Offsides–The Originals

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Chapter 1—Thrown for a Loss

Twelve years and a couple multimillion-dollar football contracts changed a lot of things for a kid who’d grown 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, where 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 he was still on the outside looking in. He’d tried to fit into a crowd like this once, and it’d been a disaster. Now he didn’t give a shit.

The bottom line was he didn’t like these stupid-assed events. He’d already managed to insult some millionaire geek’s wife by stating the charity she chaired would do more good if their board had volunteers spend less time on task forces and more time doing the actual work. Yeah, he’d done his homework and wasn’t impressed with their overhead. She’d been gulping down the tray of teeny-tiny appetizers like she hadn’t eaten in days. Judging by her emaciated frame, she was probably going to purge in the bathroom later in the evening. After his not-too-tactful comment, they’d snubbed him, instead of being genuinely interested in his comments.

Well, screw them. He wasn’t donating anyway. There were charities more worthy in his estimation.

He sucked in social situations and didn’t give a shit, especially highbrow ones like this. His old team never made him attend anything more than a bowling tournament, but the Steelheads insisted their defensive captain go to all this fake crap.

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 his bow tie, rebelling against how constricting it was. He’d been here less than thirty minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.

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. One of the guys jerked his head to indicate someone was behind him.

On cue Tyler Harris, the Seattle Steelheads’ quarterback and Zach’s personal enemy number one, stepped into their circle 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 straightened his bow tie. 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 he were assessing and cataloging Zach’s every social blunder. What Tyler didn’t understand was Zach dressed this way on purpose. Clothes didn’t matter to him.

Tyler’s 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. Like he’d ever listened to a country song in his life.

“Hey, I’m from Texas, and I like them.” 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. Best of all, the extra two inches made him an inch taller than the Steelheads’ six-foot-four quarterback.

“Yeah, right. But—”

Lavender stomped on Harris’s foot before he could 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 fucking tolerance for Harris.

As a middle linebacker, Zach made his living 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 Steelheads, 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, who didn’t leave every ounce of try he had out on the field. But Harris hadn’t been all in. Last year, he’d fucking 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 Steelheads 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 Steelheads would start a different quarterback on the first day of the 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 Steelheads 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. “Lavender, you look stunning. When are you going to dump this asshole and get yourself a real man?”

Lavender laughed and patted his arm. “You silver-tongued devil. Thank you. You cut a dashing figure yourself.”

“Fuck you, Miller,” Harris snarled at Zach. His hands were fisted on the table, and he looked ready for a fight.

A few of the guys around the table watched the action between the two team captains like bystanders around crime-scene tape. Hoss Price, their three-hundred-pound center, snorted so hard Zach expected his wine to come out of his nose.

“I didn’t know Walmart sold tuxes. Must be a new line or something.” Tyler shot another salvo across the table.

“I prefer to spend my money on meaningful things. I don’t give a shit about clothes.” He’d bought the tux at a bargain price at a decent menswear 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 couldn’t care less. 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 dumb-ass designer’s name on the label like Harris did just to impress a bunch of people he didn’t want to impress.

“Zach looks fine.” Lavender smiled with the sweetness of a lioness. Tyler yelped. She must have kicked him under the table just for good measure. Zach needed to find a woman like her.

Tyler’s scowl grew deeper, but he shifted the conversation to Sunday’s first regular-season game.

Zach stared at the ridiculous array of eating utensils, plates, and glasses. Nobody needed this much stuff just to eat dinner. 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 up to find Harris eyeing him like an enemy probing for weaknesses. Ignoring the asshole, Zach grasped an oyster in his big hand and 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 snickered, but no one else said a word.

“Sorry about that,” Zach muttered.

“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.

Zach pushed the plate away. He’d be damned if he’d try to eat another. Never liked the fucking things anyway.

Zach concentrated on a spot across the room, faking interest in the crappy painting hanging on the wall, the one simply titled The Cat. The kindergarten class from his hometown of Cactus Prairie, Texas, painted better pictures. At least a cat looked like a cat, not an alien spaceship spraying people with spaghetti sauce.

Then he saw her.

Zach’s day went from calamity to catastrophe. His entire body erupted in pain as if he’d dropped a two-hundred-pound barbell on his chest. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t muster a coherent thought, couldn’t drag his eyes off her, couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Burning, raw anger shot through him and overrode the hurt. Hatred consumed him, a hatred so powerful he gripped the table to stop himself from doing something stupid or, even worse, criminal.

The woman of his nightmares.

Kelsie Carrington glided across the room straight toward him. His Cactus Prairie High School nemesis here? In Seattle? What the fuck? Wasn’t halfway across the country far enough to escape her and 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 blond 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 hated her. Hated every cell in her body. Hated who and what she was.

He steeled himself, biting back all the angry words he’d been holding in for years, and prayed she didn’t recognize him. Just like old times, Kelsie looked right through him. 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 and a nightmarish night in which she played a part. She was pure evil wrapped in a pretty package, one he’d been stupid enough to open and be exposed to the pure ugliness inside.

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’d never despised anyone like he despised her, not even his father. He held her indirectly responsible for the death of his younger brother. Fair or not, he couldn’t forgive or forget. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment to shut out that catastrophic night so many years ago, but nothing shut it out, not now, not ever.

He glanced to either side to see if any of his teammates noticed his reaction. 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 ravenous hyena catching the scent of wounded prey, Harris’s sharp gaze moved from Zach to Kelsie and back again. The quarterback possessed an 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.

Zach narrowed his gaze and studied her. 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 Kelsie 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.


Zach scowled his best don’t-fuck-with-me scowl. I’m the one with the money and power now, and obviously you aren’t.

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 afterburners.

Oh, no. She wasn’t getting away this easily. Zach jumped to his feet and gave chase, 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 that 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 of 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 leaped to his feet, sputtering as red wine coated his tux and white shirt. His spoiled daughter, Veronica, gaped in horror. Closest to the debacle, the governor’s wife’s low-cut sequined evening gown was drenched, hanging on her like a wet, limp rag. Red wine 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 gasped 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,” Zach said.

“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 was angry at him? 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, 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 backward hick, her special talent.

The banquet coordinator rushed out of the kitchen and spoke in a harsh whisper to Kelsie. “What happened? Did you do this?”

Kelsie didn’t look up, just worked frantically to clean up the mess. The coordinator bent down and pointed a finger in her direction. “You’re fired. Please leave. I’ll be contacting you for reimbursement for the damages.” He kept his voice low, but Zach heard him.

“It was an accident.” Zach stepped forward, a reluctant knight defending the wicked witch and not exactly comfortable in his dinner-jacket armor. He squinted into the harsh light glaring in his eyes. Someone had a camera trained on them.

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.

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, defended his former high-school crush and 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 forgotten 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’d tossed just enough to keep him on her trail. Not this Zach. She had zero hold on him.

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 and flicked a glance in his direction. Their eyes met for a split second, just enough time for her to read the undisguised loathing on his face.

Without another word, she lunged past him and out of the room.

~ ~ ~ ~

Blinded by tears, Kelsie Carrington-Richmond dashed for the ballroom doors. While making a run for it, she bumped into another waiter, sentencing a tray of desserts 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 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 Steelheads 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.

One look at Zach’s face, and Kelsie feared this city might not be big enough for the two of them. Zach’s angry frown spoke louder than red paint dripping down a white wall.

He hated her.

She deserved his hatred.

The elevator doors 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. Her stomach rumbled like the Sounder train, reminding her the day’s meal had consisted of a couple crackers. She’d hoped to eat at the banquet after the guests were served.

Very little money.

No job.

No future.

And a few days away from 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 make 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 Steelheads’ quarterback, Tyler Harris. Tyler was a sleek, graceful 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.

“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 nearby.” She choked back another sob.

“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 minuscule 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’m so sorry Murphy got you fired.”

Kelsie proceeded with caution, unwilling to divulge too much. “We knew each other in high school and didn’t expect to see each other here.”

“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 didn’t have a permanent place to stay. 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 staying?” Lavender asked.

“At a hotel near the airport. I was hoping to promote my business tonight.” 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, “Charm School for Real Men, Specializing in Image Reconstruction for 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 might 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 and businessmen, teaching them skills needed to impress clients and cultivate a successful image.”

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. 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 noncommittal 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 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.

For the first time since Kelsie had fled from Texas, a ray of hope warmed her, even though it was tempered by a niggling of dread she might run into Zach again.