Front Runner – Sample

Chapter One


Women can’t play football. The refrain played on repeat in my head, matching my steps beat for beat as they echoed off the long, empty hallway.

I’ve heard variations of it my whole life, but the thing is… I can.

The heavy door of the weight room slammed shut behind me, and I took a second to just breathe. My shoulders relaxed at the smell. The football training center had the same musky undertone that reeked of home—sweat and passion and hard work—though it was almost buried under the scent of cleaning solution.

The university logo reflected back at me a thousand times in the pristine mirrors, a scarlet TU over a snarling cat. Not a surprise since they’d slapped it on every reasonably flat surface. Go, wildcats! I wanted to roll my eyes, maintain my stoic distance, but a fissure of excitement traveled through me. Teagan University was a dream. One I hadn’t completely accepted yet.

Wide eyes stared back at me from the mirror, and I forced myself to take deep breaths until my pulse slowed. This place may seem like lightyears ahead of where I’d been, but I’d earned my spot here. All I had to do was show them.

I shook my head. The semester hadn’t even started yet, and I was already gearing up for battle. My time would be better used prepping for the grueling practices sure to come. A division one college football program didn’t succeed by going easy on the athletes.

And Teagan University was succeeding. Or they had been until the playoffs last season.

Two of their players had orchestrated a take-down of their skeezy coach, which left the team limping into the championship that they ultimately lost. My gain though, since the new coach was the one who’d recruited me.

I began my warm-up as the picture from SportsCenter flashed across my mind. Face impassive, Parker Shaw had stood on the sidelines as the clock ticked down with sportscasters questioning his actions. I respected someone who’d put doing what’s right ahead of winning, but it must have been hard on him.

That same week Coach Gordon had approached me about transferring to TU. I’d watched every clip I could find on the internet, and then I spent the next seven months obsessively checking my email to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. If I hadn’t already committed to a football camp back home over the summer, I’d have moved as soon as my spring classes ended. Hell, I’d have moved in January if they’d let me.

My dad would have been so proud.

With my heartrate raised and my muscles warm, I eyed the rows of dumbbells and headed for the squat rack instead. All the plates were neatly organized, and I grinned at the distinct lack of dust. Did they have cleaning elves who swept through after every session? Probably some poor intern not getting paid enough.

I was no stranger to late night conditioning, but the stillness and quiet skittered across my nerves, raising the hairs on my arms. Not even the fluorescent lights buzzed above me. I purposely made more noise than normal as I set the bar to the right height and started loading my plates. Next time, I’d remember to unpack my earbuds.

Coach Gordon had warned me the weight room was dead at this time of night, but I wasn’t expecting full-on zombie vibes. A loud clang echoed from the big metal doors, and I nearly dropped the weight on my foot. Quiet shuffling from around the corner made me second guess every decision in the last year that had led me here. No amount of playtime was worth getting eaten on my first night.

Instead of the shambling undead my brain insisted on picturing, a tall guy in shorts and a shirt stamped with the TU logo came around the corner. He stopped briefly when he noticed me, but then his mouth widened into a grin.

I recognized him from the months of stalking TU’s team. Adam Mackenzie, up-and-coming wide receiver. A junior, like me, he’d earned a spot in the starting lineup last season. Watching him play was a whole different experience from meeting him face-to-face.

Even without all the gear, he was tall and built, but no more than any other guys I’d played with. Football tended to be full of people who were tall and built, even me. I’d dealt with my fair share of attractive teammates, and I hoped he fell on the fun side rather than the douchey, arrogant side.

He eyed me up and down, but it felt like curiosity more than a come-on. No flicker of recognition, so I guessed the news hadn’t hit yet.

“I didn’t expect anyone to be in here.” He punctuated the statement by dropping a small duffel bag at his feet.

“That makes two of us.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, but only one of us is supposed to be in here. You must be a rebel, Diana.”

My head tilted. “Diana?”

“Prince? Wonder Woman? C’mon, girl.”

I smothered a laugh at the utter horror on his face. “I know who Wonder Woman is. What does that have to do with my presence here?”

“You look like her a little bit, and you’re not afraid to enter the world of man. This weight room is for football players only, but I won’t tell if you won’t.” He winked, and against all odds, I felt a smile pull at my lips. “Adam Mackenzie. Everyone calls me Mac.”

I took his outstretched hand and felt nothing. Thank goodness. He really was a good-looking guy. “Nice to meet you, Mac. Riley Jones.”

“Need a spotter, RJ?”

RJ. I liked that. No one had ever given me a nickname besides my dad. A quick pang of sadness disrupted the happy thought—there and gone almost before I could register it. I didn’t think I’d shown any outward sign, but Mac’s eyes narrowed slightly. Observant. I’d have to remember that.

I shrugged. “As long as you don’t plan to offer me helpful advice on how to use the equipment.”

He raised a brow at my biceps. “Please. You’re cut, and those muscles didn’t appear all on their own. I’m too pretty to have you coming out swinging.” Mac rubbed his jaw and shuddered.

That earned a full laugh as I finished loading up the weight and took my starting position. “I’m going light today.”

He whistled and moved behind me. “Sure you are.”

I worked in silence for the first two sets. To my surprise, Mac’s eyes stayed on the bar instead of my ass. By the third set, I was feeling the pull in my muscles, and curiosity got the better of me.

“Do you always come here late at night?”

His eyebrows rose. “I could ask you the same question, but no. I usually come during the day with the team. My nights are reserved for the cheerleaders.”

“The cheerleaders?”

“Yeah, I let them use my body for practice.”

I pressed my lips together to keep the laugh in and focused on my form—a slow squat down, then back up. “At least you’re upfront about it.”

He tsked at me with a gleam in his dark eyes. “Cheer practice, RJ. Get your mind out of the gutter.”

His answer made me pause. “Like you throw them in the air and stuff?”

“Yeah, they bring the skill, I bring the muscle.”

I could imagine that. Mac had an air of coiled energy, like he just needed an excuse to let it out. “I suppose it can’t be any worse than football practice.”

“You like football?”

I focused on finishing my reps before responding, but Mac didn’t want to wait. He nodded at my butchered shirt in the mirror.

“SWU football. Plus, you’re here in the football weight room.”

I re-racked and wiped sweat from my forehead, deciding to go with the simple truth. “I like football.”

He grinned with all the enthusiasm of a golden retriever. “Hell yeah, RJ—”

An annoyed voice interrupted him before he could say more. “Dammit, Mac. You can’t bring girls in here.”

We both turned, and my new quarterback scowled at me. “You can’t be in here.”

I’d been so focused on what to tell Mac, that I hadn’t heard him approach. Parker Shaw stood a few inches taller than my six-foot frame with messy black hair, sharp features, and piercing blue eyes. All my research hadn’t prepared me for the intensity I saw there, nor the way my heart suddenly took off.

If Mac was a cute golden retriever, this guy was a wicked guilty pleasure—like a fallen angel that clearly thought very little of my dazed gawking. What the fuck was wrong with me?

His eyes narrowed, and he broke our staring contest to grunt at Mac. “You know better, man. Ball bunnies aren’t allowed in the training facilities.”

The insult finally knocked my brain free from whatever sleep-deprived lust bubble I’d been trapped in. “Excuse me?”

Parker sighed. “No offense, but there are a million other places you guys could hook up. Try one of those.”

I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or kick him in the shin. Probably not the second one, since I wanted him uninjured for football reasons. Before I could correct him, Mac slung an arm around my shoulders.

“No hookups this time. I was just doing a little late-night training with my girl, RJ.”

Parker’s jaw ticked as he stared at Mac’s arm. “Then train somewhere else.”

His voice oozed with disapproval, but he dismissed us to search around beneath one of the nearby machines. I shrugged the heavy weight of Mac’s arm off and started taking plates off the bar to prep for the next exercise. Parker could issue all the orders he wanted, but I wasn’t done with my session yet.

Mac scooted closer to sit on the bench next to Parker’s crouched form. “You going to the frat party tonight?”

“Which one?” His muffled voice didn’t sound excited.

Mac shrugged. “Any of them.”

Parker stood and tucked a woven bracelet into his pocket. “You know the deal. If you go, I go.”

Mac grinned. “My man.”

I moved around the station to put away the last of the plates, and Parker brushed by me on his way out. A shot of sensation traveled up my arm like I’d touched a live wire. His steps faltered for a second, and I wondered if he’d felt the same thing.

He glanced back, his cold eyes skimming over me to land on Mac, who’d moved closer on silent feet. “Text me when you’re done, and I’ll come get you.”

“No need. I’ll come with you now, as long as my girl is welcome too.”

Parker shook his head and strode out of the weight room without answering.

The second the door closed behind him, I realized I’d only uttered two words in the few minutes he’d been there—and I’d let Mac convince him we were fuck buddies. So much for making a good first impression.

I groaned and put back the last weight with more force than necessary.

Mac grabbed his bag, then turned and walked backwards toward the door to waggle his eyebrows at me. “You coming, RJ? Don’t worry, I’ll keep you away from Captain Grumpyass all night. If you’re good, I’ll even let you get a feel of these babies.” He lifted his shirt to show off a six-pack that probably sent the ladies swooning. Not this lady, though. Still nothing for the gorgeous goofball. The asshole with the attitude problem, on the other hand…

Heat still lingered where he’d brushed my arm.

I shook my head and offered Mac a smile. Captain Grumpyass was a problem for another day. “No thanks. I’m going to finish up here and get some rest.”

Mac dropped his shirt and shoved the door open with his shoulder. “Catch.”

Out of nowhere, he tossed a phone at me. My phone, I realized, as it sailed through the air in a gentle arc. Years of training helped me catch it with ease.

I held it up as Mac’s name echoed in the hallway. A tingle went down my spine at Parker’s voice, and a sense of foreboding made my tone sharper than I meant. “What the hell, Mac?”

He sent me an unrepentant grin. “I borrowed it during your first set. Call me if you change your mind… or the next time you need a spotter.” Mac winked again, then he was gone.

I woke up the phone to see he’d added himself to my contacts under Hottie Mac. Stupid of me not to set up a lock screen, but I didn’t like the extra steps involved. It occurred to me that he must not have been doing a fabulous job spotting if he was breaking into my phone. The audacity pulled out another smile.

For a second, I was tempted to use the number and take him up on his offer for the party. He made it hard not to like him, but I still felt out of sorts. The last thing I needed was an early introduction to half the football team, especially after that disastrous meeting with Parker Shaw. Hi, I’m your new wide receiver, and I may or may not be here as a publicity stunt…

My lips pressed together as waves of nervous energy flooded my system. Even if Coach Gordon and the entire TU administration only saw me as a PR strategy, I’d prove to them I deserved to be here.

New state, new college, new team, same routine. I didn’t need wild parties on a Saturday night. I needed to get to work.

© 2022 Nikki Hall

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