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Pittsburgh Titans

Camden (Audio or E-Book)

Camden (Audio or E-Book)

He falls for his teammate's widow (and single mom) in this forbidden hockey romance

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Camden Poe is the last of The Lucky Three, the surviving Pittsburgh Titans who weren’t on the team plane the night it went down. By all outward appearances, he’s adjusted to post-crash life well but inside he’s wrestling with the guilt of living.

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The catastrophe that killed the Pittsburgh Titans changed my entire world. My teammates were more than my friends—they were my brothers. I mourned their loss with the rest of the nation but then I did as I’ve been taught… I moved on. I focused on returning to the ice with the newly rebuilt team and put the tragedy behind me. Considering the circumstances, I adjusted well. Or so I thought. Now I’m plagued by nightmares of the crash and my play has suffered as a result. Facing the possibility of losing my place on the team, I need to pull myself together and fast.

My buddy and linemate, Mitch Brandt died in the crash, leaving his wife Danica and son Travis behind to pick up the pieces of their shattered family. After reconnecting with Danica at a support group meeting, I find myself inexplicably drawn to helping her and her son move forward. What starts as two friends finding solace in one another following a tragedy becomes something more, leaving us both wondering if we deserve this chance.

I feel as if I’m walking a precarious line between a man falling for an incredible woman and a man moving in on his dead friend’s wife. But one thing is crystal clear—I’ve found a peace with Danica that I wasn’t sure I’d ever have again. Now I need to find the confidence within myself to push past the insecurities and make sure she knows how important she is to me because if I don’t, I’ll lose the one thing that makes me truly complete.

LISTEN TO A SAMPLE OF CAMDEN:

Audio Narrators & Runtime: Aaron Shedlock, Savannah Peachwood (7 hrs 15 min)

Read Chapter One

Camden

First step onto the sidewalk and my foot lands on a patch of black ice left behind from the storm three days ago. Luckily, it’s my right leg that slips out from under me and I manage to stay upright, but not without pulling my groin muscle. I grimace and take a tentative step, relieved that nothing seems to have torn. My knee feels solid.

I curse the grocery store for not doing a better job of clearing the ice from where their customers walk along slowly. So slow that I get passed by a gentleman who’s easily in his eighties and yeah… that’s humiliating.

The old man turns, his cheeks ruddy from the cold. “Need some help?”

I’m a fucking professional hockey player. I don’t need help from an octogenarian. But I’m a polite dude, so I just smile and shake my head. “Had surgery on my knee. Exercising a little caution.”

“Aah,” he says in understanding. “Better safe than sorry, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, good luck with your shopping,” he says, eyes twinkling with what might be a little pride he’s in better shape than me. “Once you’ve got the shopping cart before you, you’ll be steadier.”

And it gets more humiliating.

“Thanks,” I mutter, but I doubt he heard me. He’s taken off, disappearing through the sliding doors.

The trip through the market is an exercise in futility. I do as suggested, using the cart for support and make my way up and down the aisles. I wanted to cook some chili but I’ve had the worst luck. So far, they’ve been out of ground beef, canned tomatoes and kidney beans. I’ve managed to add an onion to my cart but my repertoire of recipes is so limited, I’m not confident I can do anything else with it.

“Fuck it,” I grouse as I decide not to cook and just grab some cereal. I’m tired from a long day of rehab and it’s fucking cold out. I want to get home.

As luck would have it, they’re out of my favorite cereal, and even shittier luck, out of my second favorite as well.
Not sure what cosmic forces I’ve offended, but nothing’s going right and it’s leaving me feeling unsettled. In fact, a bit of panic swells inside and I glance around the cereal aisle. Nothing dangerous lurking.

I put the onion on the shelf in the empty spot where my Lucky Charms should be. I leave the cart and make my way to the front of the store, deciding to order a pizza for dinner.

It’s gotten dark in the fifteen minutes or so I’ve been in the grocery store. Another wave of anxiety hits and I get the distinct feeling that if I step out of the safety of this building, something bad is going to happen to me.

Sucking in a long breath through my nose, I hold it for the count of two before letting it out slowly on a four count. I read online that deep breathing can help center and calm you, and I’ve tried it when I’m agitated for seemingly no reason. Honestly, it does nothing for me, but I make myself do it three more times.

“Nothing bad is going to happen,” I whisper.

Not sure if I actually believe that, but I can’t stay here all night. At some point, they’ll kick me out.

I man up and walk past the registers to the sliding doors that swish open as I near them and then out into the blustery cold evening.

Glancing around, I take in the well-lit parking lot and the customers walking in and out of the store. I see my car only ten yards away. Nothing scary out here, unless you count a rogue piece of ice, but I can see the blacktop looks dry and safe.

I feel like a fucking idiot and these instances of fear that come upon me are unexplainable. I have nothing going on in my life that should make me feel this way. Other than a near mishap on the ice, getting shown up by an eighty-year-old man and a frustrating trip around the grocery aisles, nothing’s been going on to make me feel out of control.

Everything is fine.

I’m a hockey player.

I have a great job.

Great friends.

A wonderful life.

“I have a wonderful life,” I repeat and just like that… the panic recedes. I simply needed to remind myself I’ve got it good.

Shaking my head, I chuckle and take a step off the curb. I barely get my other foot down before I hear the noise.
It’s so loud, I clap my hands over my ears. A piercing, whining, shrieking sound of metal on metal, but no one else seems bothered by it. People stroll in and out of the store.

It gets louder and then the air current seems to change. A foreboding, electric feeling that cranks my anxiety to full throttle. I tip my head back and at first, I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Something huge, hidden in the clouds but with blinking lights… right above me and falling fast.

My first thought is a UFO but as it breaches the clouds, I realize it’s an airplane. A massive jet hurtling out of the sky, nose-diving straight at me.

I’m powerless to move as I stare at it.

Closer and closer, until I can actually see the pilots inside, their mouths open in what I’m assuming are screams of terror. I lock eyes with one of them and I think I see sorrow in his expression. Not sure if he’s sad he’s going to die or that he’s leaving behind a family, or hell… maybe he’s sad he’s dropping a plane on my head.
I lift my hand, mesmerized by the aircraft now forty, thirty, twenty… ten feet from me. And…

Bolting straight up in bed, I bark out a cry of horror, even though I’m instantly awake and know I merely had a terrible nightmare.

It’s not my first rodeo… these planes dropping out of the sky dreams happen pretty frequently. I rub my hands over my face, not surprised to find it sweaty. Despite the immediate awareness that I’m safe and sound in my bed, it takes a few minutes for the last dredges of fear to shake out of me. The dream was so realistic and yet, in hindsight, all of it was ridiculous from the start.

My knee is fully healed, no eighty-year-old would beat me in a fast walk, there’s no way the grocery store would be out of all of those items and it’s inconceivable that a plane would drop out of the sky onto my head.

And yet the terror it produced was as real as if it had actually happened. I thought I was going to die and I wasn’t ready to go.

I flop back onto my mattress and stare at the ceiling. The moonlight shining through the window casts shadows from the bare trees outside. I consider doing the deep breathing exercises I did in my dream, in hopes of relaxing enough to go back to sleep. But they don’t work in real life either.

Granted, it’s only something I’ve read about and I’ve never actually had someone show me how to do it, so I’m not sure I’m doing it correctly.

I close my eyes, the first step in returning to slumber. All that does is start a replay loop of the plane falling on me. My eyes pop back open and I watch the tree shadows above me.

Attempting a supposed tried-and-true method, I imagine sheep jumping over the branches and count each one. I make it up to twenty-seven before my mind drifts toward its inevitable path.

Not a dream catastrophe, but a real one.

The first anniversary of the Pittsburgh Titans’ plane crash is a month and a half away. While I’ve been plagued with more night terrors than I can even begin to count, they’ve gotten worse in the last two months. I have no clue why because honestly, I feel at peace with things.

I grieved, I mourned, I lamented.

I accepted that I was granted grace while others were not.

So why the fuck am I continually plagued by a plane killing me?

And it’s not always a plane falling from the sky. Often I’m on the plane and we’re in a long plummet to the earth. It’s so terrifying, I’ve vomited coming back into consciousness.

Sometimes I dream that I’m driving down the road and the plane crashes in the distance but the fireball rolls outward and engulfs my car in flames, blistering my skin painfully. I’ve come out of those dreams slapping at my body to snuff out the fire.

Christ, I’m a mess.

My head rolls on my pillow and I sigh as I take in the time: 4:03 a.m. I know I’m not going back to sleep. Close my eyes and I’ll go right back into my nightmare. Sit here with my eyes open, I’ll only think about it.

I should get out of bed and do my workout, but I’ve got no motivation at all. Instead, I nab the remote control and turn on the television. It casts the room into an immediate blue tinge—a good murder mystery is sure to take my mind off falling jets. Maybe even distract me enough that I can fall asleep. I didn’t go to bed until a little after midnight and I need more sleep to function. We have a team meeting at eight a.m. and then practice at nine.

After some surfing, I settle into a three-part docuseries about a set of interconnected murders across two states. Some would find it odd I can watch this stuff after experiencing a nightmare, but I’ve always found true crime shows and podcasts fascinating. I need my mind to be fully engaged in something other than my woes.
Ten minutes in and I know I chose wisely. I’m fully hooked and I forget about planes and friends dying. It doesn’t look like I’ll fall back to sleep, but that might be for the best anyway.

***

Blissfully deep in slumber, I swim upward into consciousness because of a noise that penetrates the fog. An insistent banging, almost desperate in nature. I crack an eye, slightly alarmed at how bright my room is, but I’m not sure why that would cause me distress.

Bang, bang, bang.

The other eye opens and I focus on the bedside clock.
Nine forty-one a.m.

That seems awful late for me to still be in bed.

And then it hits me all at once.

Practice!

“Fuck,” I groan as I scramble out of bed, twisting up in the sheets and falling to my knees. I had surgery on the left one over a year ago and I’ve healed well, but that did not feel good.

Bang, bang, bang. “Camden… open the fucking door or I’m knocking it down.”

Jesus Christ.

That’s Coach West’s voice.

I kick the sheets away, jump up from the floor and lurch out of my bedroom. I careen against a wall and stumble into my living room.

Bang, bang—

Lunging for the handle, I twist the dead bolt and throw open the door to find Coach with his fist raised.

I brace for him to scream at me because this is bad.

Very, very bad.

I missed practice and the fucking head coach is on my doorstep. This is so bad, I’m sure he’s here to fire me.
Instead, he lowers his hand as his eyes laser focus on me. I can see he doesn’t like anything he sees—a disheveled man in his boxers who probably has sheet crease marks on his face, hair standing on end and sleep gunk in his eyes.

“Get some coffee on,” he says with aplomb. “Let’s chat.”
Get some coffee on? Let’s chat.

I’m absolutely discombobulated by his composure when any other coach in the league would be yelling right now about what a colossal fuck-up this is. I’m struck mute and frozen in place, the only thing jolting me out of it is when Coach West brushes past me. He glances around and heads toward the kitchen.

“Let me put some clothes on,” I mumble.

Coach seems unperturbed by any of this. “I’ll figure out the coffee pot.”

I turn for my bedroom, my head spinning with the implications of the conversation we’re about to have. There’s a very good chance I’m going to be fired… released from my contract and the team. Best-case scenario, sent down to the minors.

I hastily put on a pair of track pants and a T-shirt. I use the restroom, wash my hands and then run them wet through my hair in an attempt to look somewhat presentable.

When I make it back to the kitchen, I see that Coach has figured out I don’t have a coffee pot but rather a fancy espresso machine. He’s either a mechanical genius or he knows his way around one, because there are two cups of coffee on the table. Not so surprising, given that his girlfriend used to be a barista.

Coach West uses his foot to kick a chair out and nods at it. I sit, pulling the coffee toward me, but make no effort to drink it. The rising steam tells me it will remove a layer of skin until it cools some.

I flush with angst as Coach West stares at me. “When you didn’t show up for the team meeting, we tried calling, but you didn’t answer.”

“I must not have heard it.” Was I that deep asleep? It’s possible since I’ve been running on fumes.

“You scared a lot of people. I’m glad you’re okay.”

“I can’t believe I overslept,” I blurt with a lot more apologies rushing out. “I am so sorry. I didn’t sleep well last night so I watched some TV. I thought I would stay awake until it was time to get up but I must’ve fallen asleep. I guess I forgot to set my alarm clock or maybe I did. I don’t know, it’s just… that’s never happened to me before. I am so fucking sorry. Please don’t terminate my contract.”

Coach doesn’t say anything for a moment but picks up his cup and blows across the liquid before taking a small sip. When he sets it down, his voice is level but not unemotional. “I’m not sure what I’ve done that would lead you to believe I’d be the type of person to terminate a player for missing a practice.”

Why I feel the need to argue against this is beyond me, yet I point out, “You set very high expectations for your players when you first got here. You said you expected everyone to be on time and at every practice unless somebody was dead or dying.”

His lips curl into a half smile. “That is indeed what I said. It’s also the reason I’m here. I thought you were dead or dying.”

My face flushes hot with embarrassment. It’s humiliating. But then something occurs to me. “Why are you here? I mean… why didn’t you send one of the assistant coaches, or hell… even someone from the administrative offices to check on me?”

Coach West circles his fingertip around the edge of his coffee cup as he contemplates my question. When his eyes rise to meet mine, he says, “Again… a little disappointed you would think I’m that type of coach. First, you know damn well I delegate a lot of shit to my assistant coaches. They’re more than capable of carrying on with practice without me being there. But as head coach, I’m ultimately responsible for everyone on this team. And if you were dead or dying, by God… I was going to be the one who found you. I’m not putting that on anyone else’s doorstep. But most importantly, the reason I’m here is it’s time to have a transparent conversation about what in the hell is wrong with you.”

My eyebrows rise. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. What’s wrong with you? This isn’t the first conversation we’ve had. Your play has been off. And now you’re missing practices.”

“A practice,” I clarify hesitantly, not wanting to piss him off but not willing to be labeled as someone who’s routinely late.

Coach inclines his head as if to say touché. “I still want to know what’s wrong. You may think you’re hiding it, but you’re not. And if you want to keep your position on this team, I suggest you give me a good reason to help you figure out how to accomplish that.”

I don’t know where to begin to tell him all the things that seem wrong, so I pick up my coffee and take a sip. It immediately scalds the top of my mouth but I swallow it, burning my throat along the way.

When I set it down, I say, “I’m having a little trouble sleeping. That’s all.”

“Are you self-medicating? Drinking? Is that why you overslept?”

“No, Coach,” I exclaim, leaning forward in my chair. “I’m not doing that. Only having some bad dreams is all.”
“Because if you were self-medicating, the league has great resources to—”

“I swear I’m not doing drugs or drinking alcohol to help sleep.”

He nods and I see he accepts my declaration at face value. “Okay, then… let’s move on. Why are you having trouble sleeping?”

That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

And one I haven’t bothered to try to answer yet.

To fill the silence, Coach prods me. “When we last talked about your level of play on the ice, you said you were having some family issues. Is that it?”

My mind buzzes, trying to remember exactly what I said. He did indeed call me on the carpet about my play not being quite up to par. I think I did tell him I was dealing with some family issues, but that’s not the truth. I mean, there’s some truth to it… but they’re not the root of my sleepless nights.

I choose to be vague. “My family isn’t keeping me up at night.”

Coach West settles back in his chair, taps an index finger on the table. The way he’s looking at me is daunting, as if he can see deep into my soul.

“Is it because your friends and teammates and coaches died in a plane crash?”

I flinch.

And it’s noticeable.

“Are you having nightmares about plane crashes?” he asks, and I feel the blood leaving my face.

Coach West takes it in and nods with understanding. “Did you get therapy after the crash?”

I shake my head. “Not really. We had to see someone for an evaluation, but that’s all I did.”

He knows what I mean by we. Coen Highsmith, Hendrix Bateman and I are called the Lucky Three. The trio of players who weren’t on the plane. The ones who escaped death and the ones who should be grateful for the lives we have.

Coach pokes at me without hesitation. “Is there a reason you didn’t attend therapy?”

I shrug. “I thought I was handling it fine. I mean… I grieved. I mourned the losses. I asked a lot of whys and why-nots. But I handled it fine. Ask anyone who knows me.”

“I’m asking you,” he says pointedly.

“I handled it fine,” I repeat but there’s no hiding my defensive tone. “I don’t want or need therapy.”

Coach West stares at me a good long moment before giving what looks like a resigned nod. There’s a release of tension from my chest, something I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in this entire time.

“Okay,” he says, pushing up from the table and I rise as well. “I respect you don’t want to do therapy. I’d never force that. But I am going to require you to do something.”

“What’s that?” I ask suspiciously.

“Brienne created a support group for all the loved ones and friends left behind. At first, it was pretty structured with regular meetings. She had a certified counselor there to moderate discussions. Now it’s more of a social network. We meet every Sunday afternoon at a different place to get together and talk.”

“We?” I ask curiously because Coach West isn’t a loved one or friend to any of those who perished.

“Brienne invited me to one of the meetings when I first started. Wanted me to talk about overcoming loss and dealing with grief.” He shrugs with a fond smile. “I’m sort of an honorary member now.”

Coach West lost his wife to cancer several years ago. He would know all about what it’s like to mourn someone. And I knew about the support group. Brienne Norcross, the owner of the Pittsburgh Titans, emailed me, Coen and Hendrix about it. I never replied or went to any meetings.

“I expect you at tomorrow’s get-together,” he says. I immediately close off, wanting to tell him to go to hell, but he adds, “If you want to keep your position on the second line, you will do this.”

That pisses me off, but I’m polite when I say, “With all due respect, not sure it’s fair to require something like that just to keep my job. I missed one practice.”

“Your play has been substandard all season and you know it,” Coach says, and gone is the affable man we all know and love. His tone is hard and unforgiving. “Now, one of the reasons I’m a great coach is because I can see beneath the surface and coax out the best in my players. You can sit there and tell me until you’re blue in the face that you’re okay, but something is weighing on you. If it’s not the crash, my apologies. You’ll still have a great time at the get-together. You’ll know a lot of people. If it is the crash, you can thank me later for pushing you to get help.”

“And if I don’t go?” I ask, so I’m very clear.

“You’ll go down to the third line until your play improves,” he says simply. “You get a pass today for missing practice. Next time, you won’t enjoy my visit.”

“Didn’t enjoy this one,” I admit truthfully.

Rather than take offense, Coach West grins. “That means I’m doing my job then.”

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Product Release Date: July 25, 2023

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