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Authors: Catherine Gayle

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BOOK: Dropping Gloves
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“Well, you found me,” I bit off, wishing I had bothered to grab a towel. Sweat dripped down my forehead and got in my eyes, stinging. “Mystery solved. Fuck off.”

I sounded like an ass, and I knew it. I was reacting like a damn toddler, minus the kicking and screaming. It was definitely a toddler-worthy temper tantrum I was throwing, at the very least. My teammates didn’t deserve that kind of treatment, but I didn’t know how to stop myself when everything inside me was twisting into knots. I couldn’t very well kick and scream at the universe and expect it to do any good.

Jonny frowned at me, his arms crossed and his feet planted like two tree trunks making roots in the floor. “You boys go on up,” he said quietly. “I’ll stay with him.”

“Yeah,” Burnzie said, backing out of the gym while the other guys followed, Ghost and Levi hauling my shit along with them. Burnzie caught Jonny’s eye and nudged his head in my direction. “Feel free to bust his face in for being a dick.”

If there was anyone on the team who could—and
would
, considering I deserved it—it was Jonny. He grunted in response, which Burnzie and the boys seemed to accept as a suitable answer. They trickled out of the room.

When the door closed behind them, Jonny crossed over and sat backward on the weight bench across from me. He ran a hand over his shaved head and stared at me. “So you can keep cycling if you want, or you can talk if you want. Whatever. I’m not leaving until you do, though, and Sara will tell you I get really cranky if I don’t get my beauty sleep.”

“Beauty sleep, huh?” I couldn’t help but chuckle, and I raised a brow at the yellowish bruise around his eye and the fresh set of stitches on his cheek. I knew better than to think he would get up and go just because I told him to. I was pretty sure the only person I’d ever met who might come close to him on the stubborn scale was his wife, Sara.

“It takes a lot of work to look this good.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. “Point is, I don’t think you need to be alone right now, and I don’t intend to let you be.”

I mimicked his earlier grunt.

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“I guess I’m going up to bed so I don’t have to sit here with you staring at me like that all night.”

“I meant about Katie.”

Hell if I knew.

In order to
keep my mind occupied while I was waiting on the results of my latest barrage of tests, I had decided to go house hunting. Mom and Dad wanted me to just move back into their house, now that I didn’t have any good reason to go back to LA, and especially now that I
did
have a good reason to stick around in Portland. If I was going to have to go through cancer treatments again, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to do it under anyone but Dr. Oliver.

That didn’t mean I wanted to live with my parents and have my mother hovering over me constantly until I was cancer-free again, though. It only made sense, she said, because I was already living here at least temporarily. I hadn’t forgotten what it was like, going through radiation and chemotherapy and all that jazz. I remembered everything about it, not the least of which was the emotional toll it had taken on my family. I needed at least some space of my own, some distance between us without completely going away, if I was going to get through it again without going completely berserk. I wanted to be able to hang out with my mom when I felt like crap but to not have her watching me so she could pick out every minuscule change I went through before I noticed it. There had to be some sort of balance there, and I intended to find it.

I had more than enough money set aside that I could get a reasonable place of my own without it hurting my bank account, whether I was going to be working in the near future or not, so I didn’t see any reason to put it off. Chances were pretty high that I’d be starting some treatment plan or another pretty soon, and once that happened, I would have a lot less energy for things like house hunting.

When I headed into the kitchen for breakfast, Dad was there eating a bowl of oatmeal and some fruit, but this time he didn’t have his iPad playing video. I’d been at my parents’ house at breakfast more than enough times since Dad had started coaching to know that he
always
watched game footage on his iPad over breakfast, but the tablet was nowhere to be seen.

By the time he and the team had gotten in after their loss against the Stars last night, I had long since gone to bed. I’d still been awake, though. I’d heard him come in, his footsteps careful in the hall as he made his way to my bedroom and opened the door.
Katie?
he’d whispered.
You awake?
I hadn’t answered him, lying there with my eyes closed, hoping he would close the door and make his way to his own bed.

He hadn’t done that. He’d crossed over to me and sat down on the edge of the bed, and he’d kissed the back of my head. I could tell he was crying. That was what I’d been trying to avoid, the reason I’d pretended to be asleep. I wasn’t ready for all this again—to have everyone hovering and crying all the time. That didn’t help me. It just made me feel as if I was the one responsible for everyone’s lack of emotional well-being. I had hoped he would wait until the light of day before starting, but my hopes were in vain.

He’d stayed there for a few minutes, stroking my hair, and then he’d sniffled and shuffled out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Only after he was gone did I allow myself to break down in tears. I hated crying. I really fucking hated it, and I’d allowed it to go on so long that I ended up with a massive headache that kept me awake for hours after he’d left my room.

And now, here he was, looking up at me with red-rimmed eyes over his breakfast, and it took everything in me not to break down again. We’d talked on the phone some in the last couple of days. He knew everything I knew at this point about my test results. Which, admittedly, wasn’t much. It was just enough to know there was something to worry about but not enough to know how worried we should be.

“What time did you get in?” I asked, pretending I didn’t know. I just needed to talk. To keep myself from bawling again. I took down a mug and brewed a cup of coffee.

“Late.” His voice was rough. “Your mom has a meeting with the women’s league this morning. You could go with her.”

Mom had been getting involved with all sorts of clubs and groups ever since Dani had graduated from high school. She’d been a stay-at-home mother the whole time we were growing up, but now that we had lives of our own to lead, she’d been getting restless. She’d always been involved in things with whatever team Dad played for or coached for, of course, but apparently that was no longer enough to keep her appropriately busy.

“I could,” I hedged. I’d already told Mom I didn’t want to go with her, but I hadn’t broached the real reason
why
I wasn’t going with either of them. “If I didn’t already have other plans.”

He set his spoon down and met my eyes. “What other plans? More tests?”

“Not today.” Hopefully not any time soon. They had stuck me more than enough over the last couple of days to last me for a while, thank you very much. “Actually, I have an appointment with a realtor.”

“A realtor?”

“Yes.” I took out a bowl and started fixing my own breakfast, copying his.

“Here in Portland?”

I rolled my eyes. “No, I thought I’d fly to Timbuktu and go house hunting there. Yes, of course here in Portland.”

“So you’re going to stay? You’re not planning to go back to Hollywood?”

“Not in the near future, at least. Maybe someday.” Of course, if I was going to be able to return to Hollywood, I’d have to still be alive to do so. For some reason, airlines aren’t really fond of transporting dead people. And then there was the small matter of no longer having an agent or any real desire to live that lifestyle anymore. I wasn’t ready to close the door on that part of my life completely, but that didn’t mean I needed to walk through it any time soon. “Even when I’m working on a show, I still come back and spend quite a bit of time here. This is home. I might as well act like an adult and really make it home, right?”

“Did you tell your mother?”

I shook my head, biting my lip. Mom wouldn’t take it as well as Dad, so I’d been keeping it a secret, hoping maybe I could get him to break the news to her instead of me. I hated having to tell her things that she wouldn’t like. “Not yet.”

“And this has nothing to do with you not wanting Mom to be up in your business all the time, right?” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Who’s your realtor?”

At least he understood. “Sierra Firth,” I said, letting out a breath.

Dad picked up his spoon and went back to his oatmeal with a nod. “She’s the one who helped us find this house.”

“I know. I remember. I was fourteen, you know.” With my breakfast prepared, I took the stool next to his at the bar. I’d been a teenager when we’d moved to Portland. Dad had played in Toronto, New York, Carolina, St. Louis, Edmonton, and Detroit before signing on with the Storm, so we’d moved around a lot. That’s just how it is sometimes for a pro athlete. It had been rough on me as a kid. As soon as I’d grown comfortable somewhere and settled on who I wanted to have as my friends, we were on the move again. Portland had been the one place he’d really stuck. It was the only place I wanted to call home.

He shoved the sugar dish in my direction so I wouldn’t have to reach for it. “Never thought you would have paid attention to things like that when there were boys to be ogled.”

“They were at school, not in the empty houses we were looking at.”

“So where are you going to look? I just saw a
For Sale
sign on a house around the corner. The one with the blue shutters.”

I couldn’t help but grin at him. “Not around the corner.”

“Too close to your mom?” He finished off his coffee and pushed the cup aside. “Yeah, too close to your mom. I get it. Not too far away, though, okay? She—
we
—need to hover at least some.”

“I know.” That was going to be one of my biggest decisions—how close was too close, and how far was too far. “It’ll be in Portland. I don’t know where. Sierra said she had some ideas that she thought I’d like.”

“Fair enough.” He reached in the fruit basket for a banana and started peeling it before passing it to me and taking out another for himself. “I told Babs.”

I swallowed hard, blinking back tears. I’d told both Mom and Dad that I didn’t want Jamie to know. Jamie had made it clear that he couldn’t be my friend anymore, and I had no intention of doing anything to hurt him worse than I already had. I wanted to give him a clean break. No contact. Nothing more than the knowledge that we both existed and were in the same city. I could give him that, couldn’t I? I owed him that much. “I didn’t want—”

“I know you didn’t want him to know, but I thought he should, and I told him. You can be angry at me if you want. You can yell at me and curse me. Hit me, if you think it’ll help. But I told him, and I’m not sorry I did, so you’re just going to have to accept it.”

It wasn’t
me
accepting it that I was worried about, though. It was Jamie.

 

 

 


Not only is
it a great location for you while you’re undergoing treatments, but it’s right in the heart of things for when you’re healthy again,” Sierra said, opening the door to the backyard and stepping aside so I could go out before her.

It might as well have been a private garden out there, with various trees, bushes, and flowering plants lining the fence, making it seem like a sanctuary. A swinging bench hung under one of the bigger trees on one side looking toward the mountain view over the tops of the greenery, and a pond was situated off to the side, with rocks and plants arranged around it so it looked as if it had always been there even though it surely must have been installed after the house was built.

My parents lived in a classic Tudor-style house in Grant Park on the east side of Portland. I’d asked Sierra to show me houses on the other side of the river, claiming it was because I wanted to be close to all my doctors downtown. She’d already taken me to more than half a dozen houses today, mainly in Beaverton and Lake Oswego, because they were close enough to downtown for what I needed but with enough distance to still feel as if I had some privacy. She’d caught on pretty quickly that privacy, a place where I could just be away from it all, was a big factor for me.

This house, though, was just outside of downtown in the Northwest District. It hadn’t been on the original list we’d discussed; she’d suggested it after we’d been out looking for a while, once she had a better sense of my likes and dislikes. I hadn’t seen any more than the front entry and the path through the house to the backyard, yet. It didn’t matter. Unless the place was completely gutted and would need a ton of work, I was pretty sure I wanted this house to be mine because of nothing more than the peace and solitude I would have in this backyard.

I strolled to the swing and took a seat, imagining being out here on a nice night at sunset. For the first time in days, a feeling of stillness settled over me, starting at my head and trickling all the way down to my toes.

Sierra sat next to me and cocked up a brow. “You want to take a look at the inside?”

“I should probably do that before making an offer, huh?”

“Might be a good idea.”

“Right.” I sighed and pushed myself up from the swing. “I guess we should do that, then.”

We went back inside and she took me on the grand tour.

“They recently renovated the kitchen and the master bath,” Sierra said as we moved from room to room. “All stainless appliances in the kitchen. Separate shower and a garden tub, which might come in handy when you aren’t feeling well. They also tore down a wall between what used to be two smaller bedrooms and turned it into a really good-sized home office with room for some built-ins and a nice view out back. I don’t know what you might use it for, but I bet you could come up with something.”

The second I stepped into that space, I had an idea. I could turn it into a music studio of sorts. Ever since I’d ended my representation with Derek, I’d been trying to think of what I could do to remain in the entertainment business but do it from Portland. The one thing that kept coming to mind, even though it sounded crazy, was songwriting.

I’d never written a song before. I’d only sung them. It seemed like something I should at least
try
, though, because it would give me opportunities to continue my career but do it on my own terms, not those of an agent who was going to push his own agenda. Having a studio in my house would be perfect.

I followed Sierra through the rest of the house, taking it all in. Even after the remodeling the owners had done, there were still two bedrooms and two bathrooms in addition to this big office. I didn’t need a ton of space, but it would probably be a good idea to have a guest room in case…well, in case I got so sick that I needed someone living with me to take care of me.

“Can I wander around for a few minutes and think?” I asked her.

“I’ll be in the kitchen. Take all the time you need.”

I did just that, moving from room to room and imagining myself living here. It wasn’t brand new, and there were a few things I would want to change right away, not the least of which were paint colors. The people who owned it were apparently fans of dark, bold hues. Not me. I wanted it to be light, warm, and airy, like the colors you’d expect to see in Tuscany or Greece. Paint was an easy fix, though, and there weren’t any major changes I could see needing to make as long as there weren’t any structural issues.

The real deciding factors for me were the oasis in the back and the studio. Between those two things and the fact that I would be far enough away from my parents without being too far, I knew—this was the house for me.

I meandered back to the kitchen and leaned against the bar.

“You still like it?” Sierra asked.

“Like it? Love it, more like.”

“I thought so, but it’s never a good idea to make assumptions.”

“So how does this work? How do I make an offer?”

“You don’t want to think about it? Bring your parents or a friend over to see it?”

“No need for that.” I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything change my mind. Not on this.

“Well, then.” She grinned and pulled out a file from her briefcase. “Let’s talk numbers.”


You’re not seriously
going to keep calling him Spanky, are you?” Levi asked. “Of all the things to name a cat…”

“Maybe? I don’t know. He already knows it’s his name.”

“He’s three months old, if that. He doesn’t know you mean him when you say that. He’s just responding to your voice. He seems to like you, for whatever reason.”

The scruffy silver tabby in question squirmed free from my brother’s grasp again and sunk his razor claws into my sleeve—and beyond—to climb up to my shoulder. The people at the shelter said they were pretty sure he was about three months old even though he was about half the size he should be at that age. He’d been rescued from near a dumpster at a convenience store a couple of weeks before, malnourished and sick, and they hadn’t been sure he would make it. He had a clean bill of health now, though, even if he was still kind of scrawny. This little guy was a fighter, in more ways than one, as he was reminding me at the moment. Now that he was up on my shoulder, he dug his claws into my skin so he wouldn’t slide off.

“Ouch. Can’t you hold him still for three more minutes?” We were almost back to my place, and the kitten was tiny. Levi was probably a hundred times his size. He ought to be able to restrain the kitten at least long enough to get home.

“You try making a kitten do what you want it to do,” Levi grumbled. “You should have taken them up on that cardboard box thing they offered. They said this might happen. Clearly, he likes to explore. And he likes you. There’s no explaining taste.”

Whether I should have or not, it was too late now. Once Spanky got where he wanted to be, he curled up in a ball, mewling in my ear with the same pathetic sound he made that had convinced me I needed to take him home with me. That’s where he’d hung out the most while we were playing with him at the shelter. Or at least he’d been up there a lot when he wasn’t otherwise occupied with climbing my pants and making flying leaps at feather toys and chasing balls and wrestling with the bigger kittens. But then after all that playing, he got tired, and he’d sought me out again to snuggle with during his nap.

I hadn’t really intended to come home with a cat. I’d been looking at a dog that was some sort of beagle mix when a huge chocolate Labrador had caught my eye. The second I walked over to the Lab’s kennel, this tiny kitten had pranced through the door from the cat area and sprinted up my legs and back to perch on my shoulder. When I’d tried to pull him down, he’d given me that pathetic mewl, and he’d dug in his claws, making sure he wasn’t going anywhere without turning my skin to ribbons. Then the purring had started, and I was a goner.

“What do you want a cat for, anyway?” Levi asked, his voice mixing with the kitten’s purrs in a very odd manner. “Do you even know how to take care of a cat?”

“Do you even know how to take care of yourself?” I countered instead of trying to explain that I was lonely without having someone to come home to. On our day off in Dallas, I’d offered a room to Coop since it looked like he’d be sticking with the team for a while. Apparently Wheels had gotten to him first, so I still had no roommate. Between that and the news Webs had given me about Katie’s cancer, I’d decided that I needed a companion of some sort, human or otherwise. I didn’t know a better way of making that happen than by bringing home a pet.

Levi shrugged and tried to pry the kitten free, but Spanky was having none of that. Those tiny claws dug into my neck again, and I let out a series of expletives.

Levi let go. “Guess he’s staying there until we get back to your place.”

“I guess so.”

Spanky resettled and started purring again, a warm, fluffy ball right where my shoulder and neck met.

“You should call him Tiger,” Levi said.

“Why Tiger?”

“Why Spanky?”

“Because I don’t know him well enough to know what else to call him.” I made the turn onto my street. There were two cars parked in the drive of the empty house next door to mine. Probably a realtor showing it. That had been happening a lot as long as I’d been living here. I pulled up in my driveway and hit the button for my garage door to open.

“Um, Jamie?”

I turned my head toward the cars in the driveway next door, since that was where Levi was staring. Then I wished I hadn’t because Katie was staring back at my car, standing next to one of the realtors I’d seen a time or two. She looked as thunderstruck as I felt.

“Fuck,” I muttered. This really couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t handle having her move in next door to me. And what the hell was she doing, looking at buying a house here? If she was going to stick around in Portland to go through whatever treatments she needed, she should stay with her parents. She’d need help, someone to look after her when she wasn’t feeling well, someone to take her to all her doctor’s appointments and hospital visits and God only knew what else. Cancer wasn’t something she should try to deal with on her own, and she knew that better than most since she’d already been through it once.

I would tell her so if not for the knowledge that she didn’t want anyone to tell me she was sick again. And then there was the small matter that I’d told her I needed her out of my life. Not to mention the fact that the second I opened my mouth to try to speak to her at all, I would probably break down and take everything back.

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