Cole knew when he hit the first curb that he’d had too much to drink. He cursed as he jerked the wheel to bring the car back into the correct lane, nearly swiping a garbage can on the dark residential street. Pain shot through his shoulder as he righted the wheel, generating a more vicious curse.
You dumbass! The thought penetrated the haze coating his mind. Don’t ding the Maserati.
Focusing intently and clutching the wheel until his knuckles went numb, he registered he was less than a mile from home. He wanted to get there before he ended up with a DUI. Management would likely bench him for half the coming season if he screwed up like that.
His marinating brain decided this meant he should go faster. Get home quick before getting caught. He picked up speed, weaving along the back streets leading to his house. Thank God the downtown Atlanta nightclub was less than five miles from home.
Just as his driveway came into sight, the glaring lights of an oncoming car pierced his windshield. He slammed on the brakes and swerved to avoid the collision. The Maserati hit a patch of ice. The world spun as the other car passed without impact.
The last thing Cole registered was the large bulk of a magnolia tree speeding toward him and the fleeting thought that his beloved car was about to get much more than a ding.
* * *
A persistent beeping sound brought him back around. He slowly opened his eyes. A speckled ceiling came into focus. One of the beeping sounds increased as he registered his surroundings. Sunlight filled the spacious hospital room.
“Cole? Cole, honey?”
He glanced over at the sound of his mother’s voice. She sat on his left side holding his hand. The moment he looked at her, she gave it a tight squeeze.
“Can you hear me, honey?” she asked. The tears in her brown eyes tugged at Cole’s conscience.
Before he could answer, his dad’s rumbling southern drawl filled the room. “‘Course he can hear you, Brenda. He only has a concussion, for heaven’s sake.” He moved closer to the bed, towering over his wife. He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and caught Cole’s gaze. “Crash sure didn’t help his god-awful looks, though.”
“Rick!” his mom gasped.
Cole found himself comforted by the normal banter. He hadn’t yet looked down at his body, afraid of what he might see.
Lifting a corner of his mouth, he said, “Yeah, Ol’ Man. You’re scarring my sensitive psyche here.”
His dad guffawed at that. “Well, at least she didn’t call me Richard Dale Parker. Then I’d know I was in real trouble.”
“You two,” his mom censured, shaking her head. Her bob of sable-colored hair waved around her pretty face. She focused on Cole. “How are you feeling, honey? Do you remember what happened?”
“I remember,” he replied, adding a private sort of. “And I feel fine, actually.”
The answer surprised him. It had been a while since he last remembered being pain-free. For a terrifying moment, he feared he was paralyzed. But he moved his fingers and toes and felt the blanket and sheets against his skin. Lifting his arms, he tested for injury.
A movement just outside his room’s door caught his eye. He spotted his brother Wyatt talking with someone wearing a lab coat. Though he tried, he couldn’t read Wyatt’s expression since he was mostly turned away from him.
“We told Avery not to worry about making the trip out here,” his mother said. “The doctor assured us it wasn’t serious, and I didn’t want her to have to worry about Sam.”
“Of course,” Cole agreed, grateful his older sister wasn’t hauling his five-year-old nephew across town at the crack of dawn. “I’ll call her later. No need for all of the fuss.”
“You’re one lucky son of a buck,” his father said, the words drowning out the machines in the room. “If you’d been going even a little faster…”
The guilt resurged. Cole prayed that wasn’t moisture he saw in his father’s gaze. His dad never cried.
Wyatt saved him from responding when he entered the room. After looking between each of them and quickly assessing the situation, he said, “Mom, Dad, why don’t you have a word with Dr. Rosen about Cole’s aftercare? Then grab a cup of coffee and a muffin or something. Put it on my account.”
As a cardiologist on staff at the hospital, Wyatt would make sure their parents were taken care of, Cole knew. They nodded and Brenda bent down to kiss Cole’s forehead.
“You’re my baby, you know,” she murmured. “You’re not allowed to scare me like that.”
He winced. “Sorry, Mom.”
She ruffled his hair and let his dad lead her from the room. Wyatt closed the door behind them.
Seeing Wyatt’s expression when he turned back from the door, Cole groaned. “Don’t start with me.”
“Don’t start with you? That’s asking an awful lot when you’ve been a complete dumbass.”
Cole glowered at Wyatt as he settled into the chair their mother had abandoned. It was the only chair in the room and sported a tilted round seat and an off-center, triangle-shaped back. Somehow, Wyatt managed to sit in it without his long legs ending up in his ears.
“What the hell is that thing?” Cole wondered.
“Our hospital’s failed attempt at becoming more ‘hip and trendy,’” Wyatt responded. “Don’t try and deflect from the fact that you ended up here with a concussion and bruised face because you were driving under the influence.”
“What about my face?” Reaching up, Cole gently prodded his cheeks. He didn’t feel anything unusual.
“The airbag nearly broke your nose,” Wyatt explained, his sandy brows drawing together. “You likely lost your grip on the steering wheel before impact or you’d probably be suffering from a broken arm or two, as well.”
Cole considered that. “I don’t feel bruised.”
“You don’t feel much of anything. You were given a hefty dose of Codeine shortly before you woke up. Mom was carrying on about how much pain you’d be in, so Dr. Rosen allowed it.”
“Remind me to kiss the doc on my way out.”
“Cole, get serious for a minute,” Wyatt said sharply. “I’ve managed to keep your intoxication out of the official records. Fortunately for you, the guy who made you swerve into that tree was conscientious enough to see if you were all right, and he happens to be a fan of yours. He kept rambling on to anyone who would listen that it was all his fault. Between that and you being my brother, no one tested your blood alcohol level.”
“Then why do you think I was—?”
“Don’t even go there, Cole. You reeked of alcohol. You still do.”
Raising his left arm, Cole gave himself a sniff test. Then he shrugged.
Wyatt pushed up from the chair and leaned over the bed. Cole knew his brother nearly matched his own six-foot, three-inch height, and his hovering position had a dominating effect.
His voice was much quieter when he said, “Cole, for God’s sake, you could have killed yourself. You could have killed someone else—a kid. What the hell were you thinking?”
The combination of Wyatt’s posture and tone made another dent in Cole’s conscience. He’d always sought his older brother’s pride, and he knew now that he had disappointed him.
“I’m sorry, Wy.”
Whatever Wyatt read in his expression must have convinced him he was sincere. Sighing, Wyatt returned to the chair-like contraption.
“What’s going on, Cole? You don’t normally drink yourself stupid when you go out with your friends.”
Cole considered blowing his brother off. He could easily say it had been a one-time slip and it wouldn’t happen again, blah, blah, blah. Then he’d go back to living his life.
But he had to tell someone.
Rubbing a hand down his face, he asked, “Can I talk to you under the doctor-patient privilege rather than brother to brother?”
“Wyatt, this is important, okay?”
After a pause, Wyatt nodded.
Cole took a deep breath. “Okay. The truth is, I think I’ve blown out my pitching shoulder. I’ve been drinking and taking pills to relieve the pain.”
The quickly-issued confession didn’t make Cole feel any better. If anything, it made his non-physical pain that much keener. Still, it did help a little to share his burden. He was facing the possibility that his pitching career was over at the age of twenty-four. It had seemed more than he could bear before this moment. Now, he had hope.
He had Wyatt.
“When do you think the injury occurred?” Wyatt asked at last.
Grateful for his brother’s unshakable calm, Cole replied, “I experienced twinges several times last season when I pitched. It got worse in October. Once the season ended, I tried to work it out, but it’s been a few weeks and the pain isn’t going away. It’s getting worse.”
“Have you spoken to your team doctors or—?”
“Wy, if I tell anyone I’m having issues in my throwing arm, it’ll be all over the news. My contract comes up for renewal at the end of this coming season. I have to be in prime condition…no rumors about pain or treatment or surgery.”
Wyatt frowned. “You can’t continue on without an evaluation, Cole. You have to see what’s going on. It could be something treatable without surgery.”
“I want you to treat me,” Cole said. “I can trust that you’ll do it secretly and the press won’t find out.”
Wyatt was shaking his head before Cole finished. “If this was a heart condition, we might be having a different conversation, but—”
“Then one of the doctors you know. Get them to treat me off the record so it stays quiet.”
“You’re asking me to go to my colleagues and ask them to risk their medical licenses to treat you without properly documenting it?”
That made Cole frown. He wasn’t about to put his brother in that position.
“Look, it’s only the first week of November. You’re still months away from spring training. Assuming you don’t need surgery and you start rehab now, you should be fresh and ready to go by the time you report.”
Cole rolled his eyes. “Sure. I just have to figure out a way to get the rehab I need without the public finding out about it. That means it has to be done outside of a center and not by anyone bogged down by licensure and professional ethics. How the hell am I going to get effective treatment with all of those restrictions?”
Wyatt leaned forward. “I’ll make you a deal. If you stop drinking it up at the clubs and downing pills, I’ll figure out a way to make this work.”
There really wasn’t any other choice. He nodded. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”