With the stakes this high, it’s no longer just a game for the Mustang’s quarterback in this romance by the author of Blitzed.
Elliot Reed is living her best life—or pretending to. She owes it to her dad’s memory to be happy and make the most of her new job as Strategic Communications Manager for the Denver Mustangs. Things are going well until star quarterback Quinton Howard Jr. decides to use the field as his stage and takes a knee during the national anthem.
As the son of a former professional athlete, Quinton knows the good, the bad, and the ugly about football. He's worked his entire life to gain recognition in the sport, and now that he has it, he’s not about to waste his chance to change the league for better. Not even the brilliant but infuriating Elliot, who the Mustangs assign to manage him, will get Quinton back in line.
A rocky initial meeting leads to more tension between Quinton and Elliot. But as her new job forces them to spend time together, Elliot realizes they may have more in common than she could've imagined. With her job and his integrity on the line, this is one coin toss that nobody can win.
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I've never had actual work benefits.
I mean, sure, I've got medical and a 401(k), but I'm talking about benefits that mean something. Like my friend Liv's Nordstrom discount or Marie's endless supply of cupcakes.
But now, I'm finally on their level. I have perks. The best perks possible: discounted and readily available Denver Mustangs tickets.
Sure, the parking costs a mint, the food is outrageous, and don't even get me started on the drinks . . . but I'm here! My first ever professional football game and I'm part of the Mustangs family.
My dad would've freaking loved this.
"Why'd you make us get here so early?" Marie's freckled arm stretches in front of me to nab one of the cheese-covered nachos in my lap. "I'm going to burn to hell and back."
I made her apply sunscreen in the car, but even so, she's right. She's still going to burn. She burns just thinking about the sun. When we took a trip to Vegas for her twenty-first birthday, she burned so bad at the pool that I thought she needed to go to the emergency room.
"Because, if we didn't get here when we did, the parking would've been impossible, the lines to the concessions would've been a mile long, and you would've been complaining that you were hungry and needed beer when I wanted to watch the game."
"Okay, but now the team's about to come out and I'm almost out of beer and you're not being a good nacho sharer, so I'm going to complain anyways." She grabs the last cheesy nacho in the tray and shoves it into her mouth before I can steal it back. And, because I work for the organization, I can't punch her in the arm like I really want to. Maybe if I was a trainer or something that sounded a little more aggressive, I could get away with a light swat. But, since I work in public relations-aka the department that extinguishes fires, not ignites them-it's probably not the best idea.
In my next life, I'm so going to be a wrestler.
"Asshole," I mumble beneath my breath, which turns out to be unnecessary because that's the moment the announcer decides to let his presence be known.
"Denver, Colorado! Get on your feet! Let's hear it for your Denver Mustangs!" Jack, the announcer the Mustangs have used for the last five seasons, shouts through the speakers. I met him this week; he was kind of obnoxious, but I guess that's perfect for his job.
The metal floor rattles beneath my shoes with synchronized anticipation as everyone jumps to their feet.
Everyone, that is, except for me.
This is the first professional football game I've ever been to. I've wanted to come to one of these games forever and I promised my dad that he'd be by my side when I did. We were going to celebrate his remission with the best seats and all the beer he could drink.
Grief is such a bitch.
Because even though I woke up with a smile and have been looking forward to this for weeks, grief has decided to take this moment to drop a brick on my chest and wrap itself around my throat. The tears fall before I even have the chance to stop them and the only coherent thought I have is that I hope none of my new coworkers are around to witness this absurd meltdown.
"Hey." Marie squeezes my shoulder and sympathy emanates from her sapphire eyes. "I know he would love this. But I also know he'd have a fit if he thought he was the reason you missed the Mustangs' grand entrance you both obsessed over. So wipe those tears away before he comes back and haunts me for not straightening you out."
That gets a laugh out of me. More like a chorkle-laughter mixed with crying does not make for pretty noises. My fingers linger over his watch, which he had resized for me right after the doctors told him the chemo wasn't working anymore, before I swipe the tears off my face. "You're right." I stand up with the rest of the crowd, who are thankfully too busy watching the offensive starters get called out of the tunnel to notice the crazy girl hysterically crying in the plastic chair next to them. "I'm done. We're going to have a fucking blast for the rest of the game."
"Yeah we are." She lifts her hand into the air for a high five that is purposefully too high for me to reach. "Plus, you pulled it together before they called that new hot quarterback out."
I decide to keep my dignity intact and not jump for the high five. Instead I let her hand linger above me and focus on the field in front of me.
Because-even if I'm not sure I can say this anymore, since I work here-Quinton Howard Junior is very hot.
He's a legacy player-his dad was a lineman in the eighties and early nineties-but it was his ability to lead his team to a championship win last year that brought him to Denver . . . and a contract worth a lot (and I mean a lot) of money. He was originally a sixth-round draft pick and didn't have the opportunity to start until the quarterback he played under suffered a season-ending injury during Quinton's fifth season. This is his seventh year and so far he's had a killer preseason. Every time I turn on ESPN, there's another commentator placing their bets on him leading the Mustangs to his second championship ring.
As if conjured by pure willpower-or really good timing-his picture appears on the JumboTron. The screams that held an undertone of bass from grown men transform to the screams you hear at a boy band concert. And Marie, who has made her disinterest of the sport clear to me throughout our entire friendship, is suddenly staring at the JumboTron like she's preparing to write a paper on the juxtaposition of having a perfect face and getting tackled for a living.
Even though I want to give her shit and pretend like I'm above ogling the hot quarterback-I mean, can you say clichß?-I give in and stare right along with her and just about every other person in the stadium.
Quinton Howard Junior is the physical representation of tall, dark, and handsome. His dark brown skin has not a single imperfection; even amplified and broadcast on a giant HD screen, there isn't one thing marring his prefect face. While other players are smiling huge, goofy, yet adorable grins in their pictures, Quinton is the epitome of determination. His almond-shaped eyes are so dark, they're practically black, and are framed by the thickest, darkest lashes I've seen outside of Instagram ads. His thick eyebrows have the perfect arch that I doubt have ever been touched by tweezers or wax and I will never get over the unfairness of it all. Granted, maybe if I hadn't gone tweezer crazy in seventh grade, I wouldn't be living the eyebrow struggle now. But what really kills me, more than the eyes and the skin, is his mouth.
Oh sweet heavens. His mouth. Last season, he was clean-shaven. His square jaw on full display. He was adorable. He had a little bit of a baby face and always sported this shy smile that made him look modest and surprised by his own abilities. But not this season. Now he's sporting a full beard around his plump lips. Nothing about him looks modest or young. No, this version of Quinton Howard Junior is a man who knows exactly what he wants and how he's going to get it. Which might be hotter than every single physical attribute he was blessed with.
God help any woman who ever comes in his sights.
"In his first official game in blue and orange, Mustangs fans, give it up for Quinton Howard Juuunnnior!" Jack's voice reverberates through the stadium as fireworks shoot from the sides of the tunnels.
Whereas all the other players ran out of the tunnel with contagious energy and excitement, Quinton takes his time. His steps are slow and his expression is of pure intensity. Everyone around me is eating it up. Their shouts grow louder as if he's putting on some kind of act for them to enjoy.
But it's my job to see a mess before it happens.
And my spidey sense is telling me that whatever this is? It's not going to be a mess. No, this is going to be a freaking disaster.
As he walks, he begins to lose the cocky tilt of his head. I don't see the spark of hunger in his eyes that says this is for show.
There's hesitation in his movement. Fear and nerves written all across his face as he gets closer and closer to the cameraman blasting his image for everyone to see.
Then his feet stop moving and he stares straight into the camera. If my nerves weren't eating me alive, I'd probably be enjoying the close-up of his full lips and dark brown eyes like everyone else. But instead, my eyes are locked on the screen and I watch as he pulls a piece of black tape out of his glove and very carefully places it over the League's emblem embroidered on his jersey.
"What the fuck?" I whisper in the midst of similar sentiments floating around me.
"I don't get it." Marie's voice sounds like a shout in the suddenly quiet stadium. She's completely oblivious as she lifts her beer to her lips and takes a final sip. "Is that some kind of quarterback thing?"
The only time Marie has ever watched football was when her ex-boyfriend played on our college team. He wanted her to support him. She broke up with him after the second game because no man was worth that kind of torture-her words, not mine. She came today after letting me know that in no way, shape, or form was I to yell at her when she started playing Candy Crush in the first quarter. I was honestly just so proud that she knew football was comprised of quarters and not periods or innings that I couldn't argue with her. So when she says she's confused, she means it.
Usually I can clear things up, but not this time.
"Not that I know of."
I think she keeps talking, but I can't hear her anymore. All I can do is track Quinton's movement on the field like everyone else. I think of any positive way to spin him blatantly disrespecting the League paying him millions of dollars. I have to be misunderstanding his intentions.
Time ticks by and both teams go to their benches. Most of the fans seem to have let whatever the hell he was doing roll off their backs and I relax a little. I grab my phone out of my purse, wanting to make sure nobody from the Mustangs has sent a panicked email as the first beats of the national anthem start to play.
Then it happens.
I'm waiting for my email to refresh when I hear the cascade of whispers begins to build.
I hope it's just the poor performer forgetting the words, but when I look up, my eyes are laser focused on Quinton Howard Junior.
On his knee.
During the national anthem.
"What is he doing?" Marie mirrors the confused faces dotting the stadium seats.
"I'm not sure," I say. Afraid to say the next words. "But I'm pretty sure the starting quarterback is starting a protest."
"Shit, girl." Marie smirks. "Looks like your dream job just got a lot more interesting."
I'm about to spout off some sarcastic response when my phone starts vibrating in my hand and my boss's number pops up on the screen.
Well, I guess if there's one plus to this, at least Quinton Howard Junior made this a game I'll never forget. Too bad it's for quite possibly the beginning of the end of my career.
The world is on fire.
Okay. Fine. That's mad dramatic.
The world is not on fire, but my job has for sure taken the first crazy train straight to hell.
I'm the strategic communications manager for the Denver Mustangs. Most people have no idea what that means and look at me like I have two heads. Then I tell them I'm basically Olivia Pope . . . but for football players. This helps most people. Or, at least it helps Shondaland fans. And why would I even talk to someone who doesn't appreciate the greatness that is Shonda Rhimes?
Anyways, it's my job to fix problems when they arise and to place the Mustangs organization in the best light possible. When I found out about the opening for this position-the position I put on my dream board my freshman year of college-I already had a binder full of strategies. Drunk driving? Covered. Injuries? Check. Failed drug test? I have ten different emails ready to send out. I had any and everything that could possibly happen mapped out with at least five ways to spin each one.
But the one thing I didn't think of? One of the highest paid players on the team throwing a temper tantrum during the first game of the season and using the national anthem as his platform. I mean . . . what in the world?
Like I said: Crazy. Train.
"Did you see what Glenn Chandler said?" Paul, my coworker, asks.
Glenn Chandler is the latest person to throw their hat into the upcoming presidential race. It's just that the hat he threw in is covered in outrageous statements trying to get him the most coverage possible. And boy is he eating up this Quinton thing. "That Quinton is an ungrateful and entitled American, spitting in the faces of our troops?" I repeat the talking points Glenn really harped on. "I did. And people seem to be eating it up."
Thanks to YouTube and social media, everyone has a platform. That can be wonderful. I mean, it brought us Issa Rae and who can ever be mad at that? But for every creative genius using it for good, there's a Glenn Chandler using it to fuel their fire of anger. So when Glenn stood in front of the American flag, with a flag pin attached to his lapel, and started making accusations? It didn't matter that he didn't have anything to back them up with. His conviction was enough to convince his followers that Quinton had one motivation: to attack America and all it stands for.
And now I'm left cleaning up after a mess I never saw coming. Normally I'm great at getting ahead of the problem, but thanks to Quinton not telling anybody about this plan of his, we're all left two steps behind in a gap that seems to be growing every second.