Kickoff–The Originals

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Chapter 1—The Kickoff

Derek Ramsey’s life had just taken a turn for the worst and dived off a cliff into an unknown abyss.

If the rumor was true. The one woman he could never forget and who would just as soon forget him had been hired by his team as an analyst and consultant.

He’d stalled as long as he could. After tying the laces on his cleats, he stood and made the trek to the practice field. The way he felt, he’d rather be walking to the gallows.

Rachel McCormick.

Images of Rachel played through his mind like an old, beloved movie he couldn’t stop watching, even though he knew every line and wished he could change the ending.

He hadn’t seen her in almost five years and hadn’t talked to her in two years. That last conversation was the reason he wasn’t looking forward to this reunion and doubted she would be either. Did she even realize he was on this team?

No, Rachel had always done her research. She knew.

Tyler Harris, his best friend, cousin, and the team’s starting quarterback, lounged near the edge of the practice field, waiting for him. He lifted a sports drink to his lips and gulped it down as Derek approached.

“Have you seen her?” Derek glanced around, not seeing the oh-so-familiar face and body.

“Nope.” Tyler narrowed his eyes and studied him so intently Derek squirmed under the scrutiny. “You’re still carrying a torch for her.”

“No, I’m not, and I never did. We were friends, and we should’ve kept it that way.”

Tyler rolled his eyes. “You were both so fucking wrapped up in each other, neither of you could see what was obvious to the rest of us.”

“Well, aren’t you suddenly the romantic.”

Tyler scowled and flipped him off before turning on his heel and stalking away.

Derek sighed deeply and followed his cousin to the field, where most of the team was already warming up.

Five years ago, his one-weekend affair with Rachel McCormick had dropped him for an emotional loss. For years, she’d been his best female buddy, and he’d messed up a good thing by following his dick instead of his brain. Then when she’d called him two years ago and asked for his help, he’d declined. He’d had his reasons, but none he could tell her. Instead, he let her think he was a selfish, ungrateful bastard. He’d battled a half decade of guilt and coulda-shouldas, so this reunion wouldn’t be pleasant for either of them.

Taking his place among the teammates lined up on the field, Derek went through the warm-up exercises, then he did drills and ran patterns with the other receivers.

Still no sign of Rachel. He was starting to relax. The rumors had been nothing but rumors.

Derek took a break and gulped down a large cup of water. He crushed it and tossed it into a nearby garbage can. Squinting into the relentless afternoon sun, he wiped the sweat from his brow. It had to be ninety-five in the shade. Most people would be surprised at how hot Seattle summers could be, but Derek had been born and raised in the great state of Washington.

Even with temperatures in upper digits, the heat wasn’t as scorching as the pressure put on this team to win. Last year, his first year with the Steelheads, they’d finished three and thirteen. Two games better than the previous year. Just another below-mediocre season in a sorry decade of football for the Northwest. The Steelheads had owned the league basement for several years, and it was well past time to crawl out of that basement.

Derek had sucked right along with the rest of his teammates. He’d thought playing with Tyler again would be all they’d need to repeat their high school and college glory days. No fucking way. Dropped pass after dropped pass racked up on his stats. Meanwhile, Tyler, as starting quarterback, didn’t gain any fans with his on- and off-field escapades.

Funny how life worked like that. One minute they’d stood on top of the mountain, the world at their feet. The next, an avalanche of mistakes and bad luck had swept them downward until they hit rock bottom. Now, bruised and battered, they fought their way back to the summit.

At the height of his athletic career, Derek had been the Rose Bowl MVP and a world-class sprinter with a gold medal in the 4×4 relay. But that gold turned into fool’s gold, and he was the biggest fool of all.

One hit during the first play of his first professional game kept him off the football field for over a year. By the time his knee recuperated, his team hadn’t wanted him. Yesterday’s hero had become today’s damaged goods.

Three professional teams in four years was not a good indicator of career advancement.

He’d made so many mistakes in the past few years. Derek had signed a one-year contract last year, and management hadn’t renewed it yet. His rumored partying and lack of effort hadn’t impressed anyone. His ego took a huge hit, and his confidence tanked.

His gut told him this was it. He either proved he belonged or admitted he didn’t have what it took. No more second chances. Failure was not an option. He’d be washed up at the tender old age of twenty-seven.

Now it came down to this one defining moment in what had once promised to be a stellar football career.

After last year’s dismal season, the Steelheads’ normally hands-off owner had fired their entire coaching staff. They shelled out big bucks to lure Hubert Jackson—a successful young coach—away from his championship team and recommitted themselves to building a winner.

This year Derek had been invited to attend a training camp to contend for a spot with the rest of the hopeful wide receivers. He caught that wake-up call. He’d been fumbling his career and squandering his God-given talent.

No more.

Derek had sworn off what little partying he’d done, removed distractions from his life, and set to work. He studied game tapes all summer and worked out several hours a day. He focused every bit of his being on resurrecting the potential he’d had in college.

The all-new coaching staff watched him with unreadable expressions, made notations on clipboards, and gave nothing away. When Derek dropped an easy pass, the head coach shook his head, threw his clipboard down in disgust, and stomped off. The man had a reputation as a taskmaster and two championship rings to back it up. He didn’t accept excuses or anything short of perfection.

Derek kept his mouth shut and tried harder, but the coach never looked his way the rest of practice. He showered, dressed, and trudged out of the locker room and down the hall. Depressed and discouraged, he stared at his feet. He pushed opened the heavy door leading to the parking lot and slammed into something or someone. Looking up, he instinctively reached out to steady the person and opened his mouth to apologize, but nothing came out.

Rachel.

The rumors were true.

The woman regarding him coldly with poise and confidence barely resembled his tomboy buddy from his high school and college days. This Rachel wore a navy-blue blazer with matching skirt and shoes, complete with manicured nails and makeup. The suit hugged her tall, lean body and accentuated her curves and straight-to-heaven legs. Her long reddish-brown hair was pulled back into a tidy ponytail.

While he preferred the blue jeans and T-shirt version, this Rachel was just as gorgeous and way more unapproachable. Don’t mess with me radiated from every pore in her body. Not a hint of the shy, sweet Rachel he’d once known.

Derek untied his tongue and forced his brain to remember the English language. “Rachel, good to see you again. I’d heard the team hired you to help us out, and we can use all the help we can get.” He sounded way calmer than he felt.

“Thank you. I’m looking forward to this opportunity.” Her professional, icy tone didn’t begin to disguise her distaste for him. She looked as dangerous as a hand grenade with the pin pulled. She glared at his hands still on her shoulders, and he quickly removed them and shoved them in his pockets.

This reunion wasn’t starting out well, but he had mad respect for Rachel and her abilities. Being around her every day might be difficult, but they were both professionals, and they’d rise above their personal differences.

He hoped.

Who the hell was he kidding? This was going to be as difficult as fuck.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

There were lots of things Rachel McCormick couldn’t forget. Topping the list was Derek Ramsey, her former longtime best friend and only-one-weekend lover. And not just any weekend lover, but the shatter-your-heart-never-slept-with-anyone-else-before-or-after type of lover.

He still had that rugged profile, gorgeous butt, and long legs. An oh-so-familiar scar zigzagged down the length of one upper arm and ended at his elbow, a souvenir from a pissed-off defensive back during his college football days. A Rose Bowl tattoo graced the other arm, a new addition since she’d last seen him naked over five years ago.

She’d rather fight ten linebackers for the last piece of double chocolate fudge cake than face this man, but she was committed to her mission. Everything hinged on her handling the next few months in his presence. Seeing him brought back a painful onslaught of confusing emotions. Fondness, anger, and regret banged against each other like bumper cars.

Rachel thought she’d gotten over him long ago, but she’d been fooling herself.

Five years might not have changed her physical reaction, but a melancholy layer of mistrust coated her emotional reaction, a painful reminder of good times never to be recovered.

Worst of all, a sadness for what was and never would be again engulfed her like a morning fog in downtown Seattle, more unsettling than the physical pain.

When she’d needed him most, he’d essentially turned his back on her and her father.

Aware of every inch of his six-foot-five frame, Rachel attempted to breeze past him and into the building. Big mistake. Her ankle twisted. Her always-clumsy feet wrapped around each other, and down she went, only to be suspended in mid-fall and hauled against his strong chest.

He smelled of pure male with an underlying scent uniquely his. Their gazes met and locked. Sadness flickered in his eyes, then extinguished like a candle in a hurricane.

She gripped his shoulders. Her attempt to right herself rubbed her chest against his. Her body thrummed with excitement and anticipation, refusing to listen to warnings from her head. Those familiar brown eyes, kind, concerned, and full of regret, stared down at her like warm fudge brownies straight from her mother’s oven. A few wrinkles in the corners testified to the miles he’d put on since their college days. Yet those tiny lines only added to his overall hotness—a hotness to which he’d always been relatively oblivious.

She, however, wasn’t.

Her heart lay at his feet and begged for any crumb he chose to throw her way. Her pride gave it a swift kick in the pants and forced it back to reality. This man was not her friend. Not anymore. Not after what he’d done to her father and, by association, to her and her brother.

“You’re still fighting a losing battle with gravity.”

“What makes you think that?” Her voice shook like an unbalanced washing machine.

“I’m still holding you up.”

The too-familiar deep, rich tone of his voice made her want to jump into the nearest bed and drag him with her. Fortunately, his voice was edged with pity and regret, which poured water on her fire.

She backed up and stumbled. He saved her again, this time around her waist. His big hands steadied her before he let go. Standing upright, Rachel smoothed down her skirt and patted at the wrinkles in her suit.

The corner of his mouth twitched as he held back a grin. “You’re a danger to yourself. How you’ve survived this long, I’ll never know.”

“I’m nursing a bum ankle.”

“Bullshit.” He squinted into the sun at her.

Leave it to Derek to call it as he saw it. “Gravity is not my friend.” She didn’t need him to point out her lack of coordination. It’d been the butt of her family’s jokes for as long as she could remember.

“Gravity is your nemesis.” As he kept battling that smile, his gaze traveled the length of her body and lit up with appreciation.

Rachel took a step back, but a few feet couldn’t squelch the sexual chemistry crackling between them. “Thank you.” Let him think she always dressed like this.

“You don’t look like you.”

“Actually, I do. I’ve outgrown my college image.” A bald-faced lie, but what did he know? He hadn’t seen her in five years. Although she felt like an imposter, her power suit acted like Kevlar body armor, effectively disguising the chickenshit female underneath.

“I always liked the way you looked. Natural. No pretenses. Real.” His voice came out soft and low.

Rachel had always liked how he looked too—and still did. She stood up straighter and faked a confidence she didn’t feel, thanks to the suit. “It’s been a long time.”

He stared at the ground and kicked at a small rock with the toe of his shoe. His head lifted, and he met her gaze. “Lots of changes. I suppose you know I haven’t taken professional football by storm.”

“I know.” She’d heard plenty, such as washed-up, a disappointment, lost his nerve, finished. The list went on and on. Sympathy for his situation warred with cynicism regarding his character.

He shrugged, looked as if he wanted to say more but didn’t. An awkward silence followed.

“I’m looking forward to working with you,” he said lamely.

“Likewise.” She took a step toward the door. “I need to get inside.”

“See you tomorrow.”

She waved at him breezily as the door shut behind her. Once inside, she hurried to the nearest bathroom and leaned her forehead against the cool tile wall. Closing her eyes, she waited until her heart stopped racing and her nerves had calmed.

She’d been fooling herself. Seeing Derek again had been tougher than she’d imagined and only the beginning. She had an entire season to get through.