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Mariana Zapata

Chapter One

I blinked. Then, I blinked some more. “What did you just say?”

The man sitting across the desk from me repeated himself.

Still, I stared at him. I heard him correctly the first time. He was loud and clear. No problems. But my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the sentence that had come out of his mouth. I understood all the individual words in the sentence, but putting them together in that moment was the equivalent of telling a blind person you wanted them to see something real quick.

Basically, it wasn’t going to happen.

“I need you, Sal,” Coach Gardner, the man who was asking the impossible of me, insisted.

I sat back against the chair in his office and took in the silvering hair on his head, his smooth, unlined face and the Houston Pipers polo shirt he had on. For being in his late forties, he was still a looker. Demented and out-of-his-freaking mind, but handsome nonetheless.

Then again, Jeffrey Dahmer had been attractive, so good looks weren’t exactly the best scale of measurement for an individual’s mental health.

Calm down, take a deep breath, and get it together, Sal. Focus. I needed to focus on something else to relax. I chose his office walls.

A neat line of diplomas hung to his right. On either side were pictures with his son and a few framed photographs of the Pipers on the field over the years—my favorite was a shot of the team last year when we’d won the Women’s Professional League championship. He was in the middle of the group with the league trophy, this three-foot monstrosity, held high above his head. I was right next to him holding the game soccer ball under one arm with my other around Jenny, our team’s goalie. I had the same picture in my apartment, a constant reminder of twenty years’ worth of hard work paying off. Plus, it was my motivation on the mornings when I sat on the edge of my bed looking and feeling more dead than alive, to get up and go on my daily five-mile run.

“Sal,” the head coach of the team said my name again. “You’ve never let me down before. Come on,” he chastised me in a low, playful voice that gave the impression he was giving me a choice.

He wasn’t.

Just thinking about what he wanted me to do sent my heart pounding. My nervous system had slowed the minute he said the words ‘you’ and ‘press conference’ in the same sentence just a minute before. Then, when he said the word ‘today,’ my brain wished me good luck and shut down. I didn’t know what to do besides stare at him blankly.

Me. Press conference. Today.

I would rather get a root canal, donate my kidney and be constipated. Seriously.

I hadn’t given much thought into Gardner calling me the night before. I didn’t think twice when he asked me to come to his office at the Pipers headquarters because there was something he wanted to talk about in person. I should have pleaded a case of food poisoning or bad cramps to get out of it, but obviously it was too late now.

I’d walked right into his trap, physically and emotionally.

Cameras. So many cameras.

Oh God, I was going to puke just thinking about it.

My initial thought was: No. Please, no. Some people were scared of heights, the dark, clowns, spiders, snakes… I never made fun of anyone when they were scared of things. But this horrible fear I had of speaking in front of a camera with a group of people watching had gotten me called a wimp at least a hundred times, mostly by my brother, but that still counts.

“You’re going to tell me you can’t do it?” Coach Gardner raised an eyebrow, cementing the fact that he wasn’t giving me a choice, while also baiting me with words he knew I wouldn’t back down from. I was in his office at ten in the morning because he wanted me to be, not anyone else.

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