Hodge stood in the driveway, bouncing the basketball and staring at the hoop but making no attempt to make a shot. It was clear she was deep in thought.
“Hey Kitty Cat.”
She threw the ball to her father, who caught it easily.
“Don’t let your mother get to you Cat. She’s just doing what mothers do. She wants what’s best for you.”
“And if playing pro ball is best for me?”
“Then she’ll give you grief every time she sees you, buy me season tickets to your games and point your picture out on magazine covers to everyone at the grocery store.” He passed the ball back to her.
Hodge laughed as she caught the ball. “I don’t want to make her mad, Dad but geeze…”
“I know sweetheart. She’s just fussing because that’s what good Catholic mothers do.”
“I thought they did guilt.”
“No, they leave that to the good Jewish mothers.” He laughed as he slapped the ball from her hands. “Come on Miss Big Shot Basketball player, let’s see if you can still take your old man.”
“In my sleep, Dad!” she teased.
Later that evening, Hodge found herself in the living room, playing video games with her two youngest brothers, who were twins. The phone rang, and a moment later, her brother John entered the living room.
“Hey Cat Poop.”
“What? Can’t you see I’m busy here, slacker?” She groaned as a huge green dragon fried her warrior on the screen, much to the delight of her younger brothers who howled with laughter as they rolled around on the floor.
“Dylan Lambert is on the phone.”
“Yeah right!” Heaving herself off the floor, she walked over and grabbed the phone from him. “That’s not even funny, John. I swear, if this is one of your dorky friends, I’m gonna twist your head till it pops off your runty little neck.”
He just shrugged as she put the phone to her ear.
“Cat Poop?” the silken voice on the other end of the phone asked.
Hodge pulled the phone away from her ear as if it had grown fangs. She stared at the receiver for a moment before putting it back to her ear. “Coach Lambert?”
“Last time I checked,” came the dry reply.
Hodge sighed. “I did it again didn’t I.”
She decided that she liked Dylan’s laugh. Very much. Even when it was, as now, at her expense.
“It’s alright,” Dylan said finally. “I can imagine what it’s like growing up with younger brothers.”
“It’s a handful,” Hodge agreed.
“Listen, the reason I called was that I’m going to be in Boston on Thursday to attend a dinner. I was wondering if you might be able to take a run up there and meet with me for lunch on Friday. There are a couple of things I need to discuss with you.”
Hodge felt her grin trying to encompass her entire face. One triumphant fist pumped in the air. When she spoke, she tried her best to modulate her tone into one of casual interest. “Sure, I can do that.”
“Do you know where Morrissey’s is?”
“I sure do! I love that place!”
“Alright, how about if we meet at 2pm, then. My flight doesn’t leave till seven.”
“I’ll be there.”
“I’ll see you then. Goodbye, Catherine.”
Hodge hung up the phone, grinning like a fool.
It was twenty minutes to two when Hodge found herself in front of the mirrored glass windows of Morrissey’s, a trendy restaurant in the heart of Boston. Catching her reflection, she stopped briefly to make sure her appearance was up to par. Dark, crisply pressed slacks and a mint polo were formal enough for Morrissey’s, but relaxed enough that she could feel comfortable. Her shoulder length hair, normally pulled back in a tight braid, hung loose and shining in the bright spring sun.
Opening the door, Hodge stepped into the cool, dim interior and then into a short line of customers waiting to be seated. The restaurant was crowded with business types enjoying a late lunch and some last minute schmoozing. Conversation was muted; a soothing hive drone interspersed with the pleasant sound of silver ringing on china.
As she waited in line, she resisted the urge to look around like some gawking fan searching for a glimpse of her favorite star. A moment later, she found herself before a tall podium. A well-dressed and attractive blonde woman was staring down at her, her smile polite. “May I help you?”
“Yes. I’m meeting Pallas Lambert here today.”
The hostess’ expression froze as her eyes narrowed. “And you are?”
“Catherine Hodges, Ma’am.”
A more genuine smile appeared. “Ms. Lambert is already seated. If you’ll follow me?”
Hodge followed the hostess through the restaurant, past the central grouping of tables, and toward a darker, more intimate area, where small, sheltered booths ran along the far wall. Hodge wondered at the intimacy of the setting, then realized that the placement was more to hide Dylan’s celebrity from prying eyes than anything else.
The hostess stepped out of the way to reveal Dylan seated at the table, a cell phone up to her ear. She wore a royal blue silk top whose sleeves were rolled to the elbows, revealing corded forearms and thick, supple wrists. Like Hodge, her hair was down, spilling past her shoulder blades and shining blue in the muted, overhead lighting. Hodge felt her body instinctively respond, and she shifted on her feet, caught between a rock and a hard place.
Alright, Catherine, settle down. Just because she’s an absolute knockout doesn’t mean you can’t treat her like any other person. Right? Right. Nothing to it. Now if my heart would only stop beating like a freight train going uphill, I might have this thing licked!
Dylan smiled at Hodge and gestured for her to sit down. Hodge slid into the booth and immediately picked up the menu to avoid staring at the woman across the table. She’d seen this menu many times before, and knew exactly what she wanted to order. Morrissey’s had excellent food, though it was a bit pricey. Still, the money from the part time job she’d carried all through college would easily cover this unexpected expense. Besides, she’d been craving a thick, juicy Morrissey’s steak for a week now, and damned if she wasn’t going to take care of that craving.
Dylan finally managed to get her troublesome agent off the phone by promising him a meeting with the Nike people within the next week. She folded the phone, slipped it into her vest pocket, and rubbed at her throbbing temples. Headaches bloomed every time she talked to Manny. She wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, why she didn’t just fire the bastard and be done with it.
Pushing those thoughts from her mind, she summoned up a smile, which she gave to the young woman seated across from her. “Thanks for coming.”
Hodge returned the smile. “Thank you for asking me.”
The waiter appeared, as if by magic, and with a bow of her head, Hodge gave Dylan the honor of ordering first. As she listened to the selection, her face fell. Dylan was ordering from what Hodge and her friends liked to call the “crunchy sticks and bark” section of the menu.
Great. She’s a vegetarian.
Her stomach cried bitter tears as all thoughts of a nice slab of beef went swirling down the drain.
Catching Hodge’s woebegone expression, Dylan couldn’t help but grin. “It’s alright,” she said softly after she’d finished ordering. “Get what you like.”
“Believe me, you won’t offend me. I’m the only vegetarian I know, and if I took exception to people eating animal products, I’d be dining alone for the rest of my life.” She chuckled. “Really, it’s fine.”
Something in Dylan’s eyes convinced Hodge, and her stomach leapt for joy.
After the waiter left, Dylan folded her hands in front of her, and fixed her dinner companion with a penetrating stare. “As you probably know, the Badgers have several picks in the upcoming draft. Aside from the number one, we’ve got another first round, two seconds, and a third.”
Hodge nodded. She’d heard about the flurry of deal making during the off-season. The Badgers were well positioned to pick up some outstanding talent.
“I’d like you for number one.”
If she hadn’t been sitting, Hodge would have likely collapsed to the ground in an undignified heap. While even a blind man would have noticed the interest in her as a player, never in her wildest fantasies had she ever imagined she would be the first person selected in the draft. At most, given the multitude of excellent prospects this year, including a 6’ 7” center who people were already comparing to Dylan, she hoped to go somewhere in the late first, early second round.
Dylan was obviously still talking, but Hodge couldn’t hear her for the buzzing in her ears. When the coach stopped talking and fixed her with that piercing gaze again, Hodge all but slapped herself out of her stupor.
“Would you…mind running that by me one more time? I think I missed something.”
Hodge blushed. “Everything after the ‘I’d like you for number one’ part.”
Dylan laughed softly. “I asked you if that would be alright with you.”
Hodge felt that queer stunned sensation threaten to come down over her again. She gamely shook it off. “You’re asking me?”
“Yes, I’m asking. To be honest, Catherine, I have no desire to waste my prime pick on someone who’ll refuse to sign a contract because she believes her talents could be put to better use elsewhere. The Badgers have never been contenders, but we’re getting close. I want someone who wants to be on our team as much as we want to have her. And I’d like that someone to be you.”
“Are you kidding?” Hodge asked, with a natural exuberance that she couldn’t hide if she tried. “I’d love to play with you!”
She froze as those words hung in the air between them. She felt her entire body go warm with a flush hot enough to start the overhead sprinkler system.
“I…uh…didn’t exactly mean that the way it sounded.”
“I think I understand your point,” Dylan replied dryly.
Hodge continued on as if she hadn’t heard, though in fact she had. “It’s just…. When I was a child, I fell in love with basketball. I don’t know why, I just know I did. And as I got older, people kept giving me reasons why I couldn’t play. They told me I was too short, or too slow, or too skinny, or whatever. And it was hard, because when you’re a kid, you kind of walk this tightrope between wanting to listen to ‘authority’ and wanting to prove everyone wrong.” She laughed. “I know I don’t look like much of a rebel, but I was in those days.”
Dylan simply smiled and nodded, interested in hearing this fascinating young woman speak her mind. Her voice was melodic and soothing, and as she listened, Dylan felt her headache begin to slip away.
“I was in high school, fighting for a spot on the team, when you turned the league on its ear. You were…it was…god…amazing to watch. It was then that I realized.”
“What?” Dylan asked, entranced.
“Everything I was going through, you were too.” Hodge held up a hand to forestall any comment. “I don’t mean that you were too short or anything, because obviously you’re not.” She laughed softly. “But I can remember the articles and the sports commentators saying that a woman would never be able to dunk as well as a man, or shoot as well as a man, or hundreds of other things. And instead of listening to those people, you just went ahead and proved everyone wrong by doing what they said you couldn’t. And I realized that if you could do it, so could I. I saw that you were opening a door, and I was going to do my best to walk through it.”
Leaning slightly forward, Hodge looked Dylan directly in the eye. “You taught me how to fight, and you taught me how to win. And I know there is so much more I can learn from you. So yes, I want to be part of the Badgers as much as you want to have me there.”
Their food arrived just as Hodge finished speaking. Dylan used the time to ponder Hodge’s words, and the passion so evident in the young woman. If there had even been a glimmering of a doubt before, none existed any more. Catherine Hodges was a winner.
Dinner was eaten in companionable silence, and when the last morsel had been consumed and the dishes taken away, Dylan again looked at Hodge. “There are some other things we need to discuss before you make your final decision.”
Hodge felt a tremor of nervousness run through her, but did her best to look unfazed. “Is there something wrong?”
“No. At least, not in the traditional sense.” Letting out a breath, Dylan tried to compose her thoughts. “What have you heard about the Badgers’ owner, Horace Johnson?”
“Well, I know that he owns Johnson’s Electronics, a nationwide chain of electronics superstores. I know that he’s active in supporting the Republican party, that he’s married and has one son and a daughter, and that he’s known to be a bit…conservative in his political leanings.”
“Mm,” Dylan replied. “Conservative would be one way of putting it, yes.”
“Let me guess. He has an issue with the fact that I’m gay.” Hodge didn’t need verbal confirmation. The look in Dylan’s eyes told her everything she needed to know. “Well, we might have a problem then, because it’s not something I can switch on and off.”
“So…where does that leave us?”
“That depends,” Dylan replied. “Though it’s something I’m not fond of, all the contracts in the league have a morality clause. Same one for everybody, players and coaches.”
“Not the owners, huh?”
Dylan smiled. “No, not the owners. It’s pretty standard. Don’t break the law, don’t get caught sleeping around, don’t party all night long and then lead the police on a chase through the city. Basically, don’t do anything that’s going to embarrass the league or its image.”
“Don’t be gay?”
“Closeted, you mean.”
“Discreet,” Dylan answered.
“I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but I’m not sure I understand the difference.”
Sighing, Dylan nodded. She hated herself for even having to bring this up. Damn Johnson and his bigotry. “There are several gay players in the league. Their right to privacy prevents me from giving you their names. Except for one.”
Reaching into her pocket, Dylan pulled out a business card and slid it across the table. Hodge looked down at the name, then back up at Dylan. “Shauna Keeps. She used to play with you on the Lightening.”
“Yes. She got traded last year to the Shot and is living here in Boston with her partner and their daughter. She can answer your questions. She’s expecting your call.”
Hodge almost—almost—broke down and asked the question that sat between them, like a white elephant. Instead, she nodded and slipped the card into her own pocket. “Thank you. I’ll call her this afternoon.”
“Talk to her. Then think about everything. When you’ve made your decision, let me know.”
“I’ll do that.”
When the check was presented, Dylan waved Hodge off. “This one’s on me.”
Hodge smiled. “Thank you.”
Dylan permitted herself for just a moment to feel the energy between them. Then she closed it off, and stood.
Hodge stood with her, and the two shook hands. “I’ll call you,” Hodge promised.
“I’ll be waiting.”
Then Dylan was gone, leaving behind a radiant vigor that echoed her passing.
“Wow,” Hodge said softly, shaking her head. “Just…wow.”
Much like the woman herself, Shauna Keeps’ home was large, open and airy. Situated on a high bluff well outside of the city proper, it had a commanding view of the countryside as seen through a multitude of large, floor-to-ceiling windows.
Shauna opened the door a moment after Hodge knocked and, with a big grin, escorted the smaller woman into her home. A smidge over six feet tall, she was long, lean and incredibly attractive. Her skin was the color of melted dark chocolate and her eyes were several shades lighter, giving her face an exotic intensity that Hodge found extremely compelling.
A wide, warm, and white smile greeted her. “Cat Hodges, right?”
Hodge couldn’t help but return the grin. “Yes, that’s right. And you’re Keepaway.”
Keeps laughed. “Right on. C’mon in.”
Hodge followed her host inside, and stopped, entranced as she entered the huge living area. Everything-- walls, floor, ceiling, furniture, electronic equipment, everything-- was a brilliant, almost blinding white. Except for the warmth of the air, she might have entered some well-appointed igloo on the arctic tundra.
A door to the left of the living room opened, admitting a petite, stunning woman carrying a sleepy toddler on one hip. Shauna’s smile grew. “Cat, I’d like to introduce you to my partner, Verdelle, and our daughter, LaShonda. Dell, this is Cat Hodges.”
Hodge grasped Verdelle’s hand warmly and smiled at the toddler, who smiled shyly back and burrowed her face into her mother’s neck. “Very pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”
Dell laughed. “I can’t be more than three years older than you, girl. Dell is just fine.”
Hodge grinned. “Dell, then.”
“Good to meet you, too. D’s pretty high on you.”
Gathering that “D” was Dylan, Hodge nodded, barely managing to keep a blush from coloring her cheeks.
Dell looked over to her partner. “I’m gonna take the baby up for a nap. You guys want anything before I go up?”
“No thank you,” Hodge replied.
“We’ll be fine, baby,” Shauna answered, kissing her partner and daughter. “Be up in a bit.”
After Dell had climbed the circular staircase and disappeared from sight, Shauna turned to Hodge. “C’mon, let’s get comfortable.”
Hodge followed her hostess through another door and into what Shauna called a sunroom, which looked like a very large glassed in porch. Hodge liked it immediately. She was directed to a large, overstuffed leather recliner and sat down, enjoying the comfort. Shauna took the chair’s twin, easing her long body down into it with a groan of relief. “Damn back’s still screwed up,” she grumbled under her breath.
“Will you be okay before the season starts?”
Shauna grinned. “Oh yeah. No problem there.” Her smile faded just slightly. “D tells me you got some questions about the politics in the league.”
A bit uncomfortable, Hodge rubbed at the back of her neck. “Well, I do. Kind of. But I don’t want to intrude on your privacy.”
“Girl,” Shauna said, laughing, “you’re not intruding on anything. Dylan trusts you, and that’s alright by me. Go on and ask your questions. I won’t bite.”
“Well,” Hodge said, still unsure, “they have to do with…being gay.”
With a huge grin, Shauna leaned forward, clasping her large hands between her knees. “You need some pointers? Alright! I can do that!”
Hodge laughed, feeling instantly better. “No, no. No pointers. I need to know what it’s like…being gay in the league. How do you live your life without worrying about breaking the rules? I mean, I’ve lived openly for so long. How do I go back into the closet?”
Shauna slumped back in her chair. “Aw, Cat. It ain’t about going back into the closet. It’s about keeping your public face away from your private one. You understand?”
“No, not really.”
“It’s like this, Cat. Once you go big time, you live in a bubble. A glass one. You might think you’re a basketball player, but you’re really fanbait. Once you take your first step out onto the court as a pro, your life isn’t your own anymore. You belong to them.”
“The crowd. The people who pay to watch you play. If you’re any good at it, and D thinks you’re gonna be, they’ll wanna know everything about you. Everything.”
“God,” Hodge whispered, feeling a heavy, smothering weight descend upon her shoulders. “How do you cope?”
“You cope, my friend, by digging out this little piece of your life that’s yours and only yours. And you guard it, man, you guard it like it’s fuckin’ Fort Knox. And the only people you let in are the people you want to let in.” Keeps favored Hodge with a look heavy with compassion. “On the outside, you’re all smiles, the league’s newest sensation. But on the inside, where it counts, you’re you. You gotta keep ‘em separated, or you’ll go down. Hard.”
Hodge thought about this for a long moment. “But…what about Coach Lambert? I mean, she’s everywhere. She’s always giving interviews, posing for pictures when she’s out on the town. She doesn’t seem to have a problem with it.”
Shauna’s expression turned to one of deep sadness. “That’s where you’re wrong, Cat. This shit is harder on her than on anyone I know. People think they know her, but nobody really does. Not down deep, not in here.” A long finger pointed to the center of Shauna’s chest. “She’s so walled off that sometimes I’m scared for her, you know?”
“I don’t understand,” Hodge replied, frustrated.
Shauna sighed. “I know. And I’m not makin’ it any easier. Why don’t I lay a little history on you. Maybe that’ll help.”
Hodge gave a grateful nod. “Thank you.”
“Right before D hit the scene, the league was goin’ down the tubes big time. The novelty of watching women jump around in tank tops was wearing off. People were complaining that the game was too slow, the scoring was too low, there was no offense, no defense, whatever. And then you had the gay thing.”
“Yeah,” Hodge replied, “I remember hearing about that.”
“It hits most women’s sports sooner or later. We just got blasted especially hard. Folks stopped comin’ to the games, stopped bringin’ their kids, like they were gonna catch something. It just got outta control. Crash and burn time, baby.”
“And then along came the Goddess.”
“Exactly!” Shauna exclaimed, grinning. “Here was this drop dead gorgeous hunk of womanflesh who could outshoot, outscore, outblock, outjam, and outrun anybody anywhere. And she was every man’s wet dream, in the flesh.” Keeps’ mouth twisted, as if she’d bitten into a very bitter fruit. “Too pretty to be a dyke, you know?”
Hodge rolled her eyes in disgust.
“She didn’t care what they thought, though,” Shauna continued. “She just wanted to play ball.”
“I bet they cared, though, right?”
Shauna nodded. “Right,” she bit off. “They cared a lot. Especially when the stands started getting filled and the endorsement offers came rolling in. Seemed like everyone wanted D’s name on their product. Didn’t matter what it was, you know? As long as her name was on it, it sold.”
“And she liked the publicity?”
“Hell no!” Shauna exclaimed, sitting bolt upright in her chair. “She fucking hated it! But there really wasn’t anything she could do. Endorsement deals are part of the game, baby, and if you wanna play, you gotta pay.”
“Jesus. How did she handle it all?”
“It was really hard, I know that. Hell, I have trouble coping, and I got nothing compared to her.”
“I think I’m beginning to see your point,” Hodge said finally.
Shauna grinned. “Thought you would. More up there than just a pretty face, huh?”
Hodge blushed and ducked her head. Keeps laughed.
“I’m still confused about one thing though.”
“Shoot,” Keeps invited, laughing a little at her unintentional pun.
“Well, you told me that in order to cope well, you need to keep your private life private.”
“But…for Dylan, it’s like you can’t turn on the television or open a magazine without seeing her out somewhere exotic with the stud of the month on her arm. So…how does that fit in with what you’re telling me?”
“There’s actually a funny story about that,” Shauna replied.
“I’d like to hear it, if I could.”
Keeps shrugged. “Don’t see why not.” She settled back, making herself more comfortable in the chair. Hodge followed suit. “D was in the league only a month or two. Instant superstar, but nobody knew quite what to make of her, ya know? She’d give you an interview when you asked, but didn’t say nothing about herself. Then one day, she got a phone call from a friend of hers she grew up with. Thad Morgan.”
“The all pro quarterback? People’s Most Eligible Bachelor four years running? That Thad Morgan?”
“That’s the dude. Anyway, he was headin’ out to some awards banquet thing and he asked her to come along. She didn’t have anything else to do, so she went. Next day, every friggin paper in the country had her and Thad pasted across the sports pages, like they were one step away from shackin up!” Keeps paused in her story to laugh at the image. Hodge smiled politely as she waited for the emotions to pass.
“Sorry about that,” Shauna said finally, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes.
“That’s ok,” Hodge replied. “So, the press jumped to the wrong conclusion. Did either of them correct the misconception?”
“Nope.” Shauna grinned. “In a way, it was perfect for both of them. See, when D went out, even to the damn store, she’d have to put up with getting hit on by every dude and his brother. Not many men are gonna tackle a chick whose got a boyfriend who could pull their nuts out through their throat, though. So it was all good.”
“Yeah, I can see the benefits of something like that.”
“As for Thad, well, aside from the fact that having D with him couldn’t do anything but improve his image, he had himself a little secret that being seen with D helped him to hide.”
Hodge thought about the cryptic remark for a moment. Then her eyes widened so much that Shauna thought they’d pop out of her skull and roll under the couch. “Thad Morgan is gay?!?”
Keeps cocked her head. “You mean you didn’t know? Where’s your gaydar, girl?”
Pinging off the screen anytime I’m within a hundred feet of Dylan Lambert. Hodge elected, however, to keep that particular thought to herself for the time being.
“That boy’s queerer than my mama’s frilly pink garter!”
“I never knew.”
“That’s cause he’s damn good at keeping his private life to himself. I mean, lesbians—in sports, it’s kinda expected, ya know? But if anyone ever found out that their macho man quarterback liked ham hocks better than oysters, well….”
“You got that right, my friend. Anyway, the league about creamed itself over it They’ve finally got themselves the poster girl for clean heterosexual living. I heard the commissioner threw a big damn party for all the owners and they got wasted on champagne and fish eggs.”
“That is disgusting.”
Keeps sighed. “I know. It sucks, don’t it?”
“Royally.” Hodge looked up at her new friend, eyes bleak. “I wish the world could be a place where stuff like that doesn’t matter anymore.”
Shauna felt pulled into those green eyes so filled with innocence, and yet sparkling with a sad type of knowing. Her heart tugged in her chest, and she came to a decision. “I know, Cat. We all do. Dylan especially.”
Hodges’ eyes widened again, though not so much from shock as from a suspicion finally confirmed. “You mean…?”
“Yeah. I mean.”
“I…think I knew that already.”
“I’m sure you did,” Keeps responded, utterly serious. She leaned forward again, pinning Hodge with her frank stare. “And I’m also sure you know that that kind of knowledge is a lot more power than most people deserve.”
The threat wasn’t subtle. Hodge could heft its weight, feel its texture, scent its danger. But she could also sense the implied trust that came with it. Shauna Keeps wasn’t the type of person who had accidents. And this was no accident.
“I won’t say a word to anyone,” she said softly. “I promise.”
The tension broke as Keeps grinned and slumped back in her chair. “You’re alright, Cat Hodges.”
Hodge could have wept with relief. Instead, she returned Shauna’s grin with one of her own. “Thanks. You’re not so bad yourself, Keepaway.” As Keeps laughed, Hodge caught something in the other woman’s eye, and an impulse started her tongue before her mind could still it. “You and Dylan were lovers, weren’t you.” She froze, horrified. “Oh god. I can’t believe I just said that.”
It was Shauna’s turn to stare. She blinked once, then twice, but the question still hung in the air between them. Her quick mind came up with all sorts of evasions, but in the end, she decided to settle for the truth. “Yes, we were. For a little over a year.”
Hodge nodded, her face still stark with embarrassment.
“It’s alright, Cat. No harm, no foul. I mean, it was a good thing, while it lasted. And we’re still best friends. But…loving D is like trying to hold the sun in your hands. It’s gonna take a special person to be able to do it right. And if there’s any person on this earth who deserves it to be done right, it’s her.”
“I…think I knew that, too.”
Dylan sat in her small office, long fingers clicking on the mouse at her right hand, scrolling through the profiles of available guards. It had been three days since she had sent Catherine Hodges to see Shauna, and as each moment passed without hearing from the young woman, Dylan became more certain that whatever was said between them had scared her off for good.
Taking her eyes from the monitor, she glared at the innocuous beige phone at her left hand, willing it to ring. Its continued silence mocked her, and she resisted the almost overwhelming urge to toss it against the wall just to hear it shatter.
Another mouse click and another bright face staring out at her in full Technicolor glory. She’d been through the list countless times this day alone and was still no closer to a decision than she had been three days ago.
She narrowed her eyes at the phone again, growling low in her throat. As if awaiting that particular threat, the phone suddenly came to life. She let it ring twice, then lifted the receiver, forcing a casualness of voice she didn’t feel. “Badgers. Lambert.”
The sound of Hodge’s voice brought a tentative smile to Dylan’s lips. “Catherine.”
“I…I wanted to thank you for arranging for me to meet with Ms. Keeps. She explained a lot of things and really made me think.”
“I’m glad I could help.”
Hodge’s warm smile was evident in her voice. “You did. And I wanted to let you know that if the offer’s still open, I would be honored to play for the Badgers.”
Dylan’s smile broke full upon her face, like the sun out from behind heavy clouds. Her fist pumped once, catching the attention of Mac, who was passing by the office. He stopped, turned, and stared.
“Hodge?” he mouthed.
“Yes?” he mouthed again.
Dylan nodded again.
“Alright!” This, he didn’t mouth.
“Excuse me?” Hodge asked, hearing but not recognizing the commotion.
Scowling at Mac, Dylan returned her attention to the phone. “The offer is most definitely still open,” she said, grinning for all she was worth. The expression felt strange on her face, but she decided that perhaps she liked it.
“Yes, it is that. So, I’ll see you at the Crosstown Athletic Club next Saturday, then.”
“You definitely will!” Hodge could feel a joyous scream building in her throat. “And Coach?”
Dylan chuckled. “You’re welcome, Catherine.”
Hearing the hum of an empty line, Dylan shook her head and racked the phone. She then turned off her computer, grabbed her jacket, and stood. “Mac!”
“Shut it down, my friend. Drinks are on me.”
Mac’s joyful laughter could be heard throughout the building.
“Hello and welcome to Draft Day on ESPN. I’m your host, Mark Rogers, here with co-host Rebecca Thompson, former standout forward with the San Antonio Sting. Rebecca, it’s a crowded house here at the Crosstown Athletic Club, and the joint, as they say, is jumping.”
“It sure is, Mark. There’s a lot of excitement here tonight. And the biggest buzz is, as always, who will go number one.”
“That and the fact that Dylan Lambert, out of the public eye for pretty much the past few months, will be here to choose that number one player for the Birmingham Badgers.”
“That’s true, Mark. I saw her walk in just a few minutes ago, and she was absolutely mobbed.”
“No surprise there. So, tell me, who do you think she’s going to pick?”
“The only thing I’m sure of, Mark, is that it’s going to be a guard. Most likely a point guard. She’s managed to build up a pretty solid team in the off-season, but the big weak spot in their lineup remains the point guard position.”
“Well, there’s a lot of talent to choose from in this year’s draft, Rebecca. Who do you think is the strongest contender, based on what you’ve heard so far?”
“I’d have to say Keisha Brown is the strongest contender out there tonight, Mark. Despite the rumors of a dust up at pre-draft camp, she’s got the best skills of any of them. Plus, she’s got the height and the mental toughness that it will take to change a mediocre team like the Badgers into a winner.”
“Is there anybody else on the radar screen, or is Brown pretty much a slam dunk?”
“I’ve heard some mumblings about Mela and Kela Jackson. Both of them are very strong point guards who’d be an asset to any team. They’re both more laid back than Brown, but that can be a curse as well as a blessing. Then there’s Nissa Tomlinson, but I’d have to say that her off-court troubles have put her at the back of the pack.”
“I’ve been hearing some talk about the little guard from the Huskies, Catherine Hodges. Any serious consideration being given to her?”
“I’d have to say she’s pretty much of a dark horse, Mark. She’s shown some good leadership skills down the stretch for UCONN, but her height is a real disadvantage, and I think Dylan will go with a stronger player.”
“Doesn’t look like a long shot is in the cards today, huh?”
“Doesn’t look that way, Mark.”
Dylan snorted as she palmed the remote and shut the television off. After pushing through the crowd to reach the confines of the so-called “green room”, the silence was a blessing. Sighing, she rested her head back against the comfortable couch and rubbed at her temples to forestall another headache. She enjoyed the silence for a few moments before the door swung inward, admitting a tall, middle-aged, and attractive woman. Ryan Milton, coach of the perennial powerhouse Tampa Bay Tropics, was a face well known to fans of women’s basketball, college and pro alike. She was a joy to watch, coaching as she lived, with a frenetic intensity that earned her the nickname “Tampa Tornado”.
Crossing the room in long, easy strides, Ryan slumped down onto the couch beside Dylan and let out a loud sigh. “Place is a zoo,” she remarked in her trademark low, raspy voice.
“And we’re the trained gorillas,” Dylan replied without opening her eyes.
“Speak for yourself,” Ryan retorted, chuckling. “I’m the Bengal Tiger.”
One eye, bearing a murderously teasing glint, was slowly revealed from beneath a once closed lid. “So, if I want you to perform, all I have to do is flick my whip at you, hmm? I’ll keep that in mind.”
Dylan closed her eyes again, deliberately missing the slow, rosy flush that moved up from the “V” in Ryan’s blouse until it met the roots of her auburn hair.
Silence reigned once again.
After she was sure that her blush had gone away and any tremor in her voice would be fully concealed, Ryan turned to Dylan. “I’ve been authorized to offer you Michelle Madison and both of our second round picks in exchange for your number one.”
Opening her eyes, Dylan slowly turned her head, capturing and holding Ryan’s gaze effortlessly.
Ryan swallowed hard. “C’mon, Dylan. You know Michelle is one of the better point guards out there. She’s a proven team leader, a great passer, and a good scorer.”
Dylan held her silence, perversely enjoying the other woman’s discomfiture.
“I know who you’ve got your eye on, Dylan, and I can assure you, she’ll still be around in the second round. No one else is going after her. And this way, you get a veteran who can teach her the ropes, and two high picks that you don’t have now.”
“You really want that center badly, don’t you,” Dylan said finally.
Ryan nodded. “Yes, I do. Badly enough to go to my boss and practically beg him to let me do this deal.”
Dylan was silent for a long moment, then stood. “I’m sorry, but you wasted your time, Ryan. No deal.”
Ryan stood up as well, yelling at the broad back presented her as Dylan headed for the door. “You’re wasting your pick, Lambert! That kid will turn out to be the laughing stock of the league, and you’ll go down right along with her!!”
An enigmatic smile tossed over one shoulder was her only answer.
Hodge sat in the roped off area in the center of the room, waiting with the rest of the hopeful draftees for the show to begin.. She tried not to show how nervous she really was. Never let ‘em see you sweat, she kept telling herself over and over as everything was readied to make the grand announcement.
Looking across the room, she smiled at the sight of her family, bunched protectively together. Her brothers, she could tell, were doing their very best to behave, and while her mother looked pensive, her father was positively beaming.
Hodge stopped her foot from bouncing and begged whatever heavenly spirit might be listening to bring this torture to an end. As if in answer to her prayer, the commissioner stepped up to the podium and, after shuffling his papers several times, began to speak.
Dylan stood waiting in the wings, tuning out the commissioner’s prepared speech. Her own short announcement was easily memorized, and all that was left was to convince herself for a final time that her decision was the correct one. Not that she needed to. Dylan was nothing if not decisive. Instead, she amused herself by picturing the crowd’s shocked reaction when she dropped her little bombshell. Unfelt, a smirk curled the corner of her mouth.
When the commissioner turned and caught her eye, she came back to the present and nodded to indicate her readiness to proceed. He gave her a quick smile before returning his attention to the audience.
“And now that I’ve put you all to sleep with my opening remarks, I’ll try and wake you all back up by introducing the holder of the first pick in this year’s draft. Representing the Birmingham Badgers, Ms. Pallas Dylan Lambert.”
The crowd erupted into loud, sustained cheering as Dylan made her way across the room to the podium. An entire constellation’s worth of flashes went off simultaneously, capturing forever the image of their beloved Goddess.
Swept up in the crowd’s excitement, Hodge found herself standing with the rest, applauding for all she was worth and cheering herself hoarse. She watched Dylan turn her head away from the cameras’ bright flashes, and at that moment, their eyes met, and locked.
For Hodge, the sounds around her faded beneath the loud hiss of blood in her ears. She knew she was still clapping, she could feel the motion in her arms, but it was as if she was bringing two blocks of wood together repeatedly for all she could feel of her hands. There was something between them. She could feel it, as if someone had stretched an invisible, thrumming wire from one to the other, connecting them in that one brief infinity in a way that was a little frightening in its intensity.
Behind the podium, Dylan felt the same strange pull, not so much a physical reaction as one borne deep within her oft times buried emotions. She allowed herself a brief moment to analyze the sensation, then quickly raised the walls she’d built to protect her from public scrutiny.
The applause finally died down, and the guests found their seats once again.
“Thanks for the welcome,” Dylan said, flashing the brilliant smile that had made the covers of untold numbers of magazines throughout the years. There was some laughter and some cheering in response before the room quickly became quiet and filled with eager anticipation.
“On behalf of the Badgers, it is my pleasure to announce that the first pick of this year’s draft is…” She paused, looking around and enjoying the control she had over the crowd. “Catherine Frances Hodges.”
Stunned silence filled the room for several long seconds. Then a murmur of disbelief rose up like fresh water bubbling in a tidal pool. Isolated, almost hesitant applause, broke out and spread throughout the audience.
As if she were viewing events from within a tunnel, Hodge barely felt the congratulatory slaps her fellow draftees were bestowing on her. She felt herself come to her feet, and briefly wondered if she might faint. Dylan’s expectant gaze lanced into her again, and she felt pulled forward by the strength of that warm look alone.
Finally, though the distance she’d traversed seemed like miles rather than a few scant yards, she reached the podium and accepted Dylan’s firm handclasp.
“Congratulations,” Dylan said, then softened her tone. “You alright?”
“I…I think so. Just…if this is a dream, please don’t wake me up, alright?”
Dylan laughed. “It’s no dream. Here.” She draped a purple and black Badgers jersey emblazoned with the number 3 over Hodge’s chest and set a Badgers cap atop her head. “Welcome to the Badgers, Catherine.”
“Thank you,” Hodge replied, slowly coming out of her daze. “Thank you so much.”
A split second later, Hodge felt herself easily pulled alongside Dylan, and together they smiled as the cameras flashed once again.
Hodge took a deep breath and braced her hands against the wall of the green room, trying to calm herself before the upcoming press conference. Straightening, she found a pitcher of water on a nearby table and poured herself a glass. As she drank the cool liquid she ran her fingers over her jersey, which was lying over a chair. “They’re gonna retire this number when I’m done.”
“That’s the attitude.”
Hodge closed her eyes and bit her tongue gently when she heard Dylan’s voice behind her. “Why does this keep happening?” She turned around to find the tall woman leaning in the doorway.
“You keep showing up when I say or do something stupid.”
“Lucky I guess.” Dylan pushed off the doorframe and entered the room. She smiled slightly, brushing her hand against Hodge’s jersey. “I said almost the exact same thing when I got drafted.”
“Yeah, but your number is retired.”
“Sure. And yours will be too.”
Hodge’s eyes widened. “How can you be so sure?”
Dylan grinned. “Wouldn’t have drafted you otherwise.” She laughed at the astonished look she received, and touched Hodge lightly on the shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s go face the press.”
A side door opened, and Dylan entered the large room filled with reporters. Hodge followed close on her heels. Cameras flashed and whirred, and the excited hum of voices grew and swelled.
The two women crossed to the long, microphone-festooned table and took the two chairs nearest the center, settling down in them with nearly identical grace. The questions started up almost immediately, but Dylan held up a hand. “One at a time, ladies and gentlemen. One at a time.” She pointed to a red-headed young man from Sports Illustrated. “Mark? You go first.”
“Ms. Lambert, you had a wide range of outstanding players to choose from in this draft. Why did you settle on a relative unknown like Catherine Hodges?
Smiling, Dylan folded her hands in front of her. “She’s the best.”
The reporter shuffled the papers in his hands, then waved them. “I have the statistics here, and….”
“Have you ever seen her play, Mark?” she asked in a deceptively mild voice.
“Well, no, but….”
“I’m surprised at you, Mark. You normally do your homework better than this.”
Mark flushed as snickering laughter scattered through the room.
Dylan fixed the man with a pointed stare. “I was instructed to go after the best guard in the draft. Catherine Hodges is the best. It’s really as simple as that.”
“Next question, please. Sandra?”
“This question is for Ms. Hodges. Ms. Hodges, how did it feel when you heard your name announced as the first pick in the draft?”
Hodge grinned. “Amazing,” she said, drawing the word out.
Good natured laughter accompanied her declaration.
“How does it feel to be drafted by a team with a less than sterling record?”
This question came from Mark. Dylan narrowed her eyes at him, then tipped her head in a gracious “touché” gesture. The reporter smirked.
Prick, Hodge said to herself. “Well, the Badgers have shown tremendous improvement since Coach Lambert took over. She’s worked very hard to make the team a winner and I hope I can help in that process.”
Dylan didn’t bother to hide her own smirk. The reporter flushed again. Dylan’s eyes flashed. She was enjoying herself.
The press conference went on with standard questions of the type asked of many a draftee on many a draft. Then came a question that wasn’t standard.
“Ms. Hodges will you use your new position to advance the cause of gay and lesbian rights?”
For a brief moment, Hodge froze, clearly not expecting the question. Then, beneath the table, she felt a brief touch on her wrist. The touch was warm, and full of confidence. Hodge immediately calmed. Her thoughts became ordered, and she spoke the words her heart knew were true. “The only thing I am going to use my new position to advance, Ma’am, is the Birmingham Badgers to a winning season, and hopefully the playoffs.”
The reporter’s lips twisted. “Spouting the company line already, Ms. Hodge? Your sexuality was always openly known in the past….”
“And it’s openly known in the present, Ma’am, as you have so clearly pointed out.”
Dylan bit down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep herself from bursting into laughter at the expression on the reporter’s face.
“Is there anything else, Ma’am?” Catherine asked, the very picture of innocence.
Her sails deflated, the woman sat down in her chair, scowling.
“I think that wraps it up, ladies and gentlemen,” Dylan said, standing. “We’ll see you in the playoffs.”
As soon as the door closed behind them, both Dylan and Catherine broke into laughter. Finally calming, Dylan shook her head. “And they wonder why I picked you.”
“I’m just glad you did,” Hodge replied honestly.
Dylan looked at her for a long moment, then smiled. “So am I.”
Hodge could only shake her head as she walked down the hall of the hotel. Even from all the way down the hall she could hear her brothers laughing and hollering, leading her unerringly to her family’s room.
She opened the door and was immediately set upon by the twins who grabbed her around the waist, one up front, one behind, making her the stuffing in a people sandwich.
“This is great Cat!” Mark shouted at the top of his lungs.
“You’re going to be a big star!” Luke shouted even louder.
“Easy guys, I’ve got a long way to go before I hit big star.”
“If anyone can do it, Cat, you can.” Pulling the boys away from her, Hodge’s mother wrapped her arms around her daughter. “I’m so very proud of you.”
“Thanks Mom. You have no idea how much that means to me.”
They made their way further into the room, where it appeared that her father had ordered at least one of everything from the room service menu. “Dad, how can you afford all this? The suite, the food…” She plucked a bottle from an ice bucket. “…the champagne.”
“Hey, you let me worry about that. This is your party. Your job is to enjoy it.”
A knock on the door sent on of the boys scurrying to open it. “Welcome to the room of the great Cat Hodges!” he piped up as he pulled the door open and came face to belly button with a body much, much taller than he was. His blonde head tipped back, then back further, until the face of Dylan Lambert came into view. “Um….”
“Hello there, little man,” Dylan rumbled, her face set in its most serious expression. “Is the great Cat Hodges receiving visitors?”
From within the loving grasp of her father’s embrace, Hodge chanced to look toward the door just in time to see Dylan fill it with her unmistakable presence. Pulling away from her father, she hurried to the entrance just in time to catch her brother as he toppled backwards.
“Sorry about that,” she murmured. “He’s…a little star struck.”
“Must run in the family,” Dylan teased.
“It must.” Setting her brother back on his feet and sending him off with a fond swat to the rump, Hodge shook her head and motioned the coach into the room. When she closed the door she turned to find that her entire family was standing slack jawed. “Coach Lambert I’d like to introduce my family. Who have just turned into statues for your amusement.”
Her oldest brother finally found his senses, laying somewhere around his shoes with his tongue and he managed to take a step forward, offering Dylan his hand. “Pleasure to meet you Miss Lambert.” Though the highschooler was well past puberty, he was mortified to hear his voice crack several times His blush rivaled his sister’s at its most vivid.
“Dylan, or Coach. Pleasure to meet you too John.”
Hodge took a step back and watched as her bothers took fawning to new heights, tripping over themselves in order to be the first to greet Dylan and shake her hand. Kevin even managed to ask Dylan for her autograph, which she gracefully gave.
“Leave her alone guys,” Hodge growled finally, shooing them to the other side of the room. “Coach, these are my parents, Ilene and Joseph Hodges.”
Dylan nodded to the both of them, then shook hands warmly with each in turn. “It’s a pleasure to meet you in person. Catherine has told me a lot about you.”
Cat’s mother laughed. “Yes, and we’ve heard all there is to hear about you for the last five years.”
“Oh God Mom…” Hodge groaned and turned her back, wishing the world would just end.
“So,” her mother continued, undaunted, “it’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
“Thank you,” Joseph interjected, tears misting his eyes, “for making my little girl’s dreams come true.”
Dylan smiled, liking the older man immediately. His hands were the rough hands of a hard working man, his grip warm and strong. It was obvious his daughter favored him highly, and she, in turn, was the apple of his eye.
While her parents talked to Dylan, Hodge took the time to grab a soda from the table. She waited for a lull in the conversation then stepped forward.
“So Coach what brings you this way? I didn’t think I’d see you ‘til rookie camp.”
Dylan tossed Hodge the item she’d been carrying. “You forgot this.”
Cat looked in the bag and shook her head. She had forgotten her jersey. “I’m sorry Coach.”
“S’okay. It happens.”
“Yeah, but it always seems to happen with me.”
“Coach Lambert can we offer you something to drink?” Joseph asked, hoping to deflect his daughter’s embarrassment.
“Thanks, but I need to get going. I just didn’t want our star going topless for her first game.” She grinned. “We’ll try letting her skills speak for her instead.”
“Can I walk you to your car?” Hodge asked, warning herself not to blush.
“Sure. I can go over a few things with you on the way.” Dylan turned to Hodge’s family. “It was very nice meeting you all. I hope we’ll see you again during the season.”
“Already have my season tickets,” Joseph said, every inch the proud father.
With one final smile, Dylan turned and left, Hodge in tow.
Standing by the elevator, Dylan caught Hodge’s eye. She smiled. “Good job at the press conference. Well played.”
Hodge grinned. “Thanks. I’ll admit that the question threw me for a loop, but the talk I had with Shauna really helped.”
“I’m glad she was able to fill you in on everything.”
By the look in Hodge’s eyes, Dylan knew that “everything” did, in fact, mean everything.
The elevator doors opened. Hodge and Dylan stepped inside, and Dylan pushed the button for the lobby. Silence hung between them as the elevator made its way down to the ground floor.
Just before the doors opened, Hodge turned to Dylan. “I want you to know that I will keep what Shauna and I discussed in the strictest confidence,” she said softly. “I’ll never tell anyone.”
Dylan smiled, and nodded. “I know. Thanks.”
They walked out to the rental, which was waiting in front of the hotel entrance. Going to the trunk, Dylan retrieved her leather briefcase and snapped it open, pulling from within a series of business cards and forms which she handed over to Hodge.
“When you get back home, contact Mac at this number. He’ll set up a time for you to meet and discuss your contract. I’d strongly suggest retaining a lawyer, someone who specializes in contract law, to go with you when you start negotiations. I’d also suggest looking for an agent.”
“I can do that,” Hodge replied. “Can you recommend anyone for me?”
“It wouldn’t be ethical for me to recommend either for you since I represent the ‘company’ you’ll be working for.” She handed over several more cards. “Here are some of the contact numbers of players I know and trust. You can ask them for their recommendations. Give Shauna a call too, if you want. She’ll be able to help.”
“I’ll call them as soon as I get home.”
“Good. You should also contact a realtor to set up some housing arrangements for you. Here’s the number of the one I’ve used. She’s very good at what she does.” After handing Hodge the final card, she smiled. “Rookie camp starts in a month. Relax and have fun during your time off, but try to keep up your conditioning. I don’t run an easy camp.”
Hodge grinned. “Thanks for the warning.”
Dylan returned the grin. “Goodbye for now, Catherine. And thanks again.”
They clasped hands warmly, and then Dylan slipped into her car and was gone.
Hodge watched the car recede into the distance, a wistful smile on her face. Then she turned and headed back to the cheerful madhouse that was her beloved family.
Blowing out a cleansing breath, Hodge stood before the imposing, glass walled office building and smoothed out the creases in her dress slacks. She knew she was stalling, but her mind wasn’t quite up to the task of ordering her body around this morning. It didn’t help that her sorry excuse for a contract lawyer had chosen 10pm the evening before to call and cancel on her. She’d spent the rest of the night debating with herself over what to do, but in the end decided that showing up alone was better than not showing up at all. After all, this was a job interview, not Mrs. Smithers’ Adolescent Psych course.
A mental kick in the rear finally got her body in gear, and she grasped the ornate door handle, pulled it wide, and stepped into the lobby’s blessed coolness.
Her heels rang loudly as she crossed the vast expanse of dark-veined marble tiling, staring ahead at the gigantic crystal fountain and its rendering of a crystal basketball player holding a crystal basketball high aloft.
Passing the fountain, and marveling at the amount of money it must have taken to create such a thing, she immediately spied a long desk behind which a uniformed security guard was sitting. On the wall above him was a gigantic rendering of the Badgers’ logo, all done up in tiny purple and black tiles.
Stepping up to the desk, she gave the guard her friendliest smile. “Hello, my name is Catherine Hodges. I’m here to meet with Mr. MacKenzie.”
“Mr. MacKenzie is expecting you, Ma’am,” the guard replied, sliding a clipboard across to her. “Please sign in, and I’ll give you your badge.”
After signing her name, Hodge accepted the visitor’s badge from the guard and clipped it to her lapel.
“Take these elevators, Ma’am, and get off on the seventh floor. Down the hall to your left is Mr. MacKenzie’s office. You can’t miss it.”
The trip up was a quick one, and Hodge stepped out into a large, open area whose walls were windows and whose floors were the same dark marble as in the lobby. Turning left, she walked down a hallway that wasn’t really a hallway at all, until she came upon a wide door bearing the name of the general manager on a golden plaque.
The door swung open easily, and she stepped into Mac’s plush offices. The reception office was large and decorated in pleasing, neutral tones. Two long leather couches sat against two of the walls, fronted by a low slung glass table that was liberally scattered with sports magazines.
To the right, an attractive young woman sat behind a large reception desk. The receptionist smiled as Hodge entered. “Good morning, Ms. Hodges.”
Taken aback for a second, Hodge quickly recovered and returned the young woman’s smile. “Good morning.”
“I’ll let Mac know you’re in. He should be out in just a minute.”
Hodge waited patiently as the receptionist made a short phone call. True to her word, within a minute, the door to the inner office opened and Mac strode into the room, a beaming smile on his face. “It’s good to see you again, Catherine,” he exclaimed, grasping her hand in a firm shake. “Welcome aboard.”
“Thank you, Mr. MacKenzie. It’s good to be aboard.”
“Ah—Mac, please. Otherwise I’ll think you’re talking to my dad.”
“Mac it is then,” Hodge returned, grinning.
“Good. Glad we got that settled.” Mac looked around the otherwise empty outer office. “Your lawyer’s a little late, I see.”
“Actually, he’s going to be a lot later. He called me late last night to tell me he wasn’t going to show. Something about some Hollywood starlet he’s representing.”
“Oh. Well, that might pose a bit of a problem. Since you’ve never signed a contract before, I’m not sure how comfortable I feel negotiating it without you being represented.”
“Well…is it unethical to let me take a look at it? I promise not to sign anything until I’ve found another lawyer.”
Mac was silent for a moment, considering. “I suppose it can’t hurt anything. C’mon.”
They walked into Mac’s office and sat down at the conference table. Mac handed over a thick, bound document. Hodge stared it in disbelief.
“What, you thought it was gonna be a couple of pieces of notebook paper stapled together,” he teased.
“I had textbooks smaller than this in college!”
Mac laughed. “Welcome to the world of professional sports, Cat.”
Opening the cover, Hodge was immediately assaulted with so much legalese that her Latin teacher wouldn’t have been able to decipher it. Mac walked her through each section of the contract, explaining as best he could what was represented in the paragraphs.
When he got to the salary section, Hodge tried her best not to show her surprise. She’d known going in that the base rates—for rookies especially—were nothing short of pitiful. Though higher than a teacher’s starting salary, it wasn’t by much. The number she saw displayed before her was a good deal more than she’d been expecting.
She rose her eyes to Mac, who smiled. “You were the first pick in the draft,” he explained. A long finger pointed to the next paragraphs. “I’m authorized to give you a tenth of your base salary up front as a signing bonus. Then you have the standard incentive bonuses, both individual and team. The better you do, and the better we do, the more money comes in.”
“That makes sense,” Hodge agreed.
“You’ll also receive a percentage of any team merchandise that features you exclusively, including posters, jerseys, caps, and jackets.” He flipped a page. “And here are the endorsement clauses. All endorsements need to be cleared through the team first, because your identity will be tied up with the team.” Another page. “This is your housing allowance. If you don’t have a realtor, I can give you a few names.”
“Dylan gave me the name of hers.”
The next half hour was spent discussing the health and life insurance benefits displayed in the contract, and answering any questions Hodge had about what she read.
After there were no more questions, Hodge stood and thanked Mac for his time. Mac stood as well. “Are you headed for home tonight?”
“No. I’m booked for the week. I figured I’d take that time to contact the realtor, but now it looks like I’m gonna be phoning lawyers.”
“Do you have any in mind?”
“No, but I’ll look for one, that’s for sure. I’d like to get this contract signed.”
“Why don’t you go ahead and get with the realtor. Let me see what I can do from the lawyer end.” He held up a hand. “No, I’m not talking about retaining one directly for you. Just let me call around and see who’s available, alright?”
Hodge grinned. “Thanks for doing this for me.”
“No sweat. Let me make a few phone calls and see what’s up. Do you have the number where you’re staying?”
Hodge handed over a slip of paper with her phone number written on it.
“Good. Ok, you go on, relax, meet up with the realtor, and I’ll see what I can do from this end, ok?”
“Sounds good. Thanks again.”
“No sweat. Now g’wan, get outta here so I can get to work.”
As soon as Hodge left the office, Mac crossed to his desk and picked up the phone.
Groaning, Dylan lowered herself onto the couch and propped her leg on the two pillows situated for that purpose. Covered with three bags of ice and wrapped in an ace bandage, her knee throbbed like a rotted tooth.
She had no sooner settled into a somewhat bearable position when Brunhilde trotted over, sat, and with a sigh worthy of a martyred mother, put her large head on Dylan’s bare belly. “I know, I know, I overdid it.”
Baleful eyes blinked up at her.
“Well you try spending more time up in the air than on the ground and see what it does for your conditioning!”
Brunhilde sighed again.
“Thanks for the sympathy, sweetheart. See how many treats you get from now on.”
The Doberman wuffed softly at the sound of one of her favorite words, but when no such treat was immediately forthcoming, she rested her head on her master’s belly again.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if your fleabitten excuse for a brother hadn’t decided that a fast break drill was the perfect time to suddenly learn how to play fetch.” She looked around. “Speaking of which, where is the old fleabag anyway.”
Lifting her head, Brunhilde looked over her shoulder. Dylan followed the gaze to see Siegfried sprawled out on his back, legs splayed to the wind, tongue out, drooling, and dead to the world. Dylan snorted. “Men.”
An annoying chirping sound caused Dylan to dig beneath her back for her cell phone. Checking the caller ID, she flipped the phone open. “Yeah, Mac. What’s up.”
“Our chick has flown the nest.”
Dylan scowled. “Did I just get dumped into a James Bond film when I wasn’t looking, C-7?”
Mac laughed. “No. Catherine Hodges just left.”
“That was pretty quick.”
“Would probably have taken longer, but her lawyer punked out on her, so I just took her through the contract and held off signing till she can find someone else.”
“Great. You have anybody in mind?”
“No,” came Mac’s contrite response. “I’m all tapped out. I was hoping you could….”
“Fine,” Dylan sighed. “Let me see what I can do.”
“You owe me for this one, Mac.”
“Yeah, yeah, put it on my tab.”
“Later.” Dylan closed her phone just as the house phone began ringing. Reaching behind her, she picked up the handset. “Lambert.”
“Good afternoon, Ms. Lambert.” The heavy southern twang of Horace Johnson’s voice oozed through the phone line and into Dylan’s ear. Her lips curled up in disgust.
“Afternoon, Horace. What can I do for you?”
“Well…I just got a call from the owner of the Tropics. Seems his coach lobbied a sweet little deal for us, and you turned her down flatter than a two dollar whore.”
“That’s right, I did.”
“Mind telling me why? Jack says our pick would have still been there in the second round. Sounds to me like you might have put the cart in front of the horse.”
“Probably because I didn’t like the load of fertilizer she was trying to sell me. Horace, you know as well as I do that Michelle Madison is an over-the-hill grunt with knees worse than mine. She won’t even pass a physical this season. You know it, I know it, and the league knows it. Milton was trying to peddle her off to anyone blind enough to look twice at her. And her second round picks were so low that we couldn’t have gotten anyone worth spit.”
“Still nothing, Horace. Think about it. They’re our conference rivals, and she was selling this shit just to get her hands on that hot new center. You know…last year’s shot blocking leader? Did you really want us to go up against that all season?”
“Well…I suppose you might have something there.”
“You know I do, Horace. Catherine Hodges is going to lift this team to the next level. I wouldn’t have picked her if I thought otherwise.”
“Still don’t like her, though.”
Pulling the phone away from her ear, Dylan contemplated slamming it several times against her table, then decided not to scar the wood. “You don’t have to like her, Horace. But I bet you’re gonna start liking her when you see the money she’s going to bring in.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am.”
“Alright then,” he said after a long pause. “Just remember our deal.”
“I remember, Horace. Believe me, I remember. Anything else?”
“Goodbye to you too, you sanctimonious, bigoted shithead,” she growled into an empty line.
She had just hung up the phone when it rang again. “What the hell is this, Grand Fucking Central Station?!?” She picked up the handset. “Yeah!?”
There was a moment of silence before a hesitant voice came on the line. “Is this Dylan?”
Dylan rolled her eyes to heaven. “Yeah, Hunter, it’s me. What’s up?”
Great. Trade one shithead for another. This really isn’t my day. “I’m just fine, Hunter. What can I do for you today?” I know what I’d like to do, but I think it’s still illegal in most states.
“Well, I was getting worried because you weren’t returning my phone calls.”
“Well, Hunter, that’s probably because I was busy. You know, with the draft and all?”
Comprehension dawned. “Ohhh. Yeah, I remember something about that.”
Dylan rubbed at the bridge of her nose, begging for strength. “Is there anything else, Hunter, because I’m just about to step into the shower and….”
“Well yes, yes! There is something. My second movie is premiering on Friday at Mann’s and I was wondering if you could attend it with me?”
It was on the tip of Dylan’s tongue to refuse. Her leg was shooting bolts of pain up into her belly, her head ached like an anvil had been dropped on it, and she really wanted to just find someplace cool and dark and curl up in a ball until it all passed. The thought of spending even one minute with the man on the other end of the phone made her guts churn.
Then a thought struck her. A thought which caused a truly evil grin to spread over her face. “Is your family going to be there?”
“Yes.” The word was drawn out. “But you don’t have to worry, they’ll be sitting behind us.”
Oh I’m not worried, Mr. Stud Wannabe. Try touching me in the dark and you’ll be minus a few fingers. “Hm. Well, I don’t think I’m doing anything on Friday, so I suppose I could make it.”
“Great! Great! Wonderful! I’ll have the Lear sent down to pick….”
“No, no. That won’t be necessary. I’ll just book a flight.”
“I said I’d take care of it, Hunter. Will that be all?”
“Well…I guess so.”
“Good. I’ll see you Friday, then. Goodbye.”
She hung up the phone with a sense of dawning relief. “Well, girl, looks like I just killed a couple of birds with one stone.”
Brunhilde cocked her head, and Dylan laughed, suddenly feeling much better than she had not a minute before.
Camera flashes turned night into day as Dylan stepped out of the limousine, grasping the chauffeur’s guiding hand and straightening to her full height. Hunter stepped out behind her, laying a gentle, if proprietary, hand on the small of her back. His thousand megawatt smile outshone all the lights as he looked upon the teeming, fawning crowd.
Of course, he had every reason to smile. His new movie was a hit before it had even been released, and he had on his arm one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Dylan was stunning in her black, silk dress. Cut to mid thigh, it had spaghetti straps and a neckline deep enough to tantalize. Her hair flowed freely over her shoulders and back, and small diamond studs winked brilliantly in her ears.
The two began to walk the gauntlet of paparazzi, smiling and nodding with practiced ease while avoiding the outstretched arms of a crowd straining the barriers on either side of the carpeted walkway.
The theater, by contrast, was quiet and dim. Two uniformed guards escorted the pair down the carpeted aisle and into plush seats near the front where they would have an unobstructed view of the movie. They remained, positioning themselves at either end of the row of seats, in order to keep the crowds away.
Dylan was, as always, less than thrilled with this. While she valued her privacy, and understood the need for security measures in some public venues, she hated the obvious lines drawn between what the public perceived as the “haves” and the “have nots”.
Still, she reminded herself of the reasons for being in this place, and resolved to grin and bear it as best she could.
She surprised herself by actually enjoying the movie. It was a light romantic comedy that was a vast departure from Hunter’s usual “he-man” roles, and he was quite good in it. Ever gracious, she told him as much, and by the smile on his face, one would have wondered if she had just accepted a proposal of marriage.
The two ran the gauntlet again on their way back to the limousine for a quick trip to the post-premier party being held at a popular, and trendy, nightclub nearby.
Once they were inside the already packed club, Hunter’s agent swept him away to meet with the fawning critics, leaving Dylan blessedly alone at last. The throbbing bass made her eardrums vibrate as she made her way to the bar to order a mineral water from a starry-eyed bartender.
Turning her back to the bar, she sipped the water as she eyed the crowd. Her height, easily topping all but the very tallest men, gave her a decided advantage, and her eyes lit up with a predatory gleam as she spotted exactly who she was looking for shaking it up on the dance floor.
Easing her way through the crowd with sinuous grace, she approached the dance floor and laid a hand on the shoulder of her prey, causing the tousle-headed brunette to jump and spin and almost land in Dylan’s arms.
The young woman’s eyes widened. “My shrink was wrong,” she breathed. “There really are Goddesses still roaming the earth.”
Dylan rolled her eyes, grinning. “Evening, Haley.”
A slow smile lit up Haley’s face. “Dylan Lambert. God, it’s good to see you!”
The two women hugged, then pulled slowly away. “Jesus, Dylan…you look fantastic!”
“You’re not looking so bad yourself, my friend.”
“Maybe not, but…wow! What are you doing here? I mean…this isn’t exactly your type of hangout, you know? And this getup!”
Dylan laughed softly. “I see you and your brother still aren’t talking.”
“Hunter? What does he….” Her dark eyes widened again. “You?! You’re his date for the premier?!? Damn! If I would have known that, I’d have gone to the damn thing!”
“Yeah.” Dylan looked around. “Can we go someplace a little quieter?”
Haley grinned. “Lead on, baby. I’m allll yours.”
Shaking her head, Dylan led them to a small enclosed patio at the rear of the club. The night was blessedly cool and quiet. “I need to ask you a favor.”
“Oh yeah?” Haley asked, grinning and moving closer to her tall companion. “What kind of favor?”
“Slow down, Romeo,” Dylan said, putting a hand on Haley’s shoulder. “A business favor.”
Haley pouted. “I haven’t seen you in months and you want to talk about business?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Alright,” she replied, sighing. “What do you need.”
“I need you to represent my first pick, Catherine Hodges.”
Haley’s brows knit. “Me? Why?”
“Because you’re the best,” Dylan replied. “And because she needs someone like you.”
“Someone like….? Oh! You mean because she’s gay.”
“Yes. She’s gay. And because of that, she’s going to have one hell of a time getting someone to fairly represent her. We both know it's true.” Frustrated, Dylan turned and stared over the stone wall into the darkness beyond. “I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think it was important.”
Haley, normally a cool, competent, and yes—sometimes slimy—lawyer felt an unexpected burst of compassion for her normally unflappable companion. Closing the distance between them, she laid a gentle hand on Dylan’s back. “Aww, D, you know I’ll help. I saw her at the press conference. She seems like a good kid.”
“She is. But she’s also just out of college, and is used to having people accept her for who she is. This is gonna be a big transition for her, and she’s going to need all the help she can get. I’d like you to be that help, Haley. You represent a number of well-known gay entertainers, and you know your way around the system.”
“I’ll give her a call tomorrow morning.”
Haley smirked. “You’re welcome. Now, what’s in it for me?”
Dylan turned, and leaned down slowly so that a hairsbreadth separated their lips. Haley closed her eyes, her heart thundering in her chest.
Haley finally opened her eyes to find Dylan standing several feet away from her.
Dylan smirked. “A pleasure doing business with you, Haley.”
“God damn you, Dylan Lambert,” Haley said, laughing. “You should have been a lawyer.”
“Mm. I’ll consider that a compliment.” Dylan put a companionable arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders. “C’mon, let’s get back to the ‘party’.”
Hodge lay sprawled on her hotel bed, watching television and waiting for the phone to ring. Mac had called her on Thursday telling her to expect a phone call regarding a lawyer either Friday evening or Saturday morning. It was now Saturday evening, and the expected phone call still hadn’t come through.
She raised the remote and pointed it at the television, listlessly flicking through the channels yet again. Nothing caught her interest, and she dropped the remote back onto the bed, sighing. Hodge was the type of woman who needed activity in her life, and as far as she was concerned, sitting in a hotel room on a Saturday waiting for the phone to ring ranked at the very bottom of her preferred activities list. Especially when she’d been doing it all day.
Flopping onto her belly, she grabbed the book she’d brought from the hotel’s gift shop and started thumbing through it, not really reading the words. Moments later, she fell asleep out of sheer boredom.
An hour passed unrealized. Then another. A third was ready to make an appearance when the phone rang, startling Hodge out of a deep slumber. Muzzily, she felt around for the phone until her hand struck it, almost knocking it off the night stand.
The slight New York accent sounded familiar, but Hodge’s cobwebby brain couldn’t quite place it. “Yes?”
“Hi, Catherine. My name is Haley Locke.”
Again, something familiar. This time, a name. But still, her mind wouldn’t cooperate. “May I help you?”
The laugh that came over the phone was warm. “Actually, I think I’m supposed to be asking you that question.”
Brows furrowed, Hodge swung to a sitting position on the bed, wondering if she had awakened in the Twilight Zone. “Can we start this over, do you think? I just woke up and my mind’s not quite in gear here.”
A moment of silence, then a slightly chagrinned voice came back over the line. “I forgot the time difference. I’m so sorry. I can call again tomorrow, if that would be better for you.”
“No, no, it’s alright, Ms. Locke.” Comprehension dawned. “Haley Locke! The agent!”
Haley laughed again. “That’s me.”
“Oh God! I mean…Mac told me to expect a phone call. I just….”
Hodge rubbed a hand over her face. “Yeah. I’m sorry.”
“For sleeping? Don’t be. I should have called you earlier anyway. I sometimes forget that not everyone operates on LA time.” Haley shuffled the papers in her hands to cover an awkward pause. “As you’ve probably guessed by now, the reason for my call is to ask whether you’ve obtained legal representation for yourself.”
“No,” Hodge replied. “I had a lawyer, but he sort of ditched me at the altar the other day.”
“That’s a lawyer for you,” Haley commented, chuckling.
“Aren’t you a lawyer?”
“Shh. Don’t spread that around. People might talk.”
Hodge found herself laughing, instantly at ease with the wise-cracking woman on the other end of the phone.
“Well, your misfortune is, as they say, my good fortune. If you’re planning on being in Birmingham for a little while longer, I’d like the opportunity to fly down and discuss the possibility of representing you.”
Hodge’s eyes widened. “That would be…that would be wonderful,” she replied. “I’ve extended my stay until Tuesday morning, if that helps.”
“Perfect. I’ll fly down there and meet with you tomorrow evening. If things work out between us, we can head over to the Badgers’ offices and take a look over your contract on Monday. Sound good to you?”
“It sounds great!”
“Alright then. See you tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have lunch.”
“See you tomorrow, Ms. Locke. And thank you.”
“It’s Haley, and don’t thank me until you’ve seen what I have to offer. Night.”
Hodge hung up the phone, beaming. “I go from no agent to the best in the business. Whatever angel I’ve got sitting on my shoulder, thanks.”
“Delta flight 274 to Boston now boarding at gate 24. All ticketed passengers should proceed to gate 24 for boarding.”
Hodge stood and slung her carryon over her shoulder, pulling her ticket out from the zippered pouch as she did so. Handing the ticket to the gate agent, she passed through into the bright tunnel of the jetway, then touched, by force of habit, the plane’s outer shell for luck before stepping inside.
A smiling steward led her into the first class cabin, and she sat down, luxuriating in the wide, impossibly comfortable leather seat. Her original return ticket hadn’t been in first class. It was just one of the many perks the human hurricane known as Haley Locke had negotiated for her.
Truth be known, Hodge was still in a bit of a daze. A daze that had started the moment the curly haired brunette blew into her hotel room, shook her hand, and pitched her spiel. Hodge couldn’t have stopped her if she tried, and by the time Haley had paused for her first breath since entering the hotel room, Hodge discovered she didn’t want to try at all.
There was good, and there was great. Haley Locke surpassed both of those by a long country mile. She was the kind of person who made you feel good; about yourself, and about her. She would have made a great preacher, or a horrible one—the type who would lead you to a bridge and tell you to jump, and you would, willingly, a smile on your face as you plunged to your death.
Lunch had turned into dinner, dinner had turned into drinks, and before Hodge quite knew what was happening, she found herself standing in front of Mac, Haley at her side. Her only consolation was that Mac looked as stunned as she knew she did. The expression on his face as he willingly handed over perk after perk would have been laughable if Hodge hadn’t been feeling exactly the same.
She came away with more than she’d ever thought possible, along with a very nice signing bonus tucked comfortably in her wallet. Part of that bonus was going to send her parents on the trip of their dreams. They would fight it, she knew, but stubbornness was an inherited trait, and she had inherited it in spades.
As the plane taxied to the runway and began to pick up speed, she stared at the ground rushing beneath her. It was the perfect axiom for her life.
Dylan used the hem of her jersey to wipe the sweat from her face. The sun shone brightly down on the court, causing heat to rise up from the clay in wavy, visible lines. Siegfried lay on his belly in the cool grass, head on his paws, eyes darting from the ball lying on center court to Dylan, whining.
“Hush,” Dylan said fondly as she walked over to the stone bench and lifted a warming bottle of spring water to her lips. Her cell phone rang just as she began to drink. Wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she traded bottle for phone and held it up to her ear. “Lambert.”
“I’m serious, Dylan. Everything I ever owed you is now officially paid back. Understand?”
Dylan laughed louder as she reached out for the water bottle and took a healthy sip.
“I’m here, Mac.”
“Yes, well, just remember….”
“We’re even. I’ll remember.”
“Oh come on, Mac! You put the job of finding an agent in my hands. Who’d you think I was gonna pick, huh?”
“Certainly not the Bride of Satan!!”
“Oh, please. She’s not that bad.”
“Oh yeah? I’m lucky she didn’t take the shirt off my back while she was at it!”
Dylan grinned. “She doesn’t swing that way, Mac. Not even for a stud such as yourself.”
“Ha. Ha. That woman should be outlawed.”
“Is the contract signed?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“Then everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”
“For you, maybe. When Johnson gets wind of this, I’ll be lucky to get a job digging ditches.”
“Who says he has to get wind of anything? As far as I can tell, the last time he looked at a player’s contract, Moses had just brought the tablets down from the mount.”
“Yeah, well if your mouthy little friend has anything to say about it….”
“Come on, Mac, you know better than that. Haley might be hell on wheels, but she’s not a braggart. She’s not gonna tell anyone anything about that contract. And I don’t think Catherine will either.”
“I agree with you there. She was about as flummoxed by Ms. Hot Shot New York Lawyer as I was.”
“Well there ya go then. Maybe next time, you’ll stick to doing your own job instead of foisting it off on me, hmm?”
Dylan laughed. “Bye, Mac. I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.”
Ending the call, she tossed the phone back on the bench and finished off her water. Siegfried, still as a statue, whined again. Dylan rolled her eyes.
“Oh, alright. Fetch!”
With a happy bark, Siegfried jumped to his feet and ran after the ball. His huge mouth opened wide, and Dylan watched as sharp teeth, made to tear and rend, dimpled the ball’s tough skin.
“Pop it and you’re a throw rug.”
Siegfried whined, looking at her with sad eyes. After a moment, he pushed the ball toward her, barking.
Dylan stuck a foot out and hefted the ball high into the air. Siegfried barked again and leapt up, using his nose to bat the ball back to her. Taking the pass, Dylan put up a sweet, easy shot from the top of the key, smirking as it went through without touching the rim. “Nothin’ but net.”
Siegfried scrabbled after the ball, leaving claw scrapes in the brick colored clay. A fast learner, he nosed the ball back to her, then leapt in the air, his teeth snapping as she kicked it to him. The ball went off in an errant direction, but Dylan roped it in easily and, spinning, got off a shot whose arc was perfection itself. The ball swished through the net, and Siegfried happily tore after it.
They played like that for some minutes until the dog’s tongue lolled out and his muscled sides heaved with the strength of his panting. Still, he whined and shot her a pathetic look as she tucked the ball under her arm and gathered up her things from the bench.
“That’s enough for now, buddy. Maybe later after it’s dark, alright?”
A happy bark was her answer, and, laughing, she walked up the short, partially wooded hill of her grounds and entered the house through the back door. She chuckled again as Siegfried rushed past her, darted into the laundry room and was soon enthusiastically drinking from the toilet.
Cat put the last box in the bed of her truck, a sturdy old Chevy S-10 that she’d owned since High School. Turning, she found everyone standing on the porch staring at her with wide, sad eyes. She smiled and shook her head as she jogged back over.
“I’m not leaving forever guys, come on don’t look at me like that.”
Her brothers all tried to give varying degrees of smiles. They weren’t as sincere as they could have been. “Now come on, I promise as soon as rookie camp is over and I have some free time I’ll either come back or bring you boys up. So just be good, okay?”
They nodded and then gathered around her for a hug, which she was lost in, completely covered by their warm, familiar and beloved bodies. When her brothers backed off her dad stepped forward.
“I’m so proud of you Cat. You’ve worked hard to get here. You deserve it.”
“I couldn’t have gotten here without you. I couldn’t have gotten here without my family. I love you.”
“Love you too sweetheart.” He hugged her, holding her close and kissed the top of her head. “You be good.”
“I will Dad.”
Once her father released her, Cat turned to see her mother standing alone on the porch, her eyes brimming with tears. She walked slowly over and stepped up onto the porch, grasping her mother’s hands and holding them gently. “Now Mom, don’t do that because if you do I will.”
“Can’t help it Cat.” She wrapped her arms around her daughter. “My first born, the apple of my eye. I guess I couldn’t keep you from growing up, no matter how much I tried.”
“We tend to do that, Mom.”
“I know.” Sighing, she pulled her daughter’s hands up to her chest. “I still don’t know if this is the life I would have chosen for you, Catherine. Filled with so much uncertainty.”
“But…I realize that you’ve grown up to be a fine woman, Cat. And any path you choose will be the right one for you. I’ll worry, but that’s what mothers are supposed to do, because no matter how old you get, you’ll always be my baby, and I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Now you get down there and show those Badgers how things are done.”
Cat chuckled and wiped her eyes. “I’ll do my best.”
“And you better tell that Dylan Lambert to watch after you. She may be taller than this house, young woman, but my wooden spoon is still faster than lightning and will tan her behind for her if she doesn’t.”
Cat broke into laughter at the mental image and pulled her mother close, hugging her tightly. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too. Now go, before I lock you in your room and never let you out.”
Cat backed off and walked backward to her truck, waving the entire way. She got in and started the truck and backed out of the driveway. As she pulled out and drove down the road, she looked in her rearview mirror to see her brothers had run into the road, yelling and waving. She gave the horn a blast and drove toward her future.
To Be Continued...
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