Chapter 1—Thrown for a Loss
Twelve years and a couple multi-million-dollar football contracts changed a lot of things for a kid who grew up poor, but obviously not enough.
Zach Murphy shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. In less time than it took to hike a football, he’d been catapulted from a man who commanded respect and controlled his own destiny to one of inadequacy and uncertainty.
He hated these fancy banquets where everyone pretended to be something they weren’t, and the wealthy paid big sums to hang out with professional athletes all in the name of charity. Zach preferred his charitable work to be more low-key and private. Even worse, he hated how these affairs made him feel like an idiot—a guy lacking all social graces. He tried to fit into a crowd like this once, and it had been a disaster.
The bottom line was he didn't belong here. He’d already managed to insult some millionaire geek’s wife by complimenting her on her healthy appetite. Hell, where he came from, a man admired a woman who appreciated good food.
He sucked in social situations, especially highbrow ones like this. His old team never made him attend anything more than a bowling tournament, but the Lumberjacks insisted their defensive captain go to all this shit.
Zach ran his fingers through his unruly hair and almost wished he’d gotten it cut. Too long and curly to be tamed with hair gel and too short for a ponytail, it kept getting in his eyes. He tugged on this bow tie, rebelling against how constricting it was. He’d been here less than thirty minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. These snooty people stared down their noses at him as if they saw right through to his white-trash roots.
Looking for some friendly faces, he walked up to a couple of his defensive guys and joined their conversation. “Hey, guys, did you see our jackass quarterback anywhere? I thought I’d arm wrestle him for a dance with his hot little girlfriend.”
They stared at him sort of funny. He wiped his mouth, wondering if he had crumbs on his face or something.
On cue Tyler Harris, the Seattle Lumberjacks’ quarterback and Zach’s personal enemy number one, sauntered over with his cute, curvy girlfriend, Lavender, beside him. Zach liked Lavender, she was sweet and sassy all rolled into one. Even better, she could put the asshole quarterback in his place with one damning look. Harris might be an uncontrollable bad boy in most circumstances, but Lavender led him around by a ring in his dick, which amused Zach to no end.
Zach grinned at her, and she hugged him then she straightened his bowtie. Harris snaked his arm possessively around her waist and tucked her close to his side. His glare cut right through the bullshit. He hated the linebacker as much as Zach hated him. The jerk’s gaze swept downward as if assessing and cataloging Zach’s every social blunder. His gaze fixed on Zach’s black cowboy boots.
Harris smirked and raised one eyebrow. “Cowboy boots at a black tie affair?”
“Sounds like the words to a country song,” Bruiser, their surfer boy running back, quipped, as if he’d ever listened to a country song in his life.
“Hey, I’m from Texas.” Zach shoved his hands in his pockets before he did damage to the quarterback’s pretty face. He liked his boots. The broken-in Justins hugged his big feet like a comfortable pair of old slippers. Hell, he’d even polished them to a shine for the occasion. Best of all, the extra two inches made him one inch taller than the Jacks’ six-foot-four quarterback.
‘Yeah, right. But—” Lavender stomped on Harris’s foot before he opened his mouth again, most likely to launch a new insult at the hated defensive player. She cast a sympathetic look in Zach’s direction and dragged her stubborn-assed boyfriend to his seat.
Zach barely tolerated quarterbacks as necessary evils, prima donna jerks every one of them, and he had zero-tolerance for Harris.
As a middle linebacker, Zach made a living out of analyzing quarterbacks, studying their body language, watching their eyes then telegraphing his findings to his defensive teammates. Last year when his old team played the Jacks, he’d looked across the line of scrimmage into Harris’s eyes and seen—nothing. Nothing but a big fat zero, almost as if the QB had put his body on autopilot and mentally hung out a “closed” sign.
Zach had lived and breathed football from the day he took his first baby step. Football was an all-in game. Either you were all-in or you’d best get the hell all-out. He couldn't fathom a football player who didn't love the game with every cell in his body and leave every ounce of try he had out on the field. But Harris had. Last year. He’d quit on his team, missed practices, put in minimum effort, and only physically shown up for games.
The team had won their second consecutive Super Bowl in spite of Harris. Not that Zach had been in the locker room or on the field. He’d signed with the Seattle Lumberjacks in the off-season a few months after that second Super Bowl. But guys talked, and he’d been in the league long enough to see all the signs, even if he was observing from across the line of scrimmage or via a flat screen TV.
A Super Bowl?
How could a guy not leave his blood and guts out on the field during the game of all games? Harris’s don’t-give-a-shit attitude baffled Zach and put the two team captains at odds with each other throughout training camp. Zach had no respect for quitters. If he had his way, the Jacks would start a different quarterback on the first day of regular season.
Zach ground his teeth together until his head hurt just thinking about having one Super Bowl ring, let alone a pair. He'd give both his nuts for a ring. Team loyalty had gotten him nowhere. For twelve years, he'd played his heart out on the worst team in the NFL, given them his best and never complained. The team didn’t make it past one wild-card win in the first round of the playoffs. During the off-season, his old team dropped him faster than a rabid coyote. Then the Seattle Lumberjacks came calling, needing a guy to bolster their defense and tutor their young players. He’d jumped at the chance.
This year would be different. He'd taken a hefty pay cut to sign a one-year contract with this team just for a chance to win a ring in what might well be his last year. For a linebacker who played as hard as he did, thirty-four bordered on ancient. Or so his body told him.
Reluctantly, Zach took his seat across from Harris. Thank God, Lavender sat to Zach’s right because Zach adored her. She shot him a friendly smile. Knowing it would piss Tyler off, he grinned back. “You’re a pretty as a dandelion in a weed patch.”
Lavender laughed and patted his arm. “You silver-tongued devil. Thank you. You cut a dashing figure yourself.” A few of the guys around the table snickered behind their napkins.
“A dandelion is a weed.” Hoss Price, their three-hundred-pound center snorted so hard, Zach expected his wine to come out his nose. Harris glared at Zach as if he’d called Lavender fat or something equally offensive.
Zach ducked his head. He liked dandelions. They were the only flowers that had grown in his Grandmother Lo-Lo’s front yard. He’d screwed up again. He’d meant his statement to be a real compliment, but everyone took it as humorous.
“I didn’t know Wal-Mart sold tuxes. Must be a new line or something.” John Myers, a prima-donna wide receiver chortled, and his teammates joined in.
“From you, I’ll take that as a compliment.” Zach looked down at his black tux. He didn’t see a thing wrong with it. He’d bought it at a bargain price at a decent men’s wear store for his cousin’s wedding a few years ago. It seemed perfectly functional to him. Sure it was a little small in places, the pants a little short, and it had a few wrinkles, but he didn’t see it as a big deal. Off-the-rack clothes never fit him right. He was used to it. He’d be damned if he’d spend five figures on a custom suit with some dumbass designer’s name on the label like Harris did just to impress a bunch of people he cared less about.
“Lapels like that went out of style years ago.” John couldn’t keep his trap quiet.
Zach clamped his mouth shut. Who gave a shit about out-of-style lapels? Not him. He didn’t even know what was in style or care.
“Zach, you look great—for a hick.” Bruiser grinned at him. He liked Bruiser usually, but not so much right now.
“Hey, he’s prepared for the rainy season, too. Those pants legs are above the high-water mark.” Hoss choked on his wine, spitting some of it across the table. Too bad he missed Harris’s face by a mere inch. Hoss didn’t have any better social graces than Zach, but his elegant girlfriend dressed him for these occasions. Zach didn’t have a woman to make sure he looked put together.
“Zach looks fine.” Lavender pinched Bruiser’s arm while Tyler yelped. She must have kicked him under the table just for good measure. Zach needed to find a woman like her.
“Zach, you’re a handsome devil. These guys are just jealous.” Rachel, wife to all-pro wide receiver Derek Ramsey, shot a shut-up-or-die glance around the table, pausing at John. As if John gave a shit.
Being defended by women stung Zach’s pride and booted his ego to the basement, but the ladies meant well. He couldn’t fault them for that.
Harris narrowed his gaze, seeming to zero in on Zach’s blue shirt. Obviously, the quarterback didn’t care much for blue. Zach reached across the table for the basket of bread, but John yanked it out of reach before he could grab it. “What the fuck? You got the manners of a stray dog. Didn’t your mama teach you any better?”
Zach cringed. He hadn’t a clue what he’d done wrong. Besides, his mama didn’t teach him a damn thing. She’d been too busy drowning in a bottle or shooting up.
“Hey, why do you think his old team called him wolf?” Hoss hooted louder than a train bearing down on a busy intersection.
“Here I thought it had to do with his prowess on the field.” Harris started to laugh then flinched, and Lavender winked at Zach..
“Hey, being a wolf is a good thing on the football field. Wolves are fierce.” Tomcat rose to his defense. He’d known Cat since college. His real name was Thomas but the defensive end stalked unsuspecting quarterbacks like a tomcat on the prowl, hence the nickname. Tomcat had followed him from their old loser team and taken a pay cut just like Zach for one last chance at a ring.
Zach ignored them all. Hell, they were just having fun hazing the new guy on the team, except for Harris. That guy enjoyed every minute of Zach’s torture. Eventually the conversation shifted to Sunday’s first regular season game.
Heart sinking, Zach stared at the confusing array of eating utensils, plates, and glasses. Nobody needed this much stuff just to eat dinner. Hell, where he came from, he’d been lucky to eat with a fork. This fancy crap reminded him of how much his lowly upbringing still shaped his present.
As the waiter placed the first of many courses in front of Zach, he glanced around to see which fork to use. Harris eyed him like a man probing for an enemy’s weaknesses. Pretending to study his oysters, Zach flicked his lowered gaze to Lavender’s plate. He picked up the little fork just as she had. Grasping an oyster in his big hand, he tried to dig it out of the shell. The damn thing popped out and flew across the table. It hit Derek’s jacket and slid downward, leaving a slimy trail. Harris broke into laughter with the rest of the table following suit. Zach’s ears burned, but he held his head high, refusing to let these vultures pick his embarrassed carcass clean.
“Hey, man, no big deal.” Derek, who also had the misfortune of being Harris’s cousin, smiled sympathetically at Zach, while Rachel wiped off his lapel.
“Why don’t you go back to the trailer park where you belong?” John sputtered, laughing too hard to get a breath. Harris just smirked.
Zach ignored them both and pushed the plate away. He’d be damned if he’d try to eat another, never liked the fucking things anyway.
“Hey, man, that isn’t funny.” Tomcat jumped in.
“It’s all in fun. Murphy knows that.” John nodded at Zach.
Zach concentrated on a spot across the room, faking interest in the crappy painting hanging on the wall, the one simply titled, The Cat. Hell, the kindergarten class from his hometown of Cactus Prairie, Texas, painted better pictures. At least a cat looked like a cat, not an alien space ship spraying people with spaghetti sauce.
Then he saw her.
Zach’s day went from calamity to catastrophe. He broke into a sweat. Pain shot through him as if he’d dropped a two-hundred-pound barbell on his chest. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t muster a coherent thought in his shocked brain, couldn’t drag his eyes off her.
The woman of his dreams and his nightmares.
Kelsie Carrington glided across the room straight toward him. His Cactus Prairie High School crush here? In Seattle? What the fuck? Wasn’t halfway across the country far enough to escape those painful memories? He blinked several times, but there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with his vision. His one-date disaster balanced on a pair of heels so high the altitude should require an oxygen mask. Her blonde hair shone as brightly as the gold in a coveted Super Bowl ring. Each graceful step of those long legs carried her closer to him.
He held his breath and prayed she didn’t recognize him. Just like old times, Kelsie looked right through him, as if he didn’t exist. Her patent beauty-queen smile was plastered across her perfectly made-up face. Damn, seeing her transported him back to being an awkward teenage boy who only fit in on the football field. Her fake smile reminded him how stupid he’d been to fall for her particular brand of poison. Her perfect face dredged up a shitload of painful emotions.
Oh, yeah, painful all right. Zach Murphy had fallen in love once and been carried out of the game on a stretcher. He’d stick with football. Football gave him life, while women sucked the life out of him. Football made sense to him. Women didn’t.
Especially this woman.
He glanced to either side to see if any of his teammates noticed the fucking bleeding heart dangling on his sleeve. They were too busy staring at Kelsie—she’d always had that effect on men. Well, except for the king of asshole quarterbacks, Tyler Harris. Zach gave Harris a few grudging points for tossing out his womanizer ways and only having eyes for his sassy girlfriend.
Yet something on Zach’s face must have clued Harris in. Like a hungry hyena catching the scent of wounded prey, Harris’s sharp gaze moved from Zach to Kelsie and back again. The quarterback possessed this uncanny ability to dissect an enemy’s weakness—and despite being teammates, they were enemies. One corner of the fuckhead’s mouth turned up in a knowing smirk. He nodded briefly at Zach and returned to his conversation with his hot little girlfriend, even though Zach knew damn well the jerk kept one eye on him.
Ignoring Harris, Zach scratched his chin and studied Kelsie. What the hell was the cause of his most humiliating moment in a lifetime of humiliating moments doing here a thousand miles from Texas, invading his territory?
He blinked a few times and looked again. Really looked beyond the beauty-queen face and body. Something was very wrong with this picture. A loaded tray of drinks teetered precariously on the palm of Kelsie’s raised hand as she moved in and out of the crowd. Rich girl Kel had never worked a real job in her life. Yet, he doubted she was serving drinks just for the unique opportunity to slum with the common folk.
Damn, maybe his life wasn’t the only thing that’d changed.
Kelsie scanned the room then did a double take. Their eyes met and crashed with the intensity of a wrong-way collision on I-5. The fake smile faltered. The gliding stopped. She looked around the room as if planning an escape route. Then she straightened her shoulders and turned on the charm, gracing him with her Halogen smile—perfect white teeth and hot red lips. Really hot. As if she were happy to see him.
Kelsie faltered. Her stride went from graceful to jerky. The smile slipped off her face, replaced by what appeared to be panic. She pivoted on her impossibly high heels and fired up the after-burners.
Oh, no, she wasn’t getting away this easily. Zach jumped to his feet and gave chase, single-mindedly focused on confronting her, something he’d been dying to do since his senior year of high school. Yeah, stupid idea, but he’d never been one for thinking before reacting, a trait which worked well in football, not so well in real life.
She glanced over her shoulder, her blue eyes filled with what looked like fear, as if she expected him to do physical damage to her or some stupid-assed thing like that.
Zach cornered her near the head table. Kelsie changed directions and charged past him. He spun around to follow, refusing to let her off that easily. He clipped her full tray drinks with his elbow. She lurched with the tray, but it was too late. Helpless, Zach watched the disaster happen in slow motion.
The tray teetered back and forth, as Kelsie desperately fought to gain control. The tray won. Glasses of wine sprayed red, white, and pink across the tablecloth, looking like a tie-dye session gone mad. Goblets shattered. Women screamed as wine drenched expensive evening gowns. The team owner leapt to his feet, his sputtering laced with profanity as red wine coated his custom-tux and white shirt. His spoiled daughter, Veronica, didn’t hold anything back either, loudly insulting the size of Zach’s brain and his dick. Closest to the debacle, the governor’s wife leapt to her feet, her low-cut sequined evening gown hung on her like a limp rag. Red wine and mimosas dribbled down her neck and chest and disappeared in her cleavage. Zach grabbed a napkin and desperately blotted at the wine. In his panic, he swiped the napkin across the plump mounds of her breasts. She screamed as if he’d purposely groped her. HughJack, the team’s head coach, grabbed him and pulled him away.
“I’m sorry. Oh, fucking hell. I’m so sorry.” Zach wanted to crawl under the nearest boulder.
“What did you think you were doing?” Coach spoke in that deadly calm, quiet voice that struck fear in the meanest of linemen. Zach preferred HughJack’s ranting and notorious clipboard throwing to that voice.
“I—I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Veronica, still sputtering and looking for blood, turned on Kelsie. “You! How could you be so stupid?”
“I—I—” Kelsie shoved her fist in her mouth, obviously horrified at the carnage she’d helped cause. She lifted her gaze to Zach’s. Anger blazed in her stormy blue eyes.
Wait one fucking minute. She blamed him? He hadn’t done one damn thing other than be where he was supposed to be—a charity benefit for a charity whose name he couldn't even remember. She was the one who didn’t belong here.
Jerking her gaze away from his, Kelsie dropped to the floor and started wiping up the mess with any napkin she could confiscate from the nearby tables. Several other staff joined in the fray, wiping tables, cleaning up the mess, and comforting wet, angry guests.
Zach debated on whether or not to fade into the background or make her night that much worse. Once again, she’d made him look like a backwards hick, her special talent.
A fat, sweating chef with chocolate stains on his white apron waddled out of the kitchen and spoke in a harsh whisper to Kelsie. “You idiot. Did you do this?”
Kelsie didn’t look up, just worked frantically to clean up the mess. The chef bent down and pointed a pudgy finger in her direction. “You’re fired. Get the hell out of here. I’ll be contacting you for reimbursement for the damages.” He kept his voice low, but Zach heard him.
Zach stepped forward, a knight not exactly comfortable in his dinner-jacket armor. “Apologize to the lady. It was an accident, and your behavior is abusive.”
The chef gritted his teeth and spoke loud enough for only Zach to hear. “Who the hell are you? Some dumb jock? You probably beat up your girlfriend on a regular basis. And you accuse me of abuse?”
Zach exploded and charged. Just before he made contact, two defensive linemen, big suckers, yanked him backward and pinned his arms behind his back. Zach lunged at the fat chef again, dragging the linemen with him. More teammates jumped into the fray and held him back. Several others restrained the chef, who hurled accusations at Zach and Kelsie.
“Stop it, you dumb shit.” Harris smacked Zach on the arm none too gently. Zach grunted and squinted into the harsh light glaring in his eyes. Someone had a camera trained on him.
Harris stepped in front of Zach, blocked the cameraman, and faced the furious cook. “Let’s calm down and be civilized. It was an accident.” He spoke in an aside to his teammates. “Let them go.” The men did as Harris ordered. The cook made a move toward Zach but Harris countered it, placing his body between the two dueling men. He put his hand on Zach’s chest and pushed. Zach staggered back a step, reining in his temper.
He’d done it again. Screwed up in a social situation and dragged the whole team down with him. His new team. The ones who were counting on him to be a leader on and off the field. He’d led them, all right, almost into a brawl.
Zach released his breath in a whoosh, deflating not just his lungs but his ego. He’d made an ass of himself, embarrassed the team, and even worse, exposed a weakness to Tyler Harris in the name of one high-school-crush-on-the-mean-girl Kelsie Carrington.
Zach glanced off to the side where Kelsie stood. She’d shoved her knuckles in her mouth again, a sure sign of her discomfort he remembered from their high school days—not that he'd forgot a thing about her from back them. Cheerleader. Beauty queen. Rich and spoiled. The meanest of the mean girls. Tell that to a teenage Zach. He’d dragged his sorry ass after her without an ounce of pride, begging for any crumb she’d toss his way. She tossed just enough to keep him on her trail.
Zach scrubbed his hands over his face. Dropping his arms to his sides, he turned to Kelsie.
Her confidence of a few seconds ago shattered like the goblets on the floor. She hunched over and hugged herself in a gesture of self-protection. She flicked a glance in his direction. Their eyes met for a split second, just enough time to send his stomach into vigorous calisthenics and reduce his already damaged knees to mush.
Without another word, she fled the room, but not before his foolish heart lunged for her and missed, once again.
* * * * *
Blinded by tears, Kelsie dashed for the ballroom doors. While making a run for it, she bumped into another waiter, sentencing a tray of deserts to another appointment with destiny. Banging into the doors, she pushed them open, and sprinted down the hall for the elevator. She braked to a stop and wrenched her ankle in the process. An ominous snap a split second later confirmed the worst. Her last good pair of Manolo Blahniks succumbed to the stress of her fifty-meter dash for freedom. Lurching into the elevator, she stabbed at the Lobby button with a now broken fingernail.
The elevator doors slid shut and wrapped her in a temporary cocoon of safety. She yanked off her heels and clutched them tightly, realizing the broken heel lay somewhere between the ballroom and the elevator.
Her day couldn’t get worse. Or her life.
Of all people to witness her humiliation, fate chose Zach Murphy. And the Lumberjacks team owner. And his daughter. And the Governor. She’d hit rock bottom, and the one man who hated her guts more than her ex-husband was probably drinking a toast to her downfall.
She hadn’t seen him in person since high school graduation. Zach the teenager had been intimidating. Zach the man was formidable. He’d put on muscle on top of muscle, grown a few inches, and definitely fine-tuned his intensity to a laser-sharp edge. Shaggy black hair framed his tanned, rugged face. His tight, full lips announced don’t mess with me if living is important to you without him opening his mouth.
She’d been such a fool. A stupid fool.
Sure, she’d convinced herself the move to Seattle had to do with finding Zach and atoning for the sins of her past. But who was she kidding? It had nothing to do with Zach, and everything to do with her. Even worse, Zach saw right through her to the selfish, desperate woman underneath. Sweet, kind, bumbling Zach, the only man who’d ever been there for her and never asked a thing in return but friendship. The same man she’d ridiculed and humiliated. And she’d expected a warm, even lukewarm, reception?
One look at Zach’s face, and Kelsie knew she’d made a grave error in judgment. Zach’s angry frown spoke louder than red paint dripping down a white wall. He would not be her rescuer. He’d resigned from that job years ago and rightfully so. He’d been her last hope for a friendly face in a storm of angry or indifferent ones, and even he didn’t want a thing to do with her.
The elevator door opened with a pleasant ping totally in contradiction with her evening. Squaring her shoulders and straightening her spine, Kelsie strode out of the elevator. Alcohol soaked her white shirt and black skirt. Her stocking feet stuck to the cold tile floor of the lobby. She padded out the door into a misty Seattle night and stood on the street, chest heaving and heart racing. At least it was a balmy—for Seattle—seventy degrees, pretty decent weather for early September, so she understood.
She reached for her purse. Her heart dropped to her bare toes. She’d left her purse and cell phone at the banquet. Not that she had any money in it. She’d spent her last forty dollars on the banquet server clothes. Her stomach rumbled like the Sounder train, reminding her the day’s meal consisted of a couple crackers. She’d hoped to eat at the banquet after the guests were served.
And reduced to living in her car.
She’d sunk low in the past couple months, lower than she’d ever imagined. Yet, staying in her former situation hadn’t been an alternative. She’d rather sleep on a park bench and dumpster dive for dinner.
Which was exactly what she would be doing.
The hotel valet eyed her with suspicion. She glanced at her reflection in the window. Her disheveled hair, bare feet, and stained clothes didn’t exactly present a good impression.
The man walked up to her. “Time to move along. We don’t allow loitering.”
With a sniff and a toss of her head, Kelsie sauntered off, refusing to let him see her lose it. She walked around the corner to find a nice, quiet place to fall apart. She slumped on a bus stop bench and buried her face in her hands.
“You left something behind.”
Wiping her face with her sleeve, Kelsie glanced up to see her purse dangling from the large fingers of the Jacks’ quarterback, Tyler Harris. Tyler was a sleek, graceful deer buck compared to Zach’s more rangy elk. Her Coach purse swayed back and forth in front of her eyes. She snatched it from his hand and cradled it against her chest. This purse would bring her enough from a pawnshop to keep her going for a little while. She’d fled to Seattle to escape her ex’s influence and left everything behind, hoping to find Zach. The only person in her life who’d ever truly liked her for her. She’d found him, all right, and after one look into those angry eyes, she knew she’d made a huge mistake. Zach was not a much-needed ally, he was an enemy.
“Thank you.” She sniffed and hiccupped a very loud, unladylike hiccup.
Tyler’s girlfriend, a redheaded pixie, stepped forward, her eyes full of pity and kindness. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Kelsie chewed on her lower lip. Her pride screamed ‘no.’ Her practical side kicked pride out of the way and took over. “My car is parked a ways from here.” She choked back another sob. She’d stowed everything she owned in her out-of-gas car parked several blocks away in a defunct business’s parking lot. With her luck, it’d been towed by now.
“We’ll give you a ride.” Tyler didn’t wait for an answer but started hauling her along with them, shoes and purse clutched in her free hand. She resisted, irritated and fearful at the same time. They were all alike, guys like him and her ex-husband, thinking they could force their will upon her. She hated it, hated the weakness, swore she’d never be under the influence of a man like that again. She might be broke, hungry, and homeless, but she was independent.
Kelsie folded her long limbs into the miniscule backseat of Tyler’s expensive sports car. His girlfriend turned in her seat. “I’m Lavender. You are?”
“I’m Kelsie. I’m new to town.”
Tyler glanced at her in the rearview mirror, his expression calculating. “I get the impression you and Murphy have a history.”
Kelsie proceeded with caution, unwilling to divulge too much. “Yes, we knew each other in high school.”
“Small world, isn’t it?” Lavender spoke with sympathy, as she shot her boyfriend a shut-your-mouth glare.
“Too small.” Kelsie pointed out her little Chevy Equinox, the lone car in the lot.
Tyler pulled up beside it. She lunged for the door, hoping he’d just drive off. He didn’t. He got out and waited at the side of her car. He studied the inside, most likely taking in the boxes and suitcases filling it to bulging and the blanket and pillow, sure indications she slept in the car. Her little dog, Scranton, bounced up and down on the seat and yapped.
“I just moved here from Texas.” Kelsie jumped to explain before he asked more questions.
“I see.” Tyler nodded slowly and stepped out of her way. His expression indicated he really did see, which wasn’t good at all.
“Where are you going now?” Lavender asked.
Nowhere, except to a pawnshop come morning to get rid of the purse. She didn’t have more than a few dollars in change to her name. “I was hoping to promote my business tonight. Thought maybe Zach might have a few contacts for me.” Squaring her shoulders, she pulled a soggy business card out of her apron pocket and handed it to Tyler.
He took the sticky card with reluctance and read it out loud, “Finishing School for Real Men, Specializing in Professional Athletes and CEOs, Kelsie Anne Richmond.” Tyler looked up, a slow smile crossing his face. “No kidding? You’re Emily Post for Jocks?”
Knowing she may never get another chance like this and eager to promote her fledgling business, Kelsie launched into the spiel she’d practiced before serving at the black tie party. “Yes, I offer a charm school of sorts for athletes, many of whom came from unfortunate backgrounds and never had exposure to manners and proper social behavior.”
Lavender looked pointedly at Tyler. “Several of your teammates who could use that.”
“No joke.” Tyler studied the card, as if mulling something over in his mind.
“Ty, can’t you help her?” Lavender gave Tyler one of those secret looks full of promises that women used on men they loved, and it seemed to work on him.
Tyler scribbled on the back of the card and handed it back to Kelsie. “Drop by headquarters and ask to speak to this woman. She handles player personnel issues. They just made the final cuts down to the regular roster so wait until later in the week, Thursday or Friday. Tell her I recommended you. I’d bet my last touchdown, she’ll set you up with a few clients.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.” She might be begging, but tough times called for tough measures.
With a non-committal shrug, Tyler turned back to his car.
“Bye, Kelsie, it was nice to meet you. I’ll make sure Tyler paves the way with personnel first thing Monday morning.” Lavender tucked something in her hand and hurried after Tyler, who was impatiently tapping his foot as he held the passenger door open. As soon as she got in, he slammed her door and jumped in on his side. With a mighty roar of its engine, the car fishtailed around a corner on squealing tires.
Kelsie opened and stared at the hundred-dollar-bill crumpled on her palm, charity from a virtual stranger. She’d never taken charity before, but survival beat out pride. Visions of a warm meal and warmer bed filled her with relief.
For the first time since Kelsie had fled from her controlling ex-husband, a ray of hope warmed her, even though it was tempered by a niggling of dread. She’d call on the Lumberjacks and sell herself and her business. Her most obvious client might be a certain linebacker with the finesse of a stampeding elephant.
How would Zach feel about that?