This was not how Tara Jean Sweet imagined her engagement. Perched on the edge of her eighty-nine-year-old fiancé’s wheelchair wearing a skirt so short there was a good chance the photographer was getting a shot of her uterus.
But at the top of the very long list of what was wrong with this picture were the cows.
There were ten of the hulking, stinky animals, hand-picked by Lyle Baker himself to be as much a part of her engagement photo as his ten-gallon hat and the big blue sky backdrop of Crooked Creek Ranch.
Look at me! the cows said—metaphorically of course. Look at me, I’m so damn rich.
As a young girl, planning her dream engagement, there hadn’t been many cows. None, really.
She tugged on her pink leather skirt, but Lyle lifted his trembling hand to stop her.
“Leave it,” he gasped, refusing to wear the oxygen for the photos, a decision that was probably pinching precious minutes off his very short remaining life span.
But he was the boss so she didn’t nag about the oxygen, tried to ignore the cow lowing in her ear, and left the skirt alone.
Sighing, she curled her upper body around Lyle as best she could without bumping into the various monitors and wires that ran off him as if he were a supercomputer.
“Smile, baby,” his voice an agonized whisper.
A flash popped and she turned up the wattage of her smile, getting as much teeth and as little brain behind it as she could. She knew the drill. Had been living it for four years.
From the fur lining on his wheelchair, Lyle pulled a cigar the size of her forearm. She plucked it away from him.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Give it back.” The words wheezed past his cracked lips.
“As your bride,” her smile was sharp, letting him know the game worked both ways, “I must insist.”
The photographer laughed and Lyle’s scowl faded away, replaced by a calculating smile.
“You think this is gonna work?” She laid a hand on the old man’s papery cheek. He was so smooth; age and disease had turned him into a river stone.
How did we get here? she wondered, sadness a dark lining to her victory.
Lyle turned toward her with obvious effort and she saw his runny eyes glittering. Nothing like a devious plan to get the old man’s heart pumping.
“Watch ’em come running.”
Luc Baker stepped out of the team doctor’s office into a viper’s nest of reporters.
Camera flashes exploded in his face.
“Holy shit.” Beside him, his teammate, Billy Wilkins, who had waited for Luc after his physio appointment, winced at the blinding lights on the video cameras.
Luc didn’t even blink.
Twenty years in the NHL, the last seven in Toronto; vipers were part of the job. And right now the viper’s nest was well and truly stirred.
“Ice Man!” the reporters yelled, using Luc’s nickname.
“Is it true you’re having extensive brain surgery?”
“Is it true you have brain damage?”
“Are the Cavaliers going to buy out your contract?”
Luc smiled and lifted his hands, calming the seething knot of parasites in front of him, like a priest before a congregation.
“Luc?” Jim Muggs, from the Toronto Star, cut through the chatter. “What did the doctor say?”
Scar tissue on your frontal lobe. Possible brain-eating protein. Increased chances of lasting cognitive damage.
For a second, Luc’s vision went red and his instinct was to grab Billy’s crutch and clear a path of cracked skulls and broken camera equipment, just to avoid answering that question.
“Dr. Matthews says I’m good to go next year,” he lied, forcing his lips to curl into a smile. “I’m ready to work hard in the off-season and bring the cup back to Toronto.”
“Brain damage?” Billy swiveled around on his crutches, stepping slightly in front of Luc. “I swear to God, you guys are worse gossips than my grandma’s church group—”
“Dr. Matthews also said,” Luc interrupted with a smile and he felt the sharp focus of every lens, “that I needed to hurry up and get my personal guard back on the ice.”
He clapped a hand on Billy’s shoulder, and everyone laughed.
Gilcot never would have gotten close to Luc if Billy hadn’t blown out his knee in game three of the finals.
“Gilcot’s been suspended for the first three games of next season. Do you think that’s reasonable?” Muggs asked.
“Gilcot rang my bell.” Luc shrugged, downplaying the injury. “It’s not like we’re having a tea party out there.”
But the truth was, hits like Gilcot’s and concussions like Luc’s were at a crisis point in the NHL.
A couple of the reporters laughed and the atmosphere in the viper pit changed. He had them right where he wanted them. This interview crap wasn’t any different from controlling the tempo of a game.
And no one controlled tempo like Luc Baker.
“Dr. Matthews is leading a study on the effects of repeated head trauma on professional athletes. Will you be a part of it?” Muggs asked.
Luc nearly jerked, the question a razor blade against his belly. Him and a bunch of drooling, early-onset Alz- heimer linebackers from the NFL?
Matthews had asked, but Luc had rejected the idea. Just as he’d rejected everything Matthews said during the extensive exam.
Retire. Get out while you’re ahead.
“No,” he said. “Dr. Matthews’s work is important for the future of athletes in professional sports, but it has nothing to do with me right now.”
“Luc takes one bad hit and you guys are ready to make him a head case just to get a headline,” Billy said. “It’s sick.”
Luc squeezed Billy’s shoulder, appreciating his loyalty, but Billy didn’t know the whole story.
“But it wasn’t just one bad hit, was it?” a woman’s voice piped up and Luc’s control buckled slightly. The rarely seen beast of his temper shook itself awake.
Adelaide Eggers, of course. She was the worst of the bunch, like a bulldog, from years of having to prove herself in the Junior A locker rooms all across the Northwest Territories.
A guy couldn’t hide from Addie Eggers. Couldn’t bluff her with a joke and a juicy quote. “As a kid you participated in peewee Rodeo in Texas. You sustained multiple blackout concussions, am I right? They called you the Knockout Kid.”
“Adelaide.” He smiled into the flashes, absorbing them like he would a controlled slide into the boards. “You need to get a life outside of Google.”
The reporters laughed and he saw a lot of bent heads. The Knockout Kid would make the top-ten list of terrible athlete nicknames tomorrow morning on TSN.
Billy glanced sideways at him. “Rodeo?”
Great. Now he knew the whole story.
“It was a long time ago,” he said to everyone. “I’m fine. My head is fine.” Except for the brain-eating protein. “We’re ready to put this season behind us.”
Again, he rested his hand on Billy’s shoulder, and just like that the pack was thrown off the scent of his concussion and onto Billy and his knee.
“Billy, how is physio going?” Adelaide asked. “Is it true you’ll be out most of next year?”
“Hell no.” Billy got a little reckless with one of his crutches, about to use it as a bat against the ankles of the nearest ESPN cameraman. “Six months’ recovery. Tops. I’ll be back before the second half next year.”
“Six months’ recovery for a man half your age.” Addie raised a killing eyebrow.
“Why don’t you guys go back to giving him a hard time?” Billy jerked a thumb back at Luc.
“Don’t bring me into this.”
“You are the oldest man in the league,” Addie said to Luc. “Thirty-seven is—”
“I know how old I am.”
“You don’t think about retiring?”
“Not without winning the cup for Toronto first.”
Luc got knocked out at the end of the third quarter of game seven in the finals. The Bull Dogs were able to tie it up and The Cavaliers lost in a shootout. They’d been close. So damn close. If he and Billy hadn’t been laid up, he’d be drinking out of the cup right now, instead of answering questions no one should be asking him.
“What do you think of your chances next year?” Addie asked.
“Well, if we can keep everyone healthy, I think our chances are great.”
“And after that?” Addie asked, a sly grin on her face.
Matthews couldn’t give him any concrete proof that he had this Tav protein, or even would have it. So he had a buildup of scar tissue on his frontal lobe? There wasn’t a pro athlete who didn’t, except for maybe the baseball players. But the increased chances of future concussions was going to be a problem when his contract was up.
Post-concussion syndrome wasn’t something anyone wanted to have. And he had it. And it was documented.
The league was getting twitchy about head injuries. Lindros and his glass jaw had changed the game. And that was before Sidney Crosby’s concussion made global headlines. No one wanted to take a chance on a guy who couldn’t take a hit without getting knocked cold.
All that aside, if Luc wasn’t thirty-seven years old, standing at the edge of his contract, the word “retire” wouldn’t have even passed Matthews’s lips.
He’d accused Matthews of that, but the old man had disagreed. Said he’d seen too many athletes burn themselves out, damage themselves beyond repair in pursuit of the dream.
The damage a second concussion would do to your brain will end your career. You’d better pray you don’t get another concussion and you’d better pray you don’t get traded. Without Billy Wilkins chasing guys down, it’s open season on you. This is your last year in the league.
This next year was the year he was born to play, on the team he’d helped create. He was going to make history. Oldest man in the NHL, bringing the cup back to a city that hadn’t seen it in over fifty years.
Excerpted from Can't Buy Me Love by Molly O'Keefe. Copyright © 2012 by Molly O'Keefe. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.