Welcome to the next chapter in the world of Cougars football and romance. Many thanks are in order to Estragon who can read through anything and sort it all out, making everything look that much better. Thank you for your very watchful eye. Words can’t express the amount of gratitude. As always, thoughts/suggestions/feedback is always welcomed. Cheers ****
After circling the block to find a parking spot a street away, Hadley Wilkerson finagled the small Honda Civic into a slim opening along the street and glanced down at the paper holding her new address. With a deep breath she reached for her purse on the passenger seat and hopped out. The September air in Chicago was muggy and something she wasn’t prepared for. After driving for seventeen hours and only stopping for coffee and a washroom, she looked like a mess. Her tranquil eyes took in the buildings that lined the winding streets in Wicker Park, as she made her way toward the steps of the apartment complex.
Making changes came easily to her and when several pieces of her abstract artwork had been sold to several galleries curators, she was able to break out of Seattle and try a new city. With most of her work being displayed in New York, she was still a small city girl, not quite ready to make that big of an adjustment. She had survived college in Portland, but moving cross country alone was something else entirely. Settling into the young and modern city of Chicago was the perfect in-between. Seattle was only a flight away, and getting to and from New York to check on her pieces was a helluva lot cheaper and closer from O’Hare than SeaTac.
The old four-storey brick building had a small patio with cheap plastic chairs out front. A smile spread across Hadley’s face as she saw how laid back this seemed. It was only a couple of months ago that she had come out to Chicago, looking for a place to stay and, while waiting for a cup of coffee, met a girl who needed a roommate. Of all the people to have bumped into, it seemed like she was heading into the right place. They talked for a bit at the coffee shop and then wandered back to the apartment so she could look around. The two-bedroom flat was small, but fully furnished, including a bed for her. The rest of the bedroom furniture she would have to buy along the way. Both girls had immediately hit it off, feeling oddly comfortable together and after Hadley filled out the lease paperwork and given the deposit, they had stayed in touch through email and messaging.
Walking up to the main entrance, she located the buzzer and called up to her new roommate.
“Hi, Caitlin. It’s Hadley, I just got here. Mind letting me up so I can get the keys?”
The buzzer sounded, Hadley let herself in through the doors and took the stairs up to the third floor. A young girl close in age was propped against the doorframe waiting with an expectant smile on her face. “Think you could have driven any faster?”
“Whew, those stairs are brutal!” Hadley exclaimed, her face flushed. “People are maniacs on the road here! I wasn’t driving all that fast until I hit Iowa.”
“Not a whole lot has changed since you were here, but you already knew that. There’s a new neighbor down the hall who has a dog, but apart from that it’s the same people.” Hadley followed Caitlin into the apartment and actually took it in as her new residence. There was a faint odor that she hadn’t recognized and noticed that there was incense burning near one of the windows overlooking the street. Dropping her bag near the coat rack at the door, she wandered in and got her eyes comfortable with the setting. The small kitchenette barely had enough space for the stove and refrigerator, let alone the banged up white cupboards. As Caitlin babbled about the neighbors and guided her to the bedroom, Hadley couldn’t avoid the bubble of excitement that she had finally made it out and away from everything she knew. Granted, she knew one person who lived in the area, but apart from that she was able to use the new city to her advantage. To start fresh. She would miss Seattle and all of her friends, but was intent on succeeding with her artwork. The walls were painted a pale green throughout, reminding her of Easter, and as Caitlin pushed her bedroom door open, her mouth gaped. Instead of the pale green, the walls were bright pink.
“It’s a tad excessive,” Caitlin said nonchalantly.
Not one to be shocked often, Hadley laughed. “I should think so. What happened? It was white when I looked at this place.”
“The landlord wouldn’t give back Jasmine’s deposit so she retaliated. Sorry about that, I think there’s a hardware store down the street. We can get some paint for it if you want.”
Eyeing the walls, Hadley walked in and shrugged her shoulders. “No, this should be fine. It may make my skin crawl, but it will keep reminding me that I’m a girl.”
They both laughed, and before long Caitlin had to excuse herself to finish getting ready. She was a student at DePaul and had afternoon classes but also worked at a nearby bar, so she would be out for the rest of the night. The sounds of traffic on the streets drifted up and filled the quiet apartment. Taking a deep breath, Hadley collapsed on the couch and contemplated taking out her phone to call her family and let them know that she had gotten into town safely. It was only noon, and with the time difference everyone would be at work so she figured to leave them be. There was so much more that she could be doing with the time, like getting out and exploring the neighborhood.
Her body angrily fought against her as she ambled up off of the couch, but she was bound and determined not to slow down until she was ready to crash for the night. Snatching her handbag and the keys that Caitlin had left on the two person kitchen table, she swiftly left the apartment and made her way back down to the street.
Even at mid-day the sidewalks were filled with people walking around. With an abundance of shops and local businesses, she could understand the constant flow but was surprised. Before she got too far away, she checked the cross streets for where the apartment was located then walked off to where the traffic seemed to be flowing.
Everything around her took her breath away. She had been used to the smaller and spread-out Seattle, but Chicago seemed so much different. The buildings were shorter and simple. She was lost in the sounds of trains passing by and the thick traffic that seemed stuck in every direction, so unlike what she had known. The people in the streets said hello to her, where as she had always been used to being stone-walled. Back home she had always felt that if she didn’t live in an artistic neighborhood, she didn’t really fit in. Here it was something else. Everywhere she looked screamed ‘look at me.’ And she wanted to look at everything, but more importantly she wanted to experience it.
At twenty-five she had achieved more than anyone else in her family ever expected. College was a luxury and she had made it with the help of scholarships, something her parents wished they could have helped with but couldn’t. With three courses shy of graduating from a small private college outside of Portland, she had moved back to Seattle on a whim to pursue her passion. Several of her art instructors had given some of her artwork to be displayed in galleries in the metro area but nothing had really taken off. When she moved back to Seattle, deep in her heart she knew that if she tried hard enough something could come from her creativity. While barely scraping by with two jobs, she had met a Manhattan gallery owner. The manager of the coffee shop in Fremont had encouraged her to hang some of her pieces up along the exposed brick, saying it would add local flair to the dull atmosphere. She figured he was cheap and didn’t want to buy anything so she pushed him further, telling him that if her work was going up on the walls, they were also going to be for sale. A girl had to make a profit some way or another.
Right in the middle of a shift, the gallery owner had come in, inquiring about one of her more unique pieces. Until recently she had only used thick paint for her acrylics, but after taking a class offered at the university she had ventured into introducing metals to the paints. The marriage of the two was successful and had been an immediate hit at the coffee shop. The gallery owner ended up purchasing the only metal piece and had asked for her contact information. Hadley hadn’t expected much from the man, but a little more than a month had passed when she received a phone call from him. He had returned to New York and shown her work around. Several of his contacts were interested in purchasing pieces she had yet to complete, and within six months she had enough money in the bank to set up her own studio or move. She chose to move.
At the end of North Avenue, she waited for the light to turn and remembered that there was an important phone call she needed to make. Pulling out her telephone, she searched through the listings until she was finally satisfied. Pressing send, she waited for the other line to pick up.
“Sam, it’s me….”
The glass doors quietly shut behind him as Marcus left the Cougars training facility. The team had finished their practice early, but he had stuck around with a couple of the offensive coordinators to work on extra drills. Even though it was only the second week of the season and the Cougars had won their first game, he was still berating himself for his efforts, or lack thereof. The team opened their season in DC against the Redskins, and in the first quarter he messed up a PA pass badly, and in the fourth was taken down by one of the Cornerbacks. One mistake was one thing, but having two happen closely together prior to the home opener made him a wild card for the quarterback to throw to, and there was no way in hell he was going to get benched. Since the team had come back, he had been pushing himself harder and putting in an extra hour or two with the coordinators if they had time. He knew the coach would have his hid if he messed up again. Not when the coaches had been going at the team since late July in training camp, prepping for the Super Bowl.
In the previous season, the Cougars had battled through a tumultuous year. The club was new, but the strong power behind the coaching staff and the players on the field had prompted several sportscasters to place them in the highly favored for the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, there had been several setbacks throughout the season that pushed and pulled the team one game away from claiming a spot into the playoffs.
Marcus Jennings had been drafted straight out of college and had never looked back. Football had taken the Sonoma native to Ohio State, where in his senior year the Buckeyes had taken the Rose Bowl and put him in the watchful eye of the NFL. From his first few years of playing with the Houston Texans, he was cut a break and traded to the Cougars last season. It had been hard being the new guy on the team, but he’d done best he could, and didn’t need to prove anything to anyone but himself.
Even in mid-September, the humidity was a bitch to practice in, but he loved it. Given the heat, frustration only propelled him further. It was one more obstacle to get past. He could handle the screaming fans in the stadiums, but lately he hadn’t been able to get beyond the antics raised by teammates and the players that actively voiced their intent to annihilate him.
“Jennings, you’re going to kill yourself if you push any further.” A deep voice called out to Marcus as he was walking toward his Escalade.
Turning around, he scowled at the voice’s owner. “You push me further and you know it. What are you talking about?”
“Sunday is only the second game, everyone has hiccups. Don’t let me catch you over doing it.” The voice was dark, but held a hint of softness.
“I know what I’m doing. You sound like your lady.”
Gabe Russell scoffed to the smart remark. As the coach to the receivers, Gabe knew exactly what Marcus was capable of and wasn’t afraid to tell him. Last season he had spent several hours outside of practices coaching him, running him through drills utilizing his speed and perfecting his grace for capturing the ball and running routes. Whether or not Marcus retained anything was up to him. Gabe still offered to help him out, but his timing was split between rushing to meet his fiancé in between meetings and preparing plays for upcoming game days. “She’d tell you that you’re holding your weight on the balls of your feet instead of the front.”
“That’s you talking.”
“Bullshit that’s me talking, she’s just as harsh on you as I am.”
Laughing, he had to agree. “Yeah, she sent me a message the other night after I dropped the ball. Asked if I needed to be tucked in for bed. She’s a real smartass you know.”
“Yeah, I know. If I ever catch you actually taking her up on that, I’ll skin you alive.”
“I don’t know, it was a pretty legit offer. Maybe she’s got a thing for me?”
“It’s called babysitting, forget it.”
Marcus laughed and shifted the heavy duffel bag with his practice clothes on his shoulder. For all their joking, Gabe’s fiancée Samantha Morrison was a force to be reckoned with and even with all of her jokes, he was always welcome at their home. With his close relationship to Gabe, it seemed natural to form a friendship with her. She had become the sister he never had, which didn’t necessarily mean he enjoyed it all of the time. On more than one occasion she had called to give him hell over breaking up with a girlfriend she had thought was perfect for him, or given him crap for not making it up to their cabin in Michigan for a weekend getaway before the season started. He knew that Gabe loved her more than anything and couldn’t ever get over the fact that she was always the one to call him and he shrugged it off.
“Relax, I already told her that I wasn’t interested.” Gabe raised an inquisitive eyebrow at him. “I thought you were meeting up with Coach Soliano?”
“I met up with him first, but there’s an investment I’ve got to keep my eye on. Slow it down, you’re getting sloppy out there. I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, because you’re speed isn’t the issue, but you’re not listening to yourself or your teammates.”
“I didn’t ask to get a lecture—“
“Too bad, because you’re going to get one. I sat and watched you for an hour tonight and you’re doing everything we worked hard to knock out last year. Quit thinking and just listen to the plays.”
Marcus’ brows slammed together in frustration. “I can’t help it, I don’t like having loose hands.”
“It’s not your hands that are loose.”
“Whatever it is, I don’t like it.”
“Look, I’d stay all night out here with you but seeing as Sam would kill me and then you for keeping me out on a school night I can’t do it. She’s got a parent teacher conference tomorrow so our dinner plans got scrapped. Before I hit the screening room, why don’t we work on a few lines then?”
He nodded. “Thanks, Gabe.”
Gabe shrugged his shoulders. “I know what it’s like. Stop stressing and get your ass out of here for the night.” With that he left Marcus and headed over to his own car.
If anyone else had tried to talk some sense into him, he’d shrug them off. Gabe was different. Marcus held a respect for him on and off of the field and trusted what the man always told him. He had been pushing himself too hard, but he didn’t know any better. Always the best at everything he did, failure was never an option. A light tickle came from his back pocket. Marcus pulled out his phone and glanced down at the caller display. Recognizing the number he let the call go to voicemail, giving him a few minutes to get settled into his car before calling back. Since his latest and greatest pitfall of a girlfriend he had been screening his calls. Along the middle lot he pushed the button on his keyset for the alarm to turn off and the doors to unlock.
As soon as he pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to his condo in the city, he listened to the voicemail. A wide smile broke across his face defining his square jaw as the message was a mixture of fellow teammates yelling and hollering in the background. Several of the guys were meeting up at a bar in the city and wanted him to come out and join them.
Shaking his head, he got the number up on the phone and turned onto the Kennedy heading into Chicago. He might give himself a hard time for blowing plays but he damn well made up for it and trained harder. The guys all knew that and expected nothing less from him.
A deep voice boomed at him on the phone. “Jennings, my man! I knew you’d pick up.”
“Yeah, yeah. What time is everyone meeting up?”
“We’re all heading down after ten, and if you puss out like you did the other night I’m going to tackle your speedy ass tomorrow.”
“That’s if you can catch my ass. I’ll see you in a bit.”
Without waiting for a response, Marcus hung up and moved the car into the far left lane. The guys may not know he stayed late, but he did. This team was his family when he was in Chicago and he’d do anything for them. If that meant going out for a few beers, damn that-he’d meet them.
After a week had passed, Hadley was still getting used to everything. Caitlin had proved to be a decently quiet roommate, but was constantly asking her where she was going. It never occurred to Hadley to stay in on any night, especially not when she was so new to a city. There was so much excitement happening on any night. And every now and again, she just needed her own time to have a drink and get away. By the end of the week, she had yet to hear back from any of the jobs she had applied for. Cursing the pitiful job market, Hadley wandered down the street to one of the local coffee shops, completely disregarding the ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the front window.
As she was getting ready to order, that was when she saw a little sign with a handwritten note ‘Got Baristas?’
“What’ll you have?” A wiry man with thick bottle cap glasses and a stubbly beard called out to her.
Hadley stared at him for a second as the note registered to her. She was only a week into a city where call backs for jobs were dismal, even from a temp agency. Her depleted savings account was drooping badly. Shifting her shoulders, she smiled at the man behind the counter and did what she did best. “A job.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Oh, you heard me. I’ll have a job.” The man placed his hands on the rubbed down wood of the counter. “I’d like a cup of coffee too, but I could make that for you to show my qualifications. I saw your sign for a barista and I’d like to apply.”
“You?” The man took in her current get-up. In the middle of September and the unusual humid morning, Hadley wore a form fitted black dress and an overstuffed striped shirt that she had ripped at the collar so it could drape over her shoulder. Because she didn’t know the meaning of sensible, rather than wearing black heels, she stood in stiletto ankle booties that folded at the tops. In Seattle she had always stood out, but here in Chicago she was beginning to fit in. Of course, that depended on the neighborhood.
“Unless you’re going to discriminate, I don’t know who else is applying right now.”
The man didn’t budge. “What kind of experience do you have?”
Tilting her head to the side, she gave a slow sigh. “I’ve been known to make a few things here and there courtesy of Mr. Coffee.”
He snapped, “if you’re wasting my time—”
“Look, let me behind your bar and I’ll make you whatever you want.”
“I’m not going anywhere, and could use a Red-Eye. Though, something tells me that you want something with a little whip.”
A smile started to form at the man’s mouth. “All right, miss. I want you to brew up a triple grande non-fat latte.”
Hadley nodded. She followed the direction of the man’s hand and stepped behind the bar to get a feel for where they kept all of the equipment. Luckily it was late morning and the shop was silent apart from the dishwasher running in the back kitchen. Looking at the grotesquely large espresso machine and the sink to the side, Hadley knew this set up was smaller than what she was used to. Her confidence kicked in, she had his drink—and was ready for whoever else would come in the front door.
Reaching behind her, she grabbed a washcloth and wiped down the area in front of the machine. The man cocked his head and moved to the side to watch her movements. Like when she painted, she was graceful but still quick in processing his order. She tapped the espresso, tipped the spoon for the cream, and even said hello to a young woman who entered while she was pouring the coffee into one of the many mugs left for patrons sitting in the café.
Back in Seattle, it only seemed natural to work in a coffee house. It was the last thing she had wanted to do, and almost cringed at the prospect of doing so. But a job was a job, and she needed steady income to keep her in the city. Handing over the coffee to the man, she turned to the young woman waiting near the register.
“What’ll you have?”
“Vanilla chai. Do you have any blueberry muffins today?”
Hadley’s eyes glittered, out of habit she had caught sight of the bare pastry display. “Um, I think the last one went about an hour ago. There might be a scone in there though. Same thing, kind of.”
A smile broke out across her face and Hadley turned to face the man, he stood with his eyebrows arched up. “I can make the chai, but that thing scares me.” She pointed a freshly painted black fingernail in the direction of the cash register.
“Don’t worry about it.” The man walked over and rung the young woman up, but before he had enough time to give her change Hadley snapped the plastic lid on top and handed the drink over to her.
The man watched the young woman leave with both the drink and the pastry and turned back to Hadley. “Mr. Coffee, my behind.”
She shrugged. “Hey, never underestimate a coffee maker.”
“I damn well won’t. You’re hired, when can you start?”
“I’d say tomorrow but have plans. How about Sunday?”
“Sure, let me get some papers from the office for you. Fill them out and bring them back with you then.”
By the end of the hour, Hadley walked out of the coffee shop and smiled to herself. If all else went south, she always had a back-up plan. In the middle of Rick’s brief description of how the coffee shop started and the hours of operation, she stood behind the bar and took orders. It felt natural to make the different beverages. Something seemed so right for her to stop into that particular coffee shop, and to talk with that man. Who knew what it all meant, but for now she had a job that would be flexible with her painting schedule, something she had been lacking in since she’d gotten into town.
Hadley had been hoping to spend the entire weekend alone, drawing, in one of the parks, just to get back into her groove. After she had talked to Samantha the day before, her plans had changed. Since she’d gotten into town, they had not had a chance to see each other. Even though they talked almost daily, Sam knew her attention was focused on getting a job and trying to arrange for a cheap studio space. When they had talked the day before, Sam had reminded her of a cookout that she and her fiancé Gabe were hosting at their house just outside of the city. Without hesitating, Hadley had accepted because she had wanted to see her closest friend and of course give grief to the man who had swept her off her feet.
From the stories that Sam had always told her, the cookout was bound to be interesting. For the first time, she would be submerged in the good ol’ NFL, something she knew absolutely nothing about. She came from a city where almost all the major sports were played, but the town would have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with the teams, given the recent loss of a national basketball team. Nothing ever shook Hadley and if anything, she was more than excited to get into something new. But of course, she was glad to get into something new with someone she actually did know. Talking to Caitlin was one thing, but sitting with a good friend was something else entirely.
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