Time of Possession

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Chapter 1—Mr. Irrelevant

Brett Gunnels had fostered an intimate relationship with his clipboard over the past several football seasons.

After all, as the backup quarterback, he played his game on that clipboard, not out on the football field. Every Sunday during the season he stood on the sidelines making endless notes. One day he’d get his chance, a chance to prove that Mr. Irrelevant—the title bestowed on the last player picked each year in the NFL draft—was anything but.

Today, like any game day, Brett roamed the sidelines, clipboard in hand. Every once in a while, he stopped, cupped his hands to his mouth, and called out warnings or advice to the Seattle Lumberjacks’ starting quarterback. Not that Tyler Harris heard him or would listen even if he did. Harris did his own thing, and to hell with anyone else, even his teammates and coaches.

A couple penalties set the Jacks back to San Francisco’s forty yard line, and the offense was looking at third and twenty-five with fifteen seconds on the clock.

Harris took the ball from center and stepped back, staying in the pocket with the coolness and finesse of the elite quarterback he was. A second later, the pocket collapsed around him and he scrambled, running for his life while looking for an open receiver. Every one of them was covered.

Harris never saw the streak of pure muscle and brawn coming from his blindside. Brett cringed as the linebacker slammed into Harris with a vicious hit, falling on him in the process. Harris was known for his toughness, but from Brett’s point of view, knees didn’t bend like that.

As the offense returned to the huddle, a couple of them looked toward Harris, as if expecting him to bounce to his feet. He always did. But not this time.

Sprawled on his back, the two-time championship quarterback didn’t move. Not even an eyelash.

A hush came over the crowd, eerie in its silence, while a cold wind of fear blew through the stadium. Harris’s cousin and the Jacks’ top wide receiver, Derek Ramsey, knelt beside the immobile quarterback, as the coaches and trainers hurried onto the field. The offensive line huddled nearby, pretending not to stare but doing so anyway, worry etched on the big guys’ beefy faces.

Brett might not like Harris much—not many guys did—but his grudging respect for the guy’s talent and work ethic overrode any personal issues he might have. Besides, no one wanted to see a teammate laid out on the field like that, or anyone else for that matter.

An icy shiver radiated up Brett’s spine as his brain transported him to another time where sand stretched as far as the eye could see, another body down and not moving. Nothing. Just like Harris was now.

A cold sweat trickled down Brett’s forehead, and he dropped his clipboard and scrubbed his face with his hands, forcing those memories back into the compartment where he kept them tightly locked up.

This wasn’t a war zone—well, not exactly—and his teammate was known for his dramatics. He was probably taking a two-minute siesta at the expense of everyone’s nerves. Any second, he’d hop to his feet and chastise them for being such pansy-asses.

Only Harris didn’t move. Brett couldn’t stay on the sidelines and do nothing. He ran onto the field to join his teammates standing in concerned clusters. Harris’s chalky face looked like death. Brett swallowed back the fear and bolstered his courage. He’d be okay. He had to be. He was too mean and too tough to be seriously injured.

After several tense minutes, Harris sat up and shook his head. The team breathed a collective sigh of relief. Groggily, he accepted assistance to his feet, only to have his knee buckle. He went down again, clutching his leg, pain carved into his usually stoic face as he rolled back and forth on the turf. A few seconds later, two linemen helped him onto a cart, and they zipped him off the field and down the tunnel.

Only then did Brett realize the coach was yelling at him.

“Gun, get your helmet on and get your ass out there on that field.”

Standing on the fifty yard line, the guys in the huddle gawked at him, waiting for him to assume control. Frantic, he looked for his helmet but couldn’t find it. Zach Murphy, their All-Pro linebacker, shoved it in his hands. Strapping it on as he ran, Brett got to the huddle, only to find the mic in his helmet wasn’t working. After tapping on the helmet a few times, he took several deep breaths and squelched the growing panic inside him. He could do this. He would do this. He had to do this. The team was counting on him.

Brett turned to the guys gathered around him, his gaze determined. He knew exactly what play to call in this situation, having rehearsed it over and over in his mind and on the practice field. He called for a quick out-pass to Derek, hoping to catch the defense expecting a run because of the quarterback change. He took the snap from center, pedaled backwards, and tossed an easy lob to Derek, who collided with a defensive end as they both went for the ball. The end batted the ball into the air, and a San Francisco linebacker in the right place at the right time scooped it up before it hit the ground and ran it back for a touchdown.

Game over.

At first his stunned teammates stared at the end zone as if they couldn’t believe their bad luck. Then one by one, guys patted him on the back amid murmurs of “good try,” “tough break,” and “we did the best we could.” Regardless, Brett blamed himself because that’s what a good quarterback did. A great one carried the whole team on his shoulders and found a way to win. Just not today.

Sighing, Brett jogged for the showers and let the warm water wash away some of his frustration and disappointment. One play in an NFL regular season game, and it ended with the other team scoring.

Damn it.

Coach announced in the locker room that Harris was staying overnight in the hospital for observation. He’d damaged his knee, and he’d be in surgery within the next day or so after arriving back in Seattle. A collective sigh circulated the locker room, as the men slumped on the benches in weary disbelief.

The plane trip back was quiet, no obnoxious Harris harassing the rookies or singing old rock tunes in his amazingly good voice. Brett actually missed the jerk, but there was work to be done, and it started now. Brett buried his head in the playbook, going over and over what he could’ve done differently for a better outcome. He came back to the same answer. Run that play a hundred times and ninety-nine outcomes would go as expected. Leave it to him to have that one-out-of-a-hundred result, he thought with wry humor.

Brett looked up as Coach took the empty seat next to him. Hubert Jackson, or HughJack as everyone called him, studied him with assessing eyes. Brett closed the playbook he’d been studying and faced the coach head on.

“What’s up?” He attempted to keep it light even though the situation was anything but.

HughJack didn’t crack a smile. Instead he rubbed a spot between his eyes and blew out a breath. “This is your team now, Gun.”

Brett nodded tersely. “Harris is out for the season?” As if he hadn’t already figured that one out.

“At the least.”

Solemn, Brett stared at his hands. “That sucks.” He never wanted to get a starting job through injury but it was what it was, and he’d make the best of the opportunity.

“Sure does. We’re going into the final four games of the year, tied for the division. San Francisco has the tiebreaker.” Leave it to HughJack to point out the obvious and not sugarcoat it.

“I’ll do everything I can.”

“I know you will. A lack of work ethic has never been your problem.” HughJack paused to look around the plane at the various men collapsed in their seats. “This is your time to shine. Your time to prove wrong every idiot armchair critic who ever said you were too old, too short, not athletic enough. Your time to earn a big new contract as a starting quarterback at the end of the season. If contracts were awarded on effort alone, you’d have one, but it’s all about winning. I believe in you. So do your guys.”

Brett nodded and waited for HughJack to continue. Yeah, he’d heard all the negative stuff his entire life, and he’d fought tooth and nail to overcome it. He couldn’t do a thing about his five-foot-ten-and-a-half height, which in a world of six-four quarterbacks was considered small. But he could be quicker on his feet, more accurate, and smarter than anyone else to make up for it. As for his age, he’d just turned thirty, but he had low miles on the field, that should count for something.

“You’re more than capable of taking this team to the playoffs. I believe that. This team believes that. The question is do you believe that?”

Brett nodded and swallowed.

HughJack leaned forward. His intense blue eyes drilled into Brett’s. “You haven’t worked with the first string all season, and you don’t have your timing down with your center or your receivers. There’ll be some tough times while you work all that out. Don’t get discouraged.”

“I’m committed to making this work.”

HughJack almost smiled. “What can I do to help you?”

“I need time with the guys, time to click with them, time for us to get used to each other, for them to learn my cadence and for me to learn their quirks, capitalize on our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.”

“You’ll have all the time in the world, son—until the next game.” HughJack clapped him on the shoulder. “You can do this. Harris left us in a decent position. We’ve got some leeway while you’re figuring this out. I have utmost faith in you.”

“Yes, Coach. I know.”

HughJack studied him a little longer, as if assessing his character right through his skin. Then he patted Brett on the arm and moved back to the coaches’ area of the plane, already game-planning for next week.

The opportunity of a lifetime had just fallen into Brett’s lap. He’d be damned if he’d fumble it into early retirement. No way in hell. He’d take that damn ball and run with it. The guys were counting on him. This was his time and his team.

Today was the day Mr. Irrelevant ceased to exist.

Chapter 2—Fowl-Mouthed Friend

The woman of Brett’s dreams stood in the open doorway wearing a black sweater covered in dog hair.

Forget that she was as tall—or taller—than him. Forget that her brother happened to be a premier asshole and the Seattle Lumberjacks’ starting quarterback, well, at least until he’d torn his ACL yesterday.

Forget that she wore a diamond on her ring finger that would have choked Hoss Price, the team’s mammoth starting center.

Forget all that. Standing there on the porch, Brett Gunnels fell in love at first sight—or definitely in lust. He didn’t know if it was her brilliant sky-blue eyes, her beautiful face, the dog hair, or a combination of all three. He only knew that he was hooked with just one glance.

“Come on in.” Estelle Harris smiled at him, a kind, warm smile, a smile that cast light into all those dark corners he swore would never see the light of day again. His heart kicked into overdrive and slammed against his rib cage, while his lungs forgot breathing was their purpose.

She turned and ushered him into her house. Brett stared after her, his body motionless and temporarily rendered out of service like a city bus at the end of its nightly run.

She glanced over her shoulder, and her curious expression rebooted his brain.

He lurched forward and stumbled on the threshold but recovered nicely and stepped into the modest entryway, his pride in tatters. Her amused grin spread heat through his body faster than a California wildfire in high winds.

God, she was stunning, and way out of his league in so many ways.

“I hope you’re Brett, and I didn’t just let a Ted Bundy copycat into my house.” Her sweet laughter wrapped around him like a warm blanket on a cold winter night.

Brett shook his head, appalled she might be serious. “Yes, I’m Brett. And you are Tyler’s sister Estelle?” He cringed at the stiff formality in his voice. Again that smile, like Mona Lisa. Only Mona Lisa had nothing over this woman.

“Everyone calls me Estie.”

“Estie then.” His own smile rushed to his lips and refused to cease and desist. He probably looked like a half-witted, grinning fool. He held out his hand. She took his in her soft one with a firm grip of long, sexy fingers. He stared at their joined hands, hers with the cotton candy pink fingernails and his with its bumps and scars. Her hand was so soft, so feminine, so perfect.

Estie cleared her throat. Finally, she slid her hand from his grasp, giving him an odd look. He’d been hanging on too tight and too long. The heat rose to his cheeks and ears to rival the heat in the rest of his body. Way to go, Gun. Make an idiot of yourself with the first woman who’s interested you in eons.

Estie walked across the room like an angel gliding through clouds and stopped in front of a bird cage. She pointed at the large parrot inside who had cocked his head and was watching them both. “And the name of your foul-mouthed friend here? Lavender was in such a hurry to fly to San Fran to be with Tyler, she never told me this guy’s name.”

Estie laughed again, and her voice took on this breathless quality as if he affected her as much as she affected him. Her deep blue eyes—so much like her brother’s, but he wouldn’t hold that against her—mesmerized him. All that romantic shit he’d heard over the years from his sisters hit him like a speeding car on the freeway. His brain did a free-fall into a self-induced coma, his feet became one with the floor, and his heart pounded louder than a series of bombs dropping on an enemy target.

“The parrot? What is his name?” Estie frowned as she repeated her question and her neatly plucked brow furrowed. Brett blinked several times in an attempt to signal his brain to snap out of it.

Obviously tired of waiting for his dumbshit owner to get a grip, the African Gray took matters into his own wings, “Bongo, pretty lady. Bongo. Bongo wants to see you naked.”

Her eyes grew big, and she stared at the parrot with her gorgeously sinful mouth hanging open. To her credit, she recovered quickly and peered inside the cage, a smile once again tugging the corners of those pink lips. “You’re a little devil, Bongo. I’ve been asking you your name all evening.”

“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.” Bongo rang a little bell attached to his perch for emphasis.

This time Estie laughed, an amused tinkling laugh. “Did you say you left him with my brother?”

Brett nodded. “You can tell, huh?” Tyler Harris was known for his fondness of the F-word, a bad habit he’d passed on to the bird, or more likely trained into the bird.

“Absolutely.” Again the Mona Lisa smile. Damn, he was going to have to get a print of that painting and hang it in his bedroom, but then he’d never get any sleep.

“I can’t leave him alone, especially not for a few days; he gets lonely and destructive. I used to put him in animal daycare, but they kicked him out for bad behavior and worse language. Then I left him with a neighbor kid to babysit. His mother had a fit when Bongo told her husband that she was messing around with the college student next door.”

“Was she?”

“I have no idea,” he chuckled.

“So you put it back on my brother to provide babysitting since he taught the little guy some naughty words.”

“Something like that. Lavender loves animals, and she didn’t mind. I really appreciate you stepping in to help me out.”

“It’s all for the animals.” She walked into the living room, tastefully furnished with overstuffed furniture covered with neatly folded blankets, most likely for her furry children. Oh, lord, a woman after his own heart, with the comfort of her animals coming first. Despite the animal comforts, nothing was out of place, nothing like his messy house, nor did it smell like animals lived there. In fact, it smelled wonderful, like a combination of spring blossoms and a mountain meadow. The hardwood floors gleamed, not one fluffy cloud of dust and cat hair anywhere, and he was pretty sure she had a cat based on the pictures on her mantle.

Brett followed her, his eyes dropping to her blue-jeans-clad ass, a really, really nice ass, and those long take-me-to-heaven legs. Any guy in his right mind would fantasize about those legs.

Brett tugged on his collar and wiped his brow. He cleared his throat and swallowed. He was hooked, but judging by that impressive diamond ring, so was she. Leave it to him to fall for an unattainable woman—wouldn’t be the first time. As the Jacks’ backup quarterback, women looked right past him to the starters. It was the story of his life, and he was used to it. Not that he’d grown complacent, but being pissed about the hand life dealt you wasn’t his way. He was first and foremost a fighter.

Brett rushed to help her as she lifted the cage and handed it to him. Their fingers touched again, sending a Taser shock through him. She steadied the cage when he almost dropped it.

Bongo glared at him. “You fucking asshole. Fuck you. Fuck you. Dumbshit.”

Brett sighed, feeling like a parent with a delinquent child.

Estie wasn’t smiling now. “African Grays are high strung and neurotic.”

“Tell me about it.” Brett set the cage on an end table, reluctant to leave.

“Are you experienced with handling these birds?”

By the frown on her face, she thought he was a total moron, and he had to tell the truth. “No, not at all. He was brought into an animal rescue group I work with. No one else would take him, so I fostered him. That was six months ago. I still haven’t been able to find a suitable home for him.”

“Do you realize these birds have the intelligence of a four- or five-year-old?” Estie studied Bongo for a moment, who preened under her watchful eye. She turned back to Brett, no longer frowning. Her eyes sparkled like the lights of New York City on a clear night when she talked about animals.

Brett was one hundred percent enamored. Stupid of him? Yeah. Especially for a practical guy like him, but sometimes practical guys rocked the crazy, just like he had in the Middle East. But then in his former Army career, you had to be a little crazy to survive.

But he digressed.

Estie was a model-perfect woman who currently didn’t give a shit that blond dog hair clung to her sweater or dog slobber was smeared on her sleeve, which seemed in opposition to her spotless house. Her blue eyes were soft and warm, like a beach on a sunny day. Like her brother, she had thick, dark hair, only hers fell in waves around her shoulders despite her messy ponytail.

“I enjoyed having him here. Let me know if you need a bird sitter again.” She started to walk toward the door, his cue to leave.

“Thanks, I really appreciate it. If you mean that, I’ll need someone for the next away game.” With a sigh, Brett picked up the cage and followed with heavy feet.

She waited next to the door for him. “Let me see your hand.”

Puzzled, he held out his hand. She turned his palm up and scribbled her number on it with a black Sharpie she pulled from her pocket.

“Thanks,” Brett turned and ran into the door, which brought about a litany of profanity from Bongo.

“Clumsy idiot. Clumsy idiot. Clumsy fucking idiot.”

Before the obscenity-obsessed parrot unleashed more abuse, Brett opened the door and escaped, Bongo still berating him.

Estie’s soft giggle faded with the click of the door as she closed it behind him.

“Lovesick fool. Lovesick fool.”

When did the damn bird learn to read minds?