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Chapter 1

San Diego

Brock

“I’M GETTING TRADED?” I practically choke the life out of my cell phone, I’m clutching it so hard.

“To the Chicago Outlaws.” My agent, Marty Chenovsky, jabbers on as if he hasn’t dropped a major bomb on me.

“The fuck I am.” Last season after San Diego’s way overrated starting quarterback had gone down with a career-ending injury, I’d stepped in and taken San Diego all the way to the playoffs. Given my stellar performance, I’d expected to get the starting position. Instead, the bastards are trading me to Chicago?

“They need a backup quarterback.”

“Why? The Outlaws have that kid, Pedro Santiago.”

“Not anymore, they don’t. They’re trading him for you. He’s coming to San Diego.”

What???!!! “As their backup?”

“As their number one.”

“What the hell?” My job’s being handed to some wet-behind-the-ears kid barely a couple of years out of college? That’s so not right. “He doesn’t have my arm or experience.”

“But he has God on his side.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Marty clears his throat. “The new San Diego Missionaries owner has a Christian streak in him a mile wide, and Pedro? Well, he never misses church on Sundays, even when he plays out of town.”

“And the last time I saw the inside of a sanctuary was when I was baptized.” The only reason my parents had done that much was because their country club set expected it of them. Neither had given a damn about religion.

“It’s more than that. Your lifestyle doesn’t sit right with him.”

My lifestyle. Chicks and wild parties, he means. “We almost made it to the Super Bowl.”

“He thinks Pedro can get the team there as well.”

“Yeah. Right. Good luck with that.” Pedro Santiago may have a golden arm, but can he play hurt? When he stepped in for Ty Matthews for a couple of games this season, the Chicago front line kept defenders off him. He could be a pansy for all the San Diego owner knows.

“I know it’s short notice, but Chicago wants you there tomorrow. They already started training camp.”

The Outlaws’ rigorous camp is one of the reasons they won the Lombardi trophy last year. Still, I’m expected to jump-to just because they say so? The hell with that. I have things planned for this week.

Besides, I hate the fucking cold. My entire career I’ve played for warm weather teams. Clemson, the Florida Manatees. Three years into my NFL career, I’d been traded to San Diego. With its perfect weather and year-round mild temperatures, never mind all the bikini honeys on the beach, it had made this southern boy’s heart happy. No way am I trading that for the frozen tundra of Chicago. “I’m not going.”

“Well, guess you can always quit, or sit out a year.”

He has me by the short hairs, and the bastard knows it. I’ve played football my whole life. Love it too much to give it up. “Not doing that.”

“Well, then, you have no choice.” He gives me a moment to let me come to terms with it. “I know this is not what you wanted. But they need a quality backup, and that’s you.”

This last season I’d loved the thrill of game day, the roar of the crowd. Hell, I hadn’t even minded the aches and pains because I was their starting quarterback. I won’t get that chance with Chicago. “Like I’d get to play.”

“Actually, you will. For the entire season.”

What’s he talking about? I’m good, really good. But Chicago has one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Ty Mathews. Last season, he took them all the way to the Super Bowl and won. Makes no sense they’d drop him for me. “How’s that?”

“This hasn’t been released to the press yet. They’re waiting until you get to Chicago to make the announcement. But Ty Mathews needs shoulder surgery, and he’ll be out for the entire season. That’s why they want you. They know you can take them to the playoffs.”

I need to think about this. To give me time, I walk to the fridge, pop open a Corona, slug down a healthy gulp. “Keep talking.”

“You have one more year left in your contract. You do well in Chicago, and the sky’s the limit. You’ll be able to name your own salary. Every team in dire need of a starting quarterback will want to snap you up.”

Yeah, but in the meantime, I wouldn’t have a starting position, would I? I’d only be a temporary replacement. Once Ty Mathews heals, he’ll get his position back and I’ll be back to being number two. Seven years into my NFL career, I should be a starter, not a fucking backup. “I don’t know, Marty.”

“I know how you feel. You want to be number one. Well, this is your best shot. The Chicago Outlaws is the best team in the league. Lots of eyeballs will be on you. If you do a good job, other teams will come calling, and you’ll get better endorsement deals.”

With all the success I’d had this last year, I’d hoped some companies would ask me to hawk their products. But the only thing I’d endorsed this season had been a crappy, no-name razor. I want something bigger, something that will put plenty of zeros with double digits in front of them in my checking account. I also need that number one starting spot, because the way I’m going? No way will I make the Hall of Fame. This move would not be a guarantee I’d get there, but, Marty is right, it’d be a step in the right direction. I finish the brew, crumple up the can, toss it in the recycling bin. “Okay.”

“Great.” I can almost hear his sigh of relief. No surprise. If I don’t agree to this, he doesn’t get his agent’s cut. “A word of advice, Brock. The Outlaws run a tight ship. So, you’ll need to behave.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“No excessive alcohol. No groupies. No orgies.”

“Well, hell, what’s the fun of playing football if I can’t drink, screw, or party?”

“That’s what got you into trouble in Florida, remember?”

Florida. Four years ago, I’d thrown a party to celebrate the Manatees getting into the playoffs. Security had been tight. They’d searched guests for drugs. But a player had sneaked in an illicit substance and he’d died from an overdose. Though I had nothing to do with it, I’d been crucified by the social media. When the season ended, Florida couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. They’d traded me to San Diego where I’d played backup quarterback for the last four years. Until this year when I’d thrown more touchdowns and passing yards than the quarterback I’d replaced. And they pay me back by trading me because the new owner is a born-again Christian.

Well, fuck them.

I wish I could tell them to go screw themselves. But I have no choice. It’s either Chicago or sit out the season. And that’s the kiss of death. Out of sight, out of mind in the league. No guarantee they’d even remember my name in a year’s time. And I’m not ready to hang up my cleats just yet.

“When do I leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. I got you a ticket on the seven-thirty flight to O’Hare. I’ll email you the details.”

My pit bull nudges his big head against my knee, as if he’s sensed my distress. I scratch his head. No idea if I’m trying to comfort him or me. “I can’t fly out tomorrow. Butch hates flying, and I’m not going without him.”

“We’ve made arrangements for your dog. Someone will come by later today to pick him up. They’ll drive him cross-country to one of the best dog places in Chicago. Once you’re ready for him, you can fetch him. Expect to get a call in an hour or so to arrange for his pick up.”

A dog kennel. Butch won’t like that. He hates to be penned up. I’ll need to get him out of there as soon as I can. “What about my furniture, my things?” My memories.

“They’ll be taken care of. We’ve arranged for movers to pack your belongings and ship them to Chicago.”

“Where? I don’t exactly have a place there.”

“We’ve leased a two-bedroom condo for you.”

He’s thought of everything, hasn’t he? But that’s not going to work. At least not long term. “I have a four-bedroom house. Where am I supposed to put all my stuff?”

“The movers will handle it, Brock. Any extra furniture will be put in storage. It’s only a short term-rental, so if you don’t like it, we’ll help you find a place. But you won’t be there at first. You’re reporting right to training camp.”

I’ll be staying in a condo, instead of a house. Butch will be penned up in a dog kennel, instead of running free. My stuff will be delivered and any extras will be put in storage. He makes it sound like everything will be peachy keen. Like hell, it will.

“I’m sending someone to meet you at the airport, one of our newer agents. She’ll be waiting in the luggage claim area. Her name is Eleanor Adams.”

Eleanor Adams? In an instant, the years roll back to the Eleanor Adams I once knew. The girl I never forgot. The one who got away. I rub the spot above my chest that always aches when I think of her. But Marty’s junior agent can’t be her. My Eleanor was headed for medical school someday.

“We don’t want the public to know about your arrival, so she won’t be holding a sign with your name.”

“How will I know her?”

“Don’t worry. She’ll know you.”

Makes sense. I’m pretty well known. But I’ve never heard of a chick sports agent, at least any that represent football players. A wild notion pops into my head. What if Marty’s trying to get rid of me? “You’re not pawning me off on her, are you, Marty?”

He barks out a laugh. “You’d be lucky to get her. She’s hardworking, dedicated. A stellar junior agent. But no, I’ll continue to represent you. You’re my cross to bear.”

Damn right I am. As much as I’m bitching, I wouldn’t want to lose him. He’s one of the best sports agents out there. “So why aren’t you meeting me at the airport?”

“I have an appointment. One I can’t break. Don’t worry. She’ll take good care of you. Feel free to ask her any questions about your contract with the Outlaws. Or anything else for that matter. She’s thoroughly familiar with your situation.”

My situation. Yeah, my well-and-truly-fucked-up ‘situation.’

No sooner do I hang up with Marty than the phone rings. It’s the dog service. Not taking Marty’s word about their reputation, I pepper them with questions. They assure me they do this all the time and provide references, mostly military, for me to check out. After a few phone calls that reassure me Butch will be in good hands, I call back the dog service and ask them to come by in a couple of hours.

Butch glances at me, his big, brown peepers worried.

“Don’t give me those sad puppy eyes. I can’t help it, boy.” I scratch the top of his head, right on the spot he loves to get rubbed. But his tail doesn’t wag. Damn if he doesn’t know something’s up.

“Look I know Chicago is no San Diego. No sun. Cold enough to freeze your nuts off. Well, if you had any.”

“Woof!”

“You’re never going to forgive me for giving you the big snip, are you?”

“Rawr!”

“You’ll love Chicago. You’ll see.” I don’t know if I’m trying to reassure him or me. But I do know one thing that will make us both feel better. I grab his leash and head out with him. Gotta take my best boy for a run on the beach one last time.

 

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