The predators were circling.
With every deliberate step, Reese Noble felt those weighted stares and the hot, wet breaths that came at her right alongside the flicker of lights and the shuddering noise of cameras. They wanted her blood. They craved it, but she would show no fear. This was too important.
“They want you to fail.” Gia Jilani had been right. The beautiful woman had given Reese that warning the night before, gaze focused, her mouth pinched as she spoke.
“They expect it.” Then her new general manager—the first woman with the job in the NFL—leaned forward, steel in her dark eyes, a glint of something Reese took for unyielding resolve. “Prove those bastards wrong.”
It was a burden Reese wasn’t sure she wanted, but here she was, walking down the dim hallway, concrete walls painted with a silhouette of the New Orleans skyline and the names of players she admired: Jackson. Baker. Wilson. Pukui. Pérez. Then, one name that had played on her tongue for years—each syllable coming out with a sweet hum of want and heat and regret.
Would she step out of that hallway, look beyond the fans and flashing cameras, and spot him? Kickers and punters didn’t practice long and rarely with the team. It was the norm of the industry, but each step brought the noise of the crowd and told her the norm wasn’t the make of the day. They wanted to see the circus freak. Her New Orleans Steamers teammates, the coaching staff, the hordes of media, the wild, curious fans—they all wanted to see Reese Noble, first female kicker in the NFL, step onto the practice field and prove her mettle.
But would he show? Ryder Glenn was the quarterback. He was team captain, the hundred-million-dollar man. He was the example setter and the only person in the auditorium with reason to hate her.
“Suck it up,” she told herself, forcing back the flash of Ryder’s face when it came to her. It was handsome, GQ-worthy, an All-American sort that tempted and tried and did all that with just a hint of a grin. That face had always been sweet to Reese—like home. If she had to guess, that face and the fit, athletic body that went with it had guest-starred in every red-blooded New Orleans woman’s nighttime fantasies. Probably a few of the male dancers frequenting Oz on Bourbon, too.
Reese allowed herself a swift inhale, clearing away the dizzy feeling that came over her. She felt sick, sure she’d throw up, and she leaned against the concrete wall, right under the painted likeness of the head coach, Malcolm Ricks, cheek against the cold wall as she pushed down the bile. The breath came clear, it calmed her, and Reese reminded herself why she stood behind the closed door, watching the crowd in the narrow windows—she had a job to do.
No need to postpone the inevitable. There would be hisses and boos. There would be muttered name calling and insults. Reese was kicking in glass ceilings. She’d take what they gave her.
“Here we go.”
The hallway behind her flooded with light when she hit the handle, and the windows she’d seen the crowd through disappeared as Reese walked onto that field, gaze searching, shoulders back, as faces and bodies and their loud noise all came at her.
Five feet from the door, some redneck with a confederate flag on his ball cap called her a whore. Twenty feet later came the graveled rasp of “spic” from a woman who sounded as though she’d chained smoke her way into her sixties.
Reese didn’t care.
She was a player, an athlete who’d trained for this for as long as she could remember. Her father had been her guide, providing her with her direction, pointing her as sure as a compass. It was his face she sought among the howling crowd. A hundred feet from the door, she found him, pale “gringo skin”—her mother had coined the phrase—pinking under the sun, sweat covering his wide brow as he hung back, behind the coaching staff and trainers.
Neil Noble was an imposing figure despite his age. He’d sent more than a half-dozen players into the draft, three of them Heisman winners. But Reese had not been among them. She’d been the anomaly—the walk-on oddity who managed to land attention, and with that attention, a spot on the team.
Her father was tall enough that she spotted him over the special-teams coach’s head, with his arms crossed and a clear frown as he watched her. One look told her what she needed to hear.
Ignore the bullshit and do your job.
She planned to.
“Noble,” Coach Ricks greeted, glancing at her as though he’d only just realized she’d joined his practice. His face, like the rest of him, was squat and gave the impression of a man with a severe Napoleon complex. He wasn’t nearly as tall as his staff or remotely close to his players’ heights, but the man was loud and deadly serious about the game. That squat face could be scary, but his bright eyes were warm, and his smile took up most of his pink face.
Not now, though…now there was practice and a job to do, none of which required Ricks to make her feel welcomed. The coach was no-nonsense, all business. He didn’t care about gender or what kind of impact signing Reese would mean for his team. He cared about yardage. He cared about percentages. He cared about winning. She could accommodate.
“Mills is gonna put you and Wilkens through some drills.” Ricks didn’t look up from his clipboard, head tilted to one side as one of his coaches muttered into his ear. Two nods, then Ricks squinted, glaring at his players as they stopped to watch Michael Wilkens greet Reese. “You having a break?” he shouted to the team, getting a few head shakes. “Then get on your drills, you bastards!”
Ricks dismissed her, and Reese followed Wilkens to the 25-yard line. She’d met the punter during her tryout. He was nice. A little suspect of her, but then everyone was. Reese understood the reason for caution. It didn’t matter that her father had a reputation for coaching the best athletes in the league. No matter that Reese’s tryout had been covered by every media channel in the country, and anyone with a Wi-Fi connection could look up her landing kick after kick through the uprights. She was still an anomaly. There might have been women before her in the NFL, relegated to holding the ball and nothing else during a game, but Reese was the first fully contracted placekicker in the league. That meant inclusion. That meant a contract and a nice pile of money to go with it. That meant she wasn’t going anywhere. But none of that meant her teammates or coaches had to like her stepping in to shake up the NFL’s “good ole boys” standard.
Buddy Mills, the special-teams coach, moved behind them, and Reese felt his presence. Both Mills and Wilkens were large, but not the largest among the crowd. Around them, as Reese and Wilkens stretched and listened to the game plan Mills had in store for their half hour drills, Reese tried to ignore the sensation that came over her.
The stares were still focused on her, though they now seemed somewhat diverted by Ricks’ yelling. There were still low calls and insults, but Reese blocked the noise of them. The goal loomed large and impressive in front of her. No matter how many times she stood in front of it or how many balls she kicked through the uprights, it never failed to impress her and neither did the assembled crowd.
There were coaches, all too busy to do more than glance in her direction before they returned to barking commands and instructions at their players. There were her teammates, offense and defense, running respective drills, playing to the crowd and the reporters, neither of which technically should have been at Reese’s first official practice. The woman suspected Gia had something to do with that and she glanced at her team manager, standing next to Ricks, dark glasses over her heart shaped face as she kept her attention on Wilkens and Reese. Gia was taller than some of the squat, once-muscled coaches, but she stuck out among the gold and black jerseys and visor-wearing men. She was on the young side, likely in her late thirties, though she looked much younger and dressed professionally in her tan, tailored slacks and white wrap shirt. Her diamond earrings shined in the sunlight and her rose gold Rolex caught the same light when she smoothed back her shoulder length hair. For someone out of place among all these men, Gia was controlled, calm, as though she knew her job and dared anyone to keep her from it.
She also knew Reese’s job, and like her father, Gia saw fit to tighten her features as she watched her, like she wanted no emotion on her face to encourage. She wanted Reese focused, alert.
“We’ll start close,” Mills said, his tone light, not condescending as much as flippant. But Reese caught the smirk on his face, some disbelieving expression that told her the special-teams coach didn’t expect a lot from her. “Wilkens?” Mills nodded, tossing Michael the ball as Reese stepped into position, and her teammate knelt, holding the ball to the field.
“Try to breathe,” Wilkens said, grinning as he watched her.
Breathe. Yeah. That was all there was to it.
But Reese did just breathe, letting her eyes slip closed as she inhaled, moving three large paces back and two paces to the left of the ball as she prepared to run. She blotted out the hush that came over the crowd. She ignored the whirl of the cherry picker overhead, filming all the drills and player movements as they practiced. She muted the sound of the laughing crowd and her snickering teammates laying bets that she wouldn’t even make a kick from the 25-yard line. All that noise and distraction went out of her head as Reese opened her eyes, ran for the ball, and kicked.
The ball spun, shooting through the air like a top, and all of Reese’s attention went to that brown blur flying free from her kick. She could hear nothing but the crickets chirping around her and the thudding of her own heart as she held her breath, waiting and watching. The ball sailed through the uprights dead center—a perfect kick.
The assembly of onlookers didn’t react. Not immediately. The hush was deafening in its own way, and Reese repressed the smile she could feel bubbling against her lips. The silence went on around her, keeping everything from her but the low, amused whistle Wilkens released, and the barked “Shit, yes!” she heard her father swear from across the field.
That quiet lasted all of ten seconds, as if what the team—and Mills especially—had seen was some glitch of reality. There had been no way a woman could land that kick. And, by how Mills grunted, nodding his head back toward the 35-yard line, Reese figured he was out to prove her performance had been lucky.
“Wilkens. Thirty-five. Let’s see if she…”
“She,” Reese interrupted, grabbing the coach’s attention with a sharp bite in her tone, “has a name and is on this team. Got a shiny new contract and everything.” She caught the ball when Mills threw it to Wilkens and tucked it under her elbow, shooting a look to the sidelines and right at the general manager and head coach before she returned her attention to Mills. “Why do thirty-five? Why not forty? Goal is ten yards past the uprights, si? So, from the forty and that would be a 50-yard kick.”
Mills’ grin came slow, sliding across his mouth like the Grinch plotting to rob Whoville blind. It was a reaction Reese expected, but it never failed to piss her off.
Let him doubt me, she thought, tossing the ball back to Wilkens as she walked past the thirty-five, then 40-yard line. Let them all doubt me.
“You don’t have anything to prove,” Wilkens said, running next to her, and Reese laughed, unable to repress her humor as the tall man stood at her side.
“I have everything to prove,” she told him, nodding for him to take a knee on the field.
On the sidelines and in the bleachers, the crowd and her teammates continued with their bustle of conversation, most becoming loud promises that Reese would embarrass herself. Gia watched, arms folded, as Reese stopped at the 40-yard line.
Wilkens hesitated, looking like he thought she might change her mind, but she shook her head, a silent command for him to trust her.
“Good luck,” the man offered, glancing from the uprights, to the ground, then up at Reese. “You’re gonna need it.”
She let the comment go, not bothering to be upset by something she’d heard her entire life. The doubters. The naysayers, the general haters who wanted her to fail, they’d all told her the same thing. This would be too hard. This would be too much for the league or the fans to handle, they’d promised, but Reese figured if she could do it, if she could survive the bullshit they’d send her way, then all her effort would be worthwhile.
Even if that meant landing on the same team as the only man she’d ever loved.
The sidelines had taken on another silence, and the hum of it overpowered the low catcalls she heard from the crowd. In front of her, the field was verdant and lush. The white paint was new, the large steamboat logo freshly inked on the grass, waiting for her to try another kick.
In the middle of it all, she felt him. He broke free from the activity around her. Years, it had been. So much time. So much life lived out of his reach, just like he’d wanted. Reese didn’t even have to look his way. She just knew. It was him. A hundred feet from her, there Ryder stood next to Ricks on the sidelines. She made out the shape of him as he watched her, fingers tucked into the front of his shoulder pads, feet spread apart like the rest of his teammates, all worn and sweaty from their practice. She tried not to glance his way. She tried to remind herself he was just a man, another player she’d have to learn to work with. Another doubter expecting her to fail.
Sweat collected and dripped from her neck, trickling down her back, and Reese wiped her forehead dry, figuring if her teammates could handle this, she would have to as well. They’d been at it all day, and the humidity in the air was thicker than fog. It was late July and already a hundred and two. They all likely wanted to hit the showers and call it a day. But Reese was too much of a temptation. They wanted to see if she was worth the hype surrounding her contract. They wanted to know if she was worth losing Joe Willis, a five-year Steamers veteran, to Washington. Damn the league and their salary caps.
Back and to the left. A deeper, fuller inhale, and Reese ran, kicking the ball with all the strength she had. There was twenty years of weight training in that kick. Twenty years of practice and cardio and her father screaming at her for another mile, another ten pounds on her dumbbell. That kick held pressure and worry and missed nights with her best friend. It held the frustration of Ryder pretending to never want her and, the ache she felt when he stopped pretending altogether.
It held everything she’d been and who’d she’d become in this city with this team.
“Dios, por favor,” she prayed, hopeful, desperate, as the ball flew forward. Then, the weight that seemed to sink into her chest lifted as the ball delivered. Reese Noble, the first contracted woman in the NFL, landed the ball perfectly through the uprights from the 40-yard line.
“Fuck me!” Wilkens called, blinking like he wasn’t sure what he’d just witnessed, and the man stood, hands on top of his head, gawking at Reese like she’d just walked on water. “I mean…fuck…me.”
In the distance on the sidelines, Reese heard the triumphant yelp and hooting call of her father, rooster proud, but tried to ignore it, shooting him a wave and a distinct, ‘get out of here’ gesture that had the man laughing. It wasn’t Take Your Dad to Work Day. He touched his watch to needlessly remind her of their dinner date, then turned to leave the stadium. He’d already mentioned it twice before she left him at the parking garage. She tried to mentally prepare herself for all the critiques and advice, and possibly bragging to the waiters or perfect strangers, that was headed her way the second she met him at the restaurant.
“Fifty,” Mills said, pulling Reese’s thoughts from her proud father as the coach pointed his thumb at the field goal for another set-up. “Dumb fucking luck, that…”
“Dumb fucking talent,” Ricks said, walking up to his special-teams coach with Gia, several of his staff trailing behind him. “We had this chat. When I signed her.”
“Coach…” Mills tried waving a hand at Reese, as though that motion would be explanation enough to why he didn’t buy the two perfectly executed kicks. “She’s…”
“If you can’t condition my players, Mills—all my players—I’m sure we can find someone who can.” He looked at Reese, that squat face softening enough that she thought he’d half-attempted a smile. “You know better than to overwork your kickers, Mills.” To Reese, Ricks nodded, head shaking as he spoke. “You’re gonna piss a lot of people off.”
“Story of my life, Coach,” she sighed. It was the truth.
“Hell, I don’t care if you do. It’ll get asses in the bleachers.”
“More importantly,” Gia interrupted, pointing at Ricks with the shades she’d pulled off as Reese landed that 40-yard kick. “We might stand a chance at the playoffs.” She looked around the field, at the players still watching them, and began to nod. “You’ve got something special this season, Coach.”
“Hope you’re right,” he said, nodding to Reese before he clapped Mills on the shoulder and led him off the field.
At her side, Gia kept step with Reese, and the twisting knots in her stomach only tightened the closer they came to the sidelines and the waiting team. “That was ballsy,” Gia said, moving her shades back over her eyes. “And risky.”
“I knew I could do it, si?” Reese admitted, nodding at Wilkens when he tagged her shoulder with his fist as he passed by. “I’ve made that distance a thousand times.”
“Not on this field.” Gia stopped, standing in front of Reese, and the woman thought her general manager was gearing up for an argument. “Not in these conditions.” She waited, that ever-serious expression making it impossible for Reese to read her. Then, Gia moved one side of her mouth up and let a low, warm laugh push past her lips. “Ballsy. I like it. Keep that shit up.”
Gia laughed outright as she turned, drawing the attention of the bravest among the Steamers, who watched the woman walk away. Gia was fearless, unassuming, and shit, could she hold the gaze of even a blind man.
“What else can you do with those thick thighs?” Reese heard, the question spoken under the speaker’s breath and hidden behind a snickering laugh that made a kindling of anger spark in her gut.
She didn’t hesitate, figuring if she didn’t give her teammates the make of her now, they’d try that bullshit again and again until it got too late for her to set them straight.
“Stuff half-pint running backs couldn’t handle, pendejo,” she said, snapping her attention to the man in question as she walked off the field. There was a collective roar of hooting from her teammates, but Reese ignored them, kept her careful attention on the running back who’d insulted her. He wasn’t amused like their teammates.
“Oh, you think so, bitch…” he tried, stepping toward her with his hand over his dick like he needed Reese to know he had one.
Hanson, she thought. Robert Hanson. Second season. Last year’s Rookie of the Year. She’d spent the better part of the last few months memorizing players and their stats because she knew she’d have to be prepared. They’d try to shake her.
“Yeah,” Reese said, crossing my arms as he got a little close. “I’d snap you like a twig.”
“We can find out right—”
The voice came from behind Reese, and she didn’t need to think about who’d killed the little insult battle she’d started with Hanson. It was the same voice that had haunted her for ten years. The voice Reese used to love hearing late at night when Ryder would crash on his hotel bed after an away game. There’d been a sleepy rasp in his tone then, and at twenty she’d found it erotic.
Not much had changed in ten years.
“Glenn…” Hanson tried, waving a hand like he meant to dismiss his team captain, but Ryder brushed Reese’s shoulder with his pads and stood next to her.
It only took a glare to get Hanson to back up and then Ryder nodded them man off, stepping away from Reese before she could thank him.
Something told her to keep quiet. It was the same voice that reminded her ten years had grown between them like a root, fracturing everything they’d been back in Durham when her father coached him, and she and Ryder’s little sister, Rhiannon, were practically joined at the hip.
But Reese was high on the rush that kick gave her, and she wanted the man to realize she was down for the long haul. This was her team now, and the hatchets stacked up between them needed burying.
“Hey,” Reese started when Ryder headed toward the stands and the fans waving pens and pictures at him. “Hang on.”
He kept going, pulling off his pads and scrubbing his tousled hair with a dry towel. He was two feet from her, throwing winks and smiles at the females leaning over each other from the bleachers.
“You still with that woman, Ryder?” one female fan asked, earning a laugh and shrug from the quarterback. “She’s not here watching?” The fan leaned forward, her ample breasts nearly spilling over the V-neck of her Steamers tee. “I wouldn’t let you out of my sight.”
“She’s out of town,” Ryder answered, head shaking as he winked at the woman when he passed back her freshly autographed picture.
Greer Larson. That was a name Reese had heard connected with Ryder’s name for a while. Cat, Gia’s assistant, had helped Reese settle into the city and given her the low-down on what she called The W.A.G. Hags.
“Wives and girlfriends?” Reese had asked as Cat helped her straighten the rug in her front room.
“No. Witches and Ghouls. They’re a pain in the ass.”
Greer Larson, Ryder’s girlfriend of two years, seemed to be the Hags’ head witch.
Reese pushed back the shock of jealousy that burned in her chest, intent on getting Ryder to hear her. He reached for another pen and picture, flashing a wide, beautiful smile at the mostly female crowd in front of him.
“You not gonna let me say thank you?” she asked, stepping out of the way of an older lady with Ryder’s number 21 jersey leaning forward, her large breasts bouncing against the metal railing as she flailed, thrusting a pen and half-naked shot of Ryder she’d clearly gotten off TMZ.
“Nope,” he said, not bothering to acknowledge Reese as he took the fans’ pens and went to town signing autographs.
“You sure about that?” Reese couldn’t help asking. Ryder hadn’t spoken to her in ten years. Even at her tryouts, he’d kept his distance. They hadn’t been this close in proximity since…damn. Still? After all this time, he still blamed her?
Shit, she thought when Ryder lowered his hands, turning to face Reese like he’d only just realized she stood next to him.
“I’m. Sure,” he started. There was no warmth in his blue eyes, no reason for that thick bottom lip of his to twitch as though he tried to fight a smile from forming there. “Really fucking sure.”
You’re a liar. The words came back as clear as the day Ryder had spoken them. You’re a disgusting liar. They didn’t sting anymore, but they still ached, though Reese was able to hold them at a distance now.
She could do the responsible thing—the mature thing—and offer Ryder her thanks before she left the field and the attention their brief conversation was drawing. Or, she could strike back, insult the asshole before he began the process of ripping into her.
“You got mierda to say,” Reese started, moving in between Ryder and his fans. “Then fucking say it.”
The quarterback clenched his jaw, working away the tension he likely felt as Reese taunted him. “I got nothing to say to you,” he finally answered, gaze like coal, deep, unfathomable.
There’d once been something warm, smoldering, that hummed and worked like an electric shock between them. It had set her skin on fire and kept her warm at night before Ryder had ever even kissed her. Then, when he got around to admitting he wanted her too, that spark ignited. It bore a firestorm of heat and passion Reese thought nothing could extinguish.
Until Rhiannon, and that too-bright hospital waiting room. The night that had changed them all forever.
Staring up at Ryder, with the fans to their side babbling and gushing at the quarterback, and their teammates eyeing them with open curiosity, Reese felt that electric current moving from his eyes to hers. It could have been lust, but likely was just more hatred.
Reese shifted, moving her feet so that she came closer to him, and she didn’t miss the step back Ryder took. For a second, the crowd moved away, and there was only Ryder and Reese and the things they couldn’t say in front of anyone. Still, she had to try to get him to be a professional. “Whether you want to or not, eventually we’re going to have to be civil to each other.”
He moved his head, not exactly a shake, but a tilt that told her he thought very little of her. “Don’t see why.”
“We’re on the same team.” Her explanation came out in one breath, the tone hushed, and Reese pulled on Ryder’s arm, meaning to lead him away from the bleachers. “We’ve both got jobs to do.”
Ryder jerked out of her reach, crossing his arms over his ample chest as he glared down at her. “You do yours and don’t worry about mine.”
She knew what this was. His anger. His irritation that she was on his team now. It was his little sister. It always came back to her. Without thinking, Reese opened her mouth, the words falling out before she remembered where she was and who was watching. “It wasn’t my fault…”
Ryder released a noise deep in the back of his throat, silencing her before she could finish her explanation. “Don’t you fucking dare.”
He hated her. It was right there in the hard set of his features and the pulse thundering in his neck as he glared down at her.
“I’m here,” she tried, straightening her shoulders, trying hard not to let his frown get to her. “Whether you like it or not, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yeah?” he taunted, the tone light, but Ryder still wore an expression that felt like a threat. “We’ll see.”
She hated the tease glinting in his eyes. Reese hated that Ryder had control, power she’d likely never have, not in this industry. Not on this team. One phone call and he could start a rumor that would lead to lies and accusations and trouble that was never hers to begin with. One anonymous tip and Reese would spend weeks—months—trying to deflect whatever bullshit he made up about her. One word to his people about his own contract negotiation, and the hundred-million-dollar man could make the coaching staff worry enough to tear up Reese’s contract. It would be nothing to buy her out. Not compared to what they’d lose if Ryder got mad enough to play hardball.
All that potential swam in her head, telling her to walk away, reminding her that she was trying to earn the respect of this team and the people who supported it. All those warnings rushed and moved around her head like a beacon, and yet, Reese only saw the red-hot flash of anger at Ryder’s taunting smirk.
She couldn’t help herself, no matter that her hand was weak.
“Try me, asshole,” she threatened, standing so close to him, her voice lifting so high that the noise of the crowd quieted. Reese knew they were making a scene. She knew she’d likely come off as a bitch, provoking the Steamers’ golden boy, but the glare he gave her felt like slaps over her skin and his words clawed into her chest reminding her of what she’d let slip away.
“Noble,” he said, voice flat now, glare gone, as though he was done with her and the pathetic threats she made. She was nothing to him but a kicker on his team. Not worth a second thought. “Go fuck yourself.”
Then Ryder walked away from Reese and the crowd, leaving her out on that field with the weight of disgusted, suspicious glares beaming over her, hotter than the scorching southeastern Louisiana sun.
© 2018 Eden Butler