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The aroma of sweat and dirt blended with a myriad of expensive colognes, creating a nauseating odor that suffused the locker room and clung to Payton Mosely's nostrils.
Payton tamped down the urge to pull her shirt over her nose. None of the other reporters seemed affected by the overpowering smells attacking her olfactory system with the force of the entire New York Sabers defensive line. They were used to this, and if she wanted to maintain her facade long enough to accomplish her goal, she had to suck it up and deal.
She ducked and weaved her way through the crowd of reporters wearing press passes identical to the one that hung around her neck. The names printed on theirs probably matched the names on their driver's licenses, something Payton could not claim. Today she was Susan Renee Sutphen, sports writer for the Buffalo Daily.
Nothing short of a full day of pampering at a day spa would be suitable to thank Sue for allowing Payton to use her press pass. If she was caught, Sue's paper would likely be banned from the Sabers locker room. And that was the best scenario. Her friend could lose her job over this.
The crush of reporters surrounding the Sabers's punt-return specialist, Jared Dawson, whose ninety-eight-yard kick return for a touchdown set a Sabers record and sealed today's victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, slowed her forward momentum, but Payton would not be deterred. She wasn't here to get a quote from the game winner. She would never put up with this stink for something as simple as a recap of today's football game. Payton had her sights set on a much bigger prize, and she was going to be waiting at his locker for him.
He emerged from the shower room, bare-chested, with sweatpants that hung low on his waist.
Payton's steps halted. That confidence she'd been building over the course of the game needed a pep talk before approaching the man who would make or break her career, especially if she had to go near him in his current state of undress. He had a running back's body, solid and strong, without an ounce of visible fat lurking, only muscle and a whole lotta attitude.
Dark brown skin glistened over the rippling muscles of his supremely defined abs. The six-pack looked as if it had been created by a master sculptor with the sole purpose of driving the female population crazy.
Payton's palms itched with the urge to glide across all that glorious skin but she reined in the impulse. She wasn't here to admire his physique; she was here to convince Cedric Reeves to become the first client of Mosely Sports Management. Despite the stomach-turning affects of the pungent locker-room air, she sucked in a deep breath and used one of the pranayama breathing techniques she'd learned in yoga class to calm her rapid heartbeat.
This was it: make or break time. Two possible outcomes: either she convinced the Sabers running back to take her on as his new agent, or she threw her dream in the gutter and headed back to West Texas.
Payton tossed away that idea before the image of tumbleweed could roll through her psyche. The only thing that would take her back to her small hometown was a visit with her mother. Her life was here, in New York. And her profession was sports agenting.
All she needed was a client.
"All or nothing, Mosely," she whispered under her breath.
Payton's eyes zeroed in on Cedric. He stood before a wooden alcove that sported his name engraved on a teal nameplate above it. The locker room contained about eighty identical cubbyholes made of a beautiful solid oak, gleaming, as if the wood had been polished by hand. They made a semicircle around the room, each with a cushioned folding chair in that same Sabers teal that was the color of choice for just about everything at Sabers Stadium.
A couple of reporters surrounded Cedric with their various recording devices shoved in his face. There was too much noise for Payton to hear what he was saying, but he either made quick work of answering their questions or blew them off, because within a few minutes they were gone.
Payton took another deep breath, straightened her shoulders and walked with a confidence born of countless mini-pep talks like the one she'd just given herself. Just as she approached Cedric, another reporter stepped in front of her and stuck a voice recorder in the running back's face.
"Any truth to the rumored meeting you had with the Sabers general manager, Cedric?"
Cedric tossed the towel he'd had around his shoulders onto the floor and pulled a platinum herringbone chain over his head. A diamond-studded cross lay in the center of his chest, gleaming from the florescent lights that tracked along the locker room's ceiling.
"The key word there is rumored," was Cedric's answer as he pulled on a long-sleeved T-shirt and covered up that beautiful chest. The shirt couldn't hide the well-defined muscles of his arms and shoulders, though.
Salivating over his body was so not the right thing to do at the moment. She had to be professional.
"Come on, Reeves," the reporter continued. "It's common knowledge that your agent dropped you after that incident with the fan in Baltimore. Word is the Sabers are looking to do the same."
"As much as I would love to spend the next three hours talking about this, I'm due for a massage with one of the trainers. I'm sure you saw the nasty hit I took at the end of the third quarter." He retrieved an alligator-skin duffel bag from the base of the locker, then turned in the direction of the shower and training rooms where the press was not allowed.
Payton intercepted him before he could take another step. "Mr. Reeves, can I have a word with you?"
His shoulders stiffened as he turned. "I just said 'no more'" he raised his head and after a pause finished "questions." His eyes widened with interest as they traveled from her head to her feet. Despite being fully clothed, Payton felt as naked as a stripper at the end of her pole-dance routine.
Cedric ended his perusal at her face, then he squinted. His forehead creased in a deep vee and he pointed at her. "Don't I know you?"
"Not really," Payton answered, her shored-up confidence washing out to sea with that one accusing question.
"Yes, I do. You're that agent chick who's been stalking me."
Payton's eyebrows shot up in indignant surprise. "I have not been stalking you."
"No? What would you call it?" He ticked a list off on his fingers. "You've emailed me about a dozen times, called the Sabers front offices and tried to trick the receptionist into giving you my cell number and friended me on Facebook. Nice profile picture, by the way. Although it doesn't do you justice."
Payton felt her face heating. Listening to a detailing of her activities over the past few weeks, she thought she did sound a little stalkerish.
He leaned in closer and read her press pass. "And now you're pretending to be a reporter. Where's Susan Renee Sutphen? Locked up in the trunk of your car?"
Payton had known her ruse would be discovered as soon as he spotted her, but it had gotten her what she wanted, face time with Cedric Reeves. She figured she had about a minute to make her pitch, and she wasn't going to waste another second of it.
"The only reason I resorted to this is because you've ignored all of my other attempts to contact you," she said.
"Most people would take the hint," he replied.
"Is there a reason you refuse to talk to me? I may be just the agent you've been looking for."
"What makes you think I'm looking for an agent?"
Payton quelled the impulse to roll her eyes, frustrated but not surprised by his reluctance to even admit he needed her.
"It's common knowledge that you and Gus Houseman have parted ways, and that you haven't been able to find another agent willing to take you on."
He folded his arms across his broad chest and leveled her with a stare that said loud and clear he wasn't happy with her assessment of his situation, but Payton surged forward.
"It's also common knowledge that you become a free agent at the end of the season, but other teams haven't been biting."
"Wow, sounds like I'm the talk around the watercooler. Tell me, what else have the Common Knowledge Guys said about me?"
"I'm being dead serious, Mr. Reeves. If you go into negotiations with the Sabers unagented, you're going to get screwed. That is, if they negotiate with you at all." Payton stepped up to him and got right in his face. "You need me."
Several moments passed before he barked out a laugh. "For a minute there, you had me thinking you could actually handle the boys up in the Sabers front office."
"What makes you think I can't?"
"Sweetheart, those men would eat you alive in a contract negotiation. You don't know what hardball is until you go up against Milton Crawford and the rest of Sabers management. Besides" he hefted the duffel bag's strap over his right shoulder "there's a good reason I could never have you as my agent."
"And what's that?" Payton inquired.
With a wicked grin tipping up the corner of his mouth, his eyes made another journey down her body, hovering at breast level before climbing back to her face. "I'd spend every minute we're together picturing you naked."
He winked, turned and left her standing in the middle of the locker room.
"How can you say I'm difficult to work with, Powers? We've never worked together."
"Stop moving," came another frustrated reprimand above his shoulder.
Cedric raised his head from the massage table's cushioned face cradle and mouthed sorry to the trainer who'd been kneading the muscles in his upper back for the past half hour. Settling his face into the cradle, he adjusted the Bluetooth device in his ear and returned his focus to Aiden Powers, agent to his former teammate Thelonious Stokes. Powers was the fifth agent Cedric had talked to this week, and from the way this conversation was going, he was about to get another "I'll have to think about it."
And that would be the good scenario. He'd had three agents tell him flat-out no.
"You'd be crazy not to take me on," Cedric continued. "Didn't you see that thirty-two-yard touchdown run today? I'm money in the bank."
"Not as much as you could be. After the stunt you pulled at the Baltimore game, Reliant Sportswear backed out of the deal they were about to offer you."
How did Powers know about the Reliant thing?
Cedric had just gotten word that the deal was off two days ago. No doubt Gus had been flapping his gums. He should have known agents gossiped like a bunch of girls.
"That incident in Baltimore was a big misunderstanding. Watch the tapes. You'll see it was one of the fans who started it by throwing that bottle onto the field. The commissioner is even thinking about revoking the fine the league charged me. Reliant is going to come crawling back when that happens. You'll see. I've got"
The high-powered agent cut him off. "Look, I don't have time for this, Cedric. You lost Reliant, you've pissed off Sabers upper management more times than I can countface it, Milton Crawford has never liked you being on his team."
"What are you talking about? Crawford loves me," he said, referring to the owner of the Sabers. Sure, the big man had called him out a few times, but that was nearly four years ago, during his rookie season. It was all water under the bridge.
"No, he doesn't." Powers's reply was dry and matter-of-fact. "But that doesn't matter. As long as you perform on the field, Crawford will tolerate you. It's the other stuff. You're banned from most of the nightclubs in New York!"
"Only two clubs and neither incident was my fault," Cedric defended himself. "They were both a matter of me being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"That's the problem. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time seems to be standard operating procedure for you. You're a magnet for trouble. A loose cannon. Even if you were able to get a deal with Reliant Sportswear, it wouldn't be enough commission for the headache you would cause. Try calling Sammy Hester. I heard he just lost the Tennessee quarterback to David Sage. He's probably looking for fresh meat."
"I don't trust Sammy Hester," Cedric said. Besides, Hester had turned him down when Cedric had called him on Thursday. "I need you, Powers. That deal you landed for Theo with Sports Talk TV was sweet. I need someone like you in there when the Sabers renegotiate my deal at the end of the season."
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. "Reeves," the agent said, weariness in his voice. "I'm going to tell you something you probably haven't accepted yet, but you need to face it. Despite that nice run you had today, the likelihood that the Sabers will renew your contract is slim. Have you been watching any football on Saturdays? 'Bama, Nebraska, USC and Georgia Tech all have running backs that are just as good as you are, and from what I know of them, they're not likely to get thrown out of nightclubs on a weekly basis.
"The league is cleaning up its image, and guys like you are becoming too much of a liability. Teams would rather take a chance on new talent than to sign a known troublemaker."
Cedric shut his eyes, the effects of a half hour on the massage table evaporating with that one word.
He hated that damn label, but once you were painted a certain color it was hell to wash yourself clean of it. Yeah, he'd made some knuckleheaded moves in the past, but he wasn't some hotheaded rookie anymore. Why couldn't anyone see that?
"I'll be straight with you, Powers. I need an agent.
A good agent. This is my first contract renegotiation. I need someone who knows what they're doing."
Aiden Powers's sigh came through loud and clear over the Bluetooth. "I would tell you that I'd think about it, but it would be a waste of your time, Reeves. My answer is no. I've got a full slate of clients, and even though they all may not be choirboys, I don't have to worry about picking them up from the local precinct at three in the morning, either."
Cedric winced at the reminder. Powers hadn't gotten that tidbit from hanging around the agent watercooler. News of his near arrest had been in every major newspaper and on every sports blog in the country. Another case of his being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but the reporters didn't bother themselves with reporting the whole story, only the stuff that fed his bad-boy image. Cedric was getting damn tired of that image.
"Good luck finding someone," Powers said before disconnecting.