Challenging the Center (Santa Fe Bobcats)

BOOK: Challenging the Center (Santa Fe Bobcats)
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Challenging the Center
Challenging the Center
Jeanette Murray

C
opyright © Jeanette
Murray

Cover Photo & Design: Sweet ’N Spicy Designs

A
ll rights reserved
. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, except for brief quotes used in reviews.

T
his book is
a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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o receive
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o connect with Jeanette
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T
itles by Jeanette Murray

S
emper Fi Trilogy

The Officer Says “I Do”

The Officer Breaks the Rules

The Officer and the Secret

F
irst to Fight Trilogy

Below the Belt

Against the Ropes

Fight to the Finish

S
anta Fe Bobcats
Series

One Night with a Quarterback

Loving Him Off the Field

Takes Two to Tackle

Romancing the Running Back

Completing the Pass

Challenging the Center

Changing Her Plans

R
oped
& Wrangled Trilogy

(Written as Kat Murray)

Taking the Reins

Bucking the Rules

Busting Loose

Chapter 1

M
ichael Lambert parked
in his apartment complex’s lot and got out of the car. Beside him, rookie Dante Willis did the same and looked at him over the hood of his car. “Thanks for the pep talk, man. It’s been rough, being out here. You know?”

Michael walked with him to the lobby of the complex and toward the elevators. “I definitely do. I didn’t grow up around here. Most of us didn’t. We all know the homesick feeling from time to time. No shame in it.”

Dante gave him a look that said
yeah, fucking right
. “Homesickness is for five-year-olds at sleepaway camp.”

“And for grown-ass men who love their families,” Michael countered quickly, giving him a benign smile. “Take it from someone who’s seen a lot of this league. You don’t get to be my age and still be in this game without having seen some stuff. People go through it. They just don’t admit it… or they attempt to hire a hooker to compensate.”

Dante’s cheeks flushed under his light brown skin tone. “Yeah, well… that was a stupid move.”

“Stupid’s one word for it,” Michael said mildly. “You’re just lucky you got caught by a teammate and not the cops.” The elevator pinged, and he waited for the doors to open. As they did, Josh Leeman stepped out. Michael waved a hand in greeting. “Hey, man.”

Dante nodded, then got on the elevator. “You coming?” Dante lived four floors below Michael in the building.

“Nah, go ahead. And hey,” Michael called out as the doors began to close. “Call me if you need to talk next time. Don’t go cruising.”

Dante nodded fast just as the doors closed on him.

“Babysitting again?” Josh asked him with a smile.

“Mentoring,” Michael corrected, but he grinned. They went through this all the time. Josh never understood why Michael said yes every time the coaching staff asked him to take a younger player under his wing and keep them from doing something insane… or keep them from doing something
else
insane. But Michael had had enough mentors growing up—starting with his father and his older brother—that he knew sometimes a guy just needed someone else’s footsteps to walk in. Despite being a legal adult, sometimes a man wasn’t quite ready to make the trek alone.

Plus it earned him brownie points with the coaching staff. He wasn’t above brownie points. Only an idiot turned those down, especially in his line of work. Michael collected IOUs like some kids collected baseball cards.

“Where are you off to?” Michael asked.

“Meeting with my real estate agent about the house I just bought.” When Michael raised a brow, Josh shrugged. “It’s time. I know the area. I know I’m not leaving regardless, so it’s about time to get things rolling with living like an adult.”

“I happen to think my apartment is very adultlike, thank you.” Michael nudged him. “Maybe you’re just not having the right company over.”

Josh rolled his eyes. “My company is perfectly fine, thanks. In fact, I’m meeting her later at the house.”

“So that’s how it is. Well, have fun and good luck.”

“We’ll need it. This place is a dump.” Seeming in a much more cheerful mood than a man who had mentioned his newest large-sum purchase was a wreck, Josh saluted him and took off.

The moment Michael stepped off the elevator, his phone pinged with a text. His agent, Sawyer Grade, wanted to chat. He called back as he flipped his keys around his fingers.

“Michael, my savior,” Sawyer said emphatically the instant he answered the phone. “You’re the only one who can save me.”

“If you’re going to quote
Star Wars
, don’t butcher it. What do you need?” Michael opened his door and tossed his keys on the table underneath the entry mirror. They slid off and onto the ground. He backtracked to pick them up. He had a maid—who worked for Stephen Harrison’s girlfriend’s fledgling cleaning company, Elite Clean—but he didn’t like to make extra work for her if he could help it. He wasn’t the tidiest guy, but he tried not to be a pig.

“I need you. Yes, you.”

“Now you sound like a recruitment poster. Spit it out, please.” Dropping down onto his futon, Michael grabbed his remote and turned the TV on, then muted it, changing it to ESPN.

“I need your mentoring capabilities.”

He bit back a groan. “Who is it this time? I didn’t know you had any baby Bobcats on your roster this year.”

“Not a Bobcat.”

There was a pause, which intrigued Michael. “College senior? Someone out here you’re looking at for draft time? Who’s the guy?”

“Not a guy at all, actually.”

Michael blinked. “Come again?”

“Ever heard of Kat Kelly?”

“Kat Kelly,” he repeated, mulling over the name. “Maybe. It sounds familiar, but no details are forming.”

“Pro tennis player. Just missed her shot at the Olympics this past year.”

“Oooookay. And you want me to, what, teach her how to serve? I’m not your guy.” He paused. Kelly. Kat Kelly. In the frame of reference, it was starting to click. “Wait a minute. Was she the one who…”

“Had a sex tape, yeah.” Sawyer sounded exhausted just saying the short sentence. “So you’ve heard of her.”

“Sort of. Wasn’t it with another tennis player? A dude? Uh, what was his name…”

“Dorchessky. Igor Dorchessky. She released it, for God knows what reason. Maybe to spite him since he claims he’d broken up with her right before she released it.”

“And you haven’t dropped her from your roster because… why?”

“Because there’s enough of me that sees something redeemable in her. She swears she didn’t actually release the video. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe she got hacked. I don’t know.”

Michael rolled his eyes.
My phone was hacked
was the new
I swear, Officer, that’s not mine,
I was just holding it for a friend
excuse. “Hacked. Uh-huh.”

“Up until that moment, she was a model athlete, off the court anyway. Prone to injuries but agreeable enough. Anyway, she’s sort of derailed since the video hit the Internet and didn’t get the results she wanted. Partying, photographed with some less-than-ideal companions, acting up in the locker room and on the sidelines.”

“Fighting?”

“Dancing,” his agent said through what Michael could only assume were clenched teeth. “She likes dancing. Badly. Says it helps clear her mind, which whatever. But it’s doing nothing to rebuild her reputation as someone sponsors want to work with. They think she’s a party girl with no substance.”

“Dancing,” Michael muttered. He loved cutting loose like anyone else, joking around with teammates. But not when it distracted someone from the job at hand.

“I need you to calm her down.” Sawyer sighed. “Look, she’s good. She’s not Olympic gold good, but she’s solid. She had the potential for a decent career—injuries notwithstanding—with lasting cred to get her a good coaching job after. Suddenly this video hits and she’s a pariah. Now she’s acting out some teenage-rebellion phase she must have missed out on and wants to reclaim. She’s in the media more than she used to be, getting more play in places like
Sports Center
, but it’s all for her antics off the court.”

Which might have been why Michael had at least heard the name before. Though tennis wasn’t a sport he followed, he might have seen the name pass by on a scroll or flash in the corner while watching something else on TV. Like most other athletes, he was a sports-news junkie. Some sports channel was playing nearly all the time around him.

“And every time she does something ridiculous, they make sure to bring up her video.”

“None of this explains my role in this little play.” He scratched at his chest with the corner of the remote, debated stretching out for a nap on his one day off during the week, then decided against it. A nap would fuck up his sleep schedule. Sleep was the magic bullet during the season.

“I need you to do your magic with her. That thing you do with all the babies of the team where you take them out for meals and suddenly they’re perfect children. That thing. Whatever it is you do with them, do it now with her.”

“And she just happens to live in Santa Fe?”

Sawyer scoffed. “Of course not. I’m setting her up with an apartment in your building. Short-term lease. She’ll be nearby to keep an eye on.”

“I’m not a paid nanny, Sawyer. I have a season that’s in full swing currently. Why me? Why now?”

“Because
she
has a break in the action, and if she doesn’t pull her head out of her ass, she won’t be returning for any more tournaments. That’s the end for her. So help her. Please.”

Michael said nothing.

“Please.”

Nothing.

Sawyer sighed. “I’ll owe you.”

No, Michael never turned down earning brownie points… or IOUs. “Done. I’ll let you know when I want to cash in on that favor.” Michael hung up and stretched out, unmuting the TV simultaneously. One bratty teenage athlete he could handle. She couldn’t be more than nineteen or twenty, tops, the way Sawyer talked about her. How much trouble could she be?

* * *


Y
ou got me a mentor
? A dude mentor?” Kat Kelly scoffed as she stared at her agent, Sawyer Grade, then her coach, Peter Morozov. “Let’s just call this what it is… a manny.”

Peter’s dark brows drew together. “His name is not Manny,” he said, his voice thickly accented with the tones of his beloved motherland, Russia.

“Manny. Male nanny. Watch VH1 or something,” Kat said again, crossing her arms and resting her elbows on the scarred tabletop of the booth they sat at. She’d insisted they both meet her in a public spot when her agent had called—surprise!—to say he was in town and he wanted a “quick chat” with her and her coach. Sawyer was never in town for good things. And involving Peter? Even worse news. But in a public place, Sawyer was less likely to lose his cool and yell.

Peter would yell anywhere. There was no saving her there.

Sawyer leaned back in his own seat and scowled. “Manny, mentor… Let’s call this what it is: your last chance. Nobody wants to touch you with a ten-foot pole, Katrina.”

“Kat,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Kat.” His dark gaze brightened as he flashed a smile at their waitress while she dropped off their orders. “Thank you, this looks amazing.”

The waitress, who was probably old enough to be Sawyer’s mother, blushed and gave a little pat on his shoulder. “Enjoy!”

“Suck-up,” Kat muttered.

Peter stared at his own serving of oatmeal, pancakes, and thick-cut ham. “This… is not breakfast.”

“It sure is in the US of A. Pass the hot sauce, please,” Kat said.

Peter passed it without a word and dug into his breakfast, as if ready to tune them both out in order to make eating the unpalatable food more appealing.

Sawyer watched in horror as Kat dumped at least a fourth of a cup of hot sauce over her eggs, then the hash browns.

“That… is a terrible idea.”

“A man who can’t handle hot sauce isn’t a man I want to know intimately.” She sucked off a drop from her finger as she slid the bottle back over his direction.

“Good thing I’m not in the running. Look, the fact is, you want to make a living playing tennis. You’re dropping in the rankings because you’re not practicing enough. You’re not practicing enough because you had to take on a part-time job. You had to take on a part-time job because you lost the few endorsements you’d already had secured.”

“There was an old lady,” Kat sang softly. Sawyer raised an eyebrow. “Who swallowed a cat. She swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider…”

Peter began muttering in his native language. Thanks to her coach of nearly three years, she’d picked up a few Russian words here and there. If she wasn’t mistaken, she heard
son of a bitch
and
damn
in there.

She really only remembered the naughty ones.

Sawyer nudged Peter, who simply stopped muttering. “You’re not helping.”

“I’m here. I didn’t want to be.”

Her agent sighed.

Kat set her fork down, aiming for seriousness now. Apparently, bringing levity to the meeting wasn’t getting the job done. “I understand the concern. Losing the endorsement with Misanka hurt.” The new brand of tennis balls had been a fantastic score, and she’d been thrilled to jump on board before the launch. Being kicked off the launch team had hurt more than her wallet. Her pride…

Shaking that off, she went on. “I’m being noticed more. I’m getting more endorsement offers,” she reminded him, taking a bite of her bacon while her eggs and hash soaked up the sauce.

“The wrong ones. Oh, I’m sorry,” Sawyer added when she raised a brow. “Did you want to reconsider the endorsement for that website where the famous celebrity look-alike porn stars were featured? I could call them after breakfast.”

“Shut up,” she grumbled. “Why do you care, if you make a buck?”

“I care because if you stop playing, it all goes away, even the shit offers nobody sane would take. Everything. Dead halt.”

Exactly. At this rate, with injuries and just plain bad luck, it would all very soon be taken from her hands. So she had to get while the getting was good. “Can’t play forever.”

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