Trainers, physical therapists, receptionists, coaching assistants, equipment managers, ticket sales reps, cooks. Coaches.
Players. Some had played professionally, had an injury, been released, and were now trying to make it back on the rosters of the big teams. A few players were just on the other side of their prime but weren’t ready to retire. Others hadn’t been drafted. As far as development teams went, they seemed like a good batch, except for one.
Denise leveled her gaze on him again, then looked away quickly, afraid he’d catch her. She didn’t know why he had her so disturbed. It didn’t make any sense. Scratch that.
She knew exactly what had her on edge. She’d heard stories... Stories that at first sounded terrible, but then when she sat alone in bed at night, ones that had her shamefully excited. Ones that made her touch herself as she imagined pain mixed with pleasure.
She swallowed and glanced out the window. Outside, groundskeepers planted a few final shrubs around the facility, mulched beds, and checked sprinkler systems. One last painter finished the details on the logo on the side of the gym.
Training camp started now. The big day had finally arrived, and she needed to get her mind on the game. In the gym, the entire staff and team of the Biloxi Bloodhounds had come together for a big kickoff meeting.
Denise scanned the crowd. Hell, they’d even found cheerleaders.
Then her gaze fell on him again, as if he possessed some sort of magnetic control over her. She didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t help it.
The troublemaker. She shook her head. His little agent -- resembling a scale model of him -- stood nearby, furiously texting. So Fly Ballom. She’d groaned when Coach Stiles had suggested him. She’d read about all his antics last season, scoffing that the Illinois Idols would pay such a clown the prices he demanded. But the darker tales had her worked up for an entirely different reason.
And now she
paid his salary.
For a development team.
She clenched her jaw, trying to lock her face into a mask of professionalism. She couldn’t let him get to her. When he stayed on the straight and narrow, he could maintain Hall of Fame-level numbers. Outstanding at short slant routes, fingers like flypaper, even a good blocker when demanded of him. A few more seasons, and he could probably become the tight end with the most TDs in the league. All of that was well and good, but the rumors of his vices, the fact that he’d been too drunk the day of a play-off game to even make it to the stadium... That pissed Denise off. She didn’t want that kind of attention brought to her team. She needed someone she could rely on. Someone she could trust.
But his agent, Tucker, had promised her he’d keep Ballom in line, and something about the agent convinced her. Her instincts told her okay, so she went with it.
Now that Ballom had arrived, though, second thoughts had started to creep in, along with that shimmer of excitement she couldn’t ignore. It didn’t help that he looked like some sort of Nordic god, either. She could envision him in a bronze breastplate, swinging a battle hammer while he clutched her against him, like some kind of pulp fantasy novel cover. She’d dated white guys before. Even a few football players, but none of them had ever looked so much like sin on the hoof. All those tattoos, and the biceps of his crossed arms bulging.
Denise took a quick breath to try to dispel the butterflies that had started batting against her stomach. She didn’t need all these confusing sentiments rattling around in her head or heart. She had a speech to give. She’d given plenty before -- charity events, award receptions, that sort of thing. But this opening day speech was one her father always gave to the Guardians. She usually stood on the sideline, making notes in her leather notebook, while he rattled off promises and big ideas for the franchise.
Today, though, she would have to do it herself. When she heard Coach Stiles say her name, she stood and headed toward the lectern. The room fell silent. She had this one chance to set the tone for the franchise. Sure, next season would come, and the season after that, and each year she’d have to give some sort of speech to the team, but expectations would never be as great. She had a lot on the line.
Denise stopped, looked down at her hands. My notes.
She smiled sheepishly, turned back toward her chair, and picked them up off the floor. Then, with a quicker pace, she went to the lectern.
She took a sip of water from the glass sitting there. She looked at her notes, the clicker to advance the slides on the giant plasma screen behind her, the piece of gum Coach had stuck to the surface before he started talking. He always did that, she remembered. A sort of ritual. She wondered what she could do now, at the last minute, to ensure her own success, but nothing came to her. She hoped Coach’s luck was enough for the both of them.
Denise inhaled, exhaled, and inhaled again. “Welcome 2011 Biloxi Bloodhounds!” she cried, keeping far enough back from the mic. She picked up the clicker, and the screen behind her showed the team’s logo, almost as big as the side of the gym.
And then she went into her speech. She told them about her plans for the team, how far they could go, what the best players could expect if asked up to one of the pro teams. Then she told them about her charity work and their requirements as team members. She showed pictures of the schools and hospitals where they would volunteer, the golf courses where they’d play charity tournaments, the stalls they’d erect at fairs and car shows to raise money for her favorite charities. If anyone in the crowd grumbled or complained, she didn’t notice it. She’d found her zone. The men respected her as their boss. They’d do what she told them to, or they’d shop their contract elsewhere.
As she finished the meat of her presentation, the screen went dark behind her. She lowered her voice and talked about passion, commitment, dedication -- all big buzzwords she’d learned from Daddy. When she stopped, the auditorium was silent. It only lasted a moment, though, before the place erupted in applause.
Denise left the lectern. At least the first of her jobs was complete.
Now for training camp.
* * * * *
Denise took her tray to a table in the cafeteria and sat down, just like everyone else did. She glanced down at the plate. She hired an excellent cafeteria staff, fresh out of a New Orleans culinary school, and today’s selection -- for the inaugural day of practice -- looked delicious: fresh grouper, wilted greens with bacon, rice with gravy, plenty of whole grain bread, and lemon cake. Her cafeteria would be just another aspect of her franchise to feel proud of.
“May we join you?”
Denise glanced up to see Tucker Flynn, standing, holding his own tray, with Levi Ballom directly behind. She felt that flutter again in her gut, but she tried to repress it.
“Of course,” Denise said, waving a hand idly at two of the empty chairs at her round table. She hoped this didn’t turn into some sort of informal negotiation meeting. She certainly didn’t feel in the mood for that. The two men sat, and the three of them fell to eating quietly. Denise tried to ignore them, particularly avoided meeting Ballom’s eyes across the table. Something about him just had her too nervous, no matter how much she tried to talk herself out of it. And the feeling wavered back and forth between pleasant and very much like the first inklings of love.
Right now it seemed more like a panic attack. Denise figured some of that had to do with all the baggage, and risk, Levi brought to the team.
When she pushed away half of her lemon cake and promised herself to do extra reps in the workout room later, Tucker evidently took it as a signal to finally talk.
“We want you to know, Ms. Hynes, how committed we are to this team.”
“Of course.” So it was going to turn into one of those
“Levi is on all sorts of strict regimens, and I can vouch for him. He’s going to play the best season he has in a long time.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Is Ballom just going to sit there and let Tucker talk for him?
She took a cautious glance at the tight end, but he just stared down at his plate.
“But you should understand that Levi’s ultimate goal is to make it back into the league.”
Denise sighed. “This is a development team, after all.”
Levi glanced across the table at her. She let herself meet Ballom’s gaze. She held it for a moment, and the panic feeling flipped to something entirely different. She felt her cheeks warm and hoped Tucker didn’t notice. She knew Ballom had figured out exactly what she was experiencing because he offered her a sly, lopsided grin. But how?
“Exactly. So when the time comes for a trade, we hope we have your full cooperation.”
Denise glanced back at Tucker. “I’ll -- the team will regret it when he goes, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if our players didn’t move up in the league.” She stood and picked up her tray. “Excuse me, gentleman.”
As she walked away, she felt certain Ballom’s gaze followed her.
* * * * *
Levi sat next to the hotel pool on one of the floating beds -- a hammock-like thing suspended from a teepee -- sipping an iced tea and watching the murky gulf. Heavy metal thrummed through his earbuds from his MP3 player. He nodded his head to the beat, but he kept the volume low enough so he could hear what went on around him. Overhead, gulls screeched, but the noise didn’t even compete with the squeals from the girls in the large pool behind him. They all seemed to know who he was. Southern girls loved their football; some of them had even thanked him for missing the play-off game the previous year, because it meant the local favorite team got one step closer to the championship. They’d offered to buy him a few drinks -- and to keep him company -- but he refused. No booze. No girls. He’d promised Tucker. And Tucker had followed through on his end of things so far.
I got a job, don’t I?
Levi thought about his new gig. The first full practice would begin tomorrow, but the general manager seemed more worried about charity work than football. Hell, he respected Coach Stiles, knew his stats, his methods. He could turn out a solid team, but this Claremont Hynes sister... Levi leaned back on the rope sling and stared up at the blue Mississippi sky, just like the one he grew up under. Charity golf classics, fishing tournaments, volunteer work. He’d always avoided all of that when he played for the Idols. Clearly, though, he wouldn’t have that option here. He could tell a determined woman when he saw one. Generally he liked to break that kind of woman, show her how useless determination was when confronted with a riding crop or nipple clamps. He closed his eyes and envisioned Big Al Hynes’s daughter stretched out on his bed, her wrists and ankles tethered to the corners, her small, dark breasts jutting toward the ceiling. His cock twitched at the idea, and he thought for a moment about getting up and heading upstairs to his suite, taking care of himself to some of the BDSM porn the hotel had surreptitiously supplied as in-room entertainment when it had learned of his semipermanent residence.
He liked living at the hotel, even if he had to play it straight edge and not take advantage of all the amenities. His fans did have expectations, after all, but they didn’t need to know he drank Evian instead of single batch bourbon and spent every night alone in his king-size bed instead of with a bevy of submissive supermodels.
Levi sighed. He missed the good old days, but those days had nearly killed him. Classic downward spiral.
He’d stay changed this time.
Levi sat up and opened his eyes. He thought about jumping into the pool to cool off. The weather down here -- though his body had quickly become accustomed to it -- still felt brutal, and nothing beat the heat of a Southern summer like a dip in the pool.
But before Levi could get up, Tucker appeared in his view, blocking off the ocean in front of him. The small man stood there, his ever-present smartphone in his hand. He practically buzzed with energy, like the frequency that made up his body constantly shifted between two realms of reality.
Levi smiled. “What’s going on, my man?” he asked, awkwardly climbing off the swinging apparatus and making it safely to the ground. I could use one of these in my room.
He thought about the things he could do with it, if a woman joined him, but again... Off-limits.
“Dinner, Levi. Let’s go.” Tucker kept him to a strict schedule and a strict diet. The hotel kitchen had explicit recipes for each meal that Levi ate. Most of the foods somehow contributed to detox, but others built strength, ensured optimum potential of his body to repair itself, or did other things he didn’t even bother to try to understand. From Tucker, he only heard the occasional buzzwords like “macrobiotic” or “superfood” and for the most part, the dishes tasted fine, so Levi didn’t argue.
Tonight, Tucker led him to the steakhouse, and they took a quiet corner booth. Tucker set his phone to vibrate and placed it on the table. He took calls for the both of them. He didn’t allow Levi a phone, which he could have used to contact prostitutes, dealers, or bookies. Levi had resented it at first, but after a while had come to appreciate the fact that his life had grown...peaceful. He could worry about other things, like the game.
The way it used to be.
The waiter brought them salads without even taking an order, Levi’s twice as big as Tucker’s. He ate while listening to his agent review his agenda for the week. Practice, practice, and more practice. Levi sighed, but a small smile played at the corner of his mouth. A long time had passed since he’d started a season fresh like this. He felt good about that.
“What?” Levi asked, realizing he’d lost focus of the conversation.
“The manager,” Tucker said, obviously exasperated at his lack of attention.
“What about her?” Levi realized he had no idea where the conversation had gone.
“She’s your boss.”
Levi raised his eyebrows. How had Tucker already divined his innermost, if brief, fantasy?
“She looks like a freakin’ model,” Tucker told him. “I know your type. She’s got that drive too.”
Levi shrugged. The waiter removed their salad plates.
“No girls, So Fly.”
“I’ve been good. You saw all them ladies at the pool. I didn’t touch one of them.”
“Keep it that way.”
Levi waved a dismissive hand and glanced away. He couldn’t bold-faced lie to Tucker and tell him he didn’t feel anything for the Hynes woman.
“I know that look too.”
Levi glanced back to see Tucker shaking his head. His phone buzzed on the table, but he didn’t move to pick it up, only kept expressing his evident distaste for Levi’s libido.
“I can’t help it,” Levi said, trying to keep any trace of a whine out of his voice.
“You’d better,” Tucker said as the waiter delivered their main courses.
But with the image of Denise Claremont Hynes now firmly at the front of his thoughts, Levi could not wholeheartedly follow his agent’s admonition.