Rescuing the Receiver

(Book #2 of How to Score)
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About The Book

From the author of the critically acclaimed Blue Plate series comes the second novel in the How To Score series about a rescue dog shelter owner and a wide receiver who needs a little rescuing himself.

Caught between the media’s crosshairs and his own questionable decisions, Colorado Blizzards wide receiver Chris Lalonde has a choice: watch his storied career burn to the ground or rehab his bad-boy image at the local dog shelter. His goal: rescue the oldest, saddest, most mange-infested canines in the hopes that the pups can rescue his reputation in return. What he doesn’t expect? Hazel Grant, shelter owner, do-gooder, and beautiful all-American girl next door. She has no time for Chris’s excuses, antics, or cheesy pick-up lines…challenge accepted.

Hazel Grant can’t believe she got saddled with Denver’s cockiest—and most eligible—football player for a volunteer—she needs people she can trust and count on, not a man packaged in abs and wrapped in confidence who thinks scoring touchdowns is an honest day’s work. But since the shelter is in need of some serious TLC, she can’t afford to turn away help.

Chris and Hazel get along like cats and dogs. But when it comes to Chris Lalonde, there’s a new surprise around every corner, and Hazel finds that, like the pups she cares for, Chris has hidden depths, secret talents, and meets every test she throws at him. As the pressure mounts to save the shelter—and Chris’s career—lust bubbles to the surface, and suddenly love becomes anybody’s game…

Excerpt

Rescuing the Receiver CHAPTER ONE Chris
FIGJAM: Fuck, I’m good, just ask me.

As the hot studio lights beat down on me and beads of sweat slid beneath my too-tight collar, I silently repeated my mantra.

It was cocky, sure, but that didn’t make it untrue. I was good. Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year good. Defending Super Bowl champion good. Endorsement cash cow good. Well, that last one might have as much to do with my shining personality as my ability to catch the football. Either way, FIGJAM.

And yeah, it was midway through the season and the Blizzards already had an abysmal record, but that had nothing to do with my performance during games and everything to do with a wet-behind-the-ears quarterback and a roster full of rookies who couldn’t execute even a simple draw play. Still, I refused to allow the team to get eliminated from playoff contention, so I’d continue to carry the offensive line until we started winning again or I died trying.

And any moment now Rory McMillan, host of Face to Face, the country’s most popular sports interview broadcast, would ask me how exactly I intended to bandage Colorado’s hemorrhaging season. A few cameramen, technicians, producers, and gofers buzzed around us, rushing to complete their final duties. Unlike similar shows, Face to Face was unique in that it incorporated live call-in questions from viewers, so interview guests never knew what to expect or how to prepare, but I wasn’t nervous. I was a pro at this sort of thing.

An assistant attached a microphone to my suit lapel and said, “All right, Mr. Lalonde, you’re ready.”

I nodded. Beside me, Rory sat thumbing through interview questions while a makeup artist dabbed powder onto his glossy forehead. Only the white hair in his sideburns betrayed his real age.

The show’s familiar opening music blared through the studio, marking the sixty-second countdown. Rory removed the paper bib from around his neck, passing it to an assistant, and hid the cue cards in the potted ficus tree situated behind his leather wing chair—the only decoration and pop of color in an otherwise black-and-brown set. Face to Face operated with a small crew, minimal cameras, and without an in-person audience, which gave an intimate feel to the setting.

“There won’t be any surprises, right, McMillan?” my agent, Scott Tubberman—Schmuck Tubbyman when he pissed me off—half shouted, half chuckled from his spot off to the side. His laugh was supposed to put you at ease, when in reality it put your teeth on edge and reminded you of someone’s creepy uncle pretending to be jolly old Saint Nick.

“Nothing Chris can’t handle,” Rory called back, then tossed me a conspiratorial wink.

“Twenty seconds,” a producer yelled as our images flickered on the monitors above our heads.

Squaring my shoulders, I plastered on my paid-for smile, courtesy of Mile High Dentistry. Thanks to their cosmetic efforts, I had a grin that could silence the harshest critic and blind the most fair-weather supporter. The fact that a picture of my sparkly whites adorned billboards all across Denver only added to my crowd appeal.

“And we’re live in ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .”

FIGJAM, I reminded myself. If quarterbacks were supposed to be calm, controlled, stable franchise leaders, receivers were meant to be the glint, the flare, the risk. The player everyone loved to hate and hated to love.

And when it came to people’s expectations, I delivered. Women wanted the ego, the wild adventure, the one-night stand to boast about. Fans wanted the villain, the hero, the end-zone performer. Blizzards ownership wanted a puppet, an advertisement, a powerhouse who sold jerseys. The media wanted a persona, a headline, a sensational story. And I delivered on all fronts.

I always delivered. This television appearance would be no exception.

The music ended, replaced by the campy announcer-like voice that had introduced the show since its inception almost two decades ago: This is Face to Face, where the biggest names in sports share their experiences, their insights, and their secrets. And now, for your host, Rory McMillan.

“Good evening. Tonight my guest is Chris Lalonde, Blizzards wide receiver,” Rory said into the central camera, his posture straight but engaged, his expression professional but inviting. Rory angled his body toward mine in a move designed to look authoritative yet honest to his five-million-strong audience. “I appreciate you being here in the studio, Chris.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I said, matching the most soothing voice in the sports universe with a version of my own. Little did Rory realize that the only reason I agreed to do the interview rather than skip out was because my agent would have murdered me. When your team was in the heart of a losing season, prime-time exposure wasn’t easy to come by, as Scott so often reminded me.

“I’m going to cut right to the chase, since our phone lines and live video channels are already busy with people eager to speak to you.”

“Fire away,” I said, propping my ankle over my knee. “I’m ready.”

“After last season’s Super Bowl win, are you shocked at the Blizzards’ lackluster two–five record so far this year?” he asked.

“Not shocked, Rory. The team is in a rebuilding phase, so bumps and bruises during that process are expected.”

“Rebuilding phase” was the laughable, canned excuse Blizzards leadership used to explain to the media and the NFL-viewing public why we failed time and again to place the football in the end zone or prevent the opponent from doing the same. So no, I wasn’t shocked at our performance. I was appalled and furious, especially after Colorado had started out the season strong with consecutive wins against the Raiders and the Jets. Then again, Oakland and New York were the worst teams in the AFC West, so trampling those embarrassing franchises was like bragging about trouncing on a peewee squad.

“Does that mean you attribute MVP quarterback Logan Stonestreet’s retirement as the reason why the Blizzards can’t put together a formidable offense? And if that’s the case, as one of only a few seasoned players on Colorado’s starting roster, how do you intend to compensate for your team’s inadequacies?” Rory asked, stretching his sharp-toothed smile even wider.

“By doing what I always do—suiting up, showing up, and shutting up anyone who dares to question my determination and drive. Replacing a veteran talent like Logan Stonestreet is always a challenge, but even considering the Blizzards’ current record, I also believe in my team’s ability to dig deep and step up when pressed against a wall,” I said, delivering my well-rehearsed reply despite the spike of annoyance I still felt at the way Logan had announced his departure from the game, on national television and without discussing it with me first. Twenty years of friendship and I hadn’t even ranked a heads-up. “Stonestreet paved the way for backup QB Ben Fitzpatrick to prove to the fans and Colorado ownership what he’s capable of, but that takes time. The offensive line is experiencing some growing pains, but we’ll get there. Chemistry isn’t something that develops overnight. Well, usually, anyway.” I winked at the camera and once again flashed my million-watt grin.

Rory raised an eyebrow at my response but kept his comments to himself. Instead he said, “Without the proper chemistry, I can only imagine the added stress on you to lead the offense. Despite Colorado’s losses this season, you’re still a fan favorite. How do you balance expectations while keeping your edge on the field, especially given the Blizzards’ losing streak?”

“Sweat, grit, and dedication. Plain and simple. I also have the benefit of an amazing staff of coaches, trainers, and nutritionists who keep me in top form.”

“I’m sure the pressure for you to stay in top form is immense. Your Colorado hometown crowd is a vocal group.”

Nodding, I took a sip of water and said, “True, but they’re loyal and passionate about the franchise. The fans are the best part of my job.”

“Speaking of which, let’s take a call. Who do we have on the line tonight?” Rory faced the cameras again, his smile wide and welcoming.

“This is George Miller from Longmont, Colorado, and I wanted to ask Mr. Lalonde what adjustments from yesterday’s defeat against the Chiefs do the Blizzards intend to implement during next week’s matchup against Tampa Bay?”

“Well, George, the Buccaneers are a great team that will provide tough competition,” I said, internally groaning—I’d already answered a variation of this question at least ten times for various media outlets. “So we’re going to have to execute in all three phases and focus on playing our style of football. Preparation and game planning will be key for us.”

“Thanks for phoning in, George,” Rory cut in as the executive producer gestured at him in some kind of code. “And I agree. Tampa Bay will certainly test your stamina and fortitude, Chris.”

“I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge.” I could be hotheaded and arrogant—a giant man-child according to my twin sister, Gwen—but nobody could question my work ethic. I never backed down or quit.

“In that case, how about a tougher question?” Rory asked.

“Sure,” I said, leaning back in my seat as if I didn’t have a care in the world, even as my pulse quickened. “Tougher questions” were not supposed to be part of the program.

“There have been reports of widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs throughout the NFL, though you’ve managed to remain largely above the rumors and scandals. Any secret to that?”

“I practice clean, so I stay clean.”

“So if I told you we had a claim of suspicious substances being delivered to your residence this morning, you’d say . . .” Rory trailed off, but the gleam in his gaze indicated there was a hidden agenda at work.

“Ridiculous,” I said, casually glancing at where Scott was schmoozing with a network representative behind the scenes, oblivious to what was occurring onstage. I was glad to see that six-figure salary being put to good use.

“All right then, let’s check in with one of our field correspondents,” Rory said, motioning to the monitor set up between our chairs.

The screen flickered to life, focusing on a Face to Face broadcaster standing on a well-manicured lawn that led to a sprawling mansion beyond. Clutching a microphone, the broadcaster stood beside an older man decked out in a powder-blue-and-silver Blizzards jersey. I recognized the landscape immediately as my gated community in Cherry Creek. The older man seemed vaguely familiar. I wondered if we’d posed together for a photograph at a team meet and greet or if I’d run into him at a charity function.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Ed O’Brien reporting live for Face to Face to give us the most recent happenings in this developing story,” Rory said with a too-smug grin.

I shot him a don’t-mess-with-me look that I hoped went unnoticed by the cameras but registered to Rory as a nine on my fuck-off scale. What was he playing at?

“Thanks, Rory. I’m here with Kevin Ingham, Blizzards season ticket regular—” Ed started.

“And neighbor to Chris Lalonde. My place is just one cul-de-sac over from his—same address, just different streets,” Kevin interjected. “I’m on Cherry Tree Lane, and he’s on Cherry Tree Circle. It wreaks all kinds of havoc with our postal service, let me tell ya. I’m always receiving Chris’s mail by accident.”

My stomach lurched at his words, sweat pricking up on my palms. Shit. What had my neighbor discovered?

“And that explains how you came to possess this package?” Ed asked, nodding to the parcel tucked under Kevin’s arm.

Once again I peeked at my agent, who was still chatting with the network bigwig, no doubt working his magic to score me a lucrative sponsorship deal. Ordinarily I’d be happy about the potential opportunities Scott was securing for me, but right now I needed him to step in.

“That’s correct,” Kevin said. “And boy was I surprised when I opened the box and three pounds of pills spilled out.”

“Which you didn’t order off a black market site from Russia?” Ed asked, microphone so close to Kevin’s mouth he could eat it.

“Well, nah, I’m not the sort, you know? I count on bacon and eggs to make me strong.” My neighbor laughed, as though he couldn’t believe his good fortune for selling me out while cashing in on his fifteen minutes of fame. “But then I saw Chris’s name and address and figured the bottles of Meldonium—at least that’s how I think you pronounce it—were for him. Though what a wide receiver in monster truck shape would need with this junk, I’ll never understand.”

“And you’re certain the pills were sent to Chris Lalonde of the Colorado Blizzards?” Ed asked.

“Certain as gridlock traffic during rush hour.” Kevin held up the receipt with my bill-to address and blurred-out credit card number visible for the entire world to see.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. I knew the postal service was mediocre at best, but even I hadn’t anticipated this level of idiocy.

Ed smiled like a mouse that’d finally gotten its cookie. “On that note, I’ll toss it back to you in the studio, Rory.”

The monitor went blank, plunging the room into silence. Rory and I locked eyes but neither of us blinked. Amazing how three noiseless seconds in television time felt like an eternity in reality. The fucker had set me up.

Rory dropped his good-boy expression and said, “Chris, are you aware that Meldonium, a performance enhancer that increases blood flow and boosts exercise capacity in athletes because it alters hormone and metabolic function by carrying more oxygen to muscle tissue, is a banned drug under recent NFL policy?”

I swallowed hard, my mouth dry and my heart pounding. “Yes, it was added to the list of prohibited substances earlier this month.”

“So is it your contention that you have taken Meldonium in the past but stopped once the drug was put on the banned list?” he said, his tone sliding seamlessly from ally to enemy.

“Obviously, Rory. I’d never knowingly consume a substance the NFL considers prohibited.”

Professional sports were all about playing within the regulations governing the game at the time, and while it was imperative I did whatever was required for me to perform at an elite level, I’d never disregard league rules. That didn’t mean I was against stretching limits or pushing boundaries—I was a master at existing in shades of gray and loopholes—but not at the risk of ruining my career.

“Then how do you explain the recent pill delivery?” Rory tented his fingers against his mouth and studied me through accusatory eyes.

I sighed. “Clearly I forgot to cancel my autoship.” Which sounded like a flimsy excuse even to my own ears, but it didn’t make it any less of an honest mistake.

“If that’s the case, then I assume you’d be willing to submit to a voluntary blood test?”

“Absolutely.” I’d quit using Meldonium weeks ago, the moment the sanction had come down, and therefore had nothing to worry about—I knew that—and yet it suddenly felt as if a fist was squeezing my throat. The sweltering stage lights had become suffocating; the walls were closing in around me. I needed to get out of here now.

“I’m glad to hear that, Chris,” Rory said, his voice that of a predator who’d successfully ensnared its prey.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my agent gesturing wildly for me to abort the conversation, a phone pressed against his ear. Unfortunately, Scott was too little too late. The harm had been done, and now all I could do was salvage what was left of the pieces.

“Thank you for inviting me on Face to Face, Rory. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this interview is over.” I quickly exited the stage.

The moment I walked out of frame, Scott intercepted me. “That was the commissioner’s office on the line,” he said, speaking low to avoid the intrusive ears around us. “They want to take you up on your voluntary offer. You have an appointment at 8 a.m. tomorrow for a urine sample and blood work. You concentrate on passing that fucking drug test, and I’ll worry about damage control. Got it?”

The confidence in his tone should have reassured me—it’s what I paid him for, after all. But we both knew shit had hit the fan. The only questions that remained were how long would it take to clean up, and how hard was I going to have to scrub?

From the look on my agent’s face, I wasn’t going to like either answer.

Forty-eight hours later and there was only one truth I understood: I was so fucked.

The damn blood test came back positive. As in traces of Meldonium were still found in my system. How that was even possible when I quit using the drug weeks ago was so beyond my realm of comprehension I couldn’t fathom it. And yet that was my reality. In the blink of an eye, I’d branded myself as a liar and become public enemy number one. The moment the news broke, the media and irate fans had swarmed my gated community, all of them salivating to crucify me. Hell, I couldn’t escape my neighborhood to drive to the Blizzards training center today without the police present to manage crowd control.

I snuck into the facility through a private side entrance because Kent McDougall—Colorado franchise owner and general manager—had demanded I avoid the press congregated at the main entrance until we’d had an opportunity to talk. The fluorescent bulbs illuminating the hallway cast the powder-blue-and-silver-striped walls in an artificial color, and the mural on the ceiling of Bruiser the Bear, the team mascot, throwing a snowball appeared sickly against the yellow lights.

For most of my life, places like the training center had been my sanctuary. A haven of weights and rubber mats, turf and blaring sun, camaraderie and the stench of sweat and work and accomplishment driving me to perform better, faster, more precisely. And never, in all that time, had I experienced anything less than the assuredness of coming home when I’d crossed the threshold.

Until now.

I walked through the maze of hallways until I reached the lobby, the gleaming Lombardi Trophy on full display. Even months later, winning the Super Bowl felt surreal, as if it had happened to someone else.

I punched the elevator up button to the executive floor, pacing back and forth along the marble floor and checking my phone obsessively for news from Scott. He and my lawyers were meeting with representatives from the NFL Players Association at this very moment. I’d done nothing illegal, I told myself. I’d followed league policy. But once the drug test revealed my system wasn’t clean, none of it mattered.

The elevator arrived, and the steel doors slid open. I stepped inside, frustration bunching my shoulders and tightening my jaw. The commissioner’s office would launch an investigation, that was a given, but the outcome of said investigation was anyone’s guess. The bell dinged and the steel doors opened again, revealing a wood-paneled reception space. I checked in with Tammy, assistant to McDougall, at the front desk and grabbed a chair in the waiting area.

As I flipped through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, laughter pierced the air. I glanced over at where Logan and Tony, the offensive line’s most lethal right guardsman, were emerging from Kent’s office at the end of the hallway, as though they were still teammates. As though Logan had never abandoned us.

I stood and tossed the magazine onto the coffee table. “Stonestreet, shouldn’t you be at home perfecting your side part, trying on checkered blazers, and practicing your best broadcaster catchphrase in the mirror?” I asked, trying to keep my voice a subtle jab instead of the twelfth-round knockout I wanted it to be.

It wasn’t unusual for NFL analysts to visit various franchise headquarters to interview players and coaches in preparation for game day, but why hadn’t he called to tell me he’d be swinging by? In fact, ever since the interview had aired two days ago, there’d been only radio silence from him—from all my teammates—but Logan was supposed to watch my back the way I’d always watched his, support me in spite of the circumstances.

“Chris,” Logan said, dipping his chin in my direction and crossing his arms over his chest, his Super Bowl ring winking under the lights.

We stared at each other in silence for a long moment. His face went tight with control, morphing into something smooth as stone, and I wondered what reprimand he was holding back. Ever since we were kids, I’d hated that look, the one he wore whenever I screwed up. The one that condemned me as a spoiled child instead of a grown man.

Tony lightly punched my shoulder, breaking the tension. “You ready for your beating from Kent?” Leave it to Tony to bring levity to the shittiest of situations.

I shrugged. “Can you ever be ready for something like that?”

“Just keep your head down and focus on the game, and eventually this will all blow over,” Logan interjected, but the flatness in his tone indicated he didn’t believe his own words. “Anyway, my flight to Minnesota departs in a few hours, so I’ll talk with you both later.” Then without another word, Logan strolled toward the elevators.

“So that’s how it’s going to be?” I asked Tony after the doors had closed shut behind Logan. “He acts like I’m the only person in the league to ever mess up.”

Tony sighed. “Stonestreet’s sports media now. He can’t afford to pick sides, you know that.”

I shook my head. “If he plans to marry my sister and become my brother-in-law one day, he better get comfortable with the concept of family first.”

“Just be patient,” he cautioned, regarding me with a careful expression. “And, Chris?”

“Yeah?”

“Good luck in there.”

I slapped Tony on the back, and in a ritual I’d established in high school, laced my fingers together and popped my knuckles, reminding myself that when it came to football, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Leveling my chin, I straightened my posture and knocked on Kent’s office door.

“Come in and sit down, Chris.” He pointed to the leather chair across from his mahogany desk.

Ordinarily, Kent made an effort to present himself as “one of the guys” and handled meetings with players like locker-room banter. But today, his suit jacket was on and he wore an expression that said the friendship he cultivated with his roster members extended only to those who won and stayed out of trouble. He’d told me as much the day he’d signed me. I’d just never fucked up so bad to see this side of him.

Inhaling a deep breath, I did as I was instructed, wiping my sweaty palms on my suit pants and tapping my foot on the ornate rug beneath my shoe. And waited. When Kent was pissed, the best thing to do was keep your mouth shut and accept the verbal thrashing. He stared at me with cold, unblinking eyes, and I forced myself not to fidget under the scrutiny.

A snore interrupted the silence, and I glanced down at Oreo, Kent’s deaf black-and-white-spotted cocker spaniel that acted as the team’s unofficial mascot, sleeping on an overstuffed dog bed beside the desk. While seemingly sweet tempered and lazy, Oreo was actually more protective of Kent than a three-hundred-pound left tackle with a mean streak.

I never really understood people’s obsession with canines. They shed, they smelled, they made a mess, and they chewed up your belongings. Best-case scenario, you trained them to fetch two things: cold beer and big boobs. Since I preferred my IPA drool-free, and the women came to me anyway, I really didn’t see the point of owning a dog.

Kent cleared his throat and I met his gaze. He leaned back in his chair, causing the hinges to complain, not because the thing was old but because Kent needed to lose the seventy pounds he’d packed on since his tight-end days at the University of Alabama.

“We have a number of issues to discuss today,” he said. “For now, I need you to answer one question. Were you illegally doping during last season’s Super Bowl run?”

“Of course not.” And it was the truth. Until the Blizzards’ recent losing streak, I’d never touched anything stronger than ibuprofen and the occasional Toradol shot Doc Baxter injected into my ass before a game to help me get through particularly painful days.

“Don’t bullshit me, son,” he said, his weathered face growing red. “There’s no ‘of course not’ when it involves this sort of thing. You’re nearing thirty years old, an aging athlete who’s ambitious enough to go for the brass ring and attain it, as you’ve demonstrated. What I want to know is if you were egotistical enough to swallow banned performance enhancers to help you get there.”

“I didn’t.”

He shook his head, disregarding my answer as though I hadn’t spoken at all. “You wouldn’t be the first player to confuse results with triumph. What I won’t tolerate are any more surprises. The commissioner’s office will investigate the circumstances surrounding your recent failed drug test and they will search far and deep into the past to get their answers. If you were putting banned substances in your body last season and the investigation uncovers that, the punishment for you and the franchise will be severe. So I’ll have the truth from you, Chris. Or I promise that whatever consequences you’re worried about are going to feel like preschool time-outs after I’m done with you. Now, on the record, were you doping during our Super Bowl season?”

“No.”

He leaned forward. “Then why in the hell did you start using a prohibited substance now?” he asked, his voice rising.

“Because the only thing harder than winning a championship is doing it twice,” I said, as if this wasn’t the most obvious statement in the world. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We’re not winning. We’re a humiliation. No one in the sports community has placed odds on us bringing home that trophy again, let alone making the playoffs. With a rookie QB at the helm, everything has been an uphill battle. So yeah, I took Meldonium to beef up my performance and help me regain control of the season. But you should also know that the moment Meldonium became banned I stopped using it. When I volunteered to submit to a blood test, I had no idea the drug would still be in my system.”

Kent drummed his fingertips on his armrest as if considering my words, though the hard set of his jaw told me it wasn’t enough to validate my actions. Finally, he settled on a stern, “And I suppose that makes this all okay in your book?”

“No, I expect to make it okay in yours. You’ve got a talented but green quarterback in a role Logan dominated, and as a result, you need me to be better, reach farther, run faster, cut harder through the defense. And you pay me a small fortune to do it,” I said. Bold and arrogant, maybe, but factual nonetheless. “I have to make the impossible plays work or Fitzpatrick’s learning curve will forever be the team’s learning curve. To accomplish that, I required some outside help.”

As a veteran player and leading scorer, it’d been my responsibility to position the Blizzards for success, to prevent us from turning into the one-hit wonders of the sports world, but the team dynamic had changed for the worse. I’d tried to hold up the offensive line as best as I could throughout the season thus far—a job I’d never prepared for or wanted—but no matter how much I pushed my game, no one else seemed willing to elevate theirs. So I’d taken matters into my own hands because I hadn’t dedicated everything to the sport for anything less than a Hall of Fame career. If I wasn’t winning, then what the fuck was the point? My next breath, next thought, next tomorrow—they were nothing if I was losing. I was nothing. Football was all I had.

“Except now you risk a multigame suspension, so where does that leave the team?” Kent asked. “You think you’re irreplaceable and untouchable, Chris, but no starting position is safe. We talked about this sort of behavior when I brought you out here for postdraft discussions. And what did I tell you?”

“We’re a team that doesn’t need to break the rules to win,” I mumbled, wondering for about the hundredth time if he actually bought into that bullshit.

“I was specific about what type of team I wanted to build—no gossip, no scandals, no drugs. There are plenty of franchises in the league willing to glance the other way on all manner of sins, that care more about the bottom line and final results than how they go about achieving them. But that’s not the Blizzards’ mission.”

Except whether he wanted to admit it or not, we both knew this was a business, and Kent, who was the sort of astute that only came from self-made success, cared a great deal more about his bottom line than he’d state out loud. And while he’d established a reputation for the team, one he’d go to great lengths to defend, I bet he’d be more than willing to look the other way if my situation hadn’t turned into something so public or carried the potential to affect ticket sales and advertising dollars.

“So while you might have only taken the drug before it wasn’t banned, it doesn’t change the situation now. So fix it,” he continued, his tone brokering no room for argument.

“How?” I nearly shouted, my frustration finally boiling over. “It’s not like I can turn back the clock or erase the test results.”

At my outburst, Oreo popped up from her bed and growled out a warning to me. I shot her an unimpressed look. One glass of milk and I’d polish off that spoiled cookie.

“Appears Oreo doesn’t appreciate your attitude, Chris. That alone would be enough to have me asking questions about your character—questions I’m not sure you’d like the answers to,” he said. “Fortunately for you, dogs are multifaceted. They might recognize a self-important prick when they see one, but I’ve also witnessed dogs work miracles on people who needed a . . . shift in perspective, shall we call it?”

“So what are you implying?” I asked.

“You created this shit show, so now you’re gonna shovel it.”

I frowned. Shovel it?

Kent rubbed his palms together like he was relishing what was coming next. “When you’re not at practice, in the weight room, or on the field salvaging our season, you’ll be volunteering at a local dog shelter.”

Was he kidding? And do what? Feed and bathe and walk a bunch of yippy, ankle-biting hounds? Toss the occasional Frisbee?

“I don’t really jive with dogs, Kent,” I said, keeping my voice upbeat in the hopes that he was simply working his way toward the punch line. “Couldn’t you set me up with one of those firms that does image rehab with local organizations around the community?”

“I could, but then what would you learn? Seems to me you’re in enough trouble for taking shortcuts,” he said. “And anyway, me sending you to a hospital’s pediatric wing and dressing you up like Superman so you can pose with a bunch of sick kids in pictures doesn’t make you Superman, though I’m sure it would serve to inflate your own self-importance.”

“Yeah, but shelter dogs? That’s hardly high profile,” I said, resigned to the fact that Kent would ensure I’d never step out of the lines he drew again. “I could do other things like a charity press tour, or make appearances at soup kitchens, or be more proactive in the NFL’s youth league above what I’m already doing. Things I actually enjoy. I’m not kidding when I tell you I’m not a dog person.”

Kent shook his head. “You’re not understanding me, Chris. Dogs are selfless, loyal pack animals—qualities you could stand to learn—so I don’t care if it requires a hellhound with three muzzles to drag you there, you will get your ass to the kennel for duty tomorrow.” He bore his you-misunderstood-me-that-wasn’t-a-request glare into me. “This is a punishment, Mr. Lalonde, not a PR exercise. For your sake, I suggest you treat it as the penance that it is—and as a last chance.”

“How long do I have to volunteer?” I asked. Yeah, I’d screwed up in the most royal way possible, but why was Kent treating me like a petulant child?

“Until the shelter owner signs off on your successful rehabilitation,” he said. “We’ll take it week by week.”

Throwing a hand up in the air, I released an irritated sigh and said, “You make it sound like I’m attending obedience school.”

“Your conclusion. Which I won’t discourage.” Kent shrugged. “But be aware, if you don’t toe the line, if you don’t save the saddest, oldest, most flea-bitten mongrel you can find in that shelter—and do it with a smile—being benched will be the least of your concerns. It’s about time you stroked something other than your ego for a change.”

About The Author

Rachel Goodman is the critically acclaimed author of the Blue Plate series. She was raised in Colorado on Roald Dahl books and her mother’s award-worthy cooking. Now an engineering professor at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, she has not lost her passion for culinary discovery or a well-told story. A member of RWA, she continues to hone her craft through the Writer’s Path at SMU while seeking to create the perfect macaroni and cheese recipe.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Star (June 2018)
  • Length: 330 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501158933

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