit a little hard to access. A lot of the roads are impassable after a certain point. I’ve definitely missed the mountains living on the East Coast.”

Chocolate brown eyes met mine. “Are you staying here, then?”

I sighed, gripping the back of my neck. How did you tell your closest friends you weren’t coming back home? That you’d messed things up so spectacularly with the woman you loved that you couldn’t stand to be anywhere you might run into her?

“Probably. It’s home.”

Home. That word sounded hollow. This place might be my hometown, but it wasn’t home anymore.

My home was a five-six, sassy, smart, and funny brunette.

Reaching a hand out to touch my arm, Natalie said, “We sure will miss you. Promise you’ll visit?”

“I’ll try.” It was a lie. So long as Hannah was there, I couldn’t go back to Hartford. It was too painful.

“Trying’s not always enough. Sometimes, we have to fight hard for what we want. It takes effort, commitment, and determination.”

My eyes widened. Had she been talking to Zoe? No. That was impossible.

Tilting her head toward the deck where Jaxon ran around with their four children, a wide smile splitting his face, she continued, “You should take a page out of his book. I pushed him away so hard, but he never gave up on me. But you know what I realized? I was just scared—afraid of what letting

another person past my walls would do to my heart if it didn’t work out. Being scared almost cost me the love of my life. I’ve made my mistakes, but learning from them shaped me into the person I am today. The biggest thing I’ve learned is how important communication is. If you aren’t completely honest with each other—even when it’s terrifying as hell—you can’t have a future.”

Dragging a hand down my face, I groaned. “Natalie.”

Reaching up, she took my hand in hers and gave it a quick squeeze. “Just think about it. Okay?”

I knew what she was trying to do. She wanted me to talk to Hannah, but my honesty would cost her a relationship with her father, and eventually, she’d resent me for it.

There was no path forward. This couldn’t be fixed.

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