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It was on the most beautiful day that I fell victim to Clay Johnson’s post-breakup meltdown.
The summer sun was high and bright in the sky, warm on my skin as I bounced across the North Boston University football field with my iPad in tow, checking off the list of players I needed to pull over for interviews after the first day of fall camp. Fall was whispering on the cool breeze, the faint scent of apples and fresh turf promising another exciting year for the NBU Rebels.
This time last year, I had been an anxious mess — not that I didn’t still shake like a leaf any time I tried to order a six-foot-three football player around. But now, I at least had the mediocre confidence of having an internship under my belt, of being hired on part time as the team’s Public Relations Assistant Coordinator.
This was my team, my year to shine, and my time to step out of the shadows.
My caramel curls bounced as I swept across the field, tapping shoulders of the players I needed and directing them where to go. I only blushed three times, and I managed to speak just above mouse-level and keep eye contact with all of them.
I’d earned my spot here, just like these players would fight for their spots on the team this season.
Confidence, I hoped, would come with time.
I smiled when I saw a request for Clay Johnson on my list, one of the easiest players to coach in the art of media relations. He was a natural, goofy and charismatic, and yet somehow eloquent and refined in his responses. He spoke on camera like he was a thirty-two-year-old professional rather than a nineteen-year-old student athlete, and he was nice to me — respectful, attentive. In fact, he was usually the one who would sock the other players in the arm to make them pay attention to me if my soft request for them to follow me didn’t work.
Plus, he was the definition of man candy, and was absolutely irresistible no matter what gender or sexual orientation one identified with.
I spotted him easily among the sea of players, not just because of his height, but because he’d already stripped his practice jersey off and his muscles were gleaming in the New England sun. I tried my best not to drool over the smooth hills of his abdomen, not to trace the beads of sweat as they slicked over the swell of his pecs and ran down the length of him. Those broad shoulders were tan and tight, traps otherworldly, like he was an MMA fighter instead of a college safety.
It was only twenty seconds or so, the amount of time I allowed myself to marvel at the cutting edge of his jaw, the sharp bridge of his nose, the damp mop of coffee-brown hair that he absentmindedly ran a hand through. That motion had his bicep involuntarily flexing, and a flash of the cover of my current mafia romance read assaulted me at the sight.
I could picture it, Clay Johnson strangling a man with his bare hands, holding him off the ground with those biceps bulging, severe eyes promising death to the punk unless he told Clay what he needed to know.
A blink, and I was back on the field, professional as I approached him.
“Clay,” I said, though I knew it was too quiet, especially when the guys around him broke out in a fit of laughter over something.
I smiled, tucking a wild curl behind one ear before I spoke up.
“Clay, I need you for media.”
His whetted green eyes snapped to mine, effectively stealing my next breath with the gesture. Where those eyes were usually warm and crinkled at the edges, outlined in gold and underlined with a wide, infectious smile, today they were… lifeless.
Before he had the chance to respond, I was swept off my feet in a sweaty hug from behind.
“Giana! My girl. Don’t you mean it’s me you’re looking for?”
Leo Hernandez spun me around, and I knew better than to fight him. I simply waited until my feet were back on the ground before readjusting my glasses up the bridge my nose.
“You’ll get your time in the spotlight, Leo. Don’t worry.”
“Never do,” he said with a wink.
Leo Hernandez was a too-sexy-for-his-own-good running back, and a certified pain in my ass. It wasn’t that he was bad on camera — quite the contrary, actually. It was his extracurricular activities off the field that kept me busy. The boy wouldn’t know how to say no to a gorgeous blonde and a late night out, even if there was an NFL contract and a five-million-dollar signing bonus in the mix.
When I turned back to Clay, it was just in time to watch him as he brushed past me on his way to the locker room.
I scampered to catch up with him. “Uh, actually, the media is all lined up over there,” I said, pointing to the other edge of the stadium.
I stopped at the words, at how cold they were, shivering a bit and watching the muscles of his back ebb and flow before I shook my head and skipped to catch up to him again.
“It won’t be long, just a quick five-minute interview.”
I chuckled. “Look, I get it. First day of camp is tough. It’s hot out here, you’ve got Coach watching, I—”
“No, you don’t get it,” he said, whipping around until I slammed right into his sweaty chest. He didn’t attempt to catch me as I bounced back, but I righted myself, adjusting my glasses to look him in the eyes as he continued. “You’re not a player. You’re not part of the team. You’re a part of the media. And I don’t want to fucking talk to you, or them, or anyone right now.”
Hurt flashed through me as he turned, but it only lingered a moment before I blew out a breath and let the pain go with it.
This was part of my job, dealing with athletic babies and they’re mood swings.
I got this.
I cleared my throat as I caught up to him. “Well, I’m sorry you’re having an off day, but unfortunately, this is part of your role as an athlete at North Boston University. So, you can either do this very short interview, or explain to Coach why you couldn’t be bothered to.”
That made him stop, and I watched his fists curl at his sides before he turned around, veins popping in his neck. He cracked said neck and then stormed right past me, on his way to the media line.
I smiled in victory.
At least, until I followed him to the perfectly nice female reporter from ESPN and watched in horror as he made an ass of himself, the team, and more importantly?
“Clay, after that bowl game last season that had us on the edge of our seat, we’ve all got big expectations for NBU football. How are you feeling about the season?”
Sarah Blackwell smiled a freshly whitened, toothy grin up at Clay, angling the microphone in her hand toward his beautiful mouth — which was currently in a flat, straight line.
“I feel like we could focus a lot more on football if we didn’t have to waste our time talking to reporters like you.”
My eyes shot open, heart catching in my chest as Sarah frowned, blinked, looked at me and back at the camera before lowering the mic.
“We know you’re all excited about the season, I completely understand the desire to keep your focus locked in,” she said with a forced laugh, trained and poised despite Clay’s deadpan expression. “So, the hot news last season was about Riley Novo, the female kicker for NBU. She’s back this season, and this time, dating a fellow teammate — Zeke Collins. Tell us, do you think that will be a distraction for the team?”
Clay was already speaking before she could lift her mic. “I think our dating lives shouldn’t matter to anyone who isn’t sad and lonely and desperate to have an opinion about someone else’s relationships so they can avoid the shit show of their own.”
Sarah tried to rip the microphone back down before he could curse, but I knew it was too late, and she chuckled through another forced joke with an awkward smile in place before dismissing us. Once the camera was off, she glared at Clay. “Real professional.”
But Clay only looked down at me. “Anything else?”
I swore my eye twitched, but I smiled despite it, stomach in knots as I tried conjuring up excuses for the ass-skinning I already knew would be coming from my fire-breathing boss.
“We have a student here from the college news team,” I said, guiding him along the fence behind reporters interviewing other teammates. “He’s nice. And fresh,” I said, stopping Clay short of where the young man waited. I lowered my voice. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but if you can’t handle—”
Clay shook me off before I could finish, a head nod to the kid with the mic and the slighter larger one with the camera behind him his only greeting.
It wasn’t as bad as the one before, but it was nowhere near the Clay Johnson I knew of last season.
He barely answered the questions, retorted with smartass remarks more than anything of context, and when the poor kid tried to grapple with his notes and figure out what else to ask him, Clay curtly said, “We done here?”
And then turned and left before the poor thing could answer.
After profusely apologizing, I called in a favor from Riley and Zeke, asking them to talk to both reporters about their summer together and how this year is different playing not only as teammates, but as a couple. They were hot news in college football, had been ever since they made Twitter meltdown after the bowl win last year by making out on the field.
Fortunately for me, they were in a happy mood and both very well-spoken on camera.
I smiled and gave them a thumbs up as I listened behind the camera operator, all the while burning holes into Clay’s back as he stomped toward the locker room like a child.
When the interview was over, Riley thanked the reporters with me before pulling me to the side. Her long, chestnut hair was lined with golden streaks bleached from playing in the sun. She pulled it up into a high, tight ponytail, accepting a kiss on the cheek from Zeke and waiting until he was out of ear shot before she spoke.
“A word of advice,” she said, lowering her voice as she looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Might want to lay off Johnson for a while. Him and Maliyah just broke up.”
I blanched. “What?!”
It was useless trying to keep the shock from my face. I didn’t know Clay well, but I didn’t have to to know that his high school sweetheart meant everything to him. He toted her around here every time she visited our campus last season, and I distinctly remembered having a hard time peeling him off her for an interview after our second home game win. He posted about her all the time on his Instagram, and the captions were always very clear about how he felt.
He was going to marry her.
But now, they were nothing.
Riley just nodded, brows bending together. “I know. Poor kid was talking to Zeke last semester about how he thought she was the one.” She sighed, both of us watching Clay disappear into the stadium hall that led to the locker room. “He’s been a mess.”
My shoulders slumped. “I knew something had to have happened. He was always so happy last season, so… full of life.”
“Well, I don’t see him being that way for a while.” Riley swallowed, still looking where Clay had vanished. “They were high school sweethearts.”
I sighed, wishing I could find some empathy. I had never dated anyone, let alone been in love, and so the only thing I found simmering in my chest toward Clay in that moment was a distant sort of sympathy.
And a little frustration that I’d have to deal with the fallout.
“I’m going to have to set up a training with him,” I said. “He’ll still have to talk to the media, and Coach will have his ass and mine if he pulls something like that again.”
Riley looked at me like she pitied me, reaching up to squeeze my shoulder. Before she could walk off, I called out.
She shrugged, a sad attempt at a smile on her face. “Make sure there’s beer around.”
Blind Side is now live and in Kindle Unlimited. Grab your copy here!
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