“You can still invest, start some business on the side, prepare for your own retirement. You aren’t getting any younger, you know.”
“Uh-huh. And we aren’t here to talk about me and my failings, are we?”
Mick sighed. “Fine.”
Gavin waved the bottle at him. “Look, Mick. You just have to enjoy the game while you have it. Play the best game you can, and stop worrying about the other shit you have no control over.”
“You’re right. I don’t know why I’m so messed up over all this bullshit. It just hit me all of a sudden. And then there’s Liz bombarding me by trying to throw women at me.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Mick laughed. “Right now it is a bad thing. She’s fighting me over Tara. She wants me to be seen with the latest actress or model and isn’t happy I’m with Tara.”
“Who gives a shit what Liz thinks?” Gavin finished his beer and set it aside, then signaled for their waiter, who brought him another beer and Mick another mineral water. After the waiter shut the door, Gavin leaned forward. “Look, Liz is great for our careers and rarely steers us wrong, but she’s a giant pain in the ass. A smokin’-hot pain in the ass with the best damn legs I’ve ever seen, and she makes us a ton of money. But if Tara’s who you want, then set Liz straight and don’t let her push you into doing something you don’t want to do.
“I’ve never known you to let anyone push you around, so what’s going on inside your head?”
“I don’t know.” Mick pulled a piece of bread from the basket in the center of the table and slathered it with butter, waving it around in his hand. “It’s like my whole life has changed in the past couple months, and I’m suddenly at a crossroads. I used to know exactly where my life was headed, and now I’m not sure anymore.”
Gavin grabbed the bread from Mick’s hands and shoved a bite into his mouth. He chewed for a few seconds, then said, “You’re in love, brother. It’s obvious. That has to be the only thing to mess you up this bad, because I’ve never seen you like this.”
Mick took a sip of water to coat his dry throat. “You think?”
“Well, I don’t know anything about love, but you’re all over the place with your thoughts and feelings. So yeah, you’re in love. And if this is what love does to a guy? I hope to hell it never happens to me, because dude, you are one fucked-up son of a bitch.”
“So what do I do?”
“Man up, suck it up, and deal with it. Look what you’ve been through in your life, Mick. You went through college as a drunk but still managed to fight it and get an NFL contract. You’ve been sober for all these years, and not once have you touched a drop of alcohol, right?”
“Okay, so if you love Tara, then do something about it. If you decide you don’t, then cut her loose. Tell Liz to butt the hell out of your personal life and start telling her how to manage your goddamned career the way you want it managed. Just because you’re at a crossroads and some things in your life are changing doesn’t mean you need a drink to get through it. You haven’t needed one all these years, and you sure as hell don’t need one now.
“Sure, you’re thirty years old now. But I’ve never seen a guy work harder than you to stay in shape, so go out there, play football, and continue to enjoy the game. And don’t worry about losing your stamina or your mojo or whatever the fuck it is you’re worried about losing. When the time comes to step away, you’ll know it, and you’ll deal with it just like you’ve always dealt with things—head-on. A drink isn’t going to help you escape from the realities of your life, and you know that. You went down that road once, and you know how well that worked. Or didn’t work. But only you can make that choice. I can’t make it for you. So the decision is yours.”
The waiter brought their food, and Mick dug in and ate, pondering all Gavin had said to him.
“You sure grew up while I wasn’t looking.”
Gavin lifted his gaze from his plate. “No, I haven’t. I still party my ass off and see a different woman every week, just like I’ve been doing since I was sixteen years old.”
“You handle it. You have your career right where you want it and your priorities straight. You didn’t end up a drunk like me.”
“I had the benefit of an older brother who fucked things up in a major way, so I got to learn from his mistakes.”
Gavin winked, and Mick laughed.
“I love you, asshole.”
Then Gavin laughed. “Right back at you, dickhead.”
TARA WIGGLED IN HER SEAT, CAUGHT UP IN THE EXCITEMENT of the sold-out crowd. The stadium was packed, even though it was only the first preseason game. But San Francisco had come so close to winning the division championship last season, and the team looked to be even stronger this season with a few free agent signings that would bump up their defense.
And if she was thrilled to be there tonight, Nathan’s enthusiasm was off the charts, especially since Mick had gotten them seats on the fifty-yard line where the rest of the families of players sat. Nathan had been wide-eyed and taking it all in since they’d arrived a couple hours before game time, and he hadn’t been able to sit still, taking pictures and texting all his friends with the new phone he’d gotten for his birthday. Mick had gotten them an extra ticket so Nathan could bring his new friend, Bobby, another freshman football player and a really nice kid who was also thrilled to be at the game. The two of them had their heads huddled together pointing fingers, talking player stats and pretty much ignoring the fact that Tara was there.
Just as it should be.
She’d settled in, feeling somewhat conspicuous in the Riley number fourteen jersey Mick had given her, but also a little possessive and okay, just a touch warmed to be wearing his name and number on her back, especially since she was sitting with all the wives and girlfriends of the players.
“So, you’re Mick’s girl.”
She turned around and smiled at a cute brunette. “I don’t know about that, but yes, we’re dating.”
The woman held out her hand. “I’m Roseanne Lewis. My husband is Tommy Lewis, number seventy-two. He’s right tackle, offensive, and he’ll be protecting Mick’s butt tonight.”
Tara laughed and shook her hand. “Then thank you in advance for Tommy’s work.” Tara introduced Roseanne to Nathan and Bobby. Roseanne introduced her to the other women seated nearby.
“How long have you and Mick been together?”
That question had come from Sue Shore, a very pregnant adorable woman seated next to her, whose husband Derek was the kicker.
“We met earlier this summer.”
“We love Mick. He’s great with all our kids. He’s never seated a girl here with us before. His mom and dad have been here, and his brother a couple times, but never a girlfriend, so you’re a first.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. You must be special.”
She felt that way, and admittedly it felt really good. “When’s your baby due?”
“In a month. He feels like any minute though the way he’s kicking. Going to be like his daddy.”
Tara let out a short laugh, remembering having Nathan inside her and all the nights she couldn’t sleep because of his kicks to her ribs. “I think they all feel that way toward the end, don’t they?”
“Our daughter was more mellow than this little guy. He’s a born kicker.”
“I hope he follows in your husband’s footsteps then.”
Sue giggled. “That would be amazing.”
“Kickoff!” one of the women screamed.
Tara had been so busy chatting it up with the ladies that she’d barely noticed the game had started. She put her full attention on it, though, especially since San Francisco’s offense was up first, which meant after the kickoff Mick took the field.
And oh, what a spectacular figure he was in his uniform, which fit snugly across his fine ass, and the pads on his shoulders and chest, which made him look impossibly huge.
Tara tensed as he took the first snap from center, handing off to one of his receivers, who ran the ball for four yards. She let out a breath when the tacklers ran right past Mick.
Second down, Mick was under center again, and this time took the snap and dashed several steps directly back, stood there and looked for receivers, then shoveled a quick pass to the running back at his left, who ran for a gain of only two yards.
She knew what was coming with third down and four yards to go. First possession of the game was always a big deal, and Arizona would want to make a statement to San Francisco by making sure they didn’t get a first down. Tara could feel the pressure as surely as if she were the one responsible for getting the ball into the hands of a receiver.
Arizona was going to blitz.
Tara gripped the arms of the seat as Mick broke from the huddle and got in the shotgun position, took the snap, and rolled back. The blitz came, and his offensive line held. Mick fired off a long pass toward a receiver downfield.
He caught it! Twenty-two-yard gain.
“Breathe, honey,” Roseanne said, rubbing Tara’s shoulders. “It’s going to be a long game.”
Tara laughed. Then exhaled.
The first quarter was tense, with the Sabers putting seven points on the board in their first possession, and Arizona answering with a touchdown of their own right after. But then things settled down a bit, and by halftime the game was tied ten to ten. In the second half Mick came out and threw completion after completion, and the running game looked solid. The defense held, and the Sabers put points on the board. The game ended up being one-sided, with San Francisco coming out victorious. Being preseason, Mick didn’t play the entire game, so by the end of the third quarter Tara could relax, though she still rooted for the team.
After the game was over and the crowds had filed out of the stadium, the team gathered with wives and families for a barbecue right on the field, something Nathan was very excited about.
Tara was just happy to get the nail-biting tension of the game over with. Now she could relax.
Or so she thought, since they’d no more gotten down to the field when she saw Elizabeth heading her way, though how the woman could maneuver the turf in those four-inch heels was something Tara just couldn’t fathom. Elizabeth clearly did not know the meaning of the word casual. Meanwhile, Tara was quite comfortable in her team jersey, jeans, and tennis shoes, and her lips lifted when she saw Elizabeth’s disapproval.
“Tailgating today, Tara?”
Tara was so glad Nathan had met some of the other players’ kids around his own age and he and Bobby had already run off to hang with them so he didn’t have to put up with Elizabeth’s disdain.
“As a matter of fact, I am. Right now. You seem a little overdressed for it. Be careful you don’t break an ankle sinking into the turf.”
“I can walk just fine. I’m surprised to see you here.”
“Really? Why is that?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Just figured you’d be out of your league by now. Or Mick would be bored with you. Trust me, honey. It’s only a matter of time. I’ll keep luring him in with beautiful women, and sooner or later he’s going to bite.”
Tara crossed her arms. “If you think he’s that shallow, have fun fishing.”
Tara spotted Mick coming onto the field, so thankfully she moved away from Liz and headed over to him, put her arms around him, and hugged him. “Great game today.”
He grinned. “Not bad. We have some things to work on, but it’s promising.”
“I thought you looked awesome. Your arm is strong, and your pass percentage was top-of-the-line.”
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