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Authors: Sara Rider

For the Win

BOOK: For the Win
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“Well, folks, it's nil–nil, one minute to go. Looks like this World Cup final is going to overtime . . . Hold on, there's the cross, coming deep in the box. Lukas dives, she connects . . . Gooooooooooooooaaaaallllllll! Wait! It looks like she's down. She's not moving. Here come the medics

give us an answer?”

Lainey blinked a few times and tried to remember what the reporter had asked. The questions were blending together, and the overhead lights were making her sweat. She prayed it wouldn't show through her white shirt. White was okay, right? It was gray that showed sweat. Like her gray skirt. Oh god. Butt sweat. Please don't let her have butt sweat.

Lainey took a breath to compose herself. It was her first press conference since the World Cup final that left her with a near-devastating skull fracture, but even eight months of recovery wasn't long enough to prepare for this. Every time she tried to focus on the questions the reporters were blasting at her like a firing squad, she was distracted by the incessant chuckling coming from the back of the room. Gabe Havelak, beloved star of the Seattle Surge and at one time the most prominent face on the posters tacked up on her bedroom walls, was laughing at her from the doorway. For years, Lainey dreamed of meeting the man who made America fall in love with soccer. The opportunity to play in the same stadium as one of her biggest heroes was a key reason she'd wanted to come to Seattle. Clearly the excitement was not mutual.

Lainey turned her attention back to the reporter. “Could you repeat the question, please?”

The jackass who'd been grilling her all afternoon smirked. “I asked whether you're concerned that the Seattle Falcons are the only team in the new American Women's Soccer League that has yet to secure a local broadcast deal?”

Lainey's stomach sank. It was the question she'd been dreading all day. “The people of Seattle love soccer. We're just waiting for the right network to come along,” she lied through her teeth. At least it wasn't another probe into the gruesome details of her reconstruction surgery like the others she'd had to field for the last half hour.

“Aren't you worried there isn't enough of a fan base in Seattle to sustain two professional soccer teams?”

“We don't play on the same nights. The fans won't have to choose.” Asshole. She doubted Gabe Havelak had ever been forced to entertain such a ridiculous question.

With a small sigh, she relented. As much as she hated to admit it, the reporter wasn't that far off the mark. She cast a quick glance to the doorway, then leaned into the microphone and cleared her throat. “What I meant to say is the Seattle Surge are good. Strong players, decent standings. But the highest they've ever finished in fifteen years is fourth place. They aren't going to win the championship any time soon. The Falcons have the top players in the world on one team. Seattle's hungry for a winning team—a team that can bring home a trophy. We're it, and the fans know that.”

She leaned back and relaxed her fake smile into a real one. Let Hometown Hero Havelak suck on that answer. She was damn proud of her team. The Falcons had assembled the best lineup possible. Why couldn't the people of Seattle see how lucky they were to have these players on their home turf? Playing pro soccer in her home country was one of her biggest goals in life, from the time she was a little girl with a crazy imagination and preternaturally strong right foot. Until the American Soccer League created an affiliated women's league a few months ago, it had been an impossible dream. But Lainey liked to aim for the impossible. It had the biggest payoff. She'd almost lost everything, but after months of intensive rehab therapy she was back, now stronger than ever.

Nothing would get in her way.

As long as season ticket sales increased drastically and her team's games were picked up by a major television station. Otherwise, the owner would pull the plug, and the dream would be over before it even really began. The last two attempts to create a women's league in the United States failed spectacularly. This time around, everyone was playing it cautiously. Each team had to be self-financing, which meant salaries were cut to a third of what they used to be. Airplane travel was too costly, so most of their cross-country road trips would be by bus. Most concerning was the fact that no major TV networks were willing to pick up the league broadcast rights, meaning each individual team was on its own for the bulk of its promotion and financing. This press conference wasn't just another formality. It was one of the few publicity chances her team needed to secure its viability.

Victor Labreilla, the Falcons' coach, who was patiently watching the train wreck of a press conference unfold from the seat next to hers, finally jumped in. “Aye, we're going to play hard, put in a good effort, keep the passing tight, shore up our talent, take it to the opponents, put the ball in the back of the ol' onion bag.” He tipped his head in his patented “don't question the coach” nod.

The reporter dropped his thumb from his mouth and scribbled in his notepad, seemingly satisfied he'd gotten something quotable. Lainey's mind wandered again, imagining what he would chew on once his fingernails were gone. Her gaze shifted over to the hand of the female reporter next to him. She wondered if she should warn her that it wasn't safe to wave those fuchsia nails so vigorously in front of a compulsive nibbler.

“Lukas!” Frank Diavolo, her team's PR manager, hissed with a jab to her side. She refocused and realized the fuchsia talons were waving at her. “Be polite. We need to make the six o'clock news if we want to sell some tickets.”

The female reporter beamed at Frank. “Ms. Lukas? Grace Mallery from Channel 7 News. Following the events of last year's World Cup final, there's been speculation that you were faking the severity of your injuries in order to garner public sympathy and an endorsement deal. Care to comment?”

“That's a lie Mari String made up to try to get her FIFA suspension reversed,” Lainey spit out, slapping her palm on the table and losing her cool. It had taken two weeks and a team of specialists poking and prodding every inch of her body before she could use the bathroom by herself, three months before she could even run a mile, and this woman who probably never so much as stubbed her toe accuses her of faking? All the excitement from the World Cup victory had faded long before Lainey was ready to entertain the idea of an endorsement deal. By the time she'd fully recovered, it was as though the victory had never even happened.

The reporter's plastic-perfect face faltered at Lainey's outburst. “Well then, let's turn to more important things. Frank Diavolo has personally asked me to unveil the new uniform in just a few minutes. Have you seen it yet?”

“No.” Lainey rubbed her temples. She could feel the beginning of a migraine coming on with each increasingly banal question. She knew Frank was courting Channel 7 for sponsorship, but the antics and hoops they needed to jump through were getting ridiculous.

“Well, no time like the present.” The reporter's high-pitched voice was the audible equivalent of a smiley face on crack. Grace walked up to the stage, then turned to her cameraman and fluffed her overly teased blond bob. “Good evening, Seattleites, I'm Grace Mallery with Channel 7 News, where serious news and serious fun come together! Buzz is building in anticipation of the American Women's Soccer League inaugural game on May fifteenth right here in Seattle. Tonight I have the distinct honor of unveiling the Seattle Falcons' new uniforms.”

Frank motioned to an assistant weaving her way toward the stage, carrying a teal shirt with black piping.

Okay. Teal wasn't great, but it could've been worse. Lainey could handle teal—it was better than the animal-print monstrosity the Miami Zebras were being forced to wear.

Grace eased the oversize jersey over her head, then defiled it by tying a knot at the side until the rayon clung to her surgically enhanced chest. Instinctively Lainey glanced at the doorway. Gabe and the rest of his teammates that had joined him in the peanut gallery were certainly enjoying the show.

“Ms. Lukas, as team captain for the Falcons, what do you think of the logo?” Grace rotated her torso from side to side, no doubt giving all the men in the room whiplash.

Lainey shot a quick glance to the giant falcon in mid-flight stretched exaggeratedly across the fabric. “Uh, I like the blood dripping from the claws.”

Grace giggled. “Oh, that's not blood. That's nail polish, silly. Your jersey sponsor is SassyGirl Cosmetics!”

Gabe's gut-busting laughter echoed through the room, stealing Lainey's chance to comment, which was probably for the best, since she had nothing to say that would fall within Frank's preapproved commentary.

“Gabe ‘Hometown Hero' Havelak! Why don't you come up here for a closer look?” Grace preened in his direction. Dozens of camera flashes went off as he took a step farther into the room. “Do you have any comments on the new Falcons jerseys?”

He flashed his media-winning smile. “Well, I'm rather partial to the Surge's blue and white, but I'm sure the Falcons will do these jerseys proud.”

“How about your thoughts on the Falcons' prospects this season?”

Before Lainey realized what was happening, Gabe was being ushered up to the stage while the assistant fetched a black folding chair and set it next to her seat. Lainey kept a neutral expression despite her heartbeat speeding up like a jackhammer. He was a legend in the US soccer scene—beloved by all of Seattle for being the golden boy who gave up a lucrative career in La Liga to play for his hometown. But Lainey had long ago decided she needed to stop idolizing great players and focus on becoming one. Today she was here as Gabe's equal. This was her press conference. She refused to be distracted by him or anyone else.

She forced herself to stare straight ahead and ignore the tingle bursting along her skin as Gabe settled into his chair. Unfortunately, averting her gaze wasn't enough to stop the mix of anxiety and excitement from swirling in her stomach. He was the kind of man who could ignite all her senses equally. Even in the sweaty practice gear, he smelled amazing. Raw and masculine. He probably tasted even better . . .

Where the hell did that come from?

His knee brushed against her thigh under the table, sending an electric shock ripping through her.

“Whoops, sorry about that. Little crowded up here,” he whispered, letting his leg rest against hers.

“You could say that,” she whispered back, feeling her frustration deepen. This press conference was supposed to be increasing ticket sales for the Falcons, not the Surge. The first game was next week's preseason match against the Memphis Belles. They needed to fill at least a third of the seats to appease the owner. The last thing Lainey needed right now was Gabe Havelak stealing her thunder. She might hate the media circus, but her determination to succeed was unparalleled. She could do this. She
do this. The country bumpkin from Nowheresville, Nebraska, who became the world's top female soccer player could manage a little discomfort to achieve her dream of playing pro.

“The Falcons have put together a strong lineup, but I think we're all interested in seeing whether they can place higher than fourth.” He directed his response at the press but gave her a wink to let her know he hadn't forgotten her little jab earlier.

Lainey placed her hand over her microphone. “Can't you go find your own press conference?”

“Why would I when this one is so much fun? Consider this your ‘welcome to the franchise.' ” He shifted in his seat, letting his thigh brush against hers. “Besides, you needed some help up here.”

“I don't need any help.” How could one man possibly need so much legroom? She was already squeezing her thighs together, but no matter how much she shifted over, his leg kept touching hers. She inhaled deeply before turning her attention back to the reporters. “The Falcons' first preseason game is—”

“Gabe! Gabe! Can you tell us what it's like to be Seattle's hometown hero?” a young reporter shouted eagerly.

“You sure about that?” Gabe whispered to Lainey. The easy grin never left his face. “It feels great. It's a huge honor to feel the support of my hometown every time I step on the field. I love this city. Seattle has the greatest sports fans in the world, and the Surge wouldn't be the team it is without all of you.”

“This is ridiculous,” Lainey muttered. She may not be Seattle homegrown, but she was determined to play her heart out for her fans—if the Falcons could get any. All she wanted was a chance to prove to this city that she and her teammates deserved to be here.

A scowling reporter interrupted her thoughts with a phlegm-filled cough. “Ahem. I'm Jim Green with the
Seattle Straight
. Ms. Lukas, we already know women's soccer is sexy, but during the final game of this year's World Cup, you showed the world that women's soccer can be bloody, too. Our readers want to know if you plan to bring the same level of bloodthirsty hunger for goals and violence to the league?”

“Oh man, this should be good,” Gabe said under his breath just as Lainey stood up to give the obnoxious reporter a piece of her mind.

Before she could speak, Frank clapped a hand on her shoulder and forced her back to her seat. She cleared her throat. “No comment.”

She wasn't going to give Gabe, who was failing to stifle a laugh, the satisfaction of witnessing her lose her cool. Again. Instead, she channeled all her annoyance and frustration into a glare in his direction.

He mimed zipping his lips shut. She gave a satisfied nod and relaxed back into her chair.

“Why don't we run the clip of the infamous incident? Maybe it'll loosen your tongue,” Green insisted.

In the far corner, a video played on a huge screen. Thirty-six seconds left in stoppage time. Lainey takes off at a sprint toward the goal and launches herself at the ball coming in a low drive across the net. Her diving header connects a millisecond before String's cleat blasts into her face, knocking her out cold. The audible crack of her skull is amplified by the microphones throughout the entire stadium, and Lainey lies motionless.

BOOK: For the Win
10.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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