Chapter 1—Thrown for a Loss
Twelve years and a couple multi-million-dollar football contracts changed a lot of things for a kid who grew up poor, but obviously not enough.
Zach Murphy shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. In less time than it took to hike a football, he’d been catapulted from a man who commanded respect and controlled his own destiny to one of inadequacy and uncertainty.
He hated these fancy banquets where everyone pretended to be something they weren’t, and the wealthy paid big sums to hang out with professional athletes all in the name of charity. Zach preferred his charitable work to be more low-key and private. Even worse, he hated how these affairs made him feel like an idiot—a guy lacking all social graces. He tried to fit into a crowd like this once, and it had been a disaster.
The bottom line was he didn't belong here. He’d already managed to insult some millionaire geek’s wife by complimenting her on her healthy appetite. Hell, where he came from, a man admired a woman who appreciated good food.
He sucked in social situations, especially highbrow ones like this. His old team never made him attend anything more than a bowling tournament, but the Lumberjacks insisted their defensive captain go to all this shit.
Zach ran his fingers through his unruly hair and almost wished he’d gotten it cut. Too long and curly to be tamed with hair gel and too short for a ponytail, it kept getting in his eyes. He tugged on this bow tie, rebelling against how constricting it was. He’d been here less than thirty minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. These snooty people stared down their noses at him as if they saw right through to his white-trash roots.
Looking for some friendly faces, he walked up to a couple of his defensive guys and joined their conversation. “Hey, guys, did you see our jackass quarterback anywhere? I thought I’d arm wrestle him for a dance with his hot little girlfriend.”
They stared at him sort of funny. He wiped his mouth, wondering if he had crumbs on his face or something.
On cue Tyler Harris, the Seattle Lumberjacks’ quarterback and Zach’s personal enemy number one, sauntered over with his cute, curvy girlfriend, Lavender, beside him. Zach liked Lavender, she was sweet and sassy all rolled into one. Even better, she could put the asshole quarterback in his place with one damning look. Harris might be an uncontrollable bad boy in most circumstances, but Lavender led him around by a ring in his dick, which amused Zach to no end.
Zach grinned at her, and she hugged him then she straightened his bowtie. Harris snaked his arm possessively around her waist and tucked her close to his side. His glare cut right through the bullshit. He hated the linebacker as much as Zach hated him. The jerk’s gaze swept downward as if assessing and cataloging Zach’s every social blunder. His gaze fixed on Zach’s black cowboy boots.
Harris smirked and raised one eyebrow. “Cowboy boots at a black tie affair?”
“Sounds like the words to a country song,” Bruiser, their surfer boy running back, quipped, as if he’d ever listened to a country song in his life.
“Hey, I’m from Texas.” Zach shoved his hands in his pockets before he did damage to the quarterback’s pretty face. He liked his boots. The broken-in Justins hugged his big feet like a comfortable pair of old slippers. Hell, he’d even polished them to a shine for the occasion. Best of all, the extra two inches made him one inch taller than the Jacks’ six-foot-four quarterback.
‘Yeah, right. But—” Lavender stomped on Harris’s foot before he opened his mouth again, most likely to launch a new insult at the hated defensive player. She cast a sympathetic look in Zach’s direction and dragged her stubborn-assed boyfriend to his seat.
Zach barely tolerated quarterbacks as necessary evils, prima donna jerks every one of them, and he had zero-tolerance for Harris.
As a middle linebacker, Zach made a living out of analyzing quarterbacks, studying their body language, watching their eyes then telegraphing his findings to his defensive teammates. Last year when his old team played the Jacks, he’d looked across the line of scrimmage into Harris’s eyes and seen—nothing. Nothing but a big fat zero, almost as if the QB had put his body on autopilot and mentally hung out a “closed” sign.
Zach had lived and breathed football from the day he took his first baby step. Football was an all-in game. Either you were all-in or you’d best get the hell all-out. He couldn't fathom a football player who didn't love the game with every cell in his body and leave every ounce of try he had out on the field. But Harris had. Last year. He’d quit on his team, missed practices, put in minimum effort, and only physically shown up for games.
The team had won their second consecutive Super Bowl in spite of Harris. Not that Zach had been in the locker room or on the field. He’d signed with the Seattle Lumberjacks in the off-season a few months after that second Super Bowl. But guys talked, and he’d been in the league long enough to see all the signs, even if he was observing from across the line of scrimmage or via a flat screen TV.
A Super Bowl?
How could a guy not leave his blood and guts out on the field during the game of all games? Harris’s don’t-give-a-shit attitude baffled Zach and put the two team captains at odds with each other throughout training camp. Zach had no respect for quitters. If he had his way, the Jacks would start a different quarterback on the first day of regular season.
Zach ground his teeth together until his head hurt just thinking about having one Super Bowl ring, let alone a pair. He'd give both his nuts for a ring. Team loyalty had gotten him nowhere. For twelve years, he'd played his heart out on the worst team in the NFL, given them his best and never complained. The team didn’t make it past one wild-card win in the first round of the playoffs. During the off-season, his old team dropped him faster than a rabid coyote. Then the Seattle Lumberjacks came calling, needing a guy to bolster their defense and tutor their young players. He’d jumped at the chance.
This year would be different. He'd taken a hefty pay cut to sign a one-year contract with this team just for a chance to win a ring in what might well be his last year. For a linebacker who played as hard as he did, thirty-four bordered on ancient. Or so his body told him.
Reluctantly, Zach took his seat across from Harris. Thank God, Lavender sat to Zach’s right because Zach adored her. She shot him a friendly smile. Knowing it would piss Tyler off, he grinned back. “You’re a pretty as a dandelion in a weed patch.”
Lavender laughed and patted his arm. “You silver-tongued devil. Thank you. You cut a dashing figure yourself.” A few of the guys around the table snickered behind their napkins.
“A dandelion is a weed.” Hoss Price, their three-hundred-pound center snorted so hard, Zach expected his wine to come out his nose. Harris glared at Zach as if he’d called Lavender fat or something equally offensive.
Zach ducked his head. He liked dandelions. They were the only flowers that had grown in his Grandmother Lo-Lo’s front yard. He’d screwed up again. He’d meant his statement to be a real compliment, but everyone took it as humorous.
“I didn’t know Wal-Mart sold tuxes. Must be a new line or something.” John Myers, a prima-donna wide receiver chortled, and his teammates joined in.
“From you, I’ll take that as a compliment.” Zach looked down at his black tux. He didn’t see a thing wrong with it. He’d bought it at a bargain price at a decent men’s wear store for his cousin’s wedding a few years ago. It seemed perfectly functional to him. Sure it was a little small in places, the pants a little short, and it had a few wrinkles, but he didn’t see it as a big deal. Off-the-rack clothes never fit him right. He was used to it. He’d be damned if he’d spend five figures on a custom suit with some dumbass designer’s name on the label like Harris did just to impress a bunch of people he cared less about.
“Lapels like that went out of style years ago.” John couldn’t keep his trap quiet.
Zach clamped his mouth shut. Who gave a shit about out-of-style lapels? Not him. He didn’t even know what was in style or care.
“Zach, you look great—for a hick.” Bruiser grinned at him. He liked Bruiser usually, but not so much right now.
“Hey, he’s prepared for the rainy season, too. Those pants legs are above the high-water mark.” Hoss choked on his wine, spitting some of it across the table. Too bad he missed Harris’s face by a mere inch. Hoss didn’t have any better social graces than Zach, but his elegant girlfriend dressed him for these occasions. Zach didn’t have a woman to make sure he looked put together.
“Zach looks fine.” Lavender pinched Bruiser’s arm while Tyler yelped. She must have kicked him under the table just for good measure. Zach needed to find a woman like her.
“Zach, you’re a handsome devil. These guys are just jealous.” Rachel, wife to all-pro wide receiver Derek Ramsey, shot a shut-up-or-die glance around the table, pausing at John. As if John gave a shit.
Being defended by women stung Zach’s pride and booted his ego to the basement, but the ladies meant well. He couldn’t fault them for that.
Harris narrowed his gaze, seeming to zero in on Zach’s blue shirt. Obviously, the quarterback didn’t care much for blue. Zach reached across the table for the basket of bread, but John yanked it out of reach before he could grab it. “What the fuck? You got the manners of a stray dog. Didn’t your mama teach you any better?”
Zach cringed. He hadn’t a clue what he’d done wrong. Besides, his mama didn’t teach him a damn thing. She’d been too busy drowning in a bottle or shooting up.
“Hey, why do you think his old team called him wolf?” Hoss hooted louder than a train bearing down on a busy intersection.
“Here I thought it had to do with his prowess on the field.” Harris started to laugh then flinched, and Lavender winked at Zach..
“Hey, being a wolf is a good thing on the football field. Wolves are fierce.” Tomcat rose to his defense. He’d known Cat since college. His real name was Thomas but the defensive end stalked unsuspecting quarterbacks like a tomcat on the prowl, hence the nickname. Tomcat had followed him from their old loser team and taken a pay cut just like Zach for one last chance at a ring.
Zach ignored them all. Hell, they were just having fun hazing the new guy on the team, except for Harris. That guy enjoyed every minute of Zach’s torture. Eventually the conversation shifted to Sunday’s first regular season game.
Heart sinking, Zach stared at the confusing array of eating utensils, plates, and glasses. Nobody needed this much stuff just to eat dinner. Hell, where he came from, he’d been lucky to eat with a fork. This fancy crap reminded him of how much his lowly upbringing still shaped his present.
As the waiter placed the first of many courses in front of Zach, he glanced around to see which fork to use. Harris eyed him like a man probing for an enemy’s weaknesses. Pretending to study his oysters, Zach flicked his lowered gaze to Lavender’s plate. He picked up the little fork just as she had. Grasping an oyster in his big hand, he tried to dig it out of the shell. The damn thing popped out and flew across the table. It hit Derek’s jacket and slid downward, leaving a slimy trail. Harris broke into laughter with the rest of the table following suit. Zach’s ears burned, but he held his head high, refusing to let these vultures pick his embarrassed carcass clean.
“Hey, man, no big deal.” Derek, who also had the misfortune of being Harris’s cousin, smiled sympathetically at Zach, while Rachel wiped off his lapel.
“Why don’t you go back to the trailer park where you belong?” John sputtered, laughing too hard to get a breath. Harris just smirked.
Zach ignored them both and pushed the plate away. He’d be damned if he’d try to eat another, never liked the fucking things anyway.
“Hey, man, that isn’t funny.” Tomcat jumped in.
“Hey, man, it’s all in fun. Murphy knows that.” John nodded at Zach.
Zach concentrated on a spot across the room, faking interest in the crappy painting hanging on the wall, the one simply titled, The Cat. Hell, the kindergarten class from his hometown of Cactus Prairie, Texas, painted better pictures. At least a cat looked like a cat, not an alien space ship spraying people with spaghetti sauce.
Then he saw her.
Zach’s day went from calamity to catastrophe. He broke into a sweat. Pain shot through him as if he’d dropped a two-hundred-pound barbell on his chest. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t muster a coherent thought in his shocked brain, couldn’t drag his eyes off her.
The woman of his dreams and his nightmares.