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Authors: Sara Rider

For the Win (9 page)

BOOK: For the Win
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He may have been ridiculously charming, but Lainey wasn't a fool. “You wish, Havelak.” She turned on her heel and kept walking.

“We need to coordinate for the gala,” Gabe said, catching up to her once more. “What are you wearing?”

Lainey's stomach dropped. She'd forgotten all about the gala. So much for a month off from the Hometown Hero. “It's not a date, it's a PR stunt. We don't need to match.”

“How are you wearing your hair?” he asked, reaching to grab a lock of her ponytail and run it through his fingers. “I want to make sure I'm appropriate so that you don't go off on me for not matching your style.”

That stopped Lainey in her tracks. She couldn't help it. She burst out laughing and couldn't stop for a good minute or two, despite the weird looks she got from people passing them on the sidewalk.

“I don't know what kind of women you usually date, but I am not going to be doing anything special with my hair. I have no idea what kind of outfit I'll be wearing. Maybe whatever's clean in my closet. Or I'll borrow something from Aunt Marnie.”

“But it's for charity,” Gabe responded, with a dumbfounded expression. “You have to at least make an effort.”

“Sure. A bunch of rich people get all gussied up, throw a party, and call it charity. Forgive me if I don't feel like playing dress up with you while you throw your money around to feel good about yourself.”

“That's what you think of me?”

“That's what your reputation tells me to think of you.”

“Then let me show you otherwise. We desperately need volunteers for my soccer camps that run during spring break. Especially female volunteers that the young girls can look up to. Unless, of course, you're more interested in casting judgment on me from the sidelines than actually helping . . .” He raised an eyebrow at her in challenge.

“Name the time and place,” Lainey shot back, secretly excited. Kids were uncomplicated. They loved to be outside and play. And when they wanted to learn a new skill, nothing would stop them.

“Monday morning at eight. Camps run every day next week until four p.m. I'll text you the address.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and waved it in front of her.

She really didn't want to give him her number, but with the fakest smile she could muster, she grabbed his phone and entered the ten digits into his contact list.

“You're on.”


There are only eleven players on the field, but soccer has room for everyone.

Gabe Havelak's opening speech of the Pro-Stars Soccer Camp

to Gabe's limbs, Lainey noticed with horror as she stepped onto the rocky field behind the crumbling brick school bright and early on Monday morning. Shaggy, wild, giggling things that kept screaming his name over and over again like it was the funniest thing they ever heard. He dragged his way across the field to meet her, towing a large ball bag behind him, eventually shaking the kids off one by one. Not that it made a difference, since they just kept jumping back on.

When he reached her, wearing a giant grin, Gabe told the kids in a fake-stern voice to do fifty million laps around the field while he talked to Ms. Lukas. Laughing and shrieking, the kids took off at a run.

“Cute,” Lainey said, wondering what she'd signed up for. She thought this was going to be a cakewalk, but now she was second-guessing herself. One-on-one, she was great with kids. But she'd never had to deal with quite this many of them before. She glanced at her watch. “Am I late? My watch says eight on the nose.”

“Nah,” Gabe said distractedly. He glanced over at the group, who'd since sprawled on the grass. “Hey, did I say stop? Keep running! Forty-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred and ninety-nine laps to go.”

More shrieking and laughing. The kids held his attention until they rounded a corner and collapsed in another tangle of limbs.

“You're not late. There're always a few of us who come early in case some kids show up before the start time, and so that we can check the field for syringes, broken glass, and other hazards.”

“That's responsible of you.” She meant what she said, though “surprising” would've been just as accurate as “responsible.” Lainey had expected a nicer field, and assumed Gabe would be ensconced in an office somewhere while others did the dirty work. She hadn't expected him to be getting his hands dirty and learning all the kids' names on the first day. None of this jibed with the image she had of the man. Lainey pulled the laces of her shoe, wrapping them in an intricate fashion around her studs before tying a tight double knot, then stood up to greet Gabe properly with a perfunctory handshake. A handshake was all the physical contact she'd allow herself. He smiled smugly at her as he accepted her palm, as if he knew she was nervous to touch him. The bastard probably knew the effect he had on her.

“Someone's got to do it every day. And tomorrow that someone is you, New Kid. I know you have to miss part of the afternoon for practice, so that'll give you a chance to make it up.” He hefted the net bag at her. “Here you go. A dozen balls and ten cones. You'll be paired with Johnny today for Team Elephant.”

Gabe pointed in the direction of the other camp instructors, who were corralling the sixty kids into a big group. “I'm paired with Zazu and Team Monkey. Joe over there is working with the goalkeepers, aka Team Octopus. Then there's my dad—Pete—and my baby sister, Tessa, on Team Lion.” From across the field, the teenager seemed to have a sixth sense they were talking about her. She gave a shocked, wide-eyed stare at Lainey, then quickly looked away. “You're kind of her hero. She'll work up the courage by the end of the day to hound you for an autograph. And before you accuse me of nepotism, everyone's a volunteer, including my family. Well, not Tessa. She gets paid under the table, but from my own pocket, not the charity funds. But don't tell her that or she'll quit and I'll be short-staffed.”

Another group of kids burst out of nowhere and jumped on Gabe like a pack of wild dogs, wrestling him to the ground. Lainey watched with amusement as he roughhoused with them for a few minutes, then abruptly shifted gears to serious mode. He divided the kids into four seemingly random groups and sent them off with their respective coaches.

After nearly eight hours of putting the kids through a series of drills interspersed with some games, Lainey was more than ready for the end of the day. She was surprised how well she and Johnny worked together, once she learned to ignore the dirty jokes he kept whispering to her while the kids were out of earshot. He managed to keep the energy light and fun while she focused on keeping the activities moving at a pace that held the kids' attention. Luckily, the members of Team Elephant were surprisingly well behaved and eager to learn.

“Great job, Bobby!” she called out to the ten-year-old, who finally got the knack of cushioning the ball with his foot, no small challenge for a kid who wasn't wearing proper cleats. In fact, he was wearing jeans and a ratty T-shirt with the camp logo and last year's date on it. Only a handful of the kids at camp were dressed in anything remotely near proper soccer attire.

“It's Billy! Not Bobby,” the kid called back, though his giant, proud smile stayed glued to his face. He ran up to her for a high five.

Dear Lord, eight hours later and she still couldn't learn fifteen kids' names. How would she get through the week? She glanced over to the far end of the field, where Gabe and Zazu were working with Team Monkey. Well, “working” was apparently a relative term. Their group was playing tag. Still! She hadn't seen them run a drill the entire day. How were the kids supposed to learn anything if they weren't even pretending to touch a soccer ball? Just when she was starting to gain a grudging respect for Havelak, he proved himself to be an ass all over again.

She and Johnny led the kids through a cooldown and stretch, and then waited until every last kid was picked up before finally plopping to the ground where the other coaches had gathered. Lainey couldn't believe how exhausting it was to hang out with adorable but rambunctious children all day. Her brain was still buzzing from the constant screaming and shrieking emanating from the camp participants well after they were all gone.

at something Johnny said as they walked over to the short stack of bleachers where he and the rest of the instructors were hanging out. He glared at Johnny, reminding him to cut the crass talk in Tessa's presence. Johnny saluted back to Gabe, indicating he'd behave. Gabe had already sent Aiden to work at the second site across town. Judging by Lainey's breezy reactions to Johnny's immature jokes and Tessa's longing gazes in his direction, it was looking like the nineteen-year-old boy wonder might have to be relocated as well.

Gabe smiled at Lainey, hoping to get off on a better foot now that the first day of camp had passed without any misunderstandings or explosive confrontations. He'd considered pairing the enigmatic striker with himself for the day, but he didn't want the camp kids to suffer if things didn't go as planned. “Hey—”

She walked right past him without any acknowledgment and stopped in front of Tessa with her hands on her hips. “I hear you're a damn good center forward,” she said matter-of-factly.

Tessa glanced at Gabe, then back at Lainey. “Uh . . . yeah. But I'm not as good as you.”

“From what Gabe says, it sounds like you could be. We should kick a ball around sometime. You could show me your shot.”

“Oh my god! That would be so amazing! Do you think you could teach me how to do a diving header? Like the one you did at the World Cup?”

A strange look passed over Lainey's face.

“Tessa, Ms. Lukas is a busy woman,” Gabe warned his sister.

“No problem. I can show you right now,” Lainey said firmly. “The technique is easy to learn. The hard part is finding a way through your fear. The only thing that can do that is absolute hunger for the goal. You have to want it so badly that nothing will get in your way.” Lainey fished a ball from the large net bag she'd been carrying and tossed it from hand to hand.

“Go on,” Gabe said after seeing the excitement light up like a fire in his sister's eyes. “I'll give you a ride home and tell Pop to let Mama know you'll be late for dinner.”

Over the next half hour, Gabe watched his sister progress from heading a ball on her knees to flinging herself from a squatting position while the sun set in a shimmering haze of blue and orange behind them. As much as he wished he were the one his little sister idolized, he could see why Lainey was her hero. They were equally tenacious, fearless, and strong-willed.

What Gabe couldn't understand was why Lainey insisted on giving him the cold shoulder when all he'd ever done was try to kill her with kindness and charm. Sure, Lainey was socially awkward and reserved, but the only person she seemed to have any real issues with was him. It made no sense. Everyone liked Gabe.

“Hey, Tessa, I'll give you twenty bucks if you load up the van for me,” he said to his sister, who, in her ecstatic mood, was more than eager to help out.

Lainey sat a few feet from Gabe on the hard metal bench and traded her cleats for flip-flops. She pulled a butter knife from her bag and used it to delicately pry the clumps of dried mud from the studs. The silence between the two of them was more deafening than the chaotic, gleeful screaming of sixty children that had filled the field only an hour ago.

“Here, let me do that,” he said, hand reaching for her cleats. “I lost the bet, remember?”

“I wasn't really going to hold you to it,” she said, but handed the shoe over anyway.

“That was real nice of you, by the way,” he ventured. “Tessa idolizes you.”

“Your sister has talent. She makes it easy to teach her,” Lainey said nonchalantly, attention still fixed on the mud caked to her shoes.

Fed up, Gabe slid down the bench until he was deep into her personal space. “Okay, Lukas. Spit it out.”

“Excuse me?”

“You had a fantastic time today. You've never smiled as much as you did when all those kids were around. I've proven to you I'm not a bad guy. So why are you treating me like I'm lower than the dirt on your shoes?”

Lainey calmly placed her tightly balled fists in her lap and turned toward him. The end-of-day chill seeped into the air and her breath was warm against his skin. The more she pissed him off, the more he wanted to lay her down the bleachers and kiss the ever-living daylights out of her.

“Tag,” she said after letting out a deep breath. “Just when I'm starting to think you're a great guy, running these amazing camps, I look over and see you playing tag for hours while the rest of us are busting our asses trying to teach these kids how to play soccer.”

Gabe laughed. “That's what's bothering you? Look, not everything is so black-and-white.”

“What's the point in running a soccer camp if you aren't going to teach the kids anything about soccer?”

“Believe it or not, soccer doesn't have to be all about winning.” She gave him an incredulous look, but he continued anyway. “Some of these kids come here because they love soccer and learning from their heroes is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Those are the kids I assigned to your group. Some come here because they think it'll be fun, and the learning part is optional. Those are the kids I assigned to Tessa and Pop's group. And then there are the kids that come because their parents realize that sending their kids to a fancy, free soccer camp is much cheaper than taking time off work or hiring a sitter during school breaks. They don't really want to be here and couldn't care less about the sport. Those are the kids in my group.”

“That's a horrible thing to say,” Lainey muttered, sliding away from Gabe on the hard bench.

“Maybe, but it's true. And there's nothing wrong with that, either. Like I said, soccer isn't always about winning or being the best.”

“Then what is it about?”

“Sometimes it's just about having fun. Or making friends. Or, hell, sometimes it's about finding a safe space to spend a few hours when these kids would otherwise be hanging out on the street.”

“You can't just pigeonhole them like that. We're talking about children.” Lainey took her shoes back and stuffed them into her bag. She slid her flip-flops on, then rose. Gabe stood up as well, not enjoying the feeling of having Lainey look down on him.

“Exactly. Children deserve to be carefree and safe. That's what we give them. Anything else they learn is gravy.” He wasn't willing to back down from this argument, no matter how much he wanted to finally get on Lainey's good side. The kids at his camp meant everything to him, and he'd defend their right to have fun no matter what.

“Don't you think you're selling them short? Letting them sink to your lowered expectations?” She crossed her arms beneath her chest. Given the serious nature of their conversation, Gabe tried to keep his eyes level with hers. He really did. But he couldn't resist sneaking a glance at her proffered breasts. Lainey noticed and uncrossed her arms with a huff.

“Tell you what, Lukas. I'll trade groups with you tomorrow. You can put your theory to the test.”

BOOK: For the Win
11.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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