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Chapter 7

MacKenna

HIS HOUSE RESIDES IN A GATED COMMUNITY. Of course, it does. He might be a playah, but I doubt he wants a horde of women and fans crashing his home. Before we’re allowed entrance into the property, a dour guard at the front gate requests my ID. Unwilling to reveal my identity to a stranger, I start to argue, but Ty cuts me off. “Every visitor has to do it, MacKenna.”

Still fuming at Ty, I pull out my driver’s license and hand it to the beefy man. He glances back and forth between the ID and me before he steps inside the guardhouse. I suspect he’s running my driver’s license through a scanner, something that doesn’t sit right with me. Still unsmiling, he returns, hands me back my ID and waves us through.

“That was a violation of my rights.”

“They have to be careful. Many prominent families live here. Some employ their own security as well. Last thing the property management company wants is some criminal breaking and entering somebody’s home, or worse.”

He has a point. Security has to be tight to prevent a home invasion. But I don’t like to provide my personal information unless absolutely necessary. At the Outlaws’ camp, I’d handed over my license for identification, not realizing I needed to check the form that would keep my information from being entered into their database. Lesson learned. From now on, I’ll be more diligent about reading documents when my driver’s license is required.

Still, a visitor to Ty Mathews’ home shouldn’t be required to provide an ID, especially when that visitor has been shanghaied. Well, what’s done is done. Nothing I can do about it. Might as well enjoy the view. And what a view it is. The community’s Colonial houses sit on three acre lots, some with swimming pools in the back, their yards landscaped to an inch of their lives.

He drives up the driveway of a gorgeous mansion nestled between towering trees and pulls into a three-car garage in the back of the house. A huge truck occupies one of the bays. The third one contains a vehicle with a tarp thrown over it.

Once we emerge from his SUV, he leads the way into a gleaming-bright kitchen whose vaulted ceiling must be ten, eleven feet high.

“Would you like something to drink?”

“Water, please.”

He opens a subzero refrigerator, pulls out a bottle, uncaps it and hands it to me. “Make yourself at home. I’m going to change.” And then he starts to walk away, like nothing’s wrong.

Is he kidding me? “Wait.You’re not going anywhere until you explain what happened back there.”

He swivels toward me. His jaw flexing, he eats the distance between him and me. “You mean when you threw yourself at Ryan Jackson?”

He’s way into my personal space, so much I have to tilt back my head so I can glare at him. “I didn’t throw myself.” I sound like a harpy my voice’s so high. “I was talking to him. You know, like a reporter.”

His eyes narrow. “He doesn’t want an interview. He wants to fuck you.” He’s so wound up he’s practically vibrating with coiled tension.

Unwittingly, my gaze drops to his crotch. He’s hard. Very hard. Apparently, Ryan Jackson is not the only one who wants to screw me.

He manacles my arms, pulls me toward him. “And you practically invited him to do it.”

My nipples grow rock hard from being thrust into his chest. How could I be this turned on by his caveman behavior? “I did not.”

He goes on like I haven’t said a thing. “Yeah, you did. You pranced up and down that field with your hair down to your ass, your breasts bouncing all the way. Whatever bra you’re wearing? It doesn’t do shit, except draw attention to your tits.”

I wiggle in his hold. The way my body’s reacting, I can’t be this close to him. “Let me go, Ty.” When he does, I fling a hand across my chest. My nipples turn into hard little nubs whenever I get excited. And god knows I’m excited now. His behavior might be Neanderthal, but he’s turning me on. “That was not nice.”

He throws his hands in the air. “Jeesus H. Fucking Christ! I’m not trying to be nice. I’m trying to clue you in. Some of  those players you were flirting with? Half of them are aching to nail you. They think you’re easy.” He steps toward me again, and I stumble backwards. “They think all they have to do is crook a finger and you’ll fall into their laps. They’ve seen hundreds of girls like that, groupies who are only interested in one thing—bagging a Chicago Outlaw. And I guarantee you a lot of them have put you into that category.”

Tears seep into my vision. I shake my head to will them back. “I’m not like that. I’m not.” Taking another step, I run dab smack into the kitchen counter.

“Then stop acting like you are.”

“What did I do that was so wrong?”

“You flirted with them.”

My lower lip juts forward. “I did not.”

“Yes, you did. I was watching you the whole time. You flipped your hair, smiled, touched some of them. Since you don’t know shit about football, I can imagine what they were thinking.”

“That’s so unfair. I never asked for the interview with Ron. It was thrust into my lap.”

“And it was supposed to begin and end with him?”

“Yes.”

“At the Boys & Girls Club, you were talking to players as if you wanted to interview them. What happened to change your mind?”

“Well, I met you, and someone at the club who used to play football.”

“Who?” He snarls out.

“One of the owners. My friend, Marigold, knows him from their college days.”

“Todd Gryzinsky.”

“Yes. You know him?”

“Yeah, I know him.” His eyes flash at me. “Did he hit on you?”

“No! He was at the door. After Marigold talked to him, he was nice enough to let us in.”

“He wasn’t being nice, MacKenna. If your friend looks anything like you, he admitted two smoking hot females, bait for the hordes of playahs who frequent the club.”

“Like you?” I snap.

“No. Not like me.” Two muscled arms clutch the edge of the counter, caging me in. “In case you didn’t know, I don’t chase women. They chase me.”

I blow out a disgusted snort. “Yeah. I know.” Having heard enough, I’m more than ready to leave. “Well, this has been a really nice conversation, but I’d like to go home now.”

He pushes off to wander around the kitchen, his hands jammed into his jeans pockets, his hard body in full display. My stupid heart beats a mad, wild rhythm at the sight of his broad shoulders, slim hips, and mighty fine ass.

He stops pacing and glances back, his green eyes drilling into mine. “You’re serious about interviewing players?”

“Yes.”

“You never explained why.”

“Well, I just thought of football players as—” I can’t say that I thought of big, beefy men fighting over a pigskin as Neanderthals—  “athletes.”

“And now?”

“Well, after talking to you and Ron and watching mad dog Buchinsky work with kids as gently as he did, I’m beginning to see there’s more to them than football.”

“And that’s important, why?”

“Any reporter can cover the statistics, how far somebody threw a ball, how many balls a player caught. But I’d like to explore the human side of the players and write about them. What makes them tick? What makes them human? The newspaper’s subscribers, especially the women, would eat up those stories.”

He lets out a hard breath. “You’ll need to earn their respect before they open themselves up to you.”

“I know. How do I do that?”

He strolls up to me, all fluid grace and masculine power. “Well, for starters. You need to learn the game.”

I nod in agreement. “I’m reading up on football and doing research.”

“You need to do more than that. I can teach you.” His voice softens, as his hand reaches out to fiddle with my hair. “I can teach you lots of things.”

His body’s tight against me. His hard on’s pressed against my belly.

I glance up at him through my eyelashes. He’s so much bigger than me, so much of a man. He smells like one too. Not of that expensive cologne he’d sported at the club, but like a man who’s been throwing around some balls with kids. Nice, clean sweat and underneath it all, him.

“You drive me crazy, you know, with your soft hair, pouty lips, and milky skin.” He puts his lips to my neck, and I shiver. “You smell so good.”

Our emotions mingle, flaring up into a fiery need. I want him. I want this man more than my next breath. But there’s something he must be made to understand.

“I’m not a groupie.”

“Oh, sweetheart, of course you’re not. You’re sunshine and rainbows and everything that’s right in this world.”

Trembling with hunger for this man, all I can say is, “Ty?” 

“Say yes, sweetheart. Say yes, and I’ll give you anything you want.”

DIRTY FILTHY BOY is available for preorder at the following stores:

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Amazon (Australia) https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B01MCX29O0

 

Dirty Filthy Boy

 

Chapter 6

Ty

AS SOON AS WE REACH THE FAR SIDE OF THE PARKING LOT, MacKenna lets me have it. “That stunt you pulled in there was embarrassing.You humiliated me.”

I shrug. “Don’t know why. I saved your food.”

 “You actually think that macho posturing is going to prevent someone from stealing it?”

“Yep. The men won’t touch it. Too scared of what I’ll do to them. The women think it’s romantic what I did. You might want to say thank you, by the way.” I throw in to get her even more riled up.

Her jaw drops as smoke practically steams out of her ears. “Thank you? Thank you?”  Her pink cheeks turn apple red, and she goes from beautiful to stunning.

I execute a small bow. “You’re welcome.”

Her eyes bulge. “You’ve got some nerve, you know that.”

 Smiling, I cross my arms across my chest and broaden my stance. “It’s all part of the Ty package.”

“The Ty package?”

I wink at her. “I can show you, if you like.”

“You could show . . .” She fists her hands. “I could just . . .” She struggles not to blow a gasket. Wouldn’t that make a magnificent sight? But after a few seconds, she gets control of her temper and whooshes out a hard breath. “Men.”

“Yep.” I rock back on my heels. “That’s what I am.”

A cold breeze slashes between us, tussling her gorgeous curls, making her shiver. It might be early September, but the weather’s turned cooler, and the wind’s blowing like a son of a bitch out of Lake Michigan. That sweater she’s wearing can’t possibly keep her warm. I could volunteer my services to heat her up in my SUV, but she’s nowhere ready to go to the next level with me. A challenge, that’s what she is, and I love a challenge.

Without looking at me, she dives into her purse and retrieves her car keys. “Well, I better get going. Thank you for the interview and lunch.”

Another gust of wind turns her nipples rock hard. And suddenly reality smacks me in the face. She can’t go to the Boys & Girls Club in that sweater and tight skirt. Either will have my teammates salivating. Both, and I’ll have a fight on my hands. She needs to change clothes to prevent bloodshed. I point to her. “That sweater and skirt won’t work. You’ll need to put on something else—jeans, a sweatshirt, sneakers—to go to the rec center.”

She looks down at herself. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“Nothing. It’s a perfect outfit for work. But we’re going to throw around a few footballs and you might be required for show and tell.” There is no might about it. I will use her to teach the kids how to throw a perfect spiral.

Her face scrunches. “Show and tell?”

“I’ll demonstrate how to pitch the ball. And you’ll be my assistant.” I pull out the car keys from my jacket, twirl the ring around my finger.

“I’ve never thrown a football.”

“And that’s why the kids will get a kick out of it. If I can teach you how to lob one, it’ll give them hope.”

“Use one of your teammates. They certainly know how to throw . . . and catch.”

“And risk being smacked by a whiff of funky BO? I don’t think so. You”—I lean in and breathe in her lavender-rose scent—”smell way better than any of them.”

She peeks up at me through her lashes, a flirty move, but doubt she realizes it as such. From everything I’ve seen, she doesn’t seem the flirty kind.

“I’m not going to win this argument, am I?”

I grin, sensing a victory. “Nope.”

“Fine. I’ll go home and change. I’ll meet you at the Boys and Girls Club.” She tosses over her shoulder as she heads toward the edge of the parking lot.

My key twirling comes to a dead stop, and I rush after her. I’ll be damned before I let her risk that drive by herself. The B&C Club is in a dangerous part of town. Anything could happen to her on the way over. “I have a better idea. Why don’t I follow you to your place. After you change, we can head to the club in my car.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea.” By now we’ve reached the junker she climbed into at the Outlaws parking lot. There’s a dent in the rear passenger door that wasn’t there before.

“Did somebody hit you?” I point to the car.

“No. I dinged a column in my apartment lot. The parking there is . . . tricky.” She inserts her key into the car door. “I’ll just—” She struggles to get the door open, but it won’t budge. “Umm, drive myself.”

Not in that piece of shit car, she won’t. She probably doesn’t want me to know her address, but her objection is moot. “I know where you live, MacKenna.”

Her head jerks up from fighting with her car door. “What? How do you know?”

“You provided that information to our press office in the form you filled out.”

Her eyes widen. “And they gave it to you?”

I lean against my cherry Porsche Cayenne SUV which just happens to be parked next to her junker. “You must have forgotten to check off the box that prevents them from sharing your information with the Outlaws staff.”

“Darn it. I was so worried about the Ron Moss interview I gave it back without reading the small print.” She gnaws on her lip, obviously upset about her personal data being disseminated for anyone to see.

Her discomfort tugs at me. “The Outlaws Press office sharing your details. That’s a problem for you.”

Those crushed bluebell eyes of hers gaze helplessly up at me. “Yes, I’d prefer my private information kept just that, private.”

I grab my cell, dial the number of the head of PR. “Trevor? It’s Ty Mathews. The information MacKenna Perkins provided to you, home address, personal stuff. Can you erase it from our system?”

She stands in front of me, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. Predictably, my cock reacts at those tight nipples of hers. Damn it. It’s going to be a long afternoon if I don’t rein in my lust. Like the gentleman I’m not, I order my hard on to give it a rest and turn so my body blocks her from the wind. “They’ll need to retain your business info if you want to interview any member of the team. Is that okay?”

“Yes.”

“She’s fine with that. Okay, Trevor. Thanks.” I click off, bury the cell in my leather jacket. “Done.”

“Thanks.” Her nose is bright pink. Her eyes are watering. My blocking the wind hasn’t helped her enough. She’s freezing.

Much as I want to pull her into me and warm her, I resist. Don’t want her hightailing it again. But obviously, she needs to get away from the wind. “So, do you want me to swing over to your place and we can ride together from there?” Her eyes sparking with interest, she glances from her POS to my sweet ride.

Good. All I have to do is reel her in.

“If we go together to the rec center, you’ll get to ride in my car.” I click my key, slide the door open. The Porsche Cayenne is a thing of beauty—Carmine Red on the outside, black on the inside, the Chicago Outlaws’ team colors. “It has Bose Surround sound, GPS, Sirius satellite radio.” I pause for dramatic effect before I go in for the kill. “And heated leather seats.”

Her eyes round with wonder and her mouth forms a perfect “O”.

My lips curve into a smile. I thought that would do the trick.

Once she stops drooling over my car, I get her door open so she can climb into that sorry excuse of a car before following her to her place. I’m glad to see her parking garage requires a card to enter, but the inside is shit. Potholes big enough to eat a tire, crappy lighting. No wonder she ran into a garage column. Dirt and sweat stink up the elevator. The hallway leading to the unit on her floor is no better; it reeks of cabbage and onions.

Her cheeks bloom pink as if she’s embarrassed of the place. “It’s not much, but it’s the best I can afford. And my neighbors are nice.”

Damn, she must have caught the expression on my face. “That’s good.”

“And there’s a security station on the ground floor. You have to show ID to get in.”

Thank fuck for that.

Three security locks guard her door, each of which opens with a different key. When we enter her apartment, she offers me something to drink. All she’s got is water, tea and some fruity drink. While she runs into her bedroom to change, I make myself at home on her mud-colored couch and guzzle the H2O. But soon I’m up exploring the place.

Her tiny apartment smells like her. But that’s about the only thing it has going for it. The springs on the couch leave something to be desired. Probably got it at a garage sale or maybe it’s a remnant from her college days. The TV can’t be more than 26-inches wide. Didn’t know they still sold them in that size. Her kitchen contains the usual appliances—a stove, refrigerator. But they both look like they’ve seen better days. I don’t see a dishwasher and there’s a rack next to the sink, so she must wash her dishes by hand.

She deserves better than to live in this crappy dump. Aside from the small size and the smells outside her unit, I’m not totally convinced about the security of the building. I’ve got connections in real estate—people who owe me favors, acquaintances, friends. Surely, I could hook her up with a better place to live. The problem will be talking her into it.

Ten minutes later, she emerges from her bedroom, changed into jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers. Although the outfit is supposed to make her shapeless, nothing can hide her amazing breasts. They’re large, perky and the reason God invented boobs. Their bounce all the way back to the elevator has me gnashing my teeth. As if my suffering’s not bad enough, she has trouble with her seatbelt, so I get an up close and personal of her world-class tits when I help her snap it on.

We arrive at the Boys & Girls Club to pandemonium. A few hundred kids, their parents, the media. It’s a fucking three-ring circus. But our head of PR has been there, done that, and he manages to control the insanity. With a few choice words, he corrals everyone inside the rec center, while the Outlaws take the stage. The head of the club introduces us one by one to loud cheers. I give the usual “Stay in School, Don’t Do Drugs” speech I’ve given hundreds of times before.

The real fun begins when we go outside. The kids line up in front of their favorite player. As usual, mine is the longest. After I hurl a few balls, I use MacKenna to demonstrate. Predictably, she can’t throw for shit. When I mention she throws like a girl, the kids crack up, just like I knew they would. Soon I have even the littlest ones lobbing the ball with confidence, if not very far. 

When she wanders off to write something into her note book, a fresh one, I keep my eye on her. She walks toward the opposite end of the field where Ron Moss is catching balls from a bunch of kids. When another receiver takes his place, she exchanges a few words with him. I talked to him yesterday before the game to clue him into what really happened with their interview. He’s a great guy who doesn’t hold a grudge. Soon his head’s bobbing and he’s smiling at her. She says something and gets a thumbs up before he goes back to working with the kids.

She jots something in her notebook before she stops to observe our left tackle, Maddox ‘Mad Dog’ Buchinski, who’s teaching a huge kid how to block. He has nowhere as many kids as I do, so the few he has are getting quite a bit of instruction from him.

When next I look up she’s talking to our kicker, Ryan Jackson. My hackles rise. Unlike the other players, who’re giving 100%, Ryan’s barely participating. When she asks him a few questions, he totally ignores the kids to put the moves on her—flashing that smarmy smile of his, laughing at something she says. Ryan’s the scum of the earth. A world-class athlete who’s allowed his fame to go to his head. He’s caused nothing but trouble with the other Outlaws—picking fights, insulting players. Most of them hate him. If it weren’t for his field-goal kicking golden leg, he’d be off the team.

But even worse than his humongous ego are his dubious morals. He chases anything in a skirt, especially younger women. Oh, he’s careful to card them. Last thing he wants is to be caught having sex with someone who’s underage. Still, there’s something offputting about a thirty-seven year old man screwing an eighteen-year old girl.

Before I go over there and put a world on hurt on the bastard, our head of PR blows the whistle, signaling the end of scrimmage. I patiently sign a few shirts and balls while keeping an eye on MacKenna and Ryan. But when he touches her, I can’t control myself. I pound toward MacKenna, grab her arm and haul her away.

“Wait” She trips, and I tighten my grip to keep her from falling. “That was rude. I was talking to Ryan.”

I keep up the pace, not slowing down one bit. “You don’t talk to him. You hear me.”

“Why not?”

We’re close to where the media lies in wait, cameras clicking away. “Who’s the lady, Ty? New girlfriend?”

Damn it! I should have thought this through before I went all ape shit. If there’s one thing, the Outlaws’ organization is adamant about is good press. Whatever a player has to do, he must present a positive image. And right now, there’s only one way to do that. My grip slides down and grabs her hand. “Smile for the reporters, MacKenna.”

Thankfully, she obeys me. She clutches her notebook to her chest and smiles. Until we get inside my SUV and I snap her into her seatbelt. Then she lights into me. “What was that all about? Why did you drag me from Ryan Taylor?”

All screeching tires, I peel out of the parking lot before somebody snaps a photo of her screaming at me. I don’t answer her until we’re well away from the club.  “He’s a sleazeball. All he wants is to nail you.”

“Oh? And you don’t?”

“Give me some credit, MacKenna. I’ve been the perfect gentleman so far.” Well, perfect for me.

Other than breathing hard, she’s silent until we take the highway out of the city. “Where are we going? This is not the way to my apartment.”

“My house. We need to talk.” She needs to understand professional football, and I’m not just thinking about the game, but the players as well. She needs to learn who she can talk to and who she needs to stay away from.

“Don’t I get a say in this?”

I firm my lips. “Nope.”

She mumbles something under her breath. Neanderthal, among a few other choice words. Yeah. I get it. I’m dragging her to my cave. Perfect gentleman flew out the window the second I hauled her away.

I shouldn’t have acted the way I did. I know it. She knows it. My overprotective streak’s flying a mile high. Something I haven’t felt in a long time. Since college, I’ve stuck to women who knew the score, staying away from dewy-eyed virgins who have no clue. Angry with myself, I smack the wheel.

“What’s wrong?” Her voice quivers with emotion. God, don’t let it be fear. Couldn’t handle that from her.

“Nothing.” ‘Ignore her,’ Warrior Ty whispers. You can’t afford to care about her. You can’t allow your emotions to get involved. That way lies disaster. You need to focus on football and your injured arm before coach takes you out of the game. But I’m not listening. Somehow she brings out the rescuer in me. I may have only known her a few days, but I ache to protect her against any and all harm. To give her the life she should have. But let’s face, the part of me that’s mainly in charge is my cock. And the damn thing’s rapidly growing out of control.

Dirty Filthy Boy

 

Chapter 5

MacKenna

I WALKED OUT. What else could I do after I made a fool of myself. Again! Granted I have every right to be upset after he stood me up. But the reason I’m angry has nothing to do with him blowing me off, but with the reason. Or what I thought was the reason. The entire hour I waited for him at the diner, I pictured him having sex with the floozies from Platinum. And the longer I thought about it, the angrier I became.

So when he breezed into the Windy City Chronicle, expecting all to be forgiven because he’s the Chicago Outlaws’ golden boy, the fire I’d been stoking all morning burst into flames. He didn’t help matters when he railroaded me into going to lunch with him. Sure, I went along. What else could I do with my boss pushing us out the door? But when he suggested I should start the interview like he’d done nothing wrong, I went off like a firecracker, not stopping to think about the inappropriateness of such questions or the consequences of my action.

After the stunt I pulled, I’m sure to lose my job. Doubt Mr. Bartlett will keep me after failing to deliver not one, but two interviews. How could I have acted so irresponsibly?

Hoping to escape his notice, I creep into the newspaper office. But as soon as I step in the reception area, my name’s called. “Perkins. Get in here.” No help for it. I’ll have to face the music. I’m not going gentle into that good firing, though. I’m going to take it on the chin. With my head held high, I walk into Mr. Bartlett’s office and shut the door. I’ll be damned if I let that little pipsqueak, Randy, witness my defeat.

“Back so soon?” Mr. Bartlett asks, chomping on his cigar.

“Yes, sir.”

“How did it go?”

Before I have a chance to answer, his phone interrupts us, and he jabs the speaker button. “Yes.”

“Chief.” Dotty, the receptionist. She likes to call him chief. “Mr. Mathews is here again.”

“Tell him to come on back.”

“Roger that.” Did I mention she used to be in the military?

Seconds later, Ty Mathews walks in Mr. Bartlett’s door, hair all windblown. He must have run all the way to get over here so fast. “There you are. I thought you’d wait while I had them box our lunch to go.”

Huh? No idea what he’s talking about. But since it’s a reprieve from my getting fired, I snatch at the lifeline. “Sorry.”

“I get it.” He smacks his forehead. “You were so eager to get your boss’s approval to cover the Outlaws visit to the Boys and Girls Club that you rushed back to your office.” He glances at Horace Bartlett, flashing a bright smile that would put the sun to shame. “It’s  a promotion event. Some of the Chicago Outlaws will be tossing a few balls to the kids.”

“And the press is invited?” Mr. Bartlett’s voice rises with excitement. Of course he’s thrilled. It’s the kind of feel-good, human interest story our subscribers eat up with a spoon and go back for seconds.

“Of course.”

“When and where?”

“Four o’clock, the Lamont Boys and Girls Club.”

Lamont is an inner-city neighborhood where some of the poorest residents of the city live.

Mr. Bartlett picks up his phone, punches some numbers. “Peter, you doing anything this afternoon?” A couple of seconds’ pause. “Never mind that. The Chicago Outlaws will be at the Lamont Boys and Girls Club this afternoon. Get over there and snap a few pictures. Starts at four.” He hangs up. “The photos will go great with Perkins’s article.”

What article? There isn’t going to be an article, not after the way I embarrassed myself at the restaurant. “About that, Mr. Bartlett.”

Mr. Bartlett’s phone buzzes. Again. “Yeah?” He answers.

“There’s a delivery guy here,” Dotty says. “He’s got some food for Mr. Mathews.”

Ty rubs his hands together. “Great. I’m starved. Horace? You don’t mind if I call you Horace, do you?”

The cocky quarterback is sure to suffer a setdown. I’ve heard not even Mr. Bartlett’s wife calls him by his first name.

“Of course I don’t mind,” Horace says.

My jaw drops.

“Great. Well, MacKenna got the great idea to conduct the interview here rather than the restaurant. That place’s great, but it’s too public. People are always stopping by to get my autograph.” He pounds his new best bud on the back. “You understand, don’t you, Horace?”

“Absolutely.” Beaming a wide smile, Mr. Bartlett throws open his office door. “Feel free to use the interview room.”

“Will do.” Ty gestures me out. “After you.”

What else can I do but follow him out the door? He saved my bacon, after all. I tag along while he grabs the food from Dotty, winks at her. Turning to me, he says, “Lead the way.”

“It’s, uh, back there.” With him hauling the bags of food, we make our way through the space. He’s big and wide-shouldered, but he maneuvers his way through the narrow aisles with surprising grace.

“Which one’s yours?” His head bobs toward the cubicles.

“This one.” I point to it as we walk by. My cubbyhole houses an old beaten desk, a rickety office chair, an ancient file cabinet and a state-of-the-art laptop. The newspaper might skimp on furniture, but the electronics are first rate.

When we arrive at the glass-enclosed interview room, he plops the bags on the table. I try to help him unpack, but he waves my hand away. “I got it.” He lays out the chateaubriand, veggies, and bread rolls. The aroma of the French cuisine permeates the room, and my stomach growls, reminding me it hasn’t been fed.

A smirk pops up on his face. “Not hungry, eh?”

I frown. If he were any kind of gentleman, he wouldn’t have mentioned it.

From a tall container, he retrieves a bottle of wine that the restaurant was nice enough to decant. All he has to do is pull off the stopper. They even included two wine glasses. Granted they’re plastic, but still they look nice.

Can’t believe he’s being such a gentleman after the way I behaved. Least I can do is apologize. “I’m sorry for . . . the way I acted. Those questions were entirely inappropriate and unprofessional.”

He flashes me that same, bright smile. “MacKenna. May I call you MacKenna?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You were upset about me standing you up. So the questions, while surprising, were a way for you to let off steam. How about we start fresh? You forgive me for not showing up at the diner. I won’t penalize you for the questions. What do you say?” He sticks out his palm.

My mother didn’t raise a fool, so I shake his hand. “Deal.”

For the next while, we dedicate ourselves to the meal. One thing your learn at a farm is to eat when food is put in front of you. Something I forgot at the restaurant. But I’m not stupid enough to pass up on this feast a second time. I chow down until half of my share is gone. When I come up for air, his plate is empty, and he has a happy smile on his face.

“Nice to see a woman enjoy her food.” He salutes me with his wine glass.

“Oh, I eat plenty.” Can he tell by the extra curves? “Comes from working at a farm.”

“Where are you from?”

“Iowa. My dad’s a farmer. I used to milk the cows, feed the chickens. The farm hands did the heavy work, but I handled the egg and dairy business.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

I sip the last of my wine before I answer. “I couldn’t wait to leave. Our land was miles from the nearest town. For months, the only people I’d see were the farm hands, close neighbors, and the kids at school. Winters were the worst.”

“So when it came time to go to college, you chose one in a big city.”

“Yes. I graduated in May from the University of Chicago.”

“But you didn’t start working here until last week.”

He’d paid attention when I told him it was my first week on the job. “Mr. Bartlett hired me before the school year ended, but the journalist I was to replace did not retire until the end of the summer.” He couldn’t afford to pay us both, and I couldn’t afford rent without a salary. So I’d moved in with Marigold and waited tables until two weeks ago. By working through the summer, I saved enough for a security deposit and first month’s rent.

Mr. Bartlett pokes his head out of his office and stares in our direction while chewing on his beat-up cigar.

“My boss’s getting antsy. I better start the interview. You done?” I point to his empty dish and bread basket. The man loves those French baguettes.

“Yes, thank you.”

After I gather the dirty dishes, I walk to the lunchroom, right next door, and toss them in the trash. The leftovers I stick in the fridge.

“You’re saving those for tomorrow?” Ty Mathews asks when I return.

“Hopefully they’ll still be there.”

He frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Last week I brought an extra yogurt. It was gone the next day.”

His eyes narrow. I’m glad not to be the target of that scowl. Bound to leave a nasty burn.

“Somebody took it?” he asks.

Nodding, I pull out my recorder and spiral bound notebook. The latter has seen better days, but it’s still usable. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

“You were born in Texas?” I’d performed background research on him. Not much was available, but I devoured what little there was.

“Yes. A small town in the eastern part of the state.”

“And what’s the name of this small town?”

“Doesn’t matter. It no longer exists. The only business in town—a factory—moved its operations south of the border to Mexico. After it closed, people drifted off until only a few residents remained.”

Okay, so he’s not going to tell me where he grew up. “What about your family?”

“I don’t have one anymore. Both parents are gone.”

Another brick wall. “How long have you played football?”

He smiles. “Started when I was ten. A few boys were tossing the ball around during school recess. When it landed at my feet, I picked it up and tossed it farther than their quarterback so I was drafted to play.”

I do a quick calculation. “Was that fifth grade?”

He nods. “Something like that. In high school, I joined the junior varsity team, but after one year they moved me to the regular team. The next season, I became their quarterback. Their starting quarterback.” Grinning, he leans forward to impress upon me the importance of the position, something I failed to understand the day we met.

I grin back at him. “The starting quarterback, huh? You must have been good.”

“I was. My senior year, I took them all the way to the state championship. We won, but the press paid no attention to us.” Another scowl.

“Why?”

“We were only a 1A high school. The press was too busy focusing on the 5A Dallas team. I HATE Dallas.” When he says Dallas, he bares his teeth.

Obviously, a touchy subject with him. I make a note to explore it further.

“But one good thing came out of the championship. The Nebraska State coach was scouting that day. He drafted me for his school.”

“Where, let me guess, you became the starting quarterback in no time.” I curve my lips up on purpose.

He smiles back. “You learn fast.”

“I try.”

We spend another twenty minutes in a convivial back and forth, until it’s time for him to leave for his promo appearance. On our way out, he pauses in the center of the office. “Listen up, everybody.”

A couple of heads pop up from their cubicles. Mr. Bartlett sticks his head out of his office.

“MacKenna Perkins put leftovers in the refrigerator. Chateaubriand. Beef, in case you’re not familiar with the word. She’s looking forward to eating it for lunch tomorrow. If for any reason they’re missing”—his voice lowers, his tone grows gruff—”I will find out who stole it and that person will answer to me. Capisce?”

Dead silence greets him, except for Dotty who quietly pipes up with,”I’m a vegetarian.”

He walks up and nods at her. “Good to know, ma’am.”

I follow him out the door, more embarrassed than I’ve been my whole life.