“How was she?” Jane asked me. Willow clung to her leg in greeting.
Exhausting, I almost blurted. Willow’s boundless energy was impressive, and after not watching her for so long, I had forgotten just how much she tired me out. I didn’t know how Jane and Dave did this, day in and day out.
“She was good,” I told her. “We went sledding this morning before the snow hit, then had lunch, then made a snowman, and spent the afternoon playing dress up with the dogs.”
Poor boys. Fred was nota fan of having fake pearls strung around his neck.
Jane grinned. “Yeah, she’s going through a phase. Mom said she put a tutu on Corgnelius when she watched her last week.”
This I had to see. “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
Jane pulled up her phone and showed me the evidence. Sir Corgnelius McFloofikins – his official title – filled the camera frame, a pink mass of tulle spreading out from his waist in all directions. He looked scandalized. So adorably over this bullshit.
“Can you send that to me? Megan and Stacey will lose their minds when they see it.”
“Sure. They really need to get an apartment that allows pets,” Jane said, her fingers flying over her phone.
“Agreed. And thanks,” I said after my phone dinged with her incoming text. “Did you finish your article?”
She grinned. “Yeah. Want to have a glass of wine to celebrate?”
“Sure!” I said, thrilled that we were back on good terms.
Jane could hold a grudge, and as I’d predicted, it had taken her weeks to forgive me for the candy cane incident. I knew her extended annoyance was driven by the stress of the holidays and deadlines, and I’d tried to be good about giving her some space, even though I missed her and Dave and Willow. Sometimes Jane and Megan were more alike than I think either of them were willing to admit. I was beginning to think it was why they still didn’t get along that well.
We set Willow up in the living room on the couch, her favorite show on the TV, with the dogs to keep her company, and retreated into the kitchen where we could still see her, but wouldn’t have to hear every word of the insidiously catchy songs the cartoon characters sang.
“What’s the article about?” I asked Jane as she poured us each a glass of red.
“How the USFL is about to lose a lot of money to the players that are suing them,” she answered, her back to me.
I nearly choked. “What?”
She turned around, glasses in hand. “You actually gave me the idea, so thanks for that.”
WHAT?! “I did?”
“Yeah, that conversation you had with Dad and Jacob at Christmas about CTE got my wheels spinning.”
Oh, shit. Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit. I grabbed a glass from her and took a big gulp of wine, trying to buy myself some time to think.
“Jesus, slow down. It’s not a shot,” she said.
I pulled the glass away. “Who’s publishing it?” Please let it be some small news outlet.
“The New York Times.”
“That’s awesome, Jane! Congratulations!” I said with forced enthusiasm. “Cheers!” We clinked glasses. I set mine down on the counter immediately afterward. “One sec, I think I left something in the truck.”
“What…Ella, your jacket!” she called as I dashed out of the side door.
I whipped my phone from my pocket and immediately dialed Ben. “Pick up, please pick up.” I had so much adrenaline going that I couldn’t even feel the cold.
He answered after the fifth ring. “Hey there.”
“My sister is writing an article about your lawsuit for the New York Times.”
The silence on his end of the line was deafening.
“I didn’t tell her anything, Ben. I swear it.”
“I believe you.”
I let out a shaky breath. “She overheard me talking to my Dad and Jacob at Christmas about brain injuries and got inspired, so this is still totally my fault. I’m sorry. I had just met you and was curious about CTE and some of the studies I read. I needed someone to make sense of the medical jargon for me.”
“It’s okay, Ella,” he told me. “This isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known your curiosity would lead to this.”
“I know, but I still feel like it is. I haven’t seen the article yet, but I just need to warn you that it’s probably very political.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I figured. I read some of her articles after you told me what she does. She’s really talented.”
“What do you want me to do?”
He was quiet for a full minute. “What’s her address?”
I stopped dead, still a few feet from the truck. “You’re not…you’re not going to come over here, are you?”
“I’d like to. I’m sure she could use an anonymous inside source to bolster some of her research.”
“Ben, she’s a journalist. So is Dave. I don’t know what they’d do with the knowledge of you being hermitted up here.”
“You don’t trust them to keep it to themselves?”
“I don’t know. I want to say that I do, but the risk is…”
“The risk is mine to take. What’s her address?”
Holy shit. Okay, this was happening. I gave him the address, and then get off the phone.
“What the hell was that about?” Jane asked when I walked back in.
I stared at her, unsure of how to proceed.
“Ella, your face. You’re starting to worry me.”
I took a deep breath. “I know one of the players involved in the lawsuit. He wants to come talk to you about your article.”
She nearly dropped her glass. “Are you-” she looked to the living room and lowered her voice, “are you fucking kidding me?”
I shook my head.
Realization dawned across her features. “Oh my God. Stan. It’s Stan, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Stan is really Benjamin Kakoa.”
Eyes wide, she chugged her wine.
“It’s not a shot,” I reminded her.
She set the now empty glass down on the counter and raked her hands back through her thick hair. “Who else knows?”
“No one. Well, Jack, but I don’t think he realizes who he is. Ben lives down the hill from him. I met him at Jack’s place just before Christmas, which is why I was talking to Dad and Jacob about CTE. Jane, you have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone. Not even the family.” My tone turned savage, my inner dragon rearing her head. “I swear to God, if you do, I’ll never forgive you.”
She stared back at me, expression grim. “I would never do that.”
“I mean it, Jane.”
Her face darkened. “I won’t say anything. I actually have some journalistic integrity, you know. What the hell is he even doing up here anyway?”
I hesitated. “It’s not my place to say.”
“Is he about to come bitch me out over this?” she asked, glancing toward her daughter. “That dude is scary.”
“He is not scary,” I said. “He’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. And I think he actually wants to help you, be an anonymous source or something, but thanks so much for your assumptions.”
She closed her eyes for a second and braced her hands on the island countertop. “I’m sorry. That was a crappy thing to say. This is just a lot to take in.”
“I get it. Maybe try to give him the benefit of the doubt from now on, though.”
“I will.” She opened her eyes and looked at me. “I need to call my editor and get an extension.”
She picked up her phone and dialed. “Max? Hi, it’s Jane. Yeah. I’m glad you like it. I need you to hold off on doing anything with it. I know. I’m sorry. I may have an anonymous source with insider knowledge of the lawsuit. No. Max, no. Do you not understand the meaning of anonymous?”
Some of my dread eased hearing her be so firm with her editor. I picked up my own phone and texted Ben.
She won’t say anything.
OK. On the way. Just dropped the puppies off at Jack’s.
I grinned. Good luck getting them back from him.
He didn’t respond. I assumed it was because he was driving. I set the phone down and looked up to see Jane doing the same.
She met my gaze. “This is surreal.”
“Tell me about it. I almost had a heart attack when you told me what the article is about.”
She laughed, the sound frayed at the edges. “No kidding. You looked like it.”
“I’m sorry for freaking you out. And for snapping,” I said. I just got back in her good graces; I didn’t want to have another fall out right now.
She walked around the island to give me a hug, short enough that she could rest her head on my shoulder, just like Mom. “It’s okay. I know how protective you can be.” We let go, and she grinned up at me. “Remember the first time you met Dave?”
I smiled in return. “Ah, the threats I made.”
Her expression flattened. “Payback is a bitch, Ella.”
“Jane, don’t you dare! It’s not like that between me and Ben.”
“Oh? You didn’t just text him while I was on the phone?”
“I did. So what?”
“Sweetie, your face told me everything I need to know.” She patted me on the cheek hard enough to sting a little.
I stepped out of her reach. “Please don’t embarrass me.”
“I think I’ve made enough promises for one day, don’t you?” Her grin became malicious in a familiar way that suddenly clicked. So this is where Willow got it from.
She cackled in response.
I spent the next ten minutes trying to bargain with her. Right up until the dogs leapt off the couch and started barking at the windows. Ben was here.
“Mommy, truck!” Willow said, helpfully.
I went outside to meet him, letting the dogs streak past me through the door.
“Hi, you two,” Ben said.
He spent a long time crouched down at their level, letting them wriggle themselves close as they threw an OMG-I-missed-you-so-much-where-have-you-been party. Once they’d calmed down some, they moved on to frantically sniffing him.
“They must smell the puppies,” he said, standing.
Our gazes met, and for a second, I forgot why he was here. He wore dark jeans and a white V-neck t-shirt beneath his open jacket. His hair was loose and blowing in the breeze. He was gorgeous. So beautiful it hurt to look at him sometimes. I didn’t think I’d ever get over this initial shock I felt each time I saw him.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he answered, voice low, gaze roaming over me. He stepped close and lifted his fingers up to brush a strand of hair from my face. “It’s nice to see you.”
I smiled. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours since I left your place.”
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Shouldn’t have left,” he said, thumb sliding over my lips.
Oh my God.
A loud knock sounded from behind us. I whipped my head around to see Jane through the upper window of the doorway. She raised her hands, palms together. It looked like she was praying, but then she slowly pulled them apart, like a command, and it was then I realized how this might look. How close me and Ben were standing.
I looked back up at him. “I am so sorry in advance for anything my sister is about to say.”
“About the article?”
“About us. She owes me from when I first met Dave.”
Ben grinned so wide that dimples appeared on either side of his mouth. “Us, huh?”
I flushed and turned my back to him as I paced to the door. “Yup.”
He chuckled and followed me up the stairs.
The dogs raced past us, back inside, nearly knocking over Willow as she ran to meet the newcomer.
“Be nice!” she yelled at them. She was one to talk.
I stepped in to make room for Ben in the doorway. His frame filled the entire thing, throwing a shadow over me.
Willow stopped dead in her tracks, looking up, up, up at him. “You’re big,” she said, eyes wide.
Ben nodded. “I am.”
“I climb you now,” she said, then charged at him and immediately started to scramble up his leg.
Jane snorted from behind me. “Like aunt, like niece.”
I was going to kill her.
Ben coughed to cover his laughter and leaned down to help Willow. She grabbed onto his forearm and hauled herself up with surprising dexterity. Eventually, she settled on his back, legs around his waist. Ben had his hands hooked beneath her knees to keep her in place, which meant that she didn’t have to hold on that well. She lifted a finger and prodded at his shoulder, his back, and then his arm, as if testing his muscle tone.
“Can you throw people?” she asked him.
“What?” me and Jane chorused.
Ben just looked confused.
“I need a thrower,” Willow said.
Ben’s confusion morphed into startled surprise. Told you, I wanted to say. And he hadn’t believed me when I’d told him she was already recruiting for her evil army.
“You do not need a thrower,” Jane said.
Willow sighed and rested her cheek on Ben’s shoulder. “Fine. He can be my palandin.”
“Your what?” I asked.
Jane frowned. “Palanquin, did you mean?”
“Where did she even hear that word?” I asked her mother.
“No idea. The kid is way too smart for her own good.”
Willow whipped her head off of Ben’s shoulder and pointed over it toward the living room. “Mush!”
Ben did as his future leader bade, dropping her off on the couch, where she settled back into her nest of blankets and hit unpause on the remote, filling the room with the Little Einsteins theme song.
“Hi, it’s nice to finally meet you,” Ben told Jane when he returned, extending a hand toward her.
“Nice to meet you too,” she said. Her brows climbed as her hand disappeared beneath his. “Want anything to drink? Coffee, tea, booze?”
“Water is fine,” he said, releasing her.
She flexed her fingers a little, as if testing the joints. “Come on into the kitchen. We’ll talk in there, if that’s okay with you, so I can keep an eye on Her Supreme Highness.”
Ben shot a glance over his shoulder at Willow as we followed Jane out of the room. “You weren’t joking,” he said to me.
“I never joke about diabolical masterminds,” I told him.
“Di-a-bo-li-cal,” Willow repeated from behind us in a creepy little kid voice that made it sound like she was savoring this new word.
“That’s great,” Jane said. “Please expand her vocabulary some more.”
Ten minutes later, the three of us were seated at the kitchen table. Paper littered its surface. Ben and I each had a copy of Jane’s article in front of us, that we had just finished reading. She had notepads and pens and medical journals cluttering up her side.
“This is really good, Jane,” Ben told her, setting the article down.
My sister smiled a little shyly and didn’t meet his eyes. “Thanks.”
Ha! It wasn’t just me he effected. Even happily married women were susceptible. I felt so much better now.
“What do you want me to contribute?” he asked.
“Honestly, whatever you’re willing to,” she answered, picking up a pen.
“Nothing about my personal life or my own experiences with TBI and CTE.”
She nodded as if she’d assumed he’d say that. “Understood.” She finally managed to meet his eyes, her own full of sympathy. “I’m so sorry about your brother. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. If you want, I can remove mention of him from the article.”
I loved my sister for this empathy. So much. Beneath the table, I reached out to grab Ben’s hand. This was probably going to be difficult for him. He never talked about Zach, or at least he hadn’t with me, and now he might have to do so for all the world to read about.
I meant to just give him a reassuring squeeze and then let him go, but he surprised me by turning his hand beneath mine so he could thread our fingers together.
“Thank you, but that’s not necessary,” he told Jane. He rubbed his thumb over the back of my hand. “Zach’s death was one of the driving factors for so many of us quitting the league and filing this lawsuit, so he should be in it.”
“I still can’t understand why the league didn’t just settle,” Jane said. “Dragging this out in court is only going to make them look worse.”
Ben shrugged one massive shoulder. “They’re desperate at this point.”
“Can you expand upon that?” she asked, in full journo mode now.
He nodded. “I think the league must feel that if they win in court, the fans won’t think they’re responsible for what happened to Zach and the other players that have died because of TBI or CTE. Or the ones who are already experiencing what amounts to early onset dementia thanks to their years on the field. And I think there are other factors driving them besides that.”
“Like?” she asked.
Ben took a deep breath. “The USFL has lost a lot revenue to streaming services. They’re also losing viewers at higher rates than they’ve ever experienced before. The fans are fed up with the lack of logical punishment. One player can get suspended for three games for ranting about how the senator from his home state is racist, while another suffers no consequences after pleading guilty to domestic abuse. And people are either pissed at the players who took a knee during the anthem for ‘disrespecting the flag’ or for ‘bringing politics into sports’ or they’re pissed at how the league treated those players and the bullshit ruling that came down afterward. So not only are they angry with the league, but with each other. A sport that once united so many people is now dividing them.”
Jane’s pen flew over her notepad. “The ruling you mentioned, are you referring to the fine players will now face if they continue to take a knee?”
Ben nodded. “Yes. There’s another lawsuit about to be filed against that, by the way, and I think the players involved are backed by some heavy hitters like the ACLU and even a couple of team owners.”
“Really? Do you have anyone I could contact about that?”
“Possibly,” Ben said. “I’ll have to make some calls and find someone willing to talk about it.”
The two of them spent the next hour in deep conversation about the lawsuit and the league’s cover up of early CTE research. Ben explained that his lawyers had uncovered evidence of coercion and intimidation to keep some of the studies from being published. A few weeks ago, the private investigators the players had hired found a possible paper and money trail that led from the USFL to falsified, argumentative research papers that claimed there was zero connection between getting repeatedly tackled and TBI, as though they thought by spreading alternative facts and misinformation, they might be able to sway public opinion.
It was a move right out of big tobacco’s playbook, from back in the days when they were still trying to cast doubt on whether or not smoking led to cancer. It would have been laughable if it wasn’t so enraging.
I let go of Ben’s hand at that point, because I was worried I might be squeezing it too hard, and stood to pace into the kitchen. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so angry at someone. My she-dragon was so close to the surface that I felt like I could belch fire.
“You okay, Ella?” Ben asked.
“She’s fine,” Jane answered for me. “Momma bear mode has been activated.”
“More like rage-beast mode,” I said, so low they couldn’t make out the words.
Ben arched a brow at Jane in question.
“Oh, so she hasn’t felt the need to defend you yet?” Jane asked him. “Be grateful for that. She can get a bit scary.”
“I see that,” he said, turning to watch me pace. He didn’t look frightened. He looked…appreciative.
I had to force my gaze away from him before my anger morphed into something else.
“Tell me more about this last injunction,” Jane said. “The one concerning the commissioner.”
I heard footsteps and turned to see Willow walking toward me. She joined me in my pacing, mirroring my body language, crossing her little arms over her chest as she glared around at the room at large.
“Who are we mad at?” she asked.
I slowed down so she could keep up. “The commissioner of the USFL.”
“Ben!” she shouted. “Go throw him!”
God, I loved this kid.
“What did I say about throwing people?” Jane yelled back. She glanced at her watch. “Crap. It’s bed time.”
“I got it,” I told her, taking Willow’s hand and leading her down the hall.
I needed a break anyway. To go from Ben never talking about this to hearing how much he’d been hurt by it all was making me so angry I felt nauseous. Having to deal with all that toxicity on top of the threat of CTE and his grief for Zach seemed cosmically unfair. No wonder he needed to hide out for a little while. No wonder he’d been absent from social media since Christmas.
The dogs decided to help me with Willow, crowding into the bathroom with us while I watched her brush her teeth, hopping up on her bed when I finally got her tucked in. Sam, tired from running after her all day, cuddled in close to her on top of the covers, like he was trying to pin her there so he didn’t have to chase her any more. She threw a little arm around his neck and asked me to read her a bedtime story.
“Something di-a-bo-li-cal,” she said.
I muffled my laughter and instead chose the most sugary-sweet book I could find on her shelf.
“Ugh, boring,” she told me when I was halfway through it.
I ignored her and kept reading. Eventually, it did the trick. Her eyes fluttered shut and her breathing deepened. I read until I was sure she was fast asleep, then turned off the light and told Sam to keep watch, leaving the door cracked behind me.
Fred followed me out into the kitchen, where Jane and Ben were still deep in conversation. He padded over to Ben’s side and plopped down next to him, head on Ben’s thigh. Ben immediately reached down to pet him.
“Are you guys hungry at all?” I asked. “It’s nearly seven thirty.”
Jane looked up from her notes. “Dave will be home soon. You might want to duck out now, Ben.”
“I don’t mind staying to finish,” he said.
Jane nodded. “Then don’t worry. He’ll keep his mouth shut about you too.”
“I’m going to make Mom’s End of the Week Pasta then,” I told my sister.
She glanced over at me. “Sounds good. There’s a loaf of sourdough somewhere over there if you want to make garlic bread too.” She turned back to Ben. “Tell me more about that first hearing.”
I worked on dinner while they talked. Mom’s favorite dish didn’t have a set ingredient list, which made it adaptable. It was called End of the Week Pasta because Mom always went grocery shopping on Saturdays. Friday night, whatever was left over in the fridge from the week before went into the sauce she made.
I found half an onion, a green pepper, some kalamata olives, kielbasa, garlic, and zucchini in the fridge. They got dumped on the island while I went in search of diced tomatoes and tomato paste. I found a can of red kidney beans in the same cupboard as the canned tomatoes and decided to add them to the mix.
I spent the next twenty minutes dicing, chopping, and straining, and then set the water to boil in a large pot on the stove. Headlights flashed over the windows as the clock crept closer to eight. I shushed Fred before he started barking, worried that he would wake Willow.
Dave walked in not long after, looking exhausted from his twelve hours of travel to and from Portland. He dropped his messenger bag inside the door, started to tug his coat off, and then turned to see Benjamin Kakoa sitting at the dining room table with his wife.
His eyes nearly fell out of his head. “Am I being punked?” He looked around. “Is there a camera crew here?”
“Dave, meet Ben,” I said. Oh, this was too good.
Ben unfurled from his chair to tower over my brother-in-law. “Nice to meet you, Dave.”
“What is happening right now?” Dave asked, wrenching his arm from his coat sleeve to shake Ben’s proffered hand.
“Ella has been secretly dating a superstar,” Jane said, shooting me a grin.
I pointed the knife I was holding at her. “Stoppit.”
“I’m up here taking a bit of a break from the spotlight,” Ben said as he and Dave released each other.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, man,” Dave told him. “I’m a huge fan. The work you’ve been doing the past few years is amazing.”
Ben grinned. “Thank you.”
“He’s offered to be an inside source for the NYT article,” Jane told her husband.
“What a fucking scoop,” he said. He turned to hang up his coat and kick his leather shoes off. “Anonymous, I’m guessing?”
“Yes,” Jane answered. “And if you tell anyone who my source is or that Ben is hiding up here, I will divorce you.”
“Okay then,” Dave said. “Love you, too, babe.” He leaned down to give Jane a kiss on the cheek and then went to change out of the business formal clothing he’d been trapped in all day.
Jane and Ben finished up while he was gone, with Jane asking for Ben’s number in case she had any more questions or needed something clarified when she re-wrote the article. He gave it to her and then rose from the table to join me by the stove.
“Hi,” he said.
I looked up at him, thankful our backs were to Jane, because I knew that the look on my face would give her way too much ammunition. “Hi.”
“You doing okay?” he asked, voice low so it wouldn’t carry.
“Okayish,” I told him. “You?”
He exhaled. “Okayish, too, I think.”
“That was a lot,” I said.
He frowned. “Too much?”
I moved the wooden spoon to my left hand and wrapped my right one around his elbow, careless now of what Jane thought. “No. Not too much. Never too much,” I told him, squeezing.
He leaned toward me. “Come over tonight.”
I stared at him from inches away. “I thought you didn’t…?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be like that. Truthfully? This was almost too much for me. I could use some company after it all.”
“I’ll come over,” I told him.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.