Blinded by tears, Kelsie dashed for the ballroom doors. While making a run for it, she bumped into another waiter, sentencing a tray of deserts to another appointment with destiny. Banging into the doors, she pushed them open, and sprinted down the hall for the elevator. She braked to a stop and wrenched her ankle in the process. An ominous snap a split second later confirmed the worst. Her last good pair of Manolo Blahniks succumbed to the stress of her fifty-meter dash for freedom. Lurching into the elevator, she stabbed at the Lobby button with a now broken fingernail.
The elevator doors slid shut and wrapped her in a temporary cocoon of safety. She yanked off her heels and clutched them tightly, realizing the broken heel lay somewhere between the ballroom and the elevator.
Her day couldn’t get worse. Or her life.
Of all people to witness her humiliation, fate chose Zach Murphy. And the Lumberjacks team owner. And his daughter. And the Governor. She’d hit rock bottom, and the one man who hated her guts more than her ex-husband was probably drinking a toast to her downfall.
She hadn’t seen him in person since high school graduation. Zach the teenager had been intimidating. Zach the man was formidable. He’d put on muscle on top of muscle, grown a few inches, and definitely fine-tuned his intensity to a laser-sharp edge. Shaggy black hair framed his tanned, rugged face. His tight, full lips announced don’t mess with me if living is important to you without him opening his mouth.
She’d been such a fool. A stupid fool.
Sure, she’d convinced herself the move to Seattle had to do with finding Zach and atoning for the sins of her past. But who was she kidding? It had nothing to do with Zach, and everything to do with her. Even worse, Zach saw right through her to the selfish, desperate woman underneath. Sweet, kind, bumbling Zach, the only man who’d ever been there for her and never asked a thing in return but friendship. The same man she’d ridiculed and humiliated. And she’d expected a warm, even lukewarm, reception?
One look at Zach’s face, and Kelsie knew she’d made a grave error in judgment. Zach’s angry frown spoke louder than red paint dripping down a white wall. He would not be her rescuer. He’d resigned from that job years ago and rightfully so. He’d been her last hope for a friendly face in a storm of angry or indifferent ones, and even he didn’t want a thing to do with her.
The elevator door opened with a pleasant ping totally in contradiction with her evening. Squaring her shoulders and straightening her spine, Kelsie strode out of the elevator. Alcohol soaked her white shirt and black skirt. Her stocking feet stuck to the cold tile floor of the lobby. She padded out the door into a misty Seattle night and stood on the street, chest heaving and heart racing. At least it was a balmy—for Seattle—seventy degrees, pretty decent weather for early September, so she understood.
She reached for her purse. Her heart dropped to her bare toes. She’d left her purse and cell phone at the banquet. Not that she had any money in it. She’d spent her last forty dollars on the banquet server clothes. Her stomach rumbled like the Sounder train, reminding her the day’s meal consisted of a couple crackers. She’d hoped to eat at the banquet after the guests were served.
And reduced to living in her car.
She’d sunk low in the past couple months, lower than she’d ever imagined. Yet, staying in her former situation hadn’t been an alternative. She’d rather sleep on a park bench and dumpster dive for dinner.
Which was exactly what she would be doing.
The hotel valet eyed her with suspicion. She glanced at her reflection in the window. Her disheveled hair, bare feet, and stained clothes didn’t exactly present a good impression.
The man walked up to her. “Time to move along. We don’t allow loitering.”
With a sniff and a toss of her head, Kelsie sauntered off, refusing to let him see her lose it. She walked around the corner to find a nice, quiet place to fall apart. She slumped on a bus stop bench and buried her face in her hands.
“You left something behind.”
Wiping her face with her sleeve, Kelsie glanced up to see her purse dangling from the large fingers of the Jacks’ quarterback, Tyler Harris. Tyler was a sleek, graceful deer buck compared to Zach’s more rangy elk. Her Coach purse swayed back and forth in front of her eyes. She snatched it from his hand and cradled it against her chest. This purse would bring her enough from a pawnshop to keep her going for a little while. She’d fled to Seattle to escape her ex’s influence and left everything behind, hoping to find Zach. The only person in her life who’d ever truly liked her for her. She’d found him, all right, and after one look into those angry eyes, she knew she’d made a huge mistake. Zach was not a much-needed ally, he was an enemy.
“Thank you.” She sniffed and hiccupped a very loud, unladylike hiccup.
Tyler’s girlfriend, a redheaded pixie, stepped forward, her eyes full of pity and kindness. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Kelsie chewed on her lower lip. Her pride screamed ‘no.’ Her practical side kicked pride out of the way and took over. “My car is parked a ways from here.” She choked back another sob. She’d stowed everything she owned in her out-of-gas car parked several blocks away in a defunct business’s parking lot. With her luck, it’d been towed by now.
“We’ll give you a ride.” Tyler didn’t wait for an answer but started hauling her along with them, shoes and purse clutched in her free hand. She resisted, irritated and fearful at the same time. They were all alike, guys like him and her ex-husband, thinking they could force their will upon her. She hated it, hated the weakness, swore she’d never be under the influence of a man like that again. She might be broke, hungry, and homeless, but she was independent.
Kelsie folded her long limbs into the miniscule backseat of Tyler’s expensive sports car. His girlfriend turned in her seat. “I’m Lavender. You are?”
“I’m Kelsie. I’m new to town.”
Tyler glanced at her in the rearview mirror, his expression calculating. “I get the impression you and Murphy have a history.”
Kelsie proceeded with caution, unwilling to divulge too much. “Yes, we knew each other in high school.”
“Small world, isn’t it?” Lavender spoke with sympathy, as she shot her boyfriend a shut-your-mouth glare.
“Too small.” Kelsie pointed out her little Chevy Equinox, the lone car in the lot.
Tyler pulled up beside it. She lunged for the door, hoping he’d just drive off. He didn’t. He got out and waited at the side of her car. He studied the inside, most likely taking in the boxes and suitcases filling it to bulging and the blanket and pillow, sure indications she slept in the car. Her little dog, Scranton, bounced up and down on the seat and yapped.
“I just moved here from Texas.” Kelsie jumped to explain before he asked more questions.
“I see.” Tyler nodded slowly and stepped out of her way. His expression indicated he really did see, which wasn’t good at all.
“Where are you going now?” Lavender asked.
Nowhere, except to a pawnshop come morning to get rid of the purse. She didn’t have more than a few dollars in change to her name. “I was hoping to promote my business tonight. Thought maybe Zach might have a few contacts for me.” Squaring her shoulders, she pulled a soggy business card out of her apron pocket and handed it to Tyler.
He took the sticky card with reluctance and read it out loud, “Finishing School for Real Men, Specializing in Professional Athletes and CEOs, Kelsie Anne Richmond.” Tyler looked up, a slow smile crossing his face. “No kidding? You’re Emily Post for Jocks?”
Knowing she may never get another chance like this and eager to promote her fledgling business, Kelsie launched into the spiel she’d practiced before serving at the black tie party. “Yes, I offer a charm school of sorts for athletes, many of whom came from unfortunate backgrounds and never had exposure to manners and proper social behavior.”
Lavender looked pointedly at Tyler. “Several of your teammates who could use that.”
“No joke.” Tyler studied the card, as if mulling something over in his mind.
“Ty, can’t you help her?” Lavender gave Tyler one of those secret looks full of promises that women used on men they loved, and it seemed to work on him.
Tyler scribbled on the back of the card and handed it back to Kelsie. “Drop by headquarters and ask to speak to this woman. She handles player personnel issues. They just made the final cuts down to the regular roster so wait until later in the week, Thursday or Friday. Tell her I recommended you. I’d bet my last touchdown, she’ll set you up with a few clients.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.” She might be begging, but tough times called for tough measures.
With a non-committal shrug, Tyler turned back to his car.
“Bye, Kelsie, it was nice to meet you. I’ll make sure Tyler paves the way with personnel first thing Monday morning.” Lavender tucked something in her hand and hurried after Tyler, who was impatiently tapping his foot as he held the passenger door open. As soon as she got in, he slammed her door and jumped in on his side. With a mighty roar of its engine, the car fishtailed around a corner on squealing tires.
Kelsie opened and stared at the hundred-dollar-bill crumpled on her palm, charity from a virtual stranger. She’d never taken charity before, but survival beat out pride. Visions of a warm meal and warmer bed filled her with relief.
For the first time since Kelsie had fled from her controlling ex-husband, a ray of hope warmed her, even though it was tempered by a niggling of dread. She’d call on the Lumberjacks and sell herself and her business. Her most obvious client might be a certain linebacker with the finesse of a stampeding elephant.
How would Zach feel about that?