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My path led me past the soccer field. The guys didn’t practice today, but the empty ground called to me. Once again, I found myself reveling in the days that I was playing with the team. At the entrance, I stopped, leaning against the pole of the fence. A few soccer balls lay scattered in the grass, left and forgotten after the training yesterday. One sat right in front of me and downright begged for me to kick it.
No hard sports for ten weeks and barely three had passed. Hopefully, Dr. Trooper had some sleepless nights because of that sentence! But one soft pass wouldn’t hurt, right? I could just dribble it over to the goal and then do a spot kick. The doc never had to find out.
“Having a chat with the ball here?”
I jumped at Ethan’s voice and jerked around, but when I saw the beaten face of the guy leaning against the other pole of the open gate, I knew my mind had played a trick on me. Wearing his black leather jacket, Chris shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, feet crossed at the ankles.
“What are you doing here?” There was a bigger chance that I might have sounded a bit friendlier if Ethan was standing in Chris’s place.
“Tuesday is basketball practice. I was about to head home but then I saw you. Which brings on my counter question: What are you doing here?” The corners of his mouth tilted up in a warm smile that had nothing in common with his usual mischievous smirks. “Other than trying to move the ball with a telekinetic stare, that is.”
Shrugging one shoulder, I let go of a sigh. “I don’t know why I actually came here. Probably because I miss playing soccer.”
“Which you can’t do because of your hurt knee.”
He remembered that? And I almost thought nothing about this guy could surprise me anymore.
It must have been my severe frown that gave me away, because Chris added, “Yeah, I do listen sometimes, you know.” Then he pushed away from the pole and shuffled the few steps toward me but took a turn for the ball. “Hey, want to play some soccer now?” He picked it up and tried to bounce it like this was a basketball and the soccer field was a gym. “Rubbish,” he complained, when the grass reduced the rebound, and spun it on his finger instead. “Which is your bad leg? You can kick with the other. And I’ll stand in the goal.”
“I’m a righty and that’s also my bad knee, so that would hardly be fair on me,” I argued.
“Ah, don’t be shy.” Clasping the ball under one arm, he wrapped the other around my waist and made me walk with him. “I’ve never played soccer in my life, so that should even out your chances pretty much.”
“As far as I know, you’re grounded.” I lifted my brows at him. “Doesn’t that imply you should go home right after practice?”
“This is practice,” he replied. “If I get in trouble for it later, I’ll totally blame it on your sad puppy eyes when I found you at the gate.”
I hadn’t realized I was looking sad when I stood there, but he made me laugh with that visual. Since he seemed determined not to give me a choice, I tied my hair into a ponytail with a rubber band from my pocket and said, “Fine. Let’s play then.”
Chris tossed the ball at me, then shrugged out of his jacket and threw it onto the grass. Only in a white muscle shirt now, he inspected the goal. Standing in the middle, his face paled a little. “Whoa, who’s defending that? A baby elephant and its mama?”
A giggle escaped me. “Nick Frederickson is our goalie, and he does a darn good job.”
Chris rubbed his hands together, then he slapped them on his knees. His body posed for action, his eyes pinned on me. “Okay, bring it on, sweetness.”
Unsure if this really was a good idea, I set the ball on the mark for a penalty kick. The distance seemed too long for a left side kick, though, so I tipped the ball with my toe and moved it another couple meters closer to the goal.
With a scrunchy face, Chris straightened and asked, “Is that the right spot to put it?”
“Absolutely,” I assured him, snickering to myself.
My first shot bounced off the crossbar. Chris didn’t have to move at all, other than tilting his head and watch where the soccer ball made impact. For my second shoot, I tried to aim a little better. Zeroing in on the left upper corner, I kicked with a little more power. Chris dived headlong for the ball but missed it by miles.
“Beginner’s luck!” he called out when I did a victory dance on the spot.
“Why? You’re the beginner,” I shot back, then caught the ball he kicked back and set it on the ground in front of me once more. This time, I pretended to kick his way but went for the opposite corner and scored again.
Chris gave me a mocking grin. “I totally let that slip through for you.”
“Yea, yea, keep on dreaming.” Laughing, I shot a fourth time, because one, my bad knee didn’t trouble me at all, and two, it was fun.
He shot up into the air and missed that ball again—but darn that move did give me a good glimpse of his flat stomach when his tee rode up. He picked up the ball and came forward, mumbling something about elephant goals and trampolines.
“Give up?” I teased him.
“You wish.” He kneed the ball a few times then let it drop to the ground. “We play against each other now.”
“Not a good idea.” With a duh-face, I boogied in front of him. “Knee, remember? I can’t run.”
“But you can jog slowly, right? And I’ll clasp my hands at my back.”
“You play soccer without your hand, smart ass.”
“Fine. Then I’ll do it and run backward. Is that better?”
He’d already clasped his hands at his back and started to attack the ball. I was closer and easily maneuvered it out of his reach, not yet convinced by his altered rules. The way he engaged me in a battle, though, left me no choice. I slid it away from him a few times, then I jogged toward the goal, lightly dribbling the ball in front of me.
Amazing, how speedy and agile Chris was, even when he moved backward. He cut in front of me, successfully stealing the ball, then he kicked it with his heel, trying to glance over his shoulder. We fought another battle for the ball right in front of the goal. This was more fun than I would admit to him, but my happy grin probably gave me away.
Because Chris didn’t see what was behind him, he didn’t realize just how close we were to the left goal post. “Watch out!” I warned him, but it was too late, and with his attempt to get away with the ball, he knocked into the pole. A groan whooshed out from his lungs as he dropped theatrically to the ground.
A fit of laughter erupted from my chest, and I could barely hold myself upright. My tummy hurt. Yep, I was sure to pay for that with a sore stomach later, but it was worth it. Chris lay motionless on the ground. Still clutching my belly, I strolled over to him. “What’s up? Did the post knock the speech out of you?”
He didn’t answer. With my toe I poked his ribs, my laugh fading into a chuckle. “Come on, I’m sure this little bump didn’t hurt as much as the punch to your face probably did.”
Chris didn’t grin or move. His face was totally expressionless. I frowned. “Are you okay?” With still no answer, I lowered to his side and leaned over him, a little worried now. “Chris?”
His hand shot up so fast that I had no chance to evade. I shrieked as he grabbed my neck and pulled me down until mere inches separated our faces. Blue eyes bored into mine. “You laughed at me,” he growled.
Shocked, I panted like a dog after a sprint, which made him smile.
“That will cost you,” he promised.
Suddenly, I became all too aware that my hands were braced on his bare biceps and that his breath smelled of mint gum. The skin on his arms was smooth and warm, the muscles hard beneath my palms.
Struggling to anchor myself in the present and leaving a dream behind in which I was trapped above a guy that looked every bit as stunning as Ethan, I managed a croak. “Let me guess. You want a date?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.”
With annoyance that I had to fake more than I wished, I replied, “Seriously, when are you going to lay off of me?”
A determined glint warmed his eyes as his gaze trapped mine. “When I got what I want, sweetness. Or to put it in your words…” he taunted. “When hell freezes over.”
“That’s not gonna happen, dude.”
The next instant he moved so fast, switching positions, that he startled me when he trapped me beneath him. He was way too heavy on me and I hardly got air into my lungs. The little I managed to suck in, I used for another outburst of laughter—from surprise, I told myself, not because this was anyhow funny. “Get off, Chris! You’re smushing me!” I wrestled my arms free from under him and flicked him in the eye.
He froze for a split second. “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that, little Sue.” Faster than I could blink, he grabbed my wrists and pinned them above my head. His voice and look adopted a sinister edge. “Remember what I told you last time, if you did that again?”
My mouth fell open. ‘A hickey the size of Ohio’ rang in my ears. “No, you wouldn’t…”
His brows lifted. “You bet.”
Release: Valentine’s day, 2015
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