Sacked (Gridiron #1) by Jen Frederick

1 Knox

Preseason

I don’t see her until I’m three quarters of the way up the stands. In my defense, the stadium seats over one hundred thousand people, so it’s not until I’m nearing the hundred and fifteenth row that I realize what I thought was a sunspot is actually a person.

Irritation prickles inside my chest. This is my time. Before trainers, field crew, coaches, and other players come in, I run these bleachers in blissful solitude. It’s selfish, but I’ve earned the right to be selfish. As the starting defensive end and captain of the Western State Warriors, I’ve bled on that field, played through immeasurable pain, eaten my share of fake turf. Suffered fucking awful losses. I have a week until the media storm really gears up and It doesn’t seem too much to ask for some privacy.

Now, I have to deal with some stalking gridiron groupie, at six in the morning no less. I thought the jersey chasers didn’t get up before noon. The only woman I want to see is the team nutritionist and her breakfast smoothies.

As I come even with the top row, I can see her more clearly and I’m not so annoyed—or blind—that I can’t admit the intruder is a hot piece. Nice rack under a fitted sport T-shirt and long legs propped up against the seat in front of her. Dark brown hair caught up in a ponytail. She has an athletic look to her, which I’ve always liked.

If I did groupies, she’d be on the top of my list, but I haven’t dipped my wick in those pots ever. I won’t start with her.

Frustrated that my morning ritual is marred, my greeting is rude. “How’d you get in here?”

Before the last word leaves my mouth, I know the answer. I never lock the doors when I come here to run because I’m done in an hour and I don’t want to deal with the hassle. Her cool eyes flick over my six foot, six inch frame as if I’m nothing more interesting than a fruit fly.

“The door was open.”

This time when my skin prickles, it’s not with annoyance at all. More like…interest.

So that’s what it feels like to be dismissed.

I don’t think I’ve had that reaction from anyone since I was five, because even as a kid my potential was evident, garnering attention. I dip my head to hide a grin I suspect wouldn’t be welcome. So, not a groupie. If she is, she’s got better game than anyone I’ve seen before, because the cold shoulder act apparently works well for me.

I pull my cap off and run a hand through my hair to give me a moment to regroup. “Sorry. I thought I was alone here. I usually am.”

Again her cool eyes measure me—taking in my running shorts, bare chest, stupid trucker hat from my brother, aviators—and find me wanting. A thrill shoots through me. Yes, that’s definitely interest. Damn, didn’t realize I had a streak of masochism.

“Do you own the stadium?”

The obvious answer to her question is no, but the fact is I kind of do. In here—and on campus—I'm a god. That sounds like an arrogant sentiment, but I’d be more of an asshole if I didn't acknowledge the truth of it.

This girl, though? She couldn’t be less impressed. I glance down at my sweat-drenched chest that has had more than one Western State co-ed licking her lips and running her hand over my pecs and abs. I don’t show off for girls, or at least, I’ve never felt like I had to before.

There’s challenge in the line of her body, in her voice. The competition gene that exists in every cell of my body pings to attention. And that’s not all that’s arising. So naturally, I drop into the seat next to her.

“I’ve never sat up here,” I confess.

The field looks tiny from this vantage point, and above us are the luxury boxes. People pay a fortune to sit up there. Seems like a giant waste. The only place I want to be in a football stadium is the field.

“Best seats in the house,” she murmurs. Her hands cup around her raised knees. The right one has a nasty surgical scar. It looks like a fighter’s mark, which makes her about ten times hotter.

I turn my attention to the field to stop the drain of blood into my shorts. “Can you even see the game from up here?” I squint and try to imagine what I look like down there with my pads and helmet, as I ready myself to blast by a blocker and shove the quarterback’s face into the dirt.

“Who cares if you can see? I’m here to drink beer and use the cow bell.” She mimes ringing the bell.

“This is the church of football, lady.” I slap a hand across my chest.

“Oh, is that what they play here? I thought it was soccer.” She’s playing me and I like it.

“That’s sacrilegious. This is clearly where the greatest sport of all time is played.” I wave a hand toward the pristine green field and the cavernous bowl that I swear still rings with the cheers of last year’s crowd.

“Oh, you're one of those who treats the stadium like it's some kind of church and the players are all Jesus characters designed to lead us to the Promised Land.”

“You say that like it’s not true.”

“You believe in the beauty of the spiral, the fulfillment of dreams, that this is the place where all creeds and religions and walks of life are accepted as long as you have talent.” Her words are mocking but her tone doesn’t quite get there. She believes half the stuff she’s saying.

“It’s not the bastion of idealism but you can pursue perfection here.” I can’t take my eyes off her.

“Then if you believe that, this right here gives you the best seat in the house.” Her quiet voice strikes me in the gut. “Up here you aren’t distracted by the cheerleaders or the crowd. It’s all game and the chase for excellence. You can see the church for what it is—a temple built to revere physical perfection. The spiral looks gorgeous as it cuts through the air and the hits look as hard up here as if you stood on the sideline. Up here, you can see it all.” She bites her lip, as if she’d said too much. “Plus, it’s cheap.”

I force out a chuckle so she doesn’t see how her words have touched me. Not many people feel the game like that. “I guess every place in the stadium has a different view.”

“Different maybe, but still bound by the same tension and the same excitement. And the same disappointment.” The last word lingers.

I feel her.

I have a lot of bitter regret in me from the way last year’s season ended. One win away from the college football champion title game and we couldn’t overcome the loss of our quarterback in the fourth quarter of the first playoff game. I force myself to unclench my fist. No point in dwelling on the past. My focus is this year, this time, this championship. I dangle my legs over the seats, nearly touching row below.

“What position do you play?” she asks.

“What makes you think I play?” I say evasively. Up to this point, she hasn’t shown any signs of recognition. There’s no fawning that I’m Knox Masters, two time All American Defensive End, winner of every defensive college player award handed out last year. I don't like the way people change when they find out that I'm a Warrior. Everything is different then. Calculation sets in. Can I get them tickets? Can I get them access? Am I the path to an easier life?

I just want to kick back and enjoy the quiet with someone who gets it. She does—in every way that’s important. This nameless, gorgeous, funny girl who got up at the ass crack of dawn to creep into my stadium is enjoying the sunrise on this hallowed ground as much as I am. I lean back and let the comfortable silence settle between us as the rising sun bathes everything in its pure golden light.

“How about you?” I change the subject and flick a finger toward her knee. “That looks like a surgery scar. “

Her hand moves over it. “It is.”

“How’d it happen?” She arches an eyebrow and levels a look at me says you’ve got to be kidding. Clearly, I'm not getting anything more from her if I don't give a little myself. Does it have to be my name or my position? I grasp the first confession that skips through my meager brain. “I'm hoping I don't ever get injured. Surgery scares the bejesus out of me.”

“Bejesus?” Again with the eyebrow, but this time I catch a glimpse of a smile. “We’re both adults. You can cuss in front of me unless you’re a minor…” She trails off with an impish grin.

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