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"You said they were bluffing. You said the trade threat was a tactic to get Gary Krota to sign for less money."
Wes slumped on the concrete steps outside his building, the sandwich he'd been planning to eat before practice forgotten next to him. The midday Madrid traffic snarl in the street barely registered. "I told Fabi to ignore the news," he added, "that I was definitely not being traded to Serbia."
A small dog covered in tangled, grayish fur that probably should have been white, nosed into a paper bag lying on the sidewalk. Wes watched it give the bag an investigatory lick.
"That's what I thought," Vic said, his tone flat, and not because it was 6:00 a.m. in the New York agent's office. He'd been negotiating with the owners of the Madrid Pirates, Wes's basketball team, for a week and it was clear he was out of alternatives. Victor hated to lose almost as much as Wes did. "Your option clause lets them trade you, Wes. I have another call set up for later this afternoon, but it's not looking good."
The dog shook the bag.
Wes rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, his fingers glancing against his newly healed shoulder. If he hadn't torn his rotator cuff would he be having this conversation? His numbers had been a little off, but it was a long season. He'd never been a superstar, but was he actually disposable?
"Look, Victor, nothing against Serbia, but I can still contribute here. My shoulder is one hundred percent. Practice was solid all week. I'm ready to go tomorrow night." He realized he was veering close to begging. But if the Pirates didn't want him, fine. "I don't want the trade."
"I'm doing everything I can, Wes."
"I hate being jerked around."
Victor wasn't only his agent, he was an old family friend. If anyone understood why he didn't want to move again, his life uprooted by the whim of someone in authority, it was Victor.
A seagull had spotted the dog and its paper-bag prize and dived down, beak extended. The dog scampered across the sidewalk, dodging around the feet of pedestrians, veering close to the traffic.
"I have to go," Wes said. He ended the call without waiting for Victor's response and was off the steps in one smooth motion.
"Hey, dog! Stop! Come!" The bird dived again and the dog darted between a lamppost and a bench. "Sit!"
Two women with shopping bags in their hands stared at him.
He spun, scooped his sandwich off the steps and turned back to the street.
There. The dog sprinted between two cars and slipped past the front wheel of a delivery truck. Just when it appeared to be safely on the opposite sidewalk, it turned to dart back across the street. The dog was so small.
Wes ripped a hunk off the sandwich and threw it. "Hey, dog, come! Fetch!"
The bird swooped low and the dog skidded past the back wheel of a red car.
He was an idiot. A Spanish dog would know Spanish commands. How the hell do you say "Heel" in Spanish? He pulled another piece off his sandwich and held it out as bait while he skirted a trio of twentysomething backpacking tourists and stepped off the sidewalk.
He couldn't see the dog anymore, but a truck loaded with full barrels suddenly accelerated into a gap in the traffic.
The truck's bumper caught him on the hip, his head snapped back into the grille, and then he went flying backward into the outdoor seating at the Savion cafe. A crack as he landed on one of the cafe's stone planters told him his barely healed shoulder was done for good.
Hallelujah, he thought right before he passed out from pain.
He woke up, momentarily disoriented in the dark, but quickly realized he was in a hospital bed. Weak light streaming in from the hall reflected off the machines surrounding him, as an electric hum droned too low to disturb the person slumped in a chair next to his bed. He rubbed his face, surprised to find thick stubble, and wondered how long he'd been out. His throat was dry and he coughed.
The figure in the chair started, sitting up straight and staring at him. Deacon. Of course he was here.
"Wes? You're awake?" His brother stood and bent over the bed. He touched Wes's hair and then dropped his hand to rest on his arm. "God, it's good to see you, man."
"What happened to the dog?" Wes asked. "Dog?"
"Little white one." The details were fuzzy, but he remembered the dog. "It was in the street."
"I don't know anything about a dog." Deacon squinted at him. "You were chasing a dog?"
"It didn't listen. Didn't speak English," Wes clarified. "Was going to get hit by a car."
A deep ache down the left side of his body reminded him that he'd been the one who got hit. There'd been an impact and then that awful crack when he landed. The memory of the cracking sound almost made him pass out again. He moved his arm and felt a throbbing pain under his right shoulder blade. He winced and his older brother's hand tightened on his arm. Deacon's dirty-blond hair was limp and his eyes were shot with red behind his glasses.
"You need a shower," Wes muttered.
Deacon rolled his eyes. "Sorry. I've been distracted. My brother got hit by a beer truck."
Wes shifted again and the pain deepened.
"No more jokes. Laughing hurts." He closed his eyes for a second. "Everything hurts."
"This dog "
Wes made an effort and opened his eyes.
"You were trying to save it?" Deacon hooked the chair behind him with his foot and pulled it closer so he could sit down, all without moving his hand from Wes's arm. Which was strange. Deacon wasn't the most demonstrative guy and, while he'd been the only real parent Wes ever had, he'd never been the motherly, hovering type. Growing up, Wes had been clipped on the back of the head way more often than he'd had his hand held.
"I didn't want it to get hit."
Deacon pushed his glasses up on his forehead and rubbed his eyes. He readjusted his glasses. "Oh. That's good then." He patted Wes's arm. "A dog ran into the road. That's good."
Why the hell was Deacon patting him?
"No, it's not" His mind finally cleared enough for him to realize what was wrong with his brother. "Why are you here, D.?"
"You got hit by a truck."
"You think I walked in front of it on purpose."
Deacon's denial came a second too late. "No. But Victor did say you were upset
Wes groaned and not from pain this time. If he could have moved his right arm without passing out, he'd have punched his brother.
"Upset, yes. They're trading me to Serbia. Fabi is furious. I don't want to move again." Deacon was watching him closely. "I wouldn't kill myself over basketball. Come on."
At that moment Wes realized his brother had been worried precisely because Deacon could imagine killing himself over basketball. It was a fundamental difference between them.
Deacon had put every single one of his dreams into his basketball career and when it was cut short by an injury, he'd been lost.
That was when he turned his attention to nurturing Wes's talent for the game. With his brother's support, Wes got to a great college, played on a powerhouse team and, when the NBA passed him over, found this spot on the Madrid team. He'd expected to keep playing ball for at least a few more years, but The memory of the accident washed back over him and he felt sick to his stomach. The truck hadn't caught him head-on, thank God, but that sound when he hit the ground. He suspected he'd be hearing it in nightmares for the rest of his life.
"How long have I been out?"
"Three days," Deacon said.
"You talked to the doctors?"
Wes gave his brother credit for holding eye contact when he nodded.
He'd never had the passion for the game that Deacon did, but he'd loved playing. Loved being a player, out on the court with the crowd around him. He felt alive when he was the focus of that attention in a way he'd rarely been able to duplicate off the court.
He hadn't wanted to move to Serbia and certainly hadn't thrown himself in front of a truck in despair, but that didn't mean he was ready for the news he was sure was coming next.
Deacon took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes again. "Your shoulder's done. It was touch-and-go the first time. That doctor from the team, Peter? He said you pulled off a miracle after the surgery, working it back into shape. You'll be able to use it. But you're not going to get back to the team."
Wes let his eyes shut again. You're not going to get back to the team.
So that was it.
Not going to get back
He should be wrecked. Run down by a beer truck trying to save a dog, and now unemployed. From living the dreamplaying professional basketball, traveling with the team all over Europe, dating gorgeous womento the end of his career at the age of twenty-eight. For the past twenty years, either he or Deacon had been playing at the top levels of the game. End of an era. The Fallon era.
"You okay?" Wes asked his brother.
"Shouldn't that be my line?"
"Seriously, Wes. You're lying in a hospital bed, your career is over and, judging by the fact that this" Deacon pointed out an enormous bunch of pink tulips "is from the truck driver who hit you, while this" he pointed to a tiny cactus in a black, plastic pot "is from Fabi, I'm going out on a limb to guess you no longer have a girlfriend." Deacon held up his hand. "Not that I'm bummed about that because Fabi is a well you know."
Wes did know. Fabi was living proof you can't judge a book by its cover. She was gorgeous. Long legs, toned muscles, perfect skin, fantastic smile. Underneath the surface was a sketchy moral code and an endless appetite for Wes's money.
He'd loved her brains, though, and her wicked sense of humor. But he hadn't been surprised or heartbroken when she threatened to dump him if he got traded. He'd been more bothered when he realized he wasn't going to fight for the relationship. What had he been doing with her if he wasn't willing to fight for her? The not-so-subtle subtext of the cactus seemed to indicate that being hit by a truck was right up there with being traded to Serbia as a deal breaker.
This breakup fell squarely in the category of not missing things you never really had in the first place.
He wasn't worried about losing Fabi, but Deacon was another question. He couldn't remember a time when he wasn't trying to get Deacon's attention or make him happy. Their mom died when Wes was two. He and Deacon had been split up in foster care until he turned eight and Deacon, a full ten years older, got drafted into the NBA and immediately applied for custody of him. After the guardianship ended when he turned eighteen, Deacon had stayed fully involved in his life.
Mostly through basketball.
Now, for the first time, there was nothing tying him to Deacon. His brother had married his girlfriend, Julia, a little more than seven years ago. They had a full plate running the Fallon Foundation Centers and caring for the teenagers they took in as foster kids.
Without basketball, where would his relationship with Deacon land?
For that matter, what would his life look like? It had emptied out in the seconds after he got hit by that truck.
He could do anything. He'd owed a debt to his brother and he'd fulfilled it by playing as long and as well as he could.
"You want to go back to sleep?" Deacon asked.
"In a minute." He tried to pull the sheet up, but the movement hurt too much. His brother took over, settling it around his shoulders.
"I'm going to get a nurse in here."
Wes hoped the nurse would give him something to take the edge off the pain so he could sleep. "You sure you didn't hear anything about a dog? Not in the accident report or anything?"
Deacon shook his head. "Nothing. I wish someone had told me about it. I wouldn't have been so worried that" He stood quickly. "Listen, Wes, Julia said I should wait until you're feeling better, but I'm just going to lay this out there. You don't have to say yes or no right away."
Wes really wanted the drugs he was imagining the nurse would bring as soon as Deacon stopped acting out this Lifetime-movie moment.
"Spit it out."
"I have this job and I want you to take it. I want you to come work for me."
"Something to keep you busy."
"I know what a job is. What do you have in mind?"
"You know the Hand-to-Hand pilot program?"
Deacon and Julia ran the Fallon Foundation, building centers offering sports, arts and tutoring programs in economically depressed towns. The Hand-to-Hand program would make sister center relationships between Fallon centers and those in wealthier locations. The program's mission statement said, Everyone needs a hand sometimes and everyone has something to offer.
"We have the site identifiedit's a town called Kirk-land, right on Kueka Lake. We need the town to give us the lease on the space we've picked out, but it means getting a waiver from them. We're in the last steps of negotiating a partner grant with Robinson University to fund a high-tech tutoring service to three other Fallon centers in New York State. I could really use someone on the ground full-time in Kirkland who can build goodwill and spread the word so we can close both those deals."
Wes's head had started throbbing. Hard work didn't scare him, but he wasn't sure what Deacon was asking him to do, let alone if he'd be capable of doing it.