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Authors: Sara Rider

For the Win (19 page)

BOOK: For the Win
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Lainey walked her aunt and uncle to the path leading out to the front of the house and gave them each a hug before returning to the party. She couldn't help but think of the stark differences in their lives. His childhood home was filled with so much love and support. She wondered if she would've been as successful if she'd grown up in a home like this. Then again, maybe the struggle was what gave her the strength to climb her way to the top.

Lost in thought, she didn't notice Gabe pop around the corner of the house, startling her so much that she yelped. “What's in your pocket?”

“Nothing.”

“Show me,” he insisted impishly.

“Let's go back to the party and eat some cake.”

He pulled her into his arms. “Now I know you're trying to distract me from something good.” He pinched her butt through her jeans, causing her to yelp again.

In her distraction, he managed to reach inside her hoodie and find the card.

“Give that back!” She chased after him down the weatherworn path, ignoring the overhanging apple tree branches that smacked her face as she rushed by.

She watched helplessly as Gabe eased the card from the envelope. Aunt Marnie never sealed the envelopes, always tucking in the flaps instead so that Lainey wouldn't end up with a paper cut on her birthday. His mischievous smile fell as the cartoon image of a monkey holding a birthday cake slid into view.

“Why didn't you tell me it was your birthday?”

“For the same reason you never told me.” Birthdays were the kind of thing couples shared with each other. The kind of thing you remembered and celebrated together year after year. Not the kind of thing Lainey and Gabe needed to share.

“Whoa! It's your birthday? No way. Are you as old as Gabe? You know what birthdays mean.” Johnny appeared out of nowhere to plant a kiss smack on her lips, leaving her too stunned to react.

“It's your birthday, too? Why didn't you say something? Mama could have made you a special cake,” Tessa chimed in, loud enough that everyone on the block could hear.

“It's no big deal,” Lainey answered cheerily, trying to ignore the dozens of expectant stares fixed on her. “Let's just focus on Gabe. The party is for him.”

“Well, you still need to get your birthday bumps. It's the rule of birthdays. Hey, Aiden, grab her legs and I'll get her arms,” Johnny said, inviting everyone's laughter.

“Oh no.” Fortunately, Lainey realized quickly enough what Johnny was up to. She smacked his grabby hands away in the nick of time, and secured his compliance by flashing her “don't mess with me” glare.

Gabe's mother was the next person in line to totter up to her and further her embarrassment, giving Lainey a big hug, which she tolerated because, well, it was his mom.

“How amazing to have the same birthday. What are the odds? Come, come. You need your own candles. I will get you a special piece of cake.”

Against her better judgment, she let Gabe's mom drag her to the long table where the remnants of the white-frosted chocolate cake rested, and tried to hide her embarrassment.

WATCHING LAINEY GO OFF
with his mother warmed Gabe's heart. He could see by the way her face was scrunched up in concentration that she was calculating her every action carefully. She was a natural, though. Sure, she was quiet and preferred not to be the center of attention, but Lainey's kindness and genuine interest in others shone through today. His mother lit a single candle on a slice of cake and held it up for Lainey to blow out.

“She's an amazing woman,” Joe whispered to Gabe. “How do you plan on screwing things up this time?”

Gabe shook his head. “That she is. But she's only agreed to date me in the preseason. Not enough time for even me to screw it up before it's over.”

Joe laughed. “That's a first. Usually you're the one setting the expiration date on your relationships.” He took a swig of Diet Coke. “Then again, can you really call one-night stands and promotional appearances relationships?”

With no witty response available, he gave Joe a little shove and turned his attention back to Lainey.

“What did you wish for, my dear?” Mama asked her. “No, wait, don't tell me. It's bad luck.”

A flush crept along her cheeks, but her pluck was intact. “I didn't think to make a wish. But I guess if I were going to, it'd be for the Falcons to win the Battle of the Sexes.” She winked at Gabe.

Mama pulled her into a quick bear hug. “I'm cheering for the Falcons, too. Us girls have to stick together.”

“Even if the Surge losing means Lainey won't give us back our practice space?” Zazu called out. Unfortunately, he was too far away for Gabe to tell him to knock it off.

A curious expression, underlined by a subtle casing of fear, crossed Mama's face as she caught Gabe's eyes with hers. “The hex,” she whispered softly.

“Ma, what's going on?” Gabe asked tentatively. The entire crowd of partygoers hushed.

Mama stepped into the middle of the yard with her head bowed, like she was stepping onto holy ground. She wrung her hands before lifting her head to face the crowd, mouth pulled into a tight, grim line. Dread trickled into Gabe's stomach. He recognized the expression on his mama's face. Nervous, yet determined. It was her confession face.

“I never told you the entire truth about Irina's hex. It was not just your father and me that she hexed. She cursed our firstborn, too. I never believed Irina had the ability to set a hex with such longevity. But now I see I was wrong. The woman you fall in love with will trigger the hex. Just as Irina predicted you would follow in your father's footsteps with your soccer career, so, too, will you follow in his downfall because of a woman. Lainey is the only thing standing in the way of you escaping the curse of Cricket Field.”

“Ma, this isn't the time—”

“Don't you see?” She threw her hands up in the air, like she was pleading. “It's Irina's hex at work!”

“Ma, just stop. The hex isn't real,” he said forcefully, stomach physically aching. It went against every instinct in his body to speak to his mama that way. For as long as he could remember, he dutifully entertained some of her crazier beliefs, nodding along until he half believed the superstitions that pervaded every aspect of their lives. But he couldn't allow her to speak about Lainey that way, like she was some kind of black cloud instead of the best thing that ever happened to him.

This was not how he wanted her to experience a Havelak family get-together for the first time—not if he ever wanted her to come back for more. He looked for Lainey's reaction for some kind of hint they would be okay, but he couldn't find her anywhere.

She was already gone.

19

For a soccer player, age isn't measured in years. It's measured by the number of ice packs you go through each week.

—
Gabe Havelak, quoted in
So
ccer Magazine Weekly

LAINEY DRAGGED HER FEET
against the parquet floor toward Mrs. Wilson's suite, where a week's worth of newspapers were stacked up in a haphazard pile. Lainey knew that her neighbor was visiting her grandkids in Minnesota this week, so she figured it wouldn't really count as stealing if she borrowed her paper this morning. Still, she hesitated after plucking the latest edition from the pile. Was it stealing? She vacillated in the hallway until the distant sound of a door opening had her scurrying back to her apartment, newspaper in hand.

With a silent promise to apologize to Mrs. Wilson, Lainey dropped the paper onto her counter and shuffled the pages.

Sure enough, someone at the party had leaked the details of their tryst to the media, but it wasn't as bad as she'd feared.

It was much, much worse.

The sports section featured the same grumpy photo of her as the last time, since they apparently couldn't be bothered to find a better one, with the poetic headline “Cursed.” Every word she read dropped into her belly like a lead weight. “Is Lainey Lukas the undoing of Seattle soccer? If you believe in curses, the answer just might be yes.” The rest of the article went on to give the history of the curse of Cricket Field and speculated whether their beloved Hometown Havelak would be the next victim.

“If Seattle loves him so much, they can have him,” she muttered, pulling her hair into a messy ponytail. Lainey knew early on in her career that female athletes never got the respect they deserved—from the fans or the media. Most people didn't recognize their abilities, and the few who did tended to think they were freaks of nature. Unfeminine. Unnatural. Unworthy.

The unfairness of it all was like poison in her veins. It's why she refused to let herself be defined by a man. It didn't matter what her intentions were, though. As long as she and Gabe were together, her achievements would never be respected. No man was worth that sacrifice. Not even a man who made her feel as cherished and happy as Gabe did.

She pulled on her hoodie and made her way down to the narrow parking spot behind her apartment, where her nearly twenty-year-old black Honda was hibernating. To her relief and surprise, Gabe wasn't lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce the minute she stepped outside of her refuge. He'd already left three messages that morning when she refused to answer any of his calls. Though she wanted nothing more than to curl up on her couch and ignore reality, duty called. And this particular duty had an overly developed sense of entitlement and a whiny Canadian accent that could wear down a brick wall.

Twenty minutes later, Lainey pulled into the driveway leading to Jaime's basement apartment. She grabbed the paper bags perched on her passenger seat and jogged to the side entrance. After a couple of unanswered knocks, she let herself in to confront the moaning beast behind the door.

Jaime was lying supine on her sofa, face ghostly pale and a fleece blanket tucked around her. “Oh good. You're here,” she said, her scratchy voice cracking. “Now I can generously provide you with my bosom to cradle into while you sob about your pathetic broken heart. I already read the paper this morning. Come to mamabear, baby, I'm here for you.”

Lainey laughed and set the groceries on the dark cherrywood table as Jaime weakly stretched out her arms.

“Are you feeling nauseous?”

“No, just have the chills and a headache.”

Lainey searched Jaime's cabinets. There was no discernible logic to how the small kitchen was organized. Plates, food, even cutlery were mashed together in every drawer, nearly overflowing. Eventually, she located a tall plastic glass. After a quick rinse, Lainey filled it with some juice and snuggled on to the edge of the couch by Jaime.

“Drink this, it'll make you feel better,” she said, tipping the green liquid past Jaime's cracked lips.

Jaime sputtered, flecks of green staining the white fleece blanket. “This is disgusting.”

“It's good for you. It's kale, carrot, and cherry juice. The cashier at Whole Foods said it helps the immune system.”

“They say rum does the same thing.”

Lainey rolled her eyes. “Just close your eyes and pretend it's a mojito.”

“I don't care how much you dress it up, this shit will never be a mojito.” She batted the glass away when Lainey offered her more.

“Did you just shiver?” Despite being buried in blankets, Lainey could hear Jaime's teeth chattering. A sheen of sweat appeared on Jaime's forehead as she shook her head. Lainey rifled through her supplies and whipped out a thermometer. “Keep this in your mouth for thirty seconds. It's pretty damp in here. Do you have a space heater?”

“You know, I didn't really invite you here to play Florence Nightingale. I asked you to come to entertain me while I'm convalescing. After yesterday, I was expecting you to be all crazy distraught like Carrie at the prom, with makeup running down your face and planning to do something reckless after the jackass broke your heart.”

“First of all, keep your mouth closed until there's a read. Second, I don't wear makeup. And third, I've already done something reckless. I'm retiring. I'm not cut out for professional sports and all the bullshit that goes with it.”

Jaime's eyes widened with shock, and the thermometer dropped out of her mouth. She sat up and grabbed Lainey's arms. “You can't quit! We need you. I need you. You're the best player on the team, the only one who can keep up with me!”

Lainey let her teammate panic for a few more seconds before letting out a wry chuckle. “I'm kidding. Revenge for not doing as you're told.”

“Your capacity for deadpan is impressive,” Jaime huffed, dramatically falling back onto the couch. “But it's cruel to make fun of a sick person. Almost as cruel as making me drink that shit.”

Lainey sniffed the drink Jaime was pointing at. It really was disgusting. She dropped her head back over the top of the couch. “You're right. This will never taste good, no matter how hard I try to convince you. And a relationship between a man like Gabe and a woman like me will never work, no matter how rose-colored our glasses are.”

Her maudlin remark earned her a soft punch to the shoulder. “Geez, that wasn't an allegory. I just meant that this juice sucks. But I'm glad the topic of conversation is moving on to the good stuff. Why are you so convinced you and Gabe couldn't work?”

“You mean besides the fact he betrayed me and humiliated me in public?”

“I read the article. Every quote from him was defending you and praising your abilities. It's just that smarmy reporter who seems to think you're a cursed woman. Well, the reporter and Gabe's mom.” Jaime leaned over, picked up the thermometer, and stuck it back in her mouth.

The fact that Gabe was quoted in the paper as calling her the “brightest light in American soccer” made her heart skip a beat, but it wasn't enough to erase the fact his family, and now half of Seattle, believed she was a cursed woman. She wasn't some background character in the Gabe Havelak show. She was Lainey-Freaking-Lukas, World Cup champion and captain of the Seattle Falcons, and she had worked just as hard as he did. But as long as she was Gabe's girlfriend, that was all the media would ever care about.

“It's just not fair. We have every right to practice at Chester Stadium.”

Jaime nodded.

“Gabe's the one who tried to cheat his way out of the agreement, and yet I'm the one getting slayed by the media.” Lainey knew it came with the territory, but the negative energy put out by the press was getting old.

Jaime nodded again.

“I need to just stop thinking about him. Or maybe get revenge? I've never ended a relationship before that I actually cared about. What do you think?”

Jaime nodded once more.

Lainey sighed and yanked the thermometer out of her teammate's mouth.

“Everyone makes mistakes in relationships,” Jaime piped up finally. “The question is whether his was unforgivable.”

“It doesn't matter. We don't have anything in common.”

“Did you forget the fact that you both are professional soccer players? No, of course not. Nothing in common.” Jaime shifted until her legs were resting on Lainey's lap.

“We're rivals, and that's all we'll ever be. It was stupid to think we could be more.”

“You and I were once rivals. I never thought we'd get along, and look at us now. Hanging out like besties.”

That made Lainey smile, even as she knocked away Jaime's hand, which was teasingly petting Lainey's arm. “After that slide tackle in the World Cup semifinal, I never thought I'd want to do anything but punch you in the face.”

“Yeah, I got you good,” Jaime said with all the pathetic energy she could muster while fighting a fever of 102.

“Too bad it wasn't enough to earn your team any goals in that match. But then again, fourth place isn't so bad. It's kind of like a consolation prize.”

Jaime scowled. “Taking out your frustration on innocent people is a clear sign of a broken heart.”

“I'm not brokenhearted.” Lie. Her heart ached more than she ever knew possible. It was a pain that radiated everywhere. Her chest felt heavy, like it had been bruised. Her fingertips prickled with the memory of his skin.

A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. Alyssa showed up with a tub of ice cream and a stack of DVDs.

“You're just in time to hear about Lainey's heartbreak,” Jaime said.

“Oh, sweetie, let it all out,” Alyssa said, dropping her items on the table and rushing to join them on the already crowded couch.

“There's nothing to talk about.”

“I don't get why the whole curse thing is a problem anyway. According to what Gabe's mom said, the curse only activates if he falls in love with you, right? If he isn't in love with you, then no big deal. But if it's activated, that means he loves you. Don't you get it? If he is in love with you, then the curse is irrelevant because love conquers all,” Alyssa said wistfully.

Lainey rubbed her temples. “So you're saying if he doesn't love me, the curse doesn't matter. But if he does, the curse still doesn't matter? Is this supposed to be a riddle?”

“Exactly,” Alyssa said, as though that one word explained it all.

“What if it turns out the curse does matter? What if love isn't enough? Hell, what if I'm not cut out for love?” After the weekend she'd been having, Lainey was ready to slink back into that cold, robotic person she used to be. The person who could put all emotions aside in pursuit of a singular goal. The person who'd never had a taste of love.

“That's ridiculous. Everyone deserves love,” Jaime said with surprising earnestness. “Everyone wants to be swept off their feet by the person who promises to cherish and support them forever.”

“Says the woman who claims to never go on a second date. Have you ever been in love?” Alyssa teased.

Jaime croaked, making a sound that Lainey assumed was intended to be laughter. “I've yet to meet a guy who can keep up with me. Nothing wrong with high standards,” Jaime added, picking idly at the fluff on her blanket.

“What about you, Alyssa?” Lainey wondered, realizing she knew so little about her teammates' lives.

Alyssa cast her eyes downward, clearly not liking the attention on her own past. “Once, maybe. I don't know. It didn't work out. But we're talking about you. What are you going to do about Gabe?”

Until yesterday, Lainey couldn't imagine a better guy for her than Gabe. “Breaking up was inevitable. We only agreed to date each other for now. The plan was always to go our separate ways once the season started. We're just ending things a little earlier than we agreed.”

“That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If you love someone, there's no reason not to try for more,” Jaime said.

“I thought you were against me having a relationship with Gabe? Yesterday you said he'd break my heart,” Lainey pointed out.

“And I was right, of course. You are brokenhearted. But Alyssa's right, too. The curse only matters if he's in love with you, and that changes the game completely. I thought you and Gabe were just fooling around. I didn't realize you were both in deep.”

“Who says I'm in deep?” Lainey pouted.

“Says you, or you wouldn't be sitting on my couch eyeing that bucket of ice cream like it's the most powerful elixir in the world.”

“I don't get it. Half the women on our team are married. Heck, most of them even have kids. Why not us?” Alyssa asked glumly, slinking into the couch.

“Love and relationships require sacrifice. I don't know about you two, but I know I can't commit to someone who doesn't love me.”

“Yeah, but how do you know Gabe doesn't love you?” Jaime asked.

“You're really fixed on that question, aren't you?” Lainey said.

“Yes, I am. And I'm sick, so you have to be nice and answer it.”

Lainey rolled her eyes while Alyssa laughed. “Fine. I know because he's the one who suggested we only see each other temporarily. Gabe and I only got together because our chemistry got the better of us.” Lainey paused to give her friends a chance to laugh at her awkwardness. “He said I should give him time to help me loosen up and have some fun before the season started.”

“How did he convince you to agree to that?” Alyssa asked.

“He said loosening up would help me be a better captain, so I agreed to give in to my lust.” She sighed. “Plus, I wanted to be with him. He made me laugh. He made me feel sexy. But the man is incapable of a long-term relationship. You know his reputation. He's had every chance in the world to tell me if he wants something more, but he hasn't.”

BOOK: For the Win
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