He breathes football. She shudders at the very mention of the sport. After a tragedy involving a football player destroyed her family, athletic trainer and graduate student Cassie moves across the country looking for a fresh start, but a change in financial aid lands her in the middle of her worst nightmare. Meanwhile, rookie coach Reed worries his dream career will slip away as injuries plague his players and his star receiver teeters on the brink of ineligibility. As the two work together to salvage the season, sparks fly, and Reed must eventually choose between the game he cherishes and the woman he loves.
Cassie Parker stiffened and turned her attention from the retreating receptionist to the silver-haired football coach glaring across his desk.
“I’m sorry, but I only found out an hour ago that the university hired someone to teach aerobics and eliminated my graduate assistantship position. I understood that I wasn’t supposed to report until classes start next Monday.”
“Then I suppose it’s a good thing you decided to report early.” Coach Thomas raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his black leather chair.
He thought it was a good thing to have her hopes crash to the mat? Not exactly. But she’d trained for years to get back up after a fall.
If only it wasn’t so hard to face this time.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Just like Mom always said.
She squared her shoulders and removed an envelope from her handbag. “Like your receptionist said, I’m Cassie Parker—a new graduate student in the Health and Exercise Science program.” She unfolded the financial aid paperwork and slid it across the desktop.
She swallowed hard as he picked up the papers and read the first page. “You’re our newest academic adviser, since the guy we had lined up left with a family emergency.”
He flipped through the rest of the pages, snatched a pen from his holder, signed the last page with a flourish, and slid the papers back to her. Making it official.
Feeling a little light-headed, she perched on the edge of a chair with her handbag in her lap. A tension headache pounded in her temples. Maybe skipping lunch to save her dwindling cash hadn’t been such a good idea.
“So, Coach Thomas, what do I need to know?”
“We’re a Division I football team with a lot of work ahead of us if we’re going to win our conference championship or reach a Bowl game again. As you said, classes start Monday, and the first game against our in-state rival is less than two weeks away. Your primary job will be to help keep our athletes academically eligible.”
She wanted to ask for specifics on how she was expected to keep them “eligible.” Did they even know what a book was? Cassie bit her lip. Sometimes the fine line between being blunt and being mean challenged her.
The head coach rambled on about NCAA rules and regulations while printing out and handing her more papers. Team schedules for the next two weeks. Instructions to have her classes rescheduled for mornings. She hoped to find everything written down somewhere because, as if performing on the balance beam, she still teetered one misstep shy of an emotional collapse. Why had moving across the country to pursue her dream landed her in the middle of a nightmare?
She rubbed a hand over her aching forehead. In exchange for full tuition and a stipend for living expenses, she would be in frequent contact with football players. She glanced around the room, in search of a miracle, but framed photographs or autographed footballs covered every surface. The walls crowded in, looming over her.
Just like in Judge Whitworth’s private chambers eighteen months ago. No miracle in sight. Could she really spend hours around jocks with egos the size of Texas and muscles to match? Of all the programs available, why did it have to be football?
God, why are you doing this to me?
“Not to mention, with your undergrad degree, you can pitch in and help the training staff at practices and games,” Coach Thomas continued.
“Games?” Not even her weekends were safe. Her stomach hurt. What other information had she missed?
“Yes, games. That’s what we do around here.” The sarcasm in the air threatened to strangle her. “Unless you don’t think you’re qualified.”
“Qualified?” Cassie frowned. “I can tape ankles with the best of them.”
“Hey, Boss?” A blond giant of a man rounded the corner and stopped. His pale blue eyes surveyed the room and widened when they landed on her. As if he’d never seen a girl in a dress before. A flash of appreciation appeared as his gaze swept over her, and a smile slowly formed. Spread.
Her heart thundered in response. Likely in dismay over the source, she decided. While she had wanted to look nice when meeting her new supervisor, she hadn’t felt the need to impress a bunch of football players. Yet here she sat, facing a handsome hulk who—based on the Front Range University football logo on his dark green polo shirt—unfortunately counted as part of the enemy camp.
She weighed the benefit of the job against the violent impact of her past and decided she must try to get along.
She forced a weak smile and nodded a greeting.
The man seemed to gather his wits and turned toward the head coach. “I wondered—”
“Perfect timing. Cassie?” Coach Thomas stood. “This is Reed Worthington, our receivers’ coach. And, Reed, Cassie is our newest academic adviser and will also be helping the trainers.”
She extended her hand as good manners dictated. Reed’s huge palm squeezed her tiny bones. “Ouch.”
“Oops. Sorry.” Reed released her hand. Well-defined muscles bulged from his short sleeves.
Cassie rubbed the sting out of her crumpled fingers while trying to ignore the tingle of awareness his touch sparked. He probably spent hours in the weight room—and equal time staring at himself in the mirror. Probably had girls fawning all over him to ogle his bodybuilder physique. Likely all brawn, no brains. “Reed? I need you to give Cassie a tour so she can find the academic center and training facilities. Then you can finish up that practice film before our staff meeting later.”
“No problem, Boss.” Reed’s deep voice was too cheery to fit her mood.
The man behind the desk found his first smile. “I told you to stop calling me that.”
“Sure thing … Boss.”
Another glance at the giant—who seemed so un-reed-like—revealed twinkling blue eyes and a dimpled cheek, as if he hid a smile. An expression that almost made her want to like him.
Candee Fick is the wife of a high school football coach and the mother of three children, including a daughter with a rare genetic syndrome. When not busy with her day job or writing, she can be found cheering on the home team at football, basketball, baseball, and Special Olympics games. In what little free time remains, she enjoys exploring the great Colorado outdoors, indulging in dark chocolate, and savoring happily-ever-after endings through a good book.
Candee was a Double-Finalist and winner in the 2014 ACFW Genesis contest and Catch Of A Lifetime was one of her entries.
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